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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Of paladins, dragoons and spoony bards

The culprit: Final Fantasy IV (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable)

Starting the tradition of three Final Fantasies per console, this is the first game of the series on the SNES, and, contrary to its two predecessors, this one actually did make it out of Japan in timely fashion. It also started a numbering confusion that would last for a while: since it was the second FF to be released outside of Japan at the time, it would be known as FFII. The original SNES game notably exists in two versions: what is called the ‘easytype’ or American version, and the ‘hardtype’ or Japanese one. The ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ bits should be self-explanatory. I guess the developers believed that the rest of the world wasn’t quite up to par with Japanese gaming standards. It probably didn’t sit very well with some people, as the Japanese version has since also benefited from a fan translation into English.

Despite this variation in combat difficulty, the game is the same in both versions, and it’s certainly a memorable one. For the majority of the Western audience, this was the first FF with properly characterised protagonists and a sizeable cast of them to boot, one of the largest in the series, in fact. Since every character also has a fixed class, or job, this also gives said classes a recognisable face, so to speak. Cain/Kain and Cecil, for example, have set the tone for the abilities and physical appearance of all dragoons and paladins in the FF series. Just about everything else in the game has taken a significant upgrade from previous installments as well: better (and longer) storyline, better combat mechanics, better graphics (with the notable introduction of battle backgrounds). True, the characters sprites still look somewhat squished while on the world map, but they are otherwise more detailed than the ones on the NES. Since this is still early enough in the series for first times, this game also marks the first appearance of proper save points.

FFIV also holds the title of “Most Remade Game in the Series”: as of today, it’s available to Western audiences on four different consoles. There’s the original SNES version, a PS version, with short cinematics of dubious graphical quality added at the beginning and at the end, which was released together with FFV as part of the European Final Fantasy Anthology bundle, a GBA version, a DS version and a PSP version, bundled with the game’s sequel, The After Years (which was previously only available on the Wii), as well as an exclusive episode covering the transition between the two. Each remake thus offers something new to the experience, the GBA and DS versions introducing the most significant changes. Overall, I would say this is one the best games in the FF series: solid, well-paced and fun, well worth playing or replaying.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Lost and found

The culprit: Final Fantasy III (Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo DS)

Final Fantasy III was the last FF released on the NES, but for some reason (apparently, technical difficulties), has met with an even worse fate than its predecessor, despite being a better game. While FFII finally managed to make it out of Japan when Final Fantasy Origins was released, FFIII was never even scheduled for release in the West until the recent, vastly overhauled DS port, which resulted in temporary numeral confusion, as FFVI was known as FFIII to us Westerners for a good while. Shame, if you ask me, because, out of the three NES FFs, this is probably the most entertaining one, despite the mess that serves as its storyline.

There is a fan-translated ROM of the NES version by NeoDemiforce available, but since there are such significant differences between it and the DS port, and since the DS port is, after all, the official incarnation of the game on our shores, I thought it best to attempt to review both side by side.

FFs come in series of three per console, and the third one in a series is usually the best in terms of graphics, logically enough. The NES version of FFIII is no exception: the colours are softer, the outlines and sprites clearer, and the battle mechanics have greatly improved. Message and movement speed is now perfectly decent, which

represents a huge upgrade in playability. Of course, this all pales in comparison with the DS version, which upgrades the graphics to 3D, introducing beautiful, colourful environments, and even a lovely introductory cinematic (even though none of the character interaction it showcases is actually shown in the game). The most spectacular instance of this upgrade is the Forbidden Land Eureka, which, with the new graphics, looks nothing short of stunning, with its waterfalls and the starry void surrounding it. The only minus I can think of is that character sprites have been maintained, thus keeping the game’s ‘kiddy’ look. Combat has also been spruced up, with tighter and more complex battle mechanics, as well as dynamic combat screens (the camera angle changes when the characters cast spells or use abilities).

This is also the first FF ever to introduce the job system as we know it. Sure, in FFI, you could pick jobs at the beginning of the game, but you couldn’t freely change from one to the other. Here, you have the possibility to change jobs at will, and you have a much larger selection of them too. This makes the game a far cry from its predecessors in terms of strategic depth and customisation possibilities. Speaking of first times, this is also the first appearance of the moogles, who run Dorga/Doga’s household, although you’re never told where he got them from. It’s also the first appearance of Gilgamesh, or Gigameth, as he’s called here, even though he has nothing in common with his later incarnations besides the name. More importantly, this is the first appearance of summoners as well, alongside their trademark summonable creatures. Yep, Shiva, Ifrit, Ramuh, and all the others hail from here.

