Final Fantasy XV Kingsglaive

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Kingsglaive begins with an extended exposition dump, which is how you know it’s Final Fantasy.

As far as I can tell, the gist of the story is that there’s an empire engaging in imperialist expansion. The empire uses mechanical soldiers, wild monsters, and terrifying summon beasts called “daemons” to attack the smaller kingdoms it wants to colonize. In order to prevent the city-state of Insomnia from being destroyed by the empire, its king erects a magical barrier around the city walls. Although the king manages to save everyone inside the city, all of the outlying territories are blasted to scorched earth. Insomnia is not completely closed, however, and it has taken in a number of refugees, some of whom have enlisted in the military. An elite task force of immigrant soldiers has been granted a share of the king’s magic, becoming collectively known as the “Kingsglaive.”

More than a decade later, the unending war and concomitant maintenance of the magical barrier have taken their toll on the king, so he enters into negotiations with the empire. According to the provisions of the treaty he and the emperor will sign, the empire will stop attacking Insomnia if its crown prince, Noctis, will marry the former princess of an imperial holding, Lunafreya. The emperor is already quite old, however, and what he really wants is not the gradual takeover this marriage would ensure, but rather immediate access to the magical crystal that powers the city and serves as the source of the king’s magic. About halfway through the movie, the emperor betrays the king, and Insomnia falls.

This is point at which Final Fantasy XV is supposed to begin, I think – Lunafreya is on the run, and Noctis is trying to catch up with her. It’s important that they find each other because, unbeknownst to the empire, Lunafreya has escaped Insomnia with the king’s magical ring, which allows its bearer to access the power of the crystal and communicate with Insomnia’s guardian spirits.

As for the actual members of the Kingsglaive who help Lunafreya escape, it’s not a spoiler to say that, as with any franchise spin-off, they’re not going to appear in the main story, so they need to be “dealt with” in some way. It’s also not a spoiler to say that Sean Bean is the English-language voice actor for the king, and we all know what that means. Thankfully, everyone still manages to get in some good moments…

…except for the one female member of the Kingsglaive, who is “dealt with” in the first third of the movie. This character is a combination of Rosa from Final Fantasy IV and Lulu from Final Fantasy X, and she’s awesome, and I love her, and she deserves much better. One might argue that the female soldier needs to be taken offstage in order to make room for Lunafreya, but I call bullshit. I mean, heaven forbid there are two female characters onscreen at the same time, right?

If nothing else, Kingsglaive is gorgeous. I watched the Blu-ray via my PS4 on the huge HD television I bought specifically to showcase PS4 graphics, and it was like looking into a window of someone’s house, if their house was a magnificent city filled with attractive people.

Unfortunately, because the named characters are so meticulously detailed and so beautifully animated, the off-model characters really stand out. The cast of the film isn’t that large, so this means that a handful of characters who look and move like human beings are walking around in a sea of digital constructs that radiate circa-2005 Resident Evil 4 uncanniness.

I actually (really) enjoyed Square Enix’s 2001 movie The Spirits Within, where everything was on the same narrow rocky ledge in the uncanny valley. I also enjoyed the visuals of Advent Children, in which the character animations were uniformly unnatural and conscientiously gamelike. In Kingsglaive, however, the disconnect between “strikingly lifelike” and “totally an in-game render” continuously caught my attention, especially when it came to Lunafreya. You can tell that budgets were cut in several of her action scenes, and it’s also weird that her face is perfectly flawless when you can see every pore and blackhead and bead of sweat and ingrown hair on every one of the main male characters.

I watched the movie with the English-language track, and Lena Headey’s performance of Lunafreya is outstanding. Headey’s acting is sensitive and emotionally resonant, which is uncanny, because the animated character has very little affect. I think this is supposed to have something to do with the fact that she’s been a prisoner for all of her adult life, but Lunafreya’s lack of facial expressiveness is taken to a ridiculous extreme. To give an example, she is a passenger during two dangerous car chases, and throughout both she literally never breaks a sweat or gets a hair out of place. In one scene the car she’s riding in has flipped and is skidding precariously along the roof of a building as it bursts into flames, but her face is completely blank and peaceful, like she’s drinking tea and watching the sun rise. I’m no expert on human psychology, but I think even the most perfect of princesses would express anxiety in this situation – or pain, given the crazy angle her neck bends when her head hits the roof of the car.

Essentially I’m upset that the female lead is sidelined when she should be the main character.

I think my problem with Lunafreya is that I watched her way more closely than I was supposed to. I wanted the story to be about her, but Kingsglaive wanted me to pay attention to the male characters instead. My own tendency to identify with female characters aside, Headey’s performance really is excellent, and she stole every scene she was in. When Lunafreya was onscreen, I would settle down into a mindset of “maybe the story is finally going to become as interesting as the graphics,” but then the focus would jerk back to the dudes and their explosions.

