Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

I am apparently doing my expansive Final Fantasy series replay in an order that only relies on current availability or convenience for me and not any kind of rational order. So following up the original Final Fantasy, I beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.

Outside of anything about how it plays, FFTA is an interesting game from a historical perspective. Not only did it mark Squaresoft’s return to Nintendo platforms after a nearly 8 year long absence, it was also one of the final games released before Squaresoft became SquareEnix. There is a lot there, and the above is all I am going to write about it.

FFTA was kind of positioned to fail. It was the follow up to a beloved and for many players unique game; but nearly everything about FFTA seems designed to disappoint people who wanted more FFT. For starters, it was a follow up on a significantly weaker system; so despite being a follow up it was always destined to look and sound like something of a downgrade. That is not the only thing seemingly designed to disappoint. Final Fantasy Tactics was loved for its intricate, labyrinthine plot and its deep, highly customizable job system. The first was thrown out entirely for the follow up, and the other was modified just enough to make it somewhat unsatisfying. Using the original as the standard, there are measurable ways that FFTA does not measure up. But who is to say that the choices made by FFT are superior to FFTA. FFTA is a different game, made for a different platform and with different goals.

The story of FFTA is a frequent source of complaint. People either hate how ‘dumbed down’ it is, or trot out the tired take that protagonist Marche is actually the villain. The first one is a fair complaint, even if I presented it in a skewed way. FFT’s plot was complex and labyrinthine, with dozens of characters whose stories proceeded often with little connection to Ramza’s. FFTA’s plot, on the other hand, appears to be about as simple as possible, at least on first glance. There are only a handful of named characters, with seemingly simple motivations. A group of children are sucked into a storybook world that seemingly grants all of their wishes. The game has much more depth than immediately apparent. It is about how having all your wishes immediately granted can be infantilizing. There might be some lessons to be learned in the fantasy world of Ivalice, but at some point the characters have to go home and face their problems. That is where the second complaint comes in. Upon finding himself in the fantasy land of Ivalice, Marche sets out figuring out exactly how he got there. Then, he starts trying to find his way back, which involves destroying the fantasy world. This eventually puts him into conflict with the other characters trapped in the world with him, primarily his friends Ritz and Mewt. All of them have been given what they want being transferred to this world. New kid Marche gets quickly adopted into a clan and quickly becomes popular. Ritz, embarrassed by her ‘odd’ white hair, has her hair color changed in the new world. Mewt gets the most, his dead mother is not only alive, but queen, and his drunken father is now the most respected judge in the land. Unlike Marche, the others do not want to go back to the real world, happy to stay in Ivalice. Marche working to take things away from them has given rise to the facile reading of the game that Marche is actually the villain, destroying the other’s lives. This ignores several things to make any kind of sense. It requires a rejection of the very idea of personal growth. In Ivalice the characters are simply given the answers to their problems, at no point do they have to learn or change. It proves infantilizing, especially in the case of Mewt. Marche is freed from his familial responsibilities and has all the friends he wants, but he realizes he needs to go home and deal with his problems. Mewt pulls closer and closer to his fake mother, his every wish granted and no troubles facing him. The other thing that must be ignored is more subtle and only really shows up near the end of the game, and that is the fact that this fantasy world is draining the life out of people it has sucked in, feeding off them. A lot of that was apparently lost in the translation, but hints of it show up near the end. So not only is the world a stultifying fiction, it is also deadly. But somehow Marche forcing everyone to reject the fantasy and embrace reality is the villain.

As far as the gameplay goes, there are bigger reasons to be annoyed at the changes. While FFTA uses the job system, the way it is implemented is very different from FFT. Gone is the free form experimentation, with every job and ability there if only you have the job points to unlock it. FFTA gates things behind equipment, with some abilities not available until late in the game because the weapon that unlocks them is not available. It makes it easier for the developers to control the difficulty curve, but it also severely limits players’ freedom. I think the FFT system is better, but the FFTA one works just fine. It also adds something that would become a staple of Ivalice games: different races. This feels a little like bringing everything closer to Dungeons and Dragons. The designs for the different races are good, though it can be annoying trying to figure out class requirements for five different class sets.

The most controversial, and ultimately least consequential, addition to the game is the law system. Each battle sets up a few ‘laws’ that forbid a certain kind of action. It can be frustrating if you get a particularly onerous law early on, but the game quickly gives the player the ability to negate laws and with even the smallest effort to work with the system the laws become an afterthought for the last three quarters of the game. The laws are an interesting idea, forcing the player to be flexible in developing strategies, but the combination of frustration and being inconsequential make it a not particularly well integrated change.

All these changes serve to make FFTA feel much smaller than the original FFT, but they also serve its handheld nature well. They largely work together to make a game feel natural to pick up for one or two battles, face a few new challenges and then put it down. While I played this game a lot back in the day, this play through is the first time I’ve beaten it. It largely holds up. The only problem that stands out when examining the game strictly on its own merits is that it can be kind of slow. There is simply a lot of waiting during battles, as enemies can take a long time to make their move and little you can do while waiting. A small concern in an otherwise excellent game.

