Trying to understand how games work

Author Archives: Sam Howitt

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.


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.


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.


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.


One of the nice things about getting into Sonic the Hedgehog is that the community doesn’t tend to forget things. All the successes, failures, and obscurities are well documented. Strike up a conversation and they’ll have a lot to talk about (if they’re British they’ll probably insist on talking about Fleetway’s Sonic the Comic). They’ll often have stories of the first time they encountered the hedgehog.

I initially came to Sonic as a game that I’d play at the houses of friends and family. It was usually Sonic 2 or 3 and I was always playing as Tails. Eventually I bought a couple of the games myself on PC, thanks to the budget brand Xplosiv. Their releases were often found in the 3 for £10 section of Game, which made it easy for me to get more games as a child. One of the first I picked up from that was Sonic 3D: Flickies Island (the other two games I got in that deal were Sonic R and Theme Park World but those aren’t important right now).

The interesting novelty of Sonic 3D is that it’s not using polygons, it adopts an isometric viewpoint with pre-rendered sprites to make it look three-dimensional. This is probably down to it being a game intended for the Mega Drive (I’m aware of the Sega Saturn’s polygonal special stages, but those don’t feature in either version that I’ve played).

That novelty wore off very quickly when I returned to it recently, as it’s a frustrating game to play. It seemed as though developers of early “3D” games felt the need to facilitate some amount of exploration. There were more directions for travelling, so with that came more reasons to go all over the place. Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island chooses to do this by making each level a compulsory egg hunt, with the titular flickies taking the place of the eggs hidden inside the various baddies to defeat within each level.

Many classic 3D platformers use similar structures so it’s not inherently a bad idea, but the mismatching of character movement and level design is what spoils the fun. Sonic is built for speed but the levels are not. To move through a lot of narrow spaces I felt as though I was constantly wrestling with momentum. It became especially annoying whenever I had to search every nook and cranny for a flicky that I missed along the way.

While the game was lacking, I admire that even Sega is happy to ensure this game isn’t forgotten, as they’re still including it on Mega Drive compilation releases that are available on current consoles. 

There’s an unofficial “director’s cut” of Sonic 3D, which makes the game a little less tedious to play, but it doesn’t make it into a good one. However the existence of this shows that the Sonic fan community makes a habit of not abandoning games that are considered bad. Even notable trainwrecks like Sonic ‘06 get another chance. To the community, a bad game isn’t something to be forgotten, it’s a mistake which could be fixed.

This article is part of the Sonic Mega Collaboration, a collection of articles from other writers about games found in the compilation release, Sonic Mega Collection Plus. This project was coordinated by Super Chart Island, a blog covering every UK No. 1 game in chronological order which I enjoy reading.

If you’ve come from that website to read this article, welcome to PixPen! Feel free to take a look at the articles on Final Fantasy I’ve been putting together, or read about other RPGs that I’ve been covering.


This article contains spoilers.

I can remember a time where Final Fantasy XII seemed more contentious. It still was largely well-liked, but when the game came up in a room full of nerds there was always someone who would react strongly to mere mention of it. They’d usually have some point about how it “isn’t Final Fantasy” mostly because of things like the big differences in combat, or the structural changes.

The years since have been kinder to the game. I’ve seen more rankings put this game at the top, and while I wouldn’t take these as fully definitive, it does seem to signify a change of consensus opinion. It may be because of the more recently released port of the game, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which featured many changes and is the version I chose to play for this article.

That’s the version of the game that I ended up enamoured with after playing. I felt such a high with it, also declaring it one of the greatest Final Fantasy games when it was released on Playstation 4. This time around I’ve cooled down on it a little, but I still think it’s an excellent game. Playing it a second time meant that I noticed a few things that I hadn’t before.

The plot of this game is a war story (and not a particularly subtle one) about the effects of an arms race on the world. Most of the party members have dealt with tragedy related to this, especially Vaan, Ashe and Basch who all lost so much from one single event. The assassination of the King of Dalmasca by the Archadian Empire resulted in Basch losing his freedom, Vaan losing his brother, and Princess Ashe losing her father, husband, and country.

Despite what a lot of promotional material seems to show, Ashe is the central character of the story. It’s her motivation to take revenge on the Empire that drives everything forward. She is the character who most interfaces with the nethicite, the artefact central to the plot.

