Getting into the habit of writing about games

Playing Final Fantasy From the Start: Materia Developments Remake

While I’ve pitched this as a chronological retrospective on Final Fantasy, it made too much sense to jump ahead with the various games that relate to Final Fantasy VII. Now that I’ve actually played through Final Fantasy VII Remake, I can say that it was a good idea to do it. Having fresh knowledge of them all made it much easier to write this out.

Videogame remakes have been on my mind since I played the reimaginings of Resident Evil 2 and 3 earlier this year. The difference with those is that I didn’t have as much experience with the original source that those were based on, so what I came out of those with was opinions on which one was more effective as a horror game (2 is excellent, 3 is a letdown).

However, since I’ve recently taken a closer look at the original Final Fantasy VII, that familiarity gives me a different lens that makes me unable to compare everything to how it was done before. 

I’ll be talking about this game in a fair amount of detail, so if you still want to be surprised by how Remake reinterprets everything, maybe come back and read later. Maybe you could share this article with a friend who’s already played it.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

I was very interested to see what a modern take on FF7 would be. Many of the directorial staff from the original game returned for it, and when creatives return to the same story it’s often either scaled up or used to address different themes.

Actually playing Final Fantasy VII Remake is more like going to see a concert by an old favourite band. They’ll play the hits and have some new and exciting renditions of old songs, but then some of that won’t quite live up to the original quality found in original recordings. There’s also a bunch of new material, some of which is good and some I’m not so sure about.

The band has opted for a much more grandiose sound this time around, since a lot of the dials are turned up here. There’s so much more graphical detail, towns are much larger, characters have bigger personalities, key moments have more dramatic heft, it’s a harder game, and a much longer one too.

It’s strange that this hasn’t been titled “Part 1” because that’s what this is. Square Enix took the first six hours of FF7 and broadened the scope of it to make it into a 30-40 hour epic. Of course there are also some things from later in the original game that have been included, most likely out of an attempt to make this game seem more compelling. For example, Sephiroth shows up a lot more here since you seemingly can’t have Final Fantasy VII without Sephiroth.

I was a little worried that the polluted planet angle would have been a little diluted, but it actually comes in a much more concentrated dosage this time around. Areas outside Midgar look considerably more barren here, Shinra is shown to be just as greedy as ever, and when it’s made clear by the end that Sephiroth is the biggest threat to the planet it’s still mentioned that “this started with Shinra”. It’s reassuring to see this here since so much of it is missing from other FF7-related works.

They’ve done some really good work to add depth to a few of the characters too. Barret is the one that comes across the strongest, as they’ve made him feel like a real political activist here, the sort that would always carry leaflets and posters in their bag just in case. He always has prepared speeches and talking points ready for any moment, and because of that comes across a lot more confident and charismatic. He’s also shown clearly to not be wrong about it all, so you could probably mine a lot of his dialogue for quotes you can pull out in real life.

Aerith shines a lot more in this game, since she’s still the same sort of confident no-nonsense character that she was in the original, it’s just that now she’s a lot funnier. Many of her remarks got a good laugh out of me.

There isn’t much new to Cloud here, and there’s also a sense that a lot of his development is being saved for future parts of Remake, since it didn’t originally happen in Midgar. His traumas are given more focus, but only to acknowledge them. Admittedly the better moments with him are when other characters react to his stoic seriousness, especially Barret and Aerith.

Tifa is the character I’m most disappointed with. It just feels like they’ve taken the same old character from the original and injected her into this game, so compared with everyone else she just seems less interesting. She does get a small arc where she has doubts if the mission to destroy Shinra’s reactors is a good idea, but because of her rather dull characterisation it’s not very interesting to see play out.

Of course even minor characters get a lot more fleshing out. Jessie, Biggs and Wedge have more screen time and at certain parts have more plot-crucial things to do. It also seems to be really going for a 90s throwback thing since Jessie says “psych” a lot. There’s even a lot more minor characters added in, some of which already existed in a novel (I’m sure that gave some FFWiki editor a sigh of relief since they didn’t have to make as many new pages).

Midgar now feels even more like a diverse collective of districts, which helps for sure since everything is so much bigger. Each location has its own distinct aesthetic right down to the colour palettes used. I could see a picture of something close up in either the Sector 7 or Sector 5 slums and tell which location it is. I really liked slowly exploring them too, as this game’s closer third-person moveable camera really lent itself well to these spaces. It would have been nice if there was a first-person view so I could get an even closer look. It really does feel more like a place people live in, especially since you’re given a place to stay in Sector 7 as well. My only frustration was with how townspeople dialogue was handled as it was cool to hear it diegetically as I walked around, but it became a little annoying to hear the same lines again as I went by the same people.

Just about everything in this game is so much bigger. Instead of immediately going into a second reactor attack after finishing the first, there’s more space for downtime with side quests available to take part in, followed by a detour to infiltrate a warehouse. Once I was on my way to the second reactor, I still had to get through two full-sized areas before getting there. 

Once I made it to the final segment of the reactor itself, that was when the Air Buster was introduced. In the original game the Air Buster was just a boss that showed up for a fight that lasted a few minutes. In Remake, it’s given a much longer build-up with an opportunity to make choices on how to sabotage it beforehand. Before fighting it members of Shinra appear as gargantuan holographic projections to taunt Cloud and company (and remain doing so throughout the fight). The fight itself is a big and bombastic three-phase boss encounter, one of the more difficult in the game and some of the most fun I had playing it. I’ll get into why I really like the combat a bit later since I want to focus a bit more on the pacing.

Though all the sections I mentioned are much larger than how they were in Final Fantasy VII, I didn’t really feel as though they were padded out. Just before I got bored of each area I was able to move onto a new part. Where I felt it really started to slow down was when I reached Wall Market. It’s the structure of it that really got to me, since characters would dangle the way forward in front of me and then say “but first you have to go and do something else for me”. I get that’s how videogames often work, but it happened too often here and I was getting a little sick of it.

Then it was followed by a sewer area that seemed to go on forever, and after that a train graveyard that felt like it existed only to pad out the game. I wonder if this is because I had recently played the original game. I really felt the length as I’d seen a shorter version of it. I’m absolutely certain that they’ve done this so that this first part is roughly just as long as the original game so people don’t feel ripped off (it actually took me longer since I did a lot of sidequests).

Thankfully some areas after this manage to justify their larger size. The race to stop the Sector 7 plate from falling becomes a much more desperate climb that seems even more tragic when the party fails to stop it. The journey up the wall to reach the game’s final area becomes a moment to pause and see the destruction that Shinra has caused by dropping the plate. It gives a moment for the party to really lay out their motivations, by showing what they want to prevent in the future. However I do wish that I didn’t have an extended stay in Hojo’s laboratory, it’s a good thing that I enjoyed Remake’s combat a lot.

It’s an action RPG combat system this time around, where button presses initiate attacks immediately, and any incoming enemy attacks must be dodged or blocked. When player attacks hit an enemy it builds up a bar which can be spent to use abilities, spells or items. What I love about this is that it brings back the same sort of tension found in turn based games, once the bar’s been spent it has to be built back up again, so care needs to be taken when deciding between big damage abilities or healing spells/items. It did bring about some tense moments where I had to choose between finishing off a weakened boss with a big attack or helping my party recover. 

There’s also a stagger bar on every enemy, something which the game has lifted from Final Fantasy XIII. In this game it’s essentially a bar that fills up by just damaging the enemy or doing more specific actions in battle. Once the bar fills up, the enemy is temporarily stunned and takes a lot more damage than normal. It felt great to do this in FF13 and it still feels good here, as it’s a moment when the pressure’s eased off and I was able to do some really big damage. 

The game almost requires a player to be constantly engaging with these systems, which meant that I actually found some of it quite hard as I was getting used to it. Air Buster is actually the moment where I found I had to do that. It’s also followed by a really good battle against Reno which shows that switching to an action RPG system lends itself really well for a 1v1 fight.

They did put a lot of minigames in here as well, but they’re mostly bad. I guess that’s true to the original game. The one I disliked the most was a stealth sequence where Cloud has to sneak out of Aerith’s house. The more realistic movement in Remake made it extremely difficult to maneuver around the collections of small items on the floor. The bike chase is still fun at least.

As usual this game is full of excellent music. Masashi Hamauzu and his team have done some brilliant work here but this is really where my metaphor of this being like seeing an old band came from. There’s some great variations of music from the original, such as an exciting take on Fight On, or a rework of the Turks Theme as a boss music. However most of the high points of the music are still when it’s playing with things from the original game. That said there is a new theme to represent Avalanche which sounds great, and ends up with a great melancholic reprise during the climb towards Shinra tower. It’s also very funny to me that Masashi Hamauzu has managed to work in some of his score for Dirge of Cerberus. Just listen to this and this for comparison.

I’ve made this sound like a big tribute act with absolute reverence to itself. For what I’ve mentioned it largely does do that, but the end of this game makes some huge changes that are foreshadowed throughout beforehand. It’s the sort of thing that has me very excited for what comes next in subsequent games.

There are a bunch of moments where it looks like things are going to play out very differently, but then a horde of ghosts show up to ensure that the events of the original game happen. They are eventually revealed to be “Whispers”, arbiters of fate who ensure destiny runs its course. The party eventually decides to fight against these Whispers, and that becomes the penultimate boss fight, but before you fight them the party sees visions of the future which are events that happen later in the original game such as Aerith’s death and Meteor heading towards the world. Those visions are described as “what would happen if we lose today”, so the party fights against the whispers and works to essentially prevent the events of Final Fantasy VII from happening! In the end they seemingly succeed, after the game throws in a fight with Sephiroth because the developers got a little impatient (though the version of One-Winged Angel made for it is stellar).

I would probably have been okay with a new version that stayed mostly true to the original, though I’d still have complaints if it had the same pacing as this. But how this game ends up feels like a clear statement that going forward, things are going to be done a little differently. Before I started Final Fantasy VII Remake, I was thinking about moments I would have liked to have seen recreated and most of them were not in the Midgar section this game is based on. Now that I’ve seen this ending I don’t care about that anymore, I want to see what new things they’re hiding up their sleeve. The end of this game brought in some big dramatic changes and I’m hungry for more of those. I’ve already played Final Fantasy VII before.

Final Thoughts

With that ending I’m very glad I went through the original Final Fantasy VII beforehand. If I didn’t already have that knowledge going in the ending would have meant nothing to me. Weirdly part of the ending involved a recreation of a scene from Crisis Core, so I can imagine a new player just being very lost to what’s going on.

After having played a bunch of older games in chronological order until the mid-90s, suddenly jumping ahead to Final Fantasy VII Remake feels almost overwhelming. A lot of differences that would have just accumulated over the course of many games have now just all appeared at once like I’ve suddenly jumped into a videogame timehole where I’m seeing the future. Soon I will have to go back in time and start up Final Fantasy Tactics, which I hope I enjoy.

Until next time!

Playing Final Fantasy From the Start: Compilation of Materia Developments

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Immediately after releasing my last article about Final Fantasy VII, I was eager to dive into more of that universe. For this article I played:

  • Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII
  • Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

I was very interested to see how Square Enix would expand on the world of Final Fantasy VII, but sadly I think they did a poor job. I had a decent amount of fun with one of the games though, so it wasn’t all a waste of time. Let me tell you more about my time with them.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII

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So this is the only one of the games set after Final Fantasy VII.  Specifically it takes place after the movie Advent Children, and focuses on the side character Vincent Valentine. It’s funny to me that they chose to base a game on him, especially when it’s possible to go through the entirety of FF7 without meeting him (I didn’t miss out on him though and he did turn out to be very useful). Yuffie, another previously optional party member, shows up frequently as well so I guess they also saw the humour in that.

This is actually the first ever game with Final Fantasy in the name that I ever played. Since I had ended up watching Advent Children, and even though I didn’t really understand it I thought I could get away with playing the sequel game. It looked darker and edgier than what I was used to, the crimson colours and 15 age rating on the box made it look so (near enough every main FF game has a 16+ age rating on it now though so it’s not distinct any more). I had not long finished Kingdom Hearts II, and my only other exposure to Japanese RPGs were Pokemon, Golden Sun, and Unlimited Saga (which was a nightmare game to try to understand when I was 11 years old).

