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.

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.

Bravely Second: End Layer

A couple of years ago, I was wowed by Bravely Default, at least at the start. By the end I was pretty darn sick of it. The problems I pointed to in my review were pacing and balance, but I had others. The characters varied from grating to nonexistent and the plot ran about 2 chapters too far. Bravely Second, a game built on the bones of its predecessor, manages to fix all of those problems. I started out being somewhat underwhelmed with it, mostly due to how sick I still was of the end of Bravely Default, but by the time I finished it up I would rank it as one of the best RPGs on the 3DS. Bravely Second is a complete delight.

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There are so many small ways this game improves on its predecessor, starting with the characters. The party in BD consisted of Agnes, a completely generic female JRPG lead. She wasn’t bad, but she was exactly in the mold that has been used for that character since Rosa in FFIV. It had Tiz, a blank slate protagonist, and Edea, a hot headed defector the party’s team. Finally, there was Ringabel, a loveable rapscallion with a mysterious past. By the end of the game, Ringabel’s increasingly unfunny antics started to dominate the moments of levity. In Bravely Second, only Tiz and Edea return to the main party. Edea hasn’t changed, and didn’t need to. Tiz’s lack of personality has transformed with his demotion from protagonist to something of a laconic cool. He is now as close as this game gets to a silent badass. Joining the party are Yew, a wide eyed optimist suffused with bland enthusiasm, and Magnolia, who starts the same as Agnes as a sort of generic JRPG leading lady, but her quest is for revenge not activating mystical doohickeys. Agnes still has a prominent role as support, and it is a role that suits her well. Ringabel is held to a thankfully brief – and optional – cameo. The group in Bravely Second is more interesting and has a better rapport. The comic relief is split more evenly around the four party members and everyone comes off as fun instead of grating.

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The other characters, generally some sort of twisted embodiment of their class (inherited through an asterisk that bestows that class and its abilities on the player), were often interesting if underutilized. Except for Yulyana, who was neither interesting nor underutilized. In Bravely Second, the returning original asterisk holders have been given a slightly softened outlook. They are still kind of awful, but usually in a more comical than diabolical way. The new ones are split between plot centric ones with full characters and new toss off characters. Still, they managed to keep most of the good ones from the previous game and took a crack replacing the ones that didn’t work with new attempts, with some success. Like most of the game, BS’s characters are an improved revision of the first’s.

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The pacing and balance are much improved as well. No longer can you pick a strategy in the first 10 hours and use it for the rest of the game with total success. While I did attempt to experiment in the first game, it didn’t often feel rewarding. It was just as effective to stick with one or two strategies. Bravely Second’s classes dole out their effective skills a little slower, making it harder to find the perfect strategy and stick with it. Plus, the bosses do a better job of changing tactic to force the player to do the same. The game also moves at a snappier pace, with fewer bosses in each area. It is a revisit of all of Bravely Defaults haunts, but with new sights and new missions. Then there is the central conceit of the game, with the New Game+ being necessary to get the true ending. BD forced the player to run through the game several times to get to the real ending. BS has a one time trick that opens up two fully new chapters. The last half of BD was a slog, because the game was fully explored and you just had to keep doing it. BS wisely held some stuff back for the second run through.

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Bravely Second takes a good game and fixes almost all of its faults, turning a flawed yet fun experience into what should be regarded as a classic.

After 13 Games You Know It’s Never Really Final

Final Fantasy XIII is a smoking hot mess of a game. For everything it well or exceptionally well, it does another thing either poorly or fails to do it at all. The game has one of the most well-realized main casts in the genre paired with a plot that never even tries to make sense, as well as a complete lack of a supporting cast. It streamlined plenty of the tedium that plagues JRPGs but also loses many useful or necessary conventions in the deal. Playing FFXIII is like watching a play through a telescope; you see some things in magnificent detail, but it is nearly impossible to form a context for what you’ve seen due to the tiny field of view.

