Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Final Fantasy VII for Android Review

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This review is an unpublished post for an Android app review site I used to work for.

Good lord, I feel a meteor bearing down upon me. This is the big one, THE big one. Ask any gaggle of gaming adults what the best game of all time is, and the curious consensus is huddled around two titles that came out around the same time: Ocarina of Time, and the behemoth that is Final Fantasy VII

I can only brace for the incoming tomatoes so long because, honestly, I never liked the game, so at the very least you can consider yourselves lucky that I picked up this review, because you're about to read one of the only negative opinions of this game in press history. Negative not because of what the game is, so much as the impact it had on the industry.

Let's start from the beginning. Prior to FF7's 1997 release, it was an awkward time for Square, a seminal RPG developer best known for their Final Fantasy series, as well as glut of -and this is an important detail- Nintendo-exclusive RPGs. Subsequent to Nintendo's ludicrous and bone-headed decision to make the Nintendo 64 cartridge-based (despite said console being the company's first true leap into complicated and memory-heavy 3D games) many devs strolling on the deck of the RMS Super Famicom were spotting a big ol' iceberg cresting the horizon. As soon as developers took note of the sexy 750 megabyte CD storage space of the PS1 discs, compared to the pitiful 64 megabytes of N64 cartridges, they were rats from a fleeing ship.

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This is all important because the relocation of Square from family-friendly Nintendo-land to the brooding, edgier, and older audience of the Playstation was definitely a determining factor in why this game made such a sharp turn aesthetically and thematically from the previous 6 games. FF7 is dark and pessimistic, laden with angst and halfway divorced from the traditional fantasy of its Dragon-Quest-inspired precursors. Lost in that transition is a lot of heart. Characters are either melodramatic and cynical, or neutral and detached from any relatable personality. As a result, you end up with vaguely-motivated stereotypes towing your story, rather than believable, emotionally cogent people. Much of this is likely due to the slip-shod translation by SCEA, but it doesn't change the fact that the pacing of character development in this much-lauded story is too fast and loose, considering just how many roles there are to play in this epic. Within 4 hours of game time I already had 5 characters with me, and the prior hills of dialogue did almost nothing to give any reason to care about my team.

At times, however, the plot instead dwells on important bits for too long. If you don't know anything about a game's (one-note) antagonist, despite being six hours in, that's a serious writing problem, one that even shoehorned over-exposition can't act as a band-aid against. Sure, some of the cast gets developed later, but 6 hours is a long, long time to stay in the dark about what should be a high priority in a story-driven game.

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Then there's the issue of dropped plot points... At the start of the game, you're working for a terrorist group called AVALANCHE, trying to sabotage the electric company Shinra, who are not only staffed entirely by Snidely-Whiplash wannabes, but are more importantly trying to siphon "Mako Energy" from the planet, killing it in the process. You blow up Shinra's reactors and accidentally kill people in the process, but it's explained away as being for the greater good. Then, Shinra destroys your part of the city to destroy AVALANCHE, causing unknown death tolls in the process, and failing to kill you regardless, because they made their plan obvious to your group. There is an enormous amount of time spent to establishing this premise, and the connections between the events of the game and the real-world foreign-policy of western countries trying to curb terrorism are right there in your face, but no commentary is made on that comparison. It's merely shown, as if to say: "Ha! See? Symbolism!" Why yes, it is symbolic, but if there is no statement made on the symbolism, then all that's been done is waste time that could be spent rounding out characters instead. There could have been a really thought-provoking narrative here, but the game is too hesitant in locking onto said narrative to really wow us with anything resembling a step forward from the usual gaminess of "BAD GUY BAD. YOU GOOD. MUST DEFEAT BAD GUY."

Granted, there are things the story does exceptionally well. The world-building is fantastic. Detail oozes out of every corner, developing the setting with a vividness almost unmatched for the PS1, and making each new screen a treat to visually pry open. NPCs dance and waver around, interact with the world in believable ways, and give cute and succinct insight into why they exist, as well as what their life is like. 

