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Chrono Trigger (DS)

Chrono Trigger was originally released in 1995, but has been re-released numerous times since.

One of the great hallmarks of the Japanese Role-Playing genre of video games is Chrono Trigger. The 1995 Super Nintendo game was crafted by a dream team of the era’s best RPG developers. Produced by Squaresoft, the title was a collaboration between Square and Yuji Horii, who at the time was best known as the creator of Dragon Quest. The designer for the title was Hironobu Sakaguchi who was credited as the father of Final Fantasy. For RPG fans in the 90s, Squaresoft working on an RPG that was essentially Dragon Quest + Final Fantasy was an RPG fan’s wet dream. How could it be get any better than that? Well, it did, because numerous other talented individuals worked on the title. Akira Toriyama handled (Dragon Quest, Dragon Ball) character designs and a young artist by the name of Tetsuya Takahashi was also part of the art department for the game. Composers Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu were onboard to provide the music while a trio of Final Fantasy vets, Akihiko Matsui, Takashi Tokita, Yoshinori Kitase, handled the directing duties. A lesser name at the time, Masato Kato (Xenogears, Final Fantasy VII), contributed as a writer on the project and would come to be the main architect of the Chrono Trigger story.

Needless to say, this was a huge project for Squaresoft and the Super Nintendo in the mid-90s and was the spiritual merger of Square and Enix years before that merger would become a reality. Unfortunately though, the game was almost too big and too late arriving in the first quarter of 1995 after the Japanese launch of Sony’s PlayStation and roughly 6 months before that console’s US release. Another obstacle to the game’s success was its price. In the US, the retail price of a new copy of Chrono Trigger was $80, a pretty massive sum of money for a single game that wasn’t part of an established franchise. RPG gamers, particularly in Japan, had reason to be excited for Chrono Trigger and were likely willing to pay such a price, but the casual gamer had no idea what this was and the JRPG subgenre was still finding its footing in the west. All of that is to say, it’s not particularly surprising that, despite largely strong review scores in gaming mags, the game didn’t sell vast quantities when initially released. The production run was likely modest, and many people simply missed it.

It’s easy to see a little Dragon Ball in Toriyama’s designs for Chrono Trigger.

In 1995, I didn’t quite miss Chrono Trigger, but I also didn’t get the full experience. The title was a rental for me, and even though SNES JRPGs aren’t as long as modern ones, a single rental still wasn’t enough time to experience everything the game had to offer. I distinctly remember getting to the point where the character Frog leaves the party, and I don’t believe I made it much farther. The game somewhat quickly came to be regarded as a missed classic. I think this was largely due to the explosion in interest in the genre following the release of Final Fantasy VII, but even a mere 2 years after the SNES release, the game was already hard to come by. Prices on the after-market were routinely $100 or more, and even though we should have still been used to higher priced games, it was hard to justify that kind of expense when brand new PlayStation titles were $50.

For many, their first introduction to Chrono Trigger would come from emulation. Emulators for 8 and 16 bit consoles were becoming popular and many used them as an alternative to paying exorbitant after-market prices for rare games. I know I gave Chrono Trigger another shot on an emulator, but I don’t recall making it very far. For me, there was always a logic hump to get over when it came to playing console games on the PC. I also lost interest because not long after that Squaresoft announced a PlayStation port of Chrono Trigger. The title would be released alongside Final Fantasy IV as Final Fantasy Chronicles in 2001 (ironically, quite late in the lifecycle of the original PlayStation). I was a day one buyer of the bundle and it was in that form that I finally completed a playthrough of Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately, the PSX version of the game wasn’t the best way to experience it. In porting the SNES game to the disc-based PSX a new problem was unleashed: load times. The loading was a necessary evil to enjoying the game as simply going from gameplay to the menu included a load of approximately 5 seconds. It may read as inconsequential in text, but in playing the game it’s annoying and monotonous. Still, it wasn’t all bad for the PSX version as it did include some flashy new animated segments from Toriyama’s Bird Studio and animated by Toei, who also animated Toriyama’s most famous franchise Dragon Ball.

Aside from availability, the big selling point of the PSX release were the new cutscenes.

The PlayStation release was a flawed one, but not so flawed that it could sap all joy from Chrono Trigger. Still, I have wanted to replay the game for years now, but was reluctant to return to that PSX port even though I still own it. And ever since 2008, there really has been no need to as that is when Square-Enix released what many consider to be the definitive version of Chrono Trigger on the Nintendo DS. The DS version kept the good parts of the PSX port but returned the functionality of the SNES version. It also contained improvements in the form of a refined translation and display mode tailored to the DS which basically removed all visual clutter from the main screen and moved it to the bottom one. It also made the game portable, and really the only sacrifice one has to make is the loss of being able to easily play the game on a television. When the DS version came out it slipped under my radar. I was likely just too preoccupied with whatever I was playing at home to grab it. Only recently did I finally rectify that, though similar to the SNES version back in the late 90s, my procrastinating did hurt me in the wallet to some degree though not as badly as it would have in 2000.

My desire to play Chrono Trigger in 2021 stems from the fact that most of my experience with the game was in an inferior form 20 years ago. Since then, the game’s reputation has only managed to grow and many now regard it as the greatest RPG of all-time. The RPG podcast Axe of the Blood God even did a March Madness style bracket for its listeners to vote on that resulted in Chrono Trigger besting the likes of Final Fantasy VII, Skyrim, and The Witcher 3 to be crowned the best ever. Now, one RPG podcast is hardly the final say on any single game, but I found it telling that a subscription-based userbase for an RPG podcast would still settle on Chrono Trigger as one would imagine anyone paying to listen to an RPG podcast is quite likely a diehard RPG enthusiast. And I personally had no real qualms with the result myself as I personally hold Chrono Trigger in very high regard and the end result made me realize that I just need to experience it again for myself.

The DS version really declutters the main screen by moving all of the informative graphics to the bottom screen.

If you’ve read this far and have no idea just what Chrono Trigger is allow me to explain. It’s a pretty traditional JRPG from the 90s. As the player, you control and manage a party of up to 3 characters with more in reserve as you go from town to town in the game talking to non-player characters to find information on where to go. Traveling from these towns to the next destination unfolds over a world map; a zoomed out view of the game’s world where characters can traverse miles in seconds. Upon entering hostile areas, the player will encounter enemies which triggers a battle sequence. Unlike its peers, Chrono Trigger’s transition from exploration to battle is entirely seamless. There’s no change to the art style, no loading of a new screen, the characters just simply pull out their weapons and commence fighting. In battle, characters can attack, use magic, use items, or flee when it’s their turn. Turns are determined by the character’s underlying speed score which affects how quickly their action meter fills. For RPG veterans, they know this as Square’s Active Time Battle System first implemented in Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger makes no real changes to it. Where Chrono Trigger does distinguish itself from Final Fantasy is in the removal of random encounters on the map as enemies will now appear on screen before a battle begins. The other distinguishing trait is in the Tech system, which I’ll get to shortly. For the most part though, the game plays like any other JRPG. When the battle is over, character’s gain experience which contribute to them leveling-up and seeing their base stats improve. They also gain ability points which are applied automatically to their magic and skills and will eventually result in them learning a new ability. Characters can also be outfitted with a weapon and three forms of armor that enhance their native abilities and are gradually replaced overtime as better equipment becomes available.

What sets the wheels in motion is essentially a misunderstanding and an overzealous Chancellor.

That all is pretty conventional, but Chrono Trigger changes this up a bit with its emphasis on time and its Tech system. The word tech is essentially a synonym for magic in other games, though the game doesn’t consider all techs “magic.” They’re the abilities characters learn as they get stronger and the only way to learn a new tech is for a character to participate in combat, which is different from earning experience towards leveling up as inactive characters will still earn experience. Techs come in various forms, some are simply strong physical attacks, others are elemental spells like Water and Fire, and some are support abilities like healing and buffs. Each character has their own unique techs to learn and they basically shape how that character should be used. Some are naturally more physical fighters with the character Ayla in particular lacking a magic attack. Some are magic attackers, some are more of a support character, and a few try to blend both. That part is pretty standard, the part where Chrono Trigger introduces a new wrinkle is in the form of dual and triple techs. Each character will eventually learn a tech that’s compatible with another character. This starts off slowly, but by the end of the game basically every character has a tech that works with another. Learning them is simply a matter of the two characters participating in battle together when they both know the tech needed to create the dual tech. Like standard techs, they take on various forms and can be healing or attacking in nature. Some allow the non-magic users like the previously mentioned Ayla to add an elemental component to an attack, but mostly they’re just high impact moves as the damage output is greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true for triple techs which just incorporate all three active characters.

The Tech system is certainly flashy which helps cover up its lack of depth. Very little player input is required to learn them and it becomes more about balancing risk vs reward. Especially early in the game when the speed of the characters is both slower and more varied. Dual and triple techs are only usable when all of the characters involved have full action gauges so waiting on slower characters means there are moments when characters aren’t doing anything. Towards the end of the game it’s less of an issue as you will likely have access to multiple characters that have maxed out or near maxed out speed. The only added wrinkle is there is one, optional, character that has no dual techs and only a few, hidden, triple techs. Deciding whether or not to utilize that character can be tricky because you’re losing the ability to combine attacks. That character is also entirely offensive in nature which means someone else is going to have to be the healer in the party and usually that character is weaker and not the best choice for dual-teching. By the end of the game though, it’s again rendered somewhat moot as there is at least one character capable of healing that also can dish out plenty of damage.

I know they don’t make any sense, but I do miss the World Map that was prevalent in every JRPG in the 90s.

The main focus of the game’s plot and design revolves around the ability to travel through time. The game begins with the main character, default name Crono, encountering a runaway which leads to the main character getting into a rather sticky situation. It’s not particularly unique for the genre, but it will result in the player getting sent 400 years into the past. As you progress through the game more periods become available. They’re accessible via permanent warps in certain areas and they’ll take you to the future and even further into the past. A key component of advancing the plot involves traveling to the future to obtain something only available there and then going back in time to change something in a later period. Even though you’re essentially playing with the time stream the whole game, it’s still a linear experience for the vast majority of the game. Only towards the end does it open up a bit, as do many of its peers, when the player gains access to a vehicle that both flies and functions as a time machine removing the need to backtrack to specific warp points.

The game is certainly still fun after more than 25 years. The game cycles characters through early on which keeps things fresh and exciting. Level-ups occur at a brisk enough pace and new abilities are added at a suitable pace as well which can become addicting. Seeing each era available in the game also provides incentive to keep going, it’s once you’ve seen them all that the game starts to lose a little steam. Players will naturally gravitate towards a preferred trio only really swapping characters out to make sure abilities aren’t neglected. It’s helpful that you can swap at will, though saving the game is still relegated to the world map and designated save points. By the end of the game, a tedium will start to set in as it becomes apparent that Chrono Trigger’s lack of random encounters doesn’t mean all confrontation is avoidable. Rather it would be more appropriate to describe Chrono Trigger as a game of scripted encounters. Many enemies are onscreen, but completely unavoidable. This becomes annoying in traversing to the various time warps as many will always feature battles in certain spots, even when the party is far beyond the enemy’s talents. One optional string of quests late in the game involves going back and forth between a dinosaur village in two time periods that is just a constant string of fetch quests and backtracking. You will come to know all of the encounters in your way as you battle through them again and again. You may even come to miss random encounters as at least they had some variety as opposed to these scripted ones which never change.

The seamless transitions from exploring to battle are pretty neat, though the non-random encounters aspect of the game has been oversold.

Where the game has not suffered though in the ensuing years rests in its presentation. Toriyama’s digitized character designs are still as charming as ever and the inclusion of the anime cutscenes serve as a reminder of what these sprites represent. The script is mostly light-hearted with plenty of moments of humor. I don’t think anything in this game made me laugh out loud, but it was something I definitely enjoyed for the most part. The score is also a strength, even on tiny DS speakers, though I do feel like it’s missing a signature track similar to how Final Fantasy back in the 90s had its victory theme. The world design is enjoyable though with eras of typical fantasy fare, but also there’s the variety inherent in the future world and prehistory period. The future is quite impressive given the sheer amount of clutter forced into each area. It could have become too messy and busy to look at, but instead remains impressive after all of these years. Certainly, if you’re more of a modern gamer and something like the PlayStation 3 was your first console you may not appreciate the visuals as much as someone who started gaming in the 70s or 80s, but hopefully most will still find them pleasant enough.

