Tales of Symphonia Has Aged in All of the Worst Ways

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I have been playing Tales of games for the past few years after ignoring the franchise for the vast majority of my gaming life. During that time, Tales of Symphonia has lingered over my head like a dark cloud because of its status as not only a beloved title, but arguably as the most well-known standalone game in the entire series. Since beginning, I leaned more heavily towards newer games because they were more accessible. However, after obtaining the PS3 port, it sat in my backlog collecting dust, until I decided to finally push through and complete it. Sitting on the opposite end after sinking forty plus hours into the game, I wholeheartedly regret my decision.

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The Tales of series is most notably defined by its hack ‘n’ slash gameplay. When Tales of the Abyss was released, it introduced a feature that changed the direction of the series: free roam. Prior to Abyss, gameplay was restricted to moving between enemies that were being attacked, in straight lines. With free roam, players were finally able to move about the battle arena at their leisure. It was a fresh of breath air in a franchise that badly needed a shake-up. Playing Tales of Symphonia is similar to revisiting your old high school and realizing that all of the bad elements you experienced in the past are still present. Without free roam, Tales of Symphonia sorely suffers from button mashing, even more so than other games in the franchise. I often found myself running to the nearest enemy and spamming the attack command as soon as battle started. There is very little incentive to find different ways to attack. The game heavily favors melee users because spell animations not only take long, but offer little in the way of extra damage compared to physical attacks. The simplicity of the battle system wears away its welcome rather quickly. Furthermore, there is very little in terms of additional systems to enhance it. There is something called the EX Gem system that gives each party member some additional abilities both inside and outside of battle, but it is simply not enough to hold one’s interest over the course of the lengthy adventure.

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Tales of Symphonia holds true to standard JRPG conventions and doesn’t take too many risks when it comes to overall presentation. You begin in a small town and venture out from your simple beginnings and discover a storyline that goes above and beyond your immediate dilemma. There is a world map to explore and varied locations and dungeons to visit. At times however, these conventions hold the game back. For the first half of the game, you are relegated to travel by foot. The biggest issues are that not only does Lloyd, the protagonist, move excruciatingly slow on the world map; the camera takes a weird angle as you move about the world map. The game attempts to alleviate these problems by providing a minimally faster method of transportation in the way of a dog like companion. If you unlock gravestone looking nodes scattered around the world, it will unlock the use of the companion for that specific area. It can be troublesome at times getting to these nodes because the high enemy encounter rate will bog you down. Symphonia does provide you with what essentially amounts to an airship approximately halfway into the adventure, but the snail’s pace for the first half kills any momentum the game might build through other areas. To add insult to injury the game’s conventions work against in so far as the locales are very limited and don’t allow for much in terms of exploration. Even the complex puzzle dungeons are relatively small in scope and are usually made up of only a few screens. Given today’s gaming landscape, it is difficult playing a game like Symphonia that relies too heavily on doings things the expected way. The only saving grace is the story that attempts to challenge the normal standard, but trips over itself in doing so.

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Much like the presentation, the biggest obstacle against becoming invested in the story and characters is the pacing. The story takes an incredibly long time to get moving and arrive at answers, as the main cast is left in the dark for the vast majority of the game. There is a twist when you arrive at the Tower of Salvation, at about a quarter of the way through the story. While it is mildly interesting, it doesn’t give any momentum to the story going forward. In fact, things return to normal rather quickly for the party, and the pace remains uneventful until near the end. Even then, I didn’t find the payoffs particularly meaningful, and it was difficult to see the characters changing all that much over the course of the adventure. In fact, some of the characters have very short arcs, and are rather forgettable overall. Most of them also fall into your typical JRPG tropes, and save for a couple of them they lack any and all depth. Tales of Symphonia is plagued by the cheerful protagonist and power of friendship bylines, and it is disappointing considering the attempts the game makes at telling a different story during other parts of the adventure.

Tales of Symphonia tested my patience to the utmost limit. Admittedly, I had to force myself to see the end considering the amount of time I invested into it. I was hoping for more, but the reward never came. The battle system was a repetitive exercise in frustration and the slow character movement and slow story only hamper the overall experience. Tales of Symphonia will be that one game that is almost universally praised that I won’t quite be able to see eye to eye with no matter how hard I look. Tales of Symphonia is a product of its time, and it has aged poorly. There are a lot better RPGs that are more worth your time. Go seek those out and save yourself the trouble.

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Persona 5: Goes Above its Status as a Game

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Persona 5 is a very, very good game. It is incredibly polished in so many respects ranging from the music to the level design. There is little doubt that Persona 5 is well made and a lot of thought went into its conception. However, Persona 5 also does something that is being talked about a whole lot less. It has the capability to go above its status as a game. It sucks you into its world and at the same time, it addresses key issues that are facing Japanese society. It is important that western audiences be more aware of this as they may see similar parallels in their own countries.

The North American version released during the first week of April, which just so happens to coincide with one of the more important parts of the Japanese calendar. In Japan, the fiscal year begins in April, and so does the school year. As an English teacher in this country, April can be a stressful time with new students, new coworkers, and the uncertainty that is present with new beginnings. All of these factors, combined with some other issues that had happened earlier in the year, made me feel extremely depressed. It was difficult to concentrate on anything, and I was losing focus across the board. I was anxiously awaiting the release of Persona, but at the time, I wasn’t entirely positive that I would be able to fully embrace the experience. I was absolutely wrong, and I am grateful that was the case.

Persona 5 has a strong start with its in media res opening, and it does a tremendous of job of making you invested and inclined to see how the party reaches that point. Beyond the opening, this game creates a city life that you want to explore and be a part of on a day-to-day basis. What pushes this concept the most, are the bonds you forge with other characters. Since Persona 3, the social link system, which has been renamed to confidants in Persona 5, has been the crux of the game. As you spend time with characters over the course of this lengthy adventure, you become attached to their thought processes and individual story lines. This is amplified even further with your party members because not only can you spend time with them outside of class and combat, they fight shadows alongside you and experience the highs and lows of the story with you as well. They are all imperfect in one or way or the other, but that just makes them even more endearing. By the game’s end, I was very mush attached to most of them, and I just didn’t want to see the story finally end. It’s bitter sweet finishing a game that means a lot to you. Persona 5 helped me deal with a lot of stress, and knowing the end was near this past weekend, made me in some respects, reluctant to finish the game. However, everything must come to an end, and I think back fondly on the wide range of emotions Persona 5 was able to invoke in me over the course of the hundred hours I put into the game.

Persona manages to distinguish itself from other franchises because it is distinctly Japanese. In the case of Persona 5, the game uses its Japanese elements to highlight many of the problems that exist in society at large. From the beginning, the protagonist, code named as Joker, is sent to Tokyo because he was accused of a crime in his home town. He is not treated well by anyone, and is viewed as a troubled youth by both his caretaker and those at school. He is constantly warned to not get into any trouble. As you traverse Tokyo, you will constantly hear rumblings about the troublemaker that transferred to Shujin Academy, and Joker is clearly viewed as a threat by most people. It might seem incredibly strange to most foreign players that so many people seem to care about some random student with a bad reputation. While Persona 5 might be exaggerating the extent of everyone’s awareness, Joker is the embodiment of not conforming to societal standards. In Japan, individuality is not a cultural norm in any way. People are expected to simply fit in. It is never about the individual, as it is about the group. Japanese people operate as part of a cog of a larger machine. Making a name for one’s self, as viewed by American standards, is not a part of the culture in Japan. Students are encouraged to fit in with everyone else with uniforms and hair color being strictly enforced. When someone comes along, like Joker, that doesn’t fit in and is 100% viewed as an outsider, it can create an echo chamber that is difficult to break away from. Joker’s status at the beginning of the game is a not so subtle way of highlighting the group dynamics at play in Japan.

