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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Final Fantasy Lore: There's A Final Fantasy Manga, And It's The WILDEST Thing You've Never Read!

Prelude

What have I gotten myself into this time?
What have I gotten myself into this time?

Before we can appreciate the Final Fantasy manga in all its glory, we must first travel back to 2002. A year after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within nearly bankrupted the company, Square was on the up and up. Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts strong-armed the studio back to relevancy. This recovery would culminate with them purchasing their leading source of competition (i.e., Enix Corporation). In the following years, Square-Enix saw a Renaissance of sorts. Final Fantasy XII represented a return to form, and Dragon Quest VIII was a critical and financial success.

However, Square's leadership never lost their grand vision of entering the moviemaking industry. To their defense, Square's latest multimedia forays have not been as financially ruinous as The Spirits Within. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children exists, and we have Square to thank for the release of Fullmetal Alchemist. That said, Square-Enix's attempts to adapt their game franchises for the big screen have been "mixed." I know I haven't reviewed Final Fantasy XV, but the concept of needing to watch a movie to know what the fuck is going on in a video game repulses me.

This point leads me to the incredibly curious story of Square-Enix's anime and manga division. Without a doubt, this branch of Square-Enix is a weird beast to unpack. You see, Enix Corporation was for much of its history a video game AND manga publishing studio. For years, Enix owned a comic and manga shell company called "Gangan Comics," and Square was conscious of this fact when they orchestrated their merger. When the merger went through, Square-Enix left Gangan Comics intact rather than sell it off. Since then, Square-Enix has often employed many of its light novel writers to make godawful audio dramatizations based on the Final Fantasy universe. In a future entry of this new series, I hope to explore the Final Fantasy audio dramas, because HOT DAMN is that a dark rabbit-hole.

Full Disclosure About My Tastes In Manga

Final Fantasy Lost Stranger is a manga first published in 2017. For those wondering, Lost Stranger is a modern-era "Isekai" manga. In case you are not aware, Isekai is a science-fiction sub-genre wherein a protagonist teleports to an alternate reality or multiverse. Sometimes these protagonists die and are reincarnated in video game inspired landscapes, whereas others find themselves "stuck" in a virtual reality. The genre, in general, is best described as a mix of "wish fulfillment" and "comfort food." Most entries are non-confrontational and follow a familiar storytelling format.

If my previous paragraph came across as dower, that's because I am not the biggest fan of the Isekai genre. Ultimately, every Isekai story follows one of two diverging paths. The first option is for the story to be a self-reflective drama wherein the protagonist needs to free themselves from a virtual world (e.g., .hack//Sign). The other option is for the story to be a comedy farce wherein the protagonist uses their video game knowledge to become an omnipotent figure (e.g., KonoSuba). I'm of the controversial opinion the genre is falling into the same trap Moe did ten years ago. That is to say, the genre's best stories have already been told, and everything at this point is a cheap knockoff.

Worth noting, Final Fantasy Lost Stranger's protagonist is an actual employee of Square-Enix. More on that nonsense in a minute.
Worth noting, Final Fantasy Lost Stranger's protagonist is an actual employee of Square-Enix. More on that nonsense in a minute.

Look, I get there are a lot of KonoSuba fans on Giant Bomb, but you'd be hard-pressed to argue it's "high art." Instead, it's a guilty pleasure through and through, and I'm not saying that as an insult. But at the end of the day, it's no different from your average slice-of-life schoolgirl anime, and if you've seen one slice-of-life school girl anime, you've seen them all. I'd argue that sentiment perfectly summarizes how I feel about Isekai. When I watch KonoSuba, I know what's going to happen even before the episode starts. With that in mind, you should know I approached Lost Stranger with the lowest of expectations, and I don't think it met those expectations, but I'm sure about that.

Did that last sentence not make sense? Well, when I review manga, I usually settle on one of three assessment grades. To me, manga is either good, bad, or weird. Using these categories, Final Fantasy Lost Stranger is WEIRD with a capital "W." I'm not joking when I say Final Fantasy Lost Stranger is probably one of the wildest things I have ever read. Every genre trope or idiom you may associate with Isekai gets thrown out of the fucking window. So, as long as you don't mind spoilers, let's take a bold look at the first volume, which features chapters one through three.

Chapter One

Our protagonist in Lost Stranger is Shogo Sasaki, who is an employee of Square-Enix. While Shogo was excited to join Square-Enix as a long-term fan of Final Fantasy, he quickly comes to hate his job. By the introduction, he's working long hours and endless cycles of "crunch." Additionally, while he joined Square-Enix in hopes of one day working on his beloved JRPG franchise, he is perpetually assigned exploitative mobile gacha games. At Square-Enix, he is joined by his sister, Yuko Sasaki, who is another belabored employee. While Shogo's sister is undoubtedly an inspiration in his life, he is finding both his work schedule and caseload overwhelming.

I cannot preface enough, the initial premise of this story boils down to an employee of Square-Enix losing the will to live because of shitty working conditions at Square. That's the plot! The same company that has honestly burned out two creative directors, openly admits it sucks to work for them. I don't know what's real anymore. If that alone does not have you shaking your head, then you had better buckle up; things are about to get weirder.

And things are about to get crazier my children!
And things are about to get crazier my children!

After enjoying a good meal with his sister, Shogo and Yuko FUCKING DIE when a truck crashes into them as they cross a street! Yup, it's page thirteen of chapter one, and both of our main characters ARE FUCKING DEAD!IN CHAPTER GODDAMNED ONE NONETHELESS! After this traumatic event, Shogo is resuscitated by a hooded figure. Upon waking up in an inn, Shogo identifies his new backdrop as being "Final Fantasy." To clarify, Lost Stranger is a weird amalgam of every Final Fantasy game, and you have to take Shogo for his word. More often than not, Final Fantasy mainstays like Moogles or Chocobos are your only reminder this is a Final Fantasy manga.

Shogo explores this world with brimming enthusiasm having recovered from the trauma of his apparent real-world death. Seriously, two panels ago Shogo died, and now he's happily waltzing through a bazaar! Moreover, despite the dark premise, Shogo cannot stop making Final Fantasy-based jokes! I'm not exaggerating, more than half of the first chapter involves him naming the source of inspiration for the items and animals in the world. Eventually, Shogo locates his sister and discovers she has joined a group of adventurers. This motley crew reluctantly accepts Shogo and is populated by your usual suspects. There's a meek white mage who enjoys reading, a level-headed black mage, and a female dark-elf who is the group's tsundere.

For any matter, the party sets off to complete a mission where they must kill a dragon that is plaguing a local village. In what I can only describe as the manga's worst reference, Yuko says "You don't need a reason to help people," when they find out the life of a local girl is at risk. After a bit of fussing about, the company quickly locates the dragon. Unfortunately for them, the beast poses a more significant challenge than they anticipated. The dragon inflicts a mighty blow against Yuko, and everyone else is left scrambling. Of course, Shogo discovers a newfound ability he didn't know about and promptly kills the dragon.

Uh, please tell me that's a
Uh, please tell me that's a "flesh wound."

With the dragon dispatched, Shogo locates his sister whose wounds have worsened. After exchanging a few words, YUKO DIES IN HIS ARMS! That's right, we are one chapter in, and the protagonist's sister IS FUCKING DEAD AGAIN! When Shogo asks the team's white mage to use the "raise" command, she responds no such ability exists. Then, on cue, Yuko's body lifts into the air and transforms into a crystal. I shit you not, that is a thing that happens. To review, in the span of one chapter, our protagonist works soul-crushing amounts of crunch, is hit by a truck, reborn in a video game, and sees their sister die! I don't even know where to begin. Did a computer algorithm write this manga?

Chapter Two & Chapters Three

Episode two picks up from where the previous section ends. Shogo is in denial his sister is forever gone and seeks a way to bring her back. For whatever reason, he seemingly has forgotten the two of them have died once before. Shogo discovers that neither Phoenix Downs nor Arise exist in this version of Final Fantasy. In response, he sets off to find a legendary Phoenix in a desperate attempt to bring his sister back from the dead.

Worth noting, Final Fantasy Lost Stranger has a MASSIVE tone problem. In the scene before Yuko's death, the characters enjoy a brief break at a local hot spring, and the scene plays out as expected. Worse, Shogo responds to his circumstances with puns and quotes from real-life Final Fantasy games. I get the guy is going through a lot at this point in the story, but quoting Tidus after the death of one's sister isn't a good look. Likewise, his relationship with the female dark-elf, Rei, leads to a rote tsundere comedy routine. These issues are unfortunate because Shogo's original storyline is heart-wrenching and powerful stuff. By the end of chapter two, you feel for him as he sets off to bring his sister back.

This panel happens in the same chapter where Shogo's sister dies and turns into a crystal. I shit you not!
This panel happens in the same chapter where Shogo's sister dies and turns into a crystal. I shit you not!

If any of this sounds appealing, I need you to know there's a catch. Lost Stranger's lack of a consistent tone is a significant Achilles' heel. For example, after providing an emotional roller coaster for two chapters, the third chapter is mostly a slapstick comedy affair. Here, our motley crew teams up with a local group of mercenaries to dispatch a swarm of Coeurl. Leading the ne'er-do-wells is a bully whose affectations reek of Biff Tannen. Predictably, Shogo proves his worth during a challenge, and the mercenary captain is forced to apologize for his previous grandstanding. In between these moments, the chapter spends SIX PANELS talking about food and paying reference to Final Fantasy XIV's meal system!

Which reminds me, Shogo's interactions with his party run the gamut of standard Isekai schlock and needing to pay reference to Final Fantasy. Often, he will share a tidbit of his video game knowledge, and the other characters challenge the veracity of his claims. Time and time again, the chapter's conclusion proves him correct, and everyone fawns over his abilities. It's a repetitious format especially considering the supporting cast have ostensibly lived in this world their entire lives. Similarly, on several occasions, you watch Shogo disrupt the world's social fabric to no consequence. Admittedly, this problem exists in virtually every Isekai story, but it is compounded in Lost Stranger because the supporting characters all suck.

I wish I were kidding about chapter three being 70% an homage to FF14's meal system.
I wish I were kidding about chapter three being 70% an homage to FF14's meal system.

Rei, the dark elf warrior, is a tsundere. Sadly, she brings nothing else to the table. The white mage is a milquetoast bookworm whom on several occasions, Shogo needs to inspire to have more self-esteem. Then there's the party's black mage who is your typical "straight man." He has all the hallmarks of being a Zeppo Marx figure, but with none of the personality. Hopefully, you can see the supporting cast has the structure of a comedy romp, but with the story's darker undercurrent, they largely feel out of place.

The Other Chapters (DEAR GOD, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!)

We are technically done with the first volume of this series, but there are a few additional chapters I'd like to discuss. After subjecting us to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, the series' momentum starts to drop off. For one thing, Shogo earns the respect of his party faster than he reasonably should. The supporting characters agree to assist him so long as it does not disrupt their ability to get a paycheck. It's heartwarming, but chapter four does nothing to build upon these character relationships. In fact, for some fucking reason, the first five panels of chapter four are a parody of Peter Jackson's MOTHERFUCKING LORD OF THE GODDAMNED RINGS!

Fucking whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?
Fucking whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Taking a note from Intel's tick-tock design, the later chapters seemingly alternate between drama and comedy. Worse yet, the story arcs start to drag by chapter ten. In volume three, there's a story arc where the characters are captured by a Gothic Lolita succubus that goes on far longer than it should. She's dressed as you'd guess, and the writing is comically predictable. The tone here is doubly weird because it's written like a hardcore horror manga. I'm not joking; chapter ten ends with the succubus ripping out the eyes of a corrupt baron (i.e., Invader Zim-style). However, to further highlight this manga's tone issues, when the succubus ties the company up and throws them into a basement, the characters spew several bondage jokes while trying to break free.

The series loses so much steam at this point that it eventually plagiarizes Chrono Trigger of all things. In chapter ten, the characters discover a recent addition to their party is secretly a princess. When they enter a local town, the city's leaders brandish them "kidnappers" and place them on trial. Before they are executed, the princess dramatically intervenes. Again, the events here are as predictable as they seem on paper. Also, the only reminder of Shogo's sister comes in the form of the occasional dream sequence. These flashbacks are fucking emotionally devastating and come out of nowhere. Seriously, look at the panel below and tell me how it makes you feel.

Fucking, what the fuck am I even reading?
Fucking, what the fuck am I even reading?

Sadly, these flashbacks have little bearing on the course of the story. They happen, and Shogo rarely mentions them outside of silent thought bubbles. As a result, his sister's death becomes a bit of an afterthought. In this regard, I do not blame the writers; I instead blame the genre. A protagonist losing sight of their original objective is an issue that plagues virtually every Isekai anime or manga. It's a problem that plagued Fushigi Yuugi way back in 1992, and it's a problem Lost Stranger does not solve.

Nevertheless, some of the Lost Stranger's shortcomings are self-inflicted. Each chapter starts with Shogo asserting his need to bring back his sister, but the chapter conclusions rarely have anything to do with that. In that regard, let's use the series' godawful Gothic Lolita story arc as a case study. That narrative starts with the party entering the city of Mysidia with the hope of finding a magical tome with information about "Revive." In the next two chapters, they recruit a new party member; their new party member is revealed to be a princess; they get thrown into a basement; and finally, watch someone have their eyes torn from their skull. For FOUR FUCKING EPISODES, the only reminder of Shogo's sister is one misplaced flashback!

Worth noting, this is one of the first panels you see after the villain rips a persons' eyes from their skull.
Worth noting, this is one of the first panels you see after the villain rips a persons' eyes from their skull.

Finally, I would be bereft not to discuss the manga's art and illustrations. I would best describe the art as perfectly serviceable with brief moments of inspiration. That said, the illustrator struggles to draw emotive faces. Unless the characters are shouting at the top of their lungs or weeping, they all look stone-faced. Not to mention, the backgrounds are uninspired. While some of the environments are undoubtedly beautiful, too often the characters are seen having expository dialogue behind an entirely white backdrop.

