Chapter 1 of Final Fantasy Tactics: New Recruits and Old Veterans

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There is no other video game I’ve gone back to more in my twenty years of playing them than Final Fantasy Tactics. When I heard that USgamer had chosen it for their first virtual video game club meeting, I took it as an excuse to dive back into the world of Ivalice myself.

In an era of Xbox Gold give-aways, Steam sales, and big console and handheld releases almost weekly (at least up until recently) I thought something in me would be more resistant to toiling over my PSP and investing untold hours into a 32-bit epic whose every minor detail I could probably recite from memory. But returning to Ivalice is like re-living a dream, something only half remembered that feels so real and natural in the moment.

And there have been a lot of those moments, both in the past and now more recently. The first fight is a tutorial stage that’s fail-proof, but the musical scoring still sends chills down my back: bombastic horns overlaid with menacing drum beats before rival knights throw down on the steps outside of an austere monastery. By the second fight it’s time to get down to business, picking and choosing among your party of random generic cadets according to their starting stats. Tactics is about min-maxing, both thematically, with characters vying for power, and mechanically, with a job system that lets players mix and match an array of different abilities, equipment, and classes to create an unstoppable five-person army.

With that in mind I usually dismiss half my squad or more after the first battle, selling off their equipment and using the sum total of my war chest to purchase new recruits with higher Brave and Faith values. As tedious as cycling through random cadets at the recruiters office can be, something in this mundane Darwinism encapsulates the essential contradiction within Tactics, a game about breaking free from the strictures of class and religion where the only way to do so is to be stronger than those who would keep you in shackles and leave them inertly crystallized on the battlefield.

Then, as Mike Williams noted, the first thing to do is train everyone up so that they all have the Squire class’s “Accumulate” and “JP Boost” skills, which together make grinding a breeze. This means telling Delita at the plains that killing the Death Corps is priority number one (since doing otherwise will make keeping Algus alive a win condition, and my lord that AI…), and then killing both of the AI controlled guests before they can kill the last enemy and end the battle. The remaining time is filled with self-inflicted sword wounds and potions a plenty until each character has their 550 JP.

From here on out, the sky’s the limit. Monks are offensively brutal but easily killed, while Knights are tanky but extremely boring to use. I’ve decided to start my primary attacker as an Archer this time, something I’ve never done before because of how tragically underpowered the class is, which is surprising considering how well balanced it is in the game’s spiritual predecessor, Tactics Ogre. Since most battles start with Ramza & Co. trying to take the high ground, bows are nearly useless. In addition, arrows do exceptionally little damage despite their high miss rate on anyone with a shield or mantel. But even if the “Charge” ability is something of a joke (so little extra damage for such a long cast time), the Archer’s role as a stepping stone to classes like Lancer and Ninja make it a worthwhile investment.

As for the story missions of Chapter 1, they pass by breezily enough, though with one notable exception. The Dorter Slums encounter is a good indication of what’s to come in terms of Tactic’s cruel difficulty spikes. On this playthrough I died a number of times, over eager as I was to simply get beyond it without first paying my respects. Like most games in the genre, Tactics look to punish anyone who pushes their troops into combat too quickly. Shift Ramza a few spaces too close to the knight across from him and a combination of arrows and fire spells will find him dead before his next turn. Assuming a minimal amount of grinding up to this point, the key is to have Ramza & Co. spam “Accumulate” to boost their attack while using potions to recover any hit points lost in the initial onslaught. Once the enemy has moved into position, a swift counter attack around turn 20 will make short work of them.

One of the beauties of Tactics is that this kind of cynical strategizing plays directly into the game’s larger narrative arc. Ramza is learning to become a high born knight worthy of his father’s namesake, which in the beginning means the calculated slaughter of impoverished, low-born war veterans. Later Ramza is confronted by Miluda and her brother, Wiegraf. Noble idealists and dangerous radicals both, the duo offers an interesting point of comparison for both Ramza and Alma, as well as Delita and Teta. It’s cutting but subtle commentary on class privilege that, of the three, only Ramza’s sister survives. Tactics has no lack of sympathy for the morally righteous, but it cuts them down all the same, again and again.

