Now Playing May 2020

Beaten

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – Read post here.

Dragon Quest XI – Read post here.

Final Fantasy 1 – Read post here.

Super Mario Odyssey – Read post here.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Read post here.

Ongoing

Tales of Vesperia – I am back on the seesaw of the Tales of series. This one is finding new ways for me to love and hate it. The characteristic effort has been put into the characters, and with better effect than in Tales of the Abyss. I actually like playing the game with this group. The plot, so far, is shockingly low key. I am more than ten hours in, but it still feels like I am stuck in that early game quest that opens up the world for the real main quest. It is too late in the game to be doing that kind of thing. Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve played one of these things, but the battles are not really working for me. This game seems inordinately hard. Too often it separates the protagonist from the rest of the party and forces him to fight a group of enemies. I still have not figured out how to string attacks together; every sequence of attacks leaves me wide open for counterattacks. Maybe this will all make sense eventually, but right now it makes the game a bit of slog. If that evened out, I think I would be really loving this game.

SteamWorld Quest – I have loved the previous SteamWorld games; I love rpgs. SteamWorld Quest should be right up my alley. But it uses a card based system, which made me pause for a long while before trying it out. I have not played a game that uses cards in its battle system that would not have been improved without that system. Nothing in the first third or so of SteamWorld has changed my mind. I like the setting and the characters; it is just generally a fun world to be in for a few hours. But the battles are, at best, tolerable. Since you only choose 8 cards worth of attacks for each character, you are either limited on reliability or variety. You can use a lot of the same few cards, so you know what you’ll get, or spread out so you can do a lot of things. That is not a bad way to set up trade-offs. But any battle where having a certain element basically means you either have to know what is coming, or be willing to get into an unwinnable battle before starting over. Because once that battle starts, your card choices are locked in. It is a frustrating fly in the ointment of an otherwise excellent game.

Final Fantasy VII – Inspired by playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, I played through the Midgar section of the original Final Fantasy VII. Well, the PS4 release of the PC port of the original FFVII. In large part, Remake is shockingly faithful to the original. Pretty much every moment present in the original game’s Midgar segment is also present in the Remake. As a statement of purpose for a game, Midgar is pretty much unparalleled. It is so unlike everything else in the series that came before it, and unlike the rest of the game that follows it. It is such a powerful and interesting setting; the game spends enough time there to explore it, while also priming the player to see the world outside the dystopia of Midgar.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy II – I’ve never made much progress in this game, but I am forcing myself to give it a real go as I replay every* Final Fantasy game. This is honestly the make or break point for a Final Fantasy replay project. I don’t really like this game, so if I can get through it, I can get through any of them.

Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghosts of the Dusk – I picked this up for the 3DS for a few dollars recently. I’ve been interested in this series since I read about the not especially well received DS game a while ago. I’ve heard better things about this one.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – This came out a week later than I thought it did, so I did not get a chance to play it in May. But I’ve got it lined up for early June.

Dragon Quest XI

I played most of Dragon Quest XI between Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake. I did put it down near the end of the second act to play FFVIIR before coming back to finish off the main game and the deceptively important “post-game.” Playing it between the two most recent mainline Final Fantasy games colored how I think of the game. The usual comparison of the two series with Final Fantasy being the experimental one and Dragon Quest being the stodgy one is not really accurate, but that does feel accurate when comparing Dragon Quest XI with its contemporaries.

Despite its reputation, the only area where Dragon Quest does not innovate is the battle system. Those classic battles have been pretty much the same since the first or second game of the series. The Dragon Quest series has long been very experimental when it comes to narrative structure. From Dragon Quest IV’s series of chapters centered around different small casts that eventually come together into one big party to Dragon Quest V’s following the life of the protagonist from childhood through fatherhood. Dragon Quest XI does some interesting things with its narrative structure. For the first thirty or forty hours, it plays out pretty much like a classic jrpg. You start with a hero and a quest and gradually build up a party of supporters. Each new area has new troubles, and a growing threat is hiding just out of sight. The shocking twist at the midway point is not especially shocking, many games have done similar things. Final Fantasy VI comes to mind. The second act feels a little truncated, it is a getting the band back together tour of the world that has surprisingly little new to see. It culminates in the defeat of the villain but notably leaves a lot of unanswered questions. That leaves things for the post-game third act, which feels oddly essential for something coming after the credits roll.

Dragon Quest XI’s story structure is more interesting than good, I think. It seems to be an effort to disguise how surprisingly small the world for this eighty hour adventure actually is. It is effective, because the game seems massive. It also helps that it rests on an incredibly good core game. It looks excellent, plays well and features a delightful cast. I didn’t mind exploring the world three times because I liked exploring this world.

Despite its HD graphics and interesting narrative experiments, Dragon Quest XI still feels like something of a throwback. That is largely because full-blooded, turn-based, classic jrpgs almost do not exist on modern consoles. Most have gone with some kind of action rpg, like most Final Fantasy games. Others package things with another sort of gimmick, like a focus on crafting or being a graphical 16-bit throwback. I guess Persona 5 would count, but even that game is entirely bereft of exploration. Dragon Quest XI stands alone. For all intents and purposes, Dragon Quest XI is the same game as Dragon Quest IV or V from the early 1990s. There are some different character building systems, but nothing that would have been too far beyond what those games offered.

