Trying to understand how games work

The Perils of Familiarity – Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

When I made the decision to play through the Final Fantasy games it seemed intimidating. That’s so many games! So much more than people realise. So much more than people even consider. When I mentioned I was doing this to people they would often assume I was just taking on the main numbered titles. After clarifying that I meant all the spinoffs too, their reactions cemented that it was a big undertaking. Weirdly I did get some satisfaction out of those reactions, in my mind I would think “Yeah it is a lot but I’m actually doing it”. Well here’s where I admit that last part is not quite true anymore.

Early on I already made the decision not to cover much of the free-to-play mobile games. The first reason was that some of those are no longer available. The second and honestly the biggest reason was that I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the monetisation hooks found in those, and how the games themselves are built to encourage spending. Because of this I’ve actually tried to avoid outright saying I’m playing every game in the franchise because I’d get the sort of what-about questions regarding the phone games.

And there’s games I just didn’t end up finishing. Final Fantasy XI and Crystal Chronicles are a couple where I didn’t reach the end because of difficulties and a lack of my own patience. Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is another game that can join those two.

It was a game I was really on board with at the start. When I initially played the original Final Fantasy IV I had a great time with it. It certainly made me into a fan, but After Years feels like it’s made for someone who had a much deeper connection than I had to the original game. Its initial release in Japan was as an episodic phone game, presumably to appeal to those who had fond memories of playing the Super Famicom game 17 years before, but had less immediate time on their hands. This is a game that’s meant to be played years after.

I left a gap of two whole years and it still felt a little too soon to be playing this. Its episodic nature also didn’t help, as from playing it became very clear why it wasn’t all released at once. I can’t so easily create the conditions for myself to play it in the “intended” manner. Leaving gaps between playing the episodes would only feel artificial (and I have this blog to write articles on, and I at least like to get one out every month).

While I don’t think this game is for me, I can definitely see the good in it. There’s something pleasant in its familiarity. After Years goes as far as repeating a lot of plot points from the prior game, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Final Fantasy is a series almost defined by big changes (even within most of its direct sequels), so to have something give more of the same feels oddly comforting.

It is a familiar story, but it’s told in a different manner. Cecil’s journey from Dark Knight to Paladin in FF4 was compelling to follow but he was the sole protagonist throughout the entire game. The party members that followed him on it were endearing, but they only had small moments to show themselves off. After Years splits the game into chapters focusing on the individual party members, mostly taking place in a limited amount of locations (usually a town or two and a couple dungeons). It’s a nice idea to get more perspective on the world of FF4, though the actual execution leaves a little to be desired.

Even though I cited the repetition of plot points from the previous game as a positive, the one thing it doesn’t repeat is FF4’s fantastic fast pacing. There are too many chapters that are simply about a character finding out that there’s “something wrong with Cecil”, leading them to journey somewhere to find out why. The chapters that don’t focus on that specific element also have the same structure so it gets tiring after a while. It’s mostly down to the fact that almost every character starts at a low level, which makes it feel like restarting a game from scratch each time. Rather than follow in the footsteps of a fast-paced adventure, After Years is content to languish in repetition of its own making.

It has also been a while since I played one of these games with the “ATB system”, the turn-based combat mechanics which rely on bars being filled up in real time before an action is initiated. I found that the system didn’t get fully taken advantage of in most games, but FF4 used it fairly well (and FF5 had some excellent fights that made use of it). The fights in After Years can be good, like FF4 once the bar fills up an action can be initiated, but certain actions require a second bar to be filled, and the time it takes to fill varies based on what’s chosen. This allows for tense situations where I have to do things like consider getting a powerful spell that takes time, but could finish the fight, or quickly get some healing in to ensure surviving right now. It’s those kinds of situations that make many great RPG battle systems exciting.

Those situations eventually became a bit too constant, and while I do enjoy a challenging RPG battle I can’t always partake in a feast of them. The ideal sort of pacing for an RPG game is a mix of simpler battles that allow me to experiment and engage with the combat rules, before reaching a boss encounter that then brings in some challenge. It’s the sort of thing I’m used to with this series, and even After Years started that way, but by around the ninth episode or so I found I was having to be switched on a lot more. I eventually reached a boss that stalled my progress for a little too long.

That was also around the start of a chapter, so I would have, for the ninth time, had to grind out resources in order to be strong enough. I don’t mind grinding in RPGs, it can be a fun activity at times if the battle system is compelling enough, or if it’s low effort enough where I can listen to a podcast while playing. As I kept getting a bunch of game overs on this chapter, I was just tired of having to go and do this again. By this point I decided I would give up.

It’s a real shame since under ideal circumstances, I probably would have liked this game actually. If I took longer to play it, that repetition might not be so much of an issue. Sometimes the situation a game is played in can have a massive effect on someone’s feelings about it. I just can’t play this game in the same way that I did all of the others.

This experience has actually made me reevaluate my approach with playing Final Fantasy. I’m under no actual obligation to play all of these. However, I don’t want to make it so I just play the ones that I think are going to be “good games”. If I am going to continue to play these games in sequence the same way as I have been for the past two-and-a-half years, I should consider the games that would work best for that regardless if they’re actually good or not. I’m also extremely eager to play my next game, and I’m even more excited about what I’ll write for it.

Small World – Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers

The Wii is mostly remembered as the home of Wii Sports and other such Nintendo projects, but in the late-00s it also served as a home to other sorts of games. Ones that were smaller scale developments that wouldn’t seem out of place on a then recent high-definition console, but were too big to throw on digital storefronts like Xbox Live Arcade or Wiiware. The Wii was huge back in the day, and many developers also wanted to capitalise on that success.

The thing is, many of those games didn’t really manage well with that. The sales charts for the Wii were overwhelmed by Nintendo’s own output. I can remember the time when Mario Kart Wii, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl sat comfortably around the top of the bestelling lists for a long time, but very few non-Nintendo games came up to reach them. There were some great games that only sold enough to be considered “cult classics”.

But as you can see from the title, this article is about Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, a game that was neither a massive success nor a cult classic. (Leave a comment if you scrolled up to look at the title again, I know I would). The Wii does feel like the right place for this game though. It has a higher production value than the other Crystal Chronicles games, but nowhere near the level of Final Fantasy XIII, another game Square Enix released around the same time in 2009 for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

If anything Crystal Bearers makes me think a lot of the games Square Enix put out on the Playstation 2. The Wii almost felt like a “Playstation 2-2” at times, likely because of its position as the last standard-definition system. It allowed developers to put out games that looked like it came from a console before it (though admittedly a fair amount of those were actually ports of PS2 and Gamecube games). 

But the aspect that made me recall those sorts of games was the cutscene direction. They use dynamic camera movements that brought to my mind Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy XII. Though it felt like something was missing that made the cutscenes in those other games exciting, as they would often use sharp angles and fast camera movements to punctuate particular moments. Crystal Bearers mostly does it to add extra flair to scenes that would be much less interesting otherwise. 

