Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Final Fantasy XII: An Experimental Narrative

Whenever a writer sits down to put words on paper, there is a lens through which those words are focused. Works of fiction, non-fiction, biographical and autobiographical writings, short stories, comic books, movie scripts, even most poetry - it's all told through somebody's point of view. There's a voice guiding the story along, usually in first or third person, letting us, the reader, know who the main character is. This is important, because writers need that filter in place to make sure they elicit the desired reaction from their readers. For example, if the entire narrative of Harry Potter wasn't focused on Harry's experience, we'd probably be wondering why this kid with the vaguely Batman-like origin was the title character when so much of the book was dedicated to Hermione trying to find new ways to bend the laws of physics so she can give herself more homework.

Marty McFly would slap her right in her stupid mouth.

So I think in that respect, there's something to be said for the daring creativity of the writing team behind Final Fantasy XII. Because somewhere in the course of drafting the script for the game, they decided they were going to spit in the face of all established convention and create something with absolutely no main character.

It's something they tried once before, in the epic Final Fantasy VI. There, they established early on that most of the story was going to focus on the mysterious backstory of protagonist Terra Branford. However, as the game progressed, the supporting cast grew in importance and the audience was given powerful revelations regarding their histories and motivations. By the end of the game, it could still very much be Terra's story, but everyone has firm enough ground to stand on that it emerges as an ensemble game. Taking away any of the characters would subtract from the narrative. Except Gogo and Umaro.

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Final Fantasy world.

So while Final Fantasy VI tries this to a degree, Final Fantasy XII goes all out. The thing is, they don't really make it obvious they're going to do that. Vaan, the first character you can control, has all the trappings of an honest-to-goodness lead protagonist. He lives in the slums of a city controlled by an oppressive, war-mongering empire. His older brother, whom he idolized, died as a result of that empire's actions. He's the leader of a local group of young ruffians. He dreams of breaking out of his station in life, defying the empire, and becoming a freewheeling Sky Pirate, sailing the skies in an airship.

Then you meet other characters and we forget Vaan exists.

See, the thing that made FFVI work is that every character became the main character. By the end of the game you could put any combination of your extensive roster in to the final battle and it wouldn't feel terribly out of place. I feel like when I get to the end of FFXII it will be similiar, but not because everyone was developed to have an equal stake in the story. More likely, it will be because I care about everyone so little that I really won't care who I throw in there as long as I win.

You see, Vaan begins as so archetypal a protagonist that the only revelation missing is that his father is actually Darth Vader.

"Luke . . . I . . . kind of got around a lot."

But then we meet Balthier Bunansa and his leggy assistant Fran, Sky Pirates with Han Solo and Chewbacca written all over them. Following that is the rescue of Princess Leia, I mean, Ashelia Dalmasca, ruler of the kingdom of Dalmasca, which was overthrown by the Empire. Then we throw in Basch, whom we all think at first is a horrible traitor, but discover that this was actually another trick of the empire. He can be Lando. It's close enough, shut up. Then for no real reason, we add Penelo, Vaan's childhood friend. Whatever, she's an ewok. Anyway.

This was the Christmas Special.

Now of course, their actual resemblance to any Star Wars characters is circumstantial at best. The point is that they serve essentially the same function. We've met our Luke, now we bring in the supporting cast to tear him away from his provincial life and make him the empire-smashing hero we know he can be.

And then none of that ever happens.

From the moment other characters come into the game, the viewpoint of our narrative starts ping-ponging around as if the writers wrote individual scripts for all the characters and then threw them in the air and grabbed random parts to stick together. Okay, so the story is about Balthier having to face his past and stop his evil father (he's got an evil father! He must be the hero). No wait, the big issue is Ashe trying to overcome the empire and win back autonomy for her small kingdom (that's even more heroic!). Oh, hold on a second, no, it's Basch's story, and he's got to defeat his evil twin and take revenge for the empire ruining his life while restoring honor to his name (oh come on!). Wait, what? We're not going to really focus in on any of these as the main plot? So what IS the main plot?

And that's the question which remains unanswered. When you don't have a focused point of view, you can make as many great storylines to follow as you want. If the central idea boils down to "our heroes good, empire bad," then the writing is flawed in a pretty major way. Vaan, for his part, is quickly relegated to making occasional inane statements and generally being completely out of place with the others.

So instead of Luke Skywalker, we end up with Anakin. Episode I Anakin, as essentially his purpose is hang out with the grown ups and occasionally stumble into something which forwards the plot. What's worse is that if they ever just solidly backed one character like Basch or Balthier, this game could've been the Original Trilogy. Since we're stuck with Vaan, it is unfortunately the prequels.

Lead Consultant for Final Fantasy XII.

