Archive for June, 2009

28
Jun
09

Mineshaft boarded up.

This is one of those updates to explain the lack of updates lately. I happen to have a sickness that is one of the most undying and horrible that I’ve ever had. It’s nothing terminal or anything, but it’s been a diabolical mix of symptoms. I won’t get into details, but the last week has been absolutely miserable.

I apologize, but there will be no new posts until at least Thursday July 2nd.

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18
Jun
09

The Big Final Fantasy VII post – part 2

Let’s just jump right in and continue where I left off last post. This time we will focus more on the story and presentational aspects of the game. I’m going to stop using Chrono Trigger as a point of comparison, because I don’t feel the need to compare the two in this way. That being said, Chrono Trigger has an excellent story that is much less ambitious in scope and makes far more sense all around. This post contains spoilers as earth shattering as Meteor.

Starting with the positives, the game does have some pretty great music. I can’t help but enjoy One Winged Angel every time I hear it. Also, the game did have the balls to kill off a major character. Sure, Chrono Trigger beat them to that punch, but FFVII made it a permanent plot point.

On to the negatives then? Here we go.

The translation is abominable. This is another one that even fans have to admit to. It’s shaky in some places, and just awful in others. The last boss is called “Safer Sephiroth”. What does that even mean? Maybe it’s that I’m an English student, but it’s more than just the occasional awkward sentence and strange word choice. The absolute killer in this one is the typo DURING Aeris’ death scene. The only thing that could take you out of the moment more than that would be Dan Forden popping up in the corner and going “Toasty!”.

Some parts of the plot are just plain badly written. Listen to me before you go crazy. Cloud gets the Black Materia, and Sephiroth’s power causes him to give it up. This is a pretty important moment, plot wise… I mean, the hero has just given the power to destroy the earth to the villain. I was totally mystified when later in the game after a boss fight I got the Black Materia again, but then gave it up to Sephiroth a SECOND time. What kind of writing is that? There’s no reason for that to happen two times! That’s like Boromir betraying the fellowship twice! Or blowing up the death star tw- oh wait…

The game often does a bad job of marrying plot points to gameplay. Here I’m thinking mostly of the quests in Disc 2 where you need to get the “Huge Materia”. You have to go through it all, but getting all of them is still optional for some reason. In the end, these are hardly used in the actual story… and they raise more questions than anything else. Isn’t Shinra’s plan to destroy Meteor with the Huge Materia essentially the same plan that Cloud and company uses? Shouldn’t they be teaming up with Shinra at this point? They have a common enemy… and they even have a guy on the inside that can talk to them! The whole huge materia diversion is typical RPG magic rock collecting stuff… and it’d be fine in any other game, but if we’re going to be holding up this game as the pinnacle of storytelling in this medium, we can’t overlook stuff like this.

The character development is there, but it is completely jammed in. Most of the supporting characters are given one and exactly one flashback sequence that explains their story, usually presented just moments before it is resolved. For example, we hear Barret’s backstory involving Dyne minutes before their confrontation. I was rolling my eyes when Red XIII suddenly mentioned his father being cowardly, because I knew that this was going to be neatly wrapped up in the next half hour. This isn’t character development… they don’t develop. For the most part, the characters state their background, confront it, and then continue on with the group.

The character motivations are often questionable. I’m not one of those people who needs to constantly do a mental check to make sure each action that a character takes is completely motivated and believable, but the plot in FF7 pushes this a little hard. Cait Sith is a pretty good example… there’s little to no reason for “him” to have a change of heart and help the party out. A really good example is why Aeris didn’t tell anyone what she was up to when she went off alone to pray and cast Holy. You can throw whatever “I need to do it alone” shit in there you want, but at least tell your friends what your plan is! She just traipses off without telling anyone that she can single handedly save the planet? Really!?

