A Little, More Often #2

Welcome, one and all (and especially you) to this, the second instalment in my 'A Little, More Often' series of blogs. I had planned to write this last weekend, but instead opted to hold off for an additional week so as to drum up some more material to write about. The decision seems to have paid off, as I've not only completed two games since the last blog, but I've also made significant progress in two lengthy RPGs, giving me a little bit more to blog about. I'll begin where I left off last time, with:

Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee

It's fiddly and flawed at times, but Munch's Oddysee is still a fun, unique gaming experience

I finished Munch's Oddysee the morning after posting my last blog, powering through most of the game's final third in a single sitting. Pretty much everything I said about the game two weeks ago still stands - it was a joy to return to Oddworld and re-experience the series' unique approach to both gameplay and storytelling. The shift to three-dimensional graphics isn't the upgrade that it should have been, often proving to be quite the reverse in instances where precision control becomes an issue. Most of the fun I derived from the experience came from coming up with solutions to some of the puzzles, especially in situations where I was able to circumvent the designers' intentions with a little lateral thinking. I ended up wrapping up the game with very high quarma, failing to save only ten of the game's 300+ captive creatures and subsequently receiving the good ending. I'm not sure I'll ever return to this game in the Oddworld franchise, but playing through it has left me with a desire to return to Abe's Oddysee and see if I can earn myself the elusive good ending in that title, too. I also still have Stranger's Wrath left to play, so I'm sure one way or the other, I'll be revisiting Oddworld some time soon.

Dear Esther

Environment and atmosphere are what defined my time with Dear Esther

I actually played through this in one evening sitting, the same day that I beat Munch's Oddysee. Well, I say 'played'... Dear Esther isn't really a game, per se - it's more an interactive narrative, where exploration of the game's Hebridean island environment yields snippets of a fragmented letter to the eponymous Esther. I have to admit, I didn't find the story all that captivating - the language is poetic and impressive from a literary standpoint, but tends to give the impression that the game's writers were trying a little too hard. Similarly, the narrative is ambiguous and open to a degree of player interpretation, but its fragmented, piecemeal delivery prevented any of it from really sticking with me long after my playthrough was over. What really entranced me about Dear Esther was the gameworld itself. The rugged, mountainous terrain and spectacular underground caverns that played host to my journey were both impressive in their scope and striking in their detail. It's an environment that I won't soon forget, even if the game itself isn't destined to stay with me for long.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

For a humble GBA release, this game is huge

After seeing the end of two games in the space of less than twenty-four hours, I wasn't sure where to redirect my gaming attention. A few days' deliberation brought me back to this old favourite. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was pretty much the defining game of my 2004 - a good friend bought the game at the same time as me, and we spent countless hours at weekends sitting on our doorsteps with our GBAs in hand, trading items and swapping strategies between our clans. But while he made it to the end of the game's story missions, I ended up distracted by other games and only got about halfway through. Eight years on, that's something I'm trying to put right. I've put an incredible twenty hours into the game in just under a week, taking Clan Gaslight (named after my current musical obsession) through forty missions and around a quarter of the way through the story. It's been a long time since I last played a strategy RPG, so FFTA's slightly simpler mechanics and lower difficulty threshold make it an ideal re-introduction to the genre for me. The handheld, pick-up-and-play nature of the game is also an advantage, so I've been taking my DS to work and powering through a few battles in my lunch breaks. Realistically, FFTA is going to keep me occupied for a good month or so, and I'm looking forward to stacking a lot more hours on top of those initial twenty.

That's Yer Lot

And so the second 'episode' of this little blog series draws to a close. Just so you know, I don't plan on making this format shift a permanent thing. It's just an attempt to rejuvenate my interest in writing at length about video games (and writing in general), and once I've rekindled that flame I plan to return to my old, one-game-in-depth-at-a-time approach. If I should write another one of these in a couple of weeks' time, expect it to contain more thoughts on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, revisited impressions of Persona 4 from both myself and my sister, and most likely a recap of some shorter, more action-oriented game that I'll likely pick up soon. Ever-patient readers of 'Enduring Final Fantasy VII' will be pleased to know that the series will be making its thirtieth-episode comeback this month, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

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A Little, More Often

It's been far too long since I last wrote anything for this blog. Truth be told, it's been far too long since I last wrote anything at all. Work has kept me stupidly busy these last couple of months, but that's really only part of the problem. The biggest obstacle I'm trying to overcome is lack of motivation, a feeling that's caused more than just my writing to suffer this summer. To try and combat these high levels of disinterest, I'm going to commit myself to spending just a small amount of time to write shorter updates on a more regular basis. Hence the title of this blog post - 'A Little, More Often'.

Because it's been quite a while since my last Giant Bomb blog update, I've got quite a few things to talk about. I won't spend too long on any one subject, and my writer's mind is a little rusty, so I apologise if the thoughts below seem a little disjointed or undercooked. All I ask is that you bear with me, and hopefully it'll all come good in the end. The first item on my blogging agenda is:

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Stabbin' dudes in the face and neck is still fun

I spent most of August playing the third instalment in the core Assassin's Creed canon, reaching the end of Ezio's adventure in Rome on the first of this month. I was seriously impressed by the ways in which Brotherhood built upon Assassin's Creed II, most notably in the form of the Assassins Guild content, which ended up dominating most of my time spent with the game. It was almost a given that I'd get drawn into that stuff, considering how much I enjoyed similar mechanics implemented in games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. While AC: Brotherhood is a strong enough adventure in its own right, it struggled to live up to my appreciation of its predecessor. I'm convinced this was mainly due to the approach Brotherhood took with its story, replacing the second game's focus on the development of Ezio's character with an isolated 'Assassins-versus-Templars' narrative centred on the Borgia. I appreciated the fleshing-out of Desmond and his companions outside the Animus, but felt like more could have been done to advance the overarching plot running through the whole series. The game certainly ends with a bang (or rather, an 'UH!'), but overall the story stuff in Brotherhood felt underdone and left me feeling a little dissatisfied. Even in spite of those shortcomings, though, the gameplay holds up, with further mechanical refinements ensuring Brotherhood is the best Assassin's Creed game I've played purely from the perspective of its gameplay. I'll no doubt be picking up AC: Revelations later this year (when the release of Assassin's Creed III drives its price through the floor), with a view to witnessing the conclusion to Ezio's tale some time in 2013.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

I already like the Midnight Channel a lot more than Tartarus

Ever since I finished Persona 3 back in February, my sister (who served as a spectator for most my run through) has been pestering me to pick up its sequel. I finally caved a couple of weeks ago, and since then we've been dedicating a little time every evening to finding our feet in Inaba. We're about nine hours in so far, so it's really too early for me to pass a definitive judgement about anything in the game, but so far it's felt like a logical evolution of the mechanics of its predecessor. Being able to control every party member is a huge improvement, removing the element of doubt that came with relying on the AI to make the right choices in P3. What I've seen of the story so far has been interesting enough, although the characters' need to state every single plot point several times is already wearing pretty thin. The cast of playable characters is shaping up to be just as memorable as that of P3, and I can't wait to really get stuck into the Social Link side of things to see how they compare to those of the previous game. Watch this space for further updates on our journeys into the TV.

Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee

Oddworld is still quirky, cool, and fun to explore

I've long been a fan of the Oddworld franchise, and have previously written at length about just how great the original pair of 2D puzzle-platformers are, but up until now I'd never played either of the 3D games released on the original Xbox. That changed this week when I booted up the Steam version of Munch's Oddysee. Now I'm around halfway through, I feel like I can comfortably say that it's very much a game cast from the same mould. Gameplay is still centred on platforming and the solution of puzzles through a mixture of GameSpeak and enemy possession. Probably my favourite thing about the game so far is the 'duo dynamic' that comes as a result of having two different playable characters. It's a lot of fun exploring each level, using both Abe's and Munch's strengths to find the solution to the puzzles standing between them and the exit. Unfortunately, the transition to three dimensions does rob the gameplay of some of its finer aspects - platforming is naturally more difficult - and the nature of the solutions to some of the puzzles can turn what should be fun and rewarding into an exercise in tedium and laboriousness. Thankfully, those moments aren't so frequent that they detract from the overall experience. Personally, it's just nice to be back in Oddworld.

