Wednesday, December 28, 2022

My "Favorite Final Fantasy" Rankings, 2022 Edition

The results of a recent Final Fantasy popularity poll, held in honor of the franchise's 35th anniversary, were being passed around the Internet recently, with most discussion homing in on FFX's Wakka ranking as voters' second-favorite character. The poll, conducted by Japanese streaming service NicoNico, with a small sample size and clearly influenced by memes of the moment, was no more authoritative than any of the numerous other surveys routinely run by gaming publications and fan forums. But it did remind me that my personal rankings have not been updated in over 12 years, during which time I have played a few newer entries, while some of my feelings on older ones may have changed or evolved. I've also decided to do away with separate lists for "story" vs. "systems," acknowledging that one cannot practically separate the experience of the one from the other. Which brings us now to my 2022 edition of "Omega Warzard's Definitive Ranking of Numbered Final Fantasy Games":

  1. IV
    • Final Fantasy IV is always the one I hold up as the ideal entry point into the series. This is because it exemplifies the qualities I personally have most enjoyed in any Final Fantasy: a well-paced narrative, a dramatic story, and battles that challenge me just enough to give me pride in my victory. The last time I did a ranking, I considered IV's story dated. It is not deep, but neither do more recent Final Fantasy games feel written for adult audiences, and the layers of convoluted nonsense they have added instead have actually helped IV age better by comparison. The gameplay, at first glance, might also seem the simplest in the series—it's the only Final Fantasy with almost no party customization options—but the satisfaction comes not in augmenting your units into godlike killing machines, but in puzzling out how best to play the hand you've been dealt to overcome the most thoughtfully designed boss battles.
  2. IX
    • While earlier games tried to push things forward, IX's combat deliberately regressed to a simpler form of the ATB system, and in that aspect felt more dated than all the older games. The frequency of the fighting made the journey a bit of a slog, so if you play one of the more modern ports that offers boosters to trivialize or even bypass battles, don't feel too proud to take advantage. Because the rest of the experience is essential—from beginning to end, one of the cleverest and most consistently compelling stories and most lovable casts of characters in any video game. Perhaps the only other negative about the experience is that, because the quality of the writing is so high, you'll feel obligated to play with a guide at all times, for fear of missing out on anything.
  3. VII
    • VII is a lot closer to the earliest games in the series, both by release date now and in the feel of its gameplay loop, than it is to XIV or XV, or to other modern RPGs. In its own time, both convention and comfort abounded in exploring its dungeons, flying across its overworld, and cutting down foes via its menu-based combat. Yet its world felt like something truly new and original, boldly ambitious in its art direction and subject matter. The story was not merely escapist fantasy, but treated games as a legitimate medium for its creators to earnestly express philosophy and spirituality, albeit it also opened the door to, and itself set one foot in, the pseudophilosophical nonsense that would later pervade and all but sink the JRPG genre.
  4. VIII
    • It's less an opinion than a matter of historical fact now that VIII's torpid narrative was the biggest stumble in the series up to that point. In contrast, its fast-flowing combat, accentuating almost every onscreen action with a timed button press, was the ultimate expression of the ATB system (at least perhaps until FFX-2, which I've never played and which doesn't count). And the journey did wrap up a lot stronger than it began, with the most exhilarating final boss theme and then the most satisfying ending cinematic in the series.
  5. VI
    • In hindsight, this was 2D Final Fantasy "Endgame"—the culmination of all that had come before. After IV, the series was the recognized leader in video games as a storytelling medium, and expectations were at a fever pitch for the next step forward. VI more than lived up, with a story that was bigger and writing by far more mature than its predecessors. At least, that's how I would have described the first half. The back half took a huge swing, quite literally wiping out everything that had worked so well up to that point, and it remains, to my mind, one of the great unfulfilled promises in gaming.
  6. XIV
    • This is a hard one to rank, since it continues to grow and evolve, with each major expansion almost but not quite a full story unto itself. The current base game, A Realm Reborn, is tedious and uneventful, and would probably rank closer to the bottom of this list. Heavensward (which is as far as I've played) is what earns XIV its place here. It offers possibly the weightiest climax of any Final Fantasy, though it cannot be properly appreciated in a vacuum apart from A Realm Reborn.
  7. I
    • Dated, certainly, but still elegant in its simplicity, largely because the original classes were so well and purely defined. No subsequent tank or DPS classes or characters have so wholly embodied their roles as the original warrior and monk respectively. It's fun even just to theorycraft about how different party compositions can be made to work in this game. And if it is perhaps a tad grindy, well, it probably still takes less time to get through than every other entry on this list.
  8. V
    • The job system was certainly more robust than ever, and there was great satisfaction to be found in mixing abilities from different classes to yield lethal combinations. But quite a lot of jobs were quite frankly redundant—too much the same as or worse than other jobs. The bloat makes it less accessible than I, and the story, while passable, is fairly generic JRPG, lightyears behind its immediate predecessor's diverse cast of heroes and antiheroes.
  9. X
    • The introduction of voice-acted and motion-captured cutscenes was both thrilling and jarring, as Tidus and friends presented as more starkly cartoonish than, ironically, the super-deformed characters I had grown up with. But the story still delivered some signature emotional highs, bolstered by composer Nobuo Uematsu's last major contributions to the series. The battle system was immaculately tuned and strategic, to the point of being exhausting.
  10. XV
    • Grand and effectively moody but nonsensical in its plot. The systems and mechanics were too numerous and complex for how unrewarding it felt to ever stray from the main road.
  11. II
    • Some later remakes/remasters made the notoriously unbalanced leveling system a lot less grindy. Freed of its punishing aspects, it becomes a serviceable JRPG of its age, with a just compelling enough story, though nothing to warrant a detour but for series completionists.
  12. III
    • I played about 20 percent of the 3D remake before hitting a wall. It had some charm, but ultimately felt like a bitter intermediate stage between I and V—less elegant than the former, less flexible than the latter.
  13. XII
    • I only sampled a small portion and found it grueling. I do know the characters and story, though not with fondness.
  14. XIII
    • I have not played this yet, nor am I very familiar with the characters or story. What I gleaned of it via Final Fantasy Record Keeper seemed senseless and convoluted.
  15. XI
    • I will likely never play this archaic MMORPG.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The New Old Taylor