Sephiroth really isn’t all that cool as a villain. Granted, he looks awesome…. and that sword is badass. All the flying around is kind of silly. He has some interesting lines in the middle of the game, but is left with nothing to say at the end. Not in a cool “I shall never speak word” kind of way either. I don’t think he transcends the “evil warlord on a quest for power” type. He also raises all kinds of questions with regard to plot convenience. If he can fly around and appear wherever he wants, can’t he murder the whole party while they sleep? (except maybe Cloud, if he doesn’t feel like it or whatever). He kills off Aeris because she is a threat to his plan, why doesn’t he kill off them too? Or kill off some of those high ranking Shinra guys who are firing cannons at him maybe…Or at least Hojo! Certainly he’s pissed at Hojo…

This game features some of the worst expository dialog ever written.

I was going to paraphrase this and goof on it… but no, a direct quotation is so much better:

“Wow you used to be in SOLDIER all right!… not every day you find one in a group like AVALANCHE.”

“SOLDIER? Aren’t they the enemy? What’s he doing with us here in AVALANCHE?”

“Hold it Jessie, he WAS in SOLDIER. He quit them and now is one of us.”

… Eew.

Okay, some of this might seem petty and nitpicky. However, if you are really going to say that this game has the best story and best presentation out of any game ever, you’re opening yourself up to nitpicks. I didn’t even delve into the many complete grey areas of the plot, such as Tifa’s memories of Cloud and why she doesn’t tell him about them, or how the hell Red XIII babies at the end if he’s the last of his species.

I don’t know why people applaud the writing of this game. I think it’s purely the nostalgia factor. They were probably spirited away by this game when they were kids. I’m sure more than one gamer saw a little bit of themselves when the real story behind Cloud was revealed and he freaks out (I’d be sad too if I found out I based my pretty blonde existence on some dark haired dude).

Fans, I urge you to look at this game once more and ask yourself if it holds up.

Thanks for reading if you stuck through all this ! 🙂

15
Jun
09

The Big Final Fantasy VII Post

One of my summer goals with this blog was to finally play several of the Final Fantasy games. I finished FFVII recently, finding that it coincided with the gameFAQs best game ever contest rather nicely. I’ve dabbled with FFVII in the past, but never played it all the way through until recently. While playing, I was absolutely STUNNED at how overrated this game is.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I have to acknowledge the impact and influence of Final Fantasy VII. Yes, it helped bring a JRPG market to North America and I’m sure it helped Playstation sales too. However, if we’re acknowledging the influence and lasting appeal of this game, then we also have to observe it with a modern eye and see how it holds up. Today we’ll be tackling gameplay and technical stuff. I imagine next post we’ll be tackling the story. We will be using another game from Squaresoft as a counterpoint, to show that I’m not just a hater… and to help show why I dislike so much of FFVII.

Around the middle of disc one, I was ready to say this game had pretty good RPG gameplay. As I played on though, I started to notice several things that bugged me.

1) There is no challenge to it. Now, some might argue that there’s no challenge to any RPG. If you level grind enough, you can make it through anything. I didn’t level grind though, and I breezed through this game. I don’t demand all my RPGs to have bosses that require four solid hours of killing the same monster over and over beforehand, but none of them even slowed me down. There’s nothing clever to the combat either… you can win all the fights doing roughly the same thing. The depth of the strategy only goes as far as “oh shit, fire heals him, better not use fire”.

This might sound like a challenge gamer type complaint, but look… the fans of this series DESPERATELY mine this game for challenge. You need look no further than all the speed runs, no materia runs, and low level runs to realize that.

– Chrono Trigger uses a similar active time battle system, but has dual and triple techs that require several characters to be “ready” at the same time, lending a small but interesting level of tactics to each battle. Trigger also makes much better use of area of effect spells. Also, many of the battles can be avoided if you’re so inclined. There are no random battles.

2) The boss battles range from uninspired to uninteresting. When I realized the game was going to make me fight several differently coloured JENOVA bosses, I really started to get annoyed. Palette swaps are a common way of not coming up with new enemies in an rpg, but you really shouldn’t be palette swapping boss battles. They all came off as very samey, and once again they lacked any strategy whatsoever.

