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‘Darkest Dungeon’ — The Torch is Still Lit

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Darkest Dungeon isn’t exactly new news at this point. The game was originally Kickstarted for the PC back in February of 2014, and it entered a long period of Early Access at the beginning of 2015 that would see the core game improved, refined, and expanded until its full retail release roughly a year later. During that long period, many players spent dozens to hundreds of hours with the game, and have enjoyed content infusions along the way which have kept the formula fresh.

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A host of different creatures inhabit 5 distinct environments, and learning how to best handle them is a major undertaking.

That fully-fledged product is what Vita and PS4 owners now have access to for the first time. If you haven’t given the game a shot yet, allow me to tell you the many reasons you should, and perhaps the rather few you maybe shouldn’t.

At its heart, Darkest Dungeon is a single-player, turn-based, squad-oriented tactical combat game, but it’s a difficult title to conveniently squeeze into categorical boxes (even with gratuitous overuse of hyphens). It blends elements from a variety of genres into a unique, compelling package, and while it likely appeals most strongly to a fairly concrete demographic, there’s really nothing else out there quite like it.

Players take control of a nameless heir to a great estate that has fallen into a frightening state of disrepair. The sad tale of the manor and surrounding town is delivered by the heir’s ancestor at the outset of the game via a posthumous letter begging the player to claim their birthright. This narration turns out to be a core element as things progress, as the Ancestor punctuates dungeon encounters with a host of Lovecraftian one-liners, and slowly unveils the mysteries of the estate and its gradual collapse as bosses are defeated.

It’s worth special note here that not only is the writing exceptional, mimicking Lovecraft in the most perfectly gleeful manner, but the voice of the Ancestor, provided by veteran voice actor Wayne June, is one of the most stirring, evocative, and memorable performances of the industry’s last decade or two. Good voice acting isn’t hard to find, nor is a solid script, but such an exceptional marriage of theme, writing, and performance is a rare treasure indeed.

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The Estate is a big place, and will offer diligent players many hours of perverse thrills.

The Ancestor isn’t the only one doing the talking, however. As the player recruits a small army of mercenaries from those who show up in town looking for work, the game’s primary focus becomes apparent: the heroes themselves. They only speak in text bubbles, but they have quite a lot to say about the dismal world around them, and there’s as much weighty reflection as there is heroic posturing and good humor.

Why is this important? Because the heroes of Darkest Dungeon are complex, flawed people by design. Their quips and observations are just a small part of a network of systems designed to make them simultaneously more and less than the average video game heroes. As they adventure, there are the usual RPG considerations: heroes need to be outfitted with gear, trained up to higher tiers of ability, and healed of their physical wounds. But in Darkest Dungeon, the most immediate threat generally isn’t death. It’s sanity.

In addition to a standard health bar, every hero has a sanity meter. While any hero’s health bar will automatically reset upon returning to town from a trip into the dark, their sanity meter does not. Sanity can be “healed” using a variety of character skills, and also using several different facilities in town, including a lively tavern (with attached brothel) and an abbey. Heroes travel to the dungeons in groups of 4, and will invariably exit said dungeons in varying states of mental disrepair. Some will come out reasonably unscathed, but others will need to take a breather between missions by drinking and gambling at the tavern or praying and meditating at the abbey.

This management aspect is at the core of Darkest Dungeon’s gameplay loop. New heroes show up at the hamlet looking for work, the player can hire the ones he or she sees fit, and then as the new recruits delve into the sinister depths to battle Lovecraftian nightmares, players are expected to deal with a host of varied complications. Too much stress during a dungeon run results in a semi-permanent state of affliction which will cause characters to act illogically, impulsively, or abusively, often adding even more stress to themselves or their companions. Heroes are also susceptible to a host of diseases as they travel, which will cause them ongoing debuffs until the illness is dealt with. Positive and negative quirks occur as they level up, which have a huge array of different potential effects, from situational buffs and debuffs to outright behavioral inconsistencies (such as stealing loot for themselves or fiddling around with occult devices they should probably leave alone).

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Heroes are sponges for negative effects, and learning to manage these is part of what the game expects of players.

It’s a lot to deal with, and while it runs the risk of making the game a micromanagement nightmare, the balance between character maintenance and dungeon-diving is nearly perfect. Just when you can’t stand the thought of figuring out who else needs to be cured of debilitating emotional problems or insidious disease, you find yourself back in a dungeon smacking monsters around. The game will always present new problems and new challenges, but smart use of time and resources will ensure that you’re also constantly solving older ones, either through fixing up your best heroes or retiring those who, perhaps, would be better off never visiting a dungeon again.

