Archives for category: Playstation 3

Back in July of last year, I wrote about my return to Final Fantasy XIV‘s realm of Eorzea, after some time away. I thought it was about time to update where I am with the game, but first: a short recap.

I first played FFXIV when it was in beta phase 3, which is when Square Enix let in PlayStation 3 players for the first time. I’d never played an MMO before, though I had been tempted, but being a big Final Fantasy fan, I decided this was the one to break my duck. It also helped that a friend also wanted to play, and though he didn’t get into the beta, we both picked up the game at launch, and I rolled a male elezen archer called Khroma Midgard.

Before long, I’d joined a Eurogamer forum-based Free Company and got through a handful of dungeons, but my friend drifted away from the game as he wasn’t a fan of the ongoing subscription. My other guildies had also rushed ahead of me, and though I’m sure they’d have been willing, I didn’t want to ask for help, as I felt I’d be holding them back. Though I managed to advance him to Bard, I abandoned poor Khroma Midgard at Haukke Manor, never to return, never to run that dungeon.

Though I’d managed to put over a hundred hours into my first ever MMO, it always bothered me that I hadn’t finished the Main Scenario. And I sure as heck missed that world; I’d drop in from time to time – one such time being when I bought a PS4 and received a free upgrade to that version of the game – but I found that everyone else had moved on to other Free Companies or servers. At that point, I basically dropped the game entirely, occasionally casting glances at content patches and update news, but not meaning to return.

So what changed? I returned to the game partly because of Noclip’s excellent documentary series into the game’s turnaround, helmed by Naoki Yoshida, but mainly because a member of the Destiny group I joined last year, who had also played FFXIV in the past, expressed an interest in returning. An interest in starting again. It was the perfect opportunity for me to do the same, only this time on PC. So I re-subbed. And then I created a new avatar, one that would represent a new beginning, while also calling back to my original adventurer in Eorzea. I made a female Miqo’te healer, and as she was a Keeper of the Moon, I named her Khroma Moonsong.

khroma moonsong

So, after nine months back, what have I achieved? Well, I joined a new Free Company right from the off this time – indeed, I think I was the fourth player to join – I’ve become a White Mage, and I’ve long since passed my previous roadblock of Haukke Manor. I’m now less afraid to ask for help from my fellow Free Company members, most likely because they’re made up mostly of members of the Eurogamer Discord community, so I find myself interacting with them daily outside of the game. I’m still far behind everyone else – I’m just slow at games, okay? – but I know I can always ask for help when I reach a dungeon or trial.

My goal for last year was to finally finish the A Realm Reborn 2.0 Main Scenario, which I didn’t quite manage. But I’m almost there now; the last thing I did in-game is defeat Rhitahtyn sas Arvina, one of the main antagonist’s most ardent followers. What stands between me and the end of the game I started more than four-and-a-half years ago is two eight-player dungeons. I’m nearly there! I hope to finally finish this very soon, and will update when I do. After that, I have more quests to do before tackling both expansions. Can I get Stormblood finished before the next expansion comes? Maybe that should be my next goal!

As for our Free Company, Eorzean Gaolers (EG, for Eurogamer, geddit?), we’ve grown a bit since I first joined. We’re now up to 19 members (though a few of those are lapsed), and it’s been really enjoyable for me to help newcomers to the game learn the ropes and get through dungeons; there are plenty of great guides out there, but what I feel a lot of higher-level players forget is that sometimes us newbies don’t really get MMOs. Often it can help to discuss early-game stuff with players who have walked that same path, and it’s really rewarding to help people see how much fun they could be having in Eorzea. Especially as the game now has an incredibly generous trial period, meaning new players are always joining in.

We’ve also since bought our own Company Estate in the Goblet, and after a lot of grinding for Grand Company seals (and having to suffer through the Aurum Vale with a random tank and DPS, ooh lordy never again), I finally managed to get my own room in the house a little over a week ago.

khroma's lunarium

Now I just need to spend tens of thousands of gil decorating it. So far, I’ve changed the floor and walls (as a Conjurer of Stillglade Fane, I needed to bring a bit of Gridania with me to the Goblet, so went with a bit of greenery), and added a Glade Fringed Rug, a few Hingan benches, and a bed. It’s a bit spartan at the moment, but I want to add to it over time, rather than throw a load of stuff in there and then decide I don’t like half of it in a couple of months. Anyway, there’s no rush as I still have tonnes of content to play through, and right now, there’s an in-game event to celebrate Hinamatsuri that awards a Far Eastern doll display. I guess I’ll put that in there when I get it.

Out in the real world, I now have the FFXIV lorebook Encyclopaedia Eorzea, as well as all of the excellent art books, including the latest Stormblood book. I’ve glanced through that and the two Heavensward books (while trying to avoid spoilers!) and I’d say they’re an absolute must for fans of the game, filled with beautiful art and concept pieces from across four years of Final Fantasy XIV. It’s safe to say I’m in deep now, and this time I don’t intend to get drawn away from Eorzea again. (Also, I really want this)

I’ll most likely post another update when I finally finish the 2.0 questline (hopefully this week or next!), but for now, here’s one more shot of Khroma, lazing in her room, with her ever-faithful Relm minion close at hand.

khroma relm bed


I’m a little more than a fortnight into my new Eorzean adventure, so I thought I’d post a little update on my progress.

In the time since my last post, I’ve joined a Free Company, run the first three ‘beginner’ dungeons of Sastasha Seagrot, The Tam Tara Deepcroft and the Copperbell Mines with a mix of fellow guildies and randoms – god bless the Duty Finder, which immediately put myself and a tanking friend into a couple of instances – and progressed past level 30. Having joined the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, I’m now heading towards a showdown with the Primal Ifrit, and reeeaaally looking forward to getting my chocobo soon. Because sod running about everywhere.

Upon hitting level 30, I was given a million gil and fifteen extra days of game time, which is very handy as I wouldn’t have been able to re-sub until the end of the month. And while waiting for FC members to run Sastasha, I also decided to try out some other classes; on my previous character I was a level 33 Bard, 17 Conjurer, 15 Pugilist and level 9 Weaver, so I decided to try a couple of different classes this time, just to see how they felt. So I’m now a level 31 Conjurer, 11 Thaumaturge and a level 6 Arcanist. If anything, trying these classes out has just reaffirmed that I want to continue on with my Conjurer until she’s ready to progress to White Mage.

Hanging out at Aleport, waiting for a Sastasha run

I’ve also since grabbed the Stormblood expansion, which included Heavensward, from CDKeys for just £15, so I guess I’m in for the long haul now. I’m still really enjoying my time with Final Fantasy XIV, and though I’m still a fair way away from where I was before (I was waiting to run Haukke Manor with members of my old Odin FC at the time), once I get there, I’ve got a hell of a lot of new content in front of me. Of course, it’s been a bit of a different experience anyway, seeing as I’m maining a healer this time rather than ranged DPS – I had played Conjurer to level 17 on my old character, but I don’t think I actually ran any dungeons on that class – and it certainly felt fresh, creeping through Sastasha while keeping tabs on a group’s HP (who am I kidding, I was basically the tank’s pocket healer!).

I’ve got some work to do before I can become a White Mage, however. It used to be that you needed a second class at level 15 to progress to a full job – in the case of White Mage, you needed Conjurer at 30 and Arcanist at 15 – but things have changed while I’ve been away from the game. I’m actually not sure how I progress now, but I know I have to be at least level 30 and to have completed a certain main scenario quest – I think it was a quest to do with the Sylph tribe, and all I can remember about them is endless dancing… /dance

Hopefully I can make White Mage before poor Khroma dances herself to death.

