State of grace

The culprit: Journey (PlayStation 3, via PlayStation Network)

The beginningIt’s seldom that I’m blindsided, swept away and awestruck by a game. And yet, that’s exactly what happened with Journey, the latest offering from indie developer Thatgamecompany. Having downloaded it upon a friend’s recommendation, I started out with little more than idle curiosity, only to be promptly and thoroughly spellbound. It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the most stunningly beautiful games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play and a uniquely emotional experience in its own right, made all the more powerful by the fact that it doesn’t contain a single spoken word. Simply put: it goes straight for the heart.

The game opens on a sweeping vista of a desert; glittering sand as far as the eye can see, inexplicably dotted with a multitude of gravestones, while a lonely cello spins out a thread of melody (“Nascence”). Then what looks like a shooting star goes streaming across the sky, Sandy munchkinlanding beyond one of the dunes. The next thing you know, the camera pans down to reveal your character, sitting cross-legged in the sand, as if meditating. This queer little figure in a long red cloak is immediately sympathetic in and of itself, with its glowing white eyes, shadowy face and what appear to be small pointy ears peeking at the top of its hood. As you pan the camera around, a dune with two gravestones on top comes into view, and climbing it reveals your goal: the silhouette of a mountain with a cloven summit looming ominously in the distance. As for the purpose and meaning of this journey, that’s for you to determine. The game doesn’t give any definite answers.

First stepsThe gameplay is very straightforward, yet elegant. The first notable thing you come across after descending the initial dune is a shining white symbol on top of a small ruin. Approaching it has the effect of creating a short strip of cloth with glowing embroidery at the back of your character’s hood, like a short scarf. You’ll also notice more strips of cloth fluttering above the symbol. The scarf enables your character to fly (by flapping their cloak like wings), as long as there is embroidery remaining. When it runs And whee!out, approaching the aforementioned fluttering strips of cloth will recharge it, and you’ll notice several clumps of them dotted around the landscape. Moreover, finding more white symbols will gradually extend the scarf, thus allowing for longer bursts of flight, which is an infinitely more graceful means of locomotion than running around on spindly little legs.

Strips of cloth come in a lot of varieties, from small patches like the ones you encounter at the beginning, which resemble schools of fish, to long, seaweed-like bands and other living creatures which appear to be entirely made of cloth. They all Encounterhave aquatic characteristics, and, indeed, after a while, it seems more like your character is swimming rather than flying. Anything made of cloth will also recharge your character’s scarf. The most common type of creature vaguely resembles a dolphin. They emit soft chirping noises, tend to travel in packs and will occasionally carry your character on their backs, if asked.

Singing in the sandAsked? Why, yes. I did say there wasn’t a single spoken word in the game, but that doesn’t mean your character is mute. Pressing O will make them sing a note. The longer you keep O pressed before releasing it, the louder and stronger the note. This has various effects: it will call any nearby cloth creature for assistance, and, more generally, serves to interact with any cloth construct you encounter. Moreover, if you’re an inquisitive explorer, you’ll come across several murals which appear blank at first glance, but will reveal carvings or glyphs when ‘sung’ to. These might not make much sense at first (not the first one you find, at least), but they help to establish the game’s backstory.

Lady in whiteSpeaking of backstory, there’s another, more straightforward means of filling it in. The game is subdivided into several stages or levels, punctuated by platforms with a statue of a robed figure which looks a lot like your character. Interacting with these will trigger visions describing how the desert and the ruins came to be, as well as allowing you to progress to the next stage of the journey. It’s a simple, but all-too-sad tale of paradise lost, and every vision is steeped in a regretful, nostalgic aura.

Deep blueBoth of these feelings permeate the game, which isn’t to say that they’re the only ones. Every stage of the journey has its own look, dynamic and prevalent emotion associated with it: wonder, awe, empathy, exhilaration, fear, enchantment, determination, as well as both hope and despair. And all this is achieved exclusively through exquisite visuals and sound. Austin Wintory’s music meshes in seamlessly with the environment and events, the prevalence of strings creating a poignant general atmosphere. Graphically, colours are vibrant, movement is fluid, and the omnipresent sand ends up becoming an entity of its own, more akin to water. You may notice that your character ‘surfs’ down steep dunes, and there is an absolutely breathtaking episode involving what can only be described as Stream of golda rushing river of sand, turning to liquid gold in the sunlight. This is immediately followed by a trek through some menacing, dark tunnels with a decidedly aquatic atmosphere, even though there isn’t a drop of water involved, culminating in a luminous swim through the air. And the final sequence…well, I’ll just leave you with the word ‘transcendental’.

