This new series is very exciting for both Emily and I. I honestly couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought of it sooner, props to Emily for the suggestion. We both have some affinity for the series. She played 1 & 2 back in the day and is a big fan of all things Disney. I’ve kept a healthy obsession for the series since I first played it in middle school and it’s the series that got me into RPGs. I’ll be something of a lore guide, but our Let’s Plays will be spoiler free. It’s very fitting though that we’re both very hazy on the first one so we’ll be coming in with fresh eyes. We plan on going through the whole series though and we’ll be following release order:
Kingdom Hearts Final Mix
Re:Chain of Memories (technically this came out later but we’ll go buy the GBA games release date)
Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days*
Birth by Sleep Final Mix
Dream Drop Distance
2.8 Final Chapter Prologue
Kingdom Hearts III
Melody of Memory
I’m not sure how well tackle both 358 and Re:Coded; both games only came out for the DS. At the very least we’ll do a talk over of the packaged cutscenes that come with our 1.5+2.5 set. We also won’t be covering χ, Union or Dark Road; all of those mobile games are very long. Maybe we can do a wrap up lore session on those when we get to it. We’re very excited to be launching on this journey and you can watch the first episode here:
The new DLC “Final Fantasy VII Remake: Episode INTERmission” absolutely whips (but god what an awful name when it’s also attached to the new “Intergrade” subtitle for the PS5 version). Yuffie is a blast to play almost to the point of being overpowered; her toolset allows her to adapt to every single enemy’s elemental weakness. She’s a swiss army knife allowing you to adapt to whatever situation arises. I was reluctant about Sonon not being a playable character (unlike your party in the main version) but you actually have a good amount of flexibility being able to issue him commands. Having him be the AI controlled bullet sponge allows Yuffie to really punish enemies and gives you that really accomplished feeling. Both characters are great too. Yuffie is overeager and confident but has the skill set to back it up which makes her effortlessly charming. The bit of people underestimating her because she’s young, small and female never wears out its welcome because it never phases her. She stumbles and jumps into things in a comedic way and always bounces back up. Sonon acts like her older brother; slightly embarrassed but supportive in a real way. He follows her lead and calls her boss and it’s never condescending. He really trusts her which is reinforced through the bit of backstory we learn about him throughout the episode. My only complaint, it’s too short! I don’t mean that in the “gamer” way of minimizing the DLC but I’m just sad I don’t have more time to sync into this. Maybe this is a plus for people who found the 35-40 hour runtime of the main game too much (I thought it was jusssssst right). It’s got me excited all over again and I’m now working my way through the VR battle missions to take on the new secret boss. O ya, did I forget that there’s Dirge of Cerberus enemies in here? This Remake sure is wild. My goal is to turn recorded footage into a video wrap up, now I just have to hold myself accountable.
What I really want to talk about with this blog is what for me was an early highpoint; the Fort Condor minigame. It’s so much fun and easy to pick up with some challenging matches as you progress up the ranks. It’s just like Clash Royale! Wait where are you going… Really I mean that as a compliment, as Clash Royale is a very addicting mobile game that unfortunately comes saddled with all the insidious free to play stuff that the Clash series is known for. Fort Condor is another win in the line of mini games that occur across the Final Fantasy series. The original FFVII had a similar mini game that takes place at the Fort Condor location. Fort Condor houses a Mako Reactor that Shinra is interested in taking and has been attempting to seize it. Your party helps out and you defend it through what’s essentially a Tower Defense mini game where you have to outlast waves of enemies. The one weird thing about the translation to the Remake; it’s represented as a board game that people love which has potentially weird lore implications. Since INTERmission takes place in Midgar, maybe the struggle has been translated to a board game where two equal sides fight against one another. That way the struggle is downplayed even though Fort Condor is in a much less advantageous position (that’s my read anyway).
