Just recently I finished Elden Ring. I had a mostly good time with it, but it definitely felt like it suffered with open world bloat. Considering the scope of the game I was a little worried about how I would be able to progress through the sort of cryptic questlines that are typical of a From Software game.
Before starting it, I saw a lot of mentions of people writing journals to keep track of things that the game wouldn’t. It actually helped a fair amount, as I could check it and refresh myself on certain things to come back to. I also thought it would be interesting to publish the journal. As I was writing in the journal to assist my own memory, this doesn’t paint a complete picture of my experience. It was unnecessary to write down the ways forward that seemed obvious. It’s also not a complete picture of the side-quests of Elden Ring, as I didn’t feel the desire to finish them all. Because of that there are a few dead ends here. I also took care not to spoil myself on the game too much, so some of this could be wrong.
To be fully clear, there will be spoilers. They also might not make sense without the context of playing the game, but I wouldn’t take the risk or reading if I was interested in something like this.
This is what I wrote in a notebook as I was playing Elden Ring:
- Found a rat-person named Boc. They had been turned into a tree. Said something about sneaking into a cave on the shore.
- Boss enemies roam the open world, don’t forget it. I was surprised by a rider in black who made short work of me.
- A man named Diallos is looking for his servant Lanya, who is said to be the sort to wander around.
- I found Boc beaten up in the Coastal Cave, saying I’d end up like him if I ventured further in. He was not wrong!
- I saved a man named Kenneth Haight. He’s asked me to help take back his fortress. It’s south of the Mistwood. It sounds like there’s a big reward for helping him.
- I cleared out Fort Haight. The reward was underwhelming, and my promised knighthood did not materialise. All I got was half a key. Now he wants me to find a suitable lord for this place. Let’s hope they can sort Kenneth out.
- I spoke to a merchant about a mysterious wolf howl in the Mistwood. If I snap my fingers in the right place I may be able to speak with someone.
- I revisited the Coastal Cave and emerged at the Church of the Dragon Communion. I’ll need to obtain some dragon hearts to learn some enticing spells.
- At a small church of Irith, I came across a man named Thops. He told me that I needed a glintstone key in order to reach the academy. He’d also like one if there’s any going spare.
- Sir Gideon was cold to me on my initial visit to Roundtable Hold, but after Godrick’s defeat by my hands he became very welcoming. He told me where I can find the other shard-bearers.
- I snapped my fingers like the merchant said. A half-wolf named Blaidd showed up. He is looking for a man named Darriwill, and wants to “end his tale”.
- I freed the Warrior Jar Alexander. He is headed to the Caelid Wilds for some “festival of combat” at Redmane Castle. Maybe I should be on the lookout for him when I take on Radahn.
- A girl has asked me to deliver a letter to her father at Castle Morne in the Weeping Peninsula. There has apparently been a servant rebellion. The castle came into view when I was halfway across the peninsula, but then a large ballista bolt coming from that direction landed only a few feet from me. They must not want visitors.
- Found a place called Oridy’s Rise. It’s locked. A book outside informed me I must find “three wise beasts”. There’s a ghostly-looking turtle in front, and a shallow pool with something invisible to the right.
- Went a little north from Oridy’s Rise to find some mage-looking folks around a portal. I fought with them no issue, but then a tall warrior who knew some sort of magnetising magic gave me some trouble. I still won though.
- I fought Darriwill with Blaidd and won. I’ve now been informed of a blacksmith in Raya Lucaria who can help me out.
- I found the map for the glintstone key. It led me to a dragon, who I could not defeat, so I took the key and ran.
- I came across a place called Boilprawn Shack just south of the Academy. The guy there seems friendly.
- There was another fortress in Caelid called Fort Faroth. I didn’t stick around for long as I ran past the bat-like creatures and ghostly knights. I found the second half of that key I got from Fort Haight. I need to see how I can use it.
- I read up on the glintstone key and figured why Thops was asking me about a spare one. It’s bound to whoever uses it first. He will have to wait as I’ve already made use of mine to get through the Academy.
