Mean, green failing machine

The culprit: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo Entertainment System, Gamecube, Wii and Nintendo 3DS, via Virtual Console)

Inspirational logoBeing a notorious completionist, when I enjoy a series, I eventually foray into its earliest installments. Partly out of curiosity to see the evolution over the years. Partly to be aware of the overarching story, if there is one. This is how I got around to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Having bought the Collector’s Edition for the Gamecube, which included Ocarina of TimeMajora’s Mask and the first two Zelda games, I thought that this was a good occasion for some videogame archaeology. I should’ve known what to expect before even starting. Maybe I don’t have the best reflexes in the world, and maybe I’m just no good at oldschool games, but I still have nightmarish memories of the first opus in the series: unforgivably difficult, no story to speak of, no indications as to the order in which to do things. Well, Zelda II is the same. But worse.

Serious case of oversleepingIn terms of storyline, it’s a direct sequel to the first game (one of the rare instances of such continuity within the series). This doesn’t really amount to much, however, since it takes place several years later. Link is older, and Zelda isn’t the same one as in the first game, but rather an ancestor, asleep in a remote chamber of the castle under the effects of a curse (now why does this sound familiar…?). So they may just as well have been different characters altogether. Just like in most of the other games in the series.

Blob attackAs for the gameplay, picture a hybrid between an old Super Mario game and an RPG. And no, you don’t get Legend of the Seven Stars (if only!), but rather some kind of unholy offspring. It comes as no surprise that this system has never been reused in the series since. There’s an overworld map, peppered with dungeons and visible enemies. Running into one of them or entering a dungeon plonks Link into a sidescrolling environment. He gets three lives and gains experience points in battle. Pretty bizarre for a Zelda game, but that’s not a problem in itself. If Link loses a life, he restarts at the entrance to the area. But god forbid you should actually get a Game Over (ie. lose all three of Link’s lives). Because that takes him back to the first area of the game. Meaning that he’ll have to Straight to the pointtrek all the way to where he was before dying. I’ll just let you imagine how that feels when you’re nearing the end of the game. And three lives whisk by very quickly. Especially since there’s no permanent way to obtain more; every time you get a Game Over, you’re brought back to three. Of course, there’s the slight additional problem that getting a Game Over is the only way to save. Yeap.

8-bit nightmareSo you’d think that avoiding a Game Over would be a good idea. That would be underestimating the combat system. Forget about steep learning curves. Or even 90° ones. In this game, the learning curve forms an acute angle. I actually had to give up trying to play it on my Gamecube and resort to a NES emulator. So I could, y’know, save. Otherwise, I’d still be trying to finish the first dungeon. And I really wish I was kidding. Not only are there very limited ways of recovering Link’s HP and magic power in the field (a handful of potions can be found or dropped after a battle), but the enemies are brutally unforgiving. Especially Iron Just *what* is he shooting?Knuckles, who have mind-bogglingly amazing AI for a NES game. If you thought they were hard in any of the subsequent Zelda games, you’ve got another one coming. The blue ones are particularly bad. They continuously chuck swords, of which they have an infinite supply. This is probably the closest thing to actual Sword-Chucks that you’ll find outside of 8-Bit Theater. It also looks profoundly dodgy when they switch to leg strikes.

Don't mind if I do!To compensate for the hair-tearing difficulty, the game offers a few chuckles at its own expense. Link–who is an adult in this game (another rare instance in the series)–allows himself some GTA-like escapades, as if the game were having a bizarre premonitory, cross-genre flash. Every town has a woman in a red dress walking around in front of a house. If Link talks to her, she invites him to come in. And then, all you see is his life bar filling up. Hey, even 8-bit studs need their action. However, this becomes a lot more disturbing when it comes to recovering magic power. The method is exactly the same, but Link has to talk to a little granny instead…who then gives him her ‘special medicine’.

I think I just had a revelationAmong other laughable details, there’s the translation, featuring such timeless classics as the “N°3 TRIFORCE”. Or “I AM ERROR”, one of the unforgettable–and oddly philosophical, when you think about it–responses Link will get during his sometimes baffling encounters with the denizens of the game. Or the Spell spell. Talk about stating the obvious. Or does Link have orthography problems? There’s also the aptly named Fairy spell, which is used to fly over obstacles. It transforms Link into one of those cute lil’ fairies that are commonly used to replenish health in Zelda games, complete with a red dress and a little crown. So not only does it shrink him and allow him to fly, but he also gets a sex change thrown in. It’s got to be one of the most impressive magic spells I’ve ever encountered. I’m sure Tingle, the incredibly creepy fairy guy from Majora’s Mask, would’ve loved the concept.

