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‘Final Fantasy IX’ is an Often Overlooked Classic

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Final Fantasy IX

This article has been republished on 19/09/2017 following the announcement that Final Fantasy IX is finally coming to PS4 complete with a free theme and a hard-as-nails trophy list.

It seems like Final Fantasy IX was destined to be overlooked right from the outset. The game was released for the original PlayStation after the PlayStation 2 was out and selling like warm buns, and the high fantasy setting was in stark contrast to the popular cyber-punk and more realistic settings of FFVII and VIII (two of the best selling entries in the whole series). With eyes firmly on a new console generation and the knights and mages thing not being quite as cool as motorbikes and gunblades, it’s easy to see why so many people gave Final Fantasy IX a miss upon release. For everyone who skipped it at the time and never bothered going back, this is a game worthy of checking out even seventeen years later.

Coming off the back of what is almost certainly the sourest game in the entire Final Fantasy series, IX is in many ways the polar opposite of VIII. Where Squall was an initially unlikable lead; a po-faced, angsty teen with an internal monologue that read like early Radiohead lyrics, Zidane is warm, swashbuckling and jovial. Where VIII took place in a world of high schools, guns and automobiles, IX exists in a realm of magical crystals, chivalrous knights and talking rat-people. Even the battle system, with spammable limit breaks and no strictly defined jobs for characters in VIII was reversed in IX, with each party member having a definitive role to play, and a lot more strategy required to succeed. Indeed, IX was a return-to-roots of sorts for the series, but since many gamers introduction to Final Fantasy was with VII, the nostalgia was apparently lost on them.

Whether it was the tonal shift or simply the rotten luck of being released after the next console generation had started, what’s inarguable is that Final Fantasy IX’s sales are comparatively weak. Sandwiched between VIII and X – two of the best selling entries in the series – IX had relatively modest commercial success. But a quick glance at Metacritic (for what it’s worth) reveals that critically, Final Fantasy IX sits as the highest rated entry in the entire series. To my mind, this is the true definition of a forgotten gem; a game with all of the critical acclaim but somewhat lacklustre sales. For fans of the game, the acclaim is easily justifiable. For those that missed out on it the first time around, let me convince you to give it a shot.

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Final Fantasy IX takes place in the world of Gaia, where a mysterious mist has blanketed much of the aptly named Mist Continent. On this continent the people of Gaia have formed kingdoms on plains above the mist so as to avoid its detrimental effects; creatures exposed to it are transformed over time into dangerous monsters, and people who spend too much time breathing it in become embittered and power hungry. It’s not just your average fog.

As the story begins, our hero Zidane is part of a travelling theatre group known as Tantalus that are on their way to Alexandria to perform a play for the Queen, Brahne Raza Alexandros XVI. Of course, Zidane being from the lovable rogue school of JRPG hero, this isn’t just any normal play; the performance is a ruse to get close to the daughter of the Queen, Princess Garnet, to kidnap her and take her to her uncle Cid in the kingdom of Lindblum. The reasons for this kidnapping aren’t made entirely clear in the beginning of the game, but twists and turns unfold, and soon Zidane and Garnet are on the run, chased by her protector and all-round buffoon, Adelbert Steiner of the Knights of Pluto. Along the way they meet Vivi, a black mage child, and a series of unfortunate events leads to the unlikely quartet being stranded in a nearby forest, having to work together to get back to civilization.

Kidnapping aside, it’s a very lighthearted opening to the game. The world is colourful and alive, with the city of Alexandria in full-on carnival mode. There’s games and stalls, and people from all over the world joining in on the fun. The non-player characters are often amusing and from many different fantastic species, from hippopotamus girls to the aforementioned rat-people. And with not a hint of teenage angst expressed by our main characters in the opening minutes, it feels much more like a classic fantasy adventure than the other PlayStation Final Fantasy games; think Uncharted rather than The Last of Us. It’s also a classic JRPG set-up with the promise of entertainment; we’ve got four unlikely heroes, all different, all with their own skills and flaws, thrown together by fate to overcome a perilous situation.

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Zidane, the thief, is charming and confident, quick and agile. Garnet, the white mage, is naive and inexperienced in the world outside her castle, but has powerful healing spells and support magic. Steiner, the knight, is stubborn and over-protective, but he’s strong in battle with unshakable resolve. And Vivi, the black mage, is young and affable, but holds an incredible magical power within. The four characters complement each other in battle (this battle system hearkens back to the SNES days of Final Fantasy with four character parties) and also provide plenty of amusement as their personalities clash on their journey.

Anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game, or indeed any JRPG, knows where this is going. The rag-tag bunch of heroes get embroiled in a plot larger than any of them could imagine, meeting many interesting characters along the way, both friend and foe, and must work together to save the day. That’s how JRPGs work. And Final Fantasy IX follows the formula almost to the letter. But what’s really impressive about how well this game works is how a story that starts out following so many tropes of the genre manages to, by the end, turn them on their head somewhat with some unexpected plot twists, and reveal a level of story-telling that is altogether deeper and harder-hitting than the opening sections of the game would suggest.

The game lures players in with a story that seems whimsical at first but ultimately proves to be one of the most complex, mature and emotionally gratifying yarns that the series has ever woven. Characters evolve in this story in impressive ways, with some characters faring a lot better in the development department than others. The story, in many ways, belongs to Zidane, Vivi, and the villain, Kuja. That’s not to dismiss the roles of other important characters like Steiner, Garnet, or even Beatrix, the leader of Brahne’s army, but the shared emotional turmoil at the heart of Zidane, Vivi, and Kuja makes for compelling viewing.

At the heart of Final Fantasy IX are a series of existential crises that afflict numerous characters, the most prominent of which are Zidane, Vivi, and Kuja. It’s how the characters deal with these issues in radically different ways that proves to be the most interesting aspect of the story, with Zidane, our hero, and Kuja, a flamboyant arms dealer for Queen Brahne, essentially being two sides of the same coin. Their stories are at times startlingly similar, while at other times completely opposite. Zidane and Kuja are a metaphor for the theory of nature vs. nurture; Zidane remembers nothing of his early years and was raised by good people, growing into a man with a strong heart and a need to protect those he loves, while Kuja, raised alone and in possession of the truth about his place in the world, becomes consumed by rage and chaos.

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This relationship works on a basic level of good vs evil, with Zidane being easily likeable and Kuja bordering on pantomime-level villainy at times, but also on a deeper level once all the secrets of the story are revealed. The most impressive character of all is the black mage, Vivi. Instantly likeable and cute enough to have his own line of plush toys, Vivi is another character with a deceptively thought provoking development arc. He, like Zidane and Kuja, learns uncomfortable truths about his place in the world, and again, he deals with the revelations in a different way. Vivi’s development is one of the strongest the series has ever produced, with some genuinely heartbreaking moments along the way. Watching his story unfold is a rare treat, and one of the real triumphs of Final Fantasy IX. 

Thankfully, Final Fantasy IX has a satisfying battle system as well as a wonderful story, that is tougher than the previous couple of entries in the series, and requires a little more thought. While FFVII and VIII featured characters that were essentially identical except for slight stat changes and limit breaks, meaning that party set-ups could be based entirely around who had the best limit break or who you liked the best, IX employs a strict job system.

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The job system in play means that just picking a party based on who looks the best is a road to ruin. Some sections of the game and certain bosses require specific tactics to make them manageable, so simply marching in with all the guys you think look the toughest won’t get you very far. Until you’re levelled to the point that you’ve broken the game you’re going to need a party that covers all bases from damage dealing to magical healing, which makes for a refreshing change after the jack of all trades approach of VII and VIII.

Battles in FFIX have you facing off against all manner of fantastical beasts, including series staples like cactuar and malboro, as well as new creatures. The design of the monsters is top notch, as is the art design in all facets of the game. FFIX, more so than the other PlayStation Final Fantasy games, has aged quite gracefully thanks to the cartoon-like art direction. Realistic characters look dated after a few years, but stylized designs can stand the test of time a little more forgivingly. Make no mistake, nobody is going to confuse Final Fantasy IX for a PS4 game, but it does exude a certain charm that more realistic character designs from that era struggle to match.

The game also excels in the music department with an exceptional soundtrack provided by series stalwart Nobuo Uematsu, who turns in some of his best work to date. The tunes are memorable, suitably rousing or emotional when they need to be, and often among the best heard in any video game. Some of the games best moments are complemented by the score to staggering effect, with one particularly impressive section towards the end of the game being among my favourites of all time.

