The Gamer! Beware! Very Official 2021 Game Awards (Part 2)

In this continuation of the Gamer! Beware! 2021 Awards I reveal my unabashed love for Final Fantasy and sheer inability to finish a game I don’t like.

Best Replay of 2021 — Final Fantasy VIII

Reexperiencing video games can be an invaluable time investment and, as much as I try to limit the number of titles I replay, I always find myself drawn to revisit at least a couple. Usually, the self-imposed rule is as follows: no games I’ve played in the past five years and/or no games I have very vivid memories of. Last year, this meant full replays of Final Fantasy VI, X, XV — all of which are excellent. This year, it was time for Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Before 2021, I would have considered my opinion of VIII aligned with the general fan consensus, as in, the game was on the lower end of the quality spectrum and suffered from arbitrary, bizarre design choices ‘(junctioning’, the handling of equipment, and actively discouraging leveling up/grinding). Now, I can confidently claim that Final Fantasy VIII is not only my favourite Final Fantasy (at least, for the time being), but also one of my favourite games of all time.

My brother bought Final Fantasy VIII upon release in 1999, after not owning, or experiencing VII. It was his first exposure to the series and, by association, mine as well. At the tender age of four, I had no idea what was going on. Why couldn’t you move during battle? Why were the graphics so good? Why was there so much reading? I never got any further than the fire cave, but that was probably on account of the fact I had only recently gained a degree of sentience. I didn’t fully finish the game until after my Final Fantasy VII obsession subsided, a cultural phenomenon I experienced almost a decade later in about 2005 at the age of ten. I liked the game, but I didn’t love it — it was soured somewhat by the sheer and utter love I held for VII, an undoubtedly common occurrence.

I did a couple of things in preparation for experiencing the game again in 2021, which mostly consisted of reading up on the ‘junctioning’ system and studying a list of materials one could acquire from transforming ‘Triple Triad cards’. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy VIII and that sounds incomprehensibly bizarre, that’s because it is. On a personal level, in order to truly enjoy VIII, I had to bend myself to the game’s rules and prepare accordingly. This resulted in my first five to six hours of game time spent playing card games with the denizens of ‘Balamb Garden’, turning monsters into said cards and grinding out the ability to remove random encounters from the game entirely. This initial burst of gameplay was not only relaxing but surprisingly enjoyable. Clearly, this kind of prep won’t be fun for everyone, but it hit me in the right spot at the right time. What followed, however, was highly unexpected — a whirlwind, high-concept fantasy-cum-sci-fi romance that blew me off my feet and, in all honesty, made me feel like a teenager again. I don’t know why the story of Final Fantasy VIII affected me so deeply and on such a personal level, but it did. Maybe it spoke to me at a point of emotional vulnerability in my life, or maybe I’m just exceedingly stupid. I was awed by the genuine spectacle and originality of Final Fantasy VIII’s world, the exceptional set pieces and the accurately characterised self-centered yet loveable teenage cast. I rarely have felt so excited by what was happening in a video game, the assassination attempt in the perpetually night stricken ‘Deling City’ and the ‘Battle of the Gardens’ event being two particular highlights. The way these sequences combine gorgeous pre-rendered background with active character movement is still, for me, breathtaking on every level. The music, as is to be expected from Uematsu, is flawless; expertly flitting between the soothing, gentle and catchy, as well as the heart-pounding and bombastic. I laughed, cried and cheered for Rinoa and Squall — their romantic tenure as cliched and wide-eyed as they come. I fist-pumped so hard at the ending cinematic that I pulled my shoulder and probably woke up the neighbours. Final Fantasy VIII re-entered my life at the perfect moment, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Runner-Up(s) — Final Fantasy VII and Psychonauts

As you may have noted earlier, my self-established rule for replaying games is to never experience something I’ve already played in the last five years; these two titles are, quite regularly, the exception. I replay both Psychonauts and Final Fantasy VII every couple of years — I love them, and to write about them is almost impossibly personal. Unlike the unabashed, revisionist joy I experienced with Final Fantasy VIII, these two games always provide steady, reliable and familiar entertainment. I know the plot beats and systems so well that every replay is no longer a revaluation, but a chance to immerse myself in the fine details. With Psychonauts it was going out of my way to squeeze every drop of unique dialogue from the game this playthrough, reveling in Tim Schafer’s genuinely funny writing. With Final Fantasy VII I get to enjoy those small, almost insignificant moments that do such a monumental job of fleshing out the world of ‘Gaia’. My particular favourite this playthrough was Cloud experiencing momentary claustrophobia after stealing and piloting the Shinra sub. It’s such a small story moment, but it’s a shockingly poignant example of character growth and depth within the wider plot. To call these games ‘runners-up’ isn’t necessarily correct, in essence, they are always winners, they are just no longer as surprisingly brilliant after the twelfth time.

