Getting into the habit of writing about games

The NES Trilogy, a Novel – Final Fantasy I II III: Memory of Heroes

When I had played through the initial three Final Fantasy games, I found that the playable characters didn’t have a lot going for them. Especially in the first one as they were deliberately blank slates. This gave these videogames more world-driven stories rather than character-focused ones which the series eventually became more known for. It’s not a fully black-and-white comparison as those NES games had moments about how characters felt, but there weren’t a lot of them. It favoured particular methods of story delivery over others.

There would be some things that were entirely visual and didn’t require text, but most of the games’ exposition would come from monologues delivered from quest-givers and villains. Usually to fill in blanks resulting from the technical limitations or the inherent aspects of the format. However more details about the world could also be teased from one-sided conversations from various villagers and townspeople.

Knowing all that had me extremely curious to look at Final Fantasy I II III: Memory of Heroes, a novelisation of those games written by Takashi Umemura and translated by Jennifer Ward. I thought it would be interesting to see what carried over into a different medium, so I read the book and sadly I don’t have good news. I had thought about writing about each game’s section individually, but I would be repeating myself as the same problems show up throughout.

Most issues stem from the fact that it’s a short book, containing all three stories in less than 200 pages. Clunky steps are taken in order to do this and it’s hard for me to know whether it’s the fault of the original Japanese text or the translation so I’m not going to blame either of those. All I know for sure is that the end result is bad.

While most of the major events happen within the books, everything else is removed entirely. The first game has the worst of this. There will be a moment where someone tells them where to go, after which it just goes straight to a major fight, which gives the feeling of reading a videogame boss rush summary. I don’t necessarily expect this book to contain chapters about journeys across fields where random monsters show up, or making their way through the many rooms of a large dungeon, but something in between would have helped. 

The time between major events in the games gave it space to breathe, and allowed for them to be more than a collection of fights and exposition. A lot of my memories associated with playing those games is how I explored those worlds. The stories of the NES Final Fantasies (and many other similar games) are more than the written text on the screen. When I tell someone about a game I’ve been playing, I often mention what I’ve actually done in the game. This has been removed from this book and nothing is there to replace it.

Another method of storytelling used here that got on my nerves was a habit of skipping over a sequence that was in the game, and then characters would speak with each other to recap it, because it included some necessary details. It gives it more of the feeling of a bad stream-of-consciousness recounting where someone has to interrupt themselves because they forgot to mention something important.

There’s also very little time put into making the party members into actual characters. People in the books speak about what others are like, but there are very few moments where that’s actually demonstrated. What it ultimately spends more time on is the action sequences, which are mostly fights against boss monsters. 

Reading that also felt a little strange because I only ever think of those fights as the abstract battle mechanics whenever I remember the games. I think about battling the four fiends as selecting options from menus, not the violent clashes described in these books. I’m not incapable of imagining fights between fictional characters, and I know turn-based combat is an abstraction of conflict to make it a game to play. It’s like my mind thinks of those menus as part of those worlds

I don’t think stories belong to particular mediums, but these ones haven’t made a comfortable fit. It’s short and it took me less time than it did to play the original Final Fantasy, but I got much less out of it. The book comes across more like a bad summary as a result of its restructuring. It’s a shame because the written form can be used to expand on a story and add detail that the games did not or could not show, but that potential has been wasted here.

Christmas Evil – Parasite Eve

If you read about Squaresoft’s videogames from the 1990s, they are often framed as the trendsetters. Final Fantasy is still the lens many assess the entire Japanese role-playing game genre through, but that’s just what happens when it’s the most popular example. That didn’t stop them with looking to other games for inspiration with Parasite Eve. In this case, survival horror.

I’ve made multiple attempts to play Resident Evil games of that era, and I’ve found them very difficult and stressful to get through. It’s not because of the tank controls, since I’ve enjoyed games that feature those. It’s because of the specific tensions those games created, usually through limiting resources. Fighting every enemy was discouraged because it could have resulted in taking more damage or wasted ammo. Even saving was a limited consumable resource. Limiting an in-game item activates my tendency to hoard them, meaning that it extended the time I took between saves, which resulted in heightened anxiety because if I lost the game I would lose a lot more progress.

Parasite Eve doesn’t have that tension, because it approaches things from an RPG-first perspective. To really highlight that difference, fighting as many enemies as you can is encouraged here, because doing so will actually increase resources. Both genres are about seeing how far your resources can take you, it’s just that a lot of RPGs give more opportunities to farm for them.

What Parasite Eve does retain from horror games is tone, atmosphere and the level of violence they have. It’s not a scary game, but there’s a lot of body horror present. An organism known as Eve has managed to gain control over the mitochondria found in human cells, causing people to spontaneously combust or melt, and turning animals into grotesque mutations (which mostly act as the game’s stock of enemies to fight). NYPD officer Aya Brea, the playable protagonist, is immune to all of that. 

This means she can go into places where others can’t, so most locations she visits appear mostly empty until a random battle starts, and you can’t talk to the monsters. Tight spaces and close up camera angles serve to heighten the sense of loneliness this all brings. Setting the game in New York during Christmas also contributes to this, as it’s typically a time when people get together. Seeing the game’s imitations of real places with small amounts of festive decorations and zero people around conveys a real sense of isolation. Sometimes the transitions between camera angles doesn’t quite match up with the direction of travel, meaning that at times Aya will possibly turn back and go back to the previous screen by accident. While it is a minor practical nuisance when moving around, these small stops manage to suggest a little anxiety about pushing forward.

The one thing that the makers of this game seemed to also have some fear over is guns. Seemingly because she’s part of the NYPD, Aya comes across many firearms she can use to face off against all enemies. While guns are used to solve many of the problems found in the game, there are characters there to specifically lament the increasing militarization of the police force. But that’s all it really amounts to, a few characters that are sad about it. It would have resulted in an entirely different sort of game if it fully decided to commit to that as an overall theme, but that may have been interesting.

Ultimately Parasite Eve is a game that’s made to be fun to play. It’s a stripped down RPG without any towns, shops or places to rest up. There are some interesting quirks to its real-time turn based combat. Aya can freely move around the combat arenas to dodge enemy attacks, and once her turn meter has filled up the player can choose to take the turn at any point. This is because committing to an attack can leave Aya vulnerable to be hurt by the enemy, so it’s best to learn the enemy patterns and find the right opportunity to strike without taking too much damage. That’s something that could have brought more tension but she can take quite a lot of hits, which isn’t what people usually mean when they say playing horror games of this era feels like controlling a tank. Aya’s special mitochondria immunity powers seem to give her the standard suite of RPG magic spells like Heal, Haste and Barrier. I also really love the music in the game, but it often goes for dance house more than haunted house.

There’s nothing quite as bizarre as playing a game like this, where a city is made empty because of a deadly biological threat, during a real pandemic. While the danger is considerably heightened in Parasite Eve (nobody’s bursting into flames from the virus as far as I know but people are still dying), just seeing media where an immediate effort is made to remove citizens from danger can’t stop me thinking about the real world. It makes me wish more effort was taken in the reality.

They made two sequels to this game, and I don’t know much about them except that a small fraction of games media people that I followed were not happy about the most recent one, The 3rd Birthday. I’m eager to find out for myself soon enough.

Beyond Final Fantasy – Vagrant Story

I’m currently putting together a series of articles chronicling my time throughout Final Fantasy. Sometimes I’m going to stray from that and play something that isn’t really part of that series, but there’s still some connection to be found to it and I want to write about it. These connections form more of a scenic route on my journey, and while I hope to look at these without making too much comparison to those other games, I’m still carrying the thoughts and feelings I picked up along the way.

How strong the connection Vagrant Story has is somewhat arguable. It’s made by the same team as Final Fantasy Tactics, and is supposedly set in the same world, but outside of similar aesthetics and articles mentioning such, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. There’s also the fact that this game isn’t called “Final Fantasy: Vagrant Story”. For larger corporations like Squaresoft names are often chosen in relation to marketing, so it’s clear with that messaging that they wanted to distance this game from that branding.

I can see why they did this, as it ended up being a very difficult game for me to parse from a play perspective. I actually gave up on this one after around ten hours because I hit a brick wall. What was initially fascination with such peculiar role-playing systems eventually became frustration with something that I lacked the patience to have it work for me.

Before I really get into that I just want to set up what Vagrant Story is for those unaware. This is a medieval-fantasy action RPG with only a single playable character, where most of the game is set in dark dingy dungeons broken up with combat and the occasional platforming puzzle. That protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent in pursuit of a cult leader in order to resolve a hostage situation. 

In terms of how the mechanics of this game play out, it’s like they really thought about how something like Metal Gear Solid would map to an RPG. This isn’t a stealth game, but a lot of work is done to emphasize Ashley’s lone-wolf nature, it really sells the feeling of being an agent in enemy territory where nobody is there to help and all resources have to be found on-site. The circle button is also used to confirm menu decisions in both of those games, but that’s a rather frivolous comparison. It’s funny because some older games press articles covering this game would call it “Medieval Gear Solid” and I used to think that was a rather simplistic comparison, but now it seems somewhat appropriate to me.

There’s no levelling up and very small amounts of stat growth throughout the game, so character growth is heavily weighted towards equipment that has to be found. This was the source of my struggle with Vagrant Story, as especially with weapons there were just too many things for me to mentally juggle. It wasn’t simple enough to just have big strong weapons, certain enemies are only weak to specific kinds of weapons, and even with that it also has to be trained on that particular type of enemy as well. I thought I was understanding the way things worked, but then I’d go into a boss fight and it felt like trying to demolish a house with a teaspoon. If I had the time and willpower for it, I would have probably gone back to reassess my equipment loadout, but I don’t as doing so seemed like it just wouldn’t be interesting. It’s a real shame too because I like everything else about the game. 

The presentation is dripping with atmosphere. Everything is dark and cramped, really contributing to the feeling of a hostile environment. This is one of the few games Squaresoft made entirely in 3D graphics for the Playstation, and the jittery nature of polygons on this platform really emphasizes how fragile the spaces are, like they’re ready to collapse in an earthquake at any moment. It’s something that screenshots can’t give a good impression on as it looks better in motion.

There’s also incredible direction on the game’s cutscenes, with a real kinetic energy that would eventually be used to strong effect in Square’s Playstation 2 efforts like Kingdom Hearts. Characters speak in an old-English-style dialect, which is not as insufferably overbearing as it was in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, as it still maintains clarity and good pacing. I was so invested that even after giving up on the game I took to Youtube to watch the remaining cutscenes.

Some of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s best composition work is in Vagrant Story. The music can really sell the foreboding atmosphere, but it gets to its best during the bosses where it brings in the oppressively percussive sound that he excels at. Some of it might not work as well as tracks to listen to on their own, but taken in with the rest of the game’s atmosphere they really shine. Sometimes there isn’t even music playing, and all that’s left is the quiet creepy sounds of the dungeon, bringing the real loneliness of the game to focus.

I know that comparisons to Dark Souls are tired at the best of times, as it’s overused to just mean “game that is difficult”, but I think there’s a case to be made here. This is a game where quiet spaces are punctuated by bombastic boss battles. When I first tried to get into Dark Souls, I bounced off after about ten or so hours on the first few attempts since I didn’t really understand how it all worked. Eventually everything just clicked for me and I ended up playing through to the end and loving it. Maybe some other time Vagrant Story will click for me.

