Final Fantasy VIII, PlayStation

Considered something of a curveball to the hugely successful episode seven, Final Fantasy VIII (eight) is more great level-grinding goodness from Japanese dev Gods, Square. This one released in 1999.

A completely different setting and characters to previous instalments, Final Fantasy VIII features six playable protagonists and five temporarily-playable characters, each of whom make their entrance at key points in the story. The main character – who you begin the game with – is called Squall Leonhart – and Squall is a SeeD cadet. “SeeDs” by the way are elite mercenaries who can “junction” Guardian Forces to create a wide range of special offensive and defensive abilities, and these kind of act as a substitute for armour and accessories. In combat, SeeDs can use weapons and cast magic, and create all manner of colourful lightshows with their spells, and can even activate special power moves with “Limit Breaks” – using a meter that builds up and can be unleashed when full. They must also use “Draw Points” to keep their magic points topped-up for battle.

The aim of the game is to use all the powers and resources at your disposal to defeat the sorceress, Ultimecia, who is attempting to destroy the universe by compressing time. This is spectacular, high brow science fiction fantasy… gobbledegook… Gobbledegook of the highest order, nonetheless…

In terms of presentation, Final Fantasy VIII really pushed the original PlayStation to its limits, with amazing animated cut scenes, beautiful 2D backgrounds, lots of special effects during combat, and much more 3D than the previous game. The menu system in this was a big leap forward too. People often forget how good Final Fantasy VIII was for the time, because it was eclipsed by the gigantic presence of its predecessor.

A long-awaited re-mastered edition of Final Fantasy VIII goes on sale on Steam this week. The 3rd of September to be precise. Will it be worth the £15.99 they’re asking for it? Having very much enjoyed the original, my response is: quite possibly.

Note: These screenshots are from the original PlayStation version.

More: Final Fantasy VIII on Wikipedia
Steam: Final Fantasy VIII Remastered on Steam

Stonekeep, PC

Stonekeep is a strange first-person Role-Playing Game, developed and published by Interplay Productions in 1995.

I say “strange” because Stonekeep comes from a time when developers were looking for any excuse to inject some full-motion video into their games, and Stonekeep uses digitised video quite a lot, and it now looks very dated. Actually, Stonekeep uses two very dated graphical techniques to create the world you’re exploring – the second technique being Silicon Graphics-rendered graphics (the first being the aforementioned digitised video technique, a la Mortal Kombat). It’s the clash of the bad graphics techniques…

The way the digitised video has been used in the game means that a lot of the characters and monsters in it look kinda like pantomime villains… Well I felt like I was playing a pantomime fantasy game with Stonekeep… The visual style of this game reminds me of that TV show, Knightmare – the one that superimposed live actors over painted fantasy backdrops… That’s what they tried to do with this game – film people in costumes and incorporate them into a Role-Playing Game… And the end result is a bit of a weird mess!

In spite of the outdated presentation Stonekeep plays excellently. Movement is quick and simple, and is tile-based. A journal keeps track of quests, items, maps, stats and available spells (which are cast using runes inscribed on wands). Combat is real-time; similar to that seen in the mighty Dungeon Master. Quests and puzzles are fairly simple – mostly unblock a route or kill a bad guy – although there are a few surprises along the way that take Stonekeep beyond the merely ‘generic’.

I wouldn’t say that Stonekeep is a ‘solid gold classic’, but I would recommend that RPG fans give it a try. Or even better: play it to the later stages at least, because that’s where it gets more interesting. That said: if you have a low tolerance for goblins, faeries, and ice queens then maybe this game isn’t for you…

Stonekeep is a game that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and does have its moments, even though the story and setting are a little trite. Don’t let me put you off though – Stonekeep plays nicely in DOSBox and is cheap on GOG.com and is well worth adding to the collection.

More: Stonekeep on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Stonekeep on GOG.com

Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls, Game Boy Advance

Dawn of Souls is a GBA remake of the first two NES Final Fantasy games, and they take advantage of the Game Boy Advance‘s enhanced capabilities (enhanced over the NES, anyway).

The menus are quicker and clearer; the timings are better – everything has been made better in this 2004 remake – although the same basic storyline and structure has been retained from the originals. As you would expect. There are some new additions, though. Four new dungeons; a few new monsters; better save function, and other minor changes.

Graphically and musically: both of these remakes are wonderful. Combined, they represent hours of top-quality, old school level-grinding.

If you’ve always wanted to play the first Final Fantasy and didn’t like the look of the NES original: try this release instead. It’s as slick as they come – and you get the sequel with it.

Final Fantasy Advance remakes on The King of Grabs:
Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls, Final Fantasy IV AdvanceFinal Fantasy V AdvanceFinal Fantasy VI Advance

More: Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls on Wikipedia

Archipelagos, Atari ST

Archipelagos came out on the Atari ST, Amiga, and for PC MS-DOS, and was developed by Astral Software in the UK and published by Logotron in 1989.

It is a strange first-person puzzle game where you must cleanse a series of islands of the ‘Blood of the Ancients’ by clicking on some obelisks. Getting to the obelisks is not always easy, however, but the idea is to find and click on a series of them to open a portal to the next level.

The Blood of the Ancients (represented as red on the ground) prevents you from walking through it, and will kill you if it surrounds you with no way to escape to untainted ground, so you have to be careful where you walk. And not step on the blood…

All of the levels are procedurally-generated using seed numbers – from zero to 9999 – which makes an awful lot of levels… Archipelagos does have some variety, though. Later levels introduce enemies that you must avoid contact with, and other hazards.

Archipelagos was a critical success upon release, and is fondly-remembered by some (enough to have been re-made at least once), but it hasn’t aged too well overall. It’s just about fast enough to enjoy for a while and does present a reasonable challenge. Whether the gameplay contains enough variety to keep your attention for more than ten minutes is another question, though.

More: Archipelagos on Wikipedia

SpaceEngine, PC

Vladimir Romanyuk‘s incredible SpaceEngine is a simulation of the entire observable universe, with the goal being “scientific realism”, and to reproduce every known type of astronomical phenomenon.

It uses up-to-date data on real interstellar objects (from the Hipparcos Catalogue for stars, and the NGC and IC catalogues for galaxies), all of which can be visited and explored using the simple controls and the Heads-Up Display (the HUD, which also displays detailed properties of any object that is selected, such as mass, temperature, radius, et cetera); it uses procedural generation to fill in the gaps, and describe places we don’t yet know; and it also includes a complex space exploration element for creating relatively realistic spacecraft to travel around in. Be warned, though: SpaceEngine is not Elite Dangerous, No Man’s Sky, or any other kind of fictional space opera – this is serious, hardcore, realistic stuff. You do not go around blasting lasers at Thargoids in this…

That said: anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy, physics, or science should have a look at SpaceEngine. It’s not perfect (and is improving all the time), but it is pretty damn astounding – the level of detail, variety and beauty in the game is jaw-dropping. Just like the real universe…

The first public release of SpaceEngine was in 2010, and it has been free to download and use since then. Only recently (June 2019), with the release of version 0.990 on Steam, has SpaceEngine become a paid-for program. And at a mere £20 it’s a worthwhile investment if you’re fascinated by the cosmos and science – as everyone should be!

More: SpaceEngine on Wikipedia
Steam: SpaceEngine on Steam