Literary Corner

Trash Culture: Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Chapters 10-11

It’s been a while, but I can’t leave anything uncompleted, even a crappy kids’ book written purely for profit based on the least popular installment of a horror video game franchise that can’t even really talk about horror.

Or can it?

Simon looked ill, as though he were struggling with something inside of him that he didn’t want to talk about.  ‘Berkeley Mansion was a bad place, before Dracula ever came to Castlevania.  It is a house where a great baron once killed his entire family, his servants and guests – and was there beheaded for his crimes by the law.”

Wow, was that…an actual reference to death?  A bit of classic horror?  Maybe this book will turn around after all…

As we enter the doors of this great house, I am reminded of the beginning of one of your jokes, Timothy Bradley,  ‘Knock-knock!’

Tim looked at Simon, and then back at Berkeley Mansion.  ‘You want me to say ‘Who’s there?’  Well, I’m not going to!’  He took in a long breath.  ‘Cause, I don’t really want to know!’

Maybe not.

Anyway, Simon and Tim go to Berkeley Mansion, home of one of Dracula’s body parts that must be destroyed.  Naturally, they must find a secret passage.  Luckily, this doesn’t involve just throwing holy water on random blocks like in the game (it makes sense in context, sort of, not really) but touching a white crystal to an arrowhead.  To be fair, the crystal is in the game, but not the arrowhead at all, so don’t expect this book to even serve as a useful strategy guide – which would be rather sad if that’s what you were expecting from the book, anyway.

But, if you were enraged at this book for ignoring the mechanics of and events in the actual game, then we have a treat for you:

“Something evii is blocking this passageway!”  he said.  “Which means that it may be something that is protecting the rib of Dracula!

[…]

Simon dug into his pack and drew out the large flask filled with the Holy Water they had received from the monk.  “If indeed this is evil, it’s not going to like this!”  He tossed a splash of the water upon the wall.  The effect was immediate.  It was as if Simon had tossed a stick of dynamite.

To be honest, I kind of do wish the book had more of things like evil walls exploding because holy water was poured on it.

So what lies behind the wall?  Murderous animated skeletons, a swarm of floating Medusa’s heads, a vampire bat the size of a car?  How about “Nothing from the source material”?

“Oh dear, of course.  How I do go on sometimes.”  She giggled almost girlishly.  “You must understand, that I am the caretaker of Berkeley Mansion!”

Castlevania:  Land of Danger and Excitement!

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 14: A Very Shiny, Expensive Black Sheep

When is a Final Fantasy game not a Final Fantasy game?  When it doesn’t even for a second include any version of this classic theme.  

Once upon a time, VIII was the undisputed black sheep of the series.  Now XIII, even though it does have its dedicated and zealous fans, has usurped its place.  Even if you are one of the game’s defenders, it’s not difficult to see why.  First and foremost, there’s the infamous “Corridor.”  Throughout most of the game, you will run down The Corridor with no opportunities to deviate from it.  Sure, there are a few nooks and side paths where you can find “hidden” treasure, but there’s only a relative few and they’re so obvious that they must have been hidden by the laziest Dungeon Master ever.  It’s basically all the restrictions on player exploration from and cranked up even further up to 11 (or 13, I should say). Second and interrelated, this is the first game in the series where there are no cities or towns.  There are spots where you can talk to NPCs, but it’s purely fluff with no clues toward what the player needs to do or toward any side quests.  Reportedly this was a deliberate aesthetic choice to give the player a realistic impression that the characters of the game spend the entire plot as fugitives, but I have seen rumors reported that it had less to do with daring creative choices and more to do with deadline restrictions.  Whatever the truth (and it is apparently true that at one point in development the game was supposed to include towns), the lack of towns does concrete the impression that so much of the game is just Cut Scene Fight Fight Fight Cut Scene Boss Repeat.

Now I keep using synonyms for almost because there is a point in the game where you suddenly, like the person dragged out of Plato’s proverbial cave, end up in a wide open space with various environments from deep ravines to gorgeous ruins of modern cities that you’re free to explore and where you can find side quests, hidden items, and new areas to open up.  But it only comes more than halfway through the game and eventually, once you decide to resume the main plot, it’s back to The Corridor.  Honestly it feels more like the game is sadistically teasing you with what XIII might have been instead of rewarding the player.  This is especially because there are so many areas in the game most players would just yearn to explore, including  large sci-fi cities, a high-tech amusement park (unlike in the famous Gold Saucer from VII, you don’t even get any mini-games to play!), and a digital Internet world, but, no, you have to stick forever and always to The Corridor.  Needless to say, after the excellent freedom the world of XII gives the player there just aren’t any words to explain what a disappointment this is.  It manages to feel even more restrictive than the old Final Fantasy games where you have to follow the plot and there are only two or three side areas.

The one part of the game that usually gets as much flack as The Corridor is the plot, but honestly that was my favorite part of the game.  The main setting is the floating, self-contained land of Cocoon, a technological paradise where every luxury and need is provided by god-like beings called the fal’Cie.  The only dark spot in the existence of the inhabitants of Cocoon is that they live in fear of the continent below, Gran Pulse, which is reportedly infested by hordes of monsters and savage people under the control of other fal’Cie who only want to destroy Cocoon.    However, there has been no contact between Cocoon and Gran Pulse in the centuries since a cataclysmic war between the two lands, but that hasn’t stopped the theocratic government of Cocoon from maintaining a powerful military just on the chance that a citizen of Cocoon is “infected” by a fal’Cie from Gran Pulse.  How do the fal’Cie infect people?  They can give someone a Focus, which turns that person into a l’Cie and bestows them with tremendous magical and physical abilities, but there’s no doubt it’s more of a curse than a blessing.  See, a l’Cie only learns their Focus through a vague vision, and if despite that they fulfill it their “reward” is to be frozen in crystal, to be “unthawed” if the fal’Cie needs them again.  If they fail?  Then they’re doomed to become essentially a zombie.  So when a young woman named Serah inadvertently brings together her sister, a soldier nicknamed Lightning; her fiancee Snow; a pilot named Sazh; and two adolescents, Vanelle and Hope, they are horrified when Serah suddenly turns to crystal and they are all given a Focus by a Pulse fal’Cie, especially because their vision implies that their destiny is to bring catastrophe to Cocoon.  Barely escaping a ruthless “Purge” carried out by the military against the entire local populace to guarantee no one who had any contact with the enemy fal’Cie survives, Lightning and the others have to resist the mysterious manipulations of Cocoon’s leader Galenth Dysley, who almost seems to want them to run loose, and determine if their Focus is to save Cocoon or annihilate it.

