Zelda: Outlands +Q (part 2)

…Lynels…X_X…

Kudos for dungeon design in level T. You instantly land in a sandpit with a patraquad that is far easier to kill with bombs, so no precious candle-wall cheesing. Just watch the thing and try to place a bomb somewhere it will move over and hopefully you’ll only use one or two of them. Up two screens is Zelda with the sword (thankfriggingNayru) and some more rooms that are either puzzles or require an item. Just past this point, we run into Zelda again who tells us that ‘twelve guards watch over the dungeon’s gate.’

Proceeding down from the patraquad sandpit instead of up, there are some familiar monster rooms with block switches. As per usual, they gotta be cleaned out before the switches can be pushed. One of them is filled with pols voice which die from a single strike but turn into peahats. In the peahat-filled side-scrolling staircases, it’s easy to get complacent. But the directional mechanics aren’t the same in the side-scroll basements which, combined with misplaced sense of sword security, can trick you into taking some hits. So don’t be too eager to stop relying on the boomerang.

So our vigilance is subtly tested during our immediate sense of relief after getting the sword. We also run into a blue lynel for the first time in the game which is a frustrating pain the ass and you had better hope you’re at full health for the sword beam. Compliments to GameMakr24 for creating a test of caution and vigilance reminiscent of Bloodborne.

It soon becomes apparent that, once embarking on the path south of the sandpit, doors lock behind you with no obvious floor switches. This happens as you move down, to the left and slightly upward, like a one-way spiral pattern. With persistence, you will be able to return to an apparently empty room at the beginning of the left turn.

Now…remember the invisible doorways from the first quest? That is the dungeon exit. And this is the first invisible doorway I’ve encountered in the second quest, so it felt like an understated blindside. It really does pay not to loose track of the possible ways of detecting hidden paths, even if one hasn’t worked in a while.

Since Outlands banks on crisscrossing between dungeons, I was tempted to do some back-tracking.

Upon our return to level U- there is a room with a staircase behind a cubic block. It is guarded by peahats, stalfos and yellow tektites, all of which need to be killed before the block switch will move.

A key hallmark of this rom hack is that some of the hit boxes are mixed and matched with other sprites. Peahats have passed their burden of annoyance on to the keese and are now the only monsters that can be killed with the boomerang. The stalfos could be dispatched by cornering them against the wall with a candle or bombs. The tektites, in Outlands, are invulnerable to the candle and the bombs.

Before I finally tracked down the sword, that screen was maddening. Two variety of monsters vulnerable to bombs and the candle and one that isn’t. So guess what I did as soon as I managed to escape from T?

The sword got the tektites out of the way but holy crap does it take some doing. Rather like the first quest…things tend to go smoother if you keep your sword beam as long as possible. As it is also clear that the second quest will play fair as harshly as possible, there is absolutely no reason not to cheese as much as you can. If a room is filled with monsters, hide in a doorway and step out every now and then to throw a sword beam into the fray. Gathered hundreds of rupees? Stop by a Goron shop whenever you can and buy keys whenever you have just over two hundred. As soon as you explore a little bit of level O, it becomes clear that moblin meat is frequently demanded and only occasionally available. So stockpile every resource you possibly can.

No fucks given ^^

Back in U, there are successive rooms with cloaked, firey mages, the ones that turn into disembodied fire sprites when you kill one of their colony members. I know the digital version of the instruction manual has a name for them. They’re basically Subrosian mages that gather together into a colony organism. And there is one after another in a few successive rooms, until you get to one with just a fire sprite and no clear hit box locus. Time to put a feather in that and move on, for now.

Not so far from U is level D, which can be unveiled with the ocarina, which I’ve somehow overlooked this whole time.

This, as implied by the dodongos, is a bomb-centric dungeon. It is also filled with a lot of monsters that have been bosses and mini bosses in the past. Like, in nearly every other room. This dungeon also has more meat which I promptly ran back to O with. Since D has its own hungry moblin…I was a little worried about…going down a path of no return. So far, I don’t think I have…but holy crap does O have a lot of hungry moblins.

Between O and D, Princess Zelda increases the bomb bag capacity by four in each of them. Once you figure out the reciprocal relationship between both dungeons, it’s pretty easy to release both of their Tetrarch Fairies…which seems to effect the ocarina.

Maybe? ‘Cause afterward, the ocarina can warp to different locations. My working hypothesis for now is that each Tetrarch Fairy unlocks a new location, with the lake near the respawn point as a kind of home base. It seems likely: I can’t remember an exact before and after point when the ocarina began warping during the first quest. Only that it was later in the game, which suggests that the number of fairies released has something to do with it. Not to mention, the flute in the original LoZ warped to each completed dungeon.

So. Because of the liberated Tetrarch Fairies or whatever the reason might be…we now have access to the landmass that was uncovered by the raft in the first quest. It’s only at this point that the second quest feels fully shod of the helplessness it begins with. While everything except the overworld is different, it now feels like the mobility of the first quest is largely regained.

With a little bit of digging, the Goron shop with the bow and arrow can be found, along with the Gerudo with Bagu’s letter. You’ll probably get robbed multiple times in other grottos you expose while looking for it…but it’s there. Now, then: I seem to remember a boss monster with one eye back in the U dungeon…

Link to part 3 will be here as soon as I have it

This is my review of the first quest

Final Fantasy VII for the NES! (spoiler review)

After the example of the famous Chinese NES bootleg, this version was made to be a closer reflection of the PS1 original. These adaptations were made by Lugia2009 with patching and translation support from Lindblum, who also provided the English translation for the first Chinese version.

The 2005 Chinese “Famiclone” is widely credited to Shenzhen Nanjing Technology, which tempts me to assume that the game engine is original. There are however unmistakable resemblances to the first three Final Fantasy games, including reused assets. For the most part, it plays like an early FF as well. A notable improvement is that your party has armor, weapons and materia from the very beginning, which I’m happy with since I’ve recently dealt with FF1’s initial grinding slog.

Of course, when I say materia, what I mean is magic that works the same way as the spells you learn in shops in FF1. Each party member has a single piece of materia when they join you and each one will grow its own roster of spells as you accumulate AP. Each party member can only equip a single materia at a time. Perhaps that was the best way to reconcile the materia system with the early FF scaffolds- simply integrate it into the existing equipment mechanic. It also simplifies strategy- even streamlines it.

To an extent, anyway. It gives each party member a distinct function. This comes through in the mid to late stages of the game when more healing spells are likely to develop (excluding Aerith’s Light materia- the only one with healing magic enabled from the beginning). The majority of your strategic freedom concerns elemental affinities, which is accommodated by the ability to equip and unequip materia in your inventory mid-battle.

On the other hand…elemental affinities are infuriatingly difficult to keep track of. Especially since the whole range of random encounter monsters could potentially show up at any point. Like in the image above- you can run into Christopher and Tonberries and stuff as early as the bombing mission at the start of the game. Sometimes there are vague encounter patterns, but you could potentially run into any monster anywhere. Some reasonable consistency is still maintained by how tough they are, though, relative to location and progression route.

This rom-hack retains a few of the base game’s sudden difficulty spikes but, fortunately, not all of them. In an NES format it would be maddening.

After the unpredictability of the monster encounters, the next biggest combat annoyance is the scarcity of group healing magic. Even without Aerith, you’ll probably end up having one of your party members carrying her Light materia. Then again, you could simply cough up for a ton of group healing items, depending on whether you prefer to rely on magic points or money. The former can increase its max limit with usage and regular stops at “magic shops.”

