Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Part 5: How Do You Judge A Game You Don't Like Until Hour Thirty?

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In case you missed the previous episodes:

Part 41: Why, Oh Why, Is There So Much Backtracking?

Cool, I'm super excited to run through Nalbina for the ten millionth time! Thanks, game!
Cool, I'm super excited to run through Nalbina for the ten millionth time! Thanks, game!

When we last met, Vayne made his power play, and our party set out for Draklor Laboratory. Before confronting Dr. Cid, Ashe and company traverse through SIX transitional open-world environments. As I mentioned in the last blog, it is frustrating to watch the game refuse to engage in top-down worldbuilding. Square-Enix has level after level to weave the mythos of Ivalice into the DNA of Final Fantasy XII. Unfortunately, the game defaults to "story selling" and too often relies on its graphical prowess to carry its story. Take, for example, our thirteenth trek through Rabanstre following the events at Mt Bur-Omisace. With the Imperial occupation nearing its first anniversary, things appear as they did in chapter one. We don't see people collecting food rations, nor are Imperial agents attempting to enlist the local citizenry. Rabanstre is still stunning to look at, but at the same time, it's stuck in stasis.

I want to preface this point before we continue into the "meat and potatoes" of this blog. I'm starting to warm up to Final Fantasy XII. While I'm not "sold" on its mechanics, I am enjoying its story and characters. Vayne, Balthier, Ashe, Gabranth, and Basch come into focus by the story's mid-point and do an excellent job of hiding the game's mechanical missteps. Regrettably, they are not given enough time to develop despite the game's elongated playing time. Of our SIX upcoming transitional levels, only ONE, the Phon Coast, advances any of the character arcs currently in play. Again, I'm not bellyaching over what the game attempts at storytelling; instead, I wish there was more of it.

[*insert clever reference*]
[*insert clever reference*]

However, there is something about the game's structure which continues to rub me the wrong way. A lot of the levels you explore during your trek to Archades do not "open up" until AFTER you finish your business at Draklor Laboratory. To illustrate, let's examine the Mosphoran Highwaste. When you first enter the level, you'll discover a dozen or so temples, each dedicated to a long-forgotten deity during the reign of King Raithwall. You latter find an Esper, Exodus, is imprisoned there after fighting on the losing side of an ancient war between Ivalice's gods. All of this information is interesting worldbuilding you have no hopes of learning until HOURS after the environment's introduction. Admittedly, the optional Espers are fun super bosses for die-hard fans. Nonetheless, the Mosphoran Highwaste is a "dead level" without this encounter. Not to mention, tucking away worldbuilding behind optional boss encounters, which necessitate hours of extra grinding, is shitty!

And while I rant about nit-picky bullshit, let's talk about the game's Byzantine fast travel system. Most of the side quests and hunts unlock a surprising amount of Ivalice's supporting lore. Therefore, several are worth doing as they contribute a lot to the game's mood and tone. The issue here comes when you need to travel vast distances using the game's teleport system. Admittedly, I've already talked about how I think Final Fantasy XII has a "proper noun problem." Not only do you need to wrap your mind around an insane number of proper nouns, but every environment is a word salad of Final Fantasy jargon. Worse, when you go up to a teleport crystal, instead of showing you a map of the overworld, it presents you with a contextless list of previously encountered environments.

WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS AN APPROPRIATE INTERFACE FOR A FAST TRAVEL SYSTEM?! WHO?!?!?!?!?!?
WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS AN APPROPRIATE INTERFACE FOR A FAST TRAVEL SYSTEM?! WHO?!?!?!?!?!?

You might be wondering why I am spending so much time talking about Final Fantasy XII's fast travel system. Well, I WANT you to know I attempted to complete a LOT of this game's side content! Indeed, I finished over 60% of the hunts and a majority of the optional Esper battles. Consequently, my "blind" playthrough of Final Fantasy XII exceeded EIGHTY HOURS! As a result, I don't want to hear any of you say I didn't "try" to learn the game's mechanics, because I did. But time and time again, the amount of aimless wandering built into EVERY questline, crushed my soul! Which is especially tragic as the game puts in a ton of excellent work into its bestiary. Seriously, if you have never read the codex entries on the Espers, you are missing out on some of the best lore in Final Fantasy XII!

Part 42: At Least The Levels Aren't All Brown Deserts Anymore

Speaking of which, let's talk about the hunts for a bit. I won't deny having my share of fun with Final Fantasy XII's hunt system. In fact, in a lot of ways, they provide better boss encounters than the mainline story. By all means, the side quests do a vastly superior job of exposing you to single-element or status-focused bosses. These fights were critical in helping me to identify useful Gambits for the last handful of dungeons. What drives me bonkers is how the hunts are unlike any quest system I have seen before. Why the game doesn't draw hunts, fetch quests, or menial tasks organically within each of its environments continues to blow my mind.

I sure did kill more Espers than I probably should have....
I sure did kill more Espers than I probably should have....

On the positive side, I liked how hunts were often "combat puzzles." I enjoyed having to identify elemental weaknesses and turning those weaknesses into advantages. Then again, eventually, I gave up on completing side quests. Part of this sentiment was the result of spending hours exploring the same desert wasteland for the seven hundredth time. Equally important, the difficulty progression of Final Fantasy XII's side quests is BRUTAL! Veteran players will back me up here, but there comes the point in Final Fantasy XII wherein the optional content requires max level characters. Inevitably, accomplishing this feat requires hours upon hours of grinding beyond the mainline story.

I do have to say I am happy the game shows more visual variety as you get closer to Archades. Even a basic-ass dungeon like the Sochen Cave Palace is a breath of fresh air because it does not look like anything you have previously encountered. Nonetheless, you may recall me criticizing Final Fantasy XII's environments as being "forgettable," and I stand by that statement. The lack of worldbuilding grievously hampers my interest when moving from one level to the next. Of course, beggars can't be choosers; at least the game is "done" repeating the same brown monochromatic color palette from the first two chapters. In contrast, the mid-game environments showcase a change in climate, which lends to the sense of us going on a continent-spanning adventure.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again, Final Fantasy XII has some of the best skyboxes in video game history!
I have said it before, and I'll say it again, Final Fantasy XII has some of the best skyboxes in video game history!

