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 of 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

Vigil: TLN play-through, part 3 (spoilers)

When we last left off, the plague in Maye Village had two possible origins: the mine and the flooded area. The unexpected time jump after the encounter in Death’s Destination caught me off guard and I didn’t want to miss out on any temporary events or side quests. Not knowing which path would advance the plot to the next beat and close any cool situational opportunities, I decided to start with the one that seemed the longest and most open-ended: the flooded area.

The Metroidvania sub-genre banks on the lure of exploration. There is, however, a way to either create an experience that feels the same but isn’t or to make a linear section more interesting before being truly turned loose. Final Fantasy Peasant nailed it when he said that Final Fantasy VII pulled off one of the greatest open-world fake outs by giving you a navigable world map after a rigidly linear beginning. Simply having the world map at all felt liberating after Midgar, but there are still terrain obstacles that can’t be crossed until later in the story.

Vigil accomplishes the same illusion in a much simpler way. Before I get into that, though, I want to emphasize that there is still enough exploration and hidden paths within the mine and the flooded area to have a lot of fun with. The careful control of the difficulty and it’s consistency with the character-building system frequently kept me engaged and interested in relatively small spaces, though. This often feels like lots of little frustrations that, once overcome, will make you feel like the incoming huge frustration is easily doable and you don’t realize how hard you are actually trying.

Again with those soft touches: the background scrolling immediately before Kelpie goes nicely with the droplets of water on the “camera lens”

Case and point: Kelpie. When this fight was first triggered, I was able to do enough damage with the same melee tactics that work for the random encounters in the area to make it feel potentially easy. More specifically, I’ve been cultivating a “heavy”, axe-weilding build. So axe-melee works for anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 of Kelpie’s HP, then Kelpie burrows under the shore and begins a combination of range and heavy blunt-force attacks with limited hit box access. On attempt 2, I experimented with some spells and found that the short-range poison projectile that The Ancient Guard drops in Death’s Destination is very useful during the second half of the fight.

So here I am thinking I have a fool-proof strategy nailed down, but even with that you are never too big to fail. Like last time, I thought this would be easy and got lazy. Before I knew it, hours went by with repeated deaths and each and every time I was thinking it was gonna be easy. It pays to remember the little things: Like Bloodborne, never underestimate the advisability of rolling to the other side of huge monsters and spamming them from behind. Also, do not get so put off by the size and movement of Kelpie to forget that you can still do simple things like crouch and run out of range.

Stock up on negative status curatives and restoratives for stamina while doing all this and you’ll be fine. Upon defeat, Kelpie drops a key item called a Cubic Crystal & you now have access to a new, interconnected area. Almost like a palette cleanser, a bit of exploration beyond this point will bring you to the Gnawing Beast within the sewers, a substantially less challenging boss that drops the Arctic Ocarina. You know, like the Scarlet Ocarina that took you to Death’s Destination.

Sure enough, the guards back in Maye are talking about increased numbers of undead emerging from the cemetery and would like our assistance. Which would once again place us close to the Catacombs and the gateway to the other side, so it’s starting to look like another magical journey with the ocarina is just around the corner. But let’s check out some other leads first- such as the contagion’s possible origin in the mines.

Our old friend Hilda is found some distance beyond where we ran into her last time. She shares some lines from a song describing tree trunks with skulls embedded in them, just like the trees in the area.

From here there is some exploration to find the entrance to the mines, during which you could obtain the Flaming Magpie spell if you grabbed the stone from the hunters’ cabin earlier. Once we get there, though, the mines are a real platforming sweet spot.

Mine levels, like sewer levels, have a generalized reputation for being frustrating. Mystic Caves Zone from Sonic 2 comes to mind or the sewer section from the first Silent Hill game. Vigil, though, along with nearly every recent Metroidvania I’ve played, succeeds in avoiding this. As is typical of mine levels, there is mobile platforming. With enough attentiveness, you can navigate the pattern-memorization without needing to sacrifice health or progress. The mines reward effort but don’t hold you by the hand; like any well-designed game, you are never too big to fail.

The pre-boss combat is also tightly designed; enough small and moderate attackers simultaneously to make you think quickly but never overwhelming. Some of the monsters, like the one seen above, are familiar. The zombies that emerge from the ground and explode upon dying were first seen in the cemetery and the spikey dogs were first seen in the laboratory where Bruna was taken and transformed.

The nod to the cemetery underpins the possibility of revisiting the gateway to the other side, sooner or later. But this association is also blended with a new detail: miners who still look mostly human who also explode upon dying. Possibly a connection between the mining disaster and the antecedents of whatever is now going on in the graveyard? Maybe Dawn and those like her are right about the recent plague emerging from the mines after all. An eventual shortcut leading from Limestone Way to the flooded area also bears this up.

The boss fight, though, is probably the first easy one in Vigil. I appreciated the attempt to make the player exploit the spatial characteristics of the “arena”. The Erupting Flesh Cluster dominates the ceiling and sprays fire, forcing you to both hug the floor and climb platforms to avoid the streams of fire. If you have the Flaming Magpie spell, though, you can camp out at the rooms’ edges and spam arcane damage, since the Cluster’s hit box hardly moves and the Flaming Magpie can cross the whole screen.

After dispatching the Erupting Flesh Cluster and claiming the second Cubic Crystal, you might also elect to rescue some miners you encounter along the way. Soon, though, we rendezvous with Hilda who advances an interesting possibility on the origin of the plague. One begins to wonder if the Doctor in the plague mask back at the asylum is in fact the same person as the Professor from the beginning of the game, who experimented with Crimson on Bruna and Gram.

That the Doctor has contributed to the problem in any way- be it active or passive -appears credible. He cops to giving out placebos to placate the villagers. He also conveniently supplies a new possible origin for the plague at Bufonitte Lake when the flooded area and the mines are ruled out, which could potentially look like evasion.

During the placebo sub quest, I decided to give all of my sugar pills to the drunk, rich asshole in the tavern only to have Sillian kick me to the curb because of what it looks like ):

Bufonitte Lake and the process required to get there continue the upward quality of the platforming that began with the mines and the Ancient Battleground. En route, there are a ton of neat shortcuts and secrets to be discovered, often with the aid of the spell gifted to you by Hilda during her earlier visit. The lake itself has almost immediate access to a boss battle that yields a third Cubic Crystal. During the right-leaning vertical platforming necessary to reach Bufonitte Lake, it is also possible that you encountered this:

Evidently, they are a set of three, and are required to open this gateway. This also has a superficial consistency with an optional lore document at the lake that refers to a seal key divided between the Vigilant, the Shimmer Church and the Guard. When you return to the Doctor to check if the defeat of the scourge of the lake had any effect, though, he has moved onto another potential solution, requiring all three of the Cubic Crystals. Which he needs you to hand over. Because…you know…trust…right…?

