Paradigm

I’m closing in on 16 hours of playtime in Final Fantasy XIII and I hate to say it, but I’m pretty disappointed with the game so far. There’s something amiss in FFXIII besides the horrible pacing, awkward cinematography, and convoluted and relatively uninteresting storyline. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet but I think it has to do with the lack of control I have had, even 16 hours in.

My complaints with the pacing of FFXIII are multifold from the frequency of save points to the battle system, even the item and story progression. You’ll often encounter save points on both sides of a cut-scene and then go through an entire “level” without one unless there’s a boss battle. There’s no rhyme or reason to the placement for many of the save points, but they do serve a secondary purpose: upgrading your equipment and shopping the miscellaneous “eCommerce” stores.

This secondary purpose raises more issues with the game thanks to the extreme scarcity of materials used for upgrading equipment and gil that is provided early on. Well I should state that you’re given enough materials to upgrade a couple of items a number of times but that presents yet another problem. You’re given so many weapons and pieces of equipment that you can’t upgrade them all which adds insult to injury because if you’ve spent any time upgrading any of your early weapons they’re far more powerful than anything you receive later in the game.

Even the pacing at which you upgrade equipment is strange with some items only requiring 300-500 points to level up and others requiring 1000+. There’s even a multiplier mechanic thrown in for good measure that requires the heavy usage of junk materials to increase the bonus multiplier for materials consumed while upgrading. You can keep bumping the multiplier with junk to reach a 5x multiplier (I think) but it requires a metric ton of junk as the highest I’ve reached is a 3x multiplier. This multiplier isn’t permanent, however, as beneficial materials used will decrease the bonus multiplier.

Certain types of materials are better for upgrading different kinds of weapons and equipment but you’re not given an interface to make this process simple and easy to understand. You’re forced to pick a weapon or piece of equipment and then manually go through all of your materials one at a time to see if it’s beneficial or not. It’s all very convoluted and horribly executed and explained.

You are given the ability to buy some materials from the save point stores but you’re given so little gil in the beginning that I’m wondering why these stores are even provided. I have been hoarding all the gil I’ve received so far and I currently only have 5600 gil. Yes, that’s right … 5600 gil after 15 hours of play. ><;

I’m hopeful that once the game finally opens up that many of these issues will be resolved. I feel like I’ve been playing an extended prologue as I still have no control over my party as the storyline splits the six protagonists into groups of two with the occasional intersection of paths for a fully fledged three person party. You’re also not given control of whom you want to be the party leader, so occasionally you’ll be in control of a character with paradigms that you’re not comfortable with.

You can think of paradigms as your classic final fantasy jobs or roles, but with new and exciting names! Can you sense the sarcasm? For example, instead of white mage, you’re a medic. You’re given the ability to change your party’s paradigms on a whim to suit the situation by selecting one of (up to) six preset combinations, (these are given exciting names as well!) and for boss encounters you’ll be doing this frequently. Generally you’re given enough paradigm combinations to cover most situations, but you may want to double check and create a combination or two with more than one medic or all ravagers.

One reason you’ll need to switch paradigms is too build up a stagger meter to drastically increase damage once an enemy is staggered. This stagger meter is not always easy to fill as the stagger point will vary from enemy to enemy as well as the attacks effective at filling the meter. This is where you’ll need to be mindful of the paradigms active in your party. Ravagers are great at bursting the meter up but that build-up quickly decays without having a Commando attacking the same target to slow the stagger meter’s decay.

You don’t need a commando active at all times to prevent the meter decay as I’ve switched to all ravagers to build up the meter on boss encounters as their stagger point is usually difficult to reach. You just need to pay attention to the meter and execute paradigm shifts and abilities as necessary. Your party leader can queue up abilities which cost a varying amount of action points: single target attacks requires one point, area attacks require two points and summons require three (I think). Initially you start off with three action points per command sequence, but once that character unlocks their Eidolon (summon) you’re given four points.

You’re also given the option to manually queue up abilities, or hand the reigns over to the computer to make the decisions for you by selecting auto-battle. Usually auto-battle is decent, but you’ll probably want to dictate how you want to apply debuffs to the enemies if controlling a Saboteur. In one battle where I controlled Vanille auto-battle wanted to apply poison multiple times without decovering or defaithing.