In other news, I’ve also been playing the recently-released Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which I just couldn’t get into back on the PS2. I played for about 12 hours, made it to the Imperial Dreadnought after a meeting with Marquis Ondore, and just left it there. Whether it was the story, the characters or the gameplay, FFXII just didn’t grab me back in 2006, yet this time I’m absolutely loving it. I think the fact that it was so different from Final Fantasy X put me off a bit, and the perception that it was an ‘offline MMO’ didn’t help things much. Having actually played an MMO in the intervening years, however, they really don’t have many similarities in my opinion. If anything, FFXII‘s ‘Active Dimension Battle’ system makes me think more of realtime with pause systems seen in western RPGs. I had wondered quite how I’d manage, playing both Final Fantasys XII and XIV at the same time, but I needn’t have worried – it actually feels fantastic to be playing two expansive fantasy-based instalments with plenty of lovely Akihiko Yoshida design work informing the look and feel of both worlds.

Square Enix have done a great job with this remaster.

The Zodiac Age features a ‘speed mode’ option, which allows you to speed up the action by either two or four times, and using that to zoom through the more mundane sections of Final Fantasy XII – like dungeon combat against trash mobs – means that I made it back to the Dreadnought in around seven hours, rather than my previous 12 or so, and I’ve even been taking my time to more thoroughly explore towns and other environments this time out. It’s a fantastic quality of life improvement that has helped me to genuinely fall in love with Final Fantasy XII – something I never thought would happen, and certainly not 11 years after its initial release. I thought at best that I’d feel more favourably toward this most idiosyncratic episode in one of my favourite series, so the fact that I feel this positive about it is an absolutely wonderful thing; having played so little of XII in the past, it may as well be a new Final Fantasy game to me.

One thing that’s still a bit of a mystery to me is the Gambit system. I thought I had my head around it in the early hours, but upon arriving at Bhujerba, hoping to rescue Penelo in the Lhusu Mines, I happened to stop in a Gambit shop and dear god, the options I saw in there. There must have been hundreds of them! I’m going to have to do my homework and figure out more than just useful early-game Gambits, because that shop made my head spin at the potential intricacies of the system. My next stop is King Raithwall’s Tomb, but I think I’ll need to do a bit of housekeeping before I set out, and try to properly wrap my loaf around Gambits. It feels exciting though, rather than a chore; can I get my battle party working like a well-oiled machine without me even needing to intervene? Time will tell!

No you’re not, Vaan. Stop being a silly billy.

It feels good to be so fully immersed in the Final Fantasy series again. I was cautiously optimistic about XV in the lead-up to its release, and I did find a lot to like in the final product, but even though they’re each very distinct within the wider Final Fantasy canon, XII and XIV are giving me all kinds of nostalgic, old-school FF feelings. I’d love to see another Matsuno take on a big-budget Final Fantasy, or to see what Naoki “Yoshi-P” Yoshida could do with an offline instalment. Who knows what the future holds? With Yoshida’s MMO going from strength to strength (and with a Matsuno-penned, Ivalice-themed raid on the way!) and Final Fantasy XII finding a new audience, I’m genuinely excited for the future of Square Enix and their marquee series.

/happy
It’s been a few days now since I restarted my journey in Eorzea, and so far, so good; I’m loving the experience all over again and really wishing I hadn’t quit at all three years ago. I’m still taking my conjurer through her paces in Gridania, but progressing rapidly.

I did wonder, when selecting CNJ, if I might get a little weary of the Black Shroud; Gridania was my starting city last time after all, so I’ve spent many an hour wandering beneath its boughs. I needn’t have worried; I loved the forest then, and I love it now. Gridania had always felt like a second home to me and I missed it sorely in my time away. It feels like coming home.

I’m also really loving the pace of things. I mentioned in my previous piece that leveling seems to have been sped up dramatically – I’m getting a 100% xp bonus for everything I do – and after just ten hours, some of which I’ve just spent wandering around, soaking in the atmosphere, I’m already at level 18! I’m sure things will begin to slow down at least a little bit soon enough, now that I’m into levels that require tens of thousands of xp, but right now, I’m flying.

Everything feels much faster paced, which I appreciate having done all this before, and it means there’s much less downtime; where previously I might have needed to grind out a level or two in order to accept my next main quest, I’m now significantly ahead of the curve and free to just carry on with the story. Don’t get me wrong, there was always plenty to do to help you level up, such as taking on levequests, participating in FATEs or filling out your hunting log, but this time I’ve barely touched any of that content, relying mainly on main and side quests to shoot through the levels. I did finish off my tier one hunting log though, if only for old time’s sake.

Gridania has always been beautiful

Not everything is smooth sailing though. I’m playing the game across both PC and PS4, and each platform comes with its own set of hurdles for me to tackle. As I’m playing on a laptop, I’m finding target selection a bit of a pain thanks to the machine’s trackpad – there’s just not enough travel there for me to quickly and reliably switch targets. On console, I managed to remember that handy ‘L1+R2’ combo to switch to the next nearest enemy, but I can’t remember how to reliably target allies – a bit of a problem when you’re a healer! I suppose on the PC side I could increase my trackpad sensitivity – and it’s something I’ll probably play around with – but I think I’d be better off buying a USB mouse (seeing as i can’t seem to find one anywhere! I’m sure I had loads of the little buggers knocking about…). As for targeting allies in PS4, well… I’d better figure that out before I hit my first dungeon!

One thing that made me feel genuinely stupid happened late last night, though. I’d forgotten to log out in a sanctuary, so jumped back on for a few minutes to get my Miqo back to the Carline Canopy – she deserved a nice soft bed for the night, and I needs that sweet rested bonus. I entered the Carline Canopy and jumped on a table to dance for a minute while I checked something else (there weren’t even any sylphs around), and while I was occupied I heard a notification sound. Someone sitting at the next table over had sent me a tell. “Hello,” said a fellow adventurer called Peregrin Took. “New to the game, or coming in from another server?”

‘Well that’s pretty nice’, I thought, ‘I’ll reply!’ Now, I was on PS4 at this point, and I know it’s been almost three years since I last played this regularly, but I’m not kidding when I say it took me the better part of five awkward minutes, standing motionless on that bloody table, before I figured out how to do that. Well okay, maybe three minutes to figure that out, and another two to type a message out using the PS4’s on-screen keyboard. I mentioned before that I used to be in a fairly busy linkshell – indeed, some days I’d just sit for an hour or more talking in-game – but when I used to do that, I’d have a USB keyboard plugged into my PS3. I’m going to have to dig that out again – luckily, unlike the mouse, that hasn’t gone walkabout!

It’s all a learning process though, even if it’s mostly *re* learning stuff I once knew and have since forgotten. The important thing is that I’m back in Eorzea, and I don’t ever want to leave again.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a massive Sega fan. Of course, the company makes it difficult for us diehards these days, having abandoned seemingly all of their incredible franchises of yore. No more Shining Force, no more Outrun or Daytona, no more Jet Set or Panzer Dragoon. No more Shenmue.

One series that rose from the ashes of Sega’s descent into third party publisherdom (if that’s not a word, it should be) is Toshihiro Nagoshi’s Yakuza series. While the franchise has struggled to find its feet in the West, it does well enough in its home territory to be heading towards its eleventh release with the upcoming Yakuza 6. It’s also often held up by fans as something of a spiritual successor to Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, and for that reason it’s a series that’s been on my radar for some time, but one which I’ve for some reason or other never gotten around to. As I patiently (not really) wait for the Shenmue 3 that I kicked $250 into to reach my grubby paws however, it seems like a good time to address that.

