Tag Archive: story


When I was thirteen years old, I fell ill with a bad case of tonsilitis; my family has a history with the illness and I was no exception to the rule (my sister got the short end of the stick though, usually getting it once a month until she had them removed). I was bed-ridden for six weeks, with nothing but a television and a PlayStation for company, with the occasional visit from my mother, and I had run out of games to play; I didn’t have many games at the time, because I’d only recently got the system.

I remember game magazines everywhere singing the praises of one game, Final Fantasy VII. It was being touted as the ‘must have’ game of PlayStation, an adventure that spanned over three discs with a compelling storyline and over 100 hours of engrossing gameplay; I had to have it. I spoke to my mum about it, and the next day to my surprise, she bought me a copy of it from Tesco, and after that six-hour first session, my gaming life had changed forever. It was the first RPG I had played, and whilst I found the turn based battles unusual at first, I took to it like a fish to water. After scores of hours playing the game, I got better and my tonsilitis had gone, and kept on playing. I eventually got the strategy guide and it opened up a world of opportunities to me (I didn’t have the internet at the time), I felt like this was the ultimate experience in gaming; I experimented with hundreds of Materia combinations, I bred the Gold Chocobo, I defeated both Ruby and Emerald Weapon, and was blown away the first time I witnessed ‘Knights of the Round’.

Everything I knew about gaming changed here, for the better.

After I had done all that was to be done (and this brought the play time to a little under 200 hours), I thought to myself ‘this is the seventh game in the series’, and that there were six more Final Fantay games I hadn’t played. I took it upon myself to find them and play them, and now at the age of 24, even though I haven’t played the first Final Fantasy game in its entirity, my mission to unearth this wonderful series was not a waste.

I became a Final Fantasy fanboy.

As time passed by, new Final Fantasy games came out, and of course I was excited by the prospect of playing one of my favourite series, and more excited at the thought of the series only becoming better. Final Fantasy VIII was good, but just a little below par with Final Fantasy VII. There was just something missing with it, whether it was the characters or the new magic system, I don’t know, but whilst I did love it, it didn’t meet the unfeasible high standard of VII.

In May 2006 at E3 in Los Angeles, Square Enix announced Final Fantasy XIII for the PlayStation 3 and showed the first trailer. I was in awe, and I had a reason to blow over £400 on a PS3. For the next few years my eyes were fixed on FFXIII’s development. I saw the game grow and with every mouth-watering new screenshot and trailer I grew more and more excited.

FFXIII in its early stages of development, or "what could've been".

Time passed, and I held my excitement at bay until March 9th 2010 finally arrived, and Final Fantasy XIII was delivered to my door. I had the entire day free, and I intended to dedicate it to Final Fantasy XIII, the game I waited four years for.

By 11pm that evening when I finally decided to turn off my system, I came to a realization; for the past four years, I had been excited for no good reason whatsoever. Final Fantasy XIII was the biggest disappointment in my entire life as a gamer.

The question is; where to begin? In my opinion, this game fails everywhere in being a Final Fantasy game, and came across as nothing more than being an underwhelming JRPG, and here’s why;

The Characters

In all honesty, I have never disliked a main character in a Final Fantasy game as much as Lightning. Even when in games like Final Fantasy VIII where Squall’s brooding nature could bring you to the point of switching off, the supporting cast could offer some redemption in their differing personalities. VII had Barret, Aerith (for a while at least), Tifa and others, IX’s cast was predominantly likeable, X had Wakka and Auron, and so forth. Final Fantasy XIII had five annoying bastards, and one slightly redeemable character in Fang, who out of all the cast was clearly the most fleshed out, and it’s a shame she wasn’t the lead and had to be accompanied by such one-dimensional personalities. The rest of the cast fell into the remit of stereotypical anime characters; Lightning – the conflicted warrior bound by duty, Snow – the self-proclaimed hero who rallys the troops at their most dire of moments all the while trying to rescue his lost love, Hope – the confused, angsty teen searching for purpose, Sazh – the elder of the bunch looking out for his son, and Vanille… do not get me started on Vanille… the perpetually cheerful, endlessly optimistic cute one of the bunch who never fails to irritate.

