Minor delays (sorry)

Due to elements beyond anyone’s control, this week’s update is going to be delayed until Wednesday. I apologize profusely to everyone who was looking forward to this week’s entry, but if the decision falls into either rushing an update and making it sloppy (well, sloppier) or delaying it, I tend to favor the latter.

Oddly enough, this ISN’T because of the Gaming Respawn situation, and indeed that site’s updates have suffered for the same reason.

After the emergency update on Wednesday, we’ll return to our normal Sunday/Monday updating scheduled, and hopefully we’ll be able to go a few weeks without some problem popping up, ha.

Until then, as a mini-mini update, I’ll say that we’re continuing to trek through Outlast 2, and it’s getting to the point where I’m jumping at shadows. People who have played the game will understand me when I say that I’m NEVER going to a school or school like environment again for as long as I live.

Death and horror games: how failure may be the least scary thing a player has to face.

         I have to admit that I’m not really a huge fan of horror games. This is down solely to the fact that I am a HUGE scaredy cat: after playing a good horror game, I’m jumping at my own shadow for potentially days after, if there even are any shadows left after I’ve turned on every single light possible. While the cathartic feeling of fear-laden-adrenaline is one particular rush that I can appreciate, I’m not really the type to go actively seeking it too often. The only times I’ve really gone out of my way to get a horror game is when my brothers and I have collectively decided to do a play through together, which makes the actual horror much more manageable. One such outing was for Outlast, and now Outlast II.

The Outlast games are perfect examples of products that heavily benefited from the developers NOT trying to re-invent the wheel. They’re mostly just the standard horror affair of ‘run/hide from scary dudes’ that’s been a staple of horror games ever since Amnesia brought the practice back in 2010. But they don’t really feel any weaker just because they use a well trodden formula: instead they use it to make extremely polished and engaging experiences, even if they’re not necessarily the most innovative. Not to mention, they’re also clearly made by people who aren’t afraid to take the more disgusting and less used avenues in horror (these games have a LOT of necrophilia and child murder between them). For all of that, the developers at Red Barrels have my respect.

(Just a small tangent: how did a group of developers calling themselves ‘Red Barrels’ end up making horror games? Like, don’t get me wrong, the Outlast games are some damn effective horror games, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but ‘Red Barrels’ is the name I’d associate with some kind of action or shooter developer. The group definitely make a valiant effort at re-contextualising the meaning in their logo spot on Outlast 2’s opening, by having blood run into a groove shaped like a barrel, hence giving the name a horror twist. Even then, it’s defiantly an odd one.)

There is one point that I noticed though, as we crept through Outlast 2’s disturbing Jonestown-esque environments. For one, that old woman with a pickaxe is god damn terrifying, holy crap. The other more pressing realization is that actually being caught by the things that are chasing you is weirdly not that scary. You creep around for tens of agonising minutes, tensing whenever a muttering cultist wanders past, ducking into barrels of water that threaten to drown you just so you can be out of sight for a few seconds. Alternatively, you get spotted and you run as fast as you humanly can to be out reach of your pursuers, your breath getting heavier and heavier as your steps slow and their own start to speed up. And after all of that, when they finally catch you, it’s…oddly anti-climactic.

Don’t get me wrong, watching Blake (the main protagonist) get his nadgers cleaved off with a pick is always painful, but I feel all the tension wash out of me when the screen finally fades to black. This then risks what is basically a dying cycle: you can’t figure out how to progress, and get stuck repeatedly dying while you try to figure out just where the hell you’re supposed to run to, making the whole chase more of a chore. There’s a good example of this problem in the very first meeting with Marta. She is guaranteed to see you, and is standing directly in a narrow passage, blocking you from your objective. It’s easy enough to double back and run in a circle around a shed, meaning you can evade her long enough to move forward. The only problem is that the only way to escape from there is to crawl under a small gap in a wall, something that isn’t amazingly easy to spot while you’re running for your life. Since this is early in the game, and the player most likely hasn’t learned to hide in the barrels and tall grass, a lot of players are going struggle to find the critical path without dying at least a few times.

The threat of death and harm is one of the key concepts to horror games. Regardless of your background or character, nearly everyone in existence would rather avoid dying, especially if that death is a painful one. A huge number of classic horror conventions are only effective because they make the perceiver worried there might be some kind of threat waiting around the next corner. This is why the rustling of bushes freaks you, why the darkness is so foreboding, and why you want to be as far from the crazy axe swinging murderer as possible.

…Well, that last goes without saying…

While I think horror needs something beyond that to be truly unnerving (the physical horror of Lovecraft’s ‘Old Ones’ is second to the sheer existential questions and dread they create), there’s no doubt that the fear of dying is an important one for horror products. However, since these are video games, you need to actually be able to make good on that threat, otherwise the game would simply play itself. The only problem is, dying gives you a forced break from all of the terrifying atmosphere and tension. And when Blake is returned safe and sound when the checkpoint is reloaded, we remember that failure only has minimal consequences.

This is why dying repeatedly is a complete antithesis of making something scary: it’s a jarring reminder that you’re sitting safely in your home, just playing a video game. You’re not actually being chased by some horrific monster, and being caught has no real consequence to you. At most, the only consequence is that being caught wastes your time, since you’ll need to re-do the section you’re playing. This is kind of a big issue, since the whole point of a horror game is to be scary. Even worse, this is something that will be pretty heavily affected by the player’s own skill, since a player with better reactions will die less, which helps to avoid this problem, but there’s no way to 100% ensure the player doesn’t run into this problem.