That's Yer Lot

I think that's everything I've got to say on the subject of video games at this point in time. I'll probably try to push one of these out next week as well, when I'll hopefully have seen the end of Munch's Oddysee and moved on to something else. There will also no doubt be some more expanded thoughts on Persona 4. Until next time, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee (PC)

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When Work And Play Collide

Doctor Dan Prescribes 50ccs Of Strategic Salubrious Silliness!

...now that I've fulfilled my contractual obligation to Mento by shoe-horning in that sentence, let's get down to business

Way back on the first day of this year, I wrote a blog here on Giant Bomb outlining some of the things (both gaming and non-gaming) that I wanted to achieve over the course of 2012. It's pretty embarrassing to look back on it at this late stage in the year, and to realise just how little of what I'd envisioned myself doing has actually come to fruition. Out of a list of fifteen games I intended to beat, for example, I've only played four so far. All of that stuff doesn't matter too much though, because arguably the most important item on the list was ticked off some time ago. Coming into 2012, what I wanted more than anything else was to find work. In March, after eight months of refused applications and failed interviews, I was at last given the chance I'd been craving - an opportunity to become a dispensary assistant at a local doctors' surgery. It was only a six-month contract, working part-time hours, but I seized the offer without hesitation and began working there at the start of April.

This is essentially my job

Four-and-a-half months on, things have just kept getting better. The cap has been removed from my contract, making me a permanent member of the dispensary team. I've been given occasional opportunities to work on reception, expanding my pool of experience in different ways. Perhaps the biggest development came last month, when my employers enrolled me in a correspondence course for dispensing. This time next year, I'll hopefully be a qualified dispenser. It's certainly not where I'd envisioned myself being at this point in my life, but I'm really happy to have ended up here. My job essentially consists of liaising with doctors, dispensing and ordering medications for patients, and basic admin tasks like prescription-tracking. Knowing that every prescription dispensed is helping someone to feel better equates to a lot of job satisfaction on my part - infinitely more so than the futility of my last job as a cleaner for my university's Students' Union.

I know what you're all thinking - this is all well and good, Dan, but what does any of it have to do with video games? I guess superficially, the answer is 'not a lot'. Working means I have a lot less time in which to play games than I did this time last year, and long work days often leave me too sapped of energy to be bothered to power up the 360 and concentrate on whatever I might be playing when I get home in the evenings. Given this enormous disconnect between my working life and my desire to play video games, the last thing I expected was for those two sides of me to collide in spectacular fashion, but when I played Theme Hospital, that's exactly what happened.

Theme Hospital's silliness masks some implicitly sinister satire

I won't go into huge amounts of detail about what Theme Hospital is, because I'm fairly sure most of you will already know. If you don't, check out the Giant Bomb Wiki page - some awesome users have really gone to town on it and filled it with great information. What I want to focus on is the tone of Theme Hospital's humour, which manages to be both patently ludicrous and profoundly satirical. The illnesses suffered by patients are invariably laughable - from the Elvis-obsessed King Complex, through Hairyitis, to Bloaty Head (arguably the game's trademark disease) - and each one has a daft cure to match. The nasal drawl of the tannoy announcer delivers dry one-liners that can still force a smile even towards the end of the game's twelve-scenario campaign. Visually, everything is highly stylised, cartoonish and exaggerated. It's quite clearly a game that's not meant to be taken seriously.

My problem was, I couldn't help but take certain aspects of it seriously.

The thing that bothered me most about Theme Hospital is how much importance is placed on monetary gain, to the point where patient welfare is a secondary concern. The game is built in such a way that patients are simply a vehicle for profit, and consequently their needs and moods can largely be ignored. Every level demands minimum hospital worth and earnings, yet not a single level requires a minimum level of patient satisfaction. You run the risk of losing a level if you kill too many patients, but the number of deaths you can get away with increases as your hospital's worth and profitability increase, and my campaign was certainly never under any real threat from it. It's a tycoon-style game, I get that, but surely the real challenge of running a hospital should come down to maintaining patient satisfaction, even if that means a slight dent in the profits - a real case of "balancing the books and the bedpans", as Theme Hospital's own box art puts it. The game's unadulterated focus on the financial side of things made for a fairly one-dimensional, near-uncomfortable playing experience.

This is where the parallels between my real-life job and the intended humour of Theme Hospital start to become a little uncomfortable for me. As a trainee dispenser, I'm fairly close to the front-line of the healthcare system, and I regularly see cases where we ignore maximum profit to put the needs of a patient first - the way things should be, in my view. Much higher up the chain, however, there are people who don't see things that way. People whose attitudes hold up a worrying mirror to the faceless board of directors who govern the player's fate in Theme Hospital. I'm not suggesting that healthcare services should be completely free - such a model would be unsustainable - but there is absolutely no need to seek to extract maximum profits from what is ostensibly a public service. What playing Theme Hospital alongside my new job has made me realise is that the line between the former's seemingly outrageous satire and the latter's potential vulnerability to corporate money-makers is much finer and more blurred than I initially thought. I don't ever foresee a time when the two are indistinguishable (at least, I hope we'd never stoop that low), but that doesn't change the fact they're a little too close for comfort for my taste.

Brotherhood is another great instalment in the Assassin's Creed franchise

I finished Theme Hospital a few weeks ago, and in spite of all the baggage the experience came with, I enjoyed it as a game. Right now I'm focusing pretty much all of my gaming time on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I'm on the seventh DNA sequence from a total of nine, so I've made some pretty substantial in-roads into Ezio's adventures in Rome, and everything I've seen so far has been nothing short of excellent. It takes the already-near-flawless foundation laid by Assassin's Creed II and iterates on it in some meaningful ways. Most notably the Assassins' Guild stuff is keeping me very busy, evoking fond memories of the Dispatch Missions in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I'm not enjoying it as much as I did ACII, but I think that's simply down to a less involved appreciation of the story in Brotherhood. It's a competent enough tale of Assassins-versus-Templars, but it doesn't seem to be doing much to advance the overarching story of the franchise as a whole. Perhaps that will change as I near the end, though.

When I'm done with Brotherhood, I'm planning to get stuck into something even longer and more involved in the form of Persona 4. My sister, who really enjoyed watching me play Persona 3 over the winter, has twisted my arm and persuaded me to break into the next iteration in Atlus's revered JRPG series. Despite recent neglect, I'm still fully committed to my Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series, and you can expect the thirtieth episode to arrive in the very near future. Beyond that, perhaps I should start thinking about clearing some of the many unfinished games on that list from the start of the year. Thanks for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (X360)

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A Choice Stealth Experience

The best Splinter Cell? Definitely, but it's by no means perfect...

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been playing through Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Having now finished Sam Fisher's third outing (and consequently completed UbiSoft's original trilogy of Splinter Cell games), I feel like a brief blogging recap is in order. In particular I want to talk about how the game's presentation of choice affected my playthrough, both for better and for worse.

My history with the Splinter Cell franchise goes back to 2007, when I bought the original trilogy of games - Splinter Cell, Pandora Tomorrow, and Chaos Theory - for the collective total of £9.00 from a second-hand game store. I'd previously ignored the series in spite of its positive critical reaction, partly out of a ridiculous teenage fanboy loyalty to the Metal Gear franchise, but also because I was on a limited gaming budget and didn't want to risk gambling what little cash I had on something I wasn't even sure I'd like. By the time I was seventeen, my childish bias had left me and my income was steady, and so I decided to find out what I'd been missing out on. The short answer - one of the best stealth series ever conceived.

I played the original Splinter Cell in the summer of 2008, around the same time that Giant Bomb made its transition from a blog into a full-on website. It was one of the first games I ever blogged about, and my feelings towards the game weren't overwhelmingly positive. In my summary, I praised the game for its mechanics and vision, but criticised the way it masked its rigidity beneath the illusion of choice. When I eventually moved on to Pandora Tomorrow in the winter of 2009, I was happy to see that my criticisms had at least been partly addressed - the game granted the player more flexibility and was a little more forgiving, inviting experimentation and making Sam Fisher's job feel a little less like glorified trial-and-error.

