Crisis Bore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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.