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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.

Final Thoughts

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.


So when I was first getting into Final Fantasy in 2011, I asked a friend who I knew had them all on Playstation if I could borrow one, he could decide for me. He handed me Final Fantasy VII. He did not actually, as you might be able to tell from all the pictures this is an article about Final Fantasy VIII, so it was that one actually. If you’re not familiar with that game and were tricked, I’m sorry.

Final Fantasy VIII

It was clear that after FF7, Squaresoft must have felt that they needed to follow up with something that continued to wow people with visuals. I’d believe it likely did back then because to some extent it still does. Final Fantasy VIII has so much more detail than what came before it, they use a lot more tricks to show that off too. The lines between playable set-pieces and cutscenes are blurred a little, at times there are full videos playing in the background while the game also requires input. There’s a real sense here that they became a lot more comfortable with the technology they were using at the time and really started to show off with it.

Even 21 years after the game originally came out I’m impressed by it. I just look at some parts of this game and imagine that it must have taken plenty of effort to get it just right (though the remaster does make some efforts to diminish that but more on that later). This is why I sometimes hesitate to say something is “dated”, as I can still be wowed by something older. Even considering all that it is worth mentioning that by this point Squaresoft did have a lot of resources, especially after releasing one of the best-selling PS1 games of all time, which also had a lot of money poured into it.

I love the colours in this game. There’s a sort of mildly summer-ish look to a lot of it, and for the most part it’s someone understated. The main cast and a large part of the world aren’t overly vibrant, like it’s going for something a little more filmic. However a bunch of the fantasy elements do have a wildly expressive and bright use of colour, which contrasts really well, especially in the extravagantly late-1990s-futuristic city of Esthar.

Because of the higher amount of detail, there’s more consistency in how things look. Characters don’t suddenly grow from a small-scale version of themselves into standard human proportions for a battle, they remain full-sized throughout. The same goes for any bosses you fight as well. While the party is still teleported to an arena to take turns in whenever combat is initiated, the standardisation of scale here does make the game feel a bit less abstract than its predecessors.

I suppose some people would call this “looking more realistic” but I would argue role-playing games especially cannot escape some level of abstraction. There’s no voice acting or facial animation yet in this game, so everything is still conveyed through text and body movement. It feels more unique now considering what these games are like now. Near enough every single line of dialogue in Final Fantasy VII Remake is spoken out loud.

But that line of thought does seem to come through somewhat in the narrative. While it’s still a fantasy story, everything feels a little more grounded. There’s much more of a focus on relationships here. As well as a struggle between the good guys and a powerful sorceress over the fate of the world, this game puts a lot of focus on smaller scale emotional conflicts. And that’s not to diminish the human drama of prior games either. I haven’t forgotten about Cecil’s journey in FF4 to become a better man, Cloud’s struggle to figure out his own identity while also taking on those who abused his trust in the past in FF7, or Ramza feeling betrayed after he found out the true nature of his own family members in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Squall, the main character of Final Fantasy VIII, is a bit different though. He’s initially reserved but in more of a deliberately abrasive sort of way, and not trying to seem cool like with Cloud. Squall was like that because he lost someone at a young age, and decided that preventing himself from forming attachments would mean he wouldn’t have to go through with that again. Of course over time his emotional armour is broken down, but not particularly because of specific events, but because of the continued support of his friends.

It does feel a little like most of the supporting cast of this game have a bit less going on. Most of them don’t really have personal conflicts outside of helping Squall, they don’t have arcs to develop over the course of the game. You’d think it would make them come across as shallow characters with little going on, but this actually manages to make them endearing because of how helpful they are. I will admit though, out of all the party members I do find Irvine to be somewhat forgettable.

Over the course of the game Squall’s confidence builds to where he can really take charge as a leader, and find the determination to do what he truly wants. It’s interesting that the seeds of this are planted fairly early on as well. Firstly and most notably in the waltz scene, where he first meets his love interest Rinoa. She asks him to dance and at first it’s awkward because he keeps bumping into other people, but eventually he takes to it and manages to be good at it, and even admits that he actually learned how to dance well.

The other time is when the party is hired to assassinate the Sorceress Edea (I did forget to mention that they all work for a company that hires out mercenaries). There’s a moment where Irvine really starts to panic and doesn’t feel like his abilities as a sniper are going to be good enough. Squall manages to take control of the situation and gives him a pep talk that seems to work. Even though Irvine misses his shot the mission ends up failing, Squall’s potential as a good leader gets to be demonstrated.

