Shadows and tall trees

The culprit: Limbo (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, available through Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, respectively)

Dismal shoresLadies and gentlemen, we have a UFO. If you remember Braid, another download-only indie game which (justifiably) generated rave reviews, Limbo, first release of the Danish developer Playdead, is more in the same vein: artistic, stylish, deceptively simple and intriguing. It shares gameplay similarities with Braid, namely the lone protagonist in a sidescrolling environment and the cryptic storyline. Where it differs sharply, however, is the atmosphere. Yes, Braid had a disquieting undercurrent to it that gradually came to the fore as you neared the end, but the soothing music and beautifully lush environments compensated for it. By contrast, Limbo is unrelentingly bleak, gloomy, lonely and frequently unsettling, especially when you stop to think about some of the situations it puts both you, the player, and its protagonist in. Think of a cross between Tarkovsky’s Stalker and something like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and you’ll be quite close to the mark.

Industrial soloThe entire game is in black and white, reducing everything to silhouettes and making the already far from reassuring environments that give the game its title–a dark forest, some sort of industrial complex, a rainy cityscape, and finally, a nightmarish mix of all of them–even more menacing. There is very little music beyond ambient sounds and discreet aural backdrops, with the occasional swell for dramatic effect. And to top it off, the plot could not be more minimalistic: a nameless, featureless–except for his pin-like white eyes–boyAnonymous hero awakens in a forest and tries to find a way out, while avoiding various natural and not-so-natural hazards, and using the environment to his advantage to make progress. Along the way, you also realise that he’s looking for his sister, although how they became separated and why (and also where exactly they are) remains a mystery. And chances are that the ending will produce more questions than answers.

Apart from the boy and his sister, there are very few other living creatures in the game, and most of them are malevolent. The ones likely to cause most trouble are the very persistent giant spider, It's in my head!!!which features prominently at the beginning of the game (arachnophobes, beware) and the brain worms. These are phosphorescent…blobs, for lack of better word, which will suddenly drop on the unsuspecting boy’s head, burrow in with a rather sickeningly squelchy sound and force him to walk in one direction, disregarding any obstacles along the way. Until he encounters a beam of light, that is, which the worms seem to abhor. This will cause the boy to go the other way. And the only means of removing said worms is to bring them within reach of strange carnivorous plants that sometimes grow on ceilings.

If all this talk of giant spiders, worms and squelchy noises sounds rather morbid…well, it’s because it is. Unlike most videogame heroes, the boy is very vulnerable: he can’t swim, he has no weapons, he’s neither agile nor strong. Just drop from a little too high, and he’s toast. All he can do is run, jump and grab/push/pull things. Not only does it make you feel very small and helpless, but just about any element of the environment becomes potentially lethal. Combine vicious wildlife, bear traps, wood saws, electrified Ow...surfaces, and precariously balanced rusty machinery, and you end up with some rather graphic deaths. There’s no visible blood, but land the boy on a wood saw, and you will see limbs and assorted chunks flying (limb-o, eh? *dodges bricks and tomatoes*). This was meant to encourage players to pay more attention to what they were doing in order to avoid these gruesome fates. In fact, one of the game’s achievements/trophies is finishing it in one sitting with five or less deaths, aptly named “No Point in Dying”. Not an easy task, by any means. Other than that, however, there are no penalties for repeated deaths, besides having to redo the puzzle at hand, as the game helpfully replaces the boy at the start of it should he meet an untimely end during its execution.

Puzzles come in all flavours in this game, frequently challenging your instincts and intuition. They’re usually not too complicated to figure out, but the execution is quite a I told you it was persistentdifferent matter, as some are thoroughly on the acrobatic side, namely the entire final sequence of the game. Many are also timed, involving a room filling up with water, for example, or running away from the aforementioned spider. In short, be ready to experience a wide range of lethal outcomes on your first time through.

MinimalismAlthough there are no save points, the game is subdivided into 24 ‘hidden’ chapters. While you play, there are no interruptions, and the game flows seamlessly from one chapter to the other. But if you want to stop playing midway or to practice a particular puzzle, you can access these chapters through the menu.

