Game Ramblings #142 – Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin Trial Version

More Info from Square-Enix

Ramblings thread on twitter

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS5

The unveiling of this game did not do it any favors. The dialogue was TERRIBLE and you could die from a drinking game based around how many times they say chaos. There’s definitely some problems with the game, but behind all that nonsense there is a nugget of a fun game that could come out of all of this.

In general I’m not a fan of Souls-style combat. The deliberate pace of timing your attacks just kind of drags for me. I’d much rather hack and slash and use recovery skills to keep the combat pace up. However, this one does a couple of things that work out in its favor. The first is a reactionary block that if timed well allows the player to gain MP rapidly while avoiding damage. The second is an MP dump that increases the player’s damage and allows for a larger amount of the enemy’s stun meter to be chipped away. In general this encourages me to stay in close quarters more often than in my typical Souls experience.

That said, this still doesn’t feel like it’s at a point where I’m happy with the balance of it. The player’s stun meter and the ability to block damage are run through the same sort of pseudo stamina meter, so using the block too much is a huge risk. Being stunned on the boss fight was a huge risk of being 100-0’d in the second phase of the boss. That risk turns it into a slog where you stay back, chip away damage when you can, and just stay out of the way. That’s the part where the Souls-style combat really loses me.

In a perfect world for me, the block meter isn’t part of the stamina meter. You either do it right and get the advantage of having executed the mechanic well or you do it wrong and naturally lose some of your stamina meter to normal damage mechanics. In this setup the player is further encouraged to execute the block properly and stay in combat, increasing the overall pace of the game and preventing the sort of large passive slogs that a lot of these kinds of fights can become.

I think ultimately this is going to end up in a situation where I just end up playing on easy, which isn’t necessarily what I want to get out of this. I’m pretty fine with the actual level of incoming damage and the need to execute the mechanics cleanly, but if going to easy means I can get through fights in a more efficient manner, I think I’d lean into that. I’d rather just be able to treat a few things as smaller gameplay modifiers though, which is a bit disappointing.

This demo also feels kind of let down by the art style. This game has a lot of greys, which also includes the enemies. This left me in a place where a lot of the trash fights were me kind of taking more damage than I felt was practical, mostly because I was visually losing the enemies and missing their tells. It was frustrating to not have clear silhouettes, as that’s often a huge part of the experience of action games for me.

On the other hand, the job system feels like a huge perk for the overall meta game. There’s only a few classes to play here, but I set myself up around the use of the swordsman and black mage classes, and the differences in their combat pace and ability use felt pretty interesting to me. The fact that they have full skill trees is also pretty huge, as there’s an inherent power curve beyond simply getting bigger stat numbers.

There’s definitely a nugget of potential here though. The game is far better than its writing and even with me not liking this style of combat, I was still enjoying myself. I don’t think they’re really going to fix what I see as the major problems here, but we’ve also only seen a tiny slice of this game in both the unveil trailer and demo. Maybe other parts of the game have a better visual style and less ridiculous use of the word chaos. Even if they don’t, I’m left pretty surprised that I want to see more out of this game.

Game Ramblings #110 – Final Fantasy VII Remake

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS4

I think it’s a disservice to this game that they called it Final Fantasy VII Remake. Sure it’s taking the core of the original game and literally remaking it. However, it’s only Midgar, but it’s so much more than that (and I’ll get back to that). It’s taken what was a relatively inconsequential setting and made it into a full-length experience that doesn’t feel stretched. It’s completely turned the gameplay on its head and made it a completely different gameplay experience. I went in with somewhat high hopes that the gameplay itself would feel good in a more modern style, but I wasn’t expecting the rest, and I come out having finished it completely floored at how great the game was.

In a lot of ways, this feels like a lot of lessons learned from the past couple mainline FF titles.

13 took a lot of flack, and rightfully so, for having a very linear start, but moreso that it just didn’t feel alive. 7R is just as linear, but the pieces are so full of life. The 7 slums? It’s more than just a bar now. There’s apartments and shops and people going about their daily life. Wall Market? Now it feels like a grungy Vegas instead of just a collection of buildings with neon on them. While things are generally go point A to B, there’s so much more there than in 13 that it works so much better.

