Sunday, November 30, 2014

Final Fantasy XII: Review

This has been hard to write for me.  I've spent over 50 hours with Final Fantasy XII and for most of that I felt like I didn't really "get" it.  I never connected with the story or the characters and that's definitely not a good thing.  I wanted the game to "click" after the first few hours so I could write some impressions... but it never really did.  So, I waited until I finished to write a full review.  Let's get to it.

The story is set on a grand scale.  The first half hour is a giant cutscene full of lots of politics and war.  The grand scale continues throughout the storyline of the game.  It ends up dwarfing the main cast of characters.  It's so grand that it feels removed from the actions of your characters most of the time.  The last few hours tie the political events to three of the six characters, but it takes way too long for that to finally happen.

Final Fantasy games always invent their own terms but this is the first Final Fantasy where it feels overdone.  If I remember correctly, this is a trend that carries through to Final Fantasy XIII too.  There are terms that are never directly explained but which are obviously important to the plot.  Magicite, Nethecite, Day-Affected Nethecite.  Not to mention the various and confusing names of different countries and rulers of those countries.  The characters seem very impressed by these terms but I didn't care for most of the game because they were never explained to me.  I eventually figured it out, but once again it took too long to get there.

The scale is grand, the stakes are high, but the main characters don't actually change or grow that much.  Final Fantasy XII does not have a character driven story.

The main character, Vaan, isn't actually the protagonist of the story.  He doesn't really do anything.  Things just sort of happen to him or around him.  He's never that important.  It's really disheartening to see this character that I have to use for the entire game be so unimportant to the plot.  The creators of Final Fantasy XII have even said that Basch and Ashe were originally the main characters and that Vaan and Penelo were added very late in development because they were afraid teenagers wouldn't be able to connect with the more mature characters in the game.  It's sad.  I think I would have liked this game much more if Basch or Ashe was the main character.

While the characters barely develop and the plot is grand and plodding at least the world is well done.  Final Fantasy XII is set in Ivalice which is one of the few worlds that actually gets used across a number of games.  The Final Fantasy Tactics series is all set in Ivalice as well as a non Final Fantasy game by the same developer, Vagrant Story.  The world has different species with complex interactions.  It has many regions, cities, empires, and political factions.  Although they aren't used to great effect in Final Fantasy XII, they are well realized.  It actually makes me really excited to get around to the Final Fantasy Tactics games again.  I would love to spend more time in Ivalice if it were used better as a setting (which it is in other games).

The way Ivalice is used in Final Fantasy XII is to create a large open world.  That sounds great when I write it down, but in fact, this game feels like a single-player MMO with all of the drawbacks of MMOs but none of the benefits of playing with other people.  Wandering the open world is novel at first but once you get some decent Gambits set up it becomes a complete grind.  And that trend continues for the rest of the game.

That's the main problem with the Gambit system.  If you're even semi-intelligent with your Gambit set-up the game ends up playing itself during battle.  It lets you program your characters to react in intelligent ways based on certain conditions.  Boss fights in this game became snack breaks for me.  My Gambits were solid and Bosses have a ton of health.  I would put my controller down, make a snack, and eat that snack while the battle played itself out.  I'm not lying, this is literally what I did for every boss in the last three fourths of the game.

While the Gambit system ends up playing itself, at least the License Board progression system is interesting for awhile.  Basically, characters gain License Points by killing enemies.  These can be spent to acquire Licenses for gear, magic, or abilities on the License Board.  You still need to purchase the gear, magic, or ability but to actually be able to use it you must have the License for it.  For the first half of the game it's really fun.  You have to figure out which way to grow each character and balance the different abilities and gear.

Unfortunately, in the second half of Final Fantasy XII everyone basically becomes a Red Mage.  If you're unfamiliar with the term, Red Mages in the Final Fantasy series can use magic and really good melee weapons and generally are able to use most of the armor in a game.  They are the jack of all trades in the Final Fantasy universe.  This is what happens once your characters progress far enough in the License Board.  Everyone knows every spell, every ability, and can equip every weapon, armor, and accessory.  At that point in the game the License Board becomes useless as a progression system.

The complexity of the Gambit and License Board systems adds up to a very slow start for this game.  The first three to six hours feel like you're still in a tutorial and don't have access to everything you need.  It's really frustrating.

But it's not just the first six hours that feel slow.  The pacing in Final Fantasy XII is bad throughout the whole game.  There are long sections of necessary grinding and spending time in the wilderness followed by super long info-dump cutscenes which often run longer than fifteen minutes.  Most of the time I could make a snack during a cutscene too.  They were that long and un-engaging.

