Family Guy Video Game! – PS2, PSP, XBox

fg-coverIf you’re the type of person who likes to be more aware of your surroundings than your average rutabaga, you may have noticed I’m reviewing the Family Guy video game this week. “Great!” you’re thinking. “Now he’s going to lecture us on the evils of licensed games before telling us how much he likes this one, like some sort of congressman who rails on the importance of family values before being found with a dead Vietnamese transvestite hooker in the trunk of his car. The only thing more formulaic than his entries on licensed games are episodes of Family Guy!”

Family Guy and I have a very special history together. It’s like a supportive grandparent who helped me get through the tough times in life—reliable, always there to make me laugh and make me think, and kind of painful to watch now that its getting older and starting to have trouble putting a coherent thought together. It seems only natural, then, that they’d want to put together something to remember the good times, to recall all those fond interactions. And that’s just what they made. The game, while fun to play, has less the wit and unexpected humor of Seth MacFarlane and more the air of me and my friends mindlessly quoting episodes in lieu of conversation.

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Brian disguised as a lamp. His sections were clever and entertaining, mostly because I didn’t play long enough to remember why I hate stealth games.

We’ve seen that the Family Guy writers, at their peak, couldn’t produce a plot longer than about 17 minutes (a number that’s declined as a function of time) unless George Lucas wrote it for them. As such, Family Guy Video Game! Follows not one, but three storylines. Stewie squares off against Bertram, Peter’s sperm from Emission Impossible, now born to the lesbian gym teacher and reigning supreme over the neighborhood babies (which, I hear, is a common origin story for the world-domination types. Look up baby photos of Genghis Kahn. And Trump? His hair is simply hiding the fact that his head is shaped like a deflated football.). Brian, once more accused of impregnating Seabreeze (from the episode Screwed the Pooch), goes on a stealth mission to discover the real father in a Metal Gear Solid meets Jerry Springer sort of way. And Peter, in the only plotline that doesn’t hearken back to a wad of ejaculated semen from 2001, randomly decides that tv’s Mr. Belvedere has kidnapped his family, and the only way to rescue them is to kick the teeth out of every man woman and child (mostly child) in Quahog, and to knock the dentures out of anyone over the age of 65.

fg-electrocuteGameplay is simple, stemming from the TV show’s method of humor. Rather than reinvent video games, jokes are thrown in as nods to games from the 80s and 90s, such as the Simpsons arcade game or Galaga. Peter and Brian both control naturally and intuitively, and for the most part Stewie does, too, although aiming at enemies is a bit like being strapped to a tilt-a-whirl. Stewie’s levels are partly platforming, though, which has felt like blindfolded beer pong ever since the shift into three dimensions, but one particular section of extended vertical platforming escalates that to feel more like lobbing live chickens into oncoming go-karts…after a rousing match of beer pong.

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Most cut-away gags are played out as minigames and have about as much bearing on the plot as they do in the TV show. The manatees must have been having an off day.

But playing Family Guy Video Game! For a well-crafted interactive experience is like watching porn for dynamic and intricate characters. What really matters is the humor, and whether or not it matches the quality of the show. In a way, it does…and that way is that they clearly only got Seth MacFarlane and one or two other actors to reprise their roles, so most of the quips and one-liners are lifted verbatim from the TV show. So on one hand, it’s exactly the same as the TV show, and yet it somehow translates about as well as if someone ran it through two dozen different languages on Google Translate. Wait, actually, that could be pretty funny…

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Picture of Joe in the back to remind you how this glitch will cripple you permanently.

So far, this has been a particularly difficult review for me to write. In part it’s because my attention is split between job hunting, a perpetually hungry cat, a polar vortex that’s freezing Duluth to the point where my car won’t start and every time I try the key shatters in the ignition, and the trauma and disbelief over the fact that a few paragraphs ago I used the phrase “Metal Gear Solid meets Jerry Springer.” However, the biggest challenge in reviewing the game is that apparently in Peter’s second level, if you are killed by one of two policemen after the midway checkpoint, they do what policemen do best after shooting a black man (Peter Griffin: Husband, Father…Brother?): they move on with their lives. They don’t come back after you respawn. And since, in true beat-em-up fashion, you can’t move on with the level until you kill all the enemies, so you end up wallowing in an existential crisis between a porta-potty and an ice cream truck, left with nothing to do but kick the shit out of some kids and their moms. After their corpses are dead and rotting, you might amuse yourself by head-butting the truck, but eventually all you are left with is a headache, a pile of useless iron, and a few square meters of Quahog where you can do nothing but wander in circles, contemplating the inevitable need to end it all and wonder if there’s a new game in your future.