What this also ended up being was one of my first exposures to third-person shooters, because it turns out that this game is a hybrid of that and an RPG (back when it was novel for RPG elements to be in a game and not just an aspect of all major videogames). It has an incredibly generous auto-aim option because I would imagine they were expecting players unfamiliar with the genre to play it. It also has mouse and keyboard support, which is very strange to see on a Playstation 2 game.

It seems as though Square Enix were inspired by Devil May Cry here, since it is an action game that runs at a very smooth 60 frames-per-second (something I tend to associate more with games made by Capcom or Konami). Vincent Valentine’s Limit Break ability is changed to be something more like Dante’s Devil Trigger, the cutscenes feature some very stylish looking action sequences, and there’s even a rail shooting segment towards the end. This game makes no attempt to hide its inspiration.

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While it’s nowhere near as good as Devil May Cry, I still was enjoying myself with it. I have a bit of a soft spot for this kind of PS2 action game, even if it isn’t greatly put together. The shooting doesn’t feel awful to do, but I found it very difficult to avoid taking damage. There were plenty of healing items available that it never became much of a problem, I found this to be a very easy game. At the end of every level I could choose between experience points to upgrade Vincent’s stats or money to buy items and upgrade guns. This meant that I did have to think a little about what I really needed to focus on, but also it didn’t come across as the harshest system since this option is also presented upon death as well. In the end putting points into guns didn’t seem to matter too much, since in the final level I was just given an extremely powerful gun that defeated almost every enemy in a single shot.

In terms of plot it actually feels so far removed enough from Final Fantasy VII that I couldn’t really get annoyed with it. Vincent gets wrapped up in a fairly ordinary save-the-world kind of plot here, it is somewhat generic. Essentially an extra-secret branch of Shinra called Deepground just wants to destroy the world in the same way that Sephiroth wanted to. Dirge of Cerberus actually feels more like a spin-off because it puts the spotlight on characters who weren’t the main focus of the original game. There’s a bunch of new characters here too, but they’re forgettable.

There is some stuff in this game about how Vincent has the power of Chaos, some sort of demon-like thing that appears to possess him. Much is said in the cutscenes about how he is really struggling to control that power but it never comes across when playing the game. This is the Limit Break ability, it can be initiated at will from the press of a button, and can be controlled just like a normal videogame character. I wished that it was something weird and uncontrollable, it would have made for something a little more interesting.

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The end of the game actually brought to mind another spin-off game about an edgy side character with guns, Shadow the Hedgehog. That’s a game I somehow managed to finish twice as a teenager (don’t ask me how, I tried playing it again a few months ago and couldn’t stand it). Vincent transforms into a superpowered form and fights through enemies while a heavy metal theme song plays. Shadow the Hedgehog does the same thing, but I can’t really say one’s ripping off the other since their Japanese release dates are only a month apart.

There’s some very good music in this game. Masashi Hamauzu is a composer who’s great at creating atmospheric music through how he uses chords and while I wouldn’t say this soundtrack is the high point of his music-making, I still really enjoyed hearing the music as I was playing this game. What I like about the music is that it feels somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII’s music, but it’s not overbearingly drowning in motifs from that game. It’s more like music built in the same key, rather than recreations of older tunes.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII is very short compared to most of what I’ve played for this, it took me less than ten hours to finish it. It’s interesting as a weird curiosity to see how Square Enix tried to create a then-trendy action game but it’s far from being a great one of those to actually play. If you’re only after a third-person shooter, or Playstation 2-like action game, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

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I’m open to the idea of prequels, since one of my favourite games, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, is an excellent example of one. Sadly I didn’t enjoy playing Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII as much, it ranks for me as quite possibly the dullest Final Fantasy game I’ve ever played. The combat is boring, the story is baffling, and the music is annoying.

How the game actually plays is my biggest problem. There’s some action-RPG combat here that would be mostly serviceable if it wasn’t for another odd addition. Battles have absolutely zero tension in them because of a weird slot machine system that is constantly rewarding huge bonuses to HP, constantly healing and also providing extremely powerful attacks. All of this was out of my control, the slot machine is constantly spinning automatically throughout combat, often interrupting everything to fill up the screen, occasionally presenting a flashback cutscene as well. I’m okay with games being easy, it’s not as though I’ve found many Final Fantasy games to be difficult, but this one is being ridiculous. 

I also recognise the irony with my frustration here when I wished for Dirge of Cerberus to have some elements of control being taken away in relation to his demonic powers. This system is not what I would have had in mind.

Level ups are also seemingly determined by it too, which is such a bizarre decision. There’s also equippable abilities that can be strengthened via this system. It’s rather frustrating to work with, because I don’t feel like I’ve worked towards getting these, it just feels like I’ve won them in a slot machine. 

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Combat on its own mostly feels like a slowed-down Kingdom Hearts. Zack can be moved around a 3D arena, and attacks and abilities can be initiated from a command menu. It seemed to work okay most of the time, though it’s supposed to auto-target the nearest enemy but sometimes Zack would run off to attack one on the other side of the screen instead. It’s an odd choice because positioning is a key aspect of the combat, since hitting an enemy from behind does double damage. This was a little harder to pull off when I was at the game’s whim for who Zack is attacking.

There is actually one fight in the game that I thought was pretty good. It took place on a bridge and if Zack was pushed to the edge of it, the game was over. Because I had focused on increasing physical attack power, it meant that I had an interesting tension between using long ranged spells that did less damage, or moving in closer to hit harder and also risk getting hit by the enemy. I’d probably be a lot more forgiving of it all if there were more interesting gimmicks like this.

A lot of the game involved running through small, empty environments to go between combat encounters and story cutscenes. There’s no stopping in towns because all shops can be accessed via the pause menu at any time. It’s pieces are very bite-sized in the way that a lot of portable games used to be, owing to it being made for the Playstation Portable. At save points extra missions can be accessed, which usually take about five minutes each to finish. None of them are particularly interesting, it’s just more small pieces of game that could fit into short gaps like a commute.

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There’s also some occasional minigames that crop up, and most of them are awful. I thought Final Fantasy VII had some rubbishy ones but they are so much worse in this game. My least favourites have to be the seemingly impossible stealth sequence, and a sniping one that controls terribly. They’re rather jarring as well since they seemingly pop up out of nowhere, as if the game is just being interrupted by something else.

The presentation of this game doesn’t do it a lot of favours. Environments mostly being made up of small corridors shown through a camera that sticks close to the controllable character just makes them feel tiny. It’s not as though Final Fantasy VII actually had massive areas that took considerable amounts of time to walk through, it was able to use fixed camera angles in order to make them appear bigger. Junon Airport was an area that seemed massive before now looks tiny in Crisis Core.

A part that really suffers because of this is the Nibelheim incident, originally depicted in a flashback in FF7, which I had highlighted in my last blog post as a really effective sequence. What was previously a quiet and unsettling journey beneath a mansion is now turned into an extremely generic RPG dungeon full of enemy encounters. The camera work in the cutscenes is much worse too, as it fits in some recreated shots that have much less going on. There’s a shot of Sephiroth where the camera is moving away from him instead of him getting more distant and it just comes across as passive. It also shoe horns in its own new characters in ways that just feel clunky.

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All of the brand new plot developments added into this game are bad and at times confusing. I found it really difficult to understand the motivations of the new characters. It seems like the game is setting things up for Zack’s former mentor Angeal to betray everyone and then he just kinda doesn’t? It’s weird. Genesis never feels like he actually belongs in the game. It feels like so much of the plot could still happen without him, but he’s there because it seemed like they were setting something up to pay off in a later game which never happened.

I couldn’t stand a lot of the music here as well. There’s a lot of covers of music from Final Fantasy VII that aren’t great, and a lot of the new music sounds incredibly repetitive since a lot of it is playing around a single motif. A lot of the battle themes are metal music that I found incredibly boring. It’s also almost inaudible when played off of a PSP speaker, so to actually hear it you’d need headphones.

This isn’t a very good game, but if I played it when it came out in 2008 I reckon I would’ve loved it. I was 15 then so probably the right age to get really into it, maybe I would be nostalgic for it and be a little more forgiving. However, I played it now and I found it to be incredibly lacking.

Final Thoughts

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These games, the movie Advent Children, and a bunch of other things make up what Square Enix likes to call the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII”. It’s ended up being a failed experiment to be honest. While I did have a little amount of fun with Dirge of Cerberus, everything else in it was bad.

There’s some tie-in novels that are also part of it that I’ve been reading and they’re terrible. They both attempt to bridge the gap between the original game and Advent Children and somehow manage to make every character even worse. I wouldn’t recommend reading them.

The impression that I get is that everyone responsible for all of this media has no clue what made the original game great. Kazushige Nojima, the man responsible for a lot of the writing in these things, was also one of the main writers on the original as well. I think that it makes it very clear that the team efforts on Final Fantasy VII were more likely what made that game better.

Even though I do have all these complaints, my excitement to play Final Fantasy VII Remake has not diminished at all. That will be what my next article is about, please look forward to it!

Don’t forget to check out the Playing Final Fantasy From the Start hub page to see the rest of the articles I’ve written about the series!

Until next time!

Playing Final Fantasy From the Start: Materia Developments

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So after playing Final Fantasy V and VI, I decided to take a break from the series. I spent that time playing the Resident Evil 3 remake. That game was fun but largely underwhelming in comparison to the much stronger Resident Evil 2 remake. The break was short-lived as I ended up feeling very eager to return to Final Fantasy, so this time I went through:

  • Final Fantasy VII (FF7) – A game
  • Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – A Movie

I thought about having this piece be entirely focused on the game, but my thoughts on Advent Children ended up short enough that I decided to include it here. So let’s get into it:

Final Fantasy VII

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For many people I’ve talked to this game is Final Fantasy. It’s the most popular of all of them, having been the second-highest selling game on one of the most popular consoles of all time. If I were to mention Final Fantasy in a conversation to a random person, this would be the game that they’re most likely thinking of. It’s easy to see why Square keeps coming back to it, seeing as it was the height of popularity for it all.

Usually when anything gets big, it’s a matter of being in the right place and time, or a huge financial push. Final Fantasy VII admittedly had both of those, but it holds up extremely well too. This was my second playthrough of it and I’ve enjoyed it much more this time around. The 3D graphics do look a bit blocky and weird by today’s standards, but I think it comes across as charming. The developers also really leaned into the strengths of what they could do with the then new techniques. It’s hard for me to believe that this was their first effort in this style.

It cheats a little by placing 3D characters on 2D pre-rendered backgrounds (except during battle scenes where it’s all 3D). This actually allows for a much more dynamic kind of presentation, where moving between screens allows for new and interesting camera angles for each background, which is used very well in how the game tells its story. Having pre-rendered backgrounds meant that much more detail could be added into each one, and many of them do not repeat unless they really need to. They’re also used greatly to convey scale since an area doesn’t need to just cover a lot of ground to seem big, it can do so with the right camera perspective.

This game was a huge and expensive project at the time. Only now when it’s directly compared to more modern incarnations does it seem somewhat modest, especially when it’s being sold at a considerably lower price like it’s a budget title.

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Through all this it’s able to pay a lot of homage to other media in a way that’s more blatant. In particular it’s easy for me to spot influences from things like Akira, Berserk, Blade Runner, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Metropolis (there’s also some Mobile Suit Gundam in there but only really in the design of a few monsters). Characters do a lot of miming to convey emotion, especially since all dialogue is told through text boxes, it’s almost like silent cinema. It doesn’t just borrow from its influences for the sake of seeming cool as well, it has learned from them in order to build its own narrative.
As you might guess from that list of influences, Final Fantasy VII leans a lot more in a science fiction direction, though it does remain a fantasy game as well. Admittedly touches of sci-fi have been present since the original game, and especially in FF4 where a whale-shaped spaceship was used to fly to the moon. Within this new kind of setting, corporations replace kingdoms, and the difference that makes allows the game to be much more relatable.

