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!

SH Boomstick

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.

Midvale

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.

SH - Sloths

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.

Advertisements

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.

chronocross2

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)

gfs_50218_2_297

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.

Harle

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.

Dragon

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

Tactics5

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.

Tactics4

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

Tactis1

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.

Tactisc3

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.

Tactics2

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.

Parasite Eve 2 – Playstation

Note: Gamersgate supporters would like to see less of this.

Note: Gamersgate supporters would like to see less of this.

Back in the late nineties when Squaresoft could do no wrong, they made a bold move by backing away from Nintendo in favor of Sony. This meant two things for me. One, I had just blown my entire finances on an N64 and they had just rendered that purchase useless. Two, they now had virtually limitless room for bigger and better games. So when I finally gathered enough pop cans out of local garbages and exchanged the sticky, tobacco-ridden gold for a Playstation, I had to resort to begging for games for Christmas presents. When I popped that disc in the little gray box and hit power on Christmas morning (fuck baby Jesus! I’ll go to church when he’s earned enough EXP to unlock his parasite powers!), I met Parasite Eve, and thus began a lifelong relationship with a game that would inspire me to piss off my high school teachers with endless questions about the motives and abilities of mitochondria and at least one major research paper on spontaneous human combustion.

"Full Frontal" must not translate well from Japanese.

“Full Frontal” must not translate well from Japanese.

So when Square announced not only a sequel, but a sequel with a full-frontal shower scene (some people may have exaggerated certain reports), naturally I…had no cash and put off buying the game indefinitely. I really do wonder why I put off the game this long. But I finally got my hands on the working game, and now for your special Halloween article, I present “Parasite Eve II, or Resident Evil, Symphony of the Night.” The rumors I heard involve an all-out, knock-down, out-for-blood difference of creative opinion, with the director of the first game wanting an RPG detective story with the development team wanting to do something more like Resident Evil (I will update if I can find a source confirming). While the director seemingly won the first game (one imagines with a level-68 meteor spell while under a protect charm to ward off 9mm bullets), the development team apparently zombified him for the sequel, as the game reads so closely from Resident Evil’s play book that you can practically see the scribble marks over “T-Virus” right beside every mention of the word “mitochondria.” A rip-off this blatant could even garner plagiarism accusations from Terry Brooks.

Apparently, Mitochondria can write flame throwers into your DNA.

Apparently, Mitochondria can write flame throwers into your DNA.

The story follows Aya Brea, the most drop-dead gorgeous survival horror protagonist I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, three years after saving all of humanity from rogue microscopic organelles with murderous intentions and ambitions of world-domination. Despite the fact that the first game wrapped up all loose ends nice and tight, mitochondria still occasionally alters the DNA of people and animals because if they didn’t, well, the sequel wouldn’t make sense, would it? Aya has pulled a Leon Kennedy, leaving the police force to work as a government agent. Her boss sends her to investigate Raccoon City the town of Dryfield, where she discovers an abandoned underground laboratory dedicated to replicating the T-Virus neo-mitochondria. Oh, what horrors of dialogue writing will she face? What plot holes might she fall into? Stay tuned to find out!

Are you my mummy?

Are you my mummy?

The game plays well, let me say up front. Rather than borrow Resident Evil’s raise-the-gun-and-hope-for-the-best method of aiming, Parasite Eve 2 introduces a lock-on method of aiming, which allows you to point your gun directly at whatever you want to die. You can even see it, too…if the enemy hasn’t wandered out of the pre-rendered camera angle. Battles also have a more realistic flow than in the original game. Granted, from a game play perspective, PE1‘s combat system worked nearly flawlessly. However, it did take a leap of faith to understand why Aya always felt the need to step back and re-evaluate her strategy/situation/life between attacks. PE2 lets her pull the trigger as fast as the bullets come out of the gun.

PE2 drops some RPG elements from the first game, including leveling-up. Throughout the game, guns simply don’t get stronger, and Aya can’t suddenly take a shotgun blast to the face without flinching. On one hand, yes this makes the game more realistic, but assuming most people bought this game based on the merits of the original storyline where a flying opera singer with a velociraptor claw for a lower torso recruits your microscopic organisms to turn traitor and set themselves on fire, I think the target audience only cares about realism to a very small extent. Sacrificing game play for that element of realism may have about the same effect of eating tree bark instead of pasta and expecting health benefits from the all-natural ingredients. It may make you feel good at first, but in the end you’ll find yourself with significantly less health after taking damage in a cut scene. Right before the final boss. Seriously. Fuck you, game.

Then I could do what all snowmen do in summer.

