What is Lightning Returns? (Part 4)

Day Four

We now approach day four of Lightning's quest to save the world, and the fourth day of this blog series I totally don't regret starting. This one's going to be a long one, as I somehow managed to squeeze half the story quests into a single 24 hour period, so consider yourselves warned. (It's also why I skipped yesterday, my bad. Plus, that Mario Party Party 3 stream sapped much of my free time, as well as a lot of energy in general. Shit was intense!)

Two things I want to address before we begin today:

  1. The first is I intend to keep this thing going until I've completed all the story missions, and then finish off with the finale. That will probably mean two or three more updates, though none as large as this one fortunately, and then another to cap everything off. I'm half-tempted to stop before the game's finale to leave something for others to discover, so I could end up changing my mind about that epilogue blog.
  2. The second concerns my eventual review of the game, given how a lot of the comments I've received so far have been discussing the game's overall quality. Given how much of the game I've described, in one way or the other, I'm not sure I'll need to pen a proper review as I'll have covered mostly everything already. The only thing left will be my final opinion on the game, which obviously hasn't coalesced into being quite yet as I'm still in the process of playing it, Maybe I'll just squeeze it into the final update somewhere. If there is one. A lotta maybes floating around right now, huh.

For the moment? I think I actually like Lightning Returns. I doubt I'd recommend it to anybody, but I like it when games get weird and unpredictable like this. Chalk it up to playing hundreds of samey JRPGs, I guess.


The Last Ones: I'll be (comparatively) brief with the mechanics today, because the story section's going to be a lot longer than usual and some mechanics stuff actually factors into it too. Instead, I want to focus on one of the game's typically quirky (if somewhat morose) features: The Last Ones.

The game has a specific encounter table for every area of every region in the game, like most RPGs. Some smaller enemies will pop up all over the world as regular mobs, while certain monsters only appear in specific areas and dungeons. Every enemy type in the game is limited, however: there are only so many of the low-level Gremlin or Niblet monsters, for example, and once you've exhausted their stock they will cease to appear entirely. You've effectively made that monster species extinct. Given how little territory is left that hasn't been swallowed by Chaos and that it follows that most monster species would be just as limited as the remaining amount of living humans, it's feasible enough to assume that they'll eventually run out. (Well, as long as you ignore the idea that most monsters are being spawned from the Chaos directly.) Once a monster species has completely died out, the areas they inhabited will either be free from encounters or will spawn other monster types instead. Likely much stronger ones to match the player's progress.

However, every monster type is also capable of one last hurrah. The Last One is a very specific encounter that appears after all of a monster's brethren have gone, and is a much stronger (and hot pink colored, for whatever reason) variant that acts like a boss fight. It has the same elemental strengths and weaknesses as its kin, so your old tactics should still work to an extent, but it has considerably higher stats and won't go down without a struggle. Destroying one reaps all sorts of amazing rewards, but given how much of a grindy nuisance it can be to make The Last One of any particular species appear, it's generally not worth it unless it just happens naturally as you run around killing stuff.

There's something both satisifying yet morally horrifying about wiping out an entire species, even if they are just monsters. I mean, it's genocide, pure and simple. While you can feel relieved that you'll never have to fight a certain monster again after a hundred or so encounters with them, they manage to weave it into the game's central theme of the world's imminent destruction in an uncomfortably personal manner. The world may be gone in a week, but I've ensured that there won't be any of these annoying little furball enemies around to see it. That's a good thing, right? R-right?


Well, here we go again. Can't go straight to Yusnaan because the first story mission doesn't start until 6pm, so we're off to the Wildlands instead. Our first task here is to find the Angel of Valhalla: a pure white Chocobo meant to herald the end of everything. I believe I may have mentioned it last time, as the first step is easy enough: You simply have to go to where the Angel was last seen and defeat a half-dead Chocobo Eater (a monster that can be quite a handful at full health due to its rage attacks) before it can finish off the severely wounded Chocobo. The majority of your efforts in the Wildlands are to locate and then feed various items to the Chocobo to improve its health, which then becomes an optional objective once it becomes strong enough to carry you. Feeding it more heals its wings, allowing it to glide over moderate distances, which is what you need to explore a large amount of the Wildlands. Specifically, we need to get to a temple deep in a rocky area of the Wildlands, but once I get ol' Boko fixed up enough to head most places around the map, I simply spent the next few (game) hours doing side-missions and grabbing rare items. It's a personal failing of mine, but when you give me a little more freedom in an open-world game, I tend to exploit it to its limits in lieu of actually doing something productive with my time, like taking up macramé.

While on my plumed perambulations, I came across an old friend: Sazh Katzroy! Of course, this immediately lead to two downer observations: The first is that there's no appreciable reason how or why Sazh managed to survive this long, given we last saw him in the first game (unless you bought the DLC for the second), and the second is that the developers are still as invested in his character growth as the writers of Lost were in Harold Perrineau's character on that show. Which is to say, he essentially boils down to is being a father who is running around looking for his son, forever. Nothing else seems to happen in Sazh's world; either his son Dajh is a l'Cie, or a crystal statue, or a soulless coma victim, and Sazh wants nothing more than for Dajh to be none of those things.

Sazh's mission, which is the fifth of the game's five big story quests, is simply a scavenger hunt: We need to find five fragments of Dajh's soul, which have inexplicably flown to the five corners of the world (though I suspect Lumina had something to do with it). The first is right next to Sazh's house, which really raises a pertinent question regarding why Sazh has been looking for fragments for 500 years and never thought to check his damn mailbox. The second is being held onto by Chocolina (which, as has been established elsewhere, is the grown up Chocobo chick that used to live in Sazh's hair), which means completing one of her Canvas of Prayers side-quests. (Man, did I ever actually talk about that whole thing? I guess that's the topic for tomorrow's Mechanics section.) The third is a prize in Yusnaan's battle arena, because of course there's a battle arena, while the fourth is being held onto by Chaos Seed merchants, who buy purple twinkling things you find in dangerous areas. The fifth is somewhere in the Dead Dunes, and thus the only fragment I didn't manage to pick up today.

As for Yusnaan, it's finally time to beat some sense into Snow by sneaking into the palace. Our original plan is to enter through the service tunnel, but it gets closed off unexpectedly. Not that it matters, as Lumina sics a mini-boss on us on the way there, dropping us in the Warehouse District. (Not that I mind too much, as this awesome track is playing throughout.) I eventually find the ID of some dead VIP, and thus no longer need to find a circuitous way around the gates to the fancy-in-the-pantsy exclusive Augur's Quarter. The second part of this mission involves demolishing the enormous gilded centerpiece in a nightly theatrical play about the Savior, by packing the base with far too many fireworks and then using the turmoil and the fallen structure to get over the outer walls of the palace. What follows is some extremely silly fetch quests for the fireworks followed by an even sillier sequence where Lightning flies around performing hackneyed lines in a play while everything explodes. Remember the intro to Final Fantasy X-2? Yeah, it's something like that, right down to the dumb Super Mario 64 floating platforms they perform on.

Anyway, once into the palace and back where the tutorial began, we just have a lot of classic dungeon puzzle hoops to jump through until we find Snow and, indeed, beat some sense into him. He finally succumbs to his l'Cie curse and becomes a Cie'th but, uh, we knock him out of it? I guess? He comes to, gives us his soul (in a friendly way! Just to reiterate!) and we get our second huge stat boost of the game. That's Snow and Noel we've rescued now.

As for any side-missions done during this period, well, I breezed through a number of them. One involved finding dozens of accessories for a circus performer to try out, so that was dumb. As an interesting endurance challenge, I had to kill 30 enemies in a permanent chaos region (where enemies constantly regen and are generally stronger) without healing. One quest actually had me exterminate a specific monster, which is what prompted the Last Ones discussion above. There's a few Wildlands side-missions that almost invariably led to a curative item for the Chocobo, as much of Lightning's time in the Wildlands is spent finding ways to heal the guy to the point where it's healthy enough to fly her to places.

I even got the monorail to Dead Dunes with thirty minutes (which is about a minute IRL time) left to spare before being called back to the Ark, so now I can start there when Day Five begins.

The Bit at the End

As I'm more or less done everywhere else, excepting a few side-missions, I believe the entirety of Day Five will be spent combing the desert for the whereabouts of Oerba Yun Fang (I've been told to seek out the Monoculous Bandits. Hmm, I wonder who their leader might be?), the holy artifact she left Vanille to pursue and that final soul fragment for Sazh and Dajh. Should be an eventful one: the desert's filled with monsters, though at least the Dunes has its own version of a fast-travel system, so that'll save me spending EP to 'port everywhere myself. See you then.

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What Is Lightning Returns? (Part 3)

Day Three: Six Days Left to Save Termina Nova Chrysalia

Onward to Day Three! We're done with Luxerion's story missions, but I've got a whole lot of side-quests to complete there. The alternatives are: go to Yusnaan, which is currently pointless as the story missions don't begin until after sundown; go to the Wild Lands, which involves fighting endless amounts of random encounters that I'd rather just blitz through by having the giant stat boost received after Yusnaan's story missions; or go to the Dead Dunes, which seems to be pretty much the Wild Lands but even more dangerous and in the desert.

My plan is to just hash out some Luxerion's side-missions (using a guide to determine when and where missions begin and end, naturally, because screw feeling my way around that giant area and hoping to strike it lucky with a damn ticking clock over my head) and then pop over to Yusnaan late afternoon for its story missions. I, uh, manage to screw that up though. Well, we'll get into more detail about that a little later. It's a good story though, it ends with me realizing that I don't know how time works.


Schematas: I talked about how Lightning's schematas are essentially combination dresspheres and paradigms (the FFXIII definition of the term, at least), but there's a considerable depth of customization here that I glossed over. The sheer number of schematas is fascinating in its micromanagement-friendly way, and when configuring them it never ever boils down to just "should I use this for my magic-using build or my physical-attack build"? That's probably a good basis for what two of your three schematas ought to prioritize, at least early on, but there's so many other factors to consider as well.

For instance, I'm now finding schemata that focus on a specific element, like thunder or fire. They come with magic boosts and have elemental skills built in - most schematas have pre-installed skills like this, but they won't let you configure which button these default skills are attached to, which really messes with your OCD if you want your attack button to be always Circle and guard to always be Square. Many schematas give you a mix of beneficial skills and it's up to the player whether they consider, say, more health to be a superior advantage over increased defense. However, it seems a lot of them clearly have a very specific, context-sensitive purpose too, like the above elemental-based schematas which seem to exist purely in case you're around a lot of enemies weak to the same shit.

The game's odd in that Lightning is a powerful character (well, at least in the gameplay sense) right from the offset. There's a lot of room for growth, of course, but she's slinging high-powered spells and doing thousands of points of damage with regular attacks immediately after the game begins. The small stat boosts from completing side-quests are just there to make the game slightly easier, and some story bosses slightly more manageable to deal with, and the same's true for most of what comprises a schemata. If anything provides the strongest boosts to physical/magical attack, it's the weapons and they're often the determining factor when it comes to whether this schemata is a magical/physical attacker. The rest of the schemata, which includes the outfit Lightning is wearing (and they all look ridiculous, for the record, like Nomura just plumbed every Japanese middle-school girl's fashion sketchbook for ideas) and other add-ons tend to provide all sorts of contextual bonuses like extra HP, enhanced elemental attack and defense, extra ATB speed and recovery, status resistance and many other power-ups that would seem to be most effective in very particular scenarios. The game has a freebie Escape option for any battle (I haven't tested it with story bosses though) so I imagine if you're getting pummeled because none of your schemata has anything to counter the present enemy, you can jump out of combat and tinker with them until you can slip into something more suitable.

Importantly, I've found, stores continue to restock after so many days, so there's usually schemata parts which are objectively better than anything you're using. It pays to check back with any equipment vendors you haven't visited in a while. It looks like these superior schemata parts show up the further you get into the game too, so as to not mess up the difficulty curve, but it seems as if the player might be fine with just a few rudimentary ones and sticking new skills on them as they fight stronger enemies. Or maybe they won't be, and it's actually vitally important to always be upgrading to better schematas whenever possible. For all its tutorials and datalogs, Lightning Returns does have a habit of leaving a lot to the player to figure out. Abstruse, is the word I usually use in this situation.

In addition to the weapon and shield you use (the shield is somewhat less essential than weapons, and tend to only determine how powerful your guarding ability is), you also have two slots for accessories and an adornment slot. The accessories are scattered all over the place in chests and provide singular 5additional passive abilities, while the adornment is simply for show and tends to be dumb stuff like carnations, cactuar dolls and trendy eyewear. I bought an anime Lightning mask off a moogle on Day Three, so I'll probably be using that from here on out, because it's incredibly dumb and that's how I roll these days.

Skills: Skills are the other big micromanagement headache this game has, but the way it approaches them is also interesting in how it does its best to make the whole system worth investing in. Skills tend to range from attack, guard, spells and other abilities, but you have to earn them through combat. Most of the enemies in the game have a skill drop specific to them, usually one they themselves use, and by going to a sorcery shop Lightning can merge multiple skills together to make a superior one. Thus, if you're stuck killing a dozen of the same enemies for whatever reason, you can combine enough of their identical skill drops into something valuable. There's also a "Shiny Pokemon" element in that you can sometimes get rare versions of skills which come with an additional passive bonus (if you didn't already have enough), and this passive gets passed along when merging that skill with others. You'll hit a cap to how far these skills can increase, eventually, but then you'll be able to evolve the skill into a much stronger variant (albeit, once you're somewhat further into the game, because that stringent difficulty curve is sacrosanct). There's no restrictions for schematas and the skills you can attach to them, so it comes down to which skills you intend to use most often. It's also worth stocking up on those rares because their passive skills take effect whether you use the skill in battle or not. Better skills drop from tougher monsters, thus giving you better motivation to take them on more often (especially given how there's no XP to worry about, which is usually the reason why you'd want to fight the bigger guys).

But holy crap if this game doesn't have a lot of these skills. You never really had to think about skills/abilities in the previous FFXIII games because they were automatically dispensed based on your equipped paradigm. Now I have to worry about Ruin and Deprotect and fifteen different variants of Attack and a bunch of schemata-specific stuff, like a Firaga equivalent that seems to be powered by physical strength instead of magical. I'd say it's a game that rewards experimentation, but that's evidently not true because you're always fighting against time.

The more I cover this feature, the more it seems clear that the developers just threw every idea they had at this thing and hoped enough of it stuck. I mean that both mechanically and narratively, and I'll use that to segue into...


Yusnaan: Even in Party City Central, You Have to Stick to a Schedule

I'm wondering how much time I should spend talking about side-missions. I feel like these updates are already getting long enough, but some side-missions have enough story significance to be worth a paragraph. Given that I royally screwed up the timing on the first Yusnaan story mission, I pretty much spent this entire day just doing side-quests instead of getting on with the important stuff and won't really have much else to write about if I excise it.

So screw it.

Luxerion's side-quests for the most part are nothing too notable. Usual mix of running around talking to the right people and buying the right items to hand in at the right times. Fought a dragon, made an elixir (but not the sort I can use, alas), won a footrace with some 500 year old kid, checked clocks all over town in the most pointless quest ever, recovered the soul of a boy from his dead cat by feeding him illegal drugs I procured in the slums. You know, same ol', same ol'.

A couple of notable outliers include a quest where I had to, in a macabre twist, go speak to the three women who got murdered on my behalf during the story mission here. Post-death enlightenment, I was able to discover a few new story tidbits, including the fact that the absence of Etro is what's preventing new life from being born, as her task was to channel souls into the bodies of newborns to maintain a cycle of life and death (which is a theory I've found very odd when applied to the real world, considering there are more people alive than have ever been alive every year). The new world, once Bhunivelze is done blowing up the old, will also be absent an Etro to keep the human race chugging along, so the game's been hinting that Lightning might replace her. Man, save us all if someone gave her dominion over life and death. As for the other two murder victims, one was a former soldier who assisted the Order of Bhunivelze for centuries and had some neat war stories, while the other was pretending to be the Savior and ends up giving you an item for another side-mission as penance. Kind of a big story dump side-quest, really, and surprisingly not that easy to find without a guide.

The other side-quest I want to talk about is The Girl Who Cried Wolf which, as well as being a little too victim-blamey for my liking, is one of the few time-sensitive side-quests. I don't just mean that you have to be at the right spot at the right time to complete it, but that after you start the quest you are forced to complete it on the same day or it is marked as failed forever. Probably preaching to the choir here, but that is some hot garbage in a burning trash can if I ever saw it. Side-quests are fairly immaterial in the grand scheme of things, sure, but there's always going to be obsessive folk like myself who want to bash them all out anyway. The game's trophy for side-missions, as if acknowledging how BS some of this stuff is, awards the player after hitting a milestone that is significantly smaller than the total number. The special end-game bonus dungeon requires twice as many completed side-missions, but is still 13 (or 14, sources can't seem to agree) shy of the full amount, just in case you bump into nonsense like this and end up with a few failure marks on your quest log. The mission itself isn't so tough - you simply have to go around the city answering payphones and then finish the quest in the slums of the city (which, I'll remind you all, is only open during nighttime). But, man, I really hope this doesn't set a precedent.

