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Digital Devil Saga is the first Shin Megami Tensei game I’ve spent much time playing.  It apparently is known for marrying the traditional SMT gameplay with a more character-centered and developed story.  Having finished it, I can easily see how it could be a gateway drug for the rest of the SMT series.

Story

What if the world you lived in wasn’t the real world?  That’s the intriguing question posed by DDS as we follow Serph and his companions through a series of unfortunate events.  They are members of a clan living in the Junkyard where it always rains, and they are forced to battle other clans for domination.  The winner gets to ascend to Nirvana, though no one really knows what that means.  As the story progresses and Serph’s group defeats the other clans we receive hints and occasional glimpses of another reality which raises more questions.  Why is there a cat around?  Why are there no children?  Why do the characters have no emotions and later why do they begin to have emotions?  Who is Sera, the mysterious girl dropped into the middle of all this?

I really liked the story in DDS.  As I was playing I kept trying to figure out what was going on and what was behind this strangeness.  The characters were also intriguing and though they were somewhat one-dimensional, this was explained as the game’s story progressed.  I do wish Serph wasn’t the stereotypical Silent Protagonist and I also found Cielo seriously annoying but otherwise I wanted to know more about these characters.

Obviously DDS is the first part of a two-part series of games.  The story will be completed (hopefully!) in the sequel so many of my questions are still unanswered.  Presumably the second game will need to spend more time developing the story as there seems like quite a bit to wrap up.

The major complaint could be that there wasn’t enough of the story.  DDS is primarily set up as a dungeon crawler so the story is typically not a prominent feature.  Going into the game I knew this and appreciated not being taken out of the game every 10 minutes with a cutscene (hello Grandia III!).  The story elements usually arrived between dungeons and always left me hooked with more questions.  Someone looking for a very plot-heavy game filled with cinematics and overflowing with emotional scenes might be disappointed.  There is a story, and it is a strong story.  It’s just not thrown in your face as much as other RPG’s.

Rating: 8.0

Gameplay

Digital Devil Saga is a difficult game.  Though the difficulty was toned down a bit from Nocturne by all accounts, DDS nevertheless presents quite a challenge.  I’m happy to say that I saw the game over screen many times.  What makes it difficult?  First, the encounter rate is set relatively high.  There were times in dungeons where I would literally take the equivalent of two or three steps and be hit by another random battle.  Second, the game relies heavily on enemies who use status attacks as well as elemental attacks that target your characters’ weaknesses.  To succeed, you need to have a phenomenal memory or else write down what monsters repel ice attacks, what ones are weak to force attacks and so on.  Third, the dungeons are long and frequently set you up with surprise encounters, dead ends and confusing layouts.  Last, there are just some encounters that will kick your ass.  Several times I had full health and was feeling cocky when I ran into an enemy that hit my party with sleep spells and then the next turn hit me with Calm Death which kills sleeping characters.  It’s the nature of the game and you adjust to it quickly.

These things would ordinarily make the game irritating but I found I didn’t mind, in part, because the battles are over so quickly.  Combat is a snappy affair, though it is definitely turn-based.  And battles not only give you experience but also Atma (skill points) which are used to level up your Mantras (skills).  This makes each battle significant as it draws you closer to that more powerful healing spell or nifty attack.

Also, I found that I had to change my playstyle to be successful at this game.  I don’t tend to buff, use items much or exploit enemy weaknesses unless I get lucky.  DDS requires you to think carefully about the game you are playing.  Let your mind wander too often, or become stubborn and try to push to the next save point without fully healing your party and the game will spank you.  But when you do play the game, paying attention to what’s in front of you, accepting what needs to be done and “going with the flow” it becomes a very addictive Zen-like experience.

The game is certainly frustrating at times, but it also goes out of its way to help you along.  You’ll almost never find a boss battle where you don’t find a save point first and a warning that “Behind this door there appears to be an evil presence.  Do you still want to go in?”  As you level up your characters will sometimes spontaneously recover HP or MP and save points are generously spaced and some will let you teleport back to various points in the dungeon.

It’s a well-designed game and obviously the system has been tweaked and honed since Nocturne.  I spent a very enjoyable 30 hours with it and there was a lot of optional content I didn’t explore.

Rating: 9.0

Presentation

Let’s start with the character and monster design of Kazuma Kaneko which is nothing short of phenomenal.  He has the ability to create characters that are stylish and otherworldly at the same time.  It suits the game perfectly and the monster design is nearly as good.  Some of the creatures are just bizarre.  I’m still not sure why Argilla’s demon form has sharp-toothed jaws on her breasts but it seems to fit with the game for some reason.

Other visuals continue the trend of being otherworldly and stylish.  While most of the locations are stark and not particularly jaw-dropping, they all maintain a cohesiveness that suits the strange game world of the Junkyard.  While other games have made my Playstation 2 work harder, DDS is no slouch and I never found myself thinking “Boy, I wish this game looked nicer.”  The framerate is solid throughout and there were no visual glitches.  Graphically, the game is very polished.