Anyways, Square made it a point to include mini games in the mainline series and have them interwoven through the game. Triple Triad in VIII was a big expansion as you played cards throughout whatever regions you were in and even informed what ruleset you abided by. There was another card game in IX but was deemphasized and merely a side activity (meaning you couldn’t turn cards into items). X decided to up the ante and created a new sports game/management sim Blitzball, where you could play in tournaments and recruit new players across the game. Square decided to take some time off until FFXV who thankfully littered the open world with new side activities and mini games. I have traditionally completely misunderstood how these activities mesh into the game. I wrote about my early circumstances with Triple Triad and I continued a streak of unfortunate losses after that. I eventually started getting my footing but I missed important people to play cards against and still have a shaky understanding of the rules. Blitzball I especially fumbled even on my playthrough last year; somehow I progressed too fast and was never able to recruit anyone. The Besaid Aurochs deserved a better coach than me. I even missed playing darts in FFVII Remake. I assumed I’d have another chance to go back and win but pushed forward too far. The unclaimed trophy still haunts me, maybe I’ll have to restart and get it…
Unlike those other times, I was determined to finish and play through Fort Condor. Even though I still managed to complete it, I still messed up. Fort Condor is a strategy game where you deploy units to attempt to take your opponent’s towers before they take yours. You have an ability meter “ATB” that allows you to deploy units that continually fills over time. Units consist of different costs (more ATB = more powerful units) and correspond to one of 3 different types: Defense, Vanguard, and Ranged. The unit types govern strengths and weaknesses which is similar to rock-paper-scissors (see also Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle). Defense beats Vanguard, Vanguard beats Ranged, and Ranged beats Defense. Once deployed, the units will move and attack on their own so the main balancing act becomes when and what to deploy. Battles also take place on a 3 minute timer so you’ll have to keep active if you want to take more towers than your opponent. Before the game you’ll have a chance to pick what units to take in and what boards to use. Boards govern how many units you can take in, how fast your ATB meter fills and what materia you can use (abilities like Blizzard, Cure or Haste that you can use once in battle). You’ll also see your enemies’ board and unit choices so you can pick and choose based on balance matchups. This can make or break a match and later opponents required me to completely reconfigure my lineup until I could find a strategy forward. Sometimes the strategy was as simple as choosing more Vanguard units to defeat their Ranged types, other times I had to try and use more lower cost units to balance their more costly ones. It’s really rewarding to find that fit and running a battle. There were more than a few times that I had a nail biting victory and was hoping my units could hold out long enough.
Now this probably would’ve been easier or at least had a bit more variety if I knew the full breadth of how to acquire new units and boards. You’ll find all of your opponents in the Slum area of the DLC. You’ll start as Rank 1 and have a variety of people to battle against. Once you’ve beat them all, you rise a rank and have new enemies. You’ll receive new boards and units as you win and rank up, but that’s not the only way to acquire them. I didn’t know this however and started finding considerable difficulty against higher rank opponents. That pushed me to get really clever with my available items, but I would also see units that others had and be extremely jealous. Why don’t I have a helicopter? Where did they get that type of robot? Turns out, vendors throughout the slums sold these and for relatively low cost. I had a singular focus on completing Fort Condor before I progressed so I pushed through to beat the Grandmaster (Chadley!) with the items I had. Imagine my surprise as I was going to purchase battle items and see all types of units and boards. There’s the helicopter! This board seems cool! But by then I was ready to move on and play the main thrust of the DLC. I can still go back and replay battles but without having new opponents to play against it didn’t seem exciting.
Even with the unintentional handicap, I still had an absolute blast playing Fort Condor. It’s an amazing surprise to an already excellent piece of DLC with its own separate rewarding gameplay curve. I must have spent at least half my time engaging NPCs in mini games as I did playing through the main experience. Cannot recommend the DLC and Fort Condor enough, if you can get your hands on a PS5 that is. Here’s hoping there’s more of this when Remake Part 2 eventually rolls around.
I remember the huge talking point around “Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction” for the PS3 was that it looked like a “Pixar movie.” Animated blockbuster seemed to be the relevant watermark to judge graphical fidelity against. “Look at what games can do now!” was a huge talking point around the first HD consoles and Ratchet & Clank was one of the first to arrive that people could really point to. Insomniac had nailed how to properly utilize the hardware with Ratchet and seems to have made a point of it both with the PS4 and now PS5. The Pixar example was an easy way to communicate just how pretty the game looked. The example seems to have stuck around and I’ve seen the same thing being said about the new game “Rift Apart.” It’s an apt description in more ways than one. The Ratchet & Clank series are pure animated blockbusters from the story, humor, world, and bombastic set pieces. They’re games that tell straightforward stories with surprisingly heartfelt lessons wrapped up in a goofy sensibility that is never above a fart joke (see all of the mainline titles). Insomniac is great at this and it wouldn’t be ridiculous to argue that they have a better batting average than the film studio they’re often compared against. Rift Apart is no exception and is possibly the best mainline game they’ve created.
The Ratchet & Clank series has always been kid centered entertainment, wrapping punny humor around bombastic, cartoony action. There’s a lot of buffoonish characters like Captain Quark, the “hero” who likes to take credit for Ratchet & Clanks victories while also being an absolute coward. Dr. Nefarious, the recurring villain, has aims to conquer the universe and the ineptitude of Wiley Coyote. The games also contain themes usually found in kid centered movies like trusting yourself, learning about chosen family, and overcoming difficult odds to be a hero. They’re simple but affecting and seeing Ratchet & Clank discover themselves even though they feel like weird outsiders is heartwarming. Add in a healthy dose of cartoonish violence and you have yourself a blockbuster movie (although when they tried to turn it into one of those, the results were lackluster).