And this takes me to my final thoughts and how I view Chrono Trigger as both a product of its time and something that is inherently timeless. Which is to ask, is Chrono Trigger worthy of being viewed as the best RPG ever? I find it hard to argue that it is. I can certainly see how someone who first played it in the 90s can form an attachment to it. It has a terrific team behind it, looks great, sounds great, and it’s just different enough from a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Quest to feel unique. And if you’re into time travel then you really have a recipe for a terrific gaming experience. Where I think it comes up short though is largely in its systems. There’s almost zero customization available to the player as each character has a defined role. Actually, if anything, their roles aren’t defined quite enough as it’s not hard at all to just pick 3 favorites and stick with them. Especially towards the end of the game when all techs have been learned and you can just spam the best dual and triple techs to get past just about every encounter. Enemies basically have just two tricks, they’re either susceptible to physical attacks or magic ones, and not much else. All of the challenge is found in the first 10 hours or so when you’re forced to adapt on the fly, but come the end of the game when it should be getting harder it’s actually getting easier. The final dungeon is almost painfully boring as it’s very linear and offers little or no challenge. I just powered through with the team of Crono, Ayla, and Frog and never had to turn to another character. And I didn’t do any grinding (which is actually another feather in the game’s cap) and was around level 50 come the end. I wasn’t having a bad time with the game or anything like that, but I was certainly ready for it to be over and was reminded why I never embarked on a New Game+ back on the PSX version.

The game boasts an enjoyable cast of characters, though main character Crono is basically just a cipher for the player.

That’s not to say that Chrono Trigger isn’t a competent RPG or an enjoyable experience in 2021. It very much is, and I think a lot of people fell in love with the game because it is so accessible and the presentation is rather flashy for a game form 1995. It’s just not the deep, RPG, experience some might prefer in the genre. I think there’s still a debate over whether or not it’s even the best SNES RPG available. Final Fantasy VI is quite epic in scope with a touch more depth, while Final Fantasy V is very much a systems-focused RPG experience at the expense of story and presentation. In looking at the offerings in the console generation to follow, I still think highly of Final Fantasy VII and I’m also a big proponent for the game’s sequel, Chrono Cross. Then you have games like Suikoden II, Tactics Ogre, Xenogears, and more and I’m reminded that the late 90s and early 2000s really were the golden age of the RPG, the JRPG in particular. And I’m left to honestly wonder if this game can compete with the likes of Skyrim and The Witcher. Those modern titles offer something almost completely different in terms of gameplay, but if I was in one of those annoying scenarios that literally never happen and I had to pick just one RPG to play forever am I picking Chrono Trigger? Am I even considering it? I don’t think so. There is a New Game+ option once the game is over and there are extra endings to uncover, but like the systems, they’re more style than substance. I probably will play through this again since I have the DS version now, but I’m not currently itching to so it may be awhile.

One thing I am certain about in my replay of Chrono Trigger is that the DS version is indeed the way to go. I love making this a portable experience and even though you can’t save at will, at least a DS can be placed into sleep mode to hold your progress. The new display is superior to what came before it with the menu shortcuts on the bottom and the gameplay on the top. I enjoy having the cutscenes even if they don’t add a ton they’re still enjoyable to look at. And from what I can tell, the new translation is superior to what I remember, though admittedly it has been a long time since I looked at the original. The added DS specific content is kind of worthless though. You get a battle arena and a new dungeon that’s just more tedious than anything, but if you’re not tapped out on the game’s combat by the end it’s there. It’s also entirely optional and adding this new content to the game did nothing to harm what had already been created. If you liked Chrono Trigger before, you’ll still like it now. And if you’ve ever enjoyed a classic JRPG, you’ll probably like this as well. It moves at a good clip and it’s very approachable. I would just caution first-time players to not come into it expecting the greatest RPG known to man because that’s an impossible standard for any game to live up to.


Final Fantasy VII Remake – Demo Impressions

Final-Fantasy-7-Remake-DemoIt’s been a long time since I discussed the possibility of a Final Fantasy VII remake. After mentioning it here and there in other posts, I made a dedicated post on the subject six years ago. And six years ago isn’t even the start of all of this hype, so it’s safe to say this game has been a long time coming. And it’s almost here. In order to drum up excitement (and maybe quell some negative press at release), Square-Enix released a free demo for the remake on the PlayStation Network this week. To access it you simply need a PlayStation 4 and a network connection. You do not need to be a subscriber to Sony’s paid online service. The demo should take about 10 minutes to download and install and contains roughly an hour’s worth of content, so if you’re curious about the game and have yet to check out the demo you might as well go rectify that right now.

The demo contains what I assume will be the start to the main game. If you played the original Final Fantasy VII then it will be quite familiar. You take on the role of Cloud, a mercenary in the employ of Barret Wallace and his organization, Avalanche, which is in the process of storming a mako reactor in the city of Midgar owned and operated by a company named Shinra. As Cloud (who is given that name outright, so no more choosing your own name), you’re expected to take orders, do the job, and collect a paycheck at the end. The goal of the mission is to take down and destroy this reactor, which Barret explains rather passionately is destroying the planet. Basically, if you’re familiar with the original game this is all routine, but if you’re a newcomer you may have some questions, but those will have to wait for retail.

cloud_demo

Cloud is back, and he’s still going with that hairstyle.

It has been an exceptionally long road getting to this point. Final Fantasy VII was released to huge publicity way back in 1997 and is a very popular and beloved title. For many, it was probably their introduction to the franchise as it was only the fourth entry in the series released outside of Japan. And by far, it was the most publicized, though the US version of Final Fantasy VI was no slouch in terms of marketing. It’s hard to say when the thirst for a remake arrived, but it was definitely here after Square unveiled a PlayStation 3 tech demo that contained images of Final Fantasy VII with a new engine. At the time, Square intended this to be just a demo of what a Final Fantasy title could look like on the new hardware, but naturally many fans just wanted to see these resources used to create a new version of a game they loved.

A remake of Final Fantasy VII never arrived during the PlayStation 3’s lifespan, and it was rarely even hinted at. The company line soon came to be “We hear you,” and fans were expected to just keep voicing their desires for a remake in hopes it would one day happen. Well, that day has just about come and it’s going to be met with some degree of dissatisfaction, but overall I think this title will do well for Square-Enix.

support_characters_demo

And all of your friends are back too, like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie!

First of all, fans have known what to expect leading up to this point. Gone is the old mechanics of the Active Time Battle System and in its place is a more action-oriented gameplay system. Anyone who has played Final Fantasy XV or even Kingdom Hearts III should feel relatively comfortable with this new system, but anyone going straight from Final Fantasy VII to this will likely be left with their head spinning. At the start of the demo, the player just controls Cloud who battles solo. As enemies come into view, Cloud goes from a passive state to a combat position seamlessly. Mashing the square button is really all that needs to happen in order to win the day against these early foes, but there’s a bit more going on under the hood.

As Cloud attacks, his ATB meter fills. Yes, a relic of the past still exists in some form this time out. When that meter fills, Cloud can use Abilities, Spells, and Items at his whim. Pressing the X button brings up a menu which greatly slows down the action onscreen allowing the player to cycle through the options at his or her leisure. In the demo, Cloud has some abilities that should sound familiar, like Braver. These moves do extra damage and consume ATB. For spells, Cloud has access to Fire which isn’t of much use in the demo, save for when Cloud has to fight flying enemies he can’t quite reach with his sword. Under items are a bunch of familiar options like potions and ethers.

cloud_barrett_demo

Oh, and lets not forget the big guy. Barret is the only other playable character in the demo.

Adding a little extra layer of complexity is the fact that Cloud has two methods of attacks. Think of this as a relic from the Squaresoft classic Bushido Blade as Cloud basically has two stances. He begins in Operator mode which is his default approach. With a tap of the triangle button he can move into Punisher mode. In this state, his sword flurries are more elaborate and deal considerably more damage. He also moves much slower making it harder to evade enemy attacks. Blocking or taking damage will knock Cloud out of this mode, so it’s something that is to be deployed in moderation. At work, is a system of staggering in which repeated blows on an enemy fill a bar below their health. When that fills they become staggered and momentarily incapacitated. You won’t get to play with this too much in the demo as the fodder will like fall first, but it would seem the standard play is to attack an enemy until staggered, then bust out Punisher mode to deal additional damage while they can’t move.

About midway through the demo, Barret will enter the fray. When a second member joins the party in battle, switching between the two is as simple as pressing a button. Barret works in the same manner as Cloud, except he’s a ranged fighter and not nearly as fast or nimble. He can more easily hit flying enemies and instead of a Punisher mode he has a charged attack that gradually fills. He also has access to the spells Thunder and Cure, though you should have plenty of potions to render the latter useless for the demo. You can give the A.I. controlled party member commands during battle, though for the demo I found it mostly unnecessary. When controlling Cloud, Barret did a good job of attacking enemies Cloud could not, but I suspect in larger frays with three characters in the main game it may become more necessary to micro-manage the combatants.

aerith_demo

The demo will give you a look at the mysterious flower girl, but don’t expect it to settle the Aerith/Aeris debate.

Combat in the Final Fantasy VII remake has the potential to add layers of complexity. And in some ways it already feels that way, though much of the confrontations in this demo can be resolved by simply mashing the attack button. It remains to be seen if that’s just simply a matter of this being a demo, or if that will be the general flow of combat for lesser enemies (the equivalent of the original’s random encounters) or if the game will demand more from these enemies as it moves along. Near the end of the demo is a boss encounter in which you will have to do more and pay attention to Cloud’s suggestions. He’ll yell out to Barret how to deal with the enemy, and as the player, you’re expected to do the same. These range from what magic to utilize and where to strike. It’s during this battle that you’ll likely encounter Limit Breaks for the first time. They seem to work as they did in the original, though with Braver being a standard move, Cloud’s first Limit Break is now Cross-Slash. I did not see Barrett’s in my play-through.

When not in battle, the game is pretty much just a nicer version of the original. The camera is always behind Cloud, but can be manually controlled via the right analog stick. The visuals are on par with the best titles Square-Enix has produced so you’re not likely to find many complaints there. Cloud more or less resembles his Advent Children self, but he has been noticeably reworked some and I think he looks a little better now. He’s still a touch goofy looking since he’s an anime design made real, but it’s fine. The voice acting is good as well and since these characters have all spoken before since the original game’s release it’s not as surprising as it might have been fifteen years ago. In short, if this game is a failure the production values will have little to do with that.

sweeper

The sweeper is one of the few enemies in the demo that will let you try out more of your arsenal.

Exploring the environment of this demo is not exactly exciting, but it’s also a tutorial disguised as a mission. I don’t want to make assumptions about the rest of the game based on this section. There are some chests scattered about, but they’re all in plain sight. There are boxes Cloud can smash with his sword to uncover items and even some simple obstacles that need to be cleared. Cloud can basically just run, run faster, and swing his sword. When he needs to jump he’ll do it automatically. It appears the old equipment and materia systems will work largely the same, though the game doesn’t give you an introduction to that aspect in the demo. Oddly, I found you have to use the real-time item list (accessed via the X button whether in or outside of battle) to heal via potions and can’t do it from the pause menu. It would be nice to see an auto-heal feature in the main game.

Ultimately, what is going to make or break this game is the combat system and how that aligns with expectations. There are certainly plenty of fans of the more recently released Final Fantasy XV that will likely welcome a more modern, action-oriented, battle system. There are also those who will yearn for the days of old and the turn-based system. There was a rumor making the rounds over the summer that the game could be made into a turn-based one, but that is not the case. You have options to greatly slow it down, but it will never be truly turn-based. It’s more you can make it similar to a Bioware RPG in which you could basically pause the action, issue commands, then resume. I am not surprised that Square went modern with its combat system, though I have reservations about it. The generic encounters are rather mind-numbing. Again, you could say the same of the original, but relentlessly mashing buttons somehow feels more tedious than the old system. As such, I kind of wish it went even more action and added multiple attack buttons, combos, and a more robust parry system. The thought being if you want this to be an action game, just make it an action game. The boss fight does show how the system can be expanded, but the battle was long and when it was over I don’t know that I felt accomplished. I was kind of just glad to be done with it.

scorpion_demo

The climax of the demo is a battle with the Scorpion Sentinel, also a boss from the original. He’s much harder this time around, but still quite manageable.

The other elephant in the room is also just what can fans expect of this initial installment of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square-Enix has almost gone silent on the subject since it was announced, but this game is not the entire Final Fantasy VII experience. The assumption, which has mostly been confirmed, is that this game only covers the Midgar portion of the original. It basically ends with the rescue of Red XIII, who is reportedly not even playable in the full version. We do not know how many games this remake will span. We know it’s more than one, and that is all. My guess is that it will be three games, just because publishers seem to like trilogies, but how it ties in with the sequels remains unknown. Fans will want their characters to carry-over, but if this stretches beyond two games it seems unlikely the third would be a PlayStation 4 game. There’s no timetable for the release, and considering how long it took to get this out, I have my reservations about diving into an incomplete experience.

This demo largely accomplishes what it needs to. Fans get a taste for how this very intriguing game will work and play. That’s all a demo really needs to do. It can’t answer whether or not the final release will be worth it, but it provides some indication of what to expect. I do think that game, which I presume is around a 15 hour experience, will be largely good. The questions though about when the next installment will arrive gives me some trepidation, enough so that I will not be a day one buyer. I don’t feel like I need to get to this right away considering the full story won’t be available for years. It makes it easy to back-burner as I still have other titles to finish. I think there will be plenty of fans of the old game to make this a commercial success, so I don’t think there is presently any danger of Square abandoning the project. And from a value standpoint, it can be all but assumed that eventually, when all is said and one, there will be a Kingdom Hearts styled package release of all of the titles at a friendlier price.

