I probably don’t have a lot to say about Skyrim that others haven’t said. I will say this — it’s a testament to how good of a game it is that I put around 500 hours into it despite it being shockingly buggy. And seriously, it is a very buggy game. It is easy to do normal things that result in the game crashing (which isn’t so bad) or losing items (very bad).

Still, it is a great, great game. It’s not for everyone, of course, but it taps right into a super-addictive part of my brain that could probably be exploited by heroin or pogs or something. I took my PS3 with me on vacation to the in-laws so I could play it. When we arrived and I realized that I had forgot to actually bring Skyrim, I went out and bought a used copy (from Trade-N-Games) so I could continue playing it.

So maybe I have a problem.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I finally got around to completing the main quest a few weeks ago. The main quest was great and could probably stand alone as a game itself, but of course it’s everything else in the game world that makes the game so good. I’m not really sure that I’m done with it, even though I’ve started playing Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Assassin’s Creed III: Won!

I went ahead and finished Assassin’s Creed III this past weekend. I was actually just a few missions away from the end. I did a few side things. I did most of the naval side-missions and some other things here and there. SPOILERS FOLLOW.

A few people told me I would probably be disappointed with the conclusion. I actually wasn’t, though I understand why many people would be. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, but it was definitely an interesting (and a little surprising) conclusion to Desmond’s story.

The previous games certainly had a few interesting moral dilemmas here and there. This one had the ambivalent relationship between Conner and his father, Haytham. The game introduces a twist near the beginning of the game. You start playing Haytham. After playing the previous 4 games, it’s just assumed that you’re playing an assassin. He certainly operates like one. I knew that the main character was an American Indian, so I assumed I’d play Haytham to the point where he’d die or something. In a surprising twist, though, it suddenly becomes clear that he is, in fact, a Templar.

This sets the stage for later confusion and ambiguity (the good kind, story-wise). Though Connor and Haytham are enemies, they do temporarily work together at one point. Near the end of the game, though, they fight one last time and Connor kills Haytham.

Shortly before this, though, Connor broke ties with George Washington and the Patriots after learning that Washington had destroyed many Iroquois villages. It was part of an interesting balance of interests — on one hand, there were the goals of the Assassins, which seemed to align with the goals of the revolution. But of course the Americans were no less guilty of atrocious behavior than the British with regard to relations with Native Americans. The Templars had people on both sides of the Revolutionary War. In the end, his only goal was to eliminate the man who had killed his mother (Charles Lee, one of Haytham’s men).

This was, for me, the most satisfying part of the game, and why I think that in some ways it’s better than its predecessors. The first Assassin’s Creed had many opportunities to explore difficult moral dilemmas, but perhaps out of fear of touchy boundaries, the game stayed away from anything very controversial. Every game has a start screen that informs the player of the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the game’s staff — for a long time they just seemed like they were being too careful.

Perhaps because this game didn’t touch on middle-eastern politics at all it was able to really explore some tricky territory. And as in real life, there is no satisfying fix or compromise. Connor, after killing Charles Lee, returns to his village to find his tribe driven away.

Desmond, too, struggled with his relationship with his father. He managed to mostly reconcile with him, though. Still, Desmond had to sacrifice himself.

Honestly, I haven’t really thought all this through very well yet. Certain themes (compromise, father/son relationships, hypocritical idealism) run through the game. I’ll probably have to think about it some more.

But I was not disappointed. The game had interesting things to say, especially with regard to Native Americans, their involvement in the revolution and their treatment by the colonists/Americans.

Gameplay wise, it was your standard Assassin’s Creed game. Good (if occasionally frustrating) controls, fun combat and stealth and many mini-games. I certainly didn’t finish every side-quest, but I had fun with a lot of them.

I’m not, at this time, interested in any of the DLC. The “King Washington” stuff sounds intriguing, but it’s time for me to move on to another game in the stack. I’m thinking of wrapping up Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations — Won!