Once the abilities are queued manually or by auto-battle the ATB meter will begin filling and the abilities will automatically execute one after another once the meter fills. While the meter fills you can press the triangle button or Y button to execute the commands in which their segments are filled and cancel the remaining queued commands. Why would I want to do that? Occasionally you’ll run into a situation where you need an attack NOW to prevent the stagger meter from completely depleting or relaunching an enemy before they have a chance to retaliate.

However, it is more likely that you may use this when you do not need an entire ATB meter to finish off an enemy. Because of all these mechanics to the battle engine and the speed in which everything plays out, battles have never felt twitchier. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to frustration if you find yourself frantically trying to swap in a medic or two to prevent your party leader from dying; if your party leader dies, it is game over.

Overall the battle engine feels like a bastardized child of Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy X-2 which isn’t a bad thing. I just think that it could have benefitted from the action slowing down or pausing during command sequences to eliminate the frantic feel to a lot of the boss battles I’ve encountered. I’m sure some folks out there will love it, but because of the frantic nature of battle the engine lends itself to being more reactive than strategic. I’ve found combat really enjoyable so far but feel that if some of the frantic chaos was taken out, it would have been perfect.

Outside of the mechanics Final Fantasy XIII’s story and character development has been another disappointment for me. The entire first hour was extremely painful for me to get through as you’re tossed into the middle of an assault with a number of characters that are so incredibly stereotypical that you could care less what happens. Toss in the convoluted concepts of the fal’Cie and l’Cie and the battle between Cocoon and Pulse and you’re completely lost.

Things did pick up once I got through the fal’Cie interior and once the initial five protagonists were branded as l’Cie I was hooked. Unfortunately every time the story picked up, it tripped over itself and all momentum lost. There will be a building sense of urgency only to be ruined by short cut-scenes where the characters are casually or lethargically getting through the script. Sometimes they’ll have out-of-character moments leaving you scratching your head, but I think that has to deal more with Japanese storytelling style.

I’m having a hard time feeling compelled to keep going to the point where the game finally opens up. No game should ever demand so much of an investment from it’s players before becoming completely enjoyable. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m such a Final Fantasy fan-boy, I probably wouldn’t still be playing XIII as I’d rather be playing Mass Effect 2. Had the game not taken 5+ years in development and been released on PS2 it might have fared better in a pre-ME world.

Editor’s Note: I completely forgot to cover the Crystarium system which is how you “level” in Final Fantasy XIII. It is very similar to FFX’s sphere grid, just in 3d. No complaints here. I also forgot to cover Eidolons in detail, but I’ll save that for another update since I still haven’t grasped that system completely.

Ruin

If you’ve been following me on twitter you’d know that my weekend has been absorbed by beer, wild card playoff football and one game. No, it hasn’t been WoW. Oh no, it definitely hasn’t. Between an extra PS3 blu-ray remote and a $25 gift card I received from Christmas it was high-time to pick up a new game to pry me away from my keyboard. There were a ton of options before me dating back to August and when it came time to pick out ONE game to buy, I went through decision overload.

Do I pick up Batman Arkham Asylum which I’ve been dying to play since the demo? Should I pick up Borderlands which I’ve been hearing so many good things about? How about Uncharted 2 to give my newly acquired PS3 some love? Or if not Uncharted 2, what about some older PS3 titles that I’ve missed out on such as Infamous or Metal Gear Solid 4? Should I ignore the past and go with something just released such as Bayonetta or Darksiders?

As I said, if you’re a follower of mine, you already know which game I picked up and realize that I’m only building up some suspense. What game did he pick up? C’mon tell me already! It was a difficult decision but fortunately the store I was in at the time, Target,  limited my options somewhat. In the end it came down to either Batman, Uncharted 2, Bayonetta or Darksiders.

I gave serious consideration to all 4 games and it took me a good 20 minutes to sort it out in my head. It almost caused me pain to not decide on Batman, but I figured that soon it’ll go platinum/greatest hits and I’ll be able to pick it up at a discount. I passed on Uncharted 2 for purely vanity reasons as the cases they had at Target were plastered with marketing phrases: 25 perfect reviews, 10 out 10! Sure they were probably stickers on the shrink-wrap, but for some reason when I see marketing that tells me that YOU NEED TO BUY THIS GAME NOW I take a contrarian position and look elsewhere.