Yusnaan's a very picturesque city, kind of a cross between Las Vegas and Paris, and I rolled in around 3pm in order to give me plenty of time to get the story missions sorted. Guess what, though? I got waylaid by the vast amount of side-quests between the station and the first checkpoint, and by the time I'd progressed the main quest sufficiently I had already passed the strict 6pm meeting time required to move onto the next section. I spent Yusnaan reacquainting a restaurant owner and his itinerant epicurean son, and teaching some busker kid how to perform Final Fantasy XIII's Main Theme, that I lost track of time completely, even with a lot of Chronostasises. Chronostases? Turns out, EP runs out pretty quick when you aren't getting into many fights.

Having exhausted most of the side-missions I can do in Yusnaan right now (like Luxerion, most of them only unlock after completing story missions in that area), I spent the final few hours of the day in the Wild Lands. I actually got several stages into the first of two story missions there, rescuing a white chocobo (named the Angel of Valhalla and thought to herald the end of the world, so that's one awesome ratite) and helping with a couple of missions to bring it the recovery food it needs. From what I've been told by NPCs, a fully healed Chocobo that I can ride will let me reach the 60% of the Wild Lands currently inaccessible due to cliffs and other big jumps. Hey, sounds like a deal to me. Last few hours were spent in a forest, helping moogles (including Mog! From FFXIII-2! He... he was the moogle in that game. Yeah, yeah, the annoying one) and picking up poop before the day finally ended.

Because of the weird convoluted way I left things in Luxerion, Yusnaan and the Wild Lands, where I was told by several NPCs to meet back with them the following day to move side-quests along, I'm trying to deduce a schedule that can fit everything in. It's going to need some liberal teleporting, so I hope I can find enough EP. Might be time I start trying to track down some of these EP-restoring Ethers I've heard about...

In short, you know how Hermione used that magical watch thing to be in a dozen places at once in The Prisoner of Azkaban? That's what Day Four is going to be like for me. Wait, you say didn't see that or any Harry Potter movie? Oh, uh, yeah, me neither. (Damn! All my cool guy credibility! Gone, like tears in the rain.)

(Back to Part Two.)

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What Is Lightning Returns? Part Two

Day Two: Six Days Left to Save Termina Nova Chrysalia

Hey all, back with part two as promised. We'll be going over what I did today, in true grade school summer vacation fashion, and touching on any major story elements that occur in addition to any distinctive game features I happened upon. The story section, below, contains major spoilers for the Luxerion chapter of the game, so be warned. If you'd prefer not to have the game spoiled for you, maybe just read the "Mechanics" parts from here on out. Speaking of which:


I didn't get into this with the initial report, but Lightning has superpowers given to her by Bhunivelze to assist her in her role as savior. These powers all run off a very precious and finite resource called EP. EP is valuable, because you start with only five points (though it increases after completing big story missions) and is used for various purposes, but really only three that are significant so far: Teleport, Chronostasis and Overclock.

Teleport is what it sounds like: a fast travel system that takes you to any major checkpoint (usually monorail stations, which is how the normal slowpokes get around) you've already been. It uses up two points of EP though, so it's always worth considering if it would be less wasteful to simply walk to where you need to go. That's almost always the case if you intend to travel to somewhere in the same area: for instance, Luxerion has two fast travel points on either side of town, but if you're actually in Luxerion it's a relatively short walk between them. Still, if you're short on time but full of EP (especially towards the end of the day, after which your EP refills anyway) it's probably worth it.

Chronostasis is a little more vital if you're of the schedule-fixated persuasion, like myself. What it does is pause the timer but not the world, largely because there's not a lot you can do if all the quest sponsors are all frozen solid. The liberal application of Chronostasis means that you don't have to worry too much about completing a lot of tasks in a very short time window, though it will burn through the EP very quickly. I opted to go for the Easy setting, because I discovered it lowers the cost of Chronostasis and allows Lightning to auto-regen health when outside of battle, and I'm all about conveniences. That seems way less stressful than the alternative, and I don't particularly bummed that all these boss fights got nerfed either.

Overclock is one of the few EP abilities that you activate in battle. Like Chronostasis, it essentially pauses combat in its current state for a very brief spell with the added benefit of making Lightning's ATB bar (what she uses to mete out attacks and spells) infinite. When coupled with the stagger/knock-down mechanic, it essentially means that you can keep hitting Overclock and pummel an enemy at its most vulnerable point. It's the best way to do a lot of damage to bosses in rapid time, and seems to be the way to go with most of the larger random encounter enemies in the game too. Reason being? Defeating enemies is how you recover EP, and defeating large enemies tends to award a lot of EP at once. You might as well burn it all to complete the fight faster.

There's a few other EP skills too, of course. You can use it in combat (or out) to heal yourself fully at any time, or to resurrect yourself if you don't have a Phoenix Down equipped. The Escape ability, which simply drops you outside of the battle as if it never happened, is a freebie you can use any time if you're not into fighting at that moment - fights provide cash and item drops, as well as EP recovery, but no actual XP as Lightning's development is governed elsewhere. More EP skills unlock as you get further in the game (I started with a handful originally). There's also certain special chests in the environment that require EP to open, which I imagine hold some pretty sweet stuff (I've only found one so far and it asked for my entire EP bar, which wasn't happening at that moment).

Tune in tomorrow for even more integral game features I probably should've already mentioned!


Luxerion: Not the Name of a Cruise Ship, Turns Out.

Luxerion is where Hope suggests Lightning start saving souls, since Yusnaan will be on high alert for a while. Luxerion is the other big center of civilization in the game, and is a far more sedate and pious place that weirdly feels unfinished. Not in the sense that Square-Enix cuts every corner they can, but that so many corridors and tunnels that link the districts together have tarps up and scaffolding everywhere. The city, and all its people, are over 500 years old, so there's no reason for why nothing seems complete other than that they had to abandon parts of the city mid-construction because the chaos had snuck in too far. That's corroborated with the fact that these corridors are where most of Luxerion's monster spawns occur.

The two focal points of Luxerion are the north and south stations, which are the two warp points I mentioned earlier. Around them are most of the stores and NPCs of note. To the top right are the slums, which the game refers to as The Warrens, which annoying enough is only open at night during the last six hours of the day cycle Lightning's working with. Since there's quite a number of NPCs and side-mission related targets up there, it can be a nuisance. To the top left is the graveyard, which is more or less a standard dungeon type area filled with monsters.

Upon reaching Luxerion, Lightning discovers that there's a shadowy cabal that has it out for women with Lightning's trademark rose-tinted hair. Apparently, the hair color isn't all that unusual, as many women have been butchered that resemble her superficially. The cult is lead by a figure called the Shadow Hunter, which immediately gets the brain ticking towards which former companion of Lightning's this could possibly be. The first few stages of this quest involve scouring the crime site for clues, and then the whole city for password numbers graffiti'd onto walls so you can sneak into a midnight ritual murder. It's precisely as dumb as it sounds, but I guess the game wanted to give you a good reason to thoroughly explore the city and a considerable amount of time to do so, both of which helped a lot when finding side-missions to busy oneself with until the time came to continue the story.

At this point, Lightning figures out that FFXIII-2's Noel Kriess is the Shadow Hunter, and he's been stewing in his own guilt for five centuries after getting both Yeul, his oracle companion, and Serah, Lightning's sister, killed on his watch. Both died in his arms. As such, he's been fixated on an Oracle Drive (a recording left by an ancestor of Yeul that were the crux of many of FFXIII-2's paradox missions) that reveals that killing Lightning will immediately reboot the world, magically resurrecting Yeul in the process. Random folk around the Warren who also saw this premonition got a little bit overzealous and started murdering any Lightningalike they came across. Noel and Lightning stop them from killing another rose-haired girl in the graveyard, and then Lightning chases Noel into the Warrens. Despite getting the upper hand, Noel decides he can't kill Lightning and destroys the Oracle Drive instead. After he apologizes to her for the whole "murder" thing, Lightning wins her first "big" soul of the game which comes with a massive stat boost and another point of EP (which is darn invaluable).

We also discover another familiar soul when visiting the cathedral, who is acting as the pro-Bhunivelze religion's high priestess: It's the permanently chipper Vanille! Apparently, she and Fang managed to bust out of the pillar thirteen years ago (a number with a lot of significance in this world, it seems) and were recruited by the church. Vanille's the only one that can communicate with the souls of the dead: in typical Final Fantasy fashion, souls are meant to return to the Earth so they can be reborn, but there's been no births for 500 years. Along with being immortal, no-one can grow older or have children, though they can still be killed or die of disease. As such, there's a huge number of disembodied souls percolating around the cathedral's inner core, threatening to destroy the world with pure chaotic energy should they ever be released. This is what we call foreshadowing. Vanille's currently alone; Fang left to the Dead Dunes region to find an artifact that'll help ease Vanille's burden, but it's been years since Vanille has heard from her.

I'm already liking what this game is doing with its legacy characters, for as convoluted as this is all getting. It's easy to imagine how much half a millennium spent alone pondering one's thoughts might do to a person's sanity. Both Snow and Noel are struggling with some serious survivor guilt, and have been doing so for so long now that I'm surprised neither of them have leapt off a bridge. I guess that might be a little too dark for a Final Fantasy game, but then we are talking about the literal end of the world here. Vanille's in over her head as the head of a religion trying to keep a churning mass of angry souls at bay, Fang's possibly dead but probably not dead and It's been intimidated multiple times that this Hope isn't necessarily the Hope from the previous games, especially given he's even more emotionless than Lightning these days. Now, that's a feat.

The Bit at the End

With the itinerary for Day Three, I plan to do some sightseeing in Luxerion (more side-quests open up as you complete story missions) and then head back to Yusnaan. I already happen to know that the Yusnaan story missions can't begin until late in the afternoon, so I'm intending to spend most of the early hours completing Luxerion sidequests for the items and stat boosts. Still, should hopefully have something for you tomorrow regardless.

Back to Part One.


What Is Lightning Returns? (Part 1)

Well, it's a video game. To be specific, it's the third game in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy (remember when trilogies didn't all share the same numeral?) from Square-Enix.

But that's not specific enough. What is this game? We saw a brief tidbit with the site's Quick Look and there's probably a year's worth of LPs out there that have shown up since it came out, but let's assume for a moment that you're at least partially curious about this game, either because you played the previous two to some degree and are really on the fence about trying another one, or are simply a newcomer wondering if this game is at all accessible (it is not. I answered that one for you right here in the intro).

What this is, is a combination review/reactions blog, discussing both the game's mechanics and its story in separate sections. The reason for this is to keep the plot stuff tucked away in a spoiler-marked zone for those who are actually invested in where this series is going after all the fevered gibberish thus far.

Honestly speaking, I wrote the other articles in which I share my knee-jerk reactions, impressions and goofs while playing an unusual but largely game for the first time (those would be for Deadly Premonition and the first two Metal Gear Solid games) because I figured it'd be a fun read for those who have come before. With Lightning Returns, I'm just writing down everything that happens so I can piece together what the hell is even happening.

Part 1: Prologue and Day One


Basics (Combat): So the basic game isn't actually all that complicated. The new combat system is really just the old paradigm combat system tweaked for a single participant: in previous games, you could customize a bunch of different class variations for your party to use. Sort of like the job system of old, the player could switch on the fly from a party of warriors to a party of mages, depending on the circumstances and the enemies being faced. In addition, constantly exploiting the enemy's weakness would stagger them, dropping their defense considerably to pave the way for a barrage of the strongest attacks the player could muster for a brief period. This usually meant switching to mages that could pummel an enemy with elemental attacks it didn't agree with, then switching to physical when it fell flat on its face and was struggling to get back up. You'd also factor in the usual MMO buff/debuff cycle, ensuring that your party would be resistant to everything being thrown at them, while making sure the enemy was feeling every attack as hard as possible.

Most of that is retained here, though we're simply editing Lightning's apparel and gear in combat-role-determining "schematas", not unlike the dresspheres of FFX-2. Going one step further is the amount of cosmetic customization for Lightning's appearance, to the extent that I sort of feel like the game's aimed at a younger female audience. (Which is certainly a refreshing change of pace in a big budget game like this, which generally tend to put their considerable budgets towards big explosions and realistic boob physics.) Rather than having a bunch of possible attacks that the AI automatically prioritizes based on the opponent when switching to a class--a facet of the first game's intense adherence to streamlining--the player has to manually map all four skills to the face buttons for every schemata they create. These include basic stuff like "attack" and "guard" to more circumstance-apropos skills and spells. Each attack lowers the active time bar for that schemata, so combat generally revolves around bottoming out the ATB for one schemata and switching to another, which lets the first recharge faster. It's similar to three-person team-based fighters like Marvel vs. Capcom in that you end up looking for trios that work in tandem and chain into one another well, rather than building three powerful but not necessarily harmonious options. Trying to set three distinct roles for every possibility can be detrimental, as you'll occasionally bump into creatures immune to physical or magical damage, giving one schemata nothing to do. If you drop "deshell" (a debuff that lowers magic resistance) on your physical-attacker schemata instead, however, it has a purpose when fighting a physical-resistant foe and in the process frees up more ATB for the magic-attacker to spam offensive spells. Likewise for deprotect (the same as deshell, but for physical resistance) on a magic-attacker build. That's how I've been going so far anyway but hey, I've just started, so I'm sure I'll find out how wrong I am later.

Basics (Non-Combat): There seems to be two factors to this game that determine where the player's priorities lie and what they should be doing. The first is time. While we're looking at something akin to Xenoblade Chronicles or Majora's Mask "NPCs on a schedule" format, the game only actually has seven days before it ends. There's no Song of Time to reverse it either: the world simply stops existing once that time limit expires. You can extend this time limit a full additional week by doing quests and side-missions for people, which is where the second part comes in: the goal of the game is to "save" people. This essentially means fixing their problems so they can move onto the next world without regrets, though the game isn't quite so morbid to kill off every quest sponsor - rather, they give you their immortal soul for safekeeping, or something. These souls not only extend the game's overall time limit, but provide essential stat boosts to Lightning. With the exception of buying or finding better gear for schematas, this is the only way Lightning gets more powerful. What the game's done, therefore, is place a considerable impetus on completing side-missions, to the extent that the tough enemies get slightly easier to deal with every time you find some little girl's stuffed carbuncle, or kill a bunch of monsters for some anonymous bulletin board poster. It's a curious means of turning the usual side-mission BS on its head by making it somewhat more important to the core game, but it also means that the player must consider how to juggle all these side-quests with the finite time they have. In fact, we're explicitly told early on that the time you spend on one side-mission can often be better spent elsewhere for greater rewards, so it's never best to get hung up on any task that requires grinding or other fetch mission goose chases, for as plentiful as they are. The core five story missions, which can seemingly be done in any order, are the primary focus throughout, though because many are dependent on certain times of day before they can begin there's always plenty of downtime between each stage of the mission to fit in some side-questing and other distractions. It's a very risky design prospect, building a game around strict time limits. I remember Pandora's Tower doing quite a good job with that element almost in spite of itself.

So, running around doing missions and beating up monsters by switching wardrobes is the crux of the game so far. It's still recognizably Final Fantasy, though I'll get into some of the weirder affectations this one in particular has adopted in future updates.


But hey, the schedule and single character mechanics aren't even the most drastic upheaval to FFXIII. Oh my no. The paradoxes and time skipping of FFXIII-2 might've danced a merry jig on the grave of logical consistency in FFXIII's world, but Lightning Returns moves right into a balletic Riverdance. It's the Michael Flatley of story contrivances, I guess is what I'm saying (I guess?). We'll just get up to speed by synopsizing the first two:

Previously, On The "What the Hell Even" Anime Nonsense Variety Hour

FFXIII was largely about a group of people who didn't like each other very much all getting cursed (more or less) by a fal'Cie (a mechanical demigod, left behind by the creator deity to look after mankind) to become l'Cie (cursed humans). All an l'Cie can do is fulfill the "focus" that the fal'Cie has tasked them with, though are given no hints what that focus is because religion metaphor. The alternative is to become an insane zombie monster called a Cie'th, often fought in encounters. Skip ahead a bit, and the party of Lightning (female Cloud), Hope (annoying kid), Snow (wishes he was Terry Bogard), Sazh (a black Final Fantasy character that wasn't based on Mr. T), Vanille (possibly an Australian accent) and Fang (the sixth one) take down the fal'Cie in charge of Cocoon, a giant floating egg filled with cities, before they can kill all the humans and summon their creator deity back, presumably so it can ask why all the humans are dead and that they gave the caretaker fal'Cie "one job". Fang and Vanille stop Cocoon from falling by turning into a giant popsicle. Roll credits.

