Getting Off-Track - Some Thoughts On Forza Motorsport 4

There's no denying this is a great driving game, but it's got some issues...

I've been playing quite a bit of Forza Motorsport 4 over the last month or so. It's proven a great accompaniment to getting caught up on my backlog of Bombcasts - a game I can turn to and mindlessly grind out races for a couple of hours while listening to the dulcet tones of the Bomb Crew. That's not to say it isn't a great game, though. Forza 4 boasts an excellent driving model and an astounding array of difficulty level sliders, and those two things combine to create a racing game that can be played and enjoyed by just about everyone. Its model of persistent player progression is expertly implemented as well, its RPG-esque 'driver level' mechanic drip-feeding the player with new, faster cars at regular intervals. It's a design philosophy that certainly worked on me for the most part, instilling a 'one-more-race' mentality in me just so I could go up another level and pick another car to add to my virtual garage. There's no denying that it's a great racing game. But, having reached the end of its ten-season World Tour mode and accumulated a completion percentage of only 6%, I'm done with it. This blog is my attempt to try and explain why.

My relationship with racing sims is a long and colourful one, punctuated by several highs and lows that I'm pretty sure I've documented in previous blogs on this site, so I won't go into too much detail about it here. Before this most recent foray into the genre, my last lengthy stint with a game of this kind was with Forza 3 back in 2011. Much the same thing happened with that - I played through its seasonal career mode, hit the level cap, and then put it back on the shelf with next to no desire to return to it. I just felt incredibly weary of it, despite there being still so much content left to explore and experience. Fast forward to 2014 and my time with Forza 4 has been almost a carbon copy - an enjoyable ride through the career mode that stalled almost as soon as that isolated mode was over.

Hey guys... I don't mean to be rude, but... haven't we raced here already today?

Reaching the level cap probably played a small part in that. From what I can remember, once you hit driver level 50 in Forza 3, there's nowhere else to go, and any XP you could be earning from races just ceases to exist. Forza 4 continues to let you gain XP and driver levels beyond 50, but stops rewarding you with cars and instead starts dumping heaps of Credits into your hands with every level-up. There's something about the sudden withdrawal of those steadily drip-fed car-choice rewards that made the whole thing feel less like it was worth continuing to play. Sure, I'm now earning more Credits to spend on cars, but I was earning those from every race anyway. A new car is comparatively a much bigger deal, which is why having that reward taken away probably left me feeling less compelled to keep pushing through the game's event list.

That is a metric shit-ton of events, confined to a handful of locations

But that's just one aspect of it, and certainly not the biggest reason for my willingness to put these games back on the shelf and ignore them. What I've come to realise holds Forza 4 back for me (and what also held back its predecessor when I played it three years ago) is the relative dearth of track options in the game. I say 'relative' because when you look at things in terms of pure numbers, there's a huge disparity. Forza 4 is a game that features almost 500 cars from over 80 manufacturers. Its huge Event List is comprised of almost 1,200 individual races across 290 different events. This veritable smorgasbord of content is spread across just 26 locations. Yes, you read that right - TWENTY SIX, and that's counting the Nurburgring GP circuit and the Nordschleife as two separate locations. In actuality the game features 114 different circuits to race on, but many of these are merely different track configurations of the same locations. Ten different track configurations for Fujimi Kaido might sound impressive, but it's still just ten different ways to drive on the same damn mountain. This astounding lack of variety is pretty well masked by the globe-trotting nature of the World Tour mode, but when it's laid out in the grid-like format of the Event List, the homogeneity becomes too much for me personally to bear.

Dirt and snow rally tracks are just one example of how Gran Turismo 4's track roster trumps Forza 4's for variety

Going back a little further along the timeline of my history with racing games, I spent a significant amount of 2005 and 2006 with another racing sim - namely Gran Turismo 4. I'm mentioning Gran Turismo 4 here because in many respects it's comparable to Forza 4 - its roster of cars exceeds 700, and while I'm not sure of the exact number of races hidden away in its eponymous career mode, my memory of the experience tells me that there were a LOT of them. Comparatively, I spent a lot more time with GT4 than I have with Forza 4 - possibly even more than with Forzas 3 and 4 combined. The reason for this? Well I can't say this with categorical certainty, but I think the track roster may have had something to do with it. GT4 features fifty tracks - technically less than half the number of tracks in Forza 4, but with nearly double the number of unique locations. The result was that it took a lot longer for that sense of 'been there, done that' to settle in with GT4, because there was enough variety in the track roster that I never really felt like I was racing on the same circuits over and over again. So although the Forza series has my preferred driving model, I'd still be much more inclined to pick up a Gran Turismo game the next time I find myself hankering after a bit of automotive action.

At this junction I think I'm once again done with racing sims for a while. Not owning an Xbox One means that Forza 5 is out of the question by default, but even if it were an option, I don't think I'll be returning to Turn 10's series until it proves itself capable of supporting its lengthy career modes with more diverse track rosters. As for Gran Turismo, I know the sixth instalment in the series launched on PS3 recently with largely positive reception, but I feel like I've more than had my fill of driving for the time being and don't much care for the idea of launching myself into yet another car collect-a-thon right now. For the moment I'm content to shift my attention back to Final Fantasy VIII and Rayman Origins, both of which I'm hoping to beat before the end of the month. Thanks very much for reading guys, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VIII (PS3)

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Letting Off Some Steam - February Edition

I'm a little later posting this week's blog than originally intended. I'll spare you the detailed reasons why, but suffice it to say some difficult family matters have dominated these last couple of weeks, and that, combined with a week of feeling under the weather myself, has resulted in me not really wanting to do anything this weekend. However, I have a tight blogging schedule to uphold, and I don't intend to let it slip this early in the year. So here's this month's instalment of...

February Edition - First-Person Shooters!

To the uninitiated, permit me to quickly explain - Letting Off Some Steam is a monthly blog feature in which I download and sample a handful of titles from my Steam account for about half an hour each. The idea behind it is to get a feel for which games in my ever-expanding digitally-distributed backlog are most deserving of my time, so I can start to prioritise this unwieldy collection and maybe even start playing through some of them. Last month's theme was platformers, and this month I've opted to check out four unplayed first-person shooters. First up:

DOOM 3

DOOM 3's visuals are its most striking asset

DOOM 3's first impression is a very mixed one. On the one hand, it still looks great, especially considering it turns ten this year. The environments and monsters are the game's best visual showcase, the characters slightly less so (they animate well, but they're all built like meat-heads). The couple of guns I had access to in the game's opening forty-five minutes were also incredibly satisfying to use, leading me to assume that the game's gunplay will at least be enjoyable. On the other hand, though, the entire thing smacks unashamedly of lazy sci-fi cliché, from the featureless steel corridors of its near-future Mars setting to the experiment-gone-awry premise. These things aren't necessarily bad things in their own right, but they seem at odds with the much more ambitious visual presentation of the game. I also found it difficult to get past the game feeling more like a horror title than the run-and-gun slaughter-fest I've come to associate with the DOOM name since playing the original in late 2012. I could see myself coming back to DOOM 3 in the future and playing through the whole campaign, but it certainly isn't a high priority for me.

Far Cry

On paper this should be something I could really get into, so why won't it 'click'?

I'm one of those weirdos who holds up Far Cry 2 as one of their favourite games of the last ten years. I know it was a deeply flawed game, but those flaws seemed insignificant to me when stacked up against the emergent nature of the combat and the impact of the buddy mechanic. I thought it would therefore stand to reason that I'd love the original Far Cry too, but the half-hour I spent with it today was pretty conflicting for me. Fundamentally the combat is the same, with the emphasis placed on using the natural cover of the environment and offering multiple ways to approach each combat scenario, but it lacks the ebb and flow of Far Cry 2's gunplay. The environments are gorgeous and the guns feel good to shoot, but the combat itself seems to be lacking something I can't quite put my finger on. Also, the voice acting is fucking terrible, and I can't work out whether it's in a deliberate, B-movie-ish kind of way or just a straight-up awful kind of way. Hopefully a little more time and perseverance will endear the original Far Cry to me a little more, but I'm not in any major hurry to find out.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD

Stranger's Wrath appears to do some really interesting things with its first-person trappings

To date, Stranger's Wrath is the only Oddworld game I haven't yet finished. Having spent almost an hour with it earlier today, that's a fact I'm starting to feel ashamed of. In terms of its story, characters and presentation, it's a noticeably different beast from its puzzle-platforming predecessors, but there's still something quintessentially and comfortingly "Oddworld" about it all. Gameplay-wise it's part third-person platformer, part first-person shooter, with the latter being distinguished and defined by its unique 'live ammo' concept which brings an unexpected level of strategy to proceedings both in and out of combat. I had a lot of fun experimenting with the different kinds of ammo and their various effects, laying traps for unwitting outlaws and watching them unfold before bagging their bounty. Between its intriguing protagonist, mesmerising world and unique amalgamation of its various gameplay elements, Stranger's Wrath is a game I want to see more of, as soon as possible.

