Rabbids & Smartphones & Dragon Balls, Oh My!

Greets, mortals!  I hope the evening finds you well…unless, of course, I hate you, in which case I hope the evening finds you fervently wishing that I DON’T FIND YOU.  Either way, welcome back.  Tonight I’ve got a few thoughts on a lot of different things for you, which is a bit of a change from normal.  I’ve found lately that, especially when I’m alone with my feline overlord, my mood and thoughts and emotions are scattered all over the place (well, aside from the constant overwhelming seething cauldron of hate for humanity…that’s pretty consistent), and consequently, I’ve been consuming media in a similar, scattershot fashion.  The good news for all of you, though, is that now you get to hear a bit about all sorts of good (or bad) stuff!  You may prostrate yourselves now.  I’ll wait.

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It was a cliched and stormy night in Costa del Sol…

First up, we have the continuing adventures of Evil Wizard as he journeys through Eorzea in Final Fantasy XIV.  Although the new expansion, Stormblood, was released this summer, I’ve yet to venture into any of that story content.  In fact, I’ve only recently, finally powered through all of the story missions that served as the bridge between the original Realm Reborn storyline and the first expansion, Heavensward.  After having reached Ishgard, I decided to take a slight break from powering through story content to level and unlock some other jobs.  But that isn’t to say the story isn’t calling to me – truth be told, I honestly feel like Final Fantasy XIV is the best game in the main series since IX, and maybe even since VI, and that is saying an awful lot because I have a lot of love for FF XII.  But XIV has an absolutely massive amount of plot content and characters, and the overwhelming majority of them are stellar.  Honestly, I recommend this game to anyone that loves RPGs.  Not just MMOs, not just Final Fantasy – if RPGs are your thing, and you haven’t tried XIV at all, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

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It’s Mega Mario Metroid Man!

Next up, I’ve got the Switch game that up until E3 a couple months ago literally nobody knew they wanted.  Seriously, the Rabbids are the most goddamned annoying fuckers this side of the It’s A Small World ride at Disney World, and when Nintendo and Ubisoft announced  a crossover between them and the world of Mario you could hear the entire Internet give a collected groan.  Then around came E3, and with it the revelation that this would be a turn-based strategy game with some RPG elements – essentially X-COM lite but with Mario & Co. taking on Ubi’s insane vermin.  After spending several hour with it since launch and getting through the first couple of worlds, I can easily say this game is the biggest surprise of the year for me, and that’s saying something with a Mario game.  The X-COM style cover-based gameplay is fantastic, though in the early stages the difficulty seems significantly less than the sci-fi masterpiece.  This can likely be chalked up to the game being aimed at a much larger target market on the Switch than the decidedly older audience that X-COM attracts.  My understanding from friends that are much further into the game is that there is a definite difficulty spike later on, so I am greatly intrigued and thus far highly recommend Mario x Rabbids: Kingdom Battle to anyone with a Switch and a love of X-COM.

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Hooray Job Systems!

Next up, for when I’m stuck with nothing but my phone or it’d be impolite to just open a book or Vita and blatantly ignore everyone around me, I’ve found myself diving back into Final Fantasy Dimensions.  I found myself drawn back in after talking about it for a bit with intrepid Michael “FinalMacstorm” Cunningham of #TeamHandheld.  I’ve been away from it for a while and am still getting back into the plot, but since it’s heavily patterned on the 16-bit Final Fantasy’s of old, there isn’t too much complexity to worry about.  I do now remember that the slow influx of jobs is made a bit more irritating by the fact that you can’t max them out – at particular beats in the story, you are granted a small pool of points that allow you to increase the max level of whatever jobs you choose for each character.  While I don’t believe this to be a monetization of the system – I don’t think you can purchase more of the points using real money – I haven’t yet reached the point of being able to know if there will be enough of these points to max out all jobs for everyone, or if not, how many each character may be able to fully develop.  It’s tough because it doesn’t let you really know if you should be specializing particular characters or what, and a somewhat incongruent party split can exacerbate matters somewhat.  Still, it isn’t anything that can’t be overcome with a bit of grinding, and I’m a complete whore for grinding in an old-school job system RPG.  Not going to say I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone yet, but if you are older than time as I am, and love Final Fantasy V’s job system, you’ll likely find this worthwhile.

