South Park: The Stick of Truth – PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One

Kupa Keep
The world of RPGs is in dire peril. The once-noble Square-Enix has abandoned its loyal subjects and now appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sacrificing gameplay, story and style, they have heaped enough muscles onto their protagonists that each one qualifies as its own Olympic wrestling team and armed them with enough firepower to give the NRA spontaneous orgasms. Meanwhile, Nippon-Ichi floods the market with games written as though someone had copy-pasted a bunch of fan fiction pdf files and didn’t notice that the formatting fucked up. These games consist of one bombardment of verbal diarrhea after another that connect repetitive and clunky battle systems that work as well as an NES with broken connector pins…after someone threw it into the Grand Canyon. Bethesda offers us reprieves with an occasional Fallout or Elder Scrolls title, but these come only slightly more frequently than a nun and have so many bugs that the games require heavy fumigation. But in our hour of need, two warriors emerge from the darkness, standing tall over everything we’ve lost. Armed with nothing but their wits, a love for RPGs, and a virtually unlimited amount of financial support based on the success of a major TV series running for nearly two decades, Trey Parker and Matt Stone stepped forward to give us their role-playing masterpiece, South Park: The Stick of Truth.

Homeless

Beat up the homeless so they leave town. If South Park doesn’t have homeless people, they’ll look more compassionate.

The game gives you control of The New Kid, also known as Douchebag, who arrives in South Park just in time to be swept up in a long-term game between Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, that more resembles a minor gang war than a 4th grade playtime. Cartman leads the humans as the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK), who possess the Stick of Truth, the most macguffiny macguffin ever conceived for fiction. Whoever controls the Stick, they say, controls the universe. You’d think that control of the universe would include the power to keep the KKK’s rival faction, the Drow Elves, from stealing the Stick. But of course that’s the first thing that happens, giving Douchebag the impetus to begin his quest.

Cartman

The Grand Wizard of the KKK, using fire to smite his foes.

It’s sad for me to say this, but a game that lets you fart into your hand and throw it at enemies is better than anything that Square-Enix has put out in at least ten years. But it happens. Frequently, actually. Because parodies have to be so tuned into the tropes, characteristics, and weaknesses of their genre, they often become paragons of what they’re mocking. When I first saw the Venture Bros., I felt like re-watching Johnny Quest, only to find out the series developed plot less than an episode of Scooby Doo and oozed enough racial superiority to bleach the Klan’s linens. I’ve read that Parker and Stone are huge fans of classic RPGs, which goes a long way to explaining why so many elements that frustrate players don’t appear in Stick of Truth. Random battles happen only enough to stay interesting, and the type of enemies vary enough that you don’t get into the standard RPG pattern of taping down the X button and going outside to mow the lawn. Many games use backtracking like a bra—the padding makes it look bigger and better, but once you strip if off you’re left with a deep-seated disappointment. Stick of Truth, on the other hand, has a fast travel service, but I found myself opting to walk across the map because it had enough interesting things going on in the background. But this begs the question, if the South Park creators know what players want because they are fans of RPGs, what exactly do full-time game developers do for fun?

Class

The game focuses heavily on story and plays like an extended episode of South Park. Playing to their strengths as writers, Parker and Stone have found new and interesting ways to incorporate their brand of humor that should have gone stale in 1998. They do avoid their usual satirical style, most likely so that the game has a shelf life longer than grocery store sushi, but do rely heavily on social media trends like Facebook and Twitter. They also center a quest around Al Gore’s search for Manbearpig, their rather embarrassing comment on climate change denial, but I can forgive this. Like drunken antics at a college party, we can look back and admit something might not have been a good idea, but was still funny as hell.

Butters

If there’s one complaint I have about the game—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s the overly complicated fart mechanics. Trying to pass its gas off as a magic system, farting works more akin to Skyrim’s dragon shouts. Each of the four flatulent skills you learn requires a specific combination of inputs with the right and left control sticks. Holding the right stick in the down or up position allows you to change direction, tune a frequency, or steer with the left control stick, and you can let rip your attack, unleashing chemical warfare in the form of deadly gases, by changing direction with the right stick at the right moment. Farting in the Stick of Truth demands precision, the type you need to throw a hadouken fireball while tuning radio dials, adjusting rabbit ear antennas, and filing your taxes all at the same time. Fortunately, the game only requires you to fart in one or two battles, and it’s a lot easier to do it on the map, so I didn’t have to worry.

