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World of Final Fantasy Part 12: Let’s Review

Thanks to a witch’s curse, I am obligated to write about any videogame I have played for longer than a half hour, so let us contemplate World of Final Fantasy.

Long story short on the whole game? It was a noble attempt at… something, but it is hard to say if it ever succeeded at anything. I’m trying to work out those “goals”, though, so I’m thinking a good start would be…

World of Final Fantasy is World of Final Fantasy, dummy, it’s about the Final Fantasy heroes

There’s one reason that everyone bought this game (well, everyone that actually did buy the game), and it is Final Fantasy with a capital F. Final Fantasy has one of the greatest pedigrees in the history of gaming, and, while Mega Man, Castlevania, or alike has dropped off in recent years/decades, there has never been a year without a Final Fantasy or Final Fantasy-adjacent product since the advent of the Buster Swordcitation needed. Final Fantasy may be right up there with Mario and Madden as one of the most established gaming franchises out there, and, like it or not, we’ve got Final Fantasies filling up shelves all over the place.

And, in a weird way, that might be a problem.

Dance through the dangerI know a lot of people reading this have been gaming all of their lives, right there from the advent of the Nintendo Entertainment System. And that likely means you’re damn well near forty. And you know what that also means? You’re old! There were an awful lot of people that were born in the intervening four decades! And they might like Final Fantasy, too! Except, you know, their first Final Fantasy game was Final Fantasy 7. Or Final Fantasy 10. Or, wonder of wonders, they may have played their first Final Fantasy game this year, and it’s a MMORPG involving a strangely high number of cat boys. And that’s before we even get into the people that got into gaming later in life, or just recently decided it was time to see what this “Final Fantasy” was all about, or just picked up Final Fantasy 6 because it came with the Super Nintendo Mini, or even they’re interested in finding out the deal with these weird dudes from the Kingdom Hearts 3 expansion. Point being is that there are 35 years of Final Fantasy out there, and people could have started with Final Fantasy “one” or fifteen.

And, if you’ve found you enjoyed Final Fantasy, it’s only natural to have a desire to see what else is out there in the franchise. Only issue? That could take you the rest of your life. There is a lot to any given Final Fantasy, and, before you get into the idea of how even the smallest FF takes like ten hours, nearly every FF also has wildly disparate moving parts. The battle system in Final Fantasy 5 isn’t going to effectively help you learn whatever Lightning is flipping around about in Final Fantasy 13, and everything you ever learned about harvesting Flan Princess in Final Fantasy 4 is not going to be relevant by the time you have to complete all the “hunts” of Final Fantasy 12. Even if you had infinity time for playing as many videogames as you ever wanted (I want to live there), the Final Fantasy franchise is still daunting, as you have to rapidly switch tracks between mastering materia and farming playing cards. And then you never see a reason to have that “skill” ever again in the franchise (or, for that matter, anywhere else in any other game).

I am a master of the gambit system. That didn’t even survive to see Final Fantasy 12-2 (it happened! It was on DS!)

I like this oneAnd, to be absolutely clear, it is in Square-Enix’s best interest that you have not only an affection for the whole of the Final Fantasy franchise, but that you also know it inside and out. Easy example? Dissidia Final Fantasy NT is a fighting game (basically) that relies on you having a familiarity with its cast of Final Fantasy luminaries. And when SE decides to release expansion materials like new fighters, management is literally banking on you not only knowing who Zenos yae Galvus is, but also that you like said character enough to shell out five bucks for the experience. Locke Cole isn’t going to put cyberdollars in cyberwallets if everyone that ever cared about the dude stopped playing videogames in 2010. And this is just one game! Mobile experiences like Pokémon Go, Fire Emblem Heroes, and the entire Fate/Stay franchise are all at least partially based on the concept that people will do godammned anything to get a shiny Pikachu wearing a party hat (or, for the equivalent in the Fate franchise, a shiny, sexy Benjamin Franklin wearing a party hat). Square Enix needs every man, woman, and lilkin on Earth to love Cloud Strife, because the quarter 2 profits are already based on the idea that a million people are going to buy Lara Croft’s Tifa crossover outfit.

Oh, and I guess it’s good for gaming discourse if everyone has the same Final Fantasy knowledge, too. But that’s not super relevant to the people that choose which games get greenlit.

This finally brings us to World of Final Fantasy. It is clear what World of Final Fantasy was trying to do: in the same way that Kingdom Hearts condenses entire Disney movies into “worlds” that feature five characters and two dungeons, World of Final Fantasy boils down its Final Fantasy “guest stars” into their component parts with generally distinctive plots and locales. Yuna the responsible summoner is hanging around the Pyrefly Forest where she first boned a ghost, and Rydia the more cheeky summoner has a peppy adventure where she faces her fear of fire. Final Fantasy guest characters show up just long enough to make an impact on the player, but not outshine the “real” heroes of this tale. In short, by the end of World of Final Fantasy, the player should have a general fondness and understanding of characters from a solid fourteen or so Final Fantasy games. And it’s reasonable to say that playing one 40-hour game is a faster path to understanding the Final Fantasy pantheon than playing fifteen games that could potentially suck up the rest of your life.

I know that guyBut there is a bit of an issue with using the “Kingdom Hearts approach”. No one is going to mistake Pinocchio for Aladdin for Jack Skellington. However, when you hit the FF games, well… Squall is a competent SeeD “hero” that has some issues with confidence. Cloud is a competent SOLDIER “hero” that has some issues with confidence. Lightning is a competent… ah, crap, we’ve already hit a wall. A lot of Final Fantasy characters kind of boil down to the same character once you remove them from their more complicated home plots. Squall and Cloud are very different protagonists in their respective adventures, but, in the limited World of Final Fantasy, they’re practically the same as Tidus. In fact, in a weird way, the “knights” of World of Final Fantasy become something approaching a boy band. Tidus is the funny one, Lightning is the serious one, and Squall is the one that is interested in gardening for some reason. They are only graphically distinguishable, and, frankly, the funko-ization of the gang doesn’t help in that department either.

