If you read about Squaresoft’s videogames from the 1990s, they are often framed as the trendsetters. Final Fantasy is still the lens many assess the entire Japanese role-playing game genre through, but that’s just what happens when it’s the most popular example. That didn’t stop them with looking to other games for inspiration with Parasite Eve. In this case, survival horror.
I’ve made multiple attempts to play Resident Evil games of that era, and I’ve found them very difficult and stressful to get through. It’s not because of the tank controls, since I’ve enjoyed games that feature those. It’s because of the specific tensions those games created, usually through limiting resources. Fighting every enemy was discouraged because it could have resulted in taking more damage or wasted ammo. Even saving was a limited consumable resource. Limiting an in-game item activates my tendency to hoard them, meaning that it extended the time I took between saves, which resulted in heightened anxiety because if I lost the game I would lose a lot more progress.
Parasite Eve doesn’t have that tension, because it approaches things from an RPG-first perspective. To really highlight that difference, fighting as many enemies as you can is encouraged here, because doing so will actually increase resources. Both genres are about seeing how far your resources can take you, it’s just that a lot of RPGs give more opportunities to farm for them.
What Parasite Eve does retain from horror games is tone, atmosphere and the level of violence they have. It’s not a scary game, but there’s a lot of body horror present. An organism known as Eve has managed to gain control over the mitochondria found in human cells, causing people to spontaneously combust or melt, and turning animals into grotesque mutations (which mostly act as the game’s stock of enemies to fight). NYPD officer Aya Brea, the playable protagonist, is immune to all of that.
This means she can go into places where others can’t, so most locations she visits appear mostly empty until a random battle starts, and you can’t talk to the monsters. Tight spaces and close up camera angles serve to heighten the sense of loneliness this all brings. Setting the game in New York during Christmas also contributes to this, as it’s typically a time when people get together. Seeing the game’s imitations of real places with small amounts of festive decorations and zero people around conveys a real sense of isolation. Sometimes the transitions between camera angles doesn’t quite match up with the direction of travel, meaning that at times Aya will possibly turn back and go back to the previous screen by accident. While it is a minor practical nuisance when moving around, these small stops manage to suggest a little anxiety about pushing forward.
The one thing that the makers of this game seemed to also have some fear over is guns. Seemingly because she’s part of the NYPD, Aya comes across many firearms she can use to face off against all enemies. While guns are used to solve many of the problems found in the game, there are characters there to specifically lament the increasing militarization of the police force. But that’s all it really amounts to, a few characters that are sad about it. It would have resulted in an entirely different sort of game if it fully decided to commit to that as an overall theme, but that may have been interesting.
Ultimately Parasite Eve is a game that’s made to be fun to play. It’s a stripped down RPG without any towns, shops or places to rest up. There are some interesting quirks to its real-time turn based combat. Aya can freely move around the combat arenas to dodge enemy attacks, and once her turn meter has filled up the player can choose to take the turn at any point. This is because committing to an attack can leave Aya vulnerable to be hurt by the enemy, so it’s best to learn the enemy patterns and find the right opportunity to strike without taking too much damage. That’s something that could have brought more tension but she can take quite a lot of hits, which isn’t what people usually mean when they say playing horror games of this era feels like controlling a tank. Aya’s special mitochondria immunity powers seem to give her the standard suite of RPG magic spells like Heal, Haste and Barrier. I also really love the music in the game, but it often goes for dance house more than haunted house.
There’s nothing quite as bizarre as playing a game like this, where a city is made empty because of a deadly biological threat, during a real pandemic. While the danger is considerably heightened in Parasite Eve (nobody’s bursting into flames from the virus as far as I know but people are still dying), just seeing media where an immediate effort is made to remove citizens from danger can’t stop me thinking about the real world. It makes me wish more effort was taken in the reality.
They made two sequels to this game, and I don’t know much about them except that a small fraction of games media people that I followed were not happy about the most recent one, The 3rd Birthday. I’m eager to find out for myself soon enough.
I’m currently putting together a series of articles chronicling my time throughout Final Fantasy. Sometimes I’m going to stray from that and play something that isn’t really part of that series, but there’s still some connection to be found to it and I want to write about it. These connections form more of a scenic route on my journey, and while I hope to look at these without making too much comparison to those other games, I’m still carrying the thoughts and feelings I picked up along the way.
How strong the connection Vagrant Story has is somewhat arguable. It’s made by the same team as Final Fantasy Tactics, and is supposedly set in the same world, but outside of similar aesthetics and articles mentioning such, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. There’s also the fact that this game isn’t called “Final Fantasy: Vagrant Story”. For larger corporations like Squaresoft names are often chosen in relation to marketing, so it’s clear with that messaging that they wanted to distance this game from that branding.
I can see why they did this, as it ended up being a very difficult game for me to parse from a play perspective. I actually gave up on this one after around ten hours because I hit a brick wall. What was initially fascination with such peculiar role-playing systems eventually became frustration with something that I lacked the patience to have it work for me.