It’s not like the Outlast games are the only horror games that suffer from this: Little Nightmare’s deaths are all vividly disturbing, as highlighted by this ‘delightful’ trailer, but getting stuck on a sequence and watching them over and over would eventually tire everyone out. Even P.T., which was pants crappingly horrifying, suffered a little from this when the final corridor becomes obtuse as hell with no clear idea of how to advance. While that one hallway now has a permanent spot in my waking nightmares, so too does the frustration at wandering down it with nothing happening for ages. Although, considering that it was made by Kojima, it’s possible that was the intended reaction.

This is something that horror developers need to be careful of, and maybe even plan around. Admittedly, keeping it so something is challenging and tense but not too difficult or obscure is a delicate balance to maintain. One key solution that Outlast II itself employs is to make sure that the player knows what the overall objective is in the current area before putting the patrolling threats in the area. A good example of this is when you have to push a cart up to a gate so you can climb over it. The area is completely devoid of threats before you find both the gate and the cart, which also gives you a chance to scout around the area for good hiding spots. This means that when Marta inevitably appears out of (or hacking through) the woodwork, the player has enough clear directions to what they actually need to do. If she had been present while the player had just been scouting around the area, it would have been much more aggravating to get anything done.

Another trick that Outlast II uses is one that’s a pretty common tactic across all of gaming, namely that you can guide the player’s eye using light. This is most obvious during the game’s many chase sequences, where in your path will nearly always have a bright source of light in or near it, making it much easier to tell which direction you have run in even in a split second. While this technique is pretty prevalent across gaming as a whole, the effect is especially pronounced here thanks to the deep and foreboding shadows that seem dominate this entire game.

Of course, even these don’t always save the player from an untimely death, nor always help to avoid several deaths in a row, again mostly because there’s no way to fully guess how skilful the player is or isn’t going to be. Indeed, this might be a problem with no solution, just methods of minimising how badly it is.

I would be fascinated to see a game that tries to directly eliminate this problem, to make failing in a horror setting just as scary as the chase, but until then I’ll have to try and stop panicking when some git with a hatchet jumps and tries to murder my ass.

Unapologetic plugging, or how I learned to stop worrying and link my content.

Hello, loyal reader, thanks for stopping by today!

For those who have been here a while, you might have noticed that we missed last week’s deadline of uploading some new content on Sunday (not that this particular blog is exactly fantastic at staying on schedule, ha).

Hopefully without sounding like I’m making too many excuses, one of the main reasons for the delay in content was that I finalising an application to the site ‘Gaming Respawn.’

I’m going to be posting some articles there from now on (which can’t be cross-posted to here), but I want to reassure that this won’t affect the upload rate from here on out: now that the application has gone through, we’ll be back to our semi-reliable schedule of one article a week every Sunday.

I also just wanted to thank everyone who’s followed the blog. It’s a small thing, but I’m super glad that some people actually enjoy reading this little collection of eclectic thoughts.

(In a final act of completely shameless self plugging, I’ll just leave the link to my spot on the website here: http://www.gamingrespawn.com/author/oliver-culling/)

The Art of good Side quests, feat. Yakuza 0.

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Forgoing twenty bear asses.

Last week, I said we’d be having a look at the brilliantly stylish and over-the-top world of Yakuza 0, and we will be doing so, but there’s been a slight change in plan. When I do a full review I want to do the game justice, and talk about as many features as I can, AND I like to make sure I have a good handle of the narrative when discussing it. Usually, after sinking enough hours into a game, I feel confident that I can talk about it to a sufficient degree (playing a game all the way through is better, of course, but isn’t always possible so soon after its release). After putting in the metric ton of hours I’ve played, I would usually be prepared to do just that, but Yakuza 0 is a bloody dense game. Ever after all this time, I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface of its combat, story, and especially its mini-games. To that end, the review is going to be delayed until next week, when I’ve had some more time to have a gander at it. Until then, however, let’s have a look at one aspect of the game that I can already confidently say I love about it: its side quests, or Sub-Stories as the game calls them.

Just so we’re all on the same page, when we’re talking about side quests, we’re talking about optional missions or objectives that often give out rewards intended to help the player on their way to completing main objectives, as well as give the player something to do when they’re not doing said main objectives. They’ve been a staple of RPGs for almost as long as the genre has been around, and are even present in some form in other types of games.

Anyone who’s played a ton of games (especially RPGs) will know that you can get some real dud side quests given to you. These can take various forms, such as ‘fetch quests,’ where you have to more or less just go from one location to another, wherein the greatest challenge to the player is the test of their patience. Or you can get gathering missions, where you have to run around and kill basic enemies/kill annoying enemies/pick flowers or whatever until you fulfil a certain quota, which can take much more time than it’s worth. Both of these problems can also be worsened if what you’re looking for is based on random chance, meaning you can go through all the effort of looking for an item, only to find that the game has decided it’s not in the mood to reward you for your efforts. Despite how harsh I’m being to it, I understand that some games do actually benefit from the ebb and flow these quests create: these side quests can give the player something to do while they move across otherwise unimportant stretches of the game, and can be handy tools for the developers to direct the player where they want them to go without intruding or bogging down the main quest. Fetch quests can be used to guide the player towards other features or areas without being too intrusive and having the player kill a boat load of basic enemies at the start of the game is a good way to make sure they understand the basic concepts of combat.

