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.

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.

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.

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.

Judgment

Judgment is the new game from the studio behind the Yakuza series. I love the Yakuza games. With that series moving in a different direction, Judgment seemed to be an interesting experiment.

Judgment ends up trapped between the game it is and the game it wants to be. Built from the same framework as Yakuza 6, it ends up playing very similarly. But at every turn, it seems to want to be something different. Something maybe more thoughtful. It just can’t be that because it is still, at its core, a brawler.

Judgment simply does not work as well as the Yakuza games. The biggest reason for that is the change from playing as Kazuma Kiryu to Takayuki Yagami. Yagami is just orders of magnitude less interesting of a character than Kiryu is. He might have worked fine in a role like the various other playable characters from Yakuza 4 or 5, but he wouldn’t stand out amongst those guys either. He’s not even on the level of Akiyama or Saejima.

The biggest problem is that he just seems more knowing and worldly than Kiryu. Part of what makes Kiryu interesting is how he reacts to everything as if he’s never heard of it before. Part of that comes from him spending a decade in prison. He simply accepts everything new he finds and works it into his understanding of the world. Yagami is more cynical. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it changes the tone of some of the wackier moments. In the main story it is mostly fine.

As far as the gameplay, the attempts to graft some investigatory stuff onto a Yakuza game ends up with a game that feels unfortunately modal. It is a somewhat fractured experience. You going into investigation mode to look around, chase mode, follow mode, fight mode, explore mode. Each one operates a little differently than the others. The Yakuza games were once more like this, but lately they’ve felt more cohesive. This feels like a step back.

I am being way too negative. There is a whole lot to like here. The fighting is still fun. The game is still packed with things to do. There are a half dozen arcade games to play, the usual array of mini-games and the same Kamurocho to explore.

The mix of story between sidequest and main plot is not as good here as it is in Yakuza games, I really did enjoy this game as a 20 hour action movie. I like the idea of doing the investigative work, of exploring this fake section of a real city from another point of view. It feels kind of like what this studio was trying to do with Yakuza’s 4 & 5, when the game minimized Kiryu and brought in other characters. Judgment is at its best the further it gets away from that other series. It brushes up against the problem that video games mostly only understand how to interact through violence. That leads to the story getting full on preposterous as it goes, and calls for a final boss fight that makes less sense as an ending than the courtroom scene that preceded it.

Judgment_20190610083916

I don’t want to spoil things, but Judgment starts with Yagami being hired to investigate for his former law firm. They are defending a Yakuza boss accused of murder. Yagami’s investigation turns up evidence that it was impossible the guy did it, but also evidence that he knew more than he was letting on. So Yagami keeps looking. Looking into the Yakuza family, looking into an encroaching family, looking into a medical research organization with high connections and shady dealings. Soon, more bodies show up, and Yagami is pulling on the thread of a giant conspiracy. One that reaches deeper than even he knows. It is pretty good stuff; ridiculous but in a fun way.

Judgment might not have ended up being exactly what I wanted, but it confirmed that I want more of what Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios is putting out. And I am very interested to see what they do with the Yakuza series now that they have moved on from Kazuma Kiryu.

Battlefield 1

I bought Battlefield 1 during the recent PSN sale. That is likely a surprise to people who know me. I have long had little regard for first person shooters, and have never had much of an interest at all in multiplayer shooters. I was drawn to this particular game for its World War 1 setting. That was enough to get me to fork over the $10 it cost to give it a try.

My take on this game is going to be completely unfair. I feel I have to acknowledge that upfront. The Battlefield series is popular for its multiplayer; the single player campaigns exist and that is about it. So going into Battlefield to play the single player is pretty much by definition missing the point. I am not much of a multiplayer guy. I’ll play some fighting games and party games, but playing with other people is not something I really do. Even Monster Hunter, a favorite of mine, is usually a solo experience for me. I will play it online, but it makes it feel like a chore sometimes. I mostly just enjoy to play by myself and at my own pace. That is what I wanted out of Battlefield 1; to play through some WWI battles by myself. Technically, it delivered.