And, while this at least gives a new audience the cliff’s notes on a particular hero or supporting character, it’s disapointing for anyone that is in this to see those beloved Final Fantasy characters again. Tifa is in “Nibelheim flashback” mode, so she’s… what? A martial artist in training/cowgirl? That’s a far cry from the confident “mom of AVALANCHE” that starred in Final Fantasy 7/Remake. King Edgar comes off as little more than an aggravating flirt compared to the original king that was willing to participate in a hentai to rescue his countrymen. Vivi had practically an entire game’s worth of meditation on mortality and the meaning of life in Final Fantasy 9, and here he barely even has a name. It’s cool that the “intervention quests” all seem tailor made to please people that want to see Pirate Princess Faris and Ifrit have a conversation (I have been writing that fanfic since I was thirteen!), but everything here is so shallow as to be nearly insulting. Final Fantasy fans want a phoenix, yet World of Final Fantasy offers chicken feed.

Lil' DudesSo World of Final Fantasy is shallow as an introduction to Final Fantasy characters, and even shallower for anyone that wants to spend more time with particular protagonists. But maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree! Maybe it was never supposed to be about the “cameo” characters, maybe…

World of Final Fantasy is its own game, dummy, this is about the original characters and plot

First of all, to break kayfabe for a moment: ha ha ha, oh man, that’s a good one.

Second of all, this is a place where World of Final Fantasy knows what to do, but refuses to put in the time on the “homework” to make it actually happen. As previously stated, World of Final Fantasy follows the usual arc of a Kingdom Hearts story: the plot and main characters are introduced, that is then ignored for hours as our heroes have a ball with a pile guest characters/worlds, and then it all comes back to an original “point” in time for the finale when guests met across the adventure may or may not find a way to help in the concluding, ridiculous battle. Unfortunately, what works for Kingdom Hearts absolutely does not work for World of Final Fantasy for one simple reason: you are never given a reason to care about Lann and Reynn.

The twins are, like, your main characters, right? So you probably feel something there. But beyond that? I technically spent entire days’ worth of hours with those two, and I could barely tell you their defining attributes. Yes, they’re both generally well-meaning heroes that will fight against injustice and love their parents… but past that? Lann is the goofy one, Reynn is the responsible/contemplative one, and, aside from a certain woman’s hatred for cactus men, that’s all I got. They are not really characters beyond broad archetypes, and, when bad things happen to them, nobody cares. Oh, they were wholly responsible for a hundred years of hardship? Yeah, alright, I could buy that. As believable as anything else in this world.

Everybody happy?And a reminder that this game is from the same people that brought you Kingdom Hearts 2, which somehow made the fans demand an entire Kingdom Hearts “miniseries” game based on some dork from the opening skateboarding tutorial or whatever. KH2’s Roxas is a fully established, sympathetic character inside of like seven seconds. His own featured game made him a tragic hero that could rival the likes of Shakespeare (or at least anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Lann and Reynn never come close to that over the course of an entire game.

And don’t try to claim the other original supporting characters in World of Final Fantasy fare any better, because there aren’t any. Wynne and Enna both alternate between macguffins and lore dumps, and then we have… Tama the fox mascot? Do not waste my the-time.

But maybe it’s about the overarching lore, right? Maybe this is another Final Fantasy 13 situation wherein the cool, established world is masked in data entries and other “data logs” hidden around the world. Maybe this is the kind of story that isn’t necessarily about the characters, but about the world (of Final Fantasy).

And, sorry to say that I’m continually setting you up for disappointment here, but World of Final Fantasy flubs there, too. This wasn’t explored much on the stream (what kind of maniac would make a “let’s read” let’s play?) but there are “datalogs” and glossaries to spare in World of Final Fantasy; and, spoilers, they all add up to a big fat nothing. Yes, there are multiple, fascinating stories in World of Final Fantasy’s backstory (and even more in Maxima), but they all combine to form a Voltron of oblivion (and Enna Kros forms the head).

Let's just chillThe ultimate punchline to the lore of World of Final Fantasy is that there are some people that merge with powerful summons to ascend to godhood, and, once they have established their nigh-omnipotent powers, they can create worlds. So there are worlds of fantasy, there are worlds of sci-fi, and (since some people are jerks) there are worlds of death-spewing dragons. And some worlds are proper Final Fantasy games, some worlds are obviously implied to be the spin-offs, and some worlds are like this one: where there’s a little sprinkling here and there of the familiar, “main” worlds, but they’re still fairly bonkers. And, of course, sometimes the worlds fight. And, end of the day, that’s that. There are infinity worlds with infinity permutations, and World of Final Fantasy 2 could have equal odds of being another adventure in “this” world, or one where you’re piloting a space ship in a shoot ‘em up (Einhänder is unquestionably implied to be another world). And when your final word on lore is that “all worlds happen and could happen and are happening” it kind of makes the whole thing feel… pointless? Like, I saved this world, I saved Wynne, but apparently there a bunch of other worlds? And even other Wynnes? There’s possibly a great moral here about how saving your own world and the people you love really matters in the face of infinite choices, but that lesson is seemingly absent here. This is one World of Final Fantasy, there are a thousand out there, too, and good will always triumph over evil regardless of what anybody does.

By Alexander, it’s Bioshock Infinite all over again. That’s never good!

But it’s possible that this is all purposeless anyway. Maybe you’re not even supposed to take these characters seriously at all…

World of Final Fantasy is a comedy, dummy, just laugh it off

Punch!There are 100% funny moments in World of Final Fantasy, and a lot of lesser jokes that could conceivably be funny to an audience that has not become jaded after years of watching Poshul die on the cross in complete earnestness. There are also some amazing mirage entries that are hilarious, and a few that are… well, that one where they keep trying to make "Lich" rhyme with a naughty word. And the twins really are the classical "straight man and goofy man" partnership.

