Fire Emblem: Awakening Review: The Series Gains a Fan
It was at the Longfort—Chapter 3—that I lost Sully. I became overconfident and let her health slip too low, opening her up to a decisive blow from a Feroxi guard—despite her being paired up with another Shepherd from my group. “Huff, huff… Damn my eyes,” she whispered with her last breath beside her downed horse. “I was foolish… and careless…”
Outside of battle, Sully had recently been fending off Virion’s flirtatious advances, and I was hoping to see a relationship develop between them; but on that day, I held a moment of silence to mourn our lost comrade-in-arms and the relationship that would never be.
Such is the way of Classic Mode in Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS, which employs a permadeath system for your non-plot-related characters (plot-centric characters merely “retreat,” never to return to the battlefield). A casual mode is also available, which has your units revive after battle, but Classic Mode brings the danger of the battlefield to the palms of your hands, keeps true to the series’ difficulty for Fire Emblem veterans, and provides a challenge for experienced tactical RPG players.
The world of The Last Story is a place of magic, monsters, friendship and betrayal, and it unfortunately played out as derivative and full of clichés as that sounds.
The game revolves around a ragtag group of mercenaries with hearts of gold who aspire (under the leadership of play-it-cool Dagran) to be knights. But in typical JRPG fashion, you play as Zael: the unconfident sword-wielding type who has things to learn and room to grow and is never feigning his innocence.
The gist of the plot is that Zael and his mercenary comrades pass through some ruins and a legendary entity bestows upon Zael a powerful, oft sought-after magic. We see in a few cutscenes what it can do, but in battle it’s only moderately useful. The ability can be switched on to draw the attention of enemies while Zael’s party members do damage unhindered. And later on, he can use the ability to absorb some damage while defending, and then blast that stored up energy back at his foes. But that’s really it. Any other showing off of his powers happens outside of the player’s control. Enter “Lisa,” a runaway bride who too quickly falls for Zael, despite her upcoming arranged marriage to a right arse. She is quickly revealed to be Lady Calista of the noble Arganan bloodline, and is betrothed to the count’s son: an unbearable nobleman named Jirall. She must eventually return to the castle and appear by Jirall’s side for the sake of peace between nations. But, though she decides to suck it up for the greater good, she is soon kidnapped by Zangurak, the Gurak king who greatly resembles’s Gannondorf from The Legend of Zelda’s Wind Waker. He happens to be after this power, and Zael happens to stand in his way.
And The Last Story seems to borrow from a handful of works. There are several Final Fantasy-inspired subplots woven in, characters that, in the back of your head, will remind you of Square Enix characters, and some very interesting ideas that never quite reach greatness. There’s a sort of Final Fantasy VII-esque planet energy, for example. And at one point, Zael and his band of murderous do-gooders are thrown into a prison cell. During this section of the game my memory flashed back to the prison break portion of Final Fantasy VIII, which I’ve always fondly remembered as intriguing, challenging, and a great plot point. However, Zael & co.’s time in prison never reached even shades of that FFVIII scenario. They are thrown into a cell with an archaeologist who gets them access to an underground passage in hopes they can all escape. The passage is full of monsters, and Zael’s party fends them off—their weapons were never taken away from them. And after completing that part they end up back in the cell. The whole thing was just filler while your party is negotiated for off-screen. Even more frustrating: As Zael is led out of the cell and to the court to be tried, he passes a level of cells full of monsters. Instead of taking this opportunity to explore the origin of these monsters or any portion of their existence as both creatures and a core component of the game, or to find deeper moral ambiguity within the kingdom, you simply get a passing comment.
Battles are fun, at least—that is, until you stop learning new moves and each battle becomes similar to the last. Each fight is predetermined, as in there are no random encounters. However, after clearing certain areas a rune circle will appear where Zael can summon new monsters to fight for XP. It’s a cruel idea, summoning something just to end its life, but it does give the player a way to level up outside of the main story (though it’s usually not necessary to do so).
The player controls Zael in nearly all battles. He can indefinitely aggro the enemies and can use a tactics menu that lets him tell the other party members to use certain special moves. But throughout the game you will only have 2-4 special moves to choose from per player (they cannot be changed later on), and once you get your strategy down you will end up using the same tactics over and over again. Later on, some plot-based scenarios require you to control another party member, which tends to feel alien after controlling one character for most of the game, and does not give you much time to get used to controlling that character. Thankfully, these portions are brief.