I really enjoyed Final Fantasy XV. As strange and as broken as it was in places, I can honestly say I have never played a game quite like it. And I loved Final Fantasy VII Remake; it took a game from my youth and both radically reimagined and perfectly translated it to modern sensibilities. Both games were new and interesting in their own ways. That said, I loved playing Dragon Quest XI as a kind of antidote to those games. I grew up playing turn based jrpgs, games from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, as well as plenty of others. The last time I remember getting just a straight up jrpg like this is honestly Dragon Quest 8 fifteen years ago. I am sure there are games that fit the mold in between, but that is the last one to really leave an impression on me. This is an amazing game.

As is usual with Dragon Quest games, the overarching plot is nothing special. Some evil is active in the world, and the protagonist is the chosen one who can defeat that evil. There is nothing to it that anyone who has played more than a half dozen games hasn’t seen before. The strength of the game is in the scenarios that arise in each town along the journey. Every town has a problem to solve, and it plays out as a story vignette that is largely wrapped up by the time the player leaves the town. This is how most Dragon Quest games work, and it is a very effective way to tell a story. You end up with more memorable characters in each place than most games have.

Speaking of characters, this game also largely shines with its party. While the characters start with simple to describe archetypes, the game mostly gives them room to grow. Some, like Erik, seem to get a little lost as the game goes on, but each member of the crew is a memorable personality. Rab is kind of a typical old man party member, weary and experienced, though not without his foibles. Erik is the brash thief, Jade the stoic martial artist, the spoilerific final party member the duty bound knight. Serena and Veronica fit broadly into caster/healer archetypes. The one I’ve avoided mentioning is maybe the game’s best character, or maybe its worst. Sylvando is an erstwhile knight who instead acts as a jester. He also is a flamboyant gay stereotype. I can’t tell if it is intended to be a mean spirited joke, or a genuine attempt at inclusion. At best, it feels like Barret from Final Fantasy VII, who was a cool character and was also something of a stereotype. I chose to take Sylvando positively and treated him as though Freddie Mercury chose to join my party. I can definitely see other interpretations, though.

Overall, there is just something comforting about Dragon Quest XI. It strikes some reliable nostalgic notes; playing like you expected games would play in the future 25 years ago. Sometimes that is just the kind of game you want to play.

Revisiting Final Fantasy

Playing through Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake made me nostalgic for the whole series, so I did the sensible thing and planned a big project to replay or play for the first time something like 25 Final Fantasy games. You know, like one does when they are crumbling under the weight of other more important obligations. So, Final Fantasy 1.

I have written about Final Fantasy before. (Oh God, that was 9 years ago!) I stand by that post, other than the typos. I decided to change things up from the NES version, which I know fairly well, for the Dawn of Souls version. I have played this version before, but not to completion. When it came out I wasn’t really in the right headspace to enjoy the remake for what it was. It didn’t give me my nostalgia for the NES game. For better or worse, the Dawn of Souls version of the game is rather toothless.

That toothlessness works for it at times. Honestly, a lot of the NES version’s difficulty is unfair and seemingly unintentional. This version swings far in the other way. A lot of it is strictly improvement, like getting rid of the ineffective rule or letting you save anywhere on the world map. Otherwise, the battles are largely speed bumps. Late game enemies still have the ability to wreck you, and the bosses remain tough, but making it through is a lot easier than it used to be.

Getting rid of the battle difficulty lets the real star of the game shine, though. That star is the quest itself. Unlike pretty much every other game in the series, Final Fantasy is about exploration. Considering the game’s vintage, Final Fantasy has a pretty involved quest. Those who cut their teeth on 16-bit JRPGs seem to have some trouble adjusting to Final Fantasy. The game just kind of plunks the player down in the world and expects the player to figure things out on their own. And the answers are not all that straightforward. In the back half of the game, the whole thing becomes a twisted nest of interlocking quests, where the player has to put together vague clues from townsfolk to know where to look for hidden treasures to unlock the next part of the quest.

What stuck out to most on this playthrough was the music. Yes, the GBA sound is scratchy and kind of bad, but the arrangements, which I believe are the same as those from the Origins release, are excellent. For me the standout is the Town music, which sounds perfectly peaceful and wistful. In a world that is full of dangers and monsters, the towns are small oases of respite, and this music conveys that perfectly.

Valkyria Chronicles 4

I heaped praise on the original Valkyria Chronicles a few years ago; I had praise for all aspects of the game. Including the story. Other than the parts about how Valkyria Chronicles was unique (I played the game in 2014 and really thought the series had gone the way of the dodo), I’ll echo that praise. Except for the praise for the story. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt the equivalent moral outrage playing a game. More on that later.

