Tag Archives: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

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Sweet loot! Thankfully Mr. Dino is docile if not provoked…

For some reason I find myself playing through at least one Final Fantasy each year. Even if summer vacation would usually be a better time for lengthy JRPGs, there are so many games vying for that hallowed time slot that I decided to get this weird formality out of the way now. Instead of the latest game in the main series, I’ve gone with Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which is a HD remaster of the 2006 PS2 classic. Then again, calling it a classic is open to debate. For me, XII was the breaking point of having to grudgingly admit to myself that Square Enix was never going back to the PS1 mold that it used to fabricate three of the perhaps most loved games in the entire series. As much as I still tried to like XII, I gave up on it. Twice. Now, coincidentally 12 years later, it’s as good a time as any to see if third time would be the charm.

If anything’s to blame, the story isn’t it. XII takes place in Ivalice, a world wreathed in magic and technology. It is populated mostly by humans and some Moogles, but also lizard-like Bangaas and hare-like Vieras. Although the various races live in relative harmony, mankind is once again showing its uglier side. The two superpower states of Archadia and Rozarria are on the brink of a global war and Dalmasca, a tiny kingdom wedged in between them, is but a pawn in their power play. Its king is assassinated and although the country still holds on to formal independence, its woeful fate is to fall into an Archadian vassal state.

Two years later, Dalmascan war orphans Vaan and Penelo try to fend for themselves in the kingdom’s occupied capital, Rabanastre, running miscellaneous errands and occasionally getting into mischief. A crafty burglary into the palace treasury is a bit too much, though, and with one thing leading to another, the two find themselves caught up in events that will eventually decide the destiny of the whole of Dalmasca. They are soon joined by suave sky pirates Balthier and Fran, as well as treasonous knight Basch and princess Ashe, both of whom were rumored to have died after the original coup d’etat. These six then run hither and yonder Ivalice, trying to find ways to end Archadia’s oppression.

From the very beginning, the game’s highly original battle system is questionable at best. It feels like an action-RPG with all encounters taking place in the maps without transition or victory screens whatsoever. Although it is possible to move freely at all times, actions won’t take place until a traditional battle gauge has filled up. Furthermore, when choosing said actions, the game pauses completely. At first the system feels (and looks) like a ridiculously cumbersome mishmash of real-time, semi-real-time, and turn-based combat. However, it doesn’t take long for gambits to be introduced. They are macros that can be set up for each character in an effort to automate combat altogether. These macros consist of simple little rules such as “focus attacks on the foe with the least health”, “use a recovery potion if an ally has less than 50% of health remaining”, “activate a buff at the beginning of each encounter”, etc. There are hundreds of such variations and by coming up with a suitable set of rules and then prioritizing them properly, it is possible to come up with strategies that work in almost every occasion. Sure, it’s still possible to throw in manual commands as well but on whole, the aim is definitely to fine-tune the gambits of each character so that in combat, the game practically plays itself.

It’s a quirky system but also a welcome one, given how heavy XII is when it comes to grinding. After an introductory tunnel of about four hours, the world of Ivalice slowly opens up to provide vast areas teeming with monsters. Fighting is a constant must as leveling up is fairly slow and bosses show absolutely no mercy towards weak adventurers. The bigger baddies become even more annoying when nearing death by suddenly throwing themselves into a truly incomprehensible rage mode that causes all player attacks to suddenly do almost no damage at all while they start throwing crippling attacks with such power, speed, and ferocity that even everyone concentrating on healing might not be enough.

Thinking back, it’s precisely this excessive amount of combat and the utter cheapness of the bosses that drove me away from the game all those years ago. Thankfully The Zodiac Age introduces a bunch of handy little improvements such as being able to fast-forward. With the press of a button, the game can be switched into 2x or even 4x speed mode. This is more than enough to turn boring grinds into slapstick comedy of suitably macroed heroes scurrying to pummel mob after mob for some welcomed experience. This also makes overly long transition legs of the journey a breeze. It won’t help in boss fights but even they are doable by keeping each character’s strongest special attacks in reserve and then unloading all of them on the boss in an uninterruptible barrage as soon as the so-called normal rules no longer seem to apply. It’s not a particularly elegant approach, sure, but hey, whatever works.

