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Saturday, March 18, 2017


In the past couple of months we have seen new installments in two of my all-time favourite series. Two games that took their traditions in wildly new directions and opened up into big wide explorable worlds. Two games that took years and years to create. Two games with lots and lots of cooking.

One of them was enormously successful...

One was a bit of a disaster...

I am talking, of course, about The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild and Final Fantasy XV.

Let's start with Final Fantasy. And don't get me wrong, this is not the worst game ever made. I made it the whole way through the game, and for a lot of the time, I'd say I was enjoying myself. As a stand-alone game, it's fine. As a numbered part of the Final Fantasy legacy, I'd say it's about the weakest link in the whole series, certainly up there (down there?) with the FFXIII debacle.
The graphics are undoubtedly stunning, and the game has a very detailed sense of art direction. But I feel like it's a bit TOO realistic. I know that the project was conceived as "a fantasy based in reality," but I hope this doesn't become an ongoing trend in the series. There are certainly no shortage of games trying to look like real life these days. I want fantasy, dammit!

But the storytelling! The plot! The characters! It's just an enormous messy pile of gunk! I barely even know where to start. The story is SO badly told, even though I feel like there is a cool tale buried in there somewhere. It has no idea what kind of story it even wants to tell. Is it a story about the bonds of fraternal friendship? Is it a love story? Is it a story of war and conquest? Is it a story about a boy's fractured relationship with his father? It tries to be all of these things, and in doing so, turns out to be none of them.

I was really hoping that we'd see some real moments of bonding with our four main guys. I was hoping that we'd see specific demonstrations of how much they rely on each other. Real bromance stuff. There was a moment where it looked like it MIGHT have some substance (the scene where Noct and Prompto share a moment sitting out the front of the hotel) but it never really develops from there.

In fact, it feels like the game is determined to hold BACK any kind of emotion between the four heroes. (Mild spoilers ahead) In the scene where Noct learns that his father has been killed and his city overtaken by the enemy (which all happens off-camera, unless you were "lucky" enough to watch the 2-hour cutscene known as "Kingsglaive") he is understandably distraught. His entire world has just come crumbling down. Are his supposed "best friends" there for him? Do they comfort him? Hug him? Cry with him? No. They stand on the other side of the room and basically tell him to suck it up and stop being a baby.

The real killer for me though, is the epilogue. Those of you who have finished the game will know the scene I'm talking about. "This is it," I said. "The walls of masculinity will be broken down and they'll finally tell each other how they feel." But no. They cry, but do it silently, in secret. It feels like this scene is just begging for Noctis to say, "I love you guys. You mean the world to me. Thank you for everything you've done." But he doesn't even seem capable of doing that. Eurgh. So no. I didn't take anything away from this story about the bonds of friendship.

The story also seemed to harp on and on about this supposed love story between Noct and Luna, but as anyone who has played the game knows, it's a complete non-event. Why is Luna even IN this story, apart from offering a female lead character? That's about all I can say about that.

So it's just all over the place. Which pretty much sums up the game. It doesn't know what it wants to be. I don't know if I've ever played a game this unfocused before. Is it an open-world game? Sort-of. Sometimes. Can you fast-travel? Yeah, but only if you're in the car. It feels like the game's many systems are all working against each other, and are stopping the game from feeling like a cohesive whole... a stark contrast from the next game I'll be talking about.

But first let me talk about the combat. Ohhhhh, the combat.

It is a MESS. A big, fat mess. I don't think there was a single moment in this game where I enjoyed fighting enemies. Now, I'm 100% for Final Fantasy returning to its turn-based / time-based roots. I think that's what made the series great, and I believe Square-Enix have strayed WAY too far away from it. BUT. I also understand that real-time battle systems can work in Final Fantasy games as well. FFXI, FFXII and FFXIV all have fantastic, strategic and thoughtful real-time styles. And even though pretty much everybody agrees that FFXIII was terribly flawed, its battle system was actually pretty cool. Fairly hands-off - it was mainly about picking the right job for the right moment in the battle - but especially later on in the game when staggering the monster became important, the battles became exciting and strategic.