Really, as much as I prefer it when Final Fantasy drifts away from futurist angles, I thought the plot was an interesting deconstruction of traditional fantasy and “soft” sci-fi tropes, specifically the idea of a Chosen One guided by benevolent divine forces toward a heroic destiny.  It reminded me, in a good way, of how VII twisted and reinvented established JRPG concepts.  Yet there is a valid reason why the story gets criticized, because of how poorly it’s presented.  As you can tell, the plot is thick with technical terms, very few of which are actually explained through exposition.  You’ll actually pray for bad exposition once you realize that, in order to not only keep up with the plot and understand the game’s world but even to have characters’ motivations explained from cut scenes, you have to read these long info recaps after every cut scene.  Granted the info screens from XII were long and detailed too, but the difference is that at least 99 percent of those were just details that added to the backstory and the game world, not details that were necessary to understand characterization and plot.  Not only is it just a very clumsy way to handle worldbuilding, but it just grabs you and throws you out of the game every ten minutes, if you’re one of the few people who cares enough about the story that you have to make sure you don’t miss any pertinent detail.

On top of this, XIII’s world revives a couple of the sins committed by the makers of VIII.  Now I’ll be the first to argue that Lightning is hands down the best protagonist the series has presented in a long time, and her character development throughout the game is actually handled quite well and with some subtlety (although some people, myself not included, might think she comes off as too much of a hardass at the start).  The rest of the game’s characters, however, are just pale imitations compared to some of the rich, diverse parties we’ve gotten in the past.  Snow is a naive would-be hero whose one and only shtick wears thin just thirty minutes in.  Sazh does get a few of the game’s most poignant moments but outside those he amounts to little more than the “I’m getting too old for this shit” action movie cliche (well, that and an excuse to “cutify” things by showing the baby chocobo that lives inside his afro;  you read that right).  Hope gets a major sub-plot about hating Snow for failing to save his mother’s life, but despite all the build-up that fizzles out.  Now the one bright spot is the relationship between Vanelle and a woman who later joins your party, Fang.  It’s fairly heavily implied that they are lovers, and without delving into spoilers, they get one of the more redeeming moments from the story.  Overall, despite some admittedly big exceptions, the characters aren’t all that memorable, and their character development seems to come in spite of the padding-stuffed plot rather than because.  Plus, like the sterile ultra-modern world of VIII, most of what we see of Cocoon is sleek and beautifully rendered but it just isn’t all that “fantastic” and distinctive from our own world.  Maybe there’s more to it than that, but Square-Enix knows we don’t get to see it!

At least the gameplay isn’t as complex as VIII, but it too has its problems.  Like a cross between the Gambit system from XII and the class system from other games, you don’t exactly directly control all the members of your party and instead you assign them “preprogrammed” AI characteristics.  Here they’re called Paradigms, where you can give party members roles like healing (Medic), defensive (Sentinel), using black magic (Ravager), etc.  Although the game does encourage – and more or less requires you – to experiment with combining different Paradigms and setting up the right combinations for different battle situations, it really doesn’t offer as much room for strategy as the Gambit or class systems.  The Sentinel paradigm is practically useless except arguably in some of the most difficult bonus boss fights, and, while XIII is generally agreed to be one of the most difficult games in the main series, more than a few boss fights seem to just boil down to being fast enough to switch timely between Paradigms heavy on healing to ones heavy on offense.  And exactly like X, the system for building experience and learning new spells and skills only gives the illusion of  being able to experiment with characters’ development.  The game does let any member of your party develop any Paradigm the player chooses after a certain point, but the experience points required are so excessive it doesn’t really mean anything unless the player intends to pursue the most difficult bonus boss fights after finishing with the main plot.

Now for all that I can’t say I hated this installment.  As you might expect from Square-Enix, it’s eye-poppingly gorgeous, with an above average soundtrack (despite the crippling loss of the series’ defining theme).  It’s just, especially after the underrated XII, XIII seemed to take the potential of new video game technology for RPG storytelling a few steps in completely the wrong direction.   And you could tell the Powers That Be knew their experiment had failed, since quite a bit of the direct sequel XIII-2 directly addressed fan complaints about XIII, by including actual towns and tweaking the gameplay, but we’ll get to that when we finally wrap up this retrospective.

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Literary Corner

Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Chapters 5-6

When last we glimpsed at the adventures of Tim Bradley, his hero Simon Belmont was turning into Dracula, something which never happens in the game.  In fact, in the actual game what does happen if you don’t complete it before a set point is that Simon succumbs to Dracula’s curse by actually dying.  The player is even left with the image of his gravestone.

So basically the book based on the game can’t even be anywhere near as explicit as the very game it’s based on.  That’s the logic of censorship and “What about the children?!” for you.

Anyway, you’d think an image as potentially gruesome as the hero literally transforming into the monster he’s always fought would be an opportunity for the writer to cut loose a bit, but…well…

It was like Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde – only much, much worse!

Well, unless you’re one of the people Hyde battered to death, raped, or both.

The eyes became narrow slits behind which pupils glowed like live coals in a furnace.  They burned through Tim like laser beams edged with razor blades.

I…have no response to that.  I will admit it does rather top Dr. Evil, or would if you could get the science to work out.

“Ah-ha!  You are a puny little nothing, aren’t you?  Why did Simon Belmont ever choose you?”

That’s an extremely good question.  I can only hypothesize that it was so Simon!Dracula would have someone to attack and kill other than an actual loved one.