Red Faction II

I bought Red Faction II for pennies a little while back, an impulse purchase dictated solely by a lingering love and respect for the original Red Faction which I played years ago on the PlayStation 2. That game blew my teenage mind with its arsenal of crazy weaponry and literally earth-shattering GeoMod technology. Having now sunk some time into the first couple of levels of this sequel, I'm not sure whether I'm holding the first Red Faction in higher regard than it deserves, or if this is just a wholly disappointing follow-up (probably a bit of both, if we're being honest). It doesn't look great, the GeoMod stuff doesn't seem as well-implemented, and the shooting feels really underwhelming, especially hot on the heels of time spent with DOOM 3 and Far Cry. I think I can comforably put Red Faction II on my pile of games to ignore, and take solace in the fact that I didn't pay any more than a couple of quid for it.

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There you have it - another four games trialled and tested in this second instalment of Letting Off Some Steam. Out of these four I'm pretty sure it's Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath that'll be promoted to March's Gaming Agenda, with Far Cry and DOOM 3 taking up residence on the 'I'll Get Around To It Eventually' pile. Red Faction II is, sadly, very unlikely to ever be played at all.

I've literally just noticed, while checking back on last month's Letting Off Some Steam to make sure my formatting is consistent, that this is my three-hundredth blog post on Giant Bomb. Being as next weekend is my dedicated week for an opinion piece, I may try to find some special way to commemorate the milestone then. Until then, I'd like to say thanks for reading, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VIII (PS3)

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The Gaming Agenda - February 2014

January was a pretty successful month for me, gaming-wise. I made it through all four of the titles I'd intended to finish through the month, and started a fifth that I'll hopefully be able to wrap up in this month. Now, as January disappears over the temporal horizon and February shuffles in to take its place, it's time for me to put together another Gaming Agenda blog - a sort of gaming 'to-do' list, laying out the games I want to play before the month is over. What with February being the shortest month, the list is a little shorter than last month's Gaming Agenda, but given the comparative length of the games involved I'd say it's also a much more ambitious list this time around. And speaking of games, here they are:

Final Fantasy VIII

I genuinely think I've played PS2 games that looked worse than Final Fantasy VIII

This is one of two games that I'm carrying over to February, having started it towards the end of January. So far I'm about six hours in and am just about to head off to Timber for Squall's first SeeD mission. It's been great fun getting re-acquainted with the game's mechanics, wrapping my head back around the sometimes confusing, but incredibly rewarding Junction system. Early thoughts boil down to Squall being a much bigger dick than I remember him being, and the game looking surprisingly good for a fifteen-year-old PS1 game. Seriously, those 3D character models hold up astoundingly well. My hope is that I'll be able to finish Final Fantasy VIII by the end of February - a pretty big ask, but by no means impossible. I'll be sure to keep you posted with my progress through the month.

Forza Motorsport 4

Driving fast cars hasn't got boring yet, probably because the game is still regularly giving me fast cars

Forza Motorsport 4 is the other game that I've brought through from January. I hadn't originally got any plans to play it, but seeing a friend tweeting about Gran Turismo 6 started the itch for some kind of racing simulator, and Forza 4 was the one within closest reach. The draw of levels, experience points and drip-fed rewards of new cars is keeping me engaged for now, but having just hit level 41 out of a possible 50, I'm not sure if the appeal will last once I hit the level cap. I was toying with the idea of pursuing the Bucket List Achievement, but as of right now I'm all but certain that I'll be putting the game down when I reach the end of its World Tour mode. I have about two-and-a-half seasons left to get through, and I'm pretty sure I can see those through before the end of February.

Rayman Origins

I don't think I've ever seen a 2D platformer that looks as good as Rayman Origins

By far the stand-out title from last month's edition of Letting Off Some Steam, this zany platformer earned its place on February's Gaming Agenda thanks to its gorgeous aesthetics, satisfying platforming, and retro throw-back style and structure. Its first half hour was a blast to play, and if I'm right in thinking that future worlds and levels will bring new power-ups and characters to experiment with, I'm sure the rest of the game will be just as rewarding to play through. The loose plan is to pick this up two weeks into February, when hopefully I'll be done with Forza 4, and divide my gaming time between this and Final Fantasy VIII through the back end of the month.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I've got no idea who this guy is, but I'm looking forward to meeting him

The next part of my continued effort to beat every Zelda game I own will be attempting to tackle the most recent home console release in the series, the Wii-exclusive Skyward Sword. I picked up a brand new copy of the game last year in a sale for the very reasonable price of £10, and now that I have my very own Wii to play it on, I've decided to make it my next priority. I'm not really looking forward to the supposedly slow and dreary opening tutorial, but everything else I've seen and heard about the game has got me very excited to play through it. As with Final Fantasy VIII last month, I don't expect to finish this in February, but I would like to start it before the month is over and carry it through to March.

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So that's what I intend to play this month. It's not going to be easy getting through Final Fantasy VIII in the next twenty-seven days, much less getting through the remainder of Forza 4's World Tour and all of Rayman Origins alongside it, but I'm definitely going to give it a damn good try. Be sure to come back next week, when I'll be Letting Off Some Steam with a specifically first-person-shooty flavour to it. Thanks very much for reading, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VIII (PS3)

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Post Game Dan-alysis - January 2014

It's the last weekend of January, which means it's time for my first monthly gaming recap of the year. In the absence of a decent title, I've gone down the lazy pun route and decided to post these entries under the blanket title of 'Post Game Dan-alysis'. You can think of them as companion pieces to the Gaming Agenda blogs I'll be putting out at the start of each month, basically breaking down how successful I was in getting through the games I wanted to get through while offering some brief thoughts about each title. If you'd like to get reacquainted with my Gaming Agenda for January to remind you of my aims for the month, you can find it here. I'm going to start trawling back over my month's gaming, because we've got a lot to get through before the time bell rings.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX

This is the only screenshot of Link's Awakening DX that I can reasonably use, because all the others are minuscule and will fuck up my blog formatting

I chose to start 2014 pretty much the same way I ended 2013 - with a Zelda game on the go on my 3DS. I opted for Link's Awakening DX, which I bought from the eShop for about £5 towards the end of last year. It took me almost two weeks to get through, as I methodically explored the mysterious Koholint Island searching for the Instruments of the Sirens in order to wake the Wind Fish, and all in all it's a brilliant little Zelda game. Its world is one of my favourites from the series, and the dungeons and bosses are brilliantly designed throughout. Some of the gameplay mechanics feel a bit draconian now, but are understandable given the limiting nature of the original Game Boy and its two face buttons. I was particularly impressed by the game's built-in hint system, which proved invaluable when I was at a loss for what to do or where to go next, and kept me from ever having to resort to an online guide in order to progress. In a year when I'm hoping to finally see through all the Zelda adventures I own but haven't yet finished, Link's Awakening has set a mighty high benchmark.

Forza Motorsport 4

After swearing I'd never get back behind the virtual wheel, I've ended up driving digital cars again

An unexpected addition to my list of games played this month was Forza Motorsport 4. A friend of mine has been playing the recently-launched Gran Turismo 6 and periodically tweeting his progress, and his automotive antics have encouraged me to jump back into a racing game of my own. My relationship with driving sims has been a torrid one over the years, but over the last few weeks Forza 4's World Tour mode has done a great job of keeping me entertained. The way it constantly drip-feeds new cars to the player for gaining driver levels makes the game feel perennially rewarding, and the globe-trotting nature of the season structure has thus far managed to avoid my biggest complaint about this kind of game - namely the repetitiveness of racing round the same handful of tracks over and over again. Since I started playing it just under three weeks ago I've managed to race through six of the mode's ten seasons. I was thinking about pushing for the game's Bucket List Achievement once I'm done with World Tour, but I'm slightly less committed to the idea now - I'd rather just enjoy the time I do spend with the game than spend dozens of hours grinding races without having any fun at all. I think I'll see if the mood takes me when I reach the end of season ten, and just play it by ear from then.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

400 Days features a pretty great cast of characters, but it's the lack of interactivity (even by the series' standards) that lets it down

I can't remember the last time I beat two games in one day. It may never have even happened before. But on January 12th, I did just that (assuming you're willing to call this its own game, that is). After beating Link's Awakening in the morning, I sat down with The Walking Dead: 400 Days in the evening and played through the whole thing in one ninety-minute sitting. To be honest, as a game player I found it underwhelming. The original Walking Dead series was already pretty lacking from an interactivity perspective, but 400 Days takes that design philosophy even closer to its extreme. It's in service of some pretty great stories, though - the cast and events of 400 Days are its strongest suits, with each episode packed with shocking decisions and grisly moments, and were justification enough for me to leap back into this world so lovingly adapted to the video game format by Telltale. If nothing else it's left me hungry for more, although I think I'm going to wait until all of Season Two is released before I play it - I played the first season last year at a rate of one episode a day, and I can't imagine doing anything else with the second season.

