Archive for April, 2008

Ôkami – “Pretty as a picture, and flat as one…”

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Traditional Japanese art has always been in love with its country’s magnificent landscapes. The word “zen” usually comes into mind when staring at such moving depictions of nature. A sense of deep, yet thoughtless contemplation eventually takes you over as you gaze the grandiosity of its imagery. The minimalistic detail, the lack of color and the vast depth of field (in absolute contrast with the absence of perspective) give the paintings a notion of stillness that is unique to their art. Yet, their contemplative nature doesn’t make them dull or inexpressive; quite on the contrary, it allows the viewer’s eye to fully explore the emerging contrasts of these depictions. Soothing as it may seem at first, Japanese art is also violent, cacophonic and cruel, though, like many aspects of its society, such violence remains hidden from the untrained eye.

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As a fan of Japanese art in general, I was eager to see how much of it would be present in “Ôkami”; I felt, from watching the never ending screenshots and conceptual art, that for the first time, classical themes of Japanese culture were going to be explored in a videogame. Not that the colorful, hip, excessive j-pop (or j-poop, whatever you prefer) modern game aesthetic doesn’t have its place, it does, but I never thought of it as the right way of translating Japan’s feudal History and cultural roots, at least, not in the same way as Hokusai’s paintings, Kurosawa’s movies or Ryuichi Sakamoto’s compositions. Not that these are the purest of Japanese artists (they certainly aren’t), but they managed to build bridges that us westerns could cross so to better comprehend their society; they defined our notion of what Japan “is”. In videogames, these attempts have been feeble, at best, with the only works that I would consider to be to true to Japanese aesthetic being Ueda’s masterpieces: “Ico” and “Shadow of Colossus”. Because, whether you like it or not, there are many Japanese games corrupted with western notions of dimensionality, space, color and narrative, along with the boring sense of aesthetic realism that haunts nearly all American videogames. Just look at “Onimusha”, “Resident Evil”, “Metal Gear” (and so many other popular series) and ask yourself what part of Japan “exists” inside these games. And the ones that do elude these notions tend only to look upon “Animes’” and “Mangas’” clichés to depict Japan. And so, I rested my hopes on “Ôkami”, a game that, in my mind, was bent on overthrowing such crude notions of Japan to the backseat of videogames.

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“Ôkami” presents itself as an attempt at bringing popular Japanese folklore, legends and myths into the form of a classical fantasy story. As a player, you take on the role of Ammaterasu, a Sun Goddess reincarnated in the body of a wolf that after 100 years of slumber, lives once again to free Japan of an evil demon named Orochi. Free like only a wolf can be, I started my journey through Nippon, gently running through its fields and meadows, gazing at the blossomed cherry trees, the sparkly, blue lakes and the white covered mountains. I was in love with the pictorial aspect of “Ôkami’s” Nippon, where it seems as if an artists’ brush is painting the scenery as you run along through his canvas. It’s an imaginary Japan, one that undoubtedly inhabits in its people’s minds and dreams. The sense of style feels true to its nature, lush colors filling up the screen, helped by the impressionist technique of “cel-shading”, allowed beautiful and perfect depictions of traditional Japanese architecture and landscapes. Yet, a closer look at the its visual aspects also dims their shining light: everything just seems a tad too “colorful” for an oriental aesthetic (that upholds the use of contrast and mainly primary colors) and characters’ designs and animations end up being too silly to engage true feudal Japan’s ambiance. The sad thing is, looking at Keigo Kimura and Shinsyu Narita’s conceptual art (that once in a while appears in story-driven sequences), that the tone was spot-on in the first place, with their art truly referencing the “motifs” of traditional Japanese Art. In comparison, the final product is just too sugary coated and flashy; probably so, in order to sell the game to a wider gaming audience. It’s ironic that “Ôkami” failed to connect with that same audience, and that the ones who revere it are the ones who weren’t benefitted by that poor design choice. Still, minor flaws considered, it comes out as one of the best artistic designs in modern videogames.

