A curious thing happened earlier this week. It was discovered that a Japanese art book for Hyrule Warriors features concept art of Link as a girl. Roughly transliterated, this female equivalent is apparently named Linkle. I already posted a thread regarding this here. What I’m more interested in discussing now, however, isn’t the artwork, but the reaction that the artwork received, which was at times baffling.
For reference, here is the artwork again:
From a basic analysis, the artwork definitely appears to be a female Link. She wears a feminine cut of Link’s tunic, a looser-fitting cap, and taller boots, but it is, in general, Link’s traditional garb. The specific aspects of the design, such as the shade of green in the tunic, the blonde color of Link’s hair, and the texture of the gloves and boots, all indicate that Linkle is, more or less, a female design of the Hyrule Warriors Link, minus the scarf. This makes sense given the source material and the people responsible.
What I find off-putting are those that seemed to be more reductive in their own analysis. The idea that it doesn’t take much to make Link a woman, that he’s already feminine enough that you could just put breasts on him and call him a her, is absurd. There’s no question that in games such as Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword that Link’s designs skew away from the rugged and more toward the pretty concept of masculine beauty. But having features that could be described as androgynous doesn’t mean that Link is one or two steps away from being a girl. Nor does it mean that it takes zero effort to draw a female Link, as though ideas like proportion, body and facial shape are meaningless and easily exchanged. I have artist friends that have little to no trouble drawing women, but ask them to draw a man and the task suddenly grows more difficult for them. From an artistic standpoint, masculine and feminine physiques simply are not one in the same.
Equally absurd were responses directed at Linkle’s attire. In particular, criticism was directed toward her boots, with suggestions that it was out of character for her; a concept that is largely meaningless, as Linkle’s personality is undefined and who’s to say that she wouldn’t wear them? Other arguments were targeted more at the notion that the boots are impractical and the ensemble as a whole leaves her thighs unguarded. But these arguments tend to ignore the history of Link’s designs almost entirely.
Each of the above designs are Link from Zelda games of different eras, and each variation of his design feature some significant weakpoints in his garb. Some provide no real defense to his legs at all, leaving them bare, or at best clad in tights. And while some of his later designs include a chainmail shirt under his tunic, most of his designs lack such protection. In some ways, Linkle’s boots provide more protection than Link’s average leg-wear.
And then there are the comments that dismiss the notion of a female Link entirely. What’s the point, they ask, if Link never had any personality to begin with? It is a dismissal of basic character, presenting an assumption that Link could be replaced with a cactus and it wouldn’t affect the game at all. It is an argument that ignores the backgrounds and relationships of each Link that has come and gone. While Link has historically been a silent protagonist and each incarnation shares certain heroic qualities and traits, it is his connection to the world and its characters that define him. The Link of Skyward Sword is not the same person as the Link of Wind Waker, or A Link to the Past, or Ocarina of Time. Each has their own aspects and relationships that define them as characters and individuals in their own right. Take, for example, how the silent Link reacts to revelations in this scene from Skyward Sword:
This is what really sets Link apart as a character so ripe for this treatment. Each Link is different, so who’s to say that at least one of the destined heroes in Hyrule’s long history isn’t a heroine? No matter what the reasoning behind Linkle’s design was, whether it had been mere amusement on a part of the character designer or part of an actual consideration as game content, it was obviously on the minds of some of the developers. The idea was also brought to the mind of Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma when he learned people were confused regarding the gender and identity of the figure that is Link in the Zelda Wii U teaser trailer. To say nothing of the countless pieces of fanart produced over the years that have genderbent Link for one reason or another.
The larger point I’m making is that the idea of a female Link isn’t an absurd notion that’s worth immediate dismissal. The character as a concept is ripe for it, developers are intrigued by it, and fans have expressed varying degrees of interest and desire for it. Or I guess I should say her. Even if it were just for one game, it’s an idea that could put some fun twists on ideas of who Link(le) is and what (s)he represents.
If a future Zelda title featured Linkle instead of Link, whether she appear as designed in the art book illustration or in some other guise, how would you feel about that? Is it something you’d have interest in? Would it make you more interested in the game than usual? Less? Would you just not care? But more importantly, why do you feel that way?
This is a party to which I’m about seven years late, I know. But this weekend, I finally watched School Days, an anime series from 2007 that was based on an adult visual novel of the same name from two years earlier. Some of you may have already seen it. Others of you may only be familiar with the show through a meme that spawned from footage aired in the original time slot of its delayed final episode.
The content of the show’s ending is what in part led to the delay of its airing, and to the meme. But another event unrelated to the show itself, specifically a real life murder that was prominently in Japanese headlines at the time, was what resulted in the delayed broadcast. Ancient internet memes aren’t what I’m here to talk about, though.
Having watched the full twelve episodes myself, there’s actually a lot more to the show than just an internet joke or an ending shocker, and it’s actually had me thinking quite a bit. Not just about the show itself or the visual novel that spawned it, but about games in general, and what they could learn from it. School Days is a show that’s known mostly for how it ends, but the path it takes to get there is just as important as the final few minutes.
(Major spoilers for School Days follow.)
The basic premise of the game, and the anime, follows Makoto Itou, a high school student that develops feelings for fellow student Kotonoha Katsura. His classmate Sekai Saionji helps introduce the two and encourages their relationship, despite the fact that she has hidden feelings for Makoto herself.
From this set-up, the game has over twenty endings; most of them are good, some of them are bad. But what makes the game somewhat notorious is that the bad endings take things to the extreme, with one or more of the characters meeting their end in death. And the producers of the anime took this fact to heart.
On the surface, School Days feels similar to other anime series that are romantic comedy-dramas set in high school. The opening credit animation hints at the love triangle that serves as the core, but is otherwise seemingly innocuous. The series is also not above going to some of the most worn clichés of its genre, with an entire episode set at a water park and all of the girls in swimsuits, the school festival serving as the setting of major events later in the story, and numerous gratuitous shots of breasts and panties. And yet, in retrospect, it feels as though these tropes are only present to instill familiarity and to keep the viewer watching as the real story plays out.
The series begins with an indecisive, inexperienced Makoto pining for the demure and quiet Kotonoha, going so far as to be on a first-name basis with her as they finally start to date and forge a relationship. But Makoto is entirely dependent on his classmate Sekai, who constantly feeds him advice on how to advance the relationship and not screw things up. She even encourages him to practice his advances with her, though she has her own interests in mind as much as if not more than Kotonoha’s.
But just as Makoto makes real headway in his relationship with Kotonoha, having been invited to her home and entering a comfortable first-name basis with her, he grows tired of her. He prefers to spend more time with Sekai, abandoning the pretense of “practice” for a more truly physical relationship. And though he feels like Sekai is more and more the girl he prefers, he refuses to officially break things off with Kotonoha.
What follows in the plot plays out as if someone played a visual novel and constantly made poor decisions. Though Makoto starts off as sympathetic and somewhat likeable despite his indecision and mistakes, he becomes worse and worse as a person as time goes on. Makoto eventually starts falling for other girls. Just as he leaves Kotonoha hanging as he cheats on her with Sekai, he cheats on Sekai with another girl, and then others. It becomes clear that he has no interest in the needs of those he’s with, more concerned with momentary pleasure than forging relationships.
This sense of betrayal is best exemplified by Kotonoha’s plight. She’s bullied by her classmates, whom all assume that Makoto had broken up with her (despite his never telling her), and as Makoto spends more and more time away from her, she grows more despondent. The strain on her emotions, and her concern over whether she did something wrong, eventually causes her to crack. Sekai, too, is devastated by the betrayals, taking a long absence from school after she falls into a severe depression. And when she starts feeling ill, and possibly gaining weight, she fears that she’s pregnant.
Eventually, everything comes crashing down, as Sekai tells Makoto the news and chastises him to take responsibility. Word spreads through the whole school, and soon no one is willing to speak with him or return his calls. But true to form, Makoto refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Instead, he’s frustrated with Sekai for ruining his life. He by chance stumbles across Kotonoha, who despite his treating so poorly is blissfully ready to accept him as though nothing happened.
