Got drawn in by a friend sharing its music, stayed for Sybil. She is honest to god transition goals. I am very normal about this character. Oh, and the satisfying platforming is cool too, I guess. Pseudoregalia’s main draw is definitely its take on a 3D metroidvania, as well as having N64/PS1-esque graphics. As someone who grew up in that era and still prefers to play those kinds of games, I felt right at home. The atmosphere is on-point the whole way through, what with the relatively low render distance, sound design, and classic chiptune music. It oozes with passion. I could gush over the sound design alone for quite a long time.
There is a plethora of movement abilities to find and make use of, and the game gives you just enough time to experiment with one before you come across another. The wall kick is an especially great expression of skill, being the most widely applicable move in your kit. I had a ton of fun messing around with that alone. Most of the time, you aren’t required to have specific techniques in order to pass obstacles, resulting in many moments where it seems like you’re sequence-breaking if you’re determined enough. The game never says you are or aren’t, which is just genius design. I haven’t said the word “schmovement” yet, which is par for the course. Game’s got schmovement, alright. Lots of it. And it’s incredibly fun.
I was disappointed by the combat. If you thought you’d have to make clever use of your movement options to defeat enemies and the (two) bosses, think again. It almost solely consists of circling around them, pressing the same button. Even the final boss wasn’t that spectacular of an experience; one really has to wonder why it wasn’t a platforming gauntlet or something. As fun as they were to find, health upgrades - most upgrades, really - felt ultimately pointless. There’s a system in place where if you keep your magic maxed and don’t heal, your range and/or damage is increased, but I wasn’t ever challenged in the first place to bother giving that mechanic any deep thought. I will say, losing your weapon for the first time is quite a shocker. The lackluster combat didn’t detract much from my enjoyment as much as it usually would, though.
As for the plot, there essentially is none. It’s mostly an implied one, with most of it coming from the beginning and end. Due to that, the ending felt like a wet fart. I’m used to games that don’t tell me much at all, but there wasn’t much payoff for the questions I was asking myself. There is such a great foundation here with the dream setting. So many neat areas and little cryptic goat dudes to wonder about. I wish more woulda been done with it. Bummer.
Many others rue the lack of a map, but I didn’t find it much of a bother. I’m the kind of sociopath that enjoys getting lost and forming my own mental maps. I can understand the grievances, however I think it’s more due to each room’s doorway being blocked by a black haze until you approach it, making it that much more difficult to get your bearings when you inevitably get lost. As of writing, a map hasn’t been implemented yet, and to be honest, I assume it’d be a giant pain in the ass, so I can’t exactly blame the developer for not including one. I believe if the game had more landmarks or vantage points ala Dark Souls which, for the record, doesn’t have a map and also features an interconnected world, the problem would be remedied. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anticipating a “I can see Firelink Shrine from X location” moment or two.
As things stand, Pseudoregalia was very much worth the $6 (!!!) and two short evenings it took to finish. I spent most of this picking apart its faults, so the fact that I give it a recommendation should speak of its successes at combining both a 3D metroidvania and a 3D platformer, which is an exceeding rarity.
As a video game, Final Fantasy XVI disappointed me. I believe I got around 60% the way through the story - a metric I didn’t wish to know (thanks Sony) - before dropping it completely. A cool story and setting can only carry my motivation so far before an utter lack of engaging gameplay mechanics begin to weigh it down.
The notion of comparing Final Fantasy games being unfair due to the series’ willingness to innovate with each game has been thrown out a lot as of late due to the divisiveness of XVI. I suppose that sort of makes sense; how can you compare things that purposefully try to be different? Well, I think it’s worth adding that there are fans, myself included, that play Final Fantasy games because they are titled Final Fantasy. There are no other RPG series that I can apply such a liberal criteria to justify owning and playing the game. Hell, I got an entire console for this one. So I think that notion is what inherently invites the comparison between numbered titles, since the fact that it is a numbered Final Fantasy game is the reason some play it due to their prior experiences with the franchise. It really is as simple as that. That’s not to say that over-comparison isn’t a bad thing but I just wanted to point something out that rarely gets considered in this point before I do start comparing.
Every Final Fantasy has major flaws, but usually those flaws come from attempting something new or just issues that are much harder to notice without hindsight. Constant innovation is a risky game, but the series has never shied away from it. Never let it be said that it doesn’t try to reinvent itself with every mainline entry. However, like I alluded to earlier, this is still a mainline Final Fantasy game. As such, there are certain expectations. Simply put, XVI upsets me because it feels like CBU3 didn’t care at all that it’s an RPG. My issues with it stem almost entirely due from the seemingly conscious decision to not focus on RPG elements. All the systems for loot, equipment, ability progression, etc. exist in the game, but they are all ultimately pointless. It's like no one spent more than an hour trying to balance them or incorporate them in an interesting way. There wasn't a single battle in the game where I felt I'd won because I'd optimized my character well or anything like that. It was always "I won because I pushed R1 at the right time," or “I dumped enough cooldowns into a stagger window.” Think of classics like the job system, or more appropriately, the materia system… aaand I’m already wishing I could be playing with any of those. For some wholly unneeded context, I paused my recently begun XII playthrough to write this, which happens to be the polar opposite of how in-depth a Final Fantasy game can be content and gameplay-wise, and further puts into perspective XVI’s shallowness.