God of War HD Collection

It's been a long time since I last adventured with Kratos, but it's been great getting reacquainted

It's been almost seven years since I last played a God of War game, having played through both God of War and God of War II back-to-back when the latter was released in 2007. Returning to both games in 2014, it's comforting to see how well their action/adventure gameplay holds up. Visually they've weathered the passage of time as well, something the HD-ification process will no doubt have had a hand in, but which I believe is more down to the games' stellar art direction. Both games offer brilliantly paced adventures through gorgeous locales, mixing its distinctively visceral brand of combat with exploration and puzzle-solving in a way reminiscent of series like Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia. God of War II is easily the better of the two titles in the collection, clocking in at nearly twice the length and boasting a ton of new gameplay mechanics and enhancements to justify the extra play time. That being said, I still think the original tells a better story, if only because Kratos' rage-o-meter isn't permanently set to eleven through the first game. It's been a blast coming back to this brutal, epic take on the mythology of ancient Greece, and I'm looking forward to playing the other four games in the series (GoWIII, Chains of Olympus, Ghost of Sparta and Ascension) later in the year.

Final Fantasy VIII

I am going to start playing this as soon as I'm done writing this blog

At the time of writing this blog, I haven't yet started playing Final Fantasy VIII. I finished God of War II yesterday morning, and have prepped my PS3 to start playing this tonight. As a result I don't really have anything to say about it yet, beyond the fact I'm really looking forward to playing it. As one of only two titles in the series I haven't yet finished, it will be cool to finally put this one to rest. I'm definitely not going to have this one wrapped up by the end of the month, so you can expect to see it again on the Gaming Agenda for February next week, when hopefully I'll have played enough of it to have something worth pontificating over in this space.

And Some Other Stuff...

Games aren't my only passion, and they're by no means the only way I spent my free time this month. So I've tacked on this 'And Some Other Stuff...' section to cover the things I've been up to in January that aren't related to video games. I'm including them partly because they might provide more of an insight into the kind of guy I am, but mainly so I can get some use out of my favourite blogging device - bullet points.

  • I've decided to revisit Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to see if the books still hold up. They were my favourite books as a kid, but it's been a long time since I last read them, and I was curious to see how much of my fondness for them might have been rooted in nostalgia. Having just come to the end of Northern Lights, I can at least say with confidence that the first book in the trilogy is still a great read. It's also remarkably brutal and violent in places, much more so than I remembered it being. I've already moved my bookmark over to the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, which I plan to start tonight.
  • I only bought one new album in January - Snake Eyes, the latest release from English punk-folk band Leatherat. It's a record that doesn't stray from the band's winning formula of rock guitars, frenetic drumming and jaunty fiddle-playing. It treads familiar ground lyrically too, with their two favourite subjects (social injustice and having a lot to drink) featuring heavily. All told it's a good addition to the band's catalogue, although it doesn't quite reach the highs of their second album Garden of Eden for me.
  • On the subject of music, I wrote a little something about my favourite albums from 2013 over on my writer's blog. If you like music, or arbitrarily ranking things in lists, then you can find it here.
  • I've spent a fair bit of time this month revisiting one of my unfinished writing projects, a novella called The Hawker, with a view to picking it back up and completing it before the end of the year. Right now the revisits amount to little more than refining the story map and making sure the narrative flows and makes sense, but it's very exciting to be going back to that world and its characters again.

So that's how my game-playing has gone down this month. There's still just under a week of January left, but I imagine I'll be spending it focusing on Final Fantasy VIII and Forza 4 rather than bringing anything new to the fore. I'll be back next week with a new Gaming Agenda for February. Until then, thanks very much for reading, take care and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VIII (PS3)

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Dan's Awakening: 2D Zelda Versus 3D Zelda

I really, really enjoyed playing this...

Over the last couple of months, I've spent a fair bit of my gaming time playing the Legend of Zelda series. December was a month centred around a playthrough of the most recent title in Nintendo's long-running adventure franchise, A Link Between Worlds on 3DS. Not content with just one Zelda adventure, I began 2014 by starting Link's Awakening DX, which I finished last Sunday. It wasn't a conscious decision at the time, although it has now become one as I've vowed to play through every game in the series that I own but haven't ever finished. I was simply still hungry for more Zelda after wrapping up A Link Between Worlds, so I fed that hunger. Even now, I'm still keen to get back to another of the many incarnations of Hyrule and experience more of Link's adventures.

...even more than I enjoyed this, actually. Does that make me weird?

As you can probably guess, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the two games, both of which are fantastic Zelda adventures. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that I had more fun with these top-down, handheld spin-offs than I've ever had with any of the series' full 3D console instalments. If that stance is bemusing to any of you then you're in good company, because it's left me feeling a little flummoxed too. Beginning with Ocarina of Time, Link's home console outings have all been pretty epic adventures, set across sprawling environments, lovingly rendered with beautiful 3D graphics and funded with sizeable production budgets. So why is it that these comparatively compact titles with lower production values have kept me more entertained than the likes of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess? I've spent some time mulling it, and I think I've managed to come to a couple of conclusions.

Before we get into the meat of this blog, I should probably clarify as to which games in the Legend of Zelda series I've played and which ones I haven't. In terms of 2D instalments in the franchise, I've played the original Legend of Zelda, the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past, the 3DS eShop version of Link's Awakening DX, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass and A Link Between Worlds (I realise the last two are technically 3D, but they're played from a top-down perspective and pretty much all the action happens in two dimensions, which makes them more comparable to the 2D titles in the series than the full 3D instalments). In terms of 3D titles, I've played Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. I've also played significant portions of Majora's Mask, but haven't yet seen it through to completion. While I haven't played Skyward Sword yet, I will be referring to it in places in this blog by way of trusted opinions of people who have played it. With all that laid bare, let's move on to the first reason why I believe the 2D instalments of the Zelda franchise resonate more with me than the 3D games...

Open Overworlds

Koholint Island is vast, and there are many ways to get from one side of the map to the other

Here's the first conclusion I came to - I enjoyed exploring the overworlds in A Link Between Worlds and Link's Awakening immensely. Why, you ask? Well, because they feel really open. The way they're designed means that there are invariably multiple paths to any one destination, encouraging the player to fully explore the overworld and experiment with their inventory to uncover new paths to old locations. Take the Lost Woods in the north-west corner of A Link Between Worlds' incarnation of Hyrule. These woods have multiple entrances on their south and east borders, providing several different ways to get to their destination - the player could approach from Kakariko Village to the south, or skirt past the Sanctuary and along the base of Death Mountain to the east, depending on where they currently are in the world and what their fastest route would be.

Hyrule Field seems like an open overworld, but it's really more of a central hub connecting the game's other environments

Compare this to 3D titles like Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess. These games all boast overworlds as well, but with a fundamental difference in structure from their 2D brethren. All three are built around central 'hubs' (Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, and Termina Field in Majora's Mask), from which branch each game's various locations and environments. There's something about this central hub overworld design philosophy which feels less open to me by default - the fact each individual environment is only accessible via its particular entrance from/exit to the 'hub' makes the game world feel more segmented. Wind Waker is the clear exception to this rule due to its overworld being a wide-open ocean, a design decision that (whether intentionally or not) comes closer to replicating the feel of the overworlds of 2D Zelda than any other 3D title in the series that I've played.

I think any attempt I make to put this point forward is probably going to sound self-contradictory, because in terms of how the game worlds are broken up, the overworlds of 2D Zelda games are technically more compartmentalised than their 3D counterparts. Take Link's Awakening as an example, where Koholint Island is split up into hundreds of individual 'screens' which scroll by as Link reaches their borders. It stands to reason these overworlds should feel less open than the 3D games, but because of the aforementioned ability to reach any given destination from a variety of angles, these patchwork overworlds still manage to feel more open.

The Thrill Of Discovery

The opening hours of Twilight Princess do drag on a bit due to its extensive tutorials

This is less a complaint directed at 3D Zelda games in general, and more specifically an issue I take with Twilight Princess (and if sources are to be believed, Skyward Sword). There seems to be a trend in the home console incarnations of Zelda to be a little too hand-holdy these days. Twilight Princess features an agonisingly drawn-out tutorial sequence in its first couple of hours, and judging by Patrick's review of Skyward Sword, that also mollycoddles the player through its opening stages. From what I can remember, Twilight Princess was also a little too willing to spell out what the player needed to do to progress in any given situation, a trait that eliminated a not insignificant amount of the game's potential challenge and dulled the thrill of discovery that comes with finding a solution through intuitive experimentation.

