You Can See It On Your TV Screen

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It wants to lick you…

Despite owning every game in the Persona series, I had never gotten around to playing any of them. I can probably chalk this up to obtaining the first two once the original PlayStation was on its decline after the PS2 release. At that point, it seemed like I should try to play the first two before beginning the third one–it being a series, after all. And thus, another part of my game collection was stagnant. However, in discussing whether or not I should buy a Playstation Vita, a friend suggested to me that Persona 4 Golden was reason enough on its own to buy a Vita. With that kind of recommendation, I had little choice.

2013-07-16-011750At its core, Persona 4 is a mystery. A small rural town is beset by inexplicable murders not long after our silent protagonist arrives in town. Bodies are left hanging from structures with no obvious cause of death and no clear physical evidence to tie them to anyone. The only clues seem to be that the victims showed up on “The Midnight Channel”–an equally bizarre supernatural occurrence where people appear on deactivated televisions at midnight during heavy rain. The protagonist gets caught up in situation when he discovers his ability to take himself and others into an alternate world, by going through television screens.

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Being an ass is not a good way to build relationships…

Therein we find the split between the two main portions of the game. Outside the TV, the game is a time and relationship management puzzle. The clock is relentlessly advancing as people disappear and need to be saved, if you don’t go into the world of the TV and save them, then it’s game over. At the same time, however, you need to spend time building relationships with other people in the real world so as to make yourself stronger in the TV world and in order to help determine who the true culprit is.

The world of the TV, however, is a more traditional JRPG environment. We see turn-based battles à la Final Fantasy, visible enemies on the map, and procedurally generated dungeons. I should stress that while the dungeon crawling and battles will be familiar to any seasoned JRPG player, the battles don’t degenerate into “jam the attack button”.

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Enemies Down!

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Keep it up.

Combat rewards players and enemies for targeting elemental weaknesses with attacks. Hitting a weakness knocks a target down, lowering its defense and giving the attacker another free chance to attack. For the player party this means that they want to target enemy defenses early and often. At the same time, though, this system applies equally to player characters, so it is important to mitigate and minimize the chance of elements attacks hitting your own party’s weaknesses. Lest it be assumed that this system is largely ignorable, it is very difficult to become so overpowered that simple physical attacks can carry you through the game (at least on the first playthrough), and being engaged with this dynamic is essential for being successful. Being forced to think and assess enemy make-up and defenses about every single combat made the game feel far more engaging than many JRPGs that I’ve played.

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Remember kids, skipping class is fun.

My one complaint about the game it that it is nearly impossible to get the best ending in a first playthrough. There are many things that you can spend time doing–raising social stats, fishing, reading books–and without proper prioritization, it’s impossible to meet the requirements. Subsequent playthroughs make it easier since you can carry over money and social stats and, most importantly, have a good understanding of what needs to be done to succeed.

Despite the guide dang it of the best endings, I still think that Persona 4: Golden is worth playing. It probably isn’t worth buying a PS Vita for, but if you’re on the fence, it is a solid JRPG.

Persona 4: Golden: 1

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What kind of protagonist would I be if I didn’t have big goals?

 

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Outtatime

There have been many games based on the Back to the Future franchise. Most of them have suffered from the problem of licensed games. TellTale games, however, has managed something that few developers have: make a game true to its license.

Back to the Future: The Game is an adventure game à la Monkey Island or The Dig. Since it was originally released as a series of five short episodes, though, it manages to avoid some of the more troublesome things that plague the genre: such as the flashlight that you have to pick up in the first room and carry the whole game.

BttF:TG starts two years after the movies in 1986. Doc Brown is nowhere to be found and his belongings are being sold to pay off his debts. Inexplicably, the Delorean reappears containing Doc’s dog Einstein, and a message that the emergency recall system was activated, but no Doc Brown. Thus begins Marty’s quest to save Doc from the past.

The writing in BttF:TG is both sharp and true to the original movies. Characters are well defined and the dialog is well executed. It doesn’t hurt that the original Doc Brown–Christopher Lloyd–comes back to do much of his own dialog. The game’s episodic nature also allows it to have the sort of cliffhangers that the movies have, this time between each episode. Even though its very much a cribbing of the source material, each one feels reasonable based on the time travel shenanigans that are carried out.