Battlefield 1 also did a good job of showing the breadth of the First World War. Its splintered single player campaigns range from France to Italy to Arabia. You experience early tank fighting, biplane dogfights, pitched battles on seafronts and mountainsides. It gives the player a little bit of everything. The problem is that almost none of it is any fun. Take the thing I was most excited for: the airplanes. The initial control scheme for the planes is insane. Or at least, it felt insane for someone who does not primarily play first person shooters. After thinking about it for a while, I think the control scheme does make sense when thinking about it through the lens of a shooter. For someone used to controlling an on screen character or vehicle through any other lens it is awkward at best. Luckily, the controls are remappable. Once you find something that works, it becomes tolerable. Frustrating, but tolerable. The game gives essentially two missions in the plane; one big assault defending bombers attacking a base, other defending London from a German bombing raid. Once they get going, they can be fun, but the game does not really explain the parameters.

The game also loves to put the player into situations that, in the story of the campaign, call for stealth. However, the game does not really give the player the tools to play stealthily. I am not sure the game really intends for the player to be stealthy. The most interesting one is the Arabian set section of the campaign. The player has to send three messages from three separate bases. The game hints at sneaking in, but the game gives few sneaking tools. In set up, it feels like a mission out of Metal Gear Solid 5. In execution, it shows how great a game Metal Gear Solid 5 was. Part of the problem is on me: I am not a huge fan of shooting. If the game gives me a peaceful option, I will take that option. Battlefield 1 suggests such options, then pushes the player to go in guns blazing.

Maybe that is why the Italian campaign was the most satisfying. The Italian campaign is the most straightforward of the bunch. It puts the player in a pitched battle, shooting his way up a mountain. Eventually, you are searching for your lost brother, but it is mostly just a series of stages for shooting everything that moves. It works. It is fun to go from bunker to bunker, tearing through enemy troops. Any time the games tries something more complex with its single player missions, it stumbles, but those straightforward shooting missions were solid.

I haven’t said much about the stories, because there is nothing much to say. They range from bland to forgettable, with the one interesting one being the biplane story. It is interesting because it tries to bring in some unreliable narrator stuff that only really shows up there and only serves to undercut the most fun story they put together. There isn’t much to say.

Honestly, I am a little disappointed in myself for buying this game. I have pretty much stopped playing games that are mostly about killing other people. That is something I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with as I’ve grown older. It is not that I begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of shooters or anything similar, but I personally don’t really enjoy them. It is kind of arbitrary; I love the Yakuza games and they are incredibly violent. But most of the fights in the Yakuza series ostensibly leave the losers alive. Even something like Metal Gear Solid, which features a lot of killing, at least mostly leaves it up to the player on whether to kill people or not. Shooter, on the other hand, don’t really have options. You shoot things. I bought Battlefield 1 for its novel setting. I thought that maybe that would be enough to get me into a shooter. It didn’t. I am ready to take another decade long break from the genre.

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered

I haven’t played Final Fantasy VIII since soon after it was released. Or at least, soon after it was released on PC. That said, it is still a game that means a whole lot to me. FF8, along with Pokemon Gold and Silver, was on of the first games that I closely followed prior to release.

I was a Final Fantasy fan before FF8. I had read about Final Fantasy 2 (4) in Nintendo Power and searched it out, but instead found the original Final Fantasy for NES in a Wal-Mart bargain bin. I played and loved that, but I didn’t have a SNES and did end up upgrading for some time. Still, I managed to experience Final Fantasy 3 on the SNES before that by playing it at a friends house. I ended up being obsessed with the game for several years, paying an exorbitant amount to get a used copy from Funcoland once I finally did get an SNES. That same friend also showed me the PC port of FF7, which gave me a chance to experience some of that game long before I got a Playstation.

It is a time that is hard to imagine now, but in 1998 my family did not have a computer. Not one capable of accessing the internet, at least. My ability to follow the pre-release hype of Final Fantasy VIII was limited to biking up to the public library for 1 hour of dial up internet access a day or for a few minutes at the school computer lab after school got out, as well as whatever I could find in EGM or Game Informer.

