Or as Kyle put it at the start of our second session: “Do you want to play Dirge of Cerberus today or do you want to play something fun?”
Dirge of Cerberus. Dirge of Ceberus has the lowest Metacritic score of all Marathon games to date (besides my filler coverage of All the Bravest), beating out – to my confusion and amazement – actual digitized canker sore Mega Man X7 by a single percentage point. This also makes it the lowest Metacritic score of all single player Final Fantasy games released to date, in the entire franchise, so, uh, geeze, what do I even say?
Dirge of Cerberus was first released in Japan to terrible reviews. To help smooth things over internationally, some major changes were made to the international release, one of the most prominent of which involved moving the camera to a traditional third person perspective. Normally we call this perspective “over the shoulder,” but that’s not very appropriate here because in the Japanese version of DoC was apparently really, truly over the shoulder, close enough to see your character’s nasal hair if he turned his head. Or at least, that’s what I hear. I can’t find any screenshots, but I’ve heard it was close enough to make navigation complicated, in any event. The original Japanese game was also built for multiplayer, to the point where they even have a separate, multiplayer storyline that I’ll have to talk about once the single-player plot is established. Internationally they removed multiplayer and made numerous changes in hopes of improving the single player experience (or rather, they removed multiplayer because who wants to host multiplayer for a failed game? “To improve the single-player experience” is basically just the press line). It didn’t work, and Dirge of Cerberus’ western reviews stirred in with the Japanese until we got the rating I alluded to above.
And is it really that bad? It’s certainly as trite as you’d expect by a game pulling a mid-50 on Metacritic. Mix an ugly, dark colour palette that had us adjusting my TV just to see, and throw in the same kind of mass-marketed, focus-tested “edginess” that was embodied by the game’s contemporary Shadow the Hedgehog. Thankfully it’s not quite as… erm… “dedicated” as Shadow, but the feeling is still there. Finally, mix in some second-hand understanding of Metal Gear Solid with a few FFVII sequel ideas, and you get this ugly brown streak on Final Fantasy history. And after that introduction, I’m sure you’re all just raring to go, so let’s get started! Screenshots in this Journal were taken by us personally.
Dirge of Cerberus stars optional FFVII party member Vincent Valentine. The game’s title, by the way, is named after Vincent’s starting weapon in DoC, the Cerberus. You know: the weapon that debuted in Advent Children, was never named, and makes for pretty poor brand recognition, but I guess it sounds cool enough, and that’s worth a point or two. You can get started by entering an optional Training Mode that rewinds the clock to Vincent’s training as Turk to help you get acclimatized to the controls. The training mode is quite lengthy, but a lot of that has to do with its overlong tutorials, like following a drone around a room not just once but twice (I suspect these over-extended basic movement and look tutorials are remnants of the unusual camera angle in the original Japanese release). Once you’re finally allowed to attack, things get more interesting, as the tutorial tries to teach you the game’s incredibly sensitive recovery techniques and odd targeting system. Dirge of Cerberus uses Vincent’s guns to create a stage-based 3rd Person Shooter, and since it was made in-house by an RPG developer, you can maybe imagine where things might have started to go wrong.
During the tutorial, you learn that Vincent can equip three guns at a time and can toggle between them at the press of a button. The game urges you to equip a pistol, submachine gun and rifle to each slot, which isn’t a bad plan, considering the game has separate ammo types for each and you’ll end up exhausting your favourite type if you doubled up on it by equipping the same gun type into two slots. But the option is there, and you can mix and match all the parts of your guns to create whatever weapons you can imagine. Kyle and I felt the pistol, submachine gun and rifle setup worked just fine for us, but there’s nothing stopping you from stuffing all three weapon slots with rifles if you insist. You pick up new parts, ammunition and upgrades from vending machines of all things. And did I mention the vending machines look like ’50s jukeboxes? They look like ’50s jukeboxes. No matter what level you’re in. The cartoonish incongruity of the jukeboxes may honestly be the best thing about the entire game. Certainly the funniest.
You change equipment on the subscreen, naturally. The subscreen is accessed with the Triangle button, and not the Start button, even though I continued to hit the Start button from the start of the game to the end of the game, never learning my lesson at any point. I can actually tell which one of us was playing at any given moment in our recorded playthrough, just by waiting for the player to try to go to the subscreen.
