Archive for May, 2010

Icebreaker: Basic Gameplay

So, what sort of game is Icebreaker? One that doesn’t really fit into a genre category narrower than “action”. People have stretched this as far as “strategy/action” and “puzzle/action”, which I suppose is necessary to distinguish it from mindless action, but neither description really fits — the level of thought is more tactical than strategic, and the only reason anyone would describe it as a puzzle game is that they classify anything sufficiently abstract that way. If you ask me, the genre it has the most in common with is classic arcade games, things like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Breakout: games with simple controls and world models, where the player is always bent on the same goal. That goal being, of course, to destroy everything. To clear the screen, by shooting, eating, or bouncing things off of everything, until there’s nothing left.

The things you destroy in Icebreaker are pyramids. Steeply acute ones. 1This could mean either “ones that are acute in a steep way” or “ones that are acute and resemble steeples”. Either description fits. The main playfield is an isometric grid of regularly-spaced pyramids, the “seekers” that chase you through this grid like Robotrons are animated pyramids, even the player’s avatar is a pyramid on its side. This is basically “programmer art” that stuck — the author’s website describes how the entire game started out as a programming exercise that took on a life of its own. Now, how do you destroy the pyramids? Do you shoot them, or eat them, or bounce things off them? A little of each, it turns out — at least, if I can extend “eat” to mean “collide your avatar with” and “bounce things off of” to cover any sort of induced collision with objects not under your direct control. There are three basic colors of stationary pyramid: red, green, and blue. Red pyramids are deadly to the touch, but can be destroyed by a blast from your cannon. Blue pyramids are cannon-resistant, but shatter when you ram them. Green pyramids you can’t destroy at all yourself, but crumble on contact with a seeker. It’s really the green pyramids that save the game from being trivial. When people call it a “strategy/action” or “puzzle/action” game, they’re mainly thinking about the need to lead the enemies to specific places instead of just shooting them.

There are further complications as you go along: you get obstacles like walls and pits, terrain like slippery ice, smarter enemies (the basic ones are prone to getting stuck), and new colors of stationary pyramid with different properties — purple pyramids that turn into pits when shot, stone pyramids that have to be shot ten times, rainbow pyramids that pick a color at random when rammed or shot. But the three basic pyramid types have a special relationship that these advanced types do not: they occasionally change color, cycling from red to blue to green to red. (This ordering is important, because it prevents blue pyramids from turning into deadly red while you’re charging at them.) The changing colors keep the action from being too predictable, even on boards that start out very regular, and also serve to upset equilibrium. Blue pyramids that are hard to reach eventually become shootable; a seeker stuck behind pyramid need only wait for it to become green to get through it.

Aside from the tutorial, there are 150 levels. A big level grid shows you which ones you’ve completed, and at which difficulty. There’s no unlocking of levels — you can access them all from the very beginning. However, the “next level” button on the victory screen makes it slightly easier to play them in order than to not play them in order, so that’s what I’m doing.

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1. This could mean either “ones that are acute in a steep way” or “ones that are acute and resemble steeples”. Either description fits.

Icebreaker: Getting Started

1995 was an epochal year for the PC: with the release of Windows 95, we suddenly had 32-bit addressing, true preemptive multitasking, and, most importantly for gaming, genuine hope for hardware-independent code in an increasingly unwieldy world of semi-compatibility. The installers for DOS games of the time presented to the user long lists of all the graphics, sound, and input devices they supported, and asked the user to select IRQ settings and other such arcana. 3D graphics accelerators were still a speck on the horizon, but the age of the CD-ROM multimedia extravaganza was here, and with it, long-since-forgotten extravagances like MPEG decoder cards. The new Windows Games SDK promised to simplify things by putting a layer of indirection between the software and the hardware — an indirection layer that, in a tremendous feat of denial and marketing spin, was dubbed “DirectX”. But none of this happened immediately, and PC game developers continued to primarily target DOS for a while. After all, not everyone had Windows 95 yet, and why limit your potential audience? Besides, Windows was reputedly inferior as a gaming platform — Windows 3.1 functioned as an abstraction layer too, but tended towards lowest common functionality.