Voice acting is also particularly strong.  Withe the exception of Cielo’s annoying accent and Serph’s silence, the actors all turned in great performances.  It’s nice to see how far game production has come since Final Fantasy X’s voice acting.  Equally strong is the soundtrack by Shoji Meguro.  Several times I would pause in a particular area just to continue listening to a song.  I’d buy the soundtrack if I could find it without spending a fortune.

Rating: 9.0

Conclusion

I’m glad this is the first part of two as I have another whole game to look forward to.  I’m anxious to spend more time with Serph, Heat and Argilla, particularly after the cliffhanger ending and teaser scene after the credits of DDS.  From start to finish this has been a challenging, intriguing and lovely game.

Final score: 8.7

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Final Fantasy XII Review

My first exposure to Final Fantasy XII, like most people, was through the demo that came with Dragon Quest 8. Did I buy Dragon Quest 8 just to get ahold of the FF12 demo?  I’ll have to plead the 5th on that. I played the demo for about 10 minutes and my first thought was “That’s different.” My second thought was “That’s really different” as it felt like an MMORPG instead of a Final Fantasy game. Once the game was released I did succumb to the initial excitement and bought it right away, played it for several hours and shelved it. It seemed like a good game but it wasn’t like the other Final Fantasy games I’d played and liked.

Then I restarted the game a little over a month ago and flew through its 62 hours in a caffeine-assisted haze. It’s very rare for me to play a game this quickly, particularly one this size. Here are my final thoughts on FF12 but if you want the short version: It’s different from other games in the series and it’s brilliant.

Story

All recent Final Fantasy games have had an interesting cast of supporting characters but ultimately focused on a single protagonist, usually with funny clothes, bad hair, a whiny personality or a tail. FF12 turns this upside down. At the start of the game we are introduced to Reks, through whom we learn the game’s basic mechanics. But just as soon as we get comfortable with Reks he’s gone and Vaan takes his place. He does have the trademark funny clothes and bad hair and looks a bit like the young lady who works down the hall from me but he’s a likeable enough guy. We spend most of the game seeing things from Vaan’s point of view but, oddly enough, he’s not the main character.

You see, the story in FF12 is much larger in scope than other games in the series. It concerns itself with politics, empires, invasions and rebellions. There are actually several similarities to Star Wars including a princess without a throne, a swashbuckling rogue and his non-human companion, villains in dark suits of armor with breathy, deep voices and a final confrontation against a Death Star-like fortress. In many respects, Vaan takes on the role of C3PO in that he is present for all the major events that take place but isn’t really the acting force that moves the plot forward. This was a bit jarring at first as I kept waiting for big revelations about Vaan and instead the game kept giving me glimpses into the inner workings of the empire and its enemies.  If anything, the main characters are Princess Ashe and Basch, a man who may or may not be guilty of regicide.

Freed from any prior expectations, the story in FF12 is quite good. I was interested in what was happening and there were several plot twists I wasn’t prepared for. The game is so huge, with so much to do (more on that later) that there were some points toward the middle of the game where I felt the plot meandered a bit too much. There were a lot of minor and major characters and it was easy to lose track of who they were and why they were important. I wish the developers had added a story summary or glossary of the important people you met and a bit of their background just to make it easier to keep on top of all the characters. I mean the Marquis Ondore was great and I appreciated seeing him at the end of the game but it had been 20-30 hours since we last met him and it took me a moment to remember who he was.

The other problem was this grand, sweeping story that was able to pause while your characters completed a dozen or more hours of sidequesting.  Once you had enough optional questing you could return to the story right where it left off.  It’s not realistic but I’m not sure how else they could handle it.

The six primary characters were great. Vaan was successful in not being a whiny douche which is notable for a Final Fantasy protagonist. Basch was very cool and had a fantastic story arc. Ashe, as the princess without a throne, was well-realized. I enjoyed watching her struggle with the question of what a person will do and won’t do for the nation they love. Balthier was far and away the most fun character. He’s Han Solo with a better voice and cooler clothes. His partner Fran was very exotic. I would have liked to know more about how they met. The only character I didn’t appreciate much was Penelo. She never seemed to have much of a role other than being Vaan’s friend. I would have liked to see her developed more but I am glad they ended the game from her perspective.

So yes, the story in FF12 is very different from the games that precede it. I think it’s a good thing and I was happy to see the storyline move in a broader, more mature direction.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Gameplay

Much has been said of Final Fantasy XII’s battle system so we’ll deal with that right off the bat. Battles are similar to MMORPG’s in that you will see the enemy as you are walking around but it will only become aggressive if you get close to it. At that point battle begins with no separate “battle screen” and no flashy battle transition. I can’t tell you how jarring this was for me at first.  I’m so used to the Final Fantasy battle screen in all its various forms.  Once battle is done you collect any loot the monster drops and you move on. Because of this, there are no random battles and you can actually avoid a lot of combat just by not getting too close to the enemies. It’s refreshingly different and made me wonder why Final Fantasy hadn’t done this before.