By and large, the game plays like the 2010 original. There are certainly some changes, including a new class, but the basics are largely the same. It is a turn based strategy game with action oriented turns. So each unit moves as though it is a third person shooter. The variety of classes and weapons create for some really fun strategic thinking, where you have to adjust your approach on the fly and are constantly reacting to things happening on the battlefield. The unit diversity is great. You have Scouts, who combine the ability to move great distances with really solid counterattack abilities. Then there are the Shocktroopers, who can’t move as far, but carry heavier weapons and (eventually) flamethrowers. Snipers have poor movement, but do carry long range, high-powered rifles. Then you have the more specialized units. Lancer’s carry essentially rocket launchers and are pretty much exclusively tank killers. They are not always necessary, but no one does what they do better. New, from one of the psp games I think, are grenadier. They carry mortars and are great at striking from a distance with explosives. They are excellent defensive units, being able to attack on enemies turns, and depending on which kind of mortar they are equipped with can take out either tanks or personnel. Lastly, there are the engineers. They are the support class. They don’t move or see as far as Scouts, but they can remove mines, repair things such as tanks and barricades, and dispense healing. You generally need one, but you don’t tend to need more than one. Finally, this game gives the player three separate vehicles: two tanks and an APC. Knowing how to use all these tools is where the game really shines.

For the most part, maps give players some freedom to devise their own strategies. It is unfortunate that the grading is done entirely on the number of turns it takes to complete the mission, but that is really immaterial the first time through the game. The game lets you decide if you want to use your tank as a battering ram to clear a path for your Shocktroopers to come through and clean up or if you want to take your Scouts around the outside of the map to catch the enemy from behind. Both can be effective. A new feature, or at least one I never utilized before, allows a leader unit to form a squad with two other units and move as a group. This is really effective at getting Lancers and Snipers into position by having them follow a Scout much further than they could get on their own.

Where this falters is with the game’s overreliance on special enemies. The later half of this game is filled with enemy units that are story characters that have essentially superhuman abilities. The squad is chased by a super tank that does not have the usual tank weakness. There are a pair of little girls that are super strong, nearly impossible to hit, take very little damage when you do manage to hit them, and if you manage to take them out tend to respawn the next turn. And there is a super-powered Valkyria. This problem might have been present in the original game; I recall them using this sort of stuff more sparingly. I expected some of it, but stuff like that becomes the focus of most of the maps in the second half of the game. I also had some problems with controls. I do remember this from the first game, but it seemed worse here. The game seems incredibly slow in getting characters into their shooting stance. It is so bad that I thought my R button might be faulty. I never did figure out the mechanics of how it works exactly, all I know is that my squad took a lot of bullets instead of pulling up their rifles to shoot back.

The story is where it really fell apart for me. It is entirely possible that I would not echo the praise I had for the original game’s story for being truly mature today. I recall precious few of the details. I know I was not as actively disgusted by what I saw than I was with Valkyria Chronicles 4. The game starts well enough, with a solid central cast of squadmates. A group from the same village who have grown up since the start of the war and have ended up back together serving in the military of a foreign state, since their homeland is occupied by fake-Nazi-Soviets. Each character’s personality roughly fits their class and are interesting enough. Then you get into the meat of the story, finding out why Kai is impersonating her missing brother and other revelations. Each one makes the squad less likeable.

SPOILERS.

The cascading revelations about the ship the squad is on for their secret mission becomes more and more awful as it goes. The game tries its best to keep the player on the team’s side, but it lost me pretty early and lost me hard. The Centurion, this technological marvel of a ship, is essentially powered by magical child slavery. That revelation is bad enough as it is. Then comes the revelation that the team’s mission is to detonate this child slavery engineer in the enemies capitol city. It ends with a debate about whether or not to go through with it (which to be clear the protagonist was because those were his orders) or not after a ceasefire had been called. There are story threads worth pulling, about how war can make a monster out of anybody. There are obvious parallels to the US dropping atomic bombs on Japan at the end of WW2. I would be okay with a game that wrestled with those issues. That is not what this is. This is the game justifying exploiting a child because she signed a contract to do it. That is an excuse the team buys, even though children cannot sign binding contracts and that it is clear she did not know what she was signing up for (see ‘children cannot sign binding contracts’). But she wants to help, so there is nothing they can do but go on. It wasn’t far past the midway point of the game when I was actively rooting against my team.

It is hard to recommend the game when I found the story so incredibly distasteful. The game still plays well; it is likely the best war crime simulator you can get for under $20. Maybe Valkyria Chronicles should have remained unique.

Super Mario Odyssey

This is going to be a short one. I don’t have a lot to say about Super Mario Odyssey that isn’t unrestrained gushing about how much I loved it. Because I did love it. The Mario series has more stone cold classics than disappointments. And even the disappointments are only disappointments in comparison to those classics. While it might be a little early to judge, Super Mario Odyssey seems to be squarely in the classic category.

There are two games that most prominently come to mind when playing Super Mario Odyssey: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario 64. Like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey shows Nintendo looking backwards and finding a new path forward. Super Mario 64 is the game that Super Mario Odyssey is clearly looking backwards to. Breath of the Wild turned away from decades of increasingly restrictive Zelda titles to find something that strongly reflected the exploratory origins of the series. The original Legend of Zelda was a game that dropped the player down in the middle of a relatively large world and let the player explore at their own pace. Breath of the Wild does the same thing, but without bringing along many of the good things the series had done in the intervening years. (This is not the place for this argument, but I would say the moment to moment gameplay of Breath of the Wild is very similar to Skyward Sword.) Super Mario Odyssey does something similar. It eschews the more limited levels of the last couple of decades and deliberately fashions its game after its earliest 3D adventure.

