Tag: Final Fantasy

More from Busiek on that Final Fantasy Comic

For those of you just joining us by way of a link from Kurt Busiek or CBR, welcome. I guess I should probably figure out something interesting to say so you'll feel like sticking around for a bit. For what it's worth, I've written quite a bit about Final Fantasy over the years, and three posts I wrote about FF7 back in 2011 (the first on mods for the PC version, the second on iconic images, and the third a general look back on the game) are pretty consistently the most popular thing on the site.

In lieu of me saying anything interesting, I'm going to quote a little bit more from Kurt Busiek on the unfinished Final Fantasy comic, in the comments section of the Robot 6 article on the subject.

I will also add that if the book came out, I don’t think that Final Fantasy fans would be particularly happy with it. It was 1991, and I was a workmanlike-but-not-particularly-noted writer. Dell Barras was a workmanlike artist, and, well, the covers were gorgeous.

But I don’t think I really started to make strides creatively as a writer until VAMPIRELLA: MORNING IN AMERICA (late that year) and the industry didn’t notice ’til MARVELS in 1993.

So, while I barely remember the details, I expect it was a workmanlike story that made sense but wasn’t particularly memorable, with workmanlike art and great covers.

And heresy upon heresies, I changed things (with Squaresoft’s permission). I thought it was so odd that the manly heroic lead was named Cecil and his loyal buddy was named Cain (really? You name the loyal guy Cain?) that I suggested maybe they needed Americanized names, and Squarest agreed. I don’t remember what I changed them to, but Squarest liked them enough that they asked if I’d be interested in a staff position making the games more American-appropriate. We never talked much about it, because I wanted to freelance. But I bet fans devoted to the game wouldn’t have liked the changes, especially not from a current POV, looking back.

What can I say? I wasn’t particularly a Final Fantasy fan — I’d played their first US game a little, and the second wasn’t even done yet.

He adds, in a later comment, that the bible he'd been given didn't even mention that Kain spends half the game betraying Cecil, and talks a little bit more about the original (FF1-based) outline he wrote.

(If he had been involved in localizing the game, I'm willing to bet it would have been better than what we initially got. But he'd have still been contending with cartridge space limitations and weird Nintendo censorship.)

Mignola Final Fantasy Covers

Well now. It appears that Kurt Busiek just reblogged a Tumblr post by Alex Chung, which, in turn, links back to a post I wrote back in '012 about Busiek, Barras, and Mignola's unfinished Final Fantasy comic (based on Final Fantasy 4).

So since that old post is probably getting a little bit of new traffic, I should follow it up, now that I have a couple of Mignola's covers for the series.

This one is via Chung's post, and would have been the cover to issue #2:
Final Fantasy #2 cover

And this was sent to me just over a year ago by Dale Jackson, who owns the original art; it would have been the cover of #4:
Final Fantasy #4 cover

Alex, thanks for linking to my post and for including the #2 cover; Dale, thanks for the heads-up on the #4 cover and I'm sorry it took so long to post it.

World of Balance

So my current replay of FF6 has sparked some discussion over on the forums, as you might expect.

My previous post, asserting that the Auction House is the worst thing in the game, met with some debate from TA and Brent, who contend that the Veldt is the worst thing in the game. From there, discussion ensued about Gau's utility, and I mentioned that I'm going out of my way to use characters on this playthrough who I don't normally use and how putting Strago, Relm, and Locke in my party made the Floating Continent a much more defensive affair.

Brent interjected that strategy is not a subject he associates with FF6 ("I always thought the RPG bits were just the glue holding together a pretty good steampunk fantasy novel"); Ocksi and I got to talking about the unlikely prospect of a remake in the style of 3 and 4 for DS -- and I bridged the two points, noting that while the best we're likely to get is a prettied-up-but-primitive port like on the PSP (and even that's not looking likely right now), FF6 is a game that could really use the sort of serious rebalancing that the DS remakes got. Brent suggested the following:

If I were redoing the game I'd just do away with the Fight command completely and let everyone have their own wholly unique attack mechanic. That'd mean a lot of new minigames and some changes to existing specials (Cyan shouldn't hold up the entire damn fight, Setzer shouldn't randomly end the game), but I don't think many people would complain.

and we went from there.

Most of this was originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2013-08-11, but I'm making some notes and revisions here as I go.


That'd be pretty tempting, yeah. Make Terra and Strago pure magic, say? And give them an FF12-style Charge move in case they run out of MP.

