R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 gives me what I need

Note: you can find a better-laid-out copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.

Before I begin, some valuable context: a week ago, Ridge Racer DS – a launch-window port of Ridge Racer 64 – was the only game in the series I’d put any serious time into. If you’re shocked that I played a ton of Ridge Racer DS – by most accounts an iffy port of an iffy entry in the series – you clearly don’t remember how dire the early days of the Nintendo DS were. Hell, I bought Yoshi Touch & Go and convinced myself that it was worth it. I played a lot of Ridge Racer DS, and I remember enjoying it. I’m sure Ridge Racer DS wasn’t the greatest introduction to the series, but despite my ten year break, hitting my first ridiculous slot-car-esque drift felt like coming home. (Weirdly, R4 offers a car type without the traditional drift mechanic – what’s the point?!)

Ridge Racer Type 4 is a fine arcade racing game, but what really sets it apart is its striking visual and musical style. Every moment in the game feels like it was deliberately crafted – no element feels like it was thrown onto the screen without a designer getting their hands on it. Even the typography is distinctive. It’s a game that was clearly developed with an artistic vision. This level of cohesion and polish is still pretty rare, and it must have been nearly unprecedented in 1998. As far as I’m concerned, R4 is one of the most stylish games ever made.

Check out this hot menu. Note how every piece of the interface animates. Note the background animations cued to the menu music. Note the way the dialogue text fades in. Note how slick (yet clear and informative) the progress screen is. Note the cool (and totally unnecessary) stippling effect on the course data screen. Even the loading screen – while austere and blurry by necessity – has a certain distinctive flair to it. At every step, R4 is confidently strutting its style, and I love it.

The intro and accompanying theme are cheesy (“He’s the one for me; There’s no place I’d rather be; To the finish line; Everywhere you look he’s right on time!”), and in today’s context would probably be picked apart for perceived sexism, but I think there’s something endearingly earnest and unpretentious about the vibe. It knows what it wants to be and it goes for it.

R4 is less distinctive in-game, though it’s still quite elegant and cohesive for the time. It gets a lot of mileage out of lighting – deriving flair from what might otherwise be a fairly ordinary-looking game. The fact that the game used Gouraud Shading was apparently a big deal at the time. Edge of the Earth and Brightest Night quite effectively capture the je ne sais quoi of night driving; Wonderhill’s dusk setting is evocative, and provides plenty of opportunities for the game to show off its adaptive car lighting; Heaven and Hell – despite being a different branch of Wonderhill – manages to differentiate itself to a surprising degree by using cooler hazy midday lighting.

The usual PS1 fixed-point jittering and texture perspective issues are here in all their glory, and they sometimes converge to make the track geometry maddeningly indistinct. I can’t blame Namco for that, but it does impact the game, and I wish it didn’t. If you watched some of the linked video, you’ve probably seen moments in which I totally misjudge a turn, and the lack of visual clarity plays at least some role in that (but also, I’m not very good at the game, and haven’t yet memorized the courses). I‘m looking forward to playing later entries in the series (Ridge Racer 7 and Ridge Racer PSP in particular) and getting to experience Ridge Racer on hardware that can accurately and smoothly render 3D models and textures (i.e. not the PS1 or DS).

I knew going in that R4 was stylish, but I didn’t know that it had a surprisingly in-depth story mode. R4 doesn’t just share visual trappings with Persona 4 – it also presents its story in a way that brought to mind some Persona social links. The French team’s story revolves around a young woman navigating – and ultimately coming to terms with – her arranged career, arranged marriage, and transparent daddy issues. The Japanese team’s manager is initially hostile, but slowly warms to you. He eventually opens up about his guilt over his role in the death of his friend and teammate Giuliano (who turns out to be the son of the hardass Italian team manager). In the surprisingly (for a racing game) poetic epilogue, he comes to terms with the incident, and decides to race again. The team managers reference your performance, and assign you cars based on their budget allocations and confidence in your abilities. Also, just in case you forgot that R4 came out in 1998: you receive fan faxes. R4’s stories are nothing profound, but they’re oddly compelling.

I, of course, have to mention R4’s fantastic soundtrack, which draws from a wide variety of influences to produce an iconic mix that nicely complements the game’s visual style. The title track (“One More Win”) is remixed throughout the game, including the aforementioned intro, the course data theme, the climactic final course theme, and the catchy house remix featured in the credits. The menu theme does a great job of getting you hyped to race. I could highlight practically any of the course themes, but in the interest of brevity, Your Vibe, Lucid Rhythms, Burnin’ Rubber, and Quiet Curves are favourites.

While I’m sure no control method will ever rival the Jogcon (which I’d love to try and probably never will), I think the Vita’s nimble, low-travel analog stick is very well-suited to R4. When I booted the game on the PS3 to capture footage, I ended up using the imperfect d-pad in lieu of the comparatively-sluggish-feeling DualShock 3 analog stick. R4 benefits a lot from analog control, and the Vita’s analog stick provides a nice compromise between immediacy and granularity.

R4 has been a welcome reminder that – despite my lack of engagement with the genre – I do actually care about racing; I just don’t care about cars. I’m sure Ridge Racer’s irreverent and slapdash approach to cars makes it feel archaic to many accustomed to a genre that’s consolidated around realistic car enthusiasm, but to me, it’s a breath of fresh air. I don’t need fanatically-modelled licensed cars I’ve never heard of; I don’t want to master racing lines or meticulously tune car parts for maximum performance around the Nürburgring; I just want to select automatic transmission and hold down the accelerator and do ridiculous drifts around hairpin corners. I get that out of Mario Kart, and I suppose I could still get that out of the recent Ridge Racer games, but it seems like arcade racing is mostly a relic of the past. Here’s hoping Drift Stage and 90’s Arcade Racer reignite the genre.

