I've been wanting to write something about video game voice actors for a little while now. It seems like interest in who the talents behind our favorite characters are has steadily risen over the past few years, and within my circle of friends, following those voice actors has become a pet hobby in and of itself.
So I'd been throwing around ideas on how to go about writing on the subject, trying various list formats, but I ended up settling on this. Basically, what I'm going to do is go through the major roles and my personal favorite roles of the particular actor, take at least a brief look at the performances that stand out among them, and also talk a little about the games and the characters themselves.
To kick off what will hopefully be a recurring series, I thought I should try starting with a less than obvious choice, and one of my personal favorite voice actors, Karen Strassman. Keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive, in the interests of brevity.
Dune - 1992 Chani
Dune was, to the best of my knowledge, Strassman's first video game voice role. Now we're talking about the point and click adventure game Dune, and not the Westwood RTS Dune, just to clarify. Her voiceover career started in France, where she did various voice work for such gigs as Disneyland Paris, Air France and even the audio tour voice for the Lourve, and the developer of Dune, Cryo Interactive Entertainment, was itself based out of France, and this was their first game as well.
In fact, Cryo was the source of a lot of Strassman's early game work, producing Dune, The Devil Inside and the Atlantis series games. One odd aspect of the voice work in this very, very early game is that everyone seems to be almost whispering for some reason. It certainly makes for an interesting atmosphere, especially factoring in the almost Terry Gilliam style 2d art.
It's a different sound from what you may be used to with her more recent roles. Those voices she's become known for in recent years don't really come around until later on. She really had to grow into that sound over time, but more on that as we move forward.
If you would like to play Dune, all of Cryo's games are ostensibly abandonware at this point. So it's sadly unavailable on GOG and other services. If you have an aversion to piracy, then there is the Sega CD version, which you can still find on the resale market, and is probably the easiest and best version to get running.
Lost Eden - 1995 Eve/Komalla
Lost Eden is another early Cryo Interactive game. This one involves talking dinosaurs and cave men and stuff. And it really sets the mood for Cryo Interactive style games. You've got the almost Gilliam-esque 2d portraits for all the characters with weird looking facial animations. They mostly consist of super old dudes with gigantic beards, crazy anthropomorphized animals/lizard creatures, sexy ladies and crazy evil looking robot cyborg dudes. You've got your fly-throughs for the all pre-rendered 3d backdrops and just some wild sounding background music in this one.
Strassman makes her first appearance as Komalla, leader of a band of Frazetta-esque Amazonian warriors. She doesn't get more than a few lines of dialogue, but the voice has a nice mix of tough and sexy to fit the portrait attached to it.
Strassman's other character starts off, er... somewhat strangely. The voice is fine. It's basically just Kara from Red Faction: Armageddon, only maybe a little bit gruffer. But the characters face is like, some sort of horrible hybrid fusion of Mayor McCheese, Grimace and a robot disguised as a salad bowl I guess. I don't really know how to describe it.
Now, it's later supposed to be some big reveal that 'Oh no! It wasn't really Mayor McCheese! It was really just some girl named Eve! And wait! I thought she was a he!' I don't know how anyone thought that walking purple robot salad bowl was supposed to be a man. I mean, if it was supposed to be a gruff sounding woman wearing the robot salad bowl as a disguise, then sure. I guess I can get behind that.
But at any rate, after Eve reveals her true identity, she starts speaking in this much softer and wispy voice, not entirely unlike the one in Dune previously. I honestly kind of miss the Mayor McCheese voice. I mean, she looked patently ridiculous, but she sounded rad as hell, and oddly enough, much more like the more recent roles she's better known for.
That said, while I might sound a little bit down on the game, I had a great time playing it. It's an awfully fun game just between the soundtrack and 2d art alone. So it's definitely worth a look if the mere thought of adventure games doesn't scare you off.
Lost Eden got several releases, for Dos, Mac, CD-i, 3DO and even PC98 of all things. So you have a good amount of choice in versions to get a hold of. As far as emulation goes though, the 3DO version is the one to go for. Being a Cryo game, this too qualifies as abandonware and can't be bought new at the time of posting this.
Dark Earth - 1997 Kalhi
Dark Earth is a fun little 3d adventure game, this one, too, made by a French developer. This time by the now long defunct Kalisto Entertainment, known for such blockbuster hits as The Fifth Element and Nightmare Creatures.
Dark Earth plays mostly like Resident Evil with more of an adventure game bent and some RPG trappings thrown in as well. The art style is somewhat inconsistent and doesn't necessarily hold up in this day and age. But it definitely has the look of a mid nineties adventure game, and the way it dates itself is definitely part of its charm.
Strassman plays Kalhi, the love interest to the player character, Arkhan. She's somewhat of a minor character, all told. Dark Earth is one of those games where the plot is fairly thin, and which relies more on world building and back story for narrative depth. And the voice acting in this game is pretty goofy. Most of that is due to the stupid sounding made up names everything in this world of Dark Earth has. But, again, that goofiness feeds a lot into the charm of these older games.
Beings as this is such an older game, there are some real issues trying to run it. Since Kalisto is no more, there's no telling who owns the rights to the game. So the chances of somewhere like GOG getting it are unlikely. It is, for all intents and purposes, abandonware at this point. Scuttlebutt says that running a windows 95 or 98 virtual machine is your best bet at getting the game to run at all, in case you were interested.
Omikron: The Nomad Soul - 1999 various characters
The Nomad Soul was the product of another French developer, David Cage's very own Quantic Dream this time. It's a fantastic looking game, given its age, and while the story couldn't be any more 1999 if they'd just skipped with the pretense and called it The Matrix instead, it's still really entertaining with its kitschy, late nineties cyberspace vibe.
That assessment's not entirely fair though. The game was for all intents and purposes concurrent with The Matrix. The Nomad Soul has much more of a new-age tribal aspiration to it too, which itself was quite popular at the time. There's all manner of magic and spiritualism superimposed onto a futuristic world full of bead necklaces and tribal tattoos, which sets the general vibe of the game apart from the more hard sci-fi offerings of the time, such as The Matrix, or System Shock 2 even. Although the game does ostensibly take place within cyberspace, where your character can posses the bodies of various NPCs.
