“And so the hound weaves his final chapter in this tale of life.”
Final Fantasy VII is considered one of the greatest video games of all time, and for good reason. The 1997 RPG offered a gripping, emotional story with themes rooted in our political & environmental reality. At the center of it all was an incredibly strong core cast who all developed over the course of the journey, but what lent FFVII its title of masterpiece was the control central to the experience. Players were not an audience, but part of the game’s world. Cloud’s journey of self-discovery is even contextualized through control, with the player losing access to their protagonist when he’s at his most unsure of himself. Final Fantasy VII crafts a story that is best told in the video game format, something the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII cannot abide by virtue of its conception.
Yoshinori Kitase always intended for the Compilation to be a multimedia sub-series, with no plans to make a traditional RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy VII. Before Crisis– an episodic cellphone game– and Advent Children– a feature-length animated film– exemplified Kitase’s sentiment loud & clear. Where the former served as a prequel setting up and recontextualizing key events in FFVII proper, the latter was a direct sequel. Advent Children set a precedent for poor follow-ups, failing to understand what exactly made the original story click. Beyond control, that is.
One consistent problem within the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII is the sub-series’ inability to pay respect to its source game’s themes. FFVII notably tackled death in a way that was chillingly real, forcing the audience to face the reality of a life-ending with no drama, no fanfare. Themes of environmentalism and class weren’t subtle, but they were rooted in problems plaguing the real world, conveyed in a manner that reflected society on the cusp of a new millennium. Final Fantasy VII was relatable in a way most pieces of media truly aren’t. With few exceptions, the Compilation loses all semblance of tact, valuing surface-level entertainment over thematic or narrative cohesion.
But to be fair, surface-level entertainment is what the Compilation goes for more often than not. That doesn’t excuse how poorly the Compilation “expands” on its source material, but it’s an important distinction to make. Advent Children may fundamentally misunderstand how Final Fantasy VII uses death, but the film features strong fight choreography, and Cloud’s new Fusion Sword basically begs for gameplay. It wouldn’t have fixed its thematic & narrative problems, but Advent Children might have benefitted from being an action game instead, something Dirge of Cerberus could have been a response to.
Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII was not the first game in the Compilation, but it was the first to be released on a home console, serving as the first video game sequel to FFVII. Due to Kitase’s love of shooters at the time, Square Enix was set on making a gun based action game even before they formally announced Dirge of Cerberus’ title and premise. As a result, they toyed with many different ideas for the protagonist, at one point considering Barret Wallace as the lead. Ultimately, the role of the main character went to the one-party member in Final Fantasy VII who would benefit most from it– Vincent Valentine.
Alongside Yuffie Kisaragi, Vincent was one of two secret party members present in Final Fantasy VII. As revealed in Final Fantasy VII 10th Anniversary Ultimania (Revised Edition,) time constraints were so tight, Vincent was almost cut from the game entirely. While the dev team couldn’t give Vincent the same treatment as Yuffie (optional albeit with meaty side quests,) he did make it into the final game as a secret character present in the basement of Shinra Mansion. Having been added so late into development, Vincent naturally has next to no plot presence, but his role in Final Fantasy VII’s backstory positions him as quite an important observer.
Although little is revealed about Vincent’s past as a Turk, ancillary dialogue dives into the relationship between him and Hojo– Final Fantasy VII’s resident mad scientist and arguable chief antagonist. Bringing Vincent to the fight against Hojo will result in the two briefly referencing their past. Similarly, Vincent and Tifa will discuss the burning of Nibelheim together if they’re both in the party during the final dungeon. As Vincent was the most silent of FFVII’s party members (by virtue of his late addition and stand-offish presence,) these brief moments of personality are really all fans had to go on to get a sense of who Vincent was. To the script’s credit, an admirable job is done at giving Vincent some semblance of depth.
Vincent was added so late into development, the character lacks even a single side quest. What he does have, though, is a secret cutscene. A hidden waterfall can be found at the end of Disc 2 by diving underwater and finding a secret alcove. If Vincent is in the party, he’ll be reunited with Lucrecia, a scientific colleague of Hojo’s, his implied lover, and the explicit mother of Sephiroth. With next to no dialogue, the following scenes depict Vincent’s history with Lucrecia. Assigned to the Shinra Mansion as a Turk, the two formed some kind of connection that Lucrecia ended up severing. An embrace with Hojo suggests the two were lovers, with Vincent content to watch from afar so long as she’s happy.
As Lucrecia falls pregnant, Hojo chooses to experiment on their son, Sephiroth, with Vincent objecting. Lucrecia is seemingly racked by guilt over this, an implied victim of Hojo’s abuse, while Vincent is unceremoniously shot when confronting the scientist– becoming another of Hojo’s experiments. Psychologically broken, both Vincent and Lucrecia choose to seal themselves away as penance. Vincent for the sin of watching as Hojo abused Lucrecia, and Lucrecia for failing to prevent her son from be experimented on. Given that there’s little to no dialogue during this sequence, much of what actually happens is up to interpretation. In turn, it’s entirely possible to read Lucrecia as compliant with Hojo’s experiments. It’s tonally more appropriate that she isn’t, but there’s no really getting around the ambiguity given how late Vincent was added into development.
