Good Games that Cheat, Vol. 3

Good Games that Cheat, Vol. 3

Welcome back. For those of you who missed Vols. one and two, Good Games that Cheat is a little editorial feature that calls out the bullsh*t sections of some truly great games, both old and new. Today, in honor of the recent Lords of Shadow 2 release, we spar with some top-tier brawlers.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Release Date: 2010
Platform: PC, PS3, X360
Where it cheats: Resurrection DLC *Spoilers*

Mercury Steam’s Castelvania quickly became my favorite action game of the seventh console gen. A real masterpiece…until the DLC. Chapter 13 has some interesting puzzles and a few rather boring and drawn out fights. Chapter 14, on the other hand, is a miserable nightmare. It contains a few poorly choreographed stealth sections with twitchy platforming that the game’s controls really can’t handle, and some multi-wave battles with absurdly overpowered enemies.

And then there is the battle with the final boss, the Forgotten One, which might just be the worst cheating I’ve ever encountered in a 3D action game. And this time when I say “cheating” I don’t mean “difficulty spike” or “old school challenge” or “poor programming.” I mean f***ing cheating. The Forgotten One attacks constantly, switching between direct and AOE attacks, and your only warnings are quick and subtle sound cues that you have to memorize in order to dodge. Not block. Dodge. Despite timed blocks being one of the new Castlevania’s most interesting and tactical techniques, all of the Forgotten One’s attacks are unblockable. He also only takes damage through tiny “weak points” in his armor that change locations throughout the fight. After you knock out each weak point, there is a sadistically unforgiving QTE which, if you fail, sends you back to the last checkpoint (there are three throughout the fight, and if that sounds like a lot, you obviously haven’t played it yet). And if you pass the QTE the boss immediately gets faster and hits harder. On Knight difficulty, this one battle took me nearly two hours to finish. Or to put that another way, the Forgotten One took me longer to beat than ALL FOUR of the boss battles in the Dark Souls Artorias of the Abyss DLC combined.

See a weak point? Me neither.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma
Release Date: 2007
Platform: PS3, PSV
Where it cheats: Pas Zuu

I did not own an original Xbox, so I didn’t play the Ninja Gaiden reboot until it appeared as Ninja Gaiden Sigma on PS3. I don’t know if NGS can be credited as starting the HD re-release craze, but no matter what, it was one of the first HD remasters and still one of the best in my opinion. When it came out, it handed many, many unsuspecting people their own asses on a katana-shaped platter. I remember Gamefaqs exploding with HOW DO YOU BEAT ALMA threads, and a buddy of mine actually sold me his copy of NGS for ten bucks after he couldn’t pass the first stage.

But I beat the first stage, and then, with some practice, I beat Alma. After that, things sailed along pretty smoothly until the Chapter 12 boss, Pas Zuu, which is this undead pterodactyl thing that beats its wings, roars, and (why not?) shoots lasers that make the ground explode under your feet. You find it inside something like a ruined cathedral, and it uses the stage’s long layout to its advantage. When you enter the room, it’s perched on one side and you have to run toward it while it roars and sprays lasers everywhere. But when you attack, it chickens out (literally) and flaps awkwardly to the other side of the room, where it can resume roaring and lasering at you.

Punishment for cheating? Ninja arrow to the junk.

There’s a way to sort of trap it on one side of the stage and attack it without getting hurt, but I’ve never been able to figure it out, so I just jump-roll back and forth across the stage, getting laz-roared and using up all my health potions in the hope of getting in a swipe or two before it runs away again. Adding to the misery, if you get hit close to the boss, it flies away before you can even hit it once, forcing you to head back in the other direction for another try. The first time I got to this boss, I used several health potions without landing a single hit. The whole thing is a sour cocktail of cheating and tedium, with liberal splashes of rage-ohol.

Ys Origin
Release date:
Platform: PC, PSP
Where it cheats: Gelaldy (lava boss)

Because I apparently hate myself, I decided to “get into” the Ys series. From the reviews, it sounded like a mixture of old school action games and Diablo. Count me in! I selected Origins because 1) it is the first game in the series timeline and I am a slave to story, and 2) it was two bucks on Steam.

I selected mighty Yunica as my character—so few games let you play as female characters that I always go for the option when it’s there, just to change things up—got my battle orders from this sentient tree thing, and started bashing my way through Darm Tower to…save twin goddesses from…something? In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have worried about the story. But the game is tough and fun, with a speedy, tactical combo system and lots of weapons and gadgets to try out. Enemies are fast and powerful, and bosses are a real treat. Bringing down one of them requires not just mastery of the combat system, but observation and patience too.

And then you get to the boss at the end of a lava stage (because what impossibly tall tower DOESN’T have a few floors made of lava?), and the game just ends. Or at least it did for me. The boss sits in the middle of a round path that floats on the surface of the lava and you run around the path, trying to avoid the boss’s many different attack patterns and maybe, just maybe, getting in a hit or two, chipping away at its ludicrously long life bar. And want to try out different weapons or perks to see if they work better on the boss than whatever you have currently equipped? Well, too effing bad. You can’t access your equipment menus during the boss battle. Yeah. Cheating.

Cheating makes me want to barf too.

So there you have it. Three more beloved games I want to punch in the face. I welcome all civilized comments, even if they’re to tell me I’m terrible at video games or I’m not using the word “cheat” correctly. See you next cheat.

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Good Games that Cheat, Vol. 2

Welcome back. For those of you who missed Vol. 1, Good Games that Cheat is a little editorial feature that calls out the bullsh*t sections of some truly great games, both old and new. This time we’ll start with old.