Which brings us to another key mechanic change- materia and weapon enhancement. Your character builds will hinge on two point values: conventional “grinding” by winning battles and the frequency with which you use both weapon and magic.

EXP, of course, raises your level and therefore stats, etc. AP is accumulated every time you use a weapon or a materia-based spell. When you reach a given maximum limit, you’ll need to stop at either a weapon or materia enhancement station to move the ball forward. Neglecting this can make you feel extremely naked and challenged early on so luckily it doesn’t take long to put it together.

Stat + items are also dropped way more frequently than they were in the base game, which is interesting. 4-8Productions, on YouTube, has a video about the only non-finite source of stat+ items: using the morph materia on any monster in the crashed Gelnika. This is, naturally, a huge pain in the ass because that means whittling down a ton of really strong monsters to roughly below 10 HP so the morph ability can knock them below 0. However, if you’re patient and persistent enough, you can unlock a HUGE work-around the leveling system. (Yes I’ve done this and yes it’s every bit as grueling as it sounds)

This can either be good or bad. Good because it enables more character build freedom or bad because it makes a group of PCs that feel kinda same-y even less unique. As much of a fanatical Final Fantasy VII fan girl as I am, I still can’t help noticing that the combat system lurched between stilted and fluid to the point of emptiness. In order to notice and take interest in the subtleties of FFVII’s character build avenues, you would almost certainly need to like the story and the fictional world enough to pay close attention. While I’m one of those people, it’s still kinda sad that the character build experimentation was not more accessible.

Since this is an 8-bit, NES demake of Final Fantasy VII, it is necessarily shorter which means less time to stop and smell the mako. Which means the finer points of gameplay need to carry more weight. Perhaps the frequent stat+ item drops from monsters were meant to add an extra layer of build variability. This, like healing magic from non-Light materia, will likely be at its most noticeable near the end. Chiefly because you’ll have the ability to travel between the different land masses and observe which stat + items are dropped where.

Essentially, the progression route follows the original as closely as it can. Some of the music, early on, is a little tinny, but evens out once Cloud makes it to the Seventh Heaven. The chip-tuney version of Lurking In The Darkness was a pleasant and charming surprise, especially since it gets used in a few more dungeons. Those Who Fight Further was converted nicely which matters- in graphically simple turn-based RPGs, music carries a lot of weight.

As per the necessary shortening, certain musical cues are adjusted. During Cloud’s brief dream dialogue before waking up in Aerith’s flower bed, I was surprised to hear Listen to the Cries of the Planet (the music from the Forgotten Capital in the original game). Reunion is heard for the first time inside Gaia’s Cliff, which I appreciated. I realize that Reunion is basically Aerith’s Theme with a lower, mysterious-sounding key change. But I always thought it was unfairly overlooked.

One interesting consequence of the shortening was a new presentation of Cloud’s mental struggles. We simply hang out at the Inn room in Kalm as Cloud tells everyone. No actual flashback. Which means, when the party gets to Nibelheim, the player is seeing it for the first time. Unless you hang out nearby for the grinding, you won’t see it again until the illusion just outside of the Northern Crater. It’s a neat way to build tension; a series of small, gradual reveals that create questions about why Cloud told things the way he did.

Obviously there are far less side quests and stuff like Wall Market are pretty linear in comparison. I noticed some collision detection oddities on the world map (which, mechanically, functions no different from anywhere else) which made me wonder. I’ve been playing through the second quest on the Challenge Games Legend of Zelda rom hack, so I have been doing some compulsive wall-testing lately.

Maybe the Zelda hack is making me obsessive…but after I found a short length of mountain you can walk over in the Icicle area, I immediately doubled back and started testing other terrain barriers. Particularly around Wutai and the area between the Mythril Mines and the place where Fort Condor is in the original. You can see little entrances under mountain ranges and house sprites in inaccessible areas.

Like…you can see the entrance to the cave with the old miner who gives you Aerith’s Great Gospel limit break in the original. If you explore in the northern oceans, you can see a house that looks like it might be the home of the Chocobo Sage. On the southwestern continent, you can get a view of a circular pond collected from a waterfall that then feeds into a lake, like Lucrecia’s hideout.

Then again, the moogle construction site of Wutai was obviously there just to…pay tribute to the original and add a bit of cute, aesthetic consistency. Sort of a wink and a nod saying “Yeah, we get it, it should be there, but what do you expect? It ain’t like we got three discs!” Maybe the miner’s cave and the Chocobo Sage’s house are decorative, as well.

In an objective and qualitative assessment, this is equivalent to a streamlined NES-era Final Fantasy. Other than this one, I’ve played some of the very first FF and the very beginning of the second. This reimagining of FFVII has an intuitive and accessible combat system and some simple “high score” rewards that let you enhance your weapons and materia. The adaptation of the soundtrack from the original also adds to its stylistic distinction from other NES Final Fantasy games. But this second iteration of NES Final Fantasy VII doesn’t exactly “push boundaries.”

But for FFVII fans who also like retro gaming, this game is rather more than the sum of its 8 bits. Also like the original Final Fantasy VII, the storytelling is the main distinction here. The portrayal of Cloud’s background is significantly altered, as is the date with Aerith in the Gold Saucer. The location within the Northern Crater where Sephiroth’s original body is located, right next to Sapphire, Ultima and Diamond WEAPONs, is named “The Mako Tree” and the Prelude music is heard there, like the crystal chambers in FFIV and FFV. Since the original FFVII was such a huge in shift from all others before it, I was both bemused and charmed to see this thematic tie-in with the older, “swords and sorcery” games.

The “tree” part is also an interesting touch. Especially given the shortening of Sephiroth’s name during combat. I know it’s an NES remake which means that menu commands, item names, monster names etc. get shortened sometimes, what with the limited information storage. But when you name the antechamber of Sephiroth’s stronghold “The Mako Tree” and you drop the “h” from the end of his name…it kinda puts the whole Tree of Life symbolism closer to the foreground. Maybe it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but I think it’s cool.

Zelda: Outlands +Q (part 1)

Meat outside of the floor compartment. What would Dracula say D:

Since I’m playing through the second quest, I’m gonna exercise zero restraint on spoilers.

The first moments of quest one can be a little intimidating. But a modest amount of exploration will reveal that your sword is sitting there for the taking in the first dungeon. After that, a little lateral thinking will set you straight on how this rom hack differs from the original Legend of Zelda: run back and forth between dungeons, the “One way!” teleportation caves, etc.

Second time around, though…after the “New Adventure Awaits!” notice when you bump off the Thunderbird…it’s, uh…pretty tough.

Before now I never really stopped to consider what a security blanket the sword actually is, in a Zelda game. Being without it is pretty damn inconvenient, but on top of having to rely on bombs, the candle and the boomerang to kill and stun monsters…you just feel naked without it.

So you find ways to compensate. I stumbled across cave with a moblin giving away rupees, early on. From there, the question is what to buy with the most possible utility, since no sword means you won’t be milking enemies for item drops as frequently as the first time around. Like an idiot, I went with bombs instead of the candle. Both the candle and the bombs can harm enemies and unlock hidden paths, but they also have different strengths and weaknesses. The bombs do more damage and the candle is easily replenished between screens. Coming and going from the screen next door to renew the candle is less of a test of patience than spending twenty rupees every time you run out of bombs.

