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

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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There's A Bloodborne Card Game And It's Somehow Harder And Meaner Than The Video Game

Background

Yeah... there's a Bloodborne card game! I shit you not!
Yeah... there's a Bloodborne card game! I shit you not!

Earlier last month, I was scanning Amazon, as I am wont to do, looking for a new cooperative board game. With an ungodly number of Pandemic and Robinson Crusoe play-throughs under my belt, I was looking for something a bit more challenging. Don't get me wrong, Robinson Crusoe isn't exactly a cakewalk, but my board game group has played it to death, and I was looking for something new but in the same wheelhouse. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cooperative board games tend to aim for entry-level to intermediate audiences, and we are not that. After an exhaustive search, however, I discovered the Bloodborne card game adaptation from Eric M. Lang.

Despite its MANY components, Bloodborne: The Card Game only takes a few minutes to set up.
Despite its MANY components, Bloodborne: The Card Game only takes a few minutes to set up.

For those unaware, Eric M. Lang is a legendary designer in the board game industry. His credits include the universally beloved "Blood Rage" as well as the incredibly flashy "The Others." Lang is also a bit of a board game polymath. The man has worked with a variety of properties, both original and licensed, and has found success in several different mediums. While most are familiar with his work on Blood Rage, he has seen equal success at making card games. Throughout his career, Lang has designed collectible card games utilizing the Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Call of Cthulhu, and Warhammer properties. Finally, if there are any of you who enjoy playing Duelyst, you should be aware he was the game's lead designer.

I say all this to point out Eric Lang is a person to follow in the board game community. And yet, the release of his Bloodborne card game alluded me until three years after its release. I get I am not entirely in the loop when it comes to new board game releases, but I don't even recall seeing the thing at my brick and mortar card shop. Regardless, I bought it at the highly affordable rate of $22. The game has an expansion pack known as "The Hunter's Nightmare" which adds in more bosses and monsters. I should also mention a full-fledged Bloodborne board game adaptation is coming out sometime in 2020, though, this game is not without controversy in the board gaming community.

Even so, I get there's a bit of an "elephant in the room" before I continue this review. I know many of you see the words "card game" and immediately think of Magic the Gathering or any other trading card game. If that's you, rest assured, Bloodborne: The Card Game is a "drafting game" that does not require any investment outside of the base game. For those unaware, card drafting games are games in which players pick cards from a pool to gain an advantage over their fellow players. In the case of Bloodborne: The Card Game, players work "cooperatively" to survive a dungeon created through the random selection of monster and boss cards. With that mini-disclaimer out of the way, let's review the game's components.

Components

First off, Bloodborne comes in a small, tightly-packed, box. Even so, I did not struggle with organizing the game's components after several uses. These parts are as follows:

  • 50 Five-Point Blood Echo Tokens
  • 60 One-Point Blood Echo Tokens
  • 1 First Player Token
  • 15 Trophy Tokens
  • 5 Hunter Dials
  • 3 Custom Monster Dice
  • 25 Hunter Starter Cards
  • 32 Hunter Upgrade Cards
  • 18 Chalice Dungeon Cards
  • 7 Chalice Dungeon Boss Cards
  • 5 Final Boss Cards
  • 5 Hunter Boards

To some, this list might sound like a lot of elements, but in actuality, it isn't. Indeed, ease of set-up is one of the game's best aspects as it takes at most five to six minutes to prepare. First, you collect the Final Boss cards, shuffle them up and randomly select one. The final boss goes in the middle of the table, and their de-buff remains active for the entire session. Next, you prepare the Chalice Dungeon by first separating the boss and monster cards. You shuffle each deck and randomly select seven monsters and three bosses. After combing the two, to create a deck of ten cards, you again shuffle the cards and keep the order and identify of the cards a secret.

If you hate punching out pieces from a cardboard sheet, look elsewhere.
If you hate punching out pieces from a cardboard sheet, look elsewhere.

With the Chalice Dungeon finished, it's time to set up each player. First, you prepare the "Upgrade Deck" by shuffling it and turning over one upgrade card per player to make them available when the game begins. Second, each player takes a Hunter Board and places the appropriate Trophy Tokens on their respective spots. Afterward, each player gets the same starting deck of equipment as well as a health dial. The health dials are set to eight unless a boss or monster reduces that number via a passive de-buff. Blood tokens go to the side, and players pick someone to go first and give them the "First Player Token." The game then starts after the first player turns over the first monster card in the Chalice Dungeon deck.

Before I address the mechanics, let's review the quality of the components. The components are perfectly acceptable for something I bought for $20 on Amazon. As such, if you are looking for high production values in this budget-priced card game, then you will be sorely disappointed. Nonetheless, even with realistic expectations, the game's corner-cutting is immediately noticeable. For one thing, you have to punch out every cardboard token from a prefabricated sheet. Admittedly, doing so saves money, and the symbols look nice, but this has always been a pet peeve of mine.

The rest of the components are incredibly inconsistent. The cards use modified screencaps from the video game. While that may sound off-putting to some, they of a high enough quality where they don't feel cheap. What does annoy me about the art style is its muted color palette. I understand this was a creative choice to mimic the video game's gothic art style. Be that as it may, the game asks you to keep track of a significant amount of iconography, and the almost monochromatic color scheme makes this a chore. As you can see in the gallery below, each monster or boss card has a health icon, color-coded difficulty lantern, trophy type, and ability. All of this information is jam-packed on a DARK standard-sized playing card! Luckily, the final bosses are on larger cards, but they are still dark and difficult to read especially when playing the game in larger groups.

Here's a photo showing how hard it is to read these cards in a low-light setting.
Here's a photo showing how hard it is to read these cards in a low-light setting.

To make matters worse, a lot of the components are fiddly! The health dials are two pieces of cardboard attached using two plastic fasteners. Here, I would have preferred something similar to the health sliders from King of Tokyo. Also, the game asks you to place four sets of tokens on your player/hunter board. You have all three types of trophy tokens as well as any Blood Echos you manage to collect. With nothing holding these pieces in place, you are one ill-timed knee bump away from ruining your game. Then you have the custom dice which are color-coded to match the difficulty lanterns on the monster or boss cards. While the rest of the game features a muted color palette, these dice look like they came from the Crayola crayon factory. None of these issues are in and of themselves "deal breakers" so long as the game provides a fun and replayable experience. So, let's review how to play the game.

How It's Played

Bloodborne takes place over several rounds, each of which takes eight steps. The following steps occur during each round:

  1. Choose & Play Action Cards
  2. Transform Weapons
  3. Resolve Instant Effects
  4. Monster Attack Phase
  5. Hunter Attack Phase
  6. Monster Escape (if possible)
  7. The Hunter's Dream
  8. End Of The Round

Before the round starts, the first player turns over one card from the Chalice Dungeon deck and reveals it to the party. If the card has an "Instant Effect," this effect is immediately addressed before the round begins. Additionally, be aware, the passive buffs of the Final Boss apply throughout the game. Likewise, the first player places Blood Echos on top of the revealed card to match the monster's health. If you are playing with four players, the game asks you to add an extra Blood Echo, and two if you are playing with five. At the start of each round, players choose one of their action cards and reveal them to the party. The game asks you to keep your action cards concealed from the rest of the party, though open discussions are permitted.

All the bosses in the game, and a
All the bosses in the game, and a "taste" of the normal encounters.

If any players from the previous round chose the "Transform" card, they move to step two and can choose any melee or ranged weapon in their hand. Once action cards and weapons are selected, players resolve any "Instant Effects" associated with their cards. It is possible for your instant effects to KO the monster before the attack phase, and the game encourages you to take advantage of this opportunity whenever possible. Any Blood Echos you gain from instant effects transfer to the "Collected Blood Echos" section of your Hunter Deck.

If the monster is still alive, the round transitions into the "combat phase," and the monster card always attacks first. To determine how much damage they do, identify the color-coded die that matches the monster's difficulty lantern, and roll that die. If the number you roll has a plus symbol, continue rolling until you roll a number that does not have a plus symbol and add the sum of every number. The monster then does that sum of damage to every player, even those who have not yet attacked. If any players die, remove their non-banked Blood Echos, and return them to the pile. These players are out of play until the "Hunter's Dream" step. If a player opted to enter the "Hunter's Dream," they will only take half damage, but they will not be able to attack the monster.

Here's the starting deck everyone has when the game begins.
Here's the starting deck everyone has when the game begins.

Now, starting with the first player, review the blood icon on your weapon and begin removing that number of Blood Echos from the monster or boss. For example, the "Saw Cleaver" inflicts one point of damage. Start with the first player and then move clockwise while skipping any "dead" hunters. Any Blood Echos you remove from monsters are stored on your Hunter Deck and are worth points. Be aware, some action or weapon cards take effect after a monster attacks or dies. To illustrate, the "Saw Spear" inflicts extra damage for each point of damage you take when a monster attacks.

If the monster dies, any player that dealt it damage gains a trophy and moves their matching trophy icon accordingly. On the other hand, if the beast is alive after every player attacks, it escapes and inflicts a negative status effect if the card has one. Monsters labeled as bosses never escape, and the two combat phases repeat until either it or all players are dead. If you are fighting a boss for more than one round, instant effects do not happen more than once, though passive buffs still apply until the end of the combat phase. At the end of the combat phase, should the players be victorious, all cards used during the battle are discarded and placed next to the player who used them.

A three-player match two rounds in.
A three-player match two rounds in.

If the monster or boss is dead, you move into the game's final two steps. First, if any players used the "Hunter's Dream" card during the first step, they enter the "Hunter's Dream." As mentioned earlier, these players take half damage during battles, but cannot attack. After the battle is over, these players "bank" any previously collected Blood Echos and add these Blood Echos to their total score if the party defeats the Chalice Dungeon. Second, players can recollect any of their discarded action cards from previous rounds, including the "Hunter's Dream" card. Be aware; players can only have seven cards and can never abandon the "Hunter's Dream" card. Players also collect one available upgrade card and reset their health. Players who died in combat are revived and can obtain one upgrade card, though they are not able to recover their discarded equipment.

We now enter the "End of the Round" phase. As mentioned before, cards used to fight the previous monster are discarded until that player enters the "Hunter's Dream" phase and recollects them. Pass the first player token clockwise, and reveal the next monster. Repeat the previous steps, noting if a monster card has the "boss" moniker on it. If the standard Chalice Dungeon deck is complete, move to the Final Boss. If all Chalice Dungeon Cards, including the final boss, are defeated, the game is over. Count however many banked or collected Blood Echos you have and count them as one point. Next, combine this with however many trophies you have on your Hunter's Deck. Whoever has the highest total score is the winner.

Gameplay Impressions

Undoubtedly, Bloodborne: The Card game is not your "standard" cooperative card or board game. While it begins as a collective dungeon crawler; its competitive aspects inevitably lead to backstabbing and uneasy alliances. As such, it's crucial to note Bloodborne: The Card game is downright cruel. Several upgraded weapons not only inflict damage to both monsters but also to surrounding players. Likewise, every monster is capable of wiping your party out. Thus, it is safe to say you should NEVER play this game with total strangers! I tried it once, and it ruined my entire day because people pounced on the opportunity to be shitty.

Nonetheless, Bloodborne: The Card has several positive aspects worth mentioning. For one thing, you can finish the game in about thirty minutes, barring you avoid one of the final bosses. Furthermore, you never feel especially dejected, even after a team loss, as you can jump back into the game in a matter of minutes. Additionally, I LOVE the game's use of simultaneous play. There's no better feeling than playing a suit of cards and KO-ing a monster before it attacks. The card drafting element of the game is equally rewarding. I enjoyed having to plan which cards to use as my action and thinking strategically about which seven cards should be in my deck. Also, there's no denying the game's effective use of theme and the fact it leans into the video game's brutal reputation.

Some of the
Some of the "upgrade cards" in the game.

So why do I hate playing this game? The primary issue comes down to the "Hunter's Dream" mechanic. Usually, I'm okay with the idea of "banking" items or points as a mechanic. However, in the case of Bloodborne: The Card Game, you have to sacrifice an entire turn to perform this critical step. Consequently, with the game only taking up ten rounds, you end up "skipping" at least one-third of the combat to bank points. Worse, when you do enter the game's dream realm, you can set up unrecoverable death spirals. Especially when it comes to the boss encounters, dozens of battles require full cooperation between you and your party, and that is rarely possible with this mechanic.

Example of a fully composed Chalice Dungeon with a Final Boss.
Example of a fully composed Chalice Dungeon with a Final Boss.

To illustrate this issue, let me share a situation that happened during one of my play sessions. When it was time to reveal our action cards, three of my party members elected to go into the dream world. The problem was we were about to fight a boss, and bosses do not run away — meaning, one other player and I were condemned to die! Worse, this happened on the last card before the final boss; thus, our party only had three out of five players during the ultimate battle. This scenario sucks, and it happens ALL THE FUCKING TIME! To add insult to injury, players regain the ability to enter the dream realm immediately after leaving. There's no hard cap on how often you can go there, and the result is few, if any players, have any motivation to avoid entering the realm after one or two turns. Sure there are trophies, but they are harder to get and of equal value to banked Blood Echos according to the scoring system.

Speaking of which, the scoring system is a shitshow! Not only does it exacerbate the game's brutal nature, but it's poorly balanced. To highlight the latter of these problems, I'll again refer to another play session of mine. The group this time around was fighting one last monster before the final boss. Up to this point, one of my party members had been perpetually in the lead. To be specific, they had thirty-one points. The total value of the last two matches was twenty-six points, with the final boss representing HALF the value of their overall score after NINE ROUNDS OF PLAY! To no one's surprise, they lost by six points.

Another issue comes in the game's use of critical damage (i.e., exploding dice). Every enemy, even the goons you fight in the very beginning, have a 33% chance of inflicting critical damage as two sides on every die have a plus symbol. In a game where there are bosses who can reduce your maximum health or items that cause chip damage to the person next to you, that's way too high. Here I can at least partially understand Eric Lang's thought process. At some point, he learned the bosses in Bloodborne can wipe out your player character in a single cinematic attack. However, that concept can be mitigated as you learn the animations and attack patterns of the bosses. Here, the dice have two sides that automatically inflict critical damage, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Let's talk about these two fuckers.
Let's talk about these two fuckers.

Finally, let's address the final bosses in the game. There are five, and that's not nearly enough. One of these bosses, Mergo's Wet Nurse, is meant to be an introductory confrontation if there's someone in your party who has never played the game. Likewise, there are two bosses I outright refuse to play. One, Rom, The Vacuous Spider, permanently eliminates any players who die twice. This rule is shitty and should not be in any game, let alone a semi-cooperative game that requires multiple players to complete. The other boss who sucks is Micolash who adds a new non-boss monster to the deck whenever a monster manages to escape. Micolash may well be my least favorite boss as he entirely ruins the game's quick and frenetic pace. Also, by the late stages of the game, it is inevitable players will remove themselves from combat and enter the "Hunter's Dream" phase, making escaping enemies a guarantee. The result is dungeons drag on far longer than they should.

Final Words

Part of me wants to give credit where credit is due. Eric Lang and his supporting cast at CMON Games have made a card game adaptation of Bloodborne which captures the spirit of the game perfectly. It's a dark and moody affair where everything is out to get you, including the people next to you. Likewise, the card game is perfectly paced and easy to jump into regardless of your experience with card or board games. The thirty-minute playtime is perfect, and most of the mechanics do not slow down the game's action-packed structure. Finally, the game's procedurally generated nature means it has a lot of replayability.

That said, I did not enjoy playing Bloodborne: The Card Game. Virtually each of its mechanics is designed to both frustrate and infuriate players. The cooperative elements mostly fall to the wayside, and you'll find yourself having to deal with an endless amount of backstabbing. On top of that, so much of the game stacks the deck against your favor; it's hard to think of an audience for this game. You can't play it with strangers as the game's innate meanness encourages people to act like shitheads. You will struggle to play it with veteran card and board gamers as the game's broken mechanics will immediately pull them out of the experience.

Before I end this mostly negative review, I do want to defend the game ever so slightly. Of the dozen or so play sessions I have taught this game, there has always been at least one person enamored by Bloodborne: The Card Game. Every time I play it, someone publicly says to me they plan to buy the game as soon as they can. Maybe, after reading this blog in its entirety, you are that person. If you think that may be you, have fun, and don't forget to pack an extra battleaxe.

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You Have Been LIED TO! Hatoful Boyfriend Is The Evangelion Of Video Games You Never Knew You Had!

Preamble (Also, SPOILER WARNING!)

Burn it all to the ground.
Burn it all to the ground.

Anyone who musters the courage to explore Steam's "Dating Sim" portal knows it is a bedrock for the worst "games" ever made. For years, gimmicky visual novels have inundated Steam with no signs of stopping. The unfortunate consequence is genuinely artistic visual novels are forced to compete against literal trash. The primary reason for this depressing situation is Steam's laissez-faire approach to game releases. With the current minimum requirements being nominal monetary fees, dozens of would-be game developers have come out of the woodwork. Most have gone on to release slap-dash fever dreams in hopes of pocketing a quick buck.

Nonetheless, Valve's blasé attitude doesn't explain the "explosion" of interest surrounding the visual novel genre. Part of this development is due to several well-respected games and franchises like Umineko or Steins;Gate coming out to the west. Regardless, none of this explains the proliferation of the more bizarre dating sims or visual novels on Steam. To illustrate, if one were to consult Steam's "Dating Sim" tab, you'd be presented with the ability to date astrological formations, World War II-era tanks, and every imaginable creature on Planet Earth. What could have originated this glut of insanity? To answer that question, we turn to a long-standing personal theory of mine: blame the internet scuttlebutt surrounding Hatoful Boyfriend.

Initially, visual novels were a gaming example of "inside baseball." Up until Hatoful Boyfriend's "memeification," the genre was, for the most part, enjoyed by dedicated consumers of Japanese anime and video games. Altogether, it was rare for non-anime fans to go out of their way to play visual novels, and editorial coverage of the genre, even by mainstream publications, was limited. Then, Hatoful Boyfriend happened, and as the game released during a time when Steam's recommendations were not wholly fucked, it shot up in popularity. The reason for this has to due with a handful of video game streamers playing the game and "enthusiastically" reacting to what they experienced.

Here's your first
Here's your first "hint" of what to expect for the rest of this blog.

What does any of this nonsense have to do with Hatoful Boyfriend's "secret ending?" Well, for one thing, the Western press's coverage of Hatoful Boyfriend has left out some essential aspects of this game. Even intellectuals like Danny O'Dwyer or this site's "Dating Game" feature have failed to explore the game's reason for existing. Likewise, few, if any, have taken the time to discover what the game's namesake even means. As a result, a myth has developed around Hatoful Boyfriend, and this is where I come in. Despite what everyone has told you, this game is NOT about silly anime nonsense and dating bishounen pigeon boys. Instead, Hatoful Boyfriend is the MOST hostile criticism of the visual novel genre you will ever experience. Seriously, it fires on all cylinders and DOES NOT STOP! So, without further ado, let's talk about the game's "Bad Boys Love" ending.

Character Guide

I'm going to be honest with you; following this blog is virtually impossible unless I provide a "character guide." Below you'll find a helpful list of every character in this blog.

  • Hiyoko Tosaka - Female human protagonist in the main game.
  • Ryouta Kawara - Rock dove/pigeon. Primary player character during the Bad Boys Love Ending. Gimmick: The boy next door that is obviously in love with the protagonist.
  • Sakuya Le Bel Shirogane - Fantail pigeon. The temporary protagonist of chapter five of the Bad Boys Love Ending. Gimmick: French elitist and casual racist.
  • Kazuaki Nanaki - Button quail. Your homeroom teacher and math tutor. Gimmick: Teacher who falls asleep in class and is terrible at their job.
  • Nageki Fujishiro - Mourning dove. Loves to hang out in the library, and no one notices him. Gimmick: Classic anime bookworm.
  • Yuuya Sakazaki - Fantail pigeon. Half-brother of Sakuya. Gimmick: French/European playboy and chauvinist.
  • Shuu Iwamine - Chukar partridge. Creepy doctor of the school. Gimmick: He's a creepy doctor that murders you in the main game.
  • Okosan - Fantail pigeon. President of the school's athletic club. Gimmick: A great athlete that is also dumb as bricks.
  • Anghel Higure - Luzon bleeding-heart dove. Member of the school's manga club. Gimmick: A complete Chuunibyou.
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Hatoful Boyfriend's Character Portraits

Class Zero: You Have No Idea What You've Signed Up For

Before we jump into the Bad Boys Love story arc, let's address how one acquires this ending. First, the player needs to romance a certain number of characters. If they wish to experience the game's epilogue, you have to complete every possible romance before attempting Hatoful Boyfriend's secret ending. Likewise, the first chapter of the "Bad Boys Love" ending starts the same as the standard game does. The game's usual female protagonist enters a school that is populated by pigeons, and she can, with your help, romance several of these avian pupils. Where things ducktail is when you reach mid-terms and, as you are about to attempt your exam, the protagonist slips into a narrated dream sequence. Here she recounts witnessing the BRUTAL MURDER of her parents!

We sure aren't in Kansas anymore.
We sure aren't in Kansas anymore.

[It's at this point you realize you are in for a long and wild ride.]

Our next real hint that something is up doesn't occur until the start of the second semester in September. Our female protagonist notices Ryouta is not in class when the final period ends. She enters the infirmary to see if he is recovering from an injury or illness. For those unaware, this is the "point of no return." Once you get past this scene, you are officially entering the Bad Boys Love ending, and there's no going back. The next day, we control the game from the perspective of Ryouta. To everyone's surprise, our female player character is absent. Accordingly, the characters "transform" into slightly modified versions of themselves.

To illustrate, Sakuya, the pompous fantail pigeon, becomes a rabid xenophobe and champions the rise of pigeons over the "vastly inferior" human race. When class continues, things get even weirder. Kazuaki, the math teacher, then commences a lecture that does not exist in the standard game which sets us down a long and dark rabbit hole. We discover, long ago, an off-shoot of the avian flu wiped out more than half of humanity. In a desperate attempt to stop the virus' spread, humankind attempted to reverse engineer it. Their efforts failed, and instead, the virus mutated the avian species, causing birds to achieve sentience. Unfortunately, this development means the avian flu has left humanity in shambles.

All the while, Hatoful Boyfriend doesn't stop subjecting you to its bird-based puns and humor.
All the while, Hatoful Boyfriend doesn't stop subjecting you to its bird-based puns and humor.

But what about Ryouta's human female compatriot? Well, Kazuaki asks Ryouta to pick up a box of teaching materials from the school's staff room. As he picks up the documents, he notices blood seeping from its corner. Shocked, he places it down and opens the lid. To his horror, he finds HIYOKO'S SEVERED HEAD! From this point forward, Hatoful Boyfriend, a game most dismiss as a silly anime-inspired dating game, BECOMES A HORROR-THEMED MURDER MYSTERY! For the next five hours, we begin a long and arduous quest to figure out who killed Hiyoko!

Class One: Are You Ready For This? I Don't Think You Are

Sakuya, hearing a commotion, enters the classroom and asks what is happening. Just as he sees the contents of the box, an alert blares declaring a state of emergency. Not knowing what to do next, the characters frantically run to the school's gymnasium. There we learn not only was Hiyoko murdered, but her body parts were spread all over the school's campus. Eventually, the school's principal, a character that does not exist in the regular game, announces there's been a natural disaster and for the students to remain calm. Suspecting something may be up, Ryouta announces he wishes to collect Hiyoko's body. Kazuaki does not stop him, and Sakuya insists he joins.

Just another day at a school for pigeons.
Just another day at a school for pigeons.

As Ryouta and Sakuya exit the gym, they discover a cement dome has enveloped the entire school. The two decide to continue into the classrooms and find the dozen or so boxes containing Hiyoko's body parts. When they encounter the box that previously contained her head, they discover it is empty. This event leads to the appearance of Yuuya, Sakuya's half-brother. He reveals Hiyoko's corpse is in the school's chemistry lab where a formal autopsy is taking place. The person conducting the autopsy is none other than the creepy doctor, Shuu Iwamine. Before going to the lab, Yuuya encourages us to meet the school's custodian, "Mr. One." It is here, once again, we enter a level, with an accompanying soundtrack mind you, that does not exist in the base game.

Mr. One encourages us to explore the headmaster's office to further our investigation. Before we can, Ryouta returns to the school's chemistry lab where the creepy doctor is conducting a thorough examination of Hiyoko's dismembered body. You know, something you'd expect to see in a high school for pigeons. With Doctor Shuu busy re-assembling Hiyoko's body, Ryouta turns to Kazuaki. Kazuaki assures Ryouta he will stay in the lab to prevent Shuu from engaging in foul play. Nonetheless, as we are about to leave, Shuu has a less than harmless aside with Ryouta. He taunts Ryouta about his investigation by sneering he's "missed something" and lets on he knows more about Hiyoko's death. With our business in the lab finished, we transition to the giant cement dome surrounding the school.

Unfortunately, the walls of the dome prove impenetrable. Thus, our unassuming duo attempts to find an emergency exit. They quickly locate a hatch at the top of the dome, but it appears to be locked. Hoping to learn more about the dome at the Headmaster's Office, the characters head off there but find it inaccessible. As the two prepare to break down the door, they encounter a SILENT HILL LOOKING MONSTER THAT ATTEMPTS TO MURDER THEM!