Now Playing June 2020

Beaten

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – I wish I had more to say about this game. It’s good. Really good. Maybe not as good as Pirate’s Curse from a half decade ago, but Seven Sirens is a solid execution of the Metroidvania formula. It doesn’t have the best designed map, but there are a nice variety of powers to find and the game looks and plays wonderfully. But it is just a new Metroidvania; there really isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done before. Sometimes all you want is a comfort food, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens delivers that in spades. It is a really good game, but not one I have a lot to say about.

Tales of Vesperia – Read about it here.

Jake Hunter: Ghost of the Dusk – A 3DS detective game. It has a bunch of smaller cases that I haven’t yet finished, but the game’s big case is done with. I liked it well enough. It is decently translated, with a few parts that seem a little ill-fitting but for the most part being well told. The game sets up an interesting mystery to center things around, but my one big complaint with it is that it becomes kind of obvious. There aren’t really any red herring or misdirections, making it play out a little more like a procedural than a mystery. It is pretty early when it is clear what the resolution of a lot of the major mysteries is pretty early on. Still, I mostly enjoyed my time with it, and will likely check in with it later ro finish up some of those other stories.

Ongoing

Final Fantasy II – Some progress made, same concerns that always put me off before are putting me off again. I don’t want to dig too deep into it right now, but I will say that the leveling mechanics of Final Fantasy 2 are more interesting than good.

Final Fantasy VII – I progressed through another decent sized chunk of this game. I have been too busy to give it a lot of time, but I pushed through some early areas after leaving Midgar. The game simultaneously opens up and loses steam at that point. The player is finally out of the giant, dingy, dystopian city and dumped into what appears to be a fairly normal jrpg world. You also get a better sense of the imperialist power of Shinra. Nobody outside of Midgar seems to like them, but other than a few places most have accepted their dominance. The game also chooses that time to give an info dump about Sephiroth. It makes sense; while he has been mentioned a few times, Sephiroth did not really come into the story until right before escaping Midgar. Now the rest of the party is demanding answers from Cloud, and he has to give them. So the game starts to dig into the backstory.

Yakuza 4 – I started this up and played the first few hours of it. It is such an improvement over Yakuza 3. It looks a lot better, it plays a lot better. However, nothing important changed; it is still Yakuza. The game kind of has it both ways in terms of starting slowly and getting right into it. As the game starts with the player playing as Shun Akiyama, it is not immediately clear how he is connected to events. Akiyama is one of my favorite characters in the series; he has a kind of louche charm that contrasts nicely with Kiryu’s more straightlaced acceptance. He is also a good choice to ease players into not controlling Kiryu. I hope the rest of the game holds up, though I’ve always thought of Yakuza 4 as a lesser game in the series.

SteamWorld Quest – Still progressing, although slowly. I like everything about this game from an aesthetic point of view. I like a lot of the story so far. I am still not really warming to the card based battle system, and I’m far enough in that I doubt I ever actually will. As with every card-based rpg battle system, SteamWorld Quest turns every battle into a maddening struggle against randomness. This game is not the worst in that respect, but I don’t see what the games gain from this system over just having a ‘normal’ battle system.

Upcoming

Okami – I might have some Switch time, and this game is just sitting there. If I have time, then it will get some play. I have beaten Okami once and gotten about halfway through it a couple more times, but maybe having it handheld will help me get to the end of it again.

More Final Fantasy – I hope to finish II and VII before too long. I am planning something of a series replay, inclusive of many of the spin-offs. With 1 and 15 recently beaten, as well as the ports of 8 and 12 in the not too distant past, I have already made significant progress. The Crystal Chronicles remake is coming out in August, but before then I have quite the list of games to get through.

Now Playing May 2020

Beaten

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – Read post here.

Dragon Quest XI – Read post here.

Final Fantasy 1 – Read post here.

Super Mario Odyssey – Read post here.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Read post here.

Ongoing

Tales of Vesperia – I am back on the seesaw of the Tales of series. This one is finding new ways for me to love and hate it. The characteristic effort has been put into the characters, and with better effect than in Tales of the Abyss. I actually like playing the game with this group. The plot, so far, is shockingly low key. I am more than ten hours in, but it still feels like I am stuck in that early game quest that opens up the world for the real main quest. It is too late in the game to be doing that kind of thing. Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve played one of these things, but the battles are not really working for me. This game seems inordinately hard. Too often it separates the protagonist from the rest of the party and forces him to fight a group of enemies. I still have not figured out how to string attacks together; every sequence of attacks leaves me wide open for counterattacks. Maybe this will all make sense eventually, but right now it makes the game a bit of slog. If that evened out, I think I would be really loving this game.

SteamWorld Quest – I have loved the previous SteamWorld games; I love rpgs. SteamWorld Quest should be right up my alley. But it uses a card based system, which made me pause for a long while before trying it out. I have not played a game that uses cards in its battle system that would not have been improved without that system. Nothing in the first third or so of SteamWorld has changed my mind. I like the setting and the characters; it is just generally a fun world to be in for a few hours. But the battles are, at best, tolerable. Since you only choose 8 cards worth of attacks for each character, you are either limited on reliability or variety. You can use a lot of the same few cards, so you know what you’ll get, or spread out so you can do a lot of things. That is not a bad way to set up trade-offs. But any battle where having a certain element basically means you either have to know what is coming, or be willing to get into an unwinnable battle before starting over. Because once that battle starts, your card choices are locked in. It is a frustrating fly in the ointment of an otherwise excellent game.

