winter doldrums

These are lean times for a non-profit game blogger; there’s not a tremendous amount to discuss.

I’ve mostly been playing Old Republic, because what else is there.  I finished Act 1 last Thursday, and was going to write up a post here about it, but work got in the way.  At the time I was going to write it, I’d power-leveled from 32 to 35, but after this weekend my dude is up to level 37.   I’m itching to get the hell off of the planet Taris, which is dreary and dank and not all that much fun to romp around in.  The game hasn’t changed all that much since I finished Act 1’s story; it should feel a bit more open-ended from a story perspective, but I’m still basically staying on one planet until I’m powerful enough to handle my class quest without too much trouble, and then moving on – which is, more or less, what I’d been doing previously.  I am enjoying it as a time-filler, and I’m appreciative that there’s tons of content that I can access without having to rely on strangers, but I must admit that I’m not terribly engrossed in it any more.

Also: lots and lots of new iPhone content.  Most recently, I’ve come under the hypnotic spell of TripleTown (iOS), which is basically a reverse match-3 game crossed with Grow.  You are presented with an 8×8 grid filled with bushes and rocks and such, and your objective is to turn all that stuff into a city:  3 grass squares = 1 bush; 3 bushes = 1 tree; 3 trees = 1 house, etc.  It gets tricky because you need to plan ahead in terms of where your combination will take place; if you put 3 bushes together, you’ll get a tree but only on the square that you touched.  It’s very easy to build the wrong way, in other words.  There are other complications but it’s easier to explain if you just download it for yourself – it’s a free download, actually, although it only comes with around 1500 “turns”.  You’ll quickly get hooked, though, and you won’t have much choice in forking over $4 for unlimited play.  The whole thing is very charming and quirky and ferociously addictive.

My rental copy of Final Fantasy XIII-2 should arrive by Thursday, and I guess I’m looking forward to it inasmuch as it’s something new.  I was of mixed opinions regarding FF13.  (To date it’s still the only FF game I’ve played from beginning to end, and I know that’s kind of a blasphemous thing to admit.  If it makes you feel any better, I’ve downloaded FF7, FF8, and FF9 from PSN, and I’ll probably download FF6 at some point, too – and maybe, if you can play PS1 games on a Vita, maybe I’ll end up with a Vita.)  The battle system in FF13 was pretty great, and it certainly looked nice, but it was also completely nonsensical, and while there’s a certain amount of utter nonsense I’m willing to put up with (i.e., MGS4), FF13 required a time investment that was a bit ridiculous.  All the reviews seem to indicate that FF13-2 is a massive apology that fixes everything that was wrong with the first game, plus it’s a bit shorter and maybe not as graphically impressive, and, well, yeah.  As noted above, I’m playing it because it’ll be something new, although I won’t feel guilty if I don’t finish it.

Finally – there will really, honestly, truly be some SFTC podcasts happening up in here soon-ish.  I’ve got theme music picked out and everything, and as soon as I tweak the things that need tweaking and get some schedules squared away, there will be some SFTC in your ears as well as your eyes.  All in time for the apocalypse.

>the end

>Took a sick day yesterday, and, well, I ended up finishing Final Fantasy 13. I couldn’t possibly tell you what happened; I’m not sure I’ve ever spent 60 hours playing a game while being so thoroughly confused about what was going on, and the ending is even more nonsensical than the setup. I think I had fun? Yeah, I had fun. I really started to enjoy the battle system towards the end (although not enough to go back in and keep playing).

Here’s my box quote: “I have no goddamned idea what the hell happened, but it sure was pretty.”

>uh-oh, pt. 2

>Sorry if that last post was too cliffhanger-y; I suddenly looked at the time and realized I had to be somewhere else in a hurry.

So, then: yes! I finally finished FF13’s infamous Chapter 11, and now I’m a few checkpoints into Chapter 12. And I’m still very much on board.

The game’s got some issues, of course, and the biggest is its pacing, which is all over the place. The first 15 hours are relentlessly linear and incredibly confusing, story-wise, and then suddenly the game pulls a 180 and gives you nothing but side missions and wide open spaces to traverse. The game picked up for me once I decided to be done with the side missions and start getting back into the story, and now the game feels perfect: I feel like I’m making legitimate forward progress, the environments are more and more stunning, and – most importantly – I’m really getting into the battle system.