Further thoughts:

Give monsters AI. Make them only heal as needed, and not re-cast offensive/debuff/negative status spells on characters they have no effect on. Obviously you'd need to rebalance their attacks, because there would be absolutely no reason for a Stray Cat ever to use its standard attack instead of Cat Scratch. (Which I guess is the same problem with Edgar, Sabin, Cyan, and the Fight command.) Maybe add charge time to the more powerful attacks? I'll get back to charge time in a minute.

Either give Gau, Mog, and Umaro AI much like what I described above, or make them controllable. (Or, ooh, here's a thought: have them initially fight based on AI, but introduce a relic in the second half of the game that allows you to control them, like the FakeMustache turns randomized Sketch into Control.) Make your character controllable in the Coliseum, too.

(Mothra interjected that he liked not controlling his character in the Coliseum. I don't, at all, but if they were to keep it that way they'd definitely need to give it the same kind of AI upgrade that I suggested above -- Sabin should never, ever use Spiraler; if you know Firaga you shouldn't be casting Fire; and if you cast Scan I'd better see you using your next turn to exploit any elemental weaknesses it pulled up.)

Gau/Veldt: Make Gau automatically learn rages from every monster he defeats, whether he's on the Veldt or not.
Veldt can still serve a purpose as the place where you can re-fight monsters from earlier in the game -- but needs a few tweaks.
First of all, get rid of the current arrangement of monsters (where you fight a random group from an ordered list). Split the Veldt up by region -- maybe arrange it so that it resembles the world map in miniature. Go to an area on the miniature map and you'll fight monsters from that part of the world map. (Obviously this would be a little trickier to implement in the WoR -- do you have a mix of WoB and WoR monsters in each region, or find some way to split it up into two miniature world maps?)
And no more missable Veldt monsters. If you've been to a region, monsters from that region will show up on the Veldt, whether you've encountered them or not. (The exceptions would be the two bosses, provided you even keep them as Veldt monsters; that was always kinda weird.)

Oh, and no missable dances, either. Create some persistent location where you can learn the Water Dance in the WoR. Maybe make the Serpent Trench, Ebot's Rock, anywhere else that was underwater in the WoB into a marshland that counts as water.

Celes: While Terra and Strago make sense as pure mages from a plot perspective, Celes doesn't. She's been raised as a warrior from infancy; you'd have to expect she'd at least know how to handle a sword when MP runs out. I say make her an FF5-style Mage Knight; give her the ability to enchant weapons with elements or effects. You could keep Runic, but if so you'd want to make it useful late in the game by, for example, making it only draw enemy magic (maybe have this be another ability that gets upgraded by a Relic), or you could drop it entirely in favor of Magic Sword.

Magic: The four natural mages (Terra, Celes, Strago, Relm) should have visibly better magical aptitude than everybody else. I think everybody else's magic stats (Magic, MP, M Evade, M Def) should be nerfed -- not to the point where magic is useless, but to the point where it's noticeably less effective than when the natural mages do it. (Gogo's actually a pretty good example of a character who can still use any ability in the game but is visibly worse at it than its natural practitioner.) I'm thinking you could also add charge times for the non-natural magic users to cast their spells.

And speaking of charge times, that's what you do with Cyan. Have him pick his attack from a menu and then initiate the counter; if you want to do, say, #7, it'll still take just as long to prepare, but everybody else in the party can keep doing their thing while he's preparing it.
Also, either eliminate his intermediate attacks or make them useful.

Similar goes for Edgar -- there's not really much reason to use any of his tools except Autocrossbow and Chainsaw.
I say nerf Chainsaw a bit. (Make the difference between it and Drill more striking -- make it useless against monsters with high def, for example, so that Drill is clearly a better choice there.) Make monsters more susceptible to Bioblaster and Noiseblaster (and maybe add some more tools that cause different status ailments) -- here's a thought, maybe even make monsters that would normally repel a Bio or Confuse spell susceptible to the Tool version.
Introduce Debilitator way earlier in the game -- say, before the Magitek Research Facility. (Technically it's possible to steal one from the crane boss, but it's rare and that still means you get it immediately after the part of the game where it would be most useful.)

Auction House: Easily fixable. FF9 had an Auction House that actually behaved like an auction house; do it like that. Make players bid; place them up against simple AI behavior from townspeople; reward good betting strategies while keeping the results somewhat unpredictable. Maybe even have an online component to it, let players trade items -- you can put restrictions on it (like one purchase a day) if you really want to, but I wouldn't worry that much about people gaming it, really.