The game does have an interesting premise, where the main character has special powers, but lives in a society where many are scared of people like that. Sadly that’s only something that’s offhandedly mentioned in cutscenes, as very little is done to follow through on that. The hero will often get to use his powers everywhere with no consequence. It’s at its worst during a prison break sequence where most of the guards make no effort to do anything except run around the place.

I also found the acting to be terrible. It felt as though I could hear lines simply being read off of a page.

The visuals in this game are neat, with an earthy, summery colour palette. While prior Crystal Chronicles games built off of the super-deformed mediaeval-fantasy style of Final Fantasy IX, this one goes for an aesthetic with more realistically proportioned characters. It’s not a complete abandonment of the previous games’ visual style, as it does feel like it’s building off of some of the creatively designed characters found they had. This game also takes place in a world where technology has developed to have trains, guns and cameras.

Rather than just make a role-playing game, they opted to make this one an “action-adventure “ game. The approach they’ve taken feels more like an RPG with most of its systems removed and a heavier focus on bespoke minigames. As it’s a Wii game, all of those revolve around awkward motion controls. 

There’s combat too, which involves using slightly less awkward motion controls in order to pick up and throw enemies at each other, which gets repetitive very quickly. It only happens in specific areas and rewards the player with a health upgrade for winning. But that reward only comes the first time an encounter is won, and those encounters repeat often. RPGs often use repeating combat in order to encourage gaining more resources, so to just see encounters show up offering no reward baffled me. I guess there’s materials to be found that can be made into equipment, but they didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference in my abilities so I didn’t spend much time on that.

Another odd thing about Crystal Bearers is that the world feels small. There was a portion of the game where I didn’t know where I needed to go, as the map wasn’t much help. As a result I walked across most of the game’s explorable areas in about half an hour. This wouldn’t be much of an issue in most games, as there’s usually techniques they use to imply that the world is bigger. Maybe there’s a world map where everything is proportioned differently. There could be a transitional screen or animation that could imply some amount of extra travel between two areas. Crystal Bearers uses no such tricks. All places are connected like a continuous space. It may have been a technical challenge to do this, but the end result meant that not much was left to the imagination, especially because of the more realistic aesthetic. Other games with characters and locations that are even smaller feel bigger than this because of their creative use of resources. I just see someone simply walking from one side of the world to the other in a short time.

It also doesn’t help that the game’s camera is a bit fussy and a little too close to the playable character for my liking. That helped contribute to the feeling that this game just has a lack of space to be in. You could argue that it’s one of the few aspects of the game that actually tries to work with the game’s premise. This is a world where the main character is looked down on by many others who live in it and a cramped camera sells the feeling of being unwelcome. But those thematic concerns were just overshadowed by the small mechanical frustrations. It didn’t help that my mind associated it with many other Wii games that had poor camera systems. All other games consoles at the time were already using two analogue sticks, so the Wii remote and Nunchuk only having a single analogue stick resulted in some unusual control schemes.

When people talk about nostalgia for games released in the past, it’s often to do with telling the audience about the rose-tinted glasses they’re wearing while examining something. Playing this game did evoke a sense of nostalgia for me, but not for the game itself, more so for the platform it’s on. It’s certainly gotten me to consider playing some actually decent Wii games.

It’s also been fun to write about a game built for a system that I had much more firsthand experience with. I’ve really enjoyed playing most of what I’ve covered going through Final Fantasy, but especially with the older games, examining them feels archaeological. I’m only somewhat joking but many of these games I wasn’t around for. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers also came out at a time when I started paying more attention to what was going on in videogames. It was that year that I began reading, watching, and listening to more media about games. I had also started this blog at a time when the Wii still had games coming out for it.

Soon I’ll be covering games that I actually played when they were new! I’m looking forward to seeing what that’s like.

Pieces of History – Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on Wiiware

It was a huge shame when Nintendo decided to shut down their Wii Shop Channel, removing easy access to many games available on the Wiiware platform. Some of them still haven’t made it onto other systems.

Wiiware games were of a time when downloadable games meant something a little different. This was a time when downloadable games existed as a separate platform on the same console. Because of internet quality and storage space available on the Wii, the Wiiware file sizes were limited to 40MB, which resulted in them being much smaller in scope. They were much cheaper too.

It was a novelty that allowed for little games that wouldn’t as easily make it anywhere else. Games such as Bonsai Barber, Muscle March, and Let’s Catch wouldn’t have gotten out as boxed retail products, but they suited Wiiware perfectly. Now for a game of this scope to come out today, it’s usually from a smaller team putting something out on Itch, or a company releasing a promotional tie-in phone app (Chocobo GP’ on IOS and Android is a recent example I can think of).

Downloadable games go all over the place in terms of prices now, as they now include the same big releases that get put on brick-and-mortar shelves, but the smaller titles are expected to compete for quality and quantity. It’s why so many roguelikes have come out over the last decade, as it allows for content to be randomised and repeated.

To go back to Wiiware, Square Enix ended up releasing a fair few games on the system. Some of them were ports of mobile game releases, but there were also some original games, two of which I will be covering here. They’re games I had a good time playing, but I want to be careful not to oversell them.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King

In the original Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, the world was covered by a poison that made most of the land inhospitable to humans. By the end of that game, the world was cleansed and the world could then be freely explored again. My Life as a King is about one town’s efforts to rebuild after that.

I don’t have a lot of experience with city-building games, but this one certainly did a great job of conveying a livable space. While the player character is a king, they spend the whole game being able to walk around the town, visiting houses and businesses. To build anything, the King must be standing next to where they want it to go. 

The townspeople go about their own routines and don’t directly follow what the King tells them to do. They will walk around to shops on their own time, and simply tell the King about their day. Adventurers don’t simply perform the tasks that the King asks for, particular ones will volunteer of their own free will to take part in quests set by the King.

Initially I didn’t like how the game depended on walking around the environment in order to get stuff done. However, over time more buildings and townspeople filled up the place, and it began to feel bigger and more lived in. It felt nice to talk to them and see how their day was going, even if there was only a limited amount of lines they could say. 

This city is built to last, and at the end of the game it is displayed over the end credits. It showcases that the King has built a home for all those people to stay in. Parts of this world that were previously destroyed have now been repaired and will hopefully stay there.

There’s not really much action here and there’s nothing that puts the player in a game over state. A lot of time is spent waiting for adventurers to come back, while checking in with how things are going across the town. It sounds like it could get boring but I found it rather relaxing. I was surprised to find that it evoked a nostalgia I had for visiting MMO cities, and seeing other players who were much more powerful than me go off on their own adventures.

A game that’s this sedate can be perfect to wind down with at the end of a long day. Though sometimes a game that has the opposite effect can be good.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord

To contrast with My Life as a King being about building a town that lasts throughout the game and beyond, My Life as a Dark Lord is about making many disposable towers that don’t last at all. In fact this whole game is engineered to be very different from its predecessor, in that the whole thing is menu-driven, creating a sense of distance from the action.

