26th Jan2010

Final Fantasy XIII Review

by Kuro Matsuri

Final Fantasy XIII Logo

Welcome to the Kuro Matsuri Video Game review of Final Fantasy XIII. Since this is our first review, let me start by presenting the format of our reviews (you can skip to the first category under this paragraph if you don’t care). First, we select a number of dimensions that are highly relevant to the genre and/or specific game we are reviewing. Then, we rate each one on a 0 to 10 scale, decimals allowed. We sum the scores up and divide it by the total possible in order to give the final score for the game, which will be in terms of percentage (100% being an absolutely perfect game in our eyes). Then, since we review Japanese games for American and European audiences, every one of our reviews includes a part at the end about how “import friendly” the game is. This rating is based on two things, how easy or hard it is for a person with the American or European version of the console to be able to play the game (e.g., can they just put it in and play it, or will they have to modify the console, or even get a new Japanese one?), and how easy or hard is it for someone with little to know Japanese knowledge to play and enjoy the game. This, too, is on a 1 to 10 scale. Alright, here we go. We’ll start with graphics.



Graphics

The graphics are outright impressive, especially when viewed in full 1080p. Most everything looks crisp and pretty. However, it certainly isn’t flawless. Some of the characters’ hair appears to have an odd filter over it, making it appear almost pixelated. Lightning’s hair seems to be have the worst case of it, while Sazh’s hair doesn’t seem to do this at all. Apparently, afros are the way to get around this problem. Ironically, whenever the characters are in motion, this filter makes the hair look very realistic. But, whenever they are standing still, it makes the hair look out of place when compared to the rest of the game. That is, until you get used to it. By the end of the game, it probably won’t bother you anymore. There were also a few cases of lower resolution textures here and there throughout the game, but really not too many. Considering the length of the game, the detail presented through the entire game is certainly something worth admiring.

Graphics Score: 9.5/10


Story

(NO SPOILERS) Full of twists and turns, the story in this game is what you have come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. It might not become one of your favorite stories, but it will not disappoint. It has several sub-plots that emerge as the game progresses, none of which feel pointless. You will have to struggle with whether your group is doing the right thing or the wrong thing, and you later find out for sure which one it is. After Final Fantasy XII, I was worried that the ending might disappoint us much as FFXII’s ending had. I was happy to discover the opposite. The ending was pleasant, but not too pleasant (perfect happy endings are kinda boring), and had everything to do with the characters we had grown attached to through the game. There is no question in my mind that the story is the highlight of the game. That being said, there are sections of the story that wear on a little too long, and some of the twists and turns are very easy to see coming. That’s why FFXIII didn’t get a perfect 10/10 for its story.

Story Score: 9.8/10


Battle Gameplay

In any Final Fantasy game, how the battles are played is something to be considered separately from the rest of the gameplay. In order to complete the game, you’ll have to play through hundreds, if not thousands, of battles. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is fun, but flawed. First, I’ll explain the basics of the battle system. There is no MP, all actions cost one or more sections of your ATB (Active Time Battle) bar. As such, there’s no way to use magic outside of battle, so you’re always automatically healed to full after every battle. You either select your actions manually or use the “attack” button to allow the game to pick the best options based on the enemy you are selecting and the optima you are in (optima will be known as paradigm in the English version). There is a “break” system (known as “stagger” in English) that increases the amount of damage that your attacks do. Every time you hit an enemy, their break percentage increases. This percentage represents how much of your base damage you do to this opponent. So, if the break meter says 500%, you do 5 times your normal damage. If the break bar fills up, the break percentage automatically increases by 100%. Furthermore, when an enemy is in break mode, some of them won’t be able to attack back, and some of them can be knocked into the air and juggled. This is crucial to doing well in battle, as shown below:

In fact, for the Behemoth, if you don’t manage to get them to break before they are half dead, they will transform and become even harder to kill, as shown below:

However, if you do manage to get them to break, they become MUCH easier:

You may have noticed in the above videos that you are given a ranking for how well you did in the fight. The rankings go from 0 to 5 stars, and it’s based solely on how quickly you beat the enemies. The time restrictions get smaller as you get stronger because it attempts to be an accurate judge of how well you did a particular fight. On average it’s a good indicator, but there is one problem. The required time can be manipulated by reducing your max stat. If you have medium high physical attack and magic attack instead of really high physical attack and low magic attack, the time required for a 5 star rating is increased. Which means that there is a reason not to max out one role versus another, and instead it is indirectly encouraging keeping each individual character very balanced as opposed to a balanced team of characters that are each really strong in their own areas. This aspect was a bad move. A battle rating system shouldn’t be able to be manipulated like that.

