The Witness

The Braid Guy came back with another game for the suckers at IGN to take too seriously. Braid had a decent Prince of Persia-esque mechanic where you never run out of the going-back-in-time potion. It also had some walls of text that people gave far too much credit to. In The Witness, you solve line puzzles. That’s the whole game. It kind of reminds me of the circuit-board routing puzzles I saw in System’s Twilight as a kid–they were quite a bit different, but mostly because they were just one small part of a diverse game that didn’t cost 6 million dollars to make, wasn’t sold for $40 (it was shareware), and never made me want to vomit.

The motion sickness is a real problem. People have blamed all kinds of things, some of which was adjusted in post-release patches, and obviously didn’t stop me from feeling it, a year late to the party. I think most of the so-called causes were harmless; when you’re starting to feel ill, every little thing you sense just exacerbates that. So, while the annoying humming sounds coming from every object in the world aren’t going to cause anyone to throw up, they’re especially unwelcome when your head’s already spinning. One interesting root cause I heard suggested was that the camera pivots on the face of an imaginary sphere when you turn, instead of on a point. It could also just be the the coasty way you move that calls the original Half-Life to mind. What I can say is that this revolution in motion sickness is certainly the most obvious thing to show for the immense costs of the new game engine. God forbid Blow could’ve made this game in Unity and saved me a few helpings of Dramamine.

The most charitable thing I can say is that some of those line puzzles are very cleverly set up. Often, though, it doesn’t even feel like a good puzzle game, in the manner of Portal, where you feel like you’re a genius for solving something. Often my reaction to figuring out how to do something was, “Are you fucking kidding me?”Some puzzle mechanics are just awful, like the sunlight-glare puzzles where you have to look up from an incredibly small area to know that there’s even anything to see. Even worse are the ones where trees cast shadows on a line puzzle and you have to incorporate the shadows into the solution, or the silhouettes of other objects. And a lot of the game’s difficulty is just keeping arbitary color and shape rules straight in your head. Okay, so the different colors of asterisks are allowed to share space, as long as they remain in sets of two of their own color, but if colored dots are in the same space, then…

I can offer up no substantive reason for this to be a big open-world 3D perspective-changing game when its best puzzles would work as well stripped of their context and used in a bargain game for phones. You’d never have to squint at some Piccassoesque interpretation of a path, frustrated and unsure if you were tracing it correctly even after finding the hints, and you’d always encounter puzzles in the best order, instead of tripping over the advanced combo-forms of something you’ve never seen before.

And what a load of shit Blow’s idea of interactive storytelling is. Even Braid seems earnest and true after the absolute nonsense here. The audio logs, talented voice actors aside, are just the most Blow-esque drivel imaginable if the couple I found were an accurate sample of the whole, which I can be reasonably sure of. Then there are the film clips and other little easter eggs, like that embarrassing ego trip of a secret ending. The less said on that, the better.

But is it art? Are games art now? I think it’s funny to suggest that we could ever be boldly treading new ground with a line puzzle game where you walk past pretty sculptures and architecture. Games where you’re endlessly shoved around by people trying to reduce your hitpoints, where you never speak a word, or where a couple of loosely-defined systems interact, things break, and hijinks ensue–these can be a hundred times more boldly creative, useful, inspiring, thought-provoking, and so on. But I’ve probably said this stuff a thousand times by now.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.
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Not A Hero

There’s a lot here that would appeal to me on paper. Pixel art; charming voice work with Scottish, Welsh, English voice actors; fast-paced shooting and smashing through windows to leap between buildings. But it doesn’t work.

The writing is terrible and there’s plenty of it at the beginning and ending of every mission. It’s nothing but random zany internet people comedy: monkey cheese ninja pirate stuff. It’s insufferable. There’s nothing so unfunny as this self-satisfied jokeless writing. You can skip it, and I started to after a handful of missions–despite not being the sort of person who ever skips text–but then that left me with one less thing to keep going for. To see how the story ends? Not likely.

Gameplay presents some reliable ideas early on, when you’ve got a set obstacle course and you’re supposed to figure out the correct route. “Last time I went through this door, but if I jump in through this window first, so I can stab this guy from behind, he won’t react and kill a hostage.” It’s not so ambitious, but it can make for fun planning-oriented trials. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t settle on that design: power-ups are randomised, but should have been predetermined for use in planning, so you could predetermine the best time to get them and the best way to exploit them across multiple attempts.

