Archives for posts with tag: RPGs


Recently, I wrote about my return to the time-sink that is Destiny after almost two years away from the game, and it seems as if there must be something in the water; just this weekend, I returned to the realm of Eorzea more than three years after I last logged into Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.

Though there are similarities here – both games are persistent worlds that require a large investment of time and a willingness to group up with others – the situations surrounding me leaving each game were quite different: where Destiny disappointed as much as it thrilled, I loved A Realm Reborn right from the get-go. I took part in phase 3 of the game’s closed beta on PlayStation 3, pre-ordered the Collector’s Edition, bought a PS4 almost solely to play the upgraded version, and even had a small series on here, called ‘Postcards from Eorzea’.

But around April 2014 – not long after I’d upgraded to the PS4 version – I just drifted away from the game. From the official launch on PS3, I’d been playing with a good friend, levelling and running dungeons together, spending hours working on our digital avatars almost daily, and eventually, that friend decided that he didn’t want to pay the sub anymore. I understood, of course: a subscription MMO is a commitment, after all, and if you’ve paid for access you feel like you have to play the game as much as possible. These games have a habit of monopolising your time.

After my friend quit, I tried to soldier on for a bit. I had a group of fellow Eurogamer forumites that I’d chat with in our Linkshell, but they were all far more hardcore than me, and so were much further ahead in the game. It just wasn’t the same. So I stopped, and I’ve honestly missed it ever since. I’d still pay attention to news from the game, I’d sometimes look back through my captured screenshots and reminisce over some of the beautiful landscapes that make up the continent of Eorzea, but I didn’t have any plans to come back. So what’s changed?

My interest in Final Fantasy XIV was reignited in a big way when noclip’s excellent three-part documentary covering the game’s development was released just last week. Most people that follow the game will know that the original iteration of Final Fantasy XIV – what Square Enix now refer to as “1.0” – was an absolute disaster, with then-CEO Yoichi Wada going so far as to claim its launch “greatly damaged” the Final Fantasy brand as a whole. Square Enix embarked on an ambitious plan to not only continue to support 1.0, but secretly make an entirely new version of the game under new director Naoki “Yoshi-P” Yoshida, dubbed A Realm Reborn. The three-part documentary from noclip is an excellent, in-depth look at the death and rebirth of Square’s latest MMO, and I’m honestly quite surprised how open members of the development team were allowed to be in their interviews. It’s well worth a watch even if you aren’t particularly interested in visiting Eorzea.

However, the main reason behind my decision to dive back in actually does relate to Destiny, in a somewhat round-about way. If you read my piece about going back to that game (and I am still playing! I’ve recently picked up Rise of Iron and am currently trying to get my hunter up to the required level to do the Wrath of the Machine raid), you’ll remember that I joined a group on the100 – a good group of chaps united under the banner of Town Called Malice. One of the players there has also dabbled in Final Fantasy XIV in the past, and had also expressed an interest in going back. So now I had someone to go adventuring with! I was heading back to Eorzea.

I considered grabbing the Starter Edition on PC, as it’s currently £7.99 in the Steam summer sale; I already have the PS4 client installed (and it took an entire evening to update!), but I quite liked the idea of splitting my play time between the two platforms. However, I remembered that I’d once bought a Square Enix mystery box which contained a Windows license that I never redeemed – I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be playing the game again, back then. So I searched my inbox, and found the email containing my keys from the Holiday Surprise box bought in December 2015. Sure enough, there was a key for A Realm Reborn, but with it being a year-and-a-half old, I wondered if it might have expired. I headed to Mog Station, redeemed the code, and was granted a Windows license and a thirty-day sub! So I’m back in the game without having to spend a single gil!

As my original character, Khroma Midgard, was a male Elezen bard on the Odin server, I decided to roll something different this time. Please welcome Khroma Moonsong, a Conjurer on Louisoix.

I created a pink-haired catgirl. Yes, I know, I’m a walking cliche.

Ahem. Anyway, on my previous character I had played Archer up until Bard (levelling Pugilist along the way to unlock the Bard job, of course), as well as playing Conjurer up to level 17 and dabbling in a bit of Weaving. This time, I want to focus more on healing, so Conjurer is going to be my main class until I can get into White Mage at level 30 (I’ll obviously have to get Arcanist up to 15 as well!). I think playing supports so much in Overwatch has conditioned me to dish out the heals rather than the DPS!

So far I’m still in Gridania, and it feels like the pace of levelling has been increased somewhat – after just a few hours I’ve already hit level 10, and though the last time I did this was almost four years ago, things do seem to be moving at a much faster pace than I remember. I’m guessing this is done to help newcomers get up to speed for the recently-released Stormblood; now that Final Fantasy XIV is two expansions deep, I suppose the dev team want to offer new players an easier ramp up to the late-game content and encourage them to get into the newer stuff.

I don’t know what’s possessed me recently and made me dive back into two games that demand so much of your time, especially when I’m struggling to get through single players games (I still need to finish Nier Automata, Mass Effect Andromeda and Breath of the Wild) and my backlog continues to grow (Oh hi Valkyria Revolution!), but right now, all I seem to want to do is wander through these populated, persistent worlds. Hopefully this time, I’ll actually be able to make it through the base 2.0 storyline, and then I can think about moving onto Heavensward! This time, I’m planning to stick with it. And who knows, maybe I’ll even revive Postcards from Eorzea!

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Back before Destiny launched – about three years ago now – I wrote an excitable, detailed piece about the PS4 alpha test. Clearly I was onboard. But if you were to search my blog for more on Bungie’s shared world shooter, you’d turn up a single extra article since launch – an unboxing of the game’s limited edition.

So what happened? Did I hate the game? Did I abandon it altogether? No. I played Destiny for a while, and for a while I loved it. Then I reached the end of the story, and I fell out of love.

