Archives for posts with tag: Masashi Hamauzu

2014-03-23-015933Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD Remaster is finally (finally) with us. After a wait of almost two-and-a-half years, I finally have one of the games that convinced me to pre-order a Vita in my hands. Actually, I have two copies (erm…), as I also grabbed a copy of the PS3 limited edition, which comes with a gorgeous little hardback artbook, complete with notations for much of the included full-colour art.

But it’s the Vita version which has most impressed me, despite the reduction in resolution from its big screen brother. It looks every bit as sharp and clean as the PS3 version (bar some artifacting in some FMV scenes – disappointingly, one of my favourite scenes in the entire game is quite macroblocked), and those lovely bright colours that drench the beaches and jungles of Besaid really pop out of the handheld’s OLED screen.

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I’m constantly stopping in-game to pick out detail that you could barely identify in the original PS2 release, like the Besaid ruins in the shot above, or the ornate flooring of the island’s Temple of the Fayth. It’s far from the best-looking title on the system (you can probably look to Killzone: Mercenary for that), but it’s been impressing me at every turn; I know the game very well, so it’s almost like seeing a long-held favourite in a new light.

What I’m less sure of so far is the remastered music. Some of it is unquestionably better in my opinion (like Besaid’s theme), while others I’m less sure about, such as ‘Calm Before the Storm’. It’s only subtly different, but for the worse in my opinion. The original always had a somewhat otherworldly feel that the new arrangement doesn’t quite manage to elicit.

The gameplay though? It’s as good as it ever was, and it’s actually surprised me just how good. Final Fantasy X is a game I’ve played twice. Well, almost twice; I never quite finished it the first time (at launch – I had a lot going on, okay?), so I went back about three-or-so years ago (yep, just before they announced this remaster…) and played it from start to end. By the time I reached the climactic hours of Tidus and Yuna’s adventure, I was massively overpowered. Not because I’d purposely set out to be so, but I just had so much fun battling with the game’s enemies and exploiting its systems.

Replaying the Vita version these last few days, I’ve been reminded of just how inviting and engaging the game is. In conversation with a friend, a fellow Final Fantasy X fan, the word that kept coming up was ‘frictionless’. The game doesn’t put many obstacles between the player and their enjoyment, and when it does, it’s actually fun to overcome them. Take grinding for instance, that constant jRPG companion that so many have come to loathe (and I say this as someone who’s been stuck on a single boss in Tales of Eternia for weeks). For me, battling in Final Fantasy X is not only enjoyable, but compelling. I want to do it, and I want to do it because the battle system puts everything in your hands and just says ‘have fun!’

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The game is probably one of the easier instalments in the series, but it’s kept engaging by making everyone useful in some way: Tidus is fast, so his turns come around often enough to use him as a backup healer; Yuna has her white magic and summons; Rikku can steal and combine items, and one-shot mechanical enemies; Kimahri can learn abilities from his enemies; and so on. So you’ve got a relatively straight-forward take on the traditional Final Fantasy job system, but what keeps X engaging is the ability to switch any party member in or out of battle at will to meet your needs. Up against an enemy with high physical resistance but weak to magic? Switch in Lulu and deal some massive damage. His buddy’s armoured, you say? Auron, you’re up!

This immediacy is further reinforced by such design decisions as giving your white mage Esuna right off the bat. Generally, you’d have to work for such a useful spell, spending your initial hours throwing away precious items to cure your party of status effects. Here, you just sub someone else out for Yuna, cure the afflicted, and then get back to your gameplan. Save points in the world will replenish your health and magic, making level grinding more appealing as you no longer need to travel to an inn each time you reach your lowest ebb, and levelling and skill acquisition also benefit, offering to make the process as simple or involved as you like; I’m using the expert sphere grid for the first time, and enjoying the initially-overwhelming scope to develop my party as I see fit, but players that just want to follow a straight path can do just that with the normal grid, letting the game shape their characters’ growth for them.