Okay, so if you’re familiar with genre writing for children, you might guess that the way Tim gets out of this situation is through trying to appeal to Simon’s heroic nature.  Or possibly the book actually engages with the source material and has Tim knock over a candle to get some holy water or the like, which I know would barely make sense from his perspective but that is actually how the games work.  These are good and rational guesses, but they are also wrong.

“I shall enjoy hearing you squeal and feeling you squirm when I sink my lovely fans into your soul!”  [Seriously, we can’t have any references to bloodsucking at all?  KIDS KNOW WHAT VAMPIRES ARE, YOU KNOW.]

“Is that the tooth?””  Tim shot back.

“”Arrgh!”  cried Dracula’s voice.  Simon’s body jerked as though physically struck.  “A pun!  I abhor puns!  If there’s anything I can’t stand more, it’s stupid, silly jokes!”

Okay, I have to be honest.  Even though this is a “twist” that would have looked mind-bleedingly stupid even on something like Captain N: The Game Master, I kind of like it.  It’s unexpected, at least.  Also I have to appreciate that Tim’s one power here is being a lame children’s book character.  That’s some meta crap right there.

Oh, and before we get too far off the subject, I can’t help but find it a little ironic that, in their bowdlerizing of the most basic and widely known aspect of vampire lore, they’ve actually made Dracula more frightening, in a way.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I think I’d much rather have a vampire drain my blood than drain the metaphysical essence of my very being.

Anyway, Simon is fully restored and warns Timothy that he’s made a powerful enemy.

“If he defeats me and gains the use of my body and remains in this dimension, he will take great pleasure in flaying every inch of your skin off!”

Tim blinked.

“And after he pours salt on your raw nerves, he will dip you into a vat of acid!”

Tim gulped.

“And then, Timothy Bradley, he will really start torturing you!”

Okay, it’s not the most original joke in the world, but…I kind of liked that one.  

Anyway, the two recuperate at an inn, and the book actually acknowledges an aspect of the gameplay of the original game, as Simon explains that he has to set out at night and collect “magical essence”” from the ghouls that roam around at night (okay, it was hearts and it was more like the game’s currency, but since that part of the game was never really explained I”ll let it pass).  Of course, even here there’s a weird and inexplicable bit of bowdlerizing (and just after there’s a joke about skinning the protagonist alive!), where Simon clarifies that with his whip he only sends the monsters back into “the dimension from which they came.”

The novel also acknowledges another aspect of the game that tormented many a kid back in the day:  the fact that the townspeople in Castlevania II are a bunch of damn sociopathic liars.  And no, it’s not bad “Engrish” translations;  the people actually lie to you.  Simon explains it’s because they’re under Dracula’s influence or something, but I’m sure in the game it’s because they’re just a bunch of jerks.

Something that isn’t part of the game, though, is that Simon warns Timothy to alert him if he starts committing any of the seven deadly sins, because it will mean he’s falling under Dracula’s influence again.  Deliberately or not, F.X. Nine gets the list wrong – I assume for the sake of plot convenience – including “deceit”” and “”blasphemy” instead of sloth and greed.  Weirdly enough, this is one part that”s not bowdlerized, since lust is mentioned.  Again, it’s a prime example of how ludicrously inconsistent these types of things are.

Anyway, the plot of the game, where Simon has to collect Dracula’s body parts to end the curse, supposedly gets started at this point, except this time an annoying middle schooler is accompanying Simon for reasons that still haven’t been explained and, I suspect, never will be.

“This was going to be one righteous adventure.”

Indeed it will be, Tim Bradley, indeed it will be.  (Wait, was “righteous” ever really a thing?  Oh well, it’s still better than “sick.”)

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 13: Big Country

Wait, you’re thinking, what about XI?  Well, three things:

1)  I never played it, so that alone defeats the point of including it in a retrospective.

2)  I dislike MMORPGs strongly enough I probably never will play it.

3)  I loathe  the idea that MMORPGs can be passed off as regular installments in a main series, no matter how hard Square-Enix pushes it, so even if I did play them I’d probably ignore it just for the sake of making a point.

So, let’s skip ahead to the next real installment in the series, shall we?

Like IX, XII is one of the Final Fantasies that fell through the cracks, in no small part because Square-Enix in all of their wisdom was already hyping XIII.  Again, like with IX, this is really a shame, because XII is easily the strongest installment the series has seen after the days of the original Playstation.   It also improves on the series in ways that, unfortunately, don’t seem like they’re going to stick, which is really a shame because I am honestly convinced that XII offers one of the better blueprints out there on how to upgrade console RPGs for an era when video games seem to be on the brink of becoming as complex as possible.  I do also think XII is flawed, in ways that are difficult to ignore even if you admire the game’s strengths, but not enough to truly undermine the game’s story and its reforms to the series and the genre as a whole.

The first thing that’s remarkable about XII is just how…authentic the world it takes place in feels. Its setting is Ivalice, a world already established in Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.  There the small desert kingdoms of Dalmasca and Nabradia have served as buffer states between the empires of Archadia and Rozarria, until the son of Archadia’s Emperor, Vayne Solidor, prepares for an all-or-nothing war against Rozarria by instigating the violent annexation of both Nabradia and Dalmasca.  A mysterious catastrophe of supernatural origin completely wipes out the former and leaves behind a haunted wasteland, while the latter is turned into an imperial province despite widespread resistance from the population.  Under the alias of “Ashe,” the young rightful queen of Dalmasca falls in with two youths orphaned by the invasion of Dalmasca, a pair of sky pirates, and a disgraced Dalmascan knight.  With their help, she seeks out the legendary Sun-cryst, a source of magical power once used many centuries ago by Ashe’s ancestor, the Dynast-king, to create a continent-spanning empire.  Unknown to her, however, both she and Vayne Solidor are pawns in a sprawling game played by god-like beings who have orchestrated events in Ivalice since the dawn of history…

As you can hopefully tell from my summary, Final Fantasy XII has a story with an ambitious historical scope.  True, the standard high-fantasy elements of magic and monsters and airships are all there, but honestly they’re incidental to the story.  The Final Fantasy series has never been known for aspiring toward geopolitical complexity, so for its story alone XII is a welcome change.  And the game simply loves to offer the player details about Ivalice’s history and legends.  It’s also a change of pace that, instead of a globe-spanning struggle to save the world, your quest encompasses only a small region of a much wider world and at its heart involves a small country’s struggle for independence and survival.  Even the game’s cities, which are vast and populated by far more NPCs than just ones that give your party valuable information, feel more tangible.