The game's biggest claim to fame though is probably David Bowie. He worked on the soundtrack, voiced a character and was evidently very involved in writing the story. He even created a stage name to play under as the front man in a rock band that exists within the game world. So some of Bowie's music exists somewhat exclusively within the game, which means if you're a Bowie fan, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.
Getting back on topic though, Strassman plays about half of the female cast in the game, and with the different characters she plays you get to see a good variety of performances from her. At this point, Strassman was moving into something more closely resembling her more modern and recognizable voices. That said, it also has a much more placid and conversational tone.
Chalk that more sedate atmosphere up to the game's whole Matrix vibe, but her main character, Jenna 712, definitely has the cool heroine sound down. She has that cool-headed but imposing quality to her voice that is the hallmark of a good heroine. You can even posses one of Strassman's character's bodies, and have Strassman talking to herself, which is a neat little added feature.
But as long as the thought of a turn-of-the-millenium sci-fi cyberspace epic doesn't immediately turn you away, then you should definitely check it out. It's a really neat little game, it's filled with David Bowie and Strassman has all of her numerous characters on lock-down, so it's pretty fun to listen to as well.
While The Nomad Soul is a bit more modern than those titles previously listed, it's still a bit of a pain to get a hold of. The rights to the title should theoretically fall under Square Enix at this point, but it is currently not available on GOG or any other services. The PC version evidently will not run on most newer ATI cards, so a Windows 98 virtual machine may be the only way to run that version of the game. There is; however, a Dreamcast version, which should be just as easy to find, legally or otherwise, and much easier to run, either natively or through emulation should you so be interested.
Ace Combat 5 - 2004 Kei Nagase
Kei Nagase is an aggressive, yet withdrawn fighter pilot in Ace Combat 5. She plays as your wing man in the game, going by the call sign of Edge. And her persona is as edgy and hardcore as her call sign makes her out to be. Strassman's performance does a great job of making her character sound imposing, despite her unassuming exterior. She really fits the part of wing man well, with her speech typified by an air of confidence and seriousness.
And she's definitely the serious type. Though the plot told through the cutscenes sometimes doesn't seem to know what it's trying to accomplish, there is definitely a dark tone surrounding the wartime imagery. Nagase starts out as almost kind of a cliched character, being something of a generic loner with a chip on her shoulder. But the story shows that she has seen enough of the war to have earned that affectation, and has grown somewhat world-weary as a result, having most of her team shot down during flight training.
As if she wasn't already cool and tough enough, early on in the story, she gets shot down and crash lands in enemy territory. She then somehow manages to capture the enemy soldiers sent to hunt her down and save the helicopter crew that crash landed while trying to pick her up, all during a prolonged manhunt with an areal battle ensuing overhead.
Ace Combat 5 is also, to the best of my knowledge, Strassman's first major non-European voice over role. You can tell because Steve Bloom is like the first guy you hear in the game, so it's definitely American actors. I kind of regret that I didn't get more of her French roles listed here, but I think I did at least get some of the bigger ones.
Rumble Roses XX - 2006 Ms. Spenser/Mistress
I don't really know what to say to that, other than the music in this game is sexier than any one of the characters in it. Honestly, the game is worth looking into for the soundtrack alone, with names like Akira Yamaoka and Michiru Yamane attached to it.
Also, fuck reversal attacks. If you're going to put a reversal attack or a riposte in a game, you're supposed to either have some kind of a spark in the enemy's attack animation to time yourself against or you're supposed to time it to the impact of the attack, not just have it timed to whenever to make it challenging. Anyway, I hate this game, but it's awesome. Moving on.
Suikoden V - 2006 Sialeeds
I put Sialeeds on here because she's another one of my personal favorites. The fact that this is a PS2 era JRPG we're talking about here means that the voiceover is sometimes embarrassing, the character animations sometimes make no sense whatsoever and cultural idioms are sure to occasionally throw a wrench in the spokes. That's just the lot of this kind of game.
But it is awfully tolerable for a mid 2000s JRPG. Awfully tolerable, quite good even, I might say. The voice acting is mostly excellent, and the character designs are very attractive. Silaeeds herself demonstrates both said points quite well actually. I mean, just look at that hair. That's great hair! But on to the character.
Karen Strassman really is an expert at over-acting. She has a knack for making it sound funny and endearing. Sialeeds is kind of a cartoonishly exaggerated depiction of royalty, belonging to affluent society and borrowing its' haughty tone, but being a very friendly and warm person despite that. Strassman makes Sialeeds sound like someone who genuinely enjoys sounding like a complete snob, but she also keeps her often joking demeanor from falling flat.
Sialeed's story is also one filled with twists and turns, and she has a truly tragic character arc throughout the course of the game. It's hard enough not to really like this character just for the personality they gave her. But all the ups and downs and plot twists that her character is subjected to only serve to endear her character even more.
"Never underestimate me."
Join us next time when we will be taking a look at valkyrie warriors, sexy nurses and a whole lot of Persona!
So I've been playing Persona 4 Golden, and I just recently put Naoto in my active party. Now, I'm not sure if it's the added resolution and whatever, but I don't really remember her twirling that pistol of hers so much, like, she's doing it every five seconds in battle. Maybe that's just a detail that I kind of forgot over time or something. But she really likes twirling that pistol and doing tricks with it. Actually, it kind of reminds me of someone...
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that they're all that similar. I'm just saying they're exactly the same person. I've put together a couple of sketches to illustrate this point.
But the similarities don't stop there. Was Naoto's Halloween costume in Golden just a casual extra thrown into the game for creepy Japanese mouth-breathers? Or does the line run deeper than that? Is detective Shirogane also the leader of the Ocelot unit of Spetznaz? I'm not saying either way weather it's true or not, but the answer is definitely yes.