So why, in 1995 of all times, would anyone release games for Windows 3.1? It seems like the worst of both worlds: limited adoption and lagging behind the cutting edge. But apparently it was a convenient platform to port things to — Myst, for example, never saw a DOS port, presumably because Windows 3.1 was a better fit to the original Macintosh code. Today’s selection, Icebreaker, was originally written for the 3DO, and, if I understand correctly, ported to both Windows and Mac simultaneously by a third party.

Installing Icebreaker on a modern system is a bit of an adventure. I’ve run it on a win32 system before, and I know from experience that it has overzealous copy protection that demands that you insert the CD even when you already did. The game’s author, Andrew Looney, has gone on record encouraging the use of a no-CD crack. Possibly related to this, I have never managed to get the game to play its intro, outro, or between-levels movies. But that’s not such a big deal: they’re not an essential part of the experience, and besides, they’re all stored as ordinary AVI files, watchable from the desktop.

A more serious obstacle is the palette requirement. Icebreaker will only run if Windows is set to 256 colors, neither more nor less. Windows apps in those days didn’t know how to change the color depth on their own — this is one of the many reasons why DOS was considered a superior gaming platform. The problem is, my current system doesn’t do 256 colors. 32-bit color it can handle without problems, but 8-bit, once the mainstay of VGA, isn’t even an option. It’s true that I’ve run other 256-color games lately, and even 16-color games, but only through an additional indirection layer — specifically, DOSBox. DOSBox is certainly capable of emulating 256-color mode on a more capable display, but unfortunately, it only runs DOS apps, not Windows 3.1 apps.

I was about ready to give up and pick a different game, when I realized that Windows 3.1 itself is a DOS app, and can be run inside DOSBox.

Thus began the second round of installation fun: locating Windows 3.1 device drivers that behave correctly under DOSBox. None of the built-in graphics drivers supported 640x480x256, but I managed to find something that worked just as well, given a little help from Vogons. It took me a few tries to find a Soundblaster driver that actually produced sound. But now, I have a convoluted-but-functional Windows 3.1 gaming system that, as an added bonus, works on my Macbook, which I really wasn’t expecting when I got started.

Tomorrow, I suppose I’ll try to describe the actual game.

[ADDENDUM] Looks like I could have just installed it under XP and checked the “Run in 256 colors” setting in the “Compatibility” tab in the shortcut properties. But that wouldn’t have helped me play it on the Macbook.

Final Fantasy VI: Moving On Again

To judge by my last few posts, you’d think that I’m on the verge of completing the second half of Final Fantasy VI. And I am. But it’s a very wide verge. I spent about three months in a similar state at the end of the first half. Admittedly, that was because I wasn’t actually playing for most of that time. But the reason I wasn’t playing was that I had grown impatient with the game: I felt so close to the momentous transition that all the mopping-up I felt compelled to do before taking the plunge became burdensome. As much as I want to face off against Kefka — recently named 18th greatest videogame villain of all time by IGN, right above M. Bison — I also want to see the rest of the game.

Rushing through the game is no way to play it, if only because the game makes it impossible. Sometimes you only get to take a couple of steps between random encounters. Some games in the series have a rare and special piece of equipment that decreases the rate of encounters, or even eliminates all encounters with anything other than bosses. If such a thing exists in this game, I have yet to find it. And if you’re approaching the game from a position of impatience, these constant interruptions will only make it worse. I wrote before about the annoyance of all the system’s little delays when working under a time limit. My self-imposed time limit of two weeks is no exception.

So, on to 1995. I’ve already started on my next game as I write this. But I intend to keep dipping back into FF6, in small sessions, for however long it takes.

Final Fantasy VI: Splitting the Party

I began this weekend hoping that I’d have just one more post to do on FF6, but after multiple hours of play, I still haven’t made a serious attempt as Kefka’s junkyard-like tower of magically-attracted debris. Oh, I’ve visited it, and I think I might even be able to conquer it at my current level, but it’s going to take more time and preparation than I felt like giving it at the time. You see, it splits the party in three, and that complicates things.