The Shinra Electric Power Company operates a monopoly on energy production and distribution, while also having invested in many other technologies such as genetic engineering and space exploration. Through this they have been able to amass a strong military might which they have used to strongarm nations so that they can continue to harvest Mako, a fictional fossil fuel mined from the planet’s “lifestream”. Midgar, the largest city on the planet is effectively owned and operated entirely by Shinra. The greed of the company has been an incredibly destructive force, the production of Mako energy is literally sucking the life out of the planet. All of the party members available in this game have had their lives made materially worse by the existence of Shinra.

Shinra don’t act as the primary antagonists, that would be Sephiroth, but they have been responsible for the destructive events that have taken place throughout the game, literally murdering considerable amounts of people for their benefit. Sephiroth also would not have existed if it wasn’t for Shinra. So much so that when the guardians of the planet, the Weapons, get awoken after Meteor is summoned to destroy the planet, their first target is to attack Shinra. The game knows that megacorporations such as these are real sources of evil and doesn’t fully close until the last parts of it are seemingly destroyed by Meteor. The destruction of Shinra is a happy ending, as they resemble real companies who have plundered the planet for resources. Large-scale factories and fossil fuel production are huge contributors to the current state of our real planet. It would be nice to see those go away too.

Even though that makes up a large part of Final Fantasy VII’s setting, the real central conflict of the game is between the characters Cloud and Sephiroth. It’s through this where I think everything comes together to make extremely effective storytelling sequences. Specifically within the Nibelheim flashback sequence, which is actually the first time in the game where you see Sephiroth.

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At this part of the game Cloud tells the party the story about going back to his hometown during his first mission with Sephiroth. There’s a point during this recounting where it’s mentioned that Sephiroth seemed a bit off and has gone into a local mansion, and Cloud goes to check up on him. The game gives this moment a really foreboding atmosphere through its use of camera angles, dark colours and music.

On his way Cloud has to descend a spiral staircase downwards, shot from above so that he appears to get smaller as he gets further towards the ground. He finds Sephiroth in a library too focused on doing research to pay attention to anything else, so Cloud leaves. There’s then a tilted-angle shot of a library corridor, showing Sephiroth’s research progress. He begins close to the camera, but as he gets further he gets more distant from the camera, leaving piles of books as he moves through, a blatant visual metaphor for how Sephiroth is distancing himself from humanity. It culminates in Sephiroth discovering his own heritage. He is the result of Shinra’s exploitative genetic engineering projects. As revenge he decides to use the power of the planet’s lifestream to become a god. In his initial rage he destroys Nibelheim. It’s an excellent sequence and I’m probably underselling it through this description.

The game comes back to this sequence a few times since it is the defining moment between those two characters. Cloud saw Sephiroth as a person to look up to, he was the reason that Cloud wanted to join Soldier (Shinra’s elite military group) in the first place. When he sees that the ideal that he strived for could be intensely destructive, it almost destroys him. Even past this point Sephiroth continually takes advantage of Cloud through mind control. I can’t help but see some parallels with abuse that can happen as a result of hero worship. Those in positions of power have been known to abuse the trust people have in them.

Cloud was also victim to another experiment which distorted his memory and fused it with someone else’s. He took on parts of the memory of a member of Soldier named Zack. While he had aspirations to join Soldier, Cloud didn’t successfully become a member of it, he was just an ordinary member of the Shinra military. Because of the conflicting memories in his head, Cloud genuinely thought that he was a member of Soldier, and his confidence is dramatically shaken when he figures out he really wasn’t. Realising the mismatch meant confronting his own failure to live up to what he wanted to become.

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It’s why when Cloud finally does gain confidence to properly face off against Sephiroth, it’s a strong moment because he’s able to confront the person who’s caused him so much pain and defeat him. It’s not just that he’s able to fight too, by this point Cloud has effectively become himself, a much more confident person overall. The game doesn’t spend much more time after this confrontation, since it’s the central conflict. Everything else is wrapped up quickly.

By this point I’ve really noticed that Final Fantasy seems dedicated to the personal stories of its protagonists, ever since Cecil’s journey in FF4. They tried expanding it to a larger ensemble cast in FF6, but some of them came across rather diluted by not having much focus, and the ones that were focused on were uninteresting. Because of what I’ve mentioned I feel that Cloud’s journey comes through more strongly in FF7.

There’s also a major character death here, which again isn’t the first for the series but it has a much bigger impact this time around. Throughout the first act of the game, a lot of importance is placed on the character of Aerith. She’s the last surviving member of a race known as the Cetra, and the one most likely to help defeat Sephiroth. Except that Sephiroth suddenly kills her. It’s followed by a very sad scene where the party quietly and wordlessly mourn for her. It’s more impactful here because she never really shows up again after this. The last few games had character deaths, but their spirits would linger around and still talk to the party from beyond as if they weren’t truly gone. There’s moments where it feels like she’s helping out, but it’s only a feeling and not so explicit.

I’m only touching on a fraction of what’s really good about Final Fantasy VII I just wanted to highlight what I found particularly strong in this game. This game is exceptionally well-paced, and at times feels very dense with how much is in it. It’s easy to see how they ended up expanding the opening first few hours in Midgar into an entire game with the remake.

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Part of why this game works so strongly is because its RPG systems are designed to not be terribly intrusive. Exploration is fairly painless since these games haven’t made use of maze dungeons since the first few entries. While the cast of characters is larger than the three-person party you can build, members outside of the party still gain experience when not in use. These games now seem to be dedicated to having much more malleable systems for character growth, as again there are no specific character classes in the game, and battle abilities and stats are defined by equippable items called materia.

Materia is similar to FF6’s Espers but I think it’s much better. Espers required temporarily equipping them to every character in order to learn abilities and raise stats, and then moving them onto another character to do the same. The result of which was that I ended up with an extremely powerful party with little to distinguish between members. I may not have had to do it, but it seemed like the ideal solution. Materia keeps the abilities and their growth attached to the equippable items, so a maxed out materia can be passed onto another character so they can instantly use a high level ability. Each materia came with pros and cons, for example if I was to attach a lot of magic ones onto a character they would end up as powerful spellcasters but have much lower health points.

It meant that I had to use different combinations of materia in order to build my own character classes, and because the main party is reduced down to three members this time, I had to get a little more creative. This also meant that when the game forced a change in party members, I could quickly create useful character classes again. I actually spent more time experimenting with it, giving different characters different setups over the course of the game. While I did have some very powerful characters by the end of the game, it ended up being much more interesting as my party members were very different from each other.

The trend of adding in variety which started in FF6 is continued in this game as well. During certain big set piece moments the game will require you to take part in various minigames, and I’m not a big fan of them. They don’t happen extremely often, but when they do it’s usually a fiddly mess. It’s good that a lot of the game’s other systems are much stronger or I would have gotten more annoyed at these. However if I had played Final Fantasy VII as a child I reckon I would have loved this stuff, since I adored the idea of minigames then.

The localisation of this game is also a little odd. The dialogue can come across a little clunky at times, but at least the intent still comes through. Thankfully it’s not incomprehensible like some game translations I’ve seen out there, but it’s interesting to me that despite this being Square’s biggest game they never attempted a retranslation. The first six Final Fantasies all had multiple translations some of which cleaned things up or changed spell names to consistent with more recent games. If anything though, I’m glad that the version of this game available on almost every current platform is mostly untouched, but not entirely.

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For convenience I played the version of the game available on the Nintendo Switch. Here it’s rendered at a much higher resolution which makes a lot of the polygonal characters look a little too clean. I imagine in its original Playstation incarnation they were meant to have more jagged edges, since they were meant to display on a CRT television and not a newer HD screen.

This game also has an excellent soundtrack! Nobuo Uematsu once again leans into the weirdness that comes about from the odd-sounding digital samples in order to create some wonderful eccentric music. Of course his taste for dad rock comes through here too. Of course a good piece of music can enhance the quality of a scene, but here the scenes elevate the music as well. In the past before I played Final Fantasy VII I tried listening to the music on its own and I wasn’t particularly grabbed by it at the time. By playing it I was able to really determine what the music was doing. By getting to know the characters alongside hearing the music, I would be able to associate the leitmotifs with each theme and character, which in turn made me further appreciate the story that music itself was telling.

Aerith’s Theme, a melancholic piano piece that grows into a full orchestra while still remaining a sad song is beautifully put together. It’s one of my favourite pieces of music throughout the entire series. I will always associate the song with the moment of mourning after her death, which really gives the track an emotional impact for me. When I heard it performed at the Distant Worlds orchestral concert, I’ll admit I did well up a bit. The funny part about that concert is I had to walk up a lot of stairs to get to my seat (Final Fantasy VII fans will know).

I’ve also put together a Spotify playlist of my favourites, which could be the entire soundtrack but I enjoy the challenge of picking the best ones.

There’s so much to dive into with Final Fantasy VII, and so many people have already been doing that work. I don’t think any of the games have been written about as much as this one. All things considered I’m extremely glad that I revisited this game. Because this is the second time that I played through this one I was able to spot more things and get more out of it. This makes me much more excited to revisit more games in the future!

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

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I’m cheating a little here as this isn’t actually the next thing that came out chronologically. I’ve actually seen this movie before. I was given it on DVD for Christmas by my parents when I was 13. Final Fantasy wasn’t something I’d actually played before, I guess the movie just looked like an anime thing to them which they knew I was into. I didn’t really understand what was going on in it but the action scenes were cool. I’ve now watched it after playing Final Fantasy VII and through that lens this is a terrible movie.

The action scenes are nicely put together, they really tried to go for wire work martial arts with more destructive shonen anime energy. Sometimes the camera work is a little messy, and they go on a little too long at times, but there’s some good qualities to them. I really enjoyed any of the fights involving Rude and Reno since those two characters seem to exist in a martial arts comedy.

It’s the unimaginative plot that really kills this movie and undermines all character development that happened across FF7. Part of what made the game’s story so strong was Cloud being able to move past his own trauma, but the movie acts as if that never happened. It decides to ignore the confident Cloud that emerged towards the end of that game and reset him back to how he was at the start, quiet and miserable.

Barret comes off even worse by being absent for a lot of the movie and not looking after his daughter, playing up an awful stereotype for the only black character here. He’s also into getting oil now for some reason, which majorly conflicts with his prior dedication to stopping Shinra from using Mako energy.

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The film is truly just a lot of setup to have an excuse for Cloud and Sephiroth to fight again, only this time it’s a lot more flashy. Throughout the movie I became impatient for this confrontation to happen only to find it dull. After having sat through so much fighting this one didn’t seem that much different from the others. It didn’t help that the English voice actor for Sephiroth does one of the flattest performances I’ve ever heard. His line-reads sound like a voiceover for a boring insurance advert. Maybe I should have watched the film in Japanese with subtitles instead, since many of the other voices come across as weird and awkward.

Nobuo Uematsu returned to score this film, and while the odd track is nice I’m not into the whole mid-00s metal tinge a lot of the soundtrack has. The version of One-Winged Angel where the guitars kick in is kinda cool I guess, but a lot of the other renditions of FF7 hits feel like they’re overdoing it. It seems a little haphazardly placed as well as I’m not sure why Shinra’s theme plays during a scene focused on remnants of Sephiroth.

I’m not really certain who this movie is actually for. When I saw it before I had any knowledge of Final Fantasy VII I found it confusing. When I saw it after I played Final Fantasy VII I found it to be dreadful. I don’t think some decent looking action sequences can paper over such a poorly plotted film. At least this was only two hours instead of being a 30-hour epic like the game. If they really wanted to reset Cloud’s character development and have him fight Sephiroth again, they should have just remade Final Fantasy VII. I guess they’ve started doing that now.

Final Thoughts

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I won’t be jumping onto Final Fantasy VIII just yet, as there’s still more FF7 to get to and it would be best for me to do so when it’s all still fresh in my mind. The next couple of games I’ll be playing are part of what’s called the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII”, which is a fancy name for what is basically just “more Final Fantasy VII”. However if Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is any indication, I’m not really sure that Square Enix understands what Final Fantasy VII is. After those I’ll be getting to Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I’m extremely curious about since I know it only adapts 1/6th of the original game (it says so on the back of the box). It’ll be interesting to see what they’ve expanded upon. I hope I don’t have to buy five more videogames in the future just for this remake.