A Link Between Worlds gives you access to pretty much everything from the get-go and lets you experiment with items to discover their many functions

By comparison, the 2D Zelda games seem to be much more willing to simply hand the player a bunch of cool tools and let them find out what each one does by themselves. When Link picks up the hookshot in a dungeon in Link's Awakening, he isn't then forced through a five-minute tutorial sequence explaining its many uses - the game says "You got the hookshot! Awesome! Use it to hook stuff!", then leaves the player to experiment with the device and find out its myriad uses on their own. I think it's a much more rewarding approach, because it encourages the player to experiment with their inventory and provides a sense of achievement and accomplishment when things come good.

I understand that Nintendo probably doesn't want the people who play their games to come away from them feeling frustrated, and I'm not saying there isn't a place in the Zelda series for some form of player guidance. In fact, both A Link Between Worlds and Link's Awakening offer excellent in-game hint systems that are neither obtrusive nor bluntly explicit. Having the option to visit the Fortune Teller or call up Old Man Ulrira for one of their cryptic hints gives players a get-out clause should anything overwhelm them, without forcing an armada of tutorials upon them. It's this willingness to let the player experience the thrill of discovery for themselves that constitutes my second reason for preferring the top-down incarnations of Zelda.

I should probably say before signing off that I also really like the 3D Zelda games - they're all great adventures in their own right, and they each do different things that have impressed me from a game player's perspective. This isn't an attempt on my part to criticise them or belittle their design choices, just an effort to try and quantify what it is that makes me like the 2D instalments I've been playing recently just that little bit more. I'm planning to play through Skyward Sword in February, and while I'm not especially thrilled by the thought of slogging through the game's opening tutorials, I am excited to explore the realm of Skyloft and get wrapped up into another adventure. I'm also looking forward to getting around to more 2D instalments in the series, specifically the two Oracle games, to see if the trend of preferring 2D Zelda to 3D Zelda extends to them too. Thanks for reading guys, take care and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - God of War II (PS3)

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Letting Off Some Steam - January Edition

This blog very nearly didn't happen today. On Tuesday evening I returned home from work and attempted to power on my crummy laptop, only to have it stubbornly refuse to co-operate. A few simple diagnostic tests revealed it to be, in what I believe is the correct technical terminology, "fucked". It's been a shambling husk for a long while now, to tell the truth, and I believe a traumatic blow it received while in transit during December may well have been the last straw. Thankfully I've been able to replace it on short notice (albeit with grave consequences for my savings account), so the planned blogging schedule can remain in effect and go ahead. Today is the second weekend of January, which means it's time for...

January Edition - Platformers!

For those of you who may have missed last week's blog in which I laid down my blogging plans for the year ahead, I'll explain briefly. Letting Off Some Steam is a monthly blog series that I'll be putting out on the second weekend of every month in 2014. Inspired by (read as: 'copied almost directly from') fellow Giant Bomb user Mento and his backlog-browsing antics, I'll be downloading a handful of titles from my own pile of digitally distributed shame and playing each of them for a little while, providing a few thoughts on each game as I go. The idea behind it is to get me to finally trawl through my enormous treasure trove of unfinished games, get a feel for them, and work out which ones I should be prioritising.

In the interest of keeping things thematically consistent for as long as is reasonably possible, I've decided to focus on one particular genre each month. For January's edition of Letting Off Some Steam, the genre is 'platformers'. The games I've chosen are And Yet It Moves, Braid, Gish, and Rayman Origins. First up, if only because my Steam catalogue is organised alphabetically by default, is And Yet It Moves.

And Yet It Moves

Three of the four games on this month's Letting Off Some Steam can collectively be described as 'platformers with a gimmick'. The first of these, Broken Rules's And Yet It Moves, stands out from the crowd by way of its world-rotating mechanic. At any given time, the player can rotate the whole level clockwise or anticlockwise in ninety-degree increments, turning previously impassable walls into floors in order to open new pathways. It's a neat mechanic, and in the half-hour of the game that I played, the developers seemed to get a fair bit of mileage out of it. Objects and creatures in the world can also be manipulated in this way, creating physics-based puzzles that punctuate the precarious platforming. Aesthetically the game is a bit of an oddity, and not necessarily in an endearing way. The 'torn paper' visuals are striking and unique, but not exactly easy on the eye, and the ambient beat-boxed soundtrack didn't sit well with me. That being said, it seems a cool little game, and providing it doesn't outstay its welcome, I can see myself playing through it in full over the course of a few evenings later in the year.

Braid

If the gimmick of And Yet It Moves is making the world go round, then Braid's gimmick is rewinding time. Considered by some to be the original 'indie darling', Braid was adored by Ryan Davises and Soulja Boys alike when it was released in 2008. Having played through the game's first two worlds earlier today, I'm beginning to understand why. It feels great to play thanks to some agreeable platforming physics, and unlike And Yet It Moves, which seems to rest on the laurels of its core mechanic, Braid seems keen to force the player to constantly re-think their approach by piling on new permutations to the established rules at regular intervals. The narrative is pretty well married to the action too, focusing on the themes of learning from one's mistakes, and longing to be able to undo what is already done. I'll definitely be returning to this one later in the year in order to play through the remaining worlds, although I'm not sure I've got enough lateral thinking in me to pick up all of the game's fiendishly out-of-reach puzzle pieces.

Gish

On to our third platformer with a gimmick. Gish is a conceptually interesting puzzle platformer in that its eponymous ball-of-tar hero doesn't control like your average jumping protagonist. Instead, Gish has several different states of being, clever manipulation of which is required to navigate the game's myriad hazards and pitfalls. Make him sticky and he'll cling to surfaces, make him more slippery and he'll slide through tight spaces, and make him more dense and he'll be able to destroy crumbling brickwork and crush enemies. It's a cool concept that's pretty well executed from what I've seen of the game (which is the first five levels, if you're wondering), although there were a few moments along the way where I felt the traversal was a little too 'hit-and-hope' and lacking in real control. Visually it's a treat thanks to Edmund McMillen's trademark art style, and I loved the jazzy saxophone breaks in its soundtrack. Whether or not I come back to Gish is largely dependent on how many levels it has, I think - I was already tiring of it after a half-hour session. If it's not a long game I may consider returning to it, but if it goes on beyond a couple of hours I think I'd find it very difficult to persevere.

Rayman Origins

Rayman Origins very nearly didn't make it into this blog, because it wasn't actually in my list of games to play. I'd previously confined it to a neglected corner of my Steam library titled 'Can't Run', on account of it being a stuttering choppy mess on my previous laptop. I was originally going to cover Toki Tori, which is really more a puzzle game than a bona fide platformer, but decided to take a gamble and see if the Limbless Wonder would run any better on my new PC. And whaddaya know, it runs smooth as butter. I'm finally in a position where I can enjoy the gorgeous art direction and revel in the fast, loose and fluid platforming gameplay. As someone who played a lot of the first Rayman game back on my original PlayStation, there's something about the game's mechanics and structure that appeals to my inner seven-year-old and puts a big ol' nostalgic smile on my face. I played about half an hour of Rayman Origins, which took me through the first five levels and did more than enough to convince me that I need to make this a high priority title. I'll probably have to hook up my Xbox 360 controller as I'm not keen on playing platformers with a keyboard, but I cannot wait to sink my teeth deeper into this beautiful, crazy adventure.

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I think that's going to do it for this month's Letting Off Some Steam. Out of these four, I'm pretty sure it's Rayman Origins that'll end up on the Gaming Agenda for February. Braid and And Yet It Moves are also likely candidates for full playthroughs before the year is out, but I'm not sure I'll be returning to Gish in a hurry. Next weekend I'll be putting together a more considered opinion piece, most likely related to the time I've recently spent with the two Zelda titles A Link Between Worlds and Link's Awakening, and more broadly the franchise as a whole. Also, be on the lookout for the start of a new serial blog, which is likely to land mid-week. Thanks for reading guys, take care and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (3DS)

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First Blog Of 2014 - Agendas Everywhere!

