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?

The games that made 2015 for me.

It’s a new year, which means every single gaming blogger has to write about the best stuff they played last year. Like a lot of bloggers, a lot of what I played last year was not games from that year itself. So, let’s go over what was great for me last year in gaming. I played some games other than these that might have been better, but didn’t leave the impact these did.

Tales from the Borderlands (Telltale Games, available on everything pretty much)

It was tempting to also put The Wolf Among Us here, which was also equally excellent. But humour, and twisting the Telltale formula just a little helps a lot. Borderlands has always been a silly world, which has always drawn me too games, but sadly that zaniness is spread too thin across shooters that I frankly don’t enjoy enough to endure. Telltale manages to stay true to the feel of the world, but has you playing what Borderlands would leave to the NPCs. And benefits a lot from it. The game makes a lot of jokes out of the iconic telltale reminders “X will remember that” and other Telltale staples. Unique, and implied by the image above though, is that you play two characters, which when that aspect gets played up, is rather special. It’s hard to talk about the game in much detail as being story driven, and a comedy, surprise is important. But know it actually ends up telling a pretty strong tale that is also funny. This is Telltale in their element, at their finest.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (Square/Tri-Ace, PS3/360/PC)

Lightning Returns is an absolute mess of a game, made by studio well regarded for total messes that work, Tri-Ace. Lightning Returns requires a certain mindset to play, where you play by its rules, not your own. Once you accept this open world game with JRPG combat, quest driven leveling, and limited resources, even on monsters in the world, you’ll find something pretty special. With a very dense open world, Lightning Returns managed to make its environments pretty dense. Unlike a lot of other open world games with more area, you’ll hardly remember it. As you progress in this though, you’ll start to feel right at home in the world, and not in a bad way. Chances are certain quests will make you spot stuff you didn’t notice even though you walked by dozens of times. The story itself is rather terrible, and almost a parody of other Final Fantasy games, but character’s Lightning interacts with are often silly and bizarre, and Lightning Returns is at its best when it is being silly while playing by its own rules. For example, one quest has you sneaking into a castle by playing the leading role in a performance, and overloading the finale with fireworks to cause the destruction needed to get in. The problem? To score the part you need a pretty dress. To get the pretty dress you need to fight through the arena. I loved how silly it was and was one of the games I spent the most time with last year.

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Princess Play Time, Everybody’s gone to Dance All Night X.

I thought while also starting the e Thankfulness stuff, I might talk a little more often about the games I am tinkering with. Since I tend to play a little outside of the mainstream I might be covering some games you’d been wanting to hear about for a while.

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VNMay: Suggestions Part 2, non traditional

This is going to be a confusing thing, because while I say non traditional here, this is probably going to be a list with more games you’ve heard of. Last time I focused on games that basically are choose your own adventure books with little deeper interaction. Today, I am going to run few a few of my favourite visual novels that offer a little more in traditional gameplay. For the distinction between Adventure game and Visual novel is pretty loose here, but I am generally going with games where again the primary focus is on text, not traditional mechanics. Remember, everyone calls Danganronpa a visual novel!

 

Trace Memory/Another Code and Another Code R (DS and Wii)

CING are a company very close to my heart, and their games are most like traditional adventure games on this list. However, with such a focus on long conversations compared to many traditional adventure games, it is hard to not think of them as visual novels at least a little. In the US their two major games Trace Memory and Hotel Dusk both of which received sequels that came to Europe and Japan but never the US. While all their games are worth playing if you can enjoy their slow placed very talkative nature, I feel the Trace Memory/Another Code pair of games are them at their best worth your time and effort to play a PAL wii game. The Wii game in particular is particularly slow paced but also just looks darn good.

On the adventure game side, these games are really easy. Few terribly taxing puzzles, although they really do push the hardware they use for puzzles so well. If you play the Wii game, you will certainly walk away impressed by the Wii remote usage. On the Visual Novel side, these games focus a lot on memory, and about a machine that can manipulate memories. So the main character, Ashley Mizuki Robbins, armed as always with a device that looks remarkably like the one you were probably playing it on when released, is tasked with finding out the truth. One interesting quirk these games have with storytelling is first their use of split screen for conversations, which is far less used than you’d expect in videogames, and secondly, quizzes. The game quizzes you on story beats at the end of each chapter.