I did mention that “No Point in Dying” must be achieved in one sitting, and this is realistically doable: the game is very short. In fact, once you get to the stage where you are trying to minimise deaths, you start learning how each puzzle functions, as well as their order, further shortening the experience. This is probably one of the game’s main flaws, and it has received criticism for not justifying its cost. On the other hand, had it been any longer, it may have run the risk of becoming tedious.

Its other flaw is that, Where did this come from?apart from soldiering on towards the boy’s goal, there’s not much else to do. Admittedly, you probably wouldn’t want to stay in some of the environments he traverses more than absolutely necessary, but it does impair the game’s replay value. The only extracurricular activity available is collecting a bunch of eggs from improbable locations, some of which you get achievements/trophies for.

Is there anybody out there?Still, despite these drawbacks, the game is a success, if only for the novelty of the experience. If you enjoyed the likes of Shadow of the Colossus or Braid, then it’s very likely you’ll enjoy this one as well. A prime example of a good ‘art game’. But don’t be surprised if you feel like you need a hug or some chocolate afterwards.

Lost and found

The culprit: Final Fantasy III (Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo DS)

Final Fantasy III was the last FF released on the NES, but for some reason (apparently, technical difficulties), has met with an even worse fate than its predecessor, despite being a better game. While FFII finally managed to make it out of Japan when Final Fantasy Origins was released, FFIII was never even scheduled for release in the West until the recent, vastly overhauled DS port, which resulted in temporary numeral confusion, as FFVI was known as FFIII to us Westerners for a good while. Shame, if you ask me, because, out of the three NES FFs, this is probably the most entertaining one, despite the mess that serves as its storyline.

There is a fan-translated ROM of the NES version by NeoDemiforce available, but since there are such significant differences between it and the DS port, and since the DS port is, after all, the official incarnation of the game on our shores, I thought it best to attempt to review both side by side.

FFs come in series of three per console, and the third one in a series is usually the best in terms of graphics, logically enough. The NES version of FFIII is no exception: the colours are softer, the outlines and sprites clearer, and the battle mechanics have greatly improved. Message and movement speed is now perfectly decent, which

represents a huge upgrade in playability. Of course, this all pales in comparison with the DS version, which upgrades the graphics to 3D, introducing beautiful, colourful environments, and even a lovely introductory cinematic (even though none of the character interaction it showcases is actually shown in the game). The most spectacular instance of this upgrade is the Forbidden Land Eureka, which, with the new graphics, looks nothing short of stunning, with its waterfalls and the starry void surrounding it. The only minus I can think of is that character sprites have been maintained, thus keeping the game’s ‘kiddy’ look. Combat has also been spruced up, with tighter and more complex battle mechanics, as well as dynamic combat screens (the camera angle changes when the characters cast spells or use abilities).

This is also the first FF ever to introduce the job system as we know it. Sure, in FFI, you could pick jobs at the beginning of the game, but you couldn’t freely change from one to the other. Here, you have the possibility to change jobs at will, and you have a much larger selection of them too. This makes the game a far cry from its predecessors in terms of strategic depth and customisation possibilities. Speaking of first times, this is also the first appearance of the moogles, who run Dorga/Doga’s household, although you’re never told where he got them from. It’s also the first appearance of Gilgamesh, or Gigameth, as he’s called here, even though he has nothing in common with his later incarnations besides the name. More importantly, this is the first appearance of summoners as well, alongside their trademark summonable creatures. Yep, Shiva, Ifrit, Ramuh, and all the others hail from here.

The DS version is the better and more accessible game of the two, but if you’re curious enough to want to delve into some archaic NES fun, the fan translation works just fine. Unlike FFI or FFII, the NES version of FFIII is much less of a chore to get through. As long as you know what to expect (ie. worse characterisation and graphics, mainly), it won’t disappoint. Overall, whichever version you pick, this is a pleasant game, which leaves a good impression in spite of its flaws.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

The culprit: Final Fantasy II (Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation Portable)

This is the second installment of the Final Fantasy series, but it actually didn’t make it out of Japan until the Final Fantasy Origins remake for the PS, where it was bundled with its predecessor, FFI. This has resulted in a temporary numerical confusion for the rest of the world, where, until Origins came out, FFIV was known as FFII (since it was, for all intents and purposes, the second FF game released outside of Japan), and FFVI as FFIII. Effectively, this means that the only way to play the original NES version is to use a NES emulator, and the fan-translated ROM by NeoDemiforce. Barring that, the Origins version is the official first version of the game outside of Japan.

