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‘Not so Final Fantasy’ – Unpacking ‘FFVIII’s’ Most Fascinating Fan Theory

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Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.

Final Fantasy VIII is without a doubt my second favourite game in the series, but I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not exactly what you’d call a typical JPRG.

Over the course of their adventure, protagonist Squall and company witness a chain of events that stretch the credulity of the series’ usual blend of science-fiction and fantasy to breaking point, threatening to jump the shark on more than one occasion. Amid amnesia-inducing Guardian Forces (summon monsters) and sporadic, subconscious journeys into the past are such things as a flying military academy and the Lunar Cry: a spectacular moment roughly three quarters of the way through the game during which a torrent of monsters rain down to the planet’s surface… from the Moon.

It’s perfectly understandable, then, that efforts to explain away some of the more ludicrous features of Final Fantasy VIII’s plot have been made over the years since its release.

The most prominent of these – titled, rather evocatively, ‘Squall is Dead’ – revolves around the idea that Squall is fatally wounded during the climactic battle at the end of disc one, rendering everything that happens thereafter an illusion generated by his dying mind.

I’ve never been convinced of the veracity of this particular fan theory myself, but it’s an intriguing prospect nonetheless, boasting some intriguing concepts that deserve a closer look – if only to disprove them.

Naturally, what follows is heavily laden with spoilers, so I’d advise not reading any further unless you’re already familiar with Final Fantasy VIII.

As I mentioned a few short lines ago, the theory doesn’t actually begin to diverge from the standard interpretation until the very final scene of disc one, specifically, at the moment Squall is impaled on a huge spear of ice magic cast by apparent villain Edea following SeeD’s abortive attempt to assassinate this increasingly powerful sorceress.

Knocked unconscious by the attack, Squall awakes sometime later trapped in a desert prison. Still somewhat disorientated, as you would be having so recently occupied the role of meat in a human kebab, the taciturn hero’s first thought is “where’s my wound”? A good question and one that kicks off the ‘Squall is Dead’ theory in earnest.

Squall pierced by Edea's ice magic at the end of Final Fantasy VIII disc one

How could such a brutal attack leave no mark whatsoever on Squall’s body, the theory asks? Surely neither Edea nor the Galbadian Army would bother healing him only to execute him later on? After all, he presents a very real threat to their plans. The answer, according to Duckroll (online alias of the individual who first conceived of the concept), is that, from here on out, everything we see is a figment of Squall’s imagination; a coma fantasy; an extended version of the concept of life flashing before one’s eyes immediately preceding death. The key difference is that, in Squall’s case, his failing brain takes it one step further and, rather than simply reminiscing on his past life, actually fabricates an idealized future in which he finally learns the answers to the questions he’s not had the opportunity to ask. Questions such as what are Edea’s motives? Who are Laguna, Kiros, and Ward, and what do they have to do with Squall? And, most importantly of all, where does the protagonist himself come from?

This explains why the story takes such a fantastical turn from this point onward. His subconscious is now free to conjure any scenario it deems necessary to answer these questions, unfettered by the laws of physics and probability, which includes placing Squall at the centre of events despite his relative inexperience (more on that later).

Returning to the problem at hand, i.e., Squall’s miraculous recovery, I think Duckroll’s solution is completely superfluous. Is a deathbed fever dream really a better explanation than the obvious? That Edea has indeed healed Squall’s wounds, not out of any residual kindness or as part of some convoluted scheme, but to ensure he’s 100% fit and conscious for the ensuing examination-by-torture. Choosing to interrogate Squall rather than Quistis (an experienced member of the Garden hierarchy and therefore more knowledgeable of its inner workings than Squall at this point) because true main antagonist Ultimecia, via her ensorcelled proxy Edea, is instictively aware even now of the crucial role Squall will play in her fated demise.