Hand in hand with the new combat system is the gambit system which is also completely new to the franchise. It turns the traditional turn-based battle systems from previous Final Fantasy games into a quasi-real-time strategy game. You select what you want your characters to do from the Gambit menu (i.e. If the enemy is flying then use Thundaga, If the enemy has 100% health then attack him first) and, in battle, they follow your commands. If you’re not happy with what they are doing you can select a different action, rearrange or re-do gamebits or you can turn gambits off altogether. This is similar to PC RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate or World of Warcraft where your characters have default actions they will carry out in real-time but you can step in at any point and give them specific instructions.

The downside to the gambit system? Well it does create a certain distance between you and the battles as, once you’ve set your gambits up, your characters can handle most battles quite well without you, thank you very much. At no point did I feel like I was playing Dungeon Siege (“it plays itself!”) but I can understand how some people might not like the system. Also the developers decided to slowly trickle out gambits to you so you start the game with only the most basic commands and add to them as the game progresses. It helps prevent being overwhelmed by all the options but also felt silly and restrictive.

Another change is the license system. You learn how to use weapons, cast spells, etc by purchasing licenses for them. Odd, right? If I found a great sword and didn’t have the license for it then I couldn’t use it. You get more license points by fighting battles and eventually you can specialize your characters. Vaan became a melee fighter, Balthier became a thief and shot enemies with his pistol of doom and Ashe became a mage and an archer, alternating fire attacks with arrows. It’s not a bad system and you can make any character learn any ability. Want to have three female melee fighters equipped with axes and heavy armor? You can do that.

One complaint is the necessity of stealing from enemies. You do get items from battles that you can sell (called loot) but you never seem to get enough unless you steal from enemies. As the game progresses and spells and weapons cost more and more I found I was stealing from every battle.

Final Fantasy XII is a huge game. I finished the main storyline in roughly 62 hours with only a little time spent doing sidequests. And there are a *lot* of sidequests to do. For one, there are hunts which are new to the series. These are elite or sometimes boss-level monsters that you contract to find and kill. They are completely optional but once you do dispatch a hunt you are rewarded for your services and can accept another hunt. There are several dozen hunts in the game and as you progress through them they increase in difficulty. They also open up other sidequests and reveal bits and pieces of the side-story and help to flesh out the game. Now that I’m done with the main story, I think I could reload my last save and just concentrate on hunts and sidequests and probably have over a hundred hours worth of gameplay.

One of the biggest compliments I can give to an RPG is that it is addictive and FF12 became very addictive for me. I had a clear idea what I wanted my characters to be like and watching them increase in level and ability was very compelling. Several times I’d be close to stopping for the night but wanted to keep playing until I could unlock a better black magic spell or build a long chain of enemies so I could get some really nice loot drops.

Gameplay gets a 9.0 out of 10

Presentation

Square seems able to squeeze fantastic visuals from older hardware.  From Chrono Trigger on the SNES to Final Fantasy IX on the original Playstation, Square’s designers and programmers excel at using the limited resources available to them.  As the last Final Fantasy title on the Playstation 2 I expected this to be a great-looking game and I wasn’t disappointed.

The opening CG movie is a fantastic start – breathtaking visuals and a sweeping score combined to draw me into the game.  There are several CG movies sprinkled throughout and they are all well-done.  We’re used to amazing cutscenes from Final Fantasy games and FF12 offers no surprises here.

What is surprising about Final Fantasy XII is the change in perspective.  Instead of a fixed overhead camera with mostly static backgrounds, the game has changed to a movable, behind-the-back camera.  This third-person view makes an enormous difference.  Many times, while playing previous entries, I’d wished I had the ability to look around and admire the beautiful scenery and FF12 delivers in spades.  Cities, ruins, other characters all seem more alive and realistic when you can look at them from “eye” level.  My only gripe is that you can’t change the camera rotation controls.  This would have been very easy to incorporate and its absence is inexcusable.

Also realistic are the character models.  FF12 continues in the tradition of FF8 and FF10 in giving us realistically proportioned (well, for the most part anyway) characters and they look great.  It doesn’t really need to be said but the Playstation 2 is an old beast and yet the visuals in this game are fantastic.  When held against the standard of the best-looking PS2 games, FF12 lands near the top.  Widescreen support is a nice addition and is present but apparently progressive scan was not possible.

Final Fantasy XII also is notable for the absence of long-time composer Nobuo Uematsu.  Taking his place is Hitoshi Sakimoto, who previously composed the scores to Vagrant Story, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and Final Fantasy Tactics.  The differences are notable but Sakimoto’s score is suitably majestic and full of hooks.  I had the Rabanastre song playing in my head for a good week or two after I started the game.