Get ready for lots of THIS shit

Luckily, one of the early dungeons offers a solution: like-likes, who probably have the best item drops out of any monster you’ll have access to in the very beginning. Lots of money and bombs. With persistence and luck, you’ll be able to farm enough rupees for both the first boomerang and whichever of the two initial purchases you didn’t go with the first time around.

After that point…you’ll probably notice that the dungeons have letters instead of numbers. Meaning that the progression route will be even less linear than last time, perhaps? Less linear than the first play through that was distinguished largely by it’s non-linearity?

Like linearity itself, this has it’s own set of possibilities and limitations. We know, from our first quest, that an item obtained in one dungeon may unlock an obstacle in another, or elsewhere in the Outlands. Therefore, finding yourself with bombs, the candle, one boomerang or another and some occasional meat with no path forward in the “first” two dungeons is not a death sentence. It just means you have to keep looking.

As per the original Legend of Zelda and our first quest in the Outlands, the typical methods of revealing hidden paths include: pushing rocks, bombing walls, burning bushes, crawling with the ladder, sailing on the raft and playing the ocarina. That last part is an addition from GameMakr24 that I’m really happy with. It contributes to the exploration of what the lore of Ocarina of Time would be like if it were present in the first game.

So we dart all over burning things, blowing stuff up, pushing rocks and playing the ocarina. This process is narrowed by my lack of a power bracelet: only the plain, cubic blocks and the headstones can be pushed right now. After several failed bombings (hehe…sorry, I couldn’t resist) I remembered a pattern from the first quest: lots of breakable walls and very few flammable bushes. Maybe the distribution is reversed in the second quest?

Maybe a little less of a reversal, as it turns out. While breakable walls are in hiding so far, flammable bushes are only slightly more numerous…and they usually only have moblins who pay you to keep the secrets of their woodsy little holes.

(I know they’re called Goriyas in the NES games…but it’s hard for me to shake the resemblance they have to moblins. Like how the Wizzrobes look like Subrosians from Oracle of Seasons or potion vendors from A Link to the Past. My mind just seems to…have it’s own preference. And it’s not like we don’t call the armored foes Darknuts even though Nintendo canonically named them Iron Knuckles)

Rupees are perfectly good but they don’t really help, if you already have some of the early equipment. Excluding keys for dungeons, of course. Still haven’t found any amazing Goron shops with bows and stuff yet, though, so rupees aren’t high on my list. Given how open LoZ: Outlands is, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a way to access it even at this point.

I found the step ladder in dungeon O. This opens up the territory beyond streams, which shows promise at first. If you can scrape together the rupees, you can pay a Subrosian for a hint. The cute, robed sorcerer makes it sound like the cemetery puzzle in the lower lefthand corner of the map can be solved in the same way it was in quest one. Until I realize that I need the power bracelet to see that through…

…X_x…

The systematic method can be seriously frustrating if you overthink things. Especially if you haven’t played the original Legend of Zelda in a while like me. See, earlier, when you get the ocarina from Zelda, she tells you to look for a hidden path in the Graveyard of Serenity. And you happen to have the step ladder which lets you access the lower-left cemetery. So…it…it almost starts to feel like the game isn’t playing fair…

Then I took a break and realized two, blatantly obvious things I’ve overlooked: the Graveyard of Serenity refers to a specific graveyard and the first quest had two of them. We’ve ruled out one. And in the last paragraph, where and when did I say Zelda gives you the hint?

Oh. Right. When she gives you the enchanted instrument that’s used for revealing paths and warping. Thing is…I sorta wrote that off for the same reason I did the flammable bushes: it only ever seemed to unlock rupee moblins and a heart container. And the cemeteries are flooded with ghostly floor masters that I just can’t kill yet.

Back when I was trying to set all the plant life I see on fire, I usually had to clear the screen of moblins and scrubs before I could start testing the bushes one by one. And I didn’t want to keep spending money on bombs so I would come and go from the screen to keep reusing the candle. That requires waiting for them to get close to a wall so the fire can continue to burn them after it knocks them backward. And, if you want to spare yourself as many screen to screen refreshes as you can, you should probably camp out near a wall with the boomerang so you could stun and burn a whole group.

The lady said it was the Graveyard of Serenity, though, so off we go. And that means the floor master ghosts. Which, presumably, means a whole lot of dodging. And the floor master ghosts spawn every time you touch a tombstone. It’s a risk…but not impossible.

This was almost too much for me. Guess what’s in there? A rupee moblin. Just a moblin with more money. *eye twitches*

But did Zelda say to push aside a tombstone? And as much of a bust as the ocarina had been so far…it has unlocked secret paths in places without water before.

So. Not only is the path to level T unveiled but…

Oh Zelda. My orange-headed savior. I’ve never been happier to see you. At long freaking last, my A button is no longer useless!

I mean, yeah, other stuff happened before I got the sword but I had to get it out of my system

Onward to part 2

Also, in case you wanna see my review of the first quest

Let’s play Charlie Murder! (part 2)

While Charlie Murder has a world map, character building and other RPG-lite mechanics, it mostly stays in it’s beat’em up lane. The progression route is linear and grinding like you would in an RPG may or may not help as much as you’d think. At this point, tackling a difficult battle the way your build already is seems to pay off more. The auto save feature is blessedly reliable and you usually pass through at least a few screens on your way to a boss or a melee obstacle.

With an auto save between screens, you’ll still be better off on your next respawn even if you do lose some resources after getting KO’d. I mean, so far exploration hasn’t been that big of a factor and that’s one of the things that helps grinding not be an abject chore. Like I said- the game mostly stays in it’s lane, with combat, rhythm games and rail-shooter segments taking up most of the foreground.

I love seeing stuff like this: the contact-damage obstacles in the cemetery clearly contained germs of the Whispermen and Hanged Men from S&S ♥️

In my mid to late childhood, gaming arcades were still common. Consequently, I got a few fond memories of pumping quarters into beat’em up arcade cabinets so I could keep trying to get passed a single, frustrating melee obstacle. Obviously, this is only one example of gamer rage, but it’s a kind of gamer rage that makes Charlie Murder’s design satisfying for me.

Speaking of the design- you have two different forms of EXP: pocket change and social media followers. I think the scrounging for pocket change as it drops from fallen zombies kinda makes the social media thingie less repugnant through association.

Yeah I get it: social media is not doing so hot when rolling zombies for quarters makes it look more comfortable through association. Think it through, though: aren’t social media accounts promoting content creation (*sits there innocently, totally not self-aggrandizing* 😇) more interesting than most of them? I’m not wrong 😺

It’s also delightfully random when your followers plunge to zero because you just leveled up ^^

So when we last left off, we learned that a jilted ex-band member was gonna be our primary antagonist.

After each boss fight, there’s a flashback to older Charlie Murder gigs where you play a rhythm game as whatever band member you’re playing as. After that, there’s a more conventional cutscene showing the anguish of ex-band member Paul before he takes his fatal steps toward becoming a supervillain.

Is it weird that this is more fun than the aerial combat in FFVIIR?

There are also swag shops immediately after boss fights allowing you to cash in your pocket change for stat buff booze, equipment shops and tattoo parlors. Earlier I compared the tattoos to the brands from S&S but it might be more accurate to say they’re kinda like limit breaks. The more you fight, the more you fill a blue energy gauge. When it’s full, you can hold down a button which lets you unleash special attacks bestowed by the tattoos in addition to your chi-blast death metal scream.

