Author Archives: Pete Davison

About Pete Davison

Southampton-based music teacher, writer and enthusiast of Japanese popular culture.

1992: The Essence of a Great RPG

I’ve been playing some Omega Quintet and Final Fantasy XIV today. I’ve technically “finished” both of them from a story perspective, but both have an “endgame” that you can keep playing after the main story is completed. In Omega Quintet’s case, it’s an opportunity to take on some challenging quests that require you to defeat very strong enemies as well as clean up any loose ends you might have left behind such as the optional “Training Facility” dungeon; in Final Fantasy XIV’s case, it’s a matter of gearing up and/or levelling other classes, largely in preparation for future content additions such as the imminent raid Alexander.

Playing both of these games from this perspective today made me come to something of a realisation: the essence of a truly great RPG — or, perhaps more accurately, one that I will doubtless think back on particularly fondly long after I’ve finished, even if it might not be critically acclaimed or widely beloved — is twofold: firstly, it has to draw me in and captivate me with its story and/or characters, then after that, the mechanics have to stand up to hours of play. If both of these things are true, I will happily spend hundreds — even thousands, in the case of Final Fantasy XIV — of hours on the game in question.

There are quite a lot of games that have fallen into this category for me over the years. Gust’s Ar Tonelico series is one, for example; while there’s not really an “endgame” in any of its three installments, they do have multiple endings that necessitate additional playthroughs (or strategic saving). Compile Heart’s Neptunia series is another; with pretty much all of the games in that series (with the exception of the very first and the idol sim Hyperdimension Neptunia PP, which I fully intend to go back to at some point soon) I’ve seen fit to exhaust absolutely everything they have to offer rather than playing them through once and being done with them. Both Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory and Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1 took up well over a hundred hours of my life, for example.

Most recently, as previously noted, Omega Quintet has been keeping me busy in this regard. Omega Quintet has such a pleasing blend of story, characterisation and hugely enjoyable mechanics — its battle system is one of my favourite takes on turn-based combat I think I’ve ever seen — that I find it fun to just boot up and have a few fights in. The fact that the endgame section rewards you with massive amounts of experience for many of the battles, allowing you to level the girls up to ridiculous power levels — there doesn’t appear to be the usual level cap of 99 in place — makes for a hugely satisfying experience. Enemies that once caused me considerable grief can now be defeated relatively easily — though pleasingly, Omega Quintet, particularly on its hardest difficulty, isn’t afraid to smack you about a bit every so often if you get a bit cocky; I think I’ve had more “Game Over” screens in the endgame than I did throughout the whole story, and it’s usually been because I made foolish assumptions that I was then punished for.

The only trouble with finding games that I want to spend hundreds of hours with in this way is that it means beating a single game to my satisfaction takes a hell of a long time. Still, I guess it means I shouldn’t run out of things to play any time soon, huh? And that’s quite a nice feeling.

1991: Reddit in Trouble?

I find online social networks a fascinating thing to observe and sometimes participate in. Twitter is the main one I’m a part of, and over my time using it I’ve been part of a number of different subcultures that make use of the site as a means of talking to one another about common interests, regardless of geographical location.

In this sense, social networks are a bit like real life; you tend to gravitate towards people with whom you have common interests, and you drift away from people you find objectionable or simply don’t mesh well with. It’s exactly the same online; I know exactly the sort of people I’m likely to get along with, and exactly the sort of people I want to avoid at all costs. The nice thing about online interactions is that you can — for the most part — take a lot more control over your experience than you can in reality. You can’t, for example, choose the people that you work alongside, so if you dislike, say, your manager or another member of your team, you can’t get away from them. You can, however, mute or block people you don’t gel with online; while there’s an argument that this can lead to an “echo chamber” effect in which people are unwilling to have their viewpoints and opinions truly challenged, for the most part I find this a good way of minimising the stress that social interactions (be they real or virtual) can sometimes cause me.

One social network that I’ve never quite managed to integrate myself into is Reddit, and that’s simply because Reddit as a whole is such a hugely sprawling entity that it’s difficult to know where to start. There are popular subreddits for pictures, jokes, games and all sorts of other things, as well as highly specialised subreddits for niche interests or simply running jokes. Effectively, each subreddit is like a forum with message threads and discussions that follow on from an original post, but there’s also a sort of “metagame” aspect to the site, where you earn points for posts and comments according to the community’s overall reaction to them. This metagame doubles as the site’s main means of automatic “curation” — high-rated content shifts to the top and becomes more visible, perhaps even hitting the front page of Reddit (which often describes itself as “The Front Page of the Internet”, though Facebook might like to believe differently) if it’s really popular and transcends its original context.