It’s not enough that these characters are annoying beyond belief, but their voice actors are equally so (apart from Fang, but Vanille especially). You can’t get through one of the many cutscenes without them bellowing out some annoying gasp, grunt or scream that stands out like a fart in church, but worst of all is that they’re so laughably predictable in their actions; Lightning will be stern as ever, Sazh will make some unfunny sarcastic remark, Vanille will be cheerful, and Snow will build their hopes up again; repeat ad nauseum. Despite Fang being so likeable, it’s hard to look past the presence of these characters. Imagine if on The Office, Steve Carrell was surrounded with the douchebags from The Hills; you’d be waiting around for him to get some screentime, whilst these boring, unlikable stereotypes had their say. It would be intolerable.

Never have so few, pissed me off so much, so quickly.

The Story

Let me be blunt here; the storyline in Final Fantasy XIII is so unbelievably boring. It’s a clichéd tale of the “Chosen few” selected to determine the fate of the world, which has been told a hundred times before in a hundred more interesting ways.

The antagonists have been seen a hundred times before in uninspired games and Hollywood blockbusters. Of all the Final Fantasy games I’ve played, this had the worst ending, and I couldn’t care less what was to become of the characters or the world around them. What’s worse is that they had a staff of writers working four years on this story, and if this is the best they could come up with, they should not be working in the creative industry. I wrote a book in one year and I can say without any ego that there’s more depth in it than Final Fantasy XIII. Yes, it’s a different medium, but that was my first attempt, whereas these people have been doing this for years and get paid for it.

The gameplay

By far, the most important factor and unfortunately, a huge let down. Gone are the scrawling landscapes of past FF games, gone are the dozens of mini-games that you can whittle away time with and earn rewards at the same time, gone is the malleable character development, gone are the wonderfully varied towns and gone are the plentiful weapons and armour. Overall; gone, is everything that made Final Fantasy a great series to begin with.

In the game your battles are a predictable series of actions, as arbitrary as the buttons you have to press in a rhythm game like Guitar Hero. The Paradigm system relegates your party members to one specific function; you can vary these classes to create the right combination for the right time, but a lot of the battles can be won in a simple ‘rinse and repeat’ formula. You get presented with some more interesting scenarios later in the game, but compared to how the game used to allow you to hone your characters as you see fit, it feels more like a fighting game where you’ll never develop beyond your pre-determined skill set.

Even if you do want to ‘personalize’ the battle in some way, it’s not the best option; the creators felt it best to sacrifice control in place of style. Even though you can dictate the actions of the party through the Paradigm system, the only way you can feasibly keep up with the pace of the battle is by using the ‘Auto-Battle’ function, which picks the best course of action for your party member, and it’s not always the best choice. You have to rely on this system if you want to survive; if they toned down the pace of battle even a little bit, you could’ve withstood the action whilst plotting the course of battle, but with all that flair comes sacrifice, and in this case it was ‘choice’.

One of my biggest peeves with the game is its structure; whilst the majority of the game follows a linear course, and it holds your hand through what has to be the longest ever video game tutorial (over 30 hours, which could’ve easily been compressed into two or three hours), when it comes to the point you’re allowed some form of free rein it has so many curveballs. When you’re released control of your party and allowed to explored the world of Gran Pulse, a land littered with numerous monsters and tasks, even if you’ve developed your characters to the furthest point possible (oh yes, your development is capped at certain points, so even if you want to level grind you’re left waiting for the cap to be removed), you’ll find the vast majority of the creatures roaming the land can simply not be defeated, and there’s no indication that they may be too tough for you.

It’s disheartening to lose so much when you’ve gotten so far, and makes you feel like you might have done something wrong along the way. In games like Shadow of the Colossus where all the odds seem stacked against you, you know there’s a way you can get around this and triumph adversity; that’s what makes a great challenge. Encountering a foe that you simply cannot defeat no matter how strong you are is just a kick to the balls. Not only that, but you get these undefeatable enemies peppered throughout the main course of the game; but why even put these there when the levels have been capped? It’s bad design, and even after buying the strategy guide I thought there may be a way to defeat them, but no, all I got was ‘You may want to avoid this enemy, because you won’t be able to defeat him yet’. What a load of crap.

Gran Pulse; the first chance you get to explore the world around you... but everything there can kill you.