To wit: for the first 40 hours or so, I mainly just stuck to the “Diversity” paradigm – i.e., melee/magic/medic. Even if it was slow and inefficient, it still generally got the job done. But now, suddenly, the Synergist and Saboteur roles are becoming more and more useful, and finishing a battle is now a bit like solving a puzzle – there’s a strategic element to planning everything out, and as a result the combat is far more engaging and enjoyable.

It is ridiculous that I’ve spent this much time with the game in the first place, but in the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. Especially considering how dry the release calendar has been of late – a game this long couldn’t have come along at a better time.

>uh-oh

>It wasn’t exactly a New Year’s Resolution, but my intention for 2010 was to stop spending so much money on music. Not that I was going to suddenly start stealing it – I was just going to be a little less brash and recklessly impulsive. And so far, I’m actually doing OK – I’m definitely on pace to spend less money on music this year than last year.

The problem, of course, is that those reckless impulses don’t just die; and now that I’ve got a bitchin’ computer and a Steam account that I can actually start paying attention to, I’m falling into the same patterns. To wit: Steam had a gigantic sale on a bunch of Codemasters racing games – 4 of which I’d already played on the 360 – and I bought ’em anyway. Shit, I ended up buying the GTA4 – Episodes from Liberty City pack, which I also own on the 360, and that wasn’t on sale.

I’m such a goddamned whore. And I still haven’t even really touched Dragon Age. (Although it must be noted – even though I’ve only played it for about an hour, it is soooo much better than the 360 port.)

And the thing is, I still spent the most time this weekend on Final Fantasy 13.

Speaking of which – I’m done with Chapter 11!

>evil / genius

>I am just over 40 hours into Final Fantasy 13, but that’s not quite specific enough; I am roughly 15 hours into the absurdly epic Chapter 11. I’ve gotta hand it to the developers; if nothing else, they’ve got some serious gold-plated balls to make a game like this. You spend 20 hours running along tightly controlled paths, always and only moving from point A to point B, and then suddenly you are in a wide-open expanse, free to do whatever you want.

Well, let’s clarify that a bit. There is still definitely a Point B to get to, but if you are foolhardy enough to jump right in, you will most certainly get your ass kicked. This means that you need to grind a bit. Fortunately, Chapter 11 comes with a number of Missions which you can do – these are really just regular battles, against specific enemies. I’ve done the first 15 so far, but even that number is somewhat misleading, because I’ve spent 15 hours building my way up towards being powerful enough to handle some of those missions. Which is to say, I’ve killed a LOT of monsters. Basically, I’ve been grinding endlessly so that I can grind more effectively, if that makes sense.

It’s a little ridiculous that the game is asking me to do this. Actually, let me rephrase that – it’s downright jaw-dropping to realize that this is the game’s intention, and that there is an audience out there that wants this.

And yet, here I am, 15 hours in and still invested. At the conclusion of Mission 14, I got myself a chocobo; that was my primary motivation for all this grinding, even if the end result is extremely underwhelming. (Hooray, I can go from one end of this endless prairie to the other a little bit faster.) And now that I’m here, I’ve started to figure out the evil genius at work.

See, one of the first things you’ll see when you start Chapter 11 are these absolutely gigantic creatures – similar to those titanic elephant monsters in the LOTR movies. Like so:



You can’t see how big that monster is – it’s bigger than THIS BLOG. If you were to go after that fucker right off the bat, you’d get stomped before the battle even began. Hell, if I were to go after it right now – and remember, I’m 15 hours in on this chapter alone – I’d be lucky to get one hit in before my whole party got wiped. But I know that if I were to keep grinding and finish all of these “purely optional” Missions, I’d eventually get powerful enough to take one down. And I kinda want to be able to do that, at least once.

This is why I’m glad that the release calendar is still a bit dry; this is going to take quite a bit more time.