Final Thoughts

I usually end these blogs with advice on whether or not you should buy or play the subject in question. In this case, I am going to have to ask you to use your best judgment. If the wackiness of its premise sounds appealing, then, by all means, go ahead and give it a try. Be warned though, I bought the first volume for $7, and don't feel like I got my money's worth. This sentiment is due in large part to Lost Stranger's lack of a consistent tone and message. Honest to goodness, this series cannot decide if it wants to be a comedy or drama. It instead tries to be both with mixed results.

At the same time, it's kind of perfect that the manga adaptation of Final Fantasy is a garbled mess. Let's be honest; tonal inconsistency has been the franchise's modus operandi since its inception. The adventures of Shogo are long and drawn out, similarly to the experiences of several iconic Final Fantasy protagonists. Shit, if the intention was to make a manga that perfectly emulates a Final Fantasy story, warts and all, then they hit it out of the park with Lost Stranger. Are there unneeded exploitations of the male gaze? YUP! Does the manga have sudden plot twists that come out of nowhere? Yes, and yes!

It doesn't help the Final Fantasy references get more brazen as the manga progresses.
It doesn't help the Final Fantasy references get more brazen as the manga progresses.

However, I'd be lying if I said Lost Stranger was an "instant buy" for all fans of Final Fantasy. While Lost Stranger certainly has Final Fantasy trappings, it too often feels like another generic fantasy manga. If one were to remove the Moogles or Chocobos, I would predict you would struggle to identify it as based on Final Fantasy. This problem is due in large part to the series' insistence on adapting the franchise in general rather than picking a specific game. As a result, what Final Fantasy iconography exists feels watered down and reserved for cutaway gags or one-off jokes.

Then there's the added issue of Lost Stranger being an Isekai manga, which genuinely curbs its appeal to many prospective buyers. On that note, I want to say that Lost Stranger is not a great story even by Isekai standards. The choice of genre further highlights how inconsequential the series feels. There's no sense of ambition throughout the series, and its myriad of problems are proof of that. It doesn't bring anything new to table nor does it aspire to do so. If anything, it reeks of being design by committee.

In the end, my investment in Lost Stranger wasn't a complete waste of my time, but it assuredly wasn't the best use of it either. It's far from being the worst work of writing bearing the "Final Fantasy" moniker, but I doubt I'll remember it ten years from now. I know that sounds shitty, but it's genuinely the kindest thing I can say about Lost Stranger. Still, and I hate to repeat a generic soundbite from TV Tropes, "your mileage may vary." With that, I'll see you next blog!

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Fighting Final Fantasy XIII - Episode 5: This Game Killed Final Fantasy AND Square-Enix!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Here are links to the previous episodes of this series. Sorry for the delay on this episode.

Part 41: The Story Is Total Nonsense

This sentence perfectly summarizes the current state of Square-Enix.
This sentence perfectly summarizes the current state of Square-Enix.

I have yet to meet a Final Fantasy XIII apologist willing to defend its story. Commonly, supporters cite the game's mechanics as a highlight. Others express affection for its art design or visuals. However, these advocates concede Final Fantasy XIII's mainline story is a dumpster fire. The cast is inconsistent; there are no memorable characters; the antagonist is ill-defined; things happen at a whim; the general plot is incomprehensible. It's a piss poor storytelling effort on Square's part especially when you consider their legacy. For years, they were the studio to count on for epic fantasy tales.

To clarify, the scaffolding for the main narrative is a patchy and frayed network. In the beginning, our motley crew lives on a planet called "Cocoon." On Cocoon, there exists a pantheon of gods called "fal'Cie." The leader of these gods, Barthandelus, wants to sacrifice humanity to the god of creation. For one reason or another, Barthandelus is tired of tending to humanity's needs. Rather than lead Cocoon through a spiritual awakening, he precipitates an act of genocide. This premise guides the story, and it is here where Final Fantasy XIII falters.

We have a solid contender for
We have a solid contender for "WORST" Cid in a Final Fantasy game.

While I understand the story's leading actors, there's no grounding on why everything unfolds the way it does. On a whim, Barthandelus assumes he can summon an omnipotent being called "The Maker." However, we never see this figure in the game. Somehow, Barthandelus is an expert on things that have never happened. Similarly, our party is intimately connected with Barthandelus' scheme. For instance, Vanille and Fang share a destiny in becoming an apocalyptic figure known as "Ragnarok." Luckily for Barthandelus, Ragnarok is one of the few deities capable of killing him, thus setting into motion the possible end of the world.

It seems like a "red thread of fate" guides every twist in Final Fantasy XIII. Regrettably, Final Fantasy XIII doesn't use the theme of "predestination" to its advantage. In fact, I would hazard to say there isn't a central idea to Final Fantasy XIII's narrative. In chapter two, the story vaguely hints at a government conspiracy. By section three, Sanctum is a pseudo-fascistic military-industrial complex. At some point, the story devolves into stopping the Apocalypse, and the game never justifies this turn of events. Before any of you accuse me of back-seat writing, let's look at Final Fantasy VII as a case study. Like Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy VII starts modestly and becomes cataclysmic by its end. However, every twist and turn in Final Fantasy VII sticks with you. Without a doubt, no one forgets Final Fantasy VII's final ac, but the same cannot be said about Final Fantasy XIII.

The talents of Square's animators are wasted on this game.
The talents of Square's animators are wasted on this game.

Case and point, I dare anyone to describe three non-cutscene character moments in Final Fantasy XIII, and I suspect this task is impossible. One reason for this problem is the game lectures you for hours and fails to set aside time for you to process new information. Likewise, the game transitions to new environments without scaffolding. There's a distinct lack of character dialogue when exploring new environments. While Final Fantasy XIII's levels are objectively beautiful, they are stunningly superficial. To illustrate, I know I spent hours at the Gapra Whitewood and Sunleth Waterscape, but I would be hard-pressed to name a single accomplishment at either location.

Therein lies another pressing issue with Final Fantasy XIII. The story haphazardly moves from one set piece to the next without breathing room. Between chapter twelve and the credits, the player witnesses four distinct environments. Each level looks different from the previous one, but there's nothing connecting these environments. Every level exists in its own little bubble. Sure, there are monsters, but they don't feel like they are part of an ecosystem. The same sentiment applies to the game's cityscapes. You'll interact with the occasional NPC, but they are a far cry from the well-renown worldbuilding of past Square-Enix games.

Part 42: What Is Happening? Why Am I Here? Who Are These People?

When we last met, our intrepid explorers affirmed a desire to defeat Barthandelus. I wish to remind you, Barthandelus said killing him would set into motion the end of the world. He wants to die. For some reason, no one in our party addresses this fact as we invade Eden. Additionally, the characters never establish what they hope to accomplish on Cocoon. When we last set foot on the planet, the characters were chased away by the planet's populace. Seriously, what the fuck are they going to do?

If you answered
If you answered "have a cutscene that looks like Michael Bay edited it," you would be correct.

Admittedly, the Siege of Eden is a marvelous affair. It's a change of pace after the game meanders on Pulse. If there is one problem, it's the editing. Final Fantasy XIII's action cutscenes feature a dizzying number of close-ups and quick cuts. Often, the cutscenes use extreme close-up as establishing shots and jump cut to a different character without warning. Similarly, these cutscenes feature an obscene amount of motion blur. The use of motion blur is especially problematic when everyone's Eidolon looks like a Michael Bay Transformer. It's undoubtedly flashy, but likely to give you a headache after ten minutes.

I'm willing to concede chapter twelve starts decently. Despite its faults, the establishing cutscene does wonders to instill an action-packed tone. Moreover, it provides much-needed worldbuilding. In an earlier cutscene, we see Cid Raines performing stately responsibilities in place of Galenth Dysley. It's far from perfect, but the story has momentum. Therefore, it's a damn shame Square builds upon your anticipation with the same godawful level design that plagues the rest of the game! With Pulse behind us, we are back to navigating linear hallways populated by trash mobs.

Are you fucking shitting me?
Are you fucking shitting me?

What a rude awakening! The corridors on Eden are as narrow as they were in chapter one, and at this point, their purpose is nakedly transparent. That is to say; the passageways force players into random encounters. To add insult to injury, the monsters on Eden are palette-swapped versions of shit you've seen before. Earlier, the game took great strides to remind us we are amidst a grand conclusion. Unfortunately, no individual part of Eden conveys this sense. I don't know about you, but linear corridors do not get my blood pumping.

The game tries to remedy this shortcoming by barraging you with nostalgia. Remember Snow's friends from the train heist? Well, they are inexplicably here and briefly cheer up Snow. On top of that, you fight Yaag Rosch twice, and Rygdea pops out of nowhere to put Cid out of his misery. At this point, the character interactions unfold at a breakneck speed. Nevertheless, these moments do not lead to anything substantial. To illustrate, after Snow has his touching moment with his friends, they are never mentioned again.

Seriously, do any of you remember the name of this asshole?
Seriously, do any of you remember the name of this asshole?

The game's superficiality is even worse when it pines for melodrama. In particular, when Rygdea takes out Cid, it treats the act as an event worth lamenting. Nevertheless, it's hard to feel emotional when Cid is barely a character in the story. The same could be said about Yaag Rosch. When Rosch sacrifices himself, the game tries to frame the moment as redemptive. Even so, this moment lacks any emotional resonance. For pity's sake, Yaag Rosch speaks for less than an hour and spends 97% of the story acting like an irredeemable bastard.

Part 43: The Gameplay Is Broken

A common complaint about my Final Fantasy XIII series pertains to my lack of commentary about its gameplay. To my defense, there's not a lot to break down. Final Fantasy XIII's menu system sticks out like a sore thumb and does not meld well with the real-time pace of the combat. Furthermore, the menus place a barrier between the player and gameplay. I especially found this to be the case whenever encountering the boss battles.

Granted, I enjoyed some of Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay exploits. Two commonly cited "cheats" are the Eidolons and character-specific abilities. Both are monstrously advantageous to use when in a pickle. If you must know, I used both to cruise through the final chapter. Nonetheless, both highlight a recurring issue in Final Fantasy XIII: this game plays dirty. Simply put, the last two levels aren't fun to play. By the time you reach the last boss, the game becomes a drawn-out exercise.

In other news, Hope STILL SUCKS!
In other news, Hope STILL SUCKS!

Littered throughout Eden are Behemoths, Juggernaughts, Adamantoises, and Vernal Harvesters. While your characters are indeed stronger, these battles are not push-overs. More than that, everything takes forever to beat. A single fight against a Tyrant takes approximately five to ten minutes, and this doubles if it summons its sword. That's a lot of wasted time on enemies that do not progress the story. All the same, Eden features just as many narrow walkways as previous environments. Thus, avoiding these battles is impossible unless you use Deceptisols.

These issues are partly why I have no problem exploiting Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay. The first exploit I found came in the form of the Eidolons. Whenever I felt like my party was about to get blasted, I summoned an Eidolon to act as a damage sponge. Equally important, when Eidolons leave, your party is reset to full health. This strategy proved critical in the latter stages of the game when facing bosses. What is more, Eidolons have finishing moves that can easily defeat non-boss enemies. Their only drawback is they reset the stagger meter when they leave the battle, but this is a minor quibble.

I love and hate that they named one of the special attacks
I love and hate that they named one of the special attacks "Highwind."

This point leads us to the most broken part of the game: the Full ATB skills. Each character has a unique attack that absorbs their entire ATB meter. You can find these attacks on one of the character's Crystariums. The nature of these attacks may differ, but the results are the same. These attacks negate any defensive bonuses enemies have during a battle. To illustrate, Hope's special attack is called "Last Resort," and does non-elemental magic damage while ignoring all resistances. Other special moves add new depth to the combat. For example, you can use a paradigm shift during Lightning's "Army of One" maneuver to exponentially increase her damage output.

There are a few limitations worth addressing. First, your A.I. controlled companions never use these abilities. When in combat, only the player-character can perform these attacks. Additionally, the game isn't clear these moves exist. The game never tutorials the "unparalleled attacks," and assumes you remember Limit Breaks from previous Final Fantasy games. Finally, the placement of these attacks on the Crystarium is bizarre. For instance, Fang and Snow are solidly the game's tanking options, but their special attacks are in their Commando skill tree. This case is one example of the late-game abilities not building upon the primary utility of the characters.

Regardless, these two mechanics make grinding and winning easier! So, what's not to like? Well, there's an elephant in the room. The game's deeper mechanics do not reward you with cinematic battles or new ways to play. These mechanics speed up the process of completing the game. Utilizing a balanced party, complemented with stylish attacks, will save you time when you go toe to toe against a boss. Lamentably, there's nothing in the game to encourage you to play this way. If you do not value your time, you could finish Final Fantasy XIII using one Commando and two Medics. The game doesn't make ridiculous parties like these nonviable. Thus, it doesn't reward you for investing in its sub-systems.

Be honest, how many of you actually used the weapon upgrading system in this game?
Be honest, how many of you actually used the weapon upgrading system in this game?

Part 44: The Late-Game Bosses Are Bullshit

Let's review the story following chapter twelve's introductory cutscene. After making a dramatic entrance, Lightning and company find the streets of Eden in a mess. Monsters from Pulse have invaded, and the city appears to be in turmoil. In a supporting cutscene, Rygdea kills Cid, and an all-out war begins. How our characters plan on stopping that war is not immediately apparent. Moreover, the game presents flashy visuals without any grounding in the world. Sure, you can walk up to random NPCs and hear a sob story, but these moments are inadequate in contextualizing the devastated cityscape.

To make matters worse, the characters never stop to think about their present circumstances. The characters blaze a path of destruction and never look back. There are no enlightening soliloquies or moments of self-actualization. Eventually, our motley crew recognizes The Calvary are mounting an attack on Sanctum. This scene does a lot to hamper your enjoyment of the characters. With the world on fire, none of them are allowed to help out those in need. You'd imagine characters like Snow or Hope would jump at the opportunity to perform heroics. Instead, the game creates stakes by manufacturing a false sense of urgency.

Then you have to deal with this asshole.
Then you have to deal with this asshole.

You end up fighting Yaag Rosch twice. Unfortunately, each battle is a colossal pain in the ass. The first fight inverts the game's staggering mechanic. Here, Yaag Rosch becomes stronger if you stagger him. While this gimmick is annoying, it pales in comparison to the second encounter. After fighting countless Tyrants, Juggernaughts, and Behemoths, Yaag Rosch again accosts your party. Worth mentioning, the level before this battle is excruciating. Seriously, why does the game make you fight twenty goddamned Behemoth Kings?