While I’m breaking the timeline a bit with those games, I still appreciate having played a bunch of them in chronological order. I already thought of Final Fantasy VII as an excellent videogame, but now that I can put in context with other great games that it outshines, it looks even brighter now.

I should also mention that I’ve put together a new hub page for my Final Fantasy articles. I thought that since I’ve made this thing into a project it would be best to have it all linked in one place. You can visit that here!

I’ve decided that I’m not going to include a full ranking list on these any more. It’s a little unwieldy after a while. If I did Final Fantasy VII would be ranked the best out of them so far. Advent Children doesn’t belong there at all.

Until next time!

Playing Final Fantasy From The Start: Old and New Adventures

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You know what, I’ve been having a really good time writing these so far and I’m looking forward to doing more of them after this one. I’ve played eight games in the Final Fantasy series for these blog posts and I’ve found something interesting about all of them so far.

Playing these games in chronological order has made it much easier to move between them. I’m no longer staring at a massive wall of many games in this series unsure of where to go next, I’m simply just moving ahead through a linear list.

I’m aware that the last article did go on quite long, so I’ve decided to play two games instead of three. For this one I played:

  • Final Fantasy V (FF5)
  • Final Fantasy VI (FF6)

I decided to play the Game Boy Advance (GBA) ports of these games as they seemed like the more ideal offerings. Prior versions made before it are saddled with translations in a style that I’m not a fan of. More recent editions, such as those available iOS and Steam, have an awful graphical style that looks tacky to me. It was nice to go between these two games and have a somewhat consistent presentation, which only highlighted the major differences both of these games have. Someone did inform me that certain scenes are cropped for GBA versions, meaning they might not make the same impact, but I only found that out as I was approaching the final area of Final Fantasy VI, so I didn’t fancy starting over.

As I was playing the games for this article I essentially saw Final Fantasy transitioning into what I know it for. I’ll get into more specifics on this when I talk about each game but broadly speaking, FF5 feels like a tribute and FF6 is trying something new.

When writing this blog piece, I found that it became increasingly difficult to not mention particular major plot moments. In earlier games I found it much easier to talk in broader terms, but here I’m going to have to address certain spoilers. So I’ll talk about the games now:

Final Fantasy V

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Compared to prior games, Final Fantasy V is much more immediate. There’s much less story setup before the game becomes playable. The full party comes together very quickly, and shortly after that it brings in a job system to play with.

Just like in Final Fantasy III, this game has a job system, however much of the frustrations from that initial job system have been removed. Swapping between job classes now has no penalties, and when you assign a job to a character, they already have full access to its capabilities. Levelling up a job lets you carry over its abilities onto others, so if you level up a White Mage, you can get a Monk class to cast White Magic. I found this a much more interesting incentive for strengthening jobs, as it also encouraged me to play around and use all sorts of them for party members.

Once a job is maxed out, all of its passive abilities and stat increases get carried over a class called Freelancer. What that meant is that I ended up finding an ideal grinding spot and spent a large amount of time maxing out several jobs per character in order to have super powerful Freelancers (not all the jobs though, I would probably still be playing the game if that was the case). It was a little repetitive, but I saw it somewhat like slowly carving something. It was a little like I was partially moulding the game into the way I wanted to play it. I don’t have anything physical to show for it, but it was still fun to see strengthened party members used by the end of the game. I do wish the grind could have gone a little faster though…

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Battles play out much in the same way they did in FF4, though with a party of four instead of five. The ATB combat system sees continued use up until Final Fantasy X, so re-explaining the system each time would be a little tiresome. While it is using the same systems as 4, FF5 has some battles that take much better advantage of it.

There’s a fight I liked in this game against a monster called Atomos. It’s an interesting puzzle boss and one of the most fun encounters in the game. When the battle starts it instantly kills a party member, but once that member is dead it won’t kill another. The defeated party member then gets slowly sucked towards Atomos and when they get close enough they are removed from the encounter entirely and cannot be brought back. Once that member is gone, Atomos will kill another and repeat the same process. As this all happens in real time, it becomes about finding the right time to revive a party member so that none are lost. It feels much more unique than any of the other battles I encountered in the game, and the real-time combat systems allow battles like this to happen.

All this stuff is cool, but I don’t think that it works well together to tell a story like FF4 did. The job system doesn’t give much of a sense of character in a way that 4’s pre-assigned classes did. Final Fantasy V has a fairly standard save-the-world story with a much more light-hearted tone that didn’t really win me over as much. Characters make jokes about their situation but that’s what characters do in almost every major movie these days. I’ve already seen about twenty Marvel movies.

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The party hardly ever changes shape here. The four members you get at the start remain throughout most of the game and initially the game leans into that. There’s a few moments towards the start of the game that make the party feel like they’re all getting closer to each other and I enjoyed that, and they do manage to make them feel like distinct characters. I wish there were more moments like that throughout the game as too much focus was put on the plot of defeating the bad guy.

Graphically and musically it mostly feels like a gradual change from FF4, but there’s some new things here that I liked. Enemy designs get a little more varied with some weird and cute ones. FF4’s music used a lot of samples that were trying to mostly emulate orchestral instruments, but some more synthesizer-like sounds work their way into FF5’s soundtrack.

There’s a lot I do like about Final Fantasy V, but it doesn’t work as a cohesive whole. The job system is cool, there’s some boss fights that are fun, but the narrative isn’t as compelling. In some ways it almost feels like a “remix compilation album” of Final Fantasy in terms of how it’s put together. A lot of plot beats feel like reworks of what was already in FF3 and 4, and bringing in a revitalised job system is absolutely harkening back to FF3 as well. However much like compilation albums, they may be a good set of songs but they weren’t written to flow into each other.

Having that job system did make it really fun to play with, it’s just that I can’t help but compare it with other games. I don’t want to come across as negative here because I did have a very good time with this one, it’s just that I had a better time with Final Fantasy IV.

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I’d also like to talk about the Four Job Fiesta, which is a charity run of this game that anyone can take part in from this website. However if you’ve never played the game before I would advise against trying this specific run for your first time, as I made that mistake a few years ago. It seems as though it’s much easier to manage with some familiarity of the game, but I also seemed to just end up with a group of classes that were extremely difficult to use. 

It’s all for charity though which I can’t fault that much. This year it’s raising money for Color of Change, the largest racial justice organization in America. Considering recent news stories about horrible injustices against Black people, I think it was a smart decision to choose this charity. It runs until the end of August so you’ve got some time to decide if you want to take part or donate.

Final Fantasy V also had a sequel in the form of an anime, which is absolutely not worth watching. Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals is an extremely generic early 90s fantasy-comedy anime. It’s well animated, but doesn’t have much of a unique style. I did call it a comedy, but that’s arguable since much of its jokes aren’t really funny. It’s a real shame since this was directed by Rintaro, who also worked on the excellent 2001 film Metropolis, which if you haven’t seen I think you should as it’s one of my favourite animated movies (I also talked about it on this podcast).

Final Fantasy VI

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This game was one of my biggest blind spots. Of all the Final Fantasies I hadn’t played before this was one that I hadn’t heard that much about. I can think of a lot of reasons why but that would take up plenty of space. I know the game now since I’ve played it.

Final Fantasy VI is maximalist. When I think of other RPGs developed for the SNES, they don’t have as many toys to play with as this one does. There are 14 characters to choose for your party, plenty of optional side quests to pursue, a higher amount of graphical detail and a much larger soundtrack. I get a sense that many meetings during the development of this game ended with “yes we’ll try that new idea”.

This also the first game to have more bespoke setpieces with game mechanics specific to them, which is something that I associate with Final Fantasy in general. When I think of memorable moments across the games, many of them use a unique method of control. It’ll be an interesting thing to bring up again when I write about later games.

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What this all means is that Final Fantasy VI has a lot more variety, it’s playing a little bit looser with the rules of what makes an RPG. Here’s a few things I did in this game:

  • Command multiple parties of moogles to defend a fallen party member
  • Sneak through an enemy occupied town by getting around guards and stealing uniforms to use as disguises
  • Memorise lines to perform well in an opera.

Every party member now has a unique distinct ability that they can use in combat. Some are just ones that you can select from a menu, but some involve weirder elements such as slot machines, timers or fighting game button inputs.

Magic spells can be learned by almost every party member in the game (and by the end I had a team that knew almost all the spells). Though it seems a little contrary to the idea of variety that everyone can learn the same spells, I feel it actually acts in service of it, since it makes every party member a viable choice. This is Final Fantasy VI’s way of saying that everything is open to play with.

This is bolstered by another mechanic named “Espers”, which are equippable summon attacks that are the game’s way of teaching magic. They can be used to increase character stats as well, so a party member ill-equipped to cast magic can be made into a strong spellcaster. This means that the game does not have to contrive moments where a character with healing abilities show up, it just has to consider who is the right character to show up (this contrasts with Final Fantasy IV’s approach. Because of every character fitting a defined character class, it sometimes felt like characters would show up because they fit a practical role).

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However because of these open systems, the game can become incredibly easy. There’s a possibility that my own long experience with the genre has coloured this, but Final Fantasy VI ended up being one of the easiest games in the series I have ever played. Certain items I received from doing side-content almost made me feel like I was cheating, as I could do almost 50,000 damage in a single turn (for reference the final boss of the game has 62,000 HP). 

Even though it got very easy, it was really fun to continually outdo myself on my damage output, since I did have a little bit of a challenge closer to the start of the game. Long before I encountered the Espers, there was a moment where I had a party that was only suited to doing physical damage and I had a small supply of healing items. I felt as though I could have gotten badly stuck at that moment, but I managed to scrape by and comparing that to how powerful my party became is very amusing to me.

Rather than take FF4’s approach by having systems tied closely with the story it’s telling, Final Fantasy VI decides to have them work around the story. They hardly get in the way of the plot, especially since they can result in the game getting very easy. I wouldn’t say that this made the storytelling worse at all, I would say more of its failings come from how the characters are written.

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For one thing, I felt as though the large cast of characters works against it. Around a third of the party I had never even heard of before, which I don’t think I can say so easily about a lot of other games in the series. I didn’t know of Strago, Relm, Cyan, and if I hadn’t played Kingdom Hearts II before I would never have known of Setzer before. A lot of them don’t feel particularly memorable to me, which is a shame.

I did hear a lot about Kefka before I played this game, he’s one of the Final Fantasy villains that seems to get brought up quite a lot. And it’s actually a twist that he’s the villain by the way, I didn’t know about that before which took a bit of the impact of that reveal. The one advantage Kefka has compared to previous villains is that he actually shows up for more of the game. His entire character is that he is just pure evil, and it’s a bit too one-dimensional for me. It’s not as though the other villains we’ve had so far have had more powerful characterisation (FF4’s didn’t even show up until the end of the game), it’s that I just don’t find this brand of evil for the sake of evil interesting for as much screen time as it takes.

The one neat thing they do with Kefka is the setup for the game’s second half (it was for me, but apparently this is fairly flexible and not far from the end if you avoid side-content). Essentially Kefka wins, defeats the party and destroys most of the world, and then a year passes. From that point a few party members manage to get together and begin a search for the rest of the team (or you can skip all that and go straight to the final dungeon). This part of the game is often called the “World of Ruin”. Kefka has no on-screen presence until the final boss encounter, but the state of the world means that you don’t forget about him. One of the first events in this part involves him destroying a large house because something upset him.

From this point on the structure of the game is blown wide open, and I found it really fun to just explore the map and see where I would find other party members. I somewhat liked how it was used to fleshed out the characters a little more since I got a chance to find out what they would get up to alone.

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In my opinion it does a better job with some characters and a lacklustre effort with others. Catching Cyan pretending to be someone else writing letters to a woman was funny, especially since he has a unique manner of old-fashioned speech that is used in the letters. When I was pursuing Locke, the self-proclaimed treasure hunter, I went through a dungeon that had mostly empty chests. After finishing it, he handed me the items that would have been in those chests.