>end radio silence

>Apologies for the recent radio silence; there hasn’t been a tremendous amount to report here from SFTC headquarters. But here’s what I’ve been playing of late:

1. Final Fantasy 13: I’m on Chapter 11, which is where the game supposedly starts getting interesting – or, at least, stops being so rigidly linear. I can absolutely attest to that last point – I basically had to restart the entire chapter because I misunderstood the map. No longer am I walking down a narrow corridor; I am wandering a gigantic expanse filled with monsters as far as the eye can see. If you so choose (and you should), you can do “missions”, which are basically side quests, where you have to seek and destroy one particular monster. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize that the location of your mission’s objective had a different map icon from the main story objective; and so, after I finished Mission 1 and started Mission 2, I found myself in the middle of these weird caves, getting my ass kicked over and over and over again, not really understanding what I’d apparently done wrong. Fortunately I had a save file from the beginning of Chapter 11, and now I understand what’s going on.

I’m not quite sure how much I’m enjoying it, but I don’t really see myself playing much of anything else for the next little stretch of time; I’m not really as excited about the new Splinter Cell as I thought I’d be, and if my GameFly Q is to be believed, I’m not going to get excited about anything until mid-May, when Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake and Blur come out. Speaking of which…

2. The Blur multiplayer beta is out, and I gave it a whirl last night, and HOLY SHIT it’s awesome. It’s basically Mario Kart + Project Gotham Racing + CoD’s XP system, and that means I am fully on board.

3. Played some of the recent Mass Effect 2 DLC. The Firewalker stuff is OK – someone else described it as a tutorial for something you’ll start using full-time in ME3, which sounds about right. And then last night I did the Kasumi DLC, which was a pleasant enough diversion for the 60-90 minutes it took me to finish. I guess the coolest thing about it is the new section of the Normandy that’s now finally opened up.

4. I cooled off a little on GTA4 PC, but only because I’ve been using my computer for other stuff of late. I’m considering buying Dragon Age for it, though, if Steam ever puts it on sale. I didn’t like the 360 version and it’s basically just taking up space – my PC can run it, and that’s supposedly the version to get anyway…

So, that’s what’s been happening over here. There may yet be more actual content soon to come – another fake podcast transcript, perhaps.

>FF13 – all this dampness is damp

>If my save file is to be believed, I’m roughly 21 hours into FF13, somewhere in Chapter 9.

There’s quite a bit I could complain about in FF13 – and I will – and yet I’m still chugging along. For all the game’s quirks, it is paced remarkably well, and I find myself frequently saying “OK, let me just get to the next save point and I’ll quit” and then another hour has gone by. And while I’m generally not that inclined to grind all that much, my characters are versatile enough now so that I can make meaningful changes to the paradigm system, and it’s quite satisfying to then be able to kick all sorts of monster ass quickly and efficiently.

Still, though, there’s a lot to complain about. The first thing is that almost all of the dialog could use a good rewrite. The second thing is that, after the rewrite, the voice acting could use a second pass. (And the person portraying Vanille, and the person who cast her, could both be shot.)

But more to the point – the cutscenes seem very much disconnected from the gameplay; i.e., you’ll be strolling along, killing things, and then you’ll cross some threshold and your characters will start talking about how they can’t fight anymore, or that they’ve lost hope, or what does it all mean, etc., and perhaps there will be a flashback, and then they’ll get momentarily rejuvenated, and then the scene ends, and you continue fighting monsters as if nothing had happened. I don’t know if this is something present in all FF games or not, but it feels a bit clunky, especially considering that you (the player) have absolutely no control over how the dialog plays out.

Now, I’m not entirely sure that FF13 would be better if it felt more like Mass Effect 2 – frankly, it might just feel silly. As it is right now, it’s merely corny, and occasionally clunky. And sometimes it feels a little too cute.

I guess a bigger issue is that all I’m doing is simply moving from point A to point B, without a particularly clear sense of why. I’m only now starting to understand the underlying fiction; the “l’Cie” / “falCie” business could’ve been much easier to understand if they’d simply picked different names. (I still maintain that I’d have ABSOLUTELY no idea what anybody was saying if I wasn’t playing with subtitles on.) I’d like to feel a bit more invested in what’s going on.

And another part of that is that the leveling system is strange. A battle does not reward you with XP; it rewards you with crystals, which you can then use to power up your various paradigm elements. It makes sense, to a certain extent, but you’re only able to make significant upgrades after you complete a chapter, which makes grinding feel even more redundant than it already is. (I’ve really only found myself consciously grinding once or twice, and that was only because enemies were quick to respawn, yielded high amounts of crystals, and were very easy to dispatch.)

Still, though, I find myself compelled to keep carrying on. As some point I hope to be able to articulate why.