But Makoto makes one bad decision too many. He continues to treat Sekai poorly, and she snaps, stabbing him to death in his apartment, only for Kotonoha to arrive later and find his body. Kotonoha in turn arranges a meeting with Sekai using Makoto’s phone, and with one last twist of the literal knife, kills Sekai and cuts her open to see if she were truly pregnant. (She was not.)
Overall, the plot of the show is like one long tear-down of the very genre it’s adapting. Makoto goes from immature, inexperienced, and indecisive to being a callous, promiscuous idiot. His attitude destroys his relationships one at a time until only the highly unstable love triangle is left. And then, well, I already explained how it ends. Badly.
And it’s not as though the ending comes from out of nowhere. There are hints, some subtle, some not so much. The first and last episodes begin with their title cards shattering like glass. Kotonoha’s descent into obsession and madness is highlighted with moments such as a prolonged shot of a knife beside her in the kitchen, or her “correcting a mistake” in her knitting by calmly unraveling the entire project. Sekai and others refer to Makoto early on as an idiot. At one point, in a rare moment of meta-commentary. Makoto himself derides the protagonist of a video game in what could have otherwise been a throwaway line of dialogue. From the very start, the show is geared toward taking its characters, and its audience, to the worst possible conclusion, but hides its intent behind standard elements of the genre and humorous moments that play counter to the nature of how the story ends.
Though the show may be remembered in the long run for its ending and for a “nice boat,” it’s also inspired. It goes in directions that most video game adaptations would never go. That the production staff made the conscious decision to adapt a bad ending path and to take it as far as they did, is in some ways worthy of applause on its own. The show isn’t perfect, by any means, but it stands out by taking one of the most formulaic of anime formulas and turning it on its head.
What Games Could Learn
School Days is hardly the only visual novel out there to feature bad endings that are as bad as they are. But the fact that such endings are possible, and even the fact that its anime adaptation went that route itself, is something that I feel more games and even their adaptations could learn from. Video games that offer the player choice, particularly moral choice, rarely deliver true punishment for making poor decisions.
Yes, some games do penalize the player for making certain choices. In Dragon Age: Origins, Alistair will straight-up leave the party if you take it easy on his arch-enemy Loghain and conscript him into the Grey Wardens. In Persona 4, the game ends in a premature bad ending if you fail to give the proper responses to calm your other party members down. But in the former, you’re essentially exchanging one character for another of the same basic class, and in the latter, it’s easy enough to try again from the last save point. The penalties they present are minor and easy to recover from.
So what if Persona 4 were structured somewhat differently? What if the relationships formed had a more meaningful impact in the party and in the world? Intentionally or not, Yu Narukami comes off as a playboy capable of romancing multiple girls at once, and what little penalty there is easy to recover from. What if the player could only be locked into one specifically romantic relationship, and being caught cheating resulted in more dramatic, drastic effects? I’m not saying that Yukiko should fly into a murderous rage at seeing Yu cheat on her with her best friend…
…but what if the penalties were more severe, both in terms of the gameplay and in terms of the story? What if cheating on Yukiko led her to become distrustful of Yu and abandon the Investigation Team? You lose her Social Link and the Personae associated with it, as well as her abilities as a party member. And what if losing her in turn made it more difficult to rank up in the Social Links with Chie and other characters?
Or as another example, what about the Mass Effect series? Imagine for a moment the possibility that every bad decision and self-serving action that Commander Shepard makes over the course of the first two and two-thirds of the trilogy come back to bite him in the final third of Mass Effect 3. What if the ultimate ending weren’t based on the Crucible choice and certain relationship options, but on how Shepard’s actions had shaped the galaxy to that point, for good or for ill? What if being a colossal space asshole actually had ramifications that stripped you of the possibility of even having the chance at saving the galaxy? Three games of selfish actions and poor choices, all building to a finale that doesn’t reward you, but instead informs you of how unworthy you are as both a potential galactic savior and as a human being.
I understand the realities of game development. The more complex the design, the more difficult and time-consuming it is to implement. But if games wish to present moral choice and relationships with a sense of actual complexity, then the poor decisions the player makes should be properly accounted for, up to and including the negation of a possible "good" ending. What if Yu was a two-timing jerk and his actions were seen as a horrible betrayal? What if Shepard went too far and alienated everyone he depended on to fight the Reapers? What if Yu and Shepard’s worst enemies were the player’s inability to make choices that take the needs and feelings of others into account?
What if recovery isn't as easy as simply reloading from the last save point and trying again?
It’s in this sense that visual novels, with their simpler designs, seem apparently able to take more risks with their choices and narratives than a standard big budget title. School Days is a simple premise that grow wildly out of the protagonist’s control to his own detriment, and it’s in that direction that both the game and anime are more recognized for. If other games from different genres that offered player choice had the means to send the player into an unrecoverable downward spiral of their own creation, then that would actually be an improvement, as paradoxical as that sounds.
Though it’s only an adaptation of a game, the School Days TV series is a clinic on how making poor player choices in games can be taken to their extreme. Throughout the series, every decision Makoto makes is terrible. He hurts those that love him without thinking about it, takes advantage of others for his own physical pleasure, and though it could be argued that he didn’t deserve to die, he pays for every last poor decision he makes with his life. And the only one that cares for him in the end is hugging his severed head while sailing on a nice boat.
Some recent topics and conversations I've read and participated in on the forums and in some PMs has gotten me thinking. Thinking about thinking, or rather, expressing thoughts on the internet. Particularly when it comes to negative commentary and critique. It's easy to be a pessimistic jerk that rains on the parades of others, and I know I've fallen into that trap on more than one occasion; something I'm not proud of, and sometimes it can be difficult to apologize for. It's a concept that's true everywhere on the internet where discussion and commentary are allowed, when it comes to discussion about video games, and Giant Bomb's forums more specifically, I've noticed it manifest in some ways that I'd hope could improve. I mean, how often have we seen so-called arguments that could be boiled down to this age-old gem?
I know I've been guilty of this. I've even been called out on it before. I was one of those jackasses that was dismissive toward Divekick (It's a flash game, it's simplistic, etc.) for...really no reason at all. For the record, I've actually tried Divekick since being called out, and while I can't say that it entralled me to the point that I'd buy it myself, I can understand why other people enjoy it. More importantly, I don't be a dick about it when it comes to other people discussing what they like about it.
That said, I can still be a dick, and it's something I've really needed to work on for a long while now. I've gotten better about watching what I say, though I still slip up. So believe me when I say that nothing I'm saying here comes from a high-horse position of any sort. I need to work on this just as much as anyone else.
Which leads me back to the subject of that image macro. Some of you reading this are probably familiar with my tastes concerning certain games, and they don't really tend to be the most popular choices among the staff, or even the community at large. The internet is such that, if I have an opinion on a game, particularly a positive one, that runs counter to the supposed majority, then my taste is judged as bad and my opinion is null, just out of general principle. Even using the avatar I do can make me a target; I don't know how many times I've seen people's opinions derided simply because they have anime-themed avatars, and it's a specific phenomenon I don't believe I've ever seen in any other community I've frequented, past or present.
It's OK to disagree on things; no rational person is going to, well, disagree on that. Opinions differ, and even when one side is an obvious majority, that doesn't mean that the other side's views should be derided or considered invalid. On the other hand, the minority shouldn't use that minority status as fuel for a persecution complex. These aren't things that I need to say, but when discussing things on the internet, with relative anonymity and a lack of immediate physical proximity shielding us, it can be easy to shoot off a pithy comment ("This game is bad and you should feel bad!"), and somehow consider that a proper contribution to a conversation.
Expound! Expand! Extrapolate!