And, this should go without saying, being a Final Fantasy game and all, but the art direction and music are simply without comparison. The pre-rendered backgrounds, though they have aged terribly, are miles ahead of the competition at the time, and the music breathes life into every environment, setting the mood perfectly for any smoothly-integrated cutscene or lush, pulsing vista.

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You can make the best world in gaming history, however, and it will still become tedious if the narrative and gameplay are sub-par. I've already explained the failings of the latter, but what I neglected to mention was how this game trips itself up so thoroughly in telling a story through gameplay...

FF7 uses a "Materia" system to drive most of the RPG elements. Basically, Materia are little gems you find on the ground and in shops that you can attach (I guess via duct-tape?) to your weapons, allowing you to gain certain abilities and spells. Now, this immediately is a good concept, because it creates a tangible connection between the focus of the story and how you play the game (even though it's a bit silly sometimes, e.g. why do I need Materia to know how to "Steal" something?). Materia often comes with tradeoffs, though, such as a steep price, being locked behind one of the game's many tedious trial-and-error puzzles, or lowered stats. The Fire Materia will make your magic defense stronger but your physical defense weaker, or something to that effect. The issue is that there is barely any meaningful difference between character stats before the Materia is equipped, meaning that each character is essentially a blank slate gameplay-wise. 

Now, this allows for full customization, sure, but the primary focus in an RPG, a Role-Playing Game, is the playing of a role, and if each character's role can be changed on a dime, then there are no consequences in the party choices you make, and no immersion in the unique capabilities of characters. They become inconsistent characters. You'd think that a team consisting of a ninja, a talking mutant dog, and a gun-slinging vampire would be quite the diverse posse, with each member possessing novel abilities that have varying impacts on different opponents, but really, they all feel the same.

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Materia creates a separation from the story as well. Battles may as well take place in another universe, because how characters act and function in cutscenes or in story dialogue is constantly contradicted by your Materia choices, and the aforementioned androgyny of your abilities. For example, take Barret: He's a loose-cannon. A hulking, angry lunk of a guy. He's got a warm heart and good intentions, but he often takes a sledgehammer approach to things, shooting before asking questions, rushing in head first and never backing down to physical confrontation. He favors might over mind, and anything that makes him have to think or wait just irritates him... Yet, give him ONE Materia, and he's now your healer. Let me repeat that: the man with a cybernetic cannon strapped to his arm, who's shoes are almost as big as the protagonist's body mass, is now your medical super-wizard. It's almost laughable how much the components of the game contradict each other.

Some may see me as simply contrarian, but it's honestly none of my business if people enjoy a game. It is my problem, however, when a mediocre game becomes financially successful, because then every game subsequent will try to borrow it's flawed mechanics or presentation to gleam more money from a similar audience. Razorfist, the internet's Dennis Miller, put the shift in themes encompassed by FF7 this way: "Here's a question: If so many people's introduction to the entire RPG genre was this leather-belt-buckle-and-zipper drenched compensatory sword-wielding emo laughing stock, what do you suppose these people would then expect from the RPG genre as a whole from that point forward? Well, they sure got it." Even looking at later entries in the series, the poisonous impact of this game's legacy is clear, which makes FF7 look worse in retrospect, even though FF7 is just slightly above average in its own right.

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As an Android port, it's as shoddy as you'd expect from Square Enix, given their previous failures to implement emulators even half as decent as the ones homebrew programmers churn out in their sleep. It doesn't even work on my phone for whatever reason, so I had to use somebody else's. For some users on the Play Store, it's crawling with crashes and graphical issues. Clearly there wasn't a lot of thought or QA put into it, but it's still playable if you're lucky, and if it just doesn't work at all for you, a refund option is available: the first I've ever seen for a mobile game...

But, despite all this, despite the broken targeting system, despite the slow turn-based battles hobbled by un-skippable attack animations, there is a game with genuine charm here. It's not worth the price, but if you're just dying to know what a standard RPG was like from the late 90s, or if you just want to see what all the hubbub is about, it's at least worth a glance. Just don't put too much stock in the fond yet muddled childhood memories of PS1 owners.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

OSU! vs PaRappa the Rapper: Why Context Matters Even in Rhythm Games.