The joke events could still happen I guess, but limit them to once each.

And keep a high probability that the important items -- the two Espers and, provided we keep Gilgamesh, Excalipoor as well, shouldn't be too hard to get ahold of. It's okay to have some rare stuff in there -- maybe a very low probability of super-powerful, super-rare items like Economizers and Offerings showing up -- but I don't think any unique items should be such a bastard to get.

And while we're talking about rare items, having the Excalibur and other high-end equipment not show up until the very end of the game is dumb. It should be obtainable earlier.

(Making the player choose between Ragnarok the Esper and Ragnarok the Sword, while still allowing you to steal the sword from one of the Goddesses, is okay by me, though. ...but maybe make it not such a pain in the ass to get rare steals. Maybe do like the more recent games have done and allow monsters to carry multiple items so if you keep stealing for long enough you'll eventually get the rare one?)

I think Celes's theme should actually play for more than three seconds of the game, too. Like, for starters, why not play it when she's introduced, like nearly every other playable character?

Final Fantasy Prequels I'd Actually Like to See

R^2's excellent Let's Play Final Fantasy 4 Advance thread over at Brontoforumus has veered onto the topic of The After Years and its general wretchedness. I've never played it -- but yeah, it sure seems like a terrible idea, on principle.

And I get to thinking, what Final Fantasy same-world sequels are any good?

For my money, FF12 and Revenant Wings don't count -- that's a case of an established setting being worked into a numbered FF game, not a numbered FF game's setting being reused per se.

FF10-2 was pretty neat, partially because it was the first and partially because it was so utterly different from FF10 proper, in tone, plot, and gameplay.

And the only FF7 sequel worth a damn is Crisis Core.

I think a lot of that is because it has the good sense not to take itself as goddamn seriously as most everything in the FF7 universe -- but I think it's also because it's a prequel. FF7 has an ending. An ending whose appeal comes from its ambiguity. Setting games (or movies) after the ending misses the point. Badly.

So with FF4. FF4 puts a fucking bow on things. Everybody gets to be a king or queen. Even Yang, for no reason whatsoever.

How the fuck do you top that? You don't.

Most Final Fantasys have an ending that's pretty, well, final. (There's an ongoing fanboy talking point that that's why they're called "Final" and that's why you should stop making jokes about "Dur hur how can they be final if there's thirteen of 'em?" That's stupid fanboy talk. But you really should stop making that joke.)

But you know what? Plenty of them come with perfectly good backstories to play with, and ripe ground for prequels.

Let's start with FF5 and the Warriors of Dawn. You could play as a young Galuf, and Butz's dad, and...look, I forget the other two guys' names. The point of FF5 isn't really its plot, it's the jobs system. I'd be happy to play a game with an earlier war with Exdeath, revisiting some familiar locations and characters a la Dragon Quest 3.

And then there's FF6 and the War of the Magi. The backstory's dashed off in a few lines of exposition in-game, but it's got loads of potential -- three gods begin fighting, they mutate humans into magic users, other humans hunt the magic users to take their powers, and it leads to an all-out apocalyptic battle that rends the world asunder and ultimately wipes magic off the map and sends technology back to the Stone Age.

Given the timeline and the established power of the Warring Triad, the world wouldn't need to bear any kind of resemblance to FF6. (Though, hm -- maybe the map could start out looking one way and, after being torn asunder by the Triad, look like the World of Balance. Dramatic irony!)

And the final candidate I'd like to share is Final Fantasy 3. 3 has an even more barebones story than 5 (and isn't as good a game), but it has one idea in its backstory that could make for a wonderfully warped take on the traditional story.

3 relies on the D&D trope of Good and Evil existing in balance to one another, and the idea that if one becomes too strong, the other will rise to defeat it. Final Fantasy 3 has a world subject to the influence of a creeping evil -- and so the Crystals create four Warriors of Light.

But, it's clearly established in the backstory that the reverse happened a few hundred years before: Good got too strong, and the Crystals created four Warriors of Dark to restore the balance.

I'd love to play a game that does the Final Fantasy formula in reverse: burn villages, breed monsters, awaken ancient evils, start an evil empire and slowly take over the world.

I guess it would be kinda like the first half-hour of Final Fantasy 4, if Cecil had a much higher degree of job satisfaction.

The Auction House is the Worst Thing in Final Fantasy 6

It really, really is.

