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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 subgenera. 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. 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 Trials 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 to 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 compadres, 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 characters 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 HP, MP, and CP 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, or 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 utilize with one another must be unlocked via special blue trial chests hidden throughout the world. Rean can use Overdrive with anyone though, by default.

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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 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 enemies 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 characters bonding events, so don’t even try. Just spend them on the characters you like best. There are 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 need to be interesting enough to support a roughly 80 hour campaign. As I said its the first, the structure of the bonding events and such naturally lend to Persona comparisons. And, as was also the case with the first, if you’re looking for Trails of Cold Steel 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 complement 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 with 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 localizations.

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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 looks 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 is 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 it’s combination of turn-based actions with strategic formations is rewarding, but perhaps leading 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) takes these characters, 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.

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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 hate 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 3×3 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 tactical. 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.