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Destiny 2 has been out in the wild for a week now, and in amongst all the talk of whether it truly feels like a sequel, I’ve been surprised to see how improved certain aspects are over the original game. I bounced off of Destiny a month or so after launch, for a number of reasons. Primarily, coming at it as a Halo campaign fan/massive lore nerd, Destiny‘s story mode was a complete and utter disaster; “I don’t even have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain,” might not have been such a massive howler, had the game expended literally any amount of effort to tell the player just what was going on. Tying into this was the complete lack of anything else for the single player to do alongside those meagre story missions.

Now sure, Destiny was always billed as a ‘shared world shooter’, so it can reasonably be expected that the primary focus would be on the things you’d be doing as a fireteam. But this was the next big sci-fi universe from Bungie, the creators of some pretty damn epic Halo campaigns, and if you check the back of the box? Well look at that! It says “rich cinematic storytelling” right there! Yet here was Destiny, a new universe set across expansive worlds, carrying an assumed sense of its own mythic weight, which gave you no reason to care, no motivation to explore.

This has all changed in Destiny 2, for the better.

I’m not going to talk about the campaign here, as I’m considering taking a look at that in isolation once I’ve completed it. Just know that it’s the best a story mode has ever been in this franchise (a low bar, to be sure, but it’s good nonetheless!). So let’s take a look at the additional content surrounding that, the rest of the PvE content that you’ll be tackling alongside the Red War, Destiny 2‘s campaign against the invading Cabal Red Legion.

Ooh, you can almost make out Oryx’s flagship.

We all remember patrols in Destiny. Those flavourless, contextless little sidequests that were used to bolster the PvE element of Bungie’s original game; you’d roam around a zone, stop at a flashing green beacon and be greeted with an almost entirely-meaningless one-liner, before being sent off to kill enemies and collect trinkets that suddenly decide to fall out of their heads for some reason. When a counter reached 100%, you were done.

These gave you no insight into Destiny’s world or characters, they were just mindless busywork. Destiny 2 instead gives us Adventures. On a surface level, you can think of these as three or four patrol missions strung together, though this time with full voice-acting throughout, and the odd large-scale setpiece battle that wouldn’t feel too out of place in the campaign. They feel like they fall somewhere between a patrol and a story mission, and they’re far more grounded in the worlds they inhabit than Destiny 1’s patrols ever were; you’ll always understand what you’re doing and why, and you’ll probably learn a bit more about the characters around you and the places in which they’ve made their homes. Whereas Destiny‘s patrols told you nothing about anything, Adventures are not only more engaging to play on a moment-to-moment basis, they also serve to enrich Destiny 2‘s worlds.

[For clarity, Destiny 1-style patrols do eventually return in Bungie’s new game, tied into a sidequest late in the campaign, giving you repeatable, quick content to farm. While Adventures can apparently be reset by talking to each zone’s resident NPC, story missions are one-and-done this time out.]

Another new type of content in Destiny 2 are the Lost Sectors that dot each zone, and you can think of these as mini dungeons; you won’t be descending through the depths of massive cave systems a la Skyrim’s dark places. Typically made up of a few rooms and a final, arena-style boss encounter, Lost Sectors might take you about ten minutes to blast through once you’ve found an entrance (telegraphed by a specific piece of graffiti on a wall or other structure nearby). They’re never too hard to find your way into, and you’ll likely stumble into a fair few if you’re a natural explorer, but they very neatly display how much more love has been poured into Destiny 2‘s worlds this time around. Whereas there was little scope to explore Destiny‘s zones at all, the new zones here are full of little nooks, crannies, caves and underground tunnels to ferret out. The European Dead Zone in particular is the best playspace Destiny has ever offered, with only Oryx’s Dreadnought coming close from the first game.

Public Events may not be something new, but they’ve improved quite a bit in Destiny 2, feeling far larger and more dynamic than they have before. Some will be immediately recognisable, like an event where you’ll be defending a static point against waves of aggressors, but even they mix things up, by, for instance, periodically bombarbing the area with laser-guided missiles fired from an orbiting ship – if nothing else, it certainly adds to the spectacle. A particular favourite of mine is Injection Rig, which sees a huge Cabal mining platform drop from the sky. A dome shield surrounds the rig, and you’ll have to periodically evacuate the dome to survive, all while fighting off fodder Cabal as well as tough, unique yellow bar units. It’s absolutely thrilling, and each Public Event also comes with a Heroic modifier that can be activated in specific ways, making the battle harder and the rewards greater.

The Tower is dead, long live the Farm

Tying all of this together is an actual, honest-to-god map. A map that you actually open and look at, and everything! In the first Destiny, you could only ever see a map of the zone you were loading into as you hovered in orbit, picking mission icons from a map that you could never really place yourself in; it may as well have been an abstract representation of the playspace you were about to shoot your way through. Now, holding a button brings up the local map, showing your current position and heading, as well points of interest such as story missions, Adventures, approximate locations of Lost Sectors and more. This is most helpful for Public Events, as – yes! – not only will your map highlight their locations but also provide a countdown letting you know when they’ll start. No more relying on external services to track Public Events, or hell, even just aimlessly roaming about hoping to stumble upon them!

All of this serves to give a greater array of things for the single player to do, to the point where I’d probably be happy to recommend Destiny 2 to someone who’s just looking for some single player sci-fi FPS fun. Sure, they’d be missing out on the pinnacle of the Destiny experience of running high-level content with a competent group, but there’s an engaging campaign this time around, bolstered by plenty of world-enriching side content in the form of Adventures and Lost Sectors, all of which can be completed entirely on your own. If you’re looking for a fun time in solo PvE, there’s probably at least 20 hours worth of content – meaningful content, this time – here for you.

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I thought I’d do something a bit different today. Last night, a few ideas popped into my head for a (very) short story, and I decided to get them down before it all disappeared back into the aether, as so often happens. This is a gaming blog, so I’m not going to start flooding it with my own fiction, but I have nowhere else to publish this, so this is where it’s going. And if you count the fact that I had P.T. on my mind when the story took shape, you could almost say it’s gaming-related, in an incredibly roundabout way.

So, if you’re interested, give it a read and leave a comment letting me know what you think. If I end up writing more shorts, I might start another blog for them.

Michael’s Story

He’d definitely heard something. Michael crept out of bed and tip-toed across the room, reaching for the door handle. Slowly, quietly, he eased open his bedroom door and stepped into the hall.

It was in darkness, save for a shaft of intense light cast on the opposite wall at the far end of the hallway. “The bathroom light,” he said out loud to himself, realising the door was ajar. “I’ve left the bloody bathroom light on again.”

