Thursday, December 27, 2012

First Look - Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII was a little... well, different, than its predecessors in the Final Fantasy heritage.  They changed whatever was left of the classic formula from soup to nuts, from the overland battle encounters to the new ATB fight system, the whole stagger tactic, the Eidolon system and gestalt versus summons, bloopity blah, bloopity blergh, bloopity blooey.  The list goes on.  And as expected, most of that held into Final Fantasy XIII-2 starring Lightning's younger sister Serah.  But in Lightning Returns, the latest game in the XIII universe, Lightning takes a page from Vincent Valentine's book in Dirge of Cerberus and flies solo as the only playable character.  There are no parties of three or team paradigm shifts in the sense we're used to, just Lightning being a badass starring in a one woman show.  Seems a little strange for a Final Fantasy title, but if any of you unlocked her Army of One ability in FF XIII, then you should find it wholly believable.

... Even though you (well I) had her in Commando mode all game only to find out that this ultimate ability of hers is in her Ravager tree and then you have to switch up your parties and ALL your paradigms to re-align stuff with a crystarium points farm and...

Sorry.  Got kind of carried away there.  But while I'm on that point, come on guys. Come on.

At any rate, the video (which you can see here on IHOGeek's YouTube channel) and screens for Lightning Returns provided by Square-Enix show our heroine jumping from ledge to ledge and over/through obstacles to get around on the overworld map instead of just running around to the next checkpoint, more the way Dante or War would in Devil May Cry and Darksiders.  And that mechanic is both the reason I'm looking forward to it as well as the reason I fear for it.  I'll get into that in a bit.

Once in a battle Lightning seems to be freer in her movements and attacks in taking on enemies - able to issue commands and change up style on the fly.  So while there's still some of the elements of the XIII universe that we know and love left untouched, in battle mode it looks like menus and auto-attack has been replaced with assigned commands, with each of the four main buttons on a Xbox 360 pr PS3 controller mapped to something different.  An example from one of the fights in the trailer, the player has the four commands set as Light Slash, Heavy Slash, Evade and Blizzaga.  Each of these four commands look like they will change when Lightning changes paradigms - and from what we can see so far those are called Divinity, Enchanter and Cerberus corresponding to defensive, magic and physical styles.  Seems to me like that would provide a ton more options that a single character has, which is a direction that needs to be taken when she's the only one you've got.   An arsenal at the ready and tweakable skills look to make it so that players can make Lightning their own.

Now back to what I was saying before.  As I mentioned, the action/platformer element of this game is both the reason I want to play it and the reason I fear for it.  Square-Enix did the same kind of thing in their Final Fantasy VII universe - spinning off a different genre of a game with Dirge of Cerberus.  DoC featured Vincent Valentine in a first person shooter style game, and while it was fun, I felt like they didn't go all in with it, and it was enough of a departure from the lore to seem like an attempt to expand the franchise.  Now in that sense, Lightning Returns isn't in the same boat.  It's a legit part of the FF XIII continuity.  My hope is that these elements are added the right way, and act as an enhancement instead of simply another method of trying to keep the franchise fresh.  Either way, I'll be playing through Lightning's final journey for sure.

Oh, and by the way kids - the game will limit you to 13 days of play time to get it done.  Secret methods notwithstanding, finish in 312 hours or the world ends in chaos.  Have fun!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

After THQ Partnership, Humble Bundle Goes Back to Its Roots

People love bundles.  They just do.  Computers come bundled with software.  Xbox 360’s come bundled with Kinect goodies.  Hell, some coffee makers even come bundled with coffee.  It’s inherent in humans to want value and there’s nothing wrong with that.  And gaming’s no different – there are always bundled deals on Steam and sites like Good Old Gaming that give gamers value in quantity on the cheap.  That’s probably one of the reasons why I love Humble Bundle, a company that has been selling game bundles with a slightly different business model.  They allow customers to decide how much they want to pay – as little or as much as they like, as well as how to split the distribution of that money between the developers involved, the company and charity.  Two great causes that are always on the menu are the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that fights for your digital rights and the Child’s Play Charity, the brainchild of Penny Arcade’s Gabe and Tycho to help children in hospitals.

The first bundle was introduced to us as the Humble Indie Bundle in May 2010, showcasing (naturally) games from independent developers, including AquariaGishPenumbra: Overture and Lugaru HD.  An admirable package, especially when the cost to me was whatever could pay or I wanted to or pay.  I was attracted to this first bundle because it also included World of Goo, a strange and gooey bridge building game that spoke to the engineer in me.  So I ponied up some bucks, it split it between the devs, the EFF and Child's Play, and went on my merry way with a handful of downloadable, multi-platform, and more importantly, DRM-free games.  And it was a win for everyone involved - I got games, the devs got some dough as well as some publicity, and some worthy non-profits got donations.

Luckily for everyone involved, the program continued, spawning around 20 additional bundles from 2010 to now serving up great indie DRM-free games to the masses.  A couple of them were even for books and music.  Last month though they switched it up a little bit, partnering with THQ for an exclusive bundle of their games instead of sticking with the indie route.  There was some solid stuff in there – Saints Row The ThirdDarksiders, a couple of Company of Heroes titles, Red Faction Armageddon and Metro 2033.  Users could still pay what they wanted and decide how much of it went to non-profits,  but with a minor difference in this iteration – what users would get were Steam keys instead of DRM-free downloads, and cross-platform became Windows only.  This in turn caused humble loyalists to splinter into two camps – those who loved the idea of being able to get triple A studio games for pennies on the dollar, and those who thought that a partnership with THQ was a betrayal to the brand that had been built since their first indie bundle.  The former's argument was tough to argue against – it was a pack of games that would normally cost hundreds available for just a few bucks.  The latter on the other hand, felt that this was a great deal for THQ, who was teetering on the brink of implosion, to use the Humble name for a last ditch sales effort and sully the Humble brand image.

