When Disney erased the Star Wars expanded universe, my initial thoughts were brief disappointment, followed by excitement. There are stories I loved from the expanded universe. And there are stories I hated. It made sense to reset the canon because how to you choose which stories are worthy to keep and which aren’t? How do you tell an author that “your stories aren’t good enough anymore”? And let’s be honest, Star Wars has long had an evolving canon. That’s why fans adopted a hierarchical approach that treated the stories as having degrees of canonicity. Do we really want to open the door to Grand Moff Thistleborn, Trioculous, and Ken the Jedi prince?
With the slate wiped clean, I wanted to jump in and stay up to date on the new canon. “I should read every book and comic,” I thought. But hardcover prices can be steep for books and authors that you may or may not like. Also, I’m not the fastest reader out there. When I was younger, I read quickly, but somewhere along the line my reading speed decreased. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up. So, I dropped this goal.
A year ago, my wife and I decided to share an Audible account. I get even-numbered months; she gets odd numbers. Eventually, I started picking up the Star Wars audio books. Sometimes I like the stories and sometimes I don’t, but the production quality is always high. This was an opportunity, I realized, to get caught up and start following the Star Wars canon novels.
So that is what I plan on doing. Each time I listen to a new audio book or watch a movie, I’ll add it to my ranking. Things will shift around, which will be fun for comparison. And it might help you see if we share the same tastes when it comes to Star Wars stories. I may even do a separate series for expanded universe books and comics.
Here is the current ranking, using the films from the George Lucas era.
The Empire Strikes Back
A New Hope
Return of the Jedi
Revenge of the Sith
The Clone Wars
The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
Again, this list is based on my preference for Star Wars stories. Your list is your own, and I would love to see how you rank these movies. Over the next few weeks, I’ll start filling in the list with other movies and books that I have read. Again, this list will be Disney canon only. I’ll give some thought to my Star Wars Legends list, though, because I don’t want those stories to be forgotten.
It has been far too long since I’ve written. Life has been incredibly busy, and most of my creative energies have been taken by work projects. But in addition to the business, I’ve been seeking help with years worth of depression and suicidal ideation. My wife and a couple of friends have been at me for years to seek help. I’ve had mixed results with counseling in the past. I typically hit a point where progress stops, but I felt obligated to keep going to the counselor I was seeing. My current counselor, however, has helped me sort through many things. Years of burnout and suppression of my own wants and needs are taking time to unravel, but progress is slowly being made.
As the depression has started to become less frequent, I have pursued some changes at work that are actually freeing up my mental energy. I feel like writing again. Well, more accurately, I feel like seeing some sort of personal creative work. And so, I want to post here from time to time. My goal is once a week, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I miss a week here or there. I’m also not going to put pressure on myself to do in-depth analyses or reviews (unless I feel like it at the time). It’s more an outlet to share where I am and what I am doing, and if anyone gains insight or enjoyment, that’s great.
After playing through the Final Fantasy series (which I continued to do, even though I stopped writing about it), I’ve moved on to other games. I’m currently streaming a Kingdom Hearts playthrough on Twitch for an hour or so on Mondays and Tuesdays. My goal is to play through all the games on the 1.5, 2.5, and 2.8 remix collections in preparation for Kingdom Hearts 3 next year. One or two nights a week, my wife watches me play Persona 5. She didn’t plan on watching, but the story has hooked her. The game is a lot of fun, and I love the music and visual design.
Outside of those games, I’ve been looking at something to play on my own, free from the obligations of being “on.” At the risk of jRPG overload, I picked up Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2. Again, great music and visual design. But the main thing I enjoy about the game is the grinding. Sometimes grinding can lead to a mild zen state. It also accompanies audio books well.
My gaming tastes tend to skew toward jRPGs, but I also enjoy some Western RPGs, such as The Elder Scrolls and some of Bioware’s games. You can probably tell that I also like games with compelling music and visual designs. (For example, I picked up Hyper Light Drifter from a GOG.com sale, and I look forward to digging into the world of that game.) So, if you have recommendations, let me know.
I’m also trying to get back into reading. I hit a string of uninteresting books lately, and rather than finish them, I just avoided them. One personal goal that I’m working on is to not force myself to finish a book if it isn’t working for me. Finishing books was just another area where a sense of obligation was wearing me down. But really, who was I reading for? Does it matter if I stop reading a book because I don’t enjoy it? No one is standing over me to make sure I read every word. I don’t have to give a book report as an exit exam to life.
And that brings me back to why the depression and suicidal thoughts became overwhelming: years of accumulating “have-to’s” for no reason. That some illusory entity was there to make sure I was doing all the things I was supposed to be doing. I was tired all the time (and still am from time to time), and suicidal thoughts were a longing for rest. They still arise every now and then. Years of habitual thoughts don’t stop overnight. But I think I am making progress. I am working rediscover my sense of self, to re-learn what it means to enjoy things after years of emotional repression. I am working to learn that I don’t have to prove myself and to be okay with discovering what I like and don’t like.
These three episodes constitute the first adventure by a TARDIS crew in Doctor Who. This adventure is marked by angry, resentment, and fear. Even though they follow closely from the events of An Unearthly Child, I have chose to group them separately to evaluate this story on its own merits. These episodes were written by Anthony Coburn and directed by Waris Hussein
The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan awake from their struggle to find they are in a new time period. While never explicitly stated in the story, it is clear that the author intended the setting to be prehistoric humanity. This is a story of tribes learning to work together, the Tribe of Gum and what I teasingly refer to as the Tribe of TARDIS. The Doctor is still dismissive of Ian and Barbara, but he no longer fears them. He has cast them all into the same fate. In some way, it seems the Doctor no longer cares what happens to the two teachers. He is now involved in figuring out where he is. Wandering off on his own, he is captured by a Kal, a prehistoric hunter who saw the Doctor light a pipe. Seeing the fire, Kal figured he could gain influence over the Tribe because “the leader is the one who makes fire.” Having lost his matches, the Doctor is powerless to grant Kal’s wishes. The time travelers are held captive as pawns in the power struggle between the outsider Kal and Za, the son of the former leader.
