It was a huge shame when Nintendo decided to shut down their Wii Shop Channel, removing easy access to many games available on the Wiiware platform. Some of them still haven’t made it onto other systems.
Wiiware games were of a time when downloadable games meant something a little different. This was a time when downloadable games existed as a separate platform on the same console. Because of internet quality and storage space available on the Wii, the Wiiware file sizes were limited to 40MB, which resulted in them being much smaller in scope. They were much cheaper too.
It was a novelty that allowed for little games that wouldn’t as easily make it anywhere else. Games such as Bonsai Barber, Muscle March, and Let’s Catch wouldn’t have gotten out as boxed retail products, but they suited Wiiware perfectly. Now for a game of this scope to come out today, it’s usually from a smaller team putting something out on Itch, or a company releasing a promotional tie-in phone app (Chocobo GP’ on IOS and Android is a recent example I can think of).
Downloadable games go all over the place in terms of prices now, as they now include the same big releases that get put on brick-and-mortar shelves, but the smaller titles are expected to compete for quality and quantity. It’s why so many roguelikes have come out over the last decade, as it allows for content to be randomised and repeated.
To go back to Wiiware, Square Enix ended up releasing a fair few games on the system. Some of them were ports of mobile game releases, but there were also some original games, two of which I will be covering here. They’re games I had a good time playing, but I want to be careful not to oversell them.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King
In the original Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, the world was covered by a poison that made most of the land inhospitable to humans. By the end of that game, the world was cleansed and the world could then be freely explored again. My Life as a King is about one town’s efforts to rebuild after that.
I don’t have a lot of experience with city-building games, but this one certainly did a great job of conveying a livable space. While the player character is a king, they spend the whole game being able to walk around the town, visiting houses and businesses. To build anything, the King must be standing next to where they want it to go.
The townspeople go about their own routines and don’t directly follow what the King tells them to do. They will walk around to shops on their own time, and simply tell the King about their day. Adventurers don’t simply perform the tasks that the King asks for, particular ones will volunteer of their own free will to take part in quests set by the King.
Initially I didn’t like how the game depended on walking around the environment in order to get stuff done. However, over time more buildings and townspeople filled up the place, and it began to feel bigger and more lived in. It felt nice to talk to them and see how their day was going, even if there was only a limited amount of lines they could say.
This city is built to last, and at the end of the game it is displayed over the end credits. It showcases that the King has built a home for all those people to stay in. Parts of this world that were previously destroyed have now been repaired and will hopefully stay there.
There’s not really much action here and there’s nothing that puts the player in a game over state. A lot of time is spent waiting for adventurers to come back, while checking in with how things are going across the town. It sounds like it could get boring but I found it rather relaxing. I was surprised to find that it evoked a nostalgia I had for visiting MMO cities, and seeing other players who were much more powerful than me go off on their own adventures.
A game that’s this sedate can be perfect to wind down with at the end of a long day. Though sometimes a game that has the opposite effect can be good.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord
To contrast with My Life as a King being about building a town that lasts throughout the game and beyond, My Life as a Dark Lord is about making many disposable towers that don’t last at all. In fact this whole game is engineered to be very different from its predecessor, in that the whole thing is menu-driven, creating a sense of distance from the action.
The sort of distance that’s somewhat common in the tower defence genre that this game belongs to. There’s a crystal at the top of the tower that needs protecting from adventurers, so traps are set and monsters are summoned to do so.
And that’s right, those adventurers are the sort the King would send out on quests. In this game the player character is the titular Darklord, who orders monsters to do her bidding (though turns out is good-hearted as they don’t really want to make you play an evil character).
The way the game works in practice, is that the player must build floors which contain traps on them. Most of them will include spaces for monsters to be summoned. Adventurers will go through these rooms, and take on the traps and monsters in ways that look like standard RPG battles. They won’t stick around until one side is defeated, as they each come with a timer, and when that runs out they move onto the next floor. If an adventurer comes up to a floor where a battle is already taking place, they will just skip that and go to the next encounter. Enough floors have to be built to ensure the monsters can collectively defeat them.
