>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.

>Odd One Out

>Stupid title, I know. I’m feeling a little braindead, is the thing. See, I just spent the better part of the last 2 days plowing through the end of Lost Odyssey.

Final tally: a little over 70 hours, 4 main characters at level 81. That’s a LOT of random encounters, let me tell you.

I’d love to post a well-written, considered review of the game, but I can’t, and it’s my wife’s fault. My wife is incredibly patient and tolerant of my gaming hobby, but in the case of LO, she couldn’t take the battle soundtrack anymore, and when the game’s random encounter setting is arbitrarily set to “every 5 steps you take”, I had to admit: she was absolutely right. There’s only so many times you can hear that theme before your brain starts to hurt. And so I spent the last 15 hours of the game with the sound off, and my iPod on. (This made for quite a few comical moments, actually; during one of the climactic battles at the very end, my iPod decided to play “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead, which had to be the most wrong music to be playing at that moment.)

And, really, I wonder how much I missed out, playing the game with the sound off. By the 60th hour or so, I didn’t really need to hear the characters recite poorly-written dialog – especially since I’d had the sound set to Japanese because the English voice acting was grating and annoying. It was pretty clear what I needed to be doing, anyway, and to be honest I kinda just wanted to finish the damn thing so I could start Bully and Condemned 2 in earnest.

In a way, that’s part of the problem with the mechanics of JRPGs; most of my time over the last few days was simply grinding the shit out of my characters, and that’s not emotionally gratifying or anything. I was having fun, sure – I was grinding with a purpose – but it didn’t really have anything to do with the game.

(I should also say that I didn’t necessarily intend to grind the shit out of my characters. I was attempting to deal with the Temple of Enlightenment, and I kept getting wiped out, so I ventured out and dealt with some other side quests, and by the time I was ready to deal with the ToE, the game’s random-encounter setting was off the goddamned charts. Seriously – it took me somewhere between 8-10 hours to finish that dungeon, and by the time I finally got out I’d leveled up my party by at least 10 levels, and so the final final dungeon was a goddamned cakewalk.)

The pacing at the end of the game was a little weird, too; I’d spent 15 hours actively playing and running and killing and puzzling, and then, in the last battle, after the umpteenth press of the “Attack” command, there was suddenly a 20 minute cutscene – easily the longest one in the game – and by that point all I wanted was to get to the credits so I could get my 125 Points and be done with the goddamned thing.

I’m making this sound a lot more negative than I actually feel. I did have some fun this weekend with the game, I swear – it’s just that I wasn’t playing the game, I was going through the motions because my iPod was a thousand times more interesting than the same battle music over and over and over again.

Anyway. I’m done with it. I got something like 840 points out of 1000, and I’m not totally sure I’m going to try to get the rest – not with Bully and Condemned (and maybe R6:Vegas?) and GTA4 on the way.

At the very least, here’s what I can say about it – even with the conditions I was playing under, it was infinitely more satisfying than Blue Dragon.

>Further into the Odyssey

>Disc 3, ~ 32 hours in, party is between levels 31-36.

Look, I know I’m a JRPG neophyte, and my frame of reference w/r/t these games is incredibly limited, but GODDAMN. It’s all I’ve been playing for the last week. I very nearly called in sick today just so I could pull a marathon session.

Combat continues to be enjoyable, which is saying a LOT considering how tedious random encounters can be. I’m starting to be able to craft some pretty bad-ass rings, which in a way hearkens back to the Alchemy portions of Oblivion (when I first got into Oblivion, I was obsessed with harvesting ingredients). The dialog is hit-or-miss (why are there no dialog-writing seminars at GDC?) but the story is engaging, and the characters are just 3-dimensional enough to keep everything interesting. The voice actor doing Jansen – I love this guy. I’m not sure he’s ever played a videogame before, because he’s definitely NOT adhering to the usual standard of line readings (which the rest of the LO cast is guilty of); I hope this guy continues to get work, he’d be especially great with in a Bioware setting.

But again – I’ve never played any of the FF games (except for III on my DS, and I never got very far into it), nor any of the other major franchises or one-offs – so consider my recommendation accordingly.