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Rhythm games are a dense, primarily foreign genre that I've yet to fully explore, and that I don't have the leisure of discussing with any degree of authority. What I can say, however, is that rhythm games make for some fantastic counter-examples. Just when I think that indie titles can only have a viral presence from Let's Plays, I rediscover Audiosurf. When someone insists that peripheral-based games are too hardware-dependent to reach massive profits, in swoops Rock Band and Guitar Hero to save the argument. And when I need to make the point about why context is important in any game, I compare OSU! vs PaRappa the Rapper.

At first glance, you would think the similarities between these two titles to be negligible. They seem to differ in just about every aspect of their presentation, but that's what makes the comparison so interesting.

PaRappa the Rapper (1997) is popularly (and falsely) acclaimed as the very first rhythm game by nostalgic onlookers, and while it may not have been the first, it certainly established a precedent for rhythm games as we know them today. PaRappa involves your player-character, a rapping dog made out of paper, trying to prove he's a REAL MAN by mastering martial arts, cooking, driving, and entrepreneurialism, all so he can win the heart of his soon-to-be-girlfriend, who's a literal wallflower.

Footage from the upcoming remastered version of PaRappa the Rapper.

Sufficed to say, the game is a bit odd. Still, that's what gave it an edge in a 90s PS1 market packed to the gills with fighting game re-hashes and cookie-cutter, melodramatic RPGs. It was a rudimentary title, consisting of just six stages and a neat, concisely presented mechanic, accentuated with a perfect difficulty curve. Just hit the buttons on the top of the screen: nice and simple.

OSU! (2007) is a much, much different game in execution. Acting as more of a utility program that games can be loaded into, OSU! bases its gameplay around the many sub-genres of rhythm games that popped up subsequent to PaRappa's release. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Taiko no Tatsujin, and Beatmania IIDX are the clearest comparisons to draw between the type of game OSU! emulates. Using the OSU! client, custom songs ("beatmaps") of just about any variety can be loaded from a community-driven website. And I do mean every variety, from U.N. Owen Was Her? to the Space Jam theme.

OSU!'s primary game mode, involving following several nodes with your touch screen or mouse.

Still, it's a rhythm game all the same, albeit one with a generous advantage given to its longevity, provided by the dense modding community behind it, something that barely even existed on consoles back when PaRappa was released. 

Despite this, I find myself going back to PaRappa far more than OSU!, but why is that the case? PaRappa is a clunky, pixelly goblin of a game once you get your hands on it. It always feels like there's a huge disconnect between the timing of the button prompts and the indicator at the top of the screen that passes over them. Way too many times I find myself thinking: "How did I not hit that?!" OSU!, by comparison, is much more fluid, responsive, and sleekly presented. It has multiplayer (a feature that no competent rhythm game can live without these days), the aforementioned infinite number of custom tracks (compared to PaRappa's measly six), several game modes, etcetera.

The hilariously awkward cutscenes give you motivation to rap about ripping people off and pooping, among other things.

When I got to thinking about it, I realized that OSU! is lacking one critical component of what makes a game in any genre good: context. PaRappa has a way of getting stuck in your head that OSU! can't even come close to. Partly, this is the nature of the highly catchy tunes in the former, but more so, PaRappa gives you a reason to rap, whereas OSU! doesn't. PaRappa, the character, is someone we can relate to. He has feelings, a goal, and is so gosh darn cute you just want to hug him. We care about his problem, and that context, however slim it may be, gives us justification to keep matching those beats. Coupled with that is a wonderfully colorful papercraft art style, resonating a bright visual connection to the music in your head.

An OSU! player completing a particularly difficult song.

OSU!, though clearly being the superior game, just can't match up to the enduring appeal of PaRappa. It doesn't need to, frankly, because OSU! fully accomplishes what it set out to do, but I just find it fascinating that you can explain so much of how mechanics work simply by looking at how story is presented.

In gaming, story is often seen as something incedental to the gameplay, and that if the latter is well-crafted, then the former can suffer with little harm. I wholly disagree. They are completely intertwined, and have to be developed with each other in mind. As PaRappa the Rapper demonstrates, even a dumb plot about a rapping dog can do wonders for a game's progressing age.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Receiver: the 7-day Masterpiece

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It comes as nothing but a shock that Wolfire Games, the guys that have been developing their furry beat-em-up Overgrowth for 8 YEARS could manage to make a stellar title like Receiver in seven days. Receiver absolutely demolishes so many assumptions and tropes about the FPS genre that they're almost too numerous to list, but all you need to know is that it's probably the best game ever made in a week.

Receiver is a game about guns. Yes, there is a story and genre you could associate the game with, but it all pales in comparison to the game's central fixation on your weapon. Lacking any heads-up display, the game revolves around the vaguely realistic usage of a firearm to defeat robotic enemies: magazines must be pulled out of the gun to see how many bullets they have left, the slide must be pulled back to check if a bullet is in the chamber, and of course, the safety has to be turned off before firing, etc. The natural FPS instinct -of reloading a 30-round magazine every time you fire a couple bullets- is impossible in Receiver unless you're just hellbent on wasting a lot of time.

The complicated controls can be brought up in the upper right-hand portion of the screen, if you need help remembering them.

The gun is the game. Although you're faced against automated turrets and drones that kill you in one hit, you'll find that your gun becomes as much of an adversary as it is a companion, since it can save you by the skin of your butt one moment, and lead to unexpected death the next. Again I say that the gun is the game. Whatever frustratingly vague pseudo-philosophical high-concept sci-fi tidbits the plot trickles down to you are so much bollocks in comparison to your immediate danger. Though, to be fair, the story is highly immersive, but it serves the framework this game uses to prop up its nail-biting tension and rock-solid difficulty.

Environments in Receiver are shadowy and desolate, giving a heavy "cyberpunk" vibe. A lethal turret can be seen scanning for intruders (left).

The procedurally-generated environments are a natural by-product of the story, which deals a lot in variant perceptions of reality (which I won't go into much due to spoilers), and as a result the game world is very crude in its presentation. In fact, it wouldn't look out of place in a PS1 game, but this is more a blessing than a curse, since any level of visual detail would have likely pushed this game over its seven-day deadline. My only concern with the limited visuals is just how poorly the game runs despite looking so bad. As you can expect, seven days is not a lot of time to optimize a game, but some patches added later would further justify Receiver as a full retail product.

A turret locks on and fires at me. One bullet is enough to end your character, and there are no continues.

Enemies are quick to spot you and demand deliberate exploration to take down successfully. Rushing into any room without paying attention is a recipe for getting a 22 caliber lobotomy. Still, enemies rarely feel cheap, just powerful and present enough to provide a daunting challenge. Said challenge further compels you into a state of anxiety as you play, since all your hard work could be over in an instant if you become hasty.

Turrets can be disabled by shooting their camera or motor, which removes their ability to see you or fire, respectively. Here I attempt to deactivate two turrets that ultimately got the better of me. I was impatient, you see...

To compound all of this, you run by tapping the W key repeatedly. This gives immense weight to every instance of speed, since overshooting a dash from cover to cover can result in swift death, and constantly tapping it will lead to the aforementioned problem of entering rooms unprepared. Running is also loud, and the accompanying scream of gunfire make for sound design that delights in creating wonderful little bursts of panic before giving you extended quiet times, all through careful control of volume balancing.

There's a sort of foreboding tranquility to the exploration, but once a threat is in your path, the impact of the sounds will pepper the game flow with little crescendos of intense action. Rarely is a game so patience-oriented and explosively heart-pounding in the same breath.

The story is revealed through System-Shock-esque audio logs, scattered throughout the environment in the form of cassettes. Bullets, magazines, and flashlights can also be picked up and stored in your inventory for later use.

Receiver, ultimately, is a game about patience, method, atmosphere, and tension. The wildly complex controls related to utilizing your gun are a smokescreen initially, but as time goes on they become a reflex embedded in muscle memory, which reflects not just the actual process of learning to use a firearm, but also the situation that the character has found himself in. He's (she's?) a fish out of water, dealing with procedures and circumstances alien to him, just as they will be alien to you if you enter into this game expecting just another shooter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Psychological Action: a Profile of Trouble in Terrorist Town, Its Greatest Accomplishment

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A genre is a peculiar thing. It's arbitrarily defined, varying from one person's interpretation to another's, yet it's used in every kind of professional context imaginable. No normal person could up and describe what "Jazz" or "Horror" is on a nuts and bolts level, because those terms have such broad implications. Horror could be anything from The Shining to Unfriended, after all, and there couldn't be a larger world of difference between the two.

Some genres, however, are so specific, and cater to such a niche, that they deserve some kind of precise definition. For psychological action, a genre of video games, I provide the following:
  • Psychological Action - A genre of games revolving around the implementation of behavioral manipulation from a secondary source, or from the player.
Note that the keyword is "revolving." Many games -primarily multiplayer ones- feature the concept of behavioral manipulation as an aspect of their design (e.g. "mind games" in fighting games), but rarely does a title solely focus on it in the way that Trouble in Terrorist Town (TTT) does.

I'll come right out and say that Trouble in Terrorist Town is possibly my favorite game, or at least makes it into my top 5, and is my second most played title. The amount of time I've played TTT is a testament to how it refuses to lose its initial freshness -but I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I should explain what TTT is, exactly...

Fanart representing the premise of TTT: "The Usual Suspects" by reddit user NorKal.

Trouble in Terrorist Town is an online multiplayer game mode for Garry's Mod, released in 2009. The premise of the game is as follows; A group of players are dropped into a location of some kind. Most of the players are "innocents," but a few are randomly selected to be "traitors," and there is no visual distinction between the two, so nobody knows at the start of a round who is a traitor and who is innocent (except for yourself, since you always know whether you are a traitor or not). Once everyone has picked up their firearms, the traitors must work towards killing all of the innocents, and the innocents must find out who the traitors are and stop them.

Innocents can view dead bodies in order to gather evidence that leads them to the killer. Since the traitors are vastly outnumbered, they are given access to superior weapons and equipment that the innocents don't have, such as explosives, shurikens, and body armor. At least one of the innocents is randomly selected to be a "detective," who also has access to better weapons and equipment, such as a DNA scanner to prove who killed someone, a "visualizer" that shows the bullet trajectory into a deceased comrade, etc. Once the traitors or innocents are all dead, the round is over and a new one starts up, with new traitors. 

Two players engage in a gunfight after one is called out as a traitor (left); A detective investigates a dead innocent (right). All screenshots are taken from the Wolves' Vendetta Server, my personal favorite.

If an innocent kills another innocent without evidence, or a traitor kills a fellow traitor, they have to spend the duration of the next round "slayed," i.e. unable to play. Rules change slightly depending on the server, as do the weapons. If this all sounds complicated, that's because it absolutely is. The learning curve is a bit steep, and you will likely find yourself shooting the wrong people or getting literally stabbed in the back on your first few hours of playtime, but once you experience a bit of trial and error you'll be sleuthing with the best of them.

A traitor lies dead (left); Looking at his dead body reveals information about when, how, and why he died (right).

TTT, in essence, is a "who dun it" mystery finished in the span of ten minutes. Your deductive skills are put to the test with no room for error, and your alertness is stretched to its maximum. I've often found myself sweating profusely during my playtime, just because of how well the game generates tension.

That in itself may be the most curious aspect of TTT. As you can see from the screenshots, it's a fairly ugly game, awash in compressed textures and visual noise. True, the game is no looker, and the presence of a microphone communication system often makes TTT more comedic than anything, but to me, that just speaks to how solidly the aforementioned tension is crafted. If a game can make me laugh when I'm scared to death, that's a rare experience that I want to hold on to. Hundreds of people still play the game, despite it being a 7-year-old title running on a 12-year-old game engine, which speaks more to its enduring appeal than I ever could.