Reddit’s an interesting site to browse even if you don’t actively participate, though. It’s the birthplace of a number of now-commonplace Internet memes and jokes, and the community as a whole can usually be relied on for some highly entertaining, quick-witted responses as well as scathing takedowns of stupid, ignorant or bigoted people. Assuming the subreddit you’re in isn’t specifically designed for stupid, ignorant or bigoted people, of course.

Now, this latter aspect is where things have got a little bit interesting recently. Reddit has traditionally positioned itself as being a bastion of its interpretation of “free speech” online, trusting individual subreddit moderators to set the rules for their individual communities and enforce them accordingly, while at the same time ensuring that nothing actually outright illegal is posted, and if it is, that it is removed quickly. To date, it’s worked pretty well; while there are some subreddits that are the online equivalent of a notorious dark alley you probably wouldn’t wander into alone if you didn’t have a very good reason to be there, for the most part each individual community has kept itself to itself, content with its own little space of the Internet for its discussions, even when said discussions might not be welcome elsewhere on the Internet. (“Gamergate” subreddit “KotakuInAction” is a good example of this, and there are plenty of others along the same lines.)

But there have been Happenings recently. As someone who isn’t an active participant in Reddit, I haven’t really been following the whole drama, but so far as I can make out, Reddit brought on a new CEO recently known as Ellen Pao, and she has not been a popular “leader” for the site. The popular conspiracy theory is that she’s attempting to “clean up” Reddit prior to selling it off to the highest bidder — likely Facebook, who would doubtless very much like to get their hands on “the front page of the Internet” — and in the process is ruffling a whole lot of feathers of people who have traditionally found Reddit to be a good home for their discussions and activities.

Pao’s actions coupled with a widely-criticised lack of communication between the overall Reddit administrators (who run the site as a whole, and have the power to ban and “shadowban” users according to their behaviour) and the firing of a number of Reddit employees for seemingly questionable reasons have been causing rumblings of discontent for some time, but it seems that today, for whatever reason, was the tipping point; a number of popular subreddits, including front-page, “default” subreddits that are automatically included in a new Reddit user’s list of subreddits, have “gone dark” in protest against Pao’s management, the aforementioned lack of communication, a very inconsistent application of the “rules” for the site as a whole and, in some cases, a rather opaque sense of what the “rules” actually are. These subreddits have “gone dark” by setting themselves to “private” mode, meaning that only users who are already approved to post there (usually just subscribers to that particular subreddit) can see what is going on and being discussed; casual browsers, those who are not logged in or those who are not subscribed, meanwhile, are simply shown a default page explaining that the sub is private, and the reasons for it.

Over the course of the day, more and more subreddits have “gone dark” in protest, effectively crippling Reddit’s traffic as a result. It’s been absolutely fascinating to see, and while I don’t 100% understand the reasons for the protest at this time, I think it’s a potent reminder that when you create something as sprawling as a social network, as much as you’d like to think you can stay in complete control of it, ultimately the site it made or broken by its users. Without users, the site is completely useless, so if you piss off those users then you’re going to have a big problem.

It remains to be seen whether Reddit will pull through this debacle, or whether a young pretender like Reddit clone Voat is ready to pick up the baton and try not to make the same mistakes. (I mention Voat specifically because they have reported record amounts of traffic since the controversy really exploded today.) This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, after all; Reddit originally grew to prominence thanks to the once-popular Digg fucking itself up beyond all recognition, so while it may seem dramatic to contemplate that this might be The Beginning of the End for Reddit, it’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

Basically, the lesson from all this appears to be pretty simple: don’t think you know better than your users. Because you probably don’t.

1990: Idols’ Journey

Having finished the main story of Heavensward, I returned to Omega Quintet this evening in the hopes that I would be able to polish off the “true ending”. I succeeded, though this isn’t the end of my time with the game just yet: there’s the optional “training facility” dungeon, which features some of the toughest monsters in the game, and there’s a bunch of sidequests that open up even after the “final” boss. I’m undecided as to whether or not I’m going to pursue the Platinum trophy, as a few of the trophies are a bit grindy, but I probably will end up going for it.

