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.
20 Comments

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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13 Hours Of Misery: I'm Playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 For Thirteen Hours Straight... But This Time FOR CHARITY! (UPDATED)

TL;DR: Here's a link to my charity page. If you donate you will help to make my 12 hour livestream even more entertaining. Small donations are appreciated, and please spread the word if you can!

Introduction

No Caption Provided

Hello everyone, and it is that time of the year again! That's right; it is time for me to play a ridiculous amount of a Final Fantasy game in the name of charity! And good GOD is my plan this time around one of the worst I have ever conceived. Before we get to into that, let's review the Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run (i.e., GBCER). The Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run is a community-run spring-time charity event that raises money for Pencils of Promise. Pencils of Promise is a non-profit organization that builds schools, trains teachers, and provides access to clean water in developing countries. They are a 501(c)(3) charity, and all donations go to support their services and not their overhead.

But let's spend more time talking about my plans on raising money for this great cause. For those of you who have followed my previous GBCER follies, you know I have a habit of giving the people what they want. Usually, this means playing hours upon hours of Final Fantasy games. Well, this year I decided to change things up. For the sake of my sanity, I have set aside time for a few non-Final Fantasy based games. However, you have my assurances these streams will be as entertaining as my usual fare! So, without further ado, let's jump into the madness!

April 12th - (6 Hours of Streaming) [6 p.m. to 12 p.m.]

  • Game: Star Wars: Empire at War - Thrawn’s Revenge [Total Conversion Mod]
  • Donation Incentive: Star Wars "Story Time"
  • Minimum Amount: $15
I promise, this is as cool as it looks!
I promise, this is as cool as it looks!

On Friday I plan to ease into the Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run with a game I know like the back of my hand: Star Wars: Empire at War. To spice things up a bit, I'll be playing a total conversion mod for the game. This mod, Thrawn's Revenge, allows you to choose one of eight playable factions and embark upon on a galactic campaign spanning 80+ planets. To better share the modification's excellent "Era System," I'll be playing as the Imperial Remnant, and if things go according to plan, I should be able to beat the game during the Dark Empire era. This endpoint should be fun as the Eclipse-class Super Star Destroyers are a sight to behold.

To me, RTS games are the perfect gaming "comfort food" after a hard day of work. In the case of Empire at War, the game can be paused for in-depth conversations about lore and mechanics. Likewise, unlike the game I will be playing on Saturday, I feel I can talk about Empire at War with authority. Not only do I know the game's content by heart, but I have memorized quite a few of the game's glitches and exploits. It would be my honor if you joined me during my stream, and an even greater honor if you could see why I love this game unconditionally. If you enjoyed my write-up from a few weeks ago about Empire at War, and are curious to learn more about it, then this is an excellent opportunity for you!

The donation incentive here is relatively straight forward. If you donate $15 or more, you can ask any question related to Star Wars, and I will answer it during the stream. If you ask your question before the start of the event, I will research the answer and share the results in as much detail as possible. Do you want to know more about Chewbacca's death in the original Expanded Universe? Or how about a lecture on the biology of Twi'leks? Did you know Luke Skywalker once fell in love with a ghost that possessed one of his Jedi padawans? For a measly $15 you could understand the answers to all of these questions! As long as your prompts are NOT morally reprehensible, and avoid swearing on my PoP page, I will answer anything you ask!

April 13th - (12+1 Hours of Streaming) [9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (possibly 10:30 p.m.)]

  • Game: Final Fantasy XIII-2
  • Donation Incentive #1: Reaching 100% of the fundraising goal results in me playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 an extra hour!
  • Donation Incentive #2: Food-based tomfoolery, see table below.
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!

Good Lord, what am I getting myself into this time? Well, I guess in some sadistic way, this stream was unavoidable. I have played Final Fantasy games for charity before, and these streams have been monumentally successful in raising money for Pencils of Promise. To cut to the chase and because I am not the smartest kid on the block, I plan to play Final Fantasy XIII-2 for twelve hours straight. More importantly, as I have yet to finish my series on Final Fantasy XII, this playthrough is entirely BLIND! That's right; everything I see and interact with during the stream will be my first impression. If what people have told me about this game is correct, then I should be in for a "treat."

Honestly, I have no idea what I am getting myself into with this stream. Playing twelve hours of any game is a daunting task, but Final Fantasy XIII-2 seems to operate on a different level. Speaking of which, if there is one thing you can help me with, it's extending the length of this stream. While the food-based donation incentives, which I will detail in the next paragraph, are fun in their own right, I am also willing to extend my overall play-time an extra hour. However, I am only going to do this if I reach 100% of my fundraising goal before the end of my Saturday stream. Last year, I set up a similar donation incentive and was able to achieve my goal halfway into my Saturday stream, and I hope to accomplish that this year as well! Also, extending the stream an extra hour provides several of you in different time-zones an additional opportunity to join the fun!

Nevertheless, every year I have some food-based donation incentive to keep things entertaining. Last year I threatened to poison myself with expired halibut, and the year before that I ate approximately twenty Vienna Sausages. The less said about the latter of these two, the better. Regardless, this year is no different from previous ones, but this time around, I decided to export the responsibilities of developing my incentives to someone else, namely @thatpinguino. Fun fact, thatpinguino is an avid vegetarian, and I asked him to select foods and beverages that are "healthy" to the average human body. Moreover, you should know I am not the biggest fan of vegetables. So, without further ado, here are the incentives:

Donation Incentives

Difficulty

Food

% Of Goal Needed

Super Easy

Jeni’s Ice Cream

5%

Easy

Bell Pepper with hummus

10%

Easy

Avocado (with a pit)

20%

Easy

Mango

30%

Easy-Medium

Raw Fennel (one bulb)

40%

Easy-Medium

Pomegranate

50%

Medium

Horned melon

60%

Medium

Tofu silken

70%

Medium

One Raw Radish

80%

Medium-Hard

Raw Beet (THIS WILL NOT BE COOKED! I am literally going to bite into a raw beet like it is an apple!)

85%

Hard

Ten Pistachios(This is hard because I will have to play the game while attempting to open the pistachios)

90%

Hard-Super Hard

Aloe Drink (The entire bottle must be consumed in less than ten minutes)

95%

DEVIL HARD

Three leaves of Raw Kale

100%

Admittedly, some of these donation incentives may come as a surprise to any "normal" human being. For example, some of you may be batting an eye at the notion of me eating a raw bell pepper, or slicing up a mango. In each of those cases, I have only had their cooked or dried counterparts, respectively. More important, and if I can be perfectly frank with you, there are a few fundraising goals I am genuinely afraid of doing on stream. For one, eating raw beets sounds like the worst thing in the world. Alternatively, playing a game with one hand, and opening pistachios with the other, sounds downright impossible. But what has me shaking in my boots the most has to be the final donation incentive. Even thatpinguino, a professional plant-eater, hates the taste of raw kale! No matter, as long as it is for a good cause, I'm willing to try anything once.

April 14th - (6 hours) 11 am to 5 pm

  • Game: Hatoful Boyfriend - More Specifically the Bad Boys Love Ending
  • Donation Incentive: Hatoful Boyfriend dramatic reading - The highest bidder can select any storyline in the game, and I will do a dramatic reading of that storyline.
One cannot
One cannot "prepare" for Hatoful Boyfriend's secret ending. It simply happens, and it cannot "un-happen."

With my final stream, I plan to correct what I consider to be one of the greatest injustices in Visual Novel history. That's right, I'm playing Hatoful Boyfriend, and more specifically, I will be playing the game's "Secret Ending!" For those who know what I am talking about, my Sunday stream will showcase Hatoful Boyfriend's "Bad Boys Love" arc, in other words, the Hurtful Boyfriend storyline. If you have no idea what I am talking about, then I IMPLORE YOU to watch my stream! If your only impressions of Hatoful Boyfriend are "silly" anime nonsense with pigeons, then buckle up, because you are about to have your mind blown!

I am hosting this specific stream for a few reasons. First, this stream has the most straightforward donation incentive. Whoever bids the highest, with a Hatoful Boyfriend request, will get a storyline of their choice dramatically "acted" out for their entertainment. Just pick any romanceable option, and I will do my best to entertain you. Second, I want more people to know about this game's secret ending. Despite the game's heavy media coverage when it initially launched on Steam, no one in the game press covered what I consider to be the game's heart and soul. That is to say; the "Bad Boys Love" arc is the whole reason for the game existing in the first place.

While the Bad Boys Love arc starts no differently to the base game, things take an unusual turn when the game's protagonist complains of headaches and retires to bed early. The following day, the female lead is nowhere to be seen, and the player assumes the role of one of her romanceable options, Ryouta. Ryouta explores his surroundings in hopes of finding the protagonist and eventually stumbles upon a box lying in the middle of a hallway. When he opens the package, he discovers the SEVERED HEAD OF THE PROTAGONIST! The game then turns into a murder mystery, similar to Umineko When They Cry, and several of the characters from the main story are murdered one at a time. To make matters worse, Ryouta is pursued by a bloody scarecrow monster while trying to get to the bottom of the murders. If you wish to learn more about Hatoful Boyfriend's insane dark turn, then feel free to join me, and donate if you can!

Final Word

Hopefully, you can see how ambitious my plan is for this year's Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run! I truly wanted to add more variety to my streams to allow more people to join the fun! My current fundraising goal is $1,500, and that's only a little more than what I raised last year. Part of my reasoning is I WANT to showcase all of my donation incentives during my streams. In the end, I want you to know all about my love for Star Wars and laugh as I toil away at Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Finally, if my blogs or works of writing have ever entertained you, please show your support, however you can. Small donations as little as a few dollars can go a LONG WAY during these sorts of events! Even more, PLEASE spread the word to any communities, friends, or family members who might be interested in supporting Pencils of Promise. If you have a social media account, or another forum you partake in, just mentioning these types of events does more good than you could ever imagine! Finally, watch the streams when you can, and drop a comment on Twitch or the Explosive Runs chatroom when things go live! Until then, here are some links on how you can show your support!

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Thirteen Years Later, Empire At War's Mod Community Is STILL The Best Representation Of The Old Star Wars EU

Preamble

Oh Star Wars. How can I miss you if you never go away?
Oh Star Wars. How can I miss you if you never go away?

Hello everyone, and this week we are doing something "different." Instead of continuing my self-flagellation with the Final Fantasy franchise, I decided to take a much-needed break. This week I elected to tap into one of my "true" obsessions in life, the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The impetus for this blog is simple, a few weeks ago Disney announced they were launching a new batch of Star Wars comics set in the "Legends" timeline. For those "not in the know," the term "Legends" applies to all formerly canonical storylines before Disney purchased LucasArts. Some of the most popular story arcs include the Thrawn trilogy, Operation Shadow Hand, the Yuuzhan Vong Wars, Jacen Solo's fall to the Dark Side, and Natasi Daala's rise to power. For fans of the original Expanded Universe, it was an exciting announcement, and one met with universal praise.

However, and I lament we have to address this matter before continuing, I do not despise the current batch of Disney movies. While I have a few misgivings about The Last Jedi, I would be hard-pressed to declare it objectively "bad." It's a fun romp for a new generation, and the minds in charge of the franchise should be allowed to experiment with the series' formula. Simply put, I don't refer to the Disney films in mocking tones. To me, doing so comes across as biting the hand that feeds you. Even more, Disney has thrown quite a few bones to dedicates fans like us. In fact, several of our favorite Legends characters have returned to the Star Wars canon! Speaking of which, let's run down a few examples:

  1. Admiral Thrawn is back thanks to Star Wars: Rebels. Other Star Wars Legends characters like Gilad Pellaeon have joined him as well.
  2. Disney tapped Timothy Zahn to write a new trilogy of Thrawn novels, and he's mostly in charge of the current Star Wars Expanded Universe.
  3. As mentioned earlier, Marvel Comics is launching a new series set in the Legends timeline.
  4. Several Marvel characters are back in the canon thanks to a variety of Easter Eggs. That includes Jaxxon, the motherfucking rabbit!
  5. The Black Sun played a significant role in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. Additionally, the Zann Consortium has been referenced in official Star Wars novelizations.
  6. Valance the Hunter is canonical, and he's still a badass!
  7. Ancient pre-KOTOR conflicts like the Hundred-Year Darkness and Great Hyperspace Wars are canonical.
  8. If you like the Old Republic era of Star Wars, then it may comfort you to know that Darth Bane is canon, and he's a cool looking samurai.
  9. Several Star Wars video game characters are canonical. The most prominent example is Dash Rendar who appeared in the novelization of the Halo Solo standalone film.
  10. Finally, and this is a "BIG ONE," the Yuuzhan Vong are back in the canon! This time around they are called the "Grysk," but Timothy Zahn describes them as having "sloping foreheads and skull-like faces."

Hopefully, all this prattle shows that it is an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan. But, what in the world does any of this rambling have to do about Star Wars: Empire at War? Well, when I heard they were rebooting Marvel's Star Wars comic line, I decided to give Empire at War another shot. Unfortunately, with the game and its expansion pushing fourteen years, I found its engine and pathfinding to be "wanting." I wouldn't say the game is "horrible," but instead an artifact from a by-gone era. Likewise, the ground battles in Empire at War are, and always have been, a major sore point. They are sluggish, hard to manage, and no fun to play. Luckily for all involved, the modding community for Empire at War is as active today as when the game launched!

This looks a lot cooler that it is to play.
This looks a lot cooler that it is to play.

Today I will be looking at FOUR total conversion mods in hopes of being able to share my Star Wars fandom, and personal feelings about each modification. This blog is in NO WAY a complete representation of what is out there for Empire at War. For fuck's sake, there's a modification that recreates the Halo universe and another that pits the world of Dr. Who against Stargate. As I said, the community here is surprisingly active! If you own Empire at War on Steam, you will find many of these mods on the game's "Workshop" page. Similarly, I encourage all of you to give the game a try especially if you enjoy classic RTS games.

Mod #1: New Jedi Order Compilation Mod v0.7

I will warn you, the EaW mod community has terrible taste in typefaces.
I will warn you, the EaW mod community has terrible taste in typefaces.

Time and time again, I have argued there are two types of Star Wars Legends fans. There are those who say the Yuuzhan Vong represents too significant a continuity break from the original series. On the other hand, there are those who like "fun." Honestly, the post-Endor Star Wars storylines are among my favorite in the Legends timeline. Ignoring when Luke fell in love with a ghost, or anything involving the Sun Crusher, this era is a treasure trove of enthralling and charming characters. Which leads us to the Yuuzhan Vong, a much-needed addition to the standard Star Wars formula. Similar to a prescription of insoluble fiber, the skeletal warriors from another galaxy offed consistent legacy characters, thus allowing the Legends cast to stand on their laurels in future story arcs.

When you stop and think about it, it's SHOCKING how poorly represented the New Jedi Order arc is in video games. The entire storyline came from R. A. Salvatore and was a perfect fit for virtually any genre! You could go the RTS route due to the series' emphasis on warfare and tactics, or the action-adventure route due to the inclusion of several self-contained origin stories. Equally important, the New Jedi Order had an uncanny ability to make even the most benign footsoldier a character worth following. Maybe you don't know who Finn Galfridian is, but I do, and he's a true hero! And if there's one thing the New Jedi Order Compilation Mod does right, it's the inclusion of virtually every possible significant figure from this era.

Speaking of which, the New Jedi Order Compilation Mod is a complete celebration of the Yuuzhan Vong War. There are other scenarios you can simulate, such as the ones involving the Ssi-ruuvi Imperium and the Empire of the Hand. These campaigns provide bite-sized maps that pit two factions against each other, thus allowing you to learn its mechanics better. These are all well and good, but the real appeal of this mod lies in the campaigns that tackle the Yuuzhan Vong War. From the get-go, things appear as they should seem. When playing as the New Republic, you manage a militarized government struggling to keep itself together. The Yuuzhan Vong, on the other hand, gain an early lead thanks to a deluge of powerful biotechnological warships. The attention to detail by the authors is impressive, and to think they worked within the game's limited toolset is an even more stunning feat.

This screencap is to all ten of you Star Wars fans that know the advantages of the Bulwark Mark IIIs over the MC80 Star Cruiser.
This screencap is to all ten of you Star Wars fans that know the advantages of the Bulwark Mark IIIs over the MC80 Star Cruiser.

Additionally, this mod leaves virtually no stone unturned. For example, it features the most exhaustive list of recruitable heroes of any of Empire at War's mods. Almost every member of the Hapan Dynasty is represented, as well as fan-favorites like Garm Bel Iblis. Likewise, every conceivable New Jedi Order era-specific starship is represented. Whether it be the diverse fleet of the Yuuzhan Vong or the laughable TYE-Wing, everything you could imagine is here. If there is one nitpick worth mentioning, it is the textures of the Yuuzhan Vong starships. Their unit models seem like low-poly versions of everything else in the game.

Unfortunately, the historical accuracy of this mod leads to its most pressing issue: it is flat out impenetrable for newcomers. Simply put, if you do not know your shit, you are doomed. By design, none of the "normal" Star Wars icons exist anywhere in the game. Those only familiar with the movies will struggle to play along with the game's rock-paper-scissors mechanic. Everyone knows their A-Wings and X-Wings, but to be successful here, you are going to need to know your E-Wings, V-Wings, and K-Wings. On top of that, the optimal build paths for the factions are not clearly defined unless you know its reference material by heart. This problem is worse for factions such as the Yuuzhan Vong which require a lot of trial and error, but I bet plenty would struggle to remember this era of the New Republic was building Bulwark Mark IIIs instead Mon Calamari MC80s.

Verdict: Despite these misgivings, I would recommend people check this mod out for the pure novelty factor. If you are a huge Star Wars Legends fan, it is one of the only video game representations of the New Jedi Order.

Mod #2: Awakening of the Rebellion 2.6 & 2.7.1

Some things never change....
Some things never change....