But the real flaw is that you can only control one character, and you can’t switch which character mid-battle. Furthermore, the best you can do to control the other two characters is to give them a role to play. Basically, you can give one character the general role of “Attacker” (“Commando” in English), and they will use the abilities that come with that role as they please. Same with “Healer” (“Medic”), “Enhancer” (“Synergist”) and the other 3 roles. How the other characters utilize these roles is completely up to the AI, and you have no control over it. The only saving grace is that you can change characters’ roles mid-fight, but you can’t just change one character’s role. You have to pick one of the 6 3 role combinations you made before you entered the fight, meaning you have to change everybody’s role at once, though it is possible to “change” someone’s role to the same role in the process. Just to make matters worse, if the leader of the party dies (the leader is the one you are actually controlling), it’s an immediate game over. This can be particularly frustrating when the leader is low on health, but another character is slightly lower on health, so the AI heals that one first even when the leader is clearly the target of the next attack, resulting in a game over. Granted, that scenario doesn’t happen all that often, but it did happen several times while playing through the game.

Another thing to note is that there is no evasion or accuracy stat. All attacks hit or miss based on straight hit detection. Some enemies move around a lot, and you’ll miss them more often. Other enemies hardly move at all, and you’ll essentially never miss them. That’s all well and good, but that means that there is no way to increase how well you dodge, or how well you aim. Ever. Though, to be honest, I’m overall happy with this aspect. It kinda makes sense when you play it. Except for ONE enemy. The Behemoth. If you break a Behemoth after it has transformed and then knock it into the air, if no one else hits it to force it to reset it’s floating animation, you WILL miss the next 2 hits. The enemy is supposed to be completely helpless and open to attacks, and you automatically miss twice. This is a horrible flaw that, thankfully, only seems to effect one fight, but it is glaringly awful.

Battle Gameplay Score: 7.5/10


Leveling System

The leveling system (called the Crystarium or Crystalium) is always a major part of any Final Fantasy game. As such, it’s a category that simply can’t be ignored in a Final Fantasy review! The leveling system in FFXIII is very reminiscent of the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X, with a few major differences. One difference is that the characters never become essentially the same. Yes, every character can eventually get to the highest level of every role, but certain characters will never be as good as other characters at a particular role. For example, Lighting is one of the best Attackers in the game, and Hope or Vanille just simply can’t get as good at the role. But, they can be better Blasters than Lightning can. Also, every character has their own special attack that they can use as many times as they want in battle that the other characters can never learn. On the other hand, every role tree is very linear. You’ll rarely go more than 4 slots out from the main path, and never go more than 5 or 6. You also don’t really have a location in the tree, unlike the sphere grid, so you never actually backtrack. As such, there’s less planning involved with leveling. However, there is still some planning in the sense that you need to choose which jobs to prioritize enhancements for, and then you need to match that planning up with the way you’re leveling the weapons and accessories. Yes, you level up your weapons and accessories.

So, how do you level up weapons and accessories? Well, you obtain items that can be spent to increase the experience points of a weapon/accessory. Some items will give the weapon or accessory a multiplier that increases future experience point earnings for that weapon or accessory, while others will give huge boosts but reduce that multiplier. Once you get the weapon/accessory to a high enough level, you can use items with the effect “item change” to change the weapon or accessory to a lower level of a higher tier item. Meaning that you can really invest a lot into a weapon and make it very powerful.

So, with careful management, but without the pain of true micro-managing, the leveling system becomes very enjoyable. It is one of the better (though it’s hard to call it the best) leveling systems in the Final Fantasy franchise.

Leveling System Score: 9.1/10


Pacing And Exploration

This is where much of the buzz on the internet has been coming into play. The pacing of the game is very controlled by being very linear, with the exception of one large, open area that is around 2/3 of the way through the game. I consider this to be both good and bad. On one hand, there are no side quests until you reach the larger, more open area (which I didn’t do until just over 30 hours into the game), so there is no reason to spend extra time in any area unless you plan to run back and forth in a straight line just to kill more enemies for experience. On the other hand, there’s no need to really do that. If you kill every enemy you see and level up wisely, it won’t be impossible by any stretch to beat all the bosses that come up through the game. But, everything changes once you reach the plains-like area. Once you’re there, it would be wise to do many of the missions (though not all of them as some of them are ridiculously hard until you reach much higher stats) so that you can get strong enough to avoid lots of difficulties after you leave the area.