SPLAT!In conclusion, if you’re ever tempted, for some unfathomable reason, to try this game out, just pray you can get through it without terminal finger cramps. And never look back. Thank god that Zelda has evolved since then. That’s probably the one good thing I got out of this experience: a better appreciation of the more recent Zelda opuses. Nostalgia is all well and good, but you gotta be realistic sometimes: not everything was better back in Ye Olde Days.

No strings attached

The culprit: Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (Nintendo DS)

EscapismThe original Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was a bit of a UFO in the Final Fantasy series. Yes, it was similar to Final Fantasy Tactics in terms of gameplay, yes, it featured moogles, chocobos and a Cid, but that was where the similarities stopped. The game was set in a modern-day world, for a start, and I don’t know if it was just me, but I was thoroughly weirded out at seeing that kind of setting in an FF game. Then, there were the storyline and characters: the latter were mostly uninteresting schoolchildren in silly outfits, and the former broke some kind of fourth wall, as it was trying to prove that retreating to a fantasy world in order to escape your problems was not a solution. Not exactly the best way to sell a fantasy game, as I’m sure you’ll concur. Basically, the one real perk was its battle system.

I hope the chocobo throws them offFor some reason, Square Enix has since decided to make a sequel to this game, a puzzling decision if there ever was any, as it wasn’t exactly the biggest of hits. Yet, here we are, and Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (sure is a mouthful) is a true successor to its ancestor, as it keeps the exact same formula that ensured its ‘success’. The characters are just as unlikeable as before (*slaps Adelle a couple of times*) and just as ridiculously dressed. The cast also includes a plethora of cameos from FFXII: Vaan and Penelo (*groan*), Montblanc and his brother Hurdy, and Al-Cid, the only mildly entertaining one. The storyline is, once again, pretty much nonexistent: a boy is grounded at school for being late and Pretty much, yeahsent to tidy up the library. There he finds an old book, and for lack of anything better to do, decides to write his name in it (thus idiotically designating himself for subsequent punishment for defacing school property). This has the effect of whisking him off to another world, where he joins a clan (basically a group of adventurers), and all he has to do to go back home is…explore and have fun. Yep, that’s it. There are tangential storylines interspersed with this morass, but they are largely independent from each other and from the greater scheme of things. So once again, that just leaves the battle system to save the day.

Luckily, that is what the game does best. For those who are familiar with FFTA, you’ll feel right at home. The characters are still supremely customisable: each can take on a variety of jobs, which are still determined by his or her race, but there are now Wouldn't she trip over her feet?more jobs for each race, and two more races: Seeq, the aesthetically challenged pig-people from FFXII, and Gria, dragon-like females, previously not featured in any Ivalice game. The characters can still summon super-strong creatures after performing a certain amount of successful actions in battle, but instead of having only five, you now get the whole set of thirteen from FFXII, probably in a bid to make them more familiar–and thus, more likable–to the player base, with variable success. Thus, Ultima (damages all enemies and fully heals all allies) and Shemhazai (guaranteed 999 damage to one enemy, if used by a character who has been dealing a lot of damage throughout the game) are now officially awesome, while Zodiark is for the gambling, suicidal type (50% chance of dealing 999 damage to enemies and allies).

That's gonna leave a stainCombat is still regulated by laws: special rules determined at the beginning of the skirmish, which no participant (enemy or ally) is technically allowed to break and which are enforced by judges. However, the former are more lenient than in FFTA, and there is a lower penalty for breaking them: no one goes to jail, the fallen combatants are simply not allowed to be revived for the duration of that battle. Luso’s clan also has its own beneficial laws it can use, which it can unlock by performing Clan Trials of variable difficulty. These Trials also grant the clan titles. The higher tier titles lower the prices of items, but also make new recruits want to join. The Bazaar system, which allows Luso to sell loot to have shopkeepers create new equipment, also makes a comeback from FFXII and works quite well. The territorial Getting luckysystem has been improved, as you no longer have to build the world map from scratch and hope that you’ll get some good treasures out of it (a truly TERRIBLE idea from the first FFTA); the map is now predetermined and subdivided into regions around the main towns. The clan also no longer needs to constantly defend its turf from the attacks of other clans. Instead, control of a region is auctioned off at a certain time each year. If the clan gains control of one whole region, it keeps that status permanently, which means that, not only can the territory never be taken away, but also that the auction for that region will now allow the clan to acquire rare items.

