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

RetroArch-1101-224326

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Evil Dead: Hail to the King – PS1, Dreamcast

Evil Dead Annie

Halloween inspires people to act like idiots. As far as holidays go, this one takes root and festers in more people than almost every other holiday.  It creates almost as many idiots as Thanksgiving, which exists to bring entire extended families together in a single house until they remember how much they hate each other and the courts have to debate the grayer areas of the definition of “premeditated.” All the while, it tries to recall Halloween’s suggestions for the more creative uses for a bread knife, can opener and turkey baster.  But while all the family holidays bulge with volatile anger, the horror-themed holiday pushes people to a different kind of idiocy. Namely, filming barely scripted movies on their iPhones, hoping to produce the next Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, and forcing the courts to debate the grayer areas of the definition of shit. Since Anne likes to burn through these movies like a chain smoker on a lunch break, I’ve seen more of them than I’d care to, but since Halloween demands my attention year-round, I thought I’d discuss one of the most horrific aspects of life on earth just shy of the GOP platform: a movie adaptation video game.

Bad Ash Evil DeadOkay, so strictly speaking I can’t call Evil Dead: Hail to the King an adaptation. It acts more like the Army of Darkness sequel that will never happen. Set eight years after Ash returns to his normal life–also the number of years between the last movie and the game’s release–the iconic swaggering hero still suffers from nightmares stemming from his cabin vacation. His new girlfriend, Jenny, suggests he conquers his post-traumatic stress disorder by facing his fears and returning to the cabin. You know, much in the same way that sending soldiers back into active combat or raping a rape survivor will cure them of their PTSD. Naturally, when they arrive at the Knowby cabin, Ash’s evil hand shows up, plays the professor’s recording of him playing the literary version of “Bloody Mary,” and all hell-on-earth breaks loose. Bad Ash jumps out of a mirror, kidnaps Jenny, then vanishes. Ash has to collect five pages from the Necronomicon. Begin.

If you didn’t see the films, that may not have made sense to you, but from a series seemingly written by an alzheimer’s patient with ADHD, Evil Dead has never really cared much for continuity. Hardcore fans will enjoy walking through the familiar layout of the cabin, swinging the chainsaw, maybe even wandering out back to the work shed. But after the first few minutes, you venture out into the surrounding woods. Which, as it turns out, have a much higher population density than the movies suggested. The pages have scattered around a moonshiners’ cabin, a boy scout camp ground, and a church, all within a few minutes’ walking distance from the isolated setting where the cast of the films had no hope of reaching civilization.

They're coming to get you, Barbara.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara.

You hardly venture a few steps from the starting point when the first monster attacks. Excellent! Monsters! The one thing that would make an excellent game adaptation, right? Well, the first monster rises up out of an interdimensional portal on the floor. Floating just off the ground, you come face to face with a flying torso ghost thing. Because who could forget, right? All those torso ghosts that Ash…hacked with an axe…in the movies? Get used to it. Johnny-haunt-lately here becomes the basic enemy for the game. The goomba. The octorok. The met (hard hat, for those of you unfamiliar with Mega Man nomenclature). Fortunately, fighting them almost never pays off, so if you can figure out how to run (with the ever-so-intuitive R1 button), you’ll live much longer. Otherwise, the game’s combat feels less like a system and more like trading blows. You stand facing it and hit it with either your ax or your chainsaw like a post-modern Green Knight, and the monster stands there and slices off your head like Sir Gawain. All in all, fighting one of these things usually takes about three minutes and five health items. They don’t go down easily. Sure, you get guns later on, but the game limits ammo and has no mechanic for aiming, so you just have to point yourself in the general direction and hope for the best. Early in the game, most enemies leave health items when they die, but this has all the effect of getting a box of band aids and an enema from the guy who gives you ebola.

Now if only I had some alternative way of getting through this door...

Now if only I had some alternative way of getting through this door…

So having mentioned the absurd play control, I should point out that Hail to the King shoots for the survival horror genre, imitating Resident Evil like an obnoxious little brother. It keeps all the most exciting moments, but skips over the finer details that actually make for a finely-tuned sort of stressful experience. Ash gathers items that he uses to open up new areas. Usually it doesn’t take much effort to figure out how to use them. The map for the game doesn’t have nearly as many locations as even RE’s Spencer mansion, so often you’ll find your keys right under the mat. Still, you need a few leaps of faith to bypass the usual flaws in survival horror puzzling; Ash approaches the door to the hellbilly cabin. “I can’t get in! The lock doesn’t open from this side!” I almost had to put down my ax and take off my chain saw arm so I could relax enough to figure out how to get in. (Rest assured, when I do an article on Silent Hill 2, I will say something about how James can’t reach the key on the other side of the bars, but doesn’t think to use his monster-whacking stick.) At the very least, I felt justified in playing this game if not for one puzzle near the end, which said, “A complex scale used to measure the specific gravity of six nearby materials.” Thankfully, the powerful cliche keeping the door locked proves no match for Ash’s (finally) direct problem solving approach–he blasts the scale with his shotgun and the door opens.

Fuck that shit. Finally I get to use my weapons creatively.

Fuck that shit. Finally I get to use my weapons creatively.

While it plays like an uninspired rough draft of Resident Evil that rushes you from boss fight to boss fight like it had a moral objection to down time, Bruce Campbell’s Ash saves Hail to the King from the piles of utter failure. The story revolves around a series of excuses for his swaggering, Army-of-Darkness bravado to take over, and the player even has a button dedicated to firing off taunting quips at the enemies. Bad sequels tend to rehash the same jokes, putting out more fan service than plot. If this game got one thing right, they built new dialogue around an existing character, and naturally Campbell knows how to bring out the finer nuances of cocky cynicism that turned Ash into the Beowulf of low-budget horror.