My issues with vanilla Destiny are manifold, and I’ll get into them later (indeed, some of them still persist, to varying degrees). But as the release of Destiny 2 looms ever nearer, I find myself getting drawn back to the game I so desperately wanted to love. And so, over the last few weeks, I’ve been revisiting it, now as different an experience as it is similar, to see if I really want to buy in to the sequel.

I’m probably going to get Destiny 2.

To be clear, this isn’t the first time I’ve returned. After walking away from the original game shortly after reaching level 20, and having killed a weird, pulsating cosmic heart that no one cared to even begin to explain, the excitement around the following year’s The Taken King piqued my interest. “It’s got a story now!” people would tell me, adding “there’s a lot more for solo players to do,” and “levelling is much better explained this time!”

They weren’t wrong, to be fair. I swallowed a mouthful of bile at having to re-buy Destiny and its first two expansions to play The Taken King and again, I had a lot of fun with it. And what do you know, it did have a story! A fairly decent one too, even if it still could have done with a touch more explanation (pipe down, Stranger).

Eventually though, I stopped playing again, and it’s at this point I should probably detail what my issues with Destiny were (are?). To begin with, it’s probably worth pointing out why I was so excited for the game; as a huge Halo campaign fan, I’m used to being a bit of a lore nerd, scrounging around for clues about the mysteries of the universe, be they from snippets of obscure dialogue, hidden terminals or even extended universe novels, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into Bungie’s next big mythic sci-fi setting. What I got was… well, a mess, quite frankly, with a campaign that almost gloried in paper thin characters sending you on inexplicable missions packed with vague objectives against inscrutable enemies. True, the Grimoire card system hinted at a deep, interesting pool of lore beyond the surface, and it’s worth pointing out that some stories are told in those cards that probably wouldn’t work in-game, but the campaign itself exposed virtually none of that storytelling to players, instead choosing to offer up a disjointed, unsatisfying attempt at a narrative that had quite clearly been chopped up and sewn back together wrong sometime prior to release – something that Kotaku’s Jason Schreier later confirmed. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but it genuinely saddened me that Destiny‘s story was such a shambles, and I don’t think it’d be unfair to call it a disaster.

Oryx: not a looker.

As mentioned, 2015’s big expansion The Taken King did much to fix that state of affairs, offering a simpler yet more engaging tale told by actual characters, rather than cardboard cut-outs. It also introduced the Books of Sorrow, which remains the best storytelling in the entire saga (even if, again, we see very little of its intriguing detail in the game itself).

Another big reason for my interest in Destiny was my love of roleplaying games as a genre. A Halo RPG, you say? Sounds like my dream game, sign me up! Unfortunately, another of Destiny‘s missteps was the arcane levelling system after you hit the soft level cap of 20, whereupon any further XP earned would be converted into Motes of Light which you then… You know what, I can’t even remember. I barely engaged with it. I briefly tried to wrap my head around it, and then walked away, rather than grind my face against the backside of RNGesus. Thankfully, The Taken King changed things so that every piece of armour you wear and weapon you wield adds to your overall Light level. Equip a better piece of gear and your Light will go up. Simple! Quite why it had to be so mind-bending in the base game, I don’t know. Still, even with these changes in place, I once more walked away from the game partway through The Taken King, just as I had with vanilla, because my main issue with the game still persisted. And honestly, it’s a complaint that isn’t even fair to level at the game.

Each time, what made me walk away from Destiny is the fact that you can only get so far as a solo player. After a while, you need to group up with others if you want to actually progress further and see everything the game has to offer.

Well d’uh, you’re probably saying, and yes, I know – like I said, it’s not really a fair criticism of the game, given that’s its fundamental nature. It’s just that it doesn’t really work for me, as a typically solitary player that happens to jump into a game whenever I have the time; it’s difficult to schedule a raid when you don’t know if you’re going to be free (or if you can even be arsed when the time slot rolls around). I also don’t really want my gaming time to feel like a commitment, like I have to do something, rather than want to, because that way resentment lies.

Yet even with all that said, Destiny has always been in the back of my mind, and I’ve long thought that I’d like to go back to it and see what the end-game is all about. It’d take a bit of effort on my part (and I had once made the effort to get in on a run through the Vault of Glass, the raid that shipped with the base game), but with Destiny 2 on the horizon, and the thought that I’d quite like to get in on the ground level with the new instalment, I managed to ingratiate myself with a group of friendly players and go raiding. And it’s been great! Having recently run through both Crota’s End and King’s Fall, I can finally see what all the fuss is about. Destiny‘s raids really are the game at its very best, and that’s even more evident when you have a good, patient, friendly group to talk you through the often opaque, dense mechanics. I’ve never had a group to play the game with before, which has always made it very easy to walk away from, and it’s really thanks to the guys over at Town Called Malice that I was even able to experience them. It’s also pretty much down to them that I’m almost certain to buy Destiny 2 now, whereas before I was just sort of interested. ONE OF US. Or, them, I guess.

Destiny has always offered some incredible vistas. Sorry this one’s a bit rubbish.

I’m not sure how well I’ll adapt to scheduling playtimes and such, as it’s probably going to take some kind of rewiring of my brain to get properly into Destiny full-time, but I definitely want to get deeper into it this time out. And as much as I’m fully on-board the hype train now (or, well, I at least have a ticket), there are some things that have given me pause lately. Last month, it emerged that Destiny 2 was doing away with the Grimoire system, with Bungie’s Steve Cotton telling Forbes, “we want to put the lore in the game. We want people to be able to find the lore.” On the face of it, this is a really good change; the Grimoire has long been a complaint for a couple of reasons, mainly that it keeps the lore outside of the game, and having more story exposed to players while they’re in-universe is very obviously a good thing. But as I noted above, the Grimoire also plays host to some excellent story content that simply couldn’t be done in the game – unless it was loaded with lengthy cutscenes and flashbacks, which people would also complain about. As a counterpoint to this, how fucking cool would it have been to discover bits of the Books of Sorrow in a mission on the Dreadnaught, where you slowly pieced together the history of the Hive and discovered the means to defeat Oryx? If this kind of storytelling is what Bungie is going for, then consider me all in. But if all the stuff that doesn’t play an active role in the current story, yet manages to provide flavour and context to the universe is gone? Well, that’s probably not great.

