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Bravely Default

I saw Bravely Default for the first time during a visit to Tokyo last year. I was, I think, already peripherally aware of it through the videogames media, and became more intrigued after seeing it on display in a Japanese department store. My first thought, one that I apparently shared with many others, was that Bravely Default looked a lot like Final Fantasy IX, a particular flavor of that franchise (whimsical, rustic, “classic”) that Square Enix seems to seldom tap into in its flagship outings. The style and execution of Bravely Default indeed came across as very deliberate, an updated take on the fairy tale classics, a kind of knowing meta-commentary on the Dragon Quest/ Final Fantasy I-IV era of the Japanese RPG, but with the intention of stirring in some of the more progressive design innovations of the last few years. The attitude of many was that Bravely Default was a sort of JRPG comfort food, constructed with the outward trappings of the genre’s glory days, but under the hood, accommodating, not so austere as its ancestors.

To be sure, Bravely Default can be a very enjoyable game, though it is little served by its easiest comparisons. There is significantly less going on here than in Final Fantasy IX, and, indeed, Final Fantasy IV. I was struck by nothing more than Bravely Default’s remarkably reserved and conservative approach. It tries to do few select things, but of those, it accomplishes nearly all of them very well. The battle system is well-designed, mostly uncomplicated, and overall very fast. The RPG “grind”, a kind of simultaneous pleasure and curse for the genre aficionado, is not done away with here; on the contrary, its inclusion seems deliberate, but it’s streamlined, refined to a state of maximum efficiency with minimum input. I personally enjoy grinding, because it allows me to enjoy the control over my characters that the game allows. I like making them powerful, and I treasure that feeling of taking down a boss when you’re way over-leveled. Of course, I also hate grinding, because it’s wildly time-consuming and repetitive. Bravely Default’s designers seem to understand the love/hate dynamic of the JRPG grind, and strike the best balance they can. It works, I think. I managed to max out my party in every conceivable way, something I don’t often do, so obviously I bit into the hook they were dangling for me. The game also, brilliantly, allows one to control the rate of random encounters, a blessed inclusion that more or less enabled me to finish the game when I became mired in the tedium of its latter half.

And that latter half is the sticking point, because it exposes the weakness of Bravely Default’s thin façade. The gameplay is simple and rock solid; it never overreaches. The characters are a delight, warm and funny and inviting. But the story, the ostensible excuse for why any of this exists at all, is tepid, a weak tea. It’s unfortunate because I felt like there was something there, a rich vein to be mined, especially with the colorful gallery of rogues. The world itself is a small thing, and not much exists beyond it, so the player is forced to replay the same scenarios, slightly remixed, through the four latter chapters of the game. While there is some interesting back-story between the supporting characters from Eternia, not much happens in those four chapters that hadn’t already happened before that, as one would expect of a time-loop. The game is really more concerned with the interpersonal relationships and interactions of the characters at this point, and the plot is basically a window dressing. It’s an admirable attempt at wringing more value out of the same limited set of assets, and the dialogue remains funny and cute throughout, but man, I had a hard time slogging all the way through the same thing again and again. I wanted to stop in my tracks and toss Bravely Default aside for something new. It does pay off in a more or less satisfying way, but I was glad for the end of the game nonetheless.

I was most satisfied when I was mastering the job system, or beating down some of the surprisingly difficult bosses. These things made the game great. It was simple enough that I didn’t have to be overmuch concerned with stat minutia and min-maxing. The world was warm and inviting, though simplistic, like a storybook kingdom. The characters were on their paths, and I didn’t have much to do other than guide them there. It made me glad for the time spent, but also happy that I won’t be doing it again soon.

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Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite games of all time. It captured my attention when I was, I think, in the seventh grade, a time when my little mind was fertile, and I possessed abundant free time coupled with the unique self-loathing and loneliness of a pre-teen. The world of the Final Fantasy Tactics was a harsh one; lore heavy, governed by laws, and systematic in a way that the other games in its family never quite were. There was a tapestry there, well constructed. It was not surprising to me when I learned, only recently, that the primary creative force behind Final Fantasy Tactics, Yasumi Matsuno, was an admirer of the work of George R.R. Martin; there’s a shared sensibility, and common thread of highly consistent, and unflinchingly cruel reality, stirred into the whimsical fantasy world. Final Fantasy Tactics is the kind of game I go back and beat once a year, always leaving with that vague sense of sadness, triumph, loss. It’s also one of the only games I would really say I’m good at, in a technical sense. For some reason, the strategic reasoning of the game clicks with me (and also, I’m aware that most of the game is not particularly difficult). I actually understand the mathematical minutia taking place on the back-end of the game; I know the location and drop rate of rare items, where/when the good monsters spawn, and other wholly nerdy things like that. Final Fantasy Tactics is, for me, a game I well and truly love, and it’s influenced my thinking profoundly.

With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder that I was spellbound by Tactics Ogre for almost the entirety of my play-through. Even after beating it, I felt a strong urge to dive in once again with the New Game +. Certainly, this is a game that is not without its flaws, but something about the whole package, the presentation, plot, the size and scope of the engagements, all of it a special kind of alchemy that was exactly what I was hoping for.