Levels (AKA maps) are usually dark, with large open areas surrounded by claustrophobic corridors. Both create tension because the open areas are more susceptible to snipers, while the corridors are easier places to get away with murder. Usually the maps have some kind of thematic hook, such as taking place in a museum or giant kitchen, as shown above. 

The first topic that must be broached when talking about this game is the absence of a skill ceiling, at least in the way we traditionally understand it. The "skill ceiling," in reference to games, is a theoretical term used to describe the absolute highest level of play: when you have mastered every mechanic, learned every trick, and become the best player possible. It is a universally understood concept in game design, which makes it all the more fascinating that TTT is lacking it almost entirely.

You see, to succeed at TTT as an innocent is to solve crimes, and there really is no telling how quickly you can deduce something. There's an almost random element to how things fall into place that ensures no two rounds are the same. The evidence is ever changing. Similarly, as a traitor, your performance is based almost entirely on how well you can lie, and there's no ceiling to what you can invent as your justification for shooting someone. I've heard people lie in TTT in ways I never considered before, and no matter how well you adapt, someone with a different playstyle or personality can always come along and find a novel way to deceive you.

Aiming your gun correctly definitely has a skill ceiling, but landing a perfect headshot every time pales in comparison to being able to tell a good fib when you miss a shot. My favorite excuse is convincing other players that my mouse hit the side of my keyboard. Classic.

Typical crime scenes in TTT. When accusations fly, the body count racks up fast. Misunderstandings are the biggest killer in this game, so clear communication is key to a clean victory.

You are constantly pulled between the easy path and the correct path, and often rounds will be decided by actions somewhere between those two states. The gathering of mounting evidence against a person builds up like a court case, but often the evidence just isn't there, and somebody has to be killed on a hunch to ensure the safety of others. There's an immense amount of guilt in this game, be it from killing the wrong suspect or accidentally causing someone's death. In a way, you could call TTT a "due process simulator," and when somebody doesn't get their fair shake, the results can be gut-wrenching and possibly fatal.

Names don't disappear off the player list when they die. Only when their bodies are checked are you certain of their death, meaning that unseen victims obscure the process of elimination needed to crack the case. Nothing has put me more on edge in my gaming career than being stuck in a shadowy air vent, alone with a possible traitor and a possible cadaver, waiting for the last enemy to sneak up and kill me in an instant.

Twitchiness is both rewarded and punished in this game as a result of the insistence on putting justice and deduction first, creating a truly unique FPS experience.

The meat of the experience takes place through communication. This is a cropped screenshot, demonstrating both voice chat (top) and text chat (bottom). FloppyHotDog (top) is pleading his innocence after someone has erroneously called him out. Corbin Staab (bottom) is explaining how he "accidentally" threw a grenade: a big no-no in TTT.

As you play with the same people more and more, you'll develop friendships and rivalries, and even discover "tells," similar to a game of poker. This makes TTT a highly social game, even if the people you're socializing with are largely dipshits who won't listen to your call-outs.

A lingo is also developed during your time with them: KOS, RDM, T-baiting, T-room, RSB, Jihaded, AWPed and High Sus may all seem like nonsense slang terms, but with growing playtime you'll develop an almost religious reverence and understanding of their implications. Both the implications on your innocence, which you will become highly defensive over, and on the innocence of others, whom you will jealously defend from false accusations. A sort of kinship is born in the silliest context possible, and a smart player will be simultaneously feared by the traitors and recognized as a high-priority target.

The innocents defeat the traitors. Success!

I really can't overstate how much this game has been overlooked. Silly, tense, and wrought with psychological hijinks, TTT incubates just about every kind of emotion a game can attempt to evoke, and does so in such a tight, endlessly enjoyable way, that it's impossible for me to recognize it as anything other than a superb achievement of computer gaming, and gaming at large...

...provided you find a good server, of course.