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FGC #375 Final Fantasy 12 The Zodiac Age

Where's my intro?So here’s my idea for the next Final Fantasy game.

First, let’s revisit how I played Final Fantasy 12 initially. Overall, I assume my maiden playthrough of Final Fantasy 12 was pretty typical. I was confused by the gambit system at first, but the game very deliberately eases the player into learning how to control a three man band at all times, so it wasn’t so bad. In short order, I was very comfortable with the neophyte system, and, since I still had access to all the old Final Fantasy standards (curaga, blizzaga, fire monster summoning), it was just a matter of adjusting old standards to a fresh title. In a way, that is no different than any other Final Fantasy release, and, whether Tidus is using an If HP <= 60% gambit or not, he’s still swinging around a Masamune. By the end of Final Fantasy 12 (over a hundred hours by my own clock) I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and, unlike some other titles (Final Fantasy 15 comes to mind), I did feel like I understood the game, its ins and outs, and why I won battles against so many gods. Final Fantasy 12 was new and different, but, in the end, it was still Final Fantasy.

But, even after seeing Yiazmat buried beneath an ocean of dragon blood, there was still an unmistakable feeling that I had done something wrong. And it all started with Penelo.

I’m a Final Fantasy veteran, so, even with FF12’s new systems, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of how these things go. I looked at the main cast, and I mistakenly believed that I knew the stats of these characters as well as their personalities. Vaan would obviously have the speed and stamina of a thief, and Basch should be decked out like a knight. It’s so obvious! Now, with the glory of hindsight, we know that Final Fantasy 12 characters all start at about the same stat level, but back when the game was fresh, who the heck had time to look at a bloody menu for longer than seven seconds? Not this guy. And Penelo? I see you there. You’re the obvious white mage of the group. Come on, you have Rosa written all over you.

GrossSo, while I missed the detail of all the characters starting as nigh-blank slates, I did read up on the weapons system of FF12 beforehand. One item class that stood out was the axe, which could deal “variable” damage. This sounded perfect for Penelo! She was going to be a useless white mage, right? So her strength stat was going to be useless, so she may as well carry around an axe that could do random damage. Random means it could easily knock off a thousand HP or just one, right? A white mage barely does any damage with a staff blow normally, so if she’s potentially going to do nearly zero damage anyway, why not give her the option of occasionally scoring a useful critical? An axe-wielding white mage made so much sense in my head, it was practically cheating.

Those of you familiar with how Final Fantasy 12 actually works likely already know the punch line to my Penelo experiment. The license board of Final Fantasy 12, the only real way to advance your character’s abilities and stats, is fairly well designed. If you want to equip the latest axes, you’re also likely to pick up a couple of axe-based stat buffs, like increases in strength or armor weight. Stay on the axe path, and it’s not just about axe proficiency, it’s about becoming a golden axe hurling goddess. So, with Penelo following the way of the woodcutter, before I’d even reached the halfway point of FF12, my main strategy for random monster mobs was to cast berserk on Penelo, point her in the general direction of an enemy, and sit back as she bathed in the blood of my adversaries.

This quickly led to a large gulf between story Penelo, who appeared like this:

Thanks, Penny

And Battle Penelo, whom I would imagine like so:

Thanks, Penny
(The extra axe is in case the first axe breaks)

But that was Vanilla Final Fantasy 12. Final Fantasy 12 the Zodiac Age is a totally different beast with all new features. Now the License Board is separated into different jobs so every character doesn’t wind up homogenized by the time you’re boarding the Bahamut. In other words, it’s very much like Final Fantasy games of old, like Final Fantasy 5 or Final Fantasy 10-2, and you can designate Penelo to actually be a white mage or an axe-maniac. Very big difference between the two, and an endgame Monk-Penelo would be completely different from Mage-Penelo.

Except.

Here’s Monk-Penelo.

Thanks, Penny

And here’s Mage-Penelo.