Only I didn’t start at the beginning. That would have made too much sense. Also, it would have cost me too much cash, as Yakuza 2 is pretty damned expensive these days. But I’ve had the PS3 titles, Yakuzas 3 and 4, sitting on my shelf unplayed since their respective UK release dates, so I jumped in at the third game. Handily, sitting in the main menu are recaps for the first two games that aim to catch any latecomers up on the overarching story of the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu.

Kazuma Kiryu

Having watched them, I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened in Yakuza 1 or 2. Something about ten billion yen going missing, and I think there was a gang of triads, or Korean gangsters, former friends turned enemy then back to friends, and there was a little girl and a big building. Point is, the catch ups don’t do a great job of communicating those stories to someone with zero prior knowledge. They delight in throwing names of people, organizations, alliances and events at you, and in such a condensed format, they just don’t stick in your brain. But that’s ok, because what they do manage to achieve is to give you a good feel for the kind of guy Kiryu is, and that’s really important. He’s a hard man, but an honourable one, and he’ll put himself on the line for his friends without hesitation. Clichéd? Perhaps, but there’s a lot more to Kiryu than stereotypes. He’s a fantastic, nuanced character, multi-layered yet easy to understand, and Yakuza 3 might just be the best place to see that for yourself.

We begin in Okinawa, at a beach-side orphanage run by Kazuma, ably assisted by a mature beyond her years Haruka – the aforementioned little girl who is now effectively Kazuma’s adoptive daughter. The start of the game is lengthy and rather slow-paced, taking a fair while to pick up a head of steam. Much of the early game is spent focusing on the relationships between Kiryu and the kids in his charge, and the game takes its time to introduce new characters, like the members of the local Ryudo Yakuza family. Returning players could understandably find themselves a little bored by the languid pacing, wanting to get stuck into the meat of the game, but for someone coming to the series fresh, I thought it managed to lay down an entertaining foundation, establishing Kiryu’s character as this stoic, erstwhile Yakuza chairman runs around tending to his kids, making sure they have everything they need, solving the odd dispute between them, and cooking them curry (again) for dinner.

Of course, it’s not long before Kiryu gets caught up in a complex plot involving a military expansion bill, a proposed resort complex, the land his orphanage stands on, and a grand conspiracy encompassing members of Kamurocho’s Tojo Clan, a man that looks an awful lot like Kazuma’s dead foster father, and even the CIA. Yeah. I told you it was complex, didn’t I? Again, there are a lot of names, organisations and titles thrown at you over the course of the 20-odd hour story, but in such a dense, plot- and character-driven game, you’ll end up remembering them all. Nagoshi’s team really excels in selling the relationships between Yakuza 3’s cast of characters, and there are bonds here that you will really see develop over the course of the story. Some are already ingrained from the start, like when you’re strolling down Tenkaichi street and Haruka hurries to catch up, taking Kazuma’s hand as she does. Others you will see grow over the course of the story, such as the fantastic friendship between Kazuma and the fiercely loyal Rikiya Shimabukuro, who may well be the ultimate bro.

Rikiya's a bit too into this

Though the series is often thought of as a sort of Japanese GTA, Yakuza 3 is structured much like a jRPG; you have your main plot thread, plenty of side quests, levelling up, which affords you new skills, and even random encounters, which, as ever, can get annoying when you’re just trying to get to the next plot point. Of course, combat isn’t exactly your standard jRPG fare, as fights in Yakuza are settled by brawling in the streets. You’ll punch with Square, throw in combo-ending kicks with triangle, and use the same button to activate powerful Heat Moves when you have enough meter; these do massive damage and, if you’re holding a weapon – which can be anything you pick up on the streets, from bicycles and signage to stun guns and even swords – you’ll get a bespoke animation for each when using a heat move. As previously mentioned, you can unlock new fighting skills as you level up, giving you access to new techniques, and best of all, you can learn new, elaborate heat moves by turning voyeur and videoing odd people doing crazy things in public – like watching a drunken salaryman try to pole dance on a lamppost – and then blogging the results with a hilariously dramatic flourish. It’s completely, wonderfully bizarre.

Of course, there’s more to Yakuza than the main story objectives, and that’s where the comparisons to Shenmue come in. If you fancy a break from all the brooding and brawling, you can head on down to the batting cages and hit a few home runs. Or maybe go bowling or sing your heart out at karaoke with Haruka. Then there’s darts, pool, golf, arcade and UFO catcher machines and tons more besides. Like Shenmue, Yakuza gives you a ton of different distractions and ways to waste time, and like Shenmue, while none of this is compulsory to drive the story forward, it does serve to enrich the world you inhabit. Yakuza is often labelled as an open-world game, and it’s a tag that ill fits the series in my opinion; the game’s two locations of Ryukyu and Kamurocho aren’t the sprawling landmasses you’d expect to find in a GTA or an Assassin’s Creed – they’re maybe the size of a single district in one of those games – but they are absolutely packed with things to do should you feel like you need a breather. Seriously, I finished the game in 24 hours and only achieved 12% completion!

Ultimately, how much Yakuza feels like a replacement for Shenmue comes down to what you take from that long-absent series. There are certainly similarities in the way you can choose to ‘waste’ time doing lots of extraneous yet fun activities, and also in the way that you’ll be fighting lots of goons in the streets (though Shenmue is more tied to the Virtua Fighter combat engine than the more arcade-y feel of Yakuza). However, if what captivated you about Shenmue was the setting, the atmosphere, the detailed slice-of-life portrayal of a Japanese teenager in the mid-80s, well, you won’t get that here. The tone of the two games can often be wildly different, too; while ostensibly a ‘serious’ yakuza/crime drama, Yakuza 3 isn’t afraid to suddenly turn incredibly gamey, often to the point of gleeful absurdity. Of course, Shenmue had a handful of goofier moments, like racing forklifts around Yokosuka Harbour or anything involving Chai, but there’s nothing that matches two guys tearing off their suits in one motion as their fighting spirit literally erupts from their bodies before they do battle on top of a skyscraper. It’s a game with a great sense of humour, that never lets its setting and subject matter get in the way of glorying in its nature as a videogame. For my money, Yakuza feels like Nagoshi’s team wanted to make an amalgamation of Shenmue and a 3D take on Streets of Rage, and dress it up in an elaborate yakuza-focused soap opera.

And that’s ok. Yakuza doesn’t need to ape Shenmue to justify its existence. For my part, while I didn’t manage to find a stand-in for Shenmue, I did manage to discover another Sega franchise to obsess over. Now I just need to find the time to play 4 and 5 before the next couple of instalments arrive on western PS4s.

Though it has since become the embodiment of the term ‘cult classic’ for the PS3/360 generation, NieR had something of an inauspicious start. Released a mere month after the hotly-anticipated Final Fantasy XIII to a middling critical reception, the game was hamstrung before it even hit store shelves. The fact that NieR was a spin-off of the already-niche Drakengard series that followed on from the first game’s ending E – where a giant statue and a red dragon faced off over the Tokyo skyline before being shot down by fighter jets – certainly didn’t help.

Things aren’t made much clearer when we get into the game itself, which opens in the summer of a post-apocalyptic 2049 as a desperate father strives to defend his sick daughter from strange, ethereal monsters. Realising he can’t beat the massed horde before him, he reaches for a strange book that seems to grant him magical powers. And then we spend about half an hour in a car park beating the crap out of monsters with a length of pipe. It’s not a great start, admittedly.

