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Sweet loot! Thankfully Mr. Dino is docile if not provoked…

For some reason I find myself playing through at least one Final Fantasy each year. Even if summer vacation would usually be a better time for lengthy JRPGs, there are so many games vying for that hallowed time slot that I decided to get this weird formality out of the way now. Instead of the latest game in the main series, I’ve gone with Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which is a HD remaster of the 2006 PS2 classic. Then again, calling it a classic is open to debate. For me, XII was the breaking point of having to grudgingly admit to myself that Square Enix was never going back to the PS1 mold that it used to fabricate three of the perhaps most loved games in the entire series. As much as I still tried to like XII, I gave up on it. Twice. Now, coincidentally 12 years later, it’s as good a time as any to see if third time would be the charm.

If anything’s to blame, the story isn’t it. XII takes place in Ivalice, a world wreathed in magic and technology. It is populated mostly by humans and some Moogles, but also lizard-like Bangaas and hare-like Vieras. Although the various races live in relative harmony, mankind is once again showing its uglier side. The two superpower states of Archadia and Rozarria are on the brink of a global war and Dalmasca, a tiny kingdom wedged in between them, is but a pawn in their power play. Its king is assassinated and although the country still holds on to formal independence, its woeful fate is to fall into an Archadian vassal state.

Two years later, Dalmascan war orphans Vaan and Penelo try to fend for themselves in the kingdom’s occupied capital, Rabanastre, running miscellaneous errands and occasionally getting into mischief. A crafty burglary into the palace treasury is a bit too much, though, and with one thing leading to another, the two find themselves caught up in events that will eventually decide the destiny of the whole of Dalmasca. They are soon joined by suave sky pirates Balthier and Fran, as well as treasonous knight Basch and princess Ashe, both of whom were rumored to have died after the original coup d’etat. These six then run hither and yonder Ivalice, trying to find ways to end Archadia’s oppression.

From the very beginning, the game’s highly original battle system is questionable at best. It feels like an action-RPG with all encounters taking place in the maps without transition or victory screens whatsoever. Although it is possible to move freely at all times, actions won’t take place until a traditional battle gauge has filled up. Furthermore, when choosing said actions, the game pauses completely. At first the system feels (and looks) like a ridiculously cumbersome mishmash of real-time, semi-real-time, and turn-based combat. However, it doesn’t take long for gambits to be introduced. They are macros that can be set up for each character in an effort to automate combat altogether. These macros consist of simple little rules such as “focus attacks on the foe with the least health”, “use a recovery potion if an ally has less than 50% of health remaining”, “activate a buff at the beginning of each encounter”, etc. There are hundreds of such variations and by coming up with a suitable set of rules and then prioritizing them properly, it is possible to come up with strategies that work in almost every occasion. Sure, it’s still possible to throw in manual commands as well but on whole, the aim is definitely to fine-tune the gambits of each character so that in combat, the game practically plays itself.

It’s a quirky system but also a welcome one, given how heavy XII is when it comes to grinding. After an introductory tunnel of about four hours, the world of Ivalice slowly opens up to provide vast areas teeming with monsters. Fighting is a constant must as leveling up is fairly slow and bosses show absolutely no mercy towards weak adventurers. The bigger baddies become even more annoying when nearing death by suddenly throwing themselves into a truly incomprehensible rage mode that causes all player attacks to suddenly do almost no damage at all while they start throwing crippling attacks with such power, speed, and ferocity that even everyone concentrating on healing might not be enough.

Thinking back, it’s precisely this excessive amount of combat and the utter cheapness of the bosses that drove me away from the game all those years ago. Thankfully The Zodiac Age introduces a bunch of handy little improvements such as being able to fast-forward. With the press of a button, the game can be switched into 2x or even 4x speed mode. This is more than enough to turn boring grinds into slapstick comedy of suitably macroed heroes scurrying to pummel mob after mob for some welcomed experience. This also makes overly long transition legs of the journey a breeze. It won’t help in boss fights but even they are doable by keeping each character’s strongest special attacks in reserve and then unloading all of them on the boss in an uninterruptible barrage as soon as the so-called normal rules no longer seem to apply. It’s not a particularly elegant approach, sure, but hey, whatever works.