Once you’ve finished the game, the first level becomes a hub: you can access any stage from the circular arena right before the first vision statue. Moreover, a group of stones on the lower right of this arena keeps track of all the white symbols Ghostlyyou’ve found across all playthroughs. Should you find all 21, a clump of seaweed-like cloth will appear nearby, enabling you to turn your character’s cloak white (like the figures in the end-of-stage visions). This white cloak has a longer default scarf, which also regenerates automatically, thus making your character more autonomous and more mobile. What’s more, every time you finish the game (up to three), more embroidery is added to the regular red cloak.

Journey has another peculiarity: you can play it offline or online, and depending on which you choose, it will be a vastly different experience. If you play offline, you’ll obviously be on your own. If you play online, you will run across other characters during your explorations. Outwardly, they look exactly like your own, give or take some embroidery or a white cloak. Other than that, you have no clue of who they are and no Travelling companionsmeans to interact with them except by ‘singing’. While this may appear awkward and restrictive at first, you’ll quickly find that a wordless camaraderie tends to develop on its own, based on that most primal of sensations: the feeling of another living creature keeping you company. There’s even a physical manifestation of this, as walking close together will enable your characters to recharge each other’s scarves. If you manage to make it all the way through the game with one person, that companionship will definitely be both valuable and welcome in the final stages. I was even surprised at how distressed I was to lose my first companion at that point, although this may have also been due to the circumstances in which it happened. A list of the usernames of every person you bumped into during your journey is displayed after the credits roll, but there’s no indication of who was which. Overall, this upholds the impression that you’ve just shared something universally human with a stranger. That is, of course, provided the people you encounter do travel with you; some will just run by on their own merry way. As a side-note, if you are with a companion for the final end-of-stage vision, it will reflect that fact, which I found to be a thoughtful little detail.

GloryAll in all, I have no real criticism about Journey. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may find it too short, too cryptic, too contemplative, too simple, too restrictive in terms of online options or even lacking long-term replay value. I, however, was left with nothing but a warm, bemused melancholy after the credits finished rolling…and after the wave of goosebumps I got from the song which accompanied them (“I Was Born for This”) subsided. And if only for that, I’m happy to have had this experience. A truly unforgettable game.

Something like a phenomenon

The culprit: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation, PlayStation Network, PC)

Reviewing Final Fantasy VII is somewhat daunting, because of the enormous hype that surrounds this monolith of videogaming culture. The first Final Fantasy game to hit the PS, introducing cinematics and 3D, it’s unquestionably the most popular episode in the series and has achieved cult status, since it was many people’s first FF. If you want an indication of the scope of the phenomenon, try browsing an RPG-related forum, and you’re likely to encounter several screenname variations on either Cloud or Sephiroth. The other measure of the game’s popularity is the number of spinoffs it has generated: an OVA (Last Order), an animated film sequel (Advent Children), two prequels (Crisis Core and Before Crisis) and a spinoff sequel featuring what was originally an optional character (Dirge of Cerberus). I’m not even sure that the naming of these spinoffs was accidental (AC, BC, CC and DC? Come on…).

Claim to fameI won’t deny that the game has its merits: the characters are memorable (whether in a good or bad way), the villain has style and flair, the story is compelling and has little in common with preceding games in the series. Where FFVI only dabbled in steampunk, this one dabbles, dips and takes a belly-flop into it, transporting the series into a completely futuristic setting, with the heroes facing a radically different set of problems than in the previous opuses. There are still super-deformed sprites–which, incidentally, look like Legos, with their blocky hands and lack of noses–, but the characters also get the luxury of normally-sized incarnations during cinematic sequences and battles, thus taking expressiveness to a new level. Summoning sequences are also one of the big graphical highlights. Granted, by modern-day standards, the quality is very dated, but you can imagine just how awesome it must have seemed back when the game first came out.