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

Things get even weirder as we abruptly jump 1312 years into the future. Far removed from whatever ravaged the world in the past, mankind now lives a more feudal existence, inhabiting small villages in and around the ruins of civilization. In one of these villages, a peaceful, green, walled settlement surrounded by vast, empty plains, live an oddly-familiar man and his sick daughter. In fact, they look exactly like that same pair from thirteen-hundred years ago. There’s absolutely no acknowledgement of this, of course. With a short voiceover, Nier tells us that his world is slowly winding down, once thriving populations now ravaged by disease, while strange monsters known as Shades roam the land, killing all those in their path. But Nier doesn’t care about any of that; his personal struggle is to save his daughter Yonah, and to hell with everything else. At the same time the player is on a parallel, and at times opposite, quest to discover just what happened in this strange world. Why do two people from 2049 appear to be alive in 3361? What was it that destroyed human civilization in the past? And just what are these Shades? Maybe Nier doesn’t care what’s going on, but you certainly will.

While many fans feel the game was given short shrift, it’s kind of understandable that critics were a bit mixed. NieR is a difficult game to review; on the face of it, it doesn’t really excel at much. It’s a game of competent design in graphical and gameplay terms, feeling something like a knock-off 3D Zelda to begin with, as you start in a small village hub, before journeying out onto a vast green plain and beyond. It’s fair to say that the graphics aren’t going to wow you, with much of the world being made up of blandly textured, low-poly environments, but despite the low-budget looks there is some really memorable design work to be found.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

Nier isn’t alone in his quest to save Yonah, of course; he’s joined by an interesting cast of characters in Grimoire Weiss, a talking book that grants him magical abilities (wonderfully brought to life by Liam O’Brien channelling the dearly-departed Alan Rickman), Kaine, a foulmouthed female warrior that likes to kill things first and ask questions never, and Emil, a young boy whose eyes can petrify anyone they look at. Your party members all see a lot of growth over the course of the story, especially Kaine, who, despite her rough edges, almost ends up being the heart of the game. Each of them also has a fantastic, memorable look to them, and while it’s unfortunate that the player character is rather bland looking, the same issue actually works in the enemies’ favour; the game’s oddly-intangible Shade enemies are barely recognisable as anything other than wispy, vaguely-humanoid shapes, and considering we aren’t supposed to know what they are or where they come from, it’s a smart way for both narrative and design to work together to help mitigate such visual shortcomings.

Likewise, there are some fantastic locations to be found. If the starting village is a touch underwhelming, and the Northern Plains nothing more than an expanse to be raced across from one plot point to another, you absolutely will not forget the Aerie, a suitably-eerie village suspended over a seemingly bottomless canyon that has shut itself off from the world, or the desert city of Façade, whose masked inhabitants must adhere to tens of thousands of arcane rules that govern every aspect of their lives and decree that no two buildings can be built on the same level. And the first time you see the Lost Shrine, an ancient sanctuary built atop a spire of rock that rises out of the mist in the centre of a cavernous valley, you’ll be left a little breathless despite yourself. NieR‘s world may not be rendered in the highest detail, but it has a tremendous sense of place.

Similarly, combat isn’t going to win any awards, being fairly workmanlike for the most part. There is a decent degree of depth there for those who care to look, with three different weapon classes to get to grips with and upgrade, a handful of magic spells, as well as words, equippable modifiers that will boost stats or add status effects to your arsenal. But in all likelihood you’ll stick to a single weapon and two or three of Grimoire Weiss’ spells for much of the game – there’s just not much of a reason to mix things up. Boss fights are another story entirely though. Huge, multi-part encounters that are half-RPG boss, and half-bullet hell shooter, these are fantastically imaginative moments that will live long in the memory – especially the two set in the Aerie that see the fighting span the entire town, forcing you to run, jump and climb all over its bridges and walkways to vanquish these enormous beasts.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Happily, average graphics and competent combat isn’t all that NieR has to offer. If there’s one game in recent memory that truly is more than the sum of its parts, this is it. The game excels in characters, story and music, all of which lend the whole a deeply mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere. On the narrative side, though much of the game is framed as a simple tale of a father striving to save his daughter, there’s far more going on than that – as should already be evident from that initially-baffling time-jump at the start of the adventure. Though you’ll get some resolution by journey’s end, there’s still much left unexplained, and it’s a decidedly muted ending; sure, you achieve your goal of saving Yonah, but at what cost to the rest of the world? Nier frequently reminds us that he cares only for his daughter and his friends, and his actions reinforce this. But more often than not, he’s acting out of complete ignorance of the bigger picture.

It’s almost like the apparent simplicity of the narrative seeks to mislead the player, and this same disregard for convention can be seen in gameplay, too. While structurally NieR is an action RPG, it doesn’t take long for the game to start messing with your expectations; enter a creepy mansion and you’ll find yourself in a Resident Evil game, complete with fixed camera angles and arcane key systems. Dive into an underground research lab and suddenly you’re in an isometric dungeon crawler. Need to ascend a series of scaffolds to reach a higher vantage point? Now you’re in a 2D platformer. Best of all is the section in the Forest of Myth where the game transforms itself into a text adventure for a short while, capped off with a few simple logic puzzles. Director Taro Yoko has said that this genre-hopping is something of a response to modern games that give up all their systems in the first thirty minutes, leaving little new to look forward to, and while it does give NieR something of a ‘master of none’ feel, it is genuinely refreshing to mix things up every now and then.

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

Topped off with a stunningly melancholic soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe that mixes haunting choral pieces with gentle piano-led compositions and rousing, vocal-led battle themes, it all comes together to create a package that is far greater than the sum of its parts. NieR is mechanically solid, graphically average, and yet utterly, utterly unforgettable.

Taro Yoko is often asked where the ideas come from for his “dark, insane” stories, and answering this question in a fantastic sock-puppet video interview for Drakengard 3 – called Philosophies of Violence – he explained that certain things he does are reactions to gaming tropes that he sees as crazy. Describing the thoughts that led to the original Drakengard, he said: “I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like, “You’ve defeated 100 enemies!” or “Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!” in an almost gloating manner. But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane.” These ideas informed the twisted, unhinged world of Drakengard, “where everyone’s wrong and unjust.”

It’s of course something many have touched on in recent years, that we seemingly have little input in many of the games we play, save for killing, and that these murderous sprees are rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the characters we embody or those around them. It’s not really something Yoko’s games strive to change, as such – Drakengard and NieR are action RPGs where you kill lots of enemies, of course – but he often uses the characters and narratives of his works to make players at least question this act and what it means for these worlds and the people that inhabit them. In the same interview, Yoko explains how his views shifted post-9/11, as the rise of terrorism and ideological conflict changed the vibe he got from the world at large.

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

Now the world seemed to be saying that you don’t necessarily have to be insane to kill someone, you just have to think you’re right. This thinking heavily influenced NieR, where the player character willingly slaughters his monster-like enemies without even knowing what they are and why they might be hostile. Indeed, he doesn’t even care, at one point responding to the insinuation that these are intelligent, sentient beings with the retort, “I don’t care if they can tap dance and play the fiddle.” What begins as one of Nier’s defining, positive characteristics – his desire and willingness to do anything to save his daughter – is turned on its head later on as players are made to wonder if it isn’t Nier, and by extension the player, that’s the real monster, the true danger to the world.