Some little things add a lot of depth to this. Ya there’s side quests, but they’re all voice acted. The characters you meet and help feel like living people, instead of just an exclamation point to start at. Seventh Heaven wasn’t just the bar for story reasons, it felt like a community center for the sector 7 slums. The upper plate wasn’t just a vague section for rich folks that was mostly unseen, but in your interactions with its people on a few occasions it was clearly a place that mostly existed for your average Shinra worker. All of this helped pad out the world, so instead of being linear and dead, it felt like a full world, even without open exploration.

15 had a combat system that went way off the beaten path for this series. It was sort of action-based, and sort of turn based. However, the action being centered around holding a button to do automatic chains worked well, but was kind of strange. The action system in 7R feels a lot more direct, and importantly a lot more defense-oriented. Basic attacks are direct inputs, but in a way that makes sense for the character. Cloud and Tifa are a button press to attack, but that makes no sense for a machine gun or magic streams for Barrett and Aerith. So…..they don’t. They hold to attack, and it just makes sense. All of that charges up the ATB meters, which is where the rhythm of a turn-based system comes into play.

I don’t know that I’ve played an action RPG that’s so seamlessly integrated a sort of turn-based rhythm, but it works really well here. I tended to jump around to the person that felt most natural to my current needs in the fight to really aggressively charge an ATB meter, but I was always using the other party members abilities at the same time. Hitting the skills button, watching the game slow down to super slo-mo, and planning out which ability or magic power to use felt really good. It gave important points where I could slow down and breathe, plan out my moves a bit, then get right back into the action.

The defensive aspects are also way out in the forefront here. Dodging large attacks is super important to avoid wasting healing. Blocking smaller damage becomes a really important source of ATB charging. Parrying attacks with Cloud becomes an important way to cause enemies to stagger. Using your magic dealers to cast slows or poisons or sleeps or stuns becomes an important way to mitigate group fights to allow you to focus on important targets. As a whole, it lets you treat the defensive side of things as a tool in combat, rather than a necessity to simply reduce damage.

The game also definitely borrows from 13 in its use of a stagger mechanic that comes into play primarily on bosses. Hitting the enemies will increase a stagger meter, which on completion allows for serious damage output. General attacking will eventually fill it, but you’re encouraged to really lay into weaknesses to fill it faster. Some of these are tactical (swap between magic and physical attacks when an enemy has barrier or shield up), some of these are practical (use lightning on enemy robots), some of these are defensive (blocking a melee attack boosts stagger). However, it all feels straight out of 13 where smart use of staggering is often the end goal to do large damage, rather than simply focusing on spam attacks.

This all comes together into some of the most consistently great boss fights I’ve ever seen in an RPG. Every boss had its own little mechanics to deal with, weaknesses to find, opportunities to attack. The thing that really impressed me though is that the fights found the magical place where they were long fights – generally 5+ minute affairs – with multiple phases, but they never felt like a grind. They weren’t necessarily easy and you’d die if you weren’t paying attention, but they felt fair. Blindly using your resources wasn’t a good plan of attack, but resources aren’t so rare that you simply hold onto them forever out of fear. This is all helped by the fact that the stress of dying wasn’t there. They’ve embraced the modern touch from 15 of having checkpoints immediately before any fight sequence, so a death means you don’t lose progress – you simply try again. It leaves fights in a place where they can be challenging and fun and capable of making you think on your feet and being mechanically heavy and you just go along and enjoy the ride.

However, the biggest surprise is how they steered the story, as it presents a lot of potential changes to the original, and this is where I get into spoiler territory:

Spoiler

There’s some obvious addition to the character depth here, whether it’s the Avalanche side members or the general relationship between the core party. That was always going to happen. This remake was taking a 5 hour introductory section of the original and making it into its own standalone 30 hour game. However, there’s a few specific things that lead me to believe remake part 2 is going to be a much larger change than this one.

