Read From Memory: FFVII part 3

I had a chance to play for about an hour today. Where we last left off Cloud had just escorted Aeris from the church to her home in the slums of sector 5.

Sector 5 slums is really a small area, and a dump as the name implies. Interesting tidbit is meeting a sick man with a number 2 tattoo. He says gibberish and I thought you could get some items in a small side quest to cure him. That was my memories of the upcoming sidequest blending in. I also never knew that you could interact with one of the NPC’s television sets. If you do you’ll get a breaking news broadcast that updates you about your recent bombing mission in Sector 4. Once again painting AVALANCHE as terrorists.

Anyhow, you meet Aeris’ mother, Elmyra Gainsborough, once you reach their house. It’s quite nice for a poor area with a big yard. Aeris has promised to escort Cloud to the Sector 7 gate, past Sector 6, and her mother, apparently not into strong parenting at all, gives her ascent. However, as Aeris goes to prepare the spare bed for Cloud, Elmyra asks Cloud to leave in the dead of night. Mentioning something about him being in SOLDIER and her not wanting Aeris’ heart broken again.

Ut oh.

When Cloud goes to bed, he has a brief conversation with the disembodied voice. It’s not clear if its him or somebody else. The voice mentions that the bed was nice, “like last time” or something, and then Cloud has a flashback to a similar scene. A woman is expressing her worries about him, and then suggests he needs to date somebody older. “To take care of him.” Cloud replies: “Not interested.” When I was younger I always assumed this woman was Cloud’s mom. If that’s the case, this conversation got a whole lot creepier…

Cloud manages to leave unnoticed but Aeris has already teleported to the exit to Sector 6. After deliberating and acting tough, Cloud agrees to bring her with him to Sector 7. The market place in Sector 6 and the road to get to it gets talked up like it’s an epic adventure. The road ends up being one screen with an obnoxious path and bizarre enemies. You reach a playground with huge cat playscapes and Aeris takes out a minute to reminiscence, Cloud dutifully playing the listening party. The sector 7 gate is visible, and it actually opens. A stage coach pulled by a chocobo exits and as it turns to your right, you see Tifa on the back. She’s wearing a dress of some sort. Puzzled by this Cloud and Aeris go to investigate.

Sector 6 Wall Market

The Wall Market is a cool looking area. There are five screens total and lots of NPCs to talk to. You’re not given any clue as to where Tifa might be, nor is it obvious where that stagecoach managed to squeeze through the narrow alleys between shops, or where it parked. You have to investigate the area and talk to people. As others have noted, it’s pretty comical when Aeris tells you that you have to find Tifa soon because a place like the Wall Market is “pretty scary for a girl.” As if neither of them can handle themselves after living in the slums for a while.

After you explore the starting area if you head east you’ll come to the Honey Bee Inn. This was one of the scenes I mentioned in my overview that feels like a subtle jab at Nintendo; both its history and its censorship of “edgy” themes. (Though I have to say the whole game feels like a middle finger to the Big N.) There’s a crowd of socially retarded guys trying to get in. But the doorman will tell you to scram if you don’t have a Membership card (quest item). The chubby middle aged man right in front of him will tell you about Tifa, after he insults you of course. He explains that she’s the newest girl but she’s being “interviewed” by local strong man Don Corneo. The Don apparently “interviews” all new arrivals since he “wants to settle down.” Seems to me that if this is true then he’s not serious about it, as aspiring prostitutes aren’t marriage material. But it does help cement Don Corneo as a buffoon. And it’s just a game, right?

Anyway, if you head back to the start and then north, you’ll get to the mansion of Don Corneo. The door man here will tell you to beat it, since the Don is not into men. Foreshadowing! As you go to leave, Aeris tells the man that she’ll come back with a cute friend. Yes, it’s time for the Cloud crossdressing experience.

Cloud in Drag

All you really need to advance the quest is a dress and a wig. There are multitudes of FAQs and guides that will explain how to proceed and get the necessary items if you happen to come across this page looking for a walkthrough. There are two possible paths: either dress up so well that the Don picks you for the “interview” session, which I believe is the canonical story, or do the bare minimum and he picks Aeris. A few points of this quest that I thought were interesting, or I missed/forgot about.