As long as I'm getting all the Star Wars comparisons out of my system, this is Jar Jar Binks:

This is a Bangaa, native to Ivalice, where FFXII takes place:

So we even have bumbling lizard-things with annoying voices. My prequel analogy runs deep.

Alright, enough about the story. Let's talk about the game. Why would I keep playing something when the plot - or lack thereof - obviously leaves me baffled and uninterested? Simple answer; it's actually pretty fun.

I received Final Fantasy XII years ago as a gift when it was brand new. I have been trying ever since to actually sit down and beat this game. When I opened up my save file to try and pick up where I left off, I was staring at a game with 130 hours already on it. This was from when I tried to play through it a year ago. Two years before that I'd already put in 100 hours on my original attempt. FFXII is an absolutely enormous game, and there's so much to do that I'm fairly certain both times I put it down was just because I had become overwhelmed at the sheer volume of tasks which had to be accomplished in order to achieve everything.

And I MUST achieve everything.

I know he's there, watching. Judging.

Now, since Final Fantasy VI brought us its Colosseum, every subsequent entry into the series has offered us a mini-game - a time-waster that really has nothing to do with the story, but can net you some nice rewards and is actually pretty fun. VII had Chocobo Breeding and Racing, as well as the Golden Saucer casino. VIII and IX had card games, very, very addictive card games. X brought us Blitzball, and holy crap how awesome was it to have an actual sports league as an optional part of the game? That's like if every new iteration of Madden included a 100+ hour bonus game where Eli Manning treks across the world gathering allies and combating evil.

It would be mostly biographical.

XII has . . . fishing.


Alright, there's certainly more to it than that. The fishing system is a rapid button-pushing stress-fest, where you get 6 chances to catch something and each perfect game gives you a chance to advance to another fishing spot with even harder, faster combos. If you want one of the best items in the game, you've got to beat all the fishing holes. It CAN be fun, when you're winning, or it can be an experiment in whether your controller is more durable than your wall.

Now, besides fishing, FFXII does offer some other distractions. Personally, I can't get enough of its hunt system. This game breaks away from the others by making itself more like it's online predecessor, Final Fantasy XI. The world is littered with notorious monsters; beasts that are larger, stronger, and immensely more powerful than their regular counterparts.

They are the Alecs in a world of Stephens.

The game keeps track of which of these monsters you have found, and some you must first fulfill a series of arcane requirements to make appear. A few of them can show up at anytime, but others require you to sign up with a hunting club which will reward you with trophies for each successful hunt. Those monsters also drop rare and powerful items. Other unique monsters are called Marks, and you make them show up by signing contracts to go out and hunt them for big rewards. New Marks show up at regular intervals as long as you keep forwarding the main story, and that alone provides some motivation to keep doing so. I've caught myself several times running to check if new Marks are available after every minor advancement of the plot.

Still waiting for this one to show up.

There's also a system of crafting new weapons and armor by collecting the things monsters drop and selling them. Naturally, the best weapon in the game can only be obtained by collecting a number of the rarest drops and selling them in the correct order. This is less entertaining and more a time sink, since a lot of the better items drop so infrequently you have to wonder what they were thinking. I know that following FFXI they wanted to give players the feeling of the online game but in single-player mode, but was it necessary to include the Rat Tail aspect I alluded to in my previous post? You do that with MMOs so people keep playing every month. There's no subscription fee for this. The company already got my money. I don't know why they insist on forcing me to play long after the part where you hunt monsters and hope to get their items becomes fun and meanders over into tedious.

I'm still interested in fulfilling these requirements and getting the best items because . . . well, they're there, and I think Square Enix understands that so long as they keep putting stuff in games, there will be people who will spend hours trying to get it. So I'll keep playing, but with The Backlog now in my life, I've got some motivation to maybe leave a few things untouched and power through to the ending.

Overall, this game is fun for me. Not great, but good - perhaps the experience can best be summed up with this appraisal of JRPGs. Despite my issues with its core, there are enough bells and whistles to keep me playing. Maybe one day this week I'll be able to sit down and really whittle down all the extra content thrown in until I've got nothing left except beating the game to accomplish. Although this also depends on whether or not I try to navigate my way through The Great Crystal, a hellish zone whose every turn is a descent into madness dictated by non-Euclidean geometry.

Pictured: Map of the zone

If nothing else, I'll at least be able to say that I finally got my money's worth on a game I received as a gift.

Hey, wait.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Final Fantasy XI: On Permanent Backlog

I mentioned in my post regarding Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits that I spent a number of years playing Square-Enix's MMO offering, Final Fantasy XI: Online. Since this is a game which will permanently be on the backlog (or one that I simply took 6 years to beat, depending on your perspective) I felt it appropriate to discuss here. Also, I still haven't beaten Arc, and needed something to write about.

