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Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy IX Part 1: Come On Princess, let’s ditch Sir Rustalot and get out of here

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Copyright Square Enix

Final Fantasy IX was one of those games that I’ve really always wanted to play, but have never gotten a chance to play more than a few hours.  I’ve gotten to Dagger maybe once or twice, but for the first time every, I’ve gotten to Lindblum and I’ve seen some really cool stuff, and while I haven’t gotten very far, I already like it more than what I did any other PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasy game.

I’ve been meaning to get to this for awhile, but I’ve kind of wanted to chew on the first chunk of the game before I really started to write down my thoughts and feelings.  Then God of War came out and that took up all of my time.  As such, it’s been a bit since I’ve played, and my thoughts are a bit all over the place about this.  Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how good the characters.  At the point where I’m at, I’ve only got Zidaine, Vivi, Dagger and Steiner, and I do like all of them, but they’re a bit basic right now.   I know I’m only about halfway through what was the first disc (I’m playing the PC version), so chances for development are limited right now and I’m making a point of keeping that in mind, but they kind of are a mixed bag.  Garnet and Vivi are great, they’re very interesting and have a lot going on for them right at the beginning.

Vivi might be the best, so far, since his arc is so clear right at the beginning.  A poor little kid, more or less, forced to deal with mortality way too early is a lot to push on a character right at the beginning, but adding the fact that he appears to be so young makes for a really interesting exploration of existentialism.  Final Fantasy delves into existential crises a lot in the games, and my memory seems to remind me that they’re not always the best at it, but when I’m seeing from Vivi is great.  He’s got a lot to question, and a whole lot of angst, but it’s not like Squall.  He’s been shaken, he’s not exactly emotionally mature, but he’s also a kid, and the writers have made a point of writing him like a kid.

Garnet, or Dagger, is probably the next interesting person we’ve got.  The rebellious princess who masterminds her own kidnapping isn’t exactly new, but I do like that she’s got her own agenda going on.  I’m still trying to parse out what it is exactly, but I do know that she’s got her own thing, and she hasn’t exactly shared it with Zidaine or the rest of the party yet.  I get the feeling she knows more about what her mom is up to, or if she doesn’t know, she suspects that Queen Brahne is not a very good person.  Getting the airship blown out of the sky over the city (no doubt killing hundreds of her own subjects) surprised her, but only by the sheer disregard she had for her own subjects.  I’m curious to see where this goes, and the relationship with her mom.

Zidaine is pretty cool.  I mean, he’s a standard JRPG hero, more happy-go-lucky than Cloud or Squall are, but I like that more than a lot of the more angst ridden protagonists that were contemporaneous of the game.  Unfortunately, Zidaine has mostly reacted to the other characters so far.  I know he’s got a story, it’s one of the few spoilers I actually know about this game, but so far he’s only gotten a chance to be charming and nice to all of the characters.  I love that he’s explicitly a self-styled ladies man, but is actually kind of a horny teenager who is more interested in girls being pretty than he is in the girls themselves.  Like, I deal with teenagers, this is how they act, and it’s as hilarious here as it is in real life.  Also, the fact he’s an actor is a nice wrinkle.  I’d like to see if that gets used more than just at the beginning.

Steiner…exists, I guess.  I remember thinking he was funny when I was 14, but that was 18 years ago, we’ll see how it goes from there.  Maybe he gets some development.

The opening scenes of the game were great, for the record.  I liked all the stuff with the Waltzes and the first couple of dungeons, but kidnapping Garnet and jumping between the different characters was very interesting.  It’s not something Final Fantasy has done much before, or since for that matter.  VI does something like that a couple of times, but that’s all I can think of.  I know X, XII and XV don’t do anything like that at all.

While the game is heavily “site-based” I do like that it has moved away from traditional dungeons.  There are a lot of events in these dungeons, too, so it’s less about traveling from one end to the other, but dealing with shit as it pops up.  We’ll see if that keeps up through the rest of the game.  So far, though, even the regular ass ice dungeon had a lot going for it beyond just “get to the end and fight a boss,” even if having to fight a Black Waltz with just Zidaine.  Only game over so far.

