Sunday, October 6, 2019

Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Review


Listening to gaming podcasts back in 2017, I felt like every week marked the release of yet another must-play critically acclaimed game. Here we are in 2019, and I still feel like I'm playing catch-up with titles from this one jam-packed year. Among all these 2017 critical darlings, Hellblade caught my attention since it was lauded for having a strong story and contained scope (a big ask in that year's onslaught of open-world adventures). 

Overview:
Hellblade is a narrative-driven third-person adventure game that features action combat and puzzle-solving. The story of the game follows Senua, a Viking warrior, who is descending into hell to retrieve the soul of her slain husband. In addition to navigating the perils of the underworld, Senua struggles with her mental health and is haunted by memories of her traumatic past. The developer consulted with psychiatric professionals in creating depictions of conditions like schizophrenia and PTSD for this game.

Pros:
  • Hellblade offers a variety of equally beautiful and creepy environments; putrid swamps, desolate beaches, and of course, firey hellscapes are all depicted with a level of detail that makes them feel very real. Some of the more surreal parts of the underworld are particularly visually striking. The use of flame effects and shadows are also very well done.
  • This game has fantastic sound design. Positional audio effects really make it sound like the voices in Senua’s head are coming from all directions. The game also uses spatial audio cues are used to help the player navigate the environment; using a good headset is essential. 
  • The voice acting for Senua and all voices in her head is quite strong, even though I found the script itself to be pretty one-note.
  • Throughout the game, Senua can find and activate rune stones that play voice recordings the explain the Norse mythology associated with the situations Senua finds herself in. These recordings are in-character as one of the voices in Senua’s head. This kind of made me feel like I was in a museum as I traveled through Viking hell, but it was interesting to learn about an ancient culture as I played.

Cons:
  • Initially, I liked the deliberate and weighty feel of the combat. However, as the game repeatedly presented kill rooms with wave after wave of the same few enemies, battles quickly began to feel like a chore.
  • Hellblade has some good puzzles, but much like the combat, the variety is extremely limited. Once I had seen a few examples of each type of puzzle early in the game, it was then just a matter of the same thing being repeated many times over for the rest of the game.
  • While the environments Senua explores look great, I often had issues with navigating them. The game is inconsistent with what terrain our Viking heroine can and cannot traverse; in some cases, she can vault over tall obstacles, in others, a 1-foot tall object obstructs her path. Which doors can and can't be opened is similarly inconsistent. While there are some visual clues as to where the context-sensitive interaction points are located, I still regularly resorted to trial and error.
  • A few areas of the game involve running through burning buildings or running from monsters. I had a couple of occasions where these tense moments were disrupted by Senua getting snagged on something in the environment, resulting in an immediate game over. 
  • Every time you continue from the game over screen, an infection in Senua's hand creeps a little further up her arm. The game warns you very strongly at the start of the campaign that getting too many game overs will cause the infection to reach her head, killing her permanently and resetting the campaign back to the beginning. This is a lie. I spent the latter half of the game worrying that my frequent deaths (several of which were not my fault) would result in complete loss of progress, only to observe that it spread of the infection would slow down or even reverse when it got close to Senua's head. While I get that from an artistic standpoint, this mechanic is supposed to enhance the player's feeling of tension in tune with Senua's situation, but I really resent that this game's messaging deliberately misleads the player.
  • The tone of the game's story is largely doom and gloom the whole way through. Since it's apparent that the heroine's journey is hopeless from the very beginning, I found it hard to find something to latch on to and feel truly invested despite strong presentation and performances.
  • Hellblade's campaign takes about nine hours to complete but still managed to feel long due to its repetitive gameplay and one-note story.
I really wanted to like Hellblade, but it just didn't work for me. There segments of the game that offer compelling gameplay or interesting themes but rarely did these elements gel together in a cohesive way. While I wouldn't say I regret playing Hellblade because it tried some novel things, I was eager to be done with it partway through. Since this is a case where the artistic vision is strong but the execution didn't quite land, I'd still be interested to try another game from this developer in the future. However, for Hellblade itself, I would only recommend it to those who value artistic expression highly enough to overlook the game's other issues.