I mean, the Fanatics' Tower is downright sadistic -- it's a huge, nasty, difficult slog, with no save points, ending in a boss who will almost certainly kill your entire party when you defeat him, and then, if you survive (which requires either Reraise or an extremely high-level party), makes you walk all the way down again, and not only that, but it offers no experience, so if you die you lose everything you've gained.

But, it's pretty easily gamed. You're not going to fall for that wipe-out-your-entire-party thing a second time, and players who know what they're doing can actually get in and out painlessly with a Moogle Charm and the Berserk and Reraise spells.

The Auction House, on the other hand, is bullshit.

The first thing wrong with it is that it is not a fucking auction house. It is a store with a randomized inventory where it takes an inordinate amount of time to buy things. Items go for the same price, every fucking time; you just have to sit through a goddamn cutscene before you can agree to buy them.

And the second thing wrong with it, of course, is the goddamn Talking Chocobo and 1/1200 Scale Airship.

Not only is it a store with a randomized inventory that makes you sit through a cutscene to buy things, but a very large percentage of the time (I'm going to say "majority", though people who've paid more attention to FF6's RNG can correct me) it hits you with a gag item that you can't actually buy.

This is, possibly, mildly amusing the very first time it happens.

For some reason, it is possible for it to happen a second time after that.

And a third, fourth, fifth, and seven hundredth fucking time.

And if you want to get two particular espers, or certain rare relics early in the game, you either have to study the game's random number generator to figure out how to get the things you actually want, save-spam until you get lucky, cheat, or actually sit through every one of the auctions.

Nice thing about emulation is that it makes it a lot less obnoxious, what with the ability to use a save state right outside the door and fast-forward to nudge the RNG. (On my last playthrough I was convinced that the item up for auction was seeded by your number of steps; this time I'm more inclined to believe it's time-based. I'm sure somebody out there has written an exhaustive guide, though I must admit I'd be more interested in just finding a hack that turns the damn thing into a store and lets you buy the things you want from it.)

Auctions -- actual auctions -- make a lot more sense in MMORPG's, where you're interacting with other players. So do extremely rare drops, for that matter. FF6 is less guilty of the latter than FF4, with its rare summons, Pink Tails, and such (though I've only ever seen one Economizer drop in all the times I've played 6 top-to-bottom and side-to-side), but there's slim damn reason for there to be an auction house in the game in the first place, and no reason at all for an irritating goddamn barely-functional store that pretends it's an auction house.

Part II begins now!

If I've a gripe about Act 2 of FF6, it's that it's one of those bits that gives you flexibility to choose your party but where the plot clearly defines a correct party.

It's Edgar, Sabin, Locke, and Celes.

If you've got Edgar and Sabin, you'll get their cutscene in Figaro that tells the story of their father's death, the coin toss, and Sabin's departure.

And if you've got Locke, you'll see his cutscenes in Kohlingen about Rachel, her fall and amnesia, and her current state of suspended animation.

While it's true that Celes only gets one line of dialogue to react to all this, I think it's still valid to say she's a "correct" party member here, given that she becomes mandatory after Zozo.

Speaking of after Zozo, yes, you do get to choose half your party there -- but Locke and Celes are mandatory, and Sabin and Edgar are still the two remaining party members who contribute most to the plot if you pick them -- because then you get the punchline to the coin toss story.

Sure, you can get Shadow during this stretch -- but it's not really worth it. You might catch one of his dreams if you stay at an inn, but other than that, he doesn't do much except potentially run away at an awkward moment and leave you stranded. Plus, if it's your first time playing the game, you won't know he's coming and will leave Narshe with a full party and not be able to get him (without backtracking to Narshe and leaving somebody behind), and if it's not your first time, you'll know the correct party is Edgar, Sabin, Locke, and Celes.

Anyway. That aside? This is one of the great sequences of the game. Zozo is one of the most memorable locations, and the Opera House represents everything I love about Final Fantasy in general and this game in particular. And in the version I'm playing, with the music restoration patch, it's an actual recording, complete with real voices. Singing in Italian. Seriously, it is the crown jewel of an excellent game hack and you owe it to yourself to check this version of the game out.

And then the occupied cities of Albrook, Maranda, and Tzen -- if I've a gripe about them, it's that they're a little too samey, but that was a pretty common problem in 8- and 16-bit JRPG's and FF6 provides more variety than most.

And then Vector. Vector is marvelous. The slight sheen of fire and metal over everything, the soldiers everywhere and robbers in the inn, the oppressive music.

And the Magitek Research Facility is a whole other vibe: pure mad science.