If instead of a faithful recreation of the fringes of the Star Wars Legends timeline, you would rather play a fun rendition of familiar territory, look no further than Awakening of the Rebellion. This mod takes the base game and ramps it up to eleven. It adds new heroes, planets, and story missions to vanilla EaW. On top of that, the author's included the Black Sun as a playable faction. Honestly, I prefer the maps that exclusively pit the Rebellion against the Empire, but I am aware plenty enjoyed playing as the Zaan Consortium in Forces of Corruption. If that is you, then you'll undoubtedly enjoy controlling the Black Sun under the ward of the legendary crime lord, Xizor.

While on the surface it may appear to be a reskin of vanilla Empire at War, the opposite is true. Awakening of the Rebellion adds an abundance of new content while also fixing one of the most pressing issues with the base game. The main problem I have with vanilla Empire at War is the playable nations begin to lose their distinct qualities in later eras. Mercifully, that is not the case in Awakening of the Rebellion. Here, the Rebels always utilize hit and run tactics to divide the Empire's enormous fleet and employ its bevy of heroes. Correspondingly, the Empire needs to pool its resources to plan top-heavy invasions while also organizing pitched battles elsewhere. The result is Awakening of the Rebellion plays out like a game of intergalactic chess.

As mentioned earlier, I much prefer the maps that pit the Rebellion against the Empire. Not only do these scenarios better lend themselves to Awakening of the Rebellion's roleplaying sensibilities, but they also provide a more tactical experience. When the Rebellion goes toe-to-toe against the Imperial Navy, they have to rely on their starfighters to counter larger Star Destroyer models. Whereas Imperial players have to shore up their finances to churn out a disposable, yet endless, fleet of dreadnaughts. Additionally, the heroes perfectly fit the needs of their respective factions. The Empire has a team of Admirals and Field Marshals that reinforce their armada. On the other hand, the Rebels utilize a diverse mix of scoundrels, generals, pilots, and political leaders.

Be warned, Awakening of the Rebellion retains much of the ship design from vanilla EaW.
Be warned, Awakening of the Rebellion retains much of the ship design from vanilla EaW.

Furthermore, this mod, along with the next two we will talk about, features a surprising amount of production values. Not only does it have a custom made opening story crawl, but there are user-made cutscenes as you progress the campaign. Moreover, each faction has a suit of story missions that guide your progression on the galactic map. While these serve to throw in a bit of storytelling flair, they also oversee the player's progress, thus making the mod more accessible. The consequence is the single-player campaign takes some "liberties" with the Star Wars canon. For example, the Imperials can recruit Thrawn to prevent the destruction of the second Death Star. Which, now that I think about it, is more of a positive than a negative.

If there is one black mark against this mod, it is its inclusion of the Black Sun as a playable faction. Xizor and his Leia kidnapping escapades sucked back in the day, and they suck now. More fundamentally, the Black Sun employs the groan-inducing "corruption mechanic" from the Forces of Corruption expansion pack. It's a fun feature to use when you can take advantage of it, but it is a colossal pain in the ass if you are on the receiving end. In summary, corruption allows certain factions to siphon credits, steal technology, and bypass enemy defenses when invading opposing planets. As such, it's a handful to deal with, and only a select few hero units can remove it from the map.

Verdict: This mod is a "MUST OWN" and is a fantastic gateway mod to other community offerings related Empire at War.

Mod #3: Republic at War

Now things are going to ramp up a bit.
Now things are going to ramp up a bit.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones is a low point for the Star Wars franchise. To many, myself included, it represents everything wrong with the Star Wars prequels. The sad thing is the supporting media for Attack of the Clones is more than decent. Whether it be Genndy Tartakovsky's animated micro-series or the criminally underrated 2008 Clone Wars TV show, the actual Clone Wars have provided fans with streams of memorable moments, storylines, and characters. Ahsoka Tano immediately comes to mind, and she's by far one of my favorite Star Wars Expanded Universe characters.

Which leads us to Republic at War, a total conversion mod for Empire at War that attempts to recreate the Clone Wars. This mod, unlike the others on this blog, is entirely a one vs. one affair. Players can either control the Confederacy of Independent States (i.e., CIS) or the Galactic Republic. Each faction employs a myriad of heroes pulled from Star Wars Legends and canon. Again, anything that contains Ahsoka Tano gets my stamp of approval. On top of that, Republic at War takes a note from Awakening of the Rebellion and doubles down on the asymmetrical nature of both factions. The CIS, for example, takes advantage of a fleet of droids and swarms opponents via brute force. Finally, in terms of overall gameplay, the mod correctly emphasizes starfighters instead of massive dreadnaughts.

In a lot of ways, Republic at War reminds me of the board game, Memoir '44. Like several of the campaigns in Memoir '44, each faction has a different but viable pathway to victory. The CIS has an early technological advantage and needs to conquer planets from the get-go, or otherwise risk falling behind the Republic's military-industrial complex. The Republic, on the other hand, plays defensively for the first two eras before being able to counterattack the Confederacy's enormous number advantage. It takes some getting used to, but the result is an oddly compelling asymmetrical match of chess. However, the added benefit is you know the mindset of your opponent in every campaign.

Mace Windu is STILL a badass motherfucker.
Mace Windu is STILL a badass motherfucker.

Nonetheless, this sentiment is ignoring the dozens of hero units who can be significant game changers. While the Republic often struggles to stave off swarms of droids, the use of a few Jedi can quickly rectify that shortcoming. Likewise, the CIS can employ an array of bounty hunters who can discreetly assassinate the leaders of the Republic. The use of Star Wars icons and asymmetrical gameplay leads us to the best aspect of Republic at War. While certainly not on par with the final mod we will be examining, Republic at War features a faster and more cinematic experience than vanilla Empire at War.

Because you are controlling two entrenched factions gearing up for a war, there's no "dead time" where you and the AI spend hours assembling fleets. Indeed, massive naval battles and land invasions pop off within minutes of starting a campaign. Which oddly enough, leads us to the three most common complaints about Republic at War. The first being the Republic's Acclamator assault ships SUCK ASS, and I can confirm this to be the case! The second criticism relays the mod's faster tempo representing too much of a gameplay break from vanilla EaW. While I view this change as a net-positive, I have to admit there is a significant learning curve when transitioning to Republic at War. The final issue returns us to those heroes I mentioned earlier. Flat out, some of the heroes, especially the Jedi, are BROKEN!

Verdict: This mod is a "MUST OWN" for anyone who enjoyed the Clone Wars animated series and wants to relive that universe in an RTS.

Mod #4: Thrawn's Revenge: Imperial Civil War 2.2.5

Also, I hate to say it, but I prefer playing as the Imperial factions in all of these mods. I know, I'm
Also, I hate to say it, but I prefer playing as the Imperial factions in all of these mods. I know, I'm "Imperial Scum!"

Now it is time to tackle the "big daddy" of the Empire at War modding community. Thrawn's Revenge: Imperial Civil War is by far one of the most compelling user-created mods I have ever seen. Not only is this mod still being supported with updates, but it has an additional modding community that designs quality of life additions for Thrawn's Revenge. Thrawn's Revenge is an enormous total conversion mod that attempts and succeeds in recreating the entirety of the Star Wars Legends timeline from the Battle of Endor to the final moments before the Yuuzhan Vong War. There are eight playable factions and thirteen era-specific campaigns to enjoy. The smaller scenarios feature fan-favorite storylines such as the Bacta Wars from the X-Wing novels and Operation Shadow Hand from the Dark Empire comic series. These smaller scenarios provide more accessible starting points instead of the standard Galatic Campaign which features over one hundred planets.

Now if I am allowed to go on a bit of a tangent, I want to talk about Admiral Thrawn, the namesake of this mod, and why he's one of the best characters in Star Wars canon. While all you motherfuckers have been debating if The Last Jedi is "good," I am over here reminding everyone that Star Wars Rebels is the best thing to bear the franchise's name in ten years! A significant reason for this was the show's inclusion of Grand Admiral Thrawn as its antagonist from seasons three to five. For once, the Imperials felt like a threat not guided by plot convenience. It was a massive breath of fresh air to see a Star Wars villain outsmart the protagonists without the use of a super weapon. Finally, his meditative nature allowed Star Wars Rebels to embark upon its best storylines.

Thrawn's Revenge also adds HD textures to EaW, and you notice it almost immediately.
Thrawn's Revenge also adds HD textures to EaW, and you notice it almost immediately.

With that aside, let's talk about Thrawn's Revenge! This mod not only provides a total conversion of the Empire at War we know and love, but it also rehauls several of the base game's core mechanics. As mentioned earlier, the pace of the combat is faster than any rendition of Empire at War I have ever seen. From the start, the Imperial Remnant has Ysanne Isard blundering with her Executor-class Super Star Destroyer; the New Republic hits hard with several MC80 Home One types; Thrawn attacks from the Unknown Regions under the banner of the Empire of the Hand; all of the significant Imperial Warlords (i.e., Zsinj, Ardus Kane, and Blitzer Harrsk) are armed to the teeth. Consequently, Thrawn's Revenge reforms the overpowered nature of EaW's hero units. In this mod, if a hero dies in combat, they are permanently removed from the game.

Above all, this mod is a pure love letter to the Star Wars Legends timeline, as it allows you to live out power fantasies and "what if" scenarios in real-time. Equally impressive, each faction evolves as the match moves from one era to the next. The clearest example is the Imperial Remnant which juxtaposes from several disparate but interesting war philosophies and leaders. In one age you play under the careful tutelage of Grand Admiral Thrawn, and in the next, you steamroll with the cloned Emperor and two Eclipse-class Super Star Destroyers. And if you cannot win by then, don't worry, because Natasi Daala is waiting to lay waste on everything that stands before her. As you might suspect, how you play the game evolves in response to these timeline shifts, and in some cases, these are not insignificant changes.

There's no better feeling than springing a trap in an RTS.
There's no better feeling than springing a trap in an RTS.

It is worth mentioning some factions evolve more than others, but that adds to the fun. Nations such as the Pentastar Alignment or Zsinj's Empire have to win the game within the first two to three eras or otherwise risk becoming irrelevant in the late game. As such, whether you or the A.I. control them, these factions must go for broke right from the get-go. Other nations, such as the New Republic or Empire of the Hand need to play a careful waiting game until their best units unlock. At any rate, the mod's "Era System" rehauls Empire at War's tech-tree. The eras make the progression of time contingent on the player's actions rather than an arbitrary set of design criteria. There are still missions to complete, but you always feel like you have enough time to enjoy each era for as long as you would like.

My fawning should not be interpreted to mean Thrawn's Revenge is "perfect." Several of the new units have severe pathfinding issues, and the A.I. can be needlessly frustrating. Furthermore, several of the shorter scenarios run the gamut in quality. Some are resolved in a single session, and others require hours of careful planning. The mod also has a multiplayer feature, but unless you enjoy continually fighting Executor or Eclipse-class Super Star Destroyers, I would advise you to avoid it at all costs. Finally, there's a steep learning curve to Thrawn's Revenge due to it unpinning virtually everything you know about Empire at War. I think this is to the mod's benefit as I have always found vanilla Empire at War to be too slow and methodical for a Star Wars RTS, but it's worth mentioning. Even then, this is by far a MUST PLAY for anyone with even the slightest nostalgia for Star Wars. Virtually everything is here, and it is afforded a great deal of love and respect.

Verdict: This is one of the most significant total conversion mods I have ever seen. If you own a copy of Empire at War, you MUST play this mod right now! It's that good! It has Thrawn, Issard, Zsinj, and Daala! What's not to like?

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Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Episode 2: If This Game Is Basically Anime Star Wars, Why Don't I Like It More?

Author's Note: Episode 1: Why, Oh Why, Is Vaan The Protagonist?

Part 12: A Lot Of This Game Sure Does Look The Same

This is exactly how everyone should talk to Vaan during the story.
This is exactly how everyone should talk to Vaan during the story.

Level with me for a bit, Final Fantasy XII showcases a myriad of spectacular environments throughout its story. While not on par with Final Fantasy IX or X, it features a diverse assortment of memorable set pieces as the characters move from one plot beat to the next. Throughout your journey, you witness dozens of races and societies each with their own distinct culture. However, the game rarely uses these set pieces to its advantage. More often than not, your interactions with these environments devolve into grinding against trash mobs in caves and dungeons. I cannot help but view this structure as game design malfeasance.

Before anyone chimes in with a witty retort, I understand the Final Fantasy games are dungeon crawlers at heart. Nonetheless, previous entries in the series have done a better job about scaffolding worldbuilding while exploring even the most benign locations. Say what you will about the Cloisters in Final Fantasy X, but at least each of those felt like a treck through an alien world. Plus, they felt deeply integrated within the mythos of the narrative. With Final Fantasy XII, especially during its opening hours, the dungeons feel tacked on. In the first five hours, every underground environment appears to be a different permutation of the same desert-themed cave.

Unless you like
Unless you like "Earth Tones," I doubt you are jumping for joy over these dungeons.

This point highlights a significant disconnect that plagues large swaths of Final Fantasy XII. Which is to say, the environments do not lend themselves to the game's epic mood and tone. Take, for example, the scene following your dramatic escape from the Nalbina Dungeons. After navigating two sets of similar looking underground passageways, the game unceremoniously returns you to the Dalmasca Estersand. There's no pomp or circumstance, and the game drops you into this environment with no sense of where you need to go next. I understand the designers wanted to provide the player with "breathing room," but like many of its predecessors, Final Fantasy XII struggles during its transitional chapters.

Final Fantasy XII's juxtapositional issues worsen during its climactic bookends. For example, after you fight Judge Ghis, you are graced with an elongated fetch quest. Worse, this specific questline requires you to traverse through TWO open-world desert levels! Talk about knocking the wind out of your sails! Time and time again, this game doesn't use its eclectic mix of environments to reinforce its story. Quite the opposite, the settings feel like they are entirely in service of the gameplay.

Part 13: Why Does The Story Slow To A Crawl?

I bet y'all forgot about these oddly placed dream sequences involving Vaan!
I bet y'all forgot about these oddly placed dream sequences involving Vaan!

We now return to our regularly scheduled program at the Nalbina Dungeons. After Vaan awakens from his stupor, our plucky protagonist finds himself in a maximum security prison. Several of the dungeons' convicts disclose that no one has successfully escaped from the torturous complex. Of course, this point means we will miraculously find a way to break out within two hours. Nonetheless, I loved the worldbuilding found in this level. You discover it is a lower portion of Nalbina Fortress that the Imperials now use to house political dissidents. Several of the prisoners are guilty of offenses like running a resistance newspaper or sneezing at an inopportune time.

Furthermore, there are several fun character bits while you attempt an escape from the prison. The introduction of Basch is the bread and butter of the location, but there are other amusing moments to enjoy. Balthier maintains his usual swagger but shows his heart of gold when Vaan finds himself surrounded. Alternatively, the interplay between Balthier and Fran continues to be delightful. The two talk to each other respectfully and you understand they have a longstanding working connection. Which reminds me, I enjoy how most of the relationships do not require full-blown origin stories that absorb hours of your time. In this case, Fran and Balthier are friends and the details of how are not disclosed for the time being.

I fucking love Balthier so goddamned much!
I fucking love Balthier so goddamned much!

Speaking of which, I guess we need to talk about Fran. As you may recall, I have been punting sharing my thoughts about Fran and will continue doing so until we reach her homecoming at Eruyt Village. Until then, I will reiterate what I said in the previous episode. Fran's voice actor does an outstanding job, but her character model is rancid. Every time she is in a cutscene, the game cannot hesitate to zoom in on her bottom or chest. On top of that, she looks ridiculous. Who thought it was acceptable to have her running around in high heels and a bikini? Alternatively, the game takes its sweet-ass time to develop her relationship with Balthier which stagnates her character progression until the game's twilight hours.

On the other hand, Balthier is a consistent ray of sunshine. With your options limited; Balthier's cavalier attitude holds your attention as the story plods along. If there's one criticism to be had, it's Balthier's trope laden nature during the initial chapters. Specifically, the similarities between Balthier and Han Solo are too numerous to list. Moreover, while I appreciate the thought, Balthier too often takes the piss out of the other characters. The use of this trope is acceptable when Balthier is shit-canning Vaan. However, it's wholly inappropriate when Balthier tries to have the last word while Asche or Basch are attempting to brainstorm the party's next steps.

A wild Darth Vader appears!
A wild Darth Vader appears!

Which leads me to an issue: I think Final Fantasy XII overstays its welcome. Let's stop and look at why we are in the Nalbina Dungeons from a storytelling perspective. From that vantage point, we are here to pick up Basche and observe the Archadian Judges. Why in the world does the game force you through two distinct dungeons? Flat out, I HATED playing Final Fantasy XII from here to the Shiva. First, the forced grinding does nothing to build upon the tone of the story, nor does it reinforce our interest in the characters. Second, it causes large swaths of the game to screech to a halt. Later, after you escape the Shiva upon its self-implosion, you stomach through FIVE FUCKING open-world levels before any part of the mainline narrative kicks into gear. That is not pacing; that is Square not knowing how to string together a story!

Part 14: The First Dungeons Are A Massive Drag

Speaking about the dungeons, let's talk about them for a bit. They are long, tedious, and no fucking fun to play. More often than not, they are designed to bake grinding into the core of Final Fantasy XII. Enemies respawn, and most of the underground vaults feature multiple layers. In other words, it takes FOREVER to make even marginal progress. This problem is worse during the first hours of Final Fantasy XII because your available gambits and party compositions are limited. What is more, several of the jobs are hours away from being able to hold their own in combat.

Hey, maybe put the most wanted man in Ivalice under constant watch to prevent his escape? Just an idea!
Hey, maybe put the most wanted man in Ivalice under constant watch to prevent his escape? Just an idea!