Honey Bee Inn

If you explore the Honey Bee Inn, there are two occupied rooms and two empty rooms to enter. You get some inner thoughts of the madam(?) as she’s guiding you through the process. None of them are flattering to Cloud, as you can imagine. I never explored the occupied rooms before. You’re given the choice of listening or peeking through each room’s keyhole. If you peep, you’ll see in one of them (the Queen Room) that there’s a satanic ritual going on (yes really). Apparently this is what Shinra executives like to do on their down time. It also provides some plot foreshadowing. The other room (Lover’s Room) has two old people in it who call each other grandma and grandpa. Apparently their son rented them this room in an attempt for each other to spice up their relationship. I don’t know about you guys, but I wouldn’t rent a room at a brothel for my folks. Ever.

Anyway, if you follow the madam to one of the two unoccupied rooms, you advance the quest. The Group room and the “&$#%” room. If you choose the “&$#%” room you’ll have a bizarre out of body experience and meet Mukki. If you go to the Group room, you’ll get a homoerotic “bath” with Mukki and a group of his pals. Having always chosen the “&$#%” room in the past, I went with the Group room for fun this time. Cloud doesn’t go psychotically haywire like the other room but he does get very…uncomfortable. Either way you’re not getting out of it without meeting Mukki. For your troubles you’ll either get some lingerie or bikini briefs, and if you go to the staff room you can ask one of the “honey-bees” to give you make up.

Once you exit, all of the dudes outside are fawning over Aeris. She’s managed to rebuff their advances and collect some gil from them in exchange for flowers. I wonder if that gil goes to the party fund…doubtful.  A bizarre sequence, in any case. You can read more about the Honey Bee Inn and what didn’t make the cut in the English version here.

Rescuing Tifa

Gathering the rest of Cloud’s outfit involves getting a drunk tailor out of his stupor long enough to fashion you a dress and convincing “big bro” to give you a wig.  You can also obtain a tiara from a lazy shop owner if you’re willing to spend the money. The encounter with big bro is a mini game at the gym that involves Cloud doing as many squats as he can against one of big bro’s disciples. Getting pretty involves pain, I think is the game’s message here.  Big bro will say something to that effect. If you win you’ll receive a blonde wig, making Cloud more desirable over a fairer haired maiden, I suppose. After you pick up the dress from the tailor, Aeris will also select a dress and doll herself up for the occasion.

Heading back to Don Corneo’s mansion, the doorman will now be very complimentary of you both and allow you in. The receptionist inside will instruct you to wait while he notifies the Don that you have arrived. I take it that Corneo practices formidable OPSec by not permitting phones in his home. You’re free to look for Tifa.

FF7 screenshot - Don Corneo's dungeon
Finding Tifa in the Don’s waiting room

This will lead you down some long, candle lit stairs to a temple where human sacrifices are performed. Or a sex dungeon, depending on how you look at it. Either way it’s a weird room, but Tifa is here. After her initial shock at your get up, she’ll firmly cement you into the BFF-zone for Aeris’ benefit. They share in common amusement at your discomfort and beta male status. Tifa then reveals why she’s at the mansion: the Don has been sniffing around the bar, looking for evidence of AVALANCHE. Barret roughed up the PIs and considered the matter closed. But Tifa was uneasy with it all so she decided to come meet the Don herself to see what he had found out about their terror cell. In order to do that she has to get “interviewed” by the man. Aeris then proposes that since they are three of them, and the Don views three ladies at a time, they can get the information no matter what. Tifa readily agrees to this plan, and the assistant finally returns, bemoaning “women nowadays” “who don’t listen.”

Meeting Don Corneo

At last, your group is brought before the Don. The Don Coreno character model looks a little like the President Shinra model, but with a cigarette, monocle, and Mohawk. Despite his girth he gleefully hops onto and over his desk to evaluate you. If you got all the correct quest items, he’ll choose Cloud as his interviewee for the evening. The other two are given to his minions.