The itemization is a complete joke. To elaborate: there's a crafting system, a loot system, a weapon stats/bonus system… and zero content to populate it. A linear progression of gear (the game always hands over a key upgrade material after a major plot point), and a modest selection of accessories. You level up, but the whole game scales alongside you, with no perceivable variation in stat increases. Gil is accumulated, but there isn’t a single pliable use for it, outside of buying music for the Hideaway. Really. Swords have damage and stagger stats... but every one has even values of both. There's no decision involved in how you want to play. Armor has defense and health... but it's a linear progression of both. No items that sacrifice stats for buffs or abilities. All that loot you pick up? Those bloody hides you spend dozens of minutes exploring corners of the world to find? Legitimately useless. Not even a bizarre, ala Final Fantasy XII, that offers unique gear if you sell said loot. I’m fairly certain the shops in the game stop selling new stuff after a certain point, too. Consumables are extremely bland and uninspired, half of which serving no point if you don’t decide to facetank everything that’s thrown at you. Absolutely nonsensical all around. They straight up threw their hands up and dropped the ball on the gear after setting up decent enough systems for it. It comes off as an obligation to try and include them because Final Fantasy is in the title, which is more insulting than anything.
That’s just the progression, or lack thereof. Now onto the combat. This is most important to me, so I’ll mention it first. Party members and Torgal are basically background noise while you do your thing. You can’t pick who's coming with, change their actions/skills, swap gear, buff them, and they can’t die or be downed, taking away any sense of their involvement when fighting. The party “system” really is just Clive and Torgal + whoever happens to be tagging along this time whenever the plot deems them necessary, and that’s a shame considering what this game’s take on the party system could’ve been. Also, why does Torgal have a stat page at all? I laughed when I first found it. What’s the fucking “pedigree” stat? He apparently has five different moves he uses, too..? Sure. I’mma just keep ordering him to heal me for 15 health since I like Clive’s voice line, thanks.
XVI lacks an overarching system like jobs, materia, GFs, etc. that would alter how you approach combat encounters. Yes, I know Eikonic Abilities exist, and yes, I am saying they don’t mean as much as they could’ve. Upgrading them is the game’s only form of progression, but even then, by the halfway point I had enough AP to upgrade as many abilities that are allowed to be used at once, so progression stops there if you’re smart with respeccing. You’re able to combo these abilities together as complex as you’d like them to be, which had me excited when I first unlocked the second Eikon, but if enemies themselves offer no reasons to engage you in further thinking, then why waste unnecessary effort? Add in the gigantic health pools on some mobs/bosses and you’ll always feel a level of tedium due to how dull and formulaic battles tend to play out. Compound this with a lack of things like elemental affinities and status effects, and battles wear their welcome quickly. Being hit by Bad Breath in the first real boss fight… only does flat damage. That is THE debuff move. Clive just gets up and shakes his head a little. Why isn’t he now made of stone, or at the very least poisoned? Come on. This isn’t to mention how jarring it is to use Ifrit abilities on enemies made of literal fire. How hard would it have been to give said Ifrit a burning damage-over-time effect, or something a little unique for the other Eikons akin to Garuda’s capability of dragging foes to the ground with Deadly Embrace? It’s a problem when it becomes glaringly noticeable, which it is.
I was somewhat ecstatic that XVI was going to be more linear. Before playing it, watching the gameplay previews and seeing how open the areas were, I had assumed that there’d be a breadth of side content to have fun doing despite the story itself being linear. I have no problem with linear games, mind you. There is essentially no reason to ever explore. It is genuinely baffling to have a game that goes out of its way to put chests in weird areas like abandoned villages in the middle of a desert and NOT have anything worth picking up. I really don't get it at all from a game design perspective. What's the point of it? Same issue I have when I want to explore a tucked away corner of a map or trek through a path to reach a clearing with nothing but two chunks of wyrrite there. It's so bizarre.
I get that it's a linear game, but with these beautiful environments and wide open spaces you'd think there would be… a little more to it? You aren’t allowed to wander into new areas, nor evoke your own sense of self discovery. Nothing is new or unexpected. Then again, if there were, it wouldn’t be worth exploring, what with the progression systems that are in place. So I guess it’s a mercy that the game’s areas aren’t any bigger and emptier. That’s the saddest sentence I’ve ever had to write.