While it took me a while to warm up to it and even it was no substitute for the option of controlling all your party members directly, I did end up appreciating the game’s Gambit system almost as much.  Gambits are specific “instructions” that one can equip your party members with that dictate their actions in battle (for instance, one Gambit is to use a healing spell or item if a party member’s health dips below 25%).  It adds a whole new dimension of strategy to battles and offers a clean solution to the problem of how to stay true to the genre’s roots while offering new and more kinetic approaches to battle systems than just imputing commands on a static screen.  There were still some kinks – among them that summoned monsters, even the allegedly powerful ones that can be recruited in the game’s most difficult side quests, are never that useful – but overall it was a successful experiment.  Also the fact that battles don’t take place in a separate “mode” is also a simple but daring break from RPG orthodoxy that pays off, so much so that it’s actually shocking that it wasn’t implemented in XIII (but we’ll get to that, I promise you).

But perhaps what I loved most about the gameplay here is the mission system.  You have the option to take on a series of side quests as basically a monster hunter, which leads you to whole regions of the game that you wouldn’t otherwise explore if you just stick to the main story.  The side quests are challenging without feeling impossible, they open up even more information about Ivalice’s rich history and folklore, and they offer the player a great way to raise experience and cash without having to mindlessly grind for hours.  Such a side quest system is one of those things that sounds inherently great but it can be done very badly (see Dragon Quest IX), but Final Fantasy XII makes the side quests diverse and interesting enough that it adds to the experience without feeling like just busy work the programmers saddled the player with to fill time (again, see Dragon Quest IX).

Now before I gush too much, I have to admit there were flaws that, while not ruining the game for me, did aggravate me greatly and really keeps the game from reaching the same levels of quality as IX, much less the series’ “Golden Age.”  As much as I love the story, I have to ask the same question so many fans asked:  why the hell is Vaan the main protagonist?  It makes even less sense than Tidus;  at least he fulfilled an important narrative function as the outsider who has to learn about the new world he’s found himself in, and it turns out – albeit late in the game – he is part of the backstory.  Vaan is just an orphan whose brother died in the invasion of his home country;  really you could excise him from the game completely and nothing is lost.  In fact, Vaan wasn’t originally supposed to be the protagonist, but he was made so relatively late in the development process for – of course – idiotic marketing reasons.  It doesn’t completely derail the story, but you will keep asking yourself why the tragic knight famed for treason against his monarch, or the queen who lost her throne and her beloved fiancee to an invading empire and finds herself almost consumed with the desire for revenge, or the charismatic, swashbuckling sky pirate aren’t the protagonist instead.

Then there’s one massive issue with the gameplay, one that will haunt you throughout the entire game, especially if you’re a completist.  Many times the treasure chests randomly spawn their contents.  So it’s possible that the treasure chest that just offers up a Potion or something even more useless actually has a valuable piece of equipment, but there’s only a 1/20 or even a 1/50 chance that you’ll get it.  Sure, there are items you can equip that increase your chances of getting something valuable, but who the hell thought this was a good idea in the first place?  And that’s not even the half of it.  There are two ways to get the game’s most powerful weapon, the Zodiac Spear.  First, you have to not pick up certain treasures located in certain locations and not be equipped with the items that make it more likely to find better loot in the chests once you reach the Spear’s chest, which is in an optional location you can’t reach until about halfway through the game.  Or, alternatively, you can find it in a chest late in the game…except that there’s only a 0.1 percent chance you can get the weapon from the chest.  It’s impossible that they designed this on purpose unless they just assumed players will go through the game with a guide in their lap, or it’s some sick torture of completists.

Baffling and frustratingly unnecessary missteps aside, I can’t help but admire the game’s attention to detail and the ways it tried to breathe new life in the console RPG formula without completely tossing away the basics.  Fans of the series will learn just how valuable this is, as the next series of the installment, the much anticipated Final Fantasy XIII, will reveal what can go wrong when you do try to again reinvent the wheel.

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Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual Warfare Part 7: Hell Awaits

So many months and a dying computer later…we’re almost done with Spiritual Warfare!!!!  But we still have to make one final push, isn’t that right, President Bill Pullman?

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We’re going to live on!  We’re going to survive!  Today we celebrate our independence from shitty attempts at cashing in on the insular paranoia of religious fundamentalists!

Right.  Well, last time NotLink barely survived his harrowing experience lost in the ocean (and this player’s efforts to murder him) and was inexplicably rewarded by God for his incredible stupidity.  Leaving the beach, NotLink finds himself in the Woods, where he’s terrorized by purple archers, chainsaw-wielding goons, lumberjacks (naturally), and…uh, dragon-men?

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Seriously, what are those things supposed to be?

It’s at this point I started to suspect the programmers were getting as tired of all this I was.  The Woods are pretty much a speedbump.  Even the dragon-man things, while unkillable even with the sword, move back and forth in very predictable patterns, making them just a nuisance.  There’s also almost nothing to do, except loot somebody’s cabin.

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Thou shalt not…eh, what the hell.

To be fair, maybe loot is too strong a word because the only thing to take from this minimalist and unfurnished cabin with the head of some kind of deer-insect hybrid is a railroad ticket.  Like I mentioned before, the railroad ticket is basically this game’s answer to the whistle in Zelda, only – of course – not as useful.  Just as I had foreseen it, the ticket comes so late in the game it’s really not all that helpful anymore, except to backtrack to pick up keys or healing vials.  Even then, you still have to trek all the way to and from the stations, one or two of which are definitely not in convenient locations (like I noted before, the station at the Shipyards comes after a long gauntlet of death!), so it’s not like it saves you all that much by way of time or avoiding enemies, unless you’re going all the way across Dawkinsville.

