Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Madman

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The Rocketeer

Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Madman

Post by The Rocketeer » Sat Jun 21, 2014 12:55 am

If I had to describe Final Fantasy XII in two words, I would pick "fascinatingly flawed." The game is like a junk sculpture: a grand amalgam of pieces that, individually, are often nothing special, and are often, well, junk. But sometimes, in the right light, from the right angle, these parts form a whole that pushes back all of your expectations, and, for a moment, appears to take a new form, alien and intriguing, moving as though alive. And in that next moment, a hunk shudders and falls away, and the illusion is broken again. I'd be very hesitant to call it a great game, and at times I'd balk at calling it a good game. But nonetheless, I found myself circling it, time and again, stalking that one special angle, hoping to get one more glimpse of a mystique I was certain it hid.

Then a character would open their stupid damn mouth, and the spell was shattered with my controller.

Around a year ago, I got the chance to play through a real oddity: the final, updated version of Final Fantasy XII, verbosely entitled the "International Zodiac Job System." I was curious about the mechanical, gameplay-oriented changes, but in the back of my head, I think I'd decided I wanted to play the game one last time, and get it out of my system once and for all. This was a real pull for me; I'd played the game two or three times already, and not in a dabbling, skittish fashion. FFXII, as I'll be abbreviating it from here on, is not a short, small game, and I had multiple times pressed it headfirst into my mouth and kept pushing its flailing mass until nothing remained of it. This, despite finding the game often infuriating, blatantly flawed in several easily- and widely- observed facets, and, by this time, offering extraordinarily little I wasn't, by now, well familiar with. Little, but not nothing.

In embarking on my last great odyssey of mist and magicite, the imperial and the empyreal, I set out to record and, with luck, pin down, if even for a moment, this ephemeral but inexorable pull the game seemed to have had on me. In fits and starts, whenever I played the game, I jotted down my impressions of it, assuring myself that when I was done, I'd be left with a concise distillation of all my sophisticated impressions of a bizarre, many-splendored game of our yesteryear. Looking back on the final product, so many months after first embarking upon it, I am struck by what I see:

I have created absolutely nothing of value in this respect. I am, instead, left with all the blackmail anyone could ever need on me. The result is a monstrous, sprawling, gibbering heap of profanity and nitpicking, and of effusive, giddy praise; often flippant and crass as it was loquacious and prolix, often in a single line; of meandering explorations of preposterous minutia; and of what I think may have even been attempts at comedy in a document that, at the outset, I never intended for anyone else to even see. This is the debris of a swirling tempest of sleep deprivation, over-caffeination, fanboyism, pedantry, obsession and speculation all brawling for the control of a single keyboard, and if you were to tell me the result was written by four entirely different people, each of whom had an entirely different and absolutely irreconcilable impression of the game, I could in no way gainsay this conclusion but for having perpetrated it upon the world with my own hands.

Yet, even as I was typing what would turn out to be just the start, I had a bizarre, unfamiliar realization: I was writing a Let's Play. And as the bulk of the work grew and grew, I felt more and more strongly that I'd have to shunt it out somewhere onto the Internet eventually, if only to justify having penned it at all. This is not intended to enlighten you. This is not intended to make me look insightful. This is an admission of trespass, an expiation.

I will not edit the... work? document? evidence? with too heavy a hand. The style of the thing is a product of the manner in which it was written, and I'm averse to disrupting an alchemy I don't understand and cannot replicate deliberately. I will give the early portions a bit more thorough a working-over, as they were written before I had even an inkling someone else might read it, and are far rougher than I can bear to expose, even given the nature of the whole. In sum, this Let's Play- if it even qualifies as one- mirrors its subject in so many ways: there are sever pacing issues, the tone careens back and forth all over the place, the prose is in sore need of trimming, and I'm not sure the creator was paying much attention at times. If you assert that any section of it is reproachful or appalling, I may be hard-pressed to disagree. But in the end, it's like a junk sculpture: a calamity of disparate elements, but sometimes, in a certain light...

What follows, I have struggled with aptly titling. The name of the thread I've rendered as "Travelog by a Raving Madman," but the title of the document, named for its spirit and the trusty refrain found so often within, was, from the very start, "THIS FUCKING GAME."

This will not be brief. I will break the whole into smaller sections, and post a couple of them per day. It's not as though I expect this to set the Internet alight. But neither do I expect any sane person to power through, OpenOffice informs me, sixty thousand words about a game that I could not claim to love with my hand on a Bible. Without further apology, it begins below.

(And for you folks here, I'm also posting this on the Escapist forums, since apparently I deserve nothing but suffering.)
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Sat Jun 21, 2014 12:56 am

PART 1: A Long Time Ago, in a Kingdom Far, Far Away...

THIS FUCKING GAME.

So basically, the game starts out with a ton of backstory and exposition that goes on way, way too long and drops way too many proper nouns. But it all basically boils down this: the big, evil empire from up north, Archadia, stomped its way south and took over your country's next door neighbor, Nabradia.

Your country, Dalmasca, just married off its princess, Ashe, to some Nabradian prince, who runs off to fight them and gets his shit wrecked along with most of Dalmasca's army. So the Dalmascan king, Raminas, heads off to strike a surrender and keep a little bit of autonomy in exchange for not everyone getting killed.

So Basch, a Dalmascan Knight, and some nobody footsoldier named Reks, are marching down the road when they get word that the surrender is all a setup and the king is walking into a deathtrap. Whatever forces they can scrape together haul ass back to Nalbina Fortress to try and rescue him. While fighting their way up to the king (and really, if they're already openly assaulting the fortress, is there any chance the king is still safe?) Reks gets separated from Basch for a second, and when he runs up to the treaty room to catch up, finds the king already dead (NO SHIT) and gets backstabbed by Basch, who's now talking with a completely different voice, presumably feeling it more appropriate for admitting he killed the king himself for surrendering like a pussy. Reks is bleeding out on the floor when the Archadians bust in and Basch gives the story to them. The Imperials basically say “Well sucks to be Dalmasca I guess” and then Dalmasca surrenders anyway, except without the part where they aren't Imperial property afterward. Basch is executed for being a total prick, and Princess Ashe kills herself after having about the worst few weeks ever.

Cut to two years later, and you take over Vaan, who is, in deference to VI and IX, an annoying fucknugget thief. Vaan is Reks' brother, and carries a raging hateboner for the Empire, which he indulges by stealing their pocket change. Given that you never fight an Imperial who carries more than about ten bucks, this can't be a productive hobby. This next part of the game is just Vaan fucking around learning various game systems before they finally start the actual plot.

After killing some rats, because this game has zero self-awareness AND forgot that it already had an entire tutorial dungeon, Vaan runs into Penelo. Penelo is that standard JRPG character who's waiting to be Vaan's girlfriend when the game grows the balls to pull the trigger on a real relationship.

This never happens.

Penelo scolds Vaan for being an irresponsible shit, then sends him to a bar to become a poacher.

Some jerk at the bar gives you the first of the Hunts, side missions in which you track down and slay boss monsters. The first Hunt is against some Kingdom of Loathing reject, a fanged Tomato head on the body of Piglet from Winnie the Pooh. Apparently, slaying this means Vaan is badass enough to join Fight Club, so the jerk from the bar inducts you into the local clan, basically a guild for getting more Hunts.

The first Hunt is the only mandatory Hunt, which is sort of strange considering how much of the game they account for. There are whole subplots linked to the Hunts and the clan, which never intersect with the main game. I can't help but wonder if this was deliberate or a product of the game's troublesome development... but more on that later.

So then Vayne, the son of the Archadian Emperor and dead ringer for Pete Burns from Dead or Alive, rolls into town to take over the management of Rabanastre, the only real city in Dalmasca. Vayne was the same person to receive Basch's confession at Nalbina Fortress, but good luck catching that detail on your first time through this hot fucking mess of a narrative.

Vayne rolls into Rabanastre like Aladdin rolling into Agrabah, then Kanyes his own ceremony by telling all the angry Dalmascans he knows they hate his guts but he's going to do a killer job as consul anyway. The extremely fickle crowd decides they like his jib, and Vayne fucks off to get ready for some hardcore welcome dinner action.

Vaan decides that if you want to rob your own city's palace of its national treasures, it's best to wait until after a belligerent nation will have stripped it of everything valuable but not until it is occupied by a top VIP of the world's most powerful nation, so he claps his scrawny hands together and goes to see a tricksy fellow named Old Dalan, which is actually a brilliant maneuver on Vaan's part. Dalan, despite never leaving a chair in the sewers, has unlimited access to information and resources and gives no fucks about sharing it with anybody who asks, so when Vaan, a disenfranchised, sticky-fingered peasant kid like thousands of others in Rabanastre, asks if he knows an easy way into the palace, Dalan not only knows exactly such a thing, but has the magical key to the treasure vault in his nightstand, which he will eagerly hand over as soon as Vaan grabs a spare battery for the thing.

So Vaan fucks off to the wilderness to grab one, and Penelo tags along because she doesn't want her only friend in the world to die fighting anything tougher than a living tomato stalk. Naturally, gathering the magical thungumbob, a 'sunstone,' turns out to be a daily chore so common and tedious the tribals in the area make their kids do it to keep them out of their hair, and then sell them to tourists as tchochkes. No, they don't have any on hand. Yes, you WILL have to make one yourself.

With sunstone in hand, Penelo lets on that she, a lonely 17-year old girl ditching work to spend time with him, actually sort of enjoys being around Vaan-kun, and would onee-san care to drink from her oasis? Vaan ripostes like a champ and pile-drives her back into the friendzone, saying thanks for your time, but it's late, and I need to go get slaughtered committing a felony. So with the treasury key in hand, Vaan heads off to the sewers. That's right, Vaan's story kicks off with rat-slaying, two fetch quests and a sewer level.

THIS FUCKING GAME.

Luckily, it's only a short walk through the sewers from the worst part of town to an unguarded palace storeroom. The rest of the palace is a bit more populated, but in true Final Fantasy fashion, the guards are essentially stormtroopers and are therefore as retarded and attention-deficit as you would expect, and Vaan bumbles into the secret treasury with no trouble.

Now, here a few things happen solely because of plot: as Vaan stumbles around the room appraising the priceless treasures the Empire so graciously left undisturbed, a random statue apparently thinks OH SHIT A PROTAGONIST, and opens up its face to bare a crystal, which Vaan instantly seizes because, numerous faults aside, he knows a MacGuffin when he sees one. Then two people waltz into the room right behind him, thanking him for finding it for them. These folks are Balthier and Fran, who apparently possess enough ninjutsu to intuit that Vaan is both looking for the exact same thing they are (despite not knowing it exists) and possesses the only means of obtaining it... AND are able to follow him to it stealthily enough for Vaan never to notice them... yet are too inept to find the crystal themselves, or to seize it before Vaan after he has found the way in. They also don't seem to expect Vaan to want to keep it for himself, as once he refuses to relinquish it, they engage in a harrowing 2v1 staring contest until a door in the back opens completely of its own accord and sounds of a ballyhoo waft in.

Vaan hightails it out of there, getting as far as an upper balcony before realizing, “Oh shit, this place is under some sort of all-out assault” as an airship bombards a melee in the courtyard. Vaan seems alright with standing there and dying- since that would be pretty metal- but Balthier and Fran grab him by the collar and abscond with him on their equally-metal flying crystalpunk motorcycle.

Apparently this exceeds the craft's weight limit though, as it immediately crashes despite not seeming damaged in any way, and the makeshift party somehow winds up back in the sewers again. Balthier remarks that the Imperial forces seemed suspiciously quick to act once La Resistance attacked- which I would point out is just their fucking job- but sure enough, it seems like they were counting on, if not baiting the rebels into attacking to trying and kill off Lord Vayne, just to entrap and rout them. This means that Vaan's hunch about the guard being lax during the feast was dead fucking wrong, and he really did choose the worst possible night to rob the place, what with everyone there literally counting on disgruntled peasants skulking in and causing a fuss.

As Balthier chides Vaan for ogling Fran like a sultry zoo creature at this point, I guess I should introduce them. Balthier is essentially what Vaan would be if he weren't a total fucking pussy. He introduces himself as “the leading man,” and periodically refers to himself as such. This seems to be an in-joke, in that he might have been, at various points in development, exactly that, before Vaan had sufficiently polished Akitoshi Kawazu's doorknob. Balthier is, thematically, far more suited to this role, and this gets on my tits mightily, but I'll save it for a more apt juncture. Fran is a Viera, a bunny-elfgirl. There are actually a handful of nonhuman races in FFXII, but fucked if any of them are going to end up in the party except the fanservice race. Fran doesn't really have a character; she is Balthier's Chewbacca, and any chance of development or an arc she might have had is neatly capped off fairly early in the game. She will, however, provide timely gazzetteering and cryptic insights in as few words as possible. So that's something.

With the amoral career criminals agreeing, for the moment, not to shank the scrawny bottom-rung-of-society cockblocker in a witness-free sewer for his priceless treasure- in point of fact, the ONLY treasure they thought to leave with- the rabble proceeds to blunder about the sewers until they happen upon a damsel in distress. She'll introduce herself as Amalia, the Resistance leader, in a few moments, but if you read the fucking manual, see the cover of the game- or if you've ever experienced a work of media in your life- you might already have puzzled out that it's the “late” Princess Ashe. She's cornered on a ledge by some Imperials, but, at Vaan's urging, jumps down into his arms.

Now, allow me a short tangent... again. The game now indulges in the first of a handful of spots where they hint at some sort of deeper connection between Vaan and Ashe. They, alone of the party, see certain things. This time, they just sort of have a too-long gaze at one another when Vaan catches her. It's part mystic, part romantic, and nothing, nothing at all, ever comes of it. Ever. I suspect it's just a ripple in the game's tumultuous development, but of course I can't prove that, and indeed it's what I say eight out of ten times the writing goes somewhere retarded, but there it is.

So you wallop a few Imperial goombas with fingerquotes Amalia as a guest star. They try and present Ashe as a stone badass, but given that she was cornered by a few hilariously incompetent mooks, froze like a doe instead of defending herself, and then had to be caught by a young man that probably weighs less than she does rather than jump that perilous TWELVE FUCKING FEET, she comes off as pretty ungrateful once she immediately flips the Bitch Switch to the “ON” position and leaves it there for the rest of the game.

Now, I'm not gonna make fun of the particulars of this games dialogue, because if I do that we'll be here all goddamn night, but I do think this is worth pointing out: So Ashe, after spending two years in obscurity and blowing her resistance's best shot at killing or ransoming someone worthwhile, has the news gently broken to her that everyone she knew or was working with is definitely dead now. When she walks out in a bad mood, Vaan thinks to ask, “What's wrong with her?” I know! WOMEN, right Vaan? Balthier wisely calls him out, but then thinks to deride his skills as a thief, despite being 0 to 1 with Vaan in terms of goods stolen, where they both shall remain for the rest of this fucking game.

With a fourth party member in tow, the crew of thieves and seditionists mow through the rest of the sewers, to include two token boss fights, neither with any bearing on the plot. But once they emerge back into the slums, they are immediately arrested... for the robbery. That's right! Amid the massive slaughter of resistance infiltrators and the entire palace in chaos, the steadfast Imperials not only totally noticed the robbery of goods they didn't know existed by folks they never witnessed, but were able to determine exactly where you would emerge from a massive sewer complex they hadn't mapped and didn't know you had entered. That's damn fine policework! Penelo arrives to see the four clapped in irons, and after Vaan is bitchslapped to the ground by an Imperial for glancing in her direction, Balthier calmly hands her what appears to be a handkerchief. Because while a throwaway remark to passer-by is worthy of a beating, letting known thieves make handoffs to acquaintances is not worth a raised eyebrow. I still give that Imperial my Favorite Person Badge. Naturally, they cart you all off to prison without trial.

While knocked out in the clink, Vaan has a dream of his brother Reks, apparently in some sort of hospital. Despite the prologue of the game making it seem like Reks bit the dust within moments, Vaan's memory of him seems to indicate he was in a vegetative state for some time before expiring. As future events show, that will really strain the delicate continuity, but more on that in a moment...

Now, Nalbina Dungeon is actually just the fortress from the prologue, repurposed as a hole to throw unsavories into. It being more of the "Gitmo" type of prison than the "Shawshank" type, the cast languish in wasting obscurity for the rest of their days, because FFXII is a bold work, unafraid to buck cliché.

What actually happens is that Vaan and Balthier get into a scuffle with three Seeq, a race of pig people. These Seeq can only speak in horrible guttural roars, despite every other Seeq in the game being fully articulate. Y'all racist, Squeenix! After the pigs are beaten up, the pair take cover as a group of Imperials come out onto the balcony. With them are the Bangaa (lizard-man) bounty hunters led by Ba'Gamnan, apparently come looking for Balthier, whom the Imperials intend to, uh, let Ba'Gamnan walk out with? Because Balthier has a bounty on him, apparently? Question: if not the Imperials, who's offering this bounty? Even if it isn't them, why would they give him their prisoner? The soldier in charge rightly tells Ba'gamnan to go fuck himself, but before the lizard can carve him up, a man clad all in armor- Judge Gabranth, in fact- enters and gets everyone back to official business. The Judges are essentially this game's Foxhound, and Gabranth is chief among them. While Boba Fett and Darth Vader are chatting up on the balcony, Chewbacca sneaks up and says she's found a way out for Han and... uh... Who the fuck is Vaan in the Star Wars analogy, again? C-3PO? Does that make Penelo R2-D2? Makes sense, given she could never walk right in those fucking boots...

AAAAAaaaaanyway, Fran says they can get out through the oubliette, but the magic on the door is beyond “her talents.” These “talents” will, in fact, never be showcased in the game, ever, and whenever the Viera sensitivity to magic phenomena comes up in the game, it tends to be working against her. She is also one of the party's worst casters, stat-wise. CHARACTER! Luckily, the large group of our heavily-armed captors seem to be headed that way, and we should be able to easily slip into the most high-security area right behind them, a plan that wouldn't be suicide if we had any of our equipment.

As luck would have it, our equipment would just happen to be in an unlocked, unguarded side room in a hall adjoining the room we were just in, along with a map of the whole joint. I've got to say, of all the JRPG prison breaks I've been party to- and let me tell you, I'm a damn expert on this subject- this may be the laziest and most token I've seen. There is never, at any point, an attempt to make it seem like you might actually be, you know, imprisoned.

Canonically, you begin sneaking just steps behind Darth Gabranth, but it doesn't matter of you have a raging gun battle with every Archadian on the way. Not a complaint, not a complaint! I don't even want to contemplate forced stealth in this game. And yes, it turns out that getting into the oubliette is as simple as wandering in behind them after they open the magicked, yet otherwise totally unguarded, door. Once within, Gabranth has a nice little chat with the lone prisoner caged there: none other than the late Captain Basch, kingslayer to Dalmasca and kinslayer to Vaan. Their conversation doesn't mean much at the moment, but I'll come back to it once it's relevant. Ooooh believe me, I've got a rant cooking.

Once Gabranth wanders away, the crew saunters up to Leia there and realizes that Fran's “way out” is more of a “bottomless chasm.” Considering there's no possible way she could've actually scouted this out, we really shouldn't be surprised that the notorious prison does not, in fact, have a convenient fire escape. While the crew ponders their next move, Basch chimes in with, “Hey, you know, if you guys are breaking out, I mean, Iiiiii'm a prisoner, yooooou're prisoners... wouldn't mind if I, you know...” Vaan throws a complete shit fit, jumps on his cage like a monkey, and making some, shall we say, pointed accusations. This is actually totally appropriate, and works perfectly well for Vaan's character. It just unfortunately highlights how terrible his voice acting is, with any emotion besides mild interest sounding wooden and strained.

Equally unfortunately, the huge gaggle of soldiers in the next room over start wondering about Basch's conspicuous and untimely reinstatement of visitation privileges, and begin running back in. Starved for options, Fran kicks the lever for Basch's cage off the retaining gear, and the group rides that sumabitch as it freefalls a few hundred feet down, the bemused Gabranth looking on.

Fortunately for the party, the cage's airbags deployed at the bottom (Nabradian craftsmanship, I tell you, they really don't make em like that no more) and they go about their merry way. Vaan tries to resume his shit fit from above, but Balthier tells him to quiet his bitch ass down. This works out fine until they stop for a short rest midway out of the tunnels they've landed in. A bit of namecalling leads Basch to proclaim his innocence, saying that he was abducted at the battle of Nalbina, and it was his brother, Gabranth himself, who assumed his identity and betrayed the king.

Now, a lot of folks have voiced disdain for the whole 'evil twin' aspect. But you know what?

I can take that. It's fantasy. Whatever.

But there are far worse things about this whole plot; cliché is one thing, but this trick is a fatal assault on logic itself.

So, here's the Empire's grand plan: there is no real treaty at Nalbina, and they kill King Raminas of Dalmasca as soon as he gets settled in for the 'signing.' Then, they... what? Intentionally spread a rumor that that was their plan? Basch heard that shit from retreating allies on the way there. By chance. Were they spies? Was that just Imperial social engineering? And they do have to have Basch there, since I doubt they keep too many evil twins on their Judge staff. Maybe Drace's sister works a fruit stand in Muthru, I'unno.

So Basch and co. arrive at Nalbina and assault the place. As in, real, actual combat. To the death. Now, I can see the Empire sacrificing their own people in service of a stupid, pointless scheme, but here's a question: what if Basch had died? It's not like they sent one lonely cripple with sad eyes to swat at him on his way up the stairs, they attacked him with a fucking fighter airship, on top of a couple dozen plate-clad foot soldiers. So after luring an essential element of their plan into place via grapevine, they send people who aren't in on the plan to kill him with whatever means are available. Did they just assume he could, on foot and armed with a sword, slay two dozen men and a Remora-class anti-personnel craft?

Fine. So then Reks gets separated from Basch, and only reaches the Highhall after Gabranth has taken Basch's place. What if they hadn't split up? There were other people with Basch besides Reks, but none of them were present for the 'surrender,' so presumably they all died horribly. So they abduct Basch, kill his cohorts, squat him behind a pillar- since they show he was totally in the same room, just out of frame- and wait for a separate group of Dalmascans to arrive, so they can... prank them? Just hoping against hope that they don't get killed on the way there, or notice Basch squirming and groaning while three guys hold him down six paces to stage left? And then when Reks does arrive, Gabranth immediately shanks him, so that he can witness the fake confession while drifting in and out of consciousness. Their one witness.

I want to know, was Reks the first to make it there, or just the first to survive their little skit? Did they run that confession a couple times while their patsy accidentally died on them? “Dammit, Gabranth!" Vayne would chide! "The kidney again! I told you not to nick the kidney this time!” And this is a crucial part of their plan: the whole shebang, the entire scheme, hinges on having at least one witness to claim it was Basch that betrayed Raminas, not the Empire.

And they fuck that up, too! Basch and Gabranth look similar, but they speak nothing alike. Anyone who had actually served with Basch- say, his friend Vossler perhaps- stood a fair chance of recognizing the difference.

And here's a thought: did Basch, high-ranking Dalmascan Knight, never mention to anyone that his twin brother was a fucking JUDGE MAGISTER, bodyguard to a son of the Emperor of Archadia, and one of the top men in command of their military might? This seems like a non-trivial matter for the folk of Dalmasca to know! What if John Fucking Kennedy had had a twin brother who had been raised in Moscow since he was four years old? And one day good old Jack comes on TV and tells the American people through a thick Ural accent that they're giving all their Minuteman missiles to Castro? For safekeeping? But luckily it was Reks, who had only known him for about ten minutes and wouldn't know the difference.

STILL fucked it up: Reks was so gravely wounded by Gabranth that he spent at least a few months catatonic before wasting away and dying. Apparently he recovered well enough at some point to tell everyone a ridiculous, sensational story about something that no one else could corroborate and which he was barely awake for? And everyone just bought it and accepted the surrender without terms, as penance for Basch being such a shit and raining on their nice happy treaty signing? What about the soldiers who first learned of the plot and passed it on to Basch, who were retreating and therefore didn't participate in the battle and get killed? What about any other survivor of the battle, who all knew about the assassination plot? Perhaps the soldiers at Nalbina would believe that Basch had deceived them, but the initial discoverers at least could verify, for certain, that there was already an Imperial plot to assassinate Raminas. And everyone just accepts... what, exactly? That Basch beat the Imperials to the punch?

Well, I guess either no one raised those extremely conspicuous inconsistencies or fell down a well on the way back to Rabanastre. So Reks kicks the bucket, and the only witness left is Basch. When Gabranth sees him in Nalbina, he asks him, “Why are you still alive?” Bu- th- ffffff- EXCELLENT FUCKING QUESTION, Noah! You win the gold star! The one person in the whole world who could blow their scheme, and they carry him down a few flights of stairs and leave him there forever. Basch eventually ventures that he's kept hostage to keep Marquis Ondore of Bhujerba 'silenced.'

About... what? The scheme? Why the fuck would Ondore know anything about it? Why would he have any idea that Basch was still alive at all? Even if he did somehow know, Ondore is a fucking snake. Basch has less than no political value, since any anti-Archadian that found out he was alive would immediately kill his ass dead, and Ondore would never tip his hand and act against the Empire in a fit of passion regardless of what they did to some rotting political prisoner. What proof would Ondore have, anyway? Unless Basch were to somehow end up wandering into his mansion and speak to him personally- which, I mean, could never fucking happen, right? Well, not if he was DEAD, anyway!

This, exactly, happens.

But sure, I'll grant it to them: the Empire came up with The Worst Plan in the Fucking World, and went at it with the skill and grace of a catfish fucking a stump, but they pulled it off. In the end, it worked. There's just one question I have left for them: WWWHHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY???!!! Why in Faram's name would you bother with this ridiculous fucking plan in the first place?! To make the people of Dalmasca, who still hate you unconditionally but can do nothing to oppose you politically or militarily, accept the surrender more readily? The game goes out of its way to show that Dalmasca's military was already beyond hope of resisting Archadia, and the Imperials aren't even a mite shy about oppressing the people of Rabanastre as forcibly and openly as possible, with any dissenters being carted of to Gitmo. So why the fuck would they even bother with this convoluted plan? What where they so afraid the original treaty would bring? Raminas wanted peace, was prepared to surrender his country, and knew he couldn't fight the Empire. I don't think he was going to demand universal health care and a mythril pleasure yacht. And what if you don't like Raminas' terms? Deny them! What's he going to do? Pull his OTHER, non-decimated military from out of his voluminous sleeve?

“Haha!" he exclaimed, posing majestically as black-clad supermodels crashed through the windows. "You never counted on my NINJA COMMANDOS!”