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This section looks like fun. Too bad I can’t play it.

So I suggest turning auto-save off right before you go into the porta-potty, or you might be stuck with the constant reminder that the game is shit. Otherwise, it’s not bad.

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Parasite Eve: The Third Birthday – PSP

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Okay, the gamer girl slobbering on an xBox controller wasn’t hot to begin with. Who signed off on Aya frenching the barrel of a gun?

Parasite Eve as a franchise has suffered a major identity crisis over the years. Once a strong, confident horror-themed RPG, in its rough teenage years she caved to peer pressure, trying too hard to fit in with the cool kids in the survival horror clique. So she dressed just like a Resident Evil game, did drugs (developed by Umbrella), showed off just enough skin to keep the boys interested, and severed all ties with her good friends, “breakthrough battle system” and “well-written plot.” And sure, we were all interested for a while, but then we realized she was just a poor imitation with nothing of her own to make her unique. Then in 2010, twelve years after the release of the original game, Square-Enix releases The Third Birthday. How has our old friend fared in the intervening years? Did she reconnect with her old interests and go on to lead a successful and productive life? Or is she running around, still acting like a teenager trying too hard to get the boys to like her? Take a wild guess.

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Excuse me…just have to wash up a bit.

Nothing like a really bad extended metaphor to open an entry, right? The problem is, Square has gone through a similar sort of identity crisis, distancing itself from all the dice-rolling fun of fantasy RPGs it enjoyed in the nineties and started producing games that more resemble Michael Bay’s 10-hour wet dreams than a game appealing to their traditional fan base. (Who would have thought that having my interests go mainstream would actually make me more of an outsider?) I can recover from that. The bright side? PS4s are expensive and now I won’t have to buy one. Unfortunately, they took Aya Brea, the only girl I loved in high school who didn’t try to push me down a flight of stairs, down with them. I played The Third Birthday with the intention of using it for an October entry, but it turns out the game has fewer horror elements than a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

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None of that “wiggle your big toe” coma shit! I’m getting my revenge now!

The story begins with Aya Brea, more than ten years after her last adventure, and follows her as steadily and coherently as a schizophrenic schnauzer after drinking a bottle of tequila. I tend to criticize games that require you to read the in-game encyclopedia in order to understand what’s going on. The Third Birthday lowers the bar even further as reading the files leaves you with more questions than when you started, and most of those questions fall on the lines of, “Did someone actually write this story, or did they just paste together scraps of paper from the dumpster behind the Call of Duty development team’s building?” It really does feel like everyone in the building was told they had fifteen minutes to write a paragraph from a paramilitary adventure, and when their time was up, whatever they had done was coded into the game. In order to get a rough feel for what’s happening, you have to finish the game. Only in the ending sequence does the Third Birthday give any semblance of actually having a plot, but because it plays the same scene about five times, each with alternative events, Square could have displayed the games coding and I’d have a better idea of what they were going for.

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You spend the entire game exterminating giant cockroaches.

As far as story is concerned, The Third Birthday passes Star Wars prequel level of bad, overtakes the Force Awakens easily, and heads right on into Matrix: Revolutions territory. The awkwardly charming Maeda from the first game is now a horny, giggling mad scientist, and you have to put up with the douche bag from the previous game as a major character. It contains all the standard Square-Enix tropes: a bad guy who turns out to be good, a good guy who stabs you in the back, and a fair amount of Judeo-Christian pseudo-symbolism with as much cogent meaning as a bag of scrabble tiles thrown into a wood chipper. But if you can ignore that, it makes for a pretty good action game. Coming off of Final Fantasy XIII the year before, Square was still high on its discovery of hallway-based gameplay, and hadn’t yet figured out that linear level design is about as likely to make a comeback as bell-bottoms, cod pieces, and the sheepskin jerkin. Aya moves from one room to the next, fighting monsters. She can pick up occasional “ammo recharge” items and can crouch behind small barricades, but can otherwise interact with the environment about as much as a polar bear trapped on an ice floe.

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Oh yeah. There’s this thing, too. They don’t really explain it and it doesn’t help much.

