Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix

911khmDJL3L._SL1500_Date Completed: October 18th, 2015

Two years and two days before finishing Kingdom Hearts HD II.5 ReMix finished with Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix.  I had vague memories of beating Kingdom Hearts 2 when it originally came out but I remembered almost nothing of it except Sora gets a little bigger, and there was a 6 hour unskippable introduction sequence before the game really gets under way.

The game re-visits several of the (mostly Disney themed) worlds from Kingdom Hearts 1 and throws a few new ones into the mix.  The story this time around is a lot thinner.  I was never entirely sure why I was revisiting the worlds from the first game except I had a space ship and there were places I hadn’t been yet.  After visiting all of the worlds you get to visit all of the worlds AGAIN, then the final area unlocks which you can access from the WORLD YOU STARTED ON.  It all feels a bit like you’re walking in circles.

The game itself plays mostly like it’s immediate predecessor with the addition of ‘Drive Forms’.  Sora can use a ‘Drive’ to transform into a ‘Form’ that has upgraded abilities.  Each form has unique abilities and if you keep leveling up the forms you can use these abilities without transforming.  To make the game more fun attempting to transform will randomly transform Sora into a useless form called the ‘Anti Form’ which almost always results in Sora getting killed by whatever happens to be near.  Leveling up all of the forms is not something you’re likely to accomplish without hefty amounts of level grinding.

I realized something while playing this game.  Kingdom Hearts is awful.  Almost everything playing this game is frustrating from the story to the battle mechanics to the leveling system.  Lengthy cut-scenes had an irritating habit of popping up when I was looking for a save spot so I could turn the game off.  The story doesn’t make any sense and clearly wasn’t meant to be thought about too much.  The only redeeming quality is the lovable cast of familiar characters

My kids loved the game.  It’s very watchable and I think I would have preferred the game more if I was watching someone else play it.  I took several lengthy breaks from playing the game because I was rarely in the mood to put more time into it.  I told my wife while I was playing it that I was ready for it to be over.  I generally feel this way after playing Kingdom Hearts games and I am forced to wonder why I keep coming back to them.

I admit I’ll probably buy Kingdom Hearts III when it comes out but over the last few years I’ve rapidly lost enthusiasm for the series.  I don’t have as much time to play games as I used to and Kingdom Hearts won’t continue to make the cut if it doesn’t do something to shape up real soon.

Pros

  • Cast of familiar, lovable characters.

Cons

  • Insane story.
  • Awful battle system.
  • Repetitive level progression.
Is it fun: Yes
Score: 6/10
Length:  ~40 hours
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action / RPG
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Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Box ArtDate Completed : May 15th, 2015

* SPOILER WARNING! * Do not read if you care about spoilers!

When Final Fantasy X originally came out it was a huge let down for me.  I’ll always remember it as the first ‘Bad’ Final Fantasy game, and the one that marks the transition where the series started turning to Poop.  While my original impression of the game was poor the game has achieved some sort of cultural relevance that over time has tempered my feelings about the game into what I can only describe as ‘somewhat less hostile’.  I even found myself thinking about playing through the game again.  When Square-Enix announced the HD Remaster version it seemed like a good opportunity to give the game a second go.

I thought my wife and kids might enjoy watching me play this game because it plays more like an interactive movie than a traditional game.  I was right about the kids, but my wife’s feelings are summed up with comment “They need pants.” (One of the common clothing choices for characters involves thigh-high socks and bikini bottoms).  Lulu’s dress made of belts and Yuna’s shirtless sleeves in particular received more than their fair share of her scathing remarks.  My wife clearly does not benefit from the years of indoctrination into video game fashion that I have.

After winning a battle I like to celebrate by bending over.

After winning a battle Lulu celebrates by bending over.

My kids really enjoyed watching the game, and my older son kept asking when I was going to allow him to play (Never! You’ll kill my whole party!).  Both of my boys had their favorite characters (My older son preferred Yuna because her eyes were different colors, and my younger boy preferred Tidus because he was fast) and shouted out unsound battle advice that mostly consisted of insisting I swap their favorite character into battle.  Once I caught my older son walking around the house with one pant-leg pulled up as high as it could go saying “Look Dad! I’m Tidus!”

