Fire Emblem Three Houses

I have been a big fan of the Fire Emblem series since it first came to the west. Like what I assume are millions of people, I first became aware of the series with the inclusion of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Brothers Melee. I couldn’t find a copy of Fire Emblem for GBA when it was released, but I did with its follow up, The Sacred Stones, and then went back to play the earlier game. I’ve played every subsequent game. I miss the stylings and tone of the first few of the series’ games I played, but Nintendo and Intelligent Systems know where their bread is buttered. Fire Emblem Awakening saved the series and as far as I can tell, Fire Emblem Three Houses is a true breakthrough.

Three Houses is an interesting game. It brings together different thematic emphases from earlier games. Like its immediate predecessor Fates, there is a lot of focus on big, story defining choices. Like in Fates, a choice early in the game sends the player down a different path and the story plays out differently. Here, the choice is between rival states that all send their best and brightest to the same school for education and military training. Depending on who the protagonist aligns themselves with, the story takes different routes. Like Awakening, the game also plays with time. In Three Houses this comes in by the way of a time jump during the game, and seeing how things change from one time period to another. That it manages to synthesize these into one game, along with plenty of new considerations, is impressive.

The big new thing added to this game is a time management school sim element. It has shades of the Persona series and Harry Potter books. Spending time at Garreg Monastery creates an in-game world for the player to pursue the sorts of team and character building stuff that usually makes up a big part of Fire Emblem games. At the Monastery, the player can pursue support conversations or various gift giving activities to raise support levels. Then there are the educational parts of the Monastery, which is like the time management parts of Persona, where the player has to choose from stat building, time using activities that are then used to open up character classes or to help raise similar stats of your students. There are also shops and a few mini-games scattered around.

I am mixed on Garreg Monastery. I understand how it works to create immersion for people. You directly control the protagonist as they run around doing all this between battles stuff. In older games that stuff was all cutscenes and menus. The games focused almost completely on the battles and presented everything else as simply as possible. Three Houses tries to make it more of a game. If that is what the player is looking for, I guess it is a big plus. I want to get to the battles, to the maps and spend most of my time there. I like the support conversations, I liked doing other skits and interactions with the characters, I generally enjoy the stories of these games as fantasy fluff. Running around the Monastery always felt to me like it was keeping me from the parts of the game I really wanted to spend my time with. That changed when I realized that all the shopping stuff could be done in menu before the battle, just like in earlier games. You don’t have to engage much with the time consuming aspects of Garreg Monastery if you don’t want to. And I didn’t.

The school aspects work as character building stuff. It is more control than the series usually gives the player, but also not an especially robust development toolset. Characters are pretty well set in their roles. You can nudge them to a related class or one of two or three different advanced classes, but unless you start the game with a strong idea that you want to turn a character away from their original role and work very hard from start to force them into a new role, that change will never happen.

I have only cleared one and a half of the game’s four paths, so I can’t speak to all of the story developments and map designs, but on the path I did take was pretty solid. The maps are not the most complex, and there aren’t a ton of different win scenarios. The objectives are mostly rout the enemy or defeat the boss. There is at least one map where you are tasked with protecting civilians, but I do not remember any survive or escape maps. That said, the combat is good. The maps are generally well designed, with obvious paths to assaults along with more difficult, possibly more rewarding terrain. You can find choke points to set up armored units and open fields for hit and run tactics with mounted units. In all, it is some satisfying tactical combat. The new skill system is the best version of that in the series. They are not overpowering, but they are effective in the right situations and eat up weapon durability to keep the player from being too reliant on them. I am less sure about the battalions, but they don’t end up making that much of a difference in the game, so they didn’t really bother me. The game is just some good Fire Emblem.

The hook that I think made Three Houses a breakthrough for the series is how it has players choose a faction, but allows the player to recruit just about anyone else if they so desire. Each group feels unique, but it also allows the player to fit the group to their liking. People love that “Harry Potter choose your house” shit, and Three Houses effectively co-opts that. Especially because the story turns whatever group you chose into the good guys.

