A return to classical ideas

Parasite Eve is one of those franchises that never made it out of the original PlayStation era when JRPGs fell onto Sony’s first console like autumn rain. The first two games are often held up as PlayStation classics but the series seemed to be retired after 2000 when Parasite Eve II was released in the United States. 3rd Birthday is billed as a spiritual successor to the Parasite Eve series, but I certainly hope that the Parasite Eve games are better than this. 3rd Birthday is a poorly executed mass of ideas that does the franchise it claims to represent shame.

In the year 2012 on Christmas Eve, New York City is ravaged – the video game industry joining Hollywood in destroying New York City at least a few times per year – by tentacle monsters called Twisted. Series heroine Aya Brea is part of the Counter Twisted Investigation task force (seriously) and her role stems from her ability to use the Overdive System – no, not Overdrive, Overdive – which allows her to send her psyche into the past to change history. Thus Aya sets out to alter the course of history in the invasion of the Twisted and delve into a lot of expositive dialogue about her identity.

Aya has seems to have gone to the same school of characterization as Team Ninja’s treatment of Samus inMetroid: Other M. The strong, capable heroine the game seems to want to portray during combat is offset by every single moment of story development that characterizes Aya as whiny, submissive, and grating. When she isn’t cuddling in corners and trying not to succumb to the cold, her only role seems to be exploited by the tendency of Aya’s clothes being ripped off as a poor excuse to tease her physique. The irritation Aya provokes every time she opens her mouth makes the many, many deaths you’ll endure at least a bit tolerable.

The story proper starts off from a fairly stable launch pad but goes completely haywire within an hour as the narrative delves into an incomprehensible mess of existentialism and half-cocked philosophy and the relationship between the soul and the body. I like that the narrative attempts to tie themes into the core elements of gameplay but it seems like the writers and game designers were in completely different office buildings during development. Yeah, a few lines will make you question your role in the universe but the game generally just talks a lot without conveying anything of real importance.

3rd Birthday has been billed as a “cinematic action RPG” by Square-Enix and the game deviates from the survival horror nature of its predecessor. The “action” part consists of a bare-bones shooting formula that relies more on contests of who can stay alive longer than actual strategy or skill. Aya moves at a light jogging pace and a lot of enemies can cover the distance between you quickly. Enemies have ridiculously big health meters and certain foes can take away all of your health with just a few attacks. The game claims to deviate from survival horror, but similarly to a lot of survival horror games you’re the weak one up against these super strong otherworldly horrors – except that you’re expected to kill them all here. The game is basically a giant war of attrition with the deck stacked against you.


his is where Overdive comes in. The game touts the ability to have Aya possess bodies of different soldiers fighting alongside her on the battlefield, similar to MindJack. It’s a clever idea and adds a sliver of strategy to an otherwise extremely generic third person shooter, but taken at face value the ability to use soldiers as husks basically amounts to temporarily padding your health since you can abandon soldiers before they die. The occasional fun moment comes from rapidly jumping around to escape the giant marauding Twisted shaped like a testicle but all it does is reinforce the notion that all you’re doing is staying alive long enough to pepper an enemy with enough bullets that he’ll finally go down.

The attrition gameplay is made all the more apparent when you look at the only other uses of Overdive. If you attack an enemy long enough you can unleash a Psyche attack, which does a lot of damage but just briefly expedites the process of killing an enemy with a huge health meter. There’s also a Limit Break-esque technique called Liberation mode that lets you move swiftly around becoming a much more capable fighter, but it lasts only a few seconds and the bright flashing is almost painfully disorienting.

I could understand this sort of gameplay working in a survival horror context but the fights aren’t harrowing; they’re just irritating. The fact that you’re expected to kill all of these enemies through standard gunplay and the game’s own intended purpose of being an action RPG undercuts any sense of making you a survival horror character. It almost seems like in trying to be a spiritual successor 3rd Birthday wanted to stay “true” to the roots of its predecessors and wound up with something halfway towards an average shooter.

The “RPG” part of action RPG is sorely lacking. As you fight enemies you gain the usual experience and you can upgrade weapons to improve your survival skills such as increasing accuracy or ammo capacity. I barely noticed any significant effect in the upgrades I applied throughout the game, but for those of you here for Aya’s exploitation you can change her aesthetic appearance. There’s a rather transparent look at the intended exploitation of Aya when you notice that there’s a maid outfit. If there’s anything more appropriate than tight jeans for facing legions of fantastical terrors, it’s a maid uniform.

An astute reader may have realized by now that the constant battles of attrition in 3rd Birthday make the game mercilessly padded, which is why I was so surprised that the game took so little time. I cleared the entire story in about five and a half hours, and if my earlier criticisms of the story didn’t tip you off rather than a climactic finale you’re left with a pretentiously ambiguous ending. After enough deaths that reminded of my first time playingDemon’s Souls it wasn’t a satisfactory payoff by any means.

