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.
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.
I would not have anticipated playing fifteen Final Fantasy games in a year but I did it. The really astounding part is that’s not even the halfway point, they made so many of these and they’re still making more! I’m certain that if I do catch up at least a few spin-off games will come out before then.
Anyway that’s the future. This article is actually going to be about something from twenty years ago: Final Fantasy IX. It’s interesting that it is the twentieth anniversary year yet I haven’t seen a lot about it online. It was likely overshadowed by Final Fantasy VII Remake coming out. Let’s talk about the old game.
Final Fantasy IX
There were a couple of things that really struck me when I started playing this recently. The first is that visually this game holds up really well. It seems that while FF8 seemed to take more steps towards realism, 9 goes in the opposite direction and opts for a more exaggerated cartoonish look that plays more to the strengths of what consoles at the time were capable of. It’s nice and colourful, with some great character designs that make it really easy to tell what they’re like at a glance. If you were to only show me a silhouette of them i could probably tell you which one it is (something that gets much less likely with newer games).
The second thing is that battles in Final Fantasy IX are so slow! There is a lengthy load before they even start, and the meters that fill up before a turn starts are just so slow. Normally in these games I would have the battle speed on a medium setting, in this case I put it to the highest possible speed and it still felt like it could have gone faster. The amount of time between picking actions to do on turns and characters actually doing them was long enough that I had sometimes forgotten what I’d picked. Even the battle music has a slow buildup to account for the amount of time it takes to begin. I assumed that this was initially because it was pushing the Playstation to its limits since there’s now four characters in a party instead of three, and a lot more visual effects going off. However it just seems like that slow speed is just baked into the game, as my recent playthrough was on a version that came out last year.
This wasn’t too much to push past as in a lot of other ways this game opens really strongly. This era of Final Fantasy games always seems to start strongly with a lot of forward momentum. There’s new area after new area, with the right amount of intrigue, and new characters come in who are endearing immediately.
One of Final Fantasy IX’s biggest strengths is the cast of characters. Pluckish protagonist Zidane brought a good amount of energy in. Princess Garnet and Freya keeping confidence after horrible tragedies they experience won me over so much. Vivi is one of my favourite characters that they’ve ever put in one of these games. He already began timid and anxious at the opening, so when he found out he was created to be used as a puppet with a short lifespan and used that as forward motivation instead of completely giving in to despair, it was inspiring. It’s even reflected nicely within Zidane’s character arc when he finds that he had a very similar origin.
As strong as the characters are it really feels like a lot of them don’t have enough to do. Outside of Zidane, Vivi, Steiner and Garnet it feels like the game just doesn’t do anything with the rest of the cast past their initial setup.
There are also just characters that aren’t very good. Amarant only ever seemed to exist in my mind when I can see him on the screen. Kuja is a dull villain and largely a mishmash of what came before him.
That last point is indicative of one of the biggest issues that I had with Final Fantasy IX; I’ve seen so much of this before and those older games did it better. It goes with how the game treats these characters in that it brings a lot of these ideas in again and just doesn’t do anything with them, and sometimes damages things that could be better.
Mist being used as a resource to power machines used for warfare that’s destroying many cities is reminiscent of the lifestream in FF7, where it’s misuse is harming the world. However much later it’s found to be something that’s pumped in by a villain from another world to specifically be used in war machines so that the world will destroy itself. Conflict being influenced by a shadowy figure behind the scenes in order to colonise a world is an interesting idea to base a villain on but it ends up disrupting other things that came before it.
Take Garnet, a kind princess who had to reckon with her mother Queen Brahne using heavily destructive magic in order to take over the world. It was something that really drove the story forward, but the resolution to that part of her arc is really unsatisfying. Brahne wasn’t known to be a conqueror by a lot of people, and many cities didn’t have a lot of resources to defend against her because they just didn’t expect this. When she eventually died against Kuja, on her deathbed her greed and lust for power dissipated almost as if she was being influenced by someone else. Finding out that actually the Queen should be kind and someone else did makes it feel that Garnet’s (and also Steiner’s) initial internal struggles were a waste of time.
