Bravely Default: A stroke of genius (spoilers!)

Let's face it: if Bravely Default's gameplay is deeply fulfilling, its story is barely satisfactory. First, it is unnecessarily convoluted and full of superfluous elements. Ringabel being an Alternis Dim from another world who lost his memory in the tranfer? Unneeded, and probably implemented solely to fill the amnesic character/evil twin quota. A version of Agnes from yet another world popping up centuries in the past and being referred to as a angel fallen from the skies? Unneeded as well, and sorely confusing to boot. The story would have functioned just as well without these two elements—and without a ton of others. Secondly, the storytelling is so utterly messy, confusing and clumsy that following the story is more a trudge than a delight. Thirdly, the meta premise of the player being cast as a being from another dimension who enters the body of the main hero to help them save the world is a trifle patronizing. Every RPG player with a bit of experience is fully aware that they are projecting their own self into the main character(s) and don't need to have that notion shoved down their throat by Square Enix—like, "thank you, Captain Obvious". But not all is poorly told and unconvincing: there are also some amazingly good bites in Bravely Default's narrative—starting with the game's alternative ending, which I would qualify as nothing less than an absolute stroke of genius. 

Dubbed "Lying Airy", this ending is available from chapter 5 up until the awakening of the ultimate crystal in chapter 8 and must be triggered by disobeying Airy's instructions and shattering a crystal. This is achieved by keeping on pressing the x button after Airy orders you to stop doing so, and this maneuver can technically be performed on any crystal from chapter 5 onwards—although it's highly recommended to wait until chapter 7 or 8, since the time needed to shatter a crystal is directly tied to the strength of your party and thus to their levels.

The stroke of genius does not lie in this ending's narrative content, which is hardly worth mentioning, but rather in the process leading to its triggering. "Lying Airy" is not triggered by the obtention of hidden flags or by a dialogue choice like most alternative endings, but rather by a specific gameplay maneuver resulting from a conscious choice made by the player. Shattering a crystal is never presented as a viable alternative by the game; the possibilitity of doing so is only suggested through hints and speculations uttered by the characters. Moreover, shattering a crystal involves disobeying Airy's intructions, and scores of RPGs taught us that we should not disobey guiding creatures that are kind enough to lend us a hand in saving the world. The amount of scepticism and boldness required to cross the Rubicon and disobey Airy is staggering, and yet it feels like a perfectly natural thing to do thanks to the clever way the game brings the matter.

The hint hidden in the title from chapter 6 onwards immediatetly comes to mind: what a brilliant way to hint at the truth, bound to either arouse suspicions or confirm them! Chapter 6 also sees the party mull over the situation and wonder whether waking up the crystals is the right thing to do, whether Airy may have ulterior motives and, most importantly, what would exactly happen if Agnès kept pouring energy into a crystal until it shattered instead of stopping doing so when Airy orders it. After that intense musing, they drop the subject and don't mention it anymore in subsequent chapters. I first deemed this a serious mishap, wondering why the story was not expanding on these suspicions; yet a mishap this is not, but rather a brilliant narrative device. The characters are not drawing conclusions from their abundant suspicions because it's up to the player to do so themselves and act accordingly, in a vertiginous display of free gaming will.

This is a pretty unique setup that I've never encountered in any other RPG, at least not in such an achieved and polished form. A similar arrangement can be found in Link's Awakening, in which the player follows the instructions of a helpful mysterious creature before a bunch of hints arouses suspicions regarding the ultimate goal promoted by said mysterious creature, which may not be as wholesome as it seemed at first sight. The player can then exercise their free will and refuse to follow the creature's instructions in order not to trigger a dramatic outcome. However, that option is not a true choice but rather a defaulting of sorts that's not planned by the game; as such, it doesn't lead to a specific ending, but rather to an eternal statu quo. Bravely Default went much further than Link's Awakening and enriched the mix with a specific gameplay action and a dedicated ending, leading to a much more compelling result.

All in all, this alternative ending is absolutely brilliant, ingenious, clever and whatever synonyms you can think of, so much so that it pretty much single-handedly makes me forget the shortcomings of the narrative. I am utterly grateful to Bravely Default for having treated me to such an original, fresh and thrilling experience, and I can only hope that Bravely Second will have similar delightful surprises in store. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Pokemon Black: A dark patch on my Pokemon résumé

Although I certainly enjoyed my run of Pokemon Black and didn't have to force myself to pick up my DS and play it, this game has earned the dubious honour of being my least favourite Pokemon entry so far. This is due to a myriad of tiny reasons that would have hardly been noticeable on their own yet lead to a great deal of annoyance when put together. Without further ado, here are the joy-killers that tainted my overall view of Pokemon Black:

—Unova is a rather unpleasant region that comes across as significantly less welcoming, bucolic and heart-warming than regions from other Pokemon entries. Unlike the Northern France inspiration at work in the X/Y pair, the New York state inspiration behind Unova didn't lead to an incredibly charming result full of Western exotism. For some reason that I cannot pinpoint, the whole area feels cold, barren and oozes a vague aura of menace—an overall impression that was reinforced by the fact that my run unfolded in the greyish and washed-out colour palette of the in-game winter. The North-American mystique is curiously absent from Unova: apart from the swarms of office workers in Castelia City's streets and the patrolling of rangers, there is little that evokes the USA. Where are the diners and fast-food joints? There were tons of cafés in Kalos, so certainly Unova could have sported a couple of these iconic American places, right? And why are people sitting on cushions in front of low tables at home just like in Japan? That makes absolutely no sense. To add insult to injury, the towns are quite bland, with a lack of charm that sometimes verges on sheer ugliness, and the vistas seriously lack variety. And however thought that those unbearably long bridges were an interesting feature deserves a serious spanking.