Not through something as banal as intuition, but through the paradoxical, time-warping cycle of events that binds them so inextricably. Edea’s powers stem from Ultimecia who travelled back in time to pass them on after her defeat at the hands of Squall; the man whose destiny it was, is, and will be to confront Ultimecia because it was his future self that warned pre-sorceress Edea of Ultimecia’s rise to power and, crucially, tasked her with founding both Garden and SeeD. And because headmaster Cid, it transpires, is married to Edea, he patiently awaits Squall’s arrival, grooming him for leadership and offering whatever assistance he can in the fight against Ultimecia when he eventually finds his way to Garden as a young orphan.

Okay, so the plot is as confusing as The Matrix sequels, more or less, but once you’ve got your head around the different time-lines, it starts to make sense in a weird kind of way. Not only that, but with so many competing narrative threads and esoteric concepts to factor in, it doesn’t require any great leap of the imagination to see any loose threads present in the final release as unintentional if natural consequences of the writer’s attempts to create a story that leans more towards science-fiction than the traditional medieval fantasy of previous Final Fantasy titles.

Between here and the final confrontation with Ultimecia, evidence supporting the ‘Squall is Dead’ argument fluctuates in believability, taking the form of various isolated incidents rather than any coherent theme connected to the main narrative.

I’m not going to address all of them in detail, of course. I mean, there’s not much to say about the floating Garden, Lunar Cry, or the presence of Moombas in their defense, other than these are surely pretty typical of a series that’s never exactly shied away from such flights of fancy. Exhibit A) Suplexing a ghost train in Final Fantasy VI. Two of the more compelling points deserve a mention, however, beginning with the sudden upswing in the careers of Squall and Seifer, and how this ties into the overarching theme of fate.

Squall and bitter rival Seifer duel during the introduction to Final Fantasy VIII

As a newly minted member of SeeD, Squall’s ascendancy to squad leader and, later, commander of Balamb Garden as a whole does seem a bit precipitous when you think about it. Prior to his sudden rise, Squall is very much a loner who only tolerates the company of others because his habitual professionalism and loyalty to Garden dictates he must; he certainly has no wish to form any personal bonds with his comrades. Seifer, meanwhile, though of dubious morality in the early stages of the game and similarly unsociable, has always demonstrated a comparable degree of loyalty toward Garden, making his sudden shift in allegiance and personality from an abrasive, antagonistic heel to someone overtly evil just as difficult to account for. Unless this was all a product of Squall’s fading subconscious.

If this was the case, their sudden upturn in fortunes doesn’t seem quite so out of place. You can easily imagine Squall projecting an idealized version of himself as the selfless savior of the world, the indomitable warrior who gets the girl and learns the value of friendship, while his rival, Seifer, becomes nothing more than another disposable stooge of the heinous villain.

Or is it simply fate? We’ve already established that Squall is central to SeeD’s plans by virtue of his time-spanning relationship with Edea and Ultimecia, and, though neither headmaster Cid nor Edea are able to explicitly inform Squall of his destiny (I assume because it’d create a paradox, though this is never stated), it’s only natural that the weight of responsibility gradually placed on his shoulders as the story progresses in order to prepare him for the battles to come begin to change his personality; especially in respect to the people he commands. Seifer, meanwhile, has always viewed Squall as something of a rival; perhaps because he sees much of himself in Squall along with a few key differences. Seifer thus feels he has to constantly prove himself to others, to show them he’s every bit as good as Squall, triggering the violent encounter between the two at the very beginning of the game and placing a very large chip on his shoulder which leaves him vulnerable to the manipulative powers of Ultimecia.

And this is far from the only time fate, in one guise or another, is addressed prior to the seminal confrontation at the end of disc one. Throughout the first few hours of Final Fantasy VIII, the story is punctuated by sporadic dream sequences in which Squall’s (and his two chosen companion’s) consciousness is sent back in time, by a mysterious woman named Ellone, to inhabit the bodies of three unusual and apparently random Galbadian soldiers. Not to change the past; Ellone realizes that’s impossible. But to teach Squall to embrace his destiny, prepare him for the challenges that lie ahead, and help him grow as a leader.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say fate accounts for the equally abrupt development of Squall and Rinoa’s relationship from thinly veiled hostility to all-consuming love. But nor do I think the quick turn around in their feelings serves as evidence for the ‘Squall is Dead’ theory.