Moreover, in later missions, the game leans more on challenging your reaction times instead, with swordsman who cause instant death if they touch you. That could ostensibly be called a pre-planning challenge, in that if you don’t make sure you have a full ammo clip before dropping from a ledge, you’re guaranteed to die during a reload. But I decided I’d had enough when I was slide-attacking the swordsmen to briefly stun them, and found that this worked unreliably (near as I could tell), as they would sometimes take a swing as the slide attack neared them. Continuing through the remaining missions seemed like it would be tedious trial and error, mainly in learning where I could safely jump down without being cut to ribbons by an off-camera enemy, and any desire to put myself through that was wiped out by my contempt for the game’s story. Pass.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.

Bravely Default

Bravely Default is an unfulfilling 30 hour game stretched out to 90+ hours. I’ll never play it again, because with the conceit of the later chapters, it already feels like I’ve played the game five times over now–more than I’ve played shorter games that I think are masterpieces. Shockingly, what we got was a director’s cut that came out in Japan over a year after Bravely Default’s original release, subtitled “For The Sequel” over there and “Where The Fairy Flies” here, and I say this is a shock because so many faults have gone unaddressed. Originally, it seems, this game had a less interesting battle system and UI problems, but any other changes seem to be appreciated-but-shallow conveniences that didn’t address any of the systemic issues. Claimed “revisions to the final chapters” must only refer to a few self-satisfied humor scenes and battle variations, which have done little to reduce my incredulity that those chapters passed any kind of approval process at all. I’ve seen free patches do more to fix a game than this re-release has.

Story
The heroes are essentially on a quest to awaken four crystals, and the evil bad forces of doom attempt to stop them. It’s obvious from Chapter 1 or so that there’s a twist coming, because the villains wouldn’t have bothered constantly dropping several vague-but-unsubtle remarks about how morality isn’t so black-and-white if they really just wanted to destroy the environment and invent computers or whatever. At the risk of spoiling a thing or two, as a group, they’re not evil: just criminally disorganized and stubborn as a contrivance, to the point that a man is willing to fight his own daughter to the death rather than bothering to explain to her that awakening all the crystals will break the seal on Exdeath (or whoever it is), which would have advanced the plot of the game by 6 chapters.

I just recently criticized this same problem in SMT4, but it’s even worse here in Bravely Default, because it’s a much more chatty and cutscene-heavy game, and things are dragged out far longer. If you read D.’s journal in Chapter 1 and didn’t quickly (A) identify its owner(s) and (B) surmise that there’s some time-travel or parallel-universe stuff happening, I feel bad for you, son. But there are holes: that Braev doesn’t have anything to say to Ringabel, for example, until late in the game, doesn’t make sense unless he’s just extremely inattentive, which is a bit hard to swallow.

The early chapters are dull because the characters are cliches and the story doesn’t leave the beaten track of “go to the elemental temples, solve a town’s problem, run through a bland maze-like area, and beat up a few jerks who represent the various jobs.” Mid-game, Chapter 5 or so, it gets slightly more interesting, because you earn a bit more tactical breadth with more passive abilities to equip and a few dozen jobs to switch between–plus I can never refuse a Groundhog Day time-loop plotline out-of-hand. But then you do the same thing in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 with getting to do any fun Bill Murray exploitation, and you have to wonder who signed off on such a stupid, cheap, lazy idea. Groundhog Day didn’t cut-and-paste its scenes. Time travel or parallel worlds could have worked: even SMT4 did something like that, and it worked by not actually being a cheap excuse to recycle content. The dungeons weren’t designed to creatively encourage revisits in the way that EO4’s were, either–they just added a few chests you couldn’t open until later in the game.

I had been excited to play the Steins;Gate writer’s take on a Final Fantasy classic, although I’m now learning slash remembering that the Final Fantasy games were pretty dull before the sixth. I suspect that while some of the journals I liked were written by Naotaka Hayashi, they were lazily left in their text form and shoehorned-in, and that he wasn’t involved in the cutscenes, because the journals sometimes contradict or fill holes that the longer, cruder cutscenes leave behind. For example, the “Vampire Gallery” notes, which accompany DeRusso’s castle cutscenes, might be quickly dismissed as just a few of the many random synopsis entries that aren’t worth reading, but turn out to answer a few extra questions and add a bit of mood and flavor to the proceedings.