If this all sounds like it makes the game easy, well… it can do. But in adding an extra layer of both strategy and, crucially, possibility, what it ends up doing is replacing a system that often boils down to using the same three characters and mashing ‘X’ to spam physical attacks in an effort to speed through encounters, with one that not only encourages you to experience more of what the game offers, but makes it enjoyable to do so. In Final Fantasy X you’ll use everybody. Not just once in a while, but often in every fight. It gives you the tools to do what you need and want to do, and it’s eminently satisfying when you do it.

Final Fantasy X is looked at as the point where the series began to streamline somewhat, the logical conclusion thereof being 2010’s Final Fantasy XIII (indeed, there are many parallels you could draw between the two games, not least their linearity). But when I talk of the frictionless nature of Final Fantasy X, I don’t mean streamlining. I mean the ways in which the developers have taken fairly complex systems and made them easy to understand and manipulate; the way they’ve taken often-frustrating game mechanics like grinding and made them enjoyable and compelling. I mean the ways in which they’ve sanded down the barriers between what the player wants to do and what the game allows you to do, making it possible to have fun no matter what you’re doing in the world of Spira.

Except Blitzball. No one likes Blitzball.

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This one’s completely passed me by until today, but big fans of symphonic arrangements of Final Fantasy music will certainly be interested to learn that a new concert is coming next May. Dubbed Final Symphony, the concert will take place on May 30th at the massive Barbican Centre in the City of London, and will feature music from Final Fantasies VI, VII and X.

The concert is officially licensed and will see collaborations with both Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu (indeed, the website promises a meet and great with the two series composers), and as it is not intended to compete with Distant Worlds, there will be some differences between the two productions: Final Symphony will not utilise video screens displaying game footage and cutscenes, and the music will be restructured into “entirely new, elaborate arrangements.”

Digging around the internet, I found an interview with producer Thomas Boecker conducted by Square Enix Music Online’s Chris Greening. The interview (conducted this past May, which goes to show how far behind I am on this one), gives us a bit of an insight into what we can expect. When asked by Mr Greening why the production would focus on just a few games, rather than follow Distant Worlds’ focus on the entire series, Boecker replied, “Currently, the music from Final Fantasy VII performed in concerts focuses on battle themes… But that game describes a dystopia with a strong, mature story rarely found in games to this extent, with complex characters… I feel that the game’s dark, romantic, melancholic, and hopeful story needs a better orchestral presentation to express what this game is all about.”

Dark? Melancholic? Oooh, please let there be an ‘Anxious Heart’ movement in there somewhere!

He continued, “So Final Symphony is indeed about telling the stories of the games, or the focus on certain scenes or happenings featured. The balance is very important to us, so that we can capture the atmosphere of the games. We believe that said balance can be only achieved by limiting the number of featured Final Fantasy parts to three.”

Personally, I quite like the idea of a greater focus on a smaller subset of Final Fantasy games, and it helps that VII and X are probably my favourite soundtracks from the series. I also love a great deal of the music from VI, and am hopeful the lack of battle themes won’t preclude the arrangers from performing an epic rendition of Kefka’s signature piece, ‘Dancing Mad’.

Either way, I’ve got my tickets booked, and I’d suggest if you’re interested you do so too.

Final Symphony official website:
http://www.ffsymphony.com/

Read SEMO’s interview with Thomas Boecker here:
http://squareenixmusic.com/features/interviews/thomasboecker8.shtml

Read my review of this month’s Distant Worlds at London’s Royal Albert Hall:
https://pushstartgaming.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/distant-worlds-london-a-celebration-25-years-in-the-making/

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.

We have another four songs for Theatrhythm available today, bringing us up to a post-release total of 52 extra tracks. Considering that the initial plan was for around 50 DLC songs, this may well be our final update.

Like last week, we have a track from a currently unreleased Final Fantasy title (well, unreleased outside of Japan in this case), as we have the opening theme from PSP spin-off Final Fantasy Type-0. With the PSP all but dead outside of Japan, rumours have persisted that we’ll see an enhanced port for the Vita, but with the title being absent at this year’s E3, we have to wonder if we’ll ever see the game at all. Let’s hope we do, as ‘We Have Arrived’ sounds suitably epic.