In general, the characters are good. There is clear characterization and growth, especially among the leads, but not limited to them. Za and Hur grow and change as a result of their experiences with the Doctor and his companions. This change is believable. They incorporate the new information into their contextual framework. Coburn doesn’t present the time travelers as enlightened figures imparting modern ideals to the past, with Za and Hur accepting them and finding similar enlightenment. Such plotting would be a strong marker for bad historical fiction. Za is intrigued by the wisdom the travelers offer, but he still filters such wisdom through his historical context. This is what I appreciate about good historical fiction: the humans do no have our perspective. They are foreign; they are alien. Great change, then, is gradual and takes time. The change that the Doctor and his companions bring to the Tribe is not a change that upsets human history.
Sadly, the only problem I have with character in this story is Susan. Having seen the unaired pilot, I know that Carole Ann Ford could play the character different. Unfortunately, that version of the character was scrapped. Instead, we are given Susan Foreman as a teenager that seems more human than alien. I think that Susan was done the greatest injustice in this early era of the show, as she was typically written and portrayed as panicky, flighty, and silly. I think they were trying to make a character the kids could identify with, but in the end, the character often doesn’t work. I look forward to revisiting these early stories to see how she fares throughout. I know that Barbara has great moments ahead, but I can’t remember if Susan does.
Generally, the presentation here is good. There were definitely some obstacles to overcome with the technology and the filming space. The cameras were extremely heavy and hard to move. The studio was small, and the TARDIS set was a permanent fixture. So, they did the best they could. Hussein creates some great shots with depth, framing a character in the background with characters in the foreground.
Other methods used to overcome obstacles worked at the time but don’t hold up. For example, to create the impression of running, we are given close ups of characters’ faces as they run in place and stagehands brush their faces with branches and leaves. It simulates a running effect, but it now LOOKS like a simulation. It was a good solution, but the development of film and television over the decades have caused this effect to not age well.
This story has some great themes. As mentioned before the struggles of the Tribe of Gum and the time travelers work in parallel. Just as the Tribe needs to learn to work together to survive the ice age, the travelers need to work together to survive their ordeal: being lost in time. Division will tear them apart and ultimately destroy them. As Ian says, “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” When unified, the tribe can stand against outsiders. This cuts both ways, sadly. If the whole tribe chooses to reject wisdom, then the wisdom can be lost. The whole tribe can choose destruction. But I am continually fascinated that Za, rather than choosing to destroy the strangers and their potentially subversive ideas, offers an alliance. Maybe “offers” is to light a term. He basically chooses to imprison them indefinitely so he can learn from them. But, the growth he shows as a character in this moment, the acknowledgment of his own weakness as a leader and his desire to learn, is still fascinating.
Another theme, intended or not, is wisdom imparted from a higher power. There are certain fringe theories that human development escalated in prehistory due to outside influences (gods, aliens, a more advanced group of humans from a lost civilization). Intended or not, this story says the outside influence was time travelers, and the greatest wisdom they imparted was not fire, but the realization that a tribe that works together can improve the tribe and possibly survive great adversity.
Each time I watch this story, I am more and more impressed with its themes. But I never look forward to watching it. I never crave watching it. My enjoyment of the story is more analytical, not emotional. As a result, this story is more of an acquired taste. Modern viewers may have difficulty with it because the presentation is dated and almost foreign. However, there are a lot of gems to unearth if you are patient and willing to dig deep.
Despite having already covered the classic era of Doctor Who, I have wanted to dive back in using this new review format. I used the classic era to jumpstart a regular writing/posting habit many years ago, and I hope to do so again. The format, then, is to review complete stories. Once I finish a serial, I will post a review. My goal is one review per week until I get caught up. And yes, caught up means the new series, which will likely be well in to the Chris Chibnall era.
One more thing to clarify: I’m approaching An Unearthly Child as a stand-alone episode. While there are character conflicts that continue throughout the 4-part story, An Unearthly Child works well as its own story. It introduces all the main characters and concepts in a mere 25 minutes. The episode doesn’t wait around, and just hits the ground running. It’s a bit impressive.
An Unearthly Child starts with Barbara and Ian, the history and science teachers at Coal Hill School, discussing Susan Foreman, a mysterious student. She is a gifted student, but she also has some strange gaps in her knowledge of present-day England. She doesn’t fit in. Oddly, she it sounds like she is the type of genius that just can’t be bothered with ordinary, mundane things. But she doesn’t fit in to this proper British school and Barbara wants to know more about her. Barbara follows Susan home one night. Susan, apparently, lives with her grandfather in a junk yard. Enlisting Ian’s help, Barbara sets out to confront this situation. The two teachers follow the young girl into the junk yard, and immediately lose track of her. They find an old police telephone box that seems to be connected to some sort of power source. They are discovered by an old man, who turns out to be Susan’s grandfather. Then, they hear Susan call out from inside the police box. Thinking Susan is being held against her will, Barbara forces her way in. The police box is bigger on the inside, and the inside is full of high-tech gadgetry side-by-side with antique furniture and a clock. Susan’s grandfather refuses to let the teachers go, hits a switch, and propels the police box through space and/or time. The episode leaves their destination in question.
It is no surprise that successful “reboots” of Doctor Who model themselves on this episode. The companions are introduced. We get a feel for who they are. The companions face a mystery. Through that mystery, they come to meet the Doctor and encounter the TARDIS. Each episode of the new series that introduces a new companion (a soft reboot, in a way) uses this pattern. Where this episode differs, however, is the mystery of the Doctor and Susan. They were introduced without 50+ years of lore and fan-baggage. As a result, there is no attempt to explain who the Doctor and Susan are beyond “exiles in the 4th dimension.” In a way, it’s fun to adopt this mindset and let the show provide its own answers. (Sometimes these answers are very different from what the show has become.)
