Final Fantasy Retrospective 14: A Very Shiny, Expensive Black Sheep

When is a Final Fantasy game not a Final Fantasy game?  When it doesn’t even for a second include any version of this classic theme.  

Once upon a time, VIII was the undisputed black sheep of the series.  Now XIII, even though it does have its dedicated and zealous fans, has usurped its place.  Even if you are one of the game’s defenders, it’s not difficult to see why.  First and foremost, there’s the infamous “Corridor.”  Throughout most of the game, you will run down The Corridor with no opportunities to deviate from it.  Sure, there are a few nooks and side paths where you can find “hidden” treasure, but there’s only a relative few and they’re so obvious that they must have been hidden by the laziest Dungeon Master ever.  It’s basically all the restrictions on player exploration from and cranked up even further up to 11 (or 13, I should say). Second and interrelated, this is the first game in the series where there are no cities or towns.  There are spots where you can talk to NPCs, but it’s purely fluff with no clues toward what the player needs to do or toward any side quests.  Reportedly this was a deliberate aesthetic choice to give the player a realistic impression that the characters of the game spend the entire plot as fugitives, but I have seen rumors reported that it had less to do with daring creative choices and more to do with deadline restrictions.  Whatever the truth (and it is apparently true that at one point in development the game was supposed to include towns), the lack of towns does concrete the impression that so much of the game is just Cut Scene Fight Fight Fight Cut Scene Boss Repeat.

Now I keep using synonyms for almost because there is a point in the game where you suddenly, like the person dragged out of Plato’s proverbial cave, end up in a wide open space with various environments from deep ravines to gorgeous ruins of modern cities that you’re free to explore and where you can find side quests, hidden items, and new areas to open up.  But it only comes more than halfway through the game and eventually, once you decide to resume the main plot, it’s back to The Corridor.  Honestly it feels more like the game is sadistically teasing you with what XIII might have been instead of rewarding the player.  This is especially because there are so many areas in the game most players would just yearn to explore, including  large sci-fi cities, a high-tech amusement park (unlike in the famous Gold Saucer from VII, you don’t even get any mini-games to play!), and a digital Internet world, but, no, you have to stick forever and always to The Corridor.  Needless to say, after the excellent freedom the world of XII gives the player there just aren’t any words to explain what a disappointment this is.  It manages to feel even more restrictive than the old Final Fantasy games where you have to follow the plot and there are only two or three side areas.

The one part of the game that usually gets as much flack as The Corridor is the plot, but honestly that was my favorite part of the game.  The main setting is the floating, self-contained land of Cocoon, a technological paradise where every luxury and need is provided by god-like beings called the fal’Cie.  The only dark spot in the existence of the inhabitants of Cocoon is that they live in fear of the continent below, Gran Pulse, which is reportedly infested by hordes of monsters and savage people under the control of other fal’Cie who only want to destroy Cocoon.    However, there has been no contact between Cocoon and Gran Pulse in the centuries since a cataclysmic war between the two lands, but that hasn’t stopped the theocratic government of Cocoon from maintaining a powerful military just on the chance that a citizen of Cocoon is “infected” by a fal’Cie from Gran Pulse.  How do the fal’Cie infect people?  They can give someone a Focus, which turns that person into a l’Cie and bestows them with tremendous magical and physical abilities, but there’s no doubt it’s more of a curse than a blessing.  See, a l’Cie only learns their Focus through a vague vision, and if despite that they fulfill it their “reward” is to be frozen in crystal, to be “unthawed” if the fal’Cie needs them again.  If they fail?  Then they’re doomed to become essentially a zombie.  So when a young woman named Serah inadvertently brings together her sister, a soldier nicknamed Lightning; her fiancee Snow; a pilot named Sazh; and two adolescents, Vanelle and Hope, they are horrified when Serah suddenly turns to crystal and they are all given a Focus by a Pulse fal’Cie, especially because their vision implies that their destiny is to bring catastrophe to Cocoon.  Barely escaping a ruthless “Purge” carried out by the military against the entire local populace to guarantee no one who had any contact with the enemy fal’Cie survives, Lightning and the others have to resist the mysterious manipulations of Cocoon’s leader Galenth Dysley, who almost seems to want them to run loose, and determine if their Focus is to save Cocoon or annihilate it.