All in all, it’s clear they tried to appeal to both old and new fans, which tends to disappoint both sides, especially in well-established franchises, despite how necessary it is for its continued success. The systems exist, but they are bare-boned. I would’ve honestly been more contempt if they didn't try to distract from the fact that XVI is just a movie game. Scrap all gameplay elements. Don't have any level ups, gil, upgrading, or "exploration." Just a straight line. It makes pretty sad attempts at masquerading as an RPG as-is, so if you're gonna half-bake it, don't bake it at all. Make it a different kind of food instead. To make the analogy clearer, it should’ve been marketed as and designed as a total arcade hack n’ slash. Labeling it anything different only served to destroy expectations for people such as myself. Otherwise you end up dumping $570. The console’s pretty cool at least… when I’m playing other Final Fantasy games.
If I pick XVI up again, it’ll be to see how the story pans out. As a massive fan of the Ivalice games, the mature and deeply political plot intrigued me, and all the characters were neat. I even grew to care about the side characters. Active Time Lore and State of the Realm are fantastic ideas for games with crazy deep world-building like this. It makes me wish Tactics and XII had it, since they are similarly convoluted and complex. As it stands though, the gameplay and the systems in place make it an absolute bore to play, at least for an RPG boomer like myself who had their expectations dragged through the dirt and their standards spat on.
Ivalice, oh Ivalice. Tactics marked my first foray into this wonderful world when I was a toddler watching my father play. I would sit by his side, strategy guide in hand, tattling whatever information he needed. I’ve still got it, even if it’s hardly held together all these years due to how many times I pored over its contents. It’s safe to say Tactics means a ton to me emotionally, and has shaped, for my entire life, what kind of games I enjoy. I have since revisited it a good number of times as I’ve grown up, be it on the PS1, PSP, or other dubious means, all the while my love for it never waning. I suppose now is as good a time as any to explain exactly why.
Nothing has topped Tactics as my favorite Final Fantasy game, and this is due to nearly every facet of it being phenomenal and top-of-the-line, not only in the FF series, but this entertainment medium as a whole. Every person on the development team is extremely talented, and their work in the rest of the franchise henceforth has made waves. Tactics has flaws of course, some of which are egregious and make it obscenely hard to play for those unfamiliar with the genre, however I feel everything else more than makes up for it. "The grandfather of tactical RPGs," some consider it. While I tend not to relish such terminology… I can see where they come from.
Little other games come close to Tactics’ satisfying gameplay and team-building. It truly has it all. Since it operates on a per-unit turn basis as opposed player/enemy/npc phases (ala Fire Emblem) battles are dynamic, fast-paced, and frantic at times. Having low overall unit count adds to the quickness of battles, too, though you’re often outnumbered. The maps are diverse and gorgeous, and provide unique strategic play that will completely depend on your party composition. Unit facing dictates damage and hit rates, environments have elevation differences and hazards, and line of sight is a consideration for projectile-based abilities, so positioning matters more than ever. Maps being fully rotational is very intentional, as there are nooks and crannies that could be hiding foes. There are even items hidden on select tiles that can only be discovered when someone with a very specific ability stands on them… the result of which depends on a certain stat. Point is, there’s a plethora of gameplay mechanics that are fulfilling to learn and take advantage of; it’s so dense I could not possibly cover it all here. For instance, I had no idea about the Zodiac compatibility system until at least a couple playthroughs. Of course, whenever I replay it now, I spend a good half an hour ditching the starting party and tailoring one with optimal Zodiac synergy. There is a solid in-game tutorial at least; something surprisingly uncommon for games back then.
Let’s be real here: the highlight is the job system. Everyone knows it, or at least, I hope they do. Final Fantasy V might pull the job system off better as far as balancing goes, but the foundation of Tactics’ battle system and how said jobs are able to be utilized in a strategy RPG setting is what pulls it ahead of all other incarnations for me. I actually think the lack of balancing is a strength in a way, due to the game being so easy to break with certain class and ability combinations. I won’t get into the most grotesquely-powerful ones for spoilers’ sake, but it’s genuinely a ton of fun finding new ways to bend the game’s balance in your favor. “Muh replay value” except it’s actually legit here. The job sprites and portraits themselves are adorable as well. Chock full of passion and character. That extends to the artstyle as a whole, actually. It should be mentioned that the act of grinding is a bit funny, with the gaining of JP being tied to the actions you take, as opposed to the battles you win, so you end up whaling on your own party members while the sole remaining enemy is tortured, rendered completely unable to fight back, or both.