I’m so used to seeing CG explosions that I wasn’t too terribly impressed by the choreography of the action sequences. I’m given to understand that Kinsglaive has been in production since 2013, yet the recent conversations we’ve been having in the United States about depictions of destruction in superhero movies seem to have gone over the producers’ heads.

After the credits roll, there is a short scene in which Noctis and his three bodyguards drive around in a fancy car while joking around with each other, which felt incredibly weird to me. I just witnessed the destruction of an entire city and watched a bunch of people suffer and die, and now I’m supposed to be happy? If I’m being honest, this severe shift in tone doesn’t make me feel kindly disposed toward Noctis. Thankfully, the short animated series Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV provides a much more sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Noctis and his companions.

Despite my frustrations with Kingsglaive, I enjoyed the experience of watching the movie, and I’m looking forward to playing Final Fantasy XV when it finally! comes out!! in two days!!!

( Header image from DualShockers )

Oxenfree

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Oxenfree is a teenage conversation simulator set on a haunted island.

The protagonist of Oxenfree is a teenage girl named Alex, who takes the last ferry out to Edwards Island with her pothead friend Ren and her edgy stepbrother Jonas with the intention of spending all night on the beach, where two girls named Clarissa and Nona are waiting for them with a cooler of beer. Alex has brought an old-fashioned transistor radio with her; and, after hanging out around a bonfire for a while, Ren suggests that Alex go with him to show Jonas a cave where her radio can pick up strange distortions. This ends up opening a portal to another dimension… sort of.

I enjoyed Oxenfree. The graphic design is gorgeous, the OST is ambient and chill, and the horror elements build on each other and are genuinely creepy.

The actual conversation feels a bit off to me, though. I can’t put my finger on why, but I suspect that my discomfort stems from the male writer/director’s misunderstanding of how young American women tend to communicate.

Alex spends the beginning of the game walking around with Jonas and Ren, and these two young men don’t respond well if the player chooses the conversation options that don’t read as “masculine.”

To give a generalized example, let’s say that, after something terrible happens, Jonas says to Alex, “I’m scared.” If she demonstrates sympathy or empathy, responding with something like “Are you okay?” or “I’m scared too,” Jonas will become annoyed or openly hostile. Meanwhile, a stiff upper lip response such as “Let’s keep going” is usually configured as “correct” and doesn’t result in passive-aggressive snark being directed at Alex. Each conversation branch generally has three option, but there’s always an additional option of not saying anything, and as I played I found myself “choosing” it more frequently.

Regardless, the story of Oxenfree is fascinating, and moving through this story is a unique and interesting experience. Still, as a game, it suffers from two major problems and two minor problems.

The first major problem is that Alex tends to walk slowly. On one hand, this encourages the player to enjoy the scenery and the ambiance. On the other hand, backtracking is a slog.

The second major problem is that the loading times between areas are obscene, usually exceeding ninety seconds. Because these loading times are so punishing, I felt strongly discouraged against unguided exploration.

The first minor problem is that, in order for Alex to uncover the full story of what’s happening on Edwards Island, she needs to go on a scavenger hunt to collect a dozen letters scattered across the various areas of the game. Because of the slow character movement and unbearable loading times, I couldn’t be bothered. As far as I can tell, a Cold War era submarine somehow managed to get itself caught in a time loop just offshore, and the “ghosts” are the sailors trying to free themselves. It’s strongly implied that the protagonist has gotten herself caught in a time loop as well. The main story is about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, however, and I don’t care enough about the deeper story to undertake this optional sidequest.

The second minor problem is what I’m going to go out on a limb and label as misogyny. Oxenfree really wants Alex to spend the majority of its playtime with Jonas and Ren. As someone who has actually been a teenage girl, I tend to find that interaction with teenage boys is best in moderation, and neither of the teenage boys in this game does anything to make me feel more sympathetic towards them.

I therefore wanted Alex to spend time with the two other teenage girls on the island, but the game was not having it. One of the girls, Nona, is set up as Ren’s love interest, while Oxenfree goes way out of its way to make the player dislike the other girl, Clarissa. I like both Nona and Clarissa a lot, and I found them to be extremely compelling characters. I wanted to know more about them and their lives, but the game doesn’t give Alex many dialog options to interact with them that aren’t disdainful or downright mean.

There are several different variations on Alex’s personality that the player can choose to express at any given conversation branch, but I’m not interested in any variations in which she’s mean to Clarissa and Nona. Unfortunately, her options for being kind to them are extremely limited – in fact, I’m pretty sure that I was able to choose them all in one playthrough.

