Best Bits

Best Bits: A Night in the Forest - Life is Strange 2

With the first episode now available to play completely free, we revisit one of our favorite sections of Life is Strange 2 and dig into what exactly makes it feel so special.
By Duncan Heaney

In Best Bits, we look at some of our favorite moments from Square Enix games, and why we think they stand out. To be clear, we’re not declaring them to be the pinnacle of the game, merely one of many moments that we love. So don’t get upset with us if you disagree, okay?

While Life is Strange put developer DONTNOD on the map as masters of the interactive narrative, it was the follow-up, Life Is Strange 2 that really cemented their status as the best in the biz.

From the very first episode, Life is Strange 2 hits gamers with a story that’s in equal turns imaginative, unique and emotional - and where your decisions and actions really do make a difference.

With that episode now available to play for free on PS4, Xbox One and Steam, we thought it would be the perfect time to take a look at one of our favorite sequences: a quiet night in the forest.

What happens in the forest?

16-year old Sean Diaz and his 9-year old brother Daniel have fled their home in Seattle following a tragedy that tore their lives apart. On the run and hunted by the police, the pair stop in the woods for some much-needed respite.

After the intensity of the previous scenes, the brothers finally get a chance to relax and take stock of the situation. They can scavenge for food, go fishing, skim stones, race or just sit and chat - it’s an area that’s positively overflowing with things to see and do.

As for what specifically happens… well that largely depends on you. The choices you make in Life is Strange 2 have a big impact on where the story goes, how characters react and more. This one scene has an impressive number of permutations - the events you experience may not be the same as someone else’s.

For example, on my first playthrough, Sean was very much the responsible big brother. He looked out for his brother at every turn, stopped him eating berries, kept him on task. As the brothers chilled out enjoying a moment of calm, they chatted and Daniel was able to have a good night’s sleep - even though he went to bed pretty hungry.

On a different playthrough though, Sean was a bit more relaxed with his brother. He was more playful and teased him in the way that very specific siblings do. While more fun was had, I accidentally went too far and scared Daniel, resulting in an upset and restless little brother.

What makes this section so good, and such a highlight of the series, is that both versions were enjoyable, each with very different buy equally satisfying payoffs. And that was just two ways of many the scene can go.

But why? What exactly makes this part of the game work so well?

It’s stunningly beautiful

The forest is one of the most visually spectacular areas in Life is Strange 2 - one look at the screenshots will tell you that. The game’s vivid colors and almost painterly art-style combine to create an environment that looks great, and just feels good to inhabit.

In short, it’s pretty impressive - emphasis on pretty. That beauty didn’t come easy though - it was a lot of work for the team at DONTNOD.

According to the game’s Director Michel Koch: “It was one of the very first parts we worked on, as we started production of Life is Strange 2.

“The scenery was a challenge because we’ve never worked on that type of environment before - We went hiking in Washington and took lots of photos, which we used as reference when defining how it would look and feel.

“But while we were building the scene, we were also using it to do things like work out the mechanics of the game. The whole thing was quite challenging!”

It’s a pivotal moment for Sean Diaz

By the time we head into the trees, we’ve spent a good amount of time as Sean Diaz. We’ve seen what kind of person he was, but the sequence in the words lets us really define the type of person he’ll become.

Will he grow up fast into a stern and protective guardian to his brother or will he act like the teenager his is? Will he become overprotective and deprive Daniel of valuable experience, or give Daniel more freedom, despite the risks that come with that?

It all depends on you and what’s brilliant is that there’s no big decisions or binary choices here. You’ll shape Sean through a series of small choices - some obvious, but others far more subtle. Because the character is specifically yours, it’s all too easy to identify with him - and makes the emotional beats of the story hit so much harder.

Your decisions affect more than just Sean

But it’s not just Sean who’s shaped by this chapter - Daniel is too. One of the coolest things about the series as a whole is that Daniel learns from Sean’s actions. This system is invisible to the player, but almost every decision Sean makes, no matter how tiny, has an impact on Daniel’s behavior.

For example, if he sees Sean steal something, he may do the same later. If Sean swears, Daniel can start cussin’ like a sailor.

That’s why this section is so pivotal to the episode - and the series as a whole.

As Koch says: “it’s a really important scene. It’s the first major moment after the incident in Seattle, and we wanted to teach the player that they are now responsible for Daniel and will have to make decisions that affect both him and Sean.

“That ties into the theme of responsibility in Life is Strange 2 - when you take care of a child, your behavior influences theirs.”

In other words, the time in the woods sets out game’s stall and very subtly says to the player: your decisions may have more impact than you think.

All your choices are the right choice… and also the wrong ones

There’s a very clear creative intent behind the choices presented in the Life is Strange series - players shouldn’t have to worry about making a bad or ‘incorrect’ decision. Koch, explains:

‘The Life is Strange games are about life and real issues. We try not to portray anything as black or white, but instead as shades of grey.