And the game is content to continue to waste time in the moments just after that. It takes a lot of time to show Garnet becoming the Queen of Alexandria, and what could have been an interesting break to focus a little more on developing characters instead becomes a tedious wait for the plot to start happening. It’s around this point where I felt like I was burning out on the game.
This game having a more traditional character-growth system didn’t help with that. It felt like the games before this were getting really experimental and allowed for decent parties to include any character. In Final Fantasy IX, because every character is now a specific class that has a specific role in combat, I have to include specific characters to have a useful party. The only things that made them stronger were experience points from combat. I missed having to manage things like materia and junctions to build what I wanted. There is an ability system where new moves and passive buffs can be gained from equipment, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s an interesting way of making all sorts of equipment useful, but abilities don’t allow for much experimentation as the best moves are ones that do more damage/healing, and the best passive buffs are ones to resist status effects (which could be achieved in prior games with equipment).
My feelings on these systems seem really weird to me now, especially since those are what made the game feel safe to me after I struggled with Final Fantasy VIII almost a decade ago. Now I have a lot more experience with RPGs feeling safe isn’t the only thing I look for. I don’t say this to mean that games shouldn’t be easy to understand, because I appreciate those too and have a great time with them. It’s just that in this case the rest of the game didn’t make up for it, and I was also already finding comfort in the stranger mechanics of prior games.
However there’s still some good stuff here, like the music. It’s an enjoyable soundtrack, but for many of the tracks it feels like there’s something like it in a previous game that sounds better. That said Nobuo Uematsu always has some tracks that just sound weird, and his music in that style is especially fun here. Gargan Roo has a sound that I think is best described as “squelchy”. Black Mage Village creates a walking-pace-tempo town theme out of instruments normally used for 90s rave tunes. The music that plays in the Crystal World being a foreboding rendition of the prelude is also a nice touch.
There are also some other things I really liked, such as the way it showed how other minor characters went about their lives. Sometimes it would cut away to them just to give scenes without the main party present, and at other times a button could be pressed to see more of them (what the game calls the Active Time Event system). It was just cool to see things like guards at their post discussing pickles, poor children plotting to overthrow nobles and a few more. The side-quest to deliver letters to moogles was also neat as the letters would usually include their reactions to events taking place in the game.
When I was planning this whole thing out, I made a decision very early on to play this game on the Nintendo Switch, mostly to be consistent as I’d be playing a few others in the series on this platform. Sadly it’s an imperfect version of the game as it did crash for me a handful of times, but luckily there is an extremely generous auto-save that meant I never lost more than a few minutes of progress. There were only six crashes over the course of 45 hours of playing the game, but so far every other game I’ve played for this has had zero. The extra speed-up option in this one goes at a higher speed than the ones in the ports of FF7 and 8. It’s fast enough that it’s almost unusable at times. The filters put onto the game’s CG backgrounds make them look a bit strange as well, especially when they move as the upscaling filter seems inconsistent on each frame of animation.
Those are mostly nitpicks however, as in other ways it’s a better port than FF7 and 8. It’s not as ridiculously loud as the others and sound effects are often truer to how they were on the original platform. FF8 and 9 featured a reverb on all sounds on the Playstation, which was created using the sound hardware of the console. As current platforms don’t have that, FF8’s port had no reverb and all sound effects sounded much too tinny. In FF9 they actually managed to rework them so that there is reverb included, so it was hard for me to tell if the sounds were more detailed compared to the prior games, or just that they didn’t mess things up this time. The way the character models looked was nice too. The higher resolution textures on them seemed to make them look painted on. Combined with the cartoony proportions and exaggerated movements to emote, it made them look a bit like wooden puppets which fits in really well for this game.
So to close on Final Fantasy IX, I didn’t like this game as much as some of the others. That isn’t me calling this game bad either, I really did enjoy myself while playing it, I just think it could be better. Playing Final Fantasy games mostly in order honestly casts a harsher light on this one. However the weather is now getting much colder, and coming inside after a walk to sit down in a warm room to play this was appreciated and felt very cosy.