I just saw a post on Tumblr about a similar narrative tendency regarding female characters in stories created by men, “when we’re supposed to dislike a female character but she’s obviously a straw-woman the writer’s using to work out some unresolved issues he has with an ex or his mom or an unrequited crush so you actually kind of like her out of spite.”

Despite the lags in gameplay, Oxenfree only occupies about three to four hours of playtime. My concerns aside, they’re three to four hours well spent, and I’ll more than likely return to Oxenfree at some point in the near future. When I do, though, I intend to be just as bitchy to the boys as the game seems to want me to be to the girls.

( Header image from Kotaku )

I Am Setsuna – Part One

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I’m about ten hours into I Am Setsuna, which was purposefully designed to feel very much like the classic SNES RPG Chrono Trigger. The battle system is snappy, and the writing is competent.

The scenery is all snow all the time, which has been dampening my enjoyment (so to speak). The snow is pretty but unrelenting, and there are no lighting or physics effects of the sort that made the sand in Journey interesting and dynamic. The graphics are very pretty, but every time I enter a new area I’m like, I bet it’s going to be another snowy forest, and lo and behold it is. Almost all of the enemies have the same color palette of white and gray, with occasional touches of brown or blue. This makes them less lovable than they should be, because their designs are interestingly stylized and remarkably cute.

The piano music that serves as the score is also pretty but unrelenting, and I ended up turning the in-game slider for the BGM almost all the way down. I’m still having trouble dealing with the soundtrack. There’s a discordance between the pieces that seem to be performed by an amateur musician and the pieces that sound more like a traditional MIDI file played by the computer. The overworld music for certain sections of the game is kind of catchy, I suppose.

The voice acting is embarrassing, so I turned it completely off.

In terms of the game’s characters, Setsuna is basically Yuna from Final Fantasy X, a “sacrifice” who has been sent out from her village to appease “the monsters.” She will give her life in “the Lost Lands,” and that will for some reason keep everyone else in the world safe. Setsuna is accompanied by a Rikku character and an Auron character (the allusions to these Final Fantasy X characters are obvious), and the player-protagonist is not so much Crono as he is Squall from Final Fantasy VIII. So mercenary, much angst.

Despite the tedium of the music and graphics and the anime stereotypes used to differentiate between the protagonists, the story of I Am Setsuna has started to pull me in. What I’m picking up on is that the events of the game were proceeded by one or more failed pilgrimages, and that multiple people have been at pains to cover this up. What’s going on with these pilgrimages, and why is there a conspiracy surrounding them? There are small touches of darkness scattered throughout the game, especially in the dialog of the older NPCs. For example, an unnamed old dude at a way station says something completely out of nowhere about how “spatial distortions” have been getting worse over the past ten years. Spatial distortions? I’m intrigued.

It’s fun to play the game while I’m playing it, but I never really feel compelled to pick it up. To be honest, the strongest feeling I’ve had toward I Am Setsuna is nostalgia for Final Fantasy X. I never thought I’d prefer Tidus to… anyone, really… but so far I Am Setsuna feels merely derivative and doesn’t add anything new or interesting to the genre.

Still, I’d like to see how the story turns out, so I guess I’ll just keep going.

( Header image from Trusted Reviews )

Inside

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When people write about Playdead’s new game Inside, they tend to say things like, “It’s incredible, but I can’t describe it without spoiling it.”

I’m going to “spoil” the beginning of Inside and make vague allusions to its ending, so please proceed with caution.

*

Your player-character is a ten-year-old boy who begins the game in the woods, where he has escaped from some sort of shadowy facility. He’s being chased by masked men with guns and attack dogs, and he will be killed instantly if he’s spotted. The player’s goal is to move the boy constantly to the right side of the screen while evading capture.

After the boy leaves the woods, he emerges onto a farm littered with the carcasses of parasite-infested pigs. It’s here that the game introduces its central puzzle mechanic, which involves using a headset to control braindead adult humans. After the boy makes his way from the farm into a decaying city, it becomes apparent that these braindead humans are being tested and possibly marketed by normal humans.

Inside eventually finds its stride, but the puzzles at the beginning have the potential to be frustrating for a first-time player. To give an example, in order to progress through one of the barns on the farm, the player has to backtrack in order to open the door, which allows a gaggle of chirping chicks to enter. Since the game has never asked the player to move from right to left, and since there’s no indication of the chicks other than a faint chirping on the other side of the barn door, it’s not immediately apparent that these chicks are a necessary element to a puzzle that otherwise has four moving parts.

The first quarter of the game also features another type of frustrating puzzle – let’s call it the “crossing long distances to escape anthropophagic attack dogs” puzzle. If the player dies at any point during one of these sequences, she has to start over at the beginning of the set piece, not from the point of death. Repeatedly playing the same three minutes only to fail at the end is not fun, and it breaks the game’s mood and sense of flow.

