Trying to understand how games work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


I have a bit of an odd relationship with Mega Man. I’m generally fascinated by the series but I haven’t enjoyed a lot of the games. In the past I’ve made attempts to get into the classic platformers like Mega Man 2 and found that they aren’t for me. The 90s-anime look of the Mega Man X series appeals to me more, but even then the only ones of those I’ve actually put time into are X4 and X7.

Eleven-year-old me adored Mega Man X7. I don’t think I could think of a game as being bad back then, only that some just seemed very difficult. I just didn’t have big expectations for what a game should be like in three dimensions, as I only had a console capable of playing 3D games for a few months at that time. The only way I could manage to get through the game as a child was by using a cheat device.

That led to me getting Mega Man X Command Mission later that year, which I played, didn’t finish and my copy has sat on various shelves for about 16 years. There was a lot more novelty about an RPG being made out of a platformer back in the mid-00s. Nowadays it’s more of a surprise when a game doesn’t feature some kind of RPG growth system.

This is a full-on turn-based RPG that doesn’t carry over many mechanics from the platformers it relates to. Instead it’s more concerned with moving the characters and aesthetics into a new genre. More thought was put into how X and Zero work as RPG party members, rather than how something like jumping and shooting would work.

That said, this game is full of missed opportunities. A lot of it feels underdeveloped, from repetitive combat to paper-thin characters. I didn’t have particularly high expectations for Mega Man X Command Mission, but I was surprised by how disappointing it was.

Narratively it’s very strange. X and friends have to fight against a group called the Rebellion Army. Why are they rebelling? I don’t actually know. Their leader Epsilon talks about pursuing nebulous goals like some sort of sentient motivational video. To fight them X joins a group called the Resistance, which may have been their second choice for a name as Rebellion was already taken.

The game also doesn’t take advantage of the fact that there’s a party with seven characters in it. Outside of their introductory stages, most of them seem to barely appear outside of combat.

It’s all told with an exceptionally Canadian-sounding dub of low quality, which strangely enough I actually liked. It’s a specific sort of bad game voice-acting which you just don’t hear anymore. The professional quality of acting in games seems to have gone up a lot in the last couple decades, which sadly means that a bad performance is often a dull one rather than a weird one.

Even with that to keep me mildly fascinated, I ended up bored because of how the game played. Combat is extremely repetitive, which wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it wasn’t exceptionally button-mashy at times. One of the healing moves requires such an excessive amount of analogue stick-twirling that it was hurting my wrists. It was unavoidable due to how limited other means of healing were.

There isn’t much excitement to the exploration either, as most places consist of futuristic warehouse corridors. It all blends together so that no area can stick out in my mind.

However, the movement is really fun. The one major thing that this game takes from Mega Man X is the ability to dash. I never stopped dashing to move around as it has a good amount of control and covers a good amount of distance without losing momentum. It’s a nice thing to keep fidgeting with over the course of the game.

Some of the complaints I have could be thrown at other RPGs that I like, but the difference here is that there isn’t much to tie it all together. The aspects I like work in isolation. The dash is fun and the voice-acting is silly but those don’t build on anything else. It’s also much more difficult to ignore the things I don’t like surrounding that.

Playing this game has actually been worthwhile. It’s made me think more about what I like about videogames, and how I’m able to express that. I would be more annoyed if I only played this to pass time. Even though I had some issues with Mega Man X Command Mission, it was nice to find some joy in it.


This article contains spoilers for both Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2.

At the end of Final Fantasy X the world has dramatically changed. Sin is no longer a constant threat and major organisations have fallen apart. The game doesn’t actually do much to show you the results of that. A big speech is given and the game ends.

So Final Fantasy X-2 shows very quickly how the world has changed. For a start this isn’t the mostly linear journey like the preceding game. Almost every area is open to be explored from the beginning, which felt a little overwhelming to me.

Yuna, the summoner from FFX, is now a “sphere hunter”, one of many in search of ball-shaped recorded videos showing Spira’s history. Most sphere hunters seem to be doing it for the sense of adventure found in hunting for these items. Yuna started because she received a sphere showing someone who looked like Tidus, who died at the end of the last game.

