V. Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV is a Japanese role-playing game announced when I was still in high school and the foremost reason I bought a PlayStation 3. It was released half a decade after my graduation from university and a year after getting married.
Surprised to find Final Fantasy XV in this list? That makes two of us. My initial excitement based on the Final Fantasy XIII Versus trailers was replaced with equally unfounded scepticism as time passed. My wife picked up the game soon after its release in 2016, but after getting overwhelmed by tutorials and explanations, she put it down and never picked it up again.
Until, for one reason or another, I felt like playing Final Fantasy XV this year.
I’m so glad I did. It’s not a great game — the story’s execution is an absolute mess — but my wife and I had so much fun playing through the game together, in large part due to the dynamics between the main characters. Final Fantasy XV really feels like watching four friends going on a trip, including all the bantering four men can produce, making it a highly quotable game. The outstanding voice acting in English greatly contributes to this, of course.
There’s also a level of awareness in the game that I can really appreciate. Ranging from Prompto’s exclamation that his “hair does not look like a Chocobo butt” (it totally does) to breaking out into a vocal improvisation of the traditional Final Fantasy fanfare or Chocobo theme song. Even though I had a hard time following what exactly was going on in the story, Final Fantasy XV never failed to entertain me.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that after having grown so attached to the group, the ending came in like wrecking ball. I was torn: my always critical mind dismissed it as cliché, but in my heart the feels were real. Fortunately, my wife felt the same way. We extended our adventure in Eos as long as possible: Kingsglaive, Brotherhood, Comrades, DLC Episodes, YouTube compilations — the trip may be over, but FFXV lives on in our household.
Undertale is a role-playing game developed by Toby Fox. It was originally released in 2015 and subsequently ported to PlayStation 4 and Vita in 2017 and Switch this year. I played the PS4 version.
I may not have been as vocal about Undertale as its fanbase is known for. Unaware what I was getting myself in to, I booted up Undertale on a home alone Friday night to see what it was all about.
Maybe they’re in a different corner of the Internet than I reside in, but to be fair I have seen very little of its ‘vocal fanbase’, especially compared to people complaining about said fanbase. After all, before booting up the game all I really knew about Undertale is that it was developed by one person named Toby Fox, that there’s a character whose name could double as a powerful skill in Megami Tensei and that it’s universally loved.
The night after booting up Undertale I slept horribly. And I know exactly why: I was a dirty brother killer. Frustrated that I wasn’t able to spare him, I decided to slay the great Papyrus, who only wanted to have friends and become popular. Brother killer. I ventured further into the underworld and, realising I was far beyond my usual bedtime, decided it was time to call it a night. I crawled into bed and closed my eyes.
Undertale didn’t stop there. I dreamt of the boney skeleton, the one I wished to spare but couldn’t and therefore decided to kill him. I regretted my decision, but I had already saved my game. There was nothing I could do anymore. Poor Sans, I thought. As I lay there, staring at the ceiling, I realised that the death of a game character I killed myself had never affected me to this extent. Sure, I felt bad about slaying the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, but at least Undertale gave me a choice. And I — deliberately — chose wrong.
Sleep deprived, I finished my Undertale playthrough the next morning. Still processing what on earth happened at the end of whatever ending I unlocked, I immediately started a new file in which not only Papyrus was spared.
Undertale is great when friends come over. I love booting up the game and handing the controller to one of my friends who also have no idea what the game is about. It’s amazing. I love Undertale.
III. Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight is a metroidvania by Team Cherry. Originally released for PC in 2017, it was ported to Switch and PS4 in 2018. I played the PS4 version.
Hollow Knight is one of those indie games I completely missed in the vast sea of Kickstarter projects and did not hear about until, I guess, the Switch port was announced.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted this game.
“This really is your kind of game”, my wife said.
I know it is.
“You really have to play this game”, my friends said.
Oh, I will.
And I did, when the Voidheart Edition hit PS4 in September.
And yes, Hollow Knight really is my kind of game — a vast, sprawling network of tunnels and distinct areas that naturally transition from one to another. After Guacamelee! 2 — a great platformer, but not so much a great metroidvania — failed to scratch that itch, Hollow Knight felt like bliss.
