31 August 2010

RPG Week — Final Fantasy XIII

[Note: I originally wrote this using the normal convention of using Roman numerals (VII, XII, XIII). However, I felt like it resulted in too many I's that made things confusing, and thus changed it to the decimal numeral system (7, 12, 13).]

Put simply, the Final Fantasy franchise is sort of The Simpsons of the RPG world. It was arguably the best when it was in its prime, but now it feels like it's just gone on a little too long.

That's not to say that Final Fantasy is terrible now, or that it's not worth playing. It's just that, well... it no longer lives up to its own name. Honestly, people would probably be a lot less critical of new Final Fantasy titles if they didn't carry the iconic name. But how can it compete with games like Final Fantasy 7, which have become canonized as true classics of the genre? Much like the original three Star Wars films, the level of praise and adoration heaped upon earlier Final Fantasy games has elevated them above what they even were to something nearing cult-like adoration. To put forth a critique against Final Fantasy 7 would be a sin in the eyes of many.

Therefore, I shall try to be fair in my judgement of Final Fantasy 13 and not only compare it to its predecessors, but to try to take it for what it is—on its own terms.

Its hard for me to exactly place how I feel about the characters in Final Fantasy 13. I'll be honest and say that I like them more than Final Fantasy 12. Even though I've only played through about half of FF13 so far (i.e. I just completed the "tutorial," as gamers sarcastically call the first half), I feel like I know them to some extent. I have some sense of their motivations and their personalities. However, I can't help but shake the feeling that part of it is just because many of them remind me of other Final Fantasy characters. Lightning is pretty explicitly a female Cloud Strife, but some of the other characters also feel a little... archetypal.

And when all is said and done, I don't really feel for all of them. In fact, the only character I've genuinely connected with is Sazh. Still, I think I still care about all of them more than I did those in FF12. When it came to FF12, I basically just kept thinking, "Why the hell aren't the main characters Fran and Balthier?" And don't get me started on the complete pointlessness of Vaan's character.

I guess I'd just say the characters in FF13 are largely okay. Not great, but not horrible either. Well, except Sazh. He is awesome and I love him.

Sometimes, Final Fantasy needs to realize that sometimes less is more. I honestly can't tell you what was going on in FF12. I know there was a lot of political intrigue and such, but that's about it. I don't even remember what I was really fighting against other than that he was some big bad Emperor of the World guy or something.

FF13 tends to be a bit better in that regard, but I still feel like I really ought to be doing my research and regularly keeping up-to-date on the lengthy glossary entries in order to understand the intricacies of what's going on in the story. I guess if you're really into the game, it must be cool to have this vast and detailed world with its complex history and unique creatures and worlds and everything. A lot of work went in to it, and I can appreciate it on some level. But ultimately, I want a story that's a little simpler.

Of course, even the great and legendary Final Fantasy 7 had it's own "What the hell is going on?!" moments, but it didn't seem as bad. Still, I say FF13 is much better than FF12 in this regard. At least I have a vague idea of what's going on and why people are doing the things they are doing.

Let's be honest, here. Final Fantasy has never really been one to just stick to the same old gameplay. Even the second game in the series tried something entirely new with its combat. It also pretty much failed, and they moved back to the original gameplay style. Granted, most of the older games were generally pretty similar in their play style, and only messed with littler things like exactly how magic worked, how you use summons, etc. It was all still turn-based and usually stuck to the same basic menu-based input method.

Final Fantasy 12 was the first one to really shake things up, and it caught a lot of negative attention for it. Ironically, now that everyone is hating on FF13, FF12 seems to have grown in popularity and praise among fans. At the time, I defended FF12 for what it is, and I'm prepared to do the same with FF13. Because honestly, I like FF13 a lot more.

The battle system in Final Fantasy 13 is fun. It's a lot of fun. It's also really hard to describe, so bare with me. Essentially, your characters act on their own. You do have the option of manually inputting commands for the leader character, but it isn't practical to do so unless you have something very specific in mind that needs to be done. So you may be asking, "So you sit back and watch the game play itself?" No. No you don't. Well, sort of, but you're not sitting back. You're sitting on the edge of your seat, keeping a vigilant eye on everything that's going on.

You see, if you aren't paying attention to exactly what your characters are doing, you are going to die and you are going to die quickly. Your job as the player is essentially that of the tactician. See, your party members act according to the current Paradigm, which assigns them with a role. For example, Lightning can be be a Commando (think Fighter), Ravager (Black Mage), or Medic (White Mage). The other three role types are Sentinel (a tank class that's good at taking a lot of hits), Synergist (uses buff spells to help the party out), and Saboteur (uses debuff spells to hinder the enemy).