I mentioned distance in the emotional sense earlier, and that’s true of how this game feels to some extent. Monsters the player summon will be disposed of often, and it’s best to just keep bringing more in. It all helps to sell the cartoonish bad nature of the main character. Every time an adventurer is defeated, they are thrown from whatever floor of the tower they reached like in a comedic anime scene, which never stopped being funny to me.
However, this game does require some fairly active participation, unlike the waiting in the other game. Since the crystal only takes one hit to be destroyed, there’s a lot of “plate-spinning” to be done, which can get very stressful. It’s anxiety-inducing when an adventurer is about to make it to the top. It’s even more so when five of them are almost on their way there. Having said that, I didn’t find it to be a difficult game, it’s just good at playing with tension. It helps to create a sense of relief when each stage is finally won.
It may not have been the best thing to play at the end of some days, but My Life as a Darklord ended up being a fun time.
There’s an allure when a game isn’t as easily accessible, but you own it. It’s possible to fall into a trap of overselling a game’s qualities, because there’s some fun in being a “champion” for a game that “deserves more recognition”. I did have a good time with these games, but I’m never going to put these out there as hidden gems or secretly incredible experiences. They were just neat. That doesn’t mean I think they don’t deserve to be more accessible, they really should be.
Being particular games of a certain platform, they help illustrate a particular time in videogame history. That’s true for almost every release anyway. With these games I was able to recall my own experiences with the Wii, and what games were like back then. Taste is subjective anyway, but even bad and middling games deserve some amount of preservation. This isn’t coming from nostalgia, because I also remember the restrictions that came back in those days, and I don’t think we need them again. I just think it’s useful to have perspective on what things used to be like.
Screenshots sourced from Mobygames.
I’ve been playing through all sorts of Final Fantasy games over the past two years and part of the appeal of taking on a whole franchise is finding surprises. The great ones that haven’t stayed in the lasting conversations but turn out to be hidden gems. I don’t know if I could often expect that from a billion dollar mega-franchise like this. I certainly didn’t find that with the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles prequels made for DS and Wii.
People certainly talked about these when they came out, as evidenced by forum threads that are still available to read, but they’re not the games people continue to bring up. It’s not because they’re bad, as they’re perfectly serviceable action role-playing games. When it’s part of a brand that sees much more critically-acclaimed entries with high profile marketing campaigns, the heavy hitters are going to steal more attention. As I didn’t have experience with most Final Fantasy games around their original release dates, I was only more aware of the bigger titles. I lack the context for many of these games as I wasn’t there for them.
Right now I want to put the spotlight on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates and Echoes of Time. Both of them are built off of the same co-op action framework, the basics are almost identical between the two. As with the original Crystal Chronicles, these games involve travelling into dungeons to fight a boss at the end of them, though with a much more linear structure as opposed to the more open one the first game had. They’re faster paced games than the original too, with a more ordinary experience-point growth system. These ones also involve platforming and puzzles to mix things up. The way they play reminds me a little bit of Threads of Fate, another action RPG Square developed for the Playstation which I played for a few hours, and didn’t return to because I ended up very busy at the time. I’d like to return to that one someday.
Ring of Fates is the more traditional of the two released on the Nintendo DS. Its singleplayer and multiplayer separated into two separate modes. Those going solo can play the “story mode” which is what I went for. It’s fairly generic stuff: a pair of orphaned children going on an adventure and getting a party together that eventually defeat a villain that wants to rule the world. A surprising amount of cutscenes were fully voiced as well, which isn’t something I’d expect even from some of the bigger releases on the console (as far as I remember anyway, if you can remember a bunch of other examples I’m curious to know about them).
It’s a very easy-going game too. At no point did I feel challenged by the combat, nor was I stumped by the puzzles or platforming. In the game’s party of four, the player controls one character at a time while the others are AI-controlled. The controllable character can be swapped at any time. Each one is of a different species (those being Clavat, Yuke, Selkie and Lilty) which results in them having different gimmicks, some of them being touch-screen based considering the system this was made for. What this means is that swapping between the characters is required at times, though I only did it when it was absolutely necessary. The lead Clavat character is able to deal damage a lot quicker than all the others so I was often playing as that character. The other occasionally useful character was the Selkie as they have a double jump, which makes platforming simpler.