So that left me with a decision between Bayonetta and Darksiders. Two games with a lot of similarities, but enough differences to stand on their own. I knew what I’d be getting with picking up Bayonetta: lots of action, Sailor Moon’esque transformation sequences, and an overly complicated plot that teeters on the edge of detracting from the game itself. I absolutely loved the demo so picking up Bayonetta presented little risk.

Darksiders on the other hand was mostly an unknown. Sure it has been touted as the love-child of GoW and Zelda, but the general opinion of the game has been mixed at best. The first time I heard of the game I was instantly intrigued. The characters, premise, and gameplay all resonated with me. I mean how fucking cool would it be to play as War slaying demons and angels? So when the first reports of rampant screen-tearing for the 360 version hit the ‘net a little part of me died inside. It only supported the opinions of the game being average at best; an amateur product of an overly-ambitious premise.

So what game did you get damnit?!?

In the end, the Zelda lover inside of me won out and I picked up Darksiders, on 360. Even though Bayonetta presented little risk, I just wasn’t in the mood for a pure-action game. I desired some exploration, progression, and most importantly a story-line that doesn’t get lost in pretentiousness. I don’t mind complicated plots, but they need to make sense, and I’ve heard quite the contrary when it comes to Bayonetta. I’m not trying to knock Bayonetta for its story-line  as I can look past that and enjoy the game for purely the gameplay. I do play fighting games after all and they’re notorious for their story-lines.

Darksiders became a no-brainer for me as I thought about it more and more. So what if it were only average? An average Zelda game is better than a lot of crap shoveled out these days. I yearned to fill that gaming-void that has plagued me since Nintendo decided to focus on DS Zelda titles. So average reviews and screen-tearing be damned, I picked up Darksiders. I desired to step into the boots of War and kick some ass.

So let me be upfront about the biggest criticism over Darksiders on the 360: Yes the screen-tearing is BAD and can sometimes be distracting, but it doesn’t get in the way of the game. Evidently there is a title-update on the way to address the issue, so if you can’t look past the amateurish mistake of screen-tearing you can wait until it is fixed. If you can look past it, you’re in for quite a treat: Darksiders is fucking amazing.

Okay, okay. I am a bit biased towards Zelda games, but Darksiders is solid. Well, except for that pesky screen-tearing ^^; You can critique it for being blatant Zelda rip-off as it essentially Zelda painted with an apocalyptic brush. You have your z-targeting, maps, compasses, keys, tools, environmental puzzles and baddy-clearing rooms. Yes Darksiders IS Zelda, but I tend to not think of it as a rip-off but as an homage to one of the greatest gaming franchises. The gameplay is solid and very very rewarding, and that’s what we should care about right?

Zelda isn’t the only homage I’ve come across in the 6 hours I’ve spent with it so far. Prior to the first dungeon you encounter you’re treated to a sequence that pays homage to Panzer Dragoon, another one of my favorites. It wasn’t quite as refined as Panzer Dragoon, but it was a decent twist in the gameplay and an interesting way to bridge the player to the first dungeon. This wasn’t the only bridge I’ve encountered as prior to the second dungeon you’re given an over-the-shoulder 3rd person shooter sequence which reminded me of Master Chief carrying a turret from Halo 3.

Then you have your ability to purchase moves, weapons, consumables ala Devil May Cry and weapon leveling ala God of War. Yes Darksiders is full of reused ideas from other games, but it does so in a GOOD way. I didn’t go into Darksiders expecting a revolutionary experience, I wanted something fun to play and don’t mind the “I’ve played this game before” feeling. It comes down to the overall composition of the game and Darksiders hasn’t dissapointed me yet.

While I’m on the topic of composition, now would be a good time to give my impressions of the story-line and characters in Darksiders; spoiler-free of course. If you’ve read a synopsis of the game, it is pretty basic: the apocalypse has occurred and the horseman War has been blamed for it and War has to clear his name. While I’m only 6 hours in, the story-line hasn’t progressed much, there are still many things unanswered such as who is behind the events that have occurred and where are the other horsemen?