When will it stop...?In short, it’s all good fun…until you get bogged down by the sheer number of missions. Just like in the original FFTA, they number 300 all told, both mandatory and optional–which you can now fortunately keep track of with a grid, something you couldn’t do in FFTA–plus some random encounters (monsters or disgruntled clans who are pissed off at Luso’s clan for winning an auction), as well as an optional dungeon called Brightmoon Tor, which, in the purest tradition of optional dungeons, is a tower composed of some 40 floors filled with very nasty enemies, but also some nifty treasure to make it worth your while. But my point is that this abundance of material is an artificial way to lengthen gameplay. Sure, it’s fun for the first 10-20 hours or so, but Yes, that's a giant chickenwhen you realise just how many more missions you have to go through after you reach the 50 hour mark, a distinct feeling of discouragement sets in. I’m currently finishing up Brightmoon Tor and the last ‘secret’ mission of the game (it’s not counted on your mission roster, so technically, it means that there are 301 missions total), and my timer has gleefully skipped over the 160 hour mark. And I really wish I were kidding. Don’t be surprised if, after a while, you find yourself wondering “wait…so where was the storyline going already?” Or maybe you won’t. Because, in the wonderful words of l33t-speak: lolstoryline.

Sorry, folks!So to make a long story short: if you want a game with no strings attached, something you can pick up whenever you want a bit of fun tactical fighting, FFTA2 is pretty much perfect and will last you a VERY long time. If, however, you like to have some storyline meat on the bones of your gameplay and don’t fancy getting lost in oodles of mindless missions…you might want to reconsider. Scratch that: get another game, full stop.

Epic nonsense

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (GameCube)

Considering the almost legendary status of the Metal Gear series, finally getting my hands on The Twin Snakes was quite a momentous experience. As this was only the second real action game I’d ever played back then, I was a bit apprehensive as to how I would fare. In hindsight, I can say that most of my fears were confirmed, but they were also, to a great extent, compensated.

I picked The Twin Snakes, which is a remake developed for the Gamecube, over the original PS version of the game after having been told that the controls would be more user-friendly. Maybe my understanding of the term is flawed, or maybe I’m just not enough of an action buff, but, personally, that’s not the first epithet that comes to my mind. It took me about five resets to get through the first area of the game, simply because of the clunkiness of the controls.

First of all, the governing idea behind the gameplay is stealth: you’re in control of one guy versus an entire base of baddies, so the idea is to either create diversions to avoid combat completely, or to knock people out with a tranq gun and stow them into storage lockers, rather than spray everything with bullets. And to try to hide if you are spotted. However, there are several impediments to this. The onscreen radar is tiny, and in situations where there’s a walkway guarded by a surveillance camera overhead, for example, it’s practically impossible to make out the camera’s field of vision from below. Which, of course, makes avoiding it particularly problematic. Another hindrance is the almost preternatural hearing prowess of the enemy soldiers, especially when coupled with metallic floors and the wonderful precision of the Gamecube joystick.

Hands where I can see 'em!Secondly, maybe it’s just me, but I had a hard time getting used to some of the button combinations. I almost had to take notes when I first tried to hold an enemy up. It doesn’t help that, being a completionist, I simply had to go dog tag hunting; for those who aren’t familiar with the game, it involves shaking down or killing certain specific enemies to acquire their dog tags (simply for collecting purposes). Another manoeuvre I was never able to master is the ‘jump-out shot’. Finally, clunky controls also contributed to making the fights with Vulcan Raven and Liquid Snake particularly painful. The latter’s highly infuriating fisticuff technique (“I’m gonna hit you…NOT!”) certainly didn’t help. Also worth noting is the fact that the game rewards you with a codename upon completion, based on various statistics (time to complete, enemies killed, rations used, times saved, etc.). So you’re having a bit of trouble, like I did, you could end up with something silly like Elephant or Hippopotamus. On the other hand, if you absolutely rock the game’s socks, you could end up  codenamed Big Boss.

Be that as it may, gameplay difficulties are largely compensated by the storyline and characters, and the entire presentation of the game, which feels like an interactive action blockbuster, something the MGS series is now famous for. The single defining characteristic of The Twin Snakes is its ability to be deadly serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And that is actually a quality. Without going into too much detail (to avoid spoiling the fun…and also because it tends to get rather intricate), it involves a special agent of the US military, codenamed Solid Snake (yeah, I know…), who is dispatched to single-handedly stop a terrorist operation by a special forces unit gone rogue. Combine this with extremely hammy voice acting (looking at you, Liquid…and Snake too), overdramatisation and (sometimes odd) humour, and you have a load of epic nonsense. ‘Epic’ being the operative term.