Turn-based, tactical RPGs aren’t always the most accessible, and, especially for someone new to the genre, or even just new to Final Fantasy Tactics, the managerial responsibilities and space for strategic maneuvering can be overwhelming in the beginning. But as the prologue to a game which visits so many different people and places, and spans so many battles, betrayals, and political conspiracies, Chapter 1 (titled “The Meager”) forms a tight, self-contained introduction that successfully integrates gameplay and narrative in a way that few other games at the time did (and I would argue, still don’t). The story doesn’t just bookend the battles, or yield a superficial premise under which to otherwise enjoy leveling up characters and creating an elite squad of exotic fighters, it lives and breathes in the very moments when sprites are exchanging blows, chanting incantations, and speaking their operatic lines in-between swigs of potions and swirls of phoenix downs.

The 2014 E3 Press Events at a Glance

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Microsoft Pulls its Punches

On the one hand, it’s kind of surprising just how satisfying one of these E3 press conferences can go when the company focuses on showing rather than telling. Microsoft didn’t try to let market-tested messaging get in the way of the actual games it wanted to show off. While still awash in meaningless vanilla descriptors like “unique,” “innovative,” and “dramatic, all of Microsoft’s on-stage presenters made a point of not tripping themselves up with convoluted details and buzzwords.

On the other hand though, this meant the press conference was also extremely light on details or commitments. Microsoft’s future plans for the Kinect remain nebulous and there’s still no word on how precisely cloud computing will help deepen the user experience with Xbox One games.

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Fable Legends is a good example. Microsoft said and showed just enough to spur people’s imaginations about what the game would include without putting forth many clear-cut specifics that might limit the possibilities bubbling around in people’s heads.

The idea of a co-operative dungeon crawler that focuses on player designed enemy encounters and customized party load-outs that cuts out any room for narrative ambition is a win in my book. I don’t expect big things from Fable anymore, and a new entry that forgoes a mangled narrative and undelivered-on promises in favor of an engrossing, core gameplay conceit and loop seems a smart direction for the series to head in.

But this is me giving everything Microsoft showed of the game the benefit of every doubt. Who knows how the game will play, what its connective tissue will consist of, or what Microsoft’s plan will be for maintaining a steady stream of add-on content and DLC.

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Now I’d never heard of Phantom Dust before today, but if it’s anything like the original (which I Googled after the event), it could also be a nice deviation from the shooting, stabbing, and sandbox aimlessness that most major console releases provide. Again though, who knows, because aside from a neat trailer and some attempts to leverage the apparent “cult” status of the original, Microsoft didn’t outline the kinds of things you’ll even do in the game, let alone its basic premise (which is probably important if most of the people in your audience don’t even remember the IP source-material, unlike with Killer Instinct).

On the positive side, however, a lack of information at least means that Microsoft could indulge in a minimal amount of PR hackery. There are worse things than letting fans’s imaginations run wild with speculation, and for people (like myself) who primarily just care about games, there are worse things than a listicle-style press conference that simply lays out the loose contours of the Xbox One’s upcoming release line-up.

Sony Hammers Social

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Sony outlined its priorities for gaming at the very start of the show: being connected, visual quality, choice, and community. In what’s become something of a theme for this E3, social gaming has become the unofficial holy grail for console manufacturers looking to increase player engagement and loyalty. When I bought my Xbox 360, it wasn’t for any other reason than that it’s what my friends had. I wanted to play Call of Duty, Borderlands and Portal with them, so bought into the platform they were already part of.

