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            Can you handle it?
by Ethos

JRPG Relapse: The Conclusion

Monday, January 25th, 2010

JRPGs are what got me addicted to gaming. When I first discovered them all those years ago, it was like a match made in heaven; for years after my gaming agenda remained almost entirely focused on Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Xenosaga, and the like.

My, how times have changed. In the last year, I’ve played and finished one JRPG – Persona 4. It’s no secret that the genre is dying; in fact, the genre as we know it is essentially dead already. JRPGs haven’t evolved with the industry, and because of that, there really isn’t a market for them in today’s gaming landscape.

As my faithful readers know, over the last week I sampled four different JRPGs from four different console generations. It was an interesting and enjoyable time, and it reminded me of why I used to love RPGs so much.

First and foremost, being a nerd, the copious amounts of dialog and story exposition games such as Final Fantasy VII had was a huge draw to me  – RPGs, it seemed, were the only games that could tell a decent story. I would become engrossed in the 40-hour epic tale of Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, or the cutscene-dominated space opera, Xenosaga.

But while that may have been the case ten years ago, things are different now – games such as BioShock and Uncharted are among the best storylines of this generation. Dead Space and Modern Warfare deserve some credit as well. There are a lot of games on the market with good stories these days – and none of them are JRPGS.

While I have a lot of love for Lost Odyssey, I have to concede that it’s built on incredibly dated mechanics. Random Encounters, turn-based combat and utterly unattractive gunmetal  menus should be a thing of the past at this point – at least on consoles.

I never thought I’d say a thing like that, but the fact is that you could never sell a game like Lost Odyssey to someone who didn’t have a pre-existing love for the genre. This being the case, the genre must find a way to evolve – or die.

BioWare’s two big RPGs of the generation, Mass Effect and Dragon Age Origins, are two prime examples of the natural evolution of the genre. There are no turn-based combat systems or random encounters to be found, but there are huge worlds to explore, a rich storyline to experience, and a vast amount of freedom to make decisions and alter the game.

Games such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3 have been far better received than, say The Last Remnant was. And to give Japan some credit, Demon’s Souls has been very successful from a critical standpoint if nothing else. The point is that gamers clearly want something different. Demon’s Souls and Mass Effect did things that no other role-playing experience had quite done before.

It will be interesting to see how Final Fantasy XIII fits into the RPG landscape of today upon its release. For years it’s been the undisputable king of the role-playing genre. But today? Well. Things are a little different today.

With that, we conclude this week of nostalgia, Ladies and Gentlemen. Mass Effect 2 Week is upon us. Enjoy the pretty banner on top for now, and stay tuned.

Ethos’ Relapse Part 4 – Blue Dragon

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Blue_Dragon_LogoNow Riddles said Lost Odyssey did a very good job of emulating a traditional old-school RPG on a modern console, but I don’t fully agree. The battle system is more involved and more focused on magic, the presentation is a little experimental, and there’s not an overworld in the same way there is in so many traditional RPGs.

In fact, I’d say – for all things better and worse – my pick fits the description a lot more. Blue Dragon is almost element for element an experience you could find on your SNES. The plot and mood is paper thin, combat – although it can include more involvement than, say, FF1 – is very straightforward and mostly menu-based. And the job system, while a complete blast, is really just a barely expanded version of what I just saw with FFV.

That being said, however, if I’m able to take the game at only gameplay value it really is top-notch. The battle system is one of the most enjoyable of its turn-based family, and the menus are – in my opinion – slick and attractive. The battles are thankfully not entirely random, and while the job system is nothing revolutionary, it goes back to to raw addictive nature of the job system in FFV and the ability system in FFIX. It is a RPG for not only the traditionalist, but for those traditionalists who only like the raw niche mechanics of a genre that doesn’t misuse the term “traditional”.

Like Riddles, this week has reminded me why I love the genre that got me to love gaming while at the same time making me realize why it is such a niche genre. The reasons I love to play a RPG just aren’t widely shared and so won’t be largely catered to. Still, I’m glad to have relapses like this to spark the love I still have for leveling up and money-hoarding. But for now, bring on Mass Effect 2, bitches!

Ethos’ Relapse Part 3 – Skies of Arcadia

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

SkiesOfArcadia_LogoI was going to play Dragon Quest VIII here, but since I had more recently relapsed into Skies and since I like it more and it’s just a little less traditional, I decided to go with it instead.