Thankfully all balancing and pacing problems fail to take away from what seems like a very intriguing story. It’s a nice change of pace to be worrying about the fate of a small kingdom rather than saving the entire world, especially when the surrounding global politics are full of internal strife and ruthless back-stabbing. There’s plenty of stark drama and it’s always a plus when even the bad guys have a hard time getting along. Even Ashe isn’t just compassionate and cute royal baggage but a distressed, battle-weary princess, torn emotionally asunder trying to ensure a future for her country even when all the options available seem to range from bad to worse. As a nice bonus, The Zodiac Age also allows all of this to be experienced in original Japanese audio, so this remaster is certainly a bit more than just a hasty coat of new paint. It it wasn’t, I might already have walked away from it for the third time but at least for the time being, I find myself quite interested in finding salvation for Dalmasca.

Uh Oh…

Adding some duet prowess for Hibiki

Those of you who have been following this blog probably recall that its strongest swear word so far has been The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, that utterly abhorrent loot hell in which I masochistically dwelled for several months. Last January, I solemnly swore never to touch crap like that ever again but only a month earlier Bandai Namco had already released The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage. Darn. Thankfully all news coverage about that one asserted that it wouldn’t be nearly as inane as its predecessor, so while I was still extremely wary, I decided to give the idol girls one more chance to woo me over.

The premise of the game is not promising in the slightest. All the idols who I had painstakingly nurtured to shiny platinum stardom are once again just feeble F-class newbies, and the same applies to the player’s alter ego of Producer-san. The head of 765 Production talent agency entrusts you with just one idol out of 13 with the rest remaining behind lock and key until you prove your managerial worth. So, is this just the same nightmare all over again? Broadly speaking, yes, although much to my relief it seems like Stella Stage fixes pretty much everything that was so hopelessly broken in Platinum Stars.

First of all, this time around there’s actually content to speak of. The selection of 45 songs, 116 costumes, and 140 accessories is almost thrice as much as before. Granted, those numbers include practically everything that Platinum Stars had but should you have been lucky enough to miss that one altogether, Stella Stage is an even better reason to forget that it ever even existed. Even more important, though, is that the costumes and accessories are no longer random presents but guaranteed rewards for successful lives. They can also be bought from the local tailor or unlocked with coaching points in a brand new board game. It’s a cute little mini-game in which you walk around the 13 idols in their chibi form on a board that has tiles containing permanent performance bonuses, costumes, accessories, and new songs. Presents are also still around but now they only contain minor stuff such as fan letters and exp drinks, on top of which there’s always a bunch of them after each and every live. Playing is still as grindy as ever but at least those who are into collecting stuff will feel rewarded on a constant basis.

Also, the grind itself feels much more tolerable. Even if you’re once again tasked with raising all girls to sterling S-class, it now only requires one million fans instead of ten. Song levels improve after just five plays rather than 20, and even when enhancing costumes and accessories, their level cap has been lowered from ten to seven. New songs still become available in an annoyingly slow pace but on whole Stella Stage is – at least for the time being – actually fun to toil at.

As for the rhythm part, improvements are fairly modest. Songs can be played with ensembles of almost every size from solo runs to All Stars medleys that include everyone with each variety even being available pretty much from the get-go. The same applies to the second hardest Pro difficulty of each song, although anyone marinated in rhythm games will probably find that so easy that even with new songs, perfect chains on first attempts are more norm than exception. To counter that, the hardest Master difficulty is now even more difficult, mostly thanks to sections that require two right-hand buttons to be pressed or held down at the same time. This either requires baffling thumb acrobatics or moving your left hand to assist, which in turn causes panic with notes that require a simultaneous press on the d-pad. At least for me, Pro feels a bit too easy whereas Master is frustratingly hard, so an additional difficulty between these two really wouldn’t go amiss.

For a main project, Stella Stage feels a bit too familiar and grindy but it works remarkably well in short bursts between other releases. Only half a year ago, I never would’ve believed to have any sympathy left for Project iM@S, yet it still feels like Stella Stage could very well be the rhythm game I always wanted Platinum Stars to be, and that’s actually saying a lot!

Although my backlog of candidates to enjoy alongside Stella Stage is massive already, perhaps it still has room for a couple more. While Initial D: Extreme Stage provided a fun weekend on Japan’s mountain roads, Wangan Midnight promises similar fun but on the country’s highways instead. I’m certainly keen to see if its iconic Nissan Fairlady Z would be slightly less demanding than the AE86. Then again, perhaps taking it easy for a change would be nice, too; Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon promises carefree farming days in some sort of sci-fi setting, which doesn’t sound half bad at all.

Cold Hard Shoulder

Ha! Found a Trueno-sized hole to squeeze through!

