V. The Legend of Heroes: Sen no Kiseki III
Before discovering the Kiseki series, I have little experience dealing with cliffhangers. Few game series are episodic in nature to begin with and the anime series I adored most usually had their climaxes resolved in the next week’s episode.
But then Kiseki came along. Massive, 100-hour adventures that never satiate hunger as much as they have you starve. Thousands of characters see their daily lives derailing through corrupt politics, plans from suspicious circles that operate from the shadows or the friction between these two. Whereas other fandoms tend to wind up in vicious debates on which game is the best of the franchise, Kiseki fans rather come together to discuss the ever-growing pile of enigmas and riddles the series has come to offer.
The Legend of Heroes: Sen no Kiseki III was the long-awaited and highly anticipated sequel that would resolve the maddening cliffhanger at the end of its predecessor three years prior. In the period Falcom kept their mouths zipped on the sequel, published XSEED Games knocked out the majority of their backlog — Trails in the Sky SC (‘15), Trails of Cold Steel (‘15), Trails of Cold Steel II (‘16) and Trails in the Sky The 3rd (’17) — in rapid succession.
Sen no Kiseki III addressed most of the problems its direct predecessors suffered from. It took the rigid structure surrounding school life and field trips from the first game and turned it into something enjoyable, that continued to feel fresh throughout the game. No cut content or excessive padding that has come to define the first two games respectively.
No, Sen III is bold, tightly paced and brimming with content. What would’ve been a big revelation toward the end in any prior game is just another reveal in this latest instalment of the Erebonian saga. Without compromising the impact or weight of each reveal, playing Sen III became a mental exercise. Its ending in particular was so emotionally taxing that the cliffhanger was as liberating as it was excruciating.
IV. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda is not one of those series where my favourite entry is set in stone, unlike, say, Final Fantasy VI or Xenogears. That probably stems from the fact that I have fond or precious memories attached to most of them.
I never considered Zelda a ‘party game’, but I rarely play them on my own. A Link To The Past with the brother of my first girlfriend, Ocarina of Time with my cousin, The Wind Waker on the ‘Cube my brother and I saved up for, and Spirit Tracks with a friend (instead of studying).
Breath of the Wild is no exception in that regard. I played the majority of the game together with my wife. She greatly enjoyed finding ingredients and make new, surprising dishes. Those dishes would be paramount in whatever the sprawling world of Hyrule would throw at me next. Shrines we solved together, shared our fascination over all wonders the game had to offer, and laughed about the brave adventures of Oaki.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of a Wild is a phenomenal game. It deserves whatever awards it has earned this year. With the majority of the shrines unexplored and the downloadable content untouched, I still have plenty of adventuring in that rich, lush and massive world look forward to.
In October I was overcome with a craving for historical Japan. Don’t ask, I don’t know either. Perhaps withdrawals symptoms of haven’t been to Kyoto in two years now.
After binging a number of Mushishi episodes, I took the plunge into Nioh’s take on Japan’s well-known Sengoku era. Not my favourite period of Japan’s history, but hey, no one would develop a game that’s centred around the clay figurines from the Jōmon era. You know, the one Arahabaki from Persona is modelled after.
Apart from the supernatural elements, it surprised me how faithful Nioh remained to its real-life inspiration, all the way up to weather circumstances during the Battle of Sekighara.
As an avid player of Soulsborne games since Demon’s Souls, I have a confession to make: I’m hesitant to go back to any of those games now.
That’s because of its battle system. It’s superb because of three reasons. First, its ki management, which is perfectly balanced after it was too punishing in the alpha and too lenient in the beta. Second, the different stances you can assume and the effects of doing so while replenishing your ki. Third, the differences between the weapons and what effects switching between them during a combo has on, once again, your ki management.
The dynamic between these three dynamics invite you to develop a rhythm as you cut your enemies into pieces. And it’s an addictive rhythm. It’s hard to not play Nioh. While almost none of its bosses gave me that same thrill that the Soulsborne games do (with the Ogress and A Meeting On The Other Shore as the exceptions), I keep giving in to Nioh’s addictive rhythm. Brb.
II. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
And I’m not even a Dragon Quest fan. If you’re surprised to find this game so high on the list, do know that I share your sentiment.
I wasn’t even planning to get the game. At all. I first wanted to finish Dragon Quest IV, which I had started playing on my Nintendo DS, before moving on to V, and then play VI to wrap up the trilogy. That was my plan. But my plan was ruined. Utterly ruined by this nagging feeling of ‘play it’. No, I tweeted, the price is too steep to just give it a try. ‘Play it’ my inner gamer repeated as it kept poking at my prefrontal cortex. That same afternoon, I gave in and waited for the download to finish from PlayStation Network.
It’s hard to explain what makes Dragon Quest XI so great. Especially when the story starts off with a chosen hero destined to liberate the world from an evil overlord. But a lot transpired during the 100+ hours between the nameless protagonist’s departure from his hometown and the game’s definitive ‘Fin’.
Rather than trespassing onto spoiler territory to explain why this game is so great, you’ll have to settle with my praise for the accessible yet sufficiently deep battle system, the absolutely gorgeous graphics, the compelling story with a pacing most role-playing games can only dream of, and a cast that ranks among my favourites of any game.
Usually, we have our favourites among our party members. I clearly favoured Makoto above the other Phantom Thieves in Persona 5. I don’t have favourites among the Dragon Quest XI cast. I greatly enjoyed exploring their individual backstories and how their fates were intertwined with one another in an uncontrived way. These stories again blended in beautifully with the overarching story, making the package deal absolutely unforgettable.
All that’s left for me now is to obtain the remaining costumes for the platinum trophy, looking at fan art and — fair enough — perhaps continue my original plan.
What Chrono Trigger and NieR:Automata have in common is that they were both developed by a dream team, published by Square Enix.
In Chrono Trigger’s case, Squaresoft had dubbed its lead designers — Sakaguchi, Horii and Toriyama — the ‘Dream Team’. It’s even possible to visit the developers in-game, where they are joined by producer Aoki and composer Uematsu (even though Mitsuda was the true hero).
For NieR:Automata, Square producer Yosuke Saito assembled what I would dub my dream team. First of all, the returning creative force of the original NieR, director Yoko Taro and composer Keiichi Okabe.
Then, out of nowhere, character designer Akihiko Yoshida, who had only designed characters for (high) fantasy settings before, now working on something far, far into the future. Finally, rather than ‘just fixing’ the problems with Drakengard and NieR’s play mechanics, they flew in PlatinumGames, masters of action they once aimed for.
Yes, I lost it when the first teaser came up during Square’s livestream.
Post-apocalyptic setting. Gentle arrangement of the original’s music. A female protagonist with white hair, dressed in a gorgeous black dress with a turtleneck that nonetheless reveals her modest bust and wide hips, topped off with thigh-highs in high heel boots. Everything about this new game felt like it was designed specifically to my liking. This announcement made an otherwise dull E3 unforgettable in an instant.
Needless to say, my expectations were sky-high. As the release crept closer, I got myself a PlayStation 4 (around the time of Dark Souls III’s release, allowing me to play that, Bloodborne and Persona 5 back-to-back) and slowly started to back away from information and footage from the game. I pre-ordered my copy through PlayStation Network and replayed the demo over and over again.
It was February 22nd when my life became Yoko Taro’s once again.
Four days and roughly 40–45 hours of playtime further, I reached the true ending. I was in shambles. In the days that following, I wrapped up the remaining side quests, collected and upgraded weaponry, and unlocked the hidden ending. Again, I was in shambles. Even after I had unlocked the platinum trophy, I’d occasionally pick up the game just to be in that bleak, depressing world with its precious protagonists and gorgeous music again.
In the days after finishing the game, I wrote my review for the game. I had already told my editor-in-chief that NieR:Automata would be my last review, for the appeal of reviewing games had worn off after ten years. In those ten years I had never submitted a review with a perfect score — until that moment.