Features, mechanics, and balance
While I found the occasional fight pretty challenging on Normal difficulty, there are a few broken features that I sometimes exploited and sometimes opted out of, at least some of which came new to this director’s cut. The first, which I exploited, is Abilink, which ties a character to somebody on your 3DS friends list, allowing you to use any skill they’ve learned from a class you’ve unlocked. Another, which I did not use, was friend summoning, which is fine if you want to overkill an early-game boss by about a million HP, and not so much if you dislike the “Gameshark experience”. Both of these cooperative features could’ve been locked to people within some level range of your own. For example, if I hadn’t been allowed to Abilink with someone who had a total of more than 50 job levels more than me on a character, my newbie character would not have been able to link with someone who had earned 336 job levels across 24 jobs. And this way, if you were playing in loose parallel with a friend, and you chose to prioritize a different set of jobs, you’d be able to help each other out only as long as your friend doesn’t grind for 8 hours while you sleep. As for summoning, it would be plenty generous to keep you from summoning a friend whose level was 20 above your own.

The third is Bravely Second, where you can save up combat interruptions by putting your 3DS to sleep for a while. I couldn’t resist using it a couple times, because it allows players to basically become Dio Brando, but after beating an early boss before it had a chance to act, I decided I’d taken it far enough. It’s for casual gamers: people who don’t power through the game will be much more likely to have the ability charged for their play session. But having not had the enthusiasm to play the game constantly until I finished it, I practically fell into the casual category myself, and usually had the ability charged when I played. According to an interview, it’s to encourage more players actually finish the game, but you know what else might’ve accomplished that? An original story that moved at a refreshing pace. Were I the designer, I’d never have included such an ability, but since it’s fun in a way, I’d have given the Time Mage a similar-feeling one to make up for it–like a passive, activated in uncommon, dire circumstances.

Fourth among these cheap features is the combined auto-battle and fast-forward options, which are certainly useful, but pretty much exactly the same as holding down a fast-forward key in an emulator–something I never doubted was a soft form of cheating when I used it in Mother 3 or old Pokemon ROMs to grind up a few levels in a minute’s time. If they didn’t want a boring grind, that’s admirable, but it would’ve been far more sensible to just design something that didn’t revolve around experience levels as a measure of power–in many games, you’re only as strong as your items, or your skills. Considering that Bravely Default actually does restrict jobs, magic spells, and summons by location (forcing you to advance past bosses before acquiring them), it would’ve been comparatively trivial to base the party’s entire power curve around these acquisitions, making the game grind-proof, its balance locked and fine-turned by the developers for a more tactical experience. SMT4, for example, had experience levels, but available demons and their skills were a much bigger influence on the overall power of your party, and you had to advance past bosses to access new demons.

Fifth is the ability to disable random encounters, like a Repel that lasts forever and works anywhere. It’s useful to turn enemies off when returning to a map for the fifth time that was tedious the first time you went through it. Especially once you are max level and money buys nothing. Usually I played through most areas with the random encounters turned up briefly to see all the enemies in the area, and then completely off while actually passing through the dungeons, and that generally worked fine. But it was a band-aid fix to bigger problems. They didn’t think it through. Now there’s no reason not to put a save on the final floor of the bonus dungeon, because if you die against the boss, you just have to walk all the way back up with random encounters turned off. There’s also no reason to not just start each battle at full health and MP like a Yasumi Matsuno game, since the system encourages you go all the way from the inn to the dungeon boss with random battles off anyway.

Apart from these poorly-implemented ideas, the game does a few things well, particularly in the middle of the game as mentioned before, when working out new job combinations is at its most rewarding. All the jobs have something neat to offer, and I tried a few silly things, like using white magic selectively to get my MP to a multiple of 10, earning a boost with the passive skill Zero, and then locking it at that number with the Free Lunch skill. But whatever I tried, it was ultimately far more effective to use boss-cheesing strategies found online, like using dragoon jumps repeatedly with agility-boosting items, so that no enemies could hit me. This was disappointing, but by the time I got to the Chapter 8 boss gauntlet, I was plenty bored enough to exploit it.