The whole sequence is so fantastic that I hate to point out the places where the seams show, but what the hell, here they are.

First: it's stated in dialogue that Gestahl has known about Magicite for 20 years and that Celes's magical talents came at the expense of an Esper's life.

But Kefka and Cid are both quite clearly surprised by the revelation that the best way to obtain an Esper's power is by killing it.

I can understand Gestahl not telling Kefka -- I mean, would you? -- but Cid? That doesn't make a lick of sense. Cid is the guy in charge of extracting power from Espers. The entire purpose of this giant facility you're in is rendered moot if Gestahl knows magic is derived from dead Espers rather than Espers in giant fishtanks. Not to mention that Cid is the person who gave Celes her magic infusion when she was a child, so if it involved dead Espers he should presumably have known about it.

(And speaking of children, the Slattery and Woolsey translations both have Terra say "I was raised on the Esper world." and then immediately tell the story of how she left the Esper world at the age of two. That's more of a nitpick over a single word choice, but it still grates.)

Also very very silly: Locke seems to immediately buy Kefka and Cid's -- that would be, to those of you keeping score, the villain and a guy he just met -- allegation that Celes is a spy.

This is, of course, completely fucking ludicrous.

It relies on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Predictable Tree (after the scene in First Blood where Rambo drops out of a tree on top of a cop -- they are in a forest; how did he know a cop was going to stand under that exact tree before he climbed it?) and TV Tropes calls Gambit Roulette.

Let's paint a picture here.

Let's say Celes was a spy seeking to infiltrate the Returners.

When Locke meets her, she is chained up in a basement. (Or, in the GBA version, just kinda hanging out in a basement.)

So okay. She wanted to infiltrate the Returners.

So she...hid out chained up in a basement, and just waited for one of them to come into South Figaro, sneak past the armed guards by stealing clothes from people, bribe an old man with cider to be allowed use of his secret passageway, and just happen to look through the door into the smallest room in the biggest house in town and see her chained up there?

Locke believes this is a plausible scenario. Because Locke is a character in a video game. And in a video game, a plan like that is perfectly logical.

This is a medium where mad scientists regularly attempt to take over the world by sticking thematic robots into little rooms where they can hang out and wait until somebody walks in so they can shoot at him. Where dragons won't attack you until after you've talked to exactly the right villagers in precisely the correct order. And, lest you think these particular abuses of Video Game Logic are confined to classic games, I point you to my thoughts on Metroid: Other M, a game where a monster does not attack you until you notice a trail of bugs on the ground, and a woman will stand at a window for ten minutes while you look around and then act surprised and run away when you finally spot her.

So, all things considered? I guess Locke's got a point.

The Sublime Symmetry of FF6's First Act

Well, Terra's turned pink and flown off toward Zozo, leaving me to consider the first five or so hours of FF6. In an era where episodic games are now common, it's striking that the game's first act would have made an excellent Episode 1. It doesn't just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and (cliffhanger) ending, it doesn't just introduce the premise and most of the major cast while still leaving the biggest stuff for later -- it also plays significantly differently from the rest of the game, and its plot and play beats form a brilliant mirror where the end of the act recalls its beginning.

The Empire invades Narshe, with Terra as a puppet. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results. Terra regains consciousness and the ability to think for herself. Locke has to protect her in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra and Locke flee the Empire, gaining comrades along the way -- and then the party is abruptly separated. For the first time, you see events unfold through characters other than Terra -- and then everyone makes their way back to Narshe. The Empire invades, with Terra and friends defending the city; they have to defend Bannon in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results -- and even as she comes closer than ever to discovering who and what she really is, she loses her willpower again and becomes an unthinking beast.

Aside from that, there's the gameplay -- and, notably, a couple of things happen during this portion that don't happen again later.

First, there are the two tower defense-style battles. They're the only two in the game, which is just the right amount. The first one is easy and lets you get the hang of it; the second one's a more legitimate challenge.

There's also the "Choose a scenario" portion. While there are other parts of the game where the party is split up, there are no other occasions where you experience story developments from multiple perspectives.

And it's mostly great! Terra's scenario is pretty bland, but at least it's short. Locke's scenario is another unique piece of game; it's a puzzle that plays to his strengths as a th -- treasure hunter, and it's funny besides. Sabin's scenario is the longest and broadest of the bunch, introduces three new playable characters with tragic origin stories, and takes you through a tour of the game's various locations -- the Imperial Camp, Doma, the Haunted Forest, the Phantom Train, Barren Falls, the Veldt, and the Serpent Trench. Some of it feels half-baked -- the Forest is over in minutes, and the Serpent Trench is just a showcase for then-impressive Mode 7 animation where very little actually happens (and then you have to come back later if you want to get Mog's water dance) -- but a lot of it, like the camp sequence and the Phantom Train, is excellent.