The nethicite is a blatant metaphor for nuclear power. In a previous war, the city of Nabudis was destroyed by nethicite. The Empire’s attempted meddling with it also caused an accidental explosion in its own fleet. These had devastating effects on the environment as well. It was initially provided by the godlike beings known as the Occuria, but the game’s villain, Vayne Solidor, sees it his mission to cut these beings off by beginning to have the Empire manufacture their own nethicite.

Throughout the game it feels as though Ashe cannot win. If she takes revenge by using the nethicite, she will only end up causing even more mass destruction. Many other options she’s given don’t feel like victories for herself, they feel more like acting in the interests of others, both man and godlike. When she gets the opportunity to destroy the Sun-Cryst, the source of nethicite, that’s when it really begins to feel like she gets a win because it also goes against the Occuria’s will.

The most striking details for me came from something completely missable: the NPC dialogue. Particularly from the people living in Rabanastre, a city in the kingdom of Dalmasca. It’s a shame that some of these conversations didn’t make their way onto the game’s critical path. More modern games may have recorded lines play out as a player passes by people, but that simply feels like passive eavesdropping. Walking up to them to initiate a conversation feels like taking an interest in their lives.

After a tutorial section elsewhere, Vayne Solidor, the new Consul of Rabanastre, arrives in the city to introduce himself. After his big speech the player is able to explore the place and talk to people. The area is divided in two, the surface and an underground area called Lowtown. Up above there’s a mix of opinions. Some people feel he might not be trustworthy since he comes from the country that defeated Dalmasca, but just as many people voice opinions that he’s going to sort the place out.

Down below in Lowtown it’s different. Many of the people there are locals who have been priced out of their own homes, barely scraping by to survive. The place has fallen into disrepair, almost out of deliberate neglect. The guards stationed around the city don’t even go into the place. The people there all don’t trust the new rulers, and some don’t even share opinions because they’re too busy worrying about their own life. A lot of this information is simply found from looking around and having conversations with people.

I feel as though it’s important to highlight this precisely because it reinforces the game’s narrative as a whole. There are also other areas with play with a similar situation, such as the Empire’s capital city, Archadia. The party members all come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Vaan and Ashe especially and Final Fantasy XII uses that as an opportunity for good storytelling. Both of them lost family in the war, but their circumstances are very different. Many upper class people in Ivalice have a lot of interest in Ashe because of her status as a princess (but many of them have ulterior motives), but Vaan had to look out for himself often. He is introduced in a scene where he fights rats in a sewer to pass the time, before having to do menial tasks and thievery to earn a living.

Vaan is the one with first-hand experience of the effect of war on poor people because of what happened to him and many other people he knows. While Ashe is the central character of the story, it’s Vaan who’s controlled in all non-combat areas. He’s the one doing all the talking to the NPCs. He’s the one hearing about their experiences. He is the one who encourages Ashe to destroy the Sun-Cryst and not use it for revenge. Even though he has lost a lot because of the Empire, he knows that when the privileged choose violence, it’s the poor that get the biggest casualties.

Stories of haves and have-nots have been done before throughout Final Fantasy, and they’ve been done well, in the case of Final Fantasy VII. The story of a thief joining with an escaped princess was also done before in Final Fantasy IX, but that wasn’t without its flaws. Final Fantasy XII does better at this because it keeps things grounded. There’s more perspectives to consider, and the villains aren’t afflicted by darkness that makes them evil, they’re simply infected with selfish ideas which they rationalise with morals. Bringing the “reins of history back into the hands of man” becomes a reasoning for the erosion of democracy.

There’s a real struggle going on in the world of Ivalice, but that wasn’t felt by me when I went to explore the world. The battles of Final Fantasy XII use a real-time system where each action takes place after a small per-character timer. It’s backed up with an automation mechanic referred to as “Gambits”, which a player can program themselves with simple if statements (for example if an ally’s health is below a certain percentage, a cure spell should be cast). With the right kind of planning it means that the game’s combat ends up playing itself. While it is nice to see a plan come together nicely, it is very easy to do so and most enemies don’t need much more than “if you see it, attack it”. There’s much more satisfying encounters in some of the game’s sidequests, but I do wish I didn’t have to go out of my way for that. For a large portion of the game I was simply running through areas on fast-forward, watching enemies fall over and picking up the loot to sell later.