Sneaking and not being seen are still very much the cornerstones of Splinter Cell's gameplay

Chaos Theory builds further on those improvements, and the result is that it's without a doubt the best of the three Splinter Cell games I've played. A lot of the augmentations are minor (like the incorporation of an electronics disruptor into the pistol) or cosmetic (like the slew of new animations), but they make sense in terms of streamlining the techy, stealthy gameplay, and collectively they amount to a much more thrilling and rewarding sneaking experience. Arguably the biggest change from the first two games, though, is Chaos Theory's much more open-ended mission design. This is the deal-clincher - the design choice that addresses the issues of inflexibility that marred my enjoyment of the last two games. In some cases, there will be multiple paths through a level. In others, there will be multiple ways to achieve an objective. To cite an example, say there's a door locked with a keypad and guarded by two soldiers. In the original Splinter Cell, there would only be one way to get hold of that code and move through the door. In Chaos Theory, you have a multitude of options at your disposal. You could overhear a conversation between the two guards in which one accidentally lets the code slip. You could lure the guards into the shadows, take them hostage, and force them into divulging the code through interrogation. Or, if all else fails, you could use the super-spy equivalent of brute force and hack your way through the door after silencing the guards. Having these different means to the same end means that you're seldom forced into a situation where you can't progress, making Chaos Theory feel like a much more flexible (and much more forgiving) stealth-action game than its predecessors.

Having a choice as to how to move through each mission, and in turn shaping Fisher into the kind of super-spy you want him to be, is what I've wanted out of the Splinter Cell series ever since I played through the first game almost four years ago. What I didn't realise I wanted from a Splinter Cell game, but which Chaos Theory inadvertently provided me with, was a choice as to how to deal with my enemies. One feature that isn't included in either of its predecessors, as far as I can remember, is the way the game maps non-lethal takedowns to one shoulder button, and lethal ones to the opposite shoulder button. By juxtaposing the button-mapping in this way, every single hostage situation in Chaos Theory is turned into a very telling dichotomy - do I choke this guard unconscious, or do I deliver a fatal knee-strike to their lower back?

It's moments like this where the KO-versus-kill dichotomy plays out

There are gameplay ramifications to this decision, albeit very minor ones. Non-lethality is rewarded with a higher end-of-mission ranking, while killing enemies eliminates the danger of patrolling guards waking their fallen comrades. The impact of these choices on me didn't arise from their effect on the gameplay, though. Instead, I admired the game for presenting the dichotomy in such a clear, up-front and immediate way. Sure, that choice was nothing new to the stealth genre at this point. Metal Gear Solids 2 and 3 featured tranquilizing weaponry and CQC to assist players wanting to play the non-lethal way, and Fisher's own SC-20K is capable of either lethal or non-lethal takedowns thanks to its impressive array of attachable gadgets. My point is that the decision to put an enemy down temporarily or permanently had always been a pre-empted one. By moving that choice into the immediate moment and bringing it down to a single button press, Chaos Theory forced me to consider in every single instance whether I wanted Fisher to be compassionate or ruthless. That forced consideration left me feeling a lot more attached not just to Fisher himself, but also to his enemies, to the point where the moral implications of each choice were more important than the impact it might have on the gameplay. As a consequence, almost every guard I encountered in Chaos Theory's ten-mission campaign escaped with his life. I'd like to think those few that didn't, didn't deserve to.

In spite of the myriad improvements present in Chaos Theory, and its indisputable position as the best of the first three Splinter Cell games, it's still a way from being everything it could have been. Sometimes the more open nature of the missions can feel a bit too open, to the point where I lost track of objectives on occasion (thankfully there's a useful Map option in the OPSAT that helped to get me back on track). The environment design also seems to actively discourage the use of some of Fisher's moves, most notably his trademark split jump, which I didn't find an opportunity to use at all. The biggest issue I had with the game was its slightly disappointing lighting effects. Splinter Cell and Pandora Tomorrow both did great jobs of making environments look dark without sacrificing any of their detail, but large portions of Chaos Theory's environments are simply caked in an inky blackness. I spent most of the game with Fisher's night-vision goggles engaged, not to augment my view of the environments, but just so I could see anything at all. It's not harmful from a gameplay perspective, but it still detracts a little from the experience, especially considering how good the lit portions of the environments look. All in all though, it's a brilliant package, and one that's still well worth playing, in my view.

I'm not sure where I stand regarding future entries in the Splinter Cell series. Chaos Theory feels like a fitting end to the trilogy, and right now I don't feel any desire to pick up either Double Agent or Conviction. If any fans of the series would care to advise me how to proceed in that respect, I'd be grateful for your suggestions. In the meantime, I've got lots to keep me occupied. I'm currently playing Theme Hospital, an old childhood favourite that I recently downloaded to my PSP from the PlayStation Store. I don't typically play strategy games, but I'm having a lot of fun with this one. I'm just about to start the ninth scenario, and I'm loving the fairly simple mechanics and the dark sense of humour. I'm also playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on PC. Well, I say I'm playing it - I haven't actually touched it in the last couple of weeks, due to splitting my time between Chaos Theory and Theme Hospital, but I plan to get back into it now that my time with Third Echelon has come to an end. I'm on Dantooine at the moment, having just completed my Jedi training. Expect lengthier accounts of my experiences with both games as and when I finish them. For now, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Theme Hospital (PSP)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Nine

It's July, and while the summer weather might still be eluding us, one thing that's here to stay is my fortnightly foray into my favourite Final Fantasy. Let's get Enduring!

Episode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars

After last episode's efforts to begin breeding a gold chocobo ended up being all work and no play, I've decided to return my attention back to story progression with this entry. It's been a little while since we've done any meaningful adventuring with Cloud and the gang, so allow me to quickly recap on recent story developments. Our band of intrepid adventurers are currently gallivanting all over the world map trying to find pieces of Huge Materia before the Shinra Electric Power Company do. Shinra want the power of the Huge Materia so they can use it to try and stop Meteor. Cloud and his crew managed to pick up one piece of Huge Materia after an intense submarine battle, but there's still another piece about to be flown out of Junon airport. That's our next destination.

The crew arrive back at Junon, and go through the rigmarole of paying another 10 Gil to use the elevator to reach the upper city. They reach the airport just in time to watch an FMV sequence of a Shinra plane taking off, presumably carrying the Huge Materia. It's kind of frustrating that after having literally just done this (in story terms, at least), you then have to do it once more just to move the story along. It would have been nice had Square streamlined the process and made the comms relay in the submarine just state that the next piece of Huge Materia was headed to Rocket Town, cutting out this extra ascension into Junon altogether. While I'm on the subject, I'm also not entirely sure how Cloud can be so certain of the Huge Materia's destination. It's evidently been a while since I've done anything story-related, so forgive me if there was a previous mention of Rocket Town that I've now forgotten. But the way Cloud seems psychically aware of where Shinra are sending the Huge Materia, to the point where he drives home the statement with an "of course", just strikes me as a nonsensical way to move the plot along. Anyway, rant over. Let's go intercept that last piece of Huge Materia!

Leaving Junon, the party re-boards the Highwind and flies due west, back to Cid's hometown. On their arrival, the locals reveal that President Rufus has sent mechanics to fix the ancient rusting rocket that looms over the town. Time for a little investigation, methinks. Approaching the rocket causes the Shinra guards stationed nearby to attack, but at this point in my characters' development, they're small fry and don't even hold up to a single attack. At the top of the rocket, the party encounters an old friend - Rude of the Turks. Unaccompanied by his partner-in-crime Reno, he poses little threat and goes down after Barret drops a Limit Break on him. With the last of Shinra's defences decimated, the party proceed into the rocket's cockpit.

Inside, the mechanics are beavering away and making final repairs to the rocket. They explain to Cid that Shinra have loaded the Huge Materia onto the rocket and plan to launch it, using it as a makeshift Materia bomb to blow up Meteor. The prospect of his old rocket finally making it out into space has a marked effect on Cid, and he tells the mechanics to clear off, offering to pilot it instead of waiting for Shera to fix the auto-pilot. Cloud tries to talk him out of it, but there's no convincing Cid, who seems obsessed with this second chance to fulfil his life-long dream. Before Cloud and Barret can get off the rocket, though, Shera finishes repairing the auto-pilot and Shinra employee Palmer initiates the launch sequence. The rocket shudders, then lifts clear of the ground, leaving a billowing trail of smoke as it shoots into the stratosphere. With both the party and the course locked in, it looks like our band of world-savers have just bought themselves a one-way ticket to their own premature doom.