Furthermore, as someone fresh off of playing Final Fantasy XIII, it's nice to see the world of Ivalice populated with NPCs. And not just any NPCs, mind you, but NPCs with stories to tell. You learn so much about the world by talking to NPCs. The fact there are people in the world struggling with the same issues as our party, adds to the "wholeness" of Ivalice. Additionally, each environment's differences become immediately apparent through these interactions. By talking to different populations, you notice region-specific social quirks.

Under normal circumstances, I would be incredibly receptive to Final Fantasy XII providing the characters with "breathing room." Unfortunately, the game fails to reciprocate my open-mindedness. Foremost, until we reach the Phon Coast, the cutscenes are exclusively about introducing new environments and rarely, if ever, add to or resolve ongoing storylines. It's odd, to say the least, to have these beautiful backdrops teeming with flora and fauna, and yet, our player characters are as "dead" as a doornail. For fuck's sake, Basch goes without saying so much a word for the better part of THREE HOURS! Finally, and I cannot preface this point enough, the last significant moment in the story involved an Imperial judge massacring the citizenry of Mt Bur-Omisace. Does the story honestly want me to believe none of the characters have any form of PTSD?

Part 43: I Have Nice Things To Say About An Environmental Puzzle For Once

I LOVE the bomb designs in Final Fantasy XII! If only the rest of the enemy designs were this
I LOVE the bomb designs in Final Fantasy XII! If only the rest of the enemy designs were this "inspired!"

I do want to preface this blog's overall tone is going to be positive. Therefore, apologies for putting my bellyaching in the first three chapters. Regardless, after a brief trek through the Mosphoran Highwaste, our party finds itself at the Salikawood. Before I sing a few praises, I want to make it abundantly clear, the map for this level is atrocious. The Salikawood may well be my least favorite level in Final Fantasy XII due in no part to its endless supply of dead-ends. That said, it's a beautiful level with some grounding in the world. In some odd way, it reminds me of the Macalania Woods in Final Fantasy X. Both play like shit but are beautiful to look at and have exciting story moments to share.

Admittedly, collecting a troupe of Moogles to build a bridge doesn't sound compelling on paper. Furthermore, if I were to tell you the "quest" here boils down to an elongated game of hide-and-go-seek, you might even think I'm going crazy. In spite of that, the game makes your time at the Salikawood feel both worthwhile and intellectually engaging. For one thing, completing this quest leads to an awesome boss fight against a neat looking bomb enemy, and who says "no" to that? Second, helping the Craftsmoogles' League build a bridge is one of the few times when your actions impact the surrounding environment.

THE POWER OF MOOGLES COMPELS YOU!
THE POWER OF MOOGLES COMPELS YOU!

There's a similar moment at the Tchita Uplands. There, you meet up with a company of wealthy Arcadians, and their leader gives you a fake hunt to rid the nearby Sochen Cave of its mandragora infestation. Initially, this scene might not seem like much. However, as we learn more about Archades and its social practices, it ends up serving as excellent foreshadowing. When we finally make our way to Archades, we discover it to be a class-driven society. A random buffoon handing out an independent hunt, entirely removed from the Hunter's Guild, is a smart representation of this classism.

Again, these small touches do a lot of the heavy lifting in contextualizing the game's transitional environments. They are undoubtedly amusing to look back on, but I can't help but think the game misses a lot of opportunities to bring the supporting characters to the forefront. To highlight, it has been DAYS since we last heard from Penelo! Even characters like Balthier or Ashe go quiet for the better part of five hours! Likewise, I wish each of these environments were smaller. Seriously, there is no reason for the Tchita Uplands to be eleven parts or the Phon Coast TWELVE!

I'm not going to lie, this obviously drawn using a crayon note had me laughing my ass off.
I'm not going to lie, this obviously drawn using a crayon note had me laughing my ass off.

And if we want to return to Final Fantasy XII's proper noun problem, now is as good enough reason as ever. Let's take the Tchita Uplands as a quick case study. First, and we will talk about this issue shortly, you find several items and magic spells strewn throughout the level. To illustrate, "Float," "Blindga," and "Regen" are all available here, but good luck if you plan to pick them up within a single sitting. If someone is hoping to pick up "Regen," they first need to enter the "Realm of the Elder Dream." Then, they move southward until they find an exit to the "Oliphzak Rise," where they need to find a northwest entrance to "The Nameless Spring." From there, you travel to the "Garden of Life's Circle," and trek to a southeast path leading to "The Lost Way." SERIOUSLY, WHO THE FUCK NAMED ANY OF THIS SHIT?!

Part 44: Balthier Becomes A Character In Less Than Five Minutes

Throughout this blog, I have made references to the Phon Coast and how it represents the point where the story gets its shit together. While true, that doesn't mean it is innocent of committing the same mistakes the story has perpetuated since its inception. For one thing, Balthier's backstory is splayed out during a ten-minute in-game cutscene. Yes, it is a great scene, but HOT DAMN, was there no way for the story to foreshadow Baltheir's exposition dump? Before reaching the Phon Coast, there's ONE moment at the Henne Mines where Balthier name drops Draklor Laboratory. The issue here is the story doesn't resurface this point until the Phon Coast, which is over TEN HOURS removed from the Henne Mines!

I'd talk to Tony Bennett about helping your father find his lost heart.
I'd talk to Tony Bennett about helping your father find his lost heart.

The second issue I have stems from Final Fantasy XII's design. After Balthier pours his heart out to Ashe, we STILL have to clear out the Sochen Cave Palace. There is no reason why there needs to be a three-hour grind session between this and the next major set-piece. Finally, and I have to pick my words here carefully, I wish there were more to Balthier's relationship with Fran than what the game provides. The two of them are genuinely the best pairing in the game, and I wish we knew more about how they met. Instead, the two have isolated character moments. While the game provides a handful of charming vignettes where they play off each other perfectly, their relationship always feels like an afterthought.

All nitpicking aside, Balthier and Ashe are fantastic characters! At the Phon Coast, Balthier reveals he was once an Archadia Judge, and Dr. Cid is his father. He then weaves a tragic tale of how his father's quest to research nethicite quickly corrupted him. Furthermore, it's abundantly apparent Balthier is sharing this story as a word of caution. While he doesn't outright say it, he cares about his party members and values them as close companions. Balthier shows he knows all too well the heartbreak nethicite can create and attempts to protect his friends from harm.