Those famous – or perhaps infamous – multiple endings play into this turnaround quite wonderfully, giving us new perspectives on events we’ve only seen through the rather blinkered, misled eyes of our protagonist, whether that be understanding the strikingly-familiar motivations of the apparent villain of the piece, or being able to understand the speech of the Shades you’ve spent twenty hours slaughtering. The game doesn’t allow you to deviate from the path, even with this knowledge, and it’s actually stronger and more affecting for that; at one point, you’re made to realise that a seemingly powerful boss you might have struggled to vanquish earlier was actually a defenceless child that you’re made to kill. Armed with that knowledge, it’s genuinely unnerving to be forced to do so. And should you make it to the fourth ending, you’re rewarded with a bit of quite brilliant fourth-wall breaking that is almost painful to watch. It’s absolutely worth seeing.

Looking back at his body of work, it’s clear that Yoko has ambitions that frequently outstrip his means, so it’s incredibly surprising to see a Platinum Games-developed sequel on the way. That’s certainly a team that understands gameplay, and with Yoko and Producer Yosuke Saito returning at the top, character designs by Akihiko Yoshida (of Ivalice fame) and another astounding soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe, Nier Automata is shaping up to be one of the most exciting games coming out this year.

Steins Gate

Steins;Gate, PS3, PS Vita

Originally released on Xbox 360 in Japan back in 2009, this wonderful visual novel finally made it to the UK this year on Vita and PS3. Steins;Gate stars teenage student Okabe Rintaro, the self-proclaimed insane mad scientist of Akihabara, as he sets out to create the world’s first working time machine in the summer of 2010. Of course, things don’t exactly go to plan.

Okabe is a wonderfully nutty eccentric. Going by the pseudonym Hououin Kyouma, he founds the Future Gadget Laboratory to further his mad scientist dreams of bringing chaos to the world, telling anyone who’ll listen of his apparent paranoid delusion of being chased by ‘The Organisation’. In reality, he’s got a really bad case chuunibyou. Although, you know what they say, just because you’re paranoid…

He finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy through space and time, doing all he can to fix the timeline he inadvertently messed with, and he’s joined by an equally engrossing cast of characters, including his childhood friend Mayuri Shiina, his right-hand man Itaru Hashida, and the new girl in town, aloof overachiever Kurisu Makise. Then there’s Suzuha, the mysterious ‘part-time warrior’, the cat-eared maid café waitress Faris NyanNyan, the quiet, unassuming Luka and the ‘mail demon’ Moeka Kiryu, nicknamed Shining Finger by Okabe for her prodigious emailing talent.

Tutturu

On the surface, these characters might sound like archetypes, but they’re far more than that; each has their own opinions, desires and beliefs, and each of them is more important to Okabe than perhaps even he will admit. Steins;Gate is a lengthy game, with a single playthrough taking upwards of twenty hours, as well as six endings to see, so it helps that the cast are such an engaging lot. When you finally put the game down, you’ll feel like you’ve lost a group of friends.

Though it seems like pretty standard anime fare on first blush, Steins;Gate can be pretty heavy-going, both emotionally and conceptually. This is a science fiction story, and while it takes plenty of liberties, it certainly doesn’t skimp on the theoretical physics, with plenty of lengthy discussions about the theoretical possibilities of time travel, or theological ruminations on the existence of the human soul. And of course, being set in Akihabara, it has its fair share of nerd-culture callouts, even if some of them are purposely obscure or camouflaged (I’m sure everyone can figure out what ‘Gunbam’ is, however).

Steins;Gate also goes to some seriously dark places, especially in some of the endings, which can be incredibly bleak. There’s also a lengthy section about halfway through the game that almost feels designed to emotionally break the player, but the game would be weaker without such inclusions. Steins;Gate spends hours building up its characters and getting you to care for them, before savagely deconstructing them in front of your eyes, only to offer possible salvation by jumping back in time and trying again. It might be a cliché to say that the experience is an emotional rollercoaster, but you’ll certainly want to get everyone to some semblance of a happy ending.

Kurisu

Put in the time, and you will. It can be pretty hard going at times, but Steins;Gate offers a compelling story and a fantastic cast of characters, and it’ll make you laugh, cry, cringe and smile. Sometimes all at once.

lismaxmain
Have you ever wanted to turn back time? Sure you have. We all make mistakes after all, wishing at times that the ground would open up and swallow us, embarrassments and all. And during the cautious, nervous years of adolescence, as we’re trying to understand the world and our place in it, these slip-ups seem all the more important.

But what if you could go back, rewind time to find a better outcome, or better yet, make sure you never stuck your foot in your mouth to begin with? This is the situation that Maxine “Max” Caulfield finds herself in at the start of episode one of Life is Strange, the new title from DONTNOD. The Parisian studio seems to have something of an obsession with our perception of time, first allowing us to mess with people’s memories in 2013’s Remember Me, and following that up by empowering us, through Max, to directly affect their actions by learning from them, and then rewinding to exploit them.

Comparisons have been made to Quantic Dream’s output, but in truth Life is Strange is something of an amalgamation of Gone Home and Telltale’s recent output seen through the lens of a lo-fi indie flick. For the most part, we’re on fairly familiar ground in gameplay terms; as Max, you’ll explore her environment, examining everything you see and talking to everyone who will talk to you, all the while moving from one small objective to the next, each a step along the path to a larger goal. You’ll also be making a number of choices as you go, and you’re encouraged to rewind and try again to see what might have happened under different circumstances.

Life is Strange's Max

This means that you can easily see the immediate outcome of each choice and then go with the one that seems to be the ‘best’, but while this sounds like it could have an adverse effect on the consequences of your actions, DONTNOD alleviates this concern by forcing you to accept your choices before moving on. These decisions will no doubt come back to haunt you later in the series, as well; already, there are some that seem right at the time, but by the end of the episode have you wondering whether that’s really true. An early decision offers you a choice between capturing photographic evidence of a friend being harassed, or to just step in and stop it right there and then, and one option certainly seems more valid in that moment. But maybe that photograph could come in handy down the line when you’re trying to prove someone’s wrongdoing?

The tone is quite far removed from the creeping dread and suffocating tension of the likes of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, too. Max’s adventure is possessed of a more gentle, autumnal feel, as she returns to her bucolic pacific-northwest hometown of Arcadia Bay after five years away to begin her studies at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, and this first episode is infused with a lazy, ‘school days’ vibe, the pacing deliberately and appropriately slow as Max explores her surroundings, her new abilities and herself, making observations about fellow students as she goes. That’s not to say Life is Strange is particularly light-hearted. There’s a dark thread of small-town alienation threaded through the entire episode, and while there are moments of tension, a couple of which are tantalisingly front-loaded and tied into Max’s newly-awakened powers, after these passages are over we’re returned to that languid, measured pace as we venture out onto the school grounds to immerse ourselves in Max’s new surroundings.

Max is something of a socially-awkward, unsure lead. She’s the quiet nerd in all of us, and as she struggles to find her place in the world, and subsequently understand her new gift, we get to experience it through her interactions and her playfully sardonic internal monologue. It’s a great way to anchor the player in the setting, and while we may not all be as shy as Max, we can surely all relate to being new to some thing or some place. She’s not much more settled in this environment than the player, so it makes sense that her inner thoughts are mostly centred around trying to make sense of her world, a design decision that does as much to inform the player as it does to reinforce Max’s character.

Life is Strange, Nerd cred,

Nerd culture references come thick and fast, and can sometimes be a bit overbearing, but they mostly work. The writers clearly know their audience, and it’s in these moments that the game delivers most of its humour.