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Ka…Me…Ha…Me…

Last, but assuredly not least, I’ve also been catching up on Dragon Ball Super.  DB is one of those series that I watch in spurts – I’ll binge a couple of dozen episodes and love them, then hit a saturation point and put it away for a while.  I’ve reached the point where Goku & Friends have been confronted by Black’s Super Saiyan Rose, and I must say that one of the features I love about this show is that every once in a while they show a flashback to events that occurred in prior series such as the seminal Dragon Ball Z, and the contrast between the quality of the animation in those and the gorgeous HD animation in Super just can’t be fully described.  Akira Toriyama’s character designs are world-renowned and timeless, and for as much as I love his work in the Dragon Quest series, this is the apex in terms of the quality animation.  As for the series, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much Dragon Ball has grown up – even in a series where death is often cheapened or worked around, there has been some genuine moments of tension and loss, and I feel like the experience gained by reworking Dragon Ball Z into Dragon Ball Z Kai has helped the studio to get a better grip on balancing fights with character development.  So no more 17-episode buildups to seeing Goku throw one Spirit Bomb…and that’s a very good thing.  If you’ve ever been a fan of Dragon Ball, you should check it out.

And that’s that for tonight, kiddos.  But before I go, just a piece of advice…I guarantee that most, if not all, of you humans have someone close to you that is likely suffering from depression.  You probably don’t know it, because they probably don’t say much if anything about it – ironically enough, because they already feel like a complete burden to those around them and don’t want to make it any worse.  But while they may be able to smile or crack a joke, inside they are very, very alone.  You humans have but a short time on this earth, and in that time, almost everything costs something…but kindness is free.  It can be given away to all that you care about with no real cost to you.  And while it might seem like little or nothing to you at the time, I guarantee you it means the world to someone.  Not that I care about the happiness of you pathetic mortals. – EWE

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Paladin’s Quest and a Restaurant Review for #OmNoMonday

Happy Martin Luther King Day, humans!  Today marks the celebration of one of the greatest men your species has ever produced.  King’s dream may not yet be a complete reality, but one of the reasons that I still allow your existence as a whole to continue is that you seem to be stumbling ever closer to achieving it.  Though I sometimes wonder at the steps back that you take *glances over at US election results* but I’m still encouraged enough overall to not wipe you out.  Yet.

Today, I have a special treat for you, my groveling little minions – not one, but TWO reviews.  And the first even comes with a little background story.  You see, young ones, even old EWE could occasionally make a mistake or two in my younger days.  (Editor’s Note: His last mistake was literally five minutes ago.  He got Windex in his eye.)  Not listening to you!  As I was saying, many years ago, I skipped numerous lunches in order to save up enough money for a copy of Chrono Trigger for the SNES.  Now, as anyone with a passing knowledge of RPGs can tell you, Chrono Trigger has gone down as one of the greatest games in the history of gaming, and if you never played it on the SNES, it has been remade for the Nintendo 3DS as well as iOS and Android, and you should drop what you’re doing and go play it.  Now.  I’ll wait.

But this isn’t about Chrono Trigger.  You see, and I know this may come as a shock to you, but I was, and still am, a nerd.  Stop laughing right now or I swear I will roast you and serve you to your family member for dinner.  (Editor’s Note: He will.)  So as I reached the threshold amount of funds, I also managed to achieve straight A’s in school and my mother saw fit to reward me with a rare gift of a video game, as we were quite poor and she could not often afford to do so.  And so it was that now I was in the extremely odd position of having money for a SECOND SNES cart of my choosing.  So after selecting the ticket for Square’s Chrono Trigger, I glanced through the other games in the aisle until seeing one made by Enix, the creator’s of Dragon Quest and the other dominant console RPG studio in Japan.  What could possibly go wrong with that choice?

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As it turns out, a lot could go wrong.

