Xenogears – PS1

 

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…one of the minor enemies, actually.

The pathology of an independent, freelance game critic such as myself is not unlike the madman who plunges head-first into human waste hoping that, unlike the last two-dozen piles of excrement, there might be something good inside. I generally prefer to think of it like the Shawshank Redemption, that someday I’ll emerge victorious and stand triumphantly cheering in the rain as I taste the sweet, longed-for joys of pure freedom; unfortunately, I’ll have to swim through a lot of shit to get there. I don’t know. Maybe making a habit of criticizing games just teaches me to look for the negative, or maybe having just a modicum of disposable income and enough tech skills to emulate just about anything I can’t afford has piled up the shitty games that look interesting at first glance. Fortunately, every so often there’s a game that, even after two decades of play, still does everything right. A game so well-conceived that it’s almost depressing how fucking awesome it is. A story so strong it empowers you, makes you feel invincible. “Yes!” you cry to the heavens. “I am important! I have made contact with the divine and thrown the yokes and shackles of an oppressive deity from the shoulders of mankind, and thanks to me the world will at long last know the true release of tension and live its days in glorious peace. Now I have to shut off the Playstation, look for my unemployment check, and then go watch the dog take a shit in the back yard so I can pick it up with my hand.”

Xeno6Xenogears is, quite frankly, the best game ever made, and there is a special place in Hell, where you’re forced to play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde until the end of eternity, reserved for any of you who disagree with me. How’s that for being completely objective, non-judgmental and totally writing without any preconceived notions whatsoever?

Xeno8

Have you considered, maybe, joining the circus?

Most often cited as Xenogears’ biggest flaw is its story, said to be convoluted, harder to follow than a GPS unit set to the “down syndrome” voice, and denser than the impacted bowel of a neutron star. All those grievances are…well, I’ll give it this much; it’s not the way we usually tell stories in video games. Even some of the best told stories necessarily take a back seat to gameplay. That’s why the vast majority of games fall into the fantasy genre, where questing allows both plot an character to take a direct route through the vilest, stinkiest dens of monsters in order to carry out interspecies genocide in the name of personal growth and development. If you instead want to steer your heroes through populated areas to examine mundane desires and struggles of a broken society under the oppression of the powerful, you might have to reign in those violent instincts lest we start to notice your characters’ party tends to look like boys’ night out with Joseph Stalin, Genghis Kahn and Hannibal Lecter.

Xenogears attempts just that. Our main character, Fei, starts the game with nothing but his God-given amnesia trope and the personality of a gladiola. When a centuries-old war crash lands in his village (after somehow avoiding it for five hundred years), he gets into an abandoned mech (called “gears” in this world), and in trying to protect everyone accidentally inflicts collateral damage that slaughters 95% of the population. Oops. Anyway, he spontaneously decides to take a short hiatus from living in the village, and begins to travel the world, exercising more care about where and when he participates in battle. Problem is, he attracts trouble like Scooby Doo attracts asshole cosplayers, not to mention he discovers that a hidden nation of elites ruled by an oligarchy of old men with strong self-interests and an inept figurehead of executive power is manipulating world events through the use of their over-inflated military. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, though…they don’t represent the United States because their de facto leader is a brilliant physicist who specializes in life-extending nanoengineering, while our de facto leader is a clown that wants you to supersize your french fries.

Xeno5

Why does God look like someone drew a face on the Thanksgiving turkey?

Anyway, the story does weave together about a dozen plots, complete with several factions of villains who all strive for their own personal goals. In short, we see people struggling to live and find meaning in life across the world, only for the villain to resurrect a God who has literally been farming us because he was hurt 10,000 years ago and has to harvest a shit ton of organs. So the hero, who has both to discover the reason why his personality is as developed as a hydrangea and to embrace some weird, Freudian mommy issues, now has to fight that god just to restore meaning to the lives of the game’s survivors. Almost all characters affect the plot in one way or another. Villains have noble ambitions and human emotions, while heroes make mistakes and succumb to temptations. It’s a moving story, deeply human, beautifully written, and translated with as much care as a lemur with a hangover and access to Google translate. The language is more distracting than a bikini courtroom, but I don’t think this necessarily counts as a strike against the game. Rather, I think it’s strong support for a remake. The game has one of the most amazing end-credits songs I’ve ever heard, and I think Square-Enix ought to upgrade its translation from “hungover lemur” to something a little higher up on the intelligence scale, like “stoned cocker spaniel” or maybe “pig that isn’t so sure that was really a truffle anymore.”

Xeno1

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that…

Also a point in the “needs a remake” category, the game’s second disc plays like you were running out of time before the test, so Square had to rush through the Spark Notes before class started. Granted, there is something strangely Shakespearean about seeing characters act out vital scenes against a black stage and a poorly drawn backdrop, but the finer plot points about a planet in turmoil over the resurrection of an unfeeling God probably require a little more nuance and development than your average Elizabethan dick joke. And when entire dungeons are swept over in just a few lines of dialogue, the game ends like a customer service transaction from Wells Fargo—you’re more than just a little confused, but pretty sure that it owes you something it’s not planning on giving you.