More worrying are the recent pieces of news taken from a couple of interviews with Design Director Luke Smith, where he suggests that seemingly important pieces of the Destiny puzzle may not make a return. First, responding to a question from PC Gamer about whether we’d see the mystery of the Exo Stranger cleared up in Destiny 2, Smith explained that “we have a bunch of characters who are interesting, but the Exo Stranger is one that always makes me chuckle a little bit. Because I feel that’s one character where we actually wrapped up the arc. She gave you a sweet gun and then dissolved, presumably off to do something else. So I feel like, of all of our characters we’ve introduced and exited, we actually exited her effectively.”

For those not familiar with the character, the Stranger was a female Exo that effectively led you by the nose through the original game’s campaign, directing you as much as, if not more than, any other character in the story. She never explained herself, her goal, or her reasons for aiding you, and was often heard talking to some unknown ally before abruptly disappearing. At the end of the game, she offered you her rifle, which is seemingly made of parts that shouldn’t yet exist, before telling the player, “all ends are beginnings. Our fight is far from over.” So to consider her story over is odd at best, and to think her arc was ended “effectively” is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine if Cortana just didn’t turn up in Halo 2! I suspect (hope?) that, given the character’s popularity and potential for future storytelling, that she will eventually wind her way back into a future game or expansion, but given Smith’s statement that her arc is done, I won’t hold my breath until I see it for myself.

I don’t even have time to explain why her story wasn’t “effectively” wrapped up.

A couple of days after the PC Gamer interview, Smith appeared on Kotaku’s podcast, where it was confirmed that The Darkness, the formless, ancient evil of the Destiny universe, would not be appearing in Destiny 2. This makes sense, as the Cabal are the main focal antagonist of the new game, and they aren’t really allied with the Darkness, certainly not in the way other races such as the Hive or Vex are. What was a bit worrying about this was Smith’s reaction to Jason Schreier’s question of whether the omission was because nobody actually knew what the Darkness was: “So, I think that at a point, just totally candidly? We had no idea what it was. Straight up. We had no clue.”

Hmm. Let’s go back to the earlier Kotaku story, which revealed that Destiny underwent massive rewrites a year out from release. We know that Joe Staten and his team of writers spent years building the narrative foundation of Destiny, and we know that the studio leadership didn’t like how it all hung together. Even if the Darkness wasn’t formally laid out, I find it difficult to believe that there weren’t at least deep hooks written into everything else that strongly suggested where the overarching tale was headed; 343 industries’ Frank O’Connor, himself a Bungie alum, has previously stated that much of the current direction of the Halo series arose from discussions at Bungie around what a potential continuation would be, as an example.

With Staten now back at Microsoft, I wonder how much of the comments surrounding the Stranger and the Darkness are about the current writing team wanting to throw out the last vestiges of the original outline, in an effort to more thoroughly put their stamp on Destiny. Smith’s elaboration perhaps supports this: “We didn’t know what it was, and we, for a period, we chose [that] we’re going to lump all the races [in together], and you see this in the tooltips in the game — ‘minions of the darkness.’ And we had taken all the races and said, ‘Ah, they’ll just be The Darkness.’ But that’s not what the IP deserves.”

That’s not what the IP deserves. That, to me, says the Darkness will return, but only when they’ve decided what the current team want their Darkness to be. I won’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing – it may even free them up to tell better stories – but I have to admit to some level of disappointment that we’ll likely never know how the universe of Destiny was originally meant to unfold. After the good work done on The Taken King, however, in both storytelling and gameplay terms, I’m certainly willing to give Smith and his team the benefit of the doubt, even if he does have a bit of a habit of inserting his foot firmly into his mouth and somehow managing to leave a bad taste for everyone.


This March saw the release of NieR Automata, a pseudo-sequel to a cult favourite that I came to rather late, yet absolutely adored. An average-on-the-face-of-it game that was far more than the sum of its parts, Cavia and Yoko Taro’s action RPG immediately became one of my favourite games of its generation.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that I was incredibly excited for Automata. On paper it seemed like a dream project: here was a collaboration between Yoko Taro and Platinum Games, with Keiichi Okabe returning on soundtrack duties and Akihiko Yoshida handling the art. If I was going to assemble a team to make a new NieR game, I couldn’t hope for a better group than that. Basically, I was expecting this to be my game of the year before it was even out.

Unfortunately, I’ve been really struggling to get into it, and that genuinely makes me sad.

It’s important to note that so far I’ve only played through Route A and maybe about two-thirds of Route B, so I’ve by no means seen everything the game has to offer. Like the first, this is a game that needs to be played through a handful of times to really understand what’s going on, so it’s entirely possible that by the time I’m done I’ll adore it like I do the first. So far though, I’m not really feeling it. I’ll explain why, and while I’ll do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, bear in mind some mild plot and character discussion (for both games!) follows.

The first time you play through NieR Automata, you’ll experience the story from the perspective of 2B, the wonderfully designed gothic Lolita android warrior. It’s a good thing that she looks so fantastic (thanks Yoshida!), because she comes across as a little dull in her own campaign, as does boyish sidekick 9S (I’M NEVER GOING TO CALL YOU NINES, GET OVER IT); there’s just no one here that has the impact of Kaine or Weiss, two characters that quickly became two of my favourite jRPG party members. That would be fairly forgivable if the story grabbed me but, the first time through, NieR Automata just feels like a disconnected series of events: you’ll go to a new region, something seemingly quite important will happen, and you’ll have no opportunity to process the event or what it might mean for the world and its characters. You’re simply told to go somewhere else where another apparently-important thing happens. Without any proper reflection on these events I felt like there was no cohesive thread pulling me through the story, almost as if I was playing through a succession of side-quests that didn’t feed back into the core narrative. Why should I care about all this if I’m not given a reason to?