I played through the game surprised that little sprites could still inspire so much emotion and investment from me. I assume, maybe, that my imagination has dulled over time, that my teenage existence, ever ready to escape into the fantasy world inside my own mind, had faded away with age and “seriousness”. But Tactics Ogre rekindled it, a little bit, or perhaps just reminded me that the depths and layers can still be there. The effect of playing Tactics Ogre is almost like going to the theater, and watching a tiny play that signals to the more grand battle taking place in the mind of the player. I like that it doesn’t really try to imitate a movie to tell its story, but yet does integrate some of its own cinematic techniques. For the most part, the audience watches the game in the game world, and the presentation of this remains almost entirely consistent, never tearing us away. There’s also the overwhelming sense that the game actually has stakes; that failure really results in death, not just in the gameplay but in the narrative. Some of these characters will die, will wind up broken people, will be lost to the world, regardless of their goodness or the moral clarity of their mission. I may be overstating the maturity of the narrative a bit, it never does quite reach those heights, and only thinly veils the standard issue JRPG tropes, but something about the presentation made me feel like all of those claims are true. There was a tugging, a longing that infuses the aesthetic of the game, a sense of loss that the characters feel and we experience with them. These feelings are only heightened by the vaguely post-apocalyptic gesturing of the setting; the collapsing ruins, hints of an ancient war and a far-gone civilization, and the kingdom in disarray. All artistic flourishes that would be refined to something near perfection for Final Fantasy Tactics, but employed here with remarkable effectiveness.

It becomes easy to get pulled in, to get sucked into the micromanagement. I sunk in countless hours, leveling up soldiers or exploring bonus dungeons. I still haven’t completely cleared the game, and I suspect that I never will. There is an incredible range and depth of content here. The grind, the promise of maxing out stats and creating a perfect army is alluring, especially when the moral force of your mission becomes increasingly compelling late in the game. The variety and complexity of the skills available, some completely game-breaking, truly sweeten the pot. But most of all I just really liked playing. I cherished the feeling of getting stronger, of going from incredible weak, disadvantaged, to overcoming, triumphant, with a stronger grasp of strategy and an arsenal of skills and abilities. The addition of the Game Plus mode, and one so robust, elevates the quality substantially, and it’s something that I would pay to see implemented into Final Fantasy Tactics in some way.

Tactics Ogre is an excellent game, complex and rich with content. It is manifestly less refined than Final Fantasy Tactics, though in its way it could be the better game. It dug a hole in my psyche and really has yet to vacate. A love-letter to the fans, a niche’s niche, obscure, practically buried, but a gem.

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Ys Chronicles I & II (part I)

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Even since its launch, the PSP has always seemed a sort of odd man out. Of the stack of little disks that I own for the system, most of the titles are JRPS or remakes of PS1 era games, or other niche games that I personally enjoy, but am nonetheless surprised any kind of audience exists for. I’ve accumulated a huge backlog, so the PSP is still really fertile ground for me.

The Ys series is another that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I remember reading and seeing references to it in gaming magazines from the 90’s, and so it’s always been in the back of my mind as a series I should look into.  I bought Arc of Napishtim (the fourth entry in the series, I think?) a few years ago (at this point, probably close to ten years ago) when it came out on the PS2, but never got around to actually playing it. Then, at some point in the intervening years, Ys I & II have been released and re-released on several platforms, so Ys is a lot more accessible than it’s ever been. I’m glad, because the first chapter in the series is a fun experience with generally excellent production values, and it definitely makes me want to check out further entries.

So far I haven’t had time to play the second chapter, which comes together with the first. The ending of Ys I is really pretty clearly the midpoint of a larger story, though I do hope the second changes or improves certain elements of the first. Ys is very clearly a game from a bygone era that has received several coats of paint over the years. The characters are as thinly drawn as possible, and the world, while not uninteresting, is a pretty simple fantasy-pastiche. It moves at a fast clip, and doesn’t overstay its welcome, which is something I think other games could learn from. We don’t learn terribly overmuch about Adol, or the final boss, who only reveals himself right before you fight him (though I’m sure he had very compelling reasons for what he was doing). Still, I think the game mostly worked for me because the production was high and the investment of time and energy were reasonably low.

Another hallmark of its age, the game could be opaque in its demands of the player, and some puzzles were pretty obscure (though that might just be me, I’m not a particularly clever gamer). In general, though, the reliance on effectively using the “bump” mechanic or whatever was probably a smart move, as the action was much more engaging than fetch quests. Some of the bosses in particular provided pretty engaging battles.

The graphics for the PSP release were excellent; vivid, high-color sprites and hand drawn character portraits. They did feel at times like they were prettier than they needed to be, to add cover to the simple offerings of the gameplay. The music, also, was excellent, though I’ve come to understand that the soundtrack is one of the more highly regarded elements of the Ys series. The music was especially refreshing coming off of Skyrim, which employed a pretty typical faux-Lord of the Rings orchestral soundtrack that was, I guess, suitable, but lacked any personality. The music in Ys sounded like souped-up songs from the 80s era of gaming, but were entirely appropriate.

Ys I is an appetizer, as I imagine Ys II is (I’ll get to that one as soon as I can). I like that a game series can span multiple chapters and star the same cast of characters along the way, tweaking and refining their mechanics. I’m glad I own all of the other entries (and am looking forward to Memories of Celceta), because I’m anxious to see where things go from this point.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I suppose it’s a uniquely privileged sort of concern, but I think often about the place have videogames in my life. I wouldn’t say I play them because they’re fun, especially because, in many instances, they’re not (and aren’t meant to be). To some extent, they’ve just always been there, they’re what I know. It would be strange not to be interested, not to follow them. Maybe I still search for those lasting imprints, that special kind of joy I obtained as a child when I was truly, truly sucked into a game world the way only a kid can be. Then, after that, I probably played because I was lonely, and while videogames didn’t make me any less lonely, they distracted me from it for a while.

Skyrim is a game I liked but didn’t love. I’m glad I put in the effort, for the most part. I do think that if I were much younger, and able to suspend my disbelief and critical thinking a lot more, I probably would have fallen in love with the game. There is a certain undeniable thrill when a dragon suddenly descends upon you, or you gear up for a big fight just through the next door, or you come upon glowing, ancient ruins, full of mystery.