Final Fantasy VII – Inspired by playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, I played through the Midgar section of the original Final Fantasy VII. Well, the PS4 release of the PC port of the original FFVII. In large part, Remake is shockingly faithful to the original. Pretty much every moment present in the original game’s Midgar segment is also present in the Remake. As a statement of purpose for a game, Midgar is pretty much unparalleled. It is so unlike everything else in the series that came before it, and unlike the rest of the game that follows it. It is such a powerful and interesting setting; the game spends enough time there to explore it, while also priming the player to see the world outside the dystopia of Midgar.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy II – I’ve never made much progress in this game, but I am forcing myself to give it a real go as I replay every* Final Fantasy game. This is honestly the make or break point for a Final Fantasy replay project. I don’t really like this game, so if I can get through it, I can get through any of them.

Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghosts of the Dusk – I picked this up for the 3DS for a few dollars recently. I’ve been interested in this series since I read about the not especially well received DS game a while ago. I’ve heard better things about this one.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – This came out a week later than I thought it did, so I did not get a chance to play it in May. But I’ve got it lined up for early June.

Revisiting Final Fantasy

Playing through Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake made me nostalgic for the whole series, so I did the sensible thing and planned a big project to replay or play for the first time something like 25 Final Fantasy games. You know, like one does when they are crumbling under the weight of other more important obligations. So, Final Fantasy 1.

I have written about Final Fantasy before. (Oh God, that was 9 years ago!) I stand by that post, other than the typos. I decided to change things up from the NES version, which I know fairly well, for the Dawn of Souls version. I have played this version before, but not to completion. When it came out I wasn’t really in the right headspace to enjoy the remake for what it was. It didn’t give me my nostalgia for the NES game. For better or worse, the Dawn of Souls version of the game is rather toothless.

That toothlessness works for it at times. Honestly, a lot of the NES version’s difficulty is unfair and seemingly unintentional. This version swings far in the other way. A lot of it is strictly improvement, like getting rid of the ineffective rule or letting you save anywhere on the world map. Otherwise, the battles are largely speed bumps. Late game enemies still have the ability to wreck you, and the bosses remain tough, but making it through is a lot easier than it used to be.

Getting rid of the battle difficulty lets the real star of the game shine, though. That star is the quest itself. Unlike pretty much every other game in the series, Final Fantasy is about exploration. Considering the game’s vintage, Final Fantasy has a pretty involved quest. Those who cut their teeth on 16-bit JRPGs seem to have some trouble adjusting to Final Fantasy. The game just kind of plunks the player down in the world and expects the player to figure things out on their own. And the answers are not all that straightforward. In the back half of the game, the whole thing becomes a twisted nest of interlocking quests, where the player has to put together vague clues from townsfolk to know where to look for hidden treasures to unlock the next part of the quest.

What stuck out to most on this playthrough was the music. Yes, the GBA sound is scratchy and kind of bad, but the arrangements, which I believe are the same as those from the Origins release, are excellent. For me the standout is the Town music, which sounds perfectly peaceful and wistful. In a world that is full of dangers and monsters, the towns are small oases of respite, and this music conveys that perfectly.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake should not be as good as it is. I mean, nothing in the last decade or so from SquareEnix suggests that they were capable of this kind of big, cohesive game. I’ve enjoyed the last few Final Fantasy games, but it is fair to say that they have gotten mixed reactions. Final Fantasy VII Remake, which despite being a remake is essentially the next game in the series, has followed a pattern not unlike previous games, with the protracted development and all. But somehow, this game turned out amazing.

I am kind of surprised at how hyped I was for this game. I have never been a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII. I like it well enough, and I’ve really come around on it in the last half decade or so, but for a long time I was kind of resentful of the game. I did not get a Playstation until the redesign in 2000. I missed out on the initial wave of adoration for the game. While that was going on, I was still exploring Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger. I eventually played the PC port of the game, but not to completion and that is not really the best way to experience the game. And by then, Final Fantasy VIII, as well as plenty of other much better looking rpgs were out. To me, Final Fantasy VII was the ugly little game that sucked all the attention away from better games that came before and after. I was more than happy to leave it in the past.

The thing is, even before I played it, I knew a lot about the game. It was pretty much impossible to be into video games in the late 90s, into jrpgs especially, and not know at least a few Final Fantasy VII spoilers just by osmosis. This game was a seminal moment for the Playstation. Every game was compared to Final Fantasy VII; even I did it based on my limited play time with the PC version. Many people found other games wanting; I was determined to do the same for FFVII. I finally played it years later and really came around on it. It is a great game. The graphics are rough and I can’t fault anyone for not being able to find the charm in its clumsy polygons. But in every other way it is an achievement. I still like FFIII better; but I get why people feel the opposite way.