But how has the world of Spira changed materially? This game has a reputation for being seen as the “fun and frivolous one”, but I was surprised by how bleak it actually seemed from the start. Things have gotten better in some ways (less people are dying from random monster attacks), but it doesn’t feel as though much work is being done to improve the world in other ways.

The Mi’ihen Highroad, a place many summoners walked down, no longer has anyone travelling on foot. When Yuna and the party walk through it, people remark how strange that is. Most travel across it is now done by hovercraft, which costs money. The place is now also patrolled by sentry machines which are supposed to take care of monsters, but haven’t had the best history of safety, and at one point start attacking people.

The former final stop on a summoner’s journey, Zanarkand, is now a tourist hotspot. People travel from all over the world to feel like they’re going on an adventure. There are even treasure chests for sale. The Zanarkand of the old Spira was a very traumatic place. It was the place where many summoners would go to die in order to maintain the lies of Yevon. Now it has been transformed into a theme park.

These are only a few examples. Industry and commerce have moved into places previously dominated by religious dogma, and haven’t proven to be a good replacement either. Factions have been set up with the intention of taking places for themselves. The villain of the game is a victim of a war that took place 1,000 years ago who feels unhappy that the world just hasn’t changed enough.

But it isn’t beyond saving. Final Fantasy X-2 actually has a much more positive and optimistic outlook on all of this, it just makes one thing very clear: it takes a lot of work to fix everything. Yuna looks around at the world and sees that not many people are doing anything to save it, so she feels she has to.

Yuna can stop the dangerous machines at the Mi’ihen Highroad by dismantling them. Yuna can reduce the level of tourism in Zanarkand by encouraging wildlife to breed. Yuna can resolve conflicts between others. It genuinely takes a lot of work for a player to do this and most of it is optional and can be easily missed.

I ended up burning out on it and only resolved a fraction of the problems. Partly because in some cases I couldn’t because of something I missed at an earlier stage. This is all tracked in-game by a completion percentage. I’ve been told by many that to achieve 100% on the first go, a guide needs to be checked considerably often.

Areas have to be visited several times over and over. After a while they get boring to travel through, as most of them retain the same structure as seen in Final Fantasy X, so very few of them have something new. The straight-line structure many of these places have doesn’t suit repeat visits well, and the music that plays in them is annoying and repetitive.

Battles got tiring too. They initially seemed interesting, as they brought back the Active Time Battle system from older games, and also included mechanics that built off of it being in real time. For one example, if party member attacks happen around the same time, they can become a combo which increases the amount of damage done. Eventually my party became powerful enough that I didn’t need to think about that, and I spent most combat encounters on auto-pilot.

It doesn’t feel like these sorts of annoyances are in conflict with the game itself. It’s all things that make it feel as though Spira is very resistant to change. Yuna’s personality also seems to provide context for the game structure too, as she seems to have taken on Tidus’ desires to actively provide help to people, even if it requires a detour.

Putting in all of this effort pays off too. Do enough work and Tidus will be brought back to life. The only way to unlock the game’s perfect ending is by achieving 100% completion (of course that’s not the only way to actually see it, thanks Youtube). This adds on an extra scene which is a conversation where Tidus tells Yuna that there’s a possibility he could still disappear again. This also underscores that they have to actively work to keep things how they want them, much like how Yuna did for the rest of the world.

Playing through Final Fantasy X-2 was a strange experience for me. I wasn’t really enjoying it so much in the second half. When I finished it, I began to put everything together and really appreciated what it was doing. In writing this piece I actually grew fonder for the game. Maybe I’ll like it more on a second go with all of this in mind.


This article contains major spoilers.

