A beautiful dying mess, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

I finished Lightning Returns (LR) last year during JRPG July. A year later and it has managed to be a game that stays in my mind.

Lightning Returns is the bizarre ending piece to what I consider maybe the strangest trilogy of games I’ve played. The Final Fantasy XIII saga is generally considered pretty bad by the internet at large, despite scoring fairly well critical. However, XIII represents something that is FF at it’s best, which is taking bold risks, even if sometimes for poor reasons. As a result all three games in the trilogy are deeply interesting and deeply flawed. Lightning Returns might be the most interesting and most flawed game in the series too. Which is somewhat remarkable given the original XIII. While the whole series is worth further discussion, and there is a lot to be learned about game design from the original, I’m just going to talk about its conclusion.

You see, Lightning Returns follows the proud tradition set by the Zelda game everyone loved 10 years after release, Majora’s Mask. With a world that will end and that you must save, within a time limit.  Curiously, both games feature worlds that really are very alive. But unlike Link, there is no loop for Lightning to relive her adventure making slow but sure progress with each loop. Lightning has to succeed within the 6 days allotted to her, which if she can save enough souls (complete enough quests) she will be able to extend up to a total of 14 days.

At the start of the game, this dying and soon to be ended world, actually seems pretty vibrant. You are collecting quests at a somewhat rapid rate and completing them what feels like very quickly once you’ve gotten into the game. However, eventually, the pace slows down… To the point where it’s possible to complete almost every quest the game throws at you without a lot of difficulty. And not only is it possible, it’s likely to happen almost by accident at least in one area. Naturally, the more you accomplish the less there is to do.

This is pretty natural of course, only a limited amount of content, therefore as you progress there is less. But because so little content is gated, it feels limited despite taking a fair amount of actual real world time to do everything.  I managed to finish every quest in the game barring about 4, and it probably took me around 30-35 hours, which is longer than Dragon Age Origins took me. At And despite this, I still have 4 in game days left, and the world… felt very dead. At the start there were new things to see, discover, quests to find! But now, there was nothing, the world had gone from vibrant and exciting to become stagnant and quiet.

And not just quests too, one of the bizarre and surprisingly compelling mechanics in the game is that monsters go extinct. That means limited drops of all those junk items, and of course, lower spawn rates if you remove monsters in a region. Kill all the monsters in the region, and you basically have no encounters, finish all the quests in an area too, and that part of the world has gone within your play time from being a fairly vibrant place to being noticeably desolate.  Killing off monsters doesn’t just net you less encounters though, the last monster is always a powered up version of the creature and rewards you with a cool item.

Outside of rewards though, this ties in surprisingly well mechanically, where Lightning is both savior and end of the world, and since as you play the game the world loses its sense of life, that theme actually plays out surprisingly well mechanically.

Although much like Majora’s Mask despite it being a sad dying world, it is also completely bizarre and silly. With one quest line requiring Lightning to sneak into an performance, and fight for dress required to play the part. Lightning essentially plays straightman to a universe that has given up on taking its plight seriously.

Although, I managed to make all the monsters extinct in this first playthrough too… Which left me in a bizarre situation of having literally consumed all the possible content in the game available to me other than one super boss designed for a character built up over multiple plays. So I literally had to go to an inn, and sleep off the last few days till the end of the world in order to trigger the end series of boss fights.

Lightning Returns is a mess though despite that beautiful mix of theme and mechanics. Combat can seem almost non nonsensical, the difficulty curve is a complete mess, the time mechanics are broken, quests can be far too specific and if you aren’t careful you could waste huge amounts of time on silly things, and if you don’t click with the time system, it can really punish you very hard. Oh and the story itself is a complete mess and nearly approaches self parody.

However, despite all that, it will sit proudly among my favourite PS3 games.

 

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Conquering past foes: Wind Waker

When I went on exchange 10 years ago, I learned the joys of the Japanese second hand gaming market, I quickly amassed a number of Japanese games, most of which I really couldn’t play due to the language barrior. But my host family had a gamecube, and so when I saw Wind Waker for 1280 yen (about 12US) I couldn’t resist. I booted it up, and very, very slowly tried to work my way through it. It had furigana in it! But… the TV I was playing on wasn’t really high enough quality to actually make them readable. In fact, I didn’t know the original Wind Waker had furigana in it until I did some research!

 

However, through a combination of a terrible TV, extremely basic Japanese skills, and impatience, combined with a physical pocket dictionary designed for everyday use and not things like “ghost ship.” I was ultimately unable to get through the game. Giving up somewhere around the 3rd temple. Later in 2008 or so I would obtain a PAL English version for an Australian Gamecube I was given by a dear friend, and me and a different dear friend worked together to play through a large amount, with the game somehow getting lost before I finished collecting the Tri Force hunt.