Even with me coming around to being a fan of Final Fantasy VII doesn’t really explain why I was excited for Final Fantasy VII Remake. I mean, Square Enix put out a lot of Final Fantasy VII material about 15 years ago and most of it was junk. At least, that is how I remember it. The only thing worthwhile to come out of the Compilation of FFVII was Crisis Core. That stuff should not be any indication that Square Enix knew what to do with a follow up or return to this game. Still, as the release drew nearer, I did get pretty excited. The game turned out to be pretty much the best case scenario for this sort of thing.

I remain incredibly impressed with Final Fantasy VII Remake. It is a game that takes the first quarter or so of the original game and extends it out to the full length of the original game, treating the old Midgar section as something like an outline or a rough draft. It manages to not feel natural, to not feel bloated or padded. Instead, it merely feels fully realized. What works best, storywise, is that the game shows a better understanding of what made the original FF7 effective than whatever they did with the Compilation stuff. Something that often seems to get lost when FF7 characters appear elsewhere is that Aerith and Tifa are kind of the opposites of what their character designs would suggest. The short-skirted martial artist Tifa is actually the quiet, traditional girl. The prim looking healer Aerith is actually the rough and tumble tomboy. The game absolutely nails that dynamic. Tifa is the one who often looks sad; she is uncomfortable with the militancy of Avalanche and unsure what has happened to Cloud in their years apart. Meanwhile Aerith takes nearly everything with a sly grin and a devil may care attitude. She actively wants to be involved in the adventures in ways that neither Tifa nor Cloud seem to understand. Cloud is also incredibly well realized here, with his cold reticence very evidently more a product of insecurity and awkwardness rather than genuine aloofness. And Barret is still a cartoon. A cartoon that is much more incongruous with his surroundings in this more realistically styled world.

Honest, his cartoonish is another thing that shows that the developers really understood what made the original great. The juxtaposition of strange and ambitious elements is a large part of what kept people coming back. The game manages to be super serious, even dour, at times but also include a lot of (usually) well integrated levity.

What the remake adds, generally, is depth. Take Jessie, Biggs and Wedge. The Avalanche crew were pretty minor characters in the original. Sure, it was affecting when they died, but you kind of knew it was coming. In the remake, the game takes the time to flesh them out as characters, gives them pasts and hopeful futures. So when the big moment comes, it is that much more crushing. It does without, aside from a few very intentional exceptions, contradicting anything from the original game. The game does play with the idea of this being the second iteration of this story, but I’ll reserve judgment on that part for now.

The biggest change, aside from the visuals, is how it plays. They kept the materia system and it is largely unchanged. However, everything else is pretty different. Yow now level up weapons with different skills. This allows the developers to limit the player to just a handful of weapons, but also give the player a lot of choice in how to approach the game and different challenges. While some weapons are pretty clearly better than others, all of them have their uses. The battles are now a pure action rpg rather than turn based. While I mourn the death of turn based battles, FFVII Remake’s battles are a lot of fun. It manages to maintain a lot of the feel of the active time battle system despite playing completely differently. It’s not perfect; it can often be hard to tell what is going on with the battle, especially when it comes to spells, but for the most part it is pretty smooth.

The nostalgia bug hit me really hard with this, and maybe things worked better for me than they might have if I did not have long standing memories of this game and this series. This game presents the first part of Final Fantasy VII the way I always imagined the game. It isn’t necessarily the way it used to be, but it doesn’t clash with rose-tinted memories.

Final Fantasy XV

(There are going to be some Final Fantasy 15 spoilers in this)

I don’t know that I actually expected to enjoy Final Fantasy 15. I was aware of the troubles of its long development cycle. How it started as Final Fantasy Versus 13, before disappearing for years, only to reappear, reimaging and rebranded as the fifteenth main entry in this series. The legacy of the Fabula Nova Crystallis is not a great one, hampered by development delays and other conceptual problems. But Final Fantasy 15 is the best game to come out of that ambitious project.

I don’t have a lot to say about the gameplay here. The battle system is functional and intuitive, but I would be lying if I said I ever fully grasped the nuances of it. I mostly just let it happen, and tried my best to use the skills the game gave me. It works, but I can’t say I ever developed anything like a strategy with it. But that is not too different from most games in the series. Outside of some outliers with the job system, the series often tends to the easy side.

I was definitely not prepared for how much this game takes from Final Fantasy 6. In my experience, that SNES classic is considered one the best games in the series. However, it does not tend to be one of the more influential or referenced games in the series. The modern series is built on the image of FF7, and throwbacks tend to look to the first five games. FF6 is more of a transitional game. Still 2d like its predecessors, but with sensibilities that are closer in line with the next few games in the series. FF15, though, brings back many elements from FF6, often recontextualizing them.

The big one is FF6’s signature twist. Throughout the first half of the game, the player has built a party to combat an Empire bent on conquering the world through the use of magically enhanced soldiers. The empire has largely acted through two of its leaders; the fierce but honorable General Leo and the devious clown Kefka. When the Empire raises a floating continent from which the Emperor plans to rule on high, it appears to be setting up the endgame, only for Kefka to turn on his master, usurping his power to destroy the world as the player knows it. The player is put back at square one, having to rebuild their party and put the new world to right.