This episode sets up a mystery, and as Ian and Barbara investigate the mystery, they find more questions. They are forced into a larger world, not by choice, but through kidnapping. It’s an interesting starting point.
BARBARA: I feel frightened, as if we are about to interfere in something that is best left alone. Don’t you feel it?
IAN: I take things as they come.
There is surprising depth to these characters. The quotes above give a concise encapsulation of who they are. Barbara is curious but has a sense of right and wrong. Ian is more relaxed in his approach.
Susan enjoys the world she is in, despite her struggles, but feels very close to her grandfather. She will do what he says, regardless of what she wants. In a way, she is trapped by his over-protection. The Doctor is suspicious, calm, and calculating. He seems dangerous and untrustworthy and at this point. This is especially true after he kidnaps the two teachers.
Personally, I think the episode stumbles a bit when Barbara tries to explain to Susan that the TARDIS is an illusion. She rejects what she has seen. Ian has difficulty with this as well, explaining that he doesn’t expect the mysteries of time travel to be solved in a junk yard. While I think this is a lapse of character, it does reinforce the idea that adherence to the status-quo is a strong desire. Susan’s inability to fit in started this adventure, and now the teachers must stare it directly in the face. They reject it.
Decades of stories that portray a call to adventure (Luke in Star Wars, Harry in Harry Potter, Bilbo and Frodo in Tolkien’s novels) always start with a realization that the status quo doesn’t work any longer. The characters often take a first step into adventure, but then reject it. However, the first step cannot be undone, and so they are forced out against their will. Luke wanted to leave home, met Obi Wan, started gaining knowledge, but then refused the call. He returned home to find his aunt and uncle killed. He then returned to Obi Wan. (Okay, it doesn’t quite work with Harry Potter, but his pre-called life was tangibly unpleasant as opposed to existentially unpleasant.)
There is a similar, though rearranged, call here. Barbara and Ian are firmly in the status quo, but their call comes from their observation that Susan is not of the status quo. They actually want to mold her giftedness into something that would work for the world as they see it, but Susan either can’t (because of her grandfather) or won’t (if she has any choice, which she probably doesn’t). And so, the teachers investigate. They are soon forced to stare the call directly in the face as they enter the TARDIS. But the Doctor won’t let them leave, and now they are trapped—for better or for worse.
And so, it would seem, the deeper theme of the episode is that once you take steps to investigate this mystery, this call, this place where the status-quo breaks down, you have altered your fate.
I’m grading this one on a curve. This is 1960s British television. Decades of film and television innovation have not yet happened, and most of the framing for the episode is done similar to stage productions. It’s actually fun to watch for shots that attempt to frame all the characters in a shot. It’s fun to see how director Waris Hussein works with depth.
And I’m particularly impressed with the shot of Ian and Barbara in the car.
It is difficult, however, to watch some of the camera movements. The cameras used at the time didn’t have lenses that could zoom, so the cameras had to be physically moved. This causes problems with focus and framing. We often lose sight of the characters in the shot. Sadly, these moments haven’t aged well, though they were standard at the time. But I don’t want to detract from evaluating presentation due to the technical limitations. Instead, I want to see how they used what they had, and I think that An Unearthly Child did quite well. It’s a solidly shot episode.
Sadly, I wasn’t really engaged with the episode on this viewing. I’ve seen it many times, so there aren’t a lot of surprises. I still enjoy it because Ian and Barbara are some of my favorite Doctor Who companions, but at this point, we are still just putting pieces into place. I know what the pieces are, and so I’m ready for the adventure. But still, An Unearthly Child is immensely watchable and, technical considerations aside, holds up well for the era.
My History with the Game: I know this game better than any other game in the series. I remember when I saw the first footage of the game in Nintendo Power. I got it for Christmas in 1994 when the game was released on SNES as Final Fantasy 3. I can’t count the number of times I’ve played this game, and it never feels old to me. More than any other game in the series, I think this is the one that made me a fan of RPGs and Squaresoft. I even remember placing my cassette player near my TV speaker to record the music from this game. I drew Kefka in the margins of my notes in school. This game was in my top five when I was growing up (number 2, actually), and it is still a favorite.
Play Time for Main Story: 23:56
Final Fantasy VI begins with a prologue that establishes a steampunk world that lacks magic. Magic is thought to have died 1000 years ago after the War of the Magi, a conflict initiated by warring goddesses. Through this war, some people were turned into magical creatures called Espers and used to devastating effect. When the war ended, the goddesses turned to stone and the Espers moved with them to a magical realm. Magic vanished from the human world. However, the Empire has rediscovered magic, and a frozen Esper has been found in a mine in the independent city Narshe. The Empire sends Terra and a group of soldiers to recover the Esper. Terra is controlled by a slave crown and can only follow orders. However, when she encounters the frozen Esper, it reacts to her, and the other troops are killed. The story begins here, following Terra’s freedom from the Empire. She can use magic. The Empire wants her back. The rebel group Returners wants her to join them in their fight against the Empire. Terra must choose her path while trying to figure out who she is and why the Esper seemed to know who she was.
Many Final Fantasy games hint at ancient events that have resurfaced in the current game. FF VI is no different. But it is the complexity of the backstory that shines. The complexity helps to flesh out the world and make it feel bigger and more immersive. And in FF VI, I feel like I am exploring a world that has truly been shaped by these past events. The characters actively shape how the story unfolds, and Terra’s story is intimately connected to the plot and what the Empire hopes to accomplish.