Final-Fantasy-7-Remake-Opening-Movie-Trailer

The “full” game arrives April 10 on PlayStation 4.

Those are all things to consider. If you don’t care about the release schedule then by all means play the demo, decide if it’s something you want more of, and go ahead and buy it. I expect there will be critical voices out there on Twitter and such, and they will be loud, but not very impactful in terms of sales. This game will do well because there is so much anticipation for it. And because of that anticipation, Square-Enix was right to take its time and basically build this from the ground up, even if I would have personally been really tickled by a “downgrade” in the form of a sprite-based remake. I expect modern gamers to respond well to the new combat mechanics, though I do wonder if people experiencing this for the first time will be left underwhelmed. They may not understand what made the original so big and exciting to begin with. For them, we’ll only be able to offer up a “I guess you had to be there,” explanation and leave it at that.


Forecasting and Perfecting the PlayStation Classic

cute ps

Aww, it’s so adorable!

Sony announced the PlayStation Classic on September 19th and it is set to go on sale December 3rd. Following in Nintendo’s footsteps, the PlayStation Classic is a mini version of the original console with 20 pre-loaded games, a single controller, and HDMI output. It will have support for saves via a virtual memory card as well as numerous display modes to toggle through that will try and preserve the original look of the games or try to smooth them out and update them for today. At $100 MSRP, the PlayStation Classic finds itself priced in-between the SNES Classic and the soon to be released Neo Geo Mini. Making things more interesting, and also frustrating, is that Sony chose to only reveal 5 of the system’s 20 pre-loaded games:  Final Fantasy VII, Jumping Flash, Tekken 3, Ridge Racer Type 4, and Wild Arms. It’s an odd form of marketing, but Sony must feel confident it will have strong pre-sales to hold back that information for the time being. It also likely thinks it will help build excitement for the machine if they drip-feed consumers. Maybe it will be a weekly event to reveal another game or two. There are 10 weeks separating the system’s announcement and release so such a strategy is possible, or they could just come in bunches.

Choosing to withhold information on the included games is likely an annoyance for prospective consumers. I know I personally am not pre-ordering a gaming device in which I don’t even know what games I can play on it will be. It does however create the fun scenario in which people like me can speculate on what will be included and also what should be included. Those are two very different questions as if it were up to me I would load this thing up with RPGs, but I’m sure Sony will want a more balanced lineup. Adding further intrigue is the fact that Sony isn’t the first-party powerhouse that Nintendo is. With the SNES Classic, it was relatively easy to predict what games would be included because so many of them were Nintendo developed titles. Those games were not only among the best the system had, but also cost Nintendo next to nothing to include. With Sony’s machine, they’ll likely be cutting sizable checks to Capcom and Square-Enix with this thing.

Lets rundown the games I think Sony is going to include. Since we already know five of them, that means I need to only come up with 15 for this exercise. This is a prediction, so I’ll also include my opinion on if I think the game should be included, and where not, what I would include instead with the idea being I wouldn’t boot a fighting game to add a strategy one and will aim to stay within the genre. Let’s start with the included games:

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This was expected.

Final Fantasy VII – This is likely the PlayStation’s biggest game, not the best-selling, but in terms of what it meant to the console. This legitimized Sony with the hardcore crowd since Sony was able to pry a successful Nintendo franchise away from The Big N. And even though it’s readily available on Sony’s Eshop and will soon be available on The Switch, Sony basically had to include it here.

Jumping Flash – This is a game that has not aged well. It’s going to be ugly, and may even make you nauseous due to the first-person perspective, but in terms of early launch window games few spring to mind as being of the era than Jumping Flash. It’s a relic, but one forever tied to Sony’s machine. As a legacy game, it feels appropriate to include.

Ridge Racer Type 4 – Squaresoft may have stole the headlines when it announced FFVII would be on a Sony console, but lets not forget how important Namco was for the PSX early on. Namco supported Sony’s machine rather extensively, and one of its signature series was Ridge Racer. Ridge Racer would eventually be over-shadows by the gear-head adored Gran Turismo series, but its arcade approach remained fun and Type 4 was probably the best of the bunch and is rightfully included.

Tekken 3 – Another Namco staple, the first Tekken was a launch window title and a worthy adversary for Sega’s Virtua Fighter series. It proved to be the best of the 3D brawlers on Sony’s machine far surpassing the likes of Battle Arena Toshinden. Tekken 3 was the final Tekken released for the original PlayStation and it represents the pinnacle for the franchise for the era. It was gorgeous for the time and felt like a game that pushed the system beyond what anyone thought it could do. It’s still my favorite entry in the series and it most certainly belongs here.

Wild Arms – The Sony produced RPG had the benefit of arriving before FFVII. While some blame that game for the lack of success enjoyed by Wild Arms, I knew more than one person who purchased this title simply because they couldn’t wait for FFVII. It’s a totally serviceable RPG and it has its share of fans, though it’s never been a favorite of mine. On one hand, it does represent the early era of PSX role-playing games, but I would not have included it.  Suggested replacementBlood Omen:  Legacy of Kain – a top-down action RPG, Blood Omen was the start of a successful Sony franchise for Kain and eventually Raziel. It had a lot of style, and as a fellow 1996 title and pseudo RPG it would be a suitable replacement. If something could be done about the horrendous load times in bringing it to the system then all the better. It’s possible the sequel, Soul Reaver, will be among the other 15 and if that is the case then I would not include this one.

And now for the predictions! I’m ordering them from most likely to least, and it should be noted, this is entirely subjective for the most part though I’m avoiding any game that was intended to be played with the Dual Shock controller (like Ape Escape), with one noted exception.

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Twisted Metal was arguably Sony’s premiere franchise in the 90s.

Twisted Metal 2:  World Tour – The most successful Sony first-party franchise during the PSX era was probably Twisted Metal, and that franchise’s best game was easily Twisted Metal 2:  World Tour. It took everything that made the first a surprise hit and improved upon it. Better presentation, better controls, a huge roster, and new gameplay additions made this one a blast to play. It’s probably pretty ugly by today’s standards, but still playable and likely still infectious.

Metal Gear Solid – FFVII was the signature third-party game, and franchise, for the PlayStation’s early days, but it feels like it was supplanted some-what by Metal Gear Solid. MGS revolutionized what could be done from a cinematic perspective and its attention to detail was something seldom seen in gaming. It was an instant masterpiece, and also the game that will most suffer by the lack of Dual Shock support. If It wasn’t so important to the legacy of the PlayStation I’d say hold off for an eventual Dual Shock version of the PlayStation Classic.

Final Fantasy Tactics – Another game that is readily available, but also one synonymous with the PlayStation. Final Fantasy Tactics took the guts of Tactics Ogre and gave it a new coat of paint. It’s also a bit more accessible, but just as serious about its story. FFT wasn’t what folks who had just played FFVII were expecting, so it got kind of lost in the shuffle, but has since been more appreciated and is routinely cited as one of the best RPGs ever released. It would feel weird to not include it.

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I’ve never been a Crash guy, but I won’t deny him his rightful place.

Crash Bandicoot 2:  Cortex Strikes Back – Crash was conceived as the original PlayStation mascot meant to oppose Mario and Sonic. It didn’t really work out that way, since Sony didn’t even own the character, but for awhile he was utilized that way. Arguably his best contribution to that era were the commercials (“Hey, plumber boy!”), but the games were pretty good in their own right. Not really my cup of tea, it would be hard though to deny Crash a spot on the PlayStation Classic and most agree that his second outing was superior to the first. They would also probably argue the third was even better, but I’m guessing Sony is placing an emphasis on earlier games which is why they may opt for this one over Warped.

Resident Evil 2 – Really, the only thing that makes me thing think Resident Evil 2 might not be included is the fact that Capcom is working on a remake as we speak. For that reason, it may prefer to include the original or even the less celebrated third entry. Everyone likely agrees that RE2 was the superior title, so in the interest of keeping things simple, I say Capcom relents and lets Sony have it.

Castlevania:  Symphony of the Night – We’ve long since past the era when Symphony of the Night was an under-appreciated classic. Famously released to a hostile public because it dared to be 2D, most have come to realize how silly a notion it was to declare 2D gaming obsolete and have embraced SoTN as one of the very best games in the long-running franchise. And those that didn’t realize it at the time certainly did when Castlevania 64 was released.

Street Fighter Alpha 3 – Most associate the 16 bit era with the height of the fighting genre, but it was still alive and well come the 32/64 bit era as well. PlayStation was not known for its excellence with 2D fighters, leaving that to Saturn and eventually Dreamcast, but Street Fighter Alpha was an exception. And of the games released in that series for the system, Alpha 3 was the best.

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I had a lot of good times with Wipeout.

Wipeout XL – Perhaps an aggressive ranking, but Wipeout felt like an important franchise during the early days of the PlayStation. The Psygnosis developed futuristic racer could have been mistaken as an F-Zero clone, but the physics and course design made it so much more. XL was the pinnacle for the series, and assuming Sony can work out the licensing issues, I expect it will be included.

Tomb Raider – Lara Croft’s humble beginnings were as an ugly, pointy-breasted, mess of polygons that I’m not sure people even in the moment felt looked particularly good. She was tough to control, but wasn’t a tank like Jill Valentine, and her adventure was pretty damn difficult. She did move onto other consoles, but Tomb Raider always felt like a Sony franchise and it’s likely viewed as important to the console, even though I do not want to revisit it. Suggested ReplacementParasite Eve – not exactly a one for one, but the shooter/RPG hybrid was quite interesting for its era, and as a franchise that never made it off of the PSX, it would be nice to see it here. The sequel is better, but may be hard to get into without knowing what happened in the first.

The Legend of Dragoon – Seeing how successful Final Fantasy was on its machine, Sony decided to get into the RPG business with The Legend of Dragoon. Seemingly thinking RPG fans enjoyed length over anything else, TLoD was gigantic and is probably the longest RPG on the system. It also looked great, and its battle system was okay. Aside from that, it’s not very good, but since Sony produced this one it won’t cost them much to include it and they probably view it as a signature title for the system. Suggested ReplacementValkyrie Profile – Oh boy, does this system not lack for RPGs. You could easily fill the console with 20 RPGs and not run out of quality software. Xenogears is my favorite, and it has an outside shot of being included, but a game that’s also good and brutally expensive is Valkyrie Profile. It would be great to see Sony use the PlayStation Classic as a means of delivering hard to find games to the consumer, but I’d be shocked if they included this one. It would probably cause me to buy one though, since getting a PlayStation Classic is way cheaper than buying this one second-hand.

Gran Turismo 2 – Assuming Sony can sort out the licensing issues, this one feels like a no brainer. Gran Turismo is one of Sony’s premiere franchises, and even though it’s faded some, it’s still remembered quite fondly. And given that its sim approach makes it way different from Ridge Racer, there’s room for it on the Classic as well. Though for me personally, it’s also a game I wouldn’t play.  Suggested ReplacementCrash Team Racing – so it’s not exactly a sim, but I struggled to come up with a more appropriate replacement. CTR was stealthily the second best kart racer of the era, behind Diddy Kong Racing and ahead of Mario Kart 64. Yes, you read that correctly. MK64 is the most overrated game in that long running series and doesn’t hold up, but CTR is frantic, fast, and fun. The only problem is you’d pretty much need to get a second controller.

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X found a home on Sony’s console, where Zero was allowed to flourish alongside him.

Mega Man X4 – Capcom is not shy about loaning out Mega Man for compilations, and since he’s featured on both the NES Classic and SNES Classic it stands to reason he’ll appear here. The X series was the most prominent on Sony’s console, and X4 was the best of the Mega Man games released for the system which also included the underrated Mega Man 8. And yet, it doesn’t feel like the most “PlayStation” of the Mega Man games…Suggested ReplacementMega Man LegendsMega Man X4 was just released as part of a compilation of X games. It’s easy to come by. What’s less easy is Mega Man’s first foray into RPGs on the PlayStation, Mega Man Legends. I won’t argue it’s better than Mega Man X4, because it’s not. It just feels like a more appropriate release. The only thing that would change my mind is if Nintendo is already developing a Nintendo 64 Classic and intends to include the port, Mega Man 64, on its machine. If that’s the case, then stick with X4.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – The Tony Hawk series was a huge hit on Sony’s machine, and the second game was the most well-received. It was basically the first and only skateboarding sim worth playing, and I knew many people obsessed with this game that weren’t even that into skating (but the ones who were into skating were even more obsessed). There are challenges in bringing it to the PlayStation Classic, but I would bet Sony finds a way to get it done. Suggested ReplacementBushido Blade – Confession time! I never liked the Tony Hawk games. Sorry! And since there is no skateboarding sim worth replacing it with, I’ll go with the sword-fighting sim from Squaresoft. Bushido Blade was a really neat take on fighting games as it aimed for more realism. Not total realism, just more. And it primarily did that via one-hit kills. If a guy gets slashed across the gut with a sword that shouldn’t merely take away some of his health bar, it’s going to incapacitate him. As a result, fights could be really brief, but most actually turned into endurance matches. They were tense, and in order to succeed you had to get your opponent to fall for a feint or just get careless leaving them open for an attack. It’s a toss-up which version is superior, this or the sequel, but most seem to lean towards the first since it had more weapon options.