BP makes for an interesting system, although I think the best part about it is giving boss AI an excuse not to just spam their strongest attack every turn (and come to think of it, any Diablo-style generator/spender combo could be seen as a variation on the same concept). Since BP debt isn’t carried between battles, any battle you’re guaranteed to win within four turns can essentially be won immediately, by going into a meaningless debt. Trivializing any component of the game isn’t really ideal, so I’m not sure if it was ultimately a great idea, but overall, I’d say it was an idea worth trying.

The rest: music, dungeons, mini-games
While the game has some nice music, it’s overextended by the padded-out game, and I don’t even feel like finding any favorites to link to. Worse, the music interruptions that I mentioned driving me crazy in my EO4 review are also present here, and you get an irritating music-box theme whenever you check your menu from the overworld (but not while in town or in a dungeon, oddly). This needless song also plays whenever you read your journal or pop into Norende, the town-building mini-game. I tend to mute the volume whenever I have to spend more than a second in one of these places. Again: This is the updated version?

Norende is too simple to work as a long-term casual gameplay draw, and the time balance just can’t work for everybody–I had several shops maxed out before finishing Chapter 2 of the actual story. Certain special skills earned in Norende were made obsolete before I could even use them–why use Damage +10% when I already have unlocked +50%? If they’d really committed to it and made a town-building mode where you could name a bunch of shops and decide what goes where, it could’ve turned out really cool–even better, it could’ve been like rebuilding Luin in Tales of Symphonia. Instead, it’s a Facebook game, but it’s bad at that too, because the content dries up after a few days. To put it another way, it could’ve been a mode where you spend money to unlock the best items, or a mode that earns you money, but it’s neither: it’s a temporary diversion, necessary to get you stuff you might’ve started with. Your town delivers you some items every few hours or so, but it’s not that useful; the cool purchases aren’t affordable into much later in the game, so they might as well have been distributed across shops in later chapters.

The dungeons are boring and far too old-fashioned. The worst thing you can do in level design, I think, is to just make a literal maze instead of a lived-in space. I refuse to believe that anyone would quarter their troops in one of these buildings without knocking down dozens of pointless walls that only serve to lengthen trips to the bathroom by twenty minutes. Honestly, the overly-simple level design reminds me of Breath of Fire 2, and that’s one of my favorite JRPGs, but it has the excuse of coming out in 1992, and its tilesets also varied a lot more, anyway.

I found myself wishing I was playing Lufia 2 instead, even though that forgotten 1996 JRPG ought to feel more dated than a high-profile 2014 release. That was a game where you could shoot arrows and hookshots and things outside of combat, like a twist on A Link to the Past, where you’d enter turn-based combat after getting the jump on enemies, instead of having boring, invisible random battles. These are hallmarks of a more modern JRPG, like Tales of Symphonia. It also had really clever, difficult dungeon puzzles that I could barely wrap my child brain around. Why would anybody rather play an old Final Fantasy game?

Final thoughts
A summary of the little things I appreciated:

  • Any minor convenience that reduces the tedium of the traditional JRPG
  • A user interface that I rarely consciously thought about (something they apparently focused on in the re-release)
  • Variety of classes, some more useful than others, but not overtly unbalanced
  • Learning new skills and cross-pollinating, Final Fantasy Tactics-style
  • Naming special moves and having my characters say “Fuc’ you” to bypass censorship
  • The longer-form pieces of writing that were occasionally added to the journal
  • The painted background environments, though fewer of the environments were comprised of them than I would’ve liked
  • The BP brave/default system, which was bold, though not flawless
  • Voice acting (JP) was generally likeable
  • Writing was occasionally quite bleak and twisted in a way I appreciate and generally associate with Japanese indie writers; probably Naotaka Hayashi at work. Two children killing each other over the burnt corpse of a fairy, for instance
  • The big twist of the story is pretty fun, even if everything leading up to it isn’t quite sound in execution
  • A move the final boss used, blowing up the home planet of some random guy on my 3DS friends list
  • That cheesy-ass effect during the final boss where the 3DS camera captures my own face and shows it appearing through the opened rift into the “celestial realm”

The stuff I did not like at all:

  • Developers having a rare opportunity to go back to their flawed game to fix it up, and leaving so many things shoddy and broken
  • Nice music getting overextended and interrupted
  • Boring, old-fashioned flat maze dungeons
  • Reliance on cliched story and characters, as if it weren’t lazy to knowingly “celebrate” these cliches
  • Thoughtlessly-implemented features, things done arbitrarily without any strong design goal
  • Constant journal updates about nothing, which break up the gameplay
  • Frequent and bloated cutscenes, also halting gameplay; no sense of “less is more”
  • Repetition in later chapters
  • Asset reuse, crossing the line from “unfortunate-but-understandable cost-cutting” into “insulting” by the time the player reaches Dimension’s Hasp
  • Contrived bullshit storytelling