In a documentary on the official Final Fantasy YouTube channel called Inside Final Fantasy VIII, director Yoshinori Kitase mentioned that he wanted to make something that was a bit like a fairy tale. It’s easy to focus on the witches and monsters, but I think the thing to also take away is that this game is about how important it is to care for friends. Squall’s love for Rinoa is one of the things that really drives him forward. The story that happens in parallel about Laguna gaining his own confidence to become a leader happens because of how much he came to care about his step-daughter Ellone. Squall’s rival Seifer actually ends up temporarily losing his friends because he gets too caught up in becoming the sorceress’ knight instead of looking out for others around him.

Even Edea shows her love for the main party characters, as she cared for most of them as children (also all the evil stuff she did was because a sorceress from the future possessed her). Ellone managed to gain more confidence in herself through using her ability to see into the past, so she could witness firsthand how much people cared for her. It’s just really nice for this game to start with a bunch of broken relationships and see them mended over time. It’s just really heartwarming.

One of the peculiar things about Final Fantasy VIII is how it handles levelling up. Doing so actually makes all of the enemies around stronger, so it’s generally advised to keep a low level and take advantage of the game’s “junction” system, a means of getting powerful without actually levelling up. This system allows character stats to be augmented with magic spells, which are now a consumable resource that can be obtained via stealing from enemies, pulling from various spots on the map, or refining items. Certain magic spells increase particular stats better than others, and having more of a spell does mean the stat goes up even more. However if any spell that’s junctioned is used it can reduce stats, though a lot of spells are available so it’s not necessary to use those ones too often. It can also require a bit of grinding to get some of the really powerful spells (which I of course ended up doing but I’ve really discovered lately that I’ve got a high tolerance for grinding).

I called it peculiar but it actually makes sense in the context of what previous Final Fantasy games were doing already. There were systems that allowed players to experiment beyond having preset character classes in FF6 and 7, with the former having ways of gradually moulding characters into almost anything, and the latter giving the means of creating things like classes with equippable items. The problem with the junction system is that it gives a little too much freedom, since I was just able to add the most powerful magic onto every stat, giving all party members the same capabilities.

Despite that I still actually managed to have some fun with the game’s combat. Instead of defeating them the normal way by hitting them until they fall over, I would try and end most encounters with regular monsters by turning them into cards. Doing this often meant that I wouldn’t get any experience points, and I could keep my characters at lower levels. I could also turn those cards into useful items and magic (they’re supposed to be used for some other card game but I tried it and didn’t really enjoy it). The act of making an enemy into a card is kinda like catching a Pokemon, you have to weaken an enemy so that you can transform them more easily. The fun of it came from trying to make sure I didn’t kill the enemy by mistake, and also managing my junctions so that I wasn’t too powerful enough to instantly destroy them. This made it more enjoyable for me as it was an extra layer on top of the standard “kill or be killed” challenge of most RPG battles.

It’s worth keeping an eye on these systems too as they can make the game a lot easier to play if you put the time into them. When I first played it in 2011 I did not, I just tried to push through it with a fairly poor assortment of spells because I just didn’t engage much with gathering magic. I ended up stuck in an area full of enemies who have to be defeated in pairs in order to progress and I wasn’t even strong enough to finish one off. It was an area where I couldn’t go back and gain strength either, and I didn’t keep an earlier save file so I really was screwed. I was a little anxious about returning to this game because of that, but when I actually returned to that place recently it was actually extremely easy for me to get through. I had done a lot of preparation this time. 

This is something seemingly common for Final Fantasy so far, because I engaged with things off to the side, or took time to optimize my party, these games have become very easy. I have found some of these games somewhat hard in the past and gotten annoyed at the kinds of people who would tell me they found it very easy because they had done all of the side-content. I think I am becoming that kind of person, due to more of my own experience with the genre as a whole. I do still try to be mindful that plenty of people have completely different experiences playing through games, especially with ones like this. Also not all of this game was a complete cakewalk for me, as a few late-game bosses did actually give me some trouble.

Not this boss I just thought it looked cool…

I have to talk about the music here. The soundtrack of Final Fantasy VIII is one of the finest sets of tracks that Nobuo Uematsu has ever produced. It’s still making use of samples like the last few games, and while they’re more detailed than before not many people are going to confuse them for real instruments. There are a few tracks that do sound like they’re recorded with a real orchestra as well, and they do sound wonderful. 