If he’s Nines, does that make her Toobz?

Ok, fair enough, as I said above we’re supposed to play these games a handful of times to get the full picture. The first game was the same, right? Well, yes and no. In NieR‘s Route A, we had no idea what had happened to the world, or why people from 1,300 years ago were seemingly alive in the present with no memory of the past. We had no idea what our enemies, the Shades, were, we knew nothing of the Black Scrawl or the grimoires or the Shadowlord. What we did know, however, was that the protagonist’s daughter was sick and he’d do anything in the world to save her. The mysteries of the world worked because we had that personal bond to focus on, that quest to save Yonah that pulled us through the story. There is no such thing in Automata‘s Route A. There’s just stuff happening. And it’s happening to people you don’t really care about.

So I forced myself through Route A, reminding myself of how transformative the original game’s second playthrough was, and hoping – expecting – for something equally as revelatory here. So far I’ve been disappointed. The second time through, you play as 9S, who has a few extra tricks up his impeccably-tailored sleeves, like the ability to hack enemies to weaken or outright destroy them. Interestingly, this can also be used outside of combat to quite literally peak into the minds of others and find out what makes them tick. Unfortunately, this seems to be used mainly in side-quests while the story of Route B is mostly a re-tread of Route A. This is unsurprising given how much of the game 9S and 2B spend together, and I am looking forward to a later part of the story where they become separated for a time. But, while there are little insights peppered throughout such as learning the motivations of a couple of bosses (think Beepy and Kalil, but nowhere near as awesome/harrowing), it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact that Route B in the first game did, where your entire understanding of the world, your enemies and even your allies was completely turned on its head.

So far, Automata has displayed precious little of what made the original game so special; there’s none of the heart and emotion that made the first game and its characters so magnetic. That’s probably to be expected in a world inhabited solely by androids and machines of course, but it does make it a little difficult to care about. Don’t get me wrong though, I do enjoy the act of playing the game – basic combat is far more enjoyable here, thanks to Platinum’s involvement, and it’s wonderfully animated. I love the balletic movements of the characters in battle, and the perfect dodge is a thing of absolute beauty, reminiscent of Bayonetta at her acrobatic best. And then there’s the bullet hell sections, which manage to feel more distinct than they did in the original thanks to the introduction of flight units that transform the game into an actual, honest-to-god shmup for a few minutes at a time.

However, these segments also drive home how comparatively lacking Automata is in gameplay variety. Whereas the first game delighted in switching things up constantly, feeling like a Zelda clone one moment, taking inspiration from classic Resident Evil the next, and even heading into text adventure territory in a couple of places, NieR Automata is an action RPG with occasional shooter segments. It’s all good stuff, but it does leave the game feeling a touch less inventive than its predecessor. Then there’s the bosses, which are almost all impressively-screen-filling monstrosities, yet end up feeling a bit less imaginative than the original’s bizarre, otherworldy beasts like Hook or Wendy, and the pod program special attacks that just aren’t as cool as Weiss’ sealed verses.

These are all relatively minor issues, to be fair – the main source of my disappointment is with the story, world and characters, and I want to reiterate that I am genuinely saddened by this. I really don’t want to come across as if I’m trying to convince people not to like NieR Automata – I’m absolutely thrilled that more people are discovering Yoko Taro’s work, and I hope this gets him more exposure and the chance to make more weird, heartrending games that crawl under your skin and refuse to leave. Automata has been very well received, so I’m more than prepared to admit that I’m the odd one out here, and I really just want to love it as much as everyone else does.

There seems to be a general consensus that Route C is where it really starts to make an impact, and I’ve been advised by some to just rush through to that. That feels like it’s missing the point somewhat though – I’m disappointed that I’ve spent, so far, around 25 hours with the game and found none of what I loved about the first NieR. But hey, I’m still plugging away, and I’m hopeful that, once I’ve got that far, I’ll love Automata as much as I do the original. I’ll be sure to revisit this and write up some more thoughts once I properly finish the game, at which point I hope NieR Automata sits comfortably alongside the original as one of the most memorable games I’ve ever experienced.

2B and 9S
I absolutely love NieR. It wasn’t always so; until a little over a year ago, it was one of those games that sat in my perpetual backlog, waiting to see if I’d ever get around to playing it. Friends had tried to convince me, telling me of its unique characters, its genre-hopping tendencies, or its wonderful soundtrack, but still it sat unloved on my shelf. And then, at E3 last year, there was a surprise. A sequel was coming, and it was being developed by Platinum Games! I saw friends celebrating this announcement the way I celebrated Shenmue 3‘s reveal and I knew that I had to pull my finger out and finally play the 2010 original. After doing so (and coming to realise that it’s one of the best games of its generation), I came to regard that E3 surprise as something of a dream project: Taro Yoko was back to direct, as was producer Yosuke Saito and composer Keiichi Okabe, and they were being joined by frigging Platinum Games and Akihiko Yoshida. Holy fucking shit.

And so here we are, a few months before release, and Square Enix have bestowed upon us a little Christmas present: a high-octane demo to take us through the festive period. If there’s one weakness the original NieR had, it was probably the functional but fairly uninspiring combat, so the idea of Platinum handling the fighting engine is cause to salivate, and there’s plenty of opportunity to try it out here. We’re let loose as android warrior 2B, as she fights aggressive robots through an otherwise abandoned factory, a rusty, dilapidated setting somewhat reminiscent of the first game’s junk heap dungeon, though the boss waiting for you at the end is much larger than P-33 (or Beepy to his friends).

Bullets!

