Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Final Fantasy XII-2, Or FFXII Log, Supplemental

Alright, so I didn't beat this game in the short amount of time I estimated it would take.

Reason being, I forgot that it's terrifyingly addictive.

Final Fantasy XII in powder form

I've been at the point where I could rush in and fight the final boss for over a week now, but I keep going back to try and accomplish all the other hundred things there are to do which are completely inconsequential as far as the story is concerned. I made the ultimate weapon. I beat the giant monsters. I even took part in a minimally rewarding foot race, simply because it was there. I have no doubt that if this game included a sub-quest wherein you grow and manage a farm in real time I would be writing to update you on the progress of my delicate yet promising tomato patch.

Oh wait, I DID play that game.

As of the time of this writing, I am currently attempting to obtain the last two trophies available in the game's "Sky Pirate's Den," an achievements-style feature the game has. The two are tied together; one requires me to beat the game's hardest monster, Yiazmat, the other requires me to beat every monster. I'm going through right now killing everything except the strangely-named dragon (named for, I'm told, FFXII's director Yasumi Matsuno, nicknamed "Yazz" by his colleagues, and "maker of the best damned games anywhere" by others).

The only thing he doesn't know how to do is fail

The problem for me is that Final Fantasy XII's Ivalice is so alive. The actions you take actually have meaning; the horde of NPCs occupying the sprawling land change what they say based on world events usually caused by you. Sometimes this follows the main plot, other times it is entirely up to you whether or not you will perform the actions necessary to enact a change. The refuge of Mt. Bur-Omisace, for example, left in ruins after an Imperial attack, will begin to turn around if a wandering Viera decides to lend her help to the wounded - but she will only be inspired to do so if you choose to hunt down a monster in an entirely optional portion of the story's narrative. There is another character, also a Viera, whose ultimate fate is determined based on whether or not you decide to have regular conversations with her. The people in Ivalice react to the things you do, the game is not in a bubble. They live in a world where information flows freely, and when something happens they talk about it.

It's the vast, interconnected nature of the world which inspires me to keep traversing every inch of it, searching for each new change in response to my adventures. This is just like another Matsuno game you might be familiar with; a little piece of work called Final Fantasy Tactics.

Our most important accomplishment since the invention of breathing.

In Tactics, as you progressed in the game, you might want to quench the main character Ramza's thirst for distilled spirits instead of distilled justice. A trip to the bar would yield the option of hearing rumors flying about regarding not just your exploits, but the goings-on within the powerful Church, amongst the royal family, and in other battles you had no hand in. So yes, you were important, and people would certainly discuss your exploits, but you were living in a large and complicated world, and more than one important thing happens at once in the world. Quests you had performed earlier, optional quests, keep in mind, would have ramifications you would find out about in the form of other quests along the same line, sometimes in different towns as the repercussions traveled outwards. This compelling system was mirrored in Final Fantasy XII, and only good came as a result.

Talking to NPCs, of course, is hardly the sole motivator to keep playing. I made a pledge to myself that I would eschew attempting to obtain all of the improbably rare equipment in the game. Some of the requirements for obtaining certain weapons and armor in the game are a little absurd; certainly not worth the time it would take to get them, especially since I already have most of the best stuff.

But . . .

You knew this was coming.

The fact that they're there, and people have gotten them, and I can't browse GameFAQs wtihout reading about how people got them makes me want to try. I get in the mindset of "well hey, maybe I'll be that lucky guy who gets it on the first try." Which turns into "okay, the second try is almost as lucky." That quickly evolves into "Well, if I get it in the first hour, that's not too much time wasted," and eventually "screw it, I've put so much time into it now I can't just give up."

3D Realms operates under the same philosophy.

On the plus side though, I'm up to the point where I'm running out of anything to do except beat the game. There are 9 more enemies I have to kill (including Yiazmat) to get those last 2 trophies. Only two, maybe three rare items remain for me to obtain. I've advanced the story to the point where confronting the final boss is something I can do at any point now. And I do want to beat it, I really do, but I just can't let myself leave these last few goals unachieved, not now as I am on the brink of complete triumph. When I beat this game, it's going to know it's been beaten.