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Perhaps the most obvious example of clear wrongdoing in the opening hours of the game is the verbal and sexual abuse exhibited by the PE teacher, Kamoshida. I think the most alarming part of this storyline for western audiences, is the way in which most adults turn a blind eye to his wrongdoing. In Japan, there is a strong desire to save face so to speak in front of others. It is very important to maintain a public image. There is also a desire to never cause trouble in any way, even when one party is obviously in the wrong. For example, if an employer were to treat any employee poorly, more times than not, the employee would silently endure the treatment rather than speak up for him or herself. This is quite clearly paralleled with Ann’s friend, Shiho. Shiho is one of the recipients of Kamoshida’s abuse, and it nearly pushes her to suicide. She chooses to punish herself rather than punish the perpetrator because you are expected to deal with your own problems in a way that doesn’t alter the public image. In relation to this, it also addresses the topic of teen suicide. Suicide is very much a problem in Japan, usually due to the intense pressure pushed onto employees by their employers. However it absolutely affects students as well. Japanese students are pushed to succeed. While this is far more of a problem in Korea, there are clear expectations that a student should not only participate in many club activities, but should also devote significant time to study. There is a huge buildup to university entrance exams. Exams in general are very important in Asian countries. Success is directly tied to test scores, and if you don’t do well, students may feel as if their entire future will be adversely affected. Ann struggling with her friend’s actions and being unable to support her when she needed it the most, is one of those examples where as the player, you become attached to your party members because these situations are very relatable.

By and large Persona 5 tackles many different societal problems, but the one issue that is most systemic and the one that needs to be addressed the most is the relationship between an employer and employee that is explored when you traverse Okumura’s palace. Okumura is the CEO of a fast food burger chain and had developed a reputation for treating his employees poorly. When you go into his palace, you see many robot enemies, which reflect how he views his workers. Within the dungeon, it is stated that overtime is expected and break time is to be severely limited. Near the end of the palace, the robots become so accustomed to abuse, they become brainwashed into strict loyalty. This extends to the boss fight with Okumura, where he doesn’t actually attempt to fight you and instead uses the workers as a meat shield to dispose of the party. For me, this dungeon was the most alarming example of a societal problem in Japan because I feel it is the most rampant and most directly connected to other problems. Japanese employees are overworked. These employees will often work unpaid overtime, and will stay at work far beyond their allotted time. In Japanese, the word karoshi translates to death by overwork. In October 2016, 11% of companies in Japanese reported having full-time employees working over eighty hours of overtime a month. Thus far, the Japanese government has only made lukewarm attempts to curb the problem. It will often prove difficult for Japanese people to have lives outside of work because they spend so many hours per week at their jobs. Persona 5 tries to talk about this issue, and by doing so it makes more people aware. It is an issue that is important for other countries to be aware of because there is doubt Japan can or will rectify the issue without external pressure. I appreciate Persona 5 as more than a game because of what it is trying to do through its medium. As games become more complex, they become more willing to tackle serious subject matter and that bodes well for the industry’s future. As indicated by the sales, the interest in Persona is certainly there. I can only hope games like Persona 5 urge people to ask more questions and challenge the status quo.

Persona 5 is more than a game to me. It is a medium through which its creators are trying to share a message with their fans. It wants you to think about Japanese society, in both a negative and positive way. It wants to challenge you on any preconceived ideas you may already have concerning Japan. At the same time, it wants you to be invested with the characters and settings. It is in these two regards that I think Persona 5 manages to separate itself from other Game of the Year contenders. If you’re on the fence about Persona 5, or if you are new to the series, give this game a shot. While other games released this year are deserving of your attention, Persona 5 is an experience that will help you think beyond the scope of the game and that is important as video games continue to evolve.

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Final Fantasy XV: Chapter 13 Sets a Bad Example

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Final Fantasy XV`s troubled development history is an overused narrative. However it is difficult to ignore it given the structure and rushed nature of the latter half of the game. Final Fantasy XV utilizes an open-ended world for the first eight chapters of the game, but this comes to a screeching halt in Chapter 9 when the party travels to Altissia. After this point, the game becomes incredibly linear in nature. This all comes to a head in Chapter 13 where the terrible design choices and questionable narrative rear their ugly heads.

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There is an interesting comparison to be had between Final Fantasy XIII and XV. Upon its release, XIII was heavily criticized for its linear nature and lack of towns and overworld. It opened up somewhat much later in the game, but at that point the damage was done. Final Fantasy XV has the opposite problem. The game is very open-ended from the onset. Beginning with Chapter 3, the entire map opens up. There are many sidequests to complete and many secrets to find. The game then abandons this concept altogether, and it gives the impression the latter half of the game was incredibly rushed. The narrative in particular feels disjointed with characters dying off screen and being mourned without much of a stake behind any specific death. The back story behind Final Fantasy XV’s world is difficult to fully comprehend, and the motivations behind some of the characters are confusing at best. In the end, Noctis is the hero who must save the world, but the agency behind his tale is lacking, and characters place a lot of faith in him without a lot of evidence to support their strong conviction.

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Perhaps the linear design could be forgiven if there were some wrinkles added into the gameplay formula at this juncture. That never happens. The battle system remains the same throughout and if anything, the environments become even less interesting the more you progress in the game. There is one notable encounter in Chapter 9 that is memorable, but outside of that Noctis and company traverse very little from that point onwards. In fact, the majority of the time past Chapter 9 is spent running around train cars while inner turmoil in the party begins to take root. This stark contrast between two portions of the game doesn’t happen very often. When a drastic change occurs, there are usually extenuating circumstances at play that relate to the change. Without knowing the behind the scenes situation behind the game’s development, fans can only speculate. Speculation points in the direction of pressure being put on the development team to finish the game as soon as possible. Regardless of the actual decision, the end product speaks for itself.

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Chapter 13 is the biggest indicator of the poor direction Final Fantasy XV headed in its later stages. Some games fall into a trap where certain gameplay elements are forced onto the player without being introduced or used prior to that point. The most common example of this phenomenon is stealth segments. In Chapter 13, not only does Noctis become isolated without his companions, he loses access to his weapons and spells. The only means of combat at his disposal is a ring that casts death on enemies. The two biggest downsides are that it drains mana and takes a long time to cast. Noctis is completely vulnerable when using the ring and the enemies become increasingly dangerous as he progresses through the game’s longest story dungeon. That’s right. The game’s longest story dungeon features a distinct lack of combat, something that Final Fantasy XV heavily emphasized up until that point. To make matters worse, more difficult monsters are introduced and as a result, remaining hidden is heavily encouraged. Very few design choices make me more frustrated than a game forcing me to use stealth when it has clearly not been used at any point in the past. The dungeon itself has some interesting lore pertaining to it, but the environment is bland and boring. It consists of running down interconnected hallways, slowly unlocking access to further levels with keycards you discover along the way. Square-Enix has promised to take a look at Chapter 13 with a future update to the game. I truly hope it fixes many of the issues plaguing it. With that said, Chapter 13 is not the sole problem. The entire second half of the game needs to be looked at, but at this point, for those of us that have already completed the game, I believe the best we can hope for is DLC that fleshes out the story more and keeps me invested with the characters.