2013 (and in particular the latter half of the year) was a year in which I seemed to go 'off the boil' in several aspects of my life, and one of the most telling of those was in witnessing my writing drop off from semi-regular to practically non-existent. As one of my myriad little New Year's Resolutions to try and get myself back to where I want to be, I've decided to aim for regular weekly blogs this year to ensure my writing muscles stay well-exercised. I should be dropping them every Saturday, or very occasionally on Sundays if my Saturday schedule won't allow it. I'm also going to try adding a little more structure and consistency by following a monthly cycle of different blog formats, which I'll outline below:

  • Week 1: The Gaming Agenda - The only feature with a bona-fide title at present, my first blog of every month will be something called The Gaming Agenda. It's basically a short list of around four or five games that I plan to play over the course of the coming month, along with my reasons for picking them and what I hope to get out of playing them.
  • Week 2: Letting Off Some Steam - Not sure if this is going to be a legitimate title for this feature yet, but it's directly inspired by the precedent of fellow Giant Bomb blogger @Mento, who's done this with his own unwieldy digital distribution collections in the past. In the second week of every month in 2014 I'll be downloading a handful of games from my Steam library and playing the first hour or so of each, to try and determine which ones I'm most keen to play through. The most appealing game (or games) will most likely find their way onto the following month's Gaming Agenda. Hopefully this way I can kick-start myself into finally clearing out some of my enormous Steam backlog.
  • Week 3: Opinions! - Don't worry, this isn't a title for a feature. It's just a way to illustrate that the third week of every month is reserved for more opinion-based pieces of writing. I used to try and do quite a lot of this, and produced some of my best (and most controversial) blog-work as a result. In all likelihood the opinions will stem from a game I've played (or am playing) within the given month, but if nothing specific has grabbed me I may cast my net a bit further and write about the industry in general.
  • Week 4: Retrospective Recaps - A companion piece to The Gaming Agenda, the fourth week of every month will be when I write up some post-gameplay thoughts on all of the games I managed to play within the month. Collecting everything in a single blog should mean the thoughts don't get too rambling, and it'll also provide me with some handy reference points for when I start putting together awards at the end of the year. Oh, and don't worry - that probably won't be the title of this feature.
  • Week 5: And Now For Something Completely Different... - I'm well aware that, due to the variable definition of what constitutes a month and the awkwardness of dividing anything by seven, some months in 2014 will have five Saturdays in them. In those months, I'll use my free blogging credit to talk about... Well, anything, really. I could end up writing a second opinion piece that particular month, or divert my writer's mind onto a different track and talk about something other than video games. Even I can't be sure what I'll be writing about until I start writing, so if nothing else, the results will hopefully at least be different enough to be interesting.

Finally, there's a possibility that a new serial blog may be forthcoming in the near future (don't worry, it won't be Enduring Final Fantasy VIII). I'm still in the planning stage of the project at the moment, but it does happen, I'll be posting updates on a completely different day of the week so it doesn't interfere with the regular weekly blogging schedule. Probably Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

So, with all that clarified, let's crack on properly with what this blog is really all about...

The Gaming Agenda - January

In a slightly bizarre turn of events for me, I haven't actually brought through any half-finished titles into 2014 - partly because I managed to wrap up games like A Link Between Worlds and Pokémon White in the dying days of the year, but I'd wager that my continuing obsession with the already-beaten Pokémon Y also had something to do with that. I started playing Assassin's Creed: Revelations last month but wasn't really feeling it, and have since stopped playing it altogether with a view to trying it again later this year. Consequently, my decision as to what to play to kick off the year has been pulled off a blank slate. I've picked out five games from my Pile of Shame that I'll be aiming to make it through in January, and I think I should be able to comfortably beat at least four of them before the end of the month. Here they are:

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX

One of my own personal goals for this year is to try and beat all the Legend of Zelda games that I own but haven't yet seen the end of - Link's Awakening, Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons, Majora's Mask and Skyward Sword. I decided to start with Link's Awakening, specifically the DX version which I downloaded from the 3DS eShop back in October of last year. I started playing on New Year's Day, and have already made it through the game's first three dungeons. I'm digging the slightly surreal vibe, and looking forward to seeing through the remainder of Link's first handheld adventure.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

Putting together my 'Top Ten' list for My End Of 2013 Awards last month made me realise just how eager I am to play more of Telltale's The Walking Dead. I've bought the pass for Season Two, but before I get started with that I'd like to go back to the original game and play through its DLC add-on, 400 Days. Once this chapter (which supposedly bridges the gap between the two seasons) is complete, I'm sure it won't be long before I'm reunited with Clementine at the start of Season Two.

God of War HD Collection

After picking up a PlayStation 3 early last year, I went on a bit of a spending spree trying to snap up some of the exclusives that I'd originally missed out on. Originally only God of War III and Ascension were on my 'to-buy' list, but I decided to pick up both HD collections as well so that I could experience Kratos's whole story arc. I plan to start with the first HD Collection, consisting of God of War and God of War II, then move on to Kratos's other adventures later in the year.

Final Fantasy VIII

Now that I've finally put Enduring Final Fantasy VII to rest, it's time to take the next step in tying up all the loose ends I've left with Final Fantasy, a series I probably have more history with than any other. That next step is to beat the two main series games I've never seen the end of - specifically Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XII. FFVIII is first on the agenda, and I plan to get started with it this month. I probably won't be able to see Squall's adventure to completion in January, but seeing as I won't be Enduring it, it definitely shouldn't take me almost four years.

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So there we are - both The Gaming Agenda for January, and the blogging agenda for 2014 as a whole, laid out in this first blog of the year. I'll be back in the blogosphere next week, with the inaugural instalment of Letting Off Some Steam (still not entirely sure that name is going to stick). Thanks for reading guys. Happy New Year to you all, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (3DS)

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My End Of 2013 Awards

Yesterday I spent hours working on a lengthy blog to mark this transition from 2013 into 2014. There were beautiful pictures, informative hyperlinks, and reams of text long enough to make even Leo Tolstoy consider asking me to steady on a bit. It was a glorious celebration of the year that was, and a contemplative look forward to the year that will be.

Then my laptop crashed, and all of it disappeared in an instant.

People (mainly Video_Game_King) will tell me I'm a reckless moron for not writing and regularly saving these blogs in a word processor, and then copying them over when they're finished. I know that makes sense, but I can't bring myself to do it. I love the Giant Bomb text editor too much. I like being able to format my work as I go, throwing in links and images and whatnot during the writing process rather than laboriously trudging back through my prose to add them afterwards. This is the price I occasionally have to pay for that ignorant preference, I guess.

So, in the absence of fancy aesthetics and detailed analysis, I'm just going to throw the list up here with minimal effort this year. It sucks not to be able to put my usual amount of care and thought into this, but I'll be damned if I'm spending literally hours re-creating what I lost. You can have this list and like it or lump it.

Follow this paragraph will be a list. This is my hand-picked list of the top ten games that I played in 2013. The usual pre-requisites for these personal awards stand - the games don't have to be ones released in 2013, I just have to have played them in the last twelve months for them to be eligible. Also, this list is not in ranked order, because I hate arbitrarily assigning rankings to these things when, to my mind at least, there's practically nothing in it. For the sake of simplicity, they're in alphabetical order instead. Let's go, shall we?

The Top 10 Games I Played In 2013

  • BioShock Infinite - A beautiful game world, well-written characters and an intensely thrilling story are all reasons why I couldn't leave this off the list. I even loved the combat once the sky-lines and Tears started making things interesting.
  • Borderlands 2 - I loved the first game for its shoot-and-loot premise, and this sequel delivers more of the same in a much more refined package. The ton of little gameplay tweaks and the more prominent story were welcome changes.
  • Final Fantasy VII - 2013 will go down in personal history as the year that I finished Enduring Final Fantasy VII. For that reason alone, Squaresoft's most famous/infamous game goes on the list as one that defined this year for me.
  • Grand Theft Auto V - A lot of the game's attempts at satirical humour fell flat for me this time around, but there's no denying I had a huge amount of fun roaming and wrecking Los Santos with Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Nobody does open-world better than Rockstar.
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds - This latest top-down Zelda doesn't just ride on the nostalgic coat-tails of A Link to the Past - it also manages to be a great game in its own right. The mechanics are solid, the lack of hand-holding is very welcome, and its gorgeous visuals had my 3DS's 3D effect set permanently on throughout.
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater - Revisiting this game within the context of the entire series confirmed for me that it's far and away my favourite Metal Gear game. It still looks great, the story stands out as my favourite from the franchise, and the advancements to the series' trademark stealth mechanics are just some of the reasons why.
  • Pokémon Y - In a year full of Pokémon, the latest game in the series stands head and shoulders above the rest. The leap to full 3D, the robust online capabilities, and the efforts to make the previously invisible mini-game a little more transparent just pushed it above SoulSilver to make this list.
  • Sleeping Dogs - What Sleeping Dogs lacks in scope, it makes up for in its mechanics. Between the combat, the driving, the mission structure and the various odd-jobs around Hong Kong, I don't think there was a single moment where I wasn't having fun playing Sleeping Dogs.
  • Tomb Raider - This franchise reboot borrows just as much from the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum as it does from the Uncharted series. Lara is more believable, as is the more cohesive story she gets tied up in. I can't wait to see where Crystal Dynamics take this series on the new hardware.
  • The Walking Dead - Telltale's adventure series got under my skin in a way I never expected it to. The gameplay may be minimal, but the narrative that holds it all together is perhaps the best I've ever seen in a game. The 400 Days expansion is definitely an early 2014 priority before I get stuck into Season Two.

