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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.

Vayne_Solidor1

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.

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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.

XII_marilith_render

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.

Venat-possessing-Mjrn

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?

Judge_Bergan-large

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.

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age part 1 Don’t Believe Ondore’s Lies

Seriously, don’t.  Because that man is a master of manipulation.  I had never really considered how good he was at manipulating the events of the game to his, and to Dalmasca’s, benefit.  There are characters who attempt to play both sides, to do the whole “magnificent bastard” archetype, and too often we get characters like Senator Palaptine in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy who can just do stuff because they know the future or they’re just so, so smart, they can predict anything.  Bean from the Ender books and Light from Death Note are similar.  I actually really dislike characters like that because their manipulations come across more as plot contrivances than the character actually being manipulative.  Marquis Halim Ondore feels legitimate in his ability to play all sides.

As a player, it’s hard to actually read where his loyalties lie.  This is my third time through, and even though I haven’t played the game in almost 10 years (Jesus, I thought i loved this game), I know which side he’s on.  I also know that at the point I’m at, having finally gotten my full party, I also know that he’s going to come across as shady for most of the game.  Having Basch pull out his sword while in his office, so they get arrested by Ghis, who has both Ashe and Penelo, was a masterstroke.  What’s cool is that this easily could have been a plot contrivance, but the game makes a point of establishing Ondore as already knowing what is going on.  He knew where Ashe was, and he picked up on the girl Larsa brought with him is important to the kid Basch and the sky pirate brought with them, so he manages to kill two birds with one stone.

Ondore1

Copyright Square Enix

So, why am I talking so much about Ondore?  Because Ondore is an example of how this game does good by all of its characters.  Vaan is probably the least liked character, and he does fall into a trap that a lot of anime and video game characters of that era were falling into, but in a lot of ways, his characterization is more of a commentary on that sort of anime/shonen hero rather than an embrace of it.  I notice he’s not too dissimilar from Edward Elric in that regard, in that they’re both brash, naive and a bit selfish.  Both of them, too, are kind and heroic and are interested in using their skills to help people, yes, but the first three traits are what we see for both of them right at the beginning, and they are personality traits that the work they appear in portray as downsides.  Compare to someone like Naruto (or any of the heroes in that story), their brashness, naivete and general selfishness is not rewarded and gets them, and their friends in trouble just as much.

Vaan causes tons of issues for Balthier and Basch early on, but neither of them are going to take any of his shit.  Vaan’s characterization makes him a pretty typical teenage protagonist, but the way the characters treat him and his antics show that they aren’t going to let him be a dipshit the whole game, and that’s what makes this game great.  It also helps that the characters have tons of foils both in and out of the party.  Consider Larsa, who is also naive, but his primary character trait is that he’s kind.  He expects Vayne will treat the people of Dalmasca as Vayne treated him, with kindness and respect.  There’s also some evidence to suggest that Vayne’s murder of their two older brothers was to protect Larsa from some sort of mortal danger, although the game doesn’t elaborate on it.  Anyway, because Vayne was kind to him, Larsa expects Vayne will be kind to the people of Dalmasca.  He’s 12, and it’s easy to see why a 12-year-old would think this.  He manages to be a great foil to Vaan, since Vaan’s naivete is based on something else, but more importantly, both use the story as a means to grow up and become better people, and better leaders.

I’m marching through the game at a decent pace.  This version of the game is much easier than the PS2 version, and that’s a compliment.  Too much of the difficulty in the original version of the game is because it was built with XI in mind, a game that is so insanely difficult, it’s hard to believe it was considered an easy MMORPG when it came out.  The Zodiac Age does a better job of balancing out the HP and damage of both the enemies and the PCs, making the game feel much smoother.  That doesn’t mean the game is without challenge, Judge Ghis nearly killed Balthier a bunch of times, and was only saved by a quick use of a Reflectaga mote right at the end of the fight.

The new licence board is also so much better.  Not only do the classes give each character an identity, the licences are actually better spread out, and it’s much, much easier to plan out a character.  Once I got Ashe on my team and made her a Foebreaker, I was able to get her up to tank status right away, and build her out in such a way that that I knew what I could grab over the next few levels.  I really like that most of their equipment or spells are nearby, meaning the player can focus on getting the stuff that is relevant to their class pretty easily, while the more complex or esoteric stuff comes later.  For instance, all of the White, Black and Green magick available to a Red Battlemage is all very close, but the Greatswords are further down the equipment list, closer to when the characters will be able to actually purchase that level of greatsword.