He took a few paces down the hall, but something was nagging him in the back of his mind. He stopped a metre from the bathroom door, suddenly realising what he’d forgotten: a noise had woken him. Perhaps he’d left the window open as well, and a breeze had knocked something off of the windowsill? His subconscious was telling him he was wrong.

Gingerly, Michael reached out to the bathroom door, feeling the hairs on his arms rise, his scalp tightening. He realised he’d been holding his breath, and silently exhaled. The bathroom door suddenly slammed shut, as if pulled from within, and the sharp crack resounded in the sudden darkness. Michael, stricken by the unexpected shock, found he couldn’t get his body to move. His mind screamed for escape, even as his arm disobeyed and reached out to open the door. It was as if he was watching with no control, imprisoned in his own mind and forced to watch when all he wanted to do was flee.

His hand clasped the door handle, pushed it down. The door gently swung open with an almost apologetic creak, and he saw the room was in complete, inky darkness. It was the blackest, most suffocating darkness he had ever seen, and everything about it radiated a sense of wrongness that prickled his skin. As he made to close the door, there was a muffled shuffling sound, as if someone was pulling a heavy, wet sack across the floor, and he froze anew, every nerve on fire now.

He took a sluggish step back, bumping into the wall on the other side of the hallway as a strangled croaking sound began to emanate from the dark abyss of the bathroom, like some awful death rattle escaping something he couldn’t see. This time, he found he could move. He bolted for the front door, throwing his shoulder into it as he pushed down the handle, and he flew out over the threshold, out of the house, away from the hellish sound that was still ringing in his ears. He heard the door slam shut behind him and squeezed his eyes closed for a second to drive out the last echoes of noise.

When he opened them, he was not where he should have been. Instead of finding himself on his driveway, his small silver hatchback in front of him, he was in a dark, narrow red brick alleyway. Tall buildings rose on either side of him, closing him in like some suffocating urban canyon. Black metal fire escapes lined the walls on either side, but none of them looked reachable, suspended just out of reach, and seemingly all bereft of their lower ladders. He spun around. The house was gone, replaced with a solid brick wall. He reached out to it slowly, stroking it with the tips of his fingers before flattening his palms to it. He pushed, and was sure he felt the wall push back. He backed away, putting some distance between himself and the impossible wall where his house had just been before turning back to look at the alley again.

Michael’s mind reeled. Was he dreaming? No. No, this was far too real. He’d never experienced such cold, mortal terror in a dream as he had standing in front of his bathroom door just moments ago, and he could feel malice emanating from… from whatever had been in there. Maybe he was losing his mind? Maybe the break-up, piled on top of everything else he’d had to deal with over the last year, had finally caught up with him and just broken him? Maybe his body was locked in a padded cell somewhere, while he – the real he, the lucid he – was trapped here, fighting the nightmares in his head?

He reached out to the side wall of the alley, brushing it with his fingertips, feeling the rough texture of the brick. No. This was real. It was too real to be anything but. He had to find a way out.

The other end of the alley seemed to open up onto a wide street of some kind, and Michael quickly strode toward it. As he came closer, he realised that a chain link fence barred his path. He tilted his head back to look up. The fence reached all the way to the roofs of the buildings. While some logical part of him registered that that was clearly abnormal, Michael’s first conscious thought was that there no way he could climb it. He was trapped, and his fear was starting to return, propped up by his mounting frustration. His fingers closed around the metal of the chain link fence, and he leaned forward. “HELP!” he shouted into the street beyond. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”

No reply came. He pushed his face closer to the fence, trying to peer out into the well-lit street. It was night, but there were still a few cars on the road, their headlights illuminating the asphalt as they drove by, while a couple of streetlights threw sickly yellow pools of light onto the pavement here and there. He saw someone step into the light under one of the streetlights, casually walking along the street wrapped up in a heavy rain mac, carrying an umbrella. Reflexively, Michael glanced up again, putting his hand out palm up, as if to confirm to himself that it wasn’t raining, and wondering to himself why the person on the street was carrying an umbrella. Shaking the thought from his mind, he called out again. No response. He called again. “Hey! Hey, can you hear me? I need help!”

The person slowed, and glanced around curiously, almost as if they could barely hear Michael. Yet they were only about twenty feet from the mouth of the alleyway. He shouted again and the person turned. Michael realised it was a woman, and he called again. Still no reply, though this time, the woman took a few cautious steps toward the alleyway fence, stopping about fifteen feet away to peer into the darkness. How could she not see him? In the darkness, he couldn’t make out the features of her face, but he thought he saw something glint where her eyes would have been, as if something shiny had caught the light.

He drew in a breath, intending to call out to her again, his frustration mounting now, though tempered with the tiniest bit of hope that someone knew he was here. He didn’t get a chance. In an instant, the woman was right in front of him, her face merely inches from his own, on the other side of the chain link fence. Michael quickly staggered back, tripping over his own feet in his effort to get away, and fell heavily to the ground. She hadn’t taken a run at him, she had just appeared there. One second she was fifteen feet away, and then she was just there.

He sat there for a second, stunned, as he began to hear a low, quiet, throaty growling sound from the edge of the alleyway. Wide-eyed, fighting back sheer animal terror and the hardwired instinct to run, he slowly lifted his head to glance up at the woman’s face, but there was nothing there, just a deep, dark pool of blackness under the rim of the umbrella. But he could see her eyes, or what should have been her eyes: two intense rings of red peered out at him from beneath the umbrella, as if they’d been scrawled there by a difficult child with a crayon in its fist.

She cast her gaze about slowly, as if she knew he was there somewhere but couldn’t quite make him out. Michael immediately froze, not wanting to move a muscle and give himself away in front of this… thing. He noticed her head was moving slightly every now and then, and focused on the motion. He could hear her breathing. No, not breathing. She was sniffing at the air, as if she were a predator trying to get his scent, and the realisation turned his blood cold. He fought a back rising tide of despair; seconds ago he had thought she might be his salvation, yet now he was being… hunted? And he was trapped here. He tried to focus his thoughts. He had to get out of here, he had to escape, and giving in to that despair would not help him.

He edged away slightly, inch by inch on his backside, and realised now that the ground was wet, as if it had been raining. More than that, he could hear the rain now, even if he couldn’t feel or see it – not here in the alleyway or outside in the street. The strange creature seemed to notice it though, and shrieked in annoyance, and Michael had to cover his ears as the sound bored into his skull, a horrifying din like someone dragging their nails down a chalkboard while gargling broken glass. The woman stopped screeching and cast her gaze about again, more impatient now, and Michael decided this was his chance. Keeping his eyes fixed on the creature in the rain mac, he carefully stood up and took a couple of hasty steps back. Her head snapped in his direction, those burning red rings staring right at him, and her hands grabbed at the metal of the chain link fence. He couldn’t quite make out her hands either, as if they were made of shadow, but her fingers seemed unnaturally long, pointed, sharp. She made no sound now. Could she see him? He froze, not daring to move, and the creature, seemingly frustrated, began casting her head around again, even as she gripped the metal links of the fence. She must have lost him.

