Video Games

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.

Video Games

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.

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective: The Girly Show

At last, we come to the first direct sequel in the franchise’s history (well, unless you count the obscure anime Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals…), Final Fantasy X-2 or, as I like to call it, Fanservice: The RPG.

Taking place two years after the events of X, we find that Yuna and Rikku have teamed up with an ex-soldier named Paine to become “Sphere Hunters,” treasure hunters who specialize in finding spheres, which store the memories of  people from the past and even have the potential of granting users those people’s training and skills.  Yuna’s drastic change in occupation is motivated by her quest to find “him,” despite his disappearance at the end of X, but her mission becomes much more than personal when Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are caught up in an escalating conflict that may lead to a civil war, and stumble across information about an ancient tragedy that might very well have repercussions that will cause the total destruction of Spira.

X-2 is, in one word, bizarre.  It’s a complete tonal shift from X, opening with a now infamous cutscene showing Yuna performing in a fancy JPop concert:

While there are mature and even dark elements that surface, although usually late in the game, for the most part X-2 is a light-hearted adventure story with almost none of the pathos that defined X – or, really, the entire series as far back as II.  It isn’t just because the game has a team of three women as protagonists that the game has an obvious Charlie’s Angels motif.  Even the game’s (apparent) antagonist, a rival sphere hunter, Leblanc, is treated more like an excuse for constant comic relief rather than an actual threat.

The weirdness seeps even into the structure of the game itself.  Unusually for a J-RPG, much less for a Final Fantasy installment, the game is more or less a wideopen sandbox.  In complete contradiction to series tradition, you start the game with an airship, although in one of the game’s “minor” yet more noticeable flaws flying it is represented by just selecting a destination on a static screen.  You have a set number of missions you can go on, and accomplishing certain ones will open up further missions.  Depending on your point of view, this is either a refreshingly open-ended RPG experience or it means a J-RPG where most of the game is made out of sidequests and mini-games.  There is a plot to the game, and it does turn out to have depth especially once the forgotten tragedy underlying the game’s story comes to light, but it doesn’t really become all that evident until after quite a bit of padding.  So even though the game’s story does hit some right notes, it still comes across as unusually shallow for a franchise famous for pioneering storytelling in console RPGs.

This is almost tragic, mostly for two reasons.  First off, X-2 is not only one of only (now) three games in the series to have a female protagonist, but the only one where all the playable protagonists are female.  Now for some this element might be watered out, if not negated totally, by just how stuffed full of blatant fanservice this game is;  not just with the skimpy clothing of the female leads (especially Rikku who, let’s remember, is supposed to be sixteen at the oldest!), but scenes like the three heroines having a water fight in a hot spring while wearing bikinis and a mini-game where you basically massage a woman into what’s implied to be an orgasm.  Plus there’s the more subtle fact that Yuna’s entire initial motivation in this game isn’t self-sacrifice like in X, but to try and find the guy she loves.  I’m not saying that this in of itself should be considered offensive – in fact, you could see it as a nice gender-reversal of the age-old “Save the princess” storyline – but it is a disappointing contrast to Yuna’s complex and tragic motivations in X – or, indeed, the treatment of the franchise’s first female protagonist in VI, Terra, who didn’t even have a male love interest.

Second, X-2 does have fantastic gameplay;  I’d even say it has some of the best in the whole series. Instead of the sphere grid system from X, the game simply revives the traditional leveling system.  The job system from is once again brought back and used in a way that’s simple to learn but opens up a pretty complex potential for strategy.  It’s also the first time in a long time we’ve seen it possible to customize the abilities of the playable characters so much,a refreshing change.  It’s just a shame that it’s not in service to a much deeper – and better – story.