While this might be interpreted as a jab at Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World, I don’t think that is accurate. Super Mario Odyssey is very much a product of that lineage. Super Mario 64 burst onto the scene with this big, immersive playgrounds, but Galaxy its successors honed those into smaller, more focused levels. They also honed things like the controls, the moveset and the challenge structure. Super Mario Odyssey takes all of those things, and brings back the more expansive levels. There are only a dozen and a half stages here, but each one is big and varied. Each one is a world of itself, and provides a broad and interesting set of challenges. Each of these stages is beautifully realized. There are classics like the ice world, the water world and the fire world, but even those are done in an interesting way. The fire world, for example, is set up as a cooking world, and the lava is fire beneath the pot. The rest are highly inventive, from the prehistoric world to the slightly unsettling New Donk City.

Super Mario Odyssey is, in pretty much every way, the realization of everything that Super Mario 64 tried to be. Super Mario 64 is the first great 3D platformer. Super Mario Odyssey is the latest and greatest such game. I have nothing to criticize; not the way it looks, not the way it sounds, not the way it plays, nothing. I am sure there is more to say about this game, but I am still too overwhelmed to say it.

Mario + Rabbids

Of all the games I thought to buy when I got a Switch, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was not one that came to mind. Even ignoring the WiiU ports, which as one of the few owners of the WiiU I had already played most of them, there were still quite a few games to get me started. The new Pokemon, Super Mario Odyssey, and Fire Emblem Three Houses just for a start. But those games are still full price, while I was able to get Mario + Rabbids for song. I like Mario and I like strategy games, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Mario + Rabbids is a strange game. I mean, from conception it is odd. There is not a lot of overlap in sensibility between the Mario games and the Rabbids. Mario is Mario. The Raving Rabbids were kind of a proto-Minions that spun out of the Rayman series all the way back in the early days of the Wii/fading days of the PS2. They starred in a series of chaotic mini-game collections, starting something of a craze that lasted for a while, but by the time of the Switch launch they had largely been banished to mobile for half a decade. Still, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Ubisoft try to resurrect them with a new game for a new system. I think its says a lot about where Nintendo was after the failure of the WiiU that Ubisoft was given the keys to Mario Kingdom to help relaunch these characters.

On top of the weirdness of mixing the two franchises is the genre of game that Mario + Rabbids is. It is not a reflection of either Mario or the Rabbids, both of whom at their hearts come from platformers. Mario is known for showing up in absolutely anything; he’s been in sports games, racing games, rpgs, you name it. The Rabbids have mostly been in party games and mini-game collections. So, of course, Ubisoft went with a strategy game. And while it never stops being weird, it mostly works.

The game has got a good mix of characters with some real tactical choices to make once you get a full party. The game eventually gives you the central Mario crew: Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi. They are joined by Rabbids versions of each of the four. You start with just Mario, Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Luigi, and the others join one or two per chapter. Each version of each four characters fill similar roles, but each of the eight characters is pretty different. Mario is forced on the player for every battle, but fortunately he is good enough that you will likely want to use anyway. He is the all around character. The others have more specialized roles. Rabbid Peach has an actual healing ability; regular Peach has a defensive boost, a shotgun and a healing ability tied to her jump ability. Rabbid Luigi is a pure support character, great at weakening and giving status effects to enemies. Regular Luigi is the team’s sniper. Every character has maps where they shine, where their skills are absolutely essential.

 

 

 

For the most part the game works. Where I thought it kind of fell flat was how it tried to integrate Mario’s platformer roots into the tactical battles. Each character can move a certain number of squares on the grid map, but instead of actually being able to only move, for instance, 6 squares, the game gives a character a range of 6 squares. This makes for some weird choices with the available movement attacks. Each character can perform at least one run by melee attack per turn, but since your movement is based on range, your best choice is generally to run around bumping into every enemy near you before settling in where you want to shoot from. Then there are the warp pipes; these reset a character’s range to a specified number of squares, for some characters nearly the same as their initial movement range. In maps with a lot of pipes, some characters can pretty much go anywhere. It makes things very unpredictable if you don’t know exactly how far enemies can move, both pre and post pipe.

 

 

 

Also kind of awkward and unsatisfying are the parts in between battles where you find chests and solve simplistic puzzles. They feel vaguely in the Mario vein, but mostly end up feeling like padding. I guess there needed to be some connective tissue between stages but these puzzles mostly feel like they are just taking up your time.  It does nail the tone of the Mario series. I am far from an expert when it comes to the Rabbids, but the Mario characters feel about like they would in a Nintendo developed game. I would say I can’t imagine seeing Mario wielding a gun in a Nintendo game, but Smash Bros exists. Mario is the can-do hero, Peach alternates between being sidelined and wanting to get in on the action. There are various goofy Toads. Luigi is the weird schlub also-ran to Mario. Bowser doesn’t make an appearance until late, but he is on brand and honestly this is about as enjoyable as Bowser Jr. has ever been. The highlight is the opera ghost boss, who opens with a song.