This leaves us with three options: hand over the Cubic Crystals to the Doctor, play the Arctic Ocarina at the bottom of the Catacombs, or open the seal in the Giantwood Forest.

Here it might bear mentioning something that I should have done before I defeated the Ancient Guard earlier: utilize multiple save files. This time around, I got the memo before it was too late. What happens after this point should probably get its own blog post.

Some other odds and ends I wanted to mention-

Not knowing how quickly things might move once I dove back into the main quest line, I decided to mop up side quests and do some exploring off the beaten path. After rediscovering a passage I didn’t investigate very thoroughly the first time around, I pushed a little further and found this:

To my surprise, I wandered into the Salt and Sanctuary crossover event without even encountering the specific quest line. Other than the familiar face above, there are a few other monsters that look a lot like S&S creature design:

It’s been awhile since I last played Salt and Sanctuary, but I don’t think these particular creatures appear in that game. I mean…there is a superficial resemblance to the S&S Drop Spiders, but only in that they’re spiders. Beneath Lake Bufonitte, you encounter these beauties, which look like S&S creature design and are a bit closer to the mark:

They occasionally drop from the ceiling but still look distinctly different from Drop Spiders. If Ska Studios made original assets for Vigil during the collaboration…I can’t help but wonder if there is more to the crossover than the brief monster hunting excursion that lands you the frying pan from S&S? I mean, a quest line, a familiar enemy and a weapon were all that the crossover announcement on Steam promised..but those spider creatures do look distinctly like the work of Ska Studios, right? I may also be wrong, here, but to my eyes the large spider enemies appear to be rendered in a very specific art style that stands out from everything else in the game.

Speaking of Vigil’s art style, I have to gush about how beautiful this game is. Much of the art looks like offbeat, slightly uncanny illustrations from a book of fairy tales. The background scrolling makes this imagery look a little bit like a surreal pop-up book. Situational zooming and lighting adds a subtle touch of realism which also breathes life into the otherworldly touches.

Especially, like the moment shown above, when a quick, transitional movement shows several dynamic textures simultaneously. The bright, early morning moon is visible when Leila emerges from the rock face on her way out of the mines. Then, as the camera moves with Leila on her way down a ladder, the moon disappears behind a structure and the mist-covered forest moves into the frame. Both can only be seen simultaneously as she crouches to begin climbing, and for barely a second. This is just the right amount of realism, like when you see something surprisingly beautiful and then you take another step or your car goes around a bend and it’s gone.

Understated photorealistic textures, like rain, add a lot to the sense of scale created with the situational zooming and lighting. I know this isn’t an option for every gamer but it really, really pays to play this game on a machine with a quality graphics card. I’m sure this all pops beautifully on the Switch and will on the PS4 whenever that adaptation is made.

End of play-through:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2021/01/09/vigil-tln-end-of-blind-play-through/

Old Tomb Raider fan plays new Tomb Raider games!

Sorry for the long pause- I promise to get back to Vigil soon but for now I want to do something simple and fun.

I’m an early riser, my partner isn’t. So a lil while ago when I was putzing around in the morning on my own, I decided to grab Shadow of The Tomb Raider.

In general, I haven’t met a TR game I didn’t like. Tomb Raider: Chronicles being the exception that proves the rule, and even that one had some fun platforming and puzzle-solving. Fun can still be pulled off even if some of the potential for depth is mishandled.

The modern Tomb Raider games succeed at one of the major draws of the original series: exploration. Rise of The Tomb Raider and Shadow of The Tomb Raider always reward exploration off the beaten path. The placement of the player in the wilderness looking for hidden temples kinda makes it intuitive tbh. The modern games even have this nifty lil mechanic in the key item menu where you can rotate and zoom in on artifacts to examine them for clues. This is probably one of the best usages of modern graphics in these games. The modern games likewise succeed at tense, fast-paced combat that rewards situational awareness and careful management of consumable items.

I actually called my partner over to the entertainment center to show her the peeling paint on this door because it looked so real
Also: pretty leaves!

There was a second strength of the originals, though, that the modern TR games haven’t done so well: atmosphere. And modern graphics may have contributed to the misunderstanding that led to this.

Obviously, when the series first launched on the PS1, realistic human figures were pretty hard to pull off. As a series with a human being for a main character with a tone that (at least a little bit?) aims for believability, the developers for the first Tomb Raider games wisely chose to play it safe. For the majority of the first few games, you see Lara Croft more than any other human character.

With the normal human proportion box checked, freedom could still be had in other areas. Three levels in, you get dinosaurs. Other human figures are largely saved for the higher-quality cutscenes between gaming segments. If a human other than Lara did appear in the polygonal gameplay graphics, it would have to be occasional and be calculated to fit within or play on top of the atmosphere.

In the first two Tomb Raider games, this calculation was integrated wonderfully. The lack of precise graphics left room for two probable risks: comical weirdness or creepy, uncanny weirdness. The first humanoid figure you encounter in the first game is a mummy that’s just a little taller than normal with an unusual head shape. When you grab the first scion piece, the mummy falls forward with a moan.

By leaning into the potential for creepy, uncanny exaggeration with some choice musical cues, it makes you go “holyshitwhat’sthisI’mouttahere“. So you’re running your ass off from that room and you’re soon greeted by a living human shooting at you. Because of the brief shock from the zombie, you are almost relieved to see a normal human murderer. And soon after neutralizing the threat, Lara and the assassin start talking. Your attention goes from the combat to the dialogue.

The atmosphere and the importance of what is being spoken takes the burden of believability off of the graphics for that segment. But the player still arrived at that segment through a shift from a creepy, human-ish being to the “relief” of a more realistic human presence. The psychological “threat” of something not quite human is still intact, and comes back with a vengeance when you encounter undead and mutant humanoids later. This usage remained consistent in TR2 in addition to TR2’s increased implementation of large, dark, vertiginous spaces (under water, on floating islands, etc.).

This is the revamped mummy in the Tomb Raider: Anniversary remake of the first game. No way does this matches the creepiness of the original

The appeal of the Tomb Raider games has mostly been a balance between a power-fantasy of physical strength and the vulnerability of isolation. I’m totally on the positive end of agnostic about the modern entries maintaining that standard: it is totally possible and I would like to see them pull it off. They’ll just have to find a different way of doing it.

Vigil: The Longest Night first impressions- lil bit later (light spoilers)

While it has been a few weeks, I still suspect I am in the beginning. I did not resolve every thread of the disappearance of Bruna and the nature of the involvement of Gram and the Professor before those events get “missed” (little x’s appeared next to the quests I didn’t finish).

If I have missed some stuff, it’s because I went straight to the Catacombs after finding Bruna in her transformed state. I did make an effort to find other “dungeon-length” areas but could not find much outside of the cemetery. “Note” discoveries tell us that Daisy, the Professor and others were last seen near there, so it’s simply an obvious thing to check out at that point. Some networking with Maye village residents will connect enough dots for Leila to discover that the arches overhanging the Crimson Ocarina are probably what the Lantern Keeper is referring to when she says Porta Avernus.