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Revisiting FFXIII #007 – Arriving at Lake Bresha and gawking at the spectacle

At the end of my last entry, Serah had transformed into a crystal after completing her Focus. Snow, Lightning, and their reluctant companions had pushed forward to fight Anima – the Pulse fal’Cie responsible for Serah’s fate. In the midst of the fight, the party are transported to a mysterious dark realm in which they’re branded l’Cie (by the god Pulse itself, according to the official Japanese guide), and are imparted an unclear vision of Ragnarok. The Vestige begins to crystallize – presumably a sign of Anima’s death at the hands of the party and/or PSICOM, or perhaps its success at fulfilling its own l’Cie-like role by testing and marking the party for branding. The Vestige, along with the party, falls to Lake Bresha, which crystallizes on contact.

Snow flashes back to several days earlier – during Bodhum’s annual fireworks festival, and before the Pulse Vestige was discovered to be active. Serah has already told him about her branding, and Snow tries to comfort her in a way that – as he is wont to do – comes off as flippant and unrealistic. Doubling down, he proposes to her, and they set off on their obligatory gratuitous Final Fantasy love cutscene. I don’t mean that too condescendingly – I think it’s fine for what it is, and not really out of line with the past 20 years of Final Fantasy. Frankly, I feel that way about a lot of aspects of FFXIII’s plot and presentation, but I’ve got plenty of entries left to beat that drum.

Finally, the group wakes up on crystallized Lake Bresha. Their predicament prompts more tension, but it’s broken up by the sudden appearance of Cie’ths. Snow accidentally uses magic – a sign that they’ve been turned into l’Cie. Say what you will about Hope’s whining, but come on, isn’t he justified in being pissed off at the others? He’s the only one of the group that didn’t for one reason or anotherwant to confront the fal’Cie, and now he’s basically cursed and stuck living out the rest of his seemingly-doomed life with the people that got him into this mess.

Everyone realizes they had the same dream of Ragnarok. Sazh logically interprets the dream and the allegiance of their master as a sign that their focus is to destroy Cocoon. Snow interprets it as a sign that they’re supposed to save Cocoon, because interpreting everything to fit into his internal narrative is kind of his thing. He runs ahead right after saying “we’re all in this together,” because of course he’d do that.

Story recaps aside – and yes, I really do plan on cutting back on the recaps as the exposition subsides and the combat winds up – I want to take some time to gawk at how absurdly good this game looks. With a few exceptions – such as the aforementioned NPC costumes – I’m a big fan of this FFXIII’s art direction and strength of graphical execution. At almost every turn, the game is a visual tour de force. The sheer quality and scale of production may not have been a great business move, but it lent the game a “how the fuck did they even do this?” quality that Japanese games don’t often exhibit anymore. Production values can’t carry a game on their own, but they’re a totally legitimate component of an inherently visual medium. I like a gratuitous, ridiculously-high-budget spectacle now and then.

I mean, check out the pre-rendered cutscene in which the group is branded. I love the visual design, lighting, colouration, and framing. It doesn’t really make sense that a giant cyber god would have bells on it, but hey, I think it’s pretty cool. The Vestige exploding into crystal, falling into Lake Bresha, and turning the water into crystal as it’s displaced is a striking spectacle.

Snow’s flashback to Bodhum includes a huge area that only ever appears in cutscenes (and XIII-2, for obvious reasons). The in-engine lighting and facial rendering are really impressive. My video capture seems to have run a little out-of-sync, but the lip syncing is generally pretty spot-on. They make stuff like real-time crossfades – which are actually really technically challenging – look effortless. The CGI is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a game.

Lake Bresha is still one of the most impressive video game environments I can recall. I almost can’t figure out how they made it look so good. I can look really carefully and see some chinks in the geometry, I’m guessing that the crystallized splashes are probably flat textures. I know a lot of the background is a skybox. But man, just look at this. Why does a massively-delayed 2009 release originally designed as a PS2 game look better – and hell, run better – than a lot of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One games?

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Revisiting FFXIII #006 – The group comes together and faces tragedy

Note: I hesitate to say this lest I sound too self-promotional, but you can find a better copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.

This is going to be another recap-heavy post. I don’t for intend this series to be an exhaustive story synopsis, but the first couple of chapters of FFXIII are heavy on story and light on combat. They’re setting up the backstory and character dynamics, and it would be remiss of me not to cover it in reasonable detail.

Hope and Vanille are attacked by Cie’ths, and are saved by Snow. Hope intends to go on ahead and rescue Serah alone, but turns back when he considers that the two would’t be safe alone. There are some interesting Vanille tidbits in here: when she hears Snow mention Serah, it immediately occurs to her that it could be the same Serah she met in Bodhum a few days prior to the Purge. Snow confirms her fears, and forces Vanille to again acknowledge the reality she’d been running away from: that it was (inadvertently) her fault that Serah was branded a l’Cie. I like the way the game weaves the fates of its characters together in ways that it slowly reveals, though I’ll admit that it’s more interesting to me now that I know where it’s going.

Lightning reveals to Sazh that the reason she’s going after the Pulse l’Cie is that her sister Serah is a l’Cie and is being held captive. I like this conversation – it communicates a lot about Lightning and Sazh, and simultaneously communicates a lot about the nature of l’Cie and their Focuses. In asking about Serah’s Focus, Sazh neatly communicates the concept, and prompts Lightning to reveal some of her harboured guilt about the way she treated Serah. Sazh lays out in clear terms the severity of being cursed a l’Cie. He repeats himself a bit for the benefit of the player, but he doesn’t outright break character and turn into a lore spout. He’s convincingly uncomfortable with the discussion. I hope to cover this in more detail later on, but I’ll say now that I really appreciate the quality of the localization, voice direction, and voice acting in this game. It’s easy to take for granted, but localizations like Final Fantasy Type-0 HD’s demonstrate that this stuff is really tough to get right.

Lightning and Sazh finally find Serah. Things between the two begin to come to a head – Sazh has been trying to explain to Lightning that her sister is doomed and possibly a danger to Cocoon, but Lightning’s been ignoring him.

Snow, Hope, and Vanille aren’t far behind, and Serah is pleased (much to Lightning’s chagrin) to see Snow. Vanille is again confronted with her role – yet unknown to the player or the rest of the group – in Serah’s predicament. Serah’s last words – “you can save us… protect us all… save Cocoon” are extremely important – she crystallizes directly afterward, implying that her Focus was to tell the group to save Cocoon. That’s probably not the case, but to my knowledge (and some pretty extensive fansite speculation) Serah’s focus is never fully clarified.

