Monday, November 29, 2010

Early thoughts on Final Fantasy 13

I heard lots of bad things about this game. It's incredibly linear. The start of the game is a 20 hour tutorial. The story is rubbish. I also think Square Enix are incapable of making a great RPG anymore.

Well I decided to play it out of morbid curiosity and I've gotten close to the end of chapter 4 (a little bit after getting Odin). I have to say I'm really enjoying it. The battle system is superb, like really good. I usually hate the ATB system and felt it's never worked properly with turn based systems being so much better but I think they nailed it this time and the complete overhaul makes a frantic and yet tactical battle system. The harder fights feel like the boss fights of FF12 which in my opinion was the only time the battle system actually worked in that game. It seems to work for every battle in this game.

The 20 hour tutorial is kind of hyperbole but I admit it did take a while before pressing just X got you through every battle. At the point I'm at the battle system has been excellent since I gained access to the paradigm shifts.

The linearity thing is not a problem for me. People foget that FFX, one of the best FF games was just as linear. Also people don't realise that previous FF games from FF4 onwards, with the exception of FF6 and FF12 were totally linear affairs. They only gave the illusion of freedom but you were always being ferried from point A to B to C. The omission of towns is a little more jarring. Although in FF games they were rarely functional gameplay-wise but they did add a lot to the world and by giving you an insight into how normal people of the world felt.

I'm finding the story interesting enough. The world of Cocoon and Pulse is fascinating, I'm reallty enjoying the setting and the amount of work put into the mythos of this universe. The quite frankly stunning graphics and art really help as well. Characters aren't too bad, Sazh is a real stand out while Vanille at the moment is hateful but she's the only weak one so far in a good cast.

I might change my mind but this is definitely not the disaster it's been made out to be. In fact it'sone of the most enjoyable games of the year for me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2

Donkey Kong Country
The tail end of 1994 when Donkey Kong Country (DKC) was first released was a very interesting time for videogames. The 3DO, Atari Jaguar and Amiga CD32 were out and demonstrating 3D home gaming which had once only been the preserve of expensive arcade machines and high end PCs. None of these consoles were successful but two upcoming consoles looked much more promising. The Sega Saturn was released in Japan a few days before DKC and around the corner was a newcomer, the Sony Playstation, that sported games such as the gorgeous but ultimately shallow Battle Arena Toshinden and most importantly a practically arcade perfect conversion of Ridge Racer, then the most popular and best looking game in the arcades.  Nintendo’s next console the Ultra 64, later to be released as the Nintendo 64 was deep in development hell and still a long way off.

DKC came along at the perfect time for Nintendo. Instead of the traditional hand drawn 2D sprites that most games used at the time DKC used pre-rendered graphics.  Advanced 3D models were created on expensive computer work stations and 2D pictures of these were taken and used as sprites and backgrounds in the game. When combined with some good animation it gave the graphics a pseudo 3D quality that looked far more advanced than anything at the time. The press went crazy over the graphics proclaiming that there was no need to get a new console when the 16-bit machines were making games that looked this good. This was followed by rave reviews at release. DKC went a long to keeping the SNES viable during the start of the 32-bit era and up until when Nintendo finally released the N64 about 2 years later. It was also the game that finally pushed sales of the SNES ahead of the Genesis (the American name for the Megadrive) in the US.

So how does the game hold up after all these years? Well not that well really. Firstly those then state of the art graphics don’t look great anymore. It’s fairly obvious now that everything is made up of 2D pictures of 3D pre-renders. Everything looks like it’s made of incredibly shiny plastic and the sprites are grainy which shows up a lot worse on modern TVs. It’s not all bad, the game makes great use of the SNES’s capabilities with some nice mode 7 effects used to give depth to the backgrounds and some of the stages set in the dark are technically impressive. It all looks very garish and just not appealing like most of the other 16-bit games that used the same pre-rendered technique. This technique was actually better suited to the capabilities of the32-bit machines with games like FFVII and Resident Evil using the same technique and looking an awful lot better than their 16-bit counterparts which looked a lot more pixelated due to the compression needed to fit them on the cartridges and the smaller colour palettes of these consoles. It doesn’t help that I’m not a fan of Rare’s overly cute art style that so desperately wants to mimic Nintendo and fails.

Behind the graphics the game is pretty much your vanilla 2D platformer that where two a penny back then and doesn’t do much to stand out from the crowd. The game has a two character system where you control either Donkey Kong, the stronger of the two, or Diddy Kong, weaker but more agile.  However the differences between the two characters aren’t all that pronounced and it ends up just working as a system where having both characters affords you an extra hit without losing a life. The biggest issue with DKC is that the level design just doesn’t stand out. There’s only a small handful of backgrounds that get repeated and a lot of the level design isn’t memorable compared to say Super Mario World were each level is unique and adds something new to the platforming formula. That’s not to say it’s totally lacking in variety, the dark levels are well designed, the mine carts are a fun diversion and the underwater levels help break the action up, but too many of the levels are throw away designs. Later levels can become difficult rather than challenging and frustrating as a result. These final few stages are more a chore than anything.

I’m probably sounding overly negative about the game but it’s really not a bad game just not deserving of the unbridled praise it received on release. It’s still a fun diversion. However as a good 2D platformer on the SNES which was swimming in quality 2D platformers it doesn’t come close to the systems best. I’ll tell you what though, the soundtrack was amazing!

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

DKC2 was released almost a year after the first game. It used the same pre-rendered graphical style of the first game but instead of a jungle theme it was replaced with a pirate theme. The gameplay remains largely the same with the biggest change being Donkey Kong has been replaced by a new female character Dixie Kong, since Donkey Kong’s been captured as part of the story. Unlike the first game Diddy Kong and Dixie Kong play a quite differently to each other than the duo in DKC. Diddy Kong is again more agile, can jump higher and can throw barrels faster while Dixie Kong can extend her jump using her ponytail as a makeshift helicopter blade.

DKC2 addresses a lot of the flaws I had with the first game although it’s still not without its issues. Most importantly there is much more variety between levels than in the first game. Sure there are some throw away forgettable levels that seem to be rehashes of previous ones but overall it’s a massive improvement on the first game. Level design all round has been improved. Levels are designed so that you can speed run them. There’s new collectibles added that cater for the OCD completionist who wants to get 100%, or in the case of this game 102% due to a bug. These are fiendishly hidden and collecting them opens up new levels and a secret boss if you collect them all. Graphically the pre-rendered look is just as ugly as the first game but there are a few stages that do stand out. The underwater levels look gorgeous and some fancy mode 7 work creates some very convincing fake 3D backgrounds in some levels. In another level light filters in through the trees and looks rather impressive. DKC2 is much tougher than the first game and some later levels can again become very frustrating to play through, especially any of the bramble levels which can be maddening and spoils the end game a bit. Again the soundtrack is another standout.

DKC2 is a big improvement on the first game but I feel it’s still lacking compared to the Super Nintendo’s best games.  It’s let down by some of its later levels being a lesson in frustration. The new collectible and speed run nature of the level design do give the game a lot more replayability. It’s worth a play for nostalgia purposes but there are much better platformers out there that are more deserving of your time.