The detective work of this part of the story was a welcome balance against the action-packed platforming and combat. I particularly like how Thurber Sungi was involved. He is an outsider and (I think…?) a member of a foreign and marginalized religious group. Unless the royal government that he works for is the same one that Maye and the Vigilant warriors are subjects under. In that case, when Thurber says the word “heretic”, he probably means the same thing that other Goddess-worshipping villagers mean when they say the word. In that case, the villagers Chris and Gram are the only characters so far who do not practice the common religion.

The Professor, meanwhile, discovered a phenomenon called Crimson that is almost always deadly to humans. Tissue-growth can be achieved with Crimson if an appendage from one being is attached to another of a separate species. Lastly, there is a method of introducing Crimson neurologically, which has the most gradual and most mysterious effects. This appeared to have been going on with both Gram and Bruna. Sure enough, I have an item in my inventory called a Crimson Ocarina and a likely location to play it.

A brief musical note and a red flash later

At first this reminded me of Blasphemous. Then I noticed the more whimsical qualities, like the kaleidoscope city in the background and floating coffin platforms. Blasphemous is surreal and psychological, but those qualities are designed to accommodate a sense of religious dread. Lots of penance, self-flagellation, glorification of martyrdom, etc.

Blasphemous is set in a world where a scary, inhumane, autocratic religion is made effectively “real” by magic. Death’s Destination in Vigil, though, does not look like the creation of a control-seeker. The cityscapes kaleidoscoping in a spiral on the horizon, floating coffins and piñata fetuses are more chaotic than the dour, medieval, orderly nightmare in Blasphemous. In terms of atmosphere, Blasphemous has a nightmare of order and Vigil has a nightmare of chaos. Really, Death’s Destination looks almost like Earthworm Jim if it decided to go for horror instead of comedy.

The boss fight in this area is not particularly challenging but it does require a modest amount of patience and, for a few levels, always seemed to be just within reach of being beaten. I actually spent a few days on this fight and did a lot of grinding for it without realizing the amount of time and effort I was putting into it. Maybe that’s good design or just a happy coincidence, but either way the Lantern Keeper soon shows up to tell us we have “ended the timeless nightmare”. Is Leila’s trial finished now? What does that mean, exactly?

“Soon to be complete”?

After some fun banter outdoors with two guards who don’t recognize you, you are taken back to Maye where a disease has taken hold and some time has gone by. Maybe? Leila soon finds her sister Daisy tending the afflicted in an asylum either built into a wrecked building or a wrecked ship.

Later discoveries reveal this to be a distinct possibility

Here, the game gives you the chance to pick up a smattering of quests, rather like our first glimpse of Maye. The loss of every owl statue checkpoint could also, arguably, support the possibility that a time jump has happened. There is no frank comment on how distant the era we came from really is.

We encounter various friendly faces, such as Daisy and the shopkeepers, who recognize us. Then there is August, at the library near the cemetery, who is clearly an adult (if not middle-aged) man who says he is a descendant of an ancient guard named Duran, whom we know from the start of the game. Both cannot be true and the plot must surely thicken. Maybe Leila could be an unreliable narrator after all?

Speaking of lost time, a new naming convention involving different times of the year has proliferated while we were gone. The waterfalls to the East of Maye also appear to have gone through some kind of seismic or oceanic event, as it is now a vast wasteland of bog and wrecked ships. Whether this is due to a time jump, Leila infiltrating another timeline, Leila’s own mind or something else is not yet clear.

The way this change was expressed in the structure of Maye was also welcome. How to even implement towns in a Metroidvania has suffered some confusion in the past. Hollow Knight makes it so you can add more bugs to Dirtmouth village and shortcuts without by finishing different quests. Salt and Sanctuary simply makes the checkpoints the only place to encounter specialized support NPCs. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia had places you could select on a menu-like world map that consist of static NPCs and non-horizontal doors and alleys you interact with by pressing ‘up’.

The original Castlevania: Simon’s Quest did a decent job by simply adding platforms and a nonstop day-night cycle to it. A town like Maye, with more platforming layers and accessible areas that are added over time, is a very welcome addition. What might be really neat later on is if the gradual downward progress of the town’s construction eventually leads to some important Norfair/Hallownest area.

Just an idea ^^

The creature design continues to be on point. I particularly appreciated the bear near the waterfall cavern where Hilda is found for the second time and the shadow beings found further into the ship’s graveyard. There were also beings at that place that looked a little bit like the shark people from Bloodborne’s Fishing Hamlet but other than some occasional unoriginality, more hits than misses so far.

Try jumping, huh?

Play-through part 3:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/12/19/vigil-tln-play-through-part-3-spoilers/

Vigil: The Longest Night dropped yesterday! (first impressions)

At long last, Vigil: The Longest Night is now available to the public!

I am still very much in the beginning- I have barely been able to surpass the territory covered in the open beta event from earlier this year. During the open beta, I commented on problems with the collision detection and button response time. While there are some imperfections with where on the ladder or ledge will grab, those issues are largely gone with one conspicuous exception. There is a vertical platforming area between Maye village and the entrance to the first dungeon. At the same time, there is a waterfall in the area which needs to be perpetually animated. The button-response and collision detection with the climbable ledges gets worse when the game needs to animate a large volume of smaller animations. Outside of this area, though, I did not struggle with the platforming.

Something I do not remember from the open beta is automatic zooming in and out depending on location. Other side-scrollers that have implemented it, like Salt and Sanctuary, usually streamline the process so as to not draw any attention to it. Which is perfectly understandable if the perspective-shift is just meant to make navigation easier and has no relationship with the overall style of the game. In Vigil, though, situational zooming is used in a way that makes the world feel bigger and makes the different art styles used for different effects feel much more like a unified whole. The situational zooming really pops when trees are rustling or something close to the foreground moves.

The opening cutscene feels somehow more detailed or longer than it was in the beta. Whether it is or not, though, the specific art style of the cutscene (above and below) also helps all of the different stylistic influences feel like a bigger whole. Consequently, Leila’s sword-swings and other quick movements look way more authentic and natural this time than they did in the beta.

The greater visual continuity really, really came together. And it’s beautiful. Perhaps more importantly, though, it gives Vigil a more distinct identity. Which matters a lot since 2D side-scrolling “Soulsborne/Metroidvania” has now caught on as a recognizable sub-genre, adding to the imperative for newer additions to distinguish themselves.

