Letters from Ivalice: Part 4

As Jennifer Unkle and Allen Ibrahim journey from Mt. Bur-Omisace to the sprawling city of Archades, they reflect on the difficult circumstances surrounding Final Fantasy XII’s development, gush over how much they enjoy Balthier, and decide to switch things up for the next session.

JEN,

Here we are again, a few months later. Despite a tumultuous few weeks there, we’re still playing FFXII. This month, we had ourselves quite the journey crossing a huge section of the game’s map on our way to the Imperial city of Archades. Getting there was the meat of this section, and I think that the game wants us to stop and smell the roses along the way, so let’s do that.

The Stilshrine of Miriam, our first stop before even leaving the Bur-Omisace area, is one of the game’s largest dungeons. I know you struggled with some of the enemies in here, but how did you feel about the space itself? Walking down a massive hallway before entering sets it up as this momentous place, full of history and ceremony. We’re here to steal a sword, yet another tool of war created explicitly for hurting others. The game even comments on this, clearly aware of the futility of Ashe’s plan, but even her ghost brother isn’t going to stop her, and we’re just along for the ride.

The Stilshrine of Miriam harkens back to times long gone in its combat and dungeon design. The puzzle that encompasses the area involves little more than rotating statues to all face the center so that light can shine on a door you need to go through. There’s some deeper point here about disturbing sacred spaces to pillage them for war, but that’s just a trope we’ve been seeing in film for years now. The simplicity of the puzzle, in addition to the bosses here, reminded me more of older Final Fantasy games. The first fight against Vinuskar is clearly supposed to recall the Dark Elf from FFIV, where your party couldn’t attack with metal weaponry because you were in a magnetic cave. However, instead of forcing you to try a unique strategy like in IV, XII simply slows your party’s attacks down unless you unequip your metal. This continues the game’s disappointing trend of HINTING at a solvable combat challenge, but instead opting for another fight you can simply brute force or grind through. I only knew about the metal limitation from reading a guide, and that’s also how I learned that you can just cast Haste and cancel out the entire mechanic, rendering this fight little more than a waste of time.

It’s clear that XII was developed during a very tumultuous time at Square Enix. The PS2 was on its way out and XI did not set the world on fire, so the company needed a hit. Boss fights like Vinsukar suggest that there was a deeper game with less padding that got cut and edited down to a husk of its original vision, but we can only speculate. I personally find this fascinating because it makes playing the game feel like exploring a long-lost beta sometimes, but that doesn’t always make for a fun experience. This also might be why you have continued to struggle with the game’s combat. It never explains to you why dual classes are necessary to make the game easy, or why certain weapons don’t work as advertised. For example, the Esper we fought in the Stilshrine, Mateus, is ice/water-based. I did not realize until three or four failed runs that Basch, my main physical damage dealer and tank, was hitting her with an ice sword that healed her on every hit. While realizing this was funny, it felt more akin to bug fixing than strategy. I wish there was less combat, I wish the bosses did more than just drop minions on you and cast super attacks now and again, but that’s the game we’re playing. I have been told that the post-game hunts and bosses are more interesting, but even FFXII’s most famous combat encounter, Yiazmat, is just a drawn-out DPS fight. This game wears its MMO inspirations on its sleeve (it’s also the same engine as XI in fact) but it doesn’t seem to know that the best MMO fights require players to execute on a synchronized song and dance to succeed.

The sword has been pulled from the stone, we’ve killed yet another Esper to add to our summoning arsenal, and the Empire attacks again. I didn’t find the burning of Mt. Bur-Omisace that surprising because it was telegraphed from miles away by the dramatic irony. We walk through this all, fight a Judge, and meet Al-Cid Margrace. While his accent and demeanor are a breath of fresh air in this section, he’s out of the picture much too soon. We begin the massive trek to Archades to destroy the Empire’s MacGuffin stones with our own MacGuffin weapon and somehow stop the war.