Except that, despite what I just said, not everything changes. Once you’re done with the big open area (which you can return to), the path goes right back to being incredibly linear with almost no exploration whatsoever. I can comfortably say that this is the most linear main Final Fantasy title to date. This doesn’t bother me too much, as before this, FFX was in my top 3 or 4 list of FF titles, and it used to be the most linear of the Final Fantasy games. But exploration is definitely limited, which hurts the score of this category. And a few things simply took too long before they were available. I couldn’t choose my party members at all until just over 25 hours in, for example. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Pacing And Exploration Score: 8.5/10


Continuing Playability

What I mean by continuing playability is this: is there any reason for me to continue playing the game after I’ve finished the story? This is a little different from replay value in that I’m not referring to starting the game over, but rather whether or not you will want to continue to improve your characters and completing optional content once the final boss has beaten. The answer: yes, you will. The last tier of the Crystarium is not unlocked until you’ve beaten the final boss. This sounds odd, but it keeps the final boss from being too easy the first time you fight him, which I feel is a good thing. This last tier gives HUGE boosts to stats. Beyond that, there are 64 optional missions, some of them more difficult than others, and some of them more fun than others. The Jumbo Cactuar (or Sabotender as they are known in the Japanese Final Fantasy games) is an amusing fight that makes you feel rather accomplished once you manage to beat him. About that fight, let me say this. 10,000 Needles is painful.

Even if you beat all of the missions, there are trophies and secret wallpapers to unlock by collecting all the items in the game or beating all of the missions with a 5 star rating. All of this is more than enough to extend the play time to over 100 hours, which is very respectable for a good Final Fantasy. However, there isn’t much else that you can do. No mini-games or other amusing distractions. Thus, a perfect score just can’t quite be justified.

Continuing Playability Score: 9.5/10


Summary:

Graphics Score: 9.5/10

Story Score: 9.8/10

Battle Gameplay Score: 7.5/10

Leveling System Score: 9.1/10

Pacing And Exploration Score: 8.5/10

Continuing Playability Score: 9.5/10


Total Score: 53.9/60 = 89.8%



Import Friendly?

Since this game isn’t available in the US or other regions until March, the only way to play this game at the time of this posting is to A) be in the gaming industry or gaming journalism industry and get an advanced copy or B) import the game from Japan. The good news is that the PS3 version of the game (the only version available in Japan) is completely region free, as are all PS3 games. This means that if you have an American or European PS3, the game will play just fine in your system. This certainly lends it some “import friendliness”. But, since this is an RPG with an involved story, it has LOTS of Japanese text and voices. You will not understand the story and may even get confused as to what you’re supposed to do if you don’t understand a fair amount of Japanese. Can you still get through it and enjoy the gameplay without knowing Japanese? With some experimentation, sure. But you won’t get the story, which I’ve already said is the best part of this release. If you can understand Japanese, though, you should go ahead and Buy Final Fantasy XIII at Play-Asia (maybe even with the FFXIV beta application code, if you can still get a first print copy) especially since the English voice acting isn’t quite as good (minor complaint) and they changed the main theme song (bigger complaint) in the English version of the game. If you can’t understand Japanese, or can’t afford to import (it is more expensive), just wait a couple more months until the game comes out in your own region. It will be worth the wait, even with the unfortunate changes.

Import Friendly Score: 5.0/10

If you have any questions, complaints, hearty agreements, disagreements, rebuttals, etc., please comment below! It will be much appreciated! ^_^

16th Jan2010

Final Fantasy XIII Crystarium Level Up Gameplay Video

by Kuro Matsuri

Final Fantasy XIII Crystarium

This is a video that explains how the level up system in Final Fantay XIII works. This new leveling system, called the Crystarium, uses Crystarium points to travel from node to node. It is certainly reminiscent of the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X, but the individual characters stay more unique in how they level as compared to FFX. In FFX, everybody could learn every skill (except for a couple special ones) and activate every node on the board. In FFXIII, each person has their own Crystarium different from the others, and it limits how much that particular person can learn. That way, while everybody can still learn just about everything, it’s more difficult for some to learn certain abilities than others, and every character has their individual weaknesses and strengths. You must learn them and utilize them properly to really do well at the game.

