Trying to understand how games work

Tag Archives: Akitoshi Kawazu

The Wii is mostly remembered as the home of Wii Sports and other such Nintendo projects, but in the late-00s it also served as a home to other sorts of games. Ones that were smaller scale developments that wouldn’t seem out of place on a then recent high-definition console, but were too big to throw on digital storefronts like Xbox Live Arcade or Wiiware. The Wii was huge back in the day, and many developers also wanted to capitalise on that success.

The thing is, many of those games didn’t really manage well with that. The sales charts for the Wii were overwhelmed by Nintendo’s own output. I can remember the time when Mario Kart Wii, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl sat comfortably around the top of the bestelling lists for a long time, but very few non-Nintendo games came up to reach them. There were some great games that only sold enough to be considered “cult classics”.

But as you can see from the title, this article is about Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, a game that was neither a massive success nor a cult classic. (Leave a comment if you scrolled up to look at the title again, I know I would). The Wii does feel like the right place for this game though. It has a higher production value than the other Crystal Chronicles games, but nowhere near the level of Final Fantasy XIII, another game Square Enix released around the same time in 2009 for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

If anything Crystal Bearers makes me think a lot of the games Square Enix put out on the Playstation 2. The Wii almost felt like a “Playstation 2-2” at times, likely because of its position as the last standard-definition system. It allowed developers to put out games that looked like it came from a console before it (though admittedly a fair amount of those were actually ports of PS2 and Gamecube games). 

But the aspect that made me recall those sorts of games was the cutscene direction. They use dynamic camera movements that brought to my mind Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy XII. Though it felt like something was missing that made the cutscenes in those other games exciting, as they would often use sharp angles and fast camera movements to punctuate particular moments. Crystal Bearers mostly does it to add extra flair to scenes that would be much less interesting otherwise. 

The game does have an interesting premise, where the main character has special powers, but lives in a society where many are scared of people like that. Sadly that’s only something that’s offhandedly mentioned in cutscenes, as very little is done to follow through on that. The hero will often get to use his powers everywhere with no consequence. It’s at its worst during a prison break sequence where most of the guards make no effort to do anything except run around the place.

I also found the acting to be terrible. It felt as though I could hear lines simply being read off of a page.

The visuals in this game are neat, with an earthy, summery colour palette. While prior Crystal Chronicles games built off of the super-deformed mediaeval-fantasy style of Final Fantasy IX, this one goes for an aesthetic with more realistically proportioned characters. It’s not a complete abandonment of the previous games’ visual style, as it does feel like it’s building off of some of the creatively designed characters found they had. This game also takes place in a world where technology has developed to have trains, guns and cameras.

Rather than just make a role-playing game, they opted to make this one an “action-adventure “ game. The approach they’ve taken feels more like an RPG with most of its systems removed and a heavier focus on bespoke minigames. As it’s a Wii game, all of those revolve around awkward motion controls. 

There’s combat too, which involves using slightly less awkward motion controls in order to pick up and throw enemies at each other, which gets repetitive very quickly. It only happens in specific areas and rewards the player with a health upgrade for winning. But that reward only comes the first time an encounter is won, and those encounters repeat often. RPGs often use repeating combat in order to encourage gaining more resources, so to just see encounters show up offering no reward baffled me. I guess there’s materials to be found that can be made into equipment, but they didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference in my abilities so I didn’t spend much time on that.

Another odd thing about Crystal Bearers is that the world feels small. There was a portion of the game where I didn’t know where I needed to go, as the map wasn’t much help. As a result I walked across most of the game’s explorable areas in about half an hour. This wouldn’t be much of an issue in most games, as there’s usually techniques they use to imply that the world is bigger. Maybe there’s a world map where everything is proportioned differently. There could be a transitional screen or animation that could imply some amount of extra travel between two areas. Crystal Bearers uses no such tricks. All places are connected like a continuous space. It may have been a technical challenge to do this, but the end result meant that not much was left to the imagination, especially because of the more realistic aesthetic. Other games with characters and locations that are even smaller feel bigger than this because of their creative use of resources. I just see someone simply walking from one side of the world to the other in a short time.

It also doesn’t help that the game’s camera is a bit fussy and a little too close to the playable character for my liking. That helped contribute to the feeling that this game just has a lack of space to be in. You could argue that it’s one of the few aspects of the game that actually tries to work with the game’s premise. This is a world where the main character is looked down on by many others who live in it and a cramped camera sells the feeling of being unwelcome. But those thematic concerns were just overshadowed by the small mechanical frustrations. It didn’t help that my mind associated it with many other Wii games that had poor camera systems. All other games consoles at the time were already using two analogue sticks, so the Wii remote and Nunchuk only having a single analogue stick resulted in some unusual control schemes.

When people talk about nostalgia for games released in the past, it’s often to do with telling the audience about the rose-tinted glasses they’re wearing while examining something. Playing this game did evoke a sense of nostalgia for me, but not for the game itself, more so for the platform it’s on. It’s certainly gotten me to consider playing some actually decent Wii games.

It’s also been fun to write about a game built for a system that I had much more firsthand experience with. I’ve really enjoyed playing most of what I’ve covered going through Final Fantasy, but especially with the older games, examining them feels archaeological. I’m only somewhat joking but many of these games I wasn’t around for. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers also came out at a time when I started paying more attention to what was going on in videogames. It was that year that I began reading, watching, and listening to more media about games. I had also started this blog at a time when the Wii still had games coming out for it.

Soon I’ll be covering games that I actually played when they were new! I’m looking forward to seeing what that’s like.

The world of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles begins in a bad state. Everywhere is covered in a poisonous miasma, leaving adventurers joining caravans to journey in search of “myrrh”. This substance helps to fuel crystals which keep a safe atmosphere around villages. 