There ya go - My End Of 2013 Awards. The bells and whistles may be missing, but at least the games themselves are intact. Thanks for reading guys. However you're choosing to send off this year and bring in 2014, I hope you have a great time, and wish you all the best for the upcoming year. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Y (3DS)

4 Comments

Compilation Of Enduring Final Fantasy VII

Welcome to Compilation of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. For those who may not be aware of what this is all about, allow me to explain. Between February 2010 and December 2013, I wrote a series of blogs documenting a playthrough of Final Fantasy VII. As someone with a lot of love for the game, I wanted to determine whether or not it was still worth playing in this age of high-definition graphics and refined gameplay mechanics. I tried to keep my eye as objective as possible, aiming to judge it from the perspective of a video game enthusiast in the twenty-first century and not let nostalgia affect my writings too much. The core tenet of the series was to find out if the game had stood the test of time or not - if it had endured the last fifteen-or-so years, or if it was now something to be endured itself. Hence the series' title, Enduring Final Fantasy VII.

Given the series was written in fits and starts over a four-year period, the episodes are pretty spread out through Giant Bomb's history. As a result, navigating from one episode to the next isn't the most streamlined process. Speaking as the writer, I found re-visiting the older episodes for reference to be quite a chore at times. That's why I've decided to put this blog together. It's basically a glorified table of contents, a handy-dandy episode guide that provides links and descriptions for every one of the series' thirty-six entries in one smart, tidy, easy-to-navigate location. Just click on any of the titles below, and you'll be taken to the relevant episode. My hope is that it will make reading and navigating the series much simpler for any future readers.

Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back Story

This unofficial inaugural episode lays out my own personal history with Final Fantasy VII, as well as the foundations for all future episodes in the series.

Episode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions

Our journey begins in the city of Midgar, with ex-SOLDIER Cloud Strife joining forces with Barret Wallace, the leader of the militant activist group AVALANCHE, and childhood friend Tifa Lockheart, as they take part in a series of terrorist attacks against the oppressive Shinra Electric Power Company.

Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey Bees

After a botched terrorist attack on the Sector 5 Reactor, Cloud finds himself in the city's slums and in the company of flower girl and last surviving Ancient Aerith Gainsborough. His attempts to get back to his friends take him to Wall Market, and into the mansion of local dilettante Don Corneo.

Episode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort

Cloud is reunited with Barret and Tifa, but at a terrible cost - Aerith is abducted by Shinra's Turks operatives, and the Sector 7 slums are wiped out when Shinra destroy the pillar supporting the plate above. Keen to avenge the deaths of their comrades and free Aerith from imprisonment, the trio infiltrate Shinra Headquarters in a bid to rescue her and shut down Shinra once and for all.

Episode Four - Escape From Midgar

After meeting and befriending the mysterious beast Red XIII, Cloud and company are caught and imprisoned by the Turks and Shinra. They manage to escape, but only with the help of a mystery assailant who has also broken into the Shinra HQ. Seizing the opportunity, the gang escape from the building in vehicles and follow the highway to the edge of Midgar, leaving the city far behind.

Episode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent

Having safely retreated to the nearby village of Kalm, Cloud and his friends re-group at the inn and try to make sense of what happened back at Shinra HQ. Cloud opens up about his past, explaining the events that unfolded at his hometown of Nibelheim five years ago, and how they could be tied to what happened back in Midgar.

Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big Birds

After Cloud finishes his story the group resolves to pursue Sephiroth, the mysterious man in black, across the continent. En route they stumble upon the Chocobo Ranch, and end up catching a chocobo of their own to out-run the Midgar Zolom that lives in the nearby swamp. On the other side of the Mythril Mines they arrive at Fort Condor, where they offer to help its residents protect a nesting Condor from attacks co-ordinated by Shinra.

Episode Seven - Hitching A Ride

With new character Yuffie Kisaragi joining their ranks, the party finally arrive in Junon, still in pursuit of Sephiroth. Their arrival coincides with the inauguration of the new Shinra president, Rufus, also happening in the city at the time. Hearing their quarry is crossing the sea to the west, the gang manage to stow away on Rufus' ship, bound for Costa Del Sol and the Western Continent.

Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The Saucer

From the seaside resort of Costa Del Sol, the party head west into the mountains. Passing through Barret's hometown of Corel, they arrive at the Gold Saucer, a huge theme park built in the middle of a desert. In their hunt for Sephiroth they meet Cait Sith, a fortune-telling stuffed toy who joins the party, and an unfortunate series of events lead to the whole gang being incarcerated below the Gold Saucer in Corel Prison.

Episode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs

Barret's forced to face a familiar friend from his past in the vast deserts surrounding Corel Prison. When he and old acquaintance Dyne have made their peace, the prison guards offer Cloud and the gang their best chance of escape - winning one of the Gold Saucer's Chocobo races...

Episode Ten - Going Gongaga

Free from the confines of Corel Prison and equipped with a fancy new buggy for crossing the desert, the party continue their search for Sephiroth. Their journey takes them south through the town of Gongaga, where several threads of the game's labyrinthine plot finally begin to converge.

Episode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns

When the buggy breaks down, Cloud and the team seek refuge in the nearby Cosmo Canyon, a village cut into the cliff face that also happens to be Red XIII's hometown. There they meet the wise old man Bugenhagen, who explains the inner workings of the Planet and teaches us a little more about Cloud's canine companion.

Episode Twelve - Just A Little Nibel

With the buggy fixed the party press on north to Nibelheim, Cloud and Tifa's hometown. Contrary to the stories Cloud told back in Kalm, nobody in the town can recall the horrific events of five years ago. After encountering Sephiroth once again and recruiting the enigmatic Vincent Valentine in the abandoned Shinra Mansion, the strengthened party press on across the twisting mountain pass that cuts through Mount Nibel.

Episode Thirteen - The Rocket Man

On the other side of the mountain pass lies Rocket Town, a small village built up around the base of a Shinra rocket that failed to launch. Here the gang meet the final addition to their party, pilot Cid Highwind. When the Shinra show up trying to borrow Cid's plane, the team makes a pretty dramatic exit, at the cost of Cid's beloved Tiny Bronco.

Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia Heist

With Cid's plane now useful for nothing but a boat, Yuffie suggests the party head west to her hometown of Wutai. On the way there she steals everyone's Materia and turns tail, forcing Cloud and co. into an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse through the streets of Wutai.

Episode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal

In search of the elusive Keystone, the gang wind up once again at the Gold Saucer. Their overnight stay prompts a touching date between Cloud and Aerith, and the revelation that for some time, a Shinra spy has been in their midst...

Episode Sixteen - An Ancient Evil

Hot on the heels of the Turks and their stolen Keystone, the party arrives at the Temple of the Ancients. It's here that Sephiroth plans to acquire the Black Materia, which he can use to summon the powerful destructive magic Meteor. Ready to face their adversaries, the team must first navigate the dark chambers of the Temple.

Episode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient

After the Black Materia falls into Sephiroth's hands, Aerith leaves the party believing she knows a way to counter Meteor. The party pursue her far north to the Forgotten City of the Ancients, but Aerith is not the only one waiting to greet them within its abandoned walls.

Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding?!

Following the death of Aerith, the grieving party members move further north in pursuit of Sephiroth, arriving at Icicle Inn. The route ahead is a snowy slope, so in order to continue their journey toward the Great Glacier, Cloud and the gang are going have a little creative with their method of transportation...

Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow

Having reached the Great Glacier, the crew face two final obstacles before they reach the North Crater - they must cross the snow fields, and then climb the frozen Cliffs of Gaea. With the temperature falling fast, it's going to be a lot easier said than done.

Episode Twenty - The Illusion Broken

The party finally catch up to Sephiroth at the North Crater, and they're not the only ones - his black-cloaked followers from Nibelheim and the Shinra have made it here too. As all three groups converge at this enormous wound in the surface of the Planet, some long-hidden truths are about to be revealed.

Episode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon

Tifa and Barret awaken in Junon to find themselves imprisoned by Shinra and Sephiroth's Meteor hanging ominously over the Planet. To top it all off, Cloud is nowhere to be seen, and they're about to be publicly executed to appease the frightened masses. It's going to take a minor miracle to get out of this jam.

Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No Deal

Tifa's frantic searching for Cloud, with the new airship Highwind at her disposal, eventually brings the party to the small town of Mideel. Reports of a man being washed up nearby lead her and the rest of the party to the town's infirmary. Sure enough, Cloud is there, but the trauma he's been through has left him in a shocking state.

Episode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train

When Tifa decides to stay behind in Mideel, Cid agrees to take the party by the reins while Cloud is out of commission. The first order of the day is to track down the Huge Materia, incredibly powerful Materia that the Shinra are planning to use to create a super-weapon to use against Sephiroth. One piece of this Huge Materia is bound for Corel on a train, and that means a train robbery will very soon be underway.

Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final Stand

The continued search for Huge Materia brings the party back to Fort Condor, where Shinra's attacking forces are mounting a final assault. One last battle will decide the fate of this old abandoned Mako Reactor, as well as the bird that nests upon it.

Episode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth

With two pieces of Huge Materia in their position, the party decides to return to Mideel and check on Cloud and Tifa. During their visit, Ultimate WEAPON attacks the town, causing a violent earthquake that tears the town apart. Cloud and Tifa fall deep into the Lifestream, and Cloud is finally forced to confront his contradictory memories.

Episode Twenty-Six - Under The Sea

With Cloud back in command and better than ever, the crew head back to Junon in search of a third piece of Huge Materia. Housed in an underwater Mako Reactor, Shinra are preparing to move it by submarine, but they haven't counted on our heroes coming to crash the party.

Episode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends

With three pieces of Huge Materia safely in the bag, the gang take a little time out from adventuring to explore the world in the Highwind. The Shinra Mansion at Nibelheim, the crashed Gelnika airship, and Lucrecia's hidden grotto are all covered in this globe-trotting episode.

Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With Chocobos

The gang try their hand at breeding an elusive Gold Chocobo. Then they decide it's largely a waste of time and not at all fun, and decide to pack it in.

Episode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars

Back on track, the party have learned that a fourth and final piece of Huge Materia has arrived in Rocket Town and is due to be sent into space in an attempt to destroy Meteor. With Cid in tow, Cloud stows away on the rocket before launch and sets about recovering the Huge Materia before it is lost forever.

Episode Thirty - An Ancient Secret

The Huge Materia may be safely in their possession, but the party are at a loss as to how to proceed from here. At Cosmo Canyon, Bugenhagen suggests visiting the City of the Ancients for a second time, to see if they can discover what Aerith was planning before Sephiroth put a stop to it.

Episode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon

Back in Midgar, Shinra are putting the finishing touches to their Sister Ray - a souped-up cannon intended to break through Sephiroth's barrier at the North Crater. With Diamond WEAPON marching on the city, Cloud and co. race back in the Highwind to try and put an end to any disaster before it can unfold.

Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad Science

Professor Hojo has locked down control of the Sister Ray and is preparing to fire it into the North Crater again before its cooldown period is over - a move that could potentially destroy the whole of Midgar. The party make their return to the city from above, and head straight for the Sister Ray's platform to put an end to the crazed scientist's dastardly plan.

Episode Thirty-Three - Globe-Trottin', Time-Wastin', Side-Questin'

The barrier on the North Crater has dropped, and Sephiroth lies in wait within. This seems like the perfect time to go gallivanting all over the Planet in search of Ultimate Weapons, Final Limit Breaks and other completely optional gubbins!

Episode Thirty-Four - Journey To The Centre Of The Planet

Our band of heroes finally make their way back to the North Crater and prepare to descend into its dark depths. A long, complex path lies between them and the villain they seek.

Episode Thirty-Five - The Final Stand

At the very bottom of the North Crater, Sephiroth lies in wait for the party, smothering Holy and preventing it from reaching the Meteor which now hangs perilously above Midgar. Steeling themselves, Cloud and the others engage their twisted nemesis in battle to determine the fate of not just their own lives, but that of the Planet itself.

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I've had a lot of fun putting this series together, and I'm more than a little emotional about the fact it's finally over. Hopefully this compilation blog will make it easier for the series to survive for posterity (or at the very least, a bit easier to link to). Thanks once again to everybody who's supported the series these last four years, and to everyone who may yet read it in the future. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty-Five

Ladies and gentlemen, the time is finally upon us. After thirty-four episodes spanning almost four years, punctuated by several hiatuses and nearly being stopped completely at least twice, my Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series, in which I take a semi-cynical, semi-nostalgic look back at Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII to determine whether it's still worth playing in the twenty-first century, is at last reaching its conclusion. Today we take control of Cloud and company for the final time and steer them towards their ultimate fate - the final showdown with Sephiroth at the bottom of the North Crater. It's sure to be an emotional finale - in fact, I don't think it's unfair to call this the end of an era. Part of me doesn't actually want to press on, for reasons I can't quite articulate. It's a bit like reading a book but not wanting to read the final chapter, instead preferring to let the story and characters hang suspended in indefinite stasis. But I know I can't do that. An end to Enduring Final Fantasy VII is long overdue, and it is going to happen today. If everyone is sitting comfortably, then let's roll that Enduring Final Fantasy VII title card one last time...

Episode Thirty-Five - The Final Stand

Loading up my final save from yesterday puts me back in control of my party of Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie, poised just above the very bottom of the North Crater, ready to descend into what is presumably Sephiroth's lair. A few steps beyond the save point, the whole gang is waiting to follow and face whatever lies beyond this threshold. Cloud makes the first move, about to start following the spiralled staircase of stepping stones into the core of the Planet below, when he turns round to face the party and delivers what is undoubtedly one of my favourite lines of video game dialogue of all time. A line so god-damn terrible, it comes right back out at the other end of the scale and ends up being brilliant:

Right up there with "You spoony bard!", "You're Winner!" and "All your base are belong to us", if you ask me

I don't want to dwell too much on it, because I've spent a fair bit of time in previous episodes saying how much I take issue with Final Fantasy VII's pretty shoddy translation. All I'm going to say is that if this game IS ever remade with a tidied-up translation, then this line needs to stay in. It's iconic to me, it makes me smile every time I read it, and I genuinely can't imagine any re-imagining of this game not including it.

After Cid derides Cloud for his choice of words (I suspect the irony of which may have been lost on the translators), monsters begin pouring into the chamber. This isn't shown visually, but instead indicated by the game's audio - guttural roars and groans begin to echo throughout the chamber, indicating the creatures' arrival. The whole thing feels a bit B-movie, as if they didn't have the budget to make a monster so they kept it off-screen. My first thought was "I wonder why they didn't show that, maybe through a CGI sequence", but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it made more sense not to. One thing I'm pretty sure I haven't said about Final Fantasy VII in any previous episode is that although it flaunts its CGI sequences as a selling point, its use of them is pretty conservative, reserved only for the moments with real impact - like the opening sequence, or the death of Aerith, or the WEAPONs being unleashed. To use one for something so unremarkable as monsters appearing in a dungeon would probably have cheapened their overall impact, so I'm glad they didn't opt for CGI in this instance (although I do wish there was an alternative to the shoe-string budget, noises-in-the-background approach).

Once again I'm prompted to select a party (Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie win out yet again), and then I begin my final descent. At the bottom lies the first of several end-game bosses - Jenova-SYNTHESIS. This final incarnation of Jenova hits pretty hard, but proves no match for what is by now a tried-and-tested strategy. Yuffie gets to work setting up my buffs of choice - Haste, Regen and Wall - to give the party a clear advantage. Red XIII, now equipped with the Mega-All Materia, finds his regular attack converted to Slash-All, giving him the ability to hit every part of Jenova-SYNTHESIS at once. Cloud sets about absorbing the damage dealt while he and Red XIII chip away at the boss's HP, until she finally falls. The battle takes a little while, but my party aren't really any worse for wear on the other side of it - a reassuring sign, given what's to come.

After this battle, the ground beneath the party gives way, dropping them deeper into the Planet's core. When Cloud comes to, he finds himself once again in the company of all his fellow adventurers, and sitting before an intensely bright white light - could this be Holy? As they all awaken, Sephiroth appears before them and restrains them in mid-air, toying with them as they struggle against his power. It's here that the game prompts me to split my roster of characters into two parties, in preparation for what is likely to be an arduous battle. I decide to stick with Cloud, Red XIII and Yuffie on one side, but I shed some of their Materia in order to share it with my second party - Cid, Barret and Vincent - in preparation for the battle that is about to begin.

The first stage of the game's final battle is against Bizzarro Sephiroth, an enormous, multi-part incarnation of the game's antagonist that demands not one, but two parties in order to put paid to it. One party assumes position on the left side of the enemy, the other on the right. Bizzarro Sephiroth has five parts - a head, a torso, a core in its abdomen, and two wings referred to as the Left Magic and Right Magic. This is where the strategy comes in - these parts need to be damaged in a specific order, and you need to switch between both teams in order to do so. First the Left and Right Magics need to go down. That weakens the core, which needs to be damaged first on one side, and then the other. Without the core to heal it, both teams are free to hack away at the torso, which brings the battle to a close. It's a lot of fun engaging in this tactical battle, and the two-team dynamic makes things a bit more challenging and interesting.

