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‘Final Fantasy Adventure’ — The Mana Franchise’s Humble Origins from ‘Seiken Densetsu’

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Seiken Densetsu Final Fantasy Adventure

Originally titled Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, Final Fantasy Adventure (Mystic Quest in Europe) marked the formal beginning of the Mana franchise. Conceived as a Final Fantasy spin-off, Seiken Densetsu abandoned the series’ traditional turn-based gameplay in favor of action-RPG elements. Enemies litter the overworld, protagonist Sumo can engage in combat in real time, and an emphasis is placed on how different weapons affect gameplay. All the while, Final Fantasy archetypes and monsters inhabit the newly created “World of Mana.” That said, as a spin-off of an established franchise while also being the first game in a new series, Seiken Densetsu feels retrospectively out of place in both franchises it’s representing. 

As a Final Fantasy spin-off, Seiken Densetsu forges too much of its own path to be linked to another franchise. Final Fantasy imagery is abundant, with Black Mages appearing as enemies rather often and the main character’s main method of transportation being a Chocobo, but the game’s overall presentation is in stark contrast to the Famicom trilogy. The mere fact that Seiken Densetsu was developed as an action-RPG necessitated a distancing from its source material; Seiken Densetsu borrows from Final Fantasy rather liberally, but only as a backdrop. 

As the first game in the Mana franchise, Seiken Densetsu introduces the concept of the Mana Tree and Mana itself, but not much else that would go on to define the series. In that regard, it almost seems shocking that Seiken Densetsu is the jumping off point for roughly two decades of games. It has very little in common with its successors due to Secret of Mana solidifying the elements that would define the franchise. Going back from Secret or Trials of Mana to Seiken Densetsu can be, frankly, jarring. The ring menu is still a basic RPG menu, cannon travel is still basic RPG traversal, and party members are on a constant rotation, with Sumo alone for most of the adventure. 

Seiken Densetsu gladiatorPulled in two different directions with no clear footing, it can be easy to assume that Seiken Densetsu doesn’t succeed as either a Final Fantasy spin-off or a Mana game. While perhaps true in the most technical of senses, that doesn’t mean Seiken Densetsu is any lesser a video game. If anything, the fact that it’s so awkwardly stuffed between two franchises allows it to forge its own path — one that has led to its own series, of course, but that also allowed the Gaiden game to stand out as its own, independent RPG. Aside from its remakes, there’s nothing quite like Seiken Densetsu.

In terms of gameplay, Seiken Densetsu plays more or less like the Game Boy Zelda games, albeit with leveling. Sumo can attack in four directions, block projectiles with his shield, and moves on a grid-like map à la Koholint, Labrynna, and Holodrum from Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Ages, and Oracle of Seasons, respectively. Progression is gated behind key equipment, and dungeons involve an equal mix of both combat and puzzle solving. On a conceptual level, Final Fantasy Adventure seems clearly influenced by the Zelda series — until one realizes that Seiken Densetsu predated both A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening

Of course, this simply means that Seiken Densetsu modeled itself after the original Legend of Zelda, but this frame of reference does shine light on how quietly innovative the spin-off actually was. Seiken Densetsu’s gameplay model wasn’t just a natural evolution of one of Nintendo’s flagships titles — it was the logical next step for all 8-bit action-adventure games, RPG or otherwise. With a grid-based map, exploration would be more intuitive; with equipment that affected the overworld, players would form a more intimate connection with their surroundings; with multiple weapons and builds to choose from, no two play-throughs would be the same. 

Seiken Densetsu dragonThe latter in itself is worth mentioning — Seiken Densetsu’s RPG elements are surprisingly involved. Rather than Sumo leveling up and randomly increasing his stats, players choose from one of four stats to improve at each rise in level. Not only that, but the original Japanese release saw each stat also associated with a Final Fantasy ‘Job Type’ — Power leads to a Warrior build, Stamina leads to a Monk build, Wisdom leads to Wizard build, and Will leads to a Sage build. More importantly, improving a stat per level up increases it by 2 points, while also boosting “related” stats by 1. On the flipside, the fourth remaining stat will go unchanged, meaning that players need to be mindful of how they’re leveling Sumo, lest a stat go underdeveloped. 

While Power, Stamina, and Wisdom speak for themselves, Will is something of an oddity. During gameplay, the Will meter will charge up while Sumo is in between actions. Fans of Secret of Mana might mistake this for a stamina meter, but in actuality, it’s a way of pulling off super moves. Once the Will meter is fully charged, Sumo can pull off a MAX attack that changes how his weapon attacks. The higher the Will stat, the faster the gauge refreshes, and the more Sumo can use his weapons to the best of their abilities. 

Naturally, being a more primitive RPG that released fairly early in the Game Boy’s life cycle, Seiken Densetsu is missing some rather helpful quality-of-life features. For instance, there is a grid-based map, but only five visible landmarks — all of which look the same — making the overworld surprisingly unintuitive to navigate, especially after unlocking the Chocobo. Weapons create more varied exploration in the overworld, but needing to go back and forth into a menu slows down the pace. And puzzles often use enemies creatively, but enemies moving completely at random make an otherwise engaging puzzle tedious.

Seiken Densetsu chestIn spite of how poorly the game plays out at times, Seiken Densetsu has one element that makes up for any gameplay issues: it is horribly translated, yet startling, gripping story. At its core, Seiken Densetsu is a story-driven game, and one of the best ones on the Game Boy — if not the absolute best. The World of Mana as it is first presented is dark, jarring, and needlessly cruel. Characters die on screen, often in classically tragic ways. The main hero not only doubts himself, but reflects on all the death around him, lending to a more sensitive protagonist. Where the game is light on text, it more than makes up for with emotional set pieces carried by concept and music alone. 

The first death of a party member is a moment that hits hard and lingers over the rest of the game. There is a change in atmosphere not only just in the overworld, but also in how Sumo addresses others. He’s at the heart of a simply plotted story with a simple script, but each narrative beat is paid a great deal of respect, a scarcity for the era. The pure strength of the story is almost enough to make up for the shoddy translation. While the main beats may not be particularly impressive in a modern context, it’s not hard to appreciate what Seiken Densetsu did with just 8-bits. 

When it comes down to it, the narrative is what ensured Mana could become its own franchise. Of everything Secret of Mana takes from its predecessor, the story shines as the clearest link. Seiken Densetsu has the most intimate narrative in the series, but it set a precedent for genuine emotion and nuance that the best entries in the series would thrive off of. What began as a simple Final Fantasy spin-off became a full-fledged series full of ups and downs, all linking back to one humble adventure.

Seiken Densetsu ending

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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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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‘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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‘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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