FFXIII-2 decided there was more to do here, so they surreptitiously kidnapped the last game's heroine at the start of this one and dropped her off at the feet of Etro, the Goddess of Death and Chaos and, to no-one's surprise, Lightning decided to be her champion. Gal knows where her strengths lie. The rest of FFXIII-2 was spent with Noel Kreiss, the last human being alive in a distant future who can time travel somehow, and Serah Ferron, the sister of Lightning who spent most of the last game as an ice sculpture, flitting hundreds of years backwards and forwards in time to solve paradoxes with the ultimate goal to find Lightning. They're also trying to stop Caius, Noel's mentor, from destroying the time line because he's mad that his underage girlfriend keeps dying because of all her deadly premonitions (remember, Zach?). We'll skip forward a bit here too, and the game ends with Caius killing Lightning and Etro, and then Noel and Serah killing Caius. And then Serah dies too, because this is the dark middle chapter of the trilogy. Albeit the sort of dark middle chapter that has incongruous block puzzles and a moogle sidekick.

So when FFXIII-2 concluded, we were so far into the future after the original game's timeline that barely anything mattered any more. An adult Hope Estheim had himself regularly frozen in stasis so he could meet Noel and Serah whenever they appeared in the future but beyond that, the exact location and status of the rest of the cast of FFXIII was something of a mystery. Fang and Vanille were still chilling in the largest snocone ever made. Sazh had popped off to some sort of interdimensional Vegas filled with Playboy Chocobo ladies (including Chocolina who, like FFXII's Fran, was the fault of some employee at Square-Enix who kept leaving his anthro fetish porn folder out where Nomura could see it). Snow was off doing his own thing, jumping through time having adventures no-one cares about. Serah was very dead, and Noel and the Moogle seemed bummed. That's pretty much all I can recall from the end of FFXIII-2.

And Now, The Conclusion

So let's try to unpack what the hell Lightning Returns is about, at least so far.

Well, for one thing, Lightning returns. I mean... yeah, obviously, right? Turns out she was just sleeping, in that deep way that totally makes you look like a corpse. Etro's long gone, but Lightning has been brought back to life by another god, this time the ultimate creator deity Bhunivelze, to acquire the remaining souls on the planet before he destroys everything and starts over. We know this guy is evil, because he brought back annoying kid Hope to help Lightning instead of tolerable adult Hope. In the five hundred years since the events of FFXIII-2 and Caius's deicide, everyone's time has stopped. That means every NPC in the game is over 500 years old, with a couple of exceptions. It gets weirder. The world itself is down to a few cities and a small continent, all of which is surrounded by a miasma of chaos filled with monsters. (Occasionally, you'll wander into a patch of this stuff and discover that it buffs enemies and gives them regen, though the rewards are better too.)

All right, so Lightning is known as The Savior and must go down to Nova Chrysalia before it's destroyed to save as many souls as possible before the apocalypse. If all this sounds familiar, maybe read Revelations again.

"You didn't like Lightning in the first game? Now she's a badass valkyrie fighting all comers at the end of time. Oh, you didn't like Lightning in the second game either? Well, now she's Jesus. Keep pushing me, nerds." - Tetsuya Nomura, TGS 2014.

The prologue begins a mission in media res, where we find out that Snow is the all-powerful Patron of 24-Hour Party City Yusnaan and he hates Lightning now. This is how the game chooses to introduce itself. There's also an impish teen called Lumina who takes Serah's form and has some connection to the nebulous forces of chaos destroying everything. She's kind of important, it seems, because she shows up in almost every cutscene to giggle at you. Snow gets away before Lightning can take his soul (but in a polite way, not a Shang Tsung way), and we're tossed unceremoniously back to Savior HQ after we've had enough tutorials.

Hope's doing the Oracle thing back at the HQ with a massive divine computer terminal, and the HQ itself is a hollowed out ruined version of Cocoon in which time doesn't flow and there's a big life tree you can feed souls to to extend the number of days you have to complete the game. There's also a couch to relax on, and a snack machine that won't take notes unless you really straighten them out first.

So, uh, yeah. That's a lot of information to digest given we've only been playing the game for an hour so far.

The Bit at the End

What's going to happen with this feature is that I'll try to update it every day--I'm looking to match this pace in-game, possibly speeding up if I end up doing everything of note early--with new observations regarding both the story and any noteworthy nuances to the combat and general gameplay I come across. Subsequent updates will be considerably shorter as a result.

I kind of want to get into the nuts and (lightning) bolts of this game because it's fascinating for a great many reasons. What do you with a series' overarching plot when you've already thrown continuity out of the window with time travel paradoxes? How do you come back from killing off half the cast and effectively dooming the entire world? How do you readjust a party-based RPG like Final Fantasy for a single playable character? And why even make another game in a series no-one ever seemed particularly stoked about? From what I've seen and played so far I feel like FFXIII-3 is either emblematic of everything wrong with Square-Enix and its modern day complacency and lack of imagination, or somehow the ballsiest step they've ever taken (that wasn't a disastrous movie, at least).


SoundClouds and SpoTifa: Theatrhythm: Curtain Call

January wasn't meant to move this slow for me. I'm in that odd situation where I have a new pile of shame from an Xmas haul that I can't find myself getting motivated to play, despite the fact that for the first time in a while I have a surplus of great games to get through. Maybe it's being spoiled for choice, or maybe it's just winter malaise, but I've spent the majority of my video game time these past two weeks just watching LPs and playing Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call in short bursts.

Curtain Call is the enhanced edition of Square-Enix and Indieszero's 2012 rhythm game Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, which recontextualizes the entire Final Fantasy multiverse as a stage filled with adorable marionette facsimiles of the venerable series' enormous cast of PCs and enemies. The focus is entirely on the music from those games, and Curtain Call expands the already impressive discography of the first game to include a lot of Final Fantasy spin-offs and the franchise's few appearances in other media. However, it's not purely built for fan service: the game itself is accessible to all with its easy to grasp and tricky to master rhythm gameplay, though the difficulty curve kind of rises precipitously when you get to the hardest difficulty setting, Ultimate, and the game simply becomes some kind of absurd Jedi training program. Hell, it would make finding robots disguised as humans easier than any Turing or Voight-Kampff test ever could.

Anyhoo, I've gotten pretty deep into the game and I'm close to the cap for Rhythmia, the game's cumulative score-slash-currency that unlocks new features every milestone. (Most of these features are nonsense, like new noises for hitting notes and new features for your StreetPass card (wooo.), but there's been some good stuff too. I sort of want to see what happens when I max it out.) As such, I've been thoroughly reintroduced to the Final Fantasy series through its music, and I'm thinking of just going through the series and discussing its games from a purely musical perspective. Some soundtracks stick out more than others, and for various reasons, let's just say.

(I also want a jab at some of its DLC, especially the Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana tracks, but £.89 per song seems a little inconvenient. Who wants to charge their Visa 89 pence? I kinda wish there was a pick and mix option, but I shudder to imagine the amount of additional eShop infrastructure tweaking that would require. Maybe I'll just put ten quid's worth of credit on the eShop and be done with it.)

Final Fantasy - "I, Garland, Will Rock You All (Down)"

The core Final Fantasies are left largely untouched in Curtain Call, with a smattering of previously DLC-only songs thrown in for color. What's unusual, to perhaps anyone who is hopelessly naive, is how many core series songs are still available as DLC even for Curtain Call. Anyway, the first Final Fantasy does what it can with the NES's sound tech, though it's certainly not bad. Catchy, even. Capcom pulled off wonders with that thing, after all, and Square's lead composer Nobuo Uematsu was no slouch back then either. What's a little jarring is that some of the tracks are clearly from the GBA and PSP remakes, as they sound way more modern than the rest. The Halloween-esque final boss theme, for instance, was added to versions of FFI created long after the original NES release: in the NES version, poor old Chaos had to settle with the standard battle theme.

Final Fantasy II - "I Hurt Myself Today"

So my purpose here today is to sidestep the reputation certain Final Fantasy games have in order to focus on their music. FFII's soundtrack isn't all that notable (but the less charitable might say that it's still the best thing in that game) and it has the fewest number of tracks for any core Final Fantasy as a result. Tracks like the Rebel Army's main theme are still catchy enough, which is fortunate because you have to go back and forth from their base about a hundred times. FFII's lead designer, Akitoshi Kawazu, would go on to create his own vaguely derivative Final Fantasy-inspired spin-off, the SaGa series, which would become renowned for their soundtracks. Though, again, it's probably more the case that people were reaching for something nice to say. There's quite a number of SaGa tracks as DLC but... ehh.

Final Fantasy III - "A Hard Day's Onion Knight"

I enjoy the music of Final Fantasy III quite a bit, especially the final boss music and some of the field stages. It's the biggest of the NES trio, so there was quite a number of tunes to choose from. Even though it's just NES bleeps and bloops, tracks like The Boundless Ocean can be pretty darn moving.

Final Fantasy IV - "Loonarian Tunes"

Now we're getting to the good stuff. Final Fantasy IV is absolutely jammed with memorable tracks, from the ominously imperial Red Wings theme at the start of the game to the equally ominous final encounter with Zemus, now a giant R-Type boss calling itself Zeromus. The technological theme of Within the Giant, the rousing Battle with the Four Fiends, and the portentous Tower of Zot are all great too. It's probably some degree of nostalgic fanservice guiding my words here, and Theatrhythm wouldn't be nearly as fun without that, but FFIV's music is so totally the shit that it isn't even spoony.

Final Fantasy V - "The Clash on the Big Bridge"

FFV's music, too, is remarkable in a lot of ways. While I tend to forget what half its silly plot was about (aliens, meteors and werewolves, I think), there's some tracks that take me right back to the parts of the game I actually do remember. The way Exdeath's final boss theme initially sounds like Ghostbusters, for instance, or the bittersweet reunion that accompanies Home, Sweet Home. Gilgamesh's not-so-final showdown with Clash on the Big Bridge too, of course, since I brought it up. It also has one of the best Chocobo themes with Mambo de Chocobo.

Final Fantasy VI - "He Suplexed the Midnight Train, Goin' Anywhere"

Final Fantasy VI is a damn masterpiece, as I'm sure we're all aware, and its eclectic soundtrack reflects that to an extent. Almost every character, and there's over a dozen, has their own leitmotif that reflects their personality - Celes's is sad and compassionate, Terra's is enigmatic and lonely, Sabin/Edgar's is brash and regal. Kefka's final boss theme, Dancing Mad, is one of the longest tracks in the entire game (though it's not a patch on the "full" version, which is seventeen minutes long. It's like Final Fantasy's version of Stairway to Heaven.) I'm a little shocked they managed to cut it down to ten tracks, but I guess they needed to hold something back for DLC.

Final Fantasy VII - "Materia Girl"

It shouldn't come to any surprise to anyone that Final Fantasy VII, despite having a stellar soundtrack that really took advantage of the series's leap to CDs, is a little over-represented here. While many of the big tracks are here (except the opening Bombing Mission theme, which is DLC), many of them end up getting remixed in some manner with the two other Final Fantasy VII-related entries on this list. Still, all ten of FFVII's are bangers, and 100% is not a bad ratio to hit. Certainly can't go wrong with the standard battle theme (I love the metallic echo-y parts), standard boss theme, J-E-N-O-V-A, Aerith's theme, Gold Saucer, Cosmo Canyon (possibly my favorite FF7 track) or Judgment Day. Even the main theme still gives me goosebumps. Ol' Sephy's One-Winged Angel dirge is here too, of course, and not for the last time.

Final Fantasy VIII - "Total Ellipsis of the Heart"

The best Final Fantasy soundtrack. As much as I love the music for a lot of these other games, Final Fantasy VIII is the easy winner for me. Maybe it stands out more because the rest of the game ain't so hot, but I love almost every track from this game (except maybe Eyes on Me). Don't be Afraid and Force Your Way are amazing battle themes, The Man With the Machine Gun reminds me how awesome Laguna's little asides were, Maybe I'm a Lion might well be the most badass boss theme in the entire franchise. The Extreme's fantastic too, as sinister as Maybe I'm a Lion is relentless. Blue Fields and Fisherman's Horizon are a gentle tonic for the game's crazier moments, while Find Your Way and The Castle feel like something out of a horror game. I just wish there was more Final Fantasy VIII music in this game, consarnit. (Well, it has five DLC tracks if I really wanted to bite the bullet and call my own bluff. Not that I could call out anything while biting a bullet. Mixed metaphors, my friends; wanna avoid those if you can.)

Final Fantasy IX - "Ozma Osbourne"

I like Final Fantasy IX's music a lot too, of course. I feel like they deliberately kept things simple after the nutty Kojima-esque excesses of VIII, and the music's a similar story. As I have a bit more of an emotional connection to FFIX, because it actually had characters I cared about, some of its tracks stick out for me more for their nostalgic value. Songs like Something to Protect, A Place to Call Home and Not Alone are more powerful for their added context. Others are just fun and a little goofy, like Festival of the Hunt and Dark City Treno.

Final Fantasy X - "Blitzball Bop"

Final Fantasy X might be my third favorite soundtrack of the series, after VIII and MQ. It feels like Uematsu (and his eventual successor, Masashi Hamauzu) drew from a lot of different genres while putting it together. If you were to just take the five boss themes included in Curtain Call: Fight with Seymour's your classic frantic Final Fantasy boss tune that sticks a brick on the accelerator pedal; Challenge, the boss theme of Yunalesca and others, is a bit heavier and more contemporary as well as just kinda unnerving; Otherworld's a lot heavier and almost incongruously metal were it not for its connection to badass asshole (badasshole? that sounds like a medical condition) Jecht; A Contest of Aeons is the other kind of common Final Fantasy boss theme where it's all grandiose and sweeping to suggest that there's a lot on the line; while the Final Battle is more the all-out orchestral final boss tune that Final Fantasy tends to work with often. FFX's best known for its far more melodic guitar stuff, though, like Suteki da ne, To Zanarkand, Spira Unplugged and A Fleeting Dream.

Final Fantasy XI - "Nirvana'diel's Nevermind"

I have zero experience with Final Fantasy XI, so in this case I'm approaching a game's music without the advantage of having any added in-game context behind them. It's easy to tell if a song's happy or sad, but when connected to a very specific mood or feeling, like a character having just lost their homeland or sacrificing themselves for another, the emotional impact of the music becomes more potent still. As much as I don't care for the MMOs, I can't deny that they have some great music. XI's main themes tend to be medieval folksy and orchestral choral stuff, and it works surprising well alongside the game's western MMORPG bent (it's said Sakaguchi wanted to create a global online FF game after being impressed with MMOs like EverQuest while on vacation to the US).

Final Fantasy XII - "Vaan Halen"

The expansive Final Fantasy XII is a schizophrenic game in many respects, due to how its lead designer changed halfway through and how so much of the world is entirely optional and designed for RPG players who want to spend a hundred hours looking for loot and finishing side-missions instead of following a story, an open-world design philosophy that Dragon Age: Inquisition is very much keeping alive. Its soundtrack is a little more structured, however, and that also means that it's kind of dull, though entirely competent. It's almost all standard orchestral business as usual, though certain tracks like the Dalmasca Estersand and Boss Battle (that :55 second mark, holy shit) still get me stoked for adventure. It's great background music, and reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics (see below), so I can't denigrate it too much.

Final Fantasy XIII - "One Track Lover"

Final Fantasy XIII's soundtrack's kind of weird. It's a mix of heavy orchestral and heavy synthesized business, lots of weird J-pop type stuff thrown in with the usual big John Williams type business. The Sunleth Waterscape is a perfect example of this, a gentle and melodic overworld theme crossed with some kind of "un-tss, un-tss" nightclub electro. I really like Saber's Edge though. And the Gapra Whitewood, which almost sounds like a Ghost in the Shell tune. In fact, there's a lot to like about the music in this game, as thematically unusual as a lot of it is.

Final Fantasy XIV - "Realm Reborn to Run"

Likewise, Final Fantasy XIV is kind of all over the place with its music because the game itself is so huge and varied, as the second MMO on this list. It's more of the usual orchestral fare mixed in with some heavy metal tracks (Under the Weight) and very pleasant folksy material similar to XI's (To the Sun). It's the newest game featured in Curtain Call, along with Lightning Returns, and because it's an MMO I have no reason to believe this music isn't getting worked on and tweaked along with everything else as we speak. It's a good set of tracks, though of course without any kind of added context because hell no am I playing an MMO.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest - "All About the Benjamins"

My second favorite soundtrack. To the extent that I'm genuinely angry that this game only features a paltry two songs, Battle 1 and Battle 2, as if they were only required to acknowledge Final Fantasy Mystic Quest before moving on. Mystic Quest, though in embarrassment in many respects, has one of the most unexpectedly great soundtracks of any Final Fantasy spin-off and is easily my favorite of the pre-CD games. Doom Castle? Dark King? Fireburg? Focus Tower? Bone Dungeon? Nope, not here. Just the two standard battle themes. Such a missed opportunity. (There aren't even any DLC additions! What the crap? The only high point of this game was its soundtrack, and this could've been its one chance to redeem itself in some way.)

