Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Stop Final Fantasy XIII, i want to get off.

August 11, 2010

Let’s cut the chase with this one, Final Fantasy XIII is not a good game, it isn’t. There are several problems keeping this from being an enjoyable experience in any way possible, let alone a decent game. Most reviews have pointed out the linear nature of the game as being the main issue, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. FFXIII carries the weight of several bad design decisions, among other things. This is not going to be pretty, but in order to understand why FFXIII is a bad game we must understand the areas in which the developers failed to achieve creating a sense of enjoyment in the player. Sometimes playing a bad game teaches you important things about why some games are fun, and why others are just, well, everything but fun.

For starters, let’s dispatch the “linear” debate as quickly as possible. Yes, the game is linear as hell, is probably the most linear rpg i ever played in my life. Is a straight line the entire time, with some small detours here and there to grab the ocassional treasure chest with some item in it. Now, this is not a bad thing per se, is just the way the game is presenting itself. Being linear is not a bad thing, the problem is not that you are always following a straight line, the problem is that it’s a boring straight line. There’s nothing interesting to see, to interact with aside from switches to open doors, or activate plataforms. The background design lacks any posible sign of imagination, you will be seeing similar metallic structures and shiny floors for a long time. Long empty hallways full of nothing, and maybe one or two enemies waiting for you, what kind of civilization builds structures so big just to fill them with nothing? When the game switches to outdoor locations things hardly improve, some gray and brown rocks, some grass and big faceless mountains covering the horizon. You will feel like a test rat inside long tubes, and i have seen hamster cages that look way more fun to explore.
Are there any towns you can visit? There are a couple, but the visits will be fast, and the towns hardly worth remembering. Just as anything else you will see in this game, they feel like bits and pieces of other rpg towns you visited in the past, poorly stiched together. Having no stores or inns to visit is then hardly a problem when everything in the exterior already looks quite empty and flat.

The rest of the presentation of the game exhibits similar problems. Repetition will be present not only in the backgrounds, but on the enemies you face. While not on the same levels of repetition as FFX, where you always fought the same miserable dog, flan and wasp in every damn part of the world, FFXIII still manages to bore you to tears presenting a pathetic selection of poorly designed enemies. You will keep seeing the same dogs, flans, leeches and enemy soldiers in several locations, with some different enemies thrown in just to spice up things a bit. Was there some kind of rush in the enemy design area? Maybe a lack of ideas? Whatever it was it’s a testament of how having millions to spend on a game won’t necessarily give you a better project. Sure, it will give you big bright and shinny graphics, but it will be an empty shell with nothing much going on, which is the case of this game.
What about the music? Let’s sum up this one quick, because there’s really not much to say about this area. Uninspired, dull and nearly invisble are the only words to describe the music of the game. Some vague guitar riffs here and there, a poor violin screaming in pain can be heard in the background of some fights. It’s the proper soundtrack for a department store or a super market.

Then we have a problem with how the game constantly assaults you with cutscene after cutscene, you walk a couple of steps, fight a battle or two and then it’s time for a cutscene. Walk some more and 5 minutes later there’s another cutscene, and again and again and again. It makes Metal Gear Solid 4 look shy in terms of abusing this feature, and just like Kojima’s love letter to non-playable non-games, Final Fantasy XIII is desperate to shove down your retinas it’s terrible excuse for a story. Which will be our next stop in this journey of video game emptiness.

The narrative is, to put it simple, schizophrenic and erratic. The story is delivered in the most obtuse and convulted way possible, throwing narrative devices at the viewer like if they were pancakes. The story begins in the “middle” of events already taking form, in a very flat attempt from the writers to, i guess, hook you up from the beginning. The game doesn’t know how to present the story properly, or the characters for that matter, it confuses form with content. Right around the two hour mark one of the characters is yelling that they have to save the the world of “Cocoon”, a world you barely have seen, barely know anything about at that point and a world you really couldn’t care less about. The game seems to assume that you already know what’s going on, or that you got interested in the story right from the first minute. It assumes that you read all the “data logs” that “explain” character backgrounds, and even motivations. Assumes that you find the characters interesting, the game assumes way too many things. The fact that the franchise is high enough in popularity to sell millions of copies on the first couple of days of it’s release seems to be the fuel for Square-Enix’s deluded ego. The fuel for them to think they can throw a barely written story and think we are all going to “fall in love” with one dimensional representations of how human beings look, talk and behave. Not so fast amigos.

