Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Game Review: Final Fantasy XII

Developed from 2001 to 2006, Final Fantasy XII cost approximately 4 billion Japanese yen to produce (approximately $34.6 million [1) with a crew of more than one hundred people.

The story is a welcome change from the sometimes overly fantastic FF's of late. Gone are the stereo typical RPG themes such as go to the cave of ___ and find the monster that guards the ____ jewel. There's no lifestream, no giant meteor headed for the planet, no time bending sorceress, it's the story of the small kingdom of Dalmasca, strategically positioned between the two continents of Valendia and Ordalia and thus is geopolitically important to both warring states. The strong military kingdom known as the Arcadian Empire that rules the Valendia Continent and the Rozarrian Empire that rules the Ordalia Continent have had been continuously at war for many years. Prior to the invasion Prince Rasler Heios Nabradia weds Ashe B'nargin Dalmasca and shortly after the empire invades. In the midst of the Arcadian Empire's invasion of Dalmasca, Prince Rasler is killed in battle. After the Archadian empire's victory King Raminas B'nargin Dalmasca, is murdered while meeting to sign the terms of surrender apparently by General Basch von Rosenberg of Dalmasca. But all is not what it seems, alliances, loyalties, foes and friends can change. The story and characters are fascinating and very dynamic. Vaan may appear to be a fruitcup but the voice actor, Bobby Edner makes Vaan a believable.......vagrant. The voice acting in FFXII rivals that of the MGS series.
Vaan always dreams of someday becoming a sky pirate in command of his own airship. The rest of the cast are equally fascinating and well developed (not like Lulu)..
Ashe Vanalgan Dalmasca is the princess and heir to the throne of the kingdom of Dalmasca, She's fighting to liberate Dalmasca from the Archadian Empire. Ashe seeks not only freedom for her country, but also vengeance against the Archadian invaders and the former Dalmascan general Basch, who assassinated the king shortly after the Archadian army stormed the royal castle in Rabanastre.
Basch von Rosenberg served as a general in the Dalmascan army. During the Archadian assault on the royal castle, he discovered that the king had signed a treaty that would allow Archadian rule over Dalmasca and supposedly slew both the king and Vaan's older brother, Reks. He is now considered a traitor by most.
Penelo is an orphan who has known Vaan since childhood, the two act like brother and sister but aren't related.
Fran is a Viera (a race first introduced in FFTA) she is Balthier's partner aboard his airship. Fran is the only non-Hume (human) character in the main cast.
Balthier Bunanza is a sky pirate who pilots a small airship around the skies of Ivalice. He and Fran, remain strategically neutral in the war between the kingdoms of Ivalice.

The cast of FFXII is a nice change visually for the series, FFXII reunites us with the world of Ivalice and the character design from Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. There's no denying that Star Wars has influenced prior FF titles; Biggs & Wedge anyone? But FFXII trully shows the most influence in my opinion, you might as well call Balthier and Fran Han & Chewie. As I played thru the game it became apparent Vaan is modeled after Luke Skywalker, young boy from a small town gets swept up with a band of rebels fighting aginst an empire. Before the game was released SE advertising put most of the focus on Vaan and the Judges, this was a bit misleading as you discover around 10 hours into the game. With past FF's there's typically a lead character like Cloud, Zindane or Yuna, this is not the case with FFXII. When the game begins Vaan seems to be the main character, but then the focus shifts to Ashe and Vaan seems to slip into obsurity story-wise. I think Yasumi Matsuno intended to try and have the story unfold thru the eyes of Vaan but not have him as the central character like George Lucas attempted with C-3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars: ANH.
Yasumi Matsuno, originally announced as both producer and director, was forced to bow out of both roles midway through the creation of Final Fantasy XII due to health concerns. FFXII took a significant delay most likely due to this, and after completing the game I can honestly say Final Fantasy XII is tremendously unbalanced. The story aspect of FFXII seemed interesting but extremely short, I could've completed the story in about 30-40 hours with all 6 characters only at level 50. But if you stop there you'll likely miss out on the other half of the game's experience, the hunts! More on that in a bit....All of the summoned creatures in Final Fantasy XII are named after boss enemies or other entities from other Final Fantasy games, most notably Final Fantasy Tactics and its spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. CĂșchulainn, Belias, Zalera, Adrammelech, Hashmalim, and Ultima are all names of various Lucavi demons in Final Fantasy Tactics, though some of their names vary slightly from those of the Final Fantasy XII espers due to errors in translation i.e. Ultima's name is spelled in Final Fantasy Tactics as "Altima" and CĂșchulainn was spelled "Queklain". Zodiac also made an appearance in the game as a summoned creature. Similarly, Famfrit, Exodus (Exdeath), Adrammelech, Ultima, and Mateus all appear in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance as Totema, guardians of the Five Crystals of Ivalice. Chaos, Mateus, Famfrit (Dark Cloud), Zeromus and Exodus (Exdeath) are all named after the final bosses of Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV and V. I enjoyed the fan service with the new espers names from FF lore and the fact thet the traditional Sumons like Ifrit, Shiva, Leviathan and the lot weren't left out but used as names for the Archadian Empires Dreadnaughts, that was cool, regrettably the Summons in FFXII were next to useless. Like FFX the Summoned Esper will replace the rest of the team except the summoner, so if the summoner dies the Esper leaves and the remaining party returns. Up until FFX, summons were more like a really powerful spell, in FFX summons became more like a powerhouse NPC that was upgradeable, FFXII is similar to FFX but the summons are'nt upgradeable and are easily overwhelmed before they can use their primary spell.