One character that I was really let down by was Terra. Throughout most of the game she has a rather distant personality, likely because of being raised in captivity to be a soldier for the Empire. In the World of Ruin, she is the only one that needs to be convinced to join your party, but mostly because she’s become a mother figure to a big group of orphaned children. It just feels really boring to have one of the few major female characters just settle and become a mother, especially when so many of them have been going off on more exciting adventures. Celes doesn’t fare much better either, as a fair amount of time with her character is spent on how she’s in love with Locke. 

For a lot of the World of Ruin, you can bring along whatever party members you want, but the result of that means that no character’s voice really comes through whenever any dialogue needs to be said. It’s usually written so that no name appears on it, so it’s written in a way that any party member can say it, so it’s extremely functional. It persists up until the final encounter with Kefka and I just found it to be very dry. I wonder if it’s likely the version of the game I’ve chosen, maybe there’s other ones out there that write it more interestingly because I wasn’t digging it.

One party member was absent from the World of Ruin for me, and that was Shadow. This was because I let him die by mistake. In most of these games character death is an event determined solely by the game, but here I was partially responsible. I would have never guessed the way to have him survive (there’s a timed escape sequence before the World of Ruin, and you have to wait for the last second before leaving the area) but I did find out I could have prevented it.

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In terms of appearance, I think Final Fantasy VI has been one of the best looking games so far. It doesn’t have the same amount of detail as the PSP versions of FF1, 2 and 4, but it does have a more deliberate muted colour palette that suits the steampunk-ish setting. Environments also feel a little bit more natural, they look less like they’re made on a grid (even though character movement is still restricted to four directions).

This game also has the best soundtrack so far out of the games played for this post. It’s larger and like the rest of the game, more varied. Even more electronic instruments come through here, with a chocobo theme that reminded me a little of japanese electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra. Prior games would sometimes work in the main theme as a regular motif, but FF6’s music has more use of leitmotif as character themes are woven in through the score. There’s also a track called Epitaph, which I’m certain is a King Crimson reference since the melody sounds very similar to another one of their songs called Moonchild.

I had a good time with Final Fantasy VI, messing around with the growth systems and how they made battles very easy was quite fun for me. I’m just underwhelmed by the character writing in this game. I am aware that this game is beloved, and it is a good game, it’s just that I’ve played better.

Final Thoughts

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It’s easy to think about putting these games into groups, I titled my initial blog post on the first three games “The NES Trilogy”. I can’t really think of FF4, 5 and 6 as a SNES trilogy, even though they have a similar kind of presentation, FF6 feels more like what the series would eventually do on the PlayStation. I’m looking forward to talking more about that soon.

I enjoyed these two games quite a lot, but when I think about my all-time favourite games in the series, they aren’t going to be among the top. There’s a possibility that I might even change my mind by the time I get to the games I adore, though the real hope is that I’ll still love them.

There has been some brilliant music across both the games, which I’ve compiled into this Spotify playlist! I did have some urges to put the entire FF6 soundtrack on, but I decided against that.

Ranking these games hasn’t gotten difficult yet, but once I play a lot more of these I assume it’s going to get harder and I wonder what it will look like after that. The idea of making a gigantic list with all the games on it is very funny to me, even if it is a little potentially unreadable. Anyway here’s the eight games I played for this so far with the best at the bottom of the list:

  • Final Fantasy II
  • Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
  • Final Fantasy Adventure
  • Final Fantasy
  • Final Fantasy III
  • Final Fantasy V
  • Final Fantasy VI
  • Final Fantasy IV

I’m hoping to take a little break between this article and the next as it’s going to be a big one. Already I’ve got a lot of thoughts in my head about what I’ll be writing for it. I’ll give you a hint, what comes after six?

Until next time!

Playing Final Fantasy From The Start: Finding Identities

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After having finished the original three Final Fantasy games, you would think that the next thing for me to do is go to 4, 5 and 6. I did play 4, but not 5 and 6 because Final Fantasy is from this point on starting to become a larger franchise that encompasses more than just a direct throughline of numbered sequels.

So for this article I have now played and completed:

  • Final Fantasy Adventure (FFA)
  • Final Fantasy IV (FF4)
  • Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

As I was playing these games, I began to think about how something is identifiably Final Fantasy. It’s more difficult now than it used to be to answer that question. At the time where it was just the first three games, the answer would have been as simple as “a series of turn-based RPGs from Japan”. The modern answer would be something more like “A brand which largely encompasses games which are mostly RPGs or games with RPG elements”.

The biggest defining thing about Final Fantasy to me is weirdly how much it shifts and changes. Initially the most appealing thing to me was that none of the main numbered games actually continue the same story. I could jump into Final Fantasy XIII and not have to worry about what went on in the prior twelve entries (I did actually do that, and I had a great time with it). Eventually I became more aware of direct sequels and spin-offs, which meant that these universes were not so fully isolated, and it makes explanation of what Final Fantasy is slightly more difficult.

The easier way I find to think of it is that Final Fantasy is more like a group of sub-series. For example, Final Fantasy VII with all of its various spin-off games, movies, books may as well be its own individual series. There are also others that have vague connections through story, but much tighter links through gameplay aspects such as Final Fantasy Tactics.

It still doesn’t feel like the series’ name has lost all meaning to me either, while there’s all sorts of games that encompass the series that are radically different from each other, they always seem distinctly Final Fantasy to me, with some exceptions. Which brings me to these games, I played three more of them so I might as well talk about them:

Final Fantasy Adventure

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This is the first of what would eventually become known as the “Mana series”. It would receive a few sequels that decided to no longer go by the name of Final Fantasy, such as Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana. All this various naming can seem a little puzzling, but I chose to play this game as it was initially released with the Final Fantasy name attached to it (except in Europe where it came out under the title Mystic Quest, which means that conversations with European players about Final Fantasy Mystic Quest can get very confusing).

It’s an odd game because it doesn’t feel like it neatly fits into Final Fantasy as it’s refocus into an item-gated action RPG pushes it away from that, and it’s more standard high-fantasy presentation feels like it doesn’t quite fit with the bright colours of the Mana series (though it can’t help being colourless, it’s a game for the original Game Boy). 

What we have here is something quite similar to Zelda, where you go between dungeons with puzzles in them to get various items used for getting past environmental obstacles. It’s all tied together with a world map that opens up for more exploration once you have more of the useful items.

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A lot of what’s needed for puzzle solving and progression is tied to the equippable weapons and learnable magic. Axes can be used to chop down trees blocking the way, chain whips can be used to cross gaps, ice spells can be used to freeze enemies to solve block puzzles.

Certain items have to be bought at shops before venturing into a dungeon, such as keys and mattocks (for breaking rocks), which are consumables as well. With this and the use of equipment, it definitely helps it lean more into the RPG side of things, as it’s about making sure you’re prepared for an adventure. The abundance of keys available for sale is strange though, it would have made more sense for them to be lock picks instead.

Level grinding is an odd thing to do in a Zelda-like game, it’s a little repetitive but doesn’t get tiring as the game is fairly short. Enemies run around in random directions and mostly die after one or two hits. Boss battles don’t offer much more complexity either, as though they do take a fair amount more attacks to defeat, their simplistic patterns make them rather easy. This game isn’t very hard.

When you do level up you actually get to make a choice of how your stats grow. It’s fairly simple as you only get four options to choose from. You can pick from Stamina which increases HP, Power which boosts your attack, Wisdom which strengthens your magic, and Will which lets you cast special moves at a faster rate. I chose to put more points into Stamina, as I was mostly concerned with staying alive, though I did throw more into the others so that I could do more damage. I don’t have the time for multiple playthroughs now but it would be interesting to see if builds based more on magic or high attack power are valid.

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As it’s made for the Game Boy, each dungeon is short, making it easy to play for shorter sessions. On days where I put more time into it, I felt like I was making a lot of progress. It can be a little tricky to know exactly where you need to go, so looking up a map or guide may be needed (there is an in-game map but it’s largely useless as it’s mostly blank).

Most dungeon puzzles are very simplistic, they do break up the pace of the game nicely, but ice block puzzles became a hassle (thankfully there’s not a lot of them). There is a really creative dungeon where you ride a minecart that is constantly moving across a track, and you have to use a weapon to hit switches in order to steer it in the right direction. It’s a cool set-piece but it’s a one-off which is a shame, as I would have liked to see more like it, but to be honest I could just play Zelda games instead for something like that.

The writing in this game is fairly strange, as it has to be crammed into small text boxes to fit onto a tiny Game Boy screen. It honestly feels like reading someone’s shorthand notes of a story, it is a little overly succinct. One of the main villains is just named “Dark Lord”, no “the” as they need to save space.

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However there is a moment that is really interesting and feels a little more emotional than anything in the prior games (and only a little, I don’t want to oversell it). At a certain point in the game the main character is defeated by the villain and his chocobo (yes you get one of those in this game) has rescued him and taken him back to a nearby village to recover. The hero then confronts his mentor-of-sorts Bogard, yelling at him in frustration that he doesn’t want to be the hero and Bogard should do it instead. What then happens is that Bogard yells at him to get out and will not talk to you anymore. When you talk to another villager, it turns out that Bogard is very badly injured, and the hero is the only one who can do the job now. Even the chocobo got hurt really badly getting you back to the village (don’t worry they turn out okay). In a game where everything is so simple and sparse in terms of dialogue, it took me by surprise.

This story beat like this is something that makes the hero a little more interesting than in any of the prior games. The main characters of FF1-3 have very little interesting aspects about them. The original game does use blank slate characters deliberately, but the other two don’t and don’t feature the most memorable characters here. The biggest difference by comparison is that in most of these games so far, stuff just happens around the major characters. This story beat is defined by the main character doing something himself.

In this game there is character development! It’s a small few minutes of the game but it’s exciting, and not because this game is now a storytelling masterpiece, it’s far from that. What’s really fascinating to me here is the gradual evolution, and that it comes from the first spin-off (though the closeness in release time between this and FF4 makes me believe that they have to have been developed simultaneously, and if we are considering storytelling, FF4 blows it out of the water in that regard).

It’s interesting that this is the first game where the story is by Yoshinori Kitase, who would eventually go on to direct Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII and X.

If you would like to see a different take on an old Zelda-style action RPG, but with a little more RPG thrown in there, it’s worth trying Final Fantasy Adventure. It’s an easy game and also most likely one of the shortest games I’ll be playing for this blog at about roughly ten hours. It’s also been remade a few times, once as Sword of Mana for the GBA, and again as Adventures of Mana for mobile phones and PS Vita. The remakes seem to want to tie it more into the future Mana games, rather than its Final Fantasy roots. I haven’t tried either of those remakes just yet but maybe someday I will.

Final Fantasy IV

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The prior Final Fantasy games didn’t really have much in the way of well-defined characters. Heroes and villains were just that, without much else to distinguish them. Final Fantasy IV makes distinct characters much more central to the game, and is a much better game because of it, but that’s not the only aspect which this one improves upon.

You start off the game with the Dark Knight, Cecil, who will be the only character which remains in the party for the rest of the game. The first moments of this game don’t actually give you control of the party just yet, it does make use of the game’s presentational elements such as the world map and battle screens. It depicts a raid on a town which Cecil is leading and it’s apparent from the start that he is working for the bad guys, as he is fighting seemingly weak and innocent people. It’s a short sequence but it offers more detail and intrigue than in the previous games, especially having just come off of Final Fantasy Adventure’s awkward shorthand.

Once you get control of the game, one of the first actions you can take is to walk over and talk to fellow party member Kain. Instead of a simple response that lasts one or two text boxes, it’s a full conversation where you learn about Kain and Cecil’s place in the ranks, how they feel about their situation in the Kingdom of Baron, and part of Kain’s heritage. Very little time is wasted in order to demonstrate that these are much more interesting characters.

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The original Final Fantasy began with a king sending you on a quest to save the world, which you eventually do. Final Fantasy IV contrasts this when you meet the King of Baron for the first time, he comes across as much more greedy and demanding, and is more intent on conquering the world than saving it. The mission he sends the party is actually a punishment, as Cecil had “shown disloyalty” by questioning the king’s motives (as he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing in the game’s opening sequence). It ends up with even more tragedy, as Cecil is tricked into destroying an entire village, as the people there would have disrupted the king’s plan for conquest.