I am likely taking for granted a lot of Tactics’ ingenuity, having been around it almost my entire life, so if there’s one thing to take away, it's that it's damn fun. I can pick apart the intricacies all day, but that fact remains. One thing it isn’t though, is perfect.
A poorly utilized function of the job system are the human enemies fought, both in random encounters and story missions. While their primary jobs are fixed, I’m fairly certain that every single other ability of theirs is randomized. I’m an advocate for the unpredictable, however this causes them to either never take advantage of their full kit or be incredibly weak with their secondary abilities. An enemy summoner receiving the Aim command is either never going to be able to use it, or use it so poorly they open themselves up for a OHKO because they’re a squishy mage who decided to approach your dual-wielding brawler ninja. This is much more apparent in the mid to end-game, where your party is reaching its penultimatum, while enemies retain their relatively primitive ability setups. At the very least they’ve got good equipment to steal/catch.
I also don’t like the Gained JP UP passive ability. Yes, this incredibly specific one in particular that’s worth an entire paragraph in this review. It’s available to everyone the moment they’re recruited with minimal investment, and is basically opportunity cost if you don’t use it, since all it does is make the game slower if you wish to learn more abilities and make unique builds utilizing other passives. Romha- er, “mods,” that remove this ability and/or simply make its effects innate to every character receive my highest praise.
The balancing as far as difficulty goes is a different beast. Everything else is a nitpick compared to this. There exist such incredibly steep difficulty spikes that one has to wonder what the developers were thinking. Dorter Slums and the Execution Site are a couple of these spikes, but they feel fair and are knowledge checks to see if you’re learning the game and experimenting with jobs. Wiegraf 1v1 and the whole Riovanes Castle sequence though? Yeesh. Every playthrough I spend preparing for them, and I can only imagine how jarring it must be for someone playing for the first time, since I’ve really never gotten to play it blind. This isn’t even getting into how it’s possible to softlock oneself in these battles due to how the in-between battle saving works. It’s become common rhetoric to keep multiple save files when playing Tactics, and this is why. I do it in other games too, whenever it’s possible… just in case. Legit PTWD (Post Traumatic Wiegraf Disorder). I don’t care about this as much as the difficulty spikes, but near the end of the game - depending on how you built your team - everything becomes about overpowering and brute forcing enemies rather than strategic play. Orlandeau is a common stickler for this point, however him being busted beyond belief is for narrative's sake. Anyone else can become juggernauts on the battlefield with the right abilities. It isn’t difficult to achieve this, either, so whenever I replay, I tend to limit myself, steal gear, and/or find hidden items to add more layers of strategy. The difficulty curve, or lack thereof, is the main deterrent I find when recommending more people to play it.
Throughout the story and optional side quests, unique guest characters are recruited, and overshadow generics due to their base classes being oftentimes very powerful. I still like making unique builds with them, even though they can carry themselves quite effectively by default. As mentioned previously, Orlandeau is infamous for breaking the game’s balance in two, so much so in fact that I feel like he’s an apology for the pain players endure in the first half of Chapter 4, however nerfing him in a hypothetical remake would downtrod on his immense strength that the narrative spends so long talking up. Not to mention he’s completely optional to use and deploy. Nowadays I tend to strip him of his gear and send him to the bench for the added challenge if nothing else; Excalibur makes anyone busted. I have a particular fondness for Mustadio, because guns are cool. Yeah, this game has guns. He makes for an amazing support unit that can dish out serious damage once elemental ones start to become available.
Tactics features permadeath, which results in all recruited characters eventually fading into narrative obscurity once they’re no longer relevant to the plot. Kind of a shame but it’s understandable. It’s very convoluted to account for every given scenario where certain characters might not even be recruited/alive. This aspect ultimately doesn’t take away from much, and that’s because everything else about the plot is stellar. It’s taught me more about class struggles and religious dogma than any history and government class I’ve been in. The twists hit incredibly hard, and the epic moments are genuinely so. Realizing there’s an entire demonic scheme involving the church that’s happening below the central political strife is such an incredible revelation. It sticks the landing too with the ending! For those who want to dig for the details, it’s possible to read up on the history of Ivalice via in-game entries and rumors to gain a further understanding of the game’s current and past events. After all this time, having experienced hundreds of other games and movies and shows, it remains the case that Tactics’ plot is intricate, gripping, mature, and legitimately one of the best in any form of media I’ve experienced.
It wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without the excellently-written Ramza and Delita, protagonist and deuteragonist, respectively. Despite playing and experiencing events through the former, Delita receives so much development and characterization that it feels wrong to relegate him as anything other than a protagonist. The two play off each other masterfully. It’s hard to get into detail without spoiling (so I won't) but these two have solidified themselves as one of my favorite duos in all of gaming. To this day, people discuss them, and the game is over two-and-a-half decades old. The villains are particularly well-written, too. A lot of moral gray area makes them interesting to have to deal with, to say the least. No one gets a happy ending in this tale.