—The random encounter rate is ridiculously high—like, who-the-heck-put-some-Dragon-Quest-in-my-Pokemon-high. This is the first Pokemon entry ever in which I used Repels on a regular basis whilst cruising caves, and I didn't fancy it one bit. Good thing Game Freak came to their senses and implemented a more reasonable rate in X/Y.

—The menu is confusing, with not enough categories of items and an interface that's a trifle too figurative to be truly efficient. Also, the default speed of the menu scrolling is ridiculously fast, to the point of becoming a genuine hindrance: I cannot count the number of times I selected the wrong item just because of this overzealous scrolling.

—Unova's fauna looks seriously bizarre. Now, I never wanted to partake in the raging debate about the decline of Pokemon design and thus never uttered a single negative comment regarding the looks of 'Mons in my posts; but in the case of Black, I simply cannot help it. An uncanny number of 'Mons in Unova sport a really weird appearance, and things only get worse by the evolution. Many 'Mons become positively grotesque and repulsive in their final form—dare I say monstrous?—and look more like the work of a local Victor Frankenstein than like healthy animals at the peak of their evolution. Sigilyph and Cofagrigus? Ridiculous. Simisage, Simisear and Simipour? Pathetic. Jellycent, Vanilluxe, Druddigon and Hydreigon? My eyes are bleeding. And... Garbodor and Musharna? Excuse me, I have to vomit. More seriously, many 'Mons in Black put me ill as ease, made me cringe or vaguely grossed me out—so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if the backstory of Unova included a nuclear disaster or a bad case of water poisoning. Was Game Freak trying to convey some message about the USA by stuffing Unova with so many freaky 'Mons?

—The game's insistence on wifi-based social features is seriously annoying. I don't fancy one bit the fact that the menu was ousted from the touch screen to be replaced by this useless C-Gear app, and being asked whether or not I want to launch the thing before every single plays sessions only added fuel to the fire of my irritation.

—Having to fight the Elite Four twice. Are you kidding, game?

—Bianca and Cheren are an absolute pain in the behind. They are as genuinely unlikeable as one another, Bianca being the archetype of the dumb clumsy blonde and Cheren the archetype of the obnoxious straight-A student. I hated them from the very moment I laid my eyes on them—which unfortunately happened to be the game's opening scene—and every single one of their interventions made me roll my eyes and grind my teeth. I criticized the transparent rival and bunch of useless sticky kids in X, but Bianca and Cheren are a million times more unbearable. Give me over-excited Barry back, please!

Well, that's enough ranting for today. I think I gave Black a vigorous grilling already, so I'll spare you the minute details such as the lack of HM-restricted areas, the extreme pixelisation of 'Mons during fights or the fact that my trainer is sticking out his tush like he's twerking every time he throws a Pokeball. But fear not: there is no Pokemon disaffection on the horizon. I liked Black despite its flaws, and I will certainly pick up Pokemon White sooner or later, as well as White 2 and Black 2. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Pokemon Black: The Liepard Solo Run

My Pokemon itch awoke lately and begged to be scratched, and I was more than happy to comply. My gaming instinct elected Pokemon Black as the entry that should be played, and it was not long before I stuffed the cartridge in my DSi and created a brand-new save with a male Trainer that I fittingly named Noir. (For the record, my plan is to pick up the female trainer when I play Pokemon White and call her Blanche. Such a perfect set-up!)

I decided right away to indulge in yet another Solo Run, since this is by far my favourite way of playing Pokemon games. The Nuzlocke Challenge can wait a trifle longer! However, my enthusiam was seriously doused by the discovery of the starters, whose bizarre looks didn't please my retinas in the slightest. I finally chose Oshawott, with the secret intention of ditching him as soon as I encountered a more gracious 'Mon. I didn't have to wait long for that fateful encounter: as soon as I set foot on Route 2, I got entangled in a fight with an adorable Purrloin in the tall grass, and there was no turning back. I knew right away that this purple cat would be my One and Only and that we would cruise together all the way to the summits of the Elite Four. Or not—but more on that very soon.

The first two Gyms were quite a pain, I have to admit. My Purrloin—affectionately renamed Purry—had only crappy Normal moves at her disposal and struggled in battles, and I needed to grind a fair bit to be able to conquer both Gyms—so much so that I started fearing that maybe that lovely purple feline was not a 'Mon fit for a solo run. Fortunately, the obtention of the  powerful Dark move Pursuit at Lv.15 made things considerably smoother and I started gaining the upper hand in fights, slowly but surely.

Eighteen hours and a glorious evolution in Liepard later, I can pretty much one-shot every 'Mon crossing my path, and as usual, it feels amazing. I only had a bit of trouble with Elite Four Trainer Marshal, whose Fighting 'Mons knocked my Purry out more than once; but this unexpected struggle made things all the more thrilling. Then came the fight with Reshiram, which was over so fast that I nearly felt sorry for this poor Legendary. I'm always reluctant to capture these noble beasts, and I wish the games would stop forcing me to do so. It feels so annoyingly trivial and disrespectful to capture these unique 'Mons that are nearly akin to deities, and I cannot help but release them as soon as I can—and Reshiram was no exception. And since I'm mentioning this whole subject, I encountered later a Tornadus on Route 12, which I neatly pummeled into oblivion without being aware that this was a Legendary. I would still have pummeled it into oblivion if I had been aware of its nature, mind you; but I would have done so with more reverence.