I’ll write more about the story after I beat another run or two of this game. I played through with the Black Eagles, I want to see how the others stack up and how their stories play out before I comment much more on that. Fortunately, the game is enjoyable enough to make me want to clear it multiple times to see all that it has to offer. It just might take me awhile to do so.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

I am apparently doing my expansive Final Fantasy series replay in an order that only relies on current availability or convenience for me and not any kind of rational order. So following up the original Final Fantasy, I beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.

Outside of anything about how it plays, FFTA is an interesting game from a historical perspective. Not only did it mark Squaresoft’s return to Nintendo platforms after a nearly 8 year long absence, it was also one of the final games released before Squaresoft became SquareEnix. There is a lot there, and the above is all I am going to write about it.

FFTA was kind of positioned to fail. It was the follow up to a beloved and for many players unique game; but nearly everything about FFTA seems designed to disappoint people who wanted more FFT. For starters, it was a follow up on a significantly weaker system; so despite being a follow up it was always destined to look and sound like something of a downgrade. That is not the only thing seemingly designed to disappoint. Final Fantasy Tactics was loved for its intricate, labyrinthine plot and its deep, highly customizable job system. The first was thrown out entirely for the follow up, and the other was modified just enough to make it somewhat unsatisfying. Using the original as the standard, there are measurable ways that FFTA does not measure up. But who is to say that the choices made by FFT are superior to FFTA. FFTA is a different game, made for a different platform and with different goals.

The story of FFTA is a frequent source of complaint. People either hate how ‘dumbed down’ it is, or trot out the tired take that protagonist Marche is actually the villain. The first one is a fair complaint, even if I presented it in a skewed way. FFT’s plot was complex and labyrinthine, with dozens of characters whose stories proceeded often with little connection to Ramza’s. FFTA’s plot, on the other hand, appears to be about as simple as possible, at least on first glance. There are only a handful of named characters, with seemingly simple motivations. A group of children are sucked into a storybook world that seemingly grants all of their wishes. The game has much more depth than immediately apparent. It is about how having all your wishes immediately granted can be infantilizing. There might be some lessons to be learned in the fantasy world of Ivalice, but at some point the characters have to go home and face their problems. That is where the second complaint comes in. Upon finding himself in the fantasy land of Ivalice, Marche sets out figuring out exactly how he got there. Then, he starts trying to find his way back, which involves destroying the fantasy world. This eventually puts him into conflict with the other characters trapped in the world with him, primarily his friends Ritz and Mewt. All of them have been given what they want being transferred to this world. New kid Marche gets quickly adopted into a clan and quickly becomes popular. Ritz, embarrassed by her ‘odd’ white hair, has her hair color changed in the new world. Mewt gets the most, his dead mother is not only alive, but queen, and his drunken father is now the most respected judge in the land. Unlike Marche, the others do not want to go back to the real world, happy to stay in Ivalice. Marche working to take things away from them has given rise to the facile reading of the game that Marche is actually the villain, destroying the other’s lives. This ignores several things to make any kind of sense. It requires a rejection of the very idea of personal growth. In Ivalice the characters are simply given the answers to their problems, at no point do they have to learn or change. It proves infantilizing, especially in the case of Mewt. Marche is freed from his familial responsibilities and has all the friends he wants, but he realizes he needs to go home and deal with his problems. Mewt pulls closer and closer to his fake mother, his every wish granted and no troubles facing him. The other thing that must be ignored is more subtle and only really shows up near the end of the game, and that is the fact that this fantasy world is draining the life out of people it has sucked in, feeding off them. A lot of that was apparently lost in the translation, but hints of it show up near the end. So not only is the world a stultifying fiction, it is also deadly. But somehow Marche forcing everyone to reject the fantasy and embrace reality is the villain.