But while all of those seem to detract from the ability to have any fun in a game, The Third Birthday focuses entirely on Overdive combat. After stripping away any mention or implication of mitochondria from the game, Square gave Aya the ability to jump into the past by jacking into the Matrix, where she can spontaneously possess anyone around her like Agent Smith in a disintegrating tank top. The national guard is present for nearly all battles, and Aya can dive from one to another in order to exploit an enemy weakness, access a new area, or evade attacks. While dancing around, wearing these soldiers like a Halloween costume, she uses their health bar and has access to whatever special weapon they had equipped (a feature that can be exploited for extra ammo). If you don’t think too hard about Aya blood-bending these guys like an evil puppeteer, leading them into dangerous situations and then abandoning them to their deaths, this gives the game a fast-paced strategic element. You have plenty of combat options at any time, and the enemies fall just on the inside of being too difficult to enjoy. If I did have one complaint about the battle though, the guns hit the monsters with all the destructive force of a spit ball. No matter how fun the combat is, whittling down an enemy’s health by lobbing styrofoam packing peanuts at it takes a lot of time, which feels especially tedious in the more difficult battles. I would have been perfectly fine with enemies dealing more damage if it meant I could load my guns with something a little stronger than Nerf.

Lego Indiana Jones – PS2, PS3, Wii, XBox 360, NDS, PSP, PC

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I enjoy playing Lego games once in a while, but I could work with a metal detector, a team of bloodhounds, and ground-penetrating radar strong enough to take lewd photos of the earth’s core and I couldn’t find anything new to say about them. Indiana Jones would have trouble uncovering details that I’ve lost, and this review primarily focuses on him. Developer Traveler’s Tales found a formula that works. They recreate famous movie scenes with Legos. The player runs around collecting enough cash from dismantling the scenery to be dubbed “True something-or-other,” and throw in a fair dose of humor since they realize you can’t draw Picasso’s Guernica on a place mat with a box of Crayolas and expect art historians to publish articles about it for years to come. So for years they’ve been churning out the same products, a little bit stale, a little bit funny, but it’s something to do in the evening that hasn’t made me too sick yet. In that respect, the Lego series has much in common with McDonald’s.

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures attempts to send the player through poverty-stricken areas of India, Somalia and Texas for a sobering look at the economic crimes of the rich. Just kidding! It lets you play through Indiana Jones’ original adventures! Although I don’t know why they have to specify “original” adventures as, thank Kali, they never made any more than the three. I suppose they could be comparing it with the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but that pretty much faded into obscurity during the mid 90s, gone the way of Surge, Jncos, and those shoes with the lights that flashed every time you moved.

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To digress a bit, I’ve always wondered why, exactly, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull failed badly enough that South Park accused George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg of raping Indy. It has pretty much the same formula as the other films. Indy’s on a search for a magical macguffin with some divine significance—yes, maybe with so many legitimate, respectable religions in the world, picking the gods of anal probes and hallucinating rednecks may have somewhat detracted from the air of importance—and there are bad guys to beat to the chase, slightly comical action scenes, and a girl to win over in a way that looks James Bond look as charming as the guy who waits until last call to pick up the women everyone else rejected over the night. But maybe it is about the air of importance. Most Americans will understand the Ark of the Covenant, even if they’re not Christian, and the Holy Grail has literally become synonymous with something you desperately want to find. Maybe we don’t really know what a Sankara stone is, but rescuing enslaved children makes sense. Plus as soon as you see the cult leader rip out that dude’s heart and hold it up high as it bursts into flames (…while blaspheming the name of one of those legitimate gods I mentioned earlier), I think we pretty much establish he’s the bad guy and we want to take him down. Same thing with Nazis. Indy hates Nazis. Jake and Elwood Blues hate Illinois Nazis. Pretty much any person with an ounce of decency hates Nazis, so you don’t have to explain anything to people. Soviets, on the other hand…not as evil in retrospect. At this point in Indy’s life, it makes more sense for him to be fighting arthritis. And the skull of Beldar Conehead doesn’t seem like something that matters whether or not it falls into the wrong hands. Also, we never got a movie about an aging James Bond reuniting with the mother of one of doubtless dozens of children he’s fathered along his swath of destruction through the Cold War.

But back to the game…you punch things. As usual, the real objective in the game is to collect enough money to unlock characters to help find all the hidden items that, quite honestly, I stop caring about once the movie plots end. To be fair, you can punch them or whip them. Either way, when the scenery explodes and all that cash falls out, it feels pretty good. Not to mention the explosion sound it makes pretty much sums up the force required to separate Lego bricks. Other Lego games give certain characters innate abilities that help them progress through levels. While to some extent this game does that as well, you also have the option of picking up tools, like shovels, wrenches, guns, or books, and using them to interact with the environment. Or to launch a rocket at a Nazi. The problem in this mechanic lies in the fact that the button to pick up these items is the same as the one to use innate abilities. And Willie Scott’s innate ability is screaming to shatter glass. Often during The Temple of Doom, I found I simply had to switch characters if I needed to grab something or else I’d have to listen to Willie shrieking like a 12-year-old girl at a Justing Bieber concert while she ran around looking for just the right spot to pick up the item.