Like any good RPG, the actual game is played out through hundreds upon hundreds of repetitive battles. Here, Xenogears is…eh. It’s okay. Not great. But okay. They’ve got a system where rather than enter the “fight” command a half a million times until the game ends, you mix up weak, medium, and strong attacks until your action points run out. Really, it doesn’t matter what you throw at 90% of the enemies—all you’re doing is teaching characters special deathblow combos or simply using the combos. I guess it’s better than your typical RPG. Magic in Xenogears is very much like a bedpan: it has some creative applications, but you’ll probably never want to use it unless you’re healing.

Xeno3Xenogears also employs a secondary battle system for gear fights. Rather than using up AP over a single turn, gears are fueled up and slowly deplete this fuel over the course of a dungeon. They can sacrifice a turn in battle to charge a small amount, which somehow is a feature they can’t use outside of battle. It’s like if you could only recharge your phone one percent at a time while in your car, idling in the fast lane of the freeway (functionality which I hear is coming in the next model iPhone). Gear battles take a little more thought than character battles since you can’t level-up your mechs. So just to lay this out here, your gear can only charge when its being attacked, it can fly in cut scenes but can’t reach a treasure box on the top shelf when under your control, but Squaresoft drew the line at a robot getting stronger through experience points. That somehow would have shattered suspension of disbelief? Meh. Whatever. The gear battles are difficult because you’re limited to the upgrades you can purchase in shops and three equipment slots, but once you lose to a major boss, you know what attacks to prep for and can equip your gear properly. The only downside is it requires you to either play through the game once or, you know…die…in order to have a decent shot at winning.

But quite honestly, any of the games combat flaws slide by virtually unnoticed because of how fluid and compelling the story is. So let’s get on it, Square. Time for a remake already!

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Mega Man X4 – Playstation, Sega Saturn (PS2 and Game Cube as part of Mega Man X Collection)

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Let’s add “fire-bot and ice-bot” in same lineup to the list of things Sigma probably should stop doing.

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Why, praytell, would a robot need shapely breasts? Unless that’s a special place to store her double-D cell batteries, I’d say the real drama behind the X series is the use of sexbots, hereafter known as “sexploids.”

I haven’t reviewed many Mega Man games, even though I talk about them I’m bringing up an old flame to make the games I do play frequently jealous. Truth is, they’re wonderful, but a little difficult to write about. For the purposes of a humor blog, the games are comic gold. Dr. Wiley, one of the most brilliant minds of all time, has a distinct recipe for his schemes—build a team of eight robots, each with a rock-paper-scissors Achilles heel that will rip each other open like a pinata in a batting cage—and he refuses to deviate from that plan for fear of breaking his streak of inevitable failure. A hundred years later, the ultimate reploid Sigma shows a sense of learning from history rivaled only by the United States Congress, and launches his wars against X using the exact same tactics. Still, writing these blog entries entirely with the copy-paste keyboard shortcut feels a bit like cheating, hence the reason I’ve avoided most Mega Man games.

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No, no. It’s totally reasonable that you want to build a ten-meter tall robot with giant hulk hands out of solid gold. Aren’t the practical applications obvious? Oh, wait! Let’s make him fly!

Mega Man X4 tackles the familiar formula with the free thought, creativity, and the deviance of an 80-year-old woman attending mass on a Tuesday morning. The game opens with a cut scene introducing Repliforce, an organized militia of Reploids designed to hunt Mavericks. Perhaps if you live in a world where reploids tend to turn maverick and become threats to humanity, it might not be wise to let them unionize. In the first stage, Sigma hijacks some Repliforce soldiers, pulls a false flag attack on the Sky Lagoon. Again, I have to question the wisdom of the people who welded a handful of battleships together and suspended them over an inhabited city like an anvil over Wile E. Coyote’s head, but perhaps in the future, Congress has passed some sort of MacGuffin Act to move plots along expediently. The Repliforce Colonel shows up in the wake of the attack and decides that rather than disarm and sort out the confusion with reason, diplomacy and grace, he’ll spit out some NRA “cold dead hands” vitriol, thus dooming the entire Repliforce to be branded as Mavericks. Even so, the General decides to peacefully take his army off-planet to found his own colony where they may live in peace, stressing that such an act is neither about rebellion nor insurrection against the humans. So naturally, the maverick hunters do the only logical thing and hunt them down to wreak bloody, bloody justice on their rusting corpses.

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X gets this weapon after beating Grady in the Overlook Hotel.