The first playable moment of Final Fantasy X put into perspective a lot of what this game does for me. Main character Tidus has to make his way to the big blitzball stadium, he’s the star player for the Zanarkand Abes so he needs to be there on time, especially since it’s a home game. When he almost reaches the stadium he has to push through a crowd to get to it. When this game came out it was a very impressive moment, the crowd reacted to the player’s movement like a real one would react to a celebrity athlete. It’s nearly a 20-year-old game now so the graphical spectacle didn’t hit the same way but I still found something surprising.

I had actually put my controller down when I got to that part. I can’t remember why exactly but because I hadn’t pressed any buttons for a short amount of time Tidus pushed through all by himself. It makes sense of course, there’s no reason for him to be stuck in there being mobbed by fans. It could have been something they put in because people testing the game were spending too long playing with the crowd or couldn’t see where to go on smaller TVs, but it doesn’t just feel like a functional moment. It feels like the character is doing something he reasonably would.

If you take a reductive look at Final Fantasy X, it’s a role-playing game like many others. You control a party of characters  as they explore many locations with random bouts of turn-based combat and light puzzle solving serving as interruptions. Every so often there’s a boss or a cutscene too. That could just be a description of several other videogames. What sets this apart from others is how thoughtfully put together many of its aspects are. The game’s systems and structure are closely intertwined with its character writing and worldbuilding.

So what’s that world like? After that opening moment, Tidus only gets to play in his big blitzball for a short amount of time before it’s attacked by a giant monster that sends him 1,000 years into the future. Completely lost in this new world called Spira, he eventually meets a party of adventurers led by a woman named Yuna. She is a summoner, one of many on a pilgrimage to destroy Sin, the monster that attacked Zanarkand earlier. Tidus joins them as one of Yuna’s guardians.

The party’s journey is one that’s constantly moving forward. It’s one many other summoners and their guardians have taken. Most have failed and some have succeeded, but Sin always comes back. It’s a very linear journey, moving from one place to the next without going back. There’s no reason to backtrack as the path to defeating Sin is always forward. Save points also fully heal the party on approach, meaning that there’s very little reason to return to a town. All of that helps the game to move forward at a good pace. It also gives a real sense of adventure because every step forward takes the party further from where they started and into somewhere new.

Summoners also have another job, which is to send the souls of the dead to the afterlife. If this isn’t done and they remain for too long, they will turn into fiends, which are the monsters often encountered in random battles. It gives good reasoning for why the strength of monsters increases as the party gets further through the game, as in later areas summoners and their guardians are more likely to have died, and the ones that made it further are likely to be more powerful.

But what about the biggest monster of them all? Sin is an embodiment of grief; a source of mass destruction and constant reminder of all that has been lost. Even Sin’s origin itself is a way of dealing with loss as it exists to preserve a society which is long dead. Grief and loss is something all of the characters experience. It’s what gives the party motivation to move ahead.

Almost all members of the party have a different experience with loss and a different way of dealing with it. Yuna lost her father at a young age and wants to honour him. Tidus also lost his father at the same age but wants to forget him. Wakka lost his brother Chappu and uses his religious beliefs to help guide himself through mourning. Lulu was also close to Chappu and was previously guardian to summoners who died on their pilgrimage, but she chooses to hide her feelings. Auron saw his friends die trying to defeat Sin and wants that to never happen again. Because of this and the time they spend together, the party gets closer to each other.

Those relationships come through in the game’s cinematic direction too, though a more appropriate phrase would be televisual direction. During cutscenes the camera feels closer than it often did in prior Final Fantasies and its movements don’t seem very intricate. It does give more of a TV drama vibe, but that only serves to further highlight how friendships develop. It’s noticeable when looking at the blocking throughout the game too. The party members seem to initially have scenes in pairs: Tidus and Yuna, Wakka and Lulu, Auron and Tidus. There’s also an early section of the game that takes place on a boat, and to find everyone you have to go through different rooms. As the game progresses further more scenes happen with bigger groups. When the party eventually reaches the ruins of Zanarkand towards the end of the game, they all sit together at a campfire.