Thankfully, Cid's got all the answers. The rocket has an escape pod built in, so the party can make good their escape before the rocket smashes into Meteor. Cloud's keen to make sure the Huge Materia gets out intact as well, and moves to release it from the capsule it's been locked into. The lock can only be overrided by guessing the correct passcode, which (of course) leads to another of Final Fantasy VII's cool little mini-game moments. The guessing game takes the form of a logic puzzle, in which Cid gives the player clues as to the composition of the passcode while the player inputs possibilities. Having only three minutes to decipher the puzzle, it's pretty imperative that you follow Cid's advice if you hope to recover this piece of Huge Materia. It's a mini-game I remember struggling with immensely on my first time through the game, but nailing the second time round without too much trouble. Since then, the code has become seared into my brain (beside the likes of the GTA: Vice City 'all weapons' cheat and everyone's favourite, the Konami code), rendering the whole section devoid of tension. In spite of that, though, I still think it's a pretty cool mini-game that ascribes to Final Fantasy VII's philosophy of constantly mixing things up to keep the player engaged in what's happening on-screen.

After recovering the Huge Materia, it's time to high-tail it down to the escape pod and get off the rocket before it crashes into Meteor. On their way down to the pod, one of the tanks below-deck explodes, throwing it into the path of the party. Cloud and Barret get away unscathed, but Cid ends up trapped beneath a piece of sheet metal. Cid tells his buddies to leave him behind, but they refuse and try to shift the debris. While Cid reflects on the fact that the tank which broke was the one Shera said was malfunctioning, Shera herself shows up to lend a helping hand. Together they free Cid and head for the escape pod, launching it just in time to watch the Shinra #26 rocket sail into Meteor.

The unspoken subtext of the interactions between Cid and Shera serve as a great example of how subtle inference can be a powerful storytelling agent. At no point in Final Fantasy VII are we explicitly told that these two characters feel anything for each other, but everything surrounding them seems to point the player subtly towards that conclusion. I'm a particular fan of the way these events bring the whole story round full-circle - after Cid aborted his take-off all those years ago to save Shera's life, so Shera's care and attention-to-detail manage to save Cid and his comrades now. It's these subtle touches that provide constant pleasure to me through replaying the game, in ways that familiarity with the overarching story can never quite manage.

The rocket's collision with Meteor fills the sky with a blinding flash of white light, and for a moment it genuinely seems like Shinra might have repelled the imminent threat. Then the light dissipates, revealing the grim truth - the collision has caused nothing more than surface damage to the incoming asteroid, and its path towards the Planet continues uninterrupted. Back on board the Highwind, Cloud and the rest of the crew begin to wonder if there's any chance at all of stopping Meteor. They find the answer in Cid's new sense of perspective - even if there isn't any chance, that doesn't mean they shouldn't stop trying, because the Planet needs protecting. The next port of call is a return to Cosmo Canyon, to discuss what to do next with Bugenhagen. After a little more fighting to boost my levels, I fly the Highwind to the Cosmo region of the world map, and save my game. Another episode, done and dusted.

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

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 61), Cid (Lv 62), Barret (Lv 58)
  • Current Location - Cosmo Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 41:10

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 Chocobos

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Thirty - An Ancient Secret here.

I can't believe that there are now twenty-nine of these Enduring Final Fantasy VII blogs in the bank. It's been a long road, and there's still quite a way to go, but I'm starting to feel like the end of this epic blogging journey is finally on the horizon. I anticipate there might be roughly another ten episodes of this series still to come, and I'm also planning an end-of-series summary to answer the question I set out to answer in the first place - is Final Fantasy VII still worth playing? I hope you'll continue to join me on my journey, which is likely to resume with return trips to Cosmo Canyon and the City of the Ancients in two weeks' time. Until then, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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Dark Knights, Calamity Kids & Puzzle Agents

There's no denying that 2012 has been a slow gaming year for me. Even by my own snail-paced standards, I've been much slower to play and complete games than in past years. Heck, it took me almost two months to finish my first title of the year, and just a few weeks ago I'd only managed to beat nine games since starting my usual annual list on January 1st. In stark contrast to the rest of the year, though, the month of June was incredibly productive. In the last month I've seen the end of four different titles. The first of these was Vagrant Story, a game I've already blogged about at length. The other three games were... Actually, you might as well just scroll down to find out what they are. Then you can find out what I thought about them, too.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

I'm not a fan of Batman, but I am a big fan of Arkham Asylum

I'm not a Batman fan. I've never read the comics, I've never seen the movies, and up until a couple of weeks ago, I'd never played the games either. Despite having no personal ties to the franchise, though, I found myself picking up Arkham Asylum last year. I think it was partly because I needed another game to round out a '3 for £20' deal, and partly because of a sense of obligation I seem to feel about playing titles that receive so much critical acclaim - Arkham Asylum would never have been on my list of games to check out had it not received such glowing reviews on its release way back in 2009. Thankfully it transcended my doubts, providing me with an incredibly fun and pure action experience that I won't soon forget.

Every component of Arkham Asylum's gameplay feels wonderfully refined. The combat, which initially looks like a copy-and-paste of the 'face-button-combo' archetype used in so many games before, is surprisingly difficult to master. There's a great emphasis on countering your opponents; quick thinking is required to process what kind of enemy is attacking you, and how best to halt their onslaught. There's a satisfying flow to the combat as well, which made me feel great whenever I strung together a multiplier of twenty or more. The stealth portions of the game are equally engaging because rather than simply asking you to sneak past a room full of goons, Arkham Asylum encourages you to creatively utilise your toolset and take them out from the shadows. Even the collectibles, which could easily have felt tacked-on, have been seamlessly integrated into the game-world. Not only that, they're both challenging and fun to pursue. It feels like Rocksteady have scrutinised every single aspect of their game under a microscope, continually asking the question, "How can we make this part of the game the best it can possibly be?". In every single case, they found the answer to that question in a manner fitting the World's Greatest Detective himself.

Arkham Asylum took me five or six days to beat, playing large chunks of it in long sittings because I just couldn't bring myself to put the game down. It's a masterfully crafted title that somehow manages to be even greater than the sum of its already-excellent parts. The next logical step is to pick up Arkham City and experience the continuation of the Dark Knight's battle with the Joker, something I'll probably end up doing next year.

Bastion

XBLA box art (cropped)

June actually saw my second tussle this year with Supergiant Games' breathtaking debut. I first tried to play Bastion way back in January after buying it on Steam, but found it to be a struggle to play with the mouse-and-keyboard configuration. More recently I bought it on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, hoping that having a familiar controller in my hands might improve my experience with the game. Sure enough, it dismissed most of the woes I'd been experiencing at the start of the year, allowing me to enjoy the Kid's journey right through to its end.

What impressed me most about Bastion was its presentation. From the colourful hand-drawn artwork, through the incredible soundtrack (which I really need to buy), right up to Rucks' drawling narration, everything about the way Bastion is presented just oozes polish and style. Greg Kasavin clearly knows a lot about effective world-building, because for the few hours I spent with Bastion, I was completely immersed in Caelondia, its mythology, and the Calamity that had torn it apart. There's a striking parallel between the way the game's story is told piecemeal by Rucks, and the way the path through each level rises up under your feet as you progress - a parallel that really drove each sentence home for me. The themes of the game's story, concerning loss and the decision between clinging to the past or moving on, really struck a chord with me, and to be honest it's something I could probably write a whole blog about in its own right. Suffice it to say, having had to come to terms with a loss of my own this year, I found the thematic content of Bastion particularly stimulating. Having grown to know and understand the pre-Calamity world, the game's final choice was something that I deliberated over for a great deal of time. When I made that final choice, it was a reflection not only on my time with the game, but on my 2012 as a whole - how I've endeavoured to move on to new things and not get bogged down by the baggage of the past.

Even though I'd already seen two-thirds of it at a much more deliberate pace, I couldn't help but scold myself for rushing through Bastion in just three days. The resonance of its message with me suggested that I really should have taken my time with it, drinking in every last piece of content and savouring every drop of backstory along the way. I guess the presence of a 'New Game Plus' mode is at least some consolation, providing me with an impetus to dive back into the world of Caelondia in the near future. I'm also really excited to see what Supergiant Games decide to do next, whatever it might be.

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Nelson Tethers is as unlikely as heroes come

It's been quite some time since I last played a point-and-click adventure. Almost two years to be specific - Machinarium was my last adventure game all the way back in August 2010 (unless you count L.A. Noire under the same gaming umbrella, in which case it's only been a year). I hadn't even intended to play Puzzle Agent, either. After finishing up Bastion, I asked a friend to pick a game from my Pile of Shame for me to play next, and his answer was the randomly-selected number 'fifty-six'. This being the fifty-sixth game on my list, I installed it on Steam and set about playing it.