My biggest complaint about the game is probably system related. I played it on the Playstation 3 and it doesn’t feel like a native there. The walking controls are a bit wonky, especially when there are camera transitions. There are some noticeably (and consistently) laggy bits. The object selection system is also a bit cumbersome. Given that, I’d probably recommend avoiding it on the consoles and to pick it up on the PC or Mac (I imagine the iOS version is also decent, but can’t vouch for it personally).

And I do recommend picking it up. Adventure games died for many reasons–some of them fair. This adventure game is one worth playing though, especially for fans of Back to the Future which, as far as I’m concerned, should be the entire human race.

Back to the Future: The Game: 1

 

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That Olde Tyme Religion

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It’s like Mount Rushmore. Only sinister. And missing Lincoln. And with Franklin. And also missing Roosevelt. Also, surrounded by sparking lightning. Though, to be fair, that might also happen on the regular Mt. Rushmore, I’ve only ever been there the once and might just have missed it.

The Bioshock series has spent three games delving into a specific idea in each. The first dove into Objectivism and was very successful at it. The second game dug into something like Collectivism and was less successful at it. Bioshock Infinite, however, digs into something more amorphous.

At first, it seems like Infinite is going to be about religious fundamentalism as a governing philosophy. But, that it quickly becomes clear that religion is just part of a greater whole. In truth, much of the beginning of the game is about showing the inherent hypocrisy in the American mind at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries. We see a happy, religious, and invariably white cast of Real Americans.

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Good old-fashioned American racism. It’s just like your grandma used to make.

So real are these Real Americans, that they’ve begun a sort of idol worship of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. We’re quickly shown how this veneer of a happy society has underlying troubles. Racism is rampant and blatant. Blacks and Irish are an oppressed lower class who exist only to perform the menial and low skilled work that keeps the economy of the floating city Columbia humming. There are even nods to the worker’s rights movements of the period. Eventually, there’s even open warfare between the “Founders” and the revolutionaries seeking equality.

Bring Us the Girl Wipe Away the Debt

Bring Us the Girl; Wipe Away the Debt

But even that conflict isn’t what Bioshock Infinite is really about. When you dig deep down, what you find is a story about fatherhood and redemption. Booker DeWitt, our protagonist, is sent to “bring [them] the girl and wipe away the debt”. He finds Elizabeth–the girl–kept locked away by her father. As the game progresses, Booker reveals that he lost his wife in childbirth and has no children. Perhaps because of this, he slowly grows to become something of a father figure to Elizabeth–protecting her and fighting for her–even as his original mission slips away from him.

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I’m sure he’s friendly.

There are some things that have been mainstays of the Bioshock series since its inception. The Big Daddies and Little Sisters are the two most recognizable and iconic elements–especially visually–of the series. Both are absent here, but they have their spiritual successors, I think. The endless progression of Little Sisters has been replaced with Elizabeth–your charge. The Big Daddies meanwhile have been replaced by the Songbird, her protector. While there is visual similarity, especially in the Songbird, I think this break is largely a good decision for the series. Bioshock 2 seemed to lean too heavily on the original for its plot and setting. This made it feel bolted on due to how complete the story of the original Bioshock was. The clean break that was made with this installment liberated them from some of the burdens that they had been carrying since the first Bioshock.

2013-03-26_00003As a game, there’s truly little to say about Bioshock Infinite. The combat is competently executed, just as it has been for the last two games. The encounters are mostly well designed and the difficulty progression is reasonable. The weapon and plasmid vigor combinations are mostly unchanged, though they are a bit unbalanced. Most notably, the very first one unlocked can quickly become a one-attack kill on most non-elite enemies, even on the hardest difficulties. All this is not to say that there’s anything bad about the combat, just that the changes are mostly evolutionary.

2013-03-26_00008The real strength of Bioshock Infinite is its story. Watching the evolution of Booker and his relationship with Elizabeth is worth the cost of admission alone. I would say that Bioshock Inifinite is certainly better than Bioshock 2 and may even be better than the original Bioshock. It is certainly not a game to be missed.

