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The art of reviewing: Sequels
Posted on Tuesday, May 13 2008 @ 21:12:05 Eastern

Probably my final entry in this little series.

So anyway, before getting to the meat, let's make it clear that I'm not discussing the merits of sequels, but about how to write a review about them. Now, there are basically two arche-types of sequels (with some games falling somehow in between).

First, we have the "true" sequel, in which you'll most likely need to have played the first game in the series, as it will follow up on the plot, the characters, the core gameplay, the graphic style, etc. Now, this kind of sequel is more or less in the minority (and hardly ever going beyond a trilogy), because a game is usually a big investement in time and money, and making a game that forces the player to have played another game before is pretty damn risky. Kingdom Hearts 2 is one of such few "true" sequels, and it could take this risk because unless you had already played KH1, you most likely wouldn't be openminded to the Disney/Square combo anyway.

Still, these games exist, and frankly, this is the easiest kind of sequel to review. See, just make sure to mention the fact that you need to have played the previous installment in the first paragraph, and then you can go on and talk about what new this part of the series brings to the table. I think I did this well enough with Kingdom Hearts 2, where I also made sure to go over the basics once again just to make certain everyone would follow .

However, most sequels are instead what I would call "franchise sequels". Everything from the main Zelda games and  Final Fantasy's numbered series, to the sports titles, racing games á Gran Turismo, etc.

And here is the real rub of the issue: When I've played one game in a franchise series, and then move on to the next, the pitfall is that while the sequel might be better in every way, I still won't enjoy it and/or play it as much as the first game. So, how shall I approach my review of the sequel, then?

With some luck, it's a Final Fantasy game. You can say what you want about the series, but the fact is, ever since VII, they've tried to make enough changes to the core gameplay that it's really like a fresh entry in the genre (unlike, say the Suikoden series, which I guess with some confidence hasn't changed its formula substantially since the first game. I mean, the graphics in Suikoden V are from the PS1 era half the time). Reviewing FF XII was relatively easy, considering how substantially different it was from FF X, which in turn was very different from FF IX. Heck, even FF X-2 - a true sequel - was so different from X that I could easily review it on its own merits (though those merits were mostly about being really weird...). I still had to talk about how it fits into the series, of course, but by and large it was fairly easy to write.

Most game sequels aren't changing that much, though, and now I'll tell you a secret: In my review of Gran Turismo 4, I stopped playing the game long before getting anywhere near finished (I think at about 28%) But I realised that this was partially because I'd already played the crap out of GT3 (played through to 99% -twice-, and also a bit more than that). I also realised that if I had started with the fourth installment, I'd probably have played the crap out of that instead.

Since the GT series is the kind of series where a fresh gamer will most likely pick the latest number in the series when he gets into the gameshop, I decided to write it as if I had only played GT3 moderately (so I could note the improvements from that game) and then criticise and grade GT4 as if that was the game I had played the crap out of. Adding a warning near the end (maybe it should have been at the top instead...) that you might have had enough if you've played the previous games to death already, I felt I had done my part. This approach naturally won't cut it on every kind of sequel, but for the kind of game series where new gamers will only pick up the latest game in the series, I don't think you'll lose any integrity using this approach, as long as you have at least played the game enough to have an informed opinion of the changes from the last one.

I took a completely different approach to Guitar Hero 2, though. It wasn't deliberate of me when I wrote it, but in hindsight, I won't change that it's basically assuming you've played the first one. Like KH2, GH2 was a game that I am really sure was bought almost entirely by
the ones that had already bought GH1, or at least played it. At least, this was true until they released GH2 on the 360, but my review covers the PS2 version anyway, so there.

But, there's another point to looking at the GH2 review with regards to sequels. See, certain game series somehow reach a certain status (the first GH game certainly reached it quickly), and therefore, each new game in the series will be held to a much higher standard than usual. And that much higher standard can cause a bit of "reverse fanboy syndrome".

Basically, what happens when I play a new game in a series I really have a passion for, every little flaw in the game seems to just stick out like a sore thumb. Enter The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The review you see is actually the second one I wrote. The first one, I focused almost entirely on the times I was disappointed, forgetting the times I was also entirely captivated the way the Zelda games usually manage to get me. If you think that entry looks negative, you should have seen the first one.

Basically, the balance of reviewing sequels is in how much you can review it on its own merits, and how much you should talk about how it fits into the series. And certain game series are very, very hard to review in a vacuum. I think the late controversy of GR's official Grand Theft Auto 4 review is a prime example of this.
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