‘There is no pre-defined right way to live - a person’s life is defined by the decisions they make. Some decisions may come to bite you, but you have to live with it. That’s what we try to emphasis in our games - it’s not our job to decide what’s right or wrong.”

That philosophy is on full display in this one section of the game. As Sean and Daniel explore the woods, there are plenty of decisions to make - some obvious and others more subtle, and they all affect how the scene plays out.

What’s key is that none of them feel like you made a ‘bad’ choice - they all feel like natural - and satisfying -consequences of the choices you made.

As the game’s writer Jean-Luc Cano says: “There are no good or bad decisions in life. There are just decisions.”

Sean and Daniel Diaz’s trip into the forest works as a perfect snapshot of Life is Strange 2. Decisions have weight, with meaningful consequences, it reinforces the themes of the game, and it has real emotion and heart - and it captures everything that makes this story such a wonderful experience.

But don’t take our word for it - the entire first episode is now available to play for free, so you can experience these amazing moments first hand.

So give it a go, and then visit us on social media to tell us how right we were about everything:

Best Bits: FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE - Mako Reactor 5

We take a in-depth look at one of the most memorable sections of FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE - the mission to Mako Reactor 5 and the epic battle that follows (spoilers).
By Duncan Heaney

In Best Bits, the Square Enix Blog team looks at some of our favorite moments from Square Enix games, and why we think they stand out. To be clear, we’re not declaring them to be the pinnacle of the game, merely one of many moments that we love. So don’t get upset with us if you disagree, okay?

When we think about Best Bits, our decision often comes down to one question: if you could show a new player one section of the game to really sell them on it, which would it be?

For FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE, perhaps it would be the opening bombing mission, which gets the game underway in spectacular style. Or maybe Cloud’s early trip to the upper plate residential area - a fascinating look at the lives of the wealthier citizens of Midgar.

Or I could just say the words ‘Wall Market’ and those of you who’ve played the game will nod sagely in agreement while trying to keep a straight face about what’s to come.

But for me, there’s a particular sequence that shows the game firing on all cylinders - the team’s assault on Mako Reactor 5 in Chapter 7.

BEWARE: Story details for Chapter 7 of FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE follow. Scroll beneath the spoiler-Barret at your own peril

What happens in Mako Reactor 5?

Mercenary Cloud Strife has joined Barret Wallace and Tifa Lockhart on a mission to sabotage an energy reactor that’s sucking the life out of the planet. Things haven’t gone particularly smoothly so far, but they’ve finally made it in.

Everything is ominously quiet. Security is unnervingly light - a few fire-flinging bioweapons and sawblade-swinging security mechs, but nothing that gives the team much trouble. They do pass one particularly buff bot - Barret comments that it would be very bad if it were to wake up (foreshadowing!).

Before long, the team reach the reactor pump and sets their bomb. And that’s when the villainous Shinra Electric Power Company springs its trap. Not only do the executives know that our heroes are there, they’re also broadcasting the assault live on television.

Rather than freedom fighters, the team will be portrayed as terrorists working for a foreign power, and the broadcast will culminate with their messy execution by the terrifying robot they saw earlier - the Airbuster.

Fortunately, the team has other ideas. They resolve to humiliate their foe by taking down the bot, and making their daring escape.

Charting a path through the reactor, they move carefully from room to room, battling Shinra’s elite security forces and knowing that every step takes them closer to an encounter with the pinnacle of Shinra’s military hardware.

So why is this section so effective? Well, let’s start with the team itself.

It strengthens the characters

To say that Cloud and Barret get off on the wrong foot would be an understatement. The two heroes constantly butt heads - to the point where early in the story Barret tries to cut ties with the former SOLDIER completely.

So one of the great joys of the mission to Mako Reactor 5 is watching the icy relationship between Cloud and Barret thaw, and a mutual respect start to emerge. This is made clear as the dialogue moves from snippy and insulting to familiar and friendly. Cloud even makes a joke!

But aside from his developing friendships, the section also works as a showcase for Barret in general. We see him demonstrate exactly why he’s able to lead his AVALANCHE cell - his passion for the planet, his unbridled rage at Shinra and his concern for his comrades are all on full display.

He’s also hysterical. When he finds out he’s on TV his attempts to turn opinion against Shinra don’t exactly go according to plan.

Your choices in Mako Reactor 5 matter

A few weeks ago, FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE Co-Director Naoki Hamaguchi talked to us about the importance of giving players options.

“That’s not just important for battles, but also for all kinds of gaming mechanics,” he told us. “But what’s really important for players is that feeling that they’ve made a decision on how to play, and get the feedback that they’ve done well because of it.”