I suppose this is when the translation should be brought up. It’s so bad it’s good, and has brought unto us a good handful of hilariously iconic lines. I think it does its job though; it’s mostly the spell call-outs that are oddly worded. With how deep the plot and characters are, I think Tactics definitely deserved a better translation. Think somewhere along the lines of Vagrant Story’s… and that’s where the War of the Lions remake came in. The entire script had been uprooted and given a shiny new Shakespearean coat of paint, which is better in a lot of aspects, but it softens the blows of some of the more famous quotes of the original due to how flowery the words are. “Animals have no God!!” is punchier than “The Gods have no eyes for chattel,” among others.
Not exactly sure where to slot this in, but Tactics’ music is… oh my god. Even after these last couple decades, I have never gotten tired of listening to it. Legitimately every track is bound to instill some sort of emotion, be that through its palpable battle tracks or the crushingly melancholic ones. It’s CRIMINAL that many of them play for only one or two battles at most, but I’d wager that makes them hit even harder. I had considered listing out my favorites, though I fear it’d turn out to be quite literally everything. Antipyretic, Under the Stars, and Ovelia's Worries are personally notable due to their sheer tonal shifts midway through. Damn it, I did it anyway. If “punctual” could have a new definition, it’d be Tactics’ soundtrack.
On second thought, there can be two definitions, and that would have to be the sound design. Very likely the punchiest and most unique in any game I’ve played. Scoring a critical hit as the screen does a sudden zoom-in absolutely sells the impact. Even stuff like doors closing, or drawbridges opening, sound real neat. I have the “grope” noise ingrained into my subconscious. I imitated it out loud while typing that. IYKYK. It’s an utter shame that the War of the Lions remake butchered the audio quality… it’s like MiDi vs orchestral, except applied to every sound in the game; all of the echo is gone. What’s left are weak and shrill sound effects that, at their worst, are genuinely painful to the ears. It makes it hard to recommend over the original. So I just don’t.
Tactics does so, so many things right; I do not kid when I claim it to be superior to most - dare I say, all - numbered Final Fantasy entries. The gameplay is too tight, the plot is too deep, and the characters are too compelling for me to think otherwise. So, I hope I can speak for a lot of people when I say we're praying for some sort of rerelease that will feature the original’s sound quality as well as WotL’s content, or something along those lines. Tactics deserves to be experienced by a wider audience.
I played this because a friend said it was Hot Garbage™. Now, I wasn’t the biggest Fire Emblem fan at that point, since I had only played a few of the games. Just the prospect of Thracia 776 being difficult and controversial is what attracted me to play it. What I discovered instead was an incredibly well written story with characters and a plot that genuinely felt human, undaunting in its goal to depict the struggles of war and of Leif taking back his homeland. Don’t get me wrong… game’s still hard as hell. Why it is, though, is a more profound discussion.
It’s hard to choose a starting point when talking about this game since there’s so many unique quirks, both small and large. There are few other games I’ve experienced that have as many unique mechanics when compared to the other games in their series as this. Now, a good number of these don’t exactly seem enjoyable on paper when singled out, but they truly do come together to make for a challenging, gritty, and overall rewarding experience… once you look past the initial frustrations. Thracia drags you to the dirt and kicks your ribs in, but it’s genuinely so much fun trying to persevere and work things in your favor. Plus, it’s sorta the point, if you put yourself in Leif’s shoes.
Big thing here is that everything you’re capable of, the enemy is as well. Movement stars that randomly trigger, giving that unit an entire extra turn? Yep. Staves that totally disable a unit for the whole chapter? Sure thing - at least they can’t target Leif. Capturing units to steal all their stuff and remove them from the battlefield? You betcha. On that note, once I figured out capture-baiting, it’s like my mind expanded into infinitum. Not really, but the level of strategy possible with the mechanics is enjoyable to a large degree. It’s all so tight, and everything has a purpose. I feel it’s worth mentioning that you get so many busted-ass units and weapons, starting legitimately from the first chapter. What were they thinking when balancing Asbel? Or Osian? Or Fergus, or Deen? Or staff users in general? They’re needed too, since the enemy doesn’t play fair. You’re given so many tools to combat the enemies’, though stats cap early, so no one can became a true juggernaut through grinding with crusader scrolls and whatnot. Only thing the player isn’t capable of is same-turn reinforcements (very awesome and cool). Oh, and the infamous Thracia fog of war is a thing, as well. Christ. You’re boned in so many ways, it’s almost funny… in a sick, twisted kind of way.