That said, if you’re trying to make something a comedy, maybe don’t hang it all on a story where you’re required to kill your parents. Twice. If World of Final Fantasy is a comedy, it falls under the same issues: it can’t fully commit, and the parts where it veers into drama stand out a lot more than Lann playing football in the background of an info dump. It can be a funny game! The characters can be enjoyable! But if you’re going for funny, go for actually funny, and don’t hang it all on a world that is literally based on a genocide that was instigated by the "wacky" heroes.

While my contemporary, BEAT, believes “the choice of character models being those dead-eyed funko pop abominations prevent the kind of expressiveness required for any sort of character-based comedy,” I take the opposite position: it feels like, maybe, the fact that Cloud is a wee puppet man is supposed to automatically add levity to any situation. Mini Cloud and Lil’ Tifa are facing Ultima Weapon, and Nibelheim is in danger, but, ha ha, they’re action figures, who cares? It’s silly! But nothing else about the narrative seems to indicate the Lilkin Heroes are anything but serious about their world, and, yes, you’re supposed to take Cloud fighting an impossible monster as seriously as in Final Fantasy 7 Remake. So, yeah, Lann might make a crack about something being ridiculous in the midst of that, but you’re still in a situation as "serious" as real Final Fantasy, and, give or take a cactuar on your head, you’re in a battle that is exactly as serious as your average Final Fantasy.

Giggle through the gallowsThis game was intended to be comedic. And there are funny bits! World of Final Fantasy sincerely tries. But, end of the day? There were more genuinely funny bits in Final Fantasy 7 Remake than World of Final Fantasy. And, in some cases, it came from the exact same characters! It can be done! Just WoFF doesn’t seem to know what it wants enough to stick to it.

But it’s possible that this is all purposeless anyway. World of Final Fantasy shouldn’t be judged like a dedicated comedy…

World of Final Fantasy is a videogame, dummy, it’s supposed to be fun to play

Look, let’s get one thing out of the way (he said 2,000 words in): this is supposed to be Final Fantasy: Pokémon. Like a lot in WoFF, it only half commits, as the whole “mirage keeper” aspect of this adventure is arguably generally ignored in the plot (being a mirage keeper is super important to the plot, but you could also replace the nuts and bolts [and backstory] of “mirage keeping” with “making coffee”, and very little about the story would change.) (“Oh, your mom was a high barista of the cappuccino lineage? How interesting.”) But it is everything during battles. The meat of World of Final Fantasy’s challenge isn’t so much about fights that are “hard” to actually manage, but more that you have to manage your mirages before every bout, and be sure you’re prepared for whatever is going to happen this time. A new mirage can only be captured by casting fire on it? Great, be certain you have a fire mirage. This boss is weak to ice? Well, you might lose once, but come back with a Shiva in your gang, and you’re set. And the stacking aspect makes this replacement for “equipment” interesting every time: you can’t just don an anti-lightning ring accessory, you have to “stack” an anti-lightning mirage with another mirage that isn’t going to negate your prime immunity. You have the ability to create completely contradictory stacks, and then never get anything done! Or properly manage all your mirages, and blaze through a volcano with all the (metaphorical) ice armor of the Light Warriors of lore. It might take some time, but it is empowering to “get it right” with your stack for a particular area.

Go birdyOf course, if World of Final Fantasy is biting on Pokémon for this gameplay, they missed one key feature in that experience: being able to switch Pokémon on the fly. Like in Pokémon, you have a limited number of mirages that can be on your belt at one time; however, unlike the Gamefreak original, you absolutely cannot switch your mirages in the midst of a battle. Whatever you chose to start this battle with is stuck until you either win, run, or die. And, while it’s not difficult to solve the puzzle of maybe you need an electric team in the robot-based dungeon, many of the later areas are more generic, and require a greater swatch of abilities and resistances. And there is nothing worse than facing down a gigantic behemoth, knowing you have you the proper instrument in your toolbox right over there, but, sorry, you’re stuck in this battle right now, and you’re going to have to whittle down those health points in the most boring, least satisfying way possible. And then you switch in your trump card for the next behemoth battle, only to face a mag roader team that requires a totally different solution. It’s exhausting, and another place where World of Final Fantasy falls just short of being a great game. It’s not terrible! It’s just… close enough to great that you can see exactly what went wrong.

And while the battle system may be satisfying when it comes together, the dungeons need some serious work. Final Fantasy hasn’t ever been a franchise that was particularly known for its dungeons (monster closets? Yes. Dungeon design? No), so we’ve got an uphill battle there to begin with. But here the dungeons are generally extremely generic locations (ice cave, volcano, basement) with marginally interesting gimmicks (ice sliding puzzle, put out fires, turn on machines). There is exactly one dungeon in this entire adventure that I found remotely memorable (underwater temple complete with wall-walking action), but even that wound up overstaying its welcome by about 20%. Past that, the only other dungeon that even came close was the Train Graveyard, but that loses some significant points for being an extremely confusing maze of platforms that easily loop on each other.

Let's get mistyAnd speaking of the Train Graveyard, that was a dungeon that absolutely required bringing particular mirages with particular abilities (in this case, “zap” and “smash”), whereas previous dungeons only relied on the “map screen abilities” as a way of accessing extra treasure. Was there some warning that I absolutely had to bring a smash-based mirage to this dungeon? Not that I saw. So did I waste a solid half hour trying to figure out if I could solve this “puzzle” without needing a specific mirage, like I had in every dungeon prior? Yep! And that doesn’t leave an impression at all.

And if this entire writeup makes World of Final Fantasy sound like a bad game, I apologize, that is not the intention. This has been a list of the significant problems in World of Final Fantasy, but it is also a list of the only significant problems in World of Final Fantasy. I will admit now, before God and audience, that there were moments when I absolutely did not want to stop playing World of Final Fantasy. The whole adventure really clicked around the 30% completion mark, and, from that point on, I was tempted on a weekly basis to play without my streaming company. Hell, I technically did play the game during those times, I just played the less cinematic bits, like fighting through the coliseum or completing mundane fetch quests. This is a fun game! World of Final Fantasy is a fun game! And it does hold up to its pedigree a lot better than many other spin-offs of popular franchises. This ain’t no Wand of Gamelon.

