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Not so Final Fantasy – ‘Final Fantasy II’s Intriguing but Flawed Progression System

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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 II is certainly one of the more interesting titles in the series. Though in 1988, developer Square had yet to flood the market with a deluge of sequels and spin-offs that, while delighting fans, would receive nothing more than a blasé reception from detractors, and it wouldn’t be until much later that we would be able to fully appreciate just how unique it was, the differences between FFII and its predecessor were striking.

As well as introducing a number of features that would soon become series staples (including an NPC named Cid and the humble Chocobo) II was notable for its richer, more immersive story and complex, well-rounded characters.

More than anything, it’s remembered as an experimental title that attempted to overhaul key aspects of the RPG genre which, alongside less obtrusive one-time only features such as the ‘Key Terms’ system, led to the creation of today’s topic: an innovative if ultimately broken progression system that, if not for the presence of a fundamental glitch in the game’s programming, made the game extremely difficult to enjoy, let alone complete.

Before we discuss the glitch itself and the impact it had on the game, however, it’s worth explaining exactly how the progression system differed from other RPGs at the time, and how it was intended to work.

The standard RPG levelling formula, as anyone who’s ever played one will know, is based on experience points. By defeating enemies, characters earn a small amount of XP which, once a certain threshold has been crossed, increases the character’s overall level and with it, fundamental stats like HP, strength, and defense. It’s simple and easy enough to understand, allowing players to develop characters effectively without too much effort; even a healer who’d rarely so much as laid a finger on an opponent during the course of the adventure would benefit from an increase in their fighting skills, along with every other attribute, each and every time they attained a new level, for instance.

Square felt this particular feature wasn’t very realistic, however – a somewhat strange concern for a series that has everything from semi-divine magical crystals, to tentacled nightmare beasts whose greatest weapon is their malodorous breath and obliging monsters whose understanding of the chivalric code compels them to take turns during combat.

So instead, Square opted for a system in which the strength of a specific attribute would be governed by the successful execution of a related action.

Put simply, this meant a party member’s magic power would only increase after they’d cast a sufficient number of spells, regardless of how many enemies they’d killed up to that point; their ability to wield a broadsword improving incrementally every time they landed a physical attack. And there was little to no cross-over between these distinctive attributes.

If it sounds similar to the system used in The Elder Scrolls series, that’s because it is; more or less. But not just because of the mechanical similarities. To fully embrace the (at the time) revolutionary new leveling system, Final Fantasy II eschewed the rudimentary class/job system included in the original, so that, as with Oblivion and Skyrim, players were free to choose exactly how their characters developed as the story progressed. Nominal pugilist Gus could learn the odd protective spell to help support the party in an emergency; Maria could combine high-level black magic with a monstrous battle-axe to deal with any foe she might meet.

The concept is sound, as the likes of The Elder Scrolls have proved in recent years, and would have provided the burgeoning genre with a welcome touch of diversity at a time when it wasn’t as popular in the West, if implemented effectively. But, for a variety of reasons, II’s efforts to carve its own distinctive niche fell way short of the mark.

First and foremost is the fact that II tasks the player with developing four characters simultaneously, not one. Quartering the amount of growth an individual party member can achieve per battle and thus quadrupling the amount of time needed to develop a balanced squad capable of tackling the progressively harder regions, dungeons, and bosses they will encounter during the course of the adventure.

Secondly, in Skyrim, it’s possible to enhance a number of attributes outside of combat, through potion making, crafting, enchanting weapons and armour with gems, picking locks, successfully sneaking around enemies, etc. Greater alchemical proficiency doesn’t make the character more formidable with a great sword in hand, true, but what it does do is give the player a greater number of skill points to play with which just might give the player an all-important edge in combat, as well as providing access to higher level enemies who, though tougher to beat, come equipped with higher quality gear. In II, by comparison, if a player is struggling to defeat a particular boss or complete an especially tricky dungeon, they have no choice but to fight mob after mob until their stats reach the desired level; they can’t simply craft stronger armor to neutralize the boss’s power or improve their proficiency with a bow and wear them down from a safe distance.

Final Fantasy II’s grind is a relentless and time-consuming process, is what I’m trying to say, and that, in turn, makes the game extremely tedious to play through to completion. Unless the player makes use of the glitch.

The glitch works by exploiting a very specific feature of II’s combat mechanics, namely, that the player must input commands for all four party members at the same time (unlike VII, VIII, or IX, in which each character is controlled separately), the next wave of attack commencing only when the fourth and final character in the line-up has received his/her instructions, and can cancel a command issued to any of the first three party members before the assault begins. Something Square no doubt included to give players extra time to consider their plan of action before committing to a specific strategy and making a potentially fatal error.

And because the game is unable to distinguish between a cancelled and completed action, even if the player retracts a specific order only a split second after issuing it, it’s possible for a character to gain the equivalent experience of, say, thirty physical attacks in a relatively short space of time, simply by toggling between the ‘confirm’ and ‘cancel’ buttons. It can’t be used to strengthen the fourth character in the line-up, sadly, leaving them noticeably weaker than their companions. However, as the occupant of this slot changes multiple times throughout the game and isn’t integral to success in battle as a result, it’s really not much of an issue in the long run.