Squall’s lack of interest in Selphie and Quistis as potential love interests for one thing, a sticking point for proponents, is hardly surprising when you consider the differences in their personalities. Selphie is bubbly and gregarious – the polar opposite of the laconic, aloof Squall Leonhart and therefore hardly a suitable match. Serious and a little bit bossy, Squall has always viewed Quistis, meanwhile, as a mentor; despite the fact she’s only a year older than him.

Rinoa, by comparison, falls somewhere between the two. She’s kind-hearted and sweet like Selphie, but not quite as animated. And, while she undoubtedly possesses a great deal of inner strength and determination, neither is she as straight-laced as Quistis. For her part, in Squall, Rinoa sees all the qualities she thought she loved about Seifer (martial prowess, hidden depth, faithfulness, nobility) along with a handful of others unique to Squall: integrity and a greater capacity for affection among them.

Her personality complements Squall’s in a way that neither of the other two’s can. She’s self-assured and tough enough to give as good as she gets whenever Squall falls into one of his frequent bouts of severe introspection, yet possesses the requisite warmth of character to melt his outwardly chilly disposition. When viewed from this perspective, it’s hardly surprising their relationship blossoms so rapidly once they’ve spent some time together and begun to understand what really makes one another tick.

Squall and Rinoa reunited - Final Fantasy VIII

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not until the last hour or so of Final Fantasy VIII that any really thought-provoking arguments in support of the ‘Squall is Dead’ theory come to light. Beginning with Ultimecia’s nihilistic monologue on the inexorable movement of time’s arrow in the build-up to the final, multi-stage boss battle.

According to the theory, Ultimecia represents Squall’s subconscious during this scene, as it tries to convince him to embrace his impending death. To give up his futile struggle to cling onto a life and reality that is fast slipping through his fingers.

I must say, when I first considered her words, I was little unsettled. They do seem a little out of context when you consider her reasons for compressing time are to protect herself from SeeD by creating a world in which she alone can exist. Humanity is simply collateral damage, not the target; unlike Kefka or Sephiroth’s plans. I was unsettled that is, until I dug a deeper and discovered the sentiments conveyed during this exchange differ quite drastically in the original Japanese version, wherein Ultimecia talks specifically about childhood feelings, and how the linear motion of time makes any attempt to hold on to the memories and experiences of our younger days pointless; a subtle shot at Squall’s newfound appreciation for his friends and their shared past in the seaside orphanage. Any deeper existential concepts are nowhere to be found.

It’s harder to dismiss the theory’s interpretation of the post-boss cut-scene. The sheer number of distorted images that flood the screen upon Ultimecia’s defeat alone makes it a difficult sequence to parse, let alone the recurrent image of Edea piercing Squall’s body with her magic.

If this was indeed the last thing he ever saw in the waking world, as the theory suggests, it would make perfect sense for this event to replay over and over in his mind as he wanders a featureless subconscious abyss, trying desperately to organize the disparate memories of his recent past and his place within them. The increasingly blurred nature of these visions symbolizing the deteriorating state of his mind and body.

Compelling as it undeniably is, there are still holes in this argument, however, that, when considered alongside the standard interpretation of everything that’s gone before, leave me ultimately unconvinced.

To begin with, later events appear as part of this vignette that, if the theory is to be believed, would have to have happened after Squall became comatose: most notably, the moment he and Rinoa reuinite in space shortly after Adel is released from her celestial prison and returns to Earth amongst the monsters of the Lunar Cry. If the theory is correct and only moments from his life race through his mind at this point, how is this possible?

Which brings me on to my second and most crucial point. Although the image of Edea’s near-lethal attack on the parade float recurs time and again, it isn’t because this signals the end of Squall’s corporeal existence, but because, as he plummeted to the ground and looked up into Rinoa’s panic-stricken face, this was the moment he realized the true depth of his feelings for her.

