Tetsuya Nomura reveals new Kingdom Hearts III details

Square Enix legend Tetsuya Nomura (Director of the Kingdom Hearts franchise and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, among others) has leaked a few more tentative details about Kingdom Hearts III in Famitsu magazine.

Nomura is said to have confirmed that Kingdom Hearts III will be the last instalment featuring the series’ iconic villain Xehanort. This doesn’t mean that the franchise is set to end though, as Nomura later added that a structure has already been created for future sequels with Sora.

It’s important to remember that Kingdom Hearts III is a long way from realisation. The team is currently developing Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS, which is reported to be at about 40-50% completion. Although Kingdom Hearts III has been rumoured for many years, there has been no confirmation that title has made it to production or planning.

Fans can find answers to some of their questions regarding Kingdom Hearts III in the aforementioned KH3D, according to Nomura. He also mentioned that Square Enix were looking into the technology that could render older titles in high definition. Is this a hint that we could soon see HD remakes/ collections for Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts or Dragon Quest?

It’s an attractive prospect, but one that I hope they don’t undertake. The team has already spent far too much time in side projects and now need to refocus their efforts on Kingdom Hearts III. Although fans are enjoying some of the recent portable outings, I can’t help but feel that they are growing more and more restless for a sequel on home consoles.

Kotowari Competition: Black Materia Winner!

Today I received a package from Kotowari, featuring a signed Black Materia record and a couple of extra goodies. It was a pleasant surprise to win the competition – especially as it was shipped over from the US!

This is what I got inside, a lovely little note and a couple of tasty treats. All very appreciated! (Jetsetnick has a bad sweet tooth.)

Below is a signed copy of the album courtesy of Mega Ran and Lost Perception. For those that don’t know, Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII is a hip hop album that remixes the original soundtrack with a contemporary set of beats, effects and lyrics. It’s a whole new take on the epic story and is certainly worth checking out if you’ve played the JRPG.

The competition was used to celebrate the three year anniversary of Kotowari. He’s a great blogger and I would recommend his site to anyone with an interest in JRPGs or Western RPGs. Here’s to your future success – thanks for the prize!

(Aside: Also a big thank you to Mega Ran and Lost Perception for making the album! You can listen to it online here.)

Final Fantasy XIII: Part Two

The thirty hour mark rolled past my eyes this morning, swiftly sending me onto the finale of Chapter Ten. With disc two far behind me, I felt it was appropriate to give another update on my time spent with Final Fantasy XIII.

Square Enix had previously fooled me into believing that Final Fantasy XIII was an RPG ‘light’, removing a lot of the traditional customisation and difficulty options that older gamers had grown used to. The use of an auto-attack command personifies this perfectly. But then the band of heroes slowly come together and Squeenix decides to rip the carpet of ease from under your feet. The bosses suddenly become grippingly tough and require the use of multiple paradigm styles. For example, I had to retry the battle with Barthandelus numerous times and level up for a good couple of hours on the Palamecia. The player is suddenly given the choice of any battle team and evolving characters in any job class.

It may have taken over twenty hours, but the JRPG has finally hit the tempo and spirit of one of my favourite games in the series, Final Fantasy X (mostly due to the similarities with the crystarium and sphere grid). I think Square Enix have been very clever, slowly easing casual players into the ‘hardcore’ mould of most Final Fantasy titles, whilst relying on veterans to simply go with the flow. By disc three, they’ve successfully pleased both parties, including me.

The plot has been somewhat slow, relying on the immediate ‘fight or flight’ dilemma to deliver the biggest set pieces. There have been noticeable improvements though, including the revelations of Vanille’s past and the motives of the fal’cie. Hope and Vanille were my least favourite characters in part one, but have finally developed into what I can believe are normal human beings. There haven’t been many genuine tear jerking moments, but the reunion between Sazh and his child brought me pretty close.

Environments have maintained the impeccable standard set out in Chapter One, consistently surprising me with their versatility and detail. The sky views on board the Palamecia look exceptionally believable. I’ve also noticed that they’re slowly becoming more expansive, perhaps hinting at the open world of Gran Pulse which I’m just about to enter. Players have ranted persistently that Gran Pulse is the pay off for playing through Final Fantasy XIII, so it’ll be interesting to see whether it lives up to my high expectations.

