Saturday, September 25, 2021

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review

Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PC, XBO, PS4
Price: $40
Version Played: PC

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… OK, it was 2013 and EA's HQ is in California. Anyway, that was around the time when EA got "exclusive" rights to make games based on Star Wars (didn't stop Lego Star Wars). There were loot boxes, many canceled games, and even a studio closed. The deal hasn't been a complete disaster, though, because we got Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order out of it.

Fallen Order takes place 5 years after Revenge of the Sith and 9 years before the Star Wars Rebels animated series. You play as Cal Kestis, a young man who was only a Padawan when Order 66 was executed and the Clone Troopers turned on the Jedi. He and his shipmates are in search of a Holocron containing a list of Force sensitive kids, who they plan to train to rebuild the Jedi order. But of course, the Empire is also after the Holocron for different reasons.

Sounds like a good premise for a SW game during this time period, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Cal Kestis is not an interesting character. He's neither as likeable as Luke Skywalker or as dislikeable as Anakin. He’s just kind of there. He comes off as generic when compared to other non-movie Jedi, like Ahsoka, Kanan, Ezra, and Grogu. His crew isn't any better. The only interesting characters in the game are the villains. The main villain, Trilla, really steals the show. She’s an Inquisitor. You might remember the Inquisitorius if you watched SW Rebels. They're Darth Vader's students. They're basically Sith, but can't be Siths because "Always two there are". Fallen Order feels more like a game about her story. The ending of the game is also incredibly anticlimactic and ruins what little good there was about the story. Even though the game is canon in the new Star Wars timeline, it ends up feeling irrelevant in the end.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is an action adventure game that combines elements of games like Metroid Prime, Uncharted, and Dark Souls. It has huge environments to explore, lots of platforming, challenging combat, and puzzles that put your Force powers to good use. You have 5 main planets to explore and you can freely travel between them after you unlock them in the story. Even though you have the freedom to explore whatever planet is available to you, there isn't much incentive to stray from the story's path. The game is very linear, story-driven, and straightforward. The story will always lead you to where you need to go and you will always have the abilities you need to get where you need to go. Like in a Metroid game, you will see things you can’t do anything with until you have the right power or item, but these things are never blocking your way to the destinations marked on your map. Fallen Order gives you the illusion of Metroid’s freedom, but it actually flows a lot more like an Uncharted game.
Uncharted is probably the first thing people will be reminded of when they start playing this game too, because the platforming here is straight out of Uncharted. Cal Kestis climbs, shimmies, and swings from ropes just like Naughty Dog’s tomb raider. Nathan Drake couldn't use the Force, though. Cal's Force powers can also be used while platforming to pull and grab onto ropes in midair, move platforms into place, and of course wall run because this is a Respawn game.
Exploration, platforming, and solving puzzles with Force powers is my favorite part of the game. The way Cal parkours is fun and exciting and you always find some treasure chest or thing to scan with your droid everywhere you go. Most of the things you find are cosmetics, but it's fun just getting there. I never really got stuck on a puzzle, but I thought they were very clever and they let me use the Force in creative ways, which I really liked. I feel like the game was designed so that nobody would ever get stuck. Even if you can’t figure out what to do, you can just get your droid to give you a hint.
Force powers are the Metroid suit upgrades of Fallen Order. There’s Force push, pull, slow, wall running, and a double jump. You find these powers around the world while exploring. Well, Cal doesn't just find Force Powers laying around. That would be dumb. Cal finds things that give him flashbacks of his Jedi training. This gives me flashbacks of Other M. Having Cal remember abilities when he could have used them earlier doesn’t work for me. You also find upgrades for your droid which allow it to hack computers, open chests, and use ziplines as well as a few items that give you new abilities, like that mouth piece that lets Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon breathe underwater in The Phantom Menace.
For whatever reason, this game has a huge talent tree full of lightsaber moves, defensive abilities, and talents to enhance your Force powers. You gain XP from fighting enemies and get a talent point to spend every time you level up. Frankly, I thought this felt kind of shoehorned in. Talent trees are usually about making choices that give a unique flavor to your playstyle, but the only choice you're making here is what to get first. You can almost fill out the entire tree by the end of the game without any sort of grinding, so why bother with a talent tree at all? They could have just given you a new skill with every level gained and it would have been pretty much the same thing.
There's a huge emphasis on combat in Fallen Order. This isn't exactly The Force Unleashed, though. The combat in this game has more in common with games like Dark Souls and Nioh. It's all about animation priority. All your lightsaber swings have long animations which you can't cancel out of, timing on dodges and parries is pretty tight, and enemies are relentless and come in packs. One little timing mistake could cost you. Use of Force powers is also very limited because your Force meter only has a few charges, it refills slowly, and both lightsaber moves and Force magic share the meter. You really have to put some thought into how to go about every battle.
The combat does feel sluggish by nature and it has a high learning curve, but it does a great job in making lightsaber battles feel like in the movies. You're not getting anything as flashy as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon vs Darth Maul in this game, though. The combat feels much more grounded. It’s more like how Darth Vader and Luke fought. I really like it. Especially during boss battles with the Inquisitors, like Trilla. It feels rewarding when you get it right because there's a lot of room for error.
Fallen Order has to be the best looking Star Wars game ever made by default. It’s a beautiful looking game. The textures, smoke and fog effects, and the lighting really nail the look of a Star Wars movie. The cutscenes during battles between Trilla and Cal look especially great. All the planets look like authentic Star Wars worlds, and even the creatures you don't see in the movies look like they fit right in. All the lightsaber animations look spot on too. I did have a lot of framerate issues, though. Especially in large open areas and in Kashyyyk, which ran horribly at all times. Maybe the game is too much for my old graphics card to run at 1080p 60FPS. I ran the game capped at 45 FPS with a few effects turned off and that worked well enough.
The soundtrack is also really well done. It mostly uses original music, but it all sounds like Star Wars, which is something the TV shows don't always get right. The voice acting is also really good, even though the story is not.

