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‘Not so Final Fantasy’ – Linearity isn’t XIII’s Biggest Problem

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Not so Final Fantasy is a new, 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.

When outlining the problems with Final Fantasy XIII, detractors tend to focus on the game’s linearity, suggesting that, more than anything else, the severe lack of free-form exploration in the early stages overshadows any other issues the game might have. And, given that director Motomu Toriyama felt it necessary to defend XIII’s narrative structure in an interview shortly before it released in the West, it’s easy to see why this argument has gained traction in the intervening years.

However, although I, like many others, rank FFXIII as one of the worst in Final Fantasy history, its more restricted brand of storytelling actually has very little bearing on my overall opinion of the game – not least because basically every Final Fantasy title, not to mention the bulk of JRPG’s in general, almost always favour a linear narrative structure for the first two-thirds or so of the adventure.

For me, there are other fundamental issues that prevent XIII from achieving the universal acclaim of its predecessors. Four, to be exact.

Setting

The thing that springs to mind almost immediately, is the game’s twin setting: the artificial, moon-like celestial body of Cocoon and its larger, Earth-sized cousin Gran Pulse.

Neither are overtly bad as fantasy settings go; indeed, there are a number of individual locations that I actually rather like. Cocoon’s Sunleth Waterscape, for example, is really quite beautiful, while the sweeping vistas of Pulse’s Archylte Steppe, complete with the image of Cocoon’s crystalline shell suspended high up in its atmosphere, are similarly eye-catching. But for all their visual splendour, there’s a sense of emptiness that pervades these worlds – both literal and metaphorical.

Cocoon’s assortment of futuristic cities, amusement parks, and areas of outstanding natural beauty, though striking to behold, feel like they exist in isolation; a collection of lavishly appointed rooms connected only by a series of narrow, plain, and uninteresting corridors. You could argue this is only natural in a game that lacks a traditional Final Fantasy overworld map and thus that additional layer of context, but I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that. This particular feature is also absent in X and XII, after all, yet both succeed in creating an immersive, extensive, and convincing world for us to explore nonetheless.

This sense of hollowness is even more conspicuous on Pulse, where the only thing that breaks up the largely bare Archylte Steppe is a handful of dust-covered ruins and the occasional promontory or crevasse. In other words, though there’s enough Arcadian eye-candy to make adventuring through Pulse a mostly pleasurable experience, it fails to effectively convey the idea that this was once a densely populated area; home to a thriving civilization characterized by its blend of futuristic technologies and tribal heritage.

And, in light of the fact Pulse is supposed to be an Earth-sized planet on which life has thrived for millennia, this lack of variety is a wasted opportunity on Square Enix’s part to create what could have been another great Final Fantasy setting.

Story

Perhaps my biggest bug bear with XIII, tied for first place with insufferable party member Hope Estheim, is the game’s story itself, which manages to be almost as convoluted as FFVIII but only a fraction as interesting and quirky, and is also, crucially, far more derivative.

The dynamic between the various Fal’Cie (God-like beings), humans, L’Cie (avatars of the Fal’Cie), and the game’s two settings, while at first glance offering a story and setting capable of providing a welcome change from your standard JRPG yarn, quickly becomes a long-winded mess of competing, half-baked ideas that are never truly explained or adequately explored during the course of the narrative. Why the Fal’Cie don’t simply destroy Cocoon, for instance, if all they need to achieve their goals is the sudden extermination of the Moon’s human population (they exert total control over the planetoid, after all); or why the reward for a L’Cie who’s successfully completed his or her Focus is, essentially, a form of living death tantamount to an endless spell in cryonic suspension.

Still, needlessly complicated as the narrative and world building is at times, it wouldn’t be quite such an issue if the story itself wasn’t so run-of-the-mill. Strip away the God-like Fal’Cie, the technologically advanced society of Cocoon, the Cie’th and the L’Cie, and XIII is, at its heart, just another tale of good (a band of unlikely, youthful heroes tasked with saving the world) vs. evil (an all-powerful, ruthless villain hell-bent on destruction). Moreover, though it boasts all the usual Final Fantasy tropes – moments of profound personal revelation, pseudo-inspirational speeches, survival against impossible odds etc. – a significant part of the charm is missing. Something which says as much about the quality of the characters as it does the story and which, conveniently leads us onto my next point…

Characters

XIII’s cast is an interesting one. Though the party is comprised of only six characters, each of whom tend to get a roughly equal amount of screen time, the contrast between them is stark. Not just, it’s important to point out, in terms of their personalities, but in their ability to resonate with the player and distinguish themselves from the various heroes and heroines that have come before.

Protagonist Lightning, for instance, deviates little from the role of austere, uncompromising anti-hero with the heart of gold, while her soon-to-be brother-in-law Snow fits the bill of the relentlessly optimistic side-kick who, despite his formidable fighting skills, is as gentle and compassionate as Mother Theresa. To be fair, Sazh and Fang, two of the game’s more personable characters, offer something slightly different from the usual comic relief/battle-hardened warrior stereotypes. However, perhaps as an indirect consequence of Square’s attempts to create slightly more nuanced examples of these two stock characters, neither are particularly memorable. Fang a diluted version of VI’s Shadow or IX’s Amarant; Sazh the answer to X’s Wakka.