In his bedroom you get several amusing dialog trees to choose from. Eventually Cloud will reveal his true self, and Tifa and Aeris will bust in. Threatening the Don with castration several times, he will reveal that Shinra is planning to destroy Sector 7 entirely in order to eliminate AVALANCHE and send a message to any other lower city dissident groups. The plan is to bomb the pillar holding up a “plate” above the slums. That way the incident can be blamed on AVALANCHE. Devious, right?

Well as you go to leave, you get one last dialog choice with Corneo. He asks why you think he was willing to tell you about the Plan. The distraction gives him enough time to activate a trapdoor to send you to your doom. Not unlike Jabba the Hutt, really. You fall down  to somewhere even lower than the slums, and the game fades to black.

Shinra Executive Meeting

The game goes into exposition mode in which President Shinra meets with  his henchmen, Heidegger and Reeve. I’ll have more to say about the villains of Final Fantasy VII in a later post. It’s unclear at this point if Heidegger is related to existentialist and Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. In any case they simply reiterate what Don Corneo told you: they play to destroy Sector 7 entirely with a bomb, which will be blamed on AVALANCHE, and Shinra will come in and handle the clean up, getting a PR boost presumably. Reeve is adamantly opposed to this plan, but is shut down by the president, who suggests he take a few days off.  It’s an unexpected level of depth from what could otherwise be cardboard cutouts, and perhaps because I’m paying more attention this time, I appreciated it more.

Boss Fight: Abs

Back to our heroes, Cloud checks on Tifa and Aeris, who have survived the drop. You are now in the sewers, and are soon attacked by a creature named Abs. It has some relatively powerful attacks but I was able to defeat it without too much trouble. Tifa despairs a bit, saying they have no time to stop the bombing, but Aeris cheers her up. Heading two screens up and beating off a few random encounters, you eventually make it to the Train Graveyard, where I stopped for the moment.

Sega Longplay: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

As played by Mad-Matt and presented by World of Longplays: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Sega Last Crusade, if you will.

Commentary

A few observations about this one. Note that Mad-Matt puts it away in about 16 minutes. He comments that it’s quite difficult on Hard, and I believe that. Check out some of the platforming sequences in “Scene 3.” Love the goose-stepping boss for Scene 4, by the way. Imagine playing this game all the way to the end just to pick the wrong grail and lose. Good thing for them social media didn’t exist in 1992.

The Indiana Jones license is quite tortured if you’re trying to sort out who made what and for what system. There were many ports and the same IP would get used for different genres of games. This is the “Action game” which is different from the “graphical adventure” which was done by LucasArts. The developer, Tiertex Ltd., has quite an impressive resume of games. I had to laugh when I saw this in Infogalactic:

“Historically, the company was notorious for its poor conversions of popular arcade games to home platforms”

Brutal.

Mass Effect Andromeda First Weekend

So how did Bioware’s ballyhooed follow up to the Mass Effect trilogy do in the early going? A tale in two screenshots:

Mass Effect Andromeda page on Amazon, as of March 25 2017
Mass Effect Andromeda page on Amazon, as of March 25 2017

Amazon shows 3 stars for the PS4 version, with 152 reviews. 3.5 stars for the XOne version, with 65 reviews. If there’s any silver lining for EA, only 9 of the 41 One star reviews are verified purchases, with 8 of 23 of the Two star reviews the same. 20 of 51 of the Five stars are verified. On the Xbox One version, 9 of 10 One stars are verified, 2 of 8 of the Two stars are verified, and  20 of 32 Five stars are verified. I doubt many of the verified purchases are shills or paid reviews. So on PS4, negative and positive consumer reaction has been more or less equal, whereas on XONE it’s skewed toward more positive. For now.

This is of course, not scientifically valid, small sample size, all the usual caveats about biases apply, etc etc.

One last tidbit: while it’s currently sitting at number 20 on the best sellers list for PS4 games, it’s nowhere to be found in the Movers & Shakers list.

Meanwhile, at Metacritic:

Mass Effect Andromeda Metacritic page 3/25/2017
Mass Effect Andromeda PS4 Metacritic page as of March 25, 2017

Mixed critical reaction, Generally Unfavorable user reviews. Skewing slightly more positive on the Critical side for XONE (7.7), slightly more negative on the User side (4.2).