19 years and 9 mainline games later (not including spin offs), Insomniac has found a great way to breathe new life into the story: the multiverse. With the success of “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” Marvel seems to be ramping up its own version of multiple dimensions, so I’m very happy this came out before we were all sick of the concept. Rift Apart uses this to smuggle in all kinds of great winks and nods for long time fans without being overly dense for newcomers. They keep most of the longtime lore stuff to the fringes; you don’t have to understand why it’s funny that this universe’s Mr. Zurkon is a spiritual practitioner tending bar. New players will understand the basics (Nefarious = longtime nemesis, Ratchet’s misgivings about meeting his ancestors who he was orphaned from) and are given a new perspective with the introduction of Rivet.
Rivet is one of the best parts of the game because she’s so much more than just a Ratchet palette swap. Her universe was unfortunately saddled with a competent and more evil Dr. Nefarious so she had to work under hostile occupation. As a result she’s more decisive and planning than Ratchet, who flies more by the seat of his pants. She knows when to adjust and how to move forward and she doesn’t doubt herself when she’s taking on a new plan. The world has hardened her a bit though; she’s distrustful of robots precisely because she lives in a world where they’re the oppressors. Rivet doesn’t trust Clank when she first meets him because he’s a robot. She’s very self aware though and immediately comments on how that’s hypocritical of her because she had a metal prosthetic which says so much about her inner conflicts. In a world of organics versus machines she doesn’t feel like a full person because of her missing limb. It’s a touching character beat that never gets too saccharine; instead Insomniac relies on small moments like this to communicate River’s insecurities.
Ratchet’s story instead moves the focus off him and onto a new robot that he meets that adopts the nickname Kit. Kit is hiding out on a remote planet and working alongside the dimensional monks you meet. Turns out Kit was created to be a destructive robot and has decided to reject her programming after a dark run in with a rebel. She blames herself for the incident and sees herself as broken. Kit is the opposite coin to Rivet; she’s dealing with imposter syndrome because of how she was made. Kit views herself as irredeemable for her actions and this negativity clouds her every move with self doubt. She constantly belittles herself and reminds Ratchet that she isn’t a “good friend.” Their relationship is very sweet as Ratchet gently reminds her of all of her good qualities and things they’ve accomplished. Kit’s arc is similar to Rivet’s in that they both have to overcome their feelings of self doubt that the world thrust upon them. And when their paths eventually unite in ways that you can guess pretty early on, they both have to reckon with forgiveness. It’s a touching arc for both of them that deals with adult themes in a very serious way.
The story really went above my expectations and that it’s paired with the usual strong, platforming gameplay is a treat. Rift Apart’s action is the same bread and butter gun play that the series excels at paired with even larger action moments. There are some truly spectacular and awe inspiring moments that strike a great balance between gameplay and cinematic moments (one fight against a giant robot is particularly impressive). Also did I mention the game looks gorgeous? It’s worth taking your time and utilizing the robust photo mode to snap some pictures along the way.
Really it’s the story that seals this impressive game. The Ratchet & Clank series has always been a good source for reliably good fun, but Rift Apart is their best yet. It hits some new themes for kids blockbusters and tells it in a surprisingly touching way. The new cast of characters is just fantastic and I loved spending time in their new dimension.
And now for something completely different: we’re transitioning from ancient space culture exploration to theme park management! Our terrestrial bodies have undergone the transition back to Terra and we’ve already started learning the ins and outs of managing a wildlife park. Both of us grew up playing some sort of management sim (early RollerCoaster Tycoons and Zoo Tycoon to be specific) so we were excited about reliving some of that nostalgia. Turns out, harder than we remember! 2004 was truly a different time.
Our first couple of episodes are already out as we learn the basics and cut our teeth on our first park “Tony’s World.” We’re juggling placement of rides, snacks, and animal enclosures and also learned just how important it is to staff up (still working on that employee happiness though). I also took us on a massive detour when I tried to play god and change the level of the ground. It’s…a lot. We’ll be posting these weekly so join us for a chill time!