Why is every character in Final Fantasy XII running away from their past?
Why is every character in Final Fantasy XII running away from their past?

I also want to add, Ashe's handfull of character interjections are equally gratifying. Time and time again, we have seen her look exasperated as the specter of her former husband haunts her. Thanks to a quick flashback, we now know why that is the case. We discover, while many outsiders viewed her marriage as one of political convenience, she genuinely cared about Rasler. With this point established, her encounters with Rasler's ghost become more tragic. Likewise, the story does a commendable job of showing how conflicted Ashe feels about her choice on what to do with the Sun Cryst. On the one hand, she wants the Empire to suffer for taking away her homeland and virtually everyone she loves. On the other hand, she knows doing so would cause the world of Ivalice untold suffering and misery.

Finally, let's talk about the masterful framing at the Phon Coast. The cutscene here relies heavily on medium shots so you can better see the expressiveness of the game's character models. Also, the game's direction expertly uses closeups to frame significant revelations. When Balthier admits his father, Dr. Cid, is "dead," the camera pans to his dejected face. Equally compelling, are the scenes that play around with depth of field. When Balthier and Ashe debate what to do with the Sun Cryst; Penelo and Vann play around in the background. I don't want to belittle Vaan or Penelo, but their inclusion hits home the fact our adventure is a fight for Ivalice's future.

And thankfully I am playing the Zodiac Age edition and I don't have to give a shit about the Zodiac Spear!
And thankfully I am playing the Zodiac Age edition and I don't have to give a shit about the Zodiac Spear!

Part 45: This Game's Magic System Fucking Sucks

Now seems like a good enough time to review my progress with Final Fantasy XII's job system. To put it bluntly, I FUCKED UP! As it stands, there are three characters I can level up with ease, and three I dread using. To review, I decided to spread the various job classes equally among my party members. My issue is I do not have enough high-use abilities, especially when it comes to restorative magic. However, I have a TON of redundant or situational debuff spells. For those who may have missed it earlier, here are my job assignments:

  • Ashe - Black Mage & Monk
  • Balthier - Foebreaker & Shikari (Ninja)
  • Basch - Archer & Red Mage
  • Fran - Uhlan (Dragoon) & Time Mage
  • Penelo - White Mage & Machinist
  • Vaan - Samurai & Knight

My big mistake was not doubling up on the White Mage class. As a result, I significantly lacked healing options during the mid-game. The Knight class has some healing spells, but only if you unlock the appropriate Esper-only routes. By the same token, jobs like the Uhlan or Shikari are dependent on items you can easily miss should you not search every nook and cranny in the dungeons. Speaking of which, throughout the game's more than twenty dungeons, there are CRITICAL magical spells you can only acquire from random treasure chests! Thus, I felt the progression of my characters was always being held back because I wanted to progress the story at a reasonable rate.

Hey game, thanks for leaving this important magical ability behind a random statue!
Hey game, thanks for leaving this important magical ability behind a random statue!

Which reminds me, it is a HUGE BUMMER the game puts essential class-defining spells in random treasure chests! To illustrate, I never had "Bravery" or "Faith!" For whatever reason, the treasure chests containing those spells refused to spawn, and because both are in a nasty dungeon, I elected to move on with my life. For a White Mage, loosing out on two spells is a big deal! Additionally, a class like the Knight can become unusable in the late-game if you fail to get its high-tier equipment. Across the board, your characters can miss out on a full QUARTER of their character progression if you are not careful!

This issue is at its worst during the mid-game, especially if you have been attempting a decent amount of side quests. During this point of the game, I would often pool up License Points because there was nothing immediately tangible for me to buy. Then there's the flip-side of this issue which is almost as frustrating. From time to time, the game would give me a neat weapon or armor set after completing a quest. Unfortunately, these newly acquired items would be on a distant corner of my character's License Board. Thus, my rewards would often be non-viable for another two to three hours.

Look at these cool magical abilities you can totally miss out on if you don't complete some random bullshit in a late-game dungeon.
Look at these cool magical abilities you can totally miss out on if you don't complete some random bullshit in a late-game dungeon.

And we haven't even talked about the "Green Magick" spells only accessible via Clan Centurio! For whatever reason, in the Zodiac Age edition, the spells "Decoy" and "Bubble" are only available through the clan provisioner! Both of these spells are incredibly important as they are inextricably linked to the game's interpretation of tanking. For example, "Decoy" allows one ally to be the target of all foes. Not being able to perform this spell because you ignored the Clan Hall is game design maleficence! Then, we have "Bubble," which doubles the health of your characters and makes you immune to the "Disease" status effect. For anyone disinterested in power-leveling, Bubble is your only viable way of reaching "max health." Not to mention, protecting your characters from "Disease" is a MAJOR concept in the last two dungeons! And let me tell you something, the Disease status FUCKING SUCKS!

Speaking of locking important shit behind a wall, let's talk about the Espers and how they relate to the License Board. In the Zodiac Age, a majority of the Espers unlock bridges and gaps on a variety of job boards. However, you can only link an Esper to one job class, and once you have committed that Esper, there's no going back. What I found particularly distasteful is how early the game introduces these Espers. When you first go up against Belias, none of your character classes have developed enough to where you have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Locking the player into a blind choice that early into the game is a jerk move. However, it is even more heinous several of the character classes have their late-game abilities locked behind the optional Espers which are among the hardest bosses in the game!

The fact you have to use your skill points to buy extra Gambit Slots is total crap! Especially when the starting number of slots isn't close to enough!
The fact you have to use your skill points to buy extra Gambit Slots is total crap! Especially when the starting number of slots isn't close to enough!

Part 46: Bosses Continue To Be A Royal Pain In The Ass

Our party collects a "Soul Ward key" to unlock the "Hall of Lambent Darkness" in the Sochen Cave Palace. There, you fight five Mandragoras. It is at this point I wish to talk about Final Fantasy XII's boss design. Either, bosses are a cakewalk or are a pain in the ass and require hours of planning. Boss fights that include more than one enemy are especially tricky thanks to the Gambit System. In the case of the Mandragoras, each has a suite of weaknesses and strengths independent from the other. As such, it is IMPOSSIBLE to prepare each of your characters for everything you face. On top of that, between the five of them, they have virtually every status effect at their disposal.

