It’s been a great year for games, hasn’t it? A feast most exquisite by most accounts. Regardless of your particular poison there’s something for you. In the tail end of 2016 we had plenty wonderful games that likely overflowed into this year for many people. With Final Fantasy 15, Pokemon Sun & Moon, The Last Guardian, Titanfall 2, Dragon Quest Builders, Gears of War 4, the entire PSVR platform, Civilization 6, Battlefield 1… No one can really blame you for not being able to put a nice crisp bow on last year and walk clean into this one. Aside from the launch of Nintendo’s Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we still had a flurry of critical or cult hits like Gravity Rush 2, Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nioh, Torment:Tides of Numenara, Nier: Automata, Persona 5, Mass Effect Andromeda, Yooka-Laylee, so on and so forth. Hopefully you’re catching my drift of there are simply too few of hours in the day, week, month, and year to keep up with all of this. Sure quality can be called into question with the likes of items like Mass Effect Andromeda or The Last Guardian. End of the day though they’re not bad games that clearly have their supporters… The larger part of us just lost them in the deluge of video game releases since then. So really where do you even begin if you’re wanting to pick something up to play? Some sort by game completion times to get the best bang for their buck. Others stick to their franchises or genres of choice. Maybe cruise down to Metacritic and start with the highest rated? Perhaps the road less traveled and grabbing whichever you’ve heard the least about?

I’m really not hear to talk about creating a priority list for tackling down all these games though. What’s been nagging on my brain lately is impact of a game on us as individuals. Why is it that something like Kingdom Hearts 0.2 ~ A fragmentary passage can create such an impact on me to the point of being one of my favorite experiences of the year. Compared to games like Destiny 2 which is a hotly anticipated reset, acting as a much needed reset to create a fresh jump point for new fans… KH 0.2 could be considered a glorified tech demo for Kingdom Hearts 3 with about 2 hours of content alongside an intro cinematic retelling the stories thus far in the erratically organized series. I’ve spent near 70 hours with Destiny 2 this point yet at the end of the day I rather have that snippet of KH in my life. It’s weird, isn’t it? Or is it?

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Kingdom Hearts 2.8… Here we find ourselves with another snippet of story of Kingdom Hearts as we slowly build towards the eventual end of Sora’s story. Well, at least the end of the Xehanort “Dark Seeker” story line as far as the director sees it. For the uninitiated, Xehanort is the villain that’s been behind the scenes orchestrating the entire series thus far. As with the Emperor in Star Wars, only late in the act had he been revealed as his minions are nothing more than marionettes akin to Darth Vader or Grand Moff Tarkin. Only in KH all the villains you’ve seen are pieces or clones of Xehanort… It’s kind of a thing, don’t worry about the details too much. So what’s under the hood this time, is the extended chapter meaningful, and do we even care? Fans have been eagerly awaiting to conclude the journey they began back in 2002 on a still young PlayStation 2.

The answer is yes. We care. I care. A million times yes.

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16-Bit Cloud Strife (FF Record Keeper)

16-Bit Cloud Strife (FF Record Keeper)

When Final Fantasy Record Keeper first launched, I thought it was a hoot. It gave me the opportunity to play through a Reader’s Digest version of all my favorite Final Fantasy games. At least that was the promise. I hadn’t played Final Fantasy 7 in a year or two at that point so I was intrigued on getting a quick tour of the story, world, and characters again. Mechanically it played like the SNES era titles with ATB turn-based combat yet it also brought post-SNES games back in line with cute little sprite versions of our heroes. Seeing locations recreated from settings I knew while listening to tunes from their respected games was great. As I grinded through those worlds to max out my little 16-bit inspired Cloud Strife sprite, I began to feel a small tinge of disdain for the game. For whatever reason it just didn’t feel special anymore… and not just for that game, but the worlds contained within it as well. My disinterest grew as I felt compelled to grind up in levels just to continue plowing through the missions. Eventually I’d get to just setting the game to auto-battle through encounters while I watched Unbreakable Kimmy Shmidt episodes in succession. The fun had died and once I broke from the compulsion to continue clicking character commands carelessly I uninstalled the game never to look back.

Despite It burned hot on my mobile for about a month or two I was never able to finish the story of FF7 I started in it. The chapters were broken up in an extremely non-linear fashion among the rest of the FF series, the furthest point they took me to was the raid on Shinra Tower just before leaving Midgar. Afterwards it forced me by design to travel to Final Fantasy 4, and from there to Final Fantasy 9, etc. It left me bitter towards the brand, a feeling that I hadn’t had before that. Even through Dissidia, Threatrhytm, and countless other spin-offs of the series I hadn’t felt this exhaustion towards Square or it’s IP. What the hell just happened? How did an unassuming mobile recap of some of my favorite games just turn me against them?