While I’m talking about “Soulsborne/Metroidvania” as a sub-genre, there is also an optional Salt and Sanctuary and Vigil crossover event. I don’t know how to communicate how exciting that is to me. In my opinion, Salt and Sanctuary was not just one of the first “2D Souls” side-scrollers, but it captured something basic about the format itself. If it was not for S&S, we probably would have saw more typical action-RPG mechanics in Hollow Knight and Blasphemous, like exp, leveling, etc. Aside from all that, though, S&S is simply one of my favorite games and I could not be more stoked to see what Vigil + S&S is like.

One thing that has become fairly common to both “Soulsborne” and games that blend the formula with side-scrolling is ambiguity. This is probably because Hidetaka Miyazaki, the main creative force behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne, often uses circumstantial and visual storytelling. Vigil inverts this trope by giving us Leila, a named protagonist, with a family and a hometown (apparently- at least in the very beginning). What’s more is that she is no-nonsense, perceptive and goal-driven. If there is any use of an unreliable narrator at all in this story, it does not look like it would be Leila.

The difficulty was also adjusted since the open beta. The boss of the first dungeon actually required some persistence, experimentation and grinding. Like a lot of “Soulsborne/Metroidvania” games, leveling in Vigil is based on an allocation point system. The threshold for leveling up, in the very beginning, is pretty low, so those first few easily-obtained levels are a satisfying and engaging way of introducing the player to the skill-tree. This is fortunate, since I suspect that throughout the game you will need to be proficient in different combat styles. The accessible introduction to the character-building makes experimentation with different builds more accessible as well.

To continue the play-through click the link:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/11/04/vigil-the-longest-night-first-impressions-lil-bit-later/

Legend of Zelda Challenge: Outlands (spoilers)

The Legend of Zelda: Outlands is a rom hack of the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda by Challenge Games that dates back to May 15, 2001. Chronologically, this game is situated as a hypothetical “Zelda 3” that immediately follows Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It also uses details from the Ninetendo 64 Zelda games, such as multiple ocarina songs, Gorons, the Gerudo and the Kokiri. GameMakr24, the author of this hack, also carefully preserved familiar sights like the black rooms with white dialogue and familiar enemy AI, spawning and spatial design. These familiar touches combined with the late nineties ideas add up to a cool “what if” scenario, as if the world of Ocarina of Time existed a decade earlier.

Immediately after the events of Zelda II, the Thunderbird has apparently survived and has discovered the location of the Triforce of Power in the Outlands beyond Hyrule. The Thunderbird imprisoned the Tetrarch Fairies that stand guard over this third of the Triforce and now must be released by Link in order to get it back.

Upon release, rare physical cartridges of this rom hack were produced, packaged like the original with a printed world map. While I would love to have one of these maps simply for its raw coolness, I instead played it the way so many of us played the original years ago: completely dependent on trial and error.

I WISH I actually had this

This being a rom hack of the 1986 Zelda, it naturally has the same overhead design and nearly all of the same textures and sprites along with some from Zelda II. Sometimes, basic movements, hit boxes and attacks used by a monster from the prior games will be dressed up in a new sprite. The AI and hit boxes of peahats and keese are swapped with each other. In an early dungeon there is a mini boss that moves back and forth and breathes three fireballs at a time, like the dragon from the first game, but is now a giant skeleton.

A lot about this game feels quite familiar, though, in spite of these differences. Like the first game, you start completely naked: the opening text crawl tells you nothing about where to go and only the vaguest hint of what to do. You don’t even have a sword, but at least the first Zelda put an old man in a cave directly in front of you to meet that need. This time, you won’t have a sword until you get to the first dungeon, and guess who gives it to you:

Princess Zelda herself is a constant companion, helping out in almost every dungeon

A key difference between this rom hack and many official Zelda games is the necessity of going back and forth between dungeons before and after releasing the Tetrarch Fairies. In level 2, there is a moblin that refuses to let you pass to the next room unless you feed him some meat (Kinda like in the first Zelda, remember? “Grumble, grumble…”?). This meat, however, is in an underground side-scrolling area in level 3, perpetuating Dracula’s tradition of storing meat in secret stone compartments.

Requires meat
One meat later

Having given the moblin the meat, you will go on to discover a raft that will carry you to a water-isolated place on the map where, for enough rupees, you can buy a Kokiri sword, a Goron shield, a bow and some arrows. The bow and arrows turn out to be extremely useful in dungeon 3- nothing else can kill the tektites efficiently that early in the game.

The bow is also necessary to kill the one-eyed blobby thing in dungeon 4. After that, the door to the left unlocks and Zelda will give you the ocarina. This is necessary to get the step ladder from dungeon one, which is guarded by a monster that resembles digdogger from the first game and, with the ocarina, can be done away with in a similar way. The door at the bottom of the screen will open up and the step ladder is all yours.

The step ladder, meanwhile, allows you to cross gaps that are roughly the size of a sprite which you need for multiple dungeons and overworld navigation.

Around the time you have secured 4-5 Tetrarch Fairies, you will probably notice that the Gerudos usually do one of two things- steal your money and hoard heart containers. On the continent accessible with the raft, there is a cave with a Gerudo who will give you The Staff Of Byrna once you have twelve heart containers. As she stands guard she says that she can only give the staff to “the hero”.

The staff itself, which deals damage, doesn’t expend rupees like the bow and doesn’t require full health like the sword beam, is an all-purpose reliable range weapon. So long as all you want to do is attack- the boomerang and the bow can collect objects for you and you will definitely want to gather stuff from a distance in this game. The Staff of Byrna also fires the slowest projectiles.

Since the staff doesn’t “cost” anything to fire, you may find yourself using it a lot against enemies that deal range damage and are too unapproachable for melee combat. And the enemies most likely to fit that description usually turn out to be the hostile Subrosians/wizards/whatever.

(after googling I learned that they are called Wizzrobes but I’ve been thinking of them as potion vendors from ALttP or Subrosians for too long already)

Little details like that can get you to speculate on the finer story details. Is there a reason why the Gerudos have the weapon that you are most likely to use against the wizards/Subrosians? You usually find the Subrosians/wizards close to the ninth dungeon that has the Spectacle Rock music from the original LoZ. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between the Gerudos and the Subrosian-thingie-people and how does it connect to what’s going on with the Thunderbird and the Tetrarch Fairies? What about the Gerudos gathering the objects (heart containers) that you need to collect for the staff? I like stuff like that, that’s organized enough to imply story threads.

Classic Zelda weirdness near the end

Rather like the original, the first play-through only gets you half of the content of the game and that’s where I’m at right now. This is basically a custom edit of the first Zelda game but it feels weirdly authentic. The final dungeon and final boss, in particular, really made me feel like I’m playing an actual “lost” Zelda game. In fact, more than once, it made me feel the same way I felt when I played Ocarina of Time as a preteen.

On to the second quest!

Linearity versus open world in game design

First question is “When are words?” Are they the first thing you see or not?