On a less-serious note, Lightning laying Snow the fuck out as he spouts heroic platitudes is still pretty amusing.

Things go south pretty quickly as the army begins to bombard the Vestige. As the strike subsides, the door to the fal’Cie’s chamber opens, and Snow decides to go after it. Lightning swallows her distaste for Snow and follows him – despite their differences, they both have very similar approaches to solving problems.

Another little amusement: Sazh calling Snow “trenchcoat.” My second playthrough is reminding me how likeable Sazh is, and how disappointing it is that the subsequent games demoted him to bummer bit cameos.

In the fal’Cie chamber, Snow appeals to it to let Serah go. Lightning takes a more… direct approach, which has the effect of (or at least appears to have the effect of) getting the fal’Cie’s attention. I really like Anima’s design and the way it’s presented in the pre-boss-fight cutscene. This also marks – by my recollection – the second occasion in which the game seamlessly transitions from cutscene to boss fight. It’s a really cool effect.

Similarly to what I said earlier about the localization, I think it’s easy to overlook the quality of FFXIII’s cutscene cinematography. I’ve been grabbing screenshots of the videos I’m capturing, and the process has really driven home how well-crafted almost every shot in the game is. From what I can gather, longtime series producer and former film student Yoshinori Kitase (and dozens of others, of course) deserves credit for this craftsmanship.

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Revisiting FFXIII #005 – Everyone to the bad place!

Note: I hesitate to say this lest I sound too self-promotional, but you can find a better copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.

Welcome to the post in which I hurriedly summarize the part of the game in which the writers hurriedly push the main cast (minus Fang) into the Pulse Vestige. Starting at this point, there’s a palpable drive to get the characters in the same place and the story moving. It had to be done, and by video game standards it’s not unusually contrived, but there’s no denying that some goofiness and questionable character logic is involved.

Lighting and Sazh talk about the Purge as they ride their transport ship/flying cantilever bridge to the Pulse fal’Cie/Vestige. For all of the talk about how supposedly confusing FFXIII’s opening is, I feel like this is a great example of succinct and reasonably-natural backstory delivery. The two-minute conversation reviews the idea of the Purge, introduces the distinction between the Guardian Corps (rank-and-file Sanctum forces) and PSICOM (private Sanctum special forces), reinforces the everyman attitude toward Pulse fal’Cie and l’Cie, and hints at Lighting’s reasons for leaving the Guardian Corps. The Datalog entries go into more detail, but I think the game does a pretty good job of reinforcing what you actually need to know about the lore – arguably a better job than a lot of other codex-wielding RPGs.

The Pulse Vestige arrives on the scene for reasons unclear. Each character is situated relative to it – a nice touch for a part of the game in which geography is somewhat unclear. Hope looks on as a mother comforts her child, and Vanille (in between some signature crazy emoting) does her best to comfort him. Like it or not, “face it later” ends up being a recurring theme (musically and figuratively) in the game, and it’s established here.

(In light of Vanille’s role as narrator, it’s worth noting that the FFXIII team apparently considered presenting her as the main character of the game fairly late in development. Vanille is arguably more central to the plot of FFXIII than Lightning.)

Snow (who apparently survived the same fall as Nora for… reasons?) awakens demoralized next to Gadot. Gadot senses Snow’s mopey anguish, and calls him on it. He also pulls a gun on Snow for nebulous reasons. Tellingly, Gadot knows how to motivate Snow: by appealing to his hero complex. Just a couple of hours into the game, Snow’s tendency to shout down his inner demons with theatrical heroism is becoming apparent.

Snow and Gadot reunite with the rest of NORA, who seem oddly unperturbed by the ongoing massacre they just witnessed. In fairness, Snow is still clearly distressed, and presumably playing his part to avoid worrying the others.

Hope struggles with his anger against Snow. Vanille tries to push him to confront Snow, but has trouble overcoming Hope’s paralyzing fear. Snow leaves before Vanille can force Hope to act. Vanille convinces/forces Hope to steal a hoverbike and chase Snow to the Pulse Vestige. Despite some obvious goofiness in Vanille’s delivery and animations, I do think there’s something interesting about Vanille and Hope’s vaguely mother-son relationship here. I’m not going to read into it too much, but there’s an intriguing subtlety to stuff like Hope grabbing Vanille’s wrist and Vanille’s facial expressions as she sits behind Hope in the hoverbike.

I’ll note here that I don’t understand Vanille’s desire to bring Hope to the Pulse Vestige. As I understand it, Vanille participated in the Purge because she wanted to run away from her l’Cie Focus. Becoming l’Cie ruined her and Fang’s lives. She knows that she’s putting Hope’s fate at risk by pushing him to chase Snow, and I can’t imagine she thinks that helping Hope confront Snow is worth that risk. Chasing Snow is at least something, but Vanille’s behaviour here feels like a clumsy story contrivance more than anything.

The two wake up after conveniently crash-landing right next to Vanille’s Binding Rod. According to the Japanese prequel novella, she left it there before travelling to Bodhum. Hope is justifiably not happy about their predicament, and clashes with Vanille. Vanille is somewhat justifiably (in light of her Pulse heritage) annoyed by some of what Hope says, but it’s hard to blame him, and hard to empathize with her when her reasons for forcing him into danger are so murky. This is another case of interesting ideas (a character from the boogeyland who secretly has the curse the rest are scared of) muddled by really questionable execution. Amusingly, despite the lengths the writers go through to have Vanille find her weapon, Hope pulls out his previously-unmentioned boomerang with zero justification.

Snow arrives at the Vestige, and is in full fairytale hero mode (“don’t worry Serah – your hero is on his way!”). I’ll note here that the Vestige is a beautiful environment. The ornate, otherworldly architecture and lush, exotic music create a really intriguing setting. I generally think FFXIII is an artistically-outstanding game, and that aspect of it is a large part of the reason I have such enthusiasm for it.