That’s another thing, the fast-forward function was a later addition to this game. There’s a reason I didn’t simply write “Final Fantasy XII” for the title of this blog post. The Zodiac Age is a complete rebalancing of the game with all sorts of things changed like character progression, item placement and many more small changes. When I wrote about Final Fantasy X, I stressed the importance of how that game’s mechanics work in tandem with the storytelling. One thing I didn’t mention in that piece was that the optional Expert Sphere Grid found in later versions of the game removes that mechanic’s ties to the game’s narrative because the character’s positions on that grid are no longer tied to their relationships. I wondered how many more changes like that are present here. Though I might have had more fun and an easier time with this version, would that have meant that I missed out on a version of the game where other systems better inform the narrative?

Even the visuals have had a big overhaul in order to suit higher resolutions. While it still keeps somewhat true to how it originally looked on the Playstation 2, it’s still different. This is still an excellent looking game, with some brilliant use of lighting, fantastic facial animation and great cutscene direction but the increase in detail makes the imperfections more apparent. I suppose it’s in the nature of games moving onto platforms that they were not intended for, they do end up losing something in the process.

Before I finished Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, I made one last trip to Rabanastre. I had to have a talk with the NPCs again. Not much had changed except that Lowtown was a little more full. It served as a good reminder for what the party was fighting for.

The game’s ending initially comes across as triumphant. Vayne Solidor has been defeated, Dalmasca has been reinstated, and the Occuria’s meddling has been cut off. It’s actually more of a quiet tragedy. In becoming Queen of Dalmasca, Ashe has been forced to cut herself off from the party due to her much higher status. Life has returned to normal, but in this world normal means that the class divide doesn’t go because the bad apples have been thrown out. While the party was able to come together to avert a crisis, the systems of the world ensured it couldn’t stay that way.


This article contains spoilers.

For me there are two moments when I am most excited about a good game: when I start it and when I finish it. I get the appeal of a game I can go back to and keep playing continuously, but in my experience that usually fizzles out after a while. When I had recently played Final Fantasy XI, I found it overwhelming that the game seemed to go on forever (though that game does have “endings” to its own story arcs and ironically I wasn’t even able to reach the first one). The protagonist’s primary objective in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance isn’t to defeat a villain or save the world, it’s to end the videogame.

In this game Marche, his brother Doned, and a few of his friends from school end up being transported by a magic book into the world of “Final Fantasy”. It’s not the setting from any particular game in the series, even though the world does share the name Ivalice with Final Fantasy Tactics. The main characters are people who’ve played a game called “Final Fantasy” that is very similar to the place they’ve ended up. Within this new world the kids find that things they have wished for have been granted, and they have much more freedom here. But Marche knows that it’s just a game, and because of this he makes it his mission to end it and return home.

A tactical RPG is an excellent sort of game to tell this story. The structure of turn-based combat, the blocky terrain found in all environments, the fact that all situations have to be resolved through fighting. All of these things highlight the artificiality of the world. The job system this game has also feels more appropriate than it ever has since Marche has more freedom in this world, so he’s able to easily change his role in combat. That this game makes it much easier to unlock more jobs for everyone to change into highlights that even more. These are all systems that have seen use in many other games in the genre, but here they feel like they were purpose built for what Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is doing (it’s also similar to how Final Fantasy X used this to great effect).

However, those freedoms contrast harshly against certain restrictions which is the nature of living in a systems-driven videogame. The most blatant way in which it demonstrates this is through the use of “laws”. Most combat encounters will feature a seemingly arbitrary set of laws that will prevent certain skills or weapons from being used. They also reward other actions, encouraging a player to work those into combat as well. Marche’s school friend Mewt has some control over this world, so these regulations do fit in with a child’s idea of changing a game’s rules to suit themself. As this is a videogame, these laws work like a fundamental rule of the world and cannot be broken without making use of another system to do so. Choosing to ignore the laws will only result in progressively harsher punishments that eventually lead to losing the fight. The judges that enforce them also prevent people from being killed in combat, further emphasizing how much this is simply a game.

Fights are what make up most of this game. Any location where a fight doesn’t take place exists to either facilitate missions that lead to combat, or provide items for sale which are used in combat. After a while, no matter how fun these fights can be (which they are, I’ve had a great time playing this game) it can’t go on forever otherwise it would be fatiguing. Even children have a limit to their energy. There are also other people around from the world of Ivalice who aren’t there to fight, who often end up as victims as a result of bandit or monster attacks. The world being in a state of constant conflict for the sake of a child’s wish fulfilment is causing harm to the people that live there.

