Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Six

Another fortnight has passed, and that means it's time for another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to grace the Giant Bomb blogosphere. If you don't know the drill by now then you probably never will, but allow me to entertain your curiosity with a quick explanation anyway. As a long-time Final Fantasy fan who's become somewhat disillusioned with JRPGs, I've been revisiting my favourite game in the franchise and analysing it from the perspective of a twenty-first century gamer. As cynical and critical as it is nostalgic, Enduring Final Fantasy VII is my attempt to determine once and for all whether Final Fantasy VII deserves to be revered as one of the greatest games ever - is it a game that's endured these past fifteen years? Or has the passage of time rendered it an experience that must be endured? I aim to find out, one interminably-delayed episode at a time.

Episode Twenty-Six - Under The Sea

Last episode saw the return of Cloud (in more ways than one), and I pick the action back up in the operations room of the Highwind airship. The first item on my agenda is to re-jig my placeholder party into something that more closely resembles a battle team. I opt to build that team using Cloud, Cid and Barret. Cloud, up until now my go-to guy for the 'tank' role, now becomes a dedicated mage - loaded up with spells and summons, the ability to Sense, and a couple of MP Plus Materia, it'll be Cloud's job to identify and exploit enemy weaknesses. Cid takes on the role of a support character - his Materia slots are filled with healing spells, buffs and debuffs, but he's also a pretty sturdy melee option. Finally, Barret takes over Cloud's usual role as the team damage-sponge - his augmented HP ensures he'll be able to withstand all the hits that my favourite Cover/Counter Attack Materia will bring his way, and a Deathblow/HP Absorb Materia pairing will hopefully go some way towards keeping his health topped up.

With my team now ready and raring to go, I leave the operations room and head for the airship's deck. A quick word with the pilot puts the Highwind in my control, letting me fly from Mideel over to Junon. Talking to the Highwind's crew, my attention is drawn to the fact the pilot apparently has a 'level'. This is one (admittedly very minor) aspect of Final Fantasy VII that has always confused me, and this latest playthrough is no different - I have absolutely no idea what the number beside the pilot's name actually means. Last time I checked, he was level 4. Now he's level 8, and I have no idea why. It doesn't have any impact on gameplay that I'm aware of - a higher level doesn't make the Highwind faster or easier to control. Nor have I been able to securely pin its improvement to anything happening in-game - it doesn't seem to be a reflection of the player's Highwind mileage, and I don't think it's directly tied to story progression either. I'm not entirely sure why, but the existence of this arbitrary number bothers me a little. Maybe it's because levels in games are typically tied to the concept of progress (especially in the case of an RPG like Final Fantasy VII), but in the case of this pilot, that progress is neither measurable nor rewarded. It's just... sort of... there.

Leaving my hang-ups about the pilot's level on the deck of the Highwind, I disembark the airship and head into Junon. I'm not sure if it's the different choice of music, but this visit to the coastal city feels much more sombre than my pass through on the first disc. The fact the place seems almost empty probably contributes to the foreboding atmosphere as well. At the far end of town, a Shinra guard blocks the entrance to the elevator, and refuses to let Cloud pass unless he forks over 10 Gil. This exchange is one of the best subtly effective examples of world-building I've encountered in a video game. At this point in the game, 10 Gil is inconsequential. Heck, 10 Gil is an inconsequential amount of cash right off the bat in Final Fantasy VII - a humble potion will set you back five times that. The fact this guard is willing to take that pittance as a bribe really emphasises just how awful it must be to work in the employ of the Shinra Electric Power Company. Juxtapose it with the estimate of 10 billion Gil to rebuild Midgar's Sector 7 (an expense the President believes is justified to wipe out AVALANCHE), and you get an idea of the level of financial disparity in the world of Final Fantasy VII. All that, inferred through a simple bribe request. That's pretty cool.

I pay the bribe and ride the elevator up to city level. The guards here reveal that the Shinra soldiers are already down at the Underwater Reactor, preparing to extract the Huge Materia. Passing through the city, Cloud notices that the Junon skyline seems a little emptier than usual - the recognisable cannon is nowhere to be seen. The journey from here to the Underwater Reactor is an unremarkable route through several similar grey corridors, punctuated by random encounters with Shinra grunts. It's not until you're actually underwater that things begin to take on a more interesting aesthetic - glass tunnels revealing the sea-life on Junon's coast, and the scale of the Reactor. Inside the complex itself, the visuals (and music) take on a grimy industrial feel that's more in keeping with the established vibe of Junon and Midgar.

The party reach the core of the Reactor just in time to see the Huge Materia carried out by a mechanical arm and loaded onto a nearby submarine. Reno of the Turks is waiting nearby, and he sets a Shinra robot known as the Carry Armor on the team to stall them. This encounter demands some strategic planning - the boss has a powerful laser attack which cuts my party's HP almost in half, and it also has the ability to pick up party members with its arms, rendering them unable to contribute to the fight. To get around this, I get Cid to throw up a party-wide Wall spell to negate some of the laser damage, followed by a party-wide Haste spell to ensure I deal with Carry Armor's arms as quickly as possible. Thankfully, Carry Armor is a robot, and therefore has an obvious flaw - a devastating weakness against electrical magic. This little fact makes Cloud invaluable throughout the battle, his Bolt 3 spells doing around 4000 damage a turn and quickly obliterating the boss's troublesome arms. After that, it's simply a case of chipping away at the body while occasionally topping up the Wall spell. It doesn't take long to reduce Carry Armor to nothing but shorted circuits and blown fuses.

By the time the battle's over Reno has vanished, and so has the submarine carrying the Huge Materia. Cid suggests hijacking the remaining sub and using it to chase down the escapees. I run over to the other docked sub, picking up some items along the way (including a set of Leviathan's Scales that are sure to come in handy some time in the future). The takeover is quick and painless (at least for my party), and within minutes the team have full control of a Shinra submarine.

The submarine pursuit pans out as yet another of Final Fantasy VII's infamous mini-games. Set in a fully-3D grid-based environment, the player must pilot their submarine through the ocean in order to locate, attack and sink the red submarine within a ten minute time limit. As you'd expect, it's not quite as straightforward as that - there are other subs in the ocean that won't hesitate to attack you, and the ocean floor is littered with mines that will damage your sub if you collide with them. If your sub's armour bar empties, or you fail to stop the red sub within the time limit, the mini-game is failed. It's a fairly simple game to get the hang of, and doesn't really pose much of a challenge (despite not playing this sequence for several years, and forgetting there was a sonar button, I was able to sink the red sub in just over two minutes). Much like the motorbiking and snowboarding mini-games that precede it, it looks pretty rough and suffers from some questionable collision detection, but that doesn't detract too much from the fact it's a nice distraction from the more traditional aspects of Final Fantasy VII's gameplay.

Beating the submarine mini-game grants the party free use of the Shinra sub from here on out. With that comes the ability to scour the ocean floor, allowing the player to explore the world map below sea level. Admittedly, it's not as spectacular as that sentence makes it sound. The only part of the ocean you can really explore is the central ocean between the eastern and western continents, and there's not a lot to see save for a couple of side-quests and a bit of story exposition (some of which I'll probably cover in the next episode). The submarine controls almost identically to the Highwind, but interestingly, differently to how it controls in the submarine mini-game. Not sure who decided that was a good idea. All in all, it's a neat way of adding a bit more depth (no pun intended) to world map exploration, but with the roster of vehicles already standing at a buggy, a decommissioned plane and an airship, I'm not sure it was entirely necessary.

As the party haul up the retrieved piece of Huge Materia, they receive a radio transmission telling them that another piece of Huge Materia is about to be flown out of Junon airport. Seeing a perfect opportunity to complete their set, Cloud and the gang surface their shiny new tin can and emerge just outside Junon on the world map. Thinking this a pretty good place to call time on our aquatic adventures for now, I open the menu, save the game, and turn off the PSP.