Suikoden IISuikoden II has become such a popular game long after the PlayStation era came to a close that I think it’s actually likely that Sony includes it. It’s on their web store for Vita/PS3/PSP and it was presented as a pretty big deal when it first showed up. Sony probably has a solid relationship with Konami and won’t have too much trouble bringing this one to the PlayStation Classic, but it remains possible that Sony thinks this would be too many RPGs and leaves it out. That would be a very bad move.

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Expect PaRappa to appear on the PS Classic, but don’t expect him to look this smooth.

PaRappa The Rapper – Sony’s flagship rhythm game was pretty well-received. It also helped to popularize what came to be known as cell-shaded graphics. It was recently remastered and re-released, which is why I’ve placed it at the bottom of this list. It’s possible Sony doesn’t want to eat into that at all, plus it’s going to look pretty terrible in comparison, but it’s popular enough to merit inclusion. Had it not been for that re-release I’d have pushed this into the top 10 easily. Suggested ReplacementTobal 2 – I don’t really care for PaRappa, or rhythm games in general, so for my last slot how about something exciting? The SNES Classic certainly benefitted from including the previously unavailable Star Fox 2, and if Sony wants to drum-up some similar excitement announcing Tobal 2 for a North American release would be one way to do so. I believe it was prepped for one, but abruptly cancelled as the era was winding down and the first game did not sell particularly well. As a result, some of the localization may still exist, and if it doesn’t then that might not be much of a hurdle anyway as fighting games usually don’t require much, so how about it, Sony? Give us some sizzle!

 

Well, that’s it! What do you think? Is this something you would buy? Think I pretty much nailed it or did I miss something obvious? Surely, they’ll try and get a Spyro game onto this thing, but I’m not sure at what game’s expense (alright, probably Suikoden II, but maybe Sony will do the right thing and not include The Legend of Dragoon)? The PlayStation was perhaps my most favorite system as it came around when I was most interested in gaming. I was in my early teens so I was able to obsess over gaming without the distraction of what would follow in high school. Picking just 20 games just highlights how many games have to be excluded, so let’s go out with some honorable mentions. For the most part, these are games I would definitely include on my personal PlayStation Classic, but acknowledge Sony is unlikely to do so for one reason or another:

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Oh please! Oh please! Oh please!

Xenogears, Final Fantasy IX, Chrono Cross, Tomba!, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Vagrant Story, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Mega Man 8, Mega Man X5, Rogue Trip, Street Fighter EX Plus a, Brave Fencer Musashi, Colony Wars, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Front Mission 3, Spider-Man, Alundra, WWF Smackdown 2: Know Your Role, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, IQ: Intelligent Qube


The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

81lhuCL-5kL._SX342_Here at The Nostalgia Spot, we don’t just celebrate that which is old, but also that which celebrates the old. Few modern devices apply as well as a JRPG video game. The JRPG once dominated the video game landscape in the later stages of the 16-bit era and through the 32-bit era. Following that, the western style of RPG began to dominate the RPG subgenre. Titles from the likes of Bioware and Bethesda were often praised while former titans such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest slunk to the sidelines.

Today, the JRPG is basically a niche genre though plenty of developers still support it. As you could probably guess, these developers are largely Japanese and many of the games do not make it out the far east, but a surprising amount still do. Many of them are smaller budget releases for older hardware such as the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita, which are both home to Falcom’s Trails of Cold Steel series of games.

Back in February, I reviewed the first entry in this supposed three-part epic (now four). After over 80 in-game hours and several months of play, I’m here to review the sequel. If you did not read my entry or experience the first game yourself, all you really need to know is that Trails of Cold Steel II very much carries forward the JRPG experience with a few twists and additions to the formula here and there. You control the young Rean Schwarzer, a military student, who together with his classmates has become embroiled in a civil war that really broke out at the conclusion of the first game. Rean possesses many JRPG tropes in that he’s an orphan with unexplainable powers who is genuinely kind-hearted and a natural leader. The sci-fi, steam punk, setting means guns and tanks are met on the battlefield with swords, spears, and magic. Cats talk and ships fly while everyone takes turns hitting each other. Really, if you do not like the slow pacing and gameplay style of traditional JRPGs then you will not like Trails of Cold Steel II.

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Activating an Overdrive triggers a splash screen with still images of the participating characters. Expect to see many awkward poses for the women designed for maximum titillation.

The game picks up immediately where the first one left off. I do not mean to spoil the conclusion of that game, but if you intend on experiencing these games cold then maybe skip this paragraph. At the conclusion of the first game, mech battles were introduced and Rean was separated from his allies and crash-landed in the mountainous region near his home of Ymir. Rean will have to reunite the members of Class VII, who as fugitives of the Noble Faction, have all gone into hiding. All of your equipment from the first game is gone, though you do start out at level 40 instead of 1. Rean will also have to re-form social links with his allies and earn experience for his Master Quartz, as that is sadly reduced to level 1. The only thing that really carries over if you import cleared save data from the first game is your romantic interest and a bonus item depending on what level you were at when you finished the first game. The romantic interest only contributes an extra bit of dialogue here and there as you’re free to pursue another woman should you wish. And for those of you hoping to make Rean romance once of his male companions, you unfortunately cannot.

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Battles should feel largely familiar to those who played the first game, and that is not a bad thing.

The battle system is largely the same as the first game, but there are a few twists to liven things up. The Overdrive system is new and is comprised of two meters that gradually fill up during the course of battle. It usually takes several encounters with enemies to fill both completely, but once one meter is full, two characters can participate in an Overdrive series of attacks. Activating Overdrive is done during a character’s regular turn in battle, and whomever they are linked with will be the second participant in the Overdrive. What it does is provide a bit of a recovery effect to hit points, magic points, and craft points while giving the duo the next three turns in battle, meaning whomever activates it will get two turns with the second character getting a turn sandwiched in-between. All actions during an Overdrive will lead to a critical hit, if a physical or craft maneuver is used, and in the case of a magical “Arts” attack, ignore casting time and take effect immediately. Overdrive is very useful for boss encounters, especially if you have magic users who match-up well and can unleash a triad of devastating attacks in a row. The only catch to the Overdrive function is that the ability for characters to work with one another must be unlocked via special blue trial chests hidden throughout the world. Rean is the only character who can use Overdrive with anyone right away.

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These two will become fast friends.

The other new addition comes in the form of mech battles, which were introduced at the very end of the first game. These encounters are largely scripted throughout the game, meaning you’re never able to just roam around in a mech and lay waste to your enemies. Rean is on his own in these battles, but he can utilize his allies as support characters. For the most part, the mech fights are just a simpler version of standard encounters that focus more on resource management. CP is at a premium and EP can be restored by your support character, but it will cost them a turn. Support characters also have their own Arts abilities, usually two per character, that often take on the form of one attack and one buff/debuff maneuver. You’re also very dependent on link attacks, when you land a critical blow you gain one brave point and 3 are needed for finishing moves and 5 for special unite attacks with your support character, and gaining enough brave points sometimes feels like a matter of luck. Your opponents will usually have three places on their person that can be attacked and you have to guess which is the weakest given their current stance. They’ll change stances during battle, and thus change their weak point. Hitting a weak area is the best way to score a link point, but it isn’t a guarantee. Despite this though I found the mech confrontations to be a nice change of pace and the randomness didn’t make them all that more difficult, just longer.

The rest of combat is largely the same. You’re permitted four members of your active party with often four or more in reserve. You can switch out a character with another during their turn without any sort of penalty. Characters can link with one another, and overtime their link level will increase allowing for follow-up attacks following a critical hit and other bonuses. Characters can attack either traditionally, with magic, or with crafts. Crafts are carried over from the first game, and as you level up your old crafts will be replaced with better ones. When a character has a minimum of 100 craft points, out of a maximum of 200, they can unleash devastating S-Crafts that consume all of their CP but can be activated at any moment. I found in this game I really exploited crafts more than I did in the first game, perhaps because it seems like it was easier to restore craft points quickly. I relied far less on the S-Craft moves, often only using them to finish off a boss or disrupt the flow of battle if the enemy was about to get a guaranteed critical attack or other bonus. Delay is the name of the game in Trails of Cold Steel II as it’s an affliction that can basically delay an enemy’s turn to the point where they never even land an attack. Bosses are resistant to it, but few are immune. Once you figure that out, the game becomes pretty easy though there are harder difficulty settings that I did not play on. There were still a few moments where things got tough, but for the most part I saw the Game Over screen very infrequently.

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Fie is a master of the delay technique and will likely be a mainstay in most battle parties.

The game moves at a quicker pace than its predecessor, and the environment is changing almost constantly as you no longer have the Military Academy to return to after every mission. The entire map of the fictional Erebonia is also open to you from a  very early point in the game until the end. For the most part, you’re free to pursue main objectives as well as side quests and activities at your own leisure. Usually quests come in groups with some being hidden. Ignoring the side quests and undertaking the required main quest will often cause you to forfeit attempting the side quests. At certain points you’ll also have downtime in certain locations where you’re given bonding points to spend on your allies at your own discretion. Using one leads to a scene where you will usually learn something new about your companion and ultimately earn a bunch of link experience. These points are finite on a first play through and it’s impossible to see every character’s bonding events, so don’t even try. Just spend them on the characters you like best. There are a few mini games, like fishing and snow boarding, which have their own rewards if you see them through, but are mostly just simple diversions.

The game’s story and presentation obviously needs to be interesting enough to support a roughly 80 hour campaign. As I said about the first game, the structure of the bonding events naturally lend to Persona comparisons. And, as was also the case with the first, if you’re looking for Trails of Cold Steel II to match that series in its character development and personality you will be let down. The main cast of Class VII are a bunch of milquetoast, boring, adolescents who never fail to do the right thing. They’ll give each other a pep talk and are rarely modest. If one compliments another then a compliment returned is sure to follow. They’re likable, but decidedly boring, and they’re embroiled in a conflict that has a GI Joe level of actual casualties which minimizes the story’s impact. There are some interesting twists in the story’s plot, and there at least a few NPCs who’s allegiance is cloudy for much of the game, but for the most part the game is kind of a breezy romp despite the war backdrop. Basically all of the voice actors returned from the first game, and they’re adequate though you’re sure to find some you like more than others. Some of the girls tend to have such a high pitch voice it can become grating, but that’s not atypical of anime localisations.

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In addition to the members of Class VII, you’ll also be able to make use of guest characters at certain points in the game.

The rest of the presentation is merely adequate. Being that this is a PS3/Vita game, the visuals are not all that impressive. Even judging by the standards of the hardware, they still come up short in places. Generally, the character models look good but the environments are small and bland. Most of the locales you’ll visit in this game are lifted directly from the first game with only a few exceptions. The game features what is basically a tradition for developer Falcom in that it opens with an anime intro set to some up-tempo synth metal reminiscent of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal style. It’s fun, but don’t expect to see much more in the way of anime scenes or that style of music. The rest of the soundtrack is more atmospheric and fairly basic. There’s not a ton of variety, but it has its moments.

Add it all up, and what you have in Trails of Cold Steel II is a very competent JRPG that tries to combine a lot of elements from other popular games in its genre and does so adequately, but without really mastering any. The combat is the game’s clear star as its combination of turn-based actions with strategic formations is rewarding, but perhaps leads to instances where it can be exploited too easily. The story isn’t high art, but it’s not boring and I am genuinely curious to see where the series goes with the third installment (currently in development for PS4), though I’ll continue to hope they find a way to make the characters more interesting. Trails of Cold Steel II is an easy title to recommend for JRPG enthusiasts, especially those looking for some gaming on the go with the Vita.


The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

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The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel

There was a time when the term RPG meant really only one thing, at least for kids and teens in the 90’s:  Final Fantasy. Now the term is probably more synonymous with Bethesda and Bioware games, the “western” style of RPGs, with the eastern take being some-what of an endangered species. The “JRPG” as we know it is mostly relegated to older consoles and portables. Even popular JRPG franchises like Final Fantasy have adopted a more western style of real-time combat. Others settle for takes on the MMORPG, like the Xenoblade series, which is also more of a western creation than an eastern one.

That old style is hard to come by, either because it doesn’t sell well or the perception exists that gamers today don’t want to play a game where combat is largely turn-based and the game unfolds in a mostly linear fashion. There are, of course, some exceptions as Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, a tactical RPG but a genre that still largely adheres to the same constraints as traditional JRPGs, and Atlus’ Persona series still garner a lot of attention. In the case of Persona, it’s been a long time since Persona 4 was released, but Persona 5 is finally set for release in the spring so we’ll get a good idea of how popular the JRPG can still be.

