Trying to understand how games work

Category Archives: 3DS/DS

I’ve been playing through all sorts of Final Fantasy games over the past two years and part of the appeal of taking on a whole franchise is finding surprises. The great ones that haven’t stayed in the lasting conversations but turn out to be hidden gems. I don’t know if I could often expect that from a billion dollar mega-franchise like this. I certainly didn’t find that with the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles prequels made for DS and Wii.

People certainly talked about these when they came out, as evidenced by forum threads that are still available to read, but they’re not the games people continue to bring up. It’s not because they’re bad, as they’re perfectly serviceable action role-playing games. When it’s part of a brand that sees much more critically-acclaimed entries with high profile marketing campaigns, the heavy hitters are going to steal more attention. As I didn’t have experience with most Final Fantasy games around their original release dates, I was only more aware of the bigger titles. I lack the context for many of these games as I wasn’t there for them.

Right now I want to put the spotlight on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates and Echoes of Time. Both of them are built off of the same co-op action framework, the basics are almost identical between the two. As with the original Crystal Chronicles, these games involve travelling into dungeons to fight a boss at the end of them, though with a much more linear structure as opposed to the more open one the first game had. They’re faster paced games than the original too, with a more ordinary experience-point growth system. These ones also involve platforming and puzzles to mix things up. The way they play reminds me a little bit of Threads of Fate, another action RPG Square developed for the Playstation which I played for a few hours, and didn’t return to because I ended up very busy at the time. I’d like to return to that one someday.

Ring of Fates is the more traditional of the two released on the Nintendo DS. Its singleplayer and multiplayer separated into two separate modes. Those going solo can play the “story mode” which is what I went for. It’s fairly generic stuff: a pair of orphaned children going on an adventure and getting a party together that eventually defeat a villain that wants to rule the world. A surprising amount of cutscenes were fully voiced as well, which isn’t something I’d expect even from some of the bigger releases on the console (as far as I remember anyway, if you can remember a bunch of other examples I’m curious to know about them).

It’s a very easy-going game too. At no point did I feel challenged by the combat, nor was I stumped by the puzzles or platforming. In the game’s party of four, the player controls one character at a time while the others are AI-controlled. The controllable character can be swapped at any time. Each one is of a different species (those being Clavat, Yuke, Selkie and Lilty) which results in them having different gimmicks, some of them being touch-screen based considering the system this was made for. What this means is that swapping between the characters is required at times, though I only did it when it was absolutely necessary. The lead Clavat character is able to deal damage a lot quicker than all the others so I was often playing as that character. The other occasionally useful character was the Selkie as they have a double jump, which makes platforming simpler.

What this resulted in was a game that was mostly light fun. I don’t think I’ll remember the particulars of it in the future, but if the game comes up in a conversation I’m certain to say something like “yeah that one was alright”. Not everything needs to be a genre-defining classic anyway.

Echoes of Time was where I had a much rougher experience. It felt like everything was dialled up to be a bigger experience. More combat! More puzzles! More platforming! Larger levels! All of them mixed together in some ways that were fun and others that were frustrating.

This game’s dungeons feel a little closer to Zelda dungeons this time. However, they don’t feature the structure of finding items in order to solve problems. What it does have is puzzles that continue across multiple rooms with particular gimmicks to them. Also a boss key has to be found too. There are much less dungeons in this game, and instead it repeats a handful of them a few times. This isn’t much of an issue as it closes off unnecessary rooms on each revisit, and does a decent job of directing a player to new stuff. I often didn’t need to consult the game’s map.

Many of these puzzles involve pushing blocks, activating switches, or carrying items around. These don’t use any character specific gimmicks as they are mostly removed from this game. The Selkie can still double jump, but everyone else is just there for fighting. This is because the game doesn’t have a set party, it has to be created. A player can make a bunch of characters of whatever in-game species they choose, and put them together for a party of four. I opted for one of each and still ended up mostly playing as the Clavat because they still did the most damage. 