However, let’s talk about Yakuza 0’s Sub-Stories, and the simple brilliance they bring to the table. In many respects, Yakuza 0’s side quests (indeed, the entire series’ side quests) are pretty basic: it’s pretty rare for them to offer any sort of new mechanic beyond just choosing text options and beating the hell out of opponents, something you do regularly anyway. However, they accopmplish two very important things that more poorly thought-out side quests fail to do, the first of which is to offer the player rewards for their efforts that actually feel meaningful. Rather than simply offering you cash or items, completing Sub Stories will often have the person you helped come back to offer their aid to the game’s two core management mini-games. These mini-games (in addition to being pretty fun and addicting themselves) are your main source of income, and will be key in helping you to unlock more powerful and kick-ass attacks. This means that, even if it’s in an indirect manner, helping the oddballs around Kamurocho will help you gain access to the most advanced attacks the game offers, thus helping them helps you in the long term. By the end of the game, you’ll have built quite the firm of oddities and nutcases: I already have a fake punk rock-star working right alongside a man that it literally Steven Spielberg in everything but name, and the main character Kiryu more or less just shrug the whole thing off.

The second thing that the Yakuza series gets right about side quests is that they’re just fun as hell, which is arguably more important than the first reason. In particular, Yakuza’s idea of fun mostly boils down to hilarious and often bizarre turns of events. It’s a pretty simple set of reasons to enjoy something, but there’s no other way of putting it, these side quest never fail to bring a big dumb grin to my face. It’s clear that a lot of effort goes into making each situation the player stumbles across both unique and funny as hell, and even oddly heartfelt when they want to be. More than anything else, I’m constantly impressed by how on point the timing and writing is, since I found myself chortling at nearly every other line of the more extraordinary instances, and just taking in the moving character moments of the (admittedly much rarer) earnest ones.

There’s also a lot to admire about these side quests that aren’t immediately obvious at first: for one, they tie very well into the fact the game has an overall pretty small world. Having a small map is often considered some kind of failing point of an open-world, sandbox game like this one, but what Yakuza lacks in size it makes up for in denseness, and the game’s Side Stories are a big part of that. Usually, the player has to be given explicit directions to where the heck a side quest even is by a marker on the map, since they would be next to impossible to find. Yakuza manages to avoid this problem by placing Sub Stories along vital travel routes on the way to key locations, or along the paths to save points. This creates the impression that the player is coming across these events by pure chance, which is incredibly appropriate to the tone of the game. Rather than having to travel miles across other empty areas just to find what content there actually is, it feels like there’s some kind of strange escapade waiting around every corner, which is pretty appropriate to the tone of the game. The fact that these Sub Stories aren’t overly long is another factor to appreciate, since the developers often squeeze out all the potential they can from the situation, and then end them before they over-stay their welcome. Because of this, the Sub Stories make nice breaks from the much longer and involved main story.

And the sheer variety of situations that make up the Sub Stories is nuts! I’m pretty sure the last time I played the game, I watched Majima accidently create what would later become the standard for Japan’s taxes, and not too long later Kiryu was teaching a demure dominatrix how to be more worthy of the title. And those two are on the more normal side compared to what our heroes get accidently involved in. I’m not saying this is the only way to do side quests in games, but I have to admit that I god damn love how they’re done in this particular example.

So, what can we draw from Yakuza’s side quests in order to figure out what makes a good side quest in a more general sense? Being fun and entertaining is the easy answer, but one has to consider that different games will probably need different methods: Yakuza’s writing/translation is strong enough that just watching events unfold is a barrel of laughs regardless, but there may be games that would benefit from focusing more on its core game play to be at its most entertaining. This is especially true of other genres of games, such as shooters, that might ask a player to use weapons or tactics they wouldn’t have otherwise. Another factor for more general purposes would be that side quests should never be a pain to actually find or get to, and that their location should be carefully considered. If you absolutely must put a side quest or activity miles away from where the player will be spending most of their time, it might be prudent to add some kind of quick travel mechanic to the game, for example. Most important of all is that a side quest shouldn’t just be used to pad out game time, it should serve some sort of other purpose, such as expanding on a game’s lore or helping to teach the player a mechanic. Or, as is the case in Yakuza, sometimes a worthwhile purpose is to just have an excuse for the main character to fight zombies while defending a red-coated pop star by the name of “Miracle Johnson.” In many ways, what makes a good side quest is something that needs to be considered on a larger scale than the quest itself, and might need to take in the necessary evils that certain design choices require, i.e. using a fetch quest in order to bring the player to a location they wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

To sum it all up, Yakuza 0 has some fantastic side quests which succeed in being hilariously entertaining, helping to flesh out the world and its characters and even rewarding the player in actual gameplay terms, giving both an emotional and mechanical pay off. They make up for their relatively simple nature (most will be simply choosing text prompts or resorting to good ol’ head bashing) by being extravagantly over the top in their actual premises, as well as being a great way to break up the much more heavy and serious main story.

Tune in next week where I will continue to inevitably gush over Yakuza 0 in its own review, for real this time. Assuming my life hasn’t been consumed by Nioh after that comes out…

(Also, just to explain the sub-header: whenever someone needs to give an example of the tedious collectathon side quests that we talked about, a pretty common joke is use ‘bear asses’ as an example. This might be because bears are common enemies is a lot of RPG/Open-World games, or it might be the inherent hilarity that comes from ‘bear asses.’)

The Importance of Party Size: mechanics and versatility vs. focus and intimacy in an RPG.

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Now it’s a party!

In perhaps a blatant show of my gaming preferences and fan boy loyalty, I completed FFXV mere days after posting that Type – 0 review, and playing both games so close together got me thinking about an aspect of RPGs I had never considered: the actual size of an RPG’s party really does have an considerable affect, way more than I had given it credit for.

