Ragnarok: The Fate of Gods

Hey everyone! Special super extra bonus entry this week! I get to clue you in on one of the most amazing book offers a video game fan could ever ask for. Just kidding! Actually I just want to subject you to some shameless self-promotion. But still, if you enjoy video games–which you should, if you read this blog–you would enjoy this book.

Ragnarok: The Fate of Gods tells the story of a swordsman struggling to survive in a Post-Apocalyptic Orwellian dystopia, terrorized by monsters and ruled by a reclusive overlord. I could tell you more of the plot, but I’d just end up repeating all the information on the Amazon Page.

Why should I pitch this book here? You mean, other than the fact that I have very few meager sources of income and would appreciate the $1.97 royalty per copy sold? Well, when I wrote it, I blended a lot of common themes from video games, popular science fiction, and myth. Particularly if you enjoy RPGs–and most specifically Final Fantasy, Xenogears or Xenosaga–you should read it.

Unfortunately, no, you can’t find print copies, only the Kindle edition, BUT you can read it via a free kindle app if you don’t have your own e-Reader. Also, amazon has made the book available (in English) on many of their multinational websites; good news to all my non-American readers. Just search for “Ragnarok Fate of Gods.” Otherwise, to buy via the American site, follow this link.

Keep in mind that I have a masters degree in publishing–I didn’t just hammer this out over a weekend and slap a price tag on it. You’ll get some high quality stuff here, and it’ll only cost you three dollars.

And if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon for others to find. And then tell two friends…and have them tell two friends…

Thanks!

 

Final Fantasy IV – NDS

A beatifully animated, fully-rendered 3D opening sequence, the style of which you never see again. Why does Rosa look like she has swine flu?

A beatifully animated, fully-rendered 3D opening sequence, the style of which you never see again. Why does Rosa look like she has swine flu?

I you will permit me, I’d like to start on a serious note, preferably without discourse as to whether or not my usual candor qualifies as humorous. I just finished Final Fantasy IV, something I claim to have done no more than twenty or thirty times in the past, and suddenly I can put my finger on why I appreciate Japanese storytelling more than Western writing. That whole dichotomy between good and evil and the struggle there between, falls a little flat, and as people have a pesky habit of applying fiction to moral decisions (for which I recommend reading Kurt Vonnegut or Charles Dickens) rather than, you know, just treating people well, such a dichotomy tends to screw up society.

ffiv-infernoHow so? Start with Beowulf. The draugr Grendel came from the lineage of Cain. And if that doesn’t earn him his own private hell, he also killed people and ate them. Then Beowulf shows up and slays him to punish evil. Excellent, right? Well, let’s take a jaunt over to this week’s game and look at Kain, who came from a noble lineage of dragoons. Golbez manipulates him into committing evil acts on his behalf. Then Cecil shows up, decides not to kill him, and you get a wonderful exception to normal RPG party limits that lets you fight with a fifth member. Now skip on over to Star Wars where we find Darth Vader, the Father of all Incarnations of Pure Evil. Except George Lucas wanted to show him redeem himself at the end, atone for his crimes and bring balance to the Force. But no one took it that way and we all talk about Vader as a badass so evil that he makes Satan sith his pants in terror; this pisses off Lucas, so he makes us sit through a crappy prequel trilogy to show us how badly we misunderstood this character. Then in Final Fantasy, Golbez pulls the classic Vader twist, Cecil struggles with the news, but eventually forgives Golbez, who goes on to clear out the first form of the big bad Zemus for you, then goes into self-imposed exile out of remorse. And this trend runs throughout Asian religion and literature from Journey to the West to Dragonball; no one possesses absolute good or evil, and everyone can atone. Full disclosure: Cecil’s atonement on Mt. Ordeals *always* gives me chills, and I’ve played the game forty or fifty times.

They put enough thought into the new translation so as to actually appear as though they put thought into the translation.

They put enough thought into the new translation so as to actually appear as though they put thought into the translation.