There is also a massive plot twist halfway through the game. The Empire’s plans derail in a major way when the Emperor learns that Kefka had his own agenda the entire time. I didn’t see this coming when I first played the game, and it is still a shocking but believable twist based on what we know of the character.
I think Final Fantasy VI has the largest main cast of any Final Fantasy game. (In the main series, that is. I haven’t played any spin-offs like Type-0 or Tactics. One day . . . .) However, this large cast is surprisingly fleshed out. While you could argue that Terra is the main character, in reality, she’s not. She is an entry point and is pivotal in the early game, but after Kefka plays his hand, her prominence decreases. She is no longer the center of the story. This would work against the story if the rest of the cast was weak, but they aren’t. Almost every character has a backstory with a tragedy the drives them forward. They grow and change. In fact, this is part of the theme of the story: overcoming your past and finding a reason to keep moving forward. This gives the characterization more of a modular feel since each of them has his or her reasons for the fight. I would have preferred if Terra had remained the prominent character throughout, but with this many stories to tell (and with her arc and where they took her character), it works well.
Here is a brief overview of the characters (with links to their theme music):
Terra – A young woman with a mysterious past. She can use magic, and is being used as a slave Magitek warrior by the Empire.
Locke – A treasure hunter haunted by his failure to save the woman he loved.
Edgar – The king of Figaro, who must navigate the political tensions between independence and being an ally of the Empire. He knows the Empire had his father killed and is secretly supporting the Returners.
Sabin – Edgar’s twin brother, who rejected the throne of Figaro to train under the martial arts master Duncan.
Celes – A Magiek Imperial general who has defected.
Cyan – A samurai from the kingdom of Doma. His people were poisoned by Kefka.
Gau – A child who was abandoned on the Veldt after his father became convinced he was a demon.
These characters fight against Emperor Gestahl, who’s Empire has been expanding and destroying any who oppose it. Geshtahl is served by General Leo, a man who holds honor in high regard, and Kefka, a general who enjoys chaos and destruction. Kefka believes life is meaningless and derives great pleasure from destruction and anything that causes people to lose hope. For him, senseless destruction is the true expression of existence.
The graphics in this game take a large step forward from IV and V. The world map takes on a pseudo-3D look instead of being straight overhead. The character sprites used in the map are the same used in battle, which looks great and allows for more detail and expression. Since this world is defined more by technology than previous FF games, it has a more industrial revolution look in places. There are still a few castles, but we see far more technology here. The series is moving more toward science fiction.
The music is my favorite from the SNES era . . . maybe even from the entire Nintendo era. Nobuo Uematsu wrote over three hours of music for this game. Each character has a theme (see the list of characters above), and these themes are reused in interesting ways (such as Terra’s theme being used in the world map but also when she is freed from the slave crown). There’s even an opera. The music brilliantly communicates tone in the game. For example, the world music becomes dark and ominous after Kefka’s plan. But when the characters are reunited and renew their resolve to fight for the world, the music changes into something more inspiring and upbeat. And the final gauntlet of monsters in the lead-up to Kefka is possibly the second greatest Final Fantasy end boss theme in the series. In all, this soundtrack expands greatly on what video game soundtracks were capable of. And I think the U.S. branch of Square knew this because the first video game soundtrack that I ever saw advertised was this one. I wanted it at the time, but I didn’t have a CD player. Kind of weird to think back on a time before CDs, actually.
The only criticism I have is that the PS One sound design is not quite the same as the SNES version. The wind effects don’t sound as good, and some of the other effects are not quite the same. The Phantom Train music seemed to cut in and out because it seemed in conflict with the train effects. And the music for the ending cutscene didn’t match the pace of the original SNES version. It was really annoying as the airship flies off into the distance, the music builds . . . and gets cut off because the video advanced faster than the music. I hope future ports (GBA, mobile, and PC) of the game fixed this.
The basic mechanics have more in common with FF IV than with other games in the series. Each character has a class that determines stats. If you are familiar with the FF jobs, you have a good idea how characters progress: Sabin is a monk and has high health and strong bare-handed attacks; Lock is a thief (treasure hunter!), so he can steal; Strago is a blue mage; and so on. Some jobs operate a bit different here, such as Edgar’s Engineer/Machinist job. He uses spears and special tools (like the auto-crossbow or chainsaw), and have very little in common with FFIV’s Cid, who was also an Engineer.
The major difference is with the magic system. I appreciate that the magic system in this game reflects the lore of the world. While a handful of characters are natural magic users (Terra and Celes, to begin with), any character can learn magic through the use of magicite. When an Esper dies, it becomes a stone called magicite. Each piece of magicite contains spells that players can learn as they gain magic points. Some magicite allows players to learn at a faster rate. When a character has magicite equipped, they can summon the Esper. And if you are interested in min/maxing your characters, some magicite has stat bonuses for the character if it is equipped when they gain a level. Again, this system is lore-based and I appreciate the attempt to merge mechanics and story. Unfortunately, there isn’t much variety. In time, anyone can learn any spell. Some characters are naturally better at magic than others. You can use the stat bonuses to add enhance the characters as you wish, but it’s not necessary. As long as you keep finding better equipment and leveling your characters as normal, you don’t have to spend much time mastering any complex mechanics. If anything, that makes Final Fantasy VI an easy entry point for the series. The character advancement system is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require a lot of thought. But it makes sense within the story being told, and I enjoy that.
Playing through these games has given me an appreciation of the mechanics and growth of the series. And while I think Final Fantasy VI is a bit lacking in this area, it more than makes up for it is story and characters. The mechanics don’t get in the way of the story, as they sometimes did in FFII and V. But there was also enough exploration to feel like you are playing a game and not watching an animated series. It is a lot of fun. I also loved seeing how themes continue to be used throughout each game. This is the first Final Fantasy game to not use crystals! Magicite sort of takes the place of crystals, but they are still distinct. The themes of balance and ruin are present; though in this game balance is a force of light where ruin is a force of darkness. Honestly, moving away from crystals has been a good thing at this point in the series. As I recall, it will be a few more games before crystals return to the Final Fantasy games. I’ll be honest, I don’t miss them.
