Gamers Heart Japan: Earthquake and tsunami relief video

This morning I stumbled upon the Gamers Heart Japan project (via Joystiq) and watched the following production put together by Electric Playground. This is a charity project with a simple, honest and memorable message, which encourages the public to donate to the Red Cross‘ earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Japan. It certainly worked for me.

The piece asks video game journalists, developers and industry representatives to describe why the Japanese gaming industry is important to them. Throughout the hour these gaming celebs give recognition to some of their favourite classic games such as Super Metroid, Street Fighter II, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. This is coupled with their experiences in Japan and general love for the food, architecture and friendly people.

There are heaps of familiar faces including Peter Molyneux from Lionhead Studios, Geoff Keighley from GameTrailersTV and  Brian Ashcraft from If you stay up to date with video game journalism, you’re guaranteed to know at least a half dozen of the people on camera here. It’s a shame that so many outline the same obvious classics (Mario 64, Final Fantasy VII, etc) but there are also a few unexpected mentions, including  Katamari Damacy, No More Heroes and Parappa the Rapper.

(Aside: If I’d had the chance, I would’ve given my kudos to Tatsuya Kando for his work on The World Ends With You, Parasite Eve and the original Kingdom Hearts.)

I can’t recommend watching this enough. Even if you just have it running in the background whilst you’re at work or at home, it’s a lovely little video with great intentions. I love Japanese video games and hope that everyone does their bit for the relief effort.


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: The 4 Heroes of Light

Square Enix tries to recapture the origins of the Final Fantasy franchise in a portable adventure that is both charming and infuriatingly archaic.

Followers of the JRPG genre align themselves into two fairly distinct camps. One recognises and embraces the need for evolution, giving recognition for the fresh but often flawed gameplay mechanics in recent titles such as Final Fantasy XIII and Resonance of Fate. The other condemns these failed ideas as the reason for the genre’s recent decline, resisting the trends of linear exploration and emphasis on graphical presentation. They frequently call for a return to the ‘good old days’, where turn based combat was king and random enemy encounters were the norm.

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is a game built almost solely for the latter. Everything about it reeks of an adventure that could have been published in the 80s or 90s. Take the plotline for instance; the game surrounds a boy named Brandt, who is summoned by the king to rescue a kidnapped princess. The four other heroes include a spoilt girl from the royal family, a loyal soldier of the kingdom and a reluctant, brooding chap. They’re all purposefully stereotypical and pigeonholed into a journey that is predictable at every turn.

Weapons, magic and additional items can all be found and bought in the local villages. Combat is strictly turn based; party members exert varying number of action points (that act like magic of MP) for every physical attack or spell. Akin to some of the older Final Fantasy iterations, party members can obtain ‘crowns’ that change their job class as the game progresses.

Sound familiar? It should. For better and worse, Square Enix has chosen to make this portable experience incredibly traditional. Older players will welcome some of this familiarity in a similar manner to fans of Pokémon or The Legend of Zelda; retreading a well worn path can feel reassuring and comforting in The 4 Heroes of Light. Unfortunately, many of the gripes I have with the JRPG genre have been brought forward as well. In comparison with modern video game standards, it’s very hard to forgive some of the aging design choices.

The first is random encounters. One of the advancements that I’ve come to cherish in the RPG genre is the ability to pick and choose my battles. It allows players to grind only when they feel that it’s necessary and conversely push onward when they just want to progress the story. The Persona series and Final Fantasy XII/ XIII are shining examples of this.

In my opinion, returning to a random encounter system in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is counter intuitive. It’s irritating to become bogged down in an area with a particularly high encounter rate, increasingly hammering the attack button just to get back to dungeon exploring. Those who argue that grinding is ‘a necessary evil’ are wrong – more often than not, it’s just a cheap way of extending the overall length of the game.

The inventory system is also rather baffling. With only 15 slots per character (which include obligatory spell tomes and equipment) I found myself depositing items in the village storage hut with alarming regularity. In the more lengthy and intricate dungeons I found myself having to discard some of the weapons and health tonics that I was picking up; a wasteful and annoying consequence of the system.

Variance between dungeons is excellent, but the aesthetics within them are monotonous and dull. The repetition of textures means that it’s also easy to lose your sense of direction; the absence of a touch screen map (such as the one in the excellent The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks) is sorely missed.

