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The Zodiac Rage: My Abusive Relationship with ‘Final Fantasy XII’

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It was a very jolly Christmas eve when I opened my copy of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. As Cristina – my fiancèe – well knew, pretty much anything with the words “Dark Souls”, “The Legend of Zelda”, or “Final Fantasy” was a sure bet when it came to scooping up a game for me. True to form, my response to receiving FFXII did not disappoint.

What I didn’t realize on that fateful evening was the long, dark road ahead of me as I attempted to replay the Final Fantasy game which had left the most profoundly negative effect on me of any game in the series back when I played it for the first time.

My rekindled romance with Final Fantasy XII began, as these things so often do, with something of a honeymoon phase. I was wowed by the uptick in resolution and the overall smoothness of the visuals. I was impressed that Square-Enix had the foresight to include a speed-up mechanic to improve the dreadfully slow pacing of the game. And finally, I was excited to play the game with an entirely unique job system which I had never had the chance to enjoy when I played the original version of the game more than a decade ago.

For the most part, these positive feelings continued throughout my replay of FFXII‘s main quest. Despite the obvious flaws of the overall plot (most of the characters don’t seem to have a reason to be there, and the journey itself boils down to 5 or 6 really long fetch quests), I was having fun steamrolling enemies by remaining consistently over-leveled, and the slower sections gave me ample time to catch up on podcasts and audio books.

The new additions go a long way to improving the game, unfortunately not all of the changes are positive.

Then came the dark time. I had checked ahead from the beginning to see if there were any missable trophies in The Zodiac Age and I was pleased to find there were not. Content with this, and happy with my general experience thus far, I set out to platinum FFXII, thinking very little of the decision at the time. 4 weeks later, just after midnight on a Friday evening, I would open my storage file on my PS4 and delete all six of my files. What came in between was the hell of it all.

Let me just say from the top (or, the middle, as it were) that if you’re considering aiming for the coveted platinum in this game then you’re in for a long, tedious go of it. It’s at this point I should mention that when I told my esteemed colleague John Cal McCormick about my quest for the platinum trophy – a gong he had previously acquired – he told me what a slog it would be, but I went for it anyway. Like a dope.

So why is getting all of the trophies in FFXII such a chore? The why of it all actually comes with a lot of the so-called improvements to the game. First, there’s a lot of pointless busy work. Magic and techniques (stupidly called magick and technicks for no good reason) have been sporadically placed in different spots in the game, making them harder to find, seemingly for the thrill of wasting the player’s time. A spell (Hastega) which could be purchased from a vendor in the original game must be located in a hellish labyrinth called The Great Crystal in The Zodiac Age.

Do you fancy wandering through a hundred or so rooms that literally all look the same while parsing and unlocking timed gates, only to have to run back to where you just were and hope like hell that you remember the path? That’s a rhetorical question, since I’m going to assume for the record that you’re not a complete asshole. I think you get the point though: this area wasn’t fun in the original version of Final Fantasy XII, and it’s aged horribly with over a decade in the interim. Which begs the question: why on earth is there no map for this area?

Do not come here. You will find only madness in this place.

There are so many god damned maps in this game that they tied a bloody trophy to finding them all, and yet they couldn’t include a map for the one area that desperately needed it? And if, for some reason, you’re optimistic enough to open your map screen in The Great Crystal, you’ll be greeted with… a giant crystal. Yes, a giant crystal, one wherein the tiny signifier which shows your position just moves around sporadically without any rhyme or reason to it.

Now if you’re wondering (with good reason) why I’m spending so much time telling you about this one insignificant but utterly reprehensible area, then you’d be well within your rights. For the benefit of clarity I’ll simply point out that this was the moment where, after securing more than three quarters of the games trophies, I decided to finally quit with this ridiculous endeavour for good.

I say finally because this was far from the first time I sputtered out an exasperated stream of expletives before popping the disc out of my console with as much carefully controlled rage as one can possibly manage with such an intricate task (finding that little touch gauge that pops the disc out can be surprisingly tricky when you’re burning with rage.)

I had tried to leave the game several times, if I’m being honest. There was the time when I was fighting Zodiark, a little shit-headed parasite with wings who is somehow the most powerful Esper in the game. I walked away, put down the controller, and told myself: never again!

Meet FFXII’s strongest esper: a parasite with wings made of stone.

Two days later I returned hesitantly. Maybe if I just tried a different strategy, or found some really catchy music to listen to, I’d find the patience and understanding I needed to make it work. Oh, what a fool I was.

Though Zodiark would eventually fall, the greatest time sink of all was still ahead of me: Yiazmat. This absurdly strong super-boss was the tipping point for me giving up on Final Fantasy XII when I first played it, and guess what: he’s still an epic pain in the ass. Imagine, if you would, fighting a 3-10 hour boss fight in which you spend almost all of your time in the final stretch of the battle. I may have legitimately spent 4 hours of my life or more fighting the final 20% of this battle, and a quick search of the internet shows that I’m not alone.