The rail shooter segments also become more common as your progression route leads you to obtrusive terrain, requiring you to drive, fly, grapple, etc. The one that made me spaz out enough for my wife to take pictures of me was the shootout with witches on broom sticks.

This plays exactly like Einhander or Defender which makes it simple from a gameplay perspective. But there’s just something really fun about witches on broomsticks pulling out automatic handguns and shooting at you, like a gang war. How the fuck has this not been used in The Magicians or something?

There’s stories like The Prophecy and certain Anne Rice books in which supernatural creatures are either confused or intimidated by human technology. With the right world building, that can work. But a lot of stories don’t bother with that, so why hold back? Prolly afraid to be compared to Underworld ‘cause it looks campy but there’s also a good way to do camp as well. I’m raving about how much I like this game, aren’t I?

Maybe it’s just me and my witch-shootout fixation but just looking at this image almost makes me smile

After getting caught up on the progress of Paul’s rival band after his Faustian deal, we learn that he’s been present in the story every since we were resuscitated in the first level.

Back to the beginning of the play through

Let’s play Charlie Murder! (part 1)

Heyyyy sooo I’ve been really busy lately AND I’ve been working on a longpost which will be up very soon. So I decided to take a brain break!

I had no idea how fun this game was going to be until I started it. Within seconds I was yelling and bouncing around just like I normally do when playing Bloodborne or Mortal Kombat X. My attitude toward beat’em ups is kind of like my attitude toward dungeon crawlers, RPGs, MUDs or MUSHs. There is something so irreducibly simple and appealing about the design that I usually like them at least a little bit, even if they’re not particularly good.

The mechanics are intuitive enough for you to get ahold of the punch / kick basics easily but even the more unique stuff is just a few button mashes away from figuring out. Even before getting that far, though, there’s something about the Ska Studios art style that just charms the pants off of me. The Ska Studios graphic design actually meshes really well with how fun and lighthearted this game feels at first. You’re in a punk band and you wake up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. I only just played through the very beginning so there may be more to it than that, but I love the apparent simplicity at this point. In fact, simplicity on a few levels seems like one of the strengths of this game. The controls are simple enough to figure out on your own and you’ll probably figure out stuff like the character building mechanic on accident in the course of messing around.

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But the art style and the premise speak to something even more simple. The flying pieces of shrapnel and body parts and panicked bystanders and zombies and explosions make me think of certain cartoons I grew up watching. The original Powerpuff Girls, Courage The Corwardly Dog and Ed, Edd & Eddy all come to mind. I can even see a modern cartoon like the She-Ra reboot, Twelve Forever or even the creators of Over The Garden Wall or Gravity Falls attempting something like this if they wanted to go edgy. It would definitely be adult-oriented but…think of a creative team like the artists and writer(s) of Over The Garden Wall (my favorite recent cartoon). Based on that example, at least, they seem like they’re unafraid to go all the way with artistic ambition. Not afraid to be blunt while unafraid of going subtle…and with music. That kind of creative team could do something delicious with Charlie Murder.

Other than character building, there are other RPG-lite doodads like equipment and weapons. You also…seem to be able to rotate playable characters from the very beginning. Or, at least, a single save file contains your entire band. Each band member has a character class and I decided to go with the Mesmer first and then started again with the Berserker. So now my save file has a level 3 Berserker and a level 3 Mesmer but everyone else is still at level 1. When you decide to rotate your player character, you start at the beginning.

I know it might not sound like much on it’s face, but…it’s a fun work around for something that other games struggle with. At least the RPGs. Square went from each game having a million potentially playable characters to having mandatory small groups. I don’t know if I’ve played a game lately that simply has everyone available at the beginning like Charlie Murder, to be played and developed at the player’s discretion. Did I mention the simplicity, yet?

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Our story begins with a near-death experience. Whomever you choose to start the game with, you wake up in a big’ol hellscape surrounded by demons and then you are jerked back to your body as a paramedic is defribulating your heart. Next to the ambulance, some zombies and demons(?) quietly watch you for a moment. Just as quickly as you left the beatdown in the afterlife, you find yourself in a new one. After a small tutorial walk past some trashed storefronts, you make it to a bar.

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Over on the left: are those or are those not the same ninjas that board your ship at the beginning of Salt and Sanctuary?

This…feels kind of like a checkpoint? In Salt and Sanctuary (another gem from Ska Studios) the checkpoints look a lot like this. Except…in S&S, you only fight the inhabitants of another checkpoint if you’re claiming it for your creed or if you defect from your own creed. Here, the barflies simply start swarming you to begin with and the poor bartender only sticks his head back up once you’ve cleared them out.

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Yep, Anar-Chi is one of your stats and the alcohol is a stat buff!

The beer taps that bestow stat buffs even feel a bit like the S&S checkpoints. In S&S, you can only distribute allocation points and alter your gear in checkpoints. The simplicity at the heart of the design may have either consolidated that aspect or…added another level of complication? See, in Charlie Murder, there is a traditional character building and allocation point system. When your character has gained a level, you’ll receive a smattering of allocation points you access with your phone.

(Oh about that- you know how many video games try to incoporate smartphones in ways that are supposed to be immersive? Like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories or The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild or a million others I’m just not thinking about? For some reason this grabs me more than any of those. You can even access the camera on your phone and the screen will just stay in side-scrolling mode while you angle around with your little phone screen. That presentation just adds to the overall charm, along with how you’re so often picking literal pocket change off of the street and throwing the arms of zombies back at them as projectiles)

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Soooo there’s at least a little bit of a normal character building but…your collection of money also seems to be a factor. As you beat the crap out of zombies and take their pocket change, you’ll probably notice that you’ll have about five to seven dollars with modest grinding. At the bar, money is exchanged for the stat-buff booze and for tattoos that convey special abilities. Seeing as Charlie Murder came first, I wonder if this was an early, experimental germ of the salt gathering in S&S. The tattoo mechanic even bears a resemblance to the magical brands in that game. Then again…I haven’t actually used any of the alcohol, I just bought a bunch of it to be used later. Maybe the alcohol only bestows temporary buffs…? We’ll follow up on it, eventually.

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The checkpoints in Charlie Murder even have a little bit of the same…exploration value as S&S, even if less hidden shortcuts to other areas are involved. Poking around will usually reveal some renewable weapon resources or low-level enemies to grind against.

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You just don’t get this from a game like Diablo ❤

After the first “real” boss fight in the back room of the bar, there is a brief cutscene of the band kicking it in happier times. Maybe even the founding moment of the band. Everyone’s chilling on the couch and some friends just happen to have instruments laying around. One random thought leads to another and the magic happens. There is a brief flash-forward to the band’s eventual success, combined with a simple rhythm mini-game. Then the cuscene returns to one particular band member for whom the good’ol days weren’t so good.

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The play through continues here

Vigil: TNL play-through postscript (light spoilers)

The gaming experience is satisfying. As much as I love Metroidvania, the sub-genre at this point is risking over-exposure. While this is not the fault of the Vigil dev team specifically, it does make their task harder. To their credit, though, Vigil establishes its own identity in more than one way.

I know I go on a lot about how aesthetically pleasing this game is, but that’s one of the things that sets it apart. This matters especially since most recent Metroidvanias are stylistically developed and unique (Hollow Knight, Salt and Sanctuary, Blasphemous).

There are great dungeon-crawling and combat sweet spots in the beginning and middle. After that, things crawl a bit before returning to form and even going further in the concluding chapters.