What this resulted in was a game that was mostly light fun. I don’t think I’ll remember the particulars of it in the future, but if the game comes up in a conversation I’m certain to say something like “yeah that one was alright”. Not everything needs to be a genre-defining classic anyway.
Echoes of Time was where I had a much rougher experience. It felt like everything was dialled up to be a bigger experience. More combat! More puzzles! More platforming! Larger levels! All of them mixed together in some ways that were fun and others that were frustrating.
This game’s dungeons feel a little closer to Zelda dungeons this time. However, they don’t feature the structure of finding items in order to solve problems. What it does have is puzzles that continue across multiple rooms with particular gimmicks to them. Also a boss key has to be found too. There are much less dungeons in this game, and instead it repeats a handful of them a few times. This isn’t much of an issue as it closes off unnecessary rooms on each revisit, and does a decent job of directing a player to new stuff. I often didn’t need to consult the game’s map.
Many of these puzzles involve pushing blocks, activating switches, or carrying items around. These don’t use any character specific gimmicks as they are mostly removed from this game. The Selkie can still double jump, but everyone else is just there for fighting. This is because the game doesn’t have a set party, it has to be created. A player can make a bunch of characters of whatever in-game species they choose, and put them together for a party of four. I opted for one of each and still ended up mostly playing as the Clavat because they still did the most damage.
The reason for this is that the singleplayer and multiplayer sections are now combined into the same thing. I could take my created character and bring them over into other people’s games. If I knew others with the game we could have taken on dungeons together. Because I didn’t know anybody else with the game (and didn’t ask) I opted to settle with AI-controlled characters.
For some reason, those AI party members that joined me on this adventure wanted to make things harder. They don’t really do much in combat, their rate of attacks seemed exceptionally slow. They had a habit of walking into hazards that would do a lot of damage to them. During many of the puzzles that involved pushing blocks onto switches, they would often move those blocks away, or push them into inconvenient places. The game has gates that require four characters to continue progress, so I had to bring them with me. It didn’t help that combat also occurred in more puzzle rooms as the game went on, and in rooms without fighting, the game would still have plenty of hazards to hurt the party.
I haven’t gotten to the strangest part of this game. While it was released on the DS like Ring of Fates, Echoes of Time also released on the Wii and it’s the version I played. It’s such a strange port, as it just puts the two screens of a DS game on the screen, you should really take a look at it. Anything that requires the touch-screen uses the Wii remote pointer controls. There’s barely any graphical differences too, outside of higher resolution and some light texture filtering. (I’ve used screenshots from the DS version in this article as I was unable to source ones for the Wii).
Because of this a lot of touch-screen gimmicks were taken out of this game. Though they do introduce scratch cards, which were tricky to do with pointer controls, as they required a little bit of precision. They were frustrating to begin with, but I stubbornly kept trying them until I actually kept winning on a lot of them. My reward for doing so was a temporary buff that would let every character double jump, but if I used it I wouldn’t have much use for my Selkie.
It is very funny for me to imagine someone receiving this version of the game removed from all context. Without the knowledge that it’s a port of a DS game would make its dual-screen interface come across as bizarre and unnecessary. The novelty of the port certainly attracted me (it was also cheaper).
As I said earlier, these are perfectly serviceable action role-playing games. I may have found some faults with Echoes of Time, but there were still portions of that game where I was having a good time. What they’ve actually ended up being for me is stops on my journey until I get to more interesting things (I hope). That said, I’ll still be playing Crystal Chronicles games for a little longer.
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.
Getting into the Final Fantasy Tactics sub-series of games was one of the more pleasant surprises I had in the last couple of years. Initially I was a little afraid to get started with them after having tried and failed on multiple occasions to get into the original. But I pushed through and found Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions an excellent game to play (while I come across as harsh on the story in that article, I’ve come around to liking it more since). Later I reached Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which built off of the original’s mechanics in ways that helped it tell a fascinating story.
After all of that (and many other Final Fantasies in-between) I recently finished off Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (FFTA2), the last installment of this trilogy of sorts. Playing this one has cemented the idea that I should spend more time playing Tactical RPGs, as all three of these games have been a good time (though I may have to start looking to other developers as Square Enix themselves haven’t made many in the last decade).