Despite the tutorial’s drawn out efforts, Kyle and I didn’t exactly understand two of the game’s major systems that were introduced towards end of the tutorial: Magic and Limit Breaks. Materia are equipped to the same slots as your guns, and are toggled at the same time. You’d think would be easy to understand, but for some reason we, and especially I, kept forgetting that magic existed. Of course, you’re not encouraged to use spells all the time. Vincent only recovers his MP by crossing over mako circles that appear at set points in each level, and these only restore a small chunk of his full bar. Since we used magic so infrequently, it’s surprising that neither of us swapped out our Materia for stat-boosting items that you can put in the same slot – at least not until the end of the game – but I guess we were really convinced we might use the Materia… you know… eventually.
Limit Breaks, which allow Vincent to transform to the Galian Beast, were related to magic in the Japanese version of the game, in that they drew from MP. I can see how this would work in multiplayer, where you’d have to strategize using Limit Breaks and magic, but it’s a terrible idea in single player since the player would assuredly strategize one or the other for the entire game, and it’s better to encourage variety than to let a player lock themselves out a feature like that. I’m not sure how much I like their new system either, mind: in this system, Vincent picks up or even buys Limit Break items, and can only carry two at a time. Unfortunately, Kyle and I got turned off the idea of Limit Breaks thanks to the tutorial. Naturally, Turk-era Vincent couldn’t transform, so the tutorial’s Limit Break boosted our stats in a vague manner and didn’t honestly seem to affect our performance. We were both so thoroughly unimpressed by this “Turk Limit Break” that we essentially gave up on Limit Breaks for the first 75% of the game! The worst part was that our original assessment wasn’t all that far off! When we finally did start using Limit Breaks, it sure as hell wasn’t for strategic reasons or play preference, I can tell you that, but you’ll have to wait and see for the details.
After clearing the tutorial, we were on to the main game. As is the Marathon rule, we played on Normal difficulty. The story begins with an FMV set during Meteorfall, as rescue workers attempt to evacuate the city as Reeve described was going on behind the scenes during the events of FFVII. For some reason, Yuffie and Vincent are there, and Yuffie seems to be in charge of the evacuation teams. The FFWiki’s guess on why this is happening is fairly solid: even though Kyle and I went to the Northern Cave with Yuffie in the main party, technically the two optional characters aren’t in FFVII’s closing cinematics (to repeat in case you’re coming here first: this was cheaper for the devs than making four separate cinematics to account for all possible party combinations, after all). Dirge of Cerberus seems to have decided that, canonically, Yuffie and Vincent went to Midgar instead, to help Reeve’s evacuation rather than to go to the North Crater! While I’m on the wiki, I should also note that we see Yuffie helping a covered body onto a helicopter, and somehow – maybe based on a close reading of On the Way to a Smile? – the wiki identifies this as Rufus Shinra. But that’s just a little Easter Egg.
Yuffie here is now voiced by Mae Whitman, the voice of Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender, who inherited the role in Kingdom Hearts 2. Like in Crisis Core and Advent Children, DoC’s motion actors are unfortunately not credited to specific characters. Yuffie takes out her cell phone and contacts Vincent, who is looking up at the Sister Ray, and he asks her to check the place out using a scanner she’s carrying. She spots a life sign up near the controls, and Vincent insists on going to rescue whoever this is. Vincent follows familiar territory from FFVII itself and he arrives at the scene of Hojo’s downfall, where he finds that the survivor appears to be Hojo himself. Hojo appears to be still alive, but only barely, still squirming at his control panel. Vincent draws the Cerberus, but just then there is a bolt of lightning from Meteor as the storm begins at the very end of the game. When Vincent looks again, there is no sign of “Hojo,” if he was ever really there. Yuffie arrives at the last moment to rescue Vincent on some sort of hoverbike, but as they fly away, we see that Hojo’s control panels are still active. One of the control screens says the word “BALESTORM,” which is basically meaningless (it doesn’t recur in the game and doesn’t even appear on the wiki, not even in the summary for this sequence), followed by the words “Start / Fragment Program.” The opening cinematic fades to black.