Lightning and Sazh – who have seemingly arrived at the Vestige off-screen – find themselves stuck at a door marked with a giant l’Cie brand. Lightning desperately apologizes to Serah for not believing her when she tried to tell Lightning that she had been branded a l’Cie (though the player doesn’t know that yet). It’s a fairly touching scene knowing what I know, but I don’t remember how I felt about it as a first-time player. The door (presumably) opens as a result of Snow’s coincidental intervention. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Sazh here – he’s brushed aside, and is left knowing even less than the player.

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Revisiting FFXIII #004 – Introducing Snow, NORA, and Nora

Note: I hesitate to say this lest I sound too self-promotional, but you can find a better copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.

Okay, if you’ve played FFXIII, you may already be composing a rant in your head. Bear with me – I think there’s more to these scenes than some people give the game credit for.

Snow and the rest of NORA are kind of insufferable. I’m not contesting that, but I am contesting the idea that the game isn’t in on that. As I recall, Snow’s character arc revolves around him examining his juvenile sense of heroism and bravado, and in doing so openly acknowledging that his actions at the beginning of the game – including his role in Nora’s death – were naive and irresponsible.

It’s confusing to me that someone could watch Snow and Lebreau trading bravado about PSICOM and NORA and think the game’s writers intended to portray them as unequivocal heroes. In a later scene, Snow says that his plan is to “charge in, guns blazing,” to which Lebreau responds “real heroes don’t need plans.” The self-absorbed bluster is almost comically overblown. If these scenes are flawed, it’s not because the heroes are insufferable – it’s because the game communicates their insufferability with such a lack of subtlety. I’m not saying I’m the only one who realizes this, but I’ve seen this aspect of the game go over people’s heads and I don’t understand how.

As I said elsewhere: “I feel like all of the early stuff with Snow and NORA is an extended equivalent of the [Final Fantasy X] laughing scene […] in the sense that Snow and NORA’s insufferable behaviour is the whole point, and people refuse to acknowledge that.”

Snow and company swagger up to the group of deportees (including Vanille, Hope, and Hope’s mother Nora) and kick off one of the more clumsy narrative sequences in the game. Nora volunteers to fight alongside NORA and delivers the infamous “Moms are tough” line (later repeated for good measure). I knew from the second she looked back that she was about to be killed off at the altar of character motivation. Vanille begins her “act like a child” routine, and while I know it’s an act and understand the desire to give her a second identifiable persona, I still think it was a bad way to handle her character. The fact that a character is named “Nora” and Snow’s group is named “NORA” is pretty dumb – I get the sense that there’s supposed to be some kind of poetic depth to that wordplay, but if so, it’s lost on me. I did manage to grab a screenshot of Snow making a goofy face, so it’s not allbad.

(As an aside: I’ve always found the NPC costume designs in the FFXIII trilogy jarringly lame. I’m a big fan of of a lot of the trilogy’s art direction, but for whatever reason, the series is full of lame NPC designs. Look at these pseudo-mystical half-shirts! Look at this guy! Ick.)

The scene in which Nora saves Snow and falls to her death is – for better and for worse – the crux of a lot of Hope’s, Snow’s and to some extent even Lightning’s character arcs. I remember finding the irrational degree to which Hope steadfastly blamed Snow for his mother’s death annoying, but on reflection – and in fairness, with some distance from the particulars – I’ve somewhat warmed to it because I’ve come to appreciate that FFXIII is about flawed characters figuring their shit out. I’ll continue to admit that FFXIII is a mixed bag in terms of execution, but I do appreciate the game’s earnest dedication to its sometimes-goofy character arcs. The game’s lack of subtlety is simultaneously an undeniable flaw and the thing that endears it to me. I wish I could come up with a less hand-wavey way of expressing that, but I can’t.

I haven’t been mentioning the battles very much thus far because there’s not much to say about them. I’m getting some mileage out of manually selecting abilities and cancelling ATB charging to deliver killing blows, but at this point I could be mashing the X button to much the same effect. I got through the Beta Behemoth boss fight doing just that. I really like what FFXIII’s battle system eventually becomes, but it admittedly takes its sweet time getting there. I will at least say that it’s not the only JRPG (or even Final Fantasy game) to have fairly limited combat depth until the mid-game. It does look pretty cool though!

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Revisiting Final Fantasy XIII #003 – Lightning, Sazh, and overambitious narrative design

Note: I hesitate to say this lest I sound too self-promotional, but you can find a better copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.

I like Lightning as a character. I like her design, her attitude, and the way she evolves (both in FFXIII and throughout the trilogy). I know a lot of people disagree with me about that, but I figure it’s worth throwing out there so it’s clear where I’m coming from. A lot of her behaviour throughout a lot of FFXIII reads as rude and/or detached, and I think that’s kind of the point. Lightning is defined as a character – arguably to a fault – by her emotional reticence and self-conscious stoicism. She appears to overcome it in FFXIII, but finds herself struggling with the same (semi-incarnate) demon in Lightning Returns.

I’ve seen Lightning dismissed as boring, badly-acted, or bitchy, I and I feel like that’s kind of missing the point. Lightning is very clearly making mistakes and alienating the people around her, and by the end of FFXIII, she knows that as well as the player. Hope goes through a very similar arc, and as I recall, it’s through recognizing herself in Hope that Lightning begins to address her own faults. I don’t at all mean to imply that I think anyone criticizing Lightning just doesn’t understand her, but I do think some of her more vocal critics are being unnecessarily obtuse in their interpretations of her character.

I have a soft spot for emotionally-insecure video game characters – I like Persona 3’s Junpei, Persona 4’s Yosuke and Rise, and even the concept (if not the execution) of Metroid: Other M’s Samus. There’s been a lot of talk about a perceived lack of diversity in video game characters as of late, and I think personality is an important facet that’s been drowned out by noise about demographics. Personally, I can empathize a fair bit with a character who has trouble showing emotional weakness to others. A vocal segment of the audience seems to want relatively dispassionate characters – characters who don’t stray too far from the player’s relatively dispassionate perspective. In a lot of ways, Lightning appears to be that character, but what makes her interesting to me is the ways she subverts her initial appearances.