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 11: Final Fantasy Goes to the Beach

Console RPGs may be a genre in decline, at least in the United States (although perhaps in Japan as well, if Square-Enix keeps trying to force MMORPGs on the Japanese public, but that’s another story), but at least localization problems are not that much of an issue anymore.  Companies are actually far more willing to put effort into translations and English voiceovers, so it’s rather jarring that Final Fantasy X is notorious for its bad localization even among casual gamers, especially for the job done by the English voice actors, and especially for actress Hedy Burress’ bizarre decision to make her dialogue sync up with Yuna’s lip movements.  How bad was the English dubbing?  This one reviewer thinks it’s the main reason why in Japan is even more popular than VII, while in the US the game is well-liked but still falls far behind VII.  On my part, I wasn’t angry or bored the one time I played X, but unlike most of the other installments in the series it’s not an experience I’d want to go through again.  I do agree that the dubbing is a factor, enough that I might finally give the game another try when the HD remake hits America, but I have other issues with the game.  We’ll get to that;  first, let’s talk about the positive.

Most notably, the game has a simple but great premise, albeit one that’s fat with ham-fisted metaphors.  Every generation, the land of Spira is devastated by an entity called Sin.  Impervious to conventional weapons and magical attacks, Sin can only be defeated if a summoner goes on pilgrimage with selected guardians to learn how to summon special monsters called the Eidolons and then face Sin in a battle where the summoner willingly sacrifices themselves.  Sin will be reborn, but at least Spira will be spared from death and destruction for many years.  Yuna, the daughter of the last summoner to undergo the rites, is beginning to set out to literally follow in her father’s footsteps with her guardians, but before they depart they enlist Tidus, a young player of Spira’s favorite sport blitzball.  This wouldn’t be unusual, except that Tidus insists that he comes from the city of Zanarkand, which was destroyed a thousand years ago.

Next is the basic gameplay.  Each character has one of the traditional Final Fantasy roles (fighter, black mage, etc.), but now you can switch characters mid-battle, which seems like an obvious innovation but it does add a new strategic element to fights.  Also, even though the world-building is a bit too much generic fantasy/soft sci-fi for my tastes, it does have a unique oceanic feel to it, which was inspired by Japan’s Okinawa region.  It does go a bit too far, since the tropical environment is more often than not used as an excuse for making women appear anywhere on the spectrum from fanservicey to super-fanservicey…

Being the crotchety old-school fan, I’d rather see a return to a world like that of VI, which mashes up different technology levels and cultures in interesting ways.  Yet does have a gorgeous and interesting world, which at the very least is preferable to the bland, unfantastic world of VIII.

As for my complaints, I won’t talk about the sub-par voice dubbing or how obnoxious blitzball is to play or how godawfully (it’s a word!) annoying Tidus is, because those complaints have been reiterated on the Internet at least 3,072,597,012 times, give or take.  I will, however, talk about one thing related to Tidus:  there’s really no reason for him to be the protagonist.  From a storytelling perspective, it only makes sense from the argument that Tidus provides an outsider’s perspective on Spira, but honestly a much more natural protagonist is Yuna or, if not her, the mysterious warrior with a tragic past, Auron.  I admit that Tidus turns out to be even more relevant to the plot once the mystery behind his backstory unfolds, but still, it’s hard not to play this game and wonder why the player is mostly stuck with Tidus at all.  Sadly, this won’t be the first and last game to suffer from a severe case of protagonist confusion.

My other big issue is with the game’s method for leveling your party members.  The sphere grid system looks pretty and it appears like it really lets you shape your characters’ abilities, but the key word there is appears.  True, it is possible to expand your characters into other roles, but only if you massively overgrind to an extent that would daunt even your typical parental basementdweller.  All it succeeds in doing is wasting the player’s time doing what could already be carried out through a more traditional leveling up system.  Sure, VIII‘s junctioning system was absurdly convoluted, but at least it was different and did allow and encourage experimentation.   only offers something artificially different, without doing something that’s truly novel functionally.  Finally, there’s just the fact that, while there are sub-quests, it never really feels like you have access to this wider world.  Of course, we would find out later that it could get even worse in this regard, but that’s for later…

But, no, I wouldn’t say is a low point in the franchise.  It’s graphically stunning and not just because of the usual Square flash, but because it does have a visually engaging world (too bad you’re forced to go through a straight path through much of it…).   And while marred by bad dubbing and Tidus usurping the role of main protagonist, there is a genuinely moving story about the corruption of institutions that we allow to define our lives and beliefs and the struggle to break with archaic yet self-perpetuating  traditions.  Here’s hoping that when the remake comes out some more of the game’s real qualities will become evident to the English-speaking world.

