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.
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.
Not 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).Well 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.This 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.
If you’ve only seen some footage of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, you’d be a little forgiven for thinking it’s just like every other big-budget game out there. Its movement is lifted straight out of Assassin’s Creed and its combat is taken right from the Batman: Arkham games. The story is some generic revenge fantasy that video game writers seem really into these days. I don’t think that does a good job of selling this game, because as bog standard as I’ve made it sound, it’s actually great.
On top of the game’s risk-free open-world structure, is a system that has brought about equal amounts of frustration and satisfaction. Basically it’s what has been described as the “Nemesis System”. For those unfamiliar amongst the orc enemies around the game are named captains and war chiefs. They can pop up at any time, like when you’re just wandering around, or even during a main mission. They’re hard to take down, and if they kill you they will let you know about it the next time you come across them. They’re persistent too, if you take them down they could potentially come back to fight again.
Each time you die against an orc it’s annoying because they get more powerful because of that, but it was such a good system because I felt that fuelled my desire to fight back. The one guy who kept killing me would be my target, but there was always a small feeling of panic when they would turn up out of nowhere. It also made dying in the game a lot more meaningful, it was punishing as opposed to being just a temporary roadblock. Each of the orcs were likely randomly generated out of certain elements, but there was enough unique about each of the ones I encountered that I always recognised my worst enemies.
This system elevated the game to be much more exciting than similar ones out there. It’s great how one aspect can change how a game flows, but wait I’m not quite done yet.
About 2/3rds of the way through the game you get the ability to ‘brand’ orcs and make them fight for you. It’s thematically problematic (you basically enslave them) but mechanically satisfying. You could sneak up on orcs, brand a few and have them fight each other while watching from the shadows. I personally found it much more fun to charge in head first into a big battle, fill up my combo meter so that I could brand them mid-battle, and gradually turn a huge crowd that was all against me into my own army. And yes you can take over the minds of captains and war chiefs too, which you can command to take out other orcs in the hierarchy. At this point it has some light strategy elements as you pit captains against each other. It’s just a shame that you have to get through roughly 60% of the game to get to the best part.
These extra layers make Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor one of the most interesting games to come out this year. I couldn’t care any less about the story but just the act of playing it was really fun, and in a big-budget game like this one I really appreciated that.