At the beginning of the game I was reminded of both origins of its genre: the little knight’s limited moveset reminded me of early hours in the Castlevanias of yore whereas the world, in particular the transition from Forgotten Crossroads into Greenpath, invoked memories of Super Metroid’s elevator to Upper Brinstar.
Comparisons with these games withered as I became more immersed in the gloomy world of Hallownest, filled with charm and personality and riddled with hidden pathways. Although my little knight’s moveset expanded with wall jumps, dashes and double jumps, it never got too comfortable due to the challenging boss fights. Next time someone complains Dark Souls is difficult, be a dear and gift them Hollow Knight.
Dark Souls is actually the third game I would liken Hollow Knight to, but not because of the challenges it poses. It presents its story as fragmented as the Souls games, placing and moving its enigmatic NPCs throughout the world and placing tidbits of lore not only in item descriptions, but also in merchants’ response to the item you’re selling them. As a result, I have only a hunch what Hollow Knight’s story is really about.
The game has multiple ending, and I only reached the worst one — the epitome of a bad ending — of the bunch so far. Deliberately so: it gives me an excuse to go back to the grim but amazing world of Hollow Knight.
II. SaGa: Scarlet Grace
SaGa: Scarlet Grace is a role-playing game by Square Enix, the first new console game in the series since Unlimited Saga in 2002. Scarlet Grace was released for PlayStation Vita late 2016, and re-released as an enhanced port for PlayStation 4, Switch, Steam and mobiles in 2018. I played the Vita version.
Throughout the years I’ve played a fair share of role-playing games and usually for the same reason: their stories. I love to learn about the characters I’m about to go on an adventure with and discover the world alongside them, as they fill me in on their backgrounds. I thought Bravely Default was the exception to this unwritten rule, where I be more engrossed into its combat system than its story, but when chapter 5 rolled around I realised that wasn’t the case.
No, SaGa: Scarlet Grace is that exception.
The battle system in Scarlet Grace is second to none. Its turn-based combat is defined by the game’s unique Timeline System, which is a horizontal bar across the bottom on the screen indicating attacks turns of your party and the opponents. Each turn, you get a number of Brave Points (BP) to spend on attacks; the more powerful the attack, the more BP they tend to cost. Party members and enemies for which no attack is selected defend by default.
The number of BP you get is initially defined by your battle formation. Prior to each battle, you’re given the chance to select which five members to select in the upcoming battle and what equipment they should use. In this screen, you also decide on a battle formation for your party. At the beginning, only a handful of options are available, but newly recruited party members may also bring in new formations.
These formations have a couple of traits: they may manipulate passive stats for party members on a specific position within the formation (like an attack boost for attackers on the front row) or wielders a particular kind of weapon (like rapiers), but they also manipulate the flow of your BP. Apart from specifying your starting number of BP, formations determine how you can earn new BP. The early formations grant one extra BP at the start of each turn, but others grant them for using specific weapons or skills, or resets the BP count after each successful chain attack.
From my experience, chain attacks are at the core of Scarlet Grace’s Timeline System. Apart from a BP cost, attacks may also affect its users position on the timeline. A rapier’s swift thrust will launch its user to the front while a heavy axe swing to target all enemies may come very last. After having your attacks, Timelines tend to look completely different than what they initially were at the start of the turn. With a good strategy in mind, it hardly matters whether you come first or last.
Chain attacks are initiated when an enemy positioned on the Timeline between two (groups of) party members is defeated, so its icon on the Timeline shatters and the previously separated party members unite. It’s a happy union for two reasons: the affected members continue to each unleash an attack on a random opponent and get a BP discount in the next battle turn. Chain attacks, however, can also be triggered by enemies. Focusing too much on taking out a specific enemy may leave a vulnerable party member exposed to enemy’s attacks.