I also can’t help but view this game as somewhat reflective of the state of Squaresoft at the time. This is speculative since I haven’t come across any first-hand accounts of this game’s development. Producer Yasumi Matsuno has gone on record saying that Final Fantasy Tactics, a previous game he directed, was inspired by his own experience at the company. The company was also working on Final Fantasy XI around the same time, a game with odd and at times punishing systems that still looks like it will go on forever. Having played both games so closely together and knowing they released fairly close to each other, I can’t help but think about this comparison.

In many other contexts I could see the ending of this game as being a little weak. It moves much too fast towards its conclusion and feels a little sudden when it gets there. Within Final Fantasy Tactics Advance it makes perfect sense. This is a game about children playing and after a child spends enough time playing an adult often comes to tell them to finish. It doesn’t take a pessimistic view on the whole subject either. The game begins and ends with a snowball fight, showing that even though playtime has to end eventually, that doesn’t mean it can’t begin again.

Knowing when to stop has been a key part of my own project to play through a lot of Final Fantasy for this blog. If I simply wanted to play through all of them I could have been much further along through the games, but I took breaks when I felt as though I needed to. I’m only roughly halfway through this series, and I haven’t felt too tired from it all yet. Square Enix hasn’t stopped making Final Fantasy, and I can’t picture them stopping any time soon. I could still be playing these games for a very long time, but if I allow myself time to rest it will be easier.


Covering Final Fantasy games on this blog has been great because of how different each one is. Even with the games I don’t like as much there’s a lot for me to think about. The hardest part about writing those other pieces was cutting them down into something readable, as I could personally ramble on about all of those games for quite some time. I have hundreds of pages of notes relating to the series so far.

Now I’ve come to a game where I barely managed to muster half a page of notes. There’s just not many interesting things to say about Chocobo Racing. It’s a derivative game lacking in its own identity, which makes it hard for me to not constantly compare it to other games.

This is a kart racing game, where items litter each track which racers can use to gain advantages or hinder competitors. It’s like Mario Kart, you probably know what Mario Kart is like and if you don’t, you know someone who does. Nintendo has a cultural near-monopoly on kart racing videogames, which means that no matter how good it is, every other game in the genre has to be compared to Mario Kart, even if it’s better but especially if it’s worse. While it’s unfair on many games (Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a great game in its own right) the copycat nature of Chocobo Racing actively invites comparison. Pre-rendered sprites in 3D environments, the particular theming of the stages, and even the fonts used just scream Mario Kart 64.

It’s not a good version of that either. The characters control well enough on the race tracks, but the items are constant interruptions. Items in Mario Kart are varied and act as boosts or hazards which also help give racers behind the leader a chance to catch up. Most of the items in Chocobo Racing just stop other players from moving temporarily and can easily be used to increase the gap between the leader and everyone else.

There’s also a “Story Mode” to play here that has some amusing writing, but it’s brief and mostly acts as a tutorial for the items. Unlike in Mario Kart it’s very difficult to tell what a lot of them do by simply playing the game and seeing them in action, you have to be told. A manual that came with the game probably would have done the same thing. 

After finishing the story I was given some points which could be spent to increase statistics on a racer. Once I improved the speed, grip, and acceleration on a chocobo I attempted some races with it but I was getting so far ahead of everyone else I lost interest in playing. There was no challenge. No item could stop me (well actually they could literally stop me, that’s what they do, but they didn’t prevent me from winning).

I hate that I’m comparing everything to Mario Kart here, but it’s difficult to take this game on its own terms when they’re liberally borrowed. When I say all this I don’t mean that games shouldn’t copy from others; they should be doing it with good reasons. The strengths of games like Final Fantasy X come from building on existing RPG ideas, many of which Squaresoft didn’t invent themselves. I also don’t want to paint it as though Mario Kart is the “right way” to do things, I’m just certain Chocobo Racing has found the wrong one. All this game has done is made me think of kart racing games where I’ll have more fun. Does anybody fancy playing some Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed?


It feels weird to start playing Final Fantasy XI in 2021. There’s a 20-year history to this game that’s immediately apparent from the title screen. A version number of “30210327_1” is in the corner. Pictures representing the game’s expansions are also listed here to show off the sheer amount of stuff that’s been added in since it first came out. It’s not even over as Square Enix are still adding more. I got a distinct feeling that they will never truly be finished with this.

