Friday, July 4, 2014

Evolution of a Damage Dealer: Final Fantasy A Realm Reborn

So, I'm pretty sure that the concept of linear, Traditional, (with a capital T,) RPG is dead in the eyes of Final Fantasy and Square Enix in general, and that's okay to me. People joke a lot about the name, Final Fantasy, and how it's getting a little late for them to be keeping up the pretense of being the Final one, but I never have.

You see, I started with Final Fantasy 7, (VII for the those in the know,) and was instantly in love with the game up until I found out that you needed a memory card if you didn't plan on staying up for two weeks straight playing it, having your food pushed through a hole in the door so your parents could avoid the rank odor of unwashed teen, stale hot pockets and Mountain Dew containers that looked a little too yellow to be actual Mountain Dew. People harp on a lot of things about RPG's in general: the wait time for characters and enemies to do attacks, the loose graphics, the hours of doing things other than story playing. But, these people are the same people that think RPG is just a genre of game and not the actual acronym for the genre which is Role Playing Game, a concept that was brought about by men and women sitting around a table, taking time to make and design characters, worlds and attacks, waiting as people came up with strategies for characters and enemies and having no graphic settings but the limits of their imagination. Comparatively, waiting 5 minutes for a nice cut-scene to finish up and dialogue to finish sounds fairly lazy and complaining about it jaded and ungrateful. It's a little like a kid rolling his eyes when grandpa says he had to walk five miles to get to school, ignoring the fact that grandpa only has one foot and bad knees.

As the games progressed and became better and better, I became more and more obsessed with the game series, and while you might never catch me wearing a cute little Tonberry outfit at a convention, I do have three nifty and rather expensive tattoos permanently imprinted on my flesh to show my devotion. More to come.

But, as with everything, there does come a breaking point, even with obsessive people like me who have played every version of a game they can without spending thousands of dollars on new systems, imported Japanese versions and cards that emulate them on an unloving system, and for me, that was Final Fantasy 10, (X to the people who care.) There was no specific thing that got me to become jaded over it, but if I had to pick one, it was the Specs, or the specific way that the game forced you to use certain characters. While you were free to customize characters through a sphere grid, throwing the initial leveling system mostly out the window, this effect did not take place until later in the game, forcing you to use characters you might not particularly like. Before, in Final Fantasy 1 through 9, you had a freer range of freedom to customize characters so that they would be more or less effective against certain things. This character is an attacker, he has high health, better equipment and you place him in the front. This character has all the magic, and this one has healing magic only so I put them in the back. With Final Fantasy X, you were forced through the game to bring in specific characters to attack specific enemies. The one with the sports ball, Wakka, dumbest character in Final Fantasy history, including Quina, until Penelo, could attack airborne characters others could not. The whiny protagonist in the story could attack the wolves that were too fast for other characters to hit. The cool bad-ass with the hefty sword could kill shelled enemies, (okay, the giant anthropomorphic jaguar that had furries obsessed for years counts towards that as well, but I didn't like him.)

I think it was at this point that Final Fantasy began a steady decline. Other systems were still popularizing on the traditional role-playing game, and the big hit was waiting on the horizon: World of Warcraft. Granted, Final Fantasy XI hit the stores first, technically in Japan. But, it had two big things in it's favor. First, Warcraft was already a popular computer game and it didn't have to switch a lot of it's concepts around, just going from a society creating battle game to a single player multi-player-environmental game. In comparison, Final Fantasy had to go from a single player, customizatable game, to a multi-player-environmental game that no one was quite ready for, including developers. The second thing in World of Warcraft's favor was that Final Fantasy went on to making Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XII.

Now there's nothing wrong with hitching your bandwagon to new trends. That's how things stay in the limelight for so long. In my humble opinion, making X-2 was a last ditch effort to keep interest in the series while they were preparing XI for development, and it failed miserably. Trendy, art-poppy, and heavily influenced by the dying interests in Charlies Angels, Final Fantasy attempted to merge two different things, hip, trendy, youthful, girl power protagonists in revealing outfits, and the old Job Class system from games previous to Final Fantasy VI. While creating a more diverse character, it actually did the opposite, forcing gamers to finish a perfect game in order to get good Jobs, and confusing things by creating jobs with obscure attacks for different situations. Where in X you had to use different characters to kill specific enemies, in X-2 you had to hope that the character you had had the skills necessary on their list of available jobs in order to do damage properly.

Having no experience with MMORPG's at the time, I had no reference point, but, looking back on things now, I have to say that Final Fantasy XI was one of the most unfriendly systems I've ever played. Imagine you are playing a city-wide scavenger hunt and are told that you get to play all by yourself, and the grand prize is s a new car. You start out the game excited by the prospect of something rewarding, only to realize your first clue is leading you twenty miles across town. Determined, bleeding and footsore, you get there and find that three other people are there as well and that they all have the next clue and you have to do it together. You start out on the next part of your scavenger hunt, but halfway there, someone gives up and you have to go back to the last part because the clue specifically says that if you get there without four people, you won't get the next clue.

