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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.