As far as the gameplay goes, there are bigger reasons to be annoyed at the changes. While FFTA uses the job system, the way it is implemented is very different from FFT. Gone is the free form experimentation, with every job and ability there if only you have the job points to unlock it. FFTA gates things behind equipment, with some abilities not available until late in the game because the weapon that unlocks them is not available. It makes it easier for the developers to control the difficulty curve, but it also severely limits players’ freedom. I think the FFT system is better, but the FFTA one works just fine. It also adds something that would become a staple of Ivalice games: different races. This feels a little like bringing everything closer to Dungeons and Dragons. The designs for the different races are good, though it can be annoying trying to figure out class requirements for five different class sets.

The most controversial, and ultimately least consequential, addition to the game is the law system. Each battle sets up a few ‘laws’ that forbid a certain kind of action. It can be frustrating if you get a particularly onerous law early on, but the game quickly gives the player the ability to negate laws and with even the smallest effort to work with the system the laws become an afterthought for the last three quarters of the game. The laws are an interesting idea, forcing the player to be flexible in developing strategies, but the combination of frustration and being inconsequential make it a not particularly well integrated change.

All these changes serve to make FFTA feel much smaller than the original FFT, but they also serve its handheld nature well. They largely work together to make a game feel natural to pick up for one or two battles, face a few new challenges and then put it down. While I played this game a lot back in the day, this play through is the first time I’ve beaten it. It largely holds up. The only problem that stands out when examining the game strictly on its own merits is that it can be kind of slow. There is simply a lot of waiting during battles, as enemies can take a long time to make their move and little you can do while waiting. A small concern in an otherwise excellent game.

Yakuza 4

I beat this game the first time while doing this blog, and I looked back to see what I wrote about it a few years ago. It turns out, I only wrote about it in my monthly catch-up post and while I liked it, I didn’t have much to say about it. I have that same problem after beating it again.

Most of what I am going to say is going to be about the narrative and structure of Yakuza 4. As far as gameplay goes, it is a modest evolution from the previous game. The combat expands by having 4 playable characters who all have distinct fighting styles. It makes some difference, but the core of how the system works doesn’t change. There are a myriad of quality of life improvements; the game just plays smoother than the previous one. It looks better. But those are all just incremental improvements. It looks and plays better than any Yakuza game that came before it, but outside of the playable characters, there are no fundamental changes.

The story is the game’s biggest swing, and while it is compelling while it plays out, the game does not manage to bring things home. Yakuza 3 ended on an ambiguous note, series hero Kazuma Kiryu, stabbed in the gut, lay bleeding out on the streets of Kamurocho. Yakuza 4 does not pick up on that, but instead widens the scope on what until this point had been the Legend of Kiryu. It picks up in the familiar confines of Kamurocho, with the player controlling louche loan shark Shun Akiyama. The game then progresses to taciturn, regretful hitman Taiga Saejima and then to committed and benignly corrupt cop Masayoshi Tanimura. Finally, the game concludes with a handful of chapters for Kiryu.

The Kiryu chapters at the end feel a little like the game chickening out. It seems to want to move on from Kiryu, but can’t quite bring itself to do so. It decenters him in the narrative, but then uses him as the anchor in this protagonist relay. It is the wrong choice. Kiryu is the character the player, assuming the player is a veteran of the series, has the greatest connection with. However, he is the character that has the least connection to the plot. He doesn’t really have a reason to be there. It almost feels like the development team wanted to replace him completely, but then did not have the courage to do so, leading to his late game appearance and prominence. His appearance is the right choice, though. As much as I want, from a story perspective, for Kiryu to be allowed to walk away to his happy ending, I also really like playing as him.