The venerable (read: old and stale) video game World of Warcraft has in recent years enjoyed some renewed interest, ironically, by releasing a "classic" version that recreated the state of the game circa 2006, prior to all the additions and streamlining introduced in subsequent expansions. Each expansion can be thought of as an era in the game's life, and the prospect of traveling back in time to the first age has proven appealing both to latecomers wishing to experience some storied legacy content for themselves, and also for nostalgic veterans wanting to return to the game as they remember it from its peak. And it's not just a frozen moment in time. The classic version of WoW is now starting to progress through those subsequent eras, so its players may very well get to relive, at an accelerated pace, the entire history of the game, before it ultimately catches up to and converges again with its modern incarnation.

To be clear, WoW did not pioneer the idea of classic or "progression" versions of games. As it has since its conception, it just copied an existing game and did the same thing with a larger budget to much greater success. And classic versions of WoW specifically were something its players had been requesting for years, and had in fact already created unofficially on their own. But though the concept had been around, it had always perplexed me as, in essence, an exercise in willful regression, whose charm was lost on me. That is, until now that Taylor Swift is essentially doing it in the music industry with her "Taylor's Version" re-recordings of her first six studio albums.

Officially, the impetus for the re-recordings was Swift's desire to produce master versions of her back catalog that she would fully own, as a way to get around having to play ball with whomever has possession of the original recordings. With the goal of supplanting the originals, she has kept the re-recordings indistinguishable from them to all but the most scrutinizing ears, which at first would not seem the most artistically exciting prospect for listeners not invested in her ownership saga.

For the two thus-far-released re-recording albums—Fearless and Red—Swift has seized creative opportunities to dig out of the vault previously unreleased songs from each era. Indeed, even if the re-recorded tracks held no interest, there is enough added material to make each album feel substantial and worthwhile.

The most publicized addition, actually a bit of both a re-recording and a vault track, has been a 10-minute version of Red's "All Too Well." Although the original version of the breakup ballad has come to be regarded by many as Swift's magnum opus, I could barely recall it when "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault)" intriguingly appeared atop my Spotify Release Radar playlist last Friday. I enjoyed Swift's music when Red released in 2012, but not to the extent that I ever purchased any records or listened to an album straight through, so "All Too Well" was easily overlooked as a relative deep cut, compared to high-charting singles "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "I Knew You Were Trouble," and "22."

Ashamedly, I think my initial reaction to seeing the words "10 Minute Version" was to scoff at the notion of doubling the length of a Taylor Swift song to contrive out of it some pop "Free Bird." But this song IS freaking epic! By around the 4-minute mark, it had humbled me as few works of art ever have. By the end of my first listen, it had cemented for me Swift's place as one of the all-time singer-songwriter stars.

But more than any single new discovery, the real treat of these re-recordings is having an occasion to revisit and reexamine these eras in Swift's career. Fearless was the album that elevated her to mainstream chart-topping superstardom back in 2008, so she has been a force in music for over a decade. She followed that with a string of three albums, including Red, against which one would have to be cognitively on another planet to argue for anyone but her as the artist of the 2010's.

Nevertheless, in some circles, it would not be until the surprise mid-pandemic release of the experimental Folklore in 2020 that Swift would produce an indie record cool enough to legitimize her songwriting chops. In the post-Folklore world of enhanced estimation for her as an artist, and apart from any distractions in her public life and persona that might once have motivated a less enlightened generation of critics to want to take her down a peg, now with her back catalog suddenly topping the charts again, the cool kids can finally unironically appreciate the music of those earlier works for what it has always been—be it the impeccable hooks and pop melodies of "You Belong with Me," or the lyrical command and masterful narrative imagery of "All Too Well" that prefigured 2020 Swift.

For many longtime fans, meanwhile, these albums represent peak Taylor Swift. We didn't need the reminder, but we're glad for it anyway. And I think I get now why World of Warcraft players wanted a classic version. Even in cases where past content might still have been accessible (just as Swift's back catalog has remained readily available to listen to at any time), it wouldn't have been the same experiencing it through the modern version, where successive generations of shiny new things have rendered the old trivial and obsolete. No, when people share stories of "back in the day," you want to experience it as it actually was back in the day. Most of all, you want to recapture the thrill of when the old was new and exciting, and everybody was talking about it. That's the feeling I get whenever one of these "new old Taylor" releases takes over Spotify, SNL, and every culture and entertainment blog I follow.