Thankfully, such puzzles don’t appear again after the first third of the game. Many of Inside’s later puzzles involve a similar combination of careful timing and brutal death, but they allow the player space to stand still and assess the situation, and their respawn points are non-punishing.

Tiny birds and bloodthirsty canines aside, Inside is beautiful and seamless, with no loading screens or frame rate drops. In addition, the sound design is brilliant, with the audio working alongside the shadows and dim light of the graphic design to create a palpable sense of danger and menace. I was so wired and on edge after I finished this game that I couldn’t sleep for hours.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing Inside. Unlike Playdead’s earlier game Limbo, which was more abstract and fantasy-themed, Inside is grittier and more focused on apocalyptic imagery. Inside’s realistic stylizations render it less creepy and darkly atmospheric than Limbo, but the game’s graphic slickness and polish underscore several of the central themes of the story while rendering the ending sequence all the more bizarre.

When I had gotten about an hour into Inside, I could can see its story evolving in two ways. The first is that the boy is a host for the same parasite that killed the pigs on the farm; and, if he escapes into civilization, the infection will spread and the world will be doomed. The second is that the boy is being controlled just as he controls the braindead adults; and, after he accomplishes his mission, he will be unplugged.

The actual ending of Inside is nothing even remotely resembling what I expected. The game ended up becoming a surreal meditation on bioethics and subjectivity, and to be honest I’m still trying to process what happens. In addition, apparently there is a secret ending that the player can unlock by going back into the game with a walkthrough, collecting all the MacGuffins, and starting over from the beginning. I need to step back from this game, but I hope to return to it within the next few months.

( Header image from Playdead’s official website )

Ocarina of Time -Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly

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I started playing the Master Quest of the 3DS release of Ocarina of Time. The Master Quest is a more difficult version of the game that is unlocked when the player beats the regular version. Damage is doubled, and the overworld maps are flipped along their y-axis.

In addition, all of the Master Quest dungeons are different in strange and surprising ways. Last night I played through the “Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly” dungeon, which takes the form of the cavernous interior of a living fish. This dungeon is weird to begin with, with mucus and dangly bits and “suck holes” and breathing pink walls that twitch and bleed if Link strikes them. In the Master Quest version, there are cows embedded in the walls. This means that, as well as the normal wet sloshing sounds of the dungeon, there are also cow noises.

It gets better.

The cows function as switches, meaning that the dungeon environment changes in various ways if Link shoots their faces with his slingshot. In order to reach some of the cows whose presence is only indicated by their irritated lowing, Link has to blow up boulders stuck in the fleshy walls of Jabu-Jabu’s stomach. Because these boulders are located in inconvenient places, Link has to employ roving explosive devices called Bombchus, which are a lot of fun to play with. When a Bombchu strikes a boulder a detonates, the dungeon walls spasm, presumably to indicate that Jabu-Jabu is tickled or in pain. The final cow “switch” must be shot three times before the membrane blocking off the boss room becomes permeable. Each time Link shoots it with his slingshot, it moves further up the wall, a motion that is accompanied by a grotesque animation of creeping slime and muscle set to thick slurping sounds.

I love how bizarre the design of Zelda series is sometimes, and I think the experience of moving through such absurd digital spaces is one of the main reasons why I play video games.

( Header image by saltycatfish on Tumblr )

A Link to the Past – New Nintendo 3DS Playthrough

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Because it’s possible to download A Link to the Past onto a New Nintendo 3DS, I happily did so, and I ended up playing the game for the second time in six months.

After watching the Game Grumps playthrough of Zelda II (which was released in 1987), I now appreciate just how innovative A Link to the Past (released in 1991) truly is. Of course there are major benefits attached to working with 16 bits instead of 8 bits, but jumping from Zelda II to A Link to the Past is like jumping from the cinema of the 1910s to the cinema of the 2010s. Saying “the difference is incredible” is an understatement.

What immediately struck me when I launched the game was the color palette, which manages to be both charmingly pastel and brilliantly vibrant. The background music has mostly turned away from “catchy and repetitive” and shifted toward “unobtrusive and atmospheric,” and the sound effects, from the hefty swipe of Link’s sword to the wet squelching of his boots as he walks through puddles, are surprisingly well realized given the limits of the technology.

A Link to the Past is filled with unique and gorgeous details. When Link enters the Eastern Palace (the first dungeon), there are two large bronze monster statues staring back at him. Most players probably never spend more than sixty seconds in this room, but the decorative statues serve to establish the setting – an abandoned ruin where humans no longer walk – while building on the eerie ambiance created by the sonorous echoes of the background music.