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And then… the story started, and all the beauty fell into a deep pit of pop culture stupidity. It all starts with a silly bouncing sprite named Issun, a wandering artist that seeks knowledge in the ways of Ammaterasu’s “Celestial Brush Techniques”. He’s the comic-relief character of the game and Ammy’s companion throughout his long journey, a buddy like the ones in all road-movies. But… he’s stupid. Really stupid. I mean… really, really stupid. Not funny, just… plain stupid. The minute he appears in the game, he starts blabbering about the breasts of a fairy where he was hiding, a sexist joke often repeated throughout the course of the entire game, with an annoying sound effect posing as his voice (just imagine a ten year old with a screechy voice imitating Japanese, and then, repeat that awful sound through hours and hours, and you can start imagining the agony of it all). From there on out, “Ôkami” loses its heart, with its story becoming less and less engrossing and eventually slowing into a halt. The much awaited, self-proclaimed folkloric “myhos” that was used to create the story, turns out to be nothing more than a bunch of fairy-tales told in a childish tone, designed to capture the “imagination” of anime-following teenagers and wee-little ones with short attention spans, by using crude jokes and worn-out cinematic references (like bullet-time action sequences featuring Ammaterasu and other Ancient Gods: what the hell does “The Matrix” have to do with Japanese religion???). The religious undertone of the story, its cultural roots and its patriotic messages are only addressed in the final stages of the game, and even then, are mostly overlooked in favor of j-pop cheesiness; just like watching a bad Disney movie that went straight to DVD. It feels awkward, out of place and downright wrong to use such references in this context; it’s not like this is “Devil May Cry” or “Viewtiful Joe”: this is a game that deals with a country’s values and History… and then just makes fun of it all, just to keep the audience “entertained”.

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And though the background of the game is lacking, considering its ambitions, the gameplay could’ve saved the day, by providing an engrossing exploration of this modern view of Japan. But it doesn’t. Exploring Nippon with “Zelda’s” free-roaming notions, allows you to contemplate the game’s backgrounds and artistic endeavors, sinking in the scenery and appreciating the trip. The action, following “Devil May Cry” principles with some platforming involved (no doubt, influence of the director, Hideki Kamyia, of “Devil May Cry” fame) is well executed, even if it doesn’t go very well with the theme at hand. The addition of a new gameplay mechanic, the brush techniques, which allow the player to draw objects in-screen, to solve puzzles and aid combat, is perfectly fitted in the game, adding a sense of uniqueness to gameplay mechanics that borrow so much from others. However, all of these good efforts are put to waste by an ill-conceived level design that does nothing to focus the player’s experience: scenarios are usually too big, requiring too much running about to carry out simple tasks, and levels feature numerous side-quests, items, and mini-games, but none of them really add to the experience, becoming mere bait for completionists with too much time on their hands. All this becomes duller, because the game engulfs nearly 40 hours of gameplay that could’ve easily been squeezed into 10-15 hours of juicy action and plot. Most of the action is just boring and repetitive, with the plot doing little to lead you on, to the point of making you want to leave the game unfinished. Once again, the preconception that larger games are better seems to have interfered with good design choices, where less is usually more. Remember, it’s not how long it takes; it’s how long you’ll remember it that counts. Something movies and music have discovered a long time ago.

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If you’re still reading this, you’ll probably dismiss this huge text as rambling and rant, but this is my honest opinion of “Ôkami”: take it, leave it or bash it, it’s your choice. In my opinion, games should be judged by their ambitions and goals, and “Ôkami” fails miserably in attaining them, neither managing to be a particularly entertaining game (it lacks momentum and consistency), or to be a true work of art (lacking courage and affirmation for what it tries to accomplish). It’s shallow, uninspired, its beauty is skin-deep, and it says nothing about traditional Japanese culture, which seems to have been its main “motif” before it was “lightened” for younger gamer audiences. It is common place to say that younger audiences connect with greater ease to more mature themes than the opposite; that is why the latter “Star Wars” trilogy failed, and why “Lord of The Rings” didn’t (see how much Peter Jackson compromised his vision to achieve success in younger demographics). Had “Ôkami” stayed true to its vision, and it would probably have been a success, otherwise, it just ends up being another videogame with bold ambitions, and little content to back it up. Face it, there’s as much Japanese culture here as in any run-of-the-mill j-pop boyz band. Even Takeshi Kitano’s films or Mamoru Oshii’s animes, that portray modern-age Japan, feature more recognizable classical Japanese artistic codes than “Ôkami” does, and it’s set in pre-Edo period, when those trends originated. As much as I would’ve loved to applaud “Ôkami”, I cannot, for it mistakes flash with substance, color with aesthethic, story with message, and art with entertainment.