So I suppose the question is; if you missed out on Final Fantasy IX seventeen years ago, is it worth playing today? Having recently played FFIX again for the fourth time, what’s really shocking about the game is not that it does indeed hold up, but the level of ease with which it does it. Final Fantasy IX is, for me, hands down better than any game in the series released after it, and in the case of the most recent releases, by a dramatic margin. The release date timing and the change in tone might have hurt it commercially, but for me, FFIX is the last truly great game in the Final Fantasy series, and arguably the best of all.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Dylan Harris

    January 20, 2017 at 6:28 am

    One of the best RPGs for sure

  2. Nintendo Fan 4 Lif3

    January 21, 2017 at 4:15 am

    The depth and execution of this game subverted all my expectations. I thought I’d hate it because as you stated it’s drastic departure from VII and VIII but I’m SO glad I was wrong. It was better than X though I enjoyed that also, it definitely stands the test of time. I’ll never forget this game it’s one of greatest games I’ve ever played period and my favorite in the series. Enough said. If I were to say more I could go on for eternity XD The game is very special, its impact on me can’t be understated.

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Games

Junked: Coming Back to Life in ‘Detroit: Become Human’

Quantic Dream’s games have always leaned into horror, even if the chief genre might not be. Detroit: Become Human is no exception.

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Detroit Become Human

Quantic Dream‘s games have always leaned into horror, even if the chief genre might be something else entirely. Detroit: Become Human is no exception, with much of the game revolving around our android protagonists finding themselves in one horrendous situation after another. The most terrifying of all, though, is Markus’ trip to a junkyard afterlife.

After being shot in the head during an altercation, Markus looks to be dead. Since player characters could indeed die in previous Quantic Dream games, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to have been killed off either. What awaits Markus on the other side of consciousness, however, is one of the most horrific struggles for survival ever waged.

As Markus awakens in a junkyard for discarded androids, he finds himself immobilized and terrified. Played by Jesse Williams (the sort of chiseled hollywood hunk that only seems to exist on network TV), Markus’ destroyed facade is all the more horrendous for the juxtaposition to his previous appearance.

Detroit Become Human

As the player embodies Markus, they are thrust into a nightmare realm of discarded android dreams. Like a metallic graveyard, filled with the shambling dead, the junkyard is a place so nightmarish it nearly defies explanation. Add to this the stress of Markus’ shattered form, and you begin to get a knack for just how unsettling this chapter of Detroit: Become Human truly is.

While not everyone is a fan of Quantic Dream’s trademark QTE-filled gameplay, it is used to maximum effect here, as the player is truly transposed into Markus’ desperate situation by the control scheme. You begin by alternating L1 and R1 to slowly drag Markus’ shattered body across the tumultuous landscape. The long presses and holds of each button help to relay the pain and effort of Markus’ struggle for survival.

It only gets more horrific from there, as Markus must tear off body parts from other fallen androids in order to rebuild himself. The legs must come first, as mobility is key in a place like this, but with the added moral complications of the other androids begging you not to harvest them for parts, the struggle takes on a nasty new dimension.

Detroit Become Human

A particularly stirring, and disturbing, moment sees Markus moving between two closely stacked piles of android remains. Like sidling between two close-together buildings, Markus shuffles his way through, sidelong, as dozens of hands reach out for his help, and the cries of the dying paralyze his senses.

As mentioned above, the control scheme really embodies the horror of what you’re being forced to do in order to survive here. Whether tilting the analog stick to pop out an eye or tapping the X button consecutively to wrench a limb free, the act of becoming a self-made Frankenstein’s monster is not a pleasant process to endure.

The rain-drenched landscape and lonely darkness of the junkyard only add to the chilling horror of this world. Science fiction is often at its best when it shows us a pristine utopia, before turning it over to show us the horrific consequences that come as a result. Here Detroit: Become Human soars, showing us a world where machines can save us from destroying our bodies with manual labor and android doctors never make a mistake.

It’s a world where androids do the dirty work of the US military and undertake the home care of the elderly, freeing us from the sights we’d rather not see. The trade-off, though, is grisly, and the discarded robot graveyard is just one of the first inklings of how ugly this future can be when one looks too closely.

The quasi-messianic character of Markus is only one facet of this troubled world, and while some of Detroit: Become Human may lack in subtlety, it manages to create an effective, evocative look at what could be our own future one day. This sequence is just one striking example.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club have also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for a built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

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Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produce hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

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I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode like I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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