Max also keeps a diary that gets updated as events pass, but go back a few pages and you’ll find there’s plenty to read that leads up to the start of the game, too. You can (and should) take a few minutes to read these earlier entries right from the off, and they serve as a good foundation for Max’s character, expressing her love of photography, her excitement at being accepted into Blackwell as well as her hesitance at starting a new chapter of her life. Some of the writing in Max’s diary can hew a little close to being obviously written by someone outside of their teenage years trying to think like a teenager, but it mostly holds up. In fact, Max is actually a pretty well-written character in general: while she loves her area of study, she’s also a proponent of the ‘why do today what you can put off ’til tomorrow’ school of thought; she hates the rich-kid cliques that enable and encourage bullying, but she’s not above rifling through a fellow student’s belongings or rearranging a photo wall to resemble an upturned middle finger; she’s somewhat unsure of who she really wants to be, but she’s also hesitant to find out. Basically, she’s a teenager, and her flaws and her contradictions make her all the more believable.

Then there’s Chloe. Max’s old “BFF” is almost unrecognisable to our heroine when their paths finally cross, and she’s very far from the girl Max remembers. Loud, brash, tattooed and blue of hair, she’s a good foil for our introverted, reserved heroine, quick to act where Max is more deliberate, and it’s immediately obvious that she hasn’t had an easy time since Max left. As Max and Chloe begin to rediscover themselves, their friendship and each other, their interactions are at first awkward and strained, and here we’re afforded another big choice: do we step in and help her out, strengthening the bond between the two young women, or do we stand aside and put our own interests first? It should be interesting to see how their relationship develops over the course of the series, and to what extent our decisions affect it, and it’s obvious by this first episode’s end that Max and Chloe’s friendship will form the core that the rest of the narrative revolves around.

Which is quite handy really, as the rest of the cast is filled out by a group of fairly typical high-schoolers; there’s the nerdy guy who’s clearly interested in our lead, the distant, troubled girl, the bitchy rich girl and a whole group of meathead jocks. And of course, every school setting needs at least one unstable psychopath to ratchet up the tension. While they’re clearly drawn from a bunch of archetypes, it’s a little early to label them stereotypes from one episode alone, and already there are a few characters whose arcs should hopefully be interesting to watch unravel as the episodes continue.

But at the heart of all that sits the mystery of Max’s new powers and the reveal at the episode’s climax of a looming threat to the small town, though we are of course none-the-wiser about what it will be that causes this unnatural catastrophe – only that Max, through her powers, is the only one that knows it’s coming. If future episodes of Life is Strange can deliver on the promises teased in this opening chapter, it’s sure to provide an interesting mystery story wrapped up in a poignant coming-of-age tale.

inqgroup
It’s fair to say that in the run-up to release, many have approached Dragon Age: Inquisition with, at best, cautious optimism. Others of course, have been downright pessimistic, lingering memories of Dragon Age 2‘s more reductive ideas and restrictive world still playing on their minds.

Some of us have been less restrained than the rest however, so when the game popped up on Xbox One’s EA Access service I couldn’t help myself. Six hours of pre-release Dragon Age fun? Oh go on then. The only problem I had to contend with was what class/race combo I was going to roll. My Warden in Origins was a Dalish rogue, but my Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was a mage, and I had loved both. So I decided to try both, playing the first hour as an elven archer before restarting and eventually settling on a towering qunari mage (don’t call me saarebas!); I have to admit, witnessing every other character in the game craning their neck to look my Inquisitor in the eye was amusing. With that, it was into the game proper.

The first hour takes the form of a prologue dealing with the immediate aftermath of a magical catastrophe at the Temple of the Sacred Ashes in Haven. What was supposed to be a peace summit to end the conflict between mages and templars that began in Dragon Age 2 ends in the deaths of hundreds, with your player character the only survivor. You awake in chains, confused, and you’re soon heading out with Cassandra to attempt to close the Breach that hangs ominously in the sky, and hopefully save your own life into the bargain. Everyone assumes you’re the cause of the cataclysm, so it might be prudent to do something about that.

The prologue is fairly linear, and sees you travelling up frozen mountain paths, battling demons and closing smaller rifts as you head towards the now-ruined temple and the enormous hole torn in the heavens above it. You’re introduced to dwarven rogue Varric (who has thoughtfully brought Bianca along) and elven apostate Solas, and as we battled our way up the mountain, I was immediately reminded of the Sacred Ashes trailer for the original game. This short prologue feels like it gets closer to achieving what that trailer promised than the relevant quest in Origins ever did (sans dragon, obviously), and you’re travelling through the same part of the world, too. I can’t help but wonder if the call-back is intentional.

After fighting your way up the mountain, you reach a forward operating base where you’re afforded your first choice. You need to push onward to the Breach, but do you take a dangerous mountain pass where some of Cassandra’s soldiers have disappeared, hoping to discover their fate along the way, or do you charge through the valley with the bulk of the forces? Ultimately, both sections play out much the same; a small rift battle, and a run-in with an NPC – Cullen, if you storm the valley. Upon reaching your destination, Varric worriedly points out that the Temple is infested with primeval red lyrium, and as you attempt to prise open the rift in order to properly seal it, an enormous pride demon bursts from the Fade to stop you.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

It’s a great first boss battle, an arena-based affair with a huge boss to wear down, a few waves of adds to deal with, and that Fade rift that needs closing. It’s also a good time to get fully to grips with Inquisition’s combat, which neatly blends elements from both of its predecessors. Should you choose to play entirely in real-time, the game plays much like Dragon Age 2, though with auto-attack mapped to a hold of the right trigger rather than requiring constant bashing of the A button. You also have eight quickslots for your talents now instead of six, with the right bumper button added to the previous games’ X, Y and B slots. The left trigger now switches between sets of four talents.

Playing entirely in real-time however means ignoring Inquisition‘s tactical camera, resurrected from Origins‘ PC release and now available on all platforms. Fans of the console titles’ radial menu-based pause-and-play system may mourn its loss (with the radial menu, on left bumper, now offering simple commands like potions and party-hold), but really you’re trading up here. You can enter tac cam at any point during gameplay, which allows you to scan the battlefield before even getting into combat, scoping out enemy positions, strengths, weaknesses and immunities at a glance, and the overhead view makes it possible to inspect the terrain, making it easier to move ranged characters onto higher ground, perhaps, or position a tank in a chokepoint to draw enemies in. And if you’re playing as a mage, the tac cam is invaluable in making the most of your AoE spells.

Much has been made of the fact that mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition have no healing spells, but it’s really not an issue. You have a finite pool of healing potions, but they can be re-stocked at a camp, which you can fast-travel to from anywhere. Moreover, the focus here is on damage mitigation rather than heal-spamming; warriors can generate Guard, a second health bar that protects main health by soaking up some damage, while mages have an area-of-effect spell called Barrier that does much the same, albeit for a period of time. It means that it’s no longer absolutely necessary to have a mage in the party, and should help to encourage more flexible party composition.

After defeating the pride demon and halting the expansion of the breach, you’re hailed as the Herald of Andraste. After a brief 80s TV-style “gettin’-things-done” montage, the Inquisition is reborn and you’re off to the game’s first truly open area, The Hinterlands. A verdant, fertile stretch of land in the heart of Ferelden, the region and its people are under threat thanks to the conflict between mages and templars. The first time you open your map to see a vast expanse of icons littering the Hinterlands, it’s more than a little overwhelming; it can be difficult to figure out where your focus should be, and so you strike out with your party to explore the surroundings. Don’t go too far in one direction though, as you’ll likely get wrecked by a roving group of bandits or maybe even an ill-tempered bear or two.