- That key in two halves took me up a lift to the Altus Plateau. In that place I bumped into someone who can read fingers. She told me about “ruins of gold” to the east and “the serpent’s sacrilege” to the west, both paths which apparently lead to sorrow. It had something to do with the “Curse of Queen Marika”, which seems ominous to me, so I should find out more.
- Brother Corhyn has told me that he plans to leave in search of a man named Goldmask, in order to further his study of incantations. Maybe that man can help me too.
- Fia, the deathbed companion, has given me a dagger to return to its rightful owner, without telling me who that is. D seems to know who that should be so I gave it to him.
- That might have been a bad idea.
- Roderika has warned me of spirits howling and wailing in fear of a curse. I apparently should be keeping my distance from something.
- Apparently D found the “mark of the centipede”, whatever that is. I’m curious about it.
- Iji is the name of the blacksmith Blaidd sent me to. He told me not to set foot in the Carian Manor as it’s dangerous. I must go explore it.
- I went to Castle Morne and delivered Irina’s letter to her father. However, he assured me that he will stay until he is certain that the Sword of Morne is protected.
- Irina has been murdered. Her father is now looking for whoever is responsible.
- Met another woman who can read fingers in Caelid. She tells me a festival is to the south. Is this the one Alexander was telling me about?
- I found a man in the Altus Plateau with a gold sun-shaped mask. He wouldn’t talk and kept staring at the Erdtree with his finger pointing at it.
- Re-reading my notes I realise that this was probably Goldmask, I directed Brother Corhyn to him.
- I met up with the witch Renna, who is actually Ranni, daughter of Rennala. She told me of Blaidd and Iji’s work with her, and mentioned another man named Seluvis. She wants me to go through the city of Nokron for her, wherever that is.
- Blaidd says the well in the Mistwood may lead towards Nokron. I had already explored that region and found myself at a dead end.
- Seluvis has asked me to deliver a potion to the warrior Nepheli. The last I saw of her was in Roundtable Hold, but she’s long since left the place.
- I found her at the Village of the Albinaurics.
- Rogier says that he may fall into a “fathomless slumber” and that it may become a problem. What does that mean? This can’t just be a euphemism for death?
- I gave the potion to Nepheli’s father Sir Gideon. Seluvis hasn’t told me enough, and I don’t know much about Nepheli either. I’ve let Seluvis think I gave it to her.
- Met up with Blaidd again, who tells me he also can’t find a way forward to Nokron. Apparently Seluvis may know more, but he just directed me to another sorcerer named Sellen.
- Sellen informed me that I need to fight Radahn. I suppose this was inevitable.
- Nepheli talked to me about her father disowning her, but mentioned how she might have been helping him to become the Elden Lord. Is this what I’ve been working towards?
- A masked man in Liurnia seemed to have some suspicions about the Two Fingers. He offered me an opportunity to hunt those working for them.
- I found out what’s inside the jar people…
- I fought and defeated Radahn with many at my side. This included Blaidd who informed me that the path to Nokron should be open “where the star fell”, wherever that could be.
- The cryer at Redmane Castle is leaving as he has business to take care of. I guess he’s free to do what he likes now as the “festival of combat” is over. It sounded like there’s a possibility of seeing him again.
- Iji told me that the star fell in Limgrave. I’m going to need to take a look at my map. I’ll be searching for Nokron alone it seems, as Blaidd has another important task to do.
- Rogier has fallen into that “slumber”, but he wrote a letter for me. It says that D has a younger brother who also fell into a deep sleep in an aqueduct near Nokron. It’s said that D’s brother stood before the “Prince of Death” near that spot. I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve been wearing D’s armour.
- Miriel tells me of a statue in the Erdtree capital of Radagon’s likeness. It apparently harbours a big secret.
- I think I found D’s brother, but he wants D’s armour. I’m not giving this up.
- I found a mysterious blade in Nokron, which I delivered to Ranni. She’s given me a key I can now use in the Carian Study Hall. The enemies there gave me a lot of trouble before, but I’m stronger now.