Retrospective Perspective – Final Fantasy IX

I would not have anticipated playing fifteen Final Fantasy games in a year but I did it. The really astounding part is that’s not even the halfway point, they made so many of these and they’re still making more! I’m certain that if I do catch up at least a few spin-off games will come out before then.

Anyway that’s the future. This article is actually going to be about something from twenty years ago: Final Fantasy IX. It’s interesting that it is the twentieth anniversary year yet I haven’t seen a lot about it online. It was likely overshadowed by Final Fantasy VII Remake coming out. Let’s talk about the old game.

Final Fantasy IX

There were a couple of things that really struck me when I started playing this recently. The first is that visually this game holds up really well. It seems that while FF8 seemed to take more steps towards realism, 9 goes in the opposite direction and opts for a more exaggerated cartoonish look that plays more to the strengths of what consoles at the time were capable of. It’s nice and colourful, with some great character designs that make it really easy to tell what they’re like at a glance. If you were to only show me a silhouette of them i could probably tell you which one it is (something that gets much less likely with newer games).

The second thing is that battles in Final Fantasy IX are so slow! There is a lengthy load before they even start, and the meters that fill up before a turn starts are just so slow. Normally in these games I would have the battle speed on a medium setting, in this case I put it to the highest possible speed and it still felt like it could have gone faster. The amount of time between picking actions to do on turns and characters actually doing them was long enough that I had sometimes forgotten what I’d picked. Even the battle music has a slow buildup to account for the amount of time it takes to begin. I assumed that this was initially because it was pushing the Playstation to its limits since there’s now four characters in a party instead of three, and a lot more visual effects going off. However it just seems like that slow speed is just baked into the game, as my recent playthrough was on a version that came out last year.

This wasn’t too much to push past as in a lot of other ways this game opens really strongly. This era of Final Fantasy games always seems to start strongly with a lot of forward momentum. There’s new area after new area, with the right amount of intrigue, and new characters come in who are endearing immediately.

One of Final Fantasy IX’s biggest strengths is the cast of characters. Pluckish protagonist Zidane brought a good amount of energy in. Princess Garnet and Freya keeping confidence after horrible tragedies they experience won me over so much. Vivi is one of my favourite characters that they’ve ever put in one of these games. He already began timid and anxious at the opening, so when he found out he was created to be used as a puppet with a short lifespan and used that as forward motivation instead of completely giving in to despair, it was inspiring. It’s even reflected nicely within Zidane’s character arc when he finds that he had a very similar origin.

As strong as the characters are it really feels like a lot of them don’t have enough to do. Outside of Zidane, Vivi, Steiner and Garnet it feels like the game just doesn’t do anything with the rest of the cast past their initial setup. 

There are also just characters that aren’t very good. Amarant only ever seemed to exist in my mind when I can see him on the screen. Kuja is a dull villain and largely a mishmash of what came before him. 

That last point is indicative of one of the biggest issues that I had with Final Fantasy IX; I’ve seen so much of this before and those older games did it better. It goes with how the game treats these characters in that it brings a lot of these ideas in again and just doesn’t do anything with them, and sometimes damages things that could be better.

Mist being used as a resource to power machines used for warfare that’s destroying many cities is reminiscent of the lifestream in FF7, where it’s misuse is harming the world. However much later it’s found to be something that’s pumped in by a villain from another world to specifically be used in war machines so that the world will destroy itself. Conflict being influenced by a shadowy figure behind the scenes in order to colonise a world is an interesting idea to base a villain on but it ends up disrupting other things that came before it.

Take Garnet, a kind princess who had to reckon with her mother Queen Brahne using heavily destructive magic in order to take over the world. It was something that really drove the story forward, but the resolution to that part of her arc is really unsatisfying. Brahne wasn’t known to be a conqueror by a lot of people, and many cities didn’t have a lot of resources to defend against her because they just didn’t expect this. When she eventually died against Kuja, on her deathbed her greed and lust for power dissipated almost as if she was being influenced by someone else. Finding out that actually the Queen should be kind and someone else did makes it feel that Garnet’s (and also Steiner’s) initial internal struggles were a waste of time.

And the game is content to continue to waste time in the moments just after that. It takes a lot of time to show Garnet becoming the Queen of Alexandria, and what could have been an interesting break to focus a little more on developing characters instead becomes a tedious wait for the plot to start happening. It’s around this point where I felt like I was burning out on the game.

This game having a more traditional character-growth system didn’t help with that. It felt like the games before this were getting really experimental and allowed for decent parties to include any character. In Final Fantasy IX, because every character is now a specific class that has a specific role in combat, I have to include specific characters to have a useful party. The only things that made them stronger were experience points from combat. I missed having to manage things like materia and junctions to build what I wanted. There is an ability system where new moves and passive buffs can be gained from equipment, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s an interesting way of making all sorts of equipment useful, but abilities don’t allow for much experimentation as the best moves are ones that do more damage/healing, and the best passive buffs are ones to resist status effects (which could be achieved in prior games with equipment).

My feelings on these systems seem really weird to me now, especially since those are what made the game feel safe to me after I struggled with Final Fantasy VIII almost a decade ago. Now I have a lot more experience with RPGs feeling safe isn’t the only thing I look for. I don’t say this to mean that games shouldn’t be easy to understand, because I appreciate those too and have a great time with them. It’s just that in this case the rest of the game didn’t make up for it, and I was also already finding comfort in the stranger mechanics of prior games.

However there’s still some good stuff here, like the music. It’s an enjoyable soundtrack, but for many of the tracks it feels like there’s something like it in a previous game that sounds better. That said Nobuo Uematsu always has some tracks that just sound weird, and his music in that style is especially fun here. Gargan Roo has a sound that I think is best described as “squelchy”. Black Mage Village creates a walking-pace-tempo town theme out of instruments normally used for 90s rave tunes. The music that plays in the Crystal World being a foreboding rendition of the prelude is also a nice touch.

There are also some other things I really liked, such as the way it showed how other minor characters went about their lives. Sometimes it would cut away to them just to give scenes without the main party present, and at other times a button could be pressed to see more of them (what the game calls the Active Time Event system). It was just cool to see things like guards at their post discussing pickles, poor children plotting to overthrow nobles and a few more. The side-quest to deliver letters to moogles was also neat as the letters would usually include their reactions to events taking place in the game. 

When I was planning this whole thing out, I made a decision very early on to play this game on the Nintendo Switch, mostly to be consistent as I’d be playing a few others in the series on this platform. Sadly it’s an imperfect version of the game as it did crash for me a handful of times, but luckily there is an extremely generous auto-save that meant I never lost more than a few minutes of progress. There were only six crashes over the course of 45 hours of playing the game, but so far every other game I’ve played for this has had zero. The extra speed-up option in this one goes at a higher speed than the ones in the ports of FF7 and 8. It’s fast enough that it’s almost unusable at times. The filters put onto the game’s CG backgrounds make them look a bit strange as well, especially when they move as the upscaling filter seems inconsistent on each frame of animation.

Those are mostly nitpicks however, as in other ways it’s a better port than FF7 and 8. It’s not as ridiculously loud as the others and sound effects are often truer to how they were on the original platform. FF8 and 9 featured a reverb on all sounds on the Playstation, which was created using the sound hardware of the console. As current platforms don’t have that, FF8’s port had no reverb and all sound effects sounded much too tinny. In FF9 they actually managed to rework them so that there is reverb included, so it was hard for me to tell if the sounds were more detailed compared to the prior games, or just that they didn’t mess things up this time. The way the character models looked was nice too. The higher resolution textures on them seemed to make them look painted on. Combined with the cartoony proportions and exaggerated movements to emote, it made them look a bit like wooden puppets which fits in really well for this game.

So to close on Final Fantasy IX, I didn’t like this game as much as some of the others. That isn’t me calling this game bad either, I really did enjoy myself while playing it, I just think it could be better. Playing Final Fantasy games mostly in order honestly casts a harsher light on this one. However the weather is now getting much colder, and coming inside after a walk to sit down in a warm room to play this was appreciated and felt very cosy.

Final Thoughts

If you’re someone that really likes Final Fantasy IX in particular I think you should give Dragon Quest games a go. That’s not meant to be a dig, just I think you’d enjoy them, and I like having excuses to talk about how good Dragon Quest IV is, a game that I’d like to play again some time (no I’m not doing a Playing Dragon Quest from the Start project).

It’s going to be a bit of time before I play anything with Final Fantasy in the title, probably not until the new year. Some other games are coming out, and I do want to take a bit of a break. I do have a few other FF articles planned for the rest of this year so don’t worry about that. If you haven’t read any of the others I’ve written you can check them out here.

Back to the Drawing Board – Final Fantasy VIII

So when I was first getting into Final Fantasy in 2011, I asked a friend who I knew had them all on Playstation if I could borrow one, he could decide for me. He handed me Final Fantasy VII. He did not actually, as you might be able to tell from all the pictures this is an article about Final Fantasy VIII, so it was that one actually. If you’re not familiar with that game and were tricked, I’m sorry.

Final Fantasy VIII

It was clear that after FF7, Squaresoft must have felt that they needed to follow up with something that continued to wow people with visuals. I’d believe it likely did back then because to some extent it still does. Final Fantasy VIII has so much more detail than what came before it, they use a lot more tricks to show that off too. The lines between playable set-pieces and cutscenes are blurred a little, at times there are full videos playing in the background while the game also requires input. There’s a real sense here that they became a lot more comfortable with the technology they were using at the time and really started to show off with it.

Even 21 years after the game originally came out I’m impressed by it. I just look at some parts of this game and imagine that it must have taken plenty of effort to get it just right (though the remaster does make some efforts to diminish that but more on that later). This is why I sometimes hesitate to say something is “dated”, as I can still be wowed by something older. Even considering all that it is worth mentioning that by this point Squaresoft did have a lot of resources, especially after releasing one of the best-selling PS1 games of all time, which also had a lot of money poured into it.

I love the colours in this game. There’s a sort of mildly summer-ish look to a lot of it, and for the most part it’s someone understated. The main cast and a large part of the world aren’t overly vibrant, like it’s going for something a little more filmic. However a bunch of the fantasy elements do have a wildly expressive and bright use of colour, which contrasts really well, especially in the extravagantly late-1990s-futuristic city of Esthar.

Because of the higher amount of detail, there’s more consistency in how things look. Characters don’t suddenly grow from a small-scale version of themselves into standard human proportions for a battle, they remain full-sized throughout. The same goes for any bosses you fight as well. While the party is still teleported to an arena to take turns in whenever combat is initiated, the standardisation of scale here does make the game feel a bit less abstract than its predecessors.

I suppose some people would call this “looking more realistic” but I would argue role-playing games especially cannot escape some level of abstraction. There’s no voice acting or facial animation yet in this game, so everything is still conveyed through text and body movement. It feels more unique now considering what these games are like now. Near enough every single line of dialogue in Final Fantasy VII Remake is spoken out loud.

But that line of thought does seem to come through somewhat in the narrative. While it’s still a fantasy story, everything feels a little more grounded. There’s much more of a focus on relationships here. As well as a struggle between the good guys and a powerful sorceress over the fate of the world, this game puts a lot of focus on smaller scale emotional conflicts. And that’s not to diminish the human drama of prior games either. I haven’t forgotten about Cecil’s journey in FF4 to become a better man, Cloud’s struggle to figure out his own identity while also taking on those who abused his trust in the past in FF7, or Ramza feeling betrayed after he found out the true nature of his own family members in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Squall, the main character of Final Fantasy VIII, is a bit different though. He’s initially reserved but in more of a deliberately abrasive sort of way, and not trying to seem cool like with Cloud. Squall was like that because he lost someone at a young age, and decided that preventing himself from forming attachments would mean he wouldn’t have to go through with that again. Of course over time his emotional armour is broken down, but not particularly because of specific events, but because of the continued support of his friends.