This paints a much bleaker world than the other games have managed so far. While it is eventually revealed that another villain has been controlling everything from behind the scenes, there’s still something about the way people in the game talk about the militarism of Baron that seems relatable. Townspeople lament about how much their nation has become like this, but also continue to work in it, giving a hint of the all-too-real despair that comes from living in a country that’s too powerful (maybe I am overthinking it a little).

Characters in Final Fantasy IV have so much more character! It feels as though a lot of the game’s systems have been built with that in mind. Every party member is now a defined character class, which will not change over the course of the game (with one exception used to show character development). Cecil is a Dark Knight because he trained as one to serve his kingdom, Kain devoted his life to becoming a Dragoon because of his father, Yang comes from a nation where many learn to become Monks.

The shape of the party changes a lot over the course of the game as well. One or more members leave at certain points, and it may seem a little cruel to have you spend time to level up characters only for them to be taken away, the game never puts you at a big disadvantage. You’re always given a character that can heal and cast spells. Party members come and go on their own terms and when they come back they’re usually at a much higher level, and have learned new skills. It cements each party member as an individual character, as prior games had issues with this (FF1-3’s party characters were poorly defined, it felt as though in those games I was controlling a single character that inhabited multiple bodies).

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By the end of the game you will have a party of five suited to take on all the game puts in front of you. In the original SNES version of the game you had no option of changing it, so everything was balanced to accommodate it. Later versions of the game (such as the PSP version I played) let you change it, but you do end up with a lot of equipment clearly meant for that original team, so I kept it.

Having the game define the party makes everything much simpler. I never felt a need to research a good set-up like I did in some of the other games, for fear of investing time into levelling up “useless classes”. I could see why Square chose to bring this game over to the US when it was wary of bringing over FF2 and 3.

There’s another detail that I would like to highlight which is used effectively in the story-telling and that is spells. Rydia is a summoner, who is able to cast a lot of elemental black magic, with the exception of Fire. She is afraid of it as her village was burned down. It serves to create a big moment in the game when she is finally able to cast it because of the party’s encouragement. There’s also a spell called Meteor, initially learned by the Sage Tellah. No matter how high you level up that character, he will never have enough magic points to actually cast it, and this gives more gravitas to the moment in  which it is finally unleashed.

The PSP port I played looks great, with nice detailed 2D sprites filled with bright colours that look great on my PSVita’s screen. There’s a few small details added in battle sprites that I liked. When readying an attack Cecil, an experienced fighter, raises his fists ready for action, whereas Rydia, a child, covers her head with her hands and ducks. There is a full-3D remake available on other platforms, but I don’t think it looks as nice and I have been told by many people that it is a much harder game, which I did not fancy.

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In Final Fantasy IV a trademark feature of the series’ battles was introduced: the Active Time Battle system (ATB). Instead of everyone’s turns being semi-randomly generated by how high everyone’s speed statistics are, an on-screen bar fills up in real time for each character and when it’s full they can take their turn. I love this system as it allows for me to be more reactive in battle, as every turn is taken as soon as the bar is filled. It’s also very satisfying to cast Haste on party members and see the ATB bar fill up visibly faster. There is an option to change the speed of the battle system as well if you would like the game to go ridiculously fast (I personally think the highest speed is way too quick for me).

Composer Nobuo Uematsu’s work gets much stronger from this game on, as his tendencies for progressive rock bombast, and use of unconventional samples begin to show. Here is a Spotify link to a playlist with my favourite tracks from the game (I would have liked to have made a playlist for all three games, but the others are absent from the streaming service).

This is the first game out of these that I can recommend without caveats, it’s just a great RPG worth getting into. Time would fly by as I played it, I was just very compelled by how well put together so much of this game is. This is absolutely the best game I’ve played so far in this blogging project. If you’re thinking about giving this one a go you absolutely should. If you’re a fan of RPGs in general and haven’t managed to try this one (aka me before this), then I think it’s one of the best things you could play. 

NOTE: All of this is specifically referring to the version of the game made for the GBA and PSP, don’t take this as a recommendation for the version available on mobile phones and Steam as it seems to be a very different game. It makes me think that at some point I should seek out the NES version of FF3, as it’s likely quite different to the Steam version of it I played.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

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To clarify, when I am just saying “Mystic Quest”, I am using it to refer to this game, and not Final Fantasy Adventure. I just want to avoid any confusion over naming.

The narrative around this game is that it was intended to be more of a beginner RPG, something to use to introduce novice players into the genre. It seems a little odd considering how games are built today. If a game wanted to accommodate newer players today, changes would often be made to future entries of the main game. The series itself would do so proudly 24 years later. Final Fantasy XV will proudly state when you open the game that it is “a Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers”. It’s weird to see something made with the specific direct intent of easing in newer players. 

A game built with the entire purpose of teaching new players how to approach a genre they are unfamiliar with seems to exist as a marketing tool. There’s no point in making an “introductory” game if they didn’t expect people to buy another later. That said I did try to go into this game with a bit of an open mind, as I was genuinely interested in finding out what decisions were made in order to make this game approachable.

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So what’s different about this game? For a start random encounters are now gone. Every area now has a limited number of combat encounters, that are on fixed points of the map. It changes the relationship with the space, as to ensure I was levelled up, I had to seek out combat across the map as opposed to walking around one spot in circles.

This paired with lower battle difficulty means that the game also has a much calmer feel to it, there’s no anxiety over suddenly fighting a particularly strong or annoying monster at random. Even if you do die, you can just restart from the same battle. Once enemies in a dungeon are defeated, they’re gone until you leave the area and come back. It feels strange to walk back to the exit of a dungeon after all encounters in the area had been cleared. It actually made me think about having to walk back through levels in Hotline Miami after defeating all enemies, which is a strange comparison as Hotline Miami is extremely ultra-violent and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a game for children.

There are only two party members, a player-named character that stays in the party permanently (though apparently the canon name is Benjamin) and other characters who will join your party temporarily throughout the game, similarly to the fourth slot in Final Fantasy II. The permanent party member can gain experience points to increase their levels but the other cannot. They usually join a few levels ahead of what the first party member should be so they act as a sort of benchmark for where the player should get to. It’s another thing the game does to make things a little easier.

The world map is similar to how maps in a Mario game work, which makes each area feel much more like a videogame level than they normally would. Completing an area opens up the ability to travel to another much like it would in Mario maps. There are no forced enemy encounters on the world map, only places called “battlefields” which have around ten random optional fights on them, and offer rewards such as money, experience points and armour.

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In some ways it actually feels a little like what if they took Final Fantasy Adventure and made it more of a standard RPG. The puzzle weapons come back here, but the focus on turn-based combat and lack of standard world map make it feel a lot less Zelda-ish. It also does re-use a bunch of assets from that game (which itself did reuse some assets from NES Final Fantasy games). 

Much like FFA, the story is much simpler, and while it doesn’t quite have the same condensed dialogue, there is even more of a sense that it just wants to get straight to the point. Outside of a mildly sarcastic protagonist, there’s not much in the way of defined character traits for many people. The main character sprite seems to also have similar proportions to the one in Final Fantasy Adventure, but it’s not exactly the same. 

There’s other subtle similarities between the two games. All of the people in towns somehow move at a much lower framerate than the main character, which makes me think this may have been built out of the same engine? This does make it feel a little more like a budget game in comparison to the others, this kind of paired down kind of game would actually feel more at home on something like a Game Boy. That would have been a great platform for it, as you can easily play the game in small sessions.

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Everything about this game is extremely straightforward. There’s always rigid solutions to what the game puts in front of you. A lot of enemies have specific weaknesses, most environmental “puzzle” solutions are extremely transparent. This simplification doesn’t really help to highlight what is interesting about the genre either. There’s no interesting customisation, battles are won too easily, and the systems aren’t utilised to tell a compelling story.

Strangely I did actually appreciate the reduction in difficulty in some ways. It’s not a lengthy game and playing it is a much calmer experience than any of the other games I’ve played for this blog. I do actually wish that the game was a little shorter, as it does get considerably more repetitive as it goes on, but sometimes it’s nice to have a game where you can just win.

There’s some cool music in here too. A bunch of tracks lean into more of a hard rock/metal direction and the samples used sound great together. Some of the game’s calmer tracks also sound really good too. It’s odd but I do feel that the lower quality samples are what make this music sound unique and interesting (this is honestly how I generally feel about these kinds of older game soundtracks in general). On a random YouTube browse I did take a listen to some recreations of the battle music with live instruments and many of them sounded much weaker to me. I don’t want to make this about how old styles of game music are better, because Final Fantasy as a series will continue to showcase excellent soundtracks into the present day.

That said I’m not sure that this game really feels like Final Fantasy to me. There’s a moment where you can come across a chocobo, and it stood out to me as a weird surprise, almost as if the bird didn’t belong here. I can see some of the ways it’s connected like the similarities between Final Fantasy Adventure mentioned earlier, but so much else has changed that it doesn’t really fit in. If you would have sat me down with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, didn’t show me the title screen and told me that it was some other random RPG I might believe you. No wonder Nintendo saw fit to release this game in Europe without the Final Fantasy branding under the name Mystic Quest Legends (technically making it the first Final Fantasy game to release here).

Final Thoughts

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I love seeing how this series is evolving, and I’m even more excited for how it’s going to be as I play more. Yes I have played a lot of them, but being able to see how they change over time is what I’m fascinated by. Going through these games like this is essentially watching the series’ metamorphosis in fast-forward.

Final Fantasy IV is the game that really cemented this project as being worthwhile. Not only by being a great game with so much to talk about, but playing what came before really helped to highlight what it does to improve. The absence of certain things in prior games made me think more about what this one includes, and why those things in particular make it stronger.

I’ve gotten into arguments with people over later Final Fantasy entries, it’s usually XII, XIII or XV. Their argument is often that “those games aren’t Final Fantasy”, which is strange because it’s literally in their name. I’m not going to use this space to argue for those particular games, but generally I push against the idea that they “aren’t Final Fantasy”. 

Which makes my feelings on some of these games feel really bizarre. To a lot of people out there Final Fantasy Adventure and Mystic Quest have almost lost the argument about “being Final Fantasy”. FFA became the basis for a completely different series, and remakes of it place it more firmly as being part of the Mana series. The version I played was included in a compilation release for the Switch titled Collection of Mana. Conversations about Mystic Quest seem to relegate it as a dead-end spin-off which it pretty much is to some extent. There hasn’t really been a Final Fantasy game since specifically targeted beginners. They’ve made ones that are easier to get into, though I would argue that FF4 is a really good place to start.

Let’s break down these a little more. I will make no argument against Final Fantasy IV feeling like some other series, and I don’t know anyone else that would do so. It’s laying down structures that later games would build off of, and the ATB system is something I strongly associated with the games as a whole (even if my favourite game in the whole series doesn’t actually feature it). Final Fantasy Adventure does have a character growth system that seems to allow for different kinds of builds. However it being a more Zelda-like action-RPG makes it feel like something else entirely in action. Mystic Quest has no customisation. It has an extremely plain and straightforward battle system using mechanics that I’ve seen done better in other RPGs.

I want to make it clear that by saying these two games feel different I don’t necessarily mean that they are bad. It’s just that if someone was to ask me about getting into Final Fantasy as a whole, my answer wouldn’t be “Final Fantasy Adventure and Mystic Quest”. If you’re interested in those games on their own merits, then by all means give them a shot.

So how do I rank these games with all the others? Like this (from worst to best):

  • Final Fantasy II
  • Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
  • Final Fantasy Adventure
  • Final Fantasy
  • Final Fantasy III
  • Final Fantasy IV

I’m getting a little conscious that these articles are running a little long so in future I’ll be putting less Final Fantasy games into each part. I won’t apologise if I still have a lot to say about them. Funnily enough I had actually intended to include another game in this write-up earlier but decided against it. I’ll get to it later!

Until next time!