So, you go back, and wait. And wait. And wait for a few hours. Finally someone shows up and they are just as tired as you were and they say they can help but they can only stay for an hour before they have to go get some food because getting a car isn't worth starving for. So you go for the next clue, only to realize that four other teams are there and they all want that clue and only one shows up per hour and five other teams have left. Tired, and with a hungry anarchist on your team, you steal the next clue which happens to be a set of bikes and peddle away, three angry teams on your tail. But, now realizing that even through you have a means to getting somewhere and the prospect of a new car, you know not everyone is going to get that car and everyone has bikes. Instead of going off to get that car, the anarchist goes home to get food, your tank goes AFK and the other damage dealer whines for fifteen minutes before leaving and flipping you off while he goes. That was what Final Fantasy XI was like.

Rather than trying to go back to tradition, as IX did after the steampunk revolution that was VII and VIII, Final Fantasy continued on it's online road, but continued making console games, but instead creating a merging of the two, bringing more customizable concepts to the characters, but taking away the freedom of character control. In XII and XIII, you had varying degrees of lessening control over your alternate characters, putting you in control of only one character in a more free-turn setting with options to give orders like some kind of general. The problem being that the sense of control over your characters, each with their own identities was a sense of immersion. It was why Vincent Valentine was so popular, even as a secret character, because your control over the character gave you control over how involved you got into him. Final Fantasy XII and XIII were more like a game my step-siblings played when they were younger: Kessen. Instead of being in control of characters, you were a general in an army and you got to send people into battle and watch as their numbers decreased depending on their way of dealing with that particular enemy. You didn't cry or cheer for those enemies, just watched the numbers and felt a sense of accomplishment when it didn't reach zero.

Things were beginning to look a bit dim for me when XIV came out. The beginning stats were bad, everyone was hating it and the mere fact that it went back to formula, (thank you Spiderman reference,) was bad enough for me to wait around for the next one to come out. The problem is, Final Fantasy is looking to be reaching the point where Final Fantasy might no longer be a witty commentary on their last chance at success and a goal on the horizon to look to and MMORPG's might be the road that they take, skipping and singing merrily along to get there.

But, with the wait for the next Final Fantasy game looking further and further away, and tattoos being rather pricey to get in the meantime, I decided it was time to try out Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn, and see if the hubbub had subsided. Boy, was I happy to try it out. Not only is the game more user friendly than XI was, not only is the Class and Job system more relaxed, not only can you get a mount fairly on, but also, rather than take an RPG and force it into the confines of an MMORPG, they did the opposite. What does this mean? Rather than being fun, but kind of aimless with a storyline buried under random quest-lines and meaningless characters, (like WoW,) Final Fantasy XIV has taken the storyline and pushed it to the forefront, a little more like Everquest, which I only played once...for a day. The storyline is central to the playing mechanics, many of which you can only unlock by playing the main game. But, rather than being taxing like XI was, the game play is more relaxed. While I don't really remember hearing anything about dungeons in XI, having not played far enough to care, XIV takes the WoW route of including a duty finder to get quests, and even a random daily roulette for high leveled characters to get Tomes that can be traded in for high level equipment, encouraging people to continue playing even after the main quest-line ends at level 50, the level cap as of yet for the game.

Now, the game is still progressing, with new patches planned out and new job and class mods coming out soon, which is hopeful as my little character, Eldrich Forceus, wants desperately to be a Ninja one day. The thing I like most about the game is that not only is the game more user friendly, but it's also more friendly gamer on gamer and I think that has a lot to do with social media. Groups in game are posting Facebook pages for their friends and accepting adds more lucratively, (houses aren't cheap after all, and Chocobo Stables are looking to be expensive as well.) I see at least four or five invites per day for people to join groups with words like, "relaxed playing," and "fun times had by all," in the wording, and there isn't a day that goes by that someone I follow on tumblr posts a picture of something XIV related, even on their NSFW pages. Go look it up if you don't know what it means, but reader beware.

So, going back to my earlier statement, people make a lot of jokes about Final Fantasy and it's 14 or so final times, but I don't. Things have been rough on the journey through Gaia, Cocoon, Eorzea and it's many other incarnations, but it's been fun. I can always count on an engineer named Cid to save the day. There are always beautiful landscapes to look in on, even if there is that damned coconut sound every time I walk from place to place. And Eldrich Forceus is always ready to join a dungeon party and do some damage dealing, trusty spear in hand ready to make a few tomes. It doesn't seem as worrisome when the fantasy has an end in sight if it's looking as good as XIV does.

And, if all else fails, I've always got IX on my PS Vita and that never disappoints.

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