I picked this game up about a month after its initial release, around the end of November in 2003. The concept is pretty simple; you're an adventurer in the world of Vana'diel, which is, as fantasy worlds tend to be, overrun with giant monsters and evil world domination-plotting villains. I got into it very easily, and played it until the end of 2009. If you take out time I stopped playing for various reasons, this single title dominated my gaming experience for roughly 5 years of my life. Especially impressive considering that for the last two I hated it.

Why did I keep paying to play a game that wasn't fun? Three reasons.

First, I grew up with this:

And this -

Definitely this -

And I saved up the $5 an hour I got working for a plumber when I was 15 until I had enough to buy this -

Someone stole my original. It remains one of the only games I've ever bought twice.

Final Fantasy had been a part of my life practically since I started playing video games when XI came out. The idea of an FF game which never ended seemed impossible to ignore.

Only, when you actually start playing it, a few things become clear. This game has some striking similarities to the Final Fantasy property line, but only insofar as it uses them to attract that fan base. This game is an MMO, and it will use every trick in the book to keep people playing. For example, do you remember trying to get a Rat Tail in Final Fantasy IV? The monsters that dropped it appeared only rarely in one area of the whole game and then had a ridiculously low drop rate for the tail. But you needed it to get the best armor in the game, so you'd spend hours hacking away at those rats until you got it.

Now imagine that you need to do that for pretty much every piece of equipment you're going to wear, on any of 18 jobs in the game you can choose from. Since you can level multiple jobs on the same character, this means you're going to be hunting that Rat Tail a few hundred times. More often than not, getting it also means waiting for the one monster that drops it while competing against others trying to do the same thing you are. For the biggest, most important items in the game, you'll need 17 or more of your closest friends to help you take down the monster that shows up once every 24 hours and has only a slim chance of actually dropping what you want.

So it looks pretty, and it has chocobos, moogles, cactaurs, a guy named Cid, and everything else that screams "Final Fantasy," but it's just a series of gimmicks to get people interested and try to make them pay for it. So why keep it up so long, even having figured this out? Well . . .

The second reason was that Final Fantasy XI is a social game.
For douchebags, this is a problem, though many of them got around it simply by banding together. People with relatively acceptable degrees of social interaction skills, on the other hand, were harder to find. I was extremely lucky to fall into the linkshell - FFXI's version of a guild - known as ThoseGuys. Early on in their lifespan, the shell attracted people who would eventually become some of the best players in the game, and were also for the most part very cool to be around. As we progressed in the game, we'd do everything together. Like fight monsters, talk about fighting monsters, and wait for monsters to show up so we could fight them.

Occasionally we'd just stand and look at monsters.

The thing about playing with the same group of people for years on end is that you make friends. And Final Fantasy XI provided a lot of friends for me, accented by the annual TG Gathering, where members from all across the country and around the world would congregate in Brooklyn for a 3-day event. We would have a barbecue, games of Super Smash Bros. and Rock Band, card games, bar-and-restaurant hopping across New York City, and in general just being awesome. They transitioned from being people I'd talk to in a video game to people I drive three hours to hang out with. I also used ThoseGuys as a creative outlet, dabbling with this short story about our fictional adventures.

So I'd sign in every day, and sure we'd hang around just waiting for something to happen a lot of the time, but it didn't matter. This was for me the same as going and hanging out at a bar with my friends, and cost less money in the grand scheme of things. We got to joke around, tell stories, and if we could fit it into our schedules, occasionally kill giant monsters.

"Hey man, want to hang out this weekend? Drink some brews,
maybe kill Cerberus, magma-blooded guardian of the underworld? Cool."

And then one day I signed on and all my friends were gone.

It happened much more gradually than that, but over time I realized that all those people I would drive up to New York to see had stopped playing. Other people joined ThoseGuys, and they were friendly and all, but not really my friends. There was no longer a social aspect for me, and yet I kept playing, more or less now for the sake of playing. So I wasn't enjoying it as a Final Fantasy game, and I didn't have a network of friends to play it with. Why, why was I still so determined to spend hours a day signed on to this game?

This fucking guy.

I love being the best at video games. For single player games, there is almost always a very definite way to establish yourself as highly skilled; for one, you can just beat the game. However, in recent times, the trend has tended away from using the warp zone to skip 6 levels of the game. Instead you want to revisit all 8 levels, as much as possible, because you never know what secrets or power-ups are lying in wait for you there. It is to your advantage to scour every single inch of the game and find absolutely everything. The addition of Achievements only helps solidify this way of thinking. There are now very real ways to demonstrate your absolute mastery over a game, and MMOs love giving you as many of them as possible.

You might never run out of things to do in Final Fantasy XI. And there's always someone else trying to do that thing too, and do it better. You are literally always in competition, and not just against the people you're playing against directly. There's a huge community of players out there endlessly speculating about exactly what equipment is exactly right for each situation. If you don't have the precisely perfect combination of gear, skills, and support? You're a gimp. A noob. A failure at life. This is what I contended with every day I played that game. For someone like me, an aggressive play schedule was the only way to try and keep up.