There were parts of Final Fantasy XV I liked a whole bunch. The soundtrack in particular was incredibly well done, and many of the battle tracks stand out. However, with a game that has been anticipated for so many years, the flaws cannot be ignored. The latter half of the game abandons the open world structure and it suffers greatly from it. The story is a mess and there is a distinct lack of explanation. At different points, it felt as if events were simply happening without a proper segue. Chapter 13 is the best example of the game’s many problems working against it. Several design choices such as a focus on less combat hurt this section of the game and make it tedious at best. I do think Final Fantasy is headed in the right direction, but I also believe a simpler story could work in the next game’s favor. Final Fantasy could return to form in the future, but only time will tell.

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Pokemon Sun: A Departure from the Norm

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Pokemon GO caught not only the entire gaming world by surprise last year; it grabbed the attention of people everywhere. The success of this mobile app played a large role in the success of Pokemon Sun and Moon this past November, which became the fastest selling titles in the Pokemon series’ long history. Interestingly enough, where Pokemon GO relied heavily on nostalgia, Pokemon Sun and Moon took the series in a new direction. It threw away many of the conventions the series relied heavily upon, and it came out better for it.

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Pokemon Sun moves to a new location known as Alola, which is meant to be a nod to Hawaii. As a matter of fact, characters will often greet each other with, “Alola!” This new series of islands is a welcoming sight for fans of Pokemon because it oozes with good vibes eliciting strong associations with vacation and new beginnings. The game utilizes outdoor beach wear to bring the island aesthetic to life and the various locations seen throughout the islands such as beaches, mountains, and volcanoes play into this portrayal as well. It feels warm and inviting strolling across different environments during the day-time cycle as the sun beams all around and the water shines with a certain gleam. Pokemon Sun is also about the welcoming yet curious mood it tries to drive home.

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With the move to a new location, also comes the removal of long time hassles. For the first time, Pokemon Sun does away with HM moves. In their place, you can call specific Pokemon with a single button press and these specially designated Pokemon will perform the task for you, whether it is flying, surfing, or a new function added to the game. Perhaps more surprisingly, Pokemon Sun does away with gym battles. In their place are something known as trials. Across each island, trials can be undertaken and they are different challenges that must be completed. One trial tasks you with answering audio cue questions while a different trial asks you to spot the difference. All the trials are varied and usually feature a Totem Pokemon at the end. This Totem Pokemon is stronger than normal, and will typically call for help, which is one of the gameplay additions. When a Pokemon is low on health or the battle has been a prolonged one, the wild Pokemon can call for help which will summon either the same Pokemon or an entirely different one to its side. You must then defeat both to emerge victorious. However, Pokemon can call for help an unlimited number of times if the battle is an extended affair. This mechanic adds an extra layer of difficulty to Pokemon Sun and it is welcomed, considering the series’ lack of difficulty in the past.

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Pokemon Sun is a difficult game. It feels strange saying those words, but they ring true. Not only are the Totem Pokemon fights difficult, the battles with the island leaders, known as Kahunas, are also challenges. With the past titles, I rarely if ever blacked out or used health recovery items. In Pokemon Sun, these items often bailed me out during tense encounters. The Kahuna fights specifically will not only test the capability of your entire team, they can also exploit a glaring weakness if you do not have coverage against a certain typing. The ultimate test as usual, is the Elite Four at the game’s conclusion. This iteration of the Elite Four is arguably the strongest to date. When I first challenged them, I quickly realized that my team was ill prepared for the grueling fights and better than average strategy used by the AI. It felt refreshing actually dying again. The increased difficulty kept me engaged in the game, and it makes me excited about the series going forward.

If there was an aspect that could be pinpointed as to where Pokemon Sun falters, it would be the story. Pokemon games in general have never been known for their stories. They usually consist of collecting badges, defeating the current Team Rocket iteration, and then defeating the Elite Four and becoming the Champion. With the new location and quality of life changes, I remained hopeful that the story may be different as well. I soon learned that was not the case, and Pokemon Sun relies heavily upon many of the same story beats as previous games. There are some new wrinkles with new character types and changing how the rival operates, but they are not enough to save the story. It may seem unfair to criticize a game so reliant upon its gameplay mechanics for its story, but the developers chose to include one so it must be discussed. Going forward, the Pokemon series could really benefit from taking the story in a completely new direction. There is some optimism behind this happening given the other changes done across the board, but it is a difficult task creating a narrative that will appeal to both adults and children.

The Pokemon games were reaching fatigue levels similar to those of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. After the lackluster reception of X and Y, Pokemon took a year off and the extra development time paid off. Pokemon Sun takes the games in a new direction with a more light hearted location. Alola invites players to bask in their surroundings and enjoy the challenges as they come. Not only does the game have a new aesthetic, it changes key gameplay features such as the removal of HMs, and the game is starkly better as a result. While Pokemon Sun falters with its story, it more than makes up for it with its challenging battles. Pokemon Sun does a lot more right than it does wrong, and moving forward Pokemon has a bright future inside and outside of Alola.

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I Am Setsuna: Snow Laden Nostalgia

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There were many AAA titles released in 2016, especially as the year became marked by shooters as it progressed. The summer release window is typically filled with very few titles as most developers and publishers prepare for the fall and winter push. At the end of July, Square Enix released a digital only title on the PS4 known as I Am Setsuna. This oddly named title harkens back to the turn based JRPGs of the 1990s. Despite this, it carves its own niche into the RPG landscape with its laid back piano soundtrack, crisp sprites, and snow aesthetic. After I finished this game, I realized not only had I fallen in love with the game somewhere along the way, I was immediately craving a similar experience. With more and more games doing away with turn based combat, I Am Setsuna was a breath of fresh air this past year.

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It proves difficult to talk about this game’s story at any in-depth length without going into spoiler territory. Some may find the story generic, but I was captivated by the character interactions and various twists and turns the entire way through the experience. The main character is a masked man shrouded in mystery known as Endir. Endir is a mercenary and he accepts a job to assassinate a young red-haired girl by the name of Setsuna. However, as Endir is preparing for this nefarious job, he learns about her unfortunate circumstances in being a sacrifice to keep the monsters at bay. Armed with this information, Endir is unable to kill her and instead becomes a member of her guard, tasked with protecting her until she reaches her final destination. Along the way, the party increases in size, and the entire cast is a likeable bunch, void of any standard JRPG party annoyances such as a talking animal character. Interestingly enough, there were a lot of comparisons between I Am Setsuna and Chrono Trigger leading up to its release. However, while that may be true of the battle system, this is certainly not the case for the story. If you have ever played Final Fantasy X, then you may think about some similarities between the two games when it comes to story. For the most part, both games hit many of the same thematic notes, and both games boast a strong cast. What elevated I Am Setsuna for me were the character interactions. With such a serious story, some comedic elements are necessary to alleviate the tension. It is able to provide those by having some witty, banter filled interactions between the cast members, and everyone feels alive as a result. I have always been of the belief that characters are as important to the story as the story structure itself, and I Am Setsuna proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