The next scene is set three years after the end of FFVII, a year after the events of Advent Children. We find ourselves in Lucrecia’s Cave, where Vincent is brooding. At the back of the room, we see a cluster of crystals, which in FFVII I mistook for some kind of throne. It appears that Lucrecia is held in these crystals in a sort of stasis, seemingly out-of-keeping with FFVII, though I suppose you can conclude that this was what was really going on behind those unusual scenes. Lucrecia’s voice seems to echo out, distorted, but after a while it becomes clear: “I’m so sorry.”
Lucrecia is voiced by April Stewart, probably best known for voicing most of the women on South Park from 2004 on. She’s also made a few other appearances in Final Fantasy, including minor roles in XII and the XIII trilogy.
Jump cut and we find ourselves in Kalm, where Vincent has rented a room. Judging from text messages we can see on his cell phone, Vincent is here to talk to Reeve, but for the time being he’s watching the news, which is reporting on a missing investigation into the lower levels of the Shinra building. I too would put off a meeting with Reeve for as long as possible. The TV is deliberately muffled, but by cranking the volume of your real-world TV, you can hear that the location being investigated was off the Shinra books, and the reporter attached to the investigation claims that thousands – thousands! – of people were taken here and may have been experimented on. Well, never say Square Enix has a realistic sense of scale. I think you’d insult them.
Outside of Vincent’s room, the people of Kalm are celebrating something with fireworks. My best guess is that it’s the anniversary of Meteorfall, judging from some of the decorations, but no one ever says for sure. Suddenly, several helicopters appear and launch rockets and deploy hostile soldiers into the city, while others come bearing ravenous, animal-like humanoids along with storage carts. The storage carts are landed in town and the soldiers begin forcing the people of Kalm into the carts. While not immediately visible in this shot, I wanted to take this early opportunity to say that one nice addition to the enemies in this game is that it’s one of the few I’m aware of that mixes both men and women among the game’s minor enemies and allies, and better yet, the minor NPC women are very rarely wear sexualized costumes for no reason, excusing one enemy soldier type, which you can see in this preposterous promotional render from the game’s unlockables.
Long story short, Vincent is quickly in the field, destroying one of the attacking helicopters and entering the first stage.
Chapter 1: Sea of Flames
Leaving the pre-rendered introduction, we arrive in an in-game cinematic where three attacking soldiers sneak up on Vincent. All of the minor enemy soldiers in the game are masked, and we cut to their point of view and see that Vincent is identified by name by a scanner in their mask. Hey, good job giving us a reason for the depersonalizing masks, and right from the off! We suddenly cut to a young woman in a room full of computer screens, wearing a VR helmet and looking essentially drugged out. This young woman is voiced by voice acting veteran Kari Wahlgren in her second Final Fantasy appearance after voicing Ashe from FFXII in 2006. She would go on to voice Princess Ovelia in the War of the Lions remake of FFT, and she plays Aranea Highwind in FFXV. While I can’t honestly speak for Ashe or Aranea Highwind until I get to the games in question, I’m fairly confident that they’re at least moderately important characters, and I’m editing this after playing part of FFT and so am already familiar with Ovelia, so it’s starting to look like Kari Wahlgren has voiced more central Final Fantasy roles than any other voice actor I’ve covered on the blog!
Vincent starts the first stage by climbing across the rooftops, apparently deciding that the best course of action would be to meet up with Reeve, seeing as how they’re both in town. As much as you might expect me to balk at him turning to Reeve for anything, it seems Vincent actually does have a reason, but don’t worry, I balked anyways. You start with only the Cerberus, with no other guns or gun parts. Along the way, Vincent gets a secondary objective to protect civilians, with his end-of-level results being graded on how many he rescues. It’s incredibly easy to lose friendly NPCs to the bad guys in this game, especially since most of them are innocent bystanders with no HP, and many of them are being shot at almost the moment you enter the screen, but most of them in this mission can be lost simply because they’re in optional areas! I’m a little ashamed to say that Kyle and I borked one sub-mission after another, and this was no exception.
One running side-quest in this game is to track down “Memory Capsules.” These are pill-like objects that are hidden in the game world and have to be shot to be collected (generally, you can’t so much as approach them as they appear in the distance or in inaccessible hiding places, so shooting is one of only a few ways you could theoretically “acquire” them). These mostly just unlock items in the game’s cutscene gallery and concept art gallery, but we’re humiliated to say we only found a grand total of… what, three? And we didn’t even work out that we had to shoot the first one! This playthrough was full of tiny humiliations.