The other protagonists feel like they are auditioning to take over the position full time. Looked at that way, there are two viable candidates. The one that doesn’t quite make the grade is Tanimura. That is a bit harsh, but it is hard to imagine more stories with him after Yakuza 4. His story is the one most tied to one aspect of the plot. He is on the lookout for the man who killed his father. His story is tied to corruption within the Tokyo police. That story comes to the fore with Tanimura’s part of the story and is a big part of the machinations that drive the plot of this game, but it is resolved at the end. Unless they were looking to change the direction of the series entirely, he is not really a viable choice going forward. Plus, he is not the most interesting new character. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot there.

Akiyama and Saejima, meanwhile, seem to split aspects of Kiryu into new characters and fill in the rest with different answers. Saejima is the tortured Yakuza legend. Like Kiryu he was in prison for murder. Unlike Kiryu, he actually did it. He did it because he bought in fully to the Yakuza ideal. He did it for his Patriarch. Unlike Kiryu, Saejima wants to get back into the Tojo Clan. He is quiet and brooding, just a big scary mountain of a man. He feels credible in the role as Yakuza heavy in a way that Kiryu always seemed too genuinely good to be. But that also makes him less compelling than Kiryu. He actively wants the criminal life; he is not seeking to break free of it. Also, there is a scene that suggests a close attempt at a sexual assault against Haruka that really does not endear the player to Saejima. Akiyama, on the other hand, is the Kiryu that gets embroiled in weirdo nonsense. He is also the outsider that, for some reason, has the respect of some Yakuza family. Unlike Kiryu, Akiyama faces the weirdness, especially when it gets smutty, with more than a little enthusiasm. Kiryu is this blank slate that takes all the strangeness in stride, Akiyama actively leans into it. He is also just genuinely charming, with a roguish air. Honestly, if one of these three were to be the new protagonist, I would have voted for Akiyama.

The story starts strong. Akiyama meets with Lily, a woman who wants to borrow an obscene amount of money for an unknown reason. He tests her before agreeing to loan the money. Simultaneously, he gets embroiled with some strange goings on with Kanemura Enterprises, a local small time Yakuza family. When his friend Arai apparently kills a member of a rival family, things get serious. Akiyama falls in love with Lily, but he also learns of a few more murders. The story then switches to Saejima, and it is revealed that Lily is actually his sister. In order to find out what went wrong that landed him in prison 25 years ago, which is somehow connected to Akiyama’s story. As Saejima starts to get his answers, it switches to Tanimura, who is looking for the man who betrayed and murdered his father, 25 years ago. It is all connected. Then finally, it moves to Kiryu, who is now with Lily and has found a connection to the pile of cash the Tojo Clan had on hand in Yakuza 1.

The game builds an intricate web of deceptions and double crosses, with interesting characters and slowly unfolding mysteries. Then it gets to the end, and there is no ending. The finale is four consecutive boss battles, one for each playable character, that make varying levels of sense. But there is no final reveal that really ties it all together, and since you spend the last section playing as Kiryu, all the final revelations that exist happen to a largely unconcerned interloper. It is a lot of fun while playing through it, but the ending is just deflating. It mostly feels like the developers watched Infernal Affairs, or The Departed, and tried to replicate that in a video game, only to completely lose track of their plot and just have the player fight everybody at the end.

Yakuza games are generally games more for moments than overall coherence, but the ending here just misses completely, making the ways it doesn’t fit stand out more than a game that builds to something satisfying.

This is still not my favorite Yakuza game, but I am glad that the one that holds the place in my memory is up next. Hopefully I can get it done before Like A Dragon hits. Maybe I’ll track down the Miike movie as well.

Now Playing August 2020

Beaten

Fire Emblem Three Houses – I’ll have a full post at some time, but I think I am going to play some more before I do that. I’ve cleared one path and have started up my next one. I have some problems with this game, largely that I feel like exploring the Monastery keeps me away from the parts of the game I like, but I can see why this game has taken off like it has. All the stuff surrounding the battles are interesting even if I don’t much like running around, and the battles are top notch as well.

Yakuza 4 – I’ve got a post coming soon. This is not my favorite Yakuza game, but I still don’t regret playing it for a second time.