Depsite a few interesting gameplay ideas 3rd Birthday feels like an altogether different franchise rather than a spiritual successor to Parasite Eve. It doesn’t really hold up as either an action game or an RPG, and reducing Aya to a submissive sex object is something I don’t imagine sat well with fans of the series. The resulting game lacks appeal for Parasite Eve fans but really can’t bring anything to the table for a new audience.

I was disappointed to read about what Mike Capps of Epic Games said the other week. He made the claim that the ninety-nine cent mobile gaming market on iOS devices is “killing us”, the “us” specifically referring to the conventional $60 game. He questioned how you sell a $60 game that’s really worth it and that there’s never been this much uncertainty in the gaming industry.

I’ve seen people in comments almost instinctively fling mud at Capps: He’s a greedy executive, he’s a money vacuum, he’s no better than Gordon Gekko. Calm down, everyone; let’s not take this out on Capps personally. He’s a smart, perceptive person and his tenure as the CEO of Epic Games has seen a lot of fantastic games as well as the Unreal engine.

What disappoints me is that Capps’ statement seems to contradict Epic’s commitment to quality, especially on top of his comments on used games. Based on some of their more recent releases Epic seems to understand what a lot of publishers either can’t or won’t admit: Some games are worth sixty dollars and others aren’t.

As quick as I am to criticize people who refer to 8-bit and 16-bit gaming as the “glory days” of video games, there are things we can learn from it. It’s why I started this blog in the first place. One of the things we can learn is the value of a lack of an MSRP, or a suggested retail price. It’s difficult to scrap together a consensus on the price points of different games during those eras, but the consensus I’ve been able to gather is that games ranged from $30 for something like Aladdin to $75 for a superstar like Chrono Trigger.

I’ve heard conflicting sources on when the suggested retail price came into effect, but one thing the 8 and 16-bit eras did have over today is that it was up to the publishers to make their game worth their price point. Chrono Trigger was $75 because of years of hard work by a superbly talented team, and I honestly would have bought it at that price in hindsight. If you wanted to make a game $60, you’d have to tell us why it’s $60.

In commenting, Jim rightly says that a uniform $60 price point is very silly because not all games are worth $60. I’m not sure of the solution be it a $40 middle tier a more broad pricing range, but the unfortunate truth is that Mass Effect 2 isn’t worth the same price as Alpha ProtocolRed Dead Redemption wasn’t worth the same price asHaze. All a “suggested retail price” is doing is giving publishers an excuse to uniformly charge for what essentially amounts to an upper-tier game even if it’s a licensed media cash-in. If Alpha Protocol isn’t worth $60, then video game adaptations of Kung Fu Panda or Wall-E aren’t either.


I hate to say this, publishers, but we don’t “owe” you anything, at least straight out the door. Especially when people like David Jaffe are saying that the consumer has no place in the used game sales debate. Telling us that we should buy your games at $60 because you need to make money or the used games market is “tough” for youisn’t an excuse. This is capitalism. Customer and brand loyalty are things that need to be earned and maintained, and it’s especially arrogant to assume customer loyalty. Not to turn this into a referendum on used sales, but it seems like every time a cheaper alternative to $60 games comes along like used games or mobile apps, publishers get temperamental, since Reggie Fils-Aime has complained about mobile games too.

This is why Capps’ comment disappoint me. Epic of all companies should be aware that it’s up to the publisher to tell us why your game costs what it does. They’ve had a great commitment to quality and they have a good history of rewarding people who purchase their game brand new. Gears of War 2 at $60 netted you little unlockables like gold guns or an extra multiplayer map. The reason I went out of my way to buy Bulletstorm brand new is because it offered a lot of extra multiplayer bonus content and access to the Gears of War 3 beta. That was absolutely worth $60 to me.

If anything, the rise of indie development, cheap games on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and WiiWare, iOS gaming, and Facebook games are godsends. By undercutting the model of $50-$60 games, publishers now can’t uniformly say that games are charged in the $50-$60 range because “that’s what games cost”. I disagree with the suggestion that mobile games are killing Epic Games or anyone else, but if that’s what publishers think, they’re going to need to either:

A) Charge less money for games
B) Go out of their way to make their games worth sixty bucks

After all, who says capitalism doesn’t foster competition?

Final note: Yeah, I know this happened a while ago, but some computer troubles prevented a timelier posting. Blame my laptop’s fan.

Out of curiosity I couldn’t help but ask Leland Yee and his chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, what they thought of the new FTC report published today, which indicates that a mere 13% of minors can purchase M rated games at retail outlets – a 7% drop from last year. They’d been conspicuously silent on the topic all day while the Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment Software Association rightfully started celebrating.