Some developers are keeping the genre alive, and Nihon Falcom is one of them. Falcom has been around almost as long as video games have been and Falcom was one of the first Japanese developers of RPG computer games. Falcom has never had much exposure in the US and if I had to guess, the developers most popular title is the Ys series. If you had a Sega CD then you may know them for Popful Mail, one of the few Sega CD titles worth playing. Falcom’s most popular franchise for a longtime in its native Japan was Dragon Slayer, which was basically on par in terms of popularity as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, for a time. The Legend of Heroes franchise splintered off from Dragon Slayer in the mid 90’s and has become a franchise all its own, and possibly Falcom’s biggest. It has slowly made its way out of Japan, first with the Trails in Sky series on Sony’s Playstation Portable. Trails of Cold Steel is the most current, and Xseed has handled the western distribution for the first two titles which have been released on both the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita.

Trails of Cold Steel was first released in Japan in September 2013. It wouldn’t see a US release until December 2015. Of course, by then the Playstation 4 was out and selling well, but apparently the game has been successful enough for Xseed to continue bringing the series to the US with Trails of Cold Steel II arriving in the summer of 2016. The third game in the series is still in development for the Playstation 4.

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Class VII from left to right:  Emma, Gaius, Fie, Laura, Rean, Alisa, Elliot, Jusis, and Machias.

My exposure to Trails of Cold Steel has been via the Playstation Vita, with some play taking place on the even less popular Playstation TV peripheral. As such, I can’t compare it to the PS3 version, but from what I’ve seen the two look similar, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the console version performs a little better in terms of frame-rate. The game, and its sequel, supports the cross-save functionality so if you wish to buy both versions you can save between the two. Trails of Cold Steel is my first exposure to the Legend of Heroes franchise, but it’s my understanding it contains same narrative homages to the Trails in the Sky games without being a direct sequel.

The game takes place in a fictional setting called Erebonia where opposing factions are quietly trying to seize political control of the region. The main conflict is between the Noble Faction, those who have ruled via birthright, and the commoners who have risen to high-ranks via political means. There’s no active war taking place at the game’s onset, but it becomes clear throughout that tensions are high. Complicating things is that a terrorist organization has shown itself whose motives are unclear at first. They seem to want to stir the pot and challenge the empire, but naturally you have to play the game to learn more.

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Class VII’s instructor, Sarah, who very much enjoys a good beer.

Caught up in all of this is Rean Schwarzer. Rean has just enlisted at Thors Military Academy, a prestigious academic institution that welcomes students from all social classes. Historically, Thors still recognizes a student’s class standing and organizes its dormitories appropriately, but Rean has learned he is to be a part of Class VII, a new experiment by the academy that is forcing nobles and commoners to work cooperatively. Rean’s class contains an eclectic mix of students, both male and female, and naturally conflicts emerge. Part of the game’s narrative is working to resolve these conflicts while advancing the storyline and building relationships. Class VII contains nine students, four boys and five girls, and the games structure unfolds in such a fashion that the player is rarely in control of more than five students at any one time, with Rean being the clear main protagonist.

The game utilizes a day structure reminiscent of the Persona series. Days unfold at a methodical pace with the player having certain tasks to complete during the day, some forced and some optional, with each day ending when the player decides to end it. Most of these are fetch quests and some are dungeon crawls. Once a month Class VII is dispatched on field studies to different parts of the continent which is when the party is split-up, shrinking the cast of main characters temporarily. Doing so allows the story to play-up inter-class conflicts while allowing the player to experiment with different party combinations in a less intimidating way. It also allows for the story to show the current state of affairs in different parts of the world which pays off later in the game. Also like Persona, Rean can establish bonds with his peers and learn more about them during what the game calls bonding events. It’s not as robust as what is found in Persona 4, or as rewarding, but it is still an effective way of developing characters.

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The battle menu. Linked characters are denoted by the beams of light on the ground and connecting their portraits. The portraits on the left indicate action order. The icons beside the portraits denote special bonuses on that action such as EP charge, healing, and so on.

The gameplay is mostly classic JRPG, but with some twists. Navigating the field is pretty traditional and comparable to Final Fantasy X. There’s no throwback overworld or anything, and most settings contain a hub town with branching areas of hostility. Enemies appear on the screen and will react to your avatar by either attacking or running. Avoiding enemies is pretty simple, but of course avoiding conflict won’t help you in the long run as you need to defeat enemies to earn experience and get stronger. Characters can attack enemies in the field, and landing a blow on an enemy’s flank will stun them allowing you to engage the enemy with an advantage. Rean is the main character, but any character in the party can be utilized to navigate the field and they all have different weapons. Certain characters, like the shotgun wielding Machias, can break parts of the environment or attack enemies from a distance. It gives the player a chance to figure out how they would prefer to navigate the world and approach enemies. I typically stuck with Rean as his wide-arcing sword slash makes it easy to flank enemies for an easy combat advantage. Certain large enemies can’t be stunned on the field, but flanking them can still impart a bonus.

Combat itself is like a hybrid of Final Fantasy X and a  tactical RPG. Characters can be moved and positioned on the battlefield which is mostly useful for taking advantage of area-based attacks and arts (the game’s version of magic). Four characters can partake in battle at any given time, with reserves able to swap in and out of the active party at any given turn. The order of attack is displayed on the screen so you know when the enemy will next attack, but the order can be influenced with delay tactics and other conventions. Characters typically can attack, use an art, use an item, run, or use a craft. Crafts are basically special attacks and abilities that utilize CP, which is accumulated primarily by attacking and taking damage. Throughout the game characters will unlock special crafts which can be triggered with 100 CP, but are more effective when triggered with 200 CP, which is a full CP gauge. These attacks are basically massive, highly damaging, maneuvers that often can help turn the tide of battle as they can be triggered at any point, allowing the player to bypass an enemy turn.

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The females seem to enjoy pointing out Emma’s bust, even though every girl “of age” is pretty well endowed in this game.

Characters can also link with other characters, and the more often a character links with another the higher their link level will rise. The main benefit of linking characters is that when one lands a critical hit the other is able to utilize a follow-up attack. As the game progresses more benefits open up, and increasing the link level between characters also opens up other benefits like one character automatically curing another after damage is taken. These link levels are not confined to just Rean and everyone else, but even between the secondary characters. The bonding events open to Rean will increase the link level faster, so naturally Rean will have a higher level with his comrades than they will with each other.

Outside of combat, characters can be equipped with character specific weapons, armor, and accessories. They also have what is called an ARCUS unit which contains slots that quartz can be equipped to. Quartz are essentially materia from Final Fantasy VII. They’ll contain elemental based arts as well as passive abilities and restorative arts. They’re elemental based, and certain slots can only take certain types of quartz. Throughout the game you will earn Sepith from enemies and treasure chests, and Sepith is used to open up more slots on each character’s ARCUS unit to equip more quartz. Each character can also equip a Master Quartz which earns experience like a character and grows throughout the game. These Master Quartz also have a greater impact on a character’s underlying stats and help influence how a character should be played, if they’re a tank, healer, etc. Naturally, characters are predisposed to certain play styles and deviating from that is probably more trouble than its worth, but it can be done.

Being that I am a big fan of both Final Fantasy X and tactical RPGs in general, I naturally find the combat mechanics of Trails of Cold Steel to be mostly excellent. If I had one major complaint it’s that the Crafts are a bit overpowered and easy to take advantage of. At the same time, I also played through the game on the normal setting and harder ones are available so my criticism is some-what empty. For the most part, the combat is addicting and enjoyable. It’s easy to get used to, but also possesses depth, and that’s all gamers really want out an RPG combat system.

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Lesbian characters are depicted as especially lustful with one of them being a downright creep who hits on young girls.

Technologically speaking, Trails of Cold Steel offers little to get excited by. It’s a PS3 game, that even by PS3 standards, is unimpressive to behold. The main characters all look good, but the settings are small and bland. The game uses an anime style that is mostly pleasing to look at, and there’s even a few instances of actual anime used to enhance the story-telling. Xseed’s localization is pretty good, with lots of veteran anime voice actors onhand to give the game a professional sound. The music is also excellent, though at times can get a little too repetitive. There were some frame-rate dips in combat, and some slowdown as well. It’s mostly cosmetic though and didn’t affect my ability to deal damage or anything.

The game’s approach to story-telling is pretty consistent. Trails of Cold Steel is often serious, but also inserts a lot of humor into the mix. Some of the humor can be fairly juvenile with there being an abundance of gay jokes, or instances of male characters being spooked by something gay. Interestingly, lesbian characters are approached in a completely different manner and are often depicted as sex-hungry perverts. These characters are also accepted by their peers, so in one sense the game is progressive, but in other respects it feels like a sixteen year old heterosexual male wrote portions of the scripts. I didn’t find any of this offensive, but at times I felt like I was older than the game’s target audience. There are also numerous jokes about breasts, especially directed at the Emma character who is depicted with a large bust even by video game standards.

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Meanwhile, the game’s lone fat girl isn’t exactly portrayed in a positive light.

The main plot unfolds very methodically and in a very linear fashion. That more than anything is probably what is most likely to turn off a modern gamer accustomed to Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. The game’s plot is a slow burn, and finding every available side quest in a given day often requires you to speak with every NPC you come in contact with, some of which won’t give up their quest on the first try. I took my time with the game, and it took over 80 in game hours for me to complete. Part of the reason why the game moves so slowly is because it is the first game in what is projected to be a trilogy so it’s possible future games in the series will unfold at a brisker pace. Of course, I won’t know for sure until I finish the sequel (which I am actively playing).

Completion of the game unlocks a new game plus, a pretty common convention in modern games. During the first play through, it’s impossible to see every bonding event in the game so completists will need at least two play-throughs. Players can also save a cleared game save to carry over into the sequel. For the most part, carrying over a save just gives some bonus items depending on Rean’s level and rank at the game’s conclusion. There’s also an opportunity to establish a more romantic relationship with the game’s female characters that also appears to carry-over. The game definitely steers the player towards one character in particular, and I took the bait figuring I would experience the story the developers most want to tell. I’m not sure if other characters take on a romantic relationship with Rean or if it’s more a friend type of thing, but it’s nice to have some variety in the gameplay experience. Since the characters are all teens, don’t expect any Bioware styled sex scenes or anything, it’s mostly puppy love.

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The Link menu makes it easy to keep track of the combat links earned throughout the game.

Playing Trails of Cold Steel often made me think of Persona 4. As I spent more time with the game I thought of that game less as ToCS has a very different tone than Persona. It definitely borrows a lot from that game in its setup, and most of the stuff it borrows it does not improve upon and kind of half-asses. That, however, is really the only main fault I found with the game. Sometimes the characters did frustrate me, as they tend to be so unfailingly nice and pure, I’d like to see an edge to at least some of them even if the main protagonist is as dull as a butter knife. There’s also a twist at the end of the game that felt rather forced and unnecessary, but I can’t say it really affected my enjoyment of the game. It also closes with some hints at what’s to come in the sequels with a positive spin on the gameplay. I do appreciate the wide scope of the game’s narrative, and it has a very ambitious feel to it. Hopefully Falcom can deliver on that front.

If you like the JRPG genre and have a Vita or PS3 handy, I do recommend Trails of Cold Steel. I do recommend with some trepidation as the series is unfinished, and there’s no promise the third game in the series will be released outside of Japan at this time. Its predecessor series, Trails in the Sky, was never concluded in the US and I’ll be disappointed if the same happens here. Though for now, I’ll enjoy what I have. Trails of Cold Steel isn’t the next big thing by any means, but it’s a game that’s done pretty well and gives hope that the JRPG is not a dying genre.


Final Fantasy XV – Platinum Demo Impressions

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Final Fantasy XV – Platinum Demo

This is going to be a rare quick one from me. Square-Enix on Wednesday night released a ton of information about its upcoming game, Final Fantasy XV, including a release date, collector’s edition stuff, and so on. Along with that was a demo release dubbed the Platinum Demo. You may be aware, but last year a more traditional demo was released for FFXV as a pre-order bonus for PS4 versions of Final Fantasy Type-0, an upscaled PSP game previously unreleased outside of Japan. I did not play that demo as I really didn’t have much interest in a PS4 version of a PSP game, but I did download this new one.

The Platinum Demo is a non-traditional demo, unlike the first demo released. Instead of being dropped into a sequence from the upcoming game, the demo has you play through a  dream sequence starring a child version of the game’s main character, Noctis. This dream sequence is not going to be included with the full-version of the game, which gives it a unique experience, but it’s also fairly traditional in the sense that it gives the player an understanding of how the game will play.

Tetsuya Nomura was the original director of Final Fantasy Versus XIII, which has since become Final Fantasy XV. Nomura is best known as the mind behind Square’s Kingdom Hearts series. As such, it should come as no surprise that elements from that series have found their way into FFXV, and yet it still does come as a shock to find that FFXV essentially is a Kingdom Hearts game. What I mean by that is that the game is a true action RPG and the feeling of just about everything gameplay-wise is Kingdom Hearts. Be it the combat, the camera, the way Noctis even jumps, it all feels like Kingdom Hearts. This is not really a good thing, in the opinion of this writer. The strength of Kingdom Hearts has always been less on the gameplay and more on the fan-service combing Disney and Square products. I’ve always found the gameplay to be adequate, and it’s improved, but it’s also always been flawed. Sora felt stiff, floaty, and the camera is just a constant battle. The series has improved since the original, but the criticism still remains. The FFXV demo has all of that, just no Mickey Mouse.