LOOK AT THIS FUCKING THING!
LOOK AT THIS FUCKING THING!

Class Two: Then This Visual Novel Becomes Silent Hill

Luckily for our characters, the monster proves to be a slow clambering oaf. Nonetheless, a blood-thirsty abomination is roaming the school campus, hoping to murder any out-of-place students. Ryouta and Sakuya rush back to the chemistry lab to inform their teachers of the situation. Kazuaki, the math teacher, however, seems doubtful about the monster's existence. Afterward, the doctor announces the completion of their autopsy. Hiyoko died of asphyxiation, but without any signs of strangulation or drowning. Furthermore, Shuu states her body was dismembered AFTER her death and estimates Hiyoko died yesterday evening. As he says this, he conveniently conjures an alibi absolving him of being the primary suspect.

Admittedly confused, Ryouta and Sakuya leave to interview a handful of students in the gym. After butting heads about the possible guilt of the doctor, the would-be detectives end up encountering Okosan. Okosan testifies he did not see Hiyoko leaving school yesterday evening, but he did see a "blood-stained interloper." Okosan claims he saw the suspect entering the infirmary. The dynamic duo returns to the janitor's office and bumps into Yuuya once again. Yuuya claims to have encountered the scarecrow as well and states it appears to hover around the school's second floor.

Great, now there's someone wandering the school covered in blood. Just what I needed right about now.
Great, now there's someone wandering the school covered in blood. Just what I needed right about now.

As Yuuya leaves to help the teachers in the chemistry lab, Ryouta and Sakuya briefly interrogate him. Yuuya verifies the doctor's alibi and states he was with the doctor all day yesterday. Ryouta and Sakuya then prepare to return to the chemistry lab, but while in route, Ryouta suggests they check the library for any remaining students. They find nothing suspicious, but it is here we experience our first "dream sequence." This scene is "interesting" as it is told from the perspective of Nageki Fujishiro, the "normal" game's proverbial bookworm. With the screen completely black, Nageki asks if something horrible has happened at the school. For those who may have forgotten, Nageki was the rock-dove romance option. In the base game, his storyline reveals he's a ghost stuck wandering the school's campus.

We then abruptly transition to the chemistry lab where we collect the key to the headmaster's office. Yuuya assures he will watch over Shuu in Kazuaki's sted. With Kazuaki accompanying them, the two detectives enter the headmaster's office without issue. Unfortunately, as they open the door, they discover the headmaster dead. Doctor Shuu rushes to the office and announces the principal has died of poisoning, and his cause of death slightly mimics Hiyoko's. Worse, it seems he died meer hours before we entered his office.

Oh, YOU DON'T SAY?!
Oh, YOU DON'T SAY?!

Class Three: The Plot Thickens, And My Brain Continues To Suffer

Upon closer inspection, Shuu discovers the headmaster most likely died before his emergency announcement. Kazuaki agrees and finds the televised statement mirrors that of a pre-rehearsed video from the year prior. Not wanting to spread panic to the general student population, everyone agrees to keep the principal's death a secret. Hoping to find clues about what is going on, Ryouta and Sakuya search the office. Ryouta discovers a locked file cabinet as well as a command terminal. Ryouta and Sakuya rush to the janitor's office in hopes Mr. One can help them.

As Ryouta leaves the office, the sinister Doctor Shuu confronts him. Once again the doctor chastizes Ryouta for not hearing out his previous "hint" and teases him further by providing another. Shuu tells Ryouta this is a mystery that "does not require you to use your brain." As he leaves Ryouta to think, he surmises this mystery has been laid out for Ryouta to discover something about himself. Nonetheless, our characters return to Mr. One, and unfortunately, find the school's file cabinets explode if subjected to force. Mr. One believes he can still open the file, but it will take time.

Breaking News: The Doctor is STILL shitty and probably up to no good!
Breaking News: The Doctor is STILL shitty and probably up to no good!

When the subject turns to the command terminal on the headmaster's desk, he directs us to Yuuya. As we attempt to see if Yuuya is in the lab, the scarecrow monster appears and attempts to murder our party. Ryouta is separated from Sakuya but makes his way safely to the library. As he gets his bearings straight, he quickly encounters Nageki. After the two have an awkward introduction, Ryouta asks if Nageki saw Hiyoko yesterday. Nageki replies he did not. However, things take a weird turn when Nageki claims he knows of Hiyoko's death because he has seen her ghost. Before Ryouta can inquire for further details, Nageki disappears in a burst of light, leaving Ryouta in an unconscious state.

Eventually, Ryouta makes his way back to the chemistry lab and re-convenes with Yuuya and Sakuya. Yuuya agrees to hack the principal's command terminal, and the trio departs for his office. While there, they unlock the console with Kazuaki's blessings. Yuuya succeeds and hands things over to Ryouta. Though he worries about the risks of opening the hatch, he elects to unlock it in hopes of leading the school's students to safety. Ryouta, Sakuya, and Kazuaki leave to examine the roof of the dome and see clear blue skies outside. Immediately, two random students appear and attempt to fly out. However, as they go, an unknown force SHOOTS THEM TO DEATH! Their corpses fall back down to the school; riddled with bullets.

You hate to see that at your local pigeon school.
You hate to see that at your local pigeon school.

Class Four: This Is The Chapter Where The Game Becomes A JRPG

Demoralized to discover their only hope of escape results in instant death, our party attempts to recollect itself. Hoping to gain access to the school's "restricted files," they return to Mr. One. Fed up with Mr. One's mysterious musings, Sakuya demands to know Mr. One's identify, who happily obliges. Mr. One reveals he is none other than "Leone JB," the leader of the "Dove Party." If you recall, when you seek out Yuuya's romance route in the base game, you discover there are two political parties in the world of Hatoful Boyfriend. On the one hand, you have the Hawk Party which seeks to exterminate all forms of humanity. On the other hand, you have the Dove Party which seeks out peaceful co-existence.

Furthermore, Leone states he has unlocked the secret files from the headmaster's office. While reading over the records, we discover several surprising facts about the school and its enrollment of Hiyoko. St. Pigeonation's Institute sought out Hiyoko's admission due to her resistance to all forms of the avian flu. The school felt her graduation would help further the Dove Party's agenda, and even hoped her enrollment would result in cross-species romance. Unfortunately, the file reveals that should Hiyoko die, the school would surrender its students to humanity AS A BLOOD SACRIFICE! Sounds like a real "win-win." You kill a representative of humanity, and humans get to KILL HUNDREDS OF INNOCENT AVIAN SCHOOL CHILDREN!

This guy sure knows how to make an entrance AFTER we find out everyone is in route to be murdered in a blood sacrifice.
This guy sure knows how to make an entrance AFTER we find out everyone is in route to be murdered in a blood sacrifice.

To add insult to injury, we discover the dome will lift twelve hours after its deployment. Once this time elapses, the dome will "deliver" the school's inhabitants to humanity, and in turn, initiate a massacre. With just eight hours remaining, Ryouta and Sakuya continue their investigation in hopes of preventing the murder of the school's population. To help them in their quest, they travel to the school's library in hopes of learning more about its history. While perusing the school's encyclopedias, Nageki reappears. Nageki tells Ryouta what he's looking for can be found behind the receptionist's desk.

Sakuya then turns to Ryouta and shouts at him to cease babbling to himself. When Ryouta tries to explain he's talking to Nageki, Sakuya states they are the only ones in the library. Though Nageki denies being a hallucination, he does admit Ryouta is the first avian student to interact with him. Nageki then disappears, and Ryouta begins to question his sanity. Nonetheless, they find the books Nageki mentioned and learn a few essential facts about the school's history. For one thing, the school was founded in 2180, only eight years before the events of today. Furthermore, we find out a massive fire occurred at the school in 2183. To Ryouta's horror, he discovers one of the fire's victims was a student named "Nageki Fujishiro."

Ryouta, he's clearly a ghost! Like, I don't know how else to spell this out for you!
Ryouta, he's clearly a ghost! Like, I don't know how else to spell this out for you!

Shaken, Ryouta then turns his attention to Okosan's testimony about a "blood-stained bird" roaming the school's campus. Believing Yuuya might know more about this suspect, Sakuya and Ryouta return to the chemistry lab. Yuuya and the doctor rebuke suggestions of suspicious activity, and Ryouta endeavors to find the "medical center" mentioned in the encyclopedia. After a bit of brainstorming, they discover an abandoned portion of the school. Upon entering an old classroom, they encounter a cabinet titled "OPERATION HATOFUL." Inside, we find the same encyclopedias, but with with a notable missing copy. Things get even more confusing when they encounter a make-shift wall blocking what should be a flight of stairs to the hallway's basement.

Unfortunately for all involved, a horrifying sound occurs in the background. Fearing the scarecrow has tracked them down, Ryouta and Sakuya prepare to make a break for it. However, instead of a scarecrow, a small Luzon bleeding-heart dove named "Anghel Higure" stands in front of them. In case you don't know, Anghel is a parody of the "Chuunibyou" trope as well as a dig at Square-Enix. Anyway, Anghel calls Ryouta "the Undertaker," and the game suddenly becomes a JRPG where we fight Anghel in the form of a turn-based battle. After knocking out Anghel, he declares he is on a quest to "defeat the demon spores."

Right, Anghel sure is a character in this video game.
Right, Anghel sure is a character in this video game.

Ryouta and Sakuya drag Anghel back to Okosan who confirms him to be the suspect he mentioned earlier. Anghel admits he attempted to enter the school's infirmary but claims the room's overwhelming presence of "demon spores" prevented him from doing so. He also confirms seeing Hiyoko entering the school's infirmary but claims he did not see her leave. Thus, Ryouta realizes doctor Shuu and Yuuya have been lying about not encountering anyone entering the infirmary. The plot thickens, and unfortunately for all involved, we now have to tolerate Anghel babbling anime nonsense for the rest of the game.

Class Five: Its Time For Drama Ripped From A Daytime Soap-Opera!

Chapter five starts unlike any of the previous ones before it. Unlike the prior episodes, it begins with a flashback to Sakuya's childhood where his father attempts to install a sense of elitism into the young pigeon. There are also several dream sequences involving Yuuya which detail his relationship to Sakuya. Should you romance either, you discover the two are brothers, but Sakuya resents Yuuya and repeatedly refers to him as a "half-breed." Nevertheless, the game juxtaposes to the janitor's office. Here, Sakuya attempts to mount a defense for Doctor Shuu, while throwing his half-brother under the bus. Ryouta isn't having any of it and implores Sakuya to look at the facts and reach an objective conclusion.

OH! You mean to suggest there's some sort of connection between the evil doctor and this school's dark history? WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?!
OH! You mean to suggest there's some sort of connection between the evil doctor and this school's dark history? WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?!

Ryouta identifies the school's infirmary as the next place for their investigation. Sakuya agrees and offers to keep Doctor Shuu and Yuuya distracted so Ryouta can investigate the room unimpeded. As they are about to leave, the janitor provides Ryouta with a stun gun and master key. When Sakuya enters the chemistry lab, he finds Anghel declaring Shuu to be "the embodiment of evil." Unfortunately, Yuuya is absent. In an attempt to keep Shuu distracted, Sakuya reveals the doctor's medicinal research saved the life of his father and spends his time trying to get in the doctor's good graces.

The game returns to Ryouta in the infirmary as he attempts to locate clues. While rifling through the doctor's desk, he finds medical files for himself, Hiyoko, Sakuya, and Nageki. Just as he is about to read the entry on Nageki, something knocks him out from behind, and he finds the files missing when he awakes. However, he discovers Hiyoko's blood-stained ID card. When Ryouta returns to the chemistry lab, he finds Shuu lecturing on how someone could dismember a human corpse. Nonetheless, he assures everyone he could not possibly be the one who dismembered Hiyoko because he's partially paralyzed on his right side.

Just normal things school children talk about with their school teachers! Nothing to see here!
Just normal things school children talk about with their school teachers! Nothing to see here!

Our attention then turns to Yuuya, who appears to be assisting the doctor in his evil plots. Sakuya and Ryouta accuse Yuuya of covering for the doctor, but just as they seem to have the upper hand, the scarecrow reappears. Ryouta and Sakuya reconvene at the janitor's office. While Ryouta is busy collecting notes and gathering evidence, Sakuya stealthily leaves to confront the doctor and Yuuya alone. Until the chapter's conclusion, the rest of chapter five is told through Sakuya's perspective. Sakuya confronts Shuu and accuses him of being connected to Hiyoko's murder. Shuu once again asserts neither he nor Yuuya was the cause of Hiyoko's death. Nevertheless, Shuu does not deny being "involved" with her death.

Growing weary of Sakuya's interrogation, Shuu pulls out a knife and ATTEMPTS TO ICE HIM! The screen goes black, but instead of a dead Sakuya, we see a bloody Yuuya with a knife sticking out of his side. Yuuya took the blow for his brother, and as he bleeds to death in Sakuya's arms, doctor Shuu summons the scarecrow. The doctor refers to the scarecrow as "Labor 9" and summons it to follow him to the school's restricted area. Attention then turns to Yuuya whose condition is getting worse. Now, I have to share a bit of a disclaimer. If you have reached this point of the blog and found the zany adventures in Hatoful Boyfriend hilarious, then you will enjoy the next three chapters. Shit is about to get "real" my friends, and it is glorious. Nonetheless, if you have any reservations about reading about murder, death, or acts of genocide; now may be the time to stop reading.

I have no words for this plot twist. None whatsoever.
I have no words for this plot twist. None whatsoever.

Yuuya confirms he and the doctor did not kill Hiyoko and that she was already dead when they arrived at the infirmary. However, Yuuya does admit to helping the doctor dismember Hiyoko's body. With his confession complete, Yuuya asks to be alone with Sakuya. During a private "heart to heart," Yuuya tells Sakuya about his "real" father. Before Sakuya was born, their current father killed Yuuya's father to wed their mother. Their father agreed to raise Yuuya, but only if their mother left behind the egg of an unborn child from Yuuya's biological father. Yuuya raised the egg in secret, and when his mother conceived a child with his step-father, he swapped the eggs. Additionally, in a fit of rage, Yuuya smashed the egg conceived from his step-father. As a result, Sakuya and Yuuya are actually full-brothers.

To clarify, Sakuya has spent his entire life believing his half-brother was a "mongrel" commoner and called him as such throughout the game. Likewise, he spends the vast majority of his time talking about "inheriting" his father's legacy. Now, he realizes all of his snobbish galavanting was fraudulent. Worse, his last "true" relative is now dead. Speaking of which, Yuuya warns Sakuya the doctor is the one who poisoned the headmaster, and unfortunately, Shuu applied the same poison on the blade in his chest. Yuuya then dies in the arms of his brother.

Okay... I really wasn't expecting to see someone die in the hands of their brother in this game, but sure, why not?
Okay... I really wasn't expecting to see someone die in the hands of their brother in this game, but sure, why not?

Class Six: Ghost Problems Part III

I'm going to level with you for a bit. The next two chapters are more or less self-contained character arcs that introduce supporting details to the main story. The consequence is they are far longer than any of the chapters preceding them. Nonetheless, the game's perspective reverts to Ryouta, who is trying to understand recent events at the janitor's office. Knowing the doctor has entered the hidden medical facility, Ryouta struggles to think of a way to follow him. He resolves to go to the library in hopes he can talk to Nageki. Ryouta leaves for the library by himself as Sakuya is still suffering from shock. Upon entering the library, Ryouta encounters Nageki as well as a MASSIVE BLUE FLAME IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LIBRARY!

THEN GET A FUCKING FIRE HOSE!
THEN GET A FUCKING FIRE HOSE!

The flame disappears, and Nageki admits to knowing he is a ghost. However, Nageki still does not understand why he has only been able to communicate with Ryouta and Hiyoko. In hopes of aiding Ryouta's investigation, Nageki points him to an encyclopedia containing a treasure trove of files about "OPERATION HATOFUL." Ryouta discovers it was an experiment by the Hawk Party to weaponize the avian flu to kill humanity once and for all. A second file reveals Nageki once carried a highly contagious strain of the avian flu, known as the "Charon Virus." Nageki recalls whenever he encountered humans, they would always get incredibly sick. As he spent more time at the medical facility, he came to realize he "needed to disappear."

With these files on hand, Nageki remembers what caused the fire at the medical facility five years ago. During a flashback, he explains he grew up in a home for war orphans following the "Great Human-Bird War." Nageki enjoyed his time at the orphanage, but one day a human extremist group broke into the orphanage and held the children hostage. The extremists began killing the orphan chicks one by one, but when they reached Nageki, they all died of asphyxiation. After the "Heartful House Incident," Nageki accompanied one of the surviving orphans to college. However, Nageki experienced recurring health problems and viewed himself to be a burden. Then he received a letter from St. Pigeonation's Institute offering him an education with medical accommodations. Nageki signed up but eventually found himself becoming a test subject for the Hawk Party.

DOES EVERYONE IN THIS GAME HAVE A TRAGIC BACKSTORY?!?!?!
DOES EVERYONE IN THIS GAME HAVE A TRAGIC BACKSTORY?!?!?!

To Nageki's horror, scientists from the Hawk Party forced him under duress to kill an endless stream of humans. Contrary to what you may assume, Nageki harbors no ill-will to humanity and instead seeks peace. Hoping to end the senseless killings, Nageki burns down the medical facility. Suspecting agents from the Hawk Party would continue to track him down, Nageki decides to burn with the school. Back in the library, Nageki believes the reason he's a ghost is part of him still lives at the hidden medical facility. Furthermore, he fears the doctor may continue the Hawk Party's research on the Charon Virus. After helping Ryouta locate a map of the school, he bids him farewell. However, he promises to meet Ryouta soon, and next time, with Hiyoko.

Class Seven: Are You There God? It's Me, ZombiePie

With a map of the old school campus in hand, Ryouta heads out for the chemistry room in hopes of finding a hidden entrance. This time, however, Ryouta is joined by his math teacher, Kazuaki as well as the infernal Anghel. After a bit of sleuthing, the party quickly locates the entrance to the hidden basement which looks like a science fiction set pulled from a 1960's alien invasion movie. As they progress further into the cellar, Labor 9 attacks them. Luckily, they notice a nearby fire hose and spray the monster with water.

And for once, Anghel proves useful to the party.
And for once, Anghel proves useful to the party.

After dousing the scarecrow, Ryouta shocks the beast with his stun gun. As the trio marches on, the game transitions back to Sakuya mourning the death of his brother. After the childish Okosan gives Sakuya a heartwarming pep talk, they set out to try and catch up with Ryouta. Back at the school's lower depths, Anghel's ability to detect "demon spores" helps the party navigate the basement. Later, the group locates more files about the various students at St. Pigeonation's Institute. When they read over Anghel's record, which details his ability to create hallucinations, we discover every student at the school has some genetic "quirk." Though bewildered, they eventually locate the door to the final room in the underground laboratory.

As they enter the flame-scarred room, they quickly encounter Doctor Shuu. Again, Shuu reminds Ryouta he only mutilated Hiyoko and was not the immediate cause of her death. All the same, Shuu does confirm he was a researcher on "Operation Hatoful." He reviews how he's been working to secure a new host for the Charon Virus for years. He again eyes Ryouta and commends him for being an "exemplary student." After deploying a trap to separate Ryouta from the rest of his party, Shuu pries at Ryouta to think back to yesterday. Ryouta realizes Hiyoko did indeed go to the infirmary before returning home. Her reason for doing so was to tend to a sickly Ryouta; however, as she approached him, she suffocated to death.

Aw, shit. The doctor was evil all along! I sure didn't see that one coming.
Aw, shit. The doctor was evil all along! I sure didn't see that one coming.

The game transitions back to Doctor Shuu who confirms Hiyoko died due to the Charon Virus inside Ryouta. This virus makes Ryouta a biological weapon capable of killing humans within minutes. Then, in what I can only describe as one of the games most shocking moments, Shuu re-directs Ryouta to the scarecrow. Shuu lifts the burlap sack covering the monster's face and reveals A HUMAN BRAIN! And before you ask, yes, it is HIYKOKO'S BRAIN! As Shuu inspects Labor 9 further, he laments that Ryouta's attack may have resulted in irreversible brain damage. Yup, WE KILLED THE PROTAGONIST FROM NORMAL-ASS HATOFUL BOYFRIEND!

You may be wondering why a scientist would go to such lengths to weaponize a virus and put a human's brain in the body of a robot. Well, rest assured my dear children, Hatoful Boyfriend has an answer for you. The game flashes back to the "Heartful House Incident," where Hiyoko's parents served as mediators but were murdered by the human extremists. Moments after the massacre, Hiyoko and Ryouta cross paths with an unusual stranger promising to grant them "any wish they desire." They collectively ask for a world where birds and humans no longer fight. As the mysterious stranger walks away, we find out he is none other than Shuu. When the game returns to the present, Shuu declares he's spent his entire life trying to make Ryouta's wish come true. Being a college-educated professor, he reached the conclusion peace is only possible following the extermination of humanity.

We have two JRPG battles in the last chapters and they are all GREAT!
We have two JRPG battles in the last chapters and they are all GREAT!

Horrified that he is the reason for Hiyoko's death, Ryouta loses the will to live and subjects himself to Shuu's "final experiment." We juxtapose back to Anghel and Kazuaki who are trapped and dying thanks to the doctor filling the room they are in with poisonous gas. Luckily, Okosan and Sakuya arrive and stop them from meeting an untimely demise. They rush forward only to find Ryouta under the influence of an evil force. THAT'S RIGHT; WE FIGHT "SHADOW RYOUTA!" Shuu explains he hopes to send Ryouta to the surface and eliminate all traces of humanity. We then engage Ryouta in a JRPG turn-based battle in an attempt to return him to his senses. When it seems we have failed, the ghost of Hiyoko appears and begs Ryouta to stop.

When Ryouta recovers, he asks the doctor to justify his actions. During YET ANOTHER FLASHBACK, we find Shuu developing a friendship with another researcher at the old science facility. We find out Shuu's real name is "Souma Isa," and the researcher he admired was none other than Ryouta's father. Unfortunately, Ryouta's father contracted an exotic disease during his research, and tragically died. His last words before passing were a request to Isa, now Shuu, to help his son should he ever encounter him. The game transitions back to the present and Shuu thanks Ryouta for allowing him to grant the wish of his only friend.

So, are we not going to mention these
So, are we not going to mention these "charming" scientists are trying to find a way to exterminate humanity? I'm asking for a friend.

Class Eight: Then Hatoful Boyfriend Becomes Persona 6

After a bit of plot summary, Shuu admits defeat and calls an end to his plot. As he does, Mr. Leon returns with the school's entire student-body in tow. Shuu agrees to stand judgment for his crimes, but as he readies himself, Kazuaki PULLS OUT A GUN AND SHOOTS HIM! With his pistol aimed at the doctor's head, Kazuaki demands Shuu locate the remains of Nageki. Remember when Nageki mentioned he survived the "Heartful House Incident" with one other orphan? Well, that other orphan was none other than our sleepy math teacher, Kazuaki!

AW SHIT! WHEN DID THE MATH TEACHER GET A GUN?!
AW SHIT! WHEN DID THE MATH TEACHER GET A GUN?!

What ensues next is another flashback sequence where we learn more about Kazuaki and Nageki's life after the massacre at the orphanage. It is important to note, Kazuaki's real name is "Hitori Uzune," and he was born a different species of quail. No matter, in the years following the massacre, Nageki and Hitori/Kazuaki eeked out a living together. Unfortunately, Nageki's recurring medical issues continually put stress on their ability to enjoy life independently. Worse, any attempts to find out the cause of Nageki's illness failed. When St. Pigeonation's Institute invited Nageki to its state of the art medical facility, Hitori implored Nageki to accept the invitation. The author of this invitation was none other than Souma Isa (a.k.a. Doctor Shuu).

At first, things go well for Nageki at St. Pigeonation's Institute. Unfortunately, as time passes, Nageki's letters become scarce and distressing in content. In one such letter, Nageki assures he is "fine," which is a trigger to Hitori that things are not "fine." Hoping to learn more, Hitori goes to the school and upon entering its medical lab, finds it ablaze. As he ventures into the facility, he discovers Nageki who warns him he must "disappear." While the fire consumes Nageki, he begs Hitori to make sure nothing is left of his body. The game reverts to the present where Kazuaki claims to be able to hear Nageki's voice and asks where the doctor has hidden his remains. When Shuu claims he has transferred Nageki's remains into Ryouta, Kazuaki shoots the doctor twice.

Yeah, about that....
Yeah, about that....

When Kazuaki asks for clarification, Shuu states all that remained of Nageki following the fire was his liver. To seed the Charon Virus into Ryouta, Shuu surgically implanted the organ into him. After pointing a gun at Sakuya, Ryouta is forced into a room with just him and Kazuaki. Kazuaki pulls out a knife and motions at Ryouta's stomach. Nageki returns and takes control of Ryouta's body, and tries to reason with Kazuaki. While trying to convince Kazuaki to stop, we encounter "SHADOW NAGEKI!" What ensues next is a Persona-styled demon negotiation sequence. While controlling the specter of Nageki, you try to counter the shadow version of Nageki to prevent Kazuaki from killing Ryouta.