As for the true ending — oh, spoilers ahead, by the way — it was a satisfying conclusion.

For context, the “normal” ending was surprisingly downbeat, even bleak, leaving the story with a somewhat bittersweet ending that didn’t really leave any of the characters in a situation that could really be called “happily ever after”. Aria was revealed to have become a Blare when she was attacked prior to the events of the game, with the Blare in question effectively devouring her emotions and turning her into the seemingly morose individual she is depicted as throughout the main narrative. Said Blare is revealed to be the cat-like creature that had been following her around for the whole game, and this obnoxious little creature “awakens” Aria to her true Blare self.

This sets up the final confrontation of the normal ending, where the depleted ranks of the Verse Maidens, now a quartet rather than the quintet they had been for the majority of the game, have to strike down their former friend, who is, it becomes clear, utterly beyond help. But even after she’s defeated, the people of the city no longer trust the Verse Maidens thanks to Aria having tricked them for so long, and as such they’re doomed to a life of unappreciated toil, fighting back the Blare for a populace that hates them.

The true ending takes this as a starting point but makes a few changes. When the time comes to fight Aria, she doesn’t completely lose herself and transform into the “Avatar of Destruction” she becomes in the normal ending. Instead, the Verse Maidens strike her down but refuse to eliminate her, instead dragging her back to their headquarters despite her protestations — but not before “Pet” has revealed its true nature and threatened to bring even greater chaos to a world that is already practically in ruin.

It’s a slow route to healing for the populace, but eventually they come to accept and support Aria once again, as her mysterious nature had always meant she was one of the more popular members of the quintet. Ultimately, the girls discover that Pet’s plan is to gather as many Blare as possible in one place and attempt to control them in the name of “fun”; Pet, having consumed Aria’s original cheerful personality but lacking the emotional maturity to know how to handle it correctly or appropriately, is more concerned with entertaining herself than any great master plan, and it eventually transpires that she neither knows what to do with all the Blare once she gathers them in the city’s Central Tower, nor is she really able to control them effectively.

Thus begins the true final battle, first against Pet, who eventually admits defeat and volunteers to try and get rid of the trouble she caused following an epiphany brought on by having the shit kicked out of her, and subsequently against a gigantic, horrible monster that appears as Pet allows herself to be completely consumed by the Blare she summoned. The Verse Maidens are ultimately triumphant over this fearsome foe, and a convenient side-effect of the fact that it was made up of so many Blare concentrated in one place means that their conflict all but frees the city itself from the oppression of the Blare.

The world still has some healing to do, however; the story ends with protagonist Takt and one of the five girls (you get to choose) setting out on a grand journey into the wider world, clearing out the Blare as they go and discovering a new-found appreciation for one another. The post-final boss gameplay, meanwhile, unfolds before this happens, and sees Takt and the Verse Maidens — plus their predecessor Momoka, who manages to come out of retirement thanks to a useful bit of experimental technology — attempting to clear up the last few stragglers around the area of the city and continuing their work as Verse Maidens, bringing hope to the people.

It was an enjoyable ending and the final boss battles were pretty great; the last one in particular had some superb music. I’m interested to see what the post-game has to offer now; the Training Facility dungeon promises to be a stiff challenge, and there’s proficiencies to level up, affection to increase, archives to find and quests to complete, so I think even though I’ve technically “finished” the game there’s still probably a fair amount left to do!

To cut a long story short, Omega Quintet is an excellent RPG that I’m very glad I took the time to play. It’s another in a long line of titles from Compile Heart that has helped cement this quirky Japanese developer’s position in my mind as one of my absolute favourite game makers out there, and I have to feel a little sorry for those people who can’t find joy in their colourful, humorous, witty games that are absolutely bursting with character and soul.

1989: Temperature of the Sun

It is hot. Not just a bit hot (i.e. over 20 degrees or so, at which point most Brits will start commenting that it’s “a bit warm”) but really hot. Andie’s car claimed that it was 39 degrees earlier and while I take that figure with a pinch of salt, it’s almost definitely at least well into the mid-30s.

I don’t like it when it’s hot. I don’t like it when it’s cold, either, but I think if I had to be too hot or too cold all the time, I’d plump for too cold, because at least you can put extra layers on or whatever. When it’s too hot, there’s very little you can do about it.