That philosophy permeates throughout FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE. Some choices are subtle - for example, you must constantly evaluate your actions and battle strategy. What move is right for this situation? Should you heal or go on the attack? Which character is the best fit to take on which enemy?

Some are more formal like choosing how Cloud responds to certain characters, or what materia to equip for each party member. The choices you’re asked to make in Chapter 7 are some of the most obvious in the game - but no less meaningful.

As you escape the reactor, Shinra’s harried technicians are scrambling to get the Air Buster battle-ready for the inevitable confrontation. It’s nearly ready to go, but a few components still need to be added - and that gives our heroes an opportunity for a little industrial sabotage.

In each room are between one and four terminals. If Cloud and co can find a single-use keycard, they can use these terminals to remove modules from their incoming enemy. The problem is that there are more terminals than there are cards, and this forces you to make some difficult decisions.

For example, do you remove some of the Big Bomber shells, negating one of the enemy’s strongest attacks? Do you remove the AI cores to slow it down and reduce stun attacks? Or do you go for an M-Unit which doesn’t affect the battle, but does give you access to useful items if you can find them.

You’ll never be able to completely nullify the Airbuster entirely, but it still gives a degree of control over the battle - before it even starts. It’s such a cool idea.

The Airbuster is a battle for the ages

Finally it’s time to take on the Airbuster, and it’s more than a simple boss battle. It’s an event.

This mechanical monstrosity has been carefully built up over the course of a whole chapter. Every step, every decision has been leading to this point - and it has a lot to live up to.

Boy, does it deliver!

Read more:

In the fantastic Inside FINAL FANTASY VII video documentary series (which you can watch here), Lead Battle Designer Tomotaka Shiroichi explained how the boss battles were inspired by four frame manga. Essentially, the boss battles tell a ‘story’ over four phases. He explains:

Encounter the enemy and start the battle in phase 1. Show each other’s hand and the boss takes the lead in phase 2.

In phase 3, the boss shows you the signature attacks, and the players start fighting back. That’s when bosses start revealing their weaknesses. Phase 4 is the climax and introduces the next part of the storyline.

That structure is on full display with Airbuster and it works brilliantly. The opening phase mimics the original game with the party split up on a narrow gangway. You get a sample of what the boss can do, but it’s when you step into phase two that things really shift into gear.

Now the boss unleashes its terrifying Tankbuster attack - a solid beam of energy that will devastate anyone careless enough to stand in its path. After a beating, the boss detaches its hands so they can harass you independently. It’s all very stressful - in the best possible way.

When you do enough damage, the boss enters its final phase, and things go into overdrive. A blast from the Airbuster tears apart the walkway, creating a new environment in which to fight. It also takes to the sky, using its impressive mobility to pepper the team from long range, only flying in to unleash an even more dangerous assault.

In short, the sense of escalation is palpable and it makes for a hugely exciting and cinematic encounter. It’s also one that brilliantly plays to the strengths of FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE’s combat system.

You’ll have to constantly switch characters for different scenarios - Barret to deal damage at range, and Cloud or Tifa to deliver a beating up close. You’ll likely needs someone available for healing too.

You also really need to watch your positioning - if you’re in the way of some of the more dangerous attacks, you’re going to regret it. And the constantly shifting conditions of the fight mean you must be ready to find new strategies on the fly - there are those options again.

In short, it’s a boss fight for the history books - I can’t imagine many gaming moments in 2020 will be quite this exhilarating.

Oh, and the battle music? chef’s kiss.

In case you can’t tell, I really like Chapter 7 of FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE. The trip to Mako Reactor 5 definitely stands as one of my favorite parts of the adventure.

If you haven’t played it the game yet, it would be worth picking up just for this section. Fortunately, the whole game is full of similarly memorable moments - you’d probably find your own Best Bit fairly soon.

Also, I’ll just drop this here:

For those of you who have played the game, you can share your own Best Bits with the FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE team on social media:

Best Bits: Cosmo Canyon - FINAL FANTASY VII

Caution: This article contains spoilers for FINAL FANTASY VII.
By Duncan Heaney

In Best Bits, the Square Enix Blog team looks at some of our favorite moments from Square Enix games, and why we think they stand out. To be clear, we’re not declaring them to be the pinnacle of the game, merely one of many moments that stand out. So don’t get cross at us if you disagree, okay?

With Red XIII front and center in the latest FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE screenshots, we thought we'd take a look at one of his greatest moments from the original game...

FINAL FANTASY VII’s story really moves.

It’s something that jumped out at me on my most recent playthrough. Cloud and company are almost always pushing forward, both metaphorically and literally - there’s always a new location to explore, a new threat to deal with or a new vehicle to steal, and it’s what gives the game such a memorable energy.

But every now and then, FINAL FANTASY VII does take its foot off the gas, and let the pace, and the central narrative, slow down a bit. When it does, the effect can be remarkable - and nowhere is that more apparent than in Cosmo Canyon.