It does feel a little like most of the supporting cast of this game have a bit less going on. Most of them don’t really have personal conflicts outside of helping Squall, they don’t have arcs to develop over the course of the game. You’d think it would make them come across as shallow characters with little going on, but this actually manages to make them endearing because of how helpful they are. I will admit though, out of all the party members I do find Irvine to be somewhat forgettable.

Over the course of the game Squall’s confidence builds to where he can really take charge as a leader, and find the determination to do what he truly wants. It’s interesting that the seeds of this are planted fairly early on as well. Firstly and most notably in the waltz scene, where he first meets his love interest Rinoa. She asks him to dance and at first it’s awkward because he keeps bumping into other people, but eventually he takes to it and manages to be good at it, and even admits that he actually learned how to dance well.

The other time is when the party is hired to assassinate the Sorceress Edea (I did forget to mention that they all work for a company that hires out mercenaries). There’s a moment where Irvine really starts to panic and doesn’t feel like his abilities as a sniper are going to be good enough. Squall manages to take control of the situation and gives him a pep talk that seems to work. Even though Irvine misses his shot the mission ends up failing, Squall’s potential as a good leader gets to be demonstrated.

In a documentary on the official Final Fantasy YouTube channel called Inside Final Fantasy VIII, director Yoshinori Kitase mentioned that he wanted to make something that was a bit like a fairy tale. It’s easy to focus on the witches and monsters, but I think the thing to also take away is that this game is about how important it is to care for friends. Squall’s love for Rinoa is one of the things that really drives him forward. The story that happens in parallel about Laguna gaining his own confidence to become a leader happens because of how much he came to care about his step-daughter Ellone. Squall’s rival Seifer actually ends up temporarily losing his friends because he gets too caught up in becoming the sorceress’ knight instead of looking out for others around him.

Even Edea shows her love for the main party characters, as she cared for most of them as children (also all the evil stuff she did was because a sorceress from the future possessed her). Ellone managed to gain more confidence in herself through using her ability to see into the past, so she could witness firsthand how much people cared for her. It’s just really nice for this game to start with a bunch of broken relationships and see them mended over time. It’s just really heartwarming.

One of the peculiar things about Final Fantasy VIII is how it handles levelling up. Doing so actually makes all of the enemies around stronger, so it’s generally advised to keep a low level and take advantage of the game’s “junction” system, a means of getting powerful without actually levelling up. This system allows character stats to be augmented with magic spells, which are now a consumable resource that can be obtained via stealing from enemies, pulling from various spots on the map, or refining items. Certain magic spells increase particular stats better than others, and having more of a spell does mean the stat goes up even more. However if any spell that’s junctioned is used it can reduce stats, though a lot of spells are available so it’s not necessary to use those ones too often. It can also require a bit of grinding to get some of the really powerful spells (which I of course ended up doing but I’ve really discovered lately that I’ve got a high tolerance for grinding).

I called it peculiar but it actually makes sense in the context of what previous Final Fantasy games were doing already. There were systems that allowed players to experiment beyond having preset character classes in FF6 and 7, with the former having ways of gradually moulding characters into almost anything, and the latter giving the means of creating things like classes with equippable items. The problem with the junction system is that it gives a little too much freedom, since I was just able to add the most powerful magic onto every stat, giving all party members the same capabilities.

Despite that I still actually managed to have some fun with the game’s combat. Instead of defeating them the normal way by hitting them until they fall over, I would try and end most encounters with regular monsters by turning them into cards. Doing this often meant that I wouldn’t get any experience points, and I could keep my characters at lower levels. I could also turn those cards into useful items and magic (they’re supposed to be used for some other card game but I tried it and didn’t really enjoy it). The act of making an enemy into a card is kinda like catching a Pokemon, you have to weaken an enemy so that you can transform them more easily. The fun of it came from trying to make sure I didn’t kill the enemy by mistake, and also managing my junctions so that I wasn’t too powerful enough to instantly destroy them. This made it more enjoyable for me as it was an extra layer on top of the standard “kill or be killed” challenge of most RPG battles.

It’s worth keeping an eye on these systems too as they can make the game a lot easier to play if you put the time into them. When I first played it in 2011 I did not, I just tried to push through it with a fairly poor assortment of spells because I just didn’t engage much with gathering magic. I ended up stuck in an area full of enemies who have to be defeated in pairs in order to progress and I wasn’t even strong enough to finish one off. It was an area where I couldn’t go back and gain strength either, and I didn’t keep an earlier save file so I really was screwed. I was a little anxious about returning to this game because of that, but when I actually returned to that place recently it was actually extremely easy for me to get through. I had done a lot of preparation this time. 

This is something seemingly common for Final Fantasy so far, because I engaged with things off to the side, or took time to optimize my party, these games have become very easy. I have found some of these games somewhat hard in the past and gotten annoyed at the kinds of people who would tell me they found it very easy because they had done all of the side-content. I think I am becoming that kind of person, due to more of my own experience with the genre as a whole. I do still try to be mindful that plenty of people have completely different experiences playing through games, especially with ones like this. Also not all of this game was a complete cakewalk for me, as a few late-game bosses did actually give me some trouble.

Not this boss I just thought it looked cool…

I have to talk about the music here. The soundtrack of Final Fantasy VIII is one of the finest sets of tracks that Nobuo Uematsu has ever produced. It’s still making use of samples like the last few games, and while they’re more detailed than before not many people are going to confuse them for real instruments. There are a few tracks that do sound like they’re recorded with a real orchestra as well, and they do sound wonderful. 

While there are tracks that are still in keeping with Uematsu’s prog rock weirdness, there’s certainly more of a Hollywood movie vibe to plenty of tracks. Take the main vocal theme song, Eyes on Me. It’s a very sweet love song, but also the kind of ballad you’d hear in a 90s movie, back when they used to have tie-in songs. The Landing is a great sort of bombastic orchestral piece (though it did replace a song that sounded a bit too similar to something from a movie).

Fisherman’s Horizon is an incredibly beautiful town theme, one of the best of its kind. I even made a cover of it, which I don’t think is as good as the original but it’s hard to think I could do better especially since I adore the song so much. For every track like that there’s also something strange and bizarre sounding like Residents. I do love that he always manages to work in some really odd sounding pieces like this.

There are also some outstanding grandiose rock tracks in here though. The first time I heard the organ chords in the main boss theme, Force Your Way, I was immediately enamored. The synth lead hooked me even more, it’s such a good song. Though the soundtrack to the penultimate fight of the game, Maybe I’m a Lion, is one of my favourite boss themes ever made for these games. It starts with a simple drum beat, then builds into intense taiko drumming with some heavy guitar, before really going into a faster, more complex and well-layered section that really picks up the urgency.

One of the weirder things that I did notice is that some of the music sounds like it’s using motifs written for Final Fantasy VII. Premonition, Silence and Motion and The Successor seem like the more obvious ones to me. However this isn’t the only case of that happening, as I think about how Celes’ Theme from FF6 has some melodies that bring to mind Aerith’s theme (and Eyes on Me too). Nobuo Uematsu does seem to like using these sorts of things again, probably because he likes the sound of them.

To be fair it’s a massive soundtrack lasting almost 4 hours in total. It’s one of my go-tos if I just want some music on and I want a lot of it. So much of the music is of excellent quality, and it manages to really elevate a game that is already excellent.

The version I played this time around was the “Remastered” edition available on most current platforms. I played it on the Nintendo Switch but I may as well have chosen any platform since working from home has made playing anything on a portable system somewhat redundant (I say this because they’re putting out an edition for PS4 with really nice box art). 

Anyway in terms of visual quality the remaster doesn’t really do much to make it look better. The characters are made to look more detailed but that just creates a massive contrast to the backgrounds which have had very little work done to them outside of some blurry filtering. There are parts of this game where you can really tell it wasn’t meant to be seen at a resolution this high. Pixelated characters drawn onto backgrounds might have blended in a little more on an older TV, but here they really stick out. The sound mix on this version is also extremely loud for some reason, and there isn’t an in-game option to turn it down that I could find. The Switch port of FF7 has the same problem too but it at least has volume controls.

It’s not an absolute deal breaker though, since this version of the game is much more convenient to play. There’s a button to make everything three times as fast, which I took advantage of to really speed up grinding. Also if you do get stuck, which I thankfully didn’t this time around, there is a button to just significantly boost the strength of the party. I do wish there was a version that looked and sounded a bit more like the original (the Playstation’s reverb isn’t here!) but I managed well with this one. It didn’t stop me loving this game.

Final Thoughts

As another aside, the game starting at a school seemed like something you’d see more commonly now, especially thanks to games like Persona or The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. In Final Fantasy VIII the main party “graduates” in the first few hours of the game. Do you think if this was made today they’d still be in school by the end? There’s still Final Fantasy Type-0 for me in the future, a game that does appear to also be set at a school. That’s very far ahead, so don’t expect much opinions from me on it for quite some time.

The non-hypothetical actual Final Fantasy VIII is excellent, and up there with the best. I always get a feeling that when I play a game that’s this good, I really want to jump in and see what’s next immediately. A sudden optimism that if they’re all as good as this I could play hundreds of them. It’s Final Fantasy IX after this, a game I enjoyed very much when I played it for the first time. I’m going to start playing it straight away. If you’re reading this piece shortly after it’s been published, I’m probably playing it right now.

Also to add to the earlier story about my friend, once I knew I couldn’t possibly progress through the game anymore I gave it back to him and asked if I could borrow a different one. He gave me Final Fantasy IX and I actually finished it back then. I’m looking forward to finishing it again.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of my writing about Final Fantasy here if you haven’t already. It’s still so much fun to put these together so I have a feeling it will continue for a while.

Until next time!

Taking Time for Tactics – Final Fantasy Tactics

Since writing my last piece about this series, the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI came out. I thought that when I played Final Fantasy VII Remake I was seeing the trajectory of the series going forward, I was expecting more games exactly like it.

The trailer for FF16 surprised me, since I genuinely thought that game didn’t exist yet. I wrongly assumed that all resources for Final Fantasy were being pushed towards FF7 Remake and the subscription MMORPG FF14. 

What also surprised me was that it seems to be going in a dark medieval fantasy direction, not unlike The Witcher or Game of Thrones. Any time someone would try to pitch Final Fantasy Tactics to me they’d mention Game of Thrones, which I assume is shorthand for “fantasy story that’s a bit darker than other ones”. I might as well start talking about that game.

Final Fantasy Tactics

To me this game really doesn’t give off the feeling of an HBO prestige TV show fantasy, or an epic fantasy series of novels. The Game of Thrones comparison didn’t seem to apply to how it looks (though it is apt in other ways considering this is mostly a game about schemes involving royalty). 

Theatre seems to feel like the biggest influence on the presentation and story structure of Final Fantasy Tactics. Each location where story sequences a battles play out looks like a small set that would have been built on for a stage, since the lower-fidelity 3D graphics really give it the impression of something that’s been handbuilt. Large scale events such as battles take place out of view, as the game places more importance on how the characters on those sets react to it.