While all this may be a minor annoyance, the actual game itself certainly isn’t. If you ask me, this is quite possibly FF at its very worst. Yes, yes, worse than X-2. Worse than Tactics Advance 2. Worse than XIII.

To start off on a positive note though, the game does mark an evolution in a few areas. First of all, the graphics have gotten a tad better, smoother and with slightly less glaring colours. The message speed has also significantly improved, making battles faster. Now you don’t actually have to wait for hours scrolling through stat-ups when one of your characters gains a level, unlike the original FF. The storyline shows more effort, as does the characterisation. Contrary to popular belief, which is based on the delayed release of the game, this is the very first FF to have named characters with distinct personalities, even though some of the sprites, like Frioniel’s/Firion’s or Guy’s, have shamelessly been recycled from the first game. The cast is also more numerous and more varied. The very first Cid appears here, as well as the very first chocobos. The former hangs out in a bar and lets you to use his airship for a fee. The latter live in a forest near Kashuon/Kashuan, where you can catch them, allowing you a temporary respite from random fighting as you canter around the world (they’ll run away once you dismount though). In short, if you only look at it from this angle, it sounds like it should all be good…right?

Right. But this does not take into account the combat system. That one single aspect completely BREAKS the game. I mean, taken on their own the storyline and the characters aren’t all that, but you could’ve appreciated the effort and the evolution from the first FF if everything else had evolved positively as well. As it is, however, the combat system only brings out the rest of the game’s shortcomings in much starker relief, as if it tainted everything it touched. By all means, give the game a shot if you really like your videogame archaeology, or if you’re curious to see just how low FF can fall. Otherwise, I’d steer clear from this sucka. Or, at least, from the NES version. Which, admittedly, isn’t difficult, since it actually takes some effort to obtain. The Dawn of Souls GBA remake, however, is nothing short of astounding as it actually manages to make the game decent. That one, if you ever do get your hands on it, is worth a go.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

How to (not) go out with a bang

The culprit: Final Fantasy (Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation Portable)

Well, folks, this is what started the gaming goodness for so many. Back in Ye Olde Days when games happened in 8-bit on a black backdrop, Squaresoft was a little struggling company that decided to go all out for one last parting bang. They cooked up something called Final Fantasy; “final” being self-explanatory in the context. And…that was the beginning of a cult series. Who woulda thunk it?

The game, for those familiar with more recent FFs, is a condensed version of pretty much everything that makes FF what it is today. To the trained and spoiled eye of the modern-day RPG player, it will most likely seem unimpressive at best, but do bear in  mind that you’re looking at what started it all. The traditional four-person party with its even more traditional jobs (or character classes) has to save the world. FF veterans will instantly recognise the traditional outfits of the White, Black and Red Mages. The setting is medieval, as in all FFs up until VI, and includes all the good old details of the genre: damsels in distress, cursed princes, witches, knights, sages, dragons, and even an ancient lost civilisation. The four elemental crystals and their corresponding fiends And aerodynamics be damned!start out here; back in the day, the idea was probably a stroke of genius and has since become a trademark of the series. The crystals have reappeared in III, IV, V, IX, XI, XII and XIII since, under many different guises. The good ol’ airship also starts out here, even though there’s no Cid to construct or pilot it yet.

The first version of the game was released on the NES. If you expect breathtaking graphics, wonderful music, an amazing storyline and incredibly smooth gameplay there, well…you’ve got another one coming. The game is old, and you can feel it: the battles are slow and choppy, the music is tinny and the smudgy, glaring colours may hurt your eyes. However, the game has also been remade a good number of times. There is a PS version bundled with FFII called Final Fantasy Origins, a GameBoy Advance version bundled with FFII called Dawn of Souls, and a PSP version released for the 20th anniversary of FFI’s release. So there are plenty of ways to re-experience this one without forcing yourself through the NES version. By all means though, if you’re hardcore enough and want a challenge, give the NES version a shot, if only to appreciate just how far the FF series has come since its beginnings. Gotta give credit where credit is due, however: this is a decent piece of light entertainment and a worthy ancestor to its more illustrious descendants.

Detailed review available! Read more here.