Bioshock Infinite: 1

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Fates Worse Than Death

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The Empress and her daughter enjoy Corvo’s welcome home.

Whenever I’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game, there’s been one thing that I wished that I had: the ability to teleport. It seems that someone else was thinking the same thing when they decided to make Dishonored.

Dishonored follows a rather straightforward premise: Corvo, the mute bodyguard to the queen, is framed for her murder. Following a show trial, unknown allies help him to escape from prison whereupon he is pulled into a scheme to topple the new rulers and find revenge. Along the way, of course, he is first given state of the art weapons by a discredited scientist and magical powers from the mysterious supernatural being called the “Outsider”.

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So, we need to cross the bridge. Options: 1) go across the main deck, fight past guards and automated defenses; 2) sneak under the bridge and reprogram the automated defenses to attack the guards; 3) teleport on top of the nearby buildings and run across the outlying support wires; 4) possess a guard and walk out to the other side

Magic and weapons alone don’t make an interesting game. Interesting games are about choice. Here, I am of two minds about Dishonored. The main plot drags you along with very little in the way of choice: go to that place, kill that man, etc. At the same time, though, you’re often given an exceptionally large number of ways to carry out those tasks. In a sense, it reminds me of the original Deus Ex just in the sheer number of options. This is probably where Dishonored is at its best.

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Tesla coil death traps. Why’s it always got to be lightning? Also, I’m pretty sure OSHA doesn’t like having these installed in the stairways.

Working in beautiful symmetry with choice is the writing. Although you are nearly always cast as an assassin and sent out with murder as your objective, killing is never a necessity. Every mission offers a non-lethal method of neutralizing the targets presented. Of course, merely knocking a high-ranking assassination target unconscious would be woefully insufficient. Instead, the game offers cruel and ironic fates to those you let live. In a sense, the game offers you the choice of justice or vengeance and makes sure that justice is a worthwhile option.

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These wanted posters are they only way to know what your character looks like. I’m a bit dubious of that Emo haircut, though…

Although the plot and setting are both quite interesting, Dishonored does fall into one of the classic traps of gaming–the silent protagonist. Corvo–the character you’re playing–never speaks in game. In fact, the only times you see his face over the entire course of the game are a few times on wanted poster and once during the ending sequence. This situation would probably be fine, but Corvo is imbued with many traits that we don’t necessarily see in him due to this perspective. Perhaps most of all, we don’t see what made the Empress and her daughter both care for him they way they do. This is much the same trap that the original Dead Space fell into.

Its rare that I want to play through a game a second time with a completely different playstyle. On my original pass through Dishonored, I went out of my way to ensure that I didn’t kill anyone (that “Clean Hands” achievement looked interesting), but I feel a desire to play it again with a more…vicious…methodology to see how the game changes in reaction to it. The fact that I’m drawn to play it again says volumes about my assessment of it.

Dishonored: 1

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Evolutionary Optimization

Mobile gaming on phones (and similar devices) is a field that is still trying to gain legitimacy. Though there are many puzzle games and many games which are nothing more than glorified time sinks, some people are trying to bring more substantive gaming experiences to phones. Chaos Rings (Android, iOS) is one of Square-Enix’s forays into this space.

At its core, Chaos Rings is a Japanese-style RPG. It uses a turn-based battle system and random encounters–features common for over a decade. The main unique feature of its battle system is its idea of “pair/solo” actions. When you spend a turn doing solo actions, the system plays identically to most other JRPGs. When you chose to do a pair action, though, both of your characters perform the same action–even if that action isn’t usually available to both characters. For instance both characters could use a multi-attack power that is usually only available to Screenshot_2013-01-09-10-39-20one of the characters. The downside to using pair attacks is that, when pair, the two characters also take damage together and are both hit by attacks that are normally single target.

The real judge of a JRPG’s system, though, is less about what it does and more about the amount of grinding necessary to play the game. It is a greatly unfortunate thing that Japanese-style RPGs far too often substitute grinding for gameplay. While there Screenshot_2013-01-11-10-28-13are cases where grinding is necessary, these cases do seem to be mercifully few and well separated in time. In fact, I believe there were only two bosses in the first scenario that I played that required any grinding at all, and, aside from the super-secret optional boss, there were no other bosses that required grinding in any of the other scenarios.