This isn’t the first time the party has been split. Way back near the beginning, there was a part with three sub-scenarios that I had to play out with different characters, but that was different: the scenarios were self-contained and independent from one another, and were played out in sequence. More recently, the descent into the treasure cave to find Locke involved splitting the party however you like into two groups, then switching to control whichever group you like at any given moment. And you couldn’t just use one group and leave the other alone: every so often, each group would run into an obstacle that could only be cleared by having the other group stand on a pressure plate somewhere.

Kefka’s tower works like that, but with three groups, which makes it a lot harder to decide how to split things up. Through most of the game, you get your pick of four characters out of the entire party roster, so it’s easy to take your choice of combat specialist, your choice of mage, and your choice of guys with weird special abilities, and still have one slot left over for whoever you’re trying to level up. With three groups and 14 playable characters, you don’t get much choice of who to take. You just get to choose who to partner them with — and my experience is that some combinations have a much easier time surviving than others. It isn’t just a matter of taking one from each of the four categories I just mentioned — you have to take into account that characters are going to be killed or disabled sometimes, and get some redundancy in there, like a mage who can fight in a pinch. (Or, I suppose, you could just grind until everyone is level 99 and not worry about it, but I want to enjoy playing this game.)

Then there’s the equipment. The very best armor and weapons are, of course, not available in stores: you have to find them locked away in dungeons or loot them from bosses. There’s an item called the Atma Weapon 1Another questionable transliteration: some versions call it Ultima Weapon. But Atma fits pretty well too. It’s a glowing lightsaber-like thing that visibly grows with the wielder’s experience level, as if responding to the strength of your soul. that simply does way more damage than any other weapon I’ve seen. I try to always have it equipped, but there’s only one in the game, which means only one of the three groups can have it. I suppose I could just unequip it whenever I switch control to a different group, but that starts to get cumbersome. And it becomes even more cumbersome when you factor in the Espers. I frequently swap those around between characters even when I’m dealing with only one group, to make sure everyone gets a chance to learn their spells, and also because many of them grant permanent stat increases when their wielder levels up. I’ll probably have to just abandon that habit in the tower if I don’t want to spend 90% of my play time in inventory menus.

Or, like I said, I could stop optimizing and do more grinding. I think it was Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw who said that Final Fantasy gives you a choice at the end: you can spend 40 hours building up your characters to the point where you can take the end boss easily, or you can spend 40 hours fighting the end boss. This kind of applies to the entire final dungeon as well.

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1. Another questionable transliteration: some versions call it Ultima Weapon. But Atma fits pretty well too. It’s a glowing lightsaber-like thing that visibly grows with the wielder’s experience level, as if responding to the strength of your soul.

Final Fantasy VI: Dragon Hunt

The story in the second half of FF6 is all about finishing things, tying up loose ends from the first half. And it’s funny, because a lot of those loose ends are things that I don’t remember until I see them tied up. There was even one major loose end — the Terra vs Phunbaba 1A bad transliteration: it should be Humbaba, the demon from the epic of Gilgamesh (and in some later editions, it is). Mistakes like this happen a lot in the translations of the Final Fantasy series, due to their predilection for throwing in random elements from diverse mythologies that the translators aren’t necessarily familiar with. arc — from the early part of the second half that I didn’t remember. Things I don’t remember are things that I can’t pursue as goals. But that hardly matters, because implicit goals are provided by the game’s very structure: you visit every dot on the map, talk to every NPC, and explore every dungeon, and in the process, you wind up completing the story.

But there’s one other set of major goals the game has provided for me: finding and slaying the great dragons. There are eight of them. I know this because the first time I killed one, I got a message telling me I had killed 1 of 8 dragons. Re-exploring the parts that Celes passed through alone a year ago, I find there’s an NPC who explains how the dragons were released by the cataclysms or something — I don’t remember the details, but there’s some kind of reward for killing them all — probably some magicite yielding Bahamut, the dragon-king summonable from previous games.