Fallen Order is the best Star Wars game I've played since, I don’t know, The Old Republic MMO at launch? It’s been a while! I think the graphics look great, the soundtrack sounds like Star Wars, and the platforming, combat, puzzles, and exploration are all a lot of fun. I just wish the game was a little more Metroid and a bit less Uncharted. It's just such a streamlined, AAA, blockbuster game. It never lets you get lost or stuck. The ending also ruins anything good the story did and kills my desire to ever see Cal Kestis again. Hopefully Fallen Order 2 is about a cooler Jedi, like Ahsoka.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Final Fantasy II Pixel Remaster Review

Developer: Square Enix, Tose
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Steam PC, Android, iOS
Price: $11.99
Version Played: PC

I don’t hear a lot of people talk about Final Fantasy II. Probably because it was never released outside Japan on the NES. The first Final Fantasy II we got came many years later to the SNES, and it was actually Final Fantasy IV. Final Fantasy II has been released in English, though. It's been remade and ported almost as many times as FFI, and a lot of those revisions of the original WonderSwan Color remake were released in English on PS1, GBA, PSP, Android, and iOS. Final Fantasy II Pixel Remaster is based on those versions, but like with FFI Pixel Remaster, a lot of the sprites have been changed in some way and all the extra content added in the GBA version has been removed, leaving us with something closer to the original WSC remake than the PSP version.
Final Fantasy II Pixel Remaster has even more graphical changes than FFIPR. It looks like most, if not all, of the enemies have been redrawn using the original NES sprites as a base. That makes these the 4th version of these enemies. They all look like a downgrade from the PSP version’s to me. They’re a lot less detailed and use less colors. They look better than the GBA sprites, though.
The playable character sprites have also been completely redrawn. They basically look like they were made for some long lost SNES version of FFII. I like them much better than the characters in the other remakes, which had smaller heads, huge eyes, and weird halfway chibi proportions. They look totally out of place compared to the characters in the rest of the 2D Final Fantasy games. These look like FFIV and FFV characters. The NES version’s characters looked a lot like FFI’s, so I’m glad they didn’t go the NES nostalgia route here. Firion looked exactly like the Warrior from FFI in the original, so reusing that sprite here would have looked pretty bad because it looks nothing like Amano’s design.
A lot of the same technical issues from FFPR were present in this one when I started playing, but there was a patch that fixed some of them a while ago. The horrible screen tearing was fixed, so I don’t have to force VSync, and the game launches in the same screen setting you put it on now. The stuttery framerate is still an issue, but they say they’re working on a fix for that too. The ugly and hard to read font is still there, and I don’t think they’re working on a fix for that, but you can still easily mod it.
Final Fantasy's story was about as basic as RPG stories get, but that's not the case in this game. Final Fantasy II has unique characters with names, relationships, histories, and real ties to this world. The story follows a band of 3 rebels as they fight back against an evil Empire who’s building a massive airship weapon capable of destroying entire cities. Sounds familiar. Yeah, it’s basically Star Wars, but it's much more interesting than the first game's story. It’s a lot more serious than FFI’s too, but I liked it. It was one of the highlights of the game for me. As weird as this game seems now, I feel like this is where FF really starts finding its personality.
Final Fantasy II tried a lot of new things. Some worked and stuck around, like Chocobos and Cid, but most feel poorly implemented, like the way in which you move the story forward, for example. FFII uses a sort of primitive version of a dialogue tree system to trigger story events. Important NPCs around the world will sometimes have a “Key Term” that you can “Learn” and then “Ask” people about. For example, when you talk to the queen in the starting town, she teaches you the rebels’ password, Wild Rose. After you learn it, you can say Wild Rose to other rebels around the world to let them know that you’re part of the rebellion. There is also a Key Item system that works the same way, except that the items are under a different menu and you don’t always get them from NPCs.