Overall: 3/5

Lost Odyssey – “The (Real) Final Fantasy”

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Few “Final Fantasy” fans like the new course of the series, with Yasumi Matsuno’s different approach in “FFXII” and the growing number of uninspired series’ spin offs. Let’s face it, after Square and Enix merged, Square’s brands have been milked far beyond comprehension: in between remakes, spin-offs, special editions and sequels, SquareEnix has released several dozens of games in the past years. And though that has netted a steady flow of cash into the company, it has sprouted a wave of disbelief in the company’s standards by long-time fans. For all of the motives above, it is fair to say that FFXIII is the least expected episode in the series in many years. So, when word got out that after leaving Square, Hironobu Sakaguchi formed a new company named Mistwalker, expectations reached an all time high for the “Final Fantasy” hardcore fans. “Blue Dragon” came out, and those expectations faded: it featured an archaic battle system and a horribly childish script. So, “Lost Odyssey” was released with little fanfare: reviewers everywhere dismissed the game as mild effort to repeat the “Final Fantasy” formula once more, and the hardcore fan-base of the 360 wasn’t mildly interested in a classical JRPG. So, the question that needs answering is: how does “Lost Odyssey” stack up when compared with the “Final fantasy” legacy?

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“Lost Odyssey” is the tale of Kaim Argonar, an immortal man that has lived for over a thousand years. It is set in a high fantasy scenario with sci-fi elements, in everything similar to that of “FFVIII”, where a number of political conflicts have engaged the world’s countries in a series of wars. Of course, the reason why the world is at war is rather simple: there is a powerful and somewhat mad wizard that wants to take over the world with his magic, and uses these conflicts to gain power; alas, nothing new on this front. Sakaguchi’s scenario is really poor, so much that it pains me to write so. The plot is so obvious and dull it hurts: in the first few hours it will be plainly obvious who the bad guys are and what they’re plotting, and what the good guys’ purpose is. No plot twists, no grand finale, no hidden meanings, no nothing. Yet, the old Sakaguchi charm still manages to creep up, with a cast of touching and funny characters giving the story a much needed interest. Jansen, a womanizer with the appetite for booze and prostitutes is delightfully funny; Seth, a cynical pirate that is Jansen’s complete opposite, picks on him throughout the game making them a great duo for any comedic act; and then there’s Sed, Seth’s son, an elderly pirate that still calls his mother “Momma”. The rest of the cast isn’t as interesting, and can seem mostly underdeveloped, especially, the main character Kaim, who is so “emo” it becomes annoying: all his dialogues can be resumed to a series of careless, dry, uninteresting one-liners. But that is where things get interesting…

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As you might already know, “Lost Odyssey” features collaboration from (supposedly) famous Japanese writer Kiyoshi Shigematsu with the name of “A 1000 years of dreams”, a collection of memories belonging to Kaim’s one thousand years of living. These memories were translated to screen only using text, a few abstract images and sound, and of course, Uematsu’s riveting soundtrack. The result is, by far, the best narratives “Lost Odyssey” has to offer. Here, Kaim is portrayed as a real, multifaceted character, with proper feelings and personality, and his life-episodes are much more deep and emotionally provocative than anything Sakaguchi can come up with. They can be described as somewhat philosophical tales about war and peace, love and hate, life and death, but nothing I could ever write could transmit how powerful and well written they really are. After the first one, I was literally hooked to these pieces of literary magic, that managed to make me weep (yes, weep) every single time, due to the intensity of those vivid dramatic moments, made all the more touching thanks to Uematsu’s music. It’s so damn good, that if “Lost Odyssey” focused on these “1000 Years of Memories” instead of the silly “Madman wants to take over the world” plot, it would probably have the best JRPG story ever. It’s not that Sakaguchi’s plot doesn’t have its share of powerful emotional moments, it does, it’s just that there are a lot of silly clichéd subplots in between each one, and they lack the depth present in Shigematsu’s tales.