I would be remiss to not mention the music in a Final Fantasy game.  Sadly, Nobuo Uematsu only composed the title theme for Final Fantasy XII and it shows.  The rest of the music is lackluster and unmemorable.  The music of Final Fantasy defined the series up to this point, but with the loss of Nobuo Uematsu the Final Fantasy series takes a serious blow in the music department.  I turned down the audio for most of the game and listened to podcasts instead.  I can't believe I did that with a Final Fantasy game, but the music just wasn't good.

So where do I sit with Final Fantasy XII?  It has tons of potential and it just doesn't live up to it.  I wanted this game to be so much more than it was.  It tries to do new and interesting things.  It has such high production values.  I thought it would be near the the top in my Final Fantasy Ranking... but it won't be.  I didn't enjoy most of my time with the game.  There is no way I would have finished it if it didn't have the Final Fantasy name attached.  The only way I'll ever replay this is if they do a complete remaster and fix the grind and the pacing.  Take that as you will.

Final Fantasy Ranking
1. IX
2. X
4. VII
5. VI
6. IV
7. V
8. XII
9. II
10. I

Total Completion Time: 50 hrs 35 mins

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mario Kart DLC

I don't usually write about DLC.  It's not typically something worthy of writing about.  I think the Mario Kart DLC is a fantastic value for the money so it deserves some talk.

There are two scheduled DLC packs for Mario Kart 8.  The first just released a few days ago.  It includes two new cups, which means eight new tracks.  Eight tracks in a cart racer is a huge amount of content.  Along with these come three new characters; Link, Tanooki Mario, and Cat Peach.  Not to mention four new vehicles.

My daughter and I have been having a blast with it.  The new tracks are fantastic and they're getting me re-engaged with the game.  I don't know if I've ever had DLC pull me back into a game like this, but new tracks in Mario Kart is seriously awesome.  My daughter has been enjoying playing with the new characters and vehicles. She loves customizing her racer and changing it every race.

This DLC has already convinced me to drop $7.99 for the next pack with a similar amount of content.  If you've grown tired of Mario Kart 8 or it has fallen off your radar... it might be time to take another look.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Games and Sick Days

I'm sick.  It sucks.  My son has been fighting off a bug for the past two weeks and in taking care of him I managed it pick it up.

But, one benefit that has come out of being sick at home all week is getting to blast through some of the new releases that have been coming out.  They're hard to keep up with.  And I got to try a mobile game that's been on my radar for awhile.  Let's go rapid fire impressions here.

Assassin's Creed: Unity
I'm playing on PS4.  I've seen tons of hate for this game online and it seems to be especially buggy.  In my experience on my console I've only had frame rate slow down a couple times in the course of over 10 hours of play.  I only hit a weird animation bug once.  Your mileage may vary.  Especially if you're playing on PC or Xbox One.  Apparently they're much worse than PS4.

I'm a huge fan of Assassin's Creed so I'm still having a lot of fun with it.  That being said, if you aren't a huge fan of the series you should avoid this one.  They've taken out a lot of cool things that were in the last few games.  There's no competitive multiplayer.  There's no ship combat.  There aren't multiple cities.  There isn't a good story.

So why am I still having fun with it?  Well, the core missions are really well designed.  Stealth finally matters in an Assassin's Creed game.  I used to be able to run in and kill and infinite number of guards because I understand the combat system.  I can't do that anymore.  The enemies are much tougher and the game is better for it.  Now, I feel like a badass when I can stealth my way through a mission.  Also, they added co-op missions which are a ton of fun.

Most people should avoid this game.  If you're a die hard fan of Assassin's Creed, like me, you might want to pick it up anyway.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
I think I'm done with Call of Duty.  I loved Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the follow up game, Modern Warfare 2.  They were amazing.  They're some of the best shooters that have been made.  I've wanted to like the Call of Duty games they've released since then but they just don't click with me anymore.

Advanced Warfare is another Call of Duty.  Now you have mechanical exo suits to help you do things like magnetically climb walls, slow down time, go invisible, and jump really high.  They sound like cool abilities on paper, but in practice you can only do that at very specific points in the story when you are prompted it.  It was extremely disappointing for me.

I don't think there is anything wrong with the game, the problem is that it's just not a series for me anymore.  I need to stop convincing myself that I'll like the newest version of the game.  If you're a Call of Duty fan I'm sure you already know if you'll pick this one up or not.

Dragon Quest I (iOS)
I missed having a mobile RPG.  Final Fantasy I through VI spoiled me.  I got used to always having a RPG ready to go in my pocket.  While I was playing through the next few Final Fantasy games on Vita it didn't bug me, but now that I'm tackling Final Fantasy XII on PC I'm beginning to realize how much I like having a mobile RPG.