>FF13: the next 12 hours

>I am roughly 12 hours in to FF13, which means that I am right at the point, according to most of the reviews I’ve read, where it starts getting interesting. (The OXM review specifically mentions the area that I am currently in.) Honestly, I can’t really say I’ve noticed that much of a difference, other than that my parties are split up into new configurations, and that the whole paradigm concept finally has some meaning.

The story still doesn’t make any sense; I do not really understand what a fal’Cie is, or why it’s bad to be a l’Cie, or what Pulse is, or Eden, or why the map is pointing me in a certain direction (especially when every map really only offers one direction to travel in). Vanille is one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen, in spite of her usefulness in combat; the rest of the main characters aren’t necessarily annoying, but they aren’t terribly interesting, either.

The thing that gets me the most, though, is that I remain confused as to why I’m still compelled to keep going. The combat system has become pretty intriguing, I think; it’s become less rock/paper/scissors and more strategic in nature, and understanding the “stagger” concept is crucial in terms of ending a battle quickly. In any event, the combat isn’t tedious… yet.

Certainly the environments are gorgeous; they are as compelling a reason to keep moving forward as anything else the game might offer.

I’m compiling a list of grievances, though, which I’ll post once I get near the end.

>FF13: The first 2 hours

>The subtitle of this post should be: “or, Why I Didn’t Finish Heavy Rain.”

I didn’t finish Heavy Rain, nor am I sure I ever will. To be fair, though, it’s not entirely HR’s fault; I moved to Brooklyn last week, and even though we’ve been settled in for the better part of a week, I still haven’t really had that much free time. That said, the free time I did have was time I didn’t really feel like spending playing HR. HR kinda needs to be played in a long, uninterrupted stretch, or else it loses its rhythm, which is what happened to me. Also, it falls into the uncanny valley way too often, it needs an actual English-speaking voice cast, and the script very much needed to be touched up by an English-speaking writer. That’s really what hit the uncanny valley for me – not the graphics, but the stiff, stilted dialogue delivered by people who don’t quite know how to pronounce certain words. Also, it felt almost a little too derivative of “Se7en.”

Anyway. Final Fantasy 13 arrived in the mail yesterday, and God of War 3 will arrive next week, and so I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to finishing HR anytime soon.

As for FF13. I should probably start by saying that I’m not really all that familiar with the Final Fantasy series. I tried (and failed) to document my playtime with FF7 last year (1, 2, 3); I also downloaded FF8 from the Playstation Network, although I don’t think I’ve even installed it. And I played about an hour or two of FF3 (?) on the DS, and a little bit of FF7-Crisis Core on the PSP. But that’s really the extent of it.

I understand, though, that FF13 is somewhat of a radical departure from its previous versions, at least in terms of its combat system and how relentlessly linear it is. So there’s that.

Here’s what I can say about FF13, now that I’m a few hours in and the combat system is starting to get a bit more expansive:

1. It’s gorgeous. I’m playing the PS3 version, for whatever that’s worth.

2. People weren’t kidding around when they said it’s linear. It’s not just that you move in a straight line – it’s that the straight line you move along is very, very narrow. I can appreciate that this very conscious design choice might make the game a little less intimidating for the FF noob; but just because I’ve never really played a FF game doesn’t mean I’ve never played any game.

3. The combat system sounds a lot more complex than it actually is. At least at this stage.

4. Almost any Japanese-developed game has this weird idiosyncratic thing where every character has to be constantly voicing something, even if it’s just grunting. And almost every female character’s grunts and moans sound alarmingly sexual in nature, even if they aren’t at all sexual in context.

5. It is basically the polar opposite of Mass Effect 2, which I am holding up as the gold standard for Western RPGs. (Whether that’s true or not is not really the point; it’s an amazing game, and it’s still fresh in my mind.)

Most reviews have indicated that FF13 starts slow and doesn’t really get going until 12-15 hours in. Which is a lot of hours that I might not necessarily have before GOW3 arrives. But I must admit that I’m kinda enjoying it so far. I have almost zero idea what’s going on (and if I weren’t playing the game with subtitles, I’d have absolutely no idea what a “fal’Cie” or “l’Cie” is; at least I know how they’re spelled). But I’m intrigued. I think the last truly engrossing JRPG I played was Lost Odyssey; I’m hoping this will be somewhere near that ballpark.