Trimming the Fat

As I mentioned before and I promise to go into detail later, I am no fan of Japanese RPG’s. Yet I am not alien to the format. Two of my favorite JRPG’s are MS Saga and Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. The first game is essentially Final Fantasy: Gundam. The second game might leave you scratching your head. “That’s not a JRPG!” you might claim. Well, actually, it’s about as JRPG as you can get without the weird anime character designs. Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was essentially a Lord of the Rings game made on the same engine as Final Fantasy X.

Oddly, the Third Age and FFXIII have something in common. They cut out a lot of crap. See, the Lord of the Rings game was widely criticized for the features it cut. Town visits in particular. This is also a common complaint about Final Fantasy XIII. My recent foray into Lost Odyssey reminds me of why I hate town visits in JRPG’s so very much. They are pointless and annoying. The towns are spread out amongst multiple maps, and there will be no more than three things to do on any one of them. When I say “to do”, that could a combination of an alleyway with some minor item in it, some citizen with pointless game minutia to share with you, or a shop of some sort. Often a part of a town will have nothing to do. These sections exist as transitions between parts of the town that do have something to do.

This pointless padding just frustrates me, especially since these games rarely have maps and so I find myself wandering lost as I try to find that one person who will give me the information I need to progress the plot. Heaven forbid I actually need to find that shop again. Hopefully the next monster I fight will drop some healing potions because I’ve spent all the time in this town I want to!

Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was story, battle, cut scene. Those were your three options. So far, Final Fantasy XIII is the same way. Is it linear? Almost ridiculously so. You start the game fighting on an elevated highway with two options, forward or back. Really, forward is the only option for obvious reasons. The concern was that in making FFXIII appeal more to western audiences they might have focused on the wrong things. Westerners like our freedom, we like our choices. Don’t take away overland maps or town visits!

Actually, I think that’s a mistake. While westerners do like our freedom and we do like our choices, we also have a very low frustration threshold and a very easy irritation trigger. I don’t want to wander aimlessly and lost through a town were I have to traverse five screens just to buy a handful of healing potions. Actually, I wouldn’t mind if I could at least tell where I was at and which way is the quickest exit? Dragon Age has a fairly large town in it, but it features it’s own map for quick travel between sections. You know what? Thanks for that. Don’t force me to wander around and spend precious gaming time doing nothing.

This is a big improvement for Final Fantasy XIII. Get rid of everything the game doesn’t need. Don’t try to add features to “westernize” a game. Do that later when you understand the culture and can do it in a way that hopefully won’t alienate your home audience. Instead, trim the fat and focus on the game and story itself. I bought this game for a reason, so focus on what it does well as the first step in improving your franchise. Take a page from American game designers on how not to improve your game. More sequels have been ruined by adding features that nobody wanted instead of focusing on the areas that nobody liked or were done poorly compared to the rest of the game.

Crap, I can’t believe with my hardcore anti-JRPG stance in general and strong distaste of Final Fantasy in particular that I’m having to admit they got something very right with this game.

Final Fantasy XIII and the platform philosophy

I could simply do an “In my hands” post like we usually do, but purchasing Final Fantasy XIII is a special milestone for me. You see, I hate Japanese RPG’s. I hate them with a passion. The why’s and wherefore’s are worthy of their own topic and I won’t belabor them here, but the end result is I don’t play JRPG’s. I attempted to play Lost Odyssey late last year. I bought the game for my Dad, which he loved immensely and played through it twice. With his passing I felt like it was an easy way to connect with him. I essentially inherited a game that I bought for him as a gift. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to get into the game but it feels too much like a JRPG in all the wrong ways.

I am, for the first time, buying a JRPG for the story. Stories are important, don’t get me wrong. However, I want to play a game, not watch a game. I get plenty of stories from movies and books already and I don’t need games for their stories. When a game has a good story that’s just a bonus for me. Even Mass Effect 2, which you largely play for its story, is still primarily a game-based purchase, if such a term exists. However, everything I see in Final Fantasy XIII is just gorgeous. I am hoping against hope that they’ll resist to do the usual anime tropes. You know what I mean. The evil corporation, the needlessly convoluted storyline, the betrayal in the third act you saw coming from the first, etc. I’m sure they will, they can’t help themselves. JRPG’s and anime are addicted to a very predictable plot cycle that has made one much like the other in the past decade. Still, this game is brimming with so much potential that I have abandoned my strict “No JRPG” stance. I am hoping this is a game that will transcend it’s genre, like Dawn of War or Borderlands.