So at the close of Episode Twenty-Six, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 53), Cid (Lv 55), Barret (Lv 49)
  • Current Location - Junon Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 36:54

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No DealEpisode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train
Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final StandEpisode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth

So there you have it, another episode in the bank. I hope readers are still enjoying this fortnightly forays into Final Fantasy VII as much as I'm enjoying writing them. I think the next episode (due on Sunday May 13th) will probably just end up covering a couple of the game's side quests and optional story segments - I'll revisit Wutai to explore the rest of Da Chao, raid the sunken Gelnika airship, witness some pieces of story exposition involving Vincent and Cloud, and maybe even try my luck at some chocobo breeding. Until then, take it easy, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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A Soul-Crushing Blow

What I was able to play of Soul Reaver was great

About a week into April, shortly after my war of attrition with Grand Theft Auto was finally won, I started playing Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. It's a game I've been wanting to play for quite a while now, ever since I experienced the sequel all the way back at the start of 2009. Its environment-based puzzles, brilliant voice acting and complex narrative all kept me hooked from beginning to end. Last year I was able to get my hands on the original, spotting a copy of it on the shelf in my local Gamestation. I snapped it up without hesitation, paid the meagre £1.99 asking price and took it home, placing it on the pile of games marked 'to play sooner rather than later'. This month I finally started playing it, and was really enjoying the experience.

Until disaster struck.

I'd been working my way through Soul Reaver slowly, clocking up about ten hours' worth of play time across the last two weeks, and up until yesterday everything I'd seen really impressed me. Unsurprisingly, the game boasts a number of similarities to its sequel. A heavy focus is placed on solving environmental puzzles in order to progress, something I've come to recognise as developer Crystal Dynamics' action-adventure trademark through playing not only Soul Reaver and Soul Reaver 2, but also their trilogy of Tomb Raider games. The combat mechanics are fairly simplistic, but are spiced up by the invulnerable nature of the foes - their vampiric status means you have to make creative use of the environment to burn, impale and drown them into oblivion. The boss battles I fought were well-structured and rewarding without ever being frustrating. It even looks pretty great for an original PlayStation game, the gorgeous, decadent gothic art style and detailed character models belying the lack of graphical horsepower in Sony's first console. Sure, the game suffers from some of the characteristic problems of first-generation 3D games (awkward camera control and imprecise platforming being the big ones that spring to mind), but these barely detract from the overall experience.

If you've been clamouring for a dark Zelda, play Soul Reaver

Arguably the most impressive thing about Soul Reaver, though, is just how far ahead of its time it must have been way back when it was first released in 1999. The first 'blown away' moment came when I realised that the game was streaming the huge, seamless, 3D world of Nosgoth from the disc with no load times. And I'm not saying that in a fancy, spin-marketing kind of way - in the ten hours I played, right up until the aforementioned disaster, I don't think I saw a single loading screen during gameplay. To a modern gamer this fact might seem like a moot point, what with all the open-world games on the market that do the same thing, but I'll say it again - this game came out in 1999, on the original PlayStation. Take that into consideration and the fact the game provides a genuine seamless environment while still looking pretty damned great seems a fitting testament to how ahead-of-its-time Soul Reaver was.

There are other ways in which Soul Reaver seems to pre-empt the coming generation, some of which I've already mentioned - like the completely voice-acted script, recorded not by barely-competent voice actors but genuine big-hitters like Simon Templeman and the late, great Tony Jay. Their excellent performances really help to step the story up a notch, adding further gravitas and weight to a wonderfully-woven gothic tale of vengeance. Arguably the biggest moment of realisation that I had was about five hours into my playthrough, after trawling through the second 'dungeon' and beating the boss at its end. It was as the boss fell and I earned the ability to scale walls that I noticed the similarities between Soul Reaver and one of its contemporaries - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Mechanically, the two games have a lot in common - puzzle-based dungeon-crawling, strategic boss battles, earning new items and abilities which open up new areas of the map for exploration, two distinct versions of the same world that the player must traverse between to solve puzzles and move on... The list is almost endless. The big difference is that while the Zelda series is steeped in twee, innocent fantasy, Soul Reaver cloaks itself in the macabre. Putting it simply, Soul Reaver strikes me as a successful attempt at a dark Zelda game - one developed long before the gaming community started demanding one.

My time as Raziel has sadly been brought to an early end

I'm sure the back end of the game is just as satisfying, if not more so, but I can't say for certain. My time with Soul Reaver was brought to a premature end yesterday, as I started experiencing disc read errors. They came consistently, always hitting right at the end of the boss battle in the Drowned Abbey. Cleaning the disc has also proven fruitless, which leaves me with just one conclusion - that one of the scuffs on the under-side of the disc runs a little deeper than a simple surface mark. It's incredibly frustrating, because I was really enjoying the game and was hoping to use my long weekend to see it through to the end. Now, thanks to those pesky disc read errors, I won't be seeing the end for a while yet, if at all. I've blogged in the past on the drawbacks of buying older games second-hand, specifically the unfortunate situation that arose when I purchased a used copy of the PS2 adventure game Primal way back in May 2009. These days I'm pretty meticulous when it comes to checking the condition of game discs before I buy pre-owned software. This pedantry extended to the purchase of Soul Reaver - the store I bought it from had two copies of the game, and I made a point of asking to see both before walking away with the better-faring of the two discs. Unfortunately I think this is just a hazard that comes with the territory of regularly buying and playing old games, and one I'm probably going to experience a few more times as I attempt to whittle down my Pile of Shame.

So for now, Soul Reaver returns to that pile unfinished. I am desperate to see the journey through to its conclusion, though, and I'm already thinking about ways of doing it for when I get paid at the end of the month. One option is to shell out for another used copy of the game on a site like Amazon or eBay - that would cost me around a fiver and would mean I'd be able to continue my game from my last save, but it would also mean running the risk of receiving another defective copy of the game. On the flip-side, for a similar price I could buy the game through the PlayStation Store and play it on my PSP - that would eliminate the possibility of any more disc read errors, but the sacrifice for that security would be having to start from scratch. In the meantime, while I think about how to approach the situation, I've moved on to try and tackle another original PlayStation title - Vagrant Story. Here's hoping my disc read error woes don't carry over to that title as well. Thanks for reading guys, I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Vagrant Story (PS1)

14 Comments

Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Five

They say there ain't no rest for the wicked. Here I am, giving up time I'd otherwise be using to nap, just so I can push out another update for my fortnightly serial blog which aims to determine if Final Fantasy VII still has something to offer a modern audience. I must have been really cruel in a past life. Roll title card!

Episode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth

At the end of the last episode, we'd just witnessed an eruption from the Lifestream that tore the small town of Mideel apart. Most of the crew escaped, but Cloud and Tifa were caught in the eruption and ended up plummeting deep into the Lifestream. It's here that we pick the action back up.

Tifa regains awareness in a dark void, surrounded by nothing but a distant clamour of noises. While it's never made explicit, Tifa's utterances make it seem like she's being accused of doing something terrible. Whatever's going on, it overwhelms her, forcing her to her knees and back into a state of unawareness. When she comes to again, it's in a different setting - a surreal dreamscape, populated with different instances of Cloud. From what Tifa says, it's possible to work out that this ethereal place represents Cloud's own subconscious. Each instance of Cloud represents a different, suppressed part of his memory. It's up to Tifa to help Cloud recover and repair those memories, so that he might emerge from his coma and finally lay his internal conflicts to rest.

