Chapter 2 of Final Fantasy Tactics: The Plot Thickens

It seems like only a few hours ago I was guiding the young Ramza Beoulve through his first military campaign to defeat and scatter the Death Corps (in reality it was last week). Now, the renegade high born, less naïve but no less idealistic, has just encountered his first extra-dimensional demigod, Cuchulainn, the Impure.

It’s worth noting just how well Final Fantasy Tactics tackles the obligation of “boss fights” despite being a turn-based tactical RPG. Unlike other battles that build up more slowly with stat buffing and strategic positioning, boss fights against the Lucavi are usually closer to bar fight brawls. Fast paced and extremely messy, my usual plan is to throw everything I’ve got at Cuchulainn as quickly as possible. Whoever isn’t instantly knocked out by his Bio spell is shoved into the fray: my lancer jumps and my wizard targets flare while Ramza launches a blistering frontal assault. It’s intense, and requires some luck, but the result is satisfying, even in the handful of times the battle doesn’t go my way.

Of course, difficult encounters like these always brings back the issue of choosing guest characters over generic ones. I have the same fondness for the random warriors I’ve been cultivating across countless battlefields that I do for the Pokemon I caught and raised myself (as opposed to the Legendary ones which were prepared for me by the game’s developers). Agrias, named after a type of butterfly, is one of the game’s most compelling characters (not least of all because she’s a woman knight who is more capable than the main protagonist), but also arguably its second most overpowered. Developing her “Holy Sword” abilities makes her into a deadly failsafe in any encounter, but it also takes the edge of what might otherwise be tense and challenging affairs.

This is less the case with Mustadio, whose sniping is a support ability, and thus pairs with other weapons and skill sets (like the Knight’s “Break”) in interesting ways. I’ve never been one to enjoy playing a game while actively going out of my way to hold one hand behind my back, which is why using Agrias but just not letting her utilize her most deadly attacks simply doesn’t feel like a solution to me. Nevertheless, with the additional content in the War of the Lions remake, I’m looking forward to being able to unleash guest characters like her on more difficult foes in later side quests.

As for my three main generics, Gwayne, Isabella, and Rosalind, I’m currently at a bit of a loss with what to do with them. Rosalind is going to be my face-to-face combat expert, but there are any number of ways for that to manifest itself. The Monk’s “Hamedo” counter is high up on my list. Though people complain about its reaction rate, it’s always come through for me in big ways in the past. Few things in the game are as satisfying as teleporting a Knight or Ninja into a swath of enemies and see each one pummeled as they try to land physical attacks in vain.

I’m less sure of what to do with Gwayne. He just got Flare and Magic Attack Up, and while I could have him waste time getting every black magic spell, elemental attacks in Tactics are mostly beside the point, making only one spell (fire/ice/thunder) of each level necessary. So what’s next for him? In the past I’ve always been in the habit of segregating physical attacks from magic. If one character was going to have black magic, they were also going to be in charge of summons and time magic as well (though never white magic because Final Fantasy has long since conditioned be to think of those two things as anathema to one another).

But now I’m realizing how inefficient that is. Clearly it’s better to spread the magical wealth, even if that means having to manage unwieldy equipment loadouts (Knights wearing robes and magic gauntlets, Summoners toting around swords, etc.). Hopefully things begin to take a more precise shape as I progress through Chapter 3. For now I’m left to ponder Final Fantasy Tactics various escoteric trade-offs: “Blade Grasp” or “Full Restore,” “Cyclops” or “Meteor,” Mustadio or Agrias?

One last thing though before heading back into the breach. I don’t like many of the “improvements” Square attempted to make to Matsuno’s masterpiece with the War of the Lion’s edition. As others have noted, the animated cutscenes are cheap and over-performed. Tactics’ melodrama succeeds when delivered by understated sprites rather than five cent impressions of Shakespeare. 

In addition, the limitations of the technology and the localization budget of the original game, while certainly hindrances in certain areas, also helped the game in others. Less flowery and more direct dialogue gave the game a certain kind of earnestness, while the hazy subtext helped to add complexity to the drama, rather than shine a light on its more shallow parts. Whatever additions might have helped the original game, none of them included in-between scenes that redundantly overstate character motivations and transformations. I did not need to see Wiegraf actually joining the Knights Templar, or Ovelia realizing that she has nowhere else to turn when a number of Large’s men try to jump her and Delita as he escorts Ovelia to Lord Goltana. Less isn’t always more, but in these cases it was.