To compound my frustrations, my struggles with several of the mechanics worsened. In case you were not aware, my party compositions are not exactly "perfect." If you want a reference, here they are:

  1. Ashe - Black Mage & Monk
  2. Balthier - Foebreaker & Shikari (Ninja)
  3. Basch - Archer & Red Mage
  4. Fran - Uhlan (Dragoon) & Time Mage
  5. Penelo - White Mage & Machinist
  6. Vaan - Samurai & Knight

I feel confident about my set-up for Vaan, Balthier, and Ashe. Unfortunately, everyone else is stuck with the leftovers. It's worth noting; I made some SIGNIFICANT blunders during my second gameplay session. First, I thought if you purchased weapon licenses, they would appear in the appropriate marketplaces. That is not the case, and as a result, several of my characters have weapon slots that will go unused for hours, if not, forever. Second, some of the license slots are utter gobbledygook. Seriously, what the fuck is "Green Magic?" When did that become a thing in Final Fantasy?

Just look at the equipment screen! Look at how busy it is!
Just look at the equipment screen! Look at how busy it is!

I mention my struggles in part because they highlight Final Fantasy XII's almost impenetrable nature. As I stated in the first blog, too much of this game feels like "Trial By Fire: The Video Game." The tutorials fail to review essential concepts and don't clue you into the possible pitfalls of your choices. The fact the game does not coherently warn you cannot reverse job assignments is one such example. Not to mention, the combat running in real-time makes learning on the fly all the harder. When in battle, I often struggled to overcome even the simplest mistakes. The unfortunate result is I have yet to play the game without feeling overwhelmed.

Now that you've listened to me rant let's discuss our motley crew's dramatic exit from the Nalbuiuna Dungeons. After Balthier saves Vaan's ass during a gladiatorial battle, they identify the presence of an Archadian Judge. Balthier surmises the appearance of this judge means Basch is somewhere nearby. After a bit of sleuthing, they discover Basch hanging in a cage. Once everyone trades barbs with Basch, they use the enclosure to crash to the basement of the dungeon. What ensues next is one of the most asinine dungeons in Final Fantasy history.

Oh boy, it's my favorite Final Fantasy trope! Switch puzzles in an underground dungeon!
Oh boy, it's my favorite Final Fantasy trope! Switch puzzles in an underground dungeon!

Good God, some of the dungeons in Final Fantasy XII are downright indomitable. The caves in the Barheim Passage are long, monotonous, and littered with respawning enemies. In other words: it's zero fun to play. It, unfortunately, follows a formula I know too well. Each location has a set of levers that need to be switched to alleviate an environmental barrier blocking the player's progress. On top of that, the level ends with a boss battle that feels entirely disconnected from the mainline story.

Worth mentioning, this location features our first mission involving Basch. It's supposed to be an exciting prison break, but you wouldn't know that from playing the game. Despite this fascinating premise, Final Fantasy XII whittles away your patience with endless amounts of grinding. Worse, there's no sense of stakes as you toil away in the inner depths of the prison. While most games implore you to escape a prison post-haste, Final Fantasy XII does no such thing. The only attempt to add some much-needed variety comes in the final level where players stop electricity eating monsters from turning the lights off. This "minigame," if we can even call it that, sucks shit.

Part 15: Let's Talk About Final Fantasy XII's Identity Crisis

Hooray! It's a new color palette to a dungeon level!
Hooray! It's a new color palette to a dungeon level!

What I find especially disappointing about Final Fantasy XII's early worldbuilding, is how inconsequential it feels. You spend the better part of an hour in the Nalbina Dungeons and Barheim Passage, but neither feels especially worthwhile. Sure, the central atrium of the prison underscores the harsh realities of Imperial rule, but it doesn't feel like an organic ecosystem. It, like most of the dungeons, is an immersion breaking reminder that you are playing a video game. In these scripted sequences, you don't learn about a long-forgotten culture or society. Most of the dungeons are designed to be in service of Final Fantasy XII's grind-heavy mechanics.

Regardless, after you defeat the Mimic Queen, the depths of the Barheim Passage begin to collapse. When everyone exits the cave unscathed, they discover they are in the middle of the Dalmasca Estersand. As they celebrate their newfound freedom, Balthier suggests they make the trek back to Rabanastre. At this point, the game opens up its world to the player. They can either return to Rabanastre or tend to other matters. It's during these "quiet moments" when the player can peruse side quests and optional locations, though, at this point in the story, their choices are limited.

I know this is a weird thing to ask, and this is the only screencap that shows it, but is Basch wearing a thong? I'm asking for a friend.
I know this is a weird thing to ask, and this is the only screencap that shows it, but is Basch wearing a thong? I'm asking for a friend.

Many an intellectual has debated the merits of calling Final Fantasy XII an "open world" game. I would err in calling it a half-measured step towards Final Fantasy XIV. This odd structure is why I think Final Fantasy XII has an "identity crisis." The game has a unique story the player has little to no agency in directing. Nonetheless, large swaths of your time consist of navigating vast expanses and attending to the needs of NPCs. As I continue to play Final Fantasy XII, it appears stuck between two distinct eras of Square-Enix. While the story opines for the epic fantasy storytelling from Square's past; the gameplay feels and plays like a failed MMORPG project.

Final Fantasy XII never seems to shake this apparent disconnect. This malady is why I think it drags significantly. The mainline story can only justify a thirty to forty-hour video game experience, but there's at least seventy-hours worth of gameplay in Final Fantasy XII. It's during these irrationally long journeys from one vast wasteland to the next when I felt the game's length. Rarely do the open-world sequences have an overt connection to the progression of the main story. That shit might fly in an MMORPG, but in a single-player RPG with a linear story, it leads to unbearable "dead time."

Aw, cool! I get to fight desert critters for the nineteenth million time! Thanks, game designers! (Also: Totally a thong!)
Aw, cool! I get to fight desert critters for the nineteenth million time! Thanks, game designers! (Also: Totally a thong!)

This structure is why I think Final Fantasy XII is in dire need of focus. If it wants to have an epic fantasy storyline, then everything in the world should reinforce that theme. If the game wants to revert the series to its job-focused roots, then the environments should play into mechanical experimentation. Unfortunately, Square-Enix tries to do both in Final Fantasy XII, and the results are "mixed." I struggle to get immersed in the narrative because it unfolds at a snail's pace. However, it is hard to enjoy the gameplay because everything feels like busywork.

Which leads me to another issue: the fact there's no experience point sharing in Final Fantasy XII is a consistent bummer. Why the game shares License Points between characters, but not experience points is one of life's greatest mysteries. Time and time again, I feel I have to rotate less optimized party members into the fold. This situation worsens with characters whose jobs have yet to gain access to essential weapons or items that make them worth a fuck in combat. The Ninja and Uhlan classes are the clearest examples, but even the magic-based jobs take FOREVER to bear fruit.

Part 16: Hooray! It's a New Environment! But Aw Shit, It Devolves Into Another Dungeon

Maybe it's just a weird looking codpiece, but I honestly cannot stop thinking about this shit now.
Maybe it's just a weird looking codpiece, but I honestly cannot stop thinking about this shit now.

We transition to another chapter of Final Fantasy XII's story. I will give credit where credit is due; Final Fantasy XII has plenty of great character moments. Balthier is the perfect foil to Basch, and Vaan is at his most tolerable when he's interacting with other cast members. When the script allows the characters to talk to one another, the world of Ivalice starts to shine. In these conversations, you learn more about the world and its current state of affairs. However, herein lies another problem: Final Fantasy XII's narrative is "busy."

To illustrate, the moment your party enters the gates of Rabanastre, they break up and the story fractures with them. When Vaan is left to think to himself, he endeavors to reconnect with Penelo but discovers pirates have kidnapped her. For the next chapter, rescuing Penelo is our objective. While this adventure plays out, the game inundates us with FOUR new plotlines on top of the general theme of ending the Imperial occupation. Those arcs include Basch needing to prove his innocence; Vaan squashing his beef with Basch; finding out a use for the recently acquired stone from the royal palace; reconnecting with "Amalia" and her Resistance. That's too much storytelling for an expertly crafted magnum opus, let alone a Final Fantasy game.

Final Fantasy XII, more than any Final Fantasy game I have played, manages to use its anime sensibilities for something good.
Final Fantasy XII, more than any Final Fantasy game I have played, manages to use its anime sensibilities for something good.

Above all, the writing does not commit enough to any of these individual story arcs. In particular, when Basch strikes up a conversation with Vaan, Vaan absolves him of his brother's death. At no point do we have a clear understanding of what tips Vaan into his change of heart, only that it happens and it cannot unhappen. Likewise, it is obvious the Resistance does not trust Basch given his interactions with Vossler. Nevertheless, Vossler and company tag along with Basch with nary a complaint. The worse is yet to come when Ashe suddenly accepts Basch into her movement after leveling a single charge of treason. These cases are examples of Square-Enix not fully understanding how to best move Final Fantasy XII's story from one point to the next.

No matter, after we tie up some loose ends, our company sets off for the "Skycity of Bhujerba." I want to clarify that I like Bhujerba and found it a refreshing change of pace in comparison to the desert wastelands from before. However, after a breathtaking introduction, your activities in the kingdom boil down to sleuthing through ANOTHER abandoned mining facility. I kid you not, after two GORGEOUS CG cutscenes, you hook up with Larsa, and toil away in a literal salt mine! Within five minutes of setting foot on Bhujerba, the game throws you into another gameplay loop!

I love how every cutscene shows magicite jutting from the ground, but you rarely see that when you explore the proper city.
I love how every cutscene shows magicite jutting from the ground, but you rarely see that when you explore the proper city.

Even more, Final Fantasy XII starts spewing a mountain of proper nouns. In this case, we discover Bhujerba is situated on top of the best "magicite" in all of Ivalice and is under the governance of a "Maquis." Larsa wants to visit the Lhusu Mines in a quest to find "manufactured nethicite." As he explains, magicite exudes magical energy, whereas nethicite absorbs it. We also discover the glowing stone Vaan picked up at the royal palace is "deifacted nethicite." What does any of this mean? I HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE! There are like ten magical MacGuffins in this game, and none of them make any sense!

All of this narrative nitpicking makes Final Fantasy XII's grind-heavy focus all the more awkward. With a dozen proper nouns whizzing past you, the game doesn't give you enough time to absorb your change of scenery. In actuality, it does the opposite. The game instead funnels you down a multi-tier dungeon populated by a total of FIVE distinct enemy types. Your progression down this monotonous mine system doesn't add to the characters or story. It is here because the developers can think of no other way to string together Final Fantasy XII's set pieces.

I swear, sometimes this game feels like it is built using glue sticks and bubblegum. (Note: Looks like they gave Basch shorts!)
I swear, sometimes this game feels like it is built using glue sticks and bubblegum. (Note: Looks like they gave Basch shorts!)

Part 17: Let's Talk About The Grinding In This Game

I do want to say a few positive things about the Zodiac Edition. For the past two blogs, I have spent a considerable amount of time taking the piss out of the Zodiac Edition. In a lot of ways, Square-Enix brings these criticisms on themselves. Not being able to play Final Fantasy XII in its original form is utterly bizarre, and other aspects of the HD Remaster are "rough." That said, I cannot go back to the original PS2 version. For one, the job system adds much-needed depth to each of the characters. More importantly, and it pains me to say this next part, I cannot play this game at its default speed.

The game's normal playing speed is excruciatingly slow. For one thing, the running animation looks like the characters are swimming in Vaseline. Not only that, but fighting trash mobs is downright painful. Why a game this focused on grinding makes beating swarms of enemies a ten-minute process baffles my mind. Not to mention, playing the game at a faster speed makes practicing its mechanics easier. Previously, taking advantage of the game's combo system took hours. After I set the game to double its average rate, I attained my first significant combo in seven minutes. It was at that point when the gameplay started to "click."

Now, let's talk about Bhujerba's Skeleton Bridge!
Now, let's talk about Bhujerba's Skeleton Bridge!

That does not suggest that I enjoy grinding as a gameplay concept. Overall, I view grinding as a waste of the player's time because it rarely services the story and characters. In truth, it exists to impede the player's journey and nothing more. Still, at least in Final Fantasy XII, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I gain access to a new ability or weapon; I can visibly see it impact my characters. Level jumps feel impactful, and that's especially so when you explore different corners of the license board. I categorically love how your decisions significantly change how your characters play. I especially respect the care the developers put in making sure these decisions do not fuck you over.

Another odd aspect of Final Fantasy XII is its exploitability. Not since the likes of Final Fantasy VIII have I seen a game this easy to exploit. Every person I have talked to can name at least three locations where they took advantage of the game's respawning enemies. For me, I had a ball with the skeleton soldiers at the Lhusu Mines. I mention this information because Final Fantasy XII galls you into finding its exploits. The procedural treasure chests, real-time combat, and respawning enemies all make for a frustrating but rewarding experience. Everything in the world funnels back to the gambit and job systems, and that's laudable to a certain extent.

WHY THE FUCK CAN YOU NOT SAVE OR COPY GAMBITS! WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK!
WHY THE FUCK CAN YOU NOT SAVE OR COPY GAMBITS! WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK!

Speaking of which, there's one last thing I want to say about the gambits on this blog. Final Fantasy XII is in dire need of an "Optimize Gambit" option or at the very least a "Copy/Paste" feature. It took me FOREVER to figure out how to set up a gambit for the "Steal" command, and I had a similar struggle when trying to set up buffs and debuffs. The game doesn't provide example gambits, nor does it warn you if you have broken a character's scripting. On top of that, once you do find a winning combination, you still have to input that gambit manually.

Full disclosure, I still hate the gambit mechanic. I will not belabor you with what I said in the previous episode, but I do wish to share a new headache that has presented itself. You waste literal HOURS OF YOUR TIME preparing your gambits for upcoming battles, bosses, and environments. To illustrate, let's say you are about to face a boss, and they have a specific elemental weakness. To be victorious, you have to tear down the gambits you already have and construct a new set of gambits from scratch. Once the boss battle is over, you have to pause again and rebuild everything you ripped apart from before. That may not sound like a time-intensive process, but it honestly is one of the most annoying rigmaroles in Final Fantasy XII.

Part 18: Larsa Is Fine; Penelo Not So Much

I think I might genuinely hate Penelo more than Vaan.
I think I might genuinely hate Penelo more than Vaan.

Returning to the story, it's a damn shame your introduction to Bhujerba boils down to rescuing Penelo. With dozens of ongoing storylines, it's a bit bizarre the game spends as much time as it does on Penelo as a damsel in distress. It doesn't help Penelo is NOT a great character. More than any other cast member, she reeks of Square-Enix pulling from their playbook. She's an odd amalgam of Tifa from Final Fantasy VII and Selphie from Final Fantasy VIII. The fact she wears the same skin-tight yellow jumper Square's been using for the past TWENTY GODDAMNED YEARS does not help her case.

Worse, Penelo is in stark contrast to the rest of the female characters. While I could go on about Fran's distasteful design, she's a strong-willed and independent figure. Conversely, Penelo is perpetually strung along the story by strong male leads. In her introduction, she fawns over Vaan and too often acts in amazement of his abilities. Following her rescue from Ba'Gamnan, she apathetically takes a seat as Larsa flings her across the world. To compound these issues further, she spends half the game clueless, and then at its midpoint, becomes an expert in Ivalice's mythology. Above all, while the rest of the cast has their character moments, she remains critically underwritten for the duration of the game.

Finally! A new character worth listening to!
Finally! A new character worth listening to!

These points are not meant to condemn Final Fantasy XII as lacking compelling characters. There are plenty of great characters in Final Fantasy XII, and Larsa is one such example. Larsa reveals himself to be Vayne's younger brother and second-in-line to the throne of the Archadian Empire. Overall, he acts as a foil to what we have come to expect of an Archadian royal. Despite his age, Larsa appears to be a level-headed leader. Additionally, we watch Larsa take the reigns of his destiny. When he suspects his older brother is up to no good, he makes it his mission to find out what Vayne's plot may entail. The point with Larsa is not that he's happily holding hands with the main cast, but proactively attempting to reach his end goal.

Larsa also acts as a decent exposition dump. Throughout the game, he assumes a Greek Chorus-like role during crucial story moments. After acquiring the manufactured nethicite, he rescues Penelo from Judge Ghis. Larsa makes a conjecture that Vayne is collecting an assortment of powerful runes, but is unable to disclose to what ends. It is at this point the Archadian Judges start to develop as legitimate characters. As loyal servants to the throne of the Empire, you assume they are the muscle of the Emperor. That's far from the truth, and when the narrative starts to play off the Judge-Magister dynamic, the story gets interesting.

And you lost me....
And you lost me....

Speaking of Larsa, I guess it's high time I address my distaste for Vayne. As mentioned before, you have to assume that he's as evil as the characters make him out to be as the game is still coy about his ulterior motives. While some might view this as a budding mystery, it also means the story is nebulously stuck on the concept of the Imperials being evil far longer than it should. This beat is problematic now that we have Larsa as a point of reference. A valid frame on why Vayne is not to be trusted would have made the words of Ashe and Basch more meaningful. Regrettably, the game relies too heavily on a tale of Vayne killing two of his brothers off-screen.

Part 19: And Now for Something Completely Different!

What the fuck does that even mean?
What the fuck does that even mean?

We will return to the story summary in a bit, but I do want to address the half-dozen hunts I attempted during this segment of my playthrough. For those wondering, I tried every quest in Final Fantasy XII at least once. As such, I can say with total certainty the Hunter's Guild fucking sucks. Not only are the enemy instances harder than anything in the mainline story, but nothing in the proper game prepares you for its encounters. For example, getting some of the monsters to spawn can entail a five-step process.

Furthermore, the optional quests feel like they were designed to sell game guides. Knowing how to beat a boss requires hours of trial and error when playing the game blind. Equally important, elemental weaknesses are not immediately evident in combat. The game's status effect warning system flickers at a breakneck speed. Thus, when your characters cease dealing damage, it's often impossible to figure out why. As a result, the side quests frequently place Final Fantasy XII's gameplay shortcomings under a spotlight.

WHY CAN'T ALL OF YOUR CHARACTERS HAVE STARTING GAMBITS LIKE LARSA! WHY?!
WHY CAN'T ALL OF YOUR CHARACTERS HAVE STARTING GAMBITS LIKE LARSA! WHY?!