Final Fantasy 6 is likely not the first game to do this, and Final Fantasy 15 is not the first to copy it, but it seems to share the most direct elements with its predecessor. The big twist comes later overall in the game, and the revelation of the big bad guy and his plan is a little less of a swerve, but it still follows a similar structure. Near the end of the game, the bad guy wins, and the player has to fight through a destroyed world to achieve a somewhat hollow feeling victory.

There are more concrete connections between the two games as well. The existence of Magitech, for example. The game has both magically enhanced soldiers, like FF6’s Celes, and the magic shooting mechs. The summons are imagined as characters in similar fashion to the espers from FF6. FF6’s tools, probably its longest lasting contribution to the series, are here as well. For a game that has long felt somewhat lost in the legacy of this series, Final Fantasy 15’s connections to Final Fantasy 6 are greatly appreciated by a big fan of that game. That is not to say that FF6 is the only previous game in the series that 15 echoes. For starters, even though it is no longer Final Fantasy Versus 13, the game did not completely exercise its feeling of connection with that game. Many of the gameplay systems feel reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12, from its open world aspirations to its monster hunts to its freeform feeling battle system. Also, the brief glimpses the game gives of the empire and its machinations feel reminiscent of FF12 as well.

Final Fantasy 15 manages to stake its own claim to originality in this, a big part of which is from a somewhat controversial design decision: limiting the party to just the four (male) main characters. It is a choice that does not feel in keeping with the series’ history. Plus, there are plenty of characters that feel like they belong in the party. Iris, Lunafreya, and even Cidney would be obvious choices to add as permanent party members. That is leaving out temporary party member Aranea. Excluding those characters from the party limits the impact they can have on the story. They are each limited to small interactions with the main party and end up feeling kind of inconsequential. That said, the four person party ends up being one of this game’s biggest strengths. The first two thirds of the game are all about this foursome cruising around the continent in their sports car. The game does an excellent job building the camaraderie between them, as well as showing the cracks that crop up in the later part of the game. Noctis is the somewhat spoiled prince; he means well and tries hard, but at the start of the game is not ready for the burden he must take on. Gladio is his dedicated bodyguard; he is generally pretty laid back, but his patience for Noctis’s floundering is limited. Ignis is his counsel; he is the calm and collected member of the group that keeps things together even as it all falls apart. Finally, Prompto is simply Noctis’s friend; he is comic relief and the instigator of many interactions.

Where Final Fantasy 15 really succeeds is in the first section of the game, where the player builds a connection to these four characters and they build connections with each other. The game gives the player a fairly open-ended quest, finding the tombs of the previous kings and earning their magical blessings, that lets the player just explore the continent to their heart’s extent. Then the game switches gears and things get more serious. The larger elements of the plot (more on that later) start to come into focus and Noctis gets closer to his long awaited meeting with his betrothed Lunafreya. The game then has the player leave the continent and cross the ocean, and the open world aspect of the game falls away.

It is there that it all falls apart, but in the narrative and as a narrative. Things go awry for the party, and it strains those relationships built in the first part of the game. They end up maimed and separated, fighting desperately to finish a quest that feels increasingly quixotic. When an angry Gladio lashes out at a sullen Noctis, it makes sense. You might not agree with Gladio; the player has seen recent events through Noctis’s eyes, but you have to admit he has a point. But the greater problems with the game crop up there. The open world falls away, leading to some very limited areas and an extended solo/stealth dungeon that is sure to test players’ patience. Also, the general lack of story starts to become apparent.

The long development cycle of Final Fantasy 15 is felt in how the story pulls the player one way and another in the plot without ever really giving the player a clear idea of what everything means or who the pieces fit together. Some of it is how the game sticks to Noctis’s POV; if he doesn’t have access to the information, then the player does not. But much of it feels like it was left on the cutting room floor. I am not talking about stuff that is reserved for DLC; that stuff is clear and I will eventually buy it and experience it. Other parts feel like they were excised in order to get the game finished, and added back in as a data log or a radio broadcast. Just so much of the story of the game does not appear to be in the game. It is frustrating, especially in an otherwise very enjoyable experience.

Final Fantasy 15 feels a lot like the last few entries in this series. It is largely an incredibly enjoyable, innovative experience that feels compromised in some way. I consider it absolutely essential playing, a more than worthy entry in the series, but one that has noticeable flaws. I still need to play the DLC and to watch the movie, things I intend to do, but I do not expect them to fix the larger flaws with the game.

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered

I haven’t played Final Fantasy VIII since soon after it was released. Or at least, soon after it was released on PC. That said, it is still a game that means a whole lot to me. FF8, along with Pokemon Gold and Silver, was on of the first games that I closely followed prior to release.