Fist time!But my theory has always been that if you’re going to do it, you should do it right. That’s why everything I have ever written, including this article, is absolutely prefect. Final Fantasy is a pedigree in the gaming sphere, and this Final Fantasy product falls short of its forbearers. It’s still a fun experience, but it is also flawed in some very obvious ways. Maybe a World of Final Fantasy 2 will correct these problems, or maybe a third World of Final Fantasy released seventeen years later will address the issues. Maybe it will always be a weird, one-off “quirky adventure” in the Final Fantasy pantheon. Whatever the case, the game we have here, even in its expanded state, is still just “good”, and far shy of flawless.

But, hey, it’s still a fun way to spend eleven nights of streaming.

What’s next? Welp, I feel like we’ve covered an awful lot of World of Final Fantasy at this point, but there is still that whole “lore” thing I’ve admitted to ignoring. Maybe we could take a more focused look at that…

FGC #569 Battletoads (2020)

There’s a moment about 75% of the way through Battletoads (2020) that… well, let’s let the GIF do the talkin’ here…

RAGE

That is Pimple, and, spoilers, he is freaking the heck out. He has been generally chill and mellow throughout this Battletoads adventure, but has now been pushed too far, and the following level is going to be Pimple rampaging like a toad built only for battle. Pimple, the reliable rock of the Battletoad trio, is well and truly done, and he is not going to take this lying down.

And this moment brilliantly features exactly how the creators of Battletoads (2020) fundamentally understand the Battletoads of 1991.

Let's motorOur favorite toads had an ultimately brief period of fame (or… close enough to fame) for approximately three years. We saw an NES game, a Gameboy game, a Super Nintendo game, an arcade game, and one vaguely memorable crossover. There was also a rigorous comic book promotion in there, and an animated series that arguably never saw the light of day (does direct to VHS pilot even count as real?). And was there any sort of unifying Battletoads mythos in all of this? Nope! The Battletoads were “real” people that were digitized into a virtual world, or they were “real” toad people from space, or they had that whole “Thing Ring do your thing” dealy going on with magical morphing. And there was some confusion within the original games if this was happening over and over again (apparently the Dark Queen really likes kidnapping), or if this was all some manner of Legend of Zelda “the same tale retold” situation, and Battlemaniacs was basically the “grown-up” telling of OG Battletoads. And the arcade version was clearly a version of Battletoads where we finally had the technology to let a toad fight a snake! Was that supposed to happen back in the NES days? Who knows!

So, if someone were asked to distill some consistency from three years’ worth of Battletoads mythos, would it be possible? The only thing that was constant across those games was that everyone in this universe had a general 90’s irreverent attitude, and, when the ‘toads punched stuff, sometimes their limbs changed. Across multiple games, mediums, and graphical capabilities, that was all we really had as concentrated Battletoads. They have attitude, and they morph their limbs.

And it is kind of amazing that that is exactly what is displayed in that above Pimple GIF. That is what is on display in the entirety of Battletoads 2020. Everyone in this universe has an irreverent attitude, and it is animated with a rubbery, lively style that is appropriate to heroes that have always been able to stretch and contort into whatever is going to be most visually interesting/proper for the moment. In the same way that Rash can transform into a battering ram on command (forward, forward+B), he can also morph into an office drone or spaceship pilot. The Battletoads are, fundamentally, just as adaptable as the Looney Tunes of yore, and they absolutely should exist in a game/universe wherein they are just as malleable.

My baby!In a world wherein the curators of Battletoads absolutely could have based an entire game on the “meme” of Battletoads, the idea that they are all “Turbo Tunnels and NES hard”, Battletoads 2020 wound up being true to a Battletoads franchise that is more than just its internet reputation. This is a triumph beyond measure, and my hats off to the writers, directors, and producers of Battletoads.

Also, while the designers of Battletoads are listening, I have one other thing to say about the 2020 game: it sucks. It sucks so bad.

The original, first level of the initial Battletoads game, Battletoads, is a beat ‘em up. Likely thanks to first impressions, many people (including myself) collectively refer to Battletoads as a beat ‘em up style game. Unfortunately, if you play past the first level (big “if”, because this is Battletoads, and you would be forgiven for losing to Giant Walker), you’ll find the second stage is practically a different game, complete with different rules. Similarly, the third stage, the infamous Turbo Tunnel, starts with a sprinkling of combat, and is then an entirely pacifist-friendly “battle” with stationary walls (you just happen to be going really, really fast). The next levels are (in order) a 2-D platforming/snowball fight, 3-D beat ‘em/surfing safari, and 2-D platforming (on snakes). In fact, once you clear Level 7 (of 12), you never see a 3-D beat ‘em up section again, and all combat is on a 2-D plane. In short (as I have documented in detail before) Battletoads is a beat ‘em up about as much as Mario Odyssey is with its occasional forays into t-rex-based carnage. We had one arcade game that seemed capable of staying on target, but every other Battletoads game cannot stick to a genre longer than the span of a level. When you’ve got Jimmy and Billy Lee piloting spaceships, you know something has gone terribly wrong…

Get those lumberjacks!And Battletoads 2020 initially seems to lean on the beat ‘em up trappings of its forebears. As one might expect for the update of a nearly 30 year old franchise, Battletoads 2020 is a might more complicated than its ancestor. This is no longer a simple case of “punch/jump/dash”, there are now options for strong and quick attacks, charge attacks, and a few possibilities for using your toady tongue as a grappling hook. And you’ve got grappling options! Would you like to collect flies, swing your toad from the foreground to the background, or, ya know, grapple (ala Mike Haggar). It is obvious that, in the same way a lot of thought went into an animation style that seemed appropriate for Battletoads, a lot of consideration was given to creating a beat ‘em up system that not only was fun to play, but was also appropriate to our heroes. The presence of a blocking monster means you’ll be using the stylish charge moves that were previously reserved for “smash” combo finishers. The mobile “shooting” creatures will encourage jumping for a dodge, and then a new jumping attack. And tongue moves! We are featuring toads, people, let’s act like it and highlight the one thing toads are known for (aside from hopping and kissing princesses). That slurping sound should have been for more than health refills for Battletoads from the beginning!