Before we dive headlong in, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. A ‘party’ in this context basically just refers to the main characters that take centre stage in a story, and in a game the party usually consists of the playable characters. HOW the party is playable usually varies depending on the game; sometimes the entire party is controlled by a single player, one character can go to one player each in a multiplayer game, or only one character is controllable while the rest of the party is handled by AI. To make things slightly simpler to compare, we’ll start with two games that both use the lattermost scheme for the most part (and came from the same company AND even the same series; I really lucked out with this analysis). After that, we’ll look at some more general examples, and how the sheer number of people in the main cast can affect the game they’re taking the limelight in.

With that out of the way, let’s compare the parties from Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy Type-0 from a narrative perspective:

I said in my review that I didn’t feel as if Class Zero from Type-0 ever really developed individually; they made a pretty cool unit of students, but the singular characters from the class mostly remained in the same state that we found them in. While they all went through a few motions as the story progressed (learning to better appreciate each other, and collectively learning that they didn’t have as much free-will as they first thought), their individual characteristics were fairly one-note even by the end. While this is a criticism, I understand the logic behind this outcome, namely that it would have been pretty difficult to fully flesh out and give a whole bunch of characterisation to over fourteen ‘main characters.’

In comparison, the four ‘Chocobros’ from FFXV are at least somewhat more developed by the story’s end, and a lot of that development is shown through their interactions with each other. Without spoiling too much, it definitely feels like the already tight-knit group had grown even closer by the time the credits were rolling, or at the very least the player had been made to understand their bonds by the end. The game goes out of its way to reinforce the intimate comradery between the four, and it really pays off. Likewise, the group feel like they had more character to show off through the run of the game; Ignis may be the most reliable and level-headed one in the group, but even he isn’t above teasing Prompto like the rest of the crew.* FFXV has an almost unfair advantage in this regard, since it only needed to characterise four main characters, but the difference is noticeable. It can also not be understated how much these characters endear themselves to the player, and how much they add to the ‘fantasy road-trip’ tone the early parts of the game has. Their interactions and banter with Noctis is always entertaining, and the game world would have felt much emptier without them following behind the player. Their open trust and appreciation of each other, even when they’re butting heads, creates a real feeling of intimacy with them: by the end of the game, you’re as glad that they travelled with you as much as Noctis is. Heck, the greatest criticism I can think of for the recently released ‘Moogle Chocobo Festival’ (which is otherwise good fun) was the fact that the ‘bros’ weren’t present.

(*I present exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4oLcVnTR_o )

So in terms of story and plot strengths, FFXV’s close-knit and forefront party feel more engaging and involved in the narrative compared to the more thinly spread Type-0’s. However, how do the different parties affect the actual game play in these video games?

While they all follow similar principles and a basic structure (namely, aim for the Killsights when possible, or use magic and abilities as your main source of DPS), the fourteen members of Class Zero all have noticeably different play styles, and a pretty varied set of abilities. To this end, there’s a play style for everyone in here, and you’ll quickly be able to pick out your favourites. If you want a precise ranged fighter that benefits from picking his timing carefully, you would look for Trey; if you want a character that just goes in swinging, and smashing the crap out of everything, Cinque is more your flavour. Likewise, since you can determine the three-person team that goes into battle yourself, there’s a number of team compositions that can be made, and even some effective team-ups that can be created: Cinque’s ability to stun from long range isn’t super useful by itself, since Cinque moves a little too slowly to cover the distance effectively, but having a much more flighty and quick character (like Eight or Queen for example) means that it be a pretty dangerous attack. The game even encourages this, to a certain extent, since you can only use two of a character’s extensive list of abilities, you greatly benefit from making sure your team composition is well balanced. Even if Class Zero’s characters aren’t the most developed ones in the world, you have to admit that the motley group make for some entertaining gameplay options.

In comparison, FFXV’s four protagonists are more limited. You’re stuck playing Noctis the entire game, and while he does have access to every type of weapon possible, they all function almost identically (and your enemies will always be weak to a particular one, which will often be the deciding factor in which one you use more than your preferences). Aside from some underwhelming ranged weapons, your tactics will ALWAYS be ‘run to the rear of the enemy, hold circle and hope for a Link-Strike,’ regardless of weapon choice. The three bros are similarly more limited in their load outs, being able to equip only one technique out of a middling pool of options, and with no way to control what actions they take otherwise (at least until the DLC drops). While their AI controlled move sets do improve as you sink more Action Points into them, and the game occasionally spices things up by adding a fifth guest character, it feels like your working in a pretty limited environment. There IS an insane attention to detail, such as how every single member of the group have different animations for their Link-Strikes with Noctis and how they all have voice lines for damn near every status effect in the game. This even extends to the guest characters, which are often present for less than an hour at a time. It’s actually a pretty impressive way to characterise the heroes even during gameplay, but doesn’t do much for the otherwise pretty limited system.

Now these are only two, very specific examples. I’m not going to make any broad stroke claims like party size is always going to be indication of where a developer’s focus laid, or that a large party can’t be well developed or vice versa. Heck, just for the record, I came to really appreciate Class Zero by the end of their game; for all their faults, they’re a likeable group, and their story becomes pretty compelling by the end. But there’s no getting around that the number of characters in an RPG’s party creates different problems, and likewise make certain challenges easier. Having more characters accessible at any one give times allows a developer to specialise each character to certain play styles without risking the player getting stuck: if a single character isn’t viable or fun for the player, they can simply be switched out for a different one. On the other hand, having a large cast can make it difficult to give each and everyone an equal amount of plot relevancy. Some RPGs will just have a core cast that actually matter to the story, and all of the supporting characters are there mainly for gameplay purposes (see the Suikoden series, which has you collecting over 108 characters for your merry band).