And then there's the character balance -- this is a game that's famous for not having very much of that, but it's hard to tell in the opening act.

Each character has a unique ability -- at least, up until you get Celes and then you've got two magic-users and Terra hasn't learned Morph yet. And most of them are pretty well-thought-out.

Terra and Celes both play like Red Mages in previous FF games -- they can equip the best weapons and armor and cast both black and white magic spells, but they're not very strong as attackers yet at this point in the game, their offensive spells are middling, and their low max MP means they don't get much use out of them at any rate. Celes's Runic is pretty damned useful early in the game when she's the only magic-user in the party and it effectively nullifies bosses' magic; it's not until later in the game that it becomes basically worthless.

Edgar gets decent, but not crazy-high, damage against all enemies with the Autocrossbow. It's a pity the Bioblaster and Noiseblaster aren't much use.

Shadow gets solid-to-high damage depending on equipment, and occasionally will counter with Interceptor, which is the most damaging attack you've got at this point in the game but happens rarely enough that it's not spammy. And Shadow is squishy and dies easily. (And may randomly ditch out on you and make you restore from a save so he doesn't take that Genji Glove you put on him when he goes. That part I'm not so crazy about, but the unpredictable mercenary angle is a neat idea in theory, at least.)

Cyan is nominally a samurai but plays more like the previous games' Knight class: he does solid damage but excels at defense. Early on he's kinda like Edgar in that he's got one very good special attack and two others that aren't really much use most of the time.

Gau has immediate access to more powerful attacks and spells than anyone else in the party, but you can't control him and even if you pick a Rage like Templar that drastically boosts his defense and evade (in versions where the evade stat actually works), he's still pretty squishy.

And then there's Sabin and Locke. Who I guess, if nothing else, at least balance each other, since one is ridiculously overpowered and the other is, at this point in the game, not that damn good.

Sabin is the most overpowered character in the game. You can see where they were trying to make him something of a glass cannon like the Monks in the previous games -- he's got the high attack, high HP, can't equip good armor thing going on -- but even with weak armor he still does a pretty good job of soaking up damage, and he dishes it out like crazy. Aura Cannon is one of very few Holy-elemental attacks you get access to in the game, and it deals high damage to most enemies. And while, like Edgar and Cyan, his other two specials are inferior, they're still fairly useful -- Pummel/Raging Fist ignores defense, and he can suplex a fucking train.

Locke, by contrast -- well, he's decent enough later in the game, but early on he deals low damage, has low defense and HP, and his Steal command isn't worth using. It seems to fail about 75% of the time and, when it succeds, it's usually just a damn Potion that won't even heal the damage the party took while Locke was trying to steal from the monsters instead of killing them.

His scenario's fun as hell -- right up until the part where you start actually having to fight dudes, at which point it turns into Locke mostly being a liability while Celes does all the work.

But, Locke and Sabin aside, the characters' balance is really well-thought-out in the early going.

Course, by the time you leave Zozo you've got Espers and a chainsaw -- but that's a story for another day...

The Last Story: Flawed but Satisfying

So I finally got around to finishing The Last Story the other day. On the whole, I liked it.

It's certainly got a lot of the same old themes from Final Fantasy, as you'd expect from a game produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi where he appears to have literally just typed "Final Fantasy" into a thesaurus. There's a corrupt empire, an ancient threat from outer space, plants withering and the earth beginning to rot, a pair of starcrossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, and a focus on providing story explanations for game mechanics.

Many of Uematsu's themes, of the musical variety, return as well -- I heard hints of Terra, Edgar and Sabin, Gau, and Setzer in the ending alone, one of the final boss themes is a dead ringer for the FF7 boss theme, and the main theme recalls bits of Locke, Celes, and Aeris.

It's good stuff, though, and not too derivative; I'm probably primed to pick up all those little FF6 threads from all that listening to Balance and Ruin.

It's pretty standard High Fantasy genre stuff -- lots of horns and strings and timpani. It doesn't have the breadth or variety of Uematsu's 16- and 32-bit compositions, but that's a function of this game being a lot more tonally consistent than those were. I've talked in the past about how FF7 has more mood swings than a bipolar teenager. Last Story is much more steady -- there's plenty of levity to be had, but little or nothing in the way of racing giant birds or attending an opera.