Final Fantasy X played exactly like I remembered it.  Similar to the Kingdom Hearts HD remake, this game doesn’t appear to have any meaningful changes other than to bump the resolution of the game up.  The voice acting and character animations are still the same they were in the original and in comparison to the games of today FFX seems particularly awkward.

The biggest problem with FFX are the many parts of the game that simply aren’t fun.  Back in my college days I remember watching my roommate play through the Chocobo Catcher mini-game for DAYS trying to get Tidus’ ultimate weapon.  Several thrown controllers and rage quits later he eventually gave up on trying.  I was lucky when I played through the game for the first time – it only took me three tries.  This time I spent nearly two hours and I had to resort to YouTube videos for tips on how to complete it.  Other irritating side quests include capturing 10 of every monster in the game (Some of which are rare encounters or can kill you before you get a turn), completing the sphere grid for all characters ( which takes a herculean time investment ) or playing Blitzball for Wakka’s weapons or overdrives.  I didn’t find any of these to be fun – only time consuming and frustrating.  There was no sense of accomplishment when I completed them all – only a great sense of relief that I was finally done and I’d never have to do any of them again.

After this scene my roommate in college came running to get me shouting "I think they did it!"

After this scene my roommate in college came running to get me shouting “I think they did it!”

Being the Final Fantasy fan that I am, I decided that I wanted to get the Platinum trophy for this game (The only platinum I had for a Final Fantasy game is for FF XIII-2).  Unfortunately this meant I needed to complete all of the irritating side quests including the ‘Dodge 200 consecutive lightning bolts without saving’ quest which I had never even attempted in the previous release. (It seemed like a lot of trouble for very little benefit).  I read on the internet that it was easier in a dark room so I started locking myself in the closet under the stairs and took regular breaks after 50 dodges.  It took me an entire weekend but even with children, cats (one jumped on my lap at 186 dodges) and other distractions I was able to accomplish it.  I couldn’t have done it without my PS Vita.  If I had tried to do that on the TV with people watching and laughing I simply would not have succeeded.

Before FFX came along being a ‘Final Fantasy’ title meant something.  It meant an over-world map, it meant airships, it meant exploration.  All of these traditional elements were stripped out of FFX and replaced with the FMV cut-scenes that Square-Enix had become known for.  It is impossible to get lost in FFX.  Each map in FFX is a variation on a straight line and is clearly labeled with your current position and where you are supposed to be going.  The Airship has been replaced with a menu that lets you choose where you want to go.

One of the area maps in FFX.

One of the area maps in FFX.

The only other thing I want to mention is that during the final Battle with Yu Yevon when you have to kill all of your Aeons my sons became very upset.  They had grown really attached to our summoned friends and they didn’t understand why we had to kill them.  They asked me for days after the end why Tidus faded away at the end of the game (I don’t know boys, the plot is crazy) and the whole thing about Auron being a ghost really spooked them (get it?).

In spite of all of my complaining I did enjoy playing the game (I put over 100 hours into the game, so I must have liked something, right?).  I probably won’t be playing it again but who knows, maybe in another 10 years I’ll be playing the Ultra HD remake complaining about this game all over again.

Pros

  • FFX in HD
  • Trophy Support

Cons

  • Besides the resolution, not many upgrades.
  • All the mini-games suck.

Is it fun: Yes

Score: 6/10
Length:  ~115 hours
System: Playstation 3, Playstation Vita
Genre: RPG

 

Ni No Kuni : Wrath of the White Witch

us_41-2Date Completed: Jan. 16th, 2015

Ni No Kuni wasn’t something I’d seen advertised heavily but it kept popping up as a suggested product for me on Amazon.  It looked interesting to me but I long ago realized that if I bought every game I had a passing interest in my wife would kill me and make it look like an accident (Not out of anger – out of necessity.  She’d need the insurance money to pay off my gaming debt and cover the mortgage).  Lucky for me some friends across town ended up buying it and when they were done they loaned me their copy of the game.  Having just finished FOUR SWORDS it made the perfect time to give it a try.  I put the game in, set my boys down and we watched the opening cinematic.  Both of my boys stared unblinkingly at the screen with their jaws hanging open.