Whomever developed Paladin’s Quest at Enix was quite clearly treating it as stand-in for that one girl that you just can’t get out of your head or resolve your feelings for.  You know the one – she somehow at the same time inspires both a need to impress her with your talent and flair and also burning, punishing hatred for never appreciating you enough.  The game has certain aspects to it that are quite laudable, but it’s maddening aspects drag you down the path to mind-breaking insanity.  The sum total is a RPG that is incredibly unique in artistic style and even somewhat groundbreaking in its gameplay for the time, but with a maddening difficulty level and some downright bizarre design decisions that leave you scratching your head and wondering how it and Dragon Quest came from the same place.

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You definitely won’t mistake it for a Dragon Quest game.

The first thing that will reach out and grab you about Paladin’s Quest is it’s vibrant, colorful graphical design and world.  It’s almost as if Enix intentionally designed a world as polar opposite from its prior Dragon Quest games as it could possibly could be.  The architecture, flora, fauna, and character designs are all alien, the color schemes are filled with pastels and clashing hues – it simply can’t be overstated how unusual the visuals were for the time, and still remain to this day.  But while this is definitely one of the game’s strengths, it can almost reach nauseating levels at times.

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That’s no moon…it’s a battle station!

Dungeon design retains the alien, sci-fi aesthetic, though it is somewhat less original than the other visuals in the game, taking tremendous inspiration from Square’s Final Fantasy IV and VI.  That isn’t really a negative – those are two of the greatest games of all time – but it isn’t executed with the same level of expertise that those two titles have gone down in history for having.

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A snake and a monkey? This shouldn’t take too long…oh, shit, I’m dead.

Now, then, let’s talk about the gameplay – or rather, let’s talk about how this game is going to make you wail and scream in frustration as it kicks your ass from one end of the planet to the other.  This game is hard.  HARD.  You read my last entry about Dark Souls III?  Don’t think for a second that difficult RPGs started with that series, kiddos.  Literally ever random encounter in Paladin’s Quest carries the very real possibility of killing your party and ending your game.  First of all, for a world in which magic plays an integral part, there is no MP.  An NPC in your hometown even lampshades this.  Instead, every spell or skill you use is cast from hit points.  This in and of itself isn’t so extreme – you just need to keep a close eye on your HP and pragmatically heal often in order to progress, right?  Oh, wait – healing can only be done via use of an extremely limited supply of consumables that are very difficult to replenish.  And that wide variety of different schools of magic spells?  Well, if you want any of them to be worth a shit when it comes to battle (and you do) you’re going to have to SLOOOOOOWWWWLLLLLYYY grind away in order to skill up the spell’s corresponding school of magic.  Oh, and other than your PC Chezni and his ever-faithful companion Midia, those other two spots in your party?  You’re going to have to fill those with expensive mercenaries, many of which have specific requirements to recruit and can easily be permanently missed, and often come with their own crippling weaknesses as well.

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If you thought the wildlife kicked your ass, just what do you think these guys will do?

The story itself is a sci-fi take on a classic fantasy tale.  Chezni, living a safe and sound life in his hometown and attending the Academy there, is asked by his friend Duke to sneak into the nearby Forbidden Tower.  Because, as the main character in a RPG, Chezni is a complete fucking idiot with absolutely no common sense, he obliges, climbs the tower, and unseals the world-demolishing evil contained within.  The rest of this village, rather than admit that perhaps locating an Academy full of curious children DIRECTLY NEXT TO such a place might have been a less than stellar idea in hindsight, instead banish Chezni and instruct him that now it’s his responsibility to travel the world and find a way to stop the hellish beast he has released.  Because Chezni has obviously displayed fantastic judgment and intelligence up to that point.  Chezni is quickly joined by Midia, who probably just couldn’t bear to see someone so abysmally stupid wandering around on his own.  The tale as it unfolds isn’t “bad” by any stretch, but it isn’t anything you haven’t heard before, and it unfolds at a snail’s pace because of the copious amounts of grinding required to overcome the high difficulty curve of the game.