I followed it obsessively anyway. The scattered updates of grainy shots from E3 and the like. Text descriptions of cutscenes. Releases of character art that let me imagine who those characters might be. Then it was released to solid reviews, though with undercurrents of disappointment about how different it was from Final Fantasy VII.

I got it when it was released for P.C. My family had a modern (1999-era modern) that was not quite up to the task, but it worked well enough. I never truly grasped the junction system, appear to have straight up missed swathes of the story and gave up on the game not too far before the final dungeon. I still liked it well enough, but I was put off by the technical problems enough that I never reinstalled the game when my family upgraded our computer and when I finally got a Playstation, I moved on to games like Suikoden 2, Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy 9.

Something about the remastered release drew me, though. For some reason I really wanted to play the game again. I am glad I did. I understand how the game works much better now and I am still a fan of the look of the world.

The junction system has always been strange, but it is a flexible and interesting character building system. It kind of turns the characters into blank slates for the player to completely remake into whatever image desired. The only combat function that you have to have available is attack. Whatever other skills you want to use are up to you. It lets you summon your guardian forces whenever you want, but it turns out that they are much more situational in usefulness that I thought years ago. The big change is turning magic into a consumable resource and letting the player junction magic to stats, attaching the magic to that stat and increasing it by a not particularly obvious formula. One part that is clear is that the more of the magic you have, the greater the effect on your stats.

So casting magic is not generally a great idea, but instead conserving to make your stats better. Junctioning a strong magic to Squall’s strength is generally enough to handle most of the game, as it makes him so much stronger than everyone else.

I don’t know that I want to get into all the other changes: drawing magic, triple triad, enemy levels, guardian forces in general, how the game handles weapons. The game is strange, but all of its strangeness kind of works when put together.

I do want to comment on the story. For one big complaint, the back half of the story seems rushed and maybe unfinished. It spends a lot of time really building up the characters and the party, then as it seems to shift into high gear the end appears. When I gave up on the game way back when, I had no idea how close I was to the end of the game, I was thinking I was closer to the three quarter mark.

When I first played this game, I thought the cast was cool. I still think that about the designs are cool, but these characters as a bunch of dorks. I don’t mean that as a criticism; I think they work exactly as intended. When I was a teenager, I saw cool teenagers. As an adult, I see a bunch of stupid kids. I think I was right both times. Squall worked really well for me this time. His friends see a taciturn badass, but his being closed off is out of fear, not for any other reason. Irvine and Zell are projecting different kinds of cool, but it is clear how much they are faking it. Quistis attempts some maturity, but that is as much a projection as the boy’s attempted coolness. What all of them want is to know that other people like them, but none of them really think that is the case. The only one that seems to avoid that is Rinoa, and she has her own problems. Selphie seems to have come up with a genuine way of dealing with her emotions, with her happiness seeming to be less of a front than the others.

It contrasts nicely with the more adult Laguna, who still has his own problems. I feel like the game could have done a better job of fleshing that part of the game out, but it mostly works. I don’t know that the Edea and Cid stuff does; I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around what is going on there.

The big tragedy of the game is Seifer, but in the intended story and the execution. He is just like the other party members, but he ends up on the other side of the conflict, sticking with the Sorceress that they have a childhood connections with. He is delinquent and a jerk, but he wants to be loved as much as the others. He thinks he is the hero of this story, but it is hard to tell exactly what he is doing because the game doesn’t give the player enough information about what Seifer knows. It is still touching at the end when his cronies finally convince him to abandon his quest.

Final Fantasy VIII is not my favorite Final Fantasy game. In fact, I would probably put it in the lower half. But playing a game like this, that I don’t exactly love, reminds me of why I was and am such a big Final Fantasy fan. Games like FF8, or 10 or 13 or 4 , game that I like but I think are flawed, may outnumber the ones that I do absolutely love. But they are all so interesting and generally enjoyable that I can’t help but want to play them. I guess that means I should get back to Final Fantasy XV.