Examples abound. Take Snake himself, for example. Yes, he’s a badass who can take out an entire military facility and a nuke-laden super-tank all on his own; something which, by the way, he has already done twice beforehand, in the two Metal Gear games, developed for the obscure MSX2 system (and thus, largely inaccessible outside of Japan). But then, despite these past heroics and his battle-hardened veteran status, he comes up with the following gems:

Campbell: “Destroy Metal Gear!”
Snake: “Metal Gear?”

Anderson: “There’s a PAL code.”
Snake: “PAL code?”

Otacon: “You can call me Otacon.”
Snake: “Otacon?”

And so on. That nanomachine injection he received before the mission–which, among other things, was supposed to improve his mental abilities–may have had reverse effects. Maybe he weathered one too many explosions. Or maybe he should get his ears checked. On a different note, I was surprised at his readiness to hit on just about anything with a pair of boobs. Before playing the game, I figured he’d be more of the “outta my way, woman” kind, not the “hey babe, how you doin’?” one, and certainly not the “getcha hands offa my ladeh!” one. I didn’t expect him to become such a sucker for Meryl. And I certainly didn’t expect the astounding display of terminal cheesiness that was the ‘proper’ ending of the game (“the caribou are beautiful in the spring, Meryl”). That was in a league of its own.

Two other beautiful examples of epic nonsense can be found in the fights against Revolver Ocelot (seriously, what the hell is up with the code names?!) and Psycho Mantis (I rest my case). The first one, a cowboy-styled maniac gun virtuoso who has just tortured a poor guy within an inch of his life and rigged him with explosives, introduces himself by going: “Revolver…*twirls his gun*…*twirls it some more*…*flips it over his shoulder and around his back*…*twirls it for another minute or so*…Ocelot”. Talk about delayed exposition.

The other, a creepy, unnaturally pale, emaciated, mind-reading, telekinetic freak, completely shatters the disturbing aura that’s been building up around him by going “you seem to like The Legend of Zelda” (the game checks the other saves on your memory card to do that), breaking the fourth wall and smattering the entire fight with references to the game’s developers, such as the infamous Hideo Blackout.

Some more examples include Meryl’s 180° turn from “I wanna be a soldier! And I’m not interested in men!” to “War is bad! Snake, I wub u!” within about 30 minutes (if that), or the over-the-top theatricality of the second confrontation with Sniper Wolf, complete with mournfully howling lupines. There are also multiple allegiance-reversals throughout the game, poor Otacon’s embarrassing introduction, Johnny Sasaki’s no less embarrassing but less pity-inducing one, the ‘ghost’ pictures (an Easter egg which features allegedly scary pictures of people in bad gory makeup), and the buildup to the final boss fight, which reaches interstellar proportions by the time it rolls around (*cue Jack Black voice* “It was destinyyyyy!”).

Finally, the game raises some questions that may never have an answer. For instance, why is Sniper Wolf the only member of Foxhound with an accent, when the three other members are all Russian? Also, why does she look like a natural blonde with pale skin and blue eyes when she’s supposedly a Kurd? And what the hell is “shalashaska” (Revolver Ocelot’s other nickname)? Because that’s certainly not in any Russian I know. Finally, how is hiding under a carboard box an effective means of camouflage?

Have gun, will not use itRegardless of what may appear as criticism, I’d say that playing The Twin Snakes was something of an equivalent to watching one of those old James Bond films, complete with Russian or British villains (both, in this case) and a tried-and-true plot involving a nuclear menace: so much to make fun of, but so thoroughly entertaining at the same time. The graphics are a bit dated by modern-day standards, but that was certainly the last thing I cared about while playing. So if you like spy flicks, enjoy a good laugh and can get a handle on the controls, chances are you’ll get your money’s worth with this bad boy.

Crisis Bore

The culprit: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation Portable)

Well, I knew I was in for a fanservice-fest. Because what else could a prequel to the most famous Final Fantasy game be? Knowing this, I armed myself with a heavy dose of leniency before inserting the Crisis Core disc into my PSP. But leniency can only take you so far when the developers are not making any efforts to meet you halfway.

