I play games! This quarter, it was a healthy mix of action platformers and traditional jRPGs!
Final Fantasy Dimensions (Mobile)
THE PITCH: A real, classic, original Final Fantasy game for mobile.
PROS: It does what it says on the tin. It’s a Final Fantasy game modeled after FF3/5, with a simplified but interesting Job system which allows you to customize your characters and party to a healthy degree. Some of the design decisions are well-suited to mobile, making the game feel thoughtful rather than shovelware. The music is gerat! And there is not a single nonsense microtransaction anywhere. It’s a Real Damn Game.
CONS: The story is as bland as you’d expect from a mobile game, full of tropes and archetypes with little interest in developing them further than that. The encounter rate is atrocious; this is presumably meant to emulate some of the older titles in the series, and to be fair, the game expects you to customize your team in a way that makes Auto-Battling as efficient as possible, which is … sort of interesting?
But entering a battle every two seconds still gets old, fast, and it heavily disincentives any sort of exploration. A quarter of the way through the game, I resorted to using maps simply because I was tired of fighting my way through 15 minutes of encounters just to find a potion at the end of the path.
RECOMMENDED: Maybe. I have not played any other mobile games that actually play like a real jRPG, so it’s valuable for that alone. It’s a long game, so you’ll get your money’s worth. I think RPG fanatics will find something to like here, but if you haven’t played the rest of the series, I’d recommend pretty much any of the mainline titles over this one.
Trials of Mana [Seiken Densetsu 3] (Switch)
THE PITCH: A full localization of the SNES sequel to Secret of Mana.
PROS: A true piece of gaming history, and for those not into the emulator scene, a chance to play one of the most high-profile action RPGs that never came to Western shores. And the aesthetics are fabulous; it’s almost certainly one of the prettiest looking and sounding games on the console.
CONS: Unfortunately, I’m not sure SD3 stands the test of time. Removed from the circa-1999 thrill of playing fan translated ROMs, the game itself is messy. The Mana series has always had a reputation for clunky combat, but SD3 might truly be the worst of the bunch. Attacks can take literal seconds to register, and magic–which, in the series, has always been an afterthought–is both awkward and required. The entire point of real-time combat is fast paced action. Trials of Mana ruins that by punctuating every attack with heaps of menu navigations.
RECOMMENDED: If you’re a fan of the series or genre, and you’ve never tried it out, it’s still worthwhile. Despite its shortcomings, the game is still an impressive achievement. And the collection includes Secret of Mana, which is worth owning on as many consoles as you’re physically able.
THE PITCH: A difficult-by-design platformer with a plethora of tweaks and an empowering, charming story about mental health.
PROS: Like the best games of the genre, Celeste never feels unfair. I realize that sounds like the same trite line every Dark Souls fanatic trots out, but it’s true here. Each room is a combination puzzle and execution challenge, and while these can often be quite challenging (and sometimes … maddening), it’s generally simple enough to understand how to progress.
And for the times when it’s too much, for players who are less experienced or disabled in a way that makes the game less challenging and more frustrating? Celeste includes a number of assist options, from the minor (having issues with timing? Decrease the game’s speed!) to the significant (invincibility!)
The soundtrack is magnificent; it fueled many a night of writing even before I played the game. And the story, as I mentioned above, tugs at your heart without intruding on the action. It’s not the most mind-bending plot in world, but it deals with themes other games rarely touch, and does so in a way that compliments the tough-as-nails gameplay. It’s a master-class in providing a game narrative that doesn’t feel tacked-on.
CONS: Nitpicky, if any. I said Celeste never feels unfair, but that’s not totally true. There are rooms here and there which feel a bit lazier in design than others. The postgame content, which does continue the story to some degree, is not for the faint of heart and would likely be difficult even with assist mode on. But there’s such a plethora of content here that one would hardly feel like they’re missing out if they decide not to complete all the DLC. I didn’t.
RECOMMENDED: Absolutely. Celeste lives up to the hype. If you have any interest at all in this type of game, it’s a must buy.
THE PITCH: A 2D Zelda-esque action platformer with heavy RPG elements putting you in the role of an amnesiac player of a state-of-the-art MMORPG.
PROS: CrossCode is an impressive showing from a small developer. It’s filled with interesting design, charming pixel art and lovely music.
The combat is snappy and simple, but deep enough to feel engaging. I realize it’s not quite fair to compare games two decades apart, but CrossCode’s fighting is, frankly, what Trials of Mana was trying to be. Exploration is not the objective here. Rather, the game is split up into overworld areas, which are littered with complicated but optional platforming puzzles leading to massive dungeons filled to the brim with projectile-based puzzles.
CONS: Unfortunately, the “overworld into dungeon” formula gets long in the tooth pretty quickly. Spending 20 minutes finding the right series of stepping stones to get to a treasure chest is kind of fun the first time. It’s just annoying when you encounter it on the 8th screen in a row.