Screenshot_2013-01-09-06-56-20Of course, the scenarios are what really makes the game. The general premise of each of the scenarios is the same–a group of four couples has been pulled into the Ark Arena tournament. The winning couple will gain eternal life and eternal youth. The losing couples will find only death. What changes in each of the game’s four scenarios is two-fold. First, and most obviously, the characters that you control change. The same four couples are always involved, but the pair the player controls slides about. Second, and more important, the details of plots in the scenarios Screenshot_2013-01-09-06-49-01change: back stories change subtly, personalities shift, and motivations cloud.

While the games areas, monsters, and other assets are mostly unchanged, these changes in the plot slowly unravel the mysteries surrounding the Ark Arena. In fact, the game doesn’t really begin to take shape until you’ve cleared at least one of the scenarios and have a good understanding of the motivations of the Arena’s masters. And that is where the game really begins to shine. Piecing together the motivations, back stories, and tragedies of the characters across the various scenarios makes completing Screenshot_2013-01-13-16-38-03later scenarios more rewarding in some ways than completing the first scenario. As you become more familiar with the characters, there becomes a real desire to see each of their stories to the close.

Chaos Rings is by no means the best game nor the best RPG or even the best JRPG that I’ve ever played. It is, however, one of the best games I’ve yet played on my telephone and perhaps one sign that not every mobile game will be a micro-payment infested grindfest. And for that, it is certainly a game worth playing.

Chaos Rings: 1

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Narrative Recursion

There are certain narrative devices that I’m a sucker for. One of those is the time loop. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare takes the time loop and runs with it. As this review covers a sequel, expect there to be spoilers about the previous game: Alan Wake.

American Nightmare picks up after the two DLCs for the original Alan Wake. Wake is still lost in the Dark Place and attempting to find his way back into the real world. To do that, he has written himself an escape plan. Of course, as with the original game, the act of calling upon the world-shaping narrative power of the Dark Place has mostly destroyed his memory of what he actually planned to do.

The complication this time, though, is that his foe is no longer the large and unknown dark place, but a sentient, and clever at that, doppelganger. Wake’s opponent has trapped him in the work that Wake created to escape the Dark Place and simply keeps looping him through it, making this more difficult each time.

In gameplay terms, this comes together as playing through each of about 4 or 5 areas three times each. Though the levels are the same, the other characters in each place slowly become aware of their situation and help Wake more on each pass.

The game plays much like its predecessor, but has become somewhat more actiony with the introduction of a greater variety of enemies. In keeping with that, this iteration, unlike the original, doesn’t periodically confiscate your equipment.

I think that, as a bridge between Alan Wake and its eventual sequel, it is pretty solid. What I really want though, is Alan Wake 2.

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare: 1

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The Kid Had It Rough

He always has a comment. One for every moment.

He always has a comment. One for every moment.

Narrators are a strange thing in games. When they do appear, it is often only in cutscenes. In fact, aside from the occasional “meanwhile, at the big bad’s hideout”, they are quite an oddity in the medium. In Bastion, though, the narrator is the first–and only–voice that the game uses to relate the plot to the player.

Throughout the game, the ever-present voice of “The Stranger” narrates both the plot and the gameplay. Do well, and he speaks of how nothing can bother you; do badly, and he describes how you were given trouble but managed to scrape through. This slightly detached interplay between the game and the player is surprisingly effective at drawing you into the game. It also makes easy work of providing information to the player.

Though the narrator is probably the most memorable thing in the game, the visuals themselves are nothing to forget. The whole game carries the feel of a watercolor painting.

2012-11-08_00002The game itself takes place in a world destroyed by an unknown “Calamity”. Bits and piece of the world rise up to form a makeshift platform as you move about, but the world itself is largely inhabited by monsters that have survived the end and now overrun the places that used to be. The “rebuilding” of the world as you move around provides a beautiful symmetry with the central plot of trying to collect the bits and pieces of the old world necessary to repair it.