The reason for this is that the singleplayer and multiplayer sections are now combined into the same thing. I could take my created character and bring them over into other people’s games. If I knew others with the game we could have taken on dungeons together. Because I didn’t know anybody else with the game (and didn’t ask) I opted to settle with AI-controlled characters.

For some reason, those AI party members that joined me on this adventure wanted to make things harder. They don’t really do much in combat, their rate of attacks seemed exceptionally slow. They had a habit of walking into hazards that would do a lot of damage to them. During many of the puzzles that involved pushing blocks onto switches, they would often move those blocks away, or push them into inconvenient places. The game has gates that require four characters to continue progress, so I had to bring them with me. It didn’t help that combat also occurred in more puzzle rooms as the game went on, and in rooms without fighting, the game would still have plenty of hazards to hurt the party.

I haven’t gotten to the strangest part of this game. While it was released on the DS like Ring of Fates, Echoes of Time also released on the Wii and it’s the version I played. It’s such a strange port, as it just puts the two screens of a DS game on the screen, you should really take a look at it. Anything that requires the touch-screen uses the Wii remote pointer controls. There’s barely any graphical differences too, outside of higher resolution and some light texture filtering. (I’ve used screenshots from the DS version in this article as I was unable to source ones for the Wii).

Because of this a lot of touch-screen gimmicks were taken out of this game. Though they do introduce scratch cards, which were tricky to do with pointer controls, as they required a little bit of precision. They were frustrating to begin with, but I stubbornly kept trying them until I actually kept winning on a lot of them. My reward for doing so was a temporary buff that would let every character double jump, but if I used it I wouldn’t have much use for my Selkie.

It is very funny for me to imagine someone receiving this version of the game removed from all context. Without the knowledge that it’s a port of a DS game would make its dual-screen interface come across as bizarre and unnecessary. The novelty of the port certainly attracted me (it was also cheaper).

As I said earlier, these are perfectly serviceable action role-playing games. I may have found some faults with Echoes of Time, but there were still portions of that game where I was having a good time. What they’ve actually ended up being for me is stops on my journey until I get to more interesting things (I hope). That said, I’ll still be playing Crystal Chronicles games for a little longer.


Getting into the Final Fantasy Tactics sub-series of games was one of the more pleasant surprises I had in the last couple of years. Initially I was a little afraid to get started with them after having tried and failed on multiple occasions to get into the original. But I pushed through and found Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions an excellent game to play (while I come across as harsh on the story in that article, I’ve come around to liking it more since). Later I reached Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which built off of the original’s mechanics in ways that helped it tell a fascinating story.

After all of that (and many other Final Fantasies in-between) I recently finished off Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (FFTA2), the last installment of this trilogy of sorts. Playing this one has cemented the idea that I should spend more time playing Tactical RPGs, as all three of these games have been a good time (though I may have to start looking to other developers as Square Enix themselves haven’t made many in the last decade).

While FFTA2 continues the vibrant look of its predecessor, I could tell very quickly that it had different priorities. Where Final Fantasy Tactics Advance tied much of its mechanics into the narrative, this game is more devoted to refining systems for a much smoother play experience. There’s less time devoted to storytelling, and what’s there is largely a redo of what the prior game was doing with much less thematic weight behind it.

In this game, Luso Clemens, a child from a world similar to our own gets transported into the fantasy world of Ivalice via an old book he found at his school’s library. The book arrives with him, and to return home he has to fill out the pages by adventuring through the world. The setup is the most like a playground these games have ever gotten, just simply do enough things until it’s time to go home. I’m over-simplifying the story a little but honestly not by much. Not many things happen and it’s disappointing. Moments which show a little personality or motivation of the main characters do take place every so often, but they turn out to be dead ends as they’re hardly ever followed up on.