Thankfully all balancing and pacing problems fail to take away from what seems like a very intriguing story. It’s a nice change of pace to be worrying about the fate of a small kingdom rather than saving the entire world, especially when the surrounding global politics are full of internal strife and ruthless back-stabbing. There’s plenty of stark drama and it’s always a plus when even the bad guys have a hard time getting along. Even Ashe isn’t just compassionate and cute royal baggage but a distressed, battle-weary princess, torn emotionally asunder trying to ensure a future for her country even when all the options available seem to range from bad to worse. As a nice bonus, The Zodiac Age also allows all of this to be experienced in original Japanese audio, so this remaster is certainly a bit more than just a hasty coat of new paint. It it wasn’t, I might already have walked away from it for the third time but at least for the time being, I find myself quite interested in finding salvation for Dalmasca.

Groundhog Century

So nice, if only it would end :'(

If my gaming is in a slump due to everyday drudge once more replacing glorious vacation days, The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars does its damnedest to keep it that way. As surmised, I’ve now given it around 58 hours but pretty much nothing of any interest has happened. Going through horribly monotonic motions increases the idols’ experience and number of fans, but progress is so laughably slow that the game has regressed into nothing more than a weary battle of attrition. Should a new gig show up, you can rest assured that it’s something that won’t be even remotely beatable until 10-20 hours later. Perfect performances mean jack shit as if your characters aren’t on a high enough level, the required score limit is just plain impossible to reach. End of discussion. So, I’ve entertained myself playing through the same challenge over and over again for a couple of hundred of times, grinding slow and steady. Such wow. Much joy. Surely a few paid helper items from the store would do the trick, eh? F**k you, Project iM@S.

In a rueful fashion, the game follows a virtual year cycle advancing on a weekly basis. Skipping every possible cutscene, it’s possible to truncate one in-game year into a three hour real-time marathon covering 48 ordinary shows and four specials involving the entire cast of idols. If this cycle was realistic, these 13-21-year-old heroines would be at the peak of their careers around the ripe age of 90, and even that might take an incarnation or two. Thankfully, they’re effectively ageless. Still, at this point minor observations like that are crucial to endure the whole ordeal. You could, for example, set a daily goal of going through one in-game year (even if a quarter is already starting to feel repulsive). On Valentine’s Day, the chosen leader gives out complimentary chocolate, so that’s another potential goal to spend 39 hours or so. The pitiful selection of songs can also be raised to Legend status, which requires them to be completed 200 times each. The biggest reward of doing so is most likely that you’re never ever going to choose them again. Still, repeatedly playing the same song over and over again means that you quickly figure out that exact note when your current crew hits maximum audience zeal. Since missed notes carry no penalty, that’s when the song can be left to play itself while the player can just as well go to the fridge, take a piss, have a smoke, or spend a serious moment contemplating why they’re voluntarily submitting to this level of self-inflicted torture. Oh, and those 20 songs featured in the game? One is still locked. It’ll probably become available after 60-70 hours or something. Jesus.

All this is especially maddening as Platinum Stars┬áis a proper rhythm game, even if awfully lightweight in content. If it would’ve rolled its ending credits after 15-20 hours and shown all that it genuinely has by 30-50 hours, it would’ve left the stage as a celebrated winner. Now it has turned into that person. You know, the one you meet by chance and who’s awfully jovial and remarkably pleasant for a while until you realize that they’re nothing more than an absolute asshole and you’re inadvertently stuck with them for life with the only way of escape probably involving a sharp ax and a manslaughter charge. I’ll continue my rhythmical journey, although it has already turned into a macabre social study of what it actually takes to finish a game that has obviously been designed around nothing else than skimming its players off hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Bloody cynical.

Moving on would be a trigger pull away…

Ditching a game once started is always la petite mort of sorts but should that (once again) happen, at least intensive care would be close by. Mind-numbing repetition could easily be replaced either by the backlog or the five new JRPGs joining the fray; Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Nights of Azure, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls (dual releases be forever damned), but especially Stella Glow. That one might actually feature that strategic role-playing bliss I was expecting from Utawarerumono, which kind of failed to deliver.