2021 EOY Competitive Games Final Fantasy Pokemon Video Game Playthroughs

2021 Video Games: RPGs, Classic Series & New Favorites

Video games! The hobby I spent the most time doing this year. I also played way more games than I usually do as well? 2021 was my first time tracking my games played and boy did I play a lot. Add in starting to do more dedicated Let’s Plays with Emily and that number really jumped. It’s funny to notice how my tastes have changed in adulthood and how I seem to be going in the opposite direction of most people. Now that I govern my own schedule I’m able to jump into long RPGs. I finally have the time to cross some off the backlog and keep up with new releases. I really did myself a disservice early in the year by juggling 3 at once but I had such a great time balancing them. My desire to play more RPGs hasn’t slowed down either and my list of games to play mostly consist of them. It’s always good to have balance though and god bless the games that are here to offer tight and shorter experiences. People that complain about dollar value and time played miss the point; not all games need to last forever. Games like Ratchet & Clank are so incredible partly because of their shorter experiences. That’s why they can pack so many incredible variations one after the other. The single biggest change in my taste though is the move away from multiplayer games. The pandemic kind of broke that for me and I instead wanted to play lots of other games rather than getting good at one singular game. That’s why Pokémon Unite was a gift, an easy to pick up and play multiplayer experience. That’s not to say it doesn’t require skill and I made my peace with not being placed amongst the top tier of players. It’s a nice game to pick up and play every now and again.

Games culture this year though is still as rotten as ever. Workers in the games industry are still being assaulted by long hours, mismanagement, and gross misconduct especially towards minorities and women. Watching the Activision case slowly unfold to reveal a completely rotten culture from top to bottom has been, if not surprising, at least solid evidence to point to how the entire system is broken. No AAA developer, or even smaller developers, are immune to poor employee treatment and fundamentally bad working environments. There’s a reason the tweet about wanting “shorter games with worse graphics” went viral. Here’s hoping for more unionization in the space even if that won’t completely fix the issues inherent with modern game development.

Without further ado, here’s a list of games I’ve probably already written about:

Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE Encore

Tokyo Mirage Sessions

This game sounds very convoluted but it’s actually really straightforward. Take the dungeon crawling and socialization systems of persona, add in Fire Emblem characters and make the whole about the idol system in Japan and you have Tokyo Mirage Sessions. It’s a strange idea to crossover but it feels right at home in the Atlus lineup. This game is like Persona light with the same sort of turn based combat systems built right in. The addition of special moves that layer on top of each other that are activated when you hit an enemy’s weak point means battles are over in a flash. This can also mean the combat gets a bit tedious as by the end you’re looking at a stack of 17 cutscenes all triggering one after the other. The socialization layer is light as well as the game builds in enough time to visit every single one of your friends before taking on the next challenge (no more making tough choices on how to spend your days). The Fire Emblem additions are really more nods to the other games and show up as your party’s Persona’s. The story is similarly breezy, monsters are stealing the talent from people in the real world, but the premise around the different arts in Japan is fascinating. You’ll run through singers, television and film backdrops as the protagonists work through their anxieties about their craft and growing up. It’s all really fun and the concert cutscenes are tremendous. It might be too breezy for people looking for a tougher RPG, but if you’re ok with it, it’s great fun. Too bad the main takeaway from it was the infamous “vagina bones” post.

Read my blog on Tokyo Mirage Sessions and concerts here.

Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru (The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls)

Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru

Did you know that one of the best Zelda’s, Link’s Awakening, had a predecessor on the Game Boy? I certainly didn’t before Abnormal Mapping played through it, since it was never officially released in the US. The game, which I’ll now shorten to “Frog Game,” takes that same 2d platforming and exploration and completely rips out the combat. Instead the exploration of the world and levels are a giant puzzle. Each piece of the castles and locales are calibrated to have you move through it section by section. Combat, such as it is, is settled automatically. You’ll run into an enemy and an automatic fight will ensue and the winner is decided based on your strength and remaining health. What this means in practice is that you’ll have to hit each enemy with the correct amount of strength and health to proceed in an area. That means your movement has to be paced to pick up strength and health power ups so that you can then proceed forward. You’re also cursed to transform into a frog, and later a snake, that has its own unique spin on the puzzle. I’ve never encountered another system like it and it was very fun figuring out the precise order to move through the dungeons. It’s also a really funny game that keeps the scenarios varied like assisting miners, calming snow monsters or helping out Nintendo developers.