Really, as much as I prefer it when Final Fantasy drifts away from futurist angles, I thought the plot was an interesting deconstruction of traditional fantasy and “soft” sci-fi tropes, specifically the idea of a Chosen One guided by benevolent divine forces toward a heroic destiny.  It reminded me, in a good way, of how VII twisted and reinvented established JRPG concepts.  Yet there is a valid reason why the story gets criticized, because of how poorly it’s presented.  As you can tell, the plot is thick with technical terms, very few of which are actually explained through exposition.  You’ll actually pray for bad exposition once you realize that, in order to not only keep up with the plot and understand the game’s world but even to have characters’ motivations explained from cut scenes, you have to read these long info recaps after every cut scene.  Granted the info screens from XII were long and detailed too, but the difference is that at least 99 percent of those were just details that added to the backstory and the game world, not details that were necessary to understand characterization and plot.  Not only is it just a very clumsy way to handle worldbuilding, but it just grabs you and throws you out of the game every ten minutes, if you’re one of the few people who cares enough about the story that you have to make sure you don’t miss any pertinent detail.

On top of this, XIII’s world revives a couple of the sins committed by the makers of VIII.  Now I’ll be the first to argue that Lightning is hands down the best protagonist the series has presented in a long time, and her character development throughout the game is actually handled quite well and with some subtlety (although some people, myself not included, might think she comes off as too much of a hardass at the start).  The rest of the game’s characters, however, are just pale imitations compared to some of the rich, diverse parties we’ve gotten in the past.  Snow is a naive would-be hero whose one and only shtick wears thin just thirty minutes in.  Sazh does get a few of the game’s most poignant moments but outside those he amounts to little more than the “I’m getting too old for this shit” action movie cliche (well, that and an excuse to “cutify” things by showing the baby chocobo that lives inside his afro;  you read that right).  Hope gets a major sub-plot about hating Snow for failing to save his mother’s life, but despite all the build-up that fizzles out.  Now the one bright spot is the relationship between Vanelle and a woman who later joins your party, Fang.  It’s fairly heavily implied that they are lovers, and without delving into spoilers, they get one of the more redeeming moments from the story.  Overall, despite some admittedly big exceptions, the characters aren’t all that memorable, and their character development seems to come in spite of the padding-stuffed plot rather than because.  Plus, like the sterile ultra-modern world of VIII, most of what we see of Cocoon is sleek and beautifully rendered but it just isn’t all that “fantastic” and distinctive from our own world.  Maybe there’s more to it than that, but Square-Enix knows we don’t get to see it!

At least the gameplay isn’t as complex as VIII, but it too has its problems.  Like a cross between the Gambit system from XII and the class system from other games, you don’t exactly directly control all the members of your party and instead you assign them “preprogrammed” AI characteristics.  Here they’re called Paradigms, where you can give party members roles like healing (Medic), defensive (Sentinel), using black magic (Ravager), etc.  Although the game does encourage – and more or less requires you – to experiment with combining different Paradigms and setting up the right combinations for different battle situations, it really doesn’t offer as much room for strategy as the Gambit or class systems.  The Sentinel paradigm is practically useless except arguably in some of the most difficult bonus boss fights, and, while XIII is generally agreed to be one of the most difficult games in the main series, more than a few boss fights seem to just boil down to being fast enough to switch timely between Paradigms heavy on healing to ones heavy on offense.  And exactly like X, the system for building experience and learning new spells and skills only gives the illusion of  being able to experiment with characters’ development.  The game does let any member of your party develop any Paradigm the player chooses after a certain point, but the experience points required are so excessive it doesn’t really mean anything unless the player intends to pursue the most difficult bonus boss fights after finishing with the main plot.

Now for all that I can’t say I hated this installment.  As you might expect from Square-Enix, it’s eye-poppingly gorgeous, with an above average soundtrack (despite the crippling loss of the series’ defining theme).  It’s just, especially after the underrated XII, XIII seemed to take the potential of new video game technology for RPG storytelling a few steps in completely the wrong direction.   And you could tell the Powers That Be knew their experiment had failed, since quite a bit of the direct sequel XIII-2 directly addressed fan complaints about XIII, by including actual towns and tweaking the gameplay, but we’ll get to that when we finally wrap up this retrospective.