Anyway, thanks to the glitch, the time needed to bring Firion and the rest of the party up to speed upon arriving at a new location is significantly reduced, and the hitherto Herculean task of successfully exploring a recently discovered dungeon or defeating a difficult boss considerably alleviated. Making it possible to actually progress through the story at a reasonable pace, without stopping every fifteen minutes to slaughter swathes of the local fauna.

That’s all well and good for improving strength, weapon proficiency, magic power, and the like, but keen-eyed readers might have noticed increasing a character’s HP, MP, and defense stat relies on the party taking damage and consuming MP, not the press of a button.

This would be a serious issue indeed, if not for another moment of serendipity, this time in the form of an exploit that makes use of the player’s ability to direct attacks at other party members; something included originally to provide players with an alternative method for removing the sleep and confuse status effects from an afflicted party member (albeit in the most ham-fisted way possible).

However, as the game is also unable to differentiate between damage inflicted by an enemy or ally, players can simply deplete the desired character’s HP bar at will to bolster their vitality and physical resistance, or cast the Osmose spell to raise their MP reserves.

Useful as these two shortcuts are, they don’t offer a perfect solution to the innate issues with Final Fantasy II‘s progression system. The grind may be considerably less onerous, but it’s still not exactly what you’d call fast and regular grinding is thus still required. Moreover, while using them may spare the player from hours of additional stat farming, neither the glitch nor the targeting exploit adhere to Square’s artistic vision of a unique, more realistic JRPG, and can make the game far too easy if overindulged.

Which is why, with or without the glitch, Final Fantasy II still remains one of the lowest rated mainline games in the series’ storied history (aside from a typically and suspiciously high score from Famitsu, sixes and sevens are the best it can boast) among critics and fans.

Interesting as the concept of an action-based progression system was at the time, its execution was fundamentally flawed. Perhaps Square failed to foresee the difficulties this style of character development would present to a traditional JRPG, or simply lacked the technology in 1988 to realize their original vision.

Whatever the reason, anyone who claims to be a fan of the series owes it to themselves to give FFII a try. Not just for the chance to witness the first incarnation of Cid, Chocobos, and gravity-resistant hairstyles, but also to experience the genuinely impressive story first hand.

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.

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This Heart’s on Fire: ‘Death Stranding’ and Heartman

‘Death Stranding’ has no shortage of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is the eccentric Heartman.

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Death Stranding Heartman

*This article contains spoilers up to and including Chapter 8 of Death Stranding*

Over the course of Hideo Kojima’s wildly ambitious Death Stranding there are a whole cavalcade of intriguing and intoxicating characters for players to meet and acquaint themselves with. From the guy with the weird goalie mask to the lady with the magical umbrella, there is no shortage here of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is Heartman.

Portrayed by writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for Drive, Heartman brings the game to a dead halt when you finally meet him face to face in chapter 8 but the reprieve comes as a welcome comfort to the player. Having just crossed a treacherous mountain range and survived a second trip to Clifford Unger’s war-torn beach, most players will welcome a little down time, and Heartman is there to provide it.

Death Stranding
It’s immediately clear that Heartman’s home is something special from the moment Sam walks through the door. Lit with a ring of holographic fire, the foyer of the mansion is immediately welcoming in the hostile environment of the snowy mountains. However, it also has a sort of clinical detachment to it. This is by design, as reality for Heartman is merely a distraction — downtime to be filled.

Yes, Heartman comes with the tragic backstory players will no doubt be expecting but, like most of them in Death Stranding, his is a real treat. Delivered partly through voiceover and partly through flashback, Heartman reveals how he lost his family to a terrorist attack while in the hospital for a heart operation. When he flatlined during the operation, though, he was able to find them on the beach before being whisked away back to reality.

Obsessed with finding them again and joining them, Heartman now spends his life in 24 minute intervals: 21 minutes of life, 3 minutes of death. Every 21 minutes Heartman journeys to the beach by flatlining himself with a personal AED, only to be resurrected 3 minutes later. During those 3 minutes though, where time is altered by the elastic effect of the Death Stranding, he seeks out his family and makes observations on how the beaches and the after life work.

Death Stranding
Bizarre as all of this is, it makes Heartman a truly fascinating character. Since his life is mainly confined to 21 minutes at a time, he has collected hundreds of books, movies, and albums which can be experienced during that tiny window of time. His study is brimming with them, stacked on the ceiling high bookshelves that surround his work area. Also in the study are eerie recreations of frozen corpses, old family photos, and a host of other curiosities, each of which will earn the player likes from Heartman for noticing them.

Of course, this is the most interesting part of the meeting. As Heartman continues to explain his theories, a counter occasionally appears in the bottom corner of the screen, showing how long Heartman has before he will flatline again. When the moment of truth finally comes, he lays himself down on a chaise lounge, turns over a golden hourglass and dies before your eyes. As the Funeral March begins playing from an old record player, Sam must keep himself busy for 3 minutes while he waits for Heartman to return to the land of the living. It’s a truly brilliant moment, as a counter appears in the bottom corner again, and the player must simply take in Heartman’s eccentric home from a first person perspective for 3 minutes uninterrupted.