Final Fantasy XIII odd dual identity is easily seen in its story. FFXIII main characters are a well-rounded, engaging group. Sure, some of their characterizations fall back on the usual anime tropes, but there is more depth to them than the majority of video game casts. Lightning tries to be the stoic badass, and is for the most part, but in becoming that badass she has forfeited her connection to her sister. She is out for redemption, to atone for not being there for her sister when Serah needed her. Sazh, apparently a favorite of many though not me, is a father out of his depth trying to save his son. Fang and Vanille have a relationship that echoes Lightning and Serah’s, an older sister trying to protect the younger. Hope starts as a whiny brat and matures into a somewhat less whiny brat. He faces the trauma of seeing his mother die in the opening minutes of the game, and must process that grief and grow beyond it. Snowe, while not one of my favorite characters, is certainly an entertaining one. He is the peppy JRPG hero, like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia or Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia, in a game that has absolutely no use for him. He wants to protect his love Serah, but fails. He tries to find meaning in their becoming L’Cie, but there is none to be had. He is forced to confront the wreckage inadvertently left in the wake of his can do attitude. Unfortunately, there are virtually no supporting characters. The game starts to build up some villains, but they promptly disappear after a few scenes, with the exception of Barthandelus. Any other supporting character is lucky to get so much as a name and two scenes. The plot, to put it nicely, is an indecipherable mess. The party is made L’Cie at the start. What exactly being a L’Cie means is never clearly explained. The player must infer it from the small amount of context available. The important thing is that people do not like them. The must obey the fal’Cie, which again are entities with no clear explanation, just that they are powerful beings. There are mentions of Cocoon and Pulse, but for the longest time no explanation of just what those two are. Countries? Cities? Planets? Once more, though never all, becomes clear the party finds a new goal. (Big Spoilers) The villain wants them to kill the fal’Cie powering Cocoon, but they refuse. Then, they kill it anyway and everything works out. Because it does.(End of Big Spoilers) The story game plays out in blunt, yet effective character bits intertwined with often visually amazing but nonsensical plot scenes. It is baffling how they got one part so very right, yet flubbed the others so very badly.

The rest of the game is the same way. The battle system seems to be another take on many of the same ideas that power FFXII’s battle system. Individual attacks are automated, but the player gets to choose what actions the characters can take. The control is another step back, with players making sets of classes for their party and switching class make up on the flay to handle dynamic battle situations. While the lack of direct control can seem off putting at first, once the game lets the training wheels come off it is rather entertaining and there is more strategy involved than most games in the genre. All other parts of usual JRPG gameplay are gone. There are no real towns to visit, no shops, nothing but tunnels to run through. Some of the losses are good. The genre, led by FFVII, had become bloated with mini-games and tedious sidequests. Those are all gone. Their loss helps streamline the game. But the loss of towns and shops hurt, making it harder to get a sense of this world and the people in it. Everything is done by a computer that pops out of save points. Despite the very real characters, the world of Final Fantasy XIII feels the most artificial. This world exists just to tell this game’s story. The crazy tunnel land suddenly ends when the player reaches Gran Pulse, a wide open plain full of strong enemies and optional missions. Instead of being a welcome change, at first is feels crippling. The game has held the player’s hand for so long that the sudden lack of direction is almost overwhelming. After a little bit of hesitance, though, Gran Pulse shows itself to be the best part of the game. The battle system has a near perfect combination of fluidity and strategy that running around fighting monsters is actually fun.

It is initially hard to get past FFXIII’s obvious terrible flaws. But the core of the game is very very good. That with the fine level of polish helps keep Final Fantasy XIII entertaining. I’d put it near the middle of the series in terms of quality, there with the other middle of the road Final Fantasies like 7 or 8. It is a flawed gem whose flaws are all the more obvious due to how large of a gem it is. It is not my favorite, and with what is essentially a 20 hour tutorial to start I can’t see myself replaying it soon, but I really did like this game.