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Boss fights, as usual for Lego games, are so lame I feel comfortable diagnosing the game with advanced stages of muscular dystrophy. Since Lego combat tends to be as threatening and authentic as a trip to Taco Bell, nearly every major villain in the game seems to have attended the Monty Python school of battle. So each fight plays out like any girl I asked out in high school; they run safely out of reach, leaving me nothing to interact with but the room around me. Since most of the game consists of finding pieces and building things to progress, boss fights don’t really change up game play. The only difference is you have some prick standing by to laugh at you when you screw up. So yeah, exactly like dating in high school.

But really, whatever. It’s a Lego game. If you like Indiana Jones and other Lego games, you’ll get pretty much the same experience here. It’s fun. It’s cute. There are also a number of Star Wars cameos hidden throughout the game, including Luke frozen upside down in a wampa cave in Nepal. Which is good. Like I said before, you don’t want to take yourself too seriously

Disgaea: Hour/Afternoon of Darkness – PS2, PSP, NDS

GH_PS2CoverSheet10_06Despite only two weeks passing since my last entry, I haven’t written anything for nearly two months. Instead of spending my time playing video games like a good, responsible 32-year-old, I’ve been working backstage at our local production of 42nd Street, a show so bad that it literally tries to justify its lack of plot by telling the audience ”At least the girls are hot!” And while yes, they were, I’m not yet sure it makes up for working a 20+ hour a week job for no pay, being forced to listen to the same misogynistic songs with no relevance to the story. Really. The only character with any internal conflict in the whole show is the antagonist, who eventually decides that having an accomplished career on Broadway was simply holding her back from what she really wanted in life: a husband. Still, there’s a sunny side to every situation, and sitting through hour after thrilling hour of watching people exercise with metal shoes provides an excellent counterpoint to make a horrible, tedious, level-grinding RPG not seem as bad.

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Okay…so maybe it was a *little* worth it for the backstage costume changes.

Thankfully, there’s a PSP port of Disgaea, Nippon Ichi Software’s magnum opus, their lightning bolt of inspiration, which after it struck, they sequestered themselves in a rubber-lined mine shaft hoping for that lightning to strike again. Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, prince of the Netherworld, who wakes up after a short two-year nap to find out that his father, the Demon Overlord, has died, and that all his vassals are as eager to swear fealty to Laharl as if the ring they had to kiss had a raging case of herpes. Together with Etna, the one vassal who remains faithful to him only because she can’t double-cross him if he’s her enemy, they set off on a quest to build power and overcome all the rivals for the throne. But when he foils an assassination attempt by angel trainee Flonne, a character straight out of a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life written by Seth MacFarlane, she introduces the concept of love into his black heart and textbook creative writing class scenarios ensue. The story is simple. Character goes on quest, learns something about himself. No twists or turns. But it’s well written, has a cartoonishly dark sense of humor done in an anime inspired episodic format, and next to the plot of 42nd Street, Disgaea is Citizen Fucking Kane.

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NIS is so good at cramming things into small spaces, they’re permanently banned from Old Country Buffet

However, NIS seems to have interpreted the “Less is More” philosophy as meaning “Less story is more room for piling on additional, confusing gameplay mechanics.” In what has become NIS’s trademark move, they have patched together ideas from at least a dozen other games, resulting in something convoluted, yet intriguing. It’s sort of like buying a car with a lighthouse on the top—you don’t really understand it, but it gives you some options you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Unfortunately, none of these are thoroughly explained unless you buy the strategy guide, and you can’t even look them up on the Internet since the game doesn’t mention them at all, so you wouldn’t know about anything you could. For developers who want people to think their games are fun, tutorials should not require top-level governmental security clearances. Although for reference, even the American government managed to let information about Watergate, Monica Lewinsky and WMDs slip, and none of those existed for the purpose of enhancing an enjoyable experience (Well…maybe Lewinsky). Maybe NIS could give the government a few pointers..

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…I tried. I can’t come up with anything to say about this that’s funnier than anything anyone said about George Bush’s snack food assassination attempt.