 

 

 

Mario + Rabbids is just a strange enjoyable little game. Its creation reeks of desperation on both companies behind it, but the result is a good time.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake should not be as good as it is. I mean, nothing in the last decade or so from SquareEnix suggests that they were capable of this kind of big, cohesive game. I’ve enjoyed the last few Final Fantasy games, but it is fair to say that they have gotten mixed reactions. Final Fantasy VII Remake, which despite being a remake is essentially the next game in the series, has followed a pattern not unlike previous games, with the protracted development and all. But somehow, this game turned out amazing.

I am kind of surprised at how hyped I was for this game. I have never been a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII. I like it well enough, and I’ve really come around on it in the last half decade or so, but for a long time I was kind of resentful of the game. I did not get a Playstation until the redesign in 2000. I missed out on the initial wave of adoration for the game. While that was going on, I was still exploring Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger. I eventually played the PC port of the game, but not to completion and that is not really the best way to experience the game. And by then, Final Fantasy VIII, as well as plenty of other much better looking rpgs were out. To me, Final Fantasy VII was the ugly little game that sucked all the attention away from better games that came before and after. I was more than happy to leave it in the past.

The thing is, even before I played it, I knew a lot about the game. It was pretty much impossible to be into video games in the late 90s, into jrpgs especially, and not know at least a few Final Fantasy VII spoilers just by osmosis. This game was a seminal moment for the Playstation. Every game was compared to Final Fantasy VII; even I did it based on my limited play time with the PC version. Many people found other games wanting; I was determined to do the same for FFVII. I finally played it years later and really came around on it. It is a great game. The graphics are rough and I can’t fault anyone for not being able to find the charm in its clumsy polygons. But in every other way it is an achievement. I still like FFIII better; but I get why people feel the opposite way.

Even with me coming around to being a fan of Final Fantasy VII doesn’t really explain why I was excited for Final Fantasy VII Remake. I mean, Square Enix put out a lot of Final Fantasy VII material about 15 years ago and most of it was junk. At least, that is how I remember it. The only thing worthwhile to come out of the Compilation of FFVII was Crisis Core. That stuff should not be any indication that Square Enix knew what to do with a follow up or return to this game. Still, as the release drew nearer, I did get pretty excited. The game turned out to be pretty much the best case scenario for this sort of thing.

I remain incredibly impressed with Final Fantasy VII Remake. It is a game that takes the first quarter or so of the original game and extends it out to the full length of the original game, treating the old Midgar section as something like an outline or a rough draft. It manages to not feel natural, to not feel bloated or padded. Instead, it merely feels fully realized. What works best, storywise, is that the game shows a better understanding of what made the original FF7 effective than whatever they did with the Compilation stuff. Something that often seems to get lost when FF7 characters appear elsewhere is that Aerith and Tifa are kind of the opposites of what their character designs would suggest. The short-skirted martial artist Tifa is actually the quiet, traditional girl. The prim looking healer Aerith is actually the rough and tumble tomboy. The game absolutely nails that dynamic. Tifa is the one who often looks sad; she is uncomfortable with the militancy of Avalanche and unsure what has happened to Cloud in their years apart. Meanwhile Aerith takes nearly everything with a sly grin and a devil may care attitude. She actively wants to be involved in the adventures in ways that neither Tifa nor Cloud seem to understand. Cloud is also incredibly well realized here, with his cold reticence very evidently more a product of insecurity and awkwardness rather than genuine aloofness. And Barret is still a cartoon. A cartoon that is much more incongruous with his surroundings in this more realistically styled world.

Honest, his cartoonish is another thing that shows that the developers really understood what made the original great. The juxtaposition of strange and ambitious elements is a large part of what kept people coming back. The game manages to be super serious, even dour, at times but also include a lot of (usually) well integrated levity.

What the remake adds, generally, is depth. Take Jessie, Biggs and Wedge. The Avalanche crew were pretty minor characters in the original. Sure, it was affecting when they died, but you kind of knew it was coming. In the remake, the game takes the time to flesh them out as characters, gives them pasts and hopeful futures. So when the big moment comes, it is that much more crushing. It does without, aside from a few very intentional exceptions, contradicting anything from the original game. The game does play with the idea of this being the second iteration of this story, but I’ll reserve judgment on that part for now.

The biggest change, aside from the visuals, is how it plays. They kept the materia system and it is largely unchanged. However, everything else is pretty different. Yow now level up weapons with different skills. This allows the developers to limit the player to just a handful of weapons, but also give the player a lot of choice in how to approach the game and different challenges. While some weapons are pretty clearly better than others, all of them have their uses. The battles are now a pure action rpg rather than turn based. While I mourn the death of turn based battles, FFVII Remake’s battles are a lot of fun. It manages to maintain a lot of the feel of the active time battle system despite playing completely differently. It’s not perfect; it can often be hard to tell what is going on with the battle, especially when it comes to spells, but for the most part it is pretty smooth.