While FFTA2 continues the vibrant look of its predecessor, I could tell very quickly that it had different priorities. Where Final Fantasy Tactics Advance tied much of its mechanics into the narrative, this game is more devoted to refining systems for a much smoother play experience. There’s less time devoted to storytelling, and what’s there is largely a redo of what the prior game was doing with much less thematic weight behind it.
In this game, Luso Clemens, a child from a world similar to our own gets transported into the fantasy world of Ivalice via an old book he found at his school’s library. The book arrives with him, and to return home he has to fill out the pages by adventuring through the world. The setup is the most like a playground these games have ever gotten, just simply do enough things until it’s time to go home. I’m over-simplifying the story a little but honestly not by much. Not many things happen and it’s disappointing. Moments which show a little personality or motivation of the main characters do take place every so often, but they turn out to be dead ends as they’re hardly ever followed up on.
However, in almost every other aspect there are a lot of improvements. There are many small updates that improve the flow of how it plays, but the biggest one was a change in how levelling up worked. Previous games would reward experience points for every action taken. For every move a small experience point number would show up above a character’s head, and if they got enough they would level up during the fight. If a character didn’t do anything then they wouldn’t get any growth. FFTA2 moves experience point gain until the end of a battle, and guarantees them for every character who takes part. Having less awareness of those numbers while fighting actually made the game feel like even less of a grind. I only needed to think about the actual fight, as it was unnecessary for me to make everyone do unusual routines in order to ensure everyone stayed the same level.
There’s also changes to how equipment is gained that encouraged me to explore the game more. All character abilities are learned from equipment (which encourages equipping many things), and most of them are gained in shops by engaging with a system called the Bazaar (which is mostly borrowed from Final Fantasy XII). Items found during, or as rewards for combat encounters can be given to the Bazaar in order to make new weapons that are then put up for sale. It meant that in order for me to build a character in a way I wanted, I had to be on the lookout for missions that would give me what I needed. It also meant that instead of fighting a bunch of random encounters in order to gain strength, I was spending more time engaging with missions with more varied gimmicks that in some cases weren’t even combat driven. That variety kept things interesting. Some of the weapons could also be gained through an auction house, which ended up being a surprisingly fun minigame to play by itself.
The presentation is nice too. Vibrant visuals at a smooth framerate pop really well. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata return from the other Ivalice games to provide some great music (even if it is mostly made up of covers of tracks from prior games).
And that last point kinda summarises what this game is. It feels somewhat like a “greatest hits” in videogame form. It’s quite fanservice-y in places, with characters showing up from other games to shout “hey look it’s me!” to the audience, and for me to go “huh cool” whenever one shows up, but not much beyond that. While it is bolstered by great combat and structure, the weak storytelling ends up with me finding the other Final Fantasy Tactics games to be more interesting. I did enjoy this game quite a lot, but I would potentially be much harsher if Square Enix had made more of these.
Screenshots sourced from Mobygames.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Since writing my last piece about this series, the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI came out. I thought that when I played Final Fantasy VII Remake I was seeing the trajectory of the series going forward, I was expecting more games exactly like it.
The trailer for FF16 surprised me, since I genuinely thought that game didn’t exist yet. I wrongly assumed that all resources for Final Fantasy were being pushed towards FF7 Remake and the subscription MMORPG FF14.
What also surprised me was that it seems to be going in a dark medieval fantasy direction, not unlike The Witcher or Game of Thrones. Any time someone would try to pitch Final Fantasy Tactics to me they’d mention Game of Thrones, which I assume is shorthand for “fantasy story that’s a bit darker than other ones”. I might as well start talking about that game.
Final Fantasy Tactics
To me this game really doesn’t give off the feeling of an HBO prestige TV show fantasy, or an epic fantasy series of novels. The Game of Thrones comparison didn’t seem to apply to how it looks (though it is apt in other ways considering this is mostly a game about schemes involving royalty).