The sort of distance that’s somewhat common in the tower defence genre that this game belongs to. There’s a crystal at the top of the tower that needs protecting from adventurers, so traps are set and monsters are summoned to do so.

And that’s right, those adventurers are the sort the King would send out on quests. In this game the player character is the titular Darklord, who orders monsters to do her bidding (though turns out is good-hearted as they don’t really want to make you play an evil character).

The way the game works in practice, is that the player must build floors which contain traps on them. Most of them will include spaces for monsters to be summoned. Adventurers will go through these rooms, and take on the traps and monsters in ways that look like standard RPG battles. They won’t stick around until one side is defeated, as they each come with a timer, and when that runs out they move onto the next floor. If an adventurer comes up to a floor where a battle is already taking place, they will just skip that and go to the next encounter. Enough floors have to be built to ensure the monsters can collectively defeat them. 

I mentioned distance in the emotional sense earlier, and that’s true of how this game feels to some extent. Monsters the player summon will be disposed of often, and it’s best to just keep bringing more in. It all helps to sell the cartoonish bad nature of the main character. Every time an adventurer is defeated, they are thrown from whatever floor of the tower they reached like in a comedic anime scene, which never stopped being funny to me.

However, this game does require some fairly active participation, unlike the waiting in the other game. Since the crystal only takes one hit to be destroyed, there’s a lot of “plate-spinning” to be done, which can get very stressful. It’s anxiety-inducing when an adventurer is about to make it to the top. It’s even more so when five of them are almost on their way there. Having said that, I didn’t find it to be a difficult game, it’s just good at playing with tension. It helps to create a sense of relief when each stage is finally won. 

It may not have been the best thing to play at the end of some days, but My Life as a Darklord ended up being a fun time.

Final Thoughts

There’s an allure when a game isn’t as easily accessible, but you own it. It’s possible to fall into a trap of overselling a game’s qualities, because there’s some fun in being a “champion” for a game that “deserves more recognition”. I did have a good time with these games, but I’m never going to put these out there as hidden gems or secretly incredible experiences. They were just neat. That doesn’t mean I think they don’t deserve to be more accessible, they really should be.

Being particular games of a certain platform, they help illustrate a particular time in videogame history. That’s true for almost every release anyway. With these games I was able to recall my own experiences with the Wii, and what games were like back then. Taste is subjective anyway, but even bad and middling games deserve some amount of preservation. This isn’t coming from nostalgia, because I also remember the restrictions that came back in those days, and I don’t think we need them again. I just think it’s useful to have perspective on what things used to be like.

Screenshots sourced from Mobygames.

What Does an Elden Ring Journal Look Like?

Just recently I finished Elden Ring. I had a mostly good time with it, but it definitely felt like it suffered with open world bloat. Considering the scope of the game I was a little worried about how I would be able to progress through the sort of cryptic questlines that are typical of a From Software game. 

Before starting it, I saw a lot of mentions of people writing journals to keep track of things that the game wouldn’t. It actually helped a fair amount, as I could check it and refresh myself on certain things to come back to. I also thought it would be interesting to publish the journal. As I was writing in the journal to assist my own memory, this doesn’t paint a complete picture of my experience. It was unnecessary to write down the ways forward that seemed obvious. It’s also not a complete picture of the side-quests of Elden Ring, as I didn’t feel the desire to finish them all. Because of that there are a few dead ends here. I also took care not to spoil myself on the game too much, so some of this could be wrong.

To be fully clear, there will be spoilers. They also might not make sense without the context of playing the game, but I wouldn’t take the risk or reading if I was interested in something like this.

This is what I wrote in a notebook as I was playing Elden Ring:

  • Found a rat-person named Boc. They had been turned into a tree. Said something about sneaking into a cave on the shore.
  • Boss enemies roam the open world, don’t forget it. I was surprised by a rider in black who made short work of me.
  • A man named Diallos is looking for his servant Lanya, who is said to be the sort to wander around.
  • I found Boc beaten up in the Coastal Cave, saying I’d end up like him if I ventured further in. He was not wrong!
  • I saved a man named Kenneth Haight. He’s asked me to help take back his fortress. It’s south of the Mistwood. It sounds like there’s a big reward for helping him.
  • I cleared out Fort Haight. The reward was underwhelming, and my promised knighthood did not materialise. All I got was half a key. Now he wants me to find a suitable lord for this place. Let’s hope they can sort Kenneth out.
  • I spoke to a merchant about a mysterious wolf howl in the Mistwood. If I snap my fingers in the right place I may be able to speak with someone.
  • I revisited the Coastal Cave and emerged at the Church of the Dragon Communion. I’ll need to obtain some dragon hearts to learn some enticing spells.
  • At a small church of Irith, I came across a man named Thops. He told me that I needed a glintstone key in order to reach the academy. He’d also like one if there’s any going spare.
  • Sir Gideon was cold to me on my initial visit to Roundtable Hold, but after Godrick’s defeat by my hands he became very welcoming. He told me where I can find the other shard-bearers.
  • I snapped my fingers like the merchant said. A half-wolf named Blaidd showed up. He is looking for a man named Darriwill, and wants to “end his tale”.
  • I freed the Warrior Jar Alexander. He is headed to the Caelid Wilds for some “festival of combat” at Redmane Castle. Maybe I should be on the lookout for him when I take on Radahn.
  • A girl has asked me to deliver a letter to her father at Castle Morne in the Weeping Peninsula. There has apparently been a servant rebellion. The castle came into view when I was halfway across the peninsula, but then a large ballista bolt coming from that direction landed only a few feet from me. They must not want visitors.
  • Found a place called Oridy’s Rise. It’s locked. A book outside informed me I must find “three wise beasts”. There’s a ghostly-looking turtle in front, and a shallow pool with something invisible to the right.
  • Went a little north from Oridy’s Rise to find some mage-looking folks around a portal. I fought with them no issue, but then a tall warrior who knew some sort of magnetising magic gave me some trouble. I still won though.
  • I fought Darriwill with Blaidd and won. I’ve now been informed of a blacksmith in Raya Lucaria who can help me out.
  • I found the map for the glintstone key. It led me to a dragon, who I could not defeat, so I took the key and ran.
  • I came across a place called Boilprawn Shack just south of the Academy. The guy there seems friendly.
  • There was another fortress in Caelid called Fort Faroth. I didn’t stick around for long as I ran past the bat-like creatures and ghostly knights. I found the second half of that key I got from Fort Haight. I need to see how I can use it.
  • I read up on the glintstone key and figured why Thops was asking me about a spare one. It’s bound to whoever uses it first. He will have to wait as I’ve already made use of mine to get through the Academy.
  • That key in two halves took me up a lift to the Altus Plateau. In that place I bumped into someone who can read fingers. She told me about “ruins of gold” to the east and “the serpent’s sacrilege” to the west, both paths which apparently lead to sorrow. It had something to do with the “Curse of Queen Marika”, which seems ominous to me, so I should find out more.
  • Brother Corhyn has told me that he plans to leave in search of a man named Goldmask, in order to further his study of incantations. Maybe that man can help me too.
  • Fia, the deathbed companion, has given me a dagger to return to its rightful owner, without telling me who that is. D seems to know who that should be so I gave it to him.
  • That might have been a bad idea.
  • Roderika has warned me of spirits howling and wailing in fear of a curse. I apparently should be keeping my distance from something.
  • Apparently D found the “mark of the centipede”, whatever that is. I’m curious about it.
  • Iji is the name of the blacksmith Blaidd sent me to. He told me not to set foot in the Carian Manor as it’s dangerous. I must go explore it.
  • I went to Castle Morne and delivered Irina’s letter to her father. However, he assured me that he will stay until he is certain that the Sword of Morne is protected.
  • Irina has been murdered. Her father is now looking for whoever is responsible.
  • Met another woman who can read fingers in Caelid. She tells me a festival is to the south. Is this the one Alexander was telling me about?
  • I found a man in the Altus Plateau with a gold sun-shaped mask. He wouldn’t talk and kept staring at the Erdtree with his finger pointing at it.
  • Re-reading my notes I realise that this was probably Goldmask, I directed Brother Corhyn to him.
  • I met up with the witch Renna, who is actually Ranni, daughter of Rennala. She told me of Blaidd and Iji’s work with her, and mentioned another man named Seluvis. She wants me to go through the city of Nokron for her, wherever that is.
  • Blaidd says the well in the Mistwood may lead towards Nokron. I had already explored that region and found myself at a dead end.
  • Seluvis has asked me to deliver a potion to the warrior Nepheli. The last I saw of her was in Roundtable Hold, but she’s long since left the place.
  • I found her at the Village of the Albinaurics.
  • Rogier says that he may fall into a “fathomless slumber” and that it may become a problem. What does that mean? This can’t just be a euphemism for death?
  • I gave the potion to Nepheli’s father Sir Gideon. Seluvis hasn’t told me enough, and I don’t know much about Nepheli either. I’ve let Seluvis think I gave it to her.
  • Met up with Blaidd again, who tells me he also can’t find a way forward to Nokron. Apparently Seluvis may know more, but he just directed me to another sorcerer named Sellen.
  • Sellen informed me that I need to fight Radahn. I suppose this was inevitable.
  • Nepheli talked to me about her father disowning her, but mentioned how she might have been helping him to become the Elden Lord. Is this what I’ve been working towards?
  • A masked man in Liurnia seemed to have some suspicions about the Two Fingers. He offered me an opportunity to hunt those working for them.
  • I found out what’s inside the jar people…
  • I fought and defeated Radahn with many at my side. This included Blaidd who informed me that the path to Nokron should be open “where the star fell”, wherever that could be.
  • The cryer at Redmane Castle is leaving as he has business to take care of. I guess he’s free to do what he likes now as the “festival of combat” is over. It sounded like there’s a possibility of seeing him again.
  • Iji told me that the star fell in Limgrave. I’m going to need to take a look at my map. I’ll be searching for Nokron alone it seems, as Blaidd has another important task to do.
  • Rogier has fallen into that “slumber”, but he wrote a letter for me. It says that D has a younger brother who also fell into a deep sleep in an aqueduct near Nokron. It’s said that D’s brother stood before the “Prince of Death” near that spot. I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve been wearing D’s armour.
  • Miriel tells me of a statue in the Erdtree capital of Radagon’s likeness. It apparently harbours a big secret.
  • I think I found D’s brother, but he wants D’s armour. I’m not giving this up.
  • I found a mysterious blade in Nokron, which I delivered to Ranni. She’s given me a key I can now use in the Carian Study Hall. The enemies there gave me a lot of trouble before, but I’m stronger now.
  • I came across some deadly gargoyles in the aqueduct near Nokron. They were too much for me right now. I can always come back.
  • Renna’s Rise at Three Sisters opened up. There was a teleporter that took me to part of River Ainsel that I was looking to get to but struggled to reach it. Turns out patience is not only rewarded in combat, but also in exploration.
  • I found a miniature Ranni, and the real witch herself speaks through it! She wishes me to eliminate the Baneful Shadows. I did so making use of Scarlet Rot, but now I come to a place full of that disease. This is what I deserve.
  • Went up Mt. Gelmir to the Volcano Manor. Met a masked woman named Tanith. I told her I would join her, but only so I could make my way to Rykard.
  • I went past that lake of rot to obtain a ring I could give to Ranni. She said that she’d see me again “when it’s all done”. Does this mean it’s over soon?
  • Iji had some words to say about Blaidd’s fate.
  • Sir Gideon has informed me of the remaining demigods that haven’t been located: Miquella, Malenia, Ranni, and the Lord of Blood. He is not concerned with Ranni as she cast aside her great rune, but maybe he should be. Of course I’m not going to tell him that.
  • I found a letter detailing a request from Volcano Manor for a Tarnished to be hunted. I marked the location for “Old Knight Istvan” on my map.
  • The woman at the church of plague needs a gold needle to be healed. A man near Selia said I should be able to find one in the Swamp of Aeonia.
  • I made short work of a rider in black.
  • So begins an age of the stars.

Stops on My Journey – The Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Prequels

I’ve been playing through all sorts of Final Fantasy games over the past two years and part of the appeal of taking on a whole franchise is finding surprises. The great ones that haven’t stayed in the lasting conversations but turn out to be hidden gems. I don’t know if I could often expect that from a billion dollar mega-franchise like this. I certainly didn’t find that with the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles prequels made for DS and Wii.

People certainly talked about these when they came out, as evidenced by forum threads that are still available to read, but they’re not the games people continue to bring up. It’s not because they’re bad, as they’re perfectly serviceable action role-playing games. When it’s part of a brand that sees much more critically-acclaimed entries with high profile marketing campaigns, the heavy hitters are going to steal more attention. As I didn’t have experience with most Final Fantasy games around their original release dates, I was only more aware of the bigger titles. I lack the context for many of these games as I wasn’t there for them.

Right now I want to put the spotlight on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates and Echoes of Time. Both of them are built off of the same co-op action framework, the basics are almost identical between the two. As with the original Crystal Chronicles, these games involve travelling into dungeons to fight a boss at the end of them, though with a much more linear structure as opposed to the more open one the first game had. They’re faster paced games than the original too, with a more ordinary experience-point growth system. These ones also involve platforming and puzzles to mix things up. The way they play reminds me a little bit of Threads of Fate, another action RPG Square developed for the Playstation which I played for a few hours, and didn’t return to because I ended up very busy at the time. I’d like to return to that one someday.