So I anticipate that when next you hear from me, I shall include perhaps a brief blurb regarding my victory, and then finally moving on to more of my ever-expanding PS2 library. Next on my list shall be a run of either the Devil May Cry series or Ratchet & Clank. I suppose which one I choose will depend on whether I am in the mood for ruthless slaughter or adorable hijinx.

So adorable.

Nevertheless, with Final Fantasy XII now rivaling Persona 3 for sheer amount of time I spent playing and attempting to master, I can finally say I got my money's worth out of this (I mentioned it was a gift, right?), which is, after all, the point of The Backlog.

Until next time, keep playing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Another gem overlooked: Hexyz Force

Sometimes, there's a game that just clicks.

You turn it on, and from the beginning the story has your attention. When you get to the actual meat of the game through the combat system, there's enough depth that it's not overly simplistic, yet it's easy enough to pick up that you're not completely frustrated. This has been my experience with Hexyz Force; a solid game that's managed to grab my attention for some time -- to the point where David wondered if I would ever put the game down long enough to make this post.

If you followed my previous post on Spectral Force 3, you already know I have a knack for picking up some of those niche RPG titles that are easily overlooked. I'll wholeheartedly admit that I have a penchant for enjoying said titles (after all, I enjoyed the SaGa games on some level) that the mainstream seems to abhor. While this PSP RPG is not a frontrunner for handheld game of the year, Hexyz Force still manages to stand out as a enjoyable experience that has a few cumbersome quirks, but does the majority of what it sets out to do right. Read on for some insight into the story, the few annoying points I found while playing, and an overall look into the game.

The Story

Hexyz Force takes place in the world of Berge. Due to a calamity long ago (you know the usual: God of destruction running rampant, the rest of the pantheon sacrificing their powers to stop him, etc.) the world was split in two halves: Lustrous Berge, a land of eternal light, and Dark Berge, a land of perpetual night. As the game begins, you are prompted to select one of two protagonists. Cecilia, a priestess, hails from Lustrous Berge. Levant, an imperial knight, hails from Dark Berge. Although both character stories eventually intersect, each character's tale is essentially its own game until the final chapter.

Of the two, Levant's story sounded more interesting, so I went with him. Plus, he has a cool coat, which I can dig in the guy I'm controlling for the majority of the game. Next up, I'll give a brief overview of Levant's story:

A Tale of Loyalty, Betrayal and Floating Furry things

Levant's story begins with a meeting between him and the emperor of Rosenbaum, Axel, who just happens to be his best friend. Axel, a just, honorable, and kind-hearted ruler is realizing that the strife between the humans of the empire, and the non-human races (elves, turtles, and lygars -- collectively referred to as "Halbs") has to come to a stop. In an attempt to show unity between the races, and end centuries of warfare between the races, Axel introduces Levant to his new bride to be: An Elven woman named Natulle. While taken aback initially, Levant is able to put aside his deep-seated prejudice against the Halbs long enough to support his friend's choice in bride, and ultimate desire to unify the land.

You're introduced to a few other characters as the opening scenes continue: Irene, Axel's younger sister and Levant's love interest; Bahn, a close friend of Levant and Axel's, as well as a distinguished soldier who has worked his way up through the ranks; Faust, a seemingly kind-hearted scholar who vaguely alludes to an injury he treated Levant for, and Ulu, your obligatory fuzzy mascot character who's there for no real explainable reason.

The opening scenes continue with Bahn and Levant being promoted to the distinguished rank of Cerulean Knight, as well as plans to meet with the elves for Axel and Natulle's engagement dinner party. With his best friends leading his army, and his elven bride ready to support his vision of a brighter future, it all seems as if things are going Axel's way.

Naturally, we know this can't last, right?

Don't get me wrong: The opening is well written, the characters are believable and have good dialogue (for example, Irene doesn't totally throw herself at Levant, but the affection is apparent), but the cynic in me could not help but notice a few things signalling the inevitable train wreck to come. I mean let's lay it out:

First, how often in the history of gaming, movies, or any other form of entertainment has an -empire- ever done good? A kingdom? Sure. A republic? Why not. A Federation? As long as it's not Gundam, sure. But an empire? No matter how noble their plans are initially, they always go south eventually:

I'm sure the Death Star was originally intended as a children's hospital.