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Story and gameplay are two halves of the same coin, and the battle system will undoubtedly remind you of Chrono Trigger if you have ever played that game. In simple terms, the game uses a turn based combat system. There are no random battles. All enemies appear on screen and you initiate a battle by running into them. A team in battle consists of three members, and when the wait gauge fills to the maximum for two or three members, they can perform a combination attack that will usually deal more damage than if they were to attack individually. These combination attacks can only be performed by the characters if they have certain abilities equipped, which are known as Spiritnite in I Am Setsuna. After battle, there will be a loot screen detailing all the loot you obtained from defeating enemies. Enemies do not drop money in this game. Instead, you can sell the materials you obtained to a merchant, who will give you money in exchange. Furthermore, by selling these materials, you will increase the merchant’s wares. You can obtain Spiritnite, or abilities, based on what items you have previously sold. There is no additional charge to receiving them, and you can simply do so by pressing triangle on the controller, provided all materials are present in the merchant’s inventory

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There are other wrinkles to the battle system that separate I Am Setsuna from other games. There are things known as Singularities and Fluxes. Singularities are special circumstances that can happen in battle, such as boosting critical hit rate, that last for a limited duration of time. Singularities have a chance of happening after a player has used Momentum. Momentum is a glowing point that can be attained (maximum of three) during battle after enough of a separate gauge has filled up. When you attack, you can add a single point of Momentum to your attack or ability which will add something to it depending on the type of attack or ability it is. Fluxes on the other hand are an occurrence where one ability’s effect can be added to another after battle has concluded. They occur randomly, but you can obtain various items and food throughout the game that will increase the chance of a Flux occurring. These terms and conditions may seem daunting and confusing to someone who has never played I Am Setsuna. While I will say that they become easier to understand after actually playing the game, one fault of the game is that it does a poor job at explaining the deeper mechanics. Fluxes in particular are something that are included for players that want to grind and max out their party’s fighting potential, but the developers created a game that could be explored and completed without ever bothering with them, unless you are interested in trophies.

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Perhaps the game’s largest strength is its soundtrack. It is composed entirely of piano melodies ranging from the battle music to the town music. It is without a doubt the most relaxing video game soundtrack I have ever had the pleasure of listening to throughout my gaming life. It may seem that a score composed entirely of piano melodies may be lacking in variety, but that could not be further from the truth. Each theme is appropriate for the circumstances in which it is used, but at the same time in soothes the nerves in a way that only Nier’s soundtrack has rivaled. Even if the game does not sound appealing to your sensibilities, you owe it to yourself to give the soundtrack a listen and judge its merit for yourself.

I Am Setsuna was a captivating game. I was hooked the entire way through the adventure. The game’s cast and story were endearing in a way that gave the game a unique charm and identity. I felt at peace when I played I Am Setsuna, and I can’t say that about too many games. The turn based battle system was a welcoming sight considering there were few turn based titles released in 2016. The game has its share of flaws, most notably a series of confusing deeper battle mechanics, but they do very little at hampering the overall experience. The game’s soundtrack is the perfect antidote to stress and a bad day at work. With a $40 price tag, well under the normal price for most games in today’s market, I Am Setsuna is worth your time. It will etch itself into your JRPG heart, and be present with its positive qualities for a long time to come.

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The Last Guardian: Frustrated, but I Can’t Stop Thinking about It

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Much can be said about The Last Guardian’s trouble development history. Without behind the scenes information, it will be impossible to know how much the delays and lack of clarity ultimately affected the game. It is more prudent to focus on the product at hand and after having spent the past few days with the game and experiencing the entire journey between the young boy and his animal companion, I can confidently say the relationship and story tells a beautiful tale. It is absolutely worth it for any player to see how two living beings can form a bond over not so welcoming circumstances. The environments are breathtaking and the scope of the game and the set pieces are a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the game is bogged down by incredibly frustrating controls and AI, but it has a sticking appeal that has left me thinking about it a lot after seeing the incredible conclusion.

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The Last Guardian is very intent on conveying a sense of helplessness throughout the journey for the young boy. The questionable control decisions were made in an attempt to help hammer this point home. Every action is difficult for our protagonist. When he pulls down on levers to raise gates for Trico, he does so with the weight of his entire body. When he picks up barrels meant to feed his companion, it takes all of his strength to do so. The awkward movement controls for the boy are intended to play into this dynamic. The game wants the player to understand that the boy is completely reliant on the animal for protection and movement across the terrain. Despite understanding the developer’s intentions, it doesn’t make the game any less frustrating to play. The jump control which you will using a lot, is mapped to the triangle button and t feels awkward mapping one of the most used controls to one of more oddly situated buttons on the controller.  Furthermore, the boy’s movements simply feel sluggish. He feels slow and inept in moving around. This is most noticeable when you roll forward. It doesn’t feel smooth in any regard. Climbing onto Trico is also victim to many of these same complaints. The boy has a magnetic like grip when being on Trico. This is meant to help the player because there are many sections where perilous controls would mean almost certain death. However it also works against you because getting off your companion can be a task unto itself. Often times, I wanted to disembark and fall to the ground and it would take several attempts to do so because the game insists on you being attached as much as possible.

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The entire game consists of puzzles, essentially trying to figure out how to advance to the next area continuously. This always makes use of the environment in one way or another. Often times you will be tasked with climbing atop Trico and be slave to his decisions or lack thereof. Trico’s AI is the sticking point behind the game’s frustration. You are completely helpless to move forward of your own volition the majority of the time, which only increases in the game’s later sections. You gain control later in the story to give Trico commands. They do help alleviate the stress somewhat, but they also prove inadequate. Many times I needed Trico to move in a certain direction or jump to a specific area. It proved to be too much to ask of my companion and I was forced to sit and wait, sometimes up to ten minutes, before he would finally perform the action I had been asking of him all along. During these moments I had to toy with the idea that perhaps a game doesn’t have to respond to a player when the player is ready to move on. Some would argue the lack of this defeats the purpose of the game, but The Last Guardian does buck many of the trends you would normally find in many other games. For example, there is a distinct lack of combat for the young boy throughout this journey. He doesn’t have a sword or any weapon at all. There are mysterious suits of armor that come alive at various points in the game and just as you are reliant on Trico for transportation; you are likewise reliant when it comes to defending yourself. Trico will usually make quick work of these enemies and you can aid him minimally by slighting shoving them or jumping onto their backs. However, these actions do very little. It is during these tense encounters that you will experience the game’s button mashing mechanic. When you are grabbed by one of these suits of armor, strange symbols will begin to float across the screen. You must eliminate them all before reaching a blue door the suit of armor is attempting to carry you though to your death. You eliminate these symbols by hitting essentially any button on the controller. A button input will remove one symbol, and the amount increases over the course of the game. Near the game’s end, I found myself button mashing for close to thirty seconds in order to wrestle free. These symbols also appear after you have died and want to restart at the most recent checkpoint. You must eliminate them before the game will load once more. This is a frustrating design choice and is very unnecessary. Again, it does play into the sense of helplessness as you are simply hitting as many buttons as possible in a short amount of time, which mimics flailing around in real life in many ways. With that said, there are different approaches that could have been taken such as picking one or two specific buttons to press repeatedly.

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Much of the story in The Last Guardian is experienced rather than told. The game’s story revolves around the budding relationship between the two characters and a lot of that interaction is developed through the player as you spend several hours trying to escape with Trico. I felt genuine emotions for Trico by the game’s end, and you are told by different indicators such as audio cues that your animal companion also cares about you deeply. The game begins with the boy waking up and having no idea as to how he ended up in his current predicament, which is being trapped with a large animal he doesn’t recognize. You are able to free your soon to be companion, and together you disembark on a very meaningful journey together to not only escape but uncover some answers as well. I have always believed in the ending. I have always believed the journey was less important than a satisfying conclusion. The Last Guardian has an incredible ending, but this is one of these few games that make me question this belief. The journey was incredibly memorable. There were several different moments that I felt something without any words having to be spoken, and that is an indication of a very well told story. The relationship and the set pieces the characters experience together are the true shining gems of the entire game.