Thanks, Penny

See the subtle differences? Liar! They’re the same! They’re exactly the same. And that’s a shame, because Final Fantasy has a rich tradition of function dictating form, and Dancer-Yuna is a totally different animal from Gambler-Yuna. Hell, even going back to the original, being blessed by a dragon could dramatically change everything from your hair color to your apparent gender. Penelo doesn’t change a lick whether she’s a warrior or a wizard, and, come on, don’t our jobs impact every facet of our lives? I know I’d be a totally different person if I’d been digging ditches for the last fifteen years (for one thing, I’d probably smell worse. Probably).

So here’s my idea for the next Final Fantasy game.

Cid!Let’s stick to an “old school” four person party, like Final Fantasy 5 or Final Fantasy 15. And, for the heck of it, let’s make ‘em typical FF archetypes, too. They don’t have to be some things in particular, just something recognizable for a Final Fantasy expert. One general wanderer hero, one grizzled old timer (maybe he’s thirty), one princess (royalty of some kind is a must), and a wildcard of some sort, maybe a moogle ghost robot. And the story is basic: there’s a sealed bad guy, some lesser bad guy is trying to release the big bad guy, and maybe there is some random betrayal where an anonymous secondary nerd gets possessed by the biggest bad and turns into Cyber Hitler or whatever. Basic conventional story all around, and the party learns a valuable lesson about (spins the Wheel of Climaxes) proper motorcycle maintenance. Roll credits.

But! Here’s what I want to see: a jobs system, and a jobs system that impacts the story. Basically, incorporate a WRPG-style morality system (or whatever we’re calling the basis of Fallout right now), but base it entirely on choices made in the job system. No, you don’t get an option between save baby and eat baby, but you do choose if your main dude is a fighter or mage-r. That princess character? By the finale she can be a demure white mage that is all about helping her teammates and her country, or a blood thirsty dark knight that is beating back the big bad because it looked at her funny. The veteran might be back in action exclusively to feel the joy of battle again, or be slowly sliding into his own retirement as a spoony bard. Is the hero a worldly blue mage, or a barely-verbal berserker? And, for that matter, your job choices could impact other, more traditional bits of a typical FF experience. A whole party of thieves might not see a lot of cooperation from the local merchants, and stick to a party of berserkers for too long, and you won’t even be able to understand the dialogue. Bartz smash!

And, to be clear, this game wouldn’t permanently lock a character into one job for plot purposes; however it would “remember” your choices, so, while switching from Geomancer to Fighter might be painless on the mechanics side, your hero might still miss his floppy hat for a few towns.

Dance to deathIn my heart of hearts, I feel like this was always the intended future of job-based games like Final Fantasy 5, but the technology wasn’t available at the time. From the first moment of Final Fantasy 1, you’re choosing your heroes and their vocations, and it’s obvious that Fighter is not the same “person” as Black Mage, even if they’re working toward the same goal. Obviously, there couldn’t be 126 different plot configurations to fit Final Fantasy 1’s multiple choice parties, but that technology is here now. If a game can remember you pissed off a random merchant in the first town, it can certainly remember you were a blue mage for ten minutes. And, for that matter, if we get voice acting that can react to every damn thing Shepherd ever said for an entire trilogy, we’re definitely entitled to someone reacting to the fact that the princess is wearing a cat costume for some reason.

So, there, that’s my idea for the next Final Fantasy game. Expand the job system to encompass everything, and let Nu-Penelo be whatever she wants to be. Or whatever I want her to be. Or just give me a few more axe-wielding maniacs, Square, and then we’ll talk.