You see, i’m not throwing the word schizophrenic for nothing, the writting suffers big time by this particular notion it has about “developing” characters. For SE writters, a fully developed character is somebody who jumps from one emotion to another like a mentally unstable bi-polar-pill-addict who hasn’t take his/her medication yet. Characters are lamenting their situation one moment, then cheering others in the next scene, with no real sense of transition between any of these situations and emotions. It happens to every single one of them, in one moment you have Lightning complaining about having to take care of Hope’s whinny ass, and some battles later she is hugging him, promising to protect him forever and ever. Hope spends easily the first ten hours of the game complaining about everything, then after a brief talk with some characters he’s cool as ice and more than willing to go in a quest with a bunch of strangers he just met. The game keeps doing this for a while, there are no middle points with the characters, they are either super happy or super sad, depressed or motivated. Every moment of “tension” plays like a bad melodramatic high school play written by people who just read fan-fics on the internet.

In other words, square thinks good storytelling and character drama looks something like this:

Trying to find anything worth mention about the cast is just futile. Lightning is a bad attempt at pulling a female Clint Eastwood/Toshiro Mifune, she’s “super cold” and serious, but the reasoning behind her coldness is silly at best. Especially the story behind her changing her name to lightning. Snow is just the average rpg good guy with not much going on for him. Vanille is the touch of spunk/kawaii-ness that SE thinks every Final Fantasy game needs these days. Hope is a worthless empty shell of melo-cliches, a strong candidate for dumbest character i have seen in ages. Fang is just there, Sahz is the closest thing to a character that was not written on a napkin. He’s not another mindless teen, he is the mature guy of the team, he has a kid. He is the only one saying things that make a bit of sense. As for the antagonists, they are barely there, and have nothing worthwile to do or say for the most part.
Trying to sum the story and characters it all boils down to one thing: there’s no one and nothing to give a damn here. Coocon and Pulse`s relation as another Metropolis-esque world, where the nice and healthy live in one place, and the “ugly” ones below the first group, feels weak and as the social commentary it tries to be is just vague to say the least. The gods/machines/whatever they are controlling Coocon are another “been there, seen that” scenario of many role playing games from Japan, just not done as well as in other games, or in any way that could engage the viewer. By the time the game throws you a detailed explanation of what is going on, around the 20 hour mark, the incompetence of the storytelling will hit you hard and fast. Yes, there is a segment where a character has to explain the heroes, and the viewer, what the hell is going on. He’s a bad guy, and like any other bad guy he takes the time to explain all this before doing one of those rpg staple nonesensical transformations into his strongest “form” and fight you to the death. Engaging is the word that is missing in this game, and by the 26th hour of playing this thing i got tired of trying to look for it. Yeah, i haven’t finished the game, and no, “waiting” for a game to “get good” after dozens of hours is not a good sign at all. It shows how developers got things very very wrong, and we are just starting with this one.

Now, the story sucks, the characters are easy to forget, surely the gameplay is where the strong point of the game resides right? A game is not a game without gameplay. Well, things get trickier here. RPG nerd time: the battle system is a combination of elements from three specific games that come to my mind: Grandia, Shadow Hearts Covenant and Persona. Enemies appear in real time, but once you touch them a battle field appears where you will do battle, just like Grandia. Also, just like that game, timing when and from which angle you approach the enemies is vital to get the first turn and strike them to stagger. Just like Shadow Hearts you can knock down enemies in order to produce more damage to them, the game calls this mode “stagger” and never hesitates to remind you on several ocasions, tutorials that is, that this is the way you want to hurt your enemies.
Battles will consist of a party leader, the only character the player will be able to control, while the others act based on orders given by the player, just like Persona. Well, sort of orders, more of that just ahead. Now, all those games mentioned did all these things very well. FFXIII learned the principle, but not the way to implement all this in a satisfactory way.
The first issue comes with the early strike system, the game lets this work whenever it feels like doing it. Sometimes you will approach an enemy from the back, just to see that you didn’t get the first strike in the battle. The enemies have a field of visibility, but this is no Metal Gear Solid, and the range of their vision is never clear, not even in the small map in the screen. You will have to keep guessing just how much they can see, and in the case of some enemies, trying to guess from which angle they see will be a quest of it’s own. Unlike Grandia there is no penalty for being ambushed by the enemy, they never get the chance to strike you first, so this entire mechanic becomes pointless pretty quickly.