Of course, if all of that is indeed true, then that certainly sets certain points at odds with the Persona 4 novel, which purportedly follows the exploits of Shirogane several years after the events of Persona 4 proper. Why did they not cover the Shadow Moses incident in any detail then? Are they trying to hide something?
"Heart-print camouflage! Can't you even die right?!"
Pretty interesting stuff for them to have just glossed over completely like that, don't you think? Anyway, maybe next time I'll come back with a bunch of drawings of Naoto shocking Brosuke with a stun gun, and then later having Kanji's hand grafted to her arm and eerily shouting 'Get Bent!' in his voice because it's possessing her body but it might actually be a self-hypnosis technique she's using to fool The Patriots or I guess it was probably just nanomachines or something I don't know.
I don't think there's another game in recent memory that disappointed me as much as Dark Souls. I guess there was Catherine, and that was probably worse, but other than that, Dark Souls has to be one of the most disappointing games I've played in a long time.
I mean, I rate Demon's Souls right up there with Persona 3 and Persona 4 as one of my favorite games of all time. So to have another favorite developer put out a follow-up like this is just downright depressing, and in such close succession too.
But as it turns out, there aren't that many people who share my opinion of Dark Souls. Evidently, Dark Souls is so awesome that it's only like one of the best games around. Or something like that. I don't fucking know.
And I can't understand why people like the game so much. I have to assume that most of them just never played Demon's Souls and aren't aware of how much better that game is. Because if they had, I would imagine you wouldn't hear people talking about how 'this game is sorta like Dark Souls' or 'well, Dark Souls did this in a really interesting way' like Dark Souls was the first game to ever do all this shit. Obviously that's just wishful thinking on my part, but that's how I keep from losing sleep at night.
It's straight-up frustrating, because Demon's Souls did pretty much everything Dark Souls does before it and better. But lets see if I can effectively enumerate what makes Demon's Souls the better game, rather than just hurl idle insults at it.
The thing about Demon's Souls that's so great is that it's hard, but it's hard without resorting to lame, half-hearted gimmicks. The difficulty mostly comes from learning how to finesse your way through the combat. If you can get good at the combat, then you're not likely to have much trouble getting through the game, with the exception of the odd environmental hazard here and there, and a few enemy types. The game is very rarely cheap. If anything, the game has a much greater propensity for letting you lame your way around its challenges than the other way around.
Another of the game's better qualities is the levels are designed in a very intuitive fashion. By the time you make it to the boss room at the end of the level, you will have opened a shortcut that lets you bypass a significant portion of the level, should you die on the boss or decide to warp back to the Nexus. So while the levels can be quite long and labyrinthine, they do a fairly good job of separating the level proper from the boss encounters, which is an awfully nice thing of them to do for a game with such a grizzly reputation.
Having the Nexus connecting the five areas, broken up into sub-levels makes a great excuse to have a fast travel system. You can essentially teleport from any one area that you've already explored to the other with a great deal of ease.
Demon's Souls has much less in the way of customization when compared to Dark Souls. You've got your player's stats, rings, armor, weapons and weapon upgrades, and that's about it. As it stands though, each of those options has tangible benefits attached to it. The difference between being soul level ten and soul level thirty are noticeable at first blush, as is the difference between a rapier and a +2 crescent rapier. Having weapon damage attached to player stats makes increasing your soul level all the more important and useful. In that way, specializing is rewarded, rather than penalized.
Yet, at the same time, it doesn't take half the game for you to find a bow and arrow. If you know what you're doing, you can have just about everything you could want in the way of gear within the first few levels. So assuming specializing isn't your bag, you can spread out your stats and all of your weapons will be effective for killing enemies.
Speaking of which, when you shoot an enemy with an arrow, it actually does something, which is a good thing I think. While it gives you the option of being cheap with the game by exploiting enemy alarm states resetting at certain doorways, it also allows you the option of focusing on archery. And that's good. Demon's Souls is very much in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons in the amount of freedom its mechanics allow. You don't have to worry about what way you spec your character.
So long as you know how to use your equipment, you don't have to worry about bows being useless or certain kinds of magic being woefully underpowered. I mean, you might really get your heart set on using the hands of god seriously in combat, and you might end up disappointed with that, but most of the weapons, or at least types of weapons you get in the game can be competitive.
This game's version of the Estus flask, the various moon grasses, are always in overabundance. Now you might think that this would make the game too easy, since you can heal all the time, but it really never was a detriment to the game play. You can heal in the middle of a fight if you're good. You really have to plan your timing if you're going to actually try and do it though, since you're liable to get yourself killed doing it, not unlike with the Estus flask in Dark Souls.
But outside of battle you can heal to your heart's content, meaning you can go into almost every enemy encounter with full health. And given how lethal the enemies in these games are, I feel like that's perfectly fair. This is probably the one point I've made here that comes down to personal preference, but I feel like there is this zen-like quality to the combat in Demon's Souls that just isn't there in Dark Souls. Every enemy encounter is evenly pitched, with both sides coming in with full health and a reasonable shot at winning. And I think that's so cool. Certainly cooler than the alternative.
And if fending off black phantom skeletaurs in shrine of storms on a naked run on new game plus plus plus under black world tendency wasn't hardcore enough a challenge for you, you could always take to setting up duels, which was an eminently doable, though albeit somewhat cumbersome, affair.
First on the list of annoyances is the environmental hazards. The developers apparently decided that the occasional cheap trick wasn't good enough, and built entire areas of the game around having certain items just to merely survive.
Now, this is going to be a running theme in this article. This idea wouldn't be as stupid as it is in a vacuum; it smacks of Metroid even at first blush. But when you pair it with the open world design, with the bonfires and all that, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It's like they set out to make the game harder without even a second consideration as to weather it would make the game suck, which is exactly what I think they did.
The open world structure is a cheap line of lazy game design. They wanted to make the game harder, and I can deal with that. But they didn't make the game harder. They made it bad. And there's a real difference there. Having your game be hard is a difficult trick to pull off because most generally, people only react well to fair challenges, not cheap garbage, and the open world is one of many ways that Dark Souls is cheap garbage, as opposed to being genuinely difficult.