As an adult, I prefer to keep things walled in, like a cultivated garden, so I played quests and accrued accomplishments in preordered chunks. Skyrim hovered dangerously close to paralyzing me with the amount of content it offered, wherein having so many choices might force me to choose nothing. If I were still a kid, I would probably have spent the majority of my time wandering the (lovely) countryside of Skyrim, fighting random bandits or monsters, and stumbling upon quests that I would inevitably leave half-finished. That’s generally the kind of player I was, and Skyrim offered a level of freedom I wouldn’t really have known what to do with. As a child, the narrative would have all been in my head, and I probably would have spent the whole time talking to myself and imagining that I was the character, a grim mercenary wandering the frozen plains and forests. I suspect this is the way the audience is actually supposed to play the game, which is itself intriguing.

That kind of thinking has pulled me into the Elder Scrolls games every time, and each time, I always quit playing almost immediately (Skyrim is the first to break the cycle). The older installments, which probably play more or less the same, have always managed to be some combination of graphically ugly/unappealing and cumbersome to play, to the extent that it ruins the fantasy in my mind. I think that Skyrim has done the most to address these problems, though I would say it’s about time, since Bethesda has been making essentially the same game again and again for years.

Skyrim’s graphics are not terrible. In fact, the exteriors are gorgeous. Mountains and forests and decaying temples- I wouldn’t say they seem real, but they seem like a perfectly accurate representation of these places in a game world. They are crisp and well designed and exactly what they need to be, and are sometimes more colorful and interesting than a game like this would lead you to expect. I do wish for a game that would use a more stylized look, but what was present was thoroughly impressive.

The human characters were decidedly less impressive, which I think is part of my biggest problem with the game, namely, anything having to do with human interaction. Honestly, they weren’t all so irredeemably terrible, but I could not muster the energy to care about any living thing in Skyrim, because they all looked so lifeless and bland.

The story was, of course, inert and dull, because it was delivered in the form of interaction with a bunch of glitchy dolls that would stand at weird angles or get to close and talk talk talk forever. Everything was spoken, which I guess is an achievement, but it just meant I had to listen to a lot of jabbering I didn’t care about. This was the worst part of Skyrim. I really wish Bethesda would work on making a tighter, better story; a well-told story. I realize that a game-controlled narrative is kind of anathema to the Bethesda model, but there must be some alchemy they could use to lash a strong, guided plot with a big open-world experience. Add some more interesting aesthetics, and I think I’d be in love. I also wish they would jettison, or at least significantly down-play the lore (which, I realize, they did do; but I kind of wish they downplayed it even more). The background of the Elder Scrolls world does nothing for me, because it seems like a bundle of the most hackneyed, ultra-cliché high fantasy content imaginable.

Skyrim is a huge game, truly an achievement, but I wonder if we should be so quick to forgive its flaws just because the scale of its ambition are so impressive. At the end of the game, I had far, far less engaging experience than I had even with games from the ten or fifteen years ago, that couldn’t rely on the technical power Bethesda has available to them now. Skyrim makes me think that there’s something else out there, that we’re here on the verge of a game that pulls these threads together in an entirely better and more complete way. Maybe it’s out there and I just haven’t played it? Who knows, but I’m looking forward to it.

My favorite moments in the game were all kind of the same; wandering through a snow-covered forest, suddenly under attack by bandits. I would use a shout or a spell, then rush in and kill the rest with my sword. Maybe I would explore their hideout afterwards, and find the measly treasures they had robbed from other travelers. I would look around at the pristine but savage world after the battle, and for an instant I could imagine myself there.

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Panzer Dragoon Saga

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Panzer Dragoon Saga is famous for being difficult to acquire in the United States (in Japan, it remains quite plentiful), mostly  Sega produced precious few English copies, at the tail end of the Saturn’s generally moribund life cycle. That the game made it to the United States at all seems like some kind of oversight, a coincidence of clerical errors resulting in this weird, brooding RPG getting translated and sold to American audiences. I suppose, at that point in history, Sega had little else up its sleeve other than the inevitable Dreamcast, and thought maybe it would be a final Panzer Dragoon game could manage to be a minor hit? Who can say? I acquired my copy on eBay some time ago, and though overpriced, I’ve seen much worse, so I consider myself lucky.

I don’t know why, but for the longest time I had such a thirst, such a ravenous hunger, to play this game. I felt like it must, must contain some sublime truth, some transcendent videogame experience. I had no reason think this. But hype is like that. Anyway, it was good to finally disabuse myself of this notion, I suppose. 

Panzer Dragoon Saga has never been ported to another system, and I suspect it never will be. There is a lot of loose talk on the Internet about the original code being lost, or something like that, but I think that what it really boils down to is a lack of will on Sega’s (or whoever’s) part to see it put on some other system. It will never happen because the momentum just isn’t there. I would love to be wrong. I think this game needs more exposure, and I’d bet that there’s an audience that would be hungry for it, especially after more than a decade of urban legends about its quality. There have certainly been less “modern” games updated to satisfy the aesthetic sensibilities of current audiences, and I can’t imagine that this game would be less of a hit than the majority of games put out by the likes of Atlus or XCeed.

But, Panzer Dragoon Saga remains an interesting experience, and there are elusive shades of beauty that shine through. It is also, unfortunately, the perfect example of a game that just doesn’t hold up, and the dated graphics are a very high bar to entry. Despite the sublime, excellent weirdness of the character designs and art direction, the graphics themselves (the surfaces, textures, all of that) are so so simple, and look incredibly plain, almost ugly, to modern standards. I can say with confident honesty that I love the graphics of the 32-bit era; many of the games from that time evince a wistful beauty, a stylized cartoony quality, not unlike the sprites of the 16-bit era. I am also aware, however, that the 32-bit look is a harder sell, because it’s clear that these graphics were reaching, grasping at something that really only became fully available in the following generations of hardware. And so it is with Panzer Dragoon Saga. The graphics do their best to capture the gorgeous designs; the compromise of these two elements is a kind of alchemy that produces the empty, haunted, and genuinely post-apocalyptic world the player gets to inhabit. But more often than not, the bad draw distance and incredibly grainy surfaces were a distraction from the narrative.  