Combat recalls Bayonetta at her balletic best, as 2B pirouettes around the arena with a pair of swords at her disposal. There’s a heavy and light attack for you to create combos from, with jump and heavy attack performing a wide-arcing launcher allowing you to continue your assault while airborne. Executing a heavy attack in mid-air will see 2B slam her sword heavily into the ground, while holding the button when stationary will charge up a short, brutal heavy combo. Of course, this being an action game, you’re going to need a dodge, and NieR Automata‘s might well be the best I’ve encountered in any action game, allowing you to not only nimbly evade enemy attacks but glide elegantly around the battlefield. It even has a touch of Bayonetta‘s witch time about it, with a perfectly timed dodge seeing 2B almost dissolving into thin air. It doesn’t slow down time, but it feels just as satisfying to pull off, and looks terribly flashy. But this isn’t just a straightforward action game, it’s a NieR game, and that means there’s going to be plenty of bullet hell sections, too. To aid you in this, you have a robotic pod that hovers above your head and sounds a lot like Mass Effect‘s Legion, effectively playing the part of Grimoire Weiss here and empowering you to shoot down enemy bullets. It’s definitely not anywhere near as charming as a floating magic book that sounds like Alan Rickman, though.

Reaching the end of the dungeon, there’s of course a massive boss to contend with, and even a touch of fighter jet/mecha action, and as you finally defeat the gargantuan construct, only to witness more of them rise from the depths of the ocean, it hits home just how much Automata feels like a perfect mix of Taro Yoko and Platinum; there was the worry that one would dilute the other, or both might only be able to operate at half strength, but it feels like everyone is firing on all cylinders and working together nicely. Though the demo is combat heavy – and as such we are yet to see the more expansive environments, genre-splicing madness and deeper RPG trappings you’d expect of a sequel to NieR – there’s a sense that you can feel the touches of everyone who has had their hands on this, whether it be the character action combat of Osaka’s finest, the perspective shifts and bullet hell sections that made NieR such an idiosyncratic gem, or the wonderful Akihiko Yoshida character designs and haunting soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe, this really is NieR x Platinum Games, and it seems like it’ll be everything I wanted, and everything that this particular collaboration promised. It’s almost as if it’s a game tailor-made for me: I can’t quite believe that the next great Platinum character action game is also going to be a NieR sequel. What a time to be alive.

Side-on

Now there are only two things to wonder about. Firstly is how well Platinum have kept to the structure of the original, which drew a fair bit of inspiration from the Legend of Zelda franchise; as much as I love Platinum’s games, I don’t want a NieR game to be a series of discreet missions (although, now I think of it, I’d love to see them have a stab at Drakengard somewhere down the line, too!). It also remains to be seen just how much Automata will tie into the original game, with this one apparently set more than eight thousand years after the events of NieR, with humans having fled to the moon, the earth having been overrun by hostile robots, and taken to sending androids like 2B to the surface to reclaim the land. We already know that a few characters will be returning in some fashion, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get some kind of insight into the immediate aftermath of the first game, where the world was left in a pretty sorry state. But then, when has Yoko ever done the expected thing and given us a direct sequel? Only time will tell.

NieR Automata releases on March 10th 2017. You can see a playthrough of the demo below.

regalia
Little more than two weeks before the release of Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix released the third and final demo for their ambitious open world adventure. First there was Episode Duscae, our first proper look at Final Fantasy XV that released more than 18 months ago, as a bonus for those purchasing Final Fantasy Type 0. Then, as the company held a lavish event this past March to announce the (now missed) original release date for the game, we were, ahem, ‘treated’ to the Platinum Demo. With each demo, there has been as much to complain about as there has been cause for celebration, but this time the good massively outweighs the bad; this latest taster, Judgment Disc, shows not only that the game has come along in leaps and bounds, but that the two months Hajime Tabata’s team bought themselves back in September have been wisely spent indeed.

Of course, before we get into the gameplay and technical details of Judgment Disc, it’s important to note that it is a Japan-only demo. As such, if you want to play it, you’ll need to either change your Xbox region to Japan, or create a Japanese PSN account. As there’s no English text or speech, you could also do with some working knowledge of spoken and written Japanese. I have neither, but managed to stumble through the demo regardless (though not without a couple of issues, as I’ll get into later).

Getting into the demo itself, the first thing you’ll note is that it both looks and performs much better than either of the previous releases; offering nice clean image quality and steady frame rates, Judgment Disc shows Final Fantasy XV looking and feeling better than it ever has before. It’s even noticeably improved from the Gold Master footage Square Enix made available in the days after the delay announcement, so there’s no doubt that pushing back the release was absolutely worth it. The chunk of the game we’re given picks up right from the start, with the unexplained (and somewhat bewildering) chapter 0 flash-forward giving way to the present day as Noctis and chums must push their broken down car along a sun-baked highway to Hammerhead, before moving onto Galdin Quay in hopes of catching a boat to Altissia so that the prince can make it to his wedding in time.

Before long, you’re set free and out into the sandy region of Leide, to hunt monsters as payment for your car repairs, and it becomes immediately obvious that the chunk of world we’re given to run around in is absolutely vast, the generous demo recalling memories of Panzer Dragoon Saga‘s entire first disc being given away on the cover of Sega Saturn Magazine back in May ’98 (I still have that disc!). Indeed, it’s a shame that this demo hasn’t been made available to everyone, such is the positive impression it leaves; few will have played the promising Episode Duscae, tethered as it was to first print purchases of Type 0, and Platinum Demo really wasn’t something that deserved to be most people’s first point of contact with the game. Granted, it’s easy enough to get your hands on Judgment Disc – especially on Xbox One – but the fact that all text and voice is in Japanese will be off-putting to some.