Fart

Yup. This is happening. And it’s a GOOD game, remember.

There are other problems, to be sure. The game feels too short, and a little sparse on available quests. You have companion characters to use in battle, the four main stars, Butters and Jimmy, but halfway through the game, they kind of peter out and don’t help much in battle other than to use items. But that problem corrects itself by making the game progressively easier as you learn how to use the battle system, eliminating most of the challenge even on the highest difficulty setting. But still, I can’t praise this game highly enough. It shows us what PS3 era RPGs could have been, if only game developers weren’t sitting around like corporate monkeys, throwing their feces at traditional players in hopes of selling something to any moron with an xBox and a copy of FIFA 2013. The industry’s behavior almost sounds like an episode of South Park…

Summons

Advertisements

Brandish – SNES

RetroArch-0730-053208

In the same way that getting shot develops an ability to withstand bullets.

I suppose I commonly stretch the definition of “retro” on this blog. A lot of what I review isn’t retro at all; Wii, PS3…books. Honestly, I’m starting to feel like a myopic hipster, clinging to the good old days of blackberries and flip phones and rejecting the ever-so-trendy man-bun-lumbersexual look in favor of coiffing my hair to resemble a freshly frosted cupcake / toothpaste advertisement / steaming dog shit resting atop my head. The point being, if I’m trying to reach into the past while only grabbing things I can reach from the couch, I’m doing it wrong. In my defense, it’s easier to go out and buy games for the Wii or the PS3—much in the same way it’s easier to buy an iPhone than a hand-cranked Victrola—but I have to remember my roots periodically so as not to get carried away. One root to remember involves an SNES game I rented one weekend in high school and completed 75% before I had to return it. Well, it may have taken me nearly two decades to get around to it, but I finally finished the SNES…uh, classic?…Brandish.

RetroArch-0729-130001

…I don’t know. It might be worth it to let her catch me.

An adventure RPG, Brandish opens with a story of a greedy king transformed into a monster before the powers that be decide to punish all the innocents in the kingdom (No, I’m not talking about a Trump presidency) by burying the entire land deep in the earth. And then everyone forgets about it, so really, have we lost anything? I mean, if New York were to vanish off the face of the planet, you can bet that even Texas would put that in their textbooks until doomsday. South Dakota, on the other hand, could be gone already and none of us would know about it for decades. Thousands of years in the future (in Brandish, not Dakota), the player-character, Varik, is being chased by Alexis, a blond sorceress wearing traditional high-level fantasy armor who wants to kill him for “destroying [her] teacher,” a plot point that ends up as thoroughly as the rationale behind making a Tetris movie. Their fight opens up a hole in the ground and the two fall to the deepest point of a 45-floor labyrinth, fortunately avoiding impaling themselves on all those high-level monsters and…you know…floors…closer to the surface. Because damn it, that’s how this works!

RetroArch-0730-011809

Fuckin’ sphinxes. They’re like rats, infesting the labyrinth and leaving their “riddles” all over the place for you to step in.

Varik then proceeds to explore his way to the surface through a top-down perspective, and before I go any further, I need to address something. You may notice upon taking your first steps, that you can only move forward and backward, and that any attempts to turn left or right induce a nauseating change of scenery. Well, apparently the developers couldn’t be bothered to animate sprites for moving side-to-side or toward the player. I guess rather than change direction, it was easier to make the entire map rotate 90 degrees to one side. Fortunately, when the mighty dragon sunk the kingdom, he installed a few ball-bearing casters so the residents wouldn’t have to worry about silly things like turning. There’s a reason no other game has controls that fucked up; it’s because people who think like that can’t make it to work because they get stuck at intersections waiting for the road to turn. Congratulations! You took tank controls, a design scheme that frustrates players by making them feel like they’re guiding a drunken sorority girl to the bathroom to puke, and simulated the puking experience for the player as well. It turns out that the game is a port of a computer game from 1991, so that may have had something to do with it, and I did figure out that you could strafe from side to side by holding L or R. Still, developers, can we just consider “character moves in direction pushed on D-pad” to be both public domain and a mechanic that doesn’t need improvement? Anything weirder than that, and players are going to accept it about as well as a Neo-Nazi at an NAACP convention.