Why LGBT People (Should Have) Loved Purgatori

Since I’ve been running this blog for a while now, and since I’ve been (very slooooooooooowly but surely) experimenting with ways to add new multimedia angles to Trash Culture, I thought it would be fun and appropriate to revisit one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written:   “Why Did Women Love Lady Death?”

I keep coming back to Chaos! because…well, it actually always is a big nostalgia trip for me.  Believe it or not, flipping through my friend’s copy of Evil Ernie: Straight to Hell #3 or skimming over the latest issue of Chastity at the comic store really expanded my idea of what kind of stories the comics medium can tell.   Sure, like a good little comic book boy I mostly read from the Big Two, but there was something unpolished and deranged (and I mean that in the best possible way!) about Chaos! that fascinated me, even then.  Honestly, Chaos! really does embody the sort of works that I’m trying to analyze or poke fun at on this site, and the sort of appreciation I’m attempting to explain.  Seeing Lady Death just a few racks down from Superman actually did teach my young, naive self some interesting lessons that the medium could something other than black-and-white adventure tales.  Of course, you might say that I would have been better off inspired about the medium’s potential by something like Love and Rockets or Box Office Poison, but if that was the case then there would be a fairly good chance you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Purgatori hasn’t fared as well as her eternal nemesis, Lady Death, after Chaos! was liquidated and its franchises auctioned off.  While Lady Death still as of this writing has her own series, Purgatori, as far as I can tell, has only been subjected to one revival attempt.  That was the ill-fated shot at a full-on Chaos! revival by Devil’s Due in 2005 and 2006, which was plotted and scripted by Robert Rodi of Loki and Codename: Knockout fame.  Why Purgatori didn’t carry over like Lady Death did is a question for the ages;  she certainly wasn’t the only Chaos! character to suffer that fate, despite there being more efforts to give Evil Ernie a decent post-Chaos! afterlife.   That’s kind of a shame, because frankly – and I write this without irony – Purgatori was one of the more interesting LGBT characters to come out of the ’90s.

Okay, okay, I know that simply by writing that sentence I caused a feminist blogger from Jezebel or DailyKos or whatever to reach for their keyboard in a rage without knowing why, but I mean it.  To get at my madness, I’m going to discuss Purgatori’s original origin story, as provided by our favorite creator and fetishist Brian Pulido, The Vampire’s Myth.

Now keep in mind I’m not defending it as some hidden, forgotten, progressive, feminist gem.  I’m not going to presume Pulido’s motives – maybe he made Purgatori a lesbian just to stoke (eeeew) his readers’ T&A fantasies, maybe he genuinely wanted to do something with a gay protagonist, maybe both (it is possible to want to do both, you know) – but Purgatori is definitely catering to what feminists call the “male gaze.”  I mean, check out this scene showing how Purgatori became a demon-vampire thing:

purgatoribecomesavampire

The funny thing is that this really isn’t all that much more explicit than, say, an issue of “Green Lantern” or “X-Force.”

“You want your “male gaze”?  Chaos! has got yer “male gaze” right here!!!

If you’re offended, at least let me see if I can mitigate your offense with context.  If you’re having a considerably different reaction (or you’re offended and…intrigued at the same time), hey…we can wait.

Ready?

All right.  When we catch up with Purgatori, she had just been banished from Hell to Earth by Lady Death’s evil…well, evil-er alternate personality Lady Demon (just roll with it).  Weakened severely by her battle with Lady Death and finding that the blood of helpless standard-issue morals only barely keeps her alive, Purgatori goes to Alexandria to confront two vampires she created thousands of years ago, the “Coven of Ancients” (I know, with two vampires it doesn’t seem like much of a coven, does it?), Jade from China and Kabala from Nubia.  They want to kill Purgatori in revenge for cursing them with an immortal life sustained by committing atrocities;  the unflappable Purgatori just wants to drain them dry of their blood so she can get her full power back.  In what I genuinely think is a nice touch, Jade does freak out when she learns by telepathically scanning Purgatori’s memories (because in the Chaos! universe vampirism does also give you random superpowers, like in Twilight;  you heard it hear first, Stephanie Meier ripped off Brian Pulido!) since she learns that Hell is real, meaning that if she ever is destroyed her soul will be damned anyway.

