Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Losing the Ability to Believe Fantasy is Reality

Today I was reading the second book in the Hunger Games series, Catching Fire, of which I had just begun reading yesterday. I was sitting on a subway train on the way to my internship, making the daily trek that was once consumed by my 3DS. But recently I have had an awkward desire for wanting to read on the train, as I feel Kid Icarus is better left home where I can fully pay attention to the quirky writing and dialogue.

A particular passage crosses my eyes, near the beginning of the book, where one of the characters is kissed by another. The way it was written and the way I imagined it made me blush, if just a bit. I looked up at that moment recognizing my face may have turned a shade of pink, but I didn’t do it because I was worried someone may have noticed. Well, actually, an older gentlemen sitting across from me was staring at me and likely noticed the slight smile coming from my face. But the smile wasn’t because of the novel or the kiss these two characters just shared; it was because I suddenly felt Final Fantasy VIII enter my consciousness.

Now I know what you’re thinking. What in the hell does FFVIII have anything to do with the Hunger Games? It doesn’t. It has nothing to do with the series at all. But the emotional moment in the novel instantly grabbed some nostalgic feeling from my past and immediately I was thinking of the story in FFVIII.

But there was more to it than this. It wasn’t just a flash or a simple thought, it was a flooding of what my memory remembers from the near beginnings of that game. Of Squall and Rinoa dancing, of the Balamb ships leaving and crossing the water as you see the moon in its reflection. But another thought was dominating my mind, intrusive but welcome all the same. My voice in my head made a statement:

This is the reason I have lost the will to devote the time that I used to put into video games.

To me, I instantly recognized what I was feeling and thinking. The last time I played FFVIII was at least 10 years ago. Not yet a teenager, I had no sense of romance or what those feelings entailed. I was able to absorb whatever was in front of me and accept it as more than just entertainment, influencing me and showing me what love is. I was young, immature, not exactly realizing that the characters and story of Final Fantasy VIII were fabricated to be entertainment and give me an experience that I would enjoy. To me it was an engagement with Squall and Rinoa, and the world around them that pushed them together or pulled them apart. This is what I remember and cherish about this game, and why I feel so nostalgic for it. 

It seems the studies have piled over the last few years for why we as gamers tend to grow out of playing video games like we used to. There’s always this nostalgic undertone about it that’s kind of sad: “When I was younger I simply had more time to play. I’m older now with more responsibilities so I can’t play video games as often.” Sure, that may be true, and this has certainly happened to me as well. But sitting on the train, reading this particular passage in a novel that is quite different from Final Fantasy, I realized what the true issue is.

Story. But that’s half of it. The other half is how I’ve grown and lost the ability to be tricked into believing that the fantasy in front of me is reality. Final Fantasy VIII was real for me, just as the characters and setting and plot in Catching Fire feels real to me right now. I know The Hunger Games is fiction and meant to be devoured as entertainment but I can’t shake the feeling that these characters and events remind me of how I used to feel when I was younger. The story encapsulates my mind and brings it all to life, just like 10 years ago when Squall and Rinoa were dancing to Waltz for the Moon.

These words can’t describe how quickly and rushed this realization came into my mind. I know it doesn’t hold true for everyone, and for a large chunk of people they don’t play as often because of time constraints. But for me it’s more than that. It’s the fact that I’ve grown and experienced life to the point where the stories I once knew and still seek just don’t feel the same. I can’t be as easily fooled like I once was. And for that, I now feel that nostalgic feeling that makes me yearn for another game that can trick me into fantasy. But for now, I will remain content with the writing in a Hunger Games novel that so effectively brings me into its built world of fantastic imagination… even if it is only realized entertainment. 

-Jared Cyhowski

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review: Nostalgia

Would you just look at that name? Nostalgia. This is a game begging to stir the signals in your brain and mash enough of them to recover something from your childhood; something you loved and enjoyed. When we feel nostalgic we get this weird feeling of maybe being somewhere, maybe back home. It makes you feel comfortable and happy. Nostalgia for the Nintendo DS does not make me feel nostalgic or fuzzy. It makes me feel frustrated and like I just wasted 20-something hours of my life. Go figure!

Nostalgia is a Japanese RPG for the 3DS that was released back in 2009 in North America. I absolutely love the JRPG genre but this title does absolutely nothing to be original except in setting. Your name is Eddie and you are the teenage son of the famous adventurer Gilbert Brown. Gilbert gets caught up in some trouble as usual and saves a girl named Fiona from the Ancient Cabal. The guys dressed in black are always the bad guys, right? So Fiona has lost her memory and you as the hero take on the task to help her not only get her memories back but also go on a mission to save the world by collecting powerful ancient tablets. Joining you along the way is a mage named Melody and a marksman named Pad. You have the perfect, four-person party with a swordsman (Eddie), gun support (Pad), black magic (Melody), and white magic (Fiona). On a scale of 1 – 10 I would give the story a 3 or a 4, but only because Nostalgia takes place in an alternate steam punk history.