Gradius III

Release Date: 1989 (JP)

Platform: SNES

Where it cheats: The Beans

I picked up a Super Famicom a few months back (I currently live in Japan), and I snagged a copy of the classic Gradius III for 400 yen (about $4.00). My favorite SHMUP of all time is a little PC gem called Xenon 2, but Gradius satisfyingly scratches the old-school twitch-gaming itch with aplomb. That is, until the Beans.

CHEATER

What a stupid name for a game-breaking enemy. Late in the game, the Beans suddenly attack in crisscrossing patterns over the whole screen, guaranteeing that whichever direction you’re shooting, it’s the wrong one. In a game that harshly penalizes even one death by taking away all of your hard earned power-ups, the Beans—or “magical fruits,” if you will—ruin an otherwise delicious feast of a game the same way your uncle’s farting ruined Christmas dinner that one time.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Release Date: 2011

Platform: PC, PS3, X360

Where it cheats: The path to the final boss *SPOILERS*

Even though I’m more of a JRPG guy, I still found a lot to like about Skyrim. I liked how the game continually offered quests and locations that were right at or *just* above my level for the first three fourths of the campaign. I also liked when, at about 45 hours into the game, my character hit Level 30 and was suddenly a crazy unstoppable Obsidian-clad badass.

But after a sort of drawn out endgame quest that allowed me to ride a dragon (awesome!) to the last boss’s lair, suddenly I wasn’t a badass at all. The path to the final confrontation is just a long, snowy chute crammed with mobs of the toughest enemies in the game. Even the Souls games don’t provide the same hilarious frustration of watching four skeleton lords jostling to “shout” down at your wiggling corpse for the 20th time in a row. Give me the giants any day. At least they can give you a bird’s eye view of Skyrim.

"I can see my hoooouuuse!"

Final Fantasy IX

Release date: 2000

Platform: PS1

Where it cheats: Ozma

Everyone knows about the Grand Dragon hiding in the forest near the beginning of the game that can KO your whole party in a single move, but that’s not cheating. Just level up for a couple dozen hours and the Grand Dragon becomes your plaything. Ozma is different. He’s basically the only optional Superboss in FFIX, and he’s a real pill.

"Just so you know, you're gonna be real disappointed with the Eidolon I give you."

As you can see to the right, Ozma is a big, sparkly marble, and he hits fast and hard, inflicting every status in the book. And guess what, if you are protected against a negative status like poison or confuse, Ozma won’t bother casting it. He’ll just use Meteor or the unblockable LV5 Death instead! Oh, he also randomly casts full cure on himself.* There is a way to drain his MP so he can’t use magic, but doing so requires that you fully level the character Quina, so screw that. Screw Quina and screw Ozma. Say what you want about Omega from FFV or Emerald from FFVII. To me, Ozma is Squaresoft cheatery at its worst.

And that’s it for Volume 2. I welcome all civilized comments, even if they’re to tell me I’m terrible at video games or I’m not using the word “cheat” correctly. See you next cheat.

*Special thanks to the FFIX Wiki for reminding me what a cheating d*ck Ozma is.

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Final Fantasy X HD Impressions

I've been living in Japan for the last 18 months, teaching English, learning Japanese, and building up my "import" game collection. Final Fantasy X & X-2 HD came out on Dec. 26, but is still sold out in most stores, even out in the sticks, where I live. Today I found a PS3 copy at last, and, as there have not been many English write ups about this game yet, I'd like to share my experiences so far for anyone who is interested.

Let me begin by saying, as I have said before, that FFX is my favorite game of all time. I've finished it several times, including all possible optional quests and bosses. In fact, I've even played it (legally) in 1080p on my PC with the PCSX2 emulator. So as someone who is very familiar with Final Fantasy X, I can't BELIEVE how much work Square Enix put into this game. Holy balls. This is no simple upscaling. Every character, every 2D and 3D background texture, every menu, every cutscene, all the music, has received a substantial facelift. It just blows away the original game, even running in HD on a PC emulator. Hats off to Square's art department.

That being said, the voices and character animations remain the same, so if you thought those were awkward before...then actually they're even MORE awkward now because of the improved art assets. But never mind. The game looks and feels as if Square Enix wanted give fans the same feeling in 2013 that they had when they first booted it up in 2001.

A more controversial aspect of new version is trophy support. Personally I like trophies and achievements. The way I see it, I'm going to finish the Monster Arena anyway, so I might as well get a trophy for doing it, right? But dang, Square is not giving up that Platinum Trophy without a fight. The trophy list will make die hard fans weep with delight/rage. You have to get all Celestial Weapons (even f*&$ing Kimahri's), win all Monster Arena battles and all Blitzball tournaments. Then there's the International Version additions, including the Dark Aeons and Penance. I'm projecting a minimum 80 hours for that Platinum Trophy, and that's for people who already know what they're doing in the endgame battles. For everyone else, see you on Gamefaqs!

And guess what, the list for X-2 is even MORE appalling. Getting 100% completion (which took me three attempts on PS2) is only the tip of the iceberg, folks.

Finally, if I were reading this, there would be one more question I would want answered: Should I import or wait for March? The only real downside to this release is that, unlike the original International Version, it only has Japanese language support. But if you know some Japanese, go for it. My Japanese isn't great, but it's gotten me through Monster Hunter, Lightning Returns, and a handful of other games. And if you're already familiar with FFX, that will make things even easier.

Thanks for reading. I'll keep an eye on the forums and try to answer any questions. Happy New Year!