While Skies has a traditional turn-based system and the leveling up and magic is fairly straight-forward, the game succeeds in making it all a ridiculous amount of fun. This is also a product of JRPG conventions with random battles, a search for crystals, and an adventure that takes our heroes across desert, water, forest, and ice. Not really original stuff, no, but Skies of Arcadia isn’t all cut and paste.

It’s really interesting returning to games like this that were among the first RPGs I ever played to realize that some things have still rarely done better. As Riddles has mentioned, JRPGs rely on menus, and Skies – as strange as it is to say – has really great menus. They’re attractive, fast, intuitive, and make all the “admin” stuff of a RPG a lot of fun. But other than making the menus and battle system streamlined and enjoyable, Skies also throws some unique things into the mix. Overworlds are nothing new to the genre, but being able to fly around an expansive sky in a floating boat is something that just didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since. While most overworlds are boring and a welcome exclusion from newer RPGs, Skies actually makes it extremely fun to explore. The ships are a dream to control and the perfectly timed upgrades paired with discoveries make flying around the overworld a legitimate pastime. And just when you think gameplay is getting stale, the game gives you a new ship, a crew to control and customize, and a new strategy in battle tied to these new upgrades.

Still, 7 games into JRPG Relapse Week and the same themes seem to pop up, and they repeat the things people have been saying for years. Although I think this game is incredible, to enjoy it you have to be okay with random battles. You have to be okay with turn based battles systems, and you have to be okay with upgrading equipment and leveling up and navigating menus. It really seems to be a hefty condition list.

In any case, I’ve been enjoying this admittedly belated JRPG Relapse session, but there’s still one more to go!

Ethos’ Relapse Part 2 – Final Fantasy IX

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

ff9_logoLike Riddles, the first two games on my list are Final Fantasies. And like Riddles, the latter is a personal favourite. But I want to drop all the praise I give to FF9 for its story and characters and mood and music and focus on its truly JRPG qualities. One of the things I under-represent about my ability to replay this game over and over is its ability and leveling system.

The leveling system is about as basic as you can get. Final Fantasy IX was attempting to be a throwback and it absolutely was. You gain experience and level up causing HP/MP and crystal slot values to increase and every monster also gives out money for no reason. But all the appropriate information is there. The post battle screen is quick and informative and it doesn’t force you out of it, you can take your time looking at stats as long as you want without worry about the screen automatically moving on.

But I’m going into too much detail now. The system that I might love the most about IX, however, is the ability system. Each character can learn a wide variety of skills, and while some overlap, each have their own set that they can and can’t learn. These abilities are attached to equipment, but after gaining a certain number of Ability Points, the character learns the ability for good and can activate it at any time provided they have the right number of available crystal points. This system is such a prime example of why I love JRPGs. The characters have forced unique properties, but there is still so much choice. Would you rather equip a powerful new piece of armor, or stick it out with the weak one for a few dozen more battles to learn a helpful ability? Or maybe you’re absolutely fucking insane like me, and you’ll grind for hours to learn every single ability, even the shitty ones you’ll never use. The point is that it’s a system that rewards choice and reflects how much time you put into it.

Even slower with one character...

Even slower with one character...

However, coming from an emulator enhanced play session of FFV, it became screamingly obvious that Final Fantasy IX has the slowest battle system of all the Playstation-era games in the series. I enjoy the battle system, but waiting for your turn to attack is incredibly slow, and highlights the reason why it is called level-grinding. I personally love navigating menu systems, but Final Fantasy IX is certainly a victim of the “press attack until you win” form of grinding the vast majority of the time, and it does so in a slower manner than the two entries before it.

Therefore, I actually think Final Fantasy IX is the poster child for the very best and very worst aspects of JRPGs in general. Luckily, I always have the end goal in mind while playing these sorts of games, so the thought of learning a certain ability or being able to afford an item at the auction house makes the grinding a lot easier to me while it continues to absolutely baffle people like my roommate.

Anyway, while it was one of my first RPGs, I understand now how Final Fantasy IX was supposed to be a throwback to JRPGs of old. And, again strangely following in Riddles’ footsteps, my next RPG is one that breaks the mold a bit more than others, though perhaps not as much as Persona. It’s also one of my favourite games that I rarely mention on this site: Skies of Arcadia.