The best idea seems to be to spiral outward from your starting area, filling in your map as you go and and establishing further camps in the wilderness that you can use to rest, refill your potion stocks and even fast travel between. Doing so also extends the Inquisition’s reach through an in-game currency called ‘Power’ that you will need to accrue in order to further the story and unlock more regions. There are landmarks to claim for your faction and quests to undertake are everywhere. A good few of these seem to take the form of the “kill x of y” template so beloved of MMOs, but if you get bored of monster-culling, there’s always something else to do, like hunting down mysterious magical shards, picking herbs for crafting, or even just exploring to find yet another pretty vista. There’s so much to do – after five hours, I had uncovered what appeared to be less than half of the map of the Hinterlands, and this is just one region out of about ten. This game will eat your life.

Dragon Age Inquisition Hinterlands Map

This was my map of The Hinterlands after five hours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition absolutely nails the sense of exploration that I have always felt the series was lacking; with the exception of the relatively-sprawling Korcari Wilds, Dragon Age: Origins was fairly narrow in its environmental design, and the smaller scale of Dragon Age 2‘s world is now legendary. Inquisition updates Dragon Age for a post-Skyrim world, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a copy; while you can and will (and, more importantly, should) head off into the great unknown to discover what lurks in that dense forest or over that nearby hill, Inquisition‘s Thedas isn’t one large, contiguous landmass like Skyrim, but rather a number of large zones – again, that impression of an MMO comes to the fore – and though The Hinterlands is the only one I’ve seen so far it is absolutely rammed with all kinds of stuff to find and do, and positively dripping with detail. Just like in Skyrim, you’ll find yourself frequently side-tracked in the middle of a quest by some strange landmark that catches your magpie eye.

And this is to say nothing of the game’s visuals, which are splendid. Inquisition is absolutely drenched in colour, The Hinterlands coming across almost as a bright fairytale countryside, though torn with strife and infighting. Yet the fields and forests still teem with wildlife, some of which you’re going to have to hunt down to fulfil some of those aforementioned quests. In the snow-covered paths of the Frostback Mountains that make up the prologue, the sun glints off of the cracks in frozen-over streams and characters leave footprints in the snow as the powder kicked up by your party’s feet is carried away on the wind. The environment is so dense that after a couple of hours you’re given a search function (mapped to a click of the left stick) that subtly picks out nearby loot that might otherwise blend into the detail-rich scene. Codex entries and misplaced letters can be found all over the place, filling out the history of the region, and even landmarks inform you of their history when you claim them. You’ll stumble across mages and templars engaged in pitched battles, crafting materials will slowly grow back after you’ve passed through to harvest them, and heaven help you if, under-levelled, you wander into a surly bear’s territory. You get a sense of an environment that exists alongside you as much as it does for you, a world that could move on with or without your input.

After five hours, I can already see I’m going to lose weeks to Inquisition. BioWare has always made games that are reactive, but I’ve long wanted their settings to feel more like a real, sprawling world, rather than an interconnected set of places, and here the fantasy series feels like it’s really reaching to grasp its potential.

This is the most expansive Dragon Age has ever been, the most alive Thedas has ever felt.

Dragon Age Keep has finally emerged from closed beta, and is now open for all to get to grips with.

The Keep is a web-based tool that allows you to tailor your experience for next month’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. As save files from previous games can not be imported into Inquisition (mainly due to an engine shift from Eclipse to Frostbite 3), the Keep gives players the opportunity to go through the main story beats of Dragon Age: Origins, 2, and associated DLC and set the decisions they made throughout the course of those games. The resultant ‘world state’ can then be imported into the upcoming sequel when it launches next month.

Best of all, because it’s web-based, it’s cross-platform; maybe you’ve played the series on PS3 until now, but fancy playing Inquisition on PC? You can do that with Dragon Age Keep. You will, of course, need an Origin account and that account will have to be attached to your Xbox Live or PSN ID if you want to import your world state to either console version.

After logging into the Keep, you can first sync your progress from previous games. This won’t carry over your saves, but will bring in your heroes and collect various accomplishments from across the games and their DLC. It’s worth remembering that the Keep is still in beta, and the first sync did not find my custom Warden from Origins. My version of Dragon Age 2‘s Hawke popped up right away, and a second sync a few hours later managed to fetch my Dalish Elf from the ether.

Dragon Age Keep Varric Narration

After syncing, you can watch an animated retelling of the saga leading up to Inquisition narrated by Dragon Age 2/Inquisition party member Varric, and at any point you can stop it to edit your choices, changing the course of the story as you go. A better idea, however, is to exit out of the narration and go directly to the Tapestry, a colourful timeline that allows you to detail your story more directly. After doing this, you can come back and watch as Varric conveys your personalised tale.

The choices you can make are pleasingly granular, offering the full range of states for the major decisions, such as what happens to Loghain near the climax of the first game, but oddly, some choices that seemed almost meaningless at the time have made their way into the Keep; did you save Elora’s halla in the Dalish camp? What happened to Bella, the tavern girl from Redcliffe? The Keep wants to know, and I’m not entirely sure why. BioWare has said that not every choice you make here will carry across to Inquisition and that they plan for the Keep to be used for future Dragon Age titles as well. Beyond that, perhaps it’s just nice to have a more complete record of the mark your characters left upon the land of Thedas.

Dragon Age Keep Tapestry

The Keep is an excellent way of ensuring your Dragon Age history can follow you across generations, and of course you don’t even have to stick to the choices you made when in the previous games. But if I have one complaint, it’s that there is little context for the decisions you’re asked to make; if it’s been a while since your last playthrough, good luck remembering some of the more minor choices from the scant text provided, and heaven help any newcomers looking to tailor their world for Inquisition. Even having recently replayed Origins, I had to flick over to the wiki a few times to jog my memory. Newbies would be better served heading straight to the Varric narration and editing from there.

But as a means to bring your game history with you without the benefit of save game importing, the Keep is excellent, and with Varric narrating your past, more than just a compromise.

Tales of Xillia Milla and JudeThe Tales of series evolves slowly. If you’ve played one, even one of the earlier 2D titles like Tales of Eternia, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from the latest in the series.

While many will see this as a negative, for fans of the series it’s often quite the opposite; they already know they love the franchise, so they can be confident they’ll enjoy the next one. These games are jRPG comfort food, continuing to give fans a healthy dose of what they crave even when the genre began to shrink in size and importance. Over the last few years, Bandai-Namco have obviously seen a gap in the market to exploit, too: as the fortunes of the Final Fantasy series have dwindled somewhat, the Tales of series seems to have stepped into the breach to take advantage of the situation. It seems the publisher has renewed confidence in the series’ chances of success outside of Japan. Yes, now is a good time to be a Tales of fan.

Leading up to last week’s release of the latest in the series, Tales of Xillia 2, I decided to dive back into 2013’s Tales of Xillia for a second playthrough. Playing it for the first time last August, I absolutely loved the game, greedily devouring every side-quest and sub-event on my way to the final showdown in the Temporal Crossroads. Having almost exhausted the game’s content then, my plan for a replay was to quickly run through the main storyline before Xillia 2 released, but I was surprised to find myself drawn in all over again, gravitating towards much of that optional content against my best laid plans.