I still dislike the weird “k” they’ve added to everything.  Magick, Technicks, etc.  It’s dumb looking.  On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to get Techniques now, too, because they were in some weird places on the original licence board, and now they’re properly distributed into the different classes in such a way that they’re easy to grab, as a means to better flesh out the class.

Currently, my team is as follows: Vaan: Monk, Balthier: White Mage, Fran: Red Battlemage, Basch: Knight, Ashe: Foebreaker and Penelo: Time Battlemage.  Once I get Licence Board +, I’ll add Shikari To Vaan, Machinst to Balthier, Archer to Fran, Ulhan to Basch, Bushi to Ashe and Black Mage to Penelo.  I’m thinking I should have given her Black Mage first, then moved into Time Battlemage, but too late.

Final Fantasy Challenge Changing All of The Rules

So, I decided the worst thing to do was to follow my original plan and play through all of the Final Fantasy games all at once.  Actually, looking over my original plans and rules for this playthrough, I found that I wasn’t going to actually enjoy this.  I was looking at this like work, instead of a fun thing I can use to write about one of my favorite video game series.  So, I decided to drop all of my rules and play all of the games in whatever order I wanted to.  That order was to play all of the ones I haven’t played, but I wanted to start with XII.

Final_Fantasy_XII

Copyright Square Enix

Longtime readers know that XII is my favorite Final Fantasy game.  It’s a close fight between it and VI, mostly because both have a lot of things I like in my RPGs.  A large cast of PCs that each feel like the main character of their own story, a villain, or collection of villains, that feel real and have real motivations, tons of magitech (that’s apparently a thing for me) and a focus on a spanning political epic that effects the lives of king and commoner alike.  XII gets the nod mostly because of the sweet airships, and a kickass art book I got when I bought the strategy guide 12 years ago.  I got it for free.  I dressed up like a Black Mage for a costume contest and won by default.

Already, the Zodiac Age manages to make things better right at the very beginning.  Obviously the graphics have been touched up, but not by a whole lot.  Final Fantasy XII pushed the Playstation 2 to its limit back in the day, and it had really great art direction.  The opening mission with Reks and Basch looks great, and I forgot how good of an intro it really is.  It comes after nearly five minutes of gorgeous cutscenes that set the stage for the game, so I always remembered it being a bit slow, but the game does a good job of teaching how things work.  Plus, it does themeing really well by teaching the player about what they will be able to become by having Basch use his Fulminating Darkness on the boss.  It’s not quite on the level of Zero blasting off the arm of Vile’s mech in one charge shot, but you know, it’s going to be hard to match up to the first level of Mega Man X, the best first level of any game in the world.

The first thing I noticed is that the voice acting no longer sounds like it was recorded in a can.  The weird, mono-esque echo that plagues the original Playstation 2 version is gone.  All of the voices sound crisp and clear, and it’s surprising how good the voice acting is.  The game uses a sort of antiquated, semi-Shakespearean vocabulary and it would be easy to stumble over the words, especially since so much of this was recorded in late 2005, and wasn’t redone for the remake.  However, they all do a really good job of acting.  This shouldn’t be a thing I have to say, but 12 years ago, “video game voice acting” was kind of a joke, and if it was a Japanese game, that went double.  Hell, even Final Fantasy had difficulty with this, as even professional voice actors had difficulty with X (although not as much as expected) and XIII is such a shit show in so many ways, it shouldn’t be surprising that the voice acting is also bad.  Here, though, it’s great.  They have serious cartoon actors (John DiMaggio, Keith James Ferguson, Phil LaMarr, among many others) and the less well known actors all seem to have stage acting experience, which helps with the awkward phrasing and old-timey sort of talking.

So far, I’ve only completed the first parts with Vaan.  I’m going to try power leveling at the beginning to avoid some of the more unpleasant aspects of the midgame, but the reviews say the difficulty curve is much less shitty, and it’s easier to get both money and license points.  The job system apparently helps with that.  I’m using a guide for my job choices, since I’m tired and have a lot going on at work, and it’s apparently suboptimal (like keeping a gun in Balthier’s hands), but I’d rather have a bit of fun with this playthrough than make it work.  After all, this is about experiencing games I didn’t get to grow up with, but always did.  This is about as close to nostalgia as I can get, and I’m ready for it.  Time to beat myself up so an undead monster shows up and I can chain kill it for power leveling!  This is actually less lame than it sounds.