Anyway, back to the task at hand, and we also have a field theme from Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII‘s ‘Boss Battle’, and from Final Fantasy XIII, ‘Desperate Struggle’. Videos, as always, follow below.

Final Fantasy Type-0 – We Have Arrived
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Final Fantasy XI – Sarutabaruta
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Final Fantasy XII – Boss Battle
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Final Fantasy XIII – Desperate Struggle
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The wait is finally over! Yes, ‘Somnus’ the theme song from the as-yet unreleased Final Fantasy Versus XIII is now available to download and swipe your way through! Now all we need is the game itself (I’d love to hear something from TGS in a couple of weeks, but I won’t be holding my breath).

Elsewhere, we have another battle track from Final Fantasy X (always a hit with me, as it’s one of my favourite soundtracks), with a field song and battle theme from Final Fantasies XI and XII respectively.

As always, you can check out the songs below.

Final Fantasy X – Final Battle
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Final Fantasy XI – Gustaberg
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Final Fantasy XII – The Battle for Freedom
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Final Fantasy Versus XIII – Somnus
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It’s time for another round of downloadable content for Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, and this week sees the balance between field and battle music returning. We’ve got Sunken Shrine from Final Fantasy I and Final Fantasy X‘s Movement in Green filling out the FMS spots, while that game’s Battle Theme and the iconic boss music from Final Fantasy VII fulfil our BMS quota.

Today’s content drop brings the total of additional songs to 24 – roughly half of the 50-or-so that Square-Enix planned before launch. Whether any more songs will appear remains to be seen, but Theatrhythm is certainly a game that could support a large amount of extra content going forward. Regardless, 50 extra songs is pretty generous as far as DLC support goes, and there are still many songs I’ve only played once.

As always, you can find videos of each song below, so feel free to ‘try’ before you buy.

Final Fantasy – Sunken Shrine
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Final Fantasy VII – Fight On!
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Final Fantasy X – Battle Theme
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Final Fantasy X – Movement in Green
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Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, Square-Enix’s musical celebration of their franchise’s 25th anniversary, is coming up to a month old, so it seems like a good time to re-evaluate my time with it. And it’s been quite a lot of time, as the title to the left attests; I’ve played this 3DS rhythm-action game every single day since its release date, and yes, I have actually pumped forty hours into it. So far.

And I’ve done a lot so far, too; I’ve completed every game’s mini-soundtrack on all three difficulties (multiple times), I’ve unlocked collectible cards, additional songs, movies, characters, trophies… and I’ve still got a long, long way to go.

The game is structured in such a way as to ease you into everything it throws at you. Basic difficulty really does do what it says on the tin, and if I’m honest, I powered through it just to unlock Expert, which is a much better gameplay challenge. Ultimate is where it’s really at though, and you may well struggle to make the step up from Expert at first. Luckily, by this point you’ll have unlocked your first Dark Note, two-song collections that are, to begin with at least, somewhere between Expert and Ultimate in difficulty (though they scale up to be the hardest challenge in the game – more on this later).

Series mode.

The whole time you’re tapping and swiping through iconic music from the Final Fantasy series, you’ll be earning ‘rhythmia’ (rm), an accumulating total that unlocks various extras at thresholds of 500rm – be it extra tracks to play along to or listen to in the dedicated music player, customization options for your player ID card, and even various coloured crystal shards – collect 8 of the same colour to unlock a new character – and this is one of the main mechanics that pulls you through the game. Playing on to the next rhythmia threshold is surprisingly compulsive, as rewards come fast enough to keep you pushing forwards, eager to see what you’ll unlock next.