Fortunately, it’s possible to see which enemies are attacking and what attack (plus its BP cost) they will be using. You can’t see which enemy attacks which party member, leaving you to assess the situation and make a choice between an attempt to initiate a chain attack or go on the defensive, making sure that characters with a lower defence are protected at any cost. This alone would’ve made of a compelling battle system, but there’s a whole subset of attacks both players and enemies can resort to to screw with the Timeline, starting with Reserves.
Reserves are a group of attacks that activate under specific circumstances only, like Protect (shielding a targetted party member) or Counter (countering when its user is attacked). The most interesting of the three Reserves is Interrupt, which — surprise — interrupts the opponent’s attack by dashing in front of them on the timeline and, in the case of rapier’s Matador skill, pushes the enemy’s attack turn to the back of the Timeline, giving the rest of the party ample time to stop or kill the enemy. Once again, opponents are able to use Reserves as well. Unlike normal attacks, Reserves are indicated with questions marks, leaving you wonder whether it would be wise to attack or rather sit out this turn.
The other subset are Effects added to attacks. For example, longsword’s Sudden Strike — performed by laying on the ground and lazily swinging the sword — is another way to bump enemies back in the Timeline. Effects range from Stunning, cancelling enemy’s attacks if successful and you attack first, and Paralysis to Indirect Attacks, which serve as an efficient way to cancel an opponent’s Interrupt — just make sure it is Interrupt.
Having taken the above consideration, we select our attacks and press ‘Attack’.
To be honest, I’m still scraping the surface — hesitantly, I scroll up — with the essay written above. I could go on about attack types and how Reserves with Interrupt only interrupt specific attack types or at least mention how the magic system works, but the point I’m trying to make is that I love Scarlet Grace — for its battle system. For the first time, ever, I’ve been able to discuss a game without bringing up its story, its world or its characters. I haven’t even mentioned the gorgeous character designs or the brilliant soundtrack.
Do yourself a favour and pick up Scarlet Grace whenever it hits Western shelves. I know I will.
Utawarerumono is a trilogy of visual novels developed by studio Leaf under publisher Aquaplus. The first game was released for 2002. Its sequels, localised as Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth, followed in 2015 and 2016. A remake of the first game was released in Japan in 2018.
The series caught my interest with the media coverage for Mask of Deception. Skimming Japanese magazine Dengeki PlayStation for new information on Nihon Falcom’s upcoming Tokyo Xanadu always had me stop at the Utawarerumono pages to admire its gorgeous artwork and background visuals. I wasn’t particularly interested in visual novels at the time, and the prospect of importing one full-price at the risk of my Japanese falling short and not being able to enjoy the story had me invest my time and money elsewhere.
However, I continuously kept track of the game. When the localisation for Mask of Deception was announced by Atlus early 2017, I picked up the PSP version of the first game in preparation. My adventure in the wondrous world of Tuskur was short-lived, however: 2017 was a stellar year for games and Utawarerumono PSP was shelved for long enough for Aquaplus to announce its remake for Vita. The game would also be offered as part of a trilogy set, the version I settled for. On 26 April 2018, I was set to trek through what would become Tuskur and cross the sea to the empire known as Yamato.
Five months later I wrapped up Mask of Truth’s grand finale. Just writing this and thinking about its ending gives me goosebumps still. Before continuing, I turn on the song that plays during the final battle.
What initially drew me to Utawarerumono was its pseudo-fictional setting, focusing on a part of the world few, if any, games prior addressed: the area surrounding the Sea of Okhotsk, the sea east of Russia and north of Japan’s nothernmost island, Hokkaido.
The first Utawarerumono is set in the archipelago known to us as Japan, but in the story it is presented as an island home to countries with names rather peculiar and difficult to remember, such as Shikeripechim, Kunnekamun and Kucca Kecca. The story sets off with the collapse of the government of Kenashikourupe — double-checking whether I spelled that right — after which it’s re-established as Tuskur. With the stage set for the rest of the story, geopolitical tension spawns wars with surrounding nations until the island in its entirety is united under the banner of Tuskur.
For its sequel, the narrative’s focus shifts across the ocean to the region registered in our atlases as the Russian province Magadan and adjecent peninsula Kamchatka. Known in Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception as Yamato, it is ruled by a geriatric yet infallible emperor known as the Mikado. Apart from his personal assistant, the Mikado is directly supported by the two generals, Oshtor and Mikazuchi. Furthermore, he commands eight hand-picked generals known as Yamato’s loyal Eight Pillars.
Yamato continues to serve as setting in Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, building on Deception’s sluggish yet meticulously crafted foundation, and then continues to interweave the casts and plots of both its predecessors into the trilogy’s grande finale. I was in awe.
Utawarerumono’s compelling, page-turning plot is carried by its cast of wondrous characters. At a single glance it might be easy to dismiss the cast as fanservice, harem or otaku pandering — and sure, packing the game with a pillow case of scantily clad, underage twins isn’t exactly helping to convince criticasters otherwise — but the characters have a great depth to them, conveyed through marvellously written dialogue, highly distinct ways of speaking and superb voice acting. They’re quick to grow on you and I’ve found it impossible to pick favourites, even though anons of Curious Cats tried.
Rather than isolating my favourite moments in the games without their precious contexts or providing in-depth character analyses at the risk of spoiling those that have yet to play the series, I wish to wrap up by thanking Utawarerumono’s modest English fanbase for introducing me to this series and always offering me ears for whenever I had to gush over yet another plot twist.
Dragon Quest Builders
Honestly, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Dragon Quest Builders. After its demo inspired me to do a 180 and immediately pre-order the game, it has been shelved for far too often: first in March 2016, when I got a PlayStation 4 and Dark Souls III, and then in September 2017, when Sen no Kiseki III would bring an end to the three-year cliffhanger.
The game can’t really help it. It’s incredibly charming and the definition of fun. After clearing the first chapter and leaving the first town I meticulously built behind, I was worried that the game would get stale if re-building towns is all the game has to offer. While that is the case, Builders also manages to keep the formula fresh enough to have me look out to its sequel next year.
Sen no Kiseki IV: The End of Saga
“Ah, there it is”, I hear you think. While I may not have enjoyed the grand finale to Erebonia’s long-running arc as much as aforementioned games, it still kept my attention for 123 hours, taking the crown as JRPG that took me the longest to finish (hand over the trophy, Persona 5 — “b-but I just took over from Xenoblade Chronicles”).
Although I feel that both the story and the battle system ‘miss’ on the moments that matter most, it’s also tries to be a love letter to series’ fans as much as possible, with a dazzling number of playable characters, familiar faces and hidden, optional quests that rival the main story in terms of importance.
Rest assured, tears were shed.
Tales of Berseria
I don’t like Tales games.
I never made it past the first seven hours in Symphonia or starting ten hours of Abyss — both hailed as the best ones in the series, depending on who you ask — and reached the ending in Hearts only as a result of maintaining my Japanese during the summer break at university rather than having a blast with the game. To date, I have finished one Tales game: Zestiria.
I don’t think Zestiria is a good game. Sure, I couldn’t get enough of Edna’s sarcasm, but I only made it through the game because I knew its successor — Berseria, supposedly the best Tales in years — serves as a prequel and, well, I’d already bought the game.
Tales of Berseria I do like. The main characters and their skits are absolutely amazing, and the story and battle system are a lot more engaging than Zestiria. I feel I’m in the second half of the game and will surely finish the game somewhere in the upcoming year.
Last year’s promise
Last year, I promised I would share my thoughts on a specific game.
I gave it another shot and forced myself to continue, but even that approach brought me no further than 12 hours into the game. The story progresses really slow — “but so does Trails in the Sky FC’s!” — hardly anything that compels me to continue has happened in the story so far — “look at FC!” — and the battle system isn’t particularly interesting — “triple that!”.
That combined with the game giving no directions as to where to head next is what ultimately turned me off from the game. I clearly see its potential, but I guess I’m not willing to give it the time it needs to get there. And if I were to pick up the game today, I would be lost in what did happen so far and be inclined to start over — again.
Instead of forcing myself to play this classic, I’ll cut my losses and invest into other series that await my attention, like Yakuza and Monster Hunter.