Monday, May 2, 2011

Four Months, Six Games...

So, it's certainly been a while since I bothered to post anything on The Curmudgeonly Gamer, primarily because it seemed that there was no audience for it.  I have since reevaluated that decision after a number of fantastic games have come out this year, and they haven't gotten more than a glancing blow by the blogosphere or by traditional gaming news outlets.  In fact, no fewer than <i>six</i> great games have come out, most of which have either slipped under the radar or have simply fallen to the wayside as "relics of games gone by."  By now, we should know this perception of games to be a non-starter in the world of game reviews, but the urge for all things bright and shiny still seems to trump a quality gaming experience. So, without further ado, I give you the Six Games in Just Four Months:

6.)  Pokemon Black/White (Nintendo DS)

Pokemon - Black VersionPokemon - White Version

I have spent much of the last fifteen years avoiding Pokemon like the plague, calling the "fad" (which swept all of Japan and much of the below-15 U.S. population like a tsunami......too soon?) childish and not worth my attentions.  However, over the past few months, I went on a massive online shopping binge and ended up purchasing almost every Pokemon game for nearly ever system (discount the Gamecube/Wii games), and I have to say, aside from the massively repetitive gameplay and underwhelming graphics, I have been quite impressed with the series as a whole.

The most recent incarnation of this series has been Pokemon Black/White; two separate games for the Nintendo DS that came out, this spring, to the welcoming arms of a highly anticipatory gaming community (both the gamers and the reviewers).  While most fans of the games, themselves, were concerned, these games were just another opportunity to increase the number of unique Pokemon in their Pokedexes; the reviewers, however, were not so forgiving.

The overall consensus about the games was "We're really glad to see a new Pokemon game, but the gameplay hasn't really improved ENOUGH over the last release to make it worth the money."  I have to say, only having played LeafGreen and Black at this point (I'm trying to go from the beginning of the storyline to the end in chronological order), I have to say that I likely agree with that sentiment.

Pokemon Black/White was, in my opinion, a bit premature for its release date, which doesn't make much sense until you see the timing of its release in comparison to the release of the Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo's newest market-crushing handheld console.  Here we have the next-gen Pokemon game, which offers gameplay in mostly 3D polygonal graphics with smooth screen-to-screen transitions, animated Pokemon, and a fully functional world, and they couldn't have simply developed it for a system that could really take the series to the next level?

Ah, but wait...there's more to this story than meets the jaundiced eye.  When planning a game's release, the system of that release is something to think about in terms of profit margins.  This game was released in a massively intelligent manner, as it could be purchased either separately or in a Nintendo DSi bundle, which included individually designed DSi consoles to match the game you purchased.  What a PERFECT way to ensure continuing sales of the outgoing system (which is still superior to the awkward DSi XL)!  Release a game that you are certain will sell like hotcakes to prop up the system you're going to be phasing out over the next two years.

Hot on the heels of Black/White came the Nintendo 3DS, which, unfortunately for Nintendo, was not released with any games worth more than a passing glace.  Sure...Street Fighter 3DS, The Sims 3D, and LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars 3D all deserve an honorable mention, but frankly, neither the gamers nor the reviewers were impressed with the lackluster cadre of games released for the initial launch of Nintendo's first salvo in their war on the gaming world.  

Sadly, the 3DS could have offered Pokemon Black/White a perfect platform for the game, which might have increased its value, but let's face it: a main-series Pokemon title is going to fly off the shelves regardless of whether or not it's living up to its full potential as a game, and Nintendo, as well as every gaming fan, knows it.

Overall, however, Pokemon Black/White offers dedicated Pokemon fans yet another opportunity to while away dozens, if not hundreds, of hours in their crack-like addiction to "catching them all."  The new Pokemon are similar to their older brethren, and while there's not much fresh in the way of innovative gaming involved, there doesn't really need to be.  Fans will buy it just for the sake of continuing the adventures they have so loved for nearly two decades.

5.) Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy (PSP)

Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy

Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite characters from the Final Fantasy series battled it out Mortal Combat-style?


Me, either.

So, being that I am a collector of all things Final Fantasy, I purchased the Dissidia Final Fantasy games simply to complete my collection (much like Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus, the oft maligned and critically panned shooter from the FF VII collection), and frankly, I should have stuck with my gut instinct and just skipped them both altogether.

