Letters from Ivalice: Part 2

As Jennifer Unkle and Allen Ibrahim continue their journey through Final Fantasy XII, Allen is swept up in the politics and finer details of this gorgeous, complex world, while Jen grits her teeth through several brutal bosses.

JEN,

I’m surprised by a lot of Final Fantasy XII. Its minute-to-minute structure reminds me of a linear RPG or a D&D campaign, with a grand narrative pulled along by more personal tales and character moments. Ashe is out to prove she’s the rightful heir to the throne by acquiring the Dawn Shard, one of several magical stones that somehow united the kingdoms many years ago. King Raithwall kept it buried with him in his tomb, so she enlists Vaan and the gang to help her get it. Something I’ve begun to realize about the game’s plot is it often relies on deals made off-screen to get our party from place to place. I didn’t even realize we were intentionally captured on the Leviathan until recently! While this does feel like the game hand-waving rational explanations sometimes, it leads to some of my favorite set pieces. Take the “jagd” for example. For those who don’t know, the jagd is a piece of land that is immune to the effects of skystones (and by extension, airships). They…they literally created this concept just so that it would be surprising when the Empire comes to Raithwall’s Tomb to ambush the party later.

I’m fine with these conveniences is they are always in service of getting to extremely cool scenes. Raithwall’s Tomb itself is a slog, but getting out of it rewards you with a high-flying action scene. An airship implodes from magic overload, Fran backflips out of prison, and all of this is so cool that I’m willing to ignore the fact that jagds exist in this world for no other reason than this scene. The plot beats so far ultimately break down to “This doesn’t necessarily make sense for world-building, but it gives us more levels to design and bosses to program,” which is what you want out of a big budget JRPG. Context is not important if the ends are exciting.

Speaking of context, what was up with those back-to-back wall boss fights? Why did you think they chose to have one optional boss in Raithwall’s Tomb, and immediately follow it up with a mandatory, easier version? The cynical part of me thinks that the tomb needed padding, and they went for an easy FFIV reference. But maybe there is also something to the idea that King Raithwall really wanted to test adventurers trying to get into his tomb, or that he ran out of ideas. I mentioned to you that this tomb in general gave me Persona 5 vibes, and that went beyond the obvious aesthetic resemblance to Futaba’s dungeon. The winding corridors, the backtracking, and the repetitive battles made it feel like I was trapped in a boring section with no respite. There’s only one save point, it loops back in on itself several times, and you’re basically doing the same stretch of combat twice to unlock one central door. The messy design of this dungeon is disappointing considering previous areas have flowed so well. One of the game’s most interesting themes is how history can both save and destroy us, and an ancient king’s tomb would have been an amazing way to flesh that out. But alas, this all just lead to us fighting the Esper Belias, getting the Dawn Shard, and getting betrayed by Vossler. This heel turn felt unearned, but I never felt like Vossler had enough of a personality outside of his relationship to Basch.

This point onward is where I couldn’t put the game down. No more boring underground tombs, it’s time for airship battles and heavy exposition! Like I mentioned earlier, the airship implosion scene is one of the game’s best, and having Fran’s connection to the Mist lead to her outburst does a lot to not only her give her a connection to Ivalice’s history, but also empower her for a moment before regaining her composure. I think Fran is incredibly interesting in how she manages to both subvert and totally fall into the tropes of sexist female characters, but I’m curious what you think! I know for a fact from playing a little bit ahead that we’re only going to see more of her soon…

With the lusterless Dawn Shard in hand, Ashe is ready to stop advocating for peace and start fighting. If it wasn’t clear enough already, this game really is about Ashe and her growing into a strong leader. I haven’t even seen Vaan for hours outside of cutscenes because I never need him in my party anymore, and that’s certainly refreshing. I wanted to use this section of the game to talk about how much I love shopping expedition breaks in fiction, but there’s no realistic way we could afford anything for sale in Rabanastre at this point. I immediately took Fran’s advice and went to visit the Garif tribe to ask them about wielding the Dawn Shard. The run there, across the now-flooded Giza Plains, is beautiful! The game’s age definitely shows in the writing and structure, but visually, these wide open plains full of wildlife conjure up images of a vast world outside of the city, even if they are realistically just a few screens of combat.