That is, for those of you keeping score, more story than in the entirety of the classic Mega Man series, and also a wonderful justification for never having attempted anything more in-depth than “mad scientist steals robots, programs for evil, hides in castle.” Fortunately, it doesn’t have to have a strong story; it has to be a good game. And Capcom sticks to its Mega Busters on this one, with the tried-and-true formula of an octet of rampaging robots running weaponry hardware that is 100% compatible with X’s systems. You’d think they’d learn and switch from Mac to Linux. It might run a little more successfully, cost less, and at the very least force X to program his own drivers. I suppose they could switch to Windows, but X would have to read the EULA before each boss fight, and they’d only get one or two good shots on him before crashing and needing a hard reboot.

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Zero got this technique after defeating my garage roof in February.

X4 adds its own unique touch on the formula, though. Rather than having Zero make cameo appearances as a playable character, the player can choose to play through the whole game as either X or Zero. X does his normal routine, blasting his way through an army of small robots who, I don’t think we’ve ever established, may or may not be sentient, and also searching for the upgrade capsules that Dr. Light spread around the planet like his own Gap chain. Zero, however, functions differently. Rather than gaining mobility through capsules and weapons from enemies, each maverick defeated augments either abilities slightly through the use of special moves. It’s amazing how such a minor change can make it feel like X4 is essentially two games, with the same bosses requiring different weaknesses to beat, some becoming easier and others harder, and level order requiring new strategies and opening new possibilities. In this, X4 introduces a brilliant new feature to the series that cracks the series formula wide open, adding layers of depth to the old formula heading into the future! So naturally, Capcom never did this again.

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Dying reploids look an awful lot like a spyrograph design.

Lunar 2 Eternal Blue Complete – PS1

L2 Cover
Well the past few months have definitely proven educational. Here I have a brand-new fantasy novel fine-tuned for readers, ready to go out to agents for the first step in the publication process, and what type of fortune and glory do I discover? I’d have more volunteers to test the stuff fermenting in my cat’s litter box than to read my latest fantasy-adventure epic. I’d say that being an author makes me feel like dating in high school again, but damn…by the time I was seventeen even I met a girl who let me touch her tits. Funny, now that I’m not trying to get laid, I end up getting rejected more often than a drunken hobo with eczema offering women the last swig of his whiskey if they’ll touch his penis. So…here I return to say moderately witty things about video games, where I can at least pretend than the handful of people who have liked random articles are actually regular readers and not just trying to draw traffic to their own blogs.

[sigh…anyone want the last swig of my whiskey in exchange for publishing my book?]

L2 Dance Magic

Jean is going to combat the Goblin King with a little Dance Magic Dance.

So here we go…Lunar 2: Eternal Blue. It figures that a game set on the moon would be totally eclipsed by its predecessor. Lunar: the Silver Star Story Complete, as I’ve said before, is like a magic mushroom trip in video game form: a rush of pretty sounds and colors, creative ideas, a sense that you’re doing something important, and a total euphoria culminating in the feeling that even though it lasts about 26 hours, it ended way too early. Well, fortunately Working Designs found a way to remedy that feeling of disappointment coming down from the final boss fight: requiring an additional five more hours of gameplay to get the good ending!

L2 Ghaleon

…because otherwise everyone’s going to write off the game as a crappy sequel and we won’t get any installment but Dragonsong for the next twenty years.

Quite honestly, I’m on the fence about how to describe that; either it’s like some sort of customer loyalty program throwing in a free tenth dungeon for every nine that I clear, or it’s a Nigerian Prince who ran into some unexpected red tape while trying to wire me my dear Uncle Mtumbo’s inheritance, and just needs me to crawl through a few extra dungeons before that money finally shows up. I think it all comes down to the battle system. In the first game, battles were semi-tactical. The player had to account for enemy formations, weaknesses, and the ranges and zones of their own attacks. MP had to be conserved, but if you played it right you could easily spend your way through battles and still have a little leftover to save for some rainy day boss fight. Most RPG battles tend to be so repetitive they could simulate what it’s like to have autism, but the Silver Star Story takes great pains to avoid that. Eternal Blue, on the other hand…well, you may want to avoid loud noises and watch out for antivaxxers, because Working Designs threw all that careful planning out the window. For most fights, the best option you have is just to mash the attack button like you’re trying to get an elevator door to close.

L2 Lucia

This is why you don’t see a lot of Lunar cosplayers.

I mean, I guess it’s worth playing. I did, after all, play through the bonus dungeons to get the good ending, but honestly when the girl decides to dump the hero in favor of chilling out for a few thousand years on a planet sterilized by a magical nuclear apocalypse…well, it triggers flashbacks from high school, so naturally I’m not too inclined to leave it at that. But my guess is that, while the Silver Star Story was revised and fine-tuned with love and care until it was perfect, Eternal Blue was spit-shined, wrapped in plastic, and hastily chucked on the next truck heading out for Walmart. But hell, what would Working Designs know about revision? It’s only literally what their name means.

L2 Hiro

A hero named Hiro. The most original idea since spelling Dracula’s name backwards.

Also…a general note for creative minds everywhere…stop naming heroes “Hiro.” Yes, the Japanese name sounds an awful lot like the English word “hero.” That being said, it is not insightful, funny or clever to christen your protagonist thusly. It is nothing more than a bad pun. A dad joke. It makes your story less classy than a Carrot Top comedy routine.