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 10: Back to the Old School

Final Fantasy IXRecognizing that some fans were less than enthralled, Square threw a bone to their oldest fans.   What was originally meant to be a side project instead became the ninth installment of the series and a deliberate throwback to the series’ 8- and 16-bit era.  Final Fantasy IX unfolds in a medieval/early Industrial Age world, meant to invoke the first six games in the series while being a unique creation in its own right.  And after the dull present day environment of VIII, the world of IX is a much needed relief, a true return to fantasy.

Yet if Final Fantasy games were American Presidents, IX is the Zachary Taylor of the series.  It’s not disliked; just ignored or forgotten about most of the time.  It didn’t help that Square itself neglected it and allowed it to be overshadowed by a game that wasn’t even released yet:  Final Fantasy X.  That’s a tragedy.  While IX is a nostalgia fest to a fault, so much so that references from familiar place names to even recycled plot points pepper the entire game from beginning to end, it is still in its own right a strong installment that takes some of the best elements of the first six games.

In contrast to the brooding, complex heroes of the last two games, IX stars Zidane, a monkey-tailed thief whose involvement in an ill-conceived plan to kidnap a princess, Garnet, embroils him in said princess’ investigation of her power-mad mother’s ambition to build a massive empire.   Finding Garnet to be a surprisingly willing victim of kidnapping, Zidane meets up with Vivi, a black mage.  However, Vivi himself isn’t exactly what he appears to be, and his own existence points toward a sprawling plan by a mysterious (and flamboyant) arms dealer, Kuja, that could lead to the extinction of humanity.  Of course, despite the more cheerful protagonist, the story hits some pretty dark notes about mortality and being content with one’s lot, even if it is brutish and short.  (And don’t tell me you didn’t also tear up when Vivi watches his fellow black mages fall from the airship like dolls and goes into a despairing rage!).

The gameplay is perfect simplicity.  Rather than the convoluted and time-demanding system of VIII, you learn skills and spells by just equipping weapons and armor, and unique armor and weapons with new sets of abilities can also be created by combining earlier armor and weapons.  It’s fairly basic, but it still requires a certain degree of planning, strategy, and experimenting.  Likewise we go back to the diverse cast of IV and VI, where different party members bring different abilities to the table.  Then there’s the soundtrack.  It’s strangely low-key for a Final Fantasy soundtrack, which are usually known for classical bombast, but manages to be diverse and memorable.  The main theme, “The Place I’ll Return To Someday,” is downright haunting, and probably my own favorite theme out of the entire series.

In short, this installment does deserve a lot more attention than it gets.  It’s not exactly a return to the glory of the 16-bit era, but at the least it is a successful exploration of what made those games work.  Maybe it was hobbled in fans’ eyes by lacking the distinctiveness that had defined the series since at least VII, but perhaps by simply being a tribute to the series’ past IX was in the end an assertion of the franchise’s diversity.  Next time, we’ll get another controversial and experimental sequel, one that wasn’t helped by a genuinely crappy localization into the English-speaking world…

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 9: Nostalgia Dies Hard

Honestly I think finding a good follow-up to your mega-hit is even harder than devising a mega-hit in the first place.  Square had this one game, Final Fantasy VII, that managed to eclipse even its highly successful and acclaimed predecessors and made their biggest franchise define an entire genre for a new generation of gamers.  So do they keep on the horse at the risk of being accused of letting the series turn stale?  Or do they make another gamble?  Or somehow strike a balance?  Well, the answer ended up being the Final Fantasy VIII we’re discussing today, and it wasn’t exactly the right one – if a right answer was possible.