I am still stationed on Route 12 to this day, and I don't think I will go any further, despite the fact that I technically didn't beat the Elite Four and the Champion. This untimely desertion is solely to blame on the game itself, which had the audacity to force me to fight the Elite Four twice. Such insolence! Infortunately, the first confrontation with the Elite Four was followed by the end of the main story and by the credits, which triggered the usual vertiginous drop in my drive that always prevents me from clearing postgames. Plus, in my mind, I have already beaten the Elite Four as well as an ersatz Champion, so there is basically no need to repeat the whole process. And that's why I've decided to put an end to my glorious Purrloin solo run despite the fact that some towns still stand unexplored and that I've not been crowned Champion yet.

I'm quite glad that I could at long last indulge in a feline Pokemon solo run, for such a run has been a dream of mine ever since I discovered the existence of cat-like 'Mons. The only issue is that my Pokemon itch has not been scratched vigorously enough for my taste, which means that I need to play another Pokemon game right away. I'm not too sure yet which version I will elect, but there will definitely be another Pokemon solo run on the heels of my Purrloin one. See you soon for more Pokemon solo action, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Bits and Tidbits: First edition

As you may have guessed already, dear fellow gamers, this is a feature about recent gaming news that clicked with me yet are too minor to deserve a full post. It's still unclear whether this will be an isolated occurrence or a recurring feature—only time and my writing instinct will tell. Without further ado, here are the juicy gaming tidbits that sparked my interest of late!

Tidbit#1: Ray Gigant will not have a physical release in the West. To say that I'm disappointed by this turn of events is pretty much an understatement. A slew of Vita first-person dungeon crawlers were granted a physical release on our shores in the last two years, so why not this one? Fortunately, I still have the option of purchasing the Japanese physical version and will very likely do just that sooner or later.

Tidbit#2: Stranger of Sword City is going to be granted a limited special edition in North-America. I learnt this after I preordered my own copy, and having missed a special edition of a much-coveted game by just a couple of weeks should have made me absolutely crestfallen; however, much to my surprise, I didn't even feel a pang of regret. The truth is that I didn't care about the existence of this special edition one bit, and the though of purchasing it on top of my normal edition didn't even cross my mind. Heck, I'm not sure I would have deigned to get my paws on it even if I had not preordered the normal edition! That just shows how deeply I'm burnt out on special editions after my recent discomfitures in that field.

Tidbit#3: ClaDun Sengoku is going to be released in Japan on the 26th of may. As an avid retro gamer who already owns the first two instalments, I am highly interested by this release and pondering a purcharse—all the more so as if the game is localized, it will probably be under the digital format like its two predecessors.

Tidbit#4: After a good four months of delay, the physical limited edition of Summon Night 5 is finally available... to everyone's utter indifference, it seems. The little interest there was in this edition was killed by the delays and the december release of the digital version of the game, and the only gamers elated about this long-awaited release are probably the ones who preordered it months ago. I'm one of them, and my limited physical edition is on its way to my precious collection as I'm typing these lines. Better late than never! (En passant, I'm quite relieved that there was no shortage à la Nintendo and that my preorder could be fulfilled. Kudos to Play-Asia for their great stock management!)

Tidbit#5: Since I'm mentioning Summon Night 5, it's worth noting that there are currently no news at all regarding Class of Heroes 3, the other Gajinworks PSP RPG that was slated for a late physical and digital release in the West. It's unclear whether the project has been purely ditched or whether the Gajinworks team is working on it silently, and only time will tell. Given the quiet and delayed release of Summon Night 5, I would wager that the project is not abandoned but will come to fruition with a lot of delay.

That's it for my juicy gaming tidbits of the moment, fellow gamers. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Just the once will not hurt: Summon Night 5 Giveaway

I tend to dislike the very idea of giveaways, which I assimilate to easy clickbaits, and would never have dreamt of organizing one on my very own blog. And yes, this unlikely moment has come to pass, and I'm now offering a digital code for Summon Night 5 to whoever wants to get their paws on it.

I got that code along my limited physical edition of Summon Night 5, and said code is virtually useless to me since I own the physical version of the game. So instead of letting that code unused, which is what is bound to happen if it stays in my hands, I'd rather let someone get it and enjoy the game.

Beware: this code can only be used on the North-American version of the PSN.

The rules are pretty simple: first come, first served. The first person who comments this post to say they want the code will get it. I'm pretty aware that a north-american download code for a PSP RPG lifted from a confidential series is bound to interest but an excruciatingly small number of people, and I don't fancy waiting weeks to get a good batch of comments before performing a draw. I only ask for one thing: tell me in your comment which is your favourite gaming system of all time and why. Just because. I love hearing gaming stories, you know.

Without further ado, the code is yours to take, fellow gamer! Be quick to comment!

Edit: You're welcome to comment and tell me about your favourite gaming system even if you don't want the code. I love reading gaming stories, I do! The code is still here for the taking, by the way. :)


Gaming Boxes: Not quite convinced

A gaming box this is. NOT.
Gaming boxes are the latest incarnation of the subscription box concept. This 3D, goodie-based version of the good old subscription to a magazine or a newspaper started quite modestly a couple of years ago in the cosmetic field, with inspired start-ups offering so-called "beauty boxes" loaded with all sorts of cosmetic items. What could have been a short-lived gimmick proved successful and other business sectors quickly appropriated the concept, leading to a plethora of subscription boxes covering all potential hobbies and interests. I succumbed myself to the lure of boxes by subscribing lately to the Tokyo Treat Box, which centers on Japanese snacks and can nicely feed my never-ending obsession with food.

As I was marveling at the current variety of available subscription boxes, a question suddenly popped up in my mind: could there be boxes centered on gaming? An online search was prompt to reveal that such boxes were indeed available on the internet, ready for the subscribing, and I was not far from leaping with joy; however, a deeper examination revealed that these boxes didn't exactly fit my idea of what a gaming-centered box should have been.