So, watch the gameplay video, and learn how to level up in Final Fantasy XIII!

Don’t forget to let me know what you think, ask questions, are tell me what else you would like to see in the comments below!

Have fun playing!

-Kuro Matsuri

11th Jan2010

How To Import for the PlayStation 1

by Kuro Matsuri

Japanese PlayStation 1 Box

Updated March 23, 2013. For the other Sony home consoles, try How to Import for the PlayStation 2 and How to Import for the PlayStation 3.

The original PlayStation is, unfortunately, completely region locked.  By design, a US PS1 cannot play Japanese games.  As a result, importing for the original PlayStation is pretty tricky business, at least if you want to play the imports on an original US console. We’ll start off with the most reliable method, buying a Japanese PS1.

Option 1: Purchase a Japanese PlayStation

Unfortunately, even going the straightforward route and buying a console is tricky due to the age of the console. At the time this guide is being written, Play-Asia, the usual go-to import vendor, doesn’t have any in stock. You can always try an eBay search for a Japanese PlayStation, which will most likely be the cheapest route, but you never know if you’ll get one in good condition or even if there will be one in stock. Lately, the most consistent source to buy a Japanese original PlayStation is on Amazon.

Option 2: Action Replay or Similar Cheat Devices

This option is limited to PlayStation consoles that have the Parallel I/O port, because the cheat device has to be separate from the disc tray. To see if you have one, look on the back of your PlayStation, on the far left. It looks like this when covered:

PlayStation 1 Parellel IO Port Closed

And like this when opened:

PlayStation 1 Parallel IO Port Open

Depending on the cheat device, you also might need to stick something in the lid sensor (the little switch that tells the system whether or not the disc lid is closed) so that it thinks that the lid is always closed.

At this time, the best option I could find is this Power Reply Game Enhancer sold through Amazon, which has a couple of reviews that confirm that it works for backups. In general, if a solution lets you play backups, it will usually let you play imports too, even if it means that you have to create a backup of your import in order to do it (though, usually, you don’t even need to do that).

This method isn’t 100% reliable, but it’s easy to use and works on most of the original PlayStation consoles. It will not work on the later PS One, though.

Option 3: Raw Disc Swap Method

In this method, the only modification required is jamming the lid sensor so that the system thinks the lid is always closed. Unfortunately, it only works on the oldest consoles, so it’s unlikely to work on a random console you happen to have or happen to pick up. However, it’s practically free to attempt it, so it’s very low cost. Here’s the method:

  • Insert an original and local PlayStation disc
  • Turn on the system, leave the tray open
  • Listen carefully to the disc motor – it will start off “slow” at 1x
  • When the disc motor speeds up to 2x, quickly swap it to the disc you want to play
  • The system should then show the black PS screen – if it didn’t, start over
  • It will slow down to 1x, wait longer
  • It will speed up to 2x, wait longer
  • It will slow down again to 1x, swap the disc out for the original and local PlayStation disc
  • It will speed up to 2x once more, swap it back to the disc you want to play
  • If everything was done correctly, AND your console is one that is old enough, it should play the game normally from there. This should also work for backups. At this point, you can close the lid.

On top of being compatible with only a few consoles, there is also the small chance that you can accidentally damage the disc motor during the swaps. Compared to modern consoles, the disc motor spins much slower, so there’s only a low chance of damaging it, but it is a chance you have to be willing to take in order to attempt this method.

Option 4: Install a Mod Chip

If installed correctly, this method becomes very convenient. You will have one console that plays both Japanese and American games just by putting them in, and the mod chip handles it from there. However, installing a mod chip requires some soldering. The original PlayStation is one of the easiest mod chips to install, but you still have to be brave enough to open up your console and try to attach some wires to the motherboard.

If you’re willing to try this method, this guide is below your level. I recommend researching the different mod chip options out there, as well as looking up some guides with images for where to attach the mod chip. Or, alternatively, you could look for a second-hand pre-modded PlayStation on eBay.

Option 5: Acquire an Import-Enabled PlayStation 2 or PlayStation 3

All PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 consoles can play PS1 games, so you can generally play import PS1 games. The only exception is games that have “expansion discs” that require swapping, because the PS2 and PS3 behaves differently when you open it, messing with the process. There are very few games like that, though, so it generally won’t be a problem. The Beatmania Append games come to mind, but outside of those, it should be fine. To find out how to get an import-enabled PS2 or PS3, take a look at How to Import for the PlayStation 2 or How to Import for the PlayStation 3.