Another staple of the franchise is character's trance/rage/overdrive special attacks, in FFXII their called Mist and they take alot more presidence over Summons in this game. They are far more useful and powerful than any FFXII Esper.

As I mentioned earlier FFXII is tremendously unbalanced to the point where you wonder if when Yasumi Matsuno left the project whole chunks of the story were cut out. I had actually reached the end of the game with my party around level 50 and I hadn't even unlocked the entire license board. The License board replaces FFX's Sphere Grid, in FFXII you not only need to use LP (license points) to unlock access to weapons, armor, magicks, technicks, augments and accessories. Regrettibly this too seemed unbalanced as you could purchase or aquire weapons and armor but unless you unlocked the coresponding license on the board you couldn't use said item. The board resembles a chess board, as you collect LP thru battles you can use them to unlock adjacent spots. The fact I reached the final boss before unlocking the most powerful stuff on the board did not bode well with me. After reaching the point of no return in the story I literally switched focus to the hunts in the game. It felt like two separate games in one! I played FFXI enough to see that this aspect was an offline version of Vana Diel's HNM's. The hunts were alot of fun and thru them not only did I reach level 99 I unlocked the entire license board, and found locations in Ivalice that the core story doesn't bring you to. Unbalanced, very. I can proudly delare that I defeated Yiazmat, an elite mark (HNM) with 50112254 HP and collected all the espers including Zodiark. I'm one of those FF players that must explore every nook and crany of the game. I still need Tournsol and the Wyrmhero blade though.

One of Final Fantasy XII's hunts is a battle featuring Gilgamesh, an entity typically a summoned creature or other similar being, seen previously in many other games in the series. The battle is set to his musical theme "Clash on the Big Bridge" from Final Fantasy V and he wields eight replicas of swords from previous Final Fantasy titles, which are Cloud Strife's Buster Sword from Final Fantasy VII, Squall Leonheart's Revolver Gunblade from Final Fantasy VIII, Tidus's Brotherhood sword from Final Fantasy X, Odin's Zantetsuken, the Orichalcon, and Final Fantasy V version of the Excalibur and the Excalipoor. As a special surprise for fans, Gilgamesh's final sword is the iconic Sword of Loto, also known as the Sword of Kings or Erdrick's Sword, from the first Dragon Quest trilogy.

My final feelings about FFXII are; interesting story but too short. Visuals are top notch. Terrific voice acting. The hunt's were great with some of the best monsters in a FF game yet! I enjoyed reading the info about them in the database. Gambits = FFXI macros, I used them but I felt like they put the game on auto pilot. I loved the Judges and the core villian was badass by the end.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Game Review: Okami

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more aesthetically impressive game. The game is fairly straight forward, you play Amaterasu Okami the reincarnation of Shiranui the white wolf that fought alongside Nagi 100 years ago to protect Kamiki village from the demon Orochi.
The pen is mightier than the sword...
Okami is accompanied by Issun on his journey thru Nippon to restore beauty and revive cursed lands. In order to accomplish this Okami must master the hidden arts of the celestial brush. Thru your travels Okami will be blessed by other gods with new brush techniques that literally transform the envirnoment you are in. By holding R1 you access the brush and holding triangle or square, useing the left analog stick Okami can transform her surroundings to restore beauty and wildlife to the area.
As Amaterasu restores the land she gains praise from the land, when she helps an NPC like Kushi, the sake brewer, she'll gain praise, or when Amaterasu shares her food with the animals of the lands. These praise points can be used to boost Amaterasu's attributes like health, ink jars..the more ink jars the longer you can use the celestial brush. Praise points can also be used to increase her astral much food she can carry, a finally praise points can increase Amaterasu's purse.
As I mentioned earlier Okami is accompanied by Issun thru her journey thru Nippon, Issun's gender is never determined. Issun travels with Amaterasu to learn to secret techiniques of the celestial brush. Issun acts as a guide for the player as well as comic relief. The dialog is smart and witty even though some times the conversations seemed childish. The NPC's seem a bit childish but upon further research many of them actually are from native Japanese religion, Shinto.
Amaterasu is portrayed as the sun goddess in Shinto and many other characters in the game stem from Shinto.
So for those parents who believe nothing beneficial comes from video games I would say give your son or daughter this game, they might actually learn something interesting if they get into Okami. This brings me to my next point, Okami didn't sell to well here in the states unforunately, most likely because the game is so heavily influenced by Japanese lore many kids here will not be able to connect with it. It's kind of sad that American kids are more likely to pick up Halo, Socom, or Ghost Recon than a game like Okami that isn't just beautiful but fun if you're willing to give it a try.
The only issue I have with Okami is there are times where I can't fiqure out what I'm supposed to be doing to proceed. There is an ingame log book which will come in handy if you put this game on the back burner for a few weeks. There's also a beastiary and animal tome that logs all the different animals you've feed thruout the game. The Music is subtle yet as beautiful as the games visuals. The battles in the game are very easy especially once you are familiar with the celestial brush, the boss fights however are far more interesting and challenging, making the player use the techinques learned. There's also plenty of secrets in the game that are worthwhile to uncover.