FGC #375 Final Fantasy 12 The Zodiac Age

  • System: Playstation 4 exclusive… Until the PC version drops, at least. Obviously, any other Final Fantasy 12 versions are available on… what was the modern system of ten years ago?… probably the NES.
  • Number of players: Multiple players are for other genres.
  • Hey, what about modern job-based games like Lightning Returns or Bravely Default: Lightning is still Lightning when she’s wearing a bunny costume, and Tiz is still Tiz when he’s decked out like a monk. I want more.
  • Nerds!Favorite Zodiac Age Feature: Gosh, you get past the job system implementation (which, to be honest, doesn’t thrill me), and I can barely tell what’s been changed here. Fast forward is great, but it’s very finicky with the context-sensitive menu vs. exclamation point X-button problem, and having all the gambits available at the start from any given shop is… daunting. Oh! I know! The Zodiac Spear is no longer based on the most opaque treasure hiding ever, so that’s a plus.
  • Most Missed: Where my Pirate’s Den, Square? I heard it was supposed to be part of a patch, but guess what, I don’t got no patch!
  • How about Penelo: Playing through the plot more rapidly than my initial playthrough, I noticed that Penelo seems to be the only character that gives a damn about Fran having allergic reactions to magic/mist-rich locations. Vaan is an idiot, so he gets a pass, and Ashe and Basche have their heads so far up their asses that they barely notice there’s a party at all, but it really seems like Balthier should show a little concern once in a while. What’s the matter, sky pirate? Caring isn’t cool enough for ya?
  • Did you know? Larsa does not have his infinite supply of potions in Zodiac Age, and all “fourth player” buddies really have no excuse not to join your party permanently. I don’t care if some of these characters are supposed to die! That never stopped the cast of Final Fantasy 4!
  • Would I play again: I want to play my new Final Fantasy game, but maybe I’ll give this old one another try in a decade or so. I think I’ve killed enough Owl Man Creatures at this point.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Ghostbusters for the NES! Will busting make me feel good? Let’s find out! Please look forward to it!

Cry about it

FGC #365 Bravely Second: End Layer

SEND PLAYERHi, my name is Goggle Bob, and I enjoy cheating.

Like many addicts, I started young. Classified Information was my favorite section of Nintendo Power, and I owned a Game Genie before I owned nearly every other NES game. And why? Because Nintendo games were hard, dammit. There was no way I was ever going to beat Gradius, but I might have a chance once I learned the Konami code. Simon’s Quest was too difficult for my young mind to understand (or for anyone with an aversion to graveyard ducks), and Final Fantasy I wouldn’t even attempt without a healthy guide. And it may have been considered cheating, but how the heck was anyone supposed to know what ARUB did before burning a valuable spell slot for testing? Do you understand? I had to cheat, or else these games would have remained unbeaten! I did it for you!

Of course, my cheating ways have continued through to this day. Full disclosure? I used save-hacking in both Lightning Returns and NieR Automata when I hit brick walls in my playthroughs. For Lightning, I just could not mentally deal with wasting time in a “the clock is ticking” adventure, so I nabbed some end game gear early to deal with a boss or two. In NieR’s case, I figured I already played through the game “for real” on my Route A, so every other ending could just deal with the fact that 2-B is now Level 99. Do I regret that I “cheated” on these games? Mostly no. I might lament the lack of having an “untainted” initial experience, but, as I’ve said many times before, videogames are now made of so many moving parts that I hardly consider “grinding to beat this boss” a viable missing piece. NieR is amazing, the gameplay is fun regardless of your strength, and I’m not crying if a boss fight only takes five minutes instead of ten. Cheating makes games better!

FRENCH WORDSBut the downside to cheating is that you are… cheating. There’s a stigma with any kind of dishonesty, and, while the Ten Commandments might not have made distinct references to thou shalt not dishonor Yoko Taro, the implication is clearly there. Is there a difference between drawing for an hour in Final Fantasy 8, trouncing the world in Triple Triad, or just plain downloading a “new game plus” save file that is already loaded to bear with all the Firaga charges you’d ever need? Two techniques are an exploit available within the game itself, and one is “cheating”; but what’s the difference if the end result winds up the same? And, for that matter, why the hell do I have to grind in yet another Dynasty Warriors-esque adventure just because I want to unlock that final character? I want maxed out stats right now, dammit.