If you’re someone that really likes Final Fantasy IX in particular I think you should give Dragon Quest games a go. That’s not meant to be a dig, just I think you’d enjoy them, and I like having excuses to talk about how good Dragon Quest IV is, a game that I’d like to play again some time (no I’m not doing a Playing Dragon Quest from the Start project).
It’s going to be a bit of time before I play anything with Final Fantasy in the title, probably not until the new year. Some other games are coming out, and I do want to take a bit of a break. I do have a few other FF articles planned for the rest of this year so don’t worry about that. If you haven’t read any of the others I’ve written you can check them out here.
Just look at it, it’s really nice and colourful. Did I mention it’s ridiculous? I’m really having a lot of fun with it though.
There’s not a lot I can say about it, it would be easier for you to go play it yourself, or take a look at the Youtube video below if you’re feeling a bit lazy.
It’s a smartphone game, so it won’t cost you a lot.
People aren’t always aware of what goes into making a game, unlike with movies and all of those making of documentaries you can find.
It’s made personalities out of the people in the film industry, something games don’t have as much. Which is a shame because they have some nice people.
There’s nice people here at Mythic Entertainment, they must be nice to invite me, a total stranger who has had little experience writing about videogames professionally.
Paul Barnett, the General Manager had decided to invite me after finding this blog through my twitter account. It seemed rather surreal at first, initial emails I had sent back sounded a little hesitant as this is not something I’ve ever had the opportunity to do.
After encouragement from university lecturers I took up the offer and made the long trip to America to visit the studio.
The studio takes up the top floor of a big tall building, I kind of expected them to have their own building. Bearing in mind this is the first time I have been to one of these places, it is quite possible the potential scale of an environment like this may have been over-inflated in my imagination.
There’s also a lot of press about game development being an incredibly stressful job to work in with no free time, this place didn’t come across like that at all, it came across a bit more relaxed and friendly. Sure all the people working there have their own things to worry about and stress over, but they all found the time to talk to me, and they were all very polite.
Mythic are usually known for their MMORPGs Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online, but recently have transitioned into developing for mobile platforms.
They had managed to sit me down with people of very different disciplines. Designers, quality assurance, art, localisation, audio and video. It was fascinating to learn more about all the kinds of work that goes into making a game.
Nick LaMartina, director of Audio and Video at the studio came across as incredibly passionate about his work. Currently he is working on the Ultima Forever soundtrack, and since the game is taking influence from Ultima IV it’s encompassing that game’s score into it’s own.
Different devices come with different challenges. Working for iPad, art now has to be scalable, Art Director Pete Lipman was telling me. Large amounts of detail could be lost when players zoom in and out, something artists now have to account for.
These people aren’t going to get so much recognition, even though they put so much work into everything. It’s a shame really.
This is of course a place where videogames are made, and I got to see some raw, unfinished prototypes. I’m used to seeing games as fully functional experiences, so it was a little different to be playing something incomplete.
With prototypes, I learned that you have to understand not everything is going to be perfect. You can come across a bug, or find that something hasn’t been quite implemented yet. What they show off are ideas that could eventually be put to good use. I’ve been made to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t really talk about everything I have seen, some of that might not even see the light of day.
One game I did see was Ultima Forever, an interesting take on Ultima for the iPad. It feels like it could be a good attempt to bring PC-style Action-RPGs onto a tablet. I took up quests and explored a few dungeons, as you do in most RPGs. It controlled rather well on the system, holding your finger on the screen to move the character, and tapping monsters to kill was fun and simple to pull off.
I got some time as the Warrior and Mage class, the Warrior being your usual hit-things up close strong man, and the Mage preferring to attack from afar.
The structure of dungeons did intrigue me as well, intending to be more bite-sized affairs around 5-15 minutes in length, as opposed to the gargantuan length dungeon raids in most MMORPGs that can last hours.
I had a great time at Mythic, and another opportunity to do something similar in the future could be very fun indeed. It was interesting to learn about what goes on backstage, see games that most of the public don’t know about yet, and speak to the people behind them as well.