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Good Games that Cheat, Vol. 1

Playing through one of my favorite childhood games recently, I was inspired (read: enraged) to write a little tribute to otherwise good games that don’t always play fair. I’ll start with said childhood favorite, and move on to two more recent games.

The Death and Return of Superman

Release date: 1994

Platform: SNES

Where it cheats: Level 7—Steel Reign

Perhaps the first good Superman video game ever, this is a brawler reminiscent of Double Dragon or the TMNT games. You play as five different versions of Superman in an adventure based loosely on the comic book story arc where Superman is killed in a fight with a creature called Doomsday. In Level 7, Superman is made of metal and carries a massive sledgehammer, but even an invincible man with a hammer can’t overcome a cheating game.

It’s not simply a matter of throwing larger waves of enemies at you, though that happens too. The enemies’ attacks get faster and more accurate, attacking from land and sky. Their hitboxes shrink so you have to be very precise in your own attacks (with a war hammer!). And the move that has saved your ass for the entire game, a pick-up-and-throw that can hit multiple enemies, becomes much less easy to pull off FOR NO REASON. Your attacks just don’t work sometimes. Plus now enemies fire projectiles at you the instant they appear on screen, guaranteeing that you will lose health no matter how well you play.

When I was a kid, I only ever made it to Level 7. So now, as an adult in possession of superior gaming skill and emulators with save states, I came back to this game to beat it for good. And I couldn’t do it. Not even with save states. Let’s allow that to sink in. This game cheats so hard I could not beat it by cheating back.

Dark Souls

Release date: 2011

Platform: PC, PS3, X360

Where it cheats: Ornstein & Smough

Dark Souls might be the best game of the seventh console generation, even better than Demon’s Souls (don’t make me choose!). But, man, f*%k Ornstein and Smough. They are two knights, one enormously fat and the other lean and quick. The fat one has crazy area-of-effect attacks and the other flies at you with a spear like a human bow and arrow. And when you finally finish one of them off, the other regains ALL health and becomes a giant with correspondingly giant attacks.

In single player, you can summon an NPC to fight with you, but I’ve seen him go down in less than 10 seconds. I’ve heard in Dark Souls II there is a fight with THREE boss enemies at once, and they summon others. Ha ha! Where do I sign up?

Gears of War

Release date: 2006

Platform: PC, X360

Where it cheats: The Berserker

In a game full of big, dumb football players, perhaps it’s fitting that the biggest, dumbest football player of them all can only win by cheating. As Marcus Phoenix, you blunder along through the game like a tank wearing another tank as armor, blasting and chainsawing anything that gets in your path, until you get to this hallway with a Berserker enemy. It’s fast and invincible and stupid. Basically it runs at you, and if it bangs into you, you die. Think Lawrence Taylor in the 1980s.

To defeat the Berserker, you have to lure him through an increasingly cluttered and difficult maze of hallways, standing in front of the correct walls or doors and then dodging at the last second so that he will knock down the barrier and you can progress. But the camera and Marcus Phoenix just aren’t up to the quick, fine movements required. It’s only by a combination of luck, memorization, and teeth grinding that you have any hope of getting the Berserker out into the open, where you blow him up with a laser from space. But by that point, you’d rather have the laser just blow up your game disc instead.

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Games People Hate: Final Fantasy XIII

(Originally posted as part of the Games People Hate series of reviews at readingforwriters.tumblr.com)

With Lightning set to Return for one last adventure in just a few months, I thought this would be an appropriate time to review Final Fantasy XIII, the most divisive and reviled entry in a franchise that, over the years, has managed to alienate as many existing fans as draw in new ones. But that’s half the fun! Every numbered Final Fantasy game is a surprise. Every numbered Final Fantasy game is an event.

Before I get to my review, though, let’s get something out of the way so there is no confusion: I am an unabashed Final Fantasy superfan. I remember when Final Fantasy came out on the original NES, and one of my friends and I rented it one Friday night only to discover there was no way in hell we would be able to finish it over the weekend. I have played every numbered FF game and finished many of them two times or more. I’ve tackled Ruby and Emerald Weapon, Omega Weapon, Ozma, Penance, and Yiazmat. I own original boxed copies of all Japanese FF releases from I-XII, including all “International” editions. Wanna see my checklist? No? Here it is anyway. Behold!

I tell you these things so you will understand that I came to XIII as a longtime series fan. I knew what IV, VI, VII and X had brought to the table when I booted up XIII for the first time. But I did NOT know how much the internet hated the game because I had gone on media blackout for anything FFXIII related between the Japanese and US release. I wanted to come to the game fresh and form my own opinions.

Characters

Every FF game seems to go out of its way to create characters who are bound to be disliked. For example, many people on the internet seem to hate FFX’s Wakka. I, on the other hand, despise FFVIII’s Irvine with the blazing intensity of a thousand exploding suns. The playable cast of XIII is only six people, and the internet seems to hate three of them evenly. There is Snow, who wears a bandanna and talks endlessly about being a hero despite his striking inability to do anything at all heroic. There is Hope, a fretful tween who whines and mopes more than FFVIII’s Squall. And there is Vanille, whose chirpy Australian accent sort of makes you wonder what it would feel like to puncture your own ear drums. In her defense, Vanille turns out to be the most sympathetic of the three by the end.

The other three are Lightning, a compelling, though slightly one-note lead character; Fang, another Australian who is as wise and wry and likeable as Vanille is insipid; and Sazh, the second black character in Final Fantasy history, and easily the most likable member of the cast. Sazh is about twice as old as the rest of the adult characters, and settles quickly into a benign if exasperated role as the group’s father figure.