It almost makes up for the horrific, agonizing historical inaccuracies (Alexandria was a city in Egypt centuries before Alexander the Great – you know, the guy it was named for – founded it?  China could send an emissary to Egypt in the second millennium BC?  And don’t get me started on the anachronistic costumes…).  Well…almost.  

purgatoribitesjade

Say what you will, but at least they just want to kill each other for revenge or for survival, and they’re not at all fighting over a man.

That’s kind of the entire plot, but it turns out that it’s just a framing story for the real purpose of the series:  detailing Purgatori’s origin.  In a vague and completely historically accurate ancient Egypt (*cough*), a queen obsessed with achieving immortality through building an extravagant tomb falls in love with one of the slaves working on the tomb, Sakkara.  The queen takes her into her harem of women and even explicitly marries her.  Keep in mind that this was published in 1997, which makes for a weird little political message years before it really could be a political message.

purgatorimarries

And yet this story has never been endorsed by GLAAD or the Human Rights Campaign…

What’s interesting is just how…marginal this scene and plot development are.  There’s no real political message here, or attempts to make a point about sexuality.  That’s something admittedly you’d expect from something published in the ’90s, when same-sex marriage was still very much a fringe issue in most circles, and like I hinted I really don’t think Brian Pulido was dropping any commentary on gay rights into his yarn about the origins of a mass murdering vampire.  From what I can tell, it’s just there to heighten the inevitable betrayal, but it’s still an interesting detail throw into a silly gorn-soaked comic from the mid-’90s.

But, yes, the queen does stab Sakkara in the back…more or less literally.  Like Bender learned in Futurama, the queen had to find out the hard way that slaves really don’t share their masters’ dreams of immortality.  Afraid of a revolt, the queen agrees to marry a powerful and popular general, who demands that she execute all the women in the harem, including Sakkara.  Narrowly escaping, Sakkara follows up on a rumor she had once heard about a vampire living on the outskirts of the city.  There she discovers an ancient Celtic vampire, Rath, and willingly gives herself over to him for the sake of freedom and revenge.  Rath is something of an Iron Age Libertarian and schemes to spread vampirism in order to “free” humanity from the tyranny of government and organized society, but even he doesn’t suspect that, in a plot twist that does help explain why I love Chaos! so much, Sakkara just happens to be part-fallen angel, turning her into a powerful vampire-demon hybrid.  As soon as she is able, Sakkara, who will go by the name Purgatori for…no particular reason (except that Brian Pulido liked the name, obviously), goes on the ultimate spurned lover rampage and  slaughters or vampirizes the queen’s wedding guests and imprisons the queen and her new husband in a sarcophagus…after turning them into starving newborn vampires.   In the present, Purgatori naturally overcomes her enemies, although Jade does escape to star in her own stories in the future.  Kabala isn’t so lucky.  Amusingly Purgatori considers letting Kabala burn to death in the sunlight, rather than letting her stay immortal and miserable, a sign that she’s “mellowed.”

purgatorisrevenge

Now before I go any further I guess I should toss in something of a disclaimer about the sexy, half-naked elephant in the room.  Yes, Purgatori’s body and costume choices are really not realistic.  In fact, using the word, even following “not”, feels like a crime.  Yes, the mainstream comics medium is plagued by the presentation of women as purely sex objects for the male gaze (although it should be admitted that it also serves the gay-female gaze, albeit only incidentally).  And, yes, all this highlights broader issues with the presentation of female characters in comics that have very real repercussions for women trying to work in the medium or simply become regular readers.  But that’s not the kind of thing I’ll write about here, and there are already plenty of places to read up on these points.  Without claiming that Purgatori is an unjustly lost feminine heroine for the 21st century – although part of me is tempted to launch such an argument – I’m just a little interested in how gay readers can look at Purgatori and find her interesting from a female or LGBT perspective in spite of (or even along with) this T&A baggage.