Secondly, there's the matter of interracial marriage. Now I'm not against this at all, considering the relationships I've been in. Interracial marriage, however, is something that's still not fully accepted in the 21st century. When we move things back to the equivalent of the middle ages, it's pretty evident how it works out. Furthermore, we're talking inter-species marriage here, and if you read over David's post on Arc the Lad, we've seen how well that can work out.

In Rosenbaum, Keith Bardwell would be a hero.

Lastly, there's a guy named Faust. For those who are well read, you'll recognize the name Faust originates from German literature, named for a brilliant scholar who, in spite of his success, is unsatisfied with his life, makes a deal with the devil to attain greater power, and ends up eternally damned. If you're one of those people who gave up reading in favor of MMO playing, you might recognize this guy:

Sneaky bastard, no matter what game his namesake is in.

I won't spoil much, but if you see a picture of Faust, in spite of his kind words, everything about the guy screams "mad scientist" -- maybe it's the crooked monocle.

It doesn't take long for things to go sour. During Axel's engagement dinner, the party is attacked by unknown assailants, Natulle is murdered, and the empire and Halbs alike are blaming each other for the attack. Since a thorough investigation which gets to the bottom of the matter is far too time-consuming, Axel decides to have a change in foreign policy, going from an amiable fellow like this:

To donning a mask and overhauling his army to be more like this:

Axel, understandably, is a little bit upset that his future wife was murdered. Well, maybe a little upset is an understatement. With some strategic planning from his imperial advisers, Axel comes up with a new vision and course of action:

"Kill it with fire" is the new foreign policy.

Levant, being the stand-up guy that he is, can't quite support his buddy's "flames and genocide" agenda shift. During an attack on the Spirit Forest, the home of the elves, Levant saves a few of the fleeing survivors. In the midst of this attack, he happens upon a monument sacred to the elves, which bestows upon him the Holy Sword Kravunado: A relic meant to appear to the champion of elves in a time of crisis. Of course, considering that most of the able bodied elves are well, dead, the powers that be decide that Levant works for now.

Axel, unfortunately, gets wind of Levant's noble actions. While the Axel of old may have praised his actions, the new Axel is well, sort of a dick. Levant is promptly charged with treason, stripped of his Cerulean Knight commander rank, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Shortly after, Irene hears of this and confronts her brother, being none to pleased that she's jailed her man. Axel being well, sort of a dick, hasn't changed much, and he promptly reminds his sister that she's an unwanted bastard child of their father and has her thrown out of the castle. Irene, naturally is not happy about this. Fortunately her response to stress is a little less flame-filled than her brothers, but nevertheless bold. She enlists the help of a Halb rebel organization -- Argent (named for a deity in the world) -- led by the Lygar Griek, breaks Levant out of jail.

All of this takes place in roughly the first -hour- of the game, so it's easy to see how the story gripped me early on. Of course, story alone doesn't make a game: What keeps an RPG engaging are the mechanics and battle system, which I'll cover next

Game Mechanics

Overall, there aren't many flaws with Hexyz Force. It attempts to keep things simple while adding a few innovative touches with battle and the overall gameplay. A lot of these elements work well. Some of them, however, are explained so confusingly in the tutorial that even sharp minds would be left in the dark without the help of Gamefaqs:

Certainly not elementary.

The main culprits here are the Hexyz Charge System, the elemental affinity system, and the Creation/Destruction scales. First, let's look at the Hexyz Charge system:

The percentage marker at the top notes the Hexyz Charge, which accumulates points by properly aligning the three divine aspects (Crimson Lotus, Pearl Light, and Cerulean Flame -- representative of each major diety) in battle. The higher the percentage, the more damage the next attack deals. Failing to match the proper alignment leads to it resetting. Really, once you play for a bit, you can figure it out (and the game helps you along if you look at the charge meter), but the way it is initially explained in the tutorial makes it quite confusing. This, perhaps, is due in part to being introduced to the elemental affinity system shortly after. In addition to having to consider the divine aspects, you also have to consider enemy elemental attributes.