Why am I fighting bouncy balls?So much is wrong with this game that I’m not sure where to start. Perhaps the gameplay: the FF series has nudged the boundaries of its RPG classification over time (eg. FFT, FFX-2, Revenant Wings), but Crisis Core takes it a step further. You control a single character (Zack) in real-time, complete with dodging and blocking. You still have a semblance of menu; however, scrolling through it, and especially through the Item submenu, can make you lose precious seconds, which is sometimes the difference between life and death. This is where ‘RPG’ and ‘action’ start disagreeing.

Now...who am I thinking of?Then you have the strange animal that is the Digital Mind Wave, or DMW, reel. It includes numbers and portraits of characters that matter to Zack or creatures that he can summon in battle, thus basing his fighting abilities on his emotions. You can’t control the reel directly, which is clever, as it mirrors the randomness of emotions, but doesn’t work all that well with the battle structure. Pictures What has been seen cannot be unseenaligning will trigger a special strong attack called a Limit Break, while numbers aligning may add temporary stat boosts, level up Zack or his materia (the now-famous coloured spheres of energy which formed the basis of the FFVII battle system). So yes, levelling up is, essentially, random. It can happen twice in one battle or not happen for ages. The odds eventually even out, but it’s annoying to see a Limit Break pop up when Zack is one hit away from dispatching an easy enemy. Especially if it happens to be a summoning sequence: they are extremely long, albeit skippable. They also include Ifrit (a recurring summonable creature in the FF series) in disturbingly tiny briefs.

Too many swordsBut the gameplay issues pale by comparison with the storyline and characters. This game must’ve been written by drunken monkeys. The plot can’t decide whether to reference FFVII at every turn or to vaguely attempt to do something new. Events are disjointed and awkward, and one plot point is a direct rehash of Hojo’s involvement with Sephiroth. It feels like a bad remake, cheapens the original plot (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a rabid Sephiroth fangirl), and does no credit to the developers’ imagination. And let’s not even talk about the acid trip that is the final stretch of the game (where someone ends up eating some of Zack’s hair…) or the nonsensicality of the final dungeon.

Hey guys! There are WORDS in this thing!Characters…Oh, man. The biggest offender has got to be Genesis, probably one of the worst villains in the whole FF series. “I’m gonna wear red leather instead of black (cf. Sephiroth), spew crappy poetry every time I show up, put on that misunderstood emo act, shove apples in people’s faces and hope I come across as a tormented badass!” And no, before you ask, it doesn’t work. But hey, Angeal is almost as bad. Which may be a shame, because he did have a few promising aspects at the beginning. But as soon as the story kicked in, he deflated like a giant balloon and became mired in some incomprehensible soul-searching, or whatever it was. Needless to say, I promptly lost interest and just proceeded to giggle at the innuendo-riddled dialogues between him and Zack (including references to Angeal’s giant sword).

Not another prank call...Lazard, the director of SOLDIER, is another example. There’s an interesting storyline twist about him, but then he peters out like a wet firecracker. You also have Cissnei, one of the Turks (the Shinra’s private ‘police’ force…and no, I don’t know why they chose that name): cute as a button, interesting potential…never goes anywhere. But worse than both of those, you have Aerith. She already was one of the videogame characters I despised the most, but Crisis Core made it worse by giving her a severe case of the Rikku. You know, when a female character loses 90% of her brain cells and wears skimpier clothing to ‘hype up’ her image, like what happened to Rikku in FFX-2? In every scene featuring her, Aerith acts like an idiot. In a strappy dress and platform shoes.

He was made to wear a suitThe only characters I was even remotely interested in were Zack himself–even though I usually don’t like the cheerful, happy-go-lucky type–and Tseng, more in line with the stern, silent, slightly menacing type I tend to favour. He’s actually quite the looker too, unlike the bunch of Lego-like pixels he was in FFVII. His development didn’t go anywhere either, but at least he had more presence than any of the other Turks.

Rounding up the issues: firstly, the extreme repetitiveness of the 300 optional missions. They’re meant to represent the everyday work of SOLDIER, but did 99% of the environments need to be recycled? And did they really need to bring back Yuffie, who was, unsurprisingly, already an annoying brat in her childhood? The problem is that doing all those missions is the only way to obtain good items and eventually leads to the Don't encourage her!optional superboss. But apart from that…*snores* There are also completely mindless minigames, like the sniping gauntlet (Pentazemin please?), mixing perfume or building flower carts for Aerith (and I really wish I was kidding), slicing missiles (yes, slicing) or counting objects through keyholes.