Edit: After a week of playing Final Fantasy XII, I’ve decided to take this out of the Final Fantasy XII playthrough section and make its own thing to stand alone.  My thoughts on XII have evolved and I have different things to say on the subject, so I’m keeping this here as a statement that I’m not going to follow the original rules that I laid out, and have decided to approach specific write ups from a different perspective.

Basically, I put a lot of stupid pressure on myself for no reason, and I’m going to ignore all of it because I hate it and want to do things my way.

RPG Villains

You know who was an awesome villain?  Van Grants.  Most people probably thought I was going to say Kefka, and he really is a good villain, but he’s also sort of Emperor Joker, but six years earlier.  No, Van is the bad guy in Tales of the Abyss, and I guess that’s spoilers for the first ten hours of a 12-year-old game that stretches for nearly ninety hours, but whatever, it’s my column, I can write whatever the Hell I want.  What makes Van really cool is that he’s a guy.  He’s a really strong guy, but he’s just sort of a guy, with hopes and dreams and aspirations.  He’s not a demon lord, he’s not some genetically engineered super soldier who wants to become a god, he’s not an emperor and he’s not just crazy.  He’s an asshole.  Worse, he’s got a damn good reason to be an asshole.

Like, aside for a paragraph?  Luke’s dad is like the worst person in video games.  Dude is an actual rapist and he gets off scott free.  Like, fuck that guy.

Characters like Van aren’t actually uncommon in video games, because they’re a pretty common character archetype.  A hero wronged, turns to evil.  It’s a good villain, and a good tool in the toolbelt of a writer, because such a villain can be used to act as a foil for the hero, can explore more dynamic themes and can tie in for stronger plot details.  It’s why you see so many fallen heroes as the main bad guy.  Find a noble character, give them a terrible flaw and make them evil.  It’s great.  Shakespeare made a career out of making plays about these guys, and as a player, it’s sometimes fun to be on the other side of a tragedy for once.  In RPGs, though, it’s rarely the case.  I mean, it makes sense, if the players were cutting down giant robotsancient planetary defense mechanisms or just giant goddamn dragons, it sort of makes sense that the only thing that can challenge the PCs at that point is a god.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly lead to a very compelling villain.  Sure, it’s pretty cool to cut down a god, but it’s not the same if the characters aren’t attached to them.  There are exceptions, of course, Kefka becomes a god, but he’s still just a man who stole incredible power (which is why he goes from giggling, power obsessed mad man to a bored nihilist when he gets what he wants), he’s not a god to begin with.  Van never becomes a god.  Van is literally just a guy, and that’s what makes him work.  Because Van is a guy, he can show up, harry the players, talk with them, try to reason with them and become a part of their lives.  The characters get to become attached to him, and not just because his goal is vengeance and this is all personal for him (or that he’s Tear’s brother), but because he gets to interact with him.  From the first scene of the game to the final battle, the players get a chance to talk with, argue against, curse at, fight and get tricked by and lied to by Van.  This isn’t something you really get a chance to do if you fight a god or demon lord.  Even an emperor makes it difficult, because of the difference in social standing.

Consider Vayne Solidor as a contrast.  Vayne is one of my favorite villains in Final Fantasy because he’s right, but he’s also a Lawful Evil totalitarian who needs to be stopped yesterday.  He does get to interact with the PCs a little bit, and even then, much of that is couched through the interactions the PCs have with his younger brother Larsa.  Most of what we know about Vayne being compelling is through scenes the player sees that the PCs never know about.  There is a level of dramatic irony the game plays up a little bit, not as much as it could, which is interesting, but it does lessen the personal stakes.  Granted, Vayne’s lieutenant Gabranth gets to have a lot of the interactions with the PCs, and is very similar to Van in a lot of ways (although much less reason to be an asshole.  Seriously, Luke’s dad is the WORST you guys), but he’s not the one who gets a three stage boss fight before the credits, so he doesn’t get to count as the main bad guy.

I’m not saying the villain shouldn’t be powerful.  Magneto or Doctor Doom fit as the kind of characters I’m talking about, and they’re both incredibly powerful.  Also, Doom was God for awhile, and he still managed to be this while being actually God.  Kefka, too, is a great example and he was almost who I wrote about before I remembered Van, and there’s also Seymour and, kind of, Adyn.  All of them are compelling characters who have a connection to the party in a direct way, who interact with the PCs on a regular basis.  This is important.  The villain needs to be a part of the hero’s lives.