If there’s one concern I do have at the moment, it’s that, at this admittedly very early point in the game, I think I preferred the combat in Episode Duscae – well, certain aspects of it at least. The systems are broadly similar of course, with Noctis switching between four weapons, stringing together combos as he goes, all the while dodging enemy attacks with an MP-draining defense stance or a more traditional dodge-roll. What’s different here is that, rather than building your combo by placing weapons in specific spots, influencing when and how they’ll show up in your ongoing assault, you now have the ability to switch weapons in real-time, a change originally seen in the Platinum Demo. This is absolutely A Good Thing. What’s less welcome, however, is the absence of Duscae‘s weapon-specific Techniques. In that first demo, each weapon in Noctis’ armoury had a powerful ability attached to it – his Blood Sword, for instance, offered Drain Blade which, after a short wind-up would hit the enemy and transfer some of it’s vitality to Noctis, while his Dragon Lance would grant you access to that iconic Final Fantasy Jump command. While we’ve known about this change for a while – they were also missing from the adult Noctis battle at the end of Platinum Demo, for instance – it’s still a rather disappointing change, and can serve to make combat feel a little more one-note than it previously did; while the game still isn’t a case of ‘hold circle to win’, as many detractors would claim around Duscae‘s release, it does now feel a little closer to that than it previously did. That being said, these Techniques do have a replacement here, of a sort. They’ve been given to your allies.

Well, kind of. You see, above your weapon UI, there’s a green bar with a few notches along it that fills as you battle enemies. Attaining a notch on this metre allows you to perform a party attack, ordering one of your entourage to carry out a specific ability. For instance, Gladio, Noctis’ beefy bodyguard, will perform Tempest, a wide-sweeping sword attack that pulls enemies together and was last seen attached to Noctis’ Engine Blade in Duscae. Ignis and Prompto have their own abilities of course, with Prompto firing a piercing shot at the targeted enemy and Ignis throwing his daggers out to mark a number of enemies, which Noctis will then warp between. These actions are always enjoyable to use, and successfully landing one triggers a QTE which allows Noctis to follow up with a tap of a button. And while they are definitely an addition I like, as they make the otherwise-uncontrollable members of your party feel a bit more involved and under your control, I must question whether they had to come at the cost of Noctis’ own weapon techniques, which were, more often than not, a risk/reward mechanic in Duscae, as they needed both a long wind-up and a good chunk of MP. Without this mechanic, the rhythm of battle has changed from one where you’d constantly be looking for a bit of time and space to slip in a damaging technique to one where you just attack until you build enough meter to trigger a party member into action, which then takes you out of the fight for a few seconds. Again, it’s very early in the game at this point, and I’m sure there’ll be later additions to the core combat system that shake up that rhythm somewhat.

gladio

What’s a little more concerning is the somewhat unresponsive nature of your button presses. There’s a noticeable delay between pressing a button and having a command carried out; running through the world and jumping over obstacles will see you needing to press jump before you actually reach that obstacle, for instance. While this is something you’ll get used to fairly quickly, it’s exacerbated by the combat system’s reliance on animation priority, making it very easy to get stuck in the middle of a sword swing – especially with a slow weapon like the Engine Blade – and then take a hit despite holding down the defend button while you wait for the animation to finish. Animation priority alone would make the combat a little more ponderous, as you wait for an opening before committing to an attack (think The Witcher 2‘s sword combat) but marrying this to unresponsive button presses can and will cause frustration. Enemies are weak to specific weapons, so if you’re fighting a monster that requires you to use a heavy sword – like the crabs near Galdin Quay you can see in this article’s second video – you’ll probably end up getting knocked about before you land a hit. I’m hoping that the responsiveness will be improved for release (we will still be getting a day one patch, of course), but otherwise it’s something I’ll have to adapt to by playing much more cautiously, watching enemies for an opening rather than just wading in with a massive sword.

There is actually a mechanic in the battle system which seems to exist to give you a bit of breathing space, however: link attacks. Should you land a parry or a back attack while standing next to an ally, you might trigger a cool, cinematic co-operative attack with that party member. These segments always look fantastic – witness Gladio throwing Noctis into the air from the point of his sword, before the prince comes crashing down to earth with his spear – and like the aforementioned party actions, these also take you out of the action for a second or two. I can imagine that attempting to manoeuver yourself into a position to make link strikes happen as often as possible will be a big part of your combat strategy, giving enemies less of a chance to attack.

We got a brief look at magic usage in the Platinum Demo, and Judgment Disc gives us an opportunity to try out the game’s new spell-crafting system. Gathering magic is somewhat reminiscent of FFVIII‘s draw system, as throughout the world you’ll find naturally occurring deposits of elemental energy that you can absorb and then use to craft magic spells. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the crafting mechanics, whereby you select an equippable magic bottle, an amount of elemental energy and then modifying items from your inventory to create spells with differing effects, such as a fire spell that will also poison your target. As I couldn’t read the text prompts, I had to settle for pressing all the buttons in hopes of making something happen but sadly, elemental mastery eluded me. It’s a system that should help add a few wrinkles to combat, and I can’t wait to get to grips with in the full game, but Judgment Disc does at least gift us a few uses of the base fire spell partway through the demo. Try not to throw it at your team mates. Or do, if you want to see them panic a bit, as magical friendly fire is a thing that exists in Final Fantasy XV.

Another aspect of the game that I look forward to finding out more about is sidequests. In the chunk of game offered here, you can take on hunts at local diners before heading out into the open world to exterminate troublesome mobs, but other than that side content seems a little thin on the ground. Again, not being able to understand the language puts me at a disadvantage here – for all I know, it’s possible to pick up additional quests simply by overhearing NPCs or reading in-game items – I’ll find out for sure when I have an English copy of the game. We’ve also seen some side content in the material Square Enix and various press outlets have put out in the last couple of months, it just remains to be seen how impactful that content will be; will it boil down to fetch quests and monster hunts, or is there something more interesting in there?