That last aspect is crucial as not only does it come across as an interesting stylistic choice, but helps convey the distance characters have towards those in the larger conflicts, in more ways than one. I need to provide a little context before really getting into it.

The game mostly follows the story of Ramza Beoulve, a man born to a noble family who ran away from them to become a mercenary. Ramza is a goodhearted person who wants to save people, and by saving a kidnapped princess he gets caught up in the middle of a much bigger problem. The king has recently died and two dukes are working against each other to have a line of succession that allows one of them to become a regent, since the king’s own heirs are apparently too young to rule by themselves. Whether the princess lives or dies favours one duke more than the other. This eventually leads to war, which allows other organisations to take advantage of the situation and increase their own power, such as Ramza’s old friend Delita, the Church, and later on a collective of monsters who were banished to another dimension. Ramza ends fighting to stop the latter two plots, as they really do seem to be much more immediately dangerous.

I’ve had to simplify a lot of that to keep it concise, so many things happen over the course of this game.

So back to the use of distance. It’s easy to see how it’s used for the scheming nobles, since they see themselves as above common folk. A large part of the first chapter is used to convey this through a flashback to Ramza’s past. One noble, Argath, talks at length about how much better the upper class are than those who are from “lower birth”. Delita is derided for it as he was from a lower class family and was only adopted into the noble lifestyle. Most nobles see the poorer classes as pawns to be used in their own schemes and wars. This is shown at the start of the game, where a war had just recently finished. The soldiers who fought in it were cast aside without any aid for their future, and some had to become thieves and bandits in order to make their living.

It also feels as though Ramza and his group of fighters are distant from the war as a whole. A lot of the battles they fight in themselves are smaller skirmishes off to the side of them. However, the direction their story takes eventually grows distant from the themes of the initial chapters. The initial focus on how terrible nobles can be diminishes over time, and it becomes about Ramza and crew fighting off a group of strong monsters who want to use this war to resurrect their leader. It’s a real shame that it takes what could have been a really interesting premise to follow through on and abandon it for a stock fantasy story.

There’s also the problem of Ramza’s friend Delita who, through deceit and murder, rises from being a commonder to becoming the next king. I don’t think I’d have too much of a problem with this if it was an isolated story, but it exists here to contrast with Ramza’s goodhearted nature and noble birth. It feels as though the game wants to say that it doesn’t matter where someone is from, it only matters how they act, which sure… I guess that’s true to some extent. However much more loudly in my head I hear the game saying poor people can be just as troubling and damaging to the world as the rich ones. It makes me think a little about the real world. The real world where the divide between the rich and poor is only growing. The real world where over one-third of all carbon emissions come from 20 companies. Honestly Delita comes across as not so believable in this fantasy game.

The whole game is written like this, it’s a bit much to be honest…

It’s a good thing I really enjoyed the tactics game aspect. It didn’t end up being as ridiculously difficult as I was expecting it to be. That was because I’ve tried and failed to get into this game before a few times, to the point where I almost accepted that I’d never be able to play through this game. I wasn’t used to the idea of unit positioning in a tactical RPG, so I’d move a party member to the wrong place and they’d be killed very quickly. I was not aware that the game’s random encounters would scale with the highest levelled party member, making it much more difficult for my carelessly levelled party, full of characters at different stages of growth.

Being aware of how these things worked this time around was a huge help, but I also did a lot of grinding so I had a fairly powerful team anyway. It’s interesting because I still had to be mindful of the combat during that, since if I wanted to level up a class with lower defensive stats I would need to have them avoid the heavy-hitting enemies that often get thrown into random encounters. By the time I started to lose patience with the grind, the difficulty level of the game dropped off a cliff anyway, since I was given an extremely powerful party member.

The sudden drop in difficulty was partly appreciated as it wasn’t as mentally taxing as some segments of the game were. While I found the game much easier than my prior attempts, it didn’t stop me running into particularly troubling battles at times. However it coinciding with the drop in quality of the storytelling meant that I was just able to get through the rest of the game at a much faster pace.

I suppose I can’t talk about any of these games without mentioning the music, which has a much different tone compared to the rest of the series. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata put together a soundtrack that ranges from quiet and foreboding themes, to bombastic battle tracks. The latter ended up being much more memorable and effective for their use of staccato rhythms and harsh percussion to really ramp up tension (though admittedly this is a trademark of Sakimoto’s work, also used to great effect in Radiant Silvergun). Even though I did enjoy listening to those tracks, they did start to wear thin eventually. The heightened bombast was often at a high level, to a point where if I listened to the soundtrack by itself I wouldn’t as easily be able to determine what the “important” battle themes were.

Final Thoughts

I don’t really have as much to say about this one, as I did some of the other games. I thought about putting it together with a few more games but that would have meant waiting much longer to get this one out as these games are taking much longer for me to play. I spent over 60 hours on this one. It’s the most time I’ve spent on a game since starting this project, and I expect that some in the future will take me even longer.

That still hasn’t diminished my excitement for moving forward since there’s some very cool games coming up after this. The next couple are Final Fantasy VIII and IX, so I’ll essentially be revisiting some of the first few games in the series I played.

Also to go back to the Final Fantasy XVI trailer, I didn’t find it very exciting. It seems a sort of game I’d probably pay much less attention to if it didn’t have Final Fantasy in the name. There’s something in the back of my mind that thinks they’re holding something back, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Until next time!

Materia Developments Remake – Final Fantasy VII Remake

While I’ve pitched this as a chronological retrospective on Final Fantasy, it made too much sense to jump ahead with the various games that relate to Final Fantasy VII. Now that I’ve actually played through Final Fantasy VII Remake, I can say that it was a good idea to do it. Having fresh knowledge of them all made it much easier to write this out.

Videogame remakes have been on my mind since I played the reimaginings of Resident Evil 2 and 3 earlier this year. The difference with those is that I didn’t have as much experience with the original source that those were based on, so what I came out of those with was opinions on which one was more effective as a horror game (2 is excellent, 3 is a letdown).

However, since I’ve recently taken a closer look at the original Final Fantasy VII, that familiarity gives me a different lens that makes me unable to compare everything to how it was done before. 

I’ll be talking about this game in a fair amount of detail, so if you still want to be surprised by how Remake reinterprets everything, maybe come back and read later. Maybe you could share this article with a friend who’s already played it.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

I was very interested to see what a modern take on FF7 would be. Many of the directorial staff from the original game returned for it, and when creatives return to the same story it’s often either scaled up or used to address different themes.

Actually playing Final Fantasy VII Remake is more like going to see a concert by an old favourite band. They’ll play the hits and have some new and exciting renditions of old songs, but then some of that won’t quite live up to the original quality found in original recordings. There’s also a bunch of new material, some of which is good and some I’m not so sure about.

The band has opted for a much more grandiose sound this time around, since a lot of the dials are turned up here. There’s so much more graphical detail, towns are much larger, characters have bigger personalities, key moments have more dramatic heft, it’s a harder game, and a much longer one too.

It’s strange that this hasn’t been titled “Part 1” because that’s what this is. Square Enix took the first six hours of FF7 and broadened the scope of it to make it into a 30-40 hour epic. Of course there are also some things from later in the original game that have been included, most likely out of an attempt to make this game seem more compelling. For example, Sephiroth shows up a lot more here since you seemingly can’t have Final Fantasy VII without Sephiroth.

I was a little worried that the polluted planet angle would have been a little diluted, but it actually comes in a much more concentrated dosage this time around. Areas outside Midgar look considerably more barren here, Shinra is shown to be just as greedy as ever, and when it’s made clear by the end that Sephiroth is the biggest threat to the planet it’s still mentioned that “this started with Shinra”. It’s reassuring to see this here since so much of it is missing from other FF7-related works.

They’ve done some really good work to add depth to a few of the characters too. Barret is the one that comes across the strongest, as they’ve made him feel like a real political activist here, the sort that would always carry leaflets and posters in their bag just in case. He always has prepared speeches and talking points ready for any moment, and because of that comes across a lot more confident and charismatic. He’s also shown clearly to not be wrong about it all, so you could probably mine a lot of his dialogue for quotes you can pull out in real life.

Aerith shines a lot more in this game, since she’s still the same sort of confident no-nonsense character that she was in the original, it’s just that now she’s a lot funnier. Many of her remarks got a good laugh out of me.

There isn’t much new to Cloud here, and there’s also a sense that a lot of his development is being saved for future parts of Remake, since it didn’t originally happen in Midgar. His traumas are given more focus, but only to acknowledge them. Admittedly the better moments with him are when other characters react to his stoic seriousness, especially Barret and Aerith.

Tifa is the character I’m most disappointed with. It just feels like they’ve taken the same old character from the original and injected her into this game, so compared with everyone else she just seems less interesting. She does get a small arc where she has doubts if the mission to destroy Shinra’s reactors is a good idea, but because of her rather dull characterisation it’s not very interesting to see play out.

Of course even minor characters get a lot more fleshing out. Jessie, Biggs and Wedge have more screen time and at certain parts have more plot-crucial things to do. It also seems to be really going for a 90s throwback thing since Jessie says “psych” a lot. There’s even a lot more minor characters added in, some of which already existed in a novel (I’m sure that gave some FFWiki editor a sigh of relief since they didn’t have to make as many new pages).

Midgar now feels even more like a diverse collective of districts, which helps for sure since everything is so much bigger. Each location has its own distinct aesthetic right down to the colour palettes used. I could see a picture of something close up in either the Sector 7 or Sector 5 slums and tell which location it is. I really liked slowly exploring them too, as this game’s closer third-person moveable camera really lent itself well to these spaces. It would have been nice if there was a first-person view so I could get an even closer look. It really does feel more like a place people live in, especially since you’re given a place to stay in Sector 7 as well. My only frustration was with how townspeople dialogue was handled as it was cool to hear it diegetically as I walked around, but it became a little annoying to hear the same lines again as I went by the same people.

Just about everything in this game is so much bigger. Instead of immediately going into a second reactor attack after finishing the first, there’s more space for downtime with side quests available to take part in, followed by a detour to infiltrate a warehouse. Once I was on my way to the second reactor, I still had to get through two full-sized areas before getting there. 

Once I made it to the final segment of the reactor itself, that was when the Air Buster was introduced. In the original game the Air Buster was just a boss that showed up for a fight that lasted a few minutes. In Remake, it’s given a much longer build-up with an opportunity to make choices on how to sabotage it beforehand. Before fighting it members of Shinra appear as gargantuan holographic projections to taunt Cloud and company (and remain doing so throughout the fight). The fight itself is a big and bombastic three-phase boss encounter, one of the more difficult in the game and some of the most fun I had playing it. I’ll get into why I really like the combat a bit later since I want to focus a bit more on the pacing.

Though all the sections I mentioned are much larger than how they were in Final Fantasy VII, I didn’t really feel as though they were padded out. Just before I got bored of each area I was able to move onto a new part. Where I felt it really started to slow down was when I reached Wall Market. It’s the structure of it that really got to me, since characters would dangle the way forward in front of me and then say “but first you have to go and do something else for me”. I get that’s how videogames often work, but it happened too often here and I was getting a little sick of it.

Then it was followed by a sewer area that seemed to go on forever, and after that a train graveyard that felt like it existed only to pad out the game. I wonder if this is because I had recently played the original game. I really felt the length as I’d seen a shorter version of it. I’m absolutely certain that they’ve done this so that this first part is roughly just as long as the original game so people don’t feel ripped off (it actually took me longer since I did a lot of sidequests).