Then I could do what all snowmen do in summer.

This element of realism grows a little murky when calling in to save your game for the first time. PE2 still uses phones as save points, but feels the need to put someone on the other end of the line, and every time you find a phone, after standing there wondering if it dials out (while the player watches, wondering how Aya ever passed high school, let alone her NYPD exams and field tests), we have to listen to the commentary of the NPCs, like a Greek Chorus of Nitwits repeating to the player what we already know. Especially astute players and their walkthroughs might access a minute sub-plot about a mole in the agency, but this proves about as vital and interesting as a pile of toenail clippings. Anyway, the first time you call in to save, your boss authorizes you to use weapons and armor you find on corpses. Thanks chief, but won’t I make the dead guys happier by dying myself rather than taking their stuff?

Bad writing plagues this game. Resident Evil often stitches together stories by ripping pages out of dime store sci-fi novels and pressing them together in whatever order they fall, but next to PE2, Resident Evil rises to the quality of Dostoyevsky. Characters speak in unnatural, stilted dialogue, like a troop of actors who all simultaneously forgot their lines, the premise of the play, and everything they learned since the third grade. Aya, one of the most awesome, badass protagonists of all time suddenly feels the need to flaunt her girliness by criticizing the P.I.’s outfit and telling us about the clearance sale she visited the previous weekend. And let me tell you, nothing builds up to an exciting climax of an epic survival horror game like a series of long, boring cut scenes filled with exposition that won’t matter thirty seconds later.

Smooth. On the upside, I no longer feel as bad for some of my failed attempts at talking to girls in high school.

Smooth. On the upside, I no longer feel as bad for some of my failed attempts at talking to girls in high school.

Ladies and Gentelmen, your villain. Code Name: Love Potion

Ladies and Gentlemen, your villain. Code Name: Love Potion

The original Parasite Eve showed a lot of effort in writing. They showed us a connection between Aya and her antagonist, which made their final confrontation meaningful as more than an obligatory battle. The story gave her doubts and personal conflicts. PE2, on the other hand, refers to the primary antagonist as “the big guy,” and he never takes off his army mask. You don’t know his identity or his motivations, much less how he connects with Aya or the events of the previous game. They introduce a private investigator as sort of a love interest, but they have even less chemistry than Leon and Ada in RE2, spend almost no time together, an remember how I said you lose HP in the cut scene before the final boss fight? Yeah…spoiler alert…he shoots Aya. In order to earn the trust of the villain that he betrays in the same cut scene. But no biggie, right? ‘Cuz he’s a hot guy. What else does he need?

I try to get away, but something irresistible just keeps drawing me back.

I try to get away, but something irresistible just keeps drawing me back.

The game doesn’t suck. Completely. Although I maintain that RE-style walking controls never helped anyone and feel even clunkier here where Aya automatically tries to reorient herself towards her target enemy, thus constantly steering her slightly back towards any enemy she needs to escape. The overly simplistic weapon customization system pales in comparison with PE1. And the puzzles, while they earn bonus points as interesting challenges, might offer too much of a challenge for someone who just wants to get on with the game, thus making a walkthrough necessary for completion. But I did play through the game twice (even though the New Game Plus option gives you nothing worthwhile) in order to get both the bad ending and the…well, still bad, but longer ending.

I couldn't find a clear solution anywhere online. Use this screensshot! This screenshot will help you finish this puzzle!

I couldn’t find a clear solution anywhere online. Use this screen shot! This screen shot will help you finish this puzzle!

I guess the “good” ending best sums up the obliviousness of the development team. A year after Mr. Sack-of-Flour Personality disappears, Aya visits the Museum of Natural History in New York–because when Alan Grant needed to relax, he spent some time on Isla Nublar–and the doors burst open behind her to reveal the Private Investigator, and I couldn’t find myself caring less about this bland, poorly written douchebag who shot me right before the final battle. Kick his ass to the curb, Aya! You can do better than him, and you have a birthday coming up…

Final Fantasy VI – SNES, GBA, Playstation, Android/iOS

The original Insane Clown Posse

The original Insane Clown Posse

Like most people over the age of thirty–at least, those who play video games–Super Mario Bros hooked me. I took one dose, one afternoon at a friend’s house, and that spiraled into a life-long addiction and tens of thousands of dollars I had to scrounge up and commit to feeding my problem. But Mario only acted as a gateway drug. I didn’t really settle into a specific class…er, genre…until the early nineties, when my cousins, on their annual visit to Northern Michigan, brought their Super Nintendo with them along with a little unheard of gem called “Final Fantasy VI.” Er…Final Fantasy III. Whatever. The one with Terra and the espers. I didn’t realize that Square had raised the bar on RPGs forever with this game. I just knew I could play it over and over until the chocobos come home. So, like those in my age range, FFVI became the standard against which I will judge all other RPGs. But how, pray tell, does it stack up as a game by itself?