Like I mentioned, Purgatori’s lesbian sexuality actually is, believe it or not, key to the plot.  Also Pulido, whatever you may say about his writing, genuinely is concerned with showing the reader that both the queen and Purgatori are in love.  It’s just that politics, the queen’s own psychotic need to insure that memories of her will endure no matter the cost in human suffering, and finally Purgatori’s sociopathic lust for revenge get in the way.  Now it is also used as an excuse to titillate – and how – but, to be honest, it could have been a lot worse.

Also it’s worth pointing out that there’s only one man in the story, Rath, who serves as anything resembling a straight, male love interest for Purgatori.  (The dialogue insists that Rath only wants to use Purgatori as his pawn in his crusade to destroy the very concept of organized society, but the idea that Rath also wants to sexually control Purgatori is not very subtle…even by Chaos! standards, which scares even me.)  She rejects Rath at several points in the story, and in their last encounter she spits in his face.  The story presents an interesting parallel.  On one side, there’s the queen and the general.  The queen betrays her deep and sincere love for the sake of political convenience and submits herself over to the total domination of a man she can’t even care about, sexually or romantically.  On the other side, Purgatori is faced with more or less the same situation with Rath, but she completely throws him off once she gets what she wants from him, and then brutally punishes the queen for making the easier choice.  Taking that view, a titillating story about lesbian vampires becomes a weird, wild parable about keeping out of the closet…or else your devastated lover might go insane with rage, turn you into a vampire, and leave you in the closet to become an eternally starving vampire (which, if you think about it, is as good a metaphor for desperate, closeted gays as any).

purgatorifeminist

Purgatori: she’s a strong, independent demon-vampire-thing and she don’t need no man!

Frankly, speaking as a LGBT reader myself, I had much the same reaction to the story as a few female readers of Lady Death had.  It’s frankly a little refreshing to have a character that’s of course not a bundle of stereotypes, but is also not at all saintly and  not written with a particular political or social agenda in mind.  It brings to my mind the film X-Files: I Want to Believe.  Not a terribly good movie by most standards, but it was worth remembering just for having a villainous, organ-stealing gay couple motivated by a potent mixture of desperation and love.  There are issues with the portrayal of those characters – for one thing, they’re never really given that level of character detail that helped make the better episodes of the X-Files TV series famous – but among certain Interwebs critics that shall remain nameless they tended to be seen as homophobic caricatures just because they happened to be gay and the villains.  So it goes with Purgatori.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a LGBT character who routinely goes on killing sprees, you know.   And there’s nothing wrong with admitting that it’s kind of awesome to have a – dare I say – role model like that.

purgatorirevenge

Now this is what I call a wish fulfillment fantasy.

First, Purgatori is a gay character whose sexuality isn’t her end-all and be-all.  Yes, I’m daring to say that Purgatori is, at least in that sense, a better written character than Jack from Will & Grace.  More importantly, when Purgatori’s sexuality does come to the fore, it’s treated in a way that, even in our more “enlightened” times, sets her apart.  Most depictions of LGBT sexuality are still painted with a tragic brush.  Same-sex love is very often shown in the shadow of social and religious oppression, or disapproving relatives, or the threat of violent bigotry.  If not that, then it’s shown in the light of some shallow parody of gleeful promiscuity (if you’re a gay male) or of blissful Amazonan domesticity (if you’re a lesbian).  Purgatori has no such hangups.  She exalts in her sexual desire and conquests, and acts in a way that’s very unlike a minority whose sexuality much more often means being persecuted than achieving power.   Is she, to use academic feminist speak, still just using sex as a tool to achieve superiority in systems of power that are traditionally patriarchal?  Sure, but that really shouldn’t make it any less satisfying.