Sony’s announcement that PS4 users will soon be able to upload video content directly to their YouTube channels is part of a campaign (that so far seems to be working) to reverse last-gen trends. The (relative) ease of capturing and editing gameplay on the PS4 before exporting it to social media certainly helps make the platform more inviting, even if people like me are there primarily for the games, and services like PlayStation Plus. As frivolous as social media connectivity might have seemed a year ago,

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I can personally attest to the urge to Instagram anything and everything, and gaming’s not much different. In fact, in the same way I want to share a picture of the meal I just spent an hour or two preparing, defeating a boss, completing a stealth mission perfectly, or delivering a particularly deadly and flawless combo in a fighting games are exactly the kinds of things I instinctively want to share with others.

And as games begin to look more beautiful and more detailed (I’m looking at you No Man’s Sky), Pokemon Snap-like features become a mini-game in themselves. Infamous: Second Son players generated tons of gorgeous in-game screenshots, and the ability to do so gives them a new and different (and less violent) way to explore games.

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Everyone at E3 is talking about “worlds.” The specific mechanics and systems which govern what players will do in games like Far Cry 4 and The Division aren’t discussed so much as what it will feel like to be in those worlds. Companies want to create “immersive” “persistent” experiences rather than just games in the most basic sense of the word.

And this makes sense for companies looking to create franchises that will hold on to players, afford lots of DLC opportunities, and potentially even chances to incorporate micro transactions (which is easier to do in multiplayer games than solo campaigns). With this emphasis on world building in mind, the two games I cam away from Sony’s press conference most excited for were Arkham Knight and No Man’s Land. Both look to include intricate and exotic locales that I want to visit and explore, even if the actual gameplay once I’m there is either derivative or bare-bones.

In the end, these E3 PR events feel less like infomercials for nearly complete products than the posters on the wall at a travel agency, each hinting at the idea of a place I might eventually be able to go and see for myself. And even if I never do, the fact that I someday could keeps the daydream alive and offers something imaginative and comforting to hold on to.

Nintendo Stays the Course

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I’ve been genuinely surprised by how warmly Nintendo’s E3 offering was received today, if fans and critics in my Twitter feed are any indication. We learned that Nintendo is pretty much doing what it always does, except in ways that are a little more on the mark than usual.

The Zelda slated to arrive in 2015 will apparently be a semi-seamless open-world game that takes the core premise from the original game and re-animates it in a lush, fully-realized, 3D environment. Judging by the little Nintendo showed of it, this is the Zelda game people have wanted since before Skyward Sword. Getting it just over four years later, and nearly three since the Wii U first released, is apparently good enough.

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Besides a new Zelda, Nintendo showed off a number of other titles derived from its core franchises: a new Yoshi game, a new pseudo-Mario game featuring Toad, and a level designer called Mario Maker. Each of these looked like fun and were a welcome departure from the rampant machismo accosting the rest of E3 press events. Even taken together though, along with much anticipated Smash and Zelda sequels, they don’t feel like enough to help the Wii U approach critical mass anytime soon.

Third party developers are great at delivering big, “must-have” titles. Between Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Witcher 3, and Bloodborne (as well as the already released Dark Souls II), we don’t really need another medieval beast-slaying simulator. But other console owners at can at least choose the one they’d prefer, while Wii U owners have none. The same goes for shooters, of the space marine variety and others.

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I would have liked to see Nintendo demonstrate a commitment to more smaller and mid-tier projects. What other consoles have with their big, quarterly releases, Nintendo should be making up for with a bevy of Link Between Worlds experiments, a steady stream of virtual console releases, and one or two core franchise releases.

Tropical Freeze was a great platformer, and Yoshi’s Woolly World looks like it will be as well, but I’d easily forgo it if that meant getting a spiritual successor to Super Metroid, a localization of Mother 3, and a number of other, smaller pet projects (like Mega Man 11). If Nintendo’s commitment to capable but limited hardware is going to leave an AAA sized hole in its software library, it needs to do more to make up for it with a greater number of bit-sized games.