Sazh is a more immediately relatable character. I was going to say he was a more straightforward character, but the reality is that he’s not – he’s more like Vanille in the sense that the game pretty brazenly misleads the player about his character and motivations. He’s presented as a bumbling everyman inadvertently thrust into the proceedings, but he actually begins the game plotting to destroy the Pulse fal’Cie to save his branded son. He was present in Bodhum when the Pulse Vestige was discovered (which caused the Sanctum to initiate the Bodhum Purge), and he sneaks back into Bodhum in order to be Purged to the Hanging Edge (where the Pulse fal’Cie was being held).

Sazh’s reaction to Lightning revealing that she’s heading for the Pulse fal’Cie appears more nuanced now that I know that he was also trying to get there – a fact that the player isn’t told for quite a while. Interestingly, this paraphrasing of the Japan-only prequel novella says that Sazh and Lightning allied to reach the Pulse fal’Cie before they boarded the Purge train, but that’s a rabbit hole I’ve not yet gone down enough to comment on it with any authority. (To be clear, I’ve been using the excellent Final Fantasy Wiki to fill in numerous details I’ve forgotten over the past couple of years. I only barely remembered some of this stuff, which in fairness may be more of an indictment of my memory than of FFXIII’s writing.)

Perhaps because of the way it handles character development and lore by misleading and under-informing the player, I’m finding FFXIII more interesting and coherent the second time around. Lighting and Sazh’s behaviour makes a lot more sense now that I know that they’re both on Sisyphean, guilt-fuelled quests to save loved ones. In this scene, Lightning may just be trying to ditch Sazh because she doesn’t want to rope him into her suicide mission, or because she’s desperate to get to Serah before the Pulse Vestige is moved. Sazh is presumably so desperate to tag along because he knows that Lightning is his best shot at getting closer to the Vestige (where the Pulse fal’Cie is located). The first time around, I remember not really understanding why Lightning was so hostile to Sazh, or why Sazh was so insistent on following Lighting rather than trying to find safer ground.

What I’ve written here is of course not a defence of FFXIII’s narrative – misleading the player is something that’s best done with a much more deft touch – so much as a defence of the ambition of FFXIII’s narrative. FFXIII’s narrative ambition is arguably its downfall – it’s more clever and complex than its nuts-and-bolts writing is able to support.

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Revisiting Final Fantasy XIII #002 – Opening

Note: I hesitate to say this lest I sound too self-promotional, but you can find a better copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.

With my introductions, caveats, and grousing out of the way, let’s talk about Final Fantasy XIII’s opening. It’s an aspect of the game about which I think I’ve come around, at least somewhat. At the beginning of my first playthrough, my snarky attitude and primed notions about the game probably caused me to be unfairly harsh. So far – that is, through to Snow’s introduction – I’m feeling pretty good about the way this game begins.

I like the audacity of FFXIII’s opening. The game hits you with a bunch of characters, terminology, conflict, and opaque foreshadowing right off the bat, and deliberately withholds the information necessary to fully understand it. I know this was a source of frustration for many – and I’m sure it frustrated me to some degree the first time around – but now that I know how the game’s plot is structured, I’m quite content to let it wash over me.

FFXIII’s handling of lore and backstory isn’t above criticism, but I think it’s much easier to criticize than address. Most modern RPGs have extensive in-game encyclopedias that you need to reference to fully understand their worlds. Many – particularly BioWare – go even further by having early NPCs long-windedly regurgitate lore. I think FFXIII does a better job than many of driving home vital concepts while letting the player fill out peripheral knowledge at their leisure. The game’s story is primarily about its character arcs – the sometimes-careless way it treats its lore makes a lot more sense if you acknowledge that.

When people complain that they didn’t understand what was going on at the beginning of FFXIII, I can’t help but wonder if they have a clear sense of what a FFXIII that addressed their criticisms would look like. I struggle to think of a fantasy RPG that doesn’t drip-feed important lore details to keep things moving in the early going. Final Fantasy VII reveals its world in a remarkably similar manner, except that in its case you’re of luck when you’re inevitably confused by its plethora of goofy terminology and sloppy writing.

Giant Bomb user mosespippy made a good point about this in the comments of my last blog:

This is one of the things I give them credit for. They made a fantasy game that was not some boring retread of Tolkien tropes, cultural mythologies or ren-fair schlock. The entire lore was original. It may not have been presented in the best way, but it's not like they can rely on the player having some cultural familiarity with the lore like they would had they used those common fantasy settings. The entire culture of the game's setting is foreign to the player, and as a result there is some culture shock. The task of conveying that culture to the player is not easy. Stuff could have been named less confusingly, too.

While FFXIII might have had an easier time explaining itself if it had been set in a more traditional setting, I think I would have found that setting quite a bit less interesting.

I’m a big fan of FFXIII’s aesthetic and atmosphere. The Hanging Edge is such an intriguing environment – it’s like little else in the series, and its introduction begs a lot of questions about the nature of the world these characters live in. It’s of course ridiculously contrived and unrealistic, but I kind of don’t care because it’s novel and visually interesting. I’d much rather have a game begin in this tangled emerald techno-dystopia than another idyllic countryside town.

I love how the first in-engine cutscene seamlessly transitions into the first battle with the Manasvin Warmech. I don’t remember if that ever happens again, but it’s a really cool moment. The battle itself is fairly ho-hum – and really, how many early JRPG battles aren’t? – but the music, background, enemy design, camera work, cutscene transitions, and pretty much everything about it is way up my alley. It’s a great reminder of Final Fantasy XIII’s impeccable production values. As FFVI, FFVII, FFVIII, and FFX (among others, I’m sure) did before it, FFXIII kicks off with self-confident technical bombast. Production values don’t make a game, but they’re an important factor for me, and they’re inarguably a big part of the Final Fantasy tradition.

More than five years after its initial Japanese release date – and god knows how much longer after its intended Japanese release date – Final Fantasy XIII still looks ludicrously good. The disparity between its high-budget CG cutscenes and in-engine cutscenes is impressively subtle. You can definitely see some chunky models and blurry textures, but I’d contend that the game looks (and sadly enough, runs) better than a lot of contemporary releases. The facial animation holds up particularly well – if it wasn’t for some loose lip-syncing, Sazh’s performance here would look at home in a PS4 game. (Fun piece of trivia: FFXIII’s character models apparently have lower poly counts than a lot of PS2 games.)