A Paradigm will change the roles of your entire party. For example, Relentless Assault will have two Ravagers and a Commando and is a good way to stagger an enemy. Once enemies are staggered, they will take more damage, among other things. However, if your party is losing HP, you might want to switch to Combat Clinic (a Sentinel and two Medics) to quickly heal up. Or if it's a little less urgent, you could use Evened Odds (Synergist, Saboteur, and Medic) to also work on buffing and debuffing and thus make the battle a little easier.

Thus, a lot of the gameplay revolves around split second decision on what Paradigm is best for the given situation. And when I say a lot of the gameplay, I mean it. The game is pretty much just battles and cutscenes. Yeah, you get to move around, but you're just running down a hallway to the next battle or cutscene.

This has been highly criticized by gamers, and yeah, I'll admit I do miss the exploration element a little bit. But at the same time, I'd much rather take this over the Oblivion way of doing it. "Hey, here's a huge world to explore. Now go!" "Well, what am I supposed to be doing? Where do I go?" "Don't ask me, dude. You can go anywhere. Well, except some of the places are going to be impossible to go into without dying, but I'm sure you'll figure that out when you get your ass handed to you." I mean, so what if FF13 is linear? So was FF7. It's just, well... FF13 is really linear. Really, really, really linear. So I can see why some people are complaining. At the same time, I don't mind. It's not that I wouldn't like more exploration, but I feel like it doesn't make it any less fun for me. The battles are where it's at, and the battles are great.

If there's one thing that Final Fantasy 13 excels at, it's the graphics. The visuals are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, the music is less incredible. It's kind of generic, but it gets the job done. At least it's not that godawful elevator musak aboard the Elsa starship in Xenosaga Episode II (i.e. your primary headquarters). Unlike that abomination, the music if FF13 never really stands out as bad because it never really stands out. It's just there in the background, setting the mood behind the scenes. Oh, except one song does use the jawharp, and I have to give it mad props for that.

This isn't a cutscene. This is in game.
Just think about that for a second.
But seriously. The graphics are amazing. I mean, just look at that. Look at it right over there See the caption? Yeah.

And if I put more emphasis on graphics, then this would be the greatest game ever.

Unfortunately, I don't. And while it is a very pretty game, that doesn't make it great. Still, it is a lot of fun. I just wish they would've played the fun side up more. I mean, Sazh has a freaking chocobo in his afro. You even go to a Golden Saucer clone but then don't get to do any of the fun stuff. It always has a bit too much of an air of seriousness. Maybe if it lost that and upped the fun, I'd love this game. As it stands, I like it. Really, I do. But I've also been totally distracted from it by two small little Atlus releases on PSP that I'll be talking about tomorrow: Crimson Gem Saga and Hexyz Force. Because by god, those games know what it means to have fun. At least as far as the story is concerned.

30 August 2010

RPG Week — Lunar: Silver Star Harmony

Despite being a fan of classic RPGs and an owner of a Sega CD, I have never played the original Lunar: The Silver Star. Maybe it's because my Sega CD was packaged with the godawful Sewer Shark and that the first game my brother and I bought for it was StarBlade, but we just weren't that impressed with the Sega CD. In fairness, I think it was purchased along with the Genesis itself, and we were more than happy to play the Sonic games and other Genesis gems.

Of course, now that I'm older, I've realized that in those early days, I missed out on a lot of good RPGs. I didn't even have an SNES, so it's not surprising that the first console RPG I ever played was Final Fantasy VII and the first one I ever beat was Chrono Cross. I'm not complaining—those were great games and original PlayStation was truly a golden age for RPGs—but it does mean there are a lot of great games I've yet to play.

One of those was Lunar. That is, until just recently. I'd still love to sit down and give the original a go, but for those without Sega CDs at their disposal, the latest remake on PSP provides gamers yet another chance to play through Lunar. It may be important to note that this is not the first remake of Lunar, as there was Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete on original PlayStation (which is itself a port of the Sega Saturn remake). As such, the PSP version is arguably a remake of a port of a remake, and thus draws heavily from its PS1 predecessor.

So let's get down to business, shall we?

Honestly, I think this is where Lunar really shines. Someone would have to be rather cold-hearted not to fall in love with them.

Although the game tends to be fairly simple, perhaps even generic, the characters are something else entirely. There's an immense amount of personality going on here, and there's a lot of interaction between the characters. The party is essentially divided into three couples: Alex and Luna, Nash and Mia, and Jessica and Kyle.

The relationship between Jessica and Kyle is probably the most entertaining, as both are rather brash and headstrong and frequently butt heads. That said, the other couples have their own joint personalities that provide plenty of character development and interest. Alex and Luna probably have the most "romantic" and "sweet" story, and their love is the ultimate focus of the story.