Theatre seems to feel like the biggest influence on the presentation and story structure of Final Fantasy Tactics. Each location where story sequences a battles play out looks like a small set that would have been built on for a stage, since the lower-fidelity 3D graphics really give it the impression of something that’s been handbuilt. Large scale events such as battles take place out of view, as the game places more importance on how the characters on those sets react to it.
That last aspect is crucial as not only does it come across as an interesting stylistic choice, but helps convey the distance characters have towards those in the larger conflicts, in more ways than one. I need to provide a little context before really getting into it.
The game mostly follows the story of Ramza Beoulve, a man born to a noble family who ran away from them to become a mercenary. Ramza is a goodhearted person who wants to save people, and by saving a kidnapped princess he gets caught up in the middle of a much bigger problem. The king has recently died and two dukes are working against each other to have a line of succession that allows one of them to become a regent, since the king’s own heirs are apparently too young to rule by themselves. Whether the princess lives or dies favours one duke more than the other. This eventually leads to war, which allows other organisations to take advantage of the situation and increase their own power, such as Ramza’s old friend Delita, the Church, and later on a collective of monsters who were banished to another dimension. Ramza ends fighting to stop the latter two plots, as they really do seem to be much more immediately dangerous.
I’ve had to simplify a lot of that to keep it concise, so many things happen over the course of this game.
So back to the use of distance. It’s easy to see how it’s used for the scheming nobles, since they see themselves as above common folk. A large part of the first chapter is used to convey this through a flashback to Ramza’s past. One noble, Argath, talks at length about how much better the upper class are than those who are from “lower birth”. Delita is derided for it as he was from a lower class family and was only adopted into the noble lifestyle. Most nobles see the poorer classes as pawns to be used in their own schemes and wars. This is shown at the start of the game, where a war had just recently finished. The soldiers who fought in it were cast aside without any aid for their future, and some had to become thieves and bandits in order to make their living.
It also feels as though Ramza and his group of fighters are distant from the war as a whole. A lot of the battles they fight in themselves are smaller skirmishes off to the side of them. However, the direction their story takes eventually grows distant from the themes of the initial chapters. The initial focus on how terrible nobles can be diminishes over time, and it becomes about Ramza and crew fighting off a group of strong monsters who want to use this war to resurrect their leader. It’s a real shame that it takes what could have been a really interesting premise to follow through on and abandon it for a stock fantasy story.
There’s also the problem of Ramza’s friend Delita who, through deceit and murder, rises from being a commonder to becoming the next king. I don’t think I’d have too much of a problem with this if it was an isolated story, but it exists here to contrast with Ramza’s goodhearted nature and noble birth. It feels as though the game wants to say that it doesn’t matter where someone is from, it only matters how they act, which sure… I guess that’s true to some extent. However much more loudly in my head I hear the game saying poor people can be just as troubling and damaging to the world as the rich ones. It makes me think a little about the real world. The real world where the divide between the rich and poor is only growing. The real world where over one-third of all carbon emissions come from 20 companies. Honestly Delita comes across as not so believable in this fantasy game.
It’s a good thing I really enjoyed the tactics game aspect. It didn’t end up being as ridiculously difficult as I was expecting it to be. That was because I’ve tried and failed to get into this game before a few times, to the point where I almost accepted that I’d never be able to play through this game. I wasn’t used to the idea of unit positioning in a tactical RPG, so I’d move a party member to the wrong place and they’d be killed very quickly. I was not aware that the game’s random encounters would scale with the highest levelled party member, making it much more difficult for my carelessly levelled party, full of characters at different stages of growth.
Being aware of how these things worked this time around was a huge help, but I also did a lot of grinding so I had a fairly powerful team anyway. It’s interesting because I still had to be mindful of the combat during that, since if I wanted to level up a class with lower defensive stats I would need to have them avoid the heavy-hitting enemies that often get thrown into random encounters. By the time I started to lose patience with the grind, the difficulty level of the game dropped off a cliff anyway, since I was given an extremely powerful party member.
The sudden drop in difficulty was partly appreciated as it wasn’t as mentally taxing as some segments of the game were. While I found the game much easier than my prior attempts, it didn’t stop me running into particularly troubling battles at times. However it coinciding with the drop in quality of the storytelling meant that I was just able to get through the rest of the game at a much faster pace.