And Lord have mercy on your soul if all five Mandragoras decide to gang up on one of your party members.
And Lord have mercy on your soul if all five Mandragoras decide to gang up on one of your party members.

What especially frustrated me about this battle is how it builds difficulty by taking away what little control you have over your characters. First and foremost, the status effects in Final Fantasy XII are devastating. It does not help several of the late-game status effects are just different permutations of the same concept. Stone, Petrify, Immobilize, Stop, Sleep, Confuse, and Disable all prevent you from attacking. Worse, there's no rhyme or reason on how to alleviate these maladies. Some can be cured via "Esuna" while others require a specific White Magic spell. To add insult to injury, you need to buy licenses to make remedies behave as they do in previous Final Fantasy games.

The endless stream of adverse status effects has an immediate impact on your Gambit Slots. For virtually each of my characters, I had piles of gambits for situational status effects. Furthermore, I don't understand why every status effect has a specific curative spell. I get these effect-specific spells are "cheaper," but they make the Gambit System even more cluttered and fiddly. Additionally, having to use more than half my slots to plan for status effects eats away supporting roles for my characters. For instance, I'd like for Penelo to play around with her impressive Machinist abilities. However, because Esuna only cures half of the bullshit I'm up against, she always has her Gambits gobbled up by spells like "Blindga" or "Stonga!" And I haven't even talked about how characters don't use curative spells on themselves when you program an "Ally" Gambit! Why the FUCK isn't there an "If Status Effect X, Then Use Spell Y" command?

I sure am happy I gave Penelo an offensive minded class for her second job board, because she sure is taking advantage of those abilities right now....
I sure am happy I gave Penelo an offensive minded class for her second job board, because she sure is taking advantage of those abilities right now....

Nonetheless, let's return to the issue of multiple targets during boss battles. When you have several enemies during a boss, the Gambit System becomes a liability. In the case of Mandragoras, you CANNOT protect your party against all of their status effects. Furthermore, preparing your Gambits is virtually impossible. With curative items and spells gobbling up half my slots, I could only effectively plan for one or two enemies. Then, once the fight is over, you have to re-assemble your Gambits for general combat. Because the game lacks a "Copy Gambit" feature, you spend more time fiddling around with the Gambit menu than fighting actual bosses.

Things get worse when your heroes reach Ahriman. In this encounter, Ahriman can divide into several copies that need to die before you can begin doing damage. If you go into this battle with your party programmed to attack the nearest available target, your characters will split up and end up getting wasted. However, in several of the previous battles, you NEED to use Gambits to split your characters up, so they fight smaller targets before moving onto larger ones. What would have done wonders is if each environment required a specific Gambit strategy which culminates in a boss that requires you to "master" that concept. In reality, dungeons often switch things up mid-level, which causes you to feel like the game is always pulling the rug from underneath you.

I just want to say I like how the characters have different poses after boss battles depending on their equipment.
I just want to say I like how the characters have different poses after boss battles depending on their equipment.

On a related note, I felt the game never prepare me for bosses with spell-based weaknesses. Creating Gambits where my characters knew when to cast single-target versus area-of-effect spells was beyond my abilities. But there are other housekeeping items I wish the game did a better job of communicating. It wasn't until the game's final act I grappled the importance of casting "Dispel." That's because the game never created a scenario where doing so was a necessity. Likewise, in the last handful of dungeons, there is an excessive number of flying enemy types. It wasn't until I referred to a guide when I found out I could use the "Telekinesis" Technick to use melee weapons to attack flying characters from a distance. Why wouldn't you create a boss where doing so is the central conceit of a battle?

Part 47: Old Archades, And The Point When I "Got On Board" With Final Fantasy XII

Rest assured, the remainder of this blog will be relatively positive. And for a good reason, following the Sochen Cave Palace, we reach the best level in the game, the city of Archades. As impressive as the game's previous set pieces like Rabanastre or Jahara can be, they lack the scope of Archades. Not only does the city solidify the theme of Archades being on a higher technological level than the rest of the world, but it also adds a lot to the world of Ivalice. More so than any other environment in the game, you feel like you are in an alien world. To better underscore this point, you interact with an independent currency when exploring the city.

You are one to talk, Balthier!
You are one to talk, Balthier!

However, before Ashe and company can explore the city's center, they must first navigate the slums of Archades. Here again, I have to commend the story's writing. Old Archades does a mastful job of cluing us in on the stratification of Archadian society. At the slums, you find people undone by the rampant backstabbing of Imperial life. By interacting with these drifters, the story provides extra context to what is driving the Empire's conquest for new lands. Not only is the Empire hotly nationalistic, but a mad sense of proving one's worth drives its entire society. To many, the prospect of Rozzaria or Dalmasca being a "seat of power" is not an acceptable prospect.

Moreover, your early actions in Old Archades leave a memorable impression. Once you reach the gate to the proper city, you find a guard blocking your progress. Balthier uses one of his old contacts, a rumormonger named "Jules," to help us out. To crystallize the cache of Archadian life, you cause a brawl after spreading rumors about one of the participants. Again, it's a quick moment which shows information is the name of the game in Archades. Speaking of Balthier, he comes into his own at this point in the story. Here he begins to develop an almost paternalistic relationship with Vaan and mentors him about skills necessary to be an apt sky pirate. As I mentioned before, it is refreshing to see characters show they care about each other without the use of overwrought melodrama.

I got serious Final Fantasy VII vibes at Archades, and I mean that as a compliment. This may be one of the most fully realized worlds Square has ever made.
I got serious Final Fantasy VII vibes at Archades, and I mean that as a compliment. This may be one of the most fully realized worlds Square has ever made.

Be that as it may, I wish the tasks in Archades did not boil down to you playing "matchmaker" with the city's inhabitants. As your company makes its way into the capital's central plaza, Archades' independent currency impedes your progress. Before you can hail a taxi to take you to Draklor Laboratory, you'll first need to collect an excessive number of "chops." Before I go on another rant, I want to make it clear I didn't hate this sequence. To begin with, I like Archades having a token economy separated from the rest of the world. It hits home how highly the country thinks of itself. At a more literal level, I'm grateful Square finally put in the effort to connect an in-game puzzle to the story at hand.

