Friday, April 28, 2017

Final Fantasy Tactics's Plot's Shift in Focus

Short rant today! I mean, sort of. Short for me, at least.



I do love Final Fantasy Tactics. 1 of the greatest Final Fantasy titles, hell, 1 of the greatest RPGs, period, ever made, Final Fantasy Tactics is intelligent, thoughtful, dire, critical, and inventive, telling an engrossing tale of 1 man’s forgotten heroism in the brutal and unflinchingly amoral land of Ivalice, which mimics in most significant ways Europe of the medieval ages. It’s a great tale of class warfare, the way that grief and anger can both corrupt a man and make him greater at the same time, questions of whether means can justify ends, love and loyalty between family both biological and adopted, the tragedy that war visits upon the innocent, the monstrosity of those who crave power and the havoc they wreak in their power games...all kinds of engaging, powerful stuff.

Oh, yeah, and also there’s some stuff in there about saving the world from hell demons who possess people using magical stones based on the same stuff as your horoscope.

Yeah, see, about halfway through Final Fantasy Tactics, the plot’s focus shifts from the war of succession in Ivalice and the protagonist’s place in it, to an invasion by that world’s Anti-Christ who it turns out was secretly also that world’s Christ figure. The transition isn’t immediate or anything; the Zodiac Stones only gradually start to take over the plot, and the political struggles remain at least in the background of the game for a while, but...it’s still kind of weird, when I really look at it. FFT is well-written enough that the 2 different plot focuses aren’t unrelated, of course, the church’s power is a player in the political story and some of the political story’s figures become key players in the Zodiac Stones plot, but...it wouldn’t be hard to completely separate Final Fantasy Tactics: the war-of-power-hungry-nobles story, and Final Fantasy Tactics: the save-the-world-from-demons story. They seem, in fact, artificially tied together, like 2 different stories that were carefully, but not naturally, welded into 1.

And the thing is, well, I think it’s to the game’s detriment. That’s not to say that Final Fantasy Tactics isn’t a terrific RPG; it definitely is. That’s not to say, even, that the story of saving the world from the threat of demons secretly tied to a false church that FFT presents isn’t good. It is quite a decent adventure, executed in a competent way. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just...well, the first major story of the game, of warring nobles and class warfare, the questions of honor and where the line lies between good and evil when you’re sinning for the sake of peace, and the juxtaposition between protagonist Ramza and the man he considers a brother as one struggles to do lasting good without compromising his principles, and the other becomes a hero king by sacrificing his better nature...that all amounts to a way better, much more compelling plot to focus on.

I mean, think about it. What are the moments that really stick with you from FFT, the parts of it that make it so memorable and speak to you? For me, there are many. The betrayal of Algus and death of Teta, of course. The spite and unrelenting resentment of Miluda, and what we see Wiegraf is reduced to afterward. Ramza managing to stop a major battle and save countless lives by flooding the battlefield. Ovelia speaking to Agrias of her doubts and concerns. Wiegraf agreeing to give his soul to Lucavi for the power to accomplish his goals. The quick, bloody, vicious betrayals of those who conspire to seize power. The complicated character of Algus, the ambition of Delita which you can’t truly say for sure is right or wrong, the plight of the commoners represented by Wiegraf and Miluda, the devotion of Agrias, the determination and despair of Ovelia, the difficulty that Ramza has in reconciling himself to his role and the man he wants to be and his conflict with Delita, as well as with his brothers, the clashing ideologies of Ramza and Gafgarion that cement who Ramza truly is. The ending scene where Ovelia betrays and kills Delita for what he’s done, and he in turn kills her, and thinks of Ramza, the man who wouldn’t do evil for the sake of good, and wonders whether things turned out better for him.