I went into The Last Story expecting something similar to the well-written emotional journey of Lost Odyssey—also by Mistwalker Studios. But while The Last Story appeared to aspire to greatness, it falls short, never quite reaching the heights of a truly great RPG.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Part 2: A Nearly Proper Game, Ei’nt It?
Being an adult gamer with a job and a real life can drastically stretch out the time you take with one game. I began playing Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch over a month ago and ended my playthrough with approximately 55 hours, having played through the main quest and doing only a small chunk of side quests when convenient. I could have spent many more hours outside of the main quest.
In Part 1 I talked about what it was like to journey through the other world with Oliver—an ordinary boy-turned-wizard, and Drippy—Lord High Lord of the Fairies. But approximately eight hours into the game the dynamic changes, when a second controllable party member, Esther, joins the team. Esther’s specialty is taming familiars—cute-but-fierce creatures that inhabit the wild. Familiars are kind of like feral animals: they’ll attack you if you come too close, but impress them and they’ll get all lovey dovey, giving Esther the opportunity to tame them with a song from her magical harp.
Having more party members allows the player to switch between them on the fly and control other familiars—eventually three per character, one at a time. Unfortunately, the party AI in the game is not great. Whether controlling Oliver or Esther, the other will always try to use up all of their MP, exhaust their familiars’ endurance, heal too often or too little, and generally not fight wisely. Your AI-controlled characters are going to get knocked out often at first, and will continue to be knocked out often later, depending on whether you overlevel or just play the game straight through. This becomes problematic in new areas with higher-level creatures and in boss battles. There were quite a few bosses I had to defeat using only one character (of the three in my party) for a quarter or more of the fight. But at least your party members can’t use your items—they’d surely waste them. Of course, it means they can’t use Phoenix feathers to revive members, either, which could have been helpful at times. The difficulty of battles increases when your party first expands, and increases further when you gain your third character (about 17 hours in).
But the game’s charm cushions the often-frustrating battle system. The world is lush and detailed, the score feels ripped straight from an epic Disney film of yesteryear, and everything has life and personality. And the places, people, and creatures have names that will make you smile—from Ding Dong Dell to characters Kublai and Khan. If you’ve played Dragon Quest IX you may be familiar with Level-5’s penchant for name puns. And while I found them cheesy when I first played DQIX, I found them endearing and adorable in Ni no Kuni. Maybe it was because of my wife’s constant swooning over the creatures (the cat-thief-swordsman “purrloiner”, for example, or the “Sasquish”), but I hold fast to the idea that her reactions only enhanced it. You can certainly see Level-5 in the game, from the quirky creatures and characters’ personalities to the overall look, and their collaboration with Studio Ghibli truly brings the world to life. The world map is presented roughly to scale—mountains and cliffs are, well, mountainous compared to your party, and lands take a little time to traverse. A nice part of this presentation is that, on the world map (though not in cities or dungeons), the entire party appears on-screen, including any guests traveling with you.
The cities and towns, while gorgeous, are not as scaled. Yes, there is plenty of space to move and their sizes fit the pace of the game, but they more resemble very small cities than the sprawling metropolis they are often implied to be. This is further highlighted inside kings’ palaces—you usually enter into a large, spacious throne room that is nearly empty.
But I loved visiting the cities because each one captures a separate culture (complete with foreign travelers), customs, and the scenery truly feels pulled from an animated movie. I even find myself humming the city score when I’m not playing.
On top of it all, the story is well-crafted and the dialogues are great. There are moments that will make you giggle and moments that will make you sad—such is the power of good storytelling. Unfortunately, by the end of the game it becomes obvious that the White Witch was not present in the original DS version of the game and was added on just for the PS3 version, as the wrap-up of that plotline does not have as big a bang as it should have. The aftereffects of defeating Shadar could have been the true ending—and perhaps in the DS version it was—but you get literally under one minute of an ending after the White Witch business is resolved. It almost felt like a DLC story that the game would have been fine without.
But despite AI frustrations, grinding detours, and the abrupt ending, I enjoyed this JRPG more than many games I’ve played recently. It will make you smile, tear, and occasionally rage, and for the most part you’ll appreciate it doing those things to you. It’s a fairy tale built upon fairy tales, and it’s stronger for it. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a charming entry into the JRPG genre with a good balance of tradition and modernity, and a fully fleshed-out world.
New JRPG Exstetra Will Fuse with Japanese 3DS This Fall, Announces Unchained Blades Developer
Famitsu.com has revealed screenshots of Exstetra, a new JRPG for the Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita that takes on a style similar to that of the Tales games. It is being developed by FuRyu, who brought us the hardcore old school-inspired JRPG Unchained Blades also on the 3DS.