Thankfully some areas after this manage to justify their larger size. The race to stop the Sector 7 plate from falling becomes a much more desperate climb that seems even more tragic when the party fails to stop it. The journey up the wall to reach the game’s final area becomes a moment to pause and see the destruction that Shinra has caused by dropping the plate. It gives a moment for the party to really lay out their motivations, by showing what they want to prevent in the future. However I do wish that I didn’t have an extended stay in Hojo’s laboratory, it’s a good thing that I enjoyed Remake’s combat a lot.

It’s an action RPG combat system this time around, where button presses initiate attacks immediately, and any incoming enemy attacks must be dodged or blocked. When player attacks hit an enemy it builds up a bar which can be spent to use abilities, spells or items. What I love about this is that it brings back the same sort of tension found in turn based games, once the bar’s been spent it has to be built back up again, so care needs to be taken when deciding between big damage abilities or healing spells/items. It did bring about some tense moments where I had to choose between finishing off a weakened boss with a big attack or helping my party recover. 

There’s also a stagger bar on every enemy, something which the game has lifted from Final Fantasy XIII. In this game it’s essentially a bar that fills up by just damaging the enemy or doing more specific actions in battle. Once the bar fills up, the enemy is temporarily stunned and takes a lot more damage than normal. It felt great to do this in FF13 and it still feels good here, as it’s a moment when the pressure’s eased off and I was able to do some really big damage. 

The game almost requires a player to be constantly engaging with these systems, which meant that I actually found some of it quite hard as I was getting used to it. Air Buster is actually the moment where I found I had to do that. It’s also followed by a really good battle against Reno which shows that switching to an action RPG system lends itself really well for a 1v1 fight.

They did put a lot of minigames in here as well, but they’re mostly bad. I guess that’s true to the original game. The one I disliked the most was a stealth sequence where Cloud has to sneak out of Aerith’s house. The more realistic movement in Remake made it extremely difficult to maneuver around the collections of small items on the floor. The bike chase is still fun at least.

As usual this game is full of excellent music. Masashi Hamauzu and his team have done some brilliant work here but this is really where my metaphor of this being like seeing an old band came from. There’s some great variations of music from the original, such as an exciting take on Fight On, or a rework of the Turks Theme as a boss music. However most of the high points of the music are still when it’s playing with things from the original game. That said there is a new theme to represent Avalanche which sounds great, and ends up with a great melancholic reprise during the climb towards Shinra tower. It’s also very funny to me that Masashi Hamauzu has managed to work in some of his score for Dirge of Cerberus. Just listen to this and this for comparison.

I’ve made this sound like a big tribute act with absolute reverence to itself. For what I’ve mentioned it largely does do that, but the end of this game makes some huge changes that are foreshadowed throughout beforehand. It’s the sort of thing that has me very excited for what comes next in subsequent games.

There are a bunch of moments where it looks like things are going to play out very differently, but then a horde of ghosts show up to ensure that the events of the original game happen. They are eventually revealed to be “Whispers”, arbiters of fate who ensure destiny runs its course. The party eventually decides to fight against these Whispers, and that becomes the penultimate boss fight, but before you fight them the party sees visions of the future which are events that happen later in the original game such as Aerith’s death and Meteor heading towards the world. Those visions are described as “what would happen if we lose today”, so the party fights against the whispers and works to essentially prevent the events of Final Fantasy VII from happening! In the end they seemingly succeed, after the game throws in a fight with Sephiroth because the developers got a little impatient (though the version of One-Winged Angel made for it is stellar).

I would probably have been okay with a new version that stayed mostly true to the original, though I’d still have complaints if it had the same pacing as this. But how this game ends up feels like a clear statement that going forward, things are going to be done a little differently. Before I started Final Fantasy VII Remake, I was thinking about moments I would have liked to have seen recreated and most of them were not in the Midgar section this game is based on. Now that I’ve seen this ending I don’t care about that anymore, I want to see what new things they’re hiding up their sleeve. The end of this game brought in some big dramatic changes and I’m hungry for more of those. I’ve already played Final Fantasy VII before.

Final Thoughts

With that ending I’m very glad I went through the original Final Fantasy VII beforehand. If I didn’t already have that knowledge going in the ending would have meant nothing to me. Weirdly part of the ending involved a recreation of a scene from Crisis Core, so I can imagine a new player just being very lost to what’s going on.

After having played a bunch of older games in chronological order until the mid-90s, suddenly jumping ahead to Final Fantasy VII Remake feels almost overwhelming. A lot of differences that would have just accumulated over the course of many games have now just all appeared at once like I’ve suddenly jumped into a videogame timehole where I’m seeing the future. Soon I will have to go back in time and start up Final Fantasy Tactics, which I hope I enjoy.

Until next time!

Compilation of Materia Developments – Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII

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Immediately after releasing my last article about Final Fantasy VII, I was eager to dive into more of that universe. For this article I played:

  • Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII
  • Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

I was very interested to see how Square Enix would expand on the world of Final Fantasy VII, but sadly I think they did a poor job. I had a decent amount of fun with one of the games though, so it wasn’t all a waste of time. Let me tell you more about my time with them.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII

Vincent_cellphone

So this is the only one of the games set after Final Fantasy VII.  Specifically it takes place after the movie Advent Children, and focuses on the side character Vincent Valentine. It’s funny to me that they chose to base a game on him, especially when it’s possible to go through the entirety of FF7 without meeting him (I didn’t miss out on him though and he did turn out to be very useful). Yuffie, another previously optional party member, shows up frequently as well so I guess they also saw the humour in that.

This is actually the first ever game with Final Fantasy in the name that I ever played. Since I had ended up watching Advent Children, and even though I didn’t really understand it I thought I could get away with playing the sequel game. It looked darker and edgier than what I was used to, the crimson colours and 15 age rating on the box made it look so (near enough every main FF game has a 16+ age rating on it now though so it’s not distinct any more). I had not long finished Kingdom Hearts II, and my only other exposure to Japanese RPGs were Pokemon, Golden Sun, and Unlimited Saga (which was a nightmare game to try to understand when I was 11 years old).

What this also ended up being was one of my first exposures to third-person shooters, because it turns out that this game is a hybrid of that and an RPG (back when it was novel for RPG elements to be in a game and not just an aspect of all major videogames). It has an incredibly generous auto-aim option because I would imagine they were expecting players unfamiliar with the genre to play it. It also has mouse and keyboard support, which is very strange to see on a Playstation 2 game.

It seems as though Square Enix were inspired by Devil May Cry here, since it is an action game that runs at a very smooth 60 frames-per-second (something I tend to associate more with games made by Capcom or Konami). Vincent Valentine’s Limit Break ability is changed to be something more like Dante’s Devil Trigger, the cutscenes feature some very stylish looking action sequences, and there’s even a rail shooting segment towards the end. This game makes no attempt to hide its inspiration.

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While it’s nowhere near as good as Devil May Cry, I still was enjoying myself with it. I have a bit of a soft spot for this kind of PS2 action game, even if it isn’t greatly put together. The shooting doesn’t feel awful to do, but I found it very difficult to avoid taking damage. There were plenty of healing items available that it never became much of a problem, I found this to be a very easy game. At the end of every level I could choose between experience points to upgrade Vincent’s stats or money to buy items and upgrade guns. This meant that I did have to think a little about what I really needed to focus on, but also it didn’t come across as the harshest system since this option is also presented upon death as well. In the end putting points into guns didn’t seem to matter too much, since in the final level I was just given an extremely powerful gun that defeated almost every enemy in a single shot.

In terms of plot it actually feels so far removed enough from Final Fantasy VII that I couldn’t really get annoyed with it. Vincent gets wrapped up in a fairly ordinary save-the-world kind of plot here, it is somewhat generic. Essentially an extra-secret branch of Shinra called Deepground just wants to destroy the world in the same way that Sephiroth wanted to. Dirge of Cerberus actually feels more like a spin-off because it puts the spotlight on characters who weren’t the main focus of the original game. There’s a bunch of new characters here too, but they’re forgettable.

There is some stuff in this game about how Vincent has the power of Chaos, some sort of demon-like thing that appears to possess him. Much is said in the cutscenes about how he is really struggling to control that power but it never comes across when playing the game. This is the Limit Break ability, it can be initiated at will from the press of a button, and can be controlled just like a normal videogame character. I wished that it was something weird and uncontrollable, it would have made for something a little more interesting.

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The end of the game actually brought to mind another spin-off game about an edgy side character with guns, Shadow the Hedgehog. That’s a game I somehow managed to finish twice as a teenager (don’t ask me how, I tried playing it again a few months ago and couldn’t stand it). Vincent transforms into a superpowered form and fights through enemies while a heavy metal theme song plays. Shadow the Hedgehog does the same thing, but I can’t really say one’s ripping off the other since their Japanese release dates are only a month apart.

There’s some very good music in this game. Masashi Hamauzu is a composer who’s great at creating atmospheric music through how he uses chords and while I wouldn’t say this soundtrack is the high point of his music-making, I still really enjoyed hearing the music as I was playing this game. What I like about the music is that it feels somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII’s music, but it’s not overbearingly drowning in motifs from that game. It’s more like music built in the same key, rather than recreations of older tunes.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII is very short compared to most of what I’ve played for this, it took me less than ten hours to finish it. It’s interesting as a weird curiosity to see how Square Enix tried to create a then-trendy action game but it’s far from being a great one of those to actually play. If you’re only after a third-person shooter, or Playstation 2-like action game, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

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I’m open to the idea of prequels, since one of my favourite games, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, is an excellent example of one. Sadly I didn’t enjoy playing Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII as much, it ranks for me as quite possibly the dullest Final Fantasy game I’ve ever played. The combat is boring, the story is baffling, and the music is annoying.

How the game actually plays is my biggest problem. There’s some action-RPG combat here that would be mostly serviceable if it wasn’t for another odd addition. Battles have absolutely zero tension in them because of a weird slot machine system that is constantly rewarding huge bonuses to HP, constantly healing and also providing extremely powerful attacks. All of this was out of my control, the slot machine is constantly spinning automatically throughout combat, often interrupting everything to fill up the screen, occasionally presenting a flashback cutscene as well. I’m okay with games being easy, it’s not as though I’ve found many Final Fantasy games to be difficult, but this one is being ridiculous. 

I also recognise the irony with my frustration here when I wished for Dirge of Cerberus to have some elements of control being taken away in relation to his demonic powers. This system is not what I would have had in mind.

Level ups are also seemingly determined by it too, which is such a bizarre decision. There’s also equippable abilities that can be strengthened via this system. It’s rather frustrating to work with, because I don’t feel like I’ve worked towards getting these, it just feels like I’ve won them in a slot machine. 

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Combat on its own mostly feels like a slowed-down Kingdom Hearts. Zack can be moved around a 3D arena, and attacks and abilities can be initiated from a command menu. It seemed to work okay most of the time, though it’s supposed to auto-target the nearest enemy but sometimes Zack would run off to attack one on the other side of the screen instead. It’s an odd choice because positioning is a key aspect of the combat, since hitting an enemy from behind does double damage. This was a little harder to pull off when I was at the game’s whim for who Zack is attacking.

There is actually one fight in the game that I thought was pretty good. It took place on a bridge and if Zack was pushed to the edge of it, the game was over. Because I had focused on increasing physical attack power, it meant that I had an interesting tension between using long ranged spells that did less damage, or moving in closer to hit harder and also risk getting hit by the enemy. I’d probably be a lot more forgiving of it all if there were more interesting gimmicks like this.