This system sounds cool on paper, but it got more and more annoying as the game went on. Sometimes, I would finish a dungeon and nobody would say anything and nothing would happen, so I would end up running around the world looking for the right person to ask the right thing to. You collect many Key Terms and Items throughout the game, so asking about the right thing at the right time becomes a puzzle unto itself and the game isn't always great about pointing you in the right direction. There were quite a few frustrating moments thanks to this system.
The dungeons in FFII are some of the worst I've ever seen in an RPG. It feels like they wanted to make them harder than FFI's, but they couldn't come up with a better way to do that than by trolling the player. Every dungeon does the same thing, they bait you with doors leading to empty rooms and chests full of garbage placed as far away from the exit you’re supposed to use as possible. This makes exploration feel like a waste of time instead of something rewarding. They also love putting in walls with 4 doors across them, like in those game shows where contestants try to pick the door with the prize behind it. Three doors lead to empty rooms and one door leads to an exit or a treasure chest, and you’re lucky if that chest doesn’t have a monster in it. And of course, you have to go through these dungeons while fighting tons of random battles. At least you still get some very nice and detailed maps for every area, so you're not going in completely blind.
Final Fantasy II does something really weird with character progression. There is no leveling in this game. You can increase your stats by fighting monsters, but your characters don’t gain levels. Instead, your character’s stats grow as you use certain types of spells and attacks. For example, if you use magic with a character, their MP will go up and the spells they use will level up. FFI’s spell level groups and weird MP system is completely gone. Your 3 main characters come with stats which make them better suited for certain roles in the beginning, but you’re free to put any weapon or spell on any character and they will start to grow into the Warrior or Mage you want them to be if you have them use those skills.
This character progression system kind of works for melee, but it really sucks for magic. I wasn’t a fan of FFI’s magic system, but this is somehow even more annoying. Since you have to level spells up, you’re pretty much forced to grind. There are dungeons full of enemies that don’t take much melee damage, so you will probably want some magic on all characters. Also, since buffs and status healing spells require leveling up to work at higher levels, it gets harder and harder to have multiple characters that can effectively use those spells as the game goes on unless you make it a point to level up those spells. This spell leveling system also makes spells cost more MP as they level, and since you only have one level of each spell, you can’t use a lower level spell to save MP. That might not sound too bad by itself, but here’s the kicker, Ethers cost 1,000 Gil, only restore 20 MP, and you can only carry 99 of them. Magic is terrible in this game!
Final fantasy II’s soundtrack is amazing. I like it even better than FFI’s. The sound quality is just as good as FFIPR’s too. It has grand orchestral themes for the Empire, the quirky Chocobo theme, and beautiful town and castle themes. It’s full of personality and there's lots of great songs in it. The game also comes with an awesome music player, so you can experience the best part of the game without actually playing it.
Final Fantasy II has its moments, but it's a pretty bad game. It has a lopsided difficulty curve, trollish, repetitive, and unimaginative dungeon design, the character progression system is a mess, and the Key Term system is more annoying than it is interesting. I think the story and characters are alright, the character sprites turned out better than FFIPR’s, the music is amazing, and I liked seeing how Chocobos were introduced, but this game just isn’t fun to play. FFII feels like a collection of poorly implemented ideas.