And this all traces back to the inevitable push and pull between developers and players. There is still an emphasis on hours spent (wasted) in a game, so that all important “forty hours of gameplay” bullet point has to come from somewhere. Who cares if thirty of those hours are spent on meaningless fetch quests because your hero won’t level up without ‘em? Not the developer, because “respect the player’s time” isn’t exactly a high priority since… ever. Stage select codes were once a standard in videogames, but they were still codes. Secrets. Programmers didn’t want to play through the same stupid introductory levels to test Level 13 every day, but they never had any problem with a player banging their head against that particular wall over and over again thanks to a game over. And, to be clear, I’m not saying that videogame designers are unfeeling sadists, simply that there is, and has always been, a desire for videogames to be long (and possibly longer than they have to be). Cheating “spoils” the intention of the original creator, but it also might save you about a billion hours in the Turbo Tunnel. It’s a victimless crime? I don’t think Soraya Saga is going to come in and wreck up the place because I turned KOS-MOS into a Level 99 monster in her first dungeon, but am I doing other players a disservice by ignoring the carefully calibrated battles of Xenosaga in my exhaustingly long Let’s Play? I did feel the need to “explain myself” then (and now)…

So, naturally, it is a rare title that encourages the player to cheat.

KUMA SHOCKBravely Second: End Layer is the sequel to Bravely Default, a JRPG that already encouraged quite a bit of kinda-cheating. We American audiences only received the “upgraded” version of Bravely Default (technically subtitled “For the Sequel”), which included a number of quality of life improvements, such as a fast forward button and the ability to disable all random battles (or double said battles, assuming you’re in a grindy mood). This seemed only fair, as BD arguably cheated quite a bit itself, as it reused its maps and bosses something like five times over the course of one adventure. Personally, I like that kind of thing, but I also like Robot Master rematches and Doc Robot, so, ya know, maybe I just like repetition. Yes, I probably just like repetition. Repetition is a part of us all. Regardless, Bravely Default built in to its main game a number of features that could be mistaken for cheats in any other JRPG, and the game was clearly better for it.

Bravely Second didn’t add any more overt cheats (you can’t just turn off boss encounters and enjoy the story or some such thing), but it did expand the roster of available jobs. We’ve got some ridiculousness, like Catmancer and Patissier (that would be a weaponized pastry chef), some variations on an old theme like Bishop and Wizard, and at least one completely useless job (Guardian). And then we’ve got this dork:

BARK

That is the Exorcist job. What does an exorcist do? Well, what’s important is what they undo… which is everything. The Exorcist has CTRL+Z as an ability, and can, for fairly minimal MP costs, “revert” any enemy or ally to a previous turn’s state. The benefit of such is obvious: if a party member is currently dead, but had full HP two turns ago, smack ‘em with an UNDO, and we’re back in business. No need for white magic, no need to worry about if you’re casting a curaga spell when you should be casting arise, no need to even think past this turn: all you need to know is that UNDO is going make everything better. Oh, and if you’re curious, you can also Undo MP usage, BP (character action) usage, and maybe even install a MP regen ability so your exorciser always has enough power to cast whatever Undo spell is necessary. Basically, with Exorcist abilities, you have the capability to always steer a battle in your favor.

And it feels like cheating.

SpooookyExorcist is an ability in Bravely Second like any other. It’s provided by the game without any external apparatus, and is even an ability that is earned naturally as part of the story (as opposed to being one of the many optional jobs). Exorcist didn’t show up by accident, it was a planned, intentional part of the game. UNDO isn’t a random exploit discovered by some nerd on Gamefaqs, it’s the entire point of the job. There is nothing “cheating” about using this ability. It is 100% kosher in all versions of Bravely Second, but it is still ridiculously powerful. Every other healing ability instantly pales in comparison, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that something so right could be anything but so wrong.

And that feels amazing.

Do you know why I like cheating? I like cheating because it makes me feel like a God damn dynamo. Rolling up to Chrono Trigger’s Yakra and stomping him with a Level STAR character? Wonderful. Blasting past a “scripted loss” battle because my protag is incapable of death? Sign me up. And now, here in Bravely Second, I’m granted the ability to take a mulligan on any critical loss or even just an inopportune use of resources? There is nothing I want more. Cheating is empowering, and, hey, I can quit any time I want to. It might not be the developer’s intention, but playing a videogame to enjoy said videogame is 90% of the reason I ever pick up a controller, so bully to developer feelings. If I want to be the strongest Dynasty Warrior right out of the gate, let me, and let me revel in tearing across this blighted world of faceless mooks.