Battles (which you will engage in VERY OFTEN) are of the standard turn-based variety, with each party member choosing to attack with a weapon (which includes using healing items as they must be equipped) or a spell (of which you can choose between the four equipped to a character), defend, or flee from battle.  Turn order is essentially impossible to predict once commands are entered, except for the old favorite that the enemy is almost always going to beat the shit out of you before you’re given a chance to respond in kind.  Boss battles feature the kind of spike in difficulty compared to the minions leading up to them that you can easily find yourself moving steadily through a dungeon with little in the way of danger only to end up being completely destroyed in a single turn by the boss.  It’s not a question of IF this will happen to you; it’s simply WHEN and HOW MANY TIMES it will happen over the games 20-40 hour quest.

One bright spot for me during my time with Paladin’s Quest was the music.  While I won’t sit here and compare it to the phenomenal work done by Uematsu in the Final Fantasy series, but the tunes were a pleasant surprise and even though I was forced into spending hours grinding away, the music made that chore a bit less unpleasant than it could have been.  But while that surprise was nice, the positives in this game just aren’t enough to overcome the sheer levels of frustration that the drawbacks inspire.

THE VERDICT – EWE SAYS:

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Now, after a game leaves you feeling that broken (Editor’s Note: or in EWE’s case, when literally all of life leaves you feeling that way), you need a drink.  And something to eat.  And probably a good, long cry.  As for the first two, I’ve got something a little different for #OmNoMonday – rather than tell you how to make shit on your own, I’m going to tell you where to go when you just say “Fuck it, I want someone else to make it.”  And that place is BJ’s Brewhouse.

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If they delivered, I’d sell my car.

Now, I’ve been to a few different BJ’s locations on quite a number of occasions, and I can honestly tell you that I have not yet once been disappointed in either my food or drink.  The bar is extremely well-stocked, and there is an impressive rotation of craft beers on tap at any given time.  But the best part about BJ’s, what sets it apart, is that they also brew several of their own craft beers as well.  Whether your taste is for lighter, American-style pilsner, amber ales, or heavier porters and stouts, there is a house brew aimed at you.  As a fan of beer from the medium to heavy end of the spectrum, I love the ales, porter and stout, but my absolute favorite is the Jeremiah Red.  Now, while all of the food that I’ve had is delicious, my favorite has to be their pizza.  BJ’s has a wide variety of deep dish, think crust, and flatbread pizzas and they are all fantastic.  A particular favorite of mine is the deep dish BBQ Chicken Pizza.  Lastly, for dessert, if you don’t get a Pizzookie (deep dish, warm cookie with ice cream on top) you aren’t living your life right.

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Kids, don’t let your teachers fool you – these are the food groups that matter.

THE VERDICT – EWE SAYS:

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And with that, boys and girls, #OmNoMonday draws to a close.  We’ve learned that while not all classic RPGs are worthy of the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, at least they can be helped by the beer goggles of hilarity.  And that, my friends, is the secret of life. – EWE

Dragon Quest Retrospective, Part 2 – The Lost Super Famicom Era

An Evil Wizard draws near!  Command?  And who the fuck are you that you think you can command me?  Ahem – welcome back, questors and questettes, to my look back a one of the seminal JRPG series of all time, Dragon Quest.  In this part, we take a look at what for many, many years were the “lost” gems of the series, at least for those of us that neither live in Japan nor read Japanese.  You see, Dragon Quest IV, being the last NES title in the series, was subject to the at-the-time usual delays in translation and localization, and hence was one of the very last games released for the original NES, and actually was released AFTER the Super Nintendo in the US.  As a result of this poor timing, sales of Dragon Warrior IV in the US were a significant decline from those of Dragon Warrior III – and Enix took this as a sign that the series simply wasn’t worth continuing to bring across the Pacific.  As a result of this, for many, many years the following two entries – including what is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the entire Dragon Quest series – were available only for the Super Famicom in Japan.  Thankfully, this would not always be the case!