After the voice-acting fiasco that was Final Fantasy X (remember this?), I was nervous about the performances here.  As it turns out there was nothing to worry about – Final Fantasy XII has the best voice-acting I’ve heard in a console RPG.  Every character could have been silent except for Balthier and I still would have loved it.  The actors turned in amazing performances that helped to root the characters in my mind as people, not just animated figures on the screen.

All other aspects of FF12’s presentation are top-notch as well.  I want to give special appreciation to the translation as it is phenomenal.  There is no Engrish to be found anywhere and the text descriptions of the creatures in the Bestiary are clever and frequently funny.

Presentation gets a 9.5 out of 10

Conclusion

The Final Fantasy games have always balanced upholding certain traditions with their ever-changing battle and character development system.  Final Fantasy XII is yet another fine entry in the series.  Is it the best Final Fantasy game?  I’m not sure about that but it certainly can stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them.  It was an enjoyable, lengthy and compelling experience.  There’s a part of me that wants to replay the whole thing again.

Final Score: 9.0

So here I am at the end of Final Fantasy VIII after 44 hours and two previous attempts to finish the game.  After all that, was this game worth almost two whole days of my life?  Here’s my review.  The Presentation and Gameplay sections should be safe to read if you haven’t finished FF8 while the Story section spoils the whole dang thing.  Beware!

Presentation

After the well-received Final Fantasy 7, all eyes were on Squaresoft as they were preparing to release their follow-up.  What would it be like?  And could it top the visual feast that was FF7?  I remember watching the television ads for Final Fantasy 8 and being wowed by the characters I was seeing.  Of course I knew it was a computer animated movie that I was watching but it was still impressive.  I think a lot of people bought Final Fantasy VIII because they wanted to see something spectacular coming out of their little grey Sony box.

And they weren’t disappointed – Final Fantasy 8 is a gorgeous game.  Blah, blah, pixellated characters, blah, blah, prerendered cutscenes, blah, blah, doesn’t age gracefully and so on.  Well bite me because Final Fantasy 8 was and still remains a visually stunning game.

I have to admire the developers for taking a risk (I will be coming back to this idea frequently).  Final Fantasy 7 featured very stylized, anime-inspired characters.  They gave the game a certain look, a visual consistency even with the big heads and the low-polygon bodies and the lack of noses.  That became the look of Final Fantasy for most people.  FF8 chucked all that and gave us realistic looking characters with (well almost) normal clothes, believable movements and a much more “mature” look.  When I first saw Squall laying on the bed in the infirmary I thought “He looks real.  How’d they do that?”

Now the truth is I much prefer unique, stylized characters.  I didn’t mind Cloud’s spiky hair and Zidane’s tail was alright by me.  Looking back, I think the PS1 did a better job representing those sorts of characters than the realistic chaps populating Final Fantasy 8.  While it lost some of the traditional fantasy trappings, the technical skill involved in creating FF8’s characters is undeniable.

The backgrounds are also, once again, simply gorgeous.  Obviously they are low-rez by today’s standards but I remember what it was like when these games were released and they were beautiful.  I’m impressed at the amount of work that went into creating each screen in the game.

Final Fantasy 7 set the bar high with its CG cutscenes and everyone expected amazing things on FF8’s four CD’s.  The opening cutscene as Squall and Seifer face each other with swords and feathers and grass and Rinoa and the beach was marvelous.  Another high point is the dance between Squall and Rinoa which was lovely, overflowing with warmth and perfectly set up the contrasting lead characters.  Now I have to say that the ending cutscenes were jarring and unpleasant to watch.  Maybe they weren’t explained well by the story, but they seemed to drag on and on and had definitely lost the “wow” factor by that point.

My main criticism of the visuals in Final Fantasy 8 is that Square has created a gorgeous world that seems somewhat generic and bland.  The steampunk-meets-fantasy worlds of FF6 and FF7 were immediately appealing and made me want to learn more.  FF8 presents a standard sci-fi world that was uninspiring to me.

However, I really can’t criticize Nobuo Uematsu’s musical score.  Maybe FF8 didn’t have quite the same number of memorable songs as its predecessors but they also didn’t have Liberi Fatali – a stunning song, made more so by the fact that it sounded nothing like other Final Fantasy music.  As always, I grew tired of some of the repetitiousness of the music and Balamb Garden’s theme song was a particular culprit.  I actually liked Laguna’s battle theme more than Squall’s and Eyes on Me was okay the first time I heard it but once was enough.  But on the whole this is another superior production from Uematsu-san.

Final Fantasy VIII gets an 8 out of 10 for presentation.