Musing on the experience or what I got out of it I realized the problem. It had taken one of the characters that was special to me, from a game I loved, and churned out a product that had none of the care or respect baked in. This wasn’t the first time either. “Well shit…” I thought as I went back through my head of all the games Cloud appeared in. Square has been watering him down for nearly a decade at this point. Every time they wanted to push a new product they’d shove Cloud into the code and shuffle the puppet on stage to detract from how bullshit it was. Seriously, take a list at all these games Cloud Strife has made an appearance in since the original Final Fantasy 7 back in 1997.

  • Before Crisis: FF7
  • Crisis Core: FF7
  • FF7: Advent Children
  • On the Way to a Smile: Episode Denzel
  • FF7: Dirge of Cerberus
  • Last Order: FF7
  • Ehrgeiz
  • Chocobo Racing
  • Itadaki Street Special
  • Itadaki Street Portable
  • LittleBigPlanet 2
  • Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
  • Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call
  • Final Fantasy Explorers
  • FF7: G-Bike
  • Super Smash Bros for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U
  • Final Fantasy Tactics / War of the Lions
  • Kingdom Hearts
  • Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
  • Kingdom Hearts 2
  • Kingdom Hearts coded
  • Dissidia Final Fantasy
  • Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy
  • Final Fantasy Record Keeper
  • Final Fantasy All the Bravest
  • World of Final Fantasy
"Remember when I was genuinely interesting, cool, damaged, and an anti-hero worth celebrating, kids?!"

“Remember when I was genuinely interesting, cool, damaged, and an anti-hero worth celebrating, kids?!”

Nice list eh? Sure you can break it down to a few core groupings like “Compilation of FF7” or “Kingdom Hearts”, but it stands that Cloud Strife is one of the most overused characters in the series. I’m sure I’ve missed something, but that list stands at a tall 27 games to date over 19 years, averaging more than one appearance per year. Hell, even from a  marketing standpoint there are multiple action figures and statues available with several depictions of his transformations through the years. With his prominence in Kingdom Hearts plus the planned Final Fantasy 7 Remake I don’t foresee his role as the brand of Final Fantasy dying any time soon either.

When Final Fantasy 7 first rolled out it was highly regarded for it’s story complexity, specifically in the case of Cloud. While the amnesia angle has become a groan-worthy trope at this point, back in 1997 upon release it wasn’t as traversed. JRPGs in general were few and far between in the US, social media at least a decade away from taking off, and critical dissent of games even further. People were excited and enthralled by this new tale to explore. Cloud’s memories were uncertain, his past recalled was an amalgamation of lived events, a dead friend’s stories, and the dreams of who he wanted to become. The level of psychosis was a curiosity most hadn’t played through in a game before. Beyond that his demeanor was uncommon in the media at the time – Rife with self-doubt, spikes of brash arrogance, distrust of himself, and most importantly deeply vulnerable at a level unbecoming of a lead role. Half of the game was spent trying to discover the truth of who he really was and going on that journey chasing Sephiroth, a complicated man who had control over Cloud.. The air of darkness and uncertainty of Cloud’s origin made his story worth remembering… or at least intriguing enough to want to get to the next disc of the game. It was special. His story was crafted in a way that Square just doesn’t write characters any more. Afterwards they tried again with the next entry in the series featuring a heavily introverted Squall Lionheart. Sure he lacked social grace but for the most part he played the role of a confident hero. The player never had any doubts on who he was or what his part was in the grand scheme of things. The mysteries just weren’t there to inspire the imagination as much. Zidane, Tidus, Vaan… None came even remotely close to the level of interest generated by Cloud. Eventually we’d lead into Lightning from FF13, designed primarily as a female version of Cloud by Tetsuya Nomura. Throughout her trilogy of games she shares a lot of similar traits as Cloud… IE; self-doubt, reluctant hero, mercenary playing a role, uncertain ties to the villain, redemptive journey, and constantly edging on the side of darkness – but Lightning walks away feeling every bit her own character thankfully. Despite ya know, even being dressed in Cloud’s garb. My point here is despite how badly Square wants to recreate a character as cherished as Cloud, even after 19 years lightning just hasn’t struck twice.

Record Keeper’s existence is a crass cash grab by Square to capitalize on the days gone by them. Final Fantasy was once a name that meant undeniable quality. It’s had it’s fair share of fair-weather fans as well as die-hards. I’m not looking to label it as a fallen franchise by any means, but it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t quite have the appeal it once did, even in it’s home country of Japan. Offerings like Record Keeper seem like a harmless jaunt through memory lane at first, yet in time it became a sour note that drains the emotions I felt for those games. Every time I see Cloud now I’m just reminded of how far he’s come from being who I remember him as. Sure the original game hasn’t changed. Like Cloud himself though the memories of who he is through all the lenses I’ve seen him through at this point has left me uncertain with what’s the real Cloud Strife anymore. He’s been so diluted and devalued it’s hard to say what we ever saw in him. Maybe my original outing was misunderstood and all these new renditions are more accurately reflecting his actual nature? An unfortunate side effect of being bombarded by his appearances is I’m just starting to not care anymore. That ping of excitement in my brain from when I see an old friend has been replaced with the unsettling familiarity of when you cross paths with Ned down from accounting, unable to dodge his gaze and are forced to greet him with a feigned smile and small talk about the weather.