The story has both hits and misses. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Vigil had a named character and interactions with NPCs that move the plot along with the player. I don’t know if the constraints this imposed on the script were a factor in sequence-breaking not being more fully utilized in new game plus. There are goodies to be had earlier than usual but the absence of alternative story sequencing feels like a missed opportunity.

In spite of that, this may have been a consequence of the narrative, though, the way FFVIIR would have compromised its own narrative experience if it had full open world.

This takes us back to the story. There are three distinct turning points that at least appear to be time jumps. There is also a kind of reversal of the beginning stakes before (after a fashion) returning to them. I think the decision to keep the relationship between Leila and Daisy front and center in the plot was for the best and the feigned reversal actually adds to the stakes of that relationship. The shifts between different “eras” and the detective work needed to connect the dots, though, are an established convention of both Metroidvania and Soulsborne.

So long as they don’t undermine the purpose the narrative serves (however big or small), narrative mysteries can add a lot to a game that uses circumstantial or visual storytelling. Bloodborne being a best-case scenario here. The suggestions of other plot layers make for fun speculation, such as the Porta Avernus gateways all being emanations of a single location (whether it’s the Cubic Crystal door in the Giantwood or somewhere else- such as the location glimpsed during the opening and closing cutscenes).

Another well-implemented mystery is what specifically Leila and Daisy are. There are a variety of possibilities ranging from normal human siblings channeling deities or direct manifestations of those deities. No matter what the metaphysical ruling is, it’s mystery goes well with the emotional simplicity. The literal question of what they are motivates the villainous forces around them, but who they are to each other motivates Leila.

The only actual narrative weakness I could find also goes with that, though. It’s a story structure that we have seen before. In particular, it reminded me of Heather Mason in Silent Hill 3. It is a touch unoriginal, but I think the story as a whole is decent. Making the stakes emotionally urgent also goes with the more personal narrative, which sets Vigil: The Longest Night apart from a lot of Metroidvania and Soulsborne entries.

Vigil: TLN end of blind play-through! Spoilers as usual

You could probably guess what my answer to the Doctor was. Before I got that far, though, there were some other odds and ends I wanted to explore.

First on the list was playing the Arctic ocarina in the Catacombs and seeing where the Porta Avernus takes us.

There are enemies in the Insidious Sewer that look like the statues on the sides, right? The same place where you find the boss that drops the Arctic ocarina?

Upon arriving in the Frozen Realm there is a stone structure that allows you to exit. Death’s Destination did not have a way out. I triggered the apparent “flash forward” after defeating the Ancient Guard there, though. So maybe it was designed to be a point of no return whereas the gateway conjured by the Arctic ocarina is not.

This turns out not to be the case. I later tried the Crimson ocarina again and Death’s Destination now has an exit. Maybe all ocarina gateways have an exit after the flash forward? Maybe after the flash forward they can no longer have immediate consequences? The fact that you can repeatedly challenge the bosses at the end of each during the current “era” would support that as well (including Death’s Destination).

The ruler of the Frozen Realm, Princess Downaly, drops the Frost Spear projectile spell and the Eternal Gaze. The latter I gave to Janis (after discovering her in the valley) in exchange for the Metallic Ocarina. While I was finishing what side quests I could, I managed to find all of the lost paintings. The painter in Maye rewards you with the Cerulean Ocarina, leaving us with two new places to go through the Porta Avernus.

When both of these are activated, Leila can warp to an area a few jumps away from the Uptancos boss encounter

The Cerulean ocarina takes us to the Shadow Disaster which I thought was a lot of fun. Both Death’s Destination and the Frozen Realm had nice platforming but the Shadow Disaster outdoes them. The Shadow Disaster also has a checkpoint of sorts since the platforming section lasts a little longer.

The resident boss, Uptancos, is a welcome change of pace. Maybe I was over-leveled because I took my sweet time with this game and did a lot of grinding, but the combat started to feel easy after awhile. The difficulty seemed to plateau around Bufonitte Lake so I was hungry for a challenge. I had to experiment with different strategies and spell combinations, which I had not done since Kelpie.

Speaking of the place where Kelpie resides, this is something I encountered while gathering paintings

For anyone who is interested, passive damage and fire damage work well, so you’ll want the Raging March spell equipped. You also need to carefully balance range combat and melee combat. I spent a lot of time dodging, so I found projectiles to be a good work-around (also on that note, use the Bouncing Fireball). It is likely possible to go through the entire battle with Uptancos without melee, but the fight speeds up when you take opportunities when they present themselves. Uptancos has an electric screen nuke that he needs to cool down from. That cool-down period, when Uptancos is just sitting on the ground, is a great time to lean in if you have a melee weapon with a fire buff. I had been using my enchantments on stealth “back attack” buffs though, so I just spammed with Bouncing Fireball.

Bumping off Uptancos wins you the mid-air dash. However, I’d like to mention something that I’d been noticing in all of the Porta Avernus worlds so far:

Shadow Disaster
Frozen Realm
Death’s Destination

Same jagged, stone ring in those three, all placed similarly. In the Frozen Realm and Death’s Destination, they appear before paths to the bosses open up. In the Shadow Disaster, it is inside the boss arena (check link below for more on this).

Moving on- only one more ocarina to try (not counting whatever I missed) and one more Porta Avernus journey. Upon playing the Metallic ocarina from Janis, the boss fight was almost instant:

To get right to the good part, this is what happens after defeating Dephil. Various item descriptions and lore snippets have referred to Dephil as a founding member of the Vigilant, or perhaps the founding member. And here she is talking about reading stories to Daisy in childhood. If you wanted to go further, you might notice that the names of the sisters borrow different phonemes from the name Dephil (Daisy + Leila).

Earlier, we experienced a jump forward in time that was at least a few generations. But we still do not know the exact length of the time that passed. When we hear about mythic-sounding events that contributed to the way things are now, we can’t help but wonder how close or distant to them Leila personally is. Dephil’s brief dialogue after defeating her makes it sound like she was a childhood caretaker of the sisters. Perhaps she was their mother.

This confusion over how near or far the sisters were to the distant past soon thickens. Remember the Doctor who wants us to hand over the Cubic Crystals? I of course told him to get bent and he revealed that what he really wants lies within the Giantwood. This does not combine well with the incident with him giving out placebos. And the explanation that he is doing it for the peace of mind of his patients was worn thin anyway.

Hilda agrees, so we then bee-line to the Giantwood, which opens a ton of lore in quick succession. Once inside, we find that there are notes and journal entries strewn about from various authors. They are Steve, York the Arch Priest, the Professor, Joseph (?) and a lay-priest educated by York.

These notes relate the discovery of a mysterious, destructive force that this cohort attempted to magically bind. They state that this seal is rooted in the souls or bodies of those that carried it out and depends on their shared participation. This procedure is modeled (with the guidance of York and the lay-priest) after an ancient religious event involving figures called the Holy Six. Five individuals are specified but there are suggestions of another, unnamed participant:

This guy keeps running off as soon as we find him and always leaves scribbly notes behind.

The dude clearly doesn’t like women and blames the Vigilants for something going wrong here. The author of the sloppily written notes says that women are weak and shrink before true power. We do not know of many ancient(?) female Vigilants but we do know of one. In the final sloppily written note, the names Daisy and Phil are mentioned close together but we don’t actually meet anyone named Phil. But the one bygone Vigilant we’ve met has the letters ‘phil‘ in her name.