I mean, sure, you can spray yourself with water, sit in front of a fan or whatever. But there’s nothing that will stave off that eventual, extremely unpleasant feeling of sweating from pretty much every pore you have until your clothes are damp with your own gross, disgusting sweat; that point where you hope no-one brushes up against you or asks to shake your hand because you just know that you’ll stick to them in an embarrassing manner.

The one redeeming feature of horrible, hot, humid days like today is that they often lead to satisfying, pleasant warm rain showers that are delightful to stand out in. But no amount of warm rain is really enough to make up for the amount of discomfort that it being way too hot creates.

Hopefully it will be a bit cooler tomorrow. I’d rather not melt, but at this rate I feel like I’m going to.

1988: The End of Ascalon

Finished the Heavensward main story quest today. WOW.

Spoilers ahead!

I was pleased that the team went all-out and gave us a full-on Final Fantasy finale. The final dungeon, the Aetherochemical Research Facility, gradually gets weirder and weirder as you progress through it, until you eventually reach what is clearly The Final Boss Room, in which you’re set upon by not one but two Ascians, the dark-robed ne’er-do-wells whose evil machinations have been behind most of the Bad Things happening in Eorzea throughout the Final Fantasy XIV narrative.

Delightfully, this battle against the Ascians even does the typical Final Fantasy thing of unfolding across multiple forms, with the “merged” form of the two Ascians creating “Ascian Prime” and battering you with some of the most spectacular attacks in the entire game. Lest you thought that Final Fantasy XIV would lose some of the series’ trademark spectacle owing to the fact that its multiplayer nature makes cinematic camera angles and lengthy spell sequences impractical, this confrontation very much dispels that notion.

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That’s not the end, though. The battle against Ascian Prime — the conclusion of which finally sees recurring villain Lahabrea apparently dealt with once and for all — is followed up by an eight-player Trial in the research facility’s Singularity Reactor, in which you face off against Ishgard’s Archibishop, Heavensward’s main villain.

This being Final Fantasy, however, you don’t just fight a doddering old man with an obscene amount of hit points. No; shortly before your battle with him, he draws upon the power of the Eyes of Nidhogg to channel the spirit of Ishgard’s legendary king Thorden — he who, with his knights twelve, originally laid Nidhogg low and took the great wyrm’s eyes — and become a Primal incarnation of the ancient king. Naturally, this involves him growing to approximately ten storeys in height in the process, and his bodyguards, the twelve knights of the Heaven’s Ward (do you see what they did there) undergo similar transformations prior to your final battle against the whole sorry lot of them.

The actual battle against Thorden and the knights is amazing. Final Fantasy veterans will doubtless recognise this setup as an excuse to bring in the notorious summon “Knights of the Round”, and indeed the final boss battle is effectively you fighting Knights of the Round, complete with ridiculously overblown attack animations — including, at one point, the reactor in which you’re fighting seemingly floating up into space, then your entire screen shattering to bring you back to reality. (This animation is pretty much a direct reference to Knights of the Round’s appearance in Final Fantasy VII, whose attack animation “Ultimate End” was the most powerful ability you could equip your characters with in the whole game.)

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It’s a fitting end for Heavensward’s story, which has overall been a great addition to the ranks of Final Fantasy narratives throughout history. And it leaves some nice open teaser threads at the end ready for future content patches and the continuation of the story — most notably the character Estinien’s possession by the spirit of Nidhogg, the latter of whom is understandably pissed off at the world for numerous reasons, not least of which being the fact that he had his eyes scooped out, and some thousand years later, was killed by some young upstart claiming to represent the spirit of the planet itself.

Anyway. It was good stuff, and sets the scene nicely for the launch of the new raid dungeon Alexander, which must be due pretty soon now. (Indeed, the ending cutscene shows Alexander rising out of the water in the Dravanian Hinterlands, though it is as yet impossible to enter the great iron giant.)

I’m glad I beat the story (and the two “post-ending” dungeons Neverreap and The Fractal Continuum, both of which are a lot of fun — and pleasingly challenging) and am looking forward to seeing what’s next. In the meantime, I have an official full-on review of the expansion to write for Gamespot, so watch out for that soon.

1987: At the Gates of Heaven

Back to “reality” for Andie and I now, and we’re both closing in on the finale of the main story quest in Heavensward. It’s been a pretty spectacular journey up until this point, which I shall endeavour not to spoil to a significant degree in this post, largely because I don’t yet know how it all ends.