What is interesting is that we finally get to play with the Regalia this time. We came tantalisingly close in Episode Duscae, with the demo ending just as we were ready to get behind the wheel, but here we get to finally take our flash set of wheels for a spin. You can choose either to drive manually or let Ignis take control, and this mode is surprisingly enjoyable, as you’re left free to spin the camera around and enjoy the scenery, all the while listening to classic Final Fantasy tunes on the car radio. I can see myself driving all over just to enjoy some old school Uematsu magic, though if I have one piece of advice, it is this: do not forget to fill up on fuel!

Story remains my biggest interest, though. In a sense, I’m quite glad I can’t understand any of the text or dialogue in this demo – though I have seen all of this content in English, thanks to Square-Enix’s aggressive video policy post-delay, the language barrier has kept me from getting too interested in the goings-on of Noctis and his retinue, allowing me to focus solely on the gameplay. But this has always been one of the biggest draws for me in a Final Fantasy – following the narrative beats, getting to know the characters, and losing myself in the world – and having avoided all spoilers, I know just enough to be very interested in where things go from here. One thing I had been worried about was the absence of the imperial invasion of Insomnia – originally slated for the game and now only appearing in Kingsglaive – fearing that the events of the game might feel a bit disconnected from that really quite important story detail. Thankfully, the day one ‘Crown Update‘ will add scenes from the film (as well as the excellent Omen trailer) to flesh out the current state of the world, so that should help. As I mentioned in my Kingsglaive review, I am a little sad we’ll never see the Insomnia invasion in-game, but I’m ready to see where this version of the story takes us, and I can’t wait to join Noctis and crew on the road. After ten years of waiting, I can’t believe its merely days away.

After months of teases and rumours, Square Enix have finally announced an HD remaster of PS2 RPG Final Fantasy XII.

First teased by conductor Arnie Roth at a Distant Worlds concert last August, and then again in a new Prima guide a month later, the Japanese publisher today confirmed the title in a two-minute trailer, below. Called Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, the new release is heading to PS4 in 2017 and will be based on the International Zodiac Job System version of the game, which has until now remained in Japan.

In addition to the changes to the license board and battle system, Square Enix is also promising a full 1080p remastering of all assets and cutscenes, a re-recorded soundtrack in 7.1 surround (including the ability to switch between the original and new soundtracks), and a host of quality of life improvements, such as auto-saves and shortened load times. We’re also promised “high definition voicing” so hopefully the slightly tinny delivery of the original release will be a thing of the past.

While the Final Fantasy fanbase is generally pretty divided when it comes to discussions around the best game in the franchise, Final Fantasy XII tends to be among the most divisive entries. Whether it’s the ‘offline MMO’ game structure, the more languid style of storytelling, or just plain old Vaan, there are plenty of series fans that just didn’t enjoy XII. Conversely, those that love the game really love it, often citing it as the best in the series. For my part, I played just 14 hours of it before giving up – I just couldn’t get into it. Because of that, I’ve been hoping for an HD remaster for a fair while so that I could give it another chance. I had really hoped for a Vita version though, and so far it looks like the game is only coming to the PS4. It’s understandable, but a touch disappointing nonetheless. Given Square’s recent PC strategy though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it arrive on that platform some time after its PlayStation 4 release.

With E3 just a week away, we’re heading strongly into video game silly season, and with announcements like this, it seems the party’s getting started early. Here’s hoping we get a closer look at Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age next week.

FFXV Leviathan
One of the most exciting announcements at last week’s Uncovered event was the news of a new playable demo for Final Fantasy XV. After the many thrills of the conference, it was an enticing thought that we’d be able to actually have a crack at the game shortly after.

Of course, we’ve had a decent look at the game already, or at least those of us who bought Final Fantasy Type 0 have. Last spring’s Episode Duscae was a nice little glimpse at how Square Enix expected their new game to play out, giving us a short, multi-part quest to follow and a fairly large expanse of land to traverse. The message was simple; here’s how the game plays, and here’s what you can expect the environments to be like. The message we get from Platinum Demo is much less clear.

We begin as Noctis, only it’s not the same slightly moody guy we might be used to. After some unexplained event (maybe that Marilith attack we see in the beginning of Brotherhood?), a young Noctis awakes in a sunlit glade. He’s greeted by an incredibly cute incarnation of recurring series summon Carbuncle who tells him – via text message, of course – that he’s stuck in a dream, and serves as our young protagonist’s guide as he runs, jumps and fights through a few short, linear environments. It’s an odd demo, to be sure, as Noctis travels towards the Royal Citadel in an attempt to wake up. Far removed from Episode Duscae‘s wide-open plains, Platinum Demo plunks our diminutive hero into three small areas where all he really has to do is find the exit.

Carbuncle

Beginning in that peaceful glade, we follow a forested path out into a rocky canyon, collecting some shining orbs along the way. These unlock strange metal plates embedded in the ground that, when stepped on, trigger various effects. We can change the time of day, watching the lighting adjust in real-time, or switch up the weather, going from bright sunshine to cloudy skies, and finally to a grey downpour. Other plates trigger very short cameo appearances from summons like Titan and Leviathan, while in the second area, in a scene surely inspired by 1989 classic Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a tiny Noctis can transform into a pickup truck (yes, really) and drive around the table legs in a huge dining room, before climbing stacks of books to reach the exit on the tabletop.

Next, we find ourselves in the streets of Altissia, a striking city on the water, and while there’s still not much to do it’s nice to get a feel for what towns might be like in the full game. The chunk of the city we’re given to run around in is fairly small but dense, with plenty of stairways and alleys to search but again, our only objective is to find that exit, and to that end Carbuncle tells us to look for a long corridor (insert Final Fantasy XIII joke here). Of course, we have a few more of those transformation plates dotted about, and here they turn Noctis into one of three animals. No, I don’t know why, either. Stepping on a plate triggers a random transformation into either a crocodile thing, a buffalo thing, or a giraffe-antelope thing, and you can use these forms to rather clumsily attack the handful of enemies that litter the streets.