The nostalgia bug hit me really hard with this, and maybe things worked better for me than they might have if I did not have long standing memories of this game and this series. This game presents the first part of Final Fantasy VII the way I always imagined the game. It isn’t necessarily the way it used to be, but it doesn’t clash with rose-tinted memories.

Now Playing April 2020

Beaten

Owlboy – To start with, this game is gorgeous. Just some of the best sprite work I’ve ever seen. It is impossible to overstate how good this game looks. I wish it played as well. It’s not bad, it is just kind of pedestrian. The central gameplay mechanic, of having Otus, the protagonist and the owlboy of the title, carry around an ally who actually does the fighting. A lot of the game is based on grabbing and tossing and the mechanics are just slightly clumsy. The story is involved and really good. The game creates quite a few well realized characters. It verges on being too much and getting in the way of the gameplay, but mostly nails the balance. It is just an interesting game. It makes such a great initial impression because of how it looks, but doesn’t quite hold to that level as it goes on. Still, as a first physical game I bought for my Switch, I think I made a good choice.

Golf Story – This is a charming little rpg where the battle system is golf. The golf is pretty solid and a lot of fun. Some of the challenges seem a little unreasonable or really fiddly, but those are mostly near the end and are designed to be hard challenges. Also, the game is not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. That is very much just my take; comedy is hard and maybe it will hit other players better. The overall flow of the game is just very relaxing and addictive.

Bravely Default II Demo – I am not particularly impressed with anything other than aesthetics from this demo, but I have really enjoyed the previous two Bravely games, so I am willing to give this a chance on full release. Especially because a big part of my problem was about the balance in this weird slice of demo. Assuming that stuff is at least somewhat straightened out by the time the game comes out, I am ready for this.

Final Fantasy VII Remake – A full post is coming soon. This game is kind of amazing.

The Alliance Alive – A post went up. Good game.

Transistor – I feel like I did this game a disservice because I had trouble hearing it while playing on my Switch Lite. A lot of the plot seems to happen in incidental dialogue as you traverse the game world, and I missed anywhere from a third to half of it. Otherwise, it is short and sweet and really pretty interesting. The game gives the player a bunch of skills and lets the player combine them in different ways. The skills have different properties depending on how you use them. For example, there is a charm ability. If you set it as an attack, you charm an enemy. If you set it as a modifier, then the main attack will have a charm status added to whatever that attack is. Or you could set it as a character modifier and (I think) give Red, the protagonist, a boost to her hp. With 20 or so skills, there is a lot of customization available for the player. The plot, which I’ve already admitted to missing a significant amount of, seemed simple, but enjoyable. Red is a singer attacked by the Camerata, some kind of shadowy criminal group. She ends up with the transistor, a sort of big sword that can fight the Process, the robotic enemies that the Camerata have lost control of and are taking over the city. So you are fighting on two fronts, with little idea of what is really going on. The game is just a lot of fine.

Ongoing

Dragon Quest XI – I don’t want to write a whole lot about this, mostly because I will be writing a full post about it soon, but this game has been a really interesting contrast with Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake. Both series started in roughly the same place, and while Dragon Quest has had its experiments, like 9’s multiplayer focused game and 10’s MMO, it has stayed fairly close to its root, while Final Fantasy, especially over the last decade or so, has really gone wild places. For the most part, Dragon Quest has remained Dragon Quest. This game is the future version of the Dragon Quest games on the NES, as though there had been little evolution in the series in the decades between. It is wonderful.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – I loved the original Valkyria Chronicles, and tolerated the PSP sequel. This one, through the first four chapters or so, the game feels like a refreshing turn back towards the original, though it still feels a little more simplistic than the original. Or maybe I am blinded by nostalgia. The game does make me feel like my R1 button is broken, because it takes forever to pull into shooting mode. Still, this has been a lot of fun so far.

Earthlock – This was cheap when I got my Switch and seemed interesting. Reviews I read compared it to Final Fantasy 9, which I love. This game didn’t really do it for me. I played for roughly 5 hours, and I am still waiting for the plot to do something interesting, the writing is pedestrian, and the battles are just ridiculously slow. It felt like treading water. I might go back to it at some point; but it has fallen to the bottom of my list.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle – Another game I picked up on sale with my Switch. I’m going to have a full post soon, but this is a strange game. I have some problems with some of this game’s mechanics, like how new enemies show up and the dash attacks, but it is mostly a really interesting strategy game with a very odd mix of characters. I’ve nearly beat it, and after I beat some other things I’ll come back for the challenge levels and the Donkey Kong DLC.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy VII – Beating the remake has made me kind of want to go back to the original game. Honestly, I have something of a hankering to replay the entire series. I’ve got FFVII on my PS4, we’ll see how that goes first.

Super Mario Odyssey – I have to get this from my brother, but this game is a big reason why I ended up taking the plunge with the Switch.

Tales of Vesperia – I have a weird love/hate relationship with the Tales series. I really enjoyed Tales of Symphonia and absolutely hated Tales of the Abyss. I find the anime aesthetics of the series both somehow attractive and repellent. I am in right now, and will play this Switch version of Vesperia I picked up on the cheap.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – This is lined up to come out late in the month and I am going to jump on it. The series hasn’t led me wrong yet.