- I came across some deadly gargoyles in the aqueduct near Nokron. They were too much for me right now. I can always come back.
- Renna’s Rise at Three Sisters opened up. There was a teleporter that took me to part of River Ainsel that I was looking to get to but struggled to reach it. Turns out patience is not only rewarded in combat, but also in exploration.
- I found a miniature Ranni, and the real witch herself speaks through it! She wishes me to eliminate the Baneful Shadows. I did so making use of Scarlet Rot, but now I come to a place full of that disease. This is what I deserve.
- Went up Mt. Gelmir to the Volcano Manor. Met a masked woman named Tanith. I told her I would join her, but only so I could make my way to Rykard.
- I went past that lake of rot to obtain a ring I could give to Ranni. She said that she’d see me again “when it’s all done”. Does this mean it’s over soon?
- Iji had some words to say about Blaidd’s fate.
- Sir Gideon has informed me of the remaining demigods that haven’t been located: Miquella, Malenia, Ranni, and the Lord of Blood. He is not concerned with Ranni as she cast aside her great rune, but maybe he should be. Of course I’m not going to tell him that.
- I found a letter detailing a request from Volcano Manor for a Tarnished to be hunted. I marked the location for “Old Knight Istvan” on my map.
- The woman at the church of plague needs a gold needle to be healed. A man near Selia said I should be able to find one in the Swamp of Aeonia.
- I made short work of a rider in black.
- So begins an age of the stars.
The world of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles begins in a bad state. Everywhere is covered in a poisonous miasma, leaving adventurers joining caravans to journey in search of “myrrh”. This substance helps to fuel crystals which keep a safe atmosphere around villages.
Eventually after a few years, a hero hears a few odd rumours that could lead them towards ridding the world of the miasma. This hero tried to get others to join them, but ended up going it alone. They had heard tales of four-person parties who spent the entire journey together (though they required special equipment). The only company this hero had was a moogle who would frequently complain about how tired they were.
Things seemed bleak for the world as only one person was there to save it. There were people the hero would come across in their journey who would only stay for small conversations. They never joined the hero on their trips to dungeons. The hero would make memories, but they were often never shared.
This is a roundabout way of me saying that the online multiplayer for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition is dead. I tried multiple times to look for games but I had no luck. It doesn’t help that Square Enix made the baffling decision for progression to be tied solely to the host player, leaving no incentive for anyone to join in.
It left me a bit disappointed, as this game feels purpose built for cooperative play. It’s a stripped-down Diablo-style console role-playing game that’s very simple to understand. Simplicity is perfect for co-operative games, it was the appeal of most of the Lego games made in the last 17 years. It made it so much easier to convince people to join in.
So many aspects of the game made me feel like I was missing out on something by playing alone. Health is displayed as a small collection of hearts, so it’s easier to parse for multiple players. The camera is far back enough to leave room for everyone to run around. Spells can be held onto to allow time for other players to combine theirs with it. Too much was purpose built to remind me that I should have been playing this with other people.
The story even puts an emphasis on communities and groups. As you traverse the map you can run into other caravans, which almost always include multiple people in them. Anyone alone is either lost or in/causing trouble.
There are parts of this game which could annoy a group. For one it’s still a role-playing game built around character growth, which wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it used a more traditional method. At the end of a dungeon characters are rewarded a choice of individually named artefacts, which can raise stats by somewhere between 1-5 points. However, artefacts you’ve already collected can often show up, and you can only keep one of each, leading to situations where I finished a dungeon with no stat upgrades. It’s annoying enough alone so I can’t imagine it going down well in a group.
I don’t only have bad things to say about the game. The combat has a good rhythm to it, especially during bosses. I was always kept on the move, avoiding attacks and finding the good windows for hitting back or healing myself. Most of the time I didn’t feel like I was getting hit by cheap shots.