Thracia’s gameplay and story combine to make it abundantly clear that Leif, the lord of this game, is the underdog. He is so unbelievably outmatched and inexperienced, and that doesn’t really ever stop being the case. It’s most apparent in the Manster arc (which is one of the most memorable sequences in any game I’ve played), where Leif is foolishly captured, totally removed from his pals and equipment, and the objective is to simply escape with those who helped break him out. In fact, Thracia has like, a dozen or so of these escape objectives. They’re usually accompanied by an extreme abundance of reinforcements, so it isn’t really worth sticking around. Also, anyone who doesn’t escape before Leif does is captured and removed from your army, and they can’t be saved ‘til waaay later. That didn’t need to be implemented at all, but the extra mile was gone to sell the narrative that Leif and his army are doing whatever it takes to keep their resistance going, even if it means fleeing. You as a player are made to feel weak, and it’s super neat to see it reflected in the actual gameplay. Is it fun? Heavily depends. Is it peak ludonarrative harmony? Hell yeah. Chapter 14 is also amazing since for once in this series a defense chapter is fun and tense. Only Conquest chapter 10 has gotten close to scratching that itch.
I won’t tarry on this long, but Thracia’s soundtrack is a worthy mention. It isn’t as grandeur as other games in the series, since it aims to be similarly grounded like its plot. There’s even music for when you’re close to losing, which is... fitting. The map themes, and especially the ones that typically play when villains talk amongst each other are among my favorites. Augustus' theme is high up there as well. Speaking of which...
It’s through the guidance of arguably the best written duo in the series, those being Dryas and Augustus, that Leif is able to grow both as a leader and as an individual. They are two tacticians that Leif enlists the aid of throughout his trials and, wouldn’t you know it, provide legitimate tactical advice. However, though their goals of helping Leif align, their methods and ideals clash. One is more chivalric, while the other is more pragmatic. This is often seen when leading up to battles, but it’s clear they also harbor respect for one another. It’s a very neat dynamic when you see it play out, and is both a prominent example of Thracia’s stellar writing and further proof that a Fire Emblem game doesn’t need hours and hours of conversations and dialogue checklists to be interesting.
Leif himself is a damn good lord. Like, really damn good. Not from a gameplay standpoint (thankfully), but through the writing. Very likely the most well-written lord in the series, and one of my favorite protagonists in gaming as a whole. Coming personally from Awakening and Genealogy, I was glad that Leif turned out to be a relatively humbling unit. What he lacks in the ability to solo the game he makes up for in fun-to-use utility. Unique 1-2 range magic sword that can also function as a worse vulnerary, leadership stars, tons of one-way supports, and the ability to never be fatigued make him a precious asset in every battle despite how middling his stats tend to be. Still, I usually dump stat boosters into him early on so he isn’t completely helpless. He’s the lose condition after all. Gameplay aside, and this might sound silly, but I’m actually a huge fan of Leif having normal, brown hair, especially in a series where all of its protagonists have some bright shade of blue, green, red, or white. Ironically makes him stand out more. The armor is a minor gripe though. Not the design, no, it looks great; you see, he’s on the run and it makes him really stand out. If Thracia were to be remade Echoes-style, outfitting him in some sort of mercenary apparel, at least for the start, would further bolster his believability as a character.
The hyper focused plot of Thracia makes it hit harder than its predecessor, which was an all-too-encompassing tale that left a lot to be desired in terms of narrative intricacies. Granted, they could only fit so much on an SNES cartridge, and with how huge those maps were it makes it hard to believe otherwise. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they would’ve done so if they could and had more time. On the other hand, Thracia takes its time to show the impact of the war in each location you visit, but it also isn’t afraid to flesh out its most important characters. Granted, many of them hardly get more than a handful of lines of dialogue… but it kind of doesn’t matter? Leif and several other characters receive so much development and are so dynamic that it rectifies any lack of drastic evolution that random-axe-user gets.
Speaking of the units recruited, they very much reflect the overall smaller and individualized scope of the game. Your army starts from literal scraps, and only diverts from that later on when Leif’s accomplishments become more attractive to warriors of higher caliber. Nearly everyone you recruit is from a different background: people from Tahra, knights from Friege, an ex-Thracian knight, four random schmucks in a mansion you raid in a gaiden chapter, a couple of which turn out to be super damn good, and so on. Compare that to, for instance, Seliph’s starting army in Genealogy. Chock full of super strong and noteworthy units, provided you cared to pair people together in the first generation. The whole damn country is backing Seliph as well. The way Thracia handles it is much more grounded. Maybe I just prefer grassroots foundations in stories, I’m not sure. The narrative sure as hell backs it up at least.
Oh, and we don’t talk about Xavier.