The DS version is the better and more accessible game of the two, but if you’re curious enough to want to delve into some archaic NES fun, the fan translation works just fine. Unlike FFI or FFII, the NES version of FFIII is much less of a chore to get through. As long as you know what to expect (ie. worse characterisation and graphics, mainly), it won’t disappoint. Overall, whichever version you pick, this is a pleasant game, which leaves a good impression in spite of its flaws.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

The culprit: Final Fantasy II (Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation Portable)

This is the second installment of the Final Fantasy series, but it actually didn’t make it out of Japan until the Final Fantasy Origins remake for the PS, where it was bundled with its predecessor, FFI. This has resulted in a temporary numerical confusion for the rest of the world, where, until Origins came out, FFIV was known as FFII (since it was, for all intents and purposes, the second FF game released outside of Japan), and FFVI as FFIII. Effectively, this means that the only way to play the original NES version is to use a NES emulator, and the fan-translated ROM by NeoDemiforce. Barring that, the Origins version is the official first version of the game outside of Japan.

While all this may be a minor annoyance, the actual game itself certainly isn’t. If you ask me, this is quite possibly FF at its very worst. Yes, yes, worse than X-2. Worse than Tactics Advance 2. Worse than XIII.

To start off on a positive note though, the game does mark an evolution in a few areas. First of all, the graphics have gotten a tad better, smoother and with slightly less glaring colours. The message speed has also significantly improved, making battles faster. Now you don’t actually have to wait for hours scrolling through stat-ups when one of your characters gains a level, unlike the original FF. The storyline shows more effort, as does the characterisation. Contrary to popular belief, which is based on the delayed release of the game, this is the very first FF to have named characters with distinct personalities, even though some of the sprites, like Frioniel’s/Firion’s or Guy’s, have shamelessly been recycled from the first game. The cast is also more numerous and more varied. The very first Cid appears here, as well as the very first chocobos. The former hangs out in a bar and lets you to use his airship for a fee. The latter live in a forest near Kashuon/Kashuan, where you can catch them, allowing you a temporary respite from random fighting as you canter around the world (they’ll run away once you dismount though). In short, if you only look at it from this angle, it sounds like it should all be good…right?

Right. But this does not take into account the combat system. That one single aspect completely BREAKS the game. I mean, taken on their own the storyline and the characters aren’t all that, but you could’ve appreciated the effort and the evolution from the first FF if everything else had evolved positively as well. As it is, however, the combat system only brings out the rest of the game’s shortcomings in much starker relief, as if it tainted everything it touched. By all means, give the game a shot if you really like your videogame archaeology, or if you’re curious to see just how low FF can fall. Otherwise, I’d steer clear from this sucka. Or, at least, from the NES version. Which, admittedly, isn’t difficult, since it actually takes some effort to obtain. The Dawn of Souls GBA remake, however, is nothing short of astounding as it actually manages to make the game decent. That one, if you ever do get your hands on it, is worth a go.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

How to (not) go out with a bang

The culprit: Final Fantasy (Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation Portable)

Well, folks, this is what started the gaming goodness for so many. Back in Ye Olde Days when games happened in 8-bit on a black backdrop, Squaresoft was a little struggling company that decided to go all out for one last parting bang. They cooked up something called Final Fantasy; “final” being self-explanatory in the context. And…that was the beginning of a cult series. Who woulda thunk it?

The game, for those familiar with more recent FFs, is a condensed version of pretty much everything that makes FF what it is today. To the trained and spoiled eye of the modern-day RPG player, it will most likely seem unimpressive at best, but do bear in  mind that you’re looking at what started it all. The traditional four-person party with its even more traditional jobs (or character classes) has to save the world. FF veterans will instantly recognise the traditional outfits of the White, Black and Red Mages. The setting is medieval, as in all FFs up until VI, and includes all the good old details of the genre: damsels in distress, cursed princes, witches, knights, sages, dragons, and even an ancient lost civilisation. The four elemental crystals and their corresponding fiends And aerodynamics be damned!start out here; back in the day, the idea was probably a stroke of genius and has since become a trademark of the series. The crystals have reappeared in III, IV, V, IX, XI, XII and XIII since, under many different guises. The good ol’ airship also starts out here, even though there’s no Cid to construct or pilot it yet.

The first version of the game was released on the NES. If you expect breathtaking graphics, wonderful music, an amazing storyline and incredibly smooth gameplay there, well…you’ve got another one coming. The game is old, and you can feel it: the battles are slow and choppy, the music is tinny and the smudgy, glaring colours may hurt your eyes. However, the game has also been remade a good number of times. There is a PS version bundled with FFII called Final Fantasy Origins, a GameBoy Advance version bundled with FFII called Dawn of Souls, and a PSP version released for the 20th anniversary of FFI’s release. So there are plenty of ways to re-experience this one without forcing yourself through the NES version. By all means though, if you’re hardcore enough and want a challenge, give the NES version a shot, if only to appreciate just how far the FF series has come since its beginnings. Gotta give credit where credit is due, however: this is a decent piece of light entertainment and a worthy ancestor to its more illustrious descendants.

Detailed review available! Read more here.