I tweeted the message “Any thoughts on the FTC’s survey today? Video games seem even less easily accessible at retail stores.” to both Yee and Keigwin, and to my surprise, I heard back quickly from Keigwin. He had this to say: “good progress and worth commending. Unfortunately it still equates to millions of violent game purchases by kids”.

Kudos to him for being willing to talk about it rather than just hiding behind an editorial, and hoping to glean more insight I tweeted back “This is just testers though. Are millions of games being sold to actual children without their parents’ consent in Cali?” As of this writing, he has yet to respond. I appreciate that this was only a few hours ago but I don’t see a response forthcoming (although updates will be posted if they occur).

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A Tale of Two Open Worlds
By: Michael Carusi | March 24th, 2011

Open world games have become something of a staple in video games ever since Grand Theft Auto IIIrevolutionized the genre. Ever since the technology became more readily available, open worlds have appeared in everything from run-of-the mill Grand Theft Auto clones to World War II games and even quasi-rock worlds. Eight years later it’s a lot easier for developers on tighter budgets than Rockstar North to implement open worlds, but how do you implement them well? When is an open world really an integral part of the game? I’ve come up with a theory that I think explains two successful formulas for open world gameplay and the relationship between them.

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The verdict: If you’re a serious nostalgia buff you may see this as worth 1,200 Microsoft points, but you’re not missing much if you never got into the original game.

Towards the tail end of the 20th century into the early years of the 21st we lived in a gaming era where the Unreal Tournament model was influential in first person shooters. Shooters released around this time generally featured heavy emphasis on multiplayer while single player was scaled back to a series of fights against computer-controlled bots without any story. One of the earlier pioneers of the model that Unreal Tournament would eventually popularize was Quake III Arena, now the latest port to come to Xbox Live Arcade as Quake Arena Arcade. Eleven years hasn’t done much for Quake III Arena nor its archaic design philosophy, and hindsight gives us the perspective of why we can’t abandon single player.

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Video games are nothing if not familiar with controversy. Cliff Bleszinski even pointed out recently that video games are the new rock and roll. It’s a difficult position to argue since a ban was once put forth in the United States Congress to ban rock and roll and these days there are are calls to regulate video games on the state and federal level more often than John Boehner crying during speeches.

Actual anti-video game activists, though? They’re a thing of the past.

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Have you ever seen a TV show with a blatantly shoehorned in message about how video games are evil? In all likelihood the show featured poorly-made footage of a bloody shooter that was purposely designed to look crass and immature to illustrate the point (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is notorious for this).

That’s Bulletstorm in a nutshell, with vastly better design. Oh, and it kicks ass.

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I’ve always considered a game that deserves my purchasing a special edition to be a personal badge of honor. I tend to be a bargain hunter by nature, so it really takes something meaningful or significant to get me to dip an extra $10 or $20 into a product. Great extra content, a game that I’ve really been waiting for, a cool figurine, or the like. Most recently Mass Effect 2 warranted the collectors edition due to having a ton of great extra for only $70. Now LittleBigPlanet 2 has arrived, possessing all three aforementioned perks of what a collectors edition means to me.

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The verdict: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow generally works but has to constantly compete with the games that do combat, platforming, and giant boss battles better.

Castlevania is one of the many franchises from the old 2D days that never adapted to 3D that well. After an appallingly bad start 3D Castlevania seemed to dribble away with the mediocre at best Lament of Innocence on the PlayStation 2 while the series found a much more comfortable home on Nintendo handhelds. MercurySteam’s reboot draws heavily from other successful 3D formulas to help Lords of Shadow stand on its feet, and while Lords of Shadow is adequate it feels thin and unsatisfying relative to the depth of the games it emulates.

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I recently had the chance to try the semi-recently released Final Fantasy VIII on PlayStation Network. I wouldn’t call it a stretch to claim that VIII is one of the most polarizing games ever released. Some people love it, others despise it, and debates rage on Internet forums. It’s a strange experience for me because back in 2001 I never actually finished Final Fantasy VIII because of a bug with the PC version that I had.

My opinion hasn’t changed too much from then, so let me say it right now: Get out while you can, Final Fantasy VIII fans. This is going to hurt. Despite that, there’s something very appealing about it in hindsight very fitting with why I started this blog in the first place.

Final Fantasy VIII falls into a very unfortunate spot of the video game ven diagram. It came out in the early days of full 3D and used what were the best technical graphics at the time. From today’s perspective that would be like comparing Windows 7 to Windows 97. I don’t fault the game for having limited technology but the simple fact is that Final Fantasy VIII has aged atrociously. Early experimental full 3D always looks messy, up to and including classics like Mario 64. In Final Fantasy VIII the character models now look like they’ve been fed through a threshing machine and the entire world map looks like a poor draw distance of far-off scenery. Area environments look much nicer, but it creates this bizarre contrast where you have human-shaped smears appearing next to detailed background environments.

