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Odd Thoughts: Optimism in Gaming

I miss when video games were fun.

Oh not the games themselves – they still are fun as heck – but more so everything surrounding them.  In recent years, gaming has been something of a ‘problematic fave’ to borrow a term.  You can enjoy the product but damn if the dubious ethics of the publishers, the foaming rage of the fandoms, and the all out tug-of-war over artistic merit doesn’t sour the whole experience a little bit.  When its gotten back to the point where people are backing away from being labeled “gamer” again (albeit for wholly different reasons) you know things have gotten bad.

I don’t get it.  I really don’t.  I don’t know if its something about my experiences or upbringing or when I got into gaming or anything but a lot of this stuff doesn’t seem that complicated to me.  Enjoy games.  Treat other people with respect. Don’t assume your view is the only valid one.  Sesame Street taught me this stuff.  But even I’ll admit that there were periods in my life where I let them slip.  I suppose none of us are without flaws.

Still it’s weird to be an outsider because of things like ‘giving the benefit of the doubt’ and ‘being optimistic about games’.  For instance, I really liked the original ending to Mass Effect 3.  I may have mentioned that on this blog a few (dozen) times.  But I really did.  It felt like a solid science fiction open ended ending that you would find in like an old Heinlein novel or something.  I never got the whole ‘your choices didn’t matter’ thing because really, the entire game was a culmination of your choices.  I bumped into faces that I did a side mission for back in ME1 and helped out or let live.  Not everything got a big dramatic cutscene but if you read all the things (Note: This was before Final Fantasy XIII taught me that gamers don’t like to read apparently.  Put down your torch, that was a joke.) your previous choices DO have an affect on things.  Like the Rachni.  If you take the Rachni back with you in ME3, the outcome is dependent on whether you saved them in ME1.  If you did, then these Rachni will remember you and benefit the war effort.  If you killed them, these are artificial Reaper controlled rachni and they will go nuts in your labs and you’ll lose precious resources from the war effort.  Yes. That’s in the game.

So how is all that the benefit of the doubt?  Well, generally I don’t just discount something because it’s obtuse or doesn’t make sense right away.  I was a fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion after all.  I suppose it got drilled into me back in film school.  There’s meaning and purpose behind things we create.  You just might not see them right away.  Take the previously mentioned Final Fantasy XIII trilogy.  Is it flawed?  Very.  Is it difficult to understand? Can be.  But if you take the time, savor it, and take in everything that it offers to you – I found it to be a magnificent game with a wonderfully fascinating story.

Even outside of game plots, there are things like DLC.  Downloadable content has been viewed almost universally as a blight on the gaming landscape.  Assumed to be lazy cash grabs or content ripped out from the finalized game in order to sell later to make additional cash.  While I can’t argue that those things have never occurred and certainly can point to a few examples where they most definitely have, there are some positives to DLC that I don’t ever think get given the time of day.  Take that “content ripped from the final game” concept.  I see that one a lot.  Especially with games like RPGs.  People argue that they should have just included it in the final game and not sold it separately, that in ‘ye olden days’ of gaming that you would get the full product at a single price.  Which isn’t really true.  A lot of the stuff that ends up being DLC is stuff that is planned for the game, but can’t be finished by date they need to go gold by (the date the game needs to be finished so they can send it to be mass produced and packaged for the actual release day).  A lot of times, studios will keep working on polishing the game after that point and push those updates out as a big ‘day one patch’.  But a lot of times content that was planned like that would just be cut or dummied out.  That happened A LOT in the old days.  Heck, there’s entire plotlines to the original Knights of the Old Republic that got dummied out, and a romance plot too.  Games can have massive unexplorable areas that were going to be used for something but there was no time to finish it.  Going back to Mass Effect, a lot of the complaints about the DLC being “on the disc” were only partially right because yes, these planned for expansions were planned for and thus their bare bones were already in place but incomplete.  All the dialogue and scenes where Kasumi Goto in Mass Effect 2 interacting with the existing missions/story were on the disc, but her model was a generic placeholder and her recruitment mission and loyalty mission where absent.

DLC is something that can – and often is – used as a second chance to save ideas from the scrap pile without having to sacrifice a release date window.  But people often assume the worst, greediest, and most scummy practices imaginable.  Again, I can’t say those horrible views are based somewhat on fact.  There have been cases of that happening.  I just think that its awfully pessimistic to paint the whole concept of post-launch content with such a negative brush based on those incidents.  Now whether you don’t think the price is worth it is a whole other debate, and really that always comes down to personal taste.  No different than ‘Is this game worth X dollars?’.  Sometimes it isn’t.  No I don’t want to spend $1.50 on a swimsuit I personally won’t ever use in Final Fantasy XIII-2 (I do have the swimsuit outfits, but that’s because they came as part of a bundle.)