I also love how cosy the soundtrack by Kumi Tanioka feels, which the game’s colour choices reinforce too. The character designs by Toshiyuki Itahana continue the same aesthetics of the great work he did for Final Fantasy IX. The same people seem to come back for later games in this sub-series, so I am looking forward to future sights and sounds I will come across in the rest of the Crystal Chronicles.
While I was left with mixed feelings on this game in particular, that has not eliminated my curiosity for what comes next. I just hope they’re games that play better alone.
And what happened to that hero? They had almost eliminated the source of the miasma, but gave up just before doing so. They didn’t fancy the grind required to finish the job. Guess they weren’t much of a hero.
While the situations in them don’t fully map to the real world, there’s an implicit understanding that there is a shared logic between videogames, especially within the same genre. A constant staple of the console roleplaying game is how characters become stronger. When the player visits a previously unexplored corner of the world map or dungeon, they encounter monsters more powerful than before. In most circumstances, the more powerful the monster, the more experience points offered for defeating it, which allows the playable characters to get stronger faster.
This is mostly done away with in Saga Frontier. There’s a different sort of logic to the encounters, where this time the enemy’s strength is determined by how many battles have been fought. That gives a bit more weight to getting into fights, because it gives the impression that there’s such a thing as too much fighting.
However, it’s still important to get into battle as it’s still the main way of getting characters stronger. There’s no experience points to be rewarded. Certain statistics are upgraded based on the action that’s chosen in battle. Pick physical attacks and strength goes up. Choose to defend and health points go up. Decide on a spell and magic-related stats go up. Crucially they don’t even have to be used in battle, if the battle is won before a character gets to use their ability, they still get the reward. It’s not the experience that strengthened them, it’s simply the idea of taking part. The only thing gained from an action being used is new abilities.
It’s one of the many things that makes Saga Frontier feel unusual. That it’s using a kind of interface I’m familiar with, but the results aren’t quite the same. I would argue that everything in this game ends up giving it a rather dreamlike quality. The intense pre-rendered visual style, terse NPC dialogue, and seemingly random assortment of monsters make everything seem surreal.
But dreams are collections of thoughts and feelings, while sometimes being a seemingly random collage of events, can also be interpreted as a narrative. That’s what I found from the seven scenarios in this game. Each lasts about the length of a night’s sleep.
One scenario that has stuck with me is Red’s, which follows the rules of a Japanese superhero show. The henchmen always have to be defeated before the boss. Sometimes enemies can put themselves in a special arena to make themselves more powerful (usually a way of justifying a recurring set in shows to have less locations to film). The most important part is that Red can’t be seen by others to transform into a masked hero. It would be simple to think that you have to put Red in a party alone in order to use it, but enemies in this scenario seem to cast a “blind” status effect fairly frequently. If the rest of the party is blinded, the game smartly determines that Red should be able to transform, as no one can see him.
I should also mention that the character progression mentioned only works for one of the four types of party members: the humans. Monsters can become other monsters to get stronger, Mystics will take on the essence of defeated foes, and the stats of Robots depend entirely on the equipment. It’s possible to go on entire runs and only encounter one or two party member types. Saga Frontier is full of ideas and places you might not even take a look at.
There are a lot of moments where the game cuts things short. A sudden game over from falling off a ship. A quick defeat from being caught while sneaking. A wrap up that’s all too fast, or even a sudden ending in the middle of a boss fight. These moments make everything feel abrupt. It’s like suddenly waking up.
The videogame RPG was created as a bit of a compromise. They were attempts to bring experiences from tabletop games into a digital format but changes had to be made. What was initially a collaborative activity became a solo one. In this way compromise also brought convenience, as it is much easier to set up a console with a game than it is to get a group together.
From the outset there wasn’t a consistent idea of how to transfer the tabletop experience into software. Games like Colossal Cave Adventure chose to act like a virtual dungeon master by describing scenes through on-screen text to create a prototypical adventure game. Ones like Akalabeth: World of Doom chose to build a simulation using the play mechanics of pen-and-paper games as the world’s logic, which worked like what we would call a “dungeon crawler” now.