Before I really get into that I just want to set up what Vagrant Story is for those unaware. This is a medieval-fantasy action RPG with only a single playable character, where most of the game is set in dark dingy dungeons broken up with combat and the occasional platforming puzzle. That protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent in pursuit of a cult leader in order to resolve a hostage situation.
In terms of how the mechanics of this game play out, it’s like they really thought about how something like Metal Gear Solid would map to an RPG. This isn’t a stealth game, but a lot of work is done to emphasize Ashley’s lone-wolf nature, it really sells the feeling of being an agent in enemy territory where nobody is there to help and all resources have to be found on-site. The circle button is also used to confirm menu decisions in both of those games, but that’s a rather frivolous comparison. It’s funny because some older games press articles covering this game would call it “Medieval Gear Solid” and I used to think that was a rather simplistic comparison, but now it seems somewhat appropriate to me.
There’s no levelling up and very small amounts of stat growth throughout the game, so character growth is heavily weighted towards equipment that has to be found. This was the source of my struggle with Vagrant Story, as especially with weapons there were just too many things for me to mentally juggle. It wasn’t simple enough to just have big strong weapons, certain enemies are only weak to specific kinds of weapons, and even with that it also has to be trained on that particular type of enemy as well. I thought I was understanding the way things worked, but then I’d go into a boss fight and it felt like trying to demolish a house with a teaspoon. If I had the time and willpower for it, I would have probably gone back to reassess my equipment loadout, but I don’t as doing so seemed like it just wouldn’t be interesting. It’s a real shame too because I like everything else about the game.
The presentation is dripping with atmosphere. Everything is dark and cramped, really contributing to the feeling of a hostile environment. This is one of the few games Squaresoft made entirely in 3D graphics for the Playstation, and the jittery nature of polygons on this platform really emphasizes how fragile the spaces are, like they’re ready to collapse in an earthquake at any moment. It’s something that screenshots can’t give a good impression on as it looks better in motion.
There’s also incredible direction on the game’s cutscenes, with a real kinetic energy that would eventually be used to strong effect in Square’s Playstation 2 efforts like Kingdom Hearts. Characters speak in an old-English-style dialect, which is not as insufferably overbearing as it was in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, as it still maintains clarity and good pacing. I was so invested that even after giving up on the game I took to Youtube to watch the remaining cutscenes.
Some of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s best composition work is in Vagrant Story. The music can really sell the foreboding atmosphere, but it gets to its best during the bosses where it brings in the oppressively percussive sound that he excels at. Some of it might not work as well as tracks to listen to on their own, but taken in with the rest of the game’s atmosphere they really shine. Sometimes there isn’t even music playing, and all that’s left is the quiet creepy sounds of the dungeon, bringing the real loneliness of the game to focus.
I know that comparisons to Dark Souls are tired at the best of times, as it’s overused to just mean “game that is difficult”, but I think there’s a case to be made here. This is a game where quiet spaces are punctuated by bombastic boss battles. When I first tried to get into Dark Souls, I bounced off after about ten or so hours on the first few attempts since I didn’t really understand how it all worked. Eventually everything just clicked for me and I ended up playing through to the end and loving it. Maybe some other time Vagrant Story will click for me.
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.
Since writing my last piece about this series, the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI came out. I thought that when I played Final Fantasy VII Remake I was seeing the trajectory of the series going forward, I was expecting more games exactly like it.
The trailer for FF16 surprised me, since I genuinely thought that game didn’t exist yet. I wrongly assumed that all resources for Final Fantasy were being pushed towards FF7 Remake and the subscription MMORPG FF14.
What also surprised me was that it seems to be going in a dark medieval fantasy direction, not unlike The Witcher or Game of Thrones. Any time someone would try to pitch Final Fantasy Tactics to me they’d mention Game of Thrones, which I assume is shorthand for “fantasy story that’s a bit darker than other ones”. I might as well start talking about that game.
Final Fantasy Tactics
To me this game really doesn’t give off the feeling of an HBO prestige TV show fantasy, or an epic fantasy series of novels. The Game of Thrones comparison didn’t seem to apply to how it looks (though it is apt in other ways considering this is mostly a game about schemes involving royalty).
Theatre seems to feel like the biggest influence on the presentation and story structure of Final Fantasy Tactics. Each location where story sequences a battles play out looks like a small set that would have been built on for a stage, since the lower-fidelity 3D graphics really give it the impression of something that’s been handbuilt. Large scale events such as battles take place out of view, as the game places more importance on how the characters on those sets react to it.
That last aspect is crucial as not only does it come across as an interesting stylistic choice, but helps convey the distance characters have towards those in the larger conflicts, in more ways than one. I need to provide a little context before really getting into it.