Ongoing

Atelier Ryza – I got this on sale about the same time I picked up Three Houses. Three Houses came first, but I am getting to it now. The last time I played an Atelier game for any significant time was Atelier Iris 2. (I do own Atelier Rorona, but I barely got started with it before getting distracted.) Through three or four hours I quite like this game. It sets up an interesting battle system and a fun low key adventure. I am looking forward to really digging into this. It seems relaxing.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles – This was released late in the month, and I only managed to play one dungeon. I still really like the moment to moment gameplay. I like the structure of it following your caravan over years, as you get stronger and stronger and go further and further from home, with the world changing as you get further in. I’ll soon see if any of the rest of it hold up to my memories. Hopefully in the next week or two.

Final Fantasy IX – This remains one of my favorite games in the series. I let myself get distracted by Three Houses and other things, but I will get back to it sooner or later.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 – I have a stack of handheld FF games to go through in my replay, and I think I am going to stick with the Ivalice games for now. I remember liking this more than FFTA when I first played it, but I wonder how well it holds up.

Yakuza 5 – I am going to finish this series replay soon. In my memory this is the best one.

Chrono Cross – This game’s 20th anniversary passed recently, and I’ve developed a strong hankering to play it again.

Tales of Vesperia

My rocky relationship with the Tales series continues with playing Tales of Vesperia. I believe I’ve written before about my experience with this series. Tales of Symphonia hit at just the right time for me, with its relatively bright tone contrasting with the PS1 rpgs I had been playing before that. I haven’t revisited it in the fifteen years or so since, but I have very fond memories of it. I had those same memories in the late 00’s when I tracked down copies of Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss. Tales of Legendia is pokey and awkward, but honestly I found it largely charming. Tales of the Abyss, as I have previously explained, just rubbed me the wrong way. It may have been an improvement over Tales of Symphonia as far as systems go, but the plot and characters made me angry in ways that almost no other game has. Tales of the Abyss left such a bad taste in my mouth that I largely wrote off the series since then. I picked up a couple of games for the PS3 when they were dirt cheap, but I never really felt the desire to play them. A few hours of Tales of Graces f was all I played before deciding it just wasn’t doing it for me and putting it away. However, when I got my Switch, Tales of Vesperia just so happened to be on sale, so I thought I’d dip my toe in this series once again.

Tales of Vesperia mostly works, but everything good I have to say about it will be followed by something negative. Those negatives are easy to ignore in the early going, but by the time you invest fifty plus hours into this game they start to loom larger and larger. To start with one that is all on me, it appears that there is a lot of depth and strategy to the battle system. While I beat the game, I honestly can’t say the more intricate parts of the battle system ever really clicked for me. I mean, I generally understood it, but the harder I tried to work combos or use the overlimit system, the more I got destroyed. So I stuck with pretty basic combos and mixes of arts. It mostly worked. I am sure that people who took the time to learn the ins and outs of burst arts and the over limit gauge could do amazing things, but I had neither much aptitude for nor interest in learning how it worked. So getting annoyed at 50 hours of tame combos is largely on me. I admit that and I don’t really hold it against the game. However, I do not think the game does a good job of teaching the player how its systems work. The game just kind of throws all of its mechanics out there and leaves it to the player to figure them out. It might be better than weighing the game down with tutorials, but some more explanation would have been appreciated.

I do really like the characters in this game; the player’s party, which contains about eighty percent of the worthwhile or interesting characters in the game, is truly excellent. They fit pretty neatly into well worn tropes, at least to start, but the game does good and interesting things with them. For the most part. JRPGs, especially Tales games I’ve played, frequently seem to be working with a finite number of character traits that are shuffled and distributed at random amongst the cast. I am not sure Tales of Vesperia gets away from that, but with one glaring exception, the characters all feel well realized. The big exception is Patty, who is fine. She has a convoluted backstory and it is clear that she is a late addition to the rest of the cast. I think protagonist Yuri does the edgy badass thing better than any other character has done it, largely because of the parts of that character archetype he avoids. At first blush he’s not unlike so many other rebellious leads. There are shades of Squall from FF8, Ryudo from Grandia 2, and Yuri from Shadow Hearts in Yuri’s character, but he is much softer than any of them. He genuinely seems to want to connect with his fellow party members. He is not eager to deal with inanities, but there is a version of his character that is much harsher than the one in the game. It makes it that much more impactful when he actually does dark and edgy things.