Speaking of which, we need to talk about how much time it takes to make any given command usable in combat. First, you need to have the appropriate amount of License Points to purchase an ability. Next, you need to find a merchant that sells that exact ability, weapon, or accessory. This situation isn't as simple as it should be. Some spells and trinkets are only accessible through quests or chests, and others are exclusive to a single merchant. To add insult to injury, the game provides NO CLUES as to which merchants or areas have which items or abilities.

A related issue stems from the game's treasure chests and loot. Let's say you open a treasure chest and discover an impressive battleax. Usually, you would scan the item and see what its weapon classification is, and match that with a character's job. In Final Fantasy XII, the game adds in an extra two or three steps. Not only do you still need to identify which characters have the appropriate classes to equip the item, but you also need to find where the thing is on the license board. Without an auto-find or search feature, this process takes FOREVER!

Because killing this wraith really brings the whole game together.
Because killing this wraith really brings the whole game together.

Then there's the game's atrocious teleporting system. At first, I was excited when the game introduced its fast-travel system, but once I found out how it worked, I was immediately disappointed. For those unaware, each story significant location has at least one teleport point. These appear in the game as large glowing stones no different than the standard save crystals, but this time around they are orange. When you approach them, you can use a warp stone to open up a list of previously visited locations and immediately travel there.

Right off the bat, there are two things wrong with this system. First, you utilize the fast-travel mechanic through the use of consumable items. Second, when the game presents the list of available locations, it does not display an accompanying map. Unless you have the outline of Ivalice memorized by heart, you end up wasting a decent number of warp stones. Finally, and this issue drives me bananas, the warp stones are in the same inventory slot as your loot trash. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I accidentally sold my warp stones.

Part 20: 90% Of The Story Involves McGuffins

Right, this fucking scene....
Right, this fucking scene....

After Larsa bolts and takes Penelo under his wing, the rest of the characters are left wondering what to do next. Not only did they fail to rescue Penelo, but they are no closer to joining the Resistance than when they first set foot in Bhujerba. Basch uses this time to bring us up to speed about Bhujerba's importance to the Resistance. The leader of the mineral-rich kingdom is currently at peace with the Arcadian Empire but is secretly funding rebellions against it. Basch surmises they can get a meeting with the Marquis if they prove he is still alive. What ensues next is the worst minigame in Final Fantasy XII.

After accosting enough citizens and town criers, a mob swarms Vaan, and a scene ensues at a local bar. When the real Basch arrives, the Marquis grants our heroes a meeting. During the conference, Marquis Halim Ondore intimates he wants to help Basch, but doing so would bring untold harm to his kingdom. Basch shares his desire to free "Amalia," which is an alias for Princess Asch, and Ondore's interests pique. To aid them, the Marquis sends the party to the Dreadnought Leviathan as prisoners knowing well they will break free and rescue the princess.

It is here when Final Fantasy XII starts bearing its teeth. While your immediate reaction is to be disappointed with the Marquis, you understand his perspective. When the narrative paints characters in morally ambiguous or complex shades, the cast members more often than not, rise to the occasion. Though, and it pains me to say this point, it's incredibly off-putting that Ondore's voice actor is a white guy faking an Indian accent. Regardless, during a cutaway involving Penelo and Larsa, we discover a few of the prince's weaknesses. His repeated assurances that his brother is well-intentioned frame him as a "perfumed Mikado."

What are you talking about? Is he going to
What are you talking about? Is he going to "put things right" before or after an act of genocide?

On board the Leviathan, Ashe reunites with Basch, and the meeting goes as well as expected. Ashe believes Basch to be guilty of assassinating her father and repeatedly calls him a "traitor." While they squabble, Vaan presents the Dusk Shard, and it promptly glows when near Ashe. After their initial rescue effort fails, Vossler arrives while undercover to save them from execution. With the team reformed, they make a swift escape from the warship. While the dreadnought itself is a pain to navigate, it is nonetheless an exhilarating experience. You can feel the tension as you move from one corridor to the next.

Throughout this adventure, Ashe expresses justifiable skepticism in joining Basch. What I appreciate here is how the game does not paint Ashe as being "in the wrong." Her hatred descends from her belief that Basch is a murderer, and there is no real evidence to prove the contrary. Besides, I appreciate how Basch does not win Ashe over with a long-winded explanation or heavy-handed emotional plea. He instead lets his actions speak louder than his words. I will tell you, after playing Final Fantasy XIII, my jaw hit the floor when I saw Square-Enix use restraint when contextualizing the characters at their disposal.

Part 21: The Amount Of Proper Nouns Ruins The Worldbuilding

Ondore honestly deserves more screentime outside of the weird storybook narrations.
Ondore honestly deserves more screentime outside of the weird storybook narrations.

Speaking of Ashe, she is by far my favorite character in Final Fantasy XII. She is a driven and passionate character on a clear mission. Moreover, I like how she is actively involved in the activities of the Resistance. While Larsa, Vayne, and Halim sit on their thrones and play political chess, Ashe is in the trenches. So often, JRPGs use female characters as passive figureheads. We can all think of examples where a princess from a recently defeated kingdom needs protection and knows nothing about the lives of commoners. It's a trope Final Fantasy has worn too often in the past.

Equally important, Ashe leads by example and commands respect both in combat and during cutscenes. She does not accept Balthier's sarcastic quips and is quick to correct Vaan's bullshit. Not to mention, Ashe reminds the characters of their place and refuses to take any quarter from the supporting cast members. Unfortunately, she, much like Penelo and Fran, is plagued by Square-Enix's outdated and unhelpful female character design. While she rightfully deserves a suit of knightly armor; she instead dons an incredibly short skirt with an equally revealing cropped shirt.

You said something similar about Vaan and Balthier, and that didn't stop you from partying up with them.
You said something similar about Vaan and Balthier, and that didn't stop you from partying up with them.

In contrast, I want to applaud the level of emotion the animators manage to squeeze out of the character models. To illustrate, when Vaan and Penelo reunite on the Leviathan, the look she makes when she first sees Vaan is masterfully done. It showcases a perfect mix of relief and happiness all within a limited amount of time. Speaking of which, Final Fantasy XII is a tour de force of framing. When your battle against Judge Ghis commences, the prior cinematic establishes an epic tone. An expertly crafted CG cutscene showcasing the party's escape compliments this boss encounter. Unfortunately, the following scene is where Final Fantasy XII fumbles the ball.

With our blood pumping and excitement at an all-time high, the game rewards us with another goddamned fetch quest! This call to action demands we locate a different piece of nethicite known as the "Dawn Shard." On top of that, the next batch of expository cutscenes come across as incoherent nonsense. We hear out a long tale of King Raithwall and the three pieces of nethicite he cut from the "Sun-Cryst." To make matters worse, you still contend with the naming conventions for critical locations. It's a lot to take in, and it wastes the action-filled drama from the previous set piece. Honestly, I dare ANY OF YOU to defend the two fucking Sandsea sections we are about to slog through!

Like I said, sometimes this game delivers raw emotions that resonate with you.
Like I said, sometimes this game delivers raw emotions that resonate with you.

Not to mention, the proper nouns worsen more when the subplot involving the Archadian Empire presents itself. Interspersed within the story are cutaways to the throne of the Archadian Empire. Here we witness a slew of newly introduced characters. Lamentably, few of these characters have a proper inauguration. Lord Gramis, the Senate, and several of the judges appear before the player with little pomp or circumstance. This subplot is also when Final Fantasy XII bites off more than it can chew. Not only does it need to juggle the adventures of our player characters, but it now needs to take time for a secondary storyline involving the Judges.

As it stands, Ashe needs to prove she is the rightful claimant to the royal throne of Dalmasca, but how the story justifies her next steps is glorified gobbledygook. First, we need to find the Tomb of King Raithwall and locate the Dawn Shard. This shard is "deifacted nethicite" and is different from the "manufactured deifacted nethicite" we encountered in the mines. And I think there's regular nethicite, but that's not important to the story right now. Anyway, Vayne wants to use these magical stones because if you put them together, you can form Voltron or some shit like that. If there's one thing I learned from EVA, it's you cannot trust weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an anime villain with a bad haircut. But with that, I think we'll call an end to this blog.

Next time we get to watch this low-rent Kitana eat shit!
Next time we get to watch this low-rent Kitana eat shit!
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Fighting Final Fantasy XII - Episode 1: Why, Oh Why, Is Vaan The Protagonist?

Author's Note: Episode 2: This Game Is Basically Anime Star Wars? Then Why Don't I Like It More?

Part 1: Let's Address The "Elephant In The Room"

Good to see Stanley Kubrick's font is alive and well.
Good to see Stanley Kubrick's font is alive and well.

For many of you, the idea of me starting a Let's Play series on Final Fantasy XII might come as a surprise. After ripping Final Fantasy XIII a new fucking asshole, several of you were hoping for a blog about Final Fantasy XIII-2. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I am confident playing XIII-2 would have resulted in my death. I make no qualms about not liking Final Fantasy XIII and took your suggestions to try something "different" to heart. Indeed, some of you may recall me soliciting suggestions a few months back. After several of you recommended Final Fantasy XII, I chose it as my Final Fantasy "palate cleanser."

To clarify, the majority of this series will detail my experiences with the PC remaster of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. I was intrigued by the game's "quality of life" additions as well as its improved job system. With that in mind, it's time to bring back an old feature. That's right everyone; it's time for me to rant about the default mouse and keyboard controls in a Square-Enix game! At this point, I'm starting to wonder if Square-Enix knows how PC games work. Seriously, what other excuse is there to justify shit like this:

WHO USES THE FUCKING + KEY ON THE KEYBOARD FOR THEIR VIDEO GAME?! WHO?!
WHO USES THE FUCKING + KEY ON THE KEYBOARD FOR THEIR VIDEO GAME?! WHO?!

Look, I get it, I should be playing the game with a controller. Playing PC games with a controller is neither a technological nor cost-prohibitive burden. That said, I'm stubborn, and will defend "Mount WASD" until I die. More importantly, it's a pain in the ass to convert the key bindings in any Square-Enix PC port. That said, Square-Enix's default setup is downright unacceptable. I don't know how you feel about constantly using your pinkie finger while playing a real-time RPG, but I can tell you from experience it isn't a fun time!

With this humorous aside behind us, I have a bit of a disclaimer. Every blog in this series will grouse about Final Fantasy XII's "accessibility issues," because HOT DAMN is this game dense! Not since Final Fantasy VIII has a JRPG made me dizzy quite like Final Fantasy XII. To say Final Fantasy XII has "a learning curve" is an understatement. This game is a brick wall you have to smash your skull against four or five times before you make a dent. Rest assured, I will finish this game, but I admit it has been a tough nut to crack.

Also, it doesn't help that the story fires on all cylinders within ten minutes.
Also, it doesn't help that the story fires on all cylinders within ten minutes.

Admittedly, I have yet to wrap my mind around Final Fantasy XII's several sub-systems. Speaking of which, let's return to the version of Final Fantasy XII I am playing. For a while, I debated if I should have played the original PS2 release. For reasons we will discuss another time, I eventually committed to the Zodiac Age edition. I tried the original version, and if you must know, I found that game far less mechanically interesting, and there's a lot about that version that doesn't sit well with me. First, and foremost, characters sharing the same license board undermines the story's emphasis on diversity.

However, that does not mean the HD remaster is perfect. In fact, this version is highly problematic, but for different reasons. While there are a few quality of life additions I greatly appreciate (i.e., the fast-forward feature), other design decisions left a sour taste in my mouth. While HD textures always sound good on paper, it's the execution that screws the pooch this time around. Simply put, the HD remaster removes a lot of the character in the environments. For example, when we first gain control of Vaan, we find him navigating the depths of a sewer. Unfortunately, the HD textures make the sewer look like a pristine example of fantasy city-planning. Truly, every environment looks "clean" to such a degree the game feels sterile.

I have watched episodes of Star Trek: Voyager with less technobabble than Final Fantasy XII.
I have watched episodes of Star Trek: Voyager with less technobabble than Final Fantasy XII.

There's another point that Kotaku's Ethan Gach made that I have to agree with as well. Final Fantasy XII's world pines for a storybook aesthetic. Significant portions of the story involve us listening to a narrator extol pages from a diary. The muddy but hand-painted style of the PS2 version more appropriately fits the story's mood and tone. In the remaster, everything looks so crisp the environments come across as generic fantasy schlock. Additionally, there's a distinct lack of shadows in the remaster which hurts scenes that take place at night or dusk. Again, I get these complaints sound like nitpicking, but something about the Zodiac Age feels "lost in translation."

Part 2: The Introductory Cutscene Is Overwhelming

"Overwhelming" perfectly describes my initial feelings about Final Fantasy XII. Its diverse cast is dizzying; its gambit system is inscrutable; its job system is a nightmare; its geopolitical-focused story is a lot to take in. However, I'm not saying any of this to condemn Final Fantasy XII. I respect its ambition, but it is undeniable the game could have made a better first impression. Case in point, the opening cinematic is an astounding but baffling affair bound to frustrate first-time players.

Before I rag on Final Fantasy XII, I want to clarify that I eventually came around to its opening moments. From start to finish, its worldbuilding is some of the best I have ever seen. Likewise, I enjoy the reflective elements of its geopolitical drama. However, the game stumbles a bit regarding its storytelling "triage." Too often, it meanders on story beats that feel inconsequential to the greater narrative. The result is the game feels like it's trying to accomplish too much in its initial hours. For one thing, was it necessary to spend ten minutes on Ashe's marriage to Rasler, when that dynamic doesn't kick into gear until the game's fortieth hour!

Speaking of which, let's review the first hour of Final Fantasy XII.
Speaking of which, let's review the first hour of Final Fantasy XII.

The game starts in the Kingdom of Dalmasca where Rasler and Ashe marry in a dramatic ceremony. After a bit of merriment and joy, the monolithic Empire of Archadia invades the nearby Kingdom of Nabradia. Rasler, the prince from earlier, offers to lead a relief army in support of the defending kingdom. He is joined by Basch fon Ronsenburg, one of his captains, who promises to protect him from harm. Despite a valiant effort, the combined forces of Dalmasca and Nabradia are no match for Archadia. The empire dominates the defenders due in no part to its superior air fleet. In the ensuing action, Prince Rasler dies. With their defeat all but guaranteed, the Kingdom of Dalmasca prepares itself for surrender.

If you are willing to humor me for a bit, I'd like to share my first nitpick with the Zodiac Edition. While the cutscenes hold up magnificently, the storybook narrations do not. With the in-game visuals getting an extra coat of paint, the chapter narrations feel incredibly out of place. I understand these sequences are an homage to Final Fantasy Tactics. Nonetheless, looking at static images as an obscure figure drops exposition dumps does not make for compelling content. It's nice the game puts effort into contextualizing its world, but the juxtapositions to these anecdotes are perpetually awkward.

Does anyone want to challenge my notion this game has a proper noun problem? If you do, count the proper nouns in this screen.
Does anyone want to challenge my notion this game has a proper noun problem? If you do, count the proper nouns in this screen.

Even more, Final Fantasy XII's first twenty minutes hit you HARD! It introduces dozens of proper nouns with zero scaffolding. As a consequence, I found it a struggle to maintain my attention during the prologue. As tragic as it sounds, I eventually turned off my brain like I would during a Summer Blockbuster. That's what happens when you mix fancy visuals with contextless action scenes. In the case of the battle at Nalbina Fortress, I could not tell the difference between the two dominant factions at war.

I also noticed something odd about the audio in the Zodiac Edition. Maybe it's me, but the music and dialogue have significant compression issues. This problem is especially noticeable during the CG cutscenes where characters talk for up to twenty minutes. For large portions of the Zodiac Edition, there's a tinny background sound whenever the characters speak. The same applies to the remastered music which sometimes sounds like it is playing through a garden hose. Unfortunately, there's no option to enable the original voice acting or uncompressed soundtrack. Of course, you can switch between the remastered and original soundtrack, but that doesn't seem to fix this issue.

Part 3: Playing Final Fantasy XII Is A NIGHTMARE!

Damn, this guy must love the sound of his voice.
Damn, this guy must love the sound of his voice.

Worth noting, while the prologue represents only a half-hour of your time, it feels far longer than that. The opening cutscene operates for twenty minutes alone, and the transition to the first gameplay sequence is inelegant. After establishing a grandiose world steeped in geopolitical drama, we control Reks, an insignificant Dalmascan foot soldier. None of the characters we saw during the opening cinematic are within our control. Herein lies a pressing issue with Final Fantasy XII. While the narrative opines for grandeur, its gameplay sequences rarely act as a useful scaffold. This problem worsens when the game juxtaposes to Vaan in the following scene.

To begin with, let's run down the scene where you control Reks. After the Archadian Empire rides roughshod over Dalmasca, Lord Raminas, King of Dalmasca, prepares to sign a surrender treaty. When word reaches Basch of a plan to assassinate Raminas, he organizes an intervention. With the help of a small team, Basch attacks the now occupied Nalbina Fortress in hopes of saving the king. In spite of his best efforts, Basch's plan fails and everyone including the king dies. Basch appears to be a traitor and Reks, our initial player-character, is dead.

I doubt Reks having a younger brother has anything to do with the story. There's no way in the world.
I doubt Reks having a younger brother has anything to do with the story. There's no way in the world.

It's an exciting plotline filled with intrigue and mystery, but one the game squanders thanks to a loathsome series of fetch quests involving Vaan. To make matters worse, Final Fantasy XII has some of the worst gameplay tutorials I have ever seen! When you control Reks, your only available command is to attack. That might sound simple on paper, but when you consider this is the first Final Fantasy game to run in "real-time," even the game's baby steps feel overwhelming. After this brief gameplay set piece, the mechanics dole out at a breakneck speed.

