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.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate II (PC, Mac)

Empty heartReleased in 2000, two years after its predecessor wowed the gaming community, Baldur’s Gate II faced the difficult task of being a direct sequel to a massive hit. And while some of the choices it makes are questionable (notably in terms of reducing exploration and a weaker villain), the end result is still largely successful, and the game has, nowadays, become more popular than Baldur’s Gate. The basics still apply: the setting is the same, the mechanics are the same, and the storyline picks up right where the first game ended, albeit on a significantly darker note. The game is still vast and involved, and contains extensive dialogue that may make modern-day players hesitate. However, the interface has been updated and the class system refined, with three new additions and kits for every other existing class. Combat has been made more strategic and more difficult. Moreover, the cast has been streamlined, even though some characters make a comeback from the first game. This is, however, a case of favouring quality over quantity, as the existing characters have a lot more interaction with each other and are more fleshed out. What’s more, this is the first BioWare game to introduce romances, which add more depth to interaction and have become one of the company’s trademarks. Although, I’d say that the most charismatic members of the cast are still returning characters from BG.

Other than that, the game has both a grander scope and a tighter focus: instead of roaming about countless outdoor areas with little to differentiate them and next to no motivation to do so besides curiosity–although this may be the very definition of adventure for some–, the action is now set in several large locations and seldom wanders outside of them. The plot also involves greater stakes, since the protagonist has been revealed as none other than an offspring of the defunct God of Murder, Bhaal, and must now deal with said heritage and those who would prey on it. An expansion titled Throne of Bhaal was released a year later, in 2001, in order to conclusively address the question of the protagonist’s divine ambitions or lack thereof.

Due to its greater overall popularity, the game has also spawned a LOT of mods–in other words, player-created content–thus allowing you to customise your gaming experience even more. Just as with the first game, some of the available stuff is either indispensable from a technical point of view (bug fixing, ease-of-use) or, when it’s additional content, extremely well written, to the extent that I couldn’t imagine playing without it. All this content is still actively supported by an enthusiastic and committed player community, which, for a 15-year old game, is damn impressive and a testimony to its quality. Of course, it’s not perfect and has its share of annoyances and aggravations, even after being modded, and, to a modern-day player, it may feel dated and somewhat clunky. But don’t let superficial concerns keep you from one the best WRPGs ever created, especially if you enjoyed the first one. This is BioWare in top form, and it shows.

"Hey, y'all, this is a great game!"

A remake called Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition was released in 2013 by Beamdog studios, incorporating both Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal. It includes many of the fixes and tweaks that previously required mods, but also brings back the three new characters that were added by the Enhanced Edition of BG, as well as adding three more. The main problem is that not all the mods it hasn’t rendered obsolete are compatible with it. However, the modding community has been hard at work, and that problem has been almost entirely addressed. Emphasis on the “almost”, but it’s only a matter of time.

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.

What can change the nature of a man?

The culprit: Planescape: Torment (PC)

IfIn pain you speak to a veteran PC gamer, chances are that they’ll eventually mention Planescape: Torment with stars in their eyes. There’s a good reason for that. Coming out hot on the heels of Baldur’s Gate, this offering by Black Isle Studios (BG’s publisher) didn’t make much of a splash commercially at first, but went on to gain cult classic status. Console gamers of the younger generation will probably never have heard of it, and that’s a shame, because if there’s one game that puts the “RP” back into RPG, this is it, and you may hear it hailed as, quite simply, the best RPG ever. This is, of course, an exaggeration, as such claims usually are, and it all boils down to a matter of personal taste in the end, but the fact remains that what this game does well, it does extremely well, and I’ve never played anything quite like it, either before or since.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect. Far from it, actually, especially by modern standards. The graphics are dated, and the interface is rather clunky; if you’ve played BG before, it’s the same isometric view, movement scheme and dialogue system. There are also quite a few bugs and quite a lot of content that either got cut or wasn’t fleshed out entirely, making the game feel somewhat unpolished in places. Moreover, if you’re a fan of combat, I shall warn you to keep your distance straight away. Not only is it really not the focus of the game (i.e. there’s very little of it), but saying that it’s not streamlined would be an understatement. It’s based on the same AD&D rules as BG, but the implementation is rather slapdash. There are mods available, as with any PC game, which focus on squishing bugs, restoring cut content and making the interface more pleasing to the eye, but nothing that really improves the combat.