However, in almost every other aspect there are a lot of improvements. There are many small updates that improve the flow of how it plays, but the biggest one was a change in how levelling up worked. Previous games would reward experience points for every action taken. For every move a small experience point number would show up above a character’s head, and if they got enough they would level up during the fight. If a character didn’t do anything then they wouldn’t get any growth. FFTA2 moves experience point gain until the end of a battle, and guarantees them for every character who takes part. Having less awareness of those numbers while fighting actually made the game feel like even less of a grind. I only needed to think about the actual fight, as it was unnecessary for me to make everyone do unusual routines in order to ensure everyone stayed the same level.

There’s also changes to how equipment is gained that encouraged me to explore the game more. All character abilities are learned from equipment (which encourages equipping many things), and most of them are gained in shops by engaging with a system called the Bazaar (which is mostly borrowed from Final Fantasy XII). Items found during, or as rewards for combat encounters can be given to the Bazaar in order to make new weapons that are then put up for sale. It meant that in order for me to build a character in a way I wanted, I had to be on the lookout for missions that would give me what I needed. It also meant that instead of fighting a bunch of random encounters in order to gain strength, I was spending more time engaging with missions with more varied gimmicks that in some cases weren’t even combat driven. That variety kept things interesting. Some of the weapons could also be gained through an auction house, which ended up being a surprisingly fun minigame to play by itself.

The presentation is nice too. Vibrant visuals at a smooth framerate pop really well. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata return from the other Ivalice games to provide some great music (even if it is mostly made up of covers of tracks from prior games).

And that last point kinda summarises what this game is. It feels somewhat like a “greatest hits” in videogame form. It’s quite fanservice-y in places, with characters showing up from other games to shout “hey look it’s me!” to the audience, and for me to go “huh cool” whenever one shows up, but not much beyond that. While it is bolstered by great combat and structure, the weak storytelling ends up with me finding the other Final Fantasy Tactics games to be more interesting. I did enjoy this game quite a lot, but I would potentially be much harsher if Square Enix had made more of these.

Screenshots sourced from Mobygames.


This game seems like an odd one. Final Fantasy XII is certainly a fan favourite, but the sequel for the Nintendo DS seems like a bit of a blindspot for many. Many fans of the original game I’ve come across online seem a little too self-serious to have interest in its portable companion. When the thing they’re proud to shout is how FF12 is a “serious fantasy game” a more cartoony looking sequel might not be of interest.

Being a different genre doesn’t help either. Nobody came to Final Fantasy XII for a real-time strategy game, so it’s not a surprise that they didn’t fancy the follow-up. It’s not a genre I’m interested in, mostly because I’m terrible at them. However, my curiosity in what a sequel to FF12 looks like pushed beyond that and I liked… parts of it.

I don’t know if this is because I often look too much into who makes a game, but I could really feel that Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings came from a different team than its predecessor. The credited director on this was Motomu Toriyama who was also responsible for Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XIII, and more recently Final Fantasy VII Remake (as one of multiple directors). Many of his games have recurring story elements.

They usually take place in a world that’s very set in its ways. Spira in Final Fantasy X is an example of this, as the people there were stuck in a routine of battling Sin with a very specific method that wouldn’t stop harm to the world, without trying any alternatives. Eventually someone comes into the world, and through forging strong relationships helps to change the state of everything. This is much like Tidus from the same game. While he wasn’t the lead director for that, it lays a framework that’s seen in his other work. To me it’s clearly demonstrated in Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy VII Remake.

The world Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings takes place in is Ivalice, an already established setting, but for this game Vaan and his friends are sent off to an isolated continent of islands in the sky. These are populated by the Aegyl, who have been summoning monsters in order to help them in battle, at the cost of anima, a resource found in the soul that helps control emotions. These monsters were summoned so that the Aegyl could defend themselves, but by doing so allowed even worse creatures to eventually take form, leading to even more self-defence summoning. This ends up in a cycle where the Aegyl drain themselves of all emotion.

