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Not so Final Fantasy – Final Fantasy XV: a Game of Two Halves

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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.

It’s common knowledge that, in the roughly ten years Square Enix took to make the game, Final Fantasy XV underwent numerous changes.

This unusually prolonged development cycle wasn’t a mark of the Square’s desperation to recapture the series’ golden age, however, nor was it the calling card of a fastidious director who steadfastly refused to release his work to the general public until it met his own lofty standards. Rather, it’s emblematic of the much loved JRPG franchise’s loss of direction and identity in the recent past.

What that meant for the finished article was that, after a tremendously impressive beginning that suggested maybe, just maybe, Square had finally perfected the formula for blending the series’ traditional JRPG elements with the faster-paced combat demanded (apparently) by modern gamers, XV begins a swift decline into mediocrity. Undoing all that earlier good work and resulting in yet another ‘what if’ moment for the once greats series.

Before we begin, please be aware that what follows is heavily laden with spoilers. Continue at your own peril.

Final Fantasy XV Shows Plenty of Early Promise…

Final Fantasy XV big bad Ardyn Izunia

Having watched the tie-in CG movie Kingsglaive (starring Aaron Paul, Lena Headey, and Sean Bean), the accompanying anime, and played both Episode Duscae and the Platinum Demo prior to launch, I was chomping at the bit to begin my journey through the world of Eos when a shiny new copy of the game dropped through my letter box on a chilly November morning in 2016.

I still wasn’t sure about the characters, mind you; terrible names and Gladiolus’ horrendous tattoos aside, I was slightly put off by the whole itinerant boy band dynamic the quartet seemed to represent. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the apparent richness of the world itself, while the main narrative seemed complex and, for the first time in a long while for a Final Fantasy game, genuinely interesting.

In particular, the ongoing conflict between Lucis and Niflheim, reminiscent of the political tensions between Balamb and Galbadia Garden in FFVIII or the Returners and the Gestahlian Empire in FFVI, provided a solid foundation on which to build the rest of the story, with plenty of potential for intertwining sub-plots and numerous opportunities for expanding on the lore of Eos along the way only adding to the sense of depth. There were even signs XV might do something new and exciting with that most traditional of Final Fantasy tropes: magical crystals.

And, after a while, the legitimately touching, almost fraternal bond that held together the game’s quartet of heroes more than made up for their individual failings; putting to bed many of my earlier concerns.

There was plenty of promise visible in other areas, too. Whether fighting a mob of low-level grunts or a powerful new mark, combat was fast-paced and fun, placing a heavy emphasis on teamwork that fit snuggly within the wider themes of camaraderie Final Fantasy XV works so hard to cultivate. True, it wasn’t the deliberate, tactical, turn-based system I’ve been craving for the last fifteen or so years, but it wasn’t as jarring as I’d anticipated: it kind of felt like a light version Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, but with a Final Fantasy veneer.

Together with the unfailingly beautiful setting that offered a similar mixture of high fantasy and futuristic technology as FFVII, VIII, or XIII, but in a way that was unlike anything else Square Enix had created before, it was hard to envisage a time when exploring the picturesque landscapes of Eos, with your loyal friends by your side, would ever lose its allure. And I simply couldn’t wait to discover how these various narrative threads and mechanics would come together in this visually captivating world.

…But Ultimately Fails to Deliver

A typical Final Fantasy XV encounter

Yet, Final Fantasy XV simply fails to live up to its true potential.

The story all but falls apart as it picks up momentum, the writing staff and director unable to stitch together the disparate narrative threads that must have emerged over the ten-year development cycle into any kind of coherent, meaningful whole. In the end, amidst incongruous moments of gameplay (the entirety of the original chapter 13, for instance) we’re left with another formulaic tale of the unassuming hero fated to save the world from a nefarious force – in this case Ardyn Izunia: a villain whose motivations are only poorly defined over the course of the adventure.

Worse, the touching brotherly bond that united Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus in the first few chapters is disrupted by a handful of eleventh-hour attempts on the part of Square Enix to give each individual character a darker edge. Illustrated in completely unnecessary moments of conflict between Noctis and Gladiolus following the events of Chapter 9, for example; or the ludicrously ill-explained, almost comical, backstory forced on Prompto as the game draws towards its disappointing climax.

Flashes of inconsistency that heavily imply the writing staff, as well as having to try and reconcile a decade’s-worth of competing ideas and plot points, were working to an unfeasible deadline that gave them only enough time to polish the first half/two-thirds of the game. Any resulting discrepancies were an unfortunate consequence that would be dealt with post-launch.

As disappointing as this narrative drop-off is, however, the mechanical issues that emerge as the player delves deeper into the game are more systemic. For all its visual splendour, it doesn’t take long for the player to realise that, at its heart, Final Fantasy XV’s combat and progression systems are actually pretty basic.

Victory, in the majority of cases, is as simple as mashing the attack button until the enemy’s no longer breathing, warping out of battle for a few seconds every now and again to replenish Noctis’ HP gauge or switch to a slightly more effective weapon. Magic and summons being largely superfluous, reduced to little more than spectacular set-pieces the purpose of which is to mask this inherent lack of depth.

Progressions is similarly rudimentary, restricted to a handful of passive and active abilities that don’t really alter the way fights play out beyond the obvious: i.e. larger HP pools for each character or additional accessory slots. While there’s also a decided lack of quest variety beyond an interminably long list of hunting contracts and hackneyed fetch quests in which the biggest decision the player has to make is ‘which classic Final Fantasy soundtrack should I listen to between objectives?’

Even exploration loses its appeal after a while, as this fundamental lack of variety rears its ugly head once again in the topography of Eos itself.

Though it’s many times the size of VI, VII, VIII, and IX in terms of square mileage, these worlds felt diverse and lived-in. Complete. As if there were centuries of history and secrets lying just below the surface, waiting to be discovered by eagle-eyed adventurers. Eos, on the other hand, is empty in every sense of the word: its settlements separated by an endless expanse of sand-coloured wilderness and tedious random encounters; it’s attempts at world building a collection of vaguely established events that almost seem separate from the people the player interacts with as the story progresses.

To be honest, the only thing that doesn’t suffer a noticeable downturn in quality over the course of the adventure is Yoko Shimomura’s superb soundtrack.

The best way to explore the world of Eos has to be on the back of your faithful Chocobo companion - Final Fantasy XV

Apologies to any fans if this article comes across as a mite harsh – I assure you, it’s not borne out of prejudice or hatred. For all its drawbacks, Final Fantasy XV certainly isn’t an awful game and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to playing it again at some point in the not-too-distant future. I’m simply disappointed and more than a little frustrated at witnessing so much wasted promise first-hand.

If it had been utterly forgettable from start to finish, I probably wouldn’t have been quite so critical; writing it off as another misstep before looking ahead to the next installment in the hopes that FFXVI will be the modern Final Fantasy we deserve.

As it is, XV promises so much in the beginning, only to let us down once again. Establishing it as the latest in an increasingly long line of missed opportunies that no amount of post-launch patches and DLC expansions will ever truly rectify.

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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