Ethos’ Relapse Part 1 – Final Fantasy V

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

final-fantasy-v-advanceWell apparently if you leave Riddles alone for a few days, he actually writes quite a bit!

Still, I won’t let my shitty internet situation this week leave me behind in my relapse. My gaming systems obviously still worked, so I was able to play the first two of the four, although not without issues of their own.

My SNES-generation JRPG was Final Fantasy V, as I mentioned in this week’s Scatter Storming. Although I have an old save file a few hours in, I decided to start from the beginning because I had no idea of context. So I stuck my PSX disc into my PS3 and started the game up. I went into the experience with the mindset that I’d be playing a game that was 17 years old, so I was expecting ghetto. So I suppose because my expectations were low, I was a little impressed. Everything seemed to take a lot longer than it should and it was no Final Fantasy VI in terms of presentation, but there were some choices that made me think that if I was playing the game for the first time almost two decades ago, I’d be very impressed.

Of course when I went to save over an hour in, the game crashed and I lost my save. So in a very rare move, I downloaded an emulator so I could speed through the beginning. Let me tell you, that speed up feature is addicting! But more about that in my next article when I had to play a JRPG without the ability to speed things up.

I still have a soft place for FFV. Like FFIX, it starts on a more lighthearted note after the opening scenes, and it tries to show more than just the melodramatic side to a character. Still, it’s far more shallow and much more sexist, and ultimately less satisfying for that. However, for a relatively old school 2D RPG, it always surprises me in that it’s more enticing than I remember. And that includes the job system. Like some of the other games in my Relapse, I love systems in which you level up abilities separate from your character’s main level and more importantly when you’re able to keep said abilities even after switching classes or equipment.

Final Fantasy V isn’t talked about much, but it is a charming little game that is quite a bit of fun and deeper than one might expect. But I’ve spent too much time on it, I’ve got to move onto Final Fantasy IX. Don’t worry, I’m going to attack it from a gameplay/comparison perspective, not entirely from a gushing fanboy perspective.


Sunday, January 24th, 2010

WOW, I better get a free month out of this. I’m sorry, when my internet went down, I thought it was bad when I assumed it would be for a few hours. Over FIFTY HOURS LATER, I have it back.

I am so sorry that you had to put up with Riddles and his “content”. I’ve got a Relapse of my own to tend to tomorrow. I’ve already worked on the playing, but now I have to work on the writing.

Anyway, here’s a picture of me when I found out I had internet again.

Oh, Snap: Not One, but TWO Mass Effect 2 Reviews Descend

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Mass Effect 2…and one of them is from IGN. That’s a bit out of left field. From what I understand, a review embargo is in effect until the day of release. I could have been wrong, I suppose… or, perhaps IGN gave it a high enough score to warrant permission to break the embargo. 9.6 is quite the honor. But then again, NowGamer gave it the even more prestigious 9.8.

So, according to these reviews at least, ‘twould seem that Mass Effect 2 claws on the doorstep of perfection. But why listen to me? Go read ‘em for yourself:

NowGamer’s Review

IGN’s Written Review

IGN’s Video Review (via YouTube)

Riddles’ Relapse Part 4 – Lost Odyssey

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Lost OdysseyAnd now we come to the current-gen iteration of my JRPG Relapse: Lost Odyssey. With names like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu behind it, the game must be something amazing, right? Well, it is… and yet… it’s not. I’ll explain.

Let me preface this rant by saying that I really do love Lost Odyssey. It’s the best console Japanese RPG of this generation (which really isn’t saying much, I know) and it has a some truly stirring moments that I’ll never forget. The game is very, very good at what it does: emulate a traditional old-school JRPG experience on a modern console.

However, therein lies the problem. Lost Odyssey is the same experience you had back in 1991 with Final Fantasy IV, decked out in 3D graphics on the Unreal engine. Everything from random encounters to cumbersome, unattractive menu systems. Everything annoyance short of blowing dust out of the cartridge is back, in pristine form.

Lost Odyssey begins with a long, flashy FMV sequence showing an incredible battle between two massive armies. The camera eventually cuts to the protagonist Kaim, and we watch as Kaim lays waste to  literally hundreds of men. It looks like something straight out of, say, Dynasty Warriors.