I’ve racked up 5 dragons already without really trying, because they tend to show up in places where you’d go anyway: slightly off the main trunk of a dungeon, for example. One of them was even squatting in the opera house. Unlike random encounters, you can see the great dragons as you wander the area: they show up as single-map-tile sprites just like heroes and NPCs, and they look misleadingly cute in that form, like geckos with little wings. So you know when you’ve found them.

Nonetheless, I’ve pretty much run out of places to look, and I’m still short three. I suppose I should recheck the places that I visited with only Celes and Sabin. I would have been avoiding optional boss fights at that point, so I might have passed a dragon by. And after that? I’ll just have to recheck everyplace else. This is basically the stage of the game where it all comes down to grinding: I’m preparing to assault Kefka’s tower, but I need to be stronger before I can make a serious attempt at it. The dragon hunt at least turns the final grind into something purposeful. It gives you something to do other than just wander back and forth and wait to be attacked.

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1. A bad transliteration: it should be Humbaba, the demon from the epic of Gilgamesh (and in some later editions, it is). Mistakes like this happen a lot in the translations of the Final Fantasy series, due to their predilection for throwing in random elements from diverse mythologies that the translators aren’t necessarily familiar with.

Final Fantasy VI: Pixel Art

Final Fantasy VI really is the pinnacle of its form, but that shouldn’t be surprising, considering that it’s also the last of its form. The next game in the series shifted to blobby low-polygon-count 3D, and, while that style has its charm, it required different techniques than the rest of the series up to that point. There’s a real craft to storytelling via tiny pixelated sprites, and it was pretty well-developed by now. The human figures have a large library of emote animations for use in dialogues and cutscenes, some of them quite expressive despite differing from the neutral expression by only a few pixels — although others involve running back and forth or leaping in the air several times the character’s height. Everything I said about the theatrical gestures in Police Quest 4 applies even moreso here.

Cutscenes are the obvious place to show off sprite animations, but there’s even more impressive work in the combat. The most noticeable part of this is in the special moves, such as when Cyan swoops into the midst of the enemies, with a comet-trail of desaturated afterimages behind him. The movement there doesn’t doesn’t look at all natural, but then, neither do fireworks. Personally, though, I’m more impressed with the subtler touches, like the alteration in posture to indicate each character’s state. Someone who’s been ordered to cast a spell, for example, will bow their head and make muttering motions until it’s their turn to act. This actually provides useful feedback about what’s going on, whereas the flashier attack animations are just a matter of showing off. The one disappointing thing is that the monsters aren’t animated in combat at all. Certain monsters — mainly bosses — have a fully-animated sprite representation that’s used in the main movement-and-exploration mode, but during combat, all monsters use larger portraits that just stand still. Presumably it would have been prohibitively space-consuming to include animations for every monster type in the game within the constraints of the SNES — even using still images, most of the monsters are palette swaps of other monsters. I suppose the shift to 3D in the next game helped there: suddenly animations were relatively lightweight, consisting of differences in vectors instead of a full copy of the bitmap for every frame.

Today’s indie game developers are in love with minimalistic pixel art, partly because it’s the aesthetic of least effort. But that’s certainly not the case here: the artists put in loads of effort and want you to know it. To the extent that it goes all “less is more”, it’s a product of systemic constraints. Considered purely in terms of style, the closest recent game is probably Braid, which similarly tries to be as evocative as it can with a super-deformed sprite with a limited number of cels. But even Braid was deliberately retro, and there was nothing retro about FF6 at the time of its release.

On the other hand, the game’s biggest reach beyond sprites is something I regard as its biggest failure: the character portraits. In my posts about FF5, I described the concept art created by Yoshitaka Amano, and how little it resembled the stuff in the game. FF6 puts a closer approximation to the concept art in the party stats screens, fitting in greater detail by showing just the head. There’s just something off about these portraits. Some of the faces are just ugly in a way that their sprites are not: Gau looks misshapen, Setzer has scars that you can’t normally see. But even the pretty ones look very wrong to me. I don’t think this is the famous “uncanny valley” effect — even the portraits are too far from human for that. It’s more like Scott McCloud’s famous observation that it’s easier to identify with simplified and cartoony characters than with highly-detailed ones. So anyway, here’s a case where I think it would have been better for the art to be more minimalist than it is, and therefore for the artists to choose minimalism rather than do as much as allowed by the medium (and the budget, and the deadlines).