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Released in 1992 for the Super Famicom, Dragon Quest V is widely considered to be the greatest entry in the entire series, by fans and the developers alike.  The series debut on a 16-bit system managed to retain all of the classic hallmarks of the series turn-based, JRPG roots while also managing to be revolutionary as well.  For the first time in the series, rather than the player controlling an entire party of human characters, recruitable monsters would join the hero’s party in battle, leveling up and gaining new abilities in the same manner as their human allies.  Monsters had a chance of joining after being defeated in battle, and while the active battle party was limited to three in the original Super Famicom version (four in the later remakes), additional monsters and party members would ride along in the wagon and could be swapped out between battles.  The original release had around 40 recruitable monsters, while later remakes of the game would increase this count into the 70s.  Secondly, while Dragon Quest III and IV began to flesh out the bare-bones narratives of the first two games, Dragon Quest V featured a plot that was truly epic in scale and scope – a tale that followed the hero throughout the entirety of his life, beginning with his birth and continuing throughout his adulthood.  To say much more would be spoiling a tale that you really should experience for yourself – and thanks to Square Enix’s love of capitalizing on its back catalog and talent for producing extremely polished remakes, the West finally got its chance at experiencing Dragon Quest V on the 3DS in 2009.  This remake was then flawlessly ported to iOS and Android in 2015 – meaning that regardless of your portable gaming system of choice, there is no reason for any fan of JRPGs to not play this gem.

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Released for Super Famicom in 1995, Dragon Quest VI again retained the classic core gameplay of the Dragon Quest series as a whole, while adding its own wrinkles and variations.  It was a marked graphical improvement over V, as the developers had several years of additional experience with the Super Famicom hardware to leverage into the visuals.  Gameplay-wise, Dragon Quest VI saw the return of the class system first introduced in Dragon Quest III, with some changes and expansions.  In addition, VI marked the first time in the series that characters could learn skills and abilities – techniques that were separate from classic spells and cost no MP to use.  Later remakes of III, IV, and V would add these as well, but the Super Famicom version of VI marked their debut for the series.  The story once again saw a hero and his allies combating a threat to the world – as well as their own amnesia after a failed attempt to defeat the villain previously.  While Dragon Quest VI is sometimes regarded as a bit of a letdown on the heels of the revolutionary Dragon Quest V, it is still a finely crafted, deep, and engaging RPG that is well worth experiencing by fans of the genre.  While the original release never came to the West, in 2011 a 3DS remake of the game made its way to the US and Europe, much as with Dragon Quest V.  This release was also later brought to iOS and Android.  Once again, both of these games are now readily available in convenient, portable form – any fan of JRPGs and classic games in general should make an effort to find them and play them.

And with that, we reach the end of this second part in our look back at the Dragon Quest series.  Next up, we reach the PlayStation era, and the return of worldwide releases for the series.  Until then, go find these games, goddammit! – EWE

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Review

Welcome back, minions!  Glad to see you once again.  Tonight I am going to start out with a review of one of the absolute gems of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs).  Years ago, Falcom released the first in horrifically generically named series The Legend of Heroes.  The early titles in this series were…OK.  I mean, if you are like me and you can forgive A LOT of missteps in the name of getting to play a turn-based, character and story driven game, they scratched the itch between major releases.  But unsurprisingly, the games failed to draw much of an audience in the West, and localisations became few and far between.  Then a surprise came – the PSP entry in the series known as Trails in the Sky would see an English release.  And it is a damn good thing for anyone that loves gaming.

Trails in the Sky, first and foremost, is not really one game.  It is two (kinda three).  The First Chapter and Second Chapter are complete RPGs that tell one continuous story, with First Chapter ending on a cliffhanger that leads directly into Second Chapter.  This review will cover First Chapter only, but it should come as no surprise that if you like FC (and you should, or you’re just wrong) then you will like and should plan to play SC.  This means you have a substantial time investment in front of you, but it is worth it.  Both games are available on PSP/Vita through PSN, or on PC via Steam.  The third game is more of a side-story to the other two, and is currently not released outside of Japan.