I probably don’t need to tell you this, but the gatekeeping around difficult games is fucking stupid. This vestige of bro-gamer culture tries to dictate not only what games are important but what makes players deserve validation. The badge of honor that a difficult game rewards with you is taken externally and projected onto others who haven’t gone through the same experience. The “Get Good” mantra even moves to cover how difficult games should be played, what games options can be accessed for a “true” video game experience. Games are meant to be played utilizing any of the utilities they include, whether that’s “cheap” abilities or lower difficulty settings. People are valid regardless of the games they play and should be rightfully encouraged when they attempt something outside of their wheelhouse. Even if they don’t like the game it doesn’t matter! It all doesn’t matter in the end. This culture kept me from playing Dark Souls. The image this community projects is that it’s a meat grinder, a hellish experience matching it’s dark fantasy aesthetic. That the game is so arcane and punishing that only “hardcore” players can get through it. I’m here to say that that descriptor is really off the mark and kept me from enjoying an extraordinary game. Dark Souls’ reputation doesn’t come from nowhere, but it is taken to a larger extreme that obfuscates some of the best parts of the game.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t require you to really understand it to progress. It’s an action game through and through meaning that you have to attune yourself to its movement and combat mechanics to beat enemies and bosses. Bosses deal big damage but even regular enemies can catch you off guard and kill you. The movement and attacks are also very deliberate; your character is not speedy as hell and takes time to wind up and attack (about the opposite of the previous “Get Good” franchise, Ninja Gaiden). You also have to manage a stamina meter, which governs dodges and attacks and depletes with each move. The moveset is a big part of the difficult reputation, but I would argue it just takes a bit longer to understand. Gita Jackson from Motherboard put it really succinctly on twitter:
Perseverance is a great adjective for Dark Souls. It requires perseverance to understand how to navigate an area, how to engage in combat and how to overcome a boss. You will die repeatedly and there’s some minor penalties for dying, mainly the currency of the game “Souls” which you can use to level up and purchase items. But you keep any other items you found and earning Souls back is surprisingly easy. There’s plenty of enemies for you to engage with and items that earn you Souls for consuming them. Plan B can always be to grind enemies in a given area, repeatedly killing them over and over to earn your count back. You also have a chance when you die to earn your Souls back by revisiting the location where you died before. If you die again before you reach that spot you lose them for good, but as I mentioned it’s not the complete end of the world. When I first started the game I panicked when I lost those Souls but found that that anxiety was exaggerated.
The die and repeat loop ends up being a lot more forgiving than I was expecting. Dying isn’t fun but you learn something every time you do. The forgiving nature of it allows you to experiment with weapons and see what combat approach works best for you. I was able to try massive two handers, one hand and shield and ranged options against enemies. I fine tuned, I died alot, and eventually found that curved swords are pretty fucking great. Letting go of being perfect and just throwing spaghetti at the wall rarely locks you out from progressing. I came in really trepidatious about misspending points, exploring wrong, and performing badly in combat. If you don’t mind doing a bit of work to set yourself up this will rarely impact you in the long run.
The best part though; perseverance pays off. It feels great when everything finally clicks into place and when you have a good handle on how you want to experience combat. Combat is a muscle that requires you to work to understand how you move and how your enemies move. Understanding spacing between an enemy’s swing and yours, knowing when to dodge and block and when to get in and attack makes the combat sing. Dark Souls makes you feel so accomplished when squaring up in an encounter and coming out on top. Regardless of the dark setting, deaths become really really silly. There’s something hilarious about accidentally triggering a trap or wandering in a room and being bombarded by a horde of enemies. The levels themselves can offer plenty of hilarious deaths. This morning I had a skeleton charge at me only to be absorbed into the wall; I only knew they died when I received the souls as a reward. Plenty of high paths mean that you and the enemies can plummet to your death. One particularly memorable one had me stuck behind a large enemy only to be flung off the ledge when it turned. Dark Souls is pretty generous where it places your soul’s retrieval point so it’s easy to laugh it off and get back to traversing.
The best part of Dark Souls is the exploration. I didn’t realize before playing that the entire map is connected so you’re essentially playing in an open world. You’ll travel up into castles and walled cities and go down to dank pits and forgotten villages. You rarely load between sections and unlock shortcuts (and eventually limited fast travel) as you traverse. Exploration, just like combat, also requires some understanding in order to progress. Between deaths you’ll come to understand how each of the areas connect and what points you’re trying to reach. The loop thus becomes even better when you realize what path you need to take to reach the next safe point or boss battle. Repeated runs, slicing through enemies and learning what path to take is just as rewarding as combat. Overcoming the given challenges in an area and reaching a Bonfire, designated safe point where you’ll heal and respawn, feels so gratifying. The perseverance of the combat meets the knowledge of a given area in a way that few games demand. I feel accomplished completing an area and gaining an in-depth understanding of its winding pathways.