The game is over 20 years old, and I still enjoy playing it. That says a lot for its longevity and its status as a classic.
My History with the Game: I have played through Final Fantasy V once before. It hasn’t been one of my favorites because, at the time, I thought the job system was tedious and the story was not engaging enough to make it fun. I became a fan of the series because of Final Fantasy IV and VI, and the story for V just wasn’t as compelling in comparison. And I confess that the story must not have left much of an impression on me because I barely remembered it. I remembered two worlds, a castle with special weapons, and the main villain was a tree. That’s about it, though.
Play Time for Main Story: 28:30 (or so)
The winds have become strange and slow, and the king of Tycoon departs for the Wind Shrine to investigate the Wind Crystal. The Crystal shatters. A meteorite crashes into a forest near Tycoon, and a traveler named Bartz (or in my play through, Obi-Wan) investigates. He finds goblins attacking Lenna, the princess of Tycoon. Bartz rescues Lenna, and the two find an old man named Galuf near the meteorite. Galuf has amnesia. Lenna was on her way to the Wind Shrine to check on her father. Galuf remembers that he was heading there as well, so the two leave together. Bartz initially intends to travel on alone, but soon catches up to Lenna and Galuf again as they fight off monsters. He decides to join them. However, their path is blocked due because of the destruction from the meteorite. They find their way through a cave, get captured by pirates, but are soon joined in their quest by the pirate captain Faris. Adventure ensues.
It turns out that the elemental Crystals are weakening, due in part to humanity’s utilization of the Crystals’ power. Unfortunately, the Crystals hold together a seal that binds a creature called Exdeath, an evil sorcerer who once desired to destroy the world. Galuf, it turns out, is one of the four Warriors of Dawn, who sealed Exdeath away. And in typical Final Fantasy fashion, it gets more convoluted than this, with both Exdeath and Galuf being from another world, and the two worlds used to be one world, but were split a thousand years earlier when another evil sorcerer communed with a creature called the Void, and so on. Disaster ensued.
In some ways, this game can be seen as a remake/reimagining of Final Fantasy I and III. The characters are different, but the themes are similar. The effects of Crystals on the planet is the same. This time around, the story just didn’t engage me. I felt emotionally distant from it until the ending. Sorry for the spoiler, but the ending flashes forward by one year, and we learn that Krile, Galuf’s granddaughter and eventual teammate, has been alone, feeling forgotten by her former companions. This really got to me, and moved me to tears, despite being emotionally unengaged up to this point. I guess you could say that the ending is great, even if the main story of the game is a bit meh. When I look back on it, I think I would have preferred this game follow the adventures of the Warriors of Dawn: three old men and a werewolf. Now that would have been a blast. Fun would have ensued. (Okay, enough of that.)
I think I just wanted a deeper storytelling and world building. Much like how Final Fantasy II felt empty and devoid of people, Final Fantasy III felt like the world didn’t exist outside the main plot. IV had an underworld with creatures that had their own lives and cultures. VI has hints of ancient conflicts, forgotten deities, and lore that bubbles just beneath the surface. With V, there was nothing to discover beyond this story. There’s nothing more to uncover about this world, no mysteries left behind.
Maybe I was more in the mood for Skyrim.
You start the game with
Bartz – A young man travelling the world with his chocobo companion Boko.
Lenna – The princess of Tycoon who loves her dragon and fears for the safety of her father.
Galuf – A former Warrior of the Dawn. Galuf came to Bartz and Lenna’s world to prevent Exdeath from becoming free. Unfortunately, his mission was hindered by his amnesia.
Faris – A pirate captain who masquerades as male. She is actually Lenna’s long-lost sister.
Eventually you meet further characters:
Krile – Galuf’s granddaughter, who tries to protect her grandfather from his occasional rash actions.
Exdeath – A sorcerer who once threatened to destroy the world. He used to be a tree. Yes, you read that right. Exdeath is a tree that gained sentience and somehow became humanoid.
It is important to explore to find the character cut-scenes in this game. While other games in the series uncover character backgrounds through plot developments, it is possible to miss pieces in this game. So, your experience may vary if you are just focusing on the plot. Character development is just one way that Final Fantasy V rewards exploration and patience.
Graphically, this game has much in common with Final Fantasy IV. It is still a top-down view. The field sprites are less detailed than the battle sprites. However, the developers attempted to bring more personality to the sprites by using pop-up responses such as exclamation points or hearts above character heads, much like you would see in animation or comics. This helped bring a little more depth to the characters beyond text alone.
The music for this game, however, may be my least favorite of the series so far. There are a few pieces I like:
Beyond these pieces, the music didn’t capture me. I don’t know if it is the pieces themselves or the versions used in the game. (I enjoy the Distant Worlds versions of all FFV music.) Or maybe it is that the overall tone of the game is lighter and sillier than other games in the series. Our main characters are heroes who do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. There isn’t as much struggle with them, not as much inner conflict. And our main villain is a guy who used to be a tree. There’s only so much darkness you can put into a story with such a villain.
The gameplay is solid. While this game can be grind-heavy due to the difficulty level and the sheer number of jobs and skills, the way all these pieces work together is fun, especially if you like to experiment. While the jobs in Final Fantasy III gave characters special abilities and stat bonuses while the job was equipped, in Final Fantasy V, you can learn abilities that you can keep active while using other jobs. So, if you are a white mage, and you want to equip heavy armor, you can do it if you have learned that ability from the knight job. You can only have one extra ability active at a time, but some abilities pair in interesting ways with other jobs. It pays to experiment in this game. And much like the onion knight job in Final Fantasy III, the freelancer (or bare) job allows you to keep the stat bonuses of any job you have mastered. So, as with character stories, Final Fantasy 5 rewards patience, which I just didn’t have when I played it. You have to be in the right mood to play it, and that mood must enjoy grinding.
