Friday, 24 February 2012

Final Fantasy IV

Back in September 2008 I reviewed the Nintendo DS re-release of Final Fantasy IV for D+PAD Magazine. With yesterday's blog on Hironobu Sakaguchi - Final Fantasy IV's director - and the impending release of Wii JRPG The Last Story, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the game, Final Fantasy's debut on Super Nintendo and a title still held up as one of the best in the illustrious series. Final Fantasy IV was subsequently re-released on PSP with the subtitle The Complete Collection. And yes, the review does feature references to both Slayer and Dostoyevsky. Could just as easily have been Slint and Faulkner. Pretensious? Er, maybe.

Related article - A look back at another Sakaguchi SNES classic, Chrono Trigger.

Being a self-confessed novice to the entire JRPG genre I approached this review with a certain trepidation. The experience of plunging head-first into a world of levelling-up, item management and – gritted teeth – random battles is to all intents akin to hearing heavy metal or reading, say, Dostoyevsky for the first time. Unless it’s all that you’ve ever known there’s a certain natural sensory hurdle to clamber across. But then, what was once overwhelming, be it the sheer impact of Slayer’s Reign In Blood or all 500-plus pages of Crime And Punishment, suddenly becomes accommodating – even vital – and before you know it there’s a whole new world of cultural discoveries to make.

Many would have felt the same way playing Final Fantasy IV upon its original release. The legendary series’ SNES debut, released as Final Fantasy II to maintain continuity for western gamers, the game is generally regarded as a milestone for the series for the introduction of Square’s Active Battle System which, for the first time, allowed you to input commands in real-time. Indeed, much-missed Nintendo magazine Super Play ranked FFII/IV the 20th best SNES game of all time, saying that “the story, soundtrack and finely-tuned gameplay make it essential playing to all RPGers”.

That was back in 1996. Twelve years on and FFIV is now the latest in Square Enix’s series of polished remakes for the Nintendo DS, just two more instalments away from that hallowed seventh game. The first thing that really stands out is the near-faultless way a strong narrative thread and characters are introduced; within the initial hour a theme of redemption and the imperialistic ambitions of a power-hungry monarchy are established, Cecil emerging as a principled, engaging protagonist (referred to amusingly as the Dark Knight, though this is apparently a regular character class within the series). The plot and gradual arc is subtly implemented; it’s only thinking about the game later that I realise just how strong the translation and voice acting is.

This at times compulsive momentum carries FFIV, and goes some way to explaining just why JRPG devotees regularly cite story as the most significant part of the genre. Without this investment in a cast of heroes, this need for catharsis and the expectation of wrenching twists, the abstract battle system (well, abstract to someone reared on the Zelda games) and attendant exploration would be little more than numbers and an exercise in mind-numbing repetition. Granted FFIV does come across as the equivalent of jumping in at the deep-end for someone new to the genre, but even something as pivotal to the game’s mechanics as levelling-up can take on a certain relaxing quality. The game is hard, often annoyingly so, but deeply rewarding given some effort and patience.

Visually the 3D makeover does a solid job. There are enough effects and functional animations (e.g the swirling screen preceding every battle) that nod to the title’s origins, balanced by elegant presentation and a superb score (from series staple Nobuo Uematsu). The DS isn’t used to its full capabilities, but like the previous remake of Final Fantasy III Square Enix’s agenda with these new editions has been less about dragging the series kicking into the next-generation and more about preserving the games for new audiences to discover them as they were meant to be played – much like the manner in which folk songs would be passed from one singer to the next, or periodic remasters of classic cinema. FFIV may be a form of heritage gaming, but it’s no less a pleasurable example of videogaming for being so.

Returning to the theme of trepidation, aware that Final Fantasy attracts passionate and vocal debate unlike any other series, I contacted a close friend and ardent fan to explain just what the games personally mean to him, and what I could expect from this undeniably superb example of the series. His reply referenced everything that becomes clear after a dedicated playthrough: the overarching themes, the engrossing plots, the superior level of characterisation, the depth, the worlds, the music…Final Fantasy may still be too overwhelming to some - this writer included - but like, er, Slayer and Dostoyevsky, FFIV is a great and demanding art. Consider me converted.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Hironobu Sakaguchi on The Last Story

On Thursday 16th February the legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy (a tag which he admits to be "really tired" of, but as videogame introductions go it isn't bad), came to BAFTA to discuss his new Wii JRPG The Last Story, which finally launches in Europe this week (Friday 24th). The conversation encompassed The Last Story's background, battle system and narrative, as well as the evolution of the role-playing genre and the possibility that his first iOS title will be a "surfing game". Here is the RPG titan in his own words. For more Moon Witch Cartridge coverage of Hironobu Sakaguchi, here's our look back at Chrono Trigger.

Hironobu Sakaguchi on The Last Story's belated release...
In Japan The Last Story was released on the 27th January last year (2011). It took some time to localise the game but finally we've been able to come to its release. I will be in Paris for the release and I hope everyone enjoys the game.

On The Last Story's world...
The game is staged at a fortress that protects the empire of the Lazulis Island. It's a story about a group of mercenaries, who dream about becoming knights.

On The Last Story's central city...
By making the main city (the) only one I created the game with greater detail and density. I was also very conscious about including more minute details, such as the protagonist bumping his head against a signpost, and him reacting to that.

On breaking JRPG convention...
Because I wanted to create a completely new battle system for this game, we had a year long experimental phase where we tried out perhaps twice as many systems than those that were in the end adopted. My ultimate goal was to create a game that would be hailed as a new style of RPG, and I hope people will feel the same way.