While there are tracks that are still in keeping with Uematsu’s prog rock weirdness, there’s certainly more of a Hollywood movie vibe to plenty of tracks. Take the main vocal theme song, Eyes on Me. It’s a very sweet love song, but also the kind of ballad you’d hear in a 90s movie, back when they used to have tie-in songs. The Landing is a great sort of bombastic orchestral piece (though it did replace a song that sounded a bit too similar to something from a movie).

Fisherman’s Horizon is an incredibly beautiful town theme, one of the best of its kind. I even made a cover of it, which I don’t think is as good as the original but it’s hard to think I could do better especially since I adore the song so much. For every track like that there’s also something strange and bizarre sounding like Residents. I do love that he always manages to work in some really odd sounding pieces like this.

There are also some outstanding grandiose rock tracks in here though. The first time I heard the organ chords in the main boss theme, Force Your Way, I was immediately enamored. The synth lead hooked me even more, it’s such a good song. Though the soundtrack to the penultimate fight of the game, Maybe I’m a Lion, is one of my favourite boss themes ever made for these games. It starts with a simple drum beat, then builds into intense taiko drumming with some heavy guitar, before really going into a faster, more complex and well-layered section that really picks up the urgency.

One of the weirder things that I did notice is that some of the music sounds like it’s using motifs written for Final Fantasy VII. Premonition, Silence and Motion and The Successor seem like the more obvious ones to me. However this isn’t the only case of that happening, as I think about how Celes’ Theme from FF6 has some melodies that bring to mind Aerith’s theme (and Eyes on Me too). Nobuo Uematsu does seem to like using these sorts of things again, probably because he likes the sound of them.

To be fair it’s a massive soundtrack lasting almost 4 hours in total. It’s one of my go-tos if I just want some music on and I want a lot of it. So much of the music is of excellent quality, and it manages to really elevate a game that is already excellent.

The version I played this time around was the “Remastered” edition available on most current platforms. I played it on the Nintendo Switch but I may as well have chosen any platform since working from home has made playing anything on a portable system somewhat redundant (I say this because they’re putting out an edition for PS4 with really nice box art). 

Anyway in terms of visual quality the remaster doesn’t really do much to make it look better. The characters are made to look more detailed but that just creates a massive contrast to the backgrounds which have had very little work done to them outside of some blurry filtering. There are parts of this game where you can really tell it wasn’t meant to be seen at a resolution this high. Pixelated characters drawn onto backgrounds might have blended in a little more on an older TV, but here they really stick out. The sound mix on this version is also extremely loud for some reason, and there isn’t an in-game option to turn it down that I could find. The Switch port of FF7 has the same problem too but it at least has volume controls.

It’s not an absolute deal breaker though, since this version of the game is much more convenient to play. There’s a button to make everything three times as fast, which I took advantage of to really speed up grinding. Also if you do get stuck, which I thankfully didn’t this time around, there is a button to just significantly boost the strength of the party. I do wish there was a version that looked and sounded a bit more like the original (the Playstation’s reverb isn’t here!) but I managed well with this one. It didn’t stop me loving this game.

Final Thoughts

As another aside, the game starting at a school seemed like something you’d see more commonly now, especially thanks to games like Persona or The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. In Final Fantasy VIII the main party “graduates” in the first few hours of the game. Do you think if this was made today they’d still be in school by the end? There’s still Final Fantasy Type-0 for me in the future, a game that does appear to also be set at a school. That’s very far ahead, so don’t expect much opinions from me on it for quite some time.

The non-hypothetical actual Final Fantasy VIII is excellent, and up there with the best. I always get a feeling that when I play a game that’s this good, I really want to jump in and see what’s next immediately. A sudden optimism that if they’re all as good as this I could play hundreds of them. It’s Final Fantasy IX after this, a game I enjoyed very much when I played it for the first time. I’m going to start playing it straight away. If you’re reading this piece shortly after it’s been published, I’m probably playing it right now.

Also to add to the earlier story about my friend, once I knew I couldn’t possibly progress through the game anymore I gave it back to him and asked if I could borrow a different one. He gave me Final Fantasy IX and I actually finished it back then. I’m looking forward to finishing it again.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of my writing about Final Fantasy here if you haven’t already. It’s still so much fun to put these together so I have a feeling it will continue for a while.

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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