The first big change is that Zack Fair appears to be alive in some form. They show him in his last stand from Crisis Core, but by the end he’s shown alive and carrying Cloud back to Midgar. There’s some amount of implication that this exists in a sort of parallel timeline, which opens up the interesting possibilities of either jumping between timelines or straight out changing the past.

The second big change is a question over whether or not the party is even on the original timeline by the end of the game. Throughout the game, the party now goes up against creatures called Whispers that attempt to keep people on their destined path. During the last stretch, the party is fighting against the leader of this group, and ultimately trying to forge their own path. Part of the fight is the player seeing flashes of events that are fated to occur, including the death of Aerith. However, it’s implied that these visions are the events that will occur, if the party does not defeat the creatures that control fate. In defeating fate, it seems like the party should now have control over their path.

I’ve also had friends speculating that what we aren’t seeing isn’t actually a retelling of the original story, but a potential alternate timeline in itself. A few times throughout the game, it’s hinted at that this Aerith has some ability to see what’s going on in the future, or at least knows more than she’s letting on. If she’s able to see across timelines, it could easily explain this game being a different timeline entirely where the Whispers are trying to keep it in alignment with the original game’s timeline.

Those things are huge potential changes to the original story. Is the party going to be able to meet with the living Zack? Is Aerith going to live because the timeline has now been changed, or is that still inevitable? If Zack can be alive in some alternate timeline, can other events be turned back, like the destruction of the sector 7 plate? The story has been setup in a way that part 2 could be a completely different game than the original. I’m hoping that Square really decides to go all in on what they’ve setup, and avoids taking the easy way out to appease nostalgia.

[collapse]

It was absolutely stunning that this game was made, and even more stunning that it came out in the form it did. Square avoided going for a straight nostalgic remake, and rewrote the book about what FF7 means. In doing so, they’ve crafted an experience that feels somewhat familiar in story, completely modern in execution, and leaves some room in the story for them to finish leaving nostalgia behind and craft a really compelling new story for the gang. This took what was already an intriguing world, and elevated it to a new level that feels completely alive. They’ve crafted what is one of the best blends of action and turn-based role-playing that I’ve ever had my hands on. They’ve also done it with modern technology, giving them the most seamless blend of visual fidelity and story telling tools that they could ever hope for. My hope for part 2 is that they continue to push the boundaries for the game instead of falling back on nostalgia, but this one has certainly pushed me from a place of cautious hope to a complete state of hype to see what ends up being in store.

Game Ramblings #88 – Revisiting Kingdom Hearts – HD 1.5 Remix

More Info from Square-Enix

Long story short; I want to play Kingdom Hearts 3, but for the life of me I can’t remember the lore. I could just look the story up on the internet, but frankly I’d rather play the games again and in the process remember why each one had it’s own set of problems. For the time being, we’re starting off with the HD 1.5 ReMIX games of KH1 and Re:Chain of Memories

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • KH1 Also Available On: PS2, PS3
  • Chain of Memories Also Available On: GBA, PS2, PS3
This combo of series totally makes sense right?

Kingdom Hearts was always a weird combination love letter to both Final Fantasy and Disney. It mixed the two series in a way that never should have worked, but somehow doesn’t feel weird when in action. Each individual world has its own chance to shine and give focus to a specific set of Disney or FF characters. Despite its gameplay problems, the game did well enough to now be a series of more games and video tie-ins than I can keep track of. However, going back and replaying the original is definitely a weird gameplay experience.

This is an ARPG, so combat is important. Unfortunately it’s also kind of bad.

Even at release, the combat in Kingdom Hearts wasn’t fantastic, but it definitely shows some lumps now. Moment to moment, it has some fundamental problems relative to modern games. The camera isn’t great, so the game really leans into both soft and hard locks for attacks. Attacks can be pretty inconsistent in their ability to hit, but you end up gaining so many variations in ranges that by the end of the game you can really spam attack from anywhere to hit something. Donald as a character more or less just sucks, but you gain a ton of world-specific characters to replace him, and by end game he’s gained so much magic capability that he’s pretty useful.