But “dude, striking them first lets you stagger them faster!”. Here we truly encounter the biggest mistake the game makes, the numero uno of all: every single battle boils down to the same thing. The only way to really damage many of the enemies in the game is to stagger them, and to stagger them you have to keep hitting them again, and again, and again, and again. There you go, that’s the entire strategy. FFXIII is the most ellaborated game of paper-rock-scissors you could ever play. That sounds like many other rpgs right? Well, this one simplifies thing as much as possible. For starters the are no mp bars, no need to cure allies after battles, actions now cost technical points, sections of a time bar. The game offers you the paradigm system, a sort of gambit/job system only simplified to it’s most essential bare-bones principles. You can change the role of the characters in the middle of the battle, and make them either do nothing but heal, provoke enemies to defend the party, put some stats on the enemies or just attack straightfoward.
Now, all this sounds great on paper, changing roles in a split second, not having to cure everyone after a battle, or reviving the fallen. Fast and to the point, the thing is, on practice is a very different reality. Because the game is designed to defeat every enemy in the same way, by knocking them down after dozens of blows, the paradigm changing becomes a tedious and highly repetitive affair. All this helped by an absurd and incoherent difficulty level, where enemies will atack fast and hard draining great portions of your life bar, so you better change into the defensive paradigm quickly to heal the wounded, but if you stay that way too long you won’t be able to stagger them. At the end you will be looking at the lifebars more than looking at the actual battle that is taking place. Change paradigm from offensive to defensive and viceversa, press x to attack or heal, repeat till boredom. Is a senseless button smasher, plain and simple.

Then there will be times when the game is just being, well, stupid. Changing paradigms in battle is suppose to be a smooth procedure, but the game stumbles like a drunk guy in a room full of cans. Sometimes changing a paradigm will trigger a brief animation where every single character in the party strikes a small pose, just in case the big sign in the middle of the screen alerting you of the paradigm change was not enough for you to know which command you just input. This becomes a problem when the enemies are still attacking you while the party is too busy looking glammorous and full of sparkles. It’s truly a testament of how busy the game is looking at itself, admiring the spectacle of bright and shinny graphics, and just “forgeting” for a second that you are suppose to be playing this thing, not just watching it.

Shops are now accesable via save points, but they are all worthless, with maybe the item store being the only exception. As for weapons and gear, the game is generous enough to provide plenty of those, located in treasure chests around the world. You can only gain gil by selling the junk the game throws at you. Improving your gear and weapons now consists of an upgrading system, also accesible on the save points. You can disarm weapons and accesories, and use the components to improve the qualities of other weapons and armour. This is another idea that sounds good on paper, but peforms poorly thanks to the random process in which you improve items. Raw material dropped by enemies or chests is the prime stuff to do all these improvements, with the weapon or piece of gear in question displaying how much “exp” it needs to go up in level. Every piece of material gives the item a certain number of exp points, but some pieces give bonus points. The more bonus points you get in the upgrading, the faster it gets to level up the item. Sadly the game never tells you which pieces give bonus points, so it becomes a game of guessing which part will give you the bonus reward, so the 9000 points of exp needed to upgrade something can be reached faster. Like the battle system, this is another tedious exercise that will make you skip the damng thing several times out of the sheer boredom of having to go into that damn upgrading screen again.

Not many options are left on the side-quest department. A weak attempt at imitating marks from FFXII stand as the only offer in terms of recreation from the main quest. These marks boil down to a sign in the middle of a field telling you to go and kill some monster. Then a red point in your map appears showing the location of the monster to be kill. That’s it! No trying to figure out on your own where to catch the beast, the thing is already waiting for you with a big red glow. Go for it! Video gaming of the current generation in it’s purest form indeed.