Score:
Completion Time: 9 hours






Sunday, September 22, 2019

Forza Horizon 4 Review


As I mentioned in my review of TimeSpinner, most of my time with the Xbox Game Pass catalog has been devoted to indie games rather than AAA titles. The one exception so far has been one of the games that drew me to Microsoft’s subscription platform when I saw it demoed at E3: Forza Horizon 4. While most racing games I play are completely removed from anything resembling real-life motorsports (e.g. Mario Kart, Fast RMX), there was something about this game’s ability to balance simulation and arcade racing that caught my interest.

Overview:
Forza Horizon 4 is an open-world racing game set in an environment based on Scotland and rural England. Throughout the game, seasons can change affecting the weather and terrain. Players can drive a wide variety of automobiles, ranging from exotic sports cars to delivery trucks, around the map to enter in different racing events. Races primarily come in three forms: road races, dirt track races, and cross-country (i.e. off-road) races. Forza Horizon 4 can be played as a single-player game or as an online multiplayer game. This review will focus on the singleplayer experience.

Observations:
  • It probably goes without saying that Forza Horizon 4 is absolutely gorgeous. The car models look incredible and, considering the size of the map, the environments are impressively detailed. As you would expect for a game that prominently features changing seasons, the weather effects look splendid. Part of why I wanted this game was to test my new graphics card; running the game on Ultra did not disappoint!
  • The one graphical element that does not look especially polished, is the player character (aka the Drivatar). These racecar driver characters represent the player in pre- and post-race scenes. Their appearance and movements are a little awkward but in an almost charming way. The player can customize the Drivatar's appearance with unlockable outfits, but since outfits can only be changed at one map location, I found that I didn't engage with this feature very much.
  • Of the three main types of races, I found I much preferred off-road and dirt events. These events allowed for more jumps and corner-cutting, which made them more exciting. Also, the effects of the changing weather are much more pronounced in these types of races (mud pits during rain, frozen lakes, snow, etc). Regardless of race type, I generally stuck with all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicles for better handling on all types of terrain.  
  • I appreciated that the game lets you adjust the level of realism and AI difficulty independently. I used normal realism and advanced AI settings. This made for a somewhat forgiving driving experience that allowed me to pull off drifts and get away with scraping the occasion guard rail, but still have challenging opponents to race against. If you're consistently winning (or losing) by a significant margin, the game will recommend adjustments.
  • One of my favorite features is the ability to rewind time a few seconds at any given point in a race. This keeps you from having to restart a whole race due to having a single accident. This feature prevents the game from ever getting repetitive or frustrating. (The feature can be disabled for those who want a more hardcore experience.)
  • The game breaks up regular racing with a couple of side activities. Two such activities, Wheel Spins and Barn Finds, are fun ways to get new cars rather than just buying them with race winnings. Wheel Spins are game-show like random chance opportunities that are earned throughout the game. Barn Finds are hidden locations on the map where are abandoned cars can be found; after being restored, these vehicles tend to be some of the best in the game.
  • Stunt events are another way to break up racing and get new cars. These feature some pretty cool set pieces in exotic vehicles, but unfortunately, they often involve a lengthy commute because the car is often picked up at a location fairly far from where the stunt will take place.
  • Of all the special events, my favorites were the Showcases. These involve racing matchups between highly irregular vehicle pairings (for example, in the first one you race a pickup truck against a hovercraft). While these largely exist as set pieces rather than true racing challenges, they're still a lot of fun and unlocking them serves as a satisfying goal to work towards.
  • The single-player experience is structured as a year-long event in which the seasons transition after earning the required amount of "Influence" (basically experience points) from winning races, participating in special events, and finding hidden items in the environment. Usually, a showcase event unlocks right before the season change, making it feel kind of like the racing equivalent of a boss battle. This setup makes what could have otherwise felt like an aimless sandbox still feel like a proper single-player campaign. 
  • Once you play through all four seasons in the campaign, the game switches to a live game mode, where the seasons change automatically once a week. In this mode, new sets of races and special events become available on a rotating basis. Most of these can be played as single-player or multi-player events.
I'm generally not a car guy, but I absolutely loved Forza Horizon 4. It's been my biggest pleasant surprise of the year! Since the game features so many adjustable settings to make it approachable for players regardless of skill level, I highly recommend anybody with an Xbox One or gaming PC give it a shot!