What happens at Cosmo Canyon?

Still on the trail of Sephiroth, Cloud and the rest of the party stop off at Cosmo Canyon to drop off Red XIII who hails from the town. It’s also a chance to take a break in a distinctly more relaxed environment than the previous Gold Saucer.

When they arrive, Red XIII explains a little of his backstory - he’s from a line of warriors that protect the Canyon - and introduces the gang to his ‘grandfather’, Bugenhagen.

The floaty sage explains to the team the role that the lifestream plays in the cycle of life and death - and drives home the dangers that Shinra’s energy-sucking machines pose to the natural order.

After that (and possibly a spending spree at the weapons shop), the party gathers round the campfire to take a break and process what they’ve learned. Red XIII bitterly reveals some serious daddy issues - his father was a coward who brought dishonor to his family.

Bugenhagen hears this (was the nosey old man eavesdropping?) and won’t let this stand. There’s more to the story and it’s time our hairy hero learned the truth.

He leads Red XIII and a couple of friends into a sealed cave. As for what happens next… well, if you’ve played it you know, and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil it. I will say this though - if you don’t get a little moist around the tear ducts, you’re a stronger fan than I.

So that’s what happens, but why is it such an affecting section? Here are a few of the reasons:

It’s a welcome shift in focus

Most of FINAL FANTASY VII features on the central conflict between Cloud and Sephiroth. But as compelling as that is, some of FINAL FANTASY VII’s finest moments come when the game takes a long look at some of the other party members. Cosmo Canyon is Red XIII’s time in the spotlight - and it’s one that’s welcome.

Until this point in the game, Red XIII is something of a mystery. He’s intelligent, articulate, and extremely likeable but we don’t know all that much about him.

Cosmo Canyon changes that. We finally get insight into the character, his conflicts and his backstory. We see the place who grew up and the people he loves. We see the lingering resentment he has for his father and the fusion of pride and sorrow he feels when he discovers the what really happened to him.

When the party finally departs Cosmo Canyon, we know exactly who Red XIII is, where he comes from, and what makes him tick. He has become a fully-formed character and a key party member for the remainder of the adventure.

Read more:

It adds thematic depth

All through the game, we’ve been told that Shinra’s power-sucking machines are bad. We believe it - we see some evidence to support it, and if nothing else, everyone on the executive board seems to be utterly despicable.

But Bugenhagen and his unnecessarily extravagant planetarium drive home why harvesting Mako energy is bad. Once of the central themes of the game - mankind vs the natural order - comes sharply into focus, and it makes the continuing conflicts with the nefarious energy company even richer as a result.

The Cave of the Gi is excellent

When our heroes enter the Cave of the Gi to find out what happened to Red XIII’s father, they don’t realize they’re stepping into a nightmare.

The cave is infested with the restless spirits of the Gi tribe, who launched a failed offensive against Cosmo Canyon many years before. Those enemies are dangerous, casting spells that can KO a party member within a minute, or taking off three quarters of their HP in a single attack.

To navigate the cave, the team has to use switches to open paths, navigate treacherous spider webs - it truly feels like a hostile environment. Heck - even the floor can hurt you in some spots. Not helping matters, the music has turned full-on sinister, giving the location a truly unsettling vibe.

Eventually, the party makes their way through the cave, where they’re ambushed by a particularly nasty boss. It’s a tough fight (although the experienced will know there’s a trick to it), and a satisfying capper to a grueling journey.

Not as satisfying as the story beat that follows, of course… but as mentioned, that’s best left unspoiled.

FINAL FANTASY VII is a game with so many amazing moments, we could easily fill 20 ‘Best Bits’ articles. Cosmo Canyon is definitely a standout though - it’s full of great character moments, fascinating plot developments and satisfying battles. Plus the music for the area is fantastic.

But that’s just my opinion. Do you agree, or is there another part of the game you’d highlight instead? Share your thoughts in the comments and on social media:

Best Bits: The Trial - CHRONO TRIGGER

OBJECTION! Oh wait - no, that’s a different game.
By Duncan Heaney

In Best Bits, the Square Enix Blog team looks at some of our favourite moments from Square Enix games, and why we think they stand out. To be clear, we’re not declaring them to be the pinnacle of the game, merely one of many moments that we love. So don’t get upset with us if you disagree, okay?

It’s funny - while most RPGs cast you in the role of the noble hero, we seem to spend a lot of our time being… less than virtuous.

For example, how many times have you wandered into some poor NPC’s home and just helped yourself to the items in their chests and cabinets? Heck - in OCTOPATH TRAVELER, I don’t think there’s a single character I didn’t try to pickpocket at least once.

We do these things because… well, it’s fun - but also because there usually aren’t any repercussions to our actions.