What leads to this cycle breaking is the arrival of Vaan and friends. Through working together with Llyud (one of the Aegyl), they manage to defeat the godlike being who has set all of this in motion, and end the state of this society by literally destroying the sky continent. Because of this the Aegyl regain their emotions, but they’re left to find a new life somewhere else.

It’s a very hopeful ending in that they finally have their freedom, but Ivalice doesn’t have much in the way of that. The ending of Final Fantasy XII puts a big emphasis on how the systems of the world carry on even after the day is saved. The friendlier, cartoony tone of Revenant Wings doesn’t seem to sit with this well.

Even though this is a solid framework to build a story on, what lets it down is the lack of interesting characters. There’s no new memorable ones, and those returning from the original game don’t have much to add either. Ashe, Basch, and Larsa are present but have little presence, as everything they say feels a little too functional. This all made it very hard for me to connect with the game’s plot.

After all of that, I’m still interested in what happens next with the Aegyl, and I’d also like to see it handled by the same director. In Final Fantasy X-2, he proved fully capable of handling a game about what it’s like to rebuild a world once the day is saved. I’ve enjoyed enough of his works to know that there’s still potential in it.

While I did have mixed feelings on the narrative, the real-time strategy battles that make up most of the game actually ended up being fun once I got used to them. They work on two layers of rock-paper-scissors, with three types of units (melee, ranged, and flying), and four elemental affinities (fire, water, lightning, and earth). I had a good time building teams to suit each battle, and deploying them in the right formations to deal with certain enemies ended up being enjoyable. There were times where the small screen became cramped enough that it became more difficult to micromanage certain unit types, which was annoying but mostly manageable.

The more annoying parts were significant difficulty jumps as a result of the game’s levelling curve. If you stick with only the game’s main missions which progress the story, the party will always be underleveled, which at times made this one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played for this blog. To get my levels to match, it seemed like a considerable amount of grinding needed to be done. It’s that or maybe I am even worse at real-time strategy than I assumed.

This game ended up feeling like a bizarre mashup. A real-time strategy with RPG growth mechanics. A story in Ivalice with a plot that fits elsewhere. It doesn’t quite mesh together perfectly but I can’t hate the effort. They didn’t seem to make another Final Fantasy RTS after this either, but I’d like to see another attempt.

Screenshots sourced from Mobygames.


Last year I decided to commit to playing as much of Final Fantasy as I could. It’s been a very fun journey so far but I thought it would be useful to look back at Dragon Quest, a game Final Fantasy owes a lot to. Final Fantasy wouldn’t exist without this game (though Japanese RPGs might still exist since efforts like The Black Onyx, Dragon Slayer and Hydlide predate it).

I was surprised to find that the original Dragon Quest is a fairly relaxing game. That’s partly true with some of the other games in the series I have played, but those other ones also had tense moments. Fighting Psaro the Manslayer in Dragon Quest IV was not calming in any sense. If you want something to wind down with at the end of the day, the first Dragon Quest works well.

The simplicity of the game allows for that. While it is about saving the world from some evil wizard, there’s never any tension. Because it’s a turn-based RPG the pace of the game is extremely player-dictated. While there’s artifacts to be found and a princess to be saved, there’s no pressing need to do all of that immediately. Dragon Quest’s world is a place without difficulty and deadlines.

As this game was made for older hardware, there was a need to condense the experience in a way that was easy for the system to display but still understandable for a player. This is why battles play out simply with a picture of the enemy, some stats numbers on the left and a menu at the bottom. The removal of all of this context means I can’t help but not think of it as a tense battle, but instead a contest to see who can get a number down faster. A contest heavily weighted in my favour, and increasingly so as the main character’s level goes up. Losing isn’t much of a setback either. It reduces the in-game money earned to half, but that can easily be regained.

Many older RPGs are similar, Phantasy Star is one example. But Dragon Quest is a little different. It centres on one specific location: a castle. It’s where the game begins. It’s the home of the main character. It’s where you go to save the game. It’s where you go when you lose a battle. It’s where the game ends.