A lot of the game involved running through small, empty environments to go between combat encounters and story cutscenes. There’s no stopping in towns because all shops can be accessed via the pause menu at any time. It’s pieces are very bite-sized in the way that a lot of portable games used to be, owing to it being made for the Playstation Portable. At save points extra missions can be accessed, which usually take about five minutes each to finish. None of them are particularly interesting, it’s just more small pieces of game that could fit into short gaps like a commute.

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There’s also some occasional minigames that crop up, and most of them are awful. I thought Final Fantasy VII had some rubbishy ones but they are so much worse in this game. My least favourites have to be the seemingly impossible stealth sequence, and a sniping one that controls terribly. They’re rather jarring as well since they seemingly pop up out of nowhere, as if the game is just being interrupted by something else.

The presentation of this game doesn’t do it a lot of favours. Environments mostly being made up of small corridors shown through a camera that sticks close to the controllable character just makes them feel tiny. It’s not as though Final Fantasy VII actually had massive areas that took considerable amounts of time to walk through, it was able to use fixed camera angles in order to make them appear bigger. Junon Airport was an area that seemed massive before now looks tiny in Crisis Core.

A part that really suffers because of this is the Nibelheim incident, originally depicted in a flashback in FF7, which I had highlighted in my last blog post as a really effective sequence. What was previously a quiet and unsettling journey beneath a mansion is now turned into an extremely generic RPG dungeon full of enemy encounters. The camera work in the cutscenes is much worse too, as it fits in some recreated shots that have much less going on. There’s a shot of Sephiroth where the camera is moving away from him instead of him getting more distant and it just comes across as passive. It also shoe horns in its own new characters in ways that just feel clunky.

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All of the brand new plot developments added into this game are bad and at times confusing. I found it really difficult to understand the motivations of the new characters. It seems like the game is setting things up for Zack’s former mentor Angeal to betray everyone and then he just kinda doesn’t? It’s weird. Genesis never feels like he actually belongs in the game. It feels like so much of the plot could still happen without him, but he’s there because it seemed like they were setting something up to pay off in a later game which never happened.

I couldn’t stand a lot of the music here as well. There’s a lot of covers of music from Final Fantasy VII that aren’t great, and a lot of the new music sounds incredibly repetitive since a lot of it is playing around a single motif. A lot of the battle themes are metal music that I found incredibly boring. It’s also almost inaudible when played off of a PSP speaker, so to actually hear it you’d need headphones.

This isn’t a very good game, but if I played it when it came out in 2008 I reckon I would’ve loved it. I was 15 then so probably the right age to get really into it, maybe I would be nostalgic for it and be a little more forgiving. However, I played it now and I found it to be incredibly lacking.

Final Thoughts

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These games, the movie Advent Children, and a bunch of other things make up what Square Enix likes to call the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII”. It’s ended up being a failed experiment to be honest. While I did have a little amount of fun with Dirge of Cerberus, everything else in it was bad.

There’s some tie-in novels that are also part of it that I’ve been reading and they’re terrible. They both attempt to bridge the gap between the original game and Advent Children and somehow manage to make every character even worse. I wouldn’t recommend reading them.

The impression that I get is that everyone responsible for all of this media has no clue what made the original game great. Kazushige Nojima, the man responsible for a lot of the writing in these things, was also one of the main writers on the original as well. I think that it makes it very clear that the team efforts on Final Fantasy VII were more likely what made that game better.

Even though I do have all these complaints, my excitement to play Final Fantasy VII Remake has not diminished at all. That will be what my next article is about, please look forward to it!

Don’t forget to check out the Playing Final Fantasy From the Start hub page to see the rest of the articles I’ve written about the series!

Until next time!

Materia Developments – Final Fantasy VII

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So after playing Final Fantasy V and VI, I decided to take a break from the series. I spent that time playing the Resident Evil 3 remake. That game was fun but largely underwhelming in comparison to the much stronger Resident Evil 2 remake. The break was short-lived as I ended up feeling very eager to return to Final Fantasy, so this time I went through:

  • Final Fantasy VII (FF7) – A game
  • Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – A Movie

I thought about having this piece be entirely focused on the game, but my thoughts on Advent Children ended up short enough that I decided to include it here. So let’s get into it:

Final Fantasy VII

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For many people I’ve talked to this game is Final Fantasy. It’s the most popular of all of them, having been the second-highest selling game on one of the most popular consoles of all time. If I were to mention Final Fantasy in a conversation to a random person, this would be the game that they’re most likely thinking of. It’s easy to see why Square keeps coming back to it, seeing as it was the height of popularity for it all.

Usually when anything gets big, it’s a matter of being in the right place and time, or a huge financial push. Final Fantasy VII admittedly had both of those, but it holds up extremely well too. This was my second playthrough of it and I’ve enjoyed it much more this time around. The 3D graphics do look a bit blocky and weird by today’s standards, but I think it comes across as charming. The developers also really leaned into the strengths of what they could do with the then new techniques. It’s hard for me to believe that this was their first effort in this style.

It cheats a little by placing 3D characters on 2D pre-rendered backgrounds (except during battle scenes where it’s all 3D). This actually allows for a much more dynamic kind of presentation, where moving between screens allows for new and interesting camera angles for each background, which is used very well in how the game tells its story. Having pre-rendered backgrounds meant that much more detail could be added into each one, and many of them do not repeat unless they really need to. They’re also used greatly to convey scale since an area doesn’t need to just cover a lot of ground to seem big, it can do so with the right camera perspective.

This game was a huge and expensive project at the time. Only now when it’s directly compared to more modern incarnations does it seem somewhat modest, especially when it’s being sold at a considerably lower price like it’s a budget title.

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Through all this it’s able to pay a lot of homage to other media in a way that’s more blatant. In particular it’s easy for me to spot influences from things like Akira, Berserk, Blade Runner, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Metropolis (there’s also some Mobile Suit Gundam in there but only really in the design of a few monsters). Characters do a lot of miming to convey emotion, especially since all dialogue is told through text boxes, it’s almost like silent cinema. It doesn’t just borrow from its influences for the sake of seeming cool as well, it has learned from them in order to build its own narrative.
As you might guess from that list of influences, Final Fantasy VII leans a lot more in a science fiction direction, though it does remain a fantasy game as well. Admittedly touches of sci-fi have been present since the original game, and especially in FF4 where a whale-shaped spaceship was used to fly to the moon. Within this new kind of setting, corporations replace kingdoms, and the difference that makes allows the game to be much more relatable.

The Shinra Electric Power Company operates a monopoly on energy production and distribution, while also having invested in many other technologies such as genetic engineering and space exploration. Through this they have been able to amass a strong military might which they have used to strongarm nations so that they can continue to harvest Mako, a fictional fossil fuel mined from the planet’s “lifestream”. Midgar, the largest city on the planet is effectively owned and operated entirely by Shinra. The greed of the company has been an incredibly destructive force, the production of Mako energy is literally sucking the life out of the planet. All of the party members available in this game have had their lives made materially worse by the existence of Shinra.

Shinra don’t act as the primary antagonists, that would be Sephiroth, but they have been responsible for the destructive events that have taken place throughout the game, literally murdering considerable amounts of people for their benefit. Sephiroth also would not have existed if it wasn’t for Shinra. So much so that when the guardians of the planet, the Weapons, get awoken after Meteor is summoned to destroy the planet, their first target is to attack Shinra. The game knows that megacorporations such as these are real sources of evil and doesn’t fully close until the last parts of it are seemingly destroyed by Meteor. The destruction of Shinra is a happy ending, as they resemble real companies who have plundered the planet for resources. Large-scale factories and fossil fuel production are huge contributors to the current state of our real planet. It would be nice to see those go away too.

Even though that makes up a large part of Final Fantasy VII’s setting, the real central conflict of the game is between the characters Cloud and Sephiroth. It’s through this where I think everything comes together to make extremely effective storytelling sequences. Specifically within the Nibelheim flashback sequence, which is actually the first time in the game where you see Sephiroth.

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At this part of the game Cloud tells the party the story about going back to his hometown during his first mission with Sephiroth. There’s a point during this recounting where it’s mentioned that Sephiroth seemed a bit off and has gone into a local mansion, and Cloud goes to check up on him. The game gives this moment a really foreboding atmosphere through its use of camera angles, dark colours and music.

On his way Cloud has to descend a spiral staircase downwards, shot from above so that he appears to get smaller as he gets further towards the ground. He finds Sephiroth in a library too focused on doing research to pay attention to anything else, so Cloud leaves. There’s then a tilted-angle shot of a library corridor, showing Sephiroth’s research progress. He begins close to the camera, but as he gets further he gets more distant from the camera, leaving piles of books as he moves through, a blatant visual metaphor for how Sephiroth is distancing himself from humanity. It culminates in Sephiroth discovering his own heritage. He is the result of Shinra’s exploitative genetic engineering projects. As revenge he decides to use the power of the planet’s lifestream to become a god. In his initial rage he destroys Nibelheim. It’s an excellent sequence and I’m probably underselling it through this description.

The game comes back to this sequence a few times since it is the defining moment between those two characters. Cloud saw Sephiroth as a person to look up to, he was the reason that Cloud wanted to join Soldier (Shinra’s elite military group) in the first place. When he sees that the ideal that he strived for could be intensely destructive, it almost destroys him. Even past this point Sephiroth continually takes advantage of Cloud through mind control. I can’t help but see some parallels with abuse that can happen as a result of hero worship. Those in positions of power have been known to abuse the trust people have in them.

Cloud was also victim to another experiment which distorted his memory and fused it with someone else’s. He took on parts of the memory of a member of Soldier named Zack. While he had aspirations to join Soldier, Cloud didn’t successfully become a member of it, he was just an ordinary member of the Shinra military. Because of the conflicting memories in his head, Cloud genuinely thought that he was a member of Soldier, and his confidence is dramatically shaken when he figures out he really wasn’t. Realising the mismatch meant confronting his own failure to live up to what he wanted to become.

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It’s why when Cloud finally does gain confidence to properly face off against Sephiroth, it’s a strong moment because he’s able to confront the person who’s caused him so much pain and defeat him. It’s not just that he’s able to fight too, by this point Cloud has effectively become himself, a much more confident person overall. The game doesn’t spend much more time after this confrontation, since it’s the central conflict. Everything else is wrapped up quickly.

By this point I’ve really noticed that Final Fantasy seems dedicated to the personal stories of its protagonists, ever since Cecil’s journey in FF4. They tried expanding it to a larger ensemble cast in FF6, but some of them came across rather diluted by not having much focus, and the ones that were focused on were uninteresting. Because of what I’ve mentioned I feel that Cloud’s journey comes through more strongly in FF7.

There’s also a major character death here, which again isn’t the first for the series but it has a much bigger impact this time around. Throughout the first act of the game, a lot of importance is placed on the character of Aerith. She’s the last surviving member of a race known as the Cetra, and the one most likely to help defeat Sephiroth. Except that Sephiroth suddenly kills her. It’s followed by a very sad scene where the party quietly and wordlessly mourn for her. It’s more impactful here because she never really shows up again after this. The last few games had character deaths, but their spirits would linger around and still talk to the party from beyond as if they weren’t truly gone. There’s moments where it feels like she’s helping out, but it’s only a feeling and not so explicit.

I’m only touching on a fraction of what’s really good about Final Fantasy VII I just wanted to highlight what I found particularly strong in this game. This game is exceptionally well-paced, and at times feels very dense with how much is in it. It’s easy to see how they ended up expanding the opening first few hours in Midgar into an entire game with the remake.