Chapter 2 of Final Fantasy Tactics: The Plot Thickens

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It seems like only a few hours ago I was guiding the young Ramza Beoulve through his first military campaign to defeat and scatter the Death Corps (in reality it was last week). Now, the renegade high born, less naïve but no less idealistic, has just encountered his first extra-dimensional demigod, Cuchulainn, the Impure.

It’s worth noting just how well Final Fantasy Tactics tackles the obligation of “boss fights” despite being a turn-based tactical RPG. Unlike other battles that build up more slowly with stat buffing and strategic positioning, boss fights against the Lucavi are usually closer to bar fight brawls. Fast paced and extremely messy, my usual plan is to throw everything I’ve got at Cuchulainn as quickly as possible. Whoever isn’t instantly knocked out by his Bio spell is shoved into the fray: my lancer jumps and my wizard targets flare while Ramza launches a blistering frontal assault. It’s intense, and requires some luck, but the result is satisfying, even in the handful of times the battle doesn’t go my way. Continue reading

Shots Fired

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“Recovering critic” and essayist Arthur Krystal writes a “defense of the canon” in the pages of the latest issue of Harper’s. Though his is an encomium for “Great Literature,” a number of the points he makes apply equally well to video games.

Krystal traces the origins of the “canon” to the Greek meaning “measuring stick” or “rule.” Contrary to the popular conception of an ageless list of “the best books for all time,” a literary canon in this sense implies a body of work that can act as the measure of a form or genre. It becomes a tool whose purpose isn’t to strictly define what counts as Literature, but rather to provide a shared touchstone, a common frame of reference, that can help facilitate discourse. Continue reading

Considering the Guilt Associated with Enjoying ‘Low’ Culture

guilty pleasure Jennifer Szalai takes to the New Yorker to rail against the invocation of “guilty pleasures.” Since the idea is often associated with video games, I’ve decided to excerpt it at length with my own questions and comments inserted along the way. To really understand my concerns with her take, you should read it in its entirety first. Continue reading

Hatchet Jobs and the Hype Machine

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With all of the energy surrounding the release of Sony’s PS4 and Micrsoft’s Xbox One, it’s especially glaring how much the video game industrial complex can skew games coverage.

Most gaming news and reviews sites are busy right now pushing out content on next-gen consoles and the bevy of mediocre launch titles released to accompany them. Despite their superior processors and more consumer friendly UIs, neither the PS4 nor Xbox One matters at all right now.

Though embargo dates help orchestrate otherwise arbitrary reportage in order to increase visibility and communicate some semblance of an “event,” this only highlights how incapable of generating interest the machines are by themselves. With so little to inspire thoughtful analysis among media gatekeepers, consumers are left with reviews that are often more pretty to look at than enlightening to read, much like the systems themselves.

The PS4 plays Killzones much like the PS3 did, and the Xbox One is an overpriced media box just like its predecessor. Eventually, the platforms will be crucial to the next wave of blockbuster AAAs and flashy indie staples, but until then their discs are left spinning haplessly amid the rapidly dissipating PR bluster.

But still we will talk about them endlessly. Not any of the hundreds of surprisingly satisfying PC games just waiting to be downloaded, or the two greatest games to appear on dedicated gaming hardware so far this season, muttering instead with feigned incredulity about the latest annualization that failed to live up to the stale promise of yet another dried up franchise.

One way to greet this absurdity would be to come out with the hatchet swinging. Review Call of Duty: Ghosts, expunging the evil with vitriolic grace. Pen a 5,000 word manifesto against the a system that promises little and delivers even less.

Imagine if every critic who declared off-mic that neither system was worth buying, at least not right now, with their current libraries and in their present states, made that the centerpiece of their review? What if both consoles were reviewed not based primarily on their potential as gaming systems, but on what specifically each was doing to make playing games better right now?

