Saturday, April 29, 2017
[contains minor spoilers]
Like with a lot of entertainment media, going back to a storied franchise's humble roots can be a difficult thing to do. The Final Fantasy series is one that's loved and adored by millions, but only a small fraction of those players are likely to have completed the original NES title. I, admittedly, am not one of them—even though my brother had a copy of the game growing up, I wouldn't really start to get into RPGs until the PS2/Gamecube era, and by then the last thing I wanted to do was trudge through an archaic NES RPG. Luckily for myself (and many others) Square Enix remade the first and second Final Fantasy titles and packaged them together in a single GBA cart, dubbed Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls. With updated graphics, streamlined gameplay, and an enhanced story, players could finally reach the end in less than half the time it took to complete the original. While I greatly appreciated the changes the first time I played through the remake, my most recent playthrough saw a lot more... turbulence.
The Dawn of Souls edition of Final Fantasy I is torn between two eras. It proudly retains the flavor of the original game's world, staying loyal to its structure, dungeons, enemies, and equipment. Besides the graphics and music, the area that receives the most robust change is the gameplay: the level cap is doubled, additional healing items have been added, and the potentially irksome spells-per-day system has been replaced (there's also four bonus dungeons, but I'll cover those later). On paper, this sounds like a fair balance, offering the player a chance to explore the classic world of Final Fantasy I while removing a lot of unfriendly burdens. But once you clear the Marsh Cave, you'll realize that all these changes have made the experience far too easy and, by default, boring.
Here are three aspects that outright neuter the Final Fantasy I experience:
1) Items are cheap
2) The encounter rate is high
3) You can save anywhere
In conjunction, these ensure that the player is well-stocked on healing aids, always properly leveled, and never in danger of losing any progress. For example: got a battle with a Fiend coming up? Chuck ethers at your mages, save, and proceed to steamroll the poor sap. Since the mechanics of the original game aren't all that complex, fights are pretty easy to find the optimal solution to. This causes a lot of battles to blend together into the same mindless "mash A to win" marathons, especially since every monster dies in one hit from your strongest team member anyway. Even the fearsome Fiends fall prey to this tactic, their combat repertoire a pitiable mess since few use any sort of unique spells or status debuffs.
The repetitive combat creates a surprisingly aggravating experience when combined with the unchanged maze-like layouts of the original Final Fantasy I dungeons. That game had sprawling underground complexes that were risky to explore due to your limited spell charges, but with infinite heals and an atrocious encounter rate, you'll find yourself sighing and groaning as you run into yet another dead end or open a treasure box with a scant 500 gil inside. The final dungeon in particular is a monotonous slog, lacking any kind of danger whatsoever since you'll likely be packing 99 hi-potions, ethers, and phoenix downs. Note that I'm not declaring the NES version to be better; I simply find that the changes to the gameplay to stand at odds with the plodding dungeon design and encounter design of the original.
Something I find inexcusable in both versions of Final Fantasy I is the long-winded trading quest after Astos. It's essentially a massive waste of time through areas you've already explored, which may have originally offered a chance to give the player more XP and gil, but provides nothing of value here. You deliver the crystal ball to Matoya, then sail across the sea to wake the elf prince up, then back to Cornelia, then over to the dwarves to deliver the explosives, then back to your ship to sail through a single patch of sea. To make matters worse, the vampire-cleansing Earth Cave quest is also a blatant waste of time that occurs right after the trading quest! Had the player been given a chance to buy the Exit or Teleport spells maybe I could excuse its existence, but those are saved for the class upgrades, which occur after you've already explored the dungeons you have to backtrack your way out of.
For all the flak I give it, Dawn of Souls at least introduces four bonus dungeons that are capped by four vicious boss fights each. And even though these fights are the most engaging parts of the game, Dawn of Souls manages to fumble this by forcing you to replay the dungeon if you want to fight more than one bosses. The bonus dungeons are just as dull as the regular ones too, and the fact that the floors are randomly arranged means that some runs of it will be more of a headache than others (that purple forest is torture). I tried to explore them during this playthrough but was tired of the game rudely bloating my play time, opting to head into the final dungeon and finish this adventure instead.