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Bioware’s Future: More Grim Than I Can Imagine

I tend not to want to write depressing things on this blog, since I don’t want to treat it as my diary on video games.  That’s how I used to treat it, and that’s not how I want to be anymore.  That’s not why I focus on positive elements, but because it’s super easy to turn “analysis” into “bitching” and I’m not here to complain into the void.  I can angry post on /r/games or something if I want to do that.  I also try to avoid idle speculation, too, but there’s too much here for me to sit quiet and not say anything.

c94

I think this was originally made for cheezburger.com, but this is an edit, and I can’t find who made it. If you did, please contact me, so I can give you credit, as well as the original artist. Thanks!

So, there’s this comic.  It’s super old, even though this is an edit to talk about the closing of studios bought by EA.  The corpses, in case they’re too small, say Maxis, Bullfrog, Westwood and Pandemic, all studios gobbled up and eaten by EA, closed down and their IPs absorbed into EA proper.  The original version was about Bioware, and was speculative about what was going to happen.  It’s been no secret that for the past decade, or more, Electronic Arts has been less interested in promoting single player games than it has in pushing huge online multiplayer games.  This discussion of live services is not a new thing, it’s something that EA has talked about again and again.

The comic is a lot of hyperbole.  Maxis, for instance, still exists as a subsidiary, and Will Wright worked their for 12 years after it was purchased by EA.  It’s not the same Maxis, especially after Spore 10 years ago (yes, that was 10 years ago), and it’s definitely done some shady stuff with the Sims series and the disaster of the always on DRM for Sim City in 2013.  The comic itself may be inaccurate, but it definitely does a good job of expressing the frustration many fans see in this.  I mean, it’s not like there’s been a Command and Conquer game in a long time, and the last one was some sort of weird, MMO thing I never heard about until I did research for this article.

Personally, EA’s acquisitions never bothered me much.  There are a few things that affected me personally, but it was never an element of the industry I had much in the way of personal stakes.  Yes, I definitely joined in some anti-EA choruses when I was younger and even dumber than I am today, but it was more of a general “this isn’t good for the industry” sort of thing.  Also, I had Bioware.  No matter what happened to everything else, it seemed like Bioware would escape, even after Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3.

Then of course, we got Anthem.  A big ass live service looter shooter that’s we know very little about, except that you get to pilot mechs.  It had a pretty dire unveiling video, at least I thought it was dire, and it was the first thing that really dashed my hopes about the future of Bioware.  Then came Mass Effect: Andromeda, which while I liked, I understand why many weren’t as keen on it as I was, but the killing of the single player DLC was a signal it was probably over.  Dragon Age 4 has been confirmed, or at least confirmed to be worked on, but “live” elements were mentioned, and Casey Hudson’s response was a bit cagey as to what that meant, and one of the writers left at the beginning of the year.  That’s not a good sign, and it makes me think about Anthem.

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Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Bioware’s continued existence as a company is probably completely dependent on how this game does.  Andromeda was not well received by the gaming public, if somewhat unfairly, and the cancelling of the DLC and the indication that the entire Mass Effect franchise was more or less “on ice” didn’t help matters.  While this next bit is speculation, I like to think I wouldn’t be writing it without some merit.  That said, I’m conscious enough of my own defects that I could just be made and spewing something that doesn’t make sense.

Based on EA’s track record, it would not surprise me one bit if Anthem doesn’t set the world on fire, Bioware is done.  Like, maybe in 10 years there will be a rebooted Mass Effect or Dragon Age, but it’s not going to be the same thing, unless EA radically changes from what it’s been for the past 20 years (which, to be fair, is radically different from what it was 25 or 30 years ago.  It’s a depressing thought, but it’s not like it’s something EA hasn’t done to existing companies.  At the same time, Anthem’s success could also mean that Anthem is all their going to make, or their existing IPs will be cast back to B- and C-Teams, like Andromeda was.  This is to say nothing of what sort of “live service” might get dropped in them.  After all, Mass Effect 3 had loot boxes back in 2012, and multiplayer was originally needed to grab the Green ending.

So, am I pulling a Chicken Little?  Maybe.  This really is a lot of baseless speculation, but I think it ties to an overall issue with the industry all together.  More on that, perhaps, another time.

Game Anatomy: Leviathan Axe

So, before we go on, I am going to say that I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t promise anything.  I’m not done with the game, but I’m about halfway through the game, so I do know some things.  Also, a student spoiled part of the ending for me, because that’s how things go when you deal with teenagers.  However, considering what I am discussing, there is one major spoiler for the midpoint of the game.  I don’t know if it ruins something, but it might make the scene this blog posts spoils a little less impactful.

