Friday, June 17, 2011

I'll be Living in Kiryu City!

A follow up to my post below about living in Gunma Prefecture next year... It sounds like I'll be living and teaching near Kiryu City! It's got a pretty large population size (about 124,000 people) and easy access to some of the bigger cities in Gunma-ken! And it looks very pretty! Lots of mountains! It sounds like it'll be a bit rural where I'm living, but still plenty of stuff to do, and getting to Tokyo will be fairly cheap and not even all that time consuming! This is wonderful news! I'm so excited to start blogging about my crazy adventures again!

Pictures I've found of Kiryu City so far:

Lookin' good so far! Once again, I'll continue updating this blog as I learn more :-)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I'm Moving to Gunma Prefecture!

The placements are in, and I'm going to be spending the next year teaching English in Gunma Prefecture! This is a really great location! I'll be right in the middle of Japan's main island of Honshuu, and I'm only one prefecture away from Tokyo! I was really concerned about what would happen to this blog, since it's called Twisted in Tokyo. I mean, what would I do about the name if I wound up somewhere really strange? But it looks like I'll have plenty of access to Tokyo after all!

No news yet on if I'm in a city in Gunma, or a town, or what, but I certainly can't complain about being placed in the Kantou Region. Soon, this blog will be back in full force! I'll be sure to update as soon as I know more!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Final Fantasy IV for the Nintendo DS

My latest video game adventure is the remake of Final Fantasy IV for the Nintendo DS. The original Final Fantasy IV came out in 1991 for the Super Nintendo. It was groundbreaking at the time because it had a complex, dialogue-driven storyline. It was also a game that set the standards for gameplay and storytelling that would make the Final Fantasy series so absurdly famous. Final Fantasy IV recently got a fancy update and release on the hand-held Nintendo DS and, after dancing around a Gamestop for a year or two waiting for a cheap, used copy of the game, I finally bought it (for half the original price!). To be honest, the reason I was waiting for an used copy was because I wasn't expecting to like the game that much. Despite being a remake, I knew the game was old. Old and likely not up to par with the later games of the series.

So how did Final Fantasy IV hold up?

To be honest, the game is still pretty damn good. I've never played the original 1991 version, but I can tell the game has had some serious upgrades. Even without those upgrades, it's obvious that Final Fantasy IV is just a really good game. Now, I'm not a video game reviewer, but I'm a normal gamer like anyone else who likes to play a good video game every now and then, so this is a "normal gamer's" take on Final Fantasy IV.

Gameplay can probably be combined with story for the most important aspect of a good RPG. Without good gameplay, there's simply no point in playing. Final Fantasy IV's gameplay is excellent. Again, I haven't played the 1991 version, so I'm unable to compare and contrast the new version with the original, but I can tell you how the DS version holds up on its own.

In its most basic form, we control the game's main character, Cecil. We can move him around the screen and guide him through villages, castles, and caves. However, the DS version fully takes advantage of the dual screen system, allowing us to watch Cecil's real-world movements on the top screen, while tracking his overall progress on a map on the lower screen. I absolutely loved this system. I get lost easily. I can literally get a character lost in a straight corridor, honest. The map system allowed me to guide my character without doubts. This was especially useful because the game is more simple looking than a Playstation Final Fantasy game, so the map helped avoid confusion while traversing otherwise monotonous areas. Another addition to the DS version is the map completion system. Basically, any time you're in a "dungeon level" such as a cave or an evil castle, the map slowly fills itself out as you travel through the area. If you complete the map 100%, you get a reward. And the rewards are sweet. You don't just get a potion, you get five. That kind of thing. For someone with some serious gaming OCD like me, the map system was like heroin. I got a rather troubling thrill out of completing dungeon maps, but I don't consider that a negative. The urge to complete the maps causes the player to get into more random battles, significantly helping the otherwise slow level-up process.