The combat hasn’t changed all that much, but mastering it has become a necessity rather than a choice. I used to hate using Snow as a Sentinel, watching him stand like a buffoon and protect Hope while he whines from the corner of my screen. However, effectively watching him block and counter the toughest attacks of Cid Raines, whilst at the same time utilising Fang’s Saboteur abilities to debuff him, is simply beautiful. The active time battle system works incredibly well because you can see plans unfold in real time, rather than having to wait for a few turns just to see if your plan is working. It gives the player a sense of true leadership and strategy, flipping between offence and defence manoeuvres on the fly. Choose incorrectly and you will be severely punished. Also, the inclusion of a retry option when you’re defeated in battle (how long has it taken them to finally include it?!) encourages experimentation. The boss battles are long, challenging and epic in scale. I’m hooked.

I’ve enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XIII so far. It’s a long way away from being perfect, but I commend Square Enix for taking the next step forward in the JRPG genre. The turn based battle system is outdated and needs a replacement; a future rendition of the ATB gauge maybe the replacement players are looking for. We need far more exploration, but the beautiful landscapes on show in Final Fantasy XIII are the new technical benchmark for what should be possible. The cut scenes are gorgeous, but only time will tell if the final act in the plot makes it all pay off.

If you’re into the RPG genre at all, I feel you need to play this game just to have an opinion on it. It’s been interesting for me to try and formulate my own ideas through these quick blog posts and I hope it’s sparked a few different discussions. I’ll try and upload a final part soon!

My Final Fantasy XIII debate

I’m a bit of an obsessive and a perfectionist when it comes to video games. For some reason I find it necessary to always have the best version of a title, whether it’s the Bioshock 2 ‘Special Edition’, Kingdom Hearts 2 ‘Final Mix’ or Sonic Adventure ‘Director’s Cut’. This is especially true when it comes to multi-format titles, as i’ll often scour the internet to discover which version is better. It could be something utterly miniscule such as some slightly improved cutscenes or an additional texture, but it’s always enough to win my allegiance and jump ship. In the back of mind is the niggling preconception that if i don’t experience a game at its very best and exactly as the designer intended, I will regret it until the end of my days. Now, allow Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix’s latest JRPG to step into the ring.

What now feels like many years ago, the PR monkeys at Squeenix announced that Final Fantasy XIII would be a PS3 exclusive. I was (and still am) a proud owner of the Xbox 360 and had accepted at the time that I would have to pay up for Sony’s equally fantastic machine in order experience Lightning and the gang. No problems there, because in all honesty I had always been looking for an excuse to purchase the console anyway.

Sony initially struggled to get the PlayStation 3 off the shelves and into customer’s homes. This was due to the lethal combination of expensive hardware pricing and lack of exclusive software. Square Enix quickly noticed that they were beginning to guarantee their own failure; launching a stunning game that only a minority of their fans could play was economic suicide. The news that Final Fantasy XIII would now also be released on Xbox 360 was met with bipolar praise and outcry. Former Final Fantasy fans that had crossed over to the Microsoft camp (such as myself) were delighted to hear that they could play the high definition epic on their preferred system. On the other side of the fence, PlayStation 3 owners were furious that one of their core reasons for splashing out extra cash had just been stripped away from them. I was admittedly curious of how the game would be ported across. The PlayStation 3 is undeniably a more powerful system than the Xbox 360. Would the PlayStation 3 version be brought down in quality to match the restrictions of the Xbox 360? Or would the Microsoft version be inferior? Perhaps not surprisingly, Square Enix officials assured gamers globally that the two versions would be the same. They were wrong.

As demos and review copies leaked into the media, my growing fears were confirmed. The Xbox 360 copy had taken a hit during the three disc compression process. Not a huge one, but apparently nearly 20GBs worth that mainly affected cutscenes, sound and a little bit of visual polish. Every in depth comparison that I’ve read has stressed that the changes are not a game breaker. Players can still enjoy the core experience, story and gameplay – you would only notice the difference if you had the two running side by side. Now try as I might, I just can’t shake the feeling that buying the Xbox 360 version will be a monumental mistake. I know it shouldn’t, but the paranoid mind that I described earlier in this post will certainly feel that way.

So here lies my question. Should I tell myself to ‘man up’ and purchase the Xbox 360 version, thereby eradicating my fears of inferiority and just enjoy the game for what it is? Or should I make the monumental leap to the PlayStation 3, heavily investing in the hardware for the perfect Final Fantasy experience? There have always been plenty of other Sony exclusives that I have wanted to try over the years. And I do love Final Fantasy. Or I could actually act like a student for once and save myself some vital money. Decisions.