I was a Final Fantasy fan before FF8. I had read about Final Fantasy 2 (4) in Nintendo Power and searched it out, but instead found the original Final Fantasy for NES in a Wal-Mart bargain bin. I played and loved that, but I didn’t have a SNES and did end up upgrading for some time. Still, I managed to experience Final Fantasy 3 on the SNES before that by playing it at a friends house. I ended up being obsessed with the game for several years, paying an exorbitant amount to get a used copy from Funcoland once I finally did get an SNES. That same friend also showed me the PC port of FF7, which gave me a chance to experience some of that game long before I got a Playstation.

It is a time that is hard to imagine now, but in 1998 my family did not have a computer. Not one capable of accessing the internet, at least. My ability to follow the pre-release hype of Final Fantasy VIII was limited to biking up to the public library for 1 hour of dial up internet access a day or for a few minutes at the school computer lab after school got out, as well as whatever I could find in EGM or Game Informer.

I followed it obsessively anyway. The scattered updates of grainy shots from E3 and the like. Text descriptions of cutscenes. Releases of character art that let me imagine who those characters might be. Then it was released to solid reviews, though with undercurrents of disappointment about how different it was from Final Fantasy VII.

I got it when it was released for P.C. My family had a modern (1999-era modern) that was not quite up to the task, but it worked well enough. I never truly grasped the junction system, appear to have straight up missed swathes of the story and gave up on the game not too far before the final dungeon. I still liked it well enough, but I was put off by the technical problems enough that I never reinstalled the game when my family upgraded our computer and when I finally got a Playstation, I moved on to games like Suikoden 2, Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy 9.

Something about the remastered release drew me, though. For some reason I really wanted to play the game again. I am glad I did. I understand how the game works much better now and I am still a fan of the look of the world.

The junction system has always been strange, but it is a flexible and interesting character building system. It kind of turns the characters into blank slates for the player to completely remake into whatever image desired. The only combat function that you have to have available is attack. Whatever other skills you want to use are up to you. It lets you summon your guardian forces whenever you want, but it turns out that they are much more situational in usefulness that I thought years ago. The big change is turning magic into a consumable resource and letting the player junction magic to stats, attaching the magic to that stat and increasing it by a not particularly obvious formula. One part that is clear is that the more of the magic you have, the greater the effect on your stats.

So casting magic is not generally a great idea, but instead conserving to make your stats better. Junctioning a strong magic to Squall’s strength is generally enough to handle most of the game, as it makes him so much stronger than everyone else.

I don’t know that I want to get into all the other changes: drawing magic, triple triad, enemy levels, guardian forces in general, how the game handles weapons. The game is strange, but all of its strangeness kind of works when put together.

I do want to comment on the story. For one big complaint, the back half of the story seems rushed and maybe unfinished. It spends a lot of time really building up the characters and the party, then as it seems to shift into high gear the end appears. When I gave up on the game way back when, I had no idea how close I was to the end of the game, I was thinking I was closer to the three quarter mark.

When I first played this game, I thought the cast was cool. I still think that about the designs are cool, but these characters as a bunch of dorks. I don’t mean that as a criticism; I think they work exactly as intended. When I was a teenager, I saw cool teenagers. As an adult, I see a bunch of stupid kids. I think I was right both times. Squall worked really well for me this time. His friends see a taciturn badass, but his being closed off is out of fear, not for any other reason. Irvine and Zell are projecting different kinds of cool, but it is clear how much they are faking it. Quistis attempts some maturity, but that is as much a projection as the boy’s attempted coolness. What all of them want is to know that other people like them, but none of them really think that is the case. The only one that seems to avoid that is Rinoa, and she has her own problems. Selphie seems to have come up with a genuine way of dealing with her emotions, with her happiness seeming to be less of a front than the others.

It contrasts nicely with the more adult Laguna, who still has his own problems. I feel like the game could have done a better job of fleshing that part of the game out, but it mostly works. I don’t know that the Edea and Cid stuff does; I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around what is going on there.

The big tragedy of the game is Seifer, but in the intended story and the execution. He is just like the other party members, but he ends up on the other side of the conflict, sticking with the Sorceress that they have a childhood connections with. He is delinquent and a jerk, but he wants to be loved as much as the others. He thinks he is the hero of this story, but it is hard to tell exactly what he is doing because the game doesn’t give the player enough information about what Seifer knows. It is still touching at the end when his cronies finally convince him to abandon his quest.

Final Fantasy VIII is not my favorite Final Fantasy game. In fact, I would probably put it in the lower half. But playing a game like this, that I don’t exactly love, reminds me of why I was and am such a big Final Fantasy fan. Games like FF8, or 10 or 13 or 4 , game that I like but I think are flawed, may outnumber the ones that I do absolutely love. But they are all so interesting and generally enjoyable that I can’t help but want to play them. I guess that means I should get back to Final Fantasy XV.

Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age

I intended to write about Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age when I was about halfway through it, but that didn’t happen.  Instead, the game completely took control of me in a way that few games do.  It is very similar to the weeks I spent enthralled by Breath of the Wild earlier this year. That doesn’t happen to me often, for it to happen twice in the same year is unusual.