With Japanese lent having removed my interest in playing games in English that aren’t systemically very complex or story driven, I’m now in a situation where I may never play a Zelda game in English ever again. The series is so remarkably well designed with visual cues, that even with my skill level 10 years ago I was able to make some good progress despite being functionally illiterate. The Zelda series, until recently, always used it’s visuals and world design to communicate a lot more than you might notice as a literate person. Additionally, with important words highlighted in read, that can also limit language checks a little too.

So, having started it again, how did I do? Did I finally finish it?

Yes I did.

Given how troubled my experience of playing it the first time all those years ago with language constantly getting in my way, ultimately feeling defeated by the fact as good as my language was, it wasn’t enough, it was nice go through it relatively problem free language wise. Not that I understood everything of course, but I was able to nicely follow even a lot of the nuance with the script and characters. That being said, I for all the Japanese games I’ve now played, every game makes me more and more impressed with just how well Nintendo localizes games generally.

Obviously given 10 years, with some extra study in there, it’s not at all surprising I could get through a game that is designed to be somewhat accommodating to children who can barely read. The point here is less my ability to do this, but to defeat something that previously had defeated me. Maybe I should try and read those Full Metal Alchemist manga I bought then too…

Oh and Wind Waker as a game? It’s pretty good. Although… for all its strengths it is a pretty flawed entry in the series.

 

6 Games I already own I am looking forward to playing in 2016

I own a lot of games. Last year I made up a big list of things I wanted to try and finish last year, but it was far too big a list to really accomplish. So here is a list of games I already own, that I want to play more this year, and most of them are RPGs because I hate my time.

The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt

I’ve been playing this a little late last year. But The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an open world game that actually feels like people live might live in it. Recently I’ve gotten involved in the quest “Family Matters,” which tied for first at USgamer’s questline of 2015. And frankly it shows the Witcher at its best. Ultimately The Witcher 3 is at it’s best when it is being a detective game. Which it is happy to spend time doing. It’s combat is not great, there are lots of minor niggles, but every session I give the Witcher 3 always results in a great thing I want to tell someone about. Which I can’t say about many open world games. I probably won’t finish this, but just plug away at it every so often.

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Bought this on US release date, well before the Australian one that applied to my region. Frankly it’s taken me several goes to get as far as I have, which still isn’t that far. The game has a lot of character, and a lot of characters both in terms of people and just letters. While it might be easy to dismiss Trails in the Sky for being overly talky, it is overly talky, and I love every minute these people speak. Early on though, the game is quite slow and still hasn’t shown it’s true colours. I’m playing it on PSP, although only because I’ve already invested a solid 10 hours into it. Wish me luck.

Dragon Quest VII

Thinking of big RPGs that don’t show off their best points early, Dragon Quest VII, the largest DQ to ever be made, where one of the major points of the remake is that they cut content and quickened up the game considerably. Having recently worked my way through bits of DQX and Slime Mori Mori Dragon Quest  I am hopeful I can get through it in Japanese as part of my resolution to play more in Japanese.

Tokyo Xanadu

Tokyo Xanadu, while not as highly acclaimed as Trails in the Sky, does borrow a lot from the series with a focus on a likable cast. However the combat is classic Ys arcade intensity, which for me is Falcom at their finest. Despite the fact Xseed as almost certain to localize it sooner or later, but I am hopeful I can beat this before they do. Oddly, I wasn’t so keen on this for the longest time pre-release, but when I got to play it at TGS I was hooked by the good action mechanics to it.

Undertale

Finally, something not 50 hours long. I’ve managed to stay pretty ignorant on this title other the basics. And hope to play it before that changes. I know that Undertale plays with it’s story and battles a lot, and am looking forward to being surprised. Although I am concerned that actual play of the title will get in the way of what it does well.

Captain Toad Treasure Tracker

I bought this on a whim so minor I literally forgot I had ordered it until the box arrived and I was puzzled by what could be inside. I’d apparently managed to snag it for under 2000 yen. Which was a pretty good deal. I heard so much good about the game that it was hard to not also want it.

 

What’s in your backlog that you need hope to at least tackle a little this year?

Backlog Update: Riviera: The Promised Land

Riviera is a STING was originally released in 2002 for the Bandai WonderSwan. A lovely console to never leave Japan, and the first game to be part of their overly ambitious series, Dept. Heaven, which was planned as a huge set of vaguely related games all drawing on Norse mythology loosely. Luckily, STING moved Riviera to GBA in 2004 where it would receive an English localization, and would become somewhat of an RPG darling for a time. In 2006 the GBA version was ported and a little upgraded to the PSP.

Unlike most games that were planned as massive series such as Shenmue, Xenogears and Ogre. Dept. Heaven is progressing smoothly. Since its inception we’ve had Knights in the Nightmare, Yggdra Union, and Gungnir. Each game is given an episode number which reflects the originality to its design. Which for STING is a pretty sensible plan because they do a lot of odd games to say the least. However, it appears that numbering system is a bit broken as somehow anything was able to beat Knights In the Nightmare. 

