Discourse on Strategy Guide Organization

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This morning I woke up to text messages from one of my closest friends griping about the strategy guide for Final Fantasy XIII-2. She was having difficulties with finding out how to unlock one of the gates in order to progress through the story. She swore the guide was zero help, which puzzled me, because I thought the guide was extremely helpful in finding pretty much everything. After some back and forth, I had asked her if she looked in the Tour Guide section for the answer, as the guide is split up between the main walkthrough and a tour guide of each era. Sure enough, she found the answer there, and was close to livid that all of this information wasn’t glomped together.

As I said in my review, I was initially disappointed that all of this information wasn’t together, but the more I played the game, the more I was pleased that it wasn’t all crammed in together. If it had been, the walkthrough would have been an overload of information, most of which you wouldn’t need until much later in the game. I believe that that would have forced me to flip through the guide more than I already did, and it would have additionally forced me to take more time away from the game to read through what I needed to.

She pointed out that I did not like The World Ends with You strategy guide whereas she did, so we obviously look for different things in guides. That made me scratch my head, because my big beef with that guide was that it narrated everything that happened in the game, down to actual dialogue. With so much text I didn’t need–because OMG that’s why I’m playing the game–I had to take more time away from the game to weed out what I was looking for.

What was fascinating to me about the whole conversation were the differences in our preferences for strategy guide organization and what we considered to be taking us away from the game. She seems to want everything bunched together so she doesn’t have to flip through the book, no matter how much she has to read through. I want the guides to require as little reading as possible in order to find what I’m looking for. While I am normally not a fan of guides breaking up the walkthrough sections, in the case of Final Fantasy XIII-2, I think it was done perfectly in order to cut down on the massive amount of unneeded information.

Obviously I’m not going to be changing my preferences, because they are my preferences, but I am going to rethink how I discuss a guide’s organization. Maybe a warning or two for those who prefer the guide to be organized in a lump sum or spread out. It’s definitely given me something to think about.

What are your preferences? Do you have any?

Favorite PlayStation 2 Strategy Guide: Kingdom Hearts

I was pondering last night while playing some random side mission in inFamous 2 on what was the best strategy guide I have ever found. I couldn’t think of an answer, because I’ve come across so many that were so great that it would be hard to pick one over the other.

So I’m narrowing it down by console, and the first guide that instantly came to mind was the strategy guide for Kingdom Hearts. 

Before my friends rise up in arms, let me assure all of you that I didn’t pick this simply because I love the KH series. If you need further proof, go read my review of the strategy guide for Kingdom Hearts II. That said, I admit that nostalgia does play a little part in my love for this guide.

Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows may be what brought me back into the gaming world, but it was Kingdom Hearts that moved me to the hardcore. Considering that I hadn’t played a hardcore game since, oh, Super Mario Bros. 3, I was in way over my head with KH. I was still learning how to use the analog sticks and how to use more than four buttons, so anyone who has ever played KH can probably figure out EXACTLY where I first ran into trouble: Wonderland.

I got to the world boss within five minutes, and I knew I didn’t find half of what I needed to (such as fire magic) in order to fully complete the level. I knew there were Dalmatian puppies waiting to be found. I knew I was missing chests. And I KNEW I was missing puzzles to solve. I started over using GameFaqs, and I was somewhat satisfied with using it, but it apparently drove my husband crazy to see me play with my laptop open constantly. What can I say? I didn’t want to miss anything!

I didn’t get the game until late in the summer in 2005 for my birthday, so the strategy guide was pretty much sold out everywhere. I gave up on searching for it and continued on my merry way. Until I got absolutely stuck in Agrabah. GameFaqs wasn’t helping. I had one gaming friend in the area, but she lived 30 minutes away and had beaten the game awhile back. She had no advice. I was ready to quit, but my husband didn’t want me to. He actually did a scavenger hunt across GameStops and Best Buys in our region and found perhaps the only Kingdom Hearts strategy guide in stock in Denton County. The cover was ripped, so Best Buy sold it to him for half price, but I think he would have paid twice the tag for it. He surprised me with it one night after work, and after flipping through it, I realized that I had missed a ton of things that GameFaqs either didn’t explain very well or didn’t mention at all. I actually started my game completely over.

I didn’t miss a single thing once I had the guide in my hands. I never got lost–not even in Monstro–and I found every last collectible. If there were Trophies back then, this would have been the first game I would have 100%-ed on. There is a non-existent platinum trophy out there with my name on it. There’s something to be said about a strategy guide that can help a newbie to gaming complete every single thing.

That should be how all strategy guides go, but believe me, they don’t. Not all guides have 100% useful screenshots. Not all guides make note of when certain collectibles are available in previous areas. Not all guides avoid spoilers in walkthrough descriptions. Not all guides are organized in a way that makes it incredibly easy to find what you’re looking for without flipping through the entire thing. Not all guides have detailed maps of every area a player can visit that include markers that point out this item will be available at such-and-such point. The strategy guide for Kingdom Hearts does.

In many ways, I use this guide as a standard when I review others, especially since none of my other PlayStation 2 strategy guides–not even the others written by the author, Dan Birlew–have come as close to perfect as this one.

What I Look for in Strategy Guides: Achievements/Trophies

I can’t imagine a publisher NOT setting aside an appendix for the Achievements/Trophies of a game, but I can say that if I come across one, that’s an automatic loss of two points. And I mean two points out of five for the overall score. A guide that fails to mention them is like a non-Wii game that fails to have them: upsetting to the user.

However, I look more to this section than just a simple list of the Achievements/Trophies and their point values. I check to see if the game announces what difficulty you play on to the world, which is something I personally hate. I don’t like seeing my list of Achievements announcing that I ONLY beat the game on Normal or sometimes, Easy. So I check the list to see how I will be potentially embarrassing myself with this game if I need to lower the difficulty to Easy. I never said I was the best gamer, and sometimes a game gets the best of me.

Once I check for that, I look to see if the guide gives any tips on how to complete some of the Achievements/Trophies. The guides for Bayonetta and Final Fantasy XIII both do this very, very well. They tell players where to go, what accessories to equip, what levels they should be if necessary, and then what to do. I have seen guides that just say, “Do this” without any real direction on what to do. I’m not an Achievement whore or Trophy hoarder, but many people out there are, and this info is important to them. Not only that, but a guide just isn’t complete without this info, just like a game wouldn’t be complete without these virtual rewards.

There are people out there who won’t play PSP games due to the lack of Trophies. This is the new world we live in, and I expect the guides to keep up. Fortunately, very few have not.