– Chrono Trigger has been criticized for being too easy, I’m pretty sure it had some palette swapped monsters too, but at LEAST it had interesting and memorable boss battles throughout. The dragon tank, the robot guardian, and zombor all kick the shit out of the FFVII boss battles.

3) The materia system is lame. It allows for a great amount of character customization, but because of the way that customization works, it removes all the personality from the characters, and the strategy from building them. All I did for the first half of the game was fill as many materia slots as possible to rank up my materia, and later on I mixed and matched ’em according to whomever was in my party. Each character became less of a character and more of a magic holder that each has different limit breaks.

– Chrono Trigger has the typical “give each person an element” magic system, but it makes each character feel more unique. It makes SENSE that the nerdy girl would throw little bombs and use a hypnotic wave gizmo. She can’t trade magic rocks with the cave woman from 65 000 000 BC to give her the gift of fire.

4) The mini games are atrociously bad… and often mandatory. They crop up at strange sections in the game where all of sudden FFVII feels like stringing together a series of short and gimmicky mini games that give out a mostly useless reward. I’m thinking of the marching, the dolphin jumping, the submarine scene, the chocobo races… they were all poorly justified within the story or just poorly executed.

– Chrono has a few mini games. Some hold up better than others. The race across the junkyard is kind of weak, but at least it made sense within the story. The rest of the mini games that I can remember are all optional. There is one that many players should do, but it’s technically optional… if you get my drift.

5) The battles are slower than should be allowed. The unskippable summon animations are irritating of course, but I’m not just talking about those. At times, the battle slows to a crawl as the game camera zooms around to show whatever it feels like showing. At other times, the battle moves along at a decent (but still slow) pace. Often, you will queue up all three party attacks and not even know what order they will come out in. Initiative is completely unclear. Sometimes you’ll set all your party attacks, only to find the enemy pummel you several times in a row. It would be nice if there was some way of knowing the order of attacks, or at the very least move the battle along at a good pace so that it doesn’t matter quite so much.

– Chrono Trigger moves along at a nice clip, but still has extravagant magic animations for the big attacks and spells. Some of the triple techs never get old.

6) The game looks like shit. Even the fans HAVE to admit this. The cut scenes look fine… the environments are pretty… the battles look a little worse…  and the character models in the in game graphics look HORRENDOUS. Easily some of the worst graphics in the history of the Playstation. Easily. It seems Square made some type of technical tradeoff with several aspects of the graphics, and it totally doesn’t hold up… and it didn’t hold up at the time either, if you look at similar titles of the same year.

– Chrono Trigger came out two years before and it still looks sexy because it didn’t sacrifice some aspects of the graphics in order to allow for others to shine. The developers obviously wanted the whole game to look nice, and not just parts of it.

In Thursday’s post, I’m going to talk about the most praised part of FFVII: The story. See you then.

11
Jun
09

Let’s talk Zelda

The GameFAQS best game ever contest has recently come to a close. This was the biggest one they’ve ever done, plus they separated the games into tiers based on the time period they were released. I’m always somewhat annoyed and disgusted at how universally well all the Final Fantasy games do, as if there’s some type of Squaresoft party line. If you remember one of my posts a while back, I mentioned I’m going to step outside my comfort zone and dig into the FF universe.

I was all set up to do a complete noob’s FF7 review, but Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time won it all. I’ve chosen to delay the FF7 post and instead talk a bit about Zelda, since it’s more topical this way. Expect the FF7 post on monday though!

Ocarina of Time is one of those games where if someone were to point to it as the best game ever, I wouldn’t argue. Yet, I probably wouldn’t point to it as my absolute favorite. It’s like the Shawshank Redemption that way (NOT the Godfather. This blog has strong opinions!).

Zelda’s in a weird situation when it comes to sequels because they’ve more or less made the perfect game twice already (Link to the Past, and the aforementioned Ocarina of Time). The gameplay and construction of the Zelda games is so good that there’s almost nothing to attack critically. Critics of the series usually go after the fact that “they’ve made the same game over and over” ever since both of their landmark titles. The thing is, these same critics also tear down EVERY attempt the Zelda series makes to innovate or change the formula set up by their two hall of fame entries.