Once your Christian hero is done stealing the Ticket of Infinite Uses, you can enter yet another boss fight.  In contrast to the last one, this one’s a cakewalk, but even then it managed to aggravate me.

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The citizens of Dawkinsville don’t mess around when it comes to trying to murder prepubescent boys.

See, the man on the left runs around, tossing bombs at you, which you have to hit back at him using the jawbone.  His arsenal is limited, and once he runs out of bombs you win.  The problem is, he always aims the bombs directly at you, so all you have to do is stand there and throw the boomerang at each bomb.  It’s kind of like playing Pong when the paddles won’t move and the ball just bounces back and forth in a straight line.  Your reward for this is a helmet which is supposed to protect you from explosions, which would probably seem more impressive if NotLink hadn’t stopped running into dynamite as a regular obstacle quite some time ago.  Still, the helmet is the last piece of armor NotLink has been collecting that’s available in the overworld.  If you go to the church after getting the helmet, you see…

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Spiritual Warfare: The game where young boys are advised to look for gateways to Hell in a prison at a church.

To the prison, then!  For some reason, one of the ways to get to the prison is take an underground passage directly south to the Church.

Naturally, at the prison NotLink is inexplicably attacked by both prisoners and guards.  They move faster than any other enemy, which is expected this late in the game, but it’s a real problem when you walk into a new screen and suddenly three of them are right on top of you.  But at least it makes it more satisfying when you throw your Exploding Sword of Oblivion in their faces.  Like the Woods, once you get past what dicks the enemies are, the Prison area is unimpressive.  Rather than a maze like the Warehouses, the Prison is very straightforward.

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Besides picking up a hidden Heart Container, the only thing to do here is find an entrance to the final area, the “Demon Stronghold,” but let’s call it what the programmers were clearly thinking of:  Hell.  And let’s ignore the unfortunate implications in making the entrance to Hell a part of the Prison, hm?  I mean, it’s not like this game is supposed to be about a religion founded in large part by people who were imprisoned for their beliefs.

Now it’s probably no surprise to anyone if I claim that the best part of the game is getting to go to Hell, but…it’s true.

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I don’t know if programming this area fixed the game designers’ malaise, or if they just recognized that this one part of the game had way more potential than throwing fruit at atheists in a park, but, honestly, this is the closest the game ever gets to feeling like The Legend of Zelda by far.  There are no half-assed “puzzles” that just slow you down for a few minutes.  There is a maze, but it’s challenging instead of just frustrating like the maze in the Warehouse region.  While the designs won’t win any prizes for 8-bit originality, they do show a little more thought than what we’ve seen before (although there is the occasional touch of laziness like seeing the generic door graphic right in the middle of Hell) and the designers did go through the trouble of splitting up Hell into several distinct regions.  And even fighting the enemies, which include flying demons that spawn at random in certain screens and “invisible” demons who are marked by their footprints, just feels more fun than it had at any previous point of the game.  There’s another boss fight with a demonic claw that throws fire enemies at you, but even then, it’s not yet another “puzzle fight” but an honest-to-God dodge-projectiles-and-other-enemies and fire-at-the-boss-until-it-dies confrontation.   

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Before I fall into the danger of becoming a Wisdom Tree apologist, let me point out there is a serious flaw here.  The last piece of armor you need, the shield, is in Hell itself.  That wouldn’t be an issue, except you need the shield.  It makes you invulnerable to fireballs, and almost all the enemies – including the fast, randomly flying demons – throw them. It takes a while to get to the boss room holding the shield, even more so if you haven’t figured out how to navigate the maze yet, and I think it’s possible to accidentally skip the shield altogether (I didn’t do another playthrough to check to be sure, however, because…well, I don’t get paid for this!).  Until then you’re probably going to take a lot of damage from the randomly appearing demons belting you with fireballs alone, even if you’ve become something of a Spiritual Warfare master (and God help you indeed if that’s the case).   Maybe it’s a legitimate challenge, but for me it does feel like the programmers aren’t playing fair.  At the least, it does make the God of the game into a sociopath who really is just getting his kicks off torturing this poor kid.  “So, there’s this shield you need that will increase your chances of surviving Hell immeasurably.  Oh, where is this shield?  Buried deep in the bowels of Hell, of course!”

Oh, there is one more big problem here too.  The music doesn’t change.  It’s still the same cheerful, awful track that’s been playing throughout the rest of the game.  Please tell me at least they put in new music for the final boss fight (spoiler: they don’t).

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Just imagine millions of people who didn’t happen to believe in exactly the right version of Christian dogma in that lava.

Then there’s the fact that there really isn’t even a build-up to the final boss.  Hell’s sub-boss gets an intimidating entrance to its lair, but he doesn’t.  It’s like they just ran out of room to keep designing Hell and dumped the final boss’ lair in.

So who is the final boss?  The god Odin, fighting for the pagan cause?    Christopher Hitchens’ soul, driven insane by fury at the knowledge that there is an afterlife after all?  Or…

That’s right!  It turns out God really is stacking the deck with this kid, sending him up against the Prince of Darkness himself.  Okay, so the game never actually names its final boss as the Devil, but come on, it’s kind of obvious.

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So how does a small boy stand up against the First of the Fallen?  Satan fires flying demons at you constantly while a moving rock in a river of lava blocks your attacks.  The necessary strategy is to try to stun the rock shield with blasts from your sword and when Satan stops, laughs, and changes color, you hit him with your fruit.  It’s…actually not a bad challenge, and certainly more enjoyable than the tedious boss fights that came before.  The one odd spot is that if you land a hit on Satan his arms and claws fly around chaotically.

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The Devil really hates fruit.

Okay, I get that this whole game is an allegory about saving souls by converting people to Christianity, but, seriously, by ending the game with you fighting the Devil himself, NotLink is kind of topping Jesus here.  How dare you have such a subtle yet outrageous message of  blasphemy, Spiritual Warfare?

Anyway, what do you get for beating the Devil?