Then one day I realized that I could keep putting in all the effort I wanted, forever, and nothing was going to really ever change. There wasn't any tangible benefit attached to being good at this, and it would never end like a regular video game. I wasn't enjoying the game, I didn't have any friends playing, and I would literally never win. That's when I made the decision to give up the ghost. I turned everything that was my character over to Ayn, uninstalled FFXI from my computer, and rode off into the sunset.

This actually happens when you uninstall an MMO.

So now it's been nearly a year since I spent any appreciable amount of time playing. Over the course of the 6-year period in which I owned the game, I spent somewhere in the area of $700 on it. However, it was pointed out to me that most people would count themselves lucky if they got the kind of time out of a hobby I did for only $700 over half a dozen years, so it was, in a way, a pretty sound entertainment investment. It just took me a lot longer than it should have to realize that I had exhausted the possibilities of the game for myself.

Now, not everyone has my kind of mindset. Plenty of people are actually rational, sane human beings when it comes to games, and this kind of thing is something they can really just sit back and enjoy without it impacting their lives in any significant way. Others are much, much worse than I ever was, and spend nearly every waking second online, escaping into the virtual world. Ayn, whom also played - and still plays - FFXI, never had a problem prioritizing his life over the game. It would be cool if I could say the same, but it simply wasn't always the case. If anything, I'd say being able to "beat" Final Fantasy XI means maintaining that happy medium. While I certainly wasn't the worst at it, I unfortunately won't be able to claim I was the best.

So, now Final Fantasy XIV is on the horizon, the next online installment of the franchise. I'll be giving this one a shot, and hoping that I've taken enough lessons from my time on FFXI to treat this one like a game, not a job. I'll have some old friends from ThoseGuys returning to play with, and hopefully I'll be able to talk some of my other buddies into getting into it as well. I've got high hopes that this time will be different. Let's hope I'm right.

With that out of the way, I'm going to get back to Arc the Lad, and everything else waiting for me here at The Backlog.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Covering the Really Old, Really Dusty Games...

I think it is important right off the bat to give the disclaimer concerning my section of The Backlog. While I will be covering some newer titles, my posts will largely be dedicated to the elderly members of The Backlog. As a retro collector, you might see anything from Utopia for SNES to Utopia for Intellivision. The collection is getting larger by the day. By default, so grows the backlog of forgotten titles.

Consider these as "Adventures in Retrogaming."

Sorry, Elizabeth Shue. We just needed something a bit more...retro.

Let me also take the time to warn that when I say I will be doing newer games, that typically refers to games made prior to 2000. That is not to say that I don't play "the Halo" or dabble in your "Starcraft II's" and "New Super Mario Bros." It's just to say that it is far more likely to find me playing G.I. Joe - The Atlantis Factor on NES than Gears of War.

Sorry, I'm really old school.

The one-room schoolhouse that I went to as a young gamer. Lost many a fellow student to Typhoid Fever there.

Some might ask, "Gee Mike, what possesses you to keep playing your old games with their big pixels, simplistic story lines, and dated content?" I can only say that the oldies are the goodies that made it possible for all the games we play today to exist and are, therefore, awesome. A few potent potables of elaboration:

*Why play Final Fantasy XIII before playing Final Fantasy VI? (A travesty if you have indeed done this. Please direct yourself to the nearest SNES or Playstation and rectify this mistake ASAP: the fate of the world hangs in the balance.)

*Halo is great, but Goldeneye started it.

*There was a time when strategy games were text-based. And still awesome.

*Do you see games like Super Noah's Ark 3D happening anymore?

Swear to God, this is a real Doom clone sold for SNES. Oh, days of yore.

So, in the near future, keep your eyes open as I turn the page back to the lost games in the back closet at Grandma's. Some will be good. Some will no doubt be bad. Just remember, when this baby hits 88mph, you're gonna see some serious shit.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits

Here it is, my first steps back into the games I abandoned long ago. We begin with Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits, and a personal warning; never trust GameStop employees to actually know what they are talking about.

Now, I'm not knocking the knowledge of your average PawnShop register jockey. Many of them are perfectly intelligent people, capable of conversing with you in-depth regarding wide-ranging subjects. GameStop is just a temporary layover for many who are aiming for that advanced degree, but also happen to love video games and money.

Truly, they are giants of culture and intelligence.

So I, as a young college student in the early 2000s, was avidly seeking more RPGs after getting all hopped up on Suikoden II and Star Ocean: The Second Story. Thus when the Arc the Lad Collection was released, and this subsequent PS2 follow-up, I asked my local GameStop employee if I should take a hit. The response I got was something along the lines of "Yeah, I mean, they're not great, they're more like action games, you know?"