The general consensus on the internet seems to be that Puzzle Agent is a rip-off of the formula established by the Professor Layton games. However, because I've never played a Layton game myself, all I can do is judge it on its own merits. Personally, I found it to be a nice little adventure/puzzle hybrid, and a fun distraction from the kinds of games I usually play. The presentation was particularly impressive - Graham Annable's art style and the minimalistic animation left a very distinctive impression, reminding me of some of the old TV shows I used to watch as a kid. The adventure side of things felt a little 'on-rails' at times, because there was very little freedom to actually explore Nelson's surroundings. It's more a vehicle to lead Nelson from one puzzle to the next. The puzzles themselves were good on the whole, offering a wide range of puzzle styles and ensuring that no one style dominated the game. Although one or two of the puzzles had me scratching my head, I found most of them to be fairly straight-forward, solving perhaps 80% of the game's puzzles on my first try. Given I was playing it as a distraction from my regular gaming habits, this didn't bother me too much, but if you were going into the game specifically expecting a cerebral challenge then I could see it disappointing in that respect.

Puzzle Agent took me just a couple of days to beat, but considering I picked it up very cheaply as part of an indie bundle, I feel it was more than worth it. I'm currently contemplating picking up the sequel on Steam and checking it out. If it offers more of the same in a longer, slightly more difficult package, then I could see myself having a lot of fun with it. It's also helped me re-acquire my taste for adventure games, meaning I'm very likely to play another in the near future.

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So that's how June panned out for me. July is already looking set to be a slightly slower month, having kicked it off with a pretty lengthy RPG underway in the form of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I don't have any personal investment in the Star Wars franchise, but if my experience with Arkham Asylum has taught me anything, it's that I shouldn't let such prejudices sway my game-playing decisions. I'm about six hours in and have just started to reach a point where the game is clicking for me. Expect some in-depth views later in the month. I had also been planning to begin playing Final Fantasy VIII in an attempt to finally remove it from my Pile of Shame, but I've decided to postpone that until after reaching the end of my Enduring Final Fantasy VII series of blogs. It boils down to a matter of personal preference, really - I want to play FFVIII on my PSP, but would have to delete FFVII to make space for it. In the meantime, I'm sure KotOR will keep me busy, along with any other games I might decide to play alongside it. As always, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Eight

That dankempster is so unreliable, isn't he? Promising regular instalments of his serial blogs, and then failing to deliver when the time comes. Honestly, why won't he just either keep the blog regular, or give up and let the damn thing die?

...So I'm sure many (read: none) of you have been thinking since the failure of this episode to materialise on its appointed slot of release. There's a (barely) legitimate reason for the delay, though. These blogs are usually put together and go up on Sundays, because up until recently that's been the most convenient day for me to just sit down and power through an entry. That's changed over the last couple of months due to the commencement of cricket season here in England. My Sunday afternoons, previously dedicated to the maintenance of this series, are now consumed by that most fantastic, most ridiculous of sports. This leaves me with no real solid chunks of free time to devote to writing an entire episode, save for Tuesdays (and those are now dedicated to a different serial blog, which I may write more about at the end of this entry). Long story short - I'm sorry this episode has been such a long time coming, but it's here now.

With all that said, let's brace ourselves to Endure, shall we?

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

Continuing in the vein of the last episode, which saw us visit some optional areas and reveal a little more of the game's back-story, I've decided to dedicate this episode of the blog to two of Final Fantasy VII's more substantial side-quests - chocobo racing and breeding. Taking off in the Highwind just outside Junon, my party of Cloud, Cid and Barret head for the grasslands east of Midgar - home of the Planet's only chocobo ranch.

Arriving at Choco Bill's ranch, the first step is to speak to the proprietor and rent out some chocobo stables. These cost 10,000 Gil each (a small hint at the amount this little distraction is going to cost our band of adventurers), and there are six available for hire. For the time-being I choose to rent out four stables, handing over my hard-earned Gil somewhat grudgingly. Bill advises me to speak to his son, Billy, who mans the stables, if I have any questions. Fortunately the chocobo-catching process is still pretty secure in my mind, and so I pass on his offer of assistance. I stop at the ranch for just long enough to buy a healthy supply of Gysahl Greens, then leave the ranch and re-board the Highwind.

My next destination is a small, secluded patch of land bordered by mountains on the northern continent. This hidden spot is home to the Chocobo Sage, a wizened old fool who claims to know everything there is to know about chocobos. I'm not here for his advice, though - the Sage has a plentiful stock of Sylkis Greens, the best (and most expensive) chocobo food available. I fill my pack, parting with almost 300,000 Gil for this wonder-weed, and return once more to the Highwind. Now loaded with a healthy supply of items, I head for the area surrounding the Gold Saucer, and put myself to work at catching my first chocobo since crossing the Midgar Zolom's swamp some thirty-odd game hours ago.

The plan, in theory, is simple. I need to catch a total of four chocobos right now, with specific genders and skill ratings. I need two Good chocobos and two Great chocobos - a male and a female of each. Good chocobos hang out near the Gold Saucer, while Great ones can be found on the island where Mideel used to be. That's right, they're in specific locations. They even appear within specific monster groups, without fail - the game is simply set that way. The pre-determined nature of this stage of the process is presumably supposed to be convenient, so people who know what they're looking for can find the chocobos they want with minimum hassle. Unfortunately, the random nature of the game's encounters mean that hassle isn't eliminated entirely. If anything, I'd posit that knowing exactly what you're looking for brings a level of tedium to the proceedings that wouldn't be present otherwise.

After catching a chocobo, I immediately dismount and order it to return to the stables. When I've amassed a collection of four birds, I hop back on the Highwind again and fly back to the grasslands. When I arrive back at the ranch, I need to hand-pick which chocobos I want to keep and which should be released back into the wild. Billy offers a helpful hint as to the quality of each chocobo during the selection process, which makes it easier to tell which birds are worth keeping and which ones aren't. What Billy doesn't tell me, however, is the gender of each chocobo. The only way to determine a chocobo's sex is to place it into a stable, at which point Billy will finally reveal whether it's a male or female. This resulted in two separate occasions where I added a new chocobo to the stable, only to immediately release it again because I already had one of the same sex. Considering gender is just as important as quality in the breeding process, I'd have thought that information should be available front-and-centre. Apparently not. Very frustrating.

So after a little trial and error and another trip round the world, I have the four chocobos I want - two male, two female; two Good, two Great. That's taken me the better part of an hour and a half to pull off. With my newly domesticated birds all stabled and stuffed full of Sylkis Greens, I head for the next location in this arduous quest - the Gold Saucer. This time I'm heading into the Saucer itself, to the Chocobo Square, to indulge in a spot of racing. To put it in simple terms, feeding greens to a chocobo will raise its stats, but only winning races at the Golden Saucer will boost a bird's class. Classes ascend from C, through B and A, with class S being the highest rank of chocobo available. What this boils down to is - you guessed it - grinding races at Chocobo Square until the chocobos in your care ascend to a good rank for breeding. If memory serves me, that's a B rank for Good chocobos and an A rank for Great chocobos. I've already talked about the racing mini-game at length in Episode Nine, so I won't recap here. Let's just say it doesn't hold up to repeated plays, and leave it at that. I get as far as raising both my Good chocobos to rank B before I recognise I'm not having any fun at all doing this, and decide to stop. The prospect of flying around the world, wasting more money on greens and stealing specific breeding nuts from specific enemies, sounds like a nightmare to me right now.

This is a familiar experience for me, having bred maybe three gold chocobos across my five previous playthroughs of Final Fantasy VII. Every time the process has been laborious, mechanical and devoid of all redeeming entertainment value. Weirdly, the most fun I ever had with the chocobo-based stuff was during my first playthrough, when I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I'd simply catch chocobos, take them to the races, feed them whatever greens I had, then keep the best and release the rest. I don't think I ever even touched the breeding aspect to begin with. Interacting with the side-quest on that level was fun. Having to power through the optimum route to earn that gold chocobo is not.