Nevertheless, this nitpick pales in comparison to what I found especially heinous about Final Fantasy XII's tutorials. Often, the game plops a significant gameplay mechanic on you after a short explanation. To illustrate, after the game uses a Quickening, it has Basch briefly explain what he did in combat. Following this conversation, the game assumes you can remember this information for the remainder of the game. Hilariously, this tutorial occurs FIVE HOURS before a single quickening is available to you. Alternatively, when you do unlock one, there's no "practice arena" where you can test out the mechanic.

"Trial by fire" does not even begin to describe Final Fantasy XII.

Admittedly, understanding the Quickenings is not as necessary as it seems. However, the game repeats this tutorial format for the Gambit and License Board systems, and these two mechanics practically define the game! Moreover, the first four hours don't allow for a ton of experimentation with either feature. The best Gambits don't open up until later, and without the game's full cast, the License Board lacks its dynamism. Worse, Final Fantasy XII isn't a riveting gameplay experience until its middle act. While the story certainly has its share of dramatic moments, too often you are stuck wailing away at sewer rats or random foot soldiers. That is because more than half of the first chapter involves grinding for the sake of grinding.

Nonetheless, I do want to praise the game's story. Never before have I seen Square-Enix show such narrative restraint. The story establishes a mystery without spoiling too much of the surprise. In particular, I was legitimately shocked when Basch appears to assassinate Reks. Best of all, the characters are charming and pleasurable when you first meet them. While there are a few character missteps, party members like Basch or Balthier are consistent highlights.

Part 4: Why Am I Killing Sewer Rats In a Game About Global Politics And Regicide?

Yo, this game get's DARK real quick!
Yo, this game get's DARK real quick!

I'm just going to say what I want to say — the first two chapters of Final Fantasy XII fucking suck. They just suck. After the story shoots for the stars, it unceremoniously transitions to simulating Vaan's life as a street urchin. The game could have done more to justify this transition if it fully-invested in drawing a connection between Reks and Vaan, but it doesn't. It instead ferrets Vaan on one fetch quest after another. I get it's an attempt to "humble" the player, but it's a rough juxtaposition to say the least.

This preliminary bellyaching is a decent enough segue to my summary of "section two." With the king of Dalmasca dead, the forces of Archadia overwhelm the city of Rabanastre. Imperial agents identify Basch as the culprit of Raminas' murder. Additionally, the princess of Dalmasca supposedly dies off-screen from grief. This event leaves the formerly-independent kingdom leaderless. After the omniscient narrator says their piece, we transition to a sewer at Rabanastre where Vaan is killing rats.

Ah, it's everyone's favorite Final Fantasy XII character! Kytes, the orphan!
Ah, it's everyone's favorite Final Fantasy XII character! Kytes, the orphan!

Vaan is a plucky orphan under the employ of a sundry store owner named Migelo. A troupe of orphans accompanies him; the most notable being Penelo. The breadth of children and citizens living in poverty does wonders to the game's worldbuilding. Thanks to their inclusion, we know Rabanastre has seen better days and is suffering from the Imperial occupation. Conversely, this is the point of the game where I think the HD textures does the story a disservice. As mentioned earlier, large portions of Rabanastre are meant to come across as a slum, but the pristine graphics do not allow for that to happen.

Before we move on, let's stop for a minute to allow me to throw in two pennies. There's a limit to the respectable worldbuilding of Rabanastre. Rabanastre being under Imperial control is a significant plotline during the game's first act. Unfortunately, you have to take Vaan and Penelo for their word about the impacts of this occupation. Sure, we see a few Imperial soldiers rough up some merchants, but it's a far cry from what Vaan characterizes as a "brutal occupation." I understand Vayne Solidor's obsequious nature is an attempt to frame him as a selfish opportunist. For fuck's sake, his name is "Vayne" after all! However, Final Fantasy XII's ambiance is too reserved in its initial hours.

If the game makes me listen to more of Vaan's Robin Hood grandstanding, I'm shutting it down.
If the game makes me listen to more of Vaan's Robin Hood grandstanding, I'm shutting it down.

What I would prefer is more contextualization of the Archadian Empire in the first act. We understand later that there's another empire named Rozarria and it represents a significant security threat to Archadia. The game puts little effort into relating this background information to the recent invasions. Likewise, the Imperials do not feel as menacing as other monolithic Final Fantasy villains. Their acts of conquest are, in theory, in the name of self-preservation. While that sounds interesting in concept, it also opens the story up to weird anachronisms. While Vayne's peaceful facade masterfully breaks away, characters like Dr. Cid are comically evil the moment you meet them. In addition, there's Larsa, who wants everyone to be holding hands in peaceful harmony. Lastly, the foot soldiers of the Empire, more often than not, serve as comic relief. The end result is the game's messaging about the Imperials is a muddied mess.

I'm again dancing around a more significant issue when it comes to Rabanastre. While the location is brimming with storytelling potential, everything you accomplish there is a bore! Seriously, when you first take control of Vaan, the game tasks you with three fetch quests! WHY WOULD ANYONE THINK THAT IS A GOOD IDEA?! Equally important, there's no real connection between these errands and the greater narrative. I could be mistaken here, but I'm pretty sure hunting the "Rogue Tomato" has nothing to do with freeing a country from a fascistic military-industrial complex.

Migelo is a waste of John DiMaggio's talents.
Migelo is a waste of John DiMaggio's talents.

Part 5: Vaan Is FUCKING HORRIBLE!

Before I rag on Vaan, I want to give credit where credit is due. First, I don't hate his voice acting. His voice actor is far from perfect, but more often than not, fits Vaan's ego-driven posturing. Moreover, Vaan's storyline with Basch showcases one of the stronger interpersonal relationships in the game. Once again, Final Fantasy XII shocked me with its restraint. During this story beat, neither Basch nor Vaan comes across as especially preachy or melodramatic. The characters have different perspectives, and the game treats each viewpoint as equally valid. Finally, I appreciate the fact that Vaan is not emotionally static during the game's introduction. Throughout the first chapter, you see him express a broad spectrum of emotions.

Beyond that, he's a shitty protagonist. In fact, he may be my least favorite Final Fantasy protagonist. What sticks under my craw is how miscast Vaan is in the story. Say what you will about Squall or Tidus, but you cannot envision someone different as the player-character in their respective games. The main story of Final Fantasy XII is about restoring the independence of Dalmasca. In that regard, Ashe and Basch are the primary stakeholders! Vaan has very little connection to that plotline outside of his dead brother.

You cannot tell me the crux of this story is Vaan living out his dream as an airship pirate. I'm not having that.
You cannot tell me the crux of this story is Vaan living out his dream as an airship pirate. I'm not having that.

Besides, Vaan is a fucking brat. Whenever he chimes in with his two cents' worth, I want to punch out my computer monitor. Above all, he is made a member of the team out of pure convenience to the story. When you stop and think about it, he adds nothing to the cast other characters cannot provide. Now I've said a LOT about Final Fantasy XIII, but here's the thing. Lightning, for all of her problems, is the only natural-born leader in her group. Vaan doesn't even have that going for him! From top to bottom, the majority of the cast outclasses him in every regard!

And you know what? The game has a golden opportunity to justify Vaan as a character during its fledgling hours. When we first take control of Vaan, he is a poor street urchin. It's not a terrible starting premise, but the game does so little with it for HOURS I quickly grew tired of him. At no point does the game scaffold Vaan's life experiences to the global politics we witness earlier. Worse, rather than embracing Vaan's lack of societal stock, the story conveniently provides him MacGuffin after MacGuffin to justify his presence.

Because I bet all of you enjoyed killing the Rogue Tomato the first time around!
Because I bet all of you enjoyed killing the Rogue Tomato the first time around!

Let's come back to that last point for a minute. If you could, I want you to answer a question for me. Why does Ashe allow Vaan to become a party member? It's NOT because he provides a service no one else can contribute. Neither does Vaan communicate a clear political leaning, nor does he feel invested in helping "The Resistance." Rather, he's permitted to tag along in world-shattering events because he finds himself in possession of critical story items. To add insult to injury, Vaan gains these items through pure luck rather than intuition or physical prowess.

Even more, Vaan isn't an interesting character. Don't get me started about Vaan wanting to become a pirate, because he loudly shouts about it dozens of times! Besides, having your protagonist declare their employment aspirations IS NOT a replacement of good characterization! This criticism is especially the case when the writing serves every part of Vaan's character arc on a silver platter. Furthermore, it's during these enthusiastic exclamations when Vaan's voice actor struggles the most.

Part 6: The First Five Hours Of This Game Are BORING!

That doesn't sound totally arbitrary and endlessly frustrating in any way, shape, or form!
That doesn't sound totally arbitrary and endlessly frustrating in any way, shape, or form!

What does Final Fantasy XII accomplish in its first playable hour? If we are honest, NOT MUCH! It's shocking how much the story drags after showing massive promise during its introduction. Unfortunately, most of this issue is by design. As we will review later, because Final Fantasy XII is packed to the gills with dense gameplay mechanics, the game has to stagger itself. Unfortunately for me, things are worse in the Zodiac Edition. For example, your second job slot isn't available until AFTER you battle Vossler.

The result is much of the initial game involves battling trash mobs with little sense of difficulty. Which is problematic given Vaan's whole starting gimmick is that he's downtrodden and living in the lowest rung of society. For lack of a better word, Vaan kicks too much ass too quickly in the story. Regardless, after Vaan attends to the rats in the Garamsythe Waterway, he meets up with his childhood friend, Penelo. There's a quick scene where Penelo chastises Vaan for picking fights against the Imperials, and we leave with an unshakable feeling the two are close friends.

Are we seriously using a flower as a metaphor for life? Is that really happening right now?
Are we seriously using a flower as a metaphor for life? Is that really happening right now?

In spite of my nitpicking, I cannot deny Final Fantasy XII's innate beauty. Its worlds are teeming with life and colorful characters. NPCs feel like members of a society rather than soulless automatons. Furthermore, there are small touches to the world that add to the game's atmosphere. The Imperials have an all-encompassing presence, and we see the occupiers accost several NPCs in Rabanastre. Another nice touch is the apparent sense of technological superiority the Imperials have over their occupied states. We see hundreds of monolithic airships armed with state-of-the-art weaponry, and no such technology exists elsewhere. The effect is you feel the game is stacking the odds against you, and thus, your accomplishments are all the more impressive.

All the same, most of the story's introduction is held together with bubble gum and masking tape. After completing a mindless errand, Migelo tasks Vaan with fetching a package. Admittedly, the fetch quest serves as our introduction to the Hunts, but it's otherwise an impassive affair. It's here where you can feel Final Fantasy XII's length. When it tasks you with locating and killing the "Rogue Tomato," the simple process of finding it takes upwards of ten to fifteen minutes. All the while, you waste your time offing swarms of wolves and birds with no end in sight. Moreover, it doesn't help each of the game's desert environments look and feel the same.

When the fuck did Kenny G become a Final Fantasy villain?
When the fuck did Kenny G become a Final Fantasy villain?

Granted, there are grandiose moments in Rabanastre worth mentioning. When Vaan successfully transports Migelo's foodstuffs, we witness a parade in Vayne Solidor's honor. Vayne speaks to the citizens of Rabanastre and tries to frame himself as an enlightened despot. He implores the people he means them no further harm and asks they return to life as usual. You know, things a dictator would say during an occupation. Afterward, a quiet moment occurs between Vaan and Penelo. The two dismiss Vayne's speech as grandstanding, but their differences in philosophy are made obvious. Vaan is a dreamer with huge aspirations, and Penelo is a tacit pragmatist.

These moments are visually and narratively impressive. Both do wonders to cement our understanding of the world. However, they are woefully short and not reinforced in the following scenes. After we have another taste of the story's geopolitical framework, the game tasks Vaan and Penelo with collecting desert rocks. I would hazard to say the development team had their story moments in mind when making the game, but no clue as to how to string them together. What is more, Final Fantasy XII's mechanics begin to open up at this point, and you are unprepared for this change. Speaking of which:

Part 7: The License Board System Drives Me Bananas

And now for something completely different!
And now for something completely different!

Before we address my issues with the License Board, let's briefly summarize the story up to this point. Once Vaan attends to the matter of Migelo's shipment of food, he schemes to break into a royal locker room. Penelo directs Vaan to a crime lord named "Old Dalan" who is dressed like a Hindu snake charmer and voiced by a white person trying to fake an Indian accent. It is a bad thing. Old Dalan agrees to help Vaan break into the Empire's treasures, but only after he fetches him a "Crescent Stone." What ensues next is the biggest waste of your time in the entire game.

Worth mentioning, getting from one location to the next is a colossal pain in the ass. In this case, getting to the Giza Plains and starting Old Dalan's quest is three load screens away. Additionally, while the world map marks points of interest, there's no way to set custom waypoints for the side quests. Luckily the game has a teleport system, but bizarrely enough, it's a part of the in-game economy. Teleport Stones are only available as purchasable items or rewards for completing side quests. Even more upsetting, these items are stowed in the "Loot" tab of your inventory. I cannot begin to count the times I accidentally sold my warp crystals when selling loot to merchants.

However, Final Fantasy XII's hardest ask is when it asks you to forget everything you know about equipment in RPGs.
However, Final Fantasy XII's hardest ask is when it asks you to forget everything you know about equipment in RPGs.

Regardless, upon entering a village in the Giza Plains, Vaan locates Penelo. After a brief chat, Penelo assists Vaan in acquiring the Crescent Stone to complete his mission. During this quest, the two find an injured child who tells them to locate the "Dark Crystals" to create the Crescent Stone. It is at this point when Final Fantasy XII presents an outstanding choice. As someone playing the Zodiac Edition, I can attest selecting jobs for your party members is no longer avoidable. More worrisome, this decision is one of the most important you will make in the ENTIRE GAME!

Not since Path of Exile has a game's leveling system felt this intimidating. That statement might come as a surprise because the process of spending points and making your characters stronger isn't in and of itself difficult. Likewise, the Zodiac Edition's design ensures that no individual job combination is nonviable. Instead, the soul-searching comes from the fact the game locks you into a critical choice without any idea what you are doing. The in-game biographies aren't helpful in making an informed decision either. Maybe the terms "Foebreaker," "Time Battlemage," "Bushi," "Shikari" or "Uhlan" are burned into your skull, but as someone playing the game for the first time, I was forced to consult a guide.

How is this sufficient information to decide if this class is an appropriate fit for anyone?
How is this sufficient information to decide if this class is an appropriate fit for anyone?

I want to concede the job system in the Zodiac Edition is preferable to the license board in the original PS2 release. After tinkering with the PS2 version, I found it to be dull. The game spends much of its time highlighting diversity as an asset rather than an impairment. Nevertheless, the original license board is the same across each character, and thus the story's diversity is mechanically hampered. Consequently, the characters spend most of their time playing out like unbalanced fiddler crabs with little variety in-between.

Nonetheless, it seems bonkers Square-Enix couldn't find a middle ground between "everyone is tabula rasa and nothing matters," and "have fun making a blind choice you'll never get to undo." What ended up adding to my anxiety was the knowledge other characters would eventually join my party. For example, if I made Penelo a White Mage would I be smarting my choice when a better magic caster entered the fold? Generally the game does nothing to clue you into what each character's strengths and weakness are, or if any exist in the first place. Likewise, there's no respec option in Final Fantasy XII. This fact alone led me to avoid the License Board for hours upon end. When the inevitable was upon me, I quickly discovered another issue with Final Fantasy XII....

Part 8: This Game Requires A Guide

Anyone who says the License Board becomes more intuitive as you play the game is a fucking lying liar who lies.
Anyone who says the License Board becomes more intuitive as you play the game is a fucking lying liar who lies.

Other elements of Final Fantasy XII's design are astoundingly Byzantine. The story and mechanics cast a shadow over you every minute you play Final Fantasy XII. Even more, simple mistakes can bite you in the ass. To illustrate, let's return to the Zodiac Edition's License Board. There's no one "correct" way to tackle the mechanic. While some feel this design choice allows for the freedom of experimentation, for me, it results in constant second-guessing and uneasy compromises.

So, without further ado, here are my final job assignments. As a bit of a note, I want to clarify that I use every job precisely once. Be warned though, mistakes were made on my part.

  1. Ashe - Black Mage & Monk
  2. Balthier - Foebreaker & Shikari
  3. Vaan - Samurai & Knight
  4. Penelo - White Mage & Machinist
  5. Fran - Time Mage & Uhlan
  6. Basch - Archer & Red Mage

As you can see, my "A-Team" is solid, but there's a massive drop in prowess when we reach some of my supporting party members. In particular, look at poor Basch's setup on that list. Part of my dilemma stems from the game not communicating the strengths of your characters. Indeed, the game does the opposite in many regards. In particular, Balthier starts with guns and even totes one in his in-game portrait. In spite of this, Balthier is one of the WORST characters to equip with firearms. The same sentiment applies to Basch. While he's seen to have an aptitude for archery during the opening cinematic, he's more potent when given a sword or battleax. When things are already confusing, it doesn't help Final Fantasy XII maliciously misguides you.

There are other examples of the game not conveying critical information to the player. For one thing, you have to purchase equipment after unlocking their licenses on the board. This issue poses a significant problem for the Ninja or Samurai jobs, as their conceit boils down to the use of a few critical accessories. In both cases, you have no hope of owning those pieces of equipment until the game's FINAL ACT! The same goes for the magic-focused classes wherein high-tier spells open up to you far earlier than they should. Often I found myself pooling License Points because there was nothing immediately available to buy from the merchants.

Worse, it's not like there's a compelling story with memorable characters as the game's complexity kicks into gear.
Worse, it's not like there's a compelling story with memorable characters as the game's complexity kicks into gear.

To further highlight how backward the design of Final Fantasy XII can be, let us talk about its loot drops. For lack of a better word, the loot drop spreadsheets in Final Fantasy XII are absurd. For a start, treasure chests are randomly generated, meaning, there's no guarantee any given chest will appear in the first place. On top of that, there's a spreadsheet that determines the contents of every treasure chest. This design decision is a bummer when you are traveling long distances in hopes of finding a specific accessory or magical ability. Finally, if you equip a particular item called the "Diamond Armlet" the loot options for the chests changes dramatically. In other words, someone at Square-Enix spent a lot of time designing how loot works in Final Fantasy XII, and I don't know if I care.