God, I’m sorry to have made completing this entire section necessary before we take another break. It is by far the longest chunk of game so far where no meaningful story happens. After finding ourselves in the Salikawood, we helped a bunch of Moogles get back to work and…open a door. This is the game’s equivalent of a filler arc, and it sure feels like it. None of the enemies even present a vague threat, the Moogles are all marked on your map because the developer knew it would be asking too much to have you just FIND them, and they open the door no questions asked. The only note I took during this section was about how surprised I was that we suddenly got a major reveal about Balthier’s family history out of nowhere. On the way out of the Salikawood and into the Phon Coast area, he confides in Ashe his secret that he is the son of the evil scientist Cid Bunansa, whose lab we are in fact on the way to visit! I liked the weight of this scene, and I obviously love Balthier, but do you think this was an appropriate time to drop a huge plot twist like this? And if not, where would it fit better?

Not much of note after this, but we’re pressing along. The hunters gathering in town here have nothing for us because we’re not cool enough, I guess? A young boy asks us to kill some vermin in a cave. Since the creatures are blocking the way forward for us, we head in and dispatch of them in what could technically be considered a boss fight. I don’t know, five pumpkin enemies that run around a big room and occasionally debuff you does not feel very boss-like, but they have the big health bar and everything. This fight can apparently be very hard if you don’t have good debuff-clearing spells on your White Mage by now, so I hope you didn’t struggle too much with it. Otherwise, it’s a cakewalk, and we learn that the cave itself opens up into a winding passage of secrets and, you guessed it, another dungeon! In this next section of the cave, you can read the inscription on a tablet in the center and do a hilariously convoluted puzzle that rewards you with a Megaelixir, but it’s not worth your time. I did it because I had a guide handy, but there is nothing fun about walking between loading screens in a specific order, especially when the reward is just a rare healing item. The last boss of our play session was Ahriman, a giant beast that can divide into several clones as it tries to confuse and disorient you. Except…you’re already targeting the real Ahriman before it splits, so as long as you don’t switch targets, you never hit the wrong one. Yet another disappointing fight, barely memorable enough to note.

I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m dunking on this game here. I love FFXII because of and despite its glaring issues. It’s so uniquely janky, its combat breaks like a twig if you play your cards right, and none of the boss fights so far have been difficult. But here we are, finally in Archades! Except…not really. The elevator out of this cave takes us to Old Archades, the slums of the imperial city where those who didn’t make it upstairs are sent off to. Every single NPC mentions the nature of information as currency, or how hard it is to make a living when you’ve fallen so far. Hell, even the treasure chests littered around the cramped city corridors contain nothing other than a pittance of gil and Rusted Knots. Junk amongst the beleaguered workers, literally a few feet from the richest city in the world. I think this section works in selling the idea that things are not as they should be. Struggling to make ends meet, or not knowing the right people SHOULDN’T cast you out into the streets, but so it is and so we go. I chose to end this section on our sneaking into the main city of Archades because I love Old Archades as a space. I would love to write more about how XII uses space and dialogue to convey tone, specifically contrasting it against its later series counterpart XIV, but that’ll be for a future letter. We have some stones to destroy.

What was your favorite part of this section, Jen? Did you enjoy traversing the endless road to the city as maybe a relaxing podcast listening section, or did it tire you out? What have you learned about the combat since last time? We’re about ¾ through this entire game, so do you maybe have any ideas about how it’s going to end? We’ve seen this game’s Cid briefly in a cutscene, but what do you want to see out of him and Balthier inevitably interacting?

ALLEN,

Aside from a roving band of 4-5 buff monsters that I had to sprint around whenever I visited a certain hall, the Stilshrine of Miriam might be my favorite dungeon in XII? Plenty of dungeons have thrown in a trap or two, but this one felt like it truly revelled in the tricks it meted out. There’s a switch near the entrance that declares it may only be activated by royalty, so I switched to Ashe and gave it a press. As it turns out, it expected my party’s leader to have a certain royal trinket equipped: without it, a gang of zombies rose from the ground and sent me running for my life!