So, when he finds himself stranded in the infinite abyss caused by Ellone’s time magic – a place where past, present, and future blur into one confusing, homogeneous mass – Squall realizes his only chance of getting home is to use the strength of his attachment to Rinoa as his focal point; to orient himself in time. Thus he summons forth images of their first meeting at the graduation dance, his zero-G rescue mission, and even that infamous moment on the parade float; these images distorted by the extreme conditions, of course, and the nagging self-doubts and uncertainty that plague Squall.

Squall adrift in Final Fantasy VIII's climactic cut-scene

With precious little evidence supporting key points, I don’t think I’m being overly harsh when I say the ‘Squall is Dead’ interpretation of Final Fantasy VIII doesn’t have a lot going for it.

Aside from the counter arguments raised here and by various other fans who take the game at face value, director Yoshinori Kitase himself debunked the theory as hokum in a 2017 interview with Kotaku. Discussing the seminal encounter at the end of disc one that begun this whole discussion, Kitase said “I think he (Squall) was actually stabbed around the shoulder area, so he was not dead”. A pretty definitive response, I think we can all agree.

However, in the same interview, Kitase later conceded the ‘Squall is Dead’ concept presents “a very interesting idea” going on to say “if we ever do make a remake of Final Fantasy VIII, I might go along with that story in mind”. Perhaps there’s still hope for this intriguing idea after all, just not in the way adherents might have hoped.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Izsak Barnette

    May 7, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    Great article, John. I always thought this particular fan theory was very interesting, especially considering the game’s insanely complex ending.

    • John Websell

      May 8, 2018 at 4:06 am

      Completely agree – the final few scenes are like something out of an M. Night Shyamalan film!

  2. John Cal McCormick

    May 8, 2018 at 6:17 am

    I’ve never actually heard this fan theory, and naturally when I read the title here I assumed this would be about the Rinoa/Ultimecia fan theory. This one is entertaining too. I always liked VIII.

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15 Years Later: ‘Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’ Is Kojima’s Espionage Love Letter

On November 17th, 2004, Metal Gear Solid 3 was released, marking the first entry in what would become a major part of the Metal Gear Saga.

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Metal Gear Solid 3

“After the end of World War II, the world was split into two — East and West. This marked the beginning of the era called the Cold War.”

On November 17th, 2004, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater released in North America and Japan marking the first entry in what would later become a line of prequel games within the Metal Gear Saga. Big Boss’s story would finally be expanded upon in the Hollywood action game that forever changed the course of video game storytelling.

The legendary mercenary’s journey began in Kojima’s espionage love letter to the ’60s that broke the primordial gaming standards of both interactive design and visual storytelling through immeasurable gameplay depth piled onto a mind-boggling top-notch origin story. Snake Eater was only the beginning of a tale of how one of gaming’s greatest heroes descended into a villain through what is not only arguably the most compact and well-executed Metal Gear story, but Kojima Productions story ever conjured up to date.

Taking the Narrative Back

Metal Gear Solid 3
“Snake, try and remember some of the basics of CQC.”

Snake Eater ditched Solid Snake and Raiden’s current predicaments in a postmodern world to provide audiences with background knowledge and explanations for the previous chapters that came before it in what was intended to be Hideo Kojima’s final Metal Gear game at the time. Cold War political fiction and espionage thrillers from the game’s time period such as the Sean Connery and Roger Moore James Bond 007 films became the foundation for this entry’s story and tone; a balance of both goofiness and seriousness that is simply unmatched when compared to the rest of the series.

Metal Gear Solid 3 marked the beginning of a prequel series of games that would later proceed to continue after Solid Snake’s story had concluded in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Snake Eater threw players back in time to tackle the story of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake villain Big Boss, who was formerly referred to as three different names being John, Jack, and of course the iconic codename Naked Snake — the first character to take on the reptilian infiltration name.

Revolver Ocelot’s gun-slinging pre-boss cutscene was completely animated through motion capture footage.

Whereas Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty questioned the fantasy aspects of the story, Snake Eater fully embraced the campiness that it provided. A gun-slinging, cat-growling GRU Major or a man who is able to manipulate bees are never questioned by the game’s characters. Nothing feels out of place due to how accepting everyone is of what is going on in their interpretation of history. The first fantasy aspect that players encounter is during the opening 5 minutes of the game when Naked Snake makes the HALO jump. The location the game takes place, Tselinoyarsk, is not the actual name of the location and isn’t an area of the world that has jungles.