It's interesting to note that gaming boxes are called "crates" instead of "boxes", a semantic change that was probably motivated by a desire to distance gaming boxes from their beauty-oriented ancestors and to add a dose of virility to the concept. That's all well and nice, and I'm pretty sure that such a designation will conjure up fantasies of Nathan Drake looting crates in the middle of the jungle in the mind of many a potential buyer, but what matters is the content. And the content is, well... not exactly what I would have expected from something called a "gaming box". Or crate.

This is the biggest paradox here: these so-called gaming boxes only have the most tenuous link with gaming per se. Upon careful inspection, all of them offer a wide array of various goodies that are not necessarily related to gaming, but rather to a wider geek/nerd/pop culture that is a potpourri of movies, comics, TV shows, books—and occasionally games—and that the average gamer is supposed to know, love and subscribe to—quite literally in that case. The range of goodies offered is leniently large, going from figurines to tee-shirts to mugs to absolutely any item that can be adorned with the logo of a franchise. That universal recipe is then refined with the inclusion of a special touch specific to each box provider, i.e. some unique goodies whose link with gaming is even more impossibly tenuous: candies or manly snacks such as beef jerky and energy drinks, to name only a few.

I could digress endlessly on the laughable cliché quality of these boxes, whose curators seem to be unable to imagine a gamer who hates comics, doesn't own a TV and loves nothing more than to sip a good cup of Earl Grey whilst playing games or writing blog posts (a faithful description of yours truly), or on their no less cliché definition of geek/nerd/pop culture, which casts the net far and wide to haul in more potential subscribers. But I will limit my commentary to the biggest bone of contention here: these so-called gaming boxes do NOT revolve around gaming. The items they offer may be well-crafted collectibles for all I know, but they are only marginally tied to gaming—that is, when they are tied to gaming at all. This nearly qualifies as false advertising, or at least as an unfulfilled thematic premise—and promise: these boxes should be renamed "nerd boxes" or "pop culture boxes" to be true to their contents.

Of course, I fully understand that the creation of a genuine "gaming box" solely centered on gaming would be pretty much impossible. Such a box would have to contain full-blown games and/or gaming merchandise such as figurines, pouches and the like, all things that are either too expensive, too niche or sold only in Japan. I could imagine a Japanese firm creating a gaming box revolving around famous videogame franchises and consoles and stuffing each box with related goodies, but would the appeal of such a box be wide enough to guarantee its perennity? If the filling choices of all the existing "gaming boxes" is any indication, the answer is probably negative. Oh, well.

There has thus been no subscription to a gaming box for me, and I will have to make do with my Japanese snacks from Tokyo Treat as my sole box subscription. (Which I highly recommend if you're a Japanese food and/or snack aficionado, en passant.) Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Bravely Default: The end of the road

After 55 hours of grinding, killing bosses and generally doing the same things over and over, I am finally done with Bravely Default. These 55 hours left me deeply sated and happy, with my old-school grindy RPG itch profusely scratched—heck, lacerated would be closer to the truth.

I only have praise in store for Bravely Default's gameplay. It blended the harshness and bareness of old-school RPGs with the customizable quality and user-friendliness of modern RPGs, and the result was a pure work of love that offered the better of two worlds and deeply delighted me. I loved Bravely Default from beginning to end and didn't feel a shred of boredom during my playthrough, even when the game forced me to go through its infamous loops during its second half.

I also only have praise in store for Bravely Default's soft-hued hand-drawn art style, which is exactly the kind of stylization I want to encounter in video games. Not the soft-hued hand-drawn look per se, mind you; but rather a very distinctive art style that doesn't try to imitate reality. The character's designs were also quite unique and instantly recognizable, cute without being sickeningly kawaii. I was particularly fond of Agnès' round hips and small bosom à la Iggy Azalea; such a figure is quite uncommon in the modern videogame landscape, where thin and long legs and enormous breasts reign supreme, and it was quite refreshing to encounter a character that strayed away from these over-used templates.

I only have two minor gripes with Bravely Default's deeply satisfying gameplay. The first one is the overabundance of Jobs, which was thrilling in the early stages yet became counter-productive on the long run. The main issue is actually not the large number of Jobs available per se, but rather the fact that many of these Jobs are too specialized for their own good—and for the player's one. It's pretty obvious that a good third of them have been designed to be used primarily as main Jobs, such as the classic White and Black Mages, Knight, Monk and so on, whilst the remaining two thirds have been designed as side dishes that benefit mostly as secondary Jobs. These "side dish" Jobs offer little goodness apart from a couple of specific Abilities and/or Skills and often come along miserable stats, which makes them unfit as main Jobs; to make matters worse, they are often unfit as secondary Jobs as well because they are too excruciatingly specialized. I firmly think that the number of Jobs available should not have exceeded 14-16 and that some pairs of secondary Jobs should have been fused together, such as Thief/Merchant, Spell Fencer/Time Mage, Performer/Pirate, Arcanist/Spiritmaster and Conjurer/Vampire. Some Jobs should not even have been implemented, such as Red Mage and Salve-Maker: the Red Mage is but a remnant of the first Final Fantasy entries and the Salve-Maker is a crappier version of the White Mage who's laughingly useless in battle and whose sole redeeming quality is its cute dedicated outfit. A more trimmed version of the Job system would have spared me the trouble of job-grinding for hours only to discover that a good portion of the Jobs were virtually useless except against very specific enemies.