Anyway, Dragon Quest I is good.  I've never played the series before, but so far I like it.  It has a different flavor than a Final Fantasy game but the old school charm is still there.  I love the way that I never see a game over screen in Dragon Quest.  If I die I just get sent back to my home castle and I retain all my levels and items.  It's encouraging me to really explore and not worry about being under leveled the way I would in a Final Fantasy game.  The turn based combat and RPG trappings are making me very happy.  I'm going to keep picking away at this game in 5-10 minute chunks until I finish it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Final Fantasy XII: Emulating Legally

I was worried about how I was going to play Final Fantasy XII.  Almost every Final Fantasy game has either been re-released, remastered, remade, or released on multiple systems.  Final Fantasy XII is the only mainline game that hasn't been.  It is available on PS2 and that's it.  There's a rumor that it's going to get the HD remaster treatment the same way Final Fantasy X did, but a rumor doesn't do me any good right now.

I own a PS2 and a copy of Final Fantasy XII.  They're sitting in my closet right now.  The problem is I don't have any good spot to set up the console, I don't want to view the game in low resolution via composite cables, I don't want to be tethered via a hardwired controller, and I don't want to have to get to save spots to save my game.  I've been spoiled by my iOS and Vita games.  I need the ability to suspend or save anywhere.  It helps games fit into my life so much better.  The rest are just minor inconveniences but not having save anywhere or game suspend capabilities is huge for me.

That brings us to emulation.  I usually hate emulating things.  I like to pay creators for the work they've done and emulation is usually tied up with pirating.  I will gladly buy a game multiple times if it is released on new systems.  I re-purchased Final Fantasy VII through Final Fantasy X to be able to play them on my Vita.  I appreciate that the creators made them available on a modern system, so I'll happily pay for it.  That being said, it's not an option for Final Fantasy XII.

I did a little research and found out that, generally, it's ok to emulate if you own the game and rip your own .iso file of it.  Well, I do own the game.  I paid for it.  So, I did exactly that.  I ripped my own .iso file from the game I already owned.  I mean, it was just sitting in the closet.

Next, I dug into pcsx2, which is a PS2 emulator.  It's a fully featured emulator with tons of extra plugins and options.  One of the things I love about it is that it doesn't supply you with the PS2 bios.  You have to own a PS2 and retrieve your own bios out of it in order to play games.  So, I did.

Basically I'm using my own PS2 bios and an .iso of my own copy of Final Fantasy XII in order to play the game on my PC.  This is essentially as legal as emulation gets, which is why I wanted to share.  The only thing I downloaded was the emulator itself.  Everything else came from me.

Doing this emulation research has brought something very interesting to light.  Final Fantasy XII was actually made with high resolution textures.  You could never tell while playing it on PS2 because the native resolution is somewhere around 640 by 480.  But, playing it on a computer monitor via an emulator I'm able to crank the resolution up.

This game looks so good!  It's amazing that all this detail was hidden in the game the entire time.  I feel like it would be comparatively easy to give this game an HD remaster.  Most of the work is already done, it was just hiding!  It actually lends some credence to that rumor of a remaster coming along soon.

If you want to see it in motion, here is a video that someone else put together.  The settings and appearance of the game are very close to mine.

I played a little bit of Final Fantasy XII just to make sure my setup would work correctly.  It seems to be pretty solid and un-buggy.  For reference, I'm playing the game on a high end Windows gaming PC with a Xbox 360 controller.  I need to play more before I get some real first impressions written up about the game itself.

Another item of note, Final Fantasy XII has two versions.  I'm playing the original US version of the game, because it's the one I own.  In most other parts of the world you can get the International Zodiac Job System version of the game.  I won't be playing that.  I've heard it changes the progression mechanics in an interesting way but I have no way to play it legally.  So, I won't.  I'll just play my US copy of the game.

I know this was a long post to essentially say, "Here's how I'm playing the game." but I went through a lot to figure it out, so I wanted to share it with you.  Expect some real first impressions of the game soon.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Final Fantasy XI: Not for Me

Let's talk about Final Fantasy XI and The Final Fantasy Project.  As I mentioned when I started this project, I'm not planning on including the MMO Final Fantasy games.  MMOs are living breathing worlds.  They're generally not good at telling a single player story.  But, at this point in my playthrough, I would be remiss to not mentioned a fully numbered mainline game.

My experience with Final Fantasy XI was short.  I bought it a few months after it launched and tried it out.  Based on the release date listed on Wikipedia, this would mean I was trying it out in the winter of 2004, about eleven years ago.