Knights in the Nightmare. How much can you understand this screenshot?

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Micro post: Backlog Update, two for 1 Rayman Legends

… Not expecting this honestly, but somehow I finished two games on this list in a day. I had totally forgotten how close I was to finishing Rayman Legends. So here is the up up dated list.

Wii U
Wonderful 101

DS/DS
Persona Q
Chrimson Shroud
Radiant Historia
Shovel Knight
Monster Hunter 4G (getting to G ranked missions ok)

Vita
Metal gear solid 2 HD
Tearaway

iOS
Year walk
Banshee’s last cry

PC
Higurashi When They Cry
Freedom planet

PS3
Last of Us (not to actually play, but to watch someone else play)

PSP
Corpse Party
Half Minute Hero
Riveria

NES
Megaman 2

Micro post: Backlog Update, Super Mario 3

Just a minor backlog update. So this year I set a list of games I want to finish. Many of which are games I have wanted to finish for several years, but never quite find the time. Also, because I usually want to write longer things, this is the start of “micro posts” which are much more bite sized in terms of content. Been playing some Persona Q but, got tired of it for now.

So here is what remains on the list:

Wii U
Wonderful 1013

DS/DS
Persona Q
Chrimson Shroud
Radiant Historia
Shovel Knight
Monster Hunter 4G (getting to G ranked missions ok)

Vita
Dangan Ronpa
Metal gear solid 2 HD
Rayman legends
Tearaway

iOS
Year walk
Banshee’s last cry

PC
Higurashi When They Cry
Freedom planet

PS3
Last of Us (not to actually play, but to watch someone else play)

PSP
Corpse Party
Half Minute Hero
Riveria

NES
Megaman 2

Working through the backlog- Zero Mission and Project Diva f 2nd Complete

A little while ago I posted a list of games I plan to finish up this yeah, some of which had been on the back burner for a long long time. While it hasn’t been a long time since I wrote the list, often I get a little side tracked with my gaming pursuits and don’t achieve any of what I planned, so far this list has kept me a little on track!

A little…

So between playing Wonderful 101, Persona Q and Super Mario 3D Land I have managed to finish not one but two games.

Metroid Zero Mission

I have never been the biggest fan of the series to be honest. But I have played and enjoyed all the 2D ones, with this having been my favourite as well as being my introduction to really liking the series. Since originally playing this I have gone on to play Super and Fusion. So, I thought it was time to go and look back on the game that got me into the series, which I long held as my favourite.

It is a stunning game. Lean, carefully crafted, gorgeous and maybe a little too easy. The map is large enough to discourage needless running in circles, but it can also be traversed side to side in a fairly short amount of time despite the absence of teleports the Castlevania series needs to make it’s castles work. The power ups change how you view and deal with the environment to varying degrees, and keep you on your toes with trying to think about where you have been and needed to go.

It was very rare I felt stuck, but I never felt like I was just going down the one true path as the game intended either. Early on I mastered multiple bomb jumping, making any vertical distance traversable. Something that sounds game breaking and totally fails to do so.

Although the game ended rather abruptly, I wasn’t expecting it end so close after getting the Super Bomb power-up. But at the same time, it is rare that a game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, which I appreciate.

Having said all that, the game is fairly easy if you play it how you expect. Going and collecting all the things. If you want to make the game more challenging, you can quite easily, by collecting less stuff! A dear friend of mine is a huge fan of the game and does Hard mode !5% runs, the minimum required to finish the game!

The game goes to the effort of incentivizing these runs with different pictures of Samus for different times and percentages. Despite what we games often teach us, and even what Metroid does, you are rewarded for getting less OR more. The worst is to be slow and middling with your collection, fast and very low collection, or high collection is what gets you the “good” ending images.

The thing with Zero Mission is that it manages to remain a great game if played in any of these ways. That low percent run makes it a great action game more about using that limited tool set so very precisely. The quick perfect percent runs make an amazing and intricate speed running experience, and the middle path, is a pleasant adventure that is that more typical Metroid experience you’ve come to know and love.

Zero Mission about 5 years later is just as amazing as when I first played it, and given the popularity of the genre right now, is almost more relevant now than it was then, which is not something most games can claim.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f 2nd

Do you really finish a Rhythm game? Not really? But it showed me credits after I did one of the levels so it’s fair game. One of the worst things about this genre is that it is so hard to break down why games in it are good! The Project Diva series from the second PSP game in this currently 5-7 game series (depending if you include the 3DS Mirai games) has long been the Rhythm action series to get into. While changing very little in mechanics, these games always shine through sheer polish. To take the obvious joke, they really don’t miss a beat. The series simply gets better each time. If you like super well polished Rhythm games, and can enjoy the vocaloid music, be sure to pick this one up.

So that’s two games off my list! I’ll be sure you keep you updated on how the list goes.