Based on my own past experience, I think Final Fantasy VII's chocobo-based side-quests are at their most absorbing when the player doesn't really have a clue what they're doing. There's an almost Pokémon-style appeal to simply cornering and catching a bird at random, feeding it whatever greens you have or can afford, and putting it through its paces in the races at the Gold Saucer. Accidentally stumbling upon the correct combination of variables to produce a special chocobo, however, is very unlikely indeed, meaning you'll need an awareness of the mechanics at work to make real progress. The unfortunate trade-off for progress, though, is the fun that comes from approaching it with a leisurely mindset. Reduced to a check-list, the journey towards a gold chocobo ceases to be entertaining. It becomes a grind-fest, a chore that's made even worse by the arbitrariness of supposedly pre-determined values. It's arguably the first part of the game that I've genuinely 'endured' so far.

Right now, with a big dent in my clock and an even bigger one in my wallet, I've more than had enough of gallivanting round the world in search of prime chocobos. I decide to knock the side-quest pursuit on the head for a while, return to the side of the Highwind, and save my game. Another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII (albeit a largely uneventful one) is in the bag.

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

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 59), Cid (Lv 60), Barret (Lv 56) - chocobo-catching is good for levelling, if nothing else!
  • Current Location - Grasslands Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 40:21

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

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars here.

Reading this back, I realise it's probably one of the worst episodes of 'Enduring...' thus far. For that I apologise, but when a game isn't enjoyable to play, it makes it difficult for me to make it enjoyable to read about. I plan to return to the chocobo breeding in a future episode - I have some personal ideas as to how the whole process could be improved (read: made actually fun) if a Final Fantasy VII remake should ever materialise. For next episode, though, I intend to get stuck back into the game's story and return to Rocket Town.

As a quick side-note, if you're interested in fuelling my self-indulgent penchant for serial blogs even further, I started a new one last month over on my writer's blog, Writer's Unblock. It's a serial fantasy novella called The Hawker, and it revolves around the efforts of three hired sentinels to guard and protect an independent city from the impending threat of takeover by a rival government. The first three chapters are already up and available to read, while new instalments are released weekly on Tuesdays. If that sounds appealing to any of you, I'd be hugely grateful of your readership and thoughts. This is the first project of mine in a long while that I've felt genuine pride and confidence in, and I'm eager to share it with as many folks as possible.

As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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An End To My Wandering

Vagrant Story is one of gaming's true classics

I've long held up Vagrant Story as one of my favourite games ever. Throughout my long and colourful history with video games, I've never hesitated to mention it in the same breath as titles like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid 3 and Shadow of the Colossus. A little over three years ago, when such things were all the rage on the Giant Bomb forums, I even positioned the title fifth on a list of my Top 30 Games. And yet, in spite of holding Vagrant Story in such high regard for all this time, a terrible weight rested upon my gamer's shoulders - I'd never seen the whole thing through. That's right - the conclusion to Ashley Riot's mission in Lea Monde had persistently eluded me, my opinion standing for only two-thirds of a game. That changed last weekend when, after almost a decade's worth of attempts, I finally broke through the invisible walls that impeded my progress and witnessed the final few hours of agent Riot's tale. Beyond the expected relief of getting one of the longest-residing gaming monkeys off my back, Vagrant Story's conclusion also brought with it a sense of affirmation - the feeling that my love of the game was justified, and if anything has only grown with the passage of time and the completion of the adventure.

My first encounter with Vagrant Story must have been about ten years ago at this point. It started as so many of these gaming origins stories do - in my local GAME store's pre-owned bargain bin. I was twelve at the time, and completely unaware of what I was getting myself into when I picked it up for what was most likely a sub-£10 price point. I was young, impressionable, and a huge fan of Final Fantasy, having probably sunk a collective one-hundred-and-fifty hours into the seventh, eighth and ninth instalments of the franchise. The sight of the Squaresoft logo in the corner of the game's box art, coupled with a synopsis that read like a Final Fantasy game on the back of the box, were enough to persuade me to drop what little money I had on this title. Getting it home, out of the box and into the PlayStation, I evidently found my faith to be well-placed.

Personally, I think it's the best-looking game on the PS1

My memories of my earliest experiences with Vagrant Story aren't quite as clear as the previous paragraph might have you believe, but I'll do my best to recapture them. The first thing that struck me was the game's art style. Walking a fine line between realism and fairy-tale ethereality, everything about Vagrant Story looked incredible. The characters, the enemies, the various locations that made up the lost city of Lea Monde... it was a world I was glad to get lost in. The story was unique and captivating, balancing upon an axis of political and religious intrigue and played out by a cast of interesting, morally complex characters - a welcome change from the fairly clear-cut good-versus-evil struggles of the three PlayStation Final Fantasies. I loved the stat-driven complexities of the combat system, the need to weigh up the options, choose the right weapon for the job, and balance lengthy chain combos with ever-rising RISK. The only thing I can remember disliking was the game's steep difficulty, which was much more punishing than that of the Final Fantasy games I'd grown used to. It was this difficulty (coupled with lack of preparation and a shallow understanding of weapon stats) that at first left me unable to progress past some difficult bosses, and later encouraged me to abandon it completely. Vagrant Story was an awesome game, one of the best I'd ever played. I simply accepted that I wasn't a good enough gamer to finish it, and confined it to the dusty shelf that housed my Pile of Shame...

Which, I suppose, brings me back to the spring of 2012 and my decision to return to Lea Monde. That decision was inspired directly by fellow Giant Bomb user Sparky_Buzzsaw, whose influence on my choice of games this year has been pretty heavy indeed. While reading his series of three RPG Retrospective blogs about Vagrant Story back in April, I found myself falling in love with the idea of playing the game all over again. Not only that - I believed that with my more capable mind, my more dexterous fingers, and a wider education in the works of producer Yasumi Matsuno through Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, I might finally be able to overcome the obstacles that slowed me all those years ago and see the game through to its conclusion. I was playing Soul Reaver at the time, but when my time with it was cut short by persistent disc read errors, I wasted no time in swapping Raziel's adventure for Ashley's.

With the right loadout and preparation, most bosses go down easily

Returning to Vagrant Story all these years later elevated the experience above a simple return to an old favourite. I found myself admiring things that the twelve-year-old me had all but ignored in the past - things like the brilliant translation work, and the heavy French influence present in almost everything in the game from the architecture right down to the names of the spell-teaching grimoires. I also managed to overcome my battle with the game's hardened difficulty, a revelation which came about when I finally worked out how the gem attachment system works. Over the last month or so, it's become one of my favourite customisation systems in any JRPG. Several years ago, I found myself constantly at a loss for effective weaponry, in spite of all the tinkering I'd done in workshops throughout Lea Monde. With this playthrough, though, I worked out that one weapon can effectively serve multiple needs simply by attaching the right gems to it. Need a weapon to take down a humanoid with a Fire affinity? Just whack the Haeralis and Salamander Ruby into your sword and you're away! This free customisation meant I could stay focused on the three basic weapon types, keeping two Edged, two Blunt, and two Piercing weapons with me at all times and simply switching gems to suit my needs. Having this knowledge under my belt made Vagrant Story a little easier, a lot less frustrating and a lot more rewarding.

The other thing that probably played a huge part in my success this time around was my willingness to use buffs and debuffs. I'd never really cared for these indirect, status-altering spells in RPGs up until a couple of years ago, when Final Fantasy XIII's Paradigm system made me aware of just how much a timely Protect, Haste or Dispel can turn the tide of battle in your favour. It's a lesson that was reinforced by Persona 3 at the beginning of this year, where skills like Tarukaja and Rakunda went a long way towards helping me overcome the more difficult boss fights. I brought that knowledge back into Vagrant Story and relied heavily on the status-altering spells I'd learned from grimoires. Every boss fight began with extensive preparation - Herakles to raise my strength, Prostasia (or one of the Fusion spells) to increase the effectiveness of my weapon, and Degenerate or Psychodrain to make my foes less of a threat. This preparation, coupled with the constant gem-switching, made my build of Ashley Riot a force to be reckoned with.

In the world of Vagrant Story, nobody's motives are clear-cut

Vagrant Story isn't completely without flaws, though. Because the game's Analysis spell is so unreliable, figuring out the right strategy is often a case of trial-and-error until something starts to give. While the constant re-speccing is what brings about the game's biggest sense of reward, having to re-jig your inventory every time you enter a new room can get a little tedious, especially when playing for long periods of time. And finally, there's that final boss battle. Even by Vagrant Story's standards, that mean mother is incredibly difficult. I died a lot, and ultimately had to turn to YouTube to seek out an effective strategy because my hitherto tried-and-tested methods failed to make a dent in its armour. But while these things can grate, they're a small price to pay for the game's awesome story, interesting characters, and highly rewarding combat system.