Despite everyone’s praise for FFVII, this installment changed the world of electronic RPGs more than anything else, having introduced novel ideas such as actually giving a character a personality and a conflict to resolve, and introducing thematic congruity throughout the story. Also, having a story. And dear god, music so good that Japanese schools instituted it as mandatory curriculum. I might even confess that I played the FF Main Theme, which played during Rosa and Cecil’s wedding, as the opening to my own wedding. While I have a special relationship with FFVI as the first RPG I ever played (and played and played…), I find myself playing FFIV about once per year, and only in part because they port and remake the game with a regularity that anyone over the age of 70 would envy. (Seriously…FFIV (Japan), FFII (USA), FFIV Easy Type, FF Chronicles, FFIV for the Wonderswan, the GBA, a few systems I probably missed, and then this version.) So when I found out that the game would receive such a drastic makeover as they gave FFIII, building it up in three dimensions with voice-acted cut scenes, I actually played the game in Japanese because I didn’t want to wait for the North American release (and thankfully, I lived in Korea at the time). Also I intend to argue that that qualifies me as bilingual and that I don’t have to pass a language proficiency test ever again.

A more appropriate representation of in-game cut scenes, the character design obviously symbolises that neither Cecil nor Kain can see the path before them. Because of their helmets.

A more appropriate representation of in-game cut scenes, the character design obviously symbolises that neither Cecil nor Kain can see the path before them. Because of their helmets.

So other than the aesthetic makeover, why should I waste my time on yet another release of a game I’ve already played sixty or seventy times? Square decided that simply milking it for cash wouldn’t cut it in the long run, so they added some chocolate to that milk. Many enemies have different attack patterns, and certain attacks and spells function differently; for example, if you expect simply to bounce Bahamut’s megaflare back at him, you’ll soon discover the reflect spell has all the defensive capabilities of a burlap sack soaked in gasoline. These changes tailor the game to develop strategies, without which you will pass through the game with the ease of a golf-ball sized kidney stone. To help ease said passing, characters now can augment their abilities using items mostly looted from the corpses of their dead friends. As the name suggests, these augments will give characters extra commands to use in battle or enhance their qualities akin to the relics in FFVI. Unfortunately, the game explains this system with all the clarity of Sylvester Stallone explaining quantum physics while running a garbage disposal at 6:00 in the morning. It fails to tell anyone who’s played the game before that you won’t waste your augments by giving them to characters who won’t stay in your party. Instead, it’ll let you loot even more powerful abilities from them. Thanks, game. I could have used that information during the early game when I usually drudge through the road from Damcyan to Fabul, ruing Squaresoft for giving me a bard and wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to play as a bard.

And while discussing the merits–or lack thereof–of things no one ever uses, they’ve added an entire garage sale full of assorted junk to the roster of items. You know those too-pointless-to-use magic items that Square seems to love handing out? The ones that cast low-level spells at a fraction of the stats that their black mage counterparts have available? And you usually get them when you’ve had their upgraded version in your regular magic menu for hours? Yeah, the game chucks them at you like a Double Dare physical challenge. And they’ve added a mapping feature to make use of the dual screens–any time you complete drawing a map of a dungeon floor, you get an item. Or five or ten. I’ve found uses for some of them; they’ve added items that permanently upgrade HP or MP, while helped keep Rydia and Rosa alive and not useless in battle. But usually you’ll get an antarctic wind or a bomb core or–my personal favorite–items that cast status spells that never work anyway. You no longer have to replenish arrows–each one gives you an infinite set, which takes a bit of the fear out of using Rosa, lest she run out of anything useful to do and end up tossing pebbles, but now Cecil can’t equip bows, making him all but a burden in the Lodestone Cavern.

ffiv_battleUnfortunately, for all the clever re-figuring that they did when assembling the DS version, even with augments and strategies and piles of crap looted from caves, eventually (and often) you will run into an enemy–not even necessarily bosses–that hits your entire party for more damage than you can take in a single blow, or that spams an attack faster than you can keep up with it, and you only have the option of leveling up in order to resist. Having played the game once before, I knew this and kept a steady pace of leveling up through the game. I did all right in most places, but the final dungeon clearly took offense at my presumption that I could fight through basic battles at a paltry level 65. So thank you, Square-Enix, for taking one of my favorite games of all time and adding just the right dose of tedium to turn it into a fucking level grinder.

FFIV DS group shot

I can only really recommend this game for the die-hard FFIV fans who have played the other versions eighty or ninety times, like me. I liked it. Mostly. The voice acting impressed me when I heard it in Japanese, and it only got better when I listened to it in English and actually understood it. Also, I appreciate the recognition that people still want to play certain games even twenty years after their first release. But it requires a certain level of patience and know-how to both grind and solve strategic puzzles (the only kind that actually belong in non-puzzle based video games!), and it might turn off first-time players (as well as some second-, third-, and tenth-time players). Still, the dramatic points in the game still awe me after a hundred times through the game, and finishing the game rewarded me with the realization that Yang, our blonde-mustachioed Asian Fabio, can attend a wedding bare-chested without the slightest sense of impropriety.