That isn’t to say they’re bad features. In fact, for the most part, they bring a lot to the tactical RPG genre. Take geocrystals, for instance. Regions of tiles on battle maps are sometimes color-coded, and any crystal growing on that color tile imbues every tile of that color with its properties—sort of like “The floor is hot lava,” if certain regions could also be “the floor is bubbling acid,” “the floor is delicious ice cream” or “the floor will increase the chance that your masseuse will give you a happy ending.” This reminded me fairly strongly of the battle judges from Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, except I had the ability to change and manipulate the rules, if I went and stood on the hot lava anyway, I could just take the 20% damage without bringing the game to a halt, and I didn’t hate them more than the dog from Duck Hunt.

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I know my candidates have to have at least level 500 before I’ll vote for them.

Also, gone are the days of wandering from node to node hoping for a random battle encounter. In Disgaea, players can fight monsters in Item World, a randomly generated dungeon within items. Players can use this to upgrade item stats, collect stat bonuses to move freely from item to item, or simply to grind levels. Because why stop at level 99, when you could stop at level 9999? And why stop there when you could reset your characters to level 1 and do it all over again? I did have fun with Disgaea, but you might be able to guess that it’s a rather time-consuming game. In fact, I’ve put more hours into this than I have Fallout or Skyrim. My game timer is on 140 hours with only a small amount of the extra content touched. That’s almost six straight days—that’s enough to kill two Korean kids back-to-back! I don’t care what you’re doing for six straight days, it’ll get old. Ever go camping for six days straight? Once the moss takes root, you end up looking like Treebeard. For the less active readers, six days of sitting on the couch eating ice cream and…well, it’s not moss, but something will take root. Hell, you can’t have six days of sex. I’ve tried…you start to get sore after about an hour or two.

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When you need a full gross of characters to pick from. Because that one point of difference in attack will make or break the game.

Every thing in the game is designed for the purpose of raising your stats, which makes it easier to level up, which in turn allows you to raise your stats. It’s a mobius strip of grinding. And having so much variation in level just means you’re as evenly matched with the enemies as a rhinoceros on steroids versus a freshly baked apple turnover. Unfortunately, near the beginning of the game, Etna managed to strike a lucky shot against a supposedly unkillable monster, thus bumping her up about thirty levels (at which point, she rightly could have slain Laharl and spent the rest of the game as the overlord). From that point on, the game simply alternated between tedium of leveling up and the boredom of mowing through enemies. I haven’t even touched on some of the more interesting features of the game, like making proposals to the Netherworld senate, which allows you to bribe the senators—much like the American senate—and to “persuade by force” when they reject your proposals. There’s also a weird infusion of 1950s sci-fi about two-thirds of the way through the story. All of that was fun, but when I realized that I was really just having fun with a colorful GUI for Algebra, I thought I should move on to a new game.

Give it a shot, though, if you’ve got a week.

Getting back into the swing of this comedy thing after a few weeks off. Working on a book review, since those seem to be popular, and maybe one of these days I’ll get around to finishing my post on Luigi’s Mansion.

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.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Playstation 1, PSP, Sega Saturn

Fortunately, this time, you actually have a character and not just a spelled-backwards name.

Fortunately, this time, you actually have a character and not just a spelled-backwards name.

In the spirit of the approaching holiday, I’ve decided to visit some horror classics–other than Resident Evil. Yet, as last week’s Onimusha entry exemplifies, sending a fully armed character into a gauntlet of monsters who charge at him with the survival instincts of a depressed lemming don’t often contribute to a sense of dread in the player. As such, sometimes we overlook games belonging to the genre, despite, say, a gloomy castle setting, epic fight with death personified and a legendary vampire as the primary antagonist. Yes, the Castlevania series, originally a tribute to classic horror, may have spent its creative load and gathered together such an eclectic collection of anything vaguely monster-ish that it feels like remaking a Roman Polanski film with Mel Brooks (as an alternative joke, try “replacing Harvey Keitel with Harvey Korman”). Also, none of the monsters or levels may have ever scared me as much as the difficulty. However, it still has all the telltale details of horror; creepy castle, monsters, an antagonist who several characters refer to as a vampire, despite never biting a single neck. So while I can reasonably include it in the horror genre, and with Halloween next week, let’s examine Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, to see why everyone raves about this thing.

How to identify a vampire...well, he doesn't brood, sparkle, play awesome thunder baseball, chase teenage girls, or drive a volvo, so no. Keep looking.

How to identify a vampire…well, he doesn’t brood, sparkle, play awesome thunder baseball, chase teenage girls, or drive a volvo, so no. Keep looking.