So, as a warning, there are pretty big spoilers in this blog post.  Please read with caution.

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Copyright Sony Entertainment

Once again, there will be some major midpoint spoilers in this post.  Please be cautious.

God of War is not a game I would have expected to be good.  I loved the first two games so much I actually played one of the PSP games.  It was awful.  I also beat it in, like, two weeks due to sheer determination.  The third game was way too much, just sort of an awful, bloody slog through some of the worst writing.  When the Dad of War stuff came out, I didn’t care, I thought they were just trying to go after Naughty Dog and do another Last of Us.  Nope.  God of War turned out to be something great, and it felt like a God of War game in ways I never imagined.  One of the best things about this is Kratos’s new Leviathan Axe, a winter weapon of frozen death that shakes up not just the gameplay, but the story, too, in many great ways.

Obviously, the Leviathan Axe is not the Blades of Chaos (or Athena or Exile).  It’s personal, more brutal and brings Kratos closer to the action.  In the old God of War games, the Blades of Chaos had huge range, able to strike enemies from a distance, which really made the combat in God of War really engaging, especially considering how the game used camera scaling to pit Kratos against things that were sometimes literally the size of a mountain.  However, the new God of War is up close and personal, and that isn’t something the Blades of Chaos were known for.  By introducing the players to the Leviathan Axe right at the beginning, it shows the players that this is going to be a completely different God of War, more interested in being like Dark Souls than being like the older games.

The game is much closer, more personal, than it’s ever been.  The camera no longer scales, even when Kratos is fighting something an order of magnitude larger than him.  This means the game requires a melee weapon that is up close and personal, because that’s what the game is trying to convey.  This is a very personal game, because it’s about not just Kratos and his relationship with his son Atraeus, but it’s about Kratos exploring, perhaps for the first time in his long, long life, just who he is exactly.  It’s a very up close and personal examination of who he is as a man, and as a god.  Giving Kratos a weapon that plays into the new camera, and tying it all into the more personal journey is absolutely necessary.

While the Leviathan Axe is a closer, more brutal and personal weapon, it also does a lot to transform the gameplay.  The Blades of Chaos are very combo heavy, with lots of complex moves requiring specific button presses, mix ups and memorization, and that’s something that worked for the original games in the series, which are closer to spectacle brawlers like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.  With the way combat and exploration are set up, requiring more precise usage of shields and avoidance, an aggressive weapon doesn’t work.  The Leviathan Axe is slower, each strike being more deliberate and pointed than simply mashing tons of enemies into powder by hammering on the attack button with the Blades.  It’s not Dark Souls, it’s still God of War, but it definitely is more Dark Souls adjacent than the series has ever been.

With the slower, more deliberately paced combat, we’re able to set  up a nice dichotomy between the Kratos of old and the Kratos we have now.  It does a good job of showing who Kratos can be, because it’s a weapon focused on precision, not overt violence.  Kratos is a more tempered man now, and the combat reflects this.  This continues on, until, and these are the spoilers, Kratos gets the Blades of Chaos again.

This should completely upend the game, especially since the Blades have all of the same abilities that they had originally and they play exactly the same, but instead, it doesn’t.  This is where the Leviathan Axe comes into play.  See, like I said, the combat in this game is much more complex and deliberate than before, and if they were to just give the player the Blades right at the start, it wouldn’t feel right.  Kratos would run in and get slaughtered, and he wouldn’t feel like a big bad ass at all.  Instead, with the new, more personal system, Kratos has to build his way up and get used to the flow and feel of fighting before they throw in the hyper aggressive Blades.

However, Sony Santa Monica takes it a step further by keeping the Leviathan Axe just as important to the game as it was at the beginning.  Not only do they use the fire and ice motifs to tell more about the story and the competing balances in Kratos’s life, which feeds into the gameplay since Kratos finally has a way to kill Hel-draugr, but they also make sure it’s still a really good weapon for combat.  The Blades are great for sweeping a room, but they swing and have a huge arc.  When needing to get up close and personal, the Leviathan Axe is the better choice.  It’s more defensive, and it’s easier to use a shield with.  Also, it’s a lot easier not to go full on berserker mode using the Axe.