As a game, Bastion is something of a two-stick shooter. Though different from many other2012-11-09_00003 games in this category in that the pace tends to be much more relaxed and the available space for movement limited. If one were just take a glace, it would seem much like any other isometric action game. The depth of gameplay, though, mostly comes from the large supply of weapons that the game has on offer. The game only lets you bring a pair with you into each level, so it forces a choice based on what you expect to face and which weapons you’ve managed to become skillful with. Even so, most all of the weapons are very useful and none of them ever really become useless, even as more are unlocked.

Overall, the game is quite good. My only real complaint is that the game can easily overwhelm you with enemies–especially if you crank up the difficulty. Nevertheless, I recommend the game quite highly.

Bastion: 1

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The Gaze of Avadon Destroys

A little over a week ago, I finished up my run-through of Avadon: The Black FortressAvadon is a third-person, isometric, turn-based RPG in a Fantasy setting.

The titular Avadon is both a fortress (as it says in the title) and an organization. In Avadon’s world, four powerful but beleaguered kingdoms decided to band together for common defense against various outsiders–Ogre, Titans, Dragons as well as other kingdoms. These four kingdoms needed a way to exert their combined military might and to maintain their own internal peace. To that end, they created Avadon–a place filled with the most powerful people with nearly unlimited authority to act to ensure the survival of the alliance.

When the game begins, the player is dropped in as a new recruit to the fortress at a moment of crisis. The fortress is being set upon by outside forces that are organized and powerful. Though they have been rebuffed at every turn, the attacks have taken a toll on Avadon–lost people, strained resources, angry allies.

Everything that makes Avadon compelling is in it’s story and the unfolding of the truths of it’s world as the game progresses. Perhaps most central is the notion that Avadon makes its own morality. More succinctly, what Avadon decides must be in order for it continue to be. The implications of this fundamental tenant drive the plot.

From a gameplay perspective, however, Avadon leaves something missing. The style of the game’s interface reminds me of the old Fallout games–top down, isometric view; action point-based turns. Though it doesn’t have guns like its ancient predecessor, it does have crazy special abilities and spells to balance things out. Character gain experience through quests and combat and get more powerful via a skill-based leveling tree. Its a system that has largely been seen before–not outstanding but certainly adequate.

Where I have to complain about Avadon is in its overall difficulty balance. Rather than feeling like a steady progression as the game goes on, there are periodic, sudden, and often overwhelming spikes in difficulty. Sometimes, these are almost reasonable–attacking an enemy stronghold should be hard–but more often it is due to enemies simply being immune to one of the core damage types. Though fire elementals being immune to fire damage seems reasonable on its face, when an entire character class (the sorceress) uses fire as its default damage type you’ve gone from “seems reasonable” to “completely and utterly terrible game design”. This is even worse when the immunities are not obvious from enemy names or models or when an enemy is immune to more than one of the core damage types. At that point, we’ve descended into trial-and-error gameplay. Unfortunately, damage immunities are all too common and almost always result in a press of the quickload button when found unexpectedly.

While the game has its flaws, I think they are largely worth overlooking. The story is interesting and compelling enough that I kept being drawn back in even though I would occasionally throw my hands up in frustration.

Avadon: The Black Fortress: 1

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Capitalism, ho!

Some time ago, I decided to pick a game at random from my Steam games list to play. In a moment of ennui and with a desire for something different, I decided to play Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. I had picked up the game long ago during a Steam sale, but like so many other items picked up at Steam sales, it had been forgotten.

There is a term, defined on TV Tropes, called the “widget series” — the Weird Japanese Thing (WJT). If ever a game qualified, I believe Recettear is the exemplar. In Recettear you take on the role of Recette, an air-headed, happy young girl who has suddenly been saddled with the debt taken out by her missing father. In order to save her home, you must earn a great deal of money to repay the debt which is coming due in less than a month. On the urging of her fairy companion/creditor, she decides to open an RPG-style item shop to provide equipment to the local town as well as the burgeoning adventurer community who search through nearby ruins.