Tales of Xillia begins in a world called Rieze Maxia, a place where humans and spirits live in harmony. The humans of Rieze Maxia possess an organ called a ‘mana lobe’ that allows them to wield magic by offering a spirit some of the energy produced by this organ. In turn, the spirit is nourished by this intake of mana, and so the world keeps turning. Despite this, Maxwell, the Lord of Spirits has been sensing the death of many spirits. Fearing that humans have re-discovered spyrix technology, something that had apparently led to disaster in the past, Maxwell takes the form of a young woman named Milla and makes her way to the city of Fennmont. There, she meets Jude Mathis, a young medical student looking for his missing teacher at a secretive research facility. Discovering a conspiracy that could lead to the world’s end, Milla and Jude team up to tackle this threat, recruiting friends and allies along the way.

Tales of Xillia Alvin Xian Du

Xillia is notable for having two central protagonists, each with their own ‘campaign’. You can play through the game as either hand-to-hand brawler Jude or the magic-wielding Milla, and though the game plays out much the same across both, there are points where the characters split up. It’s best to play through as Jude first, as you will miss out on some fairly important plot points that simply go unexplained in Milla’s story, but if you have the time for two playthroughs it’s definitely worth seeing Milla’s side of the tale through. There is one very big point where the party splits, and it’s interesting to see what happens to Milla during her absence.

On the surface, the characters are a grab-bag of anime clichés. There’s the stoic protector, the uncertain but principled teen, the hyperactive sidekick who’s secretly in love with the protagonist, the distinguished older gent with a hidden past, the magical girl and the untrustworthy rogue. They’re all well-drawn though, and fleshed out through fairly extensive character-specific sidequests that shed some light on their pasts and their current motivations, while the game is also rammed full of the series’ trademark skits that further give the party identity. These skits are often a great source of humour, and it’s nice to play a game about a group of people staring down the end of the world that is handled with such an upbeat tone. Shoe-gazing is kept to a minimum, and the interplay between the characters is often played for laughs. It makes the party feel more human.

Tales of Xillia can be seen as both an evolution and a step back from Tales of Vesperia; its battle system is a neat evolution of that game’s Linear Motion Battle system which ups the tempo a fair bit, taking the best elements and streamlining them somewhat (it’s easier to determine an enemy’s resistances and weaknesses, for one) while also adding the excellent Link Arte mechanic. Link Artes allow two party members to group together to perform a stronger special attack by triggering specific artes at certain points and hitting the L2 button when a prompt appears. They also play into the series’ now-familiar Overlimit system: this time, the Overlimit gauge is segmented, and in order to fill it up, you’ll need to perform Link Artes at each threshold. Failure to do so means the gauge’s growth will stall, limiting your battle tactics. If you want to pull out those super-powerful Mystic Artes later in the game, you’re going to have to get used to arte linking.

I mentioned that Xillia can sometimes be perceived as a step back from Vesperia, and it’s generally felt in the environments. Gone is Vesperia‘s lavish world map, to be replaced with small zones populated with enemies to defeat and materials to scavenge. And whilst these areas do make the world itself feel smaller and more confined than Vesperia‘s (seriously, why is every field in Rieze Maxia hemmed in by canyons, anyway?), it is actually a step forward from its needlessly reductive predecessor, Tales of Graces. That game’s ‘fields’ were essentially long corridors with nothing to do but fight enemies on the way to the next cutscene (and everyone hated Final Fantasy XIII for that, right?), and its dungeons were even worse, often consisting of even narrower corridors with 90 degree turns that conspire to make the game-world feel as if it’s made from copy and pasted square tiles. Xillia has a handful of dungeons that feel like this (hello, Helioborg Fortress), but thankfully most of the game’s environments feel much more expansive and hand-crafted than those in Graces.

Tales of Xillia doesn’t quite reach the heights of Vesperia‘s beautiful visuals, either. That’s not to say it’s not a pretty game though; all titles in the Tales of series are very anime-styled but Vesperia, with its flat, almost-cel shaded aesthetic, often looked like an anime itself rather than an anime-inspired video game – it’s just a bit more stylised. Xillia is also a more muted game in terms of its use of colour, giving the world a more subdued feel, with areas like Fennmont, which is supposed to be under a blanket of perpetual night, bathed in deep ochres and dark greens. It still does a decent approximation of video game anime styling, but it’s just not as bold as we’ve been previously treated to. It’s also a bit of a mixed bag in it’s environments, with some areas being drenched in fine detail while others, most notably the field areas, can often look rather bland and drab.

Items and gear have also been streamlined somewhat. Typically in the genre, better items and equipment will become available when you reach a new shop in a new region, but in Xillia, shop inventory is mirrored across the entire world. The caveat here is that you have to level up the shops – through donating either money or the materials you harvest on your travels – and higher levels yield both new equipment and discounts on older gear, providing a system that is much more elegant than Graces‘ painful eleth mixer. It’s a great way to keep you tied into the world through both exploration (by searching out materials) and its development, and your reward for doing so is more powerful weapons, armour, accessories and food items.

Tales of Xillia battle Milla Condemnation

Ah yes, food. Long a component of the Tales of series, the cooking system has also seen a degree of simplification. In fact, it’s been simplified to the point that you don’t even have to cook anymore; you buy ready-made food at one of the aforementioned shops, and then use them to confer buffs upon your party for a set number of battles. So if you’re unprepared for a fight, you can gobble down some potato salad to increase your attack and defense stats, or if you’re really prepared you can eat a spicy chicken roll to earn double the experience from that battle. Again, it’s an elegant simplification that’s far easier to grasp than in previous entries and empowers the player to actually get to grips with the full range of tools at their disposal.

Players will often look down their noses as developers simplify or streamline systems in their games. Often, it’s taken to mean that a product has been ‘dumbed down’ to gain a wider audience. I don’t feel that that’s the case here; jRPGs are well-known for having dozens of arcane systems in place – often to do relatively simple things – and these can sometimes be so bewildering that even genre veterans ignore them. The changes that have been made in Xillia mean that everything the game offers is accessible to the player, enabling them to use all the systems to their advantage while also getting on with the fun stuff – the battling, following the twists and turns of the story, and of course becoming engrossed in the lives of a likeable bunch of characters. I think Tales of Xillia might just be the first jRPG I’ve played where I’ve fully understood how everything works, and I’ve been playing them since Final Fantasy VII and Panzer Dragoon Saga.

As much as I love Tales of Xillia (and I do utterly adore it), it’s not my favourite in the series. I feel like Vesperia was Bandai-Namco giving the series a damn good push before settling into a more focused (read: scaled back) design approach. Graces was a huge step back in many ways, and while Xillia clawed back some of the openness, it still feels like it’s on a smaller scale to 2009’s sprawling, 80-hour epic. But with the series seeing greater fortunes outside of its homeland, it looks like Hideo Baba’s team is willing to push at the boundaries again with the upcoming Tales of Zestiria, and this time they’re really pushing hard. Zestiria will launch next year, and it seems like the developer is looking to the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles for inspiration, with the game taking place in a huge, truly open world. It promises to be something a bit special, and likely the biggest shake-up the series has seen since it moved to 3D with Tales of Symphonia.

But going back to Xillia for a moment, and if there’s one criticism I can level at the game, it’s that an area called Elympios that opens up towards the end of the adventure is incredibly underused. It’s a massive plot point, but we see so little of this new environment that it’s difficult to get a sense of what it’s like and to begin to truly care about the place and its fate. Tales of Xillia 2 promises to fully address this criticism, showing us more of Elympios and its way of life, while also allowing us to spend more time with a great group of characters. Now that it’s here, I can’t wait to get started.