Friday, March 20, 2015

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD

Since the initial inception of Final Fantasy on the NES in 1987, Square-Enix (previously Squaresoft) has developed a pretty consistent formula in the release of all their titles.  And for the most part, it’s worked – now I’ve got some perspective on this, as I’ve played every (non-MMO) edition since I was a wee brown lad.  Go ahead, I’ll pause a moment so you can marvel at my advanced age, kids.

Granted the formula will always have some tweaks to the core to freshen the mechanic from time to time – summons were added, job roles and classes in V, items like materia in VII, that annoying draw system from VIII, then grids and maps for skills and upgrades in X and beyond.  And this all revolved around a two pronged attack of a massive world to explore along with a tried and true turn-based combat system. And the gaming and RPG gods did smile, as they saw that it was good.

Then Final Fantasy XIII happened.

Much the like the compendium of Final Fantasy VII, which included a multimedia immersion into that universe, XIII was supposed to have gone a similar (read: NOT identical) route.  These games were all to share a mythology in a series calledFabula Nova Crystallis, and in addition to the core XIII titles, there were two additional games that were going to be thrown into the mix – Final Fantasy Agito XIII an Final Fantasy Versus XIII.  Agito was released for mobile platforms but we never really saw much of it in the US, and Versus basically vanished into vaporware.  It was a real shame at the time because they looked like a different take on the traditional title. Lightning’s adventures in XIII as the core were pretty polarizing though, leading most people into a love it or hate it scenario about S-E’s most recent entry to the franchise.  True, XIII was a lot more interactive story than game, and the exploration piece of a traditional Final Fantasy game didn’t appear with as much gusto, but I for one still enjoyed it.

Well, after playing halfway through then giving up then starting over and having far more appreciation for it as well as Lightning herself.

To distance them from the XIII universe, these two games were split off into separate entities.  What we knew as Versus XIII became Final Fantasy XV (the demo Episode Duscae of which was reviewed by Colby here), and from the ashes of Agito XIII rose Final Fantasy Type-0.  And you know what? I can only describe Final Fantasy Type-0 as the greatest documentary I’ve ever played.

In most RPG’s you’ll find that there’s three types of movies.  One is full motion video.  The second is dialogue and animation using the game engine. This one has a third – History Channel style explanations of battalion movements and war maps with dates and voiceovers so the player can understand the meta of the war at hand instead of just what they’re playing through.  It gives it a very strange but satisfying documentary feel, and these types of clips to me work very well in tying everything together and keeping me immersed in the lore and world events. This game becomes, in fact, an interactive retelling of the accounts of the war between the Crystal States of Orience, and it pulls it off very well.

That aside, the gameplay is a stark departure from what we know from most of the Final Fantasy games.  It’s full-on action where skills are thrown on the fly – there’s no waiting for a turn, there’s no running to escape a battle encounter or random encounters like in previous games of the series (think kind of like Crisis Core). The four buttons at your disposal on the controller map to 4 commands – generally one standard attack, a special, a magic, and a defensive skill.  These can all be changed out with different skills and spells as your characters level up and gain ability points.  Much like X and titles beyond it there are three party members that can be deployed at once – one that you directly control while the other two work on AI.  You can freely switch which character you control if ever you need a different skillset for a certain enemy or you’re just running low on health.  It’s a fun system that allows on-the-fly style change in how you attack the game.

To add more customization, there are twelve characters (there’s two add-ons too but they don’t fit the theme) from which to pick your team, each one with a different weapon and style that fits different scenarios.  Each character is named after a playing card rank (Deuce through Ace with no “Ten”) and have their own equipment and spells, all of which you have control over.  Ace himself uses playing cards as a weapon at range, while the other two characters you begin with, Nine and Queen, use a spear and a sword for more melee-oriented combat.  In addition to their own offense each character has their own defensive style that can help you out in a jam.  Ace’s “Wall” for example helps when taking ranged attack without cover.  Fast switching between each character to utilize their skills becomes as much of a skill to learn itself, but when you do, boy does this game get fun in a hurry.

The story is a fairly simple tale of power and struggle between kingdoms in a different age – in this case starting in year 842 in the world of Orience. The Militesi Empire invades the dominion of Rubrum (our characters) unprovoked, using technology to snuff out the magic Rubrum relies on for its military using their White Tiger Crystal, destroying much of the countryside in its assault. Rubrum’s crystal, the Vermillion Bird, grants them the power of magic and Eidolons to defend themselves. Militesi and Rubrum are two of the four Crystal States, with Concordia Kingdom and the Lorican Alliance rounding out the other two.  And thus war begins, with you controlling the Rubrum Akademia’s legendary Zero class, hoping that one of them will become the fabled Agito to bring balance to the end time, or tempus finis. So yes, there are four crystals in the game as is always somewhat expected.  Where this ties in with Fabula Nova Crystallis is that the crystals are sentient, and create l’Cie to do their bidding, serving the same role the Fal’cie did in XIII.