FFXV's combat is none of this. You run to an enemy (maybe warp to it - an ability that holds no real purpose in the plot or gameplay) and hold the button to auto-attack. Maybe switch to a weapon this monster's weak against. You're supposed to be able to react to things as they happen, but the screen is just a mess of movement, and no one in their right mind would be able to tell what's going on in the fights. Especially when foliage gets in the way of the camera. Sometimes quicktime prompts pop up. "Press Square to parry!" I swear, these only worked for me like 10% of the time. I'd press the button and it'd be too late and I'd get hit.

But that's okay, because if your HP drops to 0, just pop a potion. You're okay. Don't even get me started on how pointless a magic system is where YOU DAMAGE YOUR OWN PARTY MEMBERS WITH YOUR SPELLS.

It's bad, bad, bad. And since its release I've been baffled to hear some people say how much they enjoy it. If there's something I'm somehow failing to see, I went the whole way through the game without seeing it, so there's a problem.


Then there's this...

Ahhhh... Just breathe in that fresh air. Mmmmm.

I'm sure by now you've all heard the gaming press lose its collecting minds over how fantastic Breath of the Wild is. This is what happens when you shake up a formula to a beloved series, but have a cohesive vision and the undeniable skills of Nintendo.

Yes, Breath of the Wild is an absolute must-play. If you haven't got a WiiU or Switch, just go and find one. It is sublime. I finished it today. Here's me preparing to head into Hyrule Castle for the last time.

A lot of people are discussing how Breath of the Wild fares in the Zelda canon. Is it the best one ever? Is it better than Ocarina? To be honest, I find that a hard question to answer. Because, for much of the game, this barely feels like a Zelda game at all. It's certainly got the D.N.A. there. But the overwhelming focus here is on exploration of the big wild world. ("But hasn't that been what Zelda has always been about?" I hear you ask.) Well, yes. But Nintendo really tossed out SO many traditions. And don't get me wrong, that's not a bad thing. But Breath of the Wild feels so far removed from the other Zeldas, I have to wonder, where the heck does the series go from here...?

Exploring Hyrule is an absolute delight. How many games can you say you have loved getting lost in? Just going exploring and seeing what you can find. "What's that over on that distant mountain? I'm going to find a way over there to see." This is the first game I've ever played where I have legitimately felt like I could go anywhere and do anything. No invisible walls. Just a massive, MASSIVE world waiting to be discovered.

But - where FFXV fails - Zelda excels in the combat. At first glance it seems pretty rudimentary. Press the Y button to stab something. And the fantastic thing about that is, it makes the game ACCESSIBLE. My kid nieces and nephews are ADORING this game. They're almost as obsessed as I am! And they don't get all the combat nuances. But they can pick up a controller and succeed at beating up some baddies without too much trouble.

As it turns out, the combat is incredibly detailed. But you discover this as you go. You pick up techniques. Learn skills. By the end, you should be a battle pro.

Its graphics are clearly not as technical as those in FFXV, but I much prefer Zelda's style. The only thing that irks me a bit is how low-contrast the whole game is. A lot of grey, not much black. I know it was a conscious choice, and it definitely gives the game a specific look, but it still bugs me a bit.
Breath of the Wild is the kind of game that just OWNS you. Whenever I wasn't playing it, I was thinking about it. Imagining all the things I could try when I played it again. And it's such a water-cooler game. Because it is so open-ended, everybody will have their own individual adventures, and it's so great to share stories. And yes, the speed-runners are out in force. I just watched a 51 minute run on the game. Crazy. And so, so cool that Nintendo allowed that to happen. (My final play time was over 75 hours... I'm not quite a speed-runner...)
So. Two series that I have loved for decades. Two series where I will buy the latest game, whether it's good or not, just do keep my collection complete. (I'm looking at you, Tri-Force Heroes...)

I have to admit, one of them, with all of the best intentions, dropped the ball and seemed to betray what the series was all about. The other took its series back to its roots and created something entirely new and entirely wonderful.

What are your thoughts...?

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