Ring of Fates is the more traditional of the two released on the Nintendo DS. Its singleplayer and multiplayer separated into two separate modes. Those going solo can play the “story mode” which is what I went for. It’s fairly generic stuff: a pair of orphaned children going on an adventure and getting a party together that eventually defeat a villain that wants to rule the world. A surprising amount of cutscenes were fully voiced as well, which isn’t something I’d expect even from some of the bigger releases on the console (as far as I remember anyway, if you can remember a bunch of other examples I’m curious to know about them).

It’s a very easy-going game too. At no point did I feel challenged by the combat, nor was I stumped by the puzzles or platforming. In the game’s party of four, the player controls one character at a time while the others are AI-controlled. The controllable character can be swapped at any time. Each one is of a different species (those being Clavat, Yuke, Selkie and Lilty) which results in them having different gimmicks, some of them being touch-screen based considering the system this was made for. What this means is that swapping between the characters is required at times, though I only did it when it was absolutely necessary. The lead Clavat character is able to deal damage a lot quicker than all the others so I was often playing as that character. The other occasionally useful character was the Selkie as they have a double jump, which makes platforming simpler.

What this resulted in was a game that was mostly light fun. I don’t think I’ll remember the particulars of it in the future, but if the game comes up in a conversation I’m certain to say something like “yeah that one was alright”. Not everything needs to be a genre-defining classic anyway.

Echoes of Time was where I had a much rougher experience. It felt like everything was dialled up to be a bigger experience. More combat! More puzzles! More platforming! Larger levels! All of them mixed together in some ways that were fun and others that were frustrating.

This game’s dungeons feel a little closer to Zelda dungeons this time. However, they don’t feature the structure of finding items in order to solve problems. What it does have is puzzles that continue across multiple rooms with particular gimmicks to them. Also a boss key has to be found too. There are much less dungeons in this game, and instead it repeats a handful of them a few times. This isn’t much of an issue as it closes off unnecessary rooms on each revisit, and does a decent job of directing a player to new stuff. I often didn’t need to consult the game’s map.

Many of these puzzles involve pushing blocks, activating switches, or carrying items around. These don’t use any character specific gimmicks as they are mostly removed from this game. The Selkie can still double jump, but everyone else is just there for fighting. This is because the game doesn’t have a set party, it has to be created. A player can make a bunch of characters of whatever in-game species they choose, and put them together for a party of four. I opted for one of each and still ended up mostly playing as the Clavat because they still did the most damage. 

The reason for this is that the singleplayer and multiplayer sections are now combined into the same thing. I could take my created character and bring them over into other people’s games. If I knew others with the game we could have taken on dungeons together. Because I didn’t know anybody else with the game (and didn’t ask) I opted to settle with AI-controlled characters.

For some reason, those AI party members that joined me on this adventure wanted to make things harder. They don’t really do much in combat, their rate of attacks seemed exceptionally slow. They had a habit of walking into hazards that would do a lot of damage to them. During many of the puzzles that involved pushing blocks onto switches, they would often move those blocks away, or push them into inconvenient places. The game has gates that require four characters to continue progress, so I had to bring them with me. It didn’t help that combat also occurred in more puzzle rooms as the game went on, and in rooms without fighting, the game would still have plenty of hazards to hurt the party.

I haven’t gotten to the strangest part of this game. While it was released on the DS like Ring of Fates, Echoes of Time also released on the Wii and it’s the version I played. It’s such a strange port, as it just puts the two screens of a DS game on the screen, you should really take a look at it. Anything that requires the touch-screen uses the Wii remote pointer controls. There’s barely any graphical differences too, outside of higher resolution and some light texture filtering. (I’ve used screenshots from the DS version in this article as I was unable to source ones for the Wii).

Because of this a lot of touch-screen gimmicks were taken out of this game. Though they do introduce scratch cards, which were tricky to do with pointer controls, as they required a little bit of precision. They were frustrating to begin with, but I stubbornly kept trying them until I actually kept winning on a lot of them. My reward for doing so was a temporary buff that would let every character double jump, but if I used it I wouldn’t have much use for my Selkie.

It is very funny for me to imagine someone receiving this version of the game removed from all context. Without the knowledge that it’s a port of a DS game would make its dual-screen interface come across as bizarre and unnecessary. The novelty of the port certainly attracted me (it was also cheaper).

As I said earlier, these are perfectly serviceable action role-playing games. I may have found some faults with Echoes of Time, but there were still portions of that game where I was having a good time. What they’ve actually ended up being for me is stops on my journey until I get to more interesting things (I hope). That said, I’ll still be playing Crystal Chronicles games for a little longer.

One Hero’s Journey – Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition

The world of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles begins in a bad state. Everywhere is covered in a poisonous miasma, leaving adventurers joining caravans to journey in search of “myrrh”. This substance helps to fuel crystals which keep a safe atmosphere around villages. 

Eventually after a few years, a hero hears a few odd rumours that could lead them towards ridding the world of the miasma. This hero tried to get others to join them, but ended up going it alone. They had heard tales of four-person parties who spent the entire journey together (though they required special equipment). The only company this hero had was a moogle who would frequently complain about how tired they were.

Things seemed bleak for the world as only one person was there to save it. There were people the hero would come across in their journey who would only stay for small conversations. They never joined the hero on their trips to dungeons. The hero would make memories, but they were often never shared.

This is a roundabout way of me saying that the online multiplayer for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition is dead. I tried multiple times to look for games but I had no luck. It doesn’t help that Square Enix made the baffling decision for progression to be tied solely to the host player, leaving no incentive for anyone to join in.

It left me a bit disappointed, as this game feels purpose built for cooperative play. It’s a stripped-down Diablo-style console role-playing game that’s very simple to understand. Simplicity is perfect for co-operative games, it was the appeal of most of the Lego games made in the last 17 years. It made it so much easier to convince people to join in.

So many aspects of the game made me feel like I was missing out on something by playing alone. Health is displayed as a small collection of hearts, so it’s easier to parse for multiple players. The camera is far back enough to leave room for everyone to run around. Spells can be held onto to allow time for other players to combine theirs with it. Too much was purpose built to remind me that I should have been playing this with other people. 

The story even puts an emphasis on communities and groups. As you traverse the map you can run into other caravans, which almost always include multiple people in them. Anyone alone is either lost or in/causing trouble.

There are parts of this game which could annoy a group. For one it’s still a role-playing game built around character growth, which wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it used a more traditional method. At the end of a dungeon characters are rewarded a choice of individually named artefacts, which can raise stats by somewhere between 1-5 points. However, artefacts you’ve already collected can often show up, and you can only keep one of each, leading to situations where I finished a dungeon with no stat upgrades. It’s annoying enough alone so I can’t imagine it going down well in a group.

I don’t only have bad things to say about the game. The combat has a good rhythm to it, especially during bosses. I was always kept on the move, avoiding attacks and finding the good windows for hitting back or healing myself. Most of the time I didn’t feel like I was getting hit by cheap shots.