RetroArch-0729-125835

What do you mean there’s no ethnic diversity in fantasy? That dragon clearly has a Cthulu somewhere in his family tree.

Beyond that—but don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty significant “that”–I’d say Brandish could be considered a hidden gem for the SNES. It does get a lot of things “right” for the genre; labyrinth full of monsters, useful items and magic, challenging yet logical puzzles, and a surprisingly healthy system of commerce for a lost civilization full of vicious bloodthirsty monsters and a handful of shop keepers. The gameplay centers around making your way through the labyrinth, but every floor manages to find some unique feature to introduce, so even though my eyes wound themselves together like a case of testicular torsion in my head, I never felt the game was slow-paced or repetitive. It was kind of like being in the movie Labyrinth. Except the labyrinth is underground. And there aren’t any muppets. And Sarah is replaced with a man in armor. And David Bowie is actually a Lovecraftian monster that shoots fire from his…let’s go with “appendages,” and Hoggle is a fiery, magic-wielding sex kitten…okay, so it’s nothing like Labyrinth. But it has a nice, adventurous feel to it nonetheless.

Some boss fights are hellishly difficult, a problem augmented by the fact that all the swords you find seem to be forged with the highest quality peanut brittle, and a lot of monsters are either resistant to magic, or it outright slides off of them like they’ve been heavily varnished. The game offsets this by allowing you to save whenever you like. I recommend you save often, but even with the best of precautions, be prepared to become as familiar with the logos and title sequence like a pole is with a stripper’s thighs.

RetroArch-0730-032724

“How is the game?” “Lobsterrific!”

The one other aspect of this game that irritates me like a pair of boxers made from the prickly side of Velcro strips is the menu interface. The select button opens the menu, which freezes certain functions like attacking or defending. The game keeps going to let you do things like cast magic or drink health potions without needing to equip the item, but at certain critical moments when your skin is bursting at the seams and you’re about to spill messy innards all over the floor, you may literally not be able to go on unless you drink that potion. I may be spoiled by all those other games where the monsters take their legally mandated 15-minute break whenever you call a time out to root through your sack of accumulated crap, but I find it just downright rude if an enemy doesn’t shut off the flame thrower long enough for me to rub on some burn ointment. Even more obnoxious are level-up text boxes. These things will pop up whenever you gain a level, increase your arm strength or your knowledge, or improve your magic endurance. And it also disables certain functions until it goes away. I really do believe it’s important to celebrate the small things in life, but honestly I’d rather wait until the giant lobster I’ve been hacking to pieces is wounded enough to lose consciousness (at the lest) before I raise a glass in a toast to my newfound ability to not feel quite as bad when giant lobsters remove my kidneys.

RetroArch-0729-130619

Uhh…do you really have to look at me that way when you say that?

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.

In The Money

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.

Dis1

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..

Dis2

…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.

Dis3

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.

Dis4

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.

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.

Cross Edge – PS3

Cross Edge

The only exciting thing about this game is the artwork on the box.

Video game boxes used to tell you something about the games. Flip it over and it’ll describe gameplay, give you a short synopsis of the story, or at the very least throw you a bone as to what genre the game belonged to. Now the boxes treat details about their content like I’ve tied them to a chair and I’m trying to torture military secrets out of them. When I heard that Cross Edge was an RPG, hard-to-find, and good, I pictured something like Lunar:The Silver Star Story Complete. So when the game’s opening cut scene played exciting music over what is, as best I can tell, a slide show of things they found on Deviant Art, the epic immensity of the game before me overwhelmed my tiny RPG-loving heart until I couldn’t contain myself, and I stared at the parade of character art and couldn’t help but shout out, “Who the hell are all these people?”