 

Especially since I have already played Final Fantasy XII. It got me like this all the way back when it first came out.  I went to a midnight launch of the game at a Gamestop and played it pretty much nonstop until I beat it.  This remaster is largely the same game; very little of the content is changed.  The biggest changes are in the license board character growth system, since The Zodiac Age is based on the International special edition of the game that introduced job specific license boards instead of one identical one.  It’s a change I feared going in, thinking that it would upset the game balance by limiting the characters. While it does limit them, it also makes for more specialization. They are better at the few things they can do.  It takes for some adjusting, but all it really takes it knowing what abilities you have at your disposal.

 

Some of the game’s flaws are still there.  A lot of abilities are hidden in randomly spawning chests in dungeons.  That makes it really hard to make full use of your abilities when the best ones are hidden three quarters of the way through the game.  Some really great strategies are just impossible until you have the right skills, which even if you unlock them on the board you might never have.  I don’t know why they did it that way, but it is a very extent annoyance.

Still, I burned through The Zodiac Age in about a week of play.  In my head, FFXII turned into a slog about halfway through and dragged on way too long, like a lot of PS2 games did.  I did not find that to be the case this time.  I cleared the game in about 40 hours, which is about how long I like JRPGs to take.  I don’t mind the occasional 80 hour super-epic, but I prefer the Chrono Triggerian focused 25 experience.  FFXII fits right in between the two of them.  It is just about perfect.

The story does take a back seat after an action packed opening, but the world it task the player with exploring is the best.  I stopped caring that my task got kind of lost, because I was having too much fun exploring the caves and plains and beaches of Ivalice. There is just so much there, enough to keep anyone busy for at least as long again as playing through the story takes.  The world is the star of this game.

Honestly, though, I am a big fan of the story of this game as well.  It has one of my favorite casts.  Basch, Balthier and Ashe are all great characters.  A lot of people really don’t like Vaan and Penelo, but I find them inordinately charming.  Vaan positioning as the protagonist, even though he is not even close to the driving figure of the story, can be annoying, but the character himself is a lot fun.  His youthful exuberance is the perfect antidote to the often closed and jaded characters like Basch.  It takes more than a few cues from Star Wars, but Vaan is not the Luke of this story, he’s more like the R2D2.  A vital part of the team, but not really a driving force of plot. (the others match like this Balthier = Han, Fran = Chewie, Basch = Luke/Obi Wan, Ashe = Leia and Penelo = C-3PO) It gets a little lost in the middle, mostly because the story is split by vast stretches of land, it honestly holds together a lot better than I remembered.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is FFXII just like you remember it, much in the same way that the 3DS remakes of the N64 Zeldas are just like you remember them.  They are not as the game’s actually were, but they are close and everything that is different just removes annoyances to let you get at the great game that has always been underneath.  This remake is the rose tinted version of the game, minus a bunch of small complaints that didn’t even occur to players at the time.  I put up my Final Fantasy rankings a month or so ago and I stand by XII’s placement on the list. This game is one of the greats.

Ranking Final Fantasy Games

At one time I had planned a whole series of posts that was nothing but lists, but I never got around to getting it started, leaving me with a handful of lists waiting for me to feel like posting them.  The Dragon Quest one already went up, I have a Mario one waiting for me to finish replaying the series to see how it needs to be adjusted and there are a couple more in various stages of being finished.  Lately I’ve been blitzing through Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age, so today I am tossing up my ranking of the Final Fantasy series. The main series; I also have a list of spin offs and direct sequels, but those are another beast entirely. I thought about swapping in some games to take the place of the not present MMO’s, but decided to just leave them off.  11, 14 and 15 are not the list because I haven’t played them.

12. Final Fantasy 2 – I feel like a bully putting this at the bottom, but while it is interesting, it’s just not good.  It is the only game in the series I’ve never felt compelled to complete.

11. Final Fantasy 3 – There is a lot I like about this game, but I’ve only played the DS version and it is a rough draft of the perfected job system from 5.  Still, even this far down on the list is a game I like.

10. Final Fantasy 13 – I actually like this game a whole lot even if it appears unfinished at times. It plays like a fairly unsuccessful combination of 10 and 12, but I enjoyed it well enough.

09. Final Fantasy – The original has a lot of charm even if options for playing it are either brainlessly simple or annoyingly tedious. For all of its faults, I still prefer the NES version. It is a simple game, but there is a lot to love here.

08. Final Fantasy 4 – My enjoyment of this game mostly came from reading Nintendo Power and wishing I could play it. Once I finally got the chance to play it, FF4 never quite clicked with me the way plenty of other SNES JRPGs did.

07. Final Fantasy 8 – I find the plot of this game to be a mess and the junction system is fiddly and breakable, but I still find the game wholly compelling every time I play it.

06. Final Fantasy 10 – It loses the feeling of exploring a real world, but it has one of the best realized stories in the series and a solid battle system.

05. Final Fantasy 5 – This has my favorite character building system in any game. FFV’s job system is perfection.  The story is nothing, but this is a perfect systems game.

04. Final Fantasy 7 – For a long time I had it out for this game. The love it got seemed to detract from what I felt, and still feel, are superior games in the series, like 6 and 9.  But I can’t let that blind me to the fact that this is a phenomenal game.