All the same, it’s exactly this which made Vincent interesting. Final Fantasy VII couldn’t offer audiences his full backstory, but what glimpses we got were quite powerful. Lucrecia’s Waterfall can almost be viewed as a short story about abuse, giving an otherwise substanceless character considerable depth. A sequel story starring Vincent only makes sense with this in mind, and an action game was the perfect genre. Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII redefined Vincent Valentine and the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, adding new details that fundamentally change how one views Vincent, Lucrecia, & the Hojo of it all. And it ain’t pretty.
A third person shooter with RPG elements, Dirge of Cerberus is blatantly torn between two genres. On one hand, it’s painfully clear the dev team wanted to make a pure shooting game. On the other hand, it’s just as clear how little confidence they had in the final product. Quite literally, actually. Development was so stifled that the team drastically reworked the game for its international release. This wasn’t just a small update either, with the Japanese release resembling an (albeit near release) Early Alpha game in a modern context.
The team was so unsatisfied with the Japanese release, that the online mode which arguably defined the game domestically was gutted out, Easy mode was replaced with a harder difficulty, the field of view was scaled back so players could better see their surroundings, and Vincent was given a double jump along with the ability to shoot mid-air, plus a dash to replace his lackluster dodge roll. It’s certainly not unusual for Square Enix to rework content for their international releases, but Dirge of Cerberus is mechanically jarring between regions.
Despite being a video game, it’s best to look at Dirge of Cerberus as a sequel to Advent Children, not Final Fantasy VII. Not only does the story tonally and thematically resemble AC’s, DoC as a game simply doesn’t value what FFVII valued– at least not on the same scale. Vincent lacks a relationship with control (& therefore the player) like Cloud did, and the story is told almost exclusively through cutscenes, seldom through gameplay. Considering how entertaining Advent Children’s action was, this shouldn’t be so damning. Even with a localization designed to make the game better, Dirge of Cerberus suffers from some of the blandest game design Square Enix has produced.
Gunplay is controlled with the left stick moving Vincent and the right stick moving the camera/reticle. R1 brings up the gun reticle, otherwise Vincent will default to melee attacks with Square. Aiming itself is divided into three settings (Manual, Semi-Automatic, and Automatic,) and is snappy enough on Semi-Auto. Unfortunately, brain-dead enemy AI on all difficulties and generous ammo kill the difficulty curve right out the gate. There’s no need to conserve ammunition, and dying is a complete slap on the wrist. In fact, the only way to grind for EXP or Gil is to keep getting Game Overs.
One would expect that if Square Enix was going to deliver on anything with Dirge of Cerberus, it would be through the RPG side of things. Tragically, DoC’s leveling system is an utter disaster. Vincent will gain experience by killing enemies, but the EXP won’t actually register until Vincent dies or the Chapter ends. There, players must choose between keeping the experience they earned, or converting it all to Gil. Since Vincent’s guns are directly powered by upgrading, Gil is actually incredibly important in the game, more so than EXP. But this isn’t something the game conveys well, with any competent players doomed to Game Over grind for Gil if they keep eating EXP. It’s a system designed to ensure struggling players are always making progress, but at the expense of anyone halfway decent at the game.
This wouldn’t be as big a problem if stages were simply paced better. Dirge of Cerberus’ structure is astronomically bad. Divided into 12 Chapters, there is no regard whatsoever for chapter length. Certain missions will only last for a few minutes, while others will push an hour across multiple unique set pieces. Chapter 5 features Vincent in the sewers, a Cait Sith stealth segment, and Vincent exploring Shinra Mansion before capping off with a boss fight. There is three chapters worth of content here, but it’s all jammed into Chapter 5. Since players can’t cash their EXP until the end of a chapter, there’s zero sense of progression going from the sewers to the mansion as Vincent.
What makes this all worse is the pick and choose nature of the system. Going for so long without progression isn’t fun in an RPG, but it’s all or nothing with Gil and EXP. If Vincent chooses EXP, that means no Gil for upgrades. If Vincent chooses Gil, that means no EXP for stats. Gil is eventually more important than experience, but Dirge of Cerberus’ difficulty curve is designed around Vincent’s level. It isn’t rewarding picking an option and watching the other remain bone dry, nor is striking a balance at all reasonable. Savvy players will likely stop leveling in the 10s once they realize how insane the bonuses for gun upgrades are. Even then, they’re so expensive that players will likely be tempted to kill themselves to grind.
The ones who can withstand the mediocre level design that is. Laughably imaginative set pieces– WRO’s unimaginative headquarters, sewers, an ugly part of Midgar, an uglier part of Midgar, and a very poorly recreated area from FFVII– make Dirge of Cerberus look like some knockoff movie game, not the sequel to one of the greatest RPGs ever made. Shinra Mansion, in particular, is an embarrassment, with almost all of its scenery and furniture swapped out in favor of generic crates. It’s as if the stage was specifically designed to rip all the charm out of Final Fantasy VII.