Looks like Bioware and EA managed to polarize the fan base and get merely tepid critical response. I have to wonder what they were thinking going for a release during the Switch’s launch window. Not that they could easily alter plans once Zelda’s release date was announced. But as the saying goes, don’t get into land wars in Asia, or go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Also don’t release a massive RPG anywhere near to a new Legend of Zelda.

I have found no reliable estimates as to how much it cost to develop this game, but given the rumored 40 million dollar price tag, I’m guessing they need to sell a figure north of 2 million copies to break even on that. Should be easily obtainable for a AAA game with brand recognition. Right?

 

 

D&D PBEM campaign observations

For the last three years I’ve run campaigns via email with the same group of players (more or less). The first has so far been the most successful, lasting just over a year. The two following games were not as successful. Tried a highly modified house rules game for the second setting but I largely dropped the ball with it. The second game, taking place months later, was in the Dark Sun setting. It also fizzled. For this new game I’ve returned to the setting of the original game. So far it’s been going well. But I had to take time off unexpectedly this past month, cutting into the momentum. I hope it can be recaptured.

Anyway, I know may people run games online and via email. It surprised me how similar it could be to in person games, but in many ways, it was very different.  Here are some basic tips for running a game via Email.My players helped me develop a lot of them.

  • Run separate threads for in-character and out-of-character. You’ll see this advice everywhere and it’s really common sense.
  • Set hard limits for how much can be done in a turn. Again, seems obvious but some players are more eager than others to sneak things into their rounds.
  • Pace yourself to avoid burnout. With six players each sending emails into a thread, you can find yourself writing replies several times a day, sometimes 1500 words or more. Ask anybody who writes for a living, that’s a lot.
  • Don’t over plan. Same as with the live sessions. Your players can and will surprise you constantly, and whatever you came up with will need to be adjusted regularly.
  • Find good mapping software. I have yet to do this myself. I’ve tried a few but haven’t found anything (yet) that’s like a good erasable mat with minis. For now I just resort to sketches on graph paper, scanned in and with some photoshopping. Not really scalable though for a faster paced game.

Kickstarter Look: Heroic Fantasy & Barbarian Conquerors Collection

Autarch has launched its seventh Kickstarter, Heroic Fantasy & Barbarian Conquerors. From the project write up, the books are:

a pair of role-playing game supplements supporting heroic and pulp fantasy gaming with new classes, magic types, spells, monsters, and more! Read on for details on the Heroic Fantasy Handbook™ and the Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu Setting Sourcebook™.

I’ve been eager to try Autarch’s products and backed this without hesitation. I recently began a new PBEM campaign with my playgroup, which I’ll be talking about more in tomorrow’s post. One of my players has customized his wizard class and magic system write up in “Heroic Fantasy” interested me as to the possibilities of further modifications. Plus, having finished Jeffro Johnson’s excellent Appendix N book, I have a new appreciation for the pulps and the role they played in the formation of the venerable D&D system.

At the time of this writing, they’ve nearly hit their initial goal of $15,000 with 27 days to go.  The estimated release date for the project is September 2017.

Read From Memory: Final Fantasy VII part 2

I left off last time having just bombed the Sector 7 reactor with AVALANCHE, avoiding pursuit of the Shinra soldiers, and making it to the sector 7 slums. Continuing on with this point, you get to shop a little if you chose before a lot of exposition dump in the main quest.

Sector 7 Slums

The Avalanche Hideout

Barret has chased out all the patrons of the bar which a front for AVALANCHE’s “hideout”.  Here you meet Tifa, a childhood friend of yours, and Marlene, small daughter of Barrett. Obviously there’s more to the story because Marlene is white and Barrett is a burly black man. With a machine gun as his right hand. (This was 1997, remember.) Inside the bar your partners in ecoterrorism are enjoying a few drinks. You can interact with them if you wish, with a limited dialog tree with Biggs. Marlene is very shy around you. You get the option of giving her a flower (if you bought one from Aeris) after you speak to Tifa. I chose to give it to Tifa. I have a feeling that might affect some later interactions with Barret.  The rest of the group follows Barret into the lair. If you choose you can have a drink with Tifa before going down yourself.