There’s really not much to add, i might be making this sound like a lot worst from what it is. This is not the “worst game ever made” or any other kind of hyperbole like that, it is a highly mediocre one, and it makes no apologies about being such a bland product. I have finished games that i truly disliked with raw visceral intensity, but FFXIII is not the case, the more i advanced the more it kept feeling like a lazy uninspired project covered in layers of sprinkles and glitter trying to disguise itself as something else. Video games are not about watching endless cutscene after cutscene, neither should they be about smashing buttons like a trained monkey. Supporting a game like this one will be telling Square that it’s ok for them to toy with consumers as they please, that it’s ok to give more preference to how the game looks and not how it plays. That this brand of super generic role playing games filled with fashion models from a bizarro fashion parade on steroids, made to appeal easy-to-impress teenagers, is the way to go. As i kept playing i couldn’t help but think all the good games i was not playing, all the good times i could be having with games that deserve far more attention from the one they get, games that never in their wildest dreams will be able to sell millions of copies on a week based on “brand” appeal. Final Fantasy XIII is a good lesson in bad video games, but is a lesson that should be taken only every once in a while. It’s not the kind of thing you want to make an habit.

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The beat em up chronicles.

April 26, 2010

Arcades in the early 90s, ah yes, the world was full of possibilites. For a kid with enough quarters in his pocket it mean a good afternoon of videogame recreation. There was plenty to choose from in those days, but there was this genre, this type of games, that pretty much anyone could get into it: beat em ups. Just put a coin in the machine, grab the character you like the most and go out and punch and kick people. No rocket science involved here, no ellaborated combos (not in the early ones at least) or anything too complicated, just go a beat up everything you see. It was a simple yet fun concept that was milked for all it was worth, and after the mid 90s it pretty much vanished from the arcades, never to be seen again.

Sure, you could say the genre morphed into the modern hack n slash/action games of today: God of War, Devil May Cry, Dynasty Warriors, among others. But this traditional template of beat em ups was, for the most part, completely abandoned save for some exceptions here and there. The genre is considered “obsolete” by many, and while it’s true that a lot of the early games haven’t aged well at all there are plenty of titles who have resisted the test of time, games that are still a lot of fun to play and deserve plenty of praise for doing great things in the genre.

So, this is the first in a series of articles where i’ll talk about this genre that has given me so much fun, and sometimes rage moments. A genre i grew up with, a genre that deserves more that just some vague nostalgic-based articles. Damas y caballeros, this is the beat em up chronicles, let’s get starting:

Kung Fu Master (1984)

Starting as chronologically correct as possible, Kung Fu Master is considered by many to this day as the very first beat em up ever made, or at least the first game that set the bases for what would become the shape and form of the genre. Created by none other than Irem, Kung Fu master got a bunch of ports, but i will be talking mostly about the arcade and nes versions.

The gameplay is as basic as it gets, you have a punch, a kick. You can jump and attack at the same time, you can attack while crouching, and you jump by pressing up. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less. The story is the template of almost every beat em up that would come in the next 10 years: kidnapped girlfriend, beat the crap out of a lot of people to rescue her, the end.

Taking a huge influence from Bruce Lee’s game of death you ascend floors on a tower, defeating a different boss at the end of each level. The enemy selection goes from kung fu goons that will simply run towards you, knife-throwing enemies, dwarfs, little dragons and snakes. Once you defeat the final boss of the game, Mr X, the game starts again, this time a bit more challenging, but basically remaining more or less the same in terms of enemy patterns. After that is just finishing the game over and over, trying to improve your score, doing it faster, maybe with just punches, then with only kicks, and so on.
As for the presentation, Kung Fu Master on the arcade looks as good as it gets for it’s time, nothing fancy in terms of visuals, the gameplay while remaininc quite accesible to this date feels a bit too clunky. The nes version looks and plays very well, and i would even say that it plays a bit less stiff than the arcade counter part, of course, this might be just me talking about out of fuzzy nostalgic memories. I grew up with the nes version after all, and played that one till the cartridge almost melted, so take it as a grain of salt.

Kung Fu’s sucess will create a wave of games in a similar style, slowly improving the gameplay mechanics. The genre will still not form it’s identity completely until a couple of years later. Kung Fu itself would get some spin-offs in the future, but more of that in future entries.

An adventure is not always a great adventure.

March 29, 2010

For the two of you that read this blog, and myself included, it’s safe to say that we are not kids anymore. We have long pass those times of carefree days, we are older, and certainly not as excited about the world we live in as we might have been when we were younger. We are more aware of the uglyness of the world we live in, not to mention the one that habits in a lot of people in that very same world.