Story

Most good stories have both a compelling protagonist and antagonist, someone to identify with as he or she struggles against obstacles.  Like most console RPG’s, you don’t get to choose your protagonist, you’re stuck with Squall for better or worse.  A lot of people didn’t like Squall’s whiny “dark” nature and were quickly turned off from the game.  I sympathize with them as he is a big butthead for most of the game but I really didn’t mind him.  I knew he’d redeem himself and eventually he did.  Along the way Square took an interesting approach with Squall by showing us his thoughts.  Most of the time in console RPG’s we don’t get an insight into what characters are thinking.  Instead we get the infamous “…” response.  I can’t say that knowing Squall’s whiny “dark” thoughts made a huge difference in the game but it was an interesting change for Square.

His progression in the game came mostly from his growing romance with Rinoa.  While Squall is brooding and dark, Rinoa is all smiles and lightness.  it was amusing to watch them interact and to see her gradually work her way into his heart.  They don’t really answer the question of why she would find this asshole so attractive so we’ll have to leave that question for her therapist to answer.

The supporting cast is good but doesn’t really stand out.  Selphie is the typically cute but silly female with the short dress.  Zell pumps his fists in the air and acts brash.  Irvine mostly disappeared into the woodwork and Quistis seemed like she might have had a lot of depth to her character but they never really took her there.  I wish she’d had a more clearly defined love triangle with Squall and Rinoa.  It would have been nice had there been a stronger focus on an ensemble cast as Squall just wasn’t charismatic enough to carry the game.  Cloud wasn’t either but Barett, Tifa and Aeris more than made up for it.

What about an evil villain?  There was definitely no Kefka in the background of most scenes cackling maniacally.  Edea made a respectable baddie for the first part of the game and the scene where they tried to assassinate her was a lot of fun.  But eventually we realize she’s just a tool of the evil Ultimecia who is mostly faceless and nonthreatening until the end of the game.  Seifer had the potential to be an excellent counterpart to Squall but he disappeared quickly and when he did return he was relegated to The Big Bad’s Sidekick.  Instead of being held together by a nefarious villain, FF8 emphasizes a more personal story involving Squall, Rinoa and their friends.

And the backstory with Laguna?  It was an interesting diversion but ultimately felt distracting from the main plot.  Without any clear connection between the two until much later, Squall & co.’s story completely lost momentum whenever Laguna made an appearance.  While all the loose threads with Laguna’s group eventually came together, the whole side-story felt unnecessary and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy VIII had a merely average story that lacked the depth and breadth of other games in the series.  I appreciate what the developers were trying to do and a change from the norm is always welcome but it just didn’t work very well.  The game suffered from trying to make the story both big and small at the same time.  A good game could be made from a focus on Squall’s story, his background, his inner demons and his relationship with Rinoa and his companions.  Another good game could be made from the story of a group of students fighting the evil plans of a time-travelling sorceress.  Trying to do both, the game succeeded at neither.

Final Fantasy VIII’s story gets a 5 out of 10.

Gameplay

The gameplay in FF8 is an odd mixture of awesome and frustrating.  Once again, the developers decided to break from the traditional and do something different.  And they definitely did something very different.

Honestly, at first blush (and second… ) the Guardian Force system was practically impenetrable.  Part of that were the tutorials which threw out a massive amount of text and stats without really showing how to use them.  But the biggest part was the nature of the beast – the GF system is completely different from what came before.  The closest to it was FF5’s job system but it was nowhere near this complex.  I think another reason why I was so bewildered by it was that I typically hadn’t paid attention to character statistics in Final Fantasy games either before or after FF8.  I could complete the game and never really needed to know what Edgar’s strength statistic was.  Not so in FF8 where stats become very important and junctioning GFs are the way to increase them.

And now that I understand the system, it all seems very easy and sensible but I think a lot of gamers spent an hour with the game, got confused and gave up like I did.  I’m glad I stuck with it though as building my GF army and my characters became quite addictive for me.  I’d spend a lot of time avoiding battles and changing enemies into cards to avoid obtaining experience points.  Why?  Because the levels of monsters and bosses scale with you.  If you are low-level then pretty much all the monsters are as well.  And if you grind for experience and spend a lot of time levelling your characters you can easily find yourself facing nearly-impossible bosses later in the game, particularly if you haven’t mastered junctioning and improved your stats.  So, much like Oblivion, I tried to keep my levels as low as possible.  I made it through 80-90% of the game under level 25 and only got up to level 32 shortly before the last dungeon.  It’s an strange gameplay mechanic and I really wish the developer’s decision to level enemies along with you was made very clear from the start of the game so you could plan accordingly.  I wouldn’t have known until later in the game if I hadn’t read about it elsewhere.

Another odd design decision is that your stats are increased by junctioning magic to them.  Magic spells become a commodity in this game which is completely different from any other game I’ve played.  If you want a high HP statistic, you’ll need to junction Cure magic (or Cura, or Curaga… ) to your HP.  The more you junction the higher your HP gets.  But what if you need to cure yourself after a battle?  Then you’re taking away from your junctioned pool of magic and your stat decreases accordingly.  The end result is the system punishes you for using magic and encourages you to hoard spells like precious gold.  I grew so used to not relying on magic that even in the last couple of battles I had a difficult time forcing myself to cast those Ultima spells I’d squirreled away.