As far as art direction goes, this is probably the worst looking entry in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. DoC doubles down on Advent Children’s grit, but with none of the all-black class that defined AC’s aesthetic. The majority of stages are visually muddy, with enemies blending into the background and poor lighting obscuring what was once a colorful universe. To Dirge’s credit, there are quite a few secrets to find in each stage, embracing the pursuit of optional content that made Final Fantasy VII so appealing. They don’t make stages any better (arguably worse in some instances!) but it’s done in the spirit of the original.
Bland level design is nothing without bland enemy design to round it out. Enemies will occasionally appear on screen before they’re actually ready for gameplay, potentially resulting in players wasting ammo on enemies who can’t & won’t die. In some cases, the game will even show the damage being dealt with enemies simply tanking every bullet until players trigger them for real. It’s never not extremely annoying, but what’s arguably more baffling is enemies ignoring Vincent so long as he runs by them. One of the safest tactics in the game is running straight into gunfire, turning around, and unloading on baddies.
It’s really a good thing Dirge of Cerberus has a great soundtrack because boss fights would have nothing going for them otherwise. The intensity of Arms of Shinra is wasted on bosses like “Helicopter Vincent Can Comfortably Shoot From Far Away” and “Airplane Vincent Can Comfortably Shoot From Far Away,” but it never fails to get the blood pumping. The battles against the game’s core antagonists do offer more involved gameplay– actually requiring hand to hand combat in some instances– but Vincent’s international double jump & dash make avoiding damage extremely easy. All these battles do is put into perspective how poorly designed DoC is. Vincent doesn’t control well enough for melee combat (unable to lock hits into enemies,) shooting is braindead even on Manual, and ammo & items mean nothing since everything is replenished on a Game Over (while the player keeps any EXP or Gil.)
If only the gameplay were the worst of it. While gunplay isn’t that great, it’s passable enough and can make for mindless, albeit inevitably tedious, entertainment. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to enjoy Dirge even at its best due to an incredibly bad cutscene to gameplay ratio. Final Fantasy VII told its story through gameplay more often than not. Any interrupted stretches of the story through cutscenes were naturally momentous, begging the audience’s attention after so much gameplay. Dirge of Cerberus has the opposite effect, breaking up the gameplay so often that it’s hard to remain engaged with the plot. There are nearly 4 hours of cutscenes present, and this is a game that can very easily be beaten in 8 hours. On a first playthrough, the average player will spend nearly half the game watching terribly directed cutscenes.
While the short campaign length makes cutscenes come off all the worse, Vincent’s gun customization is blatantly designed with a longer game in mind. By Chapter 12, anyone who doesn’t stop to grind will most certainly lack the funds needed to bring the better guns to the finale. Upgrades require so much Gil that one has to assume they’re intended to run through the harder difficulties after finishing the story. It’s a pity progression is so lackluster on all fronts because gun customization, while extremely basic, is a novel way of keeping gameplay fresh. Vincent has access to different guns, accessories, and Materia.
There’s little depth to the system, but it’s arguably the one thing about the game that actually works– if only because it calls upon active player control. More often than not, Dirge of Cerberus rips control away from Vincent. His most characteristic moments don’t happen in-game like they did with Cloud (the Dragon fight, nearly killing Aerith, the final battle,) with the story making an active effort to tell an emotionally cinematic story about Vincent’s past. The story ends up trying into FFVII’s theme of death with even less tact than AC. Trying to make clear that all life will inevitably end, Omega, another WEAPON in FFVII‘s line-up, is introduced as a harbinger of the end.
Not only is this just a tired concept in the Compilation’s universe, but Omega is also an awful representation of death, lacking even a modicum of the depth Jenova has as a thematic villain. Final Fantasy VII made the end of life feel tangible, real, and inevitable. Party members die without being able to say goodbye, and the main cast actually fails in their goal by not preventing Meteor. Jenova is a genuine danger who must be stopped. Omega is a nuisance with no screen presence. Dirge of Cerberus wants to approach death with the same maturity as its source game, but it abandons the realism needed to convey its message properly. It’s bad enough that Lucrecia is now a computer ghost who can interact with Vincent seemingly whenever, but it turns out Hojo was able to keep himself alive, further spitting in the face of how FFVII depicted death.
Hojo ends up being the main antagonist, taking advantage of a long-forgotten initiative by President Shinra– Deepground. Frankly, the fact Hojo is back at all should be mind-numbing, but it’s far from the worst story beat. Underneath Midgar, President Shinra stowed away the Tsviets, supersoldiers who wreak havoc on the surface by the time Dirge of Cerberus’ story starts. Audiences are expected to believe that all throughout Final Fantasy VII, supersoldiers were lurking underneath the slums (the lowest point in Midgar to the point of never getting sun.) Worse is that the plot makes no real effort at trying to link the Tsviets’ motivations to the original game’s themes of class. The mere notion of Deepground obliterates any realism Midgar had, but the Tsviets could have easily been a commentary on extreme poverty and the violence that can ensue as a result, paralleling AVALANCHE– but that would require Dirge of Cerberus to be well written.