I realize that no matter what I say here, it'll probably fall on a lot of deaf ears, and who the heck am I to recommend how others interact on the internet? But if there's one thing that I could recommend, one improvement to discourse that I could request, it would be this: Please back up your arguments, whether they be positive or negative. There are a lot of forum threads that pop up asking questions like, "What's the most disappointing game you've ever played?" or "Name a game you like that other people hate," or "What's your favorite/least favorite game from Series X?" And then people just respond with simplistic answers that list the name of the game and little more. There's no conversation to be had, and when the questions are negative (i.e.: What's your least favorite/most disappointing/worst whatever?), a lot of responses just come out as empty. Someone answers with a the name of a game, or a character, or what have you, and then fails to explain why that's their answer.
Would it be to much to ask for elaboration? Not every response to a forum thread needs a doctoral thesis, but it would certainly go a long way toward helping spur conversation if more people were willing to take the time to explain why and how rather than leave people to fill in the blanks. Again, I've been guilty of the same thing; I've responded to such threads without presenting the whys, and it's something that I need to get better at. But if someone says that their favorite game of all time is The Adventures of Bayou Billy, well, I'd like to know why. Even if the reasoning is completely foreign to me, context to latch on to can help provide a better understanding of my peers here.
But more importantly, whether or not someone does provide the reason for why they like something, don't use that as a platform to belittle their sensibilities. Telling someone that they are wrong because they are wrong is...well, wrong. Being part of a supposed majority doesn't provide some innate upper hand in an argument, particularly when it comes to matters that are entirely subjective opinion. I may not like Call of Duty, but it's a better use of my time and anyone else's that would care to read what I have to say if I can present my dissenting views in a manner that is both informed and doesn't treat the person I'm responding to like they are an imbecile simply for holding a different opinion. That only makes me look like the imbecile.
Where am I going with any of this?
Good question. I wish I had a solid answer to that. It's not really my place to tell people how to act. But I can at least hope to promote some idea on how to make general discourse better. For better or worse, it's a topic of conversation that's become heavily discussed around here as of late. But this writing was partially born out of recent discussions, both on the forums and in PMs, that made me reflect on my own personal frustrations with the discourse in the forums, whether those frustrations were of my own making or not. I also understand that in all likelihood, anything I've said in this post will not change anything, and some will probably just see it as self-flagellation and little else.
But I can at least try, right? I guess the point is, there are ways that the discourse on the forums in general could be better. And if more people took a more thoughtful approach to what they say more often, tangible improvements could be made. Not every forum post has to compete to become the Citizen Kane of forum posts, but as long as the general rule of "don't be a dick" still holds, we could all benefit from putting more thought into what we have to say. And in some cases, refraining from saying anything at all. The first and easiest step that people as a whole could take is just being better about accepting the fact that not everyone shares the same tastes, and then not go looking for a fight.
It's something I want to continue improving on, and if you're aware you have the same problem, hopefully you do, too.
Also, seriously, theoretical guy above. Why is The Adventures of Bayou Billy your favorite game? I'm curious.
Between work kicking my ass for the past several months and my propensity to play long games (and in some cases, multiple times), I haven't had much opportunity to try out some of the newer releases as of late. Now that I have some free time on my hands (all hail the staycation), I'm prodding at my backlog a bit and checking some of these games out. Tonight, I finally turned on my Vita for the first time since...sometime last year, I guess. My copy of Dragon's Crown was still in it.
I guess as a quick aside, I should just state some thoughts on the Vita in general. I really, really don't get nearly as much use out of it as I feel I should. I have games for it and the desire to play them, but when it comes to the actual Vita itself, I just find so much about the thing just offputting. I don't really like the combination of the touch screen and touch pad on the back (which has more to do with the fact that I have yet to play a game that uses the touch pad in a way I find meaningful), I'm not a fan of the UI design and structure, and between this and the PS4, just feel that Mark Cerny should never be allowed to oversee the design of a user interface ever again. I am pretty sure that he is actually a robot and I would be willing to cite Knack in this argument. But anyway.
Tonight, I started playing MIND=0, which some of you may recognize as that RPG that at first glance looks like an off-brand Persona. Obvious inspirations aside, that really isn't giving the game enough credit; at least from the couple of hours that I've played so far. I've just completed the first actual dungeon and have gotten through a lot of expository story bits, and the game has just opened up to give me more options on where to go and what to do.
But first things first. How Persona-esque is this game? Well, strictly speaking, each party member has a MIND; a sort of spiritual creature that's bonded with them. But there's no fusion or collection element, and the main character Kei isn't a wild card that can swap between them at will. From the way it appears, at least early on, the MINDs the characters get when they first awaken are the MINDs they stick with. In battle, when a MIND is summoned, it can attack and perform various skills, but any damage that the character takes is inflicted on the MIND, draining MP rather than LP (Life Points). If MP is taken to zero by an enemy attack, the MIND is knocked out for a minimum of two turns. When the MIND isn't summoned, the human character can still attack, but can also charge MP by defending. So, from what I've been able to experience in my limited combat so far, battles are heavily focused on knowing when to summon your MIND and when to dismiss them to recharge, or determining if keeping them out is worth experiencing a MIND Break (as the human characters do not suffer LP drain from enemy attacks when MINDs are in play).
Dungeon exploration is more akin to the original Persona than any of the sequels. Exploration is in first-person, and the mini-map fills in as you explore more. The dungeons in this game take place in an alternate dimension space called the Inner World (the normal human world being the Outer World). At the point in the story where I'm at, the party is still pretty much clueless as to what the Inner World is, what MINDs are, or why any of this insanity is happening in general. The police, meanwhile, have an interest in hunting down MIND users, with a couple of police officer characters that will probably play into the story more as it goes on.
The only real explanation that the party has gotten is from the Undertaker. No, not the WWE wrestler. This lady:
The Undertaker is the proprietor of a special "shop" that the characters wind up in when they're attacked by a MIND for the first time (although there are other methods that allow entry). And rather than Philemon going "'Sup!" an imparting Persona abilities or signing a contract with Igor, the members of the party get their MIND by choosing their weapon from among the shop's large selection. And this choice is essentially like Indiana Jones picking out the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. Pick wisely, and you live. Pick wrong, and you die. And when you pick the right weapon, a MIND bonds with you. These MINDs (and the weapons themselves) are invisible to most people, save other MIND users and some select special individuals.
Where all of this is going, I have no idea. Again, the characters are completely clueless as to what's going on. But the party members I've acquired so far are an entetaining bunch. Kei, the protagonist, is pretty serious and sullen. He's also a voiced character with dialogue like everyone else. Sana is an athletic tomboy and was the first of the group to awaken to her MIND. And then there's Leo, who's...actually kind of a shithead, believing in the power of "As seen on TV" ghost hunting toys and getting caught up in the excitement. He also manages to fuck up his weapon selection a bit. He doesn't die, but his arm becomes demonic. Oops.
Like I said, I'm still really early in, and there's not much of the overarching story I can really talk about at this point because I really don't know what's going to happen. Still, it's been entertaining enough that I'll probably stick with it. Goodness knows my Vita would probably appreciate the attention for once.
Life has been pretty draining for me as of late. I spent the past several months at work crunching and doing my part to get a project done. Toward the end, it was beyond stressful. Two weeks ago, I actually woke up at 5AM due to a nightmare/auditory hallucination (I can't really tell if it was either or, but at that point I don't think it really matters) induced by the stress I was under. It had been far too long since I had proper time off to myself, but as of the end of work yesterday, I am on vacation and actually have time to relax, blow off steam, and generally not worry about work. It was by coincidence that, earlier this week, a coworker alerted me to the fact that a video game convention was taking place right here in Seattle this very weekend.
No, not PAX. That's not for another couple of months. This particular show, the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo, is a much smaller, much more local event. However, it is being held at the Washington State Convention Center, also the home of PAX Prime, which does offer some ample opportunities for comparisons in terms of general size. Though before I even get that far, the expo is easily small enough that, with only a few days notice and pre-registration long since closed, I was easily able to walk up to the door and buy a two-day pass (the full length of the show) for twenty-five bucks. Compare that to the madhouse that is buying a PAX Prime pass for any day let alone the entire show, and that's not a bad deal.