Thoughts On Dissidia Final Fantasy

By making a game that will appeal ‘to the fans’, developers often fall into the trap of alienating newcomers to a franchise. Dissidia Final Fantasy is a classic example, as although Square Enix has created a fantastic portable fighter, you’ll get absolutely nothing out of it if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy game. The popular RPG franchise has been going for over 20 years, so it makes sense that Square has decided to make a tribute to those who are old enough to have grown up with the originals.

Take all of the heroes from the first ten games, mix them altogether and then pit them against the player’s favourite villains in an all out brawl. It’s simple, but answers most fanboy arguments that have circulated on forums for years; “Zidane was always tougher than Tidus!” or “Sephiroth is easily the best villain!” – Well now you can find out.

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Tidus takes on his father Jecht from Final Fantasy X

But can Square, world renowned for creating RPGs, pull of a fighting engine that’s both robust and enjoyable? Luckily yes, although it’s like nothing I’ve ever played before. You’re not fighting on a 2D plane like a traditional beat-em-up, nor are you putting in elaborate buttons combos from contemporary fighters like Soulcalibur or Tekken. Instead you’ll be roaming freely in large 3D environments, going one on one like a multiplayer version of Kingdom Hearts. Very simple and minimal controls send dazzling visual attacks toward your foe, creating a system that’s easy to pick up and a delight t watch.

In the world of Dissidia (voiced by the cheesiest narrator I’ve ever heard) the evil god Chaos controls the villains, waging war against the struggling heroes lead by Cosmos. They’ve apparently all been summoned to protect the outcome of their respective worlds, but this is never really explained or justified. It’s just an excuse to have them all in the same place, constantly bumping into each other and provoking spontaneous battles. Crystals are involved (when are crystals NOT involved in a Final Fantasy game?!) which each hero has to find after they’ve done a bit of soul searching and self discovery. They’ll voice their favourite one liners and have some friendly banter, but it’s all pretty silly and unmotivated. If you’re looking for a compelling storyline you’ll need to look at the classic RPG’s, because there certainly isn’t one here.

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The introductory CG cutscene is beautiful. The in game cutscenes... not so much.

After a wealth of tutorials, you’ll be flung into a brawl and expected to fight. It can feel a little daunting at first, with a wealth of health bars, abilities, accessories, summons and armour to try and cope with. In its purest form the battle system boils down to Bravery Points and Hit Points. Attacks with the circle button will increase your Bravery, while lowering the Bravery of your opponent. The higher your Bravery, the more damage you’ll do when you attack your enemy with square, a HP attack. If your technique connects, your bravery will be brought back to its default level and the process starts again.

The system suits Final Fantasy pretty well, as you constantly play the cat and mouse game of trying to keep the stats in your favour. This is but the basic layer to Dissidia though; characters also have an EX gauge, which fills up gradually as you play. Once its full players can enter EX mode, boosting their stats considerably and opening up the potential to perform an EX Burst Attack (which is as badass as it sounds!)

Each character has a different play style to mimic the game they came from. Fans will lap up the familiar attacks and sounds, but the casual gamer will probably not even bat an eyelid. Which is Dissidia’s greatest downfall; apart from a few character profiles in the theatre tab, the game makes no effort to explain to newcomers who these heroes are. The amount of Easter eggs in this game are phenomenal, right down to the sprites and conversational style of the help menus. Every button you press will give you a nugget of Final Fantasy nostalgia, but this does nothing for the average player looking at their PSP screen in bewilderment. I absolutely adore the Chocobo system of collecting bonus items, but after showing my friend he simply looked at me blankly and asked what a Chocobo was.

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The main menu. You could get lost in this for hours.

The amount of time and polish put into this game will make you wonder how it all managed to fit on one UMD. There’s a replay editor, in-game calendar that rewards you depending on the day that you’re playing, museum filled with character profiles and sound bites, multiplayer mode and one of the largest customisation systems i’ve ever seen. You can literally create your perfect Final Fantasy hero. You could easily lose months just grinding all 10 heroes to their maximum level of 99.