Silent Hill – PS1

SH What is it

It’s a Western deity worshipped by over 2 billion people.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of writing humor is that often times, I have a tendency to shout out scathing remarks which your average high school student would follow up with, “What? I’m just telling the truth.” However, there’s a limit for mean, a point where the fruit of ridicule hangs so low that it’s slowly cooked by the geothermal heat of the earth’s crust, the kind of mean-spirited taunting usually reserved for major GOP candidates who feel that those poverty-stricken, unemployed, single teen moms have it too good and ought to be taken down a peg. And such is my problem with Silent Hill. After glancing at my notes and realizing that I’ve just copied lines of dialogue verbatim, I can’t help but feel a bit sleazy for going after the video game version of that girl who wanders around a frat party in various stages of undress loudly repeating “I’m so hammered!” in hopes that someone will take her to bed to fix all her self-esteem and daddy issues. I know the game was popular when it came out, but Silent Hill has aged so poorly that it has a permanent spot in the back of the fridge because you’d rather let its primordial soup run its course than get near it to clean it out. But, damn it! I swear I’m going to keep writing these things until someone gives me a job writing comedy, so…on with the show!

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Where’s a boomstick when you need one?

Harry Mason is your standard survival horror everyman with a personality slightly less impressive than an avocado. He comes to Silent Hill for vacation-slash-finding-his-missing-daughter, but after getting lost in an alley designed by Pac Man, three sloth monsters try to stab him to death. He wakes up in a cafe with the NRA’s wet dream: a 22-year-old police girl who tosses Harry a gun without so much as a perfunctory “Are you a criminal?” She merely leaves him with the instructions, “Don’t shoot me” (indicating the near certainty that she’ll become a boss fight) and “Know what you’re shooting before you pull the trigger.” Three seconds later, an unidentifiable monster attacks and Harry blasts it without thinking, much less a scientific analysis of its genus and species. And thus begins a long and rambling plot full of unexplained events and vague motivations in which Harry spends more time chasing after a cult than looking for his daughter.

Let me get this out of the way; I liked the game. I enjoyed playing it in that way that you sometimes can’t stop fantasizing about girls your brain tells you are unattractive. And in the end, fun gameplay is what counts. But don’t get me wrong—my brain was telling me this game is very unattractive. Something about a fun game that has a character utter the phrase, “Rather than shifting from reality to nightmare, it feels like reality is becoming the nightmare,” creates a mental friction not unlike receiving a hand job from a belt sander. Half the time the game doesn’t trust players to have any sort of thought process running, forcing Harry to narrate out loud and shout out “What is that?” (or another favorite, “Cheryl?”) at so many obvious objects and events that turning it into a drinking game would prove fatal after thirty minutes of game play. I also noticed that the dialogue often spends copious amounts of time reiterating simple ideas. Here’s a line from the script:

This may sound really off the wall, but listen to me. You’ve got to believe me. I haven’t gone crazy and I’m not fooling around. At first, I thought I was losing my mind. But now I know I’m not. It’s not me.

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Harry Mason, ca. 1982

I honestly can’t tell what’s more off-putting: when a character gets stuck in a loop and you have to give them a good whack to move on to the next thought, or listening to the voice actors say things like, “Devoured by darkness” and “My daughter is missing” with all the passion of a geometry lecture delivered by a narcoleptic. And the other half of the time, the writers rely on the fact that the player’s brain has a shorter draw distance than the town. Early on, Harry finds a scrap of paper with the words “to school” scrawled in Crayola, and like the junior Scooby Doo detective that he is, assumes that Cheryl has simply ditched him to hang out at the school in a strange town. I like to picture this guy in the same graduating class as Rick Grimes and the guy from Heavy Rain.

No Dog

But Cheryl could be in there. Or Carl. Jason? Janet? Brad? Janet? Dr. Scott? Rocky?

Game play is all right, I guess. Not exactly a stunning endorsement, I know,. But being one of the early balls to explode forth from the canon of survival horror, I can’t really fault them for abiding by things that weren’t tropes yet when the game came out. You wander through an environment full of obstructions, trying to find multiple keys for single doors which the owners have cleverly scattered halfway across town in some drunken fit of reverse-kleptomania. You solve puzzles. You dodge and fight monsters. The control scheme offers the greatest challenge though, as not only was “Push the direction you want to move” as terrifying, foreign and quite obviously much easier to use as the metric system, the tank controls would glitch out every so often, making it impossible for Harry to step around and avoid monsters. The one saving grace is that it was often rather fun to build up a head of steam and then ram Harry into immobile objects for the satisfying “thwack” it would make, even if I did do this accidentally while being chased, leading to several eviscerations.