Chapter 1 of Final Fantasy Tactics: New Recruits and Old Veterans

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There is no other video game I’ve gone back to more in my twenty years of playing them than Final Fantasy Tactics. When I heard that USgamer had chosen it for their first virtual video game club meeting, I took it as an excuse to dive back into the world of Ivalice myself.

In an era of Xbox Gold give-aways, Steam sales, and big console and handheld releases almost weekly (at least up until recently) I thought something in me would be more resistant to toiling over my PSP and investing untold hours into a 32-bit epic whose every minor detail I could probably recite from memory. But returning to Ivalice is like re-living a dream, something only half remembered that feels so real and natural in the moment.

And there have been a lot of those moments, both in the past and now more recently. The first fight is a tutorial stage that’s fail-proof, but the musical scoring still sends chills down my back: bombastic horns overlaid with menacing drum beats before rival knights throw down on the steps outside of an austere monastery. By the second fight it’s time to get down to business, picking and choosing among your party of random generic cadets according to their starting stats. Tactics is about min-maxing, both thematically, with characters vying for power, and mechanically, with a job system that lets players mix and match an array of different abilities, equipment, and classes to create an unstoppable five-person army.

With that in mind I usually dismiss half my squad or more after the first battle, selling off their equipment and using the sum total of my war chest to purchase new recruits with higher Brave and Faith values. As tedious as cycling through random cadets at the recruiters office can be, something in this mundane Darwinism encapsulates the essential contradiction within Tactics, a game about breaking free from the strictures of class and religion where the only way to do so is to be stronger than those who would keep you in shackles and leave them inertly crystallized on the battlefield.

Then, as Mike Williams noted, the first thing to do is train everyone up so that they all have the Squire class’s “Accumulate” and “JP Boost” skills, which together make grinding a breeze. This means telling Delita at the plains that killing the Death Corps is priority number one (since doing otherwise will make keeping Algus alive a win condition, and my lord that AI…), and then killing both of the AI controlled guests before they can kill the last enemy and end the battle. The remaining time is filled with self-inflicted sword wounds and potions a plenty until each character has their 550 JP.

From here on out, the sky’s the limit. Monks are offensively brutal but easily killed, while Knights are tanky but extremely boring to use. I’ve decided to start my primary attacker as an Archer this time, something I’ve never done before because of how tragically underpowered the class is, which is surprising considering how well balanced it is in the game’s spiritual predecessor, Tactics Ogre. Since most battles start with Ramza & Co. trying to take the high ground, bows are nearly useless. In addition, arrows do exceptionally little damage despite their high miss rate on anyone with a shield or mantel. But even if the “Charge” ability is something of a joke (so little extra damage for such a long cast time), the Archer’s role as a stepping stone to classes like Lancer and Ninja make it a worthwhile investment.

As for the story missions of Chapter 1, they pass by breezily enough, though with one notable exception. The Dorter Slums encounter is a good indication of what’s to come in terms of Tactic’s cruel difficulty spikes. On this playthrough I died a number of times, over eager as I was to simply get beyond it without first paying my respects. Like most games in the genre, Tactics look to punish anyone who pushes their troops into combat too quickly. Shift Ramza a few spaces too close to the knight across from him and a combination of arrows and fire spells will find him dead before his next turn. Assuming a minimal amount of grinding up to this point, the key is to have Ramza & Co. spam “Accumulate” to boost their attack while using potions to recover any hit points lost in the initial onslaught. Once the enemy has moved into position, a swift counter attack around turn 20 will make short work of them.

One of the beauties of Tactics is that this kind of cynical strategizing plays directly into the game’s larger narrative arc. Ramza is learning to become a high born knight worthy of his father’s namesake, which in the beginning means the calculated slaughter of impoverished, low-born war veterans. Later Ramza is confronted by Miluda and her brother, Wiegraf. Noble idealists and dangerous radicals both, the duo offers an interesting point of comparison for both Ramza and Alma, as well as Delita and Teta. It’s cutting but subtle commentary on class privilege that, of the three, only Ramza’s sister survives. Tactics has no lack of sympathy for the morally righteous, but it cuts them down all the same, again and again.