Final Fantasy Tactics - "Ramzastein"

Final Fantasy Tactics's soundtrack is more of what I've been reductively calling "folksy" elsewhere, but there's a very distinctive tone to it. It feels like medieval war music, but I'd have no idea what "medieval war music" would even sound like. They didn't really press a whole lot of vinyls back then. FFT's sort of like Mystic Quest in that it's sorely underrepresented (though at least it has a whole bunch of DLC tracks) with its meager five track offering, including favorites like Antipyretic and Trisection. For comparison's sake, the official FFT album has 71 tracks. Final Fantasy Tactics is debatably the best Final Fantasy game in the entire franchise, and not even debatably the best written, so it deserves more than what it gets here. Ah well, maybe the spin-offs were always meant to be less of a focus.

Final Fantasy X-2 - "House of Paine"

Final Fantasy X-2's music is, well, an acquired taste, to put it diplomatically. I might've intimated that XIII's music is a bit J-pop-esque, but not quite to the overt degree that X-2's is. It's bubbly and clubby and entirely incongruous to the tone of the original game and the dour, pessimistic setting in which said game is set. 1000 Words, the big love song that plays during a pivotal moment in the game, is here as one of the thankfully few Event Stages. YRP Fight, We're the Gullwings and Let me Blow You a Kiss sound like they should be on the soundtrack of a Totally Spies! movie. I'm entirely not sure if this is a bad thing, but it sure is weird.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles - "Caravan of Love"

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles's soundtrack couldn't be any more different than X-2's. It's all super melodic singing with tribal wind instruments, very subtle and atmospheric, especially with tracks like Monster Ronde and Sound of the Wind. The exception is the This is the End For You boss track, which is a crazy good rock track that doesn't seem to fit with the rest. (That's because it's a Crystal Bearers track, I discovered later. That game has some personality to it, to put it mildly.) It's been a long while since I played the game (and my memories of it tend to involve playing stages over and over to get all the artifacts and worrying about keeping the fog away), but this soundtrack makes me think that playing it again wouldn't be a bad thing. I'd just need to figure out where my GBA/GC adapter cable is...

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children - "Get Off of My Cloud"

More Final Fantasy VII. Somehow the fact that FFT and FFMQ got a short shrift is made even more egregious that the developers determined that tracks for a damn FFVII movie that mostly uses remixes of the game's music were more important. Divinity II, one of the few new songs, isn't bad though. Definitely foreboding.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII - "Zack Attack"

Thankfully, most of Crisis Core's music was made especially for the game. The two Field Stages are FFVII remixes, but the three Battle Stage tracks are all new. And excellent! I really liked Crisis Core, and it's great to be able to play the plaintive The Price of Freedom or the rocking Encounter and The SOLDIER Way. Much like its leading man, the music of Crisis Core was too kickass for its world.

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon - "When We Was Fables"

Chocobo's Dungeon is distinctive because you have to unlock all three of these tracks by earning Rhythmia rather than having them available from the offset, not so distinctive when you discover that all three tracks are remixes from other games: FFVIII's Man With the Machine Gun, FFV's Clash on the Big Bridge and FFXI's Awakening, to be precise. Another mystifying addition given the amount of original material left out.

Dissidia Final Fantasy - "We Built Dissidia Rock and Roll"

Dissidia Final Fantasy's like Final Fantasy's version of Smash Bros, both conceptually and musically. Most of Dissidia's soundtrack is remixes and arrangements of Final Fantasy music from other games in the series, and to Theatrhythm's credit it does at least try to pick the few pieces of original music created for Dissidia. Unfortunately, that's just a handful of themes that share a similar underlying riff, similar to something like how Brawl's choral main theme and its Final Destination theme are the same song but with different compositions. I actually like Dissidia's main theme and battle theme, but it feels like an odd inclusion when there are other FF spin-offs that don't quite rely so heavily on the music of prior Final Fantasy games (especially when Theatrhythm itself is doing a very similar thing).

Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy - "Dio Decim"

Yeah, see above. Just the handful of original themes that aren't based on any of the other Final Fantasies. Like this one.

Final Fantasy Type-0 - "School's Out For Summer"

Final Fantasy Type-0's music is unique on this soundtrack because the game it pertains to doesn't have a US/EU release. Or, I should say, not yet. The HD version (of what was originally a PSP game) will be out in March for the two newer consoles in all territories. Its music is actually quite a lot of fun, especially War: The White Weapon and Vermillion Flame. (Oddly, nowhere on the internet refers to these tracks by these names, which suggests that they're the official titles for the localizations that haven't been released yet.) It's getting me interested in playing it, as does hearing that its gameplay is very similar to Crisis Core (and that its story is similar to Valkyria Chronicles 2).

Final Fantasy XIII-2 - "Que Serah, Serah"

Final Fantasy XIII-2's music is similar to XIII's soundtrack, perhaps unsurprisingly. Same mix of staple piano (Noel's Theme) and orchestral (Heart of Chaos) themes juxtaposed with some upbeat clubmix battle themes (The Last Hunter). Maybe not quite as memorable or varied as the first, but still decent enough. The game itself was completely bonkers, but even so it was a sequel and that meant quite a number of familiar tracks and leitmotifs from the original found their way back in. Still, they gathered up enough of the new stuff to make a strong selection.

Final Fantasy XIII-3: Lightning Returns - "Chain Lightning"

I've tried my best to avoid listening to the music of Lightning Returns, as it just so happens to be the next game on my itinerary and I imagine I'm going to be hearing a lot of it regardless. From what I've heard, it's like XIII and XIII-2, just... more of it. (I suppose that was mostly everyone's reaction to XIII-3 as well...)

Well, that's enough listening material. Petered out towards the end there, but that's because it felt like a lot of these were late-stage inclusions with only a few applicable tunes. I'm cagey around listening to anything from the newer Final Fantasy games I've yet to play, for whatever reason. It's not like Theatrhythm's packed with spoilers either; on the contrary, it synopsizes the various games it features as if presenting them for the first time to the uninitiated. Given Theatrhythm's low barrier to entry, they might be onto something by bringing in new fans this way.


Wiki Project: Awesome Games Wiki'd Quick

Bonjour, mes amis, and welcome to another Wiki Project breakdown. With this Wiki Project, I was working off a list of games that would be featured in 2015's Awesome Games Done Quick stream marathon: a week-long odyssey that sees a lot of great games beaten very quickly to raise money for the Prevent Cancer Fund, which is actually still ongoing as of this article (the event I mean. Cancer's always around, but hopefully not for much longer). Because they use Twitch to host the stream, and because Twitch derives its "now playing" game data gathering doohickey from our wiki, I figured I ought to ensure that we have all the featured games.

Happy to report that there weren't any absentee pages whatsoever this time, with a few non-applicable exceptions I'll go over briefly, and so like the previous Wiki Project for GameCenter CX it was mostly a matter of cleaning up some 2nd person (the bane of any GB wiki editor), adding a few missing details and sprinkling in a few header images.

Still, there's a lot to go over here. I'll talk about what AGDQ streams I was able to catch, as well as the necessary wiki work that went into the connected pages. The list will be mostly representative this time, as the games are often played in "blocks" of related titles.

Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze

As a new game, there was very little to do with the Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze page. I've found that the pages with the most errors, both of the typographical and stylistic sort, are the older pages created back when we had even less of a sense of what a wiki page ought to contain than we do now. Subsequently, a new big name game like Tropical Freeze sees a lot of great work right off the bat. Despite showing up for the start of the stream, I actually skipped Tropical Freeze (the first official speedrun on the schedule) because I've been meaning to play it myself. I tend to find it discouraging when my first experience with a game is to watch it be played way better than I'll ever manage.

Miscellaneous Block One

What follows is a bunch of non-related games which serves as an aperitif for what is to come. Wario Land 4 and Transistor are two more speedruns that I skipped because they're also on the backlog. We saw Banjo-Kazooie, a platformer I wish would drop in price on XBLA already, that saw a fun call-in from N64-era Rare's gregarious composer Grant Kirkhope. Two cart racers, Mario Kart Wii and Diddy Kong Racing, the latter of which was more fun to watch because it was a race between multiple speedrunners (and also because it's the best cart racer of all time). Most infamously, though, is the annual appearance of the TASbot block: a pre-programmed speedrunning robot that can perform such split-second timing that it is able to manipulate a game's coding in such a way to magically recreate the Twitch chat in Pokemon Red/Blue, complete with emotes, creating the theoretical inverse of Twitch Plays Pokemon. Some NASA-level shit, if you ask me.

Genesis Block

World of Illusion, Rocket Knight Adventures, its SNES sequel Sparkster (which I recently discovered is entirely different from the Genesis sequel also called Sparkster. We have pages for both, but until recently both contained information on both the SNES and Genesis games instead of just one or the other. Kind of a mess!), Ristar, Dynamite Headdy and Gunstar Heroes. A real bluffer's guide for what you should aim for if you wanted some Genesis platformer fare and were already covered hedgehog-wise. No problems with the pages, besides the aforementioned Sparkster snafu, but for some reason I have a real issue grabbing good header images in a high enough resolution that works. At least a few of the above games are on Steam, which makes getting screenshots way easier.

F-Zero Block

Besides a few more miscellaneous games, including Super Monkey Ball which gets one-upped later in the week with Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, we move onto the crowd-favorite F-Zero streams. Watching someone who can actually react quickly enough to play these games perfectly is somewhat outstanding, and though I've yet to try it myself, F-Zero GX seems completely insane even if you were playing it "casually", as the speedrunners tend to call playing a game like a normal person. F-Zero X got the Death Race incentive bid (optional stream events that people have to put their donations towards to unlock, which is a great money-raiser when it becomes a bidding war), which is the one thing I remember from F-Zero X. That mode reminds me a lot of Street Racer's Arena mode; a cart racer probably best left in obscurity.

FPS Block

We move to the PC now for a bunch of FPS games. Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is a fond favorite of mine, and it's hard to claim it as a FPS in this context because the runner played almost the whole thing in third person to help him rush past absolutely everything. Quite an impressive run, filled with weird skips and amazing crackerjack timing with the runner's liberal application of Force Speed, though I say that as someone who spent a considerably longer time to beat it. The rest of the games in this block are the usual Quake/Build engine shooters, some of which is on the current AGDQ Humble Bundle, created especially for this event and is also busy raising a considerable amount for the PCF. Notable Brad nemesis Volgarr the Viking, the enhanced Steam version of Shantae: Risky's Revenge and the well-regarded Escape Goat 2 are on there too, so it's a fine bundle to snatch up (AND you'll be donating to a good cause!).

Sonic Block Part One

Yep, that's "part one" as in "there's more than one Sonic Block". Sigh. Still, if you were pressed to think of a franchise ideal for speedruns, it'd be Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic's inexplicably large fanbase also means that his game's pages are usually pretty extensively filled out too, which is a freebie.

PC Platformer Block

Some interesting games here. Starting with a showstopper was Battleblock Theater, a long speedrun I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy because the game itself is kind of dull and repetitive, but the inclusion of the game's chief designer Dan Paladin and the very funny NewGrounds animator Stamper (who served as the game's foppish narrator) over Skype made the whole thing very watchable. A recommended stream, for sure, and likely one you may have skipped if you're as apathetic about The Behemoth's output as I am. A few more Indie platformers carved out a sizeable block, ending with Broforce which began an interstitial mini-block of run and guns which in turn led to...

NES Block

Before starting these random smaller projects, I've mostly been working on the NES and SNES pages, so I was very much in my element when checking up on the many NES/FC and SNES/SFC games presented in AGDQ this year. Contra's an old favorite that didn't need any work, but it was followed by Power Blade, Snake Rattle 'n Roll, Little Samson, Battletoads, River City Ransom, Gimmick! and DuckTales 2. Gimmick! and Little Samson especially are super rare carts that most people don't know about, so it was serendipitous that Gimmick! was one of the pages I had already worked on for the GCCX project.

Castlevania Block

We also got a brief stop to kill vampires and the night with a trio of Castlevania classics. Super Castlevania IV was a four-way race that got pretty tense as the game ramped up in difficulty, and Castlevania III wasn't exactly a walk in the park either. More like a walk on the ceiling, as it was a three-way race concerning the acrobatic Grant DaNasty.

"Serious" Platformer Block

After foiling Dracula's fell schemes once again, we lead to Donkey Kong Country 2 and some equally tough platformers to follow. We're talking the caliber of games where simply beating the game at a normal pace would be impressive enough. As well as the Bramble Barrel Nightmare that is DKC 2, we also have the ninja hopper N, the masocore NES homebrew Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril (which made for a particularly memorable episode of Game Grumps), some Commander Keen episodes that flew by in a flash, some Rayman Legends fun (which always felt like a game purpose-built for speedrunning) and the inscrutable and impossible fan-game I Wanna Be The Boshy (good stream, the runner was quite the commentator).

Zelda and Mario Block

More stream favorites, with a handful of classic Zeldas and some Marios (including notorious masocore fan-hack Kaizo Mario World, which doesn't have a wiki page for obvious reasons). You start to understand why I didn't have too much trouble with this Wiki Project, as so many of the featured games are well-known, for presumably three reasons: A) They're good games, and I imagine that helps a lot if you intend to dedicate months of your life to replaying it over and over, B) They're great crowdpleasers, which is important for a big charity event like this if you want to get people invested, and C) It's super cool when a runner finds a way to break apart a well-known title, exploring glitches and skips you never knew were in there despite having played through the game several times.

Horror Block

After Fire Emblem, which involved a heated bidding war between the two GameCube releases Radiant Dawn and Path of Radiance (Radiant Dawn won), we got a brief smattering (or should that be "splattering"?) of horror speedruns, including the original Silent Hill and the event's sole TurboGrafx-16 game Splatterhouse, played via the Wii's Virtual Console. Also included was Splatterhouse's weird little brother Wanpaku Graffiti, a Famicom-only Scream-like parody take on the original featuring adorable little chibi incarnations of the characters.

CRPG Block

Alas, our attempt to get Air Force Gator, Dan Ryckert's alligatoridae aviator, to be Morrowind's protagonist was foiled by some very determined French fans who opted for the far less amusing "Bob_Lennon". Though we raised almost three grand, they just wanted it more, I suppose. We did still manage to win the bidding war to keep the protagonist as an Argonian; The Elder Scrolls' sentient reptilian species and a key requirement to make the Air Force Gator joke work. This block also saw a speedy Rogue Legacy run, a luck-dependent race for Scoops-favorite The Binding of Isaac, the new hotness (and still in beta) Crypt of the NecroDancer and the hard-to-make-out procedurally generated shooter Risk of Rain.

Arcade Block

My favorite block so far besides the wonderful Awful Games mainstay was this new one, the Arcade Block. A trio of super violent brawlers, we saw the musically-gifted Violent Storm from Konami, the gruesome and possibly unfinished Battletoads Arcade from Rare and the extremely busy Alien vs. Predator from Capcom. The runners all used a specially configured Supergun to run their Arcade boards. Sounds expensive, so I can't imagine this will be a feature that will grow in future GDQs, but man was it fun to watch some of those quarter-munchers get thoroughly comeuppanced.

Sonic Block Part Two

Another Sonic Block, though with the relatively obscure but (comparatively) well-received Sonic Advance games. GBA does not output in a very large resolution, so I hope the header images for those pages look all right.

Misc Block Two

What follows between the last Sonic Block and the subsequent Mega Man Block are a few games worthy of note but otherwise unrelated. The first is Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, which is a 300-stage marathon (not including warps, of which there were several) run by a very impressively focused runner. It's a long one, but Super Monkey Ball always makes for amazingly skilled runs and this is the be-all and end-all of Monkey Ball monkeyshines. Mischief Makers wasn't a particularly notable run (though I like that the game got props at all) but for the fact that as soon as the run ended, the runner gave a touching speech about how he was able to move on from a difficult period in his life thanks to the speedrunning community, and then capped it off with a marriage proposal to his girlfriend live on air. It was super cute. Talking of cute, this was followed by a very close race of Kirby Super Star, an almost instantaneous playthrough of Super Famicom curio Umihara Kawase (watch the GCCX ep of that if you haven't) and then my GOTY 2014 runner-up Shovel Knight. Two Yacht Club Games developers were on a Skype call throughout Shovel Knight's playthrough, happy to see their game get speedran (speedrunned?) at last and tossing in the occasional anecdote. From the way they were talking, it sounded like they felt that having a speedrun community was the final rite of passage necessary before Shovel Knight truly felt like a lost NES classic.