In sum, Purgatori can offer a different kind of release for LGBT readers.  Like Lady Death presenting a female heroine who completely shattered the old concepts that a female heroine must be nurturing and gently benevolent and set fire to the shards, Purgatori is the LGBT hero who is anything but a victim – and if she ever is, it’s only temporary, and we can rest assured she will strike back at her foes not through letter-writing campaigns or an invitation to a nice expensive dinner (which one gay rights organization did with a homophobic singer some years back), but through a vengeance that could make war veterans retch.  Further she easily translates sex to power, a privilege so many LGBT people don’t have, or at least don’t feel that we have.  So why didn’t she resonate with LGBT readers the same way that Lady Death did with female comics readers?  I honestly can’t even make a guess, although I am willing to entertain the possibility that she came too soon.  At a time when the gay rights movement seems to be enjoying some successes but nonetheless seems to have lost its bite, a busty, nearly naked vampire-demon-thing might have been the very thing the gay rights movement needs today in 2013.

Well, I can dream anyway…

…Oh, did I mention that at one point Purgatori wrestles with a couple of vampire-tigers with giant bat wings?  So why do I have to keep having to explain to people my love for Chaos! Comics?

Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Chapters 5-6

When last we glimpsed at the adventures of Tim Bradley, his hero Simon Belmont was turning into Dracula, something which never happens in the game.  In fact, in the actual game what does happen if you don’t complete it before a set point is that Simon succumbs to Dracula’s curse by actually dying.  The player is even left with the image of his gravestone.

So basically the book based on the game can’t even be anywhere near as explicit as the very game it’s based on.  That’s the logic of censorship and “What about the children?!” for you.

Anyway, you’d think an image as potentially gruesome as the hero literally transforming into the monster he’s always fought would be an opportunity for the writer to cut loose a bit, but…well…

It was like Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde – only much, much worse!

Well, unless you’re one of the people Hyde battered to death, raped, or both.

The eyes became narrow slits behind which pupils glowed like live coals in a furnace.  They burned through Tim like laser beams edged with razor blades.

I…have no response to that.  I will admit it does rather top Dr. Evil, or would if you could get the science to work out.

“Ah-ha!  You are a puny little nothing, aren’t you?  Why did Simon Belmont ever choose you?”

That’s an extremely good question.  I can only hypothesize that it was so Simon!Dracula would have someone to attack and kill other than an actual loved one.

Okay, so if you’re familiar with genre writing for children, you might guess that the way Tim gets out of this situation is through trying to appeal to Simon’s heroic nature.  Or possibly the book actually engages with the source material and has Tim knock over a candle to get some holy water or the like, which I know would barely make sense from his perspective but that is actually how the games work.  These are good and rational guesses, but they are also wrong.

“I shall enjoy hearing you squeal and feeling you squirm when I sink my lovely fans into your soul!”  [Seriously, we can’t have any references to bloodsucking at all?  KIDS KNOW WHAT VAMPIRES ARE, YOU KNOW.]

“Is that the tooth?””  Tim shot back.

“”Arrgh!”  cried Dracula’s voice.  Simon’s body jerked as though physically struck.  “A pun!  I abhor puns!  If there’s anything I can’t stand more, it’s stupid, silly jokes!”

Okay, I have to be honest.  Even though this is a “twist” that would have looked mind-bleedingly stupid even on something like Captain N: The Game Master, I kind of like it.  It’s unexpected, at least.  Also I have to appreciate that Tim’s one power here is being a lame children’s book character.  That’s some meta crap right there.

Oh, and before we get too far off the subject, I can’t help but find it a little ironic that, in their bowdlerizing of the most basic and widely known aspect of vampire lore, they’ve actually made Dracula more frightening, in a way.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I think I’d much rather have a vampire drain my blood than drain the metaphysical essence of my very being.

Anyway, Simon is fully restored and warns Timothy that he’s made a powerful enemy.

“If he defeats me and gains the use of my body and remains in this dimension, he will take great pleasure in flaying every inch of your skin off!”

Tim blinked.

“And after he pours salt on your raw nerves, he will dip you into a vat of acid!”

Tim gulped.

“And then, Timothy Bradley, he will really start torturing you!”

Okay, it’s not the most original joke in the world, but…I kind of liked that one.  

Anyway, the two recuperate at an inn, and the book actually acknowledges an aspect of the gameplay of the original game, as Simon explains that he has to set out at night and collect “magical essence”” from the ghouls that roam around at night (okay, it was hearts and it was more like the game’s currency, but since that part of the game was never really explained I”ll let it pass).  Of course, even here there’s a weird and inexplicable bit of bowdlerizing (and just after there’s a joke about skinning the protagonist alive!), where Simon clarifies that with his whip he only sends the monsters back into “the dimension from which they came.”