For what it's worth, my battle against Chaos was pretty spectacular, especially since I refused to use ethers while I was knee-deep in the Chaos Shrine, hoping it would make my struggle more tense and momentous. The mechanics of the Chaos fght itself isn't all that complex—Chaos tends to only throw out physically damaging attacks—but at least having to juggle restorative spells with replenishing my mages' MP added a dimension of strategy to the scuffle. At the end only my Grand Master Bric survived, a mere 180 health left in his worn, shaken body. But was it worth eight hours to play for that amazing, succulent victory?
Final Fantasy I in Dawn of Souls offers a crooked glimpse into the appeal of the original, not only showing the faults of the NES title but creating a few of its own in the process. These problems were fairly glaring during my time with it: without limited spells dungeons become a cinch, the battle tactics of the monsters you'll face are woefully outdated (my mages didn't get silenced once!), and progress through the game is purposely obfuscated at times. I feel that the game is serviceable if you feel you need to play something resembling the original game, the prettier palette and faster gameplay a definite improvement. Outside of historic curiosity though, your time will be better spent on nearly any other entry in the series.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Revisiting Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls on the GBA has resurfaced a morbid thought I've had for some time now: "I'm never going to finish all these games". Since gaming is my primary hobby, I've accumulated a lot of cartridges and discs over the years, so much so that I've currently run out of boxes to stuff them into. Yet as I grow older and look back on a number of titles—like the NES version of Final Fantasy I for instance—I've recognized that there really is no point in it being there. I mean, Square's roleplaying swan song looks nice as a collector's item sandwiched between Fester's Quest and Fire 'n Ice, but why am I keeping it if I'm never going to play it? And it's not that I necessarily don't want to either; it's just that there are so many other games in my mental queue ahead of Final Fantasy that I'm honestly going to die before I get around to even starting it.
Ever since I was a kid, I took immense pride in finishing a game, despite that I almost always used Game Genie to accomplish the feat. Before I knew how to properly spell I had my mom assist me in writing down the titles of games I had conquered, creating a very small but empowering list of virtual achievements. It wasn't something I'd openly brag about at school (at least not that I can consciously remember); I simply made the list to remind myself of the places I've explored in the 8-bit realm. As I grew older and gaming expanded, I couldn't maintain my humble little list, but the burning desire to "complete" games and other pieces of media stuck with me throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood.
I make no attempt to proselytize or defend the value of judging media based upon whether or not it's been "beaten"; in many ways, this line of thinking is a shallow way to reflect upon an experience, akin to keeping notches on your bedpost for every person you've slept with. But it is what it is—my completionist methodology strongly influenced my preference to consume media that has a terminable end, pushing me away from simulation & multiplayer games, as well as long-running TV shows & comic books. I've slowly learned to appreciate the merits of perpetual art (I'm part of a comic book podcast after all), but my fondness lies first and foremost with products I can essentially "cross off a list" when I'm done.
That's why as long as a game had end credits that could be reached, it was my goal to reach them. Even lesser known and mediocre titles like Magic Boy for DOS and Spy Hunter for Gamecube were given a fair shake in my hands, due to my juvenile delusion that all games were created equal and fair (developers are smart people so they make smart design decisions, right?). I eventually had to acknowledge that I probably won't beat every game made in history of the medium, but I was certain that I could finish all of the games I at least owned, even if they seemed insurmountable at the time. And thinking about that filled me with a flurry of excitement—there were so many worlds, characters, and gameplay systems left to explore!
Nowadays, as I slowly approach the age of 30, that endeavor feels more bleak than bright. It's not because I feel "too old" or I've come to hate playing video games or anything, but there are some titles I simply don't want to spend more time on than I already have. Part of the reason I started this blog was to jot down concrete thoughts on nearly every game I played so I'd have a handy place to direct people to if they wanted my opinions on a certain title. But when I think about replaying certain games for a review—like Kingdom Hearts or the Gears of War series—there's a part of me that feels my time would be better spent elsewhere, especially as I search for a way to bring in a stable income. And if I feel that way about games I've already played, then what about those that I've yet to touch? Am I always going to look at titles like the Xenosaga trilogy, Septerra Core, and Holy Diver as time-sinks I'm more than happy to procrastinate playing until it's too late?