Political fiction often comes into play during the story by incorporating real figures and the game’s characters into events that actually happened during the height of the Cold War. For example, Eva and Ocelot are depicted as the two NSA codebreakers, Martin and Mitchell, who defected to the Soviet Union. Weapons and designs featured in the game such as the hybrid screw-propelled metal gear, the Shagohod, are based on real blueprints for military weapons of the time period. While the story incorporates science fiction and fantasy aspects, the story still remains grounded and has its own limits even in gameplay.

A Whole New Meaning to Survival

When Hideo Kojima and Yoji Shinkawa saw the 1987 movie Predator, one concept from the film that stuck with them was how the technologically advanced alien Predator used camouflage within the jungle setting to stealthily take out a military rescue team lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Camouflage became part of the foundation for Snake Eater‘s gameplay that delved into the realism and campy side of the series. Players could swap outfits and face paints at any given moment to adapt to their current surroundings. The top right-hand corner has a camouflage index that constantly keeps track of how well-hidden you are in the environment.

Just as gadgets are a critical part of James Bond’s arsenal of weapons, Snake Eater saw the Metal Gear Solid series expand on the variety and utilization of items. The number of different ways to tackle standard environmental obstacles and boss battles was exponentially increased due to how many ways one could actually use their equipment. Grenades, lethal firearms, night-vision goggles, cigarettes, and even cardboard boxes all inherited a multi-functional philosophy that most players would never even discover unless they had experimented during their playthrough or were told to do a specific action. Even food became a weapon of war that could be used to poison and distract guards if it had gone spoiled.

On the topic of food, alongside the standard health bar, Snake has a stamina meter that must be ministered to constantly by eating foods found on-site and administering proper medical treatment. Animals, fruit, medicinal items, and various packaged resources must be collected and watched over throughout the game. All food items ran on a real-time clock leaving food to go unsanitary and rotten after a matter of real-time days.

The Beginning of Product Placement

Fun Fact: Kojima has gone on record saying that Naked Snake’s favorite CalorieMate Block is the chocolate-flavored line (rightfully for promotional reasons!).

The Metal Gear Solid series kickstarted Hideo Kojima’s constant usage of product placements within his games that are still ongoing today. These products include but are certainly not limited to clothing, accessories, toys, household items, and of course, food. Snake Eater began a trend of future Kojima Production games featuring real-life items that are purchasable in many small scale and large retail stores throughout Japan through the brand of nutritional energy bars and gels, CalorieMate.

The chocolate-flavored CalorieMate Block appeared in the original version of Snake Eater, while the maple-flavored kind replaced it in the HD Collection due to it being the latest flavor release at the time. Advertisements for CalorieMate during the game’s release showed Naked Snake holding a chocolate-flavored Block saying “If you wanna survive in the jungle, your going to need one of these.”

When initiating a Codec call with Paramedic after eating a CalorieMate Block, the character will question the legitimacy of the food. In reality, CalorieMate first released in 1983, contradicting the 1960’s setting of the story, therefore, making its placement in the game an anachronism; an object or person that is displaced in time.

A Legacy Worthy of The Big Boss Rank

At the time of Snake Eater’s release, although the game garnered a completely positive reception from critics with a 91 Metacritic score, it was highly debated whether the sequel-prequel was superior to the entries that came before it. Critics commonly praised the graphics and cinematics the game had to offer but questioned whether the gameplay was too complex for its own good. Snake Eater also had to ride the coattails of unsatisfied audiences originating from the previous entry’s lack of Solid Snake being the protagonist which ultimately lead to sales of the game being significantly lower than the previous Solid entries.

Over time, Snake Eater became the fan-favorite entry of the series and would go on to receive the most re-releases out of all the Metal Gear games to date. Most notably, in 2006 Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence expanded upon the online mode in the game and added a completely new third-person controlled camera system that enhanced the overall experience and became the right analog stick standard for future entries. Buyers of this version were also treated with the original two MSX Metal Gear games found on the main menu- the first time the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake had ever been localized outside of Japan.