The Alliance Alive

After finding Final Fantasy XV to have a surprising number of connections to Final Fantasy VI, I found myself comparing another relatively recent game to that SNES classic. The Alliance Alive has some shades of Final Fantasy VI, too. In fact, there are shades of a great number of games in The Alliance Alive; not just Final Fantasy VI, but its spiritual predecessor Legend of Legacy, various games from the SaGa series, and the first two Suikoden games also clearly influenced that game. Those influences blend together into a game that manages to feel like something original.

That said, I am not a fan of all of those influences. Specifically, I am not a fan of The Legend of Legacy or the SaGa series. I know those games have their fans, and I do not begrudge them their enjoyment, even if I cannot share it. The very things that fans of SaGa like about it are the things that turn me off. I do not want a different experience every time I play the game, I want it to react in entirely predictable ways. I do not want to learn abilities or gain stat increases at random. The Alliance Alive is not particularly bad about this, largely because most of the characters’ stats are static. You do get random HP and SP increases, but they occur on a schedule that makes it pretty clear when you have reached the maximum level for an area. If you are gaining HP after fights, that is a sign you need to keep fighting. Once you go a battle or two without an increase, that is a pretty good sign it is time to move on. The learning of abilities is more problematic, but I tended to learn them fast enough that even if there was a hole in a character’s skill list, there was something else to use instead.

One thing it keeps from its immediate predecessor, Legend of Legacy, is this sense of opacity. While the information might be there, the game is not particularly clear on what a lot of its little systems do. While truly engaging with them is hardly necessary, there is some frustration at not knowing how things actually work.

Where I feel the game is much more successful is how it has echoes of Final Fantasy VI and the first two Suikoden games. Like FFVI, this is a game with no true protagonist. To start with, various characters take the role. You start with Azura and Galil, then move through Vivian to Gene, all with an assortment of supporting characters before they all meet up to form one big party. It is an eclectic and interesting group of characters. Tiggy is a child prodigy who goes into battle inside what is essentially a duck mecha; Robbins is a tiny little penguin warrior. It really nails that feeling that Suikoden and FFVI had of assembling all the people who just happened to be there to aid in the fight. Robbins is an optional recruit, not unlike Umaro or Gogo from FFVI, or any number of Suikoden weirdos. The Alliance Alive, on a couple of occasions, did the trick that Final Fantasy VI and Suikoden did so well, putting their large casts to good use by dividing the large party up into several smaller parties. Suikoden II has the big showdown with Luca Blight where the player has to make 3 different teams for different phases of the fight. Final Fantasy VI has several big dungeons that have split parties. The Alliance Alive does not lend itself Final Fantasy VI’s light puzzle dungeons. That said, it still does not really take advantage of the idea. The big split party moment in The Alliance Alive feels kind of like the big climax of the game, after that things kind of fall apart.

The first three quarters of the game are filled with events and interesting dungeons. The full team’s first mission is the splitting party mission. It is a big moment and the game never tops it. It never really even tries to top it. The next dungeon is long, but absurdly straightforward. And the end is rather simple. It is almost like the game just kind of gave up. It finishes things off, but still feels kind of unfinished.

The story is kind of similar. It starts with each of its protagonists getting pulled into the mystery of what exactly is going on in this world. The Daemons control the world, using Beastment to keep the humans in line. The mysterious Dark Current divides the world into quarters, with passage through it impossible. Of course, all is not how it seems. It is told in a style reminiscent of SNES jrpgs, playing out more like a sketch or an outline than an in depth plot. It leaves a lot of space for the player to fill in the gaps; to invent depth where none may actually exist. I could see it leaving people cold, but to me it was broad and comforting.

In a lot of ways, The Alliance Alive is not quite what I wanted it to be. It is really close to being everything I wanted, but in a lot of small ways it just isn’t. Still, I really enjoyed it. It is the kind of game that if I was in a different part of my life I could spend a lot of time really learning, getting into all the various systems and really picking this game a part. Instead, I am treating it as a largely pleasant romp that reminds me of other games I’ve loved.

Final Fantasy XV

(There are going to be some Final Fantasy 15 spoilers in this)

I don’t know that I actually expected to enjoy Final Fantasy 15. I was aware of the troubles of its long development cycle. How it started as Final Fantasy Versus 13, before disappearing for years, only to reappear, reimaging and rebranded as the fifteenth main entry in this series. The legacy of the Fabula Nova Crystallis is not a great one, hampered by development delays and other conceptual problems. But Final Fantasy 15 is the best game to come out of that ambitious project.

I don’t have a lot to say about the gameplay here. The battle system is functional and intuitive, but I would be lying if I said I ever fully grasped the nuances of it. I mostly just let it happen, and tried my best to use the skills the game gave me. It works, but I can’t say I ever developed anything like a strategy with it. But that is not too different from most games in the series. Outside of some outliers with the job system, the series often tends to the easy side.

I was definitely not prepared for how much this game takes from Final Fantasy 6. In my experience, that SNES classic is considered one the best games in the series. However, it does not tend to be one of the more influential or referenced games in the series. The modern series is built on the image of FF7, and throwbacks tend to look to the first five games. FF6 is more of a transitional game. Still 2d like its predecessors, but with sensibilities that are closer in line with the next few games in the series. FF15, though, brings back many elements from FF6, often recontextualizing them.