The Tsviets are boring antagonists that are a part of a boring plot, but, like Hojo, they’re surprisingly not the biggest blights on the script. That honor, unfortunately, belongs to Vincent and Lucrecia. To call it “character” assassination would suggest these two had especially defined characters to assassinate, but Dirge of Cerberus just doesn’t bring their arcs anywhere good. If anything, all their scenes chip away at the mysticism that surrounded their relationship. Vincent and Lucrecia’s backstory is poorly written, poorly plotted, and just downright baffling– taking everything that made Vincent’s character interesting and massacring it to pieces.
There were a lot of blank spots in Lucrecia’s Waterfall, but DoC fills in the gaps with some truly moronic writing. It turns out that Lucrecia worked alongside Vincent’s father (also a scientist,) before accidentally causing his death. Vincent, now a Turk, is assigned to work for Lucrecia unaware that she killed his father. Vincent eventually finds out and rather than confronting the situation, Lucrecia becomes exceptionally cruel towards him, sending dangerously mixed signals and effectively sealing Vincent’s fate. Every scene with Lucrecia involves her apologizing while emotionally contradicting herself the entire time– torn between Vincent and Hojo and Vincent’s father and science and her baby. There is no consistency in what she values, who she cares about, or what motivates her.
Any subtext that could suggest abuse by Hojo’s part is downplayed, making Lucrecia a consensual part of Sephiroth’s experiments. Vincent not only becomes a character with less agency, but DoC bafflingly justifies it, destroying Vincent’s arc– why would he feel like he couldn’t save Lucrecia when she now wants to experiment on her son and blatantly doesn’t have feelings for Vincent? Vincent simply lets Lucrecia and Hojo treat him like garbage, doing nothing. There’s still an interesting story about abuse in here somewhere, but Dirge of Cerberus sure as hell doesn’t tell it and this makes for a pathetic recontextualization of Vincent’s backstory.
The script seems to recognize this to some extent as Lucrecia isn’t Vincent’s love interest, but that leads to a far worse problem: Shelke. A 19-year-old girl with the body of a 10-year-old, Shelke has the face of an adult woman and warms up to Vincent over the course of the game. The feeling is mutual and Vincent literally sees Lucrecia in her by the end of the story, suggesting his feelings for Lucrecia have jumped over to Shelke. Every scene between Vincent and Shelke is horrifically creepy, and the physical contrast between them is not appreciated whatsoever. That cutscenes go out of their way to sexualize Shelke makes her presence significantly worse. Vincent enters Dirge of Cerberus one of Final Fantasy’s coolest characters and exits one of the most pedophilic. It says a lot that Vincent Valentine was more compelling when he was less developed.
Advent Children isn’t good, but at least it’s an entertaining film. Its themes of death are handled poorly, but clocking in at 2 hours keeps the story focused enough where AC can’t do that much damage in the grand scheme of things. Dirge of Cerberus is at its very best just okay, and at its worst an exercise in frustration that puts into perspective why the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII was such a poor idea. Vincent is a retroactively worse character, and his relationship with Lucrecia is muddied within the Compilation itself. Nothing in DoC invalidates Final Fantasy VII or prevents it from being experienced as the standalone RPG it always was, but it’s a miracle Dirge wasn’t a dirge for the Compilation– killing it on the spot. More a victim of flat out bad game design than troubled development, Dirge of Cerberus is Final Fantasy VII at its absolute worst.
Indie Games Spotlight – Going Full Circle
We’re featuring five exciting indie games in our latest spotlight, including the internship roguelike Going Under and the cozy puzzles of Lonesome Village.
Indie Games Spotlight is Goomba Stomp’s biweekly column where we highlight some of the most exciting new and upcoming independent games. Summer may have come to a close, but that hasn’t stopped big announcements from rolling in. With events like PAX Online and the recent PlayStation 5 Showcase flooding the web with announcements, trailers, and gameplay footage, there’s been a constant deluge of news to keep up with. With so much coming on the horizon, we’re spotlighting five exciting indies that you’ll be able to play sooner rather than later. Whether you’re in the mood for a brutally addictive action game or a cozy adventure and social sim, there’s bound to be a game that speaks to you in this spotlight.
Moving Up Professionally in Going Under
Work is its own payment in Going Under. In this action game from developer Aggro Crab, you’re put in the shoes of an unpaid intern who must explore the endless ruins of failed tech startups while fighting off the monsters that spawn within them. It’s hard work to do without a single paycheck—but hey, at least you’re gaining valuable experience!
As a former unpaid intern myself, the writing in Going Under certainly resonates with me and it’s sure to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt underappreciated or overworked. Its vibrant and colorful 3D graphics, as well as its satirical story, only make it all the more enticing. It really should offer a great working experience when it hits all consoles and PC via Steam on September 24.
Fill in the Gaps in Journey of the Broken Circle
Something’s missing in Journey of the Broken Circle. Like its name would suggest, this puzzle platformer follows a Pacman-like circle with a hole to fill. It wanders through a world that is whimsical and existential at once, searching for a companion to fill its gaps. As the circle rolls through ethereal environments, it encounters different shapes to use that allow for new gameplay mechanics.