As we made our way through the streets of Kalm, we came across a mother and her child attacked by a group of the animalistic humans that came with the attack, which the wiki informs me are simply called “Beasts.” The Beasts are equipped with similar helmets to the rest of the soldiers, and we see from one of their perspectives that their scanners are working just as well as anyone else’s, scanning the child as “Clean.” This causes her to appear in green, but the mother appears in red. While this brief view of the scanner hardly allows you to read the scanner’s text, simply pausing the video reveals the words “Geostigma detected” on the mother. One Beast carries off the child into a crate, while the other attacks while the other attacks the mother.
Vincent arrives on the scene in time to save the mother (assuming the player works fast) but too late to prevent the other Beast from taking the girl to the nearest crate. Vincent resolves this by opening the crate and protecting the area for fifteen seconds for no adequately explained reason. I mean, it’s for you to fight off any nearby enemies, but we had already cleared the area, so it resulted in 15 seconds of us twiddling our thumbsticks before the Beast came out of the crate to attack us? After this, the girl rushes to her mother… hopefully to find her alive, right player? Vincent will basically ignore all prison crates he comes across for the rest of the mission, even those that are clearly occupied, which is simply awful and gives you a good picture of how much polish went into this game.
Vincent continues on his mission, picking up basic gun parts as he goes. Finally, he arrives in a town square, where he’s attacked by another helicopter identical to the one from the introduction, called a “Dragonfly.” Though Vincent instantly destroyed the last Dragonfly we saw through the power of cutscenes, we’re forced to fight this one as a boss. And if you were wondering how many shots it would take to shoot down a science fiction helicopter by shooting its armoured bottom with a handgun, the answer is “a fair handful.” Dirge of Cerberus uses a hit point system, which is unsurprising given the franchise’s RPG roots, and so most of the fight involved dully pelting the Dragonfly with magic and small round ammunition while occasionally dodging its clearly telegraphed first boss attacks and soldier reinforcements. Eh, first bosses. We’re still better off than we were with Garland.
After the boss fight, the Dragonfly actually survives, forcing Vincent into a building with rocket fire. After the fight, we cut back to Kari Wahlgren’s character, who removes her helmet and reveals orange eyes that slowly fade out to blue. She’s then approached by a hulking figure with a blue scarf, voiced by Brad Abrell. Abrell got into the voice acting industry through his work as a puppeteer, performing in the first two Men in Black films as some of the aliens. He also served as a puppeteer in Spider-Man 2, controlling some or for all I know all of Doctor Octopus’ non-CGI tentacles. As a voice actor, some fans will also know him as one of the two FBI agents from Gravity Falls, season 2. Abrell’s character asks if Vincent is the one they’re looking for, and Wahlgren’s says yes. This scene essentially serves no purpose that wouldn’t have been served by having these two appear as they’re already going to do in just a few minutes, so I’ll repeat that this once again goes to show the quality of the game we’re trying to play.
Heading through the new building, Vincent discovers his first main game jukebox shopfront. Dirge of Cerberus has an interesting inventory system: the game has very low item maximums, essentially forcing you to survive from jukebox to jukebox, at which point you can restock. I kind of like the concept, actually! Even if one class of restorative is better than the others, you still want all of them on hand at all times, from full-healing potions to regular old Potions, because you just can’t carry enough of the good stuff. For that matter, you’ll also want to heal up with your items at every jukebox, because the game has no inn feature. The items aren’t exactly cheap, and each time you need to restock threatens your ability to upgrade your guns. There were more than a few times where I felt Kyle and I might have been dooming ourselves to a bad playthrough by constantly running out of restoratives, but I suppose we pulled through in the end.
The first jukebox is a little short on items, only selling handgun bullets, Potions, and Phoenix Downs. Potions heal a petty 200 HP (Vincent has 780 at Level 1) and you can only hold 4 at max, buying them at 100 gil a pop. Phoenix Downs have to be used ahead of time (a system picked up by Crisis Core), but once used will revive you from a single death. You can only carry one at a time (or rather: two, since you can use one and then carry another) and they will cost you 1000 gil. Note that the jukebox is not offering any Ethers at this early stage in the game, and will not be offering Limit Breaks at any point, so far as I can tell.