Another means in which it demonstrates growing friendships is through its character growth system, the Sphere Grid. It looks like a board game map where many of the spaces provide stat upgrades and abilities. It’s an abstract system to show how characters learn to fight and how they learn from each other. Each character starts off in their own section of the grid upgrading stats and learning abilities that seem tailored for them, before eventually having to move into other sections and gaining skills from the others.

The placement of characters even correlates to how they feel about each other. Tidus and Yuna hit things off very quickly when they first meet and later fall in love with each other. If you follow Tidus’ standard path on the grid, it links up with Yuna’s multiple times. Wakka and Lulu have known each other for a long time too, which is why their paths are close together too. Auron watched Tidus grow up, so they’re next to each other. Kimahri is able to go onto other characters’ sections faster than any other, mostly down to his skill at mimicking others’ abilities. Interestingly the quickest one for him to get into is Tidus’, likely because Kimahri keeps a close eye on him around the start, as he doesn’t know him as well as the others.

Plenty of RPGs have relationship mechanics in them these days because of the popularity of games like Persona (which isn’t an originator itself, but certainly a trendsetter). The thing that tends to irk me with Persona’s friendship systems is that they feel very transactional. You put enough points into a relationship and eventually they will give you something that will make progressing through the game easier. The difference with the Sphere Grid is that it’s not a relationship mechanic, it’s one that happens as a result of relationships.

It’s really cool to see this all play out in battle too. At the start of the game most of the characters are best suited to fight specific enemy types. Once they get more powerful through the Sphere Grid they can start filling in for others. By the end of the game I was only making use of three out of the seven available party members, which I could only do because of what they learned from the other four.

So now I want to focus on one character in particular: Tidus. They made the right sort of protagonist for this kind of RPG. He’s got a very energetic curiosity for the new world that he recently came to and a tendency to get easily distracted. His good nature also results in him taking the party with him to help others off the beaten path. When they all reach the Mi’ihen highroad they hear about a monster called the “Chocobo Eater” which is causing trouble in the area. Tidus says that they should help get rid of the monster because it’s “the right thing to do”. The Chocobo Eater isn’t an optional boss but this is a character moment that justifies the tendency to get sidetracked from the journey like many RPG players do.

It’s also shown through blitzball as well, which is a minigame that plays out very similarly to rugby or football. It’s something that’s likely on Tidus’ mind a lot, as every save point comes with an option to “Play Blitzball”. During portions of the game where playing blitzball isn’t possible, the option still shows at a save point, just greyed out. Even when he can’t play he still thinks of it. 

But the reason he starts playing it is because he is helping out a struggling team, the Besaid Aurochs. The first playable match is very difficult, it’s set up so that it’s almost impossible to win. I lost but I couldn’t leave it at that. While there is a whole system of recruiting players to build a better team, I chose not to engage with that and stick with the original team. It made sense to do this, as this game is all about sticking together. Turns out the game supported this too as I ended up winning multiple leagues.

However blitzball is a distraction, both in the fiction and in the game design. It is popular in Spira simply because it allows people to take their minds off of Sin. I was having a lot of fun with it myself, but there was a journey I had to continue with.

One thing I was wondering about while playing the game was why none of the party really gave much resistance to the many distractions they were dragged along to. It’s because they didn’t want to accept the end result of the journey, something which Tidus didn’t know from the start. Going along with the pilgrimage through to the end and defeating Sin results in the summoner dying. None of them want Yuna to die as every single one of the party members has a close relationship with her. 

Yuna has a quiet determination to do what she wants, but even she doesn’t want to rush to the end right away. I think about the often misunderstood laughing scene where Tidus and her make fools of themselves. It’s a sweet moment of them stopping to have fun with each other. At the end of that she says she wants her journey to be “full of laughter”. She wants plenty of time in her journey to stop and appreciate the friends she has around her. All of this recontextualizes the standard pacing of an RPG, as it just feels right to have these people stay with each other a bit longer. I’d feel guilty if I chose to rush to that conclusion. It’s no accident that the Calm Lands, an area where more side content begins to crop up, comes soon after a scene where Tidus and Yuna’s romance deepens.