Maybe, maybe they were concerned about provoking Rozarria, the rival empire to the southwest, by seeming too aggressive, but riddle me this, assholes: what seems more aggressive, a relatively amicable surrender with terms that leave the king ruling- even as a figurehead- or one that leaves the king dead under suspicious circumstances and his nation becoming their uncontested property? And how about this: what the fuck does Rozarria care about HOW they happen to acquire every nation running in a straight line from Archadia to their doorstep? I can't really see the Margrace dynasts lounging around the pool at the Ambervale, saying, “Oh, didja hear? Landis, Nabradia, and Dalmasca all just happened to fall under Archadian sovereignty through bizarre and unfortunate coincidences. Man, some empires just get all the luck!” No sir, I think Rozarria might not give them the benefit of the doubt on their acquisition of the Galtean isthmus, i.e. the most important military territory to hold in a war on Rozarria. I think that might just make them antsy regardless of exactly how the headlines read. This 'plan' manages to be an utter fucking gong show from every angle, and of all the ridiculous narrative snafus this game chokes out, this one might be, if not the most damaging to the plot or themes, certainly the most comprehensively broken.

THIS.

FUCKING.

GAME.

To be continued.
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Scerro

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Scerro » Sat Jun 21, 2014 2:52 am

I dropped the game, I got bored with it. In general though, I saw this game as testament to what square enix tries to make in games, and I saw it as the sign that they were going to focus more on world building and graphics.

Honestly the party didn't feel like a party any previous FF game had. It was three pairs of couples that didn't really work. There was reason for the couples to stick together - not romantically, however. There was NO reason for the couples to band together.

I also don't consider their "Ivalice" real Ivalice. Final Fantasy Tactics is the world of Ivalice, and it's dark, gritty, and merciless. That said, I never really cared for the humanoid races they added in FFT:Advance, and cared even less for them in FFXII. They're so opposite of what Ivalice is to me.

Combat was boring, and you pretty much programmed the characters to do combat. On top of that, due to how it worked, it was horribly inefficient combat. I hated how when a skill would be 90% charged, and then an enemy would get an ally down to under a certain percent, and you'd lose the whole 90% charge that would have gone off in half of a second.

To compound that problem, mana is horrible until you start getting summons that double or triple your mana pool. What's worse is that the items that restore mana are expensive and hard to come by (thus you can't just spam them), and your mana pool gets depleted after a couple of heals. That leaves you with the best option as running around in circles for five minutes as your mana recharges. Lame.

They tried, they really did try to make a world to immerse people in. It's just that Final Fantasy under Squeenix just lacks real characters and fun combat mechanics. Honestly, when did the last enjoyable game you played let you play it with one hand?
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Retsam

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Retsam » Sat Jun 21, 2014 3:43 am

I've probably gotten maybe halfway into that game twice; it was just too long, the combat wasn't interesting enough, the class system (license board?) wasn't interesting at all, and it seemed like it took obscene amounts of grinding to get anywhere. And the story had interesting points, but it certainly wasn't enough to drag a relatively low attention span gamer like myself through the whole game.

My favorite thing about the game is opening cutscene which I think is a fantastic bit of storytelling; if the rest of the story had held up to that standard, I think I would have finished it no matter how bad the combat was. Conveniently, the opening cutscene is also one of my favorite unskippables. (Probably second to Lost Odyssey)
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CraigM

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by CraigM » Sat Jun 21, 2014 4:03 am

Where I am the odd one who liked 12 far better than most FF games since 6. Granted that's probably linked to the fact that by the time it came out I was absolutely sick and tired of the old stand in two lines turn based system of most JRPG's.

It's probably also the last JRPG I've played. I really lost all interest in the genre since. Huh. Basically I'm probably the wrong person to judge the wombat system.
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Lachlan the Sane
Location: I come from the land down under, where women blow and men chunder

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Lachlan the Sane » Sat Jun 21, 2014 5:04 am

I know that this is more an indictment of the game than of this LP, but I couldn't follow that at all. Couldn't even remember which kingdom was which, let alone which character, and only managed to clue onto "Empire = Bad" about when you started dropping the Star Wars analogies. I have heard that the opening cutscene is a massive exposition dump with huge orders of terrible (and I heard that from Shamus's review), so I don't blame you, but I honestly would love it if you could find-and-replace Star Wars names into this entire LP. Please?
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Thomas

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Thomas » Sat Jun 21, 2014 8:55 am

Oh man, you're telling of the introductory cutscene was so much clearer and more interesting. I was reading and thinking 'oh wow this all makes sense and wouldn't be a bad story to hear about'

@Scerro, I think part of the problem with the party, is they barely ever interact with each other. FFX and even FFXIII is absolutely full of moments where the main characters spend a little time with each other, share a moment, work out what they all mean to each other etc. With FFXII it feels like every moment that didn't directly advance the plot got cut. What do Fran and Penelo think of each other? No frigging clue. How friendly are Penelo and Ashe?

And I didn't think of it before, but you're right, they never satisfyingly link any of the couple at all. Balthier and Fran always seemed to be hanging around for no frigging reason at all and Vaan/Penelo just don't mesh with Basche/Ashe at all.
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Sat Jun 21, 2014 5:09 pm

Lachlan the Mad wrote:I honestly would love it if you could find-and-replace Star Wars names into this entire LP.
Find and replace? Son, this feature comes standard.

PART 2: Flush with Success

So with the entire setup of the game thoroughly fistfucked by our party's newest addition, our heroes steamroll another non-story-pertinent boss and are spat out into the desert just east of Rabanastre. Here, we smack down some cockatrices. What is a cockatrice? I'll let the game tell you.

“Lo, the mighty cockatrice, proud-feathered sphere, known as much for its ill humor as its dire rotundity. The great naturalist Merlose once remarked: "...live they in the sands and
other arid climes, whereabouts they moveth in a rolling fashion most peculiar. Subsist they principally on small creatures and vermin &c., for the incapacitation of which they disgorge a sticky saliva, thence devouring captured morsels only when appetite moves them. Swollen sacs containing airs are found under the surface of the skin, these lifting the creature upon drafts unseen, whence to espy suitable prey.”

The writing in this game is in this faux-Elizabethan style that's fancy enough to sound period-appropriate but not actually too archaic in vocabulary. Everything in this game, the dialogue, the item descriptions, flavor text, bestiary entries, is in this style, and I goddamn love it. Actually, the only characters that don't speak this way are Penelo and Vaan, because being disappointingly incongruous is their entire character concept.

I admit a weakness for it, but even beyond that it really does rattle me how much attention to maintaining this air the game goes through, and how it packs flavorful writing into every nook and cranny it can spare. See, FFXII was born feet first, and that experience informed the rest of it's life. The oxygen deprivation helped, I guess. Even when games have good writing, they tend to focus on the the large strokes and it's rare that they have so much time to spend on the little touches. FFXII took a big ropy shit on its story, narrative, themes, and characters, and then blew all its spare effort on tiny setting details and flavor. Every NPC has a line or two about the setting or their motivations, every location has a history behind it, every throwaway loot item has an origin and purpose, all related in that pitch-perfect antique style.

This game may have put most of its themes in the food processor and left the thing on fucking puree, but maybe the only one that they really nailed is that humans, for all their power and ambition, are small and short-lived, sharing a world with things far, far older and grander. The writing, and the way in which it props up the setting, has a two-fold purpose, then: it makes the world feel larger than it is. It creates the illusion of purpose and motion where there isn't. (The open world helps a lot too, but I'll dive into that cesspool later.) When you walk into some dusty crypt, the walls give off the sense that they've stood long before you were born and will exist long after you die, completely indifferent to your passing. When you hunt down some powerful creature, there's a palpable sense of having found out something rare and truly mighty, and killing it carries the weight of finality. The sum of these thousand small touches is a sense of an ancient but living history, whose surface we can only tap at, the contents and actors of which would raise our hair and baffle the limits of our conceptions. In short, it feels Ivalician, and that that even means anything is testament enough.

But Hiroyuki Ito just can't raise wood if he isn't fucking up something that could have been decent, so of course a mighty portion of the more interesting tidbits are walled off in the most tedious and bass-ackwards way they could justify: the bestiary. Sure, of course the bestiary makes sense as a spot to cram flavor text... for monsters, sure. You get that above description for cockatrices after you bring one down, same as for any other creature in the game. But if I wanna know about the hot patch of dirt west of Rabanastre, I arbitrarily have to kill eight more of them. Getting these secondary bestiary entries is time-consuming, and of course there's no indication which ones are actually worth finding out. Maybe it's the flavor text for the area you're in. Maybe it's a hint at what kind of rare loot that enemy carries, or maybe it's a completely unhelpful allusion to how to unlock certain bazaar goods. (Bee tee dubs, bring a raincoat once I go off on the bazaar, it's gonna be a fucking Gallagher show.) So in practice, one either spends a billion goddamn hours killing the sixth pallet swap of the wolf-model to find a blurb about how platinum armor fucking sucks, or disregard the entries and miss out on all the decent flavor text that would otherwise round out the fourth featureless desert you've slogged through.

Why would they do this shit? Well, allow me to roll out the old standard: it made sense at one point in development, and stuck around after it stopped making sense. According to the game's executive producer, the game started as an MMO. Now, for an MMO, this makes a lot more sense. MMO's, rightly or wrongly, tend to offload a lot of their setting details into out-of-the-way places to allow people to look for them if they want, while letting everyone else get on with the game to make things more accessible. Since grinding monsters is the oil of the MMO's rotary engine, doling out this info after some mild grinding would actually be pretty refreshing: kill ten wolves, get some flavor text, or some pointers about rare item locations, or a crafting recipe involving goods dropped from that particular creature. Actually, there are a TON of things in this game that make more sense if you picture them in the context of an MMO, and FFXII has been described by many, many people- including yours truly- as feeling like a “single-player MMO.” I'll try and point out these quirks as I come to them.

After getting back to Rabanastre, Basch runs off on his own to link up with the Resistance. Yes, this is like John Wilkes Booth traveling to Washington, D.C. and linking up with the Secret Service. Fran and Balthier run off to do... I can't even fucking imagine. They aren't romantic, and getting conversation out of Fran is like juicing a walnut. I can only imagine they just sit at the bar while Balthier cracks wise to himself and Fran gets drunk off her ass.

It suddenly occurs to Vaan that the crystal he stole is probably cursed as shit and he should probably chuck it off an embankment and never stop running the other direction. On the other hand, being faced with life in prison has finally made him realize that he might not want to lose his virginity to a pack of starving bangaa, so he runs off to find Penelo and show her a crystal the size of her head. Fortunately for those bangaa, it would seem she's not been seen around lately, which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering she was last seen openly consorting with thieves and revolutionaries.

One of Vaan's gutter rat friends suggests that he go see Dalan, which Vaan immediately warms up to. I can't blame him; the old man gave him a map and key to one of the richest treasures of the Galtean empire in exchange for some tourist junk. At that exchange rate, he might could trade up the Goddess Magicite for the Lunar Whale from FFIV, or a decent voice actor.

Dalan is impressed enough by the stone to promote Vaan to his lead errand-runner for the moment, narrowly edging out Kytes, Vaan's peasant friend from earlier, for the privilege of Fed-Exing weapons to some terrorists. Holy shit, Dalan, if robbing a palace of eons-old magic superweapons in the middle of a combined land/air battle and escaping the most notorious prison in the nation is what it takes to secure your trust, what the fuck kind of legendary bullshit is Kytes getting up to off-screen while I'm getting my ass kicked by chickens in the desert? He becomes a mage in the sequel; maybe he's running Dalan's magicite racket through the Ozmone Plain for him.

A short trip through the sewers and Vaan arrives at the Resistance hideout, where Dennis the peasant and his buddies are busy arguing the shocking revelation that Basch might be innocent. So it would appear that Basch, as soon as he was out of our sight, sprinted through the streets of Rabanastre screaming his identity and blowing the lid off the Empire's betrayal in every alley and doorway. Given the events that will take place in Bhujerba, this isn't actually that farfetched, and is depressingly likely to have worked smashingly.

Flush with success, Basch chooses this moment to stroll right into Revolucion HQ, where their interim leader, an old friend named Vossler Azelas, welcomes him as warmly as circumstances allow. Peasant #3 points out that if Basch is telling the truth, then Reks must have been lying, confirming that the conspiracy really did hinge on the word of a single soldier in the midst of a hallucinating, wasting death of sepsis. Vaan chooses this moment to begin speaking very loudly and angrily, while carrying a sword, in the middle of a pack of paranoid revolutionaries who don't know him.

Now, Dalan wanted that weapon, a sword of the defunct Order of Dalmascan Knights, delivered to Vossler to “remind him of what it once meant.” This is something to keep in mind, but for now Vossler merely yanks the sword from Vaan's hands without comment and tells Basch that as far as he's concerned, Basch is still a traitor and everything he claims is a lie. Nevermind the fact that Basch and Azelas were both Captains, both led the assault on Nalbina with equal authority, and would have been privy to the same information beforehand. Vossler should never have believed the ridiculous conspiracy in the first place, but especially not now that it's been explained in plain terms to him.

Basch suggests that rescuing their leader, Amalia, might be of some importance to Vossler whether or not he's ready to trust Basch again. This stings Vossler pretty sorely, but he retorts by pointing out that the Resistance is still hurt very badly from walking into a trap once, and any attempt to rescue Amalia would be even more likely to backfire on them, implicitly accusing Basch of being the one who would sell them out if they attempted such a thing. Regardless, he decides to let Basch merely walk away with little more than the threat that they'd be keeping an eye on him. No, this doesn't make any sense at all. Chalk it up to either indecision and sentimentality on Vossler's part, or the Resistance simply not having a cage mighty enough to entrap fon Ronsenburg's fantastic cojones. Vossler chucks the Knight's sword back to Basch in contempt (SYMBOLISM! FORESHADOWING!), and with it he and Vaan leave before things get even uglier.

Once outside, Basch is surprised to learn Vaan has met Amalia, which raises an important point: motherfucker, how do YOU know Amalia? The Resistance sure as shit didn't tell you about her, you had no possible way of hearing about her while rotting in Nalbina, and you wouldn't know her by her alias anyway; you'd have simply known her as Ashe, what with having known the Royal family personally. That inconsistency aside, Leia asks Threepio to take him to Han and Chewie, claiming he needs to fly somewhere.

On the way, Basch stops to gawp at the crowd of homeless orphans, which gets Vaan talking about his shitty life. It's actually a good little scene; Vaan beats around the bush a little before admitting he doesn't think Basch could have killed Reks, forgiving him and apologizing for treating him like an asshole. Once inside the cantina, Migelo- the bangaa that uses Vaan, Penelo, and the other street rats as cheap labor- is dressing down Balthier, who unfortunately has no shits to give. It turns out Penelo really was taken captive on account of her momentary acquaintance with Balthier and co., but not by the Empire- it's Ba'Gamnan, the bounty hunter, who has set an obvious trap at the floating sky-city Bhujerba with Penelo as hostage. Nevermind the fact that Balthier doesn't actually know or care about Penelo.

It's likely the reptiles would have just gotten bored and eaten her while Balthier got super wasted in various Ordalian bars if Vaan hadn't wandered in during that very conversation and demanded Balthier take him there to sort it out himself. In addition, it seems Bhujerba was Basch's intended port of call as well! Balthier is doing his best to tell them all to kiss the palest cheek of his bony ass when what should Vaan offer in payment but- that's right- the Goddess Magicite! Fran facepalms as hard as she fucking can, but Balthier relents and the plot hook is grasped by one and all.

Which is to say I immediately ignored it to fight the world's angriest chicken. The less said about my girlish screaming and the many retreats which ensued, the better for all of us.

Balthier puts on his most punchable smugface as he shows off his airship, the Strahl, to the wannabe sky pirate Vaan. Once aboard, Fran points out that the quickest route to Bhujerba is over Dorstonis, which is like saying the fastest route to the Vatican is through Rome. Basch is concerned that, since Bhujerba gained much of their favor with the Empire when their Marquis Ondore urged everyone to stop fighting after the King was assassinated, they might then lose that favor if knowledge of Basch's survival or the conspiracy became common knowledge. Now, that doesn't really make sense- there's no reason you would turn on an ally/vassal and provider of valuable natural resources if someone figures out that the bullshit they backed you up on was, in fact, bullshit- but keep it in mind anyway.

Meanwhile in a Bhujerban warehouse, Penelo is indeed held by Boba'gamnan and his cronies. Penelo's (true) claims that she doesn't even know Balthier ring hollow when they get word that he flew right off once the ransom reached his ears. He points out that they need Balthier alive, but Ba'Gamnan's weapon of choice is a freakin' chainsaw, so I'm not sure how serious he is about that. I'll level with you, he may not actually be a very good bounty hunter given that he never catches the only bounty we ever see him hunting.

Nevertheless, he has at least drawn his target to him, and Balthier and co. arrive in Bhujerba. (The Strahl's flyover of the skycity is freakin' gorgeous, too; Final Fantasy XII really is a beautiful game.) At the airport, Balthier points out once again that it might be bad news if Basch's identity gets out, which is emphasized immediately by a pack of stormtroopers running past looking for them (oddly yelling out “He's not here!” while they're still entering.)

Naturally, with Basch and Vaan delivered safely to their respective certain dooms, Balthier and Fran have no motivation to remain in Bhujerba, and they take their payment and leave promptly. After- wait, wait, that's the opposite of what happens, sorry. Despite armed authorities literally swarming around looking for him, and knowing that his most dangerous enemy is waiting to trap him with bait he doesn't care about, and despite the fact that sticking his neck out for no reason will, in but a short while, become a major sticking point for Balthier, he decides to not only tarry with the suicidal Dalmascans but aid them in whatever dangerous monkeyshines they get involved in.

Fran offers no objection because she has no character or personality beyond following Balthier like a simpleton.

No sooner do they step outside and mention their destination than a young, well-dressed boy waltzes over and asks to tag along. The very reasonable question of why he would want to crawl into a closed mine is ventured, and he retorts with the same question. Balthier immediately accepts his company, because shady criminals are all one big happy family. Asked his name, the kid gives a terrified deer-in-headlights routine and stammers out 'Lamont,' but the party immediately one-ups his incompetent handling of an alias when Vaan addresses Basch by name. 'Lamont' seems not to mind or notice, though, so the trip is afoot once more.

Coincidentally, all roads but the one path to the mine happen to be closed. (Also coincidentally, there are two Hunts to be done in the mines, but neither can be started on the first go-round due to the roadblocks preventing you from flagging them. UUURRrrrghgh!) Upon reaching the mine, Balthier points out that such an important source of the Empire's magicite is likely under heavy guard, but Lamont protests that the Empire is largely absent from Bhujerba due to the terms of their alliance. Because if there's one thing we know about Empires and their stormtroopers, it's their impeccable restraint and respect of boundaries.

Upon entering, who should we find but Marquis Halim Ondore IV conversing with an unknown Judge in golden armor. The Judge browbeats Ondore for a bit while the party listens in. They are on their way out, and the party keeps hidden as they pass. Lamont seems disappointed with how eager the Marquis is to kowtow to the Empire, but Balthier interjects that he is secretly funding insurrectionists. This will remain an important fact until the Imperial war plot is sidelined for a much more important and interesting plot, and then again after that plot is forgotten and the war takes center stage again. I do want to point out that Ondore's two attendants are some sort of long-necked cat-people, one blue and one orange. I don't think their race is ever mentioned, and you almost never see any more of them. Just something I thought was odd.

The party makes its way into the mine proper, blue magicite glittering in the walls of the living rock of the floating continent. Lamont produces a glowing stone and waves it about like a Geiger counter. This short inspection seems to satisfy his curiosity, and when the party asks about the stone, he replies that it is called 'nethicite,' and that, unlike normal magicite, it absorbs rather than releases magical- oh, I'm sorry, MAGICKAL- power. I forgot we were in Ivalice for a second. Apparently, the Empire has been trying to manufacture nethicite for a while now, and the esteemed Draklor Laboratory has been succeeding to some extent lately. (What he actually came here to measure is never made clear; the scene exists to introduce the nethicite, naturally.)

Upon hearing this, Balthier comes close to losing his shit, demanding a slew of answers from the mysterious fifth wheel. Before his interrogation of a fourteen year old boy can bear fruit, however, who should bust in but Ba'Gamnan! Vaan immediately demands the whereabouts of Penelo, but Ba'Gamnan actually managed to get one over on us, as trivial as that is: Penelo was never to be exchanged, and they shoved her out the door and sent her on her way as soon as they confirmed Balthier was heading into their trap.

Thinking quickly, Lamont flings the nethicite into Boba's face and gives the signal for “Cheese it!” and, as the party scampers around the gaggle of reptilian Zenigatas a truly Yakety Sax-worthy chase back through the mine ensues. Ba'Gamnan and his three cronies, Gijuk, Bwagi and Rinok will assail you continuously as you flee the mine just ahead of them. Lamont is no longer a party member, having at long last realized the quality of his companions. Running from the headhunters is actually not too difficult; they run at the same rate as you, but have to stop moving to attack or cast spells, so if you're just fleeing, they can't catch you for more than one or two hits. Once you near the exit of the mine, you have successfully lost them. Yes, lost them, on a completely linear path through the location they chose to ambush you. “Gabranth's dark hand,” indeed.

It's worth noting that you can totally just turn and fight the fearsome foursome, though it's pretty tough if you haven't been leveling significantly. The fight is over as soon as Ba'Gamnan falls, but he is, of course, the toughest of the group, and they'll all be buffed; it's very wise to take out his support first, starting with Rinok, the mage and weakest defensively. If you do take out the bangaa, he runs off in a scaly huff vowing to get you and your little dog. It's actually pretty funny if you manage to beat him, since you can then screw around farming monsters at your leisure, yet every time you enter a new area Lamont will still be running for his life just ahead of you. What a card.

Well, did you like Ba'Gamnan and his crew? Think they were cool, interesting characters? Hell no? Well if you did, you're shit out of luck: as far as the main plot is concerned, we will never see them again. Not once.

Once outside, Lamont runs smack into Ondore and the Judge, who have detained Penelo after she came running out of the mine. Lamont addresses the Judge as Ghis (pronounced "geese"), and claims he was merely out for a stroll. Balthier, eavesdropping behind a wall with the party, identifies Lamont as none other than Larsa Ferrinas Solidor, brother of Vayne and youngest son of Emperor Gramis. Naturally, Balthier had recognized him from the start. You'd think he was keeping this knowledge in reserve to leverage it somehow later, but really you'd think it would just make traveling with him an even more dangerous idea than it already was- who's to say he won't run into, say, high level Imperial military authority figures, who would immediately recognize him and become very curious about the ragtag group following him around? Doesn't Larsa have good reason to turn them all in that very moment, considering that he's heard Basch's name, knows that Ba'Gamnan tends only to pursue enemies of the Empire, and was just moments ago pushed up against a wall by Balthier and sternly questioned about Archadian military secrets?

Nope! Nope nah-nope-nope-noooo, Larsa tells Ondore and Judge Ghis to chew his imperial taint and takes Penelo by the hand, running off to play house (manse?) or whatever. You know what? Fuck it! I'll take it! This is your chance, Penelo; your prospects just skyrocketed, girl, grab the reigns on that pony and never let go. Vaan will be fine; that Filo chick is probably DTF, and she's got a hoverboard.

What comes next is not quite so bearable. Yes, it's time for what might be the game's most infamous scene. Balthier and Basch have a quick revisiting of the idea that some people might be very unhappy to learn that Basch is alive and well, and that this might get the Marquis in a bit of hot water with the anti-Imperial groups he's been not-so-secretly funneling money and magicite to. It would also draw a great deal of attention to Basch himself, and anyone he might be traveling with. It now becomes our objective to spread exactly this rumor, for exactly these purposes.

What.

I have watched this scene five fucking times trying to figure out this leap in logic, and I can't even begin. I can't come up with one single reason why this would appeal to us for even a second. If we want to get the Marquis in trouble, we can just tell everyone he fucks those cat guys on the sly. If we want to commit suicide, we can eat zombie flesh and jump over the side of the continent. And if we want anyone- anyone at all- to take our claims seriously, we would need proof. Luckily for that last point, we have the man himself, in the flesh! So it would be disingenuous to have anyone else out there making these claims. It would be downright counterproductive to have someone half Basch's age to run around, not claiming Basch to be alive, but to claim to BE the Captain, back from the dead. And not by submitting any kind of proof to anyone of import, but merely by running through the streets squawking these obvious falsehoods in the faces of inebriated townies?

Oh Jesus why, why does this turn out to be their plan? To go about the worst possible plan in the least effective way possible? To complement a plan that could kick off a war or an occupation, which in no way benefits us and may well lead to our arrest and execution, with a course of action which could never realistically bring about those ends? To pursue self-sabotage, via self-sabotage?

This fucking game. I swear. I swear to God.

It turns out that the point of telling everyone we were a dead terrorist was to somehow get introduced to the aforementioned anti-Imperial elements, and through them to be introduced to the Marquis. Why yes, this IS like a 19 year old running through the streets of London claiming to be Lee Harvey Oswald, to meet with MI-6, to set up a meeting with the Prime Minister. Naturally, this works immediately and perfectly. Rather than having a bag slipped over your head, a knife stuck between your ribs a dozen times, and a lovely trip over the side of the continent to the sea, some burly men escort Vaan to the backroom of a bar and ask just what the fuck he thinks he's doing. Luckily for Vaan, these insurgents are even more incompetent than our own party, and Balthier and Basch follow in right behind them, rightfully mocking how lame it is to run an insurgence out of the backroom of a pub. Don't knock it, bro, it worked in Ace Combat 04.

The insurgents warm right up to the real Captain Basch, accepting his story at once. Is it FFXII canon that Vayne's conspiracy is as retarded as I made it out to be, and all anyone needs to realize this is for it to be pointed out to them once? Oh well. As it turns out, one of the participants in this cute little private club is Ondore's orange cat-man adviser! I call him Curly. Curly says he'll run right off and set up a meeting with his Excellency.

This scene is intercut with another, in which Penelo hangs out with Larsa in his office. Amazingly, it isn't until this scene that Larsa actually introduces himself to her. This scene is almost sort of comical, with Larsa telling Penelo how great and super-trustworthy his big brother Vayne is and how awesome things will be in Dalmasca now that he's in charge, while Penelo tries to break it to him as gently as possible that the Empire has been rather unkind to Dalmasca in recent years, and trusting the Empire might not be the easiest or smartest thing to do for someone in her position. I make fun, but I do like this scene; it establishes Larsa as honorable but eminently naïve about his country, by contrasting his simple optimism against someone who has suffered her entire young life at the hands of the Empire he's talking up.

It also establishes how much Larsa looks up to his brother, who truly is a charismatic, capable statesman, and his belief in the responsibility inherent in wielding power, one of the game's most important themes.