Consider the first Zelda game. You’re just plopped somewhere with three directions and a cave after an opening cut scene telling you to find the triforce pieces but not telling you how. You are only spoken to if you enter caves, holes in the ground or certain rooms in dungeons. You don’t even get to read what’s written in the letter a hole-dweller asks you to deliver.

Words are only accessed by interacting, spatially, with your environment. They help to connect dots but the words themselves are not relied upon to convey a narrative. The opening text-crawl did as much of that as the game needed. In fact, if the narrative was “opened” by the text crawl, does it have any closure? There is more dialogue to read upon defeating Ganon and rescuing Zelda, but how much of your time spent playing was actually spent reading? If the text crawl opened the narrative, the rest of the narrative must necessarily be visual and procedural as you play.

Why must it? Because the gameplay will necessarily make up the majority of your experience with the narrative, and the only text that could possibly follow up on the opening text crawl (however loosely) can only be accessed through playing. Any Westerner who has played the first Zelda game, though, knows that the translations were famously obtuse. “Master using it and…” etc. So, for myself and many other Westerners in the early nineties, even the in-game text we would discover required a little bit of interpretation even after unlocking it through gameplay.

1986’s The Legend of Zelda, in my opinion, embodies the principle of an open world game. Nearly every detail of “how” you progress through the game needs to be deduced by the player, and the game only allows you to deduce by exploring and experimenting with different ways to interact with beings, objects and places. The only way to progress is to look for possibilities and test them.

What would explicit direction add to this? What does direction even look like? When you put in Sonic, it’s obvious just from the gameplay that you are expected to run to the right as fast as possible. Final Fantasy VII has dialogue. Lara Croft has a voice over explaining what specific buttons do.

If all this is still a little esoteric, ask yourself: should a game tell a story? If so, should it use the same narrative devices as a novel or a film? If not, what does the player’s experience consist of?

A video game might tell a story without requiring narrative structuring to make sense. Metroid II: Return of Samus and Bloodborne communicate the bulk of their stories through visual and circumstantial storytelling. The player sees things and is put in situations that reveal the story by implication. This means that the gameplay and the graphics do most of the work with storytelling.

If you know that the story will be told without words, that means you can use the words the player does hear and read with more freedom, since it is not their job to tell you the “important parts” of what’s going on. If the core story is relayed through gameplay experience, you can even have the diegetic text and speech contrast with the gameplay or supplement it. In Bloodborne, most non-player characters are completely incapable of understanding what’s going on around them for themselves, let alone helping you out.

Of course, the first Dark Souls game used similar storytelling years before Bloodborne, leading a YouTuber called RagnarRox to call the game “Zelda for grownups.” This was not meant to imply that Zelda was childlike- simply that Dark Souls built upon 1986’s LoZ implementation of open world and non-linear story-telling. No one tells you what to do in a Soulsborne game: it is up to you to experiment and figure it out, and most of the time if an NPC has something useful to say the meaning will not be literal or direct.

Another way to use words in a game that does not rely on them to do all of the work of storytelling, is to use their placement to determine their meaning. The majority of words in the first Zelda game is in the opening text-crawl. Words give you a naked premise and almost everything else that follows up on that premise is gameplay, meaning the interpretation of the player is needed for it to make narrative sense. It’s not that the words are “wrong”: it is that they are part of a bigger whole that involves things that are not words.

The Silent Hill games use this strategy often. The majority of Silent Hill characters do not know how the magic of the town works or what is going on: all they know are their own experiences. In Silent Hill 2, regarded by many as the most successful in the series, NPC’s are used in a way that’s even less useful to the player than the NPC’s in Bloodborne. James Sunderland, SH2’s main character, runs into a few different people, none of whom seem nearly as aware of the mysterious danger of the town as him. Each character has their own mutually exclusive set of concerns and separate reactions to the magic of the town.

The behavior that reveals that the other characters are not experiencing the same thing as James also usually put him at risk, such as getting locked in a room with a monster by both Laura and Angela. Neither one seem to know that James could die as a result of their actions and the monster that Angela leaves James with even has a name that speaks to its importance for her and it’s mystery to James: Abstract Daddy. To whom is the Daddy Abstract? To James, at least. Angela was yelling about “daddy” just before the fight. This tells us that every outsider who enters Silent Hill sees something with unique importance to them. The specific content of what the NPC’s say does not reveal as much as the patterns of their stories: each one is personal and traumatizing. Except for Mary which, along with Pyramid Head, reveals how the town is creating the personal, isolating hell of James like it does for everyone else.

So far, though, I’ve spent a lot of time taking about how the relationship between words and experience can inform storytelling. As a fiction writer, I can’t help but be biased in that direction. What I have not discussed, though, are video games where storytelling is either peripheral or nonexistent.

Some of my favorite memories of the PS1 involve a development studio called Artdink. In particular, two games that they created: Tail of the Sun and Aquanaut’s Holiday. Those were the very first open world games I ever played. In Aquanaut’s Holiday, the only thing there was to do was explore the ocean floor and attempt to communicate with sea creatures. Tail of the Sun was about a tribe of ancient cave people with a legend that the Tail of the Sun can only be caught from a tower of ivory. Hunting mammoths for their ivory constitutes a small portion of what the free-roaming world has to offer, though. Offbeat animals and oddities were found in the most remote and unexpected places. One of them was a pair of human legs with an ass. No upper body. Zero context. Then again, the only context offered by Tail of the Sun’s story is pretty minuscule, anyway.

Both games refuse to tell the player how to spend the majority of the time in their worlds. This makes them almost pure experience / gameplay with almost no reliance on words or any narrative. (The only modern successor to this pattern that I know of is an independent developer named Loren Schmidt, who has done some of the best non-narrative game design of the last few years. Link to her itch.io page below)

Perhaps the very first Donkey Kong and Mario games are the furthest possible extreme in this direction: no one who has ever enjoyed those games ever did so for the story.

It all depends on the nature of the piece you want to create- a story, a procedural/visual experience, both or neither. Like so many other artistic mediums, success depends on the nature of the germ (be it narrative, visual or something else) remaining consistent.

Consider Heavy Rain from Quantic Dream. It’s possible to finish the game in a few hours but a single play-through will not show you all the game has to offer. In fact, the majority of the game’s content can only be enjoyed with multiple play-throughs. The length of time of the story is relatively fixed (almost like the run time of a film) because the narrative is as close to cinematic as the technology of that day would allow. It is modeled after a film and time passes at the same rate as a conventional television crime drama. To say nothing of the fact that the plot is built on a race against time.

How would the dramatic momentum be effected if you could just go and do whatever you want as soon as you felt like it? If you take a break for weeks to mop up side quests off the beaten path would you be able to go back to the story and feel the same sense of urgency? I know I rip on FFXV way too often (in spite of the fact that there’s a lot I enjoyed about it) but that is precisely the weakness that the open world dimension brought to that game.