Cheating, or even just something that feels like cheating, is entertaining, and should be an allowed option in more games. So thanks for understanding and enabling my cheating self, Bravely Second.

FGC #365 Bravely Second: End Layer

  • System: Nintendo 3DS. Incidentally, a Bravely Collection for Nintendo Switch wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, hint hint.
  • Number of players: Ringabel is the number one player in Bravely Default, but he is not playable in this game. So zero playahs.
  • That's the ticketFavorite (Non-Gamebreaking) Job: Hawkeye is basically Mage Knight (Spell Fencer) again, but with less sexist/slightly more racist outfits. That’s… kind of a win? Catmancer is second runner up, because it’s a blue mage, but with cat summoning. … Sometimes I think this game exists to appeal only to me.
  • Favorite Asterisk Holder: Cú Chulainn is a centaur, but he’s a centaur by mistake, as he was revived from a damaged totem that accidently fused the warrior with his horse. And he’s cool with that! He died, was reborn, and wound up with a half-horse body, and he’s perfectly okay with such circumstances. Just happy to be alive. We should all be as accepting.
  • Play to the Audience: There is now double the number of beautiful but almost entirely empty towns. Are you happy MMM?
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Ringabel is no longer a member of the party, but he spends most of the story as an inter-dimensional knight that saves the party at key points. Agnès is no longer a member of the party, but spends the majority of the story as a kidnap victim who is randomly possessed by an angry ghost. In the end, Agnès steps down from her position as pope/target, and becomes a farmer’s wife. Ringabel continues his job as omniversal space cop. Unacceptable.
  • Aw, thanksDid you know? Magnolia is a new party member who hails from the moon (yes, that moon). She randomly speaks in French as a sign that English is not her first language, and moon language is apparently French. However, in the Japanese version, it’s English that is the moon language. Hey! The Tick made that joke, first!
  • Would I play again: I would love to see a rerelease of Bravely Second… mostly because playing the whole game from the start again seems like such a waste. It’s not a short game! And I still haven’t finished a bunch of other 3DS JRPGS! But if I get over my own backlog, Bravely Second is definitely on the menu.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Snowboard Kids! … Yeah, I’m sure that’s just a coincidence that a snow-based game will be our Christmas pick. That totally happened. …. Don’t tell Santa I’m cheating. But please look forward to it!

She looks so smug
For no reason, here’s the best character.

FGC #122 Bravely Default

Note: This article contains spoilers for the whole of Bravely Default. Not that the sequel doesn’t spoil the same plot twists within its first five minutes, but, ya know, just so you’re aware.

Something about a FairyAlright, remember Final Fantasy 6? Remember all the groundbreaking, amazing compositions by Nobuo Uematsu? Songs that were not only musically wonderful but also never failed to properly set the mood for a location or scene? Yeah… I pretty much played Final Fantasy 6 (Final Fantasy 3 then) on mute. Same for Breath of Fire 2. Same for The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Same for a lot of games.

You may be asking why I would do such a thing. Do I hate music? Can’t stand chiptunes? Maybe some sort of ear issue involving an infection from Bizarro World? No, no, and no. For Final Fantasy 6 in particular, I love the music, and even, when forced to go on a camping trip the year after FF6’s release, I recorded half the songs right off the TV via an ancient tape recorder. So why do I remember playing that game the most on mute? Simple: I was doing something else.

This will likely come as a shock to no one, but my original “gaming room” was the basement of my parents’ home. I wasn’t allowed to have a TV in my bedroom (for much the same reason I wasn’t allowed to have a Gameboy), but my parents didn’t want to have to watch Super Mario Bros. all day, either, so my hobby was segregated to the basement. “My basement” was also likely exactly what you’re picturing: old, beat furniture (but kept because you never know when we might need a spare couch [?]), a closet filled with old clothing that would be released to Goodwill thirty years later, and, most importantly, a pair of ancient televisions. Both TVs were castoffs, chunks of electronics that were initially kept incase these newfangled sets failed in their first month, and, in time, they Just like homewere pretty much forgotten in the bowels of the house. They weren’t the best televisions, neither large nor possessing a fidelity that could confirm if Mega Man was supposed to be blue (green is fine). People talk about playing retro games with modern high-definition, but if I play Wizards and Warriors on a television that allows me to actually see what’s going on, I don’t feel like I’m actually playing Wizards and Warriors.