Stretching back to the days of the PS2, PS1 and even into the SNES, RPGs were a big affair. Games like Earthbound, Valkyrie Profile, and .hack 4 still sell, and I only have to skip heating my house for one month in the winter to afford them (one of them). Unfortunately, the same genre on the PS3 has become homogenized to the point where if a game wasn’t an anime RPG with a conglomeration of sexy characters with no distinguishing features on the box art, it would stand out like Snoop Dogg at a Bavarian polka fest. The only difference for Cross Edge is that by amassing 30 characters from a variety of different games, you couldn’t fit them all in a Japanese subway car, let alone a single piece of box art.

Yes, a crossover game that scoured the PS3 for enough playable characters to qualify for statehood, Cross Edge does so many things wrong that I want to send it to one of those prisons where they’ll chain it to a heavy iron ball and make it break rocks all day to think about what it did. The premise involves all these characters waking up with a severe case of CPDA (Cliched Plot-Device Amnesia) in a world full of monsters and pre-rendered backgrounds with not much else around except the existential question as to why anyone would want to play a game with less in it than the space between earth and Alpha Centauri. Occasionally, the player will find a story event or a “save point,” (which, because you can save anywhere outside a dungeon, actually has more in common with a standard RPG town, albeit occurring on a single screen with a generic pre-rendered background) but you must literally search for them, examining a small portion of the world map at a time, hoping something will appear. Because God knows I play video games because I have a penchant for pushing a button every five seconds for hours at a time.

cROSS eDGE5

The RPG equivalent of the “Can you hear me now?” commercial.

The game tries to sell itself on having a cast that could easily be mistaken for an anime convention, but that turns out to be one of its largest flaws. With so many characters on screen competing for lines of dialogue, each scene plays out like the voice actors each picked out random lines from a drunken Sarah Palin rant, resulting in less coherency than a conversation between an alzheimer’s patient and a stroke victim. Even the gameplay mechanics suffer with such a large cast. Games like the PS1 Final Fantasies gave you 6 to 8 characters, and let you have half of them in your party at any given time. Imagine six people in a jacuzzi trying to level up the water. Even with a small bucket, you can fill that thing within a few hours. But when you need a pool large enough for 30 people and the game doles out exp with an eyedropper, you’re going to be filling it for weeks, and by the end someone is bound to have a yeast infection.

Cross Edge2

Compelling dialogue revealing information that is not at all superficial or irrelevant to the story!

Myriad flaws plague this game, such as the control scheme which is, as best I can describe, dyslexic button mapping. Nothing is intuitive. The triangle button opens the main menu unless in battle when you use the start button although if you select a healing spell a different menu will open up and you can find an abbreviated menu if you press up or down on the left control stick. In different places you can cycle through characters using the R and L buttons, the left and right D-pad buttons, or maybe the up and down D-pad. In those latter situations, the other buttons on the D-pad might cycle through menu options, or they may reset the digital clock by your bed.

Cross Edge3

Set your own formation in a crapshoot of targeting options!

They also charge enough to resurrect characters to make me ask about an in-game health insurance plan. If the game is stingy on exp, then the way it awards money might qualify it to be the protagonist of next year’s TV Christmas specials. But that’s fine, because the game will gladly let you go into debt to bring your characters back to life. I’ve never been worried about a video game coming to break my knees if I couldn’t pay it, but I guess it serves as a good lesson on economic oppression; if you couldn’t afford the weapons and armor to survive before, you sure as hell aren’t going to survive while in debt unless you go back to the beginning of the game (unless that’s where you’re dying) and work for less than minimum wage for longer than anyone should ever have to “play” a game. You heard it here first; Cross Edge is why we need Bernie Sanders.

But easily the biggest flaw with this coffee-table coaster reject is the battle system. [Deep breath] Where do I begin? In addition to all of those problems mentioned before, Cross Edge uses a battle system more difficult to understand than college physics–a claim easily supported by comparing the grades on my transcript with the grades the game assigns at the end of each fight. It requires learning a combination of a grid system, equipping and leveling up skills, juggling nearly a dozen different skill types, chaining attacks, learning which attacks ban be chained, finding the right combination of prerequisites to activate special attacks, following three different “break” gauges for all combatants, finding just the right place to stand on a grid system that will allow your character to use the attacks, dealing overkill damage to enemies to make them drop items, leveling up your equipment, and…I don’t know. Honestly, I think I missed some things in there.