Playing Final Fantasy From The Start: The NES Trilogy

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Hello! It’s been a long time since I’ve put something on the blog hasn’t it?

Final Fantasy (FF) has been on my mind a lot lately, most likely because some big PlayStation game was released about a week ago. I had realised that I have a lot of blind spots with this series, even though it does contain some games which I have played and adored. Most of the games made before Final Fantasy VII were ones that I had started but never got very far. There were also early games that I had never played before. So what better way to fix this than to start from the beginning.

I’ll be playing most of them in order, but I may jump around a little and play certain games out of order (I will be playing the main numbered games in the order that they came out). As of writing this article I have now played and completed:

  • Final Fantasy (FF1)
  • Final Fantasy II (FF2)
  • Final Fantasy III (FF3)

I couldn’t think of what else to title the collective of games I’m writing about here but “The NES Trilogy” seems to fit because that’s where they come from. What feels weird to me about calling them that is I have played more recent iterations of them because that’s what’s more readily available. The versions of FF1 and 2 which I had played were released for the PSP in 2007. The version of FF3 I’ve been playing released for the PC in 2014 and is still receiving updates in 2020.

I wonder what I would think of the original versions on the NES if I had played those instead. Would I be kinder knowing that they are older and aren’t up to more modern standards? Would I be meaner because they don’t have the small conveniences which have been added into the games over each subsequent re-release? If I’m honest it most likely would be the latter. This caveat I thought worth mentioning since I’m going to be talking about the series’ origins, but by playing these iterations I’m essentially viewing through a modernised lens where Final Fantasy already exists as a gargantuan mega-franchise.

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Some of the changes are small conveniences which we take for granted, like attacks auto-targeting onto a different enemy when its initial target has already been defeated. Some are a little more drastic like FF1 switching to a different magic system similar to what is in later games, which I imagine has significant effects on the pace of the game. FF3 has an entirely new presentation being a 3D game featuring 8-directional movement as opposed to its original 2D 4-directional movement, and a pace of combat that feels a little lumbering compared to its predecessors (though the very recent addition of an “auto-battle” feature has quickened it somewhat).

A lot of the revisions in FF1 and 2 come from a compilation release on the PS1, which gives them both strong consistency in aesthetics. The updated visuals and sound brings them closer in line to later games in the series, but their differing approach in game design and storytelling makes them still feel like very distinct games. The PSP releases which I played did not change a lot from that.

FF3’s 3D visual overhaul breaks that consistency, and while the series’ reliance on recurring elements means that any game in the series can always be recognised as such from appearance, this edition of the game really contrasts with the others mentioned here. This edition makes it clearer that when a series lasts as long as this, new talent comes aboard. The character designs really illustrate that difference for me, as newer character designer Akihiko Yoshida’s designs here have a much cleaner and simpler look than original designer Yoshitaka Amano’s wispier style.

While these direct comparisons are fun to make, I think it’s also worth highlighting what each game is like individually. I also think it’s worth mentioning that this article contains plot spoilers for Final Fantasy II.

Final Fantasy

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This is a weird one, it’s so early on that it feels more like a framework to eventually build on since certain “defining characteristics of Final Fantasy” are absent, and what is there feels almost incomplete. For one example, the prologue music which is a staple of the games shows up here, but only the quarter note arpeggios feature in the song, the chords that define so much of the song for me are not here yet (and won’t appear until Final Fantasy IV).

There’s also not a lot of mandatory exposition throughout the game except for a text-based narration at the opening and closing, a lot of details are left for villagers and townspeople to tell you, so it’s very easy to assume that the game has little story outside of dialogue from a few boss characters that you have to encounter. It’s an interesting method of storytelling but it’s easy to see why it was dropped for subsequent games, as it’s so easily missable.

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The Ochu does look a little like they’ve just flipped a table.

Character classes are picked at the start and kept for the rest of the game. Later on you get to upgrade to stronger classes, but they are still based off of the one you picked at the start. This feels more in line with a Western RPG to me, since when I think of class based Japanese RPGs, they usually have extreme flexibility in changing classes at any time. There are of course exceptions to this on both sides, as there always is.

The game didn’t offer a lot of challenge so it was quite breezy to get through, with the exception of the final boss which was a tough battle but I managed it without a game over. It’s also short for an RPG at about 15 hours, and is simple enough to feel very approachable especially in its more modernised GBA, PSP and mobile phone incarnations. If you’re interested in taking a look at the comparably humble beginnings of one of the most well-known RPG series, I would say that Final Fantasy is worth a shot.

Final Fantasy II

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This one opens with an action-packed cutscene demonstrating the setup for the game, an Evil Emperor taking over the world with demons he has summoned. The playable party of heroes is seen making an escape attempt, but it is unsuccessful as you are then forced to actually take part in a fight against the Emperor’s knights using the game’s battle mechanics. You will lose, it is impossible to win the fight as the enemy strength outmatches yours considerably. Once you do fall in this battle, the game carries on as normal, but from that moment one of your initial party members is now missing. This is a statement that Final Fantasy II is going to be doing a lot more to tell a story. While this game does have some moments like that throughout, it still feels much less often than what you would see in more modern games.

There’s some very cool stuff that happens in it. You defeat the Emperor two-thirds of the way through the game, and then he eventually comes back having just conquered Hell and brings more armies of demons with him. There’s also an evil dark knight who’s related to some of the party members, so it does feel kinda Star Wars-ish (another series which Final Fantasy does love making reference to).

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The progression system feels incredibly experimental compared to the other games I’m talking about here. Character statistics are increased at the end of a battle based on specific actions taken during it; max HP goes up when you take hits, attack goes up when you hit something, magic gets stronger when you use it. It’s a weird system that’s fun to play with initially but eventually it reveals its drawbacks.

It was surprising for a game in which every possible stat can be grinded up to max, that my party of characters managed to feel distinct. This is because of the sheer amount of time it takes in order to max every stat, so for a normal length playthrough it’s much better to create a party of specialists. You need a black magic caster, a healer and a physical attacker and you can’t quickly be all of those at once. There’s also only a limited amount of magic slots on each character, so no one can learn every spell.

The biggest drawback of this system is that every stat has to be increased from usage. It leads to some bizarre strategies in order to get a stronger party. I would attack my own party members in order to increase their HP, which would in turn increase attack. 

Magic was one of the biggest issues I had with this game, as every spell would be earned as a “level 1 spell” and required constant use in order to make it stronger. This became a problem as spells earned much later in the game would still start at level 1 when all my others were at level 10, which meant that I had to spend some time repeatedly using spells against weak enemies to make them worth casting in battle against stronger foes.

The ideas FF2’s character progression system includes are interesting in theory, but in practice here they make the experience a little more tedious. Thankfully this wasn’t a dead end for it and they would be utilised in Square’s other RPG series SaGa (lead by FF2 designer Akitoshi Kawazu). This style of stat growth is also very similar to the one found in the Elder Scrolls games, and in my short experience with them, it seemed to work well there.

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Over the course of the game the fourth party member slot is filled with different characters. From a storytelling perspective I liked it, as it meant I wasn’t always spending large portions of the game with only the same party members. What made it less interesting was that because they were temporary, I didn’t want to spend as much time levelling them up to be as strong as the rest of the party, meaning that they were often very weak compared to other members.

As I played more of FF2 I really came to dislike the dungeons. They went on a bit long and got a little too labyrinthine. Even when I had to look up a map for a dungeon online I felt as though I was playing one of those mazes from a child’s activity book. This, coupled with the character progression systems, was what really made playing the game feel dull at times.

If you’re curious about this one it might be worth playing to see the systems at work. I was initially very intrigued by it until it became tiring. With its more clearly defined story I could see how this series did end up evolving, and I thought that was neat to experience. You could just as easily take a look at how the game does its story by looking up YouTube videos.

Final Fantasy III

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This game reintroduces the character classes found in FF1 but now with a lot more flexibility. The second game had gone a little too far in its systems of making fully malleable party members, but Final Fantasy III finds something in-between that I much preferred. You can now change classes (now named “jobs”) at any time as long as you’re not in a battle.

This sounds great but I had a few problems with it. Not all jobs are available to start, and I guess it’s useful so that players can get an understanding of the systems at a gradual enough pace so that they are not overwhelmed, but I just wanted to get to the stage where all the jobs that I wanted to play with were available. I already had an idea of the party I wanted to form and just wanted to work towards that, though it did feel good once I had earned all the jobs I wanted.

There are also points in the game in which certain jobs are clearly better suited than others. You will get to a town and everyone will talk to you about the next area you are going to, they’ll mention how the monsters there are easily bested by a “dark knight” or a “dragoon” and a lot of the items you find there are more suited towards those classes. So if you want to have an easier time against those enemies, you best have a dark knight or dragoon in your party.

The game also has systems to discourage changing jobs too often as well, as each job needs to be levelled up individually per character, and getting them to effective levels at times can be very grindy, especially as some useful jobs are unlocked very close to the end of the game. There is also a mechanic called “job sickness”, which makes a party member weaker for a few battles when they begin a new job.

A lot of other games with similar job systems also have this kind of levelling but with a much smaller ceiling so that you don’t have to spend quite as much time getting the job up to a usable level. I haven’t encountered many of these sorts of games that feature job sickness either.

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Even though I do have complaints, the jobs themselves are good, they feel like they have more distinguishing features from each other than the ones in FF1 (where melee-damage-dealing classes just felt very similar to each other). Knights will guard weakened party members from attacks, Dragoons can jump into the air to do a massive attack, Vikings can provoke enemies to hit them instead of the other members. It doesn’t have the diversity that newer games bring, but as a starting point it’s still fun to play with these ones.

The battle system itself feels more well-tuned compared to the previous games, with combat encounters that offer a fun sort of challenge at times, and I didn’t find them too overwhelming. Being able to take newer jobs into them also makes them feel a little more varied.

Dungeons are also much simpler than in the previous game, and are relatively short by comparison. Progressing through them felt quick, and while it doesn’t have a lot of big story moments to go through, it really does feel like the game has very little downtime, except for when I needed to grind for jobs.

And I haven’t really got a lot to say about the story in this one, it’s standard “save-the-world” stuff, and it doesn’t have an emperor coming back from the dead bringing the armies of hell with him so I didn’t find it as cool. It doesn’t feel like a huge step up from FF2 in terms of how it presents its story.

Out of the three games I had the most fun with Final Fantasy III. If I could only recommend one of this original set to someone, this would be it. It feels like the most well-balanced out of them, with decent pacing and battles that offer a good challenge. While it is a bit grindy I would say it’s still an alright game. There are a bunch of other Final Fantasy games I like considerably more than this one but those are for another time.

Final Thoughts

I have a feeling this will be a fitting name for this section, since like the namesake fantasy of the series as I play more games in the series I’ll continue having thoughts on prior entries since comparison is inevitable.

Old games have a reputation for being harsh, and I’m surprised how much these games weren’t, but I don’t know if that’s down the habits I had when playing them. If possible I will grind until I am overpowered in a lot of games.

I have to admit that the way I am playing these games is specifically because of the modern structure of information availability and communication. If I bought FF3 in 2007 for the DS, I would not have put anything up on Twitter and other places about how I was playing it, and less people would have responded about how difficult it was. Because I was told by multiple people that the game was difficult, I looked into ways to make it easier on myself and those worked.

Some of those walkthroughs and maps I made use of would have probably existed in 2007. The fact that UK releases of these games used to take much longer than the Japanese and US releases meant a lot of that sort of information was already collected by the time it reached this country (fun fact: Mario & Luigi: Dream Team was a game that came out in the UK before it did in Japan and the US, I got stuck on it once and tried to look up a walkthrough, none of them existed at that point so I just had to figure the game out myself).

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I do wish that I had a little more to say about the story that these games tell, but that aspect feels so much simpler and scaled down compared to future entries that I don’t feel like I can say a lot about it. It’s much easier for me to talk about the systems at play since that’s what I spent much more time with these games. Maybe if I ever revisit these games at another time, I might be able to poke at the narrative aspects a little more.