Regardless, two televisions made me soon realize that I could be using both televisions at the same time. So, one TV was set up at one end of the room with a complete cable hookup, and the other managed the gaming systems (A SNES and NES [and later, N64 and Playstation] all running through one ganged RF switch chain). The basement was big (technically a room plus what was once a garage), so it wasn’t like both televisions were on top of each other, so I happily played a number of video games while some random sitcom was airing at my back. If I really liked the show, I’d mute the game, but crank up the program. If nothing was on, it was fine background noise.

JRPGs were ideal for this setup, because, while their stories were exciting and astounding to a young Goggle Bob, what would eventually become “cutscenes” were short and generally separated by hours of traipsing through monster-packed dungeons. I want to say the sheer spectacle of Final Fantasy 7 broke me of my ADD habits, but grinding my way to better materia (mostly through bird breeding) set me right back to “what else is on?” And, yes, my first playthrough of Ocarina of Time was set to my discovery of Ben Folds (give or take Five) primarily because I couldn’t be more bored schlepping across that overworld trying to find skulltulas.

Slash!Some of my greatest memories of gaming are of me barely paying attention to gaming.

This ADD habit has continued into adulthood, but in some unusual ways. There is no doubt video games have become more immersive over the years, and, while I may once have been able to enjoy Prince of Persia on a dingy screen while watching something else, modern editions beg to be blown up to six foot displays and marveled at at all times. But then you have something like, say, Hyrule Warriors, a game that puts the grind in grinding, and contains more content than anyone could ever reasonably complete. You want me to beat this area with Princess Ruto? She’s level 8, and the recommended level is 80. Well, I think that means I’m going to play this game while binge watching Jessica Jones. Then I’m accomplishing two things! I’m an adult!

Now, obviously, this is a huge reason I enjoy the WiiU. Being able to get that “widescreen experience” for the lavish visuals is great, but then when I want to reexplore old areas for red coins or whatever, I can shrink it down to the gamepad and play while watching what I will. And while the WiiU’s “tablet” is a new innovation, portable systems have offered this luxury for years. Heck, if you consider cell phones to be “portable gaming systems”, then my ADD doesn’t sound all that bad. Unless you want to tell me people are sitting down to exclusively play Candy Crush…

ANGRYBut there is a conflict with this system. I want games to have stories. I want games to be interesting. If I’m playing a game for forty hours, I want there to have been a point, a reason I was fighting against the bad guy. It doesn’t have to be that way for every game, but anything with vaguely RPG trappings practically requires a plot that matters. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace, but I’d like something a little more complicated than Mario and Peach.

When a story dominates the plot, I have to pay attention to it. I can’t watch Orange is the New Black and work through Saint’s Row at the same time, because then I might confuse one Piper for a Rowdy Roddy one. Their plotlines are very different!

So, what I want is a portable game that has a plot, but has enjoyable mechanics, and, after the plot is well and established, backs the hell off so I can enjoy those mechanics while doing something else.

I am, of course, talking about Pokémon.

Pokémon has its own plot and story, and it’s worth paying it some attention, but after its completion, it gets out of dodge, and that’s that. Now all you have is a world you understand, villains that are on the run, and 720 pokémon to play with. I think that’s a good recipe to have some fun while maybe watching some trashy anime.

He's like a pocket monsterBut that does occasionally feel… empty. I’m building up the best pokémon team, like no one ever has, but what am I doing it for? I’ll have these Level 100 Gardevoirs to… what… beat up children online? Like, it’s cool to beat other players, but there’s no real goal to work toward, no future for my poor Pokémon. I’m already the champion of the league, at what point do I just become a bully?

Bravely Default tried to allay my fears of “not making a difference”… and created its own problems.