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 12 hours (main campaign with some side events)

Acknowledgment: This review was written as part of the #SportSeptember community event from the Chic-Pixel blog. Check out this post for their full calendar of monthly events!





Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Time Spinner Review


When I first signed up for Xbox Game Pass on PC, I had expected that I would be using the service to play through a lot of big marquee Microsoft titles (e.g. Halo, Forza, Gears). Instead, I’ve found myself primarily using the service as a way to try out indie games that I’ve heard good things about but haven’t been motivated to seek out and buy individually. One such title came out earlier this year, TimeSpinner.

Overview
TimeSpinner is an indie platformer that is heavily inspired by the Castlevania games directed by Koji Igarashi. The story follows Lunais, a time-traveler, who uses her time manipulation abilities and other magic powers to seek revenge against the Empire after they desecrated her village and wiped out her people.

Observations
  • I’ve played a lot of Metroidvania games, but this one is by far the most upfront about its source of inspiration. Everything from the UI to the controls looks and feels straight out of Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow. 
  • Like the aforementioned Castlevania games, TimeSpinner has very nice pixel art. I liked the level of detail on the design and movement of the enemies. There were also some areas that used multiple layers of parallax scrolling to make for some very cool looking backgrounds. The color pallet in most environments is quite muted, which is not my preferred aesthetic, but it's fitting to the game's tone.
  • Lunais has a variety of weapons and special attacks that can be upgraded and swapped around as the situation requires. While the combat was very simple, customizing her loadout helped keep things feeling fresh.
  • The implementation of time manipulation mechanics ended up being much more minimal than I expected. At certain warp points, you can travel back in time, which brings you to an alternate version of the map. The other time power allows you to temporarily freeze time which is useful for avoiding attacks and using frozen enemies as platforms to reach high ledges. I was hoping that manipulating time would be used for puzzle solving, but that ended up not being the case. For the most part, time travel serves primarily as a plot device.
  • TimeSpinner has a surprisingly detailed story and very rich lore. While the player gets some of this via dialog in cutscenes, much of the material is delivered via letters, journal entries, and other text documents that you find by exploring the world. There are dozens of such documents to collect and each is several pages long. This might be appealing for some players, but for me, this method of world-building did not manage to grab me. The text file approach can work for me in lengthier games where it’s spread out over many hours of gameplay (for example, see my review of Final Fantasy 13), however, in a 9-hour platformer, I’m not looking to spend lots of time reading text in menus. 
  • Despite not reading the lore files, I was still able to follow and appreciate the story reasonably well. The characters felt a little bland, however.
Overall, TimeSpinner is a well-made platformer in the style of Symphony of the Night, whose main point of differentiation, it’s lore, didn’t really click with me. A few years ago, I think this game could have made a pretty big splash, but in 2019’s crowded field of Metroidvania titles, it doesn’t really stand out. For big fans of the genre, I still think playing TimeSpinner is well worth your time; for those just looking to play the crème of the Metroidvania crop, TimeSpinner can probably be skipped.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion time: 11 hours




Sunday, August 25, 2019

Four Job Fiesta 2019 Wrap-up


This past weekend marked the close of my third Four Job Fiesta campaign! Once again, I managed to finish the game in even less time and lower levels than in previous years. Here are some highlights:

  • This year's Name My Butz charity auction was our most successful yet! The top bidder donated $20 (US) to Child's Play and selected the name "Waffle" for our party leader! As a special thanks to our generous donor, I let her pick which class Waffle would be assigned next whenever she was watching the stream.
  • At the Wind Crystal, I rolled a Thief. Considering this class can only use knives, it had decent physical damage output but without the ability to equip heavy armor, their toughness left a lot to be desired and made for some very tough early boss battles. The Steal and Mug abilities proved to be very useful, however.
  • My Water Crystal job was a returning one from my 2017 campaign, Red Mage. As is typical of Red Mages, they were valuable in the earliest parts of the campaign, primarily for healing but became obsolete about halfway through. After that, I got a little more utility out of them for their rod-breaking ability (i.e. sacrificing an elemental weapon to cast a higher level offensive black magic spell) during a few key boss battles.
  • The Fire Crystal delivered a blessing in disguise: Bard. I initially thought this class would be a dud but it proved to be extremely useful. Particularly, Bard's ability to put regular enemies in a sleep/stop state made random encounters so much easier. The Bard also has some very useful full-party buffs for boss battles. I'm really glad that this year's Fiesta gave me an opportunity to learn this previously overlooked class!
  • At the Earth Crystal, we had another repeat: Chemist. Even more so than last year, the weight of the last few dungeons almost completely rested on the Chemist's slender nerdy shoulders. Since I lacked any strong physical attackers this year, the Chemist ended up being my primary damage-dealer, using various Mix! formulae to attack bosses ("Holy Water + Dragon Fang = Holy Breath" was easily the one I used the most). Thankfully, the Thief in my party was able to steal plenty of reagents for my Chemist to use.
  • The battle against Exdeath was quite difficult this year since I was almost entirely reliant on buffs and chemistry to keep me alive and deal damage. After several failed attempts at level 35, I backtracked a bit to grind up to level 40 and gather more chemical reagents. While on paper, Waffle was my Chemist, everyone else in the party was still making use of the Mix! ability nearly every turn. After using buffing mixtures like Dragon Power (temporary +20 to level), Goliath Tonic (temporary double HP), and Turtle Guard (Shell + Protect) in the first phase of the final battle, it was just a matter of mixing up as many Holy Breaths (Holy elemental damage) as possible while keeping everyone's HP up. I ended up taking down Neo Exdeath with all four party members still alive!
  • Between donations from the auction, Twitch viewers, and my own contributions, $60 went to Child's Play this year. While I didn't beat my previous record, I'm still happy with this result and very thankful to the generosity of the donors! Next time I do this, I'll try to come up with more interactive ways to encourage people to donate (like the auction) since that seemed to get the biggest response. 
While I had fun with this year's campaign, I found it a little harder to keep motivated this time around. This was due to a combination of having two returning classes, which made the campaign less varied than before, and my work schedule being a lot more hectic, making it tougher to schedule streams than years past. I was glad that I played the mobile version of Final Fantasy 5 this year, so I could still make progress even when I wasn't able to stream. Thus, I may take a break for next year's Fiesta depending on my schedule. I will also be a little quicker to reroll if I get repeat classes going forward.

All that being said, I wanted to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who donated or tuned into my streams!

Tales of Symphonia Review


While it didn't quite make my original list of gaming shames, getting into the Tales series has long been on my to-do list. After all, it's the number #3 JRPG series (after Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest), so it represents a pretty big hole in my gaming experience as an RPG aficionado.

I consulted with a lot of Tales fans to find out where I should start this prolific series. The responses I got varied wildly; often one fan's favorite entry would be a game another fan despised. However, almost no one seemed to object to the 2004 GameCube hit, Tales of Symphonia. It also helped that the remastered version was on sale on Steam for $5. 😁

Background:
Tales of Symphonia is a fantasy action RPG that uses a combo-based combat system, similar to a fighting game. The story follows Lloyd, a teenage boy serving as a bodyguard for his childhood friend. Collette, who has been selected to go on a cross-country religious pilgrimage. While this game is a part of the long-running Tales series, its story is completely approachable on its own.