I’m kind of wondering now what FF7 would have been like if the series had stayed 2D. Would it be a better or a worse game? It was astounding at the time, but today, I tend to think that the primitive 3D of the day has weathered worse than well-crafted 2D of the same era. A remake of FF7 in the style of FF6 seems like such an obvious fan project that I’d be a little surprised if it doesn’t turn out that someone is already working on one. But a quick google only yields rumors and arguments about Square going the other direction, doing a HD remake for the PS3. I guess we all at least agree that FF7 in its current form falls short of ideal.

Final Fantasy VI: Yeti Attacks!

I’ve finally reassembled the whole team. Actually, I’ve done more than that: I’ve picked up a couple of extras. In fact, I have more characters now than are mentioned in the manual. Mog the dancing moogle, who showed up only briefly in the first half, is briefly described there, to document the basics of his dancing abilities (which hardly need documentation, really — it’s not as if they made a DDR-like minigame or anything out of it, intriguing though it would be to try to combine such a thing with ATB combat). His yeti friend is another matter. The presence of a yeti doesn’t come as a complete surprise, because I recall hearing the miners of Narshe talk about it back at the very beginning of the game, and I remember wasting some time hunting for it. But that it joins my party? That was unexpected.

I suppose the reason it’s not mentioned in the docs is that, unlike Mog, there’s no special interface associated with it. In fact, the distinguishing feature of the yeti is absence of interface. You can’t give the yeti equipment, or teach it spells, or even give it orders during combat: it is, in effect, always berzerk and naked. It’s like the Barbarian class from previous games taken to its logical extreme. This makes it the simplest of all the characters to play, and therefore the least interesting. I doubt I’ll be using it much, unless I have an urgent need for more melee power, which it’s got in spades.

But I really don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe it would have been useful to have a yeti around when I made my assault on the treasure cave where I picked up Locke, but I tackled that cave and the yeti’s lair in the wrong order. Once you have an airship, the game doesn’t much try to force you to do things in a particular order, but there’s definitely an optimal sequence. There are soft walls, and, because of a misunderstanding on my part, I forced my way through some of them prematurely. The result was a nice bit of power-leveling, but now that I go back to the places where I should have gone first, I’m finding them tediously easy. But that’s a risk in any CRPG with an open environment — I remember having a similar experience in Planescape: Torment, for example. Anyway, I think I’m past the point where mere brute muscle is an asset. Everything I meet is either much less powerful than my party, in which case I don’t need the yeti, or a boss, and best handled with judicious use of spells or special powers that the yeti doesn’t have.

And ultimately, this isn’t a yeti’s world. It’s far too genteel. I’ve seen the game described as steampunk, but that’s not quite right: it’s a century or two early for that, fantasy-classical or even fantasy-baroque, with major set-pieces built around things like an opera house and a private art collection. Even after the apocalypse, the men tend to wear long dress coats and tie their hair back with ribbons. A hairy, slope-browed man-beast is somewhat out-of-place, lumbering through the elegant and tastefully-appointed mansions here. But then, of all the playable characters, the only one who’s fully at home in this environment is Edgar. Everyone else is a misfit or outcast of some kind, and several of them have animalistic qualities: a feral child, a girl who transforms into a beast, a moogle. Once again, the yeti is just an exaggeration of something that was already present.

Final Fantasy VI: Character Reassessment

One nice thing about the companion-hunt in the FF6‘s second half: you find people in a different order than the first time around. This forces you to spend some quality time with the ones you acquired late and never really saw the point of. So I’m rethinking some of what I said before.

