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Looking Back: Final Fantasy XII

As I said yesterday, I’m replaying Final Fantasy XII, which is probably my favorite Final Fantasy game.  I had to make a tough decision between it, and Final Fantasy VI, but XII’s awesome setting won out for me.  Still, playing the game again, it reminds me why it took me a year and a half to beat it the first time and why I didn’t play it again for so long, despite how much I loved it.

First of all, like I said, the setting is just plain awesome.  It’s everything I ever wanted in a fantasy setting.  Part steampunk, part dungeon punk, part science fiction all wrapped up in a delightfully anachronistic package.  It’s awe inspiring to watch a giant airship float majestically through the sky over a beautiful metropolis.  I’m also a fan of the political intrigue the game, which leads to a lot of moral ambiguity, which is always a good thing.

Continuing from the setting, the art direction is gorgeous.  I have a copy of the art books, since I bought the Collector’s Edition strategy guide, and I brought it to my D&D game on Saturday to give the players a sense of how I saw Arcia.  Almost everyone, who hadn’t ogled the book already, was impressed at how awesome everything was.  People even used the weapon art for to describe how their equipment worked.

The characters are also complex and interesting.  No one is truly good or evil (except for Basch, Vaan and Penelo.  They’re all truly good.  Oh yeah, Noah is a complete dick), which is kind of a change of pace, at least for Final Fantasy.  Sure, Kefka is an awesome, Ax Crazy son of a bitch, but Vayne is a bit more realistic and makes a very compelling villain.  Thanks to the game having complex characters, it makes the story a lot more compelling.

Also, the combat system is pretty cool.  It’s a nice take on the Active Time Battle system, plus it eliminates random encounters.  Combat is also simple and intuitive.

However, the game is fucking tedious.  I mean really fucking tedious.  You never have enough money, because you only get gil from selling loot, and monsters don’t always drop loot.  Power leveling is practically required to get through the game, and that’s annoying as hell.

Because I have to spend so much time grinding, it has a tendency to break the flow of the game for me.  The story itself is pretty well paced, but because I have this tendency to take huge breaks from the game, the pacing is kind of broken for me, which bothers me a lot.

Also, while the concept behind the License Board system is pretty cool, I never really have enough License Points to get anything, even after hours of grinding for LP.  My first time through, I had to get the special bracelet that doubles LP just to make sure I had enough LP to get all of the Augments, all of which are completely necessary.

Anyway, like I said yesterday, it’s a great game, but it still needs a bit of work.  It’s an Eastern RPG take on the Western RPG, and that causes some problems, but it’s still got a beautiful setting and lots of good characters.  Sure, there are some gameplay problems, but since JRPGs are basically interactive storybooks, this is a pretty good one.

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Looking Back: Jak 3

Last week, I played through one of my all time favorite video games, Jak 3.  I don’t always talk about Jak 3, despite the giant poster of the game I’ve got hanging in my room, and instead talk about Jak II, which is more of a platformer while Jak 3 is all over the place.  I didn’t really like Jak 3 all that much when I first played it, mostly due to a misconception of expectations.  I expected Jak II plus more, and I got something different.  As I played through the game, I began to embrace that difference.

I think I actually like Jak 3 a little bit more than Jak II.  The story is a little better, the Wasteland and Spargus City are much easier to get around than Haven City, Jak’s character design is better, he’s less of a douche at the beginning and some of the missions are just plain awesome.  But the game never left the same impression with me that Jak II did.  Jak II shaped the idea of the platformer adventure game in me.  Jak 3 just perfected that vision, and sometimes, that doesn’t always stand out.

Jak 3 is a top notch platformer.  It’s easily one of the best platformers I’ve ever played, and coming from me, that’s saying something.  The levels are well designed, weapons are well utilized and Jak gets a lot of cool powers.  Also, the story is top notch.  Sure, there are a few continuity issues and some scenes that play a little awkwardly (possibly due to the slight nonlinearity of the game), but the characters are all good and it’s suitably epic while remaining grounded.

I’m also surprised at how intuitive the controls are.  I probably haven’t played the game in three years (or more) and I jumped right back in.  Sure, they’re similar to Jak II’s, which I’ve played through probably 5 times since it came out in 2003, but there are enough differences to throw some off.  As soon as I started, I jumped right back in as if I had never put down the controller.  That’s a good sign.

I’m also still impressed at the quality of the voice work.  Even now, there are so many games with absolutely shitty voice acting, but this game, five years old now, sounds like a top-quality cartoon.  Part of this is because the voice actors are actually used to working in cartoons, but something has to be said for the direction.  They obviously really cared about what they were doing.

