Against all odds

The culprit: Final Fantasy Tactics (PS, PSP)

As its name indicates, Final Fantasy Tactics marked a foray into a new direction for the FF series: the SRPG. Released a year after the enormous hit that was FFVII, it took a radically new approach to combat and produced what was probably the darkest story in the series at that point (perhaps even still to this day). Nevertheless–and possibly precisely for these reasons–it was a critical success upon release, and has become a cult classic since, with several subsequent games revisiting the world of Ivalice that serves as its setting.

So it beginsBoth of FFT’s defining characteristics–its storyline and its combat–are remarkably well executed, and, coming from someone who is usually indifferent to combat in an RPG, this is saying a lot. I have never simply enjoyed getting into a random encounter in a game before and rarely since. Sure, there are quite a lot of factors to take into account, and it may seem frustrating at first, while you’re learning the ropes, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun. Alongside this, you have a deliciously complicated political storyline, replete with betrayals, machinations, power struggles, tragedy, war and just plain ol’ murder, with a bucketful of unholy intervention to boot. The cast also features Agrias, one of the strongest, toughest female characters in the series and the most kickass incarnation of Cid, bar none. The in-game graphics are nothing to write home about, but the game does have its own specific, charming visual style due to the fact that the concept art was drawn by Akihiko Yoshida, rather than Yoshitaka Amano.

FFT didn’t make it to European shores when it was first released, meaning that an emulator or an NTSC console were the only means to experience the game on our side of the Atlantic for quite a long time. That is, until the game was remade in 2007, with the secondary title of The War of the Lions. The main attraction of this remake is the retranslation work. The original localisation was rather shoddy in places (and I’m being generous…some of the battle cries made no sense whatsoever), and the new version remedied that and then some, giving the game a properly medieval feel. The remake’s other merit is the introduction of beautiful cel-shaded cinematics, which respect the game’s original art. And if only for these reasons, I would recommend it over the original, even if it also boasts some gameplay rebalancing and a lot of additional content.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

The soul collector

The culprit: Valkyrie Profile (PlayStation, PlayStation Portable)

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

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

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

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

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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.

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.

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.