Really Dark Souls is all about working with other players, whether it’s asynchronous or online multiplayer. Dark Souls’ environment can be pretty tricky to navigate so the game allows players to drop text at specific locations to help other players. This can be a hidden secret (“Fake Wall”), a warning of an upcoming trap or a direction that lets others know a bonfire is coming up. It’s a clever twist that takes some of the sting of figuring out all the nooks and crannies of the environment. Dark Souls also has a cooperative function allowing players to call others into their game to help them out. This comes especially handy when facing off against a tough boss and having another player there opens up boss fights significantly. This is where some of the “hardcore” gamer ethos tends to focus their conversation around. You’ll find that a lot of these diehards swear that summoning players isn’t the “true” experience, that you should only play this singleplayer. Not only are they trying to pretend a core gameplay function doesn’t exist, they’re also ignoring that the series is literally marketed with multiplayer. It’s an easy way for them to gatekeep and prevent people from being seen as equal to them. Optional gameplay functionality is an easy target for them to harass and discredit people. How else are they supposed to feel they “got good” if so many other people accomplish the same feats as them?
Regardless, I hate that the series’ reputation kept me away from it. It’s so so fun and I’m having a great time making my way through it. I plan on playing as many of them before Elden Ring launches in January, but I’ll probably want to jump straight into that! Don’t let Dark Souls’ gatekeeping community keep you from playing.
We did it; we have finished Outer Wilds. What an amazing finish it is even the second time through. It’s hard to think of another game that even attempts something so elliptical in its final moments and the fact that it’s so emotionally satisfying is incredibly unique. The game doesn’t compromise to make things more tidy and instead focuses on the heart of your journey through it. Outer Wilds excels at showing you just how small you are in the vastness of the universe and the wider history of it.
During my first playthrough (not so much during this Let’s Play since I had a partner/knew what to expect) I was surprised at how scary everything was. Not in the usual horror sense of confronting fears in monster form but in the disparity of scale between me and the planets I was exploring. Entering an unfamiliar dark cave was intimidating because of the sheer vastness of its interior. I didn’t know what to expect or what might happen as I moved through it. The final venture into the Eye of the Universe is engulfing and terrifying. Lightning striking all around you as you head toward a giant whirlpool makes the event feel scary as much as it is momentous. And then there’s Dark Bramble (god those anglerfish). Stumbling upon Nomai technology was also terrifying; walking into a scrying pool for the first time and having your vision be consumed by blackness and strange faces is eerie. I even met unfamiliar objects with a lot of skepticism and trepidation. There were many times during this LP that Emily and I both jumped when a random Quantum Object would suddenly appear. It’s hilarious when it happens but makes me squirm every time.
The sound design and the soundtrack play a huge part in that (the entire composition from Andrew Prahlow is just amazing). I mentioned in the first episode that hearing the music made me tear up and that’s no exaggeration. The music is tied into everything the game does well and matches every moment perfectly. All of the songs during exploration (“Space” & “Outer Wilds” are two great examples) are emotionally upbeat with strain a yearning, the perfect companions for setting out on an uncertain adventure. To match the terror, the soundtrack will swap out instruments for drones (looking at you “Dark Bramble”) giving everything that supremely eerie vibe. It might be even scarier when the soundtrack completely drops out as you take your first uncertain steps into a new area. And nothing is as epic as when you finish your campfire song as your existence melts away to “Into the Wilds.”
Outer Wilds’ loop is also satisfying because it eschews video game tradition by removing the addition of new abilities and instead gates content through in-game knowledge. If you know what you’re doing, you can immediately finish the game. There’s no hidden items or upgrades just a rumor map that helps you piece the wider puzzle together. That puzzle is so interesting to piece together too, as you investigate old ruins like an anthropologist. Retracing the steps of the Nomai and their doomed search for the Eye of the Universe is equally fascinating and heartbreaking. Finding their bickering dialogues is funny but learning of their necessity to inhabit this unfamiliar and often hostile solar system is sad. The Nomai show the tragedy and ultimate fate of sentient beings; trying to accomplish an impossible goal before being snuffed out by an unstoppable calamity that was created by a seemingly random event. You get to take their learnings and run with it though and the fact that you’re doing this some two hundred thousand years later shows how small you are in the vastness of history.
And that’s what makes the final moments in the Eye so impactful. Your character surrounded by the friends they’ve met on their travels experiencing one last moment together is beautiful. Everyone joins in on the song whether that’s playing the drums or whistling. This game was the perfect companion to accompany the uncharted waters of 2021 and was the one project that felt accomplishable when my energy ran out (hello I’m finally returning to blogging). The LP reaffirmed why I love this game so much and why it’s supremely special.