I should point out at this time that for a period of a year or so I actually did work for GameStop, or more accurately, for FunCoLand as it was in the process of being assimilated into the vast GameStop network. I got asked what games I had never played or even seen were like all the time. So I did what the guy I was talking to did; took a look at the cover, then the back, looked for key words, and bullshitted my way through the conversation.

"This game? It's about . . . John Madden . . .
trying to eat the Minnesota Vikings."

In any case, action games were a far cry from what I was after, and so I left both Arc games alone, only purchasing Twilight of Spirits two years later when it was the last copy at Best Buy, and in the bargain bin. It sat amongst my game collection for nigh on five years after that, until I opened it up and discovered the base lies I had been told. According to the time stamp on my save file, I got 16 hours into this game before putting it down. In the last week I've added another 12, and for the most part enjoyed them. The most jarring experience has been getting back into a game I put down 2 years ago. Jumping in at the middle meant that I had just flat-out forgotten a lot of the plot details, specifically with the supporting cast. The more I played, the more I was able to infer things I couldn't remember, but much of the first hour or so of putting this back in was me peering at each character wondering who the hell they were.

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits is told through two different viewpoints. The world in this game is divided into essentially two halves; one side populated by humans, and the other by humanoid monsters called the Deimos. You play as both Kharg, a human teenager growing up as a respected and admired member of his community, and Darc, a Deimos the same age as Kharg, growing up with his abusive and uncaring foster mother in a society which shuns him for being half-Deimos, half-human.

Wait, what's that? Darc is the same age as Kharg, and is both half-Deimos and half-human? The neon arrows will point you to the twist if you didn't already see it - Kharg and Darc are long-lost twins. Apparantly their mother, the Lady Nafia, just loved getting freaky with the Deimos, and as a result these two were born. Unfortunately, interracial marriage is still a pretty hot-button issue in their world, and so is stealing ancient Deimos relics, which is just what their parents did. While running from the horde of angry Deimos, their father, Windalf, gave his life so that Nafia could escape with the infant children. It half-worked, and she made it out with Kharg, but not Darc. So Kharg, who looks completely human, was raised with love by his mother, and Darc, who looks like someone whose mom got knocked up by a demon, was raised with hatred and disdain.

The kind of face only a mother could abandon.

You don't need a picture of Kharg because that's him on the cover of the game, in all his shining, not barbarically tortured humanness. Nafia, of course, tries to impart some tolerance into her son, but humanity just flat out hates the Deimos, and not listening to your mom is practically the coolest thing a teenager can do.

So cool.

It doesn't help things when a Deimos attack leaves Kharg's mentor, who also happens to be his best friend's father, dead. He swears a crusade wherein he will bring all the humans together and eradicate the Deimos once and for all. By this time, Darc has finally flipped out after one betrayal too many, and killed his foster mother for attempting to sell him into slavery. Then he kills the leader of the Orcons, a Deimos tribe, just for good measure. He vows that if the only thing the Deimos respect is power, he'll become the strongest Deimos there is, unite all the Deimos tribes, and wipe out the humans.

So, in playing this game from both sides, you get a pretty good idea of what motivates everyone. And that's racism. Every single human you encounter wants to wipe out the Deimos, every Deimos wants to kill all the humans. It's so ingrained they don't even consider it racism, it's just the way things are. The most tolerant person in this world still dreams of burning down Deimos orphanages.

"I have a dream . . . of killing all Deimos."

In fact, the most progressive-thinking person in the game is the leader of the evil Empire oppressing both humans and Deimos. To him, both are merely a means to an end. That is the most enlightened viewpoint in the game.

Now that I've put more time in it and made it much further, I can tell you that the story definitely keeps you wanting to learn more. The big pay-off would be, you'd think, Kharg and Darc finally coming face-to-face, but I can tell you that part is only the beginning. It's a solid script with characters whom all get fleshed out enough to really get into. Oh, there's also the fact that in their journeys, assembling allies as RPG lead characters are wont to do, Kharg and Darc manage to recruit only people who have reason to hate someone on the opposing brother's team. The first meeting between the two groups has all the makings of a Jerry Springer brawl with the amount of grievances which get aired.

In any event, I can safely say that as of right now I intend to finish this one and permanently take it off the backlog. The story compels you to keep playing, and the gameplay is nice enough that you don't get overly bored or frustrated with the battles. Every character gets a nice bit of development, and it's got a big enough villain that even preventing mutual genocide seems less important than putting a stop to his plans.