When I started playing it was overwhelming. There were a lot of things I didn’t fully understand, so I had to do research. It’s not as easy to just pick up and play this one, which is what I’ve managed for several other Final Fantasy games. This one is more of a commitment (a commitment I abandoned after a few weeks but I’ll get to that). Even just getting this game ready to play required more effort than usual, as I had to set up an account and also change some settings to make sure the game actually ran on my PC.

It’s not surprising why many longtime Final Fantasy fans I’ve spoken to choose to write off this game entirely. The immense scope of it gives completionists plenty of anxiety, and it still continuing to require a subscription fee is off-putting. I’ve gone through this as part of a larger project to play through Final Fantasy from the start and it’s always seemed like the one that would be too much work.

So what was it actually like for me to play this? Surprisingly lonely. One thing added into the game at some point was something called “Trusts”, which are simply AI-controlled party members which you can summon to assist in battle. This gives an impression that the game can be played alone, as trusts of many different classes can be summoned to accommodate what the playable character can’t do. They were somewhat limited in how they could help, so they weren’t a full replacement for real players. Even with that caveat they helped me make a fair amount of progress.

The game’s cutscenes also emphasize a solo nature to the game. They position every player as a lone hero, which is normal for most RPGs, but strange in a game purpose built for grouping people together. I do understand that writing a videogame where you’re told that millions of people are also doing the same things to save the world is potentially difficult, but sticking to conventions here doesn’t feel quite right.

Because the main character is also a player-created silent protagonist, it brings a much different style of storytelling compared to what I was used to with the series. The protagonist of Final Fantasy XI is effectively an extension of the player. A blank slate for anyone to project their own feelings on or roleplay with. With main characters from prior games, such as Cloud, Squall, and Tidus, I was able to see how they grew over time because I spent most of the game with them. Although some of those characters started off emotionally isolated, they weren’t always lonely because the characters that followed them gave support, both emotionally and in combat. Those games were big open doors into pivotal points in their lives. To contrast, my created character would almost never speak, and the party of trusts that accompanied me didn’t say much either.

Defined characters that develop over time exist here as the NPCs but those are still limited by comparison. I only had small amounts of time with them before having to spend many hours on an adventure before I could see them again. It felt as though I was only peering in small windows into their lives. The moments I had to find out more about people were often when they were giving me missions. Short functional scenes with a bit of character flavour.

I also didn’t find many other players when I was adventuring. There were crowds of them in towns and cities, but forests, fields, and dungeons had significantly lower amounts of players hanging around.

On the day I began playing I found another player in a starting dungeon. They were killing all of the enemies before I even had a chance to, meaning that I had to wait like I was in a queue for a theme park ride. They did apologise for this, but I didn’t know the right buttons for sending messages at that moment so I just left an awkward silence. It gave a bad first impression of the game, but it turned out this would not be a common occurrence for me. 

I also encountered another player who seemed very proud that they were controlling two characters at once. It was very bold of them to tell me through the in-game chat function. They were having the second character follow them, but I wonder if they ever tried having them in two different places at the same time. 

While it might have been more convenient for me to not come across many players, as my initial anecdote suggested, these moments highlighted how much time I was spending entirely alone.

It’s an odd feeling as many of the systems seem intended to encourage cooperation. There isn’t much in the way of tutorials and the game doesn’t always pinpoint on a map where you need to go (and the version I bought on Steam doesn’t seem to come with a manual either). I would assume that this would have encouraged players to work together in order to figure some things out back in the day. 

These days it’s become more common to share information through indirect methods such as fan wikis and Reddit. These are also a small window into the communities that still exist, and the history of the game too. Sometimes I would read a comment thread complaining about something that led to people joining forces. There were also plenty of “back in my day” posts which often brought up how comparably convenient the game has become.

I looked through a fair amount of these so that I could know what I was doing and where I needed to go. This would lead to me having the game display in a smaller on-screen window so that I could have pages up on the screen while I was playing. It could have created more distance from the game but I actually felt a little more connected to it, as it meshed well with the in-game systems.

This is more of an involved game than any of the other Final Fantasies I’ve played so far. Having to do research in order to understand the game feels like preparing for an adventure. The game itself features a few systems to make it feel that way too. Maps have to be bought from vendors, many areas have to be reached on foot (or by mount), enemies can be sized up to see if they’re safe to fight, and quest items have to be handed in using the same systems used to trade with players. What’s interesting is that they are all simply options in a menu. It evokes enough to spark my imagination without the need to recreate a physical gesture within the game to seem “immersive”.