It’s difficult for modern JRPGs, especially games that are directly riffing on classic genre staples, to evoke the same sense of wonder as earlier entries. Fantasian has managed to nail just that bringing me into a new fantasy world and giving a suitably exciting story. The fact that it comes from Hironobu Sakaguchi (classic Final Fantasy creator) and with music by Nobuo Uematsu (classic Final Fantasy composer) essentially means you’re shooting fish in a barrel. Sakaguchi’s studio Mistwalker has also been creating and refining these throwback RPGs for 15 years and landed cult classics like Lost Odyssey. Fantasian brings their expertise to mobile, a favorite platform of theirs in recent years, and represents a huge step forward with their visual design. The dioramas that serve as the background for every area are absolutely gorgeous, filled with impeccable attention to detail. They’ve been the major selling point but the game is a finely tuned RPG that harkens back to the best in the genre.
I’ve mentioned classic a lot so far and those familiar with SNES JRPGs should be intimately familiar with many of the beats in Fantasian. Story wise it fits firmly into the template. You play as Leo, an amnesiac that wakes up in the middle of a futuristic technology facility. It seems your amnesia set in right as the game starts and that the technology around you might be to blame. Leo battles his way out, hops into a portal, and ends up in the desert town of En. Here is where you learn that the world is being infected with something called “Mechteria” which as you might guess is represented by white mechanical/bacteria looking objects that emit a purple noxious looking gas. The general population believes this comes from a being called Vam the Malevolent God. Since it seems to be a threat, how does dethroning and killing god sound? Cue meeting magical allies, traversing across landscapes, and discovering new wrinkles in the mechteria story as Leo reclaims his lost memories. The story sits firmly within the genre conventions, but there’s enough mystery to keep things interesting. The humor adds a lot of levity and helps keep things from getting too serious.
Even if the story is relatively stock, the team’s experience crafting JRPGs really makes playing the game shine. The pacing is slick, intended to move you along as smoothly as possible. Fantasian doesn’t waste any time making you grind. Battles are tuned to make sure you’re the perfect level to match any boss encounters. Exploration is tight enough to move you across different locations. Across 6 hours, I’ve already crossed two large towns with enough downtime for me to explore every nook and cranny. Fantasian moves fast enough that the tropier aspects of the story don’t bog it down. There’s enough mystery and characters drip fed across the playing time to keep it from ever feeling like a slog. The game calls to mind the pacing of Final Fantasy VI who’s first half kept you moving through set pieces.
The battle system similarly adds a few wrinkles to update the classic turn based combat. Abilities and magic can sometimes hit multiple enemies and even be curved using the touch screen. The character Kina’s holy ability can shoot in an arc meaning you can curve it to hit front line and back line enemies. The multi hit abilities are especially handy in the games “Dimengeon” battles. Early on you get a device that allows you to store enemies that would normally attack you in random battles. This means that while exploring you can collect all the battles that would randomly pop up and save them for later. At any time, you can go in and battle all of the enemies at once. These battles are a lot of fun and it’s great lining up abilities to hit a half dozen enemies. Fantasian also drops random power ups into the field that you can hit with your abilities. The power ups range from increased attack to stealing a turn. Dimengeon makes random battles more interesting and also frees up exploration and backtracking. I felt way less rushed looking for hidden items and chests when all the random encounters are being safely stored away to visit at my convenience.
The icing on top of the cake is just how beautiful Fantasian is. The dioramas are just gorgeous and I love trying to find all of the details layered into the environments. There’s a variety of unique settings too including the aforementioned desert town, Vence (a Venice look alike), and a large airship. Each environment has plenty of areas to explore all with unique and intricate touches. What’s doubly impressive is how smooth Fantasian runs. There’s no slowdown or hitching when the camera transitions around an area. I was expecting some constraints running an iPhone but it runs so smoothly. I’ve heard that certain backgrounds look blurry on iPad, but I haven’t run into that on my iPhone XR. The story is also parsed out via beautifully drawn 2D story book sections (I’ve heard this was similarly employed in Lost Odyssey). The drawings look like something out of a children’s fantasy novel. I’m going to try and keep myself from posting too many screenshots because I just can’t stop taking them.
Ok I lied, there’s an extra layer of icing on this cake. Uematsu’s score is fantastic and full of symphonic arrangements. Their sounds range between gentle tones during the storybook sections and big guitar riffs during battles. There’s a concert that occurs in the background on the airship that I just had to stop and get absorbed in. I wish I could link music but I can’t find any links online. Overall Fantasian is hitting all my RPG buttons. It’s a really special game that I hope more people play. I’m worried about the Apple Arcade exclusivity limiting its player base. For those curious, I was able to get a 30-day free trial so you should definitely seek it out! (my last and only time I will shill for Apple).