There are a multitude of small touches like this in A Link to the Past, random glints of beauty that serve no other purpose than to deepen the world of the game. In Turtle Rock (the second-to-last dungeon), tiny black creepy crawlies skitter out of a newly opened doorway as if they’re desperate to escape a room that has been sealed shut for so long. Southeast of Lake Hylia, there is a creature resembling a Metroid floating in an isolated corner; and, when Link approaches it, it explodes into a swarm of baby Metroids. In the southern swamp, a purple rabbit(?) leaps in and out of the tall grass, and it will curse at Link if he cuts the grass out from under it as it’s jumping. At the base of a waterfall in the eastern foothills of Death Mountain, the king of the Zora will sell Link a pair of flippers, seemingly taking pride in the fact that they’re not cheap. In roughly the same location in the Dark World, a giant catfish sleeps at the bottom of a pool marked by a ring of stones, and it pops its head up and yells at Link if he throws something into its pond. None of these creatures appear anywhere else in the game, and they’re just five examples of the strange and wonderful things an adventurous player can uncover.

Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he envisioned the fantasy world of Hyrule as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like” (source), and the message conveyed by the gameplay of A Link to the Past does in fact seem to be, basically, “Explore and you will be rewarded.”

A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game I played as a fully sentient being. A handful of critics have specified to A Link to the Past as the point at which the Zelda series started to turn away from its true potential as an open-world exploration simulator, but I think what these critics are missing (aside from the reality that different people enjoy different things) is that there are a lot of little kids playing the Zelda games. Whereas most adult gamers would see an irregularity in a wall and think, “Oh, I should try to bomb this spot,” a child who hasn’t been alive long enough to play that many video games is going to have to figure out the mechanics of the game environment for herself. If there are no hints at all, then the lauded exploration elements of the Zelda series may as well be nonexistent for many players.

My own experience as a baby gamer cutting her teeth on A Link to the Past was nothing short of transformative. Every time I played through the game I uncovered something new, and I truly believed that Hyrule was full of infinite secrets and endless possibilities. Like every Zelda game, A Link to the Past trains the player to look carefully and read closely, to pay attention to the world, to navigate by memory, and to try various solutions until something works.

There’s a pervasive pop culture trope that fictional geniuses like Sherlock Holmes are rare and special, but any good Zelda player employs similar methods of observation and deduction. Although I wouldn’t characterize myself as a particularly talented gamer, I still feel that A Link to the Past trained me to interact with the real world at a deeper level of engagement.

( Header image by Jay Epperson on Tumblr )

Pokémon Go

Professor Willow by @edo_mond

I decided to play Skyward Sword again. I set up my old Wii system, but there were no batteries in the remote.

I got off my ass and put on some flip-flops and went to the CVS to get some. Since the Skyward Sword opening sequence always makes me cry, I also picked up some tissues for good measure.

I go to check out, and the lady working the cash register eyes up me and my batteries and my tissues. She gives me this look, like, I know what’s going on here.

And this is why I decided to give up on Skyward Sword and start playing Pokémon Go instead. For some reason I got the feeling that I may need to get out more.

*

I resisted Pokémon Go for a few days after it came out, my rationale being that this is where I would draw the line on being a huge nerd. I am an adult, and adults don’t walk around looking at pokémon on their phones.

But let’s be real, can you think of a better use of the privileges of adulthood? Because I can’t.

*

There’s a bench on a tiny patch of grass in the triangle of a three-way intersection next to my apartment complex. Because it’s not technically a park, it’s not technically illegal for me to have an open container of alcohol there, so sometimes in the evenings I go there to write.

One day, a little after eight, three tiny children start wandering around with enormous smart phones. What’s going on is obvious to me.

“Hey, are you guys playing Pokémon Go?” I ask them, pulling out my phone.

They get really excited, and we dig our heels into comparing notes on the pokémon in the neighborhood (all poison types all the way down), a conversation that goes well until a harried soccer mom runs over and begins apologizing to me.

“I’m so sorry these boys are bothering you,” she says, “but it’s this Pokiemans app they’re addicted to. God, it’s just the dumbest thing.”

“Yes, of course,” I tell her, sneaking my phone back into my bag, “it absolutely is.”

“I blame the Japanese,” she continues. “It’s them and their devil worship that leads to things like Pokiemans.”

Although her wording is imprecise, she’s not wrong. The eighteenth-century Neoconfucian drive to scientifically classify supernatural phenomena was appropriated by State Shintō during the Meiji Period, the cultural echoes of which can indeed be found in the Pokémon games. I think about explaining this to her and decide against it.

“Mmmmmmm,” I respond, and she wanders off after the kids.

So that went well.