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The Platinum Demo places the player in the role of a child version of Noctis and explores some fantastic settings.

The demo itself guides you through it in a pretty tame way. Death is apparently impossible and the enemies, aside from the boss at the end, are pretty inept. A familiar friend serves as the guide for Noctis, Carbuncle, who’s appeared as a summon in multiple Final Fantasy games. He’s been redesigned only slightly, appearing as a fox/kitten hybrid that would feel right at home in a Pokemon game. I cannot deny, he’s pretty cute, and he also looks pretty believable. Easily the demo’s strongest point is the presentation, as the game looks great. There are a few moments of self-indulgence that serve it well, though also a couple of hiccup moments where the frame-rate seems to chug. We’ll have to wait and see how the main game holds up. Supposedly completing the game will allow Carbuncle to be used in the main game so there’s incentive to not only finish the demo, but keep it installed on your PS4/Xbox One.

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A familiar foe is waiting at the end.

The demo is fairly linear, though it does give the player some time to just mess around. It offers a few locations, one of which sees Noctis miniaturized in a home which is quite a bit of fun to explore. There’s also some “plates” on the floor that serve as triggers. Most of these speed up time to show-off the day/night cycle and some give Noctis a new weapon to try out. A select few transform Noctis into either a car, crocodile-like monster, or a deer-like monster. They’re kind of neat, and I have no idea (aside from the car) if these transformations are indicative of anything in the main game, but they’re a fun diversion here. The final boss encounter of the demo seems to be the only moment where the combat is opened up a bit and we get a better idea of how the game will eventually play out. Like Kingdom Hearts 3D, Noctis is able to warp around the battlefield and utilize attacks from advantageous positions. These attacks consume MP, which is constantly regenerating, and seem like they’ll be necessary components of future battles in the game. The game presents button prompts for counters and attacks, which I assume is part of the learning process. I didn’t feel like I got a good grasp of what was going on, and there’s definitely going to be a learning curve to combat even though it’s fairly simple at its base.

The Platinum Demo for Final Fantasy XV left me unconvinced. Immediately when it ends the demo asks if you would like to pre-order the full game and I did not have to think long about how to answer that. I’m still holding out hope that the full game will turn out well, but I’m struggling to understand the creative direction of this title. I know it started off as a spin-off, and the decision to make it the next proper title in the series was probably more of a financial decision than anything, but the game just feels unnecessary. It’s way too similar to Kingdom Hearts right now. Fans of that series who have thought to themselves “I really want Final Fantasy to play more like this” should be happy. Others will probably just wonder what happened to one of gaming’s most iconic franchises. Final Fantasy has a real identity crisis on its hands. I don’t know where the series needs to go, but I feel like this isn’t the best destination for it.


Suikoden II

Suikoden II (1998) Suikoden II (1998)

In the early part of the 1990’s, there were basically two companies known for producing Japanese Role-Playing Games: Squaresoft and Enix. Square, as the legend goes, was rescued by the success of a last ditch effort for relevancy in the form of Final Fantasy for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Prior to that, Enix had already staked its claim to RPG supremacy with its hit Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the US). During the 16 bit era, Square would come to surpass Enix as the premier publisher for the genre, as not only were Final Fantasy’s many sequels hits, but so was seemingly everything else Square etched its name on. These two companies were not the only ones exploring the JRPG genre. When someone strikes gold with an idea a legion of copycats arise. Capcom would enlist Square’s help with localizing its own take on the genre with Breath of Fire. Capcom has since dabbled with the genre here and there without ever becoming a true power. One of the other main Japanese game developers was Konami. Back on the NES, Capcom and Konami were arguably the two most popular so it made sense for Konami to toss its hat into the JRPG ring and it did so with the Suikoden series.

Suikoden debuted on the Playstation in 1995, but the series truly arrived with its sequel in 1998 simply titled Suikoden II. Suikoden did not break the mold in terms of what it brought to the genre. Rather than trying to be something entirely different from the established franchises at the time, it opted to be a jack of all trades. Turn-based battles entered into via random map encounters paired with large, map-based tactical confrontations more commonly found in a series like Fire Emblem. Suikoden’s approach to variety is part of what made it a success, but also contributing to that success was its massive stable of characters and high stakes.

Suikoden II reserves its best character models for its boss encounters. Suikoden II reserves its best character models for its boss encounters.

When the Playstation was in vogue, I was an early adopter. I wore out my Playstation which conveniently ceased to function just a month before the launch of the Playstation 2. During my time spent with the Playstation I played a ton of RPGs, but none of the Suikoden games. For years, I’ve often heard from friends and relatives that I should seek out and play Suikoden II, if nothing else, but the game fetches obscenely high prices on resale markets and I was just never willing to pull the trigger (or borrow such an important game from a friend). Finally, Sony and Konami were able to make the game available this past June on the Playstation Network, and I’ve been playing it on my Vita ever since. It is kind of a shame that I did miss out on this one back in 1999 (when the US version was released) because I would have really enjoyed it then. However, that didn’t prevent me from enjoying it now.

Suikoden II is not unlike many games in the genre in terms of pacing and structure. As the player, you control a nameless, voiceless, shell of a character who seems unimportant at the game’s start but soon is arguably the most important person in the world. The main character and his best friend, Jowy, are soldiers in a youth brigade that soon is attacked from outside, and within, and disbanded. War has broken out across the land as the most powerful, ruling family is not just seeking to bring everyone else to knee but seeks total chaos and destruction of the world. The main antagonist, Luca Blight, is a villain so evil he’s boring, but like many games in the genre, he’s only the main villain for so long as another emerges from the shadows and the stakes get higher. Throughout the hero’s adventure he’ll encounter over 100 recruitable allies. Each character has his or her own reasons for joining the resistance against Blight’s tyranny and the player is free to mix and match parties of six almost at will throughout the entirety of the game. Travel takes place on a world map and the player can enter and exit towns and dungeons as they are found. If you’ve played any other JRPG from this era then it should feel pretty familiar.

At times, the player will be tasked with completing more tactical battles. At times, the player will be tasked with completing more tactical battles.

Battles are also pretty straight-forward. Enemies, aside from boss fights, are encountered randomly when on the world map and in dungeons. Battles are turn-based with the heroes and enemies having their order of attack determined by an individual speed score. There’s no active component to the fights as the player simply tells each character what to do and watches the round unfold. If both sides survive, then another round commences. Where Suikoden separates itself is by having battles be, up to, two groups of six. When assembling a party, the player is expected to pay attention to each character’s range:  short, medium, or long. Short range characters have to be placed in the first row and can only attack the opponent’s first row. Medium range characters can attack from either row, but can only attack the opponent’s first row. Long range characters can attack any enemy from the back row. By forcing the player to go with a 2×3 formation, the player is forced to mix-in medium and long range characters which is important because the short range ones usually pack the most punch when it comes to attack power. In addition to standard attacks, characters can also make use of runes, which once equipped to a character or weapon, grant the character magical abilities. Some of these, such as the ability to heal between rounds, are passive while others are actual attacks or defensive spells. Rather than have a collection of mana or magic points, characters simply can only cast a certain amount of spells in between rest stops (such as sleeping at an inn). Early in the game, a character may have access to three level one spells and a single level two spells, but by the end of the game that same character will likely have access to level five spells as well. Characters more proficient with magic can equip more runes with the best able to equip one on each hand plus one on their head and weapon. And not all runes are equipable on all characters. This helps make each character feel unique not just among the other 107, but even from one play-through to the next. Lastly, borrowing a page from Chrono Trigger, certain characters can be paired with other characters for Unite attacks. These are kind of a secret in the game, but they’re also logical in terms of the pairings. Experimentation is encouraged.

Suikoden II's most memorable attribute is undoubtedly its large roster of characters. Suikoden II’s most memorable attribute is undoubtedly its large roster of characters.

Occurring at set points during the games are the tactical battles. As mentioned before, these battles very much imitate Nintendo’s Fire Emblem as characters are moved around on a grid and engage in combat that has a bit more of a random feel to it but is also more strategic. Very rarely is the player able to simply overwhelm the opponent necessitating a more thoughtful approach. Death in this scenario also has the possibility of being permanent making the stakes much higher. Even so, most of these encounters are fairly easy and few actually require the player to completely vanquish the opposition. Ranged attackers can often be leveraged to dish out most of the damage against non-ranged enemies with the short-range attackers being called upon to clean up the mess. As a result, Suikoden II’s approach to these tactical battles feels kind of half-assed but they are still a nice change of pace when they occur.

Graphically, Suikoden II comes up short when compared with most of its peers. The game makes use of sprites as opposed to 3D models with very limited use of CG effects. Some of the larger enemies are attractive, but they also seem to tax the system and slowdown is a frequent problem. The original game is said to be buggy at times as well, though I never encountered any playing on the Vita. The simple visuals have kept the game from aging horribly, as some titles from that era have, but it is kind of disappointing that a late era Playstation title wasn’t given a bit more love from its developers. The soundtrack is quite good though, with the game often reserving its best pieces for its biggest moments. This comes at the expense of the more mundane moments and I did find myself getting sick of the world map theme after 40 hours or so.

Where Suikoden II really separates itself from its peers is with its tone. The story is handled in a very serious manner. As I mentioned earlier, Luca Blight is kind of a silly villain but once he’s out of the way the main confrontation becomes far more interesting. The game does suffer a bit from its rigid approach to story-telling, but that was pretty common for the era with more open-ended plots a recent phenomena. I found myself often disagreeing with the choices the game had my character making but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the storyline for what it was. I also enjoyed watching the hero’s castle, acquired maybe a quarter of the way into the game, improve as the game went along. I also really appreciated the fact that there were not many missable characters or items, as if you want to see the game’s best ending, you need to recruit all 107 characters. I also appreciate that the game made some attempt at giving each character a backstory, and it’s also pretty easy to bring an under-leveled character into the main party and get them up to speed quickly. This is something a game like Chrono Cross should have tried to emulate.

In short, gameplay-wise, Suikoden II is not terribly unique when compared with other games from the Playstation era, but that’s not a bad thing. What’s there works and it’s a fun game to play. Sure, random encounters can get annoying (and they’re really bad during the final dungeon) but anyone who grew up with these games should be able to deal with it. The variety of the characters helps keep the game fresh even on multiple play-throughs. I may have missed out back in 1999 when this game first arrived on US soil, but I’m glad to have experienced it now in 2015. And if you’re in the same boat as me, playing it on the Vita is a nice way to experience the game on the go. If only Suikoden III was playable on Vita then I’d have something to play tomorrow when I’m riding the train to work.


Final Fantasy X-2 HD Remaster

Final Fantasy X-2 HD Remaster (2014)

Final Fantasy X-2 HD Remaster (2014)

It was way back in July that I posted about the remastered Final Fantasy X which was released in March on both the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita. It is now the end of January and I’m just getting around to talking about the companion game with that release:  Final Fantasy X-2. It’s not because I’m lazy, though I have neglected this blog some during that timeframe, but because I actually just recently finished Final Fantasy X-2 even though it was the only game I played on my Vita in that span of time. I didn’t split time between my Vita and 3DS, I actually haven’t touched that system in nearly a year, it’s that I just had enough content to keep myself busy. Now, my handheld gaming is basically confined to my work commute, which became a 3 day commute over the summer thanks to the wonders of telecommuting. Those three days total about 4 hours of gaming per week so maybe it’s not that crazy a game could last me nearly six months but it is pretty cool that between March 2014 and January 2015 I only played one release on my Vita and was perfectly satisfied. That’s getting the most out of forty dollars.

Final Fantasy X-2 has the distinction of being the first true sequel for the Final Fantasy franchise. That seems crazy considering this is an ongoing series stretching back to the late 1980’s, but every longtime fan knows that all of the Final Fantasy games were self-contained games with only thematic and gameplay similarities making them all one franchise. The characters, settings, plots were all different. While some were certainly similar in setting, especially the first five games, they all differentiated themselves quite distinctly. There have been some mega-popular games in the series and ones that fans probably wanted a sequel to more than Final Fantasy X, but be it for creative reasons or economic ones, it was Final Fantasy X that received the first sequel. Final Fantasy X ended on a pretty final note. There certainly were questions about what the characters would do following the events of that game, but not really more than any other title. It wasn’t exactly an “everyone lived happily ever after” ending, but it was far from being a cliffhanger. The direction of the sequel wasn’t obvious, but Square-Enix rightly chose which character to center the sequel around.

The main cast (left to right): Rikku, Yuna, Paine.

The main cast (left to right): Rikku, Yuna, Paine.