The pinball machine is the secret lair door. It’s an elevator that leads down to the basement with a punching bag, a computer, and a TV. Very high tech lair. Speaking of the imagery I forgot all the local flavor that Square packed into these scenes: packs of cigarettes and butt-filled ashtrays, some middle school level alcohol references, and an odd Texas sign on the wall. They really tried to earn that Teen ESRB rating.

In the hideout, Barret works over the punching bag before abusing one of his teammates. It’s then payout time for Cloud, which leads to an awkward conversation. You have some dialog choices but it all inevitably leads to you being perceived by the others as a cold hearted mercenary. As you go to leave, Tifa stops you and reminds you of “your promise.” Cue the first of many flashbacks for Cloud.

FFVII Flashback 1: Cloud and Tifa

Seven years before the game, Cloud and Tifa have a night rendezvous at a well in their hometown. Cloud apparently had something to tell her. She’s late because she had been dolling herself up. At least I think that’s the unspoken message, given the fact that she shows up wearing a nice dress and heels. To a meet up with a boy her age at a grimey well under a starry sky. Cloud – doomed to ever be confused about women – tells her he’s decided to leave town in the Spring. She drops another hint, mentioning that all the boys are leaving their town. That having gone right over his head, he blabs on about wanting to join SOLDIER and be like his hero Sephiroth (villain foreshadowing).  Tifa is bored: “right, the famous Sephiroth…” and finally salvages some of her evening by extracting “the promise” from Cloud. She asks Cloud to come back for her if he gets into SOLDIER and becomes famous. To “rescue” her. She explains the concept of white knighting to him, and he agrees. Back in present day, Cloud is apparently unwilling to renege on this verbal agreement, and tells Barret he will stay on for an additional mission for 3,000 gil. Barret fumes about this but Tifa reasons with him, so he counteroffers 2,000. We cut to black and inn music before we can find out if Cloud’s salary was negotiable.

Attack on Sector 5 Mako Reactor

The next morning you wake in the basement hideout and head back up to the bar. Tifa asks you how you slept, and you’re given a dialog option of hitting on her or taking a friendly jab at Barret. I chose the jab. Barret tells you that the next target in the Sector 5 Mako Reactor. He drops the hood act for a moment to ask Cloud about using Materia – Final Fantasy VII’s magic system. You’re given the option of skipping this but I chose to go through it anyway for a refresher. Once you’re back outside you can enter several buildings you couldn’t before. Barret pays out 1500 gil, combined with the 700 or so I had previously I was able to afford all near gear for the party (Tifa has joined you at this point) and some new Materia. It’s an interesting design choice to shove the rest of the tutorials into an unlocked room above the weapon and armor shop. Skippable if you want to miss out on a free material (All) and some treasure.

Once you’re done with this area, it’s time to head back to the train stop. There are a couple of dialog encounters along the way if you want to take them (I did). If you do so you’re learn that AVALANCHE is being painted as a murderous terrorist group. At last you’re back on the train. Barret bullies a Shinra white collar employee, and then notes that your fake IDs won’t work this time. To avoid detection you’ll have to jump off before you reach Sector 5. Apparently security has been tightened and sensor sweeps begin early. You have to run from car to car, given 15 seconds or so, and you also get jacked I believe by a thief.

Finally you make the jump, after Barret admonishes you not to “get your spikey ass hurt” so early in the mission. 20 years later and that line is still funny to me for some reason. In the tunnels you can move up to Sector 5, but there’s an opportunity to grind here. If you head down you’ll eventually reach a Shinra checkpoint. The guards there are pretty easy to beat, and they’ll keep coming until you run away. I spent about 45 minutes or so getting Cloud up to level 12 and Tifa and Barret up to Level 11. That would pay some dividends later.

Backtracking to the Sector 5 entrance, you have to enter in through the garbage chute ventilation shaft. You’ll meet up with Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie at various points, and then you’re in the reactor area. The layout is basically the same as the first reactor. Its in these scenes where I’m reminding that while the environmental artists got to show off their skills, the character artists didn’t always do so well. Your Cloud sprite tends to get engulfed by some of the larger areas you move through.

