Saturday, February 19, 2011

Milking the Cash Cow for all her worth: Final Fantasy 7: Dirge of Cerberus

Wherever you as far as your opinion of Final Fantasy 7, there's no denying the popularity of the series, as well as what it did for JRPGs in the west. I'll go on record for saying that I am a huge fan of the game, and fondly remember the first time I rushed home with it as a rental, simply letting it sit at the title screen for awhile to hear the lovely, next-gen rendition of the traditional Final Fantasy theme. Indeed, I have many, many fond memories of the game.

I'm certain that Square (prior to their merger with Enix) has fond memories of all the cash the game brought in as well, which undoubtedly caused them to release a host of spin offs, both in game and media form. Some of these were quite a bit of fun: Crisis Core, for example, while a straightforward game, remains one of my favorite PSP titles. The Before Crisis OVA was a nice homage to the series, and Advent Children Complete made a lot more sense than its original version.

Then of course, there is the spinoff that threatens to prey on the fond memories of your youth by attaching itself to your favorite series with promises of a unique, yet fun experiences. It then, however, proceeds to violate them in the worst imaginable way.

Enter Dirge of Cerberus.

..Alright, I'm being really dramatic here, I know.

Dirge of Cerberus is the first (and as many fans hope, last) foray into the shooter genre.  While a graphical masterpiece like any other Final Fantasy game, it sadly relies more heavily on nostalgia to draw in and maintain the player's attention, rather than the smooth, intuitive controls that make other games in this genre successful.  While some fans may find this game a nice stroll down memory lane and a welcome expansion to the FF7 mythos, those hoping for a solid action-gaming experience with the Final Fantasy stamp on it will likely walk away frustrated.

Unless you've been living under a rock in the gaming community, then you've undoubtedly heard the unfavorable responses Dirge of Cerberus received.  Similarly, you're also probably wondering why in the world would I subject myself -willingly- to playing through this game.

Well, that's sort of a funny story. . .


In all honesty, I don't remember the exact date and time I picked up Dirge of Cerberus.  I only knew that I'd purchased it after it achieved Greatest Hits status, and that I'd actually purchased the game new (for a fairly cheap price) from Gamestop.  Going in, I knew it wasn't a spectacular game.  But as an avid fan of Final Fantasy 7, I was willing to at least give it a chance.  Who knows?  It might even be a welcome diversion!

Believe it or not, I actually popped in Dirge of Cerberus shortly after purchase to at least see what the game was like.  ..Shortly after, I popped the game right back out.  My initial impressions of the game were that yes, it was quite pretty (as to be expected of any Final Fantasy game), but the control scheme was completely whacked out (more on this later), to the point where playing the game caused more frustration than anything else.

Now, let's fast forward to the year 2011. . .

If you've been keeping up with Disappointment 2011 (the theme for the first few months of gaming in 2011), you know that I've been deliberately subjecting myself to playing less than stellar titles.  Since January was yet finished by the time I finished the last title in disappointment 2011 (refer to my Shadow Hearts 3 post), I figured that I might as well continue the streak.  After all, how much worse could it get?

I know:  This is the part where I'm going to tell you "Oh, but it DID get much worse", but sadly, that's not going to happen.  I'll be frank:  Many of the negative reviews about Dirge of Cerberus are spot on.  However, after suffering through the awful plot of Star Ocean 3, and after having my expectations of a series ruined with Shadow Hearts 3, Dirge of Cerberus actually did not seem that horrible by comparison.

Mostly because the game was blissfully short, but also because I went into this game with lower expectations than normal.  Be cautioned, though:  There are spoilers aplenty in this post.  Normally I'm reluctant to do this, but considering the way most people avoid this game, I am likely doing many people a favor here.



I'm going to approach this post with the assumption that you've already played through Final Fantasy 7.  If for some reason you haven't, and you've been living under a rock, well, Aeris dies, Sephiroth, a genetically modified super soldier, goes batshit insane, gets killed, comes back to life, but is thwarted both times by a not-so-super soldier named Cloud along with his band of buddies.  In a way, it's sort of like Universal Soldier.