The story itself follows the usual RPG trope of "save the world from the Big Bad and get the girl." Most of the plot points are fairly basic and while there are some twists, none really shocked me. That's not to say it was bad, but compared to the characters, the events tend to be more forgettable.

I would say that, moreso than many other RPGs, Lunar is a love story. Although many games have love interests, it is the focus of this game. However, the game generally avoids getting too sickly sweet. Also, unlike some games *coughcoughFFVIIIcoughXenosagaEpisodeIIcoughcoughcough*, the love interests actually make sense. You see the development of the relationship and how the characters work together. Each couple seems right for each other, and it never gets too whiny or angsty about things.

The story is a very, very happy one. And while that's not good all the time, in a genre that tends to get a little too emo at times, it's kind of a welcomed relief to play a game where the characters are genuinely happy and in love.

The gameplay is solid, but nothing extraordinary. Everything works the way it should. The combat system does mix things up a little bit in that your characters actually move around on the battle field. When you choose to attack an enemy, the character will move into range and then attack. Thus, if an enemy is far away, it is possible that the character will not be able to move close enough to attack, and will only run part-way.

This version, like it's PlayStation predecessor, also includes ranged spells. In other words, there are some spells that will only affect enemies within a certain range (a circle around the main target, enemies in a straight line horizontally or vertically, etc). This does add a little bit of extra strategy in planning your attacks.

However, overall, the game is pretty damn easy. So easy, in fact, that I ran into one major problem with the game. There is one boss fight that you cannot win. I am used to these in RPGs. However, it's usually pretty obvious that you can't win. Perhaps the enemy is just ridiculously overpowered, like a certain boss in Chrono Cross. (And, in fact, if you are playing New Game+ and do manage to beat the boss, the enemy gets back up and performs an instant kill move.) Perhaps the enemy uses a spell that instantly kills your party, like a boss in Persona 4 that kills your characters (and you cannot revive them).

Technically, this boss does have an instant kill spell, but it only affects one character at a time and it doesn't always work. Furthermore, you can revive that character afterwards with spells or items. I fought the boss for 45 minutes, far longer than any previous boss in the game, before finally going, "Okay, what the hell? Is there something I'm missing?" I checked a guide and lo and behold, you're just supposed to sandbag it. Okay, so maybe a character in the game tells you that you can't win the fight "through normal means" or something like that. However, that often means, "So beat the boss, but he won't actually die and it will go to a cut scene where you use the Power of Lurve to kill it or something." Apparently not in this case. You're just supposed to know, "Hey, why even bother putting up a fight? Just stand there and let him kill you." What the hell?

But that one specific case aside, the game was pretty fun, if easy. You definitely play more for the story parts than the battles, but the battles never (except for one) get boring, tedious, or frustrating.

The updated PSP graphics are pretty slick in their 2D sprite glory. I really wish more games would use 2D sprites instead of 3D models, especially RPGs where that third dimension is rarely needed. The game looks good, and the voice acting is pretty solid. The music was nice, though it didn't quite stick with me like some musical scores have. I know that Menchi really liked the music in the SegaCD version, and that it was redone for this version (not sure about the PS1 version). Maybe this is a case where they should have left it as it was. Not that the music was bad, it just wasn't great.

Overall, the ambience was good and helped accent the fantastic writing and characters, but it wasn't phenomenal.

Cutest sidekick ever.
Final Thoughts
Lunar is a nice little RPG with a lot of heart. Its characters are amazing and you have to love it for that. I wouldn't say it's an absolute must-play for gamers, but if your an RPG fan and you want something to help you relax and smile a little, definitely go for it. I could also see it being a good RPG for some people to start on due to its relative easiness.

Plus, you gotta admit—Nall is damn cute. And handsome to boot!

Tomorrow, I'll take a look at Final Fantasy XIII.

RPG Week — Introduction

Yes, I used to play this stuff. No, I'm not crazy.
Now that I have internet again and some time to spare, I'm planning on getting back into the swing of this. In fact, I plan on writing a little every day and theoretically posting most of it here. I am thinking of trying to record as many of my memories as possible, and most of that project would not make it's way here. But otherwise, I'll be reviewing and discussing films, video games, and books just about every day from now on. My goal is to keep this up for a month. After that, it'll be wedding time and I may miss a day or two.

At any rate, I plan to start things out with a little feature to span the entire week. I'm going to write a post each day discussing a different RPG that I've been playing lately.

But first, I thought I'd lay down the groundwork for you on just what I plan on doing.

Why RPGs?
Believe it or not, my first foray into role playing games was, in fact, old text-based games. I never beat any, but I enjoyed them immensely. Imagine my surprise when I found out about Final Fantasy VII, the first console RPG I ever played. And then I beat my first RPG—Chrono Cross. And from there on out, it was truly a love that was meant to be.