Why do we, as gamers, hate ourselves so much that so many of us have put ourselves through this tedious test of our collective patience? Is it for the simple reward of seeing a dragon with a ring around its head fall over? In case it wasn’t really, really clear, this was yet another time where I popped the disc out, carefully placed it back in it’s case and prepared to move on to bigger and brighter things.

A few days later though, after a quick rebound and an easy platinum with Seasons After Fall, I thought maybe I’d been too hard on Final Fantasy XII. Maybe I just needed to accept the game the way it was. Maybe I was the one being unfair. This could be a good game, even at this point, where I was just obsessively checking one box after another while wasting copious hours of my life chasing imaginary trophies. Right?

Get ready to fight a lot of dragons with weird accessories.

As you may have guessed, the answer is no. I kept trying to get better, to be better, but the abuse did not stop. There were those ungodly trials, a set of tasks which were designed specifically to be unbeatable for even maxed out characters with the best equipment in the game. There was the bestiary, which contained over 80 enemies that could only be found by looking at a guide. There was just bloody all of it.

And at a certain point, while running around in a giant fucking crystal, I had to ask myself what the hell I was doing with my life. I had 10 games in my backlog, and here I was forcing myself to sit down and play a game for nearly 30 additional hours that I couldn’t even enjoy without the benefit of a distraction.

So that was it, that was the moment. It was 12:02 am on a Friday night, and I asked myself: is this what I want to fill my leisure time up with for the rest of the weekend? The answer was a resounding no. This time though, I wasn’t going back. No matter how much it seemed like the time I put in should count for something, or that maybe I’d been too hard on the game, or that I wanted another platinum trophy to satisfy my OCD. I needed to make sure I wasn’t going to be hurt again. Enough was enough.

Do you know how to delete save data on your PS4? I’ve had mine for nearly 3 years and I didn’t until last week. Shows what a little determination and a whole lot of wasted time can do for a fellow, huh? It only took me a few minutes to find that save data, and less than 18 seconds to delete all six of my files.

And though I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, and almost wanted to take it back as I watched that progress bar move across the screen, I knew, deep down, that I had made the right decision.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘The Walking Dead’

A look back at one of the most critically acclaimed narrative based point and click story games of the decade: Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

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The story-based video game has been around for a long time but there has been a spike in popularity in them in the last decade. One of the most influential and critically acclaimed narrative games is the 2012 game Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which initiated a tidal wave of choice-based games that still continues today.

Lee Everett, the protagonist of the first season of The Walking Dead Game.

Telltale Games was created in 2004 and had a significant library of games established — including games based on Back to the Future and Jurassic Park — before the release of The Walking Dead. It was the zombie point and click adventure that shot them to triple A game studio status though. The game took on similar mechanics to their other games but introduced a more cinematic style. Player choice is a key element in regard to dialogue choices and important decisions within the story. These shape the player character, Lee Everett, and change his personality to suit the play style. This was one of the most endearing features of the game, allowing players to experience scenarios slightly differently depending on your choice.

The Walking Dead

Lee and his ward Clementine had a strong connection that led to a lot of the emotional moments in the story.

The depth of the characters and dark nature of the narrative are the best aspects of the game. The player takes on the role of Lee as he is on his way to jail at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse. After a car accident leaves him stranded, he stumbles upon a little girl named Clementine. Lee becomes her protector as they and a group of survivors try to survive in the walker-infested world. This simple story of a man with a troubled past attempting to protect a little girl at the end of the world is incredibly engaging and it is difficult not to get emotionally attached to both Lee and Clementine. The system wherein certain characters will remember Lee’s words or actions is also a nice feature that can guilt trip you over your choices, particularly if you see the words “Clementine Will Remember That”. Lee is an interesting and complex character whose attitude and personality can change depending on player choice and Clementine is a loveable child who doesn’t fall into the “annoying kid” stereotype in most games. Both became beloved video game characters who set a precedent for likeable protagonists in gaming.

The Walking Dead

The cast of characters in The Walking Dead’s first season all had their complexities.

The legacy of Telltale Games and The Walking Dead still continues within the gaming community. Telltales unfortunate downfall in September 2018 was a great loss to story-based gaming but many have been influenced by Telltale’s work since. Dontnod adapted the episodic formula for their Life is Strange games, another fantastic narrative series. Others who had previously worked for Telltale helped bring other great story games to life. The co-writers of the first season of The Walking Dead game set up the company that created the 2016 game Firewatch, for example. More writers of the series launched Night School Studios, responsible for Oxenfree (2016) and Afterparty (2019). The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games to stardom, leading them to take on a slew of projects — possibly leading to their downfall. Despite this, the game has carved out a place for itself in history as one of the best point and click narrative adventure games that established a trend of games that encourage strong storytelling and complex characters.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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