The first part of Cloud's memory that Tifa tries to repair is that of his supposed arrival in Nibelheim five years ago. Tifa takes one instance of Cloud to the gates of Nibelheim, where the events play out as Cloud seems to remember them - Sephiroth arriving in town with Cloud accompanying him as a newly-promoted SOLDIER First-Class. It's here that Tifa intervenes, and finally admits to Cloud that he wasn't with Sephiroth on that day. Sephiroth had been joined by a fresh-faced member of SOLDIER, but it wasn't Cloud. Instead, it was the black-haired young man that Sephiroth showed to Cloud in his vision back at the North Crater. Tifa confesses that she didn't want to say anything, because she was afraid of how Cloud might react to the truth.

With Cloud's first attempt at recollection now shattered, he begins to question other memories as well. The second instance of Cloud is sitting before a vision of the well in Nibelheim, and seems to be contemplating the possibility that the promise he made to Tifa in their teenage years was just another fabricated memory. Tifa leads him into the memory of that night, and tries to convince him of its authenticity. Remembering something Sephiroth said about Cloud's memories being built around Tifa's own, she tries to force him into sharing a memory from their childhood that she doesn't have. She asks him why he wanted to join SOLDIER, and Cloud confesses that he wanted her to notice him. Finally, he seems to be hitting on a memory all of his own.

Tifa approaches the third and final instance of Cloud in this realm, and is allowed to gaze into his own private memory - a memory of a time when Tifa barely even knew Cloud existed. Cloud takes Tifa back to the day her mother died, and how afterwards, she ventured into the dangerous Nibel mountains alone. Cloud went after her, but after both took a bad fall and Tifa ended up in a week-long coma, it was Cloud who received the blame for taking her to such a dangerous place. His anger at the misdirected blame, coupled with his determination to grow strong enough to protect Tifa and earn her attention, were what ultimately drove the young Cloud towards a career in SOLDIER. These memories are proof enough to confirm at least one truth for both of them - that Cloud is the same person who Tifa grew up with in Nibelheim.

With that proven, only one thing remains to be done - to revisit Cloud's memories of Nibelheim and see if the full truth will finally surface. Cloud chooses to revisit his memories of the events at the Mount Nibel Mako reactor, where, as before, Sephiroth is seen attacking Tifa at the entrance to Jenova's chamber. Once again the black-haired man appears in Cloud's position, and this time Cloud recognises him, identifying him as a SOLDIER First Class named Zack. The truth about Cloud's involvement in the Nibelheim incident is finally revealed as well - he was simply there as a Shinra lackey, afraid to reveal his identity to Tifa for fear of showing her that he hadn't fulfilled his ambition. Clothed in a regular Shinra infantry uniform, he witnessed the entire incident from the periphery. He even threw the fleeing Sephiroth into the Lifestream beneath the Nibel reactor. Unfortunately, whatever follows that remains a blur, at least for now.

Thankfully, enough clarification has been given to reunite the disparate threads of Cloud's mind. All the instances of Cloud merge, until Tifa is at last sitting beside the young man she grew up with in Nibelheim all those years ago. With Cloud finally himself again, the pair leave the Lifestream and return to the conscious world above.

I'm really glad this series' silver jubilee has fallen on such an iconic, important and meaningful moment of Final Fantasy VII's story arc. There's a lot I could say about the Lifestream sequence, both from a gaming perspective and (for the first time) from the perspective of a student of literature. I'll try and keep my write-up focused on the former, but given the latter is very much a new experience for me, I'll probably address it at least a little bit. Here goes...

As with so many other of Final Fantasy VII's pivotal story moments, I think the Lifestream sequence is worthy of praise due to its interactive nature. As Tifa, you're actually in control of this entire sequence. Admittedly, it's pretty limited control, but it still serves to amp up the player's emotional involvement in a way that simply sitting back and watching a cut-scene doesn't. By doing something as simple as moving Tifa around the screen, it feels less like you're watching Cloud's mind being reassembled, and more like you're actually the one re-assembling Cloud's mind. It's something that movies, books and other methods of story-telling simply can't do, and to see it done so well in a game that's nearly fifteen years old is pretty damned impressive. Equally rewarding is the fact that so many loose threads of the game's main story are finally tied up simply through this sequence. All the business with Sephiroth, the identity of the black-haired man, Cloud's confusion, Tifa's awkward avoidance of the subject - almost everything is dealt with and explained here, and I also feel like it's pretty well justified. Those of us who know the full story know that there's still a couple of questions that remain unanswered, but for now, the story has finally become whole enough to overlook the individual components and recognise the big picture. As a companion moment to Cloud's Kalm flashback and Sephiroth's reveal at the North Crater, it completes the trilogy of accounts of the Nibelheim incident in a satisfying way.

There are some things about the sequence that I'm not overly keen on. While I've praised the interactive nature of the sequence, it's definitely a case of including the absolute minimum of interactivity. I'm forced to think back to moments like Cloud's near-execution of Aerith beneath the City of the Ancients, where the interactive nature of the moment hit home in a much more powerful way. This sequence feels very procedural and uninvolved in comparison. That being said though, I'm not sure if a deeper level of interactivity would have improved it - in fact, it might have only served to distract from the plot exposition, which really is the most important thing about this part of the game. Another of my complaints is directed at the awkward translation, which makes the flow of the narrative difficult to follow. That complaint is one I've levelled at Final Fantasy VII as a whole throughout this series, so to bring it up again specifically here might seem a little unfair, but when a story reveal is dealing with so many abstract concepts and threads of uncertainty as this one is, clarity really is paramount. This sequence reminds me that the prospect of an improved translation would perhaps be the only thing that would turn me into an advocate of a Final Fantasy VII remake.

To briefly dip into the literature student side of my mind, I just want to quickly explore the symbolic significance inherent in this series of events unfolding in the Lifestream. Think about it - the Lifestream beneath the Planet's surface is a physical manifestation of the united souls of the dead. It kind of makes sense that in this environment, the minds of Tifa and Cloud would be able to unite and co-operate in the way we witness in these scenes. Not only that, the Lifestream is a representation of everything that's pure about the world of Final Fantasy VII. It serves to heal and protect the Planet, and in many ways that's what is also happening in this sequence - Cloud and Tifa are trying to find a way of healing Cloud's fractured mind, which in turn will allow Cloud to return to consciousness and continue in his efforts to stop Meteor from falling. Finally (and I recognise this is a really far-fetched interpretation), let's not forget that the Lifestream is now where Aerith's spirit resides. It might not have been intended by the developers, but I think it's pretty cool that it's possible to interpret that Aerith's spirit might have had a passive role in Cloud coming back to himself.

Cloud and Tifa awaken washed up near the enormous crater where Mideel used to be. The rest of the crew are nearby, and they waste no time in returning them to the Highwind. Back on board, Cloud recounts the whole story to his companions - how his real memories became confused with those of Tifa and his long-lost friend Zack, and how he'd come to believe that muddled account of events was the truth. Now broken free from the illusion that's held him since he turned up at the Sector 7 station, Cloud is ready to stop pretending and continue the fight to stop Meteor from crashing into the Planet. Cait Sith informs Cloud that the only reactor still harbouring Huge Materia is likely to be the underwater reactor at Junon. Now aware of my next destination, and with my PSP's battery close to death, I decide to wrap things up for this episode and head to the Operations Room to put together a placeholder party and save my game.

So at the close of Episode Twenty-Five, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 50), Cid (Lv 53), Red XIII (Lv 56)
  • Current Location - Highwind
  • Time on the Clock - 35:59

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No DealEpisode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train
Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final Stand

Like I said above, this part of the game seemed like a great way to mark this series' silver anniversary. It's kinda crazy to think I've written twenty-five of these things now. Based on how much of the game I have left to play, it's probably fair to estimate that there'll only be around fifteen more episodes of the series to come. I'm still really enjoying it though, and already looking forward to penning the next episode (which, if the recent un-written schedule is anything to go by, should be up in about a fortnight). As always, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

12 Comments

Cruisin' With The Top Down

Fuck this game. Seriously.