I don't even know what happening anymore.
I don't even know what happening anymore.

During this "battle," Nageki reminds Kazuaki that he only asked two things of him before he died. First, he asked him to destroy his remains. Second, he asked him to "live and be happy." This helpful reminder defeats Shadow Nageki, and Sakuya surrenders his weapons. As everyone prepares to return to the surface, Ryouta turns to the cryogenic chamber that once housed Nageki. Ryouta then collects the final remains of Hiyoko and readies himself for the chamber. Shuu reveals the Charon Virus has spread throughout Ryouta's body, and he is a walking biological weapon. He also mentions Hiyoko's brain is showing signs of life, but just barely. Citing his newfound friendship with Ryouta, Sakuya promises to one day find a cure for the Charon Virus as well as a way to revive Hiyoko. Ryouta walks into the chamber and hears the voice of Hiyoko. As they fall into a slumber, he pledges to tell Hiyoko all about the day.

BUT WAIT, THIS GAME ISN'T OVER! Because I had had the due diligence to collect every possible romance option in the game, I am "graced" with Hatoful Boyfriend's epilogue! In the first scene, we discover Yuuya is alive and well. It turns out Leone JB revived him with an antidote moments before leading the students in the gym to the medical facility. In the next scene, Sakuya finds Okosan and Anghel up to their usual nonsense. Okosan is on a quest to find pudding, and Anghel is screaming about demons out to bring the world's end.

Alright, so why is the doctor not in prison?!?!
Alright, so why is the doctor not in prison?!?!

When you think things couldn't possibly get any weirder, we find Kazuaki pushing Shuu in a wheelchair. Shuu seems to be less glum, and Kazuaki appears to assist him with his medical needs. After a bit of joshing around, Sakuya turns his attention to Shuu and asks to review some medical trials with him. After disclosing the tests were a "perfect success," Kazuaki declares "today is the day." The three re-enter the chamber housing Ryouta. Upon reaching the chamber, Sakuya excitedly asks Ryouta to wake up, reminding him he wouldn't "go back on his word."

The End

And here we are! The handful of you courageous enough to read through this ridiculous quest are no-doubt confused. Some of you may still be trying to convince yourself it's a harmless game about dating birds. Well, I regret to inform you, you are living a lie. Hatoful Boyfriend isn't interested in telling you wacky stories about romancing an almost endless supply of anime tropes. Hatoful Boyfriend hates the fact you want that; it hates the fact you expect that; it hates the fact you want more of that. Hatoful Boyfriend hates you.

"A lot sure happened today" is the understatement of the year.

Hatoful Boyfriend has an almost Evangelion quality to it. It creates this saccharine world and tricks you into thinking it's just silly anime nonsense. Then, when you least expect it, it burns its shiny happy world to the ground all while mocking you. Hatoful Boyfriend chastizes you for thinking it's merely a dating sim. It reminds you its premise is patently ridiculous, and you were a fool to believe that is all it had to offer. It jabs a knife into your side and whispers you are living a lie and reminds you it is high time you wake up. And then it twists that knife as it descends further into madness.

Let's return to my comparison to Evangelion for a bit. Much like EVA, Hatoful Boyfriend gives you crazy anime bullshit and wants you to know it hates you for loving its crazy anime bullshit. From beginning to end, Hatoful Boyfriend's "secret ending" both dismantles audience entitlement and declares its very own genre trash. And it doesn't stop there. Throughout our nigh five-hour-long journey it fires broadsides at Atlus, Square-Enix, and anime tropes in general. And all of those memorable characters you enjoyed dating? You watch them survive miserable circumstances, one after another. Previously happy and charming characters are thrown into sad and depressing situations. Moreover, few, if any, get a happy ending.

Thanks... I hate it.
Thanks... I hate it.

That is not to say Hatoful Boyfriend's twist is perfect. Some have actively questioned Hatoful Boyfriend's structure, and I honestly do not have any counters to this criticism. It's ridiculous you have to go to such great lengths to discover the game's reason for being, let alone its namesake — nonetheless, credit to Hatoful Boyfriend for placing a Sword of Damocles over those who play it. Every romance option in the "normal" game suggests something is up with its world. Dating Shuu results in him murdering the player and pickling your brain in a jar. Any attempts to date Kazuaki fail as they end with him saying his heart is for another. Something is up in the world of Hatoful Boyfriend, but it's not until you play the Bad Boys Love ending when you discover what that may be.

Finally, let's address your role in this nightmarish blog. Now, I'm not going to try to wax poetic about Hatoful Boyfriend's developer, or the game's legacy. Nor will I lament the glut of visual novels copying Hatoful Boyfriend's premise, but with none of the game's upside. I'm not a wizened local man who can find a deeper meaning in things I don't entirely understand myself. What I can say is the caricature of Hatoful Boyfriend that has permeated on the internet, and even on this site, should stop. And hopefully, you'll join me from this point forward.

Dear God... I have no idea how I was able to survive that. Next time, I'm just sticking to Final Fantasy.
Dear God... I have no idea how I was able to survive that. Next time, I'm just sticking to Final Fantasy.
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EA Didn't "Kill" Mass Effect! It Still Lives On As An Amusement Park Ride At California's Great America!

Author's Note: I would like to personally thank my close friend, Michael for taking a majority of the pictures in this blog. All pictures that are not watermarked with the EA or Cedar Fair logo are from him and his property.

Why Is There A 4D Mass Effect Ride?

I swear, this is a real thing that exists!
I swear, this is a real thing that exists!

Before we tackle the insanity that is "Mass Effect: New Earth," we must first discuss its host, the amusement park company, Cedar Fair. For those unaware, the amusement park industry is currently in the middle of a "Second Coaster War." In the late 1990s to early 2000s the quest to build the highest or fastest coaster dominated amusements park projects around the world. Now, parks are engaged in a tit for tat conflict in developing new thrilling experiences. Relative industry newcomers like Rocky Mountain Construction have changed the amusement park landscape entirely, whereas veterans like Intamin or Gerstlauer are consistently pushing the limits of traditional coaster design. One of the driving forces for new thrills has been the monolithic Cedar Fair which operates twelve amusement parks in the United States and Canada.

However, we are not going to discuss roller coasters in this blog. Instead, we are here to talk about Cedar Fair's long-forgotten attempt to acquire distinctive intellectual properties. Our story starts in 1993 when Kings Dominion installed the very first "Action Theater." To make a long story short, film studio Paramount had a family of amusement parks intended to compete against the likes of Disney, Universal, Six Flags, and SeaWorld. Upon the split of its parent company, Viacom, in 2006, the Paramount Parks were sold to Cedar Fair. After the first Action Theater proved successful, all of Paramount's amusement parks installed similar attractions. These theaters were motion simulators which, at the time, played a yearly rotation of blockbuster films from Paramount.

Upon Cedar Fair's purchase of Paramount Parks, several rides required immediate re-theming for licensing reasons. Surprisingly, the Action Theaters at California's Great America, Canada's Wonderland, Carowinds, Kings Dominion, and Kings Island were not immediately demolished. Though, in 2013, Kings Island would remove its theater to make way for its "Urgent Scare" Halloween Haunt. At first, Cedar Fair bought pre-existing 3D movies from other companies to keep these theaters operating. For example, there was an awkward period when "The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera," previously a 4D movie at Universal Studios Orlando, was playing at all locations. Around 2013 each theater was re-themed to play one of four possible films with the majority being about dinosaurs.

Nonetheless, each of these themes was intended to be temporary as Cedar Fair explored more permanent solutions. In comes their partnership with EA! The first result of this collaboration occurred at Carowinds, which re-themed its Action Theater to the Plants vs. Zombies franchise. Here, riders take a seat in a themed arena and use a turret to shoot at enemies on a 3D projection screen. Coincidentally, around the time Cedar Fair was working with EA, it was also partnering up with the well-known motion simulator company, TrioTech. As a result of both collaborations, Cedar Fair declared a new initiative that would impact several of its parks.

But Wait, Why Does Mass Effect: New Earth Exist?

Upon partnering with TrioTech, Cedar Fair announced each of their parks would have at least one dark ride. As part of this new agenda, Canada's Wonderland received "Wonder Mountain's Guardian," and Knott's Berry Farm got "Voyage to the Iron Reef." And inevitably, that leads us to the Action Theater at California's Great America. Wanting to test a more "traditional" 4D experience, Cedar Fair contracted EA and 3D Live, a holographic filmmaking studio. Thus began a year-long collaboration between California's Great America, 3D Live, and BioWare. Until the project's completion, BioWare representatives were included on weekly calls to discuss the ride's story, animation, and artwork.

It is worth noting each of these rides, especially Mass Effect: New Earth, showcased an entirely different interpretation of an amusement park "dark ride." Wonder Mountain's Guardian is a roller coaster hybrid that also has a shooting gallery element. Voyage to the Iron Reef is an interactive dark ride where riders travel on a track and shoot at screens to gain points. Mass Effect: New Earth, on the other hand, is a traditional 4D movie where a real actor comments over a two and a half minute film. As such, it is safe to say Cedar Fair was testing four different types of dark rides and seeing which worked the best. However, their dark ride initiative was doomed from the start.

I cannot preface enough how I am maybe one of twelve people in line to ride this thing whenever I go to California's Great America.
I cannot preface enough how I am maybe one of twelve people in line to ride this thing whenever I go to California's Great America.

First, a handful of parks demolished their Action Theaters to make way for more popular attractions. Additionally, many have come to rely on the abandoned theaters when hosting Cedar's "Halloween Haunt." Finally, there's no sign of further research and development for the current "test" attractions. For example, Mass Effect: New Earth has been operating for over three years with the same theme and script. The TrioTech model hasn't fared any better. The experiments at Knott's Berry Farm and Canada's Wonderland have met a mixed reception from amusement park enthusiasts. It is worth noting Cedar Fair has an inconsistent record when it comes to theming. The company also has a notorious history of only partially following through on its promises before moving onto a different corporate agenda. As such, park managers did not enthusiastically sign up for new dark rides when this initiative was announced.

Furthermore, you may have noticed I have not shared concrete dates while discussing Mass Effect: New Earth. There is a reason for this omission. As I will detail shortly, Mass Effect: New Earth bridges the gap between Mass Effect 2 and 3. At the ride's queue, you'll find props and posters showcasing iconic moments from Mass Effect 2. Regardless, and here's where things get weird, Mass Effect 2 released in 2010, and Mass Effect 3, released in 2012. Mass Effect: New Earth, a motion simulator set during the original Mass Effect trilogy, did not open until 2016! That is FOUR YEARS after the release of Mass Effect 3 and one year BEFORE the launch of Mass Effect: Andromeda. To say this holographic 4D motion simulator missed its window is an understatement. THIS THING WAS DEAD ON ARRIVAL!

The Ride Experience

First, let's address the placement of Mass Effect: New Earth. Upon entering the gates of California's Great America, you'll find the ride nestled in the park's upper half. Hilariously enough, this means the attraction is right across from the park's kid-friendly "Planet Snoopy" zone. As you approach the theater, you'll notice two things. One, it is a massive structure Mass Effect: New Earth is only partially using. The abandoned portions of the building are cordoned off using a banner enticing you to explore "Terra Nova," thus identifying where this ride takes place. Second, as you get closer to the queue, you'll quickly identify a few "interesting" props.

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Exterior of Mass Effect: New Earth

Earlier I mentioned this ride "transports" you to the planet of Terra Nova. There are two things to note about this location and how it relates to Mass Effect's in-game canon. One, your only prior exposure to Terra Nova is if you played the "Bring Down the Sky" DLC for Mass Effect 1. In fact, in some odd way, this ride is a direct sequel to that DLC. To illustrate, at the ride's entrance, there's a memorial plaque to those who "sacrificed their lives" to help Commander Sheppard stop Batarians from destroying Terra Nova. The second important thing to note is Terra Nova's relation to Mass Effect 3. In Mass Effect 3, Terra Nova is abandoned by the Alliance's Sixth Fleet upon the start of the Reaper's invasion of the Milky Way Galaxy. So, you could say I was a little miffed to see the props for Mass Effect: New Earth were promotional items from Mass Effect 2's launch. There are two sets of N7 armor, one male and the other female, and they are carbon copies of the ones you saw at GameStop when Mass Effect 2 first released!

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Queue Line "Theming"

Furthermore, it is vital to note, Mass Effect: New Earth is a "theatrical" motion simulator. Before boarding the ride, an attendant hands you a pair of passive 3D glasses. Moments before the ride starts, a funny safety video plays. While easily ignorable, this video conveys some essential context related to New Earth's story. During the film, we discover we are tourists about to be whisked away to a tropical resort on Terra Nova. As a representative from the travel agency begins talking about time-shares, the feed cuts out. A reporter from the "Alliance News Network," cautions that Terra Nova's defense fleet is reporting "unusual activity" near their Mass Relay. With loud blaster sounds in the background, the reporter screams that something is invading the planet. As they are about to tell us what the invaders may be, the feed abruptly ends, and the doors to the theater open. It is at this point, a real person dressed in an Alliance uniform, loudly greets you to enter the room and introduces themselves as "Conrad Verner."

Alright, I bet that last sentence got you by surprise. So, let's talk about what differentiates Mass Effect: New Earth from other dark rides. For the Plants Vs. Zombies version of this attraction you use a gun to shoot highlighted objects on a 3D projection screen. In Mass Effect: New Earth there's no player interaction outside of anything you say to the actor. As the film plays, this actor provides commentary and moves around to mimic the audience's 4D seats. Worth noting, there's a non-themed security guard present during the entire ride. Their job is to guarantee you are not a dick to the actor. Speaking of which, if you end up riding this, DON'T BE A DICK!

I will admit the ride has a few special effects and moments that always impress me.
I will admit the ride has a few special effects and moments that always impress me.

As you take your place in the theater, you'll notice a few things. First, the chairs are incredibly similar to the ones used in everyday 4D theaters. The seats jostle you around and spray water during various portions of the film. When everyone takes their positions, the movie begins. "Conrad Verner" welcomes us to "Mass Relay Getaways," the go-to place to experience a relaxing vacation in Alliance space. After a handful of theme park related jokes, Verner pilots our spacecraft to the nearest Mass Relay, which leads to several references to the Mass Effect games. As our shuttle makes its way to the relay, we conveniently pass by the Normandy, which, for whatever reason, is being captained by Garrus. After Garrus tells off Conrad, we enter the relay. Unfortunately, our actor prematurely ejects us out of warp and drop us in the middle of an asteroid belt.

A collision causes our ship to careen out of control and into the atmosphere of Terra Nova. Luckily, the ship's virtual intelligence assumes emergency control and pilots the spacecraft to a resort. As the actor drones about the beautiful amenities at Terra Nova, a Reaper appears and begins blowing everything up. An explosion flings our ship into a canyon, causing a swarm of insects to fly out. After the vessel reboots, Conrad discovers Wrex piloting the Mako. For whatever reason, it appears Wrex isn't busy leading the Krogans and is instead the field commander of the Normandy. Wrex somehow hacks into our space dingy and assumes control over the ship. The screen then swoops to the Reaper as our ship shoots at its enormous red eye. The Reaper then blasts out a beam of energy, causing us to crash directly into its maw. With no other option left, Conrad orders all available weapons to unload into the Reaper's eye. Following this flurry, the Reaper explodes, and we are victorious. The film promptly ends, and the actor motions to the ride's exit.

So... How's The Ride Holding Up?

POORLY!
POORLY!

For one thing, the ride doesn't even open until one hour after Great America's "rope drop." Second, if the park does not hit a minimum capacity quota, the park's management will close down the ride to save money on operating costs. Finally, the attraction is proving to be an incredibly hard sell to the park's "general public." As such, the park's management only uses two rows in the theater when it has a total of four. Sadly, the ride's struggles to appeal to non-gamers was to be expected. For one thing, I think we can all agree Mass Effect isn't the first video game that comes to mind when designing an amusement park ride. While many consider Mass Effect 2 a "game of the generation," the franchise itself is currently in video game purgatory. Likewise, as someone who has ridden Mass Effect: New Earth more than once, I cannot begin to list how often I overhear adults asking their kids "what's Mass Effect?"

To add insult to injury, Mass Effect: New Earth is downright frustrating for anyone with even the slightest bit of nostalgia for the video games. Look, I get amusement parks should be afforded some creative freedom when tackling intellectual properties. Additionally, I understand the expectation is to "turn your brain off" when you ride most theme park attractions. To illustrate, Universal's "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" makes no narrative sense, but it's my favorite ride in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Amusement park rides don't need to make canonical sense to provide riveting experiences. What drives me bonkers about Mass Effect: New Earth is how it brazenly grafts Mass Effect onto OG Star Tours! Seriously, this ride may be the most creatively bankrupt thing I have ever seen in a chain amusement park.

Think I'm joking? Let's run down New Earth's rap sheet so we can lock it up in theme park jail! Both attractions start with the doors of a shuttle bay opening and a pilot clumsily guiding riders into space. Both attractions feature an early moment where the pilot pulls you out of warp and into a debris field. Both attractions feature scenes where you fly by iconic characters. Both attractions have iconic characters telling your ship to buzz off. Both attractions showcase the defeat of an enemy that shouldn't be possible. Both attractions feature an enthusiastic pilot taking credit for defeating an enemy when they shouldn't. Beat by beat; this is, without a shadow of a doubt, a slap-dash carbon copy of Star Tours!

This blog would have been far more tragic had Mass Effect: New Earth featured a different cast....
This blog would have been far more tragic had Mass Effect: New Earth featured a different cast....

Furthermore, and I cannot preface this point enough, this ride missed its window by FOUR YEARS! It takes place during the original Mass Effect trilogy, but OPENED IN 2016! Seriously, who, in 2016, is going to California's Great America to watch a "best hits" compilation of Mass Effect 2 and 3? WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?! Admittedly, had the ride been themed to coincide with the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it would have been an even more hilarious disaster.

What's Next?

In an alternate universe, where Andromeda wasn't a dumpster fire, I can imagine Cedar Fair updating this ride to coincide with different releases in the Mass Effect series. As it stands, the attraction has remained entirely unchanged since its launch in 2016. As someone whose "home park" is California's Great America, I can note only one change about its script in its three years of operation. Ever so slightly, the actors are starting to throw in some camp to the standard plot. It's not nearly as deliberate as Disney's Jungle Cruise, but in my last visit, the actor made a few references to ride's neglected state.

Accordingly, let's return to Cedar Fair's original dark ride expansion plans. To put it bluntly, they've done jack shit since 2016. To their defense, the reasons for their inaction are relatively obvious. Wonder Mountain's Guardian at Canada's Wonderland cost the company $10 million and has a significant footprint most parks cannot handle. Additionally, the re-theming of the Action Theaters has proven problematic as they have become coveted space for several "Halloween Haunt" events. That is not to suggest the company is blameless. In fact, their harebrained dark ride agenda is an emblem of how inconsistent their management has been in recent years. Cedar Fair is by far one of the most frustrating amusement park chains to follow. Part of what makes them so annoying is they play "favorites" with their properties. On the one hand, Kings Dominion and Cedar Point are always exploring expensive park renovations or new rides additions. On the other hand, Michigan's Adventure or World's of Fun are fortunate if they can get a new set of trash cans.

Making fun of Michigan's Adventure is like making fun of the New York Knicks. It's easy to do and you ultimately shouldn't.
Making fun of Michigan's Adventure is like making fun of the New York Knicks. It's easy to do and you ultimately shouldn't.

But what about those TrioTech rides I mentioned earlier? During a recent road trip, I managed to ride a few, including the one at Knott's Berry Farm. Honestly, I have to say I actively dislike them. I didn't enjoy the how obvious it was I was playing a video game. The graphics are decent, but the transitions between the screens kill the experience. There's virtually no theming between the screens, and there's next to no feedback when shooting targets. At least with Boo Blasters, you have physical targets which visibly respond when you shoot them. That is not the case with any of TrioTech's dark rides, which in my opinion, results in a ho-hum experience.

But what about Mass Effect: New Earth? As it stands, it is an amusement park oddity that is bound to become a future episode of "Defunctland." It, much like the video game franchise it is based on, sits in limbo. Parts of Mass Effect: New Earth are certainly appealing on paper. Unfortunately, Cedar Fair's frugality ruined the ride's chance from the very beginning. At no point does it attempt to paint a story the general public or die-hard Mass Effect fans benefit from watching. That said, I'm dreading the ride's eventual replacement. What I have seen of "Season Two" of TrioTech's motion simulators has me shaking in my boots.

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Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Part 4: The Characters And Story Deserve A Better Game

In case you missed the previous episodes:

Part 31: General Housekeeping

I'm going to need all the help I can get at this point.
I'm going to need all the help I can get at this point.

Before I jump into the proper blog, I want to discuss why this Final Fantasy series has been perpetually on hiatus. Unfortunately for all involved, my ability to write long-form blogs is decreasing as time marches on. That aside, personal issues have reared their ugly head in the middle of a series before. Thus, I do not want any of you to fret about my well-being. However, it is worth mentioning Final Fantasy XII has induced some of the worst writer's block I have ever experienced. Maybe it's the game's grind-heavy nature or possibly my general struggles to discuss game mechanics in written words. Perhaps its the story's lack of a compelling protagonist. Or, it could be the game's soul-crushing length, which has, on several occasions, sapped my lifeforce away.

Regardless, when we last met, Ashe made a pact with Larsa to attend a conference with a religious leader at Mt. Bur-Omisace. What occurs next is a relaxing set piece where the characters are permitted some "breathing room." One recurring issue with Final Fantasy XII is its nonsensical pacing. Either the game is spewing mountains of text during twenty-minute cutscenes, or you are wallowing away in open-world dungeons. As such, I have come to enjoy the "quieter" moments in Final Fantasy XII, where the characters act like genuine people. At any rate, before the characters set off on their treck, they pair up and converse with one another.

What an astute observation, Vaan.
What an astute observation, Vaan.

Moments like these might sound minor, but to me, they do more to frame the characters than the actual story. In a prior scene, we witness Ashe showing a more vulnerable side she has not previously surfaced. In this quick one-off moment, she pairs up with Vaan and states her concerns about following Larsa. Similarly, Basch and Balthier play off each other, and it's refreshing to see a more humorous side to Basch. Role-playing games need moments like these. Without them, it becomes difficult to see the world from the perspective of the characters.

What I find especially curious is these moments only occur at the entrances and exits of new environments. For instance, when you first enter a new level, you'll likely have to listen to one of the characters drone about where you are and the task at hand. After this ho-hum introduction, two characters will stay behind as the rest of the party moves forward. The party members that pair up then proceed to converse with one another about the direction of their adventure. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy these character moments! Above all, I find them more compelling than large swaths of the main story. Nonetheless, these interpersonal relationships develop via a tired and true format.

Does this mean we're all going to be singing Kumbaya in front of a camp fire?
Does this mean we're all going to be singing Kumbaya in front of a camp fire?

Regardless, before we set off for the Ozmone Plain, Basch confronts Balthier and asks him about his loyalty. Balthier brushes Basch's concerns aside, and the party sets off for their adventure. Regrettably, this conversation is all we have in terms of storytelling for the better part of an HOUR! Until we enter a new portion of the Ozmone Plain, we only have a partial idea of where Larsa wants to take the party. The rest of the characters are left in the dark and look like they are joining this journey because they have nothing else better to do. Worse, Penelo, Fran, and Vaan continue to have little to no characterization that connects them to the underlying themes of the story.

Part 32: Why Are The Judges More Compelling Than The Main Characters?

I don't think I have detailed the "canonical" reason why we have to travel long distances on foot in Final Fantasy XII. As Balthier explains it, airships use a device called a "Skystone" to operate. However, there exist regions in Ivalice where an excess of "mist" prevents these stones from running. These regions are called "Jagds," and are lawless wastelands where few bother to explore. I understand jagds are an essential concept from Final Fantasy Tactics, and their use here is more than appropriate. What I am less enthused by is the fact I had to read the game's codex to explain how Mist operates. Final Fantasy is a franchise known for not leaving a single stone unturned when managing its worldbuilding. So, color me surprised when I found a crucial part of Ivalice pushed to the periphery.

Awesome, another slog through the Ozmone Plain!
Awesome, another slog through the Ozmone Plain!

It is worth mentioning Larsa is a "guest" in our team, and his addition exponentially improves your ability to play the game. Why the game does not allow you to fill that guest position, after he leaves, with an unused party member is beyond my comprehension. No matter, after toiling away at the Ozmone Plains, Ashe and company locate the entrance to the Golmore Jungle. Ashe again confides her concerns about working with Larsa, but this time to Basch. As with before, it's a well-done character moment, albeit a short one. We see Basch is confident Larsa means well. Although he has lost everything to the Empire, Basch finds Larsa's inclusion encouraging. As he states, a world where all humans can live peacefully together is worth protecting.

What continues to surprise me about Final Fantasy XII is how it paints its characters in shades of grey. I am not going to suggest Square-Enix is entirely successful in creating morally ambiguous characters. Nonetheless, it is exhilarating to play a Final Fantasy game where the characters feel diverse in their perspectives and exist side-by-side without judgment. Ashe HATES the Empire, and we empathize with her viewpoint. She's not wrong for hating a nation that killed her husband, and violently devastated her homeland. That said, Bash and Vaan are not "wrong" for assuming the best of Larsa. They too are victims of the Empire's "big stick" diplomacy, but their willingness to forgive differentiates them from Ashe.