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That’s it;  just this one static scene.  The game does reward you also by finally playing a different music track, but if you pause the game, it will revert back to the original infinite song of death.  You don’t even have the option to restart the game from there.  It just freezes on this screen.  To be fair, though, it’s really not any worse than a lot of endings from licensed Nintendo games.  Hell, this is poetry compared to the ending to the NES Ghostbusters.

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Well, let’s end by thanking God for giving us Wisdom Tree and proving that pandering to demographics rarely does anybody any good. Also I sincerely thank God that this game didn’t take another page from Legend of Zelda by giving us a second quest.  Hallelujah!

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective: The Girly Show

At last, we come to the first direct sequel in the franchise’s history (well, unless you count the obscure anime Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals…), Final Fantasy X-2 or, as I like to call it, Fanservice: The RPG.

Taking place two years after the events of X, we find that Yuna and Rikku have teamed up with an ex-soldier named Paine to become “Sphere Hunters,” treasure hunters who specialize in finding spheres, which store the memories of  people from the past and even have the potential of granting users those people’s training and skills.  Yuna’s drastic change in occupation is motivated by her quest to find “him,” despite his disappearance at the end of X, but her mission becomes much more than personal when Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are caught up in an escalating conflict that may lead to a civil war, and stumble across information about an ancient tragedy that might very well have repercussions that will cause the total destruction of Spira.

X-2 is, in one word, bizarre.  It’s a complete tonal shift from X, opening with a now infamous cutscene showing Yuna performing in a fancy JPop concert:

While there are mature and even dark elements that surface, although usually late in the game, for the most part X-2 is a light-hearted adventure story with almost none of the pathos that defined X – or, really, the entire series as far back as II.  It isn’t just because the game has a team of three women as protagonists that the game has an obvious Charlie’s Angels motif.  Even the game’s (apparent) antagonist, a rival sphere hunter, Leblanc, is treated more like an excuse for constant comic relief rather than an actual threat.

The weirdness seeps even into the structure of the game itself.  Unusually for a J-RPG, much less for a Final Fantasy installment, the game is more or less a wideopen sandbox.  In complete contradiction to series tradition, you start the game with an airship, although in one of the game’s “minor” yet more noticeable flaws flying it is represented by just selecting a destination on a static screen.  You have a set number of missions you can go on, and accomplishing certain ones will open up further missions.  Depending on your point of view, this is either a refreshingly open-ended RPG experience or it means a J-RPG where most of the game is made out of sidequests and mini-games.  There is a plot to the game, and it does turn out to have depth especially once the forgotten tragedy underlying the game’s story comes to light, but it doesn’t really become all that evident until after quite a bit of padding.  So even though the game’s story does hit some right notes, it still comes across as unusually shallow for a franchise famous for pioneering storytelling in console RPGs.

This is almost tragic, mostly for two reasons.  First off, X-2 is not only one of only (now) three games in the series to have a female protagonist, but the only one where all the playable protagonists are female.  Now for some this element might be watered out, if not negated totally, by just how stuffed full of blatant fanservice this game is;  not just with the skimpy clothing of the female leads (especially Rikku who, let’s remember, is supposed to be sixteen at the oldest!), but scenes like the three heroines having a water fight in a hot spring while wearing bikinis and a mini-game where you basically massage a woman into what’s implied to be an orgasm.  Plus there’s the more subtle fact that Yuna’s entire initial motivation in this game isn’t self-sacrifice like in X, but to try and find the guy she loves.  I’m not saying that this in of itself should be considered offensive – in fact, you could see it as a nice gender-reversal of the age-old “Save the princess” storyline – but it is a disappointing contrast to Yuna’s complex and tragic motivations in X – or, indeed, the treatment of the franchise’s first female protagonist in VI, Terra, who didn’t even have a male love interest.

Second, X-2 does have fantastic gameplay;  I’d even say it has some of the best in the whole series. Instead of the sphere grid system from X, the game simply revives the traditional leveling system.  The job system from is once again brought back and used in a way that’s simple to learn but opens up a pretty complex potential for strategy.  It’s also the first time in a long time we’ve seen it possible to customize the abilities of the playable characters so much,a refreshing change.  It’s just a shame that it’s not in service to a much deeper – and better – story.

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Literary Corner

The Trash Culture Literary Corner: Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Chapter 3-4

Honestly I do feel vaguely guilty riffing on this.  Once upon a time, I was commissioned to write a promotional comic book for children (don’t bother looking for it, dammit!) and the end result probably did bring shame to my ancestors.  But it is hard to do, especially when you’re chained down by a dozen editorial mandates and no one, especially not you, has any illusions that artistic merit has got anything to do with it.  It especially couldn’t have been easy given that the subject matter is Castlevania;  even the shallow, 8-bit video game isn’t all that far removed from its many horror inspirations.

On the other hand…

“Look – anyway, this is a joke, right?  Everyone has ganged up on me ’cause they know I’m an ace Castlevania player and I’m being persecuted for my hobby.”

There is the matter of Tim.  By the way, for all his bragging, I bet he couldn’t get through Stage 17 in the original on one life.

Anyway, when last we left our “ace Castlevania player,” he was confronted by a bondage-geared man in the boys’ bathroom of his school, claiming to be a character from his video game.  Rather than seeking help or saying his prayers, Tim stops to listen to him.

Here was Simon Belmont, the Hero of Castlevania, standing before him, square jaw jutting earnestly, broad chest heaving with purpose.  Yes, this was Simon all right.  Tim even noticed now that gripped feverishly in Simon’s fist was a whip.

To his credit, Tim is a bit skeptical, until Simon shows that he can answer one of Tim’s questions:  the name of Simon’s girlfriend, Linda Entwhistle.  Only she doesn’t exist anywhere in the actual game series, and even so it’s the sort of trivia a child murderer would be able to learn, even in the Dark Age of P.G. (PreGoogle).

Oh well, I guess Tim is just grateful it’s obviously not this Simon Belmont.

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Anyway, once the matter of credentials is settled, Simon has Tim touch his whip, which magically teleports them both back to his bedroom…okay, seriously, how is this not a really disturbing allegory?