On real-time versus turn-based battle systems for The Last Story...
For this game I had the idea of Gathering - this is a move that attracts the attention of the enemies to the protagonist, to make (the rest of your party) free. By doing this the player can bring order to a chaotic battlefield, or perhaps conversely, break up an ordered enemy group. Because this concept was at the core of this game, for me a real-time battle system was most important.

On cut-scenes...
One of the systems that I really like about this game is a fast-forwarding many games there's a skipping function, but with the skip people won't be able to follow the story. But with this fast-forwarding function players will be able to follow the story roughly by reading the fast-forwarding subtitles. For me the story is important, so it was important for people who usually skip cut-scenes, to also be able to follow the story.

On differences between The Last Story and his other games...
Gaming is a form of entertainment, so it's more fun for players to have fresh elements that surprise them, so I believe that this new battle system will be enjoyable for all of you. Apart from that, I've created a very detailed city, and incorporated an online function, so I feel that new players will be able to enjoy a game full of various new ideas.

On parallels between The Last Story and Final Fantasy, given the similar titles...
It's not really answering the question directly, but my daughter once told me: "Final Fantasy, Lost Odyssey, The Last Story - how come you can only give such similar names to your games?". So for the next game I'll definitely give it a different name.

On how he gets his ideas...
Often ideas come to me when I'm taking a shower, or waiting for a wave when I'm surfing, and Gathering was one of those ideas that came to me during this. Of course new ideas always need to be experimented, and that was no different for the Gathering system. At first, this Gathering caused enemies to all come to the protagonist at once, so there was a lot of trial and error involved with the game design.

On his inspirations...
In terms of the storyline for my games often what inspires me is, for example, a birth of a child, or a death of a close person. And on the systems side, often what inspires me is, playground games that you play as a child.

On the evolution of the RPG...
I think there are three things. Firstly, the transition from 2D to 3D, for Final Fantasy 7; this was a huge turning point, I believe. Another thing is the increased use of the internet, the incorporation of an online element into a game has also given additional dimensions. And thirdly, with the evolvement of hardware, games have evolved greatly in terms of graphics and sound being much more richer than I knew 25 years ago. We've come a long way since 25 years ago, when I was creating the first Final Fantasy.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2

Back in 2008 I reviewed Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 for zConnection International, an excellent Scottish-based "geek culture" site run by senior editor Connor Beaton. As Retro Evolved 2 remains one of the great games of this generation - and because I've been feeling too demotivated to get new content onto Moon Witch Cartridge this month - here's the review again, with added footnotes. You can read the review in its original form on zConnection here.

Developer: Bizarre Creations
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 9.4

It would be fair to assume that even Bizarre Creations themselves didn’t think Geometry Wars would become the significant piece of software that it is today, given its humble, unassuming beginnings tucked away inside Project Gotham Racing 2. Both flag-bearer for console-based downloadable games (arguably the defining innovation for this hardware generation)* and a delirious, compulsive throwback to purer-than-pure 80s arcade mechanics, the first standalone Xbox 360 title is still amongst the platform’s greatest games. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 is the first true sequel since the 2005 original (the superb Nintendo versions excepted)**.

Whereas lesser developers would be tempted to distort the basic formula with a "bigger! better!" approach, Bizarre Creations have taken the opposite route. Though the previous iterations of the game – Waves and Evolved - are present and correct, it’s the new modes that underline a certain genius. They simultaneously deconstruct the rules of the game whilst retaining the essence of what makes Geometry Wars so addictive, tasking the player with challenges that focus on one of the game’s core aspects***. So during Pacifism enemy ships can only be killed by flying through special gates, while King only allows the player to shoot within special circled zones which start to disappear as soon as they are entered.

On a more subtle level the friends lists are now better integrated****. Each mode has its own real-time leaderboard, and so the sense of competition is now more pronounced than ever; the habit of checking the game daily to see if anyone has beaten your score not only hints at a certain level of obsession, but just underlines the extent to which the game can get under your skin.

Perhaps the innocence of old is in danger of being lost under constant repetition (certainly at time of writing developer Craig Howard has confirmed that the company has ideas for at least ten more Geometry Wars games), but when the results are this well balanced and considered you’d be hard pressed to find many gamers complaining. Retro Evolved 2 is an expanded, more complete experience; expect to see these geometric shapes in your dreams*****.

*Tim Schafer of Double Fine recently mentioned Geometry Wars when discussing how far the perception of XBLA has apparently fallen amongst developers, when compared to the relative ease of working with online platforms such as Steam and iOS: "We were used to thinking of these huge triple-A games and all of a sudden when you got your 360, one of the things that felt really next-gen about it was that you could download Geometry Wars for five dollars, and we hadn't done that before. I hadn't thought of buying that kind of game on a console before and I'm having tons of fun and I think that leads to a new creative outlet and brought us games like Limbo and Castle Crashers and all the great games that we saw on that platform. I want that to succeed. So when you read an article about that, warning about the migration away from the platform, that's a shame and we want that not to be the case."

**An iOS conversion was released in early 2010, Geometry Wars: Touch, which featured an exclusive Titans game mode.

***Playing Pac-Man Championship Edition DX - another best-of-generation game - reminded me of Geometry Wars 2, with this emphasis on deconstruction and of twisting a game's classic arcade gameplay in new directions.

****Similar in intention, if not in depth, to Criterion's much-praised Autolog system, introduced for 2010's Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, the bank of leaderboards on Geometry Wars 2's main menu added a devilish level of persistence and constant competition to the game beyond what had gone before. Nearly four years on I'm still trying to beat certain friends' scores.

*****Although Retro Evolved and its sequel are amongst Xbox LIVE Arcade's biggest-ever sellers, if you still have yet to download Geometry Wars then you really should. Moon Witch Cartridge will not be responsible for any drop in your productivity or sleep that follows.