My second gripe is the final boss fight, which I deem an absolute disaster. This final showdown that should have been a summit of epicness was stuffed with an uncanny number of scripted scenes that completely destroyed the tension and diluted the intensity of the whole event beyond repair. The final boss fight should be a fierce head-to-head, a moment when the player is alone with the game without any safety net and can see for themselves at last if their patient grinding is paying off. Such a moment of intense intimacy with the game shouldn't be interrupted by interventions of secondary characters, by annoyingly long scripted scenes, and certainly not by supplications uttered by party members. I mean, supplications in a boss fight? Are you kidding me? We are here to wipe the floor with that boss, not beg him to spare us! All in all, the number of interruptions was so high that I was left yawning by the end of the fight, spamming the same attacks without really caring about winning or not. Had I lost, I would have gone straight to Youtube to watch a video of the ending and wouldn't have given that fight a second try. That's how little I cared about what should have been the game's climax. And that's all your fault, Square Enix, for stuffing cutscenes where they didn't belong. Shame on you.

Still, there's no denying that I loved Bravely Default through and through and would wholeheartedly recommend it to old-timers and to gamers who love their grinding on the heavy side. I'm quite enthusiastic about the sequel, which I will play as soon as my old-school grindy RPG itch needs to be scratched again. Until then, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Return to Popolocrois: A case of graphical downgrade

In my last post about the increase of oversimplism in 3DS RPGs and simulation games, I forgot to mention that the involved games also treaded on simplistic territory regarding graphics. As an old-timer who genuinely favours retro gaming, I usually won't blame a game for sporting basic graphics; however, the games belonging to that oversimplistic wave deserve some serious bashing. They do because their graphical simplicity is not born from technical limitations like back in the days, but rather from sheer laziness posing as kid-friendliness. Return to Popolocrois, the newly released crossover between Popolocrois and Story of Seasons, is perhaps the worst offender of the bunch and deserves a serious spanking; for not only are this game's graphics shamefully simplistic, but they also represent a criminal downgrade compared to the ones offered by Popolocrois' previous instalments.

RTP takes place in the world introduced by the previous Popolocrois entries; however, said world has been considerably pruned when migrating from the PSP to the 3DS. Pictures are worth a thousand words:

The village school in the PSP entry

The exact same village school in RTP

The loss of graphical flourish is painfully obvious. Where are the trees? Why are the roof tiles so much bigger? Why is the general design so much more basic? The same goes for the fighting display, whose 3DS version removes all scenery elements for no good reason:

Fighting on a path in front of the town's entrance

Fighting on... er, a golf course?

It's also worth noting that everything has been made bigger in RTP in order to fill up the screen and spare the developers from having to design scenery elements. Concurrently, the overall level of detail has been sharply reduced:

Cobblestones. Roof tiles. Bricks. DETAILS!

All gone. Also, the number of houses in the village has
been divided by three.

Who-oo, I can count leaves and grass blades!

Jeez, undergrowth and foliage are SO overrated.

The fact that the world of Popolocrois had to endure such a graphical downgrade between the PSP entry and the 3DS one is already disappointing enough, but it becomes simply unacceptable when one considers that the oldest entry is more polished than the newest one. I'm not in favour of graphical upgrades from one console generation to the next just for the sake of it, but neither do I fancy the opposite. And no, the fact that RTP may or may not be have been designed with kids in mind is by no means an excuse for such a blatant graphical downgrade: I'm pretty sure that even very young kids can handle abundant foliage and intricate house design, not to mention groves boasting more than five trees and towns hosting more than five houses. This is just laziness, plain and simple.

This graphical downgrade saddens me. I played and loved the PSP version of Popolocrois and delighted in its lovely atmosphere and instantly recognizable graphical style—all things I hoped to encounter again in Return to Popolocrois. Alas, a return to Popolocrois this is not—but an exercise in laziness very much indeed. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Oversimplistic much?

Something is rotten in the state of 3DS RPGs and simulation games.

RPGs and simulation games have always been deemed the deepest genres as far as console gaming is concerned. Games belonging to these two genres usually offered a significantly more complex gameplay than other genres flourishing on consoles, and the player picking up such complex games could expect long playthroughs involving considerably more planning and organizing than in, say, your random Sonic or Mario entry. Such games were designed with teenagers or young adults in mind; roaming a fantasy world or pretending to be a farmer was a serious business that required a modicum of maturity, and if kids occasionally dabbled in RPGs or simulation games, they would more often than not find themselves overwhelmed by the complexity of the tasks required by such games. Even a kid-friendly franchise like Pokemon packs a lot of complexity behind its apparent simplicity; case in point, you won't see that many kids hanging around in Pokemon World Championships.

However, that delicious complexity of RPG and simulation games, which seemed to be inherent to these two genres and pretty much written in their DNA, has been under attack for the past five years. The battlefield is none other than the 3DS game library, much to my chagrin—I don't want to lambaste Nintendo yet again, especially since I had tons of fun with my 3DS lately; but the facts are undeniable. The 3DS is home to a number of RPGs and simulation games that ditched complexity and depth without a second thought to wallow in much more simple gameplay styles.

My first encounter with a game belonging to that new species was when I played Hometown Story two years ago. There was not much to do in that game, and the few tasks available were pretty basic; but it had a nice atmospheric quality that made me love it despite the bareness of the gameplay. I thought it was a nice experiment whose relaxing pace contrasted pleasantly with the hectic schedule promoted by most simulation games. Little did I know that this innocent game was the harbinger of a whole new trend that would hail extreme simplicity as its one and only guideline.

Hot on Hometown Story's heels came Fantasy Life, Moco Moco Friends, Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Return to Popolocrois—to name only the ones I've played; I'm pretty sure there are others like them lurking in the 3DS library. These games have one thing in common: they cross the thin line between simplicity and simplism. Instead of offering streamlined gameplays following the "easy to learn, hard to master" motto that infuses successful Nintendo RPG franchises such as Zelda and Pokemon, these games are merely content to propose a handful of basic tasks to accomplish in a rudimentary game world. Another most striking characteristic of these games is that they feel like they have been designed solely for kids. Not just kids, mind you: very young kids. Like, 5 or 6 years old at most. This is the first time ever in my gaming life that I've encountered RPGs and simulation games that look and play like genuine developmental toys. And just like any other developmental toy, they are too far below an adult's cognitive abilities to genuinely entertain said adult. Sure, they can be played, and they can even be enjoyable to some extent; but boy, do they make you feel like you're stranded with your children or nephews' toys.