Depending on who you ask, VIII was flawed but was even more polished than VII, or it was (and still is) the entire series’ blackest sheep.  Whatever they think of the game itself, fans do tend to agree that, despite being the best-selling game in the series up to that point, it ultimately marked the end of the franchise’s “Golden Age,” which began with the sound of a growing chorus pronouncing the franchise’s (if not the entire genre’s) terminal decline.  At least VIII also ushered in the era of creepy Final Fantasy erotic cosplayers and slash fic…

Like a lot of Americans when VIII hit our shores in 1999, I was taken in by the hype and the cinematic visuals.  This was a time when video games that looked like movies were still a rarity, and just the opening cinematic of the protagonist Squall and his rival Seifer having a sword duel while feathers flew around and a pompous chorus belted out Latin verses enthralled us.  Sure, it had almost nothing significant to do with the game’s actual plot and it was ludicrously if gloriously overblown, but at the time it was one hell of a sales pitch.  VIII really did show Square’s hubris in relying on overawing players with million dollar cut scenes, which even we gushing fans had to admit when we had to sit through our first two minute Guardian Force scene (or, to use series’ logo, the first monster summoning animation). Still, there was a game there, and it wasn’t a bad one, but is it one that deserves to be remembered as something other than the misstep that killed the Golden Age?

VIII does have its features that even its fans are eager to forget about.  One of them was the card game, Triple Triad, although to be honest I kind of liked it, at least until the first time I found out that that rules could horribly change later in the game depending on who you play with.  Another was the battle system.  Good God, the battle system…to try to put something horribly convoluted in simple terms, you have to absorb spells from monsters (apparently spells in this game’s universe are quantifiable like pennies) and “junction” them to your weapons.  The game throws about 30 minutes of tutorials at you to explain it and it ends up consuming more time than plain old level grinding.  Plus I never figured out if the game wants you to just switch out the junctioned spells with the characters from your party, and if so why the game forces you to use three randomly selected characters in the final boss fight.  Finally, there’s the issue of the plot.  Learning well from VII, VIII promises and delivers on a character driven plot, centered around the love story of outsider Squall’s love for the extroverted and eccentric Rinoa.  The fantasy elements of the plot, however, could have used some more patchwork along with the plot holes, one of which was large enough to literally pilot a spaceship through.  It doesn’t help that in the final chapter of the game we learn that a sorceress in the future Ultimecia wants to “collapse time” – an interesting scheme, but we never find out why or what that will accomplish.  Also the game’s conceit that Squall has a mysterious connection to a soldier named Laguna ends up being treated like an afterthought.

The biggest disappointment for me was just how…unfantastic the world was.  Okay, VI and VII played with blurring together traditional fantasy elements and a more modern, realistic, and technologically-shaped world.  Unfortunately, the world of VIII went too far with this trend, giving us locales as exotic and strange as the street you drive, bike, or walk down on your way to work.  One really had no choice but to wonder where the fantasy was when early in the game your party rents a car to arrive at a destination.

And yet…even with hindsight I can’t really write off this game.  It would have been too easy – and more importantly too safe – for Square to just rehash VII for their next series installment.  And while there are similarities to VII, there were enough risks being made with this sequel too, mainly by selling a game that emphasized the tale of an embittered outsider learning to trust his comrades and how to love over any grand quest narrative.  Still, it’s not surprising that Square decided for the next installment to play up the nostalgia factor, turning a game that was originally meant to be a spin-off into a main series installment…

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 8: One Winged Angel

I honestly can’t say if Final Fantasy VII is as divisive as it used to be, but like I said last time back in the day you were either pro-VI or pro-VII.  And I was so vehemently, fanatically pro-VI that I’m ashamed to admit that I actually refused to acknowledge VII.  It was years before I actually played it, and even longer before I actually completed it.  In a lot of ways, VII truly is in many ways the literal and spiritual sequel of VI, despite all the differences on the surface.  Both toy with if not flat-out deconstruct Japanese RPG tropes;  both make full use of their non-traditional (or more exactlynon-medieval) backgrounds; and they both push a series already known for its emphasis on plot even further.

