Letters from Ivalice: Part 3

Jennifer Unkle and Allen Ibrahim make their way to the summit of Mt. Bur-Omisace, learning more about Fran and the inner workings of the Archadian Empire. Jen finally manages to get a handle on the combat, while Allen insists that even the game hates Vaan.

ALLEN,

After our last series of letters, I came close to throwing in the towel and giving up on Final Fantasy XII entirely. Ivalice was a merciless world, packed with encroaching, sentient walls and stubborn tortoises that brought my party to its knees in seconds. I would lose hours to each boss, brute forcing my way through strategies that were doomed from the start. What good is a stash of potions if you’re taking damage faster than you can heal? How can you properly fight against a foe that routinely casts Blind or Silence on your whole crew? Every encounter felt like a hopeless battle of attrition: every win felt like I was delaying an inevitable brick wall that would crash down, halting my progress for good.

Thankfully, you saw my frustrations and intervened. You frequently chimed in, explaining how to use mechanics that the game failed to surface on its own. As I approached the jungle, you prepared me for the challenges ahead, advising me to stock up on golden quills and sprint past the overpowered, glowing wolves. Whenever I had a question about the most minor detail, you were there with an answer! Our constant conversations reminded me that JRPGs are marathons, not races, and that I needed to spend time readying myself instead of sprinting from cutscene to cutscene. Pat yourself on the back, Allen: you single-handedly saved my playthrough.

Once I finally beefed up my party (I’m increasingly grateful for the fast-forward button in this remaster), my attention was fully fixated on the story itself. Archadia is a surprisingly empathetic, human enemy: sure, Vayne is a patricidal, power-hungry bastard, but his effortless cruelty is balanced by his thoughtful brother and a trio of high-ranking Judges. Regardless of where his true intentions lie, it really seems like Larsa will go above and beyond to secure peace for Ivalice, willingly putting himself in danger to facilitate a diplomatic meeting at the top of Mt. Bur-Omisace. By all accounts, we shouldn’t trust him, as he could easily lead Ashe’s small rebellion into the hands of the empire for the umpteenth time. But there’s something about his optimism that makes me want to assist him however I can, regardless of how things shake out later (not that I won’t be furious if he does end up betraying us).

How did you feel about the short detour through the forest? Spending more time with Fran was a pleasant change of pace: by getting a glimpse at the life and family she left behind, she finally gets the chance to step out of Balthier’s shadow. The Viera spend their entire lives dwelling within their village, and anyone who steps outside of the forest’s bounds is essentially excommunicated: their ability to “hear” its spirit is stripped away, and they are forbidden from ever returning to their home.

Like the Garif, there’s an uncomfortable, appropriative cloud surrounding the Viera, but Fran’s own story is universal. For one reason or another, we all have moments where we must make drastic changes or take a different path, abandoning what came before. I burnt a few bridges to get where I am today, and like Fran, there are times where I wonder whether I made the right decisions. But we must always move forward and take pride in what we have now, avoiding the temptation to linger over what we have lost.

Powering through a few more bosses (including one you failed to warn me about, but that’s OK), I finally made it to Bur-Omisace’s summit and met Al-Cid Margrace. After watching Vayne murder his own father and frame the senate, ensuring his unchallenged rise to power, I went through severe tonal whiplash, thanks to this pompous-yet-generous Antonio Banderas impersonator. Thankfully, news of the king’s death squashes the initial “peace through an arranged marriage” plan, and we said our goodbyes to Larsa as he weathered the blow of his father’s passing. I hope that kid doesn’t do anything rash, unless said rashness involves switching sides and helping us kill his asshole brother!

P.S. Thanks again for guiding me through this turbulent world. I owe you big time.

-JEN

JEN,

Gosh, nothing makes me happier than helping friends! I agree that this game’s worst quality is how little it tells you about its systems. It ends up being a ton of trial and error, or in my case, a lot of walkthrough consulting. If it means that we can both propel each other to success in this game, then I think this endeavor will all be worth it. There’s a LOT to dig into, even in this relatively short mountain climb.

I’m constantly at odds with the combat; either I’m accidentally healing a boss by using its elemental strength for half an hour, or this hulking primal beast comes lumbering at me and I slay it in about thirty seconds. There’s very little room for medium challenge so far. I personally prefer the latter type of fight because many of the encounters in FFXII are best enjoyed as spectacles on the way to more of its excellent story, but it really defeats the point of having such a complex License system when all you need to stomp the early parts of the game is HP and damage bonus licenses. I’m at the point now where I have filled out about 50% of both class license boards for each of my characters, and I still don’t feel like my tanks have much to do. Mages can spec into debuffs, high damage spells, AoE attacks, and their abilities work best with good Gambits that allow them to exploit weaknesses ruthlessly. But tanks just…swing swords very fast and very hard. There don’t seem to be any skills that make them more fun, save for a few Technicks that simply do more damage or self-heal. I mention this only because I had a REALLY good time min-maxing my party in this latest session.