I could honestly go on, at this point I’m already at nearly 2,000 words and I’m sure I could write 4,000 more about how inept this game is, but what I have to say is this; Square Enix, you have broken my heart, and turned a brilliant franchise into an underwhelming and stereotypical JRPG, and in my opinion it serves as a prime example of the ailing Japanese gaming industry. It’s a game that had to dumb itself down so it became accessible to the uninitiated, and for a culture so intent on offering fan-service, it offers little to none, and that fan-service was something that made the series so great to begin with. Final Fantasy XIII has sold millions, and regardless of whether it was going to be bad or good, it was going to succeed, because fanboys like me love the series. I feel that instead, Square Enix grew paranoid along the way that it would fail, and that to succeed it needed to be accepted by the masses, so everything that made the experience of a great Final Fantasy game like the character experimentation, and exploration and the mini-games had to go, but that’s what made Final Fantasy great.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Final Fantasy XIII’s a bad game, but after years of playing the series and experiencing several incarnations which all have that same feel and charm but at the same time are so different to each other, I expected more. Maybe I’m to blame though; maybe my expectations were just far too high. I can admit I’ll probably never feel that same affinity with a Final Fantasy game that I had in those long but wonderful six weeks I spent bed-ridden, alone with Final Fantasy VII, but I have evolved as a gamer, as has the industry, and Square Enix have done the series and its fans a huge disservice with Final Fantasy XIII. I know I’ll be back for more when the next singleplayer Final Fantasy is released (XIV will be an MMORPG), and I hope for their own good, Square Enix will have listened to their fans, because I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed this time, and if other Final Fantasy fans don’t want to be ‘once bitten, twice a shy’ I hope they won’t stand for this too.

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BioWare are by far one of my favourite developers of the past decade; their track record of great RPGs is untarnished, and I can’t help but feel excited whenever I hear they’re releasing a new IP or a sequel. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect 1 & 2, Neverwinter Nights; all gold. Whilst I tend to appreciate the more sci-fi offerings from them, I tend to shy away a little more when they venture into the realm of fantasy, such as with Neverwinter Nights and the more recent Dragon Age Origins; this is simply because the genre has never appealed to me as a whole, whether it’s in literature or film, but since it’s BioWare, I cast doubt aside and took the plunge, and they did not disappoint.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, Dragon Age: Origins was released all the way back in November 2009, when Barack Obama was still president of the United States, the Twilight series was catching the attention of millions of teenage girls interested in destructive relationships, and global warming threatened to destroy the world. Of course now, Wesley Snipes is president, the cast and creators of Twilight were destroyed in the great sensible people uprising in January ’10, and global warming turned out to be an ill-timed April fool’s joke by Al Gore. Dragon Age: Origins followed the last two Grey Wardens in the land of Ferelden, an order dedicated to the eradication of the imaginitively named Darkspawn, led by the Archdemon; a colossal dragon creature brought to life with the soul of an old god.

Now first let me say, I loved Dragon Age: Origins, the story and characters were both incredibly well crafted, and the world they inhabited was lovingly crafted with a rich heritage behind it. Combat and character development was very well-balanced and fun, it looked fantastic and the score was suitably epic. Every member of your party had a great personality and interacted wonderfully with one another, and in time you grew an affinity with them. The game lasted me a good 90-hours, and in that time I managed to do nearly everything, and when I reached that all too familiar point in a BioWare game where I realise the end is nigh, I didn’t want it to end, but luckily there was so much unfinished I could delay the inevitable (and to me, that’s the sign of a great game).

On a side note; Velanna's a bitch.

Now before DLC was commonplace, developers released expansion packs to increase or revive a past title. Dragon Age has had three DLC quests since release (two of which were on the day of release, and one even gave you another party member, and that was the free one!), whilst these were great in their own right, they were ultimately incredibly short, lasting about an hour or so, and sometimes had some very underwhelming rewards (I’m looking at you, Return to Ostagar. King Maric’s blade sucked!), but Awakenings is an old-school expansion pack, in the truest sense of the word.

Awakenings takes place after the defeat of the Archdemon, and your character from the first game is now the commander of the Grey Wardens (or, you can start a new character who’s from Orlais, but your decisions from the Origins doesn’t translate into Awakenings). Commonly, after the defeat of an Archdemon, the Darkspawn retreat into hiding, usually for over a century, but Darkspawn attacks occur on villages, which brings the Wardens to question whether the threat has gone.

