Did you miss us? We missed you. After a tearful reunion, Brad tells us about his trip to see Lost Planet 2, Mike offers his unique take on Final Fantasy XIII (finally!), and we examine the challenges faced by decades-old franchises. With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken, Tim Spaeth, and Tingle.
Tim Spaeth: This week on the GameCritics.com podcast, we explore the challenges faced by decades-old game franchises; Brad flies to L.A. for an early look at Lost Planet 2, and you asked for it: Mike Bracken on Final Fantasy XIII. Dreams do come true! The GameCritics.com podcast starts right now.
Oh, hello. Are you in the mood for a podcast? Do you guys think that was too sexy?
Mike Bracken: Oh, no.
Brad Gallaway: No; you should keep going with it, dude.
Chi Kong Lui: Nothing wrong with a little sex on our show.
Brad Gallaway: I was waiting for the "Well, we are [too sexy.]"
Tim Spaeth: I'm gonna dial it back, because I don't want to arouse the audience, frankly. That's not the effect I want.
Mike Bracken: They are very excitable, our audience. All three of them.
Tim Spaeth: Let's just say that this is podcast number 32; I'm Tim Spaeth. We're back from a month-long hiatus. Thanks for remembering us. And thanks for remembering, my dear friends, the founder and editors of GameCritics.com. Let's catch up first with Chi Kong Lui. Hey, Chi!
Chi Kong Lui: Hey, Tim. How's it going, man? I just survived my first New York Easter egg hunt with my son, so doing well.
Tim Spaeth: Now, how big was the neighborhood? Is this the entire city, or just a block, or?
Chi Kong Lui: It's our township. It's a suburb, so there was probably 50 kids all over the place. It wasn't the hunt that I was expecting; it was more like a battle royale. They basically just throw all the eggs in the center, and the kids just go crazy. So then it's like elbows and the whole thing. It scared the hell out of my son.
Tim Spaeth: [Laughter] We had the same thing in our community. It was the entire city, though, and so it's probably maybe 2000 kids. It's just a pile of eggs in the middle of a field, and you can only take ten. It's over in 30 seconds. That's it. It took much longer to get there and get out than the actual Easter egg hunt.
Chi Kong Lui: Who's counting the ten?
Tim Spaeth: The kids! They're very self-policing.
Mike Bracken: Is it really a hunt if you don't even have to fucking look for them? If you just run to a pile and grab ten?
Chi Kong Lui: That's what I was thinking, but hey. Whatever works, I guess.
Tim Spaeth: I guess kids don't care.
Chi Kong Lui: Did they give out real eggs, or was it just the plastic stuff?
Tim Spaeth Just the plastic.
Chi Kong Lui: Right. And there's nothing in them. [Laughter] I was like: "What the hell?"
Mike Bracken: There was nothing in them?
Brad Gallaway: No candy or anything?
Chi Kong Lui: Right. There's nothing in 'em.
Mike Bracken: What was the point of this?
Tim Spaeth How many kids were traumatised after this Easter egg hunt? It sounds awful.
Mike Bracken: Eight-year-old Mike would have gone up to one of the people when it was over and said: "Why the fuck is there no candy in my eggs? Why did I come out here for this?"
Chi Kong Lui: It's hard times, man. Hard times.
Mike Bracken: I guess. The economy is rough.
Tim Spaeth Eight-year-old Mike is salty. That's a salty fellow.
Mike Bracken: He is. He was very salty. He got in trouble a lot for his mouth, trust me.
Tim Spaeth The Mike we're talking about, of course, Mike Bracken. He's with us as well. Mike, did I read correctly? While we were off, you were shaping the minds of young co-eds as a professor?
Mike Bracken: Oh, yeah. I got to be Professor Bracken for an evening. One of the comunity colleges has a humanities class, and they do a film segment, so they found out that they had a film critic living in their midst. Little did they know it was just me. But they were like: "Oh, we would love for you to come in and lecture to these young, impressionable coeds, and share your knowledge!"
So I did; I went and got to be Professor Bracken for an evening, which was a fantastic experience. You're not gonna go to too many community college film classes where someone talks about slasher films seriously and then talks about Italian mondo documentaries in the same lecture. Yeah, it was pretty exciting. I had a good time.
Tim Spaeth And so now you have groupies? Did you have kids following you back to your office?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. You know, it was really funny. I was totally amazed, because I go to college and I watch how classes go and people fucking text during the whole thing, or sleep, or talk to their friends. Nobody texted during my thing. People actually took notes, and at the end they had questions. It was the weirdest thing. So I was totally jazzed about it. It was very cool. I would actually like to teach Film Studies someday, so it was like a dry-run for me, to see if I liked it or not. It was very cool.
Tim Spaeth Sounds like a positive experience. And you'll be doing it again soon, hopefully?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. Next semester I will be back doing it probably even for a couple more classes. I only got to do one this time, and there are more than one class of this Intro to Humanities deal. So I will be doing it more, as long as my schedule can accommodate it—my own classes and stuff.
Tim Spaeth Fantastic.
Chi Kong Lui: Kind of ironic there. You're talking about all this horror stuff in a humanities course. [Laughter]
Mike Bracken: Yes. But that's the funny thing—once you start talking about slasher films, the kids all start paying attention. So it was really cool, 'cause then they're like: "Oh. This guy's not gonna talk about foreign films I've never heard of or old black and white movies. He's gonna talk about fucking Halloween and Friday the 13th and Faces of Death and all this stuff."
Chi Kong Lui: They should call it the Inhumanities.
Mike Bracken: Dude, this semester is the worst. Between school and my job at AOL, I never have a moment's peace. I've got either schoolwork going on or someone from school bugging me about something, or I've got my boss from AOL bugging me. So even now, I'm sitting here [at] 10:30 on Saturday night and I'm getting messages. Sorry.
Tim Spaeth Let's give Mike some private time and introduce the final member of our cast: the dashing and heroic Brad Gallaway. Hello, Brad!
Brad Gallaway: Hey, guys. Good to have us all back together again.
Tim Spaeth While we were away, we learned that you are really not the primary gamer in your family.
Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] It depends on what time of the day you're talking about. But, yeah, that could be true, potentially.
Tim Spaeth We learned that your wife is cranking through games. She finished Batman and then Shadow Complex, and I see she's working on Symphony of the Night right now. She's the one who should be on this podcast. Isn't that true?
Brad Gallaway: As a matter of fact, she was scheduled to be here, but the baby needed to nurse so I'm the last-minute substitution. I'm pinch-hitting for the wife tonight.
Tim Spaeth Very well. I guess we'll struggle through somehow.
Brad Gallaway: It's not gonna be the same; it's just gonna be a shadow of what you guys would've gotten, but I'm gonna do my best.
Tim Spaeth You couldn't do the nursing tonight?
Brad Gallaway: You know, I tried, but it got kind of uncomfortable. The baby's staring at me, I'm staring at the baby. Nothing's going on. It's kind of weird.
Chi Kong Lui: You gotta give it some time, man.
Brad Gallaway: Oh, yeah. My nipples are two inches long, dude.
Mike Bracken: Oh, my God.
Tim Spaeth Wow!
Mike Bracken: Best moment in podcast since Chi was talking about North-South.
Tim Spaeth Can you tell we've been off for a month? My gosh!
Chi Kong Lui: We have lots of catching up to do.
Tim Spaeth So much catching up to do. But we do have some content prepared. On the show this week we are satisfying one of your most desperate cravings: Mike Bracken on Final Fantasy XIII. We teased this on the forums, and gosh, Mike, people desperate to hear your opinion of this game.
Mike Bracken: And I am excited to share it, even though I haven't played a whole lot of the game. But I do have some points to make, being our big JRPG guy. I'll be interested to see the response to my thoughts on the game, and I'm really glad people are dying to hear what I think about it. It totally blows my ego up.
Tim Spaeth Well, we're gonna keep them waiting for a little while longer. We're also going to look at the challenges faced by long-running franchises like Final Fantasy: series like Dynasty Warriors and Shin Megami Tensei, Resident Evil, Mario, Zelda, Too Human.
Mike Bracken: Always with the Too Human.
Tim Spaeth Always with the Too Human. It never gets old. Franchises with dozens of installments. How do they stay relevant and fresh? What franchises have succeeded, who hasn't, and why? So we'll look at that as well.
First up, though: Our very own Brad Gallaway recently visited Capcom to get a hands-on preview of Lost Planet 2. Isn't that right, Brad?
Brad Gallaway: That is correct.
Tim Spaeth Brad, we do wanna hear about Lost Planet 2. But first I wanna talk about the trip itself, and here's why: I don't get invited anywhere. No one's calling me to go see anything, and I think a lot of our listeners would be interested in hearing exactly how these little game-viewing junkets work. So let's start at the beginning. How did you find out about the event? How did you get involved?