When I was in middle school my good friend Bryce called me up to brag about how great Prince of Persia looked on his Moms’ brand new Macintosh computer.  He claimed that it was exactly like playing a cartoon.  I must admit, it did look light years better than anything I’d seen on my NES up to that point but unless you squinted and played the game from the other side of the room it fell quite short of being a playable cartoon.  Several other games have adopted a cartoon  graphical style over the years but Ni No Kuni is the new standard to which cartoon themed video games will be held to.  All of the animation is hand drawn by Studio Ghibli and playing the game feels a lot like watching a Studio Ghibli film.  We recently re-watched Kiki’s Delivery Service and at first my boys thought I was playing Ni No Kuni again.

99_ni_no_kuni_wrath_of_the_white_witch_screenshot_01

Cartoon Cut-Scene

The game follows the tale of Oliver, a young wizard who journeys to a parallel world full of creatures called ‘Familiars’.  They might as well have called them ‘Pokemon’.  Familiars can be captured, leveled up, metamorphed into new more powerful forms and used in battle, exactly like in a Pokemon game.  Familiars have types and affinities and elemental strengths and weaknesses but I didn’t find these to factor much into game play.  I mostly kept my starter familiars and bludgeoned my way through the game with them.  Not that I didn’t want to change my familiars out.  My boys had named each familiar as we caught it (our first familiar was named Grandpa) and they got upset when I tried to remove Grandpa from our party.

99_ni_no_kuni_wrath_of_the_white_witch_screenshot_04

Oliver with a Familiar

Combat gives you the illusion that you can run around the battlefield and accomplish things but it is all a clever lie.  Orders are issued via a command menu and where you are positioned on the battlefield doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.  I didn’t find dodging to be particularly effective (except on certain bosses) and my attacks generally hit who I targeted no matter where I was standing when I issued the order. My normal strategy was to walk into combat, and mash the X button until all my foes had been defeated.  I even let my kids and wife try a few times.  As long as I wasn’t severely under leveled for an area this strategy worked nearly flawlessly.

I found the menu system to be hopelessly un-intuitive.  Pressing square or triangle when out in the world map opened up two different menus – one to use magic and save, and another to access a separate grid of menu options.  I don’t know why it is so hard for me to remember but I still can’t remember which button did what.  I was always pressing the wrong button when all I wanted to do was save my game.  Once you get into the menus there is further complication – familiars need to be equipped with weapons, armor and skills as well as fed treats and metamorphosed.  All of these features were buried in different sub-menus that I found navigation through to be very difficult.  I mostly tried to avoid using the menus as much as possible.

The game didn’t feel like a cohesive experience to me.  It felt like every different aspect of the game was designed by different teams and then stuck together with bubblegum and chopsticks.  The game was so easy to beat that I didn’t feel like I was playing it – it was more like the game played itself.  All I did was fill the role of brain-dead monkey pressing X button.  Mash X, watch a story sequence, mash X, beat the game.  The kids LOVED the game, and the brain-dead monkey inside me enjoyed it too but only because I was treated with beautiful cut-scenes every few minutes.  If this game had been a Studio Ghibli movie, I’d give it a solid three thumbs up.  If you removed the cut-scenes and slapped some ugly paint on it Ni No Kuni would probably not have be a game I played through to the end.

Pros

  • Studio Ghibli Animation!

Cons

  • Didn’t feel like a cohesive experience overall.
Is it fun: Yes
Score: 5/10
Length:  ~40 hours
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Adv / RPG

The Unfinished Swan

Date Completed : October 25th, 2014image

The first time I realized that I no longer had the amount of time to play video games as I had in the past was when I first got married.  My wife is one of those people who can’t sleep when other people are awake in the house (which was not a quality she listed on her marriage application) and she insisted that I go to bed at the same time as her.  This meant I was no longer able to stay up until 4 in the morning playing games, but it also meant I was awake at work more often and eventually resulted in a promotion.