The last ten days have witnessed one heck of a war of attrition. On one side, yours truly - a twenty-two-year-old white male whose love for games is apparently only outweighed by a masochistic desire to self-inflict horrific gaming punishment. On the other, Grand Theft Auto - the fifteen-year-old great grand-daddy of one of the industry's most popular critically-acclaimed franchises. It's been a hard-fought war, with great numbers of casualties on both sides. Today, however, I finally beat the game into submission, and have just about survived to tell the tale of my great battle. Sit down and get comfortable, folks. This could be a pretty long story.

My first ever exposure to the original Grand Theft Auto was at the tender age of eight years old, when a friend from school managed to sneak it into my house. Despite being the very antithesis of the tear-aways that most eight-year-old boys are, I remember being captivated by the game's premise - being able to steal any car, go anywhere, and do pretty much anything you pleased as long as it didn't abide by the word of law. Neither of us had any idea there were missions in the game, but we were too busy shunting cop cars and blowing up passers-by to care. My mum caught the two of us playing it and threw my friend out of the house, horrified at the content of the game on the screen. Three years later, my parents now considering me informed and mature enough to make my own decisions on such matters, I was allowed to own a copy of this controversial crime-'em-up. Now a more seasoned player, the structure of the game became apparent to me - do missions, get cash, hit target, complete level - but I struggled with the game's imprecision and never managed to make it out of Liberty City. For me, Grand Theft Auto was a fun distraction - something to turn on for twenty minutes just to blow shit up, rather than a game I'd ever seriously think about trying to beat.

I saw a lot of this...

Fast-forward ten years or so to March 24th, 2012 - the day this war began. I picked Grand Theft Auto up on a whim, purely to distract myself while I decided what game to play after finishing Tomb Raider: Underworld the day before. I took on some missions, ran a few errands around Liberty City and before I knew it, I'd cleared the first of the game's six scenarios. "Hmmm," I found myself thinking, "Perhaps there's a possibility of me seeing this through to the end." I threw myself into the second scenario, and managed to beat that with relative ease as well. With the city of San Andreas opened up and my gaming adrenaline pumping, I committed myself to seeing this rampage through to the very end. After all, I'd just powered through the first two scenarios with no trouble at all. And with only four more to beat, how hard could it be?

...and this

It wasn't long before I started to regret making that commitment. The remaining four scenarios posed me countless problems as I stumbled through issue after issue. Some of these were the fault of the game - the imprecision of the controls and top-down perspective making gunfights near-impossible, missions hitting dead ends and not letting me progress, vehicles becoming stuck on something and refusing to come free, and the game completely locking up on me on three separate occasions. Some of them were my own fault - stupidly giving away lives, or needlessly getting arrested two or three times in quick succession and watching my impressive score multiplier plummet back down to nothing. Individually, and with the exception of the lock-ups, each of these problems isn't that big a deal. When you run into several of them in the same scenario, however, Grand Theft Auto quickly starts to verge on either impossible or unplayable.

I think these issues are compounded by the way that Grand Theft Auto was designed. It's very much a product of its time, a fact illustrated by the emphasis it places on high-scores and near-perfect runs. As a result, it's very unforgiving. Fail a mission and it's gone forever, no do-overs. Get arrested without a Get Outta Jail Free Card in your possession and your multiplier is sliced in half, drastically damaging your future earning potential. Want to save your decent progress at the halfway point of a scenario? Forget it, you've got to beat it in one straight run-through. All this makes Grand Theft Auto a challenging game, but also a very frustrating one. At multiple points in my time with the game, I seriously considered just putting it down and walking away from it forever. What's even worse is that I can't tell you for certain what kept bringing me back to it. It certainly wasn't the fun-factor, because taking the game seriously pretty much removes that completely. The best answer I can give is that I guess I didn't want this game to beat me yet again. I'd suffered that fate at its hands far too many times to let it get away with it this time. Thankfully, I managed to beat it before it beat me.

An off-hand knowledge of respray shop locations is invaluable

I may not have enjoyed playing Grand Theft Auto, but there's a lot to like about it. Having to rely on an actual map for orientation rather than simply following a blip on an on-screen mini-map made for an interesting change in a game of this type, as well as being evocative of my recent time spent with Skyrim and my constant references to the paper map pinned to my bedroom wall. Similarly, there was a rewarding element to the trial-and-error approach I found myself taking with the game. Every time I failed a scenario, I at least came away from it with a better knowledge of the map I was on - memorised locations of armour and Get Outta Jail Free Cards, which missions were easy enough to prioritise so I could quickly boost my multiplier - that I could carry into my next attempt. I extracted a lot of pleasure from learning the game, even if that amounted to just rewarding satisfaction rather than actual enjoyment. Another thing I appreciated was the level of detail that went into the game. Attention to detail is something that the later GTA games are lauded for, but I'd never extended that association to the original until now. Little touches like the radio fading as your car passes under a bridge, or each car having an appropriately-themed radio station, are incredible inclusions in a game that seems so shallow and facile on the surface. When everything else about the game had my face contorting into twisted grimaces, noticing things like that was usually enough to relax it back into a smile.

So there you have it, folks - that's the tale of how I vanquished Grand Theft Auto from my Pile of Shame. Now it's finished, I feel I can say with confidence and certainty that I'm never ever going to play it again. It's 1969 London mission pack and bona-fide sequel are still sat there, taunting me, but I think it's going to be quite some time before I'm ready to tackle either of them, if I choose to at all. My next GTA experience will probably be when I pick up Vice City towards the end of the year to celebrate its tenth anniversary. In the meantime, there are other (hopefully less frustrating) games on that Pile that won't play themselves! Thanks for reading guys, I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy XIII-2 (X360)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Four

Beamed into your home fortnightly by nothing but a writer's imagination and the magic of the interwebs, it's time for another episode in everybody's fourth-favourite JRPG-centric serial blog - dankempster's Enduring Final Fantasy VII!

Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final Stand

In the last instalment of our mammoth journey, we followed our band of intrepid adventurers to North Corel, where they were able to recover a piece of Huge Materia from the Shinra Electric Power Company. We left off just as my party of Cid, Barret and Red XIII set off for Fort Condor to retrieve the second piece, and that's where I'll pick things back up.

Inside Fort Condor, it looks like things haven't changed much since our first visit all the way back in Episode Six. Shinra are still laying siege to the decommissioned reactor, and its defenders are still just about holding them off. On Cid's arrival, he's told that the Shinra have changed their tactics and look set to launch a full-scale assault to reclaim the reactor and the Huge Materia within. This, naturally, calls for a return to the tower-defence mini-game that punctuated our first visit to the Fort some twenty-five hours ago. I've already said quite a bit about the reactor-defence mini-game in Episode Six, so I won't repeat myself here - if you want my opinion on it then that's the best place to check (short version: I like the concept, but it's very slow-moving and lacking in fun factor). Needless to say, this visit consists of more of the same, albeit with the difficulty turned right up to eleven.

If there's one thing that really bothers me about Fort Condor, it's that the whole mini-game feels like a wasted opportunity for something bigger. I don't just mean that in terms of the mechanics of it, I mean in terms of how the side-quest fits into the game. Yeah, you read that right - this is a side-quest. The two incidents at Fort Condor documented in this blog series are just the tip of a pretty vast iceberg. As the list at the bottom of this page shows, there are around a dozen battles that the player can get involved with before this final confrontation, each one triggered by a different happening in the course of the story. In that respect, it's a very developed side-quest. What's infuriating is that the player is never made aware of this at any time. I'm sure most players of the game, like myself, consider Fort Condor a two-visit locale - for the first time en route to Junon, and for the second time when collecting this Huge Materia. Up until my last playthrough of the game some four-and-a-half years ago, I didn't know anything about this hidden distraction at all. To quickly throw in another criticism before moving on, I'm disappointed this mini-game doesn't exist in some form at the Gold Saucer. It seems like a perfect fit for Wonder Square, and as we're about to see, this is very much the last chance to play it at Fort Condor. They're minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, but they do add up to make Fort Condor feel like a missed opportunity for something more involving.