See, the thing is, of all those really memorable, powerful scenes and characters and ideas I just mentioned that really stay in my mind, only 1 involved the Zodiac Stones, and part of that was just that it was the first time we’d watched a soul corrupted by the Stones, and another part was simply what it meant for Wiegraf as a character. Nearly everything about Final Fantasy Tactics that makes the game so great is, to me at least, the overarching story of succession and class struggle, and the personal story of morality between Ramza and Delita, which feeds primarily back into the political plot. So I feel that by gradually turning its focus away from that story, and onto a tale of saving the world from magical evil stones and resurrected demons and whatnot, we kind of missed out. Final Fantasy Tactics is a terrific RPG, but so much of what makes it excellent is found in its first plot focus, not its second.

I just wonder what might have been if the game had stayed the course until the end, whether we might have gotten an even better product had the story stayed grounded in political struggles and questions of the morality of actions and intent. The Zodiac Stones story that eventually overtook the game’s focus is fine, as I said, and they fit well with the setting of Ivalice given the whole corrupt medieval church thing, but...without that, would we have had yet more really powerful moments of emotion and social examination, and raw twists and turns in the plot? Would some of the content of the game’s expansive codex, so in-depth that it feels like a third of the story’s content is locked away in its menus, have been seen in action rather than just read about?

Great though it is, I cannot help but wonder if Final Fantasy Tactics had more to offer, had it not switched its focus. I suppose we’ll just never know.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Guest Rant: In Defense of Young RPG Protagonists, by Humza

It's that time again: time for me to rest on my sorry ass as though complaining about RPGs was something hard to do, and allow 1 of my readers to treat you all to a different perspective. And our guest ranter today is, once more, the esteemed and helpful Humza! Thanks yet again, buddy!

Disclaimer: As ever, I don't own Humza's words, and they don't necessarily reflect my own opinions and observations. Although I can say that his thoughts below are quite logical and compelling, and if I don't entirely agree with all of them, I do agree with most of what Humza says, and have adjusted my perceptions accordingly. He's a pretty convincing bloke.



In Defense of Young RPG Protagonists

Humza
March 22, 2017



It's a common complaint that lots of RPGs (especially Japanese ones) have protagonists that are too young to go on a journey to save the world. Most of the complaints seem to come from people that don't like JRPGs in the first place and someone like that probably wouldn't read this, but maybe it'll interest some of the readers here anyway.

The complaints seem to be centered around it being unrealistic for a group of teenagers to go on their quest* and that it would make more sense to replace the cast with a group of adults. Let's get the more boring defenses of them out of the way first...

Marketing

This is probably the most common reason provided for why JRPGs commonly use young protagonists, since the main demographic of video games in Japan (and this genre in particular) are teenagers, and the players would presumably be able to relate more to the characters if both share similar ages and go through similar situations. For example, many teenagers gradually start to acquire more responsibilities (even if those responsibilities often revolve around spending more time studying and doing simple errands for parents) and young protagonists in RPGs usually have few responsibilities before their adventure. The type of responsibility differs (saving the world is a much more impactful burden in comparison), but a parallel could be drawn where the errands feel like a similarly huge burden in the players' minds, if some eisegesis is used (although I don't agree with that).

Easier to develop characters

It shouldn't be too hard to see how character development is easier to write for a younger character. In most cases, but not all, younger people are more easily swayed in their ideas and beliefs than older people. It's not profound or thought-provoking, but this quote by Miyamoto illustrates an example of that. Since older characters are more rigid, more drastic situations are needed for them to develop. This could lead to characters that finish their development earlier, as with Yuri from Tales of Vesperia, who (I'm told) becomes static around halfway into the game. It is possible to develop older protagonists well, like Stocke from Radiant Historia, but the main reason to choose an older character is used by writers seems to be (considering it's a commonality between older protagonists) so that they are more experienced in their field (both of the aforementioned characters being knights in renowned organisations), and using drastic situations to show that the character needs to progress could conflict** with the appearance of them being experienced, so it's harder to write. Stocke from Radiant Historia is portrayed that way (perhaps intentionally) when he falls to an enemy that doesn't have a huge significance to the plot.

More importantly, it's common (at least, from my experience and what I've heard from others, which is admittedly limited anecdotal evidence) for people to more actively develop their identity starting from that point, which weighs more heavily on the scale of character development than the amount of experience that characters have.