Well, it turns out that when you use a game as a standard to measure itself, it comes out rather well.  In fact, I couldn’t find anything in which it failed to perform. There. End of article. I can’t remember having an easier time reviewing a game! But…I suppose for the sake of filling out some reading material, I should elaborate.

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

Final Fantasy VI follows a long-term trend in FF games to update technology and streamline design until eventually they’ll have as much in common with the fantasy genre as “The Jetsons,” and instead of riding around on flying boats like in FFIV, the characters will travel on the S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. Wait…what? Anyway, FFVI falls in a steampunk-ish world where a power-hungry emperor has discovered the lost power of magic and couldn’t think of any better use for it than building mech armor that protects everything from the waist down, leaving all the soft, vital organs exposed to the swords, lances, and crossbows used by the rebels. Coming out of a magical apocalypse, scholars warn the emperor about using magic, as it might repeat the global destruction from a millennium ago. This makes as much sense as a comet passing over the White House and calling off the raid on Osama bin Laden because we don’t want to repeat the horrible tragedy at the Battle of Hastings.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you'll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you’ll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Anyway, the Empire uses Terra, a half-human, half-esper, half-protagonist, for her innate magical power. Then the Returners, a group of rebels, rescues her and hopes to use her for her innate magical power. But we don’t mind, because the Empire used a mind-control device to enslave her, whereas the Returners just used good, old fashioned, natural guilt. Because Tolkien taught us that kings always have our best interests at heart, while Star Wars shows us that emperors only want to blow up our planets and strike us dead with lightning. The Empire wages war to collect magic and subdue nations until the Emperor’s “court mage,” Kefka decides to destroy the world and rule the rubble heap as a god. The heroes rush to stop him. Then they lose. Failing to avert the apocalypse, the second act of the game takes off in a non-linear direction in which the player must find all the lost characters, then hunt down side quests that give them each a reason for living.

This game, as I’ve mentioned, defines “good RPG” for me. The story provides fourteen fully unique characters, each with a single unique special skill. Except for two, none of them learn magic naturally or in a pre-programmed order.  All spells are taught by equipping magicite (the petrified corpses of fairy-tale monsters, the Espers) in whatever configuration or order the player chooses. Each character has a certain configuration of base stats, suggesting a use for the character (The old mage, Strago, has higher magic power than physical power, while if you try to teach magic to your ninja, Shadow, you’ll find he has about as much aptitude for casting as a one-armed, epileptic fly fisherman…so about the same as every other ninja that Square tried to improve by giving low-level black magic powers), but magicite often grants stat bonuses when a character levels up, so the player can also customize these. I’ve only played two RPGs that have better character customization mechanics than FFVI: Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics. So with all these fabulously creative systems, naturally Square moved on to FFVII, where you forge your characters with as much care as it takes to put books on a shelf, and who have all the unique features of an NES with a sticker on the top.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I'm her father.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I’m her father.

So when I joked about comparing FFVI to itself earlier, I may have lied somewhat, as it actually does exceed the standards it set. While the SNES version reigns supreme in the hearts of those who played it, I actually recommend playing the Game Boy Advanced version, which gives the game an upgrade akin to using a chainsaw to cut down a tree instead of a pocket knife. While Ted Woolsey’s original translation may have won the hearts and minds of 14-year-old boys who listened to the Pimsleur Japanese free sample so they can criticize the subtitles of Sailor Moon episodes, the GBA translation reads as though people actually speak the language used in the story.  It corrects mistakes such as “Lete River,” “Fenix Down” and “Gradius” (Lethe, Phoenix, and Gladius), it allows Cyan and Doma to exercise a Japanese culture rather than bleaching them whiter than a Disney Princess, and it un-censors a lot of the original story.  It also turns some of Woolsey’s garbled nonsense into meaningful dialog. “This kid’s loaded for bear” now reads as “When you showed up, I thought you were one of Vargas’s bears.” (After which, the game humorously speculates on Sabin’s sexual orientation.) Furthermore, Shadow, who learns of his relationship with Relm through a series of dreams, no longer drops that bomb on her just before the final battle, instead suggesting it more subtly.

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

This...might take a little more strategy than "Stick him with the pointy end."

This…might take a little more strategy than “Stick him with the pointy end.”