I thought I could go into Final Fantasy VIII with no guide. I had heard rumblings of its complexity, but I wanted to go in as fresh as possible. I have 0 conception of what it is as a game so I was excited to experience it as unaffected by game culture as possible. Everything at the start of the RPG was going just fine, albeit with lots of text being thrown at me about all of its intricate systems. A lot to parse to be sure, but I didn’t hit any roadblocks. There was even a fun optional card game mentioned, Triple Triad, a student NPC was kind enough to pass me a starting deck. I completed my first mission, received a new GF or Guardian Force in Ifrit (I’m sure this joke has been made a million times but GF will always be read as “Girlfriend”) and even received Ifrit in the form of a card. I was starting to feel comfortable and upon returning to Balamb Garden decided I would challenge people to Triple Triad. I reviewed the rules in the tutorial section fairly quickly and played the first person I came across, a man waiting around near the gate.
A brief note on the rules of Triple Triad. The game is essentially War where you take cards based on numerical values. If one card has a greater number, then that card wins and the player who has the most cards at the end wins the game. Triple Triad is more complex in that you place cards on a 3×3 grid. Each individual card has 4 values representing each side of the card (up, down, left, right). The winning card is determined by the numbers that are adjacent to the card played next to it. For example, two cards placed horizontally will match their left and right values and the winner is determined based on the numbers next to each other. Both players are assigned a color at the start, red or blue, and winning a card is represented by that card changing color to the other players. If you’re red and your card wins, then the other card will change from blue to red. This gets more complicated with multiple cards being placed adjacent to one another and there are different rules governing turning over cards in this situation. It seems like later in the game elemental affinities play a role and there will be different rules on turning cards over, but I was only an hour in.
My first game with the man at the gate loads up. I select my 5 cards to play against his, including my fancy new Ifrit card, which has much higher numbers than the other starter cards in my deck. I place this card in a corner first feeling that its high numbers will do me good. He places a card and immediately Ifrit gets turned over. No matter, I see a part of Ifrit that has a lower number than one of the cards in my hand. I place it underneath and nothing happens. My adversary places a card next to my new one and that flips over. I immediately begin to panic as 4 of the 9 cards played are all red (his color). I place a card adjacent to his new one and it flips! My excitement quickly drains as he places another card and flips yet another one of my cards. The game becomes decisively his and by the end I don’t have a single blue card exposed on the table. I start to get mad, feeling cheated after losing by a landslide in my first game. My anger only ratchets up as I realize that losing a game means losing a card and the AI goes straight for the jugular and takes my Ifrit card.
This mother fucker from 1999 just conned me. What seemed like a nice innocent side game just turned into a blood match. How hard could this game be after only a few short tutorial screens? This is the starting area, shouldn’t everyone I play be relatively easy? Final Fantasy VIII instead came to play and swiped my lunch money in the process. Now you’re probably saying “Brenton no worries, just reload your save and it’ll be like nothing ever happened.” Well you see I essentially backed myself into a corner by breaking the RPG cardinal rule; I didn’t save right before this encounter. In fact, I hadn’t saved since before the first full mission. I could go back and start from this save and make up the couple of hours I sunk in. It wouldn’t even be too hard. But now my ego was involved and if the AI could take cards so could I. I paused the game and did some Google Searches for Triple Triad walkthroughs. Multiple walkthroughs mentioned how good the games tutorial on it is; I beg to differ. I also saw that you should probably wait until you have more powerful cards; too late for that one. I was going to humiliate the AI with my crappy cards and win my dignity back.
Just like a drunk in Las Vegas, I was making poor decisions by continuing to engage with the game. I had a sunk cost and I was going to win my money back. Obviously this was a poor decision even if I had a better understanding of the rules. I continued to lose repeatedly and I watched card after card disappear from my deck. The house continued to rob me blind as I watched my life savings slowly be offered as a tribute to the gambling god. Now I am left with only 4 cards in my deck and can’t even play against people anymore. The casino sent over its security and despite my protests through me out onto the street. I felt wobbly and gave them the finger but it’s not like they can notice from behind the glass doors. I was thoroughly defeated in a side game that consumed my playtime. My dignity had been traded to the man at the gate and added it to his deck with passivity. The game was stacked in his favor from the beginning and I willingly played into it.
Anyways I hear the RPG part of this game is pretty good, guess I can start finding out.