Or what if they just didn’t review them at all? At least not until either one had a library of games worth talking about (I mean really worth talking about)?

As much as I enjoy a good hatchet job, I find myself wondering if the entire approach shouldn’t be employed with more reserve. Even if a popular media outlet decides to take the ax to gaming’s most recent sacred cow, an indisputable improvement over the apathetic indulgence which usually wins the day, maybe it would be better not to waste time on them at all.

Buzzfeed‘s new books section editor declared the site will not be including “negative” reviews in its coverage. Cue the snark, outrage, and bodily disgust. “Civility” in the book review space has been an issue of some contention over the last year, from Clive James’ brief essay on the benefits of criticism that pulls not punches, to Lee Siegel’s call to “bury the hatchet,” starting with himself.

Jacob Silverman bemoaned the “epidemic of niceness” plaguing online book culture, while Roxane Gay defended it. She explained,

“I don’t write many negative reviews, not because I’m scared or nice, but because my time is finite. I recently read a book by a well-known writer from a major press. There was a grammatical error in the very first sentence and the rest of the book was not good—shoddy editing, shoddy writing. I could have written a scathing review but for what? Nothing would have been learned from that review and writing about that book would have given it undeserved attention and been a colossal waste of my time.”

While I don’t completely agree–a well-timed and exquisitely brutal take-down can be its own reward, and on occasion even required–I find the position more and more attractive as the last cycle of consoles crawl to their graves. Is another rebuke of the latest bro-shooter’s politics, exploitative gameplay loops, and repetitious execution really contributing all that much at this point? Perhaps in another few years when a fresher product deserves a fresher critique, that level of scrutiny on those games will be well spent.

Instead, here are over 500 IGF entries well worth experimenting with and probing deeper. Some have some interesting ideas, others simply an inspired presentation.

Leigh Alexander recently tweeted, “It doesn’t actually matter anymore what gamers want to play as much as it matters what game developers want to make.” There’s a cynical way of rejecting this statement, one which I was and remain all too ready to make. Pushing that aside though, I take it to the logical extension of the combined facts that more people are playing video games than ever before and more of them are open to a more diverse gaming diet. The only thing that remains then is to connect the game that X developer wanted to make with Y player who’s interested in playing it.

In all of this there’s an analysis of the effects of the Internet and digital technology on the political economy of entertainment production, but that’s almost beside the point–for now. At present, it’s enough to see that between books, comic books, movies, television, music and video games, the task of trying to curate a canon of consumption and police the ideologies guiding a given medium’s most financially salient works pales in comparison to that of simply trying to sort through everything that’s produced, and everyone who might want to engage with it.

So does Buzzfeed need to add to the chorus of snarky take-downs attempting to put someone like Pynchon, Rushdie, or Franzen in their place, even when new authors are releasing fiction every day through blogs and ebooks? Do I really need to know what the newest Katy Perry album says about the state of post-9/11 pop when hopping around the “related artists” links on Spotify for five minutes will give me enough music to listen to for the rest of the month? Comixology allows self-publishing. Netflix could too someday. And an hour digging deep into the Google search results for “upcoming indie games,” or through the backlog of Steam Greenlight nominees, will yield any number titles worth sharing.

But hey, Sony just released its fourth Playstation. It’s called the P(lay)S(tation)4. It plays games, on discs, using a controller that bears an uncanny resemblance to the one designed for the original system over ten years ago. It’s going to “revolutionize” gaming or something though, so we should all pay attention to it, cause even if it doesn’t, and we know it doesn’t, and any games critic worth their salt knows it doesn’t, we can at least naval-gaze about why it doesn’t, and continue speculating endlessly about how some firmware update yet to be imagined will transform it, and how Uncharted 4 (Halo 5) will bring out all of the PS4’s (Xbox One’s) latent potential.

Or even a quarter of that energy could be re-focused on discovering any number of creative successes that continue to proliferate on the devices we already own.