Tetris: The Grand Master Exhibition

This actually happened before Shovel Knight, but I'm going to need a whole other section to explicate on what happened here. Tetris: The Grand Master is an Arcade-only series by Arika and Capcom (Arika's best known for their other collaborations with Capcom, such as the Street Fighter EX series and underwater salvage sims Everblue and Endless Ocean) intended for people who thought the NES/GB Tetris was too easy. Apparently, in Japan, the community was split between the fast-paced Arcade variants of Tetris and the comparatively sedate home versions. Tetris Grand Master is, as a result, something of a shock to the system to anyone who thinks, mistakenly, that they're anything near competent at the game. After a few insane races between multiple runners to beat each game's standard Grand Master mode, there was an exhibition to show off a bizarre challenge mode where the player had to create a diagonal line of empty spaces all the way up the board and then a mind-boggling playthrough of the game's nigh-impossible "Shirase" (Premonition of Death) mode and another where the runner had to play a full-speed invisible mode as the credits rolled to achieve the highest grade. Of all the streams in this show, this 90 minute long exhibition of the three Grand Master games is absolutely un-friggin'-missable. I still cannot comprehend how the human mind is able to react this quickly.

Mega Man Block

Sad to say I completely missed out on the Mega Man Block. Hey, a guy has to sleep sometime. A lot of unusual picks this year though, forgoing the usual Mega Man 2 and 3. Instead we saw the maligned Mega Man 5, the obscure(ish) SNES Mega Man 7, standard speedrun favorite Mega Man X and then a skip ahead to Mega Man X3, the first game in which Zero was playable. We also saw Mega Man Unlimited and Rocman X, two weird (and legally dubious) fan-game/bootleg off-shoots, presumably thrown in to show off something new to diehard Mega Fans. No pages for those, of course.

Awful Games Done Quick Block

Ah, the best part of any GDQ is the Awful Games Block. Rather than celebrating a bunch of fantastic games by thoroughly destroying them, the speedrunners turn on a group of games that actually deserve the punishment. Leading the pack is Totally Rad, a totally rad NES platformer/shooter that was one of many games horribly disfigured by bizarre region changes moving from Famicom to NES (the original Famicom game was called Magic John, which is a heck of a title also). @alex Navarro showed up to battle his ancient enemy Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, demonstrating the infinite reverse glitch. Floating Runner is a fittingly floaty platformer from the early PS1 era that makes Croc: Legend of the Gobbos look like Crash Bandicoot. Blasto is another PS1 game, a terrible third-person shooter made somewhat melancholy by the voice of Phil Hartman in his final ever voice acting role. Trio the Punch is an Arcade brawler (the Japan-only PS2 port was the version actually played) from Karnov's lead developer that needs to be seen to be believed. Some awful platformers followed, including the Genesis Taz-Mania (very different from the SNES version, once again requiring a bit of wiki work separating the two), crappy Pokemon bootleg Pocket Monsters II, another tubular 'tude-heavy game Radical Rex and the incomprehensible licensed St. Bernard-'em-up Beethoven's 2nd (a.k.a. Beethoven: The Ultimate Canine Caper). The highlight of the whole block was Town With No Name, an abysmally animated and voice-acted CD Western with dumb jokes that don't so much land than ricochet wildly across the room, made famous by LP-mockers Retsupurae (Slowbeef actually donated during this game's run with a friendly message). Early Build Engine game TekWar seemed more Shat Out than Shatner, Sneak King made a brief appearance before malevolently disappearing into the shadows, Swamp Thing made an impression with its absurdly poor (and thus easily exploitable) programming, AVGN target Super Pitfall then handily outdoes it with even more outrageous glitching, King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch is briefly conquered and then we end with a one-two punch of the belt-hungry Karnov and the awful NES port of the otherwise well-regarded C64 game Last Ninja 2. I'd recommend watching the entire block if you can; it's a wonderland of kusoge.

Ninja Block

The Last Ninja gives way to the Ninja Block, featuring a lot of popular ninjitsu favorites. There's the Ninja-Gaiden-that-wasn't Shadow of the Ninja, Genesis icon Shinobi III and then a three game relay race with the NES Ninja Gaidens. Despite spanning across three games each with separate runners representing two teams (regrettably named for Twitch memes), the race was insanely close.

Punch-Out!! Block

Fairly straightforward stuff this year, nothing like the blindfold shenanigans in 2014. Both Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! and its no joke Wii reboot Punch Out!! Wii were beaten black and blue, with sly digs given to the alternative language streams whenever the stereotypical boxer that represented their region was knocked out.

Misc Block Three

Castlevania makes one last hurrah with a tense three-way SOTN race, featuring some sequence breaks I'm going to have to remember for later. An even tenser Richter Mode three-way race then followed. Animal Crossing, the last game anyone expected to see get a speedrun, was up next with a rather dull but intermittently educational playthrough that demonstrated how the game was able to run entirely from the RAM after having its disc removed, how you could glitch yourself in a beta testing zone and how to duplicate as many valuable items as you'll ever need to keep Tom Nook and his special kneecapping bat off your case. Jeff Gerstmann favorite Yoshi's Island was up next in another race, which was followed by a memorable blind run of a handful of its stages and an even more memorable accordion medley. Finally, there was a kind of meh Batman: Arkham City run. The runner frequently skipped entire levels with Animated Series Batman, but the commentary wasn't exactly stellar.

Valve Block

Another block I was asleep for. Valve games are common enough, with Half Life: Opposing Force, Half Life 2: Episode 2 and both Portals getting pounded. Phrasing.

After that is a handful more games, leading to the presently playing (as of posting) Metroid Prime. We're still a day away from the end of the stream, but I wanted to get this up now to make it to the Community Spotlight: I'll be adding future streams as I watch them.

Presently though, it's been a great show, and I haven't minded helping out my own way with these minor wiki tweaks. There's a few games coming up, specifically the Metroids, Zeldas, Marios and Perfect Dark, that were absolutely lousy with 2nd person. If anything, I probably spent more time fixing those than filling in the few skeleton pages for the Awful Games Block. Absolutely come join us in the ExplosiveRuns chat if you have the time, and failing that track down the official Giant Bomb thread on the event to see what the community regards as the best runs. I'd say you should check out Battleblock Theater, Tetris Grand Master, Big Rigs Racing (and all of the Awful Block), Jedi Knight, the whole Arcade Block, the whole TASBot block, I Wanna be the Boshy (if you didn't see it last year), Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, the Ninja Gaiden relay race, the Super Castlevania and SOTN races, and Shovel Knight.

Thanks for reading, and thanks on behalf of PCF for donating if you've already done so. If nothing else, get that Humble Bundle.

(I'll be back to add more commentary once the event has concluded this weekend. I should probably add a few images too, huh. Welcome to word walls!)


Wiki Project: GameCenter CX

I've been combing my neurons for the best way to explain exactly what GameCenter CX is to the uninitiated, but the reality is that it's not a whole lot removed from what Giant Bomb already does. It brings to the fore what makes a serial LP series good: enjoying the host and their commentary, getting invested in their struggle, cheering for them through difficult sequences and sharing their catharsis when said sequences have finally been conquered. It then adds a well-polished if somewhat off-beat professional sheen to the whole affair, edited in such a way that it feels like you're watching some epic-scale drama rather than some guy in his 30s sitting in an office space, beating a game almost as old as he is.

GameCenter CX is a Japanese TV show that celebrates retro gaming in the best way possible: by allowing us to vicariously live through a playthrough of the featured games with a genial host who never seems to improve, but often does just well enough to see those games through to a conclusion of some sort. He also falls prey to a lot of abject bullshit as well, of course, as the NES/Famicom era wasn't always particularly fair, but if anything that just makes the show funnier. In addition, the show goes on travelogues across Japan, from the few remaining mega-Arcades to cozy street corner candy stores with a couple of game cabinets for their schoolchildren clientele to play, and it's fun to watch our host bounce off the locals. There's also plenty of direct homages to the games that went ignored in the show's challenges, including sections for the forgotten Sega SG-1000 and original Game Boy to an ongoing feature that briefly touches on every significant Famicom release in chronological order. It's a retro gaming smorgasbord that offers far more than just watching a well-edited LP.

As someone who discovered the show some time ago, I've long since become the type of fan who waits on tenterhooks for the talented folk of SA-GCCX to translate the next episode. I wanted to honor the show in my own way, which meant doing two things: A) writing a blog about it and B) ensuring our Wiki hosts a full page for every game that's been featured in a challenge. Though it's a list of around 200 games, most of them are popular enough that they've been thoroughly explicated upon already, and really this Wiki Project was a way to unwind with something simple after the 400+ SNES games of 1993 that I've spent the majority of this year adding to the database. I have a few more "gentle" Wiki Projects to hash out before I start on SNES 1994, which has even more releases than 1993. There's a mix of trepidation and excitement going into that one, that's for sure.

What follows is a list of ten games that pertained to this Wiki Project, chosen because they lacked pages (and thus, I imagine, are fairly obscure), which I intend to elaborate on while also discussing their appearances on GameCenter CX. Abunai, my friends:

Quiz Tonosama no Yabou

Quiz Tonosama no Yabou (S05E03): PC Engine CD-ROM, Capcom/Capcom, 1992.

Quiz Tonosama no Yabou is a Capcom-developed quiz game originally for the Arcades, but the version played on the show is the home port released for the PC Engine CD-ROM, best known in the US as the TurboGrafx-CD. The TurboGrafx-16 and its CD equivalent have been considered jokes in the US retro gamer market for a long time, due to the daft name and failure to make any kind of impact, but are also respected in equal measure for the great expanse of hidden treasures. Vastly more popular in its home nation as the PC Engine, NEC and Hudson's pioneer 16-bit console has quite the legacy that few outside Japan can appreciate. Not only did it begin the 16-bit console generation, but it was also the first console to attempt a CD peripheral. I know I've spent quite a lot of my allotted real estate on this site to pontificate on that particular system's offerings, as a curious European who saw neither hide nor hair of the thing pre-Internet. As for Quiz Tonosama no Yabou itself, it first appears to be a Koei Nobunaga's Ambition (known as Nobunaga no Yabou in its home nation, making the nominal homage somewhat transparent) strategy game clone set in the Warring States period of medieval Japan, but rather than tactically fighting large-scale battles the player simply has to out-trivia his rival daimyos to take over their territory. It's very much a superficial framing device for a trivia quiz game that covers more than simply Japanese history, which you'd think it would limit itself to for the sake of avoiding something as anachronistic as two samurais fighting over their knowledge of contemporary mecha anime.

What's worse is that licentious anime questions are usually his forte.

It's important to note early on that "the Kacho" (comedian Shinya Arino, who hosts the show) is never alone in his endeavors. Whenever pressed by a difficult scenario or bereft of direction, one of the show's "ADs", or Assistant Directors, will hop in front of the camera to lend some advice or demonstrate how to proceed. These ADs tend to cycle every season, coming and going within the span of a dozen episodes, yet even still it's hard not to grow attached to them. Each has their own distinctive character, partly due to their natural (or awkward, as is the usual case) presence on camera and bizarre quirks that Arino is quick to latch onto. For the most part, though, their role is entirely secondary, and if a challenge is going well enough they'll rarely feature at all.

The Quiz episodes, of which there are now several (Yuuyu no Quiz de Go! Go! (S10E03) and Adventure Quiz: Capcom World: Hatena no Daibouken (S06E06) are two others that I created the wiki pages for), are an exception to this. Inevitably, Arino determines that he simply doesn't have the breadth of knowledge to tackle every subject, and it's often the case with games like Quiz Tonosama no Yabou that the player is required to have a very high correct/incorrect ratio in order to progress. So what tends to happen is that Arino conscripts anyone on staff, including ADs, the technical crew and even uber-cool cameraman Abe to answer questions relating to their "specialist subjects". They toss answers to Arino whenever their chosen subjects appear, and face the consequences for their mistakes. They always make for fun episodes because of this communal spirit, and it's a telling glimpse into just how much of an otaku Arino really is.

Paris-Dakar Rally Special

Paris-Dakar Rally Special (S14E01): Famicom, ISCO/CBS Sony, 1988.

You might've noticed that we've skipped quite a number of episodes to reach Season 14, and the reason for that is because early GameCenter CX focused on a lot of fairly familiar stuff. A lot of Marios, Zeldas, Mega Mans, Castlevanias and anything else likely to make a list of best NES games were covered in those early seasons. It wasn't until late in the show's tenure that we started to really see the obscurities show up. Fortunately, watching Arino play a game you've never heard of is still every bit as entertaining as watching him struggle with an old favorite. More so, in my view, because you end up being just as surprised as Arino is when something utterly absurd happens. And "utterly absurd" might as well be Paris-Dakar Rally Special's tagline. It's certainly the mission statement of this bizarre kusoge.

He ain't seen nothing yet.

The title, "Paris-Dakar Rally Special", doesn't sound particularly special. The Paris-Dakar Rally is an endurance race that spans six thousand miles through France (the original starting point) and Spain, then across the Strait of Gibraltar and down the west coast of Africa to Dakar in Senegal. (At least that was the original course, as the present-day race now takes place entirely within South America.) The race was an impressive feat for any rally car driver and an interesting event for off-road vehicle enthusiasts (North Africa is somewhat on the sandy side, let's just say), but beyond that, it's just a very long trek and those tend to lead to not particularly exciting checkpoint-based driving games.

Paris-Dakar Rally Special ain't that. Rather than stick to the script, the game is almost a parody of what a rally game like this ought to entail. The first half hour is spent wandering around a city, on foot, attempting to secure a sponsor (for the necessary cash), a navigator and a car. This part is more or less a typical Famicom adventure game, with menus of commands and NPCs to talk to. Later chapters of the game have you driving across side-scrolling platformer levels, and one takes you under the sea for an extended period. Almost every one of these set-pieces requires a different gameplay model, so in that respect it's something of a technical coup. It is a damn weird game though, and it's worth discovering it along with Arino.

Babel no Tou

Babel no Tou (S14E10): Famicom, Namco/Namco, 1986.

Babel no Tou, or Tower of Babel, isn't a particularly notable puzzle-platformer game despite its Namco pedigree and mechanical similarity to Solomon's Key, but it did afford a rare glimpse at Arino at his most competent. Jokes about his age are often made at his expense, but there are times when being a little older and wiser can be an advantage, and that's especially true with thoughtful brainteasers like Babel no Tou.

There's no denying that the Kacho can be quite lucky at times.

The crux of the game is to ascend the titular Biblical tower by means of tiny staircase pieces that need to be stacked on top of each other before progress can be made. These pieces operate by some basic rules that don't take long to memorize - they'll fall if nothing's underneath them, they'll switch direction along with the protagonist while being held and they'll automatically connect to adjacent pieces if they share a diagonal corner, making them serviceable staircases. In practice, though, it's a bit more of a headache than something as comparatively simple as Solomon's Key's disappearing and reappearing blocks. Despite this malus, and a second in the form of the game's considerable length of sixty-four stages, Arino becomes quite adept at it, stymied only a few times by some particularly nasty puzzles.

Kosodate Quiz: My Angel

Kosodate Quiz: My Angel (S15E09): PlayStation, Namco/Namco, 1997.

A special one-off episode, and another quiz game, Kosodate Quiz: My Angel is a PlayStation (rarely does the show leave the 8-bit/16-bit era) daughter-raising sim; a genre that somehow became fairly popular in the 90s. Treating female children as little more than Tamagotchis, the goal is to raise your daughter right, eventually allowing her to live the life of her dreams upon reaching the age of 25 (which, if you ask me, is a fair few years after you're supposed to let your kids make their own decisions). If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is also the premise of the better known Princess Maker 2, though Kosodate Quiz is far more grounded in reality. No marrying off your adult daughter to Satan in this one. Also, rather than choosing what stats to focus on that day, the game presents multiple choice trivia questions, correct answers to which develop the stats in different ways. It also increases the player's cash, which is important for "event" questions where you actually have to make a decision regarding the child's progress, such as which schools she goes to. It feels less like you're min/maxing a system, and closer to responding to genuine dilemmas about child-rearing. Still totally weird and more than a little sexist, perhaps, but at least it's earnest enough.

Papa Arino has a harsh bottom line when it comes to boyfriends.