I suppose a lot of this can be viewed as the ‘gaming fandom’ going through its cynical teenage years of being a long term fanbase.  But there’s always those who buck the flow, and Indy gaming being embraced so wholeheartedly is just one sign of that.  The fact that games made by small teams that don’t just become best sellers, but spawn entire fan followings solely around their games can just so that people can find something positive to enjoy in gaming still.  It’s not just a bunch of grumps spouting witty cynicisms like a bunch of jaded critics.  Gaming is something that should be enjoyable.  Be that conquering the hardest difficulty if that’s your thing, or playing on ‘Story’ difficulty because you’re interested in the story and lore.  You should play what you enjoy and how you enjoy.  Be it Braid or Boy and His Blob, Tetris or Tekken – just enjoy your games.

Of course, that’s not that there isn’t anything to be concerned about with gaming in general.  I mean, from the online threats to the unethical pressures publishers have pushed on developers, gaming as an industry and as a medium has a long way to go.  And yes, there are plenty of valid criticisms that can be discussed about games.  But if there was one thing I learned back in art school, it was that criticism is healthy for growth, and not everyone is going to like everything.  Heck, my own writing was often berating for having ‘no substance beyond being entertaining.’  I personally believe that the important thing is to keep looking forward at how games can improve, how we can enjoy our entertainment to the fullest, and be considerate of other viewpoints that will help gaming grow into a vast and diverse community where we can all enjoy things.

Then again that’s all just me.  I said I didn’t want to preach and I meant it. I’m not going to demand that my view is the right one, or the only valid one.  It’s just mine.  I just miss when games were fun.

Serah the Explorah: Final Fantasy XIII-2 Part Three

XIII-2_Main_Menu

Well, it’s been a while. The wheels of time spin ever onward into the black nothing that is everything.  Or something.  That being said with the announcement of all three XIII games being released for PC via Steam, I think it’s time I put the finishing touches on my critique of the second installment of the “Lightning Trilogy” now that the Fabula Nova Chrystalis includes Final Fantasy Type-Zero and the upcoming Final Fantasy XV which I am eagerly awaiting and dreading since the sheer amount of cash I know I will have to drop on a Playstation 4 to play it will render me a pauper panhandling for pixels.

Anyway, the only thing really left for me to talk about is the general game mechanics and since this is a sequel you’d think there wouldn’t be much to talk about in that department, but there actually is.  See there were a lot of complaints people had with the original Final Fantasy XIII.  The lack of exploration, minimal sidequests, the extremely linear crystarium leveling system, and the list of course goes on.  XIII-2 does its best to try and remedy a lot of those complaints.

For instance, most locations you visit are quite open, with big fields and sprawling towns that you can look around and talk to people in.  The weird little floating terminal shops are replaced with the more annoying time-and-space-bending Chocolina (I like her but I’ve been told that she is…  ahem… “Weird and annoying.”  So there’s that.)  and there are a ton of sidequests that not only involve going around and exploring the area you are in, but will routinely require you to travel to alternate timeline versions or future/past versions of the same location to complete.  There’s a bunch of sidequests too.  Ranging from simple fetch quests through time and space to defeating powerful enemies.  Some include game wide spanning tasks like completing maps of areas (which requires time travel again because some areas are only accessible in certain points of time) or gathering lore objects to unlock new abilities.

The crystarium was brought back in an improved form as well.  The original crystarium was pretty much just a straight replacement for gaining experience and abilities from leveling up.  You got points, put those points into whatever class you wanted to level up, and unlocked new abilities.  Each path was pretty linear.  In XIII-2, the Crystarium is equally linear… sort of.  The actual path of the Crystarium is pretty much a straight line following the design of a character’s weapon.  However, where things got interesting is instead of having each node be a set bonus or ability, the game leaves it to you to decide which class (sentinel, commando, etc) to level up.  Based on which class you assign to a node determines which bonuses to attack, magic, or defense you get and the size of the node determines how big the bonus is.  So a larger sphere might give you a +10 to a stat, while a smaller one gives you a +2 or something.

Once you’ve assigned a certain number of spheres to a class, you will unlock abilities.  For example, every 10th sphere for a class grants a new ability and everything in between gives stat bonuses.  It’s actually a really clever system to add some customization. You can min max to make sure you get all the bonus you want, or you can just do what I want and just fill out the Crystarium with a single class until you unlock everything and then move on to the next one.

Now, you may be wondering how this is possible when a linear crystarium with a set pattern clearly has a beginning and end.  Well, once you completely fill up the pattern you get a new blank one to fill out.  When this happens you get a choice to either boost an existing class you put spheres in on this “level” of the crystarium, or unlock a class you don’t already have like saboteur or medic. But keep in mind, the point cost for each sphere continually increases. So the higher you go, the pricier things get.

Speaking of classes, in Final Fantasy XIII you had three party members to balance out the roles.  But in XIII-2 you only have Noel and Serah! How can this work?  Well, that’s something else they added to this game: Monster partners.  There’s a chance when you defeat a monster, you’ll have a chance to get a crystal that carries that monster’s essence, which will allow you to summon them in combat to assist.  Each monster has a pre-set class that can be leveled with its own crystarium that improves with monster food that you can find or buy.  You can also dress the monsters up in silly hats.  Not that I did.   Much.