It would take another month, the day after my 28th birthday, and a holiday to Venice, before I was willing to sacrifice my savefiles. One week earlier, the soundtrack had come in. I listen to NieR:Automata’s music almost daily. Even now, at year’s end. I think it’s my favourite soundtrack of all time.
When people ask me what makes NieR:Automata such a great game, I find it difficult to come up with a comprehensible answer. On the one hand, just playing the game is immensely satisfying thanks to the graceful movement of 2B. Pulling the right trigger on the controller makes her skate across the ruins of a future Japan. The controls were intuitive and every button you pressed triggered something choreographic.
On the other hand, there’s the story and narrative wrappers of the many side quests. Similar to how BioShock puts Ayn Rand’s objectivism into practice, NieR:Automata explores a wide range of philosophical issues, often rooted in nihilism — What is consciousness, fear and desire? What defines an identity? — and actual topics from our daily lives, such as religious extremism and beauty ideals.
NieR:Automata is unequivocally depressing. Some side quests had me put down the controller and think about their implications. The ending of the game had me question myself. My friend Kirsten wrote a beautiful piece on that thought.
Whereas I had to overthink their respective positions on the list of the games that preceded, NieR:Automata’s position as the first one was pretty much set in stone from the outset. Where it ends up on my list of favourite games of all-time, I haven’t worked out yet. But it’s pretty damn high.
Metal Gear Solid
Apart from these 2017 games, I also tackled a number of games from my backlog I’d like to briefly talk about. In January and February, I played through Metal Gear Solid, Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater, Guns of the Patriots and Revengeance back-to-back. For the first time.
Well, apart from the first one, which was definitely more spectacular fifteen years ago than it was now. Still, even now, it’s a great game that spawned even greater sequels. Each of them are a work of art, I think.
My feelings regarding Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain, which I played after putting down Breath of the Wild, are much more mixed. As someone who hadn’t keep track of the series and read mostly about their development on wikis afterwards, the struggles between the developers and publisher are painfully evident. I greatly enjoyed the core mechanics of Phantom Pain, as a much more refined system of Peace Walker, but ultimately feel let down because I didn’t work toward a climax like its predecessors.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin
I finally made it through Persona 2: Innocent Sin, one of the two reasons — the other Persona 3 Portable — I bought my PSP for. Not without cheats. I absolutely hate the battle system and its fusion system. I used cheats to keep my party’s level maximised and the random encounters as close to zero as possible.
The story of Persona 2: Innocent Sin is amazing. Depressing, like the greatest novels, but an amazing psychological thriller with at its core the premise of ‘What would happen if rumours became reality?’.
I immediately jumped into the second half of the duology, Eternal Punishment. Its cast of adults was easily its highlight. Maya was degraded to a silent protagonist, the story was excessively convoluted and the battle system (probably) unchanged.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate
After close to a hundred deaths spread over the almost two years I’d been trying to beat the game, I finally managed in late April. That was shortly after finding out I’d been playing the game all wrong. With a lot of preparation — and a little bit of luck from the RNG pantheon — I took down the final boss on my first attempt.
I haven’t been able to clear any of the post-game dungeons. Ironically, they require the play style I tried to tackle the story towers with. Still, with no weapons or gear to start with, these post-game dungeons require a certain degree of ‘git gud’ I haven’t been able to provide them with. Yet.
Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy Tactics and Suikoden II: the two games for the PlayStation everyone was unanimously raving about but didn’t manage to keep my attention. Determined to push through to see where all this praise comes from for once and for all, I jumped into Final Fantasy Tactics.
Rest assured. You were right, it’s great. It took about five hours before the system clicked with me. From that moment onward, grinding in Final Fantasy Tactics was the thing I did during breaks at work. Apart from the interesting cast, I loved how you yourself can give the random generated party members meaning through their skill sets. I still remember their names. I finished it in September and I’m super grateful for everyone who kept pushing.
Next year, I’ll share my thoughts about Suikoden II. I promise.