So the party makes their way to the home of His Excellency the Marquis. Although I really don't like calling someone “Excellency” unless they spend all their time skateboarding and playing bitchin' guitar solos. Once inside, Basch and the party meet with the Marquis himself. Basch and the Marquis seem to think that leaving Basch alive was a measure to try and hold the Marquis in check, the idea being that if Basch's survival came to light, Ondore's announcement of his execution after Nalbina would make him seem like an Imperial collaborator and damage his position with his anti-Imperial allies. (He also relates, after Vaan butts in, that Larsa- with Penelo- has already rejoined the Imperial Fleet. Ondore makes a priceless “Who the fuck is this kid” face when he says it, too.)

But how is this supposed to work in practice? Word gets out that the Empire totally staged the assassination of Raminas and subjugated Dalmasca under those pretenses, and then they yell, “Yeah! We're all total bastards, and Ondore was our friend! So no one hang out with that guy!” All Ondore has to say is, “I had no idea, I really thought the chump was dead,” and then it's just the word of the Empire that everyone already hated against the word of the guy funneling money, magicite, and airships their way to fight the Empire in the first place.

But Ondore isn't willing to find out how that would work out, so after turning down Basch's plea to help him rescue Amalia for the resistance, he makes clear his intention to hand Basch back over to Archadia to keep in their good graces. Curly opens the doors to the hall, and stormtroopers flood in to capture the party.

Cut to the city of Archadia, where Lord Vayne and Judge Gabranth are having a nice chat. The Empire is wise to Ondore's scheming, knowing that the insurgency in Bhujerba is too well-supplied for the Marquis himself not to be involved. Gabranth recommends action, but Vayne diverts the subject somewhat, relating that Ondore just happened to send him a letter: Ondore captured Basch, and turned him over to Judge Ghis. Gabranth sets out without pause to execute his brother once and for all.

On the way out, he passes Doctor Cid, of the Empire's Draklor Laboratory, babbling foreshadowing to himself like a fucking lunatic, as he enters. Cid and Vayne exchange pleasant greetings, but the scene fades to black, and the audience is not privy to their discussion...

To be continued.
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Sat Jun 21, 2014 5:31 pm

Lachlan the Mad wrote:I know that this is more an indictment of the game than of this LP, but I couldn't follow that at all. Couldn't even remember which kingdom was which, let alone which character, and only managed to clue onto "Empire = Bad" about when you started dropping the Star Wars analogies.
I think the biggest trouble with tracking the introduction is that the battle takes place in a third country, rather than in Dalmasca, or in Imperial land. Nabradia, the country between the two, is important to the backstory but not really elaborated upon meaningfully. Adding to that, the audience is also expected to remember cities within these countries: Rabanastre in Dalmasca, and Nalbina in Nabradia (and not to forget which is the city and which is the country, Nalbina or Nabradia).

Like I said, just way too many proper nouns being dropped at once... a problem that, yes, I tend to indulge rather than eliminate. But I will also try to make it clear who it is I'm talking about if I need to bring up a person or place that hasn't been in the narrative for a little bit.
Retsam wrote:I've probably gotten maybe halfway into that game twice; it was just too long, the combat wasn't interesting enough, the class system (license board?) wasn't interesting at all, and it seemed like it took obscene amounts of grinding to get anywhere. And the story had interesting points, but it certainly wasn't enough to drag a relatively low attention span gamer like myself through the whole game.
I think this can be attributed more to the game's pacing, which is often and rightly criticized. A great deal of (often indigestible) plot will be dropped in a scene, and that will be followed by hiking across an entire continent and slaying an army of monsters, during which nothing else will occur. A new destination is reached, and the process begins again. Even following that model, the pace of the game remains very, very high for about the first half, slows down incredibly during the second act, and then slams back into top gear for the end. It doesn't do anyone trying to follow the narrative any favors, and it does indeed create too many times where you have nothing between you and the next plot advancement but an hour or two of wandering and combat, which was enough to lose the interest of many, many players. I contend that the combat wouldn't have put so many players off if so much of it hadn't been dumped off on them so very often.

In contrast...
CraigM wrote:Basically I'm probably the wrong person to judge the wombat system.
THE WOMBAT SYSTEM IS ABOVE REPROACH.
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Nordicus

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Nordicus » Sat Jun 21, 2014 11:35 pm

The Rocketeer wrote:Now, allow me a short tangent... again. The game now indulges in the first of a handful of spots where they hint at some sort of deeper connection between Vaan and Ashe. They, alone of the party, see certain things. This time, they just sort of have a too-long gaze at one another when Vaan catches her. It's part mystic, part romantic, and nothing, nothing at all, ever comes of it. Ever. I suspect it's just a ripple in the game's tumultuous development, but of course I can't prove that, and indeed it's what I say eight out of ten times the writing goes somewhere retarded, but there it is.
Yeah, those bits are seriously weird in the game. It's like the writer couldn't physically help writing Vaan like your standard JRPG protagonist and Ashe the love interest
Scerro wrote:Final Fantasy Tactics is the world of Ivalice, and it's dark, gritty, and merciless. That said, I never really cared for the humanoid races they added in FFT:Advance, and cared even less for them in FFXII. They're so opposite of what Ivalice is to me.
And conspiracies that were actually clever... as long as we kept the supernatural element out of the picture. There are few plans that require the step "Transform permanently into a monster with a mouth on its fat belly"
The Rocketeer wrote:Rather than having a bag slipped over your head, a knife stuck between your ribs a dozen times
I can actually visualize the look on Vaan's face the split-second when he realizes he isn't getting good results. As in, good for him. Vaan getting stabbed in the ribs pretty fantastic for us.
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Sun Jun 22, 2014 4:43 am

PART 3: Signet Stones, Sand Seas, and Staircases of Dicks

The scene returns to the party being brought aboard Ghis' flagship, the Dreadnought Leviathan. Hilariously, the little transport craft has these two protrusions on the front that look like someone welded two swords to the bumper. I can't help but imagine this little bumper-car ship ramming dreadnoughts with its teensy little fender blades.

As the party is brought onto the bridge, who should be waiting for them but Amalia! Basch greets her as Majesty, and in response she slaps the taste out of his mouth, because nothing good can ever happen to Basch. Ghis confirms that she is indeed Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca, (*snicker* “B'nargin”) and everyone is shocked but Basch, who really does appear to have not only heard of Amalia but known her true identity. Apparently his cage in the Nalbina oubliette was pretty well-connected. Who knew?

Ghis does note that, without any proof of her lineage, she'll simply be hanged with the rest of the insurgents. Basch pipes up saying that he had a contingency for just such an occasion and that he and he alone knows the location of such proof, an artifact called the Dusk Shard. Which is to say, the Goddess Magicite Vaan has in his pocket. No really, it starts glowing right on cue and he pulls it on out. Does the Empire not frisk prisoners?! This is the second time! Judge Ghis finally gets the hint and yoinks it out of his hands, exclaiming, “Well shit, that cleared up quicker than I thought it would.”

Vaan demonstrates his trademark lack of self-awareness by demanding 'no executions' before he hands over the stone. Ghis mutters to himself about Vayne wanting the stone for some purpose, and they are led away to the brig.

On the way, Basch and Balthier banter about how contrived the previous scene was until their guard escort tries to beat them back behind the fourth wall. I feel you, pal; I actually saw everything that led up to it, and I still don't believe how convenient that all was. Obviously, Balthier and Basch anticipate the guard's attack and judo him to the floor, with Balthier stealing his spear. They prepare to fight the remainder, but one of the other guards knocks out the rest for them. He raises his helm, and look who it is! Captain Vossler Azelas. Basch jibes that he's a bit short for a stormtrooper, and Vossler retorts that he'd rather be Lando than Leia, who Basch totally fucking is. Vossler goes on to say that it's been damn hard enough already taking care of Ashe without Basch and the rest of the clown college that is our party making it worse for him. Basch, sufficiently cowed, welcomes his old comrade to the party and they set off to the brig to liberate Ashe. I mean, Ghis said she should be quartered separately, but they left the bridge at the same time, so, like is Ashe already there, even though the party is still just outside the bridge...? Oh well.

Nevertheless, the party reaches the brig, where two minor judges and their retinue guard the cells. The game treats this as a boss fight, but they're essentially the same enemies you've been fighting through the entire area, just with a bit more health and power.

With that taken care of, Vossler opens up Ashe's cell. She tells him he's a bit short for a stormtrooper, and he politely informs her they already used that gag. She isn't quite so pleased to see Basch and tells him to go get bent, but Vossler coaxes her to take good help where she can get it. Once she haughtily storms off, Vossler looks at Basch and rolls his eyes while making a jerking off motion. The whole ship is alerted now that their honored guest has been let out, but the party sets off to steal a ship and escape the dreadnought.

As the party nears the dock, they run into Larsa and Penelo! Penelo and Vaan embrace upon their happy reunion. I disapprove, of course; you've got an in with the Solidors, girl, heirs to singular power and fantastic hair. You can go back to Vaan's arms after Larsa is grown up and too busy with affairs of state to pay you any mind at home. Larsa is more concerned with the two famous Rabanastrans back from the dead. He urges Ashe and Basch to GTFO as quickly as possible, and to this Ashe asks the very reasonable question, “Why would you want us to escape?”

His answer is hilarious: just to see what happens. This is a major moment in Larsa's sole hobby of earnestly, naively loving and believing in Archades, yet disapproving of and actively hampering its activities at all times. In truth, we may well owe much of our recent and future success to Larsa being a master-class troll.

In addition to letting slip two of his states' most dangerous political liabilities in order to foment drama, he also hands over the manufacted nethicite from earlier to Penelo- “a good luck charm,” he claims. This is funny not just because the thing is essentially bleeding-edge Imperial weaponry, but nethicite in any form is for the rest of the game regarded as uniformly evil technology. He then absconds with Azelas to escape separately from the rest of the party, freeing them both from suspicion.

The thing is, he not only understands- at a glance, it would seem- Vossler's role as a revolutionary infiltrator, but immediately knows him by name. How?! I'll grant that there are at least a couple very good reasons the Empire would know of Vossler Azelas, but why would frickin' Larsa have any idea?

While the audience ponders this, the party finds the airship dock guarded by Judge Ghis himself. It would seem that, since they already have the Dusk Shard, they don't actually need the dangerous, strong-willed Princess around anymore, and are more than happy to use any old squinty brunette in a waaaay too short skirt as their politically-convenient puppet queen. Not one to waste time, he flings some sort of spell at the party, only to have it harmlessly absorbed by the nethicite shard. Fancy!

Having wasted most of his MP on that flaccid opener, the party tears into him, and, in defiance of time-tested fantasy traditions, he fights about as well as an elderly man in dubiously-conceived ornamental armor realistically would. Don't feel bad, Ghis; I was a bit overlevelled. Buy your buddy Bergan a beer, though, he always wipes the floor with my ass.

Once the party finishes mauling an elderly serviceman within an inch of his life and stealing a ship to escape back to Bhujerba, the Empire is officially considered 'pwnt' and may not pursue the escapees for the rest of the week. At least, that's my rationalization for five of the Empire's most wanted criminals (and one peasant girl) allowed to wander around the streets of Bhujerba unmolested.

At the airport, a plot point which had been aggravating me terribly finally receives the closure I was hoping for: Penelo returns Balthier's handkerchief to him after having received it from him at that chance meeting in Rabanastre's Lowtown. Now, I know that sounds like massive sarcasm, but believe me (and I'm appropriately ashamed to admit this), this seriously bugged the shit out of me, since I couldn't tell if that had just been a gesture to calm her down or a blind to pass something of import along to her before Balthier was thrown in the clink. Nope! Just a hanky. But at least now I'll be able to sleep again at night.

This is what this fucking game is doing to me. SEND HELP.

Something actually relevant occurs, as well: Ashe thinks Ondore is bad news, but Basch reveals that it had actually been the Marquis' plan all along to get the party aboard the Leviathan so they could break her out. I'll ignore the fact that this is the worst plan since Raminas' assassination. Ondore's a clever old bastard, maybe he just recognizes player characters when he sees them. However, this is the sole, solitary line in which the Marquis' role in Ashe's liberation is revealed, and if you miss it, his character goes from cunning and sly to conniving and treacherous, which is important in itself but really matters when the party immediately runs right back to him, which they do: Basch thinks Ashe should meet with him, and Vossler gives his assent, along with his endorsement of Basch's integrity.

This is something the game will struggle with for the long haul: even when characters have a clear motive or consistent personality- which is a tall order in itself for FFXII- critically important elements of the narrative may be enclosed in a single, easily-overlooked line. It can be extremely difficult to parse what makes sense, what doesn't make sense due to a dropped detail, and what doesn't make sense due to shitty writing. The narrative is unduly dense and hurried at many points and it only takes a handful of these missed or muddled nodes to lose grip on the narrative entirely, and the characterization almost always hinges on these stealthy little kernels even when they make any sense at all.

Many are the players who payed fine attention and still found themselves totally lost as to where they were going, what they where doing, why they were doing that, or why anyone on or off screen would give a stony shit about it. Once you find yourself in this sort of morass, it's nearly impossible to climb back out of it, and there's no resource whatsoever in-game to find your place again (which makes the inclusion of a detailed glossary for FFXIII's pathetically threadbare and hackneyed plot all the more insulting in hindsight).

This, in particular, is the source of a great deal of the bitching about the game's narrative. Apologists of the game contend that if players want to keep up with the turbulent, knotty storytelling, they should just pay extra-careful attention, or refer to a plot guide of some sort. These people can climb a wall of dicks. This game was badly in need of editing, and a careful reading of loony fucking nonsense doesn't magically convert it to something glib and clever. And no work of fiction should need a goddamn reference manual just to have a basic grip on what's going on; it might well provide that needed clarity, but it sure as hell isn't going to make you enjoy the piece of shit. You can get on the bus with T.S. Eliot and have a nice trip to Fuck Right Off. Once again, I can only point to the game's distended, tumultuous development cycle. When you spend more than half a decade ripping everything up and stitching it back together again, you're going to end up with a Frankenstein's monster. It happened to XII, it happened even worse to XIII, and if you don't think it's going to happen to XV, I will play cards with you anytime. (No Triple Triad, though; I've been clean for two years, thank you very much.)

After recommending Ashe visit the Marquis, Vossler gets the bright idea to try and link up his Rabanastre Revolution with the Bhujerba Belligerents, and heads off to the backroom of that pub to see if his people can fucks with their people. Maybe armwrestle Curly, and learn the epic handshake/dance insurgents require before conducting official business.

Back at the Marquis' place, Ashe and Ondore hash out the backstory once more in a rare, but welcome reiteration of what's supposed to be happening; Ondore lets out that announcing Ashe's suicide was Vayne's idea, and, while he couldn't understand why he would suggest it at the time, he realizes now that Vayne was trying to make Ondore look like an Imperial collaborator from the still-very-much-alive Ashe's view.

This kind of undercuts Vayne as the consummate schemer; why tell Ondore she wasn't really dead before convincing him to announce otherwise? And the reasons Vayne would want Ondore's co-operation are obvious, anyway; it helps bring resistance to an end so he can get on with owning Rabanastre like a big sandy trophy. If Ondore was neutral at the time of the war, and he really was taken in by the Raminas conspiracy, then why wouldn't Vayne just lie about Ashe killing herself and ask Ondore to help talk the remaining Dalmascan resistance down, so as to prevent further suffering and loss like the humanitarian Vayne so obviously is? It isn't unreasonable that Ashe would kill herself, being a young woman who lost her new husband, her father, and her nation in the space of a few days, and under those circumstances it's not at all suspicious that Vayne would want Ondore's help in closing the war, since this is something that they would both obviously want anyway. Vayne's flaw wasn't acting shadily, it was letting on that there was anything to be shady about in the first place.

Ashe asks for Ondore's support in getting Archades pushed out of Dalmasca and herself back on the throne, but Ondore is hesitant; she has, after all, lost the Dusk Shard which would have proven her heritage. He also alludes to the fact that even if she had it, she would still need someone called the Gran Kiltias of Bur-Omisace to vouch for her authenticity. Ondore doesn't want to risk opening a power vacuum that Ashe can't fill. (Gran Kiltias' assent aside, who's going to know she doesn't actually have the Dusk Shard? Is this a Thing everyone just recognizes? If she has some other orange hunk of magicite and claims its the Dusk Shard, who can contradict her besides the Empire, who shouldn't want to admit they stole Dalmascan royal heirlooms that could be used against them politically?)

Ondore is moved by the plight of his niece, but can offer no help. With Ashe wandering off dejectedly, Balthier sits stock upright and exclaims, “Oh, shit! I just remembered my characterization!” and, in return for so graciously rescuing the princess, puts the squeeze on Marquis Ondore for the regal bounty of... room and board. For the night. You canny rogue, you.

Ashe isn't taking this roadblock lying down, though, and it isn't long before Vaan finds her trying to start up Balthier's airship, the Strahl. Luckily for Balthier, Ashe is an even worse thief than he is and the controls of the small ship might as well be the Antikythera Mechanism. Vaan inquires as to what the fuck she thinks she's doing, and she reveals that she knows the location of the Dawn Shard, yet another antiquated hunk of magicite that she could use to prove her lineage. How many Proofs of Dalmascan Royal Heritage are lying around in closets and attics? How are there not half a dozen cleaning ladies of various ages and ethnicities claiming Raminas' blood on account of having tripped over some luminous lagniappe behind the divan?

Ondore's strangely-mechanical voice breaks into the conversation, but it turns out to be Balthier with some sort of voice changer device he keeps on board the Strahl. I like to think he dropped an assload of gil on it thinking it would come in handy, and it never, ever has, so he likes to show it off whenever and to whomever he can. (I have a feeling Fran has really, really come to hate this fucking thing on long flights.) Realizing she probably can't steal the ship with the owner on board, Ashe makes a daring suggestion: kidnap her!

HOLD YOUR FUCKING HORSES, GAME. This is how FFIX kicked off, and it led to an entire first disc in which ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING happened. Now, I know for a fact that this game has (and will continue to have) completely the opposite problem, but all that means is that you're on thin enough ice as it is. Scare me like this one more time, and I will track down Miwa Shoda and just start cracking teeth.

Balthier, cognizant that he had completely forgot he was a sky pirate for about a week there, is in full-on scoundrel mode and asks what's in it for him, but Ashe has a tremendous retort: the Dawn Shard is in the tomb of Raithwall, the Dynast-King himself, and the Shard is just one of countless priceless treasures that could all be his.

This is an utter fucking lie.

Balthier chomps that particular bit, though, and Basch enters stage left to insinuate himself as Ashe's permanent bodyguard. Fran enters with Penelo and asks- probably sarcastically- if Vaan will be joining them, and he answers as though he can't wait to high-tail it out of Bhujerba. Frankly I think the place is pretty swanky, but I'd never show my face around there either after the shit you pulled, so I'll give you that one. Penelo, probably still in shock from being kidnapped by burly lizard people and suave Imperial scions in the same day, tags right along. The six permanent members of our party are gathered at last, and the stage is set for adventure.

It's on that note that the scene shifts to Archades, as Darth Gabranth alights from a shuttle onto a pad near the top of the massive tower at the metropolis' center. (Note: the flanking guards here are wielding Heavy Lances, a weapon which you can acquire for yourself. I've actually had one for ages now. I think many of the weapons NPC's and enemies wield in gameplay, cutscenes and even FMV's are right from the game's inventory, but it's only occasionally that I recognize them.) Gabranth enters a many-windowed office where an elderly man in extravagant regal garb sits behind a wide desk: Emperor Gramis Gana Solidor. Gabranth has news for the Emperor: it would seem his son Vayne has been funneling money on the sly into Doctor Cid's research at Draklor Laboratory for reasons unknown. It would seem this research is also behind the mysterious yet total annihilation of the Nabradian capital of Nabudis, yet the Imperial officer who led the assault, Judge Zecht, has been missing since the incident and no one remains who can shed any light on the disaster.

Gramis is deeply troubled. He realizes Vayne's ambitions are getting out from under him. Yet, it is at this moment that he starts coughing, and since this is a videogame, that means he's not long for this world, and he knows the fruit of Vayne's efforts for good or ill will likely come after his passing. Gabranth tenderly raises the question of succession. Now, the Archadian Emperor is technically not hereditary. The people elect a Senate, and the Senate elects the Emperor, yet it would seem that, once elected, the term is lifelong and the next candidate tends always to be an heir of the former, as the Solidor dynasty has reigned for four generations since taking over in a military coup. Vayne actually explains this to Migelo, of all people, near the beginning of the game. The Senate doesn't trust Vayne as far as they can throw him, which is perfectly understandable, yet Gramis fears that Larsa, though pure of heart, is still too young to be a strong leader, and the Senate will capitalize on this if he succeeds to the throne.

Gramis changes the subject somewhat. Landis, the original home nation of Gabranth and Basch, was conquered by Gramis. The old emperor wonders if Gabranth might not still be a bit sore about that. But the Judge Magister responds that his allegiance is to the Empire alone, and that he know it is his duty and his alone to track down and slay his brother, who did not acquiesce so easily and who had for so long, and again recently, been such a thorn in the side of their campaigns in the Galtean Peninsula. Gramis regards this ruthlessness as a terrible, yet necessary trait. But he does not want to see Larsa poisoned by such callousness and ambition, as Vayne has been. He requests that Gabranth stand by Larsa, to insulate him from the scheming and falseness of the high echelons of Archades, so that he might ascend to the throne with his nobility intact. Yet he knows, as he cautions Gabranth, that it is from Vayne himself that the greatest danger lies. Above all, he says, he could not bear to see his sons war with one another again.

A well-justified sentiment: it was Gramis who commanded his third son, Vayne, to slay his two older brothers for their scheming and treachery.

After this, the game wastes no time in dropping you right off at the start of the next area. Balthier, for the third time at least, caresses his ego by showing off features of his ship, this time a cloaking device he borrowed from a StarCraft Wraith. It's sadly not inaccurate to say that the first and only cool thing Balthier ever stole was his ship and he has just been riding that good feeling ever since as a “sky pirate.” Vaan and Penelo's bickering prompt Balthier to baldly lampshade the couple's status as the comic relief, because sometimes the game is as unkind to me as I am to it.

The task now is to cross the Sandsea. They aren't just being poetic with the name, either; the sand here is special, and flows like water in a vast, sprawling mass stretching beyond the horizon. Basch describes it as larger still than all of Dalmasca and booooy he ain't even kidding. This is the first time the game drops you off at the beginning of an immense stretch of wasteland or ruins and says, “have at it, we'll start up the plot again on the other side.” From here on out, this is more or less how the game functions, and I'll be perfectly honest: I think the game gains something from this. There's just something about peering out over the trackless wastes, with nothing on the other side but some magic-charged ruin lost to the mists of history, and fighting my way to the very bottom of it in search of some relic or other that just whips me into the adventuring mindset.

Unless I miss my guess, this design is another relic of the early, early era when the game was conceived as an MMO. This is, of course, par for such games; in an MMO, the boundless wilderness packed with roaming monsters and the bottomless dungeons crawling with nameless horrors and forgotten superweapons ARE the game. Yet I think they do a service to the game as it became. The game's skill at creating atmosphere certainly helps this along, and yet simply having areas like this is a large part of that; as big as the game world can be, they still go out of their way to make it feel like there really is no horizon, that you could walk in any direction and eventually run into the remains of a civilization that rose, prospered, and fell eons before the Dynast-King came to power.

Since there isn't much to remark upon until I actually get to the tomb across the Sandsea, I'll explain the Dynast-King. 1100 years before the kingdoms of today were even dreamed up, a man called Raithwall appeared bearing artifacts of unbelievable power, claiming to be chosen by the gods to usher the world into a new era of prosperity under his rule. Thanks to the aforementioned artifacts, he did exactly that, and he came to conquer every part of Ivalice worth putting on a postcard. By all rights, his rule was pretty fucking sweet, and once things were consolidated under him, he ran his empire like a champ. Times were good, and he set things up so smoothly that the Galtean Alliance- so named because he ran it from the Galtean Peninsula, where the three continents of Ordalia, Valendia, and Kerwon come together- held up for four hundred years afterward. All his direct descendants have passed on, but even today every nation in the land can trace its roots back to the Dynast-King's era, including the royalty of Rabanastre, to include Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca. (*snicker* “B'nargin”)

Speaking of Ashe, it would seem someone found her sorely missed at the Marquis' crib... Basch takes a moment to explain the odd machines that compose a lot of the area: oil rigs! Yes, oil and electricity are actually old, passe technologies and have been ever since magitech became the standard. Electricity is still the way to go for rare devices which require a huge amount of energy at once, but for most powered devices, magicite has all but shut down all other energy sources. The linked oil rigs make a handy way of crossing the sandsea, and they'll be present in both of the large areas we'll have to cross- the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea and the Nam-Yensa Sandsea- though mainly the former. The circular catwalks make for some interesting maps, though they aren't always the most efficient for getting from one place to another.

The rigs were built by Rozarria, the great nation to the southwest in Ordalia, and longtime enemy of Archades to the northeast in Valendia. (Could Rozarria, Archades, and possibly Dalmasca have served as factions for players in the conceptual MMO stages of development? We can only speculate.) Basch isn't pleased that the nations in between- including BOTH of his countries- keep getting caught up in their warmongering, but a voice comes from behind dismissing his opinion, stating that's simply the fate of small nations. It's Vossler!

I'm surprised by how much I've come to like Vossler in this playthrough, given that I could barely remember him upon restarting. Vossler gives a token WHAT THE FUCK BASCH I TOLD YOU TO STOP THIS SHIT after he returned to the Marquis to find Ashe abducted. He also says the Marquis can only keep Ashe's 'abduction' under wraps for so long. Uh, Vossler? Under wraps from whom? The people that even know Ashe are alive at all can be counted on your hands, and our party is most of them. The only people who would be 'suspicious' are Ghis and Vayne, and if they know that she absconded to Ondore's care after busting out of the Leviathan, then the Marquis is already pretty well fucked. Beyond that, there's only the Marquis himself and Vossler and his Resistance buddies. Ondore knows, Vossler's joined up with us again, and the Resistance peons can go trip on a staircase of dicks and hit every step on the way down; they've never accomplished anything, and they never will. So who are we keeping the 'abduction' secret from, again?

Oh, well. Fran uses her bunny-girl danger-sense to tell us we're all fucked, and on that note the Urutan-Yensa reveal themselves. See, the Sandsea is so much like a sea that it has its own fish, too, as well as its own crab-people that ride those fish. And these crab people are the Urutan-Yensa, foul-tempered, angry little bastards that really, really hate it when tall, fleshy sorts intrude on their territory. Balthier, in his unfailing brilliance, yells, “Let's quit this place while we can!” as though we weren't crossing the fucking SANDSEA, which Basch JUST GOT FINISHED pointing out is wider than the rest of the country combined.