But back to the physical space. When PAX Prime is held, it uses the entirety of the convention center. Every level, every room is consumed to the point that external venues have to host some of the panel theaters and other events. SRGE, on the other hand, takes up a portion of the fourth floor. And once you get past registration, there are really only a few key spaces. There's the main hall/artist alley:
Unlike PAX, which, once you're in the main space is a sea of humanity, SRGE is pretty easy-going. The blurry sign on the right of the picture is identifying the panel room. It's a small room, but the panels are generally well-attended. (Yes, that is "room" singular. If your sole game convention experience is PAX or one of the similarly gigantic conventions, this might all sound like a shock to you.) Off to the right, unpictured, is a small stage area where bands played for attendees for a Saturday evening concert which I did not attend because I did not buy that much-more-limited privilege with the pass.
Also like PAX, there are some gaming spaces. There's a console freeplay area, again smaller, but their selection of games runs the gamut from the classics to the not so much. I asked the guy at the check-out table to surprise me and he came back with Super Star Wars for the SNES. And yep. That game is still fucking impossible.
There's also a second freeplay area dedicated to original Xbox system link games, and the largest Steel Battalion set-up I have ever seen. Ten Xbox consoles. Ten Steel Battalion controllers. That's a lot of mech action.
The largest space at the expo is the vendor hall. A lot of small retro game businesses dealing their wares, with plenty of gaming-themed arts and crafts businesses present for good measure. These are all businesses that I have never seen in the years I've attended PAX, and the smaller crowd makes it a lot easier to find really cool stuff before it gets claimed by someone else.
As you can see, this was easily the busiest part of the show. But it's not really surprising, again because of the amount of diversity on display. A number of vendors were there selling games dating from the Atari 2600 to the the PS2/GameCube/Xbox era, with a few more modern games here and there. One vendor was there exclusively to deal in Intellivision. Others had random collectables and other items, ranging from old Super Mario Bros. Happy Meal toys to old console hardware circuit boards. That is something that you will never see at PAX, ever.
The one panel I attended today was hosted by John Hancock, a hardcore video game collector that's been collecting for decades and has, among numerous other collections, a complete collection of every NTSC NES game ever produced. I mean, all of them. He gave some good tips and advice for anyone looking to get into serious collecting while on a budget, including the nature of demand and how it causes prices to fluctuate, how each console goes through cycles where the prices are grossly inflated due to every collector hunting for specific items at once, and so on. Perhaps surprisingly, he says that currently, the easiest console to collect for is the original PlayStation, simply because of the plethora of games for it, and barring the RPG library, it's still largely affordable. It was really cool to sit in and listen.
And of course, I ended up buying a lot of stuff. Here's what I got:
These are bead portraits that were made by some pretty talented artists. They had far more complex (and far more three-dimensional) ones up for sale as well, including diorama-style portraits of Final Fantasy VI and Street Fighter II characters. Really cool stuff!
Easily my biggest prize of the expo. A top-loading NES, and a whole bunch of games, including a boxed copy of Dragon Warrior IV. The full list (for those that can't tell from the image above):
You may be asking yourself one question. Why in the fuck did I buy a Bugs Bunny game? Because nostalgia, that's why. It's one of the few NES games my entire family got hooked on. Me, my brother, Mom and Dad. And the only other console game Mom and Dad ever played was Tetris. Anyway, there were some other things I bought, including something I had been meaning to rectify for a long while now:
A Game Boy Advance SP and Final Fantasy VI Advance. I haven't been able to play GBA games since I traded in my original DS for a 3DS. Problem solved. Also, an awesome game to boot!
And now, a mug shot:
What the caption says.
And then there was this...
Yes, that is a Donkey Kong-themed version of Jenga. They also had a Space Invaders version. How this varies from normal Jenga, I have no goddamn idea, but I'm willing to find out. Also seen but not purchased: There's a Metal Gear Solid 4 version of Risk, apparently. I just...what?
Also, Crimson Sea 2, because I have been dying to try this forever. Or at least since the PS2 era. All hail Koei.
I'm planning to return for day two tomorrow. Based on my first day there, the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo may be a much smaller event than PAX, but in some ways, it's preferable. Less of a crowd, different sights to see, and generally much more subdued, yet still enthusiastic atmosphere.
Goodness gracious, what an E3 this has been. As usual, a lot of new things were announced and shown off, previously announced games received status updates, and certain no-shows continued to be no-shows. And I'll be honest, most of what was shown this E3 did nothing for me. Microsoft continued to make me not care about their console, Sony's offerings were largely irrelevant to my interests, and both of their conferences leaned heavily on third-party titles that aren't even exclusive to their respective platforms. EA, meanwhile, continued to be EA, and Ubisoft, while offering some cool-looking games, took the brunt of the foot-in-mouth attention for something I'll talk about further down.
But on to more specific thoughts.
Presentation of the Show: Nintendo
This isn't a "Who won E3" discussion. The idea of "winning" E3 is an absurd argument, but I would argue that, of the companies that put on large-scale PR events, Nintendo's was easily the best this year. Their pre-recorded digital event, at less than an hour long, was entertaining and provided some good information on a variety of their coming games. Its brevity was welcome after the marathon press conferences like Sony's, which dragged at points with an extended presentation on extraneous things like a Sony-produced TV show. It also managed to avoid cringe-worthy moments like an EA rep, in all seriousness, proclaiming "all the feels!" while talking about Dragon Age: Inquisition. That is a phrase that no one should ever say out loud, and if you do, it is a sure sign that you have been spending far too much time on the internet. Go outside.
But more than the pre-recorded event, Nintendo put on a PR clinic with their Nintendo Treehouse livestreams that ran the span of E3. Staff from the NOA localization team sitting in front of cameras, casually talking about the games that they're there to present, getting commentary from producers and development staff, and generally just being very open about what they had to show, whether it be something fairly complete, like Hyrule Warriors, or early concepts like Shigeru Miyamoto'sProject Giant Robot. They streamed extended demos, offered interesting tidbits, and even occasionally cursed at each other while competing in Smash Bros. Never stiff or awkward, they were just there, talking about their games and being completely confident in them. And before that was even over, they took one more opportunity to reveal a brand new strategy RPG IP to the press in Code Name S.T.E.A.M.
It was a PR effort that frankly put everyone else at E3 to shame, regardless of what other companies had to show. Microsoft and Sony would be wise to learn from what Nintendo did this year.
Foot in Mouth of the Show: Ubisoft PR
OK, let me be upfront here. I don't believe that just because a game allows for custom, player created characters that having a gender selection option is or should be a requirement. There are some games where such just might not make sense.
That being said, Ubisoft's excuse for why there aren't any playable female options in the forthcoming Assassin's Creed: Unity come off as lazy and intellectually insulting. Blaming it on "realities of production" when, in the past, they have been able to create female assassin characters (including the protagonist of Liberation), and particularly when compared to other, much larger-scale games that feature gender selection as part of very robust character creation tools, is an absurdity. Especially for a company the size of Ubisoft.
It should be noted that in Xenoblade X you can be a female if you like. Monolith must have worked 35 years to make that work ;)
And then there is, of course, the historical precedent of Charlotte Corday, an actual, real-world assassin of Revolution-era France. And yet, the option to play as a female assassin during this same era, and in a game where assassination is depicted in a much more fantastic manner, is completely absent because Ubisoft couldn't be bothered to put in efforts that other developers take for granted. Or at the very least, if such an option isn't included, the absence isn't generally excused in such a ridiculous manner.
"Give Me Now!" of the Show: Hyrule Warriors
September 26th, 2014. That is the date that I must wait for in order to finally have Hyrule Warriors in my hands. It is a date that is both months away, and yet tantalizingly close. As a Warriors fan first and a Zelda fan second, I want to play this game. I want to see all of the insanity that Omega Force and Team Ninja could muster. I want to summon the Great Fairy from Ocarina of Time so that I too could smack a dragon out of the sky with the evil moon from Majora's Mask, because that is a thing that actually happens in this game. I want to play as Zelda and a whole host of characters from the series and cut down thousands of dudes.