Yuna was the pseudo-protagonist of Final Fantasy X. While the main character, Tidus, often reminded the player that this was his story, it would be more appropriate to say it was their story when referencing both Tidus and Yuna. For much of the game, Yuna was Sherlock Holmes to Tidus’ Watson and we were experiencing her journey as a summoner through the eyes of a different character. In Final Fantasy X, Yuna was reserved, somewhat shy, and lacking in confidence. She grew throughout her journey, but the events at the end would lead one to wonder just how she would adjust to her new life. Final Fantasy X-2 picks up two years after the first game’s conclusion and we find a Yuna bursting with energy and a sense of adventure. Together with Final Fantasy X hold-over (and her cousin) Rikku, plus new-comer Paine, she travels Spira in search of lost spheres which are essentially records of Spira’s past. There’s a market for such spheres as Spira comes to grips with the loss of its center, the Yevon religion, which was exposed as fraudulent during the events of Final Fantasy X.

When Final Fantasy X-2 was originally unveiled, the thing most gamers and press seemed to key in on were the three main characters:  Yuna, Rikku, and Paine. It might not be obvious based on their names, but all three characters are female. And all three were the only playable characters (sort of, more on that later) in the game. This was pretty significant for the time as Final Fantasy had never really had a female lead, let alone an all female party. It was a pretty bold move, especially in the West where the video game fanbase is almost exclusively male. Not surprisingly, there was some backlash and amongst my friends I came upon those who had no interest in playing a “girl” or “gay” game (we were in high school and certainly still growing up). It didn’t help things that the game essentially opens up with the characters attending a J-Pop concert where Yuna is the apparent performer. The game makes the declaration that it isn’t going to shy away from the fact that the main characters are women. They could have portrayed them in a masculine or more subtle way but chose not to. The only thing I would criticize the game designers for is the overly sexualized nature of the characters. Some of the battle attire the girls where is just not at all practical and pretty ridiculous.

If you're going into battle against knives, guns, and who knows what else, this doesn't seem like the best choice of attire.

If you’re going into battle against knives, guns, and who knows what else, this doesn’t seem like the best choice of attire.

Because of some of the design choices, the game alienated people from the start and it has often felt like an overlooked title in the Final Fantasy series. I played the Playstation 2 version and enjoyed some aspects of it while I didn’t others. At the time, I think I was suffering from some RPG fatigue because I remember the game being a slog for me. I finished it, but it was sort of a joyless experience. I wasn’t thrilled to play the HD version as a result, but fortunately for me I enjoyed the game a lot more the second time around.

The foundation of the game is fundamentally solid. It’s essentially Final Fantasy V complete with the return of the Active-Time Battle System and the job class system, with some tweaks. The job system is now known as the dress sphere system, but it works the same. Characters are free to choose between any dress sphere which includes staples such as the warrior, white mage, black mage, thief, and so on along with a few unique to the game. The major twist for X-2 is that characters can switch between dress spheres during battle, providing they equipped them to their character’s Garment Grid. The Garment Grid is like a mini Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X that features open nodes that can be equipped with any dress sphere. The character can move from one node to another during one turn in battle, but must move to adjacent nodes. The grids also bestow other special abilities like certain spells or stat buffs. It’s pretty customizable and a lot of fun to mix and match dress spheres among the three characters. Each girl is obviously better suited for certain spheres, Rikku is the speed character while Paine is the strongest attacker, but all three girls can make any dress sphere work. The lone weakness of the system is that some dress spheres are far superior to others, which lessens the enjoyment of mixing things up, but I found it pretty addicting to keep mastering different dress spheres by unlocking all of their abilities.

The rest of the game functions a little different from traditional Final Fantasy titles as well by going with a mission based approach. The game is separated into five chapters with each one containing a few story-line based missions that must be completed. The rest are ancillary but strongly encouraged. Just plowing through the game, I suspect someone could beat it in around twenty hours but it wouldn’t be as much fun. There are plenty of dull missions but most add something either in the form of humor or challenge. Particularly at the end of the game, there are several challenging missions that will definitely consume a lot of time. Completing tasks contribute to the completion percentage of the game, with the obvious goal being to achieve 100% and getting the “best” ending. It’s possible to do so on the first play-through, but there’s a lot of junk you would never hit on without a guide. Silly things like talking to certain characters in a specific order can ruin your shot at 100%. It can be frustrating to be forty hours into the game and find out you have no shot at 100% on one play through, but that’s what Square-Enix was going for as they wanted gamers to play the game a second time as your completion percentage will carry over.

The J-Pop stuff is pretty silly, but it is by no means a game-breaker if it's not your cup of tea.

The J-Pop stuff is pretty silly, but it is by no means a game-breaker if it’s not your cup of tea.

Thematically, Final Fantasy X-2 is a much lighter experience compared with its predecessor. Final Fantasy X wasn’t exactly a melodrama, but it had some weightier tones. X-2 somewhat embodies that J-Pop intro in that it’s mostly a game featuring three women having the time of their lives. There is some tragedy to the story, especially in the wake of the events of Final Fantasy X, but it’s mostly a fun experience. The music, even with a couple of J-Pop tracks I could do without, is quite good and on par with the rest of the franchise. Changes made going from the PS2 original and the HD version are minimal from a visual standpoint, but the game received additional content not previously available to western audiences. There are two new dress spheres, one of which is actually very useful, and a new monster capturing mechanic that actually expands the playable battle party. It wasn’t something I took advantage of, but it’s cool for those who want it.

The major addition to the game is the inclusion of The Last Mission scenario. The Last Mission takes place after the events of the main game and sees Yuna, Rikku, and Paine reunite for one final mission. It’s almost a completely different game as it’s basically a rogue-like, dungeon-crawler instead of a typical JRPG like the main game. I personally found it to be a real drag, and getting through it for the additional storyline content was not an enjoyable experience for me. The storyline was also pretty trivial and the lesson in it felt forced like it was coming from a completely different voice than from those behind X-2’s plot. I would suggest that if you do not enjoy the gameplay, as I did, then save yourself the time and just watch the cut scenes from it on youtube. They’re everywhere.

The Last Mission is a very different experience and one I didn't care for, but maybe I'm in the minority.

The Last Mission is a very different experience and one I didn’t care for, but maybe I’m in the minority.

The last piece of new content is the Bonus Audio which is being referred to as an audio drama on the internet. It’s basically a story that takes place after X-2 and centers on a new character (if you do not want spoilers, then skip ahead to the next paragraph). The new character is actually the daughter of Auron, and she wants to meet up with those who knew her father. To make a long-story short, the end result is that Yuna is once more a summoner for a Yevon-like organization, Sin returns, and she and Tidus break-up over some really silly stuff. I know some people did not like that Tidus died, or ceased to exist, at the conclusion of Final Fantasy X and the perfect ending of X-2 basically remedies this. I was fine and happy with how FFX concluded, not because I hated Tidus, but because I respected the story it told. I actually wish they never brought him back since I prefer death be treated as permanent in pretty much any story I experience. To bring him back though and then have Yuna break-up with him over some silly insecurities such as the ones presented in the audio drama just seemed like bad story-telling. I do not know if this audio was meant to be a spring-board for a Final Fantasy X-3, I doubt Square-Enix has any interest in going back to Spira, but if it was I hope they soundly rejected it. Listen to it only if you’re absolutely curious because the story sucks, to put it bluntly.

Final Fantasy X-2 is a perfectly acceptable Final Fantasy title, and a damn good game. I do not think it is better than Final Fantasy X and it’s not in my top five Final Fantasy titles, but it’s probably right in the middle somewhere. If you’re like me and either felt you short-changed it back when it was originally released or ignored it all together, I would suggest giving it another go. If you didn’t like Final Fantasy X then don’t bother, but if you loved Final Fantasy III and V because of the job system then maybe you should take a look regardless of your thoughts on Final Fantasy X. It’s a fun game and it stands out among other Final Fantasy titles, and given how many there are, that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.


Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Final-Fantasy-X-X-2-HD-Remaster-1Over the years I’ve talked a lot about Final Fantasy but I’ve never posted a game review for any of the numeric titles in the long-running series. Well that ends today as I post my thoughts on the somewhat recently released Final Fantasy X HD Remaster.

One opinion I have stated on more than one occasion here is my affinity for Final Fantasy X, the Playstation 2 RPG released back in 2001. I consider X the last great Final Fantasy game to be released while some want to lump it in with the lesser received post Final Fantasy VII games. Some of these games have been a bit underwhelming while some of the criticism is likely born from the series’ rise in popularity. Prior to VII, Final Fantasy was a niche title with a small but devoted following. Once a bandwagon becomes crowded, the older fans tend to shun the new ones. It happens all of the time within the music industry and video games are no stranger to it as well. Final Fantasy X though took what made the series so great and made some noteworthy improvements to the tried-and-true formula. It took chances too, by eliminating the world map and adding spoken dialogue for the first time in the series. The game was a commercial and critical success even if it’s not often cited as one of the best Final Fantasy games in the series. And since it’s a PS2 game, upgrading the visuals to high definition and re-releasing it makes sense and the world is better for it!

A composite shot featuring the original game merged with the HD version.

A composite shot featuring the original game merged with the HD version.

For those who missed out when the game debuted over ten years ago, Final Fantasy X is a pretty familiar experience for those who played any of the nine previous titles in the series. Players maneuver a character amongst towns, dungeons, and open areas to get from one place to another. Players can interact and speak with other characters while non-interactive moments move the story along. In battle, characters take turns attacking, stealing, casting spells, or defending in an effort to win the fight. A menu screen is used to outfit characters with weapons and armor to boost their stats and make them more formidable foes or to tailor their character for a certain approach. Where X departed from past games was with just about everything else. Some changes, like the new Conditional Turn-Based Battle, are subtle but different enough to leave an impression. In many of the previous games, each character had a meter that would fill gradually during battle before an action could be taken. This was dubbed the Active Time Battle System by developer Squaresoft. The Conditional Turn-Based Battle creates a list of both enemies and player characters determining the order of battle. The list can be altered by certain spells, actions, and effects but overall it creates a more tactical experience, which is enhanced further with the ability to swap characters in and out of battle on the fly. The removal of the world map was a change that felt big at the time but played much smaller. Removing the world map just meant that each area of the game world was integrated seamlessly with one another. The world map had really only existed in prior games as a technological limitation or as a trick to make the game feel bigger than it is. When it was first announced that Final Fantasy X would not include a world map scenario it seemed scary, almost unthinkable, but it ended up being a change for the better.

The main cast.

The main cast.

A much bigger change for Final Fantasy X’s gameplay is the Sphere Grid. Just about every Final Fantasy game has its own unique way of evolving the characters throughout the game to make them better suited for combat. In the original game it was all based on experience points and each character had its own special class be it warrior or black mage. Final Fantasy III and V both made use of what was termed the Job System where the player was free to assign a character’s class making it possible to have a party of all black mages if one so desired. Other additions over the years were the Espers in Final Fantasy VI which allowed characters to learn spells and abilities while being paired with a unique creature, VII had the materia system which was dependent on amassing a bunch of materia and weapons with ample space to use it, and so on. Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid was perhaps the most radical departure from the other games. Characters no longer earned experience points, something that was common to all prior Final Fantasy games, and instead earn sphere points. Once a character gains enough sphere points, he gains a sphere level. One sphere level can then be spent to move the character one space on the Sphere Grid. The grid itself is outfitted with several nodes that can be activated with special spheres collected during battle. These nodes can have anything from a point of strength to a spell like Flare. All character evolution takes place on the Sphere Grid. It’s the only way to improve a character’s base stats, like strength, defense, magic, and so on, as well as hit points and abilities. No spells or special moves need to be acquired by beating a special boss or finding it as a prize in some mini game, it’s all right there on the Sphere Grid for you to see from the start. Of course, acquiring a spell like Ultima is going to take lots of time and many sphere levels to get there, but you’re free to plot your own course. The Sphere Grid in the original game starts each character in their own section, and while you’re free to do with them as you please, the game clearly intends for Lulu to be a black mage, Rikku a thief, and so on.

It may not be PS3 quality, but the game is far from an eyesore.

It may not be PS3 quality, but the game is far from an eyesore.

For the international edition of Final Fantasy X, some additional content was added and this HD remaster includes all of it. The Sphere Grid from the original game is present, but if you wish, you can opt to use the expert grid. This grid starts every character right in the center freeing them up to pursue whatever abilities they wish. In general, a balanced attack is preferred and most anybody who plays this game is going to take a character like Lulu down the black mage path, but I found there was more opportunity to diversify with this version of the grid than before. I was able to have Yuna, the summoner/white mage of the group, bounce between the white and black mage paths giving her some punch in battle she didn’t have when I played the game for the first time. Khimari, the blue mage of the original game, was basically my version of the red mage from III and V as I was able to grant him white and black magic while keeping his base stats high enough to make him a suitable physical attacker early on. Like the red mage of prior games, he would eventually outgrow his usefulness but for the early part of the game he was a frequent contributor.