Allow me a tangent. Again.

It is worth noting that Urutan-Yensa- a common enemy in the Yensan Sandseas- have not one but five bonus pages in the bestiary (as do all of the humanoid enemies), documenting the creation of the mimic-type enemies, and, from them, Omega Mark XII, this game's rendition of the perennial superboss. What's more, it seems that the mimics were created to do battle with Yiazmat, the game's signature superboss named after original director and producer YASumi MATsuno, who created not only this game but the entire Ivalice setting as it was in Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics; the hunt for the wyrm, appropriately entitled “Farewell to a Legend,” is a scantily-disguised metaphor for Matsuno's departure from the project due to poor health: Montblanc, the clan leader, explains that he and his siblings were all taught their respective trades by a single magnificent master. But one day, a terrible dragon appeared and, though their master did battle with it for several weeks, it ultimately took him from them all.

Yes, the final challenge of the game is to avenge Matsuno by slaying the disease, and in a real sense, to avenge the game itself; the director's departure proved to be a poor omen for the title. Matsuno was apparently most of the brains behind the operation, and the game appears to have suffered from the lack of his vision and oversight. Hironubu Sakaguchi (the man that the Final Fantasy series calls 'papa') was so disappointed at the loss of his vaunted talents that he declined even to play more than the start of the finished title, a first for the series. Yeah, this game's creation had some problems.

After going all Anikin on the sandpeople, the party eventually arrives at the Valley of the Dead, a long, man-made valley carved into the living rock of the cliffs that lie beyond the sandsea. At the end of a long tunnel, an open-air colonnade stands before a large, grotesque structure. Vayne makes an off-hand comment about 'Galtean architecture' at the beginning of the game, and I'll hand it to him, the structures from the old era- the cathedral in Rabanastre, the tomb, and a shrine later in the game- all share a distinct style that I find really cool.

Upon entering the colonnade, a glowing, toothy bird attacks, and is promptly blinded, silenced, and barraged into nonexistence by four graverobbers. Upon its death, a strange lantern-like device within the structure lights up. The party climbs the steps while Ashe ruminates a bit on the Dynast-King, and about his relics: the Midlight Shard, left to the predecessors of House Nabradia; the Dusk Shard, left to House Dalmasca's founders; and the Dawn Shard, interred with Raithwall in his tomb. Now, if one bearing either of the other shards wants to go creeping around in the tomb, they'll be totally safe, but of course our party is shit out of luck, and will have to fight our way all the way to the bottom. Bring it!

There is no door into the structure; at the top of the steps, one must use the magic device to teleport within. You'd think Raithwall could have just skipped the giant bird and warped everyone who came to the tomb without the right Stone to a room with no exit, deep underground. But of course, Raithwall seems to have anticipated someone might need the Dawn Shard someday. Once within, it's only a few steps onto a narrow passage before a time-honored tradition of the series commences: a Demon Wall. Behind the party, a horrific statue comes to life, waving two massive swords in front of it. A dozen insectoid legs begin pulling it the whole structure slowly but surely forward. The party must defeat the wall or retreat into the passage behind them, or be crushed. Demon Walls are generally a massive pain to fight, and this one's no different; let's just run away! (The Wall is intended to trap the party on a narrow catwalk above an abyss, but it activates as soon as the party leader hits the trigger; the ensuing cutscene showed the Wall move right past a bemused Penelo still standing free, off to the side.)

Once through the door leading deeper into the tomb, the light is too dim to see much of anything... except two eyes gleaming in the darkness. It's a second Demon Wall! And this time, there's no escape. However, this catwalk is about three times longer than the previous one, and the Demon Wall isn't quite as strong as the first. The fight isn't much to write home about, except that the Demon Walls are the only enemies which can inflict the X-Zone status, temporarily removing a party member from play, which can only be lifted by moving to a different screen. (You really are supposed to run from the first Demon Wall your first time in the tomb, but %100 of Rocketeers polled gave no fucks, and it was ground into dust with the second.)

The tomb is neat to look at, but I won't bore you with the details of the epic switch-flipping errand that took place within. Fran stops par-way to infodump Penelo about Mist, the glowing yellow-orange phenomenon that amounts to raw magic floating through the air. It's a recurring element throughout the game, and occasionally serves whatever purpose the writers need it to.

Once the party arrives at the bottom, a massive humanoid creature with horns, red hair, and a smaller double growing out of its chest like Cuato from Total Recall. It's Belias, the Gigas! Belias is the real tomb guardian, and can be tough fight if you aren't overlevelled and cast a ton of water spells at it. Once the fiery scion is defeated, it collapses into a shining crystal, which shatters.

Fran, ever the knowledgeable lady, quotes a bit of lore: Belias was one of a group that rebelled against the gods themselves, and, utterly defeated, was bound in eternal slavery. Ashe knows a bit more. It's said that young Raithwall, before becoming the Dynast-King, defeated Belias in battle, thereby impressing the gods so much that it was bound to him in servitude. After the Dynast-King's death, it remained so, guarding his grave and the Dawn Shard alike.

Ashe also reveals that Belias, and it alone, is the treasure of the Dynast-King, as it is now bound to them as it was to Raithwall so long ago. Balthier isn't pleased by this news, but fuck Balthier: I wasn't too happy to hear it, either. Espers are pretty worthless in battle, and I was always broke throughout the game. You just don't promise an adventurer treasure where there is none, be they player or character.

But we came here for a MacGuffin, after all, and a MacGuffin we shall have. The Dawn Shard is ensconced before the sarcophagus of mighty Raithwall, casting an effulgent lilac glow over the chamber. Vossler seems dazzled by the sight of it, and urges Ashe to take it quickly so they can GTFO. As she approaches it, a spectral vision of the late Lord Rasler appears before her. No one else can see it except Vaan, which pisses me right off. They never even attempt to justify it, and it's pretty obvious they only enable him to see these visions as a fig-leaf justification of his eternally-irrelevant presence.

The vision of Rasler disturbs Ashe, but it also reminds her of her resolve, and with the Dawn Shard in hand she renews her vow to avenge her late husband and everyone else the Empire has taken from Dalmasca.

Now, the entire reason we hiked across THE FUCKING SANDSEA instead of taking the Strahl was because the entire region is a 'jagd,' and skystone, the magicite which makes airships fly, doesn't work due to the powerful, turbulent mist of the region. So suffice it to say it's a bit of a shock when you exit the tomb and are immediately swarmed by Imperial airships which had been lying in wait for the party.

To be continued.
Ronixis

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Ronixis » Sun Jun 22, 2014 9:05 am

Nordicus wrote: (...)
Scerro wrote:Final Fantasy Tactics is the world of Ivalice, and it's dark, gritty, and merciless. That said, I never really cared for the humanoid races they added in FFT:Advance, and cared even less for them in FFXII. They're so opposite of what Ivalice is to me.
And conspiracies that were actually clever... as long as we kept the supernatural element out of the picture. There are few plans that require the step "Transform permanently into a monster with a mouth on its fat belly"
(...)
I don't think it's a permanent transformation in FFT. Velius' host transforms after you fight him for the second time, but you see and fight him again as human before actually fighting Velius. (I should mention the PSP translation's name, Belias, as it's the one consistent with FFXII.)
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Sun Jun 22, 2014 9:42 am

Ronixis wrote:I don't think it's a permanent transformation in FFT. Velius' host transforms after you fight him for the second time, but you see and fight him again as human before actually fighting Velius. (I should mention the PSP translation's name, Belias, as it's the one consistent with FFXII.)
Indeed. Hashmal's host transforms at least once- though offscreen- and appears human again. Either way, isn't that just the way of Faustian contracts? "Hey you have a strong desire/need for power? Well I've got just the thing! Yes there are some side effects. It will be fine, trust me. Just sign the sheet..."

I considered pointing out the direct link to Final Fantasy Tactics, and in hindsight I should have. All of the Lucavi that appeared in FFT appear as Espers in FFXII. Since only around half of the total Zodiac signs' Lucavi were shown in Tactics, the rest are supplied as well by the newer game. All are either demons, devils/fallen angels, or final bosses from earlier Final Fantasy titles, with the word 'Lucavi' itself being a Russian epithet for the devil. Ultima herself is a direct analog to Lucifer, described as the most beautiful and blessed of the gods' servants before betraying and leading the insurrection against them.

Belias is a nod to Belial, which the Dead Sea Scrolls describe as "... an angel of hostility. All his dominions are in darkness, and his purpose is to bring about wickedness and guilt. All the spirits that are associated with him are but angels of destruction." No word on how he got cast in Total Recall.

I think I go into a bit more depth regarding the Espers as I acquire more of them, but I'm not truly certain. If I do not, I will be sure to add some words at the appointed time.
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Sun Jun 22, 2014 4:28 pm

PART 4: Banter's Not the Same if You Say it Slower, Squiffy!

The captured party is brought aboard the flagship, Leviathan, and presented before the commander: it's Judge Ghis! I missed him; now that he doesn't wear the helmet anymore, we can admire that great Archadian hair. Grand Moff Ghis greets Ashe glibly, and demands that they hand over the nethicite. Penelo is reluctant, clutching Larsa's gift in her hand... but Ghis protests, and clarifies that he wants the deifacted nethicite. He asks his lackey, Captain Vossler Azelas, to clarify for him.

Yep, Vossler's gone all Lando on us. At some point it struck him that there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of driving the Empire out of Dalmasca, and the best plan now is to regain whatever primacy they can for Ashe by cooperating with the Empire, after the model of Ondore in Bhujerba. To this end, they will restore the sovereignty of the Dalmascan line if they but hand over the Dawn Shard, which they claim is a shard of unthinkably powerful nethicite. Ashe hesitates, struggling to come to terms with the sudden developments, so Ghis makes it simple for her: consent and become their pet queen, or vacillate and he starts lopping off party members' heads. With a sword at Balthier's throat, she hands the Dawn Shard over.

Ghis, nethicite in hand, remarks on how glad this will make Doctor Cid, once again causing Balthier to nearly throw a shitfit. Real subtle there, bro. The Judge orders them transferred to the light cruiser Shiva, after which they shall shortly be returned to Dalmasca safe and sound. With the party gone, though, Ghis desires to test the stone somehow, not wanting to hand a fake or powerless Dawn Shard to his superiors.

Aboard the Shiva, Vossler tries to discuss the future with Ashe, recommending they make an ally of the young but idealistic Larsa Solidor. Ashe is disgusted by his perceived betrayal, regardless of his conviction that he acts in the best interests of their nation. Worse troubles are brewing, though: lacking more precise equipment, the engineers of the Leviathan have elected to load the Dawn Shard into the ship's own drive, and gauge its power output with its telemetry. Not exactly precise, but it will at least prove the stone is genuine before it's handed into the care of Draklor Laboratory.

As soon as the Shard is loaded, however, a shudder runs through everyone, even the party aboard the Shiva; everyone can tell something is wrong, but Fran in particular begins losing her shit. The power of the stone is beyond all expectation, and Ghis couldn't be more pleased. After all, if all it takes to rule the empire is an Archadian with beautiful hair and a magic superweapon, why not Ghis instead of that pretty boy Vayne?

With the power of the Dawn Shard spiking ever higher and higher, Fran can no longer take the strain and flips entirely the fuck out, smashing her bonds and leaping around, wrecking Imperial shit left and right. Balthier uses the chaos to pirate his handcuffs off and release the rest of the party, but Vossler is too committed to getting Ashe onto the throne to let them fuck the plan up for him now. Basch isn't having it, though; Princess wants Imperial blood, so that's what Princess gets.

Now, I'll level with you: I agree with Vossler. Sure, things will work out for Ashe whatever she does because she's the main character and Vossler isn't, but Vossler has put up with this shit right alongside Ashe for two years now. Dalmasca is still just as much under the heel of Archades as it always has been, perhaps more now than ever, and their Resistance hasn't made a damn bit of difference. It never will, even with whatever help Ondore might be able to provide. If anything, that will just get Ondore in hot water and fuck up Bhujerba's deal right along with Rabanastre's.

If Ashe was smart, she would take the deal and learn Ondore's game. Bullshit resistance movements are one thing, but Dalmasca and Bhujerba combined? Bhujerba's been funneling resources into a navy to rival the Empire's since the war ended, and that's just two years worth of scheming. Give that guy a bit more time, with Ashe playing the same game with Dalmasca, and you might actually have some weight at the bargaining table. Or you can keep fighting the Empire and their magic superweapons out of your comfy little warehouse in a fucking sewer. No, given what they know at the time, only a complete fucking moron would shit up the plan now out of spite or bravado.

Yet... Yet I have to ask, how long has it been since he started playing for both sides? I'm inclined to think he first shook hands with the Empire between busting Ashe out of the Leviathan and reconnoitering with the party at the Sandsea, but there's really nothing to indicate when exactly he turned. It's important, though: if he had gotten fed up with the struggle and starting working with the Empire after securing her momentary freedom from the Leviathan, that makes sense. Ashe has momentary leave to act without the Empire's hold on her, yet Azelas will work with her to secure the Dawn Shard, keeping the princess safe and, in his mind, working to satisfy the aims of both sides. He will have to turn her back over once they have the Stone, but then they can get her on the throne and work from there. Right?

But if it was any point before that, things stop making sense in a hurry. And there's one tantalizing shred of evidence to suggest that it goes very far back: the sword. The sword Dalan had Vaan deliver to Vossler, “to remind him of what [the Dalmascan Knights] once meant.” They never reveal what that meant at that time; narratively, it was to get Vaan in the room to witness the events there, but given that Dalan seems to be omniscient and Vossler turned traitor, those words become rather ominous. It suggests that Vossler was likely the mole that got the Princess captured in the first place after tipping Vayne off about their attack. But if that's the case, why let Basch run free? Wouldn't Vossler have a lot to gain by tipping off the Imperials about their favorite jailbird strutting around trying to get the insurgency back on track? And, more importantly, why spring Ashe from the Leviathan? Vossler claims he begged Marquis Ondore to help free Ashe from the dreadnought; if he had, that means the Empire has some serious new blackmail material to use against Ondore, but they don't seem to know. And, of course, that little prison break nearly saw Judge Ghis dead, and would have also tipped off Vossler about Larsa's extracurricular activities... Not that he would have told the Empire about these things, or that he wouldn't have later even if he hadn't turned at that point yet. In fact, all probability seems to point to him keeping it all under wraps for them, going only so far to help the Empire as it took to retake the throne for Ashe. It's hard to get any solid evidence one way or the other.

But while I sympathize with Vossler, all things considered, I do have to side with Ashe and Basch here. The fact is, regardless of how much I like Vossler, he's done at least three things that long ago marked him due for an ass-kicking: he gets the Telekinesis technick from the start, whereas I won't have that shit 'til near the endgame; he gets a fucking greatsword by default, while I have to dick around with sword-and-board for entirely too goddamn long; and on the Leviathan, that Imperial disguise clanked and clattered just like the real deal with EVERY. FUCKING. STEP. Captain Azelas, your dedication is admirable, in its own way, but... do you really think you can win this fight?

DID YOU FORGET WE HAVE A FUCKING GIGAS?

After watching Belias grind and incinerate the former Captain Azelas into beefy cinders, Basch and Ashe are nonetheless remorseful to have had to do battle with a man who had been- and in a way still was- their staunchest ally. Shit is going majorly wrong aboard the Leviathan, though; nethicite absorbs magic, and putting it in the ship's drive was a grave error: it's absorbing all the vast magical- I'm sorry, MAGICKAL- power of the vast dreadnought!

Vossler speaks one last time with Basch. Whatever his motives were, his days at Ashe's side are over. With his plans once again fallen apart, he can only wonder how- or if- it could have gone differently. Basch respects his old friend, though, and will honor his loyalty by guarding Ashe to the bitter end- regardless of their differences. As the calamity aboard the Leviathan begins shaking the fleet, the party flees for their lives, but Vossler Azelas holds his position, and awaits his doom.

As the Dawn Shard reaches some critical threshold, it consumes the dreadnought and unleashes a titanic conflagration, utterly consuming the 8th Fleet. The party outrides the explosion in a small fighter craft, and, as the mist subsides, are amazed to see, floating serenely in the center of the carnage, the Dawn Shard, no worse for wear.

All Ivalice is shaken by the destruction of the fleet that had served as the Empire's enforcement throughout the Galtean Peninsula; seizing the opportunity, Ondore claims sudden illness to secure some me-time and contacts every revolution-minded military and political leader in his Rolodex. The goings-on of the next few days are narrated by Ondore, just as he narrated the infodump during the prologue.

Ashe returns to Rabanastre with the Dawn Shard, but declines to seize the throne just yet, instead choosing to keep hidden as she had before. The game is running with the dubious logic that Ondore would be discredited if Ashe were to appear alive and well, yet at the moment the Marquis is the best hope for assembling and running a legitimate counter-Imperial armada.

Under the circumstances, any attempt on Ashe's part to seize the Dalmascan throne without Imperial cooperation would definitely set off another conflict before any counter was prepared, and the 8th Fleet, while mighty, was only one arm of an immense military force.

However, Rozarria, Ivalice's OTHER immense military force, and perennial opponent of Archades, has certainly taken notice of the loss. At once they began massing and moving their own forces under the pretense of "routine exercises," and the Archadian Senate is sure that they'll launch a full-on assault as soon as they're good and ready. What's more, the lost fleet was Lord Vayne's to command, and therefore it's loss- and any hardship resulting from it- is therefore his responsibility, placing him right at the top of the Senate's shitlist. They immediately demand the Emperor punish him in some capacity.

Gramis is wise to their game; he's already let on to Gabranth that the Senate doesn't want Vayne on the throne, and this is just the rationale they need for permanently disqualifying him from it, shooing in Larsa for the position, whom they believe they can control. At this point, the Senate is openly contemptuous of the dying Emperor, and he of them. He sarcastically wonders aloud who could guide Larsa's rule, and they needle him right back, reminding him of his role in orchestrating his first two son's deaths at Vayne's hands. The Emperor resents his situation, but has no real choice in it; he tells the Senate he shall recall Vayne to Archades at once, and the matter is closed.

With the party convened in Rabanastre, Ashe has a waking vision of the wasteland surrounding Nabudis. Surveying the destruction, she turns to see the specter of Lord Rasler, who hands her the Dawn Shard. Clutching it to her chest, she sees Vaan step into her sight, and she awakes. This is yet another go at the old “Ashe and Vaan are connected” bit, and it still doesn't amount to much. The dream seems to imply that Vaan is taking Rasler's place, somehow, but there's no substance to that; Ashe never has the first inkling of romantic attraction to Vaan, whom the game has clearly already paired up with Penelo anyway, so unless someone steps out of the wings to declare him rightful heir to the Nabradian throne, I have no fucking clue what the writers were going for with it.

Oh, nevermind, it's a transparent ass-pull to try and legitimize this hanger-on running around with people who actually have some connection to the plot.

Back in the waking world, Basch is having a bit of exposition. He recognized the disaster at the Leviathan as the same force which destroyed Nabudis, capital of Nabradia. It would seem the Midlight Shard, which had been left to Nabradia by the Dynast-King, was activated in the city as the Empire invaded, incinerating both sides and leaving behind a waste land filled with undead and all manner of monsters attracted to intense mist and intense suffering.

However, it seems the unleashing of its power has left the Dawn Shard a powerless gray rock. Even if the Empire recovered the Midlight Shard- and it seems all too likely this was their object in invading Nabradia- they would need some way to recharge it's unimaginable reserves of stored mist.

Though they do have the fully-charged Dusk Shard, and, as Balthier points out, they have learned to manufacture their own nethicite, as well. Ashe makes a resolution: if the Dawn Shard is a weapon, then it's her weapon, and she is going to leverage its might to make the Empire sorry they ever fucked with Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca. (*snicker* B'nargin)

After this dramatic declaration, Vaan gets one of the only good lines allotted to him: “Do you even know how to use it?” *sincere golf clap*

No, it turns out, we fucking do not. Fran, font of all knowledge and occasional berserker madwoman, claims the garif might know. The garif, she says, are a tribe to the south in Kerwon that has been around since antiquity, and magicite of all kinds is an important part of their lore. If there's anyone in the world who might know the finer points of the care and feeding of magicite, it's the garif. Ashe requests that Fran help guide her to the garif, but Balthier immediately interjects that it will require a bit of compensation. Still sore about getting shorted at the tomb, are we?

What he demands is a bit infamous among players as a total dick move even for Balthier: her wedding ring. Ashe is devastated, but, desiring knowledge of the stone, hands it over reluctantly. It's the one time in the game when Balthier crosses the line from cheeky Han Solo rogue to actual unscrupulous criminal mercenary.

Here's the thing, though: I don't take issue with Balthier's actions as much as I do with Ashe's. Now, hold on, I'm not just being an asshole. She didn't even think about saying no. Hell, she didn't even try to talk him down. He asked for “the ring.” Well, she's quite clearly wearing two rings on that hand, why not slip him the one you wear to look pretty and not the one signifying your marriage to your dearly departed Lord Rasler? Or is watching you suffer part of his payment? If so, maybe cut his throat and be done with him, because here's the more important point: why the fuck do you need him at all?

The Strahl is too damaged to fly after the calamity over Jagd Yensa, so we aren't flying there. You're hiring them as tour guides. Now, you argued in the tomb of Raithwall that you had to take your help where you could get it, and at that time, you were right: robbing the tomb of Raithwall is some dramatically dubious shit. It's not something you can advertise in the local paper to hire help for, and they already knew the over-and-under so you weren't spreading information unnecessarily. And you were planning on stiffing him for the bill.

This time? He's squeezing you for something of tremendous sentimental value to you just to be an asshole, for something you absolutely don't need him for. Has no one else in Dalmasca heard of the garif? I'm pretty sure the Giza tribals know them pretty well. Does anyone have a map, maybe? Hell, if you want someone who can show you the way and put up a fight, too, we also happen to be part of a prestigious clan of professional world-wise monster hunters. They're literally down the street. So if you really want to hand over your fucking wedding ring to a pair of criminals so they can give you directions and soak up a third of the experience, you go right ahead, Princess.

Here's the icing on the cake: though he claims he'll give it back once he finds something more valuable, Vaan tries to call him on it and asks what that might be. Balthier retorts on the way out the door by asking what Vaan is after AT ALL, to which he has no answer, canonizing his utter lack of motivation.

This fucking game. I swear it's taunting me on purpose.

Regardless, the sun-scorched Giza Plain has entered its rainy season, transforming it for a time into a swampy network of rushing wadis. Just beyond it lies the Ozmone Plain, a rather pretty area dotted here and there by derelict airships from a battle long, long ago. Both areas can be jogged through easily and nothing of import occurs therein; Jahara, settlement of the garif, lies upon the western edge of Ozmone.

However, the game opens up a great deal at this point, and canny players can test their mettle against areas they really aren't supposed to be in to grab tons of equipment they're not supposed to have. So it was that by the time I had crossed the two small areas between Rabanastre and Jahara, I had packed on over a dozen levels and adorned myself with some very high-tier equipment. But the greatest allure of these areas is the severed limbs of greasy monsters.

See, as in most RPG's, the player can always go spelunking in some haunted ruin and rummage through random hope chests and clay pots inexplicably containing plate armor and magic staves of calamitous power, but FFXII has something else up it's sleeve, too: the bazaar.

With a handful of exceptions, monsters in FFXII have four to six items they can drop, some common and some rare. Sometimes these items are things the player can equip or use right away, but at least half of them fall into the Loot category. Rather than just horking up scads of gil once they expire, the player makes money by selling loot to merchants. Stronger monsters have rarer, more expensive loot. Simple, right?

Well, ideally it would be, but selling certain combinations and quantities of loot will unlock special one-time offers for all manner of equipment. Some weapons, like new ammunition for ranged weapons- especially guns- are all but unavailable anywhere else. In particular, the Tournesol, one of the game's ultimate weapons, can only be obtained through the bazaar, from trading in top-level materials which themselves require the bazaar as well. Those who know what loot to sell, and where to get that loot, can keep themselves well ahead of the curve.

Unfortunately, knowing either of those things is impossible. No, you in the back raising your finger, shut your smart fucking mouth. Short of keeping two or three FAQ's open at all times and making a fucking spreadsheet, the bazaar might as well be the Voynich Manuscript; if you're lucky, the bestiary might tell you- on a monster's secondary page- one of the several items a given monster drops. Beyond that, you've just got to kill a few dozen yourself to find out, and then commit the drops of several dozen monsters to memory. Certain other secondary pages might give hints about what a particular recipe requires, but only on the rarest occasion does it tell you everything you need. So yes, that's a lot of monster grinding beforehand to have a chance at learning something that may help you discern part of what you need to unlock something unknown that may or may not be of any use to you once you've already spent the money for it. Even then, some of the most useful loot for the bazaar will only have a chance to drop if you happen to possess one of a group of items called monographs, which are themselves unreasonably expensive and can only be unlocked through esoteric means.

It's an opaque, bass-ackwards system. It seems to reward either complete chance- since you will stumble into several bazaar items just by turning in the wheelbarrow of severed wolfman dicks every foray into the wild turns up- or through total reliance on guides and FAQ's, with nothing in between being worth much of a damn. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like how Final Fantasy XI tended to work much of the time... Yes, I'm polishing that old chestnut again: the bazaar would have been a fine system for an MMO, with the overall availability of certain goods relying on the loot brought in by the player base, and an investigation of the obscure bazaar/loot dependencies would be right at home on a site like FFXIclopedia or Allakhazam. But the form it took in this game is tedium incarnate, a nuisance that serves only to occlude the postgame with interminable chart consultation and grinding; beyond a certain point, Final Fantasy XII can come to resemble a robust Chinese medicine market simulation with a hackneyed faux-medieval technothriller riding on top of it.

And if you dare claim you got a Tournesol without considerable outside aid, drink poison and choke on your lies.

Aaaaaaaaanywaaaaaay.... Arriving at Jahara, you meet the garif for the first time. Garif are an odd tribe of mask-wearing humanoids. Every garif wears a mask from the time they are born to the day they die. These masks seem to resemble the beak of a bird of prey, with soaring horn-like protrusions. They really wear those damn things as babies? Garif must have strong necks! They are, in fact, a good deal larger than humans, and seem to have rusty brown fur that lightens on their fronts. It takes a bit of effort to see they aren't part of the masks, but they also seem to have pointed ears, as well.