As mentioned before, I wasn’t too engaged in the playthrough. Again and again it comes down to being in the right mood to explore, experiment, and grind. This game rewards all of these. It asks you to take your time and spend a lot of hours in it. The reward is more in the gameplay than the story. It doesn’t help that V falls between two of my favorite Nintendo-era Final Fantasy games, so V feels like a lull. The story is lighter (both in tone and in focus), but the gameplay and mechanics are a bigger focus here. If you go to Final Fantasy for stories, this one isn’t one of the strongest. But if you enjoy an innovative character advancement system that rewards patience, experimentation, and creativity, there is a lot to enjoy here.
I got hooked on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels during the first season of the HBO adaptation. I decided that I couldn’t wait for the show, and I tore through the books as fast as I could. (Jokes on me, though, now that the show will finish before the books.) But now that I and many others continue our long wait for The Winds of Winter, I need an occasional Westeros fix. Hence, Telltale’s Game of Thrones Season 1.
The story follows House Forrester, a house that is mentioned in the books. They are banner men for House Stark and sided with the Starks during the War of Five Kings. Unfortunately, the game opens at the Red Wedding.
Following Telltale’s usual model, the story is divided into episodes, six in this case. Each episode follows House Forrester allies as they attempt to hold their House together after the power shifts in the North after the fall of the Starks. The Forresters control a resource known as ironwood, a hard wood that is useful for war craft, but is also difficult to harvest and shape. Ramsay Bolton puts the rival House Whitehill in charge of the Forresters. And the Whitehills are not kind lords. Why would we expect honor or nobility from allies of Ramsay Bolton? Scenes take place at Ironrath, the Forrester stronghold in the North; the Wall; King’s Landing; and Essos as you try to navigate between diplomacy and honor to keep your house intact and to discover the location of the mythical North Grove.
Throughout the game you play:
Ethan, the child lord of House Forrester. A third-born son, he was never groomed for leadership.
Mira Forrester, a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell.
Asher Forrester, an exiled son who has become a sell sword in Essos.
Gerard Tuttle, a squire to Lord Forrester.
There is another playable character, but I’ll keep that one secret for the sake of those concerned about spoilers. You can shape each playable character slightly through your choices and actions. You can also interact with characters from the show (as this game takes place in the HBO continuity rather than the Martin continuity). For the most part, the characters are interesting, though I feel like the Whitehills sometimes ride the line of “antagonism for the sake of antagonism” much too closely. I wanted to get more into why Ludd and Gryff were so cruel. Even Cersei Lannister gets a few sympathetic scenes in the show and book. I would have liked more for these characters. Thankfully, Gwyn Whitehill is a very interesting character, and I was never quite sure how much I could trust her. I may play through the game again at some point just to see if I can get alternative scenes with her.
The music by Jared Emerson-Johnson does a good job of feeling distinct while imitating a style that feels reminiscent of the show. I’ve enjoyed Ramin Djwadi’s music for the show, and I think Emerson-Johnson has added to and expanded on the musical landscape of Westeros.
Visually, the game follows the look and feel of the HBO adaptation. However, the graphics have an almost water-color or oil look to them, as if they were trying to create a look of a painting come to life. I applaud their choice to try something different. I often enjoy when games decide to go for stylized instead of realistic, even if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think it largely works here, but I admit that it was occasionally distracting and created strange graphical effects when animated, such as when wine was pouring from a jar in one episode or when a character’s arm moved through a chair. Sure, these types of glitches happen all the time, but they seemed more striking with the contrast between sharp and blurred images created by the visual style.
On the one hand, I celebrate Telltale’s story-driven update of the point-and-click genre. On the other hand, it isn’t always fun to play. There are many points during which I wondered why we had interactive elements at all. Sometimes looking at things added to dialogue options, which was great. And then sometimes it felt like I looked at things because it was a video game. I collected objects, but rarely used them. I walked down a hall because, well, it’s a video game, and interactive elements were needed. The quick-time combat was a bit more engaging. And there were a few major choices that I had to make that I know changed how things played out. Those choices alone made me wonder what the other choices would bring. So, if you are familiar with Telltale’s style and enjoy it, you will find more of the same here. If you prefer games that have more gameplay and autonomy, this definitely won’t be your thing.
If a game makes me wish I was playing another game, I think it fails to resonate. Sometimes this game made me want to play Skyrim because I wanted more interactive elements (of consequence) and more choice and options for combat and movement. And sometimes it made me want to play Dragon Age because I wanted more choices in how to interact with characters. The dialogue options rarely fit with what I wanted to do, ESPECIALLY in King’s Landing. For the majority of the game, the character I enjoyed playing the most was Asher because he had such a strong personality at his introduction. I didn’t feel like I was playing myself in a game. I knew how Asher would respond. With other characters, I was left to determine who they were, and I sometimes defaulted to my ideal version of a character, which wasn’t available in the choices. And sometimes I wanted one of my Skyrim stealth characters. I wanted to take out the entire Whitehall army with my stealth and Dragonborn skills and bring this conflict to an end.
The loss of autonomy in this game was frustrating, and the choices sometimes felt inconsequential. But then, this is Game of Thrones. The first few episodes of the game were difficult because I was trying to make the “right” choice. But in a world of Ramsay Bolton, there is no right choice. I was able to better engage with the game when I adopted a Bushido approach: I’m already dead, so I don’t need to worry about dying. I can’t win, so don’t worry about losing. This worked since it took away the stress. And when I played as Asher, it was easier. Going in to the final episode, I decided the best option was to assume it won’t go well, so take as many of the villains with me as I can. It may not have given me the “best” ending (should such a thing be available in Westeros), but I lived and died on my terms. And in this world, that is the best anyone can hope for. And I think, at the end of it all, that is the choice in Westeros: Do you cling to life or do you cling to honor?