Oversold and Underwhelmed

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At the end of last week it felt like everything was conspiring against me. As Friday drew to a close, last minute assignments at work kept me late. When I finally made it out of the office, traffic was unusually heavy, leading to one slog of an evening commute. An empty fridge meant I had to stop at the grocery store first too, and the fact that it was my best friend’s girlfriend’s birthday meant a necessary trip to the bar later that night, even though all I wanted to do was stay in an cuddle up next to my new PS4.

I won’t lie, when I opened the the box I half expected something magical to happen: angels descending from heaven blowing horns, fire works shooting out of the box, to be transported to another world filled with futuristic spires and cold war inspired grit.

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None of this happened of course. After all, it’s just a black, plastic box that spins discs (andapparently wobbles, though I haven’t experienced this first hand). The first thing I did that night after getting back from the bar was plug the system in, complete the setup, and start downloading the first update. All this went off without a hitch.

Next I used the voucher that came with the system to sign up for a free month of Playstation Plus. Oddly enough, Sony requires that you enter credit card information for your account in order to redeem it. Their goal is auto charge at the end of the month if you don’t cancel the subscription before then–a sound business strategy, but still a bit odd given Sony’s penchant for getting hacked and losing users’ credit card info in the past.

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First, I explored some of the start menu and the Playstation Store, then I went to download Resogun and Contrast, two indie titles I’ve really been looking forward to (though the latter didn’t receive nearly as good reviews as the former). While plenty of people seem to feel like the new interface is more accessible and easier to navigate, I find it a bit clumsy and cluttered. I actually really liked the PS3 interface, with its minimalist vertical and horizontal scrolling. It not only made things clear and simple, but freed up much of the background to display the user’s preferred wallpaper (mine was the Citadel from Mass Effect).

The downloads themselves went fairly quickly though, and as promised, I was able to boot up and start playing Killzone: Shadow Fall while they were finishing. While I’m not the biggest fan of first person shooters, or even the Killzone franchise, the game gave me the one thing I really needed in a next-gen launch title: a world I wanted look at, play in, and keep coming back to day in and day out.

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The PS4 is my first launch console. Every other system I’ve ever bought was purchased well after the original release date. What was perhaps most surreal about pulling the hardware out of the box, plugging it in, and playing my first next-gen game was how current-gen it still felt. The game’s backgrounds are beautiful, and small features like the depth of lighting effects and the pervasiveness of floating garbage all help to flesh out the experience beyond what many games are currently able to accomplish on the PS3.

Obviously though, the games that come out later into the console cycle will be in a much better position to take advantage of the hardware’s full potential (just look at Oblivion compared to Skyrim on the Xbox 360). For now then I’m content to shoot my way through Shadow Fall’s gorgeous, and even sometimes surprisingly imaginative galleries, taking breaks now and again to dip into Resogun (exactly the kind of mechanically sound and tactically engrossing shoot’em up you’d expect from Housemarque) and Contrast (which I still haven’t tried out).

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What surprised me most though about the time I’ve had with the PS4 is how little of it I spend doing anything other than playing games and watching Netflix. Admittedly, I haven’t dipped into Shadow Fall’s multiplayer, and I’m sure that after having done so the system’s social networking features will become more useful and interesting to me. So far though, I haven’t felt the need to explore any of the console’s “next-gen” features. I’m more or less content just to play games on it, and that much more relieved as a result that Sony was content to focus on making the PS4 a device for primarily doing just that.

Buying the console amounted to an expensive down payment on a future that won’t arrive for some time. The two titles I’m looking forward to most, Infamous: Second Son and TowerFall, won’t arrive until early next year. Unfortunately then, after the initial wave of excitement and euphoria, the system will more likely than not end up collecting dust for several weeks until Sony gets into the cycle of its next-gen release cycle.

Until then, I have a box that doesn’t do much more than the old one. Hopefully that’ll change sooner rather than later.