Final Fantasy is also a series known for it’s fantastic music, and while I did refer to it earlier as “incomplete” in these games I think that was a little unfair. When these games were initially made, they were complete, it’s just that future entries added more on top of it. Because these are some of the earlier games, there is less music than what later games have. Dungeon and battle themes repeat, and while some of the tunes are indeed catchy, they don’t quite reach the very high strengths that later games in the series do.

The versions which I played all feature much newer sounding versions of the music than the bleeps and bloops found in the original NES editions. I found the rearranged music in FF1 and 2 to be very good (1 even includes some extra music to add a slight bit more variety since the original game only included a single battle theme). FF3’s new soundtrack I found to be weaker than its original, the instrumentation on it made it sound a little generic. The final boss theme has a good rearrangement, but mostly because it is a fusion of both the new style and old to make something that sounds a little more unique. Here is a link to a Spotify playlist I have made including my favourites from these three games.

I did have issues with Final Fantasy 1-3, and a lot of people would argue that it’s likely because of how old these games are. They were initially designed 30+ years ago, and I don’t think this is what makes them flawed. Dragon Quest IV is a very strong example of classic RPG design, and I would put it up there along with my favourites in the genre. It was also released around the same time as FF3. All of these games in this era were somewhat experimental, I just feel that some experiments come across more successful than others.

I’m going to continue to keep playing more of these games, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they bring. I know for a fact that I’m going to enjoy revisiting ones I’ve played before, but filling in the blindspots is what’s most exciting to me.

I suppose you might want to know where I rank these? From worst to best:

  • Final Fantasy II
  • Final Fantasy
  • Final Fantasy III

Until next time!

Onimusha: Warlords is Good, Horror-Tinged Samurai Action

 

2019-02-01_16-57-46Not enough people talk about how Capcom did strong work bringing their creepy horror vibe across more games than just Resident Evil. Devil May Cry uses it well, but I specifically want to highlight Onimusha: Warlords. It’s not really a horror game, it’s an action game where you spend a lot of it doing flashy moves with a samurai sword, but it brings in some of that atmosphere to heighten tension.

It also has tank controls, and now that I’ve actually played a game to completion that features them alongside fixed camera angles, I think they work. I used to be someone who didn’t really like them and felt like they were a limitation brought only by the era they came from. However Resident Evil 2 on the N64 had the option to turn them off in 1999, and Capcom kept making games using control scheme long after others with similar camera perspectives didn’t.

The argument for tank controls in Resident Evil is that they make it harder to avoid enemies in tight spaces, but Onimusha doesn’t really have that, it’s just the game’s method of travel. Dodging an enemy is easy since there’s a lock-on ability that lets you strafe around them, and most attacks can be simply blocked by holding down the guard button. There’s also plenty of offensive options available to deal with the bad guys: sword swings have a wide range around the character; magic abilities can almost fill the screen at times; and you also get an instant kill move (which can’t be used on bosses, and neither the game or manual will teach you how to do it).2019-02-01_17-00-30Well if the tank controls don’t add any tension to the game what’s actually there? There’s not much in the way of good characters. Samanosuke is a bland hero without a personality, Princess Yuki only exists as a damsel in distress, and the bad guys are evil because they’re demons I guess.

What’s really good about Onimusha is the combat. Strafing around an enemy doesn’t feel like it moves too far or too little, weapons and magic attacks have the right amount of heft to them, and while it is at times incredibly tricky to do, actually pulling off an instant kill move is greatly satisfying. My only issues are towards the end, where a few late game bosses have too much health. It doesn’t feel like it makes them harder, the fights just begin to drag a little.

It’s all tied together with Resident Evil-style lock and keys, which require a small amount of backtracking. This really works here as it allowed me to familiarise myself with the spaces for combat, and the game managed to mix things up by changing up enemy placements each time I had to go back through an area.2019-02-01_16-59-24This isn’t a particularly scary game, but it has a very creepy atmosphere. Most of the game is spent in a palace taken over by demons, it’s suitably dingy, dark and some areas have a fleshy, almost gigeresque feel to them. There’s also a roughly twenty minute stretch of deadly puzzles that I wish the game did a little more with. One was a little unfair as failure did result in instant death, but there was a fun kind of pressure to it.

There’s not a lot to get sick of in Onimusha: Warlords, it only took me five hours to finish the game so everything came at a quick pace. If you have a fondness for Playstation 2 action games, like myself, then I would seriously recommend giving this one a chance. I’ve got the sequels to be checking out soon and I’ll be sure to report again if they’re just as interesting.

 

 

Symphony Saturday: It’s back.

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So there was a point in time in which I would write about video game music every Saturday. I liked that, I wanted to get back to it. However there will be changes made to the format. Last time I did this I would put up a single piece of music and write a little bit about that. This time I don’t want to be as rigid with it, if I have something on my mind to say about music, I’m writing it down. Anyway here goes.

Recently I started listening to the Pat Metheny Group, an old Jazz Fusion band, admittedly I became aware of them through a recent anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. At the end of their album Still Life (Talking) this piano track comes on and every time I hear it I think of some small village at night-time in a Japanese Role-Playing Game.

There are certain musical artists I’ve listened to and it’s been very clear how they’ve influenced game composers. Stick on Emerson, Lake and Palmer and you’ll hear where some of the battle music from Final Fantasy comes from. Stick on Yellow Magic Orchestra and you’ll hear where a lot of inspiration for NES music.

While I don’t have a lot to say about this, I thought it would be interesting to bring it up. Maybe I could dive deeper in the future.

I would really appreciate feedback on this because I’m trying something new here. Feel free to leave a comment or bug me on Twitter.

Pixpen’s Best of 2014

It’s been an odd year for gaming. Developers are still getting used to the new consoles, and I don’t feel that there’s enough games out there that ‘took advantage’ of them. I’m curious to see how that will change in 2015.

There were a few games that were going to make this list, but I cut because I wanted to show off ten, as I usually do. This list is also not ordered, because if I did that I will probably change that tomorrow. Games that almost made it here were: Jazzpunk, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Hyrule Warriors and Broken Age. There’s also plenty of other games to catch up with, and I could regret not putting them here.

However as it currently stands, these are the games that I thought were the best to come out of 2014.

Transistor (PC/PS4)

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Transistor looks fantastic, in my opinion it’s the best looking game I’ve played all year. Accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack, here we have an action-RPG that leaves great room for experimentation. There are so many different permutations of abilities you can give yourself, and picking out the right one feels so good, and makes the combat feel completely unique. The story falls flat, but it’s easy to overlook when the game is brilliant.

Dark Souls II (PC/PS3/360)

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The common repeated comment from fans is that this one doesn’t quite live up to the first game, and they’re right. It doesn’t, but the best parts of Dark Souls II almost reach up to be as fantastic as the original. It doesn’t feel as special or unique as the original, but it’s still much better than a lot of games out there. The first Dark Souls is an incredibly high standard for action games, and to only be just a bit worse means it’s still a great game.

Super Smash Bros. (3DS/Wii U)

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I’ve always liked Smash Bros. ever since playing the original N64 game. With this one I think they’ve nailed it. There might not be the extra bells and whistles like Brawl’s story mode, but when focusing purely on the fighting itself, I couldn’t be happier with it. The chaotic nature of 8-Player Smash is also something wondrous to behold.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XONE)

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Ground Zeroes is a game that ‘gets’ Stealth, it feels like a modern update without any compromise. It’s the most challenging Metal Gear has been in a while, because you can’t so easily turn to shooting everything. With that said, you’re still given room to experiment. People complain because you only have one small area to roam around in, but it’s not just a small map, it’s a stealth playground that really isn’t lacking in stuff to do. This one has me very excited for future games in the series. Be warned that it does deal with some uncomfortable subject matter in very poor taste however.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC/PS4/XONE)

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From playing this game, I get the feeling that they don’t quite get the themes of Lord of the Rings. The books have been about how power can be a serious corrupting force. This game is all about becoming incredibly powerful as that will beat the bad guy and save the day because it’s a video game. Though if you consider the game on its own merits, it’s very strong. Sure on the surface it plays a bit like Batman, and the main missions by themselves are a little lacklustre, but the “Nemesis System” really elevates this game. The more powerful enemies can sometimes really be a challenge, and they can benefit and rank up from killing you. An orc captain could keep killing you over and over and he’ll taunt you about it every time he sees you. This could all even happen in the middle of another mission. It does make it much more satisfying when you do take them down however, and that’s what makes this game so fun.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XONE)

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I’ll admit, I haven’t quite finished this game yet despite putting over 70 hours into it. I don’t feel like I’ll be finished right away, this game is going to take me a lot of time, not just because it’s big, but because I want to take my time, I don’t want to be done with it so quickly. Bioware have managed to create some real good characters for this one, The Iron Bull is a particular favourite of mine. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a wonderful glimpse into an incredibly well-realised high fantasy setting. Whether it’s playing politics with stuffy nobles or a tense showdown against massive dragons, there’s a great time to be had here.

Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)

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The original Bayonetta is one of the strongest Character Action games I have played, it oozes tonnes of style and has plenty of combat substance too. There was a sense of playfulness and increasing scale that made it so exciting to play. With the sequel they knew exactly what worked and what didn’t in the first game, and have somehow managed to create something even better. While it doesn’t bring any innovation to the genre, it refines on what is already there to bring a fantastic thrill-ride.

Wolfenstein: The New Order (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XONE)

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I don’t know how they managed it, but Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to both tell a serious story and also be a ridiculously fun shooter to play. Even though it is a game where you shoot Nazis into tiny pieces, it’s in the moments where you’re just able to walk around and appreciate the world-building that help make this a much stronger game. Characters in it feel like real people, they’re not ridiculous caricatures.

Crimzon Clover: World Ignition (PC)

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Shoot-em-ups seem to be coming back in a great way thanks to small companies publishing Japanese Indie titles like this one. This one is top of the game, and overcoming the manic patterns of bullets are incredibly satisfying, but on top of that is the “Break Mode” in which this ship you fly is able to fire almost enough bullets to cover the screen. It doesn’t make you invincible, you basically become a glass cannon, and once you start understanding the game, what was an inescapable mess turns into a pattern which you know just how to dodge. Let me tell you, getting to the final boss without dying once felt like one of the most exciting things I had done in a game this year.

The Talos Principle (PC)

The-Talos-Principle If The Talos Principle was only comprised of its clever puzzles and little else, it would have made this list for certain, but that’s not all it had to offer. There’s a fantastic story in there all about what it means to be human, and while it’s possible to completely ignore it over the course of the game, doing so would lessen the experience. It also helps that the puzzles are pretty well designed. With certain puzzles it feels like solving them is teaching you a new trick or strategy you can use in the future. In terms of first-person-puzzlers it’s up there with Portal.

A Bird Story is an Adventure game in a JRPG’s clothing.

1Freebird games make video games that look and sound a lot like mid-90s Japanese role-playing games, it’s an aesthetic they have completely nailed down. But they’ve removed core elements from them to create something that feels a little more like a traditional adventure game. To The Moon completely eschewed with combat and focused on exploration of areas in order to tell its story, it involved a lot of characters talking to each other.

Their most recent game, A Bird Story, does away with even more. There’s no dialogue at all and it’s a much more scripted linear experience that would probably upset the same people that would say that Gone Home and Proteus are not video games. It uses so little traditional game mechanics in order to tell a story of a boy bonding with an injured bird. It also can be finished in an hour.

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But let’s look past that really, it’s not like this game costs a lot, it’s short but really sweet. The thing that really grated me about To The Moon is that portions of it felt too ‘video gamey’ and somewhat diminished the emotional impact of certain sequences. A Birds Story takes a much more minimalistic approach like something you’d see in a Sylvain Chomet film, though not quite as tear-jerking. There was no point where I had to engage in annoying video game rubbish in order to progress.

It’s so simple, it only uses the arrow keys and spacebar for controls (a controller is also supported). I suppose because it’s using old fashioned sprite graphics, the mind does a lot to fill in what’s going on, the music helps a lot, especially since a lot of it feels completely tailored to fit each moment. A couple of times I noticed that the game and music felt really in sync with each other, which helped to elevate some of those moments.

Sure I only got an hour out of it, but during that hour I had a smile on my face.


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