Dissidia Final Fantasy games operate on the premise that there are two opposing factions of Light and Darkness in the world, and gives you the opportunity (after completing the main game) to fight as either side.  You, too, can now experience the boredom of fighting through a wholly linear script and feel like you've just spent $30 for a total waste of time and effort.

Luckily, Square-Enix recognizes the massively limited replay value of these games and, in a half-hearted effort to compensate for what is ultimately a beautiful yet underwhelmingly lackluster gaming experience by supplementing every other SE release with a special game code to unlock special costumes for the playable characters.  Now, you can dress Cecil from Final Fantasy IV in his Paladin outfit OR his Dark Knight outfit.  Wow!!!  WHAT A VALUE!!!

The problem with attempting to branch out to new audiences is that you ultimately end up losing some of your potential audiences.  With each fighting game fan SE gains with this series, it loses out on potential RPG fans - the gamers that are SE's bread and butter.  Though the technology and graphics are beautiful, the games just fall flat for anyone who would rather seek out new treasures, farm for rare item drops, and care about his characters.

Overall, Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy is such a letdown that it's almost not even worth the money to download it.  For those of you who have a PSP, save yourself the load times and the loud UMD disk and download it off the Playstation Network (once they finally bring it back online).  You'll thank yourself in the end.

4.) Ys I & II Chronicles (PSP)

YS: I&II Chronicles

Ys is one of the most storied game series of the last thirty years, and the first two games, in particular, have been released and re-released ad nauseum.  Though this incarnation is certainly graphically beautiful, the game, itself, is just not worth retelling over and over again.

But, let my back up a bit, to the original release of the game.  Ys was one of those games that required the patience of a saint.  Seemingly modeled off of The Legend of Zelda, minus the use of a sword or any sort of direction, Ys pits the player against a mostly unnamed and unidentifiable dark force that's stolen the two Books of Ys.  How you're supposed to know where to go and what to do is still a mystery to me, and without the aid of game guides, I would have NO clue where to go.

Though these games are classics, I have to question why they needed <i>yet another</i> release.  To date, these games have been re-released three times in the span of a little over two years, including both games being released on the Wii Virtual Console, as well as on the Nintendo DS.  How many times do these games need to be released before the profits fail to show.  I would imagine that this is the one that might finally do them in.

3.) LEGO Star Wars III: Clone Wars (PS3/3DS)

LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone WarsLEGO Star Wars III The Clone Wars 3D

I have been a big fan of the LEGO game series, but have always been a somewhat vocal critic of the LEGO Star Wars series, primarily because of their gameplay mechanics.  This game is no different.

While the other games in the LEGO series tell fantastic and engaging stories with cute characters, the Star Wars series have always fallen flat with me.  Maybe it's because I feel like the story has already been adequately told and retold thousands of times, and I just don't need to see anymore Star Wars; but's just not that great a story without words.

The biggest issue I have with the series is the gameplay mechanics.  The 3D version of the game goes a long way to fix some of the depth perception issues that plagued the first three games, but ended up creating new ones by insisting that space battles were necessary to advance the story.  Imagine're fighting a battle in a tiny aircraft in boundless space, surrounded by identical stars, and myriad 3D objects flying at you so quickly that it's impossible to keep track of what's going on around you.  Throw in some difficult to maneuver controls and a nearly worthless radar screen at the bottom, and you've got yourself a clutster fuck!

Those who like Star Wars are certain to love this game.  I, however, do not.

2.)  Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation (Nintendo DS)

Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation

Finally, after over a decade of waiting, Dragon Quest VI, the only main series DQ game to never hit US soil, made its way Stateside on the Nintendo DS.  Avid DQ fans have been chomping at the bit for an official release ever since the game was illegally translated and ported via rom on the internet some ten years ago.  And the verdict is...

It's okay.  Not a revelation, by any means, in the JRPG franchise, but a good game, nonetheless.

DQ VI takes place in two corresponding worlds that affect one another - if you do something in one world, a corresponding change occurs in the other.  This was a pretty revolutionary advent in the 1990s, but doesn't really carry over well to today's gamers.  

Part of the issue is that Dragon Quests IV-VI were remade by the same company for the DS, and all look graphically identical.  The game sprites look similar, as do the monsters, and the gameplay is identical in all three games.  While it's great to see these games get a new port, and I'm very glad to complete my entire DQ collection, the freshness just falls flat when three very identical games are released over three years.

