Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Month(s) In Games: October - December 2016

Final Fantasy XV - PS4


After over 10 years in development - and a name change from Final Fantasy Versus XIII (?) -  Final Fantasy XV has finally seen the light of day...and I gotta tell you, I kinda love this game! Though it signifies a fairly major change in direction from the turn-based roots of the series, the new gameplay formula feels like a welcome addition to the series, even if it isn't exactly breaking a whole lot of new ground for video games in general. With a more open world style and an emphasis on real-time combat, the whole affair reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy meets Red Dead Redemption. It's Final Fantasy in that it's still very much a JRPG; replete with beautiful anime boys, wacky hairstyles, and a somewhat enigmatic story, but it's Red Dead in that it features a vast, open (and somewhat empty) world, tons of sidequests, and more than a few compelling characters.

Though I don't typically review games this way, I figure that if you're reading a review of this game on a random blog you've likely played a few Final Fantasy games before this one. With that in mind, I thought I'd just break it down to its elements and offer a few thoughts on each.

Combat



Final Fantasy XV's combat is among the biggest departures from the games that preceded it. Full disclosure: I never did play FF XI or FF XIV (the MMOs in the series), so if they featured real time combat then you might want to take my observations here with a grain of salt. That said, I enjoyed the combat mechanics in FF XV, even though they are a TOTAL MESS at times. There are four main members of your party, yet you really only have full control of the main character, Prince Noctis. Combat generally consists of choosing a weapon or spell type that the enemy is weak to, doing your best to get behind the enemy ("blindside" attacks deal more damage) and holding down the attack button to perform an automatic combo. Noctis also has the ability to attack enemies at distance by using ranged weapons like firearms or by performing a "warp strike" move that quickly closes the gap and can boost the damage dealt by the blow. In addition, you can roll-dodge away from and/or defend and parry most enemy attacks, perform aerial combos while equipped with certain weapon types, and call upon your comrades to perform special moves that do big damage or provide defensive buffs.


Depending on the enemy, there's a fair amount of strategy you can employ in a given battle, but the vast majority of the encounters boil down to a few quick warp strikes to close the distance, a whole lot of laying on the attack button to perform combos, and maybe casting a spell or two to score big damage on larger enemies. When they're not performing special moves at your command, your comrades generally run about the battlefield randomly, taking pot shots here and there. Your pals are generally helpful to have around, but the majority of the real fighting is done by the hero. Though the flow of battle takes a bit of getting used to, and generally appears on-screen as a disorganized scrum, you get used to it quickly and it's actually pretty fun most of the time. The MESSY part of combat is, without a doubt, the camera. Though the game tries its best to give you the best view during battles, the environment often obscures your view of the action as the camera swirls about. If you're fighting in a wooded area, for example, the camera is likely to be obscured by the trees, and I occasionally found myself cursing the game's inability to automatically adjust for this in some way. You absolutely CAN (and will often have to) control the camera manually during a fight, and I never died as a result of the occasionally wonky camera movement, but there is definitely room for improvement here.

Music



Scoring the music for FF XV is a bit tricky. In a series long known for its sweeping scores and catchy themes, the music in this game is surprisingly spartan and somewhat generic at times. In some ways this feels appropriate; you're in an open world after all, and the ambient sounds of the various environments do a lot to immerse you in the experience of being outdoors, but I did occasionally find myself wishing that there was a bit more charm to the original music when it was playing. That said, a big part of this game revolves around the concept of car travel. At the various "rest stops" and towns that you encounter, you can purchase soundtrack "albums" from previous Final Fantasy games to play on the car stereo. It's pretty dope rolling to your next destination with the theme to FF IV (or whatever) bumpin' in your whip, but in some ways this also feels a bit like a cop out.

Visuals



No complaints here. This game looks fantastic. Really really solid visuals done with an eye toward realism. So many beautiful vistas and lots of attention to detail, especially in the towns. Gorgeous! There may be a few "better" looking games out there, but it's clear that a good deal of effort went into making the world of FF XV feel immersive.

Characters



I had a really good time hanging out with Noctis and the boys during my 100 hour playthrough. As a character, Noctis plays the brooding prince at first, but before long he begins to lighten up. He cracks jokes with his comrades, communicates his feelings honestly, and is just generally likable. He is neither the stern enigma that is FF VII's Cloud, nor the emo jerkoff that is Squall from FF VIII. He doesn't laugh annoyingly like Tidus from FF X, and he doesn't wear out his welcome like Lightning from FF XIII. Noctis is...pretty cool, fairly fleshed out, and I actually enjoyed spending time with him. His three comrades are also rather likable. There's the buttoned up intellectual Ignis, the brutish-yet-sensitive Gladiolus, and the plucky moppet Prompto. Together, they work well as a party; spouting words of support, cracking groan-worthy puns, and even engaging in the occasional bout of good-natured ribbing. It's lame that the the banter repeats itself as much as it does, however. By the end of my playthrough I'd heard all of the jokes and all of the encouraging words DOZENS of times. It's notable, I think, that I wanted MORE banter, but I can't help feel that the charm of the characters might have burned a little brighter if they'd only recorded a bit more dialogue.