And now for something completely different and better!
And now for something completely different and better!

I have said it before, and I will repeat it once more: the Judges are the best characters in Final Fantasy XII. The political intrigue of the Archadian Empire provides the most gripping moments in the story. Watching the judges wrestle between their duty and what is morally right, far outstrips anything accomplished with Fran, Penelo, or Vaan. I would go so far as to suggest the character arc for Gabranth even exceeds that of Balthier or Basch. What makes the difference is how some of the judges debate the necessity of Vayne's brutality with their duty to protect him. These moments are not just exhilarating in their own right; they do a lot to frame the Judges as real characters. For example, Judge Drace is only in the game for about twenty minutes, but I found her to be the most sympathetic and tragic figure in the game!

In this particular cutaway, which is only around ten minutes long, we discover the judges are starting to fracture between two camps. There are those who support Vayne and his brutal conquest of new lands, and those who would rather see Larsa become the leader of the Empire. If there is one issue, I would have preferred if Vayne's supporters weren't a bunch of comically evil super soldiers. Nonetheless, I'll give credit where credit is due and reverse my previous sentiments about Vayne. It is rejuvenating to see a Final Fantasy villain with clearly defined goals from beginning to end. Vayne wants to be the king of Archadia and is willing to do whatever is necessary to make that happen. Furthermore, at no point is an outside force playing him like a fiddle. Vayne is a motivated dictator with visions of grandeur and at no point do you struggle to understand his end-goal.

Alright Shinji, what else is on your hands?
Alright Shinji, what else is on your hands?

Now, I want to return to my previous comments about the Judges. Imagine if we played the game from the perspective of one of the judges. What if the main character was Gabranth instead of Vaan? How much better would the story be if it were about the two factions of judges jockeying for control? What if, as you carry out Vayne's orders, you come to realize the human toll of those orders and have to decide on what to do next? Do you remain committed to your sworn duty to act as the protector of the Empire, or do you listen to your heart and end the suffering caused by Vayne? In my opinion, this premise blows anything the game does with Vaan out of the fucking water.

Part 33: Fran's Homecoming

While I spend a great deal of these blogs levying criticism at Vaan, I would be hard-pressed to call him a "total failure." While the vast majority of his quips are groan-inducing, he serves a purpose in adding levity to the story. Furthermore, he plays a critical role as the player's cipher. Where the game runs into issues is when it insists on reminding the player Vaan is the protagonist when everyone, including the story itself, knows this is not the case. Fran, on the other hand, is a total failure as a character, and the same goes for Penelo. From top to bottom, both characters serve virtually no role outside of evening out your job slots. Worse, in the case of Fran, the characterization the game attempts is dead on arrival.

Oh... this fucking level coming up sure is
Oh... this fucking level coming up sure is "something."

I am, of course, dancing around the significant issue of Fran's people, the Viera. First and foremost, the character design for the Viera is the worst. THE. WORST. I am aware there was a recent kerfuffle regarding the Viera's use in Final Fantasy XIV. While I have yet to play Final Fantasy XIV, I can safely say its depiction of the Viera surpasses that of Final Fantasy XII. As a reminder, upon entering Eruyt Village, you find an all-female society of bikini-clad bunny people. After a bit of research, we discover the Viera segregate their communities wherein males and females live in different locations to prevent unnecessary societal strife. That may sound interesting on paper, but the execution of the Viera is beyond problematic. As a result of the Viera's segregated society, your only exposure to them is their scantily clad women. It's as if you enter an alternate reality where Hugh Hefner is the mayor of an actual city, and it's as repulsive as you could imagine.

Before any of you swoop in to defend the Viera, let's make something abundantly clear. I understand the Viera are meant to be a nature-loving culture that does not need material riches. While it's a character trope ripped from Square-Enix's playbook, there's nothing wrong with including a community which refuses to interact with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, we are talking about Square-Enix, and that means they put little effort into contextualizing the Viera as genuine people. Instead, the use of the Viera feels exploitative. Every time I entered Eruyt Village, I thought I was visiting Final Fantasy XII's version of the Playboy Mansion. It's as if the game wanted to impress me with a pornographic parade of pixelated female figures. As such, your time at Eruyt Village represents, far and away, the lowest point in all of Final Fantasy XII.

I want to add none of my screencaps of the Viera avoided their gross character design. So, I won't be using those.
I want to add none of my screencaps of the Viera avoided their gross character design. So, I won't be using those.

To add insult to injury, what we learn about Fran isn't particularly compelling. As I mentioned before, a character being split between freedom and tradition is a tired and true trope. That is to say: the Final Fantasy franchise has used Fran's character arc before, and better. What I find especially insulting is how barebones Fran's evolution ends up feeling. When we encounter Fran's older sister, Jote, we discover Fran left her village fifty years ago. By leaving the woods, Fran was excommunicated and is essentially a social pariah. What does any of this information have to do with the main story? Well, it appears a charm blocking our path is connected with Fran's inability to "communicate with the Woods." At no point does Fran detail the impact her excommunication has had on her.

Things take a curious turn when Jote reveals that Fran's younger sister, Mjrn, has left the village. Even though it is not explicitly stated, we assume the Viera will remove the charm if we recover Mjrn. As the characters set off to investigate Mjrn's disappearance, Vaan asks Fran about her age. The moment is as cringe-worthy as you can imagine, and I LOVED every minute of it! First, it was hilarious to see Vaan speak with little to no social skills. It's one of the few times when Vaan legitimately feels like a teenager, and thus, I think the scene fits his character perfectly. Second, I was howling in laughter when everyone gave him shit. Honestly, I wish there were more examples of party members telling Vaan off. I know it's not a great look for a games "protagonist," but doing so would at least make Vaan's lines more palatable.

Once again, I want to highlight how the facial animations in Final Fantasy XII are on point.
Once again, I want to highlight how the facial animations in Final Fantasy XII are on point.

What I am less enthused by is the amount of backtracking during this segment of the game. First, you enter the Eruyt Village after crossing the Ozmone Plains and encounter a forcefield at the Golmore Jungle. After your brief conversation with Jote, you exit the village to make a significant journey to an unexplored sector of the Ozmone Plain. Not only that, but you can only enter this area by using a Chocobo. To make matters worse, for some fucking reason, riding a Chocobo is timed in Final Fantasy XII! You heard that right; you can only use Chocobos for a finite amount of time! Then there's the Golmore Jungle with its monotonous threads of black and green vegetation. The repetitious level design there makes tracing your steps back to the Viera village no laughing matter.

Part 34: Let's Talk About The Henne Mines And The Infinite Slime Exploit

The Henne Mines provide me with an interesting case study on why I am struggling to maintain my interest in Final Fantasy XII. The level itself might seem as innocuous as the previous dungeons. However, something about this specific level got under my skin. The Henne Mines are, like most of Final Fantasy XII's dungeons, unnecessarily vast. The environment contains eight distinct sections, and the level is a nightmare to parse out when you first enter it. Worth noting, Final Fantasy XII doesn't make the process of acquiring location maps a complicated process. Additionally, I appreciate the game visibly marking points of interest. Be that as it may, these environments are a total bore.

It's amazing how Final Fantasy XII manages to suck away any possible joy you could have in riding a Chocobo.
It's amazing how Final Fantasy XII manages to suck away any possible joy you could have in riding a Chocobo.

I have harped enough about my dislike of Final Fantasy XII's overreliance on MMORPG loot-grind mechanics. Therefore, let's address a different groan-inducing aspect of the game's design, its environmental puzzles. Honestly, the Final Fantasy franchise has a long and storied history of bad puzzle design. Since the series' foray into the third dimension, Square-Enix hasn't had an excellent track record with environmental puzzles. The Temple of the Ancients in Final Fantasy VII and Cloisters in Final Fantasy X immediately come to mind. What complicates things in Final Fantasy XII is the levels are so enormous you lose sight of what the game demands of you.

In the case of the Henne Mines, there are only three switches to flip to progress to the final boss. However, the game stretches this straightforward concept for two hours. To illustrate, in-between the final two switches, you navigate FOUR whole sub-levels! By the time I reached the last lever, I had forgotten what I had needed to use the switches for in the first place! And Lord have mercy on your soul if you chose to play this level without the fast-forward feature! If you fail to do so, the two times when you fight swarms of slimes slows the game to a crawl.

Speaking of which...
Speaking of which...

Okay, I admit to taking advantage of the infinite Slime exploit at the Henne Mines. There are two principal reasons for this decision. First, my previous avoidance in grinding was beginning to catch up to me, and this exploit presented a quick solution. Second, playing around with this exploit may have been the most fun I had with Final Fantasy XII. To my first point, Square-Enix almost goads you into finding "easy outs" when you reach a snag. There's no more frustrating a feeling than going up against a boss and discovering you lack the gambits or licenses to beat it. Exploits such as these are a godsend as they make grinding and leveling a breeze. On top of that, if you have the Zodiac Edition and use the "fast-forward" feature, you'll find yourself getting some outrageous combos.

Hilariously enough, this is around the time when I started to get the appeal of the Gambit and License Systems. Watching my characters murder globs of slimes always put a smile on my face. Likewise, I came to enjoy playing around with my various character class combinations to try and find the most efficient manner in which I could commit slime genocide. I also have to say the combo system is an underrated feature. When you reach more massive combos, the game starts to restore your health and magic points automatically. This feature made it even easier to get into a "rhythm" while testing out the game's core mechanics. Speaking of which, I feel I learned more about "playing" Final Fantasy XII through this exploit than the actual in-game tutorials.

Great, another sub-plot that will not develop for another six or seven hours.
Great, another sub-plot that will not develop for another six or seven hours.

Unfortunately, it's not all "rainbows and unicorns" in the Henne Mines. The level, much like every dungeon before it, culminates in an "empty" boss battle. In fact, the fight against Tiamat is almost as frustrating as the level itself. For one thing, to watch Tiamat, a legendary summon in the franchise, boil down to a one-off boss encounter, sucks. I get the Demon Walls in the Tomb of King Raithwall are frustrating, but at least they feel like organic encounters. Here, Tiamat appears out of the ether, and nothing in the environment suggests Tiamat's looming presence.

Part 35: This Game Only Remembers It Has A Story During Ten Minute Cutscenes

When you wrap up your fight against Tiamat, you witness the "stunning" conclusion of Fran's character arc. Fran's sister, Mjrn, is seen standing near our party when an almost Grim Reaper-like figure looms behind her. As she lumbers towards the party, the ominous figure disappears, and she collapses at Fran's feet. After relocating to a den in the mines, the characters mull over recent events. Mjrn explains researchers from Draklor Laboratory attempted to inject Mist into her body. As Viera have a natural intolerance to Mist, she went into a rage-like state and accidentally summoned Tiamat.

Yup, this crystal in no way will impact the story later down the road. NO WAY IN HELL!
Yup, this crystal in no way will impact the story later down the road. NO WAY IN HELL!

I have mentioned before how I think Final Fantasy XII's narrative has structural issues. For instance, the only "real" storytelling occurs during cutscenes which exist exclusively before and after finishing a level. In this case, once Larsa hears Mjrn mention "Mist" and "Draklor Laboratory," he pieces together what connects the two. Larsa states the researchers at the Henne Mines were playing around with manufactured nethicite. He also snatches away a shard he gave to Penelo as a gift, which in NO WAY will tie into events later in the story. Quick question, if "manufactured nethicite" has Mist, why hasn't Penelo's "good luck charm" been causing Fran to go berserk?

Around this point in the story, I feel the writers bite off more than they can chew. For example, at the Henne Mines, we don't just contend with Fran's character arc. We also have to deal with the introduction of Draklor Laboratory and its relation to Balthier. Second, there's the mysterious specter that loomed over Mjrn. Later, we watch over two juxtapositions to the Judges and learn more about Larsa's upbringing. All the while, Ashe, Basch, Vaan, and Penelo provide interjects about their impressions of our journey thus far. At no point does one individual character get the opportunity to stand on their laurels. Instead, the story begins to become a muddled mess of one-off character vignettes.

Sounds reasonable enough. And it's not like the Empire have proven time and time again they can defy all of the previously established rules of Ivalice.
Sounds reasonable enough. And it's not like the Empire have proven time and time again they can defy all of the previously established rules of Ivalice.

When Fran returns to the Eruyt Village, with Mjrn in tow, she encounters Jote. Mjrn immediately confronts Jote and asks her to end the Viera's isolationism. Citing the massive changes shaping the landscape of Ivalice, Mjrn asks to leave to protect the world from further harm. Additionally, Mjrn states that she wishes to live a life free from the confines of the Eruyt Village. Now, you might expect Fran to be a "good" sister and support Mjrn. Instead, Fran, for whatever reason, sides with Jote and tells Mjrn to shut up and stay at the village.

I have no idea what to make of Fran. At first, I thought the game was presenting her as an empowering "alternate" to the unflinchingly static nature of Viera society. Fran rejected the isolationist view of the Viera and pursued a destiny of her own. However, when her sister asks to blaze a similar trail, Fran promptly shuts her down. Part of the appeal of Fran is her sense of independence. She takes no quarter from the other characters and shares her opinions without any shame.

Are you fucking kidding me?
Are you fucking kidding me?

I understand the game tries to frame Fran's actions as "protecting" her sister. Regardless, Mjrn's point of the Viera needing to confront significant issues plaguing Ivalice is a legitimate concern. We can only assume the Empire's experiments with Mist pose a threat to their way of life. Furthermore, my heart dropped when Mjrn expressed her desire to live her own life outside of Eruyt Village. The idea of "leaving the roost" is something I think we all find appealing. Why the story decides to squelch this growing sense of independence is beyond my comprehension. In the end, Fran comes across as a hypocrite by the end of her character arc.

Part 36: Again, Why Is The B-Plot Ten Times Better Than The Main Story?

Before progressing the story further, I went ahead and wrapped up several side-quests. As mentioned before, Final Fantasy XII provides "guest" characters who tag along with your party for limited spurts. As a result, you feel motivated to take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves. As such, I took on the optional Earth Tyrant boss. With Larsa's help, the battle itself did not pose as big a problem as anticipated. However, and I know I harp on this a lot, the process of getting to the battle was a long and drawn out affair.

I killed a thing I did not need to kill. Where's my medal?
I killed a thing I did not need to kill. Where's my medal?

Before we return to the main story, it is worth mentioning that from this point forward the game ramps up the number of transitions to Archadia. As our party enters Mt. Bur-Omisace, we watch a brief juxtaposition to Vayne as he defends his recent actions to his father. When we reach Gran Kiltias Anastasis, shit hits the fan. Here, we watch Vayne violently usurp the throne from his father. As I said before, these cutscenes, as short as they may be, feature the most compelling storytelling in the game. We spend at most twenty minutes with Judge Drace, but her execution at the hands of Gabranth is one of the story's most memorable moments.

To prove my point further, let's examine Gabranth as a case study. I am of the controversial opinion he is the story's best character. While he starts as your typical obedient bodyguard, the game begins to show his many layers. When the game ends, you realize he's a torn and broken man. Not only does he profoundly regret his actions, but he also wants to make amends by doing the right thing. And you know what? The story pulls off his redemption in flying colors! Without a doubt, the drama surrounding Archadia feels far more genuine than most of what we see with our primary cast.

I'm just happy to have a clearly defined villain in a Final Fantasy game. I'll take every small victory I can get.
I'm just happy to have a clearly defined villain in a Final Fantasy game. I'll take every small victory I can get.

Square-Enix has a history of including sub-plots that outshine their main narratives. The example that immediately comes to mind is Final Fantasy VIII. There, I ended up preferring my time with Laguna over Squall. In Final Fantasy XII, I feel equally torn, but I wish it went as far as Final Fantasy VIII's treatment of Laguna. It would have been GREAT if the game provided opportunities to play as the judges during different points in the story. I understand they are fascists guilty of war crimes, and I don't intend to make light of this fact. But, I can't help but feel playing as them, even in short spurts, would do Final Fantasy XII's story a massive service.

Furthermore, I wish there were more scenes involving Gabranth clashing with Vayne. Throughout the game, you see the aftermath of Vayne's brutality, but never watch the process in which he reaches his cruel conclusions. Additionally, when the game pivots Gabranth as a redemptive character, there aren't enough scenes where we see him pleading with Vayne. Case in point, when we fight Judge Bergan, the game attempts to frame him as a brutal and vicious monster. However, his attack against Mt. Bur-Omisace occurs off-screen. How much better would it have been if we saw Gabranth standing in a war room with Bergan and Vayne? Then, as Vayne drones about his attack, we see Gabranth shocked in horror.

Part 37: It's Time, Yet Again, To Pick Up Some Bullshit At A Temple!

Shiny happy people holding hands. Shiny happy people laughing!
Shiny happy people holding hands. Shiny happy people laughing!

If it seems as if I am "down" on Final Fantasy XII, nothing could be further from the truth. While there's one more set piece that annoyed me, I found Mt. Bur-Omisace to be one of the best levels in the game. Whether judged by art design, worldbuilding, or storytelling metrics, your time there ticks all the right boxes. It is an organic world teeming with lore that thankfully transforms as you reach different parts of the story. The version of Mt. Bur-Omisace we first encounter is very different from the one we see after our battle against Judge Bergan. Furthermore, it is one of only a handful of environments where the game encourages exploration at your own pace.

Far too often video games depict calamitous events without taking the time to show the aftermath of those disasters. Final Fantasy XII primarily manages to avoid that pitfall. Here, we have an unmistakable imprint of the real cost of the Empire's violent conquests. Refugee camps litter Mt. Bur-Omisace and they feature almost every race and culture found in Ivalice. The breadth of people living in poverty took me by surprise. For miles and miles, you see tents for refugees. Likewise, it's something the game doesn't shy away from as you make the slow trek to the top of the mountain. During your walk, you witness depressing scenes such as people huddling around a makeshift food pantry or children crying for their parents.

I'm just going to say it, this may be the worst Cid in franchise history.
I'm just going to say it, this may be the worst Cid in franchise history.

It's also important to note this is when Vaan becomes a complete afterthought. After showing a bit of humanity at the Garif village, Vaan spends the better part of ten hours making wisecracks and off-hand comments you'd expect out of a seventeen-year-old boy. So, credit where credit is due, Square-Enix finally managed to craft a character that talks and acts like a teenager. The problem is he's involved in geopolitics and often comes across as a total goober. Additionally, it is not a good look when the supporting characters roll their eyes at Vaan and expect you to join them. Ultimately, Ashe, Basch, and Balthier come to prominence by the story's climax, and they, more than Vaan, become the driving force of the story.

When our party finally enters the main temple, they encounter Gran Kiltias Anastasis. The curious religious leader communicates via telepathy and shares his exhaustive knowledge of Ashe's quest. Just as Ashe prompts Anastasis for advice, Al-Cid Margrace, a member of the ruling family of Rozarria, arrives. Final Fantasy XII is notable because it features TWO story significant characters named "Cid." Curiously enough, both of them feature campy and over-the-top voice acting. However, one of these characters works and the other is a complete disaster. Al-Cid Margrace is the latter of these two.

This scene where you listen to Al-Cid dramatically explain the situation, while Larsa is coping with the death of his father, is HILARIOUS!
This scene where you listen to Al-Cid dramatically explain the situation, while Larsa is coping with the death of his father, is HILARIOUS!

Trust me; I LOVE camp in my Final Fantasy games. Nevertheless, our first meeting with Anastasis is neither the time nor place for this Spanish playboy. A Spanish playboy, mind you, who spends more time dramatically taking off his Gucci sunglasses than bringing everyone up to speed. I guess it is worth discussing Final Fantasy XII's choice of voice acting. Ivalice's aristocrats have British accents, the lower-class sport American accents, and sex-pests like Al-Cid have Spanish accents. What I find especially depressing is I like the concept of Al-Cid as an avatar of a distant and culturally distinct land. I also like the Rozarrian Empire being an unseen but omnipotent threat to our party's quest for peace. But, GOOD GOD is the execution TERRIBLE!

Accordingly, let's address the issues of "tone" at Mt. Bur-Omisace because HOT DAMN is there a lot to discuss! Before Al-Cid arrives, it appears Ashe is one step away from executing Larsa's plan for world peace. When our Spanish beefcake waltzes through the temple, he drops two massive bombshells. After patting Larsa on the head and calling him "old friend," the Spanish underwear model announces Larsa's father is dead. Yup, immediately after sashaying to the Gran Kiltias, he announces Vayne has usurped power and declared martial law in the Archadian Empire. When Ashe seizes control of the discussion, the tone further swerves to drama. She begs Anastasis to think of anything that would allow her to cause the armies of Rozarria and Archadia to lay down their arms. On a dime, Anastasis names YET ANOTHER magical MacGuffin that can assist Ashe in her quest.

I swear, this fucking game sometimes.
I swear, this fucking game sometimes.

Part 38: You Know What? I MISS The Cloisters From Final Fantasy X!

With Vayne in power and the world on the brink of global war, you'd think the game would unleash its pace to match the tone of the story. Sadly, you would be wrong as, yet again, the game tasks our party with collecting a legendary item from a far off temple. No matter, as Anastasis explains, the "Stilshrine of Miriam" contains the legendary "Sword of Kings" which can destroy any piece of nethicite. To acquire this sword, we fumble around in a Mayan inspired temple futzing around with statues. I wish I were kidding. It's the fucking climax of the middle act, and everything plays exactly like the first dungeon!

My hatred here isn't due entirely to the puzzles being arduous and time-consuming. The long and dark history of lousy puzzle design in Final Fantasy games is a frequent topic of this series. Likewise, the level culminating to a cheesy esper battle isn't immediately repulsive as well. While I would prefer the esper battles to play out better, cheap bosses are to be expected in a Final Fantasy game. What I despise is how little effort the game makes to connect these temples to the world. When you stop and think about how much of your time is spent at these levels, you'd hope Square would take the time to make them feel meaningful.

Just what I needed in my life. A puzzle where you turn statues around to make a set of stairs appear!
Just what I needed in my life. A puzzle where you turn statues around to make a set of stairs appear!

Consequently, let's address the title of this section. You may remember I referred to the Cloisters in Final Fantasy X as a "black mark" in an otherwise tour de force of classic Square-Enix worldbuilding. Back in that series, I repeatedly questioned the need for the Cloisters as they shared no cohesive artistic design or recurring gameplay hooks. As I wallow in the dungeons of Final Fantasy XII, I now recognize how wrong I was to dismiss the cloisters as brazenly as I did. Oh, how I WISH these levels showed as much visual variety as the temples in Final Fantasy X! The least you can say about the cloisters is they provide gameplay "breaks" after pulse-pounding cinematics.

Instead, in Final Fantasy XII, you have to toil away against trash mobs in the same copy-paste dungeons over and over again. It's the same drab sandstone temple design we have seen since chapter one, and it's fucking killing me. Seriously, I feel like I have seen more compelling dungeons farted out of GameMaker! On top of that, everything feels entirely contextless. At least at the Tomb of Raithwall, we got a handful of grandiose speeches from Ashe about the legend of the Dynast King. Here, we get JACK SHIT! Worse, when we finally make our way to the Vinuskar and Mateus boss battles, you have no idea why you are fighting them!

And because nothing in this game is subtle. There are two or three times when the game reminds you Ashe is sad her husband is dead.
And because nothing in this game is subtle. There are two or three times when the game reminds you Ashe is sad her husband is dead.

Humor me as I rant once again about the Esper battles. I fucking HATE these battles, and they continue to get worse. Admittedly, the story-required Esper battles are not as bad as the optional ones. That said, natural gas is better for the environment than coal, but that doesn't mean we should be opening up thousands of natural gas plants. What I especially hate is how each of these battles, with a few exceptions, plays exactly like the previous one. In every battle, at around the halfway point, Espers summon a high-level magical ability that provides a proverbial "gear check." Either, you survive these cheesy spells, or you don't; there's no middle ground.

Part 39: Judge Bergan, And The Narrative Consequences Of Grinding

Again, creating compelling set pieces is a consistent strong point in Final Fantasy XII. As you make the treck back to Mt. Bur-Omisace, you see the same densely populated refugee camps, but this time they are in ruins. Smoke billows from the tent strewn landscape, and upon entering the temple, you see countless dead bodies and desecrated religious artifacts. Your interactions with the surrounding NPCs paint an even grimmer picture. The refugees recount an army of Imperials laying waste with reckless abandon, and the mountain's acolytes recite acts of murder and genocide. As you enter the main temple, you encounter the slain body of the Gran Kiltias. The camera then pans to a comic book-esque mutant super soldier, Judge Bergan, who then screams as if he's about to take a shit.

Whatever! Less talking and more fighting!
Whatever! Less talking and more fighting!

There's a lot more to unpack about this boss than you'd think. For one, having a tragic moment culminate in a battle against a laughable super soldier, is disappointing. Second, the confrontation itself is a pushover unless you are incredibly under-leveled. As someone who completed every hunt up to this point, I blew through Judge Bergan as if he was a wolf from the Dalmasca Estersand. This situation poses another dilemma with Final Fantasy XII's grind-heavy nature. With loot-grind feedback loops strewn throughout the game, the storyline confrontations can become an afterthought. Earlier, we watched Judge Bergan slay Judge Drace with relative ease. To watch him fall apart in a matter of minutes because I completed a bunch of side quests is undeniably anti-climatic.