Don't get me wrong; I loved EVERY single hour of gameplay on all three games, but it didn't fulfill my craving for a newer, better Dragon Quest.  With the release of last year's Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, Square-Enix ventured into downloadable and social gaming in a way that revolutionized the series...and I can't WAIT for that nonsense to be done with.  What may work in Japan where scores of Japanese DQ fans wander around with their DS ready to play, does not work in the US and EU markets.  Try as Gamestop might, it's often difficult to get the often agoraphobic gamer community to gather together in one location.  Those who do connect with one another do so in an online setting; not by getting within twenty-five feet to exchange treasure maps and get guests in their inns.

To my way of thinking, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is still the quintessential DQ game, bringing together phenomenal gameplay with excellent music, mapping, and a storyline.  The perspective was wonderful when traveling around the world, allowing you to see things from the character's perspective as you wander around woods, castles, towns, and oceans.  This was the game that rebooted the flagging and forgotten Dragon Quest series, and made it, once again, a beloved title in the US.  Let's hope that Dragon Quest X on the Nintendo Wii will bring us back to that style of gaming.

1.) Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection (PSP)

Final Fantasy IV The Complete Collection

Without further ado, my favorite game this year, by far, is Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection.  I have to admit that FFIV was the one game in the series that, more than any other, drew me into its world wholly and completely.  The game came out in 1991, and was originally released in the US as Final Fantasy II on the SNES, and I purchased it on my tenth birthday with all the money I'd received over the holidays - to put that in perspective, I purchased the game for around $85 at a K-Mart. actually sold for $85 each for cartridge game.  Ridiculous.

At any rate, Final Fantasy IV has since seen no fewer than five remakes localized in the US for the PSX, GBA, Wii Virtual Console, DS, and finally for the PSP, each of which brought its own unique updates on the game that revolutionized the JRPG industry by incorporating a set of complex characters with a great plot, an overarching theme, and standard setting Active-Time Battle system (also the first of its kind).  But, is The Complete Collection the best version of the game, to date?

Honestly, I'd have to say, "Possibly."  Really, it's a toss-up between the DS version and the PSP version, but for different reasons.  While the DS version of this game brought a literally new perspective and voice acting to the game, the underlying framework that made the game wonderful in the first place remained intact.  I wasn't thrilled, however, with the confusing and oftentimes overwrought Augment System, whereby certain abilities and skills could be taught to characters to customize them to your liking.  I've never been a big fan of this kind of system, as it often leaves players uncertain as to the best way to complete the game, nor does it really make for great replay value. 

The PSP version has what the others don't - more content.  The new release contains the original game with updated graphics, music, and gameplay, along with the previously serialized Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (a somewhat disjointed and convoluted mess of a downloadable game released first on mobile phones in Japan and then on the Wii Ware network), as well as a brief Interlude game to bridge the gap between the two games.  The graphics alone are enough to make me squeal with joy, but when I have prospect of not having to pay for a new update every week, my heart skips a beat.  In this version, the 3D perspective is missing, but that's okay.  We're back to what made the game great, in the first place - a solid story, great characters, and cool monsters with impossible to attack rare drops...which leads me to the following bad news:

There are some drawbacks, however, as with any game, regardless of how nostalgic, and Final Fantasy IV suffers from one severe drawback - rare item drops from its myriad monsters.  I get it - getting that ultimate weapon shouldn't be something easy, but an item with a .078% drop rate is a bit outlandish.  After having the game for nearly two weeks, I have now spent almost 70 hours playing the game, about 60 of which were spent farming for these rare (and surprisingly not-worth-it) items.  Sure, the collector in me likes getting a perfect game, but at this point, is it really worth it?  I say, "YES, BITCH!"  Others may disagree.

All that aside, I will always think of Final Fantasy IV as the game that helped me get through my childhood.  It offered solace for me when I needed a break from my crazy family, and I spent countless hours playing and beating the game over and over again.  When I step back into that world, I am transported back to a time when I honestly believed that I could be that knight; that I could fight and win these battles; that I could be the hero.  If only life were a bit more like that, with floating Bomb creatures, and kingdoms that protect a crystal behind the throne...

Dare to dream.

And with that, I bid thee adieu, and wish all of you a fantastic week!