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

Super Mario 3D World Bowser Car

3D World is such a joy. It’s a fun blend of 2D Mario Platforming with 3D depth of field. Having levels slowly transition from traditional Mario platforming to moving characters on the z-axis plane adds a great new element of surprise. Emily and I had such a blast playing through the levels and we really appreciated the way it helped us along (we’re both not platforming game experts). We’ve found ourselves dipping back into it every so often as we slowly work on grabbing every single star in the game. We’re not completionists so that’s a true sign of a good video game.

Bowser’s Fury meanwhile is a cool experiment on 3D Mario. It takes the smaller platforming segments of modern 3D Mario games and places them in outposts in an open world map. It was fun picking and choosing where I wanted to spend my time and riding Pleasey to the next exploration spot. Using the 3D World power ups and toolset made the levels all the more richer like ice skating down a track and using the cat suit to climb buildings. The big cat Toku battles became a bit grating since they were so frequent. Every other part of this game though was a home run and I hope it informs Nintendo’s future plans.

Read about Emily and I’s co-op adventures.

Live A Live

Live A Live Cover

The biggest complaint about JRPGs is the length. To be fair, most of them are an investment of about 40 hours. What if I told you there was one that had multiple distinct stories from a variety of genres? The fantastic Live A Live is exactly that, 7 JRPG campaigns that cover everything from Science Fiction to Cavemen. One you’re a ninja infiltrating a fortress the next you’re a cowboy protecting a frontier town. They all use the same battle system, an active time battle set on a grid. You have to position your characters in specific locations to launch attacks; some will attack diagonally while others have to be right next to the enemy. Each campaign is only a few hours long so you get a lot of variety before they overstay their welcome. The stories are all fun variations on classic genre touchstones like Alien, classic westerns and even Street Fighter. The game then wraps up with a traditional RPG map where you’ll collect your heroes to finish the fight (there’s even a secret boss rush mode where you play as the final bosses).


Fantasian Boss Fight

I’ve written twice about Fantasian, Mistwalker’s fantastic throwback JRPG. It’s probably my favorite game of the year, a perfectly tuned campaign that I devoured over 60 hours of. The craziest part is that it was all on my phone and has set an unreasonable standard for mobile games. Fantasian has flown relatively under the radar minus a very active and helpful Reddit community (thank you for all the help and advice). I hope that this gets a release outside of Apple Arcade so more people have a chance to play. Suffice to say here’s some great things:

  • Beautiful and detailed dioramas with lots of variation
  • The FFX battle system, a personal high watermark of RPG combat
  • Tough and challenging boss fights
  • First person side dungeons!

Please play this game. Also read my write up of the first release and the final release.

Dark Souls Remastered

Dark Souls Bonfire

Dark Souls is definitely hard and requires a fair amount of repetition to fully understand the combat and how to approach/defeat bosses. The series reputation is earned but it obfuscates the most interesting parts of the game. Learning and exploring the environments was so rewarding and piqued a part of my brain that I rarely used in games. Through repetition I understood where all the enemies were and how to effectively navigate through them. The variety of secrets nestled throughout the maps were a great bonus and added to the rich texture of the world. Lodran has a sense of place and doesn’t require you to understand every little piece of lore to make an impact. Every location from Blighttown to Anor Londo feels lived in or used to be lived in. The fact that I even remember all these locations says something (my mind is bad at retaining specific details months later). I meant to get through other games in the series before Elden Ring but my list of games went too long. I really need to boot up Dark Souls II soon though…

I wrote a bit about my surprise fun with Dark Souls earlier this year.

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered

Final Fantasy VIII Rinoa and Squall

Final Fantasy VIII is about overcoming your trauma by opening up to other people which means a lot of people on the internet deride it as being too saccharine. It’s also a game about generational trauma, cycles of violence and abuses of power and the effects that has on our protagonist’s generation. Put it another way; this game rips. The odd child of the PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasys has a mixed reputation with detractors calling it over complicated and derisively too anime (have you played any of the other games?). It’s a fantastic game though, a hybrid of fantasy and future settings where children are trained as soldiers in large military academies. Squall is an angsty teen, another part of the game’s reputation, who’s closed off nature is undercut by his running guilty inner monolog. He wants to open up to people but he’s running away from himself and he uses his negative self image to stop from processing his trauma. Over the course of the game Squall and his friends learn to reckon with their pasts and others pasts as well, understanding how they’ve failed and how that’s threatening the world around them. There’s also the tender romance of Squall and Renoa but also missed connections across generations. It’s really affecting and the various courtships across the game reflect the personal growth that the characters go through.