It may have had something to do with finishing classes and finding myself with a lot of free time, but I marathoned this entire segment in two or three late night sittings, eyes wide open and with multiple guides up. I was hyperfixated, and even though I could tell it was bad for my sleep, I couldn’t stop. I don’t recommend playing anything this way! No game is worth losing sleep over, but sometimes you find your niche and just sink so deep into it that doing anything else feels wrong. In this time, I bought every useful combat Gambit from the store in Rabanastre, got my main three party members to level 25 ( well above where we need to be), and started looking up when I could unlock the best weapons in the game. As mentioned before, one of the biggest hurdles when trying to play this game is knowing what you’re doing wrong when you fail, and how certain systems work on a basic level. I still can’t tell you how to correctly chain more than two or three Mist attacks together…

With all of that prep under my belt, everything after Golmore Jungle flew by in a flash, which gave me time to think about the plot so far. For those not playing along, we’re a party of adventurers led by the rightful queen of a country at war, and the plot centers on her trying to avoid violent conflict and ease the political tensions of neighboring nations. However, this inexplicably involves acquiring several magical stone McGuffins, and using them to…bring swift justice to bad people? I do not think the game is ultimately going to advocate for necessary violence, but so far Ashe’s plot just seems to be about her accepting that bad people need to die by any means to achieve peace, despite the pleas of her ghostly brother  (who constantly appears when she finds one of these stones to push her away from using it to harm others).

Golmore Jungle was fine; as with so many dungeons in this game, the map itself is surprisingly small, but the Petrify mechanic slows things down considerably. I loved the Fran detour though! This is the kind of story a game about war and conflict needs. It broke my heart to see Fran ostracized by every single member of her tribe for trying to live her life, but I always read her decision to leave as a necessary one in her mind. If she stayed and simply existed amongst the other Viera in an isolationist walled garden, war would come and go outside, and she would never see beyond her home. In a way, Fran is more Luke from Star Wars than Vaan is, or at least more likeable. The fact that this scene ends with Vaan tactlessly asking how old Fran is and being rebuffed by the entire party confirms that even the game hates him. Vaan is nothing. He is the player stand-in, but you never have to play as him. That says so much to me.

More boss fights, more status effect frustrations, and we find ourselves in the Henne mines. I was ready to be annoyed by this dungeon’s switch-hitting mechanics, but it’s over and done with in about 45 minutes. If they’re going to do more puzzle dungeons like this, going the modern 3D Mario route of “introduce mechanic, toy with mechanic, test mastery of mechanic” works a whole lot better than agonizing repetition. I played a whole dungeon ahead of you this month because of the aforementioned hyperfixation, and the next dungeon is probably my favorite so far? I’m excited to talk about it.

As you mentioned, all of the cutscenes involving Vayne and the Judges are leaps and bounds more interesting than the main story. While Ashe is a struggling princess working towards peace, the Knights struggle with the moral quandaries of working in an inherently corrupt system. It’s not made clear in this game alone because FFXII takes place in a shared universe, but Judges in Ivalice are basically the nation’s legal and criminal justice system if all of that power was given to a handful of people. In addition to the many problems inherent in a system like this, the Judges also have to enact the exact will of the ruler of the country. If Vayne says to kill your sister-in-arms, you just do it. Watching Gabranth kill Drace in the throne room is heart-breaking, even if we don’t know them as characters that well. Vayne is made out to be utterly inhuman in this scene, and as he rests his dead father’s hand on the throne that will soon be his, he utters the most damning line for this country’s future: “And so House Solidor lives on.”

Another surprisingly brief trip up the snowy mountains, and we arrive at Mt. Bur-Omisace. I love that towns in FFXII fall into a few categories; downtrodden Imperial colony whose citizens detest their spiteful rulers, isolationist, racially appropriative tribal groups, or religious pilgrimage site. The mountain town is the latter of these areas, and the priests scattered among its townsfolk are constantly being praised for keeping the people safe from the Empire, and not letting outsiders ruin their comfortable way of life. Sure, we don’t have a lot of food and sure, these priests seem pretty secretive, but they allow us to live comfortably. Of course, this complacency is a recipe for disaster, and you can already see how this is going to turn out. Our party makes it to the temple at the mountain’s peak, meets Al-Cid Margrace and his many accents, and a very old sage who tell us to find an ancient weapon to destroy the other ancient weapon. There’s always a weapon, there’s always a temple, there’s always another barrier to peace. Let’s work towards a better world together.

-ALLEN