There have been lots of little plot-devices to explain the progression of the game which are fairly pedestrian. To be blunt, it isn’t the story that has hooked me, I’ve been hooked because of the characters. This game has a lot of character in its characters from Vulgrim the lich merchant to Samael the out-of-favor demon. War, himself, is a very intriguing character thanks to the voice-actor delivering his lines despite him being pretty straight-forward.

Oh god, the voice-acting is top-notch in Darksiders; quality work. If the voice-acting were not as well done as it has been, I’d probably not be professing my love for this game as much as I have been on twitter. The occasional line delivered in demonic tongue makes me wish I knew how to speak demon. I might be overstating my impressions of the voice-acting considering I haven’t played Uncharted 2, but regardless I’m impressed.

But enough gushing about the characters and voice-acting. Let me gush about the character designs themselves. War is fucking bad-ass. His armor, his sword, his shadow wings,  his glowing sigil on his forehead, his hair, his eyes … er … right, let’s reign that in a bit. Again I am biased, but the character designs are incredibly well done in Darksiders. Vulgrim, Samael, the Watcher, the gatekeepers, the Black Hammer … all quality. Even the throw-away enemies look suitably hellish (or angelic) and received some love from the artists and designers over at Vigil.

Then you have the (mini)bosses themselves; again, quality work. I encountered a mini-boss called the Jailer that created a substantial amount of OH SHIT! He hurts you, bad, if you don’t get away from him. He sticks out so far if only because when you do down him, one of the prisoners kept in a cage attached to the Jailer frees himself and takes a couple of shots at the dead boss. Hilarious!

If there were one complaint or critique I do have about Darksiders is occasionally the controls get in the way when it comes to boss encounters. Pressing in on the right-stick to enter aim-mode for your crossblade or to precisely aim a bomb toss isn’t the most intuitive thing. That gets compounded by the decreased mobility War suffers while in aim-mode which can lead to taking accidental damage.

There are also a couple of platforming issues in regards to some quirkiness with the camera when attempting to navigate ledges. While slightly annoying, these issues are not rampant with the majority of the gameplay I’ve encountered so far. There’s a good balance between combat and puzzle-elements in Darksiders with a pinch of platforming to keep you on your toes.

So if there’s anything you can take away from my impressions of Darksiders is that it is a worthy game to played. If you enjoy Zelda games even a little bit, there’s absolutely no reason to not give Darksiders a go. If you are as big of a Zelda fan as I am and you’re not playing this game, what is wrong with you?! Go out and pick this game up now. I demand it.

Viking

Recently Sega produced/made games haven’t been all that and it appeared that Sega was a mere shadow of its former self. With Viking Sega appears to be back on the right track, even with some minor faults. Viking is a mix of Mark of Kri, and Kingdom Under Fire, that is to say that the majority of the game is spent “solo” as Skarin with main objectives having the forces you free join you in a huge epic battle.

Control is extremely important when it comes to games like this and Viking does it mighty well. There are a few hiccups mainly due to camera issues, but once you get the hang of it and don’t try to treat the game like Dynasty Warriors you should do fine. Just know that turning your back to a group of enemies and trying to book it when outnumbered usually ends up with your “death” and your soul being ressurected at the main leystone (portal system).

Combat is fun and pretty rewarding if you approach it intelligently, but sometimes you’ll find Skarin lunging after the enemy that doesn’t haven’t the “X” context kill notifier over their heads. After some training Skarin will be able to preform “stealth” kills if you can sneak up on enemies without being noticed and pressing “X” when the button symbol appears over the enemy. Bosses toss in a little bit of God of War in that kill sequences are handled by on-screen button prompts.

In large battles you can find yourself frustrated quickly if you go “dynasty warriors” while lunging through the enemy masses. This usually ends up with you being consistantly attacked from behind and a quick recipe for a respawn. These battles can be a joke, however, if you’ve stored up your power to unleash your magical enhancement and then hold X+A for an area-damaging attack that will quickly eliminate most, if not all, enemies.

As for the story … it’s fairly run-of-the-mill, but if you’re into Norse mythology you’ll probably enjoy it. (When I saw Mjolnir mentioned I couldn’t help but smile and think of Master Chief.) Cut-scenes are handled fairly well, but could have used better lighting, (there are too many shadows cast on the models). Progression through the game is handled through fetch quests for the most part. Either you free an encampment and they join you, or their leader has you bring them an item, kill a particular enemy, or clear some other objective. Pretty standard stuff.

