Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Good Moogles, Bad Cockatrices: 12 Reasons to Love/Hate Final Fantasy XII

I’ve put 376 hours into Final Fantasy XII. That seems gross, but I have an excuse. I played FFXII heavily on release; it grabbed Sherri and me. We swapped out plays, worked through the guide, and tried out combinations. Mostly we explored every tiny corner to complete everything. At 261 hours in the house caught fire. That meant an eight month break while they repaired the house and cleaned the salvageable property. Mercifully that included some of games and memory cards. But we’d been away long enough we couldn’t pick FFXII up. We’d lost our sense of the play and we’d saved right before the last dungeon. So we moved on.

Then this positional vertigo thing sent me to couch & console. I began with the remastered Final Fantasy X, but the slooooooow start frustrated me. So I set up the PS2 to go through some of my favorites (actually just two SSX Tricky and SSX III) before popping in FFXII. I’m another 115 hours in at this point. I’m sure I’m past the halfway mark, but there’s so much to do I can’t say for certain. I just hit level 51.

So here’s what I love and what I don’t love about Final Fantasy XII. I’m already in the tank for JRPGs in general, so keep that in mind. As always I think there might be a few lessons for tabletop games to be learned here. 

1. World Opens Up Early
Kelvin Green hit on this in last post’s comments. FFXII learned many lessons from MMORPGs. Mostly importantly there’s a feeling of space, room, and exploration. And the game doesn’t keep you from that. There’s an obligatory introduction mission or two, but even that feels like you have some choice. As important, you assemble your full party quickly.
1. Plot in the Distance
Eventually you’ll move on the track of the main quest, but you have a lot of other options. To make that work, a chunk of the story happens in cut-away scenes. These take place elsewhere, showing the machinations and maneuvers happening concurrently. The party still fills a vital role, but there’s also a sense of distance between you and the bigger story. It feels real, but perhaps not as engaging as it could be if you’re in the thick of things. At least it doesn’t have the complete lack of autonomy and agency that FF XIII does.

2. Friendships
I really like the main party of six characters. Some are stronger than others, but I appreciate their backstories. They’re complicated and interesting. But beyond that we have awesome friendships and relationships among the group. Vann has recriminations towards Basch at the start but gets over them. Penelo and Vann have great interactions, and they feel very true. Balthier and Fran are clearly peers and platonic comrades. The game even has some conversations between female characters that is not about the party dudes.
2. The Outfits
In general I like the character designs- both of PCs and NPCs. But there are some exceptions. All three of the lead females have odd attire. The least problematic is Penelo, especially if you imagine the weird bare arm and leg portions are actually oddly colored fabric and part of her suit. Ashe’s costume makes no effing sense. It echoes her wedding dress from the opening cut scene, but beyond that it looks uncomfortable and barely held on. But the worst is Fran, with a skimpy suit, prominent cleavage, and astoundingly high heels. It becomes worse when you visit her homeland and realize all of the Viera are also scantily clad, heeled, impossibly thin bunny girls. It’s a weird choice and a strange adaptation of their original cartoony appearance in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. On the plus side, two of the male characters also show a lot of skin. But none of that’s as male-gaze weird as this.

3. Interesting Systems for Play
FF XII gets a lot of hate for its combat and control system. They’re wrong. It’s fun, satisfying, and requires smarts. You have a three person team. Each character can be “programmed” with what the game calls Gambits. A gambit combines an action and a circumstance. So “Ally Status= Poison” could be combined with “Antidote.” This allows you to set up healing patterns, responses to weaknesses, and the use of self-buffs. You run a leader character who generally follows these actions. But you’ll find yourself switching and changing orders to match circumstances. You can easily swap between characters in a fight, set new orders, change equipment, or modify gambits. Random battles become fun tests of your builds- without the slog of constant menus and button inputs. There’s still intensity- watching the world to keep distances, look for new spawns, and avoid gang-ups. I love the random battles and grinding in this game. The drop frequency and bonus system for fighting the same creature type enhance this.
3. Drop Rates
You can almost always get drops, but not necessarily the ones you need. The game offers some control over drop rates by chaining creatures in battle. But often it’s impractical to do so, given the zone layout. But even if you do manage to chain a creature you can still be waiting a wicked long time for a rare drop. It’s worse with Stealing or Poaching which the chains don’t affect. Add to that creatures give out different things for Drops, Steals, and Poaches. The same frustration can apply to treasure chests. These respawn if you go several zone away and return. To make up for this, chest have a % chance to appear. Then they have an even chance to have money or a treasure.