Brad Gallaway: There's not really a lot to it. I was just doing my usual routine at home and an e-mail pops in. It's just an invite from Capcom. Lots of publishers in the industry keep an eye on who's reviewing what, and who's covering what, and who are the movers and shakers and stuff. This time around, it just happened that we were selected as a site that was desired to be at this showing. I'd like to think that my favorable review of the first Lost Planet might've had something to do with it. But they didn't really come out and say: "We're inviting you because of XYZ." It was just a general invite.
So I was glad to get it. Just for full disclosure, they paid for pretty much everything. It was the full-on press junket that people are so cautious about going on. A couple years ago, there was a lot of stink about these kind of junkets in exchange for favorable reviews and that kind of thing. I just wanna say up front to everybody listening that it was a fully paid for trip. Fortunately, this time around, there's no real review going up or anything. It was just for a hands-on, so I didn't feel like there was gonna be any conflict there. If I did, I certainly wouldn't have gone or I would've at least disclosed ahead of time, so that our readers know what we're all about.
Tim Spaeth We trust you, man. We trust you. Just relax, we trust you.
Brad Gallaway: So they basically say: "Hey, do you wanna come see Lost Planet? and I was like: "Heck, yeah, I wanna see it!" I really enjoyed the first one; I know a lot of people maybe weren't so hot on it, but I really enjoyed the first one quite a bit. I thought it was a good time, and previews of the game I've seen so far look really good. So I'm like: "Sure. I'm down." They hooked me up with a plane ticket and a hotel, and I just went down there.
I'm in Seattle, for people that don't know, and Capcom's headquarters are in California. So it wasn't too long of a plane trip, which is great. I really don't enjoy being on planes or travel in general. We got there. They rounded all of us up; it was me and about 20 other game journos from different sites—a lot of people that I had talked to over Twitter, a lot of people I'd e-mailed with, but never met in person. So it was really cool to go into a big room.
It's like you kinda know everybody there, but you don't. You do this whole awkward: "Hi, I'm Brad, and you're—? Oh, yeah! It's you! I follow you on Twitter! Oh, hey, I go to your site! Hey, we talked last month!" or something like that. It was kind of neat to put a lot of real-life faces with a lot of names and e-mail addresses and Twitter accounts. You don't really get to do that all too often, unless you go to E3 or GDC or something like that. It was cool; it was pretty cool.
Chi Kong Lui: Were there any other side groups, or was there just this one group of 20 people for the whoel thing?
Brad Gallaway: No, it was just this. It was pretty much all of the major sites were represented. There was us, of course, and Sony PlayStation had a presence; there were a lot of other sites that are our peer sites and stuff like that—a lot of recognizable names were there.
Chi Kong Lui: I'm just kind of shocked, 'cause when you said: "I was one out of 20," I'm like: "Woah! We're one out of 20? Really? That's great!" [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: Why wouldn't we be, Chi?
Mike Bracken: [Joking] We should've been one out of one. Why didn't we get a private showing? Why didn't they fly all three of us out there? Jesus! I feel so snubbed!
Brad Gallaway: Anyway, we got in, and they gave us dinner, which was really cool. Then we went to the actual Capcom headquarters. There's pics of it up on my blog, in case anybody's curious. They had this big room that had all these PlayStation 3s on one side, a bunch of 360s on the other—they were all networked up—and a bunch of big screen TVs. They're like: "This is the game." They had a couple people from Capcom staff who were there on hand to answer questions and give interviews. Basically, they were just like: "Just play it."
So we had about four hours or so to sit and just have hands on the game, just focusing on the play and the features and the graphics and everything. So it was a pretty cool event. I'm really glad I got to go.
Tim Spaeth When you say they sit you down for four hours, are you playing single-player? Are you playing multiplayer? Do they tell you what to do? Or are they just letting you experiment with any feature of the game that you feel like?
Brad Gallaway: Good question. Thanks for bringing that up, 'cause I actually forgot to mention: This was specifically a multiplayer demo, so there were no parts of the single-player campaign on display. It was strictly multiplayer. I believe there were eight 360s and they were all networked. It would be teams of four on four. And on the other side, it was teams of four on four for the PS3 version. So we were going through the different multiplayer modes. I don't remember how many there were, but there's at least four or six different modes that were available at that time. So we would just jump in, Red Team versus Blue Team, and just have at it.
They didn't really give us a lot of instruction beforehand, which I kinda was hoping we would get. It's been quite a while since I played the first Lost Planet and obviously there's changes, there's improvements, there's innovations. But they just let us go into it and we were just fumbling our way through it. You figured it out eventually, except for maybe some of the finer things.
For example, I was in one of the maps and I'm on this robot vehicle that looks like a motorcycle with a cannon on the side of it, which is really cool: you get to zip around the levels and shoot people. I had to play three matches before I realized that it could transform into an actual robot. I didn't push the right button at the right time or whatever, and so somebody's over there [saying]: "Hey! Why don't you transform?" I'm like: "Oh. Okay. Well, yeah. Heck, yeah, I wanna transform."
Stuff like that, it would've been cool if they had walked us through the finer details. But they did a good job of answering most of the questions and fielding everybody's questions at the same time. Like I said, there was at least 20 people there, and everybody was wanting to get interviews and take pictures and ask about one thing or another. It was kind of chaotic at first, but then it settled down, and we were just playing. We just went through all the modes, and it was a pretty good time.
Tim Spaeth So as you're playing, if you found that this was terrible…Let's say the game was terrible, and I know that wasn't your reaction, but let's say it was. Would you feel obligated to say something to the people that you're playing with? Would you address that with Capcom? Would you just keep it to yourself? What if the reaction to this game was just universally awful?
Brad Gallaway: It's interesting you say that. I actually didn't have that reaction, but the people that were there were really curious about what we thought. Of course they gave us their spiel, and there was a couple of artists that were there, and there was a couple other designers and things like that. So they told us what they did and the changes that they made, and how they were personally involved with them, which was really cool to hear people say: "I did this change because of this experience, and this is why we did this." You don't really get that opportunity very often to really hear about why something is the way that it is.
But, yeah, they were totally open. We were asking questions and saying: "This thing, shouldn't it go right here?" and they would explain why it was there or if it could be changed, or stuff like that. So they were totally open to listening to our feedback. I don't think a lot of us really had a lot of feedback, because even though we were there for four hours, we were basically coming to the game cold and learning what it was. It's a lot to take in in four hours, and even though that sounds like a lot of time, it really wasn't.
Tim Spaeth Mike and I fall on the negative opinion of the original Lost Planet. I didn't care for the character controls, the robot controls. Chi, before the show you had reminded me of my hatred of the knockdown animation—that it takes ten seconds to get knocked down and about 45 seconds to get back up. I'm wondering, just for myself: Tell me about the robots in Lost Planet 2. Do they control better? Am I likely to enjoy this more?
Brad Gallaway: All right. Well, like I said at the beginning, I liked the first Lost Planet. It definitely had some problems: Like you said, the knockdown animation was totally atrocious. I don't know how that even got through, and in fact, I wish I'd remembered 'cause I would've asked them about that when I was there. The get-up animation is a lot better; you're still down for a couple seconds, but it's nowhere near what it was last time. Even though some of the big robots—they're called Vital Suits in the game—
Tim Spaeth Calling them "robots" would just be silly.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, it wouldn't make any sense at all. [unknown].
Tim Spaeth "Vital Suits." Much more logical.
Chi Kong Lui: That's like a Japanese tradition. They just can't call it a robot.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, you can't call a spade a spade. You gotta fancy it up a little bit. Which I'm sure Mike'll address in his Final Fantasy XIII talk.
Mike Bracken: Ah, yes.
Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] But, yeah. I didn't think they were too bad in the first Lost Planet, but they've gone completely bug-nuts crazy with the robots in Lost Planet 2. If you're a robot/mecha/Transformer fan, this game is completely made for you. We were sitting there for four hours, and every time I played a game, it's like I found a new one that I hadn't seen before. There were these motorcycles that could transform into walkers; there were these little hovering ones that were like little platforms from Star Wars; there was this giant one that was a half-spider, half-robot that multiple people could get on top of, and it was like a giant walking gun platform. There were smaller ones that were built for melee: like these giant energy swords.
There were all kinds, and aside from those, there was one that was just like a helicopter. In this one level, it was kind of like an oil rig out in the middle of the ocean, and I ran to the chopper and got to it first, so I was able to just completely fly around the whole level well out of range for most of the characters and just pick them off at will, which was pretty cool. I think just having straight up flight as a mechanic during multiplayer is a pretty interesting thing. So it was great. Of course, they're not all super-fast; the bigger ones were slower, the smaller ones were lighter. That's kind of common sense. But there were a lot of different options, a lot of creativity and imagination going into those Vital Suits.