Final Rating: 7/10
Surprisingly, I am more than willing to play season two, whenever Telltale gets around to making it. The Westeros lore was expanded in this game, and it sometimes did a great job of giving me a fix as I wait for The Winds of Winter.
Let’s go ahead and assume the comments will have spoilers and let me know what you thought of the game and what choices you made?
Playthrough Platform: PC (From the Nintendo DS port)
My History with the Game:Final Fantasy IV is the game that made me a fan of the series. While I had played FFI on the NES, it was the SNES version of FFIV (known to me back then as FFII) that captured my imagination. Outside of The Legend of Zelda, no game series had a greater impact on me as a gamer. I couldn’t purchase a copy of the game back then, so I rented Final Fantasy IV from the local video store, while desperately hoping that no one overwrote my save file as I tried to scrounge more money to rent the game again. I think I played it through twice. I have since learned that the version I grew up with was an easier version, though back then, I thought it was plenty hard. In the mid-2000s, I picked up the PS One re-release of the game, which included the original difficulty. I completed that version at least once. This playthrough is my first time to play the DS version.
The Kingdom of Baron has begun to aggressively pursue the elemental crystals of other nations. The Dark Knight Cecil leads Baron’s air force, The Red Wings, against the city of Mysidia. Despite being mages, the Mysidians do not fight back. Many are killed. In light of this unprovoked slaughter, Cecil begins to question his king. He is exiled. Final Fantasy IV follows Cecil’s quest to learn why Baron is stealing the crystals and to stop the evil forces behind it.
Much like Final Fantasy II, narrative takes center stage in this game. However, objectives are much clearer, and character stories drive many plot points. The story is filled with victory, tragedy, betrayal, and revelations. It is the most cohesive game so far in the series, and the one hints at the story-driven progression of future games.
The characters are diverse and memorable. Cecil is the conflicted knight who questions his king, though it grieves him to do so. Kain is Cecil’s childhood friend and the commander of Baron’s dragoons. Kain harbors a secret love for Rosa, Cecil’s lover. Rosa is a white mage who wants to accompany Cecil in his quest. Rydia is a young girl from the summoner village. Her people are killed when Cecil and Kain unknowingly deliver fire monsters to the village. And there are many more characters (Cid, Tellah, Edward, Yang, Palom, Porom, Edge, Golbez, FoSuYa), each with a distinct personality, backstory, and motivation. I particularly enjoyed that this version of the game included a playable cutscene of Golbez’s past. I think I would have liked to see more added scenes to flesh out additional characters, but the one with Golbez was nice. It humanized him and made him far more sympathetic.
I do think that the game cheats a bit with character death. There are many points during which characters make a sacrifice. This is reminiscent of Final Fantasy 2. Unlike that game, however, many characters return near the end of the game. Their death scenes feel empty as a result.
I would have also liked more development for Rosa. She remains a damsel in distress for much of the game. Rydia became a far more compelling and developed female character. But again, the character development in this game is a huge step forward. The SNES cartridges allowed for more text and story content for the games, and I’m glad the developers focused on story and character.
Playing the 3D version of this game took some adjustment. I was used to the SNES version. They didn’t change any maps, which was appreciated. And I loved the addition of a cartography quest for each dungeon. It inspired exploration and additional level grinding. The designers attempted to re-create the environments of the original, and I think they largely succeeded. I particularly enjoyed the embers from lava that drifted throughout the underworld.
This version of the game adds voiced cut-scenes. Some of the voices are cheesy, though the animation style almost justifies the lighter, silly anime tone of some scenes. The cut-scenes and 3D presentation allowed the animators to convey emotion better than the 2D sprites could in the original.
Character progression is far more simplified in this game when compared to Final Fantasy 2 and 3. We return to the XP/Leveling system of Final Fantasy I. Characters are locked into a single class, but there is variety since each character has one or two commands that are unique to their class. Since you are not able to choose who is in your party, each time you gain or lose members, you have to find a new dynamic for battle, which keeps you on your toes. The DS remake adds a bit of customization with augments, which allow you to give a character additional commands or abilities for battle. Augments were not part of the original game, so these serve to make combat a bit easier.
There are a few side-quests (additional eidolons for summoning, unique weapons, and achievements), but most of the game focuses on the main story. Gameplay supplements the story, so if you are looking for a game with a lot of customization or exploration, Final Fantasy IV probably isn’t what you are looking for. I think that is a tension that the series always fights with: openness vs. driving narrative. Some games find a decent balance. Some lean more heavily toward one over the other. And some games jump back and forth, which can really mess with the pacing. Final Fantasy IV is very story/character driven, which is one reason I consistently enjoy it.
Again, this is the game that made me a fan of the series. I think it is also the game that made me interested in fantasy as a genre. I enjoy the characters, the twists, and the music. The 3D remake allowed me to rediscover an old favorite with new eyes. If you are looking to experience one of the older Final Fantasy games, but have been turned off by the old 8 or 16-bit graphics, this remake is a great starting point.
Final Rating: 8.5/10
So, I’ve gushed about this game, and I’m glad it held up for me. But I’d like to know what you think. When did you first play Final Fantasy IV (any version)? Do you have a version that you prefer? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Final Fantasy 3 was the last FF game released for the NES. It did not see a North American release until 2006, at which time it was released on the Nintendo DS (which I do not own), and was a 3D remake. This version was later ported to PC. Based on the research I have done, the story for the remake is largely the same as the original, though some characters have been fleshed out (rather than being generic) and a few mechanics have been tweaked.