So if Dephil was one of the six to seal the mystery danger in the Giantwood, she seems to have been blamed for not following through on something. The short, scrambling figure also said that the only remaining solution were “the sisters” and “one is dark” “one is light”.

So these six set out to the Giantwood to contain the mysterious threat. A magical ritual is implemented that explicitly calls for six participants. Running with the hypothesis that number six was Dephil, she evidently choked on her part.

In spite of that, the seal seems to have held. The notes within the Giantwood describe a long period of being trapped inside and the need to defend the exit from deserters. Since all participated in the ritual and any of them could then break it, a single deserter could ruin the whole thing. The entrance needed to be watched constantly. The seal wouldn’t be worth defending so bitterly if it hadn’t worked.

zillion Vigilant Swords stuck in this thing

The notes within the Giantwood also say that a “seige” of “heathens” was happening outside. Relics from other male Vigilants could be found within as well, like the sword of Wallace. It seems possible that Dephil bolted before the ritual was complete and then someone from the battle outside took her place.

This note is found near Bufonitte Lake. Bufonitte Lake is to the immediate right of the Giantwood. If Dephil deserted, maybe she wrote those words

Leaving the mystery of the deserting Vigilant aside for now, there is another mystery here we can solve more easily. The final sloppily written note says that the author found the “perfect ratio”, which makes him “supreme” and enables him to “surpass destiny”. Our only frame of reference for ratios of any kind are the mixtures of Crimson earlier in the game. The “pale red” mixtures concocted by the Professor come to mind. Other notes make indirect statements about the ultimate fate of the Professor and the communion he achieved with the Sacred Wood. Which brings us to the boss fight in the Giantwood:

I guess this debunks my earlier theory that the Professor and the asylum Doctor are the same person

This is not a strategically challenging battle. Remember Raging March and Bouncing Fireball and you’ll be fine. You might also want to wear the Plague Doctor mask, the Crimson armor set and the Raven gloves for maximum poison resistance.

So the Professor evidently pulled off some kind of “uber-containment” that’s not the same as the seal of the Holy Six. If the seal is rooted in the bodies or souls of the participants, maybe the Professor somehow found a way to shift the majority of the containment power to himself.

This appears to hold true after his death, since an even worse plague and monster scourge envelopes Maye after this. So it at least looks like the mystery threat escaped. Relying on implication, it seemed like Hilda wanted us to “get there first” before the Doctor at the asylum who wanted the Cubic Crystals. If the goal of Hilda and Leila was to “kill it with fire” before it falls into the wrong hands, then it might follow that the Doctor wanted to somehow control the mystery threat.

In any case, killing it with fire doesn’t seemed to have made things any better. Here the game appears to take a sharp turn toward linearity, since every NPC tells you to investigate the same place and it turns out to be what I felt was a neat dungeon. During the difficulty plateau after Kelpie, the three sweet spots during this blind play-through were the Shadow Disaster, the Giantwood and the final dungeon.

In addition to a fun dungeon crawl, we also get some big lore bombs.

These dovetail, roughly, with the lore dumps from the Giantwood. There was a final step to the ritual that Dephil (or someone) couldn’t go through with. Meanwhile, a supernatural prodigy child has fallen into the hands of the modern day asylum Doctor.

The seal magic relies on its human summoners for its’ embodiment. The transformation of the Professor, for example. If Dephil’s reluctance complicated things, it may result in some sort of magical embodiment/possession/flesh alchemy that may have created a new being. Way back during the Bruna search, we found a note from the Professor explaining that his experiment with Bruna and Gram was based on a mistranslation. An archaic word he took for “couple” in fact meant “sisters”.

Perhaps my assessment of the names Daisy and Leila being derived from Dephil confused the relationship. Maybe a second experiment happened on the correct subjects, the “sisters” rather than the “couple”. The Goddess, likewise, has a dark counterpart.

Maybe the two sisters were in the Giantwood company, with the necessary six working the spell (that is either summoning or trapping in a body) on number seven. So baby sister has the primordial chaos sealed within her while the holy texts specify a correlating other half. Big sister catches that part.

We started the game catching the aftermath of the failed experiment on Bruna and Gram. Meanwhile we still do not know what happened during the time gap. It may be possible that Leila was present for those years but experienced something she cannot remember, and that we would not see.

Whatever it is, we have two significant canonical statements here. One of them is the ritual at the Giantwood. The other is that Daisy was a vessel for some kind of magic. After killing the Scholar of the Sacred Wood, both the Doctor and Daisy are gone. Sure enough, at the bottom of the final dungeon, the Doctor has Daisy tucked behind a Porta Avernus-like gateway in a somewhat altered state.

On the other side of the gateway, we find ourselves on a large, stone platform with arched portals on two opposite sides. A possession of Daisy’s may be used before a series of pillars but I was missing one. Having biffed that part I instead went to the central pillar to see what would happen.

The last two boss fights were my favorite in the game so far. Both of them make delightful use of platforming within the boss arenas. Something about that, in a sidescroller, really adds both challenge and fun for me. Creative incorporation of boss lairs was one of the big sweet spots of Hollow Knight imo and it was a fun high note for this game to end on.

Vigil: The Longest Night has a new game plus mode which you are immediately offered after the credit’s roll. Interestingly, you are allowed to keep all of your added abilities like the double jump and mid-air dash, which for sure makes the beginning feel different.

I’m not that far into my second run but it already feels like the replay value is gonna be great. The lore contains a few apparent reversals that work better when experienced in retrospect. I am a little disappointed with the inability to sequence break, though. The Metroidvania typically uses unlockable abilities as ways of controlling progress. To retain those abilities and have them before you would normally make use of them seems like a golden opportunity for the development team to implement different progression sequencing.

Some final thoughts:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2021/01/09/vigil-tnl-play-through-postscript/

30 days of Final Fantasy music (yeah I’m doing it wrong but whatever)

1. Best prelude:

IX, at the very end of Memoria, outside of creation ❤️

2. Best chocobo theme:

Also IX

3. Moogle theme:

Good King Mog from XIV! (never actually played it but wifers showed me)

4. Best airship theme:

Looking For Friends from VI! That’s the song you hear on board the Falcon.

(The Hilda Garde music from IX also has a tendency to worm its way into my head. Like, all the time, and once it’s in it stays for awhile)

5. Best character theme:

I feel a lil conflicted there. It would either be Coin Song from VI or J-E-N-O-V-A from VII.

6. Best town theme:

Kids Run Through The City- VI

7. Best overworld theme:

Something from VI. Either Terra or Dark World

8. Best dungeon theme:

Another World Of Beasts from VI.

And I’ve always liked Phantom Forest from VI and Lurking In Darkness from VII. Neither one of those appear exclusively in dungeons but both are used in dungeons occasionally.

I kinda have to mention the Collapsed Express Way from the VII Remake. All the music from Shinra HQ in the remake could also merit honorable mentions.

9. Best battle theme:

Don’t Be Afraid- VIII

10. Best boss battle theme:

The Decisive Battle- VI

11. Best victory theme:

Out of the variations of the traditional I’d go with the version from VI. Out of the different ones, it’s XIII.

12. Best end boss theme:

Dancing Mad- VI

13. Best ending theme:

Credits’ roll from VII

14. Best mini-game theme:

Vamo Alla Flamenco- IX

15. Best in-game arrangement:

Opening – Bombing Mission, from VII. I’ve heard different orchestral versions but they always make it sound like it came from a Batman movie. Which I think is all wrong. The version from the VII Remake works for what it is, but it has a different character from the original.