At least it's not radioactive...right?Secondly, the materia fusion system. It’s a good idea on paper, as it allows Zack to play alchemist and create more powerful materia with the basic ones he picks up, but the rules are simply mind-boggling. Especially because they involve invisible data: some materia are ‘better’ than others and will thus be prioritised in the fusion process (ie. the end product will probably not be what you’re gunning for). But of course, you have no way of figuring this out except trial and error or a FAQ. Way to go there, champs.

Thirdly, the music. Yes, the FFVII universe has a steampunk vibe. But FFVII’s score did perfectly well without screechy guitars and rock arrangements. There’s only one noteworthy tune I remember from Crisis Core: the one in Aerith’s church (and no, it’s not Aerith’s Theme). The rest? “Woo, another tacky guitar riff.”

I'm immune to the puppy eyes, girlAnd, to finish with a bang, the ending of the game. I knew–just as anybody who’s played FFVII–what was going to happen. I actually think it was a pretty bold choice for an ending. Or, well, it would’ve been…if the developers had managed to pull it off. I get all the stuff meant to tug at your heart-strings (eg. gradually disappearing DMW images, first-person view, Aerith’s premonitory gaze at the sky cutting to Zack’s eye, etc.), I get the tragedy of the moment. But maybe because I’d already given up on the game, maybe because the ending sequence became choppier and choppier as it progressed, maybe because you still had to mindlessly slaughter grunts while waiting for the requisite DMW sequence to trigger, maybe because Zack’s voice actor bungled his delivery, maybe because of the incredibly cheesy intervention by Angeal…I don’t know, but I distinctly felt that what could’ve been a true tear-jerker was simply overloaded with emotional gimmicks. Like they were trying too hard. Perhaps this could be said of the game as a whole? I’m still not certain whether they were trying too hard throughout, or not trying hard enough up until the ending, when they suddenly decided to pull out all the stops. But what it comes down to is this: underwhelming on all fronts. Don’t let the fanboys fool you.

We don’t need another hero

The culprit: Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360)

Merry bunchThe Tales series is a notorious victim of patchy videogame export. I’m not sure why yet, as I’ve only played two of them so far, but my guess would be that 1) it’s not Final Fantasy, and therefore, export tends to just forget about it, 2) it’s a bit too anime-y for the general public. I can’t argue with that last one: both Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Vesperia suffer from several annoying anime clichés. But the Final Fantasy series, the big favourite of the JRPG world, isn’t exempt from those either, and yet, it’s the Tales series that usually gets the blame. Which is a shame, because it also has undeniable qualities.

Symphonia was a big hit, both in the US and Europe, and I was hoping for a similar experience when I bought Vesperia. ‘Similar’ is right, as Symphonia veterans will definitely get a ladleful of déjà-vu: Estelle, the heroine, is almost a carbon copy of Colette (even down to the French names), Karol is extremely reminiscent of Genis, DudsJudith is a calmer version of Sheena, and Raven, a kinder Zelos. Many of the sidequests return (Fell Arms, waitressing, quiz, hot springs), the characters can still obtain titles and costumes as rewards for performing some of these sidequests (even though the titles don’t give them stat bonuses this time around), and some plot points are blatantly reused. But while this may not bode very well for the developers’ inventiveness, and while Symphonia still comes out on top by comparison–if only because it came first, and because it featured Kratos–, Vesperia is, nevertheless, lots of fun.

The most positive aspects of the game are the battle system and (some of) the characterisation. The former is the usual Tales fare: a party of four, of which you control one, the others being all up for grabs in multiplayer mode; otherwise, the game’s AI takes care of them, and does a pretty good job of it too (except for Estelle). You can give the AI suggestions with various Strategy settings, telling it to prioritise attack, healing, etc. Battles take place on a circular 3D field, where you can move the Colourful smackdowncharacters freely. Each character has their own weapon type, as well as oodles of special attacks, which are activated by controller shortcuts (A + a direction on the left stick for the controlled character’s moves, for example), and which they learn either by levelling up, from storyline events, or by using previously learned attacks a certain number of times. Each attack is associated with a colour: if a character uses that colour enough times, they’ll be given a chance to perform a Fatal Strike, which will instantly kill any non-boss enemy and grant the party bonuses at the end of the fight. Each fight is graded according to the characters’ performance, and the accumulated points can then be used at the end of the game to purchase stuff for subsequent replays. Characters also learn various skills from their equipment (think Final Fantasy IX). All in all, everything related to battle is a real pleasure: fluid, customisable, fast-paced and fun.