Overwatch has the worst writing

I had a really hard time coming up with a title that didn’t just sound like I was being an asshole, but it’s kind of the truth, and it sums up my thesis nicely, so I decided to go with it.

Overwatch is probably the best example of how torpedo a good premise with bad writing in video games.  It actually is a pretty good case study of how bad writing can get with franchises and tie ins, but also how bad storytelling can actually get when the writers are more interested in their setting than their story.  That’s a slight bit of a simplification, because the writing issues with Overwatch are myriad, but it’s the easiest to point to.   It’s not that Overwatch doesn’t have a lot of good story stuff going for it, and in fact it has a whole lot of potential, but unfortunately, almost none of it is well executed and worse, the way information on the story, lore and setting is doled out, it makes it hard to get away, because it always seems like things will improve, or the next revelation will make everything come together.

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Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

One of the best parts of Overwatch are the characters.  Most of them are really cool, and all of them are very distinctive.  It’s the thing that makes the game so successful.  Each character is unique and has a distincitve style, and almost no one is a generic soldier or space marine.  Even the edgelord and Call of Duty guy are fun to play, have an interesting enough design that they still seem kind of cool, and they have enough alternate costumes, sprays and voice lines that show that Blizzard can have a bit of fun with them.  When Blizzard’s character game is on, they’re really on, and Overwatch proves it.  I can’t think of a character I actively dislike or think is bad or uninteresting.  Moira, maybe, but the Blackwatch stuff has made me open to the idea she might have something going on for her.  The next coolest thing about it is the setting.  It’s a sort of almost post-cyberpunk setting where the world really looks like it’s getting better.  It’s not there yet, and there are criminal organizations and super villains who are out to make sure it doesn’t get any better, but it really seems like maybe things will work out.  That’s cool, and there’s an optimism here that just hasn’t been seen in big games for the most of the past decade.  Even World of Warcraft, which started as “get a bunch of dudes to kill gods” has just gotten darker and more bloodthirsty over the past few years.

What’s really cool about the setting though is that it’s perhaps the most modern take on super heroes we have, other than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even that is playing with nearly 60 years of existing stories and concepts.  Overwatch is completely unique in that it’s a super hero setting, but coming in from a completely modern standpoint.  One way I’ve described it to people is that Overwatch is what super heroes would look like if they were invented in 2016 instead of 1938.  Yes, I know this ignores the huge, if weirdly invisible, impact super heroes, especially Superman, has had on popular western culture over the past 100 years, but whatever, that’s not materiel to this discussion.  It’s a very cool idea, and it’s separated super heroes from tights, or their modern kevlar, but kept the heroics and colorful, individualistic costumes that make super heroes so cool.  I like that.

Unfortunately, it’s also sort of the major problem.  Most of the biggest questions about Overwatch come from its setting, and despite the game existing for nearly two years, we know almost nothing about the world, and that’s all that’s been focused on.  There’s a comic series that’s detailing the supposed plot of the game, but issues seem to come out about once every 3 or 4 months, and all of them have been half of a story and a cliff hanger, which is terrible to do for comics anyway.  It seems like terrible web comics from the mid-2000s, not a multimedia franchise made by a giant company that has made almost a billion dollars.  That comic series is pretty bad about not releasing information, but the biggest issue is that there are no revelations for the characters, they know all this shit, it’s only the viewers that are in the dark.

Here’s the thing about stories, they’re about people.  Humans like to write about humans, and so we make stories that are about people.  The thing that makes mystery stories interesting is that the detective doesn’t know what’s going on at the beginning of the story, and they have revelations throughout the story.  Sure, there may be some thrilling moments, but that’s not what it’s about, and we all know it.  Other than cape comics, the closest analogue Overwatch has are espionage books, and sometimes it’s cool for Nick Fury to have all the answers, but he’s rarely the main character, and when he is, he’s going to be thrown through enough loops that even when he knows what’s up, he’s never quite sure.  Espionage and mystery utilize mysteries and their revelations for both the character and the audience to make them interesting.  Can you cheat or change with the formula?  Sure, but you still need to make the reveals to and for the characters within the fiction.  That’s not going to be a big thing here.  Jack has a pretty good idea of what Gabe is up to, and the only thing that’s thrown him through a loop is that Ana is actually alive, and I’m falling asleep while I’m writing this.