The inclusion of RPG-style character levelling and ability and item gathering also keep you swiping along. If you’ve read a few reviews for Theatrhythm, you’ll know that the RPG mechanics are tacked-on. Except that they aren’t. Most reviewers seem to be of the opinion that levelling characters and equipping abilities and items has essentially no bearing on how the game plays out, and while it’s true that this is fundamentally a skill-based game, there’s just no way that you’ll survive your early forays into Ultimate difficulty (or indeed the level 99 Dark Notes…) without any abilities and items. Put simply, anyone that tells you that the RPG mechanics are useless, tacked-on or otherwise unnecessary simply hasn’t played the game beyond Expert. That, or they have superhuman, otherworldly finger dexterity.

Having made a claim like that, I suppose I should at least provide a quick breakdown of how it all works. To begin with, you’ll choose a party of four characters from the initial pool of 13 – one drawn from each numbered series title. I went with Cloud, Terra, Cecil and Lightning. All characters begin at level one, and can rise to a cap of level 99 through exp earned by completing songs. As they level, they’ll gain new abilities (such as Cure, which replenishes your party’s HP, or Omnislash which auto-attacks a boss-level monster in Battle stages), and you’ll gain items by reaching treasure chests in Field Music stages or defeating high-level enemies in Battle scenes.

At the top-right of the screen in any given stage, you’ll notice an HP bar. This represents the sum total of your party’s HP, and is depleted if you poorly time a tap or miss it entirely, and on the harder tracks it’s alarming how quickly your HP can be depleted. This is where your items and abilities will come into their own, as they’ll frequently keep you alive long enough to make it to the end of a tough song. I mentioned before that Theatrhythm is ultimately a game of skill and timing, but at higher difficulties, notes fly at you at such speed that they’re incredibly difficult to parse. This means you’ll need to become familiar with the track’s layout before you even dare attempt them un-equipped, which is the only way to attain the perfect SSS rank, as well as the maximum score of 9,999,999 (equipment caps your maximum attainable score at 7,999,999).

A #99 Dark Note.

I’ve mentioned Dark Notes a couple of times so far, so let’s take a closer look at those. They’re basically collections of two random songs – one a field song, one a battle track – that are ranked by number from low to high – #99 Dark Notes being the most difficult challenges in the entire game. How difficult, you ask? They’re twice as fast as Ultimate difficulty tracks and the arrow notes rotate. Take a moment to think about that: rotating arrow notes that fly at you at double-speed, forcing you make a split-second decision as to which way they’ll be pointing when they reach your side of the screen.

Dark Notes have three ‘bosses’, high-level monsters that hold onto various items and character shards, making them the best place to farm crystal shards for character unlocks. That is, of course, if you can reach, and then beat the bosses. So far, in forty hours, I’ve unlocked seven characters, less than half of the additional character roster. There may be more for all I know – a silhouette of the unlockable character is only added to the roster when you find the first shard of that colour, meaning I may yet be in for more surprises.

On top of this, I still have many ‘CollectaCards’ left to obtain (character trading cards that live in their own card binder and level-up each time you get the same card), I have 11 of the 77 music player tracks to unlock, and one of the movies that play during Event Stages to find, which can be viewed in the theatre without notes obscuring the gorgeous visuals. That’s enough to keep me going for probably at least another twenty hours, and that’s before I’ve even mentioned the weekly DLC tracks, or the 12 unlockable bonus songs, most of which I’ve only played once or twice.

The collectibles menu.

When Square-Enix announced their Final Fantasy 25th anniversary celebration would be a rhythm-action title based around iconic music from the RPG series, I knew immediately that I had to have it. But I never thought I’d have ploughed dozens of hours into it and still be itching for more. And while I was almost certain I’d love it, I didn’t think it would be among the best games I’d play all year. But I am, and it is. Is Theatrhythm perfect? Not quite. Those bonus and DLC songs I mentioned before? I would love to be able to slot them into their respective game’s series and play through an extended soundtrack. Even better would be an option to create your own playlists, and string together a list of your favourite songs to play one after another.

Ultimately, these are but small niggles in an otherwise magnificent package, and one that is absolutely brimming with content. No matter what you may have read.