He took a few more steps, and the creature began to shriek again, thrashing at the chain link fence as she did, as if she was going to tear it free to get at her prey. Then, as abruptly as she had begun, she stopped, her arms slowly dropped to her sides, and her body turned on the spot as if to leave. Not her head though. It stayed exactly where it was, peering into the dark alleyway, before that too turned, catching up to the rest of her, and she walked away down the street, looking again like a normal pedestrian huddled under her umbrella against the rain. Michael, breathing rapidly now, his heart threatening to burst from his chest, backed up a few paces and glanced over his shoulder back down the alleyway. He couldn’t make any sense of this; he wondered again if he was going insane – anything to explain away the things he was seeing – and forced those thoughts out of his head again. He had to focus. He had to escape first, then he could stop, think, figure out whether or not he had cracked. Right now, it wasn’t a priority. He had to run. He had to get away. He had to stay alive.

But he couldn’t go back the way he came – it just wasn’t there anymore – and getting out onto the street was clearly out of the question. He had no choice but to find a way up. He started to walk back down the alleyway, glancing over his shoulder every few paces, suddenly aware of how exposed he was in the middle of the dark alley with nowhere to hide if the predatory creature came back for him.

He noticed that one of the fire escapes about two thirds of the way back down the alley did have a ladder to ground level. Had that been there before? He was almost sure it hadn’t, and he approached it cautiously, as if he expected it to suddenly fly up out of his reach to taunt him. He reached out with his right hand, and was almost surprised when his fingers closed around the edge of it. He let out a small, involuntary laugh of relief, and then heard another sound, like stone shifting against stone. He spun around to face the back wall of the alleyway and was sure he saw it move. It was. Almost imperceptibly at first, but then it started to slide in his direction, the entire red brick wall. It was coming for him.

He immediately turned back to the ladder and started climbing, hauling himself up onto the first landing of the fire escape, and pulled himself along the handrail towards the next set of steps. Every time he reached the next landing, he was facing away from the oncoming wall, but he didn’t dare glance back to see how far off it was. He had time, he was sure of it. He just had to keep moving, keep running, keep climbing. He allowed himself a glance up to see how many floors were left above him. He was sure he’d cleared five or six now, but the top seemed no nearer. He glanced down as he ran, and saw that the ground was now very far below him – if he fell, he would surely be dead, never mind the wall.

Finally, the top was in sight. “I’m going to make it!” he shouted to no one in particular, just as he heard the groaning of metal. He reached the next landing and turned to see that the wall was now right on top of him. Though the fire escape was slowing its progress, it wouldn’t last long. The unstoppable wall was starting to crush the staircase, tearing it from the wall. And Michael was a long way from the ground. He kept running, his lungs burning with the effort, his legs threatening to collapse under him. He pumped his arms, pounded up the final steps and threw himself onto the roof, a split second before the wall – impassive, uncaring – tore the steps from the wall and sent them clattering loudly into the darkness below.

Michael lay on the roof, wheezing, trying and failing to slow his breathing. Every part of him ached and protested. He didn’t have the strength to stand now. He needed a few moments to recover. He rolled onto his back and lay panting, staring up at the bright, twinkling stars that dotted the night sky, the sounds of the other falling fire escapes beginning to recede until there was silence once again.

He had no idea how long he’d been laying there. His breathing had steadied enough now, and though his chest ached and his muscles burned, he forced himself to roll onto his side so he could try to stand. He didn’t make it that far. As his perspective shifted and his vision focused, he realised he was not alone on the roof. He rose to his knees as a blinding light shone directly into his face, blotting everything out. He put his hand up to shield his eyes, and the intense light suddenly died away. He shuffled backwards instinctively and blinked, struggling to regain his sight, and as his view of the rooftop resolved, he saw…

Welcome back to Postcards from Eorzea! It’s been a couple of weeks since my last update as unfortunately I haven’t had a great deal of free time to put into Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn recently – those Games of the Generation posts have really been eating into my free time! So here’s a callback to one of my earlier postcards, where I grabbed a nice image of my character running through La Noscea on a rented chocobo. Here though, I have my own steed!

Khroma Midgard 17_10_2013 00_59_09

Mounts become available once you join one of Eorzea’s three Grand Companies and then accrue 2,000 company seals to pay for your licence. I went with the Gridanian Company, The Order of the Twin Adder, because Gridania is my hometown and I just love the place. If I’ve been away for a while, returning to the leafy environs of the forest nation feels like coming home.

Once you’ve got your licence, a chocobo is yours. Of course, you’ll have to name your mount, and this can be done only once, so choose wisely! I named my glorious steed Belius, after a character from Tales of Vesperia. Because they’re both yellow.

BONUS ROUND!
Here’s a bonus pic of my other mount, my Coeurl that I got from the collector’s edition of the game. As much as I love its design, I prefer Belius, as unfortunately your company chocobo is the only mount you can name. Still, it looks damn cool!

Khroma Midgard 17_10_2013 00_56_27

I’m going to have to put a bit more time into the game – soon enough, Lightning will be arriving in Eorzea. The final two parts of the quest, at levels 38 and 45 respectively, are currently out of my level range, so I’ll need to get levelling!

Feel free to share your own postcards from Eorzea, and let me know in the comments what you think of Naoki Yoshida and his team’s world. I’ll share another of my shots next week. To browse through this and previous editions of Postcards from Eorzea, click here.

Welcome back to the second and final part of Push Start’s Games of the Year feature! A few days ago my good friend Dan gave us his top five picks, as well as a handful of this year’s games that he hopes to catch up with in 2013. I’ll be doing the same, and I’ll also be throwing in an honourable mention or two before I get down to my own personal top five. So let’s start off with those that I need to catch up on.

FarCry 3
I’m actually playing this one at the moment, but I’ve not played enough to really give it an honest appraisal. Like Dan, I checked out the demo at September’s Eurogamer Expo, and found it fairly similar to its predecessor – in general, this is a good thing, as I loved and hated FarCry 2 in equal measure. I loved the world, the gunplay and the way fire spread outward to consume the unwary; I hated the respawning checkpoints, the enemies that could see you hiding in the long grass from a mile away and snipe you with a rusty AK47, and bloody weapon jamming!