Vampmasq

Copyright White Wolf Studios

This is the same thing White Wolf did in the 90s.  There were tons of mysteries and hidden lore spread throughout the books, but they wouldn’t tell anyone.  A bunch of characters knew, including characters the DM (sorry, “the Storyteller”) could conceivable play as, but they didn’t release anything until they got to it on their schedule.  Until it was revealed as part of the “metaplot,” which is a controversial enough topic as is, no one at the table, even the Storyteller, would have all of the answers.  Overwatch may not have the same specific issue, but it falls into the same problems.  The “storytelling” isn’t about building the interesting characters or giving them something to do, it’s about doling out more and more information about “lore” or the “setting” while the actual story, of what little there is, can spin its wheels  forever.

There are times you can have it where all of the characters know, but the audience doesn’t, sure.  Genji and Hanzo are a perfect example, and if they actually got any story time, maybe it would be cool to see revelations as they crossed paths and they got to contemplate what they did to each other.  Each time we got a story beat or a character moment, we could reveal more of the past.  This isn’t what they’re doing.  Instead, we get some things teased, some ideas thrown about, and then nothing for months or years on end.  Genji and Hanzo isn’t even an egregious problem, either.  Most of what Overwatch has done publicly in the setting is still unknown to the player.  The players and fans know less about the world and the character they play as than a random kid on the street.  That was great for the one video, but that was a teaser, it doesn’t work when the game has been out for 24 months.

The latest update, Retribution, is one of the catalyzing events for Overwatch shutting down (another major thing that’s important to the story, but the player still knows little about) and while it’s very cool this scenario is played out in a great PvE format, it’s also kind of shitty that this huge event has more or less been a secret to the players for years.  We’ve known about Blackwatch from the beginning, and it’s understood they had clandestine operations, and we did know that the clandestine ops were one of the things that caused Jack and Gabe to drift apart, but this was something that was out in public and we knew nothing about it.  It’s what caused everything to go bad, and it’s what literally caused some of the tension in last year’s PvE event, but we’ve only ever gotten hints about it.

Also, and this is nitpicking at this point, but this just raises more questions.  I can understand why this is Gabe’s start of darkness, so to speak, but why did he wind up joining Talon?  He and Moira are not great people at the start of this, but they also have no problem gunning down tons of Talon soldiers in the Italian streets.  He killed the bad guy at the beginning of the mission because he hates Talon so much, and what they stand for and how he can’t stop them.  He gets pissed off because his buddy, Gerard nearly dies, except Gerard’s wife, Amelie will later get kindapped and brainwashed by Talon, and then she’ll murder Gerard.  Gabe works with Amelie now, after she killed Gerard.  What the fuck is going on?  Like, I can understand having a falling out because Gerard got pissed Gabe broke international law and assassinated a dude, but why would he switch sides and join his hated enemies?  This is like Snake Eyes joining Cobra levels of weird because he got made at Duke.  Or it would be like, and this is a better example, if in the CGI TMNT movie, Raphael had become a member of the Foot Clan after Leonardo left instead of just becoming a vigilante.  Like, there’s got to be a reason, but we don’t know what it is, but Gabe totally does, so fuck us, right?

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age Part 4: I am Simply Myself. No More, No Less. And I Only Want to Be Free.

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Copyright Square Enix

I wonder if King Raithwall was like Vayne when the Occuria came to him.  Young, dangerous and so certain of his own actions and power that he would be willing to use the nethecite to beat the world into submission.  I know the Raithwall at the end of his days was more like how Ashe would develop into by the end of the game, just with a heaping helping of regret added on top.  His warnings engraved into the Pharos at Ridorana, mixed with the Occurian degrees of power and domination, set up this idea of a man who was not happy with his choices in life.  He said to cut through illusions, and we as players take it to mean that Ashe should use the Treaty Blade upon the “ghost” of Rassler, but I would imagine the Occuria showed Raithwall the same thing.  Who did they show him?  Who did he lose?

We know Venat showed Vayne exactly what he wanted, and Vayne refused to cut through the illusions.  He accepted them readily, and was willing to become, in his own words, a new Dynast-King.  Raithwall did the same thing, otherwise there wouldn’t have been the Galtean Alliance and Archades and Rosaria wouldn’t have risen to prominence.  I wonder if, at the end of his life, Vayne would have the same regrets.  It would be interesting to find that Final Fantasy Tactics is an Ivalice that rose from the ashes of Vayne’s rule.  More likely, it might be vengeance from the Occuria, but I like to think that success in Final Fantasy XII means Tactics never happens.  Not because Tactics is bad, but it canonically takes place in an Ivalice that was wracked by a cataclysm that destroyed the Age of Technology.