Don't get me wrong: I don't mind systems like this. In fact, the whole Hexyz Charge system has potential since it's influenced by both player and enemy alike. What you find out as you play more, however, is that the game is so painfully easy that neither really matters: If you sufficiently level up your weapons (one of the systems that was done quite well, honestly) and occasionally level your characters, you'll pretty much stomp everything in the game. As such, it's often not worth bothering with elemental based attacks, save for maybe the holy or dark based ones. Sigh.

The real culprit in all of this, is the creation/destruction system, also pictured below:

Balan-Sight is a jerk.

The choices you make, how you handle battle, and how you handle quests all affect this scale, which eventually determines which ending you get: One of creation, or one of destruction. It's a neat idea, but one that again, is never really explained well. The scale pops up at the end of each chapter to show your progress, with a decision being made in the final chapter.

In spite of these gripes, however, I've found a lot to enjoy about the game

The Perks

I mentioned before that Hexyz Force is a rather easy game. Frankly though, after taking a break from the sometimes punishing difficulty of Spectral Force 3, this was a welcome change. The easier pace of combat (augmented by the fact that you can fast-forward battles), combined with the rather engaging story made for an enjoyable experience. Here are a few key areas:

Combat is fun: It's your standard turn-based fare, but the variety of weapons and abilities at your disposal, in addition to a slight tactical element with enemy positioning makes for an easy, yet fun combat experience.

Interesting Weapons: There are a host of weapons in the game: Some have limited durability (which you'll likely never used) and others with unlimited durability, like Levant's sword, can be leveled up to gain new abilities, additional attack power, and speed. As each character has a range of weapons they can use, this adds an additional depth to combat, and is fairly straightforward.

Item Fusion: While it can be a little cumbersome to find the ingredients for items sometimes, the game forgoes your standard shops in favor of having your little furry mascot thing sytnhesize items for you: Accessories, capes, spiritfacts (the weapons with limited duraility) and more are available to you through the synthesis system.

The Story: I've already mentioned an overview of the first part of Levant's tale, but the story is rather gripping. It's not too cheesily written, NPCs have enough amusing dialogue to keep one's attention, and the character development, as well as interaction (at least in Levant's tale) is believable and well written.

With all of this going for the game, it didn't take me long to reach the closing chapter of Levant's tale. It's already an amazing feat when a game makes it off the backlog, but even moreso when it happens in such a short amount of time. Unfortunately, as I stand at endgame, I'm suddenly brought to a stop. It's already been established that there's more than one tale, and while Cecilia's playthrough, should I elect to do so, will be an easier playthrough, there's another factor:

So what's the hold up?

Remember the creation scales? I discovered that if balanced properly, you can go towards a neutral path, which is essentially the "true" ending. Balancing the scales in this way is already a task in itself, but it also requires you to do certain things in Levant's quest before you finish. Furthermore, to make Cecilia's quest a quicker playthrough, I'm stuck doing a certain amount of grinding, and making sure I get the items that carry over.

Sure. I could just ignore all of this. I could finish Levant's story, breeze through Cecilia's, and possibly watch the "neutral" ending on YouTube. After all, I've enjoyed the game enough, and I have plenty more to go through. However, there is one person that stands between me and allowing myself mediocrity:

I hate this guy almost as much as David does.

..Thus a game that could have been finished a week or two ago is still going on. These days, I'm getting a little better about not getting absolutely everything in one playthrough, and even resigning myself not to go through a second time. However, I know that guy is there. Watching. Laughing. Mocking.

Fortunately, I've completed those annoying sidequests, and after wrapping things up with this post, I fully intend to finish Hexyz Force by tonight. Maybe I'll do Cecilia's playthrough, maybe not. But I can at least consider it 'finished' with this playthrough should I choose.

For those of you considering a purchase of Hexyz Force, you'll find it well worth your time. Sure, it's an easy game, and sure, there are other RPGs on the PSP that stand out more. Sometimes, however, you don't need to be awed by everything in a game, nor do you need every encounter to be an edge of your seat challenge. For a game that's meant to be played on the go, Hexyz Force does an excellent job of providing a great experience.