Artistic Qualities:
  • This game went the extra mile with character design. Not only are the main characters all a distinct cast of anime people, but even the most basic enemies have detailed models and unique animations. Part of the fun of entering a new dungeon was seeing what new monsters I would encounter.
  • The characters, while fairly tropey by today's standards, are well developed and likable. The dialog is generally solid but at times can be a bit too chatty, especially considering the huge volume of dialog in the game as a whole. 
  • The story has interesting themes; it heavily focuses on discrimination and WW2 allegories while also mixing in some Norse mythology and sci-fi. The tone, however, is all over the place. At times the game jumps back and forth between grim drama and very light anime comedy. It was often jarring but did keep things from feeling stale.
  •  I tried my best to keep up with Symphonia's lore and backstory. After a while, I began to feel like the game's writers made it complicated for the sake of being complicated (there are lots of alliances and betrayals, secret organizations, conspiracies, etc).
  • There are fully voiced story-centric cutscenes as well as dozens of text-based support conversations. Sometimes after a long cutscene, it was frustrating to immediately get pushed into several additional heart-to-heart scenes in which the character reacted to the major events of the previous cutscene. Many of the support conversations were amusing but sometimes felt like too much.
Gameplay:
  • This game has a very smooth difficulty curve. While there were a few bosses I had to try more than once, I never once had to grind. As those who have read my previous RPG reviews probably know, this type of balanced difficulty is something I highly value.
  • Symphonia's battle system is fast-paced and mostly fun but has little strategic depth. Most enemy encounters, even boss battles, are just a matter of spamming your best combos and healing. I could see a lot of players liking the combat's simplicity, but for me, I would have liked something with a little more substance in a game of this length.
  • This game featured lots of systems that I barely used. For example, you can cook food and have characters get assigned special titles. Whether or not I used these seemed to be of little or no consequence.
  • Symphonia's campaign offers a few sidequests but is a mostly linear experience. That worked out well for this game; I liked feeling that I was always making progress (especially since I streamed the whole game on my Twitch channel).
  • Like many older JRPGs, you can only save on the world map or a few specific save points. In dungeons, save points have to be unlocked using an item called a Memory Gem. Each dungeon has one Memory Gem that is dropped by one random enemy somewhere in the labyrinth. The game designers probably set this up as a way of ensuring that a player thoroughly explored the dungeon and had reached the necessary character level before advancing. However, I found this frustrating if I needed to stop playing mid-dungeon and couldn't find the Memory Gem. 
  • I really liked how dungeons featured puzzles instead of just combat and treasure. Not all the puzzles were executed well, but I generally liked what they were going for.
Conclusion:
As I got into the game's later acts, I was feeling like the campaign was padded to be much longer than it needed to be. However, as Symphonia's credits rolled and I reflected on the 50+ hours I had spent with the game, it still left a positive impression; it was certainly a fun ride overall. It'll probably be a while before I play another Tales game (next year at the earliest), but I can see why this series is so popular and I will certainly return to it someday in the future.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 56 hours, 27 minutes (main campaign and a few sidequests)

Note: Streaming a full Tales game, as I did with this one, is a big commitment. It took almost four months of streaming nothing but Tales of Symphonia every week in order to finish it. I will likely stick to streaming shorter games from now on.

Acknowledgment: This post is part of the #Blaugust2019 event held by Tales of the Aggronaut. For more info about Blaugust, check out this article.






Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Monster Boy Review


Monster Boy is a game I played back in winter, but I'm just now getting around to reviewing it. Normally, I review games shortly after finishing them, but in this case, I've come to appreciate this game more the longer I've had time to reflect on it.

Background:
Monster Boy is a hand-drawn 2D Metroidvania game and is a successor to Sega's Wonder Boy series. Throughout the game, the player character increases his ability to explore the environment by learning to transform into various animals. Each animal offers new traversal abilities such as crawling through tight spaces, swimming, or flying.