Although there has been some RPG series aimed first and foremost at kids prior to the emergence of these games, the idea of an RPG whose gameplay is designed with very young kids in mind is a brand-new concept—a concept that makes little sense from a business point of view. There is a sheer and stark difference between a game that sports a kiddy vibe yet offers a potentially deep and complex gameplay that can be enjoyed by all—such as the main Pokemon entries—and a game that sports a kiddy vibe and offers a simplistic gameplay on par with a kid's abilities. The first will appeal to everyone, the second only to kids; no need to rack one's brain to point out which option is the soundest from a business point of view.

Now, one could obviously retort that each audience deserves games tailored for them and that the widening of the videogame spectrum should be celebrated rather than criticised; and I would fully agree with such statements, if not for the fact that the release of these kid-oriented games takes place in a wider trend of oversimplification of gaming. I cannot celebrate the fact that gaming is getting more simplistic, more hand-holdy, more directive and ultimely less interactive by the console generation and that complex and demanding games are slowly but surely becoming the exception rather than the ideal developers strive towards. RPGs and simulation games used to be the last bastion of complexity and depth, the last haven for console gamers craving multi-layered gameplays and long playthroughs; and if these two genres are now infected by the simplism that currently prevails in many other gaming genres, then I fear that it's only a matter on time before we see RPGs on rails and simulation games made only of QTE. Maybe they already exist on home consoles, for all I know.

Well, there's no stopping gaming "progress", I guess. Maybe I shouldn't worry so much; exigent RPGs and simulation games will very likely endure, if only as a niche genre. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Play in progress: Still going strong (or not)

As far as Bravely Default is concerned, I'm definitely still going strong, with 50 hours of play under my belt and the 7th chapter nearly wrapped up. If my calculations are right, I still have a round of bosses to wipe out and crystals to reawaken before being granted the right to face the final boss and witness the ending, and I'm going to use that last opportunity to prepare myself for the final showdown to the fullest. I yet again tinkered with my party's Jobs since my last post. Edea is still a Templar, but her secondary Job command is now Sword Fencer instead of Valkyrie. This means that she doesn't have a group attack anymore; but since I'm pretty much relying solely on her Desperation skill in battle, the Sword Fencer abilities are a much better complement to her Templar fixed Job command than the Valkyrie ones. I made Tiz a permanent Ranger, because this allowed him to wield a bow that is considerably more powerful than the array of knuckles I currently own. I'm planning to change this soon though, because his defence is painfully weak—not to mention that he looks ridiculous in this furry outfit. I will thus shift him back to Monk and give him the Bow Lore support ability so he can keep on wielding that formidable bow and use the Ranger Skills to great effect. No changes for Agnès, but Ringabel's secondary Job command is now Conjurer instead of Vampire. And talking about Conjurer, this ultimate Job seems tailor-made for epic boss fights, with its MP-replenishing Abilities and buff Skills—all things I'm going to use cleverly in the fights to come. In a nutshell, I'm still sailing smoothly in this ocean of grinding and enjoying the trip just as much as when I first set sail.

On the other hand, I've pretty much deserted New Leaf. I didn't touch it since my last post and even went as far as to put the cartridge back in its box, which is an ominous sign that my love story with that game may be truly over. Still, I can't deny that I had a lot of fun playing New Leaf; and should I never touch it again, it will go down in my gaming history as a sweet and light-hearted experience.

Regarding gaming news, I lately spotted a couple of interesting titles slated for release in Japan in the months to come. The first one is Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, which comes in a nice premium box with an stupendous art book. Although my fingers were itching to order the thing, I remembered my underwhelming experience with the special edition of Summon Night 6 and decided to wait for the inevitable Western release of Ys VIII, which will very likely include a similar special edition if Nihon Falcom's track record regarding localizations is any indication. Then comes Genkai Tokki Seven Pirates, the latest release in Compile Heart's Genkai series and yet another monument of fan-service. Although I was not overly impressed by Moe Chronicles, I still loved it enough to make me want to play other games from the series. Also on my list are Kangokuto Mary Skelter, described as an "active dungeon RPG"—whatever that is supposed to mean—and Caligula, which has some of the best art I've seen in a while. I'm also curious about The Asterisk War, which seems to be the new Sword Art Online and whose extra-bright colours alone make me want to try it. Of course, it's still unsure whether any of these games save Ys VIII will reach European shores, but it doesn't matter to me as much as it used to: for, lo, and behold, I recently dove back into my long-forsaken Japanese studies. Being able to play Japanese games is thus no longer a distant dream but rather a work in progress, and it feels amazingly good.

That's it for the latest news, dear fellow gamers. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Adrift on the gaming sea

Let's face it: most of my gaming life has been an exercise in frustration.

My first console was a Gameboy, followed a couple of years later by a Game Gear. Being a portable gamer with a tiny budget in a small European town in the early '90s was like heaven and hell rolled together with a ribbon on top. For every precious game I managed to get my paws on, there were five games that passed me by, either because my funds were insufficient or because the local shops didn't stock them. But every game I did manage to grab was a pure slice of happiness and a purveyor of many excellent hours of gaming; so I pushed through the frustration of not being able to purchase all the games I wanted, pretty confident that adulthood and its corollary increased purchasing power would soon allow me to make all my gaming wishlists come true.