That was quick. I started AC: Revelations on 12/3 and beat it yesterday, 12/16. That’s much better than my normal 6–18 months.

First, the bad. This game was glitchy, at least on PS3. More than once I came across groups of guards that did nothing and could not be killed. You could attack them, they’d go through all the animations, then they’d stand back up and hang out like nothing happened. Also, I never finished all of the “Desmond’s Journey” side stories because the 5th (and last) one crashed my PS3 every time I tried to access it. Every. Single. Time.

I also did not enjoy the strategy mini-game Den Defense. It actually isn’t too hard when you get the hang of it (I even got a “Perfect Defense” PS3 trophy), but I actually got all three den defenses required for a guild challenge out of the way as soon as possible, then made all of my dens assault-proof. The third defense was the hardest, and I lost it twice before finally winning it. But one of the losses was in an area with a Coward Templar Captain, which was very annoying. So I actually made all dens with Cowards assault-proof before attempting the final den defense again. Super annoying.

Near the very end of the game, something weird happened. Minor spoiler follows. Sofia was kidnapped by the main bad guy. To trigger the next memory, I had to go back to Assassin’s HQ. I got there and Sofia was inexplicably there. Ezio showed her all his books and they talked, with Ezio avoiding talking about what exactly he does. Then the scene ends and she’s nowhere to be found. Because she was kidnapped, of course. Then I went and rescued her and continued with the game’s conclusion. Very confusing.

With that out of the way, I thought this was a very good game. The hook-blade was fun, the combat was even better than AC: Brotherhood and the side-quests were fun and addictive without pulling you too far off the main storyline.

Desmond’s interactions with Subject 16 were interesting, if a bit of a letdown. Maybe I missed something, but Subject 16 communicated a lot of cryptic things over the last couple games and now Desmond had the opportunity to have some things clarified, but he didn’t really do that.

In fact, the sort of meta-plot (with Desmond and the contemporary assassins) was probably the weakest part of this game, and that makes sense. The plot itself really concerns Ezio and Alaïr. Ezio has hit middle age and is struggling with how to live his life. Through his investigations he sees how Altaïr spent his twilight years. The short video story “Embers” follows up on this, showing Ezio in a sort of retirement. He wants nothing to do with the Assassins any more (likely feeling that he had already done his part), but is briefly dragged back into the conflict.

I probably had the most fun in a particular segment near the end of the game where Ezio causes all sorts of mayhem, from bringing a tower down to torching a half-dozen ships with Greek Fire. A close second would be an episode even closer to the end where Ezio leads his assassins into the Arsenal. I kind of felt like a Sith Lord in that segment.

Overall it was a fun game, annoying bugs notwithstanding (seriously, Ubisoft — straight-up crashing?). I’m definitely looking forward to AC: III. There are a lot of interesting possibilities with setting it in the American Revolution. And that the protagonist is at least partly Native American (I got the impression somewhere that he’s half Native American, half European) should make for a interesting, possibly complex story.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood — Won!

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been breaking several of my self-imposed rules. The result has been pretty good, actually.

As I said before, I beat Unwound Future a couple weeks ago. Last night I beat AC: Brotherhood. I’ll get to that in a minute. But right there I was breaking a rule: playing more than one game at a time. For a while there, I was playing Unwound Future, AC: B and Final Fantasy XIII-2. Now it’s FF XIII-2 and Professor Layton and the Last Specter. That’s not so bad — Layton games are really just puzzle games with a story wrapped around them, and it’s on a portable device. But after beating Brotherhood, I’m all fired up to play more Assassin’s Creed.

My wife picked me up AC III on Black Friday (for $35 — not bad) and I ordered AC: Revelations (got it free with Amazon points). That’s another broken rule — no new games. Still, I’m really enjoying the AC games, and Brotherhood ended on a cliffhanger, so I’m probably going to jump into Revelations.