There are games that have the best of both worlds, in one sense. The old Final Fantasy games and the more recent Bravely Default games use a ‘job’ system that allows the player to customise the four-person party in numerous and often drastic ways, allowing the story to keep a sharp focus on four key characters without sacrificing the possible gameplay variety. This system does offer its own problems, since it can make it feel like none of the four main characters have much of an ‘identity’ in how they’re played, and raises the question of just how the hell these four chuckleheads learn all these different classes so quickly. Still, it’s a happy middle ground that, while not perfect or recommended for every game, I’m glad has made a minor comeback with the Bravely series.

On the other end of this entire spectrum, it’s worth considering the effects that having no party at all can mean in an RPG: the Dark Souls series has your character go through most of their trails completely alone, a single person going up against horrific beasts and fallen god-beings. This ties very well into the games’ melancholic and lonely feeling, as well the high difficulty the games are known for, since having just one travelling companion would drastically change the tone the game has. While you can summon NPCs and other players to help you, the fact that they often appear as extremely out-of-place glowing figures (unless equipped with certain rings and such) helps reinforce the idea that they’re not natively part of the player’s world. The fact that you have to summon someone through time and space just to fight with you creates this feeling that even though there’s someone actively trying to help you, you’re still very much doing this adventure alone.

I’ll freely admit that I made this loose analysis more for my own sake than anything else, since I had never stopped to think about just how much of a game’s entire gameplay and story were affected by the seemingly simple number of characters that make up the playable/main cast. This is definitely something that can only really be judged on a game-by-game basis, there is no inherently superior way of making a party composition. Here’s a fun idea: the next time you’re playing an RPG, try to image the game with a larger or smaller party than the one that’s currently present, and how much that would change. Would the story be any different, or would the gameplay be heavily affected? Would those changes make the game anymore fun to play, or would it take something away from the experience?

Thanks for sticking with this little splurge of thought; next week we’ll return to our usual scheduled review. Get those colourful suits and impractically brutal Heat Moves warmed up, because we’ll be stopping off into the wonderful world of Yakuza 0.

On the matter of The Last of Us Part 2

No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for…


In a darkened room that is lit only by the glare of a TV and the light of a PS4, four figures are hunched in almost reverent silence. I’m sat cross legged on the floor next to the sofa supporting my Pa and older brother, with my other brother sat in a seat just beyond them. My older brother is holding the controller; I’m just holding my breath. We all watch as two characters talk on a grassy hillside, with a vista of a few squat buildings in the distance. Despite the mundane nature of what’s on screen, there’s a tension in the air.

“Swear to me.
Swear that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.”

A pause that seems to last a lifetime.

“I swear.”

A mournful guitar brings to play.

“Okay.”

Roll credits.

That was my experience with the ending of The Last of Us. There’s more to the story, such as the fact that all four of us had been together whenever Ben (my older brother) played the game, making it one of the very few times when all four of us had managed to come together for a full play through of a game. We hadn’t even really intended to play through the whole thing together: Ben had gotten the game for his birthday, and we had all agreed we would watch the first fifteen minutes of it and then leave him to it. But if you’ve ever seen the opening fifteen minutes of the Last of Us, you know that you’re damn well sticking around for the whole ride.

It was perhaps one of the most chaotic runs a game has had to endure. Ben was more than competent on the controls, and we tried to act as rationally as one could, but we naturally devolved into shouting out advice and making various panicky noises when bullets started firing. Likewise, the eternal debate of what the hell to do with the limited supplies we had raged all of the way through the game. It was always in good fun, though, like the time Ben insisted that we really needed to upgrade the pistol’s fire rate, and I pointed out that increasing the fire rate without also upgrading the capacity was a god damn foolish move and he could shove that damn gun right up his-…anyway.

It’s true that pretty much anything is more fun when you do it with more people: watching paint dry is monotonous torture by yourself, but watching paint dry with someone else means you can at least get some good commentary going on. This is especially true of my situation with my bros and Pa, and especially especially true of me and video games.

I have no doubt in my mind that The Last of Us is a fantastic game, from it’s simple but elegant gameplay to it’s completely amazing story and presentation, but I wonder if I favour it even more so because of how I experienced it. If a game is more fun when experienced with friends, then a game must be stupidly improved when experienced with family.

The main point I’m trying to make is that when I experienced the ending to the Last of Us, it was something that I had the privilege of sharing with a number of people I cared about. It made the already extremely effective and gut punching ending even more powerful, especially since the ending raises the question of what exactly would have been the right thing to do in that situation. We weren’t certain if what Joel did was the most morally right thing to do, but I think we were all in agreement as the credits rolled that there was perhaps nothing else Joel could have done.

The game’s ending by itself is already one of the strongest in recent times, and the way I viewed it only made it even stronger.
And now, in a move that I’m am simultaneously absolutely shocked by and not at all surprised by, the Last of Us Part II has been officially announced. On one hand: OH SHIT, THE LAST OF US PART II!? On the other: Oh shit…the Last of Us, Part II.

This move should be, in many ways, no surprise at all. The Last of Us is one of the most highly acclaimed games of the decade, and was definitely one of Naughty Dog’s big sellers. Anyone could look at the kind of reviews and sales the game pulled in and say with confidence that a sequel was a no brainer.