Journey of the Broken Circle might be about an abstract shape, but in its quest to become whole, it strives to capture the human experience. It promises to be an intimate experience that clocks in at about five hours to complete. If you’re interested in getting this ball rolling, it’s already available now on Switch and Steam.
Prepare to Get GORSD
There’s a delicate balance between unsettling the player without being outright scary. GORSD treads the line here as a one-hit-kill shooter that stars humans encased in the skins of octopuses, dragons with human faces, and nightmarish environments. Something feels off about GORSD, but that’s exactly what makes it so interesting.
Brought to life with detailed pixel art, GORSD supports up to four players who can face off in chaotic matches in varied arenas. It also features a full-fledged single-player campaign with a vast overworld with dozens of unique stages. Its concept is inspired by its developers’ native Southeast Asian cultures, making for a unique gameplay and aesthetic experience. If you’re ready to dive in and see it for yourself, it’s available now on all consoles and PC via Steam.
Get Ready For a Foregone Conclusion
Saying Foregone is a 2D Dark Souls would be cliché, but accurate nonetheless. It’s a hardcore action game where you’ll fight against insurmountable odds to prevent monsters from overrunning the world. It has a brutally addictive gameplay loop—its difficulty may be excruciating, but because it offers a wide assortment of abilities to leverage, it’s immensely euphoric once you overcome the challenges before you.
This beautiful 3D/pixelated hybrid action game has been available on PC in early access since February, but at long last, it’s seeing its full console release in October. It’s been a promising title ever since its pre-release days, and now that it’s finally seeing its complete iteration, there’s never been a better time to dive in and give it a shot. It’s hitting all platforms on October 5, so there’s not long to wait!
Finding Good Company in a Lonesome Village
Mix Zelda with Animal Crossing and you might get something like Lonesome Village. This newly-revealed puzzle adventure game features Zelda-like adventure in a hand-drawn world populated by animal characters. Players control a wandering coyote who stumbles upon a strange village and decides to investigate its mysterious happenings by interacting with villagers, solving puzzles, and exploring its dungeons.
It’s more than a simple adventure game. In addition to puzzle-solving, you’ll interact with Lonesome Village’s eclectic cast of characters to forge relationships and unravel brooding mysteries. It’s showing plenty of potential with its cozy gameplay loop, and if you want to give it a shot, check out its official demo from its Kickstarter page! It’s already been fully funded in less than 24 hours, but if you want to help the developers out even further, consider contributing to their campaign.
PAX Online: ‘Inkulinati’ and ‘Pumpkin Jack’
The PAX Online celebrations continue with the strategy game, Inkulinati, and spooky Halloween themed Pumpkin Jack.
The PAX Online celebrations continue with a strategy game whose tales are writ in ink and a game sure to put you in an early Halloween mood.
Platforms: Switch and Steam
Competitive strategy games stress me out. Chess? Stresses me out. Checkers? Stresses me out. Star Craft? Stresses me out. Managing that stress as a form of stimulation is what makes the best strategy games shine, though, and Inkulinati is so far demonstrating all the facets of such a game.
The titular Inkulinati are masters of a craft that brings their inked creatures to life on parchment, including a caricature of themselves. The two Inkulinati do written battle with each other until only one is left standing. The battles are carried out in a charming medieval art style that looks like it was taken straight out of a manuscript you’d find carefully stored in a library. These aren’t the masterpieces of Da Vinci or Van Gogh, but the kinds of scribbles you’d find the layman making on the edges of pages either out of boredom or mischievousness. The playful art makes for a playful tone and jolly times.
The core thrust of the gameplay is that each Inkulinati utilizes ink points to conjure units, or “creatures”, onto the parchment in a turn-based manner and sends them into the fray. There were a fair amount of creatures available in the demo — ranging from a simple swordsdog with well-rounded stats to a donkey capable of stunning foes with its trusty butt trumpet. Many many more creature types are promised in the full game, but I found even with the limited selection of the demo the gameplay was still able to be showcased well.
Your primary Inkulinati also has some tricks up its depending on the type you’ve chosen to take into battle. Instant damage to or healing a unit were the two shown off in the demo, as well as being able to shove units. Shoving is particularly useful as you can push enemies into the hellfires that encroach the battlefield as the battle wages on, instantly defeating them.
Doing battle with an opponent it all well and good, but what’s the point if it’s not immortalized for generations to experience down the line? Inkulimati understands this need and will record every single action of the battlefield in written word. It’s infinitely charming, and the amount of variations in how to say what amounts to just “X unit attacked Y enemy” is astonishing. How can you not chuckle at, “Powerful Morpheus killed the enemy and may those who failed to witness this live in constant pain and regret”?
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: Q4 2020
Halloween may be a little over a month away but that didn’t stop the 3D action platformer Pumpkin Jack getting me in the spookyween mood. The human realm is suffering from the Devil’s curse and have elected the aid of a wizarding champion to save them from it. Not to be outdone, the Devil also chooses his own champion to stop the wizard, choosing the despicable spirit Jack. With the tasty reward of being able to pass on from hell, Jack dons his pumpkin head and a wooden & straw body on his quest to keep the world ruined. The premise sounds slightly grim but make no mistake that this is a goofy game through and through, a fact only emphasized by a brilliant opening narration dripping with sarcasm and morbid glee.