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Part of why this game works so strongly is because its RPG systems are designed to not be terribly intrusive. Exploration is fairly painless since these games haven’t made use of maze dungeons since the first few entries. While the cast of characters is larger than the three-person party you can build, members outside of the party still gain experience when not in use. These games now seem to be dedicated to having much more malleable systems for character growth, as again there are no specific character classes in the game, and battle abilities and stats are defined by equippable items called materia.

Materia is similar to FF6’s Espers but I think it’s much better. Espers required temporarily equipping them to every character in order to learn abilities and raise stats, and then moving them onto another character to do the same. The result of which was that I ended up with an extremely powerful party with little to distinguish between members. I may not have had to do it, but it seemed like the ideal solution. Materia keeps the abilities and their growth attached to the equippable items, so a maxed out materia can be passed onto another character so they can instantly use a high level ability. Each materia came with pros and cons, for example if I was to attach a lot of magic ones onto a character they would end up as powerful spellcasters but have much lower health points.

It meant that I had to use different combinations of materia in order to build my own character classes, and because the main party is reduced down to three members this time, I had to get a little more creative. This also meant that when the game forced a change in party members, I could quickly create useful character classes again. I actually spent more time experimenting with it, giving different characters different setups over the course of the game. While I did have some very powerful characters by the end of the game, it ended up being much more interesting as my party members were very different from each other.

The trend of adding in variety which started in FF6 is continued in this game as well. During certain big set piece moments the game will require you to take part in various minigames, and I’m not a big fan of them. They don’t happen extremely often, but when they do it’s usually a fiddly mess. It’s good that a lot of the game’s other systems are much stronger or I would have gotten more annoyed at these. However if I had played Final Fantasy VII as a child I reckon I would have loved this stuff, since I adored the idea of minigames then.

The localisation of this game is also a little odd. The dialogue can come across a little clunky at times, but at least the intent still comes through. Thankfully it’s not incomprehensible like some game translations I’ve seen out there, but it’s interesting to me that despite this being Square’s biggest game they never attempted a retranslation. The first six Final Fantasies all had multiple translations some of which cleaned things up or changed spell names to consistent with more recent games. If anything though, I’m glad that the version of this game available on almost every current platform is mostly untouched, but not entirely.

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For convenience I played the version of the game available on the Nintendo Switch. Here it’s rendered at a much higher resolution which makes a lot of the polygonal characters look a little too clean. I imagine in its original Playstation incarnation they were meant to have more jagged edges, since they were meant to display on a CRT television and not a newer HD screen.

This game also has an excellent soundtrack! Nobuo Uematsu once again leans into the weirdness that comes about from the odd-sounding digital samples in order to create some wonderful eccentric music. Of course his taste for dad rock comes through here too. Of course a good piece of music can enhance the quality of a scene, but here the scenes elevate the music as well. In the past before I played Final Fantasy VII I tried listening to the music on its own and I wasn’t particularly grabbed by it at the time. By playing it I was able to really determine what the music was doing. By getting to know the characters alongside hearing the music, I would be able to associate the leitmotifs with each theme and character, which in turn made me further appreciate the story that music itself was telling.

Aerith’s Theme, a melancholic piano piece that grows into a full orchestra while still remaining a sad song is beautifully put together. It’s one of my favourite pieces of music throughout the entire series. I will always associate the song with the moment of mourning after her death, which really gives the track an emotional impact for me. When I heard it performed at the Distant Worlds orchestral concert, I’ll admit I did well up a bit. The funny part about that concert is I had to walk up a lot of stairs to get to my seat (Final Fantasy VII fans will know).

I’ve also put together a Spotify playlist of my favourites, which could be the entire soundtrack but I enjoy the challenge of picking the best ones.

There’s so much to dive into with Final Fantasy VII, and so many people have already been doing that work. I don’t think any of the games have been written about as much as this one. All things considered I’m extremely glad that I revisited this game. Because this is the second time that I played through this one I was able to spot more things and get more out of it. This makes me much more excited to revisit more games in the future!

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

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I’m cheating a little here as this isn’t actually the next thing that came out chronologically. I’ve actually seen this movie before. I was given it on DVD for Christmas by my parents when I was 13. Final Fantasy wasn’t something I’d actually played before, I guess the movie just looked like an anime thing to them which they knew I was into. I didn’t really understand what was going on in it but the action scenes were cool. I’ve now watched it after playing Final Fantasy VII and through that lens this is a terrible movie.

The action scenes are nicely put together, they really tried to go for wire work martial arts with more destructive shonen anime energy. Sometimes the camera work is a little messy, and they go on a little too long at times, but there’s some good qualities to them. I really enjoyed any of the fights involving Rude and Reno since those two characters seem to exist in a martial arts comedy.

It’s the unimaginative plot that really kills this movie and undermines all character development that happened across FF7. Part of what made the game’s story so strong was Cloud being able to move past his own trauma, but the movie acts as if that never happened. It decides to ignore the confident Cloud that emerged towards the end of that game and reset him back to how he was at the start, quiet and miserable.

Barret comes off even worse by being absent for a lot of the movie and not looking after his daughter, playing up an awful stereotype for the only black character here. He’s also into getting oil now for some reason, which majorly conflicts with his prior dedication to stopping Shinra from using Mako energy.

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The film is truly just a lot of setup to have an excuse for Cloud and Sephiroth to fight again, only this time it’s a lot more flashy. Throughout the movie I became impatient for this confrontation to happen only to find it dull. After having sat through so much fighting this one didn’t seem that much different from the others. It didn’t help that the English voice actor for Sephiroth does one of the flattest performances I’ve ever heard. His line-reads sound like a voiceover for a boring insurance advert. Maybe I should have watched the film in Japanese with subtitles instead, since many of the other voices come across as weird and awkward.

Nobuo Uematsu returned to score this film, and while the odd track is nice I’m not into the whole mid-00s metal tinge a lot of the soundtrack has. The version of One-Winged Angel where the guitars kick in is kinda cool I guess, but a lot of the other renditions of FF7 hits feel like they’re overdoing it. It seems a little haphazardly placed as well as I’m not sure why Shinra’s theme plays during a scene focused on remnants of Sephiroth.

I’m not really certain who this movie is actually for. When I saw it before I had any knowledge of Final Fantasy VII I found it confusing. When I saw it after I played Final Fantasy VII I found it to be dreadful. I don’t think some decent looking action sequences can paper over such a poorly plotted film. At least this was only two hours instead of being a 30-hour epic like the game. If they really wanted to reset Cloud’s character development and have him fight Sephiroth again, they should have just remade Final Fantasy VII. I guess they’ve started doing that now.

Final Thoughts

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I won’t be jumping onto Final Fantasy VIII just yet, as there’s still more FF7 to get to and it would be best for me to do so when it’s all still fresh in my mind. The next couple of games I’ll be playing are part of what’s called the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII”, which is a fancy name for what is basically just “more Final Fantasy VII”. However if Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is any indication, I’m not really sure that Square Enix understands what Final Fantasy VII is. After those I’ll be getting to Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I’m extremely curious about since I know it only adapts 1/6th of the original game (it says so on the back of the box). It’ll be interesting to see what they’ve expanded upon. I hope I don’t have to buy five more videogames in the future just for this remake.

While I’m breaking the timeline a bit with those games, I still appreciate having played a bunch of them in chronological order. I already thought of Final Fantasy VII as an excellent videogame, but now that I can put in context with other great games that it outshines, it looks even brighter now.

I should also mention that I’ve put together a new hub page for my Final Fantasy articles. I thought that since I’ve made this thing into a project it would be best to have it all linked in one place. You can visit that here!

I’ve decided that I’m not going to include a full ranking list on these any more. It’s a little unwieldy after a while. If I did Final Fantasy VII would be ranked the best out of them so far. Advent Children doesn’t belong there at all.

Until next time!

Old and New Adventures – Final Fantasy V and VI

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You know what, I’ve been having a really good time writing these so far and I’m looking forward to doing more of them after this one. I’ve played eight games in the Final Fantasy series for these blog posts and I’ve found something interesting about all of them so far.

Playing these games in chronological order has made it much easier to move between them. I’m no longer staring at a massive wall of many games in this series unsure of where to go next, I’m simply just moving ahead through a linear list.

I’m aware that the last article did go on quite long, so I’ve decided to play two games instead of three. For this one I played:

  • Final Fantasy V (FF5)
  • Final Fantasy VI (FF6)

I decided to play the Game Boy Advance (GBA) ports of these games as they seemed like the more ideal offerings. Prior versions made before it are saddled with translations in a style that I’m not a fan of. More recent editions, such as those available iOS and Steam, have an awful graphical style that looks tacky to me. It was nice to go between these two games and have a somewhat consistent presentation, which only highlighted the major differences both of these games have. Someone did inform me that certain scenes are cropped for GBA versions, meaning they might not make the same impact, but I only found that out as I was approaching the final area of Final Fantasy VI, so I didn’t fancy starting over.

As I was playing the games for this article I essentially saw Final Fantasy transitioning into what I know it for. I’ll get into more specifics on this when I talk about each game but broadly speaking, FF5 feels like a tribute and FF6 is trying something new.

When writing this blog piece, I found that it became increasingly difficult to not mention particular major plot moments. In earlier games I found it much easier to talk in broader terms, but here I’m going to have to address certain spoilers. So I’ll talk about the games now:

Final Fantasy V

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Compared to prior games, Final Fantasy V is much more immediate. There’s much less story setup before the game becomes playable. The full party comes together very quickly, and shortly after that it brings in a job system to play with.

Just like in Final Fantasy III, this game has a job system, however much of the frustrations from that initial job system have been removed. Swapping between job classes now has no penalties, and when you assign a job to a character, they already have full access to its capabilities. Levelling up a job lets you carry over its abilities onto others, so if you level up a White Mage, you can get a Monk class to cast White Magic. I found this a much more interesting incentive for strengthening jobs, as it also encouraged me to play around and use all sorts of them for party members.

Once a job is maxed out, all of its passive abilities and stat increases get carried over a class called Freelancer. What that meant is that I ended up finding an ideal grinding spot and spent a large amount of time maxing out several jobs per character in order to have super powerful Freelancers (not all the jobs though, I would probably still be playing the game if that was the case). It was a little repetitive, but I saw it somewhat like slowly carving something. It was a little like I was partially moulding the game into the way I wanted to play it. I don’t have anything physical to show for it, but it was still fun to see strengthened party members used by the end of the game. I do wish the grind could have gone a little faster though…

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Battles play out much in the same way they did in FF4, though with a party of four instead of five. The ATB combat system sees continued use up until Final Fantasy X, so re-explaining the system each time would be a little tiresome. While it is using the same systems as 4, FF5 has some battles that take much better advantage of it.

There’s a fight I liked in this game against a monster called Atomos. It’s an interesting puzzle boss and one of the most fun encounters in the game. When the battle starts it instantly kills a party member, but once that member is dead it won’t kill another. The defeated party member then gets slowly sucked towards Atomos and when they get close enough they are removed from the encounter entirely and cannot be brought back. Once that member is gone, Atomos will kill another and repeat the same process. As this all happens in real time, it becomes about finding the right time to revive a party member so that none are lost. It feels much more unique than any of the other battles I encountered in the game, and the real-time combat systems allow battles like this to happen.