This predicament reminds me of a poignant existential truth (that I can't quite remember the origin of): throughout your life, there exists an unrealized instance with every single person you know in which you will say "goodbye" to them for the last time. Since everybody passes away, we might say "I love you" to a person without fully comprehending that it might be the very last time we'd say so. In the same way (though obviously less emotionally damaging), there exists one last time that we engage with every piece of media, whether we know it or not. As a kid I was stoked to play through all the Zelda and Mario games biennially—now as I finish up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I'm painfully cognizant that I'll only ever replay the entire Zelda series maybe one or two more times in my life. All of my experiences with each piece of media have a finite end, and as I grow older I'll become more and more aware of each one.
Part of the good news is that this revelation isn't one that fills me with overwhelming dread (that moment came about while I was in college). No, this is the slow ebbing of childhood optimism and wonder; the acceptance of another naive dream crushed beneath the weight of time and mortality. It's the start of skepticism towards the games I place on my wishlist and the gradual acceptance that there's no real reason to keep over half of the games I own. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing either—like with my "completion" habit, it simply is, and I'm learning to accept it day by day. I may not be able to complete every game I own (I'm sorry Final Fantasy on NES—we never even got to have our final "goodbye"), but as long as I'm spending my time on the things I feel are most important, I'm sure my inner child won't mind too much.
Friday, April 7, 2017
Horizon Zero Dawn is perhaps the stupidest name for one of the coolest new IPs to come out this generation. It's a title so vague and meaningless that you could swap the nouns around and it would still produce the same word salad. Know what's a more fitting appellation? Posthistoric Robopocalypse: Rise of the Bowwoman. I wouldn't dare say that's a good name, but it most accurately represents what Horizon succeeds in doing—throwing the player into a tribal world overrun with robotic animals while also providing them the means to eventually overcome it. Across the +30 hour journey, you'll learn how to scavenge for parts, craft a multitude of ammo types, and hunt majestic machinations, until you become the master of this lawless domain. And by god, it is a gorgeous, brilliant, phenomenal experience that has (figuratively) blown my pants off.
The most unimaginative stunt that Horizon pulls is that it unabashedly copies from Ubisoft's open-world playbook. There's settlements to liberate, goodies to collect, raw materials to gather, side quests to stumble upon, and a nifty little skill tree to fill out, which all feels familiar if you've played any of the newer Far Cry titles. Luckily it's a solid blueprint to copy from, providing the player with dozens of hours of content to explore without going too far overboard (the icon-littered map may look crazy but your points of interest are relatively few). Had I not played and fallen in love with Far Cry 3 years prior I would've been head over heels for Horizon, but being able to recognize the tropes and gameplay loops of the open-world genre kept my enthusiasm mostly grounded.
Yet despite how familiar the structure of the world felt, it was the world itself that left me breathless. From the colorful, jaw-dropping vistas to the individual fibers of the robo-fauna's muscles, Horizon's resplendent landscapes exudes both majesty and marvel. The cybernetic critters don't feel strangely conspicuous or anachronistic, thanks in part to their elegant, animalian design, as well as the reverence Horizon's denizens show towards them. The way each tribe uses robotic components as decorative ornaments looks bizarre at first, but you slowly grow acclimated to it, eventually commending NPCs and their splendiferous headdresses (well, if you're me that is). There's a curious sense of fashion to Horizon's world that is one part ancient and one part sci-fi, two polar qualities that are never at odds as you venture from place to place, culture to culture.