Heavensward has achieved that which I wasn’t sure it would be able to do: it’s surpassed A Realm Reborn in almost every possible way, but particularly when it comes to the main story. While A Realm Reborn had a solid narrative that chronicled your character’s humble beginnings up to their awakening as the Warrior of Light and beyond, taking in their victories over the fierce Primals of Eorzea and the Empire’s ultimate weapon in the process, I found the Final Fantasy XII-style political manoeuvring that made up a significant part of the plot to be less interesting than something a bit more, for want of a better word, “JRPG”.

Heavensward, meanwhile, feels more like a “Final Fantasy“. This isn’t to say that A Realm Reborn didn’t feel like Final Fantasy at all — I described it as one of the best new Final Fantasies in recent years back when I reviewed it for USgamer, after all — but Heavensward feels more like a traditional Final Fantasy.

It achieves this in a number of different ways. For one, it tones down the political machinations that gradually built up over the course of A Realm Reborn, and which came to a rather shocking climax at the end of patch 2.55, Before the Fall, which acted as a prelude to Heavensward. These narrative threads are picked up and explored further — though some look as if they’re going to remain unresolved until a later content patch — but for the most part Heavensward is an all-original story.

For another, the narrative feels more like an epic journey. In A Realm Reborn, you spent a lot of your time going back and forth between the three main areas, and, aside from the initial quest where you leave your starting city to go and visit the other two, it didn’t really feel like the typical JRPG journey of gradually getting further and further away from your starting point, with more and more outlandish things happening as you go. Heavensward, meanwhile, does adopt this style of journey, beginning in the familiar snowy wastes of Coerthas, some of which we had the opportunity to explore in A Realm Reborn, but before long giving way to the lush forests and rocky mountains of the Dravanian Forelands, the otherworldly floating islands of the Churning Mists and the Sea of Clouds, the mysterious abandoned city of the Dravanian Hinterlands — an important location to Final Fantasy XIV lore as a whole, as it turns out — and, ultimately, a final region which doesn’t feel at all like a typical MMO field, instead very much feeling like an authentic JRPG The Very Definitely Final Dungeon.

The journey you undertake throughout the narrative is emphasised by some lovely narration from David Warner upon your first entry to each area. A Realm Reborn had plenty of florid prose, but Heavensward refines this with some almost poetic writing that gives the game a very distinctive voice and tone throughout. It feels strange to compliment the writing in an MMO, a type of game not particularly known for stellar storytelling (Hi, World of Warcraft!) but Heavensward really doesn’t skimp on this front, and it’s all the stronger for it.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how the story ends — and, of course, getting involved with what comes after that. It can’t be long now until the launch of the new raid dungeon Alexander, and I’m very intrigued to see how all that fits in with the overall lore. Previous raid The Binding Coil of Bahamut turned out to be extremely relevant to the original game’s lore — and even more relevant to Heavensward, as it happens — so I’m looking forward to experiencing Alexander’s encounters and story to see what happens.

For now, though, I’m still flagging a bit after all the excitement of the weekend, so I think it’s time to get some sleep.

1986: The Day After

I am absolutely exhausted. I was fine for most of today — presumably still riding high on the nerves/stress/adrenaline from yesterday — but in the last half hour or so I’ve started a real slump and I am now extremely ready to go to bed and sleep for about a week.

It’s back to relative normality tomorrow, though, as I have a bunch of work to do this week; that said, we are heading off to go and visit my parents later in the week, so that will be nice to have a change of scenery for a couple of days.

I talk about nerves, stress and adrenaline, but yesterday really wasn’t all that majorly stressful in the end. I know that weddings can be complicated and stressful affairs when you have lots of moving parts involved, but we deliberately decided to keep things very simple. Specifically, we identified all the parts of weddings that we both hated (spending hours over photographs, obnoxious DJs, shoehorned-in “entertainment”, poncy food) and eliminated those from the equation altogether, leaving us with a fairly bare-bones ceremony and reception, but one at which most people seemed to enjoy themselves a great deal. After all, if we hate those aspects of weddings, it’s entirely possible that other people do too!

But it’s all over now, and it kind of doesn’t quite feel like it was real. I’m sure it’ll sink in eventually — particularly as I’m now quite conscious of the ring on my finger — but for now, it’s probably the tiredness talking, but I’m enjoying the gently euphoric sense of knowing that it’s all over and done with and we can both now look forward to whatever the future holds.

Now, I know this has been a short entry, but I am knackered. And as such I will bid you all a good night.