Finally, the construct of "chops" and social service gives you an idea of how the world of the Empire functioned before the rise of Vayne. As you run around trying to collect on your good deeds, you see different classes of Archadian society at play. The people who have chops are elites who cannot be bothered to attend to their daily needs. On the flip side, you see up-and-comers frantically running around trying to increase their societal stock. As you explore the plaza, you see commoners in simple clothing and idle rich dressed extravagantly. It's impressive to see all this worldbuilding accomplished without the need of a decadent CG cutscene.

If only everything you do in Archades did not suck shit.
If only everything you do in Archades did not suck shit.

That said, collecting the chops FUCKING SUCKS! First, the map does not mark the elites who are willing to give you chops. As a result, you spend hours milling about with random NPCs hoping to find people who are eager to clue you into a grievance which requires redress. Then, all they do is provide a hint of who they wish to confront before handing you a nominal reward. The result is a lot of running around, which becomes even more frustrating in you can only complete one mission at a time. It was endlessly annoying to walk a vast distance, only to know I would have to return to that same location to start a different mission. It certainly sucks, but not enough to ruin the goodwill the game built up to this point.

Part 48: Archades, And Sympathy For The Devil

The amount of contextualizing of Archades as an organic world leads me to one of my favorite aspects of Final Fantasy XII. Despite overt support for imperialism, the citizens of Arachades feel like "real" people. The society they live in is not without fault, but that criticism applies to every world we have encountered before it. To illustrate, the Viera have a greater appreciation for the environment, but they are isolationists to a fault. The Garif of Jahara have the highest admiration for Ivalice's history, but they are Luddites. It's interesting to see each part of Ivalice have a different approach to governing, but also a critical flaw preventing them from achieving utopia.

There's so much to unpack in this screencap. Jules calling Vaan
There's so much to unpack in this screencap. Jules calling Vaan "boy" is probably the most important touch most probably look over.

Speaking of which, building sympathy for both sides of a conflict is an underappreciated part of storytelling. It is also something Final Fantasy XII accomplishes in spades. A lot of Final Fantasy XII's final act relies on your party needing to stop a cataclysmic war where everyone is set to lose. The stakes there would not feel entirely earned if just one side of the conflict felt genuine. In the case of Final Fantasy XII, you believe peaceful co-existence doesn't only benefit Rabanastre or Dalmasca, but Archades as well. Moreover, there are aspects of Arachadian society other parts of the world would benefit from adopting.

Then we have our primary villains of Final Fantasy XII. It is important to note, Vayne, Dr. Cid, and Vanat are characters in and of themselves. Furthermore, the three of them may well be the best-written villains in Final Fantasy history. We later discover the three of them want to give humanity the right to determine its fate. While admirable on paper, their overt support for totalitarianism ensures their way is not the correct way. Nonetheless, their scheme is understandable, and that makes their arc more compelling to follow than your usual Final Fantasy villainous fare. They are wicked individuals, yes, but ones with motivations as unmistakable as our party, and that's refreshing to see.

I don't want to imagine what Dr. Cid's take on a Tickle Me Elmo would look like.
I don't want to imagine what Dr. Cid's take on a Tickle Me Elmo would look like.

Furthermore, it's a breath of fresh air to see villains cohesively work together to achieve a goal. At no point does Vayne raise his voice in anger or threaten bloody violence when Dr. Cid encounters a roadblock. Instead, he thanks him for his hard work and brainstorms with Vanat about alternate strategies. That's fucking rad, and I wish more video game stories followed suit! Watching the trio interact lends to a sense of them being on a journey as epic as primary characters. Better yet, it does wonders to craft this undertone there's a kernel of good in what they are trying to achieve.

Be that as it may, there's one aspect of our nefarious trio that draws conflicting feelings in me. Part of me wishes Vayne and company were not as overtly evil in their endeavors. By the time the game introduces the concept of the Occuria, we have already seen Vayne order no less than three acts of genocide. If Vayne's only character flaw was his lack of trust in ordinary people, I think that's more compelling than him being a mass-murderer. All the same, I like Dr. Cid being a larger-than-life character. Conversely, a lot of the final chapter's cache holds because you feel like stopping Vayne is critical to saving Ivalice. Ultimately, I recognize there are two sides to this coin, but oddly enough, I like both sides equally.

Part 49: Fuck The Haters, Evil Doctor Cid Is GREAT!

Why does every modern Final Fantasy game have to have an elevator sequence?!
Why does every modern Final Fantasy game have to have an elevator sequence?!

After a bit of fussing about in the central plaza of Archades, you make your way to Darklor Laboratory. Regrettably, the science facility itself is a nightmare to navigate. There are ostensibly four floors to traverse, but they are anachronistic as they range from levels 66 to 70. Worse, you play around with an infernal number of switches before navigating to the next floor. To open up elevators, your party needs to initiate a specific series of blue and red switches to open a gauntlet of doors. If you make even one mistake, a swarm of Imperial soldiers will attack.

I cannot preface this point enough, Square-Enix has included puzzles in Final Fantasy games since their inception. What gets me is Square makes the same mistake every time. Time and time again, they present a barrier to your progress and at no point share a "tell" which foreshadows how to resolve the puzzle. Here, the game locks an arbitrary set of doors between you and an elevator. It assumes you can figure out a random assortment of blue and red switches to unlock these doors. It also believes I have the patience to solve this organically and NOT with a guide.

I don't know Balthier, your father's lab seems pretty decked out! Maybe there's something to this manufacture nethicite after all....
I don't know Balthier, your father's lab seems pretty decked out! Maybe there's something to this manufacture nethicite after all....

As you know, I am always one to give credit where credit is due. Balthier is stellar from beginning to end at Draklor. Initially, he joshes around that things are far too quiet for the maniacal doctor he knows too well. Then, when he sees victims of the doctor's recent experiments, he repeatedly laments the monster his father has become. Once you make your way to the final level of the facility, you cross paths with a mysterious stranger, whom we later discover to be the legendary pirate, Reddas. Likewise, when we hear Dr. Cid billowing in the background, everyone, including Reddas, bolts after him.

Accordingly, I want to talk about Dr. Cid. At this point, I think I have shrugged off my original moniker of being a Final Fantasy "newbie." Humorously, dozens of you have come forward to admit I have played more Final Fantasy games than you have in a lifetime. Therefore, I want to use my position of "authority" to right a wrong about Dr. Cid. Before doing so, I have to make a handful of concessions. Yes, Dr. Cid is the first, and thus far only, version of the Cid character who is evil. Yes, Dr. Cid's voice actor wears Final Fantasy XII's Shakespearean influences more overtly than any other character. Yes, Dr. Cid says some of the worst lines in the game. And finally, yes, each time you fight him, his battles are pure schlock.