But then the game transitions to an actual battle, and we’re  back in 1991. It’s quite comical, really; or it was to me. The first thought that struck me was: “this would instantly turn away anyone who doesn’t already love JRPGs.”

In other words, there is no market for a game like Lost Odyssey in todays world, with the exception of us – the ones who’ve been fighting with menus for years or decades now.

And honestly, I doubt we comprise a large percentage of today’s videogame market. Sad but true.

But again, I like Lost Odyssey. I like it a lot, and here’s why: it does what it sets out to do very well. It’s an extremely solid RPG, and anyone with a pre-existing love for the genre – such as myself – will probably enjoy it. The story is fairly predictable, but it’s told well and has a strong cast of characters. The “1000 Years of Dreams” stories are a great as well. The game tries pretty hard to tear-jerk, and to its credit, it can succeed at times.

And it’s worth saying yet again: Nobuo Uematsu is a literal god amongst men. Lost Odyssey sounds very different from any previous work, and because of that, I consider it one of his best efforts to date. The theme music that plays as Kaim rides the into the city of Uhra for the first time is absolutely beautiful, and makes the scene itself unforgettable.

It’s also worth noting that Kaim really does look girly. I had forgotten. Or… didn’t notice the first time. Not sure.

It’s an interesting thing that the two most similar RPGs I played this week were the first and the last – Final Fantasy VI and Lost Odyssey.

It almost makes like this… y’know, statement or somethin’, y’know?

But I’m not really sure what it is, so I’ll just let it speak for itself. I plan to write more about Japanese RPGs before the week is over though. So don’t get too comfortable.

Hey, Wait a Minute…

Friday, January 22nd, 2010



Ethan? Ethan Pipher?


Johnny Pipes?


Where is that asshole?

Riddles’ Relapse Part 3 – Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

persona3artwork05_2The first two games in my aptly-titled JRPG relapse were both what you’d call “traditional” JRPGs. Final Fantasy VI is about as meat-and-potatoes as the genre gets, (not an insult by any means) and even Final Fantasy VIII, with its unconventional magic and junction systems, doesn’t veer too far from the beaten path when compared to certain other games.

One of those “certain other games” is Persona 3. Standing out in a genre that’s not exactly known for breaking the mold, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is about as unconventional as JRPGs get. Is this a good thing? No… it’s an awesome thing.

You’ll immediately notice something extraordinary about Persona 3: there’s a shiny “M” rating on the box. Not exactly characteristic of the JRPG genre, which, by and large, tends to keep things PG.

As soon as the game’s trippy opening anime sequence begins, you’re treated to the site of a girl (apparently) attempting suicide. As well as… a lot of other trippy, weird Japanese shit.

The point is that the themes and atmosphere of Persona 3 (and all Shin Megami Tensei games) is a huge part of what differentiates it from the crowd. Tired JRPG themes and stereotypes have absolutely no place here; instead, Persona 3 treats us to a much more twisted fantasy based in a gritty realistic setting.

And that’s why after almost two years, the first two hours of Persona 3 instantly drew me back in. The characters, concept, and world are amazingly realized, and the scripting is unusually strong for a JRPG. (Heck, it’s unusually strong for videogames in general.)

That, and the fact that  Mitsuru, even on such dated hardware as the PS2, is unbelievably hot. It’s not just how she looks, it’s how she… keeps herself, I suppose? The self-confident air the she exudes just begs to be broken down and explored, and…

Er, sorry. My notes said “Mitsuru. Is. So. Hot.” So. I figured I should editorialize. But I suppose some things are better left… not editorialized.

Anyway. Because the first hour and a half of the game is essentially on rails, I wasn’t able to re-experience much of the combat in the game. A shame, too, because Persona 3 has quite simply one of the best turn-based battle systems ever created for a JRPG. The amount of skills at your disposal is mind-blowing, thanks to the amazingly in-depth Persona system. I could literally spend paragraph after paragraph writing about Persona fusion, use, advancement through social links, et cet – but, er, I won’t.

The game’s been out for years; I figure the lot of you either a) know what I’m talking about already, or b) don’t really give a fuck. Or… both.

I’ve been picking good games for myself this week; like Final Fantasy VI and VIII before it, I just wanted to keep playing Persona 3. But alas, I must move on. Next up? A certain Lost Odyssey, and the conclusion of my little relapse. ‘Till then!