>Halfway through the Odyssey

>Just got to Disc 3 in Lost Odyssey; a little over 22 hours, with most of my party at or around lvl 30. Having not played very many JRPGs, it’s obviously beyond my reach to say how it compares with all the hordes of titles already out there, but in terms of what I have played, I think it’s fucking fantastic. The story and script may be generic and ridiculous, but the characters are richly drawn and the voice acting – for the most part – is outstanding. The environments are very nicely varied, and almost all of them look quite beautiful. There’s really only been one or two moments in the game that really got on my nerves, one of which took place during a dreadfully inopportune time (as I was very much on the edge of tears (!)), and another which was simply a frustrating and surprising radical shift in difficulty (which, after (*sigh*) consulting a walkthrough, was dealt with rather quickly). It’s not without its faults, and it could be said that the turn-based combat system in general feels archaic and anachronistic these days, but for what it is, it’s outstanding.

A special shout-out needs to go to the dreams, which (I believe) were written by Jay Rubin, whom you may have heard of if you’ve ever read the English translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Some reviews said that the dreams slowed the game’s already slow pace down to a crawl, because who the hell wants to read when they’re playing a game, and they do have a point; it’s just that the dreams here are so well written and so interesting, and if they were ever published in book form, I’d buy them immediately.

Also: finished Professor Layton over the weekend. It was a lot of fun, and the feeling of conquering a devilish riddle cannot be understated. Still, though, there’s not much left to do with it besides bringing it to a wi-fi access point and downloading new riddles, which is kinda the problem; once you know the answer, the game loses its point. That said, I’ve got a long plane flight coming up in March, and there were a few riddles that I either never solved or never found; it would certainly be nice to spend a little more time in St. Mystere.

>Not-quite impressions

>As I wrote yesterday, I was able to score copies of Lost Odyssey and Professor Layton and I promised some impressions today. However, I don’t really feel like I’ve put in enough time with either game to give any sort of detailed analysis. That said, there are some quick things I want to throw out there:

Lost Odyssey
After an hour’s worth of playtime, here’s what I can offer:

  • Even though he hasn’t said very much of anything just yet, Kaim is a pretty awesome protagonist. I love how he’s animated; in spite of his youthful complexion he has the posture and the walking rhythm of a man who has lived for far too long and seen far too much. He doesn’t walk as much as he trudges along (this is most noticeable in cutscenes – when you’re out and about, you can run like the wind); this is a great example of character development without getting into expository dialog.
  • The first real “story” moment takes place in some sort of council meeting, and unfortunately, it is fucking ridiculous. Our world is in trouble because of meteors and magic energy and the Giant Staff? Oh Christ.
  • As a 32-year-old man, I find it much easier to relate to world-weary adults as opposed to spiky-haired rugrats who believe in themselves and have something to prove. I’m not sure I will ever be able to go back and finish Blue Dragon if I keep spending time with Lost Odyssey.
  • Speaking of Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey is quite easy to pick up if you played Blue Dragon; the graphics engine may be different (more on that in a second), but the controls are nearly identical. I was actually a little startled to see that “Start” only pauses the game, and that “Y” brings up your menu – this is exactly how BD did it, too.
  • Also speaking of Blue Dragon, I far prefer Lost Odyssey’s approach to looting. BD made you check out every single goddamned book in a bookcase, every single plant in a forest, every pebble in a desert – and more often than not, you’d get a “Nothing”, which you wouldn’t even realize was important until midway through Disc 2. Here, at least, the stuff you can check out is obvious, and there’s always something worthwhile to pick up. I can’t wait to start getting into the Ring Crafting part of the game; the tiny taste I’ve gotten of it so far has definitely whetted my appetite, and so I’m actually motivated to check out every thing I can find.
  • As for the combat: well, again, I only played for an hour, and the last 30 minutes were spent in a city; I didn’t quite get enough time to really be comfortable with the whole “timing” part of attacking, and I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see how the ring-crafting affects combat, and – most importantly – I don’t have any party members yet.
  • As for the graphics: it’s very pretty. A lot of reviews mention frame-rate dips; I haven’t seen anything that bad. The constant loading before combat may be a problem, though.

In short: I can’t wait to really get some time to sink my teeth into this one. My hour with the game last night was barely an appetizer.

Professor Layton
I brought my DS with me to work today, just in case I got some time; I played for about 20-30 minutes before going to bed last night, and I found only 6 or 7 puzzles. It isn’t quite what I expected it to be, but I am enjoying what I’ve played. I found a puzzle last night that (I think) requires some geometry, which I’ve all but forgotten; I was pleased to have solved two matchstick puzzles, though, because I’m fucking AWFUL at matchstick puzzles. I do hope, though, that there’s more to this game than matchstick puzzles; it’s not a good sign that I’ve already done 2 of them in such a short span of time.

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