I WANT THIS GAME, DAMN IT. WHY IS IT NOT SEPTEMBER YET?
Surprise of the Show: Devil's Third is Alive...and Wii U Exclusive?!
OK, so it's not necessarily a surprise that Devil's Third is alive. It's no secret that the game has had a rocky history given the troubles with the game's original publisher, the now-defunct THQ. And the game does look a bit rough in the footage that's been shown, but of course the game isn't finished yet, so who knows what sort of polish they intend to give it between now and release. But, really.
Tomonobu Itagaki teaming with Nintendo to bring an M-rated action game of his personal style to the Wii U? It makes for funny speculation, sure, but I wouldn't have guessed that it was reality. And well, it's reality!
I'll be honest in that, prior to this announcement, my general interest in Devil's Third was more curiosity than actual desire. Nothing much of the game had really ever been shown at all, even during its THQ days. I've learned more about the game in the past two days than I had in the past several years. And roughness acknowledged, the game looks bonkers enough for me to have actual, honest interest in it now.
Again, it's just bizarre. And yet, it's a bizarreness that I am totally cool with.
Ridiculous Debate of the Show: Zelda Wii U - Link's Identity
Come on, people. Did you really think that wasn't Link in the teaser?
Not that it wouldn't be cool to play as Zelda (HYRULEWARRIORSHYRULEWARRIORSHYRULEWARRIORS) or another character, male or female, but there is such a thing as getting enmeshed in overanalysis to the point that the obvious is completely missed.
Game of the Show: Xenoblade Chronicles X
Holy Gnosis, this gamem is looking fantastic! Originally teased for over a year and a half under the simple code name "X", Xenoblade Chronicles X is looking like a bigger, more elaborate Xenoblade Chronicles, with new bits like a custom player-character and more combat customization options. Nintendo livestreamed a demo of the game's opening quests twice, going a good forty minutes, and it is just looking fantastic. Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii is one of the best RPGs of the past generation, and X is looking just as good, if not better. It's projected to come out next year, and it's looking every bit worth the wait.
In the past, I've posted around these parts on a couple of occasions regarding another one of my hobbies/obsessions outside of video games. (Though tangentially related.) I speak, of course, of figure collecting. I originally started collecting them back in college, though it wasn't really much of a collection in those days. Mostly, it was one or two figures I bought at a local hobby shop to spruce up my dorm room. It wasn't until some years later that I really started getting into it, and as more time has passed, the bug has just bitten harder. Here's what my collection more or less looked like a few years ago:
That's not the entire extent of my collection as it existed at the time (That's a tiny shelf, and I haven't exactly kept a well-maintained photographic archive), but yeah, not very big. Well, cut to a couple of years later, some bigger furniture, and...
And it's just gotten bigger. Anyway, I threw this blog together because I felt like sharing my most recent acquisitions. A Nendoroid mini-figure of the Vocaloid variant Haku Yowane:
It's approaching six years since Giant Bomb's wiki opened for business, which is crazy to think about. It certainly doesn't feel like it's been that long, but here we are. The wiki has definitely had its ups and downs over that time, what with glitches, vandals, plagiarizers, spirited debates and ludicrous arguments over what is and isn't suitable wiki material. But it's morphed from the old days of the wild west of wikis into something that's more or less come into its own, even if I feel that the site's staff doesn't necessarily give it the attention it deserves.
But with that in mind, I hit a personal wiki milestone tonight. With my most recent submission to the page for Lightning, I have accrued over 200,000 wiki points. There are some duders out there with significantly more points than that. (Seriously, holy shit, @marino!) It may also be a value that's somewhat inaccurate, what with the various wiki glitches I alluded to above. But still, that's a lot of wiki points, even today. So I figured that I might as well look back on what have been my biggest contributions to date:
Looking Back at 200K: My Biggest Wiki Contributions as of 5/2/2014
1. Metroid: Other M3082 Points. Yes, this game gets a lot of hate. Yes, it has problems. But even as the years have passed, my contributions to this page remain the greatest in terms of wiki point calculation formulas over which I have no control.
2. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII2914 Points. As was the case with Other M, my work on the page for Lightning Returns was motivated entirely out of both my interest in it prior to release and my enjoyment of it post release. This game is fantastic and I can't gush enough about it.
3. Fire Emblem2187 Points. Ah, Fire Emblem. This was a page that was in dire need of some work, and I gave it the work. Honestly, it could probably use a little more work. I forgot to include any sort of description about the Knight class. Whoops.
4. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance1713 Points. Speaking of Fire Emblem, most of my work on the Path of Radiance page came during the era of Giant Bomb when point bounties were offered for completing wiki tasks overseen by the staff and moderators. In this particular case, the task was to rewrite a hefty chunk of the page that had been previously plagiarized from elsewhere. (Are we getting wiki tasks back any time soon? Yes? No? Maybe?)
5. Kid Icarus: Uprising1507 Points: My work on Kid Icarus: Uprising came mostly around the game's release, particularly while I was busy also adding and editing various pages related to it. Actually, this page could use some more work, as the story is surprisingly deep and touching for something that starts off so goofy and referential to the original NES game.
6. Samurai Warriors 31496 Points. As much of a Warriors fan as I am, this particular game has gotten more wiki love from me than any other. A lot of that has to do with how unique it is in a number of ways, not the least of which being the crazy mode based on an old Japan-exclusive Famicom title.
7. The Last Story1248 Points. The Last Story is arguably the weakest of the three games that Operation Rainfall campaigned for Nintendo to release in North America, but it was worth it to me.
8. Trauma Team1227 Points. Trauma Team's page is one that I did a lot of work on, but I feel I could have done a lot more. The crazy mix of gameplay styles, along with the story and characters, presents a lot of ground to cover that couldn't just be easily summarized as another Trauma Center game.
9. Crossover1074 Points. OK, my history with this page is kind of odd. Back in the day, I was the one that made the submission for the page's creation. I had also written a fair-sized article for it. And then one day, a WM staff member PMed me to say that he had accidentally wiped the page and asked if I could rewrite it, as he had apparently intended to use it as an example in a business presentation. Or something along those lines. My memories of that are foggy at this point. But I rewrote the page, and I got a nice little wiki point bonus tacked on for my efforts.
10. Labrys1045 Points. And at #10, we have Unit #031 herself, Labrys. I ended up writing a lot about her just because she is easily the best part of Persona 4 Arena's story mode.
It's been a wild ride getting to 200,000. Who knows what this list will look like at 300,000?
What are some of your largest, proudest, and weirdest wiki contributions?
This spring has been nothing but good to me as far as game releases have gone. I've already written at length about my love of Lightning Returns, and since I wrote that blog, I actually went back and completed a New Game Plus run before moving on to other games. It's been a pretty diverse run of titles since then, and I figured that hey, why not do a big impressions dump blog post on a lazy Sunday morning? But first...
Lightning Returns: New Game Plus Thoughts
Playing through games of any significant length in their entirety on a second go immediately after beating them once is something I almost never do. The last time I can recall jumping into an RPG for a second go-around and playing all the way to the end shortly after beating it the first time was probably my first NG+ run in Chrono Trigger back in when I was a teenager in the '90s.
So it's been a while.
That being said, when I created the clear save file at the end of my second run through Lightning Returns, I had played the game for a total of 95 hours, 18 minutes, and 15 seconds. In other words, despite it being a NG+, in which I could have theoretically beaten the game in a much smaller span of time on the second go, I ended up spending almost as much time on my second playthrough as I had in my first. The speed at which I cleared all of the main quests was faster, sure, and I was able to race through most of the side quests at a much quicker pace, but then I started putting more effort into some of the side content that I hadn't finished on my first run. I exterminated most of the monsters in the game, cleared the bonus dungeon, and when it came to the end, fought a powered-up version of the final boss that, while my victory was scored a 0 out of 5 stars, I managed to beat on the first try.