Stepping away from that disturbing line of thought, there is something else about this set-up that I find troubling.  Simon Belmont is apparently aware that he’s a video game character.  There’s none of that “Your video game/novel/comic creators were  inspired by what they thought was their imagination, but really they were tapping into my world” kind of thing that you see in these kinds of affairs.  Simon even hails Tim as “the best Castlevania player in this dimension.”  Like Princess Toadstool and her lack of concern that her entire universe is not the “real world,” Simon seems unperturbed that his entire artificial existence is endlessly manipulated for the entertainment through countless unseen hands.  (And in case you think I’m not the only person who thought of this, it’s the kind of question that’s part of the premise of this fan sequel to Captain N where a cosmic horror is slowly wiping out Videoland by simply showing its denizens the truth of their existence.  It’s…rather brilliant, actually. )

Anyway, the book is (loosely…very, very, very loosely) based on the plot of Castlevania II.  Simon tells Tim that Dracula was killed and his body divided into five parts (wait, the author can’t talk about bloodsucking but he can make slicing up a corpse a plot point?), but a curse Dracula placed on Simon remains in effect.  The greatest departure from the game’s premise is that the curse doesn’t mean Simon is in danger of dying young and that he’s constantly harassed by zombies at night (while the player themselves are damned to read “What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse” over and over again);  instead Simon is slowly being possessed by Dracula.  Plus, Dracula’s got his girl.  

I knew something was wrong when my beautiful Linda, whom Dracula had captured, did not come back to me!

I know this is a book for children, but I think even kids, unless they’ve been raised on nothing but Sesame Street, would assume that Simon’s “beautiful Linda” is deader than a necrophiliac’s dream date.

Anyway, over the course of the explanation, Simon takes Tim to Casltevania, which “looked like a cluster of medieval towns, but drawn by a madman in a depression…”, which is about as much of a description as we get.  We don’t even have an idea of where Tim and Simon are standing once they enter the fantasy world that was supposed to be the entire point of this book.  Luckily, here Dracula does what many a video game villain should do and tries to take care of the problem before said problem can gain levels or find special weapons or whathaveyou:

…Simon Belmont was no longer totally Simon Belmont.  “Greetings, mortal!”  said the voice of Count Dracula.  “Come to Castlevania for an early and unpleasant death, I take it?”

Admittedly, I did get a kick out of imagining Christopher Lee forcing out that line.

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Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual Warfare Part 6: Bodybuilding Gives You Satanic Powers

Well, I did it.  It took me a long time, perhaps too long.  But I love all the people who read this blog – all eleven of you – so I did it;  I played through Spiritual Warfare a second time.

I tried to actually hack the game’s password system, but since just about anything involving numbers is not my forte I couldn’t get it exactly right.  The best I could do was use a walkthrough to easily fill the gaps in my memory and speed through the game.  It turns out that I didn’t miss out on all that much;  just one or two extra Heart Containers and it turns out that you actually can talk to the kid with the basketball.  He’s just…not that useful.

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He’s pretty nice considering that I once spent five minutes of the game trying to murder him.

Anyway, to pick up where we left off months ago, the next place you go after “hotels” is the shipyard.  It’s around here that I think the programmers really lost interest in what they were doing, if they had that much to begin with.  Why not a mall, or a university campus?  Lots of godless souls there!  In the shipyards, you just have fairly slow-moving sailors and hellhounds and lots of overlapping docks in the most convoluted, dysfunctional shipyard in history.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually a nice breather next to the Hell that was the Warehouse section, but still let’s  just add “inconsistent challenge” to our list of issues with the game.  Honestly so far the game’s two modes of challenge have been either “as easy and engaging as stripping wallpaper” or “trying to draw a line through a kids’ maze puzzle while driving a car at 60 miles per hour.”   Well, okay, maybe not that bad, especially by old school Nintendo standards, but…well, we’ll see.

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Dawkinsville’s shipyard happened to have been designed by the same man who was the city planner for Raccoon City.

As for the hellhounds, like the other animals in this game they’re apparently soulless so you can’t “kill/save” them, which is a missed opportunity to bring up some daring theological questions.  There is one area in the shipyards patrolled by a few hellhounds, and the only way to pass them is situate yourself in a nook as they go by.   After that there’s a tunnel and more enemies.  Every instinct you have as a gamer tells you that there is something worthwhile past all this, something like a new weapon or some other Power-Up, but…no.  It’s just a train station, before you can even use the ticket to teleport around Dawkinsville.  That’s a pretty big “Screw you” from the programmers.

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And, yes, naturally the third dog is virtually impossible to get by without taking damage.

In fact, only thing that matters in the shipyards is you have a chance to “buy” Samson’s Jawbone, which is the game’s rather weird substitute for Legend of Zelda’s boomerang.  Unfortunately, unlike in Zelda, you can’t even use it to stun enemies, just pick up items that are out of reach.  This is probably the only video game I’ve ever played, if not the only video game in history, where they give you a weapon associated with a one-man genocide in real-life legend and it turns out to be less deadly than a squirt gun with tepid water.

While the Jawbone does not help you undergo an old-fashioned biblical killing spree, it does let you pick up what’s probably the most blatant “borrowing” from The Legend of Zelda yet, which is really saying something.

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Look familiar?

Oh, and it was around this point the creepy Bible quiz guy said this…

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Trust me, it’s from a really trippy section of the New Testament.

Anyway, past the shipyards is the beach, where this time the deranged atheists out to kill a small boy include skateboarders who throw beer bottles and bodybuilders who move really fast and run around in a random pattern.  Hilariously, they’re completely immune, and they’re the only enemies in the game your fruit weapons will actually bounce off from.  So, yes, according to this game’s take on Christian theology forklift drivers and bodybuilders are irredeemable.

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What is behind this game’s anti-powerlifting agenda?

Like all of the game’s invulnerable enemies, the bodybuilders like to attack in narrow areas, but luckily you can just dodge all enemies by sailing your raft into the sea.  Unfortunately, there are sharks swimming around, as per just about any video game that involves braving the ocean, and there is a risk of getting lost at sea.

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A good enough ending for the game as any.