And dungeons are the same story. The puzzles are generally creative, but they’re also long and often similar. The elation at finally solving one brain-bender (which are generally more focused on execution than, say, Zelda puzzles) quickly fades when you enter the next room and see … another long, complicated puzzle.
Overall, I’d say pacing is CrossCode’s biggest issue. It’s not so bad if you take frequent breaks and tackle it in chunks, which means the Switch version might be the best choice. But trying to plow through all at once is draining.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the story, which is the highest level of Not For Me. I have always had an issue engaging with “games within a game” like .hack, where 90% of the lore is completely irrelevant to the plot. It’s a strange distinction, considering all fiction is fake and made-up. I think the difference, though, is that characters in these metagames don’t actually affect or interact with the top-level narrative.
To point to one instance, there’s actually a quest in the game that dumps a bunch of lore about some ancient civilization on you, and then, honest to god, quizzes you on the contents. And I can’t stress this enough, your character never, ever meets or interacts with these ancients in any way. It’s all part of the fake MMORPG you’re playing. It feels very much like someone wrote a bunch of lore and wanted to make extra sure that you read it. I admit, a lot of this is personal distaste–there are people who absolutely live for LitRPGs. But I ain’t one of ’em.
RECOMMENDED: Maybe. It’s a solid game I had a lot of fun with, but it’s also easy to imagine players Did Not Finishing after getting an idea of the overworld/dungeon cycle. If you find it on sale, it’s worth playing, but I wouldn’t expect a life-changing experience.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers (PC)
THE PITCH: The latest expansion to the premiere Final Fantasy MMORPG
PROS: Oh boy, where to start? Final Fantasy XIV has been the best (read: only good) MMO on the market for years now, and Shadowbringers takes it to a whole new level. The game changes themselves are more of an evolution than anything else. Unlike some of the WoW expansions, there’s nothing here that’s going to be totally foreign to longtime or lapsed players. Lots of quality-of-life improvements, but overall it’s the same dungeon and trial-boss focused experience with some Final Fantasy flair that it always has been.
The story, though, is out of this world. The creators wanted a bit of a clean break from the tangled politics that runs through the rest of the game, so instead, Shadowbringers sees the Warrior of Light jumping to “The First,” an alternate-universe of sorts which has been poisoned into stasis by the power of light. The player is tasked with taking up the power of darkness and forging an uneasy alliance with the malevolent, droll survivor of a long-dead civilization.
Lest this sounds like some “both sidez!!” nonsense, don’t worry. It’s still a Final Fantasy. I’m a Social Justice Paladin ’til the day I die.
Every part of this game is firing on all cylinders. The soundtrack is outstanding–the best the game’s ever been. Like, tell me this banger isn’t able to stand toe-to-toe with Eyes on Me or Melodies of Life.
CONS: As always, playing a subscription-based MMORPG can be a big ask for a lot of people. It’s a big investment, and it’s understandable that a lot of people might not be able to make the jump, either financially or temporally. In addition, to even access to expansion content, you have likely hundreds of hours
RECOMMENDED: This is the most Final Fantasy-ass Final Fantasy game in, literally, nearly two decades. If you’re even remotely a fan of this series, it’s so, so worth it, even if you only play to complete the story.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch)
THE PITCH: A faithful remake of the Game Boy classic
PROS: Everything? All of it. In contrast to Trials of Mana, which I believe aged poorly, Link’s Awakening positively shrines. Majora’s Mask often gets the medal for “weirdest Zelda,” but it owes a lot to Awakening in that regard. What originally appear as nonsensical Nintendo homages–Kirby enemies, Mario allies–take on an entirely different meaning as the truth about Link’s adventure become clear.
And the game itself is fabulous. It’s a successor of sorts to SNES’s A Link to the Past, and while it feels appropriately pared down as one would expect from a portable game, it does its own thing in several respects. The inclusion of a jumping mechanic, while seemingly minor, turns the game quasi-3D and feels empowering even now. Future portable Zelda games introduced a lot of complexity, but in keeping things simple while adding a few new twists, Link’s Awakening feels as fresh and approachable as ever.
CONS: Almost nothing. The movement speed is strangely slow, and takes a little getting used to. I suspect this is because, since the maps and dungeons have been faithfully recreated, speeding up Link would result in him blazing through the game.
And for truly budget-conscious players, that might be a worry. Link’s Awakening is not an extremely long game. I am intimately familiar with the original game, so take it with a grain of salt, but I 100% completed the game in fewer than ten hours. That’s is perfectly acceptable (honestly, preferable) at this point in my life, but those who need to make their game purchases stretch a long time might want to wait for a sale.
Finally, the little bit of added content in the game — the chamber dungeons, which serve as an overly-simplistic “Zelda-maker” — are bland and boring, and the only real challenge is trying to make dungeons as short and brainless as possible to get the rewards.
RECOMMENDED: Unequivocally. If you’ve played the original, you’ll delight at seeing a classic with a new coat of paint. If you’ve never touched in, you’re in for an absolute treat.