Final Fantasy IV binge, lore craziness, etc

I was too sick to go to work today and, while I was largely confined to the one room in which I was resting, I still managed to make the most of my stolen time.  I did more preparation for my imminent move and comfortably fielded my way through a job interview by phone (I rang off feeling rather good about it ^^).  Being quite ill, though, and not being up to much activity in general, I naturally sank a few hours into a gaming binge.

I know this probably doesn’t matter that much, but just in case anyone was wondering- last spring I thought I would have consistent access to a SNES on which to play the original FFIV, which I was totally stoked about since the 16 bit graphics and text-based  dialogue suited the game so much better than the upgrades on the DS remake.  Oh yeah, and the DS version had a few completely insane difficulty spikes.

In the end I ended up not being around the SNES all that much so I eventually ended up getting a digital copy on my Vita as part of the Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection, which luckily turned out to be quite faithful to what I had seen on the 16 bit version until then.  Just a few graphical bells and whistles with some spells and summon monsters and some spruced up cut scenes, looking sorta like PS1 but perfectly good on the Vita’s smaller screen.  With said cut scenes, I like that they preserved a bit of the chibi aesthetic they seemed to be going for on the DS, which goes well with the high fantasy and occasional whimsy.  And the fact that it was kept to the cut scenes stopped it from effecting the tone of the overall story too much, which was for the best.

Anyway, since my first encounter with Golbez in the Dwarven Castle drove me completely bugsh!t I kinda didn’t do a damn thing for freaking ever but grind Rydia relentlessly until she learned bio…and still couldn’t stop sweating it.  Like…most sources I found said that bio deals non-elemental damage so Golbez shifting his weaknesses shouldn’t matter against it, but…but…is that, like, just the DS version?  In the original were there other complications that didn’t have to do with elemental weaknesses?  Is he just gonna incessantly deck anyone you try to revive with phoenix downs during a fight where you need to revive everyone except Rydia……????? X_X

Luckily, that fight turned out to be a complete push over this time around.  And whether this was a serendipitous sweet spot of the original or the product of Square observing it’s unfolding franchise over the years, the pacing of the incremental difficulty was pretty damn solid.  I haven’t finished it yet- I think I may be poised before the final battle?  Just finished off the Babil Giant and round 2 of the Archfiends?  -but so far I’ve never felt like I need to break off the main story progression in order to grind.  Part of that might have to do with the excessive grinding I did early on but it can’t be all of it.  I did, however, instantly want to drop everything as soon as I had the Falcon Airship and just hyperfocus on the Sylph Cave and the Passage of The Eidolons.  As soon as I found those two locations I knew I had found something that I’d been missing from most recent FF games.  Both of those (one of them more than the other) are crazy hard and optional and I totally couldn’t pry myself loose.  Part of it was that, as hard as the monster encounters were, they train you to think about prioritizing which character’s turn at what moment, which relates to one weakness.

Before this point there were a few awkward, mandatory battles where you could tell that the developers wanted that lesson to come through.  I’m thinking of the first time you fight each of the Archfiends.  In all fairness those really are simple rock-paper-scissor exercises.  Just try different elements until you find the weakness.  I don’t know if this is just my download or what, but I’ve never gotten the Libra spell to work when I needed it.  I know that some of the debuffs never work on bosses since they’d probably be game-breaking if you could just silence, toad, mini, hold or confuse whenever you wanted.  But all Libra is supposed to do is tell you their max HP, weaknesses and items they drop.  I mean…with a lot of FF games, finding the correct strategy for a boss fight usually isn’t what makes it hard, it’s actually implementing the strategy while making allowances for set backs (a character with a necessary job get’s KO’d, keeping buffs in working order, managing disposables, etc). With the first Archfiend fights, though, I felt like I spent more time coming up with strategies.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but for FF fans of my generation it’s a bit of a curve-ball.  But with the Sylph Cave, the Passage of The Eidolons and the fights with Asura and Leviathan, I feel like the trial and error process was smoother and more fun.

Before I move past this, though, I can’t help but notice that FFXIII and XIII-2 handled buffs and debuffs better than almost any other Final Fantasy I’ve played.  Reactions to the XIII games are divisive but I think the combat system is one of it’s unambiguous successes.  This gives me pause since, for so long, I simply didn’t notice how inept the Final Fantasy series had been with the finer points of RPG combat.