Least Favourite Game of 2021 — Maquette

Let me get this out of the way immediately, I would not categorise Maquette as a bad game. As a rule of thumb, I tend not to finish games I truly dislike which, unfortunately, results in a perfectly fine experience like Maquette receiving the prestigious award of least liked. The graphically impressive, perspective-bending first-person puzzler sits in a similar sphere to titles like The Stanley Parable, Superliminal and, to some extent, Gone Home. The meat of the game, the puzzles themselves, are perfectly serviceable and often quite clever, but never seem to reach their full mechanical potential. Almost all of them revolve around the idea of making yourself, or surrounding objects, smaller and bigger, skewing your perspective of the world until it provides a way forward. This makes for some rather impressive-looking locations and set pieces, but rarely manifests outside of making sets of stairs bigger and smaller to reach new locations.

The game attempts to marry its central gameplay loop with the thematic core of its plot, a natural marriage of mechanics and story. Maquette is a self-ascribed ‘modern-day love’ tale that focuses on the ideas of growth and healing in the face of emotional turmoil. Small, insignificant arguments and differences often metamorphosise, growing into large, seemingly insurmountable issues. You, the player, shrink and expand all manner of objects in order to solve the next puzzle, regularly having to shift perspective, actively transforming the small into the large and vice versa. This attempt at fusing the central gameplay gimmick with the story is admirable, but ultimately poorly executed. Maquette’s dialogue is cliched and clunky, but not in an endearing way. Michael and Kenzie’s relationship is simultaneously overtly saccharine and extremely annoying. With no supporting characters to balance out and dilute the lovey-dovey turned woe-is-me character interaction, both parties appear as self-important and emotionally stunted. I don’t mean to rag on the writing, and I can appreciate how difficult it is to strike the balance between believably flawed characters and genuine romance — I just don’t think Maquette manages it.

Despite my dislike for the story and the slightly underbaked puzzle mechanics, I still recommend that you give Maquette a go for yourself should you be given the opportunity. The game is refreshingly brief, only clocking in at three to four hours, and what didn’t work for me plot-wise, may well work for you. Maquette may just be your personal Final Fantasy VIII; you just haven’t played it yet.

Runner-up — Nothing

I’m not putting Tales of Arise here again and, looking up my 2021 games list, the next lowest-ranked entry for a game that actually released this year is Resident Evil: Village — sorry buddy, but that ain’t happening.

One response to “The Gamer! Beware! Very Official 2021 Game Awards (Part 2)”

  1. […] one is kind of cheating, only because Eyes on Me, as a composition, has several different arrangements within Final Fantasy VIII. The track Julia, for example, is a piano-centric version of the main song, while Waltz for the Moon imagines the theme as a ballroom piece. Every version of the track is beautiful, but none more so than the understated, elegant Love Grows and the monumental tearjerker Eyes on Me, sung by Faye Wong. Obviously, your mileage with Eyes on Me will depend entirely on your personal relationship with the game and your feelings towards its central romance. I am a huge fan of VIII and the relationship between Squall and Rinoa (as I have previously written about here) and find Eyes on Me to be evocative, moving and the audial highlight of the entire plot. For some, however, it is pure cheese, the video game equivalent of Titanic’s My Heart Will Go On — overwrought, overly emotional and lacking substance. Cue Love Grows, which has all the benefits of Uematsu’s gorgeous musical arrangement, without any of the actual lyrics (if you’re one of those freaks who doesn’t cry at Faye Wong’s version). Both arrangements of the song are iconic and play during some of the game’s best moments, highlighting the personal, clumsy love our protagonists share. The song moves at a deliberately slow pace as it weaves its amorous strings through a swirling dance of teenage heartache. The piece is inextricably linked with every facet of Final Fantasy VIII, and I would even go as far as to say that the song is Final Fantasy VIII. Nothing else could better represent the experience and even though I adore tracks like Maybe I’m a Lion (my favourite depending on what day of the week you ask me), how could I pick anything else? It was also the first vocal track to be used in a Final Fantasy game, still, for my money, the best of the bunch. Love Grows and Eyes on Me are heart on their sleeve songs about two emotionally stunted youths learning to love each other in the face of great adversity — I love them unequivocally, sentimental fool that I am. […]


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