After enjoying drifting in several arcade racers in Tokyo, I began to wonder if something like that would also be available for home consoles. Although there doesn’t seem to be much to choose from, at least there’s Initial D: Extreme Stage, a 2008 release for the PS3, which turned out to be pretty much exactly what I was looking for. It’s based on the late 90’s hit anime of the same name, starring car enthusiastic teens racing their souped-up rides up and down Japan’s twisty mountain roads. The player joins their ranks as a newcomer male or female with a customizable look and license plate, choosing from one of the 23 80’s and 90’s cars from eight different Japanese manufacturers (Civics, Lancers, Imprezas, Skylines, etc.) For devoted Initial D fans, of course, there’s only one viable choice: the unassuming, rear-wheel drive Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86, which racing prodigy Takumi Fujiwara used to beat even the most bad-ass rivals out there.

There are only seven routes, although they are all driven both uphill and downhill, during daytime and nighttime, and possibly with a bit of rain thrown on top. On them wait at least 26 opponents familiar from the anime. All races are duels that last for about four minutes and are delightfully loyal to the original source material. They’re preceded by short, manga-like cutscenes full of the usual bragging, after which it’s time to get noisy. Engines growl, tires squeal, shift pedals are slammed audibly, and all this is, naturally, backed up by 13 songs worth of lovably trashy eurobeat. The most memorable songs from the anime are sadly not present but the overall atmosphere is still very much there, especially as your chatty opponents frequently engage in either smug boasting or cursing your speed and skill, depending on whether they happen to be leading or merely admiring your tail lights. Each race concludes by accepting a graceful win (or defeat) after which it’s time to see who’s up next.

All this comes with a driving model that is… Well, let’s just say interesting. Although the view from behind the car would be ideal for an arcade racer like this, it’s nigh on useless. The cars feel like weightless lumps that have been pinned on a cocktail stick from their exact center with even the smallest nudge of the steering wheel flinging them into a drift at any speed and even on straights. The handling becomes a little better after switching to the more boring road view but it never feels particularly enjoyable. Such an awkward model is justified by the game’s nature, though, as the sheer majority of time is spent sideways navigating 180 degree turns while trying to get the front bumper to caress the inside shoulder as closely as possible to block the opponent from passing. Faithful to the anime, each corner is taken at speeds well over 60MPH and brakes often feel like nothing more than a cosmetic afterthought.

After accepting the floaty driving model as a necessary evil, Extreme Stage briefly turns into a most entertaining experience. The speeds are always excessive but at least on the gentler corners of the wider roads of some of the routes, maintaining a steady drift with slight steering adjustments is rewarding. The races feel a little scripted but at least the rubber band is pure anime. More often than not the opponent will make an early overtake by brute force, if necessary, only to slightly slow down in some later sections to give the player at least a theoretical chance to make an impressive comeback.

Although wins are frequent at first, the game soon bares its fangs. Driving can feel deceptively easy, especially when frequent minor brushes with roadside barriers only dent your own self-esteem. Despite being excessively arcadey, however, it soon becomes a must not just to learn the game but to learn it exceptionally well. After later opponents start to repeatedly disappear into the horizon, there’s still the option to level the playing field by investing points won from races to improve car performance. The engine, manifold, wheels, chassis, and miscellaneous parts can be tuned up to seven stages but not only is this noticeably expensive and requires a whole lot of grinding with races already won, even that won’t help in the end. After ten hours, I finally managed to tune my AE86 to the maximum but I’m still getting my butt kicked. I suppose I could try some other car to see if one would be better suited for the harder opponents but not only would it take an equal amount of time to get them up to similar performance, I’m fairly certain the only cure would be to git gud.

Granted, banging your head against the story mode wall isn’t the only option. Each route can be practiced alone in time attack mode, and even if the game is a decade old already, its online mode was still alive and well, at least for the one brief go I had over there. Still, for this middle-aged Sunday driver, one weekend with this game is good enough for now. While I might never learn the intricacies of graceful, yet blindingly fast drifting, at least my Initial D fan service thirst has been quenched way better than I even expected.

There are a couple of other recent additions to the collection, too. Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match is most likely exactly that, although before hopping into that one, I really have to find time to watch the related anime (and movie) first to get a better understanding on why school girls are driving around in WWII era tanks. It’s important to know! And, to make future gaming days even more Japanese than that, there’s Gal*Gun 2, a first person on-rails shooter unabashedly touting itself as a pantsu paradise. Unconventional camp humor? Yes, please!