Instead I used GF attacks a lot, particularly the awesome Cactaur once I figured out where he was hiding.  The problem with GF attacks is that there’s no way to skip or shorten the summoning animations.  Some of them take the better part of a minute while others (like Cactaur) were blessedly short which meant I used them a lot.

What all this means is that if you don’t really understand the game’s mechanics you can easily paint yourself into a corner where you are high level but have poor stats and the monsters and bosses are wiping the floor with you.  Or you can deliberately keep your levels low, maximize your stats and the game becomes a cakewalk.  At the end of the game Squall was routinely doing 2,000 to 3,000 damage with basic physical attacks.  One Renzokuken limit break was enough to wipe out some bosses.  It seems odd that you are basically encouraged to “break” the game and punished for playing it traditionally.

I liked that FF7’s minigame-happy trend didn’t carry over to FF8 but the minigames that we did have were irritating.  I never want to go through Squall’s mid-air fighting game again.  And, as I mentioned before, the last dungeon sucked.  It was unnecessarily punishing and filled with somewhat obscure puzzles and boss battle after boss battle.  I can’t think of another dungeon I hated more. 

Final Fantasy’s gameplay truly had a split personality, alternating between fantastic and irritating.  I’d love to see the GF/Junctioning system make another appearance in a more polished game but I’m not sure we’ll see that happen.

Final Fantasy VIII’s gameplay gets a 6 out of 10.

Conclusion

FF8 is known as the black sheep of the franchise but there are also very zealous fans out there.  Now that I’m finished with the game I can certainly see why.  There’s a lot to like in this game but there are equally frustrating and questionable design decisions.  Kudos to Squaresoft for not resting on their FF7-colored laurels and trying to break the mold.  While they succeeded in creating a unique game, it’s difficult to overlook its shortcomings.

Final score: 6.3 out of 10.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is the first Dragon Quest game I finished since the original Dragon Warrior. It was one of those games I started, got distracted and nearly gave up on. But once I returned to it, I was completely hooked and played until I finished it. Here are my final thoughts.

Story

I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly gripped by the story at first. Sure the characters were funny and Dhoulmagus was an interesting villain but I wasn’t sure why he had cursed King Trode and stolen the sceptre. It took awhile for the story to develop but once it did, I was much more involved and wanted to see what happened. It was pleasantly surprising to realize why Dhoulmagus had been killing people and the revelation of the actual evil presence behind the story was a lot of fun.

The story was fairly simple (or should I say straightforward?) and ultimately boiled down to “bad dude wants to destroy the world and good guys must defeat him.” There were no complicated, interweaving subplots and things seemed almost grade-school level compared to something like Final Fantasy VII and its complex and confusing narrative. But that was fine with me as DQ8’s story was told well, with a lot of personality. It’s nice to not have an angsty, dark hero at the center of things.

The real charm of DQ8’s story lies in its characters. All the major characters were great and I enjoyed finding out their backstories and watching their interactions. I think the developers did a great job of creating a party of three supporting characters that were distinctive and enjoyable to spend time with. Yangus, in particular, was a riot and I’d overhear my children saying “Cor blimey!” from time to time.

Dragon Quest VIII’s towns and their inhabitants were also a highlight of the game. I enjoyed all the side stories from Prince Charmles’ adventures to Yangus’ interaction with his love/nemesis Red to relatively minor characters like the ultra-virile Morrie. Usually I hate running through towns in RPG’s and talking to the residents there but I thoroughly explored every town in DQ8 and enjoyed speaking to every resident.

Dragon Quest VIII’s story gets a 9 out of 10.

Presentation

What can I say? I love cel-shading when it’s done well. Ever since I played Jet Grind Radio on the Dreamcast I liked the look of a cel-shaded game, and Dragon Quest VIII has to be one of the best examples of the technique. Playing through the world of DQ8 is like taking part in a high-quality anime, like a Miyazaki movie. Everything has this distinctive, consistent style from the cities to the characters to the monsters.

And I have to say the crazy monsters were one of the best things about Dragon Quest VIII. I couldn’t wait to find a new creature and my kids and I would grin at the silly animations. How many RPG’s have monsters that turn around and spank their bottoms, leaving your party members shocked and unable to move for the rest of the turn? The quality of the humor and the animations were definitely a high point of the game.

I understand that some gamers were turned off by the silly design and humor and wanted a “serious” game. That’s fine. There will always be games like Oblivion for them. But games overflowing with style like DQ8 are rare and something to be treasured.