Additionally, the Gambit System makes battles against single-target enemies far easier than fighting against trash mobs. When you fight a single boss, you can immediately identify which attacks are the most effective and quickly input the appropriate Gambits to deploy those maneuvers. However, when you go toe-to-toe against swarms of enemies, setting up Gambits becomes exponentially harder. When there is more than one enemy, you have to set up additional parameters or risk your characters not hitting their intended targets. Eventually, you discover a handful of fail-proof Gambits such as "Foe: party leader's target" or "Foe: nearest visible." That aside, Lord have mercy on your soul if you want to distribute attacks equally or plan AOE spells in tandem with buffs.

Ashe, don't listen to him! I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him!
Ashe, don't listen to him! I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him!

I have to preface; I am warming up to the Gambit System. When you finally strike a smooth rhythm, the system is highly rewarding. That said, there are a few things about the system that continue to annoy me. I understand several of you have grown weary of my rants about the Gambit System. Thus, I think it is high time I come clean about my bias. To make it abundantly clear to everyone, I believe the move to real-time combat in the Final Fantasy franchise was a mistake. I have always held turn-based combat fits the immediate needs of the single-player Final Fantasy games better than free form real-time combat. Ultimately, I find planning attacks on a timeline or timed-meter to be more contusive to role-playing than automating characters using an algorithm.

Look, if you enjoy MMORPGs, then more power to you. What I can say from my experience, is there's something innately appealing to planning your character's every move. Tabletop role-playing games have been taking advantage of that appeal for the better part of forty years! So, don't simply dismiss me as a Luddite. More importantly, Final Fantasy XII tries to have your standard role-playing tropes while also incentivizing the player to hand over control to an automated system. That is what I ultimately dislike about Final Fantasy XII's mechanics. It wants to remove you from the actions of your party members, or at the very least, place several barriers between you and the action on the screen.

At least the cutscenes still hold up.
At least the cutscenes still hold up.

To me, controlling your characters in combat is half of the appeal of role-playing games. There's something magical about watching my wizard master a spell like Flare and selecting it during a battle. But, what I don't like is when an automated system gets to enjoy that sense of character progression. I HATE having to surrender what I spent HOURS toiling away to earn, to Boolean logic of all things. That's MY spell; that's MY suit of armor; that's MY Wizard! I understand a lot of this sounds self-entitled, but when a game expects me to sink in thirty plus hours, emotions are bound to flare up.

Part 40: WHY IS THERE SO MUCH POINTLESS WALKING?!

Upon dispatching Judge Bergan, our party discusses the origins of the judge's new-found strength. During an earlier cutscene, we even saw the same shadowy figure from the Henne Mines looming over the shoulders of Bergan. When Balthier examines his corpse, he notices signs of manufactured nethicite running through his veins. With the temple in ruins and Larsa nowhere to be found, Al-Cid Margrace appears and brings everyone up to speed. Larsa is currently safe under Gabranth's ward, and the Imperial Navy is in route to preemptively attack Rozzaria. Believing Ashe can convince both sides to lay down their arms, Al-Cid asks she return to Rozzaria with him. Ashe refuses and states she can only stop the threat of war once she has destroyed the Dusk Shard.

This fucking guy....
This fucking guy....

If you are wondering how any of this information relates to the next steps of our party, then buckle up. After Ashe announces her plan to destroy the Dusk Shard, she maps out our long treck to the Imperial Capital, Archades. This journey, I shit you not, necessitates we traverse through FIVE interstitial environments, six if you include our time in "Old Archades!" You might be thinking, "But ZombiePie, Final Fantasy games use transitional levels to build character moments and plot arcs!" In most cases, you would be correct. Unfortunately, with Final Fantasy XII, these levels exist solely to provide the player with more opportunities to grind. At best, we get to listen to a long-winded explanation about Balthier's relationship with the evil Doctor Cid, but that's after HOURS of fussing about in mindless open-world dungeons!

These grinding levels are the gift that keeps on giving. I am willing to admit there might be something appealing to the Gambit and License systems. Maybe you find both mechanics to be the most exciting concepts Square-Enix has conceived in over ten years. I'll come clean and admit I love the game's job system. Specializing characters to address environmental needs and party-wide shortcomings adds role-playing pizzaz in a game that desperately needs it. What I do not appreciate is how Final Fantasy XII does not respect my time.

FUN?! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
FUN?! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Square KNOWS they could get away with two to three transitions between mainline story events. However, because Final Fantasy XII is their first "bite" at the real-time apple, it is filled with gameplay-heavy environments. My guess is this is by design, so the player has multiple opportunities to test out new mechanics without feeling overwhelmed. That or the development team felt obligated to copy-paste the level design of Final Fantasy XI. Be that as it may, the consequence is the story stops dead in its tracks on several occasions.

Case in point, there are environments like the "Mosphoran Highwaste," which contain multiple parts and contribute virtually nothing to the game's story. It exists so Square-Enix can place dozens of side quests and optional hunts to create the illusion of interactivity. You think these environments tie into the game's greater world, but they don't. All they do is create one-off situations that force you to play around with the game's half-dozen mechanics. If you like these mechanics, great, but that doesn't change the underlying issue with this game's structure. Despite having stunning art assets and beautiful skyboxes, the vast majority of the game's environments lack "true" staying power.

To further my point, I want to play a game with you. Down below, you will find a box with screencaps from my playthrough. What I challenge you to do is determine which screencaps are from the following locations:

  1. Mosphoran Highwaste
  2. The Salikawood
  3. Phon Coast
  4. Tchita Uplands
  5. Sochen Cave Palace
  6. Old Archades
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6

My guess is the vast majority of you will struggle to nail down at least three of these environments. And do you want to know what that proves? This game doesn't need more open world dungeons! What it needs are more storyline set pieces like Mt. Bur-Omisace or Archades where the characters go through genuine drama and strife! Since the last blog, I can honestly say I have come around to the game's cast, and that includes Vaan! What I now lament is they are not provided enough time to develop and evolve naturally as characters on an epic journey!

I cannot preface this point enough; there are plotlines the game NEEDS to develop! As it stands, the story so far has six active narratives. First, we have Ashe and her attempt to regain her homeland's independence. Second, there's Larsa and his attempt to deal with Vayne's usurpation of power. Third, Basch wants to prove he was not responsible for the assassination of King Raminas. Fourth, Bash ALSO has to deal with his twin brother. Fifth, there's Balthier's backstory and his relationship to Draklor Laboratory. Sixth, there's the evil specter from earlier that looks like the Grim Reaper. And this is all ignoring the one-off character moments the game has for each of our party members!

Finally, when Final Fantasy XII is "done" with a character, they might as well be an NPC. Are the issues about Fran's heritage ever addressed again? You bet your ass they aren't! Have you forgotten about everything Vaan said at the Garif Village? WELL, THE GAME CERTAINLY HAS! I know I try to not "spoil" upcoming blogs, but the next episode will detail what I consider the "worst" part of Final Fantasy XII. I am, of course, speaking of the transitional levels between Mt. Bur-Omisace and Draklor Laboratory. So, until next time, get your goddamned chops ready because it's going to be a bumpy ride!

I bet even the defenders of this game have totally forgotten about all the bullshit you do in Archades.
I bet even the defenders of this game have totally forgotten about all the bullshit you do in Archades.

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Someone Who Loves Final Fantasy VIII Unconditionally Talks About Square-Enix's E3 2019 Conference

A Disclaimer From The Author

This was certainly more
This was certainly more "eventful" than I anticipated!

First, I want to start this blog with a public disclaimer. If you are looking for an objective perspective about Square-Enix's presence at E3 2019, you should look elsewhere. While my love for Square-Enix is a recent development, objectivity on my part is not possible. Thus, if you are looking for reasoned coverage of the major presentations, might I recommend Gamer_152's E3 blog series. Second, I do not plan to cover any other E3 press conferences. This concession is not a condemnation of the content of the previous and subsequent E3 press conferences. Instead, it is a hallmark of my inability to work through my recurring issues with procrastination.

To make my biases more visible, I thought Square-Enix had a solid E3 conference. They showcased an extensive family of games which played to their core fanbase with a few attempts at mainstream credibility. Until the presser's questionable end, I would even go so far as to suggest it was one of the better "paced" conferences. While Microsoft and Bethesda both showcased more impactful games, I think Square-Enix did a better job of avoiding "dead time." That is not to suggest Square-Enix's performance was perfect. For one thing, I do not believe I have ever seen a publisher miss so horribly on its conference showstopper. Nevertheless, let's jump into my review of the major announcements from their conference!

The Final Fantasy VII Remake Represents The Best And Worst Of Square

I'm going to be real with you, I'm really digging the new character models.
I'm going to be real with you, I'm really digging the new character models.

Before I give the Final Fantasy VII Remake a fair share of criticism, I have to concede it had a more than decent showing at E3. Midgar continues to look spectacular, and I have no grievances with the new character models. As someone who wasn't a fan of the Advent Children character models, I support the Remake's artistic "revisions." My positive sentimentality also applies to what I have seen of the Remake's gameplay. I'm glad Square-Enix isn't merely copying and pasting the combat system from Final Fantasy XV as I initially feared. Instead, the combat embraces the flashy visual style of Final Fantasy XV while honoring the hallmarks of the original game in its UI and pace of play.

Nonetheless, I have some general reservations about the state of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. First, Square is not commenting on a stable release schedule for future episodes. Additionally, there's no clear picture of how the episodic format will impact the overall game. Regarding the first matter, I fear Square-Enix is giving fans the runaround about the Remake's "true" state of completion. The vast majority of what Square has shown has involved Midgar, and the early gameplay mechanics you have at your disposal there. As such, we have yet to see characters summon deities, or play around with the Materia system. Additionally, due to the first episode's focus on Midgar, we have yet to see any representation of the game's overworld or optional side quests. What Square has shown are tightly edited cinematics with the Final Fantasy VII characters we all know and love, fighting foes behind familiar backdrops. Unfortunately, to me, that feels like a glorified dog and pony show.

Also, the gameplay looks like it's going to be fun to play.
Also, the gameplay looks like it's going to be fun to play.

This issue inevitably leads me to my second point of contention. Square only showcasing Midgar might be a deliberate choice because it presents the most straightforward and least controversial portion of the game to remake. Side quests are few and far between at Midgar, and while the level's scope initially appears enormous, it is one of the game's more linear environments. This fact presents a significant hazard for the Remake's subsequent episodes for several reasons. First, upon the game's second act, it strings you through a series of interstitial levels that lack any real staying power. While many fans are apt to point out the Golden Saucer or North Corel, they are equally inclined to forget about Bone Village, Kalm, or Mideel. While Midgar is rightfully what most people remember about Final Fantasy VII, it represents at most a quarter of your overall playtime.

Finally, I have to question the long-term viability of the episodic format. Square has been perpetually cagey when asked about how saves will communicate between each episode, and this reluctance is incredibly concerning. Most people forget, but the minute you leave Midgar, Final Fantasy VII becomes a proto-open world RPG. When the game gives you access to its overworld, you can explore your surroundings at your own pace. The question here is whether or not Square will provide players with this freedom or instead graft a more linear format to the Remake. Likewise, how Square-Enix handles the side quests in Final Fantasy VII will be interesting. For example, when will players be able to collect the optional summons or party members? Or, when am I going to have to deal with Yuffie stealing my shit?

I'm asking the
I'm asking the "real" questions over here!

Final Fantasy XIV Continues To Be A Great Game I Never Plan To Play

The story of Final Fantasy XIV is that of gaming's most magnificent comeback. After the original version launched to a lukewarm response, Square-Enix embarked upon a massive effort to rebuild the game from the ground up. To everyone's surprise, they succeeded. The game we now know as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn bears little resemblance to the disaster it once may have been. As someone who has never touched Final Fantasy XIV, the game's rise to respectability has been enlightening to watch. I don't deny having a desire to play the game, but it's something I do not plan on doing any time soon.

I can confirm Final Fantasy XIV is a thing people enjoy playing.
I can confirm Final Fantasy XIV is a thing people enjoy playing.

Square-Enix's E3 presentation of Final Fantasy XIV played out as I predicted. Square briefly ran through its patch notes as if they represented new and groundbreaking content. With the busywork behind them, they transitioned to a story-based trailer that spewed a mountain of proper nouns. Look, I'm not trying to shit on anyone's parade, but that is what Square-Enix did, and as an outsider looking in, it was a lot to take in. Much like Jeff during Giant Bomb's reaction stream, when the characters spewed heaps of long-winded terminology, I couldn't help but laugh. This grievance leads me to one of the critical barriers that continue to prevent me from jumping into Final Fantasy XIV: its inaccessibility.

I have talked to countless people who LOVE Final Fantasy XIV since starting my Final Fantasy blog series. Three recurring themes have always propped up in these conversations. One, the Final Fantasy XIV community is incredibly close-knit despite its enormous size. Two, support for the game has been mostly excellent in its many years of operation. And finally, the game requires at least thirty hours before its much-ballyhooed story and characters kick into high gear. That last point is an honest-to-goodness "deal breaker." During a typical workday, I barely have enough time to cook and clean, let alone dutifully budget hours into an MMORPG. Again, if you watched the trailer for Final Fantasy XIV with bated breath, more power to you. Even so, I couldn't help but wonder how many hours it would take for me to reach that exact cinematic in the game.

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered Is The "Right" Type Of Remaster

I want to say, I love the new character models in the FF8 Remaster as well. Squall ACTUALLY looks like a teenager!
I want to say, I love the new character models in the FF8 Remaster as well. Squall ACTUALLY looks like a teenager!

We now come to the reveal that was by far my "Game of the Show," the Final Fantasy VIII Remaster. I love everything about this announcement, and I don't care what anyone else thinks. If the reports of Square-Enix losing the source code of Final Fantasy VIII are correct, it's a miracle this remaster is even happening. Regardless, one of the most neglected numbered entries in the Final Fantasy franchise is finally getting its due. I'm not lying about that last sentence; Final Fantasy VIII is by far the least loved of the PlayStation One Final Fantasy games. Final Fantasy VII and IX have been ported to several modern platforms already. Even the pre-Final Fantasy IV games get more love than VIII as they have seen remasters on the Nintendo DS!

Seemingly, there appears to be a backlash surrounding the remaster of Final Fantasy VIII. Some have pointed out Final Fantasy VIII's "messy" and unbalanced gameplay as a liability. For many others, the drawing and junction systems are unintuitive and endlessly frustrating. Furthermore, as many of the critics claim, if the remaster only applies a new coat of paint, Final Fantasy VIII remains at best a proverbial "diamond in the rough." In all honesty, I don't have a witty retort to counter these grievances. Final Fantasy VIII is a busted ass video game plagued by poor execution. To illustrate, it wasn't until my second playthrough I finally grappled the game's Limit Break and item refining systems. Like many, the game's drawing and level-scaling mechanics baffled me during my first playthrough. It's a fucking nightmare of a game, and yet, I am glad Square-Enix isn't fixing a damn thing!

GIVE ME ALL OF THIS JANKY-ASS SHIT! I WANT ALL OF IT! GIVE IT ALL TO ME!
GIVE ME ALL OF THIS JANKY-ASS SHIT! I WANT ALL OF IT! GIVE IT ALL TO ME!

I'm not going to try to convince you the junction system is secretly the best attribute system in a Final Fantasy game, short of the Sphere Grid. What I do want you to consider is the historical significance of leaving the game's mechanics and gameplay intact. Flat out, there's nothing like Final Fantasy VIII in the history of video games, and I mean that both figuratively and literally. Countless video games have "borrowed" the idea of the ATB meter or Sphere Grid. By comparison, no one has ever attempted to emulate Final Fantasy VIII's junction system. No one. And you know what? Final Fantasy VIII's busted ass mechanics need to seen to be believed.

As a case study, let's return to the Final Fantasy VII Remake. In the end, I don't blame Square for grafting a new gameplay system to Final Fantasy VII. My reason is "vanilla" Final Fantasy VII exists virtually everywhere. The Materia System isn't a groundbreaking mechanic that upends your notions of a role-playing game. Its tabula rasa approach is a tried-and-true format we are all too familiar with at this point. Final Fantasy VIII's mechanics are the complete opposite of that. To get any significant progress in Final Fantasy VIII, you have to unlearn everything you know about role-playing games, and that makes it so much more memorable. Concepts like the item refining mechanic make virtually everything you collect useful in combat. Do these mechanics "break" the game within its opening hour? Yes, but that's part of what makes it such a liberating and novel video game!

And before you ask, I am indeed ignoring Squall's appearance in Kingdom Hearts because that was complete bullshit.
And before you ask, I am indeed ignoring Squall's appearance in Kingdom Hearts because that was complete bullshit.

Also, beggars can't be choosers when it comes to Final Fantasy VIII. Sure, there is a highly questionable PC port that made its way to Steam not so long ago. Nonetheless, since then, the only thing Final Fantasy VIII fans have gotten is a mobile app allowing them to play Triple Triad. I, and many other Final Fantasy VIII fans, will take what we can get, and we do not need fancy bells or whistles. What we want is a game that allows us to relive our memories of Final Fantasy VIII on modern platforms. Final Fantasy VIII is near and dear to my heart because it was my first Final Fantasy game. Furthermore, while it is not perfect by any stretch of the word, its imperfections make it unique. To further highlight my feelings, I'm going to pull a quote from my last blog about Final Fantasy VIII:

No game swings, misses, and keeps on swinging like Final Fantasy VIII. As a package, Final Fantasy VIII is an unmitigated failure. Its gameplay is hilariously broken, its story is a trash fire, and it is a slog to play. However, there is no game like Final Fantasy VIII. It is so earnest about what it attempts and fails to accomplish. I cannot help but look at the game with a sense of broken nostalgia. I realize it's not a great game, but I love it. You would have to be crazy to want to play Final Fantasy VIII, and that is exactly why you should.

Other Miscellaneous Games That Caught My Attention

Before we address the real "elephant in the room," let's run through Square-Enix's other E3 game announcements. Games that generally warrant a highlight reel by Sony or Microsoft, all had a decent amount of time to show their gameplay and story hooks. Admittedly, some games had better presentations than others. For example, Life Is Strange 2's trailer was downright painful to watch as shouting Twitch streamers summarized the game's recent events. Nevertheless, I felt there was something for everyone who gives a shit about Square-Enix as a developer and publisher.

For one thing, never in a million years would I have guessed Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles would reappear at E3. It is a game with decent ideas that were, at least in my mind, afflicted with a problematic format. I don't know about you, but finding four people with GBA to GameCube link cables was a rough experience! No matter, I hope the game sees a new audience that realizes it was more fun than most would presume. Who knows, if the re-release does well enough maybe the cowards at Square will bring My Life as a King to the Nintendo Switch!

BRING UNLIMITED SAGA TO SWITCH AND RUIN JEFFRUD'S DREAMS YOU COWARDS!
BRING UNLIMITED SAGA TO SWITCH AND RUIN JEFFRUD'S DREAMS YOU COWARDS!

I share a similar sentiment about the reveal trailer for The Last Remnant. I'm glad the game is getting a remaster, but I wish Square-Enix hadn't pulled the original game from Steam. All that does is force people to buy the remaster at full cost with a cheaper alternative wholly removed from the market. Additionally, Square-Enix spent too much of the middle portion of their conference showcasing known quantities. I had an anemic response to the time spent on Octopath Traveler and Dragon Quest. Both demos laid out new releases of well-established and fan-favorite games but lacked impactful surprises.

We also have the SaGa games which caught some long-time Square-Enix fans off guard. Romancing SaGa 3 and SaGa: Scarlet Grace are coming to the West for the first time. Indeed, I think it's great these games are finally getting official western releases. What I wish was also a part of this announcement was a more significant commitment to the entirety of the SaGa franchise. What many people forget about is the SaGa series started with Final Fantasy Legend on the original GameBoy. Since then, the series has branched off into three different paths (i.e., Final Fantasy Legend, Romancing SaGa, and SaGa Frontier), with the majority of fans rightfully ignoring Unlimited Saga. I don't want to suggest I hate these two games for coming to the West, but I cannot help but view them as the "tip of the iceberg."

The Avengers Game Hurt My Feelings

Good Lord, where do I even begin? As I mentioned in the introduction, never before have I seen a major publisher miss so hard on their E3 "showstopper" quite like Square-Enix this year. After starting with gameplay footage from the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Square-Enix, in all their wisdom, ended their presser with their Avengers video game adaptation, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Before we jump into why I think Marvel's Avengers is a warning of what's to come, I want to make a few things clear. First, I have no issues with the game not using the likenesses of the Marvel cinematic universe. If the comic books can exist side-by-side with the movies, then this video game can as well.

Likewise, I appreciated taking the time to show the voice acting team behind the characters. I think voice-acting is underappreciated in the video game industry and more exposure to voice actors is always a good thing. Similarly, I found it to be a simple way to communicate how the game would be its own thing separate from the more popular Marvel movies. Where my enthusiasm starts to trail off is how little of the actual game was shown. Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montréal later clarified the game is an action-adventure experience but left other aspects of the game entirely unknown. Crystal Dynamics complimented the confusing affair by lecturing about "sacrifice," "self-acceptance," and "making hard choices" without a clue as to what any of that means.

And in the end, Square-Enix couldn't stop itself from being Square-Enix.
And in the end, Square-Enix couldn't stop itself from being Square-Enix.

To an outsider looking in, your initial reaction might be to brush this poor showing aside. Before the Avengers, Square presented a bevy of game announcements that got plenty of people's blood pumping. However, as someone who has been following the business trajectory of Square-Enix for the past three years, Marvel's Avengers represents something more significant. It is yet another example of how out of touch the studio is with the modern gaming landscape. Here they have one of the hottest IPs in all media, and they couldn't be fucked to communicate what genre this game is going to be. They instead regurgitated three or four times how "honored" they are to be working alongside Marvel.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again, modern Square-Enix is a poorly run company. Seriously, it is a miracle they are still in business. On top of that, all of Square-Enix's worst habits were splayed out for all to see. Instead of making a case of how an Avenger's game set outside the cinematic universe provides a storytelling opportunity, Square had voice actors drone about their characters. Worse, "hubris" continually plagued the last twenty minutes of Square's E3 presser. Mark my words, if you think Square has learned from their mishandling of Hitman (2016) and the Tomb Raider reboots, then you have another thing coming. I have my money on Square releasing this game with no advertising, outside of word-of-mouth, as they did with Hitman!

Well, at least 70% of these games will not spell the financial ruination of Square-Enix as we know it.
Well, at least 70% of these games will not spell the financial ruination of Square-Enix as we know it.

However, here's what scares me most of all. Last year, Square-Enix revealed they made almost a billion dollars on Final Fantasy XIV and their mobile games. With this E3 conference, they made it abundantly clear they spent that money on retooling the Final Fantasy VII Remake and buying the Avengers IP. What's even scarier is Square's mobile division has seen declining revenue since the second quarter of 2018. That means both of these games are being developed using an unsustainable business model. Thus, Square's "wiggle room," should either game underperform, is shockingly tight.

There's been a recurring joke among Final Fantasy fans about the Final Fantasy VII Remake that's been going around Twitter. As the joke goes, after the Remake sells twenty million copies, Square will cancel future episodes due to "an unbearable cashflow" problem. At this point, that is a possible scenario that could play out in real life. I hate to end this blog on a bummer, but I cannot in good conscience sign off on Square-Enix's 2019 E3 press conference without looking at the "big picture." While E3 usually sets out to establish unbridled optimism for the future of gaming, that's not the case with Square-Enix. They did a sufficient enough job playing to their base, but their attempts at mainstream credibility could spell their downfall. But for now, the Final Fantasy pain train does seem to be stopping anytime soon. Until next time, PEACE!

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My Seven "Bold" Predictions About E3 2019

Preamble

I'm not ready for E3, nor shall I ever truly be ready.
I'm not ready for E3, nor shall I ever truly be ready.

I'm not going to lie, E3 is a bit of a "burden" for me. For one, the constant cycle of live streams has, on several occasions, broken me to the point of exhaustion. Likewise, as a moderator of a video game website, I can tell you the event surfaces some all too familiar feelings of anxiety. While inclusivity in video games is inching in a positive direction, something about E3 incites the worst of people. Even so, I decided to have a little "fun" with my E3 2019 predictions. As a disclaimer, I want you to know my predictions are more or less broad musings about E3 in general. So, without further ado, let's jump into it!

Prediction #1: Microsoft Will Announce More Than Twenty Indie Games During A Five-Minute Montage

Some E3 traditions deserve to die.
Some E3 traditions deserve to die.

We start this blog by turning our attention to Microsoft, and what I would describe as my least favorite E3 tradition. During Microsoft's conference, I predict they will announce a record number of exciting indie games during their yearly ID@Xbox montage. As with previous years, these short vignettes will attract more critical acclaim than the vast majority of AAA games showcased on their stage. Admittedly, games shown during the ID@Xbox demo reel have a solid track record of panning out as expected. To illustrate, Cuphead and Dead Cells both had their E3 debuts during Microsoft's montage. No matter, its existence is, at least in my opinion, an emblem of E3's limitations.