The final fight for Fort Condor is gruelling, and far more fraught than it should have been, but I just about manage to put down all the enemy units before any of them can reach the top of the hill. No sooner than the battle is over, the condor on top of the reactor suddenly keels over in a blaze of light and fire. In its place is a newly-hatched baby condor, and a piece of Materia containing the new Summon spell Phoenix. Back inside the derelict reactor, the defenders thank the party for their involvement and reward them with their second piece of Huge Materia. With only one left to recover, Cid decides the party should take a break from their search to visit Cloud and Tifa. I fly the Highwind back to the southern islands and, after a little more grinding, head into Mideel.

Back at the clinic, Cloud's condition hasn't changed and Tifa seems to be clawing at the very edge of her sanity. Before too much can be said, though, the town is hit by an enormous earthquake - the Lifestream beneath Mideel is close to breaking point. On top of all this, one of the Weapons has descended upon the town. Cid, Barret and Red XIII take it upon themselves to deal with the threat, and a boss battle ensues. The first thing I notice as the fight begins is that the party and their foe are no longer in Mideel - instead, they've been forced into a generic forest backdrop. This comes as a bit of a disappointment, especially considering a lot of the earlier boss fights in the game took place in unique locations (the fight against Air Buster on the Sector 5 Reactor walkway and the fight with Palmer in Rocket Town both spring to mind). It's certainly an immersion-breaker. The battle itself is a pretty demanding one, with Ultimate Weapon throwing down its highly damaging Ultima Beam attack every turn. Thankfully a party-wide MBarrier spell absorbs some of the flak, and a quick succession of Limit Breaks and my newly-unlocked Ultima spell are enough to deter the Weapon from continuing its attack. Weakened, it takes to the skies once more.

Ultimate Weapon is the least of everyone's problems though, as the Lifestream flowing under Mideel continues to violently shake the earth above. Sensing imminent disaster the party disperses, leaving Cloud and Tifa to find their own way out of the danger zone. As the town begins to fall apart around them, the pair make their attempt to escape. It's a futile effort though - along with Mideel itself, Cloud and Tifa are caught in the quake and cast into the depths of the Lifestream, their fate uncertain. It's at this juncture that I'm choosing to bring this episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to a close.

No vital statistics this episode, due to not ending at a save point.

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No DealEpisode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth here.

Sorry for making this another short episode. My reasoning is simple - the upcoming sequences with Cloud and Tifa are a huge part of the game in terms of story revelations, and I want to make sure I give the plot developments plenty of breathing space. Given how the game chooses to convey those developments, I think I might have a lot to say from a gameplay standpoint as well - in short, expect Episode Twenty-Five to be pretty long. I'm also really eager to return to this part of the game, so expect it to surface a little sooner than in two weeks' time. In the meantime, all that's left for me to do is say thanks for reading, as always, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

4 Comments

Gaming's Orpheus: What Looking Back Has Cost Me

Underworld is more Legend than Anniversary

Yesterday, I completed Tomb Raider: Underworld. Seeing the credits roll on this final chapter in this journey has brought my time with the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider trilogy to an end. It's also made me feel a little bit like a video-gaming version of Orpheus, because having descended into Underworld and spent some time looking back, I can't help but feel that something I once treasured might have been lost to me forever.

I last played Tomb Raider: Underworld on its original release, way back in the closing months of 2008. Revisiting my Giant Bomb blogs from around that time, I got the impression that I really enjoyed the game on my first pass through. I praised the graphics and the success of the tried-and-tested combination of exploration, puzzle-solving and light combat, things I'd still be willing to agree with to an extent. Strangely, though, everything I had to say about the game was almost exclusively positive. The closest I came to deriding the game was in saying its ending " takes a brilliant plot setup with so much potential and manages to squander it all" - something which in itself confuses me greatly (more on that later). There was definitely no mention of the various problems I encountered on this playthrough.

One of the rare instances where Underworld shows you where to jump next

Let's discuss those problems, shall we? Quite a few of them seem to be tied to the game engine Underworld is running on. I'm guessing it's an updated version of the engine from Legend and Anniversary, but whatever changes made to accommodate the current generation of consoles seem to have had some damaging consequences for the gameplay. Collision detection seems to fail a lot more often than it should, a cardinal sin in a game which features so much precision platforming. The camera, occasionally unreliable in Legend and Anniversary, has become even worse - I can recall over twenty instances where the camera ended up not even focused on Lara, let alone demonstrating the ledge or pole I was supposed to be leaping to next. Both of these issues, seemingly minor on the surface, combine to turn almost every single extended platforming sequence in the game into a frustrating exercise in perseverance.

Remember earlier on, when I said that the comments I'd made regarding the story struck me as odd? That's because on my second pass through the game, I didn't encounter so much as a vestige of a brilliant plot set-up. A continuation of Legend's already paper-thin story, Underworld's plot also borrows heavily from the expanded storyline of Anniversary, marrying the two under the umbrella of proto-Norse mythology. I don't want to say too much here for fear of spoiling it (insofar as one can spoil something which spoils itself), because esteemed Giant Bomb veteran Sparky_Buzzsaw will eventually be playing Underworld and I don't want to ruin the... surprise for him. All I will say is, the 'revelations' of the plot come across as anachronistic and silly, and the denouement is one of the most anticlimactic video game endings I've ever endured. I suspect my change of heart has come from doing some study into Norse mythology as part of my University course, realising just how many liberties the writers at Crystal Dynamics took with it, and how ridiculous the entire concept is.

Combat's been overhauled in some meaningful ways

I don't want to give the impression that Underworld is a bad game. It's not, not by any stretch of the imagination. In some ways, it's an improvement - the graphics are an obvious step up, Lara's repertoire of moves is expanded in ways that add more depth to the platforming and combat, and the Anniversary philosophy of bigger levels and more involved puzzles is in full force here. But for every positive point, it feels there are at least two minor niggles that prevent it from being something great - the aforementioned camera and collision detection issues, the ridiculous story, the reduced length (which make this game around the same length that Legend was, maybe even shorter), the removal of boss fights, the lack of unlockables which severely cuts down on the game's replay value... It all adds up. It's a shame that even with the extra power of the current generation behind it, Underworld ends up being a step backwards for the series rather than forwards.

What does the future hold for my relationship with Lara?

Lara Croft is my gaming Eurydice. I've spent the last month or so attempting to recapture the relationship I had with her in my formative years, but making that choice to look back has probably cost more of those fond memories than it's rekindled. The painful truth has set in, as I've realised these games I once held up as something amazing are simply good. Yet I'm liable to keep going back. Right now I feel an urge to cast my net even further into the series' past and play one of the PS1 incarnations - perhaps Tomb Raider III, or maybe even the original. But that urge is just weighing down one side of a pair of scales, the other carrying the preconceived knowledge of inevitable disappointment. Part of me is excited for the upcoming reboot that's due this year, hoping that the developers can revitalise the franchise in the same way they did six years ago, but at the same time I don't really know what I want from that game any more. I guess all I can do is place my hopes in the hands of the fine folks at Crystal Dynamics and pray that they deliver something I'll enjoy. They made me fall back in love with Lara once, after all. Who's to say they can't do it again?