When I defeated Vayne at the end, I got a bit emotional for him, and for Noah as well.  They were very similar to a lot of Shakespearean tragic heroes that it made their own falls so much more sad.  Sure, Vayne is a huge asshole.  He’s vain, of course, self-righteous, cruel and heartless, but he’s so convinced of the rightness of his cause, and right it is, that he’s pushed himself to madness.  I am convinced that scene at the beginning of the game where he tells Migelo he’s just an elected official and that he wasn’t any better than anyone else is completely genuine.  Then there’s poor Noah.  As Gabranth, he murdered a king and killed a kingdom, he tormented his brother out of jealousy and still, he clung to some sort of honor.  They were evil, yeah, but there was so much more to them than just evil.  Their passing is sad, especially Noah’s.  Vayne is stopped, and it’s triumphant in the sense that he had gone off the deep end, but it doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad for what happened to Vayne.  Noah, on the other hand, was only able to find redemption in his death, and that’s just too much.  At the same time, I’m playing Tales of Berseria with a friend, and a pair of villains get killed and while the game tries to play this as a big tragedy, both characters are such unrepentant jackasses that I don’t feel bad for them at all.

It’s a testament to how well each character is handled in Final Fantasy XII.  I feel for Noah and Basch, Cid and Balthier, Ashe and her kingdom, Vaan and his lack of direction in life, all of them feel real.  This is a crazy fantasy world where Star Wars ships fight over a city in a Star Wars battle (one that looks a lot better than the battles from the Star Wars movies that had just come out around the time XII was initially released) and a bunch of immortal jackasses who decided they were gods hand out magical nukes to make sure history goes as they want, but it comes across as a real, grounded story.  A real grounded story where I routinely beat up T-Rexes with swords and guns.

I’m talking a lot about the end, but there’s a lot more.  I was really impressed with the Pharos as a dungeon.  This is the Final Fantasy I’ve played the most, but the past two times I played it, I didn’t have the time to really enjoy it, so getting to really play around with it (and being high enough level that it wasn’t much of a challenge…) was a lot of fun.  It’s interesting in how big it is and how well developed.  It’s more of a final dungeon, with the eight bosses, two of them Espers, and three of the bosses in a row, than the actual final dungeon.  Bahamut, by contrast, was just a couple of hallways with an infinite number of low powered enemies.  The bosses were pretty spectacular, but the dungeon itself was a bit of a letdown.  Pharos was great.  It’s a long, long fight to the top, and once there, so much happens all at once.  Cid and Balthier get to finish their storylines, Gabranth finally confronts the party and his story gets kicked into high gear, and Ashe gets to the end of her rising action in her story.  Plus, Reddas is just a straight up badass.  “What if I take up the stone?”  “Then your woe is your own.”  We later find out that he’d kill her if she did, so that is stone cold.  Plus, him sacrificing himself to stop the Sun Cryst.  It’s such a great ending, with Bahamut being the final denouement.

There’s still a little bit left for me to get through as far as side quests.  I killed all of the regular hunts, but I still have some Elite Marks left (Gilgamesh, Ixion, Behemoth King, Seer and Yizamat) and the top three Espers, plus Hellwyrm.  I’ll do them later, I’m going to start Final Fantasy IX first.  This is the last Final Fantasy Challenge I do on XII.  I probably won’t stop talking about it, though, it’s my favorite JRPG.

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age Part 3: Venat is a Heretic

This one is a long time coming, mostly because I’ve spent a lot of time taking down marks and elite marks (and maybe playing a bit of Dragon Ball FighterZ), and I haven’t really pushed too far into the story.  However, because I’ve been taking down marks, I’ve seen huge sections of the game I’ve never seen before.  Final Fantasy XII is one of my favorite games of all time, and there are whole sections of the game I’ve more or less glossed over because it was too much work.