So it’s a wonderful surprise when CHRONO TRIGGER upends those expectations… this section suddenly reveals that actually your actions really do have consequences.

What is the Trial?

At this point in the story, Crono has experienced quite the adventure. A chance meeting with Princess Marle at a local carnival somehow escalated into a dizzying journey into the past. He’s prevented a kidnapping, resolved a time paradox and met gaming’s coolest frog.

So when Crono, Lucca and Marle finally return to the present, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re due a little R&R.

Sadly, that’s not to be. Crono is almost immediately arrested, on charges of kidnapping the princess, and put on trial for his alleged crimes. Thanks to the corrupt actions of the Chancellor, Crono’s off to prison regardless of the verdict, but whether he’s found innocent or guilty depends on his actions, and his strength of character.

Or more accurately… yours.

A time for some self-examination

The carnival at the beginning of CHRONO TRIGGER is filled with opportunities to make decisions.

These choices are so small and seemingly inconsequential that most players don’t even think about them on their first playthrough - they mess around with the options available and move onto the main adventure.

But the trial reveals that these interactions do actually have meaning. The prosecuting Chancellor brings out witnesses to comment on your character - and if you were a jerk, you’re about to be called out.

Read more:

For example, a large sack sits unguarded on a table. If you pick up this parcel, the owner will accuse you of stealing his lunch. Which is fair enough because… you did.

Or, if you were impatient with Marle’s indecisiveness when buying candy, one of the townsfolk will have seen you dragging her away from the stall - further evidence to support the trumped-up kidnapping charge.

Brilliantly, the game also flashes back to those scenes, driving home that it was you who made these decisions. You have nobody else to blame.

And it’s not just your past actions that play into the verdict - your current ones do too.

The prosecutor will ask you questions over the course of the criminally short trial. You can lie, but if you’re caught out, that’s not going to play well with the jury.

It plays the long(ish) game

Another way the game compensates for gamer’s worst instincts is with pacing. If the trial took place immediately after the carnival, there could be a temptation to revert to an earlier save and redo it to get the ‘best’ result.

But there’s actually a large chunk of gameplay between the opening and this section - the first trip into the past, meeting Marle’s ancestor and Frog… a lot happens.

It’s only around an hour or so (maybe a bit more depending on how much you like to take your time), but that’s enough to ensure that trying for a do-over would be inconvenient. Yet it’s also recent enough that your actions in your hometown will still be fresh in your mind.

It plays on expected videogame behaviour

There are some behaviours that are ingrained in gamers. For example, we want to pick up all the items we can, in case we need it for something later.

Similarly, we tend to explore an area for items before taking actions that might advance the plot - we’ve learned that we can sometimes miss out on goodies because the game wants to move the story on.

So when we see that man’s lunch, our instinct is to pick it up. And when Crono and Marle bump into each other, many of us would naturally wander over to the glowing object on the ground before talking to the fallen princess.

The developers know this - both of these incidents come up during the trial. Your greed will be pointed out if you steal the sack of food, and checking on the valuable object on the ground before tending to Marle is used to demonstrate that you care more about her fortune than her wellbeing.

…well played CHRONO TRIGGER. Well played.

What do you think?

It’s only a small segment in a massive, sprawling adventure, but CHRONO TRIGGER’s trial emphasises why the game is still as beloved today as it was when it originally came out. Wit and creativity oozes out of every pixel, and the game goes out of its way to subvert expectations wherever it can.

But what did you think of it? Do you agree that this is a standout section? What are your Best Bits of CHRONO TRIGGER?

Let us know in the comments, or on social media - and check back on the Square Enix Blog each day for more articles!

Best Bits: Halloween Town - KINGDOM HEARTS HD 1.5 ReMIX

Warning: contains spoilers for KINGDOM HEARTS FINAL MIX HD
By Duncan Heaney

In Best Bits, the Square Enix Blog team looks at some of our favorite moments from Square Enix games, and why we think they stand out. To be clear, we’re not declaring them to be the pinnacle of the game, merely one of many moments that we love. So don’t get upset with us if you disagree, okay?

It’s Halloween, so naturally our thoughts turn to the spookiest, kookiest part of the KINGDOM HEARTS games - Halloween Town.

This hauntingly beautiful world - based on the seminal movie, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas - is a recurring location in the series and, to be honest, any of its appearances could qualify for a ‘Best Bits’ article.

But for this particular piece, we’ve chosen Sora’s visit in the original KINGDOM HEARTS (and by extension the HD remaster of KINGDOM HEARTS FINAL MIX) - a segment that’s particularly rich in Halloween-y goodness.

What happens in Halloween Town?

For the uninitiated, the KINGDOM HEARTS series sees big-hearted heroes Sora, Donald and Goofy travelling to various Disney worlds, meeting iconic characters and helping them seal their homes from the Heartless - shadowy creatures created from the darkness in people’s hearts.