The designer of the Proudclad boss must be a sadist. Yaag Rosch can seamlessly ignore your Sentinels and is immune to every status effect. As someone who spent hours leveling up Vanille's Saboteur abilities, I felt especially insulted. Moreover, this battle is a grind in and of itself. The Proudclad spams the same attack with no noticeable cooldown. These attacks will stagger your party and prevent you from inputting commands. This problem has a domino effect because every action that does not inflict damage represents lost time. Spending three turns healing your party is lost time. Using items to alleviate ailments is lost time. Tanking for five turns is lost time.

What sadistic bastard programed this shit?
What sadistic bastard programed this shit?

The subsequent boss battles do not fare better. The final boss battle is something I can only imagine playing in the eighth circle of Hell, but the ones preceding it are equally intolerable. It's not as if there's a critical concept or conceit you need to divine to make the battles easier. The big baddies are bullshit. They stagger your party and deal a ton of damage, and there's nothing stopping them. To boot, several of them have a suit of immunities that render your support classes useless.

Furthermore, luck defines too many of the late-game bosses. Some will hit you with every status effect in the game, and others cast Doom. There's very little you can do to prepare for these attacks. If they hit, you lose. If they miss, you win. Finally, the game recycles bosses more times than I can count. Fighting the Bandersnatch and Jabberwocky twice in a row isn't fun. It's a waste of my goddamned time.

This boss is NEGATIVE FUN! I honestly thought it was hard than the boss rush at Orphan's Cradle.
This boss is NEGATIVE FUN! I honestly thought it was hard than the boss rush at Orphan's Cradle.

Conversely, let's return to the Proudclad. Often, the boss interrupts your character's animations while they are queuing up an attack. Your ATB meter resets whenever its barrage lands. I want to emphasize, you do not get your time back as you have to re-select your commands when this happens. Additionally, the Proudclad can cast several buffs on itself in one salvo. Removing these buffs removes a third of your party from dealing damage. In the end, this battle took me a solid thirty minutes to complete. Admittedly, at no point was my party in jeopardy. Simply put, it took forever to finish because I often needed to make up for lost progress.

Part 45: Every Level Is The Same

After a bit of pomp and circumstance, Yaag Rosch sacrifices himself to protect our party from a swarm of monsters. I would say more, but the game doesn't dwell on the matter for too long and transitions to a dizzying Tron-inspired landscape. Our party enters Orphan's Cradle wherein they discover the soldiers from the Calvary have become Cie'th. After a bit of fussing about, two statuesque figures greet Lightning and shift the platforms. At no point do the characters stop to question who these figures are, or what they are doing. Moreover, and I don't know why, but the writing makes a notable turn for the worse.

FFUCKING WHAT THE FUCK! WHO WROTE THIS TRASH?!
FFUCKING WHAT THE FUCK! WHO WROTE THIS TRASH?!

Wait a minute; this level looks oddly familiar. These platforms seem suspiciously identical to the platforms from before. I swear I have seen this shit before. Trust me on this, let's take a gander at some of the levels from chapter one.

Levels From Chapter OneLevel From Chapter Thirteen
No Caption Provided
No Caption Provided
No Caption Provided
No Caption Provided

FUCK THIS NOISE! This game's design is atrocious. This level plays the same as every environment preceding it. There's no puzzle to discern. The trash mobs play out as they did in chapter one. Orphan's Cradle is the climactic final level in the game, but nothing about it reminds you of this fact. How did Square-Enix spend five years programming this game and not realize their copy paste design was BULLSHIT? I know I spend a fair amount of my time lampooning Square, but at the end of the day, they have some of the smartest design talents in the world. You cannot tell me their staff is incapable of making levels that are more fun than walking through linear hallways. Like I said last month, it's not a secret recipe that disappeared when a Polish cafeteria lady died.

What's more, the story's final act loses virtually all of its momentum, and this misstep is by design. After shifting the platforms of Orphan's Cradle, three portals appear. One transports the party to Gran Pulse, one to Edenhall, and a final one takes you to the next level. I understand Final Fantasy XIII is a video game, but previous Final Fantasy games had better "points of no return." The best example of this is Final Fantasy IX. In that game, an epic airship battle introduces the game's final act and establishes a sense of urgency in resolving the game's story arc. Final Fantasy XIII displays three portals and asks if you want to go back and complete side missions. It's both brazen and careless game design Square-Enix is normally apt to avoid.

Oh, fuck me.
Oh, fuck me.

Honestly, I suspect Square remind you of Gran Pulse's existence out of self-preservation. They likely spent more of their resources making Gran Pulse than any other level and didn't want their hard work to be limited to one chapter. Indeed, I cannot blame them of thinking that highly of the environment. Be that as it may, providing the player with a reason to revisit Gran Pulse wouldn't have been that hard. As it stands, the portal to Gran Pulse exists for the sake of it. Should you enter it, you do so without any real reason or motivation. That said, I did, and HOLY SHIT did I regret it.

Part 46: The Optional Content Is Horrible

No matter what you think of what I'm saying, remember this one thing: do not play Final Fantasy XIII's optional content. Also, there's no sex in the champagne room. Regardless, returning to Gran Pulse is not fun and necessitates hours of mindless grinding. Likewise, most of the side quests are impossible until AFTER you beat the game. A point worth mentioning is the final levels of the Crystarium do not unlock until after you beat the last boss. As mentioned in the previous episode, this design decision is unconscionable because much of Pulse's worldbuilding is locked in the side quests.

But at least I got to kill a Tonberry. That was
But at least I got to kill a Tonberry. That was "fun."

Before any of you claim I am crying over spilled milk, I want to say something. I spent eighty-three hours playing Final Fantasy XIII. Three and a half days of my life were spent playing Final Fantasy XIII. I'm never getting those hours back. If I sound bitter, it is because I am. In spite of these hours, I have very little to show for it. If anything, I have permanently lost whole portions of my humanity.

I'm not lying about my total playtime.
I'm not lying about my total playtime.

In the previous episode, I ranted considerably about the structure of the Cei'th Stone missions so I will not be doing that here. All I will say is you spend most of your time running between sub-environments and trying to make sense of the world map. What I want to spend time discussing are the enemy encounters. More specifically, I want to pontificate about the Undying bosses. To the game's credit, these Cie'th maintain a consistent art style and add variety to the repetitious enemy encounters on Gran Pulse. Alternatively, they repeat similar enough move sets where they start to become a blur.

Even so, there's a bigger issue with these boss battles. I beat three or four of these monsters, and I cannot tell you what they add to the story. These abominations appear before you, and you fight them immediately. While they have introductory cutscenes, there's a shocking lack of expository dialogue. As a result, there's no grounding as to why these battles occur, or what impact these Cie'th have on the greater world. For pity's sake, the Codex regurgitates paragraphs of bloodless text about them being fearsome foes. For lack of a better word, these battles happen, and then they end. They are as abrupt as the directions to a Shakespearean fight scene.

The worst part of Gran Pulse is yet to come.
The worst part of Gran Pulse is yet to come.

Let's talk about the Titan Trials. Not since Final Fantasy XII, has optional content in a Final Fantasy game so thoroughly waste my time. For those of you not "in the know," the Titan Trials are a series of side quests packaged in a set of branching pathways. The problem here is that the Titan Trials call for a great deal of repetition. At a minimum, you'll run through the trails six times. The culminating bosses for each path are no slouch either. Several are harder than anything encountered in the mainline story. Finally, the reward for completing the Titan Trials is debatable. You learn more about the fal'Cie Titan, but this doesn't shed new light on the state of Gran Pulse.

Part 47: The Last Level Is Bullshit

I cannot emphasize enough, this is the last fucking level in the game, and it plays exactly like the first fucking level. How did Square-Enix think this level design was acceptable? The only way you interact with the environment is by switching the platforms. There are Cie'th to kill and treasure chests to open, but that's all you can do. For fuck's sake, at least Final Fantasy X-2 had the common courtesy to include an environmental puzzle from time to time. They were bullshit puzzles, but at least they tried!

Vanille, we've been killing Cie'th since chapter two. Why are you only now having second thoughts?
Vanille, we've been killing Cie'th since chapter two. Why are you only now having second thoughts?

The Final Fantasy franchise has a long and storied history of having the best final levels in video games. Whether we are talking about the 2D or CG-era, Square-Enix knows how to end a video game. The fact they repeat the same corridor design to Final Fantasy XIII's end is a testament to them being out of their element. Case and point, there are three mid-bosses before you encounter Barthandelus, and I have no idea how they relate to the story. I do not understand who "Wladislaus" is, nor do I know why I'm fighting them.

Top to bottom, Final Fantasy XIII is designed with no end-goal in mind. Square negligently copied their tired and true Final Fantasy design document to disastrous effect. With large swaths of Final Fantasy XIII undeveloped, many franchise tropes do not work as intended. For instance, why are two of the mid-bosses named after Lewis Carroll characters? Am I meant to parse a message from our two battles against the Bandersnatch and Jabberwocky? More so, why are we fighting these monsters? How did these beasts get here? What am I doing with my life?

What the fuck is even happening in the last five hours of this game?
What the fuck is even happening in the last five hours of this game?

I get several of you dislike it when I compare Final Fantasy XIII to Final Fantasy IX, and it is an unfair comparison for a myriad of reasons. However, there's a point I want to make. At the end of Final Fantasy IX, you fight a series of bosses known as the "Four Fiends." Each of these abominations has a reason to support Kuja in his quest to set the world on fire. Their logic is articulated to the audience before, during, and after you fight them. This format has been a template Final Fantasy has used since its inception. For some fucking reason, Final Fantasy XIII bucks this trend. It tosses four bosses at your direction with no provided context.

Eventually, I found myself in front of the door to the final boss. I stood in front of this door for a solid five minutes. In that time I wracked my brain over why I was about to kill Barthandelus. I knew I had to beat him, but the supporting details were a mystery to me. I could not figure out what prepared me for this battle. While it is apt to showcase flashy cutscenes or high-resolution character models, Final Fantasy XIII leaves whole portions of its narrative in shambles. Which leads me to my next big question:

Part 48: What The Fuck Is This Story?

Lightning... you're killing me with your
Lightning... you're killing me with your "hot takes" about the human condition.

I have groused enough about the underpinning of Final Fantasy XIII not making sense. What I want to address now is Final Fantasy XIII's nightmarish final level. To be honest with you, I have no idea what happened during the final battle against Barthandelus. At one point everyone was a Cie'th, and in the next scene, they were back to normal. It was a fever dream unlike any I have seen before, and I finished Final Fantasy VIII. I should be used to Final Fantasy games getting crazy, but in this case, I felt woefully inept.

The final battle starts innocently enough. Lightning and company approach Barthandelus' throne, and he spews his usual nonsense about bringing forth a more peaceful universe. The one complication is Barthandelus extols a ton of dialogue about Cocoon being a "fabrication." Barthandelus rationalizes his actions by claiming he's trying to free the universe from a "simulation." This story arc is the only found in this one scene, and the game never mentions it again.

FUCK NO!
FUCK NO!

I cannot preface enough how shitty the lines of dialogue are when you confront Barthandelus. Every character has to respond to Barthandelus with a dramatic retort. Sazh and Hope are the worst offenders, but the one-liners are terrible across the board. To add to the "cheese factor," the characters strikes poses as if they are actors in a Super Sentai show. Regardless, you end up fighting Barthandelus and it's a predictable slog. Worth noting, Barthandelus wants us to fight him because he believes his death will inspire "The Maker" to create a new universe. Nonetheless, no one stops to think about this point, and carries forward with the battle.

When the first battle ends, things start to get "messy." Barthandelus goads the characters to continue with their onslaught, but if that's the case, why is he fighting them in the first place? If Barthandelus and Orphan want to die, why do they pose such a challenge? Things get even more confusing when an owl flies out of nowhere, merges with Barthandelus, and transforms him into a talking sword. This flying sword declares itself "Orphan" and compliments the player for commencing the world's "redemption." I'm not lying. This scene actually happens in the game.

I'm guessing someone at Square-Enix plays the Persona games.
I'm guessing someone at Square-Enix plays the Persona games.

I have questions. I have a lot of questions. Who or what was the owl that fused with Barthandelus? Who or what is Orphan? Why does Orphan put up a fight if it wants to die? Why does Orphan wish to end the world? What's the deal with the black goo that merges the owl with Barthandelus? Are all the fal'Cie on board with Barthandelus' plan? What does turning Fang into Ragnarok have to due with Orphan? Do any of these questions have answers?

Speaking of Orphan, this may be the worst designed Final Fantasy boss. In fact, this entire battle is an overwhelming sensory overload. Remarkably, the game crams in storytelling by having Orphan bellow about the purpose of the fal'Cie. As it shrieks about the "indomitable force" of humanity, it demands Fang turn into Ragnarok. To force her into unleashing the end of the world, it lifts Vanille into the air and begins torturing her. Wanting to put a stop to this, Fang consents and betrays her friends.

I refuse to believe a grown adult wrote the lines of dialogue in this game?
I refuse to believe a grown adult wrote the lines of dialogue in this game?

It goes without saying Fang's betrayal makes no sense. Does she realize becoming Ragnarok ends the world? Isn't the better solution to attack Orphan? How is Fang going to enjoy life with Vanille if the universe doesn't exist? At any rate, when Fang betrays her friends they turn into Cie'th and start beating her up. Why did everyone turn into Cie'th? The game doesn't care to answer that question, and instead has Fang bawl about needing to "atone for her sins." The line reading is as bad as you can imagine.

Overcome with emotion; Fang turns into Ragnarok. As Ragnarok, Fang wails on Orphan who goes full masochist and welcomes the deadly blows. After that, Fang experiences a flashback and remembers every moment in the story leading up to this point. Due to these flashbacks, Fang regains her humanity and ceases being Ragnarok. Infuriated, Orphan lifts Fang into the air and demands she revert to being Ragnarok. As Orphan tortures Fang, the rest of the party magically appears unscathed and frees Fang from the clutches of Orphan. Sazh tells us the previous scene was "fal'Cie smoke and mirrors." The game then treats us to the worst line of dialogue I have seen in a AAA video game.