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Revisiting Final Fantasy XIII #001 – Introduction

Note: I hesitate to say this lest I sound too self-promotional, but you can find a better copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.

Final Fantasy XIII is a flawed game, but it’s a flawed game I can’t stop thinking about. I don’t disagree with many of the criticisms levelled against it, but something about its unusual take on the genre made a strong impression on me. It’s a game I feel compelled to defend against what I perceive to be unfair and hyperbolic criticisms. I’m not usually the kind to get too invested in what people say about a video game, but I’m a sometimes-vocal Final Fantasy XIII apologist.

When I played Final Fantasy XIII just over two years ago, I did so in a somewhat unique position: it was my first Final Fantasy game. For better or worse, I came to the game without most of the baggage a series fan might bring to the table. I didn’t expect a particular battle system, sense of openness, narrative structure, musical direction, character progression system, setting, or cast size. I of course had a rough sense of what classic Final Fantasy games were like, but I didn’t have the intense rose-tinted nostalgia that I think really taints discussion about Final Fantasy XIII.

When I look back at some of what I wrote about Final Fantasy XIII at the time, I can’t help but think I was overly critical of aspects of it. Since playing it, I’ve gone on to play quite a few other JRPGs, including Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII, X, X-2, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns; Persona 3 and 4; Xenoblade Chronicles; Tales of Vesperia; Radiant Historia; Kingdom Hearts; Valkyria Chronicles; and Fire Emblem: Awakening. I’m not a fan of directly comparing disparate games, but if I had to order three favourites, I’d probably say Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy X, and Persona 4. Fan favourites like Final Fantasy VI, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Radiant Historia did remarkably little for me. I respect each of the games I played, but my experiences with them ended up reinforcing the extent to which Final Fantasy XIII is – in the literal sense – exceptional.

Final Fantasy XIII flouts series and genre conventions that – as it turns out – I’m not much of a fan of. Its rigid character development system and level caps allow it to achieve a level of game balance rarely seen in JRPGs. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system has a holistic quality to it that’s ended up making every other JRPG battle system I’ve tried feel somewhat haphazard in comparison. As FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns – games I enjoyed less than FFXIII – demonstrated by dispatching with FFXIII’s linearity, FFXIII’s battle design is quite continent on the exceptional rigidity many bemoan. People are of course entitled to bemoan whatever they please, but it’s been my experience that many FFXIII criticisms zero in on specific design decisions without considering how they fit into the larger whole. People are of course also entitled to bemoan the larger whole, but I like it.

Final Fantasy XIII’s character arcs – and to me, the character arcs, rather than the sometimes-convoluted overarching narrative, are the meat of of the game’s story – have an earnestness to them that speaks to me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now-infamous FFXIII director Motomu Toriyama was the Event Director on Final Fantasy X – my favourite story in the series – and was reportedly responsible for Aerith’s scenes in Final Fantasy VII. Toriyama has become something of a pariah – at least among a certain vocal subset of English-speaking enthusiasts – and while I’m not going to claim FFX or FFXIII are literary masterpieces, I do think Toriyama has more talent and vision than a lot of the press and enthusiast shit-slingers give him credit for.

I didn’t sense it as I first played it, but Final Fantasy XIII – or at least my memory of it – has become a standard by which I judge other JRPGs’ battle systems, production values, and even characterizations. Given that – and given the fact that I can’t shut the fuck up about the game – it seems only fair that I revisit Final Fantasy XIII. At the very least, I’d like to produce a (relatively) well-articulated reflection about the game that gives it a (relatively) fair shake, rather than sacrificing it at the altar of a tired narrative about the perceived depths to which the series and/or Japanese games industry has fallen. The internet doesn’t need another voice shitting on Final Fantasy XIII, but I’d like to think there’s a place for a positive – or at least measured – take on the game.

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My life in Eorzea 002: Checking in

It’s been close to three months since I last (and first) blogged about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Contributing factors include trying to catch up on 2014 games enough to make a reasonably-educated favourites list, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd, and buying a PS4.

While I still believe the PS3 version of FFXIV was perfectly playable, the PS4 version is a massive step up in framerate, resolution, detail, and interface. When I first sat down with the PS3 version, I tried to use a keyboard and mouse, but was immediately turned off by its choppy mouse cursor rendering and forced console-friendly UI. The PS4 version addresses both of those issues, and I’ve stuck with my mouse and keyboard since upgrading. FFXIV’s gamepad controls are about as good as they could possibly be, but the nature and complexity of MMOs is such that the flexibility of the keyboard and mouse make me feel significantly more capable and nimble. I can target quicker and more consistently, assign important spells to the keys immediately surrounding WASD, type messages in the midst of battle, and navigate menus (particularly multiple simultaneously-opened menus) much more gracefully. I greatly prefer gamepads for almost every genre I care about – and it hasn’t stopped feeling weird to boot up my PS4 to play a game while leaning forward at my desk – but FFXIV is an exception.

As of my first check-in, I was level 30, having just unlocked the White Mage job. I’m now level 47, having just fought Garuda. The lion’s share of that levelling has taken place over the course of the last couple of weeks. It wasn’t until the new year that I started sinking serious time into FFXIV, and that concentrated exposure has allowed it to get its hooks into me.

There are aspects of the levelling process that I haven’t particularly enjoyed. The main story questline is decent and features some cool characters, but it frequently gets hung up with filler and uneven pacing. It often has you doing mundane busywork while self-awaredly referencing the fact that you’re doing mundane busywork. There are some zones – Coerthas being most egregious example – that have far too many cookie-cutter quests. I like the idea of the Hunting Log – which has you killing specific enemies for large EXP and currency rewards – but its sequential nature means that I’m often backtracking to well-trodden territory to kill enemies I’ve previously fought.