The demo took us through Pumpkin Jack‘s first stage, a dilapidated farmland full of ambient lanterns abandoned storehouses. The visuals are compliments by a wonderfully corny soundtrack full of all the tubas, xylophones, and ghost whistles one would expect a title that is eternally in the Halloween mood.
We got the basics of traversal, like dodge rolling and double jumps, before coming upon a terrified murder of crows. Turns out their favorite field has been occupied by a dastardly living scarecrow and they want Jack to take care of it. One crow joins Jack on his quest, taking the form of a projectile attack that he can sic on enemies. Jack also obtains a shovel he can use to whack on the animated skeletons with a simple three-hit combo. There’s nothing particularly standout about the combat, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be this early on. More weapons such as a rifle and scythe are promised in the full game and should go a way towards developing the combat along with more enemy variety.
Collectible crow skulls also dot the map and seem to be cleverly hidden as even when I felt like I was carefully searching the whole stage I had only found 12 out of 20 by the end. Their purpose is unknown in the demo, so here’s hopping they amount to something making me want to find those last eight in the full version.
After accidentally lighting a barn ablaze and escaping in a dramatic sequence we came across the scarecrow in question. Defeating it was a rather simple affair that was just a matter of shooting it out of the air with the crow then wailing on it with Jack’s shovel. We were awarded a new glaive-type weapon as a reward but unable to give it a whirl in the demo, unfortunately. All-in-all, Pumpkin Jack shows promise as a follow-up to action 3D platformers of yore like Jak & Daxter, so here’s hoping to a solid haunting when it releases later this year.
‘Oracle of Seasons’: A Game Boy Color Classic
“It is an endless cycle of life… the changing seasons!”
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons are very much two halves of the same grand adventure, but they’re both worth examining on their own merits. Seasons in particular brings with it quite an interesting history. The game that would eventually become Oracle of Seasons began life as a remake of the original Legend of Zelda. This remake would be accompanied by five other games– a remake of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and four original titles– all developed for the Game Boy Color. These games would not be developed by Nintendo themselves, but by Flagship– a subsidiary of Capcom that was also funded in part by Nintendo and Sega.
These six games would eventually be trimmed into a trilogy slated to release in the summer, autumn, & winter of 2000, before settling as a duology that would launch simultaneously in 2001. Where Oracle of Ages was the sole survivor of the four original games, Oracle of Seasons was a brand new game morphed out of the Zelda 1 remake. Considering director Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s own reflection on Flagship’s Zelda proposal, much of what would define Seasons was always present;
“The core of the game was pretty much decided. That is to say, the fact that it would be on the Game Boy Color, the use of the four seasons, and the decision to retain the feel of the 2D Zelda games. It was also decided that it would be a series.”
Not only was this remake never intended to be a standalone entry, it would kick start its own sub-series while featuring seasons at the forefront of the gameplay. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto likewise asked Fujibayashi to pen a new story for the original Legend of Zelda, suggesting a fairly comprehensive remake as the end goal. With so many inherent changes, however, The Hyrule Fantasy ended up leaving the region altogether.
“I believe the Zelda series really only started to have scenarios after the hardware specifications improved. The original Zelda was a pure action-RPG and didn’t have much of a story to begin with. I wanted to combine both those aspects (action-RPG and an actual scenario) this time around. At first, we’d only planned on creating a game one-tenth the size of the final version. But it just kept growing as development progressed and gradually turned into an original game.”
– Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Director/Planner/Scenario Writer
Oracle of Seasons takes after Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask by setting itself away from Hyrule– the kingdom only ever shown during the opening cinematic. Holodrum has one of the densest worlds in a 2D Zelda game, if not the densest after A Link to the Past & A Link Between Worlds. A kingdom geographically similar to Hyrule as seen in the original Legend of Zelda, Holodrum has its own northern mountainside, a final dungeon in the northwest corner, and dozens of old men hidden amongst the land. This all makes sense since Seasons is rooted in a remake of the first game, but it isn’t as if Holodrum is without its novelties.
Holodrum is distinct from Hyrule where it counts. The kingdom itself is quite large, sprawling when compared directly to Koholint Island. Progression often feels like a puzzle, especially when working around roadblocks early on. Holodrum’s four seasons are out of order, with the weather changing on the fly between regions. Link has to work around snow banks, overgrown trees, flooded fields, and petrified flora to overcome Holodrum’s chaos. As easy as it is to get side tracked in the vast kingdom, it’s only because there always tends to be something around the corner. Getting lost isn’t a problem when the overworld is so secret heavy.
Old men are frequently found hiding under trees, actually giving players a reason to burn them on sight now, but new systems are in place to make exploration even more rewarding. Link will come across patches of soft soil throughout Holodrum where he can plant Gasha Seeds. Owing their name to gashapon– Japanese capsule toys not too dissimilar to blind bag toys– Gasha Seeds grow into Gasha Trees which bear Gasha Nuts after Link has defeated 40 enemies. Gasha Nut contents are randomized, but they incentivize players to return to previously explored areas.