I gotta say, after playing the multiplayer and having a pretty good time, honestly, I was actually three times even more stoked to go through the campaign. To actually see levels that were specifically designed to show off these different vehicles and have a chance to do something like that.
Chi Kong Lui: Is Tim still gonna be annoyed by how the vehicles handle? Are they still kind of quirky?
Brad Gallaway: Each one is a little bit differenvt, and they all handle a little bit different. The size obviously plays a role. They're not as agile as something from Zone of the Enders. You're not flying a varitech or anything like that. If you go into it with the mindset of: "They're mostly terrestrial, they're heavier, big machinery." Think of it like that, rather than something that's jumping around wall-to-wall, shooting lasers while doing backflips. I can't speak for Tim, but I personally thought they controlled better than the first one, by far.
Tim Spaeth Robots immersed in syrup. That would be how I'd describe them.
Mike Bracken: Yeah.
Brad Gallaway: [Unknown]. I was not reminded of syrup.
Chi Kong Lui: I wanted to ask: As far as when I see the videos on Xbox Live, the graphics are quote-unquote "mind-blowing." Are they really that good when you're playing? Does it hold up in the multiplayer?
Brad Gallaway: Oh, yeah. I was really impressed with the technical side. The levels were just beautiful. The environmental effects, and the level of detail put in things was great. The characters looked great. There's actually a ton of customization that goes into the characters, and one of the hooks of the game is that everybody who plays, allegedly, is gonna have their own unique character. You can change the appearance and your abilities and your weapons loadouts. When I was talking to the developers there, they said at that time in the unfinished build, you could already have 70,000 different permutations of a character. And they weren't done, so they were still adding more. Factor in the randomization of some of the item collection and people's personal taste, there's gonna be tons of variety. But it looked great. All of it looked really good. The levels were just really beautiful.
Tim Spaeth One of the hot trends in multiplayer right now is the Modern Warfare-style leveling and unlocking of different weapons and components and gameplay modes. Is there that sort of persistence to the Lost Planet 2 multiplayer? Will you be leveling up and gaining experience points?
Brad Gallaway: That's actually a good question. Some of the systems weren't done when we were there, so we only saw a partial build. But we did ask about stuff like that, and I think that in this particular case, if I remember correctly, you don't actually do levels. You don't level up your character, but you do collect different things. There's all this different equipment you can get. So you can get things where you reload faster or you lose less life when you get shot. There's a number of different weapons.
You choose from this tree of weapons, and then once you choose one, there's different iterations of each weapon. So you have to either collect that stuff or buy it. The way that they described it, a lot of it is gonna be randomized, so it's not like everybody's gonna have the exact same super-powered sniper rifle. You'll either find it or you'll win it, with [what] they described as being like a slot machine mechanic. So I think that, between those things and the fact that your character actually is persistent—your campaign character is the exact same character that you use in multiplayer. If you put enough time and effort into buffing your guy out, it's gonna pay off. You'll be able to take him online, or plow through the campaign with him.
Tim Spaeth Was the multiplayer co-op focused? I recall the Lost Planet 2 demo that was already released months ago was four dudes versus a giant scorpion thing. That was a lot of fun; I enjoyed that for the ten minutes that I screwed around with it. Was it a lot of co-op or was it deathmatch? What were the types of games that you were playing?
Brad Gallaway: It's funny you mention that, because that demo that you described is actually a campaign demo. We were all confused because we had asked: "When are we gonna see some campaign action?" And they're like: "Well, it's been out for months." We all looked at each other like: "Huh?" They were saying that that demo was actually a campaign story mode demo.
One of the things that people are not really clear about right now is that the campaign is totally focused on co-op. You can play through it solo and you can have AI bots to go with you, but I guess, evidently, the entire game is designed to have a team of three or four people at all times. If you don't have live friends to play with through the campaign, you have bots. If you think you're really a bad ass, you can do it solo with no bots, but the game doesn't scale the difficulty back. You're going to be going up into situations where it's designed for you to be on a team. That demo that everybody has access to right now is actually a campaign demo.
What we played was actually the straight up multiplayer modes. There were definitely team options; most of it was team-based, like four-on-four. I think they said it goes up to eight versus eight, although that was not displayed. There were a few deathmatch kind of things, but most of it was team-based, for sure: "Capture data points," similar to Capture the Flag except you have these different points throughout the map that you have to control. There were a couple other things. There was a points battle that we did and stuff like that. It's nothing mind-blowing, in terms of the objectives that you're doing, but it's absolutely team-based, for sure.
Chi Kong Lui: It's kind of strange that they went through all the trouble of flying you out there just for the mulitplayer stuff. Was there something that they had in mind? What was their goal, exactly, just showing you that? Did they explain that at all, or no?
Brad Gallaway: No, that was it. We got out there; they showed us the multiplayer demo, and that was it. I think they just really wanna get the word out about how the focus has changed and how much it's improved since the last time. I think that they definitely scored on both of those fronts. A co-op is something that I'm really interested in. I'm not much of a multi- player, but when you bring co-op into it and especially in a campaign, that really gets my attention. That's one of my favorite things to do, and it looked really great. I really appreciate this new focus on co-op. That was basically it; they just wanted to show us the multiplayer. Nothing more to it than that.
Mike Bracken: See, that's funny. You are interested by the fact that they're bringing co-op into the main campaign experience; that is a complete dealbreaker for me: Why do I need a game that has fucking online multiplayer where I can play with other people, then if I wanna play offline, why do I have to have more people to play with, or to play with bots? Why can't I just play a game by myself anymore? Do you see what I'm saying? I can play with other people online. There's an online component to the game to do that very thing. So why are you now forcing me to do it even in the campaign mode? I don't wanna do that.
Brad Gallaway: I totally hear you, because I am not a multiplayer guy. You guys know me: I am not Mr. Multi by any stretch of the imagination. I'm solo 99.9% of the time. So I do, in that respect, think it's pretty cool that you still do have the option of doing it yourself. You can have the bots or if you level up a little bit—you get some guns, you feel your oats, you think you're good—you can do it solo all the way, and nothing's stopping you.
I just really enjoy teaming up with somebody and having a point to it. Personally, I don't like playing game modes where you just repeat the same thing over and over and over: you capture the same territory over and over, you kill the same people over and over. It doesn't feel like it goes anywhere for me, so it doesn't really keep my attention. But in a campaign mode, I know there's gonna be story bits. There's gonna be an endpoint. There's gonna be bosses. That stuff to me is really cool, 'cause I like the progression of a single player story. But I like the fact that my wife is here, and she's a great gamer. We can both team up and go through this together, if she's not nursing the baby or whatever. I think it's pretty cool.
One other thing, also, is that a lot of these Vital Suits are multi-part. There's one Vital Suit where it's a three-person suit. One person drives and then your teammates man the gun turrets. There's one even that's a combiner: one person's in each suit, and then you combine. There's lots of opportunities to take advantage of heavy weaponry with teammates. Obviously bots would fill that role, but I think it's cool that you just have the option. Given how few co-op campaign games there are relative to how many solo campaigns, I'm cool with there being something like this out there. But I hear ya; I'm not multi all the time, though.
Mike Bracken: Don't get me wrong, because we've all seen shooters and stuff in the past where you can play the campaign co-op, but you can still play solo and have a shot. I just got the impression from what you were saying earlier that it was going to be like: "You're gonna need other people or these bots to play it. You're not gonna be able to just go through." And whenever you say "bots," I automatically think "morons," because bots in games usually are. If it's something like Gears of War or something where you can play it by yourself and still get through it, that's fine. But if it's one of those games where you definitely need another person, or to have bots and the bots aren't good, then I'm a little concerned.
Brad Gallaway: I hear ya, man. I hear ya, and I asked the same thing. They were very clear you could do it alone with no bots, but they said: Just FYI, the game is designed, with the scale of the enemies and the scale of the opposition to be a team unless you're Clint Eastwood.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. I just hate them forcing you into things. I like there to be choices if they're going to include that stuff. That's just my thing.
Tim Spaeth Brad, when you and your wife are playing this game and you do the combiner robot, will you both be throwing out some Voltron catchphrases? Like, you'll stand up and be like: "Activate interlocks!" and she'll stand up and be like: "Dyno-therms connected!" and you'll crash fists or something. You are planning to do that, right?
Brad Gallaway: We've been working on an actual routine. It's a series of hand gestures and mouth-noises. It's a combination of Voltron and Power Rangers. A little bit of the Transformers transformation sound, too. It's not a done thing, and I'm planning to put it on YouTube when we get it perfected. I don't think it's gonna go viral, but we'll see.
