My favourite games of 2014

Not-so-brief preamble

Did not play

I have yet to make the leap into the Souls games – if I had, I might have been extolling the virtues of Dark Souls II. Shovel Knight looks like a game I’d love, but I just didn’t get around to it. While I made an abortive run at Dragon Age: Origins earlier this year, I see indications that Dragon Age: Inquisition might be the game to hook me on the series. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t sound very exciting to me on paper, but I’m intrigued enough by the positive reception that I’ll probably snap it up on sale at some point. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call seems like it would be up my alley, but I have an irrational belief in music spoilers that has me not wanting to play it until I’ve cleared out my Final Fantasy backlog. I had it in my head that I’d make a run at Ultra Street Fighter IV and finally learn how to fighting game, but I never committed to it. As someone who hasn’t played a Call of Duty game since 4, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is oddly appealing. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. Wolfenstein: The New Order strikes me as a game that could scratch the same unapologetic, mechanically-solid shooter itch that Rage did. I don’t know all that much about Freedom Wars, but several people I share taste in games with have been trying to push it on me. I never pulled the trigger on Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, but I’m looking forward to playing it.

Did not qualify

I wish I’d stuck with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. I was starting to get over the learning curve, but got distracted by other games and didn’t come back to it. While I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, I just haven’t put enough time into it to justify including it on this list. I’ve played a fair amount of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, but not enough to fairly judge it relative to other games (or to make the case for the PS4 version qualifying as a 2014 release). I really enjoyed Final Fantasy X HD Remaster, but it’s essentially a port, and I don’t think I’d have bumped anything on my list for it.

My favourite games of 2014

5. Super Smash Bros. (Wii U)

As it turns out, there’s a recurring theme in this list: I find the core gameplay of each game to be very satisfying. There’s a lot of stuff about Smash that I don’t particularly like – in fact, I’m somewhere between ambivalent and hostile towards almost every mode and feature in this game besides Smash, For Glory, and For Glory 1v1. Even the online play isn’t as good as it should be – matches often get stuttery, and the way For Glory forces everyone to play on Final Destination variants unnecessarily advantages certain characters. Even with those massive caveats, Smash makes this list because I just plain really enjoy playing Smash. I like experimenting with different characters, techniques, and strategies. I’m not even particularly good at it – while I have residual skill from my hundreds of hours with Melee, I get blown up in 1v1s more often than not, and most of my best moments are the result of flukes and scumbag tactics.

I don’t have quite the same enthusiasm for Smash that I do for the rest of this list, but I have a feeling I’ll be popping it in for years to come. It also helps that Smash is a treasure trove of Nintendo memorabilia and fanservice – the trophy gallery is essentially a Nintendo encyclopedia, and I’d have paid way more than $60 for the 437(!) music tracks alone.

4. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)

Bayonetta 2 is, if nothing else, the hypest game on this list. At one point while playing Bayonetta 2, I was gripping the controller so hard that the skin on one of my fingers split open and started bleeding (winter with dry skin, y’all!) and I didn’t realize because I was too busy slow-mo dodging lasers and punching a dragon in the face with a giant hair fist.

Bayonetta 2 makes every button press satisfying – it’s one of those games for which my inner monologue is just a series of “UHH!”s. It’s the epitome of video game power fantasy – the heroine meets every challenge with an over-the-top cocksuredness that the combat mechanics give you the ability to back up. As ridiculous as the choreographed cutscenes are, the game gives you the tools with which to do some pretty fucking badass stuff yourself as well.

I played the packed-in(!) copy of Bayonetta 1 for the first time directly before playing Bayonetta 2, and it’s worth noting how much of a step up Bayonetta 2 is from the already-great original. It looks better, it’s paced better, and it (for lack of a more articulate explanation) feels better. The set pieces are ludicrous in all of the right ways, and while the game still drags a little in the midsection, it would be pretty difficult for just about any game to keep up the breakneck pace at which Bayonetta 2 opens. I would have liked a bit more boss variety (in the sense that few force you to meaningfully vary your strategy), better story and characters, more visual clarity in certain sequences, and better audio mixing (on my speakers, some of the voices sounded hollow and clippy), but the fact is that I’m raring to replay Bayonetta 2 on its hard difficulty.

3. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

With the exception of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart Arcade GP, I’ve put tons of time into each entry in the Mario Kart series. My nostalgic heart wants to say that Mario Kart 64 is the best, but my head says that Mario Kart 8 is the pinnacle of the series. I’ve put north of 30 hours into this game, and I expect to play at least as much over the next year. Some of that was spent 3-starring each of the Grand Prix cups and playing some occasional local multiplayer, but the lion’s share has been spent playing online.

Mario Kart 8’s online play is incredibly (especially considering we’re talking about Nintendo) smooth and well-implemented. Mario Kart has always shone in multiplayer, and Mario Kart 8’s implementation is nearly flawless. The 12 player races can lead to some ridiculous swings, and while those swings aren’t always my favour, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Mario Kart’s about controlled chaos – it’s not entirely skill-based, but the better players generally come out ahead. It’s a game in which I don’t mind losing because I know that last-minute cheap shot was a thrilling moment for some dude in Spain that I was just communicating with via the universal language of “I’m using tilt controls!” (a language that rivals Journey’s chirps in its unexpected versatility). And hey, I just bodied that lady from Hokkaido in the past match – hopefully she didn’t take my “That was fun!” badly.

Mario Kart 8 controls nearly perfectly – I felt like I had been playing it for years after a few hours of play. Its extreme polish (and notably, flawless online reliability) puts this year’s plethora of insultingly-unfinished releases to shame. It’s one of the best-looking games ever made, and it runs at a solid 60 FPS. Its soundtrack is superb. I pre-ordered the $12, 16-track DLC bundle sight-unseen because I knew I could trust Nintendo to deliver. I didn’t mind that half of it won’t be out until May 2015 because I know I’ll want to jump right back in.

2. Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (PS Vita)

A year ago, I wouldn’t have excepted to be extolling the virtues of Project Diva f. Around the time of the PS3 version’s release in August 2013, Giant Bomb user Hailinel penned a couple of blog posts about it that put it on my radar by drawing attention to the strength of its rhythm game mechanics and the endearing qualities of its music and presentation. When Giant Bomb and USgamer followed up a couple weeks later with some laughably insulting and misrepresentative coverage that was largely at the expense of the game and its fans, they only reinforced my intention to give the game a shot myself. In March of this year, I heard Greg Sewart favourably mention the Vita release of the game on the Player One Podcast, downloaded the demo, and had bought the full version of the game before I put my Vita down.

Yeah, the game has a social simulator mode in which you rub Vocaloid characters’ heads and play patty-cake with them or something, but I played it once, said “not for me,” and went back to obsessively playing the rhythm game mode. I’ve only just recently started messing with the game’s plethora of costumes because my attitude up to that point was “I’m too busy following the note charts and pressing buttons to worry about this costume stuff.”

To quote from my April blog post: “Project Diva f is a great rhythm game. The music is charming and varied, the rhythm tracks are well-composed, the difficulty curve is rewarding, and the production values are great.” I wrote that last sentence the better part of an hour ago because I saw the videos in the aforementioned blog post, thought “hey, I really feel like playing Senbonzakura,” and ended up spending an hour going through my Project Diva f favourites. Similar scenarios have played out throughout this year, and often at the expense of things far more important than a list of video games. I’ve put close to 40 hours into a rhythm game with 38 (32 + 6 DLC) tracks and I’m nowhere near sick of it.

1. Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F 2nd (PS Vita)

In all honesty, I’d be comfortable with either of the Project Diva games at the top of this list. I’m giving Project Diva F 2nd the edge here, but I might also recommend the first game to a newcomer because of its smoother learning curve. Project Diva F 2nd addresses perhaps my biggest problem with Project Diva f by allowing the previously-touch-screen-exclusive “scratch” notes to be played with the Vita’s analog sticks, looks noticeably better than its predecessor, and comes with 40 tracks (with over 10 on the way as DLC). The game pads out its roster with some returning songs from the Japan-exclusive PSP games, but I only know that because I set up a Japanese PSN account, bought Japanese store credit from Play-Asia, went through the annoying Vita region switching procedure, and learned a bit of katakana in order to play Project Diva 2nd (PSP) on my Vita. And hey, Project Diva F 2nd brought forward a few of the best songs from that game, so it’s tough to complain.

I find playing the Project Diva games immensely satisfying at a more fundamental level than almost anything else. They’re all about pressing buttons to catchy music while colourful videos play in the background. Whereas Persona 4 might tax my frontal lobe, I feel like the Project Diva games mostly hammer my temporal lobe (forgive my Psych 101 horseshit, people with actual neuropsychology backgrounds). They feel good in the same way that playing actual music feels good; getting Extreme Perfects on songs I remember struggling with on Normal difficulty feels good in the same way that perfecting a piano piece or nailing my parts in high school bands felt.

I’m also way into – surprisingly into – the presentation and general vibe of the Project Diva games. There’s an infectious enthusiasm and earnestness to the Project Diva games that very few modern games attempt to capture. They feel like games people would have a deep reverence for if they’d come out in 2000 on the Dreamcast – I had a great time with Space Channel 5: Part 2 earlier this year, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. That’s not to say the songs are all cheery all the time – they can get quite dark and melancholic when they want to – but there’s a certain simplicity and sincerity to all of it that I find really endearing. The production values are through the roof – some of the videos in Project Diva F 2nd are so ambitious and slickly-rendered it’s hard to believe they’re running on a Vita.

That diversity extends to the music itself. There’s no accounting for taste, and this music is obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but even if you don’t like the more bubbly and poppier music, you might be surprised by the breadth of musical styles and influences. Melt is the kind of standard bubbly pop you might expect; Packaged and Roshin Yukai are light electro-pop; Doubleganger and Two Breaths Walking are essentially pop punk; Kagerou Daze oscillates between electro-pop and harder rock; Wintry Winds and Paradichlorobenzene are in the style of folk music; Clover♣Club is positively saccharine; Miracle Paint evokes vaudeville show tunes; Blackjack has an Ska-like quality to it; Knife has folk instrumentation but throws in a hot slap bass solo; Kokoro is an orchestral epic about a cybernetic girl who miraculously develops a “heart,” experiences the full range of human emotion at breakneck speed, then burns out from the exertion; This Is The Happiness & Peace Of Mind Committee lulls you with some sappiness then hits you over the head with some raw techno and lyrics that seem tailored to drive Japanese salarymen to existential crises.

I’m in love with this series. I’ve already played Project Diva 2nd (the PSP game), and I fully intend to play the other two Japan-only PSP games. I’ll be there on day one for the North American release of Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX. Persona 4: Dancing All Night – which is a dream collaboration between P Studio and original Project Diva developer Dingo – is quite possibly my most anticipated game of 2015. I can’t predict if or when I’ll burn out on pressing buttons to J-pop, but I’ll ride this high while it lasts.

Honourable mentions

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII has a lot going for it. Its Majora’s Mask-like countdown setup is neat, and its combat is an engaging twist on FFXIII’s Command Synergy Battle system. While I managed to utterly break the game progression by exploiting a time-pausing mechanic and stun-locking a challenging boss, I think the freedom and systems dynamism that allowed me to pull that off are commendable in an age of hand-holdy single player experiences. Lightning Returns’ soundtrack is great – it builds on the foundations of the previous games, but evokes a very distinctive and diverse style and ambience: [Energetic main/battle theme], [Poignant main character theme], [Unsettling, jazzy nighttime theme], [Powerful exploration theme], [Relentless boss theme], [Elevator-esque Chocobo Theme arrangement], [Pounding festival theme], [Tense sneaking theme]. Lightning Returns’ low budget showed through in ways that played a part in bumping it off my top 5 list, but its soundtrack is one of the most ambitious series of compositions to ever to accompany a video game.

Infamous: Second Son is an great “here’s a map full of icons – go!”-style open world game, which means it does a great job of realizing a game design I pretty actively dislike. It plays well, runs well, looks great, and has a really effective primary antagonist. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than the original Infamous, for whatever that’s worth.

Hyrule Warriors was surprisingly satisfying and enjoyable. I had a solid B+ time with it every time I booted it up, and I’ve been meaning to go back to it and pick away at the various side modes. Koei Tecmo and Nintendo did a great job of integrating Zelda characters, environments, items, events, and bosses. At one point, you summon the Moon to kill Argorok. Wrecking fools with Impa’s Great Sword felt great; beasting over the good guys as Ganondorf was super satisfying; even summoning Deku Trees as (controversial new character) Lana was a blast. They even added Sexy Midna as DLC!

Transistor’s interesting and polished, but I was lukewarm about the combat system and the ease with which I broke it. I spent most of the game not knowing enough about the world or characters to have any investment in what was happening, and the art style didn’t really speak to me. I’m a big fan of the game’s soundtrack – particularly the way it dynamically mixes in vocals while you’re planning moves.

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Assorted thoughts on Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD Edition

I’ve been working my way through the Metal Gear Solid series over the past couple of years. I’ve played MGS1 (PS1), MGS2 (Substance HD), MGS3 (Subsistence HD), MGS4, Revengeance, and now Peace Walker (HD). This leaves just Portable Ops and Ground Zeroes (and the two original MSX2 games, I suppose) before I’m caught up with the canonical titles. Of the MGS games I’ve played so far, Peace Walker is my favourite – I think it’s the best-written and best-playing game of the series (notwithstanding Ground Zeroes). Here’s some thoughts:

Gameplay

  • The game controls quite well. I can’t speak to the single-stick controls in the PSP version – though I assume aspects of them would have driven me nuts – but the HD Edition plays the way I wished the third-person mode of Subsistence would have. When you first open Peace Walker, it asks you if you want it to play like Portable Ops (and, as I recall, mentions Monster Hunter by name) or like a shooter. I choose the shooter controls, and I was pleased to discover that Peace Walker actually plays like a third-person shooter. It has none of MGS 3’s “first-person mode points the camera where Snake was facing” nonsense – the left trigger zooms, and the right trigger fires. MGS 4 made similar improvements, but something about Peace Walker (maybe the rock-solid 60 FPS performance) just felt more responsive to me. Unfortunately, the HD Edition controls almost too well – while the game is demanding, it’s very rarely all that challenging.
  • The core gameplay is pared down in (most of) the right ways. Missions are short, self-contained affairs. You pick your camouflage once at the beginning of the mission – no longer are you digging through menus or sticking to walls to make sure your camouflage is correct for a given area. You’re not dressing wounds or babysitting your Psyche gauge. CQC consists of a simple punching combo, a grab/choke, and a throw that knocks out enemies if they hit a piece of geometry. There’s no crawl posture, and you therefore have just 4 movement types: crouching walk, standing walk, crouching run, and standing run (in order of noise generated). While you still have a vast arsenal of items and weapons, you can only bring a limited set to battle. I’ve often felt overwhelmed by the number of options in MGS games, and while some might see Peace Walker’s limitations as a dumbing down, I choose to see them as a streamlining.
  • The Fulton System is pretty great. Forget dragging bodies around like a chump – just Fulton that shit! (If you’re surprised that the Fulton System is a real thing, you’re not alone.) The Fulton System plays into Peace Walker’s Mother Base metagame, adds an interesting follow-up dynamic to combat (particularly when you’re using lethal weapons and recovery time is of the essence), and is just plain satisfying as hell . I also love that it works inside buildings.
  • The Mother Base staff metagame is flawed but interesting. I enjoyed building up my Mother Base’s staff with Fultoned enemy soldiers, rescued prisoners, and volunteers. The different mechanics fit together and play off each other in interesting ways: the Combat Unit’s effectiveness is tied to the research capacity of the R&D Team; the Mess Hall Team increases staff morale and develops more potent rations; the Intel Unit develops more effective radar and better supply drops; the Medical Team heals injured staff members, prevents disease outbreaks, and improves tranquilizer guns. Aspects of Mother Base aren’t explained very well (I found myself googling some mechanics), but I thought it added an interesting layer to the gameplay.
  • Dispatching Combat Unit teams could have been better. Building and dispatching combat teams is by far the most time-consuming part of Mother Base upkeep. Because mechanical units need to be repaired, casualties need to be replaced, and teams need to be built to handle the missions they’re assigned to, it ended up making sense for me to manually unassign and reassign each of the 64 slots between each mission. A simple “unassign all” command would have made this substantially less time-consuming and repetitive. As much as manually assigning teams engendered a feeling of responsibility for the members of your private army, I think some degree of simplification and automation could have made it less of a chore.
  • I can’t really speak to the endgame. I put a few sessions into Peace Walker after seeing the credits, but I haven’t seriously dug into farming parts for Metal Gear ZEKE, and I haven’t yet hit a point at which the challenge has seemed to necessitate co-op play. That said, I’ve probably put close to 30 hours into Peace Walker and seen a full Metal Gear story – I won’t feel ripped off if the endgame grinding is such that I never truly “finish” the game.

Story and presentation

  • Peace Walker is numbered title in all but name. Forget Peace Walker’s portable origins or hunting game aspects – it’s a full-fledged Metal Gear game in most of the ways that matter. I personally think it exceeds its peers. It can’t match the sheer spectacle of the console titles, but it comes surprisingly close.
  • Peace Walker does right by The Boss. It’s easy to look at the way The Boss is resurrected as an AI and think “ugh, how could Kojima dredge up such an iconic character?”, but The Boss comes out of Peace Walker a better character. The game fills in details about her history as a CIA operative, NASA test pilot, and eventual martyr for peace and prosperity. A half-hour(!) recording from EVA recounts The Boss’s life in a surprisingly-engaging way. Within the context of the Metal Gear universe, the fact that she was chosen to be the AI model of an automated nuclear deterrence actually makes sense – who better to make decisions about the future of humanity than someone as selfless, egalitarian, and utilitarian as The Boss? I’m not one to get particularly emotional about video game stories, but her final act of neuroplastic heroism – her choice to give up arms and sing The Carpenters’ Sing as she drowns herself to save the world – made me tear up a little bit. It’s a beautiful and fitting end.
  • Replacing Codec calls with recordings makes sense. Codec calls have always been an important and endearing facet of the Metal Gear Solid games, but I didn’t always like the effect they had on the games’ pacing. There was always a nagging feeling that I was missing something – that if I wasn’t periodically calling everyone, I might miss something great. While Peace Walker still allows you to hit a menu option to trigger a handful of in-mission Codec conversations, the lion’s share of the audio has been moved to the game’s briefing menu. Recordings salient to the mission you’re entering are highlighted, but each and every unlocked recording is conveniently listed for perusal at your leisure. In practice, it meant that when I was in the mood for banter, I could sit down for half an hour and listen to recordings; when I just wanted to play the game, I could save the recordings for later. Much appreciated.
  • The cast of characters is (I think) the best in the series. I loved listening to Snake banter with each and every main character. Kaz (a.k.a. Master Miller) has a great rapport with Snake, a really interesting personal story, and a lack of self-awareness that leads to some fun recordings. I’m not going to defend everything about way the game treats Paz, but I enjoyed her role as a cheeky, naive idealist despite some questionable scenes (it’s also worth noting that while Paz is introduced as being 16, a later ridiculous-even-by-Metal-Gear-standards twist reveals her to be a triple-agent who’s at least 20). Cécile’s French persona is initially a bit much, but she really endeared herself to me – she has some of the most amusing conversations in series history, but she also has some interesting insight son French society and existentialist philosophy. I enjoyed Dr. Strangelove’s no-nonsense personality, Alan Turing history lessons, and thoughts about the existentialist implications and design considerations of AI. Huey is pretty much Hal, but I’d much prefer to listen to him grapple with his culpability in nuclear proliferation than listen to… whatever it was that he was up to in MGS 4. I felt for Amanda and her struggle with balancing her roles as Comandante, sister, and inheritor of her father’s morally-flawed legacy; and I enjoyed her take on Cold War-era South American revolutionaries. As for Chico, I just want to listen to Snake talk to him about dinosaurs some more – I was unusually bummed out by the fact that this fictional kid was forced to grow up too quickly.
  • Peace Walker is unusually restrained and grounded. If you’re willing to accept that Peace Walker takes place in an alternate-history 1974 in which science can create AI-controlled walking ICBM platforms, the rest more-or-less follows. Coldman’s plan to create a fail-deadly nuclear deterrence system is amoral, but also fairly cogent – I even found myself receptive to his plan to launch a single nuke to demonstrate the system’s potency. It makes sense that he would choose to develop Peace Walker in Costa Rica because of its varied terrain, regional unrest, and lack of standing army; and it makes sense that the Soviets and Major Zero’s nascent Cipher group would be trying to throw a wrench in the plan. There’s no quasi-supernatural Dead Cell, Cobra Unit, or BB Corps – the bosses are tanks, helicopters, and AI mech prototypes. With the exception of the true ending’s aforementioned triple-cross, Peace Walker doesn’t have any particularly ludicrous plot twists. I love MGS2 and MGS3’s off-the-rails nonsense as much as anyone, but there’s something endearing about the way Peace Walker steps back from it.
  • Peace Walker is philosophically interesting. Let’s be clear: The Boss’s AI depiction is ripped straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the nuclear deterrence plot is ripped straight out of Dr. Strangelove. The game directly references both; hell, there’s a character named Dr. Strangelove, and Huey names his future son Hal. That said, Peace Walker takes those themes – as well as the Cold War-era South American setting – and runs with them. Kaz talks with Snake about the helplessness of post-war Japan. Amanda, Kaz, and Snake ruminate at length about Che Guevara (“the most complete human being of our age”), who Snake is very obviously modelled after. Huey and Strangelove struggle with the dilemmas of artificial intelligence and mutually-assured destruction. Paz talks to Snake about Costa Rica’s constitutional standing army abolition and its similarities to Japan’s Article 9. Peace Walker may not be entirely original, but it has a lot to say, and its relative grounding means that its messages don’t get lost in abstraction and hypotheticals.
  • Peace Walker has style. That an upscaled PSP game looks and sounds as good as it does is a testament to the technical and artistic proficiency of Kojima Productions. Despite the extreme graphical and storage limitations of the PSP, Peace Walker never feels cheap. The comic book-style animated cutscenes (drawn by longtime series artist Ashley Wood) look great, even on a big screen. The voice performances are top-notch. The menus have a cohesive look and sound that’s consistent with the game’s setting. The orchestrated music meets the high standards of the console entries: the main theme is appropriately dramatic; the sneaking and action themes hit the same spy movie notes of MGS 3; the boss themes are driving and bombastic; and the Mother Base theme and mission briefing theme are brooding and evocative. I love the decision to end the game with a wistful cover of The Carpenters’ Sing. They wrote and recorded an epic Bond-esque theme song and had the audacity to drop it during the most climactic firefight of the game.

Metal Gear Sold 4 left me feeling somewhat lukewarm about Metal Gear, at least from a narrative perspective. Playing Peace Walker has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the series, particularly since Ground Zeroes and next year’s The Phantom Pain pick up right where Peace Walker left off.

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Final Fantasy X: an ode to Tidus and Yuna

I just finished playing Final Fantasy X (the HD remaster of the International version), and I really enjoyed it. While Final Fantasy XIII’s Command Synergy Battle system is still my favourite, I think the Count Time Battle system is a step up from VI and VII’s Active Time Battle system. The rearranged soundtrack – while perhaps not as memorable as others in the series – is pretty superb. FFX has the most coherent, cohesive, and well-presented lore and narrative of the Final Fantasy games I’ve played. The game looks fantastic – while a few untouched character models and rigid animations stand out, the core visual direction and art holds up amazingly well for a game that’s now 13 years old. As with a lot of JRPGs, Final Fantasy X’s final stages feel padded out, and several of its later bosses might have been frustrating as hell if I hadn’t done my research and figured out how to deal with their cheap shots. Final Fantasy X isn’t a perfect game, but it’s a damned good one.

As I considered writing about Final Fantasy X, I realized that what I really wanted to write about was its cast of characters. Final Fantasy X is – more so than perhaps even XIII – a game about its characters and their journey. Events transpire and facts about the world are revealed, but the moments that really matter – the moments that will really stick with me – happen between the main characters. The writers – and it’s worth nothing here that FFX’s event director was none other than the now-infamous Motomu Toriyama – did a great job of keeping the spotlight on the cast; the lore isn’t all that important, and it’s appropriately sidelined. Elements of the costume design are easy to criticize, but I didn’t find them distracting, and I don’t think Nomura gets enough credit for the fundamental strength of his facial composition. Yes, snark about belts and zippers all you like, but I think Nomura’s faces are the best in the business, and I’ll submit that Yuna in particular is one of the best overall character designs in video games.

I could write paragraphs about Lulu’s dignified maternalistic responsibility, Wakka’s gradual shedding of religious dogma, Auron’s enigmatic severity, Kimahri’s troubled sense of duty, and even Rikku’s empathetic rapport. In the interest of focus and brevity, however, I want to focus on Final Fantasy X’s lead characters: Tidus and Yuna.

I began FFX with some pretty big reservations about Tidus. He gives early indications of being a bit of a happy-go-lucky dolt – a perception not helped by his over-use of theatrical canned gestures that I’m sure felt a lot more contemporary in 2001. His costume is full-on Nomura, and he has a tendency to make goofy facial expressions. That said, Tidus grew on me. He tends to say what he thinks, and considering the horrible circumstances he finds himself in – his hometown is destroyed, he’s been (seemingly) transported 1000 years into the future, his dad is a giant genocidal sea monster, and he ends up on a near-Sisyphean adventure that will result in the death of the girl he loves – he’s remarkably level-headed, good-natured, and resilient. Tidus is also, notably, not a stereotypical JRPG Chosen One/Mary Sue. He doesn’t have supernatural powers, he’s more awkward than cool, he’s treated fairly condescendingly (especially early on), he doesn’t have a unique role in the lore, and he never really saves the day. He’s not even a particularly great character in battle – I got a lot more mileage out of Yuna, Auron, Lulu, and Wakka.

The infamous, oft-mocked laughing scene was, ironically, one of the scenes that really endeared me to Tidus. It’s easy to mock, but looking past the obvious performance awkwardness (something I’m willing to do, given FFX’s vintage), it’s a pretty charming scene that actually carries a fair bit of narrative weight. What I saw was two overburdened 17-year-olds sharing a childish, awkward, and flirty moment of catharsis amidst pretty bleak circumstances. I could be giving it more credit than it deserves, but I’d much rather be too credulous than too cynical.

That scene brings me to Yuna, who I think is pretty indisputably the star of Final Fantasy X. Her selfless pilgrimage to Zanarkand is one of the most iconic video game adventures I can recall, and its tragic nature lends FFX a fairly unique bittersweet tone. Yuna isn’t a Strong Female Character in the sense that a lot of contemporary discourse seems to be calling for, but she embodies a quiet, dutiful strength that I found very endearing. Between her heritage, the implied expectations of her Guardians, and her youth, Yuna is carrying a ton of weight, and Square did a great job of portraying her quiet struggle. Her and Tidus’ first conversation succinctly sets the game’s heroic journey and love story in motion, and conveys a lot with very little. Yuna’s first sending was the point at which the game really grabbed me – the combination of beauty, despair, innocence, and a vague foreshadowing of Yuna’s fate is a masterwork in video game storytelling. The way later events re-contextualize this sunset conversation between Yuna and Tidus is pretty powerful – Tidus interrupts her in the midst of recording her posthumous goodbyes and inadvertently twists the knife of her looming mortality. The iconic spring scene is similarly tragic – Yuna and Tidus grasp at a carefree escape each realizes is an impossible dream. From this point on, Yuna’s determination is steadfast – she faces down the Ronso with such determination they fight to the death to protect her, and when the time comes, she resolutely summons and defeats the Aeons and Yu Yevon knowing full well Tidus’s existence depends on them. She falters in the end, but in a way that asserts her own humanity.

Final Fantasy X is Yuna’s story, and it’s one of my favourite video game character arcs. It’s about falling in love and saving the world; more importantly, it’s about coming of age too early, living in the shadow of a martyr, challenging received wisdom, and navigating what is effectively a terminal illness. It’s a very special story that hit me emotionally in ways games seldom do.

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My life in Eorzea: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Aegis Heaslip, my Hyuran Midlander. (The lack of short female hairstyles in FFXIV was an early disappointment.)

FFXIV has been eating up an inordinate share of my gaming time lately. Having reached an early milestone in unlocking the White Mage job, I figured now would be a good time to chime in with my thoughts on the game thus far.

I am not an MMO veteran. I flirted with playing World of Warcraft on a couple of occasions and spent a good amount of time with the original Guild Wars, but I think I’m already playing FFXIV at a higher level than I did either of those games. That said, my experience with those games helped dull the impact of FFXIV’s myriad gameplay systems. Each individual system is fairly intuitive – and the game does a commendable job of slowly doling out new concepts as you level – but compared to your average console RPG, FFXIV is cognitively and dexterously demanding. To name just one example, there’s at least seven types of quests (“duties”): regular one-off duties, Levequests (repeatable fighting and gathering quests limited by a renewable resource), FATEs (ad-hoc, randomly-spawning zone quests), Guildhests (short group instances), Trials (short group boss battles), Dungeons (long group instances), and Raids (which I haven’t reached yet). There’s a main storyline, as well as storylines based on each character class and job (which you can change at any time by swapping weapons). You can earn EXP bonuses for “hunting” certain monsters and completing certain achievement-style objectives. You eventually gain the ability to level up your Chocobo, which has its own rudimentary skill tree. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the number of options FFXIV gives you is somewhat overwhelming, at least in its early stages.

FFXIV has some striking landmarks.

I knew from the get-go that I wanted to play a healer. I’m not someone naturally drawn to co-operative multiplayer gaming, but something about healing in an MMO has always appealed to me. Even in the early dungeons, I’ve had a really tangible, satisfying, and anxiety-inducing sense that the group’s success is riding on my heals. The tank (heavily-armoured party member whose job it is to keep the attention of enemies) is often taking damage at such a rate that they would go down if I ignored them for even five seconds. Healing is a careful balancing act: if I heal too much – or at the wrong times – I risk generating too much enmity (aggro) and drawing attacks my lightly-armoured character can’t handle. It’s been far too easy to develop a top-left-corner tunnel vision – darting my eyes back and forth between the party list and enemy list (which has convenient enmity indicators) while missing the lay of the battlefield. I should mention here that FFXIV’s gamepad controls are great for healing – up and down on the d-pad cycle through the party list, and targeting reverts to my “main” target after each cast. In this way, I can address a one-off heal to an ancillary party member and immediately return to healing the tank without having to manually re-target them. If I feel comfortable enough to put in some damage, I can similarly cycle through the enemy list by holding L1 while remaining a button press away from healing the tank.

The ever-present Chocobo theme makes a strong appearance.

Speaking of controls, Square Enix did a surprisingly great job of cramming the complex controls of a PC MMO onto the DualShock 3. This is in part because of the generally-smart decision to limit the number of skills, but also a result of some really smart interface design. FFXIV gives you near-instant access to 24 skills, triggered by holding down L2, R2, or L2+R2 while pressing face buttons or d-pad directions. You need to remain cognizant of the physical limitations of your hands – you’re not going to be pressing d-pad directions and moving the left stick simultaneously – but with some savvy hotbar usage, I’ve managed to get by surprisingly well without needing a keyboard or mouse in battle. The console versions support USB keyboards and mice – and indeed, you pretty much need a keyboard to communicate – but at least in the case of the PS3 version, the mouse cursor is choppy and slow to the point of near-uselessness in-battle. I do make pretty frequent use of my ThinkPad USB keyboard’s TrackPoint to control the mouse cursor in menus.

It’s not hard to poke holes in aspects of FFXIV’s presentation, but it’s an impressive achievement all things considered.

The PS3 version of FFXIV is an odd beast: a cross-platform MMO with a non-PSN patching mechanism and keyboard/mouse support on the PS3. While FFXIV no longer runs on Square Enix’s Crystal Tools engine (it was replaced with a custom engine for A Realm Reborn), the game in many ways reminds me of Lightning Returns in its technical strengths and weaknesses. The game is a looker on the now-ancient PS3 – the real-time lighting, complex character models, and vast environments are quite impressive. As in Lightning Returns, the real-time sun casts constantly-shifting (albeit noticeably choppy) shadows on everything in a manner I wouldn’t necessarily expect from circa-2005 technology. However, as with Lighting Returns, the framerate can be quite rough. In certain situations – particularly player-heavy plazas, foliage-heavy forests, and particle-heavy battle scenarios – the framerate can be downright lousy. I sometimes find myself wishing the game included an option to turn off certain superfluous details and effects in favour of better performance. The loading times aren’t as bad as I was led to believe, but the online nature of the game means that seconds spent looking at a loading screen can sometimes be seconds spent falling behind PC and PS4-owning party members in a dungeon. I do look forward to taking advantage of the free PS4 upgrade in the hopefully-near future, but in the meantime the PS3 version is exceeding my admittedly-tempered expectations

Look at this adorable little pup!

Lastly – and as I am wont to do – I want to call attention to FFXIV’s fantastic soundtrack. Despite its breadth – 119 tracks, as of several major patches ago – and consistently high quality, it was almost entirely (and almost inconceivably) composed by a single relative unknown: Masayoshi Soken. It’s unfortunately not comprehensively available in legally-questionable form on YouTube, but here’s some favourites I manged to track down:

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Gaming in unfamiliar territory: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

I have very limited experience with the character action (sub)genre, or the fighting genre from which so many character action mechanics are borrowed. It’s largely unfamiliar territory to me – the closest I’ve come is DmC, and I understand that DmC isn’t really a character action game in the sense that fans of the genre consider games like DMC3, DMC4, Bayonetta, or Ninja Gaiden. As the hype for Bayonetta 2 started hitting a fever pitch, I spotted Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance on sale on PSN for $9 and figured it was as good an opportunity as any to wade into the genre.

I didn’t end up liking Revengeance as much as I expected to. While it came highly recommended from a number of trusted sources, it never really “clicked” with me enough to make me want to replay it on harder difficulties. I don’t at all mean that as an indictment of Revengeance – as I’ve said, I lack the experience and perspective to criticize the game in any kind of meaningful way. Many of my gripes may in fact be upsides in the hands of someone with a strong grasp of character action fundamentals.

Revengeance has a few core gameplay systems that I just didn’t like. I wasn’t a fan of the focus on the Zandatsu technique – it looks cool, but it breaks up the flow of combat and felt shoehorned into a couple of boss fights. Revengeance’s Zandatsu reminded me of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s analog sword control in that neither felt natural enough to justify the degree to which their respective games emphasized them.

I wasn’t a fan of the way so many enemy attacks would lead to stun states that required disproportionate stick waggling to break free from. Monsoon had an attack that seemed to demand a proficiency in stick waggling I just wasn’t bringing to the table – I broke free from his grapple attack just once, and was forced to watch it play out countless other times. I think stick waggling is a frustrating and unsatisfying design cop-out, and it’s made even worse in Revengeance by the lack of on-screen feedback.

This happens less than 15 minutes into the game.

The parry system never sat quite right with me. Revengeance – to its credit – more-or-less forces you to learn the basics of the parry system in the Blade Wolf boss fight, but there’s a difference between successfully parrying the attacks of a single locked-on boss and parrying the attacks of multiple enemies in the heat of a busy encounter. Enemies subtly flash red before attacks, but in many cases that flash is obscured by the often-befuddled camera, flashy special effects, or the bodies of other enemies. A red flash could mean an attack is coming near-instantly or in a couple of seconds, and identifying those different attacks would be a lot easier if the game could consistently offer a clear, steady view of the battlefield. I don’t doubt that it’s possible to parry attacks with consistency, but the learning curve felt unnecessarily steep for a new player, and the mechanic felt undercut by a general lack of visual consistency and clarity. It’s worth noting here that I’ll almost always choose dodging over blocking in action games – part of my frustration with the parry mechanic in Revengeance is a result of the relative weakness the game’s dodge manoeuvre.

This is less of complaint and more of an observation, but I felt somewhat paralyzed by the sheer number of combo strings in the game. I found myself sticking with light attacks, the Lightning Strike (↑, ↑, △), the launcher (◻, pause, ◻), the Tornado Slash combo (△, ◻, △), the Crescent Slice (airborne △), and the Sliding Tackle (Ninja Run △). I like to fully understand the tools a game offers me, to the point where I think I’d prefer a game with a smaller number of versatile and nuanced attacks to a game with, well, all of this. I’m aware that complicated move lists are a big part of the draw of Platinum-style character action games, and they’re something I’m sure I’ll get used to as I play more.

In case it’s not clear: Raiden is running on missiles.

I don’t want to come off too negative here – I did enjoy Revengeance as a whole. I got demonstrably better at the game over time in a way that was quite satisfying and somewhat novel compared to the relative mechanical shallowness of a lot of modern games. I appreciated the way Revengeance struck a balance between the self-serious Kojima political commentary I love and the quicker pacing and more irreverent tone I’d expect from a Platinum game. Yes, you get to listen to a PMC leader talk about recreating the conditions of the post-9/11 war economy bonanza in a post-SOC world, and yes, the Dick Cheney-esque final boss gives an extended monologue about his pseudo-libertarian ideology while kicking the shit out of Raiden, but the first boss fight also culminates in Raiden bisecting a Metal Gear RAY as a metal vocalist screams “RULES OF NATURE!” and the aforementioned final boss proclaims “Nanomachines, son” when asked about his ridiculous superpowers. The actual story’s not anything to write home about, but it’s a fun ride that’s paced and edited better than Metal Gear Solid 4 (which, I know, isn’t saying much). I also appreciate that Revengeance doesn’t lean too heavily on past characters and past events – to my knowledge Raiden and Sunny are the only returning characters, and Sunny got way cooler in the 4 years separating MGS4 and Revengeance. (That said, I had a weird moment in which I realized Sunny was supposed to be 11 years old and had to re-examine the way I’d been looking at her in more ways than one.)

The chorus kicks in right about now and it’s fucking rad.

I probably wouldn’t be much of a fan of Revengeance’s soundtrack in isolation, but I loved it in the context of the game. It’s primarily metal (complete with goofy lore-appropriate lyrics), with a fair amount of symphonic and (what I assume to be) dubstep thrown in. I love the way boss themes were handled – many begin with an instrumental mix and kick to the chorus of a vocal mix at the climax of the fight. It’s used to great effect in the aforementioned Rules of Nature [Metal Gear RAY] (chorus), I’m My Own Master Now [Metal Wolf] (chorus), and A Stranger I Remain [Mistral] (chorus), among others. The final boss theme is ridiculous and over-the-top in the best way possible. Revengeance’s soundtrack does a great job of complementing the action and underscoring the best moments as any top-notch soundtrack should.

I look forward to playing Bayonetta on the Wii U in a couple of weeks and seeing how I feel about it. I could have seen myself getting way into Revengeance if its game design had been slightly different, and hopefully Bayonetta’s closer to what I’m looking for. For all I know, Revengeance has given me the skills necessary to jump into Bayonetta and bypass some of the frustrations I experienced this time around.

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Heavy Rain fails as a piece of "interactive drama"

Early in Heavy Rain, I joked that its 87 Metacritic score was doing more to damage my perceptions of mainstream video game criticism than any ethical controversy could. That was admittedly hyperbole, but having finished the game — which I believe to be an utter, laughable failure in both game design and storytelling — I'm genuinely baffled that it was met with such breathless praise. IGN's Chris Roper wrote "[the story of] Heavy Rain is easily amongst the best that's ever been put onto a disc. Were this filmed as a Hollywood picture, it would perfectly fit the body of work of someone like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher." GameSpot's Lark Anderson called the game a "powerful interactive drama […] an intensely absorbing experience that meticulously conveys the tension, urgency, surprise, and tragedy that its characters feel." 1UP's David Ellis declared it "one of the most emotional experiences [he'd] ever had playing a videogame." The A.V. Club's David Wolinsky produced a review so comical in its hyperbole that I feel the need to reproduce its first paragraph in full:

As gaming has matured, countless arguments have broken out over whether the medium can ever transcend itself and become art. Many people will point to Heavy Rain as tipping the scales, but that’s pointless. It’s doing something far more important, by being the first game to live up to the Mature rating.

I don't highlight these reviews just to mock, but also to establish that I'm not criticizing a straw man here — Heavy Rain was a bona fide critical darling.

Heavy Rain clearly wants to be judged on its cinematic and literary merits. David Cage famously doesn't consider his games to be games at all — a particularly insufferable PS3 Trophy description reads "Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama." In that spirit, I'll indulge Cage, set aside my numerous complaints with Heavy Rain's gameplay, and look at how it succeeds as a piece of fiction. Here's some choice examples of Heavy Rain's "powerful interactive drama":

  • Ethan (the main character)'s younger son finds his pet parrot dead, and says "I'd give anything if he could come back to life." Ethan replies: "there are some things which just have to happen even if you don't want them to." What could this possibly be foreshadowing?
  • Ethan's older son, who is supposed to be 10 years old, wanders away in a mall twice over the course of a minute. Ethan stumbles through the suddenly-ridiculously-crowded mall, repeating the same 3 awkwardly-performed "Jason!" yells ad nauseam. The son inexplicably walks out of the mall and stumbles across the street. Ethan dives in front of a slowly-moving car to shield his son. The son dies, and Ethan ends up in a coma for 6 months(!?).
  • As part of the ridiculous series of arbitrary trials Ethan is put through in order to save his son, he at one point arrives at a power plant that is mysteriously fully operational. He crawls through 30+ metres of Metal Gear Solid-style tunnels that are uniformly (and quite implausibly) covered in broken glass. He arrives at a room full of electrical cables strung around a grid of equipment, which sets off a series of godawful QTE sequences in which you're expected to hold down 5 buttons at once to squeeze through them. The idea that the killer is secretly operating a supposedly-abandoned power substation is never acknowledged again, and is entirely inconsistent with the character of the killer.
  • Jayden — a Fox Mulder look-alike who dons Men In Black-looking VR glasses in order to investigate crimes in a Minority Report interface — has an extended fight sequence with "Mad Jack." Mad Jack — who it's worth noting is the game's only black character — owns a junkyard, opens by calling Jayden a "cracker", proclaims that he hates the police, and maniacally cackles as he attempts to kill Jayden with a crowbar. He eventually knocks Jayden out, then inexplicably straps him into the driver's seat of a car, which he attempts (unsuccessfully, of course) to lift into a car crusher. This all could have been avoided if he's just dumped Jayden's unconscious body into the human-remains-filled acid bath Jayden stumbled across just minutes earlier. The scene comes out of nowhere, and has practically no bearing on the story.
  • Madison (the game's heroine) — wanders around her apartment in her underwear, undresses, and takes a painstakingly-modelled shower. Masked intruders appear, setting off one of the at least 4 scenes in the game in which another character tries to kill her amidst pretty deliberate sexual overtones. The scene turns out to be a dream, and has absolutely no plot significance except to establish that she's an insomniac — a fact that she repeats multiple times to a complete stranger she undresses and lovingly tends wounds for in her very next scene. I don't have a moral problem with any of this, but there's a pretty conspicuous fetishistic quality to her character that is really at odds with the game's self-serious tone.

Yes, I'm cherry-picking, but Heavy Rain is such a bountiful treasure trove of amateurish nonsense that I don't think I'm giving it all that bad of a shake here. Nearly every scene is undercut by moments in which characters say or do farcically goofy things.

The story is full of gaping plot holes. Ethan periodically blacks out and wakes up with an origami figure in his hand — a phenomenon that is never addressed at all despite the fact that the story revolves around an "Origami Killer" and the kidnapping of his child during one of his blackouts. Madison is at one point told the name of the killer, reacts in shock, and immediately beelines for his apartment despite the fact that she's never met him. The identity of the killer is apparently deduced because he's wearing a gold watch, which in the alternate universe of Heavy Rain are only attainable as police department promotion gifts. While it's not technically a plot hole, the eventual motive of the killer is so laughably stupid that I assumed the extremely obvious hints the game was ramming down my throat had to be red herrings. The script is a mess, even by the low standards of video game writing.

Perhaps even more crucially, Heavy Rain's voice acting is all over the place. The child actors in particular are so comically terrible that I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming they were reading their lines phonetically. There's a few redeeming performances — particularly that of the actor for private detective Scott Shelby, who is tellingly one the small handful of native English speakers in the cast (and even more tellingly begins phoning in his lines when his character suddenly falls apart in the service of Heavy Rain's ridiculous plot twist). I understand that Quantic Dream is a French developer, but they sold me an English-language game set in an American city full of people seemingly unequipped to deliver their lines in a halfway-convincing manner. Early in the game, when the story revolves entirely around the game's worst-performed characters, I was seriously considering switching the language to French and enabling subtitles.

I'm making such a point of criticizing Heavy Rain's poor writing and acting because it's a game that, on its own terms, lives and dies by its quality as a piece of cinema. Quantic Dream clearly invested heavily in some nearly-unparalleled character rendering technology, then used it to meticulously reproduce flat, unconvincing performances of a badly-written script. Unlike most other games, which can and do make up for their cinematic weaknesses with strong mechanics, Heavy Rain has no such escape valve. To be clear, however, Heavy Rain does not play well in almost any respect — it's a jumbled mess of awkward tank controls, confusing camera transitions, interminable QTE sequences, nauseating screen tearing, and unclear objectives. This is a game that derives most of its challenge from making you hold down awkward combinations of buttons and/or making you contend with awkward motion controls. I'm fairly sure I got a bad ending because I failed a series of bullshit motion-controlled quick time events.

With the exception of its admittedly-impressive facial modelling, nifty hair-rendering technology, strong lighting, and sometimes-striking cutscene cinematography, Heavy Rain fails at nearly everything it sets out to do. It's utterly baffling to me that just 3 of Metacritic's 107 indexed reviews gave Heavy Rain a less-than-average review, while a full 73 of of them rated it 90% or above. Is this just another case of critics falling so head-over-heels in love with the idea of a game that they failed to critically evaluate what it actually achieved, or am I truly this out-of-step with popular opinion? Either way, it's going to be hard for me to get Heavy Rain's fawning reception out of my head come the next "cinematic" video game du jour.

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It's 2014, and I just finished Final Fantasy VII for the first time

Final Fantasy VII's a weird game to write about. It's a 17-year-old game whose reputation looms large over the genre, and in many ways a generation of gamers. To some, it's an unassailable masterpiece, and a formative childhood experience akin to my memories of playing Ocarina of Time as a 10-year-old; to others, it's the beginning of the all-consuming, belt-buckle-filled Nomurapocalypse that turned the franchise away from their formative childhood experiences with FFIV and FFVI. Ordinarily I'd try to avoid stereotyping the "sides" of an issue, but FFVII is one of those games that seems to inspire hyperbolic opinions. As someone who didn't play a mainline Final Fantasy game until the beginning of 2013 — and as someone who knew very little about FFVII aside from the infamous spoiler — I'd like to think I was better equipped than many to come at FFVII without too much baggage, for better and for worse. I ended up enjoying FFVII more than expected, and quite a bit more than FFVI, which I played the first half of prior to beginning FFVII. I continue to not particularly like the ATB battle system, and the shoddy localization is pretty unforgivable, but Final Fantasy VII's ambition and heart shines through remarkably well 17 years later.

The most prominent characteristic of FFVII — both at the time of its release and now — is its use of pre-rendered art assets. The game very rarely comes up in a modern context without a caveat about how badly its graphics would stand up today. In some ways, those people aren't wrong — the sprite art of games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger has aged better in the sense that one could release a game that looked like them today and get away with it — but I also got over the way FFVII looked in a couple of hours, and ended up finding it quite a bit more visually interesting than FFVI. The sheer quantity and density of the art makes for a very lived-in-feeling world. In contrast to the fairly cookie-cutter towns of FFVI, FFVII's towns are full of life and detail. The grainy, artifact-filled CG can be hokey and inconsistent, but it's not horrendous, and is in some cases used to pretty good effect in backgrounds and scene transitions. If you're skeptical, poke around this footage of Mt. Nibel, watch this scene of Bugenhagen explaining the Lifestream, or skip around the sequence in which Cloud and Tifa explore the Lifestream (to be clear, that last one has PC-resolution character models). If you're willing and able to look past the technical constraints of the time, Final Fantasy VII is still a pretty good-looking and visually-interesting game.

Note the multiple typos. I swear the choice of image was coincidental.

The gameplay of FFVII was serviceable, but fairly uninspiring. As I said at the start, I'm not a fan of the ATB system, but FFVII did feel to me like a step up from FFVI. The Limit Break system can lead to some really intense sequences during boss battles, particularly since the biggest boss attacks naturally lead to multiple limit breaks. Being able to jump to the front of the queue with a big attack or clutch heal gave battles a dynamism I generally thought FFVI's lacked. I also think Materia is a much more sane character customization system than Espers. Espers locked me into decisions I didn't always feel like I had the knowledge or inclination to fully grasp, while Materia was non-binding. The Materia system also sidestepped the FFVI problem of having every character burdened with an unmanageably-long list of spells.

At the risk of making a reference that isn't likely to help my case, Materia reminded me of FFXIII's Paradigm system — both rewarded creativity and developing your own approach to battles without feeling too overbearing. I was talking with an FFVII-loving friend yesterday, and it hadn't ever occurred to them to spec a party member as a tank by using a combination of the Cover, Long Range, Counter, and HP Plus Materias. By the end of the game, I had Cid taking every hit for half damage and countering for like 1000 damage, and Yuffie wrecking bosses with 4000-damage Ultima hits while avoiding most of the magic damage that came her way. It felt fucking cool and personalized in a way that I never really got out of FFVI.

It's also very much worth noting that FFVII is a somewhat easier game than FFVI, and that's in my opinion to its credit. Hitting the Floating Continent and finding myself presumably underlevelled killed my momentum in VI, and I never had a moment like that in FFVII. The bosses for the most part presented a solid-but-manageable challenge without any grinding whatsoever on my part. If I'd been seeking out more optional content and not levelling my party equally the game may have been trivially easy, but relative to my playstyle, FFVII's bosses presented a fairly satisfying challenge. Random battles tended to be nothing, but that's a fairly endemic problem with RPGs in general.

I'm having a hard time figuring out what to make of FFVII's story. I think it's fundamentally well-conceived, but some combination of the writing and localization left me pretty confused about some fairly integral story beats and character motivations. It wasn't until I completed the game and did some independent research that I really understood what the deal was with Cloud and Zack. I stumbled across a flashback in the basement of the Shinra Mansion in which Zack was escaping from a holding chamber with Cloud before getting gunned down by soldiers, and I wasn't entirely clear on when this was supposed to have happened and what it was supposed to imply. Was that right before Tifa found Cloud at the train station with no memories? Was the voice in Cloud's mind Sephiroth? I understood enough about what was going on with Cloud to understand the broad strokes of his story, but to this date I couldn't really articulate some pretty important parts of it, and I'm hesitant to research too much until I've watched Advent Children and played/watched Crisis Core.

Similarly, I lost aspects of the overarching plot as the story came to a head. I've only just now realized that there were multiple Weapons (those huge bipedal leviathans), and that they were trying to destroy Midgar in an effort to return energy to the Lifestream in order to stop Meteor. I had a vague sense that the Weapons had something to do with Sephiroth, but as it turns out they were acting in opposition to him. The details of what Holy was, how Aerith casted it, and how it interacted with the Lifestream during the final cinematic were mostly lost on me. I still don't really know what Jenova was. It's likely that some of this confusion was my fault, but considering how shoddy so much of the writing was (to the point where I was regularly spotting straight-up typos and glaring grammatical mistakes), I'm not going to assume full responsibility.

To yet again bang the FFXIII drum, for all of the shit that game's lore gets, I had a way easier time following its plot than I had following VII's. You're telling me "fal'Cie" and "l'Cie" were too much to handle, but VII's "Weapon", "Meteor", "Holy", "Lifestream", "Mako", "Cetra", "Ancients", "Jenova", "Planet" and other assorted mumbo-jumbo and contrivances were totally fine? "Well, your favourite thing is stupid too!" isn't a great defence, but I do think it's worth considering how coherent earlier Final Fantasy stories really were if you're going to argue that the newer entries have gotten too far up their asses.

I found that VII's characters succeeded far more than its overarching plot. The game's smaller core cast allowed the characters breathing room to have their moments, and those moments were generally pretty effective. Cloud ended up being less of a sourpuss amnesiac than I was led to believe; Tifa was a fast favourite, particularly after her and Cloud's scene in the Lifestream; Barrett, setting aside some cringe-worthy black stereotypes (he literally says "yeah boyee" at one point), ended up being a good strongman character with some unexpected emotional depth; Aerith was endearing, but often seemed to endear herself in pretty uncreative and stereotypical ways; Cid's essentially the Han Solo of FFVII, and he pulls it off quite nicely. I unfortunately picked up Yuffie and Vincent close to the end because I didn't realize they were optional characters — I used Yuffie a bunch, played through her optional quest, and came to really like her; I didn't end up using Vincent at all. For as much attention as Aerith gets in discussions about FFVII, I found Tifa and her relationship with Cloud to be a far more interesting one. Cloud's personal character arc, which I think is the most enduring aspect of FFVII, very much revolves around Tifa's; Aerith (understandably) spends most of the game as a static martyr.

Lastly, I can't write about Final Fantasy VII without mentioning the music. I have a lot affinity for FFVI's soundtrack — particularly Terra's theme — but I think FFVII's is a step above. The game boots straight into a goosebump-inducing classic, and carries that momentum straight into the still-awesome opening sequence. The battle theme is solid, and holds up throughout the game. Aerith's theme (and in particular the Midgar Slums church arrangement of it) is one of the most effective examples of character building through music I can recall. To a lesser degree, this Midgar Slums theme helped define the atmosphere of the area and the plight of its people. Words Drowned by Fireworks is so good it managed to make me feel for Cait Sith when he offered to sacrifice himself at the Temple of the Ancients right after he fucked over the party then blackmailed them into letting him join them. Tifa's theme is sweet and melancholic without feeling too saccharine. Cid's theme might be my favourite in the game, and is one of the best "let's fucking finish this!" themes I've heard. It leads nicely into Judgment Day, a similarly-great final dungeon theme

Also, I've got a big soft spot for the the Costa del Sol theme and surf rock Chocobo theme arrangement. Oh, and Yuffie's theme! I can't not mention the hype boss themes! (If I don't stop now, I'm going to end up describing every track.)

So that's Final Fantasy VII, and one more gaming blind spot covered. Next Square (Enix) stop: Final Fantasy X!

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Kill la Kill or: how I learned to stop worrying and love anime

With the exception of Nintendo games, I didn't grow up with overtly Japanese media. I was certainly aware of it — and growing up one of the most Chinese cities in North America helped in that regard — but with the exception of a few games like Pokemon, Tales of Symphonia, and Viewtiful Joe, I didn't see it as relevant to me. I didn't play JRPGs, and I didn't so much as watch Dragon Ball Z.

As such, I passively accepted the idea of "anime" as a pejorative. I wasn't consciously perpetuating the stereotype, but I was very likely to hear the word "anime" in the context of a punchline and I'm sure that rubbed off.

At a time in which the "gaming community" is more concerned than ever with diversity and tolerance, anime and/or JRPGs fans are one of the few remaining groups one can pretty safely throw under the bus while still getting high-fives all around:

That last tweet really gets to the heart of the issue: a sense that anime fans are gross, sexually-perverted weirdos. This stereotype — like most stereotypes — comes from somewhere, but whereas most stereotypes are seen as the unfairly broad brushes they obviously are, "anime" is a widely-accepted word with which to dismiss a piece of media, its creators, and its fans.

To the degree that my tastes were influenced by these popular straw men, I resent that I spent the first 22 or so years of my life not giving most Japanese media a fair shake. My tastes have changed a lot since giving JRPGs, anime, and manga a fair shot, and I'm happier for it.

This brings me to Kill la Kill:

Kill la Kill

Kill la Kill is the story of a girl and her sentient school uniform fighting the fascist school council government of an artificial mountain city in future Tokyo Bay in order to avenge her father's death. I could elaborate about the surprisingly coherent plot and likeable characters, but this show moves so quickly and unexpectedly that almost any further explanation risks spoiling it. I will at least mention that this show has one of the most menacing and downright subversive secondary antagonists I can remember. If the show wasn't already great, this one character might have been able to carry it themselves.

I'm not sure I'd have been able to deal with Kill la Kill even a couple of years ago. It hasn't been that long since I was wringing my hands about the costume designs in Final Fantasy XIII, and I find it viscerally uncomfortable to go back and read myself trying to wrap my head around characters wearing short skirts. If that post wasn't so embarrassing in hindsight, I'd laugh about how quaint it feels in light of my unequivocal love of a show that — to pull no punches — has a close-up of a 17-year-old girl's labia in its intro:

Kill la Kill's sexuality is so overt that it arguably transcends fanservice and justifies itself as an inextricable part of what the show is. Without spoiling too much, this is a show in which revealing battle armour is scientifically justified and body shame is directly and meaningfully addressed. All of the main characters — female and male — end up spending a great deal of their time fully or nearly nude. A major male character spends half of his time on-screen posing ostentatiously as his clothing slides off his body and pink lights shoot out of his nipples and groin, and the leading antagonist cements her malicious nature in an unsettling scene in which she gropes her daughter. I'm not going to pretend that some of the sexuality isn't on some level pandering, but it's so over-the-top and indiscriminate that I tend to see it as more of a stylistic and humorous choice than one primarily intended to titillate. To put it another way: I think it would be a worse show without the sexuality; at the very least, something else would need to take its place.

It took me a few episodes to get on board the show's inherent flamboyance — and that's to some extent a result of the first few episodes leaning a bit harder into the bashful upskirt school of fanservice — but I got over my self-consciousness and realized the show was deliberately using (and mocking) that trope as a stepping stone to far-more-uninhibited ridiculousness.

And man does Kill la Kill know how to escalate. The third episode features a climactic-seeming fight in which the two main characters are hitting each other with such intensity that the cavernous walls behind them are blown apart by the shockwave, and most of the remaining twenty-one episodes substantially raise the stakes from there. No single step feels forced, but by the time the show is over the scope of the conflict has escalated to a degree that makes the beginning of the series seem positively quaint. Don't get me wrong: this is a pretty goofy and self-aware show, but it doesn't fall into the trap of escalating for cheap comedic effect without the substance to back it up.

Kill la Kill also oozes style. Every scene — hell, practically every shot — is lovingly crafted to look and sound as awesome as possible. I'm a particular fan of the character designs and voice performances, which are on point across the board. The director and artists have a sizable bag of tricks, and they know when (and how often) to break them out for maximum effect: 3D zooms, 4:3, split-screen staredowns, on-screen (and sometimes in-environment) text, static pans, disproportionate looming, rotoscoping, and other assorted techniques form an unconventional visual patchwork that manages to feel congruous. I'm not usually one to physically react to stuff, but I found myself with a dumb slack-jawed grin at least a couple of times per episode. This show might have the highest "fuck yeah!"-per-minute ratio of anything I've watched in my life.

Those aforementioned "fuck yeah" moments are punctuated with some badass musical themes. You always know some weighty shit is going down when Satsuki's theme kicks in; Ryuko's triumphant anthem almost always marks the climax of the episode. Later themes (BEWARE SPOILERS: [1], [2], [3]) are appropriately epic and/or sinister. Hiroyuki Sawano also composed Attack on Titan's awesome soundtrack, and I've just realized that he's also working on Xenoblade X(!).

I can't recall a show I've loved as consistently as Kill la Kill. It's obviously something I enjoy for very different reasons than other favourites like The Wire, The West Wing, or House of Cards, but I think I'd much sooner rewatch Kill la Kill than The Wire, and that's got to count for something. I suspect there are a lot of potential Kill la Kill fans held back by a misguided sense that they're somehow above watching anime, let alone a semi-fanservicey anime like this. I've been there, and while I absolutely empathize with the discomfort, I'm glad I crossed that arbitrary line.

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Killer is Dead: Suda51 delivers

Killer is Dead is some of the most fun I’ve had this year. It’s a flawed and uneven experience, but when it was firing on all cylinders, it was putting a smile on my face with amazing regularity. I’ve always wanted to like Suda51 games, but this is the first one that I’ve really enjoyed as a complete package. It’s got the style, ambition, and idiosyncrasy of Killer7, but with with a substantially more enjoyable game design; it’s got the structure and charming insanity of No More Heroes, but with much better character action mechanics, less filler, and a more refined style.

You play as Mondo, an assassin with a robot arm who works for a government-subsidized execution firm (according to Suda51, Mondo lost his arm because he used the arm to kill Osama Bin Laden and was infected by Bin Laden’s malice). The game doesn’t seem too concerned with explaining its lore — it’s content with matter-of-factly establishing that this is a near-future world with cybernetic enhancements, moon tourism, and supernatural lunar powers. It’s a lot like Cowboy Bebop in this sense — the setup is interesting in its own right, but it’s never the focus; it’s a means to an end, and the end is a bunch of badass nonsense. Killer is Dead is also a lot like Cowboy Bebop in cast and structure: a quirky cast of characters (who are remarkably analogous, now that I think about it) taking on contracts that sometimes tie into a serious overarching narrative, but more often just serve as a justification for a neat episode. Mondo’s suave nonchalance in the face of utter nonsense is great, and his complete lack of higher purpose besides chasing beautiful women is oddly refreshing. The supporting characters, despite their pretty thin development, were surprisingly likeable. It's also worth noting that the XSEED localization is top-notch — I felt zero urge to switch to the included Japanese voice track.

I’m hesitant to spoil too much, but I’ll explain one mission in the interest of piquing some interest. Your aloof boss Bryan calls you up and explains that the Russian government has hired the team to stop an out-of-control train from hurtling through Moscow. When you show up, Vivienne, your fellow executioner, remarks something along the lines of “oh, I know why you took this mission,” at which point Bryan declares that he and Mondo will handle the train because steam engines are man’s work, and all men have a “passion” for steam engines. This borderline-fetishistic point is belaboured way more than anything else in the game, and that’s pretty great given how little time the game puts into explaining the baffling overarching narrative. It turns out that your target is a Thomas the Tank Engine-esque demon train that's taking out its resentment for being abandoned in a train yard. At one point, Bryan shows up out of nowhere with a giant briefcase-transported turret with Panzer Dragoon-style lock-on lasers, which you use to essentially shoot down another train. Bryan then unaccountably appears ahead of the train, trying to flip a switch to divert it away from Moscow. He gets hit by a giant snowball, his cybernetic parts are scattered all of the train, and he’s presumed to be dead. Mondo gets to the train engine, and apologetically explains to the train that while he has a burning "romance" for steam engines, he’s contractually obligated to kill it. He defeats it, then slices it in half. Cut to the office, in which Bryan is totally fine and spent all of the payment on replacing his broken cybernetic parts with gold-plated versions. Everyone rolls their eyes; end scene.

The infamous “gigolo” dating missions are such a small part of the game, and so comically exaggerated, that it’s genuinely baffling to me that they were the subject of so much scorn. Essentially, you’re controlling Mondo’s vision, and need to zoom in on your date’s chest and legs while they’re not watching in order to fill up your “guts” meter (measured in fluid ounces), at which point you present them with ridiculous gifts and eventually set off a BioWare-esque (that is to say, PG-13 tame and awkward) sex scene. During these gameplay sections, the tone is very clearly tongue-in-cheek: good play is rewarded with ethereal moans, bubbly sound effects, and a voice exclaiming “magnifico!”. It’s also worth nothing that, in his own particular way, Mondo is consistently respectful and deferential toward women — they’re actually pretty much the only thing he treats with any consequence. I think Killer is Dead would have been better off without the gigolo missions — and we now know that they were artificially sexed up at the request of Japanese publisher Kadokawa Shoten — but I also think they were reasonably amusing and inoffensive for the 15 minutes I spent on them. While I’m not going to say that the gigolo missions are unworthy of any discomfort, I’m having a hard time figuring out what about them justified the disgust and condemnation that pervaded the North American media’s response to the game.

While Killer is Dead is by no means a deep character action game, I found it to be surprisingly (by No More Heroes standards) well-crafted and rewarding once I figured out what it was all about. Mashing the attack button will get you pretty far, especially in the early going, but the game’s really about stringing together ridiculous hit combos, using your special moves and mobility to full effect, and looking like a total badass in the process. Every time you execute a perfectly-timed dodge, the game kicks into slow motion, drops its colour palette to black, white, and red, and prompts you to unload on the enemy while stylized blood flies everywhere. This happens constantly, and it never stops being awesome. It’s also a great way to build up your combo, which beefs up your attacks, allows you to perform valuable finishing moves, and further rockets your combo up. At any time, you can hit the right trigger to stop the action and spectacularly kill any non-armoured enemy for a bit of blood (your special power meter) — something I found myself forgetting about it because it was so absurdly powerful. Once I got the hang of dodges and fully upgraded the katana (which is described as removing your katana’s limiter!), I was routinely stringing together 100-hit combos and having a fucking blast doing it.

This game also has some of the most game-changing upgrades I can recall in recent memory. I’m talking about a guard counter follow-up that smashes enemies into the ground so hard they bounce up into the air to be juggled. I’m talking about a gunfire dodge follow-up that instantly headshots the enemy that fired at you, complete with a gratuitous bullet camera. I’m talking a dodge upgrade that lets you dash halfway across an area with zero cooldown if you time it right. I’m talking about a charging guard break punch that lays out every enemy in front of you. Unlike a lot of modern games, pretty much all of Killer is Dead’s primary upgrades are extremely potent and immediately noticeable.

In fairness, there’s some glaring faults. The camera is generally fine, but it requires some hand-holding, and has a tendency to get weird when you’re up against a wall. The flashy visuals can make it somewhat difficult to keep track of what’s going on — when you’re surrounded by enemies, the lack of clarity and forgiving dodge and block windows can make it feel like defensive moves are happening (or not happening) at random. Ranged enemies will often be shooting at you from off-screen, and while there are useful audio cues for these attacks, getting stunned from off-screen is no fun. I found certain enemy and boss attack patterns really difficult to figure out, and found myself getting hit by stuff I couldn’t figure out how to dodge with any reliability. In some cases — and unfortunately the first two levels are probably the worst offenders — there’s not a great sense of where you’re supposed to be going, and you’re left wandering samey corridors until you hit a new encounter. The side missions — which to the game’s credit are entirely optional — range from forgettable to frustrating. There’s an early dream sequence mission in which you’re stuck slow-walking, and slow-walking is always a bummer.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a Suda51 game has style, but man does this game have style. It has a high-contrast, pseudo-cel-shaded look that’s punctuated by a striking filter that appears to make certain levels of black loop back into a dark indigo hue. Killer is Dead uses the Unreal Engine, but you’d never know it except for the requisite hiccups, occasional texture pop-in, and egregious and borderline-nauseating screen tearing in certain levels. While some of the individual parts can be a little rough-around-the-edges, there’s a pervasive attention to detail and palpable authorship that makes the jumble of ideas feel like a cohesive whole. The cutscenes are full of striking shots, awesome moments, and a kind of ridiculous nonsense that doesn’t feel like it’s being used as a crutch.

Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame) contributes a soundtrack that isn’t particularly memorable, but is evocative and complementary. The title theme is appropriately ethereal and sinister; and the debriefing, loading, and menu themes are unique and catchy. There’s some great background music, and some pumping boss themes. This isn’t the kind of game in which I stopped to note how awesome a given track was, but I also never felt like something was too overbearing or noticeably out-of-place. For such an oddball and particular game, that’s pretty commendable.

If you have a passing interest in what Suda51 is serving up and are willing to deal with some idiosyncrasies, I wholeheartedly recommend you look past the critical hand-wringing and check out Killer is Dead. As someone who couldn’t force himself to like Killer7 and was fairly underwhelmed by No More Heroes, Killer is Dead was the Suda51 game that finally hit the spot.

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I (digitally) imported Hatsune Miku: Project Diva 2nd

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (the Vita edition of the 2013 PS3 release) is my current favourite game of 2014. I tried the demo on a whim and was immediately hooked; I went on to put upwards of 25 hours into it, and still come back to it regularly despite earning every gameplay trophy. I’m not going to go into too much detail about my love for Project Diva f except to say that it’s got a mix of solid gameplay, rewarding difficulty, eclectic music, and unabashed Japanese absurdity that really spoke to me.

Since getting into Project Diva f and realizing I’d have to wait a while for Project Diva F 2nd and Persona 4: Dancing All Night, I’d been considering delving back into the three Japan-only PSP releases that preceded it. Last week, I finally bit the bullet: I set up a Japanese PSN account, commandeered my pack-in 4GB Vita memory card, and ordered a ¥5,000 PSN card from Japan Codes. Using a Japanese PSN account on a Vita is a bit of a hassle — you have to swap memory cards and reset the system to factory settings each time you change accounts — but it’s hard to hold that against Sony when it’s such an obscure and legally-questionable thing to do. I figure it’s probably a five-minute process, though I have yet to swap back to my Canadian account.

I had originally planned on starting from the beginning with Project Diva, but decided to skip to Project Diva 2nd when I learned that the ability to use the d-pad and face buttons interchangeably wasn’t added until the sequel. I’d grown very used to alternating inputs — that is, entering [X, X, X, X, O, O, O, O] as [X, ▼, X, ▼, O, ▶, O, ▶] — and it was going to be a very difficult habit to break. Project Diva also seems to be somewhat notorious for its dicey framerate, and considering how questionable 2nd’s framerate can be, it must be pretty ridiculous. Dreamy Theater 2ndProject Diva 2nd’s PS3 remaster, which costs ¥4,000 and bafflingly requires the PSP game to play — includes all of the songs from the first game, so if I really want to go back to them, I’ve got that option open to me.

Project Diva 2nd is full of Japanese text, but it’s also a rhythm game, so it’s pretty self-explanatory. Most of the the menu items and song titles are written in katakana or English, so it’s reasonably easy to navigate with a katakana chart and a bit of patience. I’m using this game as an opportunity to learn katakana in earnest, and I’ve already picked up enough to recognize a few words without cheating. I figured out that that メルト (me-ru-to) was “melt” on my own, and while that’s not a particularly amazing achievement, it felt pretty good for a few days of practice.

Project Diva 2nd vis-à-vis Project Diva f

Project Diva 2nd isn’t as good as Project Diva f, and in a lot of ways, playing it has increased my appreciation for Project Diva f. I’ve been having a pretty good time with it, but the song selection isn’t as good, the charts aren’t as well-designed, the difficulty ceiling is pretty low, and the framerate is sometimes rough enough to impact gameplay. Project Diva f only has a few songs I don’t care for, while Project Diva 2nd has a fair number that aren’t appealing to me. I don’t hate any of them, but I’ll probably end up avoiding a bunch, which wasn’t my experience with Project Diva f.

This is one of the loading screens. I don't understand either, but I do always smile when it comes up.

I do very much appreciate the lack of star notes in Project Diva 2nd. In Project Diva f, you hit star-shaped notes by swiping your finger on the screen (or tilting the right stick on the PS3 version) — a gameplay mechanic that I learned to deal with, but never really enjoyed. When they’re coming at you slowly, they’re trivial because of their extremely forgiving hit zones; when they’re coming at you in quick succession, they’re seemingly impossible to keep up with without scribbling indiscriminately. The PSP games have nothing of the sort, and I think they’re better for it.

Project Diva 2nd is an easier game than Project Diva f. For the most part, I’ve found that the extreme (hardest) difficulty is the only one that’s putting up a real challenge. In Project Diva 2nd, I’ve found myself getting high ranks in hard mode on my first try, and passing songs on extreme on my first try; in Project Diva f, most of the extreme charts are out of reach, or at best barely achievable.

Graphics and performance

While Project Diva 2nd apparently performs much better than Project Diva, the framerate can still be kind of rough. This is the kind of game in which the performance very much depends on where the camera is pointing, and that inconsistency might actually be more annoying than predictable choppiness. My sense is that the core hit detection runs independently of the graphics rendering, so it’s never game-breaking if you’re taking your cues from the audio, but I would have felt a lot better about it if the interface also ran independently of the background graphics (FFVII-style).

To its credit, Project Diva 2nd looks great for a PSP game — this is the first PSP game I’ve played, and it far exceeded my expectations for the platform. The videos generally aren’t as ambitious as those in Project Diva f, but that’s to be expected given the hardware limitations and lower budget. The Vita emulation also seems flawless, and if there’s any input lag going on, it’s trivial enough that I quickly acclimatized to it. I was a little worried about timing issues, and I’m glad it didn’t turn out to be a problem.

Song selections

I’ve got my issues with Project Diva 2nd’s song selection as a whole, but there’s some really good tracks in here. Here’s five that stand out. Apologies for the quality of some of them — it’s really hard to find good-quality captures of this game on YouTube:

Kokoro (Heart) / ココロ

This is probably my favourite song in the game. It starts slow, but once it kicks into gear (I cued up the video), it’s super catchy and a bunch of fun to play.

PoPiPo (Vegetable Juice) / ぽっぴっぽー

Beware: the audio in this video has some moderate clipping issues.

Be sure to stick around for the second verse, in which Hatsune Miku makes a charmingly Engrish case for vegetarianism. Despite it’s absurdity, this song is actually quite fun to play, and managed to stick itself in my head for half a day.

Moon

Some nice rhythmic synthpop. The video is stylish and more ambitious than a lot of the stuff in Project Diva 2nd, though it’s also a great example of how wider shots tend to sink the framerate.

Innocence

This one’s just plain fun to play. The electropop songs tend to be my favourites, as they’ve got strong beats and predictable note patterns. Also, check out that sweet Space Channel 5: Part 2 costume!

Gigantic Girl / 巨大少女

This is one of the better songs in the game, but even if it wasn’t, I pretty much had to include it for the amazing video. It’s also worth noting how easy it is — it’s an extreme chart that would have been on the lower end of the hard difficulty in Project Diva f.

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