First of all, a few weeks back I lamented the loss of 2-D Metroid games, asking where they went after Metroid Fusion. Well, I found them. They crash landed in Transylvania. Also, Samus traded her energy beam for a sword, her power suit for holy relics, and space pirates for horror monsters. Also, she became a guy. And half-vampire. And now she levels up. Symphony of the Night combines RPG elements with Metroid-style gameplay, meaning it connects with the previous Castlevania series only through a handful of characters and having the same number of dimensions.  The legendary half-human son of Dracula and long-time acquaintance of the Belmont clan, Alucard begins this game dashing toward the castle at an exciting pace. For some reason, he wants to get inside before nightfall.  At least, I assume he has a reason. Dracula hasn’t come back to life, Alucard doesn’t know anyone has planned a resurrection, and he doesn’t even know the identity of the castle’s lord. So he wants to get inside and slash up the joint because…angsty teens need to flout their fathers’ authority?

A reunion of four characters who, if you remember Castlevania III, never actually met each other, except for Trevor

A reunion of four characters who, if you remember Castlevania III, never actually met each other, except for Trevor

Lack of motivation aside, the game plays a lot like a hybrid of Metroid and Castlevania (thus earning the newer games in the series the oh-so-very-clevery term, “Metroidvania”). Rather than the level-by-level design, an unstated assumption in NES-era games, Dracula opted for an expansive, labyrinthine castle built with special architectural oddities–high ledges, platforms, spikes, etc–that prevent anyone from actually accessing any useful areas of the castle. Fortunately, he scattered enough relics to imbue any burgeoning vampire killers with the necessary superpowers to overcome these barriers. Thus Dracula ensures his own demise, but only by vampire slayers with creative problem-solving skills and enough patience, determination and mental instability to keep running circles through the castle, stabbing walls in hopes of finding a pot roast. Along the way, Alucard picks up a number of weapons, armor, capes, accessories and pot roasts, which augment his stats in addition to leveling up the old fashioned RPG way–repetitive monster murder.

Despite the innovative–well, for Konami, at least–game play, Symphony of the Night does retain one core element of earlier Castlevania games: whenever Alucard takes damage, he summons up all of his 300 years of teenage angst, taps his inner Mario, and hurls himself backwards with all the might of a melodramatic lemming caught in a wind tunnel. I realize that Konami includes this element as a challenge, that recovery from taking damage makes the game harder, but I feel like they’ve passed the limit with this mechanic. Often times when fighting a boss or, even more infuriating, the flying medusa heads, Alucard will hurl himself halfway across the screen until he hits the next enemy, which will launch himself in the opposite direction back at the first. On these occasions, I had no choice but to set aside the controller and simply watch the game bounce him back and forth like a tennis ball at the Wimbledon championship.

Cloud of noxious gas and monsters falling out of the sky...this picture needs no caption.

Cloud of noxious gas and monsters falling out of the sky…this picture needs no caption.

When he does manage to plant his feet on the ground, though, Alucard has more options at his disposal than the typical Belmont.  Rather than fighting like a plantation overseer, Alucard generally uses swords, which he finds throughout the castle. In abundance. In fact, not counting the one-time use throwing weapons, the game offers you over 70 different swords, rods or maces, ensuring that about 80% of the time when you discover a new weapon, it won’t have nearly the attack power as the one you already have equipped. Equally useless, you can buy magic spells that require Street-Fighter-like inputs to execute. One marked as “Heal HP by shedding blood,” seemed to have no effect than to slightly lower my MP–no blood shed required. I found that the standard jump-and-slash routine worked for all but the most difficult of bosses, so the spells function about as effectively as parrot feathers–very impressive but do nothing to enhance the flavor. By picking up relics in the castle, you also gain the ability to transform into vampirey things, like a wolf that can trot casually and bark at things, a bat that can fly until colliding with any particles floating on the breeze, or a cloud of mist which, once upgraded to a poison gas, allows the player to drift through the castle with the silence, deadliness, and physical appearance of a good, rancid fart.

He's one bad mother--shut yo' mouth!--I'm just talking about Shaft!

He’s one bad mother–shut yo’ mouth!–I’m just talking about Shaft!