I’m talking about Wind Waker, Majora’s Mask, and to a certain extent, Twilight Princess. All of these would be very good games, even if they weren’t in the Zelda franchise, but critics complained about every one of them and they complained about the very ways in which they were trying to be different and innovative. People complained about the cute graphics and sailing portions of Wind Waker. They bitched about the time limit and time travelling of Majora’s Mask. I don’t know what there is to complain about with Twilight Princess, but dammit they found a way to ignore the innovation put forth by that game as well.

It’s like when an insanely popular band is accused of being too samey with every album, so they mix up their new album just a little, and everyone freaks out because it isn’t like their old stuff. Nintendo is in that trap with the Zelda series. I suggest they continue to make small little innovations and changes to their winning formula… and maybe get even more ballsy with the changes they make.

The Zelda series is one of the only franchises where you can literally take ANY title (okay, okay… not the CD-I games) and have a truly excellent time with it.  Ocarina of Time should absolutely beat out FF7 for the best game ever… and I’m so glad it did.

That being said, my FFVII post (posts? who knows…) will be on Monday.

08
Jun
09

You see General… TIME is on our side.

Cutscenes in video games always interest me. The short lived craze of FMV games was a really weird era in the history of computer games, but it had a gem or two in there. I know the Dragon’s Lair games take a pummeling from most gamers today, when really they kind of created, defined, and killed their own genre in one move. As video games have grown over time, developers have tried many different styles of in game cinematics. Now… I’m going only for memory here… but I think I may have found the coolest one ever.

Command and Conquer : Red Alert 3 just MIGHT have my favorite opening cutscene ever. It’s at the very least the most fun one in a long time. It needs to be seen by everyone.

For those of you who don’t know, the Red Alert games are a subset of games in the Command and Conquer series. They have always had a sillier plot to them, but similar good ol’ fashioned C&C gameplay. The plot of the first games involved Einstein going back in time and killing Hitler, thus averting World War II. Of course, this unintentionally creates a super heightened comic booky cold war scenario.

How could you not love that.

One of the hallmarks of the C&C games is the way they use real actors as commanders that give you mission briefings and whatnot before each level. With the latest C&C games, both this one and Tiberium Wars, they’ve kicked it up a notch and gotten somewhat well known actors.

Red Alert 3 features Tim Curry as the Russian Premier. How could you not wanna see it JUST from that. I think the developers realized how campy the Red Alert series always has been, and they decided to go way overboard this time. This apparently bothered some fans, but I really didn’t mind it at all. 

The aforementioned opening cutscene shows Premier Cherdenko losing his war with the allied forces. He pulls ones of his generals into a secret part of his facility, and with the help of a russian mad scientist type, he goes back in time to the 1920s. There, they kill Einstein. When they travel back in time to where they started, their office is no longer under attack from the Allies…. but out of nowhere they are attacked by huge amounts of Japanese forces. Since atomic bombs were never created, the Japanese empire have become very… VERY advanced.

What follows is another cutscene that is so over the top and so awesome I don’t wanna ruin it. This might be the first time ever that an otherwise average strategy game has hooked me in so well with its stupid story and intentionally hammy acting. It’s fantastic.

This game is certainly better than Tiberium Wars in terms of gameplay and story, check it out if you’re an old time Command and Conquer person.

04
Jun
09

Drag Me To Hell

Connecting sentences be damned! I’m going to tell you why Drag Me To Hell rocks in a completely scatterbrained and bullet pointy way.

– Sam Raimi will own your soul for about an hour and 40 minutes. You will laugh when he wants you to laugh, cringe when he wants you to cringe, and jump when he wants you to jump.

– It’s a great premise. It’s a little campy, but a scary enough idea to make you wanna go with it. Because the demons are deliberately screwing with Christine, they can come and go constantly, giving Sam Raimi complete control. It also has a built in build over the three days to the finale.