Square-Enix also went through some effort to add a lot of familiar elements to the game, softening a bit of the shock of being this different to previous games in the franchise – not only within the Final Fantasy universes, but more specifically from within Fabula Nova Crystallis.  Summons are called Eidolons and there are branded magic users called l’Cie like in XIII. There’s Magitek armor like in VI.  There’s four crystals (for the purists fine, yes, back then they were “orbs”) like there have been since day 1. And possibly the greatest homage to a previous game in the series, twelve people genetically enhanced to serve a greater purpose, all referring to the scientist that created them as “Mother.” Final Fantasy VII? Feel a little bit like Sephiroth clones and Jenova anyone?  It helps give you a familiarity with the game even though it’s a brand new environment.

In all, good fun, and a different flavor of the Final Fantasy universe that’s a a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Life Is Strange Episode 2 Preview

“So a lot of people ask us ‘If you can rewind the game, doesn’t that mean that you can cheat? Isn’t that the same as reloading the save?’ It would be if it was badly designed.”

That was what Square-Enix’s Adam Phillips had to say about the luxury of choice in their current series Life is Strange. And that statement is 100% correct.  I’m in my second playthrough now of episode 1, Chrysalis and am not having any less fun trying different choices I take with Max in her exploration of her newly found powers over time.  The beauty of it is that there’s no correct answers in the game, and even though the short term results of the decisions made are simple enough to see, the long term and meta effects aren’t so easy to spot.

Just like life. Strange… right?

I was able to sit down with Square-Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment at PAX East last week to get a preview of Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time to see some spoiler-free gameplay.  We were able to see some of the longer-than-short-term consequences of one of the pivotal decisions from Chrysalis – whether or not to take the blame for Chloe’s stepfather finding her smoking weed, resulting in being in hot water yourself or Chloe taking an angry backhand.

The game picks up on the day after Max finds discovers her gift (1 episode, 1 day) and the scene we got to play through was Max meeting Joyce, Chloe’s mother, at the diner where she has been working for years.  You have the choice of telling Joyce or not that Chloe’s stepfather struck her, but not every playthrough has that option.  We were playing episode 2 using the input from episode 1 that Chloe hid in the closet and watched Chloe get struck, and that’s why this and other choices are available to us now. The game keeps track of every decision you’ve made, and offers shifts in the storyline accordingly, guaranteeing a number of playthroughs which are all different. “It really is a network,” was how the choice system in the game was explained to us. “There are in this game some binary switches, like if you do this that happens, but in this game there are actually combination switches as well.” This won’t affect the overall story of the game but it will affect the way the game progresses. “More like branches they’re vines going up a tree, so they all go in the same direction, each one is just slightly different.”

To get used to the “keep your knowledge and stuff” part of the time rewind mechanic, you’re forced to guess everything that happens within 10 seconds at the diner and everything that’s in Chloe’s pockets.  Of course you’re not a mind reader so the only option is to guess wrong, see the real answer, rewind and prove the Chloe your “superpowers” are real. It works as this game’s take on quick time button events, where you have to get the whole sequence right or rewind time and start over.

I’m really looking forward to see how my different savegames affect my playthrough for episode 2, and the way this is set up we’ll be getting increasing levels of meta consequences for seemingly small choices we made earlier on.

The soundtrack which thoroughly impressed me in Chrysalis maintains its deliciously modern indie feel, with artists like José Gonzaléz, Syd Matters and alt-J on the score for both background music and the tracks Max listens to.  “It was really important when Max put her earbuds in that you heard the sound dull down as she pressed play. What happens when you hear a licensed track? It grounds you in reality.” It’s true, and goes a long way in helping continue to set the tone and emotion of Max and Chloe’s adventures in Arcadia Bay.

I asked creators Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch from DONTNOD about why episodic games are finding so much success next to huge triple-A 80-90 hour behemoths. “It’s the way we’re playing games nowadays.  We have less time I think, and a short experience is something you can really enjoy between two stations of one really huge game.  Sometimes those short experiences of  an episode of a game or a short game like Journey can be interesting to play because you can play it in one session.”

Of course they mentioned that also inherent in episodic games is the anticipation and expectation for the next one to come out to see what happens.  And that part is working.

Thankfully we don’t have too much longer to wait. Life is Strange episode 2, Out of Time will be released this month on March 24th, and I’ve got my season pass ready to pull it down and see what happens to Max and Chloe next.

[Oh, and P.S., I asked about porting this to tablets because I think it would work great with the UI and control scheme - and I can officially say it hasn't been ruled out]

Hey Tushar, Where's My PAX East Coverage?

I know many of you are wondering why the hell Technical Fowl hasn't had ANY PAX East 2015 coverage after the show last month in Boston. My man Colby Sites and I have a series of posts over at Sub Cultured chronicling the whole affair.  Here's a list of stuff we hit and links to reviews and thoughts:

A preview of Life is Strange episode 2 is available at Sub Cultured and also right here at Technical Fowl!

That's fifteen games for you kids to sink your teeth into.  Enjoy!