The modern RPG standards seem to fit somewhere between those two but I’m going to put more focus on the Japanese console RPG. By reputation it’s a fairly maximalist subgenre. Lengthy adventures across worlds visiting many towns, cities and dungeons not only to battle but also to watch big story events unfold, or to take part in various minigames (that aren’t optional). As the game progresses, playable characters will be getting stronger through multiple layers of growth mechanics. While there are many Japanese console RPGs that aren’t exactly like this, they’re thought of in this way because of the efforts of a particular company.
Square Enix has a long history of making big games. Their flagship franchise Final Fantasy epitomises it. There are just so many things to do in those games. Some of them go so far that I could load one of them up for several hours without even progressing any story or getting into a single random battle. These are high budget games with a focus on variety. It’s what people want out of these games too. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with so much detail in all the aesthetics and world-building that was criticised for its lack of variety. It’s still a big game too, one of the longer games in the series, but with no towns to visit and no minigames to lose even more time in, it wasn’t what some wanted.
They must have taken these comments to heart too, as Final Fantasy VII Remake has many distractions in it. They may have taken that too far though, as this is now part one of a multi-game saga, with other mobile games to supplement it. This is the same company that took Kingdom Hearts, a mix of RPG and platformer featuring Disney characters, and made it into a massive story spanning 13 games.
All of this is to establish that Dungeon Encounters is a bit of an unusual game for Square Enix. It’s a much smaller scale game with a simpler look to it and a more focused play experience. Unlike those other games, this is minimalist. There’s also been little promotion for its release, just a couple trailers and some obligatory social media posts. A massive contrast to the release of Final Fantasy XV where the leadup to that game’s release included an animated series, a movie starring Sean Bean and Aaron Paul, and an officially licensed car manufactured by Audi. This deluge of promotional material made it impossible to ignore.
Whereas, Dungeon Encounters is apparently not notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page (so far as of writing this article anyway). The only mentions of it on that site are within lists of works on pages of the staff that worked on the game. It’s not as though unknown people worked on the game either, it was directed by Hiroyuki Ito, who designed the battle systems used in many Final Fantasy games and was also a lead on Final Fantasy VI, IX, and XII. The music was “overseen by” Nobuo Uematsu, who I would consider as one of the most famous game musicians. It seems as though even with these notable people, Square Enix aren’t doing much to push it.
That said, Ito isn’t often in front of the public eye. Square Enix produced documentaries for multiple Final Fantasy remasters, but he is absent from the one made for Final Fantasy IX. Most quotes featured on writing about games he’s directed come from other developers, usually Hironobu Sakaguchi who directed Final Fantasy games up to FF5. Funnily enough Ito is listed as one of the directors on FF6, but in an interview with Chris Kohler for the book Final Fantasy V, Sakaguchi mentions that he still performed the same role as he did in prior games, but had his title changed to producer because he thought it sounded “really cool”. Square Enix likes to push people forward when they are brands themselves, it’s why they’ve put a lot of games onto Tetsuya Nomura, the man responsible for iconic character designs. They put Sakaguchi aside when the movie he directed, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was a huge bomb. Hiroyuki Ito is simply a person who makes games and spends less time out there promoting.
It’s not a graphical showcase like much of Square Enix’s output too. Even on lower powered systems like the Switch they emphasise graphical quality in different ways. Games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy can’t just be RPGs with old-school sprites, the company feels the need to prettify them up with modern effects and brand them as “HD-2D”.
Visually Dungeon Encounters looks straightforward. All floors of the game’s titular dungeon are rendered as grids on coloured floors, and combat encounters are simply portraits with numbers next to them and menus beneath. Events and battles are displayed on the map as letters and numbers. The game eschews the standard context-giving mechanisms of cutscenes, detailed animations, and elaborate environments. While this may give the impression of a simple game, in practice it is not.