Garif society works on Catholic rules, and the higher up you are on the totem pole, the more badass your mask is. As Vaan approaches the small bridge into the settlement, the sentries take one look at the effeminate foreigner and brusquely tell him to GTFO. But from behind comes another garif, who says that he had been impressed watching us fight for a while, and that there's no harm letting such warriors into the village.

Holy crap, man, I hope for your sake you weren't watching me fight my way across half of Ivalice collecting monkey hooves and rainbow chaps or whatever; I at least got some overpowered equipment out of it and I still scuttled most of my interest in this game and a good chunk of self-respect.

Despite the cold welcome, the garif are a relaxed and accommodating bunch. I like them a lot, and I hope they were spared the inevitable non-hume genocide that seems to have taken place between this game and the time of Final Fantasy Tactics. The war chief is a bloke called Supinelu, and he'll be one of a few familiar faces around the village. Though he has already let us in, he wants to know what brings us to Jahara, and, once Vaan explains the situation with the welcome narrative shorthand of a nodded head, points us in the direction of the elders.

Once inside, a quick look-see doesn't turn up much. Geomancer Yugelu only has a bare understanding of nethicite, and even the High-Chief Zayalu seems to either know nothing or lack the authority to relay anything of value. It seems only the Great-Chief can enlighten us on nethicite, but of course meeting with him is a big deal. Ashe requests an audience from Supinelu, using her royal blood as leverage; he asks us if we happen to have any proof that she's a princess, yet she hangs her head and admits she does not.

... What. Um, Ashe? Honey? Did you forget, the, uh... the, you know... major plot point? Acquired it specifically for the purpose now suggested? Raison d'etre for even coming here...? No? Holding it in your pocket? I just EQUIPPED IT ON YOU, does that help at all? Nothing...? Uuuuughhh... Oh well.

Supinelu is given slight pause by Ashe's blatant flubbing of the script, but improvises like a champ: he has seen the truth in her countenance, and that's good enough for yurt-dwelling savages. Across another bridge, we arrive at the so-called Elderknoll, and sure enough there are elders and chiefs of all kind, just knolling it up, playing board games, feasting, dozing, exchanging anecdotes about epic mask-wearing and nanna rodeos and all the various nuances of the robust garif culture.

Seriously, Rabanastre fucking sucks, can we retire here? Please?

Within a high-fenced circle, the Great-Chief Uball-Ka himself sits behind a large fire, sporting the baddest mask a garif, or indeed, fucking anyone could ever hope to wear, and a great white beard billowing from underneath it. He takes the Dawn Shard and ponders it for a bit. Yet, while he can tell the stone has been recently used, he admits knowing nothing of how to do so himself; in fact, this deficiency on the part of the garif is a part of their history. The gods themselves granted their nethicite to the garif in ages long past, but the garif never got the hang of using it, or any kind of magicite apparently. Once Raithwall entered the picture, he showed up on the gods' recommendation, signed for the Stones, and went off on his merry way to conquer all Ivalice.

The garif remember the Dynast-King fondly, saying he used the stones “to bring peace to a troubled time.” Yet, the Great-Chief is embarrassed to have met with a descendant of Raithwall himself unable to enlighten her on how to make use of his legacy. In fact, he seems surprised that Ashe doesn't just 'know' how to use it, by instinct. Be that as it may, he does confirm Ashe's fears: the power of the stone, collected by ages and ages sitting in the rich mist of the Jagd Yensa, has been spent utterly. If she found a good place to let it recharge, her great-great-grandchildren would find it ready for them.

Hey, that gives me an idea... Did we leave the Epoch around here? No? Ah, nevermind then.

Uball-Ka gives a word of warning: the nethicite may indeed have something of its own will. He cautions gravely that those who desire nethicite, are often in turn desired by nethicite... As he speaks, a third party intrudes our little parley. It's... Larsa?! Holy shit, Gabranth! Do your fucking job! Every time you let this kid out of your sight he's giving away Archadian state secrets and abetting your worst renegade war-mongering enemies. Put the little Loki on a leash if you want Archades to last through the end of the fiscal year.

No, they don't explain how or if he knew where we were, or what he was coming to Jahara for, otherwise.

Sure enough, the precocious little scion has a plan in mind: Leave for Bur-Omisace immediately. Larsa seems well aware of the Marquis' counter-Imperial fleet (Of course, the little bastard's probably on their board of directors.) He worries, as the Senate does, that if recent events haven't already provoked Rozarria into a new war, the inevitable clash between Archades and the ever-growing Resistance certainly will.

But if Ashe, with Dawn Shard in hand, were to receive the blessing of Gran Kiltias of Bur-Omisace, Anastasis (holy shit this section is wordy) she would have an undeniable claim on the Dalmascan throne once more, a position she could leverage to prevent the Galtean-Archadian war in the first place.

STOP THE CLOCK! Wasn't Ashe just sitting on the stone for four days, knowing full well that she could do exactly this, yet electing not to because she believed that that would be more than enough in itself to provoke the Empire to war? Weren't we trying to learn how to use the stone as a weapon specifically to enforce this claim on the Dalmascan throne, as insurance to prevent the inevitable conflict that action would precipitate? Is Larsa telling us to embark on exactly the course of action that only moments ago was driving us under the impression that it would lead to the very Ordalia-Galtea-Valendia World War that he claims it will prevent, with Dalmasca and Dorstonis stuck right in the middle with no means of defending themselves from annexation or outright annihilation?

In a perfect world, that's exactly what would have happened, and the ensuing Ragnarok of nethicite WMD's and deific politicking resulting from it would fill Larsa with such supremely magnificent lulz that he achieves the kind of over-charge apotheosis that Sephiroth dreamed of.

Ashe is immediately offended by the idea, but for all the wrong reasons: preventing a devastating world war would be helping the Empire, in a sense. Holy shit, Princess... Larsa points out the blindingly obvious: such a war would see Galtea, and Rabanastre in the center of it, as the battleground. He states with confidence that, in such a situation, Vayne would not hesitate for a second to nethicite Dalmasca in to a misty, zombie-haunted ruin. Ashe is given pause by being told what she already fucking knows.

Hey Larsa, weren't you telling Penelo just a week ago how much you looked up to Vayne and how Rabanastre would be just peachy fucking keen with him at the helm of it? Don't get me wrong, I support your plan to wreck the entire continent on a lark, but that's sloppy work.

After nightfall, Ashe is wandering around having a good hearty think, palming the Dawn Shard like a good luck charm, when she has another vision of Rasler just ahead on the Elderknoll bridge. She rushes forward to see... it was just Vaan.

I'm serious, game. Knock this shit off. I'm %90 joking every time I get on to the game about some annoyance or other, but this just sticks in my craw.

Vaan realizes she was having another vision, and confronts her about what they saw at the tomb. Ashe is taken aback that he could see Rasler as well, and wonders aloud why that might be. In response, Vaan gives a total non sequitur about not really knowing Ashe well or Rasler at all, and that maybe what he saw was a vision of his brother. Well, nice try hanging a lampshade on your own nonsense, but we already saw exactly what he saw, and I'll tell you this: Reks didn't dress like a fucking Nabradian prince.

But the game rallies expertly, and actually gives Vaan a great little bit of characterization. Mentioning Reks gets Vaan and Ashe talking about him, and Vaan questions out loud why his brother or Prince Rasler would fight the Empire knowing they were throwing their lives away on a fight they could never win. Ashe answers with an obvious platitude- “To protect something,”- but Vaan is having none of it, pointing out how they didn't protect jack shit through their sacrifice and, in getting killed, prevented any other good they could have possibly done and brought more misery to the people closest to them.

Then Vaan makes an admission: all his high-minded talk about fighting the Empire and being a sky pirate someday was a lie for himself, a proud bluster meant to distract himself from the pain of losing his entire family to disease and war, knowing that he could never do anything about it due to his disenfranchised station in life.

Holy shit, game. This is starting to sound like we're in Ivalice again. This is a tantalizing look at the character Vaan could have been: a mature, identifiable personality, even if it took a while to come to light; an awareness and examination of the nature of power and rank- a pillar of the setting, and of this game, in particular; and a dynamite contrast to the princess that they're so desperately trying to connect him to. Ashe, who was so bitter and angry, and so eager to let that anger and suffering dictate her command of power which would alter the course of human events; who believed herself to have lost everything, yet remained a leader even in exile, playing the Great Game, juggling magic superweapons and treating with gods and kings alike; who hated the Empire and lusted for unbelievable power, for the sake of her satisfaction and her entitlement... and Vaan, who had almost nothing, and lost even that; who could only watch in desperate denial of his own powerlessness as his place in life was constantly shaken by people who saw his rung of society as chattel, even on their own side; who, through terrible personal experience knew very well the price of war sport and the agendas of the mighty.

Having spoken his piece, Vaan makes a resolution. He had tagged along from the start just to distract himself from his own misery without ever hoping to truly address it. But he knows now he's stumbled on to something extraordinary in Ashe's little band of misfits. He sees, for the first time, the chance to affect the world around him, and he's excited for the opportunity.

If at any time, even if nothing up to this point had changed, they had taken this little bezoar of personality and ran somewhere with it; if, in a game ostensibly about the very themes that they posit so strongly shaped this character's life, ever gave him the chance to motivate the events of the plot; if they had done any damn thing at all with the character they tried to show us here, that might have been enough to light a fire in this game, to set off something truly unforgettable.

But they never do.

This fucking game. I swear.

To be continued.
User avatar
Thomas

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Thomas » Sun Jun 22, 2014 4:58 pm

Rasler's dead, it's not like he's going to get any more hurt by Ashe handing over her ring and no-one has more right to have it or attaches more value to it than she does. Sure, she didn't exactly make the most rational decision in the circumstances but I feel it's always best to have really solid ground to stand on before putting the blame on a person for letting someone else hurt them. If she'd decided that it's just a ring and she can bare the emotional pain for the sake of a larger goal and honour Rasler's memory in a different way, it might even have been healthy (but it probably wasn't). That doesn't make Balthier's deal any less of a dick move though either way, because he doesn't have the right to make those decisions even if he does want some proof of commitment.

I don't know how I feel about the collaboration. They've been plenty of quislings who history doesn't remember fondly and not many who are but then how many failed revolutions have their been and how willing are we to applaud those who died and led others to die for a cause they didn't achieve? (Answer, very. Although situational)
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Sun Jun 22, 2014 6:29 pm

That's the thing about that scene, though; Balthier asks for the ring not because of its monetary value, but specifically because of its irreplaceable sentimental value to Ashe. She certainly does not part with it for any reason beyond feeling she has no other option; it clearly grieves her bitterly, and the game will continuously prove that she is very much not over her lover's death. The entire scene is dedicated to showing that Balthier has no qualms about taking advantage of someone who is pinned down, but for that to make sense, Ashe really does need to be that desperate.

The garif aren't hard to find. They aren't a well-travelled people, but nor are they secretive, like the viera, and they're frequent trade partners with the Gizans, who live withing sight of the city and who our party has had to have met at least once by this point in the game. Jahara isn't an isolated or hidden settlement, and the path there- as long as the rainy season is in- is one of the most accessible and easily-traversable land routes in Ivalice, and not even a long road at that.

Rabanastre is the crossroads city for three different continents, home to traders, adventurers, pilots, scholars, and travelers of every species from everywhere in the known world and from every walk of life. Ashe herself has lived here all her life and has wide connections to knowledge and resources due to her authority as the Resistance commander. As mentioned, the party belongs to a clan of warriors that comprises folks who have been everywhere, seen everything, and brought back trophies. We know Dalan, who knows everything, about everything, everywhere.

But in the space of a moment, Ashe commits her most valued possession, her only remaining treasure from her old life as a princess and as Rasler's wife, to a sky pirate with no ship, in the very moment he demonstrates that he cares absolutely nothing for her or her cause, so that he can subcontract the knowledge we need- since it's Fran who knows the way, not necessarily Balthier. But we can't ask Fran herself because she has no will or agency of her own.

Our dear party leader had options. And while its not wise to expect Vaan to act as the voice of reason, he does indeed speak against Balthier's ghoulishness without offering any alternative- and as a street rat, pupil of Dalan, and presumable liaison to Clan Centurio, he really should know as well as Ashe should just how small-time Balthier is. Even Basch, as a Royal Dalmascan Knight, might also be aware of the land's geography, especially as it concerns Rabanastre's immediate and well-armed neighbors.

As for the late Captain Vossler, time does prove that his course was the wrong one. There's no argument otherwise from me. But the thing I want to make clear is that at the time his plan did indeed make a lot more sense than any foolhardy struggling Ashe & Co. could, or did, come up with. It was taken for granted that the party's actions were correct because they were the party's actions, to the extent that Vossler is immediately condemned to the mental and moral wrong by diverging from it. This is not a state of affairs that will cease, nor improve, as the narrative progresses. Indeed, a shortcoming of this exact nature bites at the very heart of the plot, but that's something for far, far on down the line.

It's worth noting here that I decided to post this on both this site and on the Escapist because I figured I could get half of the picture from each site: from here I could get good, interesting feedback- assuming I actually got any at all, which I did not and do not take for granted. Yet on the Escapist I expected to get a higher quantity of feedback of... lesser merit. Events have proven me very wrong, though; despite the massive difference in size between the two forums, the number of views for each topic has remained almost exactly the same, but with the Escapist thread producing no comments whatsoever. It's entirely possible that, even among the few who read the User Reviews section of that forum, that no one is willing to read through several thousand words of this crap, which I am not bothered by, I suppose. Just something I didn't expect.
User avatar
Thomas

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Thomas » Sun Jun 22, 2014 7:37 pm

The User Reviews seems like it's a really dead section of the Escapist. It manages to be really obscure, I'm a regular of the Escapist main forums but I'd forgotten user reviews even existed until you mentioned it. It looks like we might have 20-60+ doing whatever the word is for when you read something but don't ever post in it (that I've forgotten right now*) and it looks like the Escapist User Reviews only has 20-160 ish of those people too. I don't know where the rules section is, but you might have been able to post it in the main forum as a Let's Play. There's Knights of the Old Republic 2 LP that posts regularly there and has been going for a lot of pages.

EDIT: Lurking! right? One of the ways of knowing I'm a terrible person is I have absolutely no understanding of how people successfully lurk. One day I may be able to think without talking first :P
User avatar
The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Mon Jun 23, 2014 5:43 am

PART 5: Pour Some Slaughter On Me

In the morning, Larsa is waiting to travel with us to Bur-Omisace. He mentions running off from his escort, so yes, it seems he really is sneaking out windows at night to engage in this skullduggery. There's probably a crowd of Judges getting their shit wrecked in Zertinan Caverns, where he purposely led them to get eaten by skulwyrms. Ashe is willing to travel there with him, but says she hasn't quite made up her mind yet about what to do once there; it will take some convincing along the way to set her on one path or the other. But Larsa has an ace up his sleeve, and tantalizes the princess- and the player- by revealing another reason he wanted her to come to Bur-Omisace: to meet someone, "both friend and enemy," but he coyly refuses to say anymore until they get there.

Well, successful troll is successful, and half the party goes traipsing back to Ozmone at his well-shod heels. Meanwhile, Basch hangs back with Han and Chewie. Basch points out that Mount Bur-Omisace is in the Jagd Ramooda, and that they have nothing to fear from Imperial air power once there.

Balthier grabs him by his idiot shoulders and screams, “What the fuck do Dalmascans have against paying some goddamn attention?!” And, shaking him like a little child, adds, “Do you not remember last week? When exactly what you just said totally fucking happened? To us? THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE DIED!”

Fran, as always, merely stands wordlessly by, likely offended someone else would try to deal exposition or geography trivia to her, while her keen viera senses are ruffled by the shifting of a fate now viciously tempted.

Basch quickly changes the subject and asks why Balthier is even coming along. What the fuck Basch, are you trying to get more of Ashe's personal belongings ransomed?! Balthier shrugs his shoulders, and claims he just wants to see what happens. Is this what Archadians do? Is the entire nation so bored that anyone with the means to do so just flies around fomenting Armageddon just to spectate and break up the ennui for a few minutes? Basch takes it, though; as long as he isn't trying to steal their nethicite, he couldn't care less.

Fran, of course, follows silently behind Balthier as he leaves, and no one questions her motivation because no one gives half a shit.

Just as we're about to leave, War-Chief Supinelu tips his hat to the party as they leave, giving them the gift of a bitchin' crossbow and a free chocobo ride to help us along the way before returning to his tent to continue rocking ass, all the time. Party on, Supinelu. You are a total fucking bro, and in the day of trouble you have been of more service to me than three hundred salmon.

As the party crosses out of the east edge of Ozmone Plain, Ashe and Basch talk about their plans for the future. Ashe is becoming convinced that working with the Empire is the only way to secure peace for Dalmasca, but cannot bear the shame of capitulating to their power. Basch disagrees, though; he claims that he would bear any shame if it meant protecting his people. After all, “I could not protect my homeland,” he says. “What is shame to me?”

Sigh... Alright, let's have this out, then: Basch kind of sucks. Now, don't misunderstand. He's bland but largely inoffensive, and that's good enough to put him above at least half the main party. But Basch has no arc, and spends the entire game on a tiresome rag of trying to make up for his perceived shortcomings. Now, that might work, except for Basch's other character trait, of a total of two: he's a complete Mary Sue. Yes, our very own Captain fon Rosenberg, having no personality flaws whatsoever, maintaining an immaculate standard of nobility, honor, and duty at all times, who's only thoughts are always and ever of risking his life fighting for the sake of his princess and his nation, just can't get over what a shitty failure he is. Everything he does seems to carry this undercurrent. “Oh, I'm so sorry I couldn't single-handedly repel the world's most powerful military from your country, Princess; can you ever forgive someone as weak and useless as me?” or “Oh, Vaan, I'm so sorry your brother died in the battle where I was kidnapped, falsely marked a traitor and assassin for the rest of my life, then beaten and starved every day for two years in a sandy dungeon; Reks was such an amazing, wonderful person compared to me. Maybe I can make it up to you someday?” This is what passes for Basch's 'arc;' he will be given the opportunity to bring totally unnecessary suffering on himself, and he will accept it, because it seems knightly to him. The end.

I mean, how fucked up is it that someone who basically identifies as Lawful Good to their very foundations is never forced into some ethical dilemma? In fucking Ivalice?! What a wasted opportunity. I still like you, though, Basch. Even if your outfit is ridiculous even by the standards of this game, which are execrable.

After this scene, which goes nowhere and exists for no reason other than to showcase Basch's guilt complex, we cut to the Imperial Palace of Archades. Three Judges, Drace- the only female Judge- Bergan, a man struggling as hard as he can to sound sinister with every line he speaks, and Zargabaath, their pensive elder, are discussing the recent political goings-on. According to Bergan, the Senate is crazy to think they can get Vayne out of the picture so easily. The military loves Vayne like they love big tits, and as far as Bergan is concerned, that's all Archades could need.

Drace isn't quite convinced. Bergan's zeal reminds her of the missing Judge Zecht, before said disappearance; he had the utmost confidence in Vayne, and it doesn't seem to have turned out very well for him, what with him likely wandering the ruins of Nabudis as a tortured zombie. Bergan doesn't take kindly to her flippancy, though; he can't stand to hear Zecht bad-mouthed, nor Vayne. Drace points out that Vayne is as ruthless as they come, having, after all, executed his own elder brothers. But Bergan can only clamor for more. To him, Vayne's ruthlessness is merely the conviction necessary to run the Empire well, and follow his own ideals with unflinching dedication.

Drace questions Zargabaath about his opinion. Were Vayne's brothers really traitors? Can Vayne truly be trusted with rule? Zargabaath chides her, advising her merely to let sleeping dogs lie. From down the hall, Gabranth approaches, and directs Bergan and Zargabaath to go escort Lord Vayne, who has just arrived in the capital.

Drace and Gabranth tarry in the hall. She knows of Larsa's idea to appeal to the Gran Kiltias (but not of his liaisons with Ashe, of course), thinking that the word of a traditionally neutral religious leader respected by all the world would give Ondore's forces pause, at least for a time; that would, in turn, pause Rozarria as well, giving Archadia at least some time to regroup and fortify.

The fact that the capital isn't in an uproar about Larsa ditching his cortege and going on walkabout tells me that he probably does this shit every fucking month.

Drace couldn't be more proud of Larsa. She exults at how frustrated the Senate will be to find Larsa can't be controlled as they hoped. But Gabranth raises a fair point: when the Senate finds out that plan won't pan out, they will simply turn ugly and ruin the young lord in ways he is too inexperienced to anticipate or defend against. But Lord Vayne could neither be controlled nor assailed by them. Drace admits he is right, but makes him promise either way that they shall guide and protect Lord Larsa.

So Jahara was pretty much a wash; we didn't learn anything about the nethicite, but we have a plan that may or may not cause a continental war and the company of a cunning little psychopath. I'm not saying I wouldn't vote for him. But Bur-Omisace isn't exactly just over the next hill; we'll have to cross through a pretty dense jungle before even reaching the mountains it's set into, and Golmore jungle isn't exactly famous for welcoming outsiders.

Sure enough, we aren't even halfway through before running into a glowing barrier in the path that we can't seem to push past or dispel. Fran gives her traditional travelogue: the wood itself denies us passage, upset at our presence. Ashe wants to know why the wood thinks it's so fucking great itself, what with its malboro infestation and man-eating panthers, but Fran shockingly has more to say than dry exposition on the environment: it's her own fault, somehow. Without explaining, she turns and backtracks a little way to a dead-end path. Balthier seems to know what she's up to, and is worried by it.

Fran actually needles him a little bit for the hairline crack in his resolve, and begins tracing some complex glowing lines in the air in front of her. A snap of the fingers later, and a path of grass appears floating in midair, leading off through the deep jungle. The hidden way to Fran's old village is open! Penelo, completely unable to grasp the obvious subtext that Fran's been swinging around, blurts out that they'll be so happy to see her again after being gone for so long.

Fran gives her a priceless 'Oh god I thought you were the one that WASN'T retarded' look before stammering that she didn't exactly leave on pleasant terms. Once in the viera's enclave- two parts ewok village and one part Lothlorien- Fran doesn't even bother to come further than the entrance. She tells us to look for Mjrn, and bring her around.

A couple of moogles wander in behind us; they're actually a pair of merchants that we busted out with Ashe on our first trip to the Leviathan. Great job, guys! Not even a minute after opening up the secret viera village and we've let in a pair of ex-cons. Oh wait, I forgot our own party: two ex-cons, two fugitives, two career criminals, an exile, a Norse trickster god, and Penelo. Lock your doors, ladies!

Once beyond the foyer, we get a vista of the weeaboo conception of Heaven: a verdant paradise of tall, thin, dark-skinned, white-haired elf girls with bunny-ears, exotic accents, and just enough clothing for a Build-a-Bear, collectively. No men, though, because that would be, like, weird.

They aren't happy with us crashing their eternal hippie pillow-fight, though, and trying to talk to any of them will get you a variation on “Fuck off and die, human scum.” Walking around looking for Mjrn doesn't turn up much, until we end up more or less at the end of the road. We give it the good old 'Bueller? Bueller?,' but get only a dozen cold stares. Jote, their elder, emerges from her bower to confront us, giving us another hearty “Shouldn't you be choking on a dick somewhere? Well there aren't any here, so get the fuck out.”

Vaan points out that we'll just Gump around the village bothering everyone until we find Mjrn, so the fastest way to get us to leave would be just to point us in her direction. Jote seems to know this is the case, but before she can bring herself to explain, she is taken aback to see Fran coming across the walkway toward them. It seems something shook her out of her reluctance.

Indeed it has: Fran has heard 'the voice of the wood,' and she knows that Mjrn isn't even in the village. She asks Jote where she's gone, but Jote scorns the party, calling Fran and Mjrn race-traitors and chiding Fran for not being able to get her answers by communing with the wood. This last fact seems to hit Fran pretty hard. Balthier and Vaan each try to argue back- actually, they're a bit too confrontational for talking to the elder of a village that hates them, while surrounded by their warriors- but it seems to annoy Jote enough to do the trick: she takes a moment to speak to the wood while the breeze stirs up around her, and tells us that Mjrn went west somewhere. Wow, Jote! West somewhere? Sweet fucking trick, I can see why you viera value it so highly.

Jote doesn't want to waste any more time with us, and storms off. But she doesn't quite get away before Fran stops her with an aphorism: “The viera are born of the wood. But that is not the only path we may choose.” Jote seems unimpressed, and lets slip that she wasn't impressed when she heard it fifty years ago, either.

So ideas can't get in, and people can't get out? Yep! Viera society is a cult.

On our way out, Larsa seems to think the vague directions from Jote might point to the Henne mines, a magicite mine owned by Archades. But the sand-blasted little ganglion that passes for Vaan's brain seems to have just processed the 'fifty years' comment, and can't help but ask how old Fran is anyway. Everyone stares daggers at him for a very long five seconds before everyone individually calls him an asshole and leaves.

Haha! Women, right?! I mean, yeah, they're apparently-immortal, un-aging gorgeous bunny-elves whose culture and minds are entirely alien and inscrutable to humes, but they still blush when you ask their age. Yeah, yeah, it's a cute little scene and seeing everyone make fun of Vaan always brings me joy, but seriously.

After arriving to the entrance of Henne Mine via Ozmone, we find the corpses of a few Imperials right out front. Hmm, this is usually how I keep track of where the party's already been, but it seems something else is the matter. Larsa and Balthier recognize them as researchers from Draklor Laboratory, but can only speculate as to their presence.

So if something hadn't killed all the guards for us already, was Larsa planning on helping us manslaughter our way to the bottom of the mine, or...?

Once the party gets deep enough in the mine to where the richer ore lies, Larsa realizes that the Empire must be looking for new sources of ore, since their old hookup, Bhujerba, has put them on their shit list. That may well be, but Fran senses Mjrn and a strange mist, just as the little lady herself comes staggering out of a deeper passage, her head rolling and speaking cryptic, broken sentences: classic video game speak for mind control, basically.

As soon as she notices the party, she points straight at Ashe and tells her to keep away, screaming, “Power-needy hume!” and hauling ass down the passage with both hands. I've gotta say, the viera really haven't presented themselves very well, what with the surly cult and the racial slurs. I do wonder if their one-gender race and the garif's one-gender race ever have mixer parties; they seem like they'd get on pretty well, at least. They could have long, romantic conversations about impractical wardrobes and revering natural magic resources. Maybe drop a letter to Curly and Ozzie, who seem to be the only two cat-men in the world.

Enough inane babbling, let's chase down the girl and beat the evil out of her. Emerging into a large chamber, what should we find but a giant dragon? Goddammit, Archades, what happened here, anyway?! There are monster horses and T-Rexes and a dragon down here, this doesn't just happen from leaving the door open by accident!

You know, after soloing the dragon with Ashe, I think I might have overdone it with the equipment and level grinding...