However, that work is worth it.  There are so many cool things to do and see in Ivalice that I’m glad I’m finally getting to see it in full 1080p glory.  Most of the sidequests here fall into the Clan Centurio stuff, and what’s interesting is how much cool world building they do.  While some of the Marks and Elite Marks are references to other Final Fantasy games, and a few are just straight up bosses from other Final Fantasy games, it’s interesting to see how well integrated they are into the lore of Ivalice.  The writers really thought through what each monster really means and how they connect, and how very cool a fantasy world Ivalice is.  One of my favorite bits of trivia is that the Bagolys, which are the Final Fantasy XII and XIV equivalent to owlbears, were created by wizards to be aerial troops, and had a level of sentience and sapience that was sapped from them when they weren’t needed, thanks to the invention of airships.  It’s cool, because it ties in with one of the themes of the powerful abusing the powerless, since one of the reason these monsters are out roaming the world is because the kings of eld forgot about them when new, shiny technology showed up.  It’s totally in line with Raithwall bringing peace through nuking the shit out of everyone.

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Image Copyright Square Enix

What does impress me is how well they’re able to use the character models to portray different games.  This was one of the first high end Final Fantasy games, and because the PlayStation 2 could only handle so much, and the DVDs could hold only so much space, Final Fantasy XII has a lot of reused character models and palette swaps, and they manage to make them look really good.  Sure, Marlith up there is a bit boring, but she’s really the exception.  Expecting to get something completely unique like XV’s Nagarani on what was really a PS2 game isn’t fair, so I have to commend the art team for doing such a splendid job on giving each mark, enemy and boss a unique look, even if it’s just a palette swap.

Another reason for a lack of updates is that I reached the biggest lull in the story.  Between Judge Bergan and getting to Archades, there’s a huge trek across all of rural Arcadia.  It was pretty fun from a gameplay perspective, since I was constantly switching around PCs and getting into all sorts of trouble via the Clan Centurio side quest, but it also meant the story sort of fell off.  This is one of the places I, personally, have gotten bored at and took a couple of months before soldiering through, and I know it’s where a lot of other people stop at.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of really gorgeous scenery, and it shows the bio-dynamism of the games environments.  The Mosphoran Highwaste is one of the more interesting places in the game, and Phon Coast might be the best beach in Final Fantasy.  There’s so much to see and do, that I didn’t really have a problem skipping out on story, although it wasn’t absent.  We do get a lot of character beats, and while Fran and Penelo remain mostly underdeveloped, Ashe and Balthier do get a lot added to their personal arcs here, which is good since so much was dedicated to Vaan and Basch previously.  Once we get to Archades, things kick back into full gear, even if I did faff around and kill a bunch more Marks for the Hell of it before going into the Great Crystal.

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Image Copyright Square Enix

It’s here we learn about the Occuria and Venat and what all of the arc words have been about.  The Occuria might be some of the biggest assholes in Final Fantasy.  Self-styled gods who judge the world of man because the humes, viera, bangaa, nu mou and others don’t do exactly as they ask?  Like, god being evil is sort of a Final Fantasy thing, but generally we get a Kefka situation, where the evil god is a former mortal, or their evil is due to mortals.  Nope, the Occuria are just abusive assholes who feel completely justified in handing magical nukes to whatever bloody handed tyrant they want.

Ashe’s horrified look when they tell her to see revenge in Giruvegan says all that needs to be said about them.  However, the Occuria make for a really interesting take on one of the points this game was trying to make.  One of the things the producer and the writers have said about XII is that they wanted to make the game where the good guys are sort of selfish and the bad guys have noble goals.  It’s contrasted by Rabanastre being an absolute monarchy while Arcadia is democratically elected (uh, sorta), but the Occuria are also an example of this.  Venat is right in his motivation, and his aims are noble, but he, like his allies Vayne and Cid, have fallen into corruption.  Meanwhile, the heroes are somewhat self-motivated, but they’ll get a chance to become selfish by rejecting all of this.  Interestingly, Venat, Vayne and Cid aren’t too different from the Occuria, either.

They talk a lot about history returning to the hands of man.  They’re referring to the Occuria and their interference in mortal history, and the way they say it, they mean all man, from king to commoner.  However, in practice, they don’t mean that at all.  Bergan pretty much straight up says he wants to tear down the Occurian tyranny specifically to raise of Vayne’s, and while Vayne portrays himself, and probably believes himself, to be a man of the people and a just ruler, he is actually just as much a tyrant as the Occuria.