Except… it all kind of… doesn’t feel right? Or work right? There is a lot in the beat ‘em up sections of Battletoads that feels almost wholly broken. For instance, health drains stupidly quickly, so a single punch from an opponent can drain a third of your HP. In a way, this makes sense, as a single player game allows the usage of all three of the Battletoads, so you effectively have triple the health you see on any one life bar, and a fallen Battletoad revives if you wait a whole 20 seconds. You are practically invincible! But it still feels bad to whiff a dodge and be mercilessly punished. And, speaking of which, you will be punished, because managing the Battletoads’ battlin’ is a lesson in humility. It is very difficult to find the exact timing on when any of your protagonists can exactly cancel a combo to perform a dodge, so practically any string of punches is a risk. And that is not a good look for a beat ‘em up, as it means a conservative player is likely to zoom around the screen, eternally dodging, and only throw a single punch for fear of starting an inescapable combo chain. And that works, but it also works to make each individual fight move at a Battlesnail’s pace. And if you feel like being more loose with your health, good luck refilling on available flies, as those previously mentioned tongue moves are mapped to surprisingly confusing controls, and you are a lot more likely to accidentally drag a dangerous enemy into your proximity than down a life powerup.

And if you are getting the impression that I did not enjoy the beat ‘em up portions of Battletoads, congratulations, you have reading comprehension. The beat ‘em up portions of Battletoads 2020 are the worst parts of Battletoads 2020.

So it works out that Battletoads has the same inability to focus on any one genre as its ancestors.

Here is a vague spoiler warning for those of you that want to experience the manic intensity of Battletoads in its natural, astonishing way. Stop reading if you want to experience this all on your own dime…

FGC #563 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode & Wallachia Reign of Dracula

Thighs!Look, I’ve had a few “rules” for this project from the very beginning. One of those rules is that I not exclusively focus on the big, obvious titles. Stretch Panic needs love, too, and we don’t have to spend all day talking about Super Mario Bros. 3 and its infernal hopping shoes. This is basic stuff, people, and, while I feel I need to address a few games before I wrap up this blog around post #655 or so (less than a hundred to go! I’m sticking to that! Probably!), I am doing my best to not make this blog an endless parade of Final Fantasy titles. There is still time for the likes of Mappy Land!

But, my good dudes, I have a confession to make: I can’t stop posting about Castlevania games. I’m sorry, but they are so… what are the words I’m looking for here… They are so simultaneously rigidly defined, yet variable. There are always the same basic pieces in play, but there are so many ways those components can be arranged that you get a different game every time. Sometimes there is a single castle, sometimes that castle gets flipped upside down, and sometimes you are just stalking around the countryside looking for ribs. You’ve got options! And combine that with gameplay that is similarly “familiar, but different”, and you have a franchise that could prompt this humble blogger to write literally volumes.

So imagine my relief when the gods gifted me two Castlevania games that weren’t really Castlevania games. I don’t have to reset the “days since a Castlevania post” sign now! Hooray!

Let’s start with the Not-Castlevania game that is the most Castlevania: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode.

Flip alongFirst of all, it is known that this blog has previously based entire articles around DLC expansions. So let us be clear here: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode is not an expansion. It is not bonus content. It is an entire game. Why is it so easy to plainly state that? Because B:RotNCM is exactly the length of Castlevania (1). It is by definition a complete game because it apes a complete game in unmistakable ways. There are 5.5 stages with six bosses. It is a complete journey through one (1) haunted mansion, and contains grinding gears, underground waterways, and a surprisingly survivable fall from a tower. There is an axe-bone, shard-stop watch, cross-boomerang, and dagger-uhhh-dagger. This is Castlevania to a C, and, if your only memories of Castlevania exist within a fog that can accumulate over a few years, you would be forgiven for believing this is little more than a remake with HD graphics (and maybe a few serial numbers filed off the Medusa Heads).

But, like a good Castlevania title, the devil’s in the details (vampire’s in the variables?). While Miriam may initially appear to be as limited as the strong-but-crotchety Simon Belmont, actually playing with your protagonist reveals that she has all the finesse of the much more acrobatic Richter Belmont. And that’s kind of amazing! Bloodstained: Classic Mode effectively marries the energetic options of Castlevania’s final “level-based” 2-D hero with the general, measured layouts of the franchise’s premiere. This creates the unrivaled experience of producing a Castlevania game that has a laser-focused path to victory (no branching rivers in this Castlevania adventure) but with a heroine that can afford to backflip away from an encroaching flea-monkey. And when you start finding the “secret” ways to use Miriam’s entire arsenal…

Weeeee

Well, who needs Grant when you’re a one woman army of super powers? Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode initially gives the impression of a nostalgic rehash of things that came before, but is its own experience in all the right ways.

And, speaking of surprisingly innovative titles, there’s Wallachia Reign of Dracula, another game that follows a warrior woman fighting a castle lord through a very different path.

The bestiary has defined Castlevania practically from its inception. You fight Dracula, obviously, but on your way through his humble abode you also battle a Greek Gorgon, a bat of unusual size, Egyptian pharaohs, and Frankenstein(‘s monster buddy, Flea Man). In later games, Dracula’s menagerie would expand to include elder gods, headless pirates, and an arguably extraneous number of succubi. You could imagine an entire tale about where Dracula found all those malcontents! Bloodstained, Classic Mode or no, followed this template while swapping gorgons for dullahans, but still retained much of the (public domain) cast of characters. The message is clear: If you’re going to fight Dracula/a reasonable simulacrum of a nefarious count, you’re going to have to put your weapon of choice through more than a few zombies.

Wallachia Reign of Dracula poses a different question: what if Vlad III Dracula aka Vlad the Impaler was just, ya know, a dude that liked impaling?

