Letters from Ivalice: Part 1

This year, Jennifer Unkle and Allen Ibrahim decided to play through Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, a remastered update of the PS2 classic. While Jennifer had never played it before and Allen had some prior (if incomplete) experience, the two set out to chronicle their experiences through a series of letters.

This first set of letters covers the beginning, up to their escape from the Dreadnaught Leviathan.

 

JEN

Allen,

Before we begin, I need to make something clear. Though I’ve started countless Final Fantasy games over the years, from my dimly-lit Game Boy Advance to the PS4 Pro underneath my TV, I have yet to finish a single one! It wasn’t for a lack of interest: I adore the way FFX centered its story on a clumsy sidekick, and World of Final Fantasy’s cutesy aesthetic is a joy to behold. Unfortunately, lengthy RPGs are like books with impossibly thick spines. You start reading them in earnest, then get distracted by life: by the time you return, you can’t recall what happened before, but who wants to go back to the beginning? As they go back on the shelf, you swear you’ll return to them someday, knowing full well that they’ll collect dust for the rest of the year.

Hopefully, this letter series will hold my feet to the fire. I’ve grown tired of feeling guilty over my pile of unfinished adventures: it’s about time that I sat down and saw one through to the bitter end. In retrospect, choosing to break that streak with the MMO-centric, impossibly large Final Fantasy XII might have been a risky move! Thankfully, it’s been a fairly pleasant journey, though not without its fair share of misery.

When I first laid my eyes on Ivalice, I instantly fell in love. The world is painted with the same muted tones you’d find in a faded storybook, but still leaves plenty of room to be dazzled by a clear sky. For once, Final Fantasy’s signature mix of futuristic tech and stone castles work in concert: with neither element jockeying for priority, they complement one another to create a believable, cozy space. Even the old English flourishes are deployed in moderation, accentuating but never overtaking conversations with your pals. As the grounded and fantastic elements go hand in hand, Ivalice is a strikingly believable, comfortable place to visit.

And it needs all the comfort it can manage: as enjoyable as it is to wander around Ivalice, I lose my patience when the swords come out. Someone out there doubtlessly relishes programming each party member with the Gambit system, optimizing battles and messing with skill trees (or in this case, a skill chessboard). For me, it’s like playing an offline MMO, complete with the awkward battle positioning and frustrating delay between each swing. Allen, even when you reassured me that the “Zodiac” classes I chose for each member were perfectly fine, the sheer number of options on display filled me with panic. How am I supposed to experiment with classes when choosing one locks characters in their roles for the rest of the game? I also don’t understand why I should try new strategies when I can lose in a manner of minutes, and save points are few and far between (thank goodness for that fast-forward button).

Despite all that, I can’t help but feel drawn in by the drama. The voices have this compressed timbre (doubtlessly a side-effect from fitting this game onto a PS2 disc) that tickles the ears: Balthier sounds downright heavenly as he scoffs and preens, and even the dullest exposition carries a hypnotic cadence. Somehow, Final Fantasy XII offers up its own smarmy mercenary, fugitive princess and hot-headed orphan without feeling like a Star Wars retread. Even the villain acts with a level of subtlety missing from most games: he wears a humble face and insists on honoring his new subjects, even as he tightens the noose around their neck. It’s far from a poe-faced adventure, but their reluctance to paint in broad strokes creates this sense of maturity that continues to catch me off-guard.

Allen, this isn’t your first time with Final Fantasy XII. How does it feel to return? Are the new modifications treating you well?

ALLEN

Jen,

I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying Ivalice so far! As you mentioned, I have a weird history with FFXII. I bought it back in 2006 after seeing footage of that AMAZING opening cutscene with the fireworks and large-scale battle. I remember spending hours and hours walking around the city of Rabanastre. I can still navigate the shopping district with my eyes closed. I did this a lot with games of my childhood; I would explore the early levels of Crash Bandicoot back and forth because I was too afraid to progress. The point is, most of my time with the game was spent doing the early hunts (basically side quests that serve to check your gear/strategy against harder enemies), grinding for fun, and slowly moving this mysterious narrative forward. Every playthrough was stopped around the climactic end of The Dreadnought Leviathan, a mini-dungeon where your party is imprisoned on an airship filled with guards. Near the end, you are expected to run away through the ship and not engage with endless waves of enemies. Teenage Allen must not have realized this and given up!

Your description of Ivalice as a world resonated with me because it really is such a specific, vivid aesthetic that they’ve created. It’s the huge columns that border the market district, the children running around guards to play tag, the swelling music that plays when you first cross over a bridge overlooking the city that make it feel lived in. One thing I didn’t pick up on as a kid was how ingrained the military occupation is in this society. Vaan and Penelo meet in a busy square to plan their day, and one of your first major objectives is sneaking past guards blocking the way back into town for seemingly no reason. It’s a beautiful bureaucratic nightmare, and as you slip underground into the equally well-rendered sewer area, where people of all sorts form communities to help each other survive, the game heads off to the races.

It is at this point that it becomes a Video Game, for better or for worse. You’re quickly introduced to the job system, and the combat goes from a ponderous drag with no sense of progression to a thrilling long-term investment. I never came to terms with the original License Board system because it was not inherently intuitive; you dump points into skills because they sound useful, and then you hopefully reach better skills over time. But now, with the addition of the aforementioned Zodiac Job System (a holdover from the game’s second international release), you can craft a sort of gameplay narrative for each character. I’m pretty basic when it comes to class and weapon selection in games like this, so I’ve just given everyone the most lore-appropriate jobs for them and specced them into high damage, high HP builds. Vaan is a fledgling adventurer and thief, so I made him the knife-wielding Shikari job. Balthier is a charming Han Solo type who looks good firing a gun, so he became my party’s Machinist, and so on.

It feels like the job system is going to pay off in the player’s favor eventually. Where we’re at right now, fights can feel weirdly slow and unfair, money is short (Pro tip: sell your old weapons and armor!). Also, frustrating time limits and restrictions make most dungeon runs feel less like exploration opportunities and more like desperate speedruns. However, right around where we stopped playing, we got the last few permanent party members for the foreseeable future, and suddenly it all clicked with me. There’s an arc to this game’s progression system that matches up with Vaan and Penelo’s story. They begin as poor young thieves, stealing what they can and disrespecting authority, and looking out for each other above all else. You’re introduced to guest characters early on, and all of them have wildly overpowered magical abilities that you won’t be able to use for tens of hours. But like Zero in Mega Man X, you get to see what it’s going to be like. These characters basically tell the player “This is going to be you someday. Stick with this crew of people, keep growing, keep trying things, and eventually you will be a party of heroes”.

That’s my main takeaway from this early run of the game. After escaping through some sewers and breaking our charming party of characters out of their respective prisons, the team sets its eyes on proving Ashe’s legitimacy to the throne.