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ICO and Shadow of the Colossus have very distinct environments that are beautiful yet difficult to explain without seeing the aesthetic with your own eyes. The Last Guardian makes use of the same aesthetic to create a truly marvelous game world and one that feels large in scope. The game does an incredible job with designing the game around light and dark, and the use of light in certain areas and the lack of it in others highlights the sense of exploration throughout the locations. The entire game is set within a single place, but this single place is well divided into separate areas that connect to each other. It makes the environments feel alive. Rarely do games make me feel as if I am actually alive inside the game world, and The Last Guardian manages the feat. There were several times where I was lost and confused as to where to go next, and I love that feeling. It is lacking too much nowadays as games attempt to hand hold more than ever before. I was helpless and I looked around with Trico beside me. That feeling of helplessness when it comes to exploration is particularly poignant.

The most unsung aspect of The Last Guardian is the game’s soundtrack. What is special about this soundtrack is that is makes very good use of its music. Music isn’t always playing. It picks and chooses specific moments to make use of its music and it is much more memorable as a result. ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, Team ICO’s other games, also have incredible scores that choose when to use their music, but for some reason that remains difficult to pinpoint, it sticks out the most in The Last Guardian. You will sometimes get separated from Trico, and when you are finally reunited, some music will play and it enhances that moment and that bond and it makes it feel much more special. I will never forget being grabbed by an armored enemy and finally making my way to my companion after having been grabbed. As I sat atop Trico and watched it decimate my foes, the victory music started to play, and it etched itself into my mind.

The Last Guardian has a lot of flaws. It has terrible controls. They were implemented for a reason, but they are awkward and clumsy regardless. Furthermore, the AI can be incredibly frustrating at important moments in the adventure. It is easy to focus on these negatives and I wouldn’t blame anyone for being unable to beat the game because of these flaws. However, behind the controls and AI, there is an incredibly moving story that every gamer should experience. There won’t be many more experiences like The Last Guardian going forward because it truly stands out. The environments are gorgeous and the music will highlight a tightening bond between a young boy and his animal friend. I was very frustrated when playing the game but having beaten the game and looking back at it, I can’t stop thinking about it. It has stuck with me, and I can’t say that about too many games the past few years. It is worth experiencing despite its setbacks and makes me hopeful about the direction gaming is headed in the years to come.

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Tales of the Abyss Does Not Respect Your Time

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Tales of the Abyss was released in North America in 2006 for the Playstation 2 and later ported to the 3DS. It was released as the eighth entry in the series and when compared to newer entries in the series, it plays very differently. In the past few years, the Tales of series and JRPGs in general have done away with the world map system. In the most recent entry to be released Stateside, Tales of Zestiria, there are larger zones and these zones all connect with one another. Long gone are the days of cruising around a world on your airship near the end of the game. This is only one such aspect that marks Abyss as a different game compared to its successors. In some ways Abyss is different in the right direction, but at the same time it handles other aspects in a backwards direction and it does not respect your time.

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If I had to pick a single flaw to characterize Tales of the Abyss it would be backtracking. Tales of the Abyss is a long game. I invested fifty-four hours into the adventure before I completed the main storyline. This is usually music to one’s ears because it means the game is a worthwhile investment. However, with Tales of the Abyss there is far too much padding. Abyss will have fake-out endings to make you believe you are close to the end when that is far from the case. However, the most glaring issue is that the game will frequently task you with revisiting areas you have already visited before. This will happen multiple times. It makes the world feel small. It makes past actions feel unimportant. When I visit an area for the third or fourth time, some resentment begins to build because as gamers, we tend to gravitate towards seeing new environments and seeing where the story leads the player next. This feeling rarely happens in Tales of the Abyss because the game is too focused on making itself last as long as possible. A player should never dread going to a specific place, but it happens when you have seen it all before. Furthermore, this extra padding makes playing the game complicated because it does not respect your time. Tales of the Abyss feels like a game that would cater to my younger self. As a working adult, the amount of time I can devote to games is limited, and a longer fifty hour plus experience becomes harder and harder to complete. I want a JRPG to respect my time as a player.

Abyss feels very much like it belongs in an era past. The 1990s were dominated by the JRPG, and especially during the time of the SNES, these games were heavily reliant on guides. Oftentimes quest requirements were very obscure and it was easy to miss specific quests because they were dependent on progression. Tales of the Abyss feels like it belongs during that era. In order to unlock the game’s full potential, a guide is absolutely required. Many quests were missed simply because I was unaware of their existence and requirements. This is frustrating. I am not advocating hand holding because that can also ruin an experience, much like Pokemon does. However, I am not against some guidance and given how limited time can be, it is sorely needed in most JRPGs that ask you to spend a couple dozen hours inside their world.

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Everything isn’t doom and gloom with Tales of the Abyss. I specifically want to touch upon the game’s antagonists because they are the highlight of the game. I have always been a huge advocate of works of fiction that use villains with relatable reasons and motivations. Tales of the Abyss is one such example. Essentially the group of antagonists is working towards the same goal as the heroes, but they are going about it differently. In the world of Abyss, peoples’ lives are dictated by something known as the Score which is a prophecy stating future events. Many people feel that they cannot live without it because it gives them purpose and direction in life. Luke and his friends seek to end the score and so do his master, Van, and his God Generals. Whereas Luke wants to end the Score and keep the world intact, Van wants to end the Score and replace the world’s population with clones. This is the central point the two groups disagree upon and fight over. Most of the God- Generals have tragic back stories and so does Van, himself. In many ways, Van’s story is one of revenge, something a lot of people, myself included, can relate to in more ways than one. If I have sympathy in some capacity for a villain, that person becomes memorable to me. Considering what happens to Luke over the course of the game, it is very easy to see him going down the same path as Van if he handles events differently. That is a sign of good story telling, and it is definitely one of Abyss’s strengths. Abyss makes you think about what exactly constitutes being right versus being wrong. Sometimes it is a very fine line and when I caught myself thinking about those questions, I knew Abyss was doing a great job with its characters.

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Being one of the first eight games, Abyss has simplistic combat. It is the first game in the series to introduce the free run feature. Before Tales of the Abyss, characters could only run in a straight line and enemies could only attack in the same manner. With Abyss, players could move their controlled character around the playing arena, which proved incredibly useful for avoiding attacks. This mechanic proved to be the single best gameplay addition in the history of Tales. It changed the way the series progressed since Abyss’s release. After putting so much time into Abyss, I can confidently say having access to free run makes a huge difference. It adds an important element to how the battle system works. Nothing feels better than avoiding enemy attacks with free run and waiting for an opportune moment to strike and then backing out again. Free run allows the player to be more patient. It is also noteworthy in Abyss because Artes users are strong. One effective strategy was to utilize free run while controlling Guy and allowing the other three party members to hammer away using their Artes. Despite being a decade old, I found myself having more fun with the battle system in Abyss than I did with more recent entries. Zestiria in particular added a lot of elements that complicated the battle system, but Abyss kept things simple for the most part and it still holds up today.

