So, I've been playing some Persona 4 Arena the past couple of weeks. It finally released over here in the UK and the rest of Europe after a fairly agonising nine-month wait. That in itself is something that may or may not be worthy as a separate little ranty post on its own. Atlus are somewhat... incompetent when it comes to getting their games released in Europe. I sort of understand the logistical problems they face, but having virtually ALL of their games releasing in Europe so late after the rest of the world in this day and age is... well, a little annoying to say the least. In P4A's case, it was also region-locked, so importing a copy wasn't even an option.

But alas, Persona 4 Arena is out now. And it's a video game-ass video game, so I'm going to attempt to articulate how I feel about it, as well as just fighting games in general.

Persona 4 Arena is a rather... interesting package. It's a sequel to Persona 4. That game, however, was a PS2 JRPG that released in 2008 ('09 in Europe). I'm not sure anyone was quite expecting a sequel to one of the most beloved JRPGs in recent memory to be a... fighting game. And it's a fighting game-ass fighting game. It's basically BlazBlue, but with characters from Persona 4 and 3. Hell, it's even developed for the most part by the same people.

So what you have is a game that appeals to two very specific audiences: people who enjoyed Persona 4 and want more from those characters and that world, and those who enjoy ArcSys's specific brand of somewhat mechanically-complex fighting games, two groups where you would think there wouldn't be a whole lot of overlap. At least that's how I see it. And while I can't speak with much authority on the latter, there's more than enough Persona in here to satisfy those who fall into that corner.

The bulk of my 36 hours in the game thus far (according to Raptr) has been spent with the story mode. Of the two groups mentioned above, I fall into the Persona 4 group. There was a time where I was (and arguably still am) borderline-obsessed with that game. As you should know by now, I love a game that tells a good story, and Persona 4 tells a pretty damn good story. So, I'll happily take more of that in any form I can get it, even if that form happens to be a reasonably complex fighter that I will never be particularly great at playing.

Sound advice there, from Akihiko-san,

Sound advice there, from Akihiko-san,

Fortunately, for those that are only here because of the Persona hook, you don't need to be good at (or even like) fighting games to get everything the game's story mode has to offer. It's essentially a visual novel, with a few very easy, single-round fights strewn throughout, which you play from the perspective of each character separately. So, lots of voiced dialogue, a whole lot of reading, and not much actual gameplay. But for people that really enjoyed the original game, that's not really a detriment. Initially, you only start out with a couple of characters as options, but as you play through more character's stories, other characters are opened up. As I said, you play each story from a particular character's perspective, as if that character was the main protagonist, which left me wondering how they'll treat the canonicity of the story come the next time we eventually hear from these characters again. The plot of the game plays out the same regardless of what character you play as, with only some minor differences throughout, so it'll be interesting (though not a particularly wild guess) who's story will be canon. Or maybe if they make Persona 4 Arena 2, and structure it the same way, they won't have to deal with that. As you could expect from a fighting game, the scope of the story obviously isn't quite on par with it's 60+ hour RPG big brother, but there's more than enough here to keep fans satisfied for the time being.

I won't say much else about the story, since I feel you can't really do much justice talking about it in depth without talking about some of the details of Persona 4's story. And Persona 4's story is one well worth experiencing, in my opinion. Not your typical JRPG fare, but for the most part plays out like something more akin to a Scooby-Doo adventure. It's a nice change of pace from the sort of stuff you'd find from the likes of Final Fantasy and its ilk.

The rest of the modes featured in the game are the standard affair you'd expect to find in a fighting game. Arcade mode, all fighting with a (heavily) condensed version of each character's story; Score attack mode, where you're pitted up against ridiculously hard, souped-up versions of the characters: score attack's difficulty is one higher than the highest selectable difficulty in the options menu and the AI fighters have some insane buffs applied to them; Challenge mode, where you have to pull off a bunch of combos for each character; Practice mode, which is exactly that, and some fairly standard modes for online play. Everything that a fighting game fan would reasonably expect, it's in there. I'm not great at fighting games, but the Persona hook is enough to keep me wanting to play and try and get a little bit better, even if I'll never be at any real competitive level. And if nothing else, it's that much more satisfying on the rare occasions where I actually do manage to come out on top against another human being.

If nothing else, it's certainly a flash game.

If nothing else, it's certainly a flashy game.