The crew had Arino play Kosodate Quiz: My Angel for the same reason they made him play Tokimeki Memorial, a dating game also for the PlayStation: It was a way to bring Arino's real-life experiences to the fore, with the showrunners deciding how best to tie them into a game challenge in some way. Tokimeki Memorial was brought in so that the married Arino might pass on his knowledge on love and romance to the staff, and with Kosodate Quiz: My Angel the show's former producer Nagashima, who had recently become a proud father to a newborn daughter, asks that Arino show off his fatherly skills, as a father of two daughters himself. It ends up being a rather schmaltzy and goofy episode, though still funny as Arino's virtual daughter becomes as big a geek as he is despite Arino's attempts to thwart that development. This episode is also notable for being the first to acknowledge Arino's overseas fans, with a reference to Kotaku's (branded "Kotak!" by Arino himself) short-lived "Retro Game Master" dub. Of course, the show's sizeable Western fanbase is largely the responsibility of SA-GCCX's excellent fan-translations, and somewhat less due to Kotaku's tone-deaf attempts to "X-treme" up the gentle charms of the show. But hey, why bother going on and on about how awful Kotaku is, am I right? What next, revelations about how the sky is blue?

Kattobi! Takuhai-kun

Kattobi! Takuhai-kun (S16E04): PC Engine, ACC/Tonkin House, 1990.

Like Paris-Dakar Rally Special, Kattobi! Takuhai-kun (which more or less means "Full Speed! Delivery Boy") seems straightforward enough from a cursory glance. The player, as a delivery boy, has to deliver packages around the city on a bike via a top-down view not unlike the original GTA games (see below), and is rewarded for getting to their destination as quickly and safely as possible. However, the game begins to take something of a narrative detour, or rather a whole bunch of detours, and ceases to become as black and white as it first appears. To say any more would spoil the episode.

I'm surprised Arino is a fan. I guess that series is as hard to escape as a five-star police manhunt.

I will say that the show doesn't really touch on the TurboGrafx-16 all that much, at least not as much as I'd like. For as well-regarded as the system was in Japan, it was still nowhere near as popular as the Famicom or Super Famicom. It gets as much airtime in GCCX as the Genesis does (which might be the greater tragedy, really), but at least there's been a few really unusual choices for TG16 games to play. Rondo of Blood is just too obvious, I suppose, and Arino is notoriously poor at shoot 'em ups, which were the PC Engine's forte before more powerful consoles like the Saturn supplanted it.

Family Trainer: Jogging Race

Family Trainer: Jogging Race (S17E02): Famicom, Human/Bandai, 1987.

Though there's only been two so far, the episodes featuring the Family Trainer peripheral have already become legendary. The Family Trainer is the Japanese name for the Power Pad: that big placemat of buttons that replaces the controller to allow for a more, well, visceral connection to the physically-demanding games that supported it. Jogging Race is simply a simulator in which the player jogs along scenic routes in Tokyo, with the standard alternate button-mashing protocol established with Track & Field. As the player has to enter these alternate button presses with their left and right feet, the simulation of jogging several miles around Tokyo becomes a horrifying reality. Well, horrifying if you find exercise as scary as I do anyway.

This episode gets a little weird, but also inspirational?

(The other Family Trainer episode is Totsugeki!! Fuun no Takeshi-jou! (S03E02), a Power Pad-enabled take on Takeshi's Castle, and the second most traumatizing game-related experience that Beat Takeshi ever indirectly inflicted on the Kacho after the inaugural episode's notorious Takeshi no Chousenjou.)

Arino, though not in bad shape for a man of his age, is clearly not used to extended periods of physical exertion. His day job as a comedian rarely requires it, save an exhausting stand-up gig or two. In Jogging Race in particular, which throws obstacles in the player's way for its enervating and more action-oriented "Tokyo Marathon" mode, he'd often collapse after several grueling minutes of constant jogging on a giant controller. It got to the point where the challenge could only be completed by a relay team of four staff members including Arino, each wearing a goofy jogging outfit. It made for quite the memorable sight.

Best Keiba Derby Stallion

Best Keiba Derby Stallion (S17E05): Famicom, ASCII/ASCII, 1991.

Though I didn't think a racehorse-raising sim would lead to much entertainment, I was happily proven wrong by what turned out to be an instant GCCX classic. The game has something of a stringent tone, typical of ASCII's rather overbearing nature as a developer of hardcore strategy computer games, and Arino is not the sort of person who quickly picks up on nuances in complex games. Between inadvertently horrific moments like absentmindedly breeding one horse with its offspring to produce some sort of Lannistallion abomination, or times of desperate optimism like latching onto the untested and possibly dangerously unqualified E-rank (the only E-rank) jockey Ogawa, Arino mined a lot of material out of what appeared to be a very dry simulation game about horses.

Don't do it! Ogawa's been drinking again!

The Derby Stallion games are, of course, one of the most popular and prolific simulation franchises in Japan, and considered to be so intrinsically Japanese that not a single one of them has ever been localized into English, despite there being dozens of them. ASCII began the series with this game, Best Keiba, but the franchise would continue to expand and take on a new developer in Enterbrain, and it still persists with new entries to this day. The Japanese sure do love their horse-racing (though I suspect that surreptitious gambling has a lot to do with it too).

Tatsunoko Fighter

Tatsunoko Fighter (S18E01): PC Engine, ACC/Tonkin House, 1989.

Almost a predecessor to Kattobi! Takuhai-kun, given its identical developer/publisher combination and equal helpings of weirdness, this is another rare TG16 challenge that decides to mess around with Arino a bit by presenting a Monty Hall decision of three doors at the end of each stage, one of which will send the player back to the start of the level. Presumably added entirely to spite players, it's one of a great number of bizarre and sadistic challenges packed into this forgotten platformer. At least it does the kind thing and lets you continue from the last stage you reached. I actually admire its philosophy of "make the game hard, but the penalty for dying gentle", given how many games employ it nowadays.

GCCX's infamous "Lattice of Boss Hell", brought in whenever Arino struggles at the same place for a long time. We're lucky it's just four here and not sixteen (or higher).

Tatsunoko Fighter is an example of what I tend to think of as artist tie-ins; a phenomenon that seemed to spread shortly after the success of Dragon Quest and the much-publicized involvement of Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama. More games would follow this route, RPGs and otherwise, and procure the skills of a popular manga artist and attempt build a game around their output. Sometimes this meant licensing the existing franchises the artists were connected to, like the many adaptations of Osamu Tezuka's work (one of which, Hi no Tori: Gaou no Bouken (S03E06), was also an early challenge for Arino and a previously missing wiki page). Others just riffed on the sort of subjects the artist was known for drawing, like this game. The manga artist who lent his style to this game, Akira Miyashita, actually appears at the start of each level to encourage the protagonist.

Satsui no Kaisou: Power Soft Satsujin Jiken

Satsui no Kaisou: Power Soft Satsujin Jiken (S18E04): Famicom, Hyperware/HAL Lab, 1988

One of the most recent SA-GCCX translations as of this blog is Satsui no Kaisou: Power Soft Satsujin Jiken, which roughly translates to "Hierarchy Of Murderous Intent: The Software House Serial Murders". As well as a word salad title, this murder mystery adventure game takes a meta approach and has the victim (and the ones that follow) be a video game developer. The game's notable for its multiple murders, which piles a lot of investigation work on the player, as well as its strict time limit of three in-game days. There's no running timer or anything; what happens is that each time the player moves, examines an object or talks to an NPC, the game's clock moves ahead a few minutes. A certain amount of judicious forethought (and save-scumming trial and error, if we're being honest) is required to reach the conclusion in time and deduce the culprit.

Detective Arino is on the case! (He actually gets pretty close to the right answer this time.)

This episode presents one of quite a number of murder mystery adventure game challenges that summons the Kacho's alternate persona "Detective Arino". The staff provide him with a list of subjects, usually drawn on cards that can be stuck on the whiteboard Arino often uses for notes, which ends up becoming a police station flowchart web of suspects and victims that Arino regularly attends to for answers. It's enjoyable to watch him take apart the crime like a police procedural, and the staff have a lot of fun with it too, often dressing the current AD in a police uniform to be Detective Arino's assistant.

Ganso Saiyuuki: Super Monkey Daibouken

Ganso Saiyuuki: Super Monkey Daibouken (S3): Famicom, ???/Vap Inc., 1986.

I'll end with this special mention. Ganso Saiyuuki: Super Monkey Daibouken is a game loosely based on the ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West, which has popped up or been the basis of so many games, movies and TV shows by now that I'm sure everyone's familiar enough with it. A monkey, a pig and a kappa follow a Buddhist monk across Asia, fighting monsters and demons along the way. That's pretty much the jist. Monkey Magic, the Japanese TV show? Dragon Ball? Saiyuki: Journey West? SonSon? Enslaved: Odyssey to the West? Bueller?

Super Monkey Daibouken, though, is quite possibly the most reviled Famicom/NES game in the world. More so than the uninspired and half-assed output of Angry Video Game Nerd's hated LJN. It's utterly without direction, it's far too obtuse, prone to many bugs and glitches and it plays, looks and sounds terrible. And GameCenter CX decided to make it the centerpiece of a special serial feature within the show.

A mysterious game from top to bottom.

Ring-Ring Tactics, as this feature was called, involved Arino calling up members of the public who had supplied their information on a postcard mailed to the show, with the express purpose of eliciting their assistance to beat this awful game. Most of the time, the people he called had very little to offer in terms of practical advice, though enough remembered what to do (or simply played up to that point so they could be on TV) to direct Arino sufficiently enough that he was eventually able to beat the game. A sequel to Ring-Ring Tactics, in which the public helped Arino puzzle out the insanely tricky stages of Championship Lode Runner (a game developed strictly for those who thought the original Lode Runner was too easy), was somewhat less successful.

The Bit at the End

Well, that's probably enough said about GameCenter CX. Absolutely check it out, if you're curious. Ideally, by buying the Retro Game Master DVD box set that was localized for the US, but failing that (it may be out of stock by now), check out the episode torrents on SA-GCCX's official site, or the dubiously legal streaming videos on GamingCX. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, try to avoid the really popular games like Zelda or Mario (though Arino's ongoing rivalry with Bowser can get pretty fun) and start off with something you recall being way too unfair, like Battletoads or Ninja Gaiden. After that, just look around for whatever piques your interest. You'll be hooked in no time, provided you have the attention span for all those hour-long episodes.

My thanks for reading, and stay tuned for future Wiki Project rundowns in the future. I'm working on one right now, ensuring that we have pages for all the games scheduled for the upcoming AGDQ event next week. After that, I'm thinking of putting a cap on this TurboGrafx-16 infatuation by hashing out whatever's missing in that library, leaving the much more expansive PC Engine ludography for another time. At any rate, I hope to get a lot done for the Giant Bomb Wiki in 2015, and I'd like to see other articles like this from the many dedicated editors out there. Us GB Wiki folk are an underrepresented and underappreciated bunch these days. It's about time we change that.

I'll just leave you all by saying Happy New Year! Here's hoping 2015 will be better than 2014. Yeesh.

Happy 2015 from Kacho Bob Ross!


Dark Souls II: Bosswatch (Part 3)

Greetings, all Curse Bearers and Bear Cursors, to the final part of Dark Souls II: Bosswatch: a tour guide to the bosses of Dark Souls II as delivered by a tiny, bitter man wearing Jester gear who should've either stuck with a Dex or Str build instead of half-and-halfing it like a scrub. It's been quite the journey so far: when I last left you, I had just taken down the Looking Glass Knight of Dranglaic Castle and was preparing to bash out the rest of the game when Go! Go! GOTY! happened. Now that I have my free time back, I speared and sliced my way through to the game's conclusion. Was I whelmed? Or decidedly un- so? Is that even a sentence? If a rhetorical question falls in the woods, does it land on my character mere feet away from the next bonfire?

As before, there are spoilers here aplenty, now in new "end game boss" flavor. Don't read if you want Dark Souls II's many foes to be a surprise to you (but man, you might be barking up the wrong ancient tree full of elderly firekeepers if surprises are what you're after).

Royal Rat Authority

I must've missed this guy when going through the Doors of Pharros the first time. I actually didn't realize there was more to this area until the game mysteriously hinted at all the missing bonfire locations after talking to Nashandra in Dranglaic, presumably this game's equivalent to Dark Souls's Princess Boob Window herself, Gwynevere. Most were behind illusionary doors before boss fights I'd already done (that'll teach me to be thorough), but this one in particular was a whole new section of Doors of Pharros with a boss at the end. And oh man, what a boss. The Royal Rat Authority is essentially the Great Wolf Sif battle, only you aren't hesitating to strike the final blow from pangs of regret and sympathy for your enormous canine foe. There's absolutely nothing likable about this enormous rat-like mongrel, nor how its gang of smaller rat-dogs can quickly give you the Toxic condition before the big one deigns to drop in and kill you in two swipes.

There's a very specific strategy here, one that closely resembles how best to fight Sif, and that involves staying the fuck away from its mouth. Most of the attacks are charges and paw swipes, so you're technically safe behind it or, if you don't mind getting peed on, directly underneath. I hacked at its back legs while it was busy swiping at nothing with its front. That is, on one of the brief occasions when I wasn't immediately (and literally) dogpiled on by its very fast pack of venomous vermin. That's a good way to turn a very memorable boss fight from your previous game into an obnoxious free-for-all with zero emotional attachment. I mean, beyond the satisfaction of butchering the ugly jerk.

Shrine of Amana

Hey everyone! Welcome to the worst part of the game! I didn't think anything would top Amazing Darkness Treehouse Pit or Pea Soup Poison Nightmare Land, but I think Bottomless Lake of Magic Snipers and Hidden Leapers might have just pipped it. The Shrine of Amana rests between the Undead Crypt, the game's next story destination, and Dranglaic Castle. It's a quiet, reflective area of holy significance and the home of the Milfanito, an unfortunately named and unfortunately cursed group of singing sisters who sits in this swamp sending monstrosities to sleep. It's actually a very attractive area of the game, irrespective of the singing milfs, though it certainly doesn't make me feel welcome.

Best part of Amana though? Jeff Green has just entered this area on his always entertaining stream. It'll be fun to see how his compromised depth perception fares with a lake with no bottom.

Demon of Song

Now this is a proper Dark Souls boss. Pure nightmare fuel. The decaying face and arms of a woman, jutting out a frog's mouth like someone trying to put on a turtleneck like an idiot. I can't tell if it's all supposed to be one creature or if the frog skin is the protective coat for the entity inside. Truly, the greatest amphibious costume mystery since Frog Suit Mario. Most of its attacks appear to revolve around its long arms, including a hilarious grapple that continually rams you against the floor, though it does charge around, leap and spit hexes at you too.

I figured out how to avoid all its attacks in the first fight, though I misjudged one of the leaps and ended up dying at full health. Yeah, one of those situations. My bad, I had all the time in the world to roll away, but you want to be as close as you can afford to get as much stabbin' in as possible before they recover. The second time went off without a hitch. Didn't even need to heal. So while the fight wasn't all that exciting, I'm super on board with more creature designs like this. Dark Souls II does have a spark of originality here or there, but you have to dig deep for it.

Undead Crypt

The last stop on the Dranglaic Castle path, the Undead Crypt is where the former King of Dranglaic is interred. He's protected by both the crypt's usual deterrents for would-be thieves (that would be some badass wraiths and zombies that summon same) as well as the King's own personal guard, which includes a dozen or so Syan knights from Dranglaic and the following boss. The Undead Crypt isn't as bad as something like Dark Souls's various crypt areas, as there's no regenerating skeletons to worry about, but there's still plenty of traps here. The zombies that ring the bells to summon the wraiths are the worst, because they'll just crawl out of the ground and make a bee-line for the nearest bell before you even know what's happening, and there's usually a dozen gravestones to smash apart between him and you. Still, though, it's the sort of trap Dark Souls excels at: You'll fall for it a few times, but then you'll learn and adjust your tactics accordingly. Can't fault it.

Velstadt, the Aegis

Sigh. It's not that there's anything wrong with fighting giant suits of armor all day, it's just I wish there was a little more variation than "we gave this one a mace, and maybe he'll cast dark magic once or twice". Velstadt is the last in a defensive line of guards between the player and what remains of King Vendrick, an apparently insensate and near-indestructible zombie stomping around his tomb. Why anyone would want to protect an eight foot tall beef jerky skeleton is anyone's guess. Annoyingly, you have to fight past the rest of the King's guards to get back to the boss room each time, and there's like six of them plus whatever wraiths got accidentally woken up.

As stated, Velstadt just kind of swings his big mace around, most of these blows deplete stamina completely if they connect and thus require evading if you hope to capitalize on the brief counterattack window. However, despite taking chip damage the whole fight, the asshole then drops to his knees to cast some kind of buff that appears to double his defense, as well as slightly increase his speed and damage. It took me three tries overall: the first time he surprised me by casting some nasty offensive hex bolt after I figured he was re-applying his buff after dropping to one knee again. The second was pure carelessness. The third was the money melon, so to speak, but it could've easily been the first given how he had a handful of different attacks that took seconds to memorize. A boss with neither interesting attack patterns nor interesting visual design. Entirely milquetoast. Even his name is kinda boring and overdone: vaguely Germanic knight name with a title meaning "shield" that's been seen in a thousand other pieces of fiction? Sure. Memorable.