Games that are dominated and defined by their narrative typically rely on words more than any other kind. Although there are just as many narrative-dominant games that use sights, sounds and situations to do the same job that words do (Silent Hill, Bloodborne, etc).

https://lorenschmidt.itch.io

Final Fantasy VII Remake: Just finished first play-through (heavy spoilers)

Was it what I wanted?

Put simply, yes. I mean, there was a lot in the original that made you wonder about how it would play out “for real” and not all of it was even story-related: I mean…in the crashed Gelnika, there was a hostile gastropod with an attack called Creepy Touch. What exactly happens when one performs the Creepy Touch? I mean, I could tell you about the interpretation that my friends and I used to cackle over, but what actually happened? What exactly is a Dorky Face, and why are so many of them in the Shinra Mansion in Nibelheim?

When I was younger, I used to try to visualize what the combat would look like if it wasn’t a video game. My most recent frame of reference at the time was anime, so I kinda imagined some Z-fighter stuff like materia magic- casting bolt would probably look like a ki blast, for example. Later, I saw the Last Order anime with the non-delusory version of the Nibelheim incident and the travels of Zack and Cloud afterward. Both Zack and Cloud were infused with Jenova cells while in Hojo’s custody along with a mako bath (redundant for Zack, first time for Cloud). Cloud is unconscious for a lot of the story, though, so we mostly get to see Zack and Sephiroth in action. Sure enough, Zack flits around invisibly like a Z-fighter.

That last part actually sort of helped for my grasp of the in-world physics \ metaphysics: those who had been bathed in mako or injected with Jenova cells were supposed to be supernaturally formidable compared to ordinary people. For some reason, as a preteen, I was particularly attached to imagining the fight between the Turks and Cloud’s party during the return to Midgar as…basically…Dragon Ball Z with giant swords, firearms and electricity (no I’m not ignoring Trunks, let’s stay on topic).

For anyone who wondered about those nuts and bolts, Final Fantasy VII Remake absolutely delivers. Setting the first installment completely within Midgar was a good choice for every obvious reason: the original had a very large and detailed world map. The lack of exploration within Midgar was a teasing absence. Digging up the key card to get back into Sector 5 during the third disc assuaged the yearning a little bit but there was just so much that you still couldn’t check out- like more of the upper plates.

So kudos on being Midgar-centric. There were also quite a few moments that had an absolutely beautiful sense of place. Sector 7 and Sector 5, in the remake, both took my breath away. The graphics were crisp and detailed but…well…Sector 7 and Sector 5 both remind me of my childhood. Not that my hometown is absolutely dilapidated and cobbled together from garbage but…well…um…uh…actually nevermind ._.

I know I’ve droned about this a lot in the other entries about the remake, but I absolutely adore how carefully this game builds a sense of distance and proportion with nearly all of its environments. Very understated at times, like how in Sector’s 7 & 5 you can catch glimpses of the sky in certain directions which contrasts with other moments that are wide, open areas that are definitely beneath a plate.

The lights look uncannily like stars sometimes
Sometimes, when you look closely at the pre-rendered far-off images, the rest of the environment can look slightly surreal

Even the sound design contributes to the sense of place. In some environments, when explosions go off, any sound you hear immediately afterward will be muffled as if you’re ears are ringing. The background chatter in the town areas always sounds natural and spontaneous. The music is also very well placed and the score has a nice back-and-forth with the diegetic music from jukeboxes \ stereos \ whatever.

On that note, I was pretty happy with the soundtrack. I may find it hard to tease apart how my love of the original colors this, but I appreciate how the soundtrack layers motifs from the original soundtrack. In the original, Words Drowned By Fireworks is memorably used during the Golden Saucer date. I think there is another use of the track before then but I can’t remember.

Anyway, in the Remake, the first time we hear music that uses partial melodies from Words Drowned By Fireworks is during a flashback to Nibelheim, when Tifa and Cloud made the promise. A potentially intact version of the whole song can be heard between Sector 5, Wall Market and the collapsed tunnel leading to Sector 7.

This gradual layering of motifs from the original soundtrack is also used with Lurking In Darkness. The complete song is first used, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, when Cloud is taken aside by Don Corneo’s goons and snatches of the melody can be heard in the sewers.

Also really liked certain understated “teases” used for foreshadowing, like the first time we hear Trail Of Blood, when Cloud is woken up in the middle of the night by a nearby Sephiroth clone.

First use of ‘Trail Of Blood’

While we’re talking about the soundtrack, I was so fucking happy when I heard the orchestral version of Listen To The Cries Of The Planet when Sephiroth takes Cloud to the edge of creation. I bounced so much I shook the camera my girlfriend was using to record my gameplay. I also loved what they did with the J-E-N-O-V-A music during the fight with Jenova Dreamweaver.

Not that I don’t like the well-known music like One Winged-Angel, but many of the more powerful moments from the original soundtrack were the understated ones. I wrote earlier that Who…Are You? made a huge impression on me the first few times I heard it. Lurking In Darkness is slightly jazzy and melancholy and is used in a few very different situations. My favorite overlooked song from the original is called Reunion and is first heard in the Northern Crater when Sephiroth is doing a number with Cloud’s disassociation.

So far, the remake has given much of the original music time to breathe, some in multiple fragments or versions. Not everything, of course, because this new version of FFVII isn’t done yet, but as much as it can.

I hesitate to say whether or not the gameplay of Final Fantasy VII Remake outperforms the original or if it simply keeps pace with it in terms of overall quality. I say in terms of overall quality because many of the specifics are very different. FFVIIR has a quick menu to use restorative spells and items while simultaneously walking around, kinda like the menu in Bloodborne. All combat, of course, takes place in the same map as everything else rather than its own combat screen. In my last entry, I complained a little about the inconvenience of needing to build the ATB bar in order to do anything other than attack, block or dodge. Which means you need to go in blindly swinging at least a little bit in order to strategize.

That gripe being vented, it can be satisfying to dive in button-mashing like you’re playing Smash. It’s just that you might not actually accomplish anything. This was a really big headache during the Rufus and Hell House boss fights which I struggled with. I hate running in circles, trying not to get hit, because I need the ATB gauge to fill up so I can heal and my health is too low to risk attacking to make it fill up faster.

Also, this game is pretty linear which was absolutely the right direction to go in. More than any other Final Fantasy game, VII is a vehicle for a story: to jeopardize the momentum of that story with random exploration like XV would have been catastrophic. Even within those parameters, though, there is still a lot to do between story beats.

Other detours in the original story that really worked for providing more content and building a sense of immersion are your first visits to Sector 7 and 5. If the Midgar AVALANCHE cell is cut off from the bigger organization, it stands to reason they would be on a super tight budget and Cloud would have a credible reason to help Tifa collect his fee. If this were a movie, I could easily see that part of the game being a dialogue-heavy character building scene.