I suspect part of what drives this demo reel is there are games worth showing that cannot justify an on-stage demo. Additionally, I understand E3 is meant for veteran gamers and members of the press who use it as a means of exploring future game purchases. Nonetheless, the shortcomings of this segment highlight how E3's format has remained static for well over a decade. To try to boil down the essence of any game to a ten to fifteen-second snippet flies against the dynamism that makes video games interesting in the first place. Worse, this tradition perpetually undermines Microsoft's efforts to frame itself as an indie "friendly" partner. Which, in this day and age, seems ill-advised.

Prediction #2: People Will State Games They Are Demoing Will NOT Use Loot Boxes

Ah, loot boxes, how I hardly knew ye....
Ah, loot boxes, how I hardly knew ye....

It's been an "interesting" year for loot boxes. Nigh two months ago Mortal Kombat 11's use of loot boxes drew universal condemnation. Then you have Fortnite, whose use of loot boxes motivated several politicians to consider regulating the practice. Nonetheless, I'm not predicting a full-on "loot box apology tour" during any particular E3 conference. Even so, I suspect the issue of loot boxes will come up throughout E3. For instance, I predict at least one developer will proudly exclaim their game lacks microtransactions during a major press conference. Likewise, we will most likely listen to a CEO pledging to keep their company "in touch" with its community of supporters. Or better yet, someone on stage will claim they have "listened to their fans."

I don't want my previous paragraph to suggest I support loot boxes. Quite the contrary, I find the practice exploitative as it preys of some people's issues with self-control or gambling addictions. Nonetheless, I have zero tolerance for million-dollar corporations dogpiling on another company's misfortune by trying to frame themselves as being "consumer friendly." This heinous practice usually comes from Devolver Digital whose chaotic conference more often than not attempts to take the piss out of other companies. That, in my honest opinion, is total dogshit. For one thing, we are talking about people's livelihoods. An executive's poor decision-making should not be used as a segue to shit on other people's hard work. Finally, and this is a point Rami Ismail made last year, you KNOW every developer has considered microtransactions at least once when making a game. To celebrate the failures of another developer for following through on their "gut reaction" is beyond fucked.

Prediction #3: Nintendo Will Announce A Spin-off To A Beloved Franchise No One Wanted

Do you remember this game, because I sure Hell don't!
Do you remember this game, because I sure Hell don't!

By far one of the more baffling E3's traditions occurs during Nintendo's conference. Every year the world's most recognizable video game company psyches out gamers far and wide by inverting their expectations. Whether it be a crossover with Ubisoft's Rabbids or that Metroid Prime soccer game, Nintendo has a habit of over-estimating the value of name brands. More recently, while fans were clamoring for a proper console Animal Crossing game, Nintendo instead announced a worthless Animal Crossing board game. And don't get me started about Nintendo's repeated antagonism about a western release of Mother 3. I mean, for fuck's sake Nintendo, this isn't funny anymore!

In part, and I hate to play this card, but I blame Nintendo's E3 hubris on its fans. Lest we not forget, when Nintendo revealed they were monetizing their online multiplayer functions, with no promises of improving the service, people applauded their announcement. I get some will claim this occurred thanks to industry "plants," but I have my doubts. I can tell you from experience, if Nintendo hacked apart a cow on stage, people would STILL applaud them. The result is Nintendo is bound by some curse to strike out on at least one game every E3. This year, I'm hedging my bets on a Star Fox spin-off. My guess is it's a collectible card game where Fox McCloud goes up against an army of Yu-Gi-Oh rejects.

Prediction #4: Every AAA Developer Will Avoid Questions Related To Crunch

And I'm not talking about the crunch your bones make when you bend over to pick something up.
And I'm not talking about the crunch your bones make when you bend over to pick something up.

Last year Waypoint ran a post-E3 article in which its staff compiled publisher and developer responses to questions about "crunch time." The report was exhaustive in scope and beyond enlightening. While some openly embraced Waypoint's questioning, others were outright hostile. How dare the press have the audacity to question the well-being of developers during gaming's biggest stage! Worse, to see industry veterans such as Reggie Fils-Aimé fumble the issue entirely was gut-wrenching. On top of that, my heart sunk every time a producer excused the practice as an "inevitability."

This year, with tales of the "true" cost of game development coming to the forefront, I do not think the issue of crunch is going away for the sake of E3 2019. Nor should it, as the extra visibility may lead to industry-wide change. However, I can only imagine armies of PR representatives will respond to these questions with rehearsed lines repeating corporate approved statements about company wellness. Moreover, we are dancing around the issue if E3 itself is by design a "high-risk" environment that leads to the practice of crunch. While many gaming journalists are apt to deplore crunch, they remain complacent when participating in E3 "press awards." These awards, in turn, can impact the long-term financial viability of a video game as they relate to a game's marketing prospects. It's a horrible capitalistic Sisyphean torment, but one we all have a role in perpetuating.

Prediction #5: Every Conference Will Treat Remasters Like "New" Releases

I guess 2019 will likely mark the
I guess 2019 will likely mark the "glorious" return of Spongebob Squarepants to E3?

I want to preface I don't hate HD Remasters. For many, remasters represent a viable way to play classic video games on modern hardware legally. Likewise, I don't blame developers for investing their resources on remastering games. The industry is currently in flux, and it's hard to be a video game developer nowadays. No matter, I can only hope the development teams who toil away at remasters gain future opportunities to make original video game experiences. Also, I have to question if remasters divert interest in developing unique IPs.

Additionally, and this is a matter I address on my Bionic Commando (2009) blog, it is beyond frustrating how often publishers release HD remasters without any follow up. Take, for example, Capcom and its current relationship to Okami. Since the game's release, Capcom has ported Okami to every conceivable platform. However, Capcom has yet to invest its time on a game with even half the creativity of Okami. Additionally, I find it incredibly difficult to get excited about remasters during E3 as I feel like I'm falling into a marketing trap. For one thing, they provide an easy way for publishers to pad out their "exclusive" numbers. Again, I understand the publisher's motivations here, but I have to question if E3 is the best platform for these games. For example, last year, when Microsoft revealed a remaster of Tales of Vesperia for the Xbox One, the success of that release wasn't stopping Namco from making a new "Tales of..." game. That was happening, no matter what.

Prediction #6: Sony Trolls E3 By Announcing Games On Social Media

It wouldn't be the first time Sony trolled someone during E3.
It wouldn't be the first time Sony trolled someone during E3.

In an announcement that caught many off-guard, late last year, Sony confirmed they would not host an E3 2019 press conference. The decision was a significant blow to the clout of E3 as an industry-wide event, but it was an announcement many predicted. I think I speak for everyone, but watching a publisher struggle to fill time to justify a full-blown conference, is downright painful. While I am a noted fan of Bethesda's video game library, I do not think they have ever justified having their own stage. Likewise, time and time again, video games have used streaming services and social media to drum up support for half the cost of a booth at E3. Admittedly, Sony's attempts to emulate the success of Nintendo Direct have been mixed, but it's clear they are trying new things.

Even so, I don't think for a minute Sony will be totally absent during E3 2019. Feel free to accuse me of being a video game conspiracy theorist, but I suspect Sony will take advantage of E3 on social media. You cannot convince me, especially after Death Stranding threw the internet in a tizzy, they do not have a single video game worth promoting during E3. That is why I think they'll take to Twitter or YouTube and ride off the coattails of E3. Furthermore, I have a hunch they'll announce something during the Microsoft or Nintendo press conferences. It would be a total troll move, but absolutely glorious. Likewise, as video game development becomes more accessible, developers should feel more empowered to promote their games on their terms like Sony.

Prediction #7: Patch Notes Will Be Treated Like New Game Announcements

Why patch notes continue to have a growing presence during E3 conferences, when they are easily accessible on the internet, is beyond me.
Why patch notes continue to have a growing presence during E3 conferences, when they are easily accessible on the internet, is beyond me.

Of my humorous E3 predictions, this one hurts the most. With Microsoft, EA, Square-Enix, and Bethesda all having multiplayer-focused video games, some of their conference time will be dedicated to disclosing online patches. In the case of EA and Bethesda, talking about the long-term plans of their massively multiplayer games is all but guaranteed. But let's not sleep on Square-Enix whom I have a sneaking suspicion will spend upwards to ten minutes reviewing incremental changes to Final Fantasy XIV. And with Microsoft trying to rebuild goodwill about Sea of Thieves and Crackdown 3, you know they have something similar in store for their presser.

Then we have EA and Bethesda. In the case of EA, I cannot fathom how many multiplayer shooters will have their patch notes lectured in excruciating detail. Anthem, Battlefield V, and Battlefront 2 all are bound to have some form of representation at E3 2019, and my guess is it will be underwhelming. Regarding Bethesda, your guess is as good as mine. Directly communicating that they have upcoming patches for Fallout 76 might be a step in the right direction, but at this point is it even worth it? My guess is they reveal a free expansion and promptly discuss necessary in-game quality improvements. Is that enough? Probably not, but something like Fallout 76 doesn't go away in the blink of an eye.

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Ten Years Ago, GRIN And Capcom Made One Of Gaming's Hottest Messes: Bionic Commando (2009)

Preamble

Before we jump into the "real" purpose of my blog, I want you to look at this GameSpot Tweet and realize how older we are right now.

While people champion 2008 as one of the most significant individual years in video games, 2009 remains unfortunately forgotten. However, it shouldn't as heavy-hitters like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin's Creed II, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Borderlands all proved to be significant moments in the industry. Additionally, some of these games reinvigorated long-dormant genres, whereas others elevated franchises to near legendary status. Sadly, 2009 is also notable in another regard. By that point, the end of the "B-Tier" game was all but guaranteed.

Admittedly, we are a year away from THQ's uDraw tablet, a device which doomed the industry's doyenne of B-Tier development. Nonetheless, other events spelled the end of the "B-Game." In 2008, the release of Braid legitimized small-scale indie games. Call of Duty 4 set a new gold standard for online multiplayer. Finally, Gears of War and Uncharted 2 increased consumer expectations for single-player campaigns. If one were to go back to 2009 and attempt to establish a video game company, they would struggle. The industry was, as it is today, in "flux." Large studios were moving away from publishing a small collection of high budgeted games in favor of portfolios of several smaller-scale projects.

One could argue Capcom has survived tougher moments in its corporate history.
One could argue Capcom has survived tougher moments in its corporate history.

Somehow, Capcom did not get that memo in 2009. Case in point, look at Capcom's releases from 2009 to 2010. While there are a handful of heavy-hitters like Super Street Fighter IV or Monster Hunter Tri, everything in-between is a video game desert. It's by a stroke of luck Capcom was able to churn out two Monster Hunter games in this period, because everything else appears financially ruinous. Lost Planet 2, Bionic Commando (2009), and Dark Void were well-known financial disappointments. But this is ignoring an important fact about Capcom in the late 2000s; they were making games at a breakneck speed. In 2009 alone, they released around fourteen to fifteen games! So, the question remains, why would any video game company engage in such accelerated production cycles?

Before I answer that question, I should probably address the comment many of you are likely shouting at the top of your lungs. Grouping Capcom on par with developers like THQ seems decidedly mean. For the most part, I agree with this sentiment; nonetheless, Capcom is a bit of an odd case. While yes, they are a preeminent fighting game developer, more often than not, Capcom engages in behavior similar to that of a mid-2000s B-Tier developer. Case in point, look at the development and release of Bionic Commando (2009). Even back in the day, it reeked of a publishing model ten-years out of date.

Warning: This blog most certainly goes over the backstory of Nathan
Warning: This blog most certainly goes over the backstory of Nathan "Rad" Spencer and the origins of his bionic arm. You have been warned.

Speaking of Bionic Commando, let's add some context to why the game was made in the first place. In the years following the release of Gears of War, Capcom decided to have a go at the modern third-person shooter genre. A few years earlier, Capcom experienced moderate success in this genre with Lost Planet, and by 2009, they were busy developing Lost Planet 2. Nonetheless, Capcom was hungry to have more skin in the game and contacted the Swedish developer GRIN. GRIN caught Capcom's attention as they had a reputation of working on tight schedules and within even tighter budgets. From 2008 to 2009, GRIN churned out FIVE video games, and thus fit with Capcom's essence at the time. Be that as it may, as Capcom was busy managing its affairs, GRIN developed Bionic Commando Rearmed and Bionic Commando (2009) with little to no guidance from Capcom. While many developers would jump at an opportunity to make a modern rendition of a timeless classic with complete creative freedom, GRIN struggled to triage the two projects. Which leads us to our first burning question:

Why Is Bionic Commando Rearmed So Much Better Than Bionic Commando (2009)?

Alright, I admit, that's a bit of a loaded question, but it allows us to examine GRIN more thoroughly before we jump into Bionic Commando. While this blog will mostly look at the misadventures of Bionic Commando, I cannot preface enough how GRIN nailed Bionic Commando Rearmed. Rearmed manages to strike an incredible balance between new-school and old-school sensibilities. Likewise, the game has a thoroughly enjoyable swagger and aesthetic. Nevertheless, the craft put into Rearmed presents our first burning question: why is it so much better than the 2009 reboot? Most believe the smaller scale of Rearmed proved advantageous to GRIN's tight development schedule. However, I have a personal theory GRIN prioritized the development of Bionic Commando Rearmed over the 2009 reboot.

I have this blog to thank for reminding me GRIN totally made a video game adaptation of Wanted.
I have this blog to thank for reminding me GRIN totally made a video game adaptation of Wanted.

So, where do I, an amateur blogger, get off logging this accusation? For one, GRIN's enthusiasm for Rearmed, over the 2009 reboot, was public knowledge. Capcom Unity started a podcast series that chronicled the development of Bionic Commando. In this podcast, the number of times GRIN employees change topics about the reboot in favor of Rearmed is shocking. On one such podcast, I recall a developer gushing over adjusting Rearmed's gameplay to work with a 3D engine, and needing to dismiss conventional physics. While Capcom Unity certainly painted a rosy picture about the Bionic Commando reboot, their discussions were mostly superficial. In one episode, the podcast's hosts are decidedly excited about the Mohole boss encounter. What the podcast does not tell you is the Mohole is one of only three bosses in the entire game. Therefore, it is safe to assume the reboot's developmental struggles were common knowledge at Capcom Unity.

However, the current collection of evidence favors the traditional argument of why Bionic Commando failed. That is to say; the game was developed under stressed and resource-poor conditions. The first piece of evidence to support this notion is GRIN was busy plugging away at another console shooter, Wanted: Weapons of Fate, when they started talks with Capcom. As Bionic Commando's release drew closer, GRIN took on a new contract to develop a video game adaptation of Terminator Salvation. Furthermore, from 2008 to 2009, GRIN would be responsible for the development of FOUR video games! For an independent development studio, that rate of production is unsustainable, and the consequence was the quality of their games suffered. After attracting critical acclaim for their work on Bionic Commando Rearmed, the same recurring criticisms plagued their future releases. Bionic Commando and Wanted were both excoriated for their short campaigns, and Terminator Salvation was a late-2000s movie-to-video game adaptation.

Honestly, I think this character design for Nathan is 100% better than his design in the reboot.
Honestly, I think this character design for Nathan is 100% better than his design in the reboot.

So, where does that leave Bionic Commando? First, GRIN was cash-strapped and financially coasting on fumes. Wanted sold so poorly Universal Pictures completely pulled out of the video game market, and things were not looking favorable for Terminator Salvation. To make matters worse, Capcom's laissez-faire approach to GRIN left the developer on its own when they needed help. Had Capcom assumed a more proactive role in monitoring the project, they could have averted many of the game's shortcomings. However, Capcom itself was stretched thin, and their Western studio was an understaffed shell company. All of these compounding issues meant Bionic Commando's reboot was all but destined for failure.

But What About Bionic Commando (2009)?

When I installed Bionic Commando earlier this year, I went into it with tempered expectations. I knew about the game's moronic plot twist and unintentionally hilarious sense of grittiness. I also recalled the game's swinging mechanic being incredibly ambitious. All the same, the game's unfinished roughness caught me by surprise. I would go so far as to suggest Bionic Commando is the most top-heavy game I have ever played! While a glance at any online guide might indicate the game has as many as fifteen levels, the first two environments do most of the heavy lifting.

Moreover, most of your time is spent looking at the same destroyed apartment complexes or industrial shipyards. At times, you feel as if the game was designed using the "ctrl+v" shortcut. The levels that add some much-needed visual variety are too few and far between. Even more troubling, the later portions of the game are shockingly brief. One of those chapters, the game's finale mind you, is an extended quick time event. Finally, it baffles my mind how little of the game ends up serving Bionic Commando's main selling point, Nathan's robotic arm. The vast majority of the levels are dreadfully horizontal and actively discourage exploration. For example, when the game tasks you with summiting a skyscraper, it directs you to a ground-level entry point and forces you to explore the building by foot.

Don't even get me started about this fucking balloons.
Don't even get me started about this fucking balloons.

Speaking of which, let's address Spencer's grappling arm. As a friend of mine once put it, the grappling mechanic is single-handedly the best and most disappointing aspect of the game. When the game utilizes open-world environments that do not immediately punish you for miss timing grapples, it allows for enthralling moments of exploration and experimentation. In these environments, I will not deny enjoying practicing how to reach an optimal apex. Regrettably, even in the game's "safe" environments, achieving a sense of flow is hard to accomplish. Again, part of this problem is due to the game's design. Patches of radiation often limit your ability to explore environments, and their purpose of funneling the player is nakedly transparent. As such, the game's linearity is in constant conflict with the free-flowing nature of the bionic arm.

Likewise, not enough of the game empowers you to use Nathan's arm. The core mechanic of the game is the joy of swinging through open worlds like a bionic Spider-Man. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the levels are linear stomps through two or three distinct permutations of futuristic industrial parks. These environments are incredibly tight. To boot, annoying environmental hazards often litter these levels. In later portions of the game, missing a single leap will cause Spencer to fall into a pit or ocean. Moreover, the game ramps up its difficulty when it introduces several enemy types that can resist your bionic arm. Every step of the way, there's at least one thing in each environment preventing you from un-tapping the bionic arm's full potential.

Above all, GRIN's Bionic Commando simultaneously attempts to be a modern third-person shooter. Here it fails in every regard. I'm partially sympathetic to this problem because Bionic Commando is caught in the same dichotomy as Mirror's Edge. In both cases, if the developer makes shooting too viable of a strategy, players will likely ignore the central conceit of the game. Nevertheless, what boggles my mind is large swaths of Bionic Commando force you to resort to conventional weapons. For example, a helicopter boss is quickly dispatched using a rocket launcher, and the game actively discourages you from using the robotic arm. Near the end of the game, there is a loathsome shootout at an abandoned library where there isn't enough junk to throw at enemies.

Despite GRIN's solid track record for making
Despite GRIN's solid track record for making "good" shooters, it surprising how bad the shooting in Bionic Commando can be.

A more fundamental issue is the progression of Spencer's arm. For one, the game starts you without the bionic arm, and you have to slog through a miserable number of third-person action sequences before getting it. Likewise, the game utilizes a bizarre skill-based leveling system wherein killing enemies a certain way, makes different parts of the arm stronger. While this certainly sounds nice on paper, it also means sequences that require a specific style of play can become untenable if you have not leveled up that skill set. Additionally, it's not until the game's middle-act when it provides its first "real" open-world environment. For the first third of the game, players stomach through several combat-heavy shootouts in the same blown-out cityscape. There, your only opportunity to practice the swinging mechanic comes when you need to vault across large pits using conveniently placed blimps. Unfortunately, because these balloons hover over chasms or bodies of water, mistiming a single vault can result in an instant "game over."

Let's Talk About The Story And That Plot Twist... You Know, THAT Plot Twist

Bionic Commando (2009) has a story, or so I am told. For most, their only impression of Bionic Commando's narrative is its moronic plot twist. While this story pivot is rightfully admonished, it overshadows other elements of its narrative. Without a doubt, Bionic Commando is one of the "ugliest" stories one can experience in a video game. There are no characters worth rooting for, and the occasional interjections of patriotic jingoism are utterly repulsive. For instance, Joseph "Super Joe" Gibson and an unnamed general constantly bark at Nathan demanding he "serve his country." You know, the same country which threw him into prison for simply having a bionic arm. Yup, everyone in this game SUCKS!

This boss battle might well be the best moment in the game, and it's only one of three boss fights in the entire game.
This boss battle might well be the best moment in the game, and it's only one of three boss fights in the entire game.

Summarizing Bionic Commando's story is simultaneously an easy task and a nightmare. It is an easy task because the storytelling amounts to about twenty minutes worth of cutscenes. I shit you not, someone on YouTube compiled every cutscene in the game, and their video amounts to about eighteen minutes. Conversely, the story is a nightmare because it attempts several different plot beats in its limited time. At first, the game tries to draw parallels to the Bush administration when it paints the activities of the government as morally questionable. Then, the story hits you with a lethal dose of jingoism when the main antagonist is revealed to be a Nazi. Eventually, when we discover the origins of Nathan's arm, I suspect the game is attempting to rebuke transhumanism.

Of course, the tone of the game is unflinchingly gritty. In many ways, it is cut from the same cloth as Gears of War or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The worst example of this is when the characters pantomime emotions meant to sweep the player into a dramatic tale of redemption. As Spencer galavants through the charred remains of Ascension City, he eventually encounters another named bionic, Jayne "Mag" Magdalene. Mag is a member of a terrorist organization that detonated a nuclear weapon in Ascension City. Mag justifies her actions by claiming the government was aiming to take away her bionic legs. Because, you know, prosthetic limbs weren't going to cut it. When Spencer attempts to confront Mag about her actions, he says, and this is not a joke, "By the way, that's people you're breathing!" Seriously, this is an actual line of dialogue in this game. If you don't believe me, here's the cutscene:

Speaking of the characters, they also highlight how Bionic Commando is, at most, halfway complete. There are a total of SIX named characters in Bionic Commando. One, the general of the Tactical Arms and Security Committee, remains unseen and only interacts with Nathan through "walk and talk" story sequences. Another character, named "Thomas Clarke" has two scenes and not once feels connected with the events of the story. That leaves Nathan, Mag, and Super Joe as our connective tissue when moving from one chapter to the next. As mentioned earlier, there isn't a ton of storytelling using in-game cinematics. As a result, most of the characterization and worldbuilding is done through hackable terminals littered throughout the world. However, we do not learn anything of consequence through these terminals. In one groan-inducing moment, we read about a security guard asking Mag if she was "more than platoon-mates" with Nathan.

Finally, there's the game's much-ballyhooed "plot twist." The twist itself is the single most talked about aspect of Bionic Commando. Those who have never played the game will state as fact Nathan's arm is the re-purposed remains of his wife. However, many forget this is never outright stated in the game. What we receive instead is a long-winded monologue by Super Joe, wherein Joe drones about biotics requiring a mental and biological connection with their hosts. As Nathan chases after Super Joe, he glances at a PowerPoint slide with a comedic arrow pointing at his arm and his wife's name displayed nearby.

This plot twist sure is
This plot twist sure is "something."

It's unknown what GRIN's long-term plan was for this revelatory moment. Is this reveal meant to be a witty criticism of the transhumanist movement? Is this pivot another attempt to inject "grit" into the narrative? The world will never know because like every moment in this game, it juxtaposes to a new plot beat without pomp or circumstance. Just as we begin to grapple with the prospect of Spencer's arm being his wife, we watch Super Joe unceremoniously murder Mag. Then, we have to stomach through two long-winded explanations about "Project Vulture" and Super Joe's plan for world domination.

This plot point raises the issue of Bionic Commando's narrative "ugliness." Bionic Commando is a mean and depressing story to watch. Just as we learn more about Magdalene, Super Joe promptly murders her. Which reminds me, Super Joe revealing himself to be a Nazi double-agent is a complete betrayal to anyone with even the slightest bit of nostalgia for the "Golden Age of Capcom." Here we have a classic character becoming a monster with little rhyme or reason. On top of that, the game's ending is a fever dream. Super Joe commands an army of robotic vultures, but Nathan swings to him and head-butts him to death. In the game's final moments, we watch Nathan fall to what we assume to be his demise. It is a sudden and dark turn that honestly comes out of nowhere and leads to nothing.

Remember When Nathan "Rad" Spencer Was In Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds?

I also want to add having a literal Nazi talk about finding an
I also want to add having a literal Nazi talk about finding an "Ultimate Solution" isn't a great look in a video game.

The story of GRIN and Capcom following the failure of Bionic Commando is almost a story in and of itself. To summarize, Capcom hated the final version of GRIN's full-fledged Bionic Commando game. This fiasco, coupled with the failure of Dark of Void, led to them terminating all business relations with Western developers until DmC: Devil May Cry. Keiji Inafune has gone on record saying working with GRIN was "messed up," and further added, "I don't even know what happened there." These statements coincided with Jun Takeuchi, of Resident Evil and Onimusha fame, stating he disliked working with a Western affiliate during Lost Planet 2's development. On Capcom's actual website, Takeuchi straight up says: "Cultural differences don't allow for the smooth collaboration between Japan and developers overseas."