But when I stop to think about the very idea of making a sequel to the first game, I can’t help but feel kind of worried. The ending of The Last of Us was pretty much perfect. I wouldn’t have changed a single line, moved the camera an inch, or made the game last even a second longer than it did. It is definitive enough to make it feel like Joel and Ellie’s story really had reached a natural conclusion, while leaving just enough room for interpretation that the player could make their own thoughts about what exactly it means (such as the ‘Ellie knows Joel is lying’ theory).

It really is a conflict between my heart and my brain. My brain is saying that a sequel isn’t necessary, and even might be at risk of cheapening the fantastic ending that The Last of Us had. My heart, meanwhile, reminds me of how much fun it was to play through the first game with my bros and Pa, and is holding out that it can relive that golden time.

To give credit to the game’s creators, Naughty Dog very rarely make a bad game. Even their weaker creations (Uncharted 3 on release and the Last of Us DLC) are still pretty bloody great. And even more credit goes to them because they know how fans are kind of worried about the prospect of a sequel to a game that ended on such a strong note. Neil Druckman, a writer and programmer that works for Naughty Dog and was one of the creative leads for The Last of Us, said that

“So much thought went into this – I know there’s trepidation about going back to these characters. We feel that as well. No-one loves these characters more than we do, and we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t have the right idea. I had ideas with different characters and it didn’t feel right. The Last of Us is about these two characters. All I ask is that fans of the first one put some faith in us – we’re going to do right by you.”

I’m confident that Druckman isn’t lying, and that the team behind the first game really has put a lot of thought into this; knowing how highly rated the first game was, it would be a permanent mark against the company if the sequel was a rushed out and poorly conceived job. And hell, even if it was, Naughty Dog’s ‘rushed out and poorly conceived’ is still probably a really fun game. But I think a healthy level of scepticism needs to be maintained until the game is actually out, since allowing myself to over-hype it before it’s even finished is a possibility.

One of the reasons The Last of Us hit like a meteorite and burned twice as brightly was because no one saw it coming. It was a completely new IP, and no one went into the game expecting it to be the emotional-roller-coaster-disguised-as-a-game it turned out to be. A sequel, meanwhile, will always have a high expectation, and it’s not always easy for even the best development team to meet that expectation.

So, to sum up this rambling torrent of thought: I’m not sure what to think, and can’t be sure until the actual game comes out. I know that I’m worried and excited in equal measure. And I know that I’m going to do everything that is humanly possible to get my bros and Pops to do the four person play through that we somehow managed to do for the first game again. And the final thing I know is that, even if the sequel isn’t the best thing in the world, this wonderfully heart-breaking series gave me something to bond over with my bros and dad.

Maybe it was only natural that a game so steeped in the importance of familial bonds would also bring one set of brothers and their father just a little bit more together, and that’s something no lackluster sequel could possibly take away.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD review

          You’re just my type

the-coolest

Back in 2011, Square Enix released a game for the PSP by the name of Final Fantasy Type-0 to its home Japanese audience; the latest game in the insanely successful Final Fantasy franchise. It was a game that followed the trend of many of Square Enix’s handheld Final Fantasy games in that it was an action RPG that forewent the turn-based style of its predecessors, focusing more on the player’s dexterity and reaction times than their lateral thinking.

It looked like quite the unique experience, since as well as being a fairly difficult game where even a single hit from an enemy would send the player to near death, it also promised to be one of the darkest games that had been released in the series at that point: it would be set in a land torn apart by war and bloodshed, where the use of mere teenagers as soldiers for the front line was not only common, but the recommended strategy.

When it was finally released in Japan (after several delays and at least one re-naming), it received very positive reception. It was praised for its quick and responsive combat and it’s refreshingly grim storyline, and sold well above expectations. Naturally, a lot of gamers in the Western territories assumed that it would eventually be translated and sent their way. While a fair number of Square Enix’s more niche handheld games were never released outside of Japan, this game was definitely one of their larger products, and one that outsold expectations. People were confident that the English version of the game would be released before the end of 2012.

It wouldn’t be until March of 2015 that the game was ever officially released outside of its homeland of Japan. And even then, it would only be the HD re-release for the PS4; the PSP version is forever out of reach.

So, after such an oddly long delay between creation and translation, how does the product actually look? Perhaps more importantly, did it survive the transition from the PSP to the PS4? Why did it take Oliver an ENTIRE YEAR to actually get around to completing a game he had practically been salivating over? All these questions and more are answered below…

Game play:
 A tricky but satisfying system, Type-0 offers game play that is always interesting, despite the bloat surrounding it.

In Type-0, you take control of one character from a group of fourteen students from the rather intimidatingly named ‘Class Zero.’ Every character follows some basic rules: no matter who you are, you have access to a simple physical attack, two special skill slots that you can switch and arrange depending on the character’s available skills or magic, and you always have access to a defensive or healing skill, as well as a dodge roll. In addition, you will have at least two other AI controlled buddies to back you for at least 95% of all encounters in the game. Said encounters usually consist of travelling through various areas and rooms, fighting off both humanoid foes and monsters alike.