If you’re a Final Fantasy veteran, chances are you have this already. If not I highly recommend this massive, entertaining crossover that is bound to stay in your PSP for a very long time. If you’ve never played a game by Square, this could still be worth checking out as a rental, if only for the fighting system. Otherwise the game will wash over you, leaving you wondering what all the fuss was about. It might not be attracting new gamers, but Dissidia is certainly one for the fans.

Dissidia Final Fantasy: Limited Edition

For a good few years Square Enix fans have been wondering why they even bothered shelling out for a PSP. They purchased Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII without hesitation, keen to lose themselves in the world of Cloud and his friends. But what happened to them when that title was exhausted? They looked elsewhere for the next dose of Squeenix goodness, only to find a copy of Tactics (though a good one at that) and not much else. Was it really worth buying a system for this?

Luckily, yes. Dissidia Final Fantasy is a game for the fans, created by developers who have grown up with the franchise and become fans themselves. The Limited Edition version has a handful of extras and I’ll be discussing what comes in the box below.

Postcards, books, soundtracks... there's a lot packed in a small PSP case.

Postcards, books, soundtracks... there's a lot packed in a small PSP case.

What you’ve probably noticed first is that the box is considerably larger than your normal PSP case. It has roughly the same height and width, but the depth of the packaging is around 2.5 UMD cases. It’s made of stiff card and has a matte like finish, which feels both durable and classy to open up. Inside is a whole wealth of material; some worthwhile and some… not so much.

Art Postcards - do people actually send these?

Art Postcards - do people actually send these?

First up are the art postcards. They’re the same size as a PSP case, featuring the cast of characters fighting for chaos and cosmos respectively. I would have preferred hand drawn concept art on these rather than CG, but that’s simply personal taste. I’ve never actually sent gaming postcards to anyone, making the practical use of these nil. However, I always like gaming memorabilia to look through when I’m bored and lets face it; a fan always loves to have something extra for pre-ordering. Even if it’s worthless.

Dissidia Final Fantasy: Original Sound Selection

Dissidia Final Fantasy: Original Sound Selection

As a music fanatic, bonus soundtracks are a big thumbs up. I’ve always said that the best compositions in gaming are the ones you don’t notice, seamlessly blending with the experience to make it even more entertaining or believable. The Mini-CD packaged here has six tracks, teasing at the full version that can be bought on iTunes. They’re all spectacular, including new takes on classic Final Fantasy tunes and some originals made specifically for the game.  The disc looks pretty and at the end of the day, saves you searching the internet for it. I probably won’t buy the full version, but this taster is more than satisfactory.

A double page spread featuring Final Fantasy X hero, Tidus

A double page spread featuring Final Fantasy X hero, Tidus

A hardback art book looks very promising. After all transforming some of the earlier classic sprites into 3D players must have needed some concept sketches somewhere, right? Unfortunately, no. As you can see from the above, on each character profile there is only one drawing and it’s fairly generic. I’m pretty sure i could find it with one Google Image search. The other three images are the various CG costumes, which look nice enough but hardly blow me away. Somehow this book has been a wasted opportunity, for what I think could have been a great insight into the character design process.

BradyGames Mini Guide

BradyGames Mini Guide

Strangely, this teaser-strategy guide has better art than the art book. It’s about 40 to 50 pages in length (they’re not numbered and I’m not going to bother counting) but it takes you through the basic controls, set up and prologue of the game. The detail is fantastic and clear, with the only improvement I can think of is it being too short. Obviously Brady want you to go out and buy the full version, but I think it would have been more worthwhile to up the game’s price and include the entire guide.

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So should you be forking out the extra money for the Limited Collector’s Edition? Only if you’re a die hard Squeenix fan, who knows they’ll forever regret having the slightly lesser, normal packaging. Most of the extras here are hit and miss, with only the soundtrack really shining through. My advice would be to buy the normal verion of Dissidia and spend the saving you’ve made on the full soundtrack available on iTunes. Or not at all if you just want a good brawler.

Persona 4: Part Two

With 20 hours now showing on my play time for Persona 4, I think it was about time for another update. Finally settled in to the unorthodox groove and style of the game, it’s now much easier to comment on growing trends or irritations forming in the latest Shin Megami Tensei instalment. Luckily, these aren’t many in an otherwise spectacular JRPG for the Playstation 2.