Adding to the frustration of acquiring this game is the fact that the Saturn is in no way designed to be played on a modern television, and thus can only be experienced by going through an annoying process of jury-rigging. It’s not a big deal, but it hampered my ability to really enjoy the game, because the image that was finding its way to my screen was probably the poorest possible image that could be produced. It made it difficult for me to sustain an honest interest in what was going on, or to engage in the necessary suspension of disbelief that would be required to lend the narrative the impact and force it was gesturing towards.

Panzer Dragoon Saga isn’t a holy grail, it’s just a good game that came out at an awkward time, that never quite got its due. It’s now mostly lost to the corners of eBay and the collective gamer memory. I don’t really regret the money or the time I spent on it, but the reality is that there have been many other, better games released in the last 15 years.

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Dragon Age: Origins

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I think I’ve restarted Dragon Age: Origins about three times in the years that I’ve owned it. Whenever I get an itch to experience a traditional western-style high fantasy, I always gravitate back, and each time I am quickly reminded how unsatisfying and generally dull I find this game to be. It’s funny, because I realize that a lot of people love Dragon Age and really get swept up by its world and lore. I’ve never really been a fan of Bioware; I feel like each of their games is executed in more or less the same way, and those traits, that common DNA, is exactly the stuff I don’t really like. But I’m still in a fantasy mood, and I hate the feeling of having left this game unfinished for so long. I was hoping it would keep me in the right mindset, and there were segments where I was certainly entertained. On the whole, however, I’m glad that the game is over, and I don’t see myself going back to it anytime soon.  

There’s already a lot of annoying negativity when it comes to discussions about video games, so when I start a new game, I try not to think about it on a “good” to “bad” spectrum, because that’s incredibly reductive and hardly describes the experience of playing something. Dragon Age tries a lot of things, some of which succeed, I think, while others certainly do not. I’m not sure that it was trying to be the game that I was personally looking for. Instead, it was trying to satisfy another audience, one that already exists elsewhere, whose tastes have been shaped by previous efforts very similar to this one. My main problem with the game, I guess, is that the world seems incredibly bland to me. I feel like Dragon Age has no style of its own. When I conjure images of it in my mind, everything is brown and gray, the colors of tedium. It’s sort of a perfect storm of boring dialogue, uninteresting plot, and plain graphics that really turns me off. I think if any one of those aspects were done with a little more flair or efficiency or something, I would be way more into this game. But instead it gives me nothing to latch onto, and I feel like I’m doing work to push the characters forward. So much of Dragon Age, the main quest and the abundant side-diversions, felt like a chore to me, which is the opposite of what I was hoping to experience. I wanted to get pulled into the adventure, to be invested in the characters, but the unpleasant surface blemishes of the game would drag me back out.

The plot is noticeably derivative of other popular franchises, a mish-mash of tropes from western fantasy stock, most prominently the Lord of the Rings, A Song of Fire and Ice, and Dungeons & Dragons. I realize that this is a matter of taste—that for whatever reason I have a much higher tolerance for JRPG clichés than I do for western ones. But Dragon Age does nothing for me. I never felt transported, and I never felt genuinely intrigued by the world that Bioware was trying to create (and in fact, I got tired of the amount of lore and minutiae they packed into the game via notes and other text accessible through menu navigation). Part of this might be that they do a lot of telling, and not a lot of showing. I mean, of course, we see the world, we inhabit in as much as the game allows us to, but a lot of the facts and history are conveyed to us through written back-matter or through leaden, unpleasant dialogue. I felt like Vagrant Story really transported me, and that’s a PS1 game. I cared about the characters, as thin as they were, and I thought the world itself possessed a kind of collapsing, haunted beauty. Nothing in Dragon Age really approaches that level of craftsmanship in a visual sense, though there are certainly comparable locations, and the narrative fails to really convey any kind of dread, or longing, or melancholy, or whatever emotion we are supposed to be feeling.

What I like most about fantasy is world-building. There’s a pleasant alienation that comes from being introduced to a world that feels plausible but different from our own, a kind of genuine magic, like we’re peering through space and time into a unique but comprehensible place. My mileage varies depending on the kind of fantasy world we’re talking about, but it might be that Dragon Age clings a little too closely to the standards of the past. The worlds of Ivalice, or Suikoden or the early Phantasy Star games really interested me, but Ferelden lacks something that those other, older games had. Their worlds felt a little weirder, perhaps more eccentric. They were a little more daring, mashing styles together more readily and creatively. Maybe I’ve just had my fill of elves and dwarves, but I wanted something more, something different, but I felt like Dragon Age was too obviously descended from the pillars of western fantasy canon.

And the dialogue, to my ear at least, is painfully over-written and clunky. This is true of all of Bioware’s games, and really almost all videogames. There are very few games that really get spoken dialogue right. I guess video games, as an art form and as an industry, are still developing those rules of thumb for how much is too much, and things like that. I don’t think we’ve yet found our Mamet or our Tarantino or whatever. Most of the time dialogue is serviceable; often cringe-worthy, if it’s trying to be funny.