While the second act glorifies non-linear side quests, RPGs always contain the flaw of running out of stuff to do as soon as all the highest-level weapons, armor and magic becomes available. Like the other GBA ports of the SNES FF games, FFVI adds bonus dungeons to the end. The major dungeon, the Dragon’s Den, resurrects the eight dragons, presumably with a mixture of phoenix down, high doses of caffeine, and anabolic steroids. After making your way past these new challenges, you fight the Kaiser dragon. With even a moderate attention toward leveling up, the game’s final boss will drop faster than a politician’s pants in a truck stop bathroom, and I have literally destroyed him in a single attack on more than one occasion. The Kaiser dragon, on the other hand, puts up more of a fight than a triple-amputee undergoing chemotherapy, so his addition not once, but twice, spruces up gameplay by a healthy amount. He appears a second time in the other bonus dungeon, a 100-battle fight through various enemies and bosses encountered throughout the game.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Yes, I’ll fully admit I may see the game through nostalgic lenses, an unfortunate pair of glasses that look back on high school without the crippling social anxiety or need for anti-depressants, but I’ll also gladly confess to all the standard RPG schlock that comes along with the package. For instance, disposable tents (“I put it up, damn it! What more do you want? You don’t actually expect we’ll need to heal or sleep ever again, do you?”), a comically large cast, thus ensuring you spend half the game trying to decide which four characters to put in your party and denying any of them a significantly flushed out back story and personality, and some carelessly written scenarios, in which the game wants us to question the loyalties of a character who never even hints at ulterior motives, at one point having Kefka place a sword in her hands. At that point, expecting her to do anything but stab him with it would make less sense than dumping a pizza on your lawn every night and expecting the raccoons to not build tiny condominiums under your deck.

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

With extra weapons, armor, espers, spells, and dungeons, plus with a translation that suggests at least one person on the development staff spoke more than one language, the GBA version clearly surpasses the original. However, even the original holds high standards that many games developed recently still fail to live up to. Square filled FFVI with as many options for customizing characters and exploring the worlds as possible, as well as a level of detail and culture into their world that gives even the post-apocalyptic landscape a more appealing atmosphere than our car-exhaust-choked Earth. If you happen to fall into an age range that didn’t hit this game’s popularity at its peak, go out and find a copy. You shouldn’t have trouble; they ported it to just about every system imaginable. Why? Well…I guess the more ports they make, the easier they can hide from the fact that THEY STILL HAVE NO PLANS FOR A 3D REMAKE!! Get your act together Squeenix!

And just for fun, let's add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

And just for fun, let’s add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver – PS1, Dreamcast, PC

RetroArch-1101-224326

I knew it would come to this eventually. When I decided to play every game worth playing–and some not worth it, but nevertheless amusing–I made every effort to finish the game before I wrote about it. I couldn’t always keep that promise: some games have no real end, while games like Donkey Kong would require unemployment, a government grant, and ten years of having literally nothing better to do than jump over barrels in order to get to the kill screen. Also, Bubble Bobble kept crashing and Gauntlet just got boring after 64 virtually identical levels. But I knew eventually I’d find a game that would force me to quit just due to its sheer awfulness. A game with not only picture and sound, but a pungent aroma–probably of dead fish. As of tonight (and by “tonight” I mean November 5th when I actually wrote this), I have found that game. Ladies and gentlemen, if Satan himself handed me a clarinet carved from his own petrified shit using a reed soaked in Drano, I would rather play that then Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

Yep...spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Yep…spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Soul Reaver draws inspiration from arcane Hebrew myth in a way that makes God of War look as canonically accurate as Bullfinch’s Mythology. You play as Raziel, named for the Jewish Angel of Knowledge, God’s own version of Astinus of Palanthas, who records all knowledge and delivered a book of magic to Adam and Eve with the instructions to help them return to Eden. Naturally, none of that interested the designers, so instead they give us an anthropomorphic hoover vacuum cleaner. A former servant of Kain, one day Raziel sprouts a pair of wings. Kain passes up the chance to found his own personal Luftwaffe, and interpreting these wings as an obvious threat to his manhood, rips them off with his bare hands, and to add more injury to injury, drops you into a swirling lake of fire to burn for eternity. Eventually, an Elder God revives Raziel and empowers him to take his vengeance upon Kain, entirely ignoring the fact that the past few thousand years has reduced the world to a post-apocalyptic shit hole with no one in it but a few monsters and nothing to do except writhe in the agony of boredom.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