16. Best piano arrangement:

Ahead On Our Way from the VII piano disc ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Main Theme from VII on that album is also exponentially more beautiful than the original

17. Best remastered track:

The Nightmare Begins from the soundtrack remaster for the PC version of FFVII. The most atmospheric version of that song.

18. Best orchestrated track:

Seven Seconds till the End- VIIR

19. Best non-Uematsu track:

Crimson Blitz from Ligthening Returns. That would be Masashi Hamauzu. Born Anew is also really cool (also by Hamauzu, in the first XIII game).

20. Best song from a game you haven’t played:

Final Steps of Faith (Nidhogg’s theme from FFXIV. I still gotta get started on that sooner or later)

21. Best song from a game on first console:

Mmmmm I’ve already covered a lot of VII-

HEY WAIT the title screen music from the PS1 Anthology version of V!!!!

22. Best song from a game you don’t like:

All of the cutscene music from Type-0

23. Song that makes you feel nostalgic:

Voices Drowned By Fireworks- VII

24. Song that makes you feel sad:

Other Side of the Mountain- VII

25. Song that makes you feel pumped:

Fight On!- VII

26. Song that makes you feel relaxed:

Dali Frontier Village- IX

27. Best track from mobile exclusive:

I never played a mobile exclusive unless you count IV: TAY? I played the Ultimate Collection for the PSP but TAY at least started as a mobile exclusive. I enjoyed the music from IV in general but I don’t remember if TAY had any original music? I didn’t finish it either but got to the final dungeon and found out I was pathetically under-leveled and trapped there

28. Best track from handheld exclusive:

The Price of Freedom- Crisis Core

29. Most underrated track:

Reunion- VII

30. Song with a special meaning-

Anxiety- VII. My favorite song from a video game

One more time with feeling! (last entry of 2020 w/ 30 games tag!)

1. The last single-player game you played:

Final Fantasy VII (PS1 port on Vita)

2. The last multiplayer game you played:

Very first Super Mario with my wife ❤️❤️

3. A game you’ve played through multiple times:

I meeaaan I have played through FFVII a bunch of times because I’m just persistently obsessed but just to shake it up- Salt and Sanctuary!

4. A game in your favorite genre:

I’m not even sure what my favorite genre even is…probably RPGs in general. I also appreciate RPGs with a little bit of puzzle box / dungeon crawling. And I’ve been playing a crap ton of action RPGs with a crazy maze Metroidvania thing going. Or just distinctive dungeon-design in general.

Let’s go with…Chrono Trigger?

5. A game in your backlog:

The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile

6. The game you’ve put the most hours into:

Outside of Final Fantasy in general, it’s gotta be Bloodborne. All the trophies and everything ^^

7. A game you’ve never finished:

Rise of The Tomb Raider (fingers crossed for getting that off the list soon)

8. A game in third person:

Most of what I play? Let’s say Diablo

9. A game in first person:

Sacrifices Must Be Made! Review forthcoming!!!!

10. A game you’ve replayed:

Final Fantasy VII Remake ^^

11. A game you play to relax:

Other than my PS1 FFVII port…almost any Pokémon game. LoZ: Ocarina of Time also helps me wind down.

12. A game that gets you excited:

Vigil: The Longest Night

13. A game from your favorite developers:

I don’t know if I have a specific favorite? I would love for Ska Studios to do something new sometime soon.

14. Your favorite indie game:

Salt and Sanctuary (speaking of ❤️)

15. Your favorite AAA game:

Bloodborne

16. Your favorite board game:

Chess!

17. Your favorite multiplayer game:

Hehe…Bloodborne…the PS4 port of the original Dark Souls also gets way more fun with partners

18. Your favorite single-player game:

FFVII

19. Your favorite game series:

FF

20. Your favorite game from childhood:

First NES Zelda game!

21. An overrated game:

Dark Souls

22. An underrated game:

The Space Between

23. Your guilty pleasure game:

World of Final Fantasy. It’s an utterly barefaced Pokémon clone but it does things that a lot of monster hunter games don’t, like interacting with multiple monsters in your party simultaneously without feeling cluttered.

24. A game based on a movie:

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie! (Yes that is also a review currently in the works)

25. A game with an awesome soundtrack:

Silent Hill 4

26. A game with awesome artwork:

Blasphemous

27. A game with awesome voice acting:

Vampyr

28. A game best played with a controller:

Hollow Knight

29. A game best played with mouse and keyboard:

Diablo II

30. An upcoming game you’re excited for:

Hollow Knight: Silksong

Just finished Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the first time (spoilers as usual)

After all this time, I have finally played and finished this game. And I went into it with a negative bias: with as much as I love the original Final Fantasy VII, I was bound to play it sooner or later but we all know the odds with later elaborations on cool stories (that do not necessarily need any). There is a lot that can go wrong. So I was not expecting it to come as close as it does to perfect. Perhaps it is perfect, for what it is.

The only problem I had with the game (if it ever qualified as a problem) was the kind of action RPG that it is. I think Crisis Core adheres to some sort of handheld action RPG formula that is also prominent in Final Fantasy: Type-0 which is my least favorite FF. Both Type-0 and Crisis Core have constant access to missions with varying degrees of relevance and irrelevance to the mainline story. At any given point in both games, one can access mini-raids that do not advance the story at all and you will sometimes be strongly pressured to do them.

A few times in Crisis Core, there are story beats with no obvious path forward. You will likely do a lot of these missions because it is easy to suspect that, since nothing appears to be happening, that the missions might trigger the next thing. Eventually, you realize it doesn’t work like that and then explore and trigger the next story event on accident. Since the PSP was a potential commercial risk for Sony, maybe they thought designing games that you can easily tune in and out of would be a way of playing it safe or appealing to “casual” gamers. Random fetch quests and random battles do not have a huge structural need for continuity.

For that reason, it is easy to spend lots of time playing either Crisis Core or Type-0 doing a lot of stuff with no cause and effect relationship with the story progression. This seems to be an emergent genre, and it is also a prequel and prequels have a little bit of reliance on the base game. This is what I mean when I say that Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII may be perfect for what it is. It happens to be in a genre that I often find boring unless it has some other strength going for it. Luckily, Crisis Core does.

What I liked most about FFVII was it’s story. So it was bound to be something I would be looking for here. One of the reasons I was interested but not quite eager to play Crisis Core back when it first came out was a story concern. According to a few sources, there were now two more characters that were infused with Jenova cells as fetuses.

While Sephiroth is still basically just “possessed” by Jenova like all carriers of her cells, he is still somehow different. Even though all carriers are controlled by Jenova, it often looks like Sephiroth is the vehicle and enforcer of her will, up to and including exerting his own will through the clones. The original Final Fantasy VII offers Sephiroth’s fetal exposure as something that could set him apart from the rest of SOLDIER. With that understanding, adding more characters that were changed as fetuses would undermine the plot of the original.

There are degrees of this procedure, though, which creates specific differences between them. In the first two experiments, a woman named Gillian who had been infused with Jenova cells was the source of the experimental DNA. Genesis had Jenova cells generated by Gillian’s changed body mapped onto him as a fetus. This was done surgically with a donor mother. Angeal, then, was conceived by and birthed by Gillian.

This does not necessarily need to subvert the plot of the original, though. By the time of the mainline Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth is the only remaining fetus-hybrid anyway. Additionally, his closeness to the Lifestream nexus point of transmigrating souls in the core of the planet constitutes his real usefulness to Jenova.