My second realization came when I became a father.  It’s impossible to play most games while holding a screaming infant and if I sneak away for too long my wife usually notices I’m not engaged in the act of child care and comes hunting me down.

You might be wondering how this is all relevant, and you are in luck because I’m going to tell you.  Since I felt my time slipping away I wanted to make sure the games I played offered a unique experience.  After seeing the trailers for ‘The Unfinished Swan’ I thought that it might fit the bill.

The story follows a young boy named Monroe who gets lost in a world of paintings after his mother passes away.  One of these paintings is of the Unfinished Swan who Monroe is trying to catch.  The story is strange and hard to interpret.  On the surface it feels like it should be deep and full of meaning but after finishing the game it didn’t seem to have quite the impact of other games that have tried to narrate difficult subject matters.  I did search online and read the explanation behind the ending and I found it to be quite unsatisfactory.  Not to say it isn’t interesting – I just feel that it could have been done better, or at least clearer.

The game itself involves navigating through a world of unfinished paintings.  Many objects have no defined edges and you need to throw ink blobs at them so that you can see your way around.  There are a few small puzzles that need to be solved as well but for the most part this is an exploration game.  There aren’t any enemies to defeat, all you need to do is find your way to the end of the stages.  For extra fun there are hidden balloons that you can find to unlock bonus features.

Using ink blobs as a means to see invisible objects is fun at first, but it gets old quickly.  Fortunately the game dynamics change periodically so things keep feeling fresh.  The game itself isn’t very long (only about 3 hours) so it doesn’t have too much of a chance to get weighed down by repetitive gameplay.image-13f6b320-1d44-4a3b-92b0-c538ed7fbdff

The storybook style presentation of the game really appealed to my boys, and the short, unique gameplay appealed to my desire to play unique games in the limited amounts of time I have these days.  My boys enjoyed keeping an eye out for Swan footprints and the hidden balloons, and generally the game was interesting enough to hold their interest (especially the narrated storybook scenes).

The game is short but entertaining and unique.  I doubt I’ll be going back to it, but I think it was worth at least one play- through.

Pros

  • Unique game play experience.

Cons

  • It’s very short.
Is it fun: Yes
Score: 6/10
Length:  ~3 hours
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Exploration

The Last of Us

Date Completed : February 26, 2014The Last Of Us Box Art

My blog has been on a bit of a hiatus due thanks in part to our recent homelessness situation combined with my tendonitis problem.  We were living in a place without Internet for a few months while we sold our old home and purchased a new one so my only view into cyberspace was through my phone, which was less than optimal.  During that time I wound up with Tendonitis of the wrist which progressed into Carpal Tunnel so I had to give up gaming, and unnecessary keyboarding for awhile.  I’m finally starting to reengage in some of the activities I used to enjoy, although to a lesser degree.

I played The Last of Us while homeless and without Internet.  Due to scenes of horrific violence I wasn’t able to play the game while my kids were awake so I had to wait until after they went to bed.  My PS3 was stashed in the small bedroom my wife and I were sharing at her parents’ house which was distracting to her so I wasn’t able to get away with playing the game unless both of the kids were asleep and my wife chose to be elsewhere.  Fortunately the Winter Olympics provided the perfect break.  My wife is a big Olympics fan so she stayed up late each evening during the event and I was able to get some quality gaming time in.

I was very excited to play The Last of Us after seeing how many awards it received for game of the year.  It seemed that every reviewer on earth was giving game of the year to either The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite (and one weirdo who gave it to tLoZ : A Link Between Worlds) so I wanted to see how it stacked up.

The story was awful (in a good way).  In response to a zombie outbreak all of the worst things imaginable happen and the vision that is presented of the future represents all the worst humanity has to offer.  Not only are the zombies your enemies, but there are roving bands of survivors that will kill you for whatever you might be carrying, as well as various militia groups that have their own reasons for killing you.  If I had one complaint about the story it is that it is too dark.  There is no happiness or joy in this game.  It could have used a bit more contrast in the plot to keep it from bogging down in constant depression.