Oh yeah. They send him to Damascus. Did I mention he spends all of disc two in Damascus? Because that makes sense.

Oh yeah. They send him to Damascus. Did I mention he spends all of disc two in Damascus? Because that makes sense.

This game takes the trophy for biggest disclaimer I’ve ever attached to a recommendation. “You should play this game…if you really liked Army of Darkness or Evil Dead 2…and you didn’t have to pay much for it…and you don’t have access to a Resident Evil game…or Onimusha.” Despite its blandness, it plays well enough, and you can run through the whole thing in a few hours due to its boss-rush design, so it doesn’t require much of a commitment, and I do sometimes lament the fact that they don’t make any Mega Man-length games anymore. But if you have the choice this weekend, opt to see the Evil Dead musical instead.

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.

Final Fantasy VII – Playstation, PC

Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Koudelka – PS1

Many Victorian women preferred to wear bondage corsets as tops.

Many Victorian women preferred to wear bondage corsets as tops.

When Hiroki Kikuta, composer for Secret of Mana, left Square to found his own game company, he wanted to produce something fast-paced, exciting and dark, citing Resident Evil as his inspiration.  The developers working for him at Sacnoth, however, wanted something more like Final Fantasy and other games being released by Squaresoft.  I enjoy cross-genre works.  They take bits of the familiar and twist it into something fun and new.  Sacnoth’s 1999 release, Koudelka, takes the best of both worlds, combining the fast, exciting combat of Resident Evil with a well-written, progressive storyline like an RPG.

Just kidding! It’s actually all the backtracking and item hunting of a survival horror game with the repetitive random-enemy encounters of an RPG! Congratulations to Sacnoth for totally missing the point of playing either of those genres.

The story opens in 1889 when a voice calls a young Gypsy girl, Koudelka, to the Nemeton Monastery in Wales.  Equipped with nothing but her traditional Victorian-Era hot pants, bondage corset, and a personality that would strip the skin off a crocodile and rust off a Buick, she climbs the wall into a Medieval torture dungeon full of fresh corpses and stale plot premises.

I punched a chair!

I punched a chair!

From the point where she meets up with the game’s two companions, the story kind of flows freely, like a soda that Sacnoth spilled in a lake and then tried to put it all back in the bottle.  The characters seem to want to investigate the bulk supply of mangled corpses stocked in the monastery, but kind of lose interest when the ghost of a little girl dumps them into a hole, and that plot kind of peters out in favor of a mystery surrounding the back story of one of the games lesser noticeable characters, who literally dies in the second scene he appears in, at which point the game drops even that plot.  Eventually, it settles on something somewhat interesting; as it turns out, a priest tried to resurrect his wife, who happens to be the former love interest of one of the playable characters.  However, messing with dark magics never ends well, something went horribly wrong, yada yada, and now we have to fight her soulless body.

Fin.

This guy! Dark...

This guy! Neat.

In a game that clearly attempts to build a Lovecraftian atmosphere, that part of the story rouses interest.  Still, the story stands on a foundation of apple sauce, jello, and the hopes and dreams of lousy game designers, and it falls somewhat flat.

Really? You can't figure this one out?

Really? You can’t figure this one out?

The semi-strategical combat system attempts for something interesting, but doesn’t work right.  The player can move characters around on a grid like most tactics games, but every battlefield consists of a flat, featureless floor.  Only one battle bothered to include any obstacles, and due to a weird quirk where the game refuses to let you step past the entire line containing the foremost enemy, it ended up looking like a bunch of people who couldn’t navigate themselves around an inanimate wooden box.  Furthermore, considering the small size of the battlefield, large move capabilities of the characters, and lack of limits on ranged and magic attacks, it ends up amounting to a system almost exactly like the SNES Final Fantasy games where players and enemies line up and face each other like colonial armies.  Actions in battle consist only of standard attacks, moving, and casting a handful of spells–four attack, two healing, and a smattering of support–that might level up by the end of the game if you cast them enough. The game lacks money and shops, so all items and equipment come from either picking up randomly placed items that blend in with the environment, or from random creature drops.  As a player, one strategy fits all, and with very few options to choose from, most battles in Koudelka–which, I remind you, calls itself a strategy game–end up playing out exactly the same as every other battle.

Roger Bacon

Roger Motherfuckin’ Bacon

Koudelka stands as a shining example of how unlike in Hollywood, games sequels can succeed even when the original holds itself up to standards I wouldn’t accept from a kindergarten school play.  Sacnoth apparently understood that the only interesting things about this game were the magic spell used to resurrect the dead and the creepy old monk, Roger Bacon, who wanders around the monastery like a madman.  They went on to develop a little-known but excellent series called Shadow Hearts, recycling very little from the Koudelka universe other than those things.

This might look neat...if it weren't made of polygons.

This might look neat…if it weren’t made of polygons.

Still, I won’t say I hated Koudelka or that I had trouble rousing up interest in it.  It just feels like they needed to screw up before they figured out what would work in subsequent games.  I can tell they put some work into the Lovecraftian monster design, but on the rendered polygons of the PS1 they intimidated me about as much as a Lego Cthulu.  And while themes of dark magics and forbidden knowledge work well in Shadow Hearts, Koudelka had all the consistency of a story narrated by Leonard from Memento.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a tendency to like games even when they don’t deserve it.  For the most part, I feel that way about Koudelka.  As a long-time fan of Shadow Hearts, I still consider this a must-play for series completionists.  Still, I’m not likely to  come back to it any time soon.