Anyway, back to Brotherhood. I really, really enjoyed this game. I don’t remember why I stopped playing it in March 2012, but over Thanksgiving break I dove right back in. I was on Sequence 6, I think, which is very close to the end of the game (there are 9, and Sequence 9 went very quickly). I had already opened up most (but not all) of Rome. So I proceeded to mop things up. I finished Sequence 6, claimed the final Borgia Towers (which — long story — allows you to exert influence over a regain by reinvigorating its economy and also allows you to acquire more Assassin allies). I then went on to finish Sequence 7 and finished up most other missions. I actually finished every single side mission in the game except for the Mercenary Challenges. One mission, “Young at Heart” frustrated me to no end. So I skipped it. I don’t know if I’ll go back and try to finish it. I also don’t think I’ll try to finish each mission with 100% synch, which basically means I’m not going to redo old missions, keeping with certain goals or restrictions in order to get full credit. There is some DLC (Da Vinci Disappearance, I think) that I may play; not sure yet.

Anyway, Sequence 9 went fast and was surprisingly easy. I remember the end of the first Assassin’s Creed being more difficult (and frustrating). It was very entertaining, though.

SPOILERS follow.

I really did not see the last couple minutes of the ending coming. My wife and I suspected that Lucy Stillman might actually be a Templar (and at this point that hasn’t been ruled out), but I did not see the Final Fantasy VII-esque Desmond-being-possessed and murdering (or maybe just wounding? It’s not made clear, but she appears to bleed out) Lucy thing coming at all. The fade to black surprised me too. Nice cliffhanger.

One worry I have is that the game makers are dangling a lot of little hints, strange references, etc. that I’m not sure will pan out. For example, “Subject 16” babbles a lot of things to Desmond that make no sense out of whatever context they should exist in.

It bugs me when storytellers do this kind of thing without a substantial, meaningful payoff — Lost and Battlestar Galactica were guilty of this. It’s ok to leave some ambiguity, but it’s not okay to string an audience along with promises of an explanation just to leave them with mystical half-explanations.

I’m not saying that will happen in the AC series, but it has some of the hallmarks of a story that ends up like that. So we’ll see.

Still, Brotherhood was a fantastic game. I loved the Assassin recruits. It adds a whole new strategy to the game. I loved the Project Legacy tie-in. Legacy doesn’t work reliably anymore, but I got all the rewards available from it early on.

I don’t think I really mastered combat — kill streaks in particular did not come easy for me. At least not beyond 2 or 3. I also never tried the multiplayer mode. Multiplayer doesn’t appeal to me much for whatever reason.

Looking forward to AC: Revelations!

Final Fantasy XIII: Won!

My wife wanted to see me beat Final Fantasy XIII — it turns out she’s never actually seen me beat a Final Fantasy game. But that meant waiting until the weekend, since our workday evenings are usually pretty busy.

I actually started playing Final Fantasy XIII shortly after it was released in 2010. I was chugging right along and was around 90% through it in July 2010. I was actually playing it when I got a call informing me that a friend had killed himself.

I might have attempted to play it once or twice in the weeks and months after that, but I don’t think I did. At any rate, I don’t recall playing it then. I next picked it up in early 2012.

The problem with such a long gap in play time for a game like this is that you forget the context for your characters’ current status. You may have been involved in the main quest, or you may be on a side quest. The ability or magic system may not make sense after such a long time. You may quite simply not know what to do.

Sometimes, though, you can figure it out. Final Fantasy XIII has a neat little feature where when it’s loading a saved game it gives you a recap of recent events. It doesn’t give you all the details, but often it’s enough to jog your memory.

Spoilers follow.1

When I did pick it back up, my characters were on the planet Gran Pulse. There are two main settings in the game: Cocoon, where the game begins, which is a satellite of the planet Gran Pulse. The inhabitants of Cocoon have lived there for a long time. Cocoon is, I believe, an artificial construction. It’s run by a group called the Sanctum, who if I remember correctly, are an oligarchy of sorts which is or resembles a theocratic institution.

