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.

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.

Time and time again

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

What if you had made a terrible mistake? And what if you could manipulate time to rectify it? No, this isn’t Prince of Persia, but Braid, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed download-exclusive indie games to date. Initially available on XBLA, it has since found its way onto other platforms, thus becoming available to a wider audience. As such things often go, at first glance, it appears to be a simple platformer with a Castles in the sandchildish design and storyline. But if the game’s cover art, depicting a broken hourglass and a crumbling castle made from the spilled sand wasn’t indication enough, playing the actual game quickly reveals that there is more to it than meets the eye. Not only does it display treasures of ingenuity, but its plot also wanders off into distinctly non-childish territory, both wistful and ponderous. All in all, this is still one of the cleverest, most interesting games I have played, and I heartily recommend it.

The"There are some who call me..." game’s protagonist is Tim, a little red-haired fellow in a suit and tie who is trying to rescue a princess. If you did a double-take at the “suit and tie” part, you’d be on to something. The narrative, which consists of Tim’s memories and is presented in the form of short introductory texts before each of the game’s levels, is ambiguous on what the exact relationship between them was, but Tim appears to have made some kind of mistake which resulted in the loss of the princess, and would now like nothing more than to rectify it. This is all very vague, and, on a certain level, remains that way, were it not for several small clues interspersed within the texts which hint at a different kind of story behind Tim’s apparently disjointed musings and his strange quest.

The gameplay revolves around manipulating time by various means to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, some of which are deliciously tricky and require the ability to think outside the box, as well as a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Tim first appears "Our house, in the middle of our street"against an ominous backdrop of a burning city to eventually reach a quiet, night-time street and a house, which serves as the game’s hub. It contains six rooms, each with an empty picture frame and a door which leads to one of the game’s six levels. Each one of those is subdivided into several sub-levels, which contain puzzle pieces that Tim must collect, to then complete each picture frame. The last level is located in the attic and can only be reached by a ladder which gradually gains new segments as Tim clears the other levels.

Each level features a different time-related mechanic, which is reflected in its name. The first (which is actually number 2; you’ll understand why later on), called “Time and Forgiveness”, introduces the concept of rewinding time if Tim makes a mistake or plummets to his death, although you can also fast forward it when required. The second level is named “Time and Mystery” and introduces objects, outlined in sparkly green, which are unaffected by temporal manipulation (e.g. if Tim activates a green lever, it will remain activated even if he rewinds). These objects also reappear in later levels. “Time and Place”, the third level, links time to Tim’s movements: if he moves to the right, time moves forward, if he moves to the left, it Go ahead, I'm right behind ya...moves backwards. The fourth level, “Time and Decision”, introduces objects outlined in purple: whenever Tim rewinds time, his shadow will proceed to repeat his actions prior to the rewind and will be able to interact with the aforementioned purple objects. This effectively allows him to perform multiple actions at the same time. The fifth level, “Hesitance”, introduces a ring which, when dropped, will create a time-slowing bubble around itself: objects nearer to the centre of the bubble will move slower than objects nearer its perimeter. Finally, in the last level, simply titled “1”, time continuously flows backwards (meaning that rewinding makes it flow normally).

Pastoral symphonyVisually and aurally, the game is enchanting. Each level has its own atmosphere and beautifully rendered, vibrantly coloured, environments and backgrounds, which are somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh paintings. Each also has its own lovely musical theme, but both look and sound take a distinctly more sombre turn once you reach the final levels. This is also the second major clue as to the game’s most widely accepted interpretation. From then on, it’s very much a ‘so that’s what it was’ process.

You don't say...The game also contains some humorous references, including numerous callbacks to Super Mario Bros.: not only do the most common enemies in the game resemble goombas and piranha plants (and the former can be defeated by stomping on them), but the final sub-level of each level contains a small fortress with a flag, which rises as Tim reaches it, as well as a small, Where's the Holy Hand Grenade when you need it?plushy-looking dinosaur which informs him that the princess is in another castle. Apart from that, another commonly-encountered enemy in the game is almost a dead ringer for the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether Tim’s name isn’t another reference to that film…

Somewhat uncommonly by download-exclusive game standards, Braid has also put some real effort into optional goals. Some of the game’s levels contain hidden areas, accessing which rewards Tim with a star (yet another Super Mario Bros. reference). There are eight stars in total; one of them can be missed if you complete the picture-frame puzzle for the corresponding level before obtaining it, and another one requires obtaining an alternate ending for the game (which isn’t as satisfying as the normal one). "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"Each new star is added to the Andromeda constellation, which hangs above the entrance to the house in the hub level. Tim can look up at it to check his progress, and once all stars have been collected, it will slightly change its appearance, all in coherence with the game’s themes. And if that wasn’t enough, when you’ve finished the game once, a speedrun mode becomes available, netting you an achievement if you manage to complete one in less than 45 minutes.

There are very few genuine gripes I have with Braid. The major one would probably be the fact the game autosaves your progress, but does so on a single save file. Meaning that, should you fail to obtain the aforementioned missable star, for example, you would have to restart a brand new game to do so. It also means that the speedrun must be achieved in a single sitting and that, should you make a major mistake somewhere, say, in level six, you’d have to restart all the way from the beginning as well. I don’t think I need to tell you how aggravating that can be. Another gripe would be that another one of the stars takes an unnecessarily long amount of time (almost two hours simply waiting!) to obtain. Some people have also complained that the game was too short. Obviously, when you’ve cleared it once and are practicing for a speedrun, it may, On fireindeed, seem like it whisks by in no time. Although, if it’s your first playthrough, and you’re racking your brain to figure out a puzzle, but also taking time to admire the artwork and music, chances are you won’t have that impression. Bottom line: do give this little gem a try, it’s well worth it.

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.