Thanks for reading, guys. As always, I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy XIII-2 (X360)

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A Very Happy Anniversary

Best Tomb Raider? For me it is

My continuing journey through the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider trilogy hit another milestone yesterday when I reached the end of Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Essentially a re-imagining of the original Tomb Raider, Anniversary was released to (sort-of) coincide with its tenth anniversary, as well as to bridge the storyline between Legend and Underworld with a slightly reworked plot. As a long-time fan of Tomb Raider, I've long been happy to say with no hesitation or doubt that this is my favourite game in the franchise. After recently re-experiencing Legend and finding it didn't quite live up to my favourable memories of it, I was kind of reluctant to even pick up Anniversary. What if the five years between its release and today had clouded my memory of this game as well?

Even with those worries on my mind, my desire to play the whole Crystal Dynamics trilogy got the better of me, and I was soon deep back into my favourite of Lara Croft's many adventures. Having played the whole thing through now, I'm happy to report that age has done nothing to diminish the lustre of this gaming gem. Tomb Raider: Anniversary is every bit as good as I'd remembered it to be. It's also a vast improvement over its predecessor, which nailed a lot of the superficial aspects of the old Core-developed titles, but suffered from being painfully short and sorely lacking in terms of substantial puzzle design. Anniversary addresses these issues comprehensively, and the result is a brilliant action/adventure game that's comfortably stood the test of time.

Anniversary's puzzles are much better than Legend's

One thing I'd falsely remembered about Legend was that it featured a lot of great environmental puzzles. My recent playthrough revealed that to be untrue on both counts - its puzzles were few and small in scope, and none were especially memorable. Anniversary doesn't share this issue - it's jam-packed with puzzles to be solved. Most of these puzzles were present in the original Tomb Raider, but they've been re-worked to better fit the new game engine, and almost every one is both challenging and rewarding to solve. Another thing I love about the puzzles in Anniversary is their scale - many of the game's levels are centred around a huge puzzle, the solution to which is usually tied to the solving of several smaller-scale puzzles. It's an approach to level design that I really admire, forcing the player to juggle multiple threads of progress instead of facing them one at a time in a deliberately linear fashion.

Lara's much more relatable this time around

Another area where Anniversary trumps Legend for me is in its portrayal of Lara Croft. Throughout Legend the player is expected to empathise with Lara's attempts to find out what happened to her mother, but for all the brilliant voicework Keeley Hawes puts in as Lara, it's still pretty difficult to give a damn about the uncertain fate of Amelia Croft. As a prequel, Anniversary takes a slighly different approach, instead focusing on Lara herself and how far she's willing to go to get what she wants. I won't say too much here, as I know at least one person planning to play the game soon and I don't wish to spoil it for him. Suffice it to say, it's a lot easier to feel empathy with Lara's plight this time around. It's the result of some clever choices from the team, like a reduced supporting cast and a refusal to feature human enemies throughout, all of which adds up to give the game's last few levels a real emotional weight that even I didn't expect.

There are a wealth of other minor, iterative improvements that Anniversary makes, most of which directly correlate with the grievances I mentioned in my blog about Legend. Issues of game length are addressed with Anniversary clocking in at around thirteen hours, almost twice as long as Legend's seven. Legend's irritating tendency to place checkpoints immediately before quick-time events, but not immediately after, is remedied this time around. I didn't notice any frame-rate issues at any point while playing Anniversary, either. It's simply an all-round better game that does everything a follow-up should do.

This is the guy who created Lara Croft

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can offer Anniversary is that it's without a doubt the best remake I've ever played. The team at Crystal Dynamics clearly have a lot of love for the Tomb Raider franchise, and it really comes through in every single aspect of the game. Toby Gard, one of the men responsible for developing the original Tomb Raider and widely acknowledged as the guy who created Lara Croft, was brought on board to help with the remake - that in itself demonstrates deep respect for the source material and wanting to do it justice. One of the greatest things about Gard's involvement is the inclusion of a developer's commentary, which features him talking with Jason Botta about the original game and what was changed in the remaking process. As an established fan of the series from the beginning, it made for some really interesting listening for me. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why, as a young fan of the first game and a more mature fan of this re-imagining, this game stands out above all the others as my favourite Tomb Raider title.

I've already moved on to the third instalment in this trilogy, and am currently playing the 360 version of Tomb Raider: Underworld. There's already quite a bit I want to say about the closing chapter and how it compares to the other two games, but I'll save it for the blog I plan to write when I finish it. For now, I'll just say that I don't expect it to challenge Anniversary for the title of my favourite Tomb Raider game. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Tomb Raider: Underworld (X360)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Three

Hello everyone. My name is dankempster, and when I'm not reading middling epic fantasy, throwing darts in the vicinity of a board, or eating copious amounts of sausage rolls, I like to pass my time by playing Final Fantasy VII, determining if it's still a good game by modern standards, and then writing about it in serial blog form. If you've got ten minutes to kill, why not join me?

Episode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train

At the end of the last episode, we left the party of Cid, Barret and Red XIII standing just outside North Corel, in preparation to try and recover a piece of Huge Materia from the Mako reactor there before the Shinra Electric Power Company. On entering the town it's apparent that not much has changed. A few of the NPCs have had their dialogue patterns altered to reference an inbound train, but that's about it. Remembering that the reactor is located quite a way from the town, I begin following the tracks leading back towards it. Despite having played this segment of the game several times in its own right, it's still very evocative of the initial passage through this area en route to the Gold Saucer on disc one.

The crew arrive at the reactor to find it in a very different state than on their first visit - no longer defunct, the entire structure is lit up, presumably indicating that Shinra got here first. Two guards are standing at the reactor entrance, but they stand no chance against the party and fall almost instantly. As the battle ends, a train much longer than the reactor is deep emerges from the entrance like a ream of scarves from a magician's sleeve. Cid, seized by one of his brainwaves, heads into the reactor, steals a SECOND train (how the hell does all this fit inside such a comparatively small reactor?!) and gives chase.

As with so many of the other incidental happenings of Final Fantasy VII, the train chase is turned into a simple rhythm-based mini-game. Cid, in control of the chasing engine, has to alternate the movement of the twin levers to increase the speed of the train. This means the player has to alternate button presses between the Up button and the Triangle button. It's another example of something I've cited several times over this series - Final Fantasy VII's determination to keep the player interactively involved in as much of the game as possible, instead of just turning everything that isn't exploration or combat into a cut-scene. It's such a simple little thing to include, but one that refuses to let the player simply sit back and watch. There's also an imposed time limit stretching over the whole runaway train sequence, which adds a sense of urgency and acts as a reminder that failure is possible, giving the player input even more meaning. Much better than just watching Cid freak out at the controls, eh?

In no time at all the party catches up with the Shinra train and leaps across to it. At this point, I'm left wondering about a few things:

  • The two trains set off on the same course, and yet are now side-by-side. I don't recall either train being diverted onto a second set of rails. Also, the different sets of rails we saw while walking down this path are radically different in height. How is this jump even possible?
  • Erm... Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there loads of gaps in these tracks? Gaps that, y'know, Cloud actually fell down on our first pass through this area? How are the trains supposed to overcome these obstacles?
  • Like I said above, the runaway train sequence is governed by a ten-minute time limit. It's taking these trains up to ten minutes to cover a stretch of track we've just travelled along on foot in the space of about ninety seconds. How slow are these damn things?

I realise I'm being pedantic, and all of these questions can be answered with the simple cover-all excuse that it serves the gameplay, but it's still kind of hard not to think about them. Especially the failed sections of track, which to be honest is the only one I refuse to suspend my disbelief over.

The party now has to fight their way to the front of the Shinra train harbouring the Huge Materia. Each cart of the train is guarded by an enemy, which the team must dispatch while the countdown continues to tick. None of the battles are exceptionally tough, save perhaps the Wolfmeister guarding the third cart. The challenge in these encounters comes from the accompanying clock, which forces you to balance calculated strategy and brute strength. With the clock against you, even something as simple as using a turn to Sense the enemy's weakness could cost you valuable seconds, with potentially no pay-off. Thankfully, a combination of past experience and sheer muscle see me through to the front of the train with a little over five minutes left on the timer.