Many games feature multiple endings, but Symphony of the Night offers the added bonus of denying half the game to you if you get the crappy ending. Dracula’s moonlit chamber, as well as the surprise boss fight, become available as soon as you take the little leathery training wheels off your bat wings. However, if you fight all the optional bosses in the first half of the game, get all the proper items and cut scenes, and interpret the riddle “wear in the clock tower” as referring to the long hallway filled with clocks (instead of the area outside Dracula’s chamber like in every other Castlevania game), you’ll get an artifact that lets you see the invisible demon possessing said surprise boss: Shaft! (Who is the thing that would resurrect his vampire king? Shaft! Can you dig it?) If you aim for Shaft, he’ll run off into the sky and summon a new castle. The game continues and Alucard has to fight his way through the same castle he just went through, only upside-down. I guess inverting the map made for easier work for the programmers.

So we fight a massive sphere of conglomerated corpses in a room that makes the Paris Catacombs look cheery...but we fight Dracula at the end? Have you no sense of escalation?

So we fight a massive sphere of conglomerated corpses in a room that makes the Paris Catacombs look cheery…but we fight Dracula at the end? Have you no sense of escalation?

While the first half of the game focuses on exploration and accessibility of new areas, the inverted castle hearkens back to the hack-and-slash roots of the series, where all you do is hunt down the new bosses to capture the relics of Dracula so you can face Shaft. And then Dracula. Here you fight dopplegangers of yourself, Trevor, Sypha and Grant (from Castlevania III), series favorite Death, Beelzebub, and a number of other monsters that would easily make a much more epic final boss than Dracula. Who, by the way, bears as much resemblance to a vampire lord as a xenomorph bears to Bill Nye.

I think, though, that Symphony of the Night deserves the hype it receives. While I usually think that including a character named “Alucard” represents a witticism long since dried up, set on fire, peed on, and then left to dry up again, they actually turned him into a real character with conflict and a beef with his dad, even if he didn’t really have a reason to show up at this castle in the first place. This game may even have a leg up on the original NES version on account of players actually having a chance to finish it. Barring the Resident Evil quality voice acting and a handful of demons that make kitty cat noises, they did enough to revitalize the series, resurrect Metroid, and then promptly use up all that new vitality on about seven thousands sequels.

Valkyrie Profile (Lenneth) – PS1, PSP

Freya Odin Lenneth
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria hit stores when I lived in Korea.  Square-Enix pulled off promotion after promotion advertising it, and this intrigued me–I hadn’t seen a video game advertised, really, since Nintendo wished to share exactly how “rad”; of a game it had produced. (After which, the world didn’t see a more egregious misunderstanding of rap until this.) The game looked wonderful, beautifully rendered, and epic.  I hadn’t heard of the original, but I knew I needed to play this game! So I bought it and played it, only to find out that Squenix had promoted the wonder, beauty, and epic-ness as a distraction from unrelenting difficulty due to bad gameplay mechanics, bugs, poor play control, and a storyline written by manatees.

“Have you played Valkyrie Profile 2?” I asked my friend Al later that year when I met him in Taiwan.
“Don’t,” he replied, several months too late to save me.

However, he did recommend the first game, so I immediately set out to find a copy.  And with equal expedience I placed it on permanent “wish list” status when I saw its price average at well over $100.  As you can imagine, although I hadn’t liked the sequel, I knew I needed to play this game!

A battle maiden limited by periods? Dear god, do they even think these things through before they translate?

A battle maiden limited by periods? Dear god, do they even think these things through before they translate?

Valkyrie Profile, which Square-Enix has re-released on the PSP as Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, tells a story based on Norse Mythology.  Odin finds out about the impending battle of Ragnarok, and needs warriors.  He and Freya call upon Lenneth, one of three Valkyrie sisters to go scour the corpses of Midgard for bodies he can stick on the front lines.  From there, depending on whether you chose easy, normal or hard mode, you get a certain amount of time, called periods, to zoom and soar over an oddly diverse continent, looking for people on the verge of death and dungeons to crawl through to train them.

One of Wagner's less-popular operas. Onis don't tend to live quite so far north.

One of Wagner’s less-popular operas. Onis don’t tend to live quite so far north.

The game has a few issues I need to point out.  Valkyrie Profile develops a story based on Norse Mythology in the same way that God of War develops a story based on differential calculus, Thoreau’s “Walden” and the Japanese Stock Exchange.  Yes, they both have something called a Valkyrie, and all the gods have the right names, but after an early scene that takes place in an old Norse . . . sushi restaurant, any semblance of viking culture stands out as coincidental, something that makes you stop and ask, “Hmm, how did that get there?”  In your first battle, you face off against a harpy, as if someone handed the game writers a copy of the Prose Edda and said, “We need monsters to battle! Find some for us,” and the writers looked up from playing Pokemon long enough to see a really hard book, put off doing the work until the deadline, then struggled to remember anything at all from learning about mythology in grade school. In fact, except for a bunch of dragon-esque looking monsters, I didn’t encounter a fight with a recognizable Norse beast until literally just before the final boss.