The presentation of the game is absolutely fantastic.  The opening sequence is simply one of the most brilliant scenes I’ve ever played through in a video game.  I don’t want to spoil anything but I’ll give a suggestion – play it in the dark, and play it alone.

The game mostly plays like an Uncharted game, except the main character (Joel) does not have Nathan Drake’s jumping ability.  He also can’t seem to take a bullet quite like Drake so the game play is a lot more focused on stealth than action.  I’m not really into stealth games in general, but this one had a good balance between stealth and action so I didn’t have a problem with it.  They do a good job making you feel like you’re in a supply constrained post-zombie-apocalypse world.  You’re constantly scavenging ammo and supplies to create weapons or health kits.  Each batch of enemies you face has to be handled with as few bullets as possible or further down the road you may not be able to defend yourself.

Your deaths in this game are far more gruesome than I was used to from Uncharted.  That, combined with the constantly depressing plot made it hard to play for extended durations.  I had to put myself into a ‘EMO’ frame of mind to properly enjoy the game – “It would make me happy to feel sad.  I guess I’ll go play The Last of Us”.

Everything about the game is well done and high quality.  Plot-wise I’d say it is still edged out by Bioshock Infinite, and in my opinion Bioshock is more fun to play but I completely understand anyone who prefers The Last of Us.

Pros

  • Great Presentation
  • High Quality Survival Horror Experience.

Cons

  • I can’t imagine a more depressing plot.
Is it fun: Yes
Score: 9/10
Length: 20 hours
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action / Adventure

Ico

Ico Box ArtDate Completed : December 8th, 2013

Ico is the second full game that I received for ‘free’ from PlayStation Plus that I’ve bothered to play all the way through (The other being Quantum Conundrum back in February).  I’d heard about Ico being one of the ‘Most overlooked PS2 titles’ back when it was originally available but I never got around to playing it (My PS2 primarily functioned as a Final Fantasy adapter for my TV set).  When the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus combo was announced I thought it might finally be my chance to try it out.  I borrowed the game disk from some friends but I never made it a priority and it was unused for months.  When Sony made the game free for PS Plus subscribers I returned the disk and finally decided this is getting ridiculous.  I should either play the game or give up on it.  A quick check at howlongtobeat.com indicated that the game was actually pretty short so there was nothing to lose.

The story is immediately interesting.  A young boy with horns (Ico) is locked away in a castle because that’s what’s done with horned boys, for some reason.  The boy manages to escape confinement and begins exploring the castle in search of a way out.  The castle is huge, but appears to be mostly empty.  After several minutes of exploration you encounter a young woman who is locked away in a cage, so naturally you try and help her escape as well.

Ico and Yorda

OK, I’ll help you escape too.

The young woman doesn’t talk, but the walk-through I used indicated her name is Yorda.  Since the goal is for both of you to escape most of the game play involves making the castle accessible to Yorda.  She doesn’t have the super-human jumping skills or casual disregard for safety that Ico has so you have to find ways to lower bridges, open doors, move blocks and make it possible to freely move about the environment.  Puzzles get very involved and at one point my wife remarked “I can see why you’d need a walk-through”

Periodically shadow monsters appear and attempt to kidnap Yorda.  If they succeed Ico is turned into a statue and you have to start over and the previous checkpoint (Which can be quite a ways in the past).  The only way to prevent the shadows from achieving their goal is by beating them into oblivion with a dull stick.  The shadows can’t do any damage to you but they can knock you down.  They aren’t particularly challenging to defeat and I didn’t have any trouble with them after I figured out which button to use to hit them (Square), and how to pull Yorda out of the shadow holes.  They are irritating, easy to defeat, and don’t seem to serve any useful purpose other than to break the monotony of exploration. (They do look really cool though).

With the exception of the periodic battles against the shadows, the game is a plain and simple exploration and puzzle game.  The castle has lots of interesting areas to explore.  The main problem with the game is the contrast.  Inside the castle is extremely dark, and outside is extremely bright.  I had to crank the brightness setting all the way up to see anything at all when I was inside and I had to crank the brightness way down whenever I went outside.  Several areas of the game were so dark that I missed clues on how to proceed and eventually I resorted to using a walk-through to proceed through the game.  The game supports 3D and I tried out that mode on my 3D monitor but the brightness problem was only exacerbated by the 3D glasses and I found it unplayable.