With Awakenings, your original cast of characters do not join you this time around (apart from Oghren, the loveable drunken warrior Dwarf). You come across four new characters, each with their own past and personalities (although it could be said Anders is basically the mage version of Alistair, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he was a great character). At first you feel a little postpartum being surrounded by the new characters, but once you get to know them, the old group are soon forgotten. The level cap in Awakenings has been risen from 25 to 35, and a huge amount of new abilities have been added, along with two new specializations for each class. These new options were very welcome, and well thought out. My first playthrough was as a Mage, and I found the new abilities to be very useful, especially when combined with my original specialization of Arcane Warrior (which is basically a mage who can hold a sword and wear armour), by the time I reached the final boss, it felt like my party was unstoppable, and with BioWare’s level based challenge curve, it made combat very fun and varied.

Of course, being an expansion, the graphics remain the same as Origins, which were great to begin with. The environments share the same textures and colour palettes as Origins too, but are nicely varied; the City of Amarantine is reminiscent of Denerim in the first game, and the Blackmarsh has a nice creepy, supernatural feel to it. You do run into some old enemies, of course the Darkspawn still remain, but you encounter some more vicious variations, including an Armored Ogre, which honestly nearly made me crap my pants, remembering my first encounter with an ogre in Origins.

This isn't an enemy really, it's what a static shock from a shopping cart looks like when seen through a microscope.

The story as expected expands upon the tale from Origins, making the land of Ferelden a more colourful and interesting place. It gives you the feeling that you’re actually ‘revisiting’ the game since you already have knowledge of the history of the land. The expansion lasted me a good 25 hours, which if you think about it, for an expansion that’s impressive; most full retail games don’t even last that long, and if you’ve read my previous features, you’ll know I like a good lengthy game.

The expansion isn’t perfect though. As I said, there’s very little new in terms of presentation, like in two of the areas you visit in side quests, they’re marked as different areas, but they’re the exact same map, which to me seems just lazy. There are a couple of issues with sound, like mis-loading voice tracks, and some skipping in the music, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but when you’re pulled into this whole world where atmosphere is so important, it can somewhat detract from the experience. Also, there are a couple of broken quests, which for a completist like me really irked me, and a couple of other bugs (which I won’t say, as they’re plot related and I don’t want to spoil it).

Overall though, it’s great to see BioWare so dedicated to the Dragon Age franchise. It was my favourite game of last year, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store next. It’s also really cool to see a classic expansion pack being released, as opposed to heaps of hour-long DLC packages, which don’t really contribute to the story. BioWare are really dedicated to their gamers, and Awakenings is a great example of their continuing efforts.

Rating: 85/100

Review: Heavy Rain (PS3)

As video games have matured, our attention spans have unfortunately shortened; it’s no secret that most people crave the instant gratification of a first person shooter over an RPG, and with games becoming fully fuelled by gameplay, an asset can sometimes go amiss which is found in almost all modern games; story. This often leads to the story becoming either very diluted, convoluted, or just recycled from past iterations, but with a new coating of paint.

When Heavy Rain was announced by Quantic Dream (who previously made Fahrenheit or as some know it, Indigo Prophecy), they said it was a game where you would be immersed in the role of the protagonists, and every action you take can affect the lives of those around you. You will perform anything from arbitrary tasks like brushing your teeth, to exhilarating hand to hand fights where one false move could cost you dearly.

Heavy Rain is indeed ALL story, and that is not a bad thing. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m also a lover of the cinema, and firmly believe that one day video games will be respected as a medium as much as cinema or literature, and at times I thought maybe Heavy Rain was one of these few baby steps towards that day, but it could also be taking steps back as some could say it’s trying to imitate a more successful medium. Eitherway, I feel Heavy Rain was made for someone like me.

Heavy Rain revolves around the lives of four people, and how their lives are affected by a serial killer known as the Origami Killer. These include Ethan Mars, a man left emotionally damaged after the loss of his son, Madison Paige, a photo-journalist looking into the investigation, Norman Jayden, a FBI agent called in by the local police and haunted by his drug addiction, and Scott Shelby, a retired policeman turned private investigator who’s looking into the case to sate his own interest.

This WILL happen to you if you wear a Zebra print jacket.

Now because Heavy Rain is so focussed on story, and that story happens to be a mystery, I have to try to avoid any spoilers, which is harder than it seems; as I said, the game is technically the story, so I’m limited to the elements I can discuss.