The majority of my time with FFXIV has been spent doing stuff that I’d complain about doing in a single-player game. Much of it bears striking resemblance to the parts of Xenoblade Chronicles that I still believe dragged down an otherwise-great game. I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate what it is about FFXIV that’s hooked me where other open-world filler fests have turned me off, and the best I can come up with is that FFXIV is a persistent, evolving, and co-operative world. If I end up finding the endgame agreeable, I may very well spend years playing this game. Even if some of what I’m doing is bland by single-player game standards, it’s gradually acquainting me with the geography, inhabits, and lore of a living world. It’s my impression that MMO design essentially requires a large degree of filler – if they were streamlined the way most contemporary single-player games are streamlined, people wouldn’t stick around, and achievements wouldn’t feel weighty. I’m starting to catch glimpses of the various currencies, reputation meters, and timers governing access to end-game gear, and while I’m not yet sure if they’ll be enough to keep me hooked, I do think I understand the design motivations behind them.

FFXIV’s dungeons, Guildhests (short instanced fights), and Trials (instanced boss fights) have opened my eyes to a type of role-based, co-operative gameplay I’ve never really experienced before. The rest of the party – particularly the tank – needs my healing to be on-point at all times. One misclick, attention drift, or bad judgment call can very quickly lead to a dire situation. If the tank loses the enmity (aggro) of the mobs, all hell can break loose for the rest of the (often lightly-armoured) party. The DPS party members seem to have more breathing room thus far, but my sense is that they have very important roles to play during parts of boss encounters.

I should note here that because so much of healing involves monitoring the party status list, I’ve been embarrassingly ignorant as to what the rest of the party is up to during many encounters. I’ve been working to address this by moving vital interface elements closer to the centre of the screen, but I’m catching myself succumbing to tunnel vision far too often. This bad habit bit me in the ass during Garuda – a boss encounter in which pillars positioned throughout the arena serve both as cover from powerful attacks and inconvenient line-of-sight obstacles for ranged actions.

That said, killing Garuda was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done in a video game in quite some time. My matchmaking party was (as is often the case) super positive and supportive when I messed up and caused a wipe close to the end of the fight. The second time around, the run seemed to be in jeopardy when a DPS was killed by a powerful randomly-targeted attack. I quickly threw Regen on the tank, crossed my fingers, and cast an 8-second (an eternity in the context of a boss fight), MP-expensive Raise on him. Because of this, I found myself dangerously low on MP going into the crucial damage-heavy sequence of the fight, and was saved only by an opportune Shroud of Saints (MP restoring spell) refresh. Hitting the final stretch, knowing I was running on MP fumes, and essentially throwing up my hands and saying “well, I hope this works out” as the party finished off Garuda felt like an experience one can only get out of a particularly well-balanced role-based game. The fight wasn’t unduly punitive – we had successfully recovered from a critical setback – but it also felt like we’d earned the win. A couple of party members stuck around while I watched the post-fight cutscene to congratulate me on my story progress. Experiences like that have me excited to stick with FFXIV despite the hassles and time demand.

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My most anticipated games of 2015

Before I begin, I should say that I’m not including Final Fantasy XV, Mass Effect 4, or The Last Guardian (ha!) because I don’t believe they’ll be out in 2015. Some of the games near the end of this list may get pushed back, but I’m much more confident I’ll be playing them this year.

I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, and I might be interested in Danganronpa: Another Episode if it gets localized, but I can’t be including a niche spin-off game with no localization announcement. I’m pretty sure I’ll be playing Bloodborne, but without any previous experience with the Souls series, I can’t say I’m anticipating it based on hearsay alone. Yoshi’s Wooly World, Splatoon, and Code Name: S.T.E.A.M have my attention, but I’m taking a wait-and-see approach with them.

I don’t follow previews, trailers, Kickstarter projects, or other pre-release coverage all that much. I suspect some of my future favourite games of 2015 aren’t on my radar yet. Considering Nintendo and Sony’s relative silence when it comes to 2015 games, I suspect (hope?) each has some unannounced 2015 heavy-hitters. This list should be interesting to look back upon at the end of the year.

Lastly, you’ll notice that this list is 100% Japanese games. This is largely a manifestation of my evolving tastes, but it’s also a result of how many Western games have been shipping in unacceptable states over the last couple of years. Few of the big 2015 Western releases are doing all that much for me. There will likely be some standouts that I’ll end up picking up, but I can’t think of a single one I’d throw my money at without reservation. When I look at this list, I’m reasonably confident each will ship in a finished state, a simple prerequisite I can no longer take for granted when it comes to many (most?) Western publishers.

Here’s my 10 most anticipated games of 2015, in estimated order of release. It’s not an exact science and I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but it’s a nice excuse to talk about what I’m looking forward to:

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD (PS4) [March 17, 2015]

I know very little about Type-0, but I do know I want to play it. I pre-ordered it when it was announced and largely stopped paying attention to coverage. I’ve heard it has a reputation for being one of the best Final Fantasy games in years, and as someone who generally enjoyed the XIII trilogy, I’m not entirely sure what to make of that. I’m intrigued by its action-oriented combat system, I’m curious about its ties to the Fabula Nova Crystallis lore, I like what I’ve seen of the art design, and I assume the music is up the high standards of Square Enix’s recent fantastic soundtracks. I’ll also check out Final Fantasy Agito – Type-0’s free-to-play prequel – if it ends up getting localized. As crazy as this might sound to some people, I implicitly trust Square Enix Japan more than most to deliver a compelling and polished experience.

Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PS4) [Spring 2015]

I haven’t been playing as much FFXIV as I’d like, but that’s been a factor of time, 2014 cleanup, and PSN outages more than anything. I really like FFXIV, and I’m looking forward to getting my White Mage through the rest of the main story and into the endgame. It’s a well-crafted, well-tuned, and well-polished game that – at least thus far – delivers the compelling aspects of MMORPGs without the grinding, time-wasting, and jankiness that I associated with the genre. I’ve had a particularly satisfying time healing in 4-man dungeons – it’s no cakewalk, which makes it all the more satisfying to barely pull my party through a dungeon and know that their (virtual) lives were in my hands. It may be a while until I end up experiencing a lot of the Heavensward-specific content, but it’s still reassuring to know that the FFXIV development team and community are healthy.