Mike Bracken: Nice. I can't wait.
Tim Spaeth "It's morphin' time!" Oh, I love it. Is there a release date for Lost Planet 2? When is it hitting the streets?
Brad Gallaway: Last I checked, they were shooting for mid-May, so I think we're gonna go with that.
Tim Spaeth You don't know the exact date?
Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] Well, they [didn't exactly] go into it, Tim. It's not an exact science.
Tim Spaeth All right. And then, last question: Did you steal anything from Capcom while you were there?
Brad Gallaway: I think I helped myself to more bagels than I was allotted at the banquet table. But, no, I didn't steal anything, but they did give us these cool little toys that were made up to look like one of the bosses. I think it's one of the bosses that's in the demo: it's a giant Akrid worm-caterpillar-slug-frog-thing. I actually got to talk to the guy who designed it, so that was cool. He walked us through the process of him putting that together and then having it go through production. They gave that to us, so technically, it's wasn't stealing, but it still was kind of a cool takeaway.
Tim Spaeth That's fine. Maybe next time. Well, Brad, thanks for sharing the details of your trip and of Lost Planet 2. So why don't we take a quick break? When we come back, a dream come true—Mike Bracken on Final Fantasy XIII. Stick with us.
Tim Spaeth Welcome back. Let's come to the chase, Mike Bracken. When I hinted that we were planning a Final Fantasy XIII segment, the boards exploded. They need your insight; they hunger for it. Let's not torture them anymore. As one of our planet's pre-eminent JRPG experts, give us your take on Final Fantasy XIII.
Mike Bracken: All right. I'm excited to talk about this; I'm actually disappointed, because as some of you know if you listen to this show, I don't have a 360 anymore because it broke and I'm too fucking lazy to get it fixed since it was out of warranty. It's still sitting in the box waiting to be shipped off somewhere to get it fixed, but I haven't. So lately, when I wanna play something cool, I have to go to a friend's house and play on his PS3. So that sucks when you're talking about a game like Final Fantasy XIII, where you can't just go and run through it in eight or ten hours. Obviously, he doesn't want me sitting on his couch for 60 hours, playing a game on his TV. So I try not to take advantage of my friends, but Final Fantasy XIII's a big deal, so I had to go over and spend some time with it.
So here are my impressions after a few hours. I will preface this by saying I played this a couple weeks ago, before we actually went on hiatus. I'm not gonna go into the plot or anything like that, because a) I didn't play enough to really talk about the plot, and b) it's Final Fantay so you know the plot's not gonna make any fucking sense, anyway.
It's gonna be a bunch of gibberish and a bunch of sci-fi and fantasy tropes thrown in there and shit, and big summons. But getting to this game, now that I've totally dismissed it. The most interesting thing I thought that has been said about it—and there has been a lot of back-and-forth; people seem to either like the game or hate the game. A lot of the people that I've talked to have come down more on the side of hating it. So I did a little research, and the most interesting thing I found that has been said about Final Fantasy XIII actually came from X-Play's Adam Sessler.
I don't watch X-Play anymore, just to get off on a little tangent, because they treat Adam Sessler like a buffoon on the show most of the time,which is a real shame. I think Adam's a pretty smart guy, and he's probably smarter than anyone who talks about games on G4, yet they treat him like a moron. They make him do dumb shit all the time, and I just couldn't take it anymore.
When he was talking about this game, he hit on the thing that was pretty close to what I thought when I played it. He said that this is not the game that fans wanted, but the game the geadnre needs. The Japanese RPG is very, very stagnant right now. We've talked about this at different times. If you read my reviews, you know I bitch about it all the time. Yet I still keep playing them, because they're a tie to my childhood and I can't let them go.
And we've seen now, there's been a paradigm shift where Western are suddenly the popular type of RPGs, and the once-venerable Japanese RPG that we all grew up with is stuck in 20 years ago. Nothing ever evolves. They'll take the same old shit and put a different acronym name on it, and it's supposed to be new and exciting. Which Final Fantasy XIII does, as a matter of fact. I don't agree entirely with his assessment that this is the game the genre needs, because I think Final Fantasy XIII, even from the limited amount of time I spent with it, has some very serious issues and things that it gets wrong and doesn't do particularly well.
At the same time, this is the first JRPG we've seen in quite some time that's actually tried to maybe break the formula a little bit; tried to do some new things; tried to encourage players to experiment a little more with their gameplay, and also be a little bit more like the Western RPGs. I think the writing's on the wall for the Japanese companies. We've definitely started to like the Mass Effects and games of that nature, and they're going to have to look at those games and take some of what makes those games popular and incorporate them into the Japanese RPG experience.
The things that I loved about the time I spent with Final Fantasy XIII were, you no longer have to heal. You go into a battle, and you fight and you come out, and you heal after every battle. So you don't have to carry a bunch of healing items around and use them after fights. Or you don't have to cast spells after fights and deplete all your magic points. The game heals you after battles. Now, the complaint about that seems to be that: "Well, it makes the game too easy." Well, I can see where you're coming from with that, but I don't think it does. The battle system in the game is so complex. I think that it just makes the experience a little more streamlined.
The other thing is, there are no inns. You don't ever have to go sleep in an inn to recover point or anything like that, and there are very few towns in the game. Now, this is one of those things that had pissed people off: "What the fuck, man? There are no towns in this game! I can't go talk to people in the town! I can't go shop! I have to shop through this terminal that's like Amazon.com online to get all my weapons and stuff!"
Look: If you like towns in RPGs, more power to you. But for years, I have been saying: "Dude, I don't wanna walk through another fucking town and have to talk to a bunch of stupid-ass people who live there, who spout gibberish to me that has nothing to do with anything.
Chi Kong Lui: Right. So is it that you no longer talk to the same guy and talk to him 20 times and he'll tell you the same thing 20 times?
Mike Bracken: Right. Yeah. And everybody said: "There are no towns in the game," which isn't true. There are towns in the game, but they're very linear. They're just kind of things you go through in pretty much a straight line. There's none of this "run around, talk to this person 45 times and then go all the way across town through 14 load screens to talk to the next person, then go all the way back to the first one to complete whatever stupid fetch mission he had set for you."
So I like that. I know some people are pissed off that there are no towns. Personally, I don't miss them; I don't care. There could never be another town in an RPG again and I would be fine with that.
Tim Spaeth I think anybody who laments the loss of towns is crazy—is just nuts. I'm gonna straight-out call them nuts. Is there anything worse in these games than walking up to somebody and having them tell you that they lost their cat, and then you have to remember: "This is the guy who lost his cat, and I have to keep a mental note in the back of my mind for possibly weeks, in the hopes that if I find the cat I have to come back and remember where this guy was." There is nothing worse than that. Thank God it's been removed.
Mike Bracken: Yes.
Chi Kong Lui: But that's what made Oblivion so brilliant, though. It wasn't so much of a chore. The quest list made that painless. So there's still some value to towns; I wouldn't toss towns out.
Mike Bracken: The thing about that, though—getting back to the whole Japanese [versus] Western RPG thing—is that the Western RPGs like Oblivion, they figured out how to implement towns and quests and quest logs, whereas a lot of the Japanese RPGs don't really help you with that. You go into the town and you talk to the person, and they don't give you a quest log or anything. There have been a couple that have done it in recent years, but for the most part, it's still like it was 20 years ago, where you're supposed to write it down in the back of your instruction book—where they give you the pages to make notes. For me, towns in RPGs are so extraneous. I've played a bazillion RPGs, and recently, in the last couple years, every RPG is the same: Dungeon, town, dungeon, town, dungeon, town. Just eliminate the fucking towns and let me do the actual game part. Nothing that ever happens in the towns is a game.
On that same note, a lot of people have bitched that Final Fantasy XIII eliminated all the minigames: "Oh, my God! There's no Blitzball!" Well, fucking halleujah there's no Blitzball. If I wanted to play Blitzball I'd ask Square to make a fucking Blitzball game and I'd go by that and play it. So there's none of that; there's no casino or any of that stuff. And I understand—some people wanna get a game and spend 120 hours on it. I don't; I have other things I have to do. I have other games I have to review or not review and pretend I'm reviewing, or whatever.
[The game] is very streamlined, and I like that. The other thing that I like is there's really not a penalty for dying. If you go into a battle into a battle and you die, it just raises you outside of combat. Again, that makes it seem like it's easy, but it's not. RPGs have this other habit: you'll go into a battle and die, and it'll raise you at a save point, where you might have to go fight through a bunch of shit again to get back where you were. This is another thing that streamlines the experience.
Plus, it's cool because now you go into fights and you're like: "Okay, I can try different things, I can experiment with the battle system, because I'm not afraid of dying. There's no penalty—if I fuck this up, I'm not gonna have to go back 20 minutes to the last save point and fight all this stuff again and get back here. It's gonna put me right outside of combat, and I can try it again."