Aldia's Keep

The game goes a little off the rails here. Finding the King's Ring in Vendrick's articles of clothing, which he left in a pile to go walking around in a loincloth (hey, enjoy your retirement while you can), a few new areas open up. One is the scary sounding Throne of Want, which sounded a bit final to me, and another is a door in the Forest of Fallen Giants that lead to a few items but not a whole lot else. The third and final King's Ring door was at the crossroads in Shaded Forest, and led to this Keep area. It's quite short, but interesting too. Lots of caged creatures, and kind of gave me that same uneasy feeling Duke's Archive did. Turns out there were two crazy scientist Dukes in Dranglaic, and Aldia was putzing around trying to figure out how to bring the Ancient Dragons back. The ones from the intro of Dark Souls 1. Interesting idea, at least. I won't spoil much more of this place, because it has a few nasty secrets, but for as minimal as it was it did pack in a lot of lore, and a lot more questions that the lore didn't feel like filling in.

Guardian Dragon

Ah, yes, the classic dragon fight, though it's really more of a wyvern. The trick to this battle, not that there really is much need for one, is to not use the lock-on. The erratic flight of the dragon, and how it'll often be directly over your head or, at the very least geographically speaking, be closer to you laterally than vertically means that the lock-on will have the unfortunate effect of sending the camera below your feet and into the cage floor looking straight up at the boss, which makes it easy to focus on what the dragon is doing ("breathing fire" is the answer to that query nine times out of ten) but not so much on what your character is doing. Without the lock-on, it then behooves the player to use the manual camera controls to keep track of the dragon, but it fortunately doesn't move too much. At least, not when it's about to strike. It'll frequently be jumping, launching into a hover and occasionally latching onto a wall, but then it'll stay in that position for a second or so before breathing fire or stomping on you, giving you ample time to adjust the camera and prepare for an impromptu roasting.

I died the first time because I underestimated the damage the breath was doing when sustained for several seconds (though I still had my fireproof gear from the Smelter Demon fight if push ever came to shove), but the second shot was a cinch. If you're quick, and its on the ground, you can get to its legs and tail before it does its firebreathing and score around five or six hits as it completes the long animation, using the relentlessness of its stream of fire against it in a way. Since there's very little point to a shield if it doesn't have amazing fire resistance (the dragon's only other move I saw was a stomp that ignored my shield completely), double-handing the weapon for all those free hits just made things worse for the poor lizard. I think I healed once during that whole second encounter. Like the Demon of Song, it wasn't a particularly tough encounter nor did it involve a lot of strategizing and pattern memorization, but at least it looked cool and gave me something to worry about other than strafing around some big knight guy. I will continue to take what I can get in that regard.

Memories of Giants

There's not much to say about the rest of the dragon path. At least, not in terms of bosses. The Dragon Sanctuary is kind enough to not give you a (compulsory, anyway) boss fight, because in order to get to the end you have to fight a lot of really tough Drakekeeper enemies, which are sort of like the Heide's Tower giants only these guys don't mess around. Anyway, the Ancient Dragon at the end gives you a weird misty artifact that lets you access the memories of the various Giants you can see in the Forest of Fallen Giants. What follows are three interesting "invasions" that took place in the Forest of Fallen Giants before it became a ruin, and you have a limited amount of time to fight a specific dead Giant and claim its soul. I believe the story-reason for these souls is to grow more powerful, but they're also necessary for doing any damage to Vendrick. Yeah, I had to look that one up. Anyway, one of those three memories puts you up against this next boss:

Giant Lord

Well, what can I say? It's another big dude with a sword. He actually feels a lot like a remix of the first boss of the game, The Last Giant, and could well be the same entity given the odd memory-travelling aspect of this part of the game. It's gotten a little Remember Me around here, to put it another way. Like the Last Giant and all those Guardian Dragons I've been fighting, the trick appears to be simply sticking around near his feet and hacking away, watching out for the handful of moves he'll do to knock you away to a more advantageous (for him) distance. Essentially, a stomp and a leg sweep that seems to be part of a sword swing that doubles as an attack for either close- or mid-range. Feels kind of cheap to attack a boss where he can't hit you effectively, but given the alternative is the reverse scenario, well, better him than me.

Throne of Want

The last region of the game. Like the Kiln of the First Flame from Dark Souls, it's essentially a long dash to the final boss's arena. It's actually fairly unremarkable besides that, other than getting the biggest plot dump of the game from the Emerald Herald, who finally spills the beans on what's happening around here. Nashandra, the Queen who's been telling you where to go for the latter half of the game, is actually the big bad: the one who brought both Vendrick and Dranglaic to ruin, and the one eager to gain more power by taking control of the first flame. Gee, I wonder if that giant cursed painting of her in Dranglaic Castle wasn't a big tip-off. There's no enemies here, just an absurdly long jog to the following boss fights:

Throne Watcher & Throne Defender

Yay, two more knight bosses. That resurrect each other. I almost want to just leave it at that, such is my spite for these two. There's really nothing to this fight: they're the same enemies we've been fighting throughout the entire game. Both will enchant their swords when low on health, but besides the Watcher being slightly faster and the Defender being slightly stronger (or vice versa? I wasn't really paying attention), it just seems like another pair of large knight enemies. In fact, they were probably less trouble than the knights at the Dragon Sanctuary were: at least these two never broke my guard in one hit. Being able to resurrect their friend once they were down was annoying but hardly elevated the difficulty of the battle, just kind of extended it unnecessarily. I guess I might've been a little overpowered for them, what with the extracurricular trip to the aforementioned big lizard palace and all the Giant hunting I'd been doing.

Lore-wise I'm sure there's some interesting backstory here. I mean, they were guarding the Throne of Want, the most powerful position in the entire kingdom. They aren't the final bosses (though that comes immediately after if you were an idiot like me and grabbed the right quest item first) but I'm sure they're significant. More significant than some husband and wife knight team at least. Then again, maybe not. Maybe they really were just glorified night security watchpeople. One of them did try to pepper spray me for loitering, come to think of it...


So here she is, the game's primary antagonist. Apparently a fragment of the thoroughly destroyed Manus/The Furtive Pygmy that went off on her own to seek power, her backstory is mirrored by that of the Emerald Herald: both were created from the ether to serve a purpose, and Nashandra's was to spread the dark introduced to the world by Manus and grow ever stronger while the Herald's job was to somehow transfer the powers of the Ancient Dragons to a worthy Undead vessel? Hence the leveling? I dunno. I guess since I've beaten the game now, I can refer to the big YT groupthink for what the many tiny offerings of lore that this game provides may or may not mean.

As a boss, Nashandra's a lot like a cross between Dark Souls's Nito (big dead thing, minions, dark magic) and Priscilla (tall lady thing, scythes), but more annoying. I guess that's a given, right? I've decided not to Ctrl-F this master document for the term "annoying", largely for the sake of my own sanity. She starts the fight by summoning four hardcore versions of those curse jars, the second most annoying entities in the game after the poison-spitting statues, and then just kind of swings her scythe around a bit whenever you get close. Easy enough to avoid those scythe attacks, and I figured out early that she can only have four wisps around at once: if you remove the one closest to you and then coax her towards a different region of the boss arena (which is fortunately quite big, but of course has a giant pit that I fell into a few times) then the wisps are no longer an issue. There's a big hex laser that's easy to avoid if you can see it coming, though you're pretty much dead if it hits you, and a big AoE hex that will surprise you exactly once. After that, it's easy street. I did like the visual design at least: Nashandra can be added to the likes of the Demon of Song where I might not have thought much of her predictable tactics (though she did switch it up a lot) but I can enjoy that creepy giant corpse queen look she has going on. It was almost like fighting the skeletal form of Persona 4's Izanami again, but in real-time.


Had to happen eventually. I mean, there's an achievement for it and everything. Sure, it's another tall guy with a sword, but it's THE tall guy with a sword. The erstwhile King of Dranglaic and this game's Gwyn equivalent, albeit in the form of a totally optional fight. Vendrick doesn't have a whole lot in his repertoire except sheer stats: he has more health, does more damage and has more defense (until you find all the souls of Giants, one of which requires a debatably tougher fight with a friendly NPC which I'm not up to, largely because getting there is too much of a hassle) than any other boss in the game, barring perhaps this following optional guy I've been putting off. He doesn't need more than a few swipe attacks and a vertical strike with all that going for him.

I see parallels with Vendrick and both the Hollows and the Undead hero in particular. He looks, moves and acts just like the weakest of the Hollows you meet, with a slow zombie-like gait and a few all-or-nothing desperate swings with whatever big chunk of metal he's holding. It's kind of like those secret superbosses in JRPGs where it's just a way bigger version of the weakest enemy (usually a Dragon Quest slime, or some kind of hyper Prinny) and insanely tough. He also has a similar moveset to the hero, just the regular light or heavy attacks and a running jump variant. Kind of plays into this whole "every King was a former protagonist who grew old and feeble and corrupt after thousands of years" cycle of destiny thing the Dark Souls games have going on.

But man, you gotta imagine what this guy was like at full power and fully armored. Gwyn too, for that matter. You get the impression they'd have zero problem with any other foe in the game. Raises the question of how they got this way in the first place, I suppose. Still, I can take away one thing from this fight: Vendrick looked tired and defeated. After all these samey, unimaginative and often terribly-conceived bosses, I'm right there with him.

Dark Chasm of Old

Bonus time! The Dark Chasm of Old are a series of small bonus dungeons available to a specific covenant, which requires some searching to find. There are three big circular daises scattered around the world, and each is a portal to a different "Dark Chasm of Old": essentially a boss rush against a bunch of very tough NPC phantoms, which you have to defeat without exception before lighting a sconce and falling down a specific hole to exit. I believe the multiplayer trailers for Bloodborne are suggesting something similar will be in their game, though this time procedurally generated.


The final foe (well, besides DLC nonsense), and one I'd been putting off because I hear these optional covenant dungeons are no joke. Still, I'm not eager to wipe the slate clean just yet, and acquiring all the hexes is one of the few magic-based trophies that don't require two-and-a-half playthroughs or hundreds of online invasions (kudos to whoever on the development team decided "forced NG++" was a fun requisite to add to the achievement list again).

It's around now I start describing what this boss is about and his tactics, but given how asinine these dungeons are and how it requires a priceless item just to attempt one, I'm going to leave this guy a mystery. There are tough games out there that require 100% effort which I'm am happy to provide, so that I might see it through to the end despite the many hardships. Dark Souls is this. Then there are games I eventually become entirely apathetic about and can no longer drum up the enthusiasm when it gets super hard like this. Dark Souls II is that, I've discovered. Might just be I'm burned out on the Souls formula, but fighting effin' Havel on a thin bridge over an abyss while his backstabbing friend Ricard could pop around the corner at any moment is not something I intend to spend any more of my finite time on this Earth partaking in. Up with this I will not put.

Darklurker's big and scary. Probably. Bye.

Dark Souls II: Bosswatch Part 1Dark Souls II: Bosswatch Part 2

The Mento Game Awards: 2014 in Review

Welcome everyone, to the Mento Game Awards! This should be a fairly compact award show this year, given that I didn't play a whole lot of new games, but there's always a handful I need to commend and others to decry, and that means handing it over to my favorite incompetent hacker and... oh man, did I leave @vinny's Dark Souls character in the final MVGX comic I did last year? Uh-oh...

Best 2013 Game of 2014

Top Eleven:

  1. Pikmin 3
  2. Gunpoint
  3. Remember Me
  4. Super Mario 3D World
  5. BioShock Infinite
  6. Toki Tori 2+
  7. SteamWorld Dig
  8. Warlock: Master of the Arcane
  9. The Starship Damrey
  10. Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe
  11. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Well, I threatened to put together an entirely incidental top-ten list for 2013 games I played this year, and there it is. Obviously, if you were going to be a consumer that waits for price drops, you're going to be around six months behind the curve, which means a lot of worthy titles bleeding over to the following year. I still have copies of plenty more 2013 games left to try too, including The Swapper, Assassin's Creed IV, Tales of Xillia and others, so we're not done with that year by a long shot. Nor, I suspect, will I be done with 2014 for quite some time to come, despite being generally lackluster comparatively.

Let's just briefly touch on this alternate top ten: Pikmin 3 goes first, because I love the Pikmin series to bits, and though it felt a little underwhelming compared to 2 it still looked gorgeous in HD and still had more or less the same level of craft and ingenuity. Switching out purples and whites for rocks and flying didn't make a huge amount of difference, but the absence of dungeons and what felt like a major scaling down of items and areas was a bit more of a bummer. Gunpoint was a little Indie game that got in, did its job and got out with a great deal of finesse and little to criticize. Remember Me I enjoyed quite a bit in spite of its flaws, because it had creativity for days and in an ideal world might've received an amazing sequel that ironed out all its problems, sort of like what happened to the original Assassin's Creed. Super Mario 3D World is another charmer from Nintendo's flagship series, though is again another Mario off-shoot facing diminishing returns from figuratively hitting the same POW Block one too many times and despite 3D World's charm, it began to lose me towards the end with its unwarranted difficulty spike. BioShock Infinite was like Remember Me, in that it had plenty of great ideas and looked amazing but I didn't so much care for the repetitive execution nor the relentless racism (I get it! They're bad guys! They like owning people of color and doing mean things to them!). Toki Tori 2+ and SteamWorld Dig were great, compact open-world puzzle-platformers that often required some deeper thinking, Warlock: The Master of the Arcade was a serviceable if not quite superior attempt to reboot Master of Magic, Starship Damrey was an interesting first-person horror game for a system that usually hosts nothing of the sort and Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe was a major nostalgia boost for me that kept me hooked on air (space) hockey for longer than I'd care to admit. Finally, because I did play it last year, we have Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons following up the rear at 11th place. Hey, don't look at me, it just happened to land there.

Bucket List Tick Off of 2014

Nominees: Deadly Premonition, Wizardry 8, Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Tales of the Abyss 3D.

Going further back, deep into the pile of shame that somehow continues to grow faster than I can deplete it, we have the Bucket List Tick Off of 2014 for games that I've been meaning to try for many years now, and finally knocked out.

Deadly Premonition is the clear winner, because it allowed me to finally experience the site's second longest running series (collectively speaking). That meant a whole bunch of new (for me) Ryan content too, and the value of that cannot be overstated. Wizardry 8 is a CRPG heavy-hitter that felt like a gap in my moderately dense CRPG history, like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines and Planescape: Torment were last year. Metal Gear Solid, which I preferred over its sequel, introduced me to a series I'd stayed clear of for far too long, and I was beginning to feel like that guy who's never seen Star Wars. That also meant more great site content I'd finally allow myself to watch too, so due credit there. Trails in the Sky and Tales of the Abyss are just two JRPGs I've been meaning to play for ages, and I so rarely find the time for super long anime adventures these days. Man, do I miss being a teenager with a PS1 and a summer that went on forever. That's probably the oldest old man thing I've ever said.

Best Soundtrack of 2014

Nominees: Shovel Knight, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Dark Souls II, Jazzpunk, Magicians & Looters. (Hon. Mention: Super Smash Bros., which is disqualified for being mostly remixes)

Slim pickings this year. Either that or I wasn't paying much attention. Most VGM continues as it has in the past, fitting their respective games well but not really going out of its way to be memorable or unique. Shovel Knight's was uncommonly good, with composer Jake "virt" Kaufman using something close to the NES's sound chip to create a lot of jams that are too darn earwormy. Clearly the guy learned a thing or two about catchy NES music when revamping the DuckTales soundtrack for WayForward's recent reboot. Wolfenstein: The New Order's "Metal with a capital M" soundtrack just demands your attention, even over all the gunfire and bombs and colossal Nazi war robots, and it makes the softer stuff stand out all that much more during the game's handful of quiet moments. Dark Souls II is, again, sort of doing what Dark Souls did but slightly worse, in this case because without the lore there's not a whole lot to link the (otherwise fantastic) orchestral tracks to their respective boss fights. With almost all of Dark Souls's bosses (excepting the few random monsters put in there for flavor), I got a sense through the music of the sort of entity I was fighting, whether it was mournful (Sif or Gwyn), angry (most of the demons) or grimly duty-bound (most of the knightly types, like Ornstein and Smough). Jazzpunk's soundtrack was a lively and espionage genre-congruous salsa/electro and I respect the hell out of it even if it's not my kind of bag, and Magicians & Looters surprised me with how much I liked some of its music later in the game.

Here's a short YT sample of what you can expect to hear in these five games. I'll look forward to other best soundtrack lists from GB users who played a lot more new titles this year (looking at you, @majormitch):

Weirdest F'n Game of 2014

Nominees: Jazzpunk, Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Sayonara Umihara Kawase, NES Remix 2.