But they find a way to defeat Sin forever where Yuna doesn’t die, but Tidus and Auron go instead. Because of what they’ve gone through with Yuna they don’t tell anyone until it’s too late. Things would just slow down and Sin can’t be left alive. Of course the player is told long before they all are, so you could choose to continue at a slower pace if you wanted.

The importance of slowing down even extends to the music. The Hymn of the Fayth is a motif that recurs throughout the game. It plays at important moments such as when Yuna gains more summons to fight with, when important characters are introduced and when big decisions are made. There’s also a track that sounds very similar to it called The Travel Agency, which plays during visits to certain inns where the party decides to stop and rest. It doesn’t have the exact melody, but it’s very close, almost like a reharmonized version with some of the timing changed. During some parts of the song I could hum the Hymn over it, and it sounded like it belonged. It helps to highlight that moments where the party stops are just as vital.

Of course so much of the music is excellent, though I near enough say this about most Final Fantasy games anyway. It’s all music that fits together perfectly, but surprisingly from three composers who manage to keep their tracks distinct from each other. Nobuo Uematsu keeps true to the dad-prog sensibilities that he is best at. Masashi Hamauzu bolsters beautiful melodies with sustained harmonies that give great depth to his tracks. Junya Nakano layers many melodies to create more atmospheric pieces that sound wonderful. Of course three people working together with their own strengths is true to this game (sorry that is a bit cheesy).

All of these aspects would serve to strengthen a standard JRPG story about friendship and coming together to fight a big bad guy, but there’s a bit more to it than that here. So much of the themes of the game centre around death and grief, so by having a lot of details that put the character relationships to the front it makes all of it hit much harder. They’re only able to make progress in the game by confronting their own fears of death and of losing friends. The Sphere Grid shows that the impressions these characters leave on each other are long lasting. When Tidus disappears at the end after giving Yuna one last embrace, it’s a powerful moment because I saw those characters grow in multiple ways. I know he won’t be forgotten.

Final Fantasy X is such a holistically designed game. Each element of it has me thinking about how it interlinks with others. It’s not as though the sum is greater than its parts because those parts are fantastic. The characters are great, it still looks very nice, and the battle system is so much fun. There are some exceptions to this (I would never like to see the chocobo minigames again), but still so much of these things come together to build an excellent game.

There are so many things about this game I could talk about, but I feel as though that would bloat out the article and it would be less focused. It’s just like how there are so many things to get distracted with travelling across Spira, but at some point this has to end.

If you liked reading this, why not check out other pieces I’ve written on Final Fantasy here!


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Immediately after releasing my last article about Final Fantasy VII, I was eager to dive into more of that universe. For this article I played:

  • Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII
  • Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

I was very interested to see how Square Enix would expand on the world of Final Fantasy VII, but sadly I think they did a poor job. I had a decent amount of fun with one of the games though, so it wasn’t all a waste of time. Let me tell you more about my time with them.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII

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So this is the only one of the games set after Final Fantasy VII.  Specifically it takes place after the movie Advent Children, and focuses on the side character Vincent Valentine. It’s funny to me that they chose to base a game on him, especially when it’s possible to go through the entirety of FF7 without meeting him (I didn’t miss out on him though and he did turn out to be very useful). Yuffie, another previously optional party member, shows up frequently as well so I guess they also saw the humour in that.

This is actually the first ever game with Final Fantasy in the name that I ever played. Since I had ended up watching Advent Children, and even though I didn’t really understand it I thought I could get away with playing the sequel game. It looked darker and edgier than what I was used to, the crimson colours and 15 age rating on the box made it look so (near enough every main FF game has a 16+ age rating on it now though so it’s not distinct any more). I had not long finished Kingdom Hearts II, and my only other exposure to Japanese RPGs were Pokemon, Golden Sun, and Unlimited Saga (which was a nightmare game to try to understand when I was 11 years old).