Those are the things that I liked about the game. The things that I hated in my time with it are the things that everyone else has bitched about. First up, why the fuck does it take 25 hours to get to the part of the gme where it actually gets fun and you get some freedom? That's literally over a full day of playtime to get to where you sort of feel like the world opens up and you can do things. By the time you get there, you're pretty close to the end of the game, chapter-wise. That's a long time to be spending with the game forcing you into everything.
That brings up the other point: the game is extremely linear. This is one of the things that they didn't get that Western RPGs do well. The Western RPGs really like to give you a lot of freedom now and let you tackle things in different ways and different orders. Clearly, Square didn't understand that concept. This is the most linear Final Fantasy game that I can think of. The first Final Fantasy was linear, too, but you could wander off the path.
The dungeons here are pretty much straight lines; there's no offshoots to explore or anything. You're walking down fucking hallways in this game, constantly, which I didn't like. I'm all for streamlining, but maybe that's a little too much streamlining, if I'm spending the game just walking in a straight line with nowhere to ever wander off to look for hidden treasure, or anything like that. Occasionally, there's a little offshoot where there'll be a treasure chest, but for the most part, it's very straightforward.
Tim Spaeth It sounds like maybe they course-corrected from Final Fantasy XII just a little too much. I thought XII was way too open, way too many offshoots.
Mike Bracken: That's funny, 'cause I got that vibe too, and I think it bugged me more because I like XII a lot. I understand that XII certainly gives you so many options that it can be overwhelming, but I always thought XII was a great offline version of an online game. It plays like an MMO, the way the combat system and all that is set up.
Talking about how RPGs like to take things that we've seen a million times before and rename them and pretend they're new, the battle system…I'm nog gonna talk about the whole battle system, because we'd be here for three fucking days; it's that complicated and convoluted and all this shit. But it has this thing called the Paradigm System.
Tim Spaeth [ironically] That's a great name for a battle system.
Mike Bracken: Yes. As I understand it, there are six jobs, and any character can be any of the six jobs. But I think that they have three that they especially excel at. So you can switch around and set it up before battle and then in battle you can switch roles on the fly. So it's the Paradigm System, but really, this is the fucking job system again, okay? [Laughter] You can call it whatever you want, but it's the same job system we've had in Final Fantasy we've had for a long time. Don't fucking call it the "Paradigm System" and expect me to think it's some big, new, brilliant innovation. It's just really the job system.
Last but not least, everything you've heard about that first 25 hours is true. The game forces you into things. You're not allowed to pick your party and you only control one character. If that character dies, even if the other two are 100 percent full health, you lose. But like I said, the good thing is you don't have to go back to a save point. It just boots you out of combat.
I've had a lot of people bitch about that, but at the same time, I'm conflicted. Again, I think them forcing you to use the characters based on what's happening in the story is interesting, because it makes you play all of the characters. Usually, when you get in these kind of games you put together your dream team of your favorite characters, and you level them to godhood and you never use the other people, because they suck or you don't like them or you just don't wanna fuck with them.
So this is kind of cool because you're gonna use all the characters, and you're gonna understand how all of them work, and you have a little closer tie to them when the story interludes happen. So I know people have bitched about it, and I definitely understand where they're coming from, because you don't wanna be forced for 25 hours into not being able to pick your party. But at the same time, it makes you use these other characters, so I think it's good.
Tim Spaeth It kind of calls back to the early Final Fantasys. That's kind of how the early hours of Final Fantays IV and Final Fantasy VI were: your team members were going and coming.
Mike Bracken: VI is really a good example in this regard, because that's what it reminds me of: the way VI would make you take certain characters. Like you said, some would leave, some would go off on some other side thing that you weren't part of, so you would have to use other characters in the game. And VI is great, because by the time you get to the end, if you didn't level everybody when you get to the final thing where you have to split everybody up into teams, you're screwed, because you'll have an under-leveled team.
Brad Gallaway: I can't believe you just spoiled that.
Mike Bracken: I know; I suck. A game that's only been out, what? 20 years?
Chi Kong Lui: Wait…I've finished a game that Brad hasn't? Is this possible?
Mike Bracken: No; he has to have finished Final Fantasy VI.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah.
Chi Kong Lui: You got my hopes up high, there, man.
Mike Bracken: So all in all, I understand where people are disappointed and I think it's a good game. I don't think it's a great game. I think as time goes on it will be looked at as one of the lesser Final Fantasys. I don't think anyone's gonna be like: "Ooh, this is in the same breath as Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy VI. You know I think VII way overrated, but I know everybody else loves it. I think this is gonna be more like Final Fantasy VIII or something like that.
Chi Kong Lui: Ugh.
Brad Gallaway: Mystic Quest Part 2?
Mike Bracken: I don't think it's that bad. But again, this is the hardest thing about it. I know how RPG people are. We bitch about wanting things different, but when you change anything, we cry because we hate change. So you have to say Square at least made an attempt to change things, so I can appreciate that. I don't think the attempt was entirely successful. It's a hit-and-miss situation; you have to give them some credit for at least trying to think outside the box. Square obviously could've put out an exact clone of Final Fantasy X and people would've bought millions of copies of it and everybody would've been like: "Ooh, yay! Final Fantasy!" So they don't have to take these chances; they could leave that to one of these smaller developers.
But I think that Square understands that the JRPG is in trouble. For it to get back to being as prominent as it's been—it's always been sort of a niche genre—they're gonna have to lead the way and try to do things a little differently. Nobody wants to play the same fucking game we played 20 years ago anymore.
Chi Kong Lui: Let me ask you this: When you say "take a chance," what exactly is this big chance?
Mike Bracken: There isn't a big chance here; there's nothing that they've done that's huge. But you have to understand: these games don't change at all. If you play Dragon Quest or Star Ocean or Suikoden, these games don't change. They might change the number of people you can take into combat, or they'll rename the battle system or make it "active time." But even those—every Tales game is the same fucking game: Tales of Vesperia, Tales of Symphonia… it's all the same battle system and everything. They changed the names and put new characters in, but they're all the same game.
Final Fantasy XIII has at least tried to do things like take away the penalties for dying, which have been around forever. You always get screwed when you die in an RPG. The elimination of towns is a nice touch. That one, to me, might be the biggest, because we understand that this gameplay mechanic where you go through a dungeon and then have to stop playing the game to go into a town and do stupid shit that doesn't have anything to do with what's fun about the game is stupid, and we're killing momentum by doing that. If we eliminate those, you get to spend more time with the combat system and fighting monsters and leveling up, which is the appeal of RPGs. I don't know anyone who says: "Ooh! I love to play RPGs 'cause I like to talk to the townsfolk or go to the shops!"
Chi Kong Lui: Well, technically, I did like going to the shops to buy the biggest new gear. That was always a big sell for me.
Mike Bracken: But you can still do that. It just doesn't happen in a town now; it happens at a computer terminal thing. That's still part of it, and I understand that, because I like that, too. So there's that, and the idea that they let you heal after battle; they're little changes, but for this genre, they're big changes.
Brad Gallaway: Prior to Final Fantasy XIII coming out, there was an interview with one of the developers, and he had said: "Well, we're studying Western RPGs to really find out new elements to add to our games." I don't remember exactly which developer, but I remember his examples of Western RPGs: Tomb Raider and Gea rs of War.
It was all over Twitter for a while, and everybody's jaw collectively dropped. They were saying they were trying to take elements from Western RPGs, but at the same time, I think the changes were a way of making it more accessible. Like you said, Mike, JRPG players like what they like and they like the same old thing that we've had for 20 years. That's become pretty inscrutable to a lot of people. My wife can really get into a lot of games, but when I tried to explain JRPGs to her, she was like: "Well, why is this? Why do you have this menu? Why has this happened? Why do you have to do this?"
Mike Bracken: " 'Cause it's always been that way."
Brad Gallaway: Right. My answer was: "That's just the way it is." It's not like I wanna make excuses for it, but you can't get new people into a genre like this. I guess part of Square's thinking, if I'm not mistaken, is that they wanted to open it up, make a lot of changes, glamify it a little bit, make it more linear so people don't get lost, make it easier for people to approach it. At the same time—granted, I haven't played the game yet—I've heard from a lot of people that some of the boss battles later on are really, really, really hard and that the battle system gets really hard. So it seems to me like the contradiction of: "Let's make it prettier and simpler and easier to get newcomers into the game, but at the same time, we're gonna crank the boss battles up really hard to make the combat system difficult to learn." What was your take on that?