I’ve always thought Silent Hill puzzles were a bit contrived. My first time playing Silent Hill 2, I had spent a good half hour whacking monsters with a stick with a nail in it, but then I came to a key that was just out of reach beyond a barred doorway. Oh, if only I had some long, hooked tool that might be able to extend my reach! Woe is me! In the original, I picked up an axe halfway through the game, but still needed keys to get through wooden doors for some reason.

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Harry faces down one of the seven deadly sins.

One of the bigger annoyances are the sloth monsters encountered in the school level. Despite the fact that you’ll find more bullets than textbooks, there’s absolutely no reason to use them as the sloths are invincible. Personally, I find that this defeats the main decision that makes survival horror fun to play—do you want to eliminate monsters permanently, or conserve ammo and risk a mad dash around the enemy every time? Silent Hill’s school makes that decision for you. Shooting them incapacitates them briefly, but three bullets to the face don’t affect them any more than the recoil of the gun does to Harry, so while he stands there waiting for his pants to dry, the sloths grab on to your legs like murderous toddlers looking for a ride. Not surprisingly, the monsters are actually supposed to be children, but censors felt that in a game littered with corpses and stocked full of monsters, cultists and blood, the idea of killing a violent hell-spawned creature of evil and darkness crossed a line, so long as said demon was only a meter tall.

SH Corpse

Oh! Thank god it’s not a kid. Otherwise this might have been tragic and gruesome.

But the game is tolerable, if not good. I had originally planned some jokes about Harry breathing like an obscene phone call when he’s wounded, and how the fog filling the town made it seem like the design team based their whole concept on the game having a low draw-distance. However, not having a life meter is one of the things that contributes to the uncertainty of survival horror (challenging when you think your health items are best spent), and upon reading that the design team introduced the fog for exactly that reason, I started thinking of it as a rather clever solution to a problem. Furthermore, Silent Hill moved away from horror based on jump scares and other things that make people like Markiplier scream like a drunken frat boy overstimulated by a football game. Even considering the control issues and the fact that tutorial tips display when loading after a game over—you know, approximately ten seconds after they would have been useful—I thought the challenge was well-balanced.

Don’t ask me about the weird Animal House style dance video they play after the credits, though. That’s probably the scariest thing about the game.

Chrono Cross – Playstation

gfs_50218_1_1I’ve reviewed enough games by now that I’m convinced Shigeru Miyamoto is the only game developer on the planet who actually knows how to make a game, and that all other successful games get it right purely by accident. I envision the industry like a Looney Tunes episode, where developers just blunder through a hazardous landscape of booby traps, stepping in just the right spots to avoid the poisoned arrows, leap over the crocodile pit, and dodge the falling anvil to let it fall on the villain’s comically inept henchman. And then we get Chrono Trigger. But having paid close attention for three years, always looking for something absurd to criticize, I feel like I’ve started to notice every corpse with an anvil for a head and every crocodile picking his teeth with the wire frames of eyeglasses.

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Serge fights Not-Nus alongside Not-Schala and Not-Frog

Specifically, I’ve reviewed enough RPGs that I feel I could easily cover them with my own version of a Cosmo quiz to tell me whether my relationship with any game is going to be hot and steamy, or whether I should just break it off early so as not to waste the best years of my life. If I could only match up witty comments with one of those scan-tron bubble sheets for the tests you take in high school to determine whether or not your teachers get paid, I could hammer out reviews three times a week. So this week I’d like to look at Chrono Cross sternly, shake my finger like its mom and say, “You should know better,” by examining things it does that developers need to stop doing.

1. Too many playable characters. (Forty-five? Are you trying to tell a story or start a football team?)

2. Only three characters at a time. (Two, really, since game designers have this notion that a character can live a lifetime as a ninja master or a military tactician, but if they don’t have the spiky-haired teenage protagonist at the head of their party at all times, they won’t have enough wits about them to jam their straws in their juice boxes.)

3. Characters who are as unique and distinct from one another as a box of Cheerios. (and with almost as much flavor)

4. Fewer options in combat than the space invaders. (Drop down, reverse direction, increase speed, versus Chrono Cross’ Attack, use magic)

5. Bland story that drops a piano full of convoluted plot points on your head just before the final boss fight.

6. Lack of explanation of battle system. (Eh…it’s better than Cross Edge)

7. Lack of direction from plot-point to plot point. (The NSA usually has more information to go on when cracking international codes than the player does when advancing the game)

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More characters than you can shake a gate-key at.