The gameplay, as would be expected from Sakaguchi, is the standard in classical turn-based RPG’s, i.e. nothing new here as well. And if it does feel dated and overused, one must admit that at least it’s well executed. Some things have been improved: the player is fairly rewarded for exploring the world; grinding is not an issue, thanks to the use of an experience system that grants levels with great speed; and very importantly, the tradition of obscure side-quests is gone, with most of the hidden secrets in the game only requiring a healthy amount of exploration and reasoning to find. So if you like to reminisce about classical “Final fantasies”, then the gameplay will surely make you happy with nostalgia. Nobuo Uematsu’s fully orchestrated score will also make you very happy, as it follows the spirit of the series, meaning its one hell of a soundtrack. And it’s completely original, which allowed Uematsu to go to new, unvisited places, instead of having to rearrange time and time again the same melodies. The result does bear some nostalgia, but also manages to go forward in creating new sounds and styles: expect everything from metal to erudite music to be present.

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On the technical side, the game has its share of ups and downs. The art-direction is very good and translates well into the extremely detailed Unreal Engine, producing beautiful sets and characters. It isn’t, by any means, nothing that hasn’t been done before: most of the aesthetic is reminiscent of past “Final Fantasy” games, and the usual Japanese quirky silliness (like dresses that lack fabric in bosom and rear) is all too present to make the world’s environment feel believable. The fact that the game doesn’t run all that well, doesn’t help: there are many loading-screens and stuttering-cutscenes waiting players who want to get through to the end of the game. At least, the cutscenes and FMV are the best I’ve ever seen, with fast cut editing, dynamic directing (finally a game that masters the use of low and high-angle shots) and use of simultaneous multiple POVs (giving a comic-book feel similar to that of Ang Lee’s underappreciated “Hulk”). Apart from the simplistic lighting, the marvelous visual direction by Roy Sato (animator of “The Flight of the Osiris” from the “Animatrix” short stories) is highly commendable.

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So, is “Lost Odyssey” a worthy successor of the “Final Fantasy” legacy? The answer is… yes. Though “Lost Odyssey” has many flaws, it fares remarkably well in upholding the series’ concepts and production values. Everything one would expect from a “Final Fantasy” is present. Yet, “Final Fantasy” has always been a series that, in each episode, went further in the genre and “Lost Odyssey” feels exactly the opposite: it tries to go back to the roots of the genre. At first, that might be a letdown, but after crying endless times from reading every “1000 Years of Memories” and watching the gorgeous cutscenes, you’ll understand what Sakaguchi is trying to say with his game: why go forward, when the dramatic potential of the genre is still underachieved? “Lost Odyssey” is Sakaguchi’s greatest masterpiece, a game so heartbreaking, profound and beautiful that it fully deserves the title of “The (real) Final Fantasy”.

Overall: 5/5

Number 2 – Yasumi Matsuno

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“Final Fantasies” have always been tales about love, friendship, family, protecting the world and the conquering of evil… until Yasumi Matsuno took over FFXII and changed the series upside down, that is. Final Fantasies’ mass audience probably didn’t know (or comprehend) Matsuno-san, and so the change of style from FFX to XII (XI is a side note) was probably a shock to many people; to most I’d go as far to say it was downright heresy. Yet, his long career of successes made him, from a commercial point of view, a natural successor to Kitase and Sakaguchi in Square’s long winding series.