The novel also acknowledges another aspect of the game that tormented many a kid back in the day:  the fact that the townspeople in Castlevania II are a bunch of damn sociopathic liars.  And no, it’s not bad “Engrish” translations;  the people actually lie to you.  Simon explains it’s because they’re under Dracula’s influence or something, but I’m sure in the game it’s because they’re just a bunch of jerks.

Something that isn’t part of the game, though, is that Simon warns Timothy to alert him if he starts committing any of the seven deadly sins, because it will mean he’s falling under Dracula’s influence again.  Deliberately or not, F.X. Nine gets the list wrong – I assume for the sake of plot convenience – including “deceit”” and “”blasphemy” instead of sloth and greed.  Weirdly enough, this is one part that”s not bowdlerized, since lust is mentioned.  Again, it’s a prime example of how ludicrously inconsistent these types of things are.

Anyway, the plot of the game, where Simon has to collect Dracula’s body parts to end the curse, supposedly gets started at this point, except this time an annoying middle schooler is accompanying Simon for reasons that still haven’t been explained and, I suspect, never will be.

“This was going to be one righteous adventure.”

Indeed it will be, Tim Bradley, indeed it will be.  (Wait, was “righteous” ever really a thing?  Oh well, it’s still better than “sick.”)

Final Fantasy Retrospective 13: Big Country

Wait, you’re thinking, what about XI?  Well, three things:

1)  I never played it, so that alone defeats the point of including it in a retrospective.

2)  I dislike MMORPGs strongly enough I probably never will play it.

3)  I loathe  the idea that MMORPGs can be passed off as regular installments in a main series, no matter how hard Square-Enix pushes it, so even if I did play them I’d probably ignore it just for the sake of making a point.

So, let’s skip ahead to the next real installment in the series, shall we?

Like IX, XII is one of the Final Fantasies that fell through the cracks, in no small part because Square-Enix in all of their wisdom was already hyping XIII.  Again, like with IX, this is really a shame, because XII is easily the strongest installment the series has seen after the days of the original Playstation.   It also improves on the series in ways that, unfortunately, don’t seem like they’re going to stick, which is really a shame because I am honestly convinced that XII offers one of the better blueprints out there on how to upgrade console RPGs for an era when video games seem to be on the brink of becoming as complex as possible.  I do also think XII is flawed, in ways that are difficult to ignore even if you admire the game’s strengths, but not enough to truly undermine the game’s story and its reforms to the series and the genre as a whole.

The first thing that’s remarkable about XII is just how…authentic the world it takes place in feels. Its setting is Ivalice, a world already established in Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.  There the small desert kingdoms of Dalmasca and Nabradia have served as buffer states between the empires of Archadia and Rozarria, until the son of Archadia’s Emperor, Vayne Solidor, prepares for an all-or-nothing war against Rozarria by instigating the violent annexation of both Nabradia and Dalmasca.  A mysterious catastrophe of supernatural origin completely wipes out the former and leaves behind a haunted wasteland, while the latter is turned into an imperial province despite widespread resistance from the population.  Under the alias of “Ashe,” the young rightful queen of Dalmasca falls in with two youths orphaned by the invasion of Dalmasca, a pair of sky pirates, and a disgraced Dalmascan knight.  With their help, she seeks out the legendary Sun-cryst, a source of magical power once used many centuries ago by Ashe’s ancestor, the Dynast-king, to create a continent-spanning empire.  Unknown to her, however, both she and Vayne Solidor are pawns in a sprawling game played by god-like beings who have orchestrated events in Ivalice since the dawn of history…

As you can hopefully tell from my summary, Final Fantasy XII has a story with an ambitious historical scope.  True, the standard high-fantasy elements of magic and monsters and airships are all there, but honestly they’re incidental to the story.  The Final Fantasy series has never been known for aspiring toward geopolitical complexity, so for its story alone XII is a welcome change.  And the game simply loves to offer the player details about Ivalice’s history and legends.  It’s also a change of pace that, instead of a globe-spanning struggle to save the world, your quest encompasses only a small region of a much wider world and at its heart involves a small country’s struggle for independence and survival.  Even the game’s cities, which are vast and populated by far more NPCs than just ones that give your party valuable information, feel more tangible.