*

Here is a thing I wrote when Pokémon Go first came out:

The way the game works is that you attract more pokémon the farther you walk (the minimum seems to be 2km), and you attract rarer pokémon the farther away you get from your starting location (the minimum is around 3km). Traveling above a certain speed (no one can agree on what this is) doesn’t count toward your “walking” total, so you can’t drive, and the sudden stops required by the game make biking impractical. What this means is that the game isn’t going to reward you if you’re just walking in a circle around your block or your neighborhood.

Very little of this turned out to be true. There was a lot of speculation and misinformation surrounding the game, when it was released, and there still is.

Pokémon Go doesn’t tell you what to do or how anything works, which is all the more frustrating because it’s the first game of this nature that most people have ever played. I’m ashamed to admit that I have dug deep into Reddit to search for answers, but it seems that even experienced players still have no idea about the specifics of what’s going on.

*

During the second half of July I kept seeing articles on my Facebook feed about people playing Pokémon Go getting bitten by snakes, walking off cliffs, being mugged, jumping into traffic, and so on. This sounds ridiculous until you start playing the game and begin to understand the incredible amount of effort that a player has to put into it. If you go through the trouble of going all the way to a neighborhood with a lot of Pokéstops, walk for a mile, and don’t catch anything, of course you’re going to drop everything and get excited when you finally see a pokémon. And if you have to cross the street to get in range before it runs away, then that’s what you’ll do.

The way I’ve come to understand this based on my own experience is that people probably wouldn’t take such crazy risks if the game weren’t so difficult.

Pokémon Go does not go out of its way to accommodate casual players. I habitually walk several miles a day through neighborhoods that have a wealth of Pokéstops, but I’ve only made a moderate amount progress in filling out my Pokédex or leveling up my avatar. Unless Niantic can figure out how to reward players on a more consistent basis, I don’t think they’re going to be able to keep the game going for the entire summer. Once the casual players arrive at the conclusion that Pokémon Go isn’t something that everyone can enjoy, I’m worried that the middleground players will drop out as well.

*

Bella: What level are you in Pokémon Go?
Edward: Seventeen.
Bella: How long have you been seventeen?
Edward: A while…

*

Pokémon Go is a lot of fun, but it’s also given me an opportunity to witness something very strange. I’m lucky to live in a walkable urban neighborhood with multiple gyms, and they’re all controlled by this one kid, who’s maybe around ten years old.

This sounds cute, right? WRONG.

The kid is a little shit, and he’s unilaterally nasty to anyone who tries to talk to him. There’s a gym outside a local café, where I’ve had the odd experience of sitting and watching him at work. If someone sees him playing and asks for help or advice, he tells them that he doesn’t want them to get better than him. If someone asks him to ease up so that they can train at the gym, he tells them that they don’t deserve to play if they’re too weak. And so on. The kid is really serious about pokémon, and he seems to only be able to have fun with the game if no one else is.

This situation has forced me to reevaluate the premise of the Pokémon games, in which the player-character is, similarly, a ten-year-old kid who apparently doesn’t have anything better to do with his life than to walk around fighting everyone he encounters. It’s a lot of fun to be that kid in the games, but watching the expression of that attitude in real life is… kind of upsetting?

This past weekend a core trio of teenage girls (one of whom works at the convenience store next to the café) got together with a looser group of friends and destroyed the kid, knocking him down from all of the gyms he controlled. I saw them stationed at the physical location of each gym, and they communicated with each other via old-school walkie talkies.

It was kind of epic.

*

Despite the continuing issues with Pokémon Go, Pokémon as a broader franchise goes out of its way to be open to newcomers. What I’ve witnessed over the past month of playing Pokémon Go is this ideology of acceptance translated into the real world, with older or more experienced players actively helping younger or less experienced players.

I live by the National Zoo in DC, which has a good three dozen Pokéstops. When I go for walks there, I see players approaching people who seem confused about how something in the game works, and the zoo employees and volunteers have been engaged in helping the kids who come up to them to ask for directions. I’m sure there are hardcore trainers lurking by the gyms at either end of the park, but the overall approach seems to be one of enthusiastic welcome.

Even in more “adult” environments, like the bar scene at Adams Morgan, it’s been amazing to see how an inclusive attitude regarding gaming has become a means of fostering real-world kindness. Pokémon Go is like an all-ages and friendship-focused version of Tinder for nerds, which is something that shouldn’t work but does.

Oh man. What a strange and wonderful world we live in.

( Header image by @edo_mond on Twitter )

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam – I Love Bowser Edition

Two Bowsers from Paper Jam

The premise of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is that Luigi accidentally knocks open the book that contains the Paper Mario universe, releasing all of the paper characters into the 3D world. This means there are two of (almost) everyone in the game – two Marios, two Peaches, and two Bowsers. This concept sounds like crack, and it absolutely is, but it’s a lot of fun.