It only serves to artificially pad out the length of the game by making you backtrack all the way back to Firelink from the first bell tower, and then back to Firelink again from the second bell tower. Now think about that for a minute. How much backtracking is there between Quelaag and Firelink? Is that a fun round trip to make the first time? The answers to those questions are 'way the fuck more than there should be' and 'absolutely not.'
Now, advocates for Dark Souls might suggest that the open world design 'encourages exploration.' That's kind of like saying that the level design in Bullet Witch encourages you to approach enemy encounters from different angles. You're just putting a pleasant spin on a bad situation. I'm not entirely convinced that the level design in either of those games encourages you to do anything other than put a loaded gun in your mouth. Believe it!
All of the customization options make next to no difference to your character. Part of the problem is that there's just too many of them. You can level up your armor, which just seems like a complete wash. They brought weapon leveling over from Demon's Souls, but seems completely pointless when you take into consideration the fact that your drake sword is pretty much the most powerful thing your going to come into possession of until you get the lightning spear.
The covenants are all completely pointless. And, what's more, they are just another lazy trick to try and fool you into thinking the game is deeper than it actually is. You spend all this time wandering around Lordran, thinking to yourself, 'man, self, I can't wait to get into the gravelord servant covenant. I bet it's gonna be so rad. I'm gonna make out with that sexy beast Nito and have all his babies.' only to come to find out that all you get is a useless sword, a useless spell, and a second, slightly more convoluted way of invading other players' games. And that's one of the more exciting covenants you can join.
Another point, arrows do absolutely jack shit for damage, except, of course, when it's the black knight archers in Anor Londo shooting at you. (Am I right fellas?) The game straight-up funnels you into a couple different specializations, fire magic in particular and lightning magic when that doesn't work. Everything outside of the few overpowered specializations are completely ineffectual by comparison. And there's nothing fun about that. How is that any fun at all? I mean, they technically added all these spells and equipment, but hardly any of them are worth using. That's just depressing is what that is.
The Estus flask is another example of the lazy, cheap game design. As though it wasn't already bad enough that they convoluted a sleekly streamlined world design into one huge backtracking quest, they decided to impede that backward progress further by killing you every now and then simply by virtue of the fact that you didn't have enough healing items on your person between bonfires. If They hadn't fumbled the level design, it might have worked. But between those two additions, the gameplay is almost slower than watching paint dry, and nearly half as fun.
The online is just a complete mess. There's no good reason for them to have changed it from Demon's Souls. Word on the street is that they wanted to obfuscate the online component intentionally, so that friends couldn't simply get together and do what we all already know they were going to do with it anyway (i.e. get on skype and place summon marks until something finally works.)
Now, it's obvious that they were basically working toward the same end with Demon's Souls' online component, and it worked well enough. It's kinda tricky to get together with your friends in Demon's Souls, not impossible, but tricky nonetheless. It's never a pain in the ass though. And I don't particularly care for games being a pain in the ass.
At the end of the day, Dark Souls isn't the worst game ever made, probably not even third worst. But for being the followup to Demon's Souls, it's just downright depressing to see how abjectly inferior it is. The fact that the game has generated so much buzz behind it only serves to baffle and frustrate me, as people who never played Demon's Souls praise the pseudo-sequel for the poor choices its developers made. On the one hand, I'm glad people are even playing these games at all. But on the other hand, why the hell couldn't it have been Demon's Souls instead?
It just goes to show that there's no such thing as a meritocracy, especially in video games. Have you ever noticed how nobody talks about how brilliantly designed White Knight Chronicles is, even though they're always talking up Dark Souls and won't shut up about Ni No Kuni? I have. But there's no accounting for taste. If there was, then Cavia wouldn't have been shut down after releasing their greatest game yet. Real men would play real man games like Demon's Souls and wouldn't be so preoccupied by posturing that they are blind to the fact that just because Dark Souls is hard doesn't make it good.
I'm not even saying people should hate Dark Souls or anything. Like I said, it's not that bad of a game. I just wish they were a little more nonplussed by it's less than savory qualities. I'm definitely not looking forward to what the next game in the now venerated Souls series is going to look like when everyone around me seems so enamored with the time wasting tricks and artificially inflated difficulty. I can't imagine how the next game will be very much fun to play.
Welcome back to the final installment in my criminally over-long look at Final Fantasy XIII. This part is going to be all about nice and good things. It's hopefully going to be a very fun and chill experience, to balance out all that vitriol from the last part; here's a link for that if you missed it.
The Good: Story
Lightning is probably a good enough place as any to start. She starts out as the grim, tough-guy hero stand-in for Cloud Strife. She's even got a weather themed name. Going in, she's only got a cool sword, a cool guy Clint Eastwood grimace and the MacGuffin of saving her little sister or something to work with. That's not much to go on when it comes time for her to get all emotional over her sister's apparently dire condition, especially when we haven't even met her sister yet.
But after the plot twist where basically everyone is completely screwed now, things really start to take off. Everyone's failed in their quest to save Miss MacGuffin, and they are pretty much faced with either dying a horrible death as slaves to a laughing god, or get hunted down and killed by the military. There's nothing like a little schadenfreude to bring a bunch of goofy-haired idiots down to earth. And it actually works. Once everyone gets over their initial disbelief, you really start to see what everyone's made of.
Lightning eventually gets paired off with Hope, and that's where her character really starts to take off. I particularly liked the flashback where we get to see how awkward Lightning is around authority figures. Apparently, when she isn't busy beating the shit out of her sister's dead-beat boyfriend, she's all sorts of neurotic about looking bad in front of her boss, which I think endeared me to her character quite effectively.
After that, she and Hope cut through some sort of nature reserve or something to sneak into Hope's home town, during which time she takes to toughening Hope up into a perfectly trained death machine. That last part doesn't necessarily work, but between their shared disdain for Snow, and Hope continuing to impress her with his courage in the face of desperation, they end up becoming pretty tight.