Can we nominate Hope for
Can we nominate Hope for "Trash Boy of the Generation?"

Everyone in our party affirms the need to defeat Orphan post-haste. It is, after all, their "destiny." However, the issue of Orphan's death summoning "The Maker" is dropped like a ton of bricks. Now, killing Orphan will release humanity from its Sisyphean torment. I honestly do not understand what is happening anymore. Ten minutes ago, killing Orphan ended the world, and now killing Orphan will save the world. Is this game secretly about saying "no" to suicide? The characters spend so much time chastizing Orphan for thinking death is a release, that's the impression I had.

Part 49: The End? Wait, There Are Sequels?

Our party has a few choice words with Orphan's final form. For one thing, they accuse it of poisoning Cocoon from within, a point not at all made during the story. Lightning plainly says humanity's real strength comes from its willingness to try new things when confronted with failure. After that, the cast collectively declares that their focus is to defeat Orphan. Wait a minute, didn't Barthandelus give them their focus? When did they learn how to change their focus on a whim? You know what? I'm not doing this play-by-play commentary about the story anymore. It's exhausting, and we are ten minutes away from the ending.

When the fuck did Snow become 50 Cent?
When the fuck did Snow become 50 Cent?

The last two boss battles are a slice of Hell. It's virtually impossible to take down Orphan's first form without buffs and debuffs. That said, Orphan can reverse status effects with relative ease, thus negating hard work and careful planning. Equally important, Orphan has an attack that automatically brings your party's HP to 1. That attack mixed with Orphan's ability to cast poison is a lethal combination. Speaking of which, Orphan casts Doom when its health is low. In short, both battles employ a flurry of cheap shit that arbitrarily makes the end of the game harder than it needs to be.

Final battles in role-playing games are meant to be empowering. After slogging through Hell and high water, your party should be robust enough to take on an army. They should have at their disposal remarkable abilities both physical and magical. For a game's end to rely this heavily on cheap bullshit is beyond disappointing. More importantly, using such tactics hampers the player's ability to enjoy their victory. When I beat Orphan, I didn't feel a sense of accomplishment. When I survived both battles, I felt like I got lucky.

Remember when boss transformations didn't suck shit in Final Fantasy games?
Remember when boss transformations didn't suck shit in Final Fantasy games?

As Orphan sinks into a pit of acid, the characters teleport to Edenhall. They seemingly overcame their destiny, but what that destiny was is never clear. As the characters are lifted into the air, Fang and Vanille fuse to form Ragnarok. While in their Ragnarok form, Fang and Vanille attempt to save humanity. To accomplish this, we watch Ragnarok tunnel into Pulse, causing lava to shoot from its mantle and into space. This lava causes everything on Cocoon to crystallize, including our party members. Fang and Vanille's sacrifice prevents Cocoon from crashing into Pulse and wiping out all life as we know it. However, Fang and Vanille return to a crystal stasis.

Who the designed these bosses? Imagine if the bosses of the Persona franchise had zero personality. That's an FF13 boss in a nutshell.
Who the designed these bosses? Imagine if the bosses of the Persona franchise had zero personality. That's an FF13 boss in a nutshell.

As we marvel over the glasswork on Cocoon, the game transitions back to Pulse. Once there, we watch Lightning and company recover from their crystal state. Lightning, Hope, Snow, and Sazh wake up and notice their brands no longer exist. What causes this miracle to happen? The world will never know. As they explore their surroundings, they find out the citizens of Cocoon evacuated to Pulse and everyone important to the story survived the ending of the game. For example, Serah and Dajh greet our remaining cast members in a dramatic display during the game's conclusion. With their friends in tow, everyone endeavors to rebuild Pulse and carve a new life in honor of Vanille and Fang's sacrifice.

Oh, and some low-rent Beyoncé knock-off starts wailing about make-up and lost relationships. Both fitting musical topics for a Final Fantasy game.

Part 50: This Is The Worst AAA Game Ever Made

The gall of Square-Enix's shortsightedness is stunning. Final Fantasy XIII spends most of its time shunting you through corridor after corridor. and to what end? Its linearity doesn't act as a scaffold for its cast of characters. The vast majority of the characters remain as bland as when they were first introduced. Do the hallways help to create a better sense of place as they did in Final Fantasy X? No, and to make matters worse, the game spends hours of your time meandering with its nonsensical plot.

I toyed around with the "New Game Plus" content and reached a stunning conclusion. After playing the game for eighty-plus hours, I couldn't tell you what I had to show for my time. I didn't have a trinket to showcase, nor could I brag about beating a stunning boss. Final Fantasy XIII is a game that happened, and it cannot un-happen. Nothing you accomplish signifies anything resolute or tangible. If anything, the entire game is a complete aberration. It physically exists, while also being indescribable.

Wait a minute, when were the planets on a collision course? When the fuck did that happen?
Wait a minute, when were the planets on a collision course? When the fuck did that happen?

I cannot frame any part of Final Fantasy XIII in a positive light. I hate its gameplay, characters, pacing, and story. I despise the gameplay because it doesn't open up until the twelfth chapter of a thirteen chapter story. When it does open up, it does so to mixed results. The class system isn't dynamic nor does it solidify the utility of the characters. The Crystarium is shockingly static and takes forever to bear fruit. While there are sub-systems and hidden depth, the results are the same. You click attacks and watch your characters flail around in a three-dimensional plane. Because of its design, you feel removed from the action and barely have an opportunity to enjoy battles as they evolve.

Characters and story usually go hand in hand in a role-playing game, but that isn't the case in Final Fantasy XIII. Our motley crew does not evolve and at no point do we have a clear understanding of their viewpoints. After spending days controlling Snow and Hope, I didn't walk away with an understanding of their outlooks on life. That's due to the game's characters being more interested in spewing one-liners than exploring their surroundings. My lack of investment in their melodrama is the result of this shortcoming.

If only this was
If only this was "good-bye." Then I would feel better about my life choices.

What about Final Fantasy XIII's story? Several JRPGs have salvaged their moribund casts with epic stories. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII's story is downright incomprehensible. It somehow transitions from being a story about leading a resistance movement to one about stopping the Apocalypse. Furthermore, nothing you accomplish in Final Fantasy XIII sticks with you. This point is incomprehensible for a Final Fantasy game. For as bizarre and zany as Final Fantasy VII, VIII, or X can be, they are undeniably memorable.

And the story meanders. It meanders and wastes your time on soulless character moments unrelated to the main story. When it finally zeroes in on its raison d'être, it becomes an unintelligible nightmare. Worse, the game puts the responsibility of contextualizing the world in your hands. Large swaths of Cocoon remain contextless unless you take the time to read bland codex entries. What is more, Final Fantasy XIII is afflicted with the worst case of "proper noun syndrome" I have ever seen. When it lectures you, it spews mountains of information with no provided wait time. Top to bottom, Final Fantasy XIII is a clear-cut case of storytelling maleficence.

This game was meant to be our introduction to the "Fabula Nova Crystallis" universe. Sequels, prequels, and mobile tie-ins were intended to build upon the accomplishments of Final Fantasy XIII. After this game launched, everything Square made acted as damage control. Furthermore, this game threw Square into a technological bottleneck. Admittedly, this game is a technical marvel. Even so, Square spent a decade wasting away in a single universe with no hope of getting out.

So, what you're saying is I have Fang and Vanille to blame for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns?
So, what you're saying is I have Fang and Vanille to blame for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns?

Square-Enix, a highly revered developer, spent five years programming this tire fire. The result is unmistakable; Square has been paying off this disaster for ten years. The days of Square-Enix releasing three Final Fantasy games per console cycle are dead. Final Fantasy XIII killed the golden era of Square. Look at their sorry ass state today. The vast majority of their income comes from Gacha games and iOS dogshit. When they do strike gold, they unlearn any positive lessons there could have been. All of you championing Octopath Traveler should think about how many times Square has been applauded for going back to their roots. For fuck's sake, the Kingdom Hearts franchise is a slow-moving car crash!

And what of the Final Fantasy franchise? It too is a walking zombie. From thirteen forward, they have continued to use their MMORPG games as a template rather than a cautionary tale for their single-player focused experiences. Furthermore, the Final Fantasy series is a laughing stock when it comes to storytelling and characters. The series is done taking risks and using characters for higher purposes. We're never going to see another Vivi or Jecht. Not with Square's current administration in-tact.

What's more, Square's quest to make Final Fantasy a multi-million dollar hit has had unintended consequences. Their stalwart JRPG series is accessible only to die-hard fans. Mainstream audiences aren't clamoring to play a new Final Fantasy game as they did with Final Fantasy VII or X. To top it all off, I don't know if Square realizes how far they missed the mark on this game. With new entries of the series focused on gameplay over story, what bones are they throwing to old-time fans?

The worst part is there's no going back. The leadership of Square have no intention of maturing with its audience, and Final Fantasy XV makes that notion all but certain. As new ideas and people approach the JRPG genre, Square thinks their old song and dance will appeal to a younger demographic that is increasingly less interested in JRPGs. In that regard, they are the Weezer and Green Day of video games. Sadly, it's not working, and their mistakes are becoming increasingly harder and harder to watch.

It pains me to say this, but the dream is dead, and none of us attended the funeral.

Until next time, peace everyone.
Until next time, peace everyone.
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Fighting Final Fantasy XIII: Episode 4 - I'm The Only Person Brave Enough To Tell You The Truth: Gran Pulse SUCKS!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Here are links to the previous episodes of this series. Sorry for the delay on this episode.

Part 31: You Lied To Me. My Fans Lied to Me. EVERYONE LIED TO ME ABOUT GRAN PULSE!

I have read this sentence eight or nine times, and I still have no fucking idea what it means.
I have read this sentence eight or nine times, and I still have no fucking idea what it means.

Full disclosure, this blog is exclusively about Gran Pulse. For several reasons, the level warrants its own blog. Gran Pulse represents a turning-point in Final Fantasy XIII. Many cite it as the stage where things "open up." On that note, I would be foolish to disagree. Gran Pulse is a vast world unlike any of Final Fantasy XIII's previous levels. Initially, I thought this change of pace was an improvement. The level presents players with their first opportunity to tinker with the mechanics and complete side quests. It should be a proverbial "win-win" situation.

Be that as it may, we need to have an honest dialogue about Gran Pulse. You and me, we need to talk. I want you to answer a question: how is Gran Pulse the "best" at ANYTHING? Gran Pulse is awful. It's awful awful awful, and I legitimately blame Western developers like Ubisoft and Bethesda for its popularity. In a world where half-broken games are the norm, Gran Pulse rises to the top.

I guess I'm really excited to kill the same ten enemy models over and over again.
I guess I'm really excited to kill the same ten enemy models over and over again.

I love my fans. I reiterate this point from time to time, but it's true. I love you all from the bottom of my heart. However, you're wrong about Gran Pulse. Gran Pulse is a repetitious slog. Like everything else in the game, it obfuscates its redeeming qualities behind mountains of busywork. You have to grind for hours before the rewards feel meaningful. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Most of all, it represents the end of Square-Enix as we know it, and I don't feel fine.

Let's be real for a moment. Gran Pulse is an indictment against the current state of Final Fantasy. Square-Enix is going in a direction that ignores what originally defined the series. It's my opinion Square needs to stop using MMORPG gameplay as a design lynchpin for proper numbered entries in the franchise. Such gameplay works wonders for Final Fantasy XIV but has no place in single-player focused games like Final Fantasy XIII. Similarly, Square's attempts at Western-styled open-worlds needs to stop.

It is worth mentioning I didn't complete every side quest. I got half-way into the Titan Trials before giving up and making a beeline to the final level. Speaking of which, the Titan Trials can fuck right off. Nonetheless, if I somehow missed a life-affirming moment, feel free to drop a comment. It is possible collecting wool from sheep is worth my time, but at this point, I wanted this game out of my life. Maybe the unlockable short story salvages the trash fire that is Final Fantasy XIII, but I seriously doubt it.

I wasn't joking about the sheep. Please tell me this results in a riveting storyline that salvages the rest of the game.
I wasn't joking about the sheep. Please tell me this results in a riveting storyline that salvages the rest of the game.

Part 32: Why Are We Going To Gran Pulse?

When we last met, we unceremoniously offed Cid. I mentioned it before, and I'll mention it again, Cid is a wasted character. Nevertheless, our motley crew is stuck inside the Fifth Ark. At this point, the story operates on a red thread of fate. Unexpectedly, the characters locate a functioning spaceship that can whisk them to Gran Pulse. Why are we going to Gran Pulse? Because the characters say it's their "destiny."

Above all, the storytelling on Pulse is far from impressive. What grinds my gears is the characters know Barthandelus is manipulating them. Be that as it may, they happily follow his lead. There's a spaceship that suspiciously goes in one direction, and they jump on that shit without hesitation. Small details like that show how little thought was put into the story. Furthermore, there's a distinct lack of clarity. At no point do we understand how going to Gran Pulse relates to saving Cocoon. I would even hazard to say, nothing of consequence is gained from setting foot on Pulse.

Let me get this straight. We are taking life advice from a crystal? Is that what's happening right now?
Let me get this straight. We are taking life advice from a crystal? Is that what's happening right now?

Herein lies my primary qualm with Pulse. Visiting Pulse doesn't answer any interesting questions. Case in point, one of Pulse's biggest mysteries is the fate of its inhabitants. Throughout your journey, you discover remnants of a once mighty civilization. Tragedically, the main story is not a vessel for learning more about this ancient culture. Instead, Oerba Village is a backdrop for a boss battle and nothing more. If you want resolution, you have to complete the optional side quests.

There's no denying the beauty of Gran Pulse. However, at this point, it's impossible to feel impressed when the story remains under-developed. The game provides one establishing scene where Vanille warns us of the tough road ahead of us. After this exposition dump, the story moments are spread across a twenty-hour continuum. Moreover, Vanille's absent-minded delivery is woefully out of character. Her setting foot on her home planet, for the first time in a thousand years, should be a grandiose moment. Sadly, it is not.

This cutscene is the only redeeming thing about Gran Pulse.
This cutscene is the only redeeming thing about Gran Pulse.

