The Second Sky: Railroading

One of the big surprises in The Second Sky is that the Empire has an underground rail system. It was built mainly to facilitate the collection of surface-dwellers, but Beethro can ride it. He doesn’t even have to trick anyone or sneak on board or anything like that. Because he still holds the position of First Slayer from back in The City Beneath, the Empire’s resources are at his disposal, to some extent, when they aren’t trying to kill him. Once again, it must be remembered that the Empire has no coherent system of policy, and Beethro can easily be considered an enemy of the state one moment and a VIP the next.

After a certain point in the story, after helping Tendry get into some trouble, Beethro flees the Patronage’s robots —

There are robots in this game. I haven’t mentioned them before, but I’ve been seeing a lot of them lately. The game calls them “constructs”, to fit them a little better into the basically-still-a-fantasy-despite-all-the-sci-fi-stuff setting, but they’re clearly robots. They’re a little like smarter versions of golems, in that they leave a pile of debris when killed, but with one major difference: until you clear the room, robot debris comes back to life every 30 turns. They remind me of the trolls in Nethack in that regard, and, like Nethack trolls, one way to keep them from reviving is to push them into a body of water with a pushing weapon. Another is to push them onto tiles infested with oremites, which they otherwise avoid. That’s a good example of how the game creates new exploitable complexity through special cases in combinations of elements, something that also reminds me of Nethack. There’s so much of this going on in the game that I don’t have time to describe it all in the kind of detail I gave to the earlier episodes.

Beethro flees the Patronage’s robots by getting on a train without an intended destination, just “Get me out of here”. He winds up at a forgotten station, which becomes a hub for side-quests. Once you have access to that, you can go anywhere in the world — okay, I talked about a world map before, but it turned out to be divided into sections, with only one section available at a time, and that limitation is gone. (Except that it won’t take me to the distant past, which is a bit of a shame, because I still have at least one unsolved puzzle back there. But we have the Restore menu for that.) In fact, the sections I passed through before seem to have sprouted some new levels, where I can go to solve bonus puzzles for collectibles, which are tracked at a special room in the train station. One of these collectibles: RCS tokens. I had found one of these earlier, before I had its context. “RCS” is the name of the train system, and what the tokens do is give you access to rooms containing nonogram puzzles laid out on the floor. Solve these, and your reward is more bonus levels.

I commented before about how each title in the DROD series does more with the bonus content than the last, and I was wondering how The Second Sky would manage to one-up Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, with its trail of clues leading to an entire extra level. It turns out that something like half the content of the game is extra levels this time.

The thing I really like about this is that it gives the game a sense of breadth. We’re not in a linear sequence of levels any more. We’re out exploring, pursuing whatever challenges we come across. It’s a design pattern I associate with JRPGs — most of the Final Fantasy games start off linear, but then you gain access to an airship and you’re suddenly free. I find it significant that the opening up of the DROD world is also accomplished by obtaining a vehicle, albeit one more suited to the largely subterranean setting.

Chrono Trigger: Twists

Yesterday yielded good progress. I’ve got to the point where, like in every Final Fantasy, you acquire a flying machine that allows easy access to the entire map. Unlike the typical Final Fantasy airship, this one is a time machine as well, meaning you don’t have to go trudging back to the rifts any more and can easily scan through the same location in different periods like it’s Time Zone or something. You actually get access to the time travel capabilities before the flight, and when the characters learn it can fly too, they’re surprised. The player is not. It looks like it should fly. I was surprised when it didn’t fly right away.

I’m pleased by the way the plot is turning out at this point, and so I’m going to spoil it heavily. (I’m also going to spoil a few Final Fantasy games for comparison purposes.) Like in the best time-travel stories, everything is folding together. Things that seemed arbitrary turn out to have histories. Characters you meet in one era turn out to be older, time-displaced versions of people you’ve met elsewhere. When an amulet that’s been in your inventory since near the beginning of the game can be charged with the same magical energies as one held by a forgotten monarch in ancient times, it’s not a coincidence: it’s the same amulet.