Top Ten Games of All Time

Hey everyone.  I’m actually about to sign off for a long weekend after a long semester.  I finished up what might be the final draft of my novel, started up the next one and began planning a third.  I didn’t really know what to write, since this is going to be my last bit of writing (not counting some D&D notes) for probably the next four days, and it’s kind of been a shitty day.  So, to right some wrongs and go out on a positive note, I decided to get down and write out my Ten Favorite Games of All Time.  This is the 2017 list, and it’s a list that gets updated all of the time.  Hell, there are games on here from this year, last year and the year before.  I can’t remember the last time that happened.  So, it’s less of “All Time” and more “of All Time until something I like more comes out and removes a game from the list.”  I have no rules to this, no one franchise only things or any of that.  Just my favorite games of all time, in reverse order.  Enjoy and yell at me about my bad taste in the comments.

Fire Emblem Awakening

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Image Copyright Nintendo

The title at the bottom of the list was Shining Force II.  I love tactical RPGs, but too often, Yasumi Matsuno makes them too complicated.  I love the idea of Final Fantasy Tactics, but I could never get into it, mostly in thanks to it taking 3 menus to decide on character actions.  Also the cheating AI.  So, I just continued to love Shining Force II for 25 years.  Then, when I had a bit of free time over the summer, I finally played this game, and it was everything I ever wanted in a tactical RPG, without being way too complicated.  I loved all of the class switching and interesting things you could do with your characters in Final Fantasy Tactics, I just didn’t like playing it.  The game feel is kind of awful.  Fire Emblem Awakening takes that complexity and gives it Shining Force style game feel.

I know there are bunch of other Fire Emblem games, but this was the first one I could really get into.  The characters were fun and interesting and there was a ton of love poured into this game.  Hell, it even made grinding fun, since the way the battles and maps were set up, it made for a lot of fun.  Maybe there are other Fire Emblem games that might scratch the itch more than Awakening does, but I haven’t found them yet.  This is it, the perfect balance of Shining Forces’s more traditional JPRG gameplay with the complex character building of Final Fantasy Tactics.  Also, it’s got, like 5/7 of the Critical Role cast in it.  Just no Marisha or Ashley.

Mega Man X

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Copyright Capcom

I love Mega Man.  I listen to music about Mega Man.  I’ve had the Blue Bomber as a keychain since 2015, making it the longest lasting keychain I’ve ever had.  Like, Mega Man is a great game.  It handles great, you can jump, shoot, slide, steal weapons, it’s awesome.  Without counting the strange X7, Mega Man 8 is the worst Mega Man game ever made, and it’s still a really kick ass game.  Like, that should say something about this series, especially since all of the games are basically the same, gameplay wise.  Mega Man X, though, is just the best Mega Man game.  It takes everything Mega Man ever did right, does it better and cuts out a lot of crap.

The X series gets a bad rap for going way too anime way too fast, and I think it sort of deserves that a bit, but the X series also had a lot of really awesome ideas and ways to improve and alter the series.  I like that.  I also really like how unique and varied the levels are, the excellent opening stage and lots of really cool Mavericks.  I’ve explored a lot of Mega Man in my life, but the first X game is the only one I stayed up with a buddy and a bottle of adult beverages to beat at four in the morning.  Can’t say that about Mega Man 3.

Dishonored 2

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Copyright Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks

I love stealth games a whole lot.  This isn’t going to be the last stealth game on this list.  Dishonored was my favorite.  Great combat system, great level design, excellent stealth mechanics, a real evolution of games like Thief and System Shock.  Both of those were games that were sort of before my time, PC game wise, so I never got into them, but I do appreciate the legacy they left, and Dishonored quickly became one of my favorite games of all time.  Sure, the story left a lot to be desired, but that only mattered when I went back to look at it.  While playing, the whole thing feels great.  Then, Dishonored 2 game out, and it had the clockwork mansion.  Best level ever, 10/10.

I was pretty hard on Dishonored 2 when it came out, because it was very much like the original game, without a lot of changes, other than Emily’s cool new powers.  Then, Arkane decided they were going to add a bunch of cool stuff, like the ability to mix and match Corvo and Emily’s powers, custom difficulty modes and a few gameplay improvements.  It’s still iterative, but it’s an improvement on an already awesome game.  Plus, you know, clockwork mansion.  I even got the achievement of breaking in without anyone ever knowing.  So worth it, even if it took six retries to actually kill the bastard.