But when the intrepid trio arrives in Halloween Town, something’s a bit different. There are Heartless in the streets, but they don’t attack - something is clearly amiss.

Enter the ‘master of terror’ and ‘king of nightmares’ himself - Jack Skellington. It turns out that Jack’s trying to use the Heartless in an upcoming Halloween festival… but he’s not satisfied with their dancing.

The group consults Doctor Finkelstein who tells them that he needs ingredients to create a heart so that the Heartless will obey instructions. Sora, Donald, Goofy and Jack set off on a jaunt around Halloween town to collect all the required elements - a task complicated by the fact that the Heartless are suddenly far less benign.

It’s times like this that it’s useful to have Keyblade wielder around - with Sora’s help, Jack is able to fight past the hordes and collect all the required parts. Unfortunately, a more twisted trio - Lock, Shock and Barrel - learn of the plan to control the Heartless and steal the heart for the malicious Oogie Boogie.

It’s up to Sora, Donald, Goofy and Jack to confront the villain, retrieve the heart and save Halloween Town.

So why’s it so good?

By my reckoning, Halloween Town succeeds on multiple levels - how it plays, how it looks, how it sounds and how well it captures the spirit of the movie it takes inspiration from.

The combat in KINGDOM HEARTS starts relatively simply, but the game quickly adds new abilities, which offer a ton of flexibility in how you approach each encounter.

Read more:

By the time you reach Halloween Town, Sora, Donald and Goofy have a host of magic, items and combat abilities at their disposal, and experimenting with different character setups can be a lot of fun.

Fortunately, Halloween Town gives you plenty of opportunities to do just that. The initial search for the heart ingredients keeps things straightforward - wide areas to explore, full of secrets to find and Heartless to battle. What’s more, it’s a chance to spend some time with Jack and his abilities, before things get too crazy.

It mixes things up

And get crazy they do. Once Lock, Shock and Barrel steal the heart, the chase is on!

What follows is a series of exciting battles as our heroes race towards Oogie Boogie’s mansion, but it’s when they get there that things really take off, with some of the most memorable boss battles in the whole game.

Firstly there’s Lock, Shock and Barrel themselves. What initially seems like a fairly simple fight quickly becomes something a little more involved. The kids are fast and evasive - you’ll need to pay attention to land your hits, especially if you’re playing on the higher difficulty levels.

Then comes the first battle with Oogie Boogie - one of the most unique bosses in the entire game. The whole fight takes place on a giant roulette wheel - Oogie Boogie dances around the edges, throwing explosive dice at you. He’s difficult to get to, and working out how to get within Keyblade distance is a fun combat puzzle in itself.

Eventually, of course, you will beat him, at which point the embittered baddie takes things to the next level by merging with the entire mansion. Suddenly, the scenario shifts yet again. Now it’s a race across up and around mansion itself to take down his weak points - a thrilling set piece that elegantly combines combat, navigation and light platforming.

It’s an impressive amount of variety, paced perfectly to keep the player interested.

A very spooky Sora

It’s also worth discussing just how perfect this all looks. One of my favorite things about KINGDOM HEARTS is how Sora, Donald and Goofy will change appearance to blend in with the world they’re visiting. They’ve got to preserve the World Order after all.

Their Halloween Town transformation may be my personal favorite (although their Monstropolis forms from KINGDOM HEARTS III are a close contender). Sora becomes a vampire, Donald gets mummified and Goofy becomes an appropriately jolly take on Frankenstein’s monster.

What’s cool is that these designs seamlessly blend each character’s signature look with the distinctive designs of The Nightmare Before Christmas, allowing them to stand next to the likes of Jack Skellington and Sally without seeming out of place.

The soundtrack is a dream

Oh, and the music! Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack to KINGDOM HEARTS are legendary - combining her own compositions with classic Disney tunes for dramatic effect.

For Halloween Town, she takes notes and themes from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and reinterprets them in a way that evokes memories of the movie, while still feeling uniquely KINGDOM HEARTS. It’s utterly wonderful.

It celebrates the source material

But more than anything though, it’s the tone that most impresses.

Halloween Town perfectly captures the wonderfully off-kilter spirit of the movie that inspired it - the story, the characters, the visuals and the music combine to create a love letter to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

If you’re a fan of the flick (and I really am), it’s one of those parts of a game that you’ll want to revisit time and time again.

And what better time than Halloween itself, right?

So it’s pretty obvious that we love Halloween Town - but what do you think? What are your favorite worlds in the series? Share your thoughts in the comments, or social media:

Best Bits: Shadow of the Tomb Raider - Trial of the Eagle

This article contains mild spoilers for Shadow of the Tomb Raider
By Duncan Heaney

In Best Bits, the Square Enix Blog team looks at some of our favourite moments from Square Enix games, and why we think they stand out. To be clear, we’re not declaring them to be the pinnacle of the game, merely one of many moments that we love. So don’t get upset with us if you disagree, okay?