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Before playing Abyss I was under the impression that Zestiria had the best music from the games I had played in the franchise, but I was proven wrong. Motoi Sakuraba and Shinji Tamura are responsible for the music in the Tales of series and they outdo themselves in Tales of the Abyss. The dungeon themes in particular are strong. The music used in dungeons is varied and often fits the mood the dungeon is trying to accomplish with its aesthetic. Zestiria’s soundtrack was strong because a few notable tracks stood out above the rest as being very memorable. Abyss has a much more consistent score. Other themes, such as the main battle theme, are rock heavy and induce that rush of adrenaline in the player. What separates a great game soundtrack from a mediocre one is the lack of filler songs. It would be a difficult endeavor to classify any of the tracks on the soundtrack as filler because each one has its deliberate purpose in the game. That is why this soundtrack is a cut above the rest.

Tales of the Abyss is an interesting game. It has a slow start to the narrative and doesn’t ramp up until several hours have already been invested. The game also feels stuck between in the past in a lot of ways, especially in regard to how it forces you to revisit past areas so many times and use a guide to get the most out of it. With that said, the positives are clearly present. The combat doesn’t feel convoluted or too easy. It strikes a nice balance between the two. The antagonists are well portrayed, perhaps the best in the series. They pursue similar goals to those of our heroes. As a result, it is an easy task to see their viewpoint. Lastly, Tales of the Abyss has an exceptional soundtrack; one that manages to be consistent and varied. Is the game flawed? Absolutely. Does this game respect your time? No. If you can look past the flaws however, you will find a compelling game that still stands out a decade later.

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Demon’s Souls – Where the Magic All Began

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I fondly remember the fall of 2009 when I was a first year university student. Life was simpler then. I only had to worry about myself and my grades. It was about the halfway point in the semester and I was waiting for the release of a little game known as Demon’s Souls. I didn’t know at the time that this game would launch a series that would dominate the gaming scene over the course of the next seven years. Funnily enough, I cannot remember why I decided to pre-order the game in the first place. In fact, I knew very little about it. However, when I went home, booted the game and ventured into Boletaria for the first time, I was immediately hooked. Since then, From Software’s Soul series has influenced countless other games and been talked about avidly within the industry itself. This is meant to shed more light on Demon’s Souls, the less remembered PS3 exclusive title that began the magic.

At the time Demon’s Souls was overwhelmingly known for its difficulty. It was the sole feature people knew about the game. In all honesty, this was part of the reason I became so wrapped up in it. During the past decade, the gaming industry shifted towards making games more player friendly. Checkpoints became a common feature. A lack of consequences when you died became a common feature. Demon’s Souls bucked these trends. Demon’s Souls opens with a tutorial after you create your character. The tutorial level teaches you some basic combat mechanics. At the end, it thrusts you into a battle against a boss that can wipe you out very easily. You walk into the room and you can die before you have any idea what happened to you. Afterwards, you will find yourself in the Nexus and then the first level in the game. The Nexus is the hub world, your safe zone where you can go to level up, buy items, and access the other levels. The first level is the outside of the castle of Boletaria. If this is your first time playing a Souls games, the mechanics will cause you to die over and over again. When you kill enemies, you obtain souls and these souls act as your currency for all transactions in the game, including levelling your character. When you die, you lose all of the souls you possessed before your death. You do have an opportunity to regain the souls if you can make it make to the spot of your death. Failure to do so will cause them to be lost forever. As you make your way through the beginning of the level, enemies will ambush you. They will use dirty tactics to kill you. As you progress more and more, you learn where an enemy is standing. You learn what tactic to watch out for. You learn a surprising amount of information with every attempt. Demon‘s Souls is a test of patience more than anything else. If you can stay calm and patient in the face of a staggering difficulty, you will eventually emerge victorious. That single feeling after putting in a lot of work is the greatest feeling in the world.

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As the Souls series has evolved over time, so has the level design. However, the level design in Demon’s Souls stands out among the others. This is due in part to the other games taking inspiration from ideas first laid out in this game. There are five worlds in Demon’s Souls and as stated earlier, they can be accessed from the hub world, the Nexus. Unlike the first Dark Souls game, the levels are not connected to one another. You can go to the portrait of each world in the Nexus and enter one of its levels from there. The environments range from a demonic prison to a cloudy cliffside inhabited by grim reapers and skeletons. Each world is divided into three levels with a boss at the end of each, except for the first world, Boletaria Palace, that has four levels. Each level not only has its own challenges, but each presents a different visual identity. You truly get the sense you are travelling to a different location each time you click on the area’s portrait. Because Demon’s Souls was the first game, these concepts are being presented for the first time. In the later games in the series, it feels sometimes as if From Software is only borrowing from itself. In those instances, special attention should be paid to the original work which is why the level design in Demon’s Souls really stands out.

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The Souls series is well known for many different memorable bosses. An argument will not be made that Demon’s Souls has the best bosses, because I don’t believe that to be the case. With that said, the bosses should certainly be mentioned. Some of the bosses are rather easy, especially in comparison to the difficulty of most of the levels. The phalanx, the boss of 1-1, is a giant toxic lump that is covered in many, many other smaller lumps. The boss can be defeated rather easily using fire, but it can still catch you off guard. Demon’s Souls is a game that rewards you for learning from trial and error. Even the bosses that can be categorized as being on the easier side can defeat you if you are unprepared. The more challenging bosses are truly a treat that should be cherished. They will test skills that you have unknowingly been practicing all along. For example, the final boss in Boletaria Palace is a true test of patience and mental fortitude. You will find yourself running away to dodge certain attacks only to attack at the precise moment in order to deal some amount of damage. It is a grueling battle and he even possesses an attack that can subtract levels from your player character. However as with overcoming a level, being on the side of victory after dying over and over and over to a particular boss will give you that satisfaction you have been craving the entire time. It becomes a drug and once you taste it for the first time, you only want more of it.

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Demon’s Souls was the first game where I was so involved in the character interactions. I have played many RPGs in my life, but interactions in Souls games are very interesting. In fact, characters in the Souls series are handled very differently compared to most other games. Demon’s Souls toys with the idea that no one can truly be trusted. It uses unreliable characters. Often times a character will tell you something, only to later learn that is not entirely the case. Furthermore, you are able to attack NPC characters unlike other games. Attacking an NPC character will always have consequences because save points do not exist in Demon’s Souls. The game is constantly saving. Therefore, when you attack someone the aftermath is permanent. It can have beneficial consequences. If there is an armor set you desire that an NPC is wearing, killing said NPC will usually result in being able to loot it off the corpse. There are also situations where killing a particular NPC will give you less headaches later in the game. What I enjoy most though about the NPC interactions are the stories and voice acting. You can learn a lot of about the game’s lore and setting when you talk to different individuals. The voice acting in Souls games is always well done, and the voices behind most characters suit them well. Demon’s Souls paved the way for a different type of character interaction, and I think gaming as a whole is better off for it.

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It is ironic that in a series so defined by the difficulty, the combat is often talked about less than the lore and other aspects. The game is fun to play in a nutshell. It is an action RPG with an over the shoulder camera perspective. The action RPG umbrella can encompass many different things. Someone might first think about something akin to Witcher 3 when using the term. However Demon’s Souls has a very deliberate combat system. In Demon’s Souls every action, every step forward matters. There are HP, stamina, and MP bars. The stamina bar in particular is important because all actions outside of spells will expend stamina. When you level up in Demon’s Souls you can choose to put points into one of these pools or you can level another stat such as strength, dexterity, or intelligence. You can attack with the R1 shoulder button on the Playstation 3 controller and you can block with your shield with the L1 button. Mapping the attack and block commands to these buttons makes combat feel more fluid than using the four face buttons. You can equip items to a shortcut menu that can be cycled through with the D-Pad and used by the square button. The circle button is used to roll and dodge attacks and it can be incredibly useful especially against certain bosses. The controller layout and camera perspective in Demon’s Souls resembles western RPGs in its approach. Perhaps that is the reason this game made in Japan feels so refreshing, or felt so refreshing at the time of its release. When you progress through a level and block an enemy attack and then retaliate with a devastating blow with your sword, you feel empowered as a player. Most of the time Demon’s Souls wants to remind you that you are not in control. However, this is the type of game where mistakes are usually your fault, and any way you way you can wrangle back some control from the game makes you appreciate the entire package even more.