So, the confluence of all these forces together made the game a chore for me, and I was either bored or frustrated most of the time. I don’t think I ever really lost myself. I never felt a spark of curiosity about where a story might go. The only impulse of pleasure was accumulation, acquiring stronger weapons or leveling into a new skill or whatever. But that was it. The feeling of being immersed into a world or the motivation to really win this war against the darkspawn wasn’t there. My character did end up being impressively powerful, glowing at all times with an ethereal aura, but throughout the game he remained such a distant, cold thing, this mannequin avatar that I was clumsily piloting through a dreary medieval set. I’ll admit a fondness for a few of the characters (the obvious ones, Morrigan and Alistair), but even that affection was limited by their overwritten dialogue and the weird choices those characters in particular make by the end of the game. I think I would have liked Dragon Age if there was a little more developer control over the advancement of the plot, if it wasn’t trying to maintain the illusion that my choices were what mattered. Creating an environment where my agency trumps everything else, by necessity, sanitizes the experience of so many narrative techniques, so that allegory, or foreshadowing, or others have little use where the plot can’t be predicted by the creator. Instead it sort of levels everything out, and prepares obvious junction points where choices can be made. I guess the seams were too obvious for me, and so I couldn’t really fully commit myself.

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Dishonored

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People have a lot of reasons for consuming art the way they do. I play videogames because I want to feel something. Even though I can admit that most of the time their dialogue is cheesy and tone deaf, their direction obvious and ham-fisted, I think that, at their best, videogames really do move me. Maybe I like the simplicity, the idea of a universe rich with meaning, where the hand of a creator has indeed touched all things and everything is in its place for a reason, and that my experience in that world is paramount to its existence. I’ve always liked the idea of a quest, a mission that supersedes all other needs in its importance. I think this is reflected in the kind of games I like to play (mainly RPGs or story-heavy action games), though those tastes in turn were shaped by games I was exposed to as a child. I’ve built up an impressive backlog of untouched games, but my thoughts often drift back to old favorites, mainly from the PS1/PS2 era, games that really struck my impressionable mind at just the right moment in my development.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but the point is: I have to push myself to really play a new game or a modern action game. If it doesn’t grab me right away, I fade out, and then I end up with a stack of half-played games on a shelf in my closet. When early reviews of Dishonored started to appear, glowingly positive examinations of this game’s triumphs, I was intrigued intellectually but not really motivated to play. I felt like I knew what I would get the moment I started it up. To some degree, I was right, but in other ways it definitely surprised me. Finishing Dishonored was a good exercise, as I think this game can serve as a decent example of where Western game development stands right now in terms of how seriously it’s willing to take narrative and thematic ambitions.

I don’t think Dishonored is a bad game at all, though I can say that for the most part I didn’t enjoy it. My level of enjoyment stems from exactly how I chose to play the game, and thus how I chose to shape my experience in the world of Dunwall. The only other stealth/espionage games I have any real familiarity with are the Metal Gear Solid games, a series which I think is vastly different from Dishonored and not really meant to be compared (Dishonored really has more in common with, or at least is attempting to imitate some of the progressive gameplay attitudes of, Bioshock). I will say that I never felt quite as oppressed, quite as stifled by Metal Gear Solid; there was always a little more empowerment, more clarity to the mechanics at work, and the story, while zany (and overwritten), had more depth and humanity, more sympathy for it’s characters and more dramatic flare. Dishonored feels to me like a genuine attempt at doing something, but an attempt that doesn’t altogether succeed.

Knowing that Dishonored was judging me if I killed anyone made it impossible for me to kill at all, and so I had to meticulously avoid any combat, which led to frequent saving and reloading of my game. I found the layout and demands of the game to be stressful in a way that largely sapped my enjoyment of it. I became less engaged, and by the latter third of the game I had more or less checked out (and, interestingly, the game does the same; later missions lack the same richness and diversity as those early on, and in generally the game becomes more dull). I was also aware that I could fight my way out of most situations if I really wanted to, and was seemingly expected to do this at least some of the time, even though I would be punished for it later. Engaging with the enemies and killing them just generates more rats and more disorder, which in turn invites the player to engage in more fatal violence. So even though the game sort of gestures to the illusion that there are multiple ways to play, it seems like one is heavily favored and the others aren’t. As in real life, actions have consequences, and that’s what the consequences are in this game, so maybe I should be more forgiving. Anyway, it was a strange loop, a weird choice that I suppose has merit but didn’t do anything for me. Maybe I’m nit picking. I think if the story and the world had done more to grab me I wouldn’t have cared so much about these things.

It’s a little sad to think about how much of a fantasy it is that there might be a game that features deep, meaningful scenarios and also has a satisfying circle of action or violence. I do think Dishonored is admirable precisely because it allows for the possibility that you will not want to kill, that a universe exists where your character (and by extension, you the player) does not find the idea of murder to be tantalizing. When I really think about the theory behind how and why a videogame works, elements like fighting an enemy, stealth, assassination, or whatever game mechanic you care to name are really just coats of paint layered over the actual content of a game; a complex kind of puzzle, in this case one that tests patience, timing, awareness, inquisitiveness, etc. What is rewarding about the game is not the possibility of murdering or not murdering (because, despite how accurate the graphics may be, it is obvious that these people are not real, not living), but meeting and exceeding the challenges that are presented. 

The story that Dishonored attempts to tell also isn’t bad, per se, but I certainly wished for it to go deeper, to really try and tell me something. As I played I felt like there were narrative riches just waiting for me, but they never came. Dishonored did at times suggest a sensitivity and a subtlety that went largely underused. There wasn’t much thematic power behind the events of the game, they were just missions accomplished and then briefly reflected on. There also wasn’t really any commentary on, say, fascism or government secrecy, or something that was meant to be historical and critical of life and thinking in the Victorian age. It was a stew of interesting but ultimately superficial elements, all of them finding a place to roughly fit together. I know that one of the ways Dishonored has seen any real criticism is from people who were unimpressed by the story. I don’t much want to add to that, because I do think to a large degree Dishonored accomplishes a lot with what it has, but it is interesting to consider Dishonored as a kind of watermark for where the industry is. I think we’re still at a point where games have generally pretty bad stories and storytelling mechanics. Even games that I would outright call my favorites are really not as powerful as films or novels. I realize the flaw in making these comparisons, the apples-to-oranges nature of that kind of discussion. But what would Dishonored be like in the hands of a more qualified storyteller, an artist with something to say, a statement to make? I’d be interested in that game. 