The game is set in a Tokyo that finds itself fusing with the world of Amasia. Protagonist Ryouma Narusawa journeys to save the world from destruction and to become the “Prisma” he is destined to become—the savior of the worlds. His task is far from simple: stop Tokyo and Amasia from fusing and save everyone from assimilating into nothingness. Of course, in typical JRPG fashion, he has amnesia, so there’s that hurdle to deal with as well. Ryouma has the ability to absorb a special energy from enemies (“Ex”) and to kiss that energy into the Knights of Prisma, which awakens them from disillusion.
Mixing 3D sprites with anime-style illustrations, Exstetra blends modern Tokyo style with fantasy elements. Character designer Tony Taka (the artist behind Sega’s Shining games) will team up with Star Ocean: The Last Hope’s artist Enami Katsumi. Yoko Shimomura of Kingdom Hearts and Radiant Historia is composing the score.
So far Exstetra has only been announced for Japan, to be released October 17, but if Xenoblade Chronicles and Bravely Default: Flying Fairy could receive western releases, Exstetra may have a shot as well.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: A Game That Will Rock Your Chocobo’s Socks
Though the era of Rock Band, Guitar Hero and the like may have petered out, Square Enix has not tired of milking the Final Fantasy franchise with spin-offs. Theatrythm Final Fantasy is a great, nostalgic addition to the hardcore Final Fantasy fan’s collection, and anyone familiar with games like Rhythm Fever and Elite Beat Agents will get the hang of the similarly-styled gameplay quickly.
On the surface, the game looks kiddie, but in an Edward Gorey way: The characters look like a coloring-book interpretation of Limbo’s characters, stripping them of all their original visual appeal and their individuality. This chibi (albeit creepy) graphics ensure that you are always aware this is a spin-off game. But there’s a simple brilliance to Theatrhythm. The player is given the opportunity to choose a party of four from the main characters of Final Fantasy I through XIII (including unlockable characters), and the party is taken through each game’s soundtrack. (Final Fantasy X-2, XIII-2, and XIV are not included in the game.)
Xenoblade Chronicles (Second Impressions)
At level 16, my characters were journeying through a giant field, slaying monsters and Mechon (members of a robotic enemy army) along the way, when I swerved just out of sight of a troll-like thing that was three or more times my level. Staring at the very red enemy info floating above its head (read = will murder your face), I ran in fear, murmuring “oh-no-oh-no-oh-no” until it was out of sight—only to collide with more Mechon, who called yet more Mechon to aid them. Soon, the three of us were fighting six, maybe seven at once (and only the main character’s sword—the Monado—can damage them unless he activates a special ability that allows regular weapons to do harm as well). My fear continued, as we three fought for our lives: I was forced to take the time to revive several characters (and at one point, they revived me), but we eventually won out. After resting, I decided to take a path over a grassy bridge so I could avoid more Mechon, but ended up walking just feet above a trio of level 72 lizard warrior things. Their information bubbles indicated that they’ll attack on sight and in groups, so I ran right back around, murmuring “ohhhhhh shiiii——” until I came upon a giant armadillo-looking thing. I thought I remembered needing to kill one more for a quest, so I attacked, and after a struggle, it knocked us all out.
What I’m Gaming: Guild Wars & Xenoblade Chronicles
So I’m about 9 hours into Guild Wars (PC) and 4 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii), and I’m seeing some similarities. Both games give you an expansive, explorable world: If you can see it, you can go to it. This is surprising in Xenoblade Chronicles because it’s a JRPG, not an MMO—the JRPG standard is to show a cohesive world but to block off some places with mountains or crates, etc. (I assume this is so there is less to program and the game can be released a little sooner with a little less testing). Look at expansive RPGs like Fallout 3/Fallout: Las Vegas or Skyrim: There are so many places to go and so many things you can do in those places that bug patches have to be constantly released—you simply can’t test EVERYTHING in a game that huge. Xenoblade Chronicles must have been a little easier since it’s working with a smaller set of variables. (In short: I’ve been able to go wherever I wanted (as long as higher level monsters don’t lurk there) and haven’t come across any bugs yet in either Guild Wars or Xenoblade Chronicles. This is a feat these days. Then again, the Wii does not allow for patches, so the game had to be right the first time around, and Guild Wars has been out and patched for several years.)