There are two particular twists that I want to describe. One is something that I was anticipating: Magus, the putative mid-game bad guy, joins the party. This is probably the hardest spoiler to avoid in the entire game. Any article or wiki page that even just lists the playable characters is going to give this one away. Anyway, it got me wondering: are villains who join your party a JRPG thing? FF7 and FF8 both had brief sections where you adventure with the enemy, albeit the FF7 one was in a flashback to before he went bad. It also got me wondering if Chrono Trigger was the one that did it first, but apparently the Fire Emblem series had been doing similar things for five years already. Feel free to correct me on this, though.

Magus can’t really be said to “switch sides”, though, any more than the superheroes in the classical mistake-each-other-for-criminals scenario switch sides when they team up afterward. For all his gothness, he’s really just misunderstood. Mind you, he’s mainly misunderstood by his supporters. In Chrono’s home era, in the unaltered timeline, the monsters of Monster City revere Magus as a hero for almost managing to summon Lavos, the apocalyptic monster responsible for destroying the world in the future. They talk about finishing what he started and sending Lavos to destroy humankind for them. But Magus wasn’t summoning Lavos to use it as a weapon. He was summoning it because he wanted to kill it. He understood what Lavos really is: a planetary parasite that fell to earth eons ago, burying itself underground to consume the planet’s energy from within, then controlling people who sought its stolen power.

Also, it’s the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. But apart from that detail, this story reminds me a lot of Jenova in FF7. Or, to be honest, it reminds me of what I read about Jenova after the fact. When I actually played FF7, I didn’t get a very clear idea of Jenova’s backstory, and when I encountered detailed explanations elsewhere, they left me wondering just where all this information came from, whether there was stuff in the game that I had missed or whether it was all out-of-band. Right now, I’m starting to suspect that other people picked up on the story more easily than me because they had already played Chrono Trigger, which tells it much more clearly. Chrono Trigger lets you witness the backstory firsthand, including the bygone-era parts.

The other twist I want to mention is the big one: the death of the main player character. This actually took me somewhat by surprise. Oh, I knew that someone was going to die. I had seen some mentions here and there of how fans were unprepared for the death of — and then I’d turn away sharply before reading any further. Even if I hadn’t seen such things, the imminent death of an unspecified party member is prophesied within the game itself. But I was really expecting it to be Marle.

Why Marle? Largely because Lavos had got me noticing similarities with FF7, and Marle seemed similar in various ways to Aerith, FF7‘s party member who dies. Marle and Aerith are both healers, they both have a significant family background that they’re keeping secret (Marle’s a princess, Aerith is the last living descendant of the Ancients), and they’re both strangers who attach themselves to the party after meeting and flirting with the protagonist while he’s alone (and sprawled on the ground). On top of that, rescuing Marle when she’s in danger is the initial goal that sets the whole story into motion, so it seemed like her death would be the one of greatest dramatic significance. Well, except that of the protagonist, I suppose, but how likely is that?

Losing Crono is an explicitly temporary thing: no sooner is he gone than the other playable characters start trying to figure out how to resurrect him. But in the meantime, you have a sudden shift in the nature of the game. Up to this point, Crono had been a constant presence, the one character who was always available for use while others shift in and out. You come to rely on his abilities, like how he has really useful combo moves with everyone. With Crono and Marle together, I had a cheap and oft-used way to give light healing to the entire party. I kept looking for that in Marle’s combo menu for a while when it wasn’t there any more. Magus essentially replaces him in the party roster, but doesn’t get any two-person combos at all, which says a lot about their differences in character.

Chrono Trigger: Boss Tricks

I’ve finally broken new ground in Chrono Trigger, passing the point where I left it three years ago, the boss fight against the Magus the Fiendlord. Magus is a fake end boss, kind of like in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: the story sets him up as the big bad rather than a sub-quest like most of the bosses up to that point, but there’s just too much unexplored territory for it to be believable, and indeed beating him just kicks off more story complications. Also like in Castlevania, you have to make your way through a large and spooky castle filled with undead to reach him. That, I think, is part of why I chose to stop playing there. It felt like the game’s premise, its variability of environment, had promised something fresh and interesting, but it was spending an awfully long time at being just another fantasy RPG. And it really does drag it out, making you battle three sub-bosses and multiple repetitive minion sequences before reaching Magus himself. It’s the sort of thing that really makes me appreciate how zippy the rest of the game is.

The other reason had I stopped there is that Magus is simply a really difficult fight. I may well have seen more PC deaths (or KO’s really) in this one fight than in the entire rest of the game, including a couple of boss fights that come afterward.