Final Fantasy VII – Playstation, PC

Title

Thank god they fixed this! Why, I could almost hear the fabric of society bunching up around my nethers!

Thank god they fixed this! Why, I could almost hear the fabric of society bunching up around my nethers!

“They say words like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ in it,” my friend John told me about Final Fantasy VII in ninth grade. This sums up the major features of the game quite nicely. Sure, at the time it came out, people hailed it as a demonstration of the cinematic powers of CD-based game consoles, but anyone who played it knew that it really demonstrated Tifa’s enormous rack as it jiggled like two shopping bags full of Jello when the explosion at the northern crater shook the Highwind–the game also demonstrated what Squaresoft could do when not oppressed by Nintendo of America’s horribly oppressive censorship requirements.

...Cloud, on the other hand, looks like he'd prefer some private time.

…Cloud, on the other hand, looks like he’d prefer some private time.

Final Fantasy VII almost needs no summary. Everyone knows about it by now. It changed the video game scene; believe me, I took weeks to decide whether I’d say that or not. People have made that claim about FFVII all over the internet–as they have about FFIV, FFVI, FFX and just about any new piece of technology that comes out. If you locked me in a room with ten dozen donuts, you wouldn’t especially look at the first one I ate and credit it with having special sprinkles with the power to break my will; it would have happened eventually.  However, the events surrounding the game’s release did successfully allow a number of things to happen.  Well, mostly it only took Square getting royally pissed at Nintendo for not giving them a CD-based console to work with, so that let them make the switch to Sony, which propped up Playstation as a major competitor in the market, leaving Nintendo wallowing in the dust trying to figure out how to entice their customers back without actually offering any good games.

"Must look intimidating...can't let them see...hair burning..."

“Must look intimidating…can’t let them see…hair burning…”

Still, I’ll concede that not everyone reading this has played the game, so I’ll sum it up: The multi-conglomerate Orwellian corporation known as Shinra, or in short, “Big Mako” have discovered an energy source even better than the sludge left over from decomposed corpses–the souls that used to inhabit those corpses.  Pulling the spirits of the dead out of the planet, they compress them and convert them into electricity so people can play video games (among other things), which naturally pisses off the local hippies.  Except rather than a skinny little white guy with a guitar and bloodshot eyes, a seven-foot tall powerhouse of a black man with a machine gun grafted onto his arm leads them, along with his double-D companion, Tifa, and her brooding, stormy, anti-social childhood friend, Cloud. Their game of cat-and-also-cat ends when one of Shinra’s old mistakes–a genetically engineered super-soldier with the DNA of an ancient monster sent to destroy the planet–arrives and plants a Nodachi two meters long into the President. Yada yada. Sephiroth burned down Cloud’s and Tifa’s hometown and now plans to destroy the planet, Cloud and his friends stop him.  The game ends, and the player looks up pictures of Tifa’s breasts on the internet.

So what do you think...they look fake, don't they?

So what do you think…they look fake, don’t they?

Although I joke about Tifa and her apparent fan following of CGI Animators on redtube, I truly believe in the necessity of adding a character with a large amount of sex appeal.  And not just her, but also Barret, his constant stream of profane tough-guy talk, his place as the only black guy in the entire fantasy genre except for that one dude from the Neverending Story, and the subtle gay vibe between him and Cloud.  Also, the comical string of obscenities that Cid spews forth could scour the rust off a car.  These things indicated that Squaresoft wanted to treat their audience like adults.  Games have aged since Donkey Kong, and so have their players; gone are the days of staring at Celes’s 16-bit pixilated sprite and trying to imagine something a little more photo-realistic.  I love the whimsical nature of those early games, but people actually seem to live in this world. Characters have speech patterns and dialects and everything.

Furthermore, in designing the combat system, Squaresoft took this notion of well-developed, distinct characters…and chucked it right into Ifrit’s hellfire. Custom characters have long attracted players to the Final Fantasy series. Games like Final Fantasy IV gave us special abilities like Kain’s jump or Rosa’s pray. Three and five (and later Tactics) allowed characters to learn skills permanently to equip in specialized combinations. Six mixed that, with character-specific skills and the ability to permanently use magic and raise stats. So naturally, we would expect something brilliant and revolutionary, now that we have 32-bits to utilize, right?