Turn-based, tactical RPGs aren’t always the most accessible, and, especially for someone new to the genre, or even just new to Final Fantasy Tactics, the managerial responsibilities and space for strategic maneuvering can be overwhelming in the beginning. But as the prologue to a game which visits so many different people and places, and spans so many battles, betrayals, and political conspiracies, Chapter 1 (titled “The Meager”) forms a tight, self-contained introduction that successfully integrates gameplay and narrative in a way that few other games at the time did (and I would argue, still don’t). The story doesn’t just bookend the battles, or yield a superficial premise under which to otherwise enjoy leveling up characters and creating an elite squad of exotic fighters, it lives and breathes in the very moments when sprites are exchanging blows, chanting incantations, and speaking their operatic lines in-between swigs of potions and swirls of phoenix downs.

One of the bigger boss fights from the first half of the game.

Transistor: Gesturing in Every Direction but at Nothing in Particular

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Transistor is gorgeous. Not in the, “Hey, look at these awesome particle effects.” but in a more traditional, primal way. A particular swirl of colors grips you, an easily forgotten detail distracts you—the thing just looks…weird, and intimate, and like every cooler place you’d ever day dreamed of going to while a far off voice droned on about cellular mitosis.

No matter what else people loved about Bastion, the art direction was the game’s selling point. Folded up into the playful, saturated watercolors was the only pitch Supergiant Games ever needed to catch people’s attention and close the sale. A single image grabbed the imagination while thirty seconds of gameplay made it abundantly clear: something awesome is going on here.

Unsung Story Still Struggling to Meet Its Kickstarter Goal

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Though not the most prolific game designer, Yasumi Matsuno is still one of the most critically acclaimed. And deservedly so, given his central creative role in classic titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant story.

Now Matsuno is developing a new role-playing game called Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians. Already set to release on iOS and Android tablet devices, Playdek, the studio behind the game, launched a Kickstarter campaign last month in order to raise the funds necessary to port Unsung Story to other platforms, including PCs, consoles, and handhelds.

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To the surprise of many (including myself), the campaign has yet to hit its $600,000 pledge objective, let alone any of its $1 million plus stretch goals, despite having less than 30 hours left to go in the funding drive. While other Kickstarted RPG projects like Double Fine’s Massive Chalice and Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity had little trouble attracting financial support, Playdek’s Unsung Story has struggled.

On The Lightning Returns Demo

I had a chance to sprint through the short demo for Lightning Returns that Square Enix released last week. While there’s not a whole lot to it, the hour spent playing left me reassured about what the final game is offering.

I wrote just over a year ago about why the game sounded so appealing, given what was revealed in previews and trailers at the time. Between the flamboyant art direction, eccentric plot premise, and the turn-based/third-person action combat hybrid it seemed like Lightning Returns would have a lot to offer despite the flawed framework in which it’s situated.

The demo basically confirms that. I analyzed it in detail with Tom Auxier at Pixels or Death (which will be posted soon), but in short

I had a lot of questions going into the demo, and while not all of them were answered (and many more cropped up along the way), overall I feel a lot more confident in what earlier previews, interviews, and trailers for the game have all been promising. It’s not going to “redeem” the Final Fantasy brand for those who feel it’s been sullied over the last console generation, nor would I recommend it to casual players without a prior interest in role-playing games. But at a time when so many new releases in the genre are either trending toward the space-marine formula or falling back on the usual menagerie  of medieval fantasy tropes, Lighting Returns is offering something unique and different with the production value and conviction to back it up.”

Bravely Default Puts A Bandage On Bad Design Rather Than Fixing It

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Random encounters began as a way to design around the limitations of past hardware. Old games couldn’t waste memory actually showing enemies on world or area maps, so instead a player’s traveling party was simply ambushed every so many steps while a screen change indicated a “random encounter” with local enemies was about to ensue.

And even as the hardware that role-playing games were designed for became more capable, and enemies could be rendered anywhere and everywhere (and not just on the battle screen), random encounters became something of a genre convention—just one in a number of peculiar idiosyncrasies fans of RPGs were accustomed to, and in some cases, even lovingly adored. 