From the very start, VII already breaks the mold.  You start the game not as a member of a group like the “Light Warriors” or as a lovable rogue like Locke from VI, but as a mercenary working for a terrorist group the game explicitly tells you is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people.  VII’s hero, Cloud, tends to get remembered as a brooding, mopey protagonist, but that’s not the whole story.  What then looks like it’s become a straightforward story of misfits – two terrorists, a bartender, the remnant of an ancient civilization “disguised” as a flower girl in the slums, a sentient lion-like being, and (possibly) an amateur ninja/thief and a gunslinging vampire-like entity – against a powerful, sinister corporation slowly killing a planet in a short-sighted quest for greed subtly becomes something else:  a  tale about identity, memory, and the fight against a tragic villain and a truly incomprehensible, Lovecraftian threat.  It takes Final Fantasy to the next level of storytelling the same time it took the series to the next level of technology.

Of course, even people who praise the game do admit that it started trends that would lead to the downfall of the series, leading to a real divide between the “pre-VII” and “post-VII” fans.  It taught Square the wrong lessons, leading the Final Fantasy games to emphasize cinematics over art and to cling to contemporary and sci-fi aesthetics rather than experiment with worldbuilding further, and unleashed the anime and cosplay hordes upon the franchise, although arguably that invasion wasn’t really launched until VIII came along.

Still, you can’t blame VII like I childishly and stupidly did, and VII definitely isn’t responsible for one of the problems that emerge later:  over-experimental and overcooked gameplay.   Instead VII‘s gameplay is beautiful simplicity.  The characters do lose a lot of the “gameplay individuality” the characters in VI has, but with the materia granted characters spells and abilities there is a certain degree of strategy to the character building, which doesn’t need to be learned inside or out just to do well.

So in the end I’ll have to conclude that both VI and VII are the golden age of the franchise.  However, the fall did come quickly…

Uncategorized, Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 7: The Golden Age

There are roughly two types of Final Fantasy fans:  people who think VI was the best game in the series, and people who think VII was.  Needless to say, the latter should be strung from barbed-wire fences and beaten with sticks until they sincerely repent.

Kidding!  As I’ll get to sooner or later, despite being an old-school snob about Final Fantasy I’ve grown to like VII, but, still, it’s a fact that VI is the pinnacle of the series.

VII gets pointed out – or, depending on your perspective, blamed – for steering the franchise away from its traditional JRPG, medieval European origins.  However, in reality it starts with VI, which blends together eighteenth century France, Renaissance Europe, and Fascist Italy into one beautiful, cohesive world.  With all the advancements in graphics technology that have taken place in the last couple of decades, the gorgeous, painted look of Final Fantasy VI still stands out to this day, from detailed overlooks you see as your party climbs and fights its way through mountains  to the character portraits on the menu screen that retain a handpainted quality.  Generally people didn’t speak about video games as an art form yet in the 16-bit era, but VI, if only for the care its designers gave to its graphics, was a step in that direction.

Then there’s the story.  Who would have expected, right after with its evil, demon-possessed tree trying to take over the world, that we’d have a tale where the villain wins and puts the world through an apocalypse – and that’s just the halfway point.  The game begins with an emperor using soldiers infused with magical beings, obtained through brutal genocide against a race of mystic entities, to carry out his plans for world conquest.  One amnesiac soldier, Terra, escapes, and joins a motley resistance headed by a thief…sorry, treasure hunter Locke; a kung fu student/bodybuilder Sabin; and a king who specializes in building death-dealing tools, Edgar.  Unfortunately, the emperor is betrayed by his own deranged general, Kefka, who triggers the apocalypse and makes himself the mad god of a dying planet, and of course only your party has a slim hope of stopping him and salvaging what’s left of the world.  It’s been more or less forgotten now, but VI really did take the series into a darker direction, and in a way that retained what had made the series great thus far.

One of the things about this game that VI takes from IV and runs with is the idea of a cast that’s diverse in terms of both story and gameplay.  You join forces with a gambler who fights monsters with cards and dice, an abandoned orphan in a vast veld who can learn the abilities of monsters, a little girl who can paint living clones of enemies, an old wizard who can learn monsters’ spells, a female general of the empire condemned as a traitor, a paid assassin with a mysterious past, an honorable knight whose entire kingdom is wiped out by Kefka, a mime who can copy any of its teammates’ powers, a Moogle who can control the weather through dance, and finally…a yeti.  The fact that different characters react to different scenes with their own unique dialogue, and that the post-apocalyptic world is a rare example of open-ended adventuring (for the most part) in a Final Fantasy game, does give the game a bit of replayability you wouldn’t expect.  It achieves the perfect balance between a good story and a solid game;  it gives you a vast world to explore and characters to interact with independently, while at the same time draws you into an unfolding narrative.  Many contemporary video games still try to achieve that balance – and not all succeed, to say the least.

