Monday, May 5, 2014

A black fly in your chardonnay

I was called upon to remark, recently, that I have played and finished Final Fantasys I, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, and X-2. Some observations arise with which to be dealt:

  • First, how does one pluralize the proper noun Final Fantasy? Final Fantasies seems wrong, since the "ies" isn't part of the title. Final Fantasies looks a bit better, but still loses the y in the process of pluralization. I dunno, kids. I don't have all the answers.
  • At 20 to 50 hours apiece, my total time playing these games--even excluding possible replays or restarts--would come to between 140 and 350 hours, with a median time of 245 hours, or about ten days. To put that into perspective, that's enough time to watch the Tenth Doctor's death scene nearly three times.
Suffice to say, my commitment to this series is not insubstantial. So why have I not played Lightning Returns, or its two weird prequels? How did I fall out of the series that defined Serious Gamerdom in the 16-bit era?

That would fall on Final Fantasy XII. I've probably put as many hours into FFXII as I have in more than one of the ones I've finished. Partially, this is because the influence of Final Fantasy Tactics encourages diversions and grinding to a degree that's extremely unusual for the fairly linear JRPG genre Final Fantasy epitomizes. Partially, it's because my life has been too chaotic for the sustained focus of a console JRPG for a while, and the complexity of the Tactics influences make it a difficult game to pick up in the middle.

But mostly, it's those damned licenses.
These fuckin' things.
FFXII gives the player a wide degree of latitude in terms of character design, and the characters' hardwired stat growth doesn't meaningfully bias them in any particular direction. On that basis, I let narrative be my guide, and built my team the way I interpreted them as having been written:

  • Light armor, green magic, knives, crossbows, and ninjato for Vaan
  • Magic armor, black magic, staves, rods, and measures for Penelo
  • Heavy armor, spears, and axes for Basch
  • Light armor, time magic, guns, bo, and bombs for Balthier
  • Magic armor, arcane magic, bows, and katana for Fran
  • Heavy armor, white magic, swords, and greatswords for Ashe
  • with a bit of white magic for everybody, because a little goes a long way
There's a logic to these choices, and you can follow them on the license board. (Not the one I've posted, probably, but, you know. Try to stay with me here.) The weapon and armor choices seem to follow fairly straight lines, without a lot of wasted points. There's also some overlap in terms of weapon types: high damage with high damage, magic with magic, and high combo/critical with high-combo/critical.

Here's where it gets tricky. FFXII bears a strong influence from MMORPGs. It would be sensible to divide the characters into tanks, nukers/healers, and DPS, and the models described above fit that. Magic armor boosts max MP, so that's simple. Heavy armor, in addition to providing better raw defense stats, also boosts strength. Ok, that makes some sense, I suppose. Agility's usually more important for lightly armored high-damage classes, maybe light armor has a speed or critical bonus? No, light armor boosts HP.
  1. If I may take a brief aside from this otherwise laser-focused post, I can see why having both HP and defense stats would make sense from a design perspective, but making them both variable by player action drives me mad, since they both do more or less the same thing. The differences--sometimes subtle, sometimes less so--can only be inferred by looking directly at the math. Fire Emblem, frustrating though it is on other issues, is admirably clear on how this works. X-Men Legends, a game with character growth that is elegant and delightful in every other way, is infuriatingly vague. The math gets a bit more complicated in FFXII, and since light armor and heavy armor provide defensive boosts through different stats, it's not particularly intuitive to weigh them against each other.
  2. Light weapons benefit greatly from combos and criticals, which are enhanced as a character's HP % drops, which the HP bonuses influence...not at all, really? I suppose it makes the margin for a given enhancement slightly wider, but not terribly noticeably.
  3. In practice, my fast characters never feel as effective as the rest of the team. I've tried putting heavy armor on them, in defiance of my beloved narrative tropes, and while I do appreciate the extra offensive capabilities, I quickly find myself missing the defensive properties of the lighter armor. This is weird.
It probably wouldn't meaningfully affect my play experience if I hadn't noticed it, but dammit, I can't stop noticing it, and every move on the lower half of the license board quickly becomes an exercise in self-doubt. Since self-doubt is roughly the opposite of why I play RPGs, I usually end up taking a break, and the rest is history.

The horrible, horrible irony of it--the rain on my wedding day, so to speak--is that writing this brought back a torrent of memories, and now part of my wants to boot the PS and start this monster of a game again.

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