If you want some bona fide reasons to pick up Vagrant Story as a new experience in 2012, then please go and check out Sparky_Buzzsaw's RPG Retrospective on the game. It's a fantastic break-down on why the game holds up so well, and makes a solid case for why it's still worth playing now. I guess this blog is aimed at a different audience - people in my own position, who played parts of the game years ago but didn't see Ashley's adventure through to its conclusion. If any such people are reading this, I implore you to pick the game back up and give it another chance. It's every bit as fantastic as you remember it being, perhaps even more so. It's available for a pittance on the PlayStation Store, so if you own a PS3 or PSP, there's really no excuse not to. I waited ten years to see the credits roll, and for me personally, it's one of the most satisfying video game endings I've ever witnessed. In retrospect, Vagrant Story is definitely deserving of its spot on that Top 30 Games list. In fact, it might even deserve to rest a little bit higher...

From one long-unfinished PS1 Squaresoft RPG to another...

With Vagrant Story finally stripped from my daunting Pile of Shame, I've decided it's time to put paid to another Square RPG - one which has been on there for even longer. Final Fantasy VIII is yet another game that I've probably spent a cumulative total of several dozen hours playing, but in spite of all that time investment, I've never made it past the earliest stages of the game's third disc. It's been a slow, deliberate start to the game, and at the three-hour mark I've just embarked on Squall's SeeD practical exam in Dollet. It's yet another game that seems to have held up remarkably well over time, and I'm excited to dig deeper into it and rediscover the nuances of the Junction system. Also on-the-go is Batman: Arkham Asylum. I'm not a Batman fan, but what I've played so far has been a brilliant action game, irrespective of the branding. The combat in particular is really satisfying, probably due to the incredible animation, the weighted feel of each punch and kick, and its easy-to-pick-up, difficult-to-master nature. Expect more detailed thoughts on both games as and when I finish them. In the meantme, thanks for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Batman: Arkham Asylum (X360)

19 Comments

Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Seven

Hey guys, dankempster here. I would write up a fancy preamble to this blog post, but I'm too busy Enduring Final Fantasy VII right now. Sorry.

Episode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends

In the last episode, we witnessed Cloud and the gang infiltrate the Underwater Reactor near Junon, recovering another piece of Huge Materia and pilfering a Shinra submarine in the process. Rather than press on with the main task at hand in this episode, though, I figured it'd make for a nice change of pace to get lost in some of the side-quests that make up Final Fantasy VII's optional content. Most of what I tackle in this episode will be story exposition, so be prepared for a pretty plot-heavy episode. Let's crack on, shall we?

Having both the Highwind airship and the Shinra sub in my possession, there are very few places on the world map that are out of my reach at this point. I figure it's therefore as good a time as any to revisit a few familiar locations and wrap up some unfinished business. My first port of call is Wutai, home of Yuffie and one of my favourite optional sections of Final Fantasy VII. Astute followers will recall that in the last episode, I picked up an item called Leviathan's Scales while exploring the Underwater Reactor. Well, those scales are about to come in handy! Up on Da Chao (Wutai's answer to Mount Rushmore), these items can be used to put out the fires blocking access to some super-secret items - the Oritsuru weapon for Yuffie, and a piece of 'Steal As Well' Materia. As a side note, I'm not sure why the party had to track down a box of Leviathan's scales, considering he is, y'know, at the party's beck and call by means of his Summon Materia. I know it's nit-picky, but I can't help but feel like the flame-dowsing key item should probably have been given a different name. As it stands, it's just weirdly illogical.

Next on my list of places to visit is Cloud and Tifa's hometown, Nibelheim. Now that Cloud's memory is almost fully restored, there's one last loose thread of his history left dangling, and a visit to the Shinra Mansion is exactly what's needed to tie it up. Returning to the basement where Sephiroth locked himself away brings the memories flooding back - after the incident five years ago, Zack and Cloud were held beneath the mansion and experimented on. Zack broke himself and Cloud out of confinement and the pair hitched a ride back to Midgar. Just before they reach the city, though, they're ambushed by Shinra troops. Zack dies in the ensuing fracas, leaving Cloud alone on the edge of Midgar. This short series of vignettes serves to plug up a lot of holes. It sums up what happened to Cloud and Zack between the start of Final Fantasy VII and the incident five years previously, it hints even further at the romantic links between Zack and Aerith, and justifies Cloud's schizophrenic behaviour throughout most of the game - he was just trying to fulfil Zack's wish of becoming a mercenary. What's most impressive is that it does most of this without ever really explicitly stating any of it. This sequence is much more about what's implied than what's actually said. I'm with Sparky_Buzzsaw on this matter in thinking that Crisis Core tells this part of the story with much greater clarity, but in the context of Final Fantasy VII, these flashback-y bits of exposition are a much better fit.

For the next leg of my distracted journey, I'm going to have to make a temporary alteration to my mainstay party of Cloud, Cid and Barret, and sub in Vincent Valentine for a bit. My destination is pretty out-of-the-way - after swapping the Highwind for the submarine, I have to follow a small, hidden underwater tunnel to reach an enclosed waterfall cave not too far from NIbelheim. Enter this cave without Vincent in your party and nothing will happen. Bring the mysterious gunslinger along, though, and you'll be treated to a tasty morsel of plot exposition for your trouble. Again, we're treated to a series of vignettes from Nibelheim's past - Vincent was once a Turk, and fell for a Shinra scientist named Lucrecia. She spurned his advances, though, ending up in the arms of Professor Hojo. She carried his child, a child that was also one of his experiments - a child named Sephiroth. When Vincent protested about the prospect of experimenting on humans, Hojo shot him, held him captivee and used him as a guinea pig for even further tests. As soon as Vincent awoke and realised what he'd become, he locked himself away in the Shinra mansion's basement. Like Cloud's flashback before it, very little of this is explicitly stated (even more so in the case of Vincent's flashbacks, where very little text appears on-screen), but the scenes play out in a way that invites the player to draw those inferences and lets them work things out for themselves. While I do admire the clarity with which Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus present Zack's and Vincent's back-stories respectively, seeing those moments play out in Final Fantasy VII almost makes the other games in the Compilation seem patronising in their need to state and justify every minute detail. As they say, sometimes less is more.

I've harped on a lot in this blog series about Final Fantasy VII's approach of rewarding exploration with story exposition, and how a lot of the game's loose plot threads are often tied up completely optional encounters. These two sequences are great examples of this, although they're also much more tucked-away than all the other optional exposition we've encountered so far. Up to this point, the game does a great job of guiding you into the general vicinity of it - you have to pass Gongaga to reach Cosmo Canyon; the Tiny Bronco starts off pointing toward Wutai; if you fail the primitive quick-time-event at Icicle Inn, the game puts you inside the same building as Professor Gast's computer terminals. By contrast, there's nothing actively encouraging the player to revisit Nibelheim or track down Lucrecia's cave. This point is further compounded by the latter encounter, which requires you to have a specific character in your battle party and is located inside a cave that isn't an obviously accessible location (for all intents and purposes, it just looks like a waterfall). I guess what I'm trying to say is that, while I love Final Fantasy VII's approach to fleshing out the story's skeleton, I do think that these two bits of exposition (Vincent's in particular) are tucked a bit too far out of the way. Heck, I only found the Cloud-and-Zack stuff by chance on my last playthrough, and I'd never have known about Lucrecia's cave were it not for a friend in school who'd "found it" (I suspect with a bit of help from the internet). It's great what you're doing, developers, but please at least try to give everybody a fair chance of stumbling upon this stuff.

My final destination on today's tour of the Planet is the Gelnika. It's essentially Final Fantasy VII's answer to an optional dungeon - a location completely removed from the main story, filled to the brim with useful items, and crawling with uncomfortably strong monsters to keep the player on their toes. Except in Final Fantasy VII, rather than go the traditional JRPG route and stick this location in a cavern on a remote island, the developers chose to put their optional dungeon at the bottom of the ocean in a crashed plane. It's a refreshing twist, and one that's nicely in keeping with Final Fantasy VII's overall quasi-modern aesthetic. It's a shame the 'dungeon' is so small, only covering a few screens, but hey, beggars can't be choosers.