Cross Edge 4

The visual assault of the interface is the only combat you’re likely to see.

It plays as though they took all the rejected features from all the games featured in Cross Edge and threw them together just for the sake of using them up, as if next year they wouldn’t get the same budget for combat ideas if they had too many lying around. The tutorial they give you for this mulligan stew of combat mechanics might make for a good fortune cookie message, and they throw it all at you at the beginning of the game without so much as saying, “Oh by the way, about three quarters of these features won’t be accessible until five hours or more into the game.” Combine that with the “cat jumped on the keyboard during button mapping” control schema, and I spent probably a total of an hour on menu screens thinking I was doing it wrong. I didn’t like Resonance of Fate, but to its credit it offered an in-game textbook for me to study up on. Cross Edge barely has anyone who can give a rough explanation on the entire fucking Internet.

I look at games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Valkyrie Profile and think, “The only reason I hated them the first time through was because I didn’t know how to play them correctly.” And ever since then I’ve insisted on finishing games, giving them the benefit of the doubt, shouldering all the blame myself like I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. And while I did like those two games, I really can’t say the same thing for anything else. I can excuse the PS1 level graphics that other critics have whined about. I don’t even mind the conversations being told via pre-drawn character art like an NDS game. But playing a game that makes me track more names than a George Martin novel, taking place in a large vacuous world with a story not even good enough to use as a sleep aid and requiring hours of study before I even can figure out how to play the game…let’s just say I have a shelf full of games vying for my attention, and I won’t deny them that out of a stubborn refusal to abandon this travesty.

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.

Heroes of Mana – NDS

Heroes_of_ManaMy latest foray into addictive time-killers is Angry Birds: Fight, which has glued me to my phone every time I get two minutes not immediately filled with something stimulating and exciting. Like many free-to-play games, it offers me rewards and bonuses if I consent to watching ads that try to pitch more free-to-play games which will inevitably offer me more chances to watch videos pitching more free-to-play games until they’ve saturated my time so badly that we repeat the 1983 video game crash while everyone on earth stares at their phones in wonderment of games that could be way more awesome than the games they’re currently playing. Alas, as much as I’d love to bemoan the commercialized state of affairs of modern gaming, the game industry has historically been as all-about-the-art as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. (Low-hanging comedy fruit, I know.) If you don’t believe me, pick out your favorite franchise, and ask yourself how reasonable it is that the in-game world undergoes drastic geological cosmetic surgery from one installment to the next. Sadly, the evidence that developers slap franchise names on games to help them sell stacks up like a life-sized Jenga tower, ready to crumble under its own weight and concuss you with its logs of disappointment.

 

If I could brand any game as such a “log,” Heroes of Mana would be a prime candidate. The game brands itself as an RTS, and while I have no qualms with the “RT,” I have one or two suspicions about the accuracy of the “S.” Set in the Seiken Densetsu…category on amazon…Heroes of Mana uses monster design from Secret of Mana and themes from other Squenix failures in development at the same time. Otherwise, the game plays less like a Mana game and more like a (very) rough draft of Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings using Mana artwork.

 

Heroes 2The story…well, they say if you put a bunch of monkeys in a room hacking on typewriters, they’ll eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Assuming that’s true, the monkeys will produce the Heroes of Mana story long before they ever crank out something mildly resembling a sonnet. Roget, first mate of the Night Swan, his captain Yurchael, and an assortment of poorly written anime stock characters (including such favorites as eternally optimistic cutsey girl and grim mercenary with a conflicted past) crash in the wilderness after realizing their own leaders set them up. Why they villains fitted the Night Swan with a mafia-esque car bomb, the game never really explains, but that fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as our intrepid heroes vow to halt the evil they suddenly assume must exist. Blah blah blah, plot lines in and out, a character who gets his ass creamed like chicken soup every time he shows up but somehow manages to inspire fear in the heroes, convolution at its finest, more characters than a story really needs to follow over the course of 27 battles…and one of the monkeys writing this thing must love cliches, because near the end they pull a Luke-I-am-your-father moment, which Roget (and the players) shrug off with a hearty disinterest. In the end, nothing is accomplished. Evil may have retreated, but no one knows or cares why, and the player moves on to story that makes more sense, like Moby Dick, or the United States Tax Code.