That does not change the fact he's FUCKING RAD!
That does not change the fact he's FUCKING RAD!

Be that as it may, I cannot fathom why many fans rank Dr. Cid on the lower half of the franchise's use of the Cid-archetype. I'm sorry, but when was it wrong for Final Fantasy characters to be silly? Dr. Cid not only walks the walk, but he talks the talk! He is a character with a distinctive sense of style, and thoroughly enjoys everything he does, and I love him from the bottom of my heart! Whenever Cid enters a scene, he makes his presence immediately apparent either in his mannerisms or swagger. Also, in a world as grave as Final Fantasy XII, it is uplifting to see someone fully embrace the silly and nonsensical sensibilities of the game's plot.

I know a lot of people cite Dr. Cid's voice acting as a hindrance to their ability to accept him. Even on that matter, I have to push back. Of the characters that have speaking lines in Final Fantasy XII, Dr. Cid has the worst script by a mile! And you know what? His voice actor sells his shitty lines as if his life depends on it! His inflections are on point, and his dramatic pauses are some of the best in the game. Finally, if we are condemning a character for saying one too many one-liners, then virtually every Final Fantasy protagonist needs to be thrown in the trash. Beyond that, he's a driven individual with a communicated end goal. Doesn't that make Dr. Cid the "total package?"

Seriously, what's up with the hate directed at Dr. Cid? He's the doyen of Final Fantasy villains!
Seriously, what's up with the hate directed at Dr. Cid? He's the doyen of Final Fantasy villains!

Part 50: This Game Almost Pulls Off One Of The Greatest Turnarounds

As if I couldn't get any more positive about Final Fantasy XII, things get even better after your tussle with Dr. Cid. Through a handful of dramatic conversations, Dr. Cid reveals he's been working with a specter named "Venat." He then goads Ashe into traveling to Giruvegan where he promises she will learn more about nethicite and its worldly powers. He promises to meet up with them there and challenges Ashe to reject the temptation of nethicite. When Reddas learns that Ashe is the heir of the Dalmascan throne, he offers to help her on her quest. Afterward, the party departs for the pirate haven, Balfonheim Port.

Immediately after the conclusion of the game's third act, it cuts away to Marquis Ondore. At an unknown location, Ondore is assembling a formidable fleet of resistance fighters. While it is certainly fun to look at the game's impressive ship designs, the scene reminds us of the stakes at hand. Should we not act quickly, a cataclysmic war is bound to tear apart the social fabric of Ivalice. Back at Balfonheim Port, Reddas details his extensive relationship to Ondore's resistance effort.

Right, I sometimes forget this game has omniscient narration sequences. What a weird thing to include in this game.
Right, I sometimes forget this game has omniscient narration sequences. What a weird thing to include in this game.

As he explains, Reddas has trained much of the resistance effort and maintains a symbiotic relationship with Ondore. In fact, Reddas has Ondore to thank for his most recent attempt to infiltrate Draklor Laboratory. At the same time, both leaders abhor war and are trying to seek a peaceful resolution to Dalmasca's occupation. Ondore hopes if he assembles a strong enough fleet, Vayne will listen to his requests for a peace treaty. Reddas, on the other hand, is attempting to destroy all sources of manufacture nethicite covertly. As I have said before, it's nice to have driven characters with reasonable goals in a Final Fantasy story for once.

My chief complaint with Final Fantasy XII is it often presents a series of compelling vignettes with zero to no follow-up. Luckily, that is no longer the case. From this point forward, Final Fantasy XII fully commits to the geopolitical drama it has been teasing for the better part of forty hours. That is not to say, helping Ashe, Basch, Balthier, and Vaan wasn't enjoyable. Even so, none of those characters moments are on par with the story's final act.

I cannot deny Final Fantasy XII has styyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyle!
I cannot deny Final Fantasy XII has styyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyle!

Is the crux of the narrative heavily reliant on magical MacGuffins? Yes, but when the game is willing to commit to believable drama, and have the cinematics to back it up, I'm happy to ignore that shortcoming. Furthermore, the final levels avoid much of my previous bellyaching. Outside of a handful of grind-heavy portions at the Pharos Lighthouse, there's not a single story set-piece that fails to contribute something to the overall narrative. Better yet, the characters, outside of maybe Penelo, come to form in the next ten hours. Vaan begins to assume several responsibilities as Balthier mentors him. Balthier, on the other hand, evolves before our eyes to become a caring father-figure. Basch provides practical advice to Ashe as he acts as her emotional shield. Ashe remains as driven as ever, and her inner turmoil continues to be believable. I love everything this game has become, and that puts me in an awkward situation.

Here's the quandary I find myself in: how do I objectively approach Final Fantasy XII? I spent the better part of eighty hours playing Final Fantasy XII, and I would say I only enjoyed half of what I played. Part of me still wants to say I hate "playing" Final Fantasy XII. Then again, I'm not willing to go so far as to suggest, as I did earlier, that the Gambit and License Systems are a total loss. No matter, I do not want to undersell how good the story gets in its final act. The character transformations are some of the most compelling I have seen in the franchise. So, do I ignore the fact the game disrespected my time by funneling me through endless streams of trash mobs for thirty plus hours? That doesn't seem professional on my part, but there are two sides to that coin. How much should I let a game's slow introduction hold back what I think is one of the most satisfying conclusions I have ever seen?

Is there anything else I should avoid bringing to the Final Fantasy XII potluck? Is everyone okay with gluten?
Is there anything else I should avoid bringing to the Final Fantasy XII potluck? Is everyone okay with gluten?

I don't have an answer for you at this point, but maybe I will when we meet again. As you can tell, the next time we talk about Final Fantasy XII will be the conclusion of this series. Until then, I genuinely want you to help me out here. Can you think of any games, whether they be Final Fantasy related or not, you did not enjoy until the very end? How did you assess that game's value?Would you recommend such experiences to others? Feel free to use to comments to share any similar games of your own as I'm all ears!

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Efesell

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I was not aware of a great deal of hate towards Dr. Cid. Perhaps I filter out that manner of outrageously bad opinion.