Crash and Spyro 3

I was prepared to give Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped an hour or two, conclude that it was roughly the same as the previous two entries in the series and move on to Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon. I had already all but concluded that the PS1 Crash Bandicoot games just weren’t for me. I didn’t begrudge the people who do like them, but I didn’t consider them among the cream of the early 3D platforming crop. Honestly, I didn’t really find the first two games worth my time in 2019. I was only sticking with the game to keep up this gimmick of writing about Crash and Spyro in tandem. Then I started playing Warped.

I can’t articulate why or how, but this game just feels better than the previous two. It has all the hallmarks of the third game in a series on a console; the built up junk of repeated iterations trying to make something new without actually innovating. There is nothing I can point to and say that Crash Bandicoot 3 does better than 1 or 2. All I can say is that I really enjoyed playing it. It just feels like the game that all three of the games in the series should have been.

There are things in Crash 3 that should be the signs of an aging series. There are a lot of weird gimmick levels. Some with Coco on a jet ski, some with Coco riding a tiger, a few with Crash on a motorcycle, a few underwater levels. a level with Crash flying a biplane. With only 25 or 30 stages, having a full third of them being something other than the traditional stages should be a point against the game. But most of those stages are fun. They largely don’t completely change the game, they just put it in a different context. I hated the motorcycle races, but otherwise they were a lot of fun. That leaves a dozen or so regular stages. They are the same mix of fun and frustrating as before, though I encountered less of the frustration. The jumps still have that arc that I haven’t quite mastered. I still have a hard time judging distances going forward, though I learned to use the slide more than the spin as an offensive weapon in that context really lessened that problem.

It all just worked for me this time. There were some small frustrations, but I found Crash Bandicoot Warped to be a solid game. Especially considering its vintage. It almost makes me want to go back and give the first two another look. Almost.

While I went into Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped with little in the way of expectations, I went into Spyro: Year of the Dragon a little wary. I loved Spyro the Dragon, but Spyro 2 left me cold in the worst way. It wasn’t that the game was bad, but that it frustrated me in so many small ways that my memories of playing have curdled. It likely isn’t fair to the game, but I went into Spyro 3 scared that it would continue a downward slide. It is one thing to not like three straight games, it is another to love one and have the sequels disappoint. Luckily, Spyro: Year of the Dragon did not disappoint.

The game is not quite as good as the first, but Year of the Dragon was still a delight. It wisely gets rid of Spyro 2’s annoying upgrade system. Spyro has his abilities and those abilities are pretty static. For the most part, stages seem a little more simple, at least the Spyro sections. (I’ll have more to say about that clarification in a second.) Not every dragon’s egg, which are this game’s macguffin of choice, are hidden behind an elaborate set piece. Some are just hidden off to the sides of a stages, in well crafted nooks and crannies. For the most part, it plays just like the previous two Spyro games. You collect gems and find some other doodad.

There are different sections. Spyro meets a handful of allies on his quest and they are are playable at specific spots. They play close enough to Spyro that it is not completely jarring, and some of the sections actually add a fun dimension. The least enjoyable ones, aside from some of the weird one offs with the Yeti, are those featuring the monkey Agent 9 with a sort of proto-Ratchet and Clank style gameplay. Then there are the sections that kept me from 100% this game like I did with the first; the skateboard sections. Yes, I realize that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was popular, but these are out of place and frustrating. They show something that often crops up after a few games in a series.

Both of these games illustrate a problem that often happens with long running series; cruft builds up around the core gameplay and the fun little asides start to overwhelm the actual game. It often starts to appear in third entries, even good ones. Look at Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (And Knuckles). The game adds a lot of complementary ideas and extra playable characters. I choose that game as the example specifically because it shares something with both Crash 3 and Spyro 3; it is an excellent game. The accumulation of unnecessary stuff is there, but it has yet to really hamper the game. With Crash it is evident in all the vehicle levels. There are motorcycle races, jet skis obstacle courses, and bi-plane dogfights. They are not the game you came in expecting, but only the motorcycle stages are bad. In Spyro 3 it manifests itself as extra playable characters. Lots of sections of stages are there for Spyro’s new, and largely annoying for one reason or another, friends. There are some frustrating parts, but they are largely fine.