Likewise, the thrills at Gran Pulse feel cheap. Square has a narrative "formula" that comes at the cost of plausibility, and that's the case in Final Fantasy XIII. Hope experiences his third moment of doubt; Barthandelus masquerades as Serah; Sazh says humorous quips; Lightning and Snow resolve their baggage; Fang broods about Cocoon. These scenes happen, and they cannot unhappen. Everything the level provides repeats the same rigmarole we have seen countless times already. The game wants us to have a better understanding of Vanille and Fang. Unfortunately, we never view the world through their eyes.

Part 33: Why Isn't Vanille The Protagonist?

Seriously, why isn't Vanille the main character? No one seems to be able to answer this question. The plot revolves around her and Fang becoming Ragnarok. Doesn't it make sense to start the game with Vanille? Lightning is a fine character, but she's not the story's focal point. For instance, we do not have to worry about Lightning unleashing the Apocalypse.

Vanille's opening narration on Pulse is atrociously written. It's so bad it hurts.
Vanille's opening narration on Pulse is atrociously written. It's so bad it hurts.

Speaking of Vanille, let's address an earlier point I made in this series. Final Fantasy XIII needs a fish out of water character. Tidus, for all of his faults, creates character interactions that make Final Fantasy X's world feel wholesome. Vanille could assume this role, but the game commits to her acting dumb FOR THIRTY HOURS! In the meantime, it expects you to flip through a codex to answer basic questions about the world. The levels do not mean anything because the characters don't talk about where they are outside of short introductory quips.

As an illustration, let's look at how chapter eleven uses Vanille. We know about her relationship with Ragnarok, but the game cannot use this revelation to its advantage. As Vanille edges closer to her destiny, she continues to treat her time on Pulse as a fun adventure. What's worse, Vanille doesn't react to her surroundings. She'll remark about piles of detritus from time to time, but these moments are too few and far between. Additionally, Vanille doesn't spin a coherent tale when encountering remnants of her past. At most, she pouts for a bit and moves on to the next scene.

Pulse sounds like a perfect vacation destination for Libertarians.
Pulse sounds like a perfect vacation destination for Libertarians.

Vanille's interpersonal relationships are even worse. Vanille's story arc is a patchy network of good and bad ideas. At some point, we watch a flashback between Serah and Vanille. It's a touching moment, but it's woefully superficial. We don't understand the extent of Vanille's relationship with Serah, nor do we understand how they met. We don't even understand when this scene occurred! The scene happens, and it's never mentioned again.

The most frustrating part of Vanille's storyline is her relationship to Fang. This character dynamic ends up becoming an unfortunate Achilles' heel. The two have an interconnected destiny, but you wouldn't know that from the main story. Final Fantasy XIII demands you treat the two as equally important keystones. When you contrast how much speaking time each gets, Fang feels irrelevant. While I enjoy Fang's swagger, not enough time is spent developing her as a character. It doesn't help the game blames her lack of characterization on her amnesia.

Part 34: Most Of The Characters Are STILL Terrible!

Sad to see the game WASTE a perfectly fine character like Sazh by having him revert to comic relief duties.
Sad to see the game WASTE a perfectly fine character like Sazh by having him revert to comic relief duties.

I want to address my least favorite change to Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay. Previously, your characters could only use three job classes. This pre-assigned suite of jobs lent to the characters having unique abilities and strengths. Moreover, this limitation maintains your investment in each character. Players need to tinker around with different party compositions when encountering tough bosses. By chapter eleven, the game throws this mechanic out of the window and allows any character to learn whatever class the player wants.

To say Square "threw the baby out with the bathwater" is an understatement. I enjoy having to prioritize my party members. Finding groupings that fit with my preferred playstyle felt rewarding. What's more, the job system was the only consistent aspect of the gameplay that differentiated the characters. That said, Final Fantasy XIII's job system sucks. Each job is a vessel for a static assortment of abilities. Consequently, the characters don't gain unique passives or equipment. Teaching Sazh to be a medic doesn't change how he plays in the game. It's mind-boggling this game came from the same design team that developed Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid and Final Fantasy XII's License Board.

Speaking of our party, half the cast becomes dead weight. After Sazh's character arc, he's stuck playing the role of comic relief. Lightning spews motivational quotes, and then there's Hope. Everyone's favorite trash boy continues to be dreadful. During the opening moments of Gran Pulse, Hope experiences his third moment of doubt. After passing out in a field, Hope views himself as a liability to the party... again. HOW MANY MORE TIMES IS HOPE GOING TO BAWL HIS FUCKING EYES OUT ABOUT BEING WEAK? HE'S BEEN COMPLAINING ABOUT THIS SHIT SINCE CHAPTER ONE!

I'M SICK OF IT! GOD PLEASE, MAKE IT STOP!
I'M SICK OF IT! GOD PLEASE, MAKE IT STOP!

Once the game provides Hope his Eidolon, it pushes him to the periphery. Hope doesn't use his newfound power to help the party in a bind. As we explore Pulse, Hope becomes an expert in anything important to the story. When no one knows where to go, Hope tells them to find Oerba Village. When we encounter Taejin's Tower, he promptly recites the tower's mythology. I guess Hope's done giving a fuck about his father?

Then there's Snow. The game teases Snow losing his conviction after fighting Barthandelus. This five-minute character arc culminates in a quiet moment between Snow and Lightning. The two poignantly talk and Lightning comes around to Snow's marriage to Serah. This moment is great, but it doesn't result in anything substantial. In the next scene, Snow is back to shouting boisterously about being a "hero." This is one example of the structure of Gran Pulse doing more harm than good. It is a solid three hours until Snow talks about his problems again.

Which inevitably leads me to Vanille's Eidolon battle. It's just as shitty as the other Eidolon battles.
Which inevitably leads me to Vanille's Eidolon battle. It's just as shitty as the other Eidolon battles.

Without question, Gran Pulse stretches its character moments to a breaking point. Let's use Vanille's Eidolon battle as another case study. Like every Eidolon battle before it, Vanille confronts her pathos in a matter of minutes. Once the fight is over, Vanille reconciles with Fang. That's the extent of their characterization until the end of the chapter. There isn't an additional scene where the two talk about their childhood. Understanding their life during the "War of Transgression" is found in a bloodless text article. The reasoning behind Gran Pulse's lack of narrative coherence is obvious. Square prioritized gameplay when making Gran Pulse and left the story in the trash bin. Speaking of which, this leads me to my next point:

Part 35: Gran Pulse Doesn't Make The Game Better.

Final Fantasy XIII's defenders champion Gran Pulse. These supporters applaud Gran Pulse's sense of balance. Many also assert the late game abilities transform Final Fantasy XIII into a rhythm game. While I cannot deny the hypnotic nature of the staggering system, it still has its share of problems. Finally, there's an elephant in the room. Yes, Gran Pulse is an open-world, but I question if that's to the game's benefit.

These battles still play EXACTLY as they did in chapter one. I'm not crazy for saying that. It's a fact.
These battles still play EXACTLY as they did in chapter one. I'm not crazy for saying that. It's a fact.

When you stop and think about it, Gran Pulse is the antithesis of the ideals of Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy games usually showcase grandiose worlds that feel livable. That is not the case with Gran Pulse. Nothing you accomplish has an impact on the story. On top of that, you would be hard-pressed to recite specific scenes on Gran Pulse outside of its flashy introduction and conclusion. This problem is due in large part to the level's vast nature. The structure of Gran Pulse does not lend itself to Square's storytelling structure. To put it bluntly, it causes the game to slow to a crawl.

Gran Pulse is a mystifying folly. It's both a novel experiment and an example of a studio out of its element. Open world RPGs have their place. They allow for bottom-up role-playing by allowing players to live vicariously in imagined worlds. The appeal of Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, or Stalker isn't their extensive stories. Their allure descends from players assuming any role they see fit. Time and time again, Square-Enix fails to understand this critical aspect of Western role-playing games. I don't assume a "role" in Gran Pulse. All I do is kill monsters for the sake of grinding. As a result, Gran Pulse feels like Square trying to graft the gameplay structure of their MMORPGs to a single-player campaign.

For pity's sake, the Cie'th Stones reek of Final Fantasy XI.
For pity's sake, the Cie'th Stones reek of Final Fantasy XI.

Additionally, Gran Pulse is cruel. Every environment has random bullshit that can end your game in one turn. Worse, there's no rhyme or reason to Gran Pulse's sadism. When I first saw the "Ceratosaurs," I thought they were no different from earlier monsters. After fighting them, I found their sliding attack to be broken. Which reminds me, the game starts employing mechanics it never properly tutorials, and that's a load of crap.

Enemies in Gran Pulse love to reset your ATB meter. It wasn't until after I consulted GameFAQs I knew "Vigilance" would protect me from this problem. The move and its attributes were nowhere to be found in the codex. Nonetheless, there are enemies which necessitate its use. This problem leads me to another point I would like to make. The game continually fails to explain how to solve Gran Pulse's worst impediments.

At least you get to ride some Chocobos.
At least you get to ride some Chocobos.

Ultimately, you can put a hunk of shit in a pretty box, but it's still a hunk of shit. Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay is messy, and nothing changes this fact. It progresses at a breakneck speed and penalizes you when you aren't on your toes. Your characters do nothing every second you fail to act. Too much of the game devolves into observing meters and hoping your companions cooperate. The game plays like a simulation rather than a role-playing experience. Equipable items are irrelevant and the appearance of your characters is static. Gran Pulse does not change any of these problems. If anything, it places them under a spotlight.

Part 36: The Character and Worldbuilding Is Bullshit

Gran Pulse utilizes a chaotic and irreconcilable narrative structure. Previous chapters maintain a clear, albeit linear, sense of progression. Environments evolve and clue us into upcoming cutscenes or character transitions. In Gran Pulse, environmental changes occur at the drop of a hat, and the character moments are unevenly spread out. Gran Pulse's introduction features a fifteen-minute cutscene and two dramatic Eidolon battles. The game reinforces these epic moments with TWENTY HOURS of mindless grinding!

This is one of TWO scenes where Fang talks about her past!
This is one of TWO scenes where Fang talks about her past!

The characters rarely converse during their time on Gran Pulse. The fact Vanille and Fang treat your time on Pulse as "no big deal" is especially heinous. The two should have plenty to say during their trip down memory lane, but they only talk during cutscenes. At most, the dynamic duo flippantly passes judgment on their surroundings and decides on the party's direction. There's one scene where Vanille and Fang talk about the good old times, but it's pennies compared to what the game should be doing. The characters already lack strong personalities, and Gran Pulse suffers as a result.

To add insult to injury, Pulse doesn't refocus the story. With the narrative already a Byzantine nightmare, you'd hope the game would address some of its burning questions. It's shocking what the game fails to do in the span of twenty hours. Hope doesn't prove he's confident of his newfound abilities. Snow and Lightning don't tease each other about becoming in-laws. Fang and Vanille never chat about their past. Sazh doesn't mention his son. THE CHARACTERS ARE EXACTLY WHAT THEY WERE WHEN WE STARTED THE GAME!

Can I cry with you? This game is tearing me apart.
Can I cry with you? This game is tearing me apart.

To be blunt, I hate Gran Pulse. Each environment on Gran Pulse feels disposable. Take, for example, the Sulyya Springs. After a farcical cutscene between Snow and Lightning, we enter the springs and encounter a fish-like fal'Cie. After a brief greeting, the monster sinks back into the abyss. What was the purpose of this confrontation? My confusion doesn't stop there. I spent hours in an abandoned excavation site, but I'd struggle to annotate what happened there.

Part 37: The Ci'eth Missions Are Bullshit

The Ci'eth Stones suck. They are another example of Square-Enix grafting their MMORPG bullshit into Final Fantasy XIII. Throughout Gran Pulse are hundreds of pulsating stones of wayward l'Cie who failed their foci. These objects provide side quests for players to complete. These quests ask you to hunt down specific monsters throughout Pulse. Luckily for all involved, these monsters exist as they did a thousand years ago.

Seriously, it's the same shit for seventy missions. I dare anyone to disagree with that fundamental point.
Seriously, it's the same shit for seventy missions. I dare anyone to disagree with that fundamental point.

The Ci'eth Stones employ an abominable mission structure. To begin with, you can only accept one mission at a time. Often, you'll pass by active Cie'th Stones while completing a mission. The result is an unnecessary amount of backtracking. Worse, some of the Ci'eth Stones ask you to travel long distances on foot. As a reminder, thirty minutes ago, we saw Lightning summoning her Eidolon to save Hope from falling to his death. Why the FUCK am I walking to every location?

As a quick case study, let's examine Mission #30. You find this Ci'eth Stone at the Archylte Steppe. The Archylte Steppe functions as Pulse's main hub. Unfortunately, your target is at the mining facility in the Mah'habara Subterra. This location is two load screens away from the mission pickup. To make matters worse, the Mah'habara Subterra is a labyrinthine network of tunnels. For some fucking reason, the game doesn't let you set your own waypoints. You are at the mercy of the game's ambiguous and unhelpful iconography. This mission is an extreme case, but it's not alone. Several missions ask you to retread miles to locate your targets.

Oh, cool, the target is at the bottom of the map. That's not inconvenient in any way, shape, or form.
Oh, cool, the target is at the bottom of the map. That's not inconvenient in any way, shape, or form.

Knowing where to go to complete missions is a colossal pain in the ass. It does not help the world map is incoherent. I spent hours trying to figure out how to go from one sub-environment to the next, and don't get me started about the location names. A Ci'eth Stone at the Archylte Steppe asks you to kill a lion at the "Font of Namva," and I spent hours trying to find that location. Herein lies another problem with Gran Pulse. None of the environments leave a lasting impression. Case in point, I know I explored the "Eastern Tors," but I wouldn't be able to point on a map where to find it.

My nitpicking is dancing around my fundamental issue with the Ci'eth Stones: every mission is the same thing. You pick up a mission and kill a monster. That's it. Now, before any of you claim Final Fantasy has used this mission structure in previous entries, I want to express my counter-argument. In Final Fantasy XII, the hunts are fine because there are other side quests. In Final Fantasy XIII, the Ci'eth Stones are all you get. Equally important, Gran Pulse is a beautiful world, and all you can do is kill its wildlife. I'm sorry, but that seems like a waste.