Finally, we arrive in Jahara. I’m sure you were also disappointed by the portrayal of the Garif, whose masks and culture seem to almost directly mimic that of Native American/indigenous groups in the United States. Hell, if it wasn’t clear enough, one of the NPCs in town shows off this world’s version of a buffalo, saying “We use all parts of it, nothing is wasted!” These racist caricatures feel very out of place in the game, which hasn’t really dipped its toe into real world racial analogues so far. I hope desperately that this was a one-off bad decision, because nothing ruins your fun adventure story faster than fantasy racism. Begrudgingly, I spoke to all of the villagers and was told to speak to Great-chief Uball-Ka about the Dawn Shard. I actually found it funny that his response was “I don’t know why you expected us to know more than you guys did. That thing seems broken!” and then the scene quickly brushes past that because LARSA’S BACK! Do we care about Larsa, Jen? He’s charming, and he has infinite Hi-Potions, but I don’t know where he fits into the narrative just yet. He wants us to come with him to the top of Mt. Bur-Omisace to work towards peace again. I’m sure this will go well…

I didn’t even touch on how the combat’s been! We unlocked our second class specializations after returning to Rabanastre, and now I just feel like I’m dumping a thousand points into skills that are slowly making me overpowered, but I still don’t have the actual spells or technicks to do anything with that power. How is that aspect of the game treating you?

-Allen

ALLEN,

Real talk? This game has been breaking my spirit lately. During our last session, I had a few moments where dropping everything and running or endlessly popping potions were the only ways I could survive an encounter. As soon as I entered Raithwall’s Tomb, I faced an even bigger problem: the non-optional “Wall” boss would slowly push my party to its certain doom, hour after hour, because I just wasn’t equipped to handle its dirty tricks. When it wasn’t silencing my spells or putting the entire cast to sleep at once, it would capture one or two warriors, taking them out of commission for the rest of the fight and preventing me from adding someone else. The torches, the one environmental advantage you’re given, were more of a gamble than a tool, with two of them randomly set to make the damned thing go faster.

I spent almost two hours banging my head against this Wall. I filled up each skill tree, shopped for more potions/Phoenix Downs, and even considered grinding out a few more levels. Regardless of what I did, the end result was always the same: the biggest hitters were always immobilized, near-constant Silence spells kept my healers at bay, and the Wall simply moved too quickly to chip away at its health before it turned me into a fantasy pancake! This fight was the moment when self-doubt finally got the better of me, and I wondered whether I even had it in me to finish Final Fantasy XII.

Even after I managed a fortunate roll of the dice and finally bested the Wall, my fears weren’t diminished in any way. Once again, I had found a loophole in the game’s design and exploited it: when I set the battle speed to maximum in the options, my team could attack at a quicker rate, while this boss remained trundling along at the same speed. My final fight had me constantly pausing so I could counteract any debuffs thrown my way, and even then, it took an absolute miracle to coax the Wall out of incapacitating my best healers/fighters before the time limit was through.

Throughout the next two boss fights, it quickly became apparent that I was in over my head. I came out of each encounter with an inch of life left, having died 5-10 times throwing everything onto the wall, hoping something would stick. When his life dipped below the halfway mark, Vossler felt like he became impossible to kill, dishing out meaty attacks at a rate that my healing spells just couldn’t match. It wasn’t until you mentioned the Mists that I even found a summon I had earned earlier: while deploying it instantly solved my problem, it felt like a temporary solution to a much bigger problem that has dogged me since we started playing: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

No matter what I try in Final Fantasy XII, I always feel like I’m doing something wrong! It’s not like I go into each fight unprepared: hours have been spent shopping for potions, tweaking my Gambits, and searching for the ideal group that can push me through even the toughest skirmishes. None of that matters, as I still slid my way to Jahara by the skin of my teeth. Do I fundamentally misunderstand how this game is meant to be played? Is my confusion caused by sub-par instructions from XII itself, or am I just exceptionally clueless? If things don’t change soon, I don’t know if I’m even capable of reaching the end, even if the thought of giving up fills me with shame!

Enough of me recounting my failures: you were wondering what I thought about Fran and Larsa? Fran herself seems perfectly competent and is easy to love, but I still feel uneasy about the way she’s dressed and effectively treated as Balthier’s lesser sidekick. As the villain’s brother, Larsa has a lot more room to work with. He regularly goes on adventures, rescuing Penelo by himself before disappearing for a while. Even though he still vouches for the sinister, Imperialist nation causing trouble for the rest of the world, he seems eager to compromise and do the right thing when he can.

Our current alliance is undoubtedly temporary, but I’m still rooting for Larsa to see the error of his ways and join my group permanently. Maybe a confrontation or catastrophe in the near future will make him distance himself from his powerful family, but it’s equally possible that he’ll lead us into a trap, revealing a level of ruthlessness that even his awful brother lacks. Larsa is given enough nuance to keep me guessing, while Fran is just…there. That isn’t Fran’s fault by any means: XII could do so much more with her, but she’s often pushed to the background, and that’s a damn shame.

I’ll wobble to Bur-Omisace’s summit however I can, but the jury’s still out on whether Final Fantasy XII will break me first. Without any difficulty settings, the knowledge that you’re even further than I am is the only thing keeping me going. I might need to lean on you for some help with my party later, but that’s a topic for another time.

-JEN