Also remarkable is the draw distance in the game. I noticed this early on when I could see an object off in the distance and gradually work my way over to it, with no loading whatsoever. That’s just an amazing feat of programming for a system as “simple” as the Playstation 2. And even when there were loads, such as when we entered a city or a dungeon, they were brief and infrequent.

Almost as impressive as the graphics is the audio in DQ8, particularly the voice acting. With the exception of King Trode, who always had an irritating voice, every character was voiced in a very professional, brilliant way. Yangus was particularly great, but even the run of the mill characters were well-voiced. I don’t understand the reasoning for the Hero remaining silent, so the game gets a small knock for that. But otherwise I almost never skipped past a character’s speech and I usually get bored with dialogue and can’t wait to move on. Compared to Final Fantasy X, the voice acting in DQ8 was nothing short of a revelation.

Last comes the music. I know the Japanese version of DQ8 didn’t have the symphonic score that we North American types get, and that’s a shame for them as the music was uniformly great and the orchestral score really gave the game this grand scope, making it really feel like an epic adventure. It’s a testament to a game when I find myself humming tunes through the week while I’m at work, and that happened all the time with DQ8.

Dragon Quest VIII set a high water mark for presentation for a role-playing game. I give it an amazing 10 out of 10.

Gameplay

Here’s the thing about Dragon Quest VIII’s gameplay: it is, for lack of a better term, old-school. There are random monster encounters that happen frequently. Not so frequently that you can’t take ten steps before fighting but it’s definitely not a system like Final Fantasy XII where the enemies are visible and you can choose how to approach them. Battles are turn-based and can take a minute or two to resolve. This drives some people crazy but DQVIII allows several different strategies during combat. Do I put my enemies to sleep, beat the crap out of them, hit them with a fiery inferno or perhaps do the underpants dance and shock them into submission? I like this system but I understand that others don’t.

Character development is also a bit… barren. You can equip armor and weapons. You can spend points on any of the four different skill tracks for your characters, making them better at swords or bows or even magic abilities. You get new skills at prescribed times based on your level or your skill points. But that’s about it for character customization. There are no classes to change and no jobs to develop. You don’t really have a lot of choices that will influence the story or even some of the subplots.

DQ8 also suffers from being unnecessarily vague and could have benefited from more information given to the player. The alchemy pot was a big mystery and I spent (wasted) a lot of time trying to make something useful. Though the recipes were helpful, more clarity would have been nice. I also didn’t know what skills my characters would develop as they progressed up certain skill paths. I would like to have known more clearly what I was aiming for with my skill point allocations. I chose to specialize rather than spread my points among the four options so I was happy but I could see being really frustrated if I hadn’t done that and didn’t have access to some of the higher-level skills at the end of the game.

But despite all this there’s something very compelling about Dragon Quest VIII. The developers have managed to tickle that addictive nerve in me that makes me want to keep playing just a bit more. Part of it is that your characters are always learning new abilities and attacks. Part of it is the ability to make things in the alchemy pot that can give you a tremendous advantage in combat. I personally got quite addicted to the monster arena and enjoyed scouting around for notorious monsters to recruit and improve my monster team. And as I progressed I could take my monster team and call them into a battle which helped a lot with some of the later bosses.

It’s difficult to specify what makes DQ8 so addictive for me, besides just listing the things I liked. Part of the charm is just how “traditional” the game is. There’s a certain simplicity that I found really appealing. Compared to the overly-complicated systems in a game like Final Fantasy VIII, DQ8 almost seems juvenile but there are layers of depth that I discovered as the game progressed.

Dragon Quest VIII gets an 8.5 out of 10 for gameplay.

Conclusion

The true test for me of how much I liked a game is the replay factor. Would I ever want to replay this game again? And with Dragon Quest VIII the answer is definitely “yes!”. Even as I was going through it I was thinking of things I’d like to do differently on a second run-through. All in all, Dragon Quest VIII was a very polished, fun and surprisingly deep game. It had characters I liked, looked flat-out gorgeous and gave me a large world to adventure in. It’s honestly one of the best role-playing games I’ve had the joy of playing.

Final score: 9.2 out of 10

When I was reading about classic RPG’s I kept hearing people refer warmly to the Lunar games as a landmark series. Now that I’ve finished both of them I can see why. Here are my final thoughts on Lunar 2.

Story

Lunar 1 was characterized by a strong story and Lunar 2 follows suit. A good RPG needs engaging characters and the creators of Lunar have again done a great job bringing these animated sprites to life and making them seem like people. The main story centers around Hiro (okay it’s a stupid name – no question) and Lucia, a mysterious girl he finds one day. She initially is detached and weird and hard to like but as the game progresses we see her become more “human” and begin to develop feelings for Hiro. Other characters go through similar transformations: Jean comes to terms with her past as a secret assassin and looks forward to her future as a dancer (!), Ronfar deals with his guilt and becomes less of a randy goat and Leo changes from an adversary to a friend. Even Ghaleon is redeemed at the end of the game.