He started his career in the Atlus’ “Ogre Battle” series, by directing “March of the Black Queen” and the most notable of all “Ogre Battles”, “Let Us Cling Together”. These strategic RPG’s were quite important in the means, establishing most of the rules the genre still uses today, like dark, political intrigue stories and turn based battles in gridded isometric landscapes. His big chance was when he was chosen to direct “Final Fantasy Tactics”, a series spin-off that was essentially, Square’s response to… the “Tactics Ogre” series; and what better way for Square to beat their competition than buying it out? And though “Final Fantasy Tactics” tried to capitalize on the series’ brand name, at its core, was a spiritual sequel to “Let Us Cling Together”, even if it had a streamlined approach to a difficult and challenging genre. It also featured appealing, stylized and more colorful graphics than previous games, which helped sell the game to the less-hardcore audience established by FFVII. A few years after, “Vagrant Story” arrived, a game that took place in the same universe as “Tactics”, but opted for a more cinematic language, which ended up granting the game with the nickname “Metal Gear Fantasy” from reviewers. Despite its difficulty and somewhat cumbersome interface (no doubt a legacy from his strategy-RPG background), the game was widely acclaimed, and even managed to receive a perfect score from Famitsu. So, when he was chosen to write and direct FFXII, it seemed a natural choice, even if from an artistic point of view, he clearly had divergences in approach with the classical standards of the series. Unfortunately, Matsuno-san got sick before he could finish the game, being replaced by Hiroyuki Itô (co-director of FFVI and director of FFIX) and Hiroshi Minagawa (Matsuno’s games’ Art Director), thus, some of his influence was diminished in the final product. Yet, that didn’t stop from making the game a true sequel to “Vagrant Story”, even if with some shortcomings.

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But what really defines Matsuno as a game-artist? In a sense, Yasumi Matsuno is the “anti-Sakaguchi”: his tales are always very cold and cynical, his gameplay mechanics are very complex and most often than not, original and groundbreaking, and the art design in his games is far less joyous than the classic “Final Fantasy” trademark.

Matsuno’s narratives deal primarily with social, political and religious themes, and are often very rational and analytical, completely in opposition to the lyrical nature of Sakaguchi and Kitase’s works. The emotional aspects of his characters are always secondary to the unfolding of the story, having a much more functional aspect than in classic dramatic narratives: they merely help advance the plot. That is probably why many people disliked FFXII: it lacked emotional depth and impact; there was no love interest, no epic story of friendship, no weeping for the death of fallen loved ones, no environmentalist tale about saving the world, and apart the traditional royal family intrigue, even the bounds of family were somewhat absent. But that is exactly what I love about Matsuno: he doesn’t deal with a naive world, where love and happiness always triumph over evil; Matsuno’s worlds are cruel, twisted places where good and evil are hard to distinguish and where anyone, even your loved ones, can stab you in the back. It’s a cruel and harsh reality, but a much more realistic one, nonetheless. It becomes all the more powerful because of the Shakespearean tone of his stories that adds a welcome sense of tragedy, hopelessness and irony to the plot. Unfortunately, that might have gone unnoticed in “Tactics Ogre” and in the first release of “FF Tactics”, because of the atrocious translations. Gladly, from “Vagrant Story” on, Square’s translators understood that the right way to localize his tales was to use 16th century Shakespearean British; the result is marvelous: Shakespearean tragedies set in modern high-fantasy Universes.

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The art design, leaded by Akihiko Yoshida, also translated Matsuno’s cynical view of life, by using a palette of mostly drab colors that went to the point of an all-out baroque aesthetic for “Vagrant Story”. In other aspects, like character design, Yoshida’s style wasn’t that far off from the already canonical anime aspect of the series, with the expected large blue-eyed hero with spiky hair, and a funny mix of j-pop clothes with historically influenced wardrobe (no doubt a dream for any “cosplay” fanatic). Still, it was definitely more bold and stylized than Nomura’s by-the-numbers act, with hand drawn graphic-effects and a more mature tone giving it a certain edge. Also, Ivalice, the world/kingdom where Matsuno’s games are located, is filled with desert, sand and a lot of middle-eastern inspired architecture, which also contrasts with the blend of oriental and sci-fi architecture design of RPG’s in general. The soundtracks of his games are also slightly different from the FF series, with scores from Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata which, besides being more epic and opulent, also feel more ascetic than Uematsu’s scores, mostly lacking ballads and more intimate songs to balance the epic compositions.

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Matsuno is a progressist: he moved the genre forward when he appeared, and continued to explore its potential with every single game. Like Kitase and Sakaguchi before him, he broke many of the previously established conventions, managing to create a singular style that is clearly identifiable in all of his games. He is acclaimed by critics as one of the genre’s best creators, and in my opinion, with great merit. And even if today he’s misunderstood by the majority of the RPG fan base, I think that someday people will understand the critics better, and comprehend what makes Yasumi Matsuno’s games absolutely amazing.