Noctis can of course fight through these three areas, but with only a toy sword and squeaky hammer to defend himself for the most part, it’s not the most engaging thing in the world. It effectively boils down to holding circle to win, with the occasional tap of square to evade. There are a handful of funny, childlike spells to find, such as ‘raindrops’, which pours a shower of neon sparks over the affected area, or Firework, which goes off like a firecracker and deals damage to nearby enemies, but there’s little here to set pulses racing.

The young Noctis gameplay is all rather lightweight and uninvolving, and it’s built on an odd premise, too. Really, this is a tech demo, built to show off the time of day and weather systems, while giving us a brief look at how magic and things like driving will work in the final game – both things that were conspicuous by their absence in Duscae. Tying it up in a strange dream narrative in environments that surely bare little-to-no resemblance to the wide open world map we’ll traverse in the full game is an incredibly bizarre choice; as someone who played Episode Duscae to death, it’s nice to get a sneak peek at some of those mechanics that were missing, but this is the demo that Square Enix have chosen to make available to everyone – it’s not behind a paywall that only the most dedicated fans would be willing to scale. If this was my first point of contact with the game, I have to think I’d be rather put off.

Thankfully, the final part of the demo is a little better. As Noctis reaches the Royal Citadel, he’s faced with an enormous Iron Giant that wishes to prevent him from waking up. Realising that he is in control of his dreams, Noctis promptly grows up, becoming the young man we all know, and we finally get the opportunity to properly get to grips with the battle system.

The first thing to note is that fighting has seen some changes since Episode Duscae. In that demo, you’d set different weapons in a series of slots, which would then determine where those weapons would appear in your combo, carried out by holding the attack button. While you’ll still be holding the attack button in Platinum Demo to effectively auto-combo, we now have real-time weapon switching, with weapons taking up the four direction slots on the d-pad, allowing us to tailor our combos and mix up attacks in a more pleasingly-manual way. Here, we have the Airstep Sword, new in this demo, that allows Noctis to use that iconic Warp technique – whether that’s to swiftly close distance or escape – and the Zweihander, a massive Buster Sword-alike that swings slower but deals more damage, and has a nifty charge attack. Look around the Citadel, and you can also find a couple more weapons, the Cross Shuriken and Hero’s Shield. The Shuriken in particular is good fun to use, allowing you to attack from range and start your combo from a distance, before, perhaps, warping in to continue your assault with one of Noctis’ swords, while the shield allows you to stagger opponents with a well-timed button press.

PLATINUM DEMO – FINAL FANTASY XV_20160406152443

As in Duscae, you can hold square to enter a defensive state or manually dodge-roll with a press of the button and a directional input. In Duscae, entering a defensive state allowed to you automatically dodge pretty much everything, at the expense of a rapidly-draining MP meter. Holding the button here doesn’t drain MP anymore, but that trade-off does mean that you no longer dodge everything – you’ll still get hit a fair bit if you only really on holding the button down, but it does allow you to parry certain enemy attacks. The way these are telegraphed has also changed since Duscae, and I preferred the system in that demo, where enemies would briefly flash and a discrete spider-sense-type icon would appear on-screen. Here, we get a huge red “DEFEND” sign pop up in the middle of the screen. I guess it’s easier to notice, but it doesn’t look great.

We also get to use Fire in this battle, and there are a handful of explosive barrels (yes, really) dotted around the battleground for you to blow up – luring the Iron Giant towards one of these before flinging a spell at it is always a good idea, engulfing the enormous boss in a massive fireball in the process. Magic feels good to wield, allowing you to aim and throw it exactly where you want it, but one complaint I do have is that any magic spells you have also need to be set in one of those four d-pad slots, meaning you then have less space for weapons. I would like to see one button – maybe L2? – act as a modifier; hold that and you’d get a second set of four d-pad slots, allowing you eight in total, for instance. Four slots for both weapons and magic just feels too limiting. Perhaps this will actually be the case in the full game, where we’ll have access to far more weapons and spells than we’re afforded here.

Overall, combat feels like one step forward and another one back; while the Armiger mode – essentially Noctis’ limit break, available when he’s at full MP – returns here, the weapon-specific Techniques that existed in the Duscae demo are completely gone in this build. They were an enjoyable wrinkle in Duscae‘s combat, offering a bit of a risk-reward mechanic as they could hit hard or siphon HP while leaving you open to retaliation if you missed. The fact they’re gone here, in a demo far closer to release, is rather concerning, even as the Platinum Demo combat offers its own advances. It’s a bizarre state of affairs.

Once you’ve defeated the Iron Giant, you can choose to respawn him and fight again, and it’s worth doing so to get a proper handle on the battle system. Combat isn’t explained all that well for newcomers, so you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that combat boils down to holding circle until you win. There’s actually a reasonable amount of depth, even here, with only one character, a handful of weapons and one spell, but there’s no real reason to explore that depth except for your own curiosity. After slogging through three rather sedate areas as Young Noctis, I have to wonder how many people would bother – some would likely be glad it’s all over. A little direction would go a long way – this is supposed to be a demo to get people excited about the game, to show them some of the things that might excite them. If you don’t illustrate anything beyond the basics, the basics – like simply holding circle to combo – are all many players will see.

When all is said and done, it’s that sense of confusion that hangs over the Platinum Demo, and I can’t help but think Square Enix would have been better served sprucing up the existing Episode Duscae demo, perhaps by adding some new areas and quests, and updating the battle system to the one seen here in Platinum Demo. That would surely have been a better indication of the final game’s quality and structure than whatever this is. Again, those of us that played Duscae will appreciate the glimpses at towns, magic and driving, but newcomers – surely the focus now – are most likely going to be confused and a little bored. The Iron Giant fight at the end is obviously placed at the demo’s climax to get players excited to come back, but it seems a little too lightweight at first blush to really grab the attention. It’s something of a shame that this will be most people’s first experience of Final Fantasy XV, as the game is otherwise looking very impressive, and I personally can’t wait to play it. But this demo did little to make that wait any harder.