I usually associate certain games with a specific time of the year. Demon’s Souls was released in October so it is only fitting that I finished this most recent playthrough this month. It has an aesthetic that will remind you of Halloween. More importantly, Demon’s Souls was the catalyst for a series that has changed the gaming landscape for the better. Yes, it has a difficulty to it that most games would be afraid to stray towards. However, it gets better with time. There is so much good in this game. It has amazing character interactions. It has a haunting soundtrack. The combat feels fluid and is complemented very well by the level design. Demon’s Souls has many other interesting aspects as well such as the multiplayer. If you haven’t played Demon’s Souls before, go check this incredible game out. It will change the way you look at games, and even if it doesn’t, you will be one new experience richer.

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Vagrant Story: A Forgotten Masterpiece

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Earlier this year I played Vagrant Story again. When I played it for the first time in 2009, it quickly became my favorite game of all-time. I wasn’t sure if I was remembering the game through rose-colored glasses. As I ventured once again into the world of Lea Monde in search of Sydney Losstarot, I discovered that this was not the case and I caught myself falling in love again. Vagrant Story is a special game that deserves more recognition. It was released during a time period where other games such as Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy IX received more attention. It carves out its own place in the gaming world, and it was a game that was ahead of its time.

Vagrant Story may seem a little daunting at first because it uses some terminology that is specific to the game. You play as a man named Ashley Riot. Agent Riot works for the Valendia Knights of the Peace, or the VKP for short. He is known as a Riskbreaker within this organization. The beginning of the game begins with Ashley entering a duke’s manor to rescue hostages taken captive by a cult leader by the name of Sydney Losstarot. If you allow the game to run at the main menu screen, you will be shown an additional cutscene that explains the events immediately prior to Ashley arriving at the mansion. Agent Riot meets with the higher ups of the VKP who tell him about the cult’s attack on the manor. He agrees to visit the duke’s home to investigate the incident, and when he arrives he decides to infiltrate on his own, believing himself to be as capable as many reinforcements. He learns that the church has also sent the Order of the Crimson Blades to deal with Sydney and his group known as Mullenkamp. As the attack is unfolding, there are three different factions present. Ashley finally encounters Sydney where he summons a wyvern to attack him. After Ashley defeats the wyvern, Sydney tells him to follow him to Lea Monde where he promises to reveal more information behind the attack and his kidnapping of the duke’s son. These events constitute the game’s playable prologue. Ashley arrives and descends into Lea Monde on his own desire and as he begins to investigate, our game begins.

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The biggest criticism levied against Vagrant Story is that it is too difficult and it is rather obtuse. However, one of the main reasons I love the game as much as I do is because of the battle system. Vagrant Story can be classified as an action RPG. When you attempt to attack an enemy, you can choose different body parts to attack with varying percentages which indicate the success rate. Choosing the correct body part is important in taking down foes and bosses. Furthermore, there is no traditional levelling system. In its place is a huge emphasis on upgrading equipment and stat upgrades that you will receive by clicking a spinning roulette after bosses are defeated. You can also boost certain stats permanently by consuming various items found throughout the game. When it comes to attacking there are different weapon and class types that need to be taken into account. The three weapon types are blunt, edged, and piercing. The class types are evil, human, beast, undead, phantom, dragon, evil, and human. There are also elemental types that should be considered. It may seem like a lot of information to remember, and it is. This is part of Vagrant Story’s unique charm. Enemies and bosses will be weak to a specific weapon type and exploiting these weaknesses is crucial for success in battle. You can even level up a weapon’s class type affinity. For example, if you want a sword that is strong against human enemies you can level the sword’s human affinity by using it to fight human enemies. There are dummies for each class type that can be used to raise affinity. Even though the dummies can be destroyed, they can be respawned by moving a certain numbers of rooms away.

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Not only does Vagrant Story use standard HP and MP bars, there is also something known as Risk Points. Risk Points range from zero to one hundred. The closer you get to 100, the more damage Ashley will take and the lower his percentage will drop on his attacks. Therefore, it is in your best interest to keep Risk Points as low as possible, and there are consumable items that will lower your risk. Your Risk Points increase when you use chain and defensive abilities. Vagrant Story’s combat utilizes a combo system where you can chain attacks together, and if you are successful, his damage output can significantly increase. You must pay special attention however to your Risk Points when doing this and there is a fine line that must be traversed. Chain abilities are offensive abilities that can be mapped to the face buttons on the Playstation controller. The timing for these abilities can be difficult to learn at first. However, once you become proficient at landing abilities, you will feel incredibly powerful. Defensive abilities also provide an immense amount of satisfaction. Successfully landing a counter attack because you activated a defensive ability at the correct time is one of the most rewarding feelings the game is able to provide. There are many other combat related aspects that I have not yet explained, but this is to provide a brief glimpse into the combat of Vagrant Story.

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Another reason Vagrant Story succeeds as well as it does is because it copies from Metroidvania. Lea Monde is an interconnected labyrinth. You will progress and be unable to go any further, only to later realize that the path you couldn’t access leads to an end-game area that you can open the shortcut to for ease of travel. Thoroughly combing the map in hopes of discovering where you should go next is fun in of itself. I have always been a huge sucker for Metroidvania type games and it is a huge reason why I enjoy the first Dark Souls game as much as I do. Vagrant Story heavily borrows from that genre in its world and level design and it does its own take of it to perfection.

The unsung hero of Vagrant Story is one man: Hitoshi Sakimoto. This may seem controversial, but in my opinion, Vagrant Story has one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all-time. Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, and Tactics Ogre. He has always been a composer that focuses heavily on battle themes and that is also the case with Vagrant Story. The soundtrack is dominated by the battle themes. The prologue track titled Graylands Incident Climax does an excellent job of building up to the final moment where Sydney escapes by using a rather hushed melody that reaches a strong conclusion as the prologue ends. Other notable battle tracks are Wyvern and Ifrit. Wyvern gives you that sense that victory is imminent and you should keep pushing forward as the end is in sight whereas Ifrit is a hectic battle theme that causes a surge of emotion in the heat of battle. Sakimoto also does a solid job with area tracks with Limestone Quarry being particularly memorable in providing a unique flavor. Vagrant Story’s soundtrack is one of those special soundtracks that is able to stand on its own merits outside of the game and for me, that is the true indication of a noteworthy score.

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Vagrant Story is memorable because it gives you the idea that as the player you truly are alone in this world. It fully puts you in the shoes of Ashley Riot. He undergoes a mission single-handedly. He enters Lea Monde by himself and uncovers its secrets and the plans of the man he is following along the way. Unlike the vast majority of RPGs, you do not interact with any NPCs. In order for Ashley to become stronger, he must create stronger equipment which he does so through workshops you find scattered throughout the city. You must obtain materials from chests and enemies and combine them in different combinations. Ashley does interact with other characters that are important to the story, but they are antagonistic encounters for the most part. Ashley plays a very important role in Sydney’s scheme and as it comes to together in its final moments, everything leading up to that point makes so much sense. As the credits began to roll and I listened to the excellent credits music, I had to put my controller down and really think about all the events that had just transpired. Vagrant Story has me thinking about the game long after completion and that is the most important quality in my eyes of a truly great game.