In fact, now I wish Swift and other artists as well would start doing this as a regular feature. World of Warcraft has begun to progress the classic version onward through different eras of the game, but it seems likely this will be a cyclical thing, with new doors to the old world opening up for more tours of the past. There will always be people wanting to go back to the original, after all, either because they missed it the last time around, or because the newer stuff just doesn't compare for them. Similarly, after Swift finishes taking us on this journey through her past eras, I would not object to starting it all over again at some point.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013)

As the world burns, I am playing Final Fantasy XIV.

Indeed, for the better part of the year 2020, I played the Square Enix MMORPG—my first MMORPG ever!—almost to the exclusion of all other leisure, the unplanned consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting everything down. My adventure actually began a little before that, however, with a more earnest interest.

When my online Final Fantasy game of choice, Final Fantasy Record Keeper, started including characters from FFXIV, they were strangers to me and most of my fellow nostalgia-baited FFRK players. But the handful of Redditors that existed in the overlap between the two games’ audiences were more than happy to explain at length what Y’shtola and Thancred’s stories were, and invariably they would expound further into full-on impassioned discourses arguing why FFXIV, supposedly every bit as engrossing a story-driven adventure as the favored classics represented in FFRK, was a must-play entry for all longtime series fans. Best of all, most of it could be experienced single-player!

Having now completed A Realm Reborn (essentially, “Book 1” of FFXIV, not including an earlier version of the game that failed and was shut down) I can say that this MMORPG has so far indeed been a story-driven experience, in the sense that there is a single linear “main scenario” that makes up the bulk of activity in the game (at least until you start shooting for the endgame, which would likely take a non-hardcore player years to reach and also would not be of interest to them anyway). The A Realm Reborn portion of the story is roughly the length of a standard Final Fantasy: about 50 hours for me, though that included a few hours of side quests (most of which I undertook accidentally while figuring out how to differentiate side quests from main quests), some errant wandering, and some “away from keyboard” time (when I would take a mid-session break but leave the game running in the background). And as with any good Final Fantasy of the last three decades, you can proceed almost straight through without any grinding (though you may have to do 2-3 non-story dungeons, along with one set of class and job quests, which are worth doing anyway).

The active experience of the main scenario, however, bears only superficial resemblance to the single-player Final Fantasy classics. Series veterans longing for a return to the 16-bit glory days may welcome the high fantasy trappings and crystal motifs, but otherwise FFXIV satisfies no better than anything else post-FFXIII in bringing us home. Pitting it against FFXV specifically (since that was the last Final Fantasy I played), the two differ widely but ultimately trade blows about evenly. A Realm Reborn’s plot is far more comprehensible, which is not to say that it’s straightforward—there are myriad nations and deities to keep track of—but if it ever becomes hard to grasp, it is from the game saying too much rather than too little. The former means I sometimes get names mixed up (e.g. which member of the imperial royal family is which, when none of them have yet appeared on camera). The latter results in me not having any idea how or why Noctis in FFXV arrived at any given moment, nor what the meaning of his next plan is, such as there is one. So FFXIV looks and sounds more like my traditional conception of what a Final Fantasy should be.

Where A Realm Reborn falls short of expectations for the series is in the drama of the narrative. There is almost no rising action through the entire main scenario. This is why it was so hard initially for me to distinguish the side quests from the main quests: the actions of both felt similarly humdrum and inconsequential. More often than not, even the main quests would simply entail trekking back and forth between the same couple civilized zones within a bland overworld to fetch and/or deliver some MacGuffin. Sometimes the characters sending me on these errands would even acknowledge the tediousness of the tasks, which only aggravated me more. If you know your system is badly designed, then don’t just shrug and perpetuate it. Do better!

I kept waiting for my heroic journey to begin in earnest, and there were many false starts—a new character making a grand entrance, or a lengthy cutscene containing some bold speechifying—when I would get excited that events were about to be set in motion, only to be treated to yet another fetch quest. The characters and their speeches almost never amount to anything. To those Redditors who tried to sell me on how awesome Y’shtola and Thancred are, I say it would have been more accurate to sum them up thusly: “These are nobodies.” They barely rate as supporting characters, as their appearances are so brief and sporadic, their contributions to any action or dialogue so trivial. The only consistently significant narrative agents are Minfilia and Alphinaud, supervisory characters who exist to tell you what to do, since the player character does not have a voice to call their own shots. The choice to feature a silent and solitary protagonist is typical of MMORPGs, though fans of the SNES and PS1-era Final Fantasy games may find it a harsh break from the developed leads and party dynamics traditionally associated with the series.

Potentially more interesting than the main scenario are the class quests, depending on what class you select when creating your character. Technically optional, but required if you want to unlock core skills and abilities for your class, these are short stories that you can intermittently progress through alongside the main scenario. Perhaps because they are smaller in scope, they feel a little more intimate. By the time I completed the class quests for my gladiator character, I knew the supporting characters in that story a lot better than I ever got to know Y’shtola and Thancred through all of A Realm Reborn.

I think the narrative is further constrained by the persistent nature of the MMORPG world. Since it must be shared among many players who are at different stages of the story, nothing ever seems to change in it, which further undermines any sense of stakes beyond your immediate skirmish. By contrast, one aspect in which FFXV lived up to the Final Fantasy standard was in the grandeur of its set pieces. Looming threats turned to cataclysmic clashes that sometimes permanently altered the landscape. You could feel the end approaching through the darkening of the world, both figurative and literal. The only moments in A Realm Reborn that come close to that epic quality are the very final battles, which also happen to be among the worst moments, because the requirement that you experience them alongside other players creates a situation where randos end up photobombing all over your climax.