Same old ATB, stand-in-a-straight-line combat system, but with runaway summon animations lasting over two minutes!

Same old ATB, stand-in-a-straight-line combat system, but with runaway summon animations lasting over two minutes!

Nope! Forget all that–it all boils down to materia.  From the beginning of the game, any character can equip any materia–crystalized mako energy containing the knowledge of the ancients–which can let them cast magic, summon monsters, perform special abilities, augment other materia, or raise stats. The game only limits you by how much materia you can afford/find and how many slots your weapons and armor has to put them in. Characters can’t retain any of this once unequipped, so only limit breaks–powerful attacks only available once a character has received an amount of damage proportional to the power of the attack–and physical appearance in battle differentiate one character from another. And the game chucks characters at you like it wants you to sign up for its online dating service; with nine characters, parties of three or less, plus the old-school restriction of requiring the protagonist to lead your party at all times, I always have two or three who sit on the sidelines for the whole game, just to save money equipping them and to focus on building up the limit breaks for the more interesting characters. Which, yes, I usually choose based on physical appearance, in light of anything else. Which means the dog and the toy cat usually get bumped in favor of Tifa and Yuffie. And quite possibly Barret.

Anyone who's ever raced a chocobo knows the triumph every time you defeat Teioh...and the pathetic reward that usually follows.

Anyone who’s ever raced a chocobo knows the triumph every time you defeat Teioh…and the pathetic reward that usually follows.

Fortunately, though, Squaresoft packed more into this game than a hackneyed combat system and a questionable set of feelings for an electronically generated configuration of polygons.  In fact, I usual enjoy playing this game to completion.  Likely in attempt to show off the Playstation’s capabilities, FFVII includes a plethora of mini-games including a submarine battle, motorcycle chase, and a snowboard sequence so obnoxiously difficult that it only proves Cloud can run into more walls than Wile E. Coyote.  Furthermore, at the end of the game you open up the option to breed generations upon generations of chocobos–obviously the best hobby to take up with only seven days left to global annihilation.  You can raise chocobos to race, or try to raise special colors to help find all those hard-to-reach areas of the world map.  Again, I enjoy this, but sometime the task takes way too long, and the games variables don’t really feel truly random–while each race offers a 1 in 6 chance of winning the good prize, I seldom actually walk away with anything I couldn’t buy in any one of the hundreds of identical shops in the game, and quite often when trying to breed chocobos that can mate with each other, you’ll end up getting the wrong gender or the wrong color several dozen times in a row.

Final Fantasy VII also offers two bonus bosses, similar to the hidden bosses from FFV and the original Final Fantasy.  The Emerald and Ruby weapons make up for the plateau of difficulty toward the end of the game.  This presents a conundrum though because even though these bosses exist to add challenge to the game, in order to take them down you have to level up far more than necessary for anything else in the game, and it takes the punch out of anything else you’d do.  And while Sephiroth stands as one of the most iconic, impressive villains in any fantasy storyline, it generally disappoints me when I get to that final battle and he fights back with all the strength of an anemic guinea pig.

He's too sexy for his shirt, so sexy it hurts! He's too sexy for that sword...

He’s too sexy for his shirt, so sexy it hurts! He’s too sexy for that sword…

However, despite the overpowered characters in act three, frustrating random number generator, and a protagonist with forearms like Popeye, the storyline makes this game well worth playing. The save-the-planet eco themes offer, well…actual themes in a game’s storyline.  Sephiroth captivated so much attention by defying the obnoxious tradition that fantasy has of presenting magic-using villains, and the final scene with him carrying two meters of solid steel and dressed like a Chippendale dance only cements the fact that for once, just once, the villain earned his role in the story by acting like a dick to the protagonist, rather than because we all need to learn about how idolatry will lead us straight to Hell (thank you, C.S. Lewis, for welding Christianity into fantasy literature for all time…can we please talk about something else?). And, of course, spoiler alert, while FF characters have died before, nothing tops the moment when we lose Aerith forever. As I explained to my class the other day while doing the video-games-as-literature lecture, “When this happened, I cried like a baby!…no, you don’t understand, this happened like, two weeks ago.”

So to all those people who “debate” whether FFVII or FFVIII leads the series as the best game…WTF? You totally can’t compare the two.