The story and characterization are also surprisingly well written.

I love the easy friendship between the two Peaches. They immediately get along together, and there are several scenes of them indulging in girl talk, which is beyond adorable. The pair is also resourceful, remaining imprisoned and ignoring everyone outside their room when they want to chill out and escaping by surprisingly devious means whenever it suits their fancy.

This could just be my delusion talking, but I’m almost certain the Peaches allow themselves to be kidnapped at the beginning of the game. When they realize that the Bowsers are on their way over, they come up with a scheme that will allow them to escape; but, when it seems like their plan to evade capture has worked, one of them sabotages it, and the other immediately gets onboard with what’s happened. I get the sense that being kidnapped is like a vacation for them, and that they not-so-secretly enjoy it.

I also love the bittersweet friendship between the two Bowser Juniors. They enjoy each other’s company, but they’re also more self-aware about their situation than anyone else in the game. Namely, they know that their time together is limited, and so everything they do has a subtle air of manic desperation, like they want to have as much fun as they possibly can before the party is over. Both of the Juniors seem very lonely, and they never leave one another’s side.

In a crazy knife twist to the heart, the Juniors make fun of the Bowsers, but it’s also clear that they both really, really want their fathers to be proud of them. Neither of them is enthusiastic about fighting Mario, but they go ahead and do it anyway because they think it will make their dads happy. They then proceed to spend the entire fight challenging your party to silly games and healing each other if you hurt one of them. In other words, they are two tiny cinnamon rolls too good for this world, too precious and too pure.

Speaking of which, the fierce dad Bowsers are amazing. They obviously dislike each other, but they both adore their sons, and so they grudgingly work together to impress the boys. After the Marios trounce the Juniors, the Bowsers ignore them, hugging the Juniors and telling them how much they love them and asking them if they want to see something cool (they’ve rigged their castle to fly). It’s only when they realize that their kids have been hurt that the Bowsers begin to care that anyone else is in the room. Both Bowsers have always been violent and temperamental, but when the Juniors start sniffling their dads really start to fuck shit up in a major way.

The Bowsers are too narcissistic and self-involved to be “good” parents, but watching them cradle and comfort their sons before going on a rampage to avenge them is a sight to behold. The complicated yet genuine flow of affection between the two pairs of fathers and sons in this game kind of makes me want to become a parent myself, to be honest.

There are other cute touches of trope-defying characterization in Paper Jam, and probably the only thing I disliked was how mean the game is to Luigi. Seriously, it’s like how Family Guy treats Meg – the meanness is supposed to be a meta-joke, but the humor is too bitter and caustic to actually be funny. Meanwhile, Paper Luigi (who is the secret star of the Mario franchise) spends the entire game relaxing on the beach and listening to music, which makes me happy.

I like to envision Luigi as living in some skanky walk-up in Brooklyn and working a garbage job while dealing with his sociopath brother, and then suddenly he’s transported to a beautiful fantasy kingdom where he doesn’t have to worry about any of that nonsense ever again. I mean, honestly, who hasn’t wanted that at some point? You stay cool, Paper Luigi.

( Header image from the Polygon review of Paper Jam )

Bravely Second

Bravely Second Ending by fabledtactician

It took me a total of 85 hours, but I finally completed Bravely Second. I beat the game, I made it through the postgame content, and I saw the face of the Adventurer. It was so worth it.

There are minor spoilers in this post, but I don’t give away anything that isn’t obvious.

In Bravely Second, two young men and two young women venture forth to save the world; or rather, multiple worlds, as was the case in Bravely Default. Chapter Five (which I reached about 50 hours into the game) marks the major multiverse-related plot twist, AND WHAT A PLOT TWIST IT IS.

I was shocked, which is something that almost never happens to me during a video game. Anyone who’s played Bravely Default can probably guess what the plot twist entails, but the form it takes is brilliant. Thankfully, unlike in Bravely Default there’s no story or dialog repetition after this event, which boy howdy do I ever appreciate.

As much as I eventually ended up loving Bravely Default, Bravely Second is so much more fun to play. Grinding is significantly easier, for one, and it’s nice to be able to fast-forward though battles. The in-game bestiary works like the bestiary in Final Fantasy XII, meaning that more information is added as more creatures are defeated. I prefer grinding for story to grinding for stat increases, and grinding in this game is so satisfying and rewarding!

What I especially love about Bravely Second is that the characters are obsessed with food and talk about it all the time. They cook for themselves, they share meals with NPCs, and at least a quarter of the monster notes in the bestiary concern cooking, eating, and regional food cultures. It’s cool to see the characters interacting with each other on a friendlier and more intimate basis than “oh no there is a crisis we must do something,” which is something I’d really like to see more of in JRPGs.