Yes, most of A Realm Reborn can be experienced single-player. Since quests are assigned to individuals and not groups, there is in fact almost no way to even try to work with others to clear the fetch quests together. For most of the main scenario, the other players are just passing through the background of your story, running their own errands or waging their own battles on the overworld. It does break the spell a bit when you’re trying to get through a quest dialogue, and then some dude playing weaver class decides to set down their spinning wheel right behind you to crank out a couple robes. But the fantasy was not that immersive to begin with. The real bubble-burster, for those weaned on the antisocial adventures of Cloud and Squall, and already leery of Final Fantasy going multiplayer, is when it comes time to tackle the dungeons, where players are required to party up with one another.

Most dungeons in A Realm Reborn are just long caves full of monsters, with a big boss monster at the end. There is no in-game explanation for why you must join forces with other players, only contrived reasons for why Y’shtola and Thancred can’t back you up instead. If your own mute hero is a practical nonentity, the other player characters might as well not exist at all, as far as the story is concerned. Only the most passing mentions are ever made to “your allies,” but nothing is ever said of where they come from or why they are as strong as you, despite your being a supposedly uniquely powerful warrior touched by the gods. So as a baseline, the narrative in most dungeons is thin. From there, points can only be deducted from the experience according to the degree to which the other players disrupt it.

Truly malicious behavior (e.g. bullying, offensive talk, deliberately sabotaging the group effort, etc.) is not something I have ever personally encountered in FFXIV. The more innocent kind of disruption is when some members of the party simply don’t perform well. They struggle to keep up with a boss, resulting in the entire group dying and having to restart. Sometimes it happens repeatedly, until the flailing player or another member so loses faith in the effort that they quit out, leaving the rest of the group in the lurch. I can’t entirely blame them.

The main scenario is generally well balanced for a more casual level of player, meaning that most battles can be successfully completed on the first try without ever having to grind for levels or even buy any items or equipment. Losses are almost never due to being underpowered, but rather from being underinformed about the mechanics of a boss’s gimmicks. Even in routine dungeon battles, the amount of briskly updating information to keep track of is absurd to me: health, positions, buffs and debuffs of all allies and enemies; timers telling me when each of my abilities is ready to reuse; who or where enemies are targeting (as marked by glowy shapes on the ground). Bosses add further mechanics that you might be seeing for the first time up to that point. There might be objects you have to interact with. Enemy attacks might be telegraphed through obscure text or subtle animations instead of the usual glowy shapes. When glowy shapes do appear, they might mean something different from what you’re used to them meaning. In one fight, a circle signified refuge. In the very next fight, a similar-looking circle was something to steer clear of—unless you were a tank, that is. And these things can change in the middle of a boss fight, so you have to be ready to adjust and adapt.

This can all quickly become overwhelming if it’s your first time attempting a given dungeon. Some gimmicks I’m convinced are impossible to grasp without having already experienced them once before, and I think that’s intentional to contrive comradeship through knowledge-sharing. The first players to figure out these dungeons can perhaps be thought of as pioneers, and then when they repeat them, they can share their wisdom with any newcomers in the group, and maybe the knowledge continues to get passed down that way. That’s fine in theory, but the strangers I group up with almost never give me any warning about what to expect.

When playing with strangers, I find that almost nobody ever talks, period. I get it, because I don’t talk either. It’s not what I play Final Fantasy for. But sometimes the failure to communicate is not a matter of being asocial. The worst players I’ve grouped with have been the veterans playing a dungeon for the umpteenth time, who would gladly disregard your presence, as they try to rush through as quickly as they can. The final dungeons of A Realm Reborn have been fairly ruined by the mentality of these players speeding through without giving first-timers the chance to really savor the climactic battles. (The battles probably also need to be rebalanced at some point, as the bosses are too weak now even for casual playthroughs.) But this is a problem that the designers created, and it shouldn’t be the players’ responsibility to sort it out on their own. This is also a problem, mind you, that simply doesn’t exist in the single-player Final Fantasy games I favor.

The multiplayer experience I’ve described is of playing in “pick-up groups” with strangers, since that’s nearly the only option when on the free trial. If you can manage to group with friends or family members, then the experience is certainly different. The pressure to keep pace with strangers’ unspoken expectations falls away, as does the diplomatic cautiousness of whether to give advice to someone who hasn’t asked for help but needs it. What’s left is a decent cooperative game that reminds me a little of the joys of questing with my siblings back in the day in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles and Dragon Quest IX, albeit without the full immersive context of being able to do anything together other than fight. At least the complexities of the combat actually become a boon, as they make for a less monotonous experience than those games.

At its best then, what FFXIV offers is something completely different from what I would traditionally seek from a Final Fantasy game, but it can be fun, if treated as a cooperative experience with friends. The fetch quest material in between each dungeon, at least in A Realm Reborn, is kind of a drag, but I have heard that the story picks up quite a bit in the next installment, Heavensward. I’m not sure all of my issues—silent protagonist, thin supporting cast, rando photobombers—can ever be resolved within FFXIV's MMORPG framework, but I’ll stick with the free trial for a while longer, and perhaps report back in a year on my Heavensward experience.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix, 2016)

It took me two years on-and-off (mostly off) to slog my way through the first five chapters of Final Fantasy XV, about a month of intermittent play to plow through the middle four, and only a single day to sprint through the last five. It’s a JRPG with a split personality, to a degree I haven’t encountered since Xenogears.

