Crisis Bore

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

I’ve always viewed the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII with some suspicion, as it mostly seemed like a string of games (and a film) entirely aimed at milking fans of Final Fantasy VII for cash. Maybe I’m just cynical about sequels and prequels in general, maybe it’s because the Compilation came out several years after the original game, or maybe it’s because I was never a die-hard FFVII fan. Either way, I purchased Crisis Core with a dose of wariness, which, unfortunately, proved to be well-founded.

The game was a commercial success, and I’ve seen a lot of FFVII fans gushing about how great it is and how the ending made them cry, but that was not my experience at all. If you’ve played FFVII before, you’ll know exactly why the game is meant to make you cry, but knowing the outcome beforehand greatly reduced its impact in my eyes. I also felt that the game was trying too hard to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, rather than simply trusting the inherent tragedy of the moment. It’s like the developers decided to throw every emotional gimmick they could think of at the player, figuring that at least some of it might stick. None of it did, at least for me. It felt cheesy and overblown (angels! feathers! premonitions! rain!), and not even in a “so-bad-it’s-good” way, when it could have been truly impactful if they’d just kept it simple.

I also fully understand the game’s desire to pay homage to FFVII, given its popularity among the fanbase. But homage alone does not a good game make: it has to be able to stand on its own two feet and have its own basis for appeal. And that just isn’t the case with Crisis Core. The storyline felt like an odd rehash of the original game, with people being injected with extraneous cells and sprouting wings left, right and centre, to the extent that I started wondering whether everyone would end up with wings by the end.  The single wing was Sephiroth’s trademark and made him unique. Reusing that on lesser villains does not automatically make them better, it just trivialises the attraction of the original villain.

Plot points were recycled and then developed in a confusing, disjointed and sometimes very bizarre way (c.f. a moment late in the game where an enemy mook decides to eat some of Zack’s hair because he thinks it will make him more powerful). Aside from Zack, who came across as an upstanding, friendly guy, and the fact that we were able to see Cloud’s true persona and some of Sephiroth’s more humane traits before he went insane, most of the new characters were either forgettable, one-dimensional or downright annoying. The latter category includes the main villain, Genesis, which is a significant flaw. His name sounds pretentious, and he spends his time desperately trying to be as cool as Sephiroth. This is an actual plot point and comes across as painfully ironic. There’s also the fact that his design is based on a real-life Japanese rock star (one of the developers is a fan), which just smacked of cheap fanboyism to me.

It also felt strange that events and people presented as significant in this game would then receive no mention at all in future instalments. It’s understandable for FFVII, since it’s an older game, but you’d think that there would be more references than a brief secret ending in Dirge of Cerberus. It also shows that Crisis Core was not part of a coherent narrative to begin with. Unlike, say, FFX-2 or the FFXIII saga: whatever you might think of their overall quality, they were at least designed with continuity in mind.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the gameplay or the music either. The latter was utterly forgettable, with one or two exceptions, and while the former included some interesting ideas on paper, I felt that the execution was lacking. There was notably too much randomness involved both in the DMW system and the materia fusion mechanics.

To sum it up, my overall impression of Crisis Core was ‘bland and messy’. However, I realise that this is probably a minority opinion, and if you love FFVII, you might well love this too. It depends on whether you see it as a worthy homage or a lame ripoff. If you’re not particularly keen on FFVII, I would give this a miss. And if you’ve never played FFVII before, I would encourage you to do that instead. It’s a better game.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Out of this world

The culprit: Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)

Ah, Mass Effect: the game that began the series that is arguably BioWare’s biggest success to date. PC veterans may prefer Baldur’s Gate, and more recent PC players may favour Dragon Age, but ME is what really brought the Canadian studio into the mainstream limelight. Some may argue that this is also what eventually caused its downfall, but that is a debate for another time and place. You may (unfortunately) also remember ME as the game that got Fox News’ panties in a twist in what was ultimately revealed to be a completely unfounded accusation of full-on nudity and graphic sex by people who hadn’t even played it. Nice one, guys.