Boss fights in Chrono Trigger are by and large trickier than what I’m used to from Final Fantasy and the like. Those are generally pretty straightforward: all you have to do is figure out how to do the enemy enough damage to kill them before they kill you. Special resistances and vulnerabilities can affect this, of course. I recall one boss in FF4 or FF5 that kept on changing what sorts of damage it was vulnerable to, which is one of Magus’s tricks as well. But even there, the correct approach was to figure out the cycle and then repeatedly hit with the correct damage type, fast and hard. Chrono Trigger seems determined to make this approach inadvisable.

Mainly it does this with counterattacks: if you just hit the enemy as fast as you can, you just wind up dying faster yourself. And it can take a while to figure out that this is going on, because it isn’t necessarily obvious that an attack is a counterattack. You just have to take it slow and observe what happens to figure it out. Observing the enemy’s actions can be crucial in other ways as well. For example, there’s one fight against a spellcaster where you’re told in advance that you can disrupt his spellcasting with a specific one of Crono’s sword techniques. As a result, Crono spends much of that battle sitting and waiting for a spell to disrupt, even though he’s the team’s best damage-dealer.

The fight against Magus goes through two phases. In the first, he only does major damage in his counterattacks, so once you’ve figure that out, it’s easy to take control of the battle and keep your guys healed. The game plays a bit of a trick on the player there: hitting Magus with the Masamune Sword lowers his defense stat, but I didn’t realize this for a long time, because (a) it only does it on a normal melee hit, rather than the special techniques that do more damage, and (b) the only character who can wield the Masamune is also a healer, and thus often busy dealing with the aftermath of those counterattacks. After you do a certain amount of damage to Magus, he shifts into the second phase, where he drops the magical shields and just casts a very powerful damage spell at you repeatedly. I got through this by making sure my healing kept pace with the damage, but the amount of warning the game gives you whenever he starts to cast the spell makes me wonder if there was a trick that I was missing, something like that disruption effect described above.

Final Fantasy VI: At Long Last

Of all the Final Fantasies I’ve played — and I’ve played exactly half of the main-line titles by now — FF6 is the one that took me the longest to beat. Not because it’s a longer or tougher game than the others, but because I kept stopping. I guess this is a pretty good indicator that I didn’t find it as compelling as FF5 or FF7. The story and setting are interesting enough, but most of the time, my attention was on the mere mechanics, which just didn’t keep me interested the way FF5‘s freewheeling Jobs system did. I can blame my urge to optimize for part of that: the dual use of Espers, teaching spells continuously and raising stats when you level, meant that I spent a lot of time shuffling them around from person to person.

Ah, but I leave out the Espers’ third use, that of summonable. That’s because I was hardly ever using them that way toward the end, as my characters came to dwarf them in power. Maybe half of them knew the Ultima spell (the ultimate area-effect direct-damage spell), and most of them knew Cure 3 (enough healing power to usually restore the whole party to full health) and Life 2 (resurrect and restore to full health). These are all big mana-drains, but they also knew Osmose (absorb mana from an enemy) — something that I never used much for most of the game, but which proved useful in the three-stage boss fight against Kefka.

There’s a certain amount of philosophizing before and after the fight, with Kefka taking a garden-variety nihilistic stance, countered by Terra’s nurturing the-journey-not-the-destinationism. With his makeup and hyena’s laugh, Kefka always seemed a bit like the Joker, but when he goes into ultimate-battle mode, he adopts a more mock-angelic form that’s a clear anticipation of Sephiroth in FF7. I suppose that to people who played the games in order, it came off as Sephiroth being a variation on Kefka’s theme, but from my point of view, Kefka looks like a transitional form, a step on the way to the more familiar.

At any rate, as I had been told, the end boss fight turns out to be pretty easy once you’ve come that far and survived the other encounters in Kefka’s junkyard tower. The main obstacle to completing the dungeon is simply its length. I may be just remembering badly, but I don’t recall the final dungeon in FF7 taking anywhere near so long to traverse. And, once you’re through with it, you get the cutscenes. Just like in FF5 (or, at least, the Playstation remake of FF5 that I played), this game just doesn’t want to end. It wants to keep showing you stuff for as long as you’re willing to look at it.