In general, I tend to enjoy the strong storytelling element in RPGs. Furthermore, they are also more about strategy (or for some, grinding) than dexterity—battles are not won with quick reflexes and split-second decisions but with tactical planning and creative thinking. I usually prefer the "mental" challenge of RPGs to the "physical" challenge of many other genres. Though don't get me wrong, I've beaten Mega Man 2 and the Scott Pilgrim game and shooters like Red Faction. I love me some shoot-em-ups, and I like fighting games. But role playing games are where my heart lies. They are my bread and butter. I cannot deny that fact.

How do you intend to review them?
I am always keenly aware that reviews are a mixture of objective observations and subjective opinions. To a certain degree, one can objectively discuss the facts of a work of art. One could say that a film is poorly animated, with numerous animation errors. Perhaps a book is written in a manner that is overly simplistic. We could fault a video game for having numerous glitches. However, we ultimately have to make a subjective decision on how much these observations matter.

Maybe the glitches in the game make it more amusing, and they are thus easy to overlook. Maybe the animation errors add campy charm to the already campy film. Perhaps the overly simplistic writing makes the book easily accessible to children. At a certain point, we have to make a judgement call based on the facts. Our final verdict is therefore a mixture of objective and subjective reasoning, and it is for this reason that many films, books, and video games can receive wildly differing reviews.

It is also for this reason that I avoid giving easily digested reviews on this blog. I don't have a number system. I don't give something X stars out of 10. I don't give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I discuss the work of art. I discuss what I thought it did well and where I thought it was lacking. I'll often say if I liked it or not. But I never try to imply that what I say and think is the fact of the matter. Ultimately, I leave it up to you to decide if you agree with me or not. I leave it up to you to decide if you want to pursue it or not.

This is, perhaps, an entirely too complex concept to fully flesh out here, so I will get on with the matter at hand.

What makes a good RPG?
That is, what makes a good RPG for me. For ease of understanding, I plan on dividing my discussions into categories that deal with different aspects of RPGs that I feel are important. They are:
Characters: This tends to be one of the most important parts of story-telling for me. I want characters that I care about. I want to feel for them as human beings and connect with them at some level. I want characters that are realistic. And no, despite what game developers seem to think "realism" means these days, "realistic" doesn't mean darkness and grit. Yes, conflict exists and is a part of life. Yes, it's true that life doesn't always work out to a happy ending and that there is darkness in the world and pain and suffering. People die, and often it is very sad. However, life can also be happy. People smile and laugh. There are times where things are peaceful and beautiful. And no, that time is not just the past, some bittersweet memory. Sometimes, even in the midst of difficulty, people can laugh and smile and be happy for what they have. I want characters that are like real people, who feel a large range of emotions. And while the ending doesn't always have to be "happy" in the classic sense, I still want to see them grow. I want to see them become better people.

Plot: The story is important, and I want it to be moving and interesting. That doesn't mean it needs to be overly complex, though. Though I will not be discussing Final Fantasy XII, I will mention here that it's story is just too crazy for me. There are so many little plot points and details and they create all these characters and all this back history that I feel like I need Cliff's Notes just to understand what is going on. I think a lot of RPGs like FFXII will sacrifice character development for creating a complex and intriguing story. In the end, I feel as though something great and inspiring has just happened, but that I missed it. I missed it because I never became emotionally involved in what was going on. It just sort of happened, and it all seemed to be riddled with plot twists and so forth, but I never really cared at a personal level. Plots can be interesting and powerful without being extremely detailed. Sometimes, a very simple story can be much more powerful. More is less, to a certain degree.

Gameplay: Essentially, is it fun to play? The core of RPG gameplay is text-based story and battles. So what's the battle system like? Does it feel challenging? Or is it too easy? Is it rewarding to do well? Does it do anything new? Or does it do the old standard well?

Another facet of gameplay is how you explore the world. In general, I want some level of exploration without it being overwhelming. I want the game to help guide me through a vast and amazing world. Tell me where to go and what to do, but give me some freedom in the matter. Just not so much freedom that I get lost.

Ambience: This last part would include things like graphics, music, and sound effects/voice acting. If the other three aspects above are like the ingredients in a dish, ambience is sort of like the seasoning. You only really notice it when it's so bad that it ruins the experience for you or so good that it pushes it from good to purely amazing. A game with terrible ambience can ruin the whole mood of it. A game with great characters, plot, and gameplay but mediocre ambience can still be a lot of fun. The best, though, is when the other elements are good, and then the ambience makes it purely unforgettable. Music can be a big part of this for me. Just think of the music in FFVII and how much it adds to that game.

Well, tomorrow (Monday), I'll be posting the first actual review. It will be on Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, which I actually beat a while ago, but is still fairly fresh in my mind.