The exploration is fairly basic: fill out the grids by walking through them and go through 99 floors. Sometimes a battle will be in the way and the rules of combat are easy to follow too. Both the playable characters and enemies have three healthbars: one that only takes physical damage, another that only takes magical damage, and the last one which only depletes once the others are empty (or if certain special abilities are used). Weapons and spells deal damage in either a fixed amount or a random number, which is clearly labelled on them. It’s a very consistent ruleset that the enemies also follow. There are a few surprises in how some enemies deploy status effects, but once they happen for the first time they become expected, as it’s routinely from the same monsters. Eventually more abilities that can be used through exploration and combat by the party can be found throughout the dungeon, adding in an extra layer of growth.
As with many RPGs that are often labelled as “traditional”, it’s the combining of all of those elements into a system of resource management that makes it compelling and challenging. It’s never a question of whether a single combat encounter is survivable, it’s whether ten can be overcome, or even more once the party is stronger. By simplifying the visuals and structure of the game it puts a laser-focus on that.
It’s also a fairly quiet game, there’s almost no music except on the starting floor and in combat. I found the combat music to be grating so I lowered its volume. It consists solely of a few electric guitars, which at the game’s standard loudness sounded too abrasive.
That lack of music, combined with there being no visible non-player characters on the maps, makes Dungeon Encounters feel lonely. If many other RPGs try to simulate the existence of a dungeon master, this game feels like they’re completely absent. The events on the map being labelled with letters and numbers in a standardised way makes it seem as though each one is being checked against some invisible reference book. It would be easy to imagine this game as an adaptation of a tabletop RPG solitaire.
I ended up thinking about trust in the context of board games because of that. Those things trust that players will follow the rules of their own accord (or even bend it to suit themselves). Videogames can’t allow for that as often, as they work using a specific ruleset that has to be followed in all circumstances (any exceptions are notable for being so).
What Dungeon Encounters does trust is imagination. So much of the game is numbers and grids, but it isn’t called Maths Problems. By including a little bit of character art, short biographies for the party members, and small descriptions for items, it lets me fill in the blanks. Swords are things that make damage numbers appear but I always think of each attack as the character moving forward to strike with them. There’s a party member that’s a large cat named “Sir Cat” and that’s adorable. I only need the picture and character bio to know that. Even the choice of enemies had me thinking more about what this dungeon must be like. What must a fight with a shark be like? The low health values of skeletons told me that this is an old place, and their bones are brittle from being buried for a long time. Also the few details shown in the environments raise questions. Ten floors down appears to be taking place in grasslands. Did I end up in a hedge maze?
The game also places more trust in mechanics to do the job. Other Square Enix games make use of a variety of elements that complement each other in order to tell stories (Final Fantasy X is an excellent example). Dungeon Encounters leaves it up to players to bring that with them, if they want to or not. Some people just like to watch the numbers go up and down.
It’s also built for those more familiar with RPG conventions as little time is spent explaining how everything in battles works. Sometimes an enemy will show up marked as “flying” or “reflected” and while those mean the same thing as they would in similar games, without prior experience a player will learn the hard way.
It’s also very easy to pick up and play this game for short periods of time. This makes it a great fit for the Switch, as that’s the only mainstream portable system around these days. They didn’t put this game on phones, but you have to admit, playing games on phones isn’t the same as portable games used to be.
I’m actually a bit sad about the current state of handheld gaming. The Switch is technically a handheld gaming device but it doesn’t always feel like one. Many of the games made for the platform don’t suit being played on the go. I can’t imagine people getting on public transport and playing a bit of The Witcher 3 or Doom (2016). On one occasion I played Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on a train journey that lasted 50 minutes, and I spent almost all of that journey watching cutscenes that I had to finish on the platform after getting off the train.
There was a small downloadable game on the 3DS called Crimson Shroud, which was also an RPG on a reduced scale. It gave the impression of being a tabletop game by characters being rendered as models, and some actions being determined by rolling dice. The story was also told primarily through text on the screen acting as narration, almost like a dungeon master is telling it to the player. It was a neat little game, and was actually part of a collection of smaller scale games called the Guild series. They varied in quality, but I appreciated the experimentation in them. They were also fairly cheap.