If we can describe games like Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 as “action packed” and Metroid or the Legend of Zelda as “adventure packed,” then Soul Reaver proudly sports the label of “unpacked.” Critics in the late 90s may have praised the game for its dark, gloomy atmosphere. Perhaps they wouldn’t have focused on the atmosphere so much if the game didn’t had any other aspects to it. Raziel runs through a sparse, open world much like a hamster dropped into a brand new maze. Everything looks the same; kind of a dull brownish-green, a lot of rocks, stones, dark sky and murky water. Large portals connect various parts of the game, but labels each one with an complex symbol and no text, handing you about half a dozen of these things straight off with no context for why any of these locations matter. Raziel could pull out a GPS unit, input a location, and the thing would shoot back, “Sorry dude. Even I can’t find this one.” I spent most of the game just looking for the next important location, running through a big empty world, trying to avoid the random enemy the game so graciously bestows upon us every so often. And to make matters worse, upon loading a previously saved game, you get to start from the beginning! Of the entire game! Good luck finding where you left off! I’ve come to grips with the fact that even accomplished players often have to consult a walkthrough, but when my time playing versus time reading ratio reaches 1 to 9, I figure I might as well go all out on the walkthrough and save myself some money on the electric bill.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

The game’s core feature lets players shift between two parallel realities, the spectral plane and the material plane, kind of like the light world and dark world from A Link to the Past, if you never picked up the moon pearl and had to play as the bunny while in the dark world. In the spectral realm, Raziel can’t alter or interact with anything physical. He can’t carry weapons, open doors, push blocks, but he can walk on rickety platforms and survive underwater. Don’t get too excited about that, though; they rarely do anything with this. I imagine Soul Reaver’s developers as the kind of people who could stumble upon a huge supply of gold and use it to weigh down a handful of papers in their office so they wouldn’t blow around when they chucked the rest of the gold into the alley behind the building.

As if sliding blocks didn't insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

As if sliding blocks didn’t insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

Rather than use this shifting-between-planes bit in a way that made the game creative and fun, you get to…wait for it…push blocks around rooms to solve puzzles! Yes, apparently the dark ancient god has resurrected Raziel in order to perform the most nonsensical overused cliche in all of gaming. He will extract his vengeance upon Kain by…slightly reorganizing all his stuff. “Ha ha,” says Raziel. “Now you will come through here at night and probably stub your toe because I put this block in a different place!” Gloomy atmosphere aside, the game sounds like an Eddie Izzard routine. I’ll put up with sliding block puzzles once in a while. The Legend of Zelda often uses them quite well, forcing you to think, “Now why did they put this sliding block here? What can I do with it?” In Soul Reaver, I’d often find a block, and way on the other side of the room you’ll see a block-shaped hole. “Oh no!” I say. “How ever will I slide this block all the way across the room!” Unique to Soul Reaver, Raziel has a mechanic that lets him flip blocks over, which as usual utterly disappointed me in its failure to incorporate this in any way that actually makes this fossilized corpse of an idea fun.

Because apparently the developers forgot to make the game fun. Usually in a game that installed the crap filter backwards, a modicum of fun will occasionally slip past the net to break up the time consuming tedium of wandering around lost and rearranging the furniture, but even Soul Reaver’s combat refuses to relent. Apparently on his checklist of “bad ideas for vengeance on Kain,” the elder god also included, “not giving my emissary the power to actually kill anything.” Sure, you can poke the monsters with your claws or occasionally whack them with junk you find lying about, but that only stuns them momentarily. You can’t reave their souls unless you happen to find a staff to impale them with or a handy campfire to chuck them into. And no, the game does not provide you with them; after all, such entitlement programming might make you dependent on killing enemies. You can’t even damage the first boss: you kill him by running away and luring him into places to drop gates on him Rancor-style.

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, "Kill me, please!"

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, “Kill me, please!”

After the second boss, Kain, you get a sword, coincidentally named Soul Reaver–which leads me to think the developers built the entire game around a really cool sounding name, and then spent most of the project bickering over whether it would describe the protagonist or the weapon. You can kill things with the sword, but unfortunately it only appears when you have full health. Eventually I found myself unable to attempt a sliding block puzzle because of two monsters tag-teaming me. With no fire or sticks about, I could only switch into the spectral plane, reave some energy to fill my life and charge my sword, then return to the physical plane just to get whacked before I could deliver my own whacking. After repeating this cycle about ten times, I finally stunned a single monster; however, Raziel prefers a wind-up to the finishing blow that could fill the plot of two solid Dragonball Z episodes, giving the other enemy ample time to knock my health down, or if I targeted that one, it the stunned enemy had plenty of time to recover. After another twenty or thirty rounds of this, I threw down my controller shouting, “Fuck it! I will not play this game!”

And I finished Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So that should tell you something.