03. Final Fantasy 9 – It isn’t the best game from a story or systems point of view, but there is something charming about the setting and characters. It is the perfect synthesis of old and new Final Fantasy.

02. Final Fantasy 12 – Playing the remake has solidified just how much I like this game. The gambit system is brilliant and the world is the best in the series.  This is a game you can get lost in for hours and hours. It also has the most underrated cast in the series.

01. Final Fantasy 6 – Still the best in the series. It has a great cast, a terrific story and pretty great systems.  FF6 isn’t just my favorite FF game; it is one of my favorite games of all time.

After 13 Games You Know It’s Never Really Final

Final Fantasy XIII is a smoking hot mess of a game. For everything it well or exceptionally well, it does another thing either poorly or fails to do it at all. The game has one of the most well-realized main casts in the genre paired with a plot that never even tries to make sense, as well as a complete lack of a supporting cast. It streamlined plenty of the tedium that plagues JRPGs but also loses many useful or necessary conventions in the deal. Playing FFXIII is like watching a play through a telescope; you see some things in magnificent detail, but it is nearly impossible to form a context for what you’ve seen due to the tiny field of view.

Final Fantasy XIII odd dual identity is easily seen in its story. FFXIII main characters are a well-rounded, engaging group. Sure, some of their characterizations fall back on the usual anime tropes, but there is more depth to them than the majority of video game casts. Lightning tries to be the stoic badass, and is for the most part, but in becoming that badass she has forfeited her connection to her sister. She is out for redemption, to atone for not being there for her sister when Serah needed her. Sazh, apparently a favorite of many though not me, is a father out of his depth trying to save his son. Fang and Vanille have a relationship that echoes Lightning and Serah’s, an older sister trying to protect the younger. Hope starts as a whiny brat and matures into a somewhat less whiny brat. He faces the trauma of seeing his mother die in the opening minutes of the game, and must process that grief and grow beyond it. Snowe, while not one of my favorite characters, is certainly an entertaining one. He is the peppy JRPG hero, like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia or Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia, in a game that has absolutely no use for him. He wants to protect his love Serah, but fails. He tries to find meaning in their becoming L’Cie, but there is none to be had. He is forced to confront the wreckage inadvertently left in the wake of his can do attitude. Unfortunately, there are virtually no supporting characters. The game starts to build up some villains, but they promptly disappear after a few scenes, with the exception of Barthandelus. Any other supporting character is lucky to get so much as a name and two scenes. The plot, to put it nicely, is an indecipherable mess. The party is made L’Cie at the start. What exactly being a L’Cie means is never clearly explained. The player must infer it from the small amount of context available. The important thing is that people do not like them. The must obey the fal’Cie, which again are entities with no clear explanation, just that they are powerful beings. There are mentions of Cocoon and Pulse, but for the longest time no explanation of just what those two are. Countries? Cities? Planets? Once more, though never all, becomes clear the party finds a new goal. (Big Spoilers) The villain wants them to kill the fal’Cie powering Cocoon, but they refuse. Then, they kill it anyway and everything works out. Because it does.(End of Big Spoilers) The story game plays out in blunt, yet effective character bits intertwined with often visually amazing but nonsensical plot scenes. It is baffling how they got one part so very right, yet flubbed the others so very badly.

The rest of the game is the same way. The battle system seems to be another take on many of the same ideas that power FFXII’s battle system. Individual attacks are automated, but the player gets to choose what actions the characters can take. The control is another step back, with players making sets of classes for their party and switching class make up on the flay to handle dynamic battle situations. While the lack of direct control can seem off putting at first, once the game lets the training wheels come off it is rather entertaining and there is more strategy involved than most games in the genre. All other parts of usual JRPG gameplay are gone. There are no real towns to visit, no shops, nothing but tunnels to run through. Some of the losses are good. The genre, led by FFVII, had become bloated with mini-games and tedious sidequests. Those are all gone. Their loss helps streamline the game. But the loss of towns and shops hurt, making it harder to get a sense of this world and the people in it. Everything is done by a computer that pops out of save points. Despite the very real characters, the world of Final Fantasy XIII feels the most artificial. This world exists just to tell this game’s story. The crazy tunnel land suddenly ends when the player reaches Gran Pulse, a wide open plain full of strong enemies and optional missions. Instead of being a welcome change, at first is feels crippling. The game has held the player’s hand for so long that the sudden lack of direction is almost overwhelming. After a little bit of hesitance, though, Gran Pulse shows itself to be the best part of the game. The battle system has a near perfect combination of fluidity and strategy that running around fighting monsters is actually fun.

It is initially hard to get past FFXIII’s obvious terrible flaws. But the core of the game is very very good. That with the fine level of polish helps keep Final Fantasy XIII entertaining. I’d put it near the middle of the series in terms of quality, there with the other middle of the road Final Fantasies like 7 or 8. It is a flawed gem whose flaws are all the more obvious due to how large of a gem it is. It is not my favorite, and with what is essentially a 20 hour tutorial to start I can’t see myself replaying it soon, but I really did like this game.