Then we have the Hunts. The monster hunts represent a large portion of Final Fantasy XII's optional content. This fact is painfully apparent as they are often harder than anything in the main story. For instance, the third hunt is the "Flowering Cactoid," and if you do not adequately prepare yourself, it's the hardest boss at that point in the game. Also, several of the hunts are programmed with narrowly defined scripts that necessitate endless amounts of trial and error. Often, getting the monsters to spawn involves a prolonged series of events. Consequently, if you do not take advantage of specific elemental or physical weaknesses, some battles are outright impossible.

Awesome, Square-Enix's creepy voyeuristic streak continues in Final Fantasy XII.
Awesome, Square-Enix's creepy voyeuristic streak continues in Final Fantasy XII.

It doesn't help each step to completing a hunt is laborious. To begin with, you need to locate the bulletin board at a bar and accept any outstanding missions. Next, you need to talk to the person who authored the posting for further details. Following this brief conversation, you need to travel to the monster's location. Sometimes the game asks you to perform a task to spawn the target, and other times it's merely waiting for you. After you defeat the mark, you then need to trek all the way back to the author of the mission and collect your reward. I'm not joking when I say 80% to 90% of the hunts involves aimless walking!

Part 9: I Hate The Gambit System

Seriously, fuck the Gambit System!
Seriously, fuck the Gambit System!

Look, I admit the gambit system was revolutionary at the time. I get it allows you to steamroll through trash mobs with relative ease. I get why people like it. Regardless, the system has been a consistent thorn in my side. It's a robust mechanic to parse out, and the game does not set you up for success. In fact, the in-game tutorial for the Gambit System is downright TERRIBLE! Furthermore, the game neither provides a set of easy to use gambits, nor a sense of an end-goal for the mechanic. Seriously, what ideal am I supposed to be aiming for with my Gambits?

Maybe my musings come across as rantings rather than legitimate criticisms. However, there's nothing more frustrating than spending hours setting up a character's Gambits and watching them do nothing in the middle of a battle. Consequently, there's no "training ground" where you can see if your hard work translates into something useful. More importantly, the Gambit System isn't empowering. More often than not, I felt like I was doing the job of the programmers. When I saw Fran or Balthier fruitlessly casting the same spell over and over again, I felt like I was debugging their A.I. And I'm sorry, but I don't think that's fun!

Also, starting each character with just two Gambit slots is a seriously fucked up move.
Also, starting each character with just two Gambit slots is a seriously fucked up move.

I cannot preface enough how easy it is to misplace a single command that unknowingly makes a character "broken." To illustrate, I setup my characters to "Attack Target at 100%." In this case, I thought the 100% meant my party would focus their attacks on a single boss while ignoring everything else. I was wrong, and after inflicting a single blow, they stopped attacking entirely. However, the game made no effort to warn me of my incorrect assumption. Another annoyance is how slowly Gambits open up to the player. Throughout the game's introduction, there were several conditionals I would have LOVED to use, but the game arbitrarily gates them away until reaching a particular part of the story.

To add fuel to the fire, you must purchase Gambits from vendors. That's right, the mechanic that makes the characters usable in combat is part of the in-game economy! I have no clue who thought this was a good idea, but we need to find them and shoot them to the moon! Not to mention, there are hundreds of Gambits to purchase and no sense of which ones are genuinely helpful. Each Gambit Store has a long and exhaustive list of options, and you have to scroll through this list whenever making a purchase. It's a colossal pain; moreover, you will often not understand the value of these Gambits until AFTER failing a boss battle. For instance, I didn't purchase the debuffing Gambits until an enemy killed my characters using poison.

Even during the game's early chapters, putting all of its pieces together is a daunting affair.
Even during the game's early chapters, putting all of its pieces together is a daunting affair.

And you know what? I find the Gambit System an insult to the main appeal of role-playing games. These are MY characters to control. The world is told through the perspective of the cast, but I control their destiny. I feel having the game automate your characters disconnects you from their evolution. By leveling these characters, I am pushing them closer towards their end goals. Unfortunately, this sense of progression rapidly diminishes because the ideal is to have them play themselves!

Part 10: Did I Mention The Story Takes Forever To Get Interesting?

With the mechanics of Final Fantasy XII out of the way, we can return to its story. After Vaan and Penelo convert a sandstone into a Crescent Stone, they part ways. Penelo returns to Migelo's shop, and Vaan returns to his thieving schemes. When Vaan returns to Old Dalan with a Crescent Stone in tow, the old man reveals a secret passageway into the royal palace of Rabanastre. While convenient, Vaan yet again needs to navigate through the labyrinthine depths of the sewers.

When Vaan finds himself in the Royal Palace, the game's serious tone starts to crack. None of the guards care about our spirited teenager waltzing through the palace halls. While the game initially treats entering the palace as gravely dangerous, it doesn't follow through on this conceit. When you try to dodge guards, there's no noticeable penalty for failing. If anything, the mission plays out like a comedic farce. The Imperial Guards act like buffoons, and Vaan behaves like Bugs Bunny.

Nothing says
Nothing says "Final Fantasy" quite like an out of place minigame.

It's worth noting there are several interjections as Vaan makes progress through the royal palace. When he first reaches the sewers, there's a brief scene where we see Vossler conversing with his men before leading them into battle. Upon entering the palace, we watch a quick cutscene that introduces Balthier and Fran. While abrupt, these juxtapositions are surprisingly effective. You understand there are more significant forces at play and Vaan is bound to get caught in the middle. Likewise, it builds upon the game's earlier sense of mystery and betrayal. Now if only the game knew how to scaffold this brewing sense of intrigue. Instead, it has us complete a bullshit stealth minigame.

While the palace itself is a welcomed change of scenery from the moribund desert wastelands from earlier, it is stunningly non-interactive. You don't fight any of the guards, and your only interaction with the environment is trying to find a secret passageway. Speaking of which, when you discover the entrance to the royal treasures, Vaan runs into Balthier and Fran. After the three exchange words, shit pops off. Explosions boom in the background, and the trio grabs what treasures they can before making a hasty retreat. What ensues next is the best scene in the game's introduction. Balthier and company board his air bike as they desperately try to avoid an aerial bombardment from an Imperial airship.

At least the first act introduces the second best character in the game.
At least the first act introduces the second best character in the game.

Before you ask, I like Balthier. His swagger plays off the other cast members to hilarious effect. My only complaint is that too often the game has him spew terrible one-liners in an attempt to frame him as the party's "lovable asshole." Fran, on the other hand, is so underwritten it's not even funny. However, it's her exploitative character design that irks me the most. The game has a gross tendency to frame the camera on Fran's bottom or chest whenever she is in a scene. Also, her outfit is ridiculous. I get she comes from a different culture, but she's dressed like a Playboy Bunny. With guns and canons readily accessible, her outfit has no practical purpose other than to further modern Square-Enix's lamentable female character design.

Eventually, you meet up with a mysterious female figure called "Amalia." After rescuing her from a troupe of soldiers, you collectively work together to exit the sewers. All the while, Vaan proudly displays the glowing magical stone he stole from the royal treasury. As you progress through the sewers, you eventually encounter your first proper boss battle. This encounter, like many in the Final Fantasy franchise, exists because someone thought it was high time for a boss encounter. The "Firemane" accosts the party because I guess it makes sense for a flaming Pegasus monster to be living in a sewer. Upon defeating the Firemane, a small army led by Vayne surrounds your party. With no other option, everyone surrenders and lays down their arms.

Part 11: Vaan Is The Worst Protagonist In Final Fantasy History

Speaking of characters who deserve to be the protagonist instead of Vaan....
Speaking of characters who deserve to be the protagonist instead of Vaan....

Previously, I mentioned how I felt Vaan's characterization never feels wholly connected with Final Fantasy XII's major themes. The poster child of this issue is when the story develops his character arc. After being knocked unconscious, Vaan has a dream sequence involving his brother. The cutscene briefly shows a side of Vaan that we have never seen before. We discover Vaan genuinely cared about his brother, and his passing impacted him emotionally. This turmoil is what justifies Vaan's unfathomable hatred for Basch.

Admittedly, Vaan's relationship arc with Basch showcases the best of Final Fantasy XII's writing. It is a story based solely on the characters and their experiences in the world. At no point does it bother with inter-governmental politics or complicated mind games. It is a slowly evolving tale that progresses as new layers to the story present themselves. It's a beautiful character arc, but there's a catch. It doesn't do much to justify Vaan's position in the mainline story. If anything, Vaan's character evolution pales in comparison to Balthier or Ashe.

You honestly need to have higher standards when it comes to who you trust.
You honestly need to have higher standards when it comes to who you trust.

Stop and think about Vaan's evolution for a moment. When he finally buries the hatchet with Basch, what is the result? At most, Vaan continues to be a hysterical teenager with aspirations of being a space pirate. There's nothing to Vaan that connects him to the global politics of the Archadian Empire or its occupation! Yes, he's a victim of that occupation, but why is Vaan one of the main actors in ending it? On top of that, the game never justifies what makes him an asset to the team! What does he bring to the table that Basch and Balthier do not?

However, this nitpicking is dancing around the more significant issue with Vaan's characterization. The game painfully stretches his character arc to a literal breaking point. The Nalbina Dungeon presents the introduction to Vaan's relationship with Basch, but this relationship doesn't significantly develop for a solid ten to twelve hours! All the while, we watch the two stand side-by-side one another without a care in the world. To say the game "presses the pause button" on Vaan's character arc would be an understatement. Vaan feels as if he's put into stasis as the rest of the story jumps into hyperspace!

If these are the people responsible for saving the world from destruction, then we have problems. Serious problems!
If these are the people responsible for saving the world from destruction, then we have problems. Serious problems!

Furthermore, and I hate to beat this drum again, but Vaan is intolerable! I don't take Vaan seriously, and neither do the other characters. I can't think of a single time when Basch, Balthier, or Ashe approach Vaan asking for his input on a dilemma. The worst part is when Ashe or Basch think aloud the party's next steps, and Vaan offers his two cents' worth. During these moments, you cannot help but join the rest of the characters when they roll their eyes.

I hope this blog doesn't make it seem like I'm bashing Final Fantasy XII. What I like about Final Fantasy XII means the world to me. It is an admirable change of pace compared to Final Fantasy XIII. Above all, it's a pleasant surprise to play a Final Fantasy game that feels like a legitimate role-playing game. The world is dripping with character, and there are places I want to explore. That said, it's a handful to deal with, and some clear missteps plague it. All the while, I wouldn't say I hate the game, but it's certainly not a game that wowed me in its opening chapters.

Lock Vaan up in jail and throw away the key!
Lock Vaan up in jail and throw away the key!
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ZombiePie's 2018 Multimedia Awards Show Extravaganza!

Author's Note: Hello there! My name is ZombiePie, and I am a Giant Bomb forum and wiki moderator. Every year I look at the various sources of entertainment I enjoyed and disliked. My awards are more "special commendations," and are open to any medium. During my award show, I pit games, television shows, animes, athletics, board games, and movies in a fight to the death! Additionally, you can expect to see classic and current works of entertainment vying for the top positions. Oh, and one more thing, there are SPOILERS on this blog! Keep that in mind before reading any of my justifications.

Most Improved - Vore

Well, I guess this is one way to start a GOTY blog....
Well, I guess this is one way to start a GOTY blog....

Alright, before you shut down my blog, let me explain myself. It was a "good" year for vore. Are you still there? DONT GO! Stop and think about it for a minute. In 2018, Attack on Titan (season three), That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, AND Dragon Pilot all came out in 2018. If we want to make this award about video games, Kirby stood as a vore advocate in Smash Ultimate, and Majin Buu in Dragon Ball FighterZ. THAT'S A LOT OF VORE IN ONE YEAR!

2018 was tough for a lot of people. Emotionally and physically, the year run roughshod on many corners of this planet. That's why I have a slight proposal in an attempt to brighten everyone's day. Every year has an odd coincidence that sticks out for all of the right reasons. "Year of the Bow" comes to mind as one such example. That is why I want you to join me in branding 2018 as the "Year of Vore." Seriously, let's get #2018yearofvore trending on Twitter! We can make it happen!

Runner-up: Impact Wrestling -

Impact is experiencing a bit of a creative Renaissance. Had it not been for two sizeable black marks, I would have given the company the nod for this category. Unfortunately, Austin Aeries' no-sell will likely define how most remember the company's year. Likewise, the throttling of Impact veterans such as Eli Drake to the mid-card also sticks out as a sore point.

Most Overrated - Octopath Traveler

I'm sorry Octopath Traveler, but how did you think you could get away with this amount of vignetting?
I'm sorry Octopath Traveler, but how did you think you could get away with this amount of vignetting?

Over the past two years, I have warmed up to JRPGs. Most likely, playing nothing but Final Fantasy games will do that to you. However, one aspect of the JRPG fanbase continues to stick out to me as a bit "odd." Every time a game pines to return the genre "back to its roots," fans champion it as a revelatory moment. It happened to Bravely Default, and it happened to Octopath Traveler this year. In both cases, I think JRPG fans projected unrealistic expectations for both games. Hence, my tempered disappointment with Octopath Traveler.

I did not fancy Octopath's gameplay or visual design. In regards to its gameplay, too often I thought you could spam the same combinations of attacks to waste away whatever stood in your way. However, it was the game's art style that stuck in my craw. To me, the pixel art is flat and blown out. Buildings and monsters look like something a toddler made using LEGO blocks, and the light bloom is fucking atrocious. Everything in the game looks over-exposed, and at times I struggled to discern parts of the environment. On a few occasions, I contemplated wearing sunglasses while playing the game. Simply put, Octopath gave me a headache, and I'm forever bitter as a result.

Runner-up: My Hero Academia (Season Three) -

For the past two years My Hero Academia has been my go-to anime for guaranteed fun. While that's still the case, I cannot help but feel the third season made some missteps. Again, my misgivings boil down to aesthetic choices. The depiction of Yoarashi's wind powers immediately stick out, but overall this season was not as creative as the previous ones. It doesn't help the License Exam arc is one of the weakest storylines in the manga, but the anime exacerbates its problems rather than tempering them.

"Yeah, I'll Watch This As The World Burns" Award - The Great British Bake Off

Maybe I'm exposing too much of vulnerabilities in this blog. Whelp, no use crying over spilled milk!
Maybe I'm exposing too much of vulnerabilities in this blog. Whelp, no use crying over spilled milk!

I know I'm not the only person on the internet who uses streaming to fill my body with a warm and tingly sensation. It's by no means a "healthy" habit, but it's one that has gotten the job done so far. Moreover, The Great British Bake Off is the doyenne of "feel good" television programs. The series' sense of co-operation and camaraderie shows off a lighter side to the human element. That is to say; we can come together to help one another even on the most benign of issues. This sentiment is not new, but it is a distinct aspect of us that can and will make the world a better place, one cake at a time.

Does the new format still have all of the problems from the previous year? That it does, but I honestly do not care. More Bake Off is never a bad thing. Seriously, it's the only show to make me unfathomably angry over handshakes! Speaking of which, the number of handshakes Paul Hollywood gave in series nine is fucking ridiculous. Likewise, and I know plenty of you agree, Rahul should have been eliminated before the finals.

Runner-up: The House on Haunted Hill -

The House on Haunted Hill is less a television show and more of an extended movie. Luckily, that is to its benefit. Because it flows at its own pace, Haunted Hill crams in compelling twists and turns without overstaying its welcome.

Worst Song Or Theme Music - Ocean to Ocean by Pitbull

I still cannot imagine the board meeting that led to this song getting approved. Grown adults, with millions of dollars at stake, reached a conclusion as alien as life on Mars. First, they couldn't be bothered to shell out a few extra bucks for a rap artist relevant in 2018. Second, how in the world does Aquaman, of all things, relate to commercialized rap music? Seriously, who do I blame for ruining my eardrums?

Speaking of which, let's turn our attention to Pitbull's bizarre performance. Without a doubt, this single contains bars cheesy even for the likes of him. Likewise, why this song samples Toto's Africa is beyond my comprehension. On top of that, the entire production is a tire fire. The chorus appears to be louder than Pitbull, and the accompanying instruments are entirely blown out. That, added with Pitbull's poorly leveled "Woo's" makes for an audio-based migraine. Unless you are a musical masochist, continue pretending it does not exist.

Runner-up: Aliens Infestation -

WayForward makes good video games. This sentence is an irrefutable fact. Unfortunately, many of their creations come and go concerning cultural staying power. I'm looking at you, The Mummy Demastered. When I decided to give Aliens Infestation a shot I enjoyed it much as I do with anything from WayForward. However, it's ending credits song sure is something:

More Of This PLEASE! - Return of the Obra Dinn

It's time to party like you just got an Apple II computer!
It's time to party like you just got an Apple II computer!

I have always wanted to enjoy the works of Lucas Pope more than I do. For me, Papers, Please is the definition of a "one, and done" game. I respect Papers, Please and its message to the player, and I want more games to challenge my decisionmaking. However, I don't think I ever want to return to the world of Papers, Please. Even though the game makes an impression, it's a painful impression that I do not think I can ever stomach again.

These reservations still apply to Return of the Obra Dinn but in a reduced capacity. Above all, it is a tense tour de force of storytelling. Every minute I played Obra Dinn, the fear of not knowing every aspect of the game's mystery shook me to my core. My thirst to know everything almost turned me into one of the game's ill-fated sailors, and maybe that's the point. It makes you think about the impact it is having on your behavior. Without a doubt, it provides the most eye-opening experience of the year, and I hope more games follow in its footsteps.

Runner-up: Florence -

Florence features the most compelling and sadly realistic relationship in video games. Furthermore, it takes advantage of the mobile platform in ways where I cannot imagine playing it on a console or PC.

Thing That Caused Me To Shout "FUCK OFF!" The Most - The State of Console UI

What am I even looking at?
What am I even looking at?