The big one is FF6’s signature twist. Throughout the first half of the game, the player has built a party to combat an Empire bent on conquering the world through the use of magically enhanced soldiers. The empire has largely acted through two of its leaders; the fierce but honorable General Leo and the devious clown Kefka. When the Empire raises a floating continent from which the Emperor plans to rule on high, it appears to be setting up the endgame, only for Kefka to turn on his master, usurping his power to destroy the world as the player knows it. The player is put back at square one, having to rebuild their party and put the new world to right.

Final Fantasy 6 is likely not the first game to do this, and Final Fantasy 15 is not the first to copy it, but it seems to share the most direct elements with its predecessor. The big twist comes later overall in the game, and the revelation of the big bad guy and his plan is a little less of a swerve, but it still follows a similar structure. Near the end of the game, the bad guy wins, and the player has to fight through a destroyed world to achieve a somewhat hollow feeling victory.

There are more concrete connections between the two games as well. The existence of Magitech, for example. The game has both magically enhanced soldiers, like FF6’s Celes, and the magic shooting mechs. The summons are imagined as characters in similar fashion to the espers from FF6. FF6’s tools, probably its longest lasting contribution to the series, are here as well. For a game that has long felt somewhat lost in the legacy of this series, Final Fantasy 15’s connections to Final Fantasy 6 are greatly appreciated by a big fan of that game. That is not to say that FF6 is the only previous game in the series that 15 echoes. For starters, even though it is no longer Final Fantasy Versus 13, the game did not completely exercise its feeling of connection with that game. Many of the gameplay systems feel reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12, from its open world aspirations to its monster hunts to its freeform feeling battle system. Also, the brief glimpses the game gives of the empire and its machinations feel reminiscent of FF12 as well.

Final Fantasy 15 manages to stake its own claim to originality in this, a big part of which is from a somewhat controversial design decision: limiting the party to just the four (male) main characters. It is a choice that does not feel in keeping with the series’ history. Plus, there are plenty of characters that feel like they belong in the party. Iris, Lunafreya, and even Cidney would be obvious choices to add as permanent party members. That is leaving out temporary party member Aranea. Excluding those characters from the party limits the impact they can have on the story. They are each limited to small interactions with the main party and end up feeling kind of inconsequential. That said, the four person party ends up being one of this game’s biggest strengths. The first two thirds of the game are all about this foursome cruising around the continent in their sports car. The game does an excellent job building the camaraderie between them, as well as showing the cracks that crop up in the later part of the game. Noctis is the somewhat spoiled prince; he means well and tries hard, but at the start of the game is not ready for the burden he must take on. Gladio is his dedicated bodyguard; he is generally pretty laid back, but his patience for Noctis’s floundering is limited. Ignis is his counsel; he is the calm and collected member of the group that keeps things together even as it all falls apart. Finally, Prompto is simply Noctis’s friend; he is comic relief and the instigator of many interactions.

Where Final Fantasy 15 really succeeds is in the first section of the game, where the player builds a connection to these four characters and they build connections with each other. The game gives the player a fairly open-ended quest, finding the tombs of the previous kings and earning their magical blessings, that lets the player just explore the continent to their heart’s extent. Then the game switches gears and things get more serious. The larger elements of the plot (more on that later) start to come into focus and Noctis gets closer to his long awaited meeting with his betrothed Lunafreya. The game then has the player leave the continent and cross the ocean, and the open world aspect of the game falls away.

It is there that it all falls apart, but in the narrative and as a narrative. Things go awry for the party, and it strains those relationships built in the first part of the game. They end up maimed and separated, fighting desperately to finish a quest that feels increasingly quixotic. When an angry Gladio lashes out at a sullen Noctis, it makes sense. You might not agree with Gladio; the player has seen recent events through Noctis’s eyes, but you have to admit he has a point. But the greater problems with the game crop up there. The open world falls away, leading to some very limited areas and an extended solo/stealth dungeon that is sure to test players’ patience. Also, the general lack of story starts to become apparent.

The long development cycle of Final Fantasy 15 is felt in how the story pulls the player one way and another in the plot without ever really giving the player a clear idea of what everything means or who the pieces fit together. Some of it is how the game sticks to Noctis’s POV; if he doesn’t have access to the information, then the player does not. But much of it feels like it was left on the cutting room floor. I am not talking about stuff that is reserved for DLC; that stuff is clear and I will eventually buy it and experience it. Other parts feel like they were excised in order to get the game finished, and added back in as a data log or a radio broadcast. Just so much of the story of the game does not appear to be in the game. It is frustrating, especially in an otherwise very enjoyable experience.

Final Fantasy 15 feels a lot like the last few entries in this series. It is largely an incredibly enjoyable, innovative experience that feels compromised in some way. I consider it absolutely essential playing, a more than worthy entry in the series, but one that has noticeable flaws. I still need to play the DLC and to watch the movie, things I intend to do, but I do not expect them to fix the larger flaws with the game.