Shadow of the Tomb Raider has some truly memorable moments. From the opening breakneck opening Day of the Dead sequence, to more relaxed hang-outs with the locals of a lost city, there’s plenty to admire.

But one bit that I’m particularly impressed by is the Trial of the Eagle.

What is the Trial of the Eagle?

The path to the Lost City of Paititi is fraught with danger. To reach her goal, Lara Croft must prove she’s worthy by completing three trials.

First comes the water-logged Trial of the Jaguar, and despite a close call with an unruly eel, Lara gets through with only minor damage.

Next up is the Trial of the Spider. It’s a tricky climb through tunnels and up sheer walls, but fortunately Lara’s equipped with a climbing axe and a total disregard for self-preservation so it barely slows her down.

At this point, we’re feeling pretty good about the chances of making it through. After all, after Yamatai and Kitezh, Lara’s a pro at finding lost cities. She’s got this, right?

That’s when we hit the Trial of the Eagle - and it’s a challenge that hits back.

An ascent to remember

The Trial of the Eagle is an ancient mechanism - a swirling nightmare of platforms, poles, sails and spikes. It’s big, complex and intimidatingly solid. As Lara points out, “Still standing after centuries of earthquakes and storms.”

The path to Paititi sits at the top of the structure - thus begins an epic climb and, at least in this writer’s opinion, one of the best platforming challenges in the entire Tomb Raider series.

Read more:

It subverts expectations right from the start - there’s no way up, so Lara’s forced to head down. But after shimmying all the way to the other side of the room… another problem emerges. There’s still no way up!

The only solution is for Lara to keep descending and, after a tense and dangerous climb that requires most of her traversal skills, get on the outer wall of the mechanism.

A convenient windmill, and proper application of some trusty rope arrows are enough to get things moving again, and create new paths upwards.

Of course, now things are spinning, there’s the added risk of being knocked over by whirling beams…

And all that’s just the beginning of the exhilarating journey through the Trial of the Eagle.

As Lara climbs further, more puzzles block her path, and the ascent gets ever-more treacherous. The structure may have survived for hundreds of years, but there are still limits. The path gets increasingly unstable, and as Lara reaches the peak… well, to reveal any more would be unfair to anyone who’s yet to play. Trust us when we say it’s pretty memorable.

So why’s it so good?

The Tomb Raider games have evolved over time, but two major gameplay pillars persist across all the games - platforming and puzzle-solving.

The Trial of the Eagle represents both elements in their most potent form. You’ll need to use almost every traversal skill you’ve learned to get around, in order to solve the puzzles that bar your way. When you do work out the solution, it changes the environment, and introduces new gameplay challenges to the platforming.

The two elements feed into each other - they work together in this section in perfect harmony.

Another important element of the trial - it builds as it progresses. The platforming becomes tougher and more intricate, as the puzzles increase in complexity.

The whole section feels perfectly paced - an exhilarating climb that keeps you on your toes, and just long enough that when you reach the top, you feel a surge of catharsis.

We also shouldn’t forget to mention the third element that makes the section work - that little extra something that’s sprinkled throughout Shadow of the Tomb Raider: spectacle.

Everything in the scene is visually interesting, from the lighting, to the animation, to the impressive vistas when you stray outside. But what really impresses in the scale - Lara feels tiny compared to the sails and statues of this massive mechanism - and when you get her near the top, you’re acutely aware that it’s a long, long way down.

In case you can’t tell, I’m rather fond of this little slice of classic Tomb Raider. It’s a lot of what I love about the series, executed to an exceptionally high standard.

But what do you think? Do you agree that the Trial of the Eagle is a standout? What are your best bits of the game - let us know in the comments and on social media:

Best Bits: Operation Mi’ihen, FINAL FANTASY X

Beware - this article contains major spoilers for FINAL FANTASY X
By Duncan Heaney

In Best Bits, the Square Enix Blog team looks at some of our favourite moments from Square Enix games, and why we think they stand out. To be clear, we’re not declaring them to be the pinnacle of the game, merely one of many moments that we love. So don’t get upset with us if you disagree, okay?

One thing that makes FINAL FANTASY X such a distinct game is its tone. While there’s plenty of humor and high adventure to be had, there’s also a thick undercurrent of melancholy.

The spectre of Sin hangs over the world of Spira at almost all times - the aquatic monstrosity devastates life, and people rely on summoners like Yuna to earn the power to stop it. And as Yuna and her Guardians are all too aware - that ain’t easy.

All other attempts to stop Sin typically end the same way - death and carnage. Operation Mi’ihen is one such disaster.

What is Operation Mi’ihen?