In the game you have access to an airship right from the beginning and you zip around the world fairly quickly to collect each tablet. I came across Egypt, a cape town in Africa, London, and New York City to name a few. The sad thing is each of these towns/cities are all mostly copy and pasted with updates to their visual textures. Each location feels the same with hardly any effort given to distinguishing culture beyond simple features and NPC names.

The battle system is not unique whatsoever as it harkens to the most basic of turn-based RPG combat. You mainly bash A the entire game without much thought. The top screen of the DS is used to show you the combat while the bottom screen outlines which character is up next to take their turn. It simply allows you to strategize so that you will never lose, because honestly you sort of have to try to get a game over in Nostalgia. You make enough gold in the game to never have to worry about healing items so battles will be a breeze.

But what frustrated me the most in Nostalgia was how sometimes it would take the liberty to become extremely difficult for no reason. This mainly happened when I would fly my airship around the world and encounter air battles. It sounds cool right? Skies of Arcadia had an excellent combat system set up and airship battles in that game are now nostalgic. Well, Nostalgia falls flat because the creators for some reason decided to make airship enemies extremely strong. In fact, I made sure to save after every battle while flying because you never knew if you were going to encounter another airship that could blow yours out of the water in just two hits. If the rest of the game was so easy why were they making airship battles so challenging? Because enemies in the air took longer to defeat the fast pacing in the game was lost to silly air battles.

In addition to these low-quality attributes the creators did try to add some extra features to Nostalgia to keep you entertained… That’s if you could stand the general gameplay on its own. The game has over 30 sidequests for you to try out at the Adventurers Association but it seems the rewards were never really worth it. They mainly consist of flying somewhere, talking to an NPC, going to a location you have already cleared, finding something, fighting a boss, and then returning that item to whomever asked you to go on such a boring quest. Because the locations aren’t very entertaining to travel through the first time around, why would you want to go back for a reward that doesn’t even make the journey worth it? There are also landmarks in the game that you can fly your airship around to find, but the best prize comes after finding all of them and to me that’s a waste of time. In fact, I only did one quest in the Adventurers Association and that was all.

One element that made Nostalgia completely broken was the fact that when you saved your health and magic points were always completely healed. So if you were in an area with monsters giving high EXP you could just train for 20 minutes and level up substantially. This is probably the easiest game that I have ever had the privilege to play where I could level up so quickly, and bosses were usually a breeze because of this. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, airship battles were actually more challenging than most boss battles. Why would the game be made like this?!

Nostalgia was developed in part by Matrix Software, the people behind the DS remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV. Now those were alright looking games but they were successful because they had a great story behind them. Nostalgia looks alright but the gameplay and story are so basic that Matrix’s contributions to the game are a sad sight to see. There are a few in-game animations that are hardly impressive to say the least, and the only potential I saw in these animations were at the very end when the story actually briefly became interesting. I’m sorry to say that yes, it takes until the very end for the game to become interesting in its storyline. Such a shame!

Nostalgia is a fake title for an RPG that is so basic it should be renamed “How to Play a JRPG” or something to that like. I know this review is entirely negative but there really isn’t anything nice to say about it. Okay I can find one complement: the artwork for the game is nice to look at. You can see it in the intro movie and at the very end. Whoever drew those pieces did a good job at portraying a concept for what should have been a good game. The characters actually look like they have some life behind them, instead of the simple-minded drones that we got in the game. The one thing that may have been nostalgic was how quickly the characters were able to get over a death or some grand emotional moment and move on in the quest at a fast pace. This reminded me of Final Fantasy IV for example, but then I realized these scenes were more comical instead of nostalgic to watch. I’m sorry Nostalgia, but you are nothing that resembles the name.

Title: Nostalgia
Developer: Matrix Software, Red Entertainment
Genre: Japanese Role-Playing Game
Year: 2008 (JP) 2009 (NA)
Platform: Nintendo DS (Played on a Nintendo 3DS)
Completion: In-game timer states that I played for roughly 21 hours, but my 3DS stats application says I played for over 24 hours; this is due to dying a few times in ridiculous airship battles. Did not attempt any sidequests as the main adventure was more than enough, although rewards for these quests are additional character information, gold, and weapons/armor.

-Jared Cyhowski