After it falls, Mjrn stumbles out of whatever niche she was hiding in during the battle, and a shard of manufacted nethicite falls from her hand and shatters. A bizarre spectral figure appears behind her, looking like a floating gray cloak with a black void where it's face would be, and two glowing eyes shining out from it. It lingers only long enough to freak out the party, and disappears, with Mjrn collapsing from its apparent release of her mind.

She's glad to see her sister Fran once more. Apparently, some Imperials had been hunting around through Golmore a while ago, and no one in the village paid it any mind; as long as they don't litter or start too many fires, travelers aren't a big deal to the viera. But something about it struck Mjrn wrong, and she ran off to find out what they were looking for. Unfortunately for her, it seems they were looking for foolish viera to kidnap and experiment on; it seems they're studying how to draw power from nethicite and transfer it into an individual, and the viera are easy test subjects for that kind of thing. Larsa yoinks Penelo's good-luck nethicite back, regretting such an ill-omened gift. Penelo yells “GIVE THAT SHIT BACK IT'S A GREAT ACCESSORY,” and Ashe muses that even as dangerous as nethicite is, it still might prove essential to them.

Afterward, we find ourselves back in Eruyt Village, with Mjrn in tow. Jote curtly hands us a key to the barriers and tells us 'thanks but fuck off'... but Mjrn stops us. She can't believe Jote, her eldest sister, could just ignore the entire world boiling into a war around them, but Jote couldn't care less as long as it doesn't affect the Wood. Mjrn resolves to leave the village as Fran did, but Fran steps up to talk her out of it. It seems Fran either really regrets leaving home, or at least wouldn't wish life outside the Wood onto her little sister (who is still at least like seventy years old). Mjrn acquiesces to Fran's admonition, but can't contain her emotions and runs off. Jote signals her attendants to leave her, and she and her sister have a private conversation.

Jote is grateful for saving Mjrn and convincing her to stay, even though she herself had left. But Fran thinks it more appropriate that way; it's Jote's dayjob to tell people the outside world is scary and wrong, but to hear it from Fran, who has seen it herself... Fran asks Jote to speak to the wood for her, to ask what it thinks about her, since she cannot hear it anymore herself. Jote tells her it longs for Fran to return, but she doesn't believe this. She does believe Jote's addition that it doesn't trust the rest of the party as far as it could throw them, but Fran believes that she's as much one of them as any. On that note, Fran and Jote part ways.

Well, did you like this short little vignette about Fran? I hope so; it's the one scrap of attention the game is giving her. Aside from world trivia and those firm mahogany buttocks, the game could really give a shit less about Fran. Too bad; there's some fertile ground for development there! Abandoning an easy, peaceful and contemplative life to try and understand the world around you? And maybe change it for the better, even if it's unpleasant and painful? Think that might have been worth dwelling on, writers?!

I'll simply have to console myself with this: the next part of the game is actually really good. Emerging from the jungle, we enter directly into... a glacial mountain range? Yeah, the geography in this game makes no sense. It's time for the ice level and god dammit an ice level is what we're gonna get. Bur-Omisace, known the world over as a holy place and an enclave of peace, has attracted a great number of refugees with the war building up, and even as we pass through the mountains a great number of them are on their way. Balthier blames the Empire for their suffering, but Larsa is quick to point out that he's trying to head the war off, and is certain his father shares his views. But Balthier merely tells him that he can never truly know another, not even your own father.

Well, let's just check in on the old man, eh? In Gramis' study, Vayne is meeting with his father. The Senate has determined that Vayne needs to be sent away, but Vayne pleads that whether he stays or goes the Empire's problems will be just the same. Moreover, he has become convinced that the Senate hates House Solidor on principle, and will never stop their games of seizing whatever concessions they can until they can do away with them entirely. To this end, Vayne suggests finding some pretext to have the Senate gotten rid of, just as they use the disaster over Jagd Yensa to get rid of Vayne.

Gramis is tongue-in-cheek about how fast Vayne is to suggest the most ruthless course of action, but, as Vayne points out, it was Gramis himself who established this as standard procedure for the Solidors many years ago. Furthermore, he insists that it isn't for his sake, but Larsa's; Larsa can't contend with the Senate the way he and Gramis can, and they must take action on his behalf so that Larsa doesn't have to learn the hard way and become as jaded and callous as they are. Gramis is skeptical indeed that Vayne would care about his brother's innocence, but Vayne, growing rather morbid, admits that his hands are already stained with blood, and he has no innocence left to preserve.

The Emperor knows the future is no longer his to guide, and his last words are thus: “And so House Solidor lives on.”

Arriving at the foot of the colossal meteora that houses the Kiltias (And the short FMV that shows the area off depicts it rising out of a Golmore-like jungle, with the icy Rift nowhere to be seen. This would seem to point to the geography being shuffled around at a point in development after the FMV's were already in the can.), Bur-Omisace certainly does live up to its reputation. All around are refugees, some from recent conflicts and a few from as far back as Landis' conquest. The Kiltias themselves manage food lines and attend to those who were hurt on the journey. A handful of the refugees merely see the place as room and board, but to most the Gran Kiltias Anastasis is a person of remarkable reputation and incredible power.

The mountain is also home to many nu mou. Nu mou are... sort of hard to describe, actually. Imagine if tonberries had white and blue-gray fur and long floppy ears. Nu mou are exceptionally long-lived, and the nu mou Kiltias act as elders to the younger human believers.

(Not that this will mean much to most people, but the wyrm philosopher can be spotted early here, looking for the vyraal in Paramina Rift.)

Set into the mountainside is the edifice an ancient temple of white stone and turquoise domes. It seems Larsa has been expected, and we enter through the grand doors into the Hall of Light.

The hall is a short but exquisitely-adorned sanctuary of gold, polished wood, and turquoise. Smoke rises from a dozen censers on the path to the dais of Anastasis, surrounded by many columns and a high statue of a goddess. The party stands before the ancient, wizened sage, but no words pass between them for a long moment.

The sage, whose race I believe is never mentioned, but think “high elf” and you'll have it, stands with his eyes closed. Vaan whispers to Penelo that he might be asleep, but before anyone can shush him, a booming voice echoes through their minds. “No, child. I do not sleep; I dream.”

The Gran Kiltias is a 'dreamsage;' he explains that, in his eternal waking dream, he observes and meditates on reality and the unseen at once, observing past, present and future as a singular swirl around him.

Ashe begins to introduce herself by her full title, but presumably not wanting to hear her say “B'nargin” (*snicker*) and lose his bearing, Anastasis silences her, saying, “Did I not just tell you I was a sage, ffs, I can know your thoughts before you say them and shit.” Exposition handily disposed of, he grants that Ashe certainly is fit to be queen of the Dalmascan people, prompting Larsa to beg him to grant accession at once.

Before he can finish the thought, though, the grave meeting is crashed by a man with olive skin and a thick Spanish accent, wearing sunglasses indoors. Larsa is delighted to see him, offering his hand, but the man pats him on the head and sets himself at once to the getting on of his empyreal swerve. Larsa introduces him as a Margrace, the Rozarrian ruling house.

He whips off his sunglasses, handing them to his pinafore-clad attendant, and takes a knee before the princess, introducing himself as Al-Cid Margrace. Kissing her hand, Ashe gives a slight gasp as all her memories of Rasler evanesce for a moment. From far away, Fran's viera senses are can hear Def Leppard drifitng on the wind, while in the background Penelo is quite clearly doing everything in her meager power not to explode into a rosy mist of erotic frenzy. Sorry, Vaan, but I don't think you can count as her first anymore.

Anastasis is pleased to see a member of the three sides of the growing conflict gathered in the name of peace, but unfortunately, Al-Cid isn't a fan of the idea to put Ashe on the Dalmascan throne. He, Larsa, and Ashe hash out the could-bes and maybes of this action or that, and Larsa assures him that if Ashe, taking the throne, merely gave a word of favor to the Empire and a word of caution to Ondore, he could smooth everything over with the Emperor and stop the war dead right there.
The Rozarrian shakes his head. This had been his hope, too, but things have changed while Larsa was on the road: Emperor Gramis is dead, and by Vayne's hand.

Thanks to the magic of editing, we are privy to the aftermath: Gabranth pushes through the halls towards the Emperor's study, even as senators are being dragged out in irons, protesting their fate and proclaiming their innocence. Vayne and the Judges Magister are in uproar as Gramis' corpse sits lifeless behind his desk; it would seem Senate Chairman Gregoroth has already claimed responsibility for the poisoning, and administered “his own sentence” with his own hand. Judge Bergan is eager to capture the rest of the senate before the actors in the failed coup can escape, but Judge Drace is outraged, and not buying any of it for a second. Vayne's protests that stripping the Senate of its power and granting autocracy to himself- until order can be restored- was the only reasonable course of action, but Drace tells him to shut his evil mouth and accuses him of the deed himself! Judge Zargabaath gives her a “Whooooaaa now let's not get crazy here,” and she can't believe he would buy into such an obvious trick. Tellingly, Zargabaath does not even protest, instead pointing out that, with how precarious the Empire's situation is what with Rozarria making ready to knock on their front door, they don't have another choice at the moment.

Drace sees another choice right in her hot little hand, however, and, aghast at Vayne's boldness, puts her sword at his throat, placing him under arrest for the murder of his father. But she finds a blade at her own throat, with Judge Bergan revealing that it was not even Vayne, but the Ministry of the Law itself, that granted Vayne his autocracy. So if you fuck with Vayne, you fuck with the Judges! Drace calls him a puppet, but relents.

Lowering her sword, she instead swings around to assault Bergan, but finds her arm caught in his own, and, with no real effort, he picks her up by her face and flings her across the room like a toy. Drace is incredulous; Bergan's power is far beyond human.

Vayne, unimpressed by the scene, coolly commands the stoic Zargabaath to take Bergan with him on the flagship Alexander and retrieve Lord Larsa. Gabranth, silent until now, protests that Larsa was made Gabranth's responsibility.

... Really, is it now, Gabranth? Have you ever looked after Larsa? Do you know where he is now? Have you made any contact with his retinue, who are getting drunk off fermented nanna's milk with Supinelu at Jahara right this very moment? Are you not, in fact, an abject failure in this task, and indeed with every task you are allotted over the course of this entire game and its backstory?

Vayne has other reason to be upset with him, though: he knows Gabranth was the Emperor's stool-pigeon for Vayne's goings-on, and that places him square on the new regent's shit list, although there is a job he can do for him this very moment... In this very room in fact!

Gabranth, you're a judge, right? Drace is a criminal now, right? Well, Vayne offers, why not kill the bitch?

Zargabaath protests at once, but Vayne and Bergan watch eagerly as Gabranth picks up Drace's own sword and crouches down over her. He can't bring himself to kill her, but she gives her consent; she's sealed her own fate, and Gabranth's duty now is to Larsa. Gabranth understands, and slides the blade between her ribs.

She... she's wearing plate armor, Gabranth. How did...? Ah, well.

Vayne cares not even to watch, instead arranging his dead father's posture somewhat for dignity's sake, and echoes his words to him: “And so House Solidor lives on.”

Back at Bur-Omisace, Larsa is struck dumb by the news. Yes, Al-Cid grants, the late Emperor Gramis would have at least lent his ear to Ashe, but Vayne? No way in hell. Vayne wants this war, and is ambitious and canny enough to turn any situation to serve the end of starting it. What's more, Anastasis knew as much since before we arrived. His visions of the future show Vayne as a major player in coming events, and to begin acting in the open would only draw Vayne's attention to her.

Al-Cid has intelligence on Archadian fleet movements: The new 12th Fleet is already deployed, the 1st Fleet is ready and will be deployed as soon as the flagship Odin is done being refit, and the 2nd Kerwon Expeditionary Force is being recalled to fill the gap left by the 8th Fleet's destruction. The combination will be the largest military force ever assembled. And that's not even counting their nethicite, as Ashe points out while mispronouncing 'coup de grâce' like a champ. She addresses the ancient sage, no longer about accession but about aid. Accession now would be meaningless, since she has no power to defend her claim or her home. She needs a power worthy of fighting the empire, and wants to know if Anastasis has heard of anything she could avail herself of. The Gran Kiltias asks if she means the Dawn Shard, but she protests; now that the Empire has nethicite, she must have a weapon of even greater power.

For the first time, Anastis' eyes shoot open and he speaks with his own lips, breaking his dream to address her directly. “To wield power against power. Truly the words of a hume child.” Ashe protests; she is a true descendant of Raithwall himself, and who better to forge the future of Ivalice? Anastasis is skeptical, but recommends she seek the other power left behind by the Dynast-King: the Sword of Kings, a blade which can oppose and destroy the nethicite. Why Raithwall would leave such a relic in the care of the Gran Kiltias of his own time and not anyone of his own line- since nethicite was the weapon which won him the Galtean Alliance- is a mystery to Anastasis, but it sleeps now in the Stilshrine of Miriam, to the south of Paramina Rift.

The party turns to go, but Larsa is still too stunned by the death of his father to even acknowledge the events around him. Anastasis, returning once more to his visions, muses to himself that his dream, too, will soon fade into day...

And so the party makes its way to the Stilshrine. There's little enough to say about it; if you've seen one zombie-infested Galtean-era ruin, you've seen 'em all, or at least all the ones in this game. Only two things are worthy about it, which are: the Galtean architecture is distinctly recognizable, and the mid-boss is one fucked-up creature, being some sort of great metal construct covered in whirling blades and three tentacles with faces on the end of it. Even it's bestiary entry is best summed up as “WHAT THE SHIT EVEN IS THIS THING?”

At the bottom, a door bears an inscription for us: “DEY'S GONNA BE A BOSS IN HERE!”

Sure enough, what should lie at the bottom of the shrine but Mateus, the Corrupt! It and its bevy of ice elementals rush the party. Sorry, Mateus, but Espers are passe; I've already got one that'll put you right in your place: Adrammelech, the Wroth. With a few gigajoules of raw esper lightning pumped through Mateus' icy veins, we step through into the Vault of the Champion, where the blade rests beyond a series of pylons and within an array of spinning circles, all glowing with a blue light. As Ashe steps forward, the blue light flashes before extinguishing itself, and the blade, glowing with power, floats down and delivers itself into her hand.

Ashe grasps the hilt gingerly, enthralled by the relic, but the sheer weight of the thing slams it to the ground the moment she touches it. The party wonders if it can really destroy nethicite, and Vaan pipes up with the bright idea to try it on the Dawn Shard.

Everyone laughs and tells him what a fuck-up he is, and- wait, I'm sorry, they take this idea dead seriously and try it at once. As Ashe heaves the sword high above her head, Dawn Shard in place to receive its terrible thwacking, it begins pissing a bit of mist. It would seem the stone fears for its own existence, and a specter of Rasler appears to Ashe, shaking his head as if to say, “ARE YOU A FUCKING IDIOT OR SOMETHING?” Ashe thinks for a moment and slams the blade down... just to the side of the Dawn Shard. The ghostly Rasler smiles, and disappears to change its ghostly trousers. The stone's reaction seems confirmation enough of the sword's abilities, and we may as well keep the power of both.

Emerging from the Stilshrine, the Alexander and its entourage fly above, seeming to head away from Bur-Omisace. Judge Zargabaath, at its helm, shakes his head and remarks that “the Empire's debts grow legion.” The party sees a great plume of smoke rising from Bur-Omisace, and hurry back to find a tragedy. The Imperials did not retrieve Lord Larsa with a light touch, and, led by the bloodthirsty Bergan, slaughtered any who would stop them from occupying the temple itself. Though it would seem the Alexander has left, there are still a small number of troops left behind in the temple, where Anastasis attempts reason with them.

Hurrying inside, the party finds the cloister wrecked, with Gran Kiltias Anastasis sleeping the sleep of death at the feet of Judge Bergan.

It would seem he anticipated their search for the Sword of Kings, and demands they hand it over to him, for, “Too late and to their sorrow do those who misplace their trust in gods learn their fate.” Behind him, the same specter that seemed to have possessed Mjrn floats, its eyes gleaming in the black void. The Judge glows with a radiant power, and the party realizes that he is empowered by nethicite. Fran believes he is possessed as Mjrn was, but Bergan only laughs.

The power of this new nethicite, he says, is the power of mankind, and Vayne, wielding such power as the Dynast-King could never have hoped to, shall become the new, true Dynast-King where Raithwall could only beg scraps from the table of the gods who permitted his rule. With it, he shall place “the reigns of history back in the hands of man,” the first of many times we shall hear this phrase from now on.

With nethicite set into his very bones and some unknowable entity lingering in his mind, he is infused body and spirit with their incredible power. My God, Bergan, are those... mako eyes?! If we will not hand over the sword willingly, we must die, then.

BRING IT! Now, Bergan always kicked my ass in the past, so I say with not a little satisfaction that Vaan brought him down almost to death with a single lucky four-hit combo from his greatsword. And then the rest of the way. So there.

Bergan's death fixes little, though; Larsa is taken back home, and the Gran Kiltias is dead. It would seem some great power we have no knowledge of is at work, and even the great powers we do know have set their hands dead against us.

Al-Cid Margrace stumbles in with the help of his aid. It would seem Larsa went willingly with Judge Gabranth, to avoid causing just such a scene, yet after he was gone, Bergan flew into a frenzy and began striking down the Kiltias. Al-Cid was badly wounded in battle with Bergan himself, yet managed to flee for his life after he set his attention on Anastasis.

He pleads with Lady Ashe to return with him to Rozarria. His military favors a preemptive strike, and the Empire's actions have them all but ready to begin their campaign. Ashe's words could, if nothing else, ensure that his is not the country that starts this great war.

Ashe refuses, though; with the Sword of Kings in hand, she has a weapon that can nullify and destroy their greatest weapon, and if any bargain can be made, it is best done after the Dusk Shard is splintered at her own hand.

Margrace is skeptical, but Balthier has a good lead on where it might be: Draklor Laboratory, the seat of Archades' military research. It seems Balthier's intense hateboner for all things Draklor will keep him with us for at least a while longer, then. Al-Cid takes his leave, returning to his country to do what good he can. He wishes Ashe luck, and leaves us with some well-wishing from Larsa.

The whole Paramina section of the game might be the best the game gets. It's also the last part of this fucking game that makes any sense.

To be continued.
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Thomas

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Thomas » Mon Jun 23, 2014 11:44 am

Well Square Enix definitely didn't disappoint expectations when they first showed up their race of super-model bunny people in high heels and basically no clothes. I think they went about as far as they could whilst keeping it kid friendly. Practically mute, almost completely subservient to the man she follows around in touch with her 'feelings' and 'intuition' and all those other substitutes for 'is smart and has good ideas on her own merit.' We're kind of lucky she doesn't specialise in cooking and making babies.

I do love this section of the story, the politics of the judges was neat and in a game that wasn't wholly incompetent at communicating any of it's ideas in an interesting manner, Vayne would have been a really awesome villain. There was a lot of Seymour in him but something about the games delivery makes it so hard to connect with any of the people in it. I think some of it might be an art design thing, or just about how far away the camera normally is from the action. The only thing I can remember off hand about Vayne's appearance is his face, his clothes were always so busy or maybe it was the backgrounds that were always so busy. I always liked Lharsa too, and one of the things FFXII did do right is have these 4th members of the party constantly come and go.

How did you spot the part about the FMV? I never catch those kind of things =D

EDIT: Maybe it's the background thing, check out this sampling from the first page of google.
Here
And here
It's like he thinks he's solid Snake.
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Mon Jun 23, 2014 3:46 pm

Thomas wrote:I do love this section of the story, the politics of the judges was neat and in a game that wasn't wholly incompetent at communicating any of it's ideas in an interesting manner, Vayne would have been a really awesome villain. There was a lot of Seymour in him but something about the games delivery makes it so hard to connect with any of the people in it. I think some of it might be an art design thing, or just about how far away the camera normally is from the action. The only thing I can remember off hand about Vayne's appearance is his face, his clothes were always so busy or maybe it was the backgrounds that were always so busy. I always liked Lharsa too, and one of the things FFXII did do right is have these 4th members of the party constantly come and go.
The baffling part of the game is that the main cast is consistently the most poorly and inconsistently-characterized group in the game, and the antagonists are frequently the best. Vayne, Cidolfo, the Judges... Gabranth is the exception, but I'll get to that once we hit Ridorana.

The story of Vayne, Larsa, and the Judges, as well as the other side characters like Larsa, Vossler, Reddas, and especially Ondore, is that they seem to occupy a narrative that was written in isolation from that of the main party. The world of the Solidors is steeped in vendettas, power-plays, and ambition. Rozarria and the Resistance are constantly kept on a blindfolded high-wire act, trying to anticipate the movements of their enemies while any mis-step will mean falling.

Meanwhile, the main cast doesn't seem to have much motivation. The two leaders, and I will defend this statement if I need to, are Balthier and Ashe. They're the most wrapped up in the larger events of the world, and they have the most on the line as far as wrangling with the game's themes of power, rule, revenge, obsession, etc. They're also the two characters who are self-motivated, rather than following along with someone else, like the other four cast members. Vaan has all the makings of this type of character, except that he never commits to any sort of self-motivated course of action. The protagonists walk along this rich backdrop while taking no active part in it, mainly just doing their best to stay out of the larger narrative's hair. The only two times they seem to have any effect on the actual plot is in drawing the 8th Fleet to Jagd Yensa, where their destruction motivates the next sequence of the plot, and the endgame, where they swoop in to resolve the tension established by everyone but the main party.

As for recognizing fine details, it's a combination of: having played the game three or four times now; writing extensively about it, and therefore thinking a lot more critically about it than normal; and, for cutscenes, watching them over and over as I attempt to transcribe them in prose. I have a feeling that Mount Bur-Omisace was originally situated in or next to Golmore, possibly bordering the Feywood, but I don't have much of anything to back that up. The oddness of the location's proximity is sometimes attributed to mist climate, which is stated in-game (in a secondary bestiary entry, of course) to affect weather and climate in strange ways. But of course, that's a total fig leaf.

And I stand by my stance that Vayne is a dead ringer for Pete Burns of Dead or Alive. Behold:

Image
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Mon Jun 23, 2014 6:23 pm

PART 6: A Saucerful of Secrets

We, the heroes, have a loooooong walk ahead of us. Yes, while great Yensan Sandsea before the Tomb of Raithwall consisted of the Ogir-Yensa and Nam-Yensa, the road to Archades' capital will see us depart from Nalbina Fortress through the Mosphoran Highwaste, the Salikawood, the Phon Coast, the Tchita Uplands, and the Sochen Cave Palace, with detours through the Nabreus Deadlands and the Necrohol of Nabudis itself if I feel like a badass, and I always feel like a badass.

After moving so very quickly for most of the game, the pace slows to a near crawl around this point. Know merely that a daunting length of time passed between that last paragraph and this next one; nothing of any note happens, save for one small but significant scene at a small camp in Phon Coast.

As the party stops for a short rest on the white-sand beach, Balthier stops to needle Ashe about her motives. She tells him that she's set on destroying the Imperial nethicite, but he isn't convinced. Rather, he thinks she's of a mind to take it as her own. After all, she could certainly rationalize it as helping out Dalmasca, road to hell paved with etc., etc...

She takes offense at his mocking tone, but he has a cautionary tale to share: about a man who came to love nethicite, babbling to himself about its majesty; who began to believe in some entity named 'Venat' whom no one else knew; who built a multitude of weapons and airships of greater and greater power in the name of researching the stone; who pushed Balthier into becoming a judge.

Ashe is shocked at that last point, but Balthier brushes her off. He speaks, of course, of Cidolfo Demen Bunansa: Dr. Cid, of Draklor Lab, Balthier's father. Le gasp! He begs her not to walk that same path. It was Cid's descent into slavery to the stone that drove him to run from life in Archadia, seeking freedom as a sky pirate. Yet it isn't lost on him how fate never let him out of its sight: he ran after a stone that turned out to be nethicite, got locked in with Ashe, and is now on his way back to Archades to confront his father about the stone itself.

Ashe spends a moment to reminisce, too, about a moment during her engagement to Rasler, standing on a high balcony of Rabanastre's palace with him. The marriage of Ashe to a Nabradian prince was seen as a marriage of convenience, useful for the political tie between the two nations. But they did dearly love each other, and, despite the sometimes-tiresome roles they had to play, each would rather be with no one but the other.

Back in the present, Balthier tells her she's too strong to become a tool of the stone like his father had been. She can only hope he is right.

Hey Balthier, would you consider a personal revelation about responsibility and not running from the past or fate or whatever as more valuable than a certain ring? No...? Oh well.

After two more areas and a couple of random bosses, we come to- oh. Oh no.

UUUUUUUuuuuuuuugggggggghhhhhhh. Archades.

This fucking town.

Archades. Everything about Archades sucks. Everything. To make it through the place, you have to engage in a very long, extremely pointless quest that consists of running through every zone talking to every NPC about four or five times each. Even if you use a guide to tell you exactly how to get through this quest, IT STILL TAKES THREE TIMES LONGER THAN IT SHOULD. Archades has way too much brown in what would otherwise be a very pretty place (in a game that's otherwise beautiful), and the music is no real consolation either (in a game that otherwise has fan-fucking-tastic music).

I know they're trying to give the player a break from combat and running through the wilderness, but this is like taking a break from a long drive by sorting through the gum under the tables of a truck stop diner, picking them up in a particular order, then eating them in turn. And why do we do this?

Well, the first time, to start a fight, to distract some guards, to slip by the wide, open pathway they were guarding. We absolutely could not do this by bribing one of the starving, desperate lowlifes of the lower city to punch one of the guards and then run off. Hell, we couldn't even bribe the GUARDS. But of course not; I'm sure they're paid so handsomely and respected by everyone they meet. We couldn't, I don't know, cast a silence spell on the pair of them and visit the kind of suffering on them that legends are written about.

No, from here until Draklor we're operating on Adventure Game Logic. Our mission now is to take a cab. Oh! Well that's actually simple. Except, we have to have a special seal that marks us as a big shot before he'll take us to the nice part of town. How much are cab drivers paid again? What would a suitable bribe be? Is it less than half a million gil? Because I've got about that much, and I would pay EVERY FUCKING PENNY to skip this shit. Oh, they tell us: without a chop, it's a million fucking gil. Can I buy a bike, too, you fucking prick? In order to get the sandalwood chop we need, we need a bunch of pine chops to trade up for it. How does one get pine chops? Like a fucking boy scout getting a handful of goddamn merit badges, that's how.

If you're waiting for me to explain why it makes sense that we need to collect fucking thank-you cards to Horadric Cube them into a bus pass, well you're in the same boat as me because I waited for the fucking game to tell me and it never goddamn did. Doing so will not be quick, and it will not be fun. Nooooo, sir, not either, and not by a long shot.