Anyway, I need to talk about Leif in further detail. Yeah, ain’t done with this guy. I adore how well his development throughout the game was dealt. His backstory, shown through Genealogy, is tragic, but in the context of Fire Emblem, having an orphan protagonist isn’t exactly unique. However, you can feel the consequences of Finn raising him during the time between Genealogy’s first generation and Thracia firsthand; that’s what matters. Because he was on the run and sheltered for basically his whole life, Leif is incredibly naive and knows very little of the world outside of where he was hidden. He’s aware of his own shortcomings, and has somewhat of an inferiority complex in regards to his cousin Seliph, which is made apparent when the two meet later down the line, yet at the same time Leif admires him. As opposed to his sister, Leif didn’t inherit the major Nova blood (allowing her to wield Gae Bolg), further compounding this complex. When Leif is suddenly pulled into a war, he’s forced to not only learn how to lead, but also cope with the knowledge of how the nation he’s fighting for even works.
There’s so many great cases of Leif’s naivety clouding his decision making, such as dismissing the very real child hunts as fairy tales parents would tell their kids to behave; Augustus was swift in correcting him on this. When Leif has to deal with bandits for the first time, he’s ignorant to the reasons they resorted to banditry in the first place - that being the Thracian soil is unfit for crops - since he quite literally never had to worry about being hungry. His insensitivity is appalling to his allies, but realistic, considering his upbringing. I won’t spoil much, but there’s a point later in the game where Leif actively overrides the better judgment of his advisors and suffers a massive loss because of it. You can see him come to terms with how screwed everything is, find new motivations to continue leading and fighting, and mess up in actual meaningful ways. Compare Leif in chapter 1 to Leif at the end of the game and it’s obvious how much he’s grown and learned from his faults. Leif is flawed, and hits home the fact that you don’t need to be special or gifted to do great things; that’s precisely what makes him so great.
Don’t be afraid of Thracia’s obtuse nature. Don’t take others’ surface level knowledge and observations to heart. My biggest tips? Get Safi to A rank in staves so she can use Warp as soon as possible. In fact, staves in general are stupid broken. Abuse them, because the enemy sure will. Stamina drinks are expensive but valuable AF since they allow you to abuse your best units in more chapters (for instance, staff users). Also, use a wiki or guide if it’s frustrating. The game does very little to teach its mechanics; a consequence of its time. Things were likely explained in the manual, y’know. As for the map design, brutal curveballs are thrown constantly, so while alleviating some of that pressure may potentially cheapen the satisfaction of a blind playthrough, if it makes it a lot easier to play, absolutely go for it.
Experience this work of art for yourself if you haven’t already. Thracia 776 is a masterpiece in nearly every sense of the word, and deserves to be heralded as such. The gameplay is extremely tight and well-constructed, with the narrative and characters perfectly complimenting every action taken. Leif as a protagonist is a profound and stunning case of how good Fire Emblem’s writing can be if it tries hard enough. I can’t see the series releasing another game this good ever again; lightning in a bottle would be a good descriptor. I’m so confident in this, that I feel a remake would sour the original intent of the game, and makes me hesitant to even want one. Unless we get more art from Hidari. Then it’ll all be worth it.
I was completely ready to rank this as my favorite game only a few hours in, but after beating it, Rain World has solidified itself even more as such. If you’re at all interested in the game, stop reading and play it. It is absolutely best experienced blind, since much of its satisfaction comes from figuring out the things the game doesn’t tell you.
Rain World strives to be unique in every sense of the word. Each facet of the game oozes with originality and passion, to the gameplay, narrative, art direction, setting, music, world building... all of which blends together to create a frankly masterful work of art. It isn't common that games who try to be one-of-a-kind are, well, good, but Rain World is a different case. Sure, if you pick apart each individual gameplay quirk and inspect it under a microscope, it wouldn't seem that great. This is because, as a whole, the game is designed to be a representation of nature; a living ecosystem. It isn't fair. It doesn't hold your hand. It holds no quarter. It wasn't made to be marketable or streamlined, and instead tailors an experience unlike any other. You do not belong in this world, and it's made abundantly clear. This is accomplished by finely tuning every aspect to accentuate the ludonarrative harmony the developers were aiming to achieve, and makes for one of the most immersive worlds one could ever experience in this medium.
To start things off, you are given a short and cute intro cinematic, then plopped into the game as a creature called a slugcat. Weak and hunted by everything, you must rely on a keen eye, cunning tactics, patience, and perseverance above all else to survive in the harsh environment that is threatened to be drowned by the torrential rain. Steady amounts of food must be acquired, deadly predators must be avoided, and shelter must be found to survive just one cycle among many as you explore the regions. Death is punishing, as it delays your progression into new areas, forcing you to play well and learn your environment, as well as avoiding those who'd see the slugcat fit as a meal. Knowing how easily it is to have progress snatched away at a moment’s notice, every victory becomes immensely satisfying.