There’s a lot to complain about Final Fantasy VIII (and don’t worry, I’ll get to it) but by now you’re probably wondering what a video game renaissance has to do with this game. Despite how primitive VIII is by today’s standards it had a huge amount of content relative to Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XIII looks absolutely unbelievable and may very well still be very pretty ten years from now but it’s incredibly linear. VIII starts off as linear as JRPGs tend to do but opens up to offer free roaming of a fairly large world. This lends itself to a lot of available content including the Triple Triad Card Queen, the Deep Sea Research Center and Centra Ruins to get secret Guardian Forces, rare items from the Chocobo Forests, magazines for upgraded weapons, and on and on. In fairness a lot of this content isn’t really implemented that well but it’s still very substantial for a game from 1999 when you compare it to Final Fantasy XIII eleven years later.

Jim Sterling said this really well when comparing The Last Story to Final Fantasy XIII. As much as there is to dislike about Final Fantasy VIII it represents a design philosophy where side content and a world that you could explore had a greater role in development. Even if Final Fantasy VIII used the most advanced graphics of its time comparing the development costs of VIII and XIII would be like comparing the purchases of a dinghy and a giant yacht. If a renaissance is a return to classical ideas, we need to return to a belief that we’ll take extra content (well made extra content, preferably) over beautiful cutscenes.

As for what we should be leaving behind? Final Fantasy had this brief emo phase where we were obsessed with dark, cold heroes like Cloud and Squall. With the benefit of hindsight the relationship between Squall and Rinoa curiously reminds me of that of Edward and Bella from Twilight. He hates her. She loves him. He secretly loves her. She coaxes the revelation by annoying him with impressive relentlessness.

Bluntly put, as a story it’s been a while since I’ve seen writing as messy as Final Fantasy VIII. The story faffs about for hours without going anywhere and once it finally starts moving it’s impossible to lock down what the goal is between missions that have almost no relevance to the plot, an orphanage backstory of dubious necessity, and the catastrophic mess that time travel almost always is. The individual characters are so poorly characterized and needlessly melodramatic that it’s like watching Dawson’s Creek set in…whatever world this is. There are endless, endless monologues dedicated to nothing but exposition! We spend as much time listening to Squall pissing and moaning about his surrogate big sister issues – spoiler warning – as we do actually playing the game.

When Final Fantasy VIII finally relents and lets you play it, combat is even more problematic. Contrary to what JRPG purists will argue the only reason random encounters even existed was to save space on maps. They’re archaic, intrusive, and and especially annoying when you’re trying to solve a puzzle or explore a new environment. You’ll also need to walk around because you get paid by a “salary” every so often because monsters don’t drop money. Admittedly after a few hours all the walking you’ll need to do will have more money piling up than you can possibly spend.

The turn based combat is gluey and battles start to take absurdly long time owing to the mechanics. You need to spend tedious time “drawing” magic from enemies in order to use it to boost your stats. Normally this would make using magic counterproductive but magic is about as useful as the handgun in the original Wolfenstein so two bad design problems cancel each other out. Your primary method of attack will be summon spells or GFs, which last an absurdly long time and in order to increase their damage you need to mash a button during the sequence. It’s a completely static system with the exception of hammering a single button.

Magic, on the other hand, is primarily used for the Junctioning system. You connect magic to stats to increase them, so for sake of example you would want to attach Cure spells to your HP stat to provide the biggest boost. In theory this should suggest a litany of combinations of different junctions but all you’ll ever wind up doing is equipping the same stack of magic with the most output for your strength or magic on all six characters. It’s just number-crunching accounting work and the fact that RPGs are becoming less number-driven show how outdated this trend is becoming.

As for battle, if you don’t feel like watching the same summon animations over and over again you can let your health fall into critical condition in order to access your limit breaks. These are a lot faster but some of the best spells are randomly triggered and it shoots any sense of strategy in the foot.

After the success of Final Fantasy VII briefly brought the entire world to a halt Squaresoft seemed very intent on dissecting the formula and reworking it as much as possible to see what else they could come up with. That’s what VIII ultimately feels like. It’s more of an experiment than a game that set out with a clear mission objective and it fiddles with a lot of gameplay mechanics that just don’t work.

Final Fantasy VIII is a great object lesson in what ideas to take from game generations of the past. Ours is a very technology-driven medium and it’s easy to just make a blanket proclamation that Final Fantasy VIII hasn’t aged well. Visually it certainly hasn’t, but the design ideas behind it are something we can learn a lot from, especially since the technology of 1999 wasn’t nearly the money-consuming black hole that today’s AAA games use.