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Vagrant Story has a difficult barrier to entry. Most people fail to give the game enough play time because it can get lost in its own menus and lack of explanations. If you are willing to plough through the beginning gameplay elements, you will find a rewarding battle system that encourages experimentation. The game also has a strong narrative and it clearly caters to an adult audience with its more mature protagonist and themes. The story is one any person can relate with and in many cases your expectations will be played with until the very end. Furthermore, Hitoshi Sakimoto does an excellent job as the game’s composer and the soundtrack uses battle themes very effectively for a game that uses so many boss encounters as you explore the labyrinth-like city. If you never heard of Vagrant Story before or even if you only have some passing interest, I implore you to find the time to give this game a shot. It can be purchased digitally for $5.99 on the PSN Store, and I promise it will be the best $5.99 you spend this year.

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Furi: Game of the Year

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Furi opens up with a man being released from a prison cell by an unreliable narrator. He is told to make his escape, with words of encouragement such as, “The jailer is the key. Kill him, and you will be free.” This past July Furi was released as a digital title only on the PSN Store and Steam by a French developer known as The Game Bakers. The Game Bakers was a mobile developer prior to Furi’s release, with the release marking its foray into the PS4 and PC market. The game came out without much fanfare behind it, but once I was able to get my hands on it, I was absorbed the entire way through the experience.

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Furi is a boss rush title. You don’t fight any normal enemies or solve puzzles or have any gameplay outside of ten boss battles in the game and walking between them. You fight one of the people supposedly responsible for holding you hostage, you walk to the next area, and you do the same thing again. As the player you’re able to completely focus on the task at hand. There is even a button (X on the Playstation 4 controller) to have the game do the walking segments for you. Each fight presents a different challenge to you and to describe the game in one phrase is a tough task. It combines elements of action games with bullet hell as well as intimate one-on-one duels between the escapee and the jailer. The combat and the movement feel very fast and fluid. You can slash the bosses with your sword. You can shoot them with a gun. You can do charged attacks for both weapons. With only a single gun and sword, your options appear to be limited at first. However, that is not the case. Bosses will test your ability to be able to use every tool at your disposal. For example, there is a parrying mechanic in Furi. I was having a very difficult time learning the correct timing and realized I could defeat the first few bosses by dodging around instead of correctly parrying. This came to be the bane of my existence later in the game when parrying was a necessity for progress. After a lot of trial and error, I finally learned how to parry and when I went back and fought earlier bosses with this ability, I found myself feeling a lot stronger and more in control.

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What needs to be understood about Furi above anything else is that this game is not easy. It will be a serious challenge to newcomers and veterans. I have always felt I became a much better gamer after I learned how to play Dark Souls. I feel a lot of the lessons I learned in the Souls franchise carry over very well to Furi. The most important advice to remember about tackling this game is to be patient. There were so many times when I tried to take a poorly thought out risk for it to only cost me my life in the blink of an eye. What allows you to become proficient at the game is the way the health bars are set up. If you have ever played Kingdom Hearts or another title with multiple health bar bosses, then you will understand the basic gist of Furi. As the player, you start with three health bars, which are essentially three chances to defeat any particular boss. If you have lost a health bar previously in the fight and are able to eliminate a boss’s health bar, your lost bar will then be restored. It is in this manner that the game allows you to practice challenging mechanics repeatedly. Furthermore, there are two difficulty options available at the start of the game: easy mode and normal mode. The game essentially shames you for picking easy mode. It tells you that playing the game on easy mode will make it shorter and easier. You will also be unable to unlock any trophies, which is a big deal to many people. In fact, because of its difficulty, Furi is one of those games that pride itself on trophies. Earning the platinum trophy in this game is an incredible achievement because the difficulty option that can be unlocked after beating the game once in normal mode is quite the challenge and forces you to use all the skills you have obtained up until that point. In general, when you defeat a boss in Furi after practicing it for several hours and banging your head against the wall in frustration, it is quite the euphoric feeling. It is akin to a boss in Dark Souls. The game tests your perseverance and coming out on top is one of those few joys that are difficult to replicate in other games.

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Furi is a game defined by its gameplay, but what makes it stand above a lot of other titles released this year is the fact that it also has a strong story. As mentioned earlier, you wake inside a cell and are rescued by a mysterious man wearing a bunny mask. He encourages you to escape, whilst condemning those who put you into the cell in the first place. All pieces of the story are obtained either by dialogue between the boss and the main character or through one-sided conversations between the mysterious man and the player character. It is difficult talking about the story in any depth without using spoilers. Suffice to say the game makes incredible use of the unreliable narrator. You get a sinking feeling as you continue to kill bosses that perhaps everything he says might have some hidden agenda behind it. He never quite tells you his motivations directly. What is particularly interesting about the game is that the story comes together so well at the end without having extensive dialogue. After beating the game, a lot of the dialogue that didn’t make sense before, finally does and as you realize the mysterious man’s motivations, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the overarching story. As a result, the game is rich in replay value and you will finally be able to understand the dialogue that came before on your first playthrough.

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Furi’s strongest point is its soundtrack. It is composed by several different electronic music artists such as Carpenter Brut, The Toxic Avenger, and Waveshaper. The music does a phenomenal job of making you care about the boss battles and the walks in-between. There is a lot of high energy music and Carpenter Brut in particular does an outstanding job of creating an intense atmosphere with his music. You’re Mine, the track that plays during the fight with the seventh boss, made me actually excited to wipe on the boss over and over because I enjoyed the music so much. For me that is the telltale sign of good music. Wanting to listen to music repeatedly has shown me in the past that it is doing a great job of keeping me invested in the gameplay. Some of the more subdued tracks are less than stellar, but they don’t detract from the other tracks enough to take away from the excellence the rest of the soundtrack achieves.

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Furi does have its weak points. Implementing walking only segments seems like a questionable design choice. They are in the game in order to provide a means for the mysterious man to give subtle hints about the story. If the developers wanted to do that, cutscenes or segments with other gameplay elements would have sufficed. There are also specific weak points in some of the boss fights such as tedious chasing during the fight against the seventh boss or the ninth boss overall. Some of the bosses could do away with what feels like filler content. There are story elements that explain away some of this, but it still feels lackluster given that the bosses overall feel so different from one another. While I do appreciate that the focus is only on the bosses and the bosses only, some other gameplay elements could have been implemented for a nice change of pace when feeling the boss burnout.

I have always been a sucker for boss rush games like Shadow of the Colossus. Furi hits that itch I didn’t know I was having. After I killed the first boss and felt the rush of victory for the first time, I was hooked. I couldn’t put the controller down after that, and I spent a lot of time on most bosses so I could chase after that fleeting feeling again. The story and music complement the gameplay so well. You earn more tidbits of information before and after every boss and the music that plays during bosses and in the segments in-between means so much to the journey on your path to freedom. The game does have its flaws with the tedious walking sections, but it is a small blight on an otherwise stellar game. Furi really flew under the radar, and I cannot recommend this game enough for anyone that might be interested. Before the fall blitzkrieg of games comes out, let Furi take over your life for a bit. You won’t be disappointed.

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