Eventually after a few years, a hero hears a few odd rumours that could lead them towards ridding the world of the miasma. This hero tried to get others to join them, but ended up going it alone. They had heard tales of four-person parties who spent the entire journey together (though they required special equipment). The only company this hero had was a moogle who would frequently complain about how tired they were.

Things seemed bleak for the world as only one person was there to save it. There were people the hero would come across in their journey who would only stay for small conversations. They never joined the hero on their trips to dungeons. The hero would make memories, but they were often never shared.

This is a roundabout way of me saying that the online multiplayer for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition is dead. I tried multiple times to look for games but I had no luck. It doesn’t help that Square Enix made the baffling decision for progression to be tied solely to the host player, leaving no incentive for anyone to join in.

It left me a bit disappointed, as this game feels purpose built for cooperative play. It’s a stripped-down Diablo-style console role-playing game that’s very simple to understand. Simplicity is perfect for co-operative games, it was the appeal of most of the Lego games made in the last 17 years. It made it so much easier to convince people to join in.

So many aspects of the game made me feel like I was missing out on something by playing alone. Health is displayed as a small collection of hearts, so it’s easier to parse for multiple players. The camera is far back enough to leave room for everyone to run around. Spells can be held onto to allow time for other players to combine theirs with it. Too much was purpose built to remind me that I should have been playing this with other people. 

The story even puts an emphasis on communities and groups. As you traverse the map you can run into other caravans, which almost always include multiple people in them. Anyone alone is either lost or in/causing trouble.

There are parts of this game which could annoy a group. For one it’s still a role-playing game built around character growth, which wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it used a more traditional method. At the end of a dungeon characters are rewarded a choice of individually named artefacts, which can raise stats by somewhere between 1-5 points. However, artefacts you’ve already collected can often show up, and you can only keep one of each, leading to situations where I finished a dungeon with no stat upgrades. It’s annoying enough alone so I can’t imagine it going down well in a group.

I don’t only have bad things to say about the game. The combat has a good rhythm to it, especially during bosses. I was always kept on the move, avoiding attacks and finding the good windows for hitting back or healing myself. Most of the time I didn’t feel like I was getting hit by cheap shots.

I also love how cosy the soundtrack by Kumi Tanioka feels, which the game’s colour choices reinforce too. The character designs by Toshiyuki Itahana continue the same aesthetics of the great work he did for Final Fantasy IX. The same people seem to come back for later games in this sub-series, so I am looking forward to future sights and sounds I will come across in the rest of the Crystal Chronicles.

While I was left with mixed feelings on this game in particular, that has not eliminated my curiosity for what comes next. I just hope they’re games that play better alone.

And what happened to that hero? They had almost eliminated the source of the miasma, but gave up just before doing so. They didn’t fancy the grind required to finish the job. Guess they weren’t much of a hero.

While the situations in them don’t fully map to the real world, there’s an implicit understanding that there is a shared logic between videogames, especially within the same genre. A constant staple of the console roleplaying game is how characters become stronger. When the player visits a previously unexplored corner of the world map or dungeon, they encounter monsters more powerful than before. In most circumstances, the more powerful the monster, the more experience points offered for defeating it, which allows the playable characters to get stronger faster.

This is mostly done away with in Saga Frontier. There’s a different sort of logic to the encounters, where this time the enemy’s strength is determined by how many battles have been fought. That gives a bit more weight to getting into fights, because it gives the impression that there’s such a thing as too much fighting.

However, it’s still important to get into battle as it’s still the main way of getting characters stronger. There’s no experience points to be rewarded. Certain statistics are upgraded based on the action that’s chosen in battle. Pick physical attacks and strength goes up. Choose to defend and health points go up. Decide on a spell and magic-related stats go up. Crucially they don’t even have to be used in battle, if the battle is won before a character gets to use their ability, they still get the reward. It’s not the experience that strengthened them, it’s simply the idea of taking part. The only thing gained from an action being used is new abilities.

It’s one of the many things that makes Saga Frontier feel unusual. That it’s using a kind of interface I’m familiar with, but the results aren’t quite the same. I would argue that everything in this game ends up giving it a rather dreamlike quality. The intense pre-rendered visual style, terse NPC dialogue, and seemingly random assortment of monsters make everything seem surreal.

But dreams are collections of thoughts and feelings, while sometimes being a seemingly random collage of events, can also be interpreted as a narrative. That’s what I found from the seven scenarios in this game. Each lasts about the length of a night’s sleep.

One scenario that has stuck with me is Red’s, which follows the rules of a Japanese superhero show. The henchmen always have to be defeated before the boss. Sometimes enemies can put themselves in a special arena to make themselves more powerful (usually a way of justifying a recurring set in shows to have less locations to film). The most important part is that Red can’t be seen by others to transform into a masked hero. It would be simple to think that you have to put Red in a party alone in order to use it, but enemies in this scenario seem to cast a “blind” status effect fairly frequently. If the rest of the party is blinded, the game smartly determines that Red should be able to transform, as no one can see him.

I should also mention that the character progression mentioned only works for one of the four types of party members: the humans. Monsters can become other monsters to get stronger, Mystics will take on the essence of defeated foes, and the stats of Robots depend entirely on the equipment. It’s possible to go on entire runs and only encounter one or two party member types. Saga Frontier is full of ideas and places you might not even take a look at.

There are a lot of moments where the game cuts things short. A sudden game over from falling off a ship. A quick defeat from being caught while sneaking. A wrap up that’s all too fast, or even a sudden ending in the middle of a boss fight. These moments make everything feel abrupt. It’s like suddenly waking up.

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