These are not balanced lists. Bravely Default is unmistakably a weak game. Its best features are the ones that make it over faster, and it’s a great reminder to not trust a Director’s Cut when a game couldn’t be done right the first time around. Don’t buy it unless you believe Final Fantasy V was the best game you ever played. If you do think that, consider replaying it, because it probably wasn’t all that great either.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.

Final Fantasy IV

If hearing some old Final Fantasy tunes will convince you to go back and play a mediocre game again, that’s easy the worst thing to be said about them. I decided to give the PSP port a look in 2011, but it offered little. Final Fantasy IV is the first Final Fantasy that a significant number of people still care about in something close to its original form. While it probably broke new ground as a story-heavy RPG with an emphasis on cutscenes and a large cast of characters that come and go, there’s not really enough to justify the tedium. With its sci-fi lunar bases and so on, things are taken beyond a simple swords-and-sorcery premise, but Square’s ability to tell a story had yet to mature.

Before the series found its groove in storytelling, the games flip-flopped between customizable parties and pre-made characters with a greater emphasis on an existing personality. II was the first game with existing characters. IV was just another step in that experiment. V went back to simple party arrangements with an emphasis on customization. With VI, they finally seemed to settle on something good, and if you’re looking for a game that still holds up, there’s probably no reason to look at any of the games before it.

The battle system is simple, and aside from learning to anticipate a few scripted enemy spell combinations through trial and error, there isn’t a lot of tactical ability required. Characters have unique skills, like stealing, praying, and jumping, but these are very unbalanced and often worthless. Later installments in the series make better use of the feature.

The random encounter odds are too random, and it can be frustrating to get into another fight one step after your last when you know you could have potentially taken 40 steps without seeing a thing. But what’s worse is that this weird answer to a technical limitation became a staple of RPGs and that we still see these invisible random battles in recent games. The lack of evolution explains a lot of the enmity many gamers have toward RPGs, and JRPGs in particular. I stopped after VIII, so I’m curious about how things have changed as of XIII and onward.

Most items, like potions and prefabricated spells, are pretty worthless. Truth be told, I’m the kind of player who almost never throws a grenade because “I might need it later,” but here, most treasure chests aren’t even worth opening. The only valid strategy in a dungeon is to play conservatively until you find a save point you can heal at, or you’ll run out of MP. Playing without using MP is boring, but the system encourages boring decisions. Either spam basic attacks or try to flee.

Most RPGs use enemies this way, in a strategy of attrition where only the player needs to worry about long-term wounds. The feeling of resolutely clawing through an unending horde feels better in an action game, and in turn-based systems I tend to find myself with time to wonder about the survival instincts that are nowhere to be found in these demons. Turn-based games should be tactical, and tactics are relatively pointless when the opposing forces aren’t even remotely equivalent.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Crimson Shroud, and the Zeboyd Penny Arcade games, among others, use systems where MP counts up from 0 at the beginning of battle, and this works a lot better when encounters are expected to last longer and be less trivial, but that isn’t a bad goal at all. Pokemon would also be more interesting if every enemy trainer had six pokeballs on their belt and you got a free heal at the end of battle. Etrian Odyssey IV demonstrated to me that MP-depleting random encounters can still be made interesting at times, but that isn’t the case here.

There’s no “finding secrets” in FF4, only esoteric knowledge from players’ guides and the internet, unless you bump into every single wall in the game in the hopes of finding something. There aren’t cracks to be seen or mysterious shadows cast, and you can’t rely on NPCs to complain about the mysterious draft behind every secret bookshelf. The best items in the game are hidden this way, and it affects game balance. I prefer a game to be self-contained, rather than to rely on outside sources for information while I play.

The game is tedious, grindy, uninteresting, and the few things it does right are still done better elsewhere. There’s no excuse for FF4 and the other early games in the series to get repackaged and sold over and over again under the banner of “appreciating the classics” while making no attempt to do anything about its clumsy and obsolete design sensibilities. Don’t go buying this out of some misguided feelings of nostalgia.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.