To be fair, a lot of games have worse problems. But I’ve never liked playing games where focus is taken off of plot development in favor of getting enough characters to create a successful pyramid scheme. And with the “mute bastard” trope, where the main character has the personality of your average tree and no character consistent enough to speak for him, of course the story will come off as less coherent than your average Trump voter. Yes, a few of them do have unique and interesting skills, but the majority of them can only do some variation of “deal damage with X-elemental qualities,” but the elements only matter when one of them accidentally heals a monster, and you can equip any type of magic on any character to equal effect. Chrono Cross sells itself on offering a New Game+ to let the player collect all 45 characters. Congratulations, Square, not only did you reduce Chrono Trigger to Pokemon, but you totally missed the point that the reason we gotta catch ‘em all is because they’re all unique monsters!Chrono Cross did have some clever ideas. Rather than try to write a coherent sequel to a time travel story–something that Crimson Echoes did with all the grace of Swan Lake as performed by a herd of wildebeests, and that Back to the Future only pulled off with enough plot holes to make it look like it survived one of the Jigsaw Killer’s puzzles–they focused on the idea of parallel universes and realities that could have existed, but didn’t. And it’s actually kind of brilliant that they managed to incorporate branching paths and player decisions that create mutually exclusive events so that not all things can happen in a single play-through.

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Well someone at Square is a Batman fan…

But here I have to shout out a big apology to Crimson Echoes. While previously I accused the fan-made game of a variation on point #5 from above, I now have to respect them for taking the shreds of plot that sound like Square sewed them together from the scraps of cloth found in boxes in their grandma’s attic and making them sound like they all came from the same, if not convoluted, story. After an entire game’s worth of traveling between two parallel universes, recruiting a party larger than Woodstock, and finding bits of information that hint toward what happened during and after Crono’s battle with Lavos, we find out that the dragon gods are really just out for revenge for Lavos falling on the reptites. And once that crimson star is dropped on you, you go into the final dungeon.

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You’ll need people with intelligence when taking on this dragon. Fish. Thing.

But for some reason, I got through it. Perhaps that reason might be that although I recently resolved not to waste times with games I don’t enjoy, old habits are hard to break. I did like some aspects of the game. Yasunori Mitsuda’s score, as usual, was a pleasure to listen to, although–much like the rest of the game–it sounded like he just threw in discarded scraps and rough drafts of songs that he ultimately didn’t use in Xenogears. The weapon smithing system seemed interesting, although it petered out halfway through the game. And, of course, the game did score 10/10 by some critics, so perhaps there is something intangible about the game that’s worth my time.

Leah

Not-Ayla joins your party!

But I’m still a little scared to try out Radical Dreamers. Maybe I should just stick to replaying Chrono Trigger until my brain melts.

Final Fantasy Tactics (War of the Lions) – PS1, PSP

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God kept you distracted while I stole the princess! He also drives the getaway chocobo and is the patsy taking the fall for the caper.

As I begrudgingly abandoned Cross Edge and moved it from my shelf of “games I play again” to my shelf of “things I can slide under a barfing cat to protect the carpet,” I thought I’d look back at why I feel the need to slog waste-deep through trails of shit just to get to the end so I can verify, “Yes, indeed, I’m covered head to toe in fecal matter!” as if somehow upon completing the journey it would magically turn into whipped cream and the breasts of strippers. See, every time I encounter a game with a horrendous learning curve and I wind up with so many game overs during the early game that it looks like Jack Kevorkian threw a party in a nursing home, I think, “I’m just playing it wrong! This will probably get really fun once I figure out how to play it! After all, I loved Final Fantasy Tactics!”

Final Fantasy Tactics is that one good moment in a bad relationship with the JRPG genre when she fawns over you like a school girl, but hasn’t yet devolved into constant mind games and psychological torture. It’s where she hooks you with just a sweet enough personality that you think, “I know she loves me deep down inside! She did before” Meanwhile your friends make reservations for you on the psyche ward for the moment the truth finally hits and the local Perkins kicks you out at 3:00 in the morning for blubbering over the waitress and not ordering anything. FFT is an amazing game, probably one of the best in the series, but when I got it in 9th grade, I hated it and getting from the beginning to the end was a complete pain. But that’s because the only tactical game I had ever played was chess, and I had as much talent for chess as Stephen Hawking has for competitive Lindy-Hop. I tried to get through the game by power leveling and brute force, which loses its effect against an artificial intelligence with even a modicum more computing power than your average kumquat.

But I digress. The story follows Ramza Beoulve, which only on my most recent playthrough did I realize is supposed to be pronounced like “Beowulf.” Ramza is the youngest son of a high ranking noble, enrolled in an academy that trains knights to keep the peace in the kingdom. Also present is Delita Heiral, a commoner protected and sponsored by Ramza’s father. Together, they tactically romp their way through the Ivalice countryside, strategizing their way through nobles and peasants alike, hunting down rebellious metaphors, rogue themes, and other literary concepts escaped from a high school English class. The two come into conflict when Ramza decides to help rescue Delita’s sister, and Delita decides that noblemen view commoners with the same lusty gaze they’d give a box of condoms; they’re something they’d really like to get the chance to use. Without giving much more away, because the story truly is one of the strongest features of the game, FF Tactics tells a more complete, concise, and less pornographic version of Game of Thrones.

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Davos? I think George Martin was a Final Fantasy Fanboy.

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Fools! Step a few meters to the side and then attack!