What this also ended up being was one of my first exposures to third-person shooters, because it turns out that this game is a hybrid of that and an RPG (back when it was novel for RPG elements to be in a game and not just an aspect of all major videogames). It has an incredibly generous auto-aim option because I would imagine they were expecting players unfamiliar with the genre to play it. It also has mouse and keyboard support, which is very strange to see on a Playstation 2 game.

It seems as though Square Enix were inspired by Devil May Cry here, since it is an action game that runs at a very smooth 60 frames-per-second (something I tend to associate more with games made by Capcom or Konami). Vincent Valentine’s Limit Break ability is changed to be something more like Dante’s Devil Trigger, the cutscenes feature some very stylish looking action sequences, and there’s even a rail shooting segment towards the end. This game makes no attempt to hide its inspiration.

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While it’s nowhere near as good as Devil May Cry, I still was enjoying myself with it. I have a bit of a soft spot for this kind of PS2 action game, even if it isn’t greatly put together. The shooting doesn’t feel awful to do, but I found it very difficult to avoid taking damage. There were plenty of healing items available that it never became much of a problem, I found this to be a very easy game. At the end of every level I could choose between experience points to upgrade Vincent’s stats or money to buy items and upgrade guns. This meant that I did have to think a little about what I really needed to focus on, but also it didn’t come across as the harshest system since this option is also presented upon death as well. In the end putting points into guns didn’t seem to matter too much, since in the final level I was just given an extremely powerful gun that defeated almost every enemy in a single shot.

In terms of plot it actually feels so far removed enough from Final Fantasy VII that I couldn’t really get annoyed with it. Vincent gets wrapped up in a fairly ordinary save-the-world kind of plot here, it is somewhat generic. Essentially an extra-secret branch of Shinra called Deepground just wants to destroy the world in the same way that Sephiroth wanted to. Dirge of Cerberus actually feels more like a spin-off because it puts the spotlight on characters who weren’t the main focus of the original game. There’s a bunch of new characters here too, but they’re forgettable.

There is some stuff in this game about how Vincent has the power of Chaos, some sort of demon-like thing that appears to possess him. Much is said in the cutscenes about how he is really struggling to control that power but it never comes across when playing the game. This is the Limit Break ability, it can be initiated at will from the press of a button, and can be controlled just like a normal videogame character. I wished that it was something weird and uncontrollable, it would have made for something a little more interesting.

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The end of the game actually brought to mind another spin-off game about an edgy side character with guns, Shadow the Hedgehog. That’s a game I somehow managed to finish twice as a teenager (don’t ask me how, I tried playing it again a few months ago and couldn’t stand it). Vincent transforms into a superpowered form and fights through enemies while a heavy metal theme song plays. Shadow the Hedgehog does the same thing, but I can’t really say one’s ripping off the other since their Japanese release dates are only a month apart.

There’s some very good music in this game. Masashi Hamauzu is a composer who’s great at creating atmospheric music through how he uses chords and while I wouldn’t say this soundtrack is the high point of his music-making, I still really enjoyed hearing the music as I was playing this game. What I like about the music is that it feels somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII’s music, but it’s not overbearingly drowning in motifs from that game. It’s more like music built in the same key, rather than recreations of older tunes.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII is very short compared to most of what I’ve played for this, it took me less than ten hours to finish it. It’s interesting as a weird curiosity to see how Square Enix tried to create a then-trendy action game but it’s far from being a great one of those to actually play. If you’re only after a third-person shooter, or Playstation 2-like action game, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

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I’m open to the idea of prequels, since one of my favourite games, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, is an excellent example of one. Sadly I didn’t enjoy playing Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII as much, it ranks for me as quite possibly the dullest Final Fantasy game I’ve ever played. The combat is boring, the story is baffling, and the music is annoying.

How the game actually plays is my biggest problem. There’s some action-RPG combat here that would be mostly serviceable if it wasn’t for another odd addition. Battles have absolutely zero tension in them because of a weird slot machine system that is constantly rewarding huge bonuses to HP, constantly healing and also providing extremely powerful attacks. All of this was out of my control, the slot machine is constantly spinning automatically throughout combat, often interrupting everything to fill up the screen, occasionally presenting a flashback cutscene as well. I’m okay with games being easy, it’s not as though I’ve found many Final Fantasy games to be difficult, but this one is being ridiculous. 