Metal Gear Solid 5: the Phantom Pain

This is not exactly the best box art

Copyright Konami

I wasn’t kidding when I said Dishonored wasn’t the only stealth game on this list.  I love this game.  I spent a good chunk of 2015 and 2016 writing about how much I love it.  I replayed it after my Playstation 4 got stolen and lost all my progress.  I haven’t been able to finish it, because of all the great games that have come out this year (some of which might edge out other games on this list, Persona and Mario are so good, you guys), but it’s still great.  Hell, it’s even better the second time through.  The twist is so much better than I remember it being, and the story is actually really good.  Shame about the ending getting cut, but the rest is great.

Seriously, it’s the best open world stealth combat game out there.  The sheer depth of what the player can do in this game is unrivaled.  Sneak in, exfiltrate the prisoners without being seen?  Okay.  Go in guns blazing and play like this is Gears of War, that’s also possible.  Play Gears of War with nonlethal weapons?  Sure, this is Metal Gear, after all.  I love this game.  I guess 3 has a better realized story.  I should probably mention that, but, whatever.  I still like this one more.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

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Copyright Nintendo

I’m, uh, a bit surprised as some readers might be.  This was seriously my number three of all time, and when I wrote this list the first time, this is where Breath of the Wild was (so, uh, spoilers?).  However, in the couple of months I’ve been working on this list, Breath of the Wild really has become my favorite Zelda game.  Maybe it’s because it hits the mark in ways I wanted the Witcher 3 to, or maybe it’s because it’s shiny and new and I haven’t played a Link to the Past in years.  Whatever, this is the definitive 2D Zelda game.  Nothing has come close to being as good as this is, except for a Link Between Worlds, which I might actually like more than this, but I’ve also not played it since it came out.  Also, I think Worlds loses some points for reusing the LttP map.

This has great dungeons, a huge, sprawling world and it defined how Zelda games worked for 26 years.  Like, until Breath of the Wild came out, Zelda games followed the format laid out in this game, and this game did it better than all of them.  Ganon’s Tower, Turtle Rock, Misery Mire, holy shit, those are some awesome dungeons, and they were capped off with some of the most inventive bosses in the series.  It’s a shame the 2D games were relegated to the much less powerful handhelds, because they followed a much weaker format.  This is what inspired Ocarina of Time, and it never had a boss like Helmasaur King or Trinexx.  Those were some kick ass bosses that defined how video game bosses should be.  Holy crap.

Dark Souls III

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Image copyright From Software and Namco Bandai

Someone told me Dark Souls was a horror game.  I guess the idea was that since the main character is basically a well trained dude taking on gods, and it has this Gothic, decrepit aesthetic, people just assume it’s a horror game.  I don’t think I would grin manically while I charged a monster called Old Demon King in a horror game.  Seriously, this game hits me on so many levels, to an emotional core, that it’s actually difficult to explain.  Like, okay, I blocked a hit from a giant person who turned himself into a dragon with my shield.  He’s a sorcerer and he has a staff three times my size and I blocked it like it was whatever, I’ve got a shield.  Holy crap did that feel awesome.  I stabbed a dragon in the brain.  I stared down an army of the undead and killed them, killed their masters, went into the center of the confluence of the apocalypse and I snuffed out the flame of life.  Holy shit is this game bad ass.

I love it.  Like, I love it so much.  I didn’t like Demon’s Souls, I didn’t like Dark Souls or Dark Souls 2, because they were both too slow, but I did like Bloodborne, and so I liked this game.  I grabbed a sword, a bit of magic, a shield and made myself look as awesome as possible and I murdered a god.  Sure, I died a lot doing it, but holy shit, how many games can I say that, and feel like I kind of actually did it?  Not many.  My only regret is that my save file got erased before I got to play the Ringed City.

Mass Effect 2

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Copyright Bioware and EA

Mass Effect is such a disappointing series.  I love it, I love the characters, I love the design, I love the idea.  It was science fiction in an era when there was no Star Trek, Star Wars was bad and the best we had was Halo.  Then there was 3.  Then Andromeda was basically the best thing that could have come from the series after that.  I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about 2.  It’s the best.  I love it.  Sure, it’s basically a cover shooter mixed with a dating sim, but it’s the best part of both of those things, with a kick ass science fiction setting and a nice, dark turn for the series.  Yes, it was quite a difference from the last game, but whatever, it had Thane and Miranda and it didn’t have Liara.  That made it great.