And that sort of leads me nicely into the part where I wanted to talk a bit about fighting games in general. More specifically, the one major issue that I have with the genre in general. I'm not good at fighting games. In fact, I'm downright terrible at them. And while I haven't played every fighting game ever made, I think I've played enough to get to the point where I feel comfortable enough to say what I'm about to say.

Fighting games do an awful job of teaching new players. A godawful job. No fighting game that I have played has made any reasonable attempt to help a new player get better at the game outside of teaching them the very basics. They are inherently inaccessible games.

Persona 4 Arena has a lesson mode, wherein it teaches you all of the mechanics of the game. This is all well and good, except it only gives you a brief description of each mechanic, shows you how to do it (the button combo) and then has you perform it a couple of times, before swiftly moving on to the next one. For someone who's well versed in fighting games, yeah, that's more than enough. But for new players? Almost useless if you ever want to compete at anything above the most basic level. Simply giving examples of the sort of scenarios and situations in which you should or should not use these mechanics would go a very long way in helping new players actually understand them.

There's also a challenge mode, similar to Street Fighter 4, or most other modern fighting games, where the game presents you with a list of different combos to pull off. The game will give you a practice dummy, show the moves (and their commands) you need to perform on the left of the screen, and you have to bust out that combo. Persona 4 Arena goes further (I believe, might be wrong here) than other games that share this mode, in that it'll highlight each part of the combo as you're performing it, and should you mess up, it'll tell you which part of the combo you messed up on. But for me, that's not enough, I want to know HOW I messed up. Did I try the next move two early, too late? Hell, even if I fumbled button presses or stick movements, tell me that as well! This is the sort of information that actually TEACHES the player and helps them to improve. Just saying "nope, try again" doesn't do that.

Timing is everything with combos in a fighting game, anyone who's ever played one can tell you that. And especially in the very fast-paced fighters ArcSys is known for making, those timings can be particularly brutal. There's a particular combo challenge that I can't quite get down. I can perform all the moves that make up the combo, one after another, but my timing on the very last move isn't quite right. And by that, I mean I'm mere milliseconds too early or too late. Which? I'll never know. And because I don't know that, I'm not able to adjust what I'm doing, meaning I'm just floundering about hoping I'll maybe get lucky and pull it off by accident, rather than actually LEARNING how to achieve it.

And sure, to play devil's advocate, all that sort of information is out there on the internet, provided by fans and other players who know the game inside out. But therein lies my issues: the game itself doesn't provide that information. I'm all for a game teaching you how to play through its gameplay: you gain knowledge of the maps and weapons by simply playing a first-person shooter, you gain knowledge of strategies, build-orders and the like through playing online in an RTS, but for intricate, yet absolutely integral things such as combo timings in a fighting game? You're for the most part not going to learn that through simply playing the game. A game should never require you to access external resources in order to learn anything above the absolute basics of the game.

And of course, the fighting game community is often seen as a harsh, toxic environment that doesn't welcome newcomers and while that is far from the truth, it can still be daunting as someone with no fighting game experience who wants in on the fun.

Note: This review contains spoilers for the 2007 game, BioShock.

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It's almost six whole years since Irrational Games came out with the fairly ground-breaking BioShock, way back in August of 2007. That game, billed as a spiritual sequel to Irrational's PC classic System Shock 2, took somewhat of a step back in the RPG department, but for console gamers, there wasn't anything quite like it at the time. Skipping over the wholly unnecessary sequel developed by 2K Marin, and it seems fitting that Irrational will be closing out this console generation similar to how they opened it.

You play as Booker DeWitt, an actual voiced and developed character, unlike the previous game's blank slate, Jack. The underwater city of Rapture is swapped out for the floating city of Columbia, where you are seemingly tasked to "bring back the girl, and wipe away the debt." Gameplay-wise, it's business as usual; if you've played BioShock before, you'll feel right at home, though there have been a few significant changes to the way the combat works in Infinite. There are a standard array of weapons, which all fall into the typical shooter archetypes: a pistol, machine gun, carbine, shotgun, etc. However, this time around, you can only hold two weapons at once, meaning you might want to think more carefully about how you enter an engagement, and be mindful of your ammo counts a bit more often than you necessarily would be in the first game.

It's pretty in Columbia.

It's pretty in Columbia.