Snake Eater 3D Limited Edition Bundle included a ‘Snake Skin’ themed standard 3DS (only released in Japan).

2011 saw the release of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, a compilation title that included an updated version of Subsistence — arguably the best way to play Snake Eater today. In 2012 the game also saw a release on the Nintendo 3DS dubbed Metal Gear Solid 3D: Snake Eater which included a new real-life camera camouflage system and multiple gameplay changes inherited from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker to accommodate the 3DS’s lack of dual analog sticks.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a true patriot that definitively holds its ground against the rest of the series today due to its creative liberties that the series never quite revisited in complete depth. Hideo Kojima and his team of masterminds behind Kojima Productions are well deserved of a salute for the tremendous efforts they put into creating a groundbreaking title that forever changed what it meant to be a cinematic video game. From its action-packed plot to its cinematic orchestra inspired-score, even after 15 years the pure indigenous nature of creativity from the studio never ceases to amaze audiences.

Metal Gear Solid 3

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‘Castlevania Bloodlines’: The Official Sega Genesis Sequel to Bram Stoker’s Hit Novel, Dracula

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Castlevania Bloodlines

Castlevania isn’t a dialogue-heavy series by any means, but it’s still home to one of gaming’s most compelling narratives. Equipped with only their ancestral weapon, the legendary Vampire Killer, descendants of the Belmont clan face off against Count Dracula every 100 years like clockwork (give or take). His resurrection is inevitable. Just as good will always triumph over evil, evil will rise again. Castlevania was about the cyclical nature of good and evil long before Dracula mused about the nature of humanity in Symphony of the Night. Castlevania chronicled the Belmont family’s centuries-long struggle to keep Count Dracula at bay, game after game. Of course, he wasn’t the Count Dracula– more a representation of evil– but that was as much a given as a Belmont rising up to wield Vampire Killer. Then Castlevania Bloodlines happened. 

Released in 1995 exclusively for the Sega Genesis, Bloodlines may have looked like any other Castlevania game, but it marked a series of eclectic firsts for the franchise. Gone are the Belmonts and the game neither takes place inside of or involves getting to Dracula’s Castle. Bloodlines is even titled Vampire Killer in Japan, creating a bigger divide between it and previous entries, but that hardly compares to Bloodlines’ strangest contribution to the series: making Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon. 

The nature of how Dracula fits into the Castlevania mythos isn’t as plain and simple as just taking the book as writ as canon, but it fits much cleaner than one would expect. Although Bloodlines may lift elements from the novel with its own embellishments, its changes are ultimately inconsequential. Quincey Morris doesn’t have a son in the novel, but he’s the only major character alongside Dracula not to keep a journal, keeping his background relatively obscured. Quincey also doesn’t sport his signature bowie knife in Bloodlines’ backstory, finishing Dracula off with a stake (instead of the Vampire Killer for whatever reason.) 

There’s no mention of Jonathan Harker, Mina, or Abraham Van Helsing– and Dracula’s motives aren’t at all in-line with his novel counterpart’s– but Konami’s references to the novel make it clear that audiences are intended to consider the novel canon even if the details don’t quite match up. It seems a strange choice, especially for a franchise that was pushing its tenth anniversary by the time Bloodlines released in 1995, but it’s not a totally random decision on Konami’s part. Much like how Super Castlevania IV’s tonal maturity gave it a greater layer of depth, Bloodlines thrives off its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If there’s one immediate benefit to tying Dracula to Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s grounding the latter in some semblance of reality. Set in 1917, Vampire Killer was the most modern Castlevania to date– not just at its release, but until Aria of Sorrow was released in 2003. The games were never period pieces, but they were set far enough in the past where literal Universal Monsters wouldn’t keep the series from staying narratively grounded. More importantly, the series’ settings were always consistently gothic, creating a unique sense of style around Dracula himself rather than the time period. 