Then there’s Hope and Vanille. The latter half of this annoying duo isn’t bad per se, her problems stemming from the plethora of painfully saccharine speeches she’s lumbered with throughout the game rather than any specific character defect. Hope, however, most certainly is. Teenage angst, misplaced anger, and quasi-adolescent wisdom given human form, he might well be the worst character in video game, let alone Final Fantasy history, making it difficult to give even a single fuck for the trials and tribulations he faces during the course of the adventure: coming to terms with his mother’s sudden death; learning to accept his tragic fate as a L’Cie at such a young age. A shame, given that, on paper, his story is probably the most engaging of the entire ensemble.

That’s not to say I hate either the game’s story or its cast of characters, I hasten to add. As scathing as I’ve been of the XIII’s convoluted and at times derivative story, it’s certainly not boring, and, while many of the characters subscribe to common stereotypes or simply fail to resonate with the player, Lightning and one or two others do enough to keep the player invested in the narrative for the duration of the game.

Combat/Progression System

In Final Fantasy XII, during combat, the player controlled only a single party member at a time; the actions of the remainder of the party governed by the game’s signature Gambit system, which was configured by the player outside of battle in turn. It was a bit of a gamble on the part of Square Enix, seeing as how this essentially abandoned the tried and trusted turn-based system that’d served the series so well for over two decades, but one that ultimately paid off.

Presumably pleased with XII’s faster, more action-orientated battles, the team responsible for XIII followed a similar paradigm and decided to, once again, give players command of but a single character (the party leader) during combat. However, unlike XII and its wonderfully rich, tactically advanced Gambit system, players of FFXIII had little to no influence over the actions of the rest of the party, resulting in a relatively limited, simplistic, and, during the main campaign at least, often unfulfilling combat system.

It’s not completely terrible, by any means. The Synergist and Saboteur roles, along with the Stagger mechanic, provide some semblance of strategy in an otherwise straightforward system, and thus make taking on certain of the more difficult bosses and marks genuinely fun. All the same, XIII’s mechanics are, as far as I’m concerned, the weakest in the entire series; compounded by the lack of depth of its accompanying skill tree: the Crystarium.

The multiple layers of the aforementioned Crystarium certainly give it the appearance of a comprehensive skill tree similar in scope to X or XII at first glance, promising an array of exciting abilities and spells to experiment with. But in reality, it’s nowhere near as deep.

Each class has only a handful of abilities and attribute boosts at their disposal, reducing the number of viable tactical options open to the player during battle, and one unique ability which lacks both the bombastic thrill of VII’s Limit Breaks or X’s Overdrives, and their innate strength. Moreover, although each of the six party members can theoretically train in any of the six separate classes, the content differs from character to character. In practical terms, this means Hope, a healer by trade, cannot learn the full complement of abilities in the Commando class and, to make matters worse, the few he can learn are far more expensive to unlock than they would be for Fang, say. Simply put, a well-balanced party must include Hope (or at a push Vanille) for the majority of the end-game content, if they’re to stand a chance against the toughest enemies.

Clearly, Square thought this was a smart way of ensuring players spent equal amounts of time with each character over the course of the adventure; they’ve done it before. VIII and X, for example, forced us to use specific characters at specific points. The difference is, in these titles, it was left to us to decide who we’d like to use for the latter stages of the game.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, in my opinion, Final Fantasy XIII’s linear structure is a symptom, not the root cause of the game’s problems.

True, whenever you pick up an RPG, especially one with the words ‘Final Fantasy’ proudly emblazoned on the cover, you expect a certain amount of exploratory freedom. But, with the boundaries between genres becoming ever more blurred as time passes and the exact definition of what a video game actually is expanding with each passing year, we as gamers aren’t so stubborn as to reject a linear RPG out of hand; we wouldn’t now and I don’t think we would have then, either. Indeed, for all its issues, XIII is far from universally hated.

In my mind, the reason Final Fantasy XIII is considered a low point in the series by so many, is because it tells an unoriginal story, driven by a cast of largely forgettable characters, set in an uninspiring fantasy world, and supported by what are arguably the most simplistic core mechanics of any title in the series. And this is why, despite the structural similarities between XIII and, most notably X, critics and fans alike are that much more positive about the latter. With its superior narrative, cast of characters, setting, and gameplay systems, the player is able to forget or simply doesn’t notice X’s linear trajectory. Something that’s extremely difficult to do in FFXIII.

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.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. John Dunphy

    January 23, 2018 at 11:01 pm

    I respect any opinions as they are ones own and it’s annoying when someone gets all huffy about something like FFXIII and says, “how you think is WRONG!!” For all its flaws, I have loved the experience of FFXIII, rather than the overall game, as I share similar concerns about linearity, non-sensical story, some characters in particular (why didn’t Hope do us all a favor and snuff out Snow already?!), etc. But, the music is simply some of the best of the entire series, the graphics remain gorgeous almost 10 years later, and there were just genuinely touching moments. I also enjoyed FFXIII-2, despite its even more idiotic premise. Lightning Returns? Now, there’s something someone should write about here. That is where all the rage and animosity others have expressed for the original go for me. Maybe it’s because by then people were moving on, but I personally feel much more displeasure should go there instead of XIII (almost EVERYONE is wearing the same clothes 500 years later? Noel is STILL pining for Yeul? Sazh is STILL whining about his son? Move on, people!). In short, even though I have a massive backlog of games to dive into, I would not be surprised if I did another play through of FFXIII.

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‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Games

‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.

RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.

resident_evil_3_psx_marvin_branagh_by_danytatu-d812bgk-768x480

Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.

The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.

resident-evil-Nemesis-768x402

The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.

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