Don't look backElcin is a woman that had a seriously bad Tuesday when Vlad invaded her hometown, kidnapped her brother, and killed her parents. Elcin vowed revenge, and took up a bow and sword to track down her tormentor and kick his ass straight off his throne. But Vlad isn’t going to take this insurrection lying down, so he sicks his entire army on the poor woman. And that army? Well, there are a lot of soldiers. Some of the soldiers are abnormally tall, and a couple of ‘em have horses. There are also some really agile dudes that flip around with deadly claws. Oh! And there are a few dogs, hawks, and bears, too. Other than that? Sorry, this Vlad is entirely mundane, so there isn’t a reanimated skeleton to be seen. There are plenty of corpses, as Vlad is still just wild about impaling, but those carcasses aren’t going anywhere. There is horror for Elcin to encounter, but those horrors are no more fantastic than a visit to a funeral home (well, at least a funeral home in a remarkably bad neighborhood).

But a mundane world does not mean Elcin is trapped in a boring game. Wallachia Reign of Dracula publicly advertises that it is a retro title in the vein of Castlevania, but it is much closer to an old-school “arcade action” arcade title like Magic Sword or Willow. And that’s pretty great, as that whole genre seems to have fallen by the wayside as retro titles continue to revisit the likes of Mega Man or Final Fight. The concept of occasionally jumping over obstacles but mostly wholesale murdering a pile of anonymous grunts with long range weapons needs love, too! And you’ve got a sword that works more like a shield for incoming projectiles, too, so there is more nuance here than “grab a turbo controller and let those unlimited arrows fly”.

Look out for jugglersIn fact, it is somewhere in that meticulous combat that Wallachia Reign of Dracula feels the most like a Castlevania title. Even when there aren’t werewolves stalking about, there is still pressure around every corner, and the most important decisions you ever make are regarding threat control. You can take the time to stop, aim, and shoot at that solider that is pacing back and forth on that platform, or you can ignore him, and hope he doesn’t shoot back. Choose your own adventure! And, while such a choice may seem simple in and of itself (how long will it take you to aim? A second? That’s time that could be spent jumping!), the real challenge starts when there are moving platforms, flaming catapults, and an entire tank bearing down on your heroine. Now what do you do? Now what do you prioritize? Make your choices fast, because you’ll be dead on the ground if you can’t reach the verdict. But don’t worry, you do have a few extra lives before the next continue, so if you choose wrong, at least you can see how it might have been if you had just used a charge arrow on that bear instead of relying on rapid fire. Soon, you’ll be reflexively sniping down murderous hawks with ease, but when you first encounter these challenges, there is much to consider before making your (possibly fatal) move.

And this is the true essence of Castlevania. There may be a thousand variables in a Belmont adventure, but, in the end, it’s about choice. It’s about situations where you can go left or right, and, head’s up, right is going to get you killed. In the “old school” games, like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode or Wallachia Reign of Dracula, these choices are generally about monster management. Do you really want to waste your hearts chucking axes at a bone dragon, or do you trudge up those stairs while it is still tossing fire all over the place? In the “Metroidvania” titles, these choices are generally less deadly, but choosing to explore a random nook or cranny may reward (or punish) your protagonist in a myriad of ways. Castlevania is about choice, and games that truly carry on the spirit of Castlevania know that. Both of these featured games know that secret of Castlevania, even if they choose different paths to teach that lesson.

… And, man, I’m going to have a hard time claiming this article wasn’t about Castlevania…

FGC #563 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode

  • What time is it?System: Wherever Bloodstaineds are sold. Playstation 4, Xbox One, Steam, and Nintendo Switch all seem like viable options.
  • Number of players: Miriam can’t even bring along an old lady shouting for blood on this solitary journey.
  • Hey, wasn’t there another Bloodstained “classic mode”? Yes, but that experience is much more of… how to put this… a modern interpretation of retro. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is a game that very dedicatedly included new and interesting features that would never have been possible in an OG Castlevania. And, complete with the sequel introducing a dog mech, the whole thing is a lot closer to a Mega Man X / Zero title, anyway. It can’t be “classic” if your hero spins around in the air with a sword twirling in an endless circle.
  • What about Ninja Gaiden? Oh, screw (attack) you.
  • Favorite Boss: I appreciate that the Mummy du jour is replaced with a pair of doppelgangers. I generally welcome the ways the bosses have been adapted to their “modern” forms, but far too many of them seemed too… familiar. At least the doppelgangers weren’t instantly recognizable exclusively for their obvious connections to the past… even if they are equally weak to “holy water”.
  • Did you know? My solemn belief is that there is no way that Dullahan boss wasn’t also a reference to that wannabe Terminator from Contra 3.
  • Getting toward the endWould I play again: This is a difficult choice! Like, I very much enjoy Classic Mode, but it is also just close enough to other experiences so as to feel… unnecessary? Basically, I have the capability to play Castlevania (1) again, and I don’t do that often, because I usually play the later Castlevania titles. And, in a similar manner, I think I would play Curse of the Moon 2 again before Classic Mode, simply because I like its gameplay options. Will I ever play Classic Mode again? Probably, but it would be as more of a curiosity in a few years than the feeling that I really need to play the game again. And Bloodstained keeps producing other great expansion content, too…

FGC #563 Wallachia Reign of Dracula

  • I know that guy!System: Nintendo Switch ‘n Steam seems to be the answer here. Maybe it will see other systems, but hopping on Switch is enough for me.
  • Number of Players: You’re doing this one alone.
  • Favorite Opponent: You cannot go wrong with fighting bears. They’re so… bears.
  • More Power: “Subweapons” seem to be split into categories. There are special arrows that appear in specifically limited quantities (similar to the items of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and there are helper characters that are powered by collectable orbs (like the old days of Castlevania hearts). On the plus side, the ally abilities are pretty damn powerful, and can absolutely demolish a boss or two. On the other hand, there were occasions where I traipsed through an entire level and never gained enough orbs to use one of those attacks once. I like a screen-clearing attack as much as the next guy, but this seems like it could have been balanced better.
  • More connections: WRoD and Bloodstained are connected in more ways than their obvious influence. For one thing, Elcin can earn Miriam’s default outfit from Bloodstained (but, unfortunately, she doesn’t get to meet a murder barber that can change her hairstyle). Also, both WRoD and B:RotN Classic Mode limit the ability to see the entire game if you play on Easy Mode. This is universally a dick move, and I don’t care who hears that.
  • Let's roll!Did you know? There are two distinct places in this game where a mysterious “fog” is piped into a room, and then “supernatural” things happen, like Vlad’s bride becoming a succubus, or a dragon statue breathing fire. This is a pretty unique way to sneak something more fantastic into a game that is very grounded, and I encourage more videogame protagonists to get super high while battling evil. Yoshi was cool with it.
  • Would I play again: Probably yes. This is a fun “arcade” style game, so I’m probably going to stick another quarter in there in the future. The first few levels are very smooth, so I could see playing them while waiting for my latest Switch purchase to download.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kirby Super Star for the SNES! Speaking of franchises I can never stop talking about, here’s Kirby! Six times! Please look forward to it!