Speaking of, each tribe comes with their own history, belief, and political clout in the world, leading the small state-sized landmass to feel like its own Mass Effect universe. True, you can identify archetypal fantasy civilizations in each culture (the Carja are patriarchal imperials, the Banuk are mountain mystics, and the Oseram are straight-up dwarves), but the way they're fleshed out adds some variations to each formula. Whereas collecting lore in a lot of other games tends to add personal/micro detail to the world, Horizon's scrolls act more like historical accounts of one culture's depictions of another, subject to whatever fallacies that may entail. And the quality of writing isn't merely just present in the plethora of text files—side quests routinely provide more of an incentive beyond "go fetch this thing because I said so". Perhaps you'll be looking for a lost lover that's been enlisted with the Shadow Carja, or needing to decide whether a mentally troubled man is a danger to his tribe, or infiltrating a deranged bomb expert's trap-laden valley. Even if a lot of the decisions you make don't have a massive impact on Horizon's world, the fact that you feel like an important player and actively want to learn more is enough to keep you poking around for hours on end.
One of Horizon Zero Dawn's most impressive feats (of which there are many) is that it makes the main mission as important and interesting as all of the side ones. This is no simple task; Bethesda games are rightly lambasted for having underwhelming main missions despite open world RPGs being their expertise. Guerrilla Games skirts this issue by pumping their central plot full of fascinating tidbits and lore, prompting the player to push onwards in order to uncover more juicy details (and perhaps save the world in the process). I won't spoil any of it, but the fact that Horizon takes time to convincingly explain why there are robotic dinosaurs prowling the land is something I totally wasn't expecting. Honestly, this is probably the most intriguing AAA plot I've played this generation.
Lastly, I suppose I should mention something about the gameplay, eh? As demonstrated by my enthusiasm, Horizon's world-building is undeniably its premier attraction, but the gameplay is no slouch either. There's a variety of weapons to use (each with their unique ammo types) and every enemy you face has weak zones to target, ensuring a combat depth that goes beyond "just shoot them in the head". However the more time you spend playing the game the more you have to acknowledge the its eccentricities: for instance, Horizon pegs itself as an RPG but the only way to increase damage is to find and equip damage modules, which is quite unintuitive at first (upgrading only gives you more ammo types). Some enemies are also too mobile for you to reliably hit their weak points, causing endgame battles to ultimately favor blast damage arms (tripcaster, shadow sling). The melee combat feels pretty loose and shoddy—I'm not asking for God of War combos but there's really only two "branches" of slow attacks the player can perform, leading to a lot of senseless button mashing. Oh—slightly unrelated—but gathering health for the health pouch is a chore (the gain you get per herb really needs to be doubled)
I call these eccentricities and not faults because for the most part, the combat works as intended. Once you learn to utilize the roll and its i-frames, facing off against Horizon's fiercest predators can be extremely thrilling, whether it be the ice-spitting Snapmaw or the boulder-manipulating Behemoth. The mighty Stormbird in particular is a feast for the eyes and thumbs; its devastating lightning and dive attacks serve as a suitable test for your dexterity; tying the colossal foe down a challenge for your aim. I didn't even mind grappling with Horizon's few humanoid foes, the base infiltrations a fun endeavor that I always somehow managed to mess up (got close to ghosting a couple of them!) The game is lenient enough that you never have to be on your A-game even on Hard, but it demands that you respect its robotic inhabitants, quick to remind you that their serrated iron teeth can tear you limb from limb. You'll achieve a sense of pride in slowly working your way up the food chain, toppling each unique metal monstrosity one by one, until you become the most dangerous predator around.
Horizon Zero Dawn isn't perfect, but at no point did I ever find myself chiding the game for its shortcomings. Every time I played it I was excited; every story beat I reached surprised me; every battle I fought engaged me. Horizon didn't feel like a product churned out to appeal to a specific "hardcore" market—it was a game crafted with great care that sought to captivate as much as it wanted to entertain. With its lush world, compelling story, and flexible combat, this debut has earned itself the honor of being the strongest title the PS4 currently possesses. What Guerrilla Games has pulled off is an extremely commendable feat; the worst part about having to write this entry is accepting that my time with Horizon is over.
Bravo Bowwoman, bravo.
Images obtained from: youtube.com, iansteffen.com