You go through the game swapping between the roles of these characters, each scene puts you in a different scenario and that scenario may affect how the next one is played. The control of the game is heavily lead through a series of quick time events and button prompts; this was a daring move on Quantic Dreams’ behalf, as many gamers have voiced their dislike toward this method of play, saying it detaches from the experience, and that it seems like a cheap way to get players involved in cut scenes. This isn’t the case in Heavy Rain, in games like God Of War for example, when you’re presented a scenario that requires button prompts, more often than not if you fail you can repeat the procedure until you get it right; with Heavy Rain, ignorance can be punishing to your character, and there are instances in the game where your character can die, and once they do they’re gone, they no longer exist within that world, and the story acknowledges this.

The QTE approach may not have been the best choice for Heavy Rain, given its unpopularity, and I for one am not a huge fan of it either, but it is well implemented; prompts are very clear even in the most frenzied of scenarios, and despite the limitations of the SixAxis controller, you do get a good interpretation of the actions taking place on-screen via the controller (it’s also nice to see the motion controls well implemented for once). There are situations in the game which can leave your heart racing at the thought of impending doom, and the actions available put you in the mindset of your character, and you can’t help but feel a sense of elation knowing you’ve survived. To me, this was one of Heavy Rain’s greatest successes; it’s that empathy that you rarely feel with a game character, and to have that in both their actions and emotions is something to behold.

So where does Heavy Rain go wrong? Well here’s the problem; Heavy Rain is much like a relationship that ended unexpectedly, at first you’re viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses, only noticing tiny imperfections, but when it’s over you’re suddenly able to see the bigger picture, and those imperfections become flaws; flaws which can allay the postpartum effect.

Firstly, the voice acting. Whilst it’s not all bad, there are times when it is god-awful; some instances made me laugh out loud at the hammy delivery of the actors. I got a little confused here though, and asked myself “why are some of these voices so bad?”. Common sense would say that if you want to make a story-driven game where dialogue is an absolute necessity, why would you skimp on voice talent? Even watching the behind the scenes videos and footage of the actual actors auditioning made me cringe a little, especially Leon Ockden as Norman Jayden.

Even more confusing was why they chose to cast all British actors for the lead roles. A Brit pulling off an American accent can be a hard task, and is rarely done well without some form of coaching beforehand, but it seems with these most of them were told they were playing as an American just before they entered the recording booth; so why not just hire Americans? It’s also clear with many characters that English is not their native tongue and this sticks out like a sore thumb, and whilst they could’ve explained this with some back story (like how the character Lauren could be half French/Canadian or something).

Heavy Rain can be very emotional at times.

In all honesty, the plot and calibre of acting could be ripped directly from a low-budget, late night movie. I know it sounds harsh, but story-wise, there honestly isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done before. One personal problem I have with the story of Heavy Rain, is something that I can’t really discuss in-depth, without offering spoilers; and that problem is plot-holes. Heavy Rain is littered with them, three of which are huge, and whilst this isn’t something that spoils the game, it’s something I noticed, and looking around online, I found others did too. May be I’m being a little too sensitive on this, and some of the greatest stories ever told have some plot holes; but recently I just finished writing my first book, and throughout the entire time I was writing it there was one thing that irked me more than spelling, grammar or anything else, and that was plot-holes, simply because I thought it would harm my reputation as a story-teller; but with Heavy Rain, since you have all that time for exploration and explanation and the convenience of time that movies don’t always have, couldn’t they have been covered up?

So, an uninspired story, sub-par voice acting, and more holes in the plot than the victim of a firing squad. Despite all this, I loved Heavy Rain. Why? Because it’s one of the very few games that managed to immerse me into the story. The first time I played it I honestly couldn’t turn it off, I wanted to see where things were going, and what would happen to my characters. I wanted to get out of the game as much as I could, by putting as much as myself into it. I felt my actions truly did have consequence. I wanted Ethan to find his son, Madison to keep her pride, Norman to get clean, and Scott to put his years of skills to the test. Making a player empathize with one character in a game is a tremendous accomplishment, but four is truly a miracle. Even the most hardened of gamers will enjoy Heavy Rain, if not only for its unique approach to playing a game, but for making an overused narrative feel engrossing for once in their life.

The difference between Heavy Rain and the aforementioned crappy late-night, low-budget movie is simple; you’re taking part in Heavy Rain, and that makes a world of difference.

Rating: 90/100