At the same time, Crisis Core has a story that does make distinctions between different kinds of fetus-hybrids. If Crisis Core was the only FFVII story I ever encountered, I would be forced to assume that the enigma of Sephiroth’s unique nature would be clarified somewhere else. Crisis Core ends with Genesis’ inert body being mysteriously carted off by SOLDIER. This, at least, made it clear that Square wanted loose ends to lead into other installments in an expanded universe (at that time, anyway).

But if you played the original, you know that the only word on how Sephiroth was exposed to Jenova’s cells in the first place is that it was while he was a fetus. In light of the additional lore in this prequel, though, being infused as a fetus can mean different things.

Is this a serious narrative weakness, though? I don’t think so. Not even a weakness, really, more like a complication. The only real consequence it could have is whether or not all Genesis and Angeal carriers are eradicated. There are a lot of them for all three of the fetal experiments. The plot of Advent Children relies on three Sephiroth carriers surviving by simply falling through the cracks during the Jenova Reunion. Assuming, for now, that there are no more Angeal or Genesis carriers isn’t that much of a big deal. And if Sephiroth’s real usefulness to Jenova is his location at the Lifestream transmigration nexus, that leaves the plot of the original game intact.

So in the end, there is nothing about Crisis Core that really contradicts or subverts the original, in terms of plot or lore continuity. Crisis Core does more than simply not fail, though.

Whether or not Crisis Core starts off on an easy path is a matter of interpretation. Zack Fair, our protagonist, is super stoked to be in SOLDIER and to fight for the global dominance of Shinra. For a fan of the original, in which Shinra is an unambiguous force of evil, this is jarring. Then again, all armies have their propaganda and their own true believers. Warriors on all sides always think they are right- so Zack being a warrior of conviction actually makes a lot of sense.

This is hint one that Zack is gonna have an arc that goes from naïveté to maturity. But for a while he plays the role of the big bouncy Boy Scout a little too well. Zack never gets as annoying as Snow from FFXIII but walks up to the line occasionally. Being a guileless and trusting recruit at first, Zack’s ideals are larger than life and quickly slide from white to black (musing whether he is a hero or a monster, etc).

Zack becomes aware of necessary shades of gray when he is assigned to track and neutralize Genesis and Angeal once they defect. Hollander and Genesis have an exchange in front of Zack that makes it clear that Angeal and Genesis need Hollander and his Shinra-based procedure that staves off their cell decay. If certain death is the motivation for Angeal and Genesis remaining loyal to Shinra, then the possibility of a non-Shinra source of sustenance is life-changing.

In other words, the Shinra super-SOLDIERs fight because they have to in order to survive. Genesis’ mood swings could have a few different explanations, but the revelation that he doesn’t have to be Hollander’s dog forever seems like a contender. Angeal, who is also subject to the cellular decay, rebels also but tries to maintain his early values, such as protecting his old relations and innocents who get trapped in the crossfire. Genesis wants to start over and Angeal wants autonomy but still clings to his prior obligations.

The dialectic of balancing individual need versus wider complications is emphasized more by a conversation between Zack and Sephiroth immediately before the fatal journey to Nibelheim. Sephiroth tells him that he might defect from Shinra soon but does not offer any explicit reason. The only implicit reasons are the recent events with Angeal and Genesis. It seems possible that Sephiroth is also questioning (he says he may defect) whether or not he would die without Shinra support. This would mean that his personally-felt loyalty to Shinra is now irrelevant, since he’s learning he might be nailed down to it anyway.

A loved one of mine shared bits of the Crisis Core soundtrack with me a long time ago, including a song called The Price Of Freedom. That phrase captures the emerging thematic concern at this point in the game.

Crisis Core is a prequel and is fundamentally tied up in a relationship with the OG Final Fantasy VII. It would be an extremely weak prequel, though, if it had nothing but it’s connection to the source material going for it. This questioning of genuine commitment versus coercion leads us to a personal narrative about Zack, which kicks into overdrive when Zack is forced to act independently.

After escaping the grasp of Hojo and his lab tech, Zack is soon cut loose from Shinra. He has digital access to internal Shinra documents stating that both Zack and Cloud are dead. Then the word goes out that some important Shinra “fugitive samples” have escaped.

The game from this point resembles an escort mission: maybe the most emotional escort mission I’ve seen in a video game in a while. Zack has watched his heroes turn sadistic and homicidal and was forced to put down a few of them himself. Cloud looks up to Zack as a role model but, now that he is on the other side of the hero-worship he indulged in himself, Zack is more willing to treat Cloud like an equal than his own heroes were.

After the Nibelheim disaster, though, Cloud ceases to be a mere “kid brother.” Zack witnessed the importance of Tifa and Nibelheim for Cloud and the destruction wrought there by his own former masters. After the loss of Sephiroth, Angeal and Genesis, Cloud is now Zack’s only surviving fellow traveler. This also makes Aerith more than a long-distance girlfriend for Zack: she is the last part of his old life that remains good.

FFXV was lauded for its portrayal of platonic love between male companions. I think I gotta say that Zack and Cloud do this better. And it’s built up by a succession of smaller moments, like Zack carrying Cloud around and re-dressing him in new clothes. Final Fantasy is famous for being dialogue-heavy, but a lot of the pathos of this bond is built by being non-verbal. Cloud might not talk back to Zack post-trauma, but Zack still makes an effort to discern his feelings and needs.

Zack always addresses Cloud as if he is lucid and paying attention. At this point in the story, all institutional sources of meaning have, for Zack, been revealed to be treacherous. Zack’s only values need to be the ones that he embodies himself. The function served by Zack’s relationship with Aerith as a motivator is a little reductive but it works as something real for him to be invested in, after his other idols are discredited. Cloud, though, is a living embodiment of this.

Before wrapping this up, there is another gameplay element I wanna mention: the modulating phases. This was almost…kind of…subversive in a good way?

In lieu of normal experience points, we now have a slot machine mechanic that starts up after a certain length of time. This basically limits the rewards for combat to its’ length, which can achieve a lot of the same ends as an exp leveling system. Easy foes get done away with easily so there is no risk and no reward, since the battles won’t last long enough for the modulating phase. Most of the numbers correspond to materia slots and two or three numbers of a kind will level up the materia in that particular slot. Solid 7’s are how Zack himself levels up.

This creates a feeling very similar to more conventional RPGs. Enemies below your level are quickly done away with and have minuscule rewards: the real grinding needs to happen with monsters close to your own level. The modulating phase slot machine is also how special, hard-hitting attacks similar to limit breaks are triggered.

Near the end, during Zack’s last stand outside of Midgar, you are clearly overwhelmed and most of us knew how this would go anyway. But you keep getting thrown into playable combat against the vast Shinra hoard with frequent modulating phases that buzz with static and roll irregularly, as if glitching. The slots even have some of their character illustrations go white and fuzzy and the screen will white out without giving you a specific set of three numbers. The poignance of this portrayal of Zack gradually dying crept up on me.

I might also be stating the obvious by mentioning the similarities with the portrayal of Zack’s last stand in Final Fantasy VII: Remake. Both versions have Zack saying the words “(t)he price of freedom is steep” and some very similar “camera angles.” If Square continues to insist that Crisis Core is not cannon, we’ll just have to see how that bears out in part 2 of the remake.

After all these years, I’ve now learned that this is where the image of Sephiroth at the start of Advent Children came from