I also love how cosy the soundtrack by Kumi Tanioka feels, which the game’s colour choices reinforce too. The character designs by Toshiyuki Itahana continue the same aesthetics of the great work he did for Final Fantasy IX. The same people seem to come back for later games in this sub-series, so I am looking forward to future sights and sounds I will come across in the rest of the Crystal Chronicles.

While I was left with mixed feelings on this game in particular, that has not eliminated my curiosity for what comes next. I just hope they’re games that play better alone.

And what happened to that hero? They had almost eliminated the source of the miasma, but gave up just before doing so. They didn’t fancy the grind required to finish the job. Guess they weren’t much of a hero.

It May Continue – Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift

Getting into the Final Fantasy Tactics sub-series of games was one of the more pleasant surprises I had in the last couple of years. Initially I was a little afraid to get started with them after having tried and failed on multiple occasions to get into the original. But I pushed through and found Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions an excellent game to play (while I come across as harsh on the story in that article, I’ve come around to liking it more since). Later I reached Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which built off of the original’s mechanics in ways that helped it tell a fascinating story.

After all of that (and many other Final Fantasies in-between) I recently finished off Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (FFTA2), the last installment of this trilogy of sorts. Playing this one has cemented the idea that I should spend more time playing Tactical RPGs, as all three of these games have been a good time (though I may have to start looking to other developers as Square Enix themselves haven’t made many in the last decade).

While FFTA2 continues the vibrant look of its predecessor, I could tell very quickly that it had different priorities. Where Final Fantasy Tactics Advance tied much of its mechanics into the narrative, this game is more devoted to refining systems for a much smoother play experience. There’s less time devoted to storytelling, and what’s there is largely a redo of what the prior game was doing with much less thematic weight behind it.

In this game, Luso Clemens, a child from a world similar to our own gets transported into the fantasy world of Ivalice via an old book he found at his school’s library. The book arrives with him, and to return home he has to fill out the pages by adventuring through the world. The setup is the most like a playground these games have ever gotten, just simply do enough things until it’s time to go home. I’m over-simplifying the story a little but honestly not by much. Not many things happen and it’s disappointing. Moments which show a little personality or motivation of the main characters do take place every so often, but they turn out to be dead ends as they’re hardly ever followed up on.

However, in almost every other aspect there are a lot of improvements. There are many small updates that improve the flow of how it plays, but the biggest one was a change in how levelling up worked. Previous games would reward experience points for every action taken. For every move a small experience point number would show up above a character’s head, and if they got enough they would level up during the fight. If a character didn’t do anything then they wouldn’t get any growth. FFTA2 moves experience point gain until the end of a battle, and guarantees them for every character who takes part. Having less awareness of those numbers while fighting actually made the game feel like even less of a grind. I only needed to think about the actual fight, as it was unnecessary for me to make everyone do unusual routines in order to ensure everyone stayed the same level.

There’s also changes to how equipment is gained that encouraged me to explore the game more. All character abilities are learned from equipment (which encourages equipping many things), and most of them are gained in shops by engaging with a system called the Bazaar (which is mostly borrowed from Final Fantasy XII). Items found during, or as rewards for combat encounters can be given to the Bazaar in order to make new weapons that are then put up for sale. It meant that in order for me to build a character in a way I wanted, I had to be on the lookout for missions that would give me what I needed. It also meant that instead of fighting a bunch of random encounters in order to gain strength, I was spending more time engaging with missions with more varied gimmicks that in some cases weren’t even combat driven. That variety kept things interesting. Some of the weapons could also be gained through an auction house, which ended up being a surprisingly fun minigame to play by itself.

The presentation is nice too. Vibrant visuals at a smooth framerate pop really well. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata return from the other Ivalice games to provide some great music (even if it is mostly made up of covers of tracks from prior games).

And that last point kinda summarises what this game is. It feels somewhat like a “greatest hits” in videogame form. It’s quite fanservice-y in places, with characters showing up from other games to shout “hey look it’s me!” to the audience, and for me to go “huh cool” whenever one shows up, but not much beyond that. While it is bolstered by great combat and structure, the weak storytelling ends up with me finding the other Final Fantasy Tactics games to be more interesting. I did enjoy this game quite a lot, but I would potentially be much harsher if Square Enix had made more of these.

Screenshots sourced from Mobygames.

The Shared Dream of Saga Frontier

While the situations in them don’t fully map to the real world, there’s an implicit understanding that there is a shared logic between videogames, especially within the same genre. A constant staple of the console roleplaying game is how characters become stronger. When the player visits a previously unexplored corner of the world map or dungeon, they encounter monsters more powerful than before. In most circumstances, the more powerful the monster, the more experience points offered for defeating it, which allows the playable characters to get stronger faster.

This is mostly done away with in Saga Frontier. There’s a different sort of logic to the encounters, where this time the enemy’s strength is determined by how many battles have been fought. That gives a bit more weight to getting into fights, because it gives the impression that there’s such a thing as too much fighting.

However, it’s still important to get into battle as it’s still the main way of getting characters stronger. There’s no experience points to be rewarded. Certain statistics are upgraded based on the action that’s chosen in battle. Pick physical attacks and strength goes up. Choose to defend and health points go up. Decide on a spell and magic-related stats go up. Crucially they don’t even have to be used in battle, if the battle is won before a character gets to use their ability, they still get the reward. It’s not the experience that strengthened them, it’s simply the idea of taking part. The only thing gained from an action being used is new abilities.

It’s one of the many things that makes Saga Frontier feel unusual. That it’s using a kind of interface I’m familiar with, but the results aren’t quite the same. I would argue that everything in this game ends up giving it a rather dreamlike quality. The intense pre-rendered visual style, terse NPC dialogue, and seemingly random assortment of monsters make everything seem surreal.

But dreams are collections of thoughts and feelings, while sometimes being a seemingly random collage of events, can also be interpreted as a narrative. That’s what I found from the seven scenarios in this game. Each lasts about the length of a night’s sleep.

One scenario that has stuck with me is Red’s, which follows the rules of a Japanese superhero show. The henchmen always have to be defeated before the boss. Sometimes enemies can put themselves in a special arena to make themselves more powerful (usually a way of justifying a recurring set in shows to have less locations to film). The most important part is that Red can’t be seen by others to transform into a masked hero. It would be simple to think that you have to put Red in a party alone in order to use it, but enemies in this scenario seem to cast a “blind” status effect fairly frequently. If the rest of the party is blinded, the game smartly determines that Red should be able to transform, as no one can see him.

I should also mention that the character progression mentioned only works for one of the four types of party members: the humans. Monsters can become other monsters to get stronger, Mystics will take on the essence of defeated foes, and the stats of Robots depend entirely on the equipment. It’s possible to go on entire runs and only encounter one or two party member types. Saga Frontier is full of ideas and places you might not even take a look at.

There are a lot of moments where the game cuts things short. A sudden game over from falling off a ship. A quick defeat from being caught while sneaking. A wrap up that’s all too fast, or even a sudden ending in the middle of a boss fight. These moments make everything feel abrupt. It’s like suddenly waking up.