Yuna’s pilgrimage takes her to the Mi’ihen Highroad. The highroad’s a flurry of activity, with soldiers and chocobos scurrying around to prepare for a large-scale assault against Sin.

The party discovers that this is an unprecedented collaboration between the Crusaders (an anti-Sin military force), and the technologically-minded Al Bhed. What’s more, it will be witnessed by a major bigwig - Maester Seymour Guado himself. Seymour takes a shine to Yuna, so he invites the gang to come watch events play out.

The Crusaders plan to gather multiple Sinspawn - the monsters that emerge from Sin’s body - and use them to lure the moist menace to the area. The Al Bhed will then use powerful cannons to blast it away once and for all.

As plans go, it’s simple and to the point - what could go possibly go wrong? Other than, y’know, everything.

The aftermath

Firstly, the Sinspawn escape confinement, which forces the team to wade into the fray. After defeating a monstrosity, the heroes watch in horror as Sin withstands the powerful attack, and retaliates with one of its own.

When the dust is cleared, hundreds of Crusaders are dead, the party is scattered, and another Sinspawn boss is on the prowl. Fortunately, Seymour is there and, assisted by Yuna takes the beast down without too much trouble.

So what exactly is it that makes this section so memorable?

It’s thematically rich

Let’s go back to the subject of tone. FINAL FANTASY X is not a bleak game, but it is a sad one. Beneath the people’s enthusiasm, the friendships, the family, and the laughs is a gnawing sense of inevitability.

Sin is an unbeatable force of destruction. Even when a summoner’s pilgrimage is successful, it only marks a temporary reprieve. Sin always comes back. So too are the Crusaders’ operations doomed to failure. As one character explains, they exist to drive Sin away from settlements - but they’ve never succeeded at actually hurting the beast.

Operation Mi’ihen drives this home in most vivid way possible. The assault on Sin is doomed to failure - Auron knows it, the Maesters know it and we, the audience, know it, too. It’s never overtly stated, but you have to imagine that a number of the Crusaders know this also. But they go ahead anyway, because it’s better to do something than nothing at all.

Sure enough, the operation is a bust, and hundreds are left dead or injured. Nothing is left but for the survivors to pick themselves up and move on. After all, that’s what you do in Spira. It’s inevitable.

It helps us start investing in the questing

The early stages of FINAL FANTASY X take place largely from Tidus’ perspective. We follow his struggles, learn about his childhood, and get introduced to the world through his eyes.

Even when he becomes a Guardian, Tidus does so without any deeper understanding of the pilgrimage’s implications. So, there’s a risk that the complex religious and political aspects to Yuna’s pilgrimage could become little more than a backdrop to his struggles.

Read more:

Fortunately, the developers are smarter than that. By giving us a close-up look at Sin through Operation Mi’ihen, Yuna’s story moves to the forefront of the game. We’re reminded us that stopping Sin really matters, and that helps us invest in the quest.

It makes the world richer and more cohesive

Stop me if you’ve heard this before - the ‘world is a character in its own right’.

It’s not the most original statement, but I maintain it holds true for FINAL FANTASY X. One of the greatest things about it - at least from my perspective - is how fleshed out Spira is. It’s a fully-realised place, not just in terms of the lands and races, but society itself.

For example, there’s a persistent tension between the devout followers of Yevon, who see the use of machina, or machinery, as taboo, and the Al Bhed, who tinker and use machina as a matter of course.

This is alluded to throughout the early parts of the game, but Operation Mi’ihen swings the spotlight directly onto it.

The Crusaders’ collaboration with the Al Bhed and their technology is a source of major controversy - many of Yevon’s followers are horrified by it, particularly Wakka.

When it all falls apart, many of the survivors face something of an existential crisis, and believe that their failure to follow the tenets of their religion is to blame. Many head to the temples after the battle to work with the priests and atone for their sins.

Getting such a detailed look into the relationship between Yevon and technology enriches our understanding of the world.

We see the power religion has over all aspects of society. We see the role old technology plays in this land. We see how the followers of Yevon resent and mistrust the Al Bhed.

Thanks to Operation Mi’ihen, Spira feels like a fully-formed place for the characters to inhabit.

It builds character through gameplay

We already know that Seymour is powerful - we’ve seen it earlier in the story. But by putting him under our control, we get a sense of just how capable he is.

Every member of your party has a specific role to play in battle - Yuna’s a white mage, Lulu’s a black mage, Wakka specializes in ranged attacks and so on.

So it’s eye-opening when Seymour joins your party. He’s got powerful offensive magic, he can heal, and he hits like a tank. He’s a jack of all trades, and a Maester of most of them.

Combined with his elevated position in Spiran society, it hammers home a key point - this is a dude you should take seriously.

Despite his reluctance to button his shirt up.

So those are some ruminations on one of our favourite parts of FINAL FANTASY X - but we’re sure you have your own. Share them in the comments, or on social media: