Archive for April, 2009

Final Fantasy XII – “Braving New Skies”

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When Hironobu Sakaguchi left Square, he left an authorial void for the “Final Fantasy” series. Though he had relinquished his place as director many years before, he had assured a coherent evolution of the work through his mentoring as Executive Producer. When he left, his vision was naturally discontinued. While some might see this departure as the dire end of the “Final Fantasy” brand, it was a necessary evil for the series to move on. In the nineties, the name “Final Fantasy” was a synonym for new audacious ventures and the enlightened exploration of the boundaries of both video-games in general and role-playing games in specific, but since then the series had become enthralled in its mentor’s vision. What was once a guiding beacon had become a blinding beam of light. Change was needed. Enters Yasumi Matsuno [which I’ve already discussed briefly in this article], author behind “Final Fantasy Tactics” and “Vagrant Story”. Charged with the directing of “Final Fantasy XII”, Matsuno seems to have wanted to impose his unique take on the genre; the change that would ensue from his ego’s imposition on the series cannon would lead to some dissent from the more fervorous fans. But change bares its prices, and one cannot explore new landscapes without leaving the common and familiar settings which we grew accustomed to.

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The game’s backdrop is Ivalice; at first glance it is not that much unlike the worlds from previous “Final Fantasies”: its blend of science-fiction and high fantasy is very similar to its predecessors and the aesthetic follows many traditional tropes for the series (moogles, chocobos, spunky haired heroes, flashy colors and wardrobe, etc). But when probed deeper, it reveals some staggering changes in tone. Visually, the influence from Hiroshi Minagawa’s (art director and co-director) style is prevalent, with his use of earthy tones and eastern motif’s dominating the landscape. All of the game’s art builds these cohesive images in your mind, from the Archade’s art-deco meets Babylon’s hanging gardens, to Dalmasca’s middle eastern vibe, with its crowded streets, bustling street markets and sprawling deserts. Ivalice has that unique quality that good fantasy pieces tend to possess: it’s dreamy and magical, but it bares a cohesiveness and wealth of detail that we come to associate with the real world. Character design and soundtrack are also a departure for the series following the style of Matsuno’s previous games: Akihiko Yoshida took Nomura’s place in translating Amano’s paintings into each character, and Uematsu’s intimate and delicate compositions were replaced by Hitoshi Sakimoto’s and Masaharu Iwata’s more orchestral, opulent music styles.

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The game’s narrative themes also clash with “Final Fantasy” tradition, being more akin to a Shakespeare play than the typical high fantasy cliches that overrun the genre. Sakaguchi’s bed-time naivete is avoided, paving way for a medieval drama that deals with corruption, moral ambiguities and the troubles of monarchic and autocratic states, with royal family intrigue, the constant back-stabbing of political figures and the waging of a war serving as the forefront for the action. However, despite the well penned background (by Miwa Shoda and Daisuke Watanabe) and the enticing narrative structure, there’s a constant influence from “Star Wars” in many of the story’s motifs. From the presence of a sky-pirate and his furry sidekick, to the main character being a princess whose kingdom was conquered by an evil empire, not to mention the operatic climax, a battle being waged with many “star-ships” and “battle cruisers” (directed in similar fashion to recent “Star Wars” episodes), the references are simply too prevalent to discard as coincidence. This influence is ill-fated, as it creeps its way into the aesthetic background, and doing so, breaks away the consistency of the world which bares little relationship with Lucas’ universe.

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The biggest change in “XII” however, comes from where it was most needed: game-play. Turn based battle systems were starting to accuse their age, and perhaps more importantly, their constant lack of innovation. Despite all the good that previous “Final Fantasies” had introduced to make action more dynamic, tactical and well paced, none comes close with the revolution brought about by this twelfth iteration. Firstly, its MMORPG inspired battle system is seamless, featuring no awkward transition from exploration to battle, in essence making the world feel less fragmented. And because battles apparently run in real time, it makes them swifter, more frantic and engaging. In all fairness, it is still a turn battle system running underneath: you can still pause the game at any time, giving orders for each ensuing turn and characters only act when their ATB bar is filled. But the pacing is so fast, that actions really feel like they’re being executed in real time. More so, you can move your characters in real time, making the illusion more consistent and adding depth to tactical placement of characters.

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The problem when moving turn based battle systems into real time, comes from the fact that battles become too fast paced to leave space for tactical thinking and strategy planning. And this is where the game strikes a chord of genius, by introducing a customizable AI system named ‘Gambit’. It’s basically an interface to control each character’s AI, based on an “If Event_A happens then do Action_B” kind of logic. It gives you the power to accurately determine each character’s behavior in combat facing various situations and outcomes, thus allowing for a near infinite number of tactical choices. By combining speed with tactical thinking, the game gives you the perfect battle system – one that never feels old. Battles become fast and smooth and grinding becomes fun instead of a chore. It’s simple, elegant and above all, incredibly entertaining; without a shadow of a doubt, the best “Final Fantasy” battle system since “VII”. In fact, game-play in “XII” is so good that its only flaw is that it becomes a huge driving focus of the game, over-shadowing narrative, which ultimately ends up developing slower than would be normal for a “Final Fantasy”.

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“Final Fantasy XII” maintains all of the important qualities of the series, but in all of its expressive dimensions, there’s something new and fresh to it. It’s a game that tries to break free from the stylistic notions that ruled its predecessors, and that is in my opinion, its greatest accomplishment. If anything, Matsuno’s greatest failing in “Final Fantasy XII” is that he was not able to completely cut away Sakaguchi’s legacy. At times, the game does feel contrived and bounded by certain classic “Final Fantasy” precepts and whether that is due to Matsuno’s premature departure from the project (for health reasons) or for the known friction between the staff’s different teams, remains unknown. Despite the fact, what we’re left with is an a new adventure that revolutionizes what the name “Final Fantasy” stands for. Matsuno took a huge risk to brave new skies, challenging the genre’s preconceptions and venturing where few had dared to. And that is Final fantasy’s true spirit: to lead the RPG genre into new horizons. It just took Matsuno-san to break away from the past and actually do it.

score: 4/5

[Thanks to Rheinmetall for asking for this review. It’s a bit more traditional than I usually come up with, but I hope you enjoy it.]

The Path – “Do Not Stray from the Path”

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There’s a growing consensus that traditional video-game forms aren’t permeable to an adult, artistic interpretation of interactivity. Games’ design matrix, with its its schemata of objectives, rewards and penalties, and its consistent orientation towards dexterity skills, tend to transform players into a pair of highly reflexive hands, directly wired to their senses. Art, on the other hand, has stronger requisites for its audience: a reflexive state of mind, a vast range of sensory processing, as well as the willingness to embark on an aesthetic and emotional voyage. A pair of waggling hands and fingers just doesn’t cut it. The Tale of Tales studio has a strong point of view on this matter – as they state in their own manifesto – “don’t make games”, but instead “real-time art”.

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“The Path” is a “real time art” piece that challenges the boundaries of what a video-game can be, making a  typical game-play description very ineffective in translating the experience. Interactivity in “The Path” is framed according to an architectural interpretation, meaning, players have a predominantly spatial relationship with the environment. Essentially, it’s a matter of choice – where to go next? Embodying your surroundings, by allowing your senses to perceive the form that encompasses you, just as you would in a famous architect’s latest work. “The Path” is just that – an aesthetically cohesive,  narrative rich and artistically oriented form of three-dimensional exploration. Granted, most gamers will see this as an euphemistic way of saying that you can only *move* in the game.  And, in a way, that’s true; you can’t shoot, jump or solve puzzles in “The Path”, and that’s exactly what makes it work. By using a minimalist form of interaction, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn get players to willingly enter that reflexive stance that Art feeds upon. You experience “The Path”, you interpret it, you explore it, and above all, you feel it… but you never get to *play* “The Path”. In fact, it would be more correct to say that “The Path” plays you. And that’s why it makes for art in its purest form.

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All of these formal nuances would be insignificant, if the aesthetic journey that lied beneath wasn’t worth it. But it is. “The Path” is a modern reinterpretation of “Red Riding Hood”, viewed through the lens of a horror aesthetic. It’s a dark and somber re-envisioning of the classic tale, brimming with sexual innuendo, heavy psychological violence and a wealth of adult themes, all captured through an extremely rich symbolic scenery, whose interpretation quickly becomes the main draw of the game. There’s no point in digressing over its exact nature, as each player’s interpretation is bound to be different, such is the depth of its metaphoric elements. Suffices to say, it’s an incredibly nuanced, complex narrative which the player must decode, but like in all good art pieces, that journey of discovery is an intricate part of the pleasure you’ll be able to extract from the game.

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But despite having a rich narrative context, the game exposes it only through image, sound and a few poems, thus making it an even more provocative, personal and ambiguous experience. The aesthetic is stunning, to say the least – a mixture of Gothic, surreal landscapes, somewhat evocative of Japanese horror, but also showing traces of Lynch, Maya Daren or even Buñuel, all incarnated in the iconic figures that make up “Red Riding Hood”. The soundtrack follows the bizarre imagery’s vibe and features a strong emphasis on environmental sound effects; the ever-lurking growling of the wolf and the incessant children’s choir are particularly unsettling to hear. It’s obvious that its authors have an aesthetic sensibility that vastly surpasses the majority of games’ art designers, which in the end, is what allows them to implement their art-oriented game-design philosophy with unrivaled success.

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Beautiful and enigmatic, strange and bewildering, horrifying but seductive; “The Path” is Art in its finest. It’s a bright sign saying that games can be adult and thought-provoking, just like any piece of fine Art. Because of it, developers now know that a new path for artistic video-game endeavors is, in fact, possible. Do not stray from “The Path”. Journey through it, embrace it, explore it. It may be the last path that can lead video-games into a bright future.

score: 5/5

Siren Blood Curse – “A Lighter Shade of Siren”

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“Siren Blood Curse” is a remake of the original “Forbidden Siren”, intended to present a greater appeal to western audiences. Despite the series predominant Japanese style, someone at Sony apparently found that the series needed to cross the ocean to make itself more pleasing for the American public. Such foolish venture was destined to fail from the get go, as most US-based gamers are surely too occupied with the latest “Gears of War” to even care about what “Siren” is all about, eventually leaving those who have a genuine interest in “Siren” with a simplistic, compromised version of Keiichiro Toyama’s (designer of the original “Silent Hill”) latest horror piece. The question is if it’s good enough to make up for a decent survival horror game.

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Even though the “Blood Curse” still takes place in a remote Japanese village, the story is now told from a westerner point of view, with its main characters being of US origin. This choice inevitably leads to some awkward cheesiness in dialogue and to the occasional critique to Hollywood cinematography, both of which end up marring the horror background, that doesn’t mix well either with comedy or parody. The story-line was also simplified, featuring less characters and dialogue; needless to say, much of the nuances and deeper meanings were lost in translation. The narrative structure in itself is detrimental to Toyama’s tale; by using a TV show / DVD episode structure (similar to that of the appalling “Alone in the Dark”), the game became much more focused on dramatic events, such as cliffhangers, instead of delving into psychological horror elements. Also, the Hollywood-like editing, which favors an economic use of time over density and characterization, makes the action go by super-fast, leaving no time for the fleshing out of the ambiance that made “Siren” unique. The surreal vibe is thus lost, and with it, much of the psychological impact of its horror mind-games. What all these flaws amount to, like in most Japanese horror movie remakes, is a work that feels like a fast-food version of the original, lacking all the subtlety that made it unique in the first place.

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In terms of actual game, the crossing over to western audiences does more good than bad. Previous “Siren” games were known of their complex game-play, and their frequently obtuse level-design. “Blood Curse” alleviates some of this burden by making game-play more accessible and well balanced, and also by decreasing the number of stealth portions in favor of action-adventure segments. This makes the game easier to enjoy, and smoother in its overall experience. Which is not to say that many of the flaws of the original games aren’t present. The objective-by-objective design of each level, which forces you to explore exactly as the designers want you to, still makes the game feel like an overlong tutorial. Worse still, is when the designers don’t make their logic apparent, giving you obtuse objectives for which there are no clues on how to tackle them. But these would be small nags if the overall design worked, but sadly, even after 3 games in the series, it still misses the point entirely. Stealth inevitably leads to trial and error, which in turn, breaks pacing and mood (obligatory in the creating a good horror ambiance) and the consistently closed level design (a consequence of the Simon-says design) destroys any chance of proper exploration, which could serve to build-up tension and anticipation of danger. In the end, this third iteration of “Siren” only  serves to prove that the original design was too crooked to fix in the first place, and not even a vast amount of polish, such as the one in “Blood Curse”, can fix it.

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Despite its terrible, sometimes infuriating faults, “Siren” still manages to reward its players in a way that no recent survival horror game does. No matter how much the game-design gets in the way, the horror aesthetic still comes through, and that is enough to make you feel what every horror game should make you feel: terror. And the horror aesthetic is exactly where “Siren” shows the superlative artistry of its authors. From its depiction of a derelict Japanese village, so damp, dirty and moist, that you can almost smell the stench of the gruesome, nauseating monsters that prowl about, to the natural elements like rain, wind, thunder, sunlight at dawn, all captured with perfect audio-visual fidelity, the game makes every set-piece look dark and disturbing. The violence itself, is as strange and surreal as you’ve come to expect from good Japanese horror movies (though it’s a shame that outside Japan, the game is slightly censored). Simply put, every piece of art and music blends beautifully into a menacing, unsettling experience of horror that will make you shiver in fright and disgust. It’s certainly one of the finest art designs of this generation, and it takes full advantage of the processing capabilities offered by the new Playstation.

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It’s hard not to have a love-hate relationship with the “Siren” series. Its stealth meets survival horror game-design never made any sense, and its increasingly watered-down versions in both “Forbidden Siren 2” and “Blood Curse”, while more pleasing, are still far from providing a good basis of interaction for the aesthetic and narrative dimensions. But on the other hand, you have to hand it down to Toyama  for maintaining the survival horror spirit intact,  foregoing the action non-sense that is all the rage nowadays. “Blood Curse” is a real survival horror game, and considering the genre’s current landscape, that’s the greatest compliment any survival horror game can receive.

score: 3/5