But the visual context surrounding an enemy encounter is not nearly as important as its substance. The truth is that just because I can see the monsters waiting for me on-screen doesn’t mean it’s any more fun to battle. Especially in turn-based systems, most random encounters are a chore not because they occur without any warning, but because they are designed with little care or intention, playing out more like a trip to the laundry mat than a fight for survival.

Putting Final Fantasy’s Recent Struggles in Perspective

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Last week, Kotaku's Jason Schreier proceeded to morn the once prestigious JRPG franchise’s continued demise. Specifically, Schreier condemed the latest game to carry the Final Fantasy name, All The Bravest for iOS, and the growing trend of mediocre and heartless JRPG titles coming out of Square he feels it exemplifies,

"But Final Fantasy All The Bravest is not an anomaly. This betrayal is nothing new. Square has spent the past half-decade picking away at our passion for their ubiquitous, once-beloved series. All The Bravest is just another limb rotting off the bloated, mangled corpse that was once Final Fantasy.

As someone who grew up with the adventures of Cecil and Terra, I find it depressing to even write, but here we are. It’s 2013, and Final Fantasy is on its last legs. The 25-year-old RPG series is a shell of its former self. When we see a new Final Fantasy game, our first reaction is no longer “awesome!”—it is “shit, how are they going to ruin my childhood next?” I’ve written before about some of the problems facing Final Fantasy, and even drawn up wish lists of things I’d like to see Square Enix try to do, but All The Bravest is yet another piece of disturbing evidence that this company no longer cares about its fans.”

All the Bravest is by all accounts a train-wreck (though some have rightly pointed out that their are potentially creative ideas seemingly lingering ever so faintly at its core). The App Store cash-grab demonstrates a near total lack of understanding when it comes to: bite-sized gameplay, simplistic touchscreen controls, positive and satisfying feedback loops. The fact that this abomination of game design is skinned in Final Fantasy sprites makes the tortuous enterprise sting all the more.

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But I’m less convinced that this particular instance, and even some of the company’s controversial decisions this console generation, are in any way indicative of the franchise’s overall decline. In a piece at Gaming Vulture proper, I make the case in full,

Lightning Returns Aims to be More Than Just Another Final Fantasy Game

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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be Square Enix’s second attempt to atone for the missteps of the original game three years ago. After Final Fantasy XIII made its controversial debut back in 2010, producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama were left to pick up the pieces and figure out went wrong.

With the game’s newest spin-off due out late next fall, both designers have one last chance to win back old fans, and find some new ones, before the console generation and the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology upon which FFXIII was based come to an end. I’m usually extremely skeptical of all the buzz and positive spin that new video game previews generate, but the information that’s recently come out about Lightning Returns has even me thinking it might be a success, both critically and among hardcore Final Fantasy fans (I’m less bullish on the title’s capacity to spark interest in gamers previously unaware of the series).

Unlike past installments, what is effectively XIII-3 will border on being a third-person action game that resembles Kingdom Hearts meets Devil May Cry. Players will control Lighting, the titular character who is on a quest to save as many people in the world as possible from an approaching doomsday she herself is responsible for.

One Reason Why Some RPG Narratives Hold Up

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Content degradation: the “diminishing capacity to view the objects in the game independently of the system for which they signify.”

That’s how the concept was explained to Joseph Leray by Kirk Battle. In an essay at Bit Creature from a couple weeks ago, Leray explored how certain RPGs deliver a powerful narrative punch in part because they pin battle and exploration systems to the plot,

Junctioning a Guardian Force in Final Fantasy VIII; summoning a sky-dragon in IX and X; buying a license from a government-approved vendor in XII’s Ivalice — all of these complex, Byzantine systems are pinned into their respective game’s plots, taken as literal parts of their worlds. These mechanics are only possible in the context created by each game’s narrative foundation. The content — the story, the characters, the setpieces — serve as the foundation on which the systems are built.

In other words, the content in, say, most Final Fantasy games doesn’t degrade quickly. Even in the midst of a boss fight, when the game is almost purely mechanical, players are dealing with tiny pieces of the plot and gameworld. When content is inescapable, it remains relevant.

Leray goes further and points out some specific instances in which RPGs are able to make a plot development more compelling by integrating it directly into certain gameplay systems.