They're both dealing with the same situation, and while Hope is desperate to give Lightning any reason not to just up and abandon him, Lightning is scared to death that she can't even take care of herself, let alone keep this kid safe too.
Which is justified, given the gravity of their situation. While the heroes are all suitably larger than life, the story does a good job of showing that they're in way over their heads and the only way they are able to succeed is through a mixture of heroic wiles and outside machinations.
Snow gets to have some character development fun times too. Come to find out his constantly promising to save people and do things isn't just idiot posturing. And you find this out around the time he gets stuck together with Hope. Something about that kid just brings out the character development in people I guess. Hope learns that he has an affinity for looking creepy and following people around while playing with a knife, and Snow finds out that this kid is the one that tough momma told him to take care of.
It's amazing how much more responsible Snow acts when he's finally got a halfway clear objective to work with. After a dramatic explosion, the two of them stop to talk things out, man to man, and come to an understanding that Hope had just been deflecting his anger and that Snow had just been avoiding his guilt. Then, after a short boss battle, everyone gets back together to lick their wounds and think about how doomed they all still are.
We also start getting some pay-off as to why Vanille has been acting so weird this whole time. It turns out she's been at least peripherally involved in pretty much every horrible thing that's happened to the group over the past few weeks. So naturally she blames herself and doesn't want to let on to how much she knows to the others. It also turns out that she's a terrible liar, which makes her seem like a typically obnoxious JRPG character at first blush, but in hind-sight makes for some great comedy when you realize she's usually just doing a poor job of trying to change the subject, and that's what has her acting so damn weird all the time.
But this little plot point wasn't just for the sake of an awkward attempt at comic relief. A lot of Vanille's character arc, and Fang's by association, is framed by redemption and forgiveness. Vanille has to learn how to make peace with and stop blaming herself for everything that's happened throughout the events of the game. All of this is accomplished with the help of the others, who quickly become her and Fang's new family. Which I imagine would probably be pretty important to the two of them, what with everyone they used to know having died like, a thousand years ago or whatever.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how rad Sazh is. He's not perfect, but he's easily the most likeable and relatable character in the cast. He fills the critical role of the down to earth character for the audience to identify with. He is the perfect voice of reason to play off of the more outlandish personalities, pointing out the things we, as the audience are thinking, like 'boy Lightning sure has a chip on her shoulder' or 'that Vanille sure is a strange one.'
This is the kind of confirmation and validation you need as a viewer for this kind of story. When you've got such strange and vibrant characters in such a weird and unfamiliar world, it's important to have someone pointing these things out and showing a strong measure of normalcy. That way there's some point of reference for you to acclimate yourself with.
If Sazh didn't point out that Vanille was indeed strange, we might not even realize the fact that she is actually supposed to be strange, since she's a thousand years old and literally from another planet. That fact probably would have been lost on the viewer. It's one of Japanese games' greatest strengths and weaknesses, that they are so weird. One could accidentally mistake any one of the more outlandish personalities in the game for being some crazy Japanese person's idea of normal, and this goes for pretty much any Japanese game's story.
Eventually things start to move from character development over to plot development. There's some business with gods being created by other gods or something and some vaguely defined political intrigue that makes for some pretty interesting side characters too, but the real strength of the story lies in the main characters for sure. It definitely is a shame that the opening hours do so much to distract from that.
The Good: Everything Else
But the story isn't the only good thing about the game. The soundtrack is one of the most beautiful things to grace human ears. Masahashi Hamauzu put together a soundtrack that feels like the most lavish classic Disney soundtrack production and at the same time feels distinctly Final Fantasy in its melodies and instrumentation.
There is a certain baroque quality to it to be sure, with so many tracks going at once, but that's kind of the case for everything in the Final Fantasy series. That said, rather than feeling garish and over-wrought, it reads very well and really effectively embellishes the environments and the story far more so than any of Uematsu's later Final Fantasy music in my opinion. Uematsu's music has always had a great sense of emotion to it, which works very well for embellishing plot points, but Hamauzu adds a great sense of emotion to simply being in a place.
I mean, just listen to that start screen music up there. That has got to be one of the greatest title screens in any game ever. And the soundtrack continues to breath life into every corner of the game, from the sweeping vistas to the shop menus. The soundtrack is so amazingly gorgeous that it's practically above whatever is going on on-screen at any given time. But it really succeeds in the most important thing a soundtrack can do, which is to embellish the action and emotion of the scene. And there's no point throughout the game where Hamauzu doesn't do this beautifully. I could go on for an entire article about the music alone, but I'll try and cut it short here.
The environments are absolutely gorgeous, which they should be, considering the level designers had all the time in the world to make them. It's interesting how the running chronology of the game's design process is noticeable in hindsight. The level design was one of the first things they started on, so they had plenty of time to make them look nice and pretty. The engine took practically forever to finish, so it's got plenty of bells and whistles to make everything run super nice. But that means the combat was one of the last things they started on, and we already talked about how that turned out.
But the environments are definitely one of the game's strongest points. Aside from Japan's continuing inability to make grass textures that aren't badly stretched, the environments are ostensibly perfect. There are some indoor areas that are garish and not particularly well designed, but only in fits and starts. There's no one area on the whole that looks bad in the entire game.
Chapter 3's level, set in the crystallized Lake Bresha, is unlike anything I've seen in any other RPG. And the music that plays along with it, I mean, I know I already talked about the music but Christ. A lot of people have complained that Final Fantasy XIII didn't feel like the evolution of RPGs that everyone was expecting, and I can understand that, but the graphics and art are still second to none, even going on three years in now.
The character designs are actually pretty great too, which is baffling considering Nomura is the one credited for the character designs. I mean, Nomura isn't completely incapable of making good designs. His work on the Parasite Eve games was pretty fantastic. I just assumed that the garbage he was crapping out for the Kingdom Hearts games would be indicative of his future work. Thankfully I was wrong.