A fifteen minute demo was too short a time to see if these problems and issues had been excised, but after a few hours with the game, it seems to be the case. Detection is now made clearer by a bar showing how close you are to being spotted, taking an enemy encampment now means you keep it (hooray!) and weapon jamming is gone, seemingly in favour of a paucity of ammo. The result is that FarCry 3 is more or less the game I always knew FarCry 2 could be, but it’s also been weighed down with scavenging, hunting, crafting, and an XP/skills system, and I’m not entirely sure these mechanics are to the game’s benefit. It makes it feel like Skyrim with guns at times, which might sound amazing, but I’ve found that, for me, all this detracts somewhat from the main thrust of the game. I’m also yet to find any sidequests which don’t just boil down to fetch quests, and I wish there wasn’t any forced stealth in it – I like being a sneaky git, but it should be an option, not an instant fail if you’re spotted. Still, it’s early days yet, and it’s as easy to lose hours in this game as it is to do so in Skyrim.

Dishonoured
Like FarCry 3, I also played the demo of this at EGX, though I didn’t really enjoy it. I liked the idea of it, but it’s just not a game that demos well in a public setting, I think. For a start, you’re dropped into a mission without much explanation of what you’re doing and what your abilities are for, which does leave you free to experiment, but I didn’t really feel able to mess about considering it was a public demo in a gaming con. Perhaps playing the demo at home would’ve allowed me to get into it at my own pace.

As I said, though, I liked the idea of the game, I liked the art direction, and I did enjoy what I played – I just felt a bit out of my depth. A good friend was kind enough to get it for me for Christmas, so I will be playing it. I’m sure I’ll love it when I can play it at my own pace.

The Last Story
I really, really want to play this. I can’t say for sure why I’ve not yet done so, as I was massively looking forward to this, the latest console jRPG from one of the grand masters of the genre, Hironobu Sakaguchi – the man known as the Father of Final Fantasy. It should be apparent by now that I’m a massive fan of Final Fantasy, and of Sakaguchi (Lost Odyssey, created by his Mistwalker team, is one of this generation’s best jRPGs), and I of course pre-ordered the limited edition version of The Last Story, which came with a gorgeous, richly-coloured artbook and a lovely soundtrack CD composed by fellow Final Fantasy stalwart Nobuo Uematsu – which I wrote a Musical Mondays piece on a while back. It’s a beautiful set, complete with a golden steelbook case, and I confess I pick it up and look at it every now and then.

So why haven’t I played it yet? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I played a lot of RPGs last year and needed a break from the genre. Yet here I am, knee deep in The Witcher, and planning to play through a slew of other RPGs afterward. Maybe I should bump The Last Story up to the top of the list?

Tales of Graces f
I’m a bit of a latecomer to the Tales of series – a good friend recommended Tales of Symphonia to me back on the GameCube, and he tried again when Vesperia came out on the 360. To my eternal shame, I didn’t take on board his suggestions, but I did make sure to grab a copy of the 3DS remake of Tales of the Abyss, and I absolutely loved it. I then made sure to hunt down a copy of Tales of Vesperia and loved that too… well, I’ve not quite finished it yet, which is why Tales of Graces f still sits unloved on my gaming shelf.

I pre-ordered ToGf on the strength of those other two Tales of games, and ended up with the lovely Day One edition that Namco-Bandai put out (of which I posted an unboxing video here on Push Start), and I am really looking forward to playing it eventually… But with Ni No Kuni coming along in the next few weeks, I think it’ll have to wait a little longer.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
I’d heard great things about both of the Witcher games since each was released, and bought the Xbox 360 version of the second, Assassins of Kings, intending to check out the main narrative beats of the original title on Youtube.

Instead, I ended up buying The Witcher on Steam, despite my PC only having integrated graphics. So I bought a new PC and I am currently playing The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, and will then get around to The Witcher 2… Hopefully. As I hinted at above, I’m also getting massive urges to play a ton of RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic… Maybe I should put it to a vote!

Oh, and I also missed Assassin’s Creed 3 this year, but as I’m yet to play Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, I’m not too fussed about that…

Honourable mentions:
I want to give a quick shout to Resident Evil: Revelations, a 3DS exclusive that I loved a lot more than the more recent Resident Evil 6. It looked so good that it deadened the impact that Uncharted: Golden Abyss had on me when I got that shortly after, and it played beautifully with the Circle Pad Pro. I enjoyed the slower place of play and the scanning mechanic reminded me of Metroid Prime to a degree. Sure, the story was overblown hokum, but again it turned out better than Resident Evil 6 in that regard.

One more shout out before we get to my top five: Final Fantasy XIII-2. While I’m one of the five people that really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII, it cannot be argued that it was stripped back to the bone in gameplay terms. Spreading the party out into groups of two and shifting between them every now and then helped mitigate the relentless forward momentum, and an excellent battle system kept the pace up. Its sequel did some things better, and some things worse. Firstly, it was decidedly less linear, thanks to both larger environments with occasional branching paths and a time-traveling mechanic that meant you could go back to previous areas whenever you wanted.

However, your main characters were a duo consisting of a bit part player from the first game and a total newcomer – Lightning, the previous game’s stern heroine is curiously absent for much of the game. The story was also weaker than the first part, and the battle system has been somewhat compromised, making the stagger mechanic, the beating heart of XIII‘s combat, almost worthless outside of boss battles. With Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII now in development, I’m hoping Square Enix can take the best of both, add some new stuff and give us something really great

And so, here we are: Push Start Gaming’s Top Five Games of the Year:

5: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
srt
“A Sonic title in a list of the year’s best games?? Surely not,” I hear you cry. Well, yes. I can understand your scepticism. The old blue chap hasn’t had the best of times since bursting out into the third dimension in the late nineties, but his more recent games have been getting steadily better. The Wii exclusive Sonic Colours was a very good start (even if at times it resembled a high-energy rollercoaster), while last year’s Sonic Generations was a perfect evolution of the Colours formula and served up an excellent 2.5/3D Sonic adventure that offered a good, hearty helping of nostalgia for the errant Sega fan, and became one of my favourite games of 2011 as a result.

This form has continued into Transformed, a sequel to 2010’s well-received fan-service racer. This time, some characters have been excised (no more Ryo Hazuki!) and others have been added to the star-studded roster, which now features the likes of NiGHTs, Jet Set Radio‘s Gum and Skies of Arcadia‘s Vyse. The big gameplay hook this time is rather obvious from the title; as you race around beautiful racecourses inspired by various Sega games (some of which are utterly, brilliantly mental), both course and vehicles transform, allowing you to drive, sail and fly around the environments.

Handling is uniformly excellent across all three modes (to be expected from Sumo Digital, of Outrun 2 fame), though if I have one complaint about the transforming aspect, it’s that boating feels a bit too slow. Karting absolutely flies by comparison, especially if you nail the drifting mechanic, which allows you to build up a boost of up to three levels should you hold a long enough drift. And trust me, you’ll need it, as this is a tough game even on ‘normal’ difficulty. It’s probably worth your while to start out on ‘easy’ and work your way up once you know the tracks.