It's not the best game in the genre, as there are certainly others with better stories and more intriguing characters. However, it is just well-made enough that if you settle in and give it a chance, it will almost assuredly grow on you. If I had to name two complaints, the first I have would be that sometimes combat is easy enough that the random battles seem repetitive and unnecessary, and don't really help contribute to leveling up or learning new skills. The second is the voice acting in combat, wherein characters tend to repeat the same two lines for practically every action, be it grabbing loot, performing an attack, or just acknowledging that it's now their turn. There's also a scripted bit and mini-cutscene for every single special attack and spell. Fortunately, it never approaches Shining Force Neo levels of annoying.

What's that coming my way Meryl? Is it hot stuff? I don't think
I heard you, better repeat yourself thirteen times.

So if it's so fun, why did I put it down in the first place? Well get ready, because you're going to be hearing this answer a lot;

I played this game pretty much constantly from just after it's American release until late last year. Now, I get competitive playing single-player games. If I don't unlock every secret, max out every character, and kill absolutely every enemy, then I might not be as good at this game as some schmo typing on GameFAQs who doesn't even know I'm reading his posts.

I hate him so much.

Final Fantasy XI, except for the few odd months here or there when I'd attempt to quit or just didn't pay for it, ate up all my gaming time for the better part of a decade. It's probably only because I finally kicked the habit that I'm even able to attempt something like The Backlog. I am proud to say, however, that Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits will no longer count itself among the abandoned. Another hard-fought victory, here at The Backlog.

Until next time.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Spectral Force 3: An Unlikely Contender


On those rare occasions when I actually do finish a game (which usually coincides with the arrival of Halley's comet), I run into a problem. It's difficult for me to find another game to get attached to. You see, when I get into a game, I really get into a game. I get focused on it, I become immersed in the story and invested in the characters (as most of the time, I'm playing an RPG). When the last of the credits rolls and I'm met with the words "The End", I feel empty. How will I be able to replicate the experience that absorbed weeks on end? How will I be able to return to that state of bliss where the hours seemed to just fly by?

..Alright, maybe it's not that dramatic, but I think most of you can relate to the idea when you finish a really good game (or for those of us that actually still read books, finish a good novel), it's difficult to find something else that matches that experience. The better the game, the harder it is to leap right into something else (let's not discuss how long this took me when I finished Persona 4).

Shortly after I finished Sands of Destruction (mediocre in many ways, yet still, fun enough), I went in search of a new game to occupy my time. Like my associates, I have no shortage of games to catch up on across various consoles. Still, it took dabbling in quite a few games before I found one that caught my attention. I played through a few chapters of Final Fantasy 13. I reacquainted myself with Resonance of Fate (or more accurately, I reacquainted myself with its non-intuitive combat system). I tried out Demon's Souls. I had a brief stint with Eternal Sonata. The list goes on, yet none of these games, save Final Fantasy 13, maintained my attention for long. However, a trek through the non-linear Gran Pulse, where everything can kill you, coupled with Vanille asking "What went wrong?" when I lost her Eidolon battle was enough to make me hate the game, life, and Vanille (Here's what went wrong: YOU MOVING IN THE LINE OF FIRE).

The game that did, and has managed to hold my attention, was one of the most unlikely candidates: A long forgotten game in my 360 backlog: Spectral Force 3.

Wait, what? Spectral Force 3? Some Background

When I purchased my 360, I had a significant amount of store credit at Gamestop. In addition, they were running their Buy 2, Get 1 free promotion on used games. Suffice to say, I came home with enough games to last me a few months, with Spectral Force 3 being among them, though as more of an afterthought.

Spectral Force 3 is another entry in the Neverland War Chronicles series published by Idea Factory. While it enjoys a following in Japan, the only domestic releases we've received have been on the PSP (Spectral Souls and Neverland Card Battles) and on the DS (Spectral Force Genesis). Since I was a fan of Spectral Souls (though not its horrendous load times) I figured that it was worth giving Spectral Force 3 a shot. Furthermore, as a niche title, I figured that I would have trouble finding it if I delayed my purchase any longer.

The games share a few commonalities: Most are some vein of SRPG, the stories thrust you in the midst of a war between humans, demons, and other creatures, they have a wide variety of recruitable characters, and most have a semi-non-linear approach, which allows you to play from multiple perspectives.

However, almost all of them have some glaring flaw that prevents them from being mainstream successes. Of all the domestic releases, however, Spectral Force 3 seems to have received the most heat.

Other Perspectives: The Glaring Criticisms

I won't rehash every review of the game here (as you can seek those out on your own), but I will cover some of the major criticisms of the game pointed out by others as I've played:

Poor Plot Development and Character Interaction

Here's a condensed version of the story: You are Begina, the newly appointed leader of the well-known Norius Mercenaries, in the midst of the First Great Neverland War (not to be mistaken with the Neverland of Peter Pan fame), which has consumed the entire known world. Newly appointed, unfortunately, means that no one trusts this rookie commander's ability, and soon after, the once renowned mercenary group is reduced to a paltry few members. Not promising, especially when you're up against guys like this.