This is also backed by a wildly inconsistent level of difficulty. What I’d consider the two hardest bosses in the game are the Tarzan world boss (roughly world 3) and the Little Mermaid boss (roughly the mid point of the game). The Tarzan boss is difficult entirely because of poor design. You can take immediate damage coming out of two cutscenes unless you’re spamming dodge. The arena that the fight takes place in has multiple points where dodge rolls can be blocked on bad collision, despite the fact that the fight is incredibly heavy on dodging to avoid fast damage, including instant-trace ranged attacks. Basically it’s a fight where the core mechanics of the game fight against the setup in place in a hugely negative situation. On the other hand the Little Mermaid boss fight is a pure damage nuke situation, and fought straight up is unnecessarily heavy in healing. However, the mechanics of the fight allow you to easily get behind the boss into a place where you take significantly reduced damage while easily hitting the main target point.

This pattern in particular is a common exploit in boss fights. I’d say probably about 50% of boss fights have a “safe” location behind them where the boss can neither hit you or turn to eventually hit you, while allowing you to lay in full damage. The friendly AI is also pretty good at following you into these locations, so you can often have a full party rotation simply unable to take damage. There’s signs that this was attempted to be fixed (fight adds, homing attacks, etc), but the attempts were pretty meaningless, and the fights just weren’t fun when not taking advantage.

Even if combat doesn’t stack up, seeing moments like this makes the experience worth it.

If this all sounds pretty bad, it’s because it is. This game simply hasn’t aged well from a gameplay perspective. Luckily it has aged well from a universe perspective, even if the lore is a bit nonsense. Without spoiling too much, KH1 basically exists to establish how all these Disney and Final Fantasy worlds are connected, but then future games go through and completely ruin any ability to make sense of the overall story. However, seeing moments like your party all dressed in-character for Nightmare Before Christmas or The Little Mermaid, or seeing Cloud fighting in the Olympus Coliseum makes it all worth it. It’s completely batshit crazy, and somehow it just works.

I didn’t get much further than this. If KH1 didn’t age well, then Chain of Memories REALLY lost it.

On the other hand, Chain of Memories really didn’t pass the worth it test. This was a GBA->PS2 remake where ARPG and cards mixed. Movement was in real time, where action selection was out of a card deck. Cards have a score value, playing a card against an enemy card of higher value would cancel their attack, and you go from there. In 2D on the GBA, this worked….alright. The view of the action was limited, so movement wasn’t super important, and you could still see to dodge while focusing on getting your card selection in order. In 3D this just doesn’t really work well at all.

Between manipulating the bad camera, trying to dodge attacks that you can’t really see, and trying to select the right cards, there just is too much going on to really effectively play the game. My best plan of attack ended up being a simple rotation:

  • Setup my deck specifically in high->low card value, with healing cards at the end.
  • Spam all my high-value cards to get off some easy attacks.
  • Spam stack the low value cards and activate some quick combos. This would remove low value cards over time, but I didn’t care.
  • Spam the healing spell cards at the end of my deck.
  • Refresh my active deck and repeat.

It was basically an invincible pattern as long as I kept my deck up to date, and in being invincible it wasn’t really fun. I wasn’t playing to effectively run the battle system. I was simply stacking my deck and going through the motions. In practice, this game would be better off being much slower paced, getting rid of movement, and having it be more around deck strategy, but we aren’t likely to see that anytime soon.

So the question then becomes, is it worth replaying these if you’ve really never played a Kingdom Hearts title? Honestly? Probably not. I could make a case for Kingdom Hearts 1, but you definitely want to go in expecting something a bit rough around the edges. I’d definitely skip Chain of Memories, although catching a cutscene movie on Youtube is probably not a bad idea. This is capped by a cutscene retelling of 358/2 Days which can also be found on Youtube to finish the story tie-ins between KH1 and KH2, and that’s where we’ll pick things up at some point in the future.