Mike Bracken: Like I said, I played a little bit at the beginning and then I went back and played my friend's save file and he was closer to the 25-hour mark. That's very true, and I wondered at first if it was just me jumping ahead in time; if I had played all those hours, the combat system would've seemed more intuitive. So I asked him, and he's like: "No. It just gets complicated and as you get farther in the game, there's more you can do. It becomes a lot more to juggle, and so there's definitely a level of challenge." And I've heard from other people the same thing about the bosses: as you get closer to the end of the game, some of the bosses are very challenging.
But I think you're spot on with the assessment that they have tried to make it more accessible to people who aren't the core JRPG players in order to get them in and make it a little less inscrutable to them at the same time. It's odd.
Chi Kong Lui: First off, I find it hilarious that you can hit something with "13" after it and [try to make it more] accessible. There's 13 of them! No one's gonna go back to number one. It's an uphill battle right from the start.
Mike Bracken: Right. But you're only looking at it as Final Fantasy. Some people only play one series, but JRPG players tend to play all of them.
Chi Kong Lui: No; I'm talking about the mainstream here. No matter what you tweak in the gameplay, that "13" is such a huge, insurmountable thing that they'll never overcome. No one's gonna wanna jump in at that.
Brad Gallaway: I totally disagree with that.
Mike Bracken: I totally disagree with that, yeah. Everybody knows that these games aren't related at all. They're just numbers at this point.
Brad Gallaway: Not just that, but these are multimedia bonanzas. It's like this giant cultural event. Look at Final Fantasy VII. It turned the entire game on its head, because of the cut-scenes. That got newcomers by the truckload to sign up, and they didn't care about one through six; they wanted VII. Same thing with XIII: it was all over TV, graphics are amazing. That's gonna get newcomers coming.
Chi Kong Lui: I get that with VII, but I'm not hearing what's the hook with XIII here. All the shakeups as I'm hearing it are for the JRPG [aspect.] I'm pointing at the same point that you were trying to make: there's a bit of a conflict here—the left hand not knowing what the right hand's doing.
Mike Bracken: Final Fantasy has always been at least somewhat casual, and accessible, because Square does such a good job of advertising and showing you the pretty stuff that people, even if they don't understand JRPGs, are gonna jump in on these games. I don't think you can compare this one to VII, because VII was such a huge deal. It got so many people into JRPGs in general.
But at the same time, I think that they've done the same things they've always done when they've got a new game out. They put out commercials with pretty graphics and everything. What normally happens is people would buy those games and they would play ten hours and they would be so confused and lost they would never play again.
I think this one is way more accessible. I think people who pick this one up are not going to only play for a couple hours and be lost. If you get lost in this game, I don't know how you game at all.
Tim Spaeth Casual players wouldn't commit 25 hours. They'll never see the open-ended part of the game.
Mike Bracken: Yeah.
Brad Gallaway: I've heard several stories of people who've bailed after eight and ten hours, and they're just like: "Whatever." [Unknownn]
Mike Bracken: That, I think, is the biggest mistake of the game: making it so closed for so long. You feel literally like the game is forcing you into everything. You never feel like you have any choice or freedom in those early hours, and I haven't played where it opens up. I've just heard that it finally opens up. So I'm assuming that it becomes more like a traditional Final Fantasy then. Yeah, it's a tough sell.
Again, for me, it's a mixed game. It does some things that I think are commendable. It doesn't always do them right, but I commend them for trying. But at the same time, it has a lot of mistakes in it that I think they could fix for XV or whatever. But, like I said, it's a lesser Final Fantasy. It's not ever gonna be one of the big Final Fantasy titles people gush about.
Chi Kong Lui: Let me ask you this, Mike: As you're describing the game, to me it feels like video games as a whole are moving toward this homogenized, hybrid style: all accessible, action-type experience. Do you feel that's the case? Are you still comfortatable calling this an RPG?
Mike Bracken: I'm still comfortable calling this an RPG, but I have you do, that there's this movement to make games into one homogenized thing, where it cuts across genre lines. I think that's just the business you're seeing now, where games are such big business that everybody wants to have their game as accessible to as many demographics as possible.
Chi Kong Lui: So why is this still an RPG in your mind?
Mike Bracken: You're still going out; you're still leveling up; you're fighting monsters. It has that sort of turn-based combat system and all that stuff. It's got all the hallmarks of a traditional RPG: you find treasure, you buy better gear.
Chi Kong Lui: It hasn't completely jumped the shark in its gameplay, then?
Mike Bracken: No; no. It's funny, because it does do a few things different, but then there's shit like the combat system, which does some new things but then has the Paradigm System, which is basically the job system with a new name. It's still got active time battle and all that shit that we've had in Final Fantasy for a very long time. It's this weird mixture of old and new, and it doesn't always work great together. But at the same time, I'm happy to see someone try to do something different in this field, because I'm tired of playing the same couple of games over and over and over.
Tim Spaeth I'd like to expand the discussion beyond Final Fantasy—although we can come back to it, certainly, if the need arises. Mike, I have two final questions about Final Fantasy XIII specifically. Your answers to these questions will determine whether or not I purchase the game.
Mike Bracken: [sarcastically] Oh, boy.
Tim Spaeth Number one: I do not like Final Fantasys where the female characters have bunny ears. Will I like this game or not?
Mike Bracken: [Laughter] I didn't see anybody in my party who had bunny ears. I think you're okay.
Tim Spaeth Good. Question two: I like Final Fantasys where the characters break into spontaneous J-pop musical numbers.
Mike Bracken: [Laughter] I did not see any of that, either, but like I said, I didn't spend a ton of time with it. It may be hiding in there somewhere.
Tim Spaeth Dammit. All right. Thank you.
Mike Bracken: You're welcome.
Tim Spaeth We talked a bit about Final Fantasy as a whole. Certainly, the last four entries in Final Fantasy have varied pretty wildly from each other. Mike, it seems to me that we should not be criticizing the series for floundering for relevance; you would agree that we should be praising it for experimenting? Would you say that's true?
Mike Bracken: "Praise" is a strong word. [Laughter] It's really hard for me, because I would really like to spend time playing the whole game and have a completely informed opinion on it when I'm done. But, yeah—I think both sides of this argument have valid points. I see both sides as being right and wrong, in some ways. I see the guys who say: "Well, it's at least trying to do something to tweak the formula." Yes, I agree. That's praiseworthy. I see the other side say: "Why should it take 25 hours to get to the real good part of the story? Why do I have to walk through linear corridors that are supposed to be dungeons over and over?" Those people are right, too. It's really a middle-of-the-road thing. I can't commit one way or the other, and I hate that.
Chi Kong Lui: It sounds like they fixed the most amazing stuff, but at the same time, all the stuff I hate about Final Fantasy is still there.
Mike Bracken: Yeah, it kinda is. Really, it's gonna be one of those games…every game is up to the individual to determine if they like it or not, but I think with this game, individual experiences will really vary. I love the fact that there are no towns. And yet, there are other people that are like: "What? No fucking towns? I'm not playing that game. An RPG has to have towns!" Who's right and who's wrong? It's a matter of personal opinion.
So I definitely do think it deserves some praise for trying to be different. And that's funny, because the Japanese are so staid and don't ever want to do anything that the West does. It's how it always comes across. For them to even try to look at Western games at all and try to incorporate some of these things is a big step, I think. Now, what they do with it from there, I have no idea. Hopefully they continue on with it and fix these games. If not, this is one of those genres that could be dead in ten years. We might be having a memorial show, like: "Remember when we had JRPGs?"
Tim Spaeth It's an interesting challenge, not just for Final Fantaay, but really for any long-running video game series—these decades-long series that have had 20, 30, 40 entries. Do you remain stagnant and risk boring your long-time fans, or do you evolve and risk pissing them off? I thought we could close the show tonight by talking about some of these other series and how they have dealt with that longevity.
One that comes to mind, Chi, is your precious Dynasty Warriors. It's not a franchise that I'm terribly familiar with, but you've stuck with it for years. How well would you say that Koei has managed the series over time?
Chi Kong Lui: I'm playing the latest version of it, Strike Force, right now. It's kind of odd, because Trent and I were talking a little bit about it on Twitter, and he called it Dynasty Warriors with a Dragon Ball Z take on it. I was like: "Okay, that's a little odd."
Mike Bracken: That's the worst thing ever.
Brad Gallaway: That doesn't sound good to me at all. Not even a little bit.
Mike Bracken: No. That's like if you could take the two worst things in history and combine them.
Tim Spaeth No offense, though.
Chi Kong Lui: To people who like Dynasty Warriors and people who like Dragon Ball, right?
Brad Gallaway: Dragon Ball blows, dude. Anybody listening: If you like Dragon Ball, you got problems, man.
Mike Bracken: Yeah.
Chi Kong Lui: All right. All right dude.
Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] Oh, I'm striking a nerve!
Mike Bracken: I'm with Brad on the Dragon Ball thing.
Chi Kong Lui: This is becoming a distraction for me now. I brought that up because when I went to look at the press material for Strike Force, I was trying to figure out: "What's the hook to Strike Force? Why is this different?" And even when I went back to look at it, they still called it "a tactical action game." I'm like: [sarcastically] "Okay, wow. That really sold it to me." I was expecting it to tell me: "This is a multiplayer game," the Dragon Ball thing, but it never really said what it was. I think that was bizarre.
I just basically had to play it to figure out that it was like a Diablo/Phantasy Star Online take on the Dynasty Warriors series. That has good and bad [aspects.] It takes away a lot of the things that I really enjoy about Dynasty Warriors as far as that whole visceral dumping a guy onto the battlefield. I think everyone gets that. I think anyone who's played Dynasty Warriors for the first time, including Vin Diesel, and unfortunately, Strike Force took that away. It was one of the best things about the game.
[Strike Force] makes it really video game-y, in that you've got to wade through all these menus, and you've got to go to a lobby-type place and you've gotta organize with people if you play it online. That part wasn't too great. What I did like, though, was that it did make the online features pretty accessible. It did remind me of Phantasy Star Online in a good way. It almost reminded me of Demon's Souls, in that it seamlessly went between the single-player campaign and the multiplayer campaign. And all the good things about games like Diablo: the loot and the uprgrades are always a nice thing. One other thing that I really liked about this game was that they added this aerial combat thing where you're juggling guys in the air and going nuts and doing all kinds of nice combos.
But this game is typical of the way Koei's handled the series. They keep the main series pretty similar, in that it's very basic. It's got a main campaign and you go through it in a linear fashion. All of the what I consider to be new and exciting ideas, they put in offshoots like Dynasty Warriors: Empires or Dynasty Warriors: Strike Force. I think that's how they try to maintain the business side of it, where they basically leave the main part of it untouched.
As a critic, I really wish they would try to just get all the great ideas and save them all for Dynasty Warriors 7. That's what would make me happy as a critic. But from a business standpoint, this is a very successful franchise. It's wildly popular in Asia. I think it does moderately well here in the United States. People really underestimate how big Dynasty Warriors is in Asia. It's really hard to complain, but as a critic, I'm unsatisfied by the way they've handled it.
Tim Spaeth They're playing it safe, really, so as not to piss off the hardcore fans. But still, there are avenues for innovation in these outlier titles.
Chi Kong Lui: Right. I know there's some danger in it, but it's just become such a big business and the bigger it gets, the less risk the companies take. They have to resort to doing it the way Koei's handled it. Unfortunately, it's very disappointing. I like the old days. Sure, The Legend of Zelda II is thought of as a negative thing these days, but I like the fact that they tried different things, and it's hard to go back to what it was. If you don't have Zelda II, you don't appreciate part three as much. It's kind of like New Coke versus Coke Classic. [Laughter] The only thing New Coke ever did was make you realize how much you loved the old Coke.
Brad Gallaway: I don't think I'd really term that as a success, though. It's just an accidental byproduct. I don't think they set out to say: "Well, you know, people don't really appreciate Coke, so we're gonna fuck it up. And then we're gonna teach those sons of bitches."
Mike Bracken: The same thing with Crystal Pepsi.
Brad Gallaway: I really don't think that the marketing gurus are saying that. I think that's just an unfortunate happenstance.
Chi Kong Lui: I'm just saying that I don't think taking a chance is a bad thing. Yeah, you piss off some angry fanboys, but the fanboys aren't going anywhere. You really just have an opportunity to get a new audience, but I don't think you're really gonna alienate those hardcore fanboys, to begin with.
Tim Spaeth It brings up an interesting question, specifically about reviews since you mentioned your perspective as a critic. As you play the tenth game in a series, objectively you might look at it and say: "This game is really, really good." Like, say: New Super Mario Bros. Wii—great game. Probably as good of a game as Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros. 3 or any of the classic Marios. But also, there are no surprises. You can look at a screen and know exactly how you need to navigate through the enemies. To me, it's kind of boring. But do you ever have to look at it from the perspective of somebody who's never played a Mario game before, and do you have to address that perspective in your review as well? Do you have to come at it from both angles, or can you really only speak for yourself?
Brad Gallaway: That's an interesting topic, Tim. I can speak to that, not for the Dynasty Warriors series, but for the Armored Core series, which is another hardcore, cult [series] from Japan. I think I've reviewed at least six or seven of those games in a row. I was always trying to be very mindful of: "Yes, this is me, who knows this series inside and out. But if I was gonna recommend this to somebody who had never played an Armored Core game before, what would that be like?"
I think that long-running series are in a special kind of danger of alienating any newcomers because they just get so set in their ways. I think the developers themselves get in that mindset of: "Well, we can't piss off the fans too much; we don't wanna lose our install base, because then we're not gonna hit our numbers." So they always make sure that the proper boxes are checked, but at the same time, they don't really go out of their way to open that up to other people.
While I found Armored Core 1 and 2 to be really great experiences back in the day, by the time I got to six or seven, the critical side of me was really tired of it. Not enough chances were being taken and nothing was different. But at the same time, I really thought that they could've made much more effort towards making it accessible to other people. Even if they didn't change the core formula, they could've at least changed their openness, so that new gamers could have a chance to get in on the action. Yet, I didn't really see that being taken. I don't know how Chi feels, but I definitely try to keep in mind what it might feel like to approach a game as a newcomer. I know I'm not always successful; it's hard to forget things that you know or put on a new set of eyes to look at a game through. But I try; I attempt, at least. Chi, what about you?
Chi Kong Lui: I go back to the Mike Bracken argument. I don't think I'm trying to represent anyone other than myself, when it comes to my perspective on these things. Also, as critics, we have to look at things like innovation. It can't be all about the fun.
Mike Bracken: I agree. This is the thing I struggle with the most, especially because I review a lot of RPGs and I've been playing them for so long. You're trying to write a review and you know people who don't play these games and are maybe not familiar with them are gonna read it, and part of your thing is to try to get people who read your review for a good game interested in playing it. By my thing, totally, is that I'm reviewing the game from my perspective and, ultimately, everything that I've done gamingwise, lifewise, bookwise, filmwise, whatever is gonna factor into that. You try to be mindful of it and you try to take people who are not familiar with it into consideration, but at the same time, you have to be you. I definitely think you have to just be faithful to yourself and present your own thing.
Chi Kong Lui: Let me go back to what Brad said. I understand that I did target a different audience for reviews—that's exactly what I did for the Dynasty Warriors games. The first review I did was a general one; the second review I did, which was for part five or something, I targeted people that don't understand the series. Then the last one was more just revisiting it as myself. I took different stances on it based on who I thought I was addressing at certain times.
Tim Spaeth So you play with the perspective of the review, depending on what angle you want to approach it at?
Chi Kong Lui: Right.
Tim Spaeth So, Chi, one Dynasty Warriors question, and then I wanna go to some folks who had some Twitter comments: Knowing me as well as you do, if I were to want to try a Dynasty Warriors game, which one should I start with?
Chi Kong Lui: Ooh, that's a tough one. I'd probably just say stick with the main series—I don't think anything can go wrong with that—and just do Dynasty Warriors 6. That's one of the misnomers about Dynasty Warriors: that there's a ton of them out there. If you only play the main series, there's actually not that many of them. First of all, the first one wasn't even a true Dynasty Warriors game; it was when Koei tried to make a two-player fighting game out of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. The second Dynasty Warriors, they took that name and applied it to what we know as Dynasty Warriors today. So if you take out that first part, there's actually only five main parts. But they've diluted it by putting out all these side games that are more for the hardcore people. I would say stick to the main series, yeah.
Tim Spaeth Do the characters break into spontaneous J-pop musical numbers?
Mike Bracken: If you put in the secret code. It's the Konami code.
Chi Kong Lui: There's no J-pop. At the beginning of every Dynasty Warriors game you'll get cheesy '80s guitar rock music.
Mike Bracken: Yes, you will.
Tim Spaeth Nice. Well, I look forward to that. I'm gonna give it a shot. I need to understand your passion for this series.
Chi Kong Lui: Tim, being the big Too Human fan that you are, I think you owe it to yourself to play the originator of that genre—the "I can kick ass, strength of a thousand" genre.
Tim Spaeth All right, I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna put it on the spreadsheet. So as we close out here tonight, before I came to the studio I posted on Twitter this question: "What long-running game series desperately needs an overhaul, or burial?" If you had to predict what came up most, what was the overwhelming response?
Brad Gallaway: I would say Legend of Zelda.
Chi Kong Lui: Zelda.
Mike Bracken: Zelda.