Jadou is sort of like Captain Hook. Only instead of inept pirates, he commands an army of demons.

The core of your mercenary group (and the only characters who receive significant development) consists of Begina, the good-hearted but brash leader, Diaz, the shy and scholarly type (also your only dedicated healer most of the game), Cassius, the taciturn voice of reason (who of course, is rarely listened to), Dragan, your womanizing, liquor-loving half-demon, and Eunice, an ex-priestess who ends up tagging along, and is mostly useless after the first few hours. Rounding out your squad is Culcha, a wild child raised by Goblins, who has the annoying tendency to tack "Gobli" at the end of every sentence.

Somewhere along the way (about 10 or so hours in) you run into a little boy with mystical powers that enable him (unwillingly) to command the power of two demi-god like fiends, who are wrecking havoc around the world. For some reason or another, you chase after him.

Don't worry. It only makes marginally more sense in the game.

In addition to the dirty half-dozen, you can recruit up to 40 additional characters. Unfortunately, very few of these receive any form of significant character development. Everyone else is given a few lines of dialogue when you recruit them, and occasionally when they fight an enemy general. Unfortunately, this often comes out of left field in some cases:

Oh please, I bet he says that to all the ladies.

And in other cases, makes absolutely no sense at all:

..Wait, what?

Sometimes, a good plot in a bad game or great character development can keep you playing. While Spectral Force 3 has an interesting premise (and if you're played Spectral Souls, you know there's the potential for a deep story), you get a flurry of development in the first few hours, then nothing, then another stint of development. Seriously, even mascot characters in other games have more development than the cast of this game.

You want this dog?

A significant part of this problem lies in the flow of the game.

It's Non-linear! Only Not.

A blurb on the back of the box boasts "Over 150 Missions! Your choice of missions will irrevocably change the course of the Neverland War!". While this sounds awesome and like it will have the potential for many story paths, your 'choice' of missions means very little. While playing, I had the option of fighting on the behalf of about 10 different kingdoms (you do control a mercenary band, after all). What I quickly discovered, however, is that many of the missions overlap and use identical maps.

Here's an example: We'll take three kingdoms from the game -- Flauster, The Nameless Army, and The New Overlord Army. Each of these kingdoms will have a mission entitled "Attack the Underworld Army". No matter which kingdom you do it with, the mission is exactly the same. There's no difference, except maybe a slight change in gold received. This is truly unfortunate, as there could have been the potential for things such as having the generals from your respective employers show up and assist you, or so forth.

What's even worse is that after doing a certain number of missions (it's never clear), the game eventually thrusts you into a storyline battle, which locks you out of doing any other missions (thus no chance to level up or upgrade equipment), and typically pits you up against characters like Jadou (pictured above) or the two demi-god guys. This lack of clarity, however, is not only limited to the missions.

Unclear Game Mechanics

It's already annoying enough to never know when you'll be thrown into a story battle, but there are also other points of uncertainty. At the end of every battle, you receive a battle ranking (C being the lowest in my experience, S being the highest). While the game presents the categories you're rated on, it's still somewhat unclear as to the weight each category (Enemies Defeated, Allies Retreated, Damage Dealt, Max Combo Hit, Number of Turns, etc.). Early on, getting anything over a B was next to impossible for me. As I gained access to new elements in the battle system (the friendship gauge and battle formations) and multi-hit attacks, getting an A became more frequent. The "S" still remains out of my grasp: Considering that I'm racking up 200+ hit combos and 20k+ damage in some stages without anyone retreating, this is understandably annoying. It's certainly a mystery that would baffle the greatest of minds without a FAQ or message board:

Elementary my ass.

Furthermore, your mercenary rank, which is needed to recruit better characters, has an unclear method of increasing. Presumably after performing well enough (getting A and S ranks) on missions it goes up, but there's no clear indicator of how this is weighted. Periodically, you'll get a memssage saying "Your Rank is now ". Brilliant.

Too much of a mediocre thing

While you have the potential to recruit a large roster of characters, many of them are rather useless, and discerning the useful ones can require a bit of guesswork (for example: I based my guess on the fact that the guy had a dragon tattoo and katana. Score. Too bad the other katana guy sucked). Added to this problem is the fact that you are forced to use Begina and Diaz in every stage -- thus with a maximum of 6 characters, you really only have 4 slots to play around with. One saving grace here, however, was that you rarely have an underleveled character join you: Most of the people you recruit are either at, or most of the time, above your levels.

Let's recap, shall we? A lacking story, a faux non-linear path, unclear game mechanics, low character interaction. If you've read this far, you're probably wondering the following:

How in the HELL did this game manage to beat out FF13, RoF, and Eternal Sonata for my attention? How did it get ahead of seemingly superior games in the backlog?