The magical powers, called "vigors" this time around (which require salt, as opposed to EVE), are pretty similar, with the biggest change being able to hold down the button to make a trap version of most of them. Traps were their own specific plasmids in the original BioShock, so being able to easily create traps with the regular fire and lightning vigors in Infinite lead me to using traps a hell of a lot more than in the previous game. There's some decent variety in the vigors available, though I found myself sticking to a core few more often than not. The lightning vigor, or "Shock Jockey" is always useful, and the Bucking Bronco vigor lets you easily hit and briefly incapacitate large groups of enemies quickly, and with a few exceptions here and there, I didn't find myself deviating from this all too often.

Combat is as interesting as always.

Combat is as interesting as always.

Gone are the gene tonics from before, with character buffs coming in the form of gear, pieces of loot that you can find that provide a variety of random effects. Having a 70% chance to ignite enemies with a meleé attack, receiving brief invulnerability whenever you use a health recovery item, or your weapon having a 40% chance to instantly have its magazine refill without reloading are some of the effects which can definitely help you out of a sticky situation. Using the Charge vigor to instantly lunge into an enemy from a good distance away, then have him explode into flames upon impact never ceases to be incredibly satisfying. Also, available to buff yourself are Infusions, which are usually found a off the beaten path and each one allows you to increase your shield,  health or salt capacity, giving you a little more option for your character than in the older games. You could be like me and try and evenly spread them across each stat, or you could min-max your character and raise your shields super high, at the expense of your health and salt reserves.

The only thing I found to be disappointing about the combat in Infinite was the weapon upgrades. Each weapon has a number of upgrades available to them that can be bought freely from vending machines throughout the game, but the only upgrades available for any of the weapons are standard damage, magazine-size, reload and recoil buffs. Compared to some of the more interesting upgrades in the previous games, as well as the fact the appearance of your weapons don't change after each upgrade, there's no real feeling of progression here. It's only a minor gripe, however, and the combat in Infinite is as fun as ever. It's interesting and there's enough breaks throughout the game that it never starts to feel overwhelming or repetitive.

The story is absolutely where BioShock Infinite shines, however. I obviously can't delve too much into details without encroaching on spoiler territory, but if you go through Infinite expecting a massive plot twist (this is a Ken Levine game, after all), you're not going to have that one particular "would you kindly?" moment from the first game. Although there is a particular twist that stands out, it's a combination of a number of things that come together to create a fantastic and absolutely satisfying conclusion to the story. The game is also absolutely littered with references and foreshadowing, which can make a subsequent playthrough an almost equally great experience.

Elizabeth is one of the best companions in video games. Ever.

Elizabeth is one of the best companions in video games. Ever.

The characterisation is also top-tier, with Elizabeth being one of the best and most realised video games companions of... well, ever. After first meeting her about an hour or so into the game, she remains by your side for the majority of the rest of your 10-12 hour experience. Outside of combat, she will occasionally find and give you money, and can also be used to lockpick various safes and doors that lead to hidden areas. The game will often remind you that in-combat, you won't have to deal with her as she can "take care of herself". This is because the enemy AI simply ignores her, which can lead to somewhat of a disconnect with that game, but it's something I managed to get over fairly quickly. She will often find and throw you health, salt and ammo in battle, and her special ability lets her use "tears" to call in objects from... somewhere. Again, spoilers. These can range from turrets and cover as well as just general supplies like ammo or med kits. As useful as she in combat though, she's also just a joy to be around. Irrational have very successfully crafted a character that you grow attached to and care about throughout the course of the game.

Irrational Games have created absolute masterclass in video game storytelling with fantastically crafted character arcs that leave you wanting so, so much more. This alongside gameplay that is as competent as ever means that BioShock Infinite is not only going to be one of, if not the best game this year, but one of the best games this entire generation.

So, a little while ago, way back in 2011, Square Enix announced that they were going to be putting out an HD version of Final Fantasy X for the PlayStation 3 and Vita. They announced that, and since then, we've had pretty much nothing in terms of details since. That was, until very recently, where the publisher launched an official site over at the aptly titled finalfantasyxhd.com. The site has the first official screenshots as well as confirming the rumour that the sequel, Final Fantasy X-2 is also getting the HD treatment, and both will come on the same disk on the PS3, as "Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster". The screenshots show some fairly significant work on the textures, meaning Square are putting a little more effort into this than simply upressing the game to HD resolutions.

So why am I writing a blog post about this? Well, it's rather simple: Final Fantasy X is my favourite video game. Ever.