Unfortunately, the end of the game takes a detour away from friendship and strikes out toward romance, a theme that it doesn’t handle with a comparable degree of success. In the closing scenes, four love stories are resolved, but I didn’t feel satisfied with any of them. There was no tension, no slow burn, no dramatic revelation, and no physical chemistry. When multiple characters suddenly decide to get married, I was like, “…okay?”

I think Bravely Second really missed a chance with Denys (the villain for most of the game) and Agnès (the vestal virgin he kidnaps). The revelation that Denys is Not Actually Evil – and this is not a spoiler; he’s much too attractive to be evil – makes sense as far as anime tropes are concerned, but it also comes out of nowhere. In my mind, Denys clearly crossed over the Moral Event Horizon in several major ways, so Agnès asking everyone to forgive him when the Bigger Bad appears is bizarre. If Denys and Agnès had talked to each other even once, it would have added richness and complexity to the story, not only fleshing out both of their characters but also endowing the love story between Agnès and Tiz (one of the floopy-haired moppets in your party) with a much-needed element of conflict.

The true star of Bravely Second is Edea, the bratty princess from Bravely Default who goes from being a general at the beginning of the game to becoming an empress by its end. Edea makes all of the branching-path decisions (such as they are), which are slowly set up as a way to train her to think about moral conflicts. Although she initially approaches these decisions with a nonchalant attitude, she gradually manages to achieve a video-game version of wisdom and maturity. Because of this, tacking a random eleventh-hour love story onto her growth as a character felt especially insulting.

In the end, I guess, the point of this game isn’t its story. Rather, your goal as a player is to figure out how to exploit the battle system for fun and profit. Although it was possible to set up your party in Bravely Default so that they could infinitely spam powerful attacks while taking no damage, it’s much easier to do this in Bravely Second. The game mechanics of Bravely Second remind me a bit of the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII, which the player can tweak into creating a party of finely tuned murder machines.

Underdeveloped love stories aside, Bravely Second is a whole bunch of satisfyingly crunchy JRPG goodness, and I think we all need to take a moment to appreciate Akihiko Yoshida’s gorgeous and ridiculous character designs.

Bravely Second Denys Geneolgia

( Above image from the Final Fantasy wiki )

( Header image from fabledtactician on Tumblr )

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Game Grumps Zelda II

I didn’t actually play Zelda II. What I did instead is to binge-watch episodes of Game Grumps.

I’ve never been able to play Zelda II for more than an hour; it’s too damn hard. Last summer I taught myself to play the first Zelda game, which is also hard, but Zelda II is on a completely different level. I kept meaning to schedule training sessions for the purpose of git gud, but after spending a few hours watching a skilled player with a walkthrough die repeatedly, I now realize that I am never going to be git gud enough for this game.

Something that Dan and Arin bring up repeatedly during their playthrough is that there’s no way that even an experienced player would be able to figure out certain mechanics necessary to advance in the game. For example, there are no clues to suggest that the player should jump on the roofs of the houses and press down to enter a chimney in a certain village, a mechanic that’s only used once. There are also no clues guiding the player to jump into a death pit in a certain dungeon, a strategy that is, again, only used once. Because the game is so punishing, there’s no reason a player would experiment enough to consider the possibility that either of these mechanics exist.

What Japanese players had at the time (1987) was an extensive series of publications devoted to video games in general and Nintendo games more specifically. If you and your friends couldn’t figure something out, you combed magazine racks for several weeks until someone arrived at a solution. Since many people in Japan tend to sell their stuff to used bookstores instead of throwing it away, a lot of these publications are still around. They are brilliant, with hand-drawn maps and super unofficial fan art and letters from frustrated gamers that use surprisingly colorful language.

Meanwhile, players in the United States were more or less shit out of luck (although one of the first issues of Nintendo Power had a feature on Zelda II), and it’s my understanding that not that many hardcore Zelda fans have gotten farther into the game than I have. Even the walkthroughs on sites like Zelda Dungeon are garbage, as if the people writing them either have no idea what’s going on or can’t be bothered to care.

When people like Tevis Thompson talk about the joy of unguided exploration in the early Zelda games, I don’t think they’re referring to Zelda II. They don’t talk about this game because no one plays it; it’s not challenging yet fun in the way that Castlevania II and Super Metroid are. I sometimes get the feeling that “hardcore” attitudes regarding gaming are not necessarily always backed by “hardcore” gaming experience, because let’s be real – unless you’re certifiably obsessed with a certain game, hardcore gaming kind of sucks most of the time.

Now that I can say I’ve seen Zelda II all the way to its conclusion, I wonder if I can find a good playthrough of Wand of Gamelon…?

( Header image screencapped from an episode of Game Grumps )