I suppose I can’t talk about any of these games without mentioning the music, which has a much different tone compared to the rest of the series. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata put together a soundtrack that ranges from quiet and foreboding themes, to bombastic battle tracks. The latter ended up being much more memorable and effective for their use of staccato rhythms and harsh percussion to really ramp up tension (though admittedly this is a trademark of Sakimoto’s work, also used to great effect in Radiant Silvergun). Even though I did enjoy listening to those tracks, they did start to wear thin eventually. The heightened bombast was often at a high level, to a point where if I listened to the soundtrack by itself I wouldn’t as easily be able to determine what the “important” battle themes were.
I don’t really have as much to say about this one, as I did some of the other games. I thought about putting it together with a few more games but that would have meant waiting much longer to get this one out as these games are taking much longer for me to play. I spent over 60 hours on this one. It’s the most time I’ve spent on a game since starting this project, and I expect that some in the future will take me even longer.
That still hasn’t diminished my excitement for moving forward since there’s some very cool games coming up after this. The next couple are Final Fantasy VIII and IX, so I’ll essentially be revisiting some of the first few games in the series I played.
Also to go back to the Final Fantasy XVI trailer, I didn’t find it very exciting. It seems a sort of game I’d probably pay much less attention to if it didn’t have Final Fantasy in the name. There’s something in the back of my mind that thinks they’re holding something back, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.
Until next time!
While I’ve pitched this as a chronological retrospective on Final Fantasy, it made too much sense to jump ahead with the various games that relate to Final Fantasy VII. Now that I’ve actually played through Final Fantasy VII Remake, I can say that it was a good idea to do it. Having fresh knowledge of them all made it much easier to write this out.
Videogame remakes have been on my mind since I played the reimaginings of Resident Evil 2 and 3 earlier this year. The difference with those is that I didn’t have as much experience with the original source that those were based on, so what I came out of those with was opinions on which one was more effective as a horror game (2 is excellent, 3 is a letdown).
However, since I’ve recently taken a closer look at the original Final Fantasy VII, that familiarity gives me a different lens that makes me unable to compare everything to how it was done before.
I’ll be talking about this game in a fair amount of detail, so if you still want to be surprised by how Remake reinterprets everything, maybe come back and read later. Maybe you could share this article with a friend who’s already played it.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
I was very interested to see what a modern take on FF7 would be. Many of the directorial staff from the original game returned for it, and when creatives return to the same story it’s often either scaled up or used to address different themes.
Actually playing Final Fantasy VII Remake is more like going to see a concert by an old favourite band. They’ll play the hits and have some new and exciting renditions of old songs, but then some of that won’t quite live up to the original quality found in original recordings. There’s also a bunch of new material, some of which is good and some I’m not so sure about.
The band has opted for a much more grandiose sound this time around, since a lot of the dials are turned up here. There’s so much more graphical detail, towns are much larger, characters have bigger personalities, key moments have more dramatic heft, it’s a harder game, and a much longer one too.
It’s strange that this hasn’t been titled “Part 1” because that’s what this is. Square Enix took the first six hours of FF7 and broadened the scope of it to make it into a 30-40 hour epic. Of course there are also some things from later in the original game that have been included, most likely out of an attempt to make this game seem more compelling. For example, Sephiroth shows up a lot more here since you seemingly can’t have Final Fantasy VII without Sephiroth.
I was a little worried that the polluted planet angle would have been a little diluted, but it actually comes in a much more concentrated dosage this time around. Areas outside Midgar look considerably more barren here, Shinra is shown to be just as greedy as ever, and when it’s made clear by the end that Sephiroth is the biggest threat to the planet it’s still mentioned that “this started with Shinra”. It’s reassuring to see this here since so much of it is missing from other FF7-related works.
They’ve done some really good work to add depth to a few of the characters too. Barret is the one that comes across the strongest, as they’ve made him feel like a real political activist here, the sort that would always carry leaflets and posters in their bag just in case. He always has prepared speeches and talking points ready for any moment, and because of that comes across a lot more confident and charismatic. He’s also shown clearly to not be wrong about it all, so you could probably mine a lot of his dialogue for quotes you can pull out in real life.