When I said Sector 5 works in the same way, I guess I just meant both of the towns you see with Aerith. The towns are probably better designed than any other towns in any other game that I’ve played.

The giant, meandering collapsed tunnel near Sector 5 was very welcome, both the first time with Aerith and the second time with Cloud, Barret and Tifa. Making the collapsed tunnel an entry point for the underground Shinra laboratory was a genius way to expand the gameplay and flesh out the world-building. The mutated test subjects bore a slight resemblance to the beings in the pods at the mako reactor in Nibelheim. Placing this nuance of the world-building close to Elmyra’s explanation of Aerith’s abilities and heritage was also a good thematic touch. (Also I never played Crisis Core or Dirge Of Cerberus so I’m not familiar with all the lore but…Deepground, much…?)

There are still a few potential red herrings though. Potential because there are hints of more subtle relevance but nothing openly stated. Particularly with Eligor and the abandoned train station.

The train station has a beautiful interplay of lights from different sources that, when they get the smallest touch of saturation, creates a cool, dreamy, otherworldly effect. Later, when ghosts show up and you’re doing switch puzzles, the otherworldly lighting can almost make the train station feel like a Silent Hill game. And not in a bullshitty, pandering way like the horror survival level in Nier: Gestalt.

Eligor is also a nice, tough, satisfying boss fight. We get some framing when Tifa recalls Marlene talking about what happens to the children who go missing at night, realizing that she must have been talking about Eligor. Later, Eligor shows Aerith and Tifa an image of Marlene that leads Tifa to think that Eligor actually has her, which turns out to be false.

What I meant earlier by red herring is that I’m not sure why Eligor is in the game. Is the abandoned train station just super duper haunted? Full stop? Are beings like Eligor connected to the Whispers, since it showed Tifa something that could happen instead of something that did happen? What about the fact that Aerith appears to recognize Eligor, during her brief abduction by the ghosts?

What I appreciated about the illusory vision of Marlene is that it sews the question of whether she’s okay or not in a way that gives weight to Aerith’s rescue later on. Particularly since you actually get to play as Aerith as she rescues Marlene. The appearance of the Whispers near the end of the station also suggests a connection with Eligor. All of those add up to implications, though, since Eligor’s contribution to the story is never made clear.

Speaking of the story…

This is…pretty much…not a big dramatic departure from the source material. Many of the differences have to do with framing things and fleshing things out. The main innovation that wasn’t there in the original has to do with fate…or potential alternate timelines.

You are haunted, throughout the whole game, by ghostly, ephemeral beings called Whispers. When they touch you, they may make you get flashes of the past or the future. After the bombing of reactor 5, Cloud missed a shot with his grapple hook that he’s more than capable of making. As if some unseen force wants him to fall onto Aerith’s flower bed and bring Aerith into it.

Cloud, no stranger to hallucinations, sees a flash of the future in Sector 7 with the plate falling. Later, when he runs into the Sephiroth clone named Marco, Cloud briefly glimpses a jagged, rocky landscape that a player of the original will recognize as the Whirlwind Maze in the Northern Crater. In the original game, this event occurs about halfway through the story, just before the third fight with Jenova. Rather far into the future for Cloud at that time in the remake.

Like FFVIII and FFXIII, Final Fantasy VII Remake deals with predestination and the role of free will. Incidents like Cloud’s improbable miss at the reactor 5 bridge and the attacks of the Whispers suggest that the strings of fate are now visible, and Sephiroth invites Cloud to challenge destiny with him. Most shockingly of all, though (the title warned you about the spoilers)-

Zack.

When the party reaches the end of the chase on the highway, we see a cutscene on the outer edge of Midgar. It is broad daylight and Zack is fighting off hordes of Shinra soldiers. It looks a lot like the depictions of Zack’s last stand in the original and in Last Order, but why the fuck does it look like it’s currently happening, with the Whispers enveloping Midgar in the background? Maybe clashes between agents of destiny are spiritually significant events that can be seen by nearby ghosts? Why does the camera show you the empty chip bag with Stamp on it? Does it signify a particular era?

I freaked out so bad when I saw this for the first time. Like…like…um…what? Zack of all people? Seriously? Is Cloud gonna run into him and flip shit? Does this have consequences for Aerith…??

And then, minutes before the game actually ends, we see Zack carrying Cloud toward Midgar just as the party passes through that same location in the opposite direction. That means it was a flashback, right…? Maybe…? Why did Aerith just stop in her tracks like she felt something?

And which specific manifestation of Sephiroth did we just fight with? I mean, it was a psychic presence in the clones that moves between all carriers of Jenova cells, right? Sephiroth was injected with Jenova cells while he was still in the womb and has a closer relationship with her than any other character. Any being carrying Jenova cells can be influenced by either Jenova or Sephiroth. So it wouldn’t be going far at all to suppose that Sephiroth can “possess” the body of a clone with his mind, like a demonic possession. We see both Jenova and Sephiroth change into clones with number tattoos, so it seems pretty obvious.

So. Is the final boss fight the same psychic presence that was walking around inside the body of the clone carrying Jenova’s original body in his arms? Did Sephiroth simply move on to a new clone to possess at the moment of the final boss fight? Does the final boss fight even happen on a physical plain of existence? We know from the original that Sephiroth can jerk Cloud out of his own body if he’s moved to. Could it be like the final telepathic fight at the end of the first game (oh, and we even see a certain version that scene as well)?

Sephiroth “possessing” a clone
The same clone, still carrying Jenova’s body like before, only without Sephiroth in control

Was the final battle an event on the astral plain or within a “collective dream” shared in everyone’s mind? Given what we know about Sephiroth and Jenova’s ability to affect the mind of anyone who carries her cells, it’s possible that the party is simply fighting a cell carrier that is “channeling” Sephiroth.

So did the party physically fight a “posessed” clone or did Sephiroth telepathically lash out and drag the minds of the party into his own imaginative construct?

So the question of “which” Sephiroth are we fighting has a handful of different answers. However, his wish to defy destiny and our glimpses of possible futures makes it hard to avoid another possibility: that he came from another timeline. Or the future, or something.

I seriously got nothing on that possibility, no idea what to think of it- it’s just too foreign from any analysis of this story that I ever encountered before playing this game. But the glimpses of other timelines at least imply that something like that might be possible. Especially considering something Nanaki says during the fight with the giant Whisper that looks like Sapphire Weapon: the whole party sees a glimpse of the opening scene from Advent Children and Nanaki says that it’s a vision of what will happen if they “fail here today”. Sooo….does that mean that the whole original time line is now off on a different course? That the events from the original to Advent Children are now not happening?

Oh and the big bad Whisper at the end looks a hell of a lot like Sapphire Weapon. Are the Weapons now involved in the new world-building with alternate timelines and destiny spirits? I don’t suppose I can complain about that. In the original, the appearance of the Weapons does seem a little out of nowhere, with only a tenuous connection to the previously established lore. So I appreciate that they are now trying to introduce the concept earlier.