In the end I guess it didn’t work out for THQ on its own, since as of yesterday they filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.  They were rescued though, so their upcoming titles will in fact stay under development instead of being tossed in the bin.  Clearlake Capital stepped in with some cash to save the day, and in the process revealed three new titles THQ has in the pipe - Evolve from Turtle Rock, 1666 from THQ Montreal and Atlas from Relic.

But I digress.  As good as the THQ bundle offer was for users (well, Windows users), and despite the $5 million they raised in 2 weeks, there was fear out there that Humble had abandoned its indie roots and settled on a Windows-only “Steam key” platform moving forward.  But that simply isn’t the case.  In response to questions from Ars Technica, the folks at humble assured fans that they will “never stop creating Humble Indie Bundles... and the other bundle types we've successfully launched this year. But we’re also eager to see if our pay-what-you-want plus charity model meshes with critically acclaimed AAA content as well.”  And they made good on their word.  Their new bundle is the Humble Indie Bundle 7, and I think it’s one of the best ones they’ve released yet.  The new set includes the already popular Dungeon Defenders, as well as the movie Indie Game.

It was important for them to come back with this Bundle quickly after the THQ partnership, if anything else to let users know that they will never abandon their roots – great games, pay what you want, money for charity, a cross-platform experience, and no DRM.  Check out to not only grab HIB 7, but every bundle going forward as they become available.  You can do some good while filling your game library.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Promising Fan-Made Gem to Shine as Capcom's Street Fighter x Mega Man

When I was a wee lad, my first console was an NES. And even back then when the world lived and loved 8 bits at a time, I became a fan of Capcom – a lot of the games I enjoyed playing came out of Captain Commando’s namesake house, many of which went on to become classics. And they had style, kids. I flew in the war in 1942, played soldier in Commando and its Bionic sequel, channeled my inner avian billionaire in Duck Tales (woo-OO-ooh!) and even placated my pizza gluttony with Yo! Noid. But Capcom’s hallmark on the NES was the Mega Man series. We all loved that little blue rascal for reasons that I’ve really only been able to verbalize retrospectively – simple and fun controls, awesome music, character design that made sense, and some openness too with a range of weaponry as well as a choice of which order to fight the robot masters in.

My next console was the SNES, and again Capcom didn’t fail to deliver. A little older and a little more sophisticated (for lack of a better word), there was a different level of appreciation for Capcom’s 16-bit titles like King of Dragons, the Final Fight series, and even Breath of Fire on the RPG front. But again, like they did on the NES, they had one series shine above and beyond the others in the SNES era – Street Fighter. It was fun for some of the same reasons as Mega Man, with the added bonus of being able to play with and/or shame your friends publicly.

 So if you’re in the same boat as me (which I’m just going to go ahead and guess that you are) then you’ll share in my excitement about the following – in just a few short days Capcom will be officially releasing a glorious amalgamation of those two franchises, giving them the crossover treatment in Street Fighter x Mega Man. For free on the PC to boot. Players will don the arm cannon once again in a NES-style environment complete with 8-bit remixed tracks. The only difference is that instead of the classic Robot Masters we’re used to, stars from the Street Fighter roster step in, each with their own custom movesets and weapons that can be won. Sounds crazy, right? Check out the trailer on Brelston’s blog at Capcom where seeing is indeed believing, my friends.

But there’s more to this than just a nostalgic crossover. It’s a fan-made nostalgic crossover that Capcom really wasn’t the primary developer for. The man behind the scenes is actually Singapore’s Seow Zong Hui, a “superfan” and Street Fighter competitor that approached Christian Svensson at the EVO 2012 event with a prototype on his laptop. Svensson in turned shared it with Capcom’s GregaMan and Brelston, who were so excited about the game that they’re using it to kick off Mega Man’s 25th anniversary. The game will be available for download on December 17th through the Capcom-Unity blog. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, with Capcom fans clamoring for more Mega Man.

What really made me smile about this story is the fact that it was an example of a publisher embracing the work of one of their fans. The gaming community has seen a lot of unofficial fan-run projects in multiple forms of media get canned because publishers started flailing about with intellectual property claims and legalese-equipped flak, regardless of how awesome they looked. As an example Square-Enix killed Chrono Ressurection, an unofficial sequel to Chrono Trigger I was really looking forward to a few years back. And just this year Sega brought down the hammer on a fan-made Streets of Rage remake, that was made with fully original code and eight (that’s 8) years of work.

And I’m glad to see Capcom go the other way. Taking the highroad and believing it would be something fans would enjoy was the only criteria they used to make this decision. They didn’t lawyer up and scream “infringement."  And that connection to the fan community is something that should be inherent in publishers, and something I saw up at New York Comic Con as well. Not only on their Street Fighter 25th anniversary events but at their booth and on the floor they were all about fan engagement. I had a couple of questions about their new title Remember Me and the Product Manager just gave me her direct email address if I needed anything else, even as just a fan and not press. And Yoshinori Ono, producer for the Street Fighter series (God bless ‘im) was there in the mix too, dressed up like Chun-Li and on the floor interacting with a wave fans in whatever little English he had. That’s the kind of thing I like to see, and hope for more from some of the other big names.

Looking forward to giving this a go when it drops on Monday. And really, good on ya, Capcom.