Trails in the Sky combines some of the best elements of Eastern and Western RPG design.  At first glance, these images would indicate a fairly standard, sprite-based JRPG from the Playstation era – but it is so much more.  The combat is turn-based, with some light strategy elements in the form of character positioning and attack ranges on a grid-based combat field.  Enemies are pallet-swaps of one another to a degree – while this is somewhat of a shame, the designs are well done and humorously tongue-in-cheek at times – an element that extends through most of the game in its entirety.

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If “shoo” was ever going to work on a horde of monsters, evil bunnies would be the ones.

Once engaged in battle, the depth and breadth of the combat system becomes quickly apparent.  Each party member has certain strengths and weaknesses, but can also be customized to some extent through the Orbment system.  Orbments are similar in nature and function to the then-groundbreaking Materia system found in Final Fantasy VII.  Elemental stones corresponding to a spell, skill, or passive are slotted into each character’s unique layout.  The number and placement of elements can also unlock further spells and tiers of spells when equipped.  While some characters are more proficient with magical or physical attacks, any character utilizing an elemental spell against an enemy weak to that element is going to be extremely effective.  Beyond Orbments, each character also has a selection of character-specific skills and abilities that function off of either the games version of mana or skill points.  What’s more, once skill points have been accrued to a certain threshold, characters can jump the turn order and attack immediately with a powerful skill – at the cost of all accrued skill points.  The more points are accrued before unleashing this attack, the more devastating it is, but the less frequently one may jump the turn order.  All in all, the combat system is nearly-flawless in its execution of classic turn-based mechanics layered with strategy and enough unique elements to make the entire engine feel fresh.

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All RPG combat should be this good.

But believe it or not, there is something greater – something that Trails in the Sky does so well, it may be the epitome of its kind for some time to come.  Trails in the Sky features a narrative built around some of, if not the, best and most fully-realized characters I’ve ever seen in any game, ever.  Period.  The story has its JRPG requirements – there is a wide-spanning threat that results in our protagonists journeying with an every growing and changing cast of companions to investigate and combat it.  But that actually takes a backseat to the moment to moment characterization of the players.  Everyone in this game has a story.  Absolutely everyone.  Standard NPC shopkeepers have small micronarratives that give them flavor and make them a part of the world, not just a vehicle to expand your arsenal.  Temporary party members are real characters, with believable motivations and relationships that connect them to the player.  But the absolute stars are Estelle and Joshua Bright.

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Moments like this are what make this game amazing.

Estelle and Joshua Bright are adoptive siblings and the protagonists of the story.  And the story is their adventures as Junior Bracers (a combination of adventurers’ guild and mercenaries with hearts of gold) as they search for their father Cassius, a famous veteran bracer who has disappeared.  This isn’t just a framework for the world-saving – the bulk of the adventure is Estelle and Joshua going town to town, piecing together information on Cassius’ last known whereabouts, and undertaking duties for the Bracer Guild from the local townsfolk.  And through these small, individual tasks, they build real relationships with the people, and slowly grow in their own relationship between one another.

It cannot be overstated just how phenomenally well-written these characters are.  This game has no voice acting and few cutscenes – nearly all of the characterization is done through the text boxes and dialogue in the game, as well as short in-game books and documents.  Every last bit of it is warm, engaging, and evocative of emotion – just a masterpiece of writing in the form of a game.  Estelle, in particular, is one of the most likable, easy to relate to protagonists that I have ever encountered in any medium.  Her earnestness and kindness to others, her stubbornness and perseverance, and her own inner doubts and self-consciousness about her feelings are expressed in the most genuine manner possible.  If you somehow play this game and don’t feel anything by the cliffhanger ending, then congratulations – you may be the only form of life that is even more bereft of a soul than I am.

If it hasn’t become clear yet, I loved this game.  If you are in any way a fan of JRPGs, you will love this game.  If you love well-written, fully realized characters, you will love this game.  The only caution I can give is that even if you purchase both FC and SC and continue on into SC immediately, at some point, the tale will end, and you will reach the end of the Trails in the Sky.  But what a journey you’ll have had along the way. – EWE