Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Further Final Fantasy XII Thoughts and Impressions

I'm currently about 40 hours in and approximately 60-70% through Final Fantasy XII and have come to realize that there's a lot to unpack here. So rather than save it all for an epically long review once I complete the game, I thought I'd give some updated thoughts and impressions from what I've experienced so far:
  • I often hear FFXII referred to as a “single-player MMORPG” and I've come to realize this pretty much exactly what I want from the modern JRPG. The MMO battle mechanics are a great way to modernize and speed up traditional turn-based combat while still requiring a layer of strategy often absent from the more button-mashy battles of an action RPG. Unfortunately, unlike in a proper MMO, there's no way to edit button mapping or assign hotkeys to commonly-used abilities. Thus, every time I want to take control of a character away from the Gambit system (i.e. player-defined AI routines), there are entirely too many button presses and menus involved in order to select the spells/skills I want. However, due to the age of this game, I can be somewhat forgiving of this clunky interface.
  • I've observed that the difficulty curve of the main storyline quest seems to have a lot of spikes and steps. I often experience abrupt shifts from steamrolling enemies in one zone to getting decimated in the next even though I rarely ever avoid battles. Did the designers of the game intend for the player to take breaks to grind between every story beat? This would be a departure from the other Final Fantasy games that I've played.
  • The irregular difficulty curve coupled with this game's unique battle system makes it very easy to throw off the balance of combat. Playing straight through a story quest will cause boss battles to be like hitting a wall. However, if the party is over-leveled from taking grinding breaks, those same boss battles will essentially play themselves out without any real strategy or input from the player due to the Gambit system. Ideally I want to be a manager of my AI-controlled party, manually adjusting the strategy and putting out fires as needed while the gambits handle the rest, but this has been a difficult equilibrium to maintain.
  • While the story thus far hasn't been quite as gripping as some of the other Final Fantasies, I've really been enjoying the setting of Ivalice. It truly feels like a fully realized and cohesive world rather than a series of disparate fantasy environments linked together by story conceits. It becomes more apparent as I play that the voice acting contributes quite significantly to this sense of place. The fact that each region in the game world has its own accent (Archades – English, Dalmasca – American, Rozzaria – Eastern European, etc) is a nice little touch that allows the player to tell where a new character is from as soon as they begin speaking. I'm definitely curious to try out other Square-Enix games set in Ivalice such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story as a result.
Overall, I've been having a lot of fun with Final Fantasy XII and am looking forward to playing through the final third of the adventure. As tempted as I am to dig deep, I'll probably continue to stick primarily to the critical path and limit my side quests since there are still many more big RPGs and open-world games I'm planning to tackle before the end of the year. Stay tuned for my wrap-up and review of Final Fantasy XII within the next few weeks!

Friday, August 26, 2016

AM2R Review

A remake of a classic that retains some old-school frustrations

For those unfamiliar, AM2R is an unofficial fan-made PC remake of the 1991 Gameboy game Metroid II Return of Samus. This particular entry in the series is an especially dark chapter in the adventures of Samus Aran in which she is tasked with traveling to the home planet of the Metroids to slaughter every last one with the hope of rendering the parasitic species extinct.

While I haven't played the original version of Metroid II, I've spent enough time with Metroid and Super Metroid to have a pretty good feel for classic 2D Metroid gameplay. Based on gameplay footage I've seen of the original Gameboy version, this remake does a great job of updating the somewhat crude and clunky mechanics and presentation of the original to a Super Metroid-like level of quality. Not only are the graphics and music greatly improved, but there are other more significant upgrades such as the addition of an auto-map, improved UI, and a revised control scheme. The overall level of polish on this remake is so high that I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was playing a fan project rather than an official Nintendo-developed remake.

Quality of the package aside, my actual experience of playing the game was a somewhat mixed bag. For most of my play-through the basic cycle of exploring an area, eliminating the Metroids, getting a new ability, and unlocking the next area was a simple yet satisfying process. The remake's designers did a great job updating the design of each area such that what was once just a series of monochromatic hallways has become alien ruins, abandoned factories, mazes of vines, and other such varied settings. However, in each of these areas you will be doing pretty much the exact same thing. While there are over 50 Metroids to exterminate, there are only about 4 or so types of Metroid; so be prepared to fight the same handful of mini-bosses over and over again.Thankfully there are a few unique bosses spread throughout the game that do help to break up the monotony somewhat, but most of these bosses are bullet sponges so you'll be in for some long fights. Also, this game commits one of my biggest videogaming pet peeves: not having save points immediately before boss battles. Several of the late game bosses will require a 5+ minute hike from the last save point every time Samus gets killed in action. All this being said, most of these are structural issues from the original Metroid II that are preserved due to the faithfulness of the remake. While I certainly have my fair share of gripes, there was definitely some fun to be had here, so if you have fond memories of the Gameboy game, or have been craving classic 2D Metroid action, this well-made fan remake should more than fit the bill. In the event that you're not a Metroid hardliner and are just interested in this style of game in general, there are much more well-rounded "Metroidvania" games on PC that you could be playing. I would suggest giving Guacamelee or Shantae and the Pirate's Curse a look before you get around to AM2R.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 7 hours, 52 minutes (finished story w/ 72% of items found)

Other Observations:
Playing AM2R got me thinking about the Metroid series overall and the fact that while I've generally enjoyed each game in the series that I've played (AM2R included), it's never quite grabbed me the way other Nintendo franchises have. I think what it comes down to is this: Without signigicant supporting characters, plot arcs, or changes in tone to keep things fresh, all that reamins is the core gameplay loop which inevitably gets repetive long before a given Metroid game is over. The world of Metroid has not really ever been fleshed out, so every game pretty much boils down to Samus alone on a desolate planet battling aliens.  As cool of a character as Samus may be, the entire weight of keeping the series going rests  soley upon her broad armor-plated shoulders, and for me, that's just not enough to keep me engaged anymore now that we have such a wealth of more colorful and varied Metroid-likes to choose from.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Recommendation: Eternal Senia