Which brings me to an issue with pricing. Part of the reason it was easy to get into the Guild series was that each of those games cost around £7. Dungeon Encounters sells for £24.99, which isn’t too far from what a boxed copy of a 3DS game sold for. This isn’t a one-off as Switch games can retail for up to £60 when they’re new, and some launch games still retain that price. Handheld gaming used to be a cheaper option overall, but because the Switch is also a home console, the games are priced to match that. In this specific case it’s partially the fault of Square Enix too, as with downloadable games like this one, they don’t have to follow fixed pricing. But I just know that even with the company’s old habits of charging a bit of a premium, if this game had been released ten years ago it would have cost half as much.
My ulterior motive for writing this piece has been to put a bit more attention on Dungeon Encounters, since it’s not getting much of it from its own publisher. It’s a game I’ve really been enjoying playing and thinking about. I’ve brought it up with a few people as a good game to recommend but the price ends up becoming a barrier.
I just wish that Square Enix could put a bit more trust in the game.
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.
Last year I decided to commit to playing as much of Final Fantasy as I could. It’s been a very fun journey so far but I thought it would be useful to look back at Dragon Quest, a game Final Fantasy owes a lot to. Final Fantasy wouldn’t exist without this game (though Japanese RPGs might still exist since efforts like The Black Onyx, Dragon Slayer and Hydlide predate it).
I was surprised to find that the original Dragon Quest is a fairly relaxing game. That’s partly true with some of the other games in the series I have played, but those other ones also had tense moments. Fighting Psaro the Manslayer in Dragon Quest IV was not calming in any sense. If you want something to wind down with at the end of the day, the first Dragon Quest works well.
The simplicity of the game allows for that. While it is about saving the world from some evil wizard, there’s never any tension. Because it’s a turn-based RPG the pace of the game is extremely player-dictated. While there’s artifacts to be found and a princess to be saved, there’s no pressing need to do all of that immediately. Dragon Quest’s world is a place without difficulty and deadlines.
As this game was made for older hardware, there was a need to condense the experience in a way that was easy for the system to display but still understandable for a player. This is why battles play out simply with a picture of the enemy, some stats numbers on the left and a menu at the bottom. The removal of all of this context means I can’t help but not think of it as a tense battle, but instead a contest to see who can get a number down faster. A contest heavily weighted in my favour, and increasingly so as the main character’s level goes up. Losing isn’t much of a setback either. It reduces the in-game money earned to half, but that can easily be regained.
Many older RPGs are similar, Phantasy Star is one example. But Dragon Quest is a little different. It centres on one specific location: a castle. It’s where the game begins. It’s the home of the main character. It’s where you go to save the game. It’s where you go when you lose a battle. It’s where the game ends.
Having a specific home that needs to be returned to combined with the game’s simplicity makes it play like a game a child would think up. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. If anything I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. I suppose this may be one of the reasons that Dragon Quest has lasting appeal.
It’s less like a hero embarking on a dangerous adventure and more like a child going out to play. The hero can only venture out so far, but as he grows he can go a little further. If the hero gets defeated in battle, the king tells him off like a concerned parent. When it’s time to finish playing, the hero must go home.
If you do decide to give Dragon Quest a go, just know that the more easily available ports on mobile phones and the Switch look terrible. A lot of the art in the game feels very mismatched. The environments, characters, and monsters all feel like they are drawn for separate games. It’s strange for a foundational game in a series that continues to sell large numbers gets something that looks this bad.
However you go about playing it, I think it’s worth going back onto Dragon Quest especially if you’ve been playing a lot of RPGs like myself. I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to get to it myself.
I can easily see how this works as a foundation for many games after it, but it’s also interesting in its own way. It’s a shame that a lot of discussion of this game in particular seems to stop at how “old-fashioned” it is. This game didn’t always exist as being a predecessor to something else.
You could probably finish the whole thing on a lazy afternoon anyway, so it’s worth a shot to find out what you make of it for yourself.
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!
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.