Here, the game adopts yet another button-pressing mini-game to keep the player involved, this time demanding that they stop the commandeered train before it collides into North Corel. Manage to stop the train before the time limit expires and you're rewarded with the Huge Materia and the highly-coveted 'Ultima' Materia, courtesy of the people of Corel, as a thanks for saving their town. Fail to stop the train, and your punishment is walking away without any Huge Materia, having to pay a 50,000 Gil premium for the Ultima Materia, and putting the people of Corel through the destruction of their homes a second time. To be honest, I'm really surprised that the game features this branching path. While it admittedly doesn't have too much impact on the game, and certainly no long-term repercussions, I probably would have been less surprised if failing to stop the train had resulted in a straight-up Game Over screen. The fact you can effectively fail your mission, destroy a community, and continue the game after that is a pretty big deal. Sure, it's not on the same level of depth as, say, Fable or Mass Effect, but here's a game where your actions can have different impacts on the game world in 1997. I might be alone in this, but I do think that's pretty amazing.

I manage to stop the train with plenty of time left on the clock. I receive my rewards, and am thanked by the town. Because Barret's in my party, there are a few lines of dialogue between him and the townspeople, which seem to hint at him being forgiven for his past transgressions and welcomed back into the community. It's a shame the game doesn't make a bigger deal out of this, because it feels like it's a big moment for Barret that deserves more than a few text-boxes, but considering the choice of party for this part of the game is fairly open, I guess it's to be expected. The party rest in the inn for the night before moving on. I decide to head back to Mideel and bump my party up another level or two, during which I manage to raise Red XIII to a point where he can use his final Limit Break - Cosmo Memory. With my levels raised, I fly to the site of the next piece of Huge Materia - Fort Condor. Touching the Highwind down just outside the reactor, I save my game and wrap this episode up.

So at the close of Episode Twenty-Three, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cid (Lv 52), Barret (Lv 45), Red XIII (Lv 55)
  • Current Location - Junon Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 34:13

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No Deal

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final Stand here.

It seems crazy that today's episode covers such a small amount of actual gameplay. Hopefully it will serve to balance out the next episode, which will likely feature more gameplay that I'll have less to say about. As always, sorry for the prolonged pauses between episodes. To be honest, I'm just glad they're seeing the light of day semi-regularly at the moment (one every two weeks or so counts as semi-regular, right?). As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around. Here's hoping Episode Twenty-Four isn't too long in the making.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

8 Comments

Not So Legendary After All

Tomb Raider: Legend doesn't quite live up to my fond memories of it

I've long been a Tomb Raider fan. It's a love affair that I've reiterated many times over the years, so I'll keep this version of events fairly brief. I was introduced to the series by my parents all the way back in 1998, when they bought a PlayStation along with copies of the first two games in the series. Since then I've been smitten with the franchise, sticking by it through the highs and the lows. There's just something about the way these games structure their adventures, the elegant blend of exploration, puzzle-solving and light combat, that scratches some indefinable itch within my gaming mind. Whenever somebody even mentions a Tomb Raider game, I suddenly find myself wanting to play one - a fact that has directly led to this blog being written. When fellow Giant Bomber Sparky_Buzzsaw picked up Tomb Raider: Legend and blogged about it last week, it wasn't long before the bug had gripped me and I was blowing the dust off my own copy of the game.

It's been a long time since I last played Tomb Raider: Legend. I'm pretty sure that I played the game for the first time during the summer of 2006, and came away from it feeling mighty satisfied - at least, that's the impression given by the review I wrote at the time. But as I was soon to discover, in the five-and-a-half intervening years, my memories of Legend had become faded with age, and buried under the opinions of more recent titles in the series (most notably Anniversary, which I'll touch on later). Re-playing the game on my trusty PS2 over the last few days, with more experienced hands and through more scrutinous eyes, has revealed this Legend to be not so legendary after all.

Legend still looks nice, but not as nice as I remember

The first problem that caught my attention were noticeable drops in frame-rate during many of the game's most hectic action sequences. I don't remember encountering these at all in 2006, but it must have been there, because nothing about the game has changed in the interim. Then again, I was a much less critical gamer back in those days, so I can kind of understand why it might not have stuck in my mind. At the time, I was doing all of my PS2 gaming on a compact 8-inch LCD screen - visual fidelity wasn't exactly my highest priority. I remember Legend as being a damned gorgeous game, and in a lot of ways it still is (especially with regards to its character models and environments). It's just a shame that this noticeable issue has soured that memory somewhat.

Admittedly, it never gets quite this bad... but still...

One thing I remembered Legend fondly for was its apparent refusal to treat its heroine as a sex object, something for the stereotypical male gamer to ogle at in cut-scenes. In my mind's eye, Legend had addressed this by making Lara Croft more realistically proportioned, and by covering her up somewhat - a huge leap forward from the titillation that was associated with Lara's character back in the PS1 days. Returning to it now has completely shattered that perception, though. Sure, Lara isn't quite as well-endowed in Legend, but the game still seeks to flaunt her curves at every opportunity. The neckline of her default tomb-raiding outfit plunges much lower than you'd expect it to, the dress that features in the game's Tokyo level seems to be defying every basic law of physics in actually staying on her body, and one of the most demanding unlocks is a bikini outfit. I repeat - one of the game's highest rewards is getting to see this. How, as a sixteen-year-old lad, I didn't notice any of this is mind-boggling, and it completely debunks my memories of Legend as being a genuine attempt to take Lara's character more seriously.

Ignoring my complaints about the game's aesthetics and the clear sexualisation of Lara, there are a wealth of other minor niggles that have conspired to sully my original memories of the game - some erratic checkpointing, camera control issues, a middling story that's told with about as much indifference as it deserves, a surprising dearth of proper puzzles... None of these things amounts to much individually, but when collected together, they really start to impact the overall package, and consequently tarnish my idealised memories of first playing Legend. Add them to the main problem I had with Legend even when first playing it (an incredibly short campaign), and at times I'm almost left wondering if the game has any redeeming features.

Presenting the voice behind my favourite Lara

I don't want to give the impression that Legend is a bad game, because it really isn't, and of course it has plenty of redeeming features. In spite of the complaints I've levelled at it above, it's still a solid action-adventure game and, in the context of its original release, a huge leap forward for the franchise in terms of its gameplay mechanics and presentation. I really like the environment traversal, which for the first time in the series' ten-year history finally nailed the feel of Lara's athleticism and felt challenging without ever being too unforgiving. A lot of people give the game stick for its combat, which relies heavily on lock-on targeting and lacks any real depth, but it really doesn't bother me. I've always held the belief that combat is auxiliary to the tomb-raiding experience, and I think the simplistic nature of the gunplay in Legend reflects that perfectly. Also worth mentioning is the game's voice-work, especially Keeley Hawes' performance as Lara. The previous actress responsible for Lara's voice (Jonell Elliott) really didn't sit well with me, stripping her of her quintessential British-ness and replacing it with something generic and sultry. Hawes recaptures that achetypal British vibe of Lara's earliest outings, which is consistently great to hear. It may not be as great as I thought it was, but it's still a good game - maybe not worthy of the four stars I bestowed on it all those years ago, but definitely a solid three-star adventure.