Bloodlines opts for a wildly different approach altogether when it comes to setting, doubling down on the series’ historical elements while keeping Super Castlevania IV’s darker tone intact. Dracula feels a part of the world, rather than the world of Castlevania feeling a part of Dracula. At the same time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula helps ground the very minimal plot by giving John and Eric’s trek across Europe greater scope. John and Eric even have a personal stake in the plot, having witnessed Quincey’s death. It’s all window dressing, but Bloodlines’ assimilation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives the series some narrative legitimacy to rub shoulders with its high quality gameplay. 

The connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula are admittedly loose, but they’re loose enough to work in the game’s benefit. Dracula is structured as an epistolary novel with chapters divided in letters, journal entries, articles, and logs. The story is told coherently, but this approach often results in the point of view & setting changing. While uncertainly a direct reference to the novel, Bloodlines similarly allows players to switch between John & Eric whenever they use a continue on Easy mode, and each stage takes place in a different country rather than just Transylvania. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula may give Bloodlines its foundation, but it’s that globetrotting that gives the game its identity. Stage 1 opens in Romania, the ruins of Dracula’s Castle left to time after his previous defeat. Where other games would immediately transition into the depths of Castle Dracula, Bloodlines’ Stage 2 instead takes players to the lost city of Atlantis in Greece, while Stage 3 involves scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to slay a demon at the top. There’s a grandiosity to the stage design simply not present in previous entries. Not just in terms of scope, but in actual structure. 

Only six stages long, Bloodlines is the shortest of the mainline Castlevania games, but it makes up for its lack of length with longer stages overall. The main story falls on the shorter side, but the stage to stage pacing ensures that Bloodlines neither outstays its welcome or goes too soon. While a Stage 7 may have done the game some good, Bloodlines’ six stages offer some of the tightest action-platforming in the franchise. Enemies are by no means infrequent, and Bloodlines requires players to understand both John & Eric’s unique platforming skills by Stage 3, outright preventing progress should players fail to adapt.

John’s unique platforming ability will be familiar to all those who played Super Castlevania IV as, predictably, he can use the Vampire Killer to hang. This time around, however, John can whip onto just about any ceiling. Eric, on the other hand, has a charged jump that thrusts him into the air when released. Eric’s jump ignores platforms entirely, allowing him a degree of verticality Castlevania typically doesn’t give to players. Stage 3 even features a room that’s a bottomless pit for Eric, but easy platforming for John thanks to its whip. Subsequently, there’s a room where John can’t make progress due to the ceiling, but Eric can jump right through.

John and Eric’s abilities are natural extensions & evolutions of Simon’s from Super CV IV, just split between the both of them, but it’s also worth noting how Bloodlines’ more involved platforming helps to further flesh out Castlevania’s world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula coupled with the European setting did more for the series’ world-building at the time than any of its predecessors, save for Rondo of Blood. It’s not often that a video game series absorbs a literary classic into its main plot, but Castlevania handles it surprisingly well. 

It’s fitting that Castlevania Bloodlines is titled Vampire Killer in Japan. At its core, Vampire Killer is a recontextualization of Castlevania. The story is still framed through the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula, but the scope is wider, extending mediums in the process. Vampire Killer is about the legacy of the Vampire Killer and the vampire killers whose fates are sealed by the whip. Symphony of the Night may be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines set the stage for Symphony to tell a traditional and intimate story.

More important than anything, though, Castlevania taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula and making it a part of its canon is just so outlandish that it makes perfect sense. The series that regularly featured Universal Monsters as bosses was never going to ignore the novel forever. That Bloodlines uses the novel tactfully and in a game where its presence is appropriate– intentional or otherwise– weirdly elevates Castlevania as a franchise. Castlevania isn’t just a Dracula story, it’s the Dracula story. And of all the games to make that declaration with, Bloodlines is a damn good choice. 

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.

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Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.


9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).


8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta

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Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.


7. Halo Reach Release Date

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The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.


6. Grounded Reveal

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Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.


5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal

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Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.


4. Final Fantasy Blowout

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Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.


3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.


2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.


1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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