Just shoot arrows at it

FGC #555 Dead Rising 4 (Frank’s Big Package)

Frank West is a consumer whore.

Dead Rising (1) is a videogame that, arguably, is wholly unique in the history of gaming. It’s a Capcom title, and, given the pedigree, it should not be surprising that it superficially appears to be a continuation of the Final Fight-esque beat ‘em genre. There are hundreds of thousands of zombies to clobber, and, like in Haggar’s trek across his beloved city, there are going to be a lot of haymakers from one side of the screen to the other. But calling Dead Rising a beat ‘em up is extremely reductive, as there are those precious JRPG elements that were all the rage at the turn of the millennium. Frank is a scavenger, and you better believe he learns new and interesting ways to beat back the hordes while carefully managing the resources littering his immediate area (even if the sheer number of meats hanging around is a bit Metro City-esque again). But it’s somehow even more complicated than that, as the hard timer on the plot and various requirements cause Dead Rising to border on rogue-like territory. You’ll never beat this game optimally without some knowledge from prior deaths! And this was all sold on a marketing campaign that leaned heavily on the “look how many monsters are on the screen” thing. And, while this was indeed a remarkable accomplishment for the new Xbox 360 and the future of its gaming generation, it wound up being one of the least impressive segments of Dead Rising’s many accomplishments. Dead Rising is a game’s game, with so much to enjoy, conquer, and just plain do. And persistent references to Mega Man Legends weren’t bad, either…

Wreck the mallsAnd, of course, no discussion of Dead Rising would be complete without noting its well-worn plot. Tell me if you have heard this one before: Frank West is an “everyman” journalist that inadvertently gets caught up in a zombie outbreak that takes place at a gigantic mall. Frank must survive not only the zombies, but also other survivors that maybe aren’t coping in the healthiest of ways. Yes, give or take some extended lore that tells the full story of the origin of this outbreak, we’ve got Romero’s Dawn of the Dead here, right down to helicoptering into a mall “sanctuary”. And, to be absolutely clear, that’s perfectly fine! Donkey Kong is legally distinct from King Kong, and Dead Rising is allowed to liberally borrow a few elements from the grandpappy of all zombie movies. And, in both cases, it seems the main venue of the mall is important: there is a bit of commentary on the fact that the “mindless hordes” are obsessed with “stuff” (brains/supplies), and malls were the meccas of brainless entertainment for years and years. And, in both stories, any conflict that isn’t caused by the “force of nature” zombies is inevitably the result of survivors that snap and give in to their desires. It doesn’t matter if that desire is “want to live without revealing an infected wound” or “I need some mutton”, struggle and death is the result of these selfish actions. A mall might be a simple place to fight over bargains in our mundane world, but, in a zombie invasion, that same war is escalated to literally deadly levels. And, even if our heroes may be cantankerous and aggravating, they win and succeed as best they can because they do not give into their baser desires. Frank West and Peter alike avoid suicidal bad endings because they ignore the temptations of the world and do their best, despite their situations not being anywhere near “best”.

And then there’s Dead Rising 4’s Frank West. That Frank West is just going to have fun with it.

Gonna get itDead Rising 4 apparently started production as Dead Rising 1: Remake. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Dead Rising 2 focused on a wholly different character and setting, and Dead Rising 3 did much the same. Yet, through all of that, Frank West was regarded as the hero of the franchise, despite now canonically being an “old man” of about fifty (fifteen years happened over those plots!) who only pops in for the occasional DLC. A Dead Rising reboot could bring the franchise back to its more famous roots, and, bonus, you wouldn’t have to worry about that whole “whoops, we cured zombieism” issue that popped up in the later games. However, that reboot didn’t actually come to fruition, and Dead Rising 4 became a game that simply looked a lot like Dead Rising 1. Here’s the same town again. Here’s the same hero again. Here’s the exact same premise again. Throw in a terrible helicopter ride, and, yes, this might be Dead Rising: Fifteen Years Later, but it is certainly unmistakably Dead Rising: All Over Again.

Actually, scratch that, Dead Rising 4 is nothing like Dead Rising. The plot and players might be the same, but Dead Rising 4 wholly eschews the “rogue-like” elements of its predecessor. There is no time limit, and the plot is going to barrel forward regardless of your inability to rescue a survivor or two. Absent the claustrophobia imposed by a timer, DR4 becomes an incredibly open experience. Couple that with adopting Dead Rising 3’s “town structure”, and “Dead Rising” practically becomes a wholly different genre. This is no longer a game that could be called “survival horror”, it is Grand Theft Auto with zombies. And that can be fun! GTA NPCs are practically indistinguishable from zombies even on their best day, and, if you’re driving down a street and mowing over pedestrians, they may as well be the walking dead. And Dead Rising has always been about collecting to a certain degree, so an entire abandoned city (abandoned by the living, at least) is ideal for grabbing random knickknacks. It actually makes more sense to loot an abandoned hotel room in an outbreak than randomly robbing places all over Liberty City!