That being said, I’m one of those people that have always felt that FFVII was absurdly overrated. Yes, it’s a very good game; yes, I would gladly replay it anytime, but it’s been blown out of all proportion. Some fans would have you believe that it’s the ultimate masterpiece of videogaming: well…it isn’t. I don’t even number it among my top five games in the series. And even objectively speaking, there have since been better, more innovative and interesting games in general, whether in terms of storyline, characterisation or atmosphere (I won’t say graphics, because that’s not a fair criterion). First of all, the ending is seriously underwhelming. This may be one of the driving reasons behind the spinoffs (besides the desire to milk fans for cash capitalise on the game’s popularity), but you may be left wondering “was that really it?” Secondly, a sizeable chunk of the cast consists of characters I strongly dislike, which makes it a little difficult for me to empathise with them. Thirdly, the driving idea behind the storyline may be a good one, but the execution is somewhat…lacking in places, and the tone of the game is sometimes almost jarringly goofy. Mind you, I’m judging this by juxtaposition with the hype FFVII has generated: had we simply been talking about a ‘normal’ game, I wouldn’t be that bothered by it. And last, but not least, the translation is not up to scratch in some places. There are mistakes, inconsistencies, and let me insist how lucky you are if you’ve only played this in English. My first copy of the game was in French, and boy, was that ten times worse.

FFVII has never been remade, much to the dismay of fanboys and fangirls the world over. However, if you own a PS or a PC, the original game is freely accessible–although PS copies are probably rather expensive now–, and there are plenty of good reasons why you should give it a go if you haven’t already, even if it’s just to see what all the fuss is about. Just don’t expect a life-altering experience, that’s all I’m saying.

 Detailed review available! Read more here.

The soul collector

The culprit: Valkyrie Profile (PlayStation, PlayStation Portable)

To this day, Valkyrie Profile remains one of the most original RPGs in existence, created by tri-Ace, a developing company formed by three game industry veterans. With its mix of real-time and turn-based combat, platforming-based exploration, its gloomy, harsh atmosphere and complex combat system, it stands in stark contrast with other famous JRPG series, such as Final Fantasy or Tales. This is precisely why fans of the series love it, but it also means that it’s likely to alienate more casual players. As a result the series remains relatively obscure, which I find to be a shame. Sure, the games are not perfect (although that criticism is more applicable to VP2), but they take a creative and refreshing approach to the well-worn JRPG format, and the first opus in the series is the best example of that.

First, as you may deduce from the title, the game is heavily influenced by Norse mythology. The “Profile” part refers not only to the fact that the game–and its logo–presents the portrait, or profile, of a Valkyrie (at least, this is true for the first two games), but also to the 2D exploration perspective, in which all characters appear in profile. The Norse mythology part may not sound all that groundbreaking: many games have been there before. However, Valkyrie Profile is the only series I know which sticks so closely to the actual myths, all the while mixing them with some distinctly Asian It's a form of recyclingelements, with the decidedly unusual result of Valkyries cohabiting with Samurai and such. The game’s world is supported by the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which sustains three realms: Asgard, the realm of the gods (the Aesir and the Vanir, who are in perpetual conflict); Midgard, the war-torn, poverty-ridden world of humans; and Niflheim, the underworld, realm of demons and undead. Odin rules Asgard from his palace of Valhalla alongside Freya and a host of other deities, and commands three Valkyries (although, if you want to be entirely accurate, they’re actually more like the Norns), who are sisters. Hrist is the eldest and most obedient, Silmeria is the youngest and most rebellious, while Lenneth is the middle one and the most powerful, and also the heroine of this game. Her goal is to collect worthy souls, train them as Einherjar and send them to Valhalla, where they will fight for the Aesir. This is an urgent mission, as, by the time the game starts, Ragnarok, the final confrontation between the Aesir and the Vanir, has broken out.

This is where the complexity kicks in. Each Einherjar has their own (sometimes heart-wrenching) story and their own abilities. Who you obtain and when is determined by your difficulty setting and a randomisation factor. Once trained, these Einherjar can be sent up to Valhalla, as long as they meet requirements outlined by Freya. What’s more, there are three different endings, even though only one of them is considered canon. The problem–and this is probably the single biggest issue with the game–is that there is next to no indication as to how to obtain that particular ending. I have no idea how you’re supposed to figure it out without a guide, and even once you know how, there’s very little room for error. This also applies to exploration, which is circumscribed by a time mechanic, requiring you to plan out your course of action. And of course, there’s the combat system, which takes a little while to wrap your head around.

The second strongest criticism I have is the voice acting, which, frankly, is sometimes appalling. The translation is also a bit shoddy in patches, and the typically Asian, elliptical storytelling style, doesn’t help. Still, even accounting for all these kinks, Valkyrie Profile is a genuinely engrossing, unique game and a welcome change of pace from the tried-and-true ‘youngsters with improbable haircuts save the world’ JRPG scenario. If you’re an RPG aficionado, I’d encourage you to give it a spin, if only for the novelty of the experience.

Detailed review available! Read more here.