There are a handful of games that I consider to be my favourites of all time, but organising them all into an ordered top 10, top 5 or even a top 3 is something I'll probably never be able to achieve. The one thing that's become abundantly clear to me over the past few years though, is that Final Fantasy X will always top that list. It and most, if not all, of my other favourite games all share one thing in common: they were released, or I played them, during my formative years. That time, around the ages of 7-15, where a great experience will stick with you much longer than most things would during adulthood. FFX released over here in May 2002, and I thoroughly played it well before the sequel's release in February 2004, meaning I would've only been 12 or 13 at the time. Playing a Final Fantasy game at that age, games that dedicate a lot of time to world building, character arcs and epic plots, it's no surprise it would stick with you. I would say FFX almost single-handedly influenced my tastes in games to come: a preference for those with a heavy focus on the story. Final Fantasy VII is similar, another game that I consider one of my favourite of all time.

Final Fantasy X released here on May 24th, 2002, five months after the North American release and ten months after the original Japanese release (because LOL EUROPE). The game was Square's first foray onto the PlayStation 2 with Final Fantasy, as well as (if I remember correctly) one of their last major releases before the eventual merger with Enix. Being the first game on a new generation of hardware, there were understandably high expectations, especially after the well-received Final Fantasy IX only a year prior. X is the first in the series to feature voice acting of any kind, as well as just generally better looking graphics than its predecessors, including some, at the time, very impressive facial animation. The game was absolutely stunning at the time of its release, and still holds up fairly well to this day. Or at least, significantly better than the PSX games. Looking at you, Final Fantasy VII and your LEGO-like character models.

The iconic intro to the game,

The iconic intro to the game,

You play as Tidus, a star Blitzball (a sort of soccer-like game played in an underwater dome) player hailing from the massive and technologically advanced city of Zanarkand, the "city that never sleeps". At the start of the game, Tidus is in the middle of playing a match when the city is attacked, and ultimately destroyed by, a huge monster known only as "Sin". Tidus then finds himself transported and lost in a strange world known as Spira, with the eventual revelation that his city of Zanarkand was apparently destroyed a thousand years ago. Spira is a world ravaged by Sin, who destroys any city that grows too large, which results in a world that isn't that advanced technologically, especially when compared to Tidus's Zanarkand. Tidus quickly finds himself in the company of Yuna, a young summoner about to set off on her pilgrimage, the ultimate goal of which is to defeat Sin and bring about the Calm, a peaceful time that only lasts until Sin's eventual rebirth.

I'm not going to go into much more detail about the story, even for a decade-old game, but Square's strength in storytelling from previous entries in the series was as strong as ever, with a rich and detailed story, with some fantastic and truly heartbreaking twists and revelations. Compounded by the addition of a set of fully-acted characters, something not really feasible in previous games, there's a reason why people consider Final Fantasy X to be the last great Final Fantasy game. Indeed, my only real flaw with the game's storytelling was the decision to make Tidus a nameable character, meaning he is only ever referred to via pronouns during voiced dialogue, something that becomes even more painfully apparent during the game's sequel, X-2.

The quality of the voice acting is surprisingly strong, given that it was Square's first attempt at it in a major release. The English cast features some well known names including James Arnold-Taylor as Tidus, Tara Strong and Futurama's own John DiMaggio. People in particular like to point out and laugh at the infamous "laughing scene", something people love to take out of context and provide as an example of the "terrible" voice acting. While I'm not saying the scene should be held up as a fantastic example of quality voice acting, it's not even close to being as bad as people like to make out, especially considering the apparently awfulness of the laughing is completely contextualised previously in the exact same scene. The laughter is intentionally forced, as Yuna asks Tidus to do it. She wants her journey to be full of smiles and laughter, to keep things positive during a tough and hard pilgrimage. After the characters themselves realise just how fucking stupid they sound, they eventually break into genuine laughter. As we all know though, the Internet loves to takes things and present them completely without context, so it's not hard to see why in that sense, it seems like poor VA.

Auron, badass incarnate.

Auron, badass incarnate.

The game isn't completely without some examples of poor voice acting though, with Hedy Burress's performance of Yuna probably being the weakest link. While not terrible, she, for whatever reason, seemed to make a lot of attempts to try and sync her performance to the game character's mouth movements... which are based off the original Japanese performances. This results in a lot of reads with a really weird and awkward cadence to them, though is something that thankfully doesn't plague her entire performance, and Yuna's VA is for the most part noticeably better in the sequel. For examples of great voice acting in the game, look no further than the character of Auron, the game's resident badass, who spews well delivered, quotable lines like there's no tomorrow.