Essentially, there are a bunch of NPC's with problems, the likes of which are so mundane and uninteresting that I would not dare document them, for fear that I would age several years in the few moments it took to type them. And corresponding with each one is someone who can solve that problem, whom you must find for them. You can only 'hold' one problem at a time, though, because Vaan stood in the sun too often as a kid and his brain has gone a bit soft; you cannot just jot them all down in your notebook, and then find all the people you need in a sweep. No, you must track down Nameless, Faceless NPC With a Problem #1, bug every NPC in Archades until you find their corresponding NPC, receive pine chop in reward, then track down Nameless, Faceless NPC With a Problem #2, etc. etc. until your blood pressure prevents you from seeing the screen properly.

And the most insulting part of it is that through all of it we get information from someone who practically tells us outright, the very first time we meet him, that he plans on selling us out, because he knows Balthier and can get a ton of money from ratting all of us out. This honestly might be my least favorite part of the entire game to play through, and that's saying a whole goddamn lot.

Except.

Except that you actually CAN pay your way out of this quest; it's just really obtuse. Walk into any shop, and upstairs there's a bloke called the chopmaster, who normally doesn't do anything except trade your pine chops for the fancy sandalwood chop. Talk to him, tell him you don't need anything, and talk to him AGAIN and he'll give a long spiel about weeeelllll it's not really allowed BUT I could sell you a pine chop for 20,000. You need twenty-eight of them. And for every one, you have to talk to him twice, wait through his overlong dialogue, and shell out a total of 560,000 gil. And it's still totally, completely worth it.

Oh, and when you get to the central district after all that work? Balthier's already there, after having left your ass as soon as you got into the city, that smug prick. And you know what he tells us? He gave that shady streatear type chops enough for us to get up to Central, and the fucking lowlife cheat pocketed them while we humped the turf bothering assholes in the crowd. All so he could get a leg up in Central and make life difficult for us: by the time we get up there, a heavy guard's been posted on the route to Draklor, and we can't get in without agreeing with fucking Pazuzu here to get dirt on the lab for him to sell. God damned if I am ever seeing that horse's ass again.

Moving. Swiftly. Onward.

We do, at least, have a ride to Draklor lined up. Upon arriving, it seems that the place isn't quite so heavily guarded as we thought; everything's a bit quiet. Turning into the next hall, the reason for this becomes apparent: everyone's dead already. Well that was easy! Our destination is on the top floor, but getting there isn't exactly simple, of course. I mean, just once I'd like to visit an eight story building in a game and not have to turn out every broom closet to get where I was going. Just once...

In keeping with the theme of Archades, Draklor fucking sucks. Every floor is a maze, with two sets of doors throughout: red doors and blue doors. When one set is open, the other is closed. You see where I'm going with this. Getting through requires running blindly around looking for switches to flip that might open the set of doors we need to make it to the next switch, until we run across a keycard or whatever. All the enemies are either boring Imperials or oddballs taken from other areas. Of all things, rats make their first and last reappearance. It is an empty timesink and typing this out took twice as much mental effort, despite defying any attempt to inspire wit or observation. Seriously, alternating, mutually-exclusive sets of doors? People work here! Who would do this?! What if there's a fire?!?

So it is with great pleasure that I introduce a new face. As we arrive at the top floor, a man with dark skin, white hair, and wielding two curved blades (no it's not Drizz't) ambushes Basch and nearly knocks his teeth right in, but after a quick standoff, he apologizes, realizing we aren't with the Imperials. Yes, it seems like the other intruding force was just this fellow. Before introductions can be made, Cid's taunting voice draws him up the stairs to the landing pad.

At the top, we come face to face with the man himself. Let me say right now: I fucking love Cid. He's eternally bombastic, delightfully mad, irrepressibly energetic, his voice acting is top-notch, and he makes for a fun fight. He stands atop the dock stairs, challenging the dark-skinned man, but Balthier cuts in. They exchange some glib commentary as Balthier demands the Dusk Shard, but Cid brushes him off. Something unseen catches his interest, and he chats with the air for a bit. Recognizing Ashe, he challenges her to a fight- a test for the Dusk Shard! Two floating devices float down and hover around him, and he draws two rifles. An intense glow of energy blazes around him, the power of nethicite swirling around the mad scientist who pioneered it. The battle is joined!

Aaaaand it's over all too soon. Really, everything about fighting Cid is fun; his weapons are a joy to watch as they blast away at you, and his running commentary never fails to entertain. The sheer energy that goes into his performance is admirable. But at the end of the day no amount of fancy toys and glittery auras can save the old man from a well-placed knightsword, and he falls to his knees. Our guest with the two swords sees his chance, and leaps through the air to finish him once and for all, but the instant before the blow is struck, he is flung away like a leaf.

Cid takes a moment to thank 'Venat' (pronounced veh-NAH), and in the air beside him appears the spectral creature we spied with Mjrn and Bergan. So maybe the mad scientist isn't quite so mad as he is well-acquainted! Balthier is dumbfounded to see that the 'Venat' he had heard of so often years ago actually existed. He taunts Ashe, bearing the Dusk Shard in one hand and the Midlight Shard in the other. How far will she go for the stones? He knows just how tempting they can be better than anyone, and he casually suggests she head to someplace called 'Giruvegan.' After all, he teases, she just might get a NEW stone there. She calls his ruse as he steps toward a small airship, but he seems not to hear, musing to himself those fateful words: “The reins of history, back in the hands of man.” Remembering where he is, he laughs, and announces that he himself is headed to Giruvegan, so if they want to chat anymore they'll just have to chase him down.

After he flies off, our mysterious guest introduces himself as Reddas, a sky pirate, and the scene fades to Ondore's narration once more.

With the Senate purged and dissolved, Vayne holds absolute power, and the military couldn't have been more pleased to have Vayne in command of the inevitable counterattack against Rozarria. Meanwhile, the Resistance, led by Ondore, musters its forces at the borders of Archadian airspace. All the tinder is in place, just waiting for the match.

Ondore stands at the helm of his flagship, the Garland, directing his forces in mock sorties, training for the inevitable. Meanwhile, they track Reddas moving away from Imperial airspace to the port at Balfonheim, apparently with Ashe and the gang in tow. It seems Reddas was trying to pilfer the nethicite from Cid, but I guess we know how that worked out. We get to hear Curly speak! Oh Curly, it's been too long. Why didn't the sequel about you and Supinelu ever emerge? It seems he's confident in the Resistance's ability to go toe-to-toe with the Imperials, and if Curly believes it, then by God that's good enough for me.

At Balfonheim, Ashe finds the port not to her taste; she doesn't like the idea of a city that funds the Resistance without fighting for it, because she's a fucking child that still doesn't understand a goddamn thing about politics. Reddas lets on as much as gently as possible, and she asks if Ondore really is set on war. Lady, I don't really think Ondore has much of a choice at this point. In any case, Reddas points out that it isn't exactly secret by now that his actions got her sprung from the Leviathan, and it won't be long before he has to make a stand on the Empire in some official capacity. Quite frankly, it's amazing this hasn't happened already, what with his leading an airship fleet capable of fighting the Empire just outside their airspace.

We have a short flashback to Reddas meeting with Ondore himself. Ondore is optimistic, thinking that having such a strong fleet might make even Vayne turn to negotiations, but Reddas doesn't believe it's possible as long as Vayne controls the nethicite. All the more reason, Ondore says, for Reddas to try his infiltration plan; with the nethicite in Ondore's hands, the tables would be turned rather completely.

Reddas puts the hammer down: just because he might steal the Midlight Shard doesn't mean he would turn it over to Ondore, or anyone for that matter! Ondore seems upset with Reddas refusal; without the Stone's power, the Resistance will be forced to ally with Rozarria for aid.

Back in the present, the party realizes that this is just what Vayne wants: draw all his enemies to one place, then annihilate them in one stroke with the nethicite, which no force could resist. Balthier makes a good point, though: manufacted nethicite is one thing, but Cid has both the legendary stones with him, and he's not in Archadia at the moment. It seems we'll be setting out to chase him after all.

Fran rouses from her stupor for a moment and starts reading from the Wikipedia page for Giruvegan. It seems it's set somewhere rich in mist, and Reddas thinks it must be the Feywood, in the Jagd Difohr. Considering that Cid spent a good six years disappeared in the Jagd Difohr and returned a changed man with a spectral acquaintance, it seems a good bet.

Everyone runs out except Balthier and Ashe, and the former asks if Reddas might be tagging along; no such luck, as he has another lead to look into. Vaan pokes his head in and tells them to pack their shit and hurry the fuck up. Reddas tells him to let the adults talk and go talk to his cronies, since he had them check up on the Feywood for him. (Already? Reddas already knew where Giruvegan was? Not impossible, but still.) Reddas teases Balthier about Vaan being 'his apprentice,' damaging Balthier's ego irreparably in the process. I like this guy already!

Balthier staggers off to nurse his terrible wound, and before Ashe can leave, Reddas confronts her. He isn't happy hearing about the possibility of more nethicite coming from Giruvegan, and wants to hear her opinion on using the stuff. She's troubled; she knows she needs its power to fight Vayne, yet she's seen how terrible its use can be. Reddas doesn't think she really has, though. He tells her that any discussion of nethicite begins and ends with Nabudis, and the conversation is over.

There are indeed a few of Reddas' special needs pirates with the lowdown on the Feywood awaiting Vaan outside. Well, that does them a bit too much credit; they tell us it's south of Golmore and is rich in mist, which I already knew from the previous conversation and, in fact, from having already been there to farm monster parts. They do mention some sort of trial, the passing of which is necessary to reach Giruvegan beyond, and indeed, there was a path I couldn't traverse before.

Running on out to the Feywood, and the path, previously blocked by a thick current of rushing mist (mist can do anything, shut up), clears up at Ashe's approach as the mist dissipates with a final howl. On cue, Rasler appears and wanders deeper into the snowy wood, beckoning her further.

He could have at least warned us about the boss fight in the next area, the spooky Nabradian git. Thanks to the multitude of status effects at its disposal it managed to annoy me a bit despite my overpoweredness. So! That must have been the trial of the Feywood, which means Giruvegan lies just ahead.

Or not. Turns out the boss was just some overgrown plant; the actual trial of the Feywood is just beyond. Several shrines lie in a snowy field, shaped more or less like gazebos. Standing in the middle, one exit will show an illusory image of a verdant paradise rather than the desolate landscape without, and heading straight out in that direction will lead to another shrine, repeat until you are led right out of the area and to the next. Trying to proceed without using the shrines will result in the old Lost Woods standard of returning you to the entrance of the zone you were in.

Here's what gets me: at the end of the next area, the real trick of entering Giruvegan is a gate that will only open if Belias is summoned and present. That's pretty clever, and, during my first playthrough of this game, was the only time any Esper ever got let out of its pokeball, but what the fuck was the point of the elementary-school shrine puzzle?! In what world is someone capable of besting and commanding a fucking gigas but incapable of solving the most rudimentary riddles presentable, with no penalty for failure? Was that built expressly to troll non-heirs of Raithwall? Could we have shown our Gigas-pass at the gate of the park and be let right in without the wait?

How the fuck did Doctor Cid get through, anyway? Balthier claimed he was missing in the Jagd Difohr for six years, was most of that spent knocking very patiently until Venat got fed the fuck up with the clamor?

Once it's opened by the gigas' presence, the gate to Giruvegan leads... nowhere, it seems. We find ourselves on a high causeway floating in an endless pool of water as clear and still as glass. Fog blocks line of sight beyond any significant distance, but the high domes and spires of a great city stretching from horizon to horizon is visible far beyond the end of the path, sitting out on the water's surface.

Fran remarks on the extreme mist floating around, and Penelo worries that she might flip her shit like back on the Leviathan. Of course, she assures us that that was a one-use plot device, and will never come up again. (She's right.) Balthier seems determined to lie in wait for Cid, believing he hasn't arrived yet. I don't know, Balthier, do you really think we outran the guy who knew exactly how to get here, and took an airship here, while we fucked around getting directions from pirates and hiking here on foot (after hunting marks for a month or two)?

Anyway, Balthier is more concerned about what might happen if they press on than about Cid; he was the only man ever known to travel here and return, and it twisted him up like a corkscrew. Luckily for the plot, Ashe has the big dick of the party, and no one gives a shit what Balthier says; Ashe sets off after yet another vision of Rasler, and Vaan encourages the party to follow.

They do, but Vaan makes the curious mistake of saying “She sees him,” to explain her rationale. No one but him should have any idea that Ashe is seeing dead people, nor should he really let on that she is. No one makes any comment, though, so they've probably long accepted Ashe is batshit and long ago resigned themselves to their servitude of the crazy bitch. Either that or no one pays any attention to what Vaan says, which is where I've put my money.

It looks like the angry hedge back in the woods wasn't enough of a test for whoever oversees this place, so another (easier) boss battle takes place, and the way is open to... oh. Ooooohhhh NOOOOOOOOOOO!

NOT THIS FUCKING PLACE!!

I'll level with you, I took a looooong break before gathering the strength to tackle this next segment. It's an incredible setpiece, and would be very interesting and awesome to see but for the fact that it's a god damn chore to play through: the Great Crystal.

See, we aren't going to get to see that mysterious, foggy city just beyond our reach. No, the only way forward is a teleporter to some sort of immense cylindrical cavern, slowly working our way across stone terraces and hard-light platforms spiraling a long, loooooong way downward, eventually encircling a shimmering orange crystal of titanic proportions. We're talking a literal mountain-sized crystal, over a kilometer in height, and that's our destination.

Eventually, we reach the third terrace, and another set of green, hard-light platforms reaches out toward the crystal, with another boss fight at the end waiting to be curbstomped. With that out of the way, well, here we are, folks. The Great Crystal itself. Whistle through your teeth at it, take pictures. What? No, I didn't mean GETTING to the crystal was our destination; it's the next dungeon.

Yes, the crystal itself comprises a massive area, honeycombed with dozens of identical platforms crawling with difficult enemies. Progression relies on a number of mild gate-unlocking puzzles. There is no place to resupply, and if you ever have business here, the closest way in our out is the gate crystal waaaaay back at the entrance just after the Feywood. There is no map.

THERE. IS. NO. FUCKING. MAP.

I swear to god, this fucking game.

I'm convinced that after Final Fantasy X, some very proud game designer overheard someone suggest, “Spheres are great and all, but I wish we went back to crystals,” and just absolutely lost his fucking sanity. “Crystals?! You want... CRYSTALS, do you?!” he cried, tearing his shirt and hopping up and down. “I'LL GIVE YOU SO MANY CRYSTALS YOU SHIT THEM IN YOUR SLEEP! From stones to halcyons, we'll have magicite crystals, and nethicite crystals, and skystones and memstones and gate crystals and save crystals.” At this point the cafeteria was evacuated as he began scratching plans in the tile with a fork and drinking soy by the pint. “We'll have a Sun-Cryst, and a special crystal for every time of the day! Maybe some for meals and holidays! We'll have crystal enemies, and a... crystal... DUNGEON...” he finished, as his eyes widened and a terrible clarity consumed him whole.

Luckily, most of the ire I reserve for the area stems from the many, MANY side-quests that lead to this place; the only mandatory trip here is fairly linear, for whatever that's worth when every room leads to an identical room with numerous exits and no stated goal or direction.

The party works its way downward. At the bottom- which we better fucking hope is our goal, since no one actually has any god damn clue- an immense sphere seems to have formed in the surrounding crystal lattice, and dense mist pours out of it like a gale. The party seems certain it is nethicite. In fact, the entire Great Crystal may be nethicite, for all we know. Penelo worries once more that Fran might go Jason Voorhees on us, but she reiterates, “WHAT PART OF ONE-USE GIMMICK DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND,” and the party turns its attention to Ashe, who is salivating openly at the sight of the nethicite. Fran very sarcastically notes that it would be enough nethicite for Ashe to bomb the entire planet to zombie-gnawed cinders, doing her part for once in the party's eternal quest to constantly guilt-trip Ashe for wanting nethicite yet working tirelessly to help her obtain it.

We step through one last tele-pedestal, and arrive in... a building, I guess? It has the architecture of the terrace-steps, but is enclosed. Maybe we're in the city itself. But no time to worry about it; it's an ambush! A bizarre, misshapen creature flies at us in a rage; it's Shemhazai, the Whisperer!

Look, ma'am, no offense but I am so far beyond you that you might as well give up and spare us both the embarrassment. I've already fought an esper that was slightly easier than cutting out my own wisdom teeth with a soup can lid: Chaos, Walker of the Wheel, and he's just itching to meet you.

One humiliating boss battle later, Shemhazai is mine to command, and the last of waaay too many bosses needed to get an audience with the residents of Giruvegan. I mean, I assume this is one of those whole, “Destiny foresaw you would come someday,” type deals, so am I really proving my worth, or am I just jerking off some lonely dungeon designer the other Occuria don't talk to?

What's an Occuria? Well, we're about to find out. The party touches one final waystone, and Ashe finds herself alone, floating on a tiny round platform high, high above Giruvegan, the city visible below: dozens of walled, circular districts sitting here and there on the glass-still surface of the water, from horizon to horizon, connected by serpentine highways. Another layer of the same layout floats above the clouds, as high above Ashe as she is above the water, with small floating structures dotting the sky midway between the two.

Ashe can't believe the sight, but a mystic voice greets her with that most angelic of catchphrases, “Be not afraid.” A being of the same sort as Venat materializes, and in an androgynous iambic tetrameter, lays out a gameplan for the princess. Ashe really is the chosen one, and Cid wasn't lying: they really do want to give her new nethicite to forge a new Ivalice however she sees fit. But nethicite is a sort of self-serve deal: the Dynast-King's three stones were just tiny shards of a massive hunk of nethicite made for the purpose, the Sun-Cryst.

Ashe can do little more than stammer out her amazement, so the Occuria- called Gerun- presses on. Ages and ages ago, the Occuria thought they might give a little firm guidance to human affairs by granting power to a worthy hume: the Dynast-King, of course. That turned out rather well for about a thousand years, but Ivalice has gone to shit without their influence and they think Ashe is just the lady to succeed her great ancestor. To symbolize the new treaty, they grant her a sword that marks her as the new Dynast-Queen, a symbol of the Occuria's favor and, conveniently enough, a blade able to cut new nethicite shards from the Sun-Cryst.

Oh, and take care of Venat while you're rebuilding your shitsack world. Ashe is confused on that point; she points out that Venat is an Occuria, like them, and the representative speaks in a voice that shakes the platform: Venat is basically the lovechild of Satan and Prometheus. A whole slew of Occuria, of various shapes and colors, materialize around Ashe. Gerun firmly explains that nethicite isn't the sort of thing you want just anyone to have, as evidenced by their not seeing fit to give it out more than once every thousand or more years, and then only to a single person recognized expressly worthy of its use. Venat ran off and started giving its blueprints to madmen, to be used by the most ambitious and ruthless would-be tyrant alive in the world. Part of Ashe's duties in building a better Ivalice, naturally, is to knock off the renegade angel and any trace of knowledge pertaining to the manufacture of more nethicite.

So, that's that: Ashe is Heaven's first-draft pick to clear up all this political bullshit that's been going down and usher in a new thousand-year golden age of Ivalician unity and prosperity, and we've got the tools to do it: nethicite in as little or great an amount as we so choose, a means to destroy that nethicite if we deem it too dangerous or no longer worth keeping around, and a mandate no one on the planet can talk back to! Quick, ask them how to use nethicite in a manner other than “nuke mode!”

Instead of asking how to use nethicite, which I might point out we STILL DON'T KNOW, Ashe gets cold feet instead, choosing the worst possible time to treat the idea of making war on the Empire- a wish she's borne with an almost sexual desire up to this point- with a sudden distaste. The Occuria, with a mix of authority and incredulity, calmly explains that, as immortal, omniscient beings, they've had to step in and stop humanity from destroying itself more times than they care to remember throughout history, more or less as a hobby. Appointing a human champion to take care of these things is just their way of giving history a little nudge in the right direction every now and then. The Occuria, figuring taunting might work where HAVING A FUCKING BRAIN IN YOUR SKULL has clearly failed, conjures up the illusion of Rasler, placing his hand on the Treaty-Blades hilt to guide her, and tells her to avenge her kingdom and claim her birthright.

Ashe's baser impulses sufficiently appealed to, she reluctantly grasps the blade, and a quick flash of light later the Occuria are gone, with the rest of the party filing in around her in their place. They seem to have heard the conversation, despite being unable to take part in it. Vaan is immediately suspicious of their authority by virtue of being a shithead teenager, but no one pays any attention. Basch, though, doesn't trust the Occuria one bit, suddenly believing very firmly that mankind shouldn't take orders from beings beyond their comprehension and orders of magnitude beyond them in experience, wisdom and power. Furthermore, he thinks destroying the Empire outright might be going a bit too far.

I hasten to point out that they don't have to do that; they just have to defeat their military, which they should easily be able to do now. In fact, the Occuria will likely be pleased as long as Venat is dealt with and no more nethicite is being made by humans, with anything beyond that left up to Ashe's volition.

But no, everyone immediately determines that the Occuria are shady no-goodniks, despite their previous interactions of this nature resulting in the greatest golden age the world ever experienced.

Penelo points out that we came here expecting to find Cid, but Balthier sardonically states what the audience likely figured out back at Draklor: he never intended to come here; he was just baiting us into coming ourselves, certainly to facilitate this very meeting.

What's more mysterious is his motive for doing so. Cid is 100% behind Vayne and his ambitions, and just led his worst enemies into ludicrous power. He conjectures that the good doctor might just want to see what happens when you give nethicite to two sides of a war, but that seems more Larsa's style than Cid's. More than anything, Balthier just seems dazed and upset that his father really had been chatting up a real-live Occuria all those years, after he had come to terms with his father simply being looney tunes and a total asshole. Ashe decides we might as well seek out the Sun-Cryst before deciding a course of action, essentially pleading “just the tip!” to the nay-sayers in the party. I'm on to you, princess! And I'm not the only one.

The scene skips over to Archades, as the brothers Solidor converse. Judge Gabranth looks on as Larsa pleads with Vayne to bury the hatchet with Dalmasca and let Ashe take her throne back; he seems to think it's the best way to settle down the Resistance and the Rozarrians, a grand gesture to avert the looming war. Vayne is pessimistic, pointing out that Ashe herself wants the war as much as anyone. Which, I mean, is totally a fair assessment. Larsa argues that she wouldn't care to war with them if she already had her throne back, but they break down to a short squabble. Vayne gets a light bulb, and, likely as a way to end the discussion more than anything, tells Gabranth to find the woman herself and just ask the crazy bitch if she wants to rumble or not.

Well that's certainly straightforward. Gabranth wants to know if he should go ahead and shishkebab her if the 8-Ball turns up “War,” but Larsa simply states that it won't come to that and sends him on his way. I'd tell Larsa this is a fine fucking time for a hefty, one-time bonus to find its way to Gabranth with Larsa's name on the receipt if he wants to get this question settled the quick and easy way, but Vayne's plan- sending a dangerous warrior to your worst enemy, to ask them if they wanna go- is so likely to end in a tragic misunderstanding that Larsa probably took a big step towards becoming a man the moment he heard it. The little lord excuses himself to sort through the strange mix of feelings that come from witnessing a troll more masterful than himself.

Cid, who until this point has been twitching and muttering to himself like a collected, reasonable individual in the background, struts up to Vayne and remarks how unlikely it is that such a sweet kid could be the brother of such a sinister asshole. Vayne takes this as a compliment, but while he is ruthless, it seems he isn't remorseless; he admires his brother's nobility, naïve though it may be.

Cid gets a message from Venat, and is happy to report that Ashe has “taken the bait.” Vayne, too, seems to be counting on the party having their meeting with the Occuria, though they don't yet tip their hand to the audience as to why. Cid takes a moment to gloat, trivializing the Occuria and their nethicite. Vayne isn't amused, though; as he says, they had to “conquer two kingdoms so he could study those 'baubles.'” But Cid brushes him off, thinking his work with manufacted nethicite well worth it. He calls upon Venat to stroke his ego further, and she complies, appearing personally to praise his work and the incredible speed with which he undertook it. Cid points out that humans don't have thousands of years to spend on their pet projects like the Occuria, and Vayne agrees; if they had time to piss away, Vayne would rather not have spent it starting wars and building superweapons. Cid tells him to cheer the fuck up: taking the reins of history back (in the hands of man!) from the Occuria was never going to be easy. Venat concurs, mocking the idea of Gerun and the others appointing themselves curators of the world's events.

(This is about as close we get to a motivation for Venat; it seems that everything it does simply is to rebel and spite the other Occuria. Whether or not he actually cares about humanity or just wants to service his epic beef is an open question, but I know where my money lies...)

Vayne can only hope their optimism isn't unfounded, though; he's more than ready for all the bloodshed and destruction he's responsible for to start paying their long-overdue dividends.

To be continued.
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newdarkcloud

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by newdarkcloud » Mon Jun 23, 2014 9:30 pm

Even as someone who played the living hell of the FF12. (I liked it's story, but thought it played boringly.) I don't really have much to add to this besides my wish that you keep it up.

That said, there is one thing I learned and though might be interesting. In the original script, Vaan wasn't intended to be the viewpoint character. Basch was the original viewpoint character. However, SE didn't think that a gruff man in his late-30s would appeal to the Japanese market, so Vaan (and Penelo by extension) where created to appease that market. I can only imagine Fran serves a similar purpose, but I can't be sure.
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Mon Jun 23, 2014 11:23 pm

newdarkcloud wrote:In the original script, Vaan wasn't intended to be the viewpoint character. Basch was the original viewpoint character. However, SE didn't think that a gruff man in his late-30s would appeal to the Japanese market, so Vaan (and Penelo by extension) where created to appease that market. I can only imagine Fran serves a similar purpose, but I can't be sure.
You are correct indeed. I'm certain I bring this up at some point further on, but if I don't, I'll have to add it in. I have a lot to say, once things are said and done, about the arcs of the primary characters and how the tumultuous development- to include the switching of the viewpoint character- may have hampered their realization.

But really, saying Vaan is the main character, or even the 'viewpoint character,' is disingenuous, like saying Locke is the main character of FFVI would be. Ashe is the protagonist, tried and true, and the only other character who could come close to reaching this status is Balthier- whom I was certain had, like Basch, been considered the protagonist at some point in development, but damned if I can find any proof of that now. The fact that Ashe gets shorted in favor of Vaan in the popular conception of the game's cast really sticks in my craw, and it hurt all the more when people started making a big deal of FFXIII having a female protagonist. Especially when people claimed she was the first leading lady of the series.