The game mostly follows the story of Ramza Beoulve, a man born to a noble family who ran away from them to become a mercenary. Ramza is a goodhearted person who wants to save people, and by saving a kidnapped princess he gets caught up in the middle of a much bigger problem. The king has recently died and two dukes are working against each other to have a line of succession that allows one of them to become a regent, since the king’s own heirs are apparently too young to rule by themselves. Whether the princess lives or dies favours one duke more than the other. This eventually leads to war, which allows other organisations to take advantage of the situation and increase their own power, such as Ramza’s old friend Delita, the Church, and later on a collective of monsters who were banished to another dimension. Ramza ends fighting to stop the latter two plots, as they really do seem to be much more immediately dangerous.
I’ve had to simplify a lot of that to keep it concise, so many things happen over the course of this game.
So back to the use of distance. It’s easy to see how it’s used for the scheming nobles, since they see themselves as above common folk. A large part of the first chapter is used to convey this through a flashback to Ramza’s past. One noble, Argath, talks at length about how much better the upper class are than those who are from “lower birth”. Delita is derided for it as he was from a lower class family and was only adopted into the noble lifestyle. Most nobles see the poorer classes as pawns to be used in their own schemes and wars. This is shown at the start of the game, where a war had just recently finished. The soldiers who fought in it were cast aside without any aid for their future, and some had to become thieves and bandits in order to make their living.
It also feels as though Ramza and his group of fighters are distant from the war as a whole. A lot of the battles they fight in themselves are smaller skirmishes off to the side of them. However, the direction their story takes eventually grows distant from the themes of the initial chapters. The initial focus on how terrible nobles can be diminishes over time, and it becomes about Ramza and crew fighting off a group of strong monsters who want to use this war to resurrect their leader. It’s a real shame that it takes what could have been a really interesting premise to follow through on and abandon it for a stock fantasy story.
There’s also the problem of Ramza’s friend Delita who, through deceit and murder, rises from being a commonder to becoming the next king. I don’t think I’d have too much of a problem with this if it was an isolated story, but it exists here to contrast with Ramza’s goodhearted nature and noble birth. It feels as though the game wants to say that it doesn’t matter where someone is from, it only matters how they act, which sure… I guess that’s true to some extent. However much more loudly in my head I hear the game saying poor people can be just as troubling and damaging to the world as the rich ones. It makes me think a little about the real world. The real world where the divide between the rich and poor is only growing. The real world where over one-third of all carbon emissions come from 20 companies. Honestly Delita comes across as not so believable in this fantasy game.
It’s a good thing I really enjoyed the tactics game aspect. It didn’t end up being as ridiculously difficult as I was expecting it to be. That was because I’ve tried and failed to get into this game before a few times, to the point where I almost accepted that I’d never be able to play through this game. I wasn’t used to the idea of unit positioning in a tactical RPG, so I’d move a party member to the wrong place and they’d be killed very quickly. I was not aware that the game’s random encounters would scale with the highest levelled party member, making it much more difficult for my carelessly levelled party, full of characters at different stages of growth.
Being aware of how these things worked this time around was a huge help, but I also did a lot of grinding so I had a fairly powerful team anyway. It’s interesting because I still had to be mindful of the combat during that, since if I wanted to level up a class with lower defensive stats I would need to have them avoid the heavy-hitting enemies that often get thrown into random encounters. By the time I started to lose patience with the grind, the difficulty level of the game dropped off a cliff anyway, since I was given an extremely powerful party member.
The sudden drop in difficulty was partly appreciated as it wasn’t as mentally taxing as some segments of the game were. While I found the game much easier than my prior attempts, it didn’t stop me running into particularly troubling battles at times. However it coinciding with the drop in quality of the storytelling meant that I was just able to get through the rest of the game at a much faster pace.
I suppose I can’t talk about any of these games without mentioning the music, which has a much different tone compared to the rest of the series. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata put together a soundtrack that ranges from quiet and foreboding themes, to bombastic battle tracks. The latter ended up being much more memorable and effective for their use of staccato rhythms and harsh percussion to really ramp up tension (though admittedly this is a trademark of Sakimoto’s work, also used to great effect in Radiant Silvergun). Even though I did enjoy listening to those tracks, they did start to wear thin eventually. The heightened bombast was often at a high level, to a point where if I listened to the soundtrack by itself I wouldn’t as easily be able to determine what the “important” battle themes were.
I don’t really have as much to say about this one, as I did some of the other games. I thought about putting it together with a few more games but that would have meant waiting much longer to get this one out as these games are taking much longer for me to play. I spent over 60 hours on this one. It’s the most time I’ve spent on a game since starting this project, and I expect that some in the future will take me even longer.
That still hasn’t diminished my excitement for moving forward since there’s some very cool games coming up after this. The next couple are Final Fantasy VIII and IX, so I’ll essentially be revisiting some of the first few games in the series I played.
Also to go back to the Final Fantasy XVI trailer, I didn’t find it very exciting. It seems a sort of game I’d probably pay much less attention to if it didn’t have Final Fantasy in the name. There’s something in the back of my mind that thinks they’re holding something back, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.
Until next time!