Both of these third entries show series treading water. They know they’ve hit on something successful and they do not seem interested in evolving that idea, instead the games merely iterate. The extra stuff is here to try to show growth without actually risking messing up a good thing by attempting to grow. The third Crash has softened me on that trilogy, and I genuinely enjoyed Spyro 3 almost as much as the first. Still, I am ready to be done with these series for a while.

Crash 2 and Spyro 2

I have more to say about the slightly disappointing Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage than I do about Crash Bandicoot 2. Crash Bandicoot 2 is more Crash Bandicoot. Nearly none of the problems I had with the first game are solved. The game adds a slide/crawl ability, but it doesn’t really change much. The most positive change is that it opens up the level selection, from going one level at a time in a strictly linear path to giving the player five or so to choose from at a time. It is an improvement, making it less likely that a player will get stuck for an extended time on one challenge. My major problems remain. I find Crash’s jump trajectory hard to parse and hard to control. It isn’t so bad in the side scrolling sections, but when going into or out of the screen, I can’t tell where I am going to land. There is some of this problem that is skill, and I am honestly not interested in honing that skill, but I have played a lot of platformers and I would say that I am generally pretty good at them. Crash Bandicoot 2 just feels sloppy. I want to specifically call out the chase segments, which were showstoppers back in the day, but I do not have a lot of patience for the trial and error they require since it is almost impossible to see upcoming obstacles. It feels like the hoverbike sequence in Battletoads. So I got about halfway through Crash Bandicoot 2 before deciding that my time was much better spent elsewhere.

While Crash 2 gave players more of the same, though it did add a new playable character, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage feels like it did more to evolve. The problem is that that evolution did nothing to improve the game. I would argue that the new stuff actually made the game worse than its predecessor. And that more to evolve is only relative to Crash Bandicoot 2, for the most part Spyro 2 is just more Spyro as well.

Without being too harsh on what is still essentially a very good game from two decades ago, Spyro 2 is a bit let down after playing the first Spyro, a game that I am increasingly of the opinion is a masterpiece. Spyro 2 adds gameplay complexity to it simpler predecessor, but that complexity doesn’t make the game better, it only makes it somewhat more tedious.

For the most part, Spyro 2 is the same as the first game in the series. The new stuff is around the edges, clear attempts to make the game deeper and more complex, but they mostly succeed in making the game kind of a drag at times. The first game was mostly environmental puzzles; you explore the worlds and find all the hidden gems, with dragons generally functioning as checkpoints and the occasion egg thief chase to spice things up. Spyro 2 still has the gems, but it replaces the dragons with orbs. Some orbs are simply hidden around the stages. Those are great. They play into Spyro’s strengths, which are largely how enjoyable it is to just explore as the punky purple dragon. More of them are hidden behind some sort of minigame and that is where the game loses me.

It isn’t that all of those minigames are bad; it is that they are inconsistent. Inconsistent in quality and inconsistent in difficulty. That isn’t helped by the new skills that Spyro learns along the way. I was inordinately annoyed at how I earned those new abilities. The fact that those new skills are slowly doled out as the game goes on is as much a problem with presentation as conception. Does it make sense that someone teaches Spyro to swim? I guess so, but why does it have to in such a perfunctory manner. Similarly, why does he need to learn to climb when all he has to is jump on the wall and climb. That is mostly a presentation problem; instead of giving the player a decent explanation for Spyro’s new powers, it treats it as a joke. The minigames work kind of the same way. Some of them work, like flying along a set path or finding lost baby turtles. Others, like playing hockey or a shooting gallery, are less fun. As the game goes on, the frustrating parts start to overwhelm the fun parts, culminating in a final boss battle that feels like it goes on forever.

Spyro 2 is still a pretty good game; all of the stuff I didn’t like is on the margins. You can beat the game without completing many, if any, of the frustrating challenges. But the first Spyro is the only game I’ve gotten a platinum trophy in; I felt compelled to experience everything that game had to offer. With Spyro 2, despite really enjoying it, I couldn’t wait to be done with it by the time I got to the end.