Quests of varying types, lengths, and difficulties are selected in town from a constantly shifting assortment, and heroes are then outfitted with gear and supplies before setting off. Inventory space and money are limited, however, so buying the right supplies for the job is a major concern, and buying either too much or not enough can have problematic consequences. If you over-prepare, you’ll waste money on supplies you didn’t need, not to mention cluttering your inventory and making it harder to carry loot back to town. But bring too little, and your characters run the risk of starving or not having enough torches to light their way. Interestingly, the game ties difficulty and reward to the level of current torchlight. Monsters and sanity loss get tougher as the light wanes, but potential rewards increase, leading to a wonderful risk-reward system that ties resource and inventory management directly to combat.

Dungeon exploration ties these things together too. Layouts are procedurally generated, though dungeons always consist of simple room-and-hallway constructions. Hallways are littered with monsters, traps, and “curios” (interactive objects that contain loot or bestow effects on heroes). Rooms may contain larger treasure caches or groups of monsters, and are often the targets of quest objectives. Dungeon trips consequently go best when the player has a good strategy for approaching quest goals, dealing with obstacles, and using resources to keep heroes fresh in combat (and hopefully reasonably sane). Combat is a turn-based, tactical affair that involves good skill selection, team composition, and a lot of focus on positioning. Enemies and heroes line up on either side of the screen, and their position in line determines what skills they’re able to use (and which positions on the opposing side they’re able to affect). It’s a novel take on combat that takes familiar concepts and uses them in new ways, and while it does heavily involve dice rolls, it’s not “random”.

In fact, combat in Darkest Dungeon asks players to do what the rest of the game does (quite literally): make the best of bad situations. Winning isn’t about steamrolling the enemy, it’s about learning how to minimize risk. Save scumming isn’t an option, as the game saves constantly, and thus the unpleasant effects heroes may suffer can’t be whisked away by a quick press of a button. If your favorite crusader comes down with a wasting disease, or if your healer loses her marbles and starts passing turns of her own accord, those are realities you’ll have to live with. Likewise in regards to hero mortality; when they die, they stay dead, and you’ll have to decide whether to press on or retreat, in addition to dealing with the physical and mental scars of the survivors. You’ll want there to be at least one survivor, because if nobody escapes, nobody brings back the scavenged gold for your coffers. Darkest Dungeon never drops you into an unplayable hole from which there is no escape, but if you play poorly enough, you can certainly end up in positions where you’ll need to climb.

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The town offers upgrades for heroes in addition to helping them manage their stress (and bulk out their roster).

And this is the largest caveat when it comes to recommending Darkest Dungeon: it’s hard. How hard? That depends largely on how well you learn its mechanics. If you read some reviews and forum posts, you might be inclined to think that the game is so unfair as to be completely impossible, but this is patently false. Darkest Dungeon simply asks you to do what many games no longer do—learn its systems. Observant players who choose to invest in the game will find their efforts rewarded, and those who can’t (or choose not to) will find themselves barely scraping by. It’s never an easy game, especially if you’re savvy or lucky enough to make it to the very end (the titular darkest dungeon is a harrowing run even for capable vets, and a soul-crushing nightmare for the unprepared), but success is entirely possible if one learns to properly manage probabilities.

Those who can keep up with the logistical challenge are in for a real treat. Tight combat, a rewarding gameplay loop, and stellar artwork make the experience a sumptuous one, decadent in its brutal subject matter and unforgiving nature. The PS4 and Vita controller interface is definitely less desirable than using a mouse, and could possibly be a little more elegant than it is, but a controller is still a viable way to play and doesn’t cause too much undue frustration. Both PlayStation versions of the game are cross-buy and cross-save as well, making the console release a tempting option. It’s a stellar fit on the Vita, as dungeon runs themselves don’t tend to take an extraordinarily long time, and playing multiple short sessions in a day works very well. Some things are slightly difficult to see and read on the smaller screen, but not enough to make it a major issue. A few early crash bugs have been patched out since launch as well, leaving both ports stable and smooth.

If you haven’t yet taken the plunge on Darkest Dungeon, it’s well worth checking out, either in its classic PC format or one of its shiny new console ports. The oppressive atmosphere and difficult mechanics won’t be for everyone, but those who speak the game’s language will find that most titles rarely approach this level of balance and polish.

Just be sure to bring enough torches. And maybe be careful about which dark corners you decide to stick them into.

Michael J. Riser writes weird fiction and articles about videogames. He occasionally posts stuff at Bookruptcy.com, and (more frequently) @Quemaqua on Twitter.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Matt De Azevedo

    October 27, 2016 at 2:44 am

    Nice write up.

    I played the recent PS4 release, and enjoyed it a fair bit. Perhaps my only major criticisms being that the level 5 (or 6? the ones with the highest level bosses) dungeons seemed way too RNG / Luck based, with 1 missed attack or 1 enemy crit being able to doom a character (or a whole party in some cases). And, oddly enough, the actual Darkest Dungeon, the final levels of the game, were far to easy, with the final boss being a bit too predictable, in terms of both form and function.