Game developers, not always as skilled at creating art as they are at programming or designing the mechanics of a game, sometimes shoehorn laughably ham-fisted elements to up the “maturity” of their product. In the past, this has usually meant some swearing, pretty brutal violence, and more recently sex. Which is fine, more that fine, great. Really. But those things don’t make a game mature, at all. Games more often than not lack subtlety, grace, sympathy, and humanity. They often lack heart, or any human emotion that would let you relate to the characters. It’s funny that a lot of games try to convince us of the horrors of something like murder or war, when few of the people involved in their development have experienced a war. I think my problem is that often it feels like videogames have very little to say. They’re not making a point, either in their narrative or in their gameplay. And, I guess, I felt that way about Dishonored. Maybe this would have been less of a problem if Arkane Studios had done a little more with the world building, had created a place where I could feel some real alienation, some actual fascination. Then I would have been all-in. But instead, Dunwall came off most of the time like a kind of pastiche, a coat of steampunk paint over a fun engine. Bioshock, in contrast, really inhabited its 1950s world, an aesthetic that fit nicely and complemented the Ayn Rand inspired philosophical dilemmas that the game confronted you with. The aesthetic and mechanical elements of Bioshock elided together well, and worked cooperatively to advance the central theme of the game and to deliver a specific kind of experience to the player. Dishonored never felt that focused to me. 

Things I liked about Dishonored: despite my “pastiche” talk, the graphics were very good, and the urban spaces were really well designed by art director Viktor Antonov (responsible for Half Life 2’s City 17). Dunwall was a fun place to move around and explore; yet still resembled and felt like a place where people might actually live. The look was excellent and well implemented. The dialogue was not terrible, and there was obvious commitment on the part of the writing staff to really sell what narrative they were committing to. There were some neat ideas, like teleporting, that were used effectively.

The ending of the game was remarkably anti-climactic. Maybe that’s not the right word, because there was a climax, and it was exactly the one I expected and was working towards throughout the entire game. So, I got what I wanted? Regardless, I felt unsatisfied. There were plenty of antagonists, but no villain, nothing in the end that really challenged any of the assumptions of the game and it’s world. Again, Dishonored didn’t have anything to say, it just wanted to give you a chance to try out some cool stealth mechanics. 

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Vagrant Story

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Vagrant Story is a game that I’ve owned since I was probably 14 years old. I’ve started it many times, but I’d never gotten any further than halfway through. It’s a demanding game, to say the least, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it difficult. It’s just that it asks a lot of the player, often more than I really had the energy to commit. This is the first time that I’ve really had the patience to wade through and see the story to its end. I have to say it’s enormously satisfying to finally put this game behind me. Though I’d never been able to finish Vagrant Story, it has always clung to a space in my mind, a corner where I still recall the cobbled streets and ivy-covered walls of sunken Lea Monde. The beautiful graphics and affecting cutscenes are a big part of this; everything drips with emotion, like a gothic novel. The scenery oozes with longing, regret, and remorse. Unsurprising then that the game’s subtitle, revealed at its end, is “The Phantom Pain”.

I seem to remember some reviews at the time of the game’s release (2000) eager to compare Vagrant Story to Metal Gear Solid, and to a point, I think, it’s true that the two games share similarities (although in my opinion the Metal Gear series wears its themes a bit more on it’s sleeve, and is more concerned with big sociological ideas). Yasumi Matsuno, whose credits include Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, and much of Final Fantasy XII (though he left production part of the way through), is the director and producer. I love this guy, and unknowingly I’ve purchased and greatly enjoyed almost everything that he’s worked on that’s been released in the United States.

Vagrant Story came out late in the PS1’s life cycle, at a time when Squaresoft was releasing some of its biggest hits; the PS1 trifecta of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX, as well as games like Chrono Cross. I think, understandably, a lot of the residual feelings around those games ended up rubbing off onto Vagrant Story’s legacy, a game that is, in a lot of ways, a very different experience. It’s hard to call Vagrant Story a masterpiece, but for the most part it accomplishes what it sets out to do extremely well. Unlike the aforementioned Square games, I feel like the scale of Vagrant Story’s ambitions is considerably smaller. Essentially it has two pretty well thought out mechanics (the battle system and the weapon growth/management system, inherently subordinate to each other) that it ties together with dungeon exploration, treasure hoarding, and a narrative told through brief but poignant, extremely well-directed cutscenes. I think it succeeds because the aesthetic elements are so convincing and beautifully implemented. The cinematics are very short (I would be surprised if any of them last more than 5 minutes), and none of the dialogue is spoken (which I think benefits the game tremendously), but because of their high level of quality I found them to be entirely compelling. The crumbling environments of Lea Monde enhance the air of grief and tragedy that suffuses the plot. The artistic design the underpins the city is outstanding, as at times we see the city slowly being overtaken by nature, with moss and creeping vines covering the brick walls and cobbled streets. Moldering dungeons are lined with half-melted candles and shelves of ancient books. Ashley passes through haunted forests, decrepit wine cellars, and collapsing churches as he infiltrates the city in persuit of Sydney.

The music is lovely as well, never anything less than ideal for this setting, expertly composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who frequently collaborates with Matsuno.