I’ve got another month or so break before I come back to these two series, but I am eager to see how things go in their third outings.

Yakuza Kiwami

Immediately after I finished Yakuza 0, I popped Yakuza Kiwami into my PS4. I had played the original Yakuza back in the day on my PS2, but other than the basics of the story and vague recollections of greatly enjoying it, I didn’t remember much. Going off those memories, Yakuza Kiwami is something of an ideal remake. It keeps the core of the experience intact while updating and fleshing it out and embellishing things.

The story of Yakuza benefits greatly from the context added both by the remake and by Yakuza 0. The story here is probably the simplest that the series has ever been, but it also felt a little lacking. Kiryu takes the blame after his sworn brother Nishiki kills their boss when he tried to rape Kiryu’s, and Nishiki’s, love interest Yumi. Kiryu is released from a ten year prison sentence, excommunicated from his Yakuza clan and finds out that Nishiki has risen far in the organization and become corrupt. So Kiryu tries to get re-acclimated to life outside of prison, he gets caught in plots and counterplots that threaten to tear the Tojo Clan apart. What didn’t really work before was the connection between Nishiki and Kiryu. The original told you how close Kiryu and Nishiki were, but it never really showed that. That problem is exacerbated by the game keeping Nishiki off the screen for almost the entire game. Yakuza Kiwami adds more the start (I think; I don’t remember the first few scenes) and interstitials scenes showing Nishiki’s development while Kiryu was away. Those, combined with the added context from Yakuza 0, work to make the connection between Nishiki and Kiryu believable. It makes more sense that Kiryu wants to reconnect with him despite all he sees and hears. It is still disappointing that two of the most important characters in the game, Nishiki and Yumi, get very little time on screen.

This game is clearly built on the same engine as Yakuza 0. It keeps the same array of fighting styles as that game, with Kiryu having three general fighting styles and one special one that is all but unusable until the end game. It all feels the same as the previous game, which is not a complaint. Both games are a lot of fun.

One of the biggest new change is the addition of the Majima everywhere system. Majima was a relatively small player in the first Yakuza, a memorable character, but not one that has a whole lot of plot significance. Since then, he’s evolved into one of the more loved characters in the series, up to his costarring role in Yakuza 0. To give him more to do here, Kiwami added Majima everywhere. With Majima everywhere, Majima takes it on himself to get Kiryu back into fighting shape after his prison stint by randomly fighting him all over town. With each encounter, or a set number of encounters, Kiryu traditional Dragon style is powered up. It is less annoying than it seems, at least initially. Majima uses all four of his fighting styles from Yakuza 0, so it isn’t the same fight over and over. He also trots out a series of costumes and hiding places to keep things interesting. And it works, at least until near the end of the game, when you’ve seen just about everything he has to offer and are trying to trigger specific encounters to finish upgrading the Dragon style. I don’t think the reward system for it was a good idea, since major parts of Majima Everywhere are locked behind story stuff, meaning Kiryu’s main style can’t effectively be used for most of the game.

Yakuza Kiwami is mostly just more of that Yakuza goodness. The game somehow manages the melodrama of the main plot with tons of inconsequential and downright goofy substories. Kiryu is a gangster with a remarkable aversion to actually do crimes, other than assault. Something new I noticed is how much this game draws from Battles Without Honor or Humanity, an excellent series of movies about the yakuza. The title is even referenced in a chapter title. The first movie starts with the forming of a yakuza clan in the aftermath of WWII as the rise and splinter and fall. A big part of that is one of the characters going to jail for a few years, only to get out and find all of his old friends either dead or changed. It takes up about a half hour in the movie, but it is essentially the same set up as Yakuza Kiwami.

Yakuza Kiwami is good. Newcomers to the series can start either here or with Yakuza 0 and miss nothing. I’ve recently beaten 0 and 1, and I’ve got Kiwami 2 and 6 on deck. I think I might take a trip through the whole series before finishing up with Kiryu’s grand farewell in Yakuza 6. Mostly because my Mario replay is wrapping up and I need a new project to fail to complete.