After a massive earthquake, four young orphans are chosen by the Crystals to be the Warriors of Light. In their travels they discover a world lurking beneath the Floating Continent that was their home. This world was frozen in time as the fallen wizard Xande works to achieve immortality. What Xande doesn’t realize is that he is a pawn in the struggle between Dark and Light. The balance between Dark and Light has shifted toward Dark, and the Warriors of Light must restore the balance. However, it turns out this quest was set into motion 1000 years earlier when the Warriors of Dark, while attempting to resolve the Light imbalance, encountered a creature they couldn’t destroy: The Cloud of Darkness, a creature whose sole desire is to return all existence to the Void. The Warriors of Dark were only able to contain the Cloud, but the Warriors of Light must now push back the Cloud of Darkness once and for all.
One thing that continues to change in the Final Fantasy games is that the story becomes stronger and more prominent with each version. This game is no exception. While there are plenty of opportunities for grinding and exploration, the plot drives everything, and the next plot point is usually clear. But of particular interest is that level of Japanese cosmology that is in this game. When I first learned of the Warriors of Light and Dark who are called to preserve the balance between light and dark, I couldn’t help but imagine the Yin/Yang. Rather than the evil tyranny of FF2, you work to restore balance between Light and Dark, neutral forces that are only good or evil depending on their state of balance. The actions of humans affect the balance. And when imbalance occurs, the Void grows stronger. In the end, the Void is the enemy; non-existence is the enemy. Hope is the only way to fight the imbalance.
The characters were much stronger in this game. The main characters are
Arc – a bookish, somewhat timid young man
Ingus – a stoic royal guard
Refia – an adventurous young woman who doesn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps as a blacksmith
Luneth – the least developed character. I think he may be intended to stand in for the player, and thus left vague on purpose.
The secondary characters are also memorable. Among them are
Sara – the princess who takes is on herself to re-imprison the djinn. (She is also in love with Ingus.)
Desch – a womanizer with amnesia
Prince Allus of Saronia – who was exiled by his father but now wants to return.
The only criticism I have with character is that, like Final Fantasy 2, the main villain is underdeveloped. We hear about him in a couple of place, but only truly see him at the end of the game. Even then, he is a pawn of a greater evil that we don’t meet until the very end of the game. However, this is a recurring Final Fantasy trope. This wasn’t the first time this happened, and it won’t be the last.
I didn’t play the original NES version, so I can’t really judge that one. The PC port of the Nintendo DS version is a good looking game. The visuals fit the tone of the game, being vaguely anime and cartoonish in tone. The 3D battlegrounds are reminiscent of the Playstation One games. The level designs are great and there aren’t as many dead-ends or empty rooms. And this is the first time the Final Fantasy series utilizes multiple world maps, one for the floating continent and one for the lower world (and an underwater map).
Thankfully, the character leveling system of FF2 is gone. We are back to a more traditional XP system for character leveling. To spice things up, FF3 adds the job system. This system is a different spin on character classes. Rather than selecting a class at the beginning of the game and sticking with it, you collect job crystals that allow you to change classes whenever you want. Each job provides stat bonuses that stick with you as long as the job is equipped. As you level up your jobs, the bonuses increase as well. Each job usually has one or two special abilities, such as magic, stealing, guarding, etc.) Changing jobs lets you vary your play style, and even provides strategic advantages since some jobs are better suited for areas or bosses. The only frustrating thing about jobs in this game is the penalty you suffer when switching jobs. You typically have to fight a few battles before the stat bonuses kick in. Since you can level all jobs to 99, this is a very grind-heavy game if you want to be a completionist, but it isn’t required.
After the disappointment of Final Fantasy 2, this game was a blast. While I haven’t enjoyed the job system in the past, I enjoyed it here. The humor and cuteness of the game was surprisingly appealing to me.
Grinding was actually fun, though at times combat could be frustrating. Early on the difficulty levels seemed to spike heavily if I wasn’t keeping my job levels high. And the complete lack of tents and ethers was incredibly frustrating. I spent a lot of time going between dungeons and towns to keep my MP high. Thankfully, you get a few different types of airships here. So, in all, this was a lot of fun, and I can see myself returning to my saved game to keep building my job levels.
The Wolf Among Us is the first Telltale game I have played. Their games are a modern form of the old point-and-click variety, a genre that I enjoyed in my younger years. I was a huge fan of LucasArts. But one thing that Telltale brings to the table is choices that affect the story. So, when I interact with characters or choose to investigate certain places over others, the story alters based on my choices.
TWAU is set in the Fables comics universe that was created by Bill Willingham. I was a huge fan of this series. In the game, you take control of Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown. Bigby investigates the murder of a prostitute named Faith. What is particularly interesting in this game is the exploration of the seedy side of Fabletown and learning about Fables that fell between the cracks. Not everyone was a prince or princess. Some Fables were trolls or woodsmen or Grendel. A mysterious man known only as the Crooked Man has started an organization that provides for, and controls, Fables that can’t afford the Fabletown services—in particular, those that can’t afford the glamors that allow them to pass as human so they don’t have to go to the Farm.
Basically, TWAU is a noir exploration of the seedy underbelly of the Fables’s world.
For the most part, I enjoyed the game. I liked how Telltale introduced new characters who were based on urban myths, such as Bloody Mary and The Jersey Devil. I loved when Bigby finally tuned into his full, Big Bad Wolf form. And there were plenty of moments when I agonized over decisions I had to make. But at times I didn’t find the game too engaging. I would have enjoyed just watching and not playing, or even reading the story if it was a comic. Sometimes I forgot I was playing a game, and realized I had to answer a question or dodge a punch. (Be warned: don’t ever let your hands drop off the keyboard, just in case.)
Overall, I wanted more gameplay and exploration. The Wolf Among Us, however, is a well-made game, and a well-told story. It just wasn’t quite my thing.