When you reach the reactor, Cloud suddenly collapses. He hallucinates Tifa, over the body of her father, with a sword nearby. She’s distraught and mentions Sephiroth. “Sephiroth did this?!” It passes and Tifa and Barret ask him if he’s ok. Now, personally I’d be apprehensive about letting the guy who just fainted and had visions handle high explosives…but perhaps he’s the only one who can set the bomb. Having done that, you make your escape, back tracking through the huge, empty (but pretty) scenes you just came through.

Shinra President and Boss Battle 1

Just as you’re making it to safety, your route is cut off by a squad of Shinramen. The president of Shinra…President Shinra…creeps up from behind you. Cloud confronts him, identifying himself as a member of SOLDIER. The President brushes it off, name drops Sephiroth, and brushes off hood mode Barret. He gives you a “playmate” before hopping onto a helicopter that looks like it was modelled from a LEGO toy.

The boss is “Airbuster”, a “techno-soldier” who looks like a kitchen utensil or some sort and has the articulation of a generation one Transformers toy.  He has some nasty magic attacks, but thanks to my grinding in the tunnels, it took just two limit breaks to finish him off, for about 1500 damage or so. When this boss is defeated he explodes, destroying the pre-rendered bridge right underneath Cloud’s feet. There’s a “Fly you fools” moment, with dialog choices naturally, and the game dramatically reverts to field model cutscene mode and Cloud plunges down into the slums.

Cloud and Aeris in the Church

The screen is black but Cloud has a conversation with some disembodied voice. It makes an awkard reference to skinned knees, and gradually the dialog morphs into a conversation with Aeris. The Flower Girl you met before. She says you were lucky to break your fall on the flowerbed, and like all people who have just free fallen hundreds of feet, Cloud gets up and shakes it off.

You get some more dialog choices with Aeris, and during this time a figure comes into the entryway. If you break off talking with Aeris and go talk to them, they’ll tell you “not to mind them.” Weird glitch? Anyhow, after some charming talk Aeris rekindles Cloud’s tradition of white knighting and asks him to be her bodyguard. She offers to pay his fee by going out on a date with him. Aeris at least won’t resign him to the friend zone right away.

At that, the figure in back walks up with several Shinra guys. Here we meet Reno, of the Turks, for the first time. It won’t be the last in this game. A chase scene ensues, and you get one of your very first minigames. There are four barrels stacked up in the rafters. Don’t ask me how they got up there, or why. But as you’re separated from Aeris by a hail of gunfire, you can shout out instructions to her to evade (or fight) the guards that come after her. You can help her avoid these fights by knocking over the barrels onto the bad guys below as they try to corner her. Of course, you have to pick the right barrel or you’ll miss, and Aeris will be forced into an encounter by herself.

Naturally, I missed with each barrel (you get three chances). It’s not a big deal, as Aeris is apparently OP compared to the military police and dogs. Eventually she gets back to you in the rafters, and Reno calls out that “the Ancient is getting away!” You exit the church via the roof, and continue hopping along the rooftops of the shanties. Aeris reveals that she has been chased by the Turks many times before. Cloud says they recruit for SOLDIER, among other acts of subterfuge. Though she was able to evade them and defeat guards all by herself, she’s winded by all the jumping on the rooftops.

I finished today’s session with her “getting home” to the slums in Sector 5.  Check back next week for Part 3.

 

Die Hard 64

Now this is interesting. Apparently a few ROMs of a canceled Die Hard 64 game have been unearthed. From Retrocollect:

Originally planned for a 1999 release by Fox Interactive, Die Hard 64 was never actually shown to the press or the public and the only hints that it ever existed (until now) were some mentions in magazine articles of the era. It appears that the same Assembler Games forum member who recently revealed the similarly cancelled Nintendo 64 game Riqa also has in his possession a very early (yet fully playable) version of Die Hard 64 – a first person shooter that is for all intents and purposes the blueprint for what went on to become Die hard Vendetta.

From the gameplay videos (see at the link) it looks similar to Doom 64. That would have been impressive in 1997 but not end of life N64. Some of the death animations are reminiscent of Goldeneye/Perfect Dark.

I’m becoming a fan of 90s console abandonware. I hope the finder releases the ROMs to the wider community some day.