As for FFXII, though, it all comes down to who they analog. Star Wars references in Final Fantasy are old hat by this point, but in FFXII they become creepily reliable, to the extent that major plot points can be directly mirrored and each of the six main characters has a direct thematic counterpart: Ashe and Basch are Luke and Leia (respectively!), Balthier and Fran are Han and Chewie, Vaan and Penelo are Threepio and Artoo, Gabranth is Darth Vader, Ba'Gamnan is Boba Fett (and meets his end (?) by falling into a sandtrap, no less), and Ghis is Moff Tarkin. Reddas and Vossler sort of share the role of Lando. Cid and Vayne are two of the only characters who don't seem to have an obvious counterpart; Vayne is the Emperor, but he's not that Emperor, and there's no character like Cidolfo in Star Wars, because that would make Star Wars too good.
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Thomas

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by Thomas » Tue Jun 24, 2014 12:32 am

The Rocketeer wrote: We do, at least, have a ride to Draklor lined up. Upon arriving, it seems that the place isn't quite so heavily guarded as we thought; everything's a bit quiet. Turning into the next hall, the reason for this becomes apparent: everyone's dead already. Well that was easy! Our destination is on the top floor, but getting there isn't exactly simple, of course. I mean, just once I'd like to visit an eight story building in a game and not have to turn out every broom closet to get where I was going. Just once...
So you go into your eight story building and then walk up the eight flights of stairs in the main staircase and voila, you're at the top? Madness!
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The Rocketeer

Re: Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Ma

Post by The Rocketeer » Tue Jun 24, 2014 7:52 am

PART 7: Black Hole Sun-Cryst

Back in Giruvegan, the party is back in the room where they fought Shemhazai; the gate to the floating platform is forever closed now. Too bad, since we, you know, STILL DON'T KNOW HOW TO USE NETHICITE. I'm serious, even if we're content with just using it as a blunt-force nuke crystal, how do we even do THAT? Do we throw it like a grenade? I can see some issues with that regarding the blast radius. Are there magic words? A dance, perhaps? At this point our only method of deploying nethicite as a weapon is to load it into one of our own airship's engine drives and fly it into the enemy's lines as a kamikaze superbomb. I mean, that's not bad, but it only works once, and if we can use it as more of a deathray I think that would be a bit more efficient. I'm not hard to please.*

Another thing the Occuria neglected to mention is where to find the Sun-Cryst. I'm sure it slipped their minds. The party looks to Fran, to see if Gerun's flowery description stirred anything in the old travelogue, but she comes up empty. Aaawwww, and you were always such a vital help to us before.

Vaan remembers that Reddas had another lead he was pursuing, but Balthier is terrified that if we spend any time around a real sky pirate we'll realize what a total poser he is. The party bravely ignores his bitching and retraces their steps back to Balfonheim Port.

Getting back to Reddas, we find him in the middle of organizing a rescue effort; the fleet he sent to Ridorana ran afoul of bad seas and foundered. Reddas guessed that Cid likely wouldn't be found at Giruvegan, but we certainly didn't come back empty handed; after filling him in, he decides at once that the Occuria are our bullshit to worry over, and he's better off not knowing about them. Smart man! The party figures now that Cid may be trying to goad them into leading him to the Sun-Cryst. What's more, Fran states that if we struck the Sun-Cryst with the Sword of Kings, it would not only destroy it but make the stones already cut from it useless.

Whoooaaa, now, ma'am, where are you getting that idea? The shards work from the mist they gather within them; they don't channel it from the Sun-Cryst. Do they need to be in 'contact' with the Sun-Cryst to unleash that energy? Should we have asked how nethicite works, maybe? In any case, we conjecture that if the Sun-Cryst and the nethicite cut from it were destroyed or depowered, the manufacted nethicite of the Empire would still function just fine, which would leave Archadia with all the best toys and no competition.

So it seems that either way, we need to find the Sun-Cryst, and after that we decide which legendary blade to use on it: carve a new stone or ten with the Treaty-Blade, or shatter it with the Sword of Kings. Reddas, of course, opposes the idea of using or making nethicite, but harming the Sun-Cryst would basically hand ourselves and Ivalice to Vayne on a platter, not to mention it would be spitting in the face of what may or may not be the gods themselves. (Guess which one we go with!)

Reddas seems to have a line on its location, too; the information he saw while raiding Draklor alluded to a place in the Naldoan Sea, in the region called Ridorana, where an ancient lighthouse stands. Sure enough, that's where the troubled fleet was sent to, and if anything assures us we're on the right path, it's disaster.

Of course, we can't sail there, it seems, and the seas are in jagd, so it seems we're in an impasse... except Reddas also stole one of those new-fangled skystones from Draklor that the Imperials have been using to fly in jagd, so we can refit the Strahl and fly there ourselves. Reddas even offers to go with us. Ashe wonders why Reddas is so interested in helping the party, to which he can only vaguely allude to some troubling memories of the disaster at Nabudis.

NO, Judge Zecht, we AREN'T going to indulge your pity-party by asking. Either just tell us or shut the fuck up about it already. But let me tell you, it's great to have him on board. If there's anything you feel like you need some extra muscle for, Reddas' stay in your party is a grand time to take care of it.

But let's indulge the only black man in Ivalice, shall we? Off to the Ridorana Cataract, set far to the east in the Naldoan Sea! “But Rocko,” I hear you say, “how can a cataract exist in the middle of the sea?” That's a very astute question, and if you come up with an answer, I'd sure as shit like to hear it. The Cataract appears to be none other than the edge of the entire goddamn world, ye-olde-pirat-mappe style, and indeed the high cliff spans from horizon to horizon north to south, with the sea pouring over it into the void, with nothing but an endless bank of clouds visible far below and stretching beyond sight ever eastward.

It's an outstanding visual setpiece, hampered only- yet significantly- by the fact that it makes not a buttfucking grain of sense. I keep wanting to fly the Strahl out past the edge and trying to get a good look at the immense tortoise upon which Ivalice so precariously rests. Really, what's stopping us? Common sense?

Our destination is an outcropping at the edge of the cataract on which sits the towering Pharos, with the blinding glare of what we know to be the Sun-Cryst gleaming from the very top. The mysterious Pharos was famously unreachable until now, due to the cataracts making the sea unnavigable and the powerful jagd mist making air travel impossible until the advent of nethicite skystone. Yes, that means that Reddas intentionally sent those lackeys of his out here on a suicide mission.

There's a large courtyard right in front of the Pharos that would be perfect for mooring our airship, but rather than land us there, or indeed, just flying to THE TOP OF THE FUCKING TOWER, Balthier sails to the opposite side of the island like a total prick to drop the party off. Perhaps it just seems like the proper thing for adventurers to do. Fran muses to herself at the sight of the Pharos, likely committing the environs to memory so as to never be caught without travelogue exposition again.

Reddas prods Ashe to make up her mind about the nethicite before they get to the top, to which she testily asks what he'd do if she chose to cut a cupboard full of nuke crystals. He replies only that she would do so “to her sorrow.” It doesn't come off as a threat when he says it, but really, would Reddas be content to just click his tongue disapprovingly if she went against his wishes? In her head, Ashe get's a wicked “I have altered the deal” ready just in case we have to throw down.

Off to the side, Balthier tells Vaan that if anything “happens” to him, Vaan should take the Strahl. Vaan is taken aback, but Balthier tries to play it cool, saying that, as the leading man, he might just have to do something heroic. It's sort of telling how he sounds almost self-deprecating this time around. I wouldn't be surprised if he finally figured out just how fucked up the casting in this game is, and is trying to save as much face as possible by insinuating himself as the “older mentor character who selectively withholds important information,” while hedging his bets if he should fall into “older mentor character who suffers tragic but motivational death.”

… You know I guess I'm not going to get a better chance to talk about Balthier, so I might as well go off on it now; once the Pharos wraps up, we're pretty much at the endgame. Actually, there's nothing of substance besides the final bosses after the Pharos, so this is essentially the final dungeon.

Without doubt, Balthier or Ashe should have been the main character of the game. I'd have preferred Ashe, given that she's essentially the Luke Skywalker of this plot, and the narrative centers pretty heavily around her character development, but the tantalizing thing about Balthier is that he, like Basch in turn, possibly was the protagonist for a while in development, which makes it all the more disappointing every time one of the numerous chances for Balthier's character to develop simply come and go without real comment.

The official line is that they wanted someone younger than Balthier as the main character. I contend that they could have simply made Balthier younger; it could have even worked better for his character. Balthier has three powerful things going for him, as far as candidacy for the top spot goes:

1: He's tied intimately to the narrative. The prime movers of the plot are Cid and Venat, neck and neck for first, and Vayne in a close third. Yes, Vayne is the most powerful and dangerous of the three, but he's merely carrying out the plan handed to him by Cid and Venat; all his canny navigation of Imperial politics and Archadian conquest is at the behest of his buddies Faust and Mephistopheles, to bring their plans to fruition through his methods. Venat is both the mind and power behind the three, providing them with the knowledge of nethicite and all the artifacts and lore they need to bring... whatever it is they're plotting to completion, and it is ultimately his agenda and his alone that Cid and Vayne have merely adopted, believing it to be their ideal course of action. Cid, meanwhile, is the fulcrum of the three, whose brilliance led him to Giruvegan and thus to Venat, and allowed him to both understand and perfect the making of nethicite, and thence all technologies derived from it; and whose lofty position in Imperial affairs granted him Vayne's confidence, thus making his tools and Venat's plans the chisel and blueprint of the Empire itself. Balthier, as Cid's son, is automatically invested intimately in the main arc due to his knowledge of his father's deeds and any suffering he see those deeds cause throughout the game. Balthier could always conceivably know just enough about nethicite or the Empire or whatever to keep him invested and the party pointed in the right direction, but not so much that he could blow the plot open at a whim. Of course, this ties closely into the fact that...

2: He's tied intimately to the themes: Balthier was born into a position of great luxury and power. With his father at the reigns of Archades' technology and a close friend of the Solidor dynasty, Balthier was a shoe-in to become a judge, which he was, for a short while... but he rejected it, of his own volition. Balthier witnessed firsthand the corrupting nature of power in his father, and he threw away his judgeship and fled the Empire for a life of freedom. His formative years practically amount to a crash course in the ethical questions of the game concerning the use of power and authority, and man's place in charting the course of history. We even see as much in the character he became, when he uses that background to try and give guidance to Ashe at the Phon Coast. In fact, he and Ashe would make excellent foils to one another, because...

3: Balthier is 'shaped' like a protagonist. I think, ideally, the game could have been helmed not by Balthier or Ashe but by both of them in tandem. Ashe is a moody, vengeance-obsessed princess who had her power taken from her by the Empire and has been trying to claw it back ever since. Balthier is a care-free Archadian ex-judge who threw away his title to free himself from political affairs and live a wild life on the lowest rung of society. They are practically distaff opposites to one another, yet circumstance throws them immediately together and never really lets go until they have good reason to remain with one another. Imagine, for a moment, that Vaan never existed. Yes, I know, it's an incredible feeling. If the game replaced the prologue with Reks at Nalbina- which was fairly useless and redundant, narrative-wise- with Ashe's assault on Vayne's fete at Rabanastre Palace, the game could merely switch over to Balthier and Fran once she gets in over her head. The pair slip in, grab the Goddess Magicite as they intended to do, and then get caught in the crossfire of the rebel assault, ending up in the sewers with Ashe as before. Really, the game could easily progress just the same without Vaan or Penelo. Plus, the audience knowing Balthier was a highborn-Imperial and ex-Judge from the start could easily be leveraged for dramatic tension as he keeps it concealed from the bloodthirsty Ashe, rather than just being a heavily-telegraphed admission at some point that ends up not having much effect one way or the other. Really, if the relationship between Balthier and Ashe could have been far more productive than Vaan and Ashe's with the same amount of leverage. Even the small bit of good development Vaan gets could apply just as well to Balthier instead; Vaan admits that his wanting to be a sky-pirate and fight the Empire was just so much hot air, a grand but empty gesture to keep him from despair without really meaning much of anything. Meanwhile, Balthier's whole bid at becoming a sky pirate never seems to pay off, either; he never steals a damn thing of value, and he admits that despite running away from Imperial politics and his father's mad machinations, he ends up running right back there anyway, having to face what he tried so hard to ignore. Vaan's little admission would seems right at home coming from Balthier's mouth. What's more, the primary duty of Ashe's foil (as far as the narrative is concerned, anyway) is to try and coax her away from the ruthless annihilation of the Empire that the Occuria offer her, warning her away from the seduction of their power. Tell me, who's best suited to this task: Vaan, who is possibly even more fixated on bloody Imperial vengeance than Ashe and never displays any sort of emotional maturity or ethical depth; Basch, who is a length of pine lumber; or Balthier, who saw someone close to him utterly corrupted by nethicite-slinging Occuria and willingly abdicated political and military power for largely ethical reasons?

Whether or not Balthier was aged down, it would be very easy to present him as being less experienced and street-smart than he is in the game, especially since he only seems this way compared to Vaan, anyway; rather than have Vaan be the clueless newb, Balthier the smug mentor, and Fran entirely fucking purposeless, have Balthier be a 'more bravado than brains' sort, excited about being a nominal sky-pirate by virtue of having the Strahl, but not actually knowing much about adventuring or fighting, with Fran as his mentor. This would accomplish two things: it would make Balthier, not Vaan, the audience surrogate, learning about the world and the game with a relevant character with an actual personality; and would give Fran an actual reason to exist in the game. The biggest weakness of Fran's character is that we can only care about Fran as being Balthier's minion, and it's hard enough to care about Balthier himself with how little part he seems to take in the narrative due to Vaan snaking what could have been all his action. We are supposed to believe she has some compelling reason to hang around with Balthier, but they never interact in any way and we are never given any indication of how they ended up together or why they stay together. I could get behind never even showing how they meet; just leave it a mystery. Sure. But Fran's already got at least an entire human lifetime of experience wandering the world and taking care of herself, and that's after spending an unknown number of decades growing up in the upper echelons of viera society; even as it stands in-game, she should still be the wiser, more able half of the couple by far. If Balthier could have served as the audience surrogate, then Fran could have served as the audience's mentor, too, and without Vaan and Penelo to hog the spotlight, a whole lot of capital gets freed up to focus on a naïve, brash Balthier and a pensive, world-wise Fran, hashing out the whys and wherefores with each other as the party treats with gods and plunders ancient superweapons to maybe start or end a war or a civilization. Just as Ashe and Balthier could have been apt foils for one another, Fran could have been an apt foil for Balthier: they both rejected a high place in society to forge their own path, but whereas Balthier ran from Archades to reject responsibility and recuse himself from the course of Ivalician events- a path of relative appeal to him- Fran became an exile from her people to take responsibility, unwilling to sit idle with typical viera impunity as the entire world around her boiled into chaos- a choice that would mark her with shame thence forever forward. I realize they wanted Fran to seem aloof and mysterious, but what we got was just bland and irrelevant. And with Vaan taking up the roles of perspective character, Ashe's foil, and wanna-be sky-pirate, that makes Balthier all but redundant as well. The game goes out of its way to make a big, obvious, comfy main-character-shaped hole where Balthier could easily fit, and then they plop him down on the periphery where he does so little good and hammers in a Vaan-shaped bit of drywall instead.

What a stupid waste. This game.

Once in the courtyard of the tower, the gate shuts behind us and the party is attacked by some sort of gray-brown smear on the floor. At least, that's what it was after the battle; I didn't get a very good look at it beforehand, and it's existence had no bearing on anything. I do have to ask: are we not officially 'in' with the Occuria at this point? If Ashe and her cronies all get eaten by a giant tortoise on the way up the Pharos, what's the Occuria's backup plan? Do they have any other fallen heirs of the Dynast-King to half-manipulate into preventing their traitor from assuming absolute power over Ivalician affairs? Sure, they need some way to verify it's us climbing the Pharos and not some very lucky shipwrecked Seeq, but the door to the Pharos interior doesn't even open until the Dynast-King's heir stands in front of it, so you'd think that would be a system they could rely upon.

Standing before the entrance, the party stops to examine a message carved into the wall. Fran says it looks very old before reading it, but it seems the last 1,100 years has done little indeed to change the written word of Ivalice, because the grammar, spelling and diction are all indistinguishable from the party's own. That's lucky; if I found a note written by King Arthur in 900 AD's Middle English, I'd be pretty well fucked.

The note starts off, and I'm paraphrasing here, “This tower is tall.” Eureka. Then it sermonizes for a bit: “He without power, want it not; he with power, trust it not; He with sight, heed it not. Rend illusion; cut the true path.” Ashe is content to space out and pick her nose until Fran reads that it was signed by Raithwall himself. Wait, so Raithwall thought the whole, “Hey we're the gods, we'll give you nukes since you're fucking aces in our book,” deal was sort of sketchy, too? And he still went on to found a four-hundred-year golden age followed by seven hundred more years of relative peace that we're only now just shitting up? Let's never take that into consideration, okay, Ashe? Awesome, you're the best.

They ponder the last bit for a moment, “Rend illusion; cut the true path.” Of course, in thematic terms, it simply a tip from Raithwall to ignore all the bullshit various supernal entities are pushing around at the moment and übermensch your way to the brightest future possible, Ramza Beoulve style. In game terms, however, it simply means the tower is filled with various illusion-esque puzzles.

Holy shit, more proving our worth? We're on the doorstep of the weapon the Occuria definitely want us to have, holding the tool they gave us to acquire it with, for us to accomplish tasks they deem invaluable! At what point do we stop proving our worth? Did the Dynast-King have to clear time off of his busy schedule of drinking Ordalian wine by the half-cask and having his Dynast-Beard fluffed by a team of young viera beard-fluffing maidens to attend to various tasks of regular worth-proving? Were all the various waypoints and trials left behind by Raithwall the product of his being constantly badgered by spectral visions of his high-school sweetheart, pantomiming the Occuria's will to him?

I guess we shouldn't expect an express elevator to the top of the tower, then? And I guess we would be somehow fucked if we had tried just flying to the peak in the Strahl, right? The answer to both of these questions may shock you. I'm actually going to spend some time talking about this dungeon, since it alone consists of more than just running through every room slaying monsters until you get to the boss. I mean, it's not more by much, but still.

The ground floor- and many of the floors to follow- consists of a large, circular central chamber surround by a labyrinth complex on the perimeter. Enemies in the labyrinth are unique in that black orbs will appear upon their deaths, which are used to power various ancient doodads around the Pharos. What are these doodads for? For the highest calling known to RPG characters: opening a door. Each of the devices on this floor take only a single orb, but in addition to the tower itself, there's a postgame area beneath the Pharos that requires scads of dark orbs to access some of the game's best equipment, so it's worth gathering a bunch of them up.

Once three of the devices have been given a black orb, a door in the back of the labyrinth unlocks itself. Stepping through it seems to take us somewhere different entirely... the Sandsea, in fact. Wandering around a bit, a few shapes recognizable as the large tortoise-type enemies are scattered around, dormant in their shells. Approaching most of them merely warps the party back to their starting point. One of them, however, comes to life for a boss fight.

Now, here's the thing about the tower: there are three (actually five) of these bosses, and each corresponds to one of the constellation deities of the Chinese/Japanese ordinal directions. This one is the black tortoise of the North, Genbu. Ironically, though Genbu is said to represent water and the Winter, this boss is seemingly earth-element, due to its weaknesses and immunities. But in both the original Japanese and its translations, this turtle is called 'Pandemonium,' a recurring name in Final Fantasy lore. In fact, none of the other guardian deities of the tower will be named for the mythology they are referencing.

Upon beating the great tortoise into submission, the party finds themselves in the small, rectangular room the labyrinth door actually led to. I get that you're trying to leverage the 'illusion theme,' guys, but if it's effectively just a boss fight anyway...

Raithwall pointed out in his note that the Pharos is pretty tall, and while that could have gone without saying, booooooy he weren't kidding, neither. Altogether, the tower is 100 stories tall, Outer Heaven style, with the Sun-Cryst set in its dais on the roof.

However, most of the floors aren't like the labyrinth on the first floor. There are a few of those scattered about, but in between each of these levels are the so-called stairway ravels, which cover many floors at a time. Having beaten Pandemonium, we are free to use the teleporter to the first of the stairway ravels, which actually begins on the tenth floor. The stairway ravels don't cotton to those dark orb shenanigans, and enemies here do not drop them. Rather, these levels have their own set of tricks: 'fools facades,' which are merely false walls that can be knocked down, usually for treasure; and illusory bridges, which are required to progress. Throughout the tower, there are enemies called Brainpans, which look like stone statues with green flames spurting out of them. Defeating these will cause sections of bridges to to appear over otherwise impassable gaps. There are also red-flamed statues called Deidars, which will counteract your progress if you slay one while building a green bridge, but will build red bridges of their own which lead to bonus treasure.

The stairway ravel will lead us all the way to the 49th floor, after which we pass through a door to another illusory landscape: a series of shallow terraced pools. They don't even bother with any fakeouts this time and just spring the guardian boss after a few steps: Slyt, a large blue fish-creature, representing Seiryu, the azure dragon of the east. Slyt is obviously a water-based boss, though the mythical Seiryu was a deity of wood and the Spring. After pushing its shit in with a few Firaga spells, we once again find ourselves back in the tower, after which it's a short walk to the 50th floor and the teleporter to the second “ascent” of the tower.

The gimmick of this labyrinth section is binding abilities; to progress, you have to pick an altar which will prevent you from using either standard attacks, magic, items, or- if you aren't a total fucking idiot- technics. It may appear that you are intended to complete a short section under each of the restrictions to proceed, but this isn't so; though each altar unlocks only the door next to it, they all lead to the same place. Regardless of which altar you choose, there's nothing stopping you from merely running past the enemies for the short distance to the next floor.

Curiously, your minimap disappears in these areas, which is annoying since you have to check your main map to figure out which of the many identical rooms you're in... yet entirely fucking pointless due to being able to do just that.

Arriving at the 65th floor, it's time for another boss. Passing through the door, we find ourselves whisked to a snowy mountain crevice. The battle begins immediately with Fenrir, a bipedal white tiger. This boss represents Byakko of the West, a deity of metal and Autumn. Although Fenrir seems to be a wind-based creature in-game, he still sort-of matches Byakko's element, for once, by virtue of carrying a massive fuck-off sword. Unfortunately for him, the swirling maelstrom of overcompensation and penis envy that is our party can't really be beaten as far as massive fuck-off weapons go, and he is quickly done in by the aforementioned.

That was the last guardian deity, by the way. Yep, of the four guardian deities, we only fight three, none of whom correspond with their inspirations beyond their appearance. Fantastic.

However, one of the game's final hunts is for a creature called the Shadowseer, who summons these three bosses for a rematch, as well as the fourth and final guardian, Phoenix, based on the Vermilion Bird, Suzaku. Suzaku was the deity of fire, Summer, and the South, and therefore matches the in-game boss better than any of its mandatory kin. While in Chinese myth there is an earth deity called Huang Long, the yellow dragon, which represents the center, Japanese tradition dictates that the center is represented by the Void, which is what the Shadowseer himself stands in for.

After Fenrir is defeated, the party may at last dispel the binding magic, which summons a “Dais of Ascendance,” better known as... wait for it... "the fucking express elevator,” which will take us to the next floor, and eventually will freely transport us between any levels of the ascent we wish to explore. It proves to be rather pointless right now, since it only takes us up one level, which contains nothing but a teleporter to the next ascent.

Well, enough faffing around. With the last guardian defeated, it's time for more stairway ravel nonsense. This time, we need to pick from different colored teleporters, one of which takes us to the next set. The game doesn't really give you much to go on here, but if you fuck it up twice you get transported to an area with a map of the level and some pillars which tell you the answers straight out... as well as a swarm of undead.

Lacking anything else to say about it this time around, I'd like to point out that the entire tower is filled with inscribed pillars. Some of these, especially the earlier ones, give hints about how to progress, but some of them are just for flavor. All of them, however, drop at least a few lines to explain that humans suck and are lame, and the Undying rock and are cool.

Each and every one of these inscriptions takes time to explain how humans are foolish, violent, chaotic, and extremely ephemeral, while the Undying are wise, everlasting, and set the world into a necessary order. A likely story, given who wrote it, but there are a few gems scattered among the posturing. It seems the Occuria once took a far more active approach in governing the world's affairs, controlling the passing of events with an indomitable hand. But many eons ago, they relented, choosing instead to grant human scions the responsibility of altering the world's course only once every few ages, and only when necessary. The inscriptions go on to say that this changed at the will of “Our King.” So it would seem that the Undying themselves have some sort of hierarchy we aren't privy to, and at the very least there is one among them to whom they all bow.

Don't bother remembering all this; the game sure as hell won't.

After the final teleporter, we reach another elevator which brings us up to the 90th floor, which has a large platform in the center of the circular wellspring rather than leaving it open like all the others. It should be noted that throughout the whole tower, especially in the central wellsprings, there is a waterfall curtain. However, the water in these appears to be falling upwards rather than downwards. Trying to admire that on this level will get you ganked, though; from outside the circle leaps a new challenger: Hashmal, the Bringer of Order!

Hashmal is some sort of wolfman with giant horn/claw things instead of arms. Must make it inconvenient to wipe. You people should know how it goes by now; I have better things to do than sully my hands fighting Lucavi. Hashmal, prepare to face Zeromus, the Condemner!

In defiance of tradition, Hashmal barely manages to defeat my Esper, mainly due to Ashe sandbagging like a total bitch and unhelpfully watching them wreck each others shit. Once Zeromus falls, she swoops in to killsteal the last tiny bit of Hashmal's health, because our party is all class, all the time.

With that out of the way, nothing remains to challenge us as we climb the last quiet stair to the peak of the great Pharos. Fran points out that the mist is becoming much stronger, because mist detection is one of two whole character traits she possesses. Penelo, Vaan, and Reddas wonder aloud if Ashe will really go through with the Occuria's plan, as if she wasn't standing two arms' lengths away, clearly hearing every word they say. At this point, SHE FUCKING BETTER go through with it or I just climbed this damn tower for nothing. Amusingly, Ashe politely stops and waits for Reddas to stop guilt-tripping her behind her back.

With that out of the way, the party uses one last teleporter to reach the seat of the Sun-Cryst itself in all its blinding radiance. For this purpose the tower was built in ages long risen and fallen, and here it was that Raithwall assumed the artifacts that would make him Dynast-King a thousand years past, as his forebear did before him, and his before him, and so on into an expanse beyond mortal reckoning.

I hope, despite all odds, you enjoyed the game so far. Once atop the Pharos, the game explodes into a maelstrom of lunacy. Get ready, because there's no going back.

*I may, in fact, be unreasonably hard to please.

To be continued.
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