First few hours were lots of fun, but the “quests” are starting to get a little obnoxious and not really optional since most of the main objectives require these quests to be completed before you can launch the major assault.

If you’re looking for some mindless fun, I’d definitely recommend Viking, but probably just as a rental. You may tire of the mechanics after awhile.

Paradise

I have to admit it, the free world aspect of Burnout Paradise unnerved me. Yet, after 5 hours of play, I can safely say that Paradise is the evolution of Burnout. It’s brilliant how it’s setup and there’s a ton to soak in when you first start. You needn’t feel obligated to start racing out of the gate. Take your time, explore, smash stuff, and most importantly, take in the gorgeous scenery.

Paradise is leaps and bounds beyond Revenge and shows how far Criterion has come with the 360 hardware. Everything is smooooooooooth as budder. I especially love the new crash-camera. It’s so much fun to just attempt stupid stuff to see how spectacular of a crash you can cause.

This is one aspect that I think Criterion can pay more attention to in future iterations of Burnout; point based crashes. What I mean is, is to score your crash based on impact force, impact point, vehicle rotation, etcetera. Even without this potential reward, crashing is just too much fun.

Which brings me to the new Showtime mode. It’s quirky, strange, and no replacement for a true crash mode. Yet, there’s something fun about flipping your destroyed car almost katamari-style. I’m hoping that Criterion listens to all of the critics and releases a true crash mode with future DLC.

My only quibble with the game right now is when you get sent to a finish line on the western side of Paradise City. There aren’t as many intersections out there, so once you get most of the “smashables” out there, you have to trek your way back to where there’s more action.

This is also one thing I think Criterion should have payed attention to. A jump-to feature would exceptionally welcome, even if it only allowed you to jump to the junk yards you’ve discovered.

Despite this negative, Paradise is an fucking blast to play, and that’s what’s most important. I’ll have to hop online this weekend to check out the Freeburn challenges. That sounds like fun.

Cloverfield

From the first trailer I became insanely intrigued about this movie. Just the whole idea of capturing a monster movie from the personal point-of-view of a handycam was surreal. We’ve all watched plenty of monster/horror movies, but we never get that intimate with the characters. In Cloverfield you empathize with the characters as they make their harrowing trip across the city.

Cloverfield is a smart experiment. We’re never told why, where, or how, but that’s pretty much irrelevant to the movie. It isn’t so much about the monster, but about these friends and horrors they encounter and how it tears their lives apart. Make no mistake, this is a human story, there just happens to be a monster destroying Manhanttan.

Once the lead-in is done introducing the characters to us Cloverfield grabs you and doesn’t let go. It’s very surreal, tense, and tragic. Occassionally the audience is given a chance to breath with the occassional comedic quip from Hud before being tossed back into the horrors and tragedy taking place.

Many might question why wasn’t the camera just put down in an effort to save your own life. It’s a legitimate question, but not everyone is wired the same, and I don’t doubt that there are people out there that would document the last moments of their life. So with a little suspension of disbelief you come to the realization that this has to be the case, otherwise there’d be no movie.

Another questionable motive would be Rob’s insane decision to go deeper into Manhanttan and towards the monster in an effort to save the life of Beth, his estranged friend and love-of-his-life. Would you risk your life for the one you love? I know I would, so to me this is really a non-issue.

Cloverfield Spoilers

Completion?

Last night I finally made my way to the end of Kingdom Hearts II. Being that I was impatient to see the ending and knew that I could always come back to my save for 100% completion I went ahead and defeated Xemnas. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but suffice to say I was satisfied with the final encounter(s). I think I enjoyed the first major battle Roxas has against the Nobody Knight more, but that had a lot more to do with the incredible reaction commands in that battle. The only portion I didn’t enjoy in the final encounter was the “Gummi Ship” portion although incredibly easy.

Perhaps that’s the biggest flaw with the final encounter; it just wasn’t hard … at all. Save battling the camera and Xemnas cheese AI when having control Riku, I pretty much breezed through it. At least I still have Sephiroth to best, but what good will having Fenrir do me? Oh right, the Paradox cup. *Shrug* I do need to complete that for 100%. My only question is 100% worth getting for extra part in the ending?