The first immediate thing that becomes apparent is the movement. It is simple on the surface, with 4 movement keys and 3 interactive buttons - jump, grab, and throw. Slugcat feels slow and clumsy to control at first, which adds to the feeling of vulnerability. However, therein exists a plethora of completely unexplained techniques and mechanics that, while not essential to master, will aid massively. Learning how to lodge spears into the ground/walls, wall jump, backflip, roll, slide, leap, and combine any of these is satisfying in both practice and application. Schmoving around the environment has never felt so rewarding, and that is due to how fundamentally limiting it is.
Said environment is extremely varied in how it's structured and designed to be interesting to navigate around in. I'll touch on the visuals later, but the way the world connects together reminds me of my enjoyment of my first Dark Souls playthrough, and makes me excited to play it again after writing this. Rain World's... world isn't static, either. The world goes on around you even when you aren't present to see it, and creatures will not be in the same spots they were last time, making for circumstances that will never mirror a previous instance. Heights are terrifying, the open sky is terrifying, tunnel mazes are terrifying, large stretches of water are terrifying. Come to think of it, it’s harsher than the aforementioned game, which I didn’t think was possible until playing this.
Creatures and predators are animated and programmed in such a way that they are always unpredictable and always scary. One example among many is the Lizards: they are aggressive and kill slugcat in one bite (like most creatures), but they are large, and will stumble as you evade them, getting visually frustrated when you get out of reach. They may potentially fight amongst themselves, providing an opportunity to sneak past. Depending on their color, they employ various hunting tactics for those they deem prey; not just the slugcat. Lizards are not at the top of the food chain though, and will flee when more dangerous predators make an appearance, shifting its focus away from the slugcat to one of self-preservation. The world's inconsistent nature, as well as the creature variety and their innate unpredictability, keeps you on your toes and creates for a consistently engaging experience.
All in all, slugcat is given equally as much world significance as every single other creature in the game. It's an ecosystem that happens around slugcat, not because of it. Just as you scour for food, each creature does as well. When the rain is imminently close to falling, animals will all but ignore you while they’re fleeing themselves. It cannot be understated how much this affects the core of Rain World's gameplay, and sets it apart from everything else.
The visuals cannot be properly described through a review, since you'd just have to see for yourself, but let me tell you they're some of the most gorgeous I've witnessed. It's pixel art at its absolute finest, and I have nothing but respect for the artist who painstakingly crafted it. It's detailed beyond belief, and the lighting system just makes everything pop out even more. Superstructures and destroyed worlds, especially if they’re combined as such, tend to elicit powerful feelings from me, so there is some bias, but I think it’s undeniable how damn the game looks. Handfuls of times I'd catch myself stopping and admiring many of the environments and vistas, two of which are my favorite in any game. They're very high up; those who know, know.
Perfectly complementing the regions’ visuals is the music. MAN, what a soundtrack this game has. It’s light on, but not devoid of, music you’d bop your head to, but there’s an emphasis on atmospheric ones. The latter usually play when transitioning between regions, or in dead-end areas, and when it does… it’s so easy to get instantaneously pulled in, is how I’d describe it. Immersed. Engrossed. Some other synonym. It’s giving me goosebumps just remembering some of the key moments and areas where their sole function is to provide immaculate vibes. On that note, something I don’t see discussed often is the amount of spots in each region that are functionally useless in normal gameplay, yet simply serve to flesh out the world. Prime environmental storytelling.
I cannot touch on the narrative and overall worldbuilding in a detailed manner because I’m frankly not super versed in the Buddhism it takes after. I will say though, the method of which Rain World slowly reveals its themes is stellar. Not a single line of dialogue; nothing is explicitly told… in the first half, at least. It’s all told through worldbuilding. You’ll have to really go out of your way to find more details. By the end, I was so friggin hooked that I’m fairly certain it has changed my brain chemistry and how I perceive life. Gazing upon the ending screens, emotions boiled over and had me crying tears of relief and joy. My life in this world flashed before my eyes as I reflected on the harrowing journey that I had endured. It was finally conquered. A truly ethereal experience this game pans out to be. I love it so much.
If there’s one thing I regret after playing Rain World is if I’ll be able to enjoy other games as much. My standards for what a game should strive to be have been raised even higher than they once were. It isn’t for everyone, though, as much as I wish every person could experience it in its entirety. It’s frustrating and obtuse as all hell - sometimes genuinely unfair - and it’ll heavily depend on whether or not that’s a good thing. For me at least, its unflinching, uncompromising resolve to portray living as a prey animal in a decrepit world’s ecosystem is what elevates it far and beyond what I’ve already played, and likely what I will ever play.