Notably, there’s a series of in-engine vignettes showing the crew rushing to escape the tower before it collapses: each character (or set of related characters) gets their own little mini-sketch highlighting their role in the story — yes, even Gogo and the yeti, who aren’t really part of the story, and who shouldn’t even need to escape the tower, because I left them cooling their heels on the airship. Each of these vignettes is preceded by a credits-like listing, showing their name twice, in small letters in the form it’s usually given and then its full form in larger letters: “Edgar as EDGAR RONI FIGARO”, for example, or “Gogo as GOGO”. It took me a while to realize that the first form was probably the player-assigned name, and that it only looked weird because I hadn’t renamed anyone. Once again, I find myself wondering if I’m strange for doing that, if most people reassign them. Certainly whoever designed that sequence assumed that they do.

Once out of the tower, the real credits for the game are punctuated by scenes of the world, freed from Kefka’s random destruction, being restored: the grass comes in green again, a child is born, a seedling sprouts where some children planted it, some villagers manage to finish repairing a building without it getting wrecked again. These are all things that were set up as you roamed about talking to NPCs earlier in the game, and it feels very good to have things tied together like that, to make it clear that your actions have made a difference — but also that your actions aren’t solely responsible for the recovery. This is a matter of people all over the world working to heal it, not a burst of magical Disney energy restoring everything. In fact, that’s kind of important to the themes here. In the end, defeating Kefka involved destroying magic.

Now, lots of fantasy stories, from The Lord of the Rings to Spellbreaker, culminate in the end of the magical age and a transition into something more like the real world. I suppose it’s a metaphor for growing up. But usually it’s portrayed as a loss. Here in FF6, magic is unquestionably a bad thing, and the world is better off without it. There are mentions of the Mage Wars that almost ended the world a thousand years ago, and the Empire’s attempts to resurrect it result in a cataclysm of similar proportions. The only thing that makes the heroes hesitate to get rid of it all is half-Esper Terra, whose fate once the Espers are gone is uncertain. She survives, but only by giving up her magical half — just like the world itself. It suddenly strikes me that this is the reason for her name.

At any rate, that’s one more Final Fantasy off the Stack. Two more were released while I was playing it. The game is very completist-friendly, providing the winner with big lists of all the spells, lores, blitzes, rages, and dances the various characters did and didn’t get. The only place where I was at all complete was Cyan’s sword techniques, and that only because completing a certain quest unlocks all the ones you haven’t got yet in a single lump. I did manage to find and kill all eight of the Great Dragons, and received for my trouble an Esper that I hardly used. Contrary to expectation, it wasn’t Bahamut, either; I never did find Bahamut, although the lists tell me he was around somewhere. The one place where I failed completism most completely was the Arena, where you can wager items on noninteractive duels (one of your guys vs a monster of some sort) in order to win better items. I had used the Arena minimally, due to a misunderstanding on my part. I had found that most of the time I wound up in combat with a freaky-looking facecloud called Chupon who seemed completely undefeatable, because he would always use his Sneeze attack to simply expel my guy from the ring. “I should hold off on arena fights until I know how to block a sneeze!” I thought. “I don’t want to wager a valuable item and have Chupon just take it away from me.” Well, it turns out that the opponent you get is determined by the item you wager, and Chupon is the player’s punishment for wagering too low. So I missed out on some stuff there, but obviously nothing I needed to win the game.

Since I’ve already played FF7 and FF8, the next game in the series I play will be FF9. We’re getting pretty close to the end of Final Fantasy on the Stack, provided I don’t buy any more or take another two years to play each of the remaining games. But I’ll probably want to finish Chrono Trigger and Recettear before starting any new JRPGs.

Final Fantasy VI: Planning for the End

It strikes me that if I’m going to be wasting time on a JRPG, I might as well try to finish FF6. I mean, ye gods, it’s been more than two years since I started it. I had kind of hoped to be done with it by year’s end, but it looks like that’s not happening. In terms of game state, I’m ready to storm Kefka’s tower. In terms of brain state, hardly. I have a vast array of equipment and abilities that I’ve once again forgotten how to use, so I’m taking all the characters out grinding first, not so much to increase their level or let them learn more spells (helpful though that will be) as to remind myself how they all work. There’s one fellow in my party roster who I didn’t recognize at all at first: Gogo the mime, a very late addition from the 2010 sessions. Gogo was in FF5 as an optional gimmick boss who unlocked the Mime job, but here, he joins your party. Presumably he noticed that all of the player characters were in your party and decided to imitate them. At any rate, I don’t think I’ve actually used Gogo at all, but I’m going to have to when I go after Kefka.