Laying the groundwork for concepts that will be important later is something the remake really succeeded at. Cloud’s mako poisoning later is foreshadowed with Jessie’s father, and Jessie’s theory that those with mako poisoning are suspended between their body and the planet’s core, since mako is processed lifestream that still tries to transmigrate. Barret also makes a comment that’s relevant to both Cloud’s mako poisoning and to the last thing Sephiroth did during the Nibelheim incident:

Sephiroth’s original body, the one birthed by Lucrecia, is in the planet’s core after leaping into the mako in the reactor at Nibelheim. All appearances of Sephiroth during the present are either telepathic or channeled through the bodies of clones that carry Jenova’s cells.

Unless we’re gonna entertain the whole time travel thing…then I don’t know where the fuck that leaves us.

I have to echo a sentiment first expressed by the YouTuber The Night Sky Prince: Nomura says that the story will remain the same and that his only big point of departure is that someone from the original, who died, will not be dead this time. It really looks like that’s gonna be Zack. If Zack’s alive, I’m not sure how much room is left for the story to play out the way it did originally. A bit of a mixed message, but it’s drastic no matter how you interpret it.

For me, the really weird part of this is that the remake appears to be aware of the role that Zack plays in Cloud’s psyche and how Zack was turned into an alternate persona. Before Cloud wakes up in Aerith’s flower bed, he is having a conversation in his mind with someone else in SOLDIER 1st class gear. For the first few seconds, we don’t see the second person’s face, and it looks like it’s gonna turn out to be Zack. When we do see the face of the second person, it’s a second Cloud. So the writers were definitely aware of the role of Zack in Cloud’s arc. Soo…I’m not saying I think this will happen, but how the fuck would Cloud take it if he ran into Zack before he has the chance to work out his issues?

It’s a huge, huge gamble and I want it to work. No one wants this to work more than I do and I want the next chapter to come out right now. But keeping Zack alive can have very dramatic, far-reaching consequences for the story. I simply don’t see what Nomura can possibly mean if he says the story will be pretty much the same while also implying that Zack will be alive. And if this has some kind of consequence for Aerith, like not dying, she’ll cease to be a thematic mirror image of Sephiroth. The mirroring between Sephiroth and Aerith is absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the story and to keep Aerith alive would change the whole nature of the story. Maybe it will turn out to be a genius curve ball that will totally work and outstrip the original.

I hope so, anyway. There’s no denying the boldness of the step, and it is refreshing to see Square Enix regain the will to take risks, which was a fear I had after FFXV.

Soooo yes.

It was what I wanted and then some ❤️

If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’d be interested in a lore theory:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/07/04/final-fantasy-vii-remake-lore-theory/

FFVIIR play-through continued (light spoilers)

Yesterday I played for nearly ten hours, wrapping up the Sector 5 sub quests and going all the way through to the sewers, just before Avalanche’s last stand at the Sector 7 plate support pillar.

Something I want to mention that I briefly touched on earlier is the combat system. Put simply, you can attack, dodge and block all you want but every other option requires you to invest at least a little patience. This can be like charging Barrett’s gun-arm or slowly, carefully building momentum with Cloud’s punisher mode. Most frequently, though, it’s the ATB gauge, which you fill by attacking, blocking and dodging.

This can be annoying at times, since in order to properly strategize you often need the assess materia, and materia can only be used once you’ve built up the ATB gauge. So you roll in and start banging away and just lumping any consequence that goes with that. This necessity can be maddening in near-defeat situations, like when you have to avoid a game over by either healing yourself or reviving someone else. You often have to dive back into the fray with almost no HP to fill your ATB gauge enough to use an item or a spell.

That is my only nit-pick so far though. Square Enix made me really afraid of their tendency toward appeasement with Final Fantasy XV. That game was designed to appeal so universally that the final product hardly took a single risk. If it seems like I mentioned random comparisons with XV in the last post, it’s because XV cast a long shadow. It was released in a partially complete state so they could trickle out a finished product that would accommodate fan reactions. To say nothing of the prissy lack of risk taking or difficulty. FFXV might be less fun if you just press X throughout every battle but the sad truth is that you can. If you chose the easy difficulty setting you could even play through the game with Carbuncle resurrecting you every time your HP reaches zero.

If that appeared to be Square’s emergent business model then I couldn’t help but worry about what might come next. FFVIIR, luckily, doesn’t repeat any of this. In fact I’ve been playing a lot of Mana games in the last few years and I rather like the strategy of getting in, spend your stamina/ATB/whatever gauge, get out and charge it again. The need to build the ATB gauge to even use an item is annoying but it isn’t a deal breaker.

There are also some interesting little doo-dads that borrow from other FF weapon and buffing systems. Each weapon comes with abilities that you can master and take with you, like in IX, or the Espers in VI. You can also craft weapons in a system that bears a superficial resemblance to the crystarium in XIII or the sphere grids in X. You can even add extra materia slots which adds to the strategy since you are less likely to wander into a battle with the wrong stuff equipped.

It was my worries about appeasement that made me sweat the cross dressing scene. Like, it didn’t happen in exactly the same way that it did in the original, and so much in this remake does not, but I kinda panicked. I was kinda afraid they may have made the cross dressing in Wall Market optional in order to appease in the opposite direction. I was kinda freaking out. And then Aerith walked Cloud’s spikey ass over to the Honey Bee Inn and all was right with the world.

Noticeably absent from original- the uncanny freak-out when Cloud walks in on a ghostly mirror image of himself. The ghost Cloud lunges at living Cloud and he blacks out. This was also the scene where we hear the song Who…Are You? for the first time. Later, Who…Are You? is paired with Jenova. When you first hear it used in relation with Jenova, the association with the hallucination in the Honey Bee Inn is nothing short of disturbing.

There is an echo of this event in the Remake, though, and it even happens around that time, even if it’s not at the same time. Before waking up in Aerith’s church, Cloud chats with a mysterious figure in a white void. At first I was so sure it was going to be Zack Fair. But it’s a second Cloud- perhaps alluding to the conflation in his mind.

Even with that difference I do appreciate how Wall Market and Don Corneo have been mentioned and foreshadowed, going back to the scuffle with Corneo goons in Sector 7. The constant background chatter about the long-reaching consequences of the Avalanche bombings dovetails nicely from the unexpected carnage after the first attack and Barret’s belief in needing to crack eggs to make omelets.

Not sure if my favorite quote from yesterday’s binge was “The Lady of Frost is the perfect companion for a man like you, Cloud” or “Never be afraid, Cloud”.

I also like “Cloud…this dress…and makeup…”

“Yes. Nailed it. Thank you. Moving on.”

End of play-through:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/04/29/final-fantasy-vii-remake-just-finished-first-play-through-heavy-spoilers/