Later in the game, though I can’t specifically say when, you start collecting Red Potions and Red Ethers from enemies, and only from enemies. These items restore a fully random amount of HP or MP, though you can carry upwards of 5 of these. And yes, they are so random that they more often than not do almost no restoration at all.
Up a staircase, Vincent comes to a storeroom, where both Brad Abrell and Kari Wahlgren’s characters appear after Abrell’s character knocks down a wall. Getting a closer look at him, we see that Abrell’s character has pointed ears, blue hair, blue tattoos on his face, and yellow eyes that didn’t get the memo about the colour coordination they were going for with the rest of the character. Otherwise, he is the usual video game styled super-strongman. Wahlgren’s character, already short and slim, looks positively tiny next to him. She steps forward and demands Vincent give them “The Protomateria.” Naturally Vincent has no idea what they’re talking about, and when he doesn’t respond, Abrell says the words “Hail Weiss.” This is apparently an order (though it sure as hell doesn’t sound like one), as three gunners appear out of thin air, salute and open fire on Vincent, starting a combat. Suffice to say, the grunts and their reinforcements were dead before they could make much of an impact.
Abrell’s character continues to speak in short sentences, which, writing after finishing the game and all, almost feels out of character for him, as though they made him a little too taciturn in these first few chapters. It’s almost as though they were going for the “strong and silent” stock character in this first chapter, instead of the character who ultimately develops? For no obvious reason but authorial fiat, Wahlgren’s character suddenly collapses, and Abrell’s, who was just about to fight Vincent, backs off to carry her back to friendly territory. As he’s leaving, Abrell’s character identifies himself as “Azul.”
Just in time to be useless, Reeve arrives through the door behind you, accompanied by a young soldier in a uniform marked “WRO.” Once Reeve has heard the name “Azul,” he loses all humour and identifies Azul properly as, “Azul the Cerulean, of the Tsviets.” “Tsviet” is a Russian word, meaning “colour.” Anyone familiar with the Romantic languages will already have associated “Azul” with the colour blue (it’s Portuguese and Spanish, and for that matter sounds like the English “azure”), while “Weiss” is German for “white.” So to recap, Abrell’s character is named “Blue the Blue, of the Colours.” Honestly, they’re not bad names, I just think it’s funny to call Azul “Blue the Blue.”
Vincent tells Reeve that he wants nothing to do with this, which I think is a pretty reasonable sentiment, but as they’re talking, an enemy soldier comes in and guns Reeve straight the fuck down. Before the audience can even react to this, Vincent shoots the soldier and checks Reeve’s body, only to discover that it’s not really Reeve at all: it’s another of his remote controlled puppets, being driven by Cait Sith. I hope you’re paying attention, because this means that Reeve is somewhere else, driving the Cait Sith puppet, and is apparently so good at it that he can drive a Reeve puppet with the Cait Sith puppet!
This baffling tonal break continues as Reeve, who is nothing if not method, begins speaking with his Scottish accent the moment the cat is out of the… uh… the bag. Having revealed that he really was concerned when he thought that Reeve was shot, Vincent agrees to work with Reeve after all. Cait Sith instructs Vincent to meet up with the real Reeve, who will rendezvous in front of what must be Kalm’s only church house, since they address it in exactly that fashion.
In yet another town square (how many of these does Kalm even have? Or is this the same one?), Vincent is assisted by some of Reeve’s soldiers from the WRO. The game’s partner AI works well enough… I mean, as these things go for a game from 2006, designed by a team of RPG developers… though they usually have such low HP in later stages that they don’t survive long. In the next room, one of the WRO soldiers finally decodes the acronym to “World Regenesis Organization,” which the short stories establish as Reeve’s attempt to rebuild the world after Midgar’s fall. They’re basically the interim government, and our new friend describes Reeve as both their leader and as a “Jenova War hero.” Sure Reeve, whatever makes you comfortable with yourself. The WRO soldiers are happy to provide you with some garbage healing items to help make this first stage marginally easier (these pathetic healing items never appear again after this encounter, but aren’t really worth keeping, but the sentiment is nice), and offer to help you on your way to the church. Along the way you pick up the Griffon frame, the game’s basic-level submachine gun. After this, you encounter your first enemy snipers despite not yet having a sniper rifle of your own – just a new, long barrel attached to your handgun!