I recognise that the Tomb Raider franchise is far from critically acclaimed, and as a result a lot of my fondest memories are probably tied to my love of the series than any excellence inherent in the games themselves. Towards the end of last year I re-visited another another Tomb Raider title I had fond memories of - The Last Revelation on the original PlayStation. Much like Legend, I found that my faded memories of the game didn't quite match up with the imperfect reality of what I was playing. At this point, part of me wants to return to Anniversary and continue my path through the Crystal Dynamics trilogy, but another part of me is reluctant to do so for fear of the same thing happening with what is undoubtedly my favourite game in the franchise to date. I'm quietly confident it will live up to my expectations, as a lot of the things I remember about that game are things which remedy the complaints I've made about Legend above - a longer campaign, better-structured puzzles, no frame-rate issues (as far as I can remember), and a default outfit for Lara that doesn't show any cleavage at all.

As I said above, I don't want to give the impression I didn't enjoy Tomb Raider: Legend. I've had a lot of fun with it over the last four days. It's just unfortunate that it didn't quite meet the standards my nostalgic mind put in place for it. In any case, returning to the series has got me interested to see what Crystal Dynamics do with the upcoming series reboot. Not necessarily in a way that could be described as either positive or negative - as much as I see potential for the game to take the series in brave, meaningful new directions, I see just as much potential for the shift in focus to rob the series of what makes it unique and special. Re-visiting Legend has provided me with a great refresher of what I love most about Tomb Raider, and I'll be following the upcoming game's progression over the coming months with cautious optimism. Thanks very much for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (PS2)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Two

Are you the kind of gamer who has fond memories of Final Fantasy VII, but is reluctant to return to it in case those memories are shattered by unremembered mediocrity? If so, then worry no longer - I'm here to do it for you! Presenting the latest instalment in the semi-cynical, semi-nostalgic, Endurance Run-inspired retrospective that is:

Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No Deal

At the end of the last episode, we saw our band of adventurers escape from Shinra custody in Junon, making off with an airship in the process. In the absence of Cloud, Tifa has taken it upon herself to lead the party in their search for him.

At this point, I was just about ready to throw more criticism in Final Fantasy VII's direction for once again doing a piss-poor job of pointing the player towards their next goal. I've always remembered this point in the game as equalling (maybe even surpassing) the search for the Keystone or the City of the Ancients in its aimlessness - you're given this great airship, bringing the ability to fly anywhere in the world, and the game leaves you with absolutely no idea where to take it to progress. However, playing through it now for the sixth, I've just stumbled upon the game's attempt at player direction. Speaking to Red XIII twice reveals his knowledge of a supposed Lifestream breach in the ocean near the southern islands. This really leaves me in two minds - I feel like I should praise the developers for actually putting that sentence in there, but at the same time, I want to chastise them for tucking such a crucial piece of information away in such an obscure corner, so obscure it's taken me six playthroughs over twelve years to find.

With that piece of information finally come to light, I take once more to the skies and begin to fly south, in the direction of Mideel. Flying the Highwind comes pretty naturally thanks to a fairly intuitive control scheme. There are two things I want to mention about the Highwind at this juncture, the first being that it makes a pretty awesome hub for the remainder of the game. Save for shopping facilities, it's got everything the team needs - a save point, party-changing facilities, instant HP/MP restoration, the ability to talk to all the team members... it really is an ideal place for regrouping after a grinding session or an important piece of story progression, although it's still beyond me why a Shinra airship would need a chocobo stable on-board. The other thing worth mentioning is the awesome feeling of freedom that washes over you when you take to the air in the Highwind for the first time. You've got this entire world map, which you've been navigating gradually for the last thirty-or-so hours, and suddenly it's all blown wide-open for you. Even now, so long after first playing the game, I still get a thrill knowing that those previously impassable mountains suddenly don't even factor into it any more. The whole of the Planet is your playground. The fact you actually have control over the airship definitely adds to this, I think - physically flying the Highwind over the world map provides a much greater thrill than, say, the menu-based airship navigation of Final Fantasy X.

The team arrive near Mideel, and after a little bit of grinding in the surrounding forest, head into the town. It's a pretty unremarkable location aesthetically, not quite a typical JRPG town in its appearance, but at the same time not unique enough to stand out from the crowd in the same way that Midgar and Junon do. I decide to do some shopping, calling in at the weapons and Materia stores to pick up new Crystal equipment for my whole party and some extra HP/MP Plus Materia. In the middle of town, Tifa stops to pet a dog when she overhears a couple of men talking about a spikey-haired guy who washed up on the shore of the island about a week ago. Immediately thinking it must be Cloud, she rushes to the town's clinic to meet him. Sure enough, as epic narrative cliché dictates, it's Cloud, but not quite as we know him. Tifa finds him in confined to a wheelchair, babbling deliriously in a near-vegetative state.

I remember thinking this was a pretty shocking turn for the narrative to take the first time I played the game. Even though by this point the game's developers had established a pretty clear willingness to harm and even kill their main characters, I never expected Cloud to be reduced to this. I was convinced he'd already suffered enough, being consistently manipulated behind the scenes by Sephiroth and/or Jenova and even losing Aerith. After seeing all of that, this felt like a step too far back then. I do think it serves the story though, for various reasons, not all of which I'll explore in this episode to avoid too much foreshadowing. For now, I'll just say that I sort of admire the way it reduces Cloud to a position of not just powerlessness, but complete and total dependence. In a medium (and indeed, a genre) where the heroes and heroines are all-too-often abrasively confident, cocky and invincible, it's refreshing to encounter a protagonist who's so fragile, to the point where he actually breaks.

The doctor reveals to the party that Cloud's suffering from extreme Mako poisoning, after protracted exposure to Mako energy in the Lifestream. He's quite literally trapped inside his own mind, unaware of anything that's going on, and his chances of recovery are incredibly slim. Tifa makes the decision to leave the party and stay behind in Mideel with Cloud, to try and nurse him back to health while the rest of the crew continue to try and find a way of stopping Meteor from descending. Cid and Red XIII depart, and head back to the Highwind. Back on deck, Cait Sith has some information that may help to that end - President Rufus and the other higher-ups at Shinra have been busy devising plans to both stop Meteor and break through the barrier at North Crater. They're currently in the process of collecting pieces of Huge Materia (a high-density, more potent kind of Materia formed in Mako reactors) from around the world, with a view to colliding it with Meteor somehow. Their next target is the reactor at Corel, Barret's home-town.

Understandably, Barret's pretty miffed about this. Unfortunately, that's about all I can glean from the ensuing conversation, because it's one of the worst-translated sections of Final Fantasy VII's script so far (if you don't believe me, check it out for yourself - and sorry about the ridiculous names, not my video, blah-blah-blah). After the incomprehensible rambling, it's decided that Cid should be the new party leader, a somewhat humble (albeit completely unjustified) selfless act on the part of Barret, who for reasons unknown has decided he's not cut out to be a leader. Now in control of Cid, I head for the Operations Room and kit out a brand new party - Barret as a damage-dealing tank, Cid as a healer and buffer, and Red XIII as a black mage/summoner hybrid. Our next destination is Corel, so I head towards it, touch the Highwind down, and bring this episode to a close by saving my progress.

So at the close of Episode Twenty-Two, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cid (Lv 49), Barret (Lv 42), Red XIII (Lv 53)
  • Current Location - Gold Saucer Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 33:37

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train here.

I've deliberately tried to keep this episode brief (or at least, brief by the standards of this series). The last couple of episodes have really rambled on, so I figured that a nice shorter episode would serve to break up the walls of text a bit. Speaking of breaking things up, I've decided to employ a new method of listing past episodes, in the handy-dandy table above. I think it looks a bit neater, having done away with that long, narrow list of links. Anyway, thanks as always for reading. I genuinely promise to try and leave less time between episodes from here on out, I've been a touch distracted by the demands of the novel I'm working on over the last month or so. Ideally I'd like to get a regular weekly thing going on, but we'll see how (in)effectively I (mis)manage my time in the coming weeks. For now, I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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