Too cool for a haircutAs for the characters, Yuri is a genuine breath of fresh air among JRPG heroes. While his appearance (dressed entirely in black with long black hair) may lead you to expect the worst, he’s actually not a brooding emo. Cynical, confident and level-headed, he never misses an occasion to dispense a smartass comment. He also has his own idea of right and wrong, and you might be a tad shocked when you see this in action; I know I was. The developers have undoubtedly made a bold choice by depicting him the way he is, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, and his voice actor is a very good fit.

How you doin'?The other big highlight is Raven. I thoroughly enjoy my comic relief when it’s well-handled, and he definitely delivers in spades. He’s no Jansen (of Lost Odyssey fame; the closest available comparison and the best comic relief I’ve ever seen in a video game), but dammit, does he try. Among his most noteworthy achievements is his take on the classic “our weapons are…” end of battle quote, which Symphonia players will most likely remember. And if the humour wasn’t enough, My eyes are up hereRaven also gets the best backstory of the lot, hands down. His only downside is the learning curve required to effectively use him in battle, if you’re ever inclined to control him yourself, as his fighting style is decidedly odd. This is a trait he shares with Judith, who, while nowhere near his level of awesomeness, or Yuri’s, is my third favourite among the cast, and is part of the rare breed of sensible, intelligent and independent female video game characters.

I completely forgot what we were doing!Now on to the less positive points. First of all, the storyline is rather uninspiring, stock JRPG fare. In its early stages, it also suffers from the characters’ indecisiveness: they keep trying to go their own ways, only to reunite, often instants later. They then decide on a goal and proceed to do scores of completely unrelated things before they remember what they were supposed to be doing in the first place. Fortunately, this improves somewhat by the end of the game.

Boys are for yelling atSecondly, we have the rest of the cast. I frequently found myself wanting to smash Rita’s and Estelle’s heads together. Rita is a scolding hag, even though she’s only 15: she’s unbearably arrogant, her voice is annoying, and she gets angry on a regular basis, which is expressed by a healthy dose of yelling and smacking Karol around. I don’t like children in video games, but I kinda felt sorry for the poor kid as the story wore on. As for Estelle, it’s the same deal as with Colette: ENOUGH with the sickeningly naïve goody-two-shoes with whiny voices who constantly need rescuing, protecting and reassuring, I beg you!! Other than that, well, Repede’s a dog. A cool dog who fights with a katana, but still a dog.

Pirate girl not includedAnd last, but not least, the terrible marketing strategy displayed by Namco Bandai (or Bamco). The game originally came out for Xbox 360…only to get a port to the PS3, which apparently includes not only two more playable characters, but also significant additions to both the storyline and the sidequests. Heck, from what I’ve seen, it’s almost a completely new game. And not only was this announced very shortly after the game was released, but the PS3 port is apparently never due to make its way out of Japan. I’m not particularly interested in the new characters, but a more fleshed out storyline could’ve been nice. Bad move there, Bamco, bad move.

How *not* to high-fiveAll in all, though, I’m pretty happy with Tales of Vesperia. Despite its flaws (which include bland music), it’s entertaining enough to warrant seeing it through to the end and has replay value. If you’re looking for a good RPG for your Xbox 360 and have either already played Lost Odyssey or aren’t a fan of turn-based combat, look no further.

Fly like an eagle

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

I’ve always been wary of action games, because I tend to think too much before acting, and was concerned that my reflexes wouldn’t be up to the task. However, as time went by, the ‘you won’t know until you try’ credo grew on me, and I decided to expand my game collection with new genres. One of my friends pointed out that I couldn’t own an Xbox 360 and not try out Assassin’s Creed, and since the premise of the game already intrigued me, that finalised my decision.

The overall verdict is a favourable one. But I must say that both the storyline and characters left me with dual impressions. Incarnating a skilled Assassin is great fun, and Altaïr is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the game: the sleek moves, the sneakiness, the arrogance, the taciturnity, the beauty and symbolism of the name. Even the missing finger. There’s just one problem: why can’t he swim? I know the sequel cooked up a dubious retroactive explanation, but it still seems a bit absurd. I’ve run into enough mishaps trying to make him cross bodies of water to make this a particularly annoying trait. But that’s just about his only drawback.

However, since Altaïr isn’t the ‘real’ hero of the game (pfff, as if!), that leaves us with Desmond, Altaïr’s descendent in modern times, as the main protagonist. And he has the charisma of a wet sock. Apart from the odd sarcastic quip, there isn’t a single interesting thing about him. Sure, he looks identical to Altaïr, but looks alone do not a compelling character make. Sorry, Des, you should have gotten yourself a personality instead.