Vagrant Story manages to wring a great deal out of a surprisingly small amount. The script itself is quite modest, and the cutscenes, the primary narrative device of the game, are few. This is no Metal Gear Solid at all. But, through first-rate art direction, music, and editing, the game manages to tell a surprisingly emotional and complex story. The audience isn’t really given a whole lot to work with as far as understanding what is going on; like Ashley Riot, we’re dropped into the middle of a crazy situation, and we’re figuring it out as it unfolds. Only, to us, the world is unfolding along with it. To a degree I think Vagrant Story is undeniably opaque, and it’s hard to really say what is going on or what is at stake much of the time. I also believe, however, that the writers were able to transform this from a problem into an asset by hinting at the much larger and culturally/politically complex world just outside the confines of the player’s view. Vagrant Story really implies that Ivalice is a huge, breathing, teeming world, grimy and rich like our own, and that this game, along with Tactics, are just slivers of light through a small window. Maybe it’s a way of saving time and conserving development resources, while tantalizing the player with untold narrative riches just beyond their perspective. A lot of fantasy, in video games and other mediums, is so excited about building new worlds that it bombards the player (or reader or whatever) with a lot of information all at once, and you can kind of sense how implausible it all really is. The strings end up showing, and while it can still be a lot of fun, it would maybe be a little more fun if the telling of it were more organic, if the scenarios were a little more reasonable. So Vagrant Story succeeds because the director and writers realize that a little can go a long, long way, and that it’s always better to leave the audience hungry, wanting more, or forced to use their imagination to fill in some of the holes. And sure enough, the ending does hint at further adventures, which remain, as yet, unrealized.

Matsuno and the game’s other creators wisely chose to keep the cast small, and we receive tantalizingly little of their back-stories. However, I really felt like the game delivered a satisfying emotional arc, and it was surprisingly earnest and full of heart for something that initially seemed a little cold. Like Metal Gear, the most stoic characters (particularly Ashley and Sidney) are revealed to have hidden depths, nuances of emotion that were resonant to me personally. I found Ashley’s transformation to be pretty captivating, and the conclusion of his story was handled well by the designers. Was Ashley a murderer, or simply a man who failed his family? He can never know, and neither can we. Ashley, and by extension the player, are left to decide.

There are a lot of threads that the game never picks up on. Why was Merlose in particular chosen to accompany Ashley? What role were Tieger and Neesa meant to play? What did parliament know about the connections between Duke Bardorba and Sydney? It’s hard to tell if these elements were meant to be fleshed out later but abandoned because of budget constraints (or something), or if the creator was giving himself options for a sequel.

Like I’ve said before, I think Vagrant Story seems to have relatively modest ambitions. Really, the only mechanic that is fully fleshed out or used to its greatest effect is the combat system (which is wildly complex, and which I still don’t understand even after beating the game). The rest of the game is a string of single room environments, usually not particularly big. There is occasional platforming, added seemingly as an afterthought and only difficult in a few places. There are crate puzzles, like an old Zelda game, and these are a fun, if frustrating, diversion from the combat in the rest of the game. But otherwise, that’s it. You fight monsters, and go deeper into the dungeon. Once and a while you see a cutscene to advance the plot, or fight a boss. This isn’t bad, and in fact, is probably the smartest way to get a game like this made, but the beautiful graphics and the hints of narrative complexity obscure what is otherwise a small-scale effort.

The battle system, it has to be said, does feel rather tedious to me, but I’ve never been one for endless min-maxing and menu navigation. I honestly still don’t know what many of the variables really did on most of my weapons. Though, in retrospect I’m glad that the game respected the player enough to allow them such a wide breadth of options as they navigate the experience. I think that the alternative, a combat system that was very simple, would have been detrimental to the product. The minutia of managing weapons and navigating menus seems to work in direct contrast to the narrative elegance and visual artistry of the game; Vagrant Story thus seems to be pulling the player in opposing directions. I suppose the argument could be made that this is the way that Ashley perceives the world, that the extensive technical intricacies are a symbolic way of allowing the player to experience Ashley’s expertise in the “killing arts”. There is an undeniable level of monotony involved in the combat, particularly during bigger battles. Without being properly armed it’s easy to waste a lot of time doing 1 or 2 damage per hit, if that. Regrettable, but overshadowed by the enormous satisfaction that comes with getting it just right, arming yourself with the perfect combination to take down a foe quickly and effectively.

I think the feeling of having beaten Vagrant Story is better than the actual playing of it. I don’t know what that says about it in the end, but I really do like and respect Vagrant Story. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the time or patience to return to this game, it does feel good to finally have it completed.

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Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance

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Sometimes I like to play a game that coincides with the other things I’m enjoying in my life. So, right now I’m reading a sword and sorcery fantasy novel and watching a fantasy TV series, and I thought it would enhance the experience if I also played a fantasy-themed video game. All three require a relatively long-term investment of time, but taking them in at all at once really helps me to maintain the right mindset. It seems like an irrelevant point to make, but it also helps to illustrate that video games, like other artistic mediums, don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re part of an ongoing cultural conversation, a push and pull with the other products of our culture.

Fire Emblem is a series that I would readily say I’m a fan of, though in actuality I’ve played very little of it. I’ve been aware of the franchise for some time, or at least I seem to remember vague conversations about it as this flagship Nintendo property that never made it out of Japan. I’m not sure how accurate that might have been, but I do remember being pretty excited for the Game Boy Advance title that was released a few years ago, a game that I would go on to greatly enjoy. I was immediately impressed by the gorgeously animated sprites and the eclectic medieval fantasy world that reminded me in no small way of another favorite, the Suikoden series (which, now that I think about it, probably took many of its cues from the more popular, and much more enduring Fire Emblem series). Today, I couldn’t tell you much about the plot of GBA Fire Emblem (something about a lost princess?), but the experience and the effect were more important than the immediate minutia of the diagetic plot. 

(As an aside, writing this has reminded me how much of a fantastic system the Game Boy Advance was. So may great games that I want to go back and replay.)