And truth be told, I feel like I could play through it all again. Part of that is probably due to the fact that there are still a few things I've left undone. I have yet to beat the super-ultimate optional boss, and I have yet to finish up the quest to defeat every Last One monster in the game. Those stragglers in the endgame dungeon will have to wait for another playthrough, which means that I wouldn't be able to punch out on that quest and earn the reward until a fourth run. I can deal with that!
inFamous: Second Son
I've only played a few hours of inFamous: Second Son so far. I didn't not play either of the earlier games, so I'm coming into the series fresh, mostly owing to the fact that the game is set in the city I call home. And though I haven't played enough yet to unlock areas of the map outside of Seattle's downtown, I've gotten enough of a taste of what the game has to offer to say at least a couple of things.
One is that the gameplay is really fun, but it takes a lot of getting used to. Particularly when graffiti artist and beanie enthusiast Delsin Rowe hasn't been powered up yet and doesn't have a wide assortment of abilities. A lot of my fights have come down to entering restricted areas, blasting a few enemies, and then running the hell away so that my health could recharge and I could locate a smoke source to power back up. As Delsin has gotten stronger and more abilities have become available, these sorts of situations have become more manageable, though I have no idea what sort of obstacles the game will throw at me to keep the challenge up. The characters are also really entertaining, particularly in Delsin's interactions with his brother and Betty.
And then there's Seattle itself. I understand that Sucker Punch is based here, and don't get me wrong, it nails the general feel of the architectural style and feeling of Seattle in a lot of ways. But then the geography gets weird. Like when Delsin first arrives in Seattle just after the 520 Bridge sequence. Somehow, the first neighborhood he ends up in after getting off of the bridge is...Queen Anne?
Really? Because in real life, the first exists after the bridge lead into Montlake near the University District. You have to go further west to even approach Queen Anne. And then there's the weirdness like Belltown being in the northeast portion of downtown? And the International District doesn't exist, for whatever reason. You cut through the homeless camp in Pioneer Square (OK, that's unfortunately pretty accurate), and...water. No ID. No sports stadiums for that matter, either.
Man, I can't even imagine what North Seattle must look like in this game. Then again, I'm also a bit flabbergasted by the notion that Seattle could be cut off by destroying the 520 Bridge. The city isn't an archipelago and there are more ways out of it than just that route. Hell, there are more ways to the east side of Lake Washington than just that bridge. (Congratulations, evil concrete lady, you just made a lot of commutes more inconvenient.)
What I am saying here is that the Seattle in this game, for all of its accuracies, is really damn goofy, and the ways it fails in that verisimilitude make it more of a curiosity for me than anything else. When I actually get to go north of Lake Union, is Fremont in this game? Is the Fremont Troll in this game, at least? Like I said, I still need to unlock the rest of the map, but man, this is weird.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F 2nd
I ordered the import version of Project Diva F 2nd days before Sega announced that the game was officially being localized. This means that I will buy the game twice. Possibly three times to get this goodness on both the PS3 and Vita in English. The biggest change to the gameplay is the addition of more scratch note mechanics that place star marks on continuous tracks and new star marks that require both analogue sticks to hit. And that's cool. It takes some getting used to, like anything, but it's not a bad addition.
The overall quality of the track list is arguably better than the first Project Diva F. (This is not to take anything away from the previous game, of course, because it has some fantastic music in it.) There's a mix of new songs as well as returning tracks from the earlier PSP entries that have been reworked with the new mechanics in mind, and the mix of styles on display also shows a great amount of diversity for the Vocaloid characters. The tracks that unlock in the final stretch of the game are also incredibly brutal, even on the Normal difficulty setting. The Intense Singing of Hatsune Miku (one of several rough translations the song goes by) alone is, well, just watch this Extreme difficulty setting play:
MY GOD. DEAR SWEET MOTHER OF GOD IN HEAVEN, WHY MUST YOU BE SO WONDERFUL AND YET SO CRUEL?!
Of course, the game also features some of my favorite Vocaloid tracks in it, as well that aren't as, well, intense.
OK, that one is still really intense, but you hopefully get the idea.
English release this fall. I AM SO THERE.
Final Fantasy X HD
Most recently, I've started playing through Final Fantasy X in the PS3 release of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster. It's a game that I've played before, but not for many years, and as it turns out, my memory of the game had grown incredibly foggy over that time. Major plot points aside, there's a lot that I just straight-up forgot about. Just the amount of game that there is before the full party is together (I've already played for over ten hours, according to the save file timer) is surprising to me.
I really like the redone graphics, and the new versions of the old music tracks are growing on me. If there's one thing that really sticks out as "this is an old game," it's that a lot of the animations can be very jarring in how stiff they are. That's of course to be expected, and I've gotten used to it, as well, but it's definitely a bit of a shock compared to the rose-tinting on what memories of the game I had.
But what changes have been made on the surface level, Final Fantasy X is still a fun game to actually play. It's taken me a bit to get a few of the basics down again (relearning everyone's Overdrives has let to a few goof-ups), but the actual pace and flow of combat and the nature of the sphere grid have that good familiar feeling to them. One odd thing I've noticed is that thus far, I feel like I've been better at blitzball now than I ever was when I played the game all those years ago. Maybe I've just taken more time to pay attention to the tutorials and how the game is actually played, but in the few matches I've played so far, I have yet to actually lose. (Though my most recent match against the Ronso team ended in a tie and good lord, the stats on those guys.)
One thing that is pretty funny in going back to Final Fantasy X is in being reintroduced to its linearity and the lack of world map. People gave Final Fantasy XIII a lot of criticism for being a linear RPG (and to be fair, the maps in that game are incredibly so for the majority of its length). But Final Fantasy X is also a very linear game, with the primary direction more or less being straight forward, even if the path occasionally bends and there are more nooks off to the side to explore. So it's no Final Fantasy XII, either.
Still, everything I enjoyed about Final Fantasy X is still present. Though the game has certainly aged, Square Enix did a fine job of putting some polish on it for the rerelease. If this is indicative of the quality that we might be able to expect for similar HD versions of other Final Fantasy games, I'd love to see what they do next.
The following contains spoilers for Lightning Returns, including the ending, and a few other games.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is an amazing game. As someone that enjoys Final Fantasy XIII and the character Lightning, to see the direction that both this series and character have evolved has been one of my joys of this past generation. It’s a series that was really never meant to be, at first; after all, Final Fantasy XIII itself ends with closure; a closure ripped wide open by Final Fantasy XIII-2, if only because the development team sought some way to both address the original game’s critics while pleasing its fans.
This could have been a disaster. I count Final Fantasy X-2 among the worst games in the franchise because of the way it unnecessarily warped the characters and world of Spira into something of a parody of itself, with an ending that wasn’t the insane effort and requirements necessary to see it in full. But rather than create sequels both incongruous and insulting, the developers instead expanded on that lore, maintaining a tone that’s somber, yet not so dark that it becomes depressing.
One of my favorite games of all time is the original Valkyrie Profile, released here in North America all the way back in 2000 when Enix was still its own entity. It happens to share quite a bit in common with Lightning Returns; whether these similarities are intentional or not, and whether the development team looked toward it and its sequel Valkyrie Profile 2 for certain inspirations, I can’t say. But as I write here, I’ll reference Valkyrie Profile quite a bit in helping explain my attitude toward Lightning Returns.
Protagonists and Narratives
At the core of the story is Lightning, of course. The protagonist, she begins the game having been pulled into the service of the god Bhunivelze; the highest power in the Final Fantasy XIII universe. With the world due to end in a matter of days, she needs to save as many souls as she can in order to allow them to move on to the next work that Bhunivelze is about to create. At regular intervals, she must report back to Hope, and deliver the Eradia energy she has gathered from those souls she saves in order to extend the time she has remaining.