Sephiroth would be Dolph Lundgren.
..Anyhow, Dirge of Cerberus takes place a few years after the events in Final Fantasy 7.  Life has mostly returned to normal for the world in the wake of "Meteorfall", the event where Sephiroth's giant summoned space rock nearly destroyed all life on the planet.  The game follows the adventures of Vincent Valentine, who, unlike the rest of the cast who have attempted to move on and make a better life, spends most of his time brooding in a cave in front of the body of his love, Lucrecia Crescent (the game finally does give her a last name), feeling that he needs to atone for his sins.  Lucrecia (who, if you did Vincent's sidequests in 7, mysteriously disappears without a trace), who's equally morose as Vincent, has decided to seal herself away for the foreseeable future, for all the sins she committed:  Really, the two are perfect for each other.

By some miracle, Reeve (better known as the puppetmaster behind Cait Sith) manages to coax Vincent from his cave to a celebration in the town of Kalm.  Unfortunately, shortly after arriving, things take a turn for the worse.  Mysterious assailants come out of the woodwork and begin attacking, as well as kidnapping residents of the town.  Eventually, the leader of this group broadcasts himself over the World Wide Network (i.e. the Internet of the FF7 world) and announces himself as Weiss, the leader of a group known as "Deepground", as well as babbling some incoherent nonsense about cleansing the world of sinners.

And thus Vincent's adventure begins.  Although the single-minded purpose is to stop Weiss and his band of cronies, we eventually uncover shards from Vincent's past, more on the infamous Shinra corporation, and revisit some old friends.


Dirge of Cerberus attempts to expand the FF7 universe, while also trying to flesh out the backstory of one of its more mysterious characters:  Vincent Valentine.  I will admit that some elements of the plot were pretty cool:  Seeing how the world changed in the light of Meteorfall, revisiting places like Midgar and Kalm, as well as seeing a few old faces.  However, in expanding the plot, they also made some elements seem trivial, or absolutely ridiculous.  It's really hard to know where to even start with this one.


FF7 veterans know of SOLDIER:  Shinra's elite group of genetically enhanced combatants.  As we play through the game, we find out that the president of Shinra, in his infinite wisdom, decided to create a separate branch of SOLDIER.  Only he wanted this group to be much more ruthless, so he decided to lock them thousands of feet beneath Midgar, deprive them of any external stimuli that might elicit things like love, and also placed some sort of retrovirus in them that would react in case they rebelled against their masters.  After doing all of this, he and the few people privvy to knowledge of this group. . . . apparently sort of forgot about them.

Replace Culkin with a band of mass murderers and it's sort of like this.

I suppose it sort of makes sense that they're pissed off and want to annihilate the world.  What doesn't make sense, however, is the character designs for them.  I mean, Crisis Core (released after this game) did a good job of explaining that 1st Class SOLDIER members could choose specialized equipment; hence the reason behind Sephiroth's stylish wear.  Deepground members seem to be something of a fashion nightmare, ranging from this:

Rosso the Crimson:  Well, they needed a woman

To this:

Nero the Sable, Weiss's brother.  ..I don't even know what this is.

and to finally this, with Weiss:

Because with Sephiroth gone, they needed another white haired pretty boy.  ..With Gun Katanas.

..Seriously, what?

Vincent and Lucrecia

FF7 only gave us a snippet of the backstory:  Vincent had feelings for Lucrecia.  Lucrecia perhaps had feelings for him, but in the name of science, decided to get pregnant by a completely whackjob (Hojo) and give birth to the harbinger of destruction.  Alright, understandable, that'd make anyone feel like crap.  Dirge of Cerberus, however, through various flashbacks, expands on this.  What do we find out?

Lucrecia once worked with Vincent's dad, Grimoire Valentine, who was a scientist.  The two of them discovered the essence of Chaos, and like any good Shinra scientists, attempted to play god.  Chaos, being..well, Chaos, attacks Lucrecia, who is saved at the last minute by Grimoire, who is mortally wounded in the process (+1 Lucrecia trauma points).

Vincent comes along some years later as Lucrecia's bodyguard (that's revealed to be his official capacity) in Nibelheim.  Lucrecia recognizes the name instantly (+2 Lucrecia trauma points), and attempts to initially keep her distance from Vincent.  Of course, Vincent's suave ways before he was a brooding dork win her over, and romance ensues:
This one's for the fangirls.

But at some point, Vincent comes to pick Lucrecia up for lunch in her lab.  She's not around, so Vincent happens to glance at the screen, sees his father's name and picture, and is puzzled.  When Lucrecia comes in, Vincent casually (seriously, he didn't even seem mad) asks Lucrecia if she knew his father, and what was going on.  He's a little shocked, but he's clearly willing to talk things out like a pair of rational adults.  I mean come on ladies, how often do you run into a guy this understanding?