And know the tracks you will, given the generous amount of modes on offer. You have five cups consisting of four races each, reminiscent of Mario Kart‘s GP mode, as well as a world tour mode that throws standard racing at you along with specific challenges, such as drift zones (I’m sure I remember one of the PGR games doing this years ago, but it’s still great fun here). The requisite single race and time attack modes are also catered for, as is a multiplayer matchmaking mode that I’m yet to try out.

All this stuffed in, and yet the game was released at a lower than usual price. As far as I’m concerned, it’s at least up there with recent entries in the Mario Kart series, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be getting more out of it than last year’s MK7. Put simply, if you like kart racers, you owe it to yourself to get this one.

4: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
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If you checked out Dan’s list the other day, you’ll notice some cross-over here. That’s because I all but forced him to buy this game (it’s not as sinister as it sounds; I knew he’d love it, so it was for his own good, really!). I’d had my eye on this Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action game for quite some time before release, and expected it to be a somewhat limited, yet fun little curio. If you’d have told me before release that I’d end up putting 80 (yes, eighty) hours into it and naming it as one of my favourite games of the year… well, I doubt I’d have believed you.

Theatrhythm is, as I said above, a Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action game. On the top screen of your 3DS, you’ll see your note chart, characters or backdrop (depending on the type of music playing), and you’ll furiously swipe along on the bottom screen with your stylus. Very furiously, if you’re playing some of the harder songs on Ultimate difficulty (damn you, ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’!). There are three types of track to play along to: battle themes see a party of four characters of your choosing arranged alongside the right, with enemies on the left like Final Fantasy of old, and four lanes of notes rushing toward you; field themes are your world map traversal analogue, where one character at a time walks along in time to your swipes and slides; event themes are played to the backdrop of cutscenes or gameplay segments, and can occasionally catch you out as you stare at the pretty pictures instead of watching the note chart.

Each of the numbered series titles has a playlist, consisting of one of each type of theme, and there are a number of unlockable songs that can be played singly in challenge mode, which is also where you’ll find any of the DLC tracks you might choose to add to your game. Other collectables and unlockables include upgradable ‘trading’ cards, options for your personalised profile card, songs and videos for the two media players, and items and equipment that you can use in gameplay.

These last two come in very handy if you’re trying to tackle the game’s challenging Dark Notes or find the crystal shards that unlock additional characters, as they add modifiers to your character’s base abilities, level them up faster or increase the likelihood of rare item drops. It’s a lot deeper than you’d expect, given its genre, and even after 80-odd hours, I’ve not unlocked everything. It’s certainly not exactly the game I was expecting, and this is all to the good. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is the perfect companion for someone who loves the music of the venerable jRPG series

3: Mass Effect 3
gsl
Sometimes the internet makes me wish I had Asura’s extra arms, so that I might be able to act out the world’s most over-the-top facepalm.

Now, I understand some people were disappointed with Mass Effect 3’s ending. I get that. I was somewhat indifferent to it myself (which I guess is damning it with the faintest of praise, considering it was the ending to a galaxy-spanning trilogy), but by no means did I hate it. I understand that people disliked that the final few moments did away with your party and that the ending itself came down to a choice of three seemingly interchangeable decisions. Even though I felt like the entire game was in itself an extended ending (and that, for me, the final cutscene left it open for the player to imagine the state you leave the universe in for generations to come), I get why that would annoy people.

What irritated me was the ridiculous escalation that then took place. First, it was “Mass Effect 3’s ending sucks!”. Then it became “Mass Effect 3 and BioWare suck!”. Not long after that, I began to notice comments popping up all over the ‘net proclaiming that the entire series sucks and always has. I understand that the internet seems to foster a culture of rampant (frequently idiotic) one-upmanship, but man, it’s so depressing at times.

But anyway, I’m not here to lambast the internet-at-large, this is supposed to be a celebration of my favourite games of the year. Mass Effect 3 is certainly one of these. I confess, I find it the weakest of the trilogy (I had hoped some of the RPG mechanics would find their way back in in the style of ME1, rather than the more streamlined mechanics of ME2 – though at least they did away with those horrid post-mission result screens!), but even so, some of the series’ most emotional moments are to be found in Mass Effect 3, and it’s down to that feeling I mentioned earlier – that the game as a whole feels like an ending. Who can forget (SPOILERS!) Mordin’s heroic sacrifice; Thane saying a final prayer, not for himself but for you; shooting the breeze and shooting cans with your best buddy Garrus high above the Presidium (oh and just for the record: Shepard doesn’t miss). Who can forget ordering Grunt to stay behind and hold off the Rachni/Reaper assault, and being sure that you’d lost him, only for him to come swaggering out of that cave, covered in gore. Who can forget the relief? Every other mission, it felt like you might lose someone, and that made every survival all the sweeter, every death a grand tragedy.

Mass Effect 3 also has some of the series’ greatest moments of spectacle, such as the opening on Earth as Reaper forces invade, laying waste to all before them, or the assault on the moon of Palaven, with gigantic Reapers hanging in your peripheral vision, in orbit over the turian homeworld. That’s without even mentioning the galactic showdown near the game’s end, except that I did just mention it.

The game does have some missteps, of course. There is, of course that ending, which at it’s best is a touch unsatisfying (though I’ve not yet tried out the extended ending DLC that appeared post-release, as I’m waiting to do a second, all-DLC playthrough), and the journal bugged a few of my sidequests to the point that I couldn’t finish them, while others disappeared entirely, leaving me to wonder if they were time-sensitive. N7 quests were few and far between, and the less said about Galactic Readiness being tied to multiplayer, the better.

Still, some things, such as skill-trees, were improved from ME2 (though still not as granular as ME1’s system), and the level of graphical and presentational polish was higher than before, and coupled with those earlier-mentioned moments of emotion and grand scale, combined to create a trilogy closer that kept me enthralled throughout, determined to keep everyone alive, before realising that it was never going to happen, that this was what they had all joined me for, this fight. It wasn’t do or die; it was do and maybe die anyway. I had to accept that, in order to complete my mission, losses were inevitable, and that epiphany had two effects: it freed me up to do what I had to do, and it filled me with a sad sense of finality – just the atmosphere a final chapter needs, in my opinion.

Production has recently begun on a Mass Effect 4, but I really don’t know where they might take the series. A game based on the human-turian First Contact War would be too limited in scope after saving the galaxy from annihilation, and any sequel would surely have to be far enough in the future that it may as well be a new IP. I love the Mass Effect series (I have all three collectors editions, after all), but I think it should remain a trilogy. And it’s a trilogy I know I’ll be playing for years to come.