While the story is better than almost all of the main series games, it truly shines when it comes to the combat system. Of course it’s a tactics game, which means some standards apply. Grid-based combat. Strategies dependent on enemy formations and terrain and a host of other features.  More characters to train, maintain, and manage than the U.S. Department of Defense. But the job system from Final Fantasy V received a sleek new upgrade. Characters change job class to learn different types of skills. Skills are purchased with accumulated job points, so there’s no need to learn them in any set order. Rather than allowing one skill from another class to be equipped, characters have their class’ action commands, a secondary set of action commands from any other class they’ve learned, one counter-skill from any class, one innate skill, and one move skill. Most people don’t have as much ability to customize themselves the way you get to mold and craft these characters. Dozens of different playthroughs have the potential to be unique experiences, which of course is why I always learn the dual wield skill from the ninja and equip it on a samurai, then teach all my characters to jump like a dragoon in order to survive that one boss battle in Riovanes castle.

The character customization, however, leads to the only two real flaws that I can see in this game (once I figured out all the other flaws were actually mine). The first is the crystallization of wounded combatants. Being a reasonably difficult game, your soldiers tend to drop like a flock of sea gulls flying through a particularly thick cloud of chlorine. From there, you have the standard Final Fantasy options for revival–phoenix down, raise spell, or wait until the end of battle and watch as a good night’s sleep cures an axe in the forehead–but they fail more often than a newly released Windows operating system. Only chemists can learn the item skill, and other classes that equip it need a second ability in order to administer items to characters more than a dick’s length away, so characters often spend several rounds of combat charging up the defibrillator while nearby enemies perform drum solos on their skulls. The big catch, though, is that if someone stays down for five rounds of combat, he’ll turn into a crystal, which can refill another character’s HP and MP, or on a good day randomly selects one of the hundreds of skills learned by the deceased and gives it to the living in a sad mockery of the half dozen hours spent training the now-rotting sack of meat.

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The church is the only character more likely to have “done it” than the butler.

Beyond an obnoxious gameplay mechanic that encourages me to regularly exercise the reset button and the nerfing of magic until it has the accuracy of trying to drop tennis balls in a glass of water from the international space station, nothing about this game feels worse than dismissing units. With a limit of 24 characters and a tendency to pick people up like a politician in a brothel, you’ll inevitably have to make room by kicking someone out of the group at some point, and each one of them–chocobos included–will lay a guilt trip on you that would make your mother proud. “I beg you, do not say these things! I swear I will prove my worth to you. I swear it!” “Are you certain of this? I thought us faster friends.” And even the non-human characters: “(It looks upset at being told to go home, mayhap because it has no home to go to.)” And the game won’t go easy on you–if you accept a monster into your party at all, soon you’ll notice an egg in your roster, and they’ll keep breeding until you have no choice but to look your beloved pet in the eye and tell it to fuck right off, then to pause the game for ten minutes and cry like your cat just died.

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What better role for a leading man than a secret character cameo?

Originally called just Final Fantasy Tactics–before they released two “advanced” games that were, quite honestly, a step backward–the game had a re-release on the PSP, given the subtitle “The War of the Lions,” probably to make it sound all Medieval-y like the historical War of the Roses. The remake ramps up the difficulty, which isn’t bad unless you aren’t prepared for it, but it might force you to spend a few hours more than usual looking for random battles to build up job points–level means nothing in FF Tactics, but skills make or break an assault party. The remake adds some extra hidden characters, such as Balthier from FFXII, who I assume is there to make up for the fact that Cloud, hidden in the original as well, starts off with less prowess in combat than your average toddler with down syndrome, and it takes at least a half dozen hours to improve him to the point where he can get close enough to the enemy to be slaughtered without a fight.

The remake also includes animated cut scenes with voice actors, as well as a new translation that makes the story less like poring over historical journals and a little more like an immersive Medieval fantasy world, where no one can run to the privy without flowery language, as if Shakespeare were describing their bowel movements.

Parasite Eve – PS1

Merry Christmas, Internet! For those loyal readers who have followed my work since…well, October, you know that I like to coordinate horror games with the Halloween season. In part, this works well because horror games sell well, whereas I have a more difficult time finding games with 4th of July themes (Assassin’s Creed 3, maybe), St. Patrick’s Day themes (uh…Leisure Suit Larry on the XBox likes to drink), Labor Day themes (Down with Shin-ra!) or Secretary’s Day (…I’ll leave this one to you). However, thanks to Square Enix and their own version of the war on Christmas–starting with the Santa Clause boss battle in Secret of Mana–I have a perfect specimen of a game for this Holiday season that I wouldn’t waste on any other time of year. So this week, I intend to celebrate Parasite Eve for a magical Christmas adventure, as it contains the birth of an incarnate god, bountiful freebies you don’t have to pay for, a festively dressed villain, rivers of slime, and the video game protagonist whose stocking I’d most like to stuff.

I should have a word with the fire marshal. Those curtains are supposed to be flame retardant.

I should have a word with the fire marshal. Those curtains are supposed to be flame retardant.