Naturally I tried to see if there was a way to get a “bad ending” where NotLink dies of dehydration, but no such luck.  Instead NotLink stumbled across an island that contained this…

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…Hooray…I guess.

Dammit, it figures I’d find the helpful bonuses in a game I have no investment in whatsoever.  And, if the game’s whole currency system is just a metaphor for faith, what is the reasoning here?  NotLink does something suicidally idiotic like get lost in the sea on a raft and thus he’s proven that he has maximum faith?  And God just put a random angel out in the middle of shark-infested hellwaters just on the off chance someone would do just that?

Regardless, NotLink and I did need all the help we could get, because I was about to embark on one of the worst boss fights in Nintendo history.

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Behold, the exact opposite of fun.

Honestly, the boss fight is so surreal and complicated I’m not even sure how to begin to describe it.  Like pretty much all the boss fights in the game so far, it’s a puzzle fight, because a traditional “dodge projectiles and fire back at the boss” fight wouldn’t be aggravating enough for this game’s standards.  There are five rows.  The bottom one remains vacant, the top one has the real boss who looks like a janitor armed with a broom or a mop, and the other three rows has mooks who run back and forth.  There are ladders between the rows, but you have to blow up certain sections of the walls to reveal them.   The mooks occasionally and at complete random push out – from where I don’t want to know – three barrels, but they quickly disappear.  The only way to kill the mooks is to push them against the wall with one of their own barrels, but I simply could not figure out how to do this without getting hit.

See, the barrels only appear briefly.  There seems to be a way you can push them while the mook is…shooting them? Whatever…but a least in my case most of the time I ended up just running right into the mook and taking damage.  The only safe way was to open up the ladder to the next row and wait until a mook pushed a barrel down the ladder (keep in mind that not only when but if and where a mook creates the barrels is completely random).  Only by falling down a ladder into the next row does a barrel actually stick around, rather than disappear.  And even then, if you try to push the barrel on a mook and he decides to create a barrel, all the barrels cancel each other out, so you have to start all over.  On top of all that, the pissed off janitor is rapid firing some balloons at you, which deal almost as much damage as some of the bullets you faced.  Got all that?

You could appreciate the whole surrealness of the scenario.  For one thing, how does any of this make sense from NotLink’s perspective in the game world?!  Are the mooks really just pulling ghostly barrels out of their asses?  But it’s so damn frustrating.  After going through 30 save states and reading the walkthrough as closely as the Constitution, just trying to figure out how to kill the mooks, I just gave up and went after their boss.  Of course, the only way to damage him is with the bombs, and when he’s hurt he just teleports to another row, but it’s still much simpler than the deranged chaos that’s the rest of the boss fight.

However, just this once the game decides to make the reward proportional to the challenge.  You’re no longer playing with fruit, kid…

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The game is pretty explicit about the fact that you have to use it only in “the stronghold,” but of course I had to test it out to see if it would work on the demonic bodybuilders of Dawkinsville Beach.

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You better start praying.

Of course, in another *cough* homage to Legend of Zelda, you can throw the sword.  Thankfully, though, you don’t have to be at full health to do that and, even better, it explodes on impact.

Join us next time, when NotLink is ready to go all biblical on Dawkinsville!

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 10: Back to the Old School

Final Fantasy IXRecognizing that some fans were less than enthralled, Square threw a bone to their oldest fans.   What was originally meant to be a side project instead became the ninth installment of the series and a deliberate throwback to the series’ 8- and 16-bit era.  Final Fantasy IX unfolds in a medieval/early Industrial Age world, meant to invoke the first six games in the series while being a unique creation in its own right.  And after the dull present day environment of VIII, the world of IX is a much needed relief, a true return to fantasy.

Yet if Final Fantasy games were American Presidents, IX is the Zachary Taylor of the series.  It’s not disliked; just ignored or forgotten about most of the time.  It didn’t help that Square itself neglected it and allowed it to be overshadowed by a game that wasn’t even released yet:  Final Fantasy X.  That’s a tragedy.  While IX is a nostalgia fest to a fault, so much so that references from familiar place names to even recycled plot points pepper the entire game from beginning to end, it is still in its own right a strong installment that takes some of the best elements of the first six games.

In contrast to the brooding, complex heroes of the last two games, IX stars Zidane, a monkey-tailed thief whose involvement in an ill-conceived plan to kidnap a princess, Garnet, embroils him in said princess’ investigation of her power-mad mother’s ambition to build a massive empire.   Finding Garnet to be a surprisingly willing victim of kidnapping, Zidane meets up with Vivi, a black mage.  However, Vivi himself isn’t exactly what he appears to be, and his own existence points toward a sprawling plan by a mysterious (and flamboyant) arms dealer, Kuja, that could lead to the extinction of humanity.  Of course, despite the more cheerful protagonist, the story hits some pretty dark notes about mortality and being content with one’s lot, even if it is brutish and short.  (And don’t tell me you didn’t also tear up when Vivi watches his fellow black mages fall from the airship like dolls and goes into a despairing rage!).

The gameplay is perfect simplicity.  Rather than the convoluted and time-demanding system of VIII, you learn skills and spells by just equipping weapons and armor, and unique armor and weapons with new sets of abilities can also be created by combining earlier armor and weapons.  It’s fairly basic, but it still requires a certain degree of planning, strategy, and experimenting.  Likewise we go back to the diverse cast of IV and VI, where different party members bring different abilities to the table.  Then there’s the soundtrack.  It’s strangely low-key for a Final Fantasy soundtrack, which are usually known for classical bombast, but manages to be diverse and memorable.  The main theme, “The Place I’ll Return To Someday,” is downright haunting, and probably my own favorite theme out of the entire series.

In short, this installment does deserve a lot more attention than it gets.  It’s not exactly a return to the glory of the 16-bit era, but at the least it is a successful exploration of what made those games work.  Maybe it was hobbled in fans’ eyes by lacking the distinctiveness that had defined the series since at least VII, but perhaps by simply being a tribute to the series’ past IX was in the end an assertion of the franchise’s diversity.  Next time, we’ll get another controversial and experimental sequel, one that wasn’t helped by a genuinely crappy localization into the English-speaking world…

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