I said before that the time needed to charge up Cyan’s special “sword technique” attacks made them less than worthwhile in the time-sensitive ATB system. This might have been the case earlier in the game, when attacks were resolved relatively quickly. But the more powerful attacks — both yours and the monsters’ — tend to have longer and more elaborate animations associated with them. The extreme end of this is of course the summon animations, but simple high-level spells take multiple seconds to execute, and when there are a lot of them flying around, you can wind up with your entire party queued up, waiting to carry out the orders you’ve already given them. This is the time to start Cyan charging up a special attack. This isn’t always practical, but that’s a good thing. It gives you a reason to not just automatically use the special attack all the time.

With Setzer, I complained about the slot-machine-like interface for his special moves: it asks you to stop three wheels with precise timing to get three matching symbols. I didn’t use it much before, because I found myself incapable of timing it right. But now, I’m certain that it didn’t really matter. I heard tell of some other game with an interface of this sort that only pretended to rely on the player’s timing: the outcome was really predetermined. And now that I’m aware that this sort of thing goes on, I’ve been paying closer attention to Setzer, and I’m quite certain that he’s cheating as well. I’m putting absolutley no effort into getting the timing right, and I’m still getting matches far more often than you’d expect from chance — in fact, if the first wheel stops at a picture of a gemstone, I always get three gemstones. No exceptions. I hadn’t noticed this in my earlier sorties, but Setzer is significantly higher level now, so perhaps he’s just better at it. It all makes me wonder how prevalent this kind of fakery is. Are there any games that use this kind of interface and don’t cheat the player determination? What’s the psychological effect on all the Japanese children growing up immersed in this? Are they developing an unjustified sense of confidence in their abilities? I suppose that’s part of the RPG experience anyway — the sense of personal improvement that’s really just a matter of the computer gradually making things easier for you. But at least it’s more honest about it most of the time. At any rate, now that I know that Setzer’s special attacks aren’t really dependent on my reflexes, I’m much more willing to use them. It means he’s the game’s specialist in powerful but randomized and unreliable effects, like FF5‘s Geomancer. I kind of liked the Geomancer.

Little Relm’s special power is that she can “sketch” monsters to use their own attacks, randomly-selected, against them. In most cases, this isn’t a very useful ability: the monsters are so much weaker than the party, and often immune to the same kind of elemental damage that they use against you. But I’ve come to realize that she’s got an even better power: her wardrobe. She can wear tiny but powerful outfits that no one else can. (Although I’ve discovered that her grandfather Strago can fit into the moogle suit too, which is a little creepy.) Okay, so that’s not unique to Relm. There are a bunch of character-specific items — mostly weapons — and most equipment can be used by only a few characters. But Relm starts off with an item that’s very powerful, and which only she can use: the “Safty Ring” [sic] left to her by her mother. I don’t think I fully appreciated this before, because it has no effect on her stats and the in-game description is ambiguous. What is does is, it gives her a near-total immunity to direct-damage spells. That is a very big deal. In the second half, there’s a tower populated entirely by spellcasting Kefka-worshippers (and one dragon). I’ve made several attempts at ascending it, and still haven’t reached the top. But I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have without that ring.

Well, except that an item identical to the ring but useable by anyone can be found in the tower’s lower reaches. I really should have figured this out back when it made more of a difference.

Final Fantasy VI: Swapping Out

My merry band has picked up three more: Relm (tyke with magic paintbrush), Cyan (dour samurai), and Gau (wild boy), in that order. This means I’m once again over the limit on how many can be in the party at a time, and have to choose who to take with me. Obviously the last one to join up always gets a spot, just because I want to try them out and see if I want to keep them around more permanently — my memories of everyone’s relative usefulness are not necessarily reliable, and new abilities come with higher levels or better equipment I’m picking up. (For the wretched inhabitants of a destroyed world, the weapons and armor dealers have really managed to advance the state of the art. But I suppose this could be the result of necessity, as the world turns harsher and the monsters tougher. Or it could be a result of magic returning to the world, or of buried artifacts unearthed by the cataclysm. Or, y’know, it could be a RPG.)