 

Heroes 5

This RTS game gives you multiple ways to strategically send all of the same type of monster at your enemies.

The gameplay follows a typical real-time strategy format, as long as that strategy is “select characters, attack enemy.” Units have a four-way rock-paper-scissors (rock-paper-scissors-lizard?) relationship going on, with a handful of units existing outside that structure. Ranged deals double damage to flying, flying deals double to heavy ground units which deal double to light ground units, and each time they introduce a new type of unit, the game puts you through the entire explanation again because when it comes to rock-paper-scissors, you have the brain of a goldfish, but when it comes to following the story, you are Albert Einstein performing a Vulcan mind-meld with Sherlock Holmes. Disregarding tutorials more repetitive than the ones from Dora the Explorer, I initially thought the four-way relationship sounded interesting. Unfortunately that all falls apart when trying to decide which units to purchase with your finite resources, as there’s no way of determining what type of unit your enemies are; just because they don’t stand on the ground doesn’t mean they’re flying units, and the fact that they can hit you from three squares away doesn’t qualify them as ranged. Heroes of Mana is just a dimmed DS screen away from being both literally and figuratively a stab in the dark.

 

Like Revenant Wings, you summon monsters to do your dirty work for you. The monsters don’t level up, but you get stronger ones as the game progresses. You also have a separate party of “leader” units, consisting of the fifteen characters seen in the story, all of which interact with Roget for a battle or two, then join your party and shut the hell up like a good subordinate tag-along. These characters don’t level up either, but you can win equipment in battle to boost their stats (naturally giving all of it to the same five characters who seem mildly more interesting than all the rest),  which makes as much difference in the long run as giving yourself a concussion to raise ALS awareness, because you’ll never take them anywhere near the fighting, since losing the main character results in an instant game over.

 

But even holding back characters like that is not a guarantee that they won’t charge headlong into the melee with their lone hit point ablazing. Of all the virtues of the NDS, screen size is not one of them, and trying to select characters, pathways or enemies to attack has all the finesse of a figure skater with the motor skills of an infant. Furthermore, since friendly characters refuse to step to one side of their square or to do that awkward thing people do in movie theatres and on airplanes where they try to make themselves as skinny and flat as possible to let people through, pathways get blocked easily, leaving the AI to take the scenic route around the battlefield, detouring right through the enemy camp. Even without clogged roadways, the AI has the IQ of George W. Bush with his head stuck in a plastic bag, often sending peaceful resource-gathering monsters on roundabout ways past hostile enemies, or telling dying characters to get three or four more parting shots in before retreating from the enemy currently making haggis out of your bowels.

 

Heroes 4

Precision tuned to let you follow all the action with only moderate permanent damage to your visual accuity.

There is one more feature to combat, summoning benevodons (the latest in asinine wordplay added to the World of Mana) to damage every enemy on the map. These are impressive attacks with exciting animated cutscenes that you will never use nor see (respectively) because they take up so much of your resources that in most battles you’ll never collect enough for the summoning. I pulled them off once or twice, mostly out of necessity rather than choice, and they all have pretty much the same effect, making them another nice attempt, but ultimately pointless addition to the game.

 

As usual, I like to include a “but the game’s not worthless!” section here. I did enjoy the game for all its flaws, and preferred in infinitely over Children of Mana, released at roughly the same time (and featuring the lame benevodon and malevodon wordplay…which mean “good tooth” and “bad tooth” respectively). As mentioned before, it reminded me of a draft version of Final Fantasy: Revenant Wings, so if you liked Revenant Wings…go replay that game instead of Heroes of Mana.