So what does Lucrecia do? Absolutely loses it, turns off the computer, and runs away crying, and starts avoiding Vincent (+3 Lucrecia trauma points).


In the next scene, we see her in Hojo's arms, saying that she decided to be with him after all.  Hojo laughs triumphantly, Vincent sits off in the corner, saying it's alright, as long as she's happy.

How could anyone be happy with THIS?

..Oh, but it gets worse.

Many of you know the events that happen after:  Vincent confronts Hojo, gets shot, then gets experimented on.  However, what Dirge of Cerberus expands on is the aftermath:  See, apparently Vincent didn't wake up right after Hojo's experiment to the creature he is today.  No, Hojo experimented on his corpse, tossed the body away, then Lucrecia, discovering it, did some experiments of her own in an attempt to save Vincent's life:  She does this by implementing the essence of Chaos into him, as well as something called a Protomateria to control it:

Nothing says love like turning you into this.

She then promptly runs away after seeing Vincent going berserk, feeling like she has made a mistake.  She then goes M.I.A. until the events of FF7 (+4 Lucrecia trauma points).

See, here are my issues with this:  Dirge of Cerberus casts Vincent as the main character to make him appear like a badass.  This is problematic on a few levels:  One, he really didn't do ANYTHING in FF7.  Secondly, the game canonizes the fact that Vincent, in fact, did NOTHING.  In the intro, he's shown randomly helping with an evacuation in Midgar while everyone else is fighting Sephiroth.  He wasn't even present for the big finale!

Fair enough.  You would hope that through the events of the game, he'd redeem himself.  However, you just read the description above.  If anything, this whole backstory manages to make Vincent look like even more of a loser in this entire matter.  Before, it was easy to assume that Lucrecia was coerced into this experiment.  Instead, we see that Vincent asking an innocent question led to this.  Essentially, all of this could have been solved if Vincent had called ahead of time and said "Hey, want to meet for lunch?"

Dirge of Cerberus cements Vincent's position as the Rodney Dangerfield of FF7 mythos

The scene where he gets shot by Hojo (now in glorious PS2 capable graphics) makes him look like even more of an idiot.  Vincent's a trained gunman.  Hojo's an insane scientist.  The way the scene played out just made Vincent look like an unprepared idiot.  Again, another problem solved if he'd just called ahead.

Finally, while some people may appreciate the expansion on Lucrecia's character, this whole ordeal does nothing to flatter anyone's opinion of her.  So you decide to mess with a chaotic entity, getting your mentor killed.  Then you decide to pitch a fit because you pseudo-boyfriend asks nicely "hey, do you know my dad?  He was killed in some accident.  I really want to know more about this".  Then you run off with an insane scientist, give birth to a monster, then.. hide yourself away.

Seriously, some things are best left unknown.

The Plot Twist

I mentioned a character named Weiss earlier:  He's the leader of Deepground, after leading a rebellion to overthrow the group of enforcers assigned to keep them in check (a fact that's only revealed in the online mode of the game, which I believe the U.S. didn't get).  His giant objective is to prematurely summon Omega, a beast who is only supposed to appear in the dying days of the planet, whose goal is to carry all the life essence of the world "into the sea of stars".

Only this time, everybody dies before the boat even pulls out of the harbor.

However, when Vincent confronts Weiss at the end of the game, we discover that Weiss..isn't quite Weiss.  In fact, wait for it, Weiss has actually had his consciousness taken over!  By none other than Hojo!  But wait, didn't he die in FF7?  Admittedly, if you've seen Advent Children, you probably wondered the same about Rufus Shinra (who survived purely by being a badass -- and smart enough to have an escape route in his office), so Hojo coming back should not be that big of a shock.

No, it's how he did it that's just silly.  You see, shortly before the death of his physical body, Hojo uploaded his "consciousness, his essence, his being" (his words, roughly) into the World Wide Network.  Of course, said network was destroyed in Meteorfall.  However, once it booted back up (mentioned earlier in the game's plot -- ha ha!  Full circle!), his consciousness assembled. . and took over Weiss's body.

Yes that's right people.  You read correctly.  Hojo is in fact the internet.

Kind of like this, but nowhere NEAR as cool.

Things get even more ridiculous when, upon losing, Weiss's brother Nero (who was seemingly killed earlier), wanders over to his brother, babbles some nonsense about never being separated and becoming one, and manages to dispel Hojo from Weiss's consciousness through the power of brotherly love and slash fiction.