Japanese rpgs, as well as many books and movies, have a fixation with stories about kids, not even 15 year olds, but even younger than that. Kids going out to the world and explore it, getting into quests that will change the fate of their world, and all that jazz. It makes sense that these stories will appeal to anyone around that age group, but what happens when we get older? When we are certainly more aware that going out in a “big adventure” wouldn’t be a walk in the park, not to mention that is just not easy to sympathize with a lead character that is still facing puberty, and can’t think of anything else beyond “GEE IM GONNA BECOME A GREAT EXPLORER/PIRATE/ADVENTURER!”.

I can see why japanese rpgs love to tell this kind of stories, and have been using them as their template for such a long time, who wouldn’t like to be on a long adventure, exploring exotic locations, meeting colorful characters? I can also see the emphasis in using young characters in these kind of stories, but again, it’s no the what but the why that makes the difference. You may have the locations, the adventures and what not, but if you’re not making any of this interesting at all, what’s the point? Where’s the excitement in the adventure?

The first Grandia is a game that follows the “kid on a big adventure” template step by step, we have our lead character, a young kid called Justin that wants to be an adventurer just like his dad. His mind is on one track the entire time “i’m having an adventure and that’s all that matters” and hardly changes at all during the course of the game. Going along for the ride is Sue, a little girl who was written in full “kid with an attitude” mode. She’s energetic and always with a sharp comment towards anything, and she fancies herself as some sort of beauty. There are other characters coming along the ride, but these two are the main focus of the game. The story revolves around another ancient forgotten civilization, an empire/army trying to exploit the resources/tools of said civilization, and a magical stone that Justin has which belonged to his father. The stone has something to do with this ancient people and thus the reason he begins his journey.

All that sounds fairly average stuff, and the game just plays it all by the numbers. There’s a race of humanoid/animal people that are “in contact with earth”, there’s a good looking-with-honor villain, a girl adventurer/love interest for Justin and other stuff you come to expect if you had played enough rpgs in your life. Not a problem with this, but once you have seen the same thing so many times it’s hard to get excited, or that interested, in another story of more of the same, just with a different moustache. Justin is as one dimensional as it gets, he talks about nothing else besides “the adventure”. Talking about the adventure, considering that he has never gone outside his hometown and faced real danger the story is never interested in showing Justing struggling in any possible way with his quest. He does everything not like the amateur explorer he is, but like a seasoned one that never gets anything wrong. There’s no struggling involved, no learning curve for him. All that could had added a bit of texture to the story, it doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking story, but some actual sense of danger could actually make things more engaging. The rest of the cast is no more different, and overall there’s no real strong character anywhere to be found. Maybe Justin’s mom, but she gets very little to do or say.

The gameplay is certainly the real meat of this game, thanks to it’s dynamic pacing the battles deman plenty of attention from the player. It’s a rough sketch of what would become the more polished combat system of Grandia 2, but it has aged quite well neverless. Both your characters and the enemies share the same bar of actions, once it gets to a certain spot is the turn of either your party of the enemy. Deciding which course of action to take is vital, because everyone is moving on the battlefield, and trying to attack an enemy way too far from you can be a fatal decision. You have either two type of meele attacks to choose from, critical, or combo, apply the right one at the right moment and you can cancel the action of your enemy. Each character also have their own special attacks, as well as magic attacks. If there is anything that is a bit dated is the inventory, each character can carry an specific number of items, anything else needs to get stashed in a box that you can access near save spots, just like the old Resident Evil games.

If there is something that the game is doing as good as the battle system is the presentation, the towns are very detailed, and the dungeons well designed. There’s not much to do in terms of side-quests, or any particular secrets to discover within the towns, that said, the NPC’s have some humours talk to offer, and give the towns plenty of life. The overall flow of the game is just the right one, neither too fast or too slow. The soundtrack is ok without being particulary memorable, a bit generic at times, but nothing that could bother you, unless you’re really very picky with the music.

All this in consideration, Grandia is not a bad adventure, but it just feels like a rather “tame” adventure, a “been there, done that” type of game. I don’t mind a more of the same if it’s actually well done, and really trying to have an identity of it’s own. We are talking here about a 13 year old game, but there were other rpgs already out at the time with far more ambitious stories. It is safe to say that, thankfully, japanese rpgs have progressed more from what many give them credit for. With the Shin Megami Tensei series raising the bar for both writting and gameplay the genre, the genre is far from staying in a swamp of conformism. As for what it is, Grandia stands as game of it’s time, both for it’s good and bad reasons. If you can get hooked with the combat then you will be fine with this, but it’s not a must have, and if you are curious about trying this franchise, just go straight for the second game.