Many players bemoan the unrealized potential of the open world, which midway through the campaign becomes closed off and gives way to a rigidly linear experience. In the case of such a story-driven JRPG as Final Fantasy XV, I personally feel that leaving players to explore at their leisure undermines the alleged urgency and high stakes of the characters’ situation even during the earlier part of the game, and would make zero sense once things shift into high gear later. For me, Final Fantasy XV becomes much more interesting after it narrows its focus. This despite the story not being very good.

Following a one-line prophecy and an intense but absent-context flash-forward, Final Fantasy XV’s story begins with the protagonist prince and his party setting out to rendezvous with his fiancee, while the king prepares to host “guests from Niflheim.” The loading screen for Chapter 1 clarifies that this is a political marriage you’re off to, but then your car immediately breaks down, and you find yourself consequently steered toward a series of detours and quid pro quo errands for the bumpkins you meet on the road.

During those first 2-3 hours, the party’s tedious on-screen activities became so disconnected from the sparsely detailed plot that very quickly I lost sense of either—the former because I could hardly become invested in fetch quests, the latter because I never knew it to recognize it from easily overlooked bulletins and overheard conversations. Thus, when—SPOILER (but not really, since it’s the first significant event of the story)—you receive word that your home has fallen to Niflheim, your father slain, your bride-to-be gone into hiding, the very existence of this evil empire felt like news to me, so long had it been since I’d heard the name “Niflheim.” (And having not read the lore guide in the optional tutorial, I did not recall ever being informed in the first place that we were at war.) In the wake of these calamitous tidings, you are shortly invited to resume hunting marks and selling your services to the yokels who remain cluelessly unaffected by the geopolitical turmoil.

This is a game whose narrative is another casualty of the inexplicable and insufferable arms race toward inscrutability that has overtaken Square’s storytelling since the PS1 era. In the SNES days, getting the latest Final Fantasy was like receiving a stylish new pair of pants. Then Final Fantasy VII was like a pair of one of those "distressed" jeans. You scratch your head at the frayed ends and pre-ripped holes, but then you see staged photographs of some hot-yet-cool model showing you the “right” way to wear them, and maybe you’ll grant there is something to the look that works. Unfortunately, Tetsuya Nomura and Kazushige Nojima decided that that “something” needed to become everything, and so by the Kingdom Hearts sequels, we were getting only bags of tatters, and paying full price for them.

Final Fantasy XV’s mess of a plot is not as wantonly opaque as Kingdom Hearts (insofar as the basic laws of its reality do not feel moment-to-moment fluid), and the manner in which it tells or doesn’t tell its story deserves less credit, because there's not even a sense of calculated elusiveness to its disjointedness. When pivotal events or major character deaths occur off-screen, or when proper nouns are mentioned for the first time yet treated as though they should be common knowledge, these don’t read as considered creative decisions. Instead, it just feels like, over the course of the aforementioned generations of escalation toward increasingly obscure storytelling, even the editors can’t keep straight anymore when the writing is being deliberately enigmatic, versus when they are simply forgetting to mention things because their blind spots have blotted out their vision.

Cynics might posit that the flimsiness of the story is because Final Fantasy XV was intended to be a multimedia product, and the main game’s many holes were intentional to force audiences to seek answers through the companion movie, anime webisodes, and post-release DLC, among other projects that never materialized. (And this is without even taking into account its complicated origin as "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" and attendant murky connection to the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology.) I watched the atrocious Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV movie, and while it helps a little to set the scene and clarify the roles of figures who are allegedly major to the plot yet scarcely appear in the game, mostly it is just more of what is wrong with Final Fantasy XV: underdeveloped characters, nonsensical lore, and action that suffers from a lack of properly discernible beats because the ceilings of these characters’ abilities are never elucidated.

A microcosmic example of the game’s fundamental storytelling inadequacies: At one point the party receives word that a minor character has died. Everyone acts devastated by the news, but my immediate reaction was “Who?” As if hearing me, the game then cut to a few sepia-toned flashes of the character from when they were introduced. But that flashback didn’t exist when the game launched. It was patched in later, precisely because players couldn’t remember who the hell this character was. And you know what? The addition ultimately doesn’t fix anything. Yes, I remembered now who this one-scene nobody was. But I still did not care!

That was the stages of me processing Final Fantasy XV’s story in a nutshell. First would come exasperated confusion: I have no idea what anybody is talking about. Why won’t they just explain who/what this is? Then in my foolishness, I would look up the extended lore on the wiki to try to find answers, only to arrive at hollow resignation: I now know what they were talking about, and yet it all still feels as meaningless as when I did not. When I eventually learned to skip straight to resignation, the experience became more enjoyable. Although the story never came together in a coherent (or competent) way, I found it worked on a primal level, becoming oddly compelling through its absurdly high stakes and relentless momentum during its later chapters.

Many of the details actually echo Final Fantasy XII—political marriages, imperial backstabbing, treating with gods, legends of hero kings—but that’s all dressing in Final Fantasy XV. Once the story finally picks up steam (around Chapter 9), all one really needs to know is that it's good guys against bad guys in a literal fight to save the world. The layers of nonsense over top of that never amount to anything meaningful, but the base level still has some draw, especially as few other games would even dream of going as big as Final Fantasy has and here does so again in depicting the end of everything. A major point of tension straining willing suspension of disbelief in Final Fantasy XV is how modern the world feels—cars, smartphones, consumer culture—while still maintaining a high degree of arcane religiosity, with oracles being the most discussed public figures of the day. But it does make for spectacles of fearsome grandeur, gods sundering cities, and a potent mood of bleakness, as things continually go from bad to worse, and civilization’s total collapse seems to take all of a few hours.