The negative that pairs with my love of the characters is that the game’s plot is garbage. The game refuses to build any story momentum or execute any sort of rising action. It is split into three distinct arcs, each one ending like some slowly letting the air out of a balloon. It keeps the player in the dark as to what is going on and what actually matters for way too long, then concludes in a hurry. It is just a badly told story.

I think part of that comes from this being a relatively early HD release, and the game tries its best to mask how small its world actually is. It looks nice. But there are like 3 consequential towns and the game keeps the player running back and forth between them, while occasionally going to new dungeons. The player will have seen about two thirds of the world by the twenty hour mark and the rest of the game just feels like padding things out with reused assets. I don’t mean to be too harsh, as I said the game mostly works. It is just a game that really seems to wear out its welcome by the time it ends. It is a great 35-40 hour game that unfortunately takes about 50 hours to beat.

The most foolish thing is, despite me not having genuinely liked a Tales of game since my first experience with Tales of Symphonia back on the GameCube, I made a detailed plan to do a tour of the series. It didn’t cost much. I already owned most of the games. I picked up Tales of Berseria and Tales of Zestiria for a combined total of about twenty dollars. That left only Tales of Xillia 2 and Tales of Hearts as the US released Tales of games to which I did not have access. But the last ten hours I spent with Tales of Vesperia kind of killed my desire to do that. I still might do it. Right now I am split by several competing interests. The first is that I also planned out a Final Fantasy series replay and that sounds a lot more fun to me. Also, I’ve got a couple more Yakuza games to replay. Finally, I am torn on revisiting Tales of Symphonia. On the one hand, I want to see how the game holds up fifteen years after I first played it; on the other, none of the other games in the series have grabbed me like it did and I’m afraid to have my memories tarnished.

Now Playing July 2020

Beaten

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance – full post coming soon. I don’t know that I am going to work it into my post about the same so this feels like a good place to explore my history with it. I was a huge fan of Final Fantasy Tactics. I had never previously encountered any kind of strategy rpg and was only vaguely familiar with the Final Fantasy job system before I stumbled upon a copy of FFT. I didn’t even own my own PS1 at the time, I had traded my cousin for my N64 for a couple of weeks. I instantly fell in love. When I heard that not only was Square coming back to Nintendo consoles, but they were doing so with a portable FFT follow up, I was over the moon. At first I was very resistant to the changes it made to the game, but I still enjoyed it. Enjoyed it enough that I snuck my GBA into school and played it behind my algebra book during class. I didn’t beat it, though. Sharing one copy of the game and one system between several brothers was a problem and my save got lost along the way several times. Despite being generally familiar with the game and having made attempts to play it numerous times in the last 15 years, this was the first time I actually beat it.

Ongoing

Final Fantasy 9 – I broke down and bought this for my Switch, about two days before it went on sale. I have since played through the first couple of hours. Final Fantasy 9 has long been a favorite of mine and I am enjoying this so far. I’m happy to have the port, but I wish it could get a fuller remake/release to fix some of the problems that are kind of inherent in designing around the limitations of the PS1 that it was pushing against.

Upcoming

Fire Emblem Three Houses – This is my reward for myself for taking the bar exam. I intend to get started and get into it real soon.

Yakuza 4 – I started this a little bit ago, and I want to get back to it. I don’t really think too highly of this particular entry in the series, but maybe a replay will change my mind. I will also probably move on to its sequel.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered – It doesn’t hit until late in the month, but I will be playing it.