Aerith shines a lot more in this game, since she’s still the same sort of confident no-nonsense character that she was in the original, it’s just that now she’s a lot funnier. Many of her remarks got a good laugh out of me.
There isn’t much new to Cloud here, and there’s also a sense that a lot of his development is being saved for future parts of Remake, since it didn’t originally happen in Midgar. His traumas are given more focus, but only to acknowledge them. Admittedly the better moments with him are when other characters react to his stoic seriousness, especially Barret and Aerith.
Tifa is the character I’m most disappointed with. It just feels like they’ve taken the same old character from the original and injected her into this game, so compared with everyone else she just seems less interesting. She does get a small arc where she has doubts if the mission to destroy Shinra’s reactors is a good idea, but because of her rather dull characterisation it’s not very interesting to see play out.
Of course even minor characters get a lot more fleshing out. Jessie, Biggs and Wedge have more screen time and at certain parts have more plot-crucial things to do. It also seems to be really going for a 90s throwback thing since Jessie says “psych” a lot. There’s even a lot more minor characters added in, some of which already existed in a novel (I’m sure that gave some FFWiki editor a sigh of relief since they didn’t have to make as many new pages).
Midgar now feels even more like a diverse collective of districts, which helps for sure since everything is so much bigger. Each location has its own distinct aesthetic right down to the colour palettes used. I could see a picture of something close up in either the Sector 7 or Sector 5 slums and tell which location it is. I really liked slowly exploring them too, as this game’s closer third-person moveable camera really lent itself well to these spaces. It would have been nice if there was a first-person view so I could get an even closer look. It really does feel more like a place people live in, especially since you’re given a place to stay in Sector 7 as well. My only frustration was with how townspeople dialogue was handled as it was cool to hear it diegetically as I walked around, but it became a little annoying to hear the same lines again as I went by the same people.
Just about everything in this game is so much bigger. Instead of immediately going into a second reactor attack after finishing the first, there’s more space for downtime with side quests available to take part in, followed by a detour to infiltrate a warehouse. Once I was on my way to the second reactor, I still had to get through two full-sized areas before getting there.
Once I made it to the final segment of the reactor itself, that was when the Air Buster was introduced. In the original game the Air Buster was just a boss that showed up for a fight that lasted a few minutes. In Remake, it’s given a much longer build-up with an opportunity to make choices on how to sabotage it beforehand. Before fighting it members of Shinra appear as gargantuan holographic projections to taunt Cloud and company (and remain doing so throughout the fight). The fight itself is a big and bombastic three-phase boss encounter, one of the more difficult in the game and some of the most fun I had playing it. I’ll get into why I really like the combat a bit later since I want to focus a bit more on the pacing.
Though all the sections I mentioned are much larger than how they were in Final Fantasy VII, I didn’t really feel as though they were padded out. Just before I got bored of each area I was able to move onto a new part. Where I felt it really started to slow down was when I reached Wall Market. It’s the structure of it that really got to me, since characters would dangle the way forward in front of me and then say “but first you have to go and do something else for me”. I get that’s how videogames often work, but it happened too often here and I was getting a little sick of it.
Then it was followed by a sewer area that seemed to go on forever, and after that a train graveyard that felt like it existed only to pad out the game. I wonder if this is because I had recently played the original game. I really felt the length as I’d seen a shorter version of it. I’m absolutely certain that they’ve done this so that this first part is roughly just as long as the original game so people don’t feel ripped off (it actually took me longer since I did a lot of sidequests).
Thankfully some areas after this manage to justify their larger size. The race to stop the Sector 7 plate from falling becomes a much more desperate climb that seems even more tragic when the party fails to stop it. The journey up the wall to reach the game’s final area becomes a moment to pause and see the destruction that Shinra has caused by dropping the plate. It gives a moment for the party to really lay out their motivations, by showing what they want to prevent in the future. However I do wish that I didn’t have an extended stay in Hojo’s laboratory, it’s a good thing that I enjoyed Remake’s combat a lot.