What’s Going On With Dungeon Encounters?

The videogame RPG was created as a bit of a compromise. They were attempts to bring experiences from tabletop games into a digital format but changes had to be made. What was initially a collaborative activity became a solo one. In this way compromise also brought convenience, as it is much easier to set up a console with a game than it is to get a group together.

From the outset there wasn’t a consistent idea of how to transfer the tabletop experience into software. Games like Colossal Cave Adventure chose to act like a virtual dungeon master by describing scenes through on-screen text to create a prototypical adventure game. Ones like Akalabeth: World of Doom chose to build a simulation using the play mechanics of pen-and-paper games as the world’s logic, which worked like what we would call a “dungeon crawler” now. 

The modern RPG standards seem to fit somewhere between those two but I’m going to put more focus on the Japanese console RPG. By reputation it’s a fairly maximalist subgenre. Lengthy adventures across worlds visiting many towns, cities and dungeons not only to battle but also to watch big story events unfold, or to take part in various minigames (that aren’t optional). As the game progresses, playable characters will be getting stronger through multiple layers of growth mechanics. While there are many Japanese console RPGs that aren’t exactly like this, they’re thought of in this way because of the efforts of a particular company.

Square Enix has a long history of making big games. Their flagship franchise Final Fantasy epitomises it. There are just so many things to do in those games. Some of them go so far that I could load one of them up for several hours without even progressing any story or getting into a single random battle. These are high budget games with a focus on variety. It’s what people want out of these games too. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with so much detail in all the aesthetics and world-building that was criticised for its lack of variety. It’s still a big game too, one of the longer games in the series, but with no towns to visit and no minigames to lose even more time in, it wasn’t what some wanted.

They must have taken these comments to heart too, as Final Fantasy VII Remake has many distractions in it. They may have taken that too far though, as this is now part one of a multi-game saga, with other mobile games to supplement it. This is the same company that took Kingdom Hearts, a mix of RPG and platformer featuring Disney characters, and made it into a massive story spanning 13 games.

All of this is to establish that Dungeon Encounters is a bit of an unusual game for Square Enix. It’s a much smaller scale game with a simpler look to it and a more focused play experience. Unlike those other games, this is minimalist. There’s also been little promotion for its release, just a couple trailers and some obligatory social media posts. A massive contrast to the release of Final Fantasy XV where the leadup to that game’s release included an animated series, a movie starring Sean Bean and Aaron Paul, and an officially licensed car manufactured by Audi. This deluge of promotional material made it impossible to ignore.

Whereas, Dungeon Encounters is apparently not notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page (so far as of writing this article anyway). The only mentions of it on that site are within lists of works on pages of the staff that worked on the game. It’s not as though unknown people worked on the game either, it was directed by Hiroyuki Ito, who designed the battle systems used in many Final Fantasy games and was also a lead on Final Fantasy VI, IX, and XII. The music was “overseen by” Nobuo Uematsu, who I would consider as one of the most famous game musicians. It seems as though even with these notable people, Square Enix aren’t doing much to push it. 

That said, Ito isn’t often in front of the public eye. Square Enix produced documentaries for multiple Final Fantasy remasters, but he is absent from the one made for Final Fantasy IX. Most quotes featured on writing about games he’s directed come from other developers, usually Hironobu Sakaguchi who directed Final Fantasy games up to FF5. Funnily enough Ito is listed as one of the directors on FF6, but in an interview with Chris Kohler for the book Final Fantasy V, Sakaguchi mentions that he still performed the same role as he did in prior games, but had his title changed to producer because he thought it sounded “really cool”. Square Enix likes to push people forward when they are brands themselves, it’s why they’ve put a lot of games onto Tetsuya Nomura, the man responsible for iconic character designs. They put Sakaguchi aside when the movie he directed, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was a huge bomb. Hiroyuki Ito is simply a person who makes games and spends less time out there promoting.

It’s not a graphical showcase like much of Square Enix’s output too. Even on lower powered systems like the Switch they emphasise graphical quality in different ways. Games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy can’t just be RPGs with old-school sprites, the company feels the need to prettify them up with modern effects and brand them as “HD-2D”.

Visually Dungeon Encounters looks straightforward. All floors of the game’s titular dungeon are rendered as grids on coloured floors, and combat encounters are simply portraits with numbers next to them and menus beneath. Events and battles are displayed on the map as letters and numbers. The game eschews the standard context-giving mechanisms of cutscenes, detailed animations, and elaborate environments. While this may give the impression of a simple game, in practice it is not.

The exploration is fairly basic: fill out the grids by walking through them and go through 99 floors. Sometimes a battle will be in the way and the rules of combat are easy to follow too. Both the playable characters and enemies have three healthbars: one that only takes physical damage, another that only takes magical damage, and the last one which only depletes once the others are empty (or if certain special abilities are used). Weapons and spells deal damage in either a fixed amount or a random number, which is clearly labelled on them. It’s a very consistent ruleset that the enemies also follow. There are a few surprises in how some enemies deploy status effects, but once they happen for the first time they become expected, as it’s routinely from the same monsters. Eventually more abilities that can be used through exploration and combat by the party can be found throughout the dungeon, adding in an extra layer of growth.

As with many RPGs that are often labelled as “traditional”, it’s the combining of all of those elements into a system of resource management that makes it compelling and challenging. It’s never a question of whether a single combat encounter is survivable, it’s whether ten can be overcome, or even more once the party is stronger. By simplifying the visuals and structure of the game it puts a laser-focus on that.

It’s also a fairly quiet game, there’s almost no music except on the starting floor and in combat. I found the combat music to be grating so I lowered its volume. It consists solely of a few electric guitars, which at the game’s standard loudness sounded too abrasive.

That lack of music, combined with there being no visible non-player characters on the maps, makes Dungeon Encounters feel lonely. If many other RPGs try to simulate the existence of a dungeon master, this game feels like they’re completely absent. The events on the map being labelled with letters and numbers in a standardised way makes it seem as though each one is being checked against some invisible reference book. It would be easy to imagine this game as an adaptation of a tabletop RPG solitaire.

I ended up thinking about trust in the context of board games because of that. Those things trust that players will follow the rules of their own accord (or even bend it to suit themselves). Videogames can’t allow for that as often, as they work using a specific ruleset that has to be followed in all circumstances (any exceptions are notable for being so).

What Dungeon Encounters does trust is imagination. So much of the game is numbers and grids, but it isn’t called Maths Problems. By including a little bit of character art, short biographies for the party members, and small descriptions for items, it lets me fill in the blanks. Swords are things that make damage numbers appear but I always think of each attack as the character moving forward to strike with them. There’s a party member that’s a large cat named “Sir Cat” and that’s adorable. I only need the picture and character bio to know that. Even the choice of enemies had me thinking more about what this dungeon must be like. What must a fight with a shark be like? The low health values of skeletons told me that this is an old place, and their bones are brittle from being buried for a long time. Also the few details shown in the environments raise questions. Ten floors down appears to be taking place in grasslands. Did I end up in a hedge maze?