For all that's familiar, it's a very different kind of game. It feels smaller in scale -- sure, there's still a cosmic threat that endangers all life on the planet, but the scope feels smaller. The game is centered around a single city -- the kind of thing that just wasn't done in JRPG's back in the '80's and '90's but which has become increasingly commonplace. More than that, the plot is intimately focused -- it's less about the events going on in the world than how they personally affect the handful of main characters.

Final Fantasy tends to focus on small ragtag parties who travel all over expansive worlds and eventually save the world. Suikoden focuses on small ragtag parties who participate in small regional conflicts and eventually gather large armies to overthrow dictators (and save the world). Last Story combines the intimacy of a Suikoden game's regional conflict with the intimacy of a Final Fantasy game's small, closely-knit party of player characters -- in a setting that's smaller than either. It's like what you'd get if a Suikoden game took place entirely inside the castle and its surrounding environs, or if Final Fantasy 7 had taken place entirely in Midgar.

And -- like a Suikoden game and unlike Sakaguchi-era Final Fantasy games -- it also creates the impression that there are more stories to tell in this world. The heroes save the world, the current threat is dealt with, but the Empire is still out there and who knows what else is going on in the world. This is the kind of game where there could be sequels set in this same world -- which is great, because that's still a rarity in JRPG's (except, recently, for Final Fantasy games that really, really don't need them, no matter how much I may have enjoyed Crisis Core), and both the main Suikoden series and the Ivalice series sadly seem to have stalled at this point.

At any rate, maybe I'll get into specific plot details another time, but for now I'm going to take a minute to talk about mechanics.


As for the gameplay, it's really quite enjoyable, but it has some warts, particularly in the boss fights.

The complexity of the combat is a good idea in theory. It's clearly designed to give a more satisfying experience than Fight-Fire-Cure.

In practice, boss fights tend to go pretty much like this:

  1. Wait for a party member to explain what the boss's weakness is.
    • They will either explain this only once, in which case you will probably miss it, or they will explain it over and over again constantly forever until you go into the menu and turn the fucking voices off.
    • Also, occasionally, the game will fuck with you by introducing a simple concept in a completely counterintuitive manner. Like explaining elemental weaknesses in a battle with an ice-elemental monster at a point where the only offensive spell your party has is an ice spell.
  2. Try to hit "A" at exactly the right moment to perform the action that you need to perform to make the boss vulnerable; hope and pray that you are facing the object you're supposed to be interacting with dead-on and the "A" button performs the action it's supposed to instead of just rolling you out of range.
  3. Repeat step 2 until the boss becomes vulnerable to normal attacks. (In my experience this usually takes about 3 successful presses of the "A" button at exactly the right moment and about 50 unsuccessful presses of the "A" button that make you roll out of range and have to try again.)
  4. And then the rest of the fight is just Fight-Fire-Cure.
  5. Unless by this point you've been whittled down so badly that Syrenne is dead and Zael is on his last life. In which case you'll need to play defensively.
    1. Run around the boss in circles like it's a turn-of-the-century shooter, except without any shooting.
    2. Whittle the boss's health down, agonizingly slowly, with your remaining mages.
    3. If you do get hit, lunge for the nearest heal circle.
    4. Hope the boss doesn't just straight up fucking one-hit kill you.

So yeah. Combat makes some interesting decisions that are really nice in theory, but really fucking tedious in actual execution. It's the sort of thing that I think really could be improved in a sequel.

And while the game uses save points (boooooo), for the most part they're employed competently; they're spaced pretty close together and the game also has checkpoint saves that are even more frequent.

In fact, this works out pretty well right up until the last boss gauntlet.

The last boss gauntlet is fucking bullshit.

It relies on hoary old JRPG artificial difficulty tropes like spacing save points too far apart. In one case, there's a series of three consecutive battles with no save points or checkpoints in-between. Die in the third one and you'll have to replay the first two. But if you give up and quit, then the next time you restore from a save you'll not only have to replay those first two battles, but the boss fight right before them, because there's no save point after the boss. There's a save point before the boss, but you can't backtrack to it after you beat him.

And the last boss gauntlet is long. From the Point of No Return where you can no longer backtrack or buy equipment (which is distinct from the previous Point of No Return, where you could no longer backtrack but could still occasionally buy equipment), it goes something like boss, save point, boss, cutscene, checkpoint save, gauntlet of tougher-than-average regular enemies, checkpoint save, cutscene, boss, boss, cutscene, save point, cutscene, boss, checkpoint save, boss's second form, save point, cutscene, checkpoint save, another cutscene that you can fast forward through but can't actually skip, boss with three forms.