The 4 Heroes of Light redeems itself with a fantastic presentation throughout. The 3D engine is very impressive, utilising a picture book aesthetic that has rarely been used elsewhere. Combining a water colour palette and cel-shaded line art, the characters really pop out from the screen and help bring some life to the adventure. The way that party members change their appearance when you swap their equipment is another neat touch. The towns are expansive and occasionally take up multiple levels, filled with interesting houses and townspeople. It all adds to the grandeur of a global adventure, something lost in many linear JRPGs.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t play this game to completion. Maybe that deducts some of the credibility of this review, but I would argue that I still experienced a thorough representation of the game. If you’re a fan of old-school RPGs, I can recommend this as a solid portable adventure for the Nintendo DS. For anyone that champions the recent advancements in the genre, you’re best looking elsewhere.

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!

Final Fantasy XIII: Part One

In spite of all of the complaints surrounding its linearity, tutorial heavy approach, I have grown to admire Final Fantasy XIII. At least for the first twelve hours anyway, which has brought me onto disc two (insert a defensive position from the inevitable wrath of PS3 owners) and The Sunleth Waterscape.

What hit me by surprise was just how beautiful this game looks. Having watched mountains of compressed footage on sites such as 1up and GameTrailers, I thought I had become desensitised to the ‘high-definition revolution’ and wouldn’t be particularly impressed by the next-gen visuals. Oh, how wrong I was. Even when running this on an Xbox 360 (which is arguably the inferior version) the 1080p environments are absolutely stunning, breathing effortlessly with life and activity. With each new location I’m happy to walk through as slowly as possible and just soak up the detail. These areas easily capture the awe I had in the third person shooter Gears of War; except that Final Fantasy is producing these for a 30 hours plus experience, rather than ten.

The trade-off is what has been commonly cited as ‘corridor syndrome’. Each locale is technically just one singular pathway, with only a few small deviations for the occasional extra item or enemy. The development team has spent so much time making every small texture spectacular, that they’ve had to cut back on the scale of the world itself. For the gamer that loves exploring huge, open universes or discovering a long forgotten nook or cranny, Final Fantasy XIII will disappoint. Better alternatives for this style of gameplay can be found in Star Ocean: The Last Hope or Resonance of Fate.

I don’t mind too much though, because the linear approach has produced huge benefits for the storyline and atmosphere. Players arguably don’t need to see everything; by looking out towards the horizon they can imagine what would be there and fill in the blanks themselves. By stopping gamers like me dilly-dallying in an unnecessary side quest, the plot is much more focussed and comes thick and fast. The mythology surrounding Pulse, l’Cie and fal’Cie is rich and believable, with the writers offering a new revelation at appropriate intervals.  The cast quickly comes together in the first few hours and reveal their motives for travelling through the world of Cocoon. Lightning and Sazh are easy to relate too and likeable, with Hope and Vanille clocking in as the annoying ’emo-kid’ and stupidly over the top, upbeat chick. Why, oh why does Square Enix feel the need to use these character stereotypes in every sequel?

Combat has had a massive overhaul too. Square Enix must have realised that the turn-based system is growing increasingly archaic, because it’s now been heavily tweaked to feel like it’s being played out in real time. Players only take control of one party member, queuing up actions into a meter that is constantly filling with time. Once enough seconds have passed, you can select your opponent and deal out the ‘chain’ of designated techniques. It feels much more pressurised and organic, encouraging you to think on your feet and adapt to new enemies without resorting to a walkthrough. A new system known as ‘paradigms’ can be switched on the fly throughout battle, altering the roles and skills of all present party members. It allows you to have a very forceful guiding hand over them without manually entering commands. Switching between support, healing and offensive setups at the right time can quickly change the direction of a battle and seal a quick win. It feels new, fast and furious. I love it.

Character building is called ‘crystarium’, an idea very similar to the sphere grid found in Final Fantasy X. In a similar vein to the environments, it’s currently very restrictive and capped with every boss battle. It feels like a step backward for experimental Final Fantasy veterans, but gives causal RPG players like myself a huge sense of reassurance when grinding for an upcoming boss. Towards the end of Final Fantasy X I was pretty sure I had made a number of incorrect decisions on the sphere grid, which had lead to my party being a crippled mess. This system might seem slightly patriotic, but it’s clear and accessible for players of all difficulties.

Most RPGs, regardless of quality can hold me up until the twenty hour mark, so it will be interesting to see if Final Fantasy XIII can go the distance. Square Enix has obviously made a lot of changes to make this game appeal to western audience, and at the moment there are more improvements than setbacks. I’ll be interested to see whether this game opens up once I get onto disc three.

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.


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.


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.


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.