The game also places more trust in mechanics to do the job. Other Square Enix games make use of a variety of elements that complement each other in order to tell stories (Final Fantasy X is an excellent example). Dungeon Encounters leaves it up to players to bring that with them, if they want to or not. Some people just like to watch the numbers go up and down. 

It’s also built for those more familiar with RPG conventions as little time is spent explaining how everything in battles works. Sometimes an enemy will show up marked as “flying” or “reflected” and while those mean the same thing as they would in similar games, without prior experience a player will learn the hard way.

It’s also very easy to pick up and play this game for short periods of time. This makes it a great fit for the Switch, as that’s the only mainstream portable system around these days. They didn’t put this game on phones, but you have to admit, playing games on phones isn’t the same as portable games used to be.

I’m actually a bit sad about the current state of handheld gaming. The Switch is technically a handheld gaming device but it doesn’t always feel like one. Many of the games made for the platform don’t suit being played on the go. I can’t imagine people getting on public transport and playing a bit of The Witcher 3 or Doom (2016). On one occasion I played Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on a train journey that lasted 50 minutes, and I spent almost all of that journey watching cutscenes that I had to finish on the platform after getting off the train.

There was a small downloadable game on the 3DS called Crimson Shroud, which was also an RPG on a reduced scale. It gave the impression of being a tabletop game by characters being rendered as models, and some actions being determined by rolling dice. The story was also told primarily through text on the screen acting as narration, almost like a dungeon master is telling it to the player. It was a neat little game, and was actually part of a collection of smaller scale games called the Guild series. They varied in quality, but I appreciated the experimentation in them. They were also fairly cheap.

Which brings me to an issue with pricing. Part of the reason it was easy to get into the Guild series was that each of those games cost around £7. Dungeon Encounters sells for £24.99, which isn’t too far from what a boxed copy of a 3DS game sold for. This isn’t a one-off as Switch games can retail for up to £60 when they’re new, and some launch games still retain that price. Handheld gaming used to be a cheaper option overall, but because the Switch is also a home console, the games are priced to match that. In this specific case it’s partially the fault of Square Enix too, as with downloadable games like this one, they don’t have to follow fixed pricing. But I just know that even with the company’s old habits of charging a bit of a premium, if this game had been released ten years ago it would have cost half as much.

My ulterior motive for writing this piece has been to put a bit more attention on Dungeon Encounters, since it’s not getting much of it from its own publisher. It’s a game I’ve really been enjoying playing and thinking about. I’ve brought it up with a few people as a good game to recommend but the price ends up becoming a barrier.

I just wish that Square Enix could put a bit more trust in the game.

Strategic Struggle – Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

This game seems like an odd one. Final Fantasy XII is certainly a fan favourite, but the sequel for the Nintendo DS seems like a bit of a blindspot for many. Many fans of the original game I’ve come across online seem a little too self-serious to have interest in its portable companion. When the thing they’re proud to shout is how FF12 is a “serious fantasy game” a more cartoony looking sequel might not be of interest.

Being a different genre doesn’t help either. Nobody came to Final Fantasy XII for a real-time strategy game, so it’s not a surprise that they didn’t fancy the follow-up. It’s not a genre I’m interested in, mostly because I’m terrible at them. However, my curiosity in what a sequel to FF12 looks like pushed beyond that and I liked… parts of it.

I don’t know if this is because I often look too much into who makes a game, but I could really feel that Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings came from a different team than its predecessor. The credited director on this was Motomu Toriyama who was also responsible for Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XIII, and more recently Final Fantasy VII Remake (as one of multiple directors). Many of his games have recurring story elements.

They usually take place in a world that’s very set in its ways. Spira in Final Fantasy X is an example of this, as the people there were stuck in a routine of battling Sin with a very specific method that wouldn’t stop harm to the world, without trying any alternatives. Eventually someone comes into the world, and through forging strong relationships helps to change the state of everything. This is much like Tidus from the same game. While he wasn’t the lead director for that, it lays a framework that’s seen in his other work. To me it’s clearly demonstrated in Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy VII Remake.

The world Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings takes place in is Ivalice, an already established setting, but for this game Vaan and his friends are sent off to an isolated continent of islands in the sky. These are populated by the Aegyl, who have been summoning monsters in order to help them in battle, at the cost of anima, a resource found in the soul that helps control emotions. These monsters were summoned so that the Aegyl could defend themselves, but by doing so allowed even worse creatures to eventually take form, leading to even more self-defence summoning. This ends up in a cycle where the Aegyl drain themselves of all emotion.

What leads to this cycle breaking is the arrival of Vaan and friends. Through working together with Llyud (one of the Aegyl), they manage to defeat the godlike being who has set all of this in motion, and end the state of this society by literally destroying the sky continent. Because of this the Aegyl regain their emotions, but they’re left to find a new life somewhere else.

It’s a very hopeful ending in that they finally have their freedom, but Ivalice doesn’t have much in the way of that. The ending of Final Fantasy XII puts a big emphasis on how the systems of the world carry on even after the day is saved. The friendlier, cartoony tone of Revenant Wings doesn’t seem to sit with this well.

Even though this is a solid framework to build a story on, what lets it down is the lack of interesting characters. There’s no new memorable ones, and those returning from the original game don’t have much to add either. Ashe, Basch, and Larsa are present but have little presence, as everything they say feels a little too functional. This all made it very hard for me to connect with the game’s plot.

After all of that, I’m still interested in what happens next with the Aegyl, and I’d also like to see it handled by the same director. In Final Fantasy X-2, he proved fully capable of handling a game about what it’s like to rebuild a world once the day is saved. I’ve enjoyed enough of his works to know that there’s still potential in it.

While I did have mixed feelings on the narrative, the real-time strategy battles that make up most of the game actually ended up being fun once I got used to them. They work on two layers of rock-paper-scissors, with three types of units (melee, ranged, and flying), and four elemental affinities (fire, water, lightning, and earth). I had a good time building teams to suit each battle, and deploying them in the right formations to deal with certain enemies ended up being enjoyable. There were times where the small screen became cramped enough that it became more difficult to micromanage certain unit types, which was annoying but mostly manageable.

The more annoying parts were significant difficulty jumps as a result of the game’s levelling curve. If you stick with only the game’s main missions which progress the story, the party will always be underleveled, which at times made this one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played for this blog. To get my levels to match, it seemed like a considerable amount of grinding needed to be done. It’s that or maybe I am even worse at real-time strategy than I assumed.

This game ended up feeling like a bizarre mashup. A real-time strategy with RPG growth mechanics. A story in Ivalice with a plot that fits elsewhere. It doesn’t quite mesh together perfectly but I can’t hate the effort. They didn’t seem to make another Final Fantasy RTS after this either, but I’d like to see another attempt.

Screenshots sourced from Mobygames.

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