Consequently, the Capcom of the early to mid-2000s all but ended. Capcom slowed development and became a far more insular company. While Capcom has always ebbed and flowed in terms of cultural relevancy, there's no doubting the company entered a creative recession following 2009. They are, without a doubt, a continual dominant force in the fighting game market, but 2009 represents a turning point in the company's history. I'm not going to claim the company is financially on the rocks or heading in the wrong direction. This year they achieved critical success with the release of Devil May Cry 5. And, we are, of course, ignoring Monster Hunter: World, which at this point, I suspect prints actual money. Capcom is a well-oiled machine but looking at them more closely; you'll see how risk-averse they are today.

Honestly, while the concept of a sequel excites me, I don't know how you
Honestly, while the concept of a sequel excites me, I don't know how you "top" headbutting Super Joe in a spacesuit to death.

Take, for example, Okami. In the thirteen years since its release, every modern console imaginable has some version of it available to play. The game has experienced a modern-day renaissance, but there's a fundamental issue with the game, and how it relates to modern-day Capcom, which remains unaddressed. Simply put, Okami is not a game that would see the light of day in the Capcom of today. To their defense, being a modern-day video game publisher is no easy task. Additionally, if I have learned anything from the 8-4 podcast, being a large-scale Japanese video game company is even harder.

Nonetheless, let's address the question of this section of the blog. Capcom might be unflinchingly afraid of developing new IPs, but that does not mean they do not celebrate all parts of their history. Hence, we have "Spencer" in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, donning his beat-up green jumper and horrible dreadlocks as he goes up against the likes of Dr. Doom and Ryu. And HOT DAMN, do I love his inclusion so very much! Lest we not forget, he is the protagonist of a hot mess that loss Capcom millions of dollars and Capcom does not give a flying fuck! The last we saw Nathan "Rad" Spencer, he was busy ripping the guts out of robotic vultures and falling to his death. Now, most people remember him being one of the most useful characters in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and whose ending involves him going on a date with She-Hulk.

This blasé attitude leaves Bionic Commando's "legacy" in our hands. Do we remember it for its storytelling blunders? Do we recognize it for being an emblem of a bygone era? Do we celebrate it for its mechanical ambition? Do we admonish it for putting hundreds of people out of work? I'm not going to be your daddy and tell you what to think. I ask these questions to provoke you into thinking if even failures in the video game industry have some unmistakable imprint in our memories. My impression is they do, but there's no clear-cut answer here.

Before we end, it would behoove me to mention GRIN's fate following the release of Bionic Commando. In its first month of publication, the game sold under 30,000 copies. For those not in the video game business, that is not a "good" number. GRIN's next release, Terminator Salvation, sold approximately 43,000 copies in its first month. While a slight improvement, it wasn't enough to keep the studio operating. GRIN would shutter its doors later in the year as a result of its "unsustainable cash flow." If there is a silver lining to be had, many of the individuals from GRIN are still active in the industry. However, there's one more twist to this already hazardous tale of video game hubris: GRIN had a contract that could have saved their company. That contract was with Square-Enix, and the canceled project, titled "Fortress," may well be one of the wildest stories in video game history. But that tale is for another day.

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Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Episode 3: Hey Internet, Why Is FF12 Set In The Same Universe As Tactics?

Author's Note: Many apologies for the long hiatus, hopefully I can keep at it this time around and finish Final Fantasy XII. More details on what caused me to fall of my normal blog cycle next episode.

Part 21: The Problem Facing My Enjoyment Of Final Fantasy XII: There's Too Much Of It!

Sure... this seems to be a troupe I would trust with the fate of the world.
Sure... this seems to be a troupe I would trust with the fate of the world.

Before we jump into it, I wanted to address a common complaint directed at this series. Many have commented I gripe about minor issues while ignoring positive attributes about Final Fantasy XII. This claim is, in theory, a fair point of contention because Final Fantasy XII has significant victories worth commending. For the most part, it showcases a diverse and robust cast whose journey is compelling to watch. On top of that, the game paints a visually stunning world that encourages exploration. Finally, Final Fantasy XII is undeniably ambitious. As Square-Enix struggles to redefine itself in a rapidly evolving industry, Final Fantasy XII represents a moment when the company's creativity mostly paid off.

Where I start to push back, however, is when Final Fantasy XII struggles to strike a balance between new and old school JRPG sensibilities. Most of the time, it is essentially a single-player MMORPG, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing. Nevertheless, Square-Enix consistently feels obligated to arbitrarily insert Final Fantasy tropes and idioms that undermine this structure. To illustrate, Final Fantasy XII tries to embrace open-world game design while also crafting an epic single-player storyline. It dabbles in real-time combat while utilizing drop-down menus. Some of these gameplay and narrative marriages work, and others exacerbate the game's accessibility issues. Thus, in my mind, Final Fantasy XII is defined by a series of small to medium missteps rather than a single monumental failure.

And I wish I was the King of England, but we can't always get what we want.
And I wish I was the King of England, but we can't always get what we want.

Additionally, and I hate to beat this drum yet again, Final Fantasy XII is not a welcoming experience to newcomers. The Gambit System is not intuitive. It just isn't. The game does a shitty job of teaching how it works, and it requires a lot of patience. That same sentiment applies to all versions of the License Board. While I prefer the Zodiac Edition, I actively dislike how often it forces you to make "blind choices." Yes, I know recent editions remedy this issue, but the mechanic itself always requires hours upon hours of grinding before bearing any fruit.

It is worth mentioning the Ozmone Plains is when I dropped the original PS2 version of Final Fantasy XII. I want the record to show I think that version is long, tedious, and no fun to play. I would even go so far as to say it's objectively a bad video game. There, every open-world dungeon progresses at a snail's pace, and the combat is a sluggish mess. Alternatively, due to the combat's pacing issues, you cannot take full advantage of several of its gameplay incentives (i.e., the combo system). With grinding baked into its core, you'd think Square-Enix would find a way to make fighting trash mobs fun. In the case of the game's original release, I found that not to be the case.

Personally, I cannot play Final Fantasy XII without the "quality of life" features found in the Zodiac Remaster. Without these additions, every dungeon or open-world environment becomes a chore. The slow pace of the gameplay irreparably hurts Final Fantasy XII's otherwise excellent story. In-between story moments, a player will often have to navigate through two to three transitional environments. Under normal circumstances, these levels can take up to three to five hours! Worse, dead ends and copy paste design plague these levels. While the cityscapes and story set pieces are undeniably beautiful, you spend too much of your time wallowing in desolate desert wastelands or overgrown forests.

Thank goodness for the fast forward feature, because the two Sandsea levels are BRUTAL without it!
Thank goodness for the fast forward feature, because the two Sandsea levels are BRUTAL without it!

Even in the Zodiac Age, Final Fantasy XII drags for hours upon end. Every dungeon features the same respawning enemies. Alternatively, every open-world environment is astoundingly vast. I would hazard to say a full third of your play time consists of trekking through deserts, plains, or forests. This structure comes at an astounding cost to the story's pacing. Because two to three dungeons divide the narrative set pieces, you often catch yourself struggling to remember previous scenes.

Part 22: Final Fantasy XII's Side Quests Are WEAK!

Something that continues to baffle me about Final Fantasy XII is how often it "presses the pause button" on its story. Rarely do these lulls feel helpful in coloring in the more delicate details of the characters. Indeed, while Final Fantasy XII has dozens of interstitial levels, few contribute anything to the story. For those who may not know, interludes in role-playing games are when the story returns the player to a previously encountered location. I'm not against transitions such as these as they do an excellent job in showing the player how far they have come. Unfortunately, in the case of Final Fantasy XII, it uses moments like these to remind the player of its portfolio of side quests.

Do any of you remember murdering a family of cactuars in Final Fantasy XII? No? Well, you are not alone!
Do any of you remember murdering a family of cactuars in Final Fantasy XII? No? Well, you are not alone!

That is not to say the game does not try its hand at worldbuilding. For example, the game showcases a visually impressive weather system to craft a sense of time progression. At the same time, while the intent here is respectable, the execution is questionable. Locations like the Giza Plains or Garamsythe Waterway change as you move forward in the story, but these transformations feel artificial. Indeed, many of these changes happen after fulfilling an unknown list of criteria. Even more, when completing specific hunts, this weather feature can significantly impede your progress.

Nonetheless, let's return to the aforementioned optional quests in Final Fantasy XII. For the most part, they are Square's attempt to graft your typical MMORPG fare onto a Final Fantasy experience. Conversely, and I have mentioned this point before, these optional questlines are more obtuse than they have any right to be. Getting any of the hunts to spawn can involve a three to four step process. Furthermore, the lack of a mission log makes it incredibly easy to lose track of which side quests are active, or where your progress stands.

Seriously, why the fuck is Penelo a character in this game? She's the most pointless character in the entire game!
Seriously, why the fuck is Penelo a character in this game? She's the most pointless character in the entire game!

Even when you ignore the hunts, the optional content in Final Fantasy XII could hardly be called "compelling." Honestly, how many of you remember retrieving Pilika's diary or delivering Ann's letters? The problem here is the design of these quests is about as cookie-cutter as they can get. The vast majority involve talking to a character, learning about an object they want, and defeating a monster to return said trinket. To illustrate, one NPC asks you to round up a family of cockatrices. This task entails you talk to random NPCs throughout the world, but without any cinematic window dressing.

To make matters worse, what the designers decided warranted further exploration is bereft of all reasonable logic. By its middle act, the game discards first chapter characters like Migelo or Kytes, even if those characters could act as storytelling vessels. On the other hand, a random Viera at Rabanastre and sickly desert explorer each get multi-chapter spanning side quests. Above all, these interactions rarely are interesting. I guess it's nice to see Ktjn at the Clan Hall in Rabanastre, but that's all it is, "nice." It's not like her journey suddenly sheds new light into the current issues plaguing Ivalice. Instead, every side quest feels like a one-off vignette designed to hand off an item to the player.

Because returning a Moogle their diary is what I call
Because returning a Moogle their diary is what I call "compelling."

Moreover, what frustrates me the most about these missions is how Square-Enix cannot be bothered to "own" their shit. Final Fantasy XII is an intentional effort to blend their modern-day MMORPG leanings with the long-standing sensibilities of the mainline Final Fantasy franchise. Nevertheless, the side quests do not borrow enough of the lessons from World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XI. Quest givers do not have name tags or quest icons over their heads, nor can you set up custom waypoints. For fuck's sake, the dialogue does not even employ the color-coded Legend of Zelda "YOU OUGHT TO KNOW THIS" font. The result is a frustrating half-measured step towards Final Fantasy XIV, and I do not mean that as a compliment.

Part 23: Can We Talk About How 90% Of The Story Relies on MacGuffins?

Let's return to the story as I continue to grouse. When we last met, our intrepid troupe of rebels saved Princess Ashe from Judge Ghis. After a climactic battle aboard the airship Shiva, our party reconvenes at Bhujerba to plan their next steps. Upon returning to Bhujerba, the characters rendezvous with the Marquis. Without a doubt, Marquis Ondore is one of the game's most successful secondary characters. He is a reflective pragmatist whose actions, while occasionally disagreeable, feel reasonable. When he hesitates to support Ashe's efforts, you at least understand his perspective.

What I want to nitpick is the game's failure to surface the brewing animosity between Ashe and Ondore. The story heavily implies Ashe leaves Bhujerba in part because she fears Ondore will prioritize Bhujerba's interests over Dalmasca's. Sadly, you have to draw this conclusion on your own as Ashe attempts to hijack Balthier's airship. Speaking of which, I love and hate the scene involving Ashe's failed attempt to steal Balthier's ship. On the one hand, it does a masterful job of underscoring Ashe's sad state of affairs. On the other hand, Penelo and Vaan's dialogue makes me want to rip my eyes out.

Balthier, being
Balthier, being "over the top" is my middle name!

For the most part, the characters are enjoyable throughout the game's second and third act. What I am less enthused about is the game's main narrative. For lack of a better word, the story of Final Fantasy XII becomes dressed up fantasy schlock before its geopolitical drama kicks into high gear. I'm not suggesting there isn't a proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel." Instead, Final Fantasy XII's second and third acts are long-ass "tunnels." We eventually discover Ashe has no means of proving she is the rightful heir to the throne of Dalmasca. This revelation, in turn, forces us into another protracted fetch-quest involving a magical MacGuffin.

Look, I enjoy the worldbuilding behind King Raithwall as much as the next person. However, that does not change the fact we have to stomach through TWO open world deserts before learning what the fuck is happening in the story! The first Sandsea environment takes the better part of two to three hours, and dead-ends and environmental traps litter the map. I'm not sorry when I say I did not find navigating this environment "fun." Seriously, I dare any of you to look at the map of the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea and tell me it is a "well-designed" level!

Yeah... FUCK THIS SHIT!
Yeah... FUCK THIS SHIT!

Finally, I'd like to share a nitpick that has been bugging me since chapter one. Somehow, none of the NPCs know the identities of our party members despite Basch and Ashe being the most wanted people in the world. Furthermore, we spend half the game with Larsa, and virtually NO ONE notices the prince of the Archadian Empire. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?! Are there no cameras in the world of Ivalice? The worse is yet to come when we learn about Balthier's backstory, which blows dozens of anachronisms into previous events.

Part 24: There Are Too Many Protracted Open-World Environments

Going back to a previous point, I cannot fathom who thought it was high time for another fetch-quest. What I find especially heinous about Final Fantasy XII's structure is how rarely the environments feel connected with the main story. It's nice we learn about the society and culture of the Urutan, but ultimately, it feels like window-dressing. Even worse, the characters rarely interact with each other as you progress through the open-world environments. The result is the game doesn't have a compelling carrot at the end of its loot-grind stick. Another consequence is the game drags during its transitional levels.

I do appreciate the Sandsea is literally a sea of sand. Everything else about it can die in a fire.
I do appreciate the Sandsea is literally a sea of sand. Everything else about it can die in a fire.

Speaking of which, Final Fantasy XII may have the most interstitial levels I have ever seen in a video game. Nearly half the game exists in transitional sequences where the party moves from one place to the next. During these moments, you spend hours grinding on random enemies with little to no storytelling. The only attempts at storytelling occur at the starts and ends of levels. More importantly, the quips we do see are about as rudimentary as can be and they rarely reinforce the characters. Balthier doesn't make humorous quips about sand getting into his breeches, nor does Ashe clue us into the legend of King Raithwall. All the game does is push you in a direction and place a bunch of bullshit in your way.

Admittedly, the levels are technically beautiful. Moreover, it's respectable the game doesn't maintain Final Fantasy X's blasé approach to its environments. In Final Fantasy XII, each environment feels like a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life. Even then, I cannot appreciate the game's art because I feel like I have seen the same desert or grassy plain three or four times. This point is why I cannot fathom why the game needs TWO Sandsea levels. They both play like the other and broadly share the same enemy encounters. It sucked the first time, so why would anyone think it wouldn't suck the second time? More importantly, it's not as if the extra Sandsea environment sheds new light about the world of Ivalice.

Oh, we'll talk about important magical abilities being hidden in random treasure chest. Worry not, my children.
Oh, we'll talk about important magical abilities being hidden in random treasure chest. Worry not, my children.

As a matter of fact, the game does not communicate what it wants you to get out of these environments. In truth, it maliciously hides magical abilities and game-changing equipment in random chests throughout the world. Usually, this wouldn't be that big of a deal, but in the case of the Zodiac Edition, it's a constant nuisance. In the Zodiac Edition, several of the game's jobs feature highly specific build paths that necessitate the use of a handful of items and abilities. When random treasure chests obfuscate dozens of these abilities, you feel the game is unfairly stacking the cards against you.

Ultimately, this nitpicking is ignoring the biggest issue with the open-world environments: THEY'RE FUCKING BORING! Each of the game's settings is teeming with five or six enemy types, and with the levels as massive as they are, you tire of them quickly. Speaking of which, what makes things exceptionally monotonous is the scale of the environments. Everything in Final Fantasy XII is BIG! Consequently, moving to different parts of a level can take HOURS! Worse, the proper nouns for the locals are ridiculous. For instance, when you enter the "Nam-Yensa Sandsea," you are meant to cross the "Augur Hill," "Withering Shores," "Demesne of the Sandqueen," and "Trail of the Fading Warmth." WHAT THE FUCK DOES ANY OF THAT MEAN?!

Wait, there are fossil fuels in the world of Ivalice? When did that happen?
Wait, there are fossil fuels in the world of Ivalice? When did that happen?

Admittedly, the Final Fantasy franchise has always had a proper noun problem. Nonetheless, Final Fantasy XII is an extreme example of this issue. Every time you enter a new environment, the game forces you through six or seven sub-levels, all of which have over-the-top naming conventions. Likewise, the gameplay's sluggish nature makes each of these settings more time-consuming. First, you need to identify the elemental weaknesses and immunities of the enemies, and manually optimize your Gambits accordingly. Second, each environment features a particular status ailment you need to be aware of as you navigate it. In the end, you spend hours futzing around in menus as you desperately try to take in new surroundings!

Part 25: The Inclusion Of The Espers Is WEIRD!

Mercifully, when you reach the Tomb of King Raithwall, the story finally kicks into gear. As Ashe and company enter the tomb, she divulges the significance of the monument and its mythical inhabitant. Over a thousand years ago, Raithwall the Dynast King ruled over a united Ivalice. The gods of Ivalice gave Raithwall a sword known as the "Sword of Kings." From this sword, Raithwall cut three shards of nethicite from a powerful object called the "Sun-Cryst." These three shards are the MacGuffins the story's main characters spend most of their time collecting.

In other words... he had the one ring to rule them all.
In other words... he had the one ring to rule them all.

This exposition dump is a welcome change of pace after the dreck that was the Sandsea levels, but it's just that, an "exposition dump." Ashe lectures for the better part of twenty minutes, and when she's finished talking, the game unceremoniously transitions to an Egyptian-styled dungeon. To add insult to injury, the game promptly employs the cheesiest boss I have seen in a long time. I am, of course, talking about Final Fantasy XII's Demon Wall! Fuck that boss battle; it's total bullshit! I understand you are not meant to defeat the first Demon Wall, but thrusting one of the hardest bosses in the game, this early mind you, is fucked. Moreover, the Demon Wall and Espers highlight a considerable flaw with the boss encounters in Final Fantasy XII.

Final Fantasy XII's bosses employ an almost Vancian line of logic. Especially in the later portions of the game, bosses require you to take advantage of specific weakness or vulnerabilities. In previous Final Fantasy games, preparing for these encounters was easier said than done. Sadly, in Final Fantasy XII's case, its mechanics add dozens of time-consuming steps to this simple process. To illustrate, let's say a boss is weak to fire magic. First, you need to have a character that can use magic. Second, your character requires the license of a fire-based magical ability and the actual spell in their inventory. Once both are acquired, the player then needs to set up a Gambit that allows their character to cast that spell.

This asshole is a real fucker.
This asshole is a real fucker.

There is no more frustrating feeling than reaching a boss and realizing you do not have the equipment or abilities to beat them. As mentioned earlier, these dungeons take upwards to three to four hours to complete on the default speed. As such, backtracking to a merchant is a demoralizing experience. The first time this problem happened to me was during the encounter with Belias. I entered the battle without water spells or items that could remove the "oil" status effect. Hence, when I went up against the Esper for the first time, I had no idea what to do.

Furthermore, the Esper battles suck. They are cheap, and there's no other way to describe them. Often, the Espers employ a smattering of attacks at virtually no penalty. Furthermore, when an Esper used a hard-hitting spell that annihilated my party, I didn't feel like the game was playing fair. I understand several of you will chime in most of the Espers are optional, but that's ignoring their atrocious design in general. Likewise, as every Esper unlocks two to three abilities, they are not as voluntary as they seem.

Though I hate how they play, I do love the cinematic dressing supporting the Esper battles.
Though I hate how they play, I do love the cinematic dressing supporting the Esper battles.

Above all, the Espers allow me to address one of my fundamental issues with Final Fantasy XII. I don't think the game gets enough out of the world of Ivalice. The inclusion of the Espers is both weird and oddly offensive. For those who may not know, the Espers were the looming threat clouding the events of Final Fantasy Tactics. To see them used in such a blasé manner raises the question if Final Fantasy XII should take place in Ivalice in the first place. Nothing in the world pines for the events seen in Final Fantasy Tactics. At no point does the game refer to the adventures of Ramza and Delita. I get the setting of Ivalice is a nightmare to parse out, but a little fanservice would have gone a long way. I would almost hazard to say Final Fantasy XII is better off taking place in an original backdrop, but more on that another time!

Part 26: A Great Set Piece That Leads To NOTHING!

Luckily for all involved, Final Fantasy XII's story comes to the rescue! Upon defeating Belias, Ashe acquires the Dawn Shard and muses about the legend of King Raithwall. As she prepares to exit, Ashe sees an apparition of her dead husband, Prince Rasler. While temporarily disturbed by this spirit, she and the rest of the party leave the tomb. As they exit, a massive fleet of Imperial warships greets them. In yet another impressive display of their technological superiority, Imperial airships can travel where other vehicles cannot.

Awesome, it's another magical orb that will likely bring ruination to life as we know it!
Awesome, it's another magical orb that will likely bring ruination to life as we know it!

When our party reaches Judge Ghis, the pompous officer demands Ashe hand over the Dawn Shard. Vossler reveals he tipped our location to the Imperials and justifies his actions by saying resistance to the Empire will only bring Dalmasca more misery. While you are meant to be furious at Vossler, you also understand his perspective. Now that the Imperials have defied one of Ivalice's laws of nature, you know the odds are stacked against you. Additionally, because you know Vossler's point of view, his eventual redemption doesn't feel forced. We know first-hand the Imperial navy and army are efficient killing-machines, and thus, relate to someone not wanting to stand and fight for their ideals.

Where things start to get muddled is when Judge Ghis begins playing around with the Dawn Shard. Drunk with power, Ghis places the Dawn Shard in the reactor of his dreadnaught to test its energy. Why would anyone do this? BECAUSE HE'S EVIL! Before this folly, Ghis drones about the incredible power of "deifacted nethicite," and the game assumes if it repeats its terminology over and over again, you'll understand what it means. Regardless, the Dawn Shard reacts to Ghis' experiment by exuding a deluge of "Mist." Mist is a transient source of magical power in Ivalice. In truth, the story does a piss poor job of establishing what role it serves in the world. In this case, the Mist causes the Leviathan to lose control of its reactor and explode.

Why does any of this happen? WHO THE FUCK KNOWS AND WHO THE FUCK CARES?!
Why does any of this happen? WHO THE FUCK KNOWS AND WHO THE FUCK CARES?!

Meanwhile, on the Shiva, our party is being transported in shackles. In an earlier scene, Ghis offered to guarantee peace between the Kingdom of Dalmasca and Archadia if Ashe promised to act as the Empire's puppet. Ashe of course refuses, and as such, our party is in its present circumstance. Curiously, as the Dawn Shard begins emanating Mist, Fran goes wild. I'm pretty sure we have seen Mist before, and the game doesn't establish how Mist causes Fran to go berserk, but that's neither here nor there. As the Shiva explodes in the background, Vossler attempts to apprehend our party. Vossler is no slouch, and the ensuing fight is one of the tenser moments in the game.

After you dispatch Vossler, he has a few words with Ashe and Basch. He wishes everyone the best and begs Basch to protect Ashe from harm. Next, we watch Balthier pilot our party from the exploding Leviathan. Ashe notices the Dawn Shard floating in the sky, and captures it before they dispatch from the wreckage. This cutscene showcases the technical excellence expected of Square-Enix. Every part of this scene is utterly stunning, and you leave with a genuine feeling your characters are meddling in affairs they cannot handle. More importantly, the destruction of the Archadian Eighth Fleet furthers the story's brewing sense of mystery. In this case, we do not have a clear picture of what exactly caused the Leviathan to explode. However, my praise here comes with a caveat.

I honestly wish the game spent more time building Vossler as a character, but I will take what I can get.
I honestly wish the game spent more time building Vossler as a character, but I will take what I can get.

I want to clarify when I say the story experiences a "peak" I am not implying the story has reached a "high point." A story can "peak" at sea-level and then fall back into the sea. Indeed, that is what happens in Final Fantasy XII's third act. The drama that ensues on the Shiva is spectacular, but part of what makes it so memorable is how dull the previous three hours have been. Furthermore, like every climactic moment in the game thus far, Final Fantasy XII does a shit job of juxtaposing from one story moment to the next. When the next chapter begins, it abruptly cuts away to Ashe holding the Dawn Star in Rabanastre. More lamentable, the following two gameplay levels are the Giza and Ozmone Plains.

Part 27: Final Fantasy XII Has The Most Inconsistent Cast In Franchise History

I hate how the characters of Final Fantasy XII never reflect on their actions. In this case, they witness the destruction of the Archadian Eighth Fleet and carry on with their business as if nothing happened. Not to mention, Ashe and Basch both put to death Vossler, a long-time friend! All this seems to suggest the characters should be experiencing some form of stress or trauma, but you wouldn't know that from the game. Which leads me to a severe gap in Final Fantasy XII's storytelling: the characters blow through world-shattering events like nothing. There's nary a moment of doubt, and the result is Final Fantasy XII becomes a world without consequences. For pity's sake, in an upcoming chapter, the characters witness an act of genocide and recover from the event within an hour!