Gameplay wise, if you're familiar with Final Fantasy, or even just JRPGS in general, you should know what to expect. The battle system in FFX is purely turn-based however, the "Conditional Turn-Based Battle" (CTB) differing from the "Active Time Battle" (or ATB) system the series is well known for, which incorporated realtime elements into a turn-based system. X does away with that though, opting for pure turn-based shenanigans, even going so far as to include a HUD element that shows the exact order of the turns for the current battle. Different actions affect the turn of battle, and you can see how the current move changes the flow in the aforementioned HUD element without even confirming your turn, which allows for a great deal more strategy and planning than previous games would necessarily allow. The effects of time-altering magic such as Haste, which causes a character to speed up his or her actions, is now something you could directly see the benefits of instantly, due to that character's face now showing up much more frequently in the turn order. Not only that, but the turn-based system allows you to play completely at your own pace, without having to worry about being at a disadvantage for taking your time with your moves, or having to mess around with the arbitrary speed settings that previous games would have.

X's battle system, with the turn indicator on the right.

X's battle system, with the turn indicator on the right.

The game does away with a traditional overworld, something that would possibly lead to people's criticisms of the later Final Fantasy games being too linear, something that people were very vocal about in Final Fantasy XIII. I'm not very familiar with the games pre-Final Fantasy VII, but the PSOne games in particular, when you really look at them, aren't any less linear than X is. Sure, those games had an overworld, a world map where you could seemingly go wherever you wanted and do whatever you wanted, but that wasn't the case. Remember when you finally left Midgar in Final Fantasy VII and were presented with the huge open map, letting you go anywhere? Except, the only place you could really go was to the small town of Kalm to the north-east, a place you where required to go to advance the plot. This holds true for the majority of the game, with the only time you're really free to go as you please is at the end of the game, and even then, you can only do sidequests outside of finishing the game. I'm not terribly familiar with Final Fantasy VIII, but I seem to remember this mostly being the case for IX as well. Those games weren't really any less linear than X and even XII were, they just gave the illusion of it. In fact, by stripping out the traversable overworld completely and just creating a bunch of well-designed, interconnected areas, I would argue this has a large benefit on the overall pace and structure of the game. Late in the game, you gain access to an airship, allowing you backtrack to anywhere in the game easily, but rather than manually piloting it throughout the world as in the previous games, you just select where you want to go from a menu, and are instantly warped there. X-2 turns this up to eleven by giving you access to most of the major areas in the game right from the get-go, and during the times you have multiple objectives to accomplish, the game lets you tackle them in any order you wish.

As for my opinions on Final Fantasy X-2? It's a fairly stellar game that probably get a somewhat unfair rep due to the abundant fanservice and somewhat Charlie's Angels-esque tone, something that largely takes a backseat after the first third or so of the game, before delving into more serious storytelling (though still a damn sight more upbeat than it's predecessor). Regardless, the game overall is a fairly drastic shift in tone from it's predecessor. Final Fantasy X opens with the annihilation of a city. X-2 opens with... a pop concert. It's definitely not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and had I not been such a huge fan of the first game, I'm not sure how I would've taken to it. For me at the time, just having more time to spend in that world with those characters was more than enough. The battle system is also pretty great, and one of the things that people consistently praise the game for, moving away from the previous game's turn-based affair to something more closely resembling the ATB system that series veterans would be familar with, along with a job-switching system reminiscent of Final Fantasy... V? Like I said, I'm not terribly familiar with the Nintendo-era games. The battle system in X-2 however definitely places a lot more emphasis on the realtime aspect of battling than previous games that shared similar systems, with the game rewarding you when you manage to properly time and chain together attacks from multiple party members. It definitely makes for a more fast-paced and hectic playing game than X, stopping the sequel from just being more of the same. X-2 also has a pretty interesting soundtrack, with a fairly heavy J-Pop influence, for better or worse. It's a far cry from the superb OST in the previous game composed by series veteran Nobuo Uematsu, but X-2's music does a reasonably good job at setting the tone of the game, and features some genuinely fantastic standout pieces, the final battle music and the title-screen music being particular favourites of mine.

Probably about time I wrap this up a bit. I apologise for the somewhat ramble-y and not particularly well-structured post. I just really wanted to talk about FFX in light of the recent developments on the HD re-release front, as well as the fact it's been almost a couple months since my last post. So if you made it this far, thanks for reading.