Speaking of random battles, Final Fantasy IV's battle system follows the typical Final Fantasy turn-based formula. You can have up to five people in your party at a time, and each of them has a class or two, such as knight, white mage, black mage, summoner, etc. Each member of the party has a bar that fills up as the fight goes on. Every time the bar is full, they can attack. Anyone who's played a Final Fantasy game such as IX should already be familiar with the system. Random battles occur on the world map or in dungeons. The game also has boss battles that are much harder than random battles. The more fights you win, the more experience you get. The more experience you get, the sooner your characters level up. You know the drill. Now, my only complaint with Final Fantasy IV is the fact that you never get to choose your fighting party. You gain and lose characters based on the whim of the plot. This is a great narrative device, but makes the leveling up process extremely infuriating. You level up a character a ton and then lose them. You get them back later and now they're weak compared to everyone else. You get temporary characters that suck experience from the more important characters. No matter what you do, you're constantly losing real progress. This drove me crazy.

As far as difficulty goes, the game seems to dance between easy and extremely difficult. I'd heard the game was really difficult and frustrating, but it takes awhile for the intensity to step up. But maybe that's because I drastically over-level my characters and make things too easy for myself (I started jokingly referring to Cecil as my Killing Machine). Dungeons can be lengthy and lacking in save points, and boss battles take a dramatic leap in difficulty level quite suddenly in the game. Eventually, the game becomes difficult enough to become extremely frustrating. The key to Final Fantasy IV is to really learn the game. For people who like to play through Final Fantasy games by steroid-leveling their characters, swinging around swords, button-mashing, and doing nothing but casting summons, this game will eat you alive. Strategy is key. Learn the spells, learn the augments, break the game down like you're taking notes for an exam or the game will destroy you. However, once you've done your homework, things become much easier. A boss might destroy you in a minute flat but, so long as you noticed a good strategy, that bastard will probably go down on the second or third try.

This kind of game is great for some people and bad for others. I'm lazy. I don't like games to feel like a chore, so IV got on my nerves sometimes. It even got so bad at one point that, during the final dungeon, after a random battle killed me, I threw my DS on the couch and shouted, "I hate this game!" in front of my very surprised housemate. But I didn't actually hate it, I just found the game frustrating sometimes. For people who love a challenge, such as my other housemate who was playing the game at the same time as me, the game is great. She likes her games to be difficult and strategy-driven, so she absolutely loved FF4.

Okay, time to discuss Final Fantasy IV's story. This is right up there with gameplay for the most important part. So what is the story? Well, our chief protagonist is Cecil Harvey, who is the leader of the Red Wings of Baron (and holds the awesome title of Lord Captain. I mean, come on, who doesn't want to be called Lord Captain? Best name ever). Cecil has been trained in the art of the Dark Sword in order to lead Baron's army. However, Baron's king starts sending Cecil and the Red Wings (lol) out to destroy innocent nations and steal their Crystals. Cecil starts to feel uneasy about all the unnecessary carnage and voices his concerns to the king. Needless to say, Cecil loses his job within twenty minutes of gameplay. The king sends Cecil and Kain (the leader of the Dragoon Knights) on an errand to get them out of the way. After this errand results in more devastating losses, Cecil realizes he needs to stop the king of Baron's downward spiral of destruction. To do so, Cecil must go on a grand quest to stop a man named Golbez (our chief antagonist). Cecil meets and joins up with a lot of strange people on his journey, and his mission soon leads him to some pretty interesting places.

Final Fantasy IV was the first RPG to have a dramatic storyline. And it is dramatic. Cecil's quest is not just a hero's quest; it's a quest to purify himself and rid the world of the very evil he helped establish. That said, there's still something simple about IV's storyline. I'm pretty sure it's the fact that I'm looking back on the game retrospectively. If I hadn't played some of the later games in the series, I probably wouldn't feel that way. For its time, IV's storyline is great, so I suppose I'm marking the game down for the fact that the storyline just didn't age very well.