Observations:
  • The animation and artwork are gorgeous and impressively detailed. Each of the animal forms of the hero feels like they could be a main character in a kid's cartoon and even background NPCs have a distinct sense of personality.
  • In addition to being cute and charming, the different animal forms are a lot of fun to use. The game provides you with ample uses for each one and switching between them is a snappy process. I had so much fun changing between the animal forms, I was actually a little bummed out when I gained the ability to turn back into a human (i.e. the lamest animal).
  • Most Metroidvania games are content to provide a mix of exploration, platforming challenges, and light combat. Monster Boy adds an extra layer of depth by incorporating environmental puzzles into each area. I thought this was a great addition to the standard genre formula even though there were some situations where it wasn't clear what I was supposed to do next.
  • Compared to any other Metroidvania I've played, the game world of Monster Boy is absolutely massive. In fact, it took me over 24 hours to finish this game's campaign; a little over twice as long as any other game I've played in this genre. While I'm glad it wasn't any longer than that, I feel like it kept things interesting for pretty much its entire running time.
  • The story of this game is nothing particularly interesting but it does a good job of introducing the player to the world of Wonder Boy (which I had no prior experience with). I also got a good chuckle out of some of the dialog.
  • I finished this game back in March and I still find myself humming some of its music. Monster Boy has a very strong soundtrack.
When I went to Best Buy to pick up a copy of Monster Boy, I initially balked at the $40 price tag, a heftier price than I've ever paid for a game of this type before. However, after seeing the level of polish in this game's presentation and gameplay, as well as the sheer amount of content on offer, I'm really glad I was able to get over the sticker shock! I think anyone who considers themselves a fan of the Metroidvania genre owes it to themselves to give Monster Boy a shot.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 24 hours, 33 minutes (78.5% completion)

Acknowledgment: This post is part of the #Blaugust2019 event held by Tales of the Aggronaut. In fact, this year's Blaugust marks the third birthday of this blog! For more info about Blaugust, check out this article.



Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Final Fantasy 13 Review


In my quest to play every Final Fantasy game, I was particularly excited to try Final Fantasy 13 because it's one of the most divisive entries in the series. Now that I've finished the game, I can see why that is: even my own feelings on 13 are very conflicted.

Structure:
Final Fantasy 13 presents a distillation of modern Final Fantasy: the game is broken into 13 chapters, each of which consists of battles, cut scenes, and short walks in between. The level design is almost completely linear with little opportunity for exploration. There are no NPCs, towns, and very limited side quests. 

The bright side of this linearity is that that for the first 10 chapters of the campaign, the game always knows exactly which items, characters, and abilities you have at any given moment. This makes for well-balanced boss battles that are challenging and strategic yet require no grinding or item farming to come out on top. This linear design also makes the pacing of the game feel fairly quick since you're always making forward progress in the campaign. The negative side of the linear structure is that once you've fought every possible permutation of a given area's enemies, the gameplay is essentially a rinse and repeat cycle until you reach the chapter boss. As a result, I found myself excited to start a new chapter to see a new area and encounter a new mix of enemies (as well as advance the plot), only to start getting bored around the chapter midpoint as the game became repetitive again.

In Chapter 11, the game attempts to change things up by introducing a few non-linear areas to explore. This initially feels very freeing and dovetails nicely with the game's themes of free will and fate (more on that later). Unfortunately, this freedom comes at a heavy cost to the game's pacing and balance. The non-linear areas introduce the opportunity to take on sidequests in the form of hunts (i.e. taking down a specific type of enemy). The problem with this is, after spending 35 hours to get to this point (much of which was spent in battle), the prospect of taking on entirely combat-based sidequests was not particularly appealing to me. Since the non-linear areas and sidequests increase opportunities for grinding, the game makes enemies, especially bosses, extra spongey going forward to compensate. This dragged battles out and slowed the game's pacing to a crawl. By the time I neared the end Chapter 11, I was so burnt out that I ended up dropping the game difficulty to Easy and activating a few cheats to shorten or skip battles so that I could speed through the rest of the game and get to the ending.