To some slight extent, I’m choosing characters for story purposes. Cyan has been writing letters to a woman in one town, so I take him to meet her. Gau’s father is around — I don’t really remember meeting him before, but I must have, or else a lot of the dialogue in this section doesn’t make sense. Anyway, there’s a fairly involved cutscene about reuniting father and son, and its unsatisfactory consequences. I haven’t been to visit the moogle warren yet, but when I do, I’ll have to be sure to bring Relm so she can show off her newly-looted moogle suit. Celes is a constant fixture in my party (and consequently leveling up faster than anyone else) simply because she was the only playable character at the beginning of this half of the game, and therefore it feels like it’s her story. It was her idea to put the old gang back together, so she should be on hand to recruit each member personally.

Notably, even though the choice of characters is the closest thing this game has to FF5‘s Job system, I’m not choosing characters on the basis of their utility in the immediate context, like picking the ones with the skills to overcome the monsters or other obstacles in a particular area. What’s more, I didn’t even really do this back in the first half. I remember putting together some special teams to accompany Gau into the Veldt, but that was a matter of choosing the characters that benefit the most from the context, and that’s not quite the same thing. I mainly remember swapping people out as a way to level everyone up evenly, and to make sure everyone learned all the spells. And I may settle into that pattern again, once I’ve got everyone back. It’s certainly the way to go if you want to experience the game completely, to try out all the special powers and so forth, and it’s kind of necessary because you never know when the game is going to force a character on you. Characters that rejoin your party after an absence seem to get artificially leveled up to match the ones you’ve been leveling up yourself, but ones that you’ve simply kept waiting in the wings get no such handicap. But also, the first half frustrated the natural tendency to identify a core team: the sole initial character there was Terra, and she was simply pulled out of the party early on. Imagine losing Cloud Strife that way, or Heimdall, or Pikachu. It made it clear that this is not simply a hero’s journey, but an ensemble piece. Perhaps I’ve been forgetting this. Perhaps I should remember.

Final Fantasy VI: The Air Blade Trap

My last session ended at a wall: a confrontation with a trick boss. I haven’t yet got its measure down completely, but it cycles between two forms with different attacks and different weaknesses. I’m going to have to do some probing, then probably go back to the last save point (located conveniently outside its lair) and pick out more specialized equipment.

At this stage of the game, bosses of this sort are the only fights that present any difficulty at all. In particular, Sabin has a move called “Air Blade” that’s basically the “win fight” button, doing at least a thousand points of damage, and usually substantially more, to all enemies. Since it’s one of his moves that requires a hadouken-like rotating sweep of the D-pad, I don’t always execute it successfully, but that just means I endure one round of attacks before I get to try again. The rest of my party is basically just there to absorb damage, and sometimes to reduce the enemy’s ability to dish it out. Most of my characters have learned most of the spells available in the game, but the only ones I really use are the healing spells. Only the bosses force me to exercise my options more fully.

But then, I suppose that abusing Sabin isn’t my only choice. For example, I could probably do just as well through power-spellcasting. I got used to conserving mana in the early parts of the game, but that isn’t really a necessity now: my characters are rolling in the stuff, and pulling in enough cash to maintain a wagonload of mana restorative items. Ordinary melee attacks plus damage-enhancing items is also probably a valid approach; as it is, I’m keeping my characters mainly equipped with stuff to ward off status effects, which makes success in combat more certain, but reduces the variety of the experience. As I once said about Diablo, it’s important to have a strategy, but it doesn’t really matter what it is.

But personally, I find that once I hit on one approach that works, I tend to stick with it until it stops working. This may mean I’m the wrong sort of player for this sort of game, but if so, a lot of other players are in the same category. I remember this being a particular problem in Final Fantasy VIII. Summonables become available extremely early there, and were unusually cheap to cast, and for much of the game were as good a battle-ender as Sabin’s Air Blade. So a lot of players, it seemed, just used a summon in every fight, until they either got tired of watching the summon animations over and over and quit the game, or finally hit a battle where summoning alone didn’t cut it and abruptly had to learn to use the rest of the combat system. FF8 is usually considered one of the weakest of the series, partly (though not entirely) because of this problem. And I can see the same thing happening on a smaller scale here.

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