One complaint raised against Final Fantasy XIII as a whole was the English voice acting, with Vanille being the favorite target of criticism. But now that I’ve played the game in English and Japanese, I have to say it’s a wash between the two. Ali Hillis’s version of Lightning is great, but she can’t quite compete with Maaya Sakamoto, who just knocks it out of the park in the Japanese version. However, Reno Wilson, the English voice of Sazh, makes the English version. Wilson’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game, full-stop.

One legitimate complaint is that there is no memorable villain. No Golbez, no Kefka, no Sephiroth. Heck, I’d even take a Kuja over what’s on offer in FFXIII. Instead we get this crusty old white guy whose name I can’t remember. Then again, old white guys have been ruining the real world for generations, so why shouldn’t they ruin this game’s world too?

Battle System

Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is like a streamlined version of the one in FFX-2, which itself took cues from FFV’s Job System. But now Jobs are called Roles, because why not. Understanding Roles is the key to success in FFXIII’s fast and hectic fights. Battles are mercilessly difficult, but the game steadily and skillfully gives you all the tools to master it. Even after 25 hours, you may still see a tutorial screen pop up at the start of a battle. You can turn off tutorials, but that would be a huge mistake; strategies and abilities are rarely self-evident, and there’s no reason not to let the game teach you how to use them.

At any time you will have one to three members in your battle party. As mentioned above, the game chooses the party for you until Chapter 11, but you are still responsible for creating Paradigms to control their behavior. A Paradigm is a combination of Roles. For example, one possible Paradigm for three characters could be: Commando, Medic, Saboteur. You control the Commando directly, and the game’s excellent artificial intelligence tells the other characters what to do, depending on the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, which your party learns and remembers as you fight more monsters.

At the end of a battle, you are awarded both points and anywhere from 0-5 stars based on the length of the battle. These “prizes” are meaningless outside of a couple of trophies that require five-star victories. However, giving 0-2 stars is the game’s way of telling you that you could be winning a lot faster if you improve your strategy.

Sidequests

There are about 60 optional sidequests in FFXIII, most of which become available in Chapter 11. They take the form of unique monster battles similar to the Clan Hunts in FFXII. Some of them are groin-punchingly difficult, but you at least get to try them again if you don’t do as well as you like the first time.

And that’s it. For better or worse, there are no fetch quests, no weird Celestial Weapon Olympics like in FFX. It’s Final Fantasy meets Monster Hunter, and it’s great if you enjoy that sort of thing. (I do.)

Production Values

Before I even get to the graphics, I have to single out Masashi Hamauzu for the FFXIII soundtrack. This is the first fully orchestrated FF soundtrack—previous games employed a combination of orchestral and electronically produced tracks—and it is the best.

*Ducks to avoid bricks and chalkboard erasers thrown by Nobuo Uematsu fans.*

Uematsu writes more memorable melodies and tracks, no question. But the FFXIII soundtrack is one monstrous, cohesive and fantastic piece of music.

And then there are the graphics. This is Final Fantasy we’re talking about here. Go back and boot it up. Look at the variety of locations and the way the characters all appear against and interact with the backgrounds. Your Uncharteds and Halos might be more technically impressive, but this game simply looks magnificent. There was at least one point in every single chapter where I had to stop moving and just look around for awhile. And that’s only the game engine I’m talking about. The CG cinematics are the best in the industry. Only Blizzard even comes close.

Story

It’s completely bonkers, as you’d expect. Something about big old God machines enslaving humans to do their bidding, giving them magical abilities in the process. If the humans fail or refuse to obey, they turn into big weird monsters. If they succeed, they turn into crystal and “live” eternally as statues.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the story starts from a scenario of government-orchestrated genocide. At first I was kind of shocked at such heavy subject matter, but once I thought about other FF games, genocide actually isn’t too far out of character. You’ve got Golbez razing whole kingdoms and destroying families in FFIV, Kefka poisoning people and abandoning his own soldiers to die in FFVI, Cloud & Co. killing civilians with acts of terrorism in VII, different countries using “schools” to breed merciless armies of teenagers in VIII, sacrificial religion and heresy in X…quite a list, isn’t it?

Pacing

The dumbest complaint raised against FFXIII—parroted almost exclusively by people who only played a couple hours and then quit—is that the game takes 25 hours to get good. No, it doesn’t. It takes TWO hours to get good, which is admittedly still kind of rough. But then you hit Chapter 3 and BAM, the game takes off and just keeps getting better until, about 25 hours in, when it gets amazing.

My first playthrough lasted 96 hours, and I was kind of sad when I realized I’d done everything there was to do in the game at that point. Which is probably why I’m currently on my third playthrough in the last three years. Final Fantasy XIII starts off with a slow burn, to be sure, but even the fastest train in the world must ease its way out of the station at a crawl, right? And if you’re still on the train when those engines cycle up, baby, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

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Sexualizing Violence in Tomb Raider

Like Batman before her, this year Lara Croft was reimagined in a dark and gritty origin-story franchise-reboot simply titled Tomb Raider. Unlike the new Batman, who believes that a hero must not take human life, Lara’s rebooted character goes from brilliant university student—isolated and weeping over the first deer she must kill so she doesn’t starve to death—to a soulless serial murderer in the space of about fifteen minutes. And somehow it makes the new Tomb Raider even more exploitative than this:

As any writer knows, a compelling story moves forward on the motivations of a compelling main character. And the new Lara Croft is compelling. Wonderfully modeled and animated, and superbly voiced by British actress Camilla Luddington, you can’t help but root for the latest Lara from the start. And root for her you must, because she goes through some serious shit.