There became a point where I started to feel comfortable with Final Fantasy XI. I was gaining levels at a fast rate. Travelling around the world was much easier to do once I was able to connect more fast-travel points. With the help of the trusts I was able to get through many encounters quite easily. Until they failed me.

I was almost finished with the base game. All that was left to do was a fight with the big bad, the Shadow Lord. A boss fight that ended up becoming a brick wall. After a certain amount of time in the encounter, he becomes immune to physical attacks. My trusts had foolishly used up all of their magic points before that moment, so they just kept trying to hit him with attacks that did no damage at all. The Shadow Lord then proceeded to slowly defeat each party member one by one until the fight was over. I tried the fight multiple times with all sorts of different trusts and it just didn’t work out. There were things I could have done to become stronger, but it was so much of a grind that I decided to give up on the game.

If anything I don’t necessarily feel that this is a fault with the game. I made assumptions that I could power through a game built for multiplayer on my own. I could have taken the opportunity to engage with the community of Final Fantasy XI but it seemed unfair for me to do so, as I was only planning on being a tourist on a short stay in Vana’diel.

It really feels as though I can’t give a fair assessment on this game as a whole because I wasn’t able to break past that wall. Things I disliked could have gotten better, things I liked could have gotten worse. So much could have been different or even the same after it, but at this point I won’t know.

Maybe if I had roped some other people in before starting, I might have been able to see more of it. For now I’m going to move on to something else.


Last year I decided to commit to playing as much of Final Fantasy as I could. It’s been a very fun journey so far but I thought it would be useful to look back at Dragon Quest, a game Final Fantasy owes a lot to. Final Fantasy wouldn’t exist without this game (though Japanese RPGs might still exist since efforts like The Black Onyx, Dragon Slayer and Hydlide predate it).

I was surprised to find that the original Dragon Quest is a fairly relaxing game. That’s partly true with some of the other games in the series I have played, but those other ones also had tense moments. Fighting Psaro the Manslayer in Dragon Quest IV was not calming in any sense. If you want something to wind down with at the end of the day, the first Dragon Quest works well.

The simplicity of the game allows for that. While it is about saving the world from some evil wizard, there’s never any tension. Because it’s a turn-based RPG the pace of the game is extremely player-dictated. While there’s artifacts to be found and a princess to be saved, there’s no pressing need to do all of that immediately. Dragon Quest’s world is a place without difficulty and deadlines.

As this game was made for older hardware, there was a need to condense the experience in a way that was easy for the system to display but still understandable for a player. This is why battles play out simply with a picture of the enemy, some stats numbers on the left and a menu at the bottom. The removal of all of this context means I can’t help but not think of it as a tense battle, but instead a contest to see who can get a number down faster. A contest heavily weighted in my favour, and increasingly so as the main character’s level goes up. Losing isn’t much of a setback either. It reduces the in-game money earned to half, but that can easily be regained.

Many older RPGs are similar, Phantasy Star is one example. But Dragon Quest is a little different. It centres on one specific location: a castle. It’s where the game begins. It’s the home of the main character. It’s where you go to save the game. It’s where you go when you lose a battle. It’s where the game ends.

Having a specific home that needs to be returned to combined with the game’s simplicity makes it play like a game a child would think up. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. If anything I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. I suppose this may be one of the reasons that Dragon Quest has lasting appeal.

It’s less like a hero embarking on a dangerous adventure and more like a child going out to play. The hero can only venture out so far, but as he grows he can go a little further. If the hero gets defeated in battle, the king tells him off like a concerned parent. When it’s time to finish playing, the hero must go home.

If you do decide to give Dragon Quest a go, just know that the more easily available ports on mobile phones and the Switch look terrible. A lot of the art in the game feels very mismatched. The environments, characters, and monsters all feel like they are drawn for separate games. It’s strange for a foundational game in a series that continues to sell large numbers gets something that looks this bad.

However you go about playing it, I think it’s worth going back onto Dragon Quest especially if you’ve been playing a lot of RPGs like myself. I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to get to it myself. 

I can easily see how this works as a foundation for many games after it, but it’s also interesting in its own way. It’s a shame that a lot of discussion of this game in particular seems to stop at how “old-fashioned” it is. This game didn’t always exist as being a predecessor to something else.

You could probably finish the whole thing on a lazy afternoon anyway, so it’s worth a shot to find out what you make of it for yourself.



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