And here we have...a mermaid?

And here we have…a mermaid?

Next, while I don’t generally demand insightful character development from a story, it might be nice when a game has a title like, say, “Valkyrie Profile.”  “Interesting,” I say to myself.  “What might a Valkyrie have to face in her daily life? What conflicts might she encounter?  Could she face difficult challenges in fating people to die in battle? Or does she have self-image doubts because of waiting tables in Valhalla for a bunch of drunken einherjar?” Unfortunately, we don’t really see anything nearly so interesting.  Tri-Ace gave her character just enough depth to hold its head under until that final bubble of personality popped out of existence.  She delivers a cliched pre-ultimate-battle speech indicating some sort of epiphany, but the game provides us with no build up to indicate why this apparent character trait matters.  Furthermore, even though Freya introduces the Valkyrie to us as “Lenneth,” the majority of characters and even the menus refer to her simply as “Valkyrie,” a point best illustrated by one scene where an einherjar party member states, “Lenneth is Valkyrie’s real name?”

Kinky

Kinky

The entire story comes off as disjointed, really.  The search for einherjar entails using Lenneth’s Spider-Senses on the world map, then flying to an indicated town to collect a soul.  Once entering the town, the player watches an extended cut scene involving the doomed character, seeing a snippet of their life and the conflict that led up to their death. Usually. They forgot to actually kill off one character before he joins your party, but hey, we can just fill in the blanks, right? Maybe he got drunk and fell off his horse or wandered to close to a rampaging myna bird. Anyway, sometimes these cut scenes take forever.  Other times, we see a few disjointed clips, and then a death.  Then the einherjar joins your party and never says another word.

Also, while games offer unique applications of music and put a lot of good soundtracks into the world, I feel the world map sections missed their chance to let players fly a Valkyrie around the world to this song.

Did I mention you only get to move in two dimensions? But hey, the design looks great!

Did I mention you only get to move in two dimensions? But hey, the design looks great!

Similar to Silmeria, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth doesn’t feel satisfied with its difficulty level until it beats you until your characters have no internal support beyond a sack of bone meal and pated organs.  While at first I lamented the fact that Enix had seemingly duped me into grinding for yet one more game, I later realized the half-turn-based, half-real-time battle system actually innovated a non-level-focused brand of combat.  The game hands out experience like a disapproving politician, trying to punish you for your dependency on fighting monsters to level-up.  Instead, the player can win battles at a low level simply by preparing properly, using equipment and characters to their most efficient potential.  They didn’t accomplish this well, offering a muddled system for buying and selling (re: creating from and converting to divine energy) items, a menu that tells you nothing about what effects certain pieces of equipment will grant, and absolutely no indication that you should consider anything except grinding, but with some work, it might be a nice alternative to formulaic and repetitive RPG combat.

But believe me, it needs work. Badly.  Magic, while clearly overpowered, more than compensates for that by requiring excessive wait periods between casting spells.  Characters charging their magic can attack for a small amount of damage if they’ve learned the ability to summon a familiar, but can’t so much as use an item to heal in the interim. I found three mages in a party can make it pretty easy to plow through enemies, but you really need this many to use magic effectively.

The game found an interesting way to increase replay value.  Rather than shooting for ending A, B, or C and then looking up the other two on youtube when you finish, Valkyrie Profile actually sends you along alternate story paths based on the decisions you make, leading to more or less of Lenneth’s personal story, and the game culminates in alternate final dungeons with alternate final bosses which lead to the three alternate end-game cut scenes and credits.

RetroArch-0909-035901Oddly enough, despite the shallow story, sloppy menus and item system, broken battle mechanics, disjointed story, and complete lack of direction, I actually didn’t hate playing this game.  Yes, I know I forgive RPGs more easily than they deserve, but after finishing Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, I feel tempted to play Silmeria again, and I know I didn’t enjoy that game.  It surprised me, because objectively I shouldn’t have enjoyed this game. But somehow I did, and I do acknowledge the value in playing this game.  I wouldn’t buy the game for $100, but it does have some value to it.

Coming soon, look for articles on Perfect Dark and Resident Evil: Deadly Silence.  I may actually play through Silmeria, in which case I’ll probably drop off the map for a while.  GRE coming up, plus long games equals I hope you’ll remember to check back every few weeks for an update. Thanks for reading!