More Final Fantasy – I’ve got FF9 going, FF7 about halfway done, I started FF2 a few months ago and made some progress, and a big plan to replay the whole series. I will keep working on that.

Now Playing June 2020

Beaten

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – I wish I had more to say about this game. It’s good. Really good. Maybe not as good as Pirate’s Curse from a half decade ago, but Seven Sirens is a solid execution of the Metroidvania formula. It doesn’t have the best designed map, but there are a nice variety of powers to find and the game looks and plays wonderfully. But it is just a new Metroidvania; there really isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done before. Sometimes all you want is a comfort food, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens delivers that in spades. It is a really good game, but not one I have a lot to say about.

Tales of Vesperia – Read about it here.

Jake Hunter: Ghost of the Dusk – A 3DS detective game. It has a bunch of smaller cases that I haven’t yet finished, but the game’s big case is done with. I liked it well enough. It is decently translated, with a few parts that seem a little ill-fitting but for the most part being well told. The game sets up an interesting mystery to center things around, but my one big complaint with it is that it becomes kind of obvious. There aren’t really any red herring or misdirections, making it play out a little more like a procedural than a mystery. It is pretty early when it is clear what the resolution of a lot of the major mysteries is pretty early on. Still, I mostly enjoyed my time with it, and will likely check in with it later ro finish up some of those other stories.

Ongoing

Final Fantasy II – Some progress made, same concerns that always put me off before are putting me off again. I don’t want to dig too deep into it right now, but I will say that the leveling mechanics of Final Fantasy 2 are more interesting than good.

Final Fantasy VII – I progressed through another decent sized chunk of this game. I have been too busy to give it a lot of time, but I pushed through some early areas after leaving Midgar. The game simultaneously opens up and loses steam at that point. The player is finally out of the giant, dingy, dystopian city and dumped into what appears to be a fairly normal jrpg world. You also get a better sense of the imperialist power of Shinra. Nobody outside of Midgar seems to like them, but other than a few places most have accepted their dominance. The game also chooses that time to give an info dump about Sephiroth. It makes sense; while he has been mentioned a few times, Sephiroth did not really come into the story until right before escaping Midgar. Now the rest of the party is demanding answers from Cloud, and he has to give them. So the game starts to dig into the backstory.

Yakuza 4 – I started this up and played the first few hours of it. It is such an improvement over Yakuza 3. It looks a lot better, it plays a lot better. However, nothing important changed; it is still Yakuza. The game kind of has it both ways in terms of starting slowly and getting right into it. As the game starts with the player playing as Shun Akiyama, it is not immediately clear how he is connected to events. Akiyama is one of my favorite characters in the series; he has a kind of louche charm that contrasts nicely with Kiryu’s more straightlaced acceptance. He is also a good choice to ease players into not controlling Kiryu. I hope the rest of the game holds up, though I’ve always thought of Yakuza 4 as a lesser game in the series.

SteamWorld Quest – Still progressing, although slowly. I like everything about this game from an aesthetic point of view. I like a lot of the story so far. I am still not really warming to the card based battle system, and I’m far enough in that I doubt I ever actually will. As with every card-based rpg battle system, SteamWorld Quest turns every battle into a maddening struggle against randomness. This game is not the worst in that respect, but I don’t see what the games gain from this system over just having a ‘normal’ battle system.

Upcoming

Okami – I might have some Switch time, and this game is just sitting there. If I have time, then it will get some play. I have beaten Okami once and gotten about halfway through it a couple more times, but maybe having it handheld will help me get to the end of it again.

More Final Fantasy – I hope to finish II and VII before too long. I am planning something of a series replay, inclusive of many of the spin-offs. With 1 and 15 recently beaten, as well as the ports of 8 and 12 in the not too distant past, I have already made significant progress. The Crystal Chronicles remake is coming out in August, but before then I have quite the list of games to get through.

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.