Cocoon is sustained by beings called fal’Cie. They’re usually large and powerful. The fal’Cie are manipulative — they can effectively enslave humans. The human becomes magically marked with a tattoo of sorts and becomes a “l’Cie”. Each l’Cie has a goal, called a “Focus”, unique to it. They don’t necessarily know what that goal is. If they fulfill their Focus, they’re rewarded by being turned into crystal (some reward). If they fail, they undergo another transformation into a being called a Cie’th, which are creatures or monsters with the mental life of a zombie.

Over the course of the game, the main characters become l’Cie. They are eventually told that their Focus is to destroy Cocoon. One of them will turn into a monster called Ragnarok and destroy the fal’Cie Orphan. This will result in the destruction of Cocoon.

The playable characters are:

  • Lightning — an experienced former soldier. You start the game with her and Sazh. She’s trying to find and rescue her sister, Serah.
  • Sazh — a pilot who is trying to reunite with his son, Dajh, who has been taken by the Sanctum.
  • Snow — Serah’s fiancee. Leader of a group that’s opposed to the Sanctum.
  • Hope — a kid whose mother dies early in the game and blames Snow.
  • Vanille — the narrator of the story. She’s a l’Cie from a village on  Gran Pulse called Oerba.
  • Fang — also a l’Cie from Oerba, she became Ragnarok in the past to kill Orphan, but initially has no memory of it.

Ultra-brief story summary: Serah and Dajh come in contact with a fal’Cie and become l’Cie. While trying to find Serah, Lightning, Sazh, Snow and Hope become l’Cie (unbeknownst to them, I think, Vanille is already a l’Cie — so is Fang, but she’s not in the group yet). Serah accomplishes her Foci quickly and turns to crystal. Lightning and Snow are understandably not okay with this. They resolve to restore her. I think that Dajh is (or was) at some point turned to crystal as well. They run all over Cocoon, solving most of their problems the same way characters in all Final Fantasy games usually solve their problems, with a great deal of violence. They discover that the Sanctum leader is actually a disguised fal’Cie named Barthandelus. They find out that their Focus is to destroy Cocoon, and then something neat will happen. I don’t recall what. Probably some pretty apocalyptic stuff. Eventually they go down to Gran Pulse. There are some seriously huge creatures there. I made it most of the way through Gran Pulse. I was about to go back to Cocoon when I got the bad news about my friend and stopped playing.

When I started playing again a year and a half later, I made it back to Cocoon to a place called Orphan’s Cradle. It was a surreal place — it was like the inside of psychedelic wind tunnel. I made it most of the way through it before getting distracted from the game.

After beating Final Fantasy, I thought I’d have a go at finally finishing the 13th installment. I took a look at an online walkthrough to get my bearings and realized that I was very, very close to the end. On the last day of the long Memorial Day weekend, I started playing again. And was almost immediately astonished by how hard the fights were. After a moderately difficult fight with a Bandersnatch and a Jabberwocky, I was teleported to another section. There I fought a large beast, called an Immortal, that was similar to other less powerful creatures I had fought before. But it wiped the floor with me. I then tried fighting some of the smaller enemies in the area and had a similar outcome.

Back in the day I would do two runs through a Final Fantasy game. I’d do one run through just to get the main plot and beat the game, and a second run to fully explore every facet of the game. I don’t do that anymore, since the amount of time required is prohibitive, and my interest in the game can’t be sustained across many short sessions if the gameplay required for all the extras is both tedious and complicated. But, even these days, if I come up against a part of the game that’s too hard, I have no problem setting aside some time to developing the characters enough to be able to handle the challenges.

But this game is different. I never really fully grasped what was required to advance characters. The system to develop abilities is called the Chrystarium, and I understood that. But most of my weapons and accessories were fairly weak. I had, back in 2010, managed to upgrade a bunch of them, but it’s a weird process and I don’t remember exactly how it works. And the in-game help was surprisingly vague, unless I somehow missed or skimmed a thorough explanation (that’s very possible).