How did we get here? Three of the smartest companies in the world cannot design a halfway decent console UI experience. How is this paradox even possible? Before anyone accuses me of fanboyism, I think all three of the major consoles suck concerning UI/UX design. The Switch's online marketplace is a slow-moving car accident. Sony's UI got a much-needed update, but that didn't resolve constant latency issues and poor download speeds. Finally, we have whatever the fuck Microsoft farts out every year for the Xbox One.

Honestly, I don't know how Microsoft gets away with a million-dollar marketing campaign about improving accessibility in games, while their UI is a walking disaster. It's terrible, and their efforts to improve things have repeatedly failed. I can only imagine with a new generation of consoles, Microsoft has something down the road that fixes these issues. Sadly, that doesn't change the fact millions are left wondering every day where they can buy recent releases on the Xbox One. It's a design calamity with no end in sight.

Runner-up: Detroit: Become Human -

I know this is going to sound harsh, but I don't know if David Cage should be making games on a AAA budget. Time and time again, he's shown that if he's given an endless supply of money, the results are always groan-inducing. Detroit: Become Human is no exception, and is one in a long line of flawed video game outings from Cage.

Least Improved Sequel or Reboot - FLCL Alternative

One of these things is not like the other....
One of these things is not like the other....

Where do I even begin with this dumpster fire of a show? The original FLCL is a classic. It oozes style and is a fantastic exhibition of what animation is capable of when the conditions are right. FLCL Alternative, on the other hand, manages to condense all of the flaws of FLCL into a single story arc. FLCL has always been a show that gets away with "style over substance" because of its endless supply of creativity. FLCL Alternative ignores what made the original special, and attempts to craft a character-focused story.

I don't give a rat's ass about any of the characters in FLCL Alternative. For example, Haruko has never been a great "character." Haruko is at her best when she moves the story from one action set piece to the next. She is NOT a character you need to spend time fleshing out with an origin story or relationship arc. Speaking of which, Haruko's presence in Alternative is WEIRD! To make matters worse, Kana Koumoto may be the worst new character of 2018. She gets everything in the story served to her on a silver platter, and she never shakes away her self-centered ways. That last point might be intentional, but when Haruko does not have a foil, the entire story suffers. Admittedly, Alternative is better than Progressive, but not by much.

Runner-up: Westworld (Season Two) -

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Westworld's first season was an astonishing adventure. It packed great performances with a tense plot that kept you guessing. Sadly, season two does not follow in its footsteps. Rather, its focus on blockbuster bloodbaths was a continual source of frustration. Furthermore, its tenth episode may be the least satisfying season closer of the year.

Biggest Waste Of Perfectly Good Worldbuilding - Darling in the Franxx

This fucking scene sure was
This fucking scene sure was "something!"

Darling in the Franxx is a rarity in the entertainment business. Unlike Family Guy or The Simpsons, you can pinpoint the EXACT MOMENT the entire show goes to shit. Those who have seen this anime know what I am talking about, and are nodding their heads in approval. To this day, I refuse to believe a grown adult wrote the plot twist for this show and told themselves "I'm good at my job." That cannot have happened, and if it did, what little faith I have in humanity is now dead. In fact, it may be the most catastrophically DUMB plot twist in anime history.

The premise for this show is decent, and until the story pivots, the characters are as well. There are even decent action sequences that add much-needed stakes. However, once Darling in the Franxx reveals its ulterior motives, it hammers you over the head with its simplicity. I get nuance isn't commonly associated with anime, but a little brevity in Franxx would have gone a long way. Instead, the show pisses away its potential, and unfortunately, all for the sake of a metaphorical story about the ills of modern-Japan.

Runner-up: Jessica Jones Season 2 -

Jessica Jones was a Marvel superhero I desperately needed in my life. She fought mental and physical abuses with every ounce of her being and had the scars to prove it. Why the second season throws her struggles with anxiety and social isolation out of the window is one of the year's greatest mysteries. On top of that, her mother's "fish out of water" story arc is flat out TERRIBLE!

Dumbest Thing I Played - My Horse Prince

I guess it goes without saying my GOTY blog has officially
I guess it goes without saying my GOTY blog has officially "jumped the shark."

Around three months ago, an advertisement for My Horse Prince popped up on my phone. After reviewing the game's page, I downloaded it post-haste. This "game," if we can even call it that, amazed me at every turn with its artwork and narrative. Watching a 2D bishounen horse lead a J-Pop boy band or surf a fifty-foot ocean wave was endlessly delightful. If you are in need of wacky anime bullshit, My Horse Prince has you covered.

I make no qualms over the fact My Horse Prince is a mobile idle clicker. Objectively, it is a bad video game with a deceptively heinous business model. Had there been an option to make the ads and idle clicker elements disappear, I would have an easier time recommending it. As it stands, My Horse Prince is a dumb, stupid, and nutty adventure only fit for those with a high tolerance for anime bullshitery. However, and I know I'm not alone in this regard, sometimes you want stupid anime garbage in your life.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate -

If you turn your brain off, Smash is guaranteed to give you a fun time. I have never found any joy in following Smash's competitive scene, nor do I have any desire to break down the game's inner mechanics. I enjoy Smash when a few of my friends are visiting, and we want to play something that rewards random acts of button mashing. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate does precisely that, and I don't care if that's the "wrong" way to play it.

Fever Dream Award - Wendy's Mixtape "We Beefin?"

I don't even know where to begin. Do I condemn Wendy's for making this godawful abomination, or do I blame the internet for playing into Wendy's meme-focused marketing organ? For those not in the know, Wendy's Twitter account is a thing that exists. As with any corporate run Twitter account, sarcastic quips and memes litter its feed. It's one of MANY accounts that tap into internet culture in a vain attempt to appeal to a younger demographic.

And now there's a mixtape bearing Wendy's name. This crime against music happened, and it cannot unhappen. We have to live with this work of "art" until the heat death of our universe. I'm sorry, but this is the cold and harsh reality we live in now. I wish there were a way for me to end this award on a positive note, but I'm not a miracle worker.

Runner-up: Fist Of The Blue Sky Regenesis -

Hey anime fans, did you know a Fist of the North Star reboot came out this year? No? Well don't worry, it's GARBAGE! Blue Sky Regenesis is less of a reboot and more of a CG nightmare that will continue haunting your dreams until the day you die.

Best Expansion/DLC- Stellaris

To boldly go where no man has shot a planet ending laser beam before!
To boldly go where no man has shot a planet ending laser beam before!

Stellaris has a fascinating developmental history. When it first launched in 2016, it was for hardcore 4X gamers. As one such person, I can say I did not hate the game in its first incarnation, but it was a clear example of a diamond in the rough. Then, when Paradox launched a significant rehaul, I had severe misgivings about the game's new direction. The gutting of faction specific space travel, in particular, rubbed me the wrong way. However, things turned a new leaf when Paradox launched three sources of DLC that addressed many of my problems.

The launch of the Apocalypse, Distant Stars, and Megacorp expansions show that Paradox has a long-term vision for Stellaris worth following. Apocalypse and Megacorp both are game-changers in how you interact with other factions during the mid to late game. Unfortunately, Stellaris isn't where it should be. To this day, Paradox cannot design a combat system to save their life, and the end-game events in Stellaris continue to suck shit. All the same, Paradox's dedication to Stellaris shows they know how to fix gameplay issues both big and small. Thus, I have an optimistic outlook about Stellaris' future.

Runner-up: Prey: Mooncrash -

Prey (2017) was a lot of things. Prey offers a compelling story hampered only by questionable gameplay and inconsistent execution. Mooncrash rectifies many of these issues by streamlining the gameplay and placing a focus on tense set pieces. In these carefully crafted sequences, players have more freedom to experiment in how they act, and the result is a more consistent experience.

The "I Really Should Have Read The Reviews Before Buying Shit" Award - The Quiet Man

Giant Bomb's Extra Life coverage is all you really need to know about The Quiet Man.
Giant Bomb's Extra Life coverage is all you really need to know about The Quiet Man.

I am a connoisseur of schlock. A "good" B-movie is something I will set aside time to watch, and the same applies to video games. There's something about a movie or game trying to shoot for the stars and missing that makes me feel warm inside. It might be the sadist in me, but I'll probably never know. Nonetheless, I should have done my homework before buying a $15 copy of The Quiet Man. Looking back on it, I regret this decision full-heartedly.

I don't even know how this game was made in the year of our Lord, 2018. From top to bottom, The Quiet Man is a disaster. It plays like a sluggish mess, and the story is repulsive at every turn. For fuck's sake, the writing cannot be bothered to depict its unnamed protagonist's deafness consistently, AND THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF THE GAME! Even if you try to approach it thinking you are getting a "so bad, it's good" experience; you leave with a grimy feeling that you've helped the developers justify making this shitshow of a game. Trust me, I know how that feels, and it is NOT a good look!

Runner-up: Detroit Become Human

Everything I said about The Quiet Man also applies to Detroit. Judging from his interviews, I fear that by buying this game I have somehow further inflated David Cage's ego.

Anime Of My Year 2018 - Aggretsuko

I know exactly how you feel Retsuko....
I know exactly how you feel Retsuko....

This award might come as a surprise, but as I said earlier, 2018 has been brutal. As such, while the world slowly descends into chaos, watching a red panda, Retsuko, struggle with the doldrums of office work somehow made everything better. Of the many things I watched this year, Aggretsuko manages to encapsulate the malaise of the past two years perfectly. Probably my favorite moment is when Retsuko says "fuck it" and signs up for yoga classes in a quest to find a man loaded with cash. Then, when she does fall in love, it comes at the cost of the rest of her life. Her struggles, while they take place in a neon-drenched Sanrio wonderland, feel "real."

More than that, there's something to Retsuko's pessimism that I find endlessly appealing. Her one-liners are not charming, but depressing concessions about her struggle to progress in society. She's stuck in a rigid workplace rigamarole but doesn't know how to break away from it. Furthermore, the fact that Retsuko is a mascot for Sanrio further adds to the humor. For lack of a better word, if you need a pick me up, this show is right up your alley.

Runner-up: Lupin the Third Part 5

Lupin The Third Part 5 is exactly what it needs to be, and that's why I think it's one of the best animes of the year. Much like the current batch of Mission Impossible movies, it features one of the best-paced action scripts of the year, coupled with charming character moments. Not everything needs to take risks, and that's especially the case with Lupin the Third.

Most Stunningly Mediocre - Current State Of WWE's Booking

*ppppffffbbbbtttt*
*ppppffffbbbbtttt*

Following WrestleMania 34, if you told me RAW would become nigh unwatchable; I would have called you a liar. During the first few months of 2018, it appeared WWE righted the wrongs that had long afflicted it. Young talent was flourishing and the booking for both television programs improved. Even better, with Vince set to leave the company and lose billions on a football league, the company's booking was bound to improve! Whelp, here we are at the start of a new year, and RAW is at it's lowest point since the 1990s. It's a fall from grace WWE can only blame on itself.

Before anyone chimes in, yes, Smackdown and NXT have been consistent in quality. That does not change the fact the Universal Championship is a walking disaster. Additionally, even good PPVs have odd moments that stick out in the worst way possible. On top of that, the company appears to be reverting to its bad habits with the return of a new "evil Authority" storyline. Yes, the actual wrestling has been solid, but time and time again the storytelling feels like WWE is pulling ideas from a playbook. Furthermore, with Ring of Honor and New Japan reaching new meteoric heights, "the same old shit" isn't cutting it for me.

Runner-up: Pacific Rim Uprising -

I have several issues with the original Pacific Rim. While I certainly feel its heart was in the right place, it's afflicted with a dull crew of characters. Pacific Rim Uprising ramps this issue up a notch and lacks the novelty of the original.

The Thing I Most Enjoyed From A Genre I Actively Dislike - That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

Now it's time to talk about something positively for once!
Now it's time to talk about something positively for once!

Earlier in the year, I wrote about my general dislike for isekai anime. Overall, the genre is creatively bankrupt and too trope-laden for my tastes. Hence, my pleasant surprise with "That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime." While other isekai stories hammer you over the head with ill-placed video game references, Slime is a bit smarter. Furthermore, Slime showcases more creative ambition with its premise than anyone could have predicted. Overall, it's a fun show I am not ashamed to admit I have directed others to watch.

Rest assured, I still do not think highly of isekai. With the 2019 anime and manga portfolio inundated with these stories, I can imagine one is destined for greatness. I feel this is doubly the case when the art of these shows looks godawful. HOW MANY MORE GENERIC ISEKAI FANTASY COMEDY SHOWS ARE THERE LEFT?! Fucking Hell, I think I have seen five this year alone! PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!

Runner-up: Dead Cells

Full disclosure, I'm not a fan of Metroidvania games. Between the forced backtracking and item collection, they often boil games to the bare parts I most detest. Nonetheless, Dead Cells is a lively experience with an impressive introduction and conclusion. If it weren't for a substandard early-middle portion where you fight the same enemies over and over again, I'd think more highly of it. That, and it's unabashed difficulty more often results in frustration than exhilaration.

My "Ostrich Moment" - The Mind

This game is a crock of shit!
This game is a crock of shit!

Every year I award my "Ostrich Award" which is a unique commendation to any source of entertainment that resulted in an unwarranted hostile response on my part. As I have said in the past, these works of art make me feel like a proverbial ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. Previous recipients of this award include Kill la Kill, Dota 2, NieR: Automata, and Overwatch. When it comes to The Mind, I did not find it to be a party game that warranted the hype surrounding it. Other party games have used the mechanic of silently organizing a sequence of cards in numerical order. Not only that, but other party games have utilized this mechanic with better results.

The Mind can fuck right off. Seriously, fuck this game. Fuck the people who talked about it in hushed tones. Fuck everyone who thought this game translated to a Mensa membership. Fuck every board game group in my area playing this game nonstop for two months. Fuck everyone who judged me when I was trying to play Photosynthesis while five sessions of The Mind were running. Fuck this fucking game!

Runner-up: Iconoclast -

Iconoclast is a game I have repeatedly been told to like by the internet. Unfortunately, I did not have a fun time. For one, a hare-brained and Byzantine story stymies every turn of the game. In my opinion, Iconoclast has too much story in too little of time. Additionally, some of its mechanics conflict with other aspects of the game which inevitably leads to frustration.

Worst Thing Billed As “Entertainment” - Final Fantasy XIII

Hope, King of Trash Boy Mountain in JRPG Kingdom!
Hope, King of Trash Boy Mountain in JRPG Kingdom!

This award should come as no surprise to anyone who read my Final Fantasy XIII blogs. For those of you who missed it, I'll summarize my feelings: Final Fantasy XIII is terrible. It may be the worst AAA game I have ever played, and I never want to play it again. I would not play it on a boat. I would not play it with a goat. I would not play it on a train. I would not play it in the rain.

The characters are half-baked and wildly inconsistent. Even if you enjoy Vanille or Sazh, you have to contend with the likes of Snow and Hope. The combat system plays itself and takes forever to bear teeth. Gran Pulse, while cited as a decisive turning point, represents everything wrong with Square-Enix's current direction with the Final Fantasy series. Finally, Final Fantasy XIII's story is fucking bad! While it belabors you with its characters and their plight for hours, its mainline story remains incomprehensible.

Runner-up: Tokyo Ghoul:re (Season Two) -

If I had a "hottest mess" award, Tokyo Ghoul:re would likely take it. The animation is a sloppy mess; the story falls apart within two episodes; the cast feels flat; its twists and turns are unintelligible nonsense. I can only imagine how hard it is to convey a story in a twelve episode story arc. Unfortunately, Tokyo Ghoul:re shockingly does virtually nothing in its limited amount of time.

Game Of My Year 2018 - Tetris Effect

Playing Tetris have never felt so good!
Playing Tetris have never felt so good!

I'm not going to oversell the appeal of Tetris Effect. I don't think it is an otherworldly experience like Vib-Ribbon or Child of Eden. However, I do not want to undersell the game either. It's NOT "just Tetris." Tetris Effect is a total package that merges stunning creativity with tired and true gameplay. It's oddly profound, while also not overwhelming you with unneeded complexity. Moreover, I have actively shared it with non-gamers with beautiful results.

The treatment of the basic rules of Tetris in Tetsuya Mizuguchi's latest offering opens the door to further experimentation in the industry. There are several other "classic" games that I want to see get the Tetris Effect approach. Likewise, I love watching people play this game as much as I do playing it. I love seeing people's reactions as the screen fills with beauty, and watching them embark on a journey as they clear lines of Tetris blocks. Not once have I been able to watch Tetris Effect without my mouth agape, and I think that is a genuine sign of quality.

Runner-up: Assassin's Creed Odyssey -

Odyssey offers a different "total package." It's an enthralling blockbuster hit with fun characters and epic set pieces. I had no problem with the game's almost overwhelming amount of content as I felt free to explore its world at my own pace. Odyssey, more than Origins, empowers the player to live vicariously in its world with near total freedom. Even so, if you do not play this game as Kassandra, you made a horrible mistake.

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Final Fantasy Lore: Square-Enix Teased Final Fantasy X-3 Again. Let's Talk About Why That's A Terrible Idea!

Preamble: Internet Assholes Are Asking Square To Make Final Fantasy X-3... AGAIN!

Oh no, not this shit again.
Oh no, not this shit again.

Every two to three months someone on the internet has the gall to ask Square-Enix if they plan to make Final Fantasy X-3. It's a routine I usually dismiss with an eye-roll or audible sigh; however, things were slightly different this time around. Earlier this week, during a live stream promoting Dissidia Final Fantasy NT, the game's producer shared concept art featuring older versions of Tidus and Yuna. Worth mentioning, these images are NOT NEW, and in fact, can be found in the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster. Nevertheless, several news outlets reported about the images, and further cited comments from Final Fantasy X's producer, Yoshinori Kitase. Many saw his remarks as a positive sign that Final Fantasy X-3 might even be in the early planning stages. Here's one particular quote reports cited as a positive sign:

"Currently, Final Fantasy X’s latest story is recorded in the voice drama for the HD Remaster, but back when we decided to include the voice drama the staff was excited about the thoughts of ‘Don’t you want to make Final Fantasy X-3?’ However, most of them have been busy, and so we haven’t been able to make it happen."