I feel lonely in Apex Legends. While the game is based around 3 person squads, the sprawling maps are desolate. The unoccupied expanse is part and parcel with the Battle Royale model, the wide open maps made for exploration and scavenging rather than busy firefights. It’s up to you and your squad members to parse the landscape for items, enemies and geography to set yourselves up in the optimum position to win. Apex Legends hits those marks and hits them well but I miss the more high intensity firefights of its predecessor. I liked getting lost in urban environments trying to find other player pilots amongst the population of automated soldiers. I liked quickly zig zagging between buildings and wall running to get the jump on enemies. Most of all, I liked when the giant mech games plummeted from the sky. My god what a sight that is. It’s hard to overstate how good Titanfall 2 looks and feels. Titans crashing to the earth literally do and the environment buckles and shakes accordingly. It feels destructive because it is, literally tons of metal hitting the ground after a free fall from orbit. They’re hulking monstrosities and you as the pilot are just an ant compared to it.
I’m not here to say Apex Legends isn’t amazing, but I crave another spin at the Titanfall formula. Apex is the best Battle Royale on the market for good reason. It carries over satisfying shooting mechanics into a wide open setting. The mobility is fast making covering large distances fun. Apex has a colorful cast of characters, taking cues from games like Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch (and is slightly less racist), all with unique abilities. It’s primarily played in squads of 3 allowing for a fun mix and match of said characters’ abilities. It takes place in the Titanfall universe (future techno capitalist) with maps in urban cities, factories and desert landscapes (with dinosaurs for good measure). And perhaps greatest of all it introduced to the world the “ping” system allowing players to easily point out things in the environment.
Apex is great but I’m finding that I’d rather be playing Titanfall. I’m not saying I want to play a team deathmatch shooter; there are plenty of active games that fall into that more traditional model. It’s the aesthetics of Titanfall that draw me in. Titanfall is more subdued than Apex; think less highlighter streaks and more dark and brown hues. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have color (I get it, mid aughts blockbusters really wore the association down), but the more subdued look fits with Titanfall. You’re in a futuristic battleground filled with unpolished pieces of machinery. Nothing is built to be sleek rather it’s built to be functional. The easiest reference point is the original Star Wars tech. Spaceships from civilians and the rebels look used and repaired over. They’ve built up dirt and grime but have been kept up internally to function. That’s what Titanfall’s guns and robotics look like, weapons that have to be repurposed after numerous battles.
The size of Titanfall is a huge draw point as well. I’m referring to literally the size of your pilot within the map. Maps not only extend horizontally but vertically and the move set helps you play with traversing the levels of a building or skyscraper. You’re also just one soldier amongst dozens of respawning AI. You feel more like a part of a big battle as automated troops bash against each other. That gives a unique feeling of being small just another worker ant amongst the horde. Of course players are stronger than the AI counterparts, a specialized member of the squad. It makes the battles feel frenetic with lots of firefights and player abilities all popping off at once.
Speaking of feeling small: Titans. They’re both a glaring omission from Apex and the item that would completely ruin it. Titans don’t make sense in the more scrappy gameplay of Apex Legends but they absolutely make Titanfall work. They completely shift the flow of battle and are an incredibly imposing presence. They are multiple stories tall and tower over your perspective as a pilot. They’re hard to take down on foot; your best bet is to try and rodeo it by flinging your body onto the back of it (which feels amazing to do btw even when your chances of success are slim). Their massive weapons obliterate soldiers left and right and their hulking structures barely fit in between the architecture of the maps. Titan on Titan combat has a completely different flow. Their bulky structure limits maneuverability, forcing pilots to rely on strategically using jump nets to out flank enemies. The different Titan classes offer unique abilities based on weight class; hop in a light mech and you’ll have to balance dodging in and out of combat rather than a heavy mech that can sit and dole out damage. You have to adapt your strategy to edge out your enemy based on your Titan’s strengths and weaknesses versus the enemies.
It’s the interactions with your Titan that stick out in my mind. Getting the notification that your Titan is ready is so exciting. I will always opt for a Titanfall, picking the spot where your Titan will land, rather than opting to spawn in one. Picking the landing spot and seeing it careen down from the sky is incredible. As mentioned up top, Titans plummet fast and the free fall reverberates across your screen. Entering your mech is so stylish too. Depending on how your approach the Titan your pilot will enter into it differently. The Titan’s AI anticipates your move; walk up and it’ll bend down for you, jump high it’ll catch you and place you gently inside, slide and it’ll scoop you up. The animation for it is frankly very cool. Someone in a Discord recently called out the monitor desync as you enter the Titan, another perfect touch that really places you inside the mech. Little touches like that really make you feel like a pilot before you completely take control of it. It calls the artifice out to give you a sense of place.
Apex Legends shouldn’t be Titanfall but it’s hard to see the latter series continue with the success of the former. They’re two completely different flavors but one actually sold copies and has an active player base. I would love for a Titanfall 3 but also realize that there is not the same push for it from a business and audience sense. For now I’ll have to content myself with replaying Titanfall 2 with the small but dedicated player base that’s still there.