I think part of this could be chalked up to that fact that I got hooked on FF when I was young, particularly with V-X, and with my limited frame of reference as a child, surface level circumstances usually made enough sense on their own.  After all, it did make intuitive sense that debuffs would be handicapped or maybe altogether useless against most bosses- if they didn’t cap them in some way, the game would be too easy and the story’s tone and sense of proportion would be compromised.  I think that inference also caused me to hand-wave away any consideration of buffs or even character specific command options like steal, jump, etc during any time that’s not a random monster fight.

What that does, though, is condition you to think of the combat system as having two modes with two corresponding approaches: boss fights and not boss fights.  It really doesn’t get any finer than that, a lot of the time.  If there’s any circumstantial variation, it probably begins and ends with elemental weaknesses, with a few exceptions here and there to spice things up (killing Soulcage in IX with healing magic, keeping Ruby Weapon totally prostrate for the whole battle with Dazers in VII, etc).  However, the paradigm system in XIII makes it very convenient to use buffs and debuffs often- so often that there are a few characters that specialize in them.  XIII also had a cool elaboration on the limit break mechanic introduced in VII that tied into the paradigm system through the “ravager” function.  If you’re fighting a complete tank, you can have your party go largely on the defensive with “medics”, “synergists” and “saboteurs” buffing and debuffing while a “ravager” does middling but steady damage to build their limit gauge for a big devastating offensive every few turns.  What that means is that, even if you’re overwhelmed and the pacing of a battle only leaves a little bit of breathing room for decision making, you still learn to make the best of your smaller window and gradually you get better at spur of the moment decisions.  After playing FFXIII, the combat mechanics in the older games start to feel a little vanilla.

I don’t mean they’re utterly boring all the time- it’s just that once you’ve been made aware of the weaknesses through comparison, you really can’t unsee them.  While the combat system in FFIV doesn’t go much further than the likes of, oh, VI, VII and IX, it nonetheless distinguishes itself among the 90’s Final Fantasy games.

Theeennnnnn….there’s the story…when you look at the body of work of either a franchise or an individual content creator it’s always interesting when you can see ideas developing.  Like, when I saw Lynch’s Blue Velvet, it seemed obvious to me that it was an early draft of concepts that would later be fleshed out more in Twin Peaks.  If that doesn’t make me a horrible trog, then what about my reaction to the original Dark Souls when I thought it was a tepid, unsatisfying first draft of Bloodborne?

Anyway, FF recycles a handful of concepts often- pantheism, Gaia theory, evil empires, a first villain embodying institutional evils (nationalism, organized religion, etc) that turns out to be the pawn of a second more mysterious villain -but FFIV uses a few more specific ideas that are developed later on in FFIX.  Particularly, the alien invasion in a high fantasy setting.  Both IV and IX are science fiction stories disguised as fantasy stories.  If I wanted, I could take this in a whole other tangent about how FFXIII is a fantasy story disguised as a science fiction story, but I’ll resist that temptation (for now).

I mean…alien invasions…that’s basically what’s going on in both IV and IX.  One planet gets destroyed, the inhabitants are preserved in either a non-physical or dormant state, and its stewards attempt to terraform your home planet (I’m still cracked up by the fact that FF stories are usually set on planets called Terra that are being terraformed or, in some cases, your home planet is being terraformed by aliens from a different planet called Terra).

The differences between the portrayals of the sleeping aliens are interesting.  In IX (can’t help listing it first, I played it first 😛 ) the steward is a figure named Garland, a name recycled from the first FF game, who at times seriously appears to be a digital AI being.  Garland is not confined to any one physical body and, when he first appears, the story frames him in such a way that his presence is synonymous with the spaceship called The Invincible.  This could just be thematic nuance- the sight of Garland being thematically linked with the sinister mystery of The Invincible and the opaque origins of Kuja -but later we are tempted to think it may be more than that.

After Garland appears to be dead he telepathically communicates with Zidane while the party navigates Memoria.  IX also states, firmly, that none of the dormant Terrans have been decanted yet.  Neither Zidane nor Kuja are natal Terrans: both beings were created as war machines, to stop the cycle of death and rebirth, draining out the pre-existing souls via mist so they can be replaced with the Terran souls in Garland’s custody.  Even the genomes (is that a proper noun?  Genomes?) in the village of Bran Bal are meant to be empty vessels that the Terrans will be placed inside of.  Before we learn all this, all the other manifestations of the Terran presence are technology they left behind or deceptively presented by Kuja for the planetary natives to misuse.  And throughout the whole game we have Vivi wondering out loud if the fact that he rolled off of an assembly line makes his soul any less real than that of any other sentient being.