    I’m glad you mentioned Wayne June, one of the highlights for sure.

    • Michael Riser

      October 27, 2016 at 3:46 am

      Interesting. I don’t know if any balance changes have been made since I last played through the PC endgame, beyond making the climb back up a little easier if you happen to fail a few times (I’ve seen it literally break people on stream multiple times, so they added some features to make getting more people back up to level 6 less of a grind). I agree that the final boss is a bit of a disappointment, depending on what one is expecting; I’ve always taken it to be a case of not wanting such a long, difficult game to end with an overly ultimate challenge. As you say, the margin for error goes way, way down as you approach the end. I still don’t really think of it as RNG or luck so much as having to work to minimize certain very specific risks, but it’s pretty much semantics … the pendulum swings _real_ far in that direction, either way. But it’s still been one of my favorites this generation despite the few issues.

  2. Andrew Vandersteen

    October 29, 2016 at 1:30 am

    Loved the Vita version, probably more then the PC version. For some reason it just seems to fit better. My only real complaint is it’s use of the rear touch pad, which has never worked on the Vita. I’d give anything for that functionality to be moved to the front screen instead.

    • Michael Riser

      October 30, 2016 at 1:59 am

      That didn’t bother me. I agree with you in general, but for this particular game I thought it was used somewhat decently. And the game really does fit well on the Vita. I had a blast with it. Wish I had more time to spend with it, as I have not done so to my satisfaction yet.

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Game Reviews

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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Game Reviews

‘Tamarin’ Review: Monkey Trouble

Like Yooka-Laylee before it, Tamarin flounders in its attempts to recreate its source material for a more modern audience.

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Tamarin Game Review

Developer: Chameleon Games | Publisher: Chameleon Games | Genre: 3rd Person Shooter/Platformer| Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

You have to be of a certain age to recall a game like Jet Force Gemini. One of Rare’s one-off titles of the N64 era, like Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini never earned itself a sequel but was a fun sci-fi adventure for its time. It’s this same energy that Tamarin, from Chameleon Games, attempts to channel.

Made up of former Rare staff, the folks at Chameleon Games are almost certainly the best team to make an attempt at rekindling such a long dead franchise with their spiritual successor. However, as can be the case with retro throwbacks, sometimes it’s better to ask whether you should bring back an older style of gaming, rather than if you could.

As we’ve seen with games like Yooka Laylee and Mighty No. 9, it often seems that the idea of an older game or franchise being resurrected for modern audiences is better to imagine than to actually play. While the occasional Bloodstained does come along to buck the trend, more often than not we get a game which is too faithful to its sources to make a mark or too different to rekindle that old love and nostalgia.

All of which is to say that Tamarin, while very faithful to its inspirations, never quite hits the mark that brings it to the next level. Part of this is the natural aging process, particularly of the first era of 3D platformers and adventure games which spawned on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. While many of the games of that generation packed in endless hours of fun, so too have many of their mechanics aged terribly.

Tamarin Game Review

This accounts for Tamarin‘s weakest point, which is undoubtedly its combat. The shooting sections of the game, while channeling another Rare franchise that balanced cuteness with cartoonish violence, are just so mechanically terse that they drag the game down egregiously each time they crop up.

Like with Jet Force Gemini, players will spend much of Tamarin battling troubling insectoid enemies that threaten the peace of all of civilization. Also like the game which was such a clear inspiration for Chameleon, Tamarin brings back the clunky 3D aiming reticle. Not only is the shooting janky here, it feels downright unwieldy when you first get your hands on a firearm.

Though players can get the hang of it with a little effort and some reworking of how they see shooters, there seems to be little point in doing so. Tamarin‘s braindead AI and sparse few enemy types make combat feel like much of an afterthought to the experience, despite how central it is to progressing through the game.

To be fair, Tamarin does also bring some of the good from its spiritual forebear. The gradually growing arsenal of laser guns and rocket launchers does feel fun to play with, and the game is peppered with plenty of upgrades for the guns along the way. Sadly, then another of the Space Invaders style mini-games will pop up and derail things all over again.

Yes, there is a strange reference to yet another long gone gaming franchise here. Unlocking certain doors requires players to start from the center and aim the analog stick around firing at hovering, shifting rows of bugs. Again, it feels very unwieldy, and by the end most players will simply settle for spinning the analog stick wildly while firing with the machine gun for maximum ease.

Fortunately, more successful are the platforming sections. Making up the other side of Tamarin‘s coin, is a game more inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country 64 than anything else. As players travel through the outside world, gathering collectibles and gaining new abilities as they go, Tamarin shows much more variety than its combat sections.

