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.