Alas, that dream scenario did not come to pass—at least not when I expected it. When I finally took my first steps into the marvelous realm of adulthood and increased budget, the gaming industry had veered toward 3D and was wallowing in blocky polygons and shitty shades of brown. This was a nasty blow to my gaming tastes, which favoured cute sprites and vivid colours; and although I did try my hands at these new gaming trends, they never clicked with me and I never managed to extract the slightest shred of pleasure from the 3D games of that time. The effect on my gaming morale was devastating: just when I was finally able to purchase as many games as I wished, there were no more games to purchase because the whole industry had gone in a direction that I loathed. I tried to compensate by purchasing a Megadrive, but the damage was done: my trust in gaming was broken, and the lack of new Megadrive releases achieved to drive me away from that hobby that had betrayed my expectations. I invested my new adulthood funds in manga and anime and gaming took a back seat, going from my greatest passion to something I would dabble in once in a blue moon. (Or rather once a year: summer was usually the time when I would pick up a controller and do a rerun of oldies, first on my original systems and later on my PC through emulation.)

By the mid-noughties, gaming had fallen so far off my radar that the idea of purchasing brand-new gaming systems was unthinkable. I assumed that purchasing consoles and games was a thing of my past and that my gaming present and future were in emulation and occasional bouts of gaming, and I was so sure of it that I virtually stopped following the industry's evolutions for a couple of years. But as the noughties were drawing to a close, lo and behold, my interest in new consoles was piqued again. I don't remember exactly how and why this happened; but one thing leading to another, I finally decided to invest in the Nintendo DS—and the rest is history.

Since that fateful moment, I've been immersed in gaming like never before. I bought tons of games to (over)compensate for all my years away from gaming and I luxuriated in this newfound and long-awaited gaming abundance. I still do so nowadays, and I relish every minute of it. This is the first time in my gaming life that the frustration that has followed me ever since I first lay my thumb on a D-pad is totally absent. And boy, does this feel amazing.

However, my bright gaming skies have darkened ever-so-slightly of late. The reason for this change of weather is none other than the recent announcements—or lack thereof—regarding the new generation of portable systems. Nothing I've heard so far about the elusive NX makes me excited about it, and Sony's complete silence about a possible successor to the Vita makes me fear that there will be no such successor. I'm thus facing the very real possibility of finding myself once again at odds with the hot gaming trends, stranded with no new console to invest in; and after six years of absolute gaming bliss, I cannot say that I'm elated at such a prospect.

However, should I have to face a second gaming exile, I'm much better prepared for it than the first time around. I still have a impossibly long backlog to clear, as well as boxed games that are not going anywhere and will be there for the replaying in the years to come. But most importantly, I now have the certainty, born from experience, that gaming goes through phases and fashions; and if tomorrow's hot gaming trend is not my cup of tea, then maybe the next one will be—or the one after that. In a nutshell, although most of my gaming life has been rife with frustrations—from not being able to purchase coveted games to not liking the gaming fashion of the moment—the last years have been a distinct departure from this whole pattern of gaming unaccomplishment, and I firmly intend to keep basking in that newfound gaming bliss. Whether or not I invest in the next console generation, my gaming career will endure; now that I've clawed my way back into gaming at long last, I'm not leaving any time soon. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Bravely Default: A rush of bosses to the head (spoilers!)

Well, I didn't expect that. So you wanna play it that way, game? Well, bring it on; I'm game!

Crappy puns aside, I actually did expect the (in)famous plot twist that takes place at the beginning of the fifth chapter. Since I'm too curious for my own good and tend to routinely ignore spoiler alerts, I've known for quite some time that Bravely Default forces the player to replay the main quest four times in a row before finally gracing them with a much-deserved ending. And to be honest, I'm quite glad I knew about that particular structure beforehand, because it allowed me to brace myself for it and get used to the idea. I'm not sure I would have taken these forced reiterated loops so good-naturedly if I had been totally ignorant about the matter—how knows, that may even have compelled me to give up on the game entirely.

Although I fully expected these forced loops, I didn't expect them to take the particular form of a boss rush; that, for me, was the real surprise rolled up in chapter 5. I quickly overcame my surprise to rejoice at the prospect of playing that fifth chapter and the ones following, because I happen to love boss rushes. And thus I enthusiastically threw myself into the deed, determined to purge these boss pests from the world map as many times as necessary.

This actually feels like a refreshing new start after the trudge I endured in chapter 4. The Eternia arc was a major pain that packed up annoying enemies, a claustrophobic and hard to navigate landscape and a smaller number of exciting Job sidequests than the other arcs. Level-grinding was made tedious by the narrow areas and the resistant foes; and although I managed to raise all my party members' Jobs to Lv. 9 before heading for the Pillar of Light, the task was far from being a walk in the park. Fortunately, this is all over now, and I have the whole world map and dozens of boss fights to level-grind senselessly. Joy and delight! It goes without saying that I'm firmly planning to take down every single boss available, including the complimentary ones related to Job sidequests. I have no idea if this is mandatory and/or if I will reap benefits from it, but a boss rush is a boss rush and I want to leave no stone unturned and no boss unbeaten.

Plot twist aside, I'm progressing smoothly and enjoying my run to the fullest. I now have 40 hours of play under my belt and my party members boast a hefty Lv. 70—blame this on the mountain of level-grinding I undertook to raise their Jobs. And talking about Jobs, I've done a bit of reorganizing in the matter: Tiz, Agnès and Ringabel are still Monk, White Mage and Black Mage respectively, but Edea is now a Templar, which is basically a stronger version of the Knight. Their current secondary Job Command are Acrobatics for Edea, Hunting for Tiz, Summoning for Agnès and Vampirism for Ringabel, and the combination of these secondary commands with their fixed Job Commands is quite stellar indeed. I also attributed the "Absorb P. damage" Support Ability from the Vampire Job to everyone and it's working miracles in battles—recovering HP when party members endure blows, what more could an RPG player ask for? Lovingly creating my ultimate specialized party through level-grinding and ability-combining is as fun as ever, and I can only hope that the ultimate Job to unearth will bring even more amazing skills.