Plus, it has the Suicide Mission.  Mass Effect 2 has a lot of great levels, and there are a lot of great final levels, but nothing is as good as the Suicide Mission.  It’s the best level in Mass Effect 2 and it’s the best final level.  Not only is it a challenge that tests the player on everything they’ve learned about the game, it’s also thematically the most appropriate final level I’ve ever played, and it finally delivers on the “consequences” that RPGs have been promising since Ultima in ’81.  Seriously, people can die, and it will be your fault, you monster.  Plus, it’s got Lair of the Shadowbroker, possibly the best piece of Bioware DLC.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Copyright Nintendo

I guess I spoiled this one.  Yeah, it’s my favorite Zelda.  I think I knew that as soon as I stepped outside of the Shrine of Resurrection.  It’s game of the year, too.  I mean, obviously it is.  I’m still doing the in depth write up next month, but, let’s be honest, this is the best game.  It’s everything I wanted Dragon Age: Inquisition, Skyrim and the Witcher III: the Wild Hunt to be.  It’s an action packed exploration game with great exploration mechanics, a lot of fun combat and so much to see and do.

Sure, korok seeds kind of suck, but that’s like the only flaw in the game.  I don’t even care about korok seeds, man.  I just want to climb mountains, find lynels on the peaks and fight them.  Like, I would just do that, for hours.  I didn’t always win, and it was awesome.  Like, I have a horse called Paladin, and it’s my second favorite horse in video games (I still love you, Nightmare, even though I will probably never play World of Warcraft ever again) and I loved jumping off it and shooting moblins in the face with a bow.  I haven’t played the DLC yet, but that looks like it adds so much cool stuff.  No, it doesn’t bother me that there aren’t a lot of traditional Zelda dungeons or bosses or whatever the fuck.  I don’t care about that shit.  I care that I can go anywhere, fight anything and see the best rendition of Zelda while riding on Paladin.  Oh yeah, I also liked the story.  It wasn’t, you know, Ulysses or anything, but it was cute and fun and nice to see, especially since most of the games on this list are filled with death and apocalypses.

Final Fantasy XII

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Copyright Square Enix

This is my favorite Final Fantasy.  VI gets to be my 11th favorite game, and I love me some Kefka, but this game has inspired me more than any video game ever.  I based my D&D setting on this.  I love almost everything about this, except for the optional super bosses, which I don’t care about anyway.  I love Final Fantasy, and this one has my favorite characters, my favorite story and the best lore.  Also, Yasumi Matsuno didn’t make it overly complicated.

Vayne and Venat anre’t my favorite Final Fantasy villains (it’s Kefka, to no one’s surprise), but they’re the reason it’s my favorite Final Fantasy.  They’re regular people with real desires, ones that I can believe in, even if they’re couched in a lot of fantasy mumbo jumbo.  Sure, Vayne is a prince and Venat is an ethereal immortal creature that was once part of a group of ethereal immortal creatures who claimed to be gods, but what they want is relatable and they’re sort of right.  They’re terrible people, but they’re people, and they have the right idea.  The story is touching and subtle, and it’s all about character development.  Balthier learning to stop running, Vaan growing up, Basch taking his stand, Ashe becoming a true queen, they’re all great, and that’s just the good guys.  The bad guys get development, and they feel like people.  Hell, even disposable woman Judge Drace manages to become a bad ass one scene wonder by cramming six hours of awesome into her three minutes of on-screen appearance.  That’s saying something.

alucard

I mean, hell, this is the cover in most regions.  Copyright Konami

It’s been my favorite game for years.  I only wish the sprites were better, and even then, I kinda don’t?  Like, they’re great for 1997, I only want them better because I want this game to exist forever.  It’s beautiful and I love it.  I mean, that’s it.  Like, great soundtrack, excellent level design that takes into account the fact you’ll be walking on the ceiling for half of the game, cool enemies, the best bosses in the series, playing as Alucard, a bit of depth to the action platforming in the form of spells and RPG mechanics.  The only flaw?  Gear and loot.  I guess it’s unbalanced, but I never use the Shield Rod, because that isn’t fun.  I guess that should be a flaw?  Whatever, I don’t care.  It’s great, and I’ve bought it like four times.  I even have the original PS1 game.