4. Always Something Interesting to Do
I’ve almost never gone, “OK I have to go do this next segment of the story. If I don’t I’m stuck with no options.” You can always take another path, run into a dangerous area, try to find more stuff. The main story primarily triggers two things: what the shops have and additional sidequests. I love running around in the game and just seeing what I can find.
4. Running
There’s a teleport system between save points and it works well. Most of the time. There are occasions when you’ll find yourself running and running. You could pay for a Chocobo to ride, but in some places they won’t go into a zone and will desert you mid-trip. I don’t mind because I dig the landscapes and there’s plenty to see and fight. (So it isn’t the living hell that is Star Ocean).

5. Lots of Build Options
Final Fantasy’s notorious for crazy advancement systems (Sphere Grid, Learning Skills from Items). This one gives you a good sense of where you need to build and the option to tailor characters. Buys take place on two huge “license boards.” Buying a license means you can cast the spell, use the technic, handle the weapon, wear the armor. You still have to acquire these in play, but the game makes it clear what you currently have. As a completest, my goal from word one is to buy ALL the licenses for everyone. You don’t have to do that- and you could easily tune characters for distinct roles. The International Version of FFXII apparently includes an optional profession system (echoing FF Tactics’ approach).
5. Monolithic Character Builds
While the license boards offer lots of room, it’s pretty easy to grind a little and buy everything. That can make the characters feel a little samey. Unlike other games, the characters don’t have huge differences in what they’re good at. In both FFX and FFXIII characters have definite strengths with certain roles. That’s less present here.

6. Cool Lands
I really love the landscapes here and their variety. Each zone feels distinct, even when they’re running similar climates (desert, jungle, tundra). Some zones feel huge, others run up and down hills, a few have complicated architectures and paths for getting around. The cities also feel vibrant, alive, and huge. I love running around them. They don’t feel like simply a connected set of shops and stalls.
6. So Cold
There’s an obligatory snow level in the game. I like snow levels. They offer interesting dynamics and visuals. But all I can think of when I’m watching the characters run through this is: begeezus crust, put a jacket on, dumbass.

7. Tons of Hunts
Every zone has an interesting assortment of creatures. There’s a nice balance; if you’re in areas close to your level you’ll have to modulate your approach. But beyond that the game has two different “Hunt Clubs.” The first has you talking to patrons who want a particularly nasty beast killed. The fights can be huge challenges, especially if you go in unprepared. You gain material rewards as well as little bits of color & setting information. You can also go after “rare game,” named monsters that pop up according to certain trigger in different areas. Again, if you’re not expecting them they can wreck your day. Add in several huge monster side-quests & the hunt for summons. If you’re tired of grinding you can always switch to a meatier challenge. The game has lots.
7. The Zodiac Trap
The Zodiac Spear’s a truly dumb thing in the game. The Spear’s the best weapon in the game and you can find it in a chest late in the game. That’s provided you haven’t opened any of four special-but-unmarked treasures chests elsewhere in the world. They’re in different zones and parts of the story. AND THE GAME GIVES YOU NO CLUE THAT THIS WILL HAPPEN. One of these chests is in an area you go through early, when you’re desperate for loot. There’s a lot of hidden information in the game, but that’s the most egregious example. How some monsters get triggered, where to find certain summons, what drops what…all of this you have to get from a strategy guide or Game FAQs. I love guides so that isn’t a problem, but I can see where it could frustrate.

8. Monsters
I did the heavy grinding in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. Those games had excellent & cool monster designs, beautifully animated. But I think I love the designs from FFXII even more. From the weirdness of the Adamantitan to the freakiness of the Coeurl-type to the insanity of the Esper Cúchulainn, they’re consistently striking. Even palette swap versions manage to feel distinct from one another. 
8. Traps
You can see traps if you have Libra up…and you will. You can then steer your main character by them. But the other two folks in your party? They’re idiots. They will throw themselves on them. There’s no way to disarm traps. Your only option is to cast Float so you don’t trigger them. But that can drop at any moment and then “Boom” effing Basch has once again stumbled over a bomb.