While it took me a while to warm up to it and even it was no substitute for the option of controlling all your party members directly, I did end up appreciating the game’s Gambit system almost as much.  Gambits are specific “instructions” that one can equip your party members with that dictate their actions in battle (for instance, one Gambit is to use a healing spell or item if a party member’s health dips below 25%).  It adds a whole new dimension of strategy to battles and offers a clean solution to the problem of how to stay true to the genre’s roots while offering new and more kinetic approaches to battle systems than just imputing commands on a static screen.  There were still some kinks – among them that summoned monsters, even the allegedly powerful ones that can be recruited in the game’s most difficult side quests, are never that useful – but overall it was a successful experiment.  Also the fact that battles don’t take place in a separate “mode” is also a simple but daring break from RPG orthodoxy that pays off, so much so that it’s actually shocking that it wasn’t implemented in XIII (but we’ll get to that, I promise you).

But perhaps what I loved most about the gameplay here is the mission system.  You have the option to take on a series of side quests as basically a monster hunter, which leads you to whole regions of the game that you wouldn’t otherwise explore if you just stick to the main story.  The side quests are challenging without feeling impossible, they open up even more information about Ivalice’s rich history and folklore, and they offer the player a great way to raise experience and cash without having to mindlessly grind for hours.  Such a side quest system is one of those things that sounds inherently great but it can be done very badly (see Dragon Quest IX), but Final Fantasy XII makes the side quests diverse and interesting enough that it adds to the experience without feeling like just busy work the programmers saddled the player with to fill time (again, see Dragon Quest IX).

Now before I gush too much, I have to admit there were flaws that, while not ruining the game for me, did aggravate me greatly and really keeps the game from reaching the same levels of quality as IX, much less the series’ “Golden Age.”  As much as I love the story, I have to ask the same question so many fans asked:  why the hell is Vaan the main protagonist?  It makes even less sense than Tidus;  at least he fulfilled an important narrative function as the outsider who has to learn about the new world he’s found himself in, and it turns out – albeit late in the game – he is part of the backstory.  Vaan is just an orphan whose brother died in the invasion of his home country;  really you could excise him from the game completely and nothing is lost.  In fact, Vaan wasn’t originally supposed to be the protagonist, but he was made so relatively late in the development process for – of course – idiotic marketing reasons.  It doesn’t completely derail the story, but you will keep asking yourself why the tragic knight famed for treason against his monarch, or the queen who lost her throne and her beloved fiancee to an invading empire and finds herself almost consumed with the desire for revenge, or the charismatic, swashbuckling sky pirate aren’t the protagonist instead.

Then there’s one massive issue with the gameplay, one that will haunt you throughout the entire game, especially if you’re a completist.  Many times the treasure chests randomly spawn their contents.  So it’s possible that the treasure chest that just offers up a Potion or something even more useless actually has a valuable piece of equipment, but there’s only a 1/20 or even a 1/50 chance that you’ll get it.  Sure, there are items you can equip that increase your chances of getting something valuable, but who the hell thought this was a good idea in the first place?  And that’s not even the half of it.  There are two ways to get the game’s most powerful weapon, the Zodiac Spear.  First, you have to not pick up certain treasures located in certain locations and not be equipped with the items that make it more likely to find better loot in the chests once you reach the Spear’s chest, which is in an optional location you can’t reach until about halfway through the game.  Or, alternatively, you can find it in a chest late in the game…except that there’s only a 0.1 percent chance you can get the weapon from the chest.  It’s impossible that they designed this on purpose unless they just assumed players will go through the game with a guide in their lap, or it’s some sick torture of completists.

Baffling and frustratingly unnecessary missteps aside, I can’t help but admire the game’s attention to detail and the ways it tried to breathe new life in the console RPG formula without completely tossing away the basics.  Fans of the series will learn just how valuable this is, as the next series of the installment, the much anticipated Final Fantasy XIII, will reveal what can go wrong when you do try to again reinvent the wheel.