The only obviously Nomura looking design in the game that I can remember off-hand is Cid Raines, and only after he turns into crystal. I hate to just talk mess on Nomura here, but his work comes across so much better when it doesn't have all of the obvious hallmarks of his style. And those hallmarks are much more toned down than I expected to see going in. Instead of a bunch of made-up clothes, they only add embellishments to regular clothing articles, which makes all the difference I think.
The game has a pretty crazy attention to detail too. When you consider the fact that Vanille and Fang were presumably kicking around, being Amazonian warrior chicks on Pulse way back when, it's pretty interesting to note that Vanille starts out with three bars on her ATB meter, as opposed to the two everyone else has, almost as if she has more experience fighting than the rest of them or something.
They even planned around the fact that your party is regularly ordering weapons and equipment over the retail network, and placed hidden messages from an unnamed Fal'Cie, who explains that your network credentials are being altered to protect your identities. There is literally no reason for them to have included this explanation. It's not like it would wear on players' suspension of disbelief that badly if they hadn't. But that's the kind of subtext and narrative depth there is to find if you just look for it hard enough.
The combat design isn't all bad either. They made some really smart choices in a few areas. You start out with full health after every battle, which is a great idea. That along with the inability to grind really forces the focus on tactics over pure numbers and grinding. It's a great design choice on the face of it, and despite the rest of the game not accommodating it as well as it could, I still think it deserves its place in the game's design.
Another great feature that all RPGs should have as far as I'm concerned is that all your characters level up at the same pace. I can't tell you how needlessly backward it is to stick you with an under leveled party member, and I can't tell you how many games still pull that trash like it's a good idea. Granted, the way this game is designed, not having that feature probably would have rendered the design completely untenable. But it's a really cool feeling jumping up several levels after a cast change.
One of my biggest problems with the combat is that the ideas they had were great on paper, but were executed awkwardly or poorly. The auto-battle feature is great in concept; theoretically, it frees you up to switch your brain over to the broader strokes of the battle, rather than which attack does more damage against this specific enemy type. And that's a cool quality for your game to have, being able to switch between two different aspects of a single battle. It doesn't really pan out, but it's still kinda neat, even when you're using it sometimes.
And like I said in part two, the chain gauge is a really great idea, especially when you take the paradigm system into consideration. The chain gauge could have been the thing that made the paradigm system really make sense, and turn your attention away from the vanilla ATB system, but instead it rarely becomes relevant.
If they had structured the roles around more clearly defined relationships to the chain gauge, then I think the whole game would have just opened right up and offered much clearer enjoyment of the game's tactical depths. As it stands though, it still does draw the attention toward the paradigm system pretty effectively, even if it does up being more frustration than it's worth. But, again, bad execution doesn't discount the fact that these are some pretty cool ideas. Ones which I wish had been executed on better for sure.
At the end of the day, I may not have convinced you to go out and buy a new copy of the game, but maybe I've made you think about it in a different way than you did before. Public opinion can be important with games. Just look at Final Fantasy XIII-2. They put towns in because people complained about there not being towns in Final Fantasy XIII. Now, I can't think of a single thing that towns would add to a game like Final Fantasy XIII, and I doubt the developers could either. But that's what people said they wanted, so that's what they added to the sequel. The same can be said for the map design and the side quests.
It seems to me that there is a firmly-set, canonical vision of what Final Fantasy XIII is and where it succeeded and failed. And as you might have gathered from reading on this far, I don't necessarily agree with that vision. As a result, we now have a sequel that didn't really make any attempts at fixing the problems with the combat and general game play. So if the most our criticism can produce is 'The game needs towns.' or 'The characters don't have any personality.' then we're only ever going to get what we asked for.
And that's less of a complaint about Final Fantasy XIII-2 and more of a complaint about the state of game criticism. There's far too much time spent repeating popular opinions and not near enough time spent with the games themselves. But that's probably a topic for another time as I've already gone on for far, far too long as it is.
First of all, the combat is pretty hit or miss, which is a serious issue, with it being ninety percent of the game. There's the nucleus for a good experience there. Several of the smartest voices in JRPGs were pretty big fans of the combat. Jeremy Parish and Kat Bailey on the sadly now defunct Active Time Babble podcast come to mind off hand. I couldn't ever get into it though. There are several reasons for that. The combat tries to be streamlined and fast paced, but the way you have to constantly press X through the auto battles completely kills the breezy pacing they were going for, as it ends up feeling more brain-dead than tactical.
And they only give you rare drops when you S-Rank fights? That right there is where the auto-battle system truly stumbles, as the AI team mates never do what they're supposed to. It's like even when you know what you're supposed to be doing, the game still goes out of it's way to burn you.
And when you don't have auto battle set, it takes forever to unlock enough abilities to have any sort of freedom of choice in how you handle enemy encounters. The game is so slow in revealing its features that you can be forgiven for not realizing it even has some features at all. It's so horribly slow that it compels you not to even think during battles and just press X over and over instead.
And that inevitably leads to you getting worked over during certain battles because you weren't using the new ability you got correctly or you weren't grasping the underlying tactic of the specific battle. It's a game that is devilishly clever at convincing you that there are no tactics to grasp in the first place. So when the game smacks you down for not grasping those tactics, it can feel more than just a little cheap. The game is easy enough to play wrong, which is really boring, and inevitably leads to serious exasperation when it finally expects you to play it right.
And given how the game spends around twenty hours tutorializing, you would think it would teach you something worth while. But the way the game tutorializes is by simply taking forever introducing features, so that you will have presumably mastered each new feature by the time the next one is introduced. None of the features are ever adequately explained. Until your characters get their crazy super powers, the extent of the tactics is 'hit guys with swords to do damage.' And once you get your crazy powers, it doesn't evolve much past that. You get your first summon like, four or five hours into the game, and then it sets you off with two other characters that don't have summons, and you have to play for a few more hours to unlock another one.
And that goes on well into your time on Gran Pulse. But you will periodically be faced with situations where a certain enemy type will punch your shit in with no remorse if you don't have the right setup to beat them. But the game, for all its tutorializing, never explains the tactical depths you need to understand in order to plan around that.