The storyline suffers from the same duality. The gist is that there are two opposing factions, Assassins and Templars, who have faced each other throughout history. In the near future, Desmond, who is an Assassin by training, gets captured by a Templar-led company named Abstergo. They have a machine, called the Animus, which allows Desmond to relive the memories of his ancestors (which are somehow hardcoded within his DNA), a process Abstergo needs to locate something. So off goes Desmond into the skin of Altaïr, a Syrian Assassin from the XIIth century. This Medieval part of the game works very well, and some of Altaïr’s assassinations are truly memorable. Garnier de Naplouse, the Hospitalier leader, springs to mind: very convincingly unsettling, and the setting for his episode was well-nigh perfect. On top of that, I like the sonorities of his name, for some reason. Anyway, I’m sure all this would’ve constituted enough material for a game on its own. The modern-day part just feels tacked on and uninteresting. Perhaps because it features Desmond. Perhaps because it’s simply innately boring.

Since this was my first real action game, I apprehended the combat. The stealthy stuff, such as making Altaïr creep up on an unsuspecting victim and swiftly stick a knife in their back, came naturally enough (take that as you will…). But open combat took some work. It was simply a matter of getting used to it, and it won’t pose any particular challenge to action game veterans, but I did have to give my reflexes a bit of a shake to get used to blocking and countering, which is, by far, the most efficient way of fighting in this game. Still, once I’d come to grips with the technique, it became a treat to watch Altaïr stabbing his way through hapless soldiers who had no idea what hit them. I must really commend the combat choreography, by the way. In the hands of a skilled player, it looks like some sort of deadly dance.

The sandbox aspect of the game does its job well, and if you’ve played any of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia games, you’ll be right at home with Altaïr’s acrobatics, even though he’s less of a gymnast than the Prince. Playing Spiderman among the rooftops is thoroughly entertaining. Scaling minarets and belfries to get an overview of the area and then swallow-diving off them (into haystacks…which should be lethal, but who needs realism, right?) is a novel way to fill in the area map, and the views themselves are impressive, especially for someone who’s afraid of heights, like me. The leap from the cross of the cathedral of Acre–the tallest building in the game–was a particularly intense moment.

Other positive aspects include graphics and…language. Despite some of the textures seeming overly sharp (I’m not sure how else to describe it), the game looks good. An added peculiarity is that each of the three big cities Altaïr visits has its own unobtrusive, but present colour palette: Acre has a bluish hue, Damascus red and Jerusalem green. As for the linguistic aspect, it’s noteworthy for its accuracy. Historical facts may have been doctored to make for a more exciting experience–most of Altaïr’s targets were real historical figures, but they weren’t quite as…colourful as in the game–, but the language is spot-on. Ubisoft is a French company, so it stands to reason that they’d know their stuff, but hearing a proper French accent in an Anglo-Saxon game is a rare enough occurrence to be noteworthy. Even random soldiers who spoke entirely in French (“Je vais t’étriper!”) were perfectly fluent. Same for the German, as far as I could tell. Details, I know, but they help the immersion. The only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been if Altaïr himself had an accent.

The bane of Altaïr's existenceHowever, there are also negative elements. To start with the anecdotic, the beggar women who plague every city are the devil incarnate (“I’m poor and sick and hungry!”); if you don’t know what I mean, play the game, and you soon will. Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of people complain about the game’s repetitiveness, and while I found the context of each assassination episode to be interesting enough to make up for the fact that you essentially had to do the same thing every time, I can certainly concur. You’ll definitely get a sense of déjà vu after a while. And it will onlyFlagged get worse if you decide to go flag hunting: I’m really wondering why the developers felt the need to put so many of them in the game. There are also quite a few glitches (think random non-playable characters in gravity-defying positions on rooftops), which give the game a bit of an unpolished feel. The music is adequate, but nothing more. And, last but certainly not least, the ending is terrible. I understand that the developers likely wanted a tie-in with the sequel, but they probably got a tad overzealous. It’s as if the game didn’t end at all.

Nevertheless, I still had a great time. The initial concept is original enough to outweigh the kinks in execution, at least for me, and if the rest of the series is anything to go by, the developers do take account of the criticism they receive. Subsequent games have made a genuine effort to streamline the gameplay. I still far prefer Altaïr to his successor, Ezio, though. So here’s to the original four-fingered stabbing wonder.