The plot wasn’t as strong as the characters however. It basically boiled down to “save the world from the evil being” and often involved a lot of annoying side quests and filler. I think the long initial journey to Pentagulia and the later quest for the four dragons could have been shortened without losing much and it would have resulted in a more focused story.

But the fun of a game like Lunar 2 isn’t in the grand, sweeping plot but more in the small, individual moments. And Lunar 2 was filled with a lot of these. Yes some of the dialog is cheesy and that does detract from the story. While Working Designs did a great overall job bringing the game to us, I really could have done without some of the jarring humor and references to 1990’s current events.

The other exceptional thing about Lunar 2 is the way it follows its prequel and maintains some of the same settings and characters. This really is a game that is good by itself but becomes great when you are aware of the many connections between the two games. I especially enjoyed seeing what happened to Luna, meeting Ramus’ descendants and finding Nall again. It was also fun to travel to many of the same locations and see how they’d changed over the years. I wish more RPGs found a way to continue the story from earlier games in the series.

Overall, Lunar 2’s story was great. I give it an 8 out of 10.

Presentation

One of the first things I noticed about Lunar 2 are the animated cutscenes that are sprinkled throughout the game. They really are well done and serve to flesh out the characters and important story points. As I moved through the game and would approach an important plot point, I knew there was going to be an anime cutscene and I found myself looking forward to them. I actually wouldn’t mind watching an anime series with expanded animation from Lunar 2. It’s really top-notch and adds a lot to the game.

The other thing that I noticed about the game are the 2D graphics and sprites. The visuals are warm and bright with lots of vibrant color. The character sprites are well-modeled and animated. I always knew which character I was looking at from a quick glance at the screen. Other aspects of the graphics were equally well-done. Towns were busy and filled with people who all had something to say. Dungeons were intricate and appropriately creepy and the overworld was filled with lots of interesting things that made me want to investigate more. I do wish the game gave you an option of a large overview map with town names as it could be difficult to find a particular place you needed to visit.

Music, as always, was exceptional. Noriyuki Iwadare has again created a soundtrack that I wanted to listen to and the fact that it was available on CD as part of the game was outstanding. At no point did any of the music become irritating, though I never mind a change of battle music halfway through the game. Any song become irritating after you’ve heard it a hundred or more times. Many of the songs were catchy and I’d find myself humming them at times during the day. Lunar 1 did include a “music video” during the game with Luna singing on the ship about her life and her future. I found myself waiting for something similar in the sequel but its absence is far from a deal-breaker.

Voice acting remains questionable. While many of the actors did a fine job during important scenes, the constant “I’ll take care of this” or “You need a spanking” during battles got old really quickly. I wish there was a way to turn them off or at least make them happen only occasionally as they did become quite irritating after awhile.

Game Arts and Working Designs have again created a game that is beautiful to look at and listen to. I give Lunar 2’s presentation 9 out of 10.

Gameplay

Gameplay in Lunar 2 is a mixed bag. There are some elements that are a lot of fun and others that could be improved. In general, I liked the combat in Lunar 2. The ability to see enemies before you battle them is always welcome and means that there are no random battles. This is one area where Lunar was ahead of its time as the developers could balance the game, knowing you’d be at or near a certain level for some of the major fights. Well most of the time anyway. The combat system is good and I liked the ability to position your characters and how they and the enemies moved around the battlefield. This is the precursor to the combat system in Grandia which was refined to near-perfection.

Lunar 2 is not an easy game. Many of the dungeons are quite difficult and some of the bosses are brutal. I did find I had to spend a play session or two just grinding to make sure I could handle some of the tough fights. I do think the difficulty was more consistent than in the first game which would often surprise me with an out-of-the-blue nasty fight I was completely unprepared for. I would have liked the ability to customize my characters more. I did like equipping rings and crests which gave them new abilities but some way to directly influence the characters’ growth would have also been nice.

The game had some problems with pacing. My total playtime was around 33 hours which isn’t bad but there were some parts that seemed to drag, particularly the initial journey to Pentagulia and the quest to find the four dragons. I would have appreciated a shorter, better-paced game. Minigames were almost entirely absent which was fine with me and would have felt like padding. I think Lunar 1 was better-paced though I suppose some complained that it was too short.

I like the fact that there is an Epilogue to play after the game is finished and I looked forward to resolving the story but I really had my fill of Lunar 2’s gameplay by that point. I might return to it sometime but I didn’t feel compelled to spend more time grinding.

Overall I give Lunar 2’s gameplay a slightly above-average 6 out of 10.

Conclusion

I’m happy that I played the Lunar games. While I liked the first Lunar better than the second in some ways, Lunar 2 seemed to refine and improve many of the first game’s weaknesses. They are both extremely well-done games that are lovely to look at, listen to and a lot of fun to play. They also create very memorable characters that you want to spend time with.

Final score: 7.3

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