Just a bitThe core of the gameplay is straightforward. You buy items from wholesalers and then display them in your shop where people will come in and buy them from you. The selling of items is itself a haggling mini-game wherein you attempt to ascertain what each particular customer is willing to pay. As customers become regulars, they start carrying larger amounts of cash and can buy more expensive items. Buying and selling items levels up Recette as a merchant and allows access to better items, bigger shops, and new interactions such as taking orders. The main weakness of this system, however, is that once you’ve figured out what people are willing to pay for items, the process of buying and selling becomes uninteresting. For instance, the character called “Man” will always buy an item at 125% of its value. Once you know this, there is no real reason to haggle. Finding these sort of statistics for every character (which other people have already thoughtfully done in FAQs and wikis) removes most of the mystery and suspense from the shop.

She shoots 8 arrows at once.

In addition to running the shop, Recette can also try to cut out the middle man by diving into the nearby ruins with an adventurer and finding items for free on monsters or in treasure chests. In this part of the game, it is more of a Zelda or Dark Cloud endeavor. Dungeons are randomly generated and come in five level chunks with bosses at the end of each set of five levels. Unfortunately, this is one area where Recette’s Japanese RPG origins shine through. Most of the bosses qualify as Nintendo Hard and the penalty for failure is quite steep–the forfeiture of all items found in that particular dive save one or two.  Of course, level grinding is a necessity for success in these ruins as well.

Kill the ones in front and behind, simultaneously, with our special bows.

Even with the ultimately robotic merchant experience and the frustratingly difficult dungeon bosses, I still feel compelled to recommend this game for one reason which counterbalances all of those problems: the writing. The translation of the game is brilliant, hilarious–sometimes intentionally, sometimes not–and clever. Dialog is almost universally witty and the characters’ quirkiness gives it a charm that many games lack.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale: 1

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Temporal Paradox

Final Fantasy XIII was a game which induced mixed feelings in me. Like many, I recognized the long, seemingly interminable, part of the game where players are taught how to play. I was, like many, disheartened by the preponderance of linear sections punctuated with cutscenes. Nevertheless, the late game content, the story, and the gameplay itself (as manifested in the battle system) all resonated well with me.

It’s sequel, cleverly titled Final Fantasy XIII-2, manages to take the core criticisms of its predecessor and produce a brilliant counterpoint to those criticisms. The story begins with Serah–the sister of one of the playable characters from FFXIII and former damsel in distress–trying to build a new life in the aftermath of the events for the first game. Everyone in the world remembers her sister vanishing at the end of the previous game despite both her memories showing her sister surviving and the displayed ending of the previous game. Serah has largely put this down to her wishful thinking until the attack of creatures from the future and the arrival of a time-traveler who has met Serah’s sister in the future. Thus begins a wild trip through time to try to correct whatever damage has occurred to the timeline as well as to find Serah’s sister.

In gameplay terms, time travel is represented as a large directed graph of accessible time periods. As the game progresses, more areas are unlocked, alternate versions of some time periods are produced, and changes propagate through the timeline. This results in some interesting plot lines that involve going to a “dead” timeline (one which has been rendered no longer part of the “true” timeline) to find things that may be necessary to advance either before or after it should have had happened.

The paradigm system from the previous game returns and is largely similar. The major change that has occurred is the replacement of a third character with an interchangeable assistant monster. This simultaneous enhances possible choices and dramatically restricts them. Since the creatures can be modified, combined, and leveled dramatically differently, it adds a great deal more diversity in the end game experiences of players than existed in Final Fantasy XIII. At the same time, though, by being restricted to only having three active assistant monsters, the number and types of paradigms available is substantially reduced, make the tactical aspect of the game somewhat more important. It feels like the changes deepened the system and the game is better for those changes.

One thing that may put some off, however, is that Final Fantasy XIII is really required reading for the sequel. Not only does this game open with great big spoilers about its predecessor, but it also doesn’t invest too heavily in characterizing the people who were core to the previous game. This seems reasonable for those of us who have completed Final Fantasy XIII, but is likely to put off the many who did not.

When I first heard that there was going to be a Final Fantasy XIII-2, I prepared myself for disappointment. I am happy to say that my expectations were wildly exceeded and that this game is very much worth playing.

Final Fantasy XIII-2: 1

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