Of course, before there was Cloud and Aries we had Celes and Locke.  It was arguably the first time the series tried at real in-depth character development.  And before players got embarrassed getting emotional over seeing Aries being stabbed to death, there was a mini-game that had Celes pretending to be an opera singer, and the entire opera itself being a metaphor for Celes and Locke’s nascent love affair.  And if that didn’t get you, there’s Celes being left alone in an island in a post-apocalyptic world, believing that she and the old man Cid were the last of the human race, and, depending on the player’s actions, her facing the death of Cid with suicidal despair…

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 6: Final Fantasy V

So this is the game we didn’t get.  In a way, Final Fantasy V was the anti-Mystic Quest.   While the gameplay of Mystic Quest was boiled down to the bare bones, and then thrown back into the pot for more, Final Fantasy V added a whole new element of challenge by taking the job system from III and giving it a further strategic angle by making it possible to mix and match different skills from the different “jobs” as well as throwing in a host of new jobs that somewhat take the series away from its Dungeons and Dragons roots.  Not only can you be a black mage or a samurai, but now you can also have a party of beastmasters, mimes, and dancers.  There really isn’t much cooler than having a bunch of dancers kick the ass of a killer mech.

But…I never really got into this one, at least to the point where I feel strongly about it the way I feel about IV and (as you’ll see) VI.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I still think the Super Famicon/Nintendo trilogy is the peak of the series, and that Final Fantasy V is a great game on its own.  Plus maybe part of the problem is that the nostalgia factor just isn’t there;  like the other “lost” Final Fantasies I didn’t get to play this one until much later.  But after the tour de force that was IV the plot seems a little hollow.  A traveler Bartz (still better than his name in early fan translations, “Butz”) stumbles across a meteor/ship piloted by an amnesiac named Galuf.  The two later team up with a princess seeking to rescue her lost father, Lenna, and Faris, a cross-dressing pirate, to stop the destruction of the Elemental Crystals which are the only things preventing the resurrection of the evil Exdeath (obviously they don’t succeed with that bit).  I mean, yes, IV had a cliched evil wizard villain like V’s Exdeath (well, really, Exedes, but “Exdeath” is a lot more fun to write), but IV ‘s Golbez at least had an aura of mystery surrounding him and his motives, leading up to a couple of genuine plot twists.  With Exdeath…well, he wants to unlock the power of oblivion so that he could make himself a god.  And the only twist here is that Exdeath is a tree – one that has been possessed by dozens if not hundreds of exorcised demons and spirits, yes, but still a tree.  Well, tree or not, at least he got a pretty awesome theme song:

I should make it clear, though, that I’ve got nothing against this game.  Especially since it gave us Gilgamesh, everyone’s favorite clueless collector of knock-off swords who seems to be one of the few things tying together the series’ different worlds together.    Then there’s the fact that, despite my criticism of the plot and even though the cast is smaller than IV, V does a really good job making the characters look…well, like real characters, giving them authentic relationships and motives (if you don’t get at least a little sentimental during Bartz’s flashback, when “Music Box” plays, you are a soulless monster!).

Enough expository banter, let me admit that I do like, even love, this game.  It’s just for some reason I can’t be as passionate about it as I am with other installments in the series.  Maybe the series’ formula was wearing a little thin, maybe there just wasn’t enough to distinguish it from the past games in the series, in which case Final Fantasy VI would prove to be just what the doctor ordered…


Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 5: Mystic Quest

Wasn’t the ad campaign for this game a horrible lie, even by the standards of ad campaigns?