A Mento Game Award staple, I give a shout out to the game that confused and bemused me the most, either due to an off-beat visual style, a bizarre script, or anything else that could make a game stand out from a crowd, albeit by yelling the loudest about how the CIA was stealing its brainwaves. Despite some competition from Go! Go! Nippon!, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Sayonara Umihara Kawase and NES Remix 2, all of which were weird but in a manner that anyone familiar with where those games came from could expect, Jazzpunk is the winner here. Every non-sequitur joke made a twisted kind of sense, but so rarely could you anticipate what that joke was until it happened. You could talk to a box and expect it to say something about the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo in a growly voice, but probably not something backwards in Japanese about hair-curlers. Yet it never got so absurd for the sake of randumb, pulling just short of the "Tim and Eric line" into pure pointless idiocy that so many others of its comedy Indie ilk collapse into. These were actual jokes, and they were good ones. But, you know, weird as well.

Of course, the real answer here is Metal Gear Solid 2, despite technically not being a 2014 game. We'll be coming back to that one with a different award, so don't you worry.

2014 Game With The Most Knight Bosses

Nominees: Dark Souls II, Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight, a game about knights where every major NPC boss but one is a knight, had less knight bosses than Dark Souls II. Just saying.

We'd better run the list down, in case you think I'm exaggerating or something. Rules: I'm including recurring boss fights and multiple opponents. "Knight" refers to any heavily-armored humanoid, preferably with one of those badass slit helmets like what my avatar's got. There's spoilers for both the above games, naturally:

Shovel Knight: Black Knight (x3), King Knight, Spectre Knight, Treasure Knight, Plague Knight, Mole Knight, Tinker Knight, Polar Knight, Propeller Knight and, hey, let's throw in Mr. Hat and The Phantom Striker too = 13.

Dark Souls II: The Pursuer, Dragonrider, Old Dragonslayer, Ruin Sentinels (x3), Flexile Sentry, The Smelter Demon, Twin Dragonriders (x2), Looking Glass Knight, Velstadt, Throne Watcher & Throne Defender = 14. Doesn't account for DLC.

Game I Had the Most Fun Being a Huge Jerk About

Nominees: Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Solid, Dark Souls II, Deadly Premonition, Go! Go! Nippon!.

This is a new category this year, but I'm thinking of making it a regular one like Weirdest F'n Game. In the past few years I've gone from writing blogs about larger subjects generally connected to the games I played that week, to screenshot LPs, to essentially a bulletpoint list where I'm jus' sassin' 'bout what I see. What's alarming is that these "reaction blogs" have been some of my most commented-upon this year, far more than the LPs or the daily review blog series. I'm starting to appreciate the fact that the youth of today prefer brevity to long-winded explication and ratiocination, though I'm not quite at the point where I'm MST3king a video in real-time like the big YouTube names of today. Maybe that will change, but I'll need a better computer first. Would anyone read the sarcastic subs of an annotated video, I wonder?

Anyway, the above list includes a reaction blog for Metal Gear Solid and two (1, 2) for Metal Gear Solid 2, written in response to Dran and Dew's MGS misadventures, a couple (1, 2) for Deadly Premonition which began this whole new lo-fi format of being snarky about weird games. Go! Go! Nippon! saw a fairly horrifying multi-part LP series and Dark Souls II an ongoing critique of its boss fights (though the previous award summarized that whole blog series pretty neatly). MGS 2's was the most fun to write, and I continue to partition it to match Metal Gear Scanlon 2's episodic progress because, darn it, the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo can't suppress what I have to say about how dumb that game gets. No doubt it'll be followed next year with MGS3 (and maybe 4?).

Best Game for a Babby Console

Nominees: Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart 8, NES Remix 2, Sayonara Umihara Kawase, Tappingo.

Another series staple, wherein I judge the best Nintendo game I played out of an increasingly irrelevant loyalty to a developer that helped define my youth. Honestly, though, Nintendo had a great year irrespective of any pity awards, pushing out a lot of incredible 3DS and Wii U exclusives that, naturally, I didn't get around to because I'm cheap and Nintendo games never seem to drop in price. I did play enough 2014 games on those platforms to scrape five nominees together though, and I suspect (well, know, since I already published my GOTY 2014 list) I'll be discussing my abusive relationship with Super Smash Bros. in more detail elsewhere.

As for the others, well, Mario Kart 8 is also on that GOTY 2014 list with more elaboration if you're curious. NES Remix 2 was an improvement over the original, thanks in part to a better selection of games, but Jeff makes the inescapable point that there's way more they can do with that concept than the few, largely tame unusual mix-ups they have already. On the other hand, I've always felt the point of these Remixes is to introduce a sort of "Cliff Notes for NES Games" to younger generations so they can appreciate how those old NES games played and how they would inspire modern game design (if you've seen that viral vid of teenagers playing Mega Man, they could use the help, though they seemed to be catching on fairly quick). Indies zero, the third-party developer Nintendo hired to produce the series, began with the Retro Game Challenge (a.k.a. GameCenter CX) franchise, creating retro-style games that were meant to invoke an era of being a kid with an NES, a spare afternoon and a bunch of Nintendo Powers for hints (or a 30+ year old comedian with a bunch of 20-something assistants, as the case may be). NES Remix is really more of an extension of that idea, just with some extra silliness thrown in. Sayonara Umihara Kawase was a minor coup for lovers of obscure Japanese games, a niche market Nintendo's getting better at courting (though they could go one better and localize Fatal Frame IV and V already), as the Umihara Kawase series had been exclusive to Japan for twenty years now; this new one was an anniversary release, in a sense. It's too weird to explain in brief, so look up some videos. Finally, Tappingo was a neat variant on Picross that might interest anyone who has exhausted the Picross e series on 3DS and wants something new. Tappingo already has a sequel out, in fact, though I've yet to try it.

Best New Character

Nominees: Vella (Broken Age), Glory (Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall), Shield Knight (Shovel Knight), Vienna (Magicians & Looters), Joy (Murdered: Soul Suspect).

Always contentious, the Best New Character award goes to whatever collections of polygons and pixels that somehow let me forget, however briefly, that they aren't just polygons and pixels. Obviously a well-realized character with clear motivations and personality helps, but I'm also fond of creativity and maybe a heaping helping of badassery too. I mean, who wants to play as, or alongside, someone who can't take care of themselves?

Broken Age's Shay's a bit wishy-washy and passive for my liking, even if he is attempting to thwart an omnipresent and potentially malevolent computer in much the same way as Chell did before him, but Vella is a far more proactive agent of her own escape from the bizarre rules she is forced to live by. Refusing to be some hideous monster's lunch, she defies tradition to attempt the impossible and kill it so no-one ever has to dress up in a ludicrous cake dress to be Cthulhu's afternoon snack. She's courteous and kind to those she meets, but is driven by her goals to the extent that she has little time for BS like hylophobic lumberjacks. Maybe a little less goofball than most people want in their point and click protagonists (she's no Guybrush), but I like a no-nonsense protagonist in my adventure games. Dragonfall had a bunch of great characters, from aging German punk rocker turned shaman Dieter to the gruff female orc commando Eiger, but I liked Glory most. Presented as a taciturn gothy mystery, Glory's various skillsets--she has short-range shotguns and bionic claws on prosthetic limbs, but is also adept at healing--are almost at odds with each other. It's when you dig into her traumatic past that things start to make sense, and she was one of the most fun new characters to explore in terms of backstory. Warning: it gets super dark. Shield Knight is the driving force behind Shovel Knight's quest, and also the source of the game's best story moments, including Shovel Knight's uneasy dreams about leaving her behind. That she turns out to be the damsel in distress, the big bad and the badass combat partner simultaneously is a pretty great twist. Vienna's one of three apathetic, detached and somewhat psychopathic teen protagonists in Magicians & Looters that the player can switch between, but is presented fairly early on as an athletic Bruce Lee type who becomes the default choice for people like myself who go into SpaceWhippers with a focus on exploring every nook and cranny. Her martial arts make her a fun character to fight as, but it's her acrobatics and higher jump that really appealed most. She even has a dive kick. As for Joy, well, I thought Murdered: Soul Suspect wasn't too bad in story terms, and while Joy is essentially Ellie Mk. 2 as yet another streetwise ingenue who doesn't particularly care to follow the advice of any adult, she's a better character than Tortured Tattoo Cop Ronan. She also runs rings around him in their conversations, rolling her eyes at his attempts to be some slick noirish gumshoe.

Best Octurbo Game

Nominees: Lords of Thunder, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Ys IV: Dawn of Ys, Dungeon Master: Theron's Quest, Dungeon Explorer II.

I spent a whole month playing TurboGrafx-CD games, so I might as well pick one out as the best of the bunch. While I certainly respected the quality of Rondo of Blood, enjoyed my brief time with Ys IV, was completely weirded out by Dungeon Master: Theron's Quest's reimagining of a classic childhood staple of mine and was impressed with the much improved Dungeon Explorer II, I think Lords of Thunder and its unforgettable metal soundtrack is what resonated with me most. Should I ever find myself in the unlikely position where I can buy a TurboDuo, Lords of Thunder will be the game I'll get to show off the system to people. It'll be easier than trying to find a TGCD copy of Rondo anyway, since that's Japan-only.

2014 Game of the Year

Winner: Super Smash Bros. for 3DS

This, I realize, is a hard Number One to justify even with 2014's meager offering for the new console generation-impaired as well as underwhelming headliners in general. Especially since I never got around to playing it with other people, or trying the supposedly superior Wii U version. It speaks to my psychology as a gamer, someone who loves a game where I can: explore a wide depth of content; discover new options and make constant alterations and evolutions to my playstyle; have many short-range goals to chase after; build towards an eventual state of completion instead of having my interest eventually burn out; and never get too boring or slog-like along the way. My favorite games of all time, Dark Cloud 2 and Master of Magic, had all these aspects in spades, and so does Smash Bros to perhaps a lesser extent.

There's enough nuance to the characters where you can find out certain strengths and weaknesses in their move selections, but are never overwhelmed with button presses and combos to memorize that you only ever end up playing two or three and getting real good with them: anyone can play any Smash character effectively if they use smash attacks and B+Up to recover from getting knocked off, but it takes just a little more effort to see each character for what they're worth. Likewise, each stage is different and has its own characteristics for the savvy player to exploit. The revamped Classic mode always provides some variation, there's hundreds of challenges and trophies to pursue and the 3DS's Smash Run is actually quite enjoyable in the way an action RPG eventually becomes; as you get stronger, you find you can start to stand your ground with bigger enemies and reap some real gains in terms of stat boosts and drops when you finally defeat them, not to mention the satisfaction of defeating foes you've run away from for so long. It's not the perfect Smash experience and I miss the lunacy of Brawl's Subspace Emissary (Smash 3DS could've used more boss fights too), but I always find myself getting giddy when a new Smash is on the horizon. More so than a new Mario or Zelda these days, even. But hey, like I've said in the past, I'm probably just playing it wrong.

Anyway, if you wish to read my full GOTY 2014 list, just go ahead and click that link. I've got a few more blogs lined up for the rest of this year, so I'll see you all again soon. Thanks for reading all my MS Paint squiggles again this year!


Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Fourteen~ (Mechanic Escape + Spate)

Day Fourteen

Mechanic Escape's one of your classic masocore platformer types, of a specific sub-sub-genre I'm thinking of dubbing "perfect run" masocores. More a timed obstacle course than an open-ended platformer where you have time to explore the surroundings, the player must dash through a gauntlet of ropes, pits, lasers and all manner of terrors to reach the end, preferably while grabbing a bunch of collectibles along the way. The collectibles occasionally act as detours, especially the larger ones that unlock new costumes for the protagonist, but for the most part sit directly on the optimal path, in a sense guiding players hoping to earn the quickest times.

The timed aspect is generally optional, as you aren't actually compelled to beat each stage as quickly as possible beyond potential bragging rights with whomever else might actually own this game, but maintaining a momentum is built into the level design at a core level, so you tend to find yourself sprinting along the linear path regardless. However, a certain nemesis who makes itself known on every stage (occasionally twice or more) will pursue you through stretches of the level, and it behooves the player to move as fast as possible during these sections to avoid a premature demise. The collectibles, too, are entirely optional, but again this is a game where they've been built into the level design and it feels like missing the point if you end the stage with some absent.

Chased by an evil cloud. Did Darren Lindelof write this?

The unfortunate mistake made by many (if not all) masocore Indie platformers that followed in the wake of Super Meat Boy's success, is that the mechanics involved with the platforming have to be perfect. If not perfect, then at least consistent. Mechanic Escape is fairly fluid and precise, fortunately enough, but there are certain obstacles that make the game very unforgiving when it doesn't need to be. The arc of the jump when leaving a rope can vary too much, and there are gravity switching fields that are too hard to parse when moving quickly; if you jump in the wrong place while in these fields, you end up flying in the wrong direction. Often the game switches to a sort of "automatic mode" for a few seconds, similar to certain sequences in Sonic the Hedgehog, but it never deigns to tell you this, and any interactions you make tend to upset the delicate balance of these "put the controller down a second" occurrences. Minor stuff, but when you're building a game that depends so much on sustaining a perfect speedrun, they add up far quicker than they might in the more common Super Mario derivatives. The other issue is that, because lap times are everything, the game never checkpoints. Super Meat Boy could get away with that because its levels were all so short, usually around 20-30 seconds when you knew what to do (with the exception of its later worlds, where it began to lose me a little), but most of Mechanic Escape's stages are close to a minute long. Again, only a little ways off the optimal design and entirely exonerable were this not a game where every second counts and you're dying frequently. The last and perhaps most problematic issue is that the game appears to have introduced all its mechanics in the first world, leaving nothing for the future worlds besides harder variations and the occasional new look. I've only gotten a little into World 2, but the achievements (which are of the unimaginative "do this x number of times" type) would seem to corroborate this fear.

On the whole, though, Mechanic Escape isn't too bad. It's a slick little Indie platformer with tolerable controls that feels a bit more like the new Rayman games than most others of its Indie ilk, given the emphasis on following lines of collectibles to speedily clear levels. Masocores aren't my thing, largely because they're just so hard to get right, but this one seems fine enough in spite of its aforementioned issues.

  • Game: Spate
  • Source: Groupees's Be Mine 13 bundle
  • Start: 14/12

If Mechanic Escape is an Indie platformer that builds from Super Meat Boy, then Spate is one that builds from Limbo. I'm not sure what you'd call this; a cinematic 2D platformer? Spate is similarly atmospheric as Limbo, but instead of a stark monochrome world it's murky and viridian. The player is a private eye and inveterate drunk, who seems to see the world through a filter of absinthe, which explains the world's green and hazy appearance. He also happens to be exploring a toxic wasteland for a missing person's case, an area designated "X Zone" after some mysterious industrial calamity irrevocably destroyed the natural beauty of the place. You're never quite sure if the environment is the result of the hero's drinking or the chemicals running ramshod over the natural order of things, and this opaque perspective becomes obfuscated further when enormous creatures and visions of your deceased daughter fill the screen.


Gameplay-wise, we're firmly in the realm of rudimentary physics puzzles and basic platforming, with the emphasis instead on the narration with the oddly Walken-esque delivery coming from the protagonist as he continues to delve into the deepening mystery behind the case he's working on. Hitting a button to drop a boulder on a seesaw to fling you upwards, that's generally the sort of thing we're talking about. It works fine enough as a foundation, but it's not quite as endlessly clever as Limbo became. The game's lousy with typos too, so it might've used a bit more proofreading.

In the end though, the greatest flaw of the game is that it's currently impossible to finish. This might be endemic to my particular computer, since it has enough trouble loading all the weather effects, vignetting and other atmospheric filters. I found myself attempting to ride a giant floating platform on a pivot: Clearly, the goal is to stand on one side of the lever to create a diagonal bridge to the next part of the level, but each time I jumped on it I simply fell through after a split second and into the bottomless pit below. Didn't seem to matter where I stood either, and simply jumping on the spot over and over only worked for so long. It's a shame, as I was already invested in the mystery, but I suppose that's the way the cookie crumbles. Absinthe makes the floor go yonder, or something.

I think that was a fish that just passed by. Yeah, pretty sure.

Still, if you're looking for a game like Limbo and you're somehow fortunate enough to not have the above snafu happen to you when you play it, it might be worth checking out if you find it cheap or in a bundle. There's a certain Burroughs quality to the game's noir script and surrealism, though I'm certainly not the ideal judge for that sort of literary comparison. My knowledge of Burroughs starts and ends with that Naked Lunch movie where RoboCop's typewriter is a cockroach.

< Back to Day Thirteen

That's it for Go! Go! GOTY! this year. I think a nice round two weeks is better than artificially extending it out with whatever dregs I have left over, and it gives me some time to put a proper GOTY awards blog together. Thanks for reading this series, and if you're seeking some closure then look no further than this GOTY 2014 list of mine to see what I ended up choosing. Peace.