Always respect a character who gnaws on the scenery like a man starved for weeks, especially with the voice actor sounds like he's having the time of his life doing it.

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You'll probably never play it, but interestingly for a while FFXI's teleport systems were also just a list of names; this was good enough for 2000's-era SE. However, when A Realm Reborn was released, FFXI also got an update that year that added a bunch of teleport crystals which automatically pop up a map showing you where your selection will send you. Maybe would have been a nice idea for them to do something like that for FFXII's HD-release as well.

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#3 ZombiePie  Moderator

@efesell said:

I was not aware of a great deal of hate towards Dr. Cid. Perhaps I filter out that manner of outrageously bad opinion.

Always respect a character who gnaws on the scenery like a man starved for weeks, especially with the voice actor sounds like he's having the time of his life doing it.

The way I see it, if Dr. Cid were a real person they would be caught between Stanley Tucci and Paul Giamatti. Even if you give him garbage, he'll chew through the scenery like his life depends on it and still manage to be the best part of any wretched scene you put him in. On a more literal note, Dr. Cid is everything I like about the trio of villains in Final Fantasy XII. He's honest about his intentions and enjoys the presence of those around him. At no point do you doubt he and Venat, and even Vayne for that matter, are not friends. That's downright magical.

@lajiaya said:

You'll probably never play it, but interestingly for a while FFXI's teleport systems were also just a list of names; this was good enough for 2000's-era SE. However, when A Realm Reborn was released, FFXI also got an update that year that added a bunch of teleport crystals which automatically pop up a map showing you where your selection will send you. Maybe would have been a nice idea for them to do something like that for FFXII's HD-release as well.

There are a lot of things Square-Enix could do for Final Fantasy XII's HD-release but they haven't. What really grinds my gears is they made a lot of changes I would have loved to have seen in the Steam/PC release that they included in th Switch/PS4/Xbox One releases. For one thing, they added a re-spec option for those releases and the fact they have yet to add that as a "patch" for the PC version blows my mind. It's just another example of Square both not understanding the appeal of PC gaming outside of MMOs.

Nonetheless, your point about FFXI is well taken. I know the servers for the 360 version are down, but I still think I have a copy of that version of the game. And let me tell you something, creating an account and installing FF11 on the 360 was an unmitigated nightmare back in the day.

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I didn’t really come around on the first Trails in the Sky until its last few hours. Mechanically it was fine but only when it was finally allowed to move the characters’ relationships forward did it become good. And considering that made the sequel absolutely phenomenal, I am happy I stuck with it.

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Looks like we got someone here that doesn't know their estersands from their westersands. Ha!

To answer your question, while i don't recall any games that put me in your specific situation, Metal Gear Solid 2 was the game that immediatly came to mind. On it's first playthrough i had a ton of fun. The ending & it's implications were too much for my teenage brain but still greatly entertaining. Nowadays however, I think back on the actual gameplay of the 2nd game and remember how you're just making rounds across these very samey struts to activate nodes, find the right items & hunt for bombs for a good chunk of the game. MGS1 had it's fair share of backtracking too, but the level design & changing settings still made it feel like you were always pushing forwards. Past the tanks, past the snowfield, past the caves, past the furnaces. Contrast that with the singular environment of Big Shell, which made MGS2 feel tedious & samey to me. Especially when the standout moment in that game is how the story wraps up. Once you have witnessed that, the reason for a replay is suddenly all about the gameplay. Given that i had a fantastic time with it on the first rodeo, it's still an easy recommendation to make.

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A lot of people would say Nier: Automata has a 10-20 hours at the "beginning" that starts off interesting, but then becomes kind of a drag after the first few hours. After "beating" the game, it asks you replay most of what you just got done playing, but then it follows up with almost constant great story moments for the next 10 hours. "Beating" the game a second time to get to the really good stuff was a huge, often insurmountable, barrier to a lot of people.

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faridmon

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Well get ready to hit the most annoying fucking dungeons in the game. God how i hated The Great Crystal dungeon. Fuck that shit.

I am at the point where I hit the limit on how to grind beyond Lv 60, the game right now falls flat, I want to do some higher level hunts but man, I have feeling they will be a pain.

and yes, I hate how they gated item findings behind chance of spawn. You will miss a important accessory in Fey Woods if you aren't actively looking for it, and read walkthroughs.

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#8 ZombiePie  Moderator

@faridmon said:

Well get ready to hit the most annoying fucking dungeons in the game. God how i hated The Great Crystal dungeon. Fuck that shit.

I am at the point where I hit the limit on how to grind beyond Lv 60, the game right now falls flat, I want to do some higher level hunts but man, I have feeling they will be a pain.

and yes, I hate how they gated item findings behind chance of spawn. You will miss a important accessory in Fey Woods if you aren't actively looking for it, and read walkthroughs.

This comment embodies my gameplay experience with Final Fantasy XII perfectly. There's just a point where if you want to get any further progress with the jobs and side quests you have to stop everything and grind for hours upon end, and I'm just not enthused enough with the overall game to where that feels worthwhile. Especially when whole abilities and items are gated behind hour long side quests which necessitate hours of extra planning beyond what you normally deal with in the game. Again, I'm glad to see someone else felt the same way because I was starting to think I was the only person.

And the Great Crystal level hurt my feelings. It's a beautiful level and I don't hate the conceit/gimmick of the level nearly as much as some of the BS in the Pharos Lighthouse. That said, it's the clearest example I can think of where I said to myself "I don't know where I am and this is taking forever. so I guess I'll use a guide."

A lot of people would say Nier: Automata has a 10-20 hours at the "beginning" that starts off interesting, but then becomes kind of a drag after the first few hours. After "beating" the game, it asks you replay most of what you just got done playing, but then it follows up with almost constant great story moments for the next 10 hours. "Beating" the game a second time to get to the really good stuff was a huge, often insurmountable, barrier to a lot of people.

Nier: Automata is a good example of this problem, albeit, I'm not the biggest example of Nier: Automata in general. In a lot of ways, I think Nier: Automata is more disrespectful of your time than Final Fantasy XII. The fact the game plays like straight garbage in parts AND you repeat the same scenes and sequences three or four times just adds to the game's overall blurring effect.

And if you played OG Nier, Automata's "plot twist" ending lack a lot of its impact because it's just another rendition fo what all of the supporting media for Nier has been doing its inception.