Virtue’s Last Reward/ 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors

For a lot of westerners, these games alongside Phoenix Wright are probably the only examples of Visual Novels they have actually played. You probably already know these games are about a group of people trapped somewhere and have to follow rules in order to escape. Alternating between escape the room style puzzles and visual novel sections. While many say 999 is the game you should play first, which is technically true for a few plot elements to make total sense, I think you can enjoy most of Virtue’s Last Reward without 999. Which is useful, because 999 is a lot harder to get! The reason I like this more is down to a simple question

Basically, unlike most visual novels, there are very very few choices that effect the path you take down the game, other than this one. The villain mascot character in this game rather than being so math focused like that last, is more interested in the prisoner’s dilemma called the Ambidex game. Which while mathy, is also a lot about self interest vs co-operation. Basically, you and the other side are placed in separate rooms where you can’t communicate, and pick one of the options. Both Ally, both gain 2 points, if you both betray, 0 points, and if one allies and the other betrays, the betrayer gets 3 points and the ally loses 2.  Hit 0 points and you die. Hit 9 points and you leave alive. What was really remarkable about these choices is that up until the last few times I made them in replays, they felt tense. There were always stakes to the choices. As the Ambidex game might suggest, a large part of the important themes of game is co-operation and trust, or lack there of. The plot gets quite insane as things progress and honestly loses itself a little, but the character dynamics throughout the game up till that point are wonderful.

 

And the final VNMay recommendation is…

Ace Attorney  franchise, Wii, 3DS, iOS, DS, GBA

Honestly, there isn’t much to say about this franchise, since you almost certainly know it. But, the original Phoenix Wright trilogy probably was most important thing to happen for visual novels in the west. For many people, myself included, it was their first “visual novel” by a long shot. And even though in Japan it would be solidly considered in the adventure game genre, the English speaking community have defined this series strongly as visual novel. As both a gateway for players and publishers, this series has a lot of significance for the west, and is worth playing for that. However, luckily it isn’t JUST that it has going for it. Fun writing, a generally good localization despite the increasing oddness in the English series that is “America” not Japan. Not that the original localization team could have known where the series would go when they started it, but from Apollo Justice on wards it is a joke in itself. The mysteries themselves are also mostly pretty well crafted. Although the constant save/reload nature of the court room can get tedious. However, you can get them cheap on 3DS, DS, iOS, Wii and Android. Despite many things, my favourite versions of the games are actually the Wii ones oddly enough.

And that’s it for VNMay suggestions. Now you should play something!

 

VNMay Visual Novel Suggestions Part 1, traditional

It’s a new month! And a new month brings another excellent game along from Anne Lee‘s Chic Pixel blog. I was going to write something for Yuji Naka month, but sadly, I kind of forgot… Anyway, the game alongs are pretty simple. Play games within the theme and discuss them with other like minded people using the hashtag #VNMay. You can continue games you didn’t finish, play new ones, or even do let’s plays for it! They are nice affairs.

I haven’t played the largest amount of visual novels, but it is a medium I have grown incredibly fond of since it really sunk its teeth into me rather seriously. Might be worth mentioning that in Japan, Visual Novel only refers to a single style of adventure game, where text covers the image, rather than appearing in a text box. As opposed to the more commonly known dialog box approach. On top you have a “Visual Novel” (Umineko no Naku Koro ni Chiru) and then an “Adventure game” (Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc)

Needless to say, this isn’t a semantic I am worried about. For the sake of clarity, I guess I am going to define Visual Novel as a game that focuses primarily on passive story telling, with little primarily enjoyment from whatever mechanics are present, which are significantly less important than it might be in other genres. So this makes Phoenix Wright,  Danganronpa and Sweet Fuse all equal contenders for the VN crown. Of course, you could include things like TellTale’s recent output, and you know what… That is fine. But for the purposes of this post I am not going to do that. So here are my main recommendations for VNMay! Today, we are going to focus more on three fairly traditional Visual Novels where there won’t be much argument though.

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