I haven’t discussed the gameplay of Final Fantasy XV at all yet, because that was never the appeal of a numbered Final Fantasy for me even in the heyday of the series, and now in my mid-thirties with limited gaming time, I can hardly feign interest in learning a whole new set of complex RPG mechanics. Stupidly, I’ll admit in retrospect, I even took as a point of pride that I was not going to try to learn to play Final Fantasy XV. I would instead just set it to the easiest difficulty and cruise through the main scenario. (Which did not really work out, by the way, because the only thing that makes “Easy” mode easy is the fact that, every time your party gets wiped out, Carbuncle will resurrect you for free, allowing you to die and die again as you chip away at enemies out of your league.) This I regret, because the game was actually kind of fun once I finally grasped some of the systems toward the end of my playthrough.

If I could offer my past self some advice, here are the pro-tips I wish I’d figured out much sooner:
  • There is no traditional white magic for your characters to learn, so get used to relying on other means of healing.
  • You don’t get money just for winning battles. Instead, you collect junk, and that junk can be sold for cash. Seriously, unless you sell that junk, you won’t have enough funds even to buy basic potions or pay to rest at inns.
  • If Noctis gets low on HP, you can warp to nearby ledges. While hanging from them, he’ll automatically heal at a fairly rapid rate.
  • The skill tree screen has multiple pages. On the “Recovery” page, each of Noctis’s allies can learn the “First Aid” ability. Additionally, Ignis can learn “Regroup” on the “Techniques” page and “Regenerate” on the “Teamwork” page. These abilities by themselves should suffice to get the party mostly self-sufficient with healing on Easy mode.
I won’t say exactly how long it took me to realize each of the above, but you can infer that, for a significant portion of the game, my potion stocks were stuck in the single digits, and I basically could never heal myself during combat. Once I learned these basics, Easy mode went from “getting resurrected three times by Carbuncle is about par for a boss fight” to “now I’m cruising.”

The very first screen that loads when you boot the game is the message "A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers," a clear statement of the development team's intention to restore the brand to relevance after it fell so mightily the previous generation. Final Fantasy XV is the first numbered Final Fantasy I’ve beaten since 2001's Final Fantasy X, so I can see myself a bit in both demographics, and I don't feel it serves either. It recalls the classics only in its lack of subtlety, but between its narrative deficiencies and mechanical density it also doesn't feel like a game of modern sensibilities or mainstream accessibility. I still don't think I've fully processed that it's over. Part of that is me not comprehending what was happening at any given time—either the story or the combat—but I also feel some genuine mixed emotions. I can't say with confidence whether I ultimately liked it, but I won't deny that the second half was at the very least engaging. In keeping with the pattern of senselessness, I really don't know anymore what it means to be "A Final Fantasy," but I suppose Final Fantasy XV does just enough, albeit through terrible means, to live up to the name precisely by keeping the franchise identity hard to pin down.

I beat Final Fantasy XV, and all I have to show for it is this photo of a Tonberry going in on Gladiolus’s crotch.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)

I didn’t realize until the end credits that this biopic of Stephen Hawking was actually based on the autobiography of his first wife, Jane Wilde. That explains why the film seems so much more interested in their domestic drama than in his seminal insights toward the pursuit of a “theory of everything,” or in the breakout success of his own book, A Brief History of Time, which established him as the most widely recognized scientist of his generation. And I can appreciate, certainly, that her memoir, about the trials and tribulations in courageously holding together a marriage and family through his unrelenting physical deterioration, must have proven far more adaptable to a mass-appeal, Oscar-baiting motion picture than might have any of Hawking’s non-narrative publications.

It is an admittedly affecting film, buoyed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, and by Eddie Redmayne’s Academy Award-winning performance as the male lead. For better and worse, this was the part that inspired the actor’s pivot from period drama role-player to the creature of extreme and constant physicality and theatricality that now headlines those Harry Potter prequel movies. I find him rather like a loaded gun in the hands of his agent and casting directors. The weapon itself is conscienceless and indiscriminate, tragic when mishandled. But when he is attached to the right projects, the results are astonishing. Though I’ve heard praise for Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn in 2004’s Hawking TV movie, it’s hard to imagine another actor inhabiting the role as Redmayne does here, transforming incrementally over the course of the film to vividly depict a man afflicted by rapid physical decline yet still possessed of brightness and mischief. Granted, as the movie goes along, there is arguably less and less demanded of Redmayne, and obviously he doesn’t do the signature voice (though I don’t doubt he would have been happy to try).

Even without knowing that the film was based on his first wife’s book, I was most curious to see how it would handle the end of their marriage. Every account I’d heard of this episode in Hawking’s life had portrayed it as one of his more ignoble chapters—basically, as his celebrity grew and attracted hordes of flatterers and groupies, he meanwhile grew weary of his long-suffering saint of a wife. The movie does not contradict any of that, though its politeness invites skepticism (and this is a point on which the film apparently diverged from Jane Wilde’s book). Elaine Mason, his nurse-turned-second wife, is charming as played by Maxine Peake, though not explored in any depth here.