What would be boring as sin under the wrong direction becomes a welcome moment for the player to just sit and absorb this strange, yet comforting, place. Then, after three minutes have elapsed, Heartman reawakens and picks up from where he left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He even breaks the 4th wall as he continues to talk, swatting away the timer when it appears on screen again and adding likes to your counter in real time.


There’s really nothing like the meeting with Heartman in all of Death Stranding — but then, there’s nothing like Death Stranding really in the realm of gaming either. With its long periods of walking between haunted destinations and its deliberately cryptic mythology, the game is like a series of tone poems and intellectual treatises mashed together into a post-apocalyptic courier sim.

Heartman then, with his heart-shaped lake and pink-lit study, is just one more piece of Kojima’s mad puzzle here but what a piece he is. Who would have thought the most normal looking member of Death Stranding‘s bewildering cast would end up also being one of its most interesting? Certainly not this writer. Still, Heartman and his eerie, purgatorial existence make for one of the nicest surprises in the game.

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Five Best New Pokémon Designs from ‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’

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Much like Pokémon Sun and Moon before, Pokémon Sword and Shield is an adventure full of fascinating surprises. Some of those many surprises across the Galar region are the new pokémon you will come up against. While many of the designs in the eighth generation were a sorry sight to behold, here are five that should stand the test of time as welcome additions to the ever-growing franchise.

Flapple

When I first encountered an Applin, there was a stark realization across my mind that Pokémon had ran out of ideas. Here I was, with my then Sobble, about to fight an apple with eyes. It was about as baffling as the ice cream cone back in Black and White, which looked as if it was designed by a child. But for not the first time, I was wrong, and instead of becoming three apples or a pear, Applin actually has a fantastic evolutionary journey.

Throw a sweet apple at Applin, and it’ll evolve into a Appletun, which is an interesting evolution in its own right. But when you throw a tart apple in its direction, it evolves into something so much better, with the result becoming the Flapple we see above. A tiny dragon using the broken apple it burst out of to flap around in the air is a creative concept to say the least, and certainly helped to change my early judgement on the apple core pokémon.

Sirfetch’d

Farfetch’d has been an unfortunate pokémon ever since its illustrious debut on Pokémon Red and Blue. A weak pokémon that was rare by virtue of being delicious, Farfetch’d has been a pokédex filler ever since. Luckily, in the Galar region, the Farfetch’d are a little more feisty, with a new typing to match.

With a little patience and a shovel of goof fortune, you can evolve your Galarian form Farfetch’d into Sirfetch’d if you manage to deal three critical hits in one battle. The odds are increased if you catch a Farfetch’d holding a leek, and then further increased at level 55 when your Farfetch’d learns leaf blade. For what it’s worth, the hard work does pay off. Sirfetch’d is a fantastic design and suits the theme of Pokémon Sword and Shield honorably. The evolution that Farfetch’d always needed has been worth the two decade wait.

Galarian Corsola

For all the demonic ghost pokédex entries and back stories, the Galarian form Corsola hits most close to home. While the change is largely a new colour and a sad face, the reasoning can be a little more tragic.

There are no secrets about the destruction of the coral reefs across the world due to climate change. It only takes a change of a degree in temperature for the coral to expel the algae that gives them their unique colouring and become the bleached white. While the coral isn’t dead immediately, if left in that state, it does eventually starve to death. Hence Galarian form Corsola represents more than the sum of its parts, and its a clever message Game Freak has left in Pokémon Sword and Shield about the destruction of our ocean ecosystems.

Grapploct

Ever since Hawlucha, I have a bias towards Mexican wrestling pokémon. They’re fantastic. Clobbopus and Grapploct are no exception, and the only reason I’ve chosen Grapploct over Clobbopus is because of way Grapploct swam like a hungry Olympic swimmer to announce my destruction.

While its base stats are actually average, the confidence it showed to pursue me on my journey across the sea certainly left a stain. The design of Grapploct itself is so consistent with fighting type pokémon that it’s one of the least lazy designs in Pokémon Sword and Shield, and for all the prayers to Arceus, there are some hopelessly lazy designs in this generation.

Corviknight

This is going to be huge statement that might rile up a number of pokémon fans, but for me, Corviknight is the best designed bird pokémon. The whole concept fits the brief, from the armour on its head, to its seamless fit into the inspiration behind the region.

It’s no secret that the Galar region was inspired by England, from the train system to the architecture, there are pieces of Ol’ Blighty everywhere in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Some of those influences are seen in the pokémon themselves, and none express that more than Corviknight. The raven has a lot of folklore behind it, particularly its presence in the Tower of London. It is said that if the ravens were to leave the tower, then the destruction of England is imminent. As such, not only does Corviknight look like a formidable bird pokémon, it actually has a clever reason behind its design.

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‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still as Difficult, Demanding and Amazing to This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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