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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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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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xo19

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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