It’s not all sunshine and roses though.  Jak gets way too many powers and uses them all of once.  The most egregious of these are Dark Invisibility and Time Slow.  Both of which are only utilized in one platforming puzzle, which is so stupid, since they both could have so many applications, particularly in combat.  Sure, the Time Slow can be used at any time (not like Dark Invisibility.  Used in 1 place ever), but it drains so much Light Eco that it’s just impractical.  Also, your weapons like the Arc Wielder and the Vulcan Fury do a better job at keeping Metal Heads and Dark Makers off of Jak.

Dark Jak is also too awesome to use again.  It’s irritating, since you can use the transformation at any time now, unlike in Jak II, but he’s so neutered at this point, it doesn’t really matter anymore.  Also, melee combat is even more useless in this game than it was previously, and since Jak gets access to weapons like the Mass Inverter, Plasmid RPG and the Super Nova, it makes the Dark Bomb practically useless unless you’re out of Dark Ammo.

Overall, I’m glad I got a chance to play through it again.  I really miss this series and it quickly became one of my favorites ever.  I’m so glad that it’s finally getting a sixth game in November.

Switching gears, I got an email from a woman I did a feature on for my day job at the Piedmont Gazette.  She’s a writer who lives in my hometown and she takes a copy of my paper.  She sent me an email this morning that I didn’t see until I was finishing up and I probably never would have seen if I wasn’t actively digging deep through the email server.

She wanted to thank me for how good my article was.  She even said I managed to get facts that more experienced interviewers missed.  That made my night more than anything and really picked me up.

Looking Back: Mass Effect

Mass Effect is one of my favorite RPGs.  When I first got it, I played through it 3 times in a row.  I loved it that much.  I’ve never done that before or since and now I’m on my fourth playthrough.  I’ve played through games several times (particularly platformers), but I’ve never played a game through over and over like I have with Mass Effect, except for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles.

I’ve started it up again, this time with Bring Down the Sky (coolest DLC name ever, by the way) loaded onto my game.  I’ve played two characters: John Shepard- Super Paragon Vanguard, John Shepard- loyal to his friends and not a bigot, but a crazy Renegade Vangaurd and Amanda Shepard- badass Chaotic Good Paragon Infiltrator.  I’ve decided to try my Infiltrator again, since Mandy is going to be my character in the sequel.  It’s cool to get back in her combat boots and blow the crap out of people with my Specter-grade level X sniper rifle.

The game is a bit rougher around the edges than I remember, but it’s still just as fun.  I’m having a difficult time readjusting to the controls and remember the best time to use my Infiltrator mines.  I’m also having a hard time remember when to use my sniper rifle instead of my assault rifle.  My skirmishes haven’t been as successful as I would have liked them to be, but you know, I’m getting better.  I’m getting back into the swing of things.

Mass Effect is how to do an RPG right.  Yes, there are some bad parts (people don’t shut the fuck up.  Seriously, they talk talk talk talk talk all the fucking time), but for the most part it works.  Mission design, at least regular mission design, is really good.  Pen and Paper RPG module writers should sit up and take note on these levels because they’re a good blend of action and strategy.  I’m already planning on writing a raid on a corporate enclave in my Shadowrun game based on the Noveria mission. Hell, I’m going to take a look at the Virmire mission for D&D (ha ha, just kidding.  Right?).  The encounters in the levels are brief and challenging, and you have a lot of ways to go about them.  That’s always a good thing.  Plus, you have to engage in a bit of diplomacy and subterfuge.  Also, sometimes the game throws you through a loop, like the last act of the Feros mission (no link due to spoilers).  Seriously, dropping something like that into a game of D&D will really show you whether your characters deserve that Chaotic Good they wrote on their character sheet.

Looking back, I have some gripes with the game.  Mostly the class system.  I don’t have a problem with class systems, but I don’t understand why every class isn’t trained in every weapon.  I can understand that maybe an Adept won’t be able to improve Assault Rifle and get Overkill, but why can’t he aim the damn gun?  Also, most of the mixed classes are pretty lame, particularly the Sentinel.

Of course, like I said, there’s a lot of talking, and a lot of it can be cut down.  It’s not as bad as some people make it out to be (*cough*Yahtzee*cough*), but it does get pretty damn annoying.  Also on the subject of length, there are way too many sidequests and not enough main mission.  Seriously, skipping all of the sidequests, this game is like 10 or 12 hours.  That’s pittance for an RPG.  Yes, all of the main quest missions are some of the most awesome in any RPG (and most video games), there just aren’t enough of them.  Also, most of the sidequests are pretty lame.

Still, it’s one of the best experiences in roleplaying I’ve had in years.  I just hope Final Fantasy XII is as good as I remember, considering how often I rave about its awesomeness.