Then there's the fast-travel system. A select few Ci'eth Stones allow you to teleport instantly to different parts of Gran Pulse. These teleporting stones are too few and far between. Additionally, several of the fast-travel locations are inconveniently placed. Besides, I want to remind you the characters have transforming deities that can zip across a football field in two seconds.

And the Cie'th boss battles are NEGATIVE FUN!
And the Cie'th boss battles are NEGATIVE FUN!

Part 38: The Optional Content Is Bullshit

I can hear some of you typing "the side quests scaffold Pulse's mythology." I object to this claim on two counts. First, the game locks away this lore until you complete every Ci'eth mission. Second, these quests are impossible to complete until after beating the game. Indeed, the last five levels of the Crystarium are not available until you unlock "New Game Plus."

This scenario is untenable. For instance, let's look at the Titan Trials. Beating the Titan Trials requires characters at max level, and the game warns you of this. It goes without saying Gran Pulse is a brutal environment. Death inexplicably happens, and parts of it are designed deliberately for dedicated fans. I'm fine with Final Fantasy games having content meant for crazy people. For one thing, I LOVE Final Fantasy X and haven't acquired a single Celestial Weapon. Be that as it may, I don't look down on those who go out of their way to get those items. What's more, I don't think either camp experiences an objectively better or worse game. I view the situation as a gaming example of "non-overlapping magisteria."

No.
No.

Where I start to push back is when Final Fantasy XIII uses the Ci'eth Stones for world building. A series of short stories share what precipitates Pulse's downfall. These short stories tell the tale of Vanille and Fang during a cataclysmic war. It is blasphemous the main story never surfaces any of this information. Did you know Vanille and Fang were orphans? All of this wonderful storytelling is only available if you are willing to commit to an extra forty hours worth of grinding.

Speaking of which, the game wastes Vanille and Fang. Learning the two were orphans during a devastating war is admittedly fascinating. Why neither character mentions these anecdotes is beyond my comprehension. Should one be interested in knowing more about Pulse, they have to settle for static text entries. Even when we walk through the charred remains of Oerba Village, their childhood city, both characters appear unfazed.

Maybe you'll find... hope.
Maybe you'll find... hope.

Finally, what do you gain from completing the Ci'eth missions? The equipment you earn is "nice," but is it essential? Beyond the trinkets, the attempts at storytelling repeat the same rigamarole. Anything of value is read in stale codex entries, and the game fails to build upon any of this material. In the end, the Ci'eth Stones feel like grinding for the sake of grinding. Imagine Monster Hunter, but without the memorable characters.

Part 39: Everything About Oerba Village Is Bullshit

Taejin's Tower and Oerba Village repeat the same problems found throughout Final Fantasy XIII. While the levels are indisputably beautiful, the game does little to contextualize them. In this case, Taejin's Tower is an awe-inspiring set piece with an equally impressive boss. It's thoroughly lamentable the game does nothing with the location. At no point do we learn more about the mythology surrounding the tower. Furthermore, Vanille and Fang never clue us into what we can expect inside the building.

As much as I loved this boss battle, navigating the tower and figuring out how to use the elevators is a gigantic pain in the ass.
As much as I loved this boss battle, navigating the tower and figuring out how to use the elevators is a gigantic pain in the ass.

We now transition to Oerba Village, or what I call the game's greatest wasted opportunity. Oerba should provide Vanille and Fang a moment of self-actualization. It instead devolves into more bullshit with Barthandelus. The ruins are the former home of Vanille, but you wouldn't know it from playing the game. Everyone Vanille knew is dead. Nonetheless, she treks through the town with no noticeable signs of trauma or distress. She doesn't even shed a tear.

Oerba Village is infuriating. It should be an emotional capstone to a long and exhausting journey. At Taejin's Tower, there's a scene where Vanille poignantly declares she needs to see Oerba for herself. For some reason, she becomes mute upon arriving. It's what the story fails to do that drives me up a wall. There's no mystery to solve at the village. The source of the town's misfortune is never revealed. Regrettably, Oerba is another location littered with trash mobs, and nothing more.

Okay... so you're going to talk more about what you need to see and why, right?
Okay... so you're going to talk more about what you need to see and why, right?

When our plucky crew of misfits first set foot on Gran Pulse, there's a sense of hopelessness. Fang and Snow worry they are chasing after shadows, and Hope questions if they have enough rations to last a week. Entering Oerba should be a climax. That's how storytelling works. After hours of build-up, there's a culminating event that brings everything together. Instead, NOTHING HAPPENS! The characters waltz through this environment no different than previous ones. What's more, the game has the audacity to task you with a fetch quest.

You would think repairing Vanille's robot companion would enlighten us about Gran Pulse's history. Maybe Bhakti has recordings of a famous Pulsian warrior saying farewell to his long lost love. Or how about an audio log detailing a wave of Ci'eth overwhelming Oerba? Lamentably, the reward for repairing Bhakti is a fifteen point achievement. That's all that happens. The little fucker doesn't tell you a story. He exists to give you Cheevos.

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK THIS GAME!
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK THIS GAME!

Your interactions with the environment are equally trashy. In several parts of the town, you can walk up to objects and read text blurbs. To illustrate, upon entering a school, your characters surmise the facilities appear abandoned. These lines are among the most disappointing writing in the game. Your characters say two sentences and move on with their lives. None of the objects give us a better understanding of Oerba's fate. We can safely assume they had cars based on its shredded highways, but anything else is pure speculation. It's another case of the game pantomiming emotions at a low taxonomy level.

I cannot preface enough how Oerba Village is a technical masterpiece. Walking through upended highways is one of the most spectacular visuals in the game. The music is equally stunning. It swoons and crescendos in an awe-inspiring fashion. It's a shame everything falls apart after you scratch the surface. The fact Gran Pulse culminates in another cheap boss battle leads me to believe Square had no idea what they were doing.

THAT'S IT?! THIS IS ALL I CAN DO IN OERBA? VANILLE DOESN'T COME TO TERMS WITH EVERYONE SHE KNOWS BEING DEAD?!
THAT'S IT?! THIS IS ALL I CAN DO IN OERBA? VANILLE DOESN'T COME TO TERMS WITH EVERYONE SHE KNOWS BEING DEAD?!

Part 40: The Second Boss Battle Against Barthandelus Is Bullshit

Eventually, our party makes its way to the outskirts of Oerba Village. Once there, they discover Serah alive and well. Serah shockingly asks everyone to bring death and destruction to Cocoon. Knowing the "true" Serah wouldn't espouse such hatred, the doppelganger is outed as none other than Barthandelus. I feel stupider having written this nonsense down.

This battle is an enormous pain in the ass.
This battle is an enormous pain in the ass.

The second fight against Barthandelus is the first of several cheap late-game bosses. Out of nowhere, bosses start to invert gameplay mechanics to their advantage. It's not uncommon for enemies to reverse a whole suite of status effects in a single move. To the same extent, they can instantly bestow themselves with a bevy of positive buffs. That's what I call a "raw deal."

At some point, the game does not play by its own rules. For instance, Sentinels perform a simple job: they tank. That's what they do. However, someone on Final Fantasy XIII's design team thought it would be "interesting" to program bosses that ignore a Sentinel's aggro drawing abilities. When Barthandelus wants to attack your back line, he can do so with reckless abandon. Worse, if a Sentinel is controlled by the computer it will break away from its tanking abilities when you least expect it.

This attack is pure bullshit!
This attack is pure bullshit!

The battle plays out differently than your first encounter against Barthandelus. This version relies heavily on area-of-effect spells. His laser attack, while not in and of itself powerful, has a short cooldown. Near the end of the battle, this laser will inflict Pain and Fog. When paired with Barthandelus' bevy of AOE attacks, I never felt like I had control of the battle. That's especially the case when, just like the previous encounter, he casts "Doom."

It doesn't help your damage output is worthless until staggering Barthandelus. Pigeon-holing players into windows of opportunity can be frustrating. It's possible you pass on these opportunities to heal your party. This is when the micromanaging nature of Final Fantasy XIII becomes incorrigible. I cannot describe Barthandelus' transformations because I spent most of the battle looking at health bars and status icons. There are few opportunities to observe the battle as it unfolds.

Honestly, I cannot get over Barthandelus' ability to wipe away up to ten minutes worth of work in a single move. The battle goes on for ages because you spend HOURS making up for lost time. Furthermore, and I hate to harp about it for the seven-hundredth time, but the computer A.I. is FUCKING HORRIBLE! It is so fucking bad! It consistently makes inefficient choices that elongate boss battles to a crawl. Case and point, when ailments afflict characters, the computer wastes its time with curative spells before alleviating negative buffs.

Maybe you should just see a neurologist about your pain Dysley.
Maybe you should just see a neurologist about your pain Dysley.

I HAVEN'T EVEN DISCUSSED THE STUPIDITY OF BARTHANDELUS' MASTER PLAN! After he reverts to his Space Pope form, he ruminates about the apocalyptic destiny of the characters. For those confused, and I don't blame you if you are, Barthandelus is Galenth Dysley. Barthandelus wants to kill every human on Cocoon as a blood sacrifice to the creator of the universe. He believes doing so will inspire the creator of the universe to divine a newer and better universe. In order to make this possible, he curses six seemingly random people into becoming Ragnarok and killing him. That's his plan.

I get there's more than one way to skin a cat, but you have to suspend your disbelief to accept Dysley's grand conspiracy. You have to accept that Dysley needs to task these six specific characters with becoming Ragnarok. Personally, I'm willing to give the game that concession as I've stomached through worse. What I refuse to concede, is going to Pulse allows these characters to understand their destiny. After they beat Barthandelus, everyone espouses a better understanding of what they need to do next. Did I miss something?

Seriously, what is their destiny? Am I crazy for not knowing the answer to this question? We enter Gran Pulse not understanding how to stop the end of the world. That's still the case when we leave Gran Pulse! For fuck's sake, what are they going to do on Cocoon? Everyone on Cocoon hates them! WHY ARE WE GOING BACK?! Why are the characters confident in their ability to stop Barthandelus? Likewise, isn't that EXACTLY WHAT BARTHANDELUS WANTS? Didn't he explain killing him will result in the "Creator" destroying the universe?

FINISH WHAT?! WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT? SOMEONE, PLEASE HELP ME UNDERSTAND!
FINISH WHAT?! WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT? SOMEONE, PLEASE HELP ME UNDERSTAND!
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Fighting Final Fantasy XIII - Episode 3: I Guess Square-Enix Forgot How To Write A Good Final Fantasy Story

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Here are links to the previous episodes of this series. Sorry for the delay on this episode.

Part 21: I Hate Snow

Chapters seven through ten represent the lowest point of Final Fantasy XIII. Top to bottom, these chapters are dreadful. The gameplay is frustratingly static, and the story becomes inscrutable. That is to say, Final Fantasy XIII turns into a slog. I suspect this might be the reason why some are overly forgiving about Gran Pulse. ANYTHING is better than slopping through the long corridors of the Palamecia.

Somehow Snow manages to get progressively worse as the story continues. Like everything in this game.
Somehow Snow manages to get progressively worse as the story continues. Like everything in this game.

Before chapter six starts, there's a cinematic featuring Snow and Serah. You may recall I once defended Snow, and I stand by that defense. Snow's grandstanding makes sense in the first chapter. He's an emotionally driven character wanting to fulfill a relationship. The problem is he doesn't evolve. Snow continues to treat his companions disrespectfully. Worse, his dialogue consists of one-liners or loud sighs into Serah's crystal. By chapter seven I despised Snow.

Snow's chapter six cutscene is a drag. The cinematic starts with Snow and Serah running away from soldiers. We presume PSICOM found out about Serah, but how is left unanswered. There's an opportunity to include Lightning, but that never happens. Like many of the cutscenes before it, this cinematic exists in a bubble. Finally, the game's use of motion blur is nauseating. When the game adds shaky-cam to contextless cinematics, the results are headache-inducing.

Smashing work Snow! You piloted your flying motorcycle right next to the one thing you were supposed to avoid.
Smashing work Snow! You piloted your flying motorcycle right next to the one thing you were supposed to avoid.

Snow and Serah board a flying motorcycle and try to make a hasty retreat. Both are shot and Snow ends up flying near a Sanctum fal'Cie. The fal'Cie grabs ahold of Serah and Snow falls onto a sandy beach. Why did Snow drive his getaway vehicle next to the fal'Cie? Which fal'Cie kidnapped Serah? How does Snow avoid getting arrested? Where is Lightning? The game does not answer these questions. In fact, just as the scene gets interesting, it juxtaposes to Sazh and Vanille.

You have to read codex entries to comprehend the cutscenes you've watched. There are no quiet transitional scenes where the characters process a change in scenery. Once a cinematic is over the game transitions to a corridor level. The characters never talk, and therein lies my problem with chapter six. We watch this flashback and the scene jump cuts to Sazh and Vanille. We don't juxtapose to Snow and learn about his state of mind. The game provides this flashy looking bullshit and moves onto something different.

I want to just say this entire cutscene makes no fucking sense, and I dare anyone who likes FF13 to defend Snow's actions.
I want to just say this entire cutscene makes no fucking sense, and I dare anyone who likes FF13 to defend Snow's actions.

Part 22: Sazh And Vanille Are Fine. They're FINE!

Don't get me wrong, I don't "hate" Sazh and Vanille's moment in the Sunleth Waterscape. It's a beautiful level with a diverse degree of flora and fauna. The Sunleth Waterscape does a fantastic job of foreshadowing Sazh and Vanille's character arcs. Outside of Nautilus Park, it's one of the few compelling levels in Final Fantasy XIII. Regardless, the next level should have involved Snow. We haven't controlled Snow in HOURS, and the questions raised from the cutscene were worth addressing!

Nevertheless, Vanille and Sazh improve in the two chapters they are together. Vanille's tragic underpinning ensures she isn't stuck on cloud cuckoo land. I would even go so far as to suggest Vanille is one of the few characters with depth. This chapter is also when I fell in love with Sazh. I had my reservations Sazh was another person of color stuck playing the role of "comic relief." Luckily, Square knew better and his evolution is thoroughly fascinating.

Whoever designed the flans in Final Fantasy XIII deserves a raise. All the flans are AMAZING!
Whoever designed the flans in Final Fantasy XIII deserves a raise. All the flans are AMAZING!