2: Gravity Rush
grk
I knew this was going to one of my favourite games of the year from the first time I fired up the demo. As far as I’m concerned, Gravity Rush is the Vita’s best game, and worth buying the handheld for alone. But then, I am absolutely in love with the game.

Like Theatrhythm, before release I had thought this might end up as perhaps an enjoyable curio. The resulting game is as close as you’re likely to get to playing through a Ghibli film (at least until Ni No Kuni arrives next month) – a mostly light-hearted journey of discovery and inner strength. The game’s protagonist Kat is one of my favourite characters of the year; at once cheeky, cheerful and petulant. She doesn’t spend vast swathes of the game feeling sorry for herself for having lost her memory (which she never even regains over the course of the game), she just gets on with the business of saving the world, and genuinely enjoys the powers her sparkly feline sidekick ‘Dusty’ thrusts upon her.

It’s also an absolute joy to control Kat, flinging her around the gorgeous island cities that make up the game’s mostly open world, especially when you’ve powered up her abilities enough that you rarely have to touch the ground. Many open world games offer you a large square-footage of ground to run around in; Gravity Rush gives you the same, but allows you all that space above and below to explore as well, meaning you can spend hours just searching out the gems you need to upgrade Kat’s powers. These are often hidden underneath the floating islands, leading you on extended scavenger hunts as you run along the underside of the world. Combat is just as fun, with Kat drawing nearby objects into her own gravitational pull and flinging them at the gelatinous Navi that are threatening Hekseville.

It’s an absolutely beautiful game as well, the draw distance masked by a lovely painterly effect that gradually resolves more detail as you get closer, and the cities each have their own distinct flavour, with great music helping distinguish one from another – even now, months after I finished the game, the music from the first area pops into my head every few days and makes me smile. There is a little room for improvement, though; Kat’s gravity slide ability is unwieldy, meaning I rarely used it, and the cities could do with a bit more to do in them than just story missions, challenges and gem harvesting. Some things for a sequel to address, perhaps

Speaking of a sequel, it certainly seems to be on the cards: the story, while fairly easy-going, does make you pause for thought at times, and towards the end you might find yourself questioning whether the events taking place are real or someone’s beautiful fever-dream. Though much is left unsaid, and many questions remain unanswered, it’s a very satisfying tale that has me really praying for a continuation – not just to clear things up, but also because I loved the game so damn much. I truly hope SCE Japan Studio will get around to it sooner rather than later, and in the meantime, I’m looking forward to their next handheld title Soul Sacrifice.

1: Halo 4
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Since its unveiling at last year’s E3. I had been hoping that this would be my Game of the Year for 2012. However, with series creators Bungie stepping aside to build a new universe from scratch, and Microsoft putting together a hand-picked team of the industry’s best to continue their blockbuster sci-fi series, I had genuine concerns that 343 industries might not be able to match that trademark Halo feel, that “thirty seconds of fun, over and over again” mantra that has been at the core of the games since 2001.

When I finally had the game in my hands however, all my fears evaporated. 343 know their Halo, that’s for sure. Right from the off, it’s reassuringly familiar, as Cortana wakes the Master Chief from his power nap to deal with a Covenant boarding party that have overrun what’s left of the Pillar of Dawn. The new team have gone to town in ramping up the epic scope and scale, and this is, again, immediately obvious; towards the end of that first mission, you’re out in space, on the hull of a starship fighting Covenant as an enormous Forerunner planet looms above, threatening to swallow your almost insignificant conflict whole. And it just gets bigger and bolder from there.

Story takes a more central role in Halo 4 than it has in previous instalments, which has led to criticism that the game is too reliant on knowledge of the lore, particularly from the extended universe. I suppose it’s a valid criticism, but the story stands well enough on its own merits, while bundling in a ton of fan-service for those (like me) who’ve scoured the series for clues, read all the books and trawled Halopedia for hours on end. That’s not to say that the narrative ever overpowers the gameplay though, and this latest entry gives us a whole new class of enemy in the Prometheans: small, dog-like crawlers that clamber all over the environments and seek to overwhelm you with sheer numbers; watchers, the aerial power of these Forerunner constructs, with the ability to catch your grenades before flinging them back at you, shield comrades and even resurrect them; and a whole slew of massive Promethean Knights that tower over both the Chief and Covenant Elites, teleporting about the battlefield to cut you down with their arm-mounted hardlight swords.

Fighting the Covenant is as enjoyable as ever, and allows you to fall back on years of hard-won battle tactics, but the Prometheans will punish you if you go in expecting those same strategies to work. I play Halo on Heroic difficulty (it really shouldn’t be any lower if you plan on truly appreciating it), and in my first few encounters with the Prometheans, I got utterly annihilated. It’s not uncommon to feel out of your depth, perhaps a little hard-done-by, but it soon becomes apparent that you need to prioritise targets more ruthlessly than you might with the Covenant, and once you figure out your strategies for this new class of antagonists, they slot nicely into place.

Over on the multiplayer side, fans were even more worried. Everything 343 announced about the new modes seemed to lean towards a more Call of Duty-style XP ranking system, and that is not what Halo fans want. One of the main reasons that Halo‘s MP playerbase keeps coming back is because it’s always a level playing field – no matter whether you play every day or once a month, it’s always a level playing field. Ranking up is the very antithesis of this, a mechanic intended to keep people playing, which is all well and good, but we already have that in Call of Duty. That series also already has perks. No Halo fans wanted these features implemented. Thankfully, the way 343 have inserted these mechanics hasn’t impacted the game much at all – ranking up offers you more load-out options, but doesn’t affect base health or damage output (and at any rate, most players seem to favour DMR/pistol load-outs), and ordnance, Halo 4‘s perk system, tend to be either limited-ammo power weapons or very short-term buffs like a constantly-draining overshield or speed boost. All of these give you an edge, provided you know what you’re doing, but none of them allow you to dominate for more than a handful of seconds.

Another impressive aspect of Halo 4 is that, on its first try, a brand new studio has created possibly the best-looking game on the 360 to date. If it’s not the best, it’s certainly up there with the rest of them, and the hi-tech Forerunner world of Requiem is swathed in impressive lighting effects that further add to the game’s graphical potency. Some have complained that all this eye candy is at the expense of Halo‘s trademark expansive battlefields, and I don’t really agree. Some areas are as vast as those in any other Halo, and though there are plenty of indoor environments, those too can often be cavernous. If there is a trade-off (which I’m not so sure there is), I think it’s worth it as a showcase of what the seven-year-old Xbox 360 is still capable of. I cannot wait to see what 343 industries will be able to do with Halo 5 on next-gen hardware, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

So there you have my favourite games of the year. Leave me a comment, let me know what you think of the games I’ve listed and let me know what your favourites of 2012 were. In the next few days, I’ll be writing about what I’m looking forward to in 2013, so make sure to look out for that. For now, I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and hours of happy gaming!