Having a specific home that needs to be returned to combined with the game’s simplicity makes it play like a game a child would think up. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. If anything I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. I suppose this may be one of the reasons that Dragon Quest has lasting appeal.

It’s less like a hero embarking on a dangerous adventure and more like a child going out to play. The hero can only venture out so far, but as he grows he can go a little further. If the hero gets defeated in battle, the king tells him off like a concerned parent. When it’s time to finish playing, the hero must go home.

If you do decide to give Dragon Quest a go, just know that the more easily available ports on mobile phones and the Switch look terrible. A lot of the art in the game feels very mismatched. The environments, characters, and monsters all feel like they are drawn for separate games. It’s strange for a foundational game in a series that continues to sell large numbers gets something that looks this bad.

However you go about playing it, I think it’s worth going back onto Dragon Quest especially if you’ve been playing a lot of RPGs like myself. I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to get to it myself. 

I can easily see how this works as a foundation for many games after it, but it’s also interesting in its own way. It’s a shame that a lot of discussion of this game in particular seems to stop at how “old-fashioned” it is. This game didn’t always exist as being a predecessor to something else.

You could probably finish the whole thing on a lazy afternoon anyway, so it’s worth a shot to find out what you make of it for yourself.


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The Mario & Luigi series of role-playing games are a fun, light-hearted take on role-playing games. There’s no depressed spiky-haired teens to be found here, only two Italian plumbers and a delightful supporting cast. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. is a very funny game with some great dialogue, it’s just a shame that too much of the dialogue is tutorial.

There’s a lot you have to get through to really enjoy this game, you’ll be getting tutorials very far into the game, even 15 hours into the game. They really hamper the game’s pacing in places. They’re unnecessarily wordy, and only serve to waste time. It’s not satisfying to get through the game’s platforming puzzles when the game tells you exactly what you need to do.

Speaking of pacing, it becomes a bit of a slog at times. It’s much longer than previous games in the series, but doesn’t offer enough compelling content to fit the long playtime, becoming somewhat repetitive, especially in the later areas.

5

However, as much as I do have complaints, I really enjoyed my time with Dream Team Bros., but what makes the game fun and interesting are the same things that made the previous entry, Bowser’s Inside Story, fun and interesting.

In this game, you explore two worlds, much like Bowser’s Inside Story. In this one however, you have the tropical paradise of Pi’illo Island, which offers an isometric view of the world. You also can go through Luigi’s dreams, which goes back to two-dimensional platforming. In Luigi’s dreams it give you the opportunity to do some kind of ridiculous things with Luigi. It makes the platforming a little more fun being accompanied by a huge crowd of Luigis.

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Combat in the game works just like most other role-playing games, you take turns with the enemy to hit each other. What sets it apart from others is that when you attack, you can press buttons in time with the moves to deal more damage. Also when enemies attack, you’re given the ability to counter-attack or even completely dodge them, by jumping over them or hitting them with your hammer.

As simple as the mechanics are, the developers manage to create a variety of different battles, each enemy has it’s own gimmick which you have to work around or possibly even exploit. In the outside world, battles play out with Mario and Luigi together, but in the dream world, you’re just playing as Mario, with his power “enhanced by Luigi’s support”. Dream world battles pit you against a lot more enemies than usual, it changes the flow of the battle a little, and it’s cool to see a load of Luigis follow after Mario’s attack.

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Another returning feature is the giant battles, in which now you play as a massive Luigi, and I feel it’s come off worse now. The build up towards these battles is consistently great, but the battles themselves are plagued by unresponsive touch and gyroscope controls, and in later battles enemy turns become much longer. I felt like I was losing agency in the battles by only having an occasional opportunity to attack.

While it’s not a bad game, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. has it’s issues. If you can put up with them, I’d say you can really have some fun. I just really wished it was shorter.



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