Since the games I'm currently playing are all taking a little longer than expected to finish, it'll probably be a little while before I have any new reviews or impressions to post. So, I'm going to take this time to recommend a game that that I finished a few months ago that was a pleasant little surprise: Eternal Senia. This is title is a short little indie action RPG that's currently available on Steam for free. Even though I'm usually a cheapskate, I generally avoid games that are listed as "free to play" since there's almost always a catch. For once, that's not at all the case; the game is actually just straight-up free since it was made and distributed as a labor of love by its designer. It also helped that the game came highly recommended by Syrenne McNulty from 4 Corner Games (she has yet to stear my wrong). Another bonus is that the game only takes a few hours to complete so it was easy to work into my queue. Keep in mind going into this one that it's a very low budget RPG Maker-style affair by someone whose first language is not English. That being said, see below for my brief review and a link to the Steam page for Eternal Senia:

Eternal Senia, A Sweet Indie RPG
This is a fun little RPG that was clearly made with a lot of heart. For a short game, it manages to pack in far more character development than I expected. The script does suffer slightly though from a somewhat flawed but still very readable English translation. The gameplay has a simple old-school feel (like a greatly simplified version of Illusion of Gaia) that makes for a satisfying experience, but is certainly not without its rough edges. The music is pretty nice as well. Considering that this game was made pretty much exclusively by one person as a passion project and was given out for free, it's pretty impressive. This is the first game from this developer and I'm definitely interested to see what he comes out with next.
Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 6 hours for 100% completion including seeing all 3 endings

Eternal Senia on Steam

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Returning to Final Fantasy XII

Of all the games in my backlog, Final Fantasy XII has probably been in there the longest. I played about half-way through it a little while after it was released, almost a decade ago at this point, but ended up having to put down and haven't been able to get back to it since. Dropping back into the middle of such a long and complex game and trying to find my bearings after so much time has passed seemed to be such a daunting task that I found myself repeatedly shuffling the game backward in my queue. However, a great series of posts in one of my favorite blogs inspired me to start the game fresh from the beginning and to run the game on my PC via emulation rather than dusting off my old PS2 (click here for more info). After applying some up-scaling effects and filters, the game looks absolutely amazing. If you're interested in this and other great geeky topics, I'd highly recommend checking out the A Green Mushroom blog by Void.

I'm about 15 hours into Final Fantasy XII so far, and I've really been enjoying it. I somehow did not initially pick up on all the Star Wars parallels in this game, but now that they've been pointed out to me, I can't un-see them. This is by no means a complaint, though; I've always felt that Star Wars made for a better game setting than movie setting, and a game that is essentially Final Fantasy meets Star Wars is pretty much the ultimate dream mash-up of childhood favorite franchises. In addition to the Star Wars connection, Final Fantasy XII almost seems to have biblical elements to its themes that make me think of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, but maybe that's just me.

As for the gameplay, it's held up pretty well. However, this time around I've made an adjustment to how I play the game that's greatly enhanced my enjoyment; I assigned each character a defined role. The game's License Board system tends to cause each character to become an interchangeable jack-of-all-trades, so I decided to create some self-imposed rules to keep each character unique. While I'm aware that there's the International Zodiac edition of this game that has rigidly defined character classes as well as some self-imposed class system challenges, I decided to take a role-player's approach, basing my builds on the personality traits of each character. See below for an example character sheet I made to illustrate the idea:

I've found that using this make-shift system has added an extra strategic layer to battles, but still has enough flexibility to keep me from getting stuck and having to grind my way out of a tough situation. Unless something really jumps out at me, I'm going to hold my in-depth thoughts on the other aspects (mechanics, story, music, etc) of Final Fantasy XII until I write my review once I finish the game. It'll take me a few weeks to get to that point, so expect my next few posts to be about smaller games I play on the side.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Welcome to Tales from the Backlog! I'm Capsulejay and this a blog in which I'll collect my thoughts and impressions as I tackle my videogame backlog while also playing some of the highlights from the current release schedule. The main focus will be on games available for Nintendo systems and PC. I've been kicking around the idea of starting a game blog for some time now, but like any self-respecting millennial, it took a hashtag and a made-up holiday (#Blaugust) to motivate me to finally get started.

The way I keep track of my gaming backlog is by using a videogame library manager called Grouvee. I could gush all day about how great Grouvee is (especially that it automatically syncs with Steam), but I'll spare you that and just say that I highly recommend it if you have a big library of games to sort through. For the past year, I've also been writing reviews for each game I beat in my backlog and posting them to my Grouvee profile. Any subsequent reviews I write will be posted here as well. See links below for my backlog and those previous reviews:

As for the hardware I'm playing on, for the past decade or so, I've primarily been a pure Nintendo guy, so I of course have a 3DS and a Wii U as well as most of the previous Nintendo systems. However, a year ago I decided to dive back into PC gaming (my wife's influence), so I also have a self-assembled gaming desktop computer. If you're interested in the specs or details of that machine, see the write-ups I did for PC Part Picker below:

Original Budget Machine:

A related topic I'll be covering in this blog are “gaming shames,” i.e. games that as a life-long gamer I'm embarrassed to say that I've never played. I'm making it a goal to finally get to some of these will post more about each one as I play them.

I'm looking forward to traveling further on this backlog journey, sharing my thoughts, and discussing games; so thanks for reading and expect my first game-specific post very soon!

PS: Feel free to hit me up on Twitter!