While simple in principle, Type-0’s game play really shines in its swiftness and brutality. On the first point, neither you nor your enemies have large pools of health; even the tankiest of your controlled characters and the heaviest of enemy units can be fairly swiftly felled. While your characters are naturally a bit squishy (considering they’re all teenagers going up against giant robots and man eating monsters, it’s understandable), the main source of death for your enemies is going to be the game’s ‘Killsight’ system. Simply put, every enemy in the entire game has a moment where they’re more vulnerable to damage, notified by a distinct yellow or red mark appearing on them. Attacking in this instant will not only briefly stun them, but also knock off a HUGE portion of their health, as well as refill your capacity to use your more heavy hitting skills. Mastering this system is not only the key to mastering the combat, but is immensely satisfying: learning when a particularly tough enemy is weak will bring them down in short order, and make fights tense do-or-die affairs. Adding even more depth to the combat is the game’s fourteen playable characters widely varying move sets and special abilities: since you can switch between the fourteen characters almost freely, there is a good chance you will find at least one character that fits your preferred play style.

However, the game’s simple but elegantly brutal combat is hampered by unnecessary fluff surrounding it. During missions, you can receive bonus objectives that will boost your overall rating at the conclusion of the mission. This would be perfectly fine, but objectives are often given to you during combat, and the game doesn’t pause while you accept or decline it. Since the game is quick to punish slip ups, it becomes a frantic couple of seconds while you try to read the parameters of the bonus objective, and decide whether it’s in your ability to complete, while dodging enemy attacks. This is not even mentioning the pretty perplexing RTS-lite elements that crop up every couple of missions; while they definitely help to sell the idea that your part of a much larger, continent spanning campaign, they are neither deep enough or fun to ever feel welcome. At best, they feel like minor ‘puzzles’ that never really expand beyond they basic premise, and at worst they just feel like busy work that gets between you and the much more engaging ground combat. These fluff elements aren’t really deal-breakers: the bonus objectives are manageable most of the time, and the RTS-esque moments are rare enough that it doesn’t become too intrusive, but their presence is questionable.

Music and Sound:
Featuring both some entertaining remixes of classic tracks and some moving original pieces; Type-0 can be proud of its musical selection and sound direction.

Fans of the series will be happy to hear that this game has gone out of its way to include some great remixes of old classics. In particular, it’s worth mentioning that the game’s main hub-area has part of the ‘Opening’ theme (the song that’s present in more or less every Final Fantasy game*) worked into it, and the triumphant return of the track ‘Battle at the Big Bridge’ (featuring a certain character that long time fans will be fond of). The chocobo theme also makes a return in a catchy remix, although that might just be the conditioning talking: you’ll be very familiar with this theme by the time you’re done with the game.

In addition to remixes of old songs, Type-0 features some fairly potent original scores. A heavy theme throughout is a lot of Latin singing, and some tactical application of an electric guitar, but it always manages to feel appropriate and executed to perfection. When it’s needed, the music can be grand and sweeping, and can sell the idea that you’re watching some amazing piece of history unfold before you. Likewise, it can be introspective and uncertain, such as when the characters are discussing the ramifications of the kinda twisted world around them. Annnnd, it can be kind of stupid. There’s a dedicated, light hearted ‘comedy’ track that plays during the more fun scenes in the game, but also plays at least once at an inappropriate moment. Apart from that, I have no complaints. (Just for the record: yes, the music that played in the credits, Zero by Bump of Chicken, does make me tear up just a little bit, thank you very much).

It’s a subjective concern, but it might be worth bringing up the voice acting for a moment. The game comes with both English and Japanese voice acting, but I stuck with the English dub. I won’t lie and say it’s the best dub I’ve ever heard, but it’s far from the worst. While some lines are awkwardly delivered, you can tell everyone in the cast is giving their 100% to sell the characters. I mostly give them credit for having some of the most genuinely sibling-esque voice acting I’ve heard in a while: a lot of it comes from the writing, but just the tone of voice Queen has when she berates Nine, or how the usually jokey Jack’s entire tone of speaking shifts when he’s trying to be serious kind of reminds me of my own experience with two brothers. Basically, it’s probably not as bad as people will make it out to be, and everyone involved deserves at least some credit.

*Except II, for some reason.

Graphics and Aesthetics:
A definite update to it’s handheld origin, though it didn’t survive the transition completely unscathed.

Considering the fact that the version I played through was literally called the ‘HD’ version, I guess there would definitely be a certain level of expectations on this part of the game. It first needs to be said that Square Enix definitely did some serious work when they ported the game from the PSP to the PS4: every major character was freshly remade with a HD model, the use of colours was expanded to look slightly less washed out, and the lighting engine was remade from the ground up. A serious amount of effort was made to try and bump up the graphics of the game to be truly worthy of that HD title, and it shows a pretty impressive dedication from Square Enix’s part. HOWEVER, there are some jarring leftovers from its PSP version. For example, while all the major characters have been fully remade and all minor characters have at least been fixed up slightly, there is a jarring difference in quality between our main fourteen heroes and everyone else. There’s several scenes where members of Class Zero are on screen, in all their shiny, pretty glory, and then the screen will cut to the NPC they’re actually talking to and… it’s really obvious. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty common in a lot of video games for the actual characters you play as to be much better looking than some random NPC you can talk to, but it’s usually not as obvious as it in this instance. Likewise, some environments can look a little polygon-y, with the same jarring effect against the HD playable characters.  Despite that, the game still succeeds in looking like a visual improvement over the handheld version, and it’s easy to get used to the odd differences in quality.

That all being said, that’s just the pure graphics; the aesthetics of this world is another matter entirely. The game uses a noticeably dark colour palette: while the time you spend wandering around the relatively lightly coloured academy that makes the game’s hub offers some relief, the game is otherwise in love with a lot of dark reds, murky browns and grim blacks. This definitely feels like a deliberate choice on the developer’s side, considering this game is one of the darker entries in the series (and was the first game in the entire series to receive an M rating in America). Even when using other colours, they tend to have negative connotations attached to them: the clinical whites and greens of the opposing Empire tend to come off as harsh and intimidating, even when put against our main hero’s red and black uniforms.