All this stuff is cool, but I don’t think that it works well together to tell a story like FF4 did. The job system doesn’t give much of a sense of character in a way that 4’s pre-assigned classes did. Final Fantasy V has a fairly standard save-the-world story with a much more light-hearted tone that didn’t really win me over as much. Characters make jokes about their situation but that’s what characters do in almost every major movie these days. I’ve already seen about twenty Marvel movies.

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The party hardly ever changes shape here. The four members you get at the start remain throughout most of the game and initially the game leans into that. There’s a few moments towards the start of the game that make the party feel like they’re all getting closer to each other and I enjoyed that, and they do manage to make them feel like distinct characters. I wish there were more moments like that throughout the game as too much focus was put on the plot of defeating the bad guy.

Graphically and musically it mostly feels like a gradual change from FF4, but there’s some new things here that I liked. Enemy designs get a little more varied with some weird and cute ones. FF4’s music used a lot of samples that were trying to mostly emulate orchestral instruments, but some more synthesizer-like sounds work their way into FF5’s soundtrack.

There’s a lot I do like about Final Fantasy V, but it doesn’t work as a cohesive whole. The job system is cool, there’s some boss fights that are fun, but the narrative isn’t as compelling. In some ways it almost feels like a “remix compilation album” of Final Fantasy in terms of how it’s put together. A lot of plot beats feel like reworks of what was already in FF3 and 4, and bringing in a revitalised job system is absolutely harkening back to FF3 as well. However much like compilation albums, they may be a good set of songs but they weren’t written to flow into each other.

Having that job system did make it really fun to play with, it’s just that I can’t help but compare it with other games. I don’t want to come across as negative here because I did have a very good time with this one, it’s just that I had a better time with Final Fantasy IV.

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I’d also like to talk about the Four Job Fiesta, which is a charity run of this game that anyone can take part in from this website. However if you’ve never played the game before I would advise against trying this specific run for your first time, as I made that mistake a few years ago. It seems as though it’s much easier to manage with some familiarity of the game, but I also seemed to just end up with a group of classes that were extremely difficult to use. 

It’s all for charity though which I can’t fault that much. This year it’s raising money for Color of Change, the largest racial justice organization in America. Considering recent news stories about horrible injustices against Black people, I think it was a smart decision to choose this charity. It runs until the end of August so you’ve got some time to decide if you want to take part or donate.

Final Fantasy V also had a sequel in the form of an anime, which is absolutely not worth watching. Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals is an extremely generic early 90s fantasy-comedy anime. It’s well animated, but doesn’t have much of a unique style. I did call it a comedy, but that’s arguable since much of its jokes aren’t really funny. It’s a real shame since this was directed by Rintaro, who also worked on the excellent 2001 film Metropolis, which if you haven’t seen I think you should as it’s one of my favourite animated movies (I also talked about it on this podcast).

Final Fantasy VI

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This game was one of my biggest blind spots. Of all the Final Fantasies I hadn’t played before this was one that I hadn’t heard that much about. I can think of a lot of reasons why but that would take up plenty of space. I know the game now since I’ve played it.

Final Fantasy VI is maximalist. When I think of other RPGs developed for the SNES, they don’t have as many toys to play with as this one does. There are 14 characters to choose for your party, plenty of optional side quests to pursue, a higher amount of graphical detail and a much larger soundtrack. I get a sense that many meetings during the development of this game ended with “yes we’ll try that new idea”.

This also the first game to have more bespoke setpieces with game mechanics specific to them, which is something that I associate with Final Fantasy in general. When I think of memorable moments across the games, many of them use a unique method of control. It’ll be an interesting thing to bring up again when I write about later games.

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What this all means is that Final Fantasy VI has a lot more variety, it’s playing a little bit looser with the rules of what makes an RPG. Here’s a few things I did in this game:

  • Command multiple parties of moogles to defend a fallen party member
  • Sneak through an enemy occupied town by getting around guards and stealing uniforms to use as disguises
  • Memorise lines to perform well in an opera.

Every party member now has a unique distinct ability that they can use in combat. Some are just ones that you can select from a menu, but some involve weirder elements such as slot machines, timers or fighting game button inputs.

Magic spells can be learned by almost every party member in the game (and by the end I had a team that knew almost all the spells). Though it seems a little contrary to the idea of variety that everyone can learn the same spells, I feel it actually acts in service of it, since it makes every party member a viable choice. This is Final Fantasy VI’s way of saying that everything is open to play with.

This is bolstered by another mechanic named “Espers”, which are equippable summon attacks that are the game’s way of teaching magic. They can be used to increase character stats as well, so a party member ill-equipped to cast magic can be made into a strong spellcaster. This means that the game does not have to contrive moments where a character with healing abilities show up, it just has to consider who is the right character to show up (this contrasts with Final Fantasy IV’s approach. Because of every character fitting a defined character class, it sometimes felt like characters would show up because they fit a practical role).

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However because of these open systems, the game can become incredibly easy. There’s a possibility that my own long experience with the genre has coloured this, but Final Fantasy VI ended up being one of the easiest games in the series I have ever played. Certain items I received from doing side-content almost made me feel like I was cheating, as I could do almost 50,000 damage in a single turn (for reference the final boss of the game has 62,000 HP). 

Even though it got very easy, it was really fun to continually outdo myself on my damage output, since I did have a little bit of a challenge closer to the start of the game. Long before I encountered the Espers, there was a moment where I had a party that was only suited to doing physical damage and I had a small supply of healing items. I felt as though I could have gotten badly stuck at that moment, but I managed to scrape by and comparing that to how powerful my party became is very amusing to me.

Rather than take FF4’s approach by having systems tied closely with the story it’s telling, Final Fantasy VI decides to have them work around the story. They hardly get in the way of the plot, especially since they can result in the game getting very easy. I wouldn’t say that this made the storytelling worse at all, I would say more of its failings come from how the characters are written.

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For one thing, I felt as though the large cast of characters works against it. Around a third of the party I had never even heard of before, which I don’t think I can say so easily about a lot of other games in the series. I didn’t know of Strago, Relm, Cyan, and if I hadn’t played Kingdom Hearts II before I would never have known of Setzer before. A lot of them don’t feel particularly memorable to me, which is a shame.

I did hear a lot about Kefka before I played this game, he’s one of the Final Fantasy villains that seems to get brought up quite a lot. And it’s actually a twist that he’s the villain by the way, I didn’t know about that before which took a bit of the impact of that reveal. The one advantage Kefka has compared to previous villains is that he actually shows up for more of the game. His entire character is that he is just pure evil, and it’s a bit too one-dimensional for me. It’s not as though the other villains we’ve had so far have had more powerful characterisation (FF4’s didn’t even show up until the end of the game), it’s that I just don’t find this brand of evil for the sake of evil interesting for as much screen time as it takes.

The one neat thing they do with Kefka is the setup for the game’s second half (it was for me, but apparently this is fairly flexible and not far from the end if you avoid side-content). Essentially Kefka wins, defeats the party and destroys most of the world, and then a year passes. From that point a few party members manage to get together and begin a search for the rest of the team (or you can skip all that and go straight to the final dungeon). This part of the game is often called the “World of Ruin”. Kefka has no on-screen presence until the final boss encounter, but the state of the world means that you don’t forget about him. One of the first events in this part involves him destroying a large house because something upset him.

From this point on the structure of the game is blown wide open, and I found it really fun to just explore the map and see where I would find other party members. I somewhat liked how it was used to fleshed out the characters a little more since I got a chance to find out what they would get up to alone.

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In my opinion it does a better job with some characters and a lacklustre effort with others. Catching Cyan pretending to be someone else writing letters to a woman was funny, especially since he has a unique manner of old-fashioned speech that is used in the letters. When I was pursuing Locke, the self-proclaimed treasure hunter, I went through a dungeon that had mostly empty chests. After finishing it, he handed me the items that would have been in those chests.

One character that I was really let down by was Terra. Throughout most of the game she has a rather distant personality, likely because of being raised in captivity to be a soldier for the Empire. In the World of Ruin, she is the only one that needs to be convinced to join your party, but mostly because she’s become a mother figure to a big group of orphaned children. It just feels really boring to have one of the few major female characters just settle and become a mother, especially when so many of them have been going off on more exciting adventures. Celes doesn’t fare much better either, as a fair amount of time with her character is spent on how she’s in love with Locke. 

For a lot of the World of Ruin, you can bring along whatever party members you want, but the result of that means that no character’s voice really comes through whenever any dialogue needs to be said. It’s usually written so that no name appears on it, so it’s written in a way that any party member can say it, so it’s extremely functional. It persists up until the final encounter with Kefka and I just found it to be very dry. I wonder if it’s likely the version of the game I’ve chosen, maybe there’s other ones out there that write it more interestingly because I wasn’t digging it.

One party member was absent from the World of Ruin for me, and that was Shadow. This was because I let him die by mistake. In most of these games character death is an event determined solely by the game, but here I was partially responsible. I would have never guessed the way to have him survive (there’s a timed escape sequence before the World of Ruin, and you have to wait for the last second before leaving the area) but I did find out I could have prevented it.

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In terms of appearance, I think Final Fantasy VI has been one of the best looking games so far. It doesn’t have the same amount of detail as the PSP versions of FF1, 2 and 4, but it does have a more deliberate muted colour palette that suits the steampunk-ish setting. Environments also feel a little bit more natural, they look less like they’re made on a grid (even though character movement is still restricted to four directions).

This game also has the best soundtrack so far out of the games played for this post. It’s larger and like the rest of the game, more varied. Even more electronic instruments come through here, with a chocobo theme that reminded me a little of japanese electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra. Prior games would sometimes work in the main theme as a regular motif, but FF6’s music has more use of leitmotif as character themes are woven in through the score. There’s also a track called Epitaph, which I’m certain is a King Crimson reference since the melody sounds very similar to another one of their songs called Moonchild.

I had a good time with Final Fantasy VI, messing around with the growth systems and how they made battles very easy was quite fun for me. I’m just underwhelmed by the character writing in this game. I am aware that this game is beloved, and it is a good game, it’s just that I’ve played better.

Final Thoughts

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It’s easy to think about putting these games into groups, I titled my initial blog post on the first three games “The NES Trilogy”. I can’t really think of FF4, 5 and 6 as a SNES trilogy, even though they have a similar kind of presentation, FF6 feels more like what the series would eventually do on the PlayStation. I’m looking forward to talking more about that soon.

I enjoyed these two games quite a lot, but when I think about my all-time favourite games in the series, they aren’t going to be among the top. There’s a possibility that I might even change my mind by the time I get to the games I adore, though the real hope is that I’ll still love them.

There has been some brilliant music across both the games, which I’ve compiled into this Spotify playlist! I did have some urges to put the entire FF6 soundtrack on, but I decided against that.

Ranking these games hasn’t gotten difficult yet, but once I play a lot more of these I assume it’s going to get harder and I wonder what it will look like after that. The idea of making a gigantic list with all the games on it is very funny to me, even if it is a little potentially unreadable. Anyway here’s the eight games I played for this so far with the best at the bottom of the list:

  • Final Fantasy II
  • Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
  • Final Fantasy Adventure
  • Final Fantasy
  • Final Fantasy III
  • Final Fantasy V
  • Final Fantasy VI
  • Final Fantasy IV

I’m hoping to take a little break between this article and the next as it’s going to be a big one. Already I’ve got a lot of thoughts in my head about what I’ll be writing for it. I’ll give you a hint, what comes after six?

Until next time!


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