It’s an action RPG combat system this time around, where button presses initiate attacks immediately, and any incoming enemy attacks must be dodged or blocked. When player attacks hit an enemy it builds up a bar which can be spent to use abilities, spells or items. What I love about this is that it brings back the same sort of tension found in turn based games, once the bar’s been spent it has to be built back up again, so care needs to be taken when deciding between big damage abilities or healing spells/items. It did bring about some tense moments where I had to choose between finishing off a weakened boss with a big attack or helping my party recover.
There’s also a stagger bar on every enemy, something which the game has lifted from Final Fantasy XIII. In this game it’s essentially a bar that fills up by just damaging the enemy or doing more specific actions in battle. Once the bar fills up, the enemy is temporarily stunned and takes a lot more damage than normal. It felt great to do this in FF13 and it still feels good here, as it’s a moment when the pressure’s eased off and I was able to do some really big damage.
The game almost requires a player to be constantly engaging with these systems, which meant that I actually found some of it quite hard as I was getting used to it. Air Buster is actually the moment where I found I had to do that. It’s also followed by a really good battle against Reno which shows that switching to an action RPG system lends itself really well for a 1v1 fight.
They did put a lot of minigames in here as well, but they’re mostly bad. I guess that’s true to the original game. The one I disliked the most was a stealth sequence where Cloud has to sneak out of Aerith’s house. The more realistic movement in Remake made it extremely difficult to maneuver around the collections of small items on the floor. The bike chase is still fun at least.
As usual this game is full of excellent music. Masashi Hamauzu and his team have done some brilliant work here but this is really where my metaphor of this being like seeing an old band came from. There’s some great variations of music from the original, such as an exciting take on Fight On, or a rework of the Turks Theme as a boss music. However most of the high points of the music are still when it’s playing with things from the original game. That said there is a new theme to represent Avalanche which sounds great, and ends up with a great melancholic reprise during the climb towards Shinra tower. It’s also very funny to me that Masashi Hamauzu has managed to work in some of his score for Dirge of Cerberus. Just listen to this and this for comparison.
I’ve made this sound like a big tribute act with absolute reverence to itself. For what I’ve mentioned it largely does do that, but the end of this game makes some huge changes that are foreshadowed throughout beforehand. It’s the sort of thing that has me very excited for what comes next in subsequent games.
There are a bunch of moments where it looks like things are going to play out very differently, but then a horde of ghosts show up to ensure that the events of the original game happen. They are eventually revealed to be “Whispers”, arbiters of fate who ensure destiny runs its course. The party eventually decides to fight against these Whispers, and that becomes the penultimate boss fight, but before you fight them the party sees visions of the future which are events that happen later in the original game such as Aerith’s death and Meteor heading towards the world. Those visions are described as “what would happen if we lose today”, so the party fights against the whispers and works to essentially prevent the events of Final Fantasy VII from happening! In the end they seemingly succeed, after the game throws in a fight with Sephiroth because the developers got a little impatient (though the version of One-Winged Angel made for it is stellar).
I would probably have been okay with a new version that stayed mostly true to the original, though I’d still have complaints if it had the same pacing as this. But how this game ends up feels like a clear statement that going forward, things are going to be done a little differently. Before I started Final Fantasy VII Remake, I was thinking about moments I would have liked to have seen recreated and most of them were not in the Midgar section this game is based on. Now that I’ve seen this ending I don’t care about that anymore, I want to see what new things they’re hiding up their sleeve. The end of this game brought in some big dramatic changes and I’m hungry for more of those. I’ve already played Final Fantasy VII before.
With that ending I’m very glad I went through the original Final Fantasy VII beforehand. If I didn’t already have that knowledge going in the ending would have meant nothing to me. Weirdly part of the ending involved a recreation of a scene from Crisis Core, so I can imagine a new player just being very lost to what’s going on.
After having played a bunch of older games in chronological order until the mid-90s, suddenly jumping ahead to Final Fantasy VII Remake feels almost overwhelming. A lot of differences that would have just accumulated over the course of many games have now just all appeared at once like I’ve suddenly jumped into a videogame timehole where I’m seeing the future. Soon I will have to go back in time and start up Final Fantasy Tactics, which I hope I enjoy.
Until next time!