Why will I have to? Because the final dungeon makes you split the party into three groups, which means twelve characters: there are four slots per group, and leaving a slot empty is just a waste. (Even an otherwise-useless character will draw the occasional attack away from the useful ones.) There are fourteen playable characters. One, Shadow the Ninja, is still AWOL — I’ve met him, I’ve talked with him, he still won’t rejoin the party. 1My mistake: it turns out that Shadow did in fact join the roster of available characters. I guess his refusal to join immediately just referred to the active group, which had no unoccupied slots. This renders my reckoning here false. I guess maybe I’ll be leaving Gogo behind after all. On the other hand, extra casting for free! I’ll have to think about this. And one, the yeti, I just don’t want in my party. He’s uncontrollable, and sometimes not being able to rein in a character in combat is a liability, as when fighting a monster that does counterattacks. So that leaves me using all of the other twelve.

A couple of the remaining characters are also a little uncontrollable for my tastes, but not too much so. Gogo does only one thing: mimic the previous action (importantly including spells he hasn’t learned, which he casts without consuming mana). But that’s generally going to be something you want done, right? Not always, admittedly: if you just had one guy cast Cure 3 to bring the party back to full health, Gogo doing it again doesn’t help. But you can always just skip his turn if you don’t want him to act.

Gau, now. Like Gogo, Gau the wildboy doesn’t have a normal “Fight” command in his combat menu. It’s replaced by “Rage”, which assigns him a set of monster attacks and renders him Berserk, which makes him uncontrollable. But you know something? That’s not his only option. He has the normal “Magic” option that any character has. So I’m trying to train him up as a mage. I have an Esper that increases your magic power stat by 2 on leveling, and I wanted to level Gau a bit anyway, because he was lagging behind the others from lack of use. A little time at dinosaur forest, and he’ll be as good a spellcaster as Terra and Celes.

And then we storm the tower. Next post: Victory! Maybe.

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1. My mistake: it turns out that Shadow did in fact join the roster of available characters. I guess his refusal to join immediately just referred to the active group, which had no unoccupied slots. This renders my reckoning here false. I guess maybe I’ll be leaving Gogo behind after all. On the other hand, extra casting for free! I’ll have to think about this.

Deus Ex: Politics and Morality

I have to correct myself now. The ending of the first mission isn’t quite as I remembered. It’s subtler. You’re never told not to talk to the alleged terrorist militia guy — in fact, you’re reminded to do it just before reaching him, and then, when you do reach him, it happens automatically. It isn’t even as coercive as the term “interrogation” suggests: he immediately surrenders and gladly talks, seemingly relieved that you’re willing to listen. When you have the information you came for, some grunts show up and say “We’ll take it from here”. It’s at this point, when it’s implied that you’re finished, that you have the opportunity to keep on talking instead.

And it’s a little odd how that goes. First he talks about how UNATCO (the global anti-terrorist organization you work for) is a tool of oppression, a catspaw of the wealthy and powerful. And it’s easy to agree. But then he starts talking about the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds and the Trilateral Commission. Now, conspiracy theories are far from implausible in the universe of this game, given what we saw in the opening cutscene, but these really seem like the wrong ones. They’re yesteryear’s conspiracies, and this is a sci-fi world, with cyborgs and nanomachines all over the place. To still be worried about the machinations of international Jewish bankers seems almost pitiable.

I didn’t mention the cyborgs and nanomachines before, did I? It’s all part of the premise. The player character, codenamed J. C. Denton, is a nanomachine-enhanced cyborg himself. And yes, that means he and the entire organization he represents is a symbol of technology supplanting humanity. Your fellow cyborgs in the organization are blatantly brutal and unsympathetic, as well as pale and dressed in gothy black outfits and speaking in foreign accents. Books scattered around HQ explain UNATCO’s high-minded principles and precepts just to underscore how far the organization is from them in practice. Me, I’ve tried to live up to those ideals, despite the other cyborgs making fun of me for it — and the game indulges me in this iconoclasm, giving me non-lethal weapons like tranquilizer darts and knock-out gas grenades to deal with the few guards I can’t sneak past. All of which is rendered somewhat pointless at the end of the first mission, when your colleagues sweep in and slaughter anyone still standing while you’re chatting with Mr. Militia. Not to mention that the second major goal is to recover a barrel of plague vaccine that the so-called terrorists stole to give to the poor. No matter how non-violently you complete that mission, there’s blood on your hands because of it.