Another big change for X was with the summons. Squaresoft seemed to always be searching for a way to make the summon magic more interactive. Once VII arrived with the Playstation it meant the summons could be more of a spectacle as full-motion video sequences captured the awesome power of Bahamut and did so with gusto. For X, Square opted to let the players control the summoned beasts, dubbed aeons, directly. They’re fully integrated into the plot of the game and only Yuna can summon one at a time. When she does, the rest of the party vacates the battlefield and the aeon takes over. Their overdrive meter fills rapidly (X’s version of the limit break) and once full they can unleash the mega attacks we’re used to seeing. Outside of battle, a special item allows the player to improve the base stats of the aeons or even teach them new spells and abilities. They’re limited in their usefulness, but at the very least they make good cannon fodder against enemies that have devastating special attacks as once an aeon dies in battle they’re just replaced by the battle party.

My journey through Spira was much as I remembered it. The HD upscaling is welcome though it does not disguise the fact that this is a PS2 game. SquareEnix apparently re-did the faces of Tidus and Yuna to make them more expressive but they’re still a little wooden by today’s standards. The game is only noticeably better looking when compared directly with the PS2 game. Otherwise, it’s bright and colorful setting is still mostly pleasing to the eye. The game really only shows its age with the limited animations. There’s a sequence where the characters ride snow mobiles and it’s painfully obvious that the game could not handle animated hair, aside from a ponytail or something, so Tidus’ hairstyle remains frozen in place while he zips along. You’ll also see the same character models used over and over among non-player characters and enemies. The audio is quite nice though and the game’s musical score is fitting for a Final Fantasy title. The voice acting was somewhat maligned the first time around, but I found no obvious faults with it then or now. The poor lip-syncing is still an issue and can be distracting, though I found it never took me out of a scene completely.

The game's stoyline has room for cheer and also for more emotionally weighty moments.

The game’s stoyline has room for cheer and also for more emotionally weighty moments.

Final Fantasy X HD was released for the PS3 and the Vita with the two platforms supporting cross-save functionality but not cross-buy. As such, I only purchased the game for the Vita, and it’s been a great experience taking Final Fantasy X on the go. The load times have been the only detraction. I do not know what the situation is like on the PS3, but on the Vita there’s a delay of a couple seconds going from the field to the menu as well as when going from one screen to another. It took some getting used to and I still don’t understand why the Vita’s load times aren’t better considering the medium is flash-based. I got used to the load times, but it’s still annoying. There’s also no soft reset function that I could find which stinks because there are multiple screens to navigate just to get to the game. One area of the game that wasn’t as good as I remembered was Blitz Ball, the underwater sport that’s a popular mini game. It’s still fun, but it’s so painfully easy and you have to play hours of it to acquire some special items for Wakka. They’re totally optional, but who is going to pass on getting Wakka’s best weapon?

Other than the new Sphere Grid, the other additions of the international version of the game are less impactful but still welcome. The most obvious is the addition of the Dark Aeons, optional boss battles that spring up very late in the game. These represent a new challenge for veteran players. Defeating them is purely for pride as there’s nothing of importance gained from toppling them. Beating all of them will likely mean maxing out the base stats of most of the characters in your party, which means lots and lots of level grinding. I had every intention of beating them, which is one reason why this post took nearly three months for me to get to, but eventually I just got too bored. I beat some of the easiest ones, one of which I had to beat to regain access to one of the game’s towns, but never attempted the toughest. There’s really not that much strategy to beating them, it’s more an investment of time crafting armor and weapons that best suit the confrontation, but it’s cool that it’s there. Another addition is the Eternal Calm, which is basically an epilogue. It’s a fifteen minute movie meant to serve as the bridge between this game and its direct sequel, but it’s pretty unnecessary. I watched it once, and I’ll probably never watch it again, as the early parts of Final Fantasy X-2 do a good enough job of bridging the two games.

Plot-wise, I enjoyed Final Fantasy X just as much this time around as I did in 2001. It’s likable cast of characters are charming and portrayed well. The game actually feels pretty quick even though it will take most players 40 hours to beat the main plot (defeating all of the optional bosses will likely take over 100) and I attribute that to the game’s exceptional pacing. I very much enjoy the fact that the game has its own distinct look. It’s not a medieval or steam punk setting but more of an asian one with a lot of subtropical climates as well. I find it kind of funny that this was the first Final Fantasy game to have asian-looking characters considering they were all made in Japan, as opposed to a european look. Mostly, this is just a really well-executed Final Fantasy title and I had a great time with it. And since it comes bundled with a copy of Final Fantasy X-2, my adventure in Spira is not over yet. Look for a post on that game in another two to three months.


Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Zelda II:  The Adventure of Link (1987)

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987)

What?  Three Zelda entries in a row?!  I guess I’m on a roll.  This one should come as no surprise though, since I mentioned I just finished up playing the original Legend of Zelda on my 3DS, and what’s a more logical next step?  Why, Zelda II of course!  I received a free copy of Zelda II along with the original (and several others) as part of the 3DS Ambassador program that was launched by Nintendo in 2011.  I mostly have kept myself busy during my daily commute to and from work with retail 3DS games.  I’ve also spent time with my Vita (what’s that?) so I haven’t had much reason to play those free games Nintendo bestowed upon me.  I currently don’t have any unfinished 3DS games though so it made sense to finally start digging thru these titles, especially since Nintendo has updated them since they were released to include that ever so lovely save state feature made famous by illegal emulators in the late 1990’s.

The Legend of Zelda is an unquestioned classic.  It is beloved.  People today who pick it up having never experienced it might not quite get it, but anyone willing to invest the time will be able to at least appreciate the game for what it is and what it means to the franchise as a whole.  Zelda II, on the other hand, is often regarded as the worst entry in the series (developed by Nintendo) and is sometimes the target of much hate from the Zelda faithful.  It’s the black sheep of the franchise, the Jan Brady of Zelda games, because it’s so different from other games in the series and no one loves it.  That’s somewhat of an embellishment as the game does have its share of fans (or as some like to call them, apologists) but you would be hard pressed to find someone willing to argue it’s among the elite.

In theory, there actually isn’t a whole lot different about Zelda II when compared with its predecessor.  The player still controls the hero Link as he journeys across Hyrule collecting items to help him in his quest to recover the Triforce of Courage.  The music still kicks ass.  Link will encounter some familiar enemies like keese, stalfos, and moblins as they seek to avenge the defeat of their master Ganon, whom Link bested in the original game.  Where things change though, is in how the player interacts with Hyrule this time around.

No longer do gamers have to stare down at the top of Link's head.

No longer do gamers have to stare down at the top of Link’s head.

In the original Legend of Zelda, Link was viewed from a top-down perspective; kind of like over-looking a chess board.  For a Nintendo game the map was pretty large and the enemies would come onto the screen and Link could run up and stab them or take them down from a distance either with his sword or other means.  In Zelda II, the player controls Link from a more traditional side-scrolling perspective.  He plays more like a Belmont than a Mario, but he’s a pretty solid jumper considering this is his first go-around at platform action.  He still attacks with his sword and can block certain attacks with his shield.  When his health is full he can shoot little beams out of his sword which can damage some enemies.  It’s kind of surprising that fans seemed to be so put off by this change in perspective given that this was only the second game in the series.  It’s not as if it was much of an established property at this point.

Switching to a side-scrolling style of gameplay was just the beginning.  The RPG was just starting to gain momentum in the gaming world and Nintendo saw Zelda II as an opportunity to introduce some RPG elements into one of their games.  Link no longer travels the world in search of heart containers to increase his health (though there are still a few) or relies on getting a better sword to increase his damage output.  Instead he gains experience points for defeating enemies and at certain intervals he’s able to level-up one of three attributes:  Life, Magic, and Attack.  Life should be thought of more as defense as it doesn’t increase Link’s health meter, just reduces how much damage he takes.  Magic more clearly is tied to actual magic points, but upgrading the stat doesn’t visually impact the magic meter.  Attack is rather self-explanatory and increases how much damage Link can inflict with a single sword swipe.  There are a limited amount of magic containers and health containers that permanently increase each attribute respectively, but there’s no master sword for Link to find.  There’s also a world map which is similar to one from a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game.  When Link is roaming the world map enemies can appear on screen and attack him, which bring the player to a side-scrolling area to face off with some monsters, or run away.

Link can converse with the townsfolk, some of whom will help him out by refilling his life or magic.

Link can converse with the townsfolk, some of whom will help him out by refilling his life or magic.

The magic itself is also something that’s new.  Link is able to travel to towns now and interact with the locals, most of which have nothing of interest to share with the hero.  Hidden in each one though is a wizardly looking character who can teach Link a magic spell.  Link will come to rely on these throughout the game, some more than others.  Some examples are a shield spell that reduces the damage Link receives from enemies, and a jump spell that lets him jump higher.  All spells, except for the life spell which restores some of Link’s health, last for one screen.  The more powerful spells, naturally, consume more magic than others.  Interestingly, enemies no longer drop rupees or hearts (there’s no need for currency in this Hyrule) but will drop magic potions from time to time making magic one of the few ways Link can restore his health.  The game also has an extra life system, like most games, which perhaps makes up for the lack of restorative items.  There is still the occasional fairy hiding in a dungeon or roaming the world map that can fully restore Link’s health, but that’s it.

This approach is one reason why Zelda II is often regarded as the hardest game in the series.  That’s just one contributing factor to the difficulty though.  The main contributor early on is simply in how the game plays.  It takes some getting used to because Link is armed with perhaps the world’s worst sword.  The thing is tiny and Link’s attack range, simply put, blows.  In order to attack, Link needs to get in pretty close.  Having full health and the beam attack can be useful, but the beam doesn’t travel very far and most of the enemies in the game are immune to it anyways.  Most gamers will adapt though and eventually the game becomes easier.  Link even learns some additional moves, the downward thrust and upward thrust, which help to open things up.  Just when you’re starting to feel like you have this game figured out though it takes it to another level.  The first couple of dungeons (palaces, actually) are pretty straight-forward.  The game gets much harder around palace 3 or so.  Older enemies get stronger, and new, more powerful ones are introduced.  Most will come to loathe the blue knucklehead, an armored knight who throws knives and has a tendency to want to back away from Link making it hard to get in close.  And just when you’re getting used to taking them out, a bigger lizard like one will take it’s place or a jumping bird one that’s truly a pain in the ass.  Link also suffers from that same affliction that has killed many a Belmont in that he gets pushed backwards if struck by an enemy.  The game exploits this by filling the air with flying skulls and flaming eyeballs to get in Link’s face while he’s trying to jump across some laval pools.  The game will utilize pretty much every cheap trick in the book to try and kill you.  The player can continue as many times as he or she likes but doing so brings Link back to the beginning of the game and takes away his current experience points, which is really annoying if you’re deep into a palace or nearing a level-up.  The only aspect of the game that isn’t very challenging are the boss encounters.  It’s actually strange for that to be but most of the bosses in this game just aren’t any harder than the regular enemies.  I’d be hard-pressed to even name which one was the hardest since none of them are all that difficult to conquer, so long as you know what you’re doing.

Some of the boss fights are pretty lame.

Some of the boss fights are pretty lame.

The game plays differently, and is definitely harder than the first game in the series, but there are other areas where the game seems to invite criticism.  Just like the original Zelda, Zelda II has the hero traversing dungeons and finding new items that help Link to advance further in the game.  In the original Legend of Zelda, many of these items had multiple uses like the bow or the boomerang.  In Zelda II, many end up being single use items that have no impact on the gameplay.  There were some duds in the fist game like the raft and ladder, but just about every item in Zelda II is like the raft (which makes a return!) and essentially does nothing.  The magic spells kind of make up for this, but most of them are kind of dull too.  The game is also pretty lazy in the dungeon layouts.  The original game was too, but Zelda II is an even bigger offender with some palaces having the same room repeat upwards of three times!  And there’s “puzzles” like the thirsty woman in town with a water fountain right next to her house.  It’s not exactly thought-provoking.  And just to add one more kind of oddity with the game is the absence of Ganon.  He only appears if the player receives a game over, otherwise he doesn’t show his pig face.  Other games in the series do not feature Ganon too, but most of the main ones do, though I can’t say it bothers me to have a different antagonist this go-around (not that there’s much of an in game storyline).

Zelda II:  The Adventure of Link is certainly a memorable title, though some would say for the wrong reasons.  It’s legacy is defined by the fact that it was such a change from the first game in the series and for its punishing difficulty.  If not for the save state feature on my 3DS version of the game, I likely wouldn’t have had the patience to make it all the way thru this one. It’s not really in the running for hardest game on the NES, but it’s definitely in the top 20, maybe top 10.  As a video game, it’s actually a pretty solid title.  For all of the things people didn’t like, there are some good ideas that would be carried over into future Zelda titles.  It wouldn’t bother me in the least to even see Nintendo revisit some of the RPG mechanics of this game for a future Zelda title, or even to attempt a brand new side-scroller.  I think there’s a better game to be found than what’s here.  As a Zelda game, this one definitely is lacking but not because it’s different.  It’s just missing something, that special ingredient, that makes a Zelda game truly special.  Zelda fans certainly owe it to themselves to experience the title, just don’t expect to find a new favorite.


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