Inside the Castle

Inside the castle with the brightness set to default.

My kids were surprisingly interested in the game.  I thought it would be too boring for them, or that the shadow creatures would be too scary but they liked the whole concept of helping the girl to escape the castle.  I should note however that my older boy was a little upset I was carrying a stick around instead of a proper sword (Never mind that his toy sword is made of cardboard).  Eventually Ico does find a proper sword and my son was satisfied.

I can see why some people would think of it as a hidden gem but I am not one of those people.  It has a lot to like, but it also has a lot of problems that eliminate most of the joy from the experience.  I enjoyed the story and the exploration aspects but the rest of the game lacked the fine tuning and polish that could have made this game a truly enjoyable experience.

Pros

  • Big castle to explore.
  • Interesting story.

Cons

  • Extraordinarily poor contrast.
Is it fun: No
Score: 5/10
Length: 5 hours
System: PlayStation 3
Genre: Adventure / Puzzle / Platform

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 remix

KHHD COVERDate Completed: October 16th, 2013

I had a pre-order of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 remix on file at Amazon immediately after I heard about it.  Not only does it come with a HD remaster of the original (and the best) Kingdom Hearts game, but it also comes with Kingdom Hearts : Chain of Memories, and the movies from Kingdom Hearts : 358 / 2 included on the disk.  Plus it was being sold for cheaper than a normal full PS3 disk release so it’s essentially a no-brainer.

Kingdom Hearts is a bit violent than most games I expose my kids to (the main character bludgeons enemies to death with a giant, blunt key) but I figured that since most of the enemies looked more like shadows than cuddly animals it would be safe to let the kids watch.  With the exception of my two year old boy telling me he could fly like Sora and jumping off his bed (which he probably would have done anyway) they appear to have survived the experience unscathed.

My kids were still begging to play more ‘Pikmin’ so I had to force them to sit through the first few hours of the game.  After we made it past the initial world and started visiting locales based on Disney they decided Kingdom Hearts was fun after all.  It’s been a good excuse to re-visit all of the movies that Kingdom Hearts worlds are based on.  We even wanted to watch ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’ which I thought would be too scary but they seemed to enjoy.

The game itself is in HD but the upgrade wasn’t as drastic as other HD upgrades I’ve seen.  Everything looked sharper but besides the higher resolution it was essentially same as before.  Gameplay felt identical to what Kingdom Hearts felt like including crappy camera control and the in-battle menu system.  I consider the biggest benefit of the HD remake is that I can now run the game natively on my PS3 (which sadly can not run my old PS2 copy of the game).  Plus all that other crap on the disk.

Kingdom Hearts as a game doesn’t really manage to do anything particularly well.  The game play sucks, camera control is terrible and the plot is completely unintelligible.  I’d have given up on any other game with these failings however Kingdom Hearts is able to make up for its failings with liberal use of cut-scenes and cameos.  Every time the boys recognized a new character they’d be bouncing all over the room cheering (especially for Peter Pan).  I must admit that when Sephiroth drops into the Coliseum I feel like bouncing around the room myself.  The characters in the game manage to make up for any failings the game has and as a whole Kingdom Hearts is a very enjoyable experience.

Since finishing the game my oldest boy has been asking when we can play Kingdom Hearts 2, which is the highest praise he can offer any game.  I don’t intend on telling him about the other games on the disk.  KH : Chain of Memories is fun exactly once, and KH : 358 / 2 day is never fun.

I intend to put a little more time into the game to finish off the final few super-bosses but I’m not going to play it around the boys any more.  The level grinding and synthesis ingredient farming was way too boring for them.  They’ll have to wait for Kindom Hearts II HD 2.5 remix.

Pros

  • HD remake of Kingdom Hearts.
  • KH : Chain of Memories and 358 / 2 Days are also on the disk.

Cons

  • Same crappy camera and controls as the original.
Is it fun: Yes
Score: 8/10
Length: 30 hours
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action / RPG