Motley crewStill, don’t let this detract you from PST’s real strengths, which are characterization, plot and, most importantly, dialogue. The latter is detailed, varied, abundant and steeped in witticisms. It’s also strongly dependent on the protagonist’s attributes. The characters are probably the craziest bunch of misfits you’ve ever encountered; they certainly were to me. As for the plot, it revolves around such notions as responsibility, redemption, justice and human nature; the seminal quote from the game is, in fact, “what can change the nature of a man?” To sum things up, this is for people who enjoy immersive, engrossing, thought-provoking storytelling, and if you fit that bill, this game may just become the latest entry on your ‘all-time greats’ list.

As a final point of interest, a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, named Torment: Tides of Numenera, is currently being developed, after having broken all funding records on Kickstarter.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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.

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.

A hard nut to crack

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate + Tales of the Sword Coast (PC, Mac)

Under a blood-red skyIf you’re a fan of RPGs in general, and WRPGs in particular, you will have heard of Baldur’s Gate. Even more than a decade after its release, this game is still considered a milestone for the genre, despite the dated graphics, the perfunctory voice acting and the staggeringly complex combat system. There’s even an Enhanced Edition currently in the works. Baldur’s Gate was also responsible for propelling its developer, the Canadian studio BioWare, to fame, establishing it as one of the most successful WRPG creators for years to come. And while they’ve recently suffered a massive decline in quality, this game was made back in their glory days.I won’t lie: it takes some getting used to. It has quite a few flaws and kinks, some very annoying, some only mildly aggravating, and a modern-day player, used to shiny graphics, fully-voiced dialogue, speed and streamlined combat mechanics, might find it difficult to like. Still, if you can get past its shortcomings, there’s also a lot of great stuff, particularly if you consider the saga as a whole. Kind of like a nut: you have to crack the shell first to get to the good part, but that good part is what you remember afterwards. The game is vast, detailed, involved and Verbosenot afraid to take its time (sometimes excessively). It features extensive dialogue, a very large cast of characters which includes some truly memorable individuals (something BioWare is renowned for and still does well) and a compelling storyline. It’s biased towards male players, as all games used to be back in the day, but that’s hardly a shocker and doesn’t really prevent it from being enjoyable.

The main difference between JRPGs and WRPGs is the latter’s emphasis on choice, which is abundantly present here. The protagonist is essentially a blank slate for you, All hail Tolkienthe player, to customise to your heart’s content, and, for someone used to JRPGs as I was, this kind of freedom is genuinely a breath of fresh air. Baldur’s Gate is as typical as WRPGs get, being based on a pre-existing high fantasy setting (i.e. a medieval environment, abundant borrowing from Tolkien–elves, dwarves, halflings, the whole nine yards–, and a pantheon of deities who actively influence the lives of their worshippers), the Forgotten Realms, which had previously been featured in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons games and several books. While it creates some continuity issues with the latter, they are not necessary to understand the game’s premise, and you can perfectly well head into it without ever having heard of the Realms before. The one big hurdle to leap is understanding the combat system, but you don’t necessarily need to master all its intricacies to have a working grasp on things.

PC games have this advantage over their console counterparts that they are much more open to player involvement. By that, I mean modding: various and sundry additions, written and implemented by players themselves. This can range from bug fixing, to restoring cut content, tweaking the combat system, adding customised weapons and armour, or even creating entirely new quests and characters. As luck would have it, the Baldur’s Gate modding community is still very active, even after all this time, and the game is thus blessed with an extensive array of goodies to pick from to improve your experience. Some of them–specifically, the ones that fix bugs and rebalance the game–are pretty much indispensable. Others are so well-written that I couldn’t imagine playing the game without them. This isn’t to disparage the original developers’ efforts–which, after all, have resulted in a game that people still want to play after more than ten years–, but many dedicated modders have produced amazing things. In the end, this makes Baldur’s Gate an impressive collaborative venture: a game which is only further enriched by its audience. And that is an undeniable quality.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