Fewer conflicts between gameplay and story

This kind of ties into the previous point about older characters normally being more experienced, but an experienced character has less reason to change and improve if they are capable of tackling the problem without a strong need for change. The traditional RPG leveling system is suited to characters progressively improving (there's probably a correlation that can be drawn between physical strength and the mental state of a character since both usually develop in RPGs) over the course of a game and this ties to characters getting more experienced (it's called EXP for a reason, so this is probably obvious...), which is hard to do with an older, more experienced character. For example, Shepard from Mass Effect is around 30 years old and one of the strongest characters in the setting, but it's easier than it should be for him to get killed by a low-level grunt during gameplay. (This isn't a knock against Mass Effect since the gameplay probably benefited from having the mission-based experience system it did and the problem isn't too noticeable, but you need to go through more mental gymnastics to make logical sense out of it).

Historical precedence

I don't think any human being or group could be attributed as having saved the world, but there is some (rare) historical precedence of young people having accomplishing great things. The most common example would probably be Jeanne d'Arc, who helped the French army in a war with the English at 18 years old, which is almost comparable to the protagonists of the first two Suikodens, since they also lead armies to victory against another country. Alexander the Great has a somewhat similar story where he started engaging in (small) warfare at 17. Those RPG protagonists are still far-fetched compared to this, but they don't seem quite as unlikely considering what young leaders have done in the past. The setting in some of those RPGs is also technologically closer to the places the aforementioned leaders came from than it is to the 21st century, so the concept of adolescence may not be a limiting factor that exists in those worlds. (It's possible the concept might limit what adolescents are likely to accomplish since most young leaders I found were before the Industrial Revolution, but that might be offset by the increased life expectancy giving people more time to do great things).

I'd be interested in any comments on this since it strays from things I've usually written in the past, and I probably overlooked or got something wrong. Thanks for reading!






*It seems arbitrary to draw the line for realism at young people helping the world become a better place, and not at more unlikely things in RPGs, like magic existing.


**Most people seem to improve aspects of themselves when it becomes a necessity since the reason behind improving is much more compelling in that case.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

AeternoBlade's Freyja's Power

AeternoBlade is a rather obscure action RPG with a decent, creative plot involving a heaping load of time travel, a fairly well-executed theme of the terrible and corrupting nature of wrath and vengeance, and a serviceable cast of characters It has an imaginative gameplay system that generally works, functional graphics, and a middling soundtrack. And it has one of the most powerful RPG protagonists of all time.

There really aren’t many other RPG characters I can think of whom Freyja would not be able to defeat, save ones like, say, Goku (Dragon Ball Z has had RPGs made about it, remember), who are just outright invulnerable to conventional attacks made with a sword. But as long as a foe can, conceivably, be defeated by being stabbed and slashed with a sword, even if it’s a case where it would take hundreds of sword strokes to do it...Freyja would invariably come out of a battle between them as the victor. Hell, even in the case of a character like Goku, where she literally can’t harm him, a fight between them would probably end in Freyja’s retreat more than an outright loss.

What makes Freyja insanely unstoppable is her sword, the Aeterno Blade,* and the way it does this is twofold. First of all, it...well, it basically lets her be Tracer from Overwatch, if you increased Tracer’s temporal powers several times over. The Aeterno Blade allows Freyja to perform a small little time-space dash forward, which basically blinks her out of time for a moment, allowing her to evade enemy attacks by invincibly passing through them in time. She can’t do this in rapid succession, but the recharge time on this is still short, like half a second, so Freyja’s ability to dodge her foes’ attacks and close a distance gap (which is kinda necessary for a sword-user) is quite effective.