To hit home my point further, let's look at Ashe. I refuse to believe after the death of her husband, and the destruction of her homeland, she does not have post-traumatic stress. After the battle against Vossler, she directs the party to another far-off city that contains yet another MacGuffin. She appears to be emotionally and physically unscathed, and that critically impairs the weight of her arc. On top of that, at no point do the characters slow down, and reflect on their actions. While the game does an admirable job of creating a sense of camaraderie, it rarely allows its characters to form "real" relationships. More often than not, I felt a majority of the characters were on this journey for the sake of it, rather than a genuine desire to help Ashe.

You have got to be shitting me... Ashe is LITERALLY being haunted by her past. They did it, Square-Enix finally tried their hand at a visual metaphor.
You have got to be shitting me... Ashe is LITERALLY being haunted by her past. They did it, Square-Enix finally tried their hand at a visual metaphor.

Long story short, there are ancient pieces of nethicite from the time when King Raithwall ruled as the Dynast King. Ashe plans to use the Dawn Shard as a weapon to both protect Dalmasca from further harm and convince the Archadian Empire to cease its occupation. It is a foolish scheme, but a plan the story purposefully presents as such. Ashe does not know what her next steps are, and when she shows signs of vulnerability, there's a sense of desperation in her words. While the forces behind the Imperial Army have an almost singular goal, Ashe appears to be running on fumes, and that's to the story's benefit. Ashe not having an "easy out" adds stakes to our otherwise rosy adventure.

Be that as it may, not everyone is created equal. Far too many of our party members lack a raison d'être. Ashe, Basch, and Balthier avoid this problem because they have interconnected character arcs. Unfortunately, Vaan, Penelo, and Fran feel like afterthoughts. If the designers want to waste hundreds of hours animating pointless characters like Penelo, that's their prerogative. However, would it have killed them to include a few moments where she details how she met Vaan, or what killed her parents? I'm not asking for a lot here, just the basics!

We now transition to something different.
We now transition to something different.

Regardless, and this is a point I have meant to bring up earlier, Final Fantasy XII's "B Story," is FUCKING AMAZING! Flat out, the storyline involving Larsa, the Judges, and Vayne blows the main narrative out of the water. It's an incredible accomplishment due in no part to how little time you spend with the Judges. Despite this, you understand their mindsets better than some of the members of your party. In the short story moments involving the Judges, their banter perfectly articulates their stances regarding world events. Which is crazy to say because this is a Square-Enix game, and straight to the point storytelling isn't something you associate with that name.

The consequence here is easily recognizable. Because characters like Gabranth are so straightforward and articulate, you cannot help but root for them. While the Judges are guilty of genocide and warmongering, they are driven individuals with the best of their homeland in mind. Because the game takes forever to fill in the gaps of Ashe, Basch, and Balthier's character arcs, you cannot help but prefer the Judges. On top of that, Vayne feels more developed as a character than a majority of your party. Thankfully, for once, we have a Final Fantasy villain who isn't being manipulated by an unknown force. Likewise, while Ashe and company spend most of their time bullshitting in random temples, Vayne is busy nation-building. You cannot help but respect the man for having a goal and executing it perfectly. Well, except for the fact he's a fascistic asshole.

Part 28: A Progress Report On My Jobs And Gambits

I cannot preface this enough, but the names for the jobs are glorified technobabble.
I cannot preface this enough, but the names for the jobs are glorified technobabble.

We now return to my monthly grousing about Final Fantasy XII's Gambit and License systems! Since my last two inflammatory blogs, I must admit I am warming up to the Gambit System. Notably, when everything works as intended, there's an unmistakable sense of accomplishment. Still, there's one recurring issue that continues to grind my gears. When you fight large masses of enemies, there's no easy way to distribute your attacks. In a turn-based combat system, you can distribute offensive maneuvers with finesse, but that's never the case in Final Fantasy XII. The Gambit System is an all-or-nothing system, and you are better off mobbing one enemy at a time.

Admittedly, I have received a bit of criticism for repeating the same sound bite when rambling about the job and license systems. This assessment is entirely fair, so I'll spare you from what I have complained about in previous entries. Of course, there's one significant addition to the job system I need to discuss. After you beat Vossler, the game presents you with the option of teaching your characters a second job. When combining two jobs, you open your characters up to further specialization. For instance, you can double down on the strengths of your initial assignments, or use your second job to create a more well-rounded character. While this sounds interesting on paper, the execution is where Final Fantasy XII screws the pooch.

Quick question, is it me or do guns totally suck in Final Fantasy XII? I'm asking for a friend.
Quick question, is it me or do guns totally suck in Final Fantasy XII? I'm asking for a friend.

Much like when you select your first job, the game forces you to make a blind choice with no communicated end-goal. Namely, the game fails to inform you which licenses are complementary. As a case study, let's say you have a "White Mage," who functions as your primary healer. Now, let's say you want your white mage to act more like a "cleric" so they can hold their own in combat. I cannot preface enough; this line of thinking is what Final Fantasy XII wants you to do. Unfortunately, every job feels like a close amalgam of another. The result is it is impossible to optimize sub-classes without a guide. For instance, in my cleric scenario, I cannot tell you which combination results in the outcome I want.

Likewise, I want to return to my earlier bellyaching about the Espers. While visually flashy, they add a level of complexity that is entirely unneeded. Each Esper can only be used by one of two character classes. On every board, there are bridges and corners which can only be unlocked if you choose to link an Esper to that board. With no way to test out what any of the abilities or items translate to, the game once again forces you to make a blind decision. Moreover, it is deranged how much harder the optional Espers are in comparison to the rest of the game. The fact those optional Espers unlock abilities that empower certain classes is game design maleficence!

Let's just say mistakes were made during my playthrough.
Let's just say mistakes were made during my playthrough.

Speaking of the Espers, let's talk about their location in the world. It's FUCKED they put the non-compulsory Esper dungeons in the story critical environments! Take, for example, the Ozmone Plain which is the next open-world environment you navigate after the events on the Shiva. Once there, you can enter a dungeon which holds the Esper, Adrammelech. If a player is exploring the Ozmone Plain blind, as was in my case, it is possible for them to encounter Adrammelech on accident. Unless you enjoy having your ass handed to you on a silver platter, this encounter is not enjoyable. Again, to me, this scenario is poor game design. Having super bosses is one thing, but placing them in easy to access locations is beyond fucked!

Another frustration I have with Final Fantasy XII is the lack of a "companion" feature. At different segments of the game, new characters join your party as "guests." These helpers include Larsa, Vossler, and Reddas. When one of these characters tags along, your party's strength increases exponentially. However, these opportunities are limited, and the game does not allow you to opt into them willingly. There are no mercenaries to hire to fill these positions, nor can you revisit these characters on your own time. To add insult to injury, you cannot fill that extra slot with one of your unused party members.

Part 29: Having Great Lore Is Not The Same As Having A Great Story

I'm just going to say someone had
I'm just going to say someone had "fun" writing the bios for the loot in this game.

With my gameplay grumblings beyond us, let's return to the story. After a brief discussion at Rabanastre, the party endeavors to find a Garif elder at the village of Jahara. A few things about this scene stick out to me. First, I love how fed up Balthier is with everyone's bullshit. After going unpaid for weeks, he outright demands Ashe give him her wedding ring as payment for his services. It makes him seem like a total scumbag, and I LOVED every minute of it! Second, there's a moment when Fran confronts Vaan and asks him why he's still tagging along. When he struggles to form a response I couldn't help but laugh. In my mind, this scene is the writing staff flipping the bird to the producer who forced them to include Vaan.

After navigating the Giza and Ozmone Plains, our motley crew makes their way to Jahara. There they encounter the Garif, a society of tribal warriors. The worldbuilding here is by far some of the best in the game at this point. While the Garif village is small, it feels like a livable world. Each NPC interaction shares a different aspect of Garif society. If you seek out these interactions, you are provided a surprising amount of worldbuilding. Even more, while your time here is short, it is incredibly memorable due in no part to the game's attention to detail.

Trust me, this guy knows as much about the story as you and I do.
Trust me, this guy knows as much about the story as you and I do.

If there's one critique I would like to share, it is one that applies to video games in general. At some point, I would like to see games depict indigenous cultures without playing into the "noble savage" trope. If there's something the film "Black Panther" proves, it is indigenous societies can respect the environment, while being technological equals to their "western" counterparts. The Garif, like many tribal cultures in video games, are a low-tech nature-focused society Final Fantasy XII paints into a corner. The Garif live in a community free from the world's violent global politics. Consequently, to remove themselves from these conflicts, and also become in-tune with nature, they have to sacrifice their use of modern technology.

As the characters explore their surroundings, they eventually meet up with the leader of the Garif. When Ashe presents the Dawn Shard to the elder, he admits he does not know of a way to bring back its "luster." After a bit of mythologizing, the Garif chief explains once a piece of nethicite loses its Mist, it is no longer useful as a weapon. Additionally, while he knows Ashe is a distant relative of King Raithwall, he too cannot prove her ancestry. After this disappointing meeting, Ashe retires for the night and eventually crosses paths with Larsa.

Can you also call for better pacing? I'd greatly appreciate that right about now!
Can you also call for better pacing? I'd greatly appreciate that right about now!

Larsa reveals he has a plan to end the wars plaguing the world of Ivalice but requires Ashe's co-operation. As you would rightfully expect, Ashe immediately rejects Larsa's proposal. Nonetheless, Larsa's idea makes sense. He plans to join Ashe at Mt Bur-Omisace where a religious leader, Gran Kiltias Anastasis, can bless her with the throne of Dalmasca. After Ashe's proclamation, she can sue for peace and end the Empire's bloody invasion. Much like our previous encounters with Larsa, the game doesn't paint its characters in shades of black and white. While Ashe understands Larsa's plan, she still rejects it. Nevertheless, because the Empire is a source of non-stop agony, Ashe is not painted as a "villain."

As I have repeatedly stated, Final Fantasy XII works best when its characters show real emotions and blurred moralities. That's what happens at Jahara... until the story remembers Vaan is a character. In what I can only describe as the game's most cringe-worthy moment, Vaan confronts Ashe about her visions of her husband. As you may recall, since acquiring the Dawn Shard, Ashe has seen her recently deceased partner, Lord Rassler, on several occasions. Apparently, Vaan knows this because he can see ghosts. Not only that, but he lectures Ashe on the importance of not running away from your past.

I shit you not; this is a real scene that happens!
I shit you not; this is a real scene that happens!

What's worse is when Vaan begins sharing the story of his dead brother. Here, Vaan explains losing his brother caused him to irrationally harbor ill-will against Basch. Not only that, he wants Ashe to know his anger made him feel "hollow," and he's afraid Ashe is making a similar mistake. But the cherry on top of the shit sundae comes when Vaan finally musters an explanation of why he needs to join Ashe in her quest. You see, since joining Ashe, Vaan finally feels he's standing up for something rather than running away from his problems. That's it, that's what he says is his reason for joining Ashe. I fucking kid you not. I want to remind you an adult wrote this script and thought they did a good job.

Part 30: MMORPG Game Design And The Death of Final Fantasy As We Know It

I cannot stop thinking about Vaan's scene in Jahara. For one thing, why is Ashe taking life-advice from Vaan? Vaan has consistently proven he's the least rational character in the game. I wouldn't trust him with my silverware if I invited him over for dinner! Additionally, it's not like what Vaan says is groundbreaking information. Quite the contrary, it's common knowledge Ashe is going through a lot as the story progresses. Lastly, when the fuck did Vaan become a pensive philosopher? In a previous scene at Rabanastre, we saw him acting like a buffoon. Now the game wants us to believe he's a tragic figure worthy of sympathy‽

I would like to nominate Vaan as having the most punchable face in all of video games.
I would like to nominate Vaan as having the most punchable face in all of video games.

But even so, Ashe approaches Larsa and eventually accepts his proposal. After joining your party as a guest, he plots out your trek to Mt Bur-Omisace. It is at this point I told the game to "go fuck itself." Without a doubt, the journey to Mt Bur-Omisace is the biggest pile of shit you will experience in Final Fantasy XII. Before reaching the next story moment, you complete SIX interstitial gameplay sequences. To add insult to injury, of these six levels, two of them involve the Ozmone Plain, and another is a second run through the wretched Golmore Jungle. The designers couldn't even be bothered to make new environments for their transitional sequences!

Usually, Final Fantasy games have the common courtesy of grafting character arcs when exploring transitional levels. Over the next SIX HOURS, all the game provides is Fran's origin story and some early hints of Balthier's past. THAT'S IT! And let me tell you, it doesn't help Fran's character arc is HOT GARBAGE! Even then, it's one moment in a six to seven-hour slog! Besides, as I mentioned earlier, none of these levels are especially memorable. I double dog dare you to name a single notable event at the Ozmone Plain, Golmore Jungle, or Paramina Rift.

Hot Tip: In the Zodiac Edition Larsa uses your fucking potions and you need to turn off his Gambits to prevent him from wasting your money.
Hot Tip: In the Zodiac Edition Larsa uses your fucking potions and you need to turn off his Gambits to prevent him from wasting your money.

Above all, the story's pacing is heinous during its middle act, and I blame the game's MMORPG sensibilities. With massive open world dungeons plaguing a whole third of the game, Final Fantasy XII loses sight of its heritage. Because the developers feel obligated to remind the player of the Gambit and License systems, grinding DEFINES whole HOURS of your time. As a result, unless you like MMORPG loot-grind gameplay hooks, Final Fantasy XII is a chore to play! As someone who enjoys experiencing role-playing games for their stories, I cannot help but view most of this game as a bummer.

I cannot preface this enough: Final Fantasy XII is supposed to be a role-playing game. I get role-playing can take various forms, but Final Fantasy XII never commits itself to any individual approach all the way. Even in MMORPGs quest givers often clue you into pages upon pages of lore. For fuck's sake, I could name you dozens of World of Warcraft NPCs because they had hour-long origin stories. Which leads me to my next point: Final Fantasy XII has the structure of an MMORPG, but with none of the upside. Quest givers are soulless automatons whose single utility is to hand away trinkets and spells. Even more, the NPCs never feel invested in the events of the story. At no point does Montblanc and his bullshit hunts feel connected with the greater narrative.

AW FUCK! WHY?! WHY WOULD ANY ONE MAKE THE NEXT LOCATION THIS FAR AWAY?!
AW FUCK! WHY?! WHY WOULD ANY ONE MAKE THE NEXT LOCATION THIS FAR AWAY?!

Maybe you subscribe to the belief Final Fantasy XII's appeal lies in its gameplay rather than its story. As I say, to each their own, but even in that regard, I think Final Fantasy XII is incredibly flawed. When waltzing through the gameplay-focused environments rarely do you feel you need to act with urgency. Instead, fighting enemies slows the game to a crawl. While grinding has its place, it's rarely a compelling number one option. Consequently, the gameplay is in constant contrast to the fast and hard-hitting nature of the story and vice-versa. In the end, I cannot help but call Final Fantasy XII a video game "Chimera."

Yes, Final Fantasy XII is a beautiful and awe-inspiring video game. Nonetheless, that does not change the fact it feels artificial. Playing the game and making progress with its systems feels arbitrary and inorganic. The story forces character moments down your throat and with no rhyme or reason. Pacing issues continually plague the narrative, and the set pieces are poorly spaced out. None of these complaints are meant to suggest I hate Final Fantasy XII, but hot damn does the game make it difficult to love it. Just as I start to get invested in the world or characters, something pulls me out of the experience. It is on that note I end this blog. Next time we meet, I will cover Fran's homecoming and the tumultuous events at Mt Bur-Omisace.

It's not funny how much better the story gets when you spend more time with the Judges.
It's not funny how much better the story gets when you spend more time with the Judges.
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I Played 30+ Hours Of Video Games For Charity, Here's What I Learned!

Preamble

I remember it like it was yesterday....
I remember it like it was yesterday....

Three weeks have passed since the ninth edition of the Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run. Since the event's conclusion, the GBCER team has raised $12,576 for Pencils of Promise. For me in particular, I managed to collect $2,568 of my original goal of $2,500. As such, I feel safe in saying the event as a whole was a resounding success. The Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run is, after all, a grass-roots charity event where most donations come from the family and friends of team members, instead of thousands of generous denizens of the internet. However, and this note doubly applies to me, the Giant Bomb Community helped several team-members achieve their fundraising goals.

It's not my job to bestow awards or special commendations to those who donated or participated in the event. I can, however, issue a great deal of personal gratitude to those who helped the event reached its emotional highs. For one, a hearty "thanks" is in store for @thatpinguino. The man assembled an army of helpers who made the event possible. Were it not for his organizational skills, the event itself would have died many years ago. Gino, I thank you for continuing to move the GBCER in a positive direction, and here's to next year's effort!

Likewise, I would like to congratulate everyone who participated. I want to thank Pat Baer for joining the event as his singing skills were a treat on the event's final day. Then there are the countless community members who spent hours of their time streaming. Whether it be @jeffrud torturing himself with ASMR videos; @riostarwind reminding me of the games of my childhood; @zandravandra impressing with their artistic skills; @nickieroonie playing a game using their feet; everyone played a critical role in keeping the event running over three long but fruitful days. There are of course many more streamers and participants who put their heart and soul into the event and deserve some form of praise or emotional support. Thank you for everything you did, and hopefully, we can continue to make this event something "special."

That leads me to the topic of this specific blog: what in the world did I learn? Over three days, I managed to squeeze approximately thirty-one hours of streaming content out of the empty husk of my body. That's a lot of time playing video games for the internet's entertainment! What lessons did I pull from my gaming sessions? What future blogs do I have planned? Which games do I envision playing later in the year? Without further ado, let's address all these questions and more!

Day #1: Star Wars: Empire at War

Overall Playtime: 6:34:40

When I first envisioned streaming video games, this is what I had in mind. On one end, there's the player, streaming something they can talk about authoritatively. Then, there's the audience, which functions as an open-minded repository of questions. That's what I got out of my Empire at War stream, and I couldn't be any happier. It goes without saying, other games on my schedule had more ambitious endeavors; that doesn't make my time with Empire at War any less worthwhile. There's nothing quite like playing a game, and meeting up with strangers and civilly debating the merits of other sources of entertainment. It is both a humbling and a relaxing endeavor.

To the game itself, I have finally come around to the idea of EA needing to make another Star Wars RTS game. I realize it would pose a variety of financial risks for EA and Disney, but I believe those risks would be well worth it. The genre is still in a bit of a "recovery period" wherein only a few studios (i.e., Creative Assembly or Paradox Interactive) are willing to give the genre a shot. However, Star Wars lends itself perfectly to grand strategy, and the brand as a whole has been making a literal killing out of the CCG and miniature markets. If EA wants a game that gives them full permission to tack on exploitative DLC, they are in good company with the current RTS landscape, but for pity's sake make a new video game!

In terms of "learning"' from this stream, I pulled one major lesson. Streams that relax the soul and spirit are best served as bookends rather than introductions. A "relaxing" stream where I talk about my love for Star Wars, honestly should have been how I ended my time with the GBCER. Instead, I got pulled into some anime horseshit that melted my brain and scarred me for the rest of my life — more details about that latter.

Day #2: Final Fantasy XIII-2

Overall Playtime: 13:21:42

First and foremost, the Steam version of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a teeming dumpster fire. The game straight up does not work right out of the gate. For whatever reason, the PC port has a RAM saving protocol from its console releases. The result is the game crashes when it uses more than 2 GB of RAM, and on the PC version, you have to manually edit the executable. When the game allows you to enable sixteen levels of anti-aliasing and HD textures, you'll blow through that 2 GB cap within minutes. There's also a 4 GB patch Steam does not automatically download that you need to pull from Square-Enix's fucking website, and manually apply to the game's executable. I'm not fucking joking!

These points are all ignoring the game itself, which I found unmistakably "interesting." I would struggle to describe the game as objectively "good," but Final Fantasy XIII-2 is indisputably "memorable." For one thing, its story is a hot mess in the best way possible. The narrative jumbles together conflicting themes of destiny and time travel with unintentionally hilarious results. On top of that, parts of the story are downright incomprehensible. I am under the impression Serah and Noel are "time cops" that travel across centuries and "correct" blips in spacetime. Imagine, if you would, Cartoon Network's Time Squad, but with all the exaggerated elements of a romance novel. That is how Final Fantasy XIII-2 rolls, and it's AMAZING!

My gut-reaction of the gameplay is decidedly mixed. The game's open-ended structure is both its strongest attribute and the source of its dominant weaknesses. For example, when I opted to check out an optional timeline, I discovered an older Hope and was clued into the events leading up to the game's primary plotline. However, this specific pathway led me to a battle against Caius I was not ready for and ended up stuck trying to beat for the better part of an hour. Also, the game isn't clear about how it wants you to go about exploring its dozen or so branches. It presents its open-ended structure willy-nilly and expects you to piece things together. This back and forth prattle of mine is to suggest I am decidedly excited to play more of Final Fantasy XIII-2, but not as you may expect.

If I am allowed to talk about something off-topic, and I cannot imagine why not, it's my mother. For those who joined me when this stream went live you know at one point I called my mother as part of a "skit." Now I have to tell you; I was legitimately afraid about doing this on stream. As we all can attest, the internet is a fickle place, but you should know my mother is even more fickle. To my surprise, the bit went well. Furthermore, my mother loved interacting with the Giant Bomb community. I have no idea if this means she'll create an account, which is a prospect that would probably spell my undoing, but she's made her feelings on the matter known.

Day #3: Hatoful Boyfriend

Playtime: 11:27:37

Twelve hours. I played Hatoful Boyfriend for twelve hours. Fuck me. What the fuck was I even thinking when I put this game on my docket? This shit was only meant to last six hours, and it ended up clocking in at about twelve hours. The amount of time I spent playing Hatoful Boyfriend almost matched the time I spent playing Final Fantasy XIII-2! And the worst part is I don't know if it was worth it. All I do know is I will never be the same person since playing Hatoful Boyfriend's "Bad Boys Love" ending.

Let's start things off by addressing why I played as much of this game as I did. In what I can only describe being my first tactical error, I wiped my saves and played half of the standard romance options as part of my stream. So far, this isn't a problem in and of itself. In fact, this portion of the session was the most fun to play. The standard endings run a hilarious gambit of pure-comedy to abject horror. However, all good things come to an end, and when I finally booted up the "Bad Boys Love" ending, I was a solid four hours into my original allotment of six. Thus, the beginning of my end presented itself.

Having not done the proper amount of research about Hatoful Boyfriend's "secret ending," I was not aware it was an eight chapter story arc that took as much time to complete as every storyline before it combined. That's right, a secret ending in Hatoful Boyfriend, is longer than the proper game. What the fucking fuck is that about? Worse, the Bad Boys Love ending has multiple gameplay sequences where you can die! Luckily for me, I was playing with a handy guide. Without it, I have no idea how I would have dealt with the two times when the game becomes a JRPG. Then there's the bit where the game attempts its best impression of a BioWare-styled dialogue system.

What I was also not prepared for was the amount of content nowhere else present in the game. I'm not joking, there are entire locations, art assets, musical tracks, and characters that are only present in the Bad Boys Love ending. Even more bizarre, the level of craft and care in the storytelling of the Bad Boys Love ending far exceeds anything seen in the base game. It's also worth noting the Bad Boys Love ending presents the meaning of Hatoful Boyfriend's title, and its reason for existing. To think, most people's impressions of this game is that it is a silly dating game and nothing else. I can't help but think of that as a lost opportunity.

And to further add to the craziness, the Bad Boys Love ending is shockingly depressing. Characters meet untimely ends, and what sets the story into motion seems like something pulled from a David Fincher film. I do not want to suggest I regret playing this game, but the game went places, and I do not know if that is a good or bad thing. On top of that, the secret ending keeps going! In an almost Bad Boys 2 level of craziness the game appears as if it is about to end, and yet it keeps on going for an extra hour! One thing is evident to me today; at some point, I will need to write a blog about Hatoful Boyfriend that examines it under a microscope. I guess you should look forward to that at some point later in the year? Also, @thatpinguino needs to FINISH HIS PLATE AND PLAY THIS RIGHT NOW!

What Did I Learn?

That is the "million dollar question." Well, for one, I plan to continue with my customarily scheduled tomfoolery with the Final Fantasy franchise. If anything, after a discussion with jeffrud, I think it is high time Gino and I give The Spirits Within a watch. It's time, and I think I'm ready for it. Likewise, I'm starting to develop an increasing interest for the Final Fantasy supporting games. I would much rather play Type-0 or Dirge of Cerebus instead of Final Fantasy XV. I know that sounds shitty, but that's where I stand at this point regarding the franchise. I would rather play "failures" from the past than moderate hits of the present.

The success of my Hatoful Boyfriend stream has me more flummoxed. Hatoful Boyfriend is almost in a class of itself. The select few VNs that do have twists and turns are self-aware enough that they lack the impact of Hatoful Boyfriend. And before anyone asks, I'm NOT playing anything from Winged Cloud. I have limits and playing poorly translated anime trash is where I draw the line. Regardless, I have time to find something that "tickles my fancy," and if you have any suggestions, I am all ears.

Finally, I have to say I had a fun time even in spite of my occasional missteps. It was great talking to people both new and old while playing a handful of video games. To everyone who watches my yearly amateur exercises in streaming video game content, I'm sorry I cannot provide more opportunities like this throughout the year. However, you have my assurances that, at the very least, I will be back next year. Until then, peace!

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