For now, I hope fans can look at this illustration and just wonder ‘I wonder what would happen in Final Fantasy X-3?’

These comments are interesting, but I doubt they will translate into something tangible. We have to remember that we are talking about Square-Enix; the same company that took fourteen years to make a proper Kingdom Hearts game. We also have to recognize that many of the people who made Final Fantasy X are no longer with the company. If they did make Final Fantasy X-3, what form or shape would it take? Regardless, my point is simple; Square-Enix is a mess of a company. With the Final Fantasy XV team in shambles, and the Final Fantasy VII Remake on its third development team, Square-Enix's name has no clout.

These rantings might come as a surprise as I am a fervent defender of Final Fantasy X. It is, of all things, my favorite PS2 and Final Fantasy game. Be that as it may, I don't know how to feel about the prospect of another game set in the Final Fantasy X universe. By the time I finished X-2, I felt the franchise's troupe of characters were played out. Likewise, Final Fantasy X-2's "True Ending" doesn't leave room for interpretation. You can only have Tidus and Yuna share promises about staying by each other's side for so long before it becomes thoroughly played out.

Yeah, because the last time we played one of these games, things went
Yeah, because the last time we played one of these games, things went "perfectly."

Before anyone comments, the purpose of this blog isn't to backseat write Final Fantasy X-3 or to assume that I have the writing prowess to outwit Square. Instead, this blog is a treatise on why you don't want Square-Enix to make Final Fantasy X-3 in the first place. To underscore where I'm coming from, we are going to exhaustively look at FOUR of Square's efforts to expand upon the Final Fantasy X universe. I'm doing this with the clear intention of proving that the Final Fantasy X canon is beyond FUCKED and not worth salvaging! This journey will guide us through cinematic cutscenes, mobile games, and even an audio drama! If you want to have your mind blown, keep on reading! Otherwise, this blog may be one of the most depressing ways to end your year.

Before we continue, there's one important note I'd like to clarify. I'll be skipping the novel sequel to Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy X-2.5 ~Eien no Daishō~. It not only hasn't been translated into English, but it's been universally panned by Japanese audiences, and my gut tells me these fans are in the right. When I tried to read a fan translation of the thing, I found it to be excruciating. If you are interested, here's a link to a fan translation.

Final Fantasy X: Eternal Calm

We start this blog on a shaky foundation. For those wondering, Final Fantasy X: Eternal Calm is a cinematic cutscene that fills in the gap between Final Fantasy X and X-2. Or at least, that's what Square claims it does. The barely ten-minute cutscene spends most of its time parading around recognizable characters from Final Fantasy X. For example, the first five minutes involve Yuna holding her breath underwater and teasing Wakka about becoming a father. Without a doubt, there are burning questions about the transition between Final Fantasy X to X-2, and long-winded narrations about Yuna holding her breath are not helpful.

I'm not joking, this fucking thing spends FIVE WHOLE MINUTES on Yuna talking about holding her breath!
I'm not joking, this fucking thing spends FIVE WHOLE MINUTES on Yuna talking about holding her breath!

Regardless, Yuna and Wakka eventually find themselves in the Besaid Cloister. Once there, Yuna is confronted by an elderly man who shares his woe of being a supporter of New Yevon, whereas his son is a member of the Youth League. Through what little lines of dialogue there are, you see Square trying to justify the awkward leap from Final Fantasy X to X-2, but in more ways than one, it's too little too late. We already know what the Youth League and New Yevon are, and the agendas of their respective leaders. This shortcoming instantly highlights a massive problem with the Eternal Calm. It's more than happy to regurgitate names and places, but it never attempts to build context with those proper nouns.

Case in point, in one scene Wakka badgers Yuna about a pending marriage proposal. We learn the offer is from the leaders of New Yevon who wish to see Yuna wed Baralai. Yuna promptly rejects their offer, and the game never speaks of this matter again. At no point does the cutscene stop to explain who Baralai is, or what the critical tenets of New Yeon may be. The game promptly juxtaposes to a different scene where Yaibal attempts to recruit Yuna into the Youth League, and the same problems apply here. Characters are more than happy to spew contextless proper nouns, but NEVER establish their grounding in the world.

THE FINAL FANTASY X RIKKU CHARACTER DESIGN IS THE ONLY ONE THAT SHOULD BE CANON!
THE FINAL FANTASY X RIKKU CHARACTER DESIGN IS THE ONLY ONE THAT SHOULD BE CANON!

We eventually meet Rikku, still in her Final Fantasy X garb, who wishes to show Yuna something. When Wakka, Yuna, and Rikku board an Al Bhed ship, Rikku shows Yuna a sphere that appears to contain Tidus. If you played Final Fantasy X-2, then you are all too familiar with this memory sphere. I know I brought this issue up in my Final Fantasy X-2 series, but the fact Shuyin looks and sounds nothing like Tidus, makes Yuna look like a bumbling fool. Additionally, Yuna's character break in Final Fantasy X-2 is made even more apparent in this cinematic. On several occasions, Wakka impresses on Yuna that she cannot be running around looking for shit as she has an essential role in shaping Spira's recovery effort. However, Yuna shrugs off Wakka's advice and selfishly joins Rikku.

Additionally, these "expanded" storylines feature shockingly limited casts. One-off characters you've never seen before constantly plague these narratives. For instance, in this godawful abomination, only five characters have spoken lines of dialogue, and one is a senior citizen who is never named! More importantly, if the Eternal Calm intends to add context as to why Yuna joins Rikku in Final Fantasy X-2, the opposite is true. Yuna inexplicably becomes selfish at the drop of a hat, and that's it! It's a careless character change that feels utterly unearned.

The Mobius Final - Fantasy Final Fantasy X Collaboration Event

I'm not going to bother explaining what Mobius Final Fantasy is, because that would take forever.
I'm not going to bother explaining what Mobius Final Fantasy is, because that would take forever.

No need to adjust your computer screen, you read the above subheading correctly. A few months ago, there was a time-sensitive (i.e., it has since ended) Final Fantasy X themed expansion pack in Mobius Final Fantasy. For those that do not know, Mobius is one of Square's several Final Fantasy themed mobile games. Interestingly enough, Mobius has had themed expansion packs in the past, but in the case of Final Fantasy X, things are a bit "different." First, the "Dream Within a Dream" story arc is meant to honor the 30th anniversary of Final Fantasy. That's right, Square-Enix marked the anniversary of their tentpole franchise, in a free-to-play mobile game. If that doesn't clue you into the current state of Square-Enix, I don't know what else will. More importantly, Mobius rewrote Final Fantasy X's canon in some unusual ways.

"Bizarre" is the best way to describe this thing. A vast majority of the event is spent listening to Tidus recite events from Final Fantasy X. However, if you want to know how Tidus ends up in Mobius Final Fantasy, then buckle up, because shit is about to get WEIRD! By chapter three, Tidus encounters what appears to be Yuna. While its status as a mobile game can forgive some of its missteps, other decisions in Mobius are unforgivable. In particular, in the span of a single chapter, Tidus learns how to summon Aeons, cast magic, and usher away evils spirits into the afterlife. If you know anything about Final Fantasy X, you know he can't do any of this shit.

For mobile game... you know what? No, these character models are nightmare fuel regardless.
For mobile game... you know what? No, these character models are nightmare fuel regardless.

Conversely, the story is told primarily from the perspective of Mobius' player character, and as a result, your interactions with Tidus are limited. Consequently, it is this player character, and NOT Tidus, who moves the story from one point to the next. Specifically, after the protagonist does some investigating, they discover the world of Mobius Final Fantasy overlaps with Final Fantasy X. Yeah, you heard that right, Final Fantasy X and Mobius Final Fantasy share the same canonical universe. The Farplane, which has featured some of the most emotionally resonant moments in Final Fantasy history, acts as a gateway to a bullshit F2P world. I don't know what's real anymore.

Upon reaching the final chapter of this expansion pack, Tidus discovers a crystal that can return him to Spira. After several lines of expository dialogue, it's implied the Yuna we encountered earlier is Bahamut in hiding. Those who played Final Fantasy X-2 know it is Bahamut who offers to return Tidus to Yuna in the "True Ending." We discover the previous events in Mobius are Final Fantasy X-2 but from Tidus' perspective. When Tidus enters the portal, he sets into motion X-2's "True Ending." If you still have your doubts that this game is a real thing, here's a video compiling the cinematics from the final chapter:

Final Fantasy X-2: Last Mission

We now enter the nebulous world of the post-Final Fantasy X-2 expanded universe. If you thought the previous stories were crazy, then they've got another thing coming. We now juxtapose to Final Fantasy X-2: Last Mission, which takes place three months after the defeat of Vegnagun and Shuyin. Yuna receives a letter from a mysterious source asking her to return to Luca. Upon entering the Blitzball arena, she encounters Paine and Rikku. The three discover they each received similar letters and set off to investigate the newly discovered "Iutycyr Tower."

Full disclosure, I have not been able to complete whatever Final Fantasy X-2: Last Mission may be. It's supposed to play like a mystery dungeon game no different than Chocobo's Dungeon. In fact, it has many of the trappings you'd expect in a typical roguelike. However, and I'm not exaggerating, it's the worst playing thing Square-Enix has ever made! I'm not going to lie to you and say Chocobo's Dungeon is the best thing since sliced bread, but at least it plays like an actual video game. Last Mission, on the one hand, is a flaming pile of trash. Seriously, look at the control scheme and tell me if it makes any sense to you.

WHAT THE FUCK AM I EVEN LOOKING AT?! WHO DESIGNED THIS?!
WHAT THE FUCK AM I EVEN LOOKING AT?! WHO DESIGNED THIS?!

Two significant issues plague Final Fantasy X-2: Last Mission. First, trying to graft an epic storyline to a roguelike is a disaster waiting to happen. Given the game's punishing difficulty, you end up seeing the same cutscenes and character interactions over and over again. Additionally, Last Mission is one of the most fucked up roguelikes I have ever played. Not only is the tower EIGHTY LEVELS LONG, but every conceivable mechanic is procedurally generated. Saving the game, leveling your dresses, and restoring HP are all procedurally generated items. If you hit a stride in the game and want to protect your progress, you have to hope and pray a save tome is hidden somewhere in the environment. For lack of a better word, IT'S FUCKED!

But we are not here to listen to me complain about Last Mission's gameplay. No, we are here to discuss what it contributes to Final Fantasy X's canon. Well, I regret to inform you, it's another heaping pile of shit. If you want to watch yet another character break involving Yuna and Rikku, then boy howdy, you should play Last Mission! During the story, we discover Rikku hates Yuna's guts, and Yuna wants to cut Rikku out of her life now that Tidus is back. If you thought Yuna is the type of person who prioritizes her romantic relationships over her own family, then ding ding, you are correct!

I'm sorry if Yuna has been busy REBUILDING THE WORLD after two Apocalyptic disasters!
I'm sorry if Yuna has been busy REBUILDING THE WORLD after two Apocalyptic disasters!

I know what you are thinking, the concept of relationships only working under the backdrop of an impending disaster is interesting. Unfortunately, Last Mission's character strife feels like "drama for drama's sake." To illustrate, there's a moment where the trio gathers at a campfire to discuss their fears, and the three agree it's "change." Without warning, this touching moment turns into a shouting fight where each character blames the other for breaking up their friendship. Rikku exclaims Yuna never has time for her family, whereas Yuna repeatedly calls Rikku "selfish."

But the worst is yet to come! After Paine admits to forging the letters, everyone questions if they should continue with their journey. After hemming and hawing for a bit, they agree to climb the tower regardless if there's a treasure or not. Upon reaching the top of the building, they locate a broken contraption. Paine interprets the non-functioning machine to be a metaphor for their friendship. After a loving embrace, the three recognize their memories together will last forever. As they renew their friendship, the power of love restores the robot to its former glory. The game then cuts to black and ends.

I cannot even begin to describe what any of the shit on this screen capture even means.
I cannot even begin to describe what any of the shit on this screen capture even means.

Final Fantasy X -Will-

Before we continue, I want to say that Final Fantasy X -Will- is the biggest pile of shit I have ever seen my entire life. First, it's not even a "game." Final Fantasy X -Will- is an audio drama that plays while you watch the credits for the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster. Second, the story unfolds from the perspective of two characters you have never seen before. Specifically, Final Fantasy X -Will- is narrated by a seventeen-year-old girl named Chuami, and her childhood friend, Kurgum, joins her.

Another point worth clarifying, as you listen to this drama you look at articles of Final Fantasy X/X-2 concept art. These static images are occasionally themed to fit the narration, but that's not always the case. Regardless, let's break down this piece of shit bit by bit. After a short preamble, we find Chuami and Kurgum excitedly waiting to watch a Blitzball match. As they fret, they encounter Tidus who anemically greets them. While they suspect something is wrong with Tidus, the "Council" promptly assigns them a mission. Before the events of this story, New Yevon and the Youth League merged to form a unified government called the Council.

What a
What a "wonderful" way to convey a story.

Chuami and Kurgum discover their mission is to relay a message to Yuna. When they land on the island nation, Wakka, who is no longer voiced by John DiMaggio, greets them. Wakka reveals that Yuna, in her grand wisdom, is restarting the Church of Yevon. Which makes perfect sense when you consider it's the same organization that at one point asked her to sacrifice her life for nothing. But as Wakka points out, they had progressive ideas about working towards world peace and societal tranquility. Pay no mind of their use of religious dogma to justify institutional discrimination against the Al Bhed!

When our motley crew meets up with Yuna, they find her to be distant and cold. Chuami reveals there are reports of the Farplane eloping into parts of Spira, but Yuna dismisses these claims as hearsay. Nevertheless, when Yuna decides to investigate the matter, she sees walking and talking apparitions at the Moonflow. If that isn't surprising enough, Chuami reveals that she is the daughter of Auron. Somehow, Auron had a child while he was a ghost. That's right, Final Fantasy X -Will- goes full Ghost Dad on your ass! That is a thing that happens, and it cannot unhappen because this shit is FINAL FANTASY CANON!

Thank you for putting the idea of Auron having sex in my head, Square-Enix!
Thank you for putting the idea of Auron having sex in my head, Square-Enix!

After the characters observe the Farplane conjuring talking ghosts, the team endeavors to report their findings to the Council. While in transit to Bevelle, they discover Sin is alive and well. Yup, Sin is back. If you are confused, you are not the only one. Those who remember the events of Final Fantasy X, know that Sin was a metaphor of Jecht's alcoholism and parental abuse of Tidus. Not appreciative of this aspect of Sin, Square pulls Sin back into existence for shits and giggles. Does this audio drama ever address how this stunning turn of events is possible? NOPE! Does Square-Enix care if this ruins Final Fantasy X's ending? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Worth mentioning, while this nonsense is happening, none of the characters behave as they should. Yuna is cold and distant; Wakka is back to being a religious zealot; Lulu is dismissive of anyone younger than her; Tidus is an arrogant asshole. Speaking of which, we eventually find out Tidus has been flirting with an unseen female Blitzball player named "Marphie," and Yuna has been dating Kurgum in secret. In fact, Yuna and Tidus use these relationships to blackmail the other into returning to them. To add insult to injury, one of the last things we witness is Yuna and Tidus in the process of breaking up with each other, under the backdrop of the impending Apocalypse!

To whoever made this: Fuck you. Get fucked. Go fuck yourself.
To whoever made this: Fuck you. Get fucked. Go fuck yourself.

As the story begins to conclude, we discover Tidus is unhappy to be back in Spira due to survivor's guilt. Yuna, on the other hand, claims she's been busy re-establishing a church that at one point was run by EVIL ZOMBIES! As Yuna sets off to form a party to defeat Sin, Tidus arrives and demands he be a part of her team. He recites their promise to protect each other no matter what. Yuna hesitantly accepts and makes a speech to the people of Bevelle. After she finishes, the audio drama mercifully ends.

What Does Any Of This Mean For Final Fantasy X-3?

You may still be questioning the purpose of this blog, and honestly, that's an entirely valid sentiment. Dicking around aside, should Square-Enix follow through in making Final Fantasy X-3, these are the plotlines it would likely address:

  1. The possibility Auron impregnated a woman with his ghost sperm.
  2. YRP breaking up because everyone became a jagoff.
  3. Yuna cuts Rikku out of her life because boys are more important than family, and Paine leaves both of them in the hope of learning more about her past.
  4. Yuna and Tidus' relationship is on the rocks, and both are whiny brats.
  5. The Farplane connects to a free-to-play mobile game.
  6. The factions from Final Fantasy X-2 merge to form a unified government, and Yuna restarts the Church of Yevon.
  7. Sin is back, even though his return makes no sense and retcons the heart and soul of Final Fantasy X.
  8. The ghosts of the Farplane appear to be sentient as they can now interact with their surroundings.

Hopefully, this list proves a point I want all of you to take away. If Square-Enix makes Final Fantasy X-3, it will feature dogshit storylines that have nothing to do with what made Final Fantasy X "special." Likewise, Square has consistently shown they have no idea why people fell in love with Final Fantasy X in the first place. While their efforts to expand upon Final Fantasy X feature familiar faces, they never seem to understand the spirit of those characters. Tidus and Yuna are the clearest examples of this problem. Both have been warped to fit whatever bullshit narrative Square wants to saddle them with, even if it has no logical frame of reference.

This
This "franchise" should live and die in this HD Remaster.

It pains me to say this, but Final Fantasy X-3 would be a disaster. If made, It's going to be a shitty game. Everything Square has shown us up to this point is garbage. Therefore, people need to stop asking them to make Final Fantasy X-3. Seriously, it reeks of fans pining for a new Indiana Jones movie, and then when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out, everyone regretted their calls for a reboot. Nothing good is going to happen if another Final Fantasy X game is made! It's just going to be a cocktail of sadness and disappointment!

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