The developers have said they approached the game and story with a single unwavering theme in mind: survival. Indeed, when you complete the game, a message fills the screen: “A SURVIVOR IS BORN.” In case you weren’t paying attention to the last 15 hours of gameplay and dialogue about survival. But, okay, I’m on board. The team had a vision, and by heaven they stuck to it.

Which is actually the story’s biggest problem, in my opinion. Tomb Raider is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom reimagined by the “minds” that came up with the Saw franchise. These guys—and I do mean guys; watch the credit crawl to see the percentage of women who worked on this game—wanted to make Lara Croft into a believable, empathetic survivor, but they also banked on their audience’s appetite for watching Lara, and by extension attractive young women, get hurt over and over. The Tomb Raider series has always been known for mildly horrific death animations when Lara topples over a cliff or gets eaten by a dinosaur or something, but the newest game positively gets off on watching Lara suffer. Certain levels are without a doubt designed so that you will fail them at least once, forcing you to watch, for example, Lara get impaled through the throat by airplane wreckage.

And never mind the death animations. Even if you somehow manage to play through the game without dying a single time, you will still have to watch Lara nearly drown in a sinking ship, fall onto a jutting piece of rebar and yank it out of her belly, get caught in a rock slide, watch companions get tortured and killed, nearly be starve and freeze to death, get tied up and slapped around, and fight off a rapist. And that’s in the first hour of the game. It gets to the point where the actress who plays Lara is gasping and grunting much more than she ever speaks. More than one reviewer mentioned that the early parts of the game sound like a particularly aggressive porno film. You can make other comparisons to pornography as well; I dare you to find a single game that penetrates a male lead character with as many phallic analogs as Tomb Raider does with Lara Croft.

But before we get too hung up on specific events of the story, let’s step back and look at the whole thing. Lara Croft is part of a university expedition funding itself through a contract to make a reality television show that chronicles their search. As most games are dominated by bald white male characters (I assume hair is difficult to render), I salute the developers for creating a multicultural cast of characters. Besides Lara, there’s a Scottish cook, an English mercenary, a Japanese-American producer, a Samoan cook, a black mechanic, and a white tech nerd who looks distractingly like Daniel Radcliffe. In practice they’re fine characters, but are still mere cardboard cutouts compared to the depth and complexity of Lara herself.

So Lara and her friends get shipwrecked on an uncharted island that—surprise!—happens to house the very ruins they were looking for. But it’s already inhabited by a human-sacrificial cult. These dudes are vile, vile people. As mentioned above, they do terrible, dehumanizing things to anyone who blunders onto their island, and for this reason we are meant to feel like Lara is still a good human being when she starts slaughtering them by the dozens.

It doesn’t help that messages like “Head Shot! 15XP” pop onto the screen every time you take down an enemy. Story-wise, Lara is supposed to be taking lives reluctantly, no matter how diabolical her enemies are. Getting rewarded with extra experience points for burying a climbing ax into an adversary’s brain just doesn’t gel with the story’s insistence that Lara is sickened by what she must do to survive.

And I think that separation is what breaks the game’s story. I won’t say it breaks the game itself, because regardless of its philosophical faults, Tomb Raider is a fantastically-made piece of media. Art and animation, control and level design, technical presentation—every aspect of this game is absolutely top tier.

It’s just a shame that the first Tomb Raider game that tries to move away from overtly sexualizing Lara herself chooses instead to sexualize violence.

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Revisiting the Story of Final Fantasy X

Although this game came out in 2001, I should give a general spoiler alert if you don’t want the story wrecked for you. Additionally, if my interpretation of the story differs from yours, feel free to share in the comments.*

In 1987 Hironobu Sakaguchi, game director for Final Fantasy, decided he was more suited to storytelling than action, and so began one of the longest running roleplaying game franchises in the world. Twenty-six years and dozens of games later, Final Fantasy X stands out as the deepest and bravest of the series. Why brave? Because it puts religion, a topic usually (and loudly) ignored in video games, smack at the center of its story.

Just how taboo is religion in games? There is a long list of titles, including the original Final Fantasy, that were forced to remove all religious references such as churches and crosses before they could be sold outside Japan, where religion is—and I’m simplifying here—taken less seriously than in many other cultures.

Writing about religion is a real minefield in any medium, mainly because no one has any sense of humor about it. Whatever you say, someone will hate you for it, maybe enough to kill you (ever hear of Salman Rushdie?). My former dentist chastised me when I carried The Da Vinci Code into his office, not because it was woodenly written or intellectually insulting, but because he felt it unfairly maligned the Catholic church. I might have pointed out that the Catholic church didn’t need any help maligning itself in the mid-2000’s, but he was already going to be using needles and drills in my mouth and I didn’t want to give him an excuse to do something even worse.

Final Fantasy X dodges some of the danger by inventing its own religion. Its mythology goes that a thousand years ago a creature named Sin appeared in the form of a giant flying whale monster and began indiscriminately slaughtering whole cities full of people all over the world. Only a single “Summoner,” a woman who could call upon spirits to fight for her, was able to vanquish Sin at the cost of her own life. However, Sin came back a generation later, only to be quieted by the self-sacrifice of yet another Summoner.

Obviously this “invented” religion has a LOT in common with the story of Jesus, the main difference being that each generation in Final Fantasy X needs its own new Jesus to keep Sin at bay. By the time the game begins, this pattern has played out so many times throughout history that there is a specific pilgrimage every Summoner must make across the world in order to have any hope of defeating Sin.