My Surprising Experience

In short, here's the answer: It's fun.

The criticisms make it clear that the game is not without its flaws. However, if you manage to look beyond these, you'll find that the gameplay is quite enjoyable. While there are plenty of conventional JSRPG conventions, the addition of things like the AP system (think the action bar in Xenogears), assists, teamwork, and battle formations take it beyond 'move character, select attack or magic'. When you add in the fact that many characters have variations on the standard attacks (for example, some characters will have lift, knockback or elemental affinities associated with their default attacks), then you have a more in depth strategy experience.

However, what really kept me going was the fact that the game can be challenging. Any SRPG gamer worth their salt knows how character like Orlandu can decimate an entire map. If you've ever played Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, then you know that after a certain point in the game, it's easier to forego strategy and simply let Ike destroy an entire stage on his own.

You'll get no sympathy from him.

Spectral Force 3 does not allow for this. While you can trick the enemy AI with some simple tactics on some stages, if you decide that it's hero time and try to send in a one many army, then you won't be like Ike. You'll be more like Murphy in the first Robocop movie.

More like it's an hero time.

The combination of the unique battle system, as well as actually having to think through some battles makes for an enjoyable experience. It truly is a shame that so many of the maps are rehashed. The game could have benefited for a more diverse offering here, sadly.

Earlier, I did note the poor plot and character development. This too is a shame, because while there are those bits of dialogue that make absolutely no sense, there are other times where the interaction between characters leaves you wanting more. Dragan and Cassius have amusing banter with each other -- heck, Dragan alone is pretty hilarious in his interactions with everyone. When you look at the smaller conversations between characters, you see the potential for development: Sadly, however, it's never realized.

To further add insult to injury, the instruction manual (you know, that thing you used to read when your parents drove you back from the store) actually does a good job of giving you some background on each of the kingdoms, as well as their major generals. While this sets the stage for some great development, the game never follows up on it.

Concluding Thoughts

To date, I've logged roughly 25-30 hours in Spectral Force 3 (this isn't counting the time I left my system idle). I've reached a point in the game where my characters have access to the strongest attacks, I've recruited a healthy number of not-so-useless characters, and I can consistently get A-ranks on missions. The plot also seems to be picking up, though still at a snails pace, and between numerous 'Find Work" missions.

David noted in his introductory post that our purpose isn't specifically to provide a review for a game. Think of this more as my own musings as I play through, paired with an attempt to give a different perspective. I can see why people abhor this game. At the same time, it did require me to take a second stab at it before I uncovered its worth. Personally, it's been an enjoyable experience for me, though your own mileage may vary.

Suffice to say, however, I am firmly entrenched in this game. I'm still trying to max out my rank, as well as achieve that ever-elusive S-Rank (even knowing how to do it now, it's easier said than done). Hopefully in the next few weeks, I'll be able to move this game from the backlog shelf to the finished pile.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

We Come Bearing Games

It's happened to almost everybody that has ever bought video games. You find something you think you'll enjoy, lay down your money, and bring it home. Six months later, you find it in the back of your closet, potentially covered in some kind of sentient mold.

There's a copy of Bayonetta under there.

So what kept you from playing it? Or if you did pop it in for a few hours, what made you neglect it from there on out? Sometimes real life gets in the way. Sometimes there's another game. Sometimes there is no real answer, you just put it down and that was that.

This is why we've established The Backlog. My associates, whom I will let introduce themselves to you, and I will be dedicating a portion of our energies from here on out to going back through those forgotten games and giving them the attention they may or may not deserve. Over the years of collecting video games and then promptly ignoring them, we've all established a backlog that one might call considerable.

The only exaggeration in this picture is the number of women.

Now these games will at last have their day in the sun. Each week we will attempt to make up for lost time. Some of the things on our list may be only a few months old, or even brand new. Others might come from a time when describing Germany meant prefacing it with "East" or "West."

It was like Rampart, but with Communism.

What you'll find quickly is that our mission here is not to review games, though reviews may certainly be extrapolated from what we write. This blog is more about the experience of going back to the forgotten games and giving them another shot. What made us pick up the game in the first place? What were we expecting from it, and did we end up getting that? Why did we never play it, or if we did, why did we put it down? Expect all this and more.

Each one of us has a specialty. Classic games, games across multiple consoles; myself, I'll be starting out by going through my PS2 collection. Just to give you an idea of what we're attempting to tackle, here's a look at the PS2 games I own;

And now let's look at the same collection, but with the games I've beaten removed.

Money well spent, I say.

If you don't want to count them all, that's 52 games I have yet to beat or in some cases even play - and I'm not done collecting.

So now our monumental task begins on two fronts. One, playing through our mountains of backlog, and two, hopefully keeping our readers entertained in the process. We're officially getting started, so look for our chronicles to begin from here on out.

Off we go~!