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is a further installment to the series, bringing the action to the Gamecube. I have to say that, overall, I greatly enjoyed this game. Certainly, the presentation is a bit stiff, and the graphics are nothing more than plain (the developers chose to forego the animated look of previous games and instead opted for a banal 3D). Gameplay is standard Japanese fantasy-strategy fare that has been around for some time now, and noticeably less daring than something like Final Fantasy Tactics, a game that came out in the late nineties. These aren’t necessarily criticisms, but I think knowing this grounds the game in a certain era, and shows that Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is striving for a certain kind of experience, that it wants to wrap itself in the effect of it’s predecessors. Nonetheless, it asks you to reproduce the same experience again and again, more or less throughout the entire game. I did enjoy the art and character designs, a solid anime fantasy that showed hints of both eastern and western historical influence. The world of Fire Emblem, like the Suikoden games, is a kind of stew where the cultures of medieval Europe and Asia are thrown together. The large cast of characters is made more charming by this deliberate merger of eastern and western medieval fantasy aesthetics.

The plot is concerned with the political and military struggle of several nations; it eventually becomes clear that a supernatural force (in this case, the medallion of a dark god) lies at the heart of these events. Though the graphics are limited, I felt like the game did a good job communication the scale and importance of events, especially early on, when the main character and his mercenary band are on the run from a much more powerful military force. I actually enjoyed the dialogue scenes, when well-drawn anime portraits would conduct conversation with each other. The characters, surprisingly, displayed something like unique personalities; Soren was brusque and rude, Titania was stern but supportive, Ike was idealistic and driven. I mean, these aren’t the deepest characters, let’s be honest, but for what it is, essentially glue that holds together battlefield set-pieces, they were effective enough, and I really came to like some of them. I feel like the writers of Fire Emblem devoted a little extra energy to characterization, as well as the exercise of world building, and it shows through the (relatively) plausible events that transpire in the plot.

The relative ease of battle was also inviting. Fire Emblem treats it’s battles like games of chess, each discrete, but allows for the possibility of the permanent death of a unit. This fact actually enhances the tension of play. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing one of my comrades, both because each one represents an investment of time, and because they have personalities and stories I wanted to see through. I think the fact that I was always on the razor’s edge of losing a man enhanced my enjoyment of the narrative and the game as a whole. There was a certain kind of empowerment here, a follow through on the medieval sword and sorcery power fantasy like Conan the Barbarian or Berserk. Ike, the central character, satisfyingly becomes an unstoppable force by Fire Emblem’s end. Though the game is never terribly challenging, it’s also not particularly deep, so it never became an issue for me.

Of course, Fire Emblem is about as accurate a depiction of war as a game of chess is, and the ultimate villain of the game has a preposterous, almost hilarious commitment to being evil. Nonetheless, Ike and Princess Elincia’s quest is a satisfying and worthwhile journey, an installment in a well regarded, if technically conservative, franchise.  An enjoyable excursion. I look forward to diving into Radiant Dawn later on.

 

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Jet Set Radio

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I have a strong fondness for Sega. I grew up with a Genesis, and a small library of interesting and remarkably high-quality games that are often overlooked in favor of Nintendo’s litany of hits. There was style and personality present in Sega’s 16-bit efforts, something that still occasionally comes through in games like Yakuza and Valkyria Chronicles. Like Nintendo, Sega possessed a house style; common characteristics that it’s core stable of games shared that made you feel like you were participating in something unique. That might be mostly nostalgia talking, but kids imprint onto things, especially brands, strongly. I read once that Sega was always more popular in the United States than it was in Japan, which I find surprising. My earliest exposure to anything resembling Japanese culture certainly came from Genesis games. I remember exploring absolutely every corner of those games, in the obsessive ways that only a kid could. I loved Sonic, Shining Force II, and Phantasy Star IV (a game I would still readily say is one of my favorites of all time).

 I missed out on the Saturn, which is something I regretted despite how much of an obvious mess the system was (I own one today, along with the handful of excellent games that were produced for the system). The Dreamcast, however, was incredible. I’ve often thought of re-buying one, though I worry that nostalgia might be more powerful than my memories (and also, conveniently, many of the better games from the Dreamcast’s library have been updated or ported to other consoles). Sega, as a company, was apparently a failure because of the poor financial decisions of its leadership. As producers of innovative and artistic content, however, they were nearly unrivaled. Jet Set Radio stands out in my mind as one of those innovative experiments, the kind of game I couldn’t really imagine coming from anywhere else.

 Jet Set Radio was designed by Smilebit, the entity that emerged out of the ashes of Team Andromeda (the designers of the Panzer Dragoon series). This lineage is important, I think, as this group really seemed to have an interest in trying new things and being different. It seems that while ambitious, their designs were ultimately unsustainable. However, certain choices, namely the cel-shaded graphics, have echoed through the industry as a whole.

 While Jet Set Radio’s gameplay can be cumbersome and unwieldy, the graphical artistry is dazzling. I could be wrong, but I think that Jet Set Radio was one of the first games to prominently feature cel-shaded graphics, a look that I still greatly appreciate whenever I see it put to effective use. At the time, I think, everyone was talking about realism, and video games increasing ability to realistically render people and environments. It was a cold splash of water to see something that resembled a moving cartoon. It showed smart audiences that there were options, that designers could make aesthetic choices about how to convey the experience of their game. This was also around the time video games became better at articulating urban spaces. Crazy Taxi came out around the same time, and Grand Theft Auto 3 only a little later.  The zany, colorful, hyper-Japanese world displayed by Jet Set Radio was entirely unique to the video game landscape at that time.

 Jet Set Radio, ultimately, is a brief experience, but I think an impressive one. The colorful and bizarre aesthetics, the music, and the hilariously ridiculous anti-plot, all contribute to a fun and memorable game. Knowing the place Jet Set Radio holds in gaming history, as a part of Sega’s creatively fertile but ultimately untenable twilight period, endows it with weighty nostalgic power. I’m glad I revisited it.