On paper, the environment is a repeat of the level design from chapter one. Sazh and Vanille move from one point to next and encounter several trash mobs during their journey. There's one significant difference between this level and the ones preceding it: there is an attempt at gameplay and visual variety. I'm not just talking about the weather changing puzzle, though it is a nice change of pace. The different sections of the Sunleth Waterscape feel distinct from one another. It starts as a wooded tropical-forest and transitions into a desolate mountain range. Enemy encounters also change as you move from one section to the next.

If the Sunleth Waterscape wasn't in service of the characters, then its art design would only do so much. Oddly enough, it is one of the few levels that allows the characters to breathe. Sazh and Vanille interact with one another, and their conversations feel neither forced nor arbitrary. Both characters play off each other and seem honest in their interactions. By the end of the chapter, I felt like I understood Sazh and Vanille. This result is the antithesis of Lightning and Hope's interplay during their adventures in the Gapra Whitewood.

Because this is a Square-Enix joint, the only fully functional family unit has a tragic backstory.
Because this is a Square-Enix joint, the only fully functional family unit has a tragic backstory.

Admittedly, it's a story that relies too heavily on "destiny," but it works nonetheless. After murdering a dozen monsters, Vanille asks Sazh to tell more about himself. Sazh shares he has a son and the game juxtaposes to the fireworks show at Bodhum we have seen countless times. I've given the flashbacks in Final Fantasy XIII a lot of flack, but this time I have no complaints. This scene places a face on the crux of Sazh's character arc. Dajh is not a one-off we'll never see again.

Sazh divulges his son, Dajh, is a Sanctum l'Cie. During a cutscene, we watch a hooded Vanille brand Dajh. Once the scene is over, we learn more about why Sazh boarded the train with Lightning. He originally thought killing a Pulse fal'Cie would fulfill Dajh's focus. As Sazh tells his story, it is clear Vanille is struggling to maintain her composure. At the chapter's conclusion, you emphasize with Vanille. Do I wish the episode didn't culminate in a heavy-handed "crying in the rain to hide one's tears" scene?Sure, but the emotions conveyed are so raw I can forgive the game.

Couldn't you have blamed your tears on an onion or smelly person? At least then you wouldn't have ruined your clothes.
Couldn't you have blamed your tears on an onion or smelly person? At least then you wouldn't have ruined your clothes.

Part 23: Lightning Isn't As Bad As The Internet Says, But She Isn't Great

Let's transition from glowing admiration to scathing criticism. During the first episode, I stated Lightning recovers as a character. Chapter seven is the beginning of that recovery, but HOT DAMN is it rough. The first hour of chapter seven almost turns Lightning into damaged goods. In the chapter's introduction, Lightning acts like an aberration. It's odd to look at Sazh and Vanille and compare them to Lightning. Unlike Vanille, Lightning is a character painted with broad brush strokes and unearned moments of redemption.

The story's unwillingness to allow Lightning to stand independently is a bizarre misstep. Lightning doesn't receive an episode of her own, and that's partly why I never felt invested in her character evolution. Take chapter seven as an example. It starts with an introduction of a named commanding officer in PSICOM. The game does nothing with this character, but the first ten minutes serve as his introduction. Then, Lightning is consistently tied to Hope's slow and painful maturation. Just as she gets room to develop, the game drops an ill-fated Hope and Snow sequence that bludgeons you over the head with its simplicity. Time and time again, Lightning plays second-fiddle to characters that should be beneath her.

Because when I think of
Because when I think of "compelling Final Fantasy characters" Yaag Rosch is the first name that comes to mind.

The game tries to foment interest in Lightning by having her connect the dots to a grand conspiracy. All the same, the game cannot make good on this plot development. After sleuthing past several PSICOM officers, Lightning and Hope stand in front of Carbuncle. Hope states Carbuncle provides food for all humanity, and this information leads to Lightning's epiphany. Lightning realizes fal'Cie use humans as pawns, and she plans to do something about it. This revelation comes from nowhere, and at no point have we seen Lightning conduct an investigation.

What's disappointing is this story arc has potential. In a future scene, an angry mob chases after Snow and Hope. The mob is fully propagandized by Sanctum. They blindly believe Pulse l'Cie are hard and fast societal evils. This scene would have worked better had Lightning been on the receiving end of the mob. We know Lightning regrets her military service. We also know she wants to make amends with her past. Bringing both to the forefront would have been a refreshing continuity break.

This plot twist is a FUCKING NIGHTMARE! I still I may have dreamed the entire thing.
This plot twist is a FUCKING NIGHTMARE! I still I may have dreamed the entire thing.

I want to clarify I'm not someone who should brag about their writing skills. I'm at best, an amateur blogger with eccentric tastes. I try not to back-seat write when playing games, but when so little is accomplished with a character like Lightning, I cannot help it. Everything attempted with Lightning feels "cheap." There's a cinematic where Snow rescues Lightning from an army of soldiers. The next scene shows Lightning assuring Snow she knows how to save Serah. It appears the two now have a workable relationship, but when the fuck did that happen? Character transformations rarely feel warranted, and Lightning is an unfortunate example.

I think Lightning's treatment of Hope is grossly negligent. The chapter begins with Hope enthusiastically leading Lightning through the sewers of his hometown. Hope uses this as an opportunity to reciprocate Lightning's guidance from the previous chapters. When Lightning has her epiphany, her first reaction is to kick Hope to the curb. Then there's the scene where Snow snatches Hope and whisks him away to safety. Lightning knows Hope wants to murder Snow. On top of that, when Lightning has an opportunity to talk to Snow, she only blabs about Serah. She waits until her second phone conversation to warn Snow about Hope. When this is unsuccessful, she tags along with Fang as if there's nothing to worry about.

I just want to say I hated controlling the Eidolons. Performing their moves was never any fun, and they take forever to clear out even the most basic foes.
I just want to say I hated controlling the Eidolons. Performing their moves was never any fun, and they take forever to clear out even the most basic foes.

Part 24: Hope And Snow's Scenes Sucked Away My Lifeforce

It's finally here! We have reached the blow-off between Hope and Snow. God, this story arc is awful. It's so bad. I knew it would be a low mark in the game, but I did not anticipate every line of dialogue being horrible. Hope's hot takes are meant to foreshadow his confrontation with Snow. They instead make him look like a vulture waiting to pounce on a starving animal. Snow is almost as bad as Hope. He wantonly transitions between enthusiastic glee and anguished pain in the same scene.

It's important to note the Eidolons are essentially Transformers. If needed, Eidolons can change into vehicles that can travel massive distances. They also create a major plot hole. As an illustration, Snow rescues Hope using the motorcycle transformation of Shiva. He flies away with Hope in tow, and never uses Shiva for the remainder of the chapter. Additionally, Lightning's Eidolon can become a flying horse. This bellyaching might sound like a minor issue, but half of chapter seven is Snow and Hope getting lost and needing to be rescued! Why do they run around in circles for an hour when Snow has a magical motorcycle at his disposal?

Snow sure does suck a lot during chapter seven.
Snow sure does suck a lot during chapter seven.

Let's talk about Hope and Snow. Snow, being the miserable meatball he is, attempts to make small talk with Hope. Thankfully, Hope rebukes Snow and demands answers on what's happening. Snow explains he's fighting alongside Sanctum's "Calvary." The game then plops you into a battle. That's all the world building you get for a solid three hours. It's worth mentioning chapter seven is a tutorial level for the Sentinel class. When you control Snow and Hope, the game forces you to utilize Snow as a Sentinel. Playing Snow as a tank, and waiting for Hope to kill enemies, isn't fun. It fucking sucks. Every battle takes FOREVER because your only offensive character is forced into a supporting role.

Then there's everything the story attempts with Snow and Hope. Their character dynamic lacks any form of nuance. Each of their interactions copies and pastes the same structure. Snow rambles about Serah and Hope asks Snow how he handles failure. None of these interactions work. You can't sympathize with Snow because he's condescending. Throughout chapter seven, Snow continually views Hope as a liability more than an asset. He acts surprised Hope is alive, and actively ignores Hope's actions in combat.

Hope isn't any better. As you progress through Palumpolum, his dialogue is atrocious. The story desperately wants you to believe Hope is in the right, but it's done none of the legwork to justify his angst. One flashback five chapters ago isn't enough. Moreover, Hope's characterization is brazen. At one point, Hope asks Snow "What happens when your actions end up ruining someone's life?" I refuse to believe a grown adult wrote the dialogue.

The crème de la crème of crap is yet to come.
The crème de la crème of crap is yet to come.

A conveniently timed explosion flings Snow over a ledge. Hope leaves him hanging, and after a bit of interplay, Snow has an epiphany. He realizes who Hope is and announces "you're the one!" Does anyone want to challenge my notion this game's script is an abomination? A second explosion pushes Hope over the ledge, and Snow sacrifices his body to protect Hope. When the game returns to the two, they squash their beef in ONE SCENE! Snow apologizes for the death of Hope's mother, and Hope admits he used Snow as a scapegoat. With that, the two are buddies for the remainder of the game! At one point we even see the two high-five each other before jumping into a war zone.

Good God, what happened to Final Fantasy? Square-Enix knows how to write good characters. It's not a secret recipe that died with some Polish cafeteria lady. They know how to write compelling characters! I don't understand how they could allow Snow and Hope to be this bad. There were two scenes where Snow thought about Hope's Mother. Both of those scenes occur in chapter one. And who writes Hope's lines of dialogue with a straight face? Is he an angsty teenager? Is he a broken trauma victim? Is he a figure of empowerment? WHAT IS THIS GAME TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH?

WHY THE FUCK DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT HOPE? TWENTY MINUTES AGO YOU WANTED TO KICK HIM TO THE CURB!
WHY THE FUCK DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT HOPE? TWENTY MINUTES AGO YOU WANTED TO KICK HIM TO THE CURB!

Part 25: Fang Deserves A Better Game!

I cannot emphasize enough, it's chapter seven and the game is teaching new mechanics. Chapter seven exists to teach the Sentinel class. That's why you are stuck using Hope and Snow for hours upon end. To add insult to injury, it's hour fifteen and the gameplay STILL hasn't opened up! We are more than halfway done with the game, and it continues to limit you to two characters. It's fucking ridiculous!

The pairing of Lightning and Fang works exponentially better than Hope and Snow. Lightning and Fang are great compliments in and out of combat. They play off each other in scenes that add much-needed levity. Lightning and Fang are not vessels for a story arc hardly suitable for a daytime soap opera. It helps their gameplay sections don't slow down to a crawl. Mercifully, Fang can hold her own in a fight.

Vanille, that's the best idea you have had so far!
Vanille, that's the best idea you have had so far!

Fang's spontaneity is a breath of fresh air. Unlike Lightning, Fang is emotionally transparent. She shares everything she knows about her past and leaves no stone unturned. Fang's brief monologue does a good job connecting recent events to the overall narrative. We discover Vanille and Fang were the force that rocked the Euride Gorge facility. As Fang divulges this information, she chides Lightning for not reacting. When things boil over and Lightning punches Fang, Fang goads Lightning into continuing. I enjoyed this moment because it establishes each character's perspective.

The game makes a nuanced point in pairing Fang and Lightning. Lightning is running away from her past, and Fang is the opposite. I found their interplay fascinating, but baffling. The story doesn't commit to either character, and much of their ethos is left undeveloped. For instance, when Lightning finds out Fang is partially responsible for Serah's branding, she punches her. Fang uses this as an opportunity to call Lightning a hypocrite. Unfortunately, the game never revisits these points. The game doesn't treat us to a Fang redemption arc, nor do we learn more about Lightning's service in the military. These compelling character interactions end up feeling like an anachronism.

I'll say it again, Fang deserves a better game. Why isn't she or Vanille the main player characters?
I'll say it again, Fang deserves a better game. Why isn't she or Vanille the main player characters?

Just as Fang and Lightning get interesting, the game transitions to a plot beat about Hope's relationship with his father. This game spends an entire level on Hope talking to his dad. Luckily for Lightning, she has more scenes where she develops as a character. Fang, on the other hand, gets the short end of the stick. Unlike the other cast members, Fang doesn't have a carefully crafted level outside of her Eidolon battle. While Gran Pulse adds context to her past, that level is all about Vanille.

Before we move on, I want to briefly talk about Lightning's moment with Snow in the apartment. Moments like those are why I do not understand the vitriol directed at Lightning. She realizes her "go it alone" mentality is unsustainable sooner than most Final Fantasy protagonists. She doesn't wait until the end of the game to change her worldview like Cloud or Squall. Do you want to know what else I appreciate about Lightning? When she realizes she's acted foolishly, she apologizes to everyone who has suffered as a result of her actions. She even permanently changes her behavior. When the party reconvenes, she acts as the group's unbiased moral compass. What more can you ask of a modern Square-Enix protagonist?

I honestly don't get why people hate Lightning. She spends less time in a state of emotional isolation than Cloud, Squall, Zidane, or any modern Square protagonist.
I honestly don't get why people hate Lightning. She spends less time in a state of emotional isolation than Cloud, Squall, Zidane, or any modern Square protagonist.

Part 26: Now We're Faffing About In An Apartment

I want to make something clear before we continue. Outside of Nautilus Park, Final Fantasy XIII takes a turn for the worse and never recovers. Every level is the same. Characters cease to evolve until the game's final act. The story becomes an incoherent nightmare. The game becomes a shitshow from this point forward. When I stop and think about it, the nicest thing I can say is the gameplay slowly opens up, but that's faint praise.

It's worth noting the story has plenty of dragons to slay. Will it revisit Lightning's relationship with her sister? Will we learn more about Fang's past? Will Snow delineate why he fell in love with Serah? The game answers each of these questions with a loud raspberry. I'm going to be brutally honest, I don't give a FUCK about Hope and his father! It's a relationship that starts and ends in chapter seven. It does not shed new light on our understanding of the world, nor does it help further Hope as a character. Hope tell his father he loves him, and his father reciprocates his feelings.

Aw man, this is the good shit I signed up for when I started this game!
Aw man, this is the good shit I signed up for when I started this game!

Can one of you tell me why Hope gets more scenes than any other character besides Vanille? Why are there more levels devoted to Hope than Lightning or Fang? Why is this moment all about Hope? We have seen these characters go through some shit. They all deserve an opportunity to breathe. Where's the opportunity for Lightning to level with Snow? Where's Fang's chance to learn about life on Cocoon?