– HUGE amount of scares. Most horror films these days have three or fewer really good scenes. This movie is absolutely littered with them.

– Good balance between sudden jump scares and masterfully built up suspense.

– The film is not afraid to get a little silly at points and poke fun at itself (and horror in general). I think this will turn some people off the film, because the tense parts are so excellent, but it’s what gives the movie that “old school” feel that everyone is talking about.

– Alison Lohman carries this movie, and she is fantastic in it. She does a particularly good job of balancing the silly parts with the scary parts.

– The filmmakers don’t go out of their way to overtly sexualize Lohman as “the horror girl”, nor do they attempt to play up her innocence.

– You’re never ONCE taken out of the movie with a “but wait, why would she…” type of question. As soon as you have such a question, it is immediately addressed.

– The character building moments between the scares were extremely well written, acted, and directed. The movie is not about getting you from scare to scare.

– It’s PG-13 (14A here in Canada) and it kicks the shit out of most R-rated horror films today. Seriously, this will be the one people point to when people complain on message boards about PG-13 ratings on the next big remake.

– There’s one pretty direct Evil Dead reference that will make fans giddy.

Go see it before I ruin it for you with my hypey hype mouth. I suggest going on a friday or saturday so you have a nice crowded theatre… it’ll be a blast.

01
Jun
09

Manhunt and SHOCKING games

Last Thursday’s post was cancelled for two reasons. The first was that I was in Halifax, and therefore on vacation from my own summer vacation. The second was that my plans to see Star Trek fell through, so I was left without a topic to talk about. I was productive while in Halifax though, check out annexd.com to see what I was up to.

I haven’t seen Drag Me to Hell yet, but I’m supposed to do that tomorrow. If I feel strongly about it one way or the other, it will most likely be the topic of Thursday’s post. Today we’re gonna talk about Manhunt and briefly touch on some of my favorite “shocking” games.

I’m not a huge GTA fan, though I occasionally get a kick out of driving around and blowing shit up. A while back the controversy creating studios that made GTA put out a game called Manhunt. Predictably, the media went nuts over the game’s brutal level of violence. I never played the game until recently, shrugging it off as another Rockstar game that thrives on media attention and is really just mediocre at best.

I played Manhunt though, and y’know what… it’s not bad from a gameplay perspective. It’s kind of like a more horror based stealth game. The stealth part is simplified when compared to something like Splinter Cell or Thief, but it’s still satisfying and challenging. You sneak around from shadow to shadow and have to elude (and often kill) groups of thugs that are out to get you.

When you sneak up and go for the kill, the longer you lurk behind the enemy, the more violent the kill animation is. You get more points for the more extreme kills, because you need to be in the open longer in order to perform them. This system is a little gimmicky, totally encouraging the spectacle of it all. Some of the kills are really brutal, there’s no way around it. It will attract the gorehounds of video gaming the same way that the Guinea Pig movies will attract movie watching sickos. The difference is that underneath there is a good game in Manhunt… to a certain degree.

I’m not saying the game is absolutely genius or anything, but that the hype (both the hype the game intended and the hype that it did not) skewed everyone’s opinion of it… including mine. Pretty much everything about this game, from the gameplay to the writing to the voice acting, is better than I thought it would be.

I’m not even going to throw in a rant about violent video games being good or bad or inconsequential. Regardless of where you fall in that argument, it’s easy to think that a bloody game that generates tons of controversy is built to do just that, without any real fun factor or value outside of the wrongness of it all. When it comes to how people perceive their hobby, the gaming community tends to point to games like Manhunt as part of the problem, instead of playing it for themselves and defending it.

It is illegal to own the game in several countries. It deserves your defense.

One last thought… if goddamn Funny Games can achieve critical acclaim as a “violent movie about violence”, why can’t we one day have our “violent game about violent games” ? Maybe we need to look a little harder at stuff like Killer 7, Carmageddon, and Postal 2 to make sure we haven’t already.