And, in addition to the complaints above, the difficulty of the fights is adjusted upward by things like repeatedly splitting up your party for no real good reason, and adjusted downward by sticking those last two save points in rooms where you can indefinitely spawn monsters that are laughably easy and yield ridiculously high experience.

In short, it feels like the frequent Sakaguchi problem of a climax going out of its way to keep ratcheting things up and reminding you that this really is the climax, with actual gameplay seeming to be an afterthought.

And then the game still doesn't end. I think it's actually nice that there's something to do postgame (not just a New Game+ but an opportunity to go back to town and do sidequests or what-have-you), but by the end there really was a feeling of "Jesus Christ, when is this thing going to end?"

There is seriously another numbered chapter after the Epilogue. That is not how fucking epilogues work!


You know, I was going to do a bit here about what I liked about the plot, themes, characters, and so forth, but instead I think I'm going to go eat my leftover beer bread, watch Daily Show, and then play FF6. Suffice it to say, I like how almost nobody's pure good or pure evil. Maybe I'll come back to this later.

Guess I kinda did leave this on a gripefest. But that's misleading -- check the title! I thought the game was pretty good.

I'm the darkness, you're the starlight, and I'm burnin' up in here

So here's what I've been listening to:

That's Balance and Ruin, a 5-disc collection of Final Fantasy 6 cover songs from OCRemix.

Now, I think it's still fair to say that Final Fantasy 6 is one of my two favorite games, though I suppose it probably needs an asterisk at this point.

Digression: While FF6 is a great game, it hasn't aged as well as some of its 16-bit contemporaries. Super Mario World, Mega Man X, and Super Metroid, for example, still stand as the pinnacles of their respective series and respective niches of the side-scrolling platformer genre; they're as close to perfection as a game's ever gotten, and, as years of remakes, sequels, and knockoffs have shown, are pretty damn difficult to improve on and shockingly easy to fuck up. In the Square family, I've always preferred FF6 to Chrono Trigger, but I think it's undeniable that CT's graphics and gameplay hold up better even if it's a shorter game with less-developed characters. And as for A Link to the Past -- well, that would be the other of my two favorite games, and it needs no asterisk.

The other thing that needs no asterisk? Final Fantasy 6 has my favorite video game soundtrack. Its depth and breadth are stunning; it's Uematsu at the top of his chiptune game. It's the only video game soundtrack I've ever bought, and if you name any of the 12 primary playable characters, Kefka or Gestahl, either of the airships, or for that matter most of the locations in the game, I could hum the tune off the top of my head. (And I could probably get either Gogo or Umaro, too, but I admit I might not be able to come up with both of them right away.)

Now, I love what OCRemix is but the truth is that in the past I've found their work hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss for my tastes. The artists there, understandably, lean toward the techno/electronica style, and that's not my cuppa -- which I guess may be ironic coming from somebody who's checking out cover tunes of old video game songs in the first place.

Anyway, there's a good bit of that stuff on Balance and Ruin, but there's a whole lot else, too. There are plenty of orchestral arrangements here, and the soundtrack runs the gamut from faithful homage -- A Fistful of Nickels, by zircon, XPRTNovice, Jillian Aversa, and Jeff Ball, takes Shadow's Ennio Morricone influence to its logical conclusion with whistling, vocals, harmonica, violin, guitar, trumpet, and Jew's harp -- to riotous reinvention -- The Impresario, by Jake Kaufman and Tommy Pedrini, reimagines the Opera scene by way of Bohemian Rhapsody with a quick stop at West Side Story on the way -- to impressively effective minimalism -- Shnabubula and Gabe Terracciano cover the entire Ending Suite with nothing but a piano and violin.

At any rate, it's delightful, and the whole thing's a free download. Go to ff6.ocremix.org and you can grab a nice legal free torrent of the entire album in FLAC -- or MP3, if all this talk about SNES games has left you nostalgic for inferior 1990's technology.

You know what it makes me wanna do? Replay FF6. Random encounters and all.

But which version? The new Woolsey Uncensored Edition looks promising. On the other hand, I liked Slattery's translation quite a bit too; maybe I'll give FF6 Advance another shot. With the music patch, of course.

I should probably finish Last Story first. You know, the soundtrack's no FF6, but Uematsu's still got it.