Arriving in front of the church, Vincent is somewhat hilariously attacked by the same smoking, sparking, burning Dragonfly from the last midboss battle, now called the “Dragonfly GL” despite the fact that it’s clearly the same incredibly stubborn thing. After beating the midboss, we enter a cutscene where, just for excessive style points, Vincent climbed meticulously up to the top of the church, jumped down on top of the Dragonfly, then transformed into the Gallian Beast to tear it apart. Sure Vincent, whatever makes you comfortable with yourself. If I’m not mistaken, the Gallian Beast is restricted to gameplay for the rest of DoC, and never shows up in cutscenes again.
After the Dragonfly crashes, its crew came out fully armed, only for Reeve to arrive with reinforcements in an armoured truck that’s later called a “Shadowfox.” Oh no, writers, don’t worry, the Metal Gear Solid inspiration blends in seamlessly. With the WRO now here in force, the attack on Kalm seems to have broken up, and we cut ahead to find Vincent lounging around, just waiting for Reeve to give him more inevitable orders. Sure enough, word comes in that Edge is under attack – the first time the city has been named outside of the short stories if I’m not mistaken, which was quite confusing for Kyle.
This was the end of the game’s chapter. At the end of each chapter in DoC, you’re rated on your performance. Kyle and I usually ended with us getting a C in “Damage Sustained,” since we aren’t very good at the game and take a lot of the stuff. We would also usually get a C in “Magic Casted,” since we never used magic at all (yes, it rewards you for wastefully using more magic rather than efficiently using less; admittedly, the alternative would be bad in its own way and frankly the entire category should have been eliminated or replaced). You can see the rest of the categories in the attached screenshot. After this tally, you’re rated on your performance in secondary objectives, which in this mission included saving civilians, saving the girl from the prison crate, finding cardkeys and trying to keep the WRO from dropping dead around you. This side missions return gil directly to your pocket, so they’re worth at least half-heartedly attempting, no matter how distracted you might otherwise be.
After this, your results (which as far as I can tell include both your score and your side-mission results) are tallied and turned into EXP, and you’re offered the odd choice between accepting the EXP as is or to turn all of it into additional gil instead! If you can’t tell, this is one of those games where good players get stronger and poor players are punished with an even harder experience, which never struck me as a good idea in either direction, as both good and poor players end up with a worse experience! (I have a soft spot in my heart for Goldeneye 007/Perfect Dark‘s “cheats as rewards” system, since cheats can’t be used to progress in the game and so become a side-attraction for the main experience.) As for the decision to convert EXP into gil, this might not be as unreasonable as it seems, since a lot of Vincent’s power comes from upgrading his firearms, but Kyle and I stayed committed to level ups across the entire game, even if that left our pockets empty. You’re then giving a free visit to the jukebox, which was the first time we noticed the Modify screen and bought ourselves an upgrade to some of our guns and gun parts (no details on our purchases this time, sorry). For the first few levels, upgrades to your gun parts grant a flat advantage, though that wouldn’t stay true throughout the entire game.
After the shopping trip, we were treated to an bridge cutscene between chapters, wherein a number of WRO soldiers, already in a firefight with the enemy, were suddenly ambushed from behind by a strange, mobile darkness. This won’t be explained for so long that you’ll probably have forgotten this scene by the time you get its explanation. The living darkness becomes especially confusing once the surviving soldiers come across a woman whom you might conclude was responsible for the darkness, but isn’t! The woman identifies herself as Rosso the Crimson, whom even the WRO sergeant seems to recognize as a Tsviet, which is going to seem strange in a few minutes. Rosso is voiced by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who features in a number of other products we’ve been seeing a lot of the resumes of Compilation of FFVII voice actors: Sailor Moon Crystal (Queen Metalia), Steven Universe (Priyanka Maheswaran), and Critical Role. As the WRO soldiers simply stand and stare, Rosso extends a long bladed weapon, teleports behind them and kills all the survivors in a single attack, muttering something about a place called “Deepground.”