At the most rudimentary level, it’s a premise not that dissimilar from Valkyrie Profile. In this game, the protagonist is Lenneth, a Valkyrie of Asgard awakened by Odin to recruit the souls of dead warriors to serve the gods at Ragnarok; the final battle at the end of the world. She must regularly report back to Freya and deliver worthy Einherjar to Valhalla for the coming war with Surt and the frost giants.
However, there is more to each story than the initial premise would indicate. Both Lightning and Lenneth are manipulated by their respective deities and are expected to do little more than serve like good little worker bees. But through various twists in their narratives, greater truths are revealed.
In Lenneth’s case, she ultimately discovers that been born into a human incarnation, and after her death, her memories of this life were locked away by the gods. She had only been reborn temporarily as a human in order to make her more apt at recruiting souls when the time came, but her human life was a remarkably short, tragic one, filled with abuse. She barely avoided being sold into slavery only because a village boy, Lucian, the only being in any plane of existence to show her actual compassion and love, managed to convince her to run away with him, and yet she died shortly after because of a tragic mistake.
Lightning, on the other hand, begins the game with dead emotions. She presumes for the longest time that they had been cast away by Bhunivelze, as they would get in the way of her mission; the enormity of the task she’s given would be soul-crushing otherwise. Her primary motivation for carrying on in her mission is Bhunivelze’s promise that her deceased sister Serah will be resurrected in the new world, yet she can’t even feel the joy at such a prospect.
But unlike Lenneth, whose memories were indeed locked away by the gods, it is revealed at the game’s end that Lightning’s loss of emotion was brought upon by herself. She had worked so hard to shun her perceived weaknesses and reject who she is on the inside that when she entombed herself in crystal in XIII-2, her heart, and the memory of Serah she had intended to keep safe within it, splintered away into its own entity in Lumina. One that antagonizes her while at the same time pushing her in the direction of what her heart truly wants.
As a friend of mine put it, it’s very Kingdom Hearts in that fashion. But unlike Kingdom Hearts, there’s no Disney whimsy here to lighten what is, in fact, a very dark tale. Lightning is so self-assured in what she thinks she wants, and what she thinks she has to do, that she doesn’t understand her heart’s true desire until it’s almost too late. Similarly, when Lenneth awakens to her memories, her journey is also almost brought to an end by the gods that wished for her to be nothing more than a puppet; it’s through the aid of the Einherjar she gathered and a little necromantic power on the side that she is restored to life, more powerful than ever before.
Though Lightning’s journey begins with her cast in the role of something like Bhunivelze’s Valkyrie and she grows in power with each passing day, she comes to realize that the god has something more in store for her. Bhunivelze is testing her, wishing for her to replace the fallen goddess Etro and restore the cycle of human death and rebirth. Where his plan falters, however, is that in his desire to create a new world, one that won’t come crashing to an end as before, he wishes to wipe all memory, history and emotion from humanity, purging the souls of the deceased from existence. He is a cruel, callous god, incapable of seeing or understanding the human soul, and thus he’ll simply destroy what he does not want.
Though Lightning lacks the capacity to feel, she understands what truth this means, and how it should matter to her. It would mean that Serah would never be reborn; whatever Bhunivelze creates in her place couldn't possibly be the same. And after a life filled with being used and manipulated by one higher power after another, from fighting the fal’Cie in Final Fantasy XIII to serving as Etro’s protector in XIII-2 to her role as Valkyrie in Lightning Returns, she understands that the gods would only continue to manipulate humanity, and thus the only way to free humanity from that cycle is to slay God himself.
Similarly, Odin and Freya had no love for humans, but they’re betrayed by Loki, who has stolen ultimate power for himself and struck Odin down. When Lenneth, reborn and with her memories intact, comes across Freya mourning Odin’s death, she cares nothing for them. She’s after Loki; not because he killed Odin, but because she unwittingly sent Lucian, the only being in all of existence that showed her love, to Valhalla, where Loki used and murdered him. Lenneth doesn’t care about higher powers; she just wants justice and forgiveness for what she’s done.
Killing a God
Lightning Returns ends in really the only logical way it can; with Lightning standing up to the creator and using all of the power that he imbued her with in order to kill him. It’s a relatively common idea in video games for humanity to fight against gods. For example, it’s an aspect that’s frequently seen in the Megami Tensei franchise, which has even gone so far as to include an incarnation of the Judeo-Christian god as a final boss on more than one occasion. Persona 4 begins with a murder investigation and ends with a team of high school students engaging in battle with an ancient Japanese creation goddess. And despite Lenneth’s already divine status as a Valkyrie, her connection to humanity is what drives her to end Loki’s life.
As for Lightning, she was given power to potentially replace a fallen goddess of death, and though she lands a serious blow, she can’t end the battle on her own. She needs the souls of her friends, and all of humanity, to serve as a blade that can kill Bhunivelze once and for all. It’s a story point that I seem to gravitate toward a lot, and yet it’s old as humanity itself. The struggle against the divine, and overcoming it through that human will. In the end, that Lightning manages to kill Bhunivelze is no more or less sensational than the Investigation Team, and Yu Narukami in particular, taking down Izanami at the end of Persona 4.
As is promised in the beginning, at the end of Lightning Returns, the world is destroyed. But humanity is able to live on in another world, free from the gods that had oppressed it. And from the personal standpoint of Lightning, she’s able to live a new life, reborn with memories of her friends intact, her heart whole, and at peace. After such a long journey, Lightning, or Claire Farron perhaps, is able to rest. Her final reward is well deserved and justified after the struggles she’s needed to face, both internal and external, in order to attain it.
Nova Chrysalia, what remains of the world of Pulse from Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, is not in a good state. It’s a world that’s been forced to stand still for five hundred years. With Etro’s death and the cycle of death and rebirth broken, what humans are left live an existence that’s part purgatory, part hell, in which people can’t age or mature, and new life can’t be born. Children remain children mentally and emotionally despite the hundreds of years of experience they’ve been forced to endure. Yet they can still die as easily as you or I can, falling prey to sickness or injury. With little other choice, they live their lives day in and day out, emotions worn by the unnaturally long years they’ve lived.
It’s a near hopeless, forsaken world that Bhunivelze can’t save, populated by beings that he ultimately cares nothing for. It’s Lightning who must grant its people some measure of peace, filling the holes in their hearts and lives despite the gaping emptiness that exists in her own. She is ultimately rewarded for her efforts, as stated above, when the souls of humanity join her in the final battle.
Despite the depressing, cruel nature of the world and the plight of those forced to live in it, Lightning Returns does offer a degree of levity, both in its story and world, as well as in its gameplay. Though missions in the game can be incredibly dark, like a murder mystery that’s gone unresolved, or helping a child actress that’s lived for so long that she’s forgotten how to cry for herself, there are others that provide a balance, offering lighter, more absurd moments and showing that people haven’t lost their spirit. Like Lightning being forced to say a ridiculous code phrase to gather fireworks from ladies dressed in chocobo attire. Or being rewarded by completing missions for the game’s Biggs and Wedge, which results in them becoming buskers that play Terra’s Theme from Final Fantasy VI, complete with vocals, of a sort. (Ba da DA da daaaaaaaa!)
Lightning’s interactions with the moogles are particularly notable for their silliness; an appropriate tone for the cute, somewhat absurd nature of these fantastic creatures. Interactions like the way that they swarm around Lightning excitedly, or the way that she helps find particular a trio of lost moogles back to the village by throwing them into the stratosphere. Or particularly Lightning’s reunion with Mog, in which he flies toward her in excited slow motion, only to be comically swatted away, as she’s not interested in offering a hug. Moments like these help give the game’s dreary world splashes of color and life, and remind us that there’s still worth in this doomed world.
Costumes, or “I feel pretty, oh so pretty…”
Speaking of the game’s lighter side, there is of course the schemata system, which is so key to the way that the game plays. Much has been made about the extensive wardrobe that Lightning can acquire in the game, as well as how revealing or ridiculous some of these costumes and accessory adornments are. Unlike the game’s world, where in what humor exists as a part of the story, these costumes, and their looks, are under the player’s direct control. It’s up to each individual if they wish for Lightning to look serious, or sexy, or ridiculous. It’s, in short, a system that helps allow the player to get what personal enjoyment they wish out of the game.
I personally tended to shy away from the more absurd garbs and accessories my first time through. For the most part, my schemata were the Spira’s Summoner garb (the FFXYuna DLC costume), the Red Mage garb (and eventually, the accompanying hat adornment), and various samurai and warrior style schematas. Part of the way I equipped Lightning was born out of gameplay, of course; each garb affects Lightning’s stats in different ways, and different garbs come with certain abilities that are preset, making them more ideal for certain situations than others. I personally find the Spira’s Summoner garb one of the most useful costumes in the game, regardless of its appearance. On the other hand, the Red Mage costume, in addition to being fairly versatile in its abilities, looks pretty snappy. Add the hat, and you have the ensemble I most enjoyed running around in.
If other people prefer Lightning in the Miqo'te Dress, or in the more revealing outfits like the Watery Chorus, or to give Lightning the absurd facial hair adornments, I’m not going to argue. The outfits are there, and there are plenty of options for just about any taste, whether that taste leans more toward playing it straight, being silly, or searching for garb combinations that could potentially break the game. The point is that the system is incredibly versatile, both in terms of customizing Lightning for the purposes of gameplay as well as aesthetics. Play how you want, and get what you want out of it.
The Nature of Time
A key element of the gameplay in Lightning Returns is the flow of time, as well as the nature of having to deal with a time limit. It’s a concept that other games have tackled in different ways; The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is built around the concept of resetting and manipulating time in order to complete everything the game asks of the player in a three-day period. Dead Rising is much more strict, in that time is constantly running and the player has very tight windows in which tasks must be completed if the player wishes to see the game through to its true end. And Valkyrie Profile, which doesn’t feature an active timer or a daily countdown, forces a time limit upon the player in the form of chapters, each divided into a set number of turns. Any time Lenneth takes an action such as entering a dungeon or a village, turns are consumed, and once all of the turns are used up, the chapter is forced to end.
The path to Valkyrie Profile's best ending is also quite possibly the most complex of all of the games listed here. In order to uncover the truth behind Lenneth’s past and the road to the final battle with Loki, the player must engage in an elaborate and very specific set of actions throughout the game while monitoring numerical values associated with Lenneth to ensure that they are never too high (which can block off the game’s best ending) or too low (which can trigger the game’s worst ending). It’s a byzantine path that’s unfortunately difficult if not impossible to uncover without the use of a FAQ and one of the few serious strikes I can really level against the game. Yet even so, its difficulty and obtuse obscurity mirrors the difficulty that Lenneth faces in following the orders of the gods while pursuing her own objectives.
Lightning Returns is, by contrast, actually not all that difficult to manage. Though the time limit seems daunting at first, the game does provide tools that affect the clock. Specifically, the power of Chronostasis can be used to temporarily stop the clock and give Lightning more time before the current day is out. Its low cost also makes it a power that can be easily used over and over, so long as the player has the points to spend on it. Also, unlike a game like Dead Rising, time’s passage pauses while in battle, and the objectives are designed in such a way that even without the constant use of Chronostasis, achieving the game's real ending is not a strategy guide-necessary task. Chronostasis certainly helps, and the player needs to be mindful of the clock, but the deadlines are rarely as tight as they are in Frank West’s zombie-slaying jamboree.
What ultimately matters is that Lightning completes missions to earn Eradia, which she must turn in at the end of each day (beginning and ending at 6AM sharp), and at certain thresholds increases the amount of days she has remaining. The impetus for performing well is there, but that impetus isn’t so strict that the player ever feels trapped in a dead end, or in need of outside help.
The soundtrack to Lightning Returns is the culmination of three games’ worth of music. It features battle themes and remixes of tracks from XIII and XIII-2 in addition to its own original music, producing a sum total soundtrack that feels like a natural evolution. But the game doesn’t simply draw from the XIII series, but from Final Fantasy as a whole. The game’s cities are littered with street performers that play remixes of various tunes from past Final Fantasy titles, it’s a charming touch that adds a little flair to the game without drowning the soundtrack in fanservice.
The ways that some of these existing tracks are used is inspired. There is, for example, a battle in the game that pits Lightning and a chocobo against an extra powerful chocobo eater. And the theme chosen for this battle in particular is the hilariously metal red chocobo theme from Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Though, a little fanservice also doesn’t hurt. Should the player win a battle while wearing any of the special Final Fantasy-character inspired DLC garbs, the standard victory fanfare is replaced with the fanfare of the representative game. And if there’s one version of the classic fanfare I love more than any of the others, is the version used in Final Fantasy X. I heard it a lot in the nearly fifty hours I've pumped into the game, and it's great every time.
But it’s not all just reused tracks, old or new. The original music composed for the game is very atmospheric, and again suited to the game’s tone. The soft, vocal melody that plays while on the Ark in the space between days is a somber tune; one that brings to mind both Lightning’s status as a servant of God and the haunting nature of the messed up world.
And then there’s the theme to the final battle with Bhunivelze; a thirteen-minute-long operatic cacophony bringing to mind battles from Lightning’s past as well as past entries in the franchise. Its length, and the dissonant madness of confronting the almighty god it represents, brings to mind in some ways Dancing Mad, the equally cacophonous, operatic theme to the final battle against Kefka in Final Fantasy VI. Indeed, one of Bhunivelze’s most powerful attacks, seen in his second form, is named for that theme.
The Use of Mythology
Behind the Final Fantasy XIII series, there’s something called the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythos; a fictional mythology that was originally intended to serve as a shared backbone between Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Agito XIII, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Things changed, of course; Agito and Versus are no longer explicitly named for XIII, though their connection to the mythos is supposedly still there. What remains to be seen, however, is how the exploration of this mythos in Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns will relate to other games, particularly Final Fantasy XV. The god at the center of the mythos is now dead; killed by Lightning. Does this mean that plans for Final Fantasy XV and its relation to Fabula Nova Crystallis have changed drastically since its days as Versus XIII? A friend of mine, one who is particularly into world building, pondered whether XIII-2 and Lightning Returns may have in fact used concepts that were intended for Versus. Is it possible that the new world seen in the end of Lightning Returns is the same that will be seen in Final Fantasy XV? Will Final Fantasy XV still reference the gods and the mythos surrounding them as a separate continuity, allowing dead gods to be alive again? I guess we’ll have to wait and see on that.
On a related note, as touched upon before, Lightning Returns otherwise takes bits and pieces directly from Norse mythology. Lightning is more or less a Valkyrie in service to a god. The Eradia she gathers is delivered at the end of each day to Yggdrasil, the world tree; a name taken from a tree of the same name in Norse myth. And even further, Odin, Lightning’s Eidolon dating back to the original XIII, is named for the god of thunder at the top of the pantheon. These references, while overt and in some cases aren’t much more than surface-level, are handled well. Certainly, they carry more meaning than similar references in past games, such as Final Fantasy VII’sMidgar and Nibelheim; references to the human world of Midgard and the frozen hell of Niflheim. References that, in all honesty, don’t make that much sense in or out of the game’s context.
If you managed to make it this far without summoning the teal deer, I thank you. I can’t say that there’s anything profound here for me to end on. My goal was to explain some of the ways in which I find Lightning Returns so fascinating and enjoyable with some context from another game that I hold in the highest of regard. Lightning Returns struck a strong chord with me; one that few RPGs have. It is a game that I find fantastic and invigorating for numerous reasons, and a lengthy, rambling blog post such as this can only get so much of that across. The last thing I’ll say here is this:
Lightning Returns may very well be one of my favorite games of all time. That’s a difficult bar to truly judge until enough time has actually passed, but it’s an argument that seems plausible to me and that doesn’t require hyperbole in order to make. Lightning’s journey is a grim, sad, goofy, and ultimately joyous one, and it’s an experience that few games have been able to match in my own heart.