Beginning of a long journeyBut controversy and fame aside, what are we really looking at here? ME is a futuristic space opera, and, unlike BW’s previous work, it’s a mix between an RPG and a TPS, which is probably one of the reasons for its success: the combination between immersive dialogue and storytelling on the one hand, and dynamic combat on the other. This isn’t BW’s first foray into sci-fi–they had already released a Star Wars game for PC by that time, followed by a sequel reprised by Obsidian–, but it is a completely original story, and, in my opinion, it’s far superior to the two Knights of the Old Republic games. It always felt a little odd to me to be playing games set in a preexisting universe created by someone else. Like wearing borrowed clothes, if you will. Not so with ME, which builds its own universe on its own premises and peoples it with original species, each with its own distinct culture and society, and not all of them anthropomorphic, which is a breath of fresh air. This is the main draw of the series for me, along with its characterisation, which, I think, is some of the best that BW has ever produced. Up until 2012, the series was in danger of dethroning Myst as my all-time favourite. ME3 made sure that didn’t happen, but, that massive fiasco aside, the first ME is still a great game. To give you an idea, after I finished my first playthrough, I immediately started another one, something which had never happened to me before. Granted, it was my first serious encounter with a WRPG and, coming after years of JRPGs, the freedom that characterises the genre may have boosted my enthusiasm. But even now, several years and WRPGs later, I still think it’s a great game, so it must have gotten something right.

At its core, the storyline is fairly run-of-the-mill: save the world from destruction by murderous villains. The nature of the villains, however, and some of the tangential questions the game raises are genuinely interesting. Of course, there are also gameplay and design flaws, such as reused environments, excessively tedious exploration sequences or a non-sortable inventory; but none of this is a major issue. Bottom line: if you like RPGs and sci-fi, you may just have struck gold.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Mangy mutt

The culprit: Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation 2)

Staring down the barrel of a gunI’ll always regret the £5 I spent on Dirge of Cerberus. Yes, it’s a used copy, yes, it was cheap, yes, this was four years ago. But none of that changes the fact that it’s a terrible game. I’d heard the bad reviews before, and I really should have listened, but a sort of morbid fascination guided my hand, like watching an imminent train wreck. Mind you, I hadn’t yet played Crisis Core at that point, so I had no precedent as to what to expect. Vincent was my favourite character in Final Fantasy VII, and the simple fact of him being the protagonist of his own game felt like he was finally getting some much-deserved limelight.

Well, he certainly didn’t deserve this.

The first reason why DoC doesn’t work is because it’s a third-person shooter derived from an RPG. While it probably makes sense on a theoretical level, since Vincent’s weapon of Um, ok...choice is a gun, after all, it fails in execution. First of all, you immediately start to wonder why the rest of the FFVII crew isn’t helping him. There’s a world-threatening crisis, surely they don’t all have better things to do? He does get some minor assistance from Yuffie and Reeve/Cait Sith, but that’s it. The latter actually features in a short infiltration sequence, but it’s terminally useless, thoroughly out of place, and the only worse character they could’ve picked from the original FFVII cast is Aeris/Aerith. Good thing they couldn’t. Mweheh. Anyway, I guess the rest of the old crew were having a BBQ party. Or a massive case of indigestion. Who knows?

Double sights, just to make sureBe that as it may, the shooter format feels like a simplistic downgrade from the RPG one. Corridor-riddled maps with invisible walls all over the place, no exploration to speak of, and character interaction reduced to cutscenes, often including idiotic dialogue. Still, shooters can be entertaining, when they’re well-executed, but this is most definitely not the case here. Everything looks and feels stilted, clunky and unwieldy. Combat is slow and extremely repetitive. Movement…well, Vincent can jump, but he’s either carrying bricks in his pockets, or those metallic toe-caps of his must weigh a ton. Possibly both. And this is the English version of the game; I’m told the original Japanese release was even worse.

Your money or your life?To further damn the gameplay, some RPG elements still remain: the game is broken down into 12 chapters, which are further subdivided into stages, each with its own (frequently asinine) goal to achieve, and Vincent gains a certain amount of EXP at the end of each according to his performance. This can be used to level him up or transformed into money he can spend on supplies, such as ammo or potions (of which he can only carry a ridiculously small amount), or spare parts to upgrade his guns (of which he has three different models). The latter can quickly become expensive, meaning that you either have to sacrifice a significant chunk of EXP to be able to afford them or pray that enemies will drop wads of cash. Needless to say that this is a restrictive system, which penalises people who aren’t good at shooters. Scratch that: people who aren’t good at DoC, because the only less user-friendly gun mechanics I can think of are in the original Silent Hill.

Vincent can also use a melee combo if enemies manage to get up close and personal, but I’ll let you guess how often that comes in handy. He also has access to materia (it wouldn’t be an FFVII game without it), but there’s such a small selection of it that, once Come give daddy a hug!again, you’re left wondering where everything else went. The same thing happens to Vincent’s trademark shapeshifting Limit Breaks, of which he had four different ones in FFVII. In DoC, he can only use the Galian Beast. There’s a (largely implausible) storyline reason why he can’t use Chaos, but what happened to the other two? Did he suddenly incur partial amnesia? We shall never know. Be that as it may, the Galian Beast does pack a wallop, but also looks terminally silly, with Vincent’s cape serving as a loincloth. To trigger it, he must use a consumable item mysteriously named Limit Breaker. Is it drugs? Steroids? Red Bull? The game certainly doesn’t tell you, and Limit Breaks didn’t work that way in FFVII, so the mystery remains complete.