The Stilshrine was filled with little barbs like that, from enemies disguised as save crystals to impossibly-complex hallways built to keep you sprinting in circles. I’ve certainly gnashed my teeth about this game giving me a hard time before, but in this instance, the sheer tenacity of this place impressed me. It reminded me of La-Mulana, a game all about a set of ruins dead-set on keeping you out. The Stilshrine takes what you’ve learned over 20+ hours in Ivalice and throws a few curveballs, challenging both party and player alike. Someone at Square-Enix understood that traps are much more subversive if they’re built to trick us, rather than the characters themselves, and this whole dungeon shines because of their efforts.

To be honest, I don’t know if I would’ve even made it this far if the game wasn’t letting me brute force boss fights. From the bowels of Bur-Omisace to the gates of Archades, my “winning” strategy has had an ironclad pattern: throw on a podcast, speed up the game, grind out 5-10 levels, and use whatever monster pieces I’ve acquired to buy dozens of remedies and Phoenix Downs. I did my best to understand the Gambit system, but never really figured out how to make most of my party self-sufficient in combat. Once Penelo got access to Cura, she earned a permanent spot in my roster, casting the spell whenever anyone was below 50% health, and that was that. I get that I’ve more or less checked myself out of one of the XII’s defining features, but how can they expect me to experiment when the enemies are so punishing? If breaking out of my pattern means dying in 20-30 seconds, why should I bother learning a system they never taught me in the first place?

I’d love to dive back into Ivalice’s back-stabbing politics, but sadly, the road to Archades was more interested in putting the metaphorical monsters aside and settling for the literal. Balthier’s conversation with Ashe was far and away my favorite moment from this session: it wasn’t surprising that his father was an asshole, but I was genuinely shocked that he was once a Judge. It was a stark reminder that even good individuals could find themselves working for the wrong team. I can completely understand why he hasn’t told everyone about this (since Vaan’s brother died because of the Archadian empire, I doubt he’d take it well), but Balthier’s backstory makes him even more of an aspirational figure. He escaped an unbelievably toxic environment, left his family behind, and became his own person. We don’t know how much blood is on his hands, but his decision to return home with his friends and face his own past is undoubtedly brave.

As you said, it was a bit strange that they stuck this revelation in the middle of a filler sequence, but they had to break up the monotony with something! The amount of space they ask you to traverse with little to no motivation is frankly ridiculous. I get that folks want their grand JRPGs to have an epic scale, but length for length’s sake nearly always discourages me from pressing onward. Someone out there poured their soul into building the Salikawood and Phon Coast, yet as I jog through the trees and sprint across the sand, I’m laser-focused on reaching the city, glaring at anything that slows me down. At times, I would hold down Flee and speed through 3-4 screens, only to realize I was making things harder for Future Jen by ignoring fights meant to toughen me up. Is that my fault? Yes. Could the designers do a better job of keeping me focused by bringing in more chunks of story/political intrigue while I’m hacking through monsters? Absolutely.

We’ve talked before about the clear MMO inspirations (the real time combat, the blue lines on the ground indicating zone transitions, the spongey boss battles), but I feel like these massive, empty areas are ripped straight from a “Final Fantasy XII-2” that never got off the ground. With nothing but monsters and a few outposts stretching from A to B, these zones are a better fit for farming body parts in a fetch quest that never existed. Maybe the world would feel a lot less monotonous if I were chatting with a guild, or working toward a cute new outfit for my character? Granted, that probably wouldn’t fit Vaan or the story they’re trying to tell, but in a game that already feels like it’s at odds with its own design, adding a few sillier wrinkles wouldn’t do too much damage.

Unfortunately, my time in Ivalice is nearing its end. It’s been increasingly difficult for me to get through each zone, and while the story has been nothing short of captivating, I feel like I have little energy to appreciate it when the rest of the game is so taxing. After this letter, our good friend Six will be taking my place: I’ll likely pop in for the finale after I’ve watched the rest on YouTube, but I don’t think I have it in me to reach the end on my own.

Before we reconvene, Allen, I just want to thank you for doing this letter series with me. You have been extraordinarily patient with my fumbling, and even went out of your way to teach me everything XII left unexplained. Without your assistance, I doubt I would’ve even made it this far: you are a fantastic friend, and I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the ending. Until then, best of luck to both you and Six: I’m eager to see what ve thinks of the game, too!

Goodbye for now,

JEN