Regardless I enjoyed Kingdom Hearts II, it was definitely everything that a sequel should be. The story really picked up in the 2nd half of the game, even if it was nothing more than revisiting the worlds you already went to. So my initial complaint of an overwhelming story-arch was just made in haste. Yet there were a few things that I wish had been done differently.

As cool as Donald and Goofy are, I wish that you could bring the world-specific party members with you along your journey. It’d actually give you reason to toss equipment and AP boosts their way … Donald, Goofy, and Mickey can travel from world to world, why not Auron? (Yah, he’s the main character I’d bring along with me 🙂 Even though Donald and Goofy are more or less just there to help out, I wish that their abilities received as much attention and growth as Sora’s. Well maybe not as much, but they’re terribly limited in their capacities.

Summons were also a huge disappointment. I used them only during the cup where you face Heracles. Not only were forms vastly more useful, but c’mon … only FOUR summons? Chicken Little?! Peter Pan?! Stitch and Genie were cool, but again … why use them? I would have LOVED to see an Alice in Wonderland summon … sigh …

Speaking of which, I was really hoping to revisit Wonderland after the pathetic world Square created in the original. Alice in Wonderland is by far my favorite Disney title and was really hoping for some psychadelic visuals (ala the Matador level in Psychonauts) and a proper dose of Wonderland. But I’ll try not to go off on a tangent of Disney worlds that I felt should or shouldn’t have been in KH2 …

But other than that, I can’t really think of any glaring improvements that could have been made. As I said, I really enjoyed KH2 and it has completely monopolized my gaming time for the past 2 weeks. I haven’t logged into WoW for more than a couple minutes to catch up with my guild.

Now that I’ve more or less finished KH2 the question is whether or not I’ll go back to WoW. I’m sure I will in some capacity, but not like before. I still have Grandia III and Drakengard 2 to play before FFXII comes out at the end of October. Or maybe I’ll pull a wild card out and FINALLY play MGS3. I still do not know how I haven’t played it for more than 10 minutes … it’s almost embarassing. No strike that, it IS embarassing. I should get on that … c’ya!

Disneyification

Making up words is fun aint it? As the title might suggest, this entry is going to have a blatant Disney-theme to it. What it won’t feature is the Disney seal-of-approval, so you can all breathe a sigh-of-relief. So what does it all mean? I’m finding myself craving the solo console experience; something fun … action oriented, yet having a good story. If you still can’t guess as to the meaning behind my entry title, let me spell it out for you: Kingdom Hearts II.

I never played the first all the way through having grown bored of the happy-go-lucky disjointed story once I hit the Olympus Stadium. I also never played the GBA title even though I’ve heard decent things about it. Hell … I almost skipped the highly anticipated PS2 sequel entirely. Yet something pulled me in. It may have been the promise of nearly everything being fine-tuned and improved upon from the first. It may have also been because of the darker theme of the sequel and dual-wielding keyblades. But whatever it was, it wasn’t because I’ve become out-of-my-f’ng-mind bored of WoW. No, there’s NO WAY that could be the reason.

Okay, it was.

It’s refreshing to be able to sit down and progress on your own. To know that there’s nothing keeping you from seeing everything (well apart from time really). To be able to smash things up in real time and get that good ‘ol console experience that I’ve been sorely lacking for … almost 2 years now. Has WoW held onto me for that long? Holy crap it feels good to be back. Yet I know I’ll be back and playing WoW soon enough. But for the time being this break is just the thing I needed.

I’ll hold onto my impressions for the time being as I’m only 15 hours or so in, but suffice to say I’m really enjoying KH2. Just about everything I disliked about the first has been pretty much rectified. Sure there’s still some improvements I think that could be made, and each world is a disjointed mini-story that doesn’t really feel like progression, but god damn … I really liked Roxas.

I know linear story progression maybe boring for some, but its a lot more cohesive for story progression. If there’s a plan for KH3, I hope the designers take this into account and include a story arch through all of the worlds. Sure it’s fun to visit familiar Disney worlds but each world is a side-story more-or-less and forced to fit within the Kingdom Hearts story.

*Shrug* Either way, I’m glad I picked KH2 up. It’s been a great game so far and is helping me keep from going insane as I wait for FFXII.