All that said, I bought this on the PS3. I like my PS3, but it’s a massive pain in the butt. The ridiculous installation process and the ponderous and intrusive updates actually make the infamously unreliable XBox 360 hardware look good by comparison. That’s an interesting accomplishment considering Microsoft effectively went into overdrive to deliver the most unreliable console of all time. Yet the 360 dominates because, when it works, it is simply a better game delivery platform. Yet there are games, even multi-platform games, that just feel right on a particular system. I loved Fallout 3 on the XBox 360, but the PC is definitely a better platform if you have the hardware. The 360 is my favorite, but I would lie if I didn’t admit Batman: Arkham Asylum just “felt right” on the PS3. If you don’t own a PS3 I’m sure Final Fantasy XIII will stand well on its own merits regardless. Don’t feel bad playing it on the 360. When someone asks me which version I’m getting though, it’s one of the few times I would answer snobbishly “The Playstation 3, of course.” This is a game that demands it look the best, and I’m going to play it on the platform that is best suited for it. Don’t get mad at me, I wouldn’t dream of playing Modern Warfare 2 without XBox Live and I switched Borderlands from the PS3 to the XBox 360 because I realized I had chosen poorly. I’m not a PS3 snob. All I know is that I want to play a game on the platform that will maximize my experience. Alas, like anyone, I often have to make do with the best I have on hand, not necessarily the best there is.

[2 Minute Review] Persona 4

High school sim or epic quest?

Persona 4 summon

You’ll have to put aside about 100 hours to find out!

DO: You are a transfer student from the big city, sent to a small town in rural Japan. While you deal with the struggles and pitfalls of being the new kid at the local high school, you also find yourself involved in the quest to solve a series of murders in town.

TYPE: JRPG

PLATFORM: PS2

PRICE: $39

MEAT: The Persona games are a subset of the Shin Megami Tensei series, as detailed here. Set in the sleepy town of Inaba (a drastic change of pace from the usual hustle and bustle of most SMT games), you play a transfer student who needs to navigate the social While slow to start, Persona 4 hits the ground running by about the 3 hour mark and never lets up for the next hundred hours. Unlike most JRPGs that are set in some mythical fantasy land or sci-fi setting, the modern-day setting is one of the many breaths of fresh air that help to keep the game fresh. Unlike Persona 3’s evokers (which basically emulated your party shooting themselves in the head on a regular basis), Persona 4 backs away from the more controversial imagery and uses the television and tarot cards as the main method of breaking away from the reality of every day life.

During your travels, you will gain a cast of characters who initially come across as anime stereotypes but as you spend time with them, you’ll see that there are many facets to their personalities that make you care about what happens to them. In fact, the social aspect of the game is the strongest portion of the game, in my opinion. I would be perfectly happy playing a game that entirely revolved around the various social portions of the game.

There is a robust turn-based combat engine in the game for those times you need to dive into the TV and help clear out the dreamworlds of the various characters you encounter in the game. The variety of ‘dungeons’ found in the TV world is a welcome improvement over the rather repetitive tower of Tartarus from Persona 3, as each kidnapped victim of the serial killer has a particular fantasy that you must explore and rescue them from before it’s too late. From steamy bathhouses to high-tech secret labs to a retro-style game, you’ll always have a unique environment to explore.

Add to all of this already rich gameplay the Persona collection and fusion aspect, which is like a deeper, darker version of Pokémon, and you have something that will keep you fiddling around for that perfect monster ally to the wee hours of the night.

persona4 lab
PERKS: A wonderful cast of characters; 100+ hours of questing; gorgeous graphics (given that it’s a PS2 title!); a compelling storyline; fantastic voice acting; one of the best localizations I’ve ever experienced (it keeps a lot of the Japanese charm and culture but makes it very accessible for a North American audience).

SCREAMS: For more gameplay during the first 2-3 hours of the game. One of the unfortunately quirks of the last few Persona games is that the initial 3 hours is almost like a glorified cutscene. That said, those first 3 hours are there for a reason and really help establish the world you will be mucking about in for the next 100 hours; for a ‘next-gen’ installment that renders the pop-art visuals in HD; less repetitive dungeon-crawling and even more of an emphasis on the social aspects of the game; the ability to revive the main character if he is killed in battle instead of having that be an instant trip to the Game Over screen.

VERDICT: Buy! Especially if you are a fan of Japanese culture or JRPGs and want to play something fresh that isn’t the typical swords & sorcery, save the world rut that the genre tends to get stuck in.