Saving Neverland

The culprit: Myst (PC, Mac, PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS)

Myst was a surprise to everyone when it saw the light of day in 1993: to the public, who didn’t expect such a unique experience, to the industry and critics, who were baffled at how what was essentially an “image slideshow” could garner such success, and to its developers, who certainly didn’t expect their offering to become the best-selling PC game for almost 10 years, up until 2002.

To this day, the Myst saga remains one of the most famous and iconic game series, despite having seen its last instalment in 2005. With its characteristic style and atmosphere, which has since been widely copied, its intelligent, inventive and organically integrated puzzles, its trademark gameplay feature of books literally whisking the player off to different worlds (or ages, as the game calls them)–a smart and rather poetic metaphor for imagination–, and its storyline, bolstered by three books published in parallel to the games, which uses the fate of one family as a stepping-stone to explore the history and heritage of an entire civilisation, it stands tall among other adventure games. I’ll even take it one step further: this is my favourite game series, full stop. The name of this website should be ample evidence of that. So unless you’re 120% certain that the premise will not work for you, I’d urge you to give it a try.

If there was one word to define the entire saga, it would be ‘immersive’. No other game has given me the impression of ‘being there’ quite like this, made me wonder whether it would be warm or cold, how the breeze would feel, what the texture of the stone would be or what the plants would smell like. It’s a rare occurrence when the environment is so beautifully crafted that you’d simply be happy to walk around and take in the sights for a while. Everything conspires to engage your senses, pique your curiosity, encourage you to explore every nook and cranny to try to ferret out clues, and stimulate both your intellect and imagination. Obviously, if you’re expecting action, shootouts, acrobatics…or even lots of dialogue, you will be disappointed. This is an eminently solitary, contemplative, atmospheric and slow-paced experience, designed to make you think, feel and piece things together at your own rhythm. But then, the human mind is a wonderful tool, and when that is being put to work, beautiful things can happen. This is clearly what the developers were banking on, and, in my opinion, they’ve definitely succeeded.

Still, objectively speaking, the first game is far from being perfect, especially in its original form. In comparison to its successors, the graphics are dated, the scope feels fairly limited, the puzzles are rather simple, the age names are throwaway, and the ending is comparable to a wet firecracker. This is all a first-comer’s prerogative, however, as the subsequent entries in the series clearly try to address these issues (and mostly succeed). A remake titled RealMyst was released in 2000, and while it only addressed graphical and interface issues, it did so remarkably well. It was a bit of a chore for most computers to run, back in the day, but it should no longer be a concern: in other words, I highly recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Of paladins, dragoons and spoony bards

The culprit: Final Fantasy IV (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable)

Starting the tradition of three Final Fantasies per console, this is the first game of the series on the SNES, and, contrary to its two predecessors, this one actually did make it out of Japan in timely fashion. It also started a numbering confusion that would last for a while: since it was the second FF to be released outside of Japan at the time, it would be known as FFII. The original SNES game notably exists in two versions: what is called the ‘easytype’ or American version, and the ‘hardtype’ or Japanese one. The ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ bits should be self-explanatory. I guess the developers believed that the rest of the world wasn’t quite up to par with Japanese gaming standards. It probably didn’t sit very well with some people, as the Japanese version has since also benefited from a fan translation into English.

Despite this variation in combat difficulty, the game is the same in both versions, and it’s certainly a memorable one. For the majority of the Western audience, this was the first FF with properly characterised protagonists and a sizeable cast of them to boot, one of the largest in the series, in fact. Since every character also has a fixed class, or job, this also gives said classes a recognisable face, so to speak. Cain/Kain and Cecil, for example, have set the tone for the abilities and physical appearance of all dragoons and paladins in the FF series. Just about everything else in the game has taken a significant upgrade from previous installments as well: better (and longer) storyline, better combat mechanics, better graphics (with the notable introduction of battle backgrounds). True, the characters sprites still look somewhat squished while on the world map, but they are otherwise more detailed than the ones on the NES. Since this is still early enough in the series for first times, this game also marks the first appearance of proper save points.

FFIV also holds the title of “Most Remade Game in the Series”: as of today, it’s available to Western audiences on four different consoles. There’s the original SNES version, a PS version, with short cinematics of dubious graphical quality added at the beginning and at the end, which was released together with FFV as part of the European Final Fantasy Anthology bundle, a GBA version, a DS version and a PSP version, bundled with the game’s sequel, The After Years (which was previously only available on the Wii), as well as an exclusive episode covering the transition between the two. Each remake thus offers something new to the experience, the GBA and DS versions introducing the most significant changes. Overall, I would say this is one the best games in the FF series: solid, well-paced and fun, well worth playing or replaying.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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.

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.