Hawking’s celebrity is mostly incidental in this telling of his story, and science only slightly less so. The result manages to both humanize and dehumanize him. Certainly, Felicity Jones as the tirelessly self-sacrificing Jane Wilde, persevering by love and faith through circumstances that would topple most men, makes for a more readily moving story than lectures on theoretical physics that most of us would scarcely understand and never apply. And it’s not as if a person needs to be famous and/or a scientist in order for their story to be worth telling. Still, so much of the movie is concerned with questions of how Stephen and Jane cope with his disability. How will he take to having to use a wheelchair? How can he be her partner in parenting their children? Who can they turn to to relieve her from having to be both spouse and sole caregiver? I can’t help but feel that all reinforces the average moviegoer’s notion of Stephen Hawking vaguely as that scientist who is really really smart, but mainly as that guy leaning back in the wheelchair with the robot voice.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Top 10 Most Hated Star Wars Characters

Here it is. As of Episode VIII, these are my "Top 10 Most Hated Star Wars Characters."

Note: This is a serious exercise, so only significant characters from the live-action films were eligible—no Clone Wars-only characters, no obscure extras, no non-speaking Jedi created purely to sell toys. I debated with myself whether to include Rogue One, but after trying to do this without it, I realized that I am not naturally a hateful person, and I would not have been able to name 10 characters I despised from only the saga films.

Also, the order is from "No. 1 Most Hated" to "No. 10 Least Hated of the Most Hated." I'm not gonna drag out the suspense. Starting from the top:

  1. Poe Dameron
  2. Cassian Andor (the Rebel captain from Rogue One)
  3. Chirrut Îmwe (the blind Donnie Yen guy from Rogue One)
  4. Maz Kanata
  5. DJ (the stuttering Benicio Del Toro from The Last Jedi)
  6. Young Anakin (Jake Lloyd version)
  7. Bodhi Rook (the pilot with the aviator goggles from Rogue One)
  8. Bail Organa
  9. Vice Admiral Holdo
  10. Chancellor Valorum
This is a living list. It is subject to change as new movies come out, or as my mood changes. Snoke contended for that last spot, but I realized that it was not so much the character I hated as it was the way he was handled.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Final Fantasy Renaissance?

After a decade spent in development, Final Fantasy XV is due for release finally in just over a month. Another new console Final Fantasy, World of Final Fantasy, will be arriving even sooner at the end of October. A little further off, the long-demanded Final Fantasy VII remake is at last going to be a thing too (maybe?). After some pretty fraught years when the series was clearly relegated to B-tier status, we may be coming upon a Final Fantasy renaissance. Or if Final Fantasy XV underperforms, this may be a last gasp for the series, the developer, and the JRPG genre.

Personally, I already know I won’t be playing Final Fantasy XV. I’ve watched the trailers with the Japanese male model protagonists, and the image they’re pushing with this game just has zero relevance to me.

By no means am I implying that I've outgrown the series. The truth is, I’ve been playing a ton of Final Fantasy lately. It just so happens that all of that gaming has been on mobile platforms, where I would say Final Fantasy truly is experiencing a renaissance.

Final Fantasy Record Keeper

I recently updated my blog post about Final Fantasy Record Keeper to better reflect how awesome the game has become. Read my full review or check out some of my videos for a better sense of how it works, but, in short, imagine one of those JRPG coliseums—one where you can team up all of your favorite Final Fantasy characters to take on classic battles from throughout the series. From the gameplay to the visuals to the music, it’s a veritable best-of edition of Final Fantasy, and, more than anything else bearing the name in the last decade, it has helped to remind me that, once upon a time, I loved this series. No, there isn’t much of a plot to Record Keeper, but, through the battles, longtime fans get to relive some of the best moments of past stories, which is probably better than having to slog through a new, terrible story.

I’ll add that right now is also a great time for newcomers to jump in. A recent update to the game made the gacha lottery mechanic far more generous. Now, any time you spend 50 mythril (or, alternatively, about $30) to enter the 11-item drawing, you are guaranteed to pull at least one 5-star relic. Furthermore, there is currently a beginner-themed banner offering enhanced odds to pull the most useful weapons in the game, and, on top of that, you get to select an extra 5-star armor to go with your 11 other items. This means that, for the price of 50 mythril (which can be earned in about a week or less), you’re guaranteed to receive at least two 5-star items, with a pretty good chance that one of them will be among the best in the game. The game now even starts you off with one 5-star item completely free. When I started playing, it took me about a month to obtain my first 5-star, a Danjuro dagger from FFXII, which carried me a long while after. If you were to start now, you could pretty quickly have an entire party armed with 5-star gear and be able to tear through the early-game content.

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius

Pretty much everything Final Fantasy Record Keeper gets right, Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius gets wrong. My understanding is that Brave Exvius is essentially a Final Fantasy-themed re-skin of developer A-Lim’s hit free-to-play mobile RPG, Brave Frontier, and its origins in that unrelated franchise may explain why it doesn’t feel very much like Final Fantasy.

Like Record Keeper, the big draw of Brave Exvius is its inclusion of a ton of Final Fantasy characters to collect and rotate into your party. The difference is that, in Brave Exvius, you can only obtain these characters via the gacha lottery, and the odds of pulling your favorite are slim. Brave Exvius further dilutes the pool by including a bunch of characters that would not be on anyone’s radar. Maybe some fans will be mildly pleased to finally play as Giott from FFIV or Lani from FFIX (though probably not after you’ve pulled your third useless Giott). But the lower ranks are populated primarily by generic “original” characters created just for this game. Unless you have a ton of real money to burn to bypass the odds, chances are you’ll be spending weeks, if not months, playing with a garbage party of no-name commoners before you finally win any of the famed heroes of Final Fantasy lore. Before long, you’ll wonder why this game even bears the Final Fantasy name, except to tease you.