Systems:
Regarding the battle system itself, FF13 uses an interesting sped up variant of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system from previous games in the series in conjunction with a unique take on class-based strategy. The AI controls all but one character in the party, so much of the control the player has comes in the form of mid-battle character class changes (think a fusion of FF10-2 and FF12). By changing between different sets of classes called Paradigms, your party can switch between offensive and defensive tactics nearly instantaneously. Observing the enemy to time your tactical transitions and selecting the right combinations of classes for your Paradigms is the core of the battle strategy. The game initially restricts the characters and abilities you can use, which makes battles feel kind of dull, but once the combat system opens up (in about the 3rd chapter), I found this system to be one of the most engaging in the series, at least for the first 35 hours or so. 

Spending so much time with this battle system got me thinking: With a timing and speed-based ATB system, is rapidly navigating combat menus really all that different from an action-based system? I wonder if a similar line of thinking is what lead the FF series to true action combat in later entries such as 15 and 7R. The other thing that struck me is that the way this game focuses heavily on combat and gives you a star rating after each encounter, I couldn't help but be reminded of Mobius Final Fantasy, which debuted smartphones a few years after the release of this game.

Final Fantasy 13's other system is its character upgrade system. Instead of earning XP and money from battle, spoils come in the form of crystal points (CP) and crafting materials. CP is a pretty straight forward system that unlocks stat increases and abilities along a skill tree for each characters' classes (similar to Final Fantasy 10). Crafting, however, is a needlessly fiddly system that involves dumping monster claws and minerals and such into your weapons to level them up. Often this involves using hundreds of craft items or combining them via trial and error to see what yields the most upgrade points. Using crafting materials in a suboptimal manner could mean having to grind for more crafting material later on to fully upgrade a handful of your preferred weapons in preparation for the endgame. I found this to be so tedious that I largely avoided it for most of the game. When I broke down and used cheats in Chapter 11, I gave myself unlimited crafting supplies so that I could knock out all the upgrading in one shot and not have to deal with it again.

Artistic Qualities:
Final Fantasy 13 drops you straight into the story with very little in-game explanation of what's going on. The game also throws lots of jargon at you from the get-go. The game's way of bringing the player up to speed is that after every cutscene, a "datalog" in unlocked within the menu screen. These text documents explain the backstory of each character, define terminology, and provide context for the story. I can't really decide how I feel about this "watch the lecture and then do the homework" format. Would I have preferred lengthy scenes of characters standing around explaining things to each other, or an omniscient narrator offering context before each story beat? Not really, but I still have to image a more elegant solution exists.

The crux of the story is that our heroes have been tasked by a god-like being to destroy the world; if they fail to comply they will be turned into mindless zombies. From there the characters spend the rest of the adventure struggling with their fate while on the run from the authorities that are aware of their divinely-assigned task. Each of the game's six characters also has their own personal struggles that cover topics such as family discord, prejudice, and revenge. The characters are fairly one-note and the execution of both the larger and smaller stories can be pretty clumsy at times, but I still found myself generally invested in each cutscene and interested to see what would happen next.

In terms of aesthetics, Final Fantasy 13 is visually and aurally stunning. Even though this game is nearly a decade old, it offers some incredible vistas in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes that I could only describe as resplendent. I never would have guessed I'd be mashing the F12 (screenshot) key nearly so frequently in a game of this age. The music may be less varied than some earlier Final Fantasies, but the main pieces that play throughout the game sound great and this game's battle theme stands as one of my favorites in the series.

Conclusion:
Final Fantasy 13 presents itself as a streamlined Final Fantasy experience but still takes over 50 hours to complete. The combat, graphics, and music are all high quality and could have easily sustained a 20-30 hour game, but are just not substantial enough to keep a game of 13's length engaging the whole way through (as evidenced by the shortcuts I felt compelled to take). As a Final Fantasy fan, I felt like playing this game was still a worthwhile experience and would recommend that other fans give it a shot with an open mind. However, to general RPG fans, I'm not sure Final Fantasy 13 offers what they would be looking for.

Score: 
Completion Time: 54 hours

Note: With this game completed, I now only have Final Fantasies 1, 2, 14, and 15 left. I will likely play 1 next since I like to alternate between retro and modern entries. At this point, I'm not sure if/when I'll play the direct sequels to FF13. I would be curious to hear what readers who have played the FF13 sequels think of them.