Unfortunately, Hojo's will wasn't what was making Weiss crazy:  The real Weiss is equally as much of a prick, and still decides to summon Omega and wreck havoc.

I'm just going to stop there.  As you can see, the plot premise is pretty ridiculous on many levels, but that's ok, as long as the gameplay is solid, right?


One thing that I will give Square credit for is that with any Final Fantasy title, they always try something a little different.  They're not always successful, mind you, but I can applaud efforts of innovation here:  A stark comparison to the formula of Dragon Quest, which has stayed largely the same over most of its incarnations (put down the pitchforks -- I'm a DQ fan, too).  Dirge of Cerberus, however, tries something radically different by being a third-person shooter.  Interestingly, the Yoshinori Kitase, the producer of this game, had considered a few other candidates as the protagonist:  Barret Wallace, Irvine Kinneas of FF8 fame, and even Yuna.  Ultimately, however, Vincent was chosen, as he left the 'strongest impression' on Kitase's mind:

Square-Enix doesn't care about black people.

Vincent has a few methods of attack at his disposal:  He has access to various types of guns (handgun, machine gun, sniper rifle, and some variations within) with a wide array of customizations.  He can utilize hand-to-hand combat, magic through the use of materia, and even use his level 1 limit break from FF7, the Galian Beast (which fortunately, you can control this time).

Much like a traditional RPG, you can level up, with your accrued experience points being based on how you performed in a given level (your accuracy, damage taken, magic used, and a slew of other factors).  The twist is that at the end of each level, you need to make a decision between experience points and gil:  Do you choose to power up Vincent's base stats?  Or do you go for the money to restock supplies and purchase better equipment?

Honestly, Dirge of Cerberus has a lot of interesting ideas here that could make for a fun gameplay experience.  And combat could be -tremendously- fun if not for a few factors.  First, targeting in this game is enormously annoying:  There seems to be no lockon function, nor an option to quickly cycle between enemies as you're being swarmed (at least that I discovered), making targeting an annoying matter.  Instead, you have to drag the crosshairs over to the enemies and start firing:

Particularly annoying when you're fighting fast-moving bosses.
What further compounds this problem is the camera.  Again, while not terrible, per se, I spent a good chunk of combat trying to figure out just what was firing at me.  It wasn't at the level of frustration where I was getting killed before I could see what was hitting me, but by the time I'd found the target, a good chunk of Vincent's HP was gone.  Really, these factors have a way of artificially bumping the difficulty up.  Dirge of Cerberus isn't a hard game by any means, just annoying in certain parts:

The first-person scope function saved me for all the wrong reasons.
What is both refreshing (and yet a little depressing at the same time) is the fact that the North American and Europeans versions of this game are actually improvements over the original Japanese version:  This was due to the negative reception the game received in Japan, as well as the developer's own dissatisfaction with the gameplay elements. 

The game does give some replay value in the form of the side missions that come upon completion, as well as a new game + feature that allows you to go at it again with all of your acquired gil, weapons, levels, and weapon parts.  This is a nice bonus for those who enjoyed the gameplay, but by the time I saw these options, I only played long enough to try a single side mission before leaving it to the pile of finished games.

Closing Thoughts

Truthfully, I didn't expect much coming into this game.  On top of that, I had just finished Bujingai, meaning that any follow-up game would probably be good by comparison.  While I expected a game with pretty graphics (hey, this is Square) shoddy controls, and a thinly veiled attempt to appeal to my nostalgia, I was given a game that clearly had some effort put into it, but lacked the polish to be something truly great.

In terms of rating it as a game, well, that's a difficult call:  Clearly, much of Dirge of Cerberus relies on (and perhaps preys upon) the nostalgia people have for FF7.  While this game can, in some ways, stand by itself (you could, after all, conceivably play through all of FF7 without ever seeing Vincent), a casual player without a frame of reference would discover this as a mediocre action title.

The final verdict on this game?  It's worth a rental if you really are curious.  If it has already found its way to your backlog, then give it a whirl:  It's a short enough game that you can finish fairly quickly (I managed to do it over a weekend).  It is certainly a game that could have been much better, but after playing Bujingai, it was an improvement.  Amusingly, Bujingai and Dirge of Cerberus do share a common thread, which comes courtesy of the game's secret ending: 

Genesis in Dirge of Cerberus.  Even with a 30 second cameo, he ruins everything.
Perhaps at the end of the day, it's better to just blame Gackt for it all.

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