Nothing is genuinely accomplished in the scenes involving Hope's father. Hope's father affirms his trust in his son and provides advice on what the characters should do next. That second point sounds more consequential than it is in execution. He warns the party cannot bring down Sanctum without consequences and cautions about the public's tendency to riot. Both are points we already know. After a confusing shootout, the game tosses in a bullshit boss battle.

And when I say
And when I say "confusing shootout," I mean Final Fantasy 13 has ANOTHER cutscene that makes no sense.

The Havoc Skytank is another reminder of the game's limited artificial intelligence. Your inability to control your supporting characters slows this battle to a crawl. Worse, we're dealing with a gimmick boss battle. The Havoc Skytank has several parts, each with a different elemental immunity. It's highly recommended you focus on the components first. Otherwise, you'll take heavy damage and inflict negligible blows.

The Havoc Skytank highlights several issues I have with Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay. First, the computer doesn't know how to diversify its attacks. When you zero in on an enemy, the supporting characters only attack the same target. The second issue is something I have ranted about before. The game poorly manages your medics. On several occasions, I had two characters at low health. Computer-controlled medics would heal one to max health and allow the other to die.

I am so done with this game's combat system. IT'S BARELY A
I am so done with this game's combat system. IT'S BARELY A "GAME!"

I'm dancing around a more fundamental problem with the gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII feels like a Football Manager game. You stare at health bars and status icons more than the action on the screen. It feels less like a game, and more like a simulation. I reapplied buffs when I saw their icons blinking. I used healing spells when a character's health meter glowed. I switched my paradigms when an enemy's stagger meter decreased. The game repeats the same routine from chapter one with little variance. You rarely watch battles as they evolve and feel like a catalyst for a flowchart.

Part 27: Nautilus Park Is The Best Part Of The Game

Our time at Nautilus Park represents the game's high-water mark. The scene isn't without its share of issues. Exploring your surroundings is an unfulfilling affair. The NPCs pantomime like soulless zombies. Unlike the Golden Saucer from Final Fantasy VII, Nautilus Park feels empty. Say what you will about the minigames at the Golden Saucer, but they lent life to the world. For better or worse, Nautilus Park is a series of disconnected vignettes.

Be that as it may, they are beautiful vignettes, and I loved every minute of Nautilus Park
Be that as it may, they are beautiful vignettes, and I loved every minute of Nautilus Park

In the end, Nautilus Park doesn't feel like a waste of your time. There's some grounding in the world, and it's a beautiful level. Sazh and Vanille continue to play off each other, and their interactions feel natural. Furthermore, when the story takes its predictable turn to melodrama, you want to see what's going to happen next. There's even a sense of tension. Full disclosure, I thought Sazh was dead. The scene made me believe he was a goner, and that's a testament to how convincing the storytelling is during the chapter.

The level starts innocently enough. When Sazh and Vanille realize they have an opportunity to relax, they take it. If there's one quibble I have, it's the lack of a clear end-goal. We eventually discover Sazh plans to turn himself into the authorities. Until that point, we don't know why the characters want to be at Nautilus Park. I would also object to Sazh and Vanille "needing a break." Sazh and Vanille fought through one forest, but nothing felt especially troubling.

Whoever did Vanille's facial animations did a stellar job. She's one of the few characters whose poignant scenes don't descend into the
Whoever did Vanille's facial animations did a stellar job. She's one of the few characters whose poignant scenes don't descend into the "Uncanny Valley."

Eventually, the characters witness a fireworks display. The display showcases several holograms of Cocoon's thousand-year-old war against Pulse. That's the kind of world-building I have begged Final Fantasy XIII to use during its transitional scenes. We learn more about Cocoon's history in this scene than any of the previous chapters! Sazh makes the case displays like these are a regular occurrence. Hence, why the general public is in line with its government.

Vanille's relationship with Sazh is executed perfectly. There's depth to their relationship because it's not founded upon romance. Vanille desperately wants to tell Sazh the truth, and as the story unfolds, you watch her anxiety consume her. Yes, the Chocobo hide-and-go-seek minigame sucks, but that's irrelevant. Every scene between Sazh and Vanille frames the end of the chapter as a tragedy. Sazh feels comfortable sharing his story with Vanille, and that gets me every time. He tells her everything, and she rewards him with lies.

I get Sazh's character arc employs every cheap trick from the storytelling playbook! I get it, but I love Sazh regardless!
I get Sazh's character arc employs every cheap trick from the storytelling playbook! I get it, but I love Sazh regardless!

The look of betrayal on Sazh's face is a heartbreaking technical achievement. I enjoy how the story doesn't force a black and white sense of morality down your throat. Sazh's anger feels warranted, but Vanille isn't a villain. It's a rare example of Final Fantasy XIII's melodrama creating a human experience. It even leads to one of the few warranted Eidolon battles! It's one of the few times when Final Fantasy XIII manages to meld its gameplay and story. Finally, nothing in the story reaches the emotional heights of watching Vanille weep as Sazh points a gun to his head.

Nothing.
Nothing.

Part 28: The Palamecia Level Is DOGSHIT!

You would expect a Final Fantasy game to continue the gravitas of a prior scene, but we're talking about Final Fantasy XIII. Sazh and Vanille are carted away, and the game jump cuts to Lightning on the Lindblum. After learning of Sazh and Vanille's pending executions, the team drops all pretense and plans a direct invasion of Sanctum's capital ship. The game tries to make characters out of Cid Raines and Rygdea, but it fails spectacularly. Most notably, Lightning's planning session ends with a collective declaration about the power of teamwork. I wish I were kidding.

Fuck off. Get fucked. Go fuck yourself.
Fuck off. Get fucked. Go fuck yourself.

Never before have I seen a game accomplish so little out of a level. Yes, this is when Galenth Dysley reveals his master plan. Yes, there's a touching moment between Vanille and Sazh. Yes, the characters come together in a neat package. Be that as it may, navigating the Palamecia is a fucking nightmare. It's a monotonous slog that lasts far longer than it should. More than half the level involves snaking around scaffolding and fighting trash mobs. The distance covered is short but every corner is crammed to the brim with enemy encounters. Worse, we battle the same goddamned robots and foot soldiers we have seen countless times already.

The level has a massive tone problem. In-between Lightning affirming her role as a leader, and Vanille detailing her past, there are odd interjections of comedy. This is the chapter where I felt the game could not make up its mind on Sazh. After letting the man pour his heart out, the story reverts him to comic relief duties. There's another gag where Jihl Nabaat struggles to manage the Palamecia's "security level," but this happens AFTER Vanille pleads with Sazh that she didn't mean to hurt his son. Finally, with Hope and Snow "done" as characters, their lines of dialogue are 90% witty one-liners, and it's the worst.

GIVE BACK COCOON TO WHO? HOW? WHY? WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING?!
GIVE BACK COCOON TO WHO? HOW? WHY? WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING?!

The story doesn't get better. "Generic" is the best word to describe Final Fantasy XIII's story. It's an exercise of rote storytelling dressed up in tailor-made clothes. Vanille needing to lie to Fang about her focus is interesting. The problem is the game doesn't build upon this premise until the penultimate chapter. Instead, we listen to Space Pope screech about how he's been manipulating the characters.

PSICOM spends too much of the game lacking a figurehead. Yaag Rosch speaks two sentences and isn't seen for hours. However, the game demands you care about generic soldiers and generals. When the game offs Jihl Nabaat, it expects a horrified reaction from the audience. The same sentiment applies to Galenth Dysley. Before chapter nine, Dysley is seen in two cinematics. Nothing in the story feels in service of framing Dysley as the ultimate villain. Instead, he unceremoniously spills the beans about wanting to bring the apocalypse.

R.I.P. Jihl Nabaat. Everyone's favorite Final Fantasy 13 antagonist.
R.I.P. Jihl Nabaat. Everyone's favorite Final Fantasy 13 antagonist.

It took me twenty-five hours to get to the first Barthandelus battle. Around this point, I had an epiphany. I don't understand why we need to fight Barthandelus. I don't understand why we need to go to Gran Pulse. I don't understand how fighting Dysley fulfills our focus. I don't understand basic concepts guiding these characters from one point to the next. Think back to your favorite Final Fantasy game. By this point, Kefka was already a factor. Cloud came to terms with his past. Edea wasn't the main villain. Zidane and Kuja were debating their humanity. What the fuck is happening in this game? Did I forget to play a Nokia flip phone companion app? Was there an anime adaptation I forgot to watch?

Part 29: I Give Up! FUCK THIS GAME!

Dysley reveals his master plan after a bit of hemming and hawing. From what I understand, and correct me if I am wrong, a god conceived Gran Pulse and Cocoon. This god created humans and fal'Cie, and is referred to as "the Maker." The fal'Cie can use humans as a blood sacrifice to summon this god of creation. Dysley brands our heroes in hopes of summoning Ragnarok. Ragnarok can perform a ritual that extinguishes all of humanity. This ritual will summon the Maker who will create a new world that Dysley believes will be better than Cocoon and Pulse. This story is stupid, and it is stupidly told.

Remember when Final Fantasy plot twists were at least interesting?
Remember when Final Fantasy plot twists were at least interesting?

The Final Fantasy franchise has a long and storied history of relying on "destiny" as a storytelling stop-gap, but this is a bridge too far. Dysley explains in excruciating detail how he's manipulated the characters. "Contrived" is the best word to describe this plot twist. Dysley has an army of loyal lackeys, but he picks six seemingly random humans to service his master plan. He knew a fal'Cie vestige contained Fang and Vanille but didn't send his elite soldiers to awaken them. Furthermore, why does Dysley spill the beans about his scheme? Wouldn't it have been better to keep it a secret until the end?

Final Fantasy XIII's story boils down to the characters needing to stop the Apocalypse. Yes, the characters are guided by destiny, and woe is them, but why does this game take THIRTY HOURS to tell a story about an old man wanting to see the world burn? How does any of that relate to the character experiences from the previous chapters? How does Barthandelus help Hope confront his grief? How does Ragnarok build upon Snow's survivor's guilt?

And it turns out Dysley is a fal'Cie that can turn into a people.
And it turns out Dysley is a fal'Cie that can turn into a people.

The first battle against Barthandelus is the worst thing Square-Enix has made in the past decade. It's cheap, ugly, and no fucking fun to play. I do not want to hear any of you say he's easier if you max out your Crystarium. Grinding sucks and there's no place to efficiently grind until Gran Pulse. Not to mention, I shouldn't have to grind to beat a boss placed halfway in the story. Finally, Barthandelus uses "Doom" on Lightning. That's fucked up when the game is over if the player character dies.

Barthandelus inverts several gameplay mechanics. Final Fantasy XIII's bosses usually value careful planning. This boss casts Doom by the twentieth minute and demands you enact high-risk maneuvers. Moreover, when two-thirds of the battle involves killing off adornments, adding a timed mechanic is bullshit. Then there's Barthandelus' "Destrudo" ability. Whoever thought it would be interesting to design an attack that ignores the player's tanks shouldn't be allowed to make video games.

Everything about this boss sucks. It sucks so much.
Everything about this boss sucks. It sucks so much.

Part 30: Chapter Ten Is A Waste

Chapter ten repeats all of Final Fantasy XIII's worst habits. It copy-pastes the same corridors to no benefit to the characters. The story moments are spread hours apart, and what we learn isn't compelling. The chapter culminates with Cid attempting to kill the cast. Maybe I would give a fuck if Cid felt like a character with ambitions. Ultimately, he's an impediment you read more about in the codex.

My brain cannot even computer how stupid Final Fantasy 13 gets.
My brain cannot even computer how stupid Final Fantasy 13 gets.

Cid reveals himself to be a l'Cie. He announces to our party he plans to stop Barthandelus by killing us. When he fails, he disappears into the ether. What I do not understand is why these characters do not talk out their problems. Cid and Lightning's goals are mutual. Why can't they work together? Moreover, it's hard to get choked up about Cid's defeat when he barely feels like a character.

I would be lying if I didn't admit the chapter starts decently. After Space Pope floats in the air and spews some villainous bullshit, Lightning's party ends up in a spacecraft. The airship pilots itself through a wormhole that leads to a training ground. Nevertheless, chapter ten wastes this perfectly good environment. The Fifth Ark is a beautiful robotic underworld, and the game does nothing with it. Outside of Barthandelus' loathsome speeches, the game doesn't feel especially invested in his scheme. Barthandelus doesn't chide Lightning as she progresses through the level. The chapter instead devolves into a vapid series of battles against trash mobs.

I guess everything in this game operates on a red thread of fate. That's always a sign of quality writing.
I guess everything in this game operates on a red thread of fate. That's always a sign of quality writing.

Fang's has the most unnatural Eidolon battle. After making some progress in the Fifth Ark, Fang decides enough is enough and she's going to leave the party. Why would she think such a thing? She's sick and tired of treating Cocoon as something worth saving. Again, there's an interesting premise here, but the game doesn't tap into it. The prospect of one of our party members not being fully invested in our mission has potential. Unfortunately, the issue isn't allowed to grow after her Eidolon battle.

I want to compliment the game's attempt to put Snow in doubt. However, Lightning shakes Snow from his lack of faith after one inspirational speech, and we never discover what caused Snow to doubt himself. The scene was arbitrarily constructed for the sake of it existing, but that applies to everything involving Snow. All this game is willing to do is expose surface level emotions and masquerade them as higher orders of thinking. Showing a character in a depressed state doesn't make a scene melancholic!

SERIOUSLY, WHO WRITES THIS SHIT?!
SERIOUSLY, WHO WRITES THIS SHIT?!

What causes this level to kludge up more than the previous ones is the lack of character interactions. The characters are not afforded a chance to absorb their surroundings. There are so many corridors that exist to pad out the game's length, and their monotony doesn't just cripple the level design. When I saw my first tyrant I was impressed by its artful construction. I was less impressed when the game repeated the same encounter twice. Eventually, the characters find a spaceship. None of the characters are able to make a convincing argument why they should go to Pulse, but they end up going regardless. I am told this news is a positive development. I don't believe it. This game is a brutal lie.

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