After this comes Sephiroth's second incarnation - Safer Sephiroth. The good news is that this one-winged angel isn't split up into multiple parts - there's just one entity for you to focus on. The bad news is that you're restricted to one party, with no chance to heal up beforehand, and this guy hits hard. Safer Sephiroth's signature move, Super Nova, is downright evil, and has a fucking crazy animation to boot - Sephiroth summons a star from the furthest reaches of space, which descends upon our galaxy, taking out half the solar system on its way to the Sun, which expands to the point where it reaches the Planet and engulfs the entire party, leaving them with around 5% of their total HP. Yuffie has her work cut out for her, constantly spamming buffs and making use of her equipped W-Item Materia to throw Phoenix Down and Megalixirs around when needed. Red XIII chips away at Safer Sephiroth's vast HP reserves, but it's Cloud that does the real damage here - equipped with the Ultima Weapon and Double Cut Materia, he dishes out around 12,000 damage per turn. There are some tense moments where the tide of battle almost turns to smother me completely, but at last, the boss goes down.

After defeating this second incarnation of Sephiroth, the team find themselves back on the precipice where we left our save point. With Sephiroth ostensibly defeated, Cloud ponders that now they've done all they can, the fate of the Planet is out of their hands - it's up to Holy, and the Planet itself, to take charge of its own fate. As the party prepare to move out, Cloud freezes in his tracks. It seems part of Sephiroth is still nearby. As Tifa tries to make sense of what he's saying, Cloud collapses and enters another one of his 'out-of-body' experiences. A CGI sequence illustrates Cloud descending once more into the darkness, for one last showdown against Sephiroth...

The game's true final battle, a one-on-one showdown between Cloud and Sephiroth, is something I could write a lot about, but I'll try to keep it fairly manageable here. Rather than Cloud's ATB meter filling, his Limit meter gradually fills instead. When it's full, Cloud unleashes all his strength upon Sephiroth, who collapses, finally defeated. The way I've always seen it, this isn't a literal battle taking place in the North Crater, but a much more abstract and intangible battle taking place in Cloud's own head. It's not a representation of forcing Sephiroth to relinquish his hold on Holy, but a representation of Cloud finally forcing Sephiroth and Jenova out of his own tortured mind. It's his own personal release, the culmination of his own story arc, confirmation that he not only equals but exceeds the SOLDIERs he looked up to as a younger man, and all this brilliantly illustrated not through any explicit narrative or dialogue typed out in a text box, but through this implicit, symbolic piece of gameplay. It's without a doubt one of my favourite moments in the game, the perfect end to Cloud's character arc, and perhaps one of the most cathartic moments in any video game ever.

Following this intense face-off, the game's closing cinematic starts to play. It's a pretty long sequence, so rather than describing every little detail, I've elected to embed it below for people to watch:

There are a couple of aspects of this ending that I want to discuss. The first is the immediate events it depicts - the release of Holy, its failure to stop Meteor, and the subsequent emergence of the Lifestream. Emotionally it's a roller-coaster ride to watch for the first time, yo-yo-ing back and forth between hope and disaster in a way that leaves you never quite sure of how the whole thing is ultimately going to end. The appearance of Aerith's face on-screen in the dying seconds of the cinematic, mirroring the game's opening shots, serves as a reminder that she is arguably the real hero in all this. Sure, Cloud's the one we've been in control of all this time, but it's Aerith's Holy spell, Aerith's insinuated rallying of the Lifestream, that really and truly save the Planet from the threat of Meteor.

The other thing I want to say is that I am a big fan of the 'five hundred years later' epilogue that runs after the credits. The staff roll has been cut out of the video above, and the epilogue starts at around 8:55. it depicts a much older and wiser Red XIII, with two of his cubs following him through a dusty valley. He leads them to the top of a cliff, where together they look out over the overgrown ruins of the city of Midgar. It's not the happily-ever-after ending that a lot of people were probably expecting, but it serves to communicate the most important message of all - that the Planet was saved by our heroes' efforts. And not just for the benefit of all the characters we met on the journey, either, but for the future, for generations yet to come. If you ask me, this ending drives that fact home more than any series of individual character epilogues ever could.

As the game's narrative comes to a close, the screen fills with stars shooting through the blackness of space while the series' famous prelude plays in the background. It's still playing now, as I type out the closing words of this last ever episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. Our journey through Squaresoft's most famous and divisive piece of work has reached its end. My heart feels undeniably heavy in my chest as I reach across to the power sensor on my PS3 and hold my thumb over it for a few seconds. Ladies and gentlemen, I have finished Enduring Final Fantasy VII.

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
Episode Twenty-Six - Under The SeaEpisode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends
Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With ChocobosEpisode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars
Episode Thirty - An Ancient SecretEpisode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon
Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad ScienceEpisode Thirty-Three - Globe-Trottin', Time-Wastin', Side-Questin'
Episode Thirty-Four - Journey To The Centre Of The Planet

...but hold on just one second.

Aren't we forgetting something here? Wasn't the entire point of this blog series to determine whether or not Final Fantasy VII was still worth playing around fifteen years after its release? To say definitively whether the game had endured the test of time, or had been reduced to something that needed to be endured? Where, in these vast swathes of text, is the answer to that one fundamental question we've been pursuing all this time?

Well folks, the paragraphs below are about as close to that answer as you, I, or anybody else is likely to get.

Final Fantasy VII as a game has not aged well. Visually it ranges from acceptable to downright hideous. Mechanically it's archaic, unwieldy, and not particularly intuitive. Its translation is below average, and even laughably bizarre at times. A lot of players of modern video games will find it incredibly difficult to look past a lot of these faults. And that, ultimately, is the game's biggest problem, because underneath all of those superficial flaws beats the stout heart of a truly great adventure - a breathtaking musical score, a cast of characters you'll grow inexplicably attached to, an open-ended approach to character development that makes for some really exciting battles and rewards experimentation, and a well-paced story that wraps you up so tightly in its myriad twists and turns that it becomes all too easy to forgive its inconsistencies. As a game played in 2013, it underwhelms. But as an adventure and an experience, for me at least, it still excels.

Now come the words I never thought I would utter - what Final Fantasy VII would benefit from is a remake. Not in the traditional sense of a remake, mind - more an upgrade, an overhaul to drag the existing foundations of the game into the twenty-first century. A remake that honours its heritage by retaining its pre-rendered backdrops and text-box dialogue, rather than scrapping them for full 3D and voice acting. A remake that provides a much-needed visual overhaul, with prettier polygonal models and high-resolution pre-rendered backdrops, and without throwing in unnecessary CGI all over the place. A remake with a vastly superior translation of the game's original script, which honours the story and better clarifies some of the game's more obtuse design decisions. Basically, a remake that fixes the original game's obvious faults, without compromising its strengths and original design ethic. Do I want a remake of Final Fantasy VII? The answer, perhaps ironically, remains no. Purely because any remake made by Square-Enix in its current state would most likely do the complete opposite of everything I've outlined above, and in the search for a better game, end up compromising what still makes the original great - the adventure, and the experience.

So should you play Final Fantasy VII in 2014? If you have any history with the game, but have been hesitant to go back to it, my answer to you is "yes". Chances are you'll be able to look past the shortcomings that age has bestowed upon it and rekindle that old passion, as I've been able to do. If you don't have any history with the game, but curiosity is drawing you towards it, my answer to you is "why not take the chance"? Between the digital releases on both PlayStation Network and Steam, the game has never been so readily available at such a reasonable price. If you're not able to look past the game's problems, or if the story and characters don't grab you in the same way, then that's fine - if there's one thing to be learned from the internet, it's that Final Fantasy VII will never please everyone - but in this blogger's humble opinion, it's still a chance worth taking for the sake of £8 or $10.

If any of what I've written above seems like a cop-out, then I apologise. I guess I was never really the "right" guy to write this series. I have an established history with Final Fantasy VII, and try as I might to shrug it off and view the game through new eyes and with complete objectivity, my love of the game was inevitably going to skew my viewpoint a little more favourably than it should have done. Personally I've gotten a huge amount out of writing these blogs, probably more than I've given to any of you readers in return. By far the most rewarding thing to come of it, though, is to be able to look at one of my favourite games and love it again, to enjoy playing it and writing about it without feeling a sense of shame, as if I'm being scrutinised by the rest of the internet like some video game equivalent of Nineteen Eighty-Four. When I was ten, I loved Final Fantasy VII. Now I'm twenty-three and able to recognise its problems, I still love Final Fantasy VII. It's not the greatest game ever. It's not even close. But it is incredibly special to me, and I'm glad to have regained sight of that fact.

Thank you so much to everybody who has read this series of blogs. If you started this journey with me and dropped out along the way, thank you. If you joined me late in the quest and saw it through to this end, thank you. If you only read one or two episodes, thank you. And if you're one of that small group of incredible people who've stuck with me over the whole of these last four years, I reserved the biggest thanks for you. Your comments have been a pleasure to read, and above all, your patience has been hugely appreciated. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PS3)

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