Story and
narrative:

While messy in many places, Type-0’s story is a compelling one that is set in a fascinating world.

The story in Type–0 is a bit of an odd one, in both its contents and how it’s told. In many respects, it has its roots in the tried and tested formula that many classic Final Fantasy games are based on: there’s a set of big ol’ crystals which is integral to the plot, a country being invaded by an opportunistic empire, and it comes down to our plucky group of misfits to save the day. But the similarities start to fade and become muddy when examined with greater scrutiny: the crystals which are so important to the plot are seemingly conscious entities all on their own, and work in oddly binary ways to both help and hinder the very people trying to protect it. Likewise, while the attacking empire is indeed the primary antagonistic force, the protagonist’s own government is full of schemes and plots almost as dangerous as the empire that’s battering down the door. And finally, the group of heroes setting out to save the world consists of 14 playable characters, many more than the usual ensemble, while also being much less autonomous than previous protagonists. A lot of what Type-0 tries works out pretty well: the story progresses along at a fair pace, and is full of enough twists and turns to keep one’s attention.

Since there’s a fair share of downtime between main missions, the game even spares an admirable amount of effort to try and flesh out its characters and settings, in particular the game’s fascinating subplot about the crystals’ power to erase the memory of the dead. As soon as a person dies, everyone who knew them looses their memory of them, almost as if the deceased had never existed. Many rationalise this, saying it’s a blessing the crystals give humanity, so that the living aren’t shackled by the memory of the dead. But others point out that the idea of being simply forgotten when you pass away- all memory of your achievements and life’s works gone with you – is a terrifying one. It’s a great piece of setting, and almost makes up for the fact that the main cast (which again, is fifthteen characters strong) never get enough screen time to really develop their characters as individuals. Outside of maybe two cases, none of the members of Class Zero really grow out of their one-note characteristics. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re fun characteristics, and watching the students bounce off each is always great to watch, but the group only really grow as a group. My personal feeling is that this might be enough, since the lovable bunch of maniacs are almost defined by their identity as a singular unit, but I would fully understand if others thought it made them less interesting for it.

As previously stated, another point to consider is Type-0’s method of actually delivering this narrative. Some of the various military and political movements that shape the events of the story are told through what I can best describe as a fake history channel documentary: a narrator walks us through the various happenings as an animated map visualises the events. They even use old grimy static images on screen, as if they were using some old war photography, and bring up the (fictional) months that events took place in. The effect is actually kind of neat: it creates this impression that you really are watching some grand event from history unfold before your eyes, even though it’s crazy fantasy history. In-between this kind of presentation is the more standard story telling method of just being present for the events as they happen, but the combination of both keeps the pace moving without sacrificing the feeling that the player is actually taking part in the story itself.

There is one particular point regarding the game’s story that I want to mention before concluding. At the end of the third act, there is a twist that appears with such force that I almost got whiplash from how heavily the tone shifted from its sudden appearance. Without spoiling things, it almost becomes a different kind of narrative because the already grim nature of the game’s world gets jacked up several times.*2 While there are a few hints to this twist coming, most of them are buried behind text logs and files, meaning the average player will have no chance of seeing this coming. While the nature of the twist leads to some interesting narrative ideas (and indeed the most disturbing way to justify a New Game + I’ve ever seen), it’s overall a little too sudden and perhaps sloppily delivered to be effective. Despite that blemish against it, however, the fourth act of the game also has some of the strongest characterisation in the entire game, and I’ll freely admit that I got a little choked up at the ending.

*2 Kind of weirdly appropriate that the game shipped with a demo to FFXV, now that I think about it…

Conclusion:

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is, in many ways, a messy game. There are a lot of ideas in there, and not every single one of them works. It’s a melting pot of creative systems and functions, all held together by the smaller budget that came about because of its handheld origin. It’s a list of references to other Final Fantasy games as well as a whole other list of completely new ideas, and it’s a game that risks having fourteen main characters in an already over-crowded cast. It’s a messy, messy game.

And you know what; it’s actually kind of great because of that. I love the main games and will defend them to my last breath, but Final Fantasy (even at its riskiest) wasn’t exactly opposed to the idea of playing it safe. Type-0 feels like it had risks not for the sake of having risks, but because the creative team behind it truly wanted to try something different while also making one big love letter to the franchise. This game has faults, sometimes really stupid ones, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t have a lot of love poured into it too.

The best example of this is probably Class Zero themselves: the characters never really have that much individual growth, and they definitely don’t have enough screen time each to truly endear themselves to the player, but it’s hard not to love those maniacs regardless. You’ve played as each and every one of those characters at least once, and you only realize how much you wanted them to succeed by the time the credits are rolling.

Type-0 is an odd game, and far from a perfect one, but it’s a game that I would heartily recommend.

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Fun fact: in the four year gap between the original Japanese release and the official English version, a group of die-hard fans were determined that the game would see a translation, and began to do the arduous process themselves. Line by line, scene by scene, they translated the whole thing (including the novel’s worth of bonus supplementary text). It was a crowning achieve that showed their sheer determination, and was finally completed after years of hard work by the now exhausted group. They could now rest, and could be satisfied that they had brought the game into the hands of many fans who would have otherwise not been able to play it.

…They could be satisfied. Until four days later, when the official translation was announced.

Square Enix had the fan translation discontinued, and the whole thing was swept under a rug to avoid hurting the sales of the official release.

Better luck next time, folks.