This is why people are afraid of clowns

The culprit: Final Fantasy VI (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance)

Final Fantasy VI was the first Final Fantasy game I played, and, as such, it holds a good deal of sentimental value. To this day, it remains one of my favourite games of the series. It’s also still one of the most popular ones. The last FF of the The will to fight SNES generation, it was unleashed upon the Western world as FFIII back in the day, due to the numerical confusion caused by the non-release of FFII and the real FFIII. Epic, exciting, engrossing, full of drama, humour and emotion, this game brought a new sense of scope to the FF saga. Gone are the elemental crystals and four orphans copypasted from the first FF. The game develops a distinctly steampunk vibe and not only introduces the first–and, for a long time, only–female lead in the series, but also its first truly memorable and unique villain. Couple that with one of the largest and most lovable character casts, not to forget a wonderful soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.

Graphically, in comparison to the two FFs which preceded it on the SNES, the game is a good few miles ahead. 2D it may be, but it’s beautiful 2D. The environments are quaint and detailed, just like illustrations to a fairytale. The only background that I can outright criticise is the chocobo riding screen, which just ends up hurting your brain after a while. The sprites are large and very expressive, broadening the palette of the characters’ visible emotions even further than FFV. There is also no longer any difference in size between the sprites on the world map and the sprites on the battlefield.

Just as all its predecessors, FFVI has been remade a couple of times, and now exists on the SNES, PS and GBA. Like FFV, the PS version comes with lovely introductory and concluding FMVs. But, unlike FFV, I wouldn’t really be able to give a definite recommendation as to which version to play. I’ve not tried the PS one, although I hear it has a serious issue with loading times, but between the SNES and GBA versions, it’s really a toss-up. The game remains largely identical, with only two optional dungeons and four new Espers added to the mix (and, considering the huge amount of Espers already available in the original game, they feel like overkill). The major bugs have been squished, and the script has been partially retranslated, but considering the iconic status that Ted Woolsey’s original SNES text has acquired, this wasn’t exactly necessary or expected. However, none of these changes harm the game either, so it’s just a matter of picking the easiest version to find. But, by all means, if you love RPGs and have never played this game before, do yourself a favour and remedy that ASAP.

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.

Almost famous

The culprit: Final Fantasy V (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance)

Final Fantasy V is the last game of the series that was ‘skipped’ upon release for some reason or other, resulting in its successor being known as FFIII instead of FFVI for a while. Once again, Western audiences had to wait a few years before the game became available outside Japan, bundled with FFIV in the Final Fantasy Anthology collection. In hindsight, I can understand why the oversight occurred. Don’t get me wrong: FFV isn’t a bad game. There have been far worse entries in the series both before (FFII) and since (FFXIII). ‘Bland’ is probably the word that springs to mind most readily. There’s a story and characters, and they all seem to tie in and mesh together reasonably well, but I definitely got the feeling that something was missing. You can’t blame it on character interaction, because there’s plenty of that. You can’t blame it on lack of backstory either, because there’s a good deal of that as well. So perhaps it’s just that, by some devilish stroke of bad luck, the wondrous spirit known as Charisma has managed to bypass the entire cast, bar one.

The game does have its qualities, nevertheless. It further builds on the graphical achievements of FFIV, with larger and better-designed character sprites which now gain a modicum of expression. They can laugh, look angry or surprised, which is a pretty big improvement over what the FFIV sprites could do. It’s also the first time in the series that full-fledged characters coexist with a job system, the latter having been significantly improved by comparison with its FFIII predecessor, which probably makes it the best aspect of the game. FFV’s other perk is that it makes a point of maintaining an upbeat attitude throughout, even when the characters go through rough times, making it one of the most lighthearted games in the series, especially in comparison with its three immediate successors.

Nowadays, FFV exists on the SNES (thanks to the RPGe fan-translation), PS (with some introductory and concluding cinematics) and GBA. Having played the SNES and GBA versions, I would recommend the latter. While there haven’t been any groundbreaking changes, aside from the mandatory additional dungeons and such, the retranslation has greatly improved the game, capitalising on character interaction to compensate for their individual blandness. This, alongside the well-oiled job system, makes the game almost memorable.

Detailed review available! Read more here.