Beginning on Christmas Eve and spanning the course of nearly a week, Parasite Eve tells a heartwarming holiday story of spontaneous human combustion. Aya Brea, a young cop in New York City, attends spends the evening at the opera. The experience holds exactly what we’d expect your average night at the opera to contain: first the singing, then the panic, screaming, the audience running in terror trying to get out of the theatre. However, unlike most opera performances, everyone bursts into flames. Except, of course, for the lead actress, Aya, and Aya’s date for some reason they never explain. Aya confronts the actress, or rather Eve, the actress’s collective mitochondria, who claims to have overthrown the shackles of its bourgeois cell oppressors. They fight, Eve flees, and Aya pursues, but the villain escapes to plan the world’s greatest sperm bank heist.

From there, Aya goes on to discover a river of slime with a grudge against humanity in the sewers of New York. The slime heads toward a museum to protect the villain, but Aya draws her out, leading to an epic showdown against the backdrop of a slime-covered statue of liberty. But all along, the slime served as a womb, and ultimately it gives birth to Viggo the Carpathian! Er, wait…I might have confused Parasite Eve with Ghostbusters 2.

Uhh...I really don't know what I should be looking at.

Uhh…I really don’t know what I should be looking at.

Weird as all that sounds, the game actually plays very seriously with a complex, well-written storyline. For those of you who slacked off in anatomy, first of all your teacher dodged a bullet having to answer a thousand questions on spontaneous combustion, but more importantly, our cells contain organelles called mitochondria. These microscopic pseudo-organisms have their own fragmented DNA, so as the game’s title suggests, they use us as a host. However, what the title completely missed the boat on is that they’re symbiotic (friendly) instead of parasitic, producing the energy that, well, you know…keeps us from dying. This energy, theoretically, if the mitochondria all went into overdrive at the exact same time, might produce enough heat to…well, probably not. But the game uses that as a weapon for them to seize control of our bodies to have their tiny little ways with us.

One of the earliest 3D games (not done with vector graphics), Parasite Eve plays smoothly and has impressive visuals, even eighteen years (God, I’m old…) later. When introducing combat to the game, a fully animated CGI cutscene shows a rat’s mitochondria seizing control of its cells, transforming it into a hideous monster of nearly the same size and temperament of a real New York City rat. Although in all fairness, I thinking hanging out backstage at the opera would make me bleed out of my eyes as well. Naturally, though, the spectacle doesn’t end there; the dedicated player will also get to see people melt into a giant ball of Kaluha, a german shepherd transform into a four-legged vagina with teeth, and the main villain transform into several different forms that might be arousing if it didn’t look like someone had stuck a Barbie doll in a microwave.

Impressive cut scene, but don't think we didn't notice your RPG hero leveling up at the beginning of the game by fighting rats underground.

Impressive cut scene, but don’t think we didn’t notice your RPG hero leveling up at the beginning of the game by fighting rats underground.

Combat blends traditional RPG tropes–magic, weapons, items–with a free moving action system against a pre-rendered background. Aya can equip different types of guns, each with their own advantages and disadvantages in combat. Handguns sacrifice range for high speed and moderate power. Rifles increase power and range, but fire slowly. She can also find shotguns, grenade and rocket launchers, and tonfa clubs. Furthermore, each weapon comes with its own subset of abilities that the player can move around and customize through the use of special tools.

Generally I don't like it when pretty girls--even fictional ones--have boyfriends. But if the game doesn't feel he merits a name, I somehow don't mind him that much.

Generally I don’t like it when pretty girls–even fictional ones–have boyfriends. But if the game doesn’t feel he merits a name, I somehow don’t mind him that much.

And they fit all that, plus a bonus dungeon in the New Game + option, into a game less than 10 hours long. Replaying this after playing its sequel for Halloween, I remember why this game works so brilliantly. Its compact storyline doesn’t leave anything out. Out of the six or so major characters, each one of them feels human. We know more about each one of them besides whatever they need to drive the plot forward. Hell, the fucking German Shepherd has more character development than any of the characters from the sequel–including Aya. In retrospect, this game succeeds because it doesn’t play up Aya as some love-starved twit, ready to submit to the first hunky boy she runs across on the job. Because what scrawny video game nerd in the late 1990s wanted to see the lovely Goddess of RPG heroes wind up with the over-inflated douche of testosterone, Kyle Madigan? If anyone, she deserves to to wind up with the brilliant yet socially awkward scientist whose genius pulls her through dangerous situations time and time again.

Maeda finds one of many NYC cops who has attempted to culture himself by studying world languages.

Maeda finds one of many NYC cops who has attempted to culture himself by studying world languages.

Dr. Maeda, I’ll tell you exactly what the parents of a friend of mine told me after she went off and married the biggest douche in the country: “We’re sorry. We were pulling for you.”

On behalf of brilliant but socially awkward RPG fans everywhere, have a wonderful holiday season…but maybe stay out of Manhattan for a few days.