Even though the game gives no indication as to how having a Synergist as opposed to a Ravager style character will do any more or less good against a specific enemy type, that tactical depth is there, and you can learn it. In fact, you kinda have to learn it if you want to make real progress in the game, but it never bothers to explain it, despite the fact that if there was something that needed to be explained in the first twenty hours of the game, it would be that. Nonetheless, that depth is there, and assuming you can figure it out, then there's every chance you will enjoy yourself playing it. But that's definitely not the sort of thing they should have left to chance.
I can see why they chose to handle the combat the way they did. It's fairly in-line with what they were doing with Final Fantasy X-2 and XII, and on the whole I think both of those games worked a lot better, but given how much more depth there was to the gambit system in XII, I can understand why they might be inclined to simplify and streamline that.
Now, that theory kind of falls apart when you consider this was the people behind Final Fantasy X, as opposed to the team behind Final Fantasy XII. It seems awfully cynical of them to dismiss one of the series greatest innovations simply because they didn't think of it. If they'd had all their ducks in a row, the combat we ended up with probably would have worked too. But as it stands, it's awkwardly done at best and a bad idea at worst.
The chain gauge mechanic is pretty hit-or-miss. It's a cool idea to make the combat more interesting, but it seems like it's either too easy to finish a battle before it even becomes an issue, or it's so hard to actually stagger the enemies that you're likely to kill them by attrition first. It's not like it never happens, but it just feels so irrelevant. There's no clearly defined means of speeding up the process aside from using a Ravager, and that only seems to work part of the time.
The way they funneled all the characters toward specific roles was pretty awkwardly done as well. I mean, this isn't some kind of unheard of concept in RPGs, but as strict as they are about it, you would think they wouldn't even bother letting you choose in the first place. On top of the game funneling your characters into specific roles, they aren't even consistent with what abilities each character has with the same roles. The idea here was to make them feel more unique, and make combat feel different depending on what characters you have in your party, but it's mostly just a pain in the ass not having access to the abilities you want, which ties back into the lack of player choice in combat.
One feature of the game that never pans out is the crafting system. Assuming you ever did get a lock down on what weapons were good to upgrade and were able to stick with them, it's still just garbage. Probably the most egregious problem with it is the number of sub menus between the screen where you buy scrap to level your weapons and the screen where you apply said scrap materials to your weapon. Which is a real shame, because the store fronts in the shop menu are really cool and modern looking. There's really no silver lining to find on this point. It's not like you have anything else to spend your money on in the game, but it still totally sucks.
The leveling system feels similarly irrelevant. They give you the illusion of choice in how you spec your character, but that choice is so extremely limited that it borders on being nonexistent. Furthermore, it deals with the whole proceeding in such small increments it's maddening. You have to wait till you're most of the way through a level before going into the Crystarium will progress your character by any tangible degree.
And the points on the Crystarium are all like plus five magic or plus three strength. At some point those tiny numbers add up to something worth giving any thought about. Eventually the game stops being such a bore too, but it seems like everything good about the game play is diminished by taking so long to materialize and the leveling system is front and center on that point. It's really not all that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things though. It really just adds a little needless legwork to the proceedings, annoying though it may be.
Another thing all my friends who played it have requested that I mention is how you get a game over screen when your party leader dies. Now, I didn't find this to be too huge of a problem personally, but given the way battles work in this game, it does seem kind of pointless. And when you're stuck with, say, Hope as your party leader, with his super, baby HP levels, it can be a real hassle having to worry more about healing than dealing damage.
The Eidolons are all dumb looking as all hell. Remember when summons were the most badass things to happen to JRPGs ever? Well these sad looking, poor man's Gobots are a far cry from that. By themselves, the designs aren't terrible. The Shiva sisters, for example, look pretty cool and whatever. It's when they transform that everything turns to pot. All of the designs just don't make any sense and aren't really all that cool to look at. On top of that, the whole transforming conceit just feels like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, which feels super out of place in this otherwise mostly serious game.
The Bad: Story
The story gets off to just about the worst start you could ask for. Assuming you serendipitously did everything exactly right the first time, you're still looking at a good four hours plus before every character and every word that said characters speak doesn't seem like the stupidest thing you've ever heard. All of this on top of the most hand-holding and monotonous hours of game play in the game makes for a pretty rough first several hours.
Now that's just bad form. The opening hours are where you secure the audience's interest, not where you weed out those of lesser stomach. The early story beats feed you revelations and character development devoid of any context or possibility for connecting with any of what's going on on-screen, not that most of it isn't completely inscrutable even with context.
I mean, what the hell is this garbage even supposed to be? Are they supposed to be in a tooth-and-nail fire fight? Because it damn sure doesn't seem like it with that shrill voiced dip-shit flopping around on the ground like that. And thank you for explaining to us that you are the heroes. On second thought, it seems more like he was reminding them as much as he was informing us. It's almost like they know as much about the story going in as we do.
It's almost funnier when you realize they're doing all this goofy bullshit just minutes before explaining that this little skirmish is part of a state-run genocide of an entire city's inhabitants. That maybe could have been a halfway harrowing idea if it wasn't punctuated with goofy haired teenagers posing and talking like idiots, but, you know, Final Fantasy guys. In fact, Snow seems like the only one who is even remotely close to being aware of where he is and what's happening around him in this scene.
The story is worth the effort though, and that makes the opening all the more egregious. The trick to understanding anything of what's going on is intimating yourself with the datalogue feature in the game. Any time the game alerts you to a new entry in the datalogue, you should immediately read through it. After about four hours or so, you will have a pretty solid grasp on the story that was once complete and utter nonsense. Once you do sort of understand who all these people are and what the terminology they keep using is in reference to, you can play through the opening hours with a new found understanding of everything they're saying. Suddenly everything makes reasonable sense.
It goes without saying that you shouldn't have to do all this outside reading to understand the opening hours of any story though. If it were engaging despite the confusion, that would be one thing, you might be able to make an argument for that, but it isn't. It's hard to forgive such clumsy narrative technique, especially when its clear that the writing beyond the opening hours is above such amateurish nonsense.