Mario Maker (Wii U) [Early 2015]

My excitement for Mario Maker is largely contingent on how well-implemented the online level sharing is. I have no doubt they’ll nail the level creation tools, and I’m confident they understand what the online level sharing functionality should entail, but the only Nintendo games I can really recall embracing easy-to-share user-generated content are the Pushmo games. That aside, there’s not much to say – I like playing 2D Mario games, and Mario Maker promises to deliver a never-ending fire-hose of wacky and wonderful Mario levels. It’s not going to be as varied as LittleBigPlanet, but it’ll also have best-in-the-business platforming mechanics, and I’m quite sure enterprising level designers will wring a surprising amount of madness out of the game’s constraints.

Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX (3DS) [2015]

This isn't at all representative of the game, but it was by far the best thing to appear in my Google image search.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that I’m excited about the next Western release in a series that dominated my 2014 GOTY list. As I understand it, Project Mirai is similar to Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call in that it offers both touch screen and button controls – a fact I’m perfectly okay with provided I can choose to never use the touch screen. The song list includes a bunch of stuff I don’t recognize from previous games, and several that I do recognize are personal favourites. I think I prefer the (relatively) realistically-proportioned Project Diva art style to the chibi Project Mirai art style, but I’m also open to a shake-up. At this point, if they’re selling more Project Diva-style gameplay, I’m buying.

Persona 4: Dancing All Night (PS Vita) [2015]

Dancing All Night is a Project Diva-style game featuring Persona 4 remixes in which Yu teams up with with Rise (a.k.a. The Best Persona 4 Girl) in order to get the Investigation Team back together, enter the “Midnight Stage,” and defeat Shadows in dance battles. Look at these trailers! The only thing that’d get me more hyped is an announcement that the game will also feature Persona 3 characters and remixes. If Dancing All Night delivers on its premise, it’s an obvious 2015 frontrunner for me.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4) [2015]

There’s no way I’d miss out on MGS V. From the first time I watched that amazing E3 2013 trailer, I knew I had to play it. Now that I’ve gone back and played Snake Eater and Peace Walker, I want to see the conclusion(?) of that MGS arc all the more. Anyone familiar with the MGS lore will know the broad strokes of where The Phantom Pain will leave Big Boss, Miller, and Ocelot (among others, I’m guessing), but I’m still interested in seeing the details of a fairly blurry part of the MGS timeline.

It helps that Ground Zeroes (the MGS V prequel/demo) plays very well – striking a nice balance between complex open-world stealth and forgiving alert sequences. I don’t consider myself much of a stealth game person, but I started to get a sense of what I could and couldn’t get away with after a couple of missions. Crucially, getting spotted isn’t the end of the world – the game makes it hurt by having guards pursue you pretty doggedly, but it’s possible to shoot, run, or evade your away out of altercations without feeling like your run is ruined the second an alert is sounded.

We know that The Phantom Pain is going to get extremely dark. We know that it’s going to feature graphic depictions of torture and sexual assault. We also know that it’s going to have a lady running around a battlefield in glorified lingerie, a melty-faced mystic-looking old guy named Code Talker, and an even meltier-faced dude with a fedora named Skull Face. In other words, The Phantom Pain is a Metal Gear game. It’s going to be a bizarre, incongruous, yet undeniably unique (and for many people compelling) mix of self-serious socio-political commentary and goofy “anime” nonsense. Parts of it will fall flat for some, and they’ll be justified in thinking that. The usual suspects will tell us that Kojima is a sexist/racist/*ist monster for making a piece of fiction that didn’t agree with their worldview, and that Metal Gear fans are monsters not feeling sufficiently bad about it. I’ll try to do my best to avoid the inevitable shitshow surrounding the release and enjoy it for what it is.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U) [2015]

I had some pretty major issues with the original Xenoblade Chronicles – in particular its often-boring story, telegraphed “twists,” lacking (and grind-demanding) character development, boring filler sidequests, and unnecessary length. I continue to feel that it’s an overrated game that benefited enormously from the cult status afforded to it by the Operation Rainfall saga. That said, it was a very endearing game in some respects (striking environmental design, expansive Yoko Shimomura soundtrack, great voice acting, sheer ambition), and one that I’ve warmed on over time. I’m not unequivocally excited about Xenoblade Chronicles X, but I’m willing to give Xenoblade another shot, and I do wonder if my tastes have evolved since 2012 in ways that would make me more receptive to its MMO-esque aspects. Everything I’ve seen of the game exudes the same ambition that drew me to the original. At the very least, I’m excited to hear Hiroyuki Sawano’s (of Attack on Titan and Kill la Kill fame) soundtrack.

The Legend of Zelda (Wii U) [2015]

This is a Zelda game – Nintendo can practically already account for my $60. It looks great, and while aspects of what little we’ve seen so far don’t yet strike me as slam dunks, I trust Aonuma and his team to deliver. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the game between now and E3.

Persona 5 (PS4) [2015?]

We know even less about Persona 5 than we do about Zelda, but the game is another must-play for me. There are parts of Persona 3 and 4 that I wished were streamlined, and in that respect I’d argue they’re flawed video games, but they’re extremely compelling in terms of design, characterization, setting, and atmosphere. What we’ve seen of Persona 5’s Tokyo setting, red visual motif, and social conformity theme have me intrigued, and I trust that P Studio will execute. I’m not entirely confident it’ll leave Japan in 2015, but considering it was supposed to come out in 2014, I’d hope it’s closer to completion than the lack of gameplay footage would have us believe.

Gravity Rush 2 (PS Vita?) [2015?]

This one’s sort of a stretch because Team Gravity has been relatively silent since the September 2013 teaser trailer, but recent comments by director Keiichiro Toyama indicate that they’re about to show the game. The original Gravity Rush was by no means without flaws, but I thought it really nailed its core gameplay concept (“falling” through highly-vertical, open environments), created a very likeable main character, and dressed itself in a unique and well-executed urban European aesthetic and evocative soundtrack. If the sequel brings with it a stronger combat system, more interesting story, and less uneven cast of characters, I’ll be quite happy. The Vita fan in me hopes the game hasn’t been moved to the PS4, but I’ll be glad to have it at all.

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