Thanks Square. Keep up the good work and I hope those quarterly figures are worth the permanent loss of integrity.

Of course then there’s one shot at redemption. I was in complete denial, a blubbering idiot when E3 2015 revealed Final Fantasy 7 Remake. The trailer was cut perfectly. I was filled with so many emotions as the narrator spoke of a promise and a that unmistakable silhouette filled the screen. This is how it should feel when things are done with care. Instead of an easy write-off or disingenuous tug at my purse strings, I’m left feeling like Square actually gives a shit about doing things right again. Final Fantasy 15 is reinforcing that hope that just *MAYBE* when the FF7R releases I’ll feel like once again, Cloud Strife is something special.

FF7 Remake

“The promise has been made”

Welcome to my Friday Five, where every week I put together a list of five awesome items from various topics.

This week’s list? Feel Good Games!

These are games that just make us smile. Fight all you want but you can’t resist the charm of the characters, the allure of innocence, or the captivation of colors that besiege you. You’ll find no grit, no moral gray zones. They’re ridiculously joyous activities that get even better with company. The kind of games make you feel like maybe things are quite alright in the world, walking away feeling lifted or inspired. Sometimes it’s the visuals, sometimes the themes covered in the narrative. Either way here’s my list of games that at some point just made my day a bit brighter than it started.

5) The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

LoZ: ALBW was a huge shot in the arm for the Zelda franchise. It had been ages since I connected with one due to either art direction or motion controls detracting from the experience for me. Then along comes a sequel to A Link to the Past, my favorite game in the series. In every way possible ALBW followed that up right. An open experience that lets you adventure freely through a familiar setting, clever puzzles, with a richly animated world. Aside from the silky smooth 60fps Nintendo gave us, Hyrule and Lorule provide a colorful and interesting backdrop that you actually want to spend more time in… which I did, a lot. According to the timer I spent 20 hours playing through this and I honestly don’t know where that time went. It was easily the fastest 20 hours I’ve ever spent playing a game. Time just melted away, and to this day it holds rank on my 3DS as the game with the longest average play time. I can’t recommend this game enough to anyone with access to a 3DS craving a good adventure.

Highlights: All the cool special weapons and instantly having access to them all. Shoot fire, create pillars of sand, hookshot to your heart’s content. This approach greatly varied up how you could tackle the game’s dungeons and made everywhere you explored rewarding. You never hit a barrier that you had to wait until the game said it was okay to go there. There’s so much to appreciate in running around as an old fashioned hero saving the day with no silly morality systems to manage. Link just travels the lands and rights the wrongs he encounters, helping everyone and anyone in need. Continue reading

Mordin Solus

The very model of a scientist Salarian, Mordin Solus (Mass Effect 2)

I kind of want to talk about game appreciation for a moment… In particular, why fantasy games often help me understand my own humanity more than most other stories. Might sound odd at the first consideration, “how can a witch from the future compressing time have anything to do with the real world?!”. It doesn’t, and that’s why it works. I’ve always believed in order to see the impact or relationship between two things you need to examine the most extreme cases… At that point the relationship is proven or broken. Through isolation you can distill something down to it’s purest form and work from there.

I’ll go over some examples in a minute and you’ll understand. On the subject of understanding though…

Contrived plots shouldn’t need to be understood in order for a game to have merit. As in the real world, you can’t understand everything. Not everything makes sense to you as an individual, even when there’s reason behind it. For the life of me could not explain to you how electronic pulses can create music that is then delivered then through a set of headphones. I get the concept and that’s enough for me to enjoy and find use in an MP3 player though. So left with a world of confusion, making those connections of what you do understand is what matters. Meaning if you’ve played all thirty-seven Kingdom Hearts spin-off titles and need a diagram to make any sense of the plot, just let it go. You’re missing the point.

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If you identify yourself as a gamer of sorts, chances are there is something that you really can pinpoint to where it took off for you. Maybe a time period, a long-lasting franchise, or maybe a one specific game. The key thing is there was a turning point where it went from “this is kind of cool” to you thinking about the game after you were done playing it. Maybe a bit of daydreaming at work about getting back home to make the weekend raid, or passing the time in class doodling Crono, Robo, Frog, and Lucca? Did you start to worry about your villagers wondering where you have gone? Games became more than just a way to kill time. They became a hobby that you actively sought out and planned for.

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