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Well… it’s been a little spartan around here this past week (‘Spartan’, geddit??), as I’ve been dragged willingly into Halo 4‘s all-encompassing orbit. Yes, I’m still playing campaign – I like to take my time and explore those vast Forerunner structures – and it really is pretty damn special.

Anyway! That’s not the purpose of today’s piece, as the title attests. One other gaming property that’s been occupying both my time and my thoughts recently is Silent Hill, Konami’s formerly peerless psychological survival horror series. This is partly thanks to the release of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (I really wish they’d stop using ‘revelation’ for everything, whoever ‘they’ are). I really enjoyed the first Silent Hill film; it absolutely nailed the look of Silent Hill, had a decent stab at the atmosphere, and though the story was a slightly mangled retelling of the first game, I felt like it was the only videogame adaptation to do its source material any semblance of justice.

So I was initially quite excited for the sequel. Trailers showed a film based on Silent Hill 3 (for those uninitiated, a direct sequel to the first game); there was protagonist Heather, looking exactly as she does in game, ditto Douglas Cartland, the PI that’s searching for her; there’s Lakeside Amusement Park, a location that features in both Silent Hill and SH3; even Claudia, the enigmatic, otherworldly-looking leader of The Order is present and correct.

Indeed, the film is positively rammed with fan service (the Seal of Metatron is a major plot point, and the producers even manage to shoehorn Travis Grady into the end sequence), yet it doesn’t make a good film. The pacing is horribly, horribly off, with one sequence that feels as if it might lead into something bigger, only for the film to peter out and end, seemingly prematurely. Worse still, dialogue is often incredibly poor, to the point where even blaming the work experience kid wouldn’t explain it, and some segments of the film are painfully cheesy – not what you want your audience feeling if you’re trying to create a sense of unease.

As I said earlier, I was initially quite excited for the film, yet I came out of the cinema feeling massively disappointed, and honestly a bit sad. It had a lot of potential from the first film to build from, as well as an excellent horror game to draw inspiration from. The final product was so poor that I honestly wish I could pretend it didn’t exist. It just seems such a waste, and I wish the possibility existed for it to be done all over again, only done well.

So, with that in mind, I got home on Hallowe’en night with two objectives; first, to put the terrible film out of my mind, and second, to enjoy something of quality with the Silent Hill name attached to it. The latter was easy to do, as the film at least had a uniformly great soundtrack, with the final credits rolling up to the sounds of a Mary Elizabeth McGlynn song – a voice that has been a large presence in Silent Hilldom since the third game – and another piece of music taken straight from the Silent Hill 3 soundtrack. So my first port of call had to be to listen to some of that beautiful, atmospheric music. This feature has been rattling around in my brain since then, and after grabbing a copy of Vita dungeon crawler Silent Hill: Book of Memories last week and discovering yet more excellent music, I decided to get it down on paper. So to speak.

Silent Hill

Silent Hill Theme
Akira Yamaoka

The song that prefaced a thousand nightmares. That opening jangly guitar riff sends a shiver down my spine even now, years after I first played the game. I re-played it recently on my Vita, in bed at night with earphones in, and the soundscapes created by series’ composer Akira Yamaoka have lost none of their potency – if anything, the sound design is more powerful when you’re enveloped in the game, as you are in the dark with earphones carrying the sound straight to your brain; there’s nothing to distract you from the oppressive atmosphere. This piece is the first example of a feeling that is threaded through much of Silent Hill‘s music – it’s not what you’d expect for a piece of horror media. Sure, it’s brooding, atmospheric and haunting, but it’s also subtly beautiful and possessed of a sense of fragility – perhaps befitting a series that’s as much about what’s going on within its characters as it is with what’s happening around them.

Silent Hill 2

Theme of Laura
Akira Yamaoka

This one may be more well-known than the theme of the original game. Theme of Laura, again by Akira Yamaoka, again displays similar themes to the previous track, but this one brings with it a massive helping of isolation and loneliness. What strikes me about this song is just how damn listenable it is; it feels sad, but not in a maudlin sense. It seems to me to portray a sense of both longing and tragic inevitability – fitting, considering the direction the story takes at its conclusion.

Silent Hill 3
Now, this one’s a little more difficult for me, as I’ve not played it in years (this will be remedied soon, as the HD version is near the top of my to-do list), so I’ve decided to go with the piece of music I mentioned earlier, the one that played over the end credits of Revelation.


Rain of Brass Petals
Akira Yamaoka

Another Akira Yamaoka instrumental piece, as far as I know this soundtrack entry doesn’t actually appear in the game at all. But what a fantastically evocative name for a piece of music. It’s another piece that displays those Silent Hill motifs of strange, restrained beauty and isolation, yet this one is of a more darkwave bent. It definitely has an end credits feel to it, as if it exists to solidify in your mind the thoughts and feelings of what you’ve just experienced – almost like a kind of aural bookend – so at least the music people of Revelation were doing their job. Like Theme of Laura, this is another wonderfully listenable piece of music, and I find it especially good to listen to at night with earphones for that added layer of atmosphere – it’s almost calming, in a rather dark sense.

Bonus round! Silent Hill: Book of Memories

Now We’re Free
Composed by Daniel Licht, vocals by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn

I mentioned earlier that Vita spin-off Book of Memories had an excellent title theme featuring series collaborator Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, and this is that song. The game itself may not be a shining example of a Silent Hill title – it’s certainly different –  but the song is Silent Hill through and through. I often find myself lingering on the title screen just to listen to this slice of lonely, atmospheric longing, and if a Book of Memories soundtrack is to be forthcoming, I’ll certainly be looking to buy it. It also puts my mind at ease that this piece was composed by Daniel Licht, composer of the Silent Hill: Downpour score. I’ve not yet played that game (it’s also near the top of my substantial to-do list), so my worries about the music have been suitably allayed thanks to this one song.

Where the series goes from here has many worried. Downpour didn’t exactly set reviewers hearts aflame (though some longtime fans have had better things to say), and many are dismayed at the direction WayForward have taken with Book of Memories. Hopefully, those that are sceptical for the future of Silent Hill will refrain from going to see the new film, as it may tip them over the edge. Personally, I’m enjoying the format of the Vita title, as it works very well for a handheld, and I shall refrain from ruminating on the series’ future until after I’ve played Downpour. I’ll also hope there are no further instalments in the film series – I don’t think I could take another Revelation.

Yet it’s hard to argue that the series hasn’t changed somewhat since Konami started farming it out to studios outside of Japan. Hopefully Downpour will surprise me, and bring back some of those uneasy feelings I enjoyed so much in the first three games (and to a lesser extent, Silent Hill 4: The Room). But for now, or at least once Halo 4‘s campaign is out of the way, I’ll stick to reliving my past in the relative comfort of Silent Hill 3.