Not everything a Gasha Nut drops is worth the effort of chopping down 40 enemies– the worst being five regular hearts and a sole fairy– but the best rewards make it all worthwhile. While the Heart Piece tied to the Nut is probably the best overall get, Gasha Seeds naturally feed into the Ring system. Rings add an inherent RPG layer to the Oracle duology’s gameplay, offering the earliest instance of genuine player customization in the Zelda franchise. Rings, like Gasha Nuts, are completely random. Link will find many in his travels, but he needs to appraise them at Vasu’s ring shop in Horon Village before they can be used. Except in a few rare instances, Vasu’s appraisals are randomized.
There are 64 rings altogether between Seasons and Ages, all with varying effects. Which rings Link obtains can influence how players go about their game. RNG also ensures that each new playthrough is unique from the last. While this poses an obvious frustration for any completionists, it’s a fantastic way of adding another layer of replay value to an already fairly replayable experience. The Expert’s Ring allows Link to punch enemies if he unequips his weapons, the Charge Ring speeds up the Spin Attack, and the Protection Ring makes it so Link always takes one Heart of damage when attacked.
With so many rings to choose from, the gameplay is kept in balance by Link’s Ring Box. Once appraised, Link can equip his rings into his box. While he can only equip one initially, players can find a Box upgrade on Goron Mountain. With RNG already influencing which rings Link has access to, it’s unlikely two players will have the exact same experience in Oracle of Seasons– rings offering more personalization than is still usual for Zelda. Besides Gasha Nuts, Rings can be found in the overworld and dropped by Maple, a young witch who makes further use of RNG.
Maple is Syrup’s apprentice, the recurring witch who runs the potion shop in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. Riding in on her broomstick, Maple will appear after Link has killed 30 enemies. Should players bump into her, both Link & Maple will drop their treasures, prompting Maple to race the player for them. It’s almost always worthwhile to focus on what Maple’s dropped rather than what Link lost. Not only does Maple drop her own unique set of rings, she’s a convenient way of getting potions early on and will eventually drop a Heart Piece. Maple also gets progressively faster, upgrading her flying broomstick to a vacuum after enough altercations.
So much RNG can be off-putting, but Holodrum is such an extensive overworld that randomness isn’t much of an issue. Gasha Seeds drive exploration and Maple’s appearances reward it. These systems also encourage players to fight enemies head-on rather than avoid them when it’s convenient. If gameplay ever feels more involved in Oracle of Seasons than the average Zelda game, that’s because it is. This goes double when taking the very seasons into account.
The four seasons influence overworld progression significantly and most non-dungeon puzzles center on Link using the Rod of Seasons to restore seasonal order to whatever region he’s in. Most of these puzzles solve themselves since seasons can only be changed on stumps, but concessions need to be made when an overworld features four unique versions of every region. Incredible use of the Game Boy Color’s hardware helps in this regard as well. The handheld was designed with making in-game colors pop and Oracle of Seasons– as an extremely late-life GBC game– stands out as one of the most vibrant titles in the system’s library.
Each season has its own defining color palette– blue for winter, red for summer, green for spring, yellow for autumn– but there is always a wide range of colors on-screen. Winter matches its light blue with shades of white & gray; spring features an almost pastel color tone where gold & pink flowers bloom against soft shades of green; summer deepens most colors for a bolder effect; and autumn offsets its yellow with orange, red, and in some instances purple. Oracle of Seasons might very well have the best atmosphere on the Game Boy Color, each season stylized & recognizable with their own distinct tones. It’s a phenomenal presentation that outdoes OoS’ contemporaries. Seasons outright has better art direction than most early GBA games.
The fact Oracle of Seasons commits to its premise in such a large overworld as strictly as it does is praiseworthy, but it’s even more impressive that there’s another world lurking underneath Holodrum. Subrosia is a bizarre underworld, easily the most eclectic setting in the franchise other than Termina (and in many respects more so.) Subrosians are culturally impolite, bathe in lava, and deal in Ore instead of Rupees. The Subrosian Market undersells a Heart Piece, volcanic eruptions are a welcome norm, and Link will be moving between Holodrum & Subrosia multiple times over the course of his journey. Players can even go on a date with a Subrosian girl, Rosa, that’s a clear play on his date with Marin from Link’s Awakening. Subrosia is so alien that it’s hard not to love every moment beneath Holodrum.
Beyond the four seasons and the dichotomy between Holodrum & Subrosia, what differentiates Oracle of Seasons most from Oracle of Ages is its focus on action. Seasons is a puzzle heavy game, but it lets combat drive the gameplay more often than not with a very action-centric tool kit. The Slingshot makes its 2D debut, replacing the Bow in the process, but its 250 seed capacity outdoes any of Link’s quivers. Its upgraded version, the Hyper Slingshot, even fires in three directions at once. The Roc’s Feather returns from Link’s Awakening to once again make jumping an important part of Link’s mobility. Not only is platforming far more frequent this time around– with the Ancient Ruins featuring quite a bit of jumping for a 2D dungeon– it upgrades into the Roc’s Cape which allows Link to glide.