Even once you acquire some name characters, the actual experience of playing with them is disappointing. In Brave Exvius, the weak characters (which includes most of the name characters) are hopeless and interchangeably so, because what they all have in common is that they can’t use the few key abilities that make the strong characters good. And the strong characters still are not fun to use, because these good abilities are merely better versions of the numerous crap abilities in the game. Basically, you just hope you get a strong character (which may not be a character you otherwise like), and then you use the same ability over and over again. Everything else is a waste of space. The battle system itself is turn-based, not taken from any previous Final Fantasy, but simplistic enough to feel familiar to any JRPG veteran. It’s not inherently flawed, but the game balance so far has not been conducive to tactical depth or tension.

In its favor, one could point out that, unlike Record Keeper, Brave Exvius actually includes most of the elements of a full-fledged standalone RPG. There are dungeons and towns to explore, and there is a story and lots of dialogue. I personally find that these things bog down the mobile experience. I don’t have time to go on fetch quests, and I don’t enjoy wandering around using clumsy touchscreen controls and getting caught in random encounters en route to a dead end in a dungeon. As for the story, it’s laughably poor and nowhere near worthy of the Final Fantasy name. A mix of dull cliches and asinine banter between the two dimwitted male leads, it feels like any random uninspired C-tier JRPG from the 32-bit or even 16-bit era.

The only bright spots to Brave Exvius are the music and the hi-res graphics, which are all brand new. The art style is colorful and cartoony. It doesn't do much for me personally. It doesn’t offer the nostalgic appeal of Record Keeper’s SNES-style sprites, and it also bears no resemblance to the art of Yoshitaka Amano or Tetsuya Nomura. Basically, Edgar and Sabin in this game don’t really look like Edgar and Sabin to me, which further contributes to the perception of Brave Exvius as an “impostor” Final Fantasy.

Mobius Final Fantasy

Unlike Record Keeper and Brave Exvius, Mobius Final Fantasy is developed internally by Square Enix, and immediately it comes off quite a bit more ambitious than the other free-to-play mobile games. The 3-D visuals, evocative of Final Fantasy X, are perhaps of the caliber of last-gen console graphics, though lacking the variety of a full-budget release. There are also fully voiced cutscenes. Perhaps what really sets it apart, though, is that, unlike Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Mobius Final Fantasy actually has a story and, unlike Brave Exvius, that story actually feels like a real Final Fantasy, albeit stripped down.

The plot could be considered a very loose reimagining of the first Final Fantasy. The amnesiac player character in Mobius Final Fantasy is referred to as the “Warrior of Light,” and there is also a Garland, a Princess Sarah, and a Chaos. There are also numerous references to other Final Fantasy titles, but the game doesn’t lean on nostalgia. Mobius Final Fantasy feels like a new addition to the Final Fantasy canon, and that is something I can respect. Mind you, I’m not saying it’s an especially interesting tale, but the telling, in keeping with the rest of writer Kazushige Nojima’s oeuvre, is gloomy and introspective, and there are elements of mystery and intrigue that are at least more compelling than anything in Brave Exvius.

The battle engine is also mostly original, and, as with the story, I respect the ambition, though I don’t love the actual experience. The combat is quasi-card-based. You can equip up to four ability cards to take with you into battle, and these will cover your spells, healing, special techniques, basically anything other than regular attacks. Once in battle, these abilities in turn are powered by elemental orbs that are randomly drawn each time you perform a regular attack. When it works, it can feel quite strategic, and you’ll pat yourself on the back for knowing when to play which card to win a round in the minimum number of moves. At other times, it will seem like the game just refuses to deal you the right orbs, and you’ll curse the randomness of it all.

Currently, the game’s undoing is that the battles take too long and occur too frequently. The pacing, in terms of both the plot and the leveling system, is plodding. Your gameplay progression can be measured in the number of job classes you’ve mastered. To even unlock most jobs, you have to pull from the gacha system. One positive is that there are no “doubles"; the gacha will never deal you a job you already own, so you’re guaranteed to eventually get the job you want. Honestly though, unlocking a new job class just isn’t as exciting as unlocking a new character, so this isn’t all that enticing to begin with. Then, even once you get a new job, in order to level it up, you have to grind through thousands of tedious battles to gather the right materials.

I’m still keeping one eye on Mobius Final Fantasy, understanding that it just came out and might take another month or two to get going, but right now the story is too limited and the gameplay far too repetitive for me to actively invest my time in it.

Evolving Together

Three free-to-play mobile games may not seem like much of a renaissance, especially when only one of them comes recommended. But, like I said, Final Fantasy Record Keeper has helped to remind me that I really do love this series. Some of that is nostalgia, true. But a large part of what makes Record Keeper work has to do with how it departs from the Final Fantasy games of my youth. I have outgrown the series as represented by Final Fantasy XV, but it isn't because it has become overrun with sullen pretty boys. At least, that isn't the only reason. At my age now, I can't see myself ever having the time to invest in another console Final Fantasy. And that's why I'm so pleased to find the game evolving, in its better mobile incarnations, into something more considerate of my circumstances—something I have on hand at all times but can play in short bursts without it taking up all my time. Even just five years ago, the idea of one of my favorite video game series going mobile is something I would have fought. Now, I find that Final Fantasy on mobile is the Final Fantasy comeback I'd been waiting for, and I'm excited to see more.