Last Friday, Distant Worlds returned to the Royal Albert Hall. This time, however, the show differed from previous incarnations; it’s 2012, and that means it’s Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary. That’s a milestone worth celebrating for both Square-Enix and its massive legion of fans, and with that in mind, Friday’s set-list was indeed a celebration of the series’ history.

The show kicked off with the iconic ‘Prelude’, before a few spotlights pointed out that we in the audience were in illustrious company – in attendance were composers Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu, along with father of Final Fantasy Hironobu Sakaguchi. Sakaguchi was here, in the same room as us! That certainly got the crowd in the right mood.

Next up was ‘Medley 2002’, a collection of pieces of music drawn from the first three Final Fantasies, and afterward Arnie Roth, occupying the conductor’s rostrum as always, set expectations for the night; being a celebration of the series’ history, we would be treated to a chronological trip through Final Fantasy music, and next up was Final Fantasy IV’s ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’. Maestro Roth told us we’d be hearing a mixture of Distant Worlds favourites, new arrangements and pieces of music that hadn’t been played before.

With that, we got to hear the first live renditions of the ‘Main Theme of Final Fantasy V’ and from Final Fantasy VI, ‘The Phantom Forest’, before Roth attempted to recruit the audience into the choir for Final Fantasy VII’s ‘One Winged Angel’. Unfortunately, the majority were terribly British about it all and remained quiet throughout, but that didn’t prevent the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and the London Voices choir from a rousing performance of Sephiroth’s signature piece.

Final Fantasy VIII’s battle theme, ‘Don’t be Afraid’ came next, and was followed by ‘You’re Not Alone’ from Final Fantasy IX. Then came one of my favourite pieces of Final Fantasy music, ‘To Zanarkand’ from Final Fantasy X. All of these performances were accompanied by cutscenes and video excerpts from the games on a huge screen above the choir, and X’s was particularly beautiful, ending with the iconic scene of Yuna performing the sending at Kilika.

One song remained before the intermission, and we were treated to a new rendition of the Chocobo theme, and this one was even more upbeat than usual, with the screen showing a medley of Chocobo footage, including Dajh’s chick popping out of Sazh’s afro as the choir chanted “Hey!”, before they called out the letters spelling out ‘chocobo’. It was a very entertaining way to lead into the intermission, and the crowd responded with plenty of laughs.

Once we’d returned to our seats, it was back to our chronological musical journey through Final Fantasy, and next up was ‘Vana’diel March’ from the series’ first foray into the MMO space. If anything, I felt this song dragged a little, but then I never played Final Fantasy XI, so I don’t have any emotional attachment to the game’s music. That said, it was still an enjoyable performance, and the next piece, Final Fantasy XII’s ‘Dalmasca Estersand’, was a wonderfully intricate, layered composition beautifully delivered.

Rounding out the retrospective were Final Fantasy XIII’s battle theme, ‘Blinded by Light’, and an absolutely stunning rendition of the signature track from Square’s second MMO entry, Final Fantasy XIV. Titled ‘Answers’, the song’s main vocal was performed by Susan Calloway (who should be no stranger to fans of Final Fantasy music), who absolutely blew the attending audience away with her powerful voice.

With our whistle-stop tour of Final Fantasy past and present complete, we were into the portion of the show that remained shrouded in mystery. We’d been promised some heavy hitters, something new, and another special guest or two, and the first piece we were treated to was Final Fantasy IV’s gorgeous ‘Theme of Love’. This was a real treat for me, a massive fan of FFIV, and it was a beautiful rendition that kicked off a more emotionally-led tangent of the show. Following in that vein, next on the agenda was a trip back to Final Fantasy VIII, as we got to experience an excellent performance of ‘Eyes on Me’, sung by Japanese recording artist Crystal Kay, and her vocals, along with the scenes of Rinoa and Squall on the big screen, really got emotions bubbling under.

What really got them soaring, however, was the utterly incredible ‘Opera – Mario & Draco’. This was a new version, with an extended battle scene embedded in the middle, composed by Uematsu specially for the ‘Celebration’ tour. We again had some guests on stage – three solo vocalists taking the parts of Maria, Draco and Prince Ralse, and a narrator to relate the story to the audience. The latter was a little underused, but was still a nice addition to help along those that might not have played Final Fantasy VI. The Opera must have run for at least fifteen minutes, but I was completely transfixed; it was easily my highlight of the entire show. It was an incredibly powerful performance that threatened to leave me breathless.

We had one final piece of music to go, and this one signalled a step up into more upbeat territory. It was another medley, and another fresh one at that; a brand-new battle medley, consisting of FFV’s ‘Battle at the Big Bridge’, FFX’s ‘Fight with Seymour’ and FFVII’s ‘Those Who Fight’. It was an excellently put-together medley, though I’d have liked to have heard each one in full as they’re all among my favourite battle themes. Having said that, at least we got an orchestrated version of ‘Those Who Fight’ (however short), rather than the bizarre jazz-piano style version featured on the Returning Home DVD.

With that, the performers exited the stage, leaving the audience to nervously await their return. Surely there’d be an encore, right? We hadn’t had ‘Aeris’ Theme’, nor Terra’s. Maybe we’d get to hear the ‘Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII’ or Liberi Fatali? Well, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the London Voices and Arnie Roth did indeed re-take the stage, with Roth telling us that they just couldn’t leave without playing one final piece of music, one song that was absolutely vital in the history of the jRPG series. The audience held its collective breath; surely he meant ‘Aeris’ Theme’..?

And so, as the orchestra launched into the warm tones of the ‘Main Theme of Final Fantasy’, the groans were audible (seriously – you can hear it in my video). They quickly gave way to applause as we all immediately got over the (admittedly mild) disappointment to enjoy the piece of music that started it all, and in retrospect, it was the perfect way to end a night celebrating 25 years of excellent music. At the end, all the performers that had taken the stage throughout the evening were joined by Uematsu and Hamauzu and were all given a much-deserved standing ovation from the five-thousand or so Final Fantasy diehards in attendance.

With that, we were thrust back into the cold London night, contemplating one thing: will they be back next year? I can only say this – if they will, I will.

As a Wii U exclusive! Wait… what!?

Well… I was going to buy a Wii U eventually, for HD Metroid goodness… I guess this just accelerates the process. Still, it’s going to be a hard pill to swallow for those that enjoyed Platinum games first Witch-em-up on 360/PS3 that aren’t planning to buy a Wii U. There’s always the possibility it will be a timed exclusive, but Eurogamer notes that Nintendo are publishing the title, so that certainly reduces the chances. I’ll update when I know more.