The Boomerang now upgrades into a guided Magical Boomerang which players can control themselves; the Magnetic Gloves are ostensibly a better version of the Hookshot which can pull Link to & from magnetic sources, along with magnetizing certain baddies; and most enemies are designed with a combination of the sword & shield in mind. Oracle of Ages has its fair share of action as well, but not with quite the same focus as Oracle of Seasons.
In general, Seasons is a focused video game in the best ways possible. OoS always gives players a general direction to go in, but otherwise leaves Link to his own devices. There are little to no interruptions, and the gameplay loop emphasizes freedom in spite of the game’s linearity. There’s always something to do and you’re always making progress, whether that be narratively or checking in on some Gasha Nuts. The pace is perfectly suited for handheld gaming and quick burst play sessions. Only have a few minutes to play? Kill some enemies to trigger Maple. Got some time? Scope out the next dungeon and work towards saving Holodrum.
There are also a number of side quests to round off gameplay. The main trading sequence ends with Link finding the Noble Sword in Holodrum’s Lost Woods; players can forge an Iron Shield in Subrosia by smelting red and blue ore together & bringing the refined ore to the Subrosian smithy; and Golden Beasts roam Holodrum, each appearing during a different season & in a set region. Once all four are defeated, Link can find an old man north of Horon Village who will give him the Red Ring– a ring which doubles the Sword’s attack at no expense to the player.
All these side quests are worthwhile, especially since Oracle of Seasons is a bit on the tougher side when it comes to difficulty. Dungeons are very fast-paced, full of puzzles that are often deceptively simple. Dungeon items are used in increasingly clever ways, from traversing over bottomless pits with strategic use of the Magnetic Gloves to using the Hyper Slingshot to activate three statues at once. Notably, most bosses in Seasons are actually remixes of boss fights from the first Legend of Zelda.
Aquamentus, Dodongo, Gohma, Digdogger, Manhandla, and Gleeok all return with a vengeance. Gleeok in particular puts up a serious fight, forcing Link on the offensive. Not only do players need to be quick enough to slice off Gleeok’s two heads before they can attack themselves back on, the dragon will persist as a skeleton for round 2. Explorer’s Crypt is a difficult enough dungeon where getting to the boss room with full health isn’t a guarantee, so Gleeok offers a surprising but welcome challenge as a result.
Oracle of Seasons deserves a bit of credit for having one of the harder final bosses in the series, as well. Onox doesn’t have much in the way of personality, but he’s a tough boss to put down. His second form requires Link to use the Spin Attack to deal damage while making sure he doesn’t hit Din in the process, and Onox’s dragon form is a gauntlet of dodging, jumping, & surviving long enough to finally kill the General of Darkness. Players are bound to die once or twice, but the final dungeon is short enough where getting back to Onox takes no time at all.
If Oracle of Seasons has one glaring flaw, however, it’s the story. The script reads like a massive step back coming off the heels of Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time, and especially Majora’s Mask. Link is summoned to aid the Oracle Din, already a seasoned hero and implied to be the same Link from A Link to the Past, but very little time is spent fleshing out Din as a character & giving players a reason to care about her. Her role is more akin to Zelda in A Link to the Past than Marin in Link’s Awakening. Similarly, Onox is an undercooked villain who shows up to kidnap Din and does nothing for the rest of the story. Of course, this light story stems from Seasons’ origin as a remake of The Legend of Zelda.
Early press of the game– when it was still going by the name Acorn of the Tree of Mystery– indicates that the story was originally set in Hyrule and the seasons went out of order when Ganon kidnapped Princess Zelda, the guardian of both the Triforce of Power & the four seasons. Hyrule was changed to Holodrum, Ganon became Onox, Zelda turned to Din, and the eight fragments of the Triforce presumably became the eight Essences of Nature. While underwhelming, the plot’s structure if nothing else makes sense.
It’s worth pointing out that Oracle of Seasons seems to recognize that story is its weakness and lets the gameplay drive the experience. Unlike Oracle of Ages which takes its plot seriously and has a clear thematic arc, Seasons really is just a remix of Zelda 1’s plot. Which is perfect for the kind of game OoS ultimately is: a fast-paced, action-packed adventure through an ever-changing world. When played as a precursor to Ages instead of its ending, Seasons’ story comes off comparatively better. The stakes aren’t that high or defined, but that’s more than okay for the first half of an adventure that spans two full-length games.
In a departure for the franchise, Oracle of Seasons actually features a proper post-game, marking the first time any Zelda acknowledges that the main threat is over. NPCs will comment on how they haven’t seen Link in a while, the weather has stabilized as spring has set in Holodrum, and you’re free to wrap up any side quests left unfinished. This is especially noteworthy because players can link their progress from Seasons over into Ages and transfer any rings they have on hand.
An epilogue makes for a charming send-off to one of the most charming games on the Game Boy Color. Oracle of Seasons underwent a strange development, intended to be little more than a suped-up remake of the original Legend of Zelda. Instead, Flagship ended up developing one of the finest games on the GBC– a vibrant adventure filled with personality and some of the best action on the handheld. Oracle of Seasons isn’t just one half of a greater game; it’s a classic Zelda in its own right.
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