9. Always a Challenge
The game always seems to have places and creatures offering a challenge. And you can wander into danger spots easily. You have to regroup, fall back, and figure out a smarter approach. Some areas have several entrances from different zones, leading into more and more dangerous spots. In one case the obvious crossroads hides a nasty beast. While you eventually learn what to do and improve your gear, zones always hold dangers. Elementals pop up in many places. They don’t agro until someone casts a spell near them. You have to pay attention or you might find yourself pulled into a nastier fight. You can see beasts on screen like an MMO, and you’ll have to figure out how to isolate and pull them. And sometimes fights can turn on a dime. Something triggers and suddenly you’re having to compensate. I was grinding for a particular drop last night, set up pretty well to deal with everything in the zone. But then one of the creatures landed a major status effect spell on my party, hitting all three at once. That included Confuse which sets party members striking each other. I had one character down and another weakened before I managed to change my action queue and flip things around. Even then one of the status effects meant that Phoenix Downs raised them with 1 HP- so they’d get up and be knocked down again. It was awesome and sudden.
9. Give Me Gambits
Gambits set your characters actions and priorities. Pretty quickly you’ll start to think of some great things you could combine- operations for certain cases and so on. But you won’t have the syntax for them. You want characters to use the Charge ability to restore lost MP. But it isn’t until the middle of the game that you get a trigger like “Character’s MP < 20%.” You don’t get “Creature= Water Weak” or other elemental conditions until well into the game. That means you’ll have to rely on a small command vocabulary for a long time.

10. Balthier
He’s the best. He’s awesome. While everyone else in the early stages is working through their personality conflicts, he’s practical, greedy, and pokes fun at everyone’s attitude. Later he gets a little bit of dark backstory, but he doesn’t mope about it. Balthier’s a sky pirate and cool without trying. He would get a good chuckle out of the ‘heroes’ from other FF games. He has my favorite line, “I'm only here to see how the story unfolds. Any self-respecting leading man would do the same.”
10. Palette Dullness
While the world’s bright and colorful, there’s a weird neutrality to the hues on the main characters. Vann and Ashe have the same color hair which looks weird. It’s a call-back to Vagrant Story, I think- and an effort to be realistic. It’s OK, but feels like a missed opportunity.

11. Ivalice
FF XII’s set in Ivalice, one of the few series settings to have multiple games across several systems. We first saw portions of it in the tough Vagrant Story action rpg for the PS1. More importantly Final Fantasy Tactics deepened the world. That amazing game set many of the future details (skill types, the use of the Zodiac motif). Later two follow ups Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA) and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (DS) extended the lore and added a variety of non-human peoples. Unfortunately only one more Ivalice game would arrive in the US aftr FFXII, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings (DS), a painful pseudo-RTS. I like Ivalice; it feels consistent and complex. It’s a more conventional fantasy setting, harkening back to the earliest FF games. But I dig it.
11. Complicated Story
s’wa? Who is that? Wait, why is he betraying them? So wait, you can manufacture this stuff but some of it is a relic and they made a sword to break it? And what are the Espers then? There’s a lot going on in the game and it isn’t always spelled out clearly. I like it better than the hand-holding plot walk-through of other games. But the level of depth here can get in the way of buy-in.

12. Character Subtlety
This may sound odd, but I love the subtlety of the characterization here. I’ll admit I didn’t dig it at first, coming to it from brighter games with cartoony personalities like Final Fantasy X and Dragon Quest 8. But on a second playthrough, I love how everyone interacts. They have problems and dramatic pulls, but they evolve and change. You can see their growth and decision process. And they’re hit with big questions, especially about the limits of power in the service of a good cause. Ashe is torn on this, caught between a duty to protect her people and duty to restore her kingdom. The other characters counter-balance that with wariness about the destructiveness of the powers they’re harnessing.
12. No Romance
I’m a sucker for love stories in these games. I dig the room to make up my own head canon (Tidus + Lulu). But FFXII is bare-bones in regard to this. The closest we get is Ashe’s feelings and sorrow over her husband’s death.