Looks like we got someone here that doesn't know their estersands from their westersands. Ha!

To answer your question, while i don't recall any games that put me in your specific situation, Metal Gear Solid 2 was the game that immediatly came to mind. On it's first playthrough i had a ton of fun. The ending & it's implications were too much for my teenage brain but still greatly entertaining. Nowadays however, I think back on the actual gameplay of the 2nd game and remember how you're just making rounds across these very samey struts to activate nodes, find the right items & hunt for bombs for a good chunk of the game. MGS1 had it's fair share of backtracking too, but the level design & changing settings still made it feel like you were always pushing forwards. Past the tanks, past the snowfield, past the caves, past the furnaces. Contrast that with the singular environment of Big Shell, which made MGS2 feel tedious & samey to me. Especially when the standout moment in that game is how the story wraps up. Once you have witnessed that, the reason for a replay is suddenly all about the gameplay. Given that i had a fantastic time with it on the first rodeo, it's still an easy recommendation to make.

Speak of the devil, I recently talked about MGS1 and MGS2 with @jeffrud and we bothe ended up re-reading Jeff's review for MGS1. I remember people flipping out when he gave that game the 8.5 socre it rightfully deserved. Yes, that game is a seminal work and it made Kojima the legend he is today, but that game really is more than the sum of its parts. When you stop and look at it, as well as MGS2 objectively, they really are these odd mishmashes of good and bad game design.

But in the end, when you play a Kojima game you often know what you sign up for, and when things are as weird and wacky as they get, who is one to judge?

I didn’t really come around on the first Trails in the Sky until its last few hours. Mechanically it was fine but only when it was finally allowed to move the characters’ relationships forward did it become good. And considering that made the sequel absolutely phenomenal, I am happy I stuck with it.

That's unimaginably cool. I hear nothing but good things about the game, and hey, maybe I'll finally take up your advice and play a Disgaea game for once. Personally, I own a copy of Trails in the Sky and it, along with Grandia II are games I intend to visit at some point, but their lengths really scare me. If I tried to cover either game, it would be a year-long process and I'm not about to commit to that, not especially when I'm finally starting to hone my short-form writing.

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@zombiepie: That is completely fair. The Trails games are definitely a commitment of time. Haven't made it very far into Grandia 2, but if it's like the original, it definitely is hefty.

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#10  Edited By Onemanarmyy

I played a fair amount of Trials and while i do enjoy the main characters, the combat is nothing special & there are certain parts where the main story suddenly progresses so fast that it's real easy to miss out on completing some sidequests. Eventually i came at a point where the main story just stopped dead in it's tracks for me and i walked away from it. Didn't care for the lady that is apparently very wild when she's drunk and the dude that hits on everyone he encounters neither. To be fair, i probably still had 50% of game left where those characters probably ended up being amazing. There are very few negative voices around that game so it has to be pretty good after all.

I'm reading through this MGS1 review and while i do agree with Jeff in parts, it still feels like Jeff was fully into the videogames are supposed to be a challenge!-mode. They are supposed to be beaten, not just experienced! That said, if i had to spend 60 dollars on MGS and didn't care for the story, i would probably be pretty dissapointed by it. Especially with all the hype behind it.

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FF12 is a masterpiece, but if you don't like a game till hour 30, it's not good

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@zombiepie: That is completely fair. The Trails games are definitely a commitment of time. Haven't made it very far into Grandia 2, but if it's like the original, it definitely is hefty.

I don't know man, after wrapping up Final Fantasy 2, I thinks it is time to really look at playing a game that is actually fun to play and wont require a year to complete. A lot of people complain about short games representing a cost per hour conundrum, I look at the influx of shorter game experiences as a giant pro. I just do not have the time to sit down and play games for more than a few hours every day. It's odd to think about it, but I recall a time where I enjoyed having more than two or three games I wanted to play at my finger-tips and I had to have a small debate in my head before deciding what to play.

I played a fair amount of Trials and while i do enjoy the main characters, the combat is nothing special & there are certain parts where the main story suddenly progresses so fast that it's real easy to miss out on completing some sidequests. Eventually i came at a point where the main story just stopped dead in it's tracks for me and i walked away from it. Didn't care for the lady that is apparently very wild when she's drunk and the dude that hits on everyone he encounters neither. To be fair, i probably still had 50% of game left where those characters probably ended up being amazing. There are very few negative voices around that game so it has to be pretty good after all.

I'm reading through this MGS1 review and while i do agree with Jeff in parts, it still feels like Jeff was fully into the videogames are supposed to be a challenge!-mode. They are supposed to be beaten, not just experienced! That said, if i had to spend 60 dollars on MGS and didn't care for the story, i would probably be pretty dissapointed by it. Especially with all the hype behind it.

I ended up completing at least 60% of the hunts and went out of my way to complete the Three Medallions questline. I legitimately liked the Three Medallion questline and it baffles my mind Nabudis is entirely optional. That level should be a requirement and Reddas should lead you through it as a warning of the story's stakes.

Seriously, it is one of the best levels in the game and it's 100% optional. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Ash Lake in Dark Souls.

@sombre said:

FF12 is a masterpiece, but if you don't like a game till hour 30, it's not good

I am on a quest, but I have to say, FF12's ending sure did change my overall opinion of the game. In fact, I think it might actually have one of my all-time favorite epilogues in video game history. I enjoy how everyone goes their separate ways and there's a slight melancholic undertone when Penelo narrates the epilogue. And the huge battle scene during the final level may well be one of the best things modern Square-Enix have ever done.

I just hate playing this game. I hate it so very much. And it hurts me because I want to like playing it.

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@zombiepie: sorry i messed up, that post was about Legend of Heroes Trails in the Sky. For some reason i called it Trials.

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@zombiepie: I'm drifting more and more towards podcast games, so if I'm going to play an RPG of some length, it needs to be easily digestible. I don't want to have to spend thirty hours learning mechanics or dealing with obtuse naming structures just to figure out how to position my characters and throw spells at smiley poop piles or whatever. I'm getting a bit tired of the banal filler of a lot of JRPGs even if I actually like that stuff when it makes for good worldbuilding. If RPGs could tell their main story in about fifteen hours, then create backends that expand for dozens or hundreds of hours, that'd be perfect to me.