Where to Get Games

Play-Asia is generally my go-to source for import games, and they do have a decent selection of Japanese PS1 games still available, though most are Ultimate Hits or Legendary Hits versions. They are well-priced, though, particularly compared to most of the Japanese PS1 games available through Amazon sellers. If you’re worried about whether or not Play-Asia is reputable, you can check out the Play-Asia review as well. And, as always, you can always search eBay for some Japanese PS1 games, which is often quite the mixed bag of random selection and random prices.

Interesting Game Highlights

Of course, the Final Fantasy series is a favorite on the original PlayStation, but let’s focus on games that are only available in Japan. Pepsiman is one of the most bizarre and interesting ones, featuring the character from the Japan-only Pepsi commercials, and here’s a quick video of it:

As you can see, it plays a lot like Temple Run, but from a long time before Temple Run ever existed. It’s definitely a great collector’s item. At this time, you can find it on Amazon for around $60-70 used, or for way too much new. ebay seems to have them for around $80 right now.

For a music game experience from way before Guitar Hero, you could check out the Beatmania series, several versions of which are currently available from Amazon and eBay. Just keep in mind that you have to have the original Beatmania first before you can play any of the Append versions, because they actually operate as a swap disc, which also means that only some of the methods listed here will work.

Beatmania DJ Station PRO Controller

Also, for the best experience, you’ll want to pick up the special controller, the best version of which is called the “Beatmania DJ Station PRO Controller” (pictured above), and is currently only available from eBay, and there’s only one left right now.

Enjoy your PlayStation imports!

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Disclaimer: use any of these methods at your own risk. Some of them can damage your console.

Endorsement Policy: while some of the links in this post are affiliate links, others are not, and we strive to provide the best options out there, regardless of affiliate status.

10th Jan2010

How To Import: Xbox and Xbox 360

by Kuro Matsuri

First up, the original (and ENORMOUS) Xbox

generic Xbox

The only consistent way to modify an original Xbox to play import games is to install a mod chip. However, if you use Xbox Live, you’ll have to find a mod chip that can be “turned off” or employs a “stealth mode” to avoid being banned for “cheating”. One slip-up, and your MAC address will be banned.

Therefore, if you use Xbox Live on your original Xbox, then you might want to consider buying an imported console. Otherwise, look into getting a mod chip for it. Unfortunately, I have no experience with mod chips in Xboxes, so I can’t tell you how hard it would be.

However, if you’re interested in playing Japanese games on the Xbox 360 games, you might be in luck! Or, conversely, you might not be… Microsoft decided to leave region protection in the hands of the game developers, so some games are region locked and others aren’t.

generic Xbox 360

Some of the more popular online import stores will list the compatibility of each game on that particular game’s product page. Play-Asia seems to be the best at it, so feel free to check them out.

If it just so happens that the game you want is region locked, the options revert back to the same options that the original Xbox has. Install a mod-chip and risk having the machine banned from Xbox Live or buy a Japanese console.

Buy a Japanese Xbox HERE (be warned, they are out of stock at the time of this posting)

Buy a Japanese Xbox 360 HERE (they only have the Arcade version right now)

Have fun playing!
-Kuromatsuri

09th Jan2010

How To Import: PSP, DS, and Other Handheld Consoles

by Kuro Matsuri

PSP

All Nintendo (Except DSi and 3DS) and Sony handheld consoles are COMPLETELY REGION FREE!!!!!! That means Japanese games will run fine on your American PSP or DS (or any earlier Nintendo handheld console)

One catch, though. For PSPs, which button is confirm or cancel is determined by the hardware. US; O = cancel, X = confirm. Japan; O = confirm, X = cancel. That can’t be changed unless you hack your system, which I won’t cover here since it’s not necessary to play an imported game.

DSi

So, all you have to do is buy the game and put it in.

There are a few exceptions, unfortunately. A few Chinese DS games won’t work on a DS from a different region due to language support issues. And then there’s the matter of downloadable DSi content. DS cartridges are still region free on the DSi, but an American DSi will only let you access the American DSi download store. As of this post, there’s no way around either problem. So, just in case you’re interested:

Buy a Japanese DSi HERE

A Chinese DS is hard to find, but then again, so are good Chinese games that aren’t available in the US or Japan. Just a matter of opinion, don’t be offended if your favorite game is a China exclusive, please!

Have fun playing!
-Kuromatsuri