With that, dear fellow gamers, I'll see you in a couple of boss rushes. Brace yourself, you foul bosses, here I come! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Animal Crossing-New Leaf: Day 27

After nearly a month on a steady diet of New Leaf, the cracks are beginning to show.

I was truly delighted by the cherry blossom event, which I celebrated by wolfing down a bowl of real-life udon along with an unholy number of sakura-flavoured daifuku mochis and manju cakes; but after witnessing the blooming of these lovely pink blossoms, my interest for the game dropped dramatically. I had been impatiently waiting for that event for a couple of weeks; and now that it is finally there, I have nothing left to look forward to in the immediate future.

It certainly doesn't help that I've had a truly hard time finding something gripping to do during my daily play sessions for the last days. I didn't give up on my project to create the ultimate peach orchard, but I'm now questioning the whole purpose of that project. What will I do with these mountains of peaches? Sure, they look pretty and they sell better than the local cherry, but what will I do with the money? After having built two bridges, a fence and a fountain, I'm done with all the public work projects that interested me, and my house is already enormous with its two stories, so I'm not especially looking forward to expanding it again. New pieces of furniture appear very seldom in the local shops, so I can't even indulge in a home decoration spree. My fellow villagers are still fun and quirky, but their babbling is not enough to hold my attention. In a nutshell, I'm bored, and dangerously close to giving up on New Leaf entirely.

I guess this untimely boredom is partly related to the way I play New Leaf. I deprived myself from two of the greatest incentives to play that game, i.e. the collecting of insects/works of art/fossils through the Museum and the internet feature that allows players to go social and visit other players' towns. Of course, there was no way I could have proceeded otherwise, since I'm neither a completionist nor a social gamer—which leads me to the conclusion that this game may simply not be the right one for me. Let's face it, there is little in New Leaf that is bound to glue me to my 3DS screen once the thrill of the early stages has evaporated.

Don't get me wrong: I totally understand the game's philosophy, and I can even claim that I subscribe to said philosophy. The idea of a game that offers an atmospheric experience in a tiny sandbox game world and treats the player to a daily dose of unexpected little events is an alluring one, and one that is bound to attract me on paper; unfortunately, the translation of this concept in New Leaf doesn't quite satisfy me. There is simply not enough happening on a daily basis to keep me hooked, and the absence of any goal to pursue makes matters worse. New Leaf emulates the real-life feeling of waking up in the morning and wondering what the day will bring—only in a pint-sized world that's considerably less exciting than the real one. If I want to be surprised on a daily basis by unexpected little events, I simply have to get up and go on with my day; I don't need to open my 3DS and mill about in a teeny-tiny and oversimplistic game world. What I expect from a videogame is a goal to pursue and a game world that makes me travel and daydream, all things that are absent from New Leaf.

Of course, this may be just a phase; or it may be the surefire sign that I need to play New Leaf a little less frequently. What is certain is that I don't feel like playing the game right now, so I will leave it untouched for a few days and see how things evolve. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Fire Emblem Fates: A change of heart

"I'm definitely not going to purchase the special edition of Fire Emblem Fates."

This had been my resolve for a couple of weeks, ever since I learnt that there would indeed be a special edition of the trilogy. I was starting to feel seriously burnt out after having bought a slew of Specials in december and january, and the utter fiasco of the North-American launch of the special edition of Fates further convinced me to avoid the thing entirely. I didn't want to have to deal with shortages, scalpers and ridiculously high prices, and I made a resolution of purchasing Birthright and Conquest only and leave it at that.

However, I went through a volte-face a couple of days ago, when it suddenly dawned on me that this special edition of Fates was totally meeting my ultimate criterion for must-have Specials. This criterion is none other than the inclusion of something that is bound to enhance the gameplay and/or add to it, and the special edition of Fates perfectly fits the bill by adding a third game to the initial pair. And since this special edition is also the only planned physical release of said third game Revelations, it would also fully serve the perennity purpose that is so primordial in my collecting.

Although I fully saw the wisdom of getting my paws on a special edition of Fates after I experienced that 180, I still felt a modicum of reluctance at the thought of jumping on my keyboard and making a purchase right away. I envisioned the bank account-wrenching prices, the struggle to find an online seller that stocked the thing, and I felt a pang of resentment and anger towards Nintendo for yet again blundering the release of a special edition and making things so hard for collectors. Did they really deserve my money, when they so obviously failed to listen to their customers and meet the demand for that special edition of Fates? After grudgingly mulling over the issue for a little while, I realized that what Nintendo deserved or not was of no interest in that context. What mattered was what I deserved; and as a devoted collector, I fully deserved a copy of that special edition of Fates.

With that, my decision was made. I connected to Play-Asia and looked for the now coveted special edition; and lo and behold, they offered the Australian version for $120. This made me stall a trifle, as I was getting tired of forking out huge amounts for Specials. However, a quick calculation revealed that this was actually a fair price, since it amounted to the price of the European versions of the three games bought separately; and considering that the special edition also included feelies, this was really not too far from being a bargain. I still hesitated a little though, and thought about giving myself an extra day to ponder the matter; however, I finally decided against it and purchased Fates on the same day.

This was a most inspired decision, because a mere 24 hours later, that much-coveted special edition was out of stock. Just one day later, folks! I cannot believe how incredibly lucky I was to manage to snatch a copy before it was too late, and I will certainly enjoy my special edition of Fates with a lot of gratitude. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!