I also rather liked the main villain, though he's not nearly as fleshed out as Noctis and company. It's worth noting that I had this same feeling regarding many of the side characters as well. Just about everyone is likable in their way, but most of the supporting cast feels as though they were only sketched out. This isn't as much of an issue when you're talking about the random cat who teaches Noctis to fish (yeah, there's fishing), but many key side-characters could have done with a bit more polish if you ask me. And speaking of things that needed some polish...


Story



The story of FF XV is straight up undercooked. It's a bit of a bummer because the game is actually fun to play, but there's no getting around it. The main villain is only evil because we're told he is, and the powerful empire that he represents is barely even seen. The events that spur the story forward are often only heard in audio-only form by interacting with radios that are found in towns and outposts, and the love interest (Noctis' original destination at the game's outset) barely makes an appearance at all. With so much time in development, it's hard to understand why the narrative plays out this way. I realize that the 10-year development cycle was fraught with difficulty, but the story here is just plain weak. The saving grace in all of this is the main characters and they way they interact with one another. Thinking back on my experience with previous Final Fantasy games, I think that characters have always been the series' strong suit - with the overall storylines being down on the list below combat/job systems and even the music - but beware, the story isn't compelling as much as it is serviceable. It's my understanding that a patch set to arrive in March of 2017 will address this issue and add some additional cutscenes and story development, but yeah...


Reading this review, you might feel that I'm being mostly critical of this game, but I think that's just the natural result of having spent so much time playing it. My 100+ hour journey toward the platinum trophy game me a lot of time to digest everything I was experiencing and though I genuinely love the game and characters as a whole, there are certainly some facets of the experience that could have done with just a bit more polish. At the end of the day, if the idea of Final Fantasy meets Red Dead Redemption appeals to you, you really should put aside your doubts and jump into FF XV.


Grade: A-


Downwell - PS Vita


I love a good, twitchy, retro-styled platformer, and Downwell fits that bill quite nicely, thank you! Originally released in the Fall of 2015 for iOS devices, the game eventually saw a release on Playstation Vita in the Spring of 2016. And thank goodness for that, because touchscreen controls for a game that requires the precision of Downwell are still a total joke. I mean, sure, you technically CAN fumble your way through the game's precise, challenging gameplay while your fat thumbs take up valuable real estate on your mobile screen, but you really shouldn't.

In Downwell you take control of a "curious man" who jumps down a well in search of ...adventure, I guess? Armed with a pair of "gunboots" that allow him to both stomp and shoot at enemies as he falls, the goal is to make it through the game's 12 stages (and one memorable boss encounter!) while racking up combos for taking out as many enemies as possible before landing safely on the various platforms and outcroppings that line the walls of the well. As you make your way down through the depths, you can pick up various upgrades for your boots (3-way shot, laser, and burst fire to name a few) that each bring a new level of strategy to the proceedings, and players pick up additional power-ups at the end of each stage that enhance movement and grant other abilities as you make your way toward the final encounter.


Screenshots capture the spartan, retro aesthetics of the game quite well, but I also have to give a special shout out to the music. Evocative, foreboding, and even a little funky, the atmosphere lent by the music and sound effects really add a level of polish to this game that makes it feel like so much more than your average mobile game port. That's to say nothing of the tight controls and carefully balanced gameplay and challenge, which are tuned to perfection. 

I spent a lot of time with this game over the past few months, chipping away at the various challenging achievements until I eventually scored the platinum trophy. Perhaps the most ringing endorsement I can give to Downwell is that even now after I have done everything there is to do, I'm still playing this wonderful little gem on the regular. Highly recommended!


Grade: A

Rhythm Heaven Megamix - 3DS


Nintendo's long running rhythm-based minigame series has always appealed to me, especially as an avid fan of the WarioWare series. This particular installment features a large number of minigames that have been recycled from previous installments in the series, though there are a few dozen all new games here as well. Many of the older minigames have also received a facelift, so even experienced players would do well to check this puppy out. Also, my favorite game in the whole collection - perhaps unsurprisingly - is...



Grade: B

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