I also recognise the irony with my frustration here when I wished for Dirge of Cerberus to have some elements of control being taken away in relation to his demonic powers. This system is not what I would have had in mind.

Level ups are also seemingly determined by it too, which is such a bizarre decision. There’s also equippable abilities that can be strengthened via this system. It’s rather frustrating to work with, because I don’t feel like I’ve worked towards getting these, it just feels like I’ve won them in a slot machine. 

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Combat on its own mostly feels like a slowed-down Kingdom Hearts. Zack can be moved around a 3D arena, and attacks and abilities can be initiated from a command menu. It seemed to work okay most of the time, though it’s supposed to auto-target the nearest enemy but sometimes Zack would run off to attack one on the other side of the screen instead. It’s an odd choice because positioning is a key aspect of the combat, since hitting an enemy from behind does double damage. This was a little harder to pull off when I was at the game’s whim for who Zack is attacking.

There is actually one fight in the game that I thought was pretty good. It took place on a bridge and if Zack was pushed to the edge of it, the game was over. Because I had focused on increasing physical attack power, it meant that I had an interesting tension between using long ranged spells that did less damage, or moving in closer to hit harder and also risk getting hit by the enemy. I’d probably be a lot more forgiving of it all if there were more interesting gimmicks like this.

A lot of the game involved running through small, empty environments to go between combat encounters and story cutscenes. There’s no stopping in towns because all shops can be accessed via the pause menu at any time. It’s pieces are very bite-sized in the way that a lot of portable games used to be, owing to it being made for the Playstation Portable. At save points extra missions can be accessed, which usually take about five minutes each to finish. None of them are particularly interesting, it’s just more small pieces of game that could fit into short gaps like a commute.

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There’s also some occasional minigames that crop up, and most of them are awful. I thought Final Fantasy VII had some rubbishy ones but they are so much worse in this game. My least favourites have to be the seemingly impossible stealth sequence, and a sniping one that controls terribly. They’re rather jarring as well since they seemingly pop up out of nowhere, as if the game is just being interrupted by something else.

The presentation of this game doesn’t do it a lot of favours. Environments mostly being made up of small corridors shown through a camera that sticks close to the controllable character just makes them feel tiny. It’s not as though Final Fantasy VII actually had massive areas that took considerable amounts of time to walk through, it was able to use fixed camera angles in order to make them appear bigger. Junon Airport was an area that seemed massive before now looks tiny in Crisis Core.

A part that really suffers because of this is the Nibelheim incident, originally depicted in a flashback in FF7, which I had highlighted in my last blog post as a really effective sequence. What was previously a quiet and unsettling journey beneath a mansion is now turned into an extremely generic RPG dungeon full of enemy encounters. The camera work in the cutscenes is much worse too, as it fits in some recreated shots that have much less going on. There’s a shot of Sephiroth where the camera is moving away from him instead of him getting more distant and it just comes across as passive. It also shoe horns in its own new characters in ways that just feel clunky.

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All of the brand new plot developments added into this game are bad and at times confusing. I found it really difficult to understand the motivations of the new characters. It seems like the game is setting things up for Zack’s former mentor Angeal to betray everyone and then he just kinda doesn’t? It’s weird. Genesis never feels like he actually belongs in the game. It feels like so much of the plot could still happen without him, but he’s there because it seemed like they were setting something up to pay off in a later game which never happened.

I couldn’t stand a lot of the music here as well. There’s a lot of covers of music from Final Fantasy VII that aren’t great, and a lot of the new music sounds incredibly repetitive since a lot of it is playing around a single motif. A lot of the battle themes are metal music that I found incredibly boring. It’s also almost inaudible when played off of a PSP speaker, so to actually hear it you’d need headphones.