And that pilgrimage is the first stroke of genius in Final Fantasy X’s storytelling. Conveying a living and functioning fantasy world to readers is always a tricky proposition, with a common tactic being to open the story with a wild action set-piece and then spend the next several chapters on exposition and backstory before getting back to the meat of the story.

Final Fantasy X employs this tactic too, but through the perspective of a character who knows exactly as little about the world as the audience does. Once again, a common trick here is to give the lead character amnesia so that it doesn’t seem strange for other characters to offer patient and detailed exposition about the story’s world. Final Fantasy X ditches the amnesiac in favor of a character from a different world. A serviceable if uninspiring substitution.

OR IS IT!

Tidus, the main character, meets the young Summoner Yuna at the beginning of her pilgrimage to defeat Sin. She is quiet, devout and competent, but you also get the sense that she has lived a sheltered life—an obedient lamb raised only for slaughter. Perhaps it is this sheltering that makes her so interested in Tidus. He represents the first companion in her life who knows nothing about her destiny—someone who is interested in her as a person rather than a savior. Dammit if that idea doesn’t give me chills even as I sit here writing about it.

So Tidus becomes one of her guardians on the dangerous pilgrimage, happily unaware—as is the audience!—that each day he is marching his new friend Yuna ever closer to her death. When he does find out, he is understandably furious. He vows to find a way to break the cycle while Yuna’s other guardians share guilty glances. Their job is to keep her alive, sure, but only until it’s time for her to die.

And next comes the masterstroke. Predictably, there is a way to save Yuna, but it comes at a terrible cost. I’ll do my best to explain. Sin, as its name implies, is a physical manifestation of the negative spiritual energy from all previous generations. Each generation a single Summoner uses the pilgrimage to gather enough positive energy to absorb Sin, thereby becoming the next Sin, on and on in a never-ending cycle. But the souls of the dead Summoners persist, unable to move on to the afterlife. All they can do is dream of a world that will provide someone who can break the cycle.

And I mean that literally. The world Tidus comes from is the DREAM of the dead summoners, and through their combined spiritual effort, Tidus has become real and crossed into their world to help break the cycle. Still with me? So when Tidus helps Yuna end Sin once and for all, the dead Summoners’ souls will be free, thus ending the dream. Thus ending Tidus himself.

Now the tables are turned; Tidus is the one hiding his own inevitable demise from Yuna so that the world might exist without Sin. The elegance of it all makes me want to put my head through a window because I’ll never be able to duplicate it in my own storytelling.

Anyway, throughout the pilgrimage there are the requisite religious zealots who first encourage and then try to stop Yuna and her band when they realize she means to stop Sin for good. The religious leaders of the world make a good living on the cycle of Sin, after all, and we get a cathartic Jesus-clearing-out-the-temple scene about two thirds of the way through the game. There is also an evolving love story between Tidus and Yuna, who are each in their own way endearingly clueless about the world, but also determined actors in the story. And I don’t mean “actors” as in performers, but as in effective protagonists who are not passive—characters who act when the situation calls them to do so.

To be fair, some elements of Final Fantasy X are less successful. The game devotes waaaay too much story time to this weird sport that is like rugby but played underwater (some characters can breathe under water; this is never explained). Furthermore, the crossover between Tidus’s and Yuna’s worlds seems to break its own rules whenever doing so is convenient for the story. And as an audio-visual medium, the character design and voice acting can be completely bonkers.

Still, there is much to learn from Final Fantasy X as an exercise in storytelling. For example, the game proves that clichés like a fantasy protagonist who needs every detail of the world explained to him for the audience’s benefit can still be interesting and successful. Another is that it is possible to write about the strengths, weaknesses, and quirks of organized religion without veering into the danger that Mr. Rushdie found himself in after he wrote The Satanic Verses.

But more than either of those things, the simple existence and enduring popularity of Final Fantasy X teaches writers all over the world that any idea, no matter how ambitious, how grand, how bananas it may seem on the surface, can be polished into a story that is widely appealing, compelling, and beautiful.

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Laying Down Arms in the Console War

A glooming peace this morning with it brings. The Console War looks like it might end in a cautious truce, and as the dwindling flamewars of last gen burn themselves to ash, I can only hope that the divide between the new generation of console fans will be so broad that the different camps won’t even bother fighting anymore.

With Microsoft’s unveiling of the Xbox One, all of the “Big Three” console makers have officially gone in different directions. Microsoft is about multimedia and dominating your living room entertainment; Sony is about high-horsepower gaming; and Nintendo is firmly about doing its own thing, even if it isn’t quite sure what that means.

I remember one of the first shots fired in the console war, back in 2006. When Alex Navarro (who is consistently my favorite contributor on GB and was a highlight of the now essentially defunct Screened.com) posted his Madden 2007 review for PS3 on Gamespot, he opened by insisting that there was NO REASON to buy the PS3 version over the already-existing Xbox 360 version, and made several more similar comments throughout. Writing his review this way was perhaps inescapable due to two very similar consoles launching only a couple months apart and with many of the same games. However, that one otherwise innocuous review offered a nearly prophetic glimpse into a console cycle dominated by picayune graphical comparisons, comment section flamewars, and the worst thing by far to come out of the console war, Metacritic.