Vivi’s whole journey as a character is about whether or not your own subjective certainty of your existence has any bearing on your real existence.  Very Blade Runner.  And that wasn’t lost on my dad as he watched me play IX as a kid- he watched me go through the whole Terra \ Bran Bal segment and he kept calling the genomes Skin Jobs.  Even now, as I’m writing this, before I type “Terran” I have to check myself so I don’t type Skin Job.  Anyway, all of that taken with the fact that Garland exists in a form separate from his body seems to imply that he’s a creation like Zidane and Kuja, maybe that body isn’t even the real seat of his personality- it could just as easily be the Ilifa Tree or The Invincible.

In FFIV, the alien stewards are a pair of brothers who, unlike Garland, seem to be natal aliens (Lunarians this time, instead of Terrans).  How long these two have been awake, as well as the length of the Lunarian life span, is not clear.  Like IX, these aliens have technological doo dads that have been sitting around on the planet they’re trying to invade for millennia.  A race of people inhabiting the Eblan region seem to remember one of these knick knacks (the Tower of Babil) being there for their entire recorded history.  The two waking Lunarians were present and involved during the Tower’s construction- or at least they have knowledge of it that makes it look like they were.

They have a similar perspective on the function of the eight crystals on both respective planets, which could mean that even those have been created and planted by the Lunarians.  Lunarian Number Two went to Earth and introduced airship technology, Prometheus-style, and at the start of the game we get a cut scene explaining that airships appeared within recent history.  Perhaps the initial contact happened thousands of years ago and the pro-active meddling by the Lunarians is a recent event.  This ambiguity (did contact happen in distant or recent history) is harder to overlook once we learn that Cecil and Golbez are descended from Lunarian Number Two (yeah, the dude does have a name, but I’m trying not to bog you down in jargon).  Both Golbez and Cecil are referred to as his sons.  It’s not clear if this is figurative (in the sense that they’re descendants) or if Lunarian Number Two is literally their bio dad.  Cecil, at least, has a normal human life span and is like, 20-30’s, whenever twinkish bishi dudes are considered adults.  At the point in the game I’m in, it’s still not clear how long Golbez has been around.  It is said that he’s the older brother.  Maybe all this will be cleared up in just a few days of game play, idk just now.  The chronology seems vague so far, though.

Speaking of the alien stewards, I think it’s kinda neat that we get one of them as a playable party member for awhile.  It reminded me of getting Edea in the party near the end of VIII, or how when I was playing VII I kept thinking how cool it would be to get Sephiroth in your party outside of the flashback sequence.  Lunarian Number One doesn’t stick around very long, but it’s cool to have him during the time that you do, though.

About the playable characters, I also appreciate how you get a spectrum of different magic users throughout the game that demonstrate what the developing characters will eventually be capable of (Tellah, Palom, Porom, Lunarian Number One).  It makes it more satisfying when Rydia and Rosa start getting all of their respective black mage and white mage skills.  Also, the pacing of this story is so dang fast and so many characters appear to die so quickly that I don’t know what to think of the fact that four of the previously dead characters are now alive at the end.  In a different game it would either be tonal whiplash, gimmicky or both.  But this is a game with chibi sprites in a strip club, an underground continent of dwarves and a space ship that takes you to the moon and plot details unfolding a mile a minute so yeah.  Rapid fire character deaths and resurrections shouldn’t be that disruptive in the end.  Really, the whimsy combined with some of the more dramatic details gives this game a lot of it’s memorability.

Not that it doesn’t get stupid at times.  I wanted to yell at Cecil when he attempted to dismiss the females from the party before going to the moon.  I mean…it’s not necessarily sexist, since Cecil has a guilt complex a mile thick and watching Edge forgive Kain could have plucked one of his heart strings in a way that would make him want Rydia out of harms way (he feels responsible for her well being because of other plot details).  But, like, on the other hand…she’s a goddamn summoner.  And she totally saved everyone’s ass when they were about to get murdered by Golbez.  The girl is a goddamn tank and Cecil is pulling some gallant manly man shit and asking her and Rosa to sit out the final battle.  Thank god they didn’t listen.  Seriously, fuck you, Cecil.  At least in that moment.

Anyway, we’ll see how the closing chapters unfold.  So far so good, though.

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