Tim Spaeth Ding ding ding! You got it, man. We've done 32 episodes; we've never talked about Zelda anything on this show. [Transcriptionist's Note: Check out Episode 29 actually.] What was the last Zelda game you guys played?
Mike Bracken: Twilight Princess.
Chi Kong Lui: I started playing Windwaker before I decided that it was the same game that I've played and I stopped.
Brad Gallaway: The last Zelda game I played was actually 3D Dot Game Heroes, which is not an official Zelda game, but it is Zelda, by far. But if we're talking about actual Zelda games, I started Twilight Princess and I thought it was so fucking boring I wanted to just jump out a window. Previous to that, Windwaker was one that I actually finished. I enjoyed it, except for that sailing part at the end. The sailing killed it, hardcore. But other than that, it was good.
Tim Spaeth I've kept up pretty well with the series. For me, it's become this one big big, amorphous blob. I can't differentiate between the games anymore. But I was screwing around on the Nintendo Channel on the Wii, believe it or not, and it keeps track of how long you've played the games on your Wii. I looked at my time played for Twilight Princess, and I played it for 51 hours. 51 hours, and I have no recollection of about 98 percent of that game.
It's like 51 hours completely wasted, because it's all just the same thing over and over and over. The entries in this series, there's always one little twist that they throw in. You could call it a gimmick. There's one where he turned into a wolf, and there's the one that looked like a cartoon, and there was the one where he could turn really small. But I don't know which ones those were, and I don't keep them straight in my mind. I remember knowing at one point that Ocarina of Time was one of my favorite games, but I don't remember why anymore. All the dungeons are the same. The only thing that differentiates these games now is the amount of time it takes for you to get to the boomerang. There's a time-to-boomerang statistic in every game, and that's the difference.
It's funny, some of these Twitter comments, and I'll just read a few of them for you. The first one came in from our own Richard Naik. He suggested that Zelda star in her own game.
Mike Bracken: Like Princess Peach.
Tim Spaeth Yeah: Princess Zelda Adventures. So change the protagonist.PandaBear19 says he always feels cheated whenever he plays a new Zelda: "It's the same game every time; it's a shame they would never make a direct sequel, because all the fanboys would cry foul." Although I think Windwaker was a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, if memory serves. He says it's a shame because that limits so many places the games could've gone. "Zelda is a maybe. It's traditional, but fans hate change. It's the same story: Link saves Zelda, fulfills his destiny, credits roll."
The question I would have for you guys is: Do you care at this point? Is Zelda a thing from your childhood? Do you even have a vested interest in seeing it relevant anymore?
Mike Bracken: It's a thing from my childhood and I appreciate it for that, so therefore it makes me sad to see it the way it is now. Everybody still gushes about it, but I think it's incredibly fucking stagnant. If I never played another Zelda game that's like the classics—which is every one that's been out now—I would be perfectly fine with that. If they're not going to come up with a new way of doing Zelda, then I don't really care if I never play another one. But it does make me sad.
Chi Kong Lui: I just think that these companies are damned one way or the other. They keep trying to please the hardcore fans; well, they just turn off about everyone who's in between, which is a majority of gamers like us. I don't think any of us ever did a cosplay of Link or anything like that. [Laughter]
Mike Bracken: I cosplayed the guy who gives you the sword in the first game once, but not Link.
Tim Spaeth Classic! Classic character.
Brad Gallaway: I thought about doing Tingle, but I kind of chickened out at the last minute.
Chi Kong Lui: I saw Bracken more as a Tingle guy myself, actually.
Mike Bracken: Well, you know. Maybe next year.
Tim Spaeth If we ever all go to PAX and we do a live podcast, we could all dress as Tingle.
We could all get inside one Tingle costume. [Laughter]
Chi Kong Lui: Going back to what I was saying, it's not as big of a risk as these companies seem to think. Like I said, if they don't change up, they're screwed one way or the other. The fanboys are gonna buy it one way or the other, so the one thing they're really doing is missing the opportunity to capture a new audience. Maybe I'm crazy. Am I missing something here? Is it really that simple?
Mike Bracken: Well, with Zelda, you have to think: What's the fucking onus to change it? It sells a bazillion copies, every one that comes out. So people obviously love it the way it is. I had this argument with someone online a few months back, and her attitude was: "Yeah? Well, I like it that way. That's how Zelda is." And apparently, other people do, too, so I guess there's no reason for Nintendo to change it as long as it continues to sell.
Brad Gallaway: How many critics are totally scared to criticize it in any way? You can't touch that franchise without risking this horde of fanboys descending from darkened skies on you. You say anything bad about it, then all the sudden, you're this Philistine that doesn't like games and have no respect for the classics and "What's wrong with you? You don't like Zelda?"
But I'm with you guys. I loved it back then. It was great because it was new and it was fresh and it was a pioneer, but they've been resting on their laurels for decades. It's the same game. I can't even play Zelda games anymore, because I'm so fucking bored of them. It's the same thing over and over. There's just nothing to it. Literally, I can't play them anymore. I can't.
Tim Spaeth I will say that the controls in the two DS games, where you're conrolling Link with the stylus, is pretty clever and very, very accurate. Actually, in some cases, it makes controlling Link more accurate when you're trying to do things like throw bombs and so forth. But I'm screwing around with Spirit Tracks right now, which is the one that came out last Christmas.
Here's the thing: a good 20 percent of this game involves using the DS microphone. Look, I'm a guy in my mid-thirties; I ride a train with businessmen, and I can't be blowing into my DS. I just can't.
The other issue is: I was playing this on a plane, and on a plane there's a lot of noise. It completely freaks the microphone out. It literally makes the game unplayable. You can't pass certain puzzles because there's just constant noise going into the microphone. There needs to be some way to turn that off. It's just awful design; it's terrible design.
That, I think, is one of the problems with the Zelda series. The gimmick that they throw into each game is frequently quite terrible. The sailing that replaced the overworld in Phantom Hourglass, and the railroad in this game. Imagine an overworld that involves you on a train that you can't actually control. You're moving from Point A to Point B and you're literally sitting there just watching the train for five minutes. I kid you not—you're sitting there doing literally nothing for five minutes, watching the train go from Point A to Point B. Who thought that was an improvement on what admittedly was a very stagnant overworld? It's unfathomable to me. And yet here I am, playing the stupid game. I don't get it. What's wrong with me?
Mike Bracken: You know what it is for me? It's the sound effects: that little ["You've found something!" theme]. Every time I hear that, it's like I'm fucking twelve again. That's the only reason I ever turn those games on anymore—for the sound effects and nostalgia.
Chi Kong Lui: I wanna go back to Mike's point about the sales. I think it's kind of short-sighted, because, first of all, we've only seen on Zelda game on the Wii, and it was a launch title. Of course it was gonna sell well one way or the other. We haven't seen another Zelda title on the Wii since. Has it been a system seller? No. It's the Wii Fits and the Wii Sports that move the console. Zelda has become completely irrelevant in the gaming world at this point, as the Wii in general has become irrelevant in the forward-thinking part of the game industry. You could argue that, depending on how well the DS Zelda games numbers do, but again, this is the DS. There are so many DSs out there, of course the numbers are gonna do well. But again, they're not relevant in gaming in general, and I think those numbers are very short-sighted. They're not moving systems.
Tim Spaeth Well, I think this is probably a good time to wrap things up. We've been talking for over an hour and a half, so hopefully this makes up for us being gone a month. We do hope you enjoyed the show. If you wanna get in touch with us, do so at GameCritics.com, whether it's in the comments thread for the podcast or on our message board. If you don't wan to put your message in public, send us an email: podcast AT gamecritics DOT com. You can also follow us on Twitter Of course, you can subscribe to the show through iTunes and Zune, or listen live right off the GameCritics.com home page.
So with that, Chi, any final thoughts before we go tonight?
Chi Kong Lui: It's good to be back, guys.
Tim Spaeth Brad, how about you?
Brad Gallaway: I still don't like Dragon Ball.
Tim Spaeth Mike, how about you?
Mike Bracken: I hope the Final Fantasy XIII impressions were worth the wait, and I, too, still hate Dragon Ball.
Chi Kong Lui: Grr.
Tim Spaeth I'll remain neutral, so as not to incut Chi's wrath. I'm still hoping he'll provide the staff with iPads.
Mike Bracken: Sweet.
Brad Gallaway: It would be a business deduction.
Mike Bracken: I might come around on Dragon Ball if one were to show up here at the house.
Chi Kong Lui: Expect four spiral notebooks.
Mike Bracken: [Laughter] And a pack of pens.
Tim Spaeth Well, with that, thanks everyone for listening. We'll do it again soon. For now, I'm Tim Spaeth. Good night and bonne chance.