<Rant Alert!> If you can’t tell how a professional game reviewer feels about a particular game without looking at the number at the top of the review, one of you isn’t trying hard enough. More importantly, with all due respect to said professional reviewers, their aggregate review scores should NEVER determine whether a studio lives or dies, or whether developers get paid adequately for their time. </rant>

This gen was just as defined by brand loyalty as the old Nintendo/Sega days, except that back then video games really WERE played mostly by children, who could be forgiven for being so childish. But as fundamentally silly as it is, brand loyalty sold a lot of boxes this gen, and was often the only real distinction gamers had between high profile releases. That is unless you count the graphical comparisons, which always made mountains of graphical traits no one would ever see without high-tech recording equipment, such as: “The PS3 version has a slight blurring effect from the QAA but runs with full v-sync, while the 360 version has sharper textures but suffers from screen tearing.” And then 250 comments would follow, full of bile and a few unconsciously xenophobic remarks, occasionally broken by an equally moronic “PC is the master race” post, another unfortunate trend of the console wars.

But now that all three consoles have been revealed, I have real hope that the console war will just moodily piss itself out. Because there is no reason to fight anymore. No two consoles are going for the same slice of the market. Let’s take a little quiz to demonstrate.

1. I want my games to...

a. …make my eyes bleed with more pixels than there are grains of sand in the Sahara and let me play as spunky/disconsolate teens with inventive clothing and ever-more impossible hairstyles. Also, Japan is f*%@ing awesome.

b. …showcase new twists on the formulae that continue to make games great after 30 years, coupled with perfectly tuned controls. Also, Japan is f*%@ing kawaii.

c. …star shiny mo-capped versions of the same dudes I watch on ESPN, except that when I’M playing, my team always wins, plus America wins every war it starts. Thanks to me. Also, f*%@ Japan.

d. …be pretty much the same as a. and c., but further justify my $1200 SLI video cards with a super-kewl physics engine that individually renders each strand of Lara Croft’s hair. Also, why the f*%@ can you not buy Dark Souls on Steam in Japan?

Okay, so I’m having fun with stereotypes, but note, there was a lot more crossover between answer a. and answer c. with the PS3 and 360 than there seems to be with PS4 and Xbox One, at least so far. Sure, there will be sports games on PS4, and there will be flowy Japanese games on Xbox One, but neither camp believes that’s who they really ARE anymore. In fact, everyone—MS, Sony, and Nintendo—have dug very clear trenches between themselves and their competitors coming into the next gen, giving us all hope that the console war can, at last, go away.

So let’s have no more snarky tweets from Major Nelson and Jack Tretton. No more “Sega does what Ninten-don’t!” Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony are all doing something different now. Let’s, as gamers and fans, be glad such rich diversity exists in our shared hobby. If the big dogs have matured enough to realize and admit who they really are, then we gamers can do the same.

In short, the war is over, and the only losers are people who want to keep fighting.

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Now Replaying: Okami HD

“Pacing: The Clone’s Horror”

Every article or review you’ve ever read about Okami most likely mentioned Okami’s amazing art style and Celestial Brush, a play mechanic which allows players to draw symbols on the screen to alter the game world in some way. Need a gust of wind? Draw a loop. Need it to be day or night so a character will appear where you want him to appear? Draw a sun or moon in the sky. Great stuff. But you already know about that, so I’m not going to talk about it here. Playing Okami for the second time, I was struck with how it both is and is not a Zelda clone, and how so many aspects of the game should have broken it before it even got started.

Okami is THE game on everyone’s “Best Games No One Played” list. I don’t know whether most people still haven’t played it now that it has appeared on the PS2, Wii, and most recently PS3. But if Okami truly is still largely unplayed by the gaming masses, I only have one question: How? Because it’s too Japanese? Because it’s a “Zelda clone”? While I agree it’s undeniable that Okami’s gameplay structure owes basically everything to Zelda, I still feel that calling Okami a “Zelda clone” sells Okami very, very short. The word “clone” in the context of game design implies inferiority or unoriginality.

The hallmarks of a Zelda game are: huge, varied open game world with plenty of chances to explore off the beaten path; clever environmental puzzles; simple but entertaining combat; fetch quests of varying length and quality; steady collection of unique weapons and tools that are both fun to use and necessary to progress to the end of the story. I’m sure a hardcore Zelda fan could name more, but that seems like pretty thorough list to me. And within that framework, there are certainly Zelda clones out there. Beyond Good and Evil, Nier, and Darksiders spring to mind, and each of those does indeed share the “clone’s” fate, falling short in some fundamental way of the template Zelda created. Let’s have a look:

Beyond Good and Evil – This game was, in my opinion, absolutely wrecked by its mandatory stealth sections. They weren’t fun or intuitive and they broke the game’s pacing. After all these years I remember BGE less for its touching story and brilliant game world, and more for laser alarms and pacing guards. Maybe that’s just me.

Nier – Although this game had one of the deepest stories and best soundtracks of this console generation, it relied much too heavily on same-y fetch quests that brought the game to a crawl. (I should point out that I loved Nier, warts and all.)

Darksiders – The worst of the lot, stealing from Zelda AND God of War and failing to do either genre much justice. The last dungeon in Darksiders is so absurdly padded to make the game artificially longer that, when I finally finished it and was “awarded” with one more game-world-spanning fetch quest, I gently set down my controller and asked my computer monitor, “Are you f***ing kidding me?” When I finished that game the game clock showed around 15 hours of play, but I could have sworn it was actually 40.

It seems like the biggest stumbling block for Zelda clones is pacing. In these otherwise good and interesting games, some poorly executed aspect of gameplay comes along and frigs up the whole works. Then again, pacing problems may just be built into the Zelda architecture. How about the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time? That’s where I almost threw in the towel. Or the fetch quest at the end of Windwaker that actually did grind the game to a halt for me (I do plan to finish it someday. Lord knows why I persevered with Darksiders, which in my opinion was a much worse game than Windwaker).

How does Okami fare in the pacing department? On paper, Okami looks like an absolute disaster. The first 20 minutes of the game are an unskippable (on PS2 and PS3) cutscene that lays out the story of a powerful warrior and a white wolf who came together to defeat an 8-headed serpent demon called Orochi. The whole cutscene is drawn with a Japanese calligraphy brush in real time on a scroll that slowly unrolls across the screen. For 20 minutes. What a terrible idea, right?

Still, the cutscene sets up Orochi as a truly fearsome bad guy and gives some backstory as to why NPCs react the way they do to the only playable character, Okami Amaterasu, another white wolf with striking similarities to the heroic wolf who died fighting Orochi.

**MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW**

Ten to twelve hours into the game you defeat Orochi in a grand and lengthy battle, having met scores of memorable characters in multiple gorgeous locations, each more stunning than the last. The game is over! A dozen hours is a goodish length for a modern game and all of those hours were supremely entertaining. Handshakes all around.

Except it’s not over at all. After the battle with Orochi, the game introduces new villains, new characters, and throws open the world map you thought you’d already explored. This SHOULD break the story in Okami, dooming it to the same pacing problems of other Zelda clones and Zelda games themselves. How can any game reestablish the same intensity of story and drive to explore that brought you to a long prophesied final boss battle?

Okami does it the way any good story does it: by raising the stakes. In the first 10-12 hours, you are working essentially working to save a single village. By the end of the game, you are working to save the entire world of Nippon (which is just a slightly altered map of Japan), all life in it, and the very realm of the gods themselves. Once again, on paper this scenario is nothing new for any RPG, but Okami personalizes its story by telling it through unique, likeable characters whom you really do want to help.

Lastly, Okami employs a silent protagonist. This has worked before, of course, with Half-Life being my favorite example. But it shouldn’t work here. Since Okami Amaterasu can’t speak for herself, you basically learn ALL of the backstory from chatty NPCs who speak in bizarre “Hrmble hrmble hrmble” noises while their dialogue appears on the screen for you to read. There is a LOT of reading in Okami. However, the writing is so good—and the quality of the localization so high—that the emotion and frequent humor come through without the need for voice actors.

Plus the silent protagonist isn’t silent at all for two reasons. First, Okami herself is very expressive, often wagging her tail, scratching herself or falling asleep when NPCs dive into especially lengthy bits of backstory. (You also have the option to head-butt, bite, pee or poop on, and dig up the gardens of characters who annoy.) Second, Okami Amaterasu has an insect-sized familiar named Issun, who is labeled from beginning as a “Wondering Artist.” Issun is a cowardly, womanizing scoundrel who is obnoxious at first but becomes a wonderful companion by the end of the game. It is truly shocking and sad when he and Okami are suddenly forced to part ways before the final dungeon.

So does Okami, a 40+ hour game that seemed like it was supposed to end after 12, never stumble? Sure it does. Every game that has a heart stumbles somewhere. Okami was directed by Hideki Kamiya (of Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Bayonetta fame, among others), meaning that you are going to see the same bosses over and over again. The first battle with Orochi is a sprawling thing with many different tiers and styles of combat…and so is the second battle with Orochi. And the third. At the very least, each time you face bosses a second or third time, your new abilities and weapons make the battles feel a LITTLE different than the last time. They go by more quickly for sure.

There are also a few times the game flatly refuses to tell you what to do next or where to go. Nippon is absolutely huge, and most of the time your next destination(s) is/are marked on the world map. However, sometimes you just have no clue. Often this is because there is an NPC somewhere you have to talk to three times before they’ll tell you how to move the story forward. Like I said before, it’s fun to talk to the NPCs, so this isn’t as much of a chore as it sounds like. But it does harm the pacing (gasp!) of the game.

And lastly, the battle against the final boss is so ridiculously drawn out and frustrating that it leaves a slightly bitter taste on the whole experience. It’s nothing so enraging as Darksiders’s final hours, but an irritating cap on a long and marvelous experience.

And that’s it for problems. Niggles, really. Nitpicks. Okami was in my top five games of the last console generation, and now that I’ve played it again on PS3 and earned that Plantinum Trophy, it is still in the top five games of THIS generation too (Okami really is a new experience on PS3). It is a Zelda clone that defies the nature of cloning and becomes something larger, grander, and, to me, unquestioningly better than the games that inspired it.

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Brand Recognition Fail?

The other night my dad, a Baby Boomer who has been having back problems, was telling me about some exercises his doctor had suggested to him, and a Kinect commercial came on TV. In the commercial, a 40-something lady was sliding around her living room, saying, "Boy I'm loving this Kinect." My dad pointed at the screen and said, "That's what I need: a Wii."And he went on to tell me about a friend of his at work who bought Wii Fit and thinks it's awesome.

Now I'm not suggesting for a second that he wants a PS3 or is interested in Move. In fact, he knows I have a PS3 and thinks it's a ridiculous waste of time and money. And to him it would be, because he's not a gamer and he doesn't own any Blurays. That's not the point. My point is that Kinect, with party/fitness games and Avatars leading the charge, seems to have blurred the line between itself and Wii to such a degree that the casual audience can't even tell the difference. But even the casual audience still knows what a Wii is, and they either have one and don't use it or kind of want one so they can host Wii Bowling parties for their work friends.

I initially figured that Kinect would sell boatloads with Microsoft's relentless and formidable advertising budget behind it, but now I wonder. Kinect may be nestled so firmly into Wii's shadow that it will be invisible to its target audience.

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