Okay, okay, I’m going to come out and admit that it’s not fair to call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a bad game, not in a strict sense anyway.  It set out to provide a basic, watered-down introduction to console RPGs and, honestly, it achieved that goal quite well.  But at the same time it represented what was probably the most condescending message a company ever made to its own fanbase.  Square was basically proclaiming to Americans, you all can’t handle our real product (which in this case would be Final Fantasy V) so we’re going to give you a version that’s more up to your speed – and that speed would be somewhere along the lines of a golf cart with a defective engine.  Hell, when they released the game in Japan they even titled it Final Fantasy USA.  Square might as well have subtitled it “This is what Americans think a RPG should be!  Ha ha!  They embarrass us by buying our games!”

Now I’m sure there were other elements to Square’s decision.  Like the ad emphasizes, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was also cheaper, selling for $40 at a time when most RPGs for the Super Nintendo ran in the $50 – $60 range.  But, trust me, you could see where you saved that money.  The game didn’t even have its own graphical signature;  most of the graphics were souped-up and colorized from Final Fantasy Legend III.  You could also pretty much beat the entire game in a day or two of even casual playing, which was great if – like me – you made a habit out of renting video games and even RPGs for the weekend (P.S. I still curse the assholes who always erased my saved games when they rented the games before I could!), but not so good if you bought it expecting something like the 40 hour minimum players could expect to put into Final Fantasy IV.

Now I did say that technically it wasn’t a bad game.  The plot was really simple – in some ways it was a rehash of the original Final Fantasy, including a premise about the world slowly dying because someone is messing around with the Four Crystals of the Elements, but without the time travel elements coming out of left field and with a villain seriously called the “Dark King” – but the designers did try to have a range of characters, even though you never have more than two people in your “party.”  Also there’s actually a clever twist near the end where your hero finds out his status as the prerequisite “legendary chosen one” was based on a lie spread by the Dark King himself.  Nothing really comes of it, but still it was an unexpected way to play with one of fantasy fiction’s oldest cliches.  The gameplay was fun for what it was, and in a weird way, by having enemies visible on the screen rather than random encounters and having certain obstacles in dungeons that required the player to interact with the environment, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest actually predicted certain features that are common in RPGs today, including Final Fantasy XIII.

For all that, though, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the way the game is structured is downright insulting.  You’re not even trusted to explore the world map on your own.  Instead the game essentially guides you to place to place.  Also instead of seeing your Health Points in number form, in battle they show up as big bars, as if the mere act of understanding numbers is too much of a burden on the player.  And remember how I mentioned that the game replaces random encounters with monsters that show up on the field?  Well, those monsters are completely stationary.  Sure, once in a while they block where you need to go, but making the enemies as non-threatening as possible makes about as much sense as the Easytype version of Final Fantasy IV removing certain character abilities.  The game doesn’t even trust you to manage your own weapons and armor;  it does all that for you.  Playing the game is like talking with Frank Miller’s Batman.  It’s to the point that it actually does interfere with your enjoyment of the game.  And remember this was in the Before Time, before even our homes were flooded by free American OnLine discs.  You had to get your info from magazines, and even then you couldn’t trust everything you read in them;  not even GamePro, and sure as hell not Nintendo Power.  We thought we might be getting a true follow-up to the greatest RPG we ever played, not that RPG’s five-year old cousin!

Now of course there’s nothing wrong with trying to come up with something that gives a potential audience a painless introduction to a genre.  It makes great business sense and it doesn’t automatically mean quality has to be sacrificed.  Like this game, Lufia & The Fortress of Doom was designed to be a pretty elementary, no-thrills RPG for less experienced players, but unlike Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest that game still has something of a following and is actually sometimes remembered as one of the better if also one of the more obscure RPGs on the Super Nintendo.  You can’t even really call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a black sheep of the franchise, since that implies that the game was memorable in any way.  Why is Lufia remembered but not Mystic Quest?  It’s not just a matter of gameplay or insulting players’ intelligence by not even letting them figure out which weapons are better;  Mystic Quest just has no real identity of its own.  What identity it has comes handed down from the main series, to the point that the game is basically a lobotomized clone.  It might be easier than the games in the main series, but there’s really no point in playing it when you’re just getting half the experience that made the main series famous in the first place.

So, bottom line…Square really should have just given us Final Fantasy V.