That said, I still think Cecil is a great character. Final Fantasy has always played around with anti-heroes, but Cecil really brings it to the table by actually working for the bad guys at the start of the story (unlike Cloud from FF7, who's already quit his job with the bad guys by the time the game starts... sort of). Cecil trains with a sword of evil and slays innocent people under the player's command. However, the game continues to oversimplify good and evil. Cecil's transformation from bad to good is about as simple as taking soup out of a microwave. Furthermore, there was an overwhelming lack of logic in Final Fantasy IV's narrative. I know, I know, the game is old, but a little logic would've been nice. Let me give you an example from the game (don't worry, I won't name names and spoil stuff). At one point in IV, a character sacrifices himself by jumping off an airship with a bomb in his hand to stop some bad guys. Why didn't he just throw the bomb over the side of the ship?! Why in the world did he have to be attached to it?! The bomb's going to fall at the same rate whether or not he's holding onto it! Here's another example: at one point in the game, the characters fall down a trap door. After they get up, they realize they've failed their mission and return to the king to tell him they were unsuccessful. Now hold the phone. Why didn't they just, you know, climb back up the stairs and go back to the room and go around the trap door?! This makes absolutely no sense! That's like studying for an exam, spilling some water on your notes, and deciding you failed the test. 1 + 2 is not equaling 3 here. Call it a bad script, call it a primitive narrative, but I just don't think IV's story aged that well...

Despite this oversimplification of narrative, Final Fantasy IV does boast a delightfully colorful cast of characters. Half the fun of the game is waiting to see just who you'll meet next! Also, for people who've played Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy IV can be a lot of fun. The two games seem to wink back and forth at each other all the time. I was actually able to guess a lot of what was going on happen in IV because I've played IX. I don't see this as a negative, though. It was like the two games were giving each other little shout-outs and high-fives, and I got a kick out of it. If I'd played IV before IX, I probably would've felt the same way while playing IX.

Anyways, as far as graphics go, Final Fantasy IV is a damn fine looking remake. Take a look at these before and after shots, and you'll see why I think so.

Here's the 1991 boss fight with the Octomammoth:

And here's the updated boss fight with the Octomammoth:

Kind of a huge improvement, wouldn't you say? Overall, things looked great. Backgrounds were colorful and intricate, the world was more than a pile of pixels, and characters were even given their own little victory dance at the end of battles. However... and I'm treading on thin ice here... I can't help but wonder how nice the game would've looked on the PSP instead of the DS. I'm currently playing Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core on the PSP and by god that game looks beautiful. The graphics are just fantastic. Let's compare.

This is what a Behemoth looks like in the DS version of Final Fantasy IV:

Aaaaaaaaaand here's what that bad boy looks like in Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core:

I mean, is there really even a comparison here? The two games came out at the same time (2007), yet look at the difference! But I don't think it's Final Fantasy IV's fault. The game could only do what the DS could allow it to do, and copyright says IV belongs to Nintendo, not Playstation. Considering the DS is less capable, graphically, than the PSP, I'd say Final Fantasy IV looks pretty damn good.

Well, anyways, this review's gone on long enough. The point is, Final Fantasy IV is still a lot of fun, but it's not perfect, and I don't think I'll ever become one of those people who claims IV is the peak of the Final Fantasy series and it all went downhill from there. That simply isn't true. The game is great, and it was probably mind-blowing back in 1991 but, even with a remake, it feels a little old. Dungeons are long and tiresome and boring, the graphics are so-so, the musical score is pretty uninspiring, and the storyline is very simple and illogical. But it's still a really great game! It's challenging and intensive and the characters are a lot of fun. And Cecil himself is pretty damn cool. Despite my bitching while I played it (it took me a full 48 hours to beat the game), I still thoroughly enjoyed myself and I'm really, really glad I played. At the end of the day, I'll give the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV a...


Now I'll dodge the tomatoes that will inevitably start flying towards me!

Anyways, I'm almost done with Crisis Core (like, just a couple hours left, I think) and I'll review that one next!