I’m not actually a stickler for smooth gameplay, and I can disregard quite a lot if the storyline and/or characters compensate for it. But by that reasoning, DoC would have to be nothing short of a literary masterpiece. As you can probably guess, this is far from being the case. Sequels are tricky to manage at the best of times, even when the original story deliberately leaves loose ends that would allow for one. FFVII certainly didn’t, and DoC isn’t any better in its premise than Advent Children was. It even references the abomination that is Genesis, the Sephiroth-wannabe and sorry excuse for a villain introduced in Crisis Core. The result is an insipid mess, as full of plotholes as a slab of gruyère, involving a super-secret, heretofore unknown and nefarious branch of Shinra, which performs human experiments and whose goal, once again, is to destroy the planet. My only interest was to get some insight into Vincent’s past, and more specifically, Lucrecia’s side of the story, which went largely ignored in FFVII. DoC does delve into these questions, but it loses itself in a morass of retcons, additions, thoroughly implausible developments…and stupid outfits. An example would be the A pair of fashion faux pasintroduction of Vincent’s father as a character. Fair enough, but 1) he’s essentially nothing more than a plot device and gets about two minutes of total screentime, 2) why the hell is he called Grimoire?! (which is a kind of spellbook), and 3) why is he dressed like Van Helsing, when he was supposedly a scientist? And for that matter, what kind of scientist wears a frilly blouse and asymmetrical frilly skirt? *points at Lucrecia* Don’t ask me where she got a change of clothes before encasing herself into that crystal she’s in, either (how did she manage that, by the way?)

This brings us to the character department, which is just another nail in the game’s coffin (get it?…Vincent…coffin…ok, I’ll just let myself out). Lucrecia gradually becomes appropriately deranged, and Hojo is his usual psychotic self. That’s about all the Yes, this happenspositive I can dredge up though. Vincent gets all his emo dials cranked up a few notches and is reduced to about half a normal human being’s width. It’s a wonder he doesn’t snap in half whenever there’s a gust of wind. Yuffie’s just as annoying as ever, Reeve is useless at best, and the rest of the FFVII team features in a horribly cheesy cameo at the end of the game. Other than that, the character lineup features such wonderful highlights as a set of villains redundantly named after colours. Eg. Azul the Cerulean: ‘azul’ is ‘blue’ in Spanish, and ‘cerulean’ is a type of blue…so the result is Blue the Blue…*facepalm* There’s also a half-robotic female scientist wearing what can only be described as Skanky, meet Creepy; Creepy, meet Skankyremnants of clothing (where did they ever see a scientist like that?!), which would seriously not look out of place in a strip club, and her sister, who suffers from the Presea syndrome: arrested development due to scientific tampering, which left her as a 19-year-old in a 9-year-old body…who fights with a laser skipping rope. This is already creepy in and of itself–what with the ‘sexy’ pose she strikes on her official render–, but the game pushes the creepiness further by introducing a storyline development whereby she gradually takes on Lucrecia’s personality traits. While this may presage the worst, I’m happy to report that Vincent manages to avoid Pedobear-worthy territory. But just barely.

Blah-blah-blahThe game features some extras, such as well-hidden memory capsules which you can shoot to unlock an artwork gallery, and G-Reports, which you can collect to obtain an extra ending scene. However, it’s essentially a piece of self-insert marketing by Gackt, a Japanese artist, who also penned two songs for the game, so it’s really not worth the effort. Apart from that, there are also 40 side missions which unlock progressively as you complete them. I made a half-hearted attempt at them, only to promptly give up. They bring absolutely nothing to the storyline–not that there’s anything interesting about it to begin with–, and I couldn’t find any valid reason to subject myself to more of that gameplay. As for the music…um, I guess the best I can say is that it fits the dark atmosphere of the game? It’s mostly a series of orchestral musings with very little in the way of catchy melodies; a couple of tracks at best. And then there are the two Gackt songs, the existence of which I keep trying to forget.

Can someone remind me why I'm in this gameThe best thing I can say about this game is that the cinematics are beautiful. Except they’re few and far between and  are achieved at the expense of in-game graphics, which are blocky, blurry and usually either grey or brown. Bottom line? Do yourself a favour and stay very far away from this mess. Even if you like Vincent. Or, should I say, especially if you like Vincent.