The first thing that strikes me about the Gelnika is the difficulty of the random encounters. The freakish beasts that patrol the waterlogged corridors of the Gelnika (presumably more of Hojo's twisted experiments) are a lot stronger than anything I've encountered up to this point, dealing deadly amounts of damage that would make the last few bosses I've faced look on in awestruck admiration. Couple that with their ability to afflict the party with status ailments like Stop and Confuse and you have some pretty deadly foes on your hands. I'll admit that at this point, thirty-seven-and-a-half hours into my sixth run through the game, I saw a Game Over screen. It was my own fault for severely underestimating the strength of the enemies lurking on the Gelnika, and it's something I rapidly took steps to remedy - equipping accessories and Materia combinations to guard against Confuse and launching party-wide Wall spells at the start of every battle proved to be enough to keep me safe from the monstrosities during the remainder of my stay on the Gelnika.

A little way into the belly of the crashed plane, the party encounters Rude and Reno of the Turks. Naturally, they're not happy about our band of adventurers being on Shinra's sunken aircraft, which was apparently carrying biological weapons prepped to eliminate Sephiroth when it was brought down by one of the Weapons. A battle ensues, one which feels comfortably simple after the tough random encounters I've been dealing with on the Gelnika up to now. As with previous battles against this pair, it's simply a case of chipping away at one until he runs away, leaving the other open to all attacks. They don't hit too hard, and go down pretty easily. With that meddlesome pair dealt with, it's simply a case of exploring every nook and cranny for goodies. I pick up some incredibly useful items during my stay on the Gelnika - new weapons for Cloud and Cid, an item named Highwind which teaches Cid his final Limit Break, Double Cut Materia (which instantly replaces the unreliable Deathblow Materia I've been using for most of the game), and another piece of Materia which summons a monster dubbed Hades. My pack now firmly weighed down with all these goodies, I retrace my steps to the exit and ride the sub back to Junon, where my trusty airship is waiting.

With those trials faced, I figure here's as good a place as any to bring this episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to a close. I save, turn off the PSP, and sit down to write this here blog.

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

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 54), Cid (Lv 56), Barret (Lv 51)
  • Current Location - Junon Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 38:00

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 Sea

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With Chocobos here.

I guess I should begin my closing message with an apology for not writing this last weekend. I had hoped to put it together last Sunday evening, after my game of cricket. Then I got hit in the face with the ball, and my plans changed slightly. So, sorry it's a week late. I'll post another episode next week, and from then on resume the fortnightly schedule that I've unofficially established. Also an apology to anybody who was expecting this episode to cover the chocobo breeding aspect of the game. I started delving into it, and quickly came to the recollection that particular side-quest is a huge time-sink, one that would probably benefit from its own dedicated episode. So that's what I plan to do for the next instalment - a choco-focused Enduring Final Fantasy VII extravaganza! So keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, thanks for reading as always, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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Finishing The Fight

I really enjoyed playing through Halo...
...and its sequel at the end of 2011

Right at the end of last year, I played through the first two Halo games back-to-back. It was an impulse decision, encouraged by the atmosphere surrounding the time - I was halfway through Persona 3, eager to start Skyrim, but wanted something straight-forward to tide me over without distracting me from the commitment of writing my usual string of year's-end blogs. I settled on Halo 2, a game I've had as long as I've owned an original Xbox (which is to say, about seven years) but never actually played. In order to better prepare myself for the experience, I decided to precede it by quickly running through Halo: Combat Evolved. I'd already played and beaten the first Halo way back in 2006 or so, so I figured it would serve as a nice refresher.

I didn't blog about the two games after beating them, mainly because I was so wrapped up with the end-of-year blogging proceedings (although both games did get a brief mention in my End of 2011 Awards blogs). So, to clarify my opinions on both of these Bungie-developed titles - they're both great first-person shooters. The original Halo in particular is even better than I remembered it being, boasting a brilliantly-paced, meticulously-crafted campaign that I'd happily rank alongside the likes of Half-Life. The surprisingly open exterior environments seemed to invite tactical experimentation, leading to a more emergent feel to the gunfights - something that I really admire in an FPS, as my love for Far Cry 2 will testify. Halo 2 is great as well, ramping up the graphical sheen and the intensity of the set-pieces, but it was the first game that really grabbed me when I played them back in December.

Halo 3 is definitely "more Halo", but I don't see how that's a bad thing

So why am I recapping my thoughts on a pair of games I played just over four months ago? Simple - because I've just finished playing the third instalment in the Halo franchise, the somewhat predictably-titled Halo 3. I bought a copy of the game back in February, using a GAME gift card I'd been given for Christmas. After recently finding myself hankering for more time with the Master Chief, I picked the game up just over a week ago and began working my way slowly through it. I finished the campaign this morning, coming away from the game feeling pretty darn satisfied. Much like its predecessors, Halo 3 is a great first-person shooter, and a fitting end to Bungie's three-part story of space marines and super-weapons.

These days, when a new Halo game is revealed or released, it's typically met with snarky internet users remarking, "Oh look, more Halo". This frustrates me a little, because although those words carry strong connotations of disinterest, they're also the best, most concise description of Halo 3 I can muster. It ticks all the same boxes as the first two games. A well-paced campaign? Check. Exhilarating, challenging combat both on-foot and in-vehicle? Check. A varied and interesting arsenal of weaponry that encourages experimentation? Check. The god-damned Flood? Check. Halo 3 IS more Halo, and I don't say that in a condescending way - rather, I mean that Halo 3 is a great sequel to two great games, and one that maintains the high level of quality those two previous titles established.

While my primary reason for playing Halo 3 was rooted in the series' great gameplay, I'd be lying if I didn't also admit that I was a little intrigued to see how Master Chief's story arc would end. This was a curiosity born more out of the second Halo than the first - while Combat Evolved's story came across as kind of bare-bones and merely there to justify the shooting, Halo 2 delivered a pretty interesting plot, providing much greater insight into the workings of the Covenant and the mythos of the Halo universe as a whole. Halo 3 picks up exactly at the point where the previous game left off, and for the most part I enjoyed its story in the same way one might enjoy an action-movie. Some of the big reveals don't quite hit the mark - after the other two games doing exactly the same thing, the "surprise" reveal of the Flood half-way through wasn't really a surprise at all. But on the whole it's good innocent fun, serving to drive the action forward and keep the player just intrigued enough to wonder how it's all going to end. Sure, it's fairly generic sci-fi, but it's also pretty entertaining sci-fi.

Halo 3 serves as a satisfying end to the series' story arc

One thing that differentiated my Halo 3 playthrough from my other Halo experiences was my decision to play it through on a higher difficulty level, stepping up from Normal to Heroic. This was something I attempted with both the previous Halo games, but quickly reverted to the default when I hit an impassable wall in around the third level of both games. Both Halo and Halo 2 seemed to take immense delight in fucking me over at every available opportunity, even when from my perspective I didn't think I was doing anything wrong. In Halo 3, on the other hand, I never felt like the Heroic difficulty was deliberately out to get me. Every time I died, I recognised it not as the game being unfair, but as me having done something stupid, and I'd try to correct that after the game had resumed. I only hit a couple of small walls with Halo 3, one early on and one about two-thirds through, and even those didn't feel too nightmarish to push through. Maybe it's just me, but Halo 3's campaign certainly felt like a fairer, better-tailored experience to me. Although with that being said, I'd still never dare to push the difficulty up to Legendary - I like a challenge, but I'm not a masochist.

I think that's all I've got to say on the subject of Halo 3. With an absence of Xbox LIVE and a lack of experience in playing competitive shooters, I'm not really in any position to pass judgement on the game's multiplayer component. Similarly, I'll spare you all the gameplay particulars of the campaign because I'm willing to bet pretty much everybody has played this already. I'm now deciding whether or not to pick up both ODST and Reach, just in case the Halo bug chooses to rear its head and bite me once again. In the meantime, I'm keeping myself busy with Vagrant Story, which is living up to my exceedingly fond memories of it. I also picked up the PC version of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver following its recent release on GOG.com. After playing and loving so much of that game on PlayStation last month, it would be great to finally see Raziel's adventure through to the end. All that remains to be said is thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Vagrant Story (PS1)

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