Number 3: Yoshinori Kitase

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Of all the developers in this list, Kitase should’ve been the one with the most notorious name, but sadly, he got completely overshadowed by his mentor: Hironobu Sakaguchi. Kitase, as a writer and director, is behind the 4 more influential and well regarded RPGs in gaming history: “Chrono Trigger”, “Final Fantasy VI”, “VII” and “VIII”. So you see why he should be better known to the grand audience: just as Sakaguchi had been the father of the classic RPG genre, Kitase became the father of its modern current. And though his style feels like an evolution of Sakaguchi’s, he improved on many aspects of the formula and added a few twists of his own.

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The first thing that pops up when you look at Kitase’s RPG’s, is the change of a predominantly high-fantasy scenario to a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. In earlier “Final Fantasies” technology existed, but magic clearly had a more important role in the development of the plot; with Kitase, technology and magic were seen side by side, as two faces of the same coin. Though this is probably a shallow change, since the allegoric meaning of magic or technology remained the same (a representation of Man’s power and thus, a danger to the planet and Humanity), the fact is that it ended up establishing an iconic, aesthetical and conceptual trademark that would later be replicated in nearly every other RPG.

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But what really made him a great developer, was the way he deepened the narrative aspects of the genre. Though he followed Sakaguchi’s approach, of focusing the narrative on emotional “motifs”, he also complicated the plot mechanisms used to move things along. When you look back, Sakaguchi’s stories were no more than simple bed-time fantasy stories, where an evil man wants to destroy the world, and a couple of specially gifted magic-users fight back. All you had to do, as a character, was to follow the trail of the big baddie, from point A to point B (repeated “ad infinitum”), until you could terminate the threat; along the way the big bad evil monsters would destroy villages and kill some of the good guys, but in the end, good would triumph over evil; all in all, it was a very simplistic, straightforward narrative (even if at the time, it was the best you could find in a console). Kitase’s narratives are much more complex and above all, are highly manipulative, in an “Hitchcockian” kind of way: they’re conceived so that the flow of information can be controlled, allowing the director to effectively influence the gamer into believing certain facts, while hiding important plot details for a grand, exciting twist afterwards. From the memorable destruction of the Earth in “FFVI”, to the multiple fates of “Chrono Trigger”, not forgetting Cloud and Sephiroth’s mysterious past, every Kitase story is filled with complex and interesting plot twists. These are, of course, essential in capitalizing the focus of the audience, which becomes all the more engrossed if the stories are twisted and unpredictable. Add to that the emotional side of Sakaguchi’s stories, and you can begin to understand why everyone who played his games, fondly remembers Cloud and Barrett’s environmentalist struggle to save the world or Squall’s undying love for Rinoa (in what is probably the only good love-story ever to grace a videogame).

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Story-telling also took a slight shift from Sakaguchi’s games; Kitase opted for an epic and operatic overtone in his games, in direct opposition to Sakaguchi’s more intimate and somewhat “fairy tale-ish” approach. This tone was largely imbued in the cutscenes that bolstered a cinematic flair into the game, turning it into a more dynamic and touching way of getting across to players. It is hard to forget such memorable moments as the openings or endings from his “Final Fantasies”, or the all too famous death of Aeris. Of course, without the technology he had at his disposition, it would be hard to convey what he did, but still, he potentiated the means at his disposal with a far greater success than anyone else. He also deviated the style of the art department from Sakaguchi’s lines, by using a more anime-like art design, in charge of Tetsuya Nomura, and a more epic and grandiose soundtrack by series’ veteran Nobuo Uematsu. The result blended perfectly with Kitase’s more cinematic and epic outlines, giving the franchise exactly what it needed: a slightly more mature aesthetic.

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In the end, whatever your view of Kitase is, you have to admit it: he is one of the genre’s most influential developers: he opened up the world to the genre, by giving it a more complex and mature narrative structure, a different aesthetic goal, and taking advantage of the CD-medium to create highly-stylized cinematic cutscenes. If you’re a fan of RPG’s, than you’re definitely in love with at least one of his games, but chances are that you’re in love with all of his games. Today, if you think about a JRPG, you don’t think about childish and endearing bedtime stories, you imagine epic, complex and touching narratives, just like the ones Yoshinori Kitase told… when everyone else was still dreaming about the idea.