ChillyAnd, for many players, this change in gameplay is an unequivocal check in the plus column. You could easily make the argument that Frank “unfettered” is the most fun way to play any Dead Rising, and isn’t that what you were always working towards in the previous games? That all-important “free play” reward you’d obtain for clearing all the stiff requirements of the “real” game? It’s just in reverse here, as the “old” gameplay was still available (eventually) as DLC. Hell, if you’re playing the game on the Playstation 4, you can skip right to that mode immediately. But for the many other players that simply want to have fun transforming zombies into putrid pudding, all you need is the ability to hit that start button, and you’re off to the (shambling) races. There’s a great big world out there, Frank West, go have fun with it.

But… should Frank be having fun? Should an entire zombie apocalypse be fun? You can count the surviving population of Willamette without clearing a hundred, so Frank is living through something approaching genocide. Given this outbreak hits at the start of Black Friday, the underlying tragedy of Dead Rising 4 is that the local populace was gearing up for a lovely holiday with their families, and are now collectively damned to be little more than a tick on Frank’s hit counter as he plows through on a bizarre lawnmower-bumper car combo. Frank is quipping all the way, the player is having fun earning experience points, and… Dawn of the Dead this ain’t. That movie is a bummer, man. And what was that about a mall being the height of greed and consumerism? You’re not going to find that here. In fact, Frank West freaking loves being a consumer.

Like a sharkDead Rising 4 is a stuff-based game. A dollar bill is useless in zombie society, but “scrap” becomes your new currency, and it is veritably indistinguishable from any other kind of zenny, gil, or cash. You can spend money at “shelters”, and, if you’re a good little Frank, you can rescue other survivors that will expand a shelter’s inventory. That’s right: your most coveted reward is the opportunity to buy more things. And even if you somehow don’t engage with this scrap-based economy, you’re going to need every last trinket and inexplicable Vega claw you can find. Weapons break frequently, and you’re always going to need to find something new to bash the hordes. But wait! There’s more! This limited time offer allows you to combine weapons and items into even better items, so having a spare dinosaur hat or Christmas decoration is always going to be appropriate, because you never know what might turn out to be the essential component of a 5-star weapon.

And, assuming you somehow were missing the central moral here, please take a look at how Willamette is shaped. There are safe areas. There are places where you are all but guaranteed to find a new weapon or snack. And you know what these places are? Stores. “Safe” Shelters are where you can purchase respite, and abandoned stores are where you are most likely to find that shiny new thing (to kill with). The message is 100% clear: consumerism is good, places you can spend money are the best, and you’ll never have any fun unless you accumulate as much as possible (And don’t even get me started on the ultimate weapon, an exo-suit, is the product of the military industrial complex). Frank West is greedy, but his greed is not going to impede his survival, only enrich it.

That’s a far cry from your usual zombie land lesson.

Dead Rising PresentsDead Rising 4 is not a bad game. Far from it! But in a franchise that previously did its best to be downright oppressive with limiting indulgent tendencies, having so much freedom right from the start neuters the message of Frank’s previous adventure. No longer do you have to carefully weigh the cost of time spent recovering that Servbot hat against saving a survivor’s expiring life force, now you can leisurely grab as much of this world as you want, anytime you want. Dead Rising 4 is a very different game from its predecessors, and, as a result, it undermines the original in more ways than one.

And, gee, I wonder if there’s a connection between this franchise descending into its uncritical love of consumerism and its omnipresent setting of Christmas…

… Nah, probably a coincidence.

FGC #555 Dead Rising 4 (Frank’s Big Package)

  • System: The OG was Xbox One exclusive, but it has migrated over to Playstation 4 (with DLC!) by now.
  • Number of players: There are some multiplayer extra modes/DLC, but the original is single player. I guess you have some options.
  • How about those expansions: Mini Golf and Multiplayer appear to be strictly… uh… multiplayer, so I’m not hitting those anytime soon. Frank Rising is the obvious continuation of the story and a pretty interesting concept (Frank is a zombie!), but it quickly just becomes a fairly rote rehash of recurring Dead Rising stories/gameplay (Frank is a zombie… but that just means he has a different standard moveset and can’t ever pick up a bat for some reason). Capcom Heroes, a mode where you can randomly utilize the moves of other Capcom “heroes”, seems like it would be right up my alley, but considering it’s tied to a complete play through of the entire game again… it’s really not a substitute for the real thing. Also, giving Ryu a chi grenade seems wrong somehow.
  • Favorite Combo Weapon: I am not immune to the siren’s call of “get as much junk as possible”. I am but a man! And I am a man that loves hacking down the zombie gangs with Sub-Zero’s signature ice sword. I naturally gravitate toward melee weapons in these games (because I can’t aim for a damn), and freezing everything in sight is a nice bonus for studying the blade.
  • I’m Rick James: Look, I know a lot of people complained about “Old Man” Frank West becoming virtually indistinguishable from Ash Williams of the Evil Dead franchise. And I can see how there is a clear parallel there in setting, situation, and mentality. And you know what? Who the hell cares! More characters should be like Ash Williams, because Ash Williams is awesome. I look forward to a Nintendo game wherein Mario has a chainsaw arm and boomstick.
  • Stupid soldiers: I’m not a big fan of the sheer number of times Frank gets shot. Could we stick to monsters that generally claw, jump, and maybe spit acid? That feels a little more…. normal for a zombie apocalypse.
  • HadoukenDid you know? The original Dead Rising was chastised for employing a font that was optimized for HD resolutions, and was practically unreadable on old, standard definition televisions. This problem indicates that Dead Rising was initially released billions of years ago, possibly before the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  • Would I play again: I might be rough on the general messaging of Dead Rising 4, but that’s just because I hate a society that is somehow based on “buy all our playsets and toys”. Once you get past that, this is a pretty fun game, and I would gladly stomp around Willamette again (with the aid of a flamethrower car). I have always enjoyed “free mode” in Dead Rising, so I’m not exactly upset I don’t have to micromanage Frank’s life to have a good time. I’ll be back in time for Christmas!

What’s next? Speaking of Christmas, we’re going to have a look at another Christmas adventure… uh… kinda. Check back on Christmas Day for some holiday hijinks! Please look forward to it!

Go Captain