I’ve noticed that in spite of my room’s contents being 80% books, and in spite of belonging to three different academic disciplines that have a vested interest in studying old tomes, I have blogged comparatively little about my reading.
Part of this is that it feels less nerve-wracking to write about fluff; with a piece of great literature, I’m often inhibited by the thought of, “what more can be said, really?” Also, the paranoid part of me wonders if my own academic background is stymieing my ability to write about books in a casual sense.
Anyway, in recent weeks I found myself revisiting Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. I had read most of it before as a teenager, but stopped three quarters of the way through for some obscure reason (as I remember enjoying it quite a bit back then). This time around I enjoyed it all the more, in large part because the intervening years of experience have convinced me that Dickens’ tragicomic grotesques are even closer to reality than my younger self thought.
But back to the fluff. Lately I’ve been cycling through three different games depending on my humors, one of them being Final Fantasy XIII.
On the one hand, I feel bad for having always assumed the worst about this game these past six years – trailers, reviews, fan reactions and the like all created the impression of the most boringest Final Fantasy title rendered in glorious HD. But there is in actuality a great deal to like about it. And a lot to dislike, but we’ll start with the high points.
XIII has by far the best version of the Active Time Battle system that the series pioneered way back in ’91, and its core design plays to that strength: usually any individual non-boss fight in an FF is a rote affair, with the real strategy being in equipment and skill development and surviving the dungeon. XIII starts each battle with your characters in tip-top shape, and makes skill development an afterthought. Instead it jacks up the difficulty of each individual fight, and rewards you for finishing them as soon as possible. Since you no longer have to worry about whether you’ll have enough MP for the boss, each fight has a lot more possibilities open to it.
Masashi Hamazu’s musical score is also excellent, easily equaling the best of Uematsu’s work in the series. The art direction is stunning, and the setting is also pretty cool (a dyson sphere ruled by a totalitarian, stalinesque government!).
But the pacing just kills it. 70% of the game moves at this breakneck pace where the heroes are either running away from enemy forces or having epic showdowns with enemy forces, peppered with Michael Bay-esque CG cutscenes of things going all explodey.
The result is monotony; this sort of frenetic approach just doesn’t suit a lengthy JRPG. Balls-to-the-wall action is best suited for short one or two hour affairs (like shmups or side-scrolling shooters) that don’t last long enough to become annoying. Even longer games that successfully feel action packed recognize the need for some downtime.
The pacing also hurts the story, sacrificing important exposition for more of those exquisitely rendered explosions. And the plot itself also shows poor priorities elsewhere, frequently shoving away the setting’s orwellian potential in favor of third rate shonen anime melodrama and nonsensical character motivations.
The other 30% of the game grinds to a halt and becomes the worst sort of open world aimlessness.
I’m making it sound like I loathe this game more than I do; I do genuinely like it. The underlying mechanics are fun enough to make me want to press on to the end. I still haven’t gotten tired of launching my enemies into the air and then jumping up and punching them while big numbers appear on the screen. Yet.
Meanwhile, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is a game I didn’t like at first. The first couple of hours felt like a bunch of tired shonen anime/JRPG tropes with a grimdark cyberpunk paintjob. The turn-based combat felt kinda stale (especially compared to the likes of FFXIII) and the environments all had a dreary sameness to them.
Several hours later I love it – to the point where it has a chance of making my list of favourites, if it pans out. Nothing has drastically altered about it, but things have clicked.
Anyway, the story of DDS goes something like this: in a post-apocalyptic landscape called the Junkyard, seven tribal factions are locked in constant warfare with each other, as mandated by a creepy computer-god thing that has promised Nirvana to the victorious tribe (pretentious religious symbolism is abundantly present here, albeit with a focus on Hindu rather than Judeo-Christian imagery). This changes slightly when a mysterious magical girl falls from the sky…along with an egg thing that transforms the tribes into horrible monsters that eat each other. As Serph, the leader of the Embryon tribe, you have to go battle the other tribes and figure out what the whole mysterious girl’s deal is.
The characters are all very hard to like at first because they are literally emotionless. Over the course of events they gradually begin to develop emotions as a result of their newfound powers, and they all react in different ways. As befits his name, Heat grows into an angry, passionate guy who thinks the whole monster stuff is pretty spiffy; Argilla develops a compassionate, self-sacrificing side, and only wants to find a cure for her horrible-monsterness, etc. (Serph is a silent protagonist and so remains a blank slate for the player to project his or her own thoughts onto.)
And this was where I realized that I actually cared about these characters, and wanted to see where the game would take them. And I appreciated how the story effectively inverted the standard Neon Genesis Evangelion/Final Fantasy VII-ish approach to characterization where the protagonists have some sort of emotional trauma that the plot gradually unearths. A couple of early game twists also threw a wrench in how I thought things would play out until the endgame. While I still feel like the general trajectory of these things has been done before, there are enough inversions to make DDS feel like one of the fresher RPG stories I’ve seen in a while.
The actual gameplay similarly doesn’t depart from the template that Final Fantasy X laid down for the PS2 era, but it does a good job of refining it. Almost every action inside and outside of battle feels important, which is something that even a lot of FFs don’t do well. I’ve so far never felt like I was at the mercy of the RNG, nor did the game start to feel rote once I got the hang of how skills and attributes functioned. Recognizing this increased my appreciation tenfold.
Even the bland, samey corridors and rooms have begun to grow on me, fitting in with the general ambiance and contributing to the sensation that there is something very…unreal about the junkyard.
But again, many hours remain before I can give a definitive position on DDS.
(Oh yeah, the third game is Dark Souls, which I’ve been taking my time with, and which continues to be amazing, game of the millennium, etc. etc. minor camera problems though).