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy XII the Zodiac Age Part 2: He shall defy the will of the gods, and see the reigns of history in the hands of man

I was originally going to go with a Basch quote about bearing any shame if it meant he could save even one person from the horrors of war, but I really feel like this quote from Judge Bergan, one of the few actual bit players in the game, fits this point in the game better.  I’m about at the halfway point, on my way to Archades, and I’ve reached about the most heart-rending part of the game, where Bergan tears through the refugee camp at Mt. Bur-Omisace all for the purpose of striking against the gods.

That quote up there is sort of the major theme of the game.  I’m not going to get too much into spoilers, but this is the Final Fantasy I’ve played more than most, so I know what he’s talking about and while I don’t want to give anything away, his quest is sort of noble.  It’s interesting, though, to see the lengths to which Vayne, through people like Bergan and Cid, are willing to go through to succeed at a goal that may be noble, but their methods are just brutal.  If the gods are as bad as they’re saying they are, is murdering the clergy that serves them and burning the refugees they’re trying to help actually doing anything about it?

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Copyright Square Enix

One of the major themes of this game is power and its use.  Remember, the back story of this game is pretty much “what if King Arthur actually had nukes?” so the bad guys having a potentially noble goal, but are willing to murder innocent people who are just tangentially, if unwittingly, opposed to that goal is something that this game is going to explore.  The first time I played this game, it seemed like a pretty cruel thing for the empire to do, and it was carried out by this actual crazy person.  It’s a great scene, because it’s a scene that shows what Empire, or at least Vayne, is capable of, but it’s also so full of foreshadowing and really lays out the themes of the game.

Everything about this game explores power, and it ties in with the game.  The Espers I have to get are the same Lucavi demons from Final Fantasy Tactics (literally the same, Tactics takes place in the, or possibly an alternate, future), and their story, too, is similar to that of mine.  At the same time, the MacGuffin in this game are also literal magical nukes, that may or may not be made out of the souls of the dead.   To have one of the bad guy show up and exposit about it makes for a great scene, and it underscores what makes this game so damn good.

So, I’m about halfway or so though the game.  I’m on my way to Archades, and I’m going to take a break from the story to take out a few of the Elite Marks and do some sidequests.  I said before that I’m worried about playing VII and VIII because of how all of the sidequests introduce some sort of minigame (or a terrible trading card game), but I’m really glad that this game just has me use the mechanics of the game.  Mostly all I need to do is talk to a guy and get a quest, which has me fight some kick ass monster.  I guess it’s a little limited, and I know that’s why the Playstation era games decided to add those minigames, but it’s refreshing to not have to learn a completely different set of mechanics just because of one damn fight.

There are a few gimmick fights in this.  I fought some magnet monster (who I forgot to steal from again!)  that was a little weird, but it was just a cool mechanic.  It helped I wasn’t wearing a shit ton of heavy armor, so the magnet abilities, which would put a Slow-like mechanic on a guy wearing Heavy Armor, didn’t have a huge impact on me, but the fight was still challenging enough that it kind of pushed me.  It’s not as punishing as the original, and I like that, but it still requires me to work hard at the game and try to do my best.

I’ve also managed to reach a point in the game where I have two license boards, and I’m starting to get Epsers and level three Quickenings, which actually have an impact on what abilities I can get.  So, for example, because I gave Basch the Esper Mateus, he was able to get some high end White Magic, that he wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.  The way the dual license board system works, along with the unique Espers and Quickenings, is actually pretty cool because it means my build still has a bit of differences, even with the pre-defined classes.

I’m enjoying the game more than I’ve ever enjoyed it.  The Zodiac Age is much, much improved over the original.  I had some serious gameplay issues with the original, but overlooked them because I love the stories and characters, as well as the themes it explores and the gorgeous art direction.  Now, it’s actually even more fun to play, because it smoothes over a lot of the rough edges.  Elder Wyrm was still a huge pain in the ass, with its goddamn Treant adds and Sporefall ability.  I maintain it’s the hardest boss of the main campaign because of where it is, but I’m glad I made it through on my first try, rather than having to smash my head against the wall and grind and grind and grind to make sure I have enough experience to beat him through attrition.  Thanks to the revised mechanics, I felt I was able to win more through strategy, and then shifting tactics during the battle, than just having more hitpoints and spells than he had times to hit me in the face with his fucking Sporefall.