With clear cues marked on the terrain to denote which areas require upgrades or new abilities to traverse, Tamarin is generally able to point you in the right direction across its world, though a map or minimap would help matters considerably. Though the game is split into many separate areas, they often look so similar that it can make the game hard to navigate and harder to remember where previous markers were for exploration. Even a rudimentary map feature would make this far less of an issue.

Alas, the exploration flounders on occasion as well. Jumping sometimes feels a bit too flighty and can even break the game at times, allowing players to jump off of surfaces they shouldn’t be able to normally. Further, the need to hold down a button and press another to grab certain collectibles is totally unintuitive and is another feature that seems to be more or less pointless.

As such, for all of it’s cute mascot spiritedness and lovingly attributed influences, Tamarin ultimately falls short in bringing back some of the best franchises of yesteryear. Though the effort is a valiant one, Tamarin, hampered by the flaws of the games it attempts to emulate, is just too clunky in its execution.

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Game Reviews

‘Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered’ Review: Some Games Age Like Milk

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

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Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Developer: Square-Enix | Publisher: Square-Enix | Genre: Action-RPG| Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Mobile | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

There’s a bit of a storied history between Nintendo and Square. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is an important part of that history. Or rather, the original version, released in 2003, was.

While it might seem to younger gamers like Square-Enix and Sony have always been close, Square had a different best friend for much of the 80s and 90s: Nintendo. Though a rift developed between them when Square opted to focus on CD-roms rather than cartridges for Final Fantasy VII, that rift only lasted for about 6 years. The game that signalled the end it? Well that was a new release exclusively for the GameCube: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

Though Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released to relatively positive reviews 17 years ago, the game has not aged well. The quest of a caravan of crystal bearers to refill their crystal’s power and protect their homes from a deadly miasma, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

The first, and most considerable, problem with the game is that the quest at the heart of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is tedious and repetitive. Players ostensibly go from area to area on a world map, exploring uninteresting towns and beating lackluster dungeons. If this wasn’t enough, players are also forced to replay these levels over and over again in order to gain enough upgrades for later levels.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all RPGs ask players to level up in order to succeed. You’re not wrong, it’s simply the structure of levelling up that makes this experience so trying. The only way to level up in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is to beat the entire level again. Players are not rewarded experience for killing enemies but instead can choose one stat to upgrade each time they complete a level. What this means is that every tiny upgrade to your character can take 10-15 minutes at a time to get.

This wouldn’t be as trying on your patience if simple, basic flaws in the game weren’t so egregious. Hit detection is incomprehensible at times because, even when your character seems to be standing right next to an enemy or boss, they often fail to connect their attacks. Even worse, rather than mapping different attacks to the face and shoulder buttons, players must cycle through them one at a time, with the attack button standing in for defense, magic, healing or food consumption.

Of course, much of this has to do with the format of the original game. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was meant to be played with link cables and Game Boy Advances connected to the GameCube. Each player would have a different bonus displayed on their GBA screens and, as such, players would work together in local multiplayer, aiding each other with their unique screen information as well as their combat skills.

Naturally the GBA had only two face buttons and two shoulder buttons, hence the layout. However, it’s been 17 years, and it’s pretty egregious that Square-Enix didn’t even think of giving players an option to rework the button layout. Doing so would make combat much more dynamic and help to fix the often clunky feeling of battling the game’s monsters.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Adding to the tedium are unskippable cutscenes all over the game. Every single time players challenge a boss, they are forced to sit through the same cutscene introducing the boss. Further, there are random events that occur on the world map which are also unskippable, even if they’re repeats of events that the player has already seen. Haplessly tapping the confirm button to skip through dialog that we’ve already heard should not be an issue in a game released in 2020.

These flaws were mostly a part of the original release as well but what’s the point of remastering a game if you haven’t fixed anything? Even the visuals in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered have failed to receive much polish. The game looks murky and fuzzy rather than sharp and clear. If Square-Enix could clean up Final Fantasy VIII for its gorgeous remaster, what stopped them here?

This is without even mentioning the loading times, which are frankly absurd for a game nearly two decades old. Again, it seems that getting this remaster out the door trumped quality control for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, which does nothing to help the game’s case.

Though the game is markedly more fun when players join you to take on a level, even the online connectivity has serious issues. To make matters worse, if a player chooses to use the multiplayer, they’ll have to carry a chalice around themselves if no one joins them, picking it up and putting it down all through the level.

Since single player has an AI character who will carry it for you, this option could be easily added to multiplayer, disappearing when (or if) someone actually joins you. This would allow the structure of the game to remain static regardless of whether someone joins your game or not, instead of making the game harder if no one decides to pop in.

While game director Araki Ryoma has promised to address the issues with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, the game has aged so poorly that, even without the flaws of the remaster, it’s hard to recommend it to modern audiences. Sad as it is, some games are better left in the past. Such is the case with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

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