More importantly from the Tracer-esque half of the Aeterno Blade’s repertoire is the ability it grants Freyja to rewind her own actions (while remaining fully conscious of their consequences), and in the process heal herself from any damage she took during that time, should she be mortally wounded. So, essentially, if an enemy manages to strike a fatal blow against Freyja, she can rewind her own timeline by half a minute or so, and bring herself back to before that fatal moment in as good condition as she was, with the knowledge of what’s going to happen and, presumably, how to avoid it. And Freyja can activate this rewind ability pretty much at the brink of, or even beyond, death. After all, any time she dies in the game, you have a few seconds as she lies there to begin rewinding her back to life. So yeah. Freyja has the ability to rewind time from even beyond the grip of death to bring herself back to life, with preternatural insight on what not to do in her immediate future.

So, already we’re talking about an individual who is extremely difficult to defeat, because if you’re fighting Freya and she’s using the powers I’ve mentioned, she’s blinking through most of your attacks and keeps seeming to know exactly how to counter the finishing strikes you might have landed on her, knowing they’re coming practically before even you do. And it’s worth noting that even beyond the powers that the Aeterno Blade confers to Freyja, she’s no slouch at combat. She has an impressive, physics-defying repertoire of sword skills, can use magic to call down meteors on her foes (which is pretty much always a high-level attack spell, regardless of which RPG you go by), and can do that double-jump thing that’s so popular in action RPGs. Already we’re talking about a pretty damned dangerous combatant...and I haven’t even gone into the details of the other half of the Aeterno Blade’s time control that Freyja possesses.

The other side of Freyja’s temporal abilities is extrapersonal time reversal. See...in most cases, a character who can stop or incredibly slow time is almost unbeatable, such as Sailor Moon: Another Story’s Sailor Pluto, or The Flash when he’s really not kidding around. When Feena stops time in battle for a few rounds during Grandia 1, it gives her a chance to fully heal the party up, and do some damage to her enemy, all without needing fear a single attack to her person. Likewise, Sailor Pluto breaks Sailor Moon: Another Story, able to freeze time for her enemy for 3 rounds, allowing the Senshi to heal themselves and launch attacks, and then just as time for the enemy restarts, she can freeze them again. This extraordinarily broken gameplay mechanic even works on the final boss!

Very impressive stuff, to be sure. But Freyja makes even that level of power look like a joke. She can, at will, make the entirety of time and space rewind itself for several seconds (at full power, it’s roughly a full minute), starting and stopping everything around her as she pleases. She herself, however, is an outside entity to this rewinding, and can act as she wishes...which means that during this period of time marching backward, she can deal damage to an enemy, damage that will (for some reason) remain with said enemy even as it reverses back before she stabbed it. You could attack her, and before you even connected, she’d reverse you back to when you first started that attack, and stab you in the heart as she was doing it, so from your perspective, the first lurching step you take at her is suddenly, inexplicably your last as a gaping hole appears in your chest. From the viewpoint of her enemies, she can and is everywhere but where their attack is about to land, as 1 fatal slash after another instantaneously appear on them. She could spend half a minute dodging blows from you, suddenly reverse time, and deliver a fatal strike as you go back through your every action, and bam! From the perspective of the rest of the universe, you somehow got sliced in half a few seconds before you even had seen that she was there.

Also worth noting in regards to this ability is that there is an accessory that Freyja can equip to the blade that causes her to regenerate her health while she’s rewinding the world around her, so she can be constantly healing even as she’s making you do an impression of a moon-walking pincushion. There is no time during which she’s using her powers in which she can’t also be regenerating herself back to peak condition. Y’know. Just for a little extra overpowered zest.

Seriously, aside from an enemy that she just outright cannot damage with a sword or meteors, there is no individual I can think of originating from RPGs that Freyja would not be able to defeat, and even the ones she couldn’t actually harm, she could still escape from and/or stalemate. It’s too bad that AeternoBlade is so obscure, because it’s created one of the most powerful fictional characters ever to exist, and it seems kind of like it did so without even trying.

And that’s all I have to say today. Tune in next time for a rant wherein I’m not gushing about how super cool and strong some character is like I’m goddamn five years old! At least, maybe.











* Why the hell did they make it a single word for the title of the game, but put a space between “Aeterno” and “Blade” in the actual name of the weapon? I swear, sometimes I think that Japan is purposefully making titular nomenclature as confusing as they can.