So I was faced with this dilemma — do I go back and invest a lot of time developing the characters? That might be okay, but I’m doing this in conjunction with this blog, and I since I was already starting very late in the game, I didn’t think that would provide anything resembling interesting material for posts.

Instead, I tried messing with what the game refers to as “Paradigms”. The characters can adopt different roles, or jobs, in older Final Fantasy games’ parlance, in combat. In some early Final Fantasy games, you could change your jobs outside of combat.2 In others, especially more recent entries, you can change mid-battle. In this game, you don’t specifically change a character’s job mid-battle, you change the group configuration of jobs. So you may start a battle in the “Relentless Assault” paradigm, which consists of 1 Commando and 2 Ravagers. A Commando is a typical fighter. A Ravager is an offensive magic user. If one or more of your characters start to take damage, you may want to heal them. To do so, you might switch to the “Diversity” paradigm, which consists of 1 Commando, 1 Ravager and 1 Medic. The Medic casts spells that benefit the party members, including healing spells.

There are many possible paradigms — I think 16. However, you can only have about half that number available to at any given time. You configure them outside combat. If it turns out that you didn’t configure “Diversity” and you’re in a fight, you can’t use it until you are outside of combat and enable it.

Good use of paradigms are the only way to advance in Final Fantasy XIII. You can button-mash through weak enemies, but bosses and mini-bosses are considerably more formidable. Before I understood this, I was often very surprised at how quickly the game seemed to ramp up the difficulty. It wasn’t really — it just required good strategies. And it’s not just the use of a particular paradigm — you can (and usually have to) switch paradigms many times over the course of a battle.

So that’s what I did. I don’t remember offhand what paradigms I configured, but I managed to barely survive some of these battles.

I made my way deeper into Orphan’s Cradle until I got to the last save of the game. That’s where I stopped until this weekend, so my wife could watch.

I expected the first fight: it was with the fal’Cie Barthandalus. I beat him on the first try, but it was a little difficult.

The characters thought they were finished, but then Orphan shows up.

Orphan mopped the floor with me. In true Final Fantasy tradition, it has a mega-attack that reduces everyone to a very small amount of hit points. If my party leader (in this case Lightening) gets killed, it’s game over. I couldn’t heal her fast enough, and a followup attack killed her. So I rejiggered my paradigms and tried again. After beating Barthandalus again, I took another shot. I did better this time, though I really did squeak by.

Also in Final Fantasy tradition, it wasn’t quite over yet. Another incarnation of Orphan (or something) shows up. This one wasn’t so hard, though there was a time limit on the fight.

I’m skipping some stuff, with Fang turning into Ragnarok, everyone else except Vanille supposedly turning into Cie’th, etc. Honestly, given the long gaps in my play of this game, I’m a little confused.

Anyway, everyone escapes, except for Fang and Vanille. Those two become Ragnarok and stop Cocoon from crashing into Gran Pulse by turning into a giant crystal that keeps Cocoon aloft.

Everyone else, now down on Gran Pulse, turns to crystal.

I half-expected it to end there. Boom, everyone’s crystal now, the end. But they somehow un-crystalized. Serah and Dajh show up and everyone is happy. Except for Vanille and Fang, who are still crystal.

I think I will replay this game at some point. The very long break I took diminished my enjoyment of the gameplay and plot. The game did allow me to save the game after winning, so I don’t have to start a new game to explore some parts more carefully.

I had a lot of fun playing it, though — so much that I decided to just start playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 next.

  1. That’s really what this site is, isn’t it? One big spoiler?
  2. There were plenty of games, however, with fixed roles. This was the case for the first game, which I recently beat, though you do choose your characters’ “jobs” in the very beginning. Others include II, IV, VI, VII, I think VIII and IX. Games with jobs include III, V, X-2, and now XIII. Final Fantasy X and XII allowed you to develop other job-like skills, but the characters would come to embody multiple jobs, not switch between them.