I didn't like the game.  I really wanted to.  I was a huge fan of Final Fantasy and MMOs by then.  I had played Final Fantasy VII through Final Fantasy X and enjoyed each one.  Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XI never clicked with me.

The biggest problem was most likely my experience with other MMOs.  By the time Final Fantasy XI came out I had already been playing Everquest for a long time.  I started playing it soon after it launched in 1999 and played EQ regularly with my friends throughout middle school and a little into high school.  This also inspired me to try out a ton of other MMOs as they launched.

EQ was my first MMO but by the time Final Fantasy XI came out I had probably already played four or five.  Compared to them, Final Fantasy XI just wasn't as good.  It already felt behind the times.

I played for less than two weeks and then gave up.  I've never gone back to it, and I don't plan to.

That's not to say it's a bad game.  It's just a game that's not for me.

I've heard from a lot of people who experienced Final Fantasy XI as their first MMO and they absolutely love it.  Some people on my twitter feed are still playing it.  I'm really glad it exists.  It engaged a whole new group of people with MMOs and Final Fantasy.  I count that as a good thing.

It's not the only Final Fantasy MMO either.  Final Fantasy XIV followed in it's footsteps.

I may be tempted to give Final Fantasy XIV a try when I finish my playthrough of the other single player mainline games.  It's a modern MMO on multiple platforms and I've heard a lot of good things about it.  It's still not a single player RPG, so no promises.  But... maybe.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Final Fantasy X: Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Final Fantasy X.  I finished the whole game in a week and a half.  That's the fastest I've finished any game in the series.  It hooked me and I was engaged enough to pick up the game every single night.

Overall, my initial impressions still stand.  This is a great game with wonder characters that interact in a well realized world.  The story is strong and drives the whole game.  It's not too difficult and very friendly for new players.  This is where I'm going to direct Final Fantasy newbies if they ask me where to start the series.

Compared to my initial impressions I did have a change of heart about the sphere grid.  I thought it was simply a gimmicky replacement for leveling up.  At low levels that's still true.  That changes when characters start to break out of their primary sphere grid path near the end of the game.  They get the option to cross over into other characters' paths or even teleport to the opposite side of the sphere grid.  It makes for some fun customization.  For example, Rikku's intended break out path is to go over to Lulu's section and start picking up black magic.  Instead, I teleported her over Auron's path and made her into a heavy hitter.  I thought it was hilarious.  She has this tiny attack animation and now it does massive damage.  I had fun with it.

Let's talk about a couple stylistic choices in the game.  These aren't objectively good or bad but they are worth noting.

In the Vita version there is a quick heal option.  Swipe the screen while walking around and a touch menu comes up with the option to heal via magic or items.  Touch the button and the game will automatically heal the party in the most efficient manner.  I love this feature.  Now I want it in every RPG ever.

There is no camera control in the game.  Even though this is the first Final Fantasy with a 3D world you are never able to look around freely.  You get to see what the game wants you to see.  It allows the developers to frame up excellent looking visuals but it does take away some agency from the player.

This game is linear.  There are a lot of corridors that obviously only lead one direction.  There are some paths that branch off and there are cities to help break up the linearity but there's no open overworld to explore.  Even after getting the airship there is still no traditional overworld.  The airship is just a menu with location names to pick.  It feels efficient, but it never truly gives a sense of scale to the world.

After getting the airship there are some optional sidequests to complete.  The problem with them is the length.  They are either too short or too long.  There are a handful that are basically go to a location and open a chest.  Those take almost no time.  There are a couple that are go to a location and kill a boss.  Those are still super short.  The other kind of quest is too long.  Things like kill ten of every monster in the game while equipped with specific weapons.  I know those long quests will appeal to some people, but they're definitely not for me.

Those are just some observations.  I have my opinions about them, but none of them are obviously bad.  Things that bugged me, like sidequest length, will appeal to other people.

Taken altogether what does this add up to?  Well, Final Fantasy X is easily the most friendly game for new players in the Final Fantasy series.  If you've always wanted to try a Final Fantasy game but you've been intimidated by the size of the series you owe it to yourself to try Final Fantasy X.  It is my number one recommendation for Final Fantasy newbies.

When it comes to personal preference it doesn't quite win top spot for me.  Final Fantasy IX still holds that place.  There is nothing I can point to and say Final Fantasy IX is better because of x, y, and z.  Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X are such different games that they're hard to compare.  This is especially true because of the jump between console generations.  After replaying Final Fantasy X I'm sure it's the favorite game of many people, but my heart still belongs to Final Fantasy IX.

Final Fantasy Ranking
1. IX
2. X
4. VII
5. VI
6. IV
7. V
8. II
9. I

Total Completion Time: 34 hrs 10 mins