This isn’t a very good game, but if I played it when it came out in 2008 I reckon I would’ve loved it. I was 15 then so probably the right age to get really into it, maybe I would be nostalgic for it and be a little more forgiving. However, I played it now and I found it to be incredibly lacking.

Final Thoughts

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These games, the movie Advent Children, and a bunch of other things make up what Square Enix likes to call the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII”. It’s ended up being a failed experiment to be honest. While I did have a little amount of fun with Dirge of Cerberus, everything else in it was bad.

There’s some tie-in novels that are also part of it that I’ve been reading and they’re terrible. They both attempt to bridge the gap between the original game and Advent Children and somehow manage to make every character even worse. I wouldn’t recommend reading them.

The impression that I get is that everyone responsible for all of this media has no clue what made the original game great. Kazushige Nojima, the man responsible for a lot of the writing in these things, was also one of the main writers on the original as well. I think that it makes it very clear that the team efforts on Final Fantasy VII were more likely what made that game better.

Even though I do have all these complaints, my excitement to play Final Fantasy VII Remake has not diminished at all. That will be what my next article is about, please look forward to it!

Don’t forget to check out the Playing Final Fantasy From the Start hub page to see the rest of the articles I’ve written about the series!

Until next time!


 

2019-02-01_16-57-46Not enough people talk about how Capcom did strong work bringing their creepy horror vibe across more games than just Resident Evil. Devil May Cry uses it well, but I specifically want to highlight Onimusha: Warlords. It’s not really a horror game, it’s an action game where you spend a lot of it doing flashy moves with a samurai sword, but it brings in some of that atmosphere to heighten tension.

It also has tank controls, and now that I’ve actually played a game to completion that features them alongside fixed camera angles, I think they work. I used to be someone who didn’t really like them and felt like they were a limitation brought only by the era they came from. However Resident Evil 2 on the N64 had the option to turn them off in 1999, and Capcom kept making games using control scheme long after others with similar camera perspectives didn’t.

The argument for tank controls in Resident Evil is that they make it harder to avoid enemies in tight spaces, but Onimusha doesn’t really have that, it’s just the game’s method of travel. Dodging an enemy is easy since there’s a lock-on ability that lets you strafe around them, and most attacks can be simply blocked by holding down the guard button. There’s also plenty of offensive options available to deal with the bad guys: sword swings have a wide range around the character; magic abilities can almost fill the screen at times; and you also get an instant kill move (which can’t be used on bosses, and neither the game or manual will teach you how to do it).2019-02-01_17-00-30Well if the tank controls don’t add any tension to the game what’s actually there? There’s not much in the way of good characters. Samanosuke is a bland hero without a personality, Princess Yuki only exists as a damsel in distress, and the bad guys are evil because they’re demons I guess.

What’s really good about Onimusha is the combat. Strafing around an enemy doesn’t feel like it moves too far or too little, weapons and magic attacks have the right amount of heft to them, and while it is at times incredibly tricky to do, actually pulling off an instant kill move is greatly satisfying. My only issues are towards the end, where a few late game bosses have too much health. It doesn’t feel like it makes them harder, the fights just begin to drag a little.

It’s all tied together with Resident Evil-style lock and keys, which require a small amount of backtracking. This really works here as it allowed me to familiarise myself with the spaces for combat, and the game managed to mix things up by changing up enemy placements each time I had to go back through an area.2019-02-01_16-59-24This isn’t a particularly scary game, but it has a very creepy atmosphere. Most of the game is spent in a palace taken over by demons, it’s suitably dingy, dark and some areas have a fleshy, almost gigeresque feel to them. There’s also a roughly twenty minute stretch of deadly puzzles that I wish the game did a little more with. One was a little unfair as failure did result in instant death, but there was a fun kind of pressure to it.

There’s not a lot to get sick of in Onimusha: Warlords, it only took me five hours to finish the game so everything came at a quick pace. If you have a fondness for Playstation 2 action games, like myself, then I would seriously recommend giving this one a chance. I’ve got the sequels to be checking out soon and I’ll be sure to report again if they’re just as interesting.

 

 



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