Don't worry, these are NOT the actual graphics xD

Don't worry, these are NOT the actual graphics xD

Firstly, although the dungeons are still devilishly hard (for even the most hardcore of gamers, bearing in mind that I’m still playing on Normal rather than Expert) I felt that P4 is much more manageable than Persona 3. In P3, “one more” knock-downs frequently stuck you on the receiving end of a constant barrage of attacks, leaving you unable to defend yourself until your untimely death. Remember that when playing a game by Atlus, you don’t have a chance to retry a battle unless you’re playing on the beginner difficulty setting. This means that every time you fail you have to reload from your last save point, which is outside the dungeon and therefore often a couple of hours before you were defeated.

Luckily Persona 4 has fixed this rut, making battles much smoother and the follow up attacks less overpowering. For example, when their social link is high enough allies can now aid you back onto your feet after you’ve been brought down by the enemy. Not having to worry about your characters growing tired or falling ill is a vast improvement, leaving the only restriction to your exploration with the amount of SP in your party. This can be a pain, but it ensures that you come back to the dungeon at least a few times before tackling the boss – which trust me is a good thing, because these bosses are tough. With minimal weaknesses and often brutal HP depleting attacks, you’ll really need to stay on your toes.

Yukiko, unleashing her Persona with colour co-ordinated glasses!

Yukiko, unleashing her Persona with colour co-ordinated glasses!

As mentioned in my last post, the dungeons are split up this time with separate themes for each person that you’re saving. Trawling through floors isn’t the most invigorating experience, but it’s better than last time and helps to add to the depth of the characters. For example, to save Kanji Tatsumi my party had to investigate a steamy bath house, with voices that echoed his sexual issues.

The characters are growing to be some of the best Persona creations to date. I really can’t decide on a favourite, which makes the social link events even better to divulge in. As any RPG fan knows, story is paramount and caring for the characters really helps to bring it alive. Teddie and a couple of the high school-ers may have annoying voice actors, but they can always be switched off if you’re finding them particularly frustrating. There is a lot of humour and quirks to be found in the investigation team, but in contrast each person has darker problems that you can discover and solve over time. It feels rewarding and makes the crucial decision on how to spend your hours even tougher.

Each characters offers rewards and insights if you choose to spend time with them

Each characters offers rewards and insights if you choose to spend time with them

The music, which I couldn’t praise enough in Part One is starting to grow a little bit thin. I’m hoping that some of the tracks will change when the seasons roll over or something, because at the moment… hearing the same jingle for every battle and every time you leave the classroom gets tiresome. This might be expected for most games after 20 hours, but Atlas knows how exceptionally long their titles are and should have planned accordingly. The compositions are a great blend of J-Pop, but they just need a few more tracks to spice them up.

The story is leaked incredibly well, with the rescue after each dungeon giving you just enough hints to keep the mystery interesting. How Persona 4 was designed to be so non-linear and yet so well paced is a testament to the time system that they’ve managed to create. Although a clock isn’t literally ticking as you’re walking around, knowing that you can only perform a limited amount of actions before someone is murdered brings on a real sense of tension.

Many gamers will pour over walkthroughs and guides to achieve the maximum exam scores and social links, but I really advise players to play without one for the first run through. Getting some answers wrong and making sour decisions is all part of life and actually makes the experience that much more realistic. You’re meant to be a High School student, remember? On the second time you play Persona 4 you’ll retain all of your personal stats (Courage, Knowledge, Expression, etc) making that perfect completion that bit easier.

The story is darker and more realistic than your traditional "fantasy world journey" affair

The story is darker and more realistic than your traditional "fantasy world journey" affair

Japanese culture is overflowing in Persona 4. If you know nothing about the formalities and traditions in Japan, P4 will teach you a surprisingly large amount about their rural life. I have even more respect for the small translation team signed onto this project, who not only turned it around in such a short space of time but managed to keep it as close to the original as possible. The school cultural festival, the use of honorifics, family expectations and education are all portrayed with a large amount of realism. We can’t all afford to experience the life of our favourite countries and so Persona 4 does a more than adequate job of filling the void.

Final thoughts for Part Two? As you become familiar with the combat and time system of Persona 4 it simply gets better and better, especially when the protagonist is released from his leash to act as he pleases. How to balance socialising and saving the world can be difficult, but as long as you don’t worry too much I’ve found Persona 4 to be rewarding on multiple levels. The characters, story and presentation keep on giving at the moment and as long they continue to do so the few gameplay flaws will be more than concealed.