Of the merits of talking to a wall

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

Flamin' swordIt’s difficult to follow up on the heels of a massive hit, even if you’re not producing a direct sequel. Disregarding Final Fantasy Tactics, which was set in a very different environment and wasn’t part of the numbered series, Final Fantasy VIII had the difficult task of being the de facto successor to FFVII. Therefore, it was bound to draw three things: close scrutiny, inevitable comparison and (unreasonably?) high expectations. And when the latter were not met–or, rather, when the developers tried to do something different–polarisation ensued. It’s difficult to find a middle ground in terms of opinions concerning FFVIII: fans of the series tend to either love it or hate it.

Most of the criticism focuses on the two main protagonists and the overemphasis on their relationship, the lack of development of the main villain(s) and the combat system. I will readily concede the two latter points: combat can get tedious, and both Edea and Ultimecia were criminally underused. But I don’t fully agree with the former point. Yes, the central relationship takes on a life of its own to the detriment of other stuff towards the end of the game, and that’s unfortunate, but I can’t agree with all the vitriol that both Squall and Rinoa receive, especially by comparison with their counterparts from FFVII. Case in point: Squall manages to grow and mature over the course of one game, whereas Cloud is still wallowing in misery two years after the end of his (c.f. Advent Children); Rinoa feels like a real human being, flaws, pettiness and all, while Aeris/Aerith gradually becomes some kind of motherly archetype who can do no wrong.

FFVIII isn’t perfect; so much more could’ve been done with it given more time or perhaps fewer plot points. Other character relationships could’ve been fleshed out more, motivations explained, chocobos might not have been rendered useless And yet it still ranks among my top five games in the FF series. The main reason is characterisation: the game has a very believable teenage protagonist in Squall, whose deep-seated fears I used to relate to, back in my teenage days, and whose evolution over the course of the game is heart-warming. What’s more, he’s backed up by an almost shockingly likeable cast (coming as it does after FFVII, where I had severe issues with most of the cast), among whom Laguna shines bright as one of the most endearing goofs with a heart of gold I’ve ever encountered in a game.

Dance with meThe second reason is world building. The game does a great job at integrating its more esoteric elements (notably Guardian Forces, who are given an unprecedented amount of attention) within a more realistic world, including such seemingly mundane details as educational systems or salaries. The third reason would be the ending, which invariably makes me tear up every time I see it. There’s also the quality of the cinematics, which have dramatically improved since FFVII, especially as far as facial expressions–and thus, emotional depth–are concerned. The now-famous ballroom scene and the ending both illustrate this perfectly, but the opening scene is also a stunner.

Bottom line: if you’ve never played this game before, but are aware of its negative reputation, don’t let it deter you. You might actually surprise yourself and enjoy it, much as I did.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.