I suppose I should talk about the elephant in the room: The downloadable content.  Yes, this is – as far as I’m aware – the first Final Fantasy to employ DLC.  I might be wrong there. The DLC for this game falls into three categories: Outfits, Arena Opponents, and Story DLC. There’s not much to say about the outfits.  They’re usually just skimpy outfits for Serah and increasingly weird outfits for Noel that look like something from Cirque Du Soleil. The one I DID like was the Mass Effect N7 armor, because then I can put Serah in something that looks like practical armor for once instead of a bikini.  There are also some weapons you can buy, and to be fair they tend to be fairly powerful in the early game but quickly get eclipsed once you start upgrading the other weapons in the late game.

The Arena Opponents are insanely powerful monsters to test your mettle against in  the Coliseum that gets unlocked with the Snow DLC.  They include anything from Snow and Lightning, to homages like Ultros and Typhon from FF6 to staples of the series like Omega Weapon.  The best part is that if you defeat these powerful enemies, you gain the ability to summon them in battle like the monsters.  Which is kind of weird for Snow and Lightning, but whatever.  I was never able to beat any of them during the actual game.  Pretty sure these are for the folks that are on their New Game+ playthrough or something.

Finally, the two story DLCs are Sazh and Lightning’s stories.  They kind of fill in some of the gaps with the other characters.  Sazh’s DLC is essentially playing at a trans-dimensional casino for both his and his son’s lives, and learning the truth behind our supernaturally everywhere-at-once shop keep Chocolina.  Lightning’s DLC is actually an epilogue to the game that bridges the gap between XIII-2 and Lightning Returns and features an insanely long battle against Caius that involves Lightning dying over and over and coming back stronger each time like a season of Dragonball Z.

If you want my recommendation, skip the outfits and the arena stuff unless you really want to do dress up and have a good challenge.  The Story DLC is actually kind cool and a fun break from the main game.  Especially the Sazh stuff, since it actually lets you play the casino games which include poker, slots, and a weird clock based card game that is really fun.

The only other thing that comes to mind to talk about would be the fact that like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy XIII-2 employs a New Game+ that allows you to access multiple endings called “Paradox Endings”.  At the end of the game, you get a special ability called a Paradox Scope.  By re-beating levels, sometimes with alternates means, with the Paradox Scope activated you can get the eight extra Paradox Endings for the game.  The fights for these Paradox Endings are incredibly tough but also kind of cool to see all the different ways the story would have ended by creating paradoxes.

An interesting thing to note, is that each of the Paradox Endings supposedly make references to things that happen or exist in Lightning Returns, a game that takes place after the Chaos floods the world at the end of this game.  No clue why.  It’s just one of those really neat things someone noticed.

Overall, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is probably my favorite of the XIII games.  A return to exploration and side-quests, a lighter more enjoyable story that doesn’t feel rushed or jam packed with “See Wiki for more info” bits, and the whole time travel thing was actually really enjoyable.  Especially seeing all the different locations with hundreds of years of difference.  It’s probably the most fun of the three in terms of sheer attitude.  I know some people really didn’t like Serah or Noel for…  reasons I suppose.  I never quite got it myself.  Serah is pretty much the best parts of Vanille and Lightning in the first game without all the annoying beats or horrifically tragic backstory.

Well, that wraps up my talk on Final Fantasy XIII-2 and hopefully I’ve convinced at least a few people to try it out when it comes out on Steam.   While I would recommend playing XIII first, I know that’s a hard sell so I won’t blame you if you skip it.  Heck, Square Enix won’t either.  The console version had a recap of FF13 option right on the main menu of XIII-2, and I’m going to assume that it will on the Steam version too.  So go ahead and skip the first game and just use the recap.  It’s easier to understand I’ll admit.  But if you enjoy Final Fantasy, I would recommend trying out this gem that many overlooked because of the negative reception of the first game.

Mass Effect 3 Leviathan: The Aftermath

This post contains no spoilers for the Mass Effect 3 DLC, Leviathan.  It also makes no sense unless you’ve played it.  It’s kinda like a double edged sword.  Of puns.  And plot.  But not important plot.  You know what? #$%& it, I suck at metaphors. Here’s the bit:

Ashley: Shepard, what are you doing with Dr. Bryson’s experiment?
Shepard: Going a-head with the war, Ash.
Ashley: No. We’re not doing this.
Shepard: But they say two heads are better than one!
Ashley: I’m dumping you.
Shepard: Thanks for the heads up.
Ashley: Scratch that. I’m gonna kill you.
Shepard: No need to lose your head!
Ashley: GAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
BANG! POW! BOOM!

Meanwhile on the Lower Decks…
James: Best. Idea. Ever.
Liara: I concur.
EDI: Indeed.

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