It all reminds me a bit of the beginning of Final Fantasy IV, where the first player character is Cecil, a Dark Knight in the service of a tyrannical overlord. Cecil overcomes his beginnings, and doubtless the player character here can do so as well. Mind you, it eventually turns out that Cecil’s employer was as ruthless as he was because he was desperately trying to contain an even greater evil. Will something like that happen here? Quite likely, if you ask me. It’s all too black-and-white at the moment for a game about secrecy and deception.

Final Fantasy VI: Tower of Mages

I’ve finally conquered the tower of the Cult of Kefka — not the tower of Kefka himself, but a lesser imitation, which can actually be climbed. It provides a nice bit of variety by changing the way combat works: within the tower, neither you nor the monsters can perform any attack other than casting spells. A largish fraction of the monsters seem to have the Reflect effect on them, too, even if they don’t explicitly cast Reflect first. This means that you can’t rely on direct-damage spells. At least, not targeted ones — area-effect spells do fine, and that includes most Esper summons, which count as spells. Alternately, you can cast Reflect on one of your own guys, and then cast direct-damage spells at him, reflecting them back at the enemy. (Spells can only be reflected once.) My favorite tactic here is to summon Carbunkle, which is the equivalent of casting Reflect on everyone in your party at once. Then you can cast a whopping big direct-damage spell like Fire 3 on your entire party at once, splitting the reflected effect four ways — and, of course, get the added advantage of complete protection from the enemy’s direct-damage spells while you’re at it. So, basically, most of the encounters here are a breeze once you figure out these tactics, as long as you don’t run out of mana — Carbunkle is one of the cheaper Espers to summon, but I still had to bring a load of mana restoratives in with me, and used most of them. Which wasn’t strictly necessary: Osmose, the mana-leeching spell, works really well here, if you can bear to waste valuable attack opportunities on it.

Anyway, the whole experience is a nice rules-puzzle. Encountering the Reflect-enhanced creatures for the first time, my reaction was basically “Aaaaah! What do I do? I can’t hurt it with spells, and I can’t take it down with a melee attack, like I’d normally do to something that I can’t hurt with spells!” But really, there are quite a few things you can do, once you think of them. You just have to get out of the rut of thinking like you do in normal encounters.

Even having mastered all that, though, I wound up basically playing through the whole thing three times, because of the tower’s boss. It’s not that he’s hard to beat — he has randomly-changing elemental resistances, but by this point, my entire team had mastered some non-elemental damage spells. I trounced him handily on first encounter, only to find that my entire party somehow perished during his death throes. On my second attempt, I was careful to keep everyone at full health and have some protective buffs on at the end, but the same happened. I resorted to hints to find out what was going on: apparently dying there is inevitable, and the only way to continue is through the Life 3 spell. Life 3? I had that spell, but hadn’t used it — generally speaking, the resurrection spells are ones you want to avoid needing to use. The in-game description of the spell was “Protects from wound”, which didn’t seem to justify its insane mana cost: there were other spells to protect you from damage, and other spells to heal damage as well. What I had forgotten is that “Wounded” is the game’s name for the status I had been thinking of as “Dead”. Life 3 is a preemptive resurrection, like the Ozmoo spell in Enchanter. Cast it on someone, and they’ll be automatically resurrected after the next killing blow.

I’ve been told by now that the edition I’m playing is not a very good translation. I keep finding more and more evidence of this. Some of the creatures in the tower had a spell called “Merton”, which seemed to be an area-effect heat-damage spell, judging by the graphics. Merton? I finally figured out that it was probably a bad re-romanization of “Meltdown”, and a glance at Wikia confirms it. But that didn’t impede my ability to play the game. This confusion over the meaning of the word “wound” did. I suppose “death” isn’t really a good description either — this is an effect that can be cured by a stay at an inn. “Unconscious” or “Knocked Out” would be good, and apparently some games in the series use the latter term. Maybe even the better translations of FF6 do. But I’ll keep playing the one I have.

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.

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