All these cons are ultimately pretty difficult to overlook when you put them all together. So many are attached to the game play, which is the part that you actually have to play at the end of the day. When you aren't having trouble feeling engaged with the poorly paced game play, you're probably dealing with the poorly implemented side features or struggling to understand what anyone is talking about. Every hour is one step closer to not hating the game anymore, but it stumbles its way there so slowly it almost ends up not being worth the effort.
Now, some of you reading this might think that this many problems is justification enough to dismiss the game entirely, but a game's merits aren't somehow magically canceled out by every flaw there is to match them. I mean, if you're just looking for excuses not to play every game that comes out, you're probably not gonna have very much fun. So what all fun things are there to see in this mess of a game? I did say I would come back around to that, and I think I've talked all the mess on this game that I wanted to, so what's good about the game? I've already mentioned more than once that they story is where this game truly shines, despite being very nearly stupid at several points.
One of the laziest and most common complaints lodged against the story is that the characters don't have any personality or development. Now, I've already covered how one might come to this conclusion, given the way the game handles its story in the first several hours. But if you didn't bother looking for character development in the first place, then what would posses you to proclaim that it isn't there other than simple confirmation bias? Well, we'll take a look at that later.
Man, that was a whole lot of smack talk, maybe even too much smack talk. In part 3, we'll do something to fix that and turn the focus instead on what all the game actually did right. So, stick around for that I guess!
Final Fantasy XIII is a game very dear to my heart. I'm not entirely sure why that is, mind you. I guess we all develop an affinity for things that help distract us from some of the rougher patches in life. And Final Fantasy XIII was definitely around for a few of those for me. So when I read or hear people talking smack on the game, it hurts, even when I know they're right. And when the complaints I see are clearly fabricated, it stings all the more.
But it goes without saying that the internet is full of arm-chair quarterbacks. If you give someone on the internet a brief synopsis for a game and subtly suggest to them that it isn't good, they can write you an entire design document of complaints, changes and improvements they would prescribe for it, which is pretty much exactly what I'm about to do, except obviously I know better. And I've at least spent a significant amount if time with it beforehand. So that's something.
But I really liked the game, which is kind of a rare opinion, as it turns out. So I thought I might share with you all a little bit of history behind the game's development and a little close reading of what the game is, what it set out to do, and how it succeeds and fails at those things. So, um, pull up a chair I guess?
A Little Back-story
The game's development was really kind of a mess, which seems to be a running theme over at Square Enix right now. They started developing Final Fantasy XIIIon the PS2. When they made the jump to the PlayStation 3, they had to throw out all of their assets. At which point they began working on a multiplatform engine to run the game, which they named Crystal Tools, or the White Engine. I don't know, and they can't seem to decide which it's called either. We're going to go ahead and go with Crystal Engine just to make things easier. Once the project became a multiplatform endeavor, they tried to make the Crystal Tools engine into a more multipurpose engine, not unlike Capcom's MT Framework engine, if you will.
This is apparently what lead to such setbacks in the development time, as they were too busy adding to the engine to finish it, and they couldn't finalize the game's design without the engine already having been finalized. "This created a standstill between the engine and game development teams, because if the engine’s specs couldn’t be finalized, neither could the game’s."
It wasn't until they had produced the vertical slice demo for the Japan only Advent Children Complete Blu-ray, which was released in April of '09, that they had the game in a playable state. "With a tangible version of the game that could actually be played, internal debates transitioned from theoretical discussions based solely on abstract concepts to concrete dialogue. . . . it was also the first time that everyone could see exactly how the assets they worked on would function within the game."
Now, it should go without saying that iterative design is friend to game developers and small children. With some exception, iterative design lets the developers make the game play good sooner rather than later. Considering how that later that they keep pushing it off to sometimes never comes for some games, you can see how making sure your game is playable early on can be a boon to your games' 'Fun-Factor.'
When you consider the fact that there were barely eight months between their first playable demo and the Japanese release date, your mind can probably fill in the blanks for me how the game turned out the way it did. I mean, that's not even like when you would throw together your mid term essay on the weekend before back in school. There's an established system for doing that. These guys are ostensibly supposed to be reinventing the wheel every time they sit down to make a new game. So it's understandable that you would want a tangible prototype to work off of as soon as humanly possible.
Final Fantasy XIII got a lot of mess talked on it when it finally came out, and with good reason. I remember when it came out; I was really in love with hating Square Enix. They're a company that made themselves really easy to hate.With Nomura's work steadily declining into inscrutability, the way they handled the Kingdom Hearts series in general, not to mention the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII expanded universe business and their announcement of the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, which was to be several games deep, before even having finished out all the Final Fantasy VII reboot games that they'd announced, it seemed like they were far more interested in announcing stupid ideas than making actual games.
And that's the kind of reputation that doesn't leave you easily. I was willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt too, starting out. They at least tried to do something good with Final Fantasy XII, so I knew it wasn't beyond their imagination to make a Final Fantasy game that doesn't completely suck.
But when I heard that Final Fantasy XIII was going to be handled by most of the team that made Final Fantasy X, I pretty much lost all hope for it being good. So by the time the game came out, and I rented it, I was pretty much already resolved to hate the game, or at least not to give it any free passes.
And I think that's the perspective a lot of people went in with. Unless you were already a devoted fan of the later entries in the series, and were going to love it regardless, then you were probably going to hate it on principal alone. You should like this game though. The game has more than enough good qualities, that deserve your respect and admiration no matter what your final estimation of its quality is. The problem is that so many people hate the game, but they don't actually have any good reasons for it, like it's Resident Evil 6 or something. Don't misunderstand. The game has some real problems, but most people were too busy trying to hate it to have any meaningful insight into why you actually should.
But thankfully I'm here to clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding this woefully misunderstood game. We're going to cut this short here, because part two is already way too long already as it is, but in part two, we will pick back up by going through what was bad about the game, and then we will circle back around after that to talk about what all was good about it.