The active time battle system from FFVII is given a twist with the draw and junction system. Instead of learning magic you’ll receive spells by drawing them from enemies in battle or found in spouts throughout the world. It’s a lot like a card system where you collect spells like Firaga and Haste. You receive a limited supply per draw so you’ll balance using your turns to redraw spells and attacking enemies. These spells are also used in the Junction system, where you equip your characters with spells to buff their stats (ie slot blizzard in attack). You’ll also equip summons, “Guardian Forces or GFs” in game, to also affect stats and abilities. It can seem pretty complicated but there’s optimization options to help automatically slot magic (or you can also manually tool each party member). It wouldn’t be a modern Final Fantasy game without big set pieces and this has incredible moments from the opening invasion, secret cities, escaping a prison that buries itself in the sand and much more. Final Fantasy VIII wraps up with a wild dungeon, a gothic castle where you have to solve puzzles to unlock your abilities. Don’t believe the haters; VIII is a top tier RPG. 

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart

The reigning action platforming king has returned. These games are perfectly tuned with fantastic gunplay and huge set pieces and Rift Apart is no exception. Rift Apart has you running across galaxies and playing with dimensions as Ratchet & Clank find themselves separated in an unfamiliar dimension. This allows the developers to play with their established franchise, throwing tons of winks and nods through the inverse copies of favorite characters (glad Mr. Zirkon opened a bar). The best part is the addition of Rivet and Kit, the alternate versions of Ratchet & Clank. Both characters anchor a surprisingly emotional story of Rivet overcoming past trauma and Kit’s reckoning with her robotic design. It’s still light hearted fun but emotionally resonant in the ways the best children’s blockbusters are. You’ll still be blasting tons of enemies and unlocking strange and wild weapons. Some of the giant set pieces are staggering like grinding and fighting a large robot on a mining planet. This is one of the best games to come from an already fantastic series.

Read a deeper discussion on the story from my time with the game over the summer.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Episode INTERmission

Final Fantasy VII Remake Yuffie

A new slice of the VII Remake focusing on Yuffie! Music to my ears. The DLC shifts the combat from bouncing between characters to controlling just Yuffie and she’s a one woman army. She’s unbalanced in a fun way, able to control all the elements with her abilities through melee and ranged combat. She gets a companion, a new character named Sonon, that is AI controlled and can be called on to activate synchronized abilities. The two chapters that make up the DLC take place alongside the main game where Yuffie and Sonon move from the Slums into Shinra Headquarters to retrieve Materia. Along the way Yuffie excitedly bounced from fight to fight like a plucky Shonen protagonist without the more grating side of the braggadocio. She’s a great character and refreshing from the more self serious party of the mainline game. That doesn’t mean the dense lore of VII isn’t there with the addition of characters that were previously in the side sequel Dirge of Cerberus. It’s a small taste of what’s to come, but that shortened experience really highlights what makes the Remake special.

I also wrote more about my side adventures playing Fort Condor.

Pokémon Unite

Pokemon Unite Goal

A MOBA with shorter games? Easy to pick up mechanics? Enough skill ceiling to keep you coming back? O I see those have existed for some time, but they didn’t have Pokémon. I’m so glad Unite was good mainly because it kept from picking back up my DOTA 2 habit. Whenever I have a free moment, it’s easy for me to pick right back up and jump into the fray with Blastoise. It’s so approachable that I don’t feel discouraged spending time away from it. The matches are also quick enough that losing doesn’t immediately kill my mood. And who doesn’t love playing as Pokémon? The continued support and new additions make this game all the richer. Big downside though; still rotten with microtransactions and pay to win incentives. A Free to Play game this very much is.

Take a trip back in time to when it launched.

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

Outer Wilds Echoes of the Eye

Two very big horror chickens, Emily and I, we’re so enthralled by this spooky addition to one of the greatest games ever made. It’s the fastest we ever recorded a Let’s Play and each day we were chomping at the bit to unravel more. The new haunted setting with its wood architecture and dilapidated structures brought us in just as hard as the planets of the main game. It also made us incredibly on edge for the majority of it as the dark tone permeated throughout the station. The story and a-ha moments were just as impactful even as it told a relatively smaller story (hard to match the main game’s story of a galaxy). The clues were spread a little too thin though and we found ourselves bashing our heads a lot. Overall though it was well worth the trip back into Outer Wilds. My favorite part? Us accidentally running head long to embrace the very things that cause the jump scares. We learned our lesson about approaching strangers. 

Read my write up and find a link to our let’s play.

Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

Great Ace Attorney Chronicles Lord Stronghart

Who knew that the best Ace Attorney games would be set in the past. The western release of the Japan only 3DS games are an absolute delight. The story of Ryunosuke Naruhodo suddenly finding himself on a path to becoming a lawyer is a lot of fun and the most ambitious Ace Attorney story to date. Each case subtlety builds intrigue in ways that aren’t readily apparent when you’re playing them. Past Ace Attorney games have had interconnected cases but these games build off each other. These games are also the most overtly political, questioning the actual “justice” of a budding legal system. I was caught off guard with how overt the politics were in the game and some of my misgivings from the first game were even addressed in the second. I don’t want to make these sound super serious; the series’s comedic charms are still very much here and even more refined. The characters are really what sells these games, from the ridiculous criminals (shout out to the Skulkin Brothers) to the Sherlock Holmes analogue (hilariously localized to Herlock Sholmes to avoid litigation). The new jury system also adds a hilarious flavor with a rotating crew of local people. Not to mention these games look great as well and seeing the characters react and move in 3D added excitement to the proceedings. My only worry after sinking 80 hours into these; that aren’t more of them to play.

Read about my misgivings with the politics of the first game. Boy did that second game make me eat crow.

The Metroid Series: Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion & Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread

I had never played a 2D Metroid before this year and I am so glad I fell down the rabbit hole. I was initially skeptical about playing Super Metroid since I’m really bad at platformers and don’t have a ton of experience with ones from the SNES era. It sunk its hooks in me quickly and I found myself voraciously playing through it over a weekend. That’s one of the nice things about these games; they’re short. These Metroid games keep the pace up and never overstay their welcome. They don’t feel slight either, allowing you to investigate and explore the areas for secrets and power ups if you’d like to. Finding items requires you understanding Samus’ skill set and implementing your knowledge, making it super rewarding. All three games are absolute classics and some of the most fun I had playing games all year.

I wrote more in depth about each game in my Metroid Year retrospective.



A game in the time honored tradition of “this game is so good and you should play it blind.” I don’t want to spoil anything too deeply here, I’d rather save that for it’s own dedicated blog. I will however rundown the high level details; this is a deck building roguite where you are playing as a person who’s playing a card game with a mysterious stranger. Their face is shrouded in darkness as is much of the cabin that you’re in. As you continue to play the game and get farther and farther, the game starts bringing in puzzles and lots of new twists to the gameplay. Those twists are exciting but the act of just playing the card game is a blast. The game will subtly point you towards different strategies and mastering the rules of the game is rewarding. Inscryption also lets you break the game in fun and novel ways. This game had me laughing at all the weird ways I accidentally backed into a game breaking strategy. Of course every time you get your feet under you something strange happens…

Inscryption is also packed with wild lore, so much that it’s spilled out into an ARG. The video game itself is exciting enough all throughout its surprisingly long run time. Even if you’re not a fan of card games, Inscryption has enough gameplay twists to keep you satisfied.

Nier Replicant Version 1.2247…

Nier Replicant

I was among the large influx of people who discovered Nier and Yoko Taro through Nier Automata. It exceeded my expectations, an action RPG that played with gaming conventions with weird explorations of humanity through sentient machines. I’m not sure why I didn’t jump immediately on the Nier rerelease when it came out earlier this year but I’m glad I ended the year on it. It was strange seeing characters that would repeat in Automata show up in this game and made me have a larger appreciation for the lore of this series. I found the story just as moving and was surprised how distinct it was from its sequels. Replicant is all about found family and what it means to practice forgiveness for others and ourselves. The main trio of Nier, Kaine and Emil all come together through their shared trauma. The kindness they show one another allows them to show kindness to themselves even when they’ve committed heinous and violent acts. Nier is about how the world shaped these people into weapons, either directly or indirectly, and their own culpability. It’s about moving forward and processing your grief in an unjust world. Nier also explores themes like man’s inhumanity to man, man pushing nature beyond its breaking point, what constitutes personhood, the human desire for more life, the beauty of life and shared humanity. Even when the story itself is relatively straightforward there’s ample thematic material to mull over. And all of this takes place in a Zelda-ish action adventure.

Part of the appeal of Nier Automata was the way it played with video games as a medium which is something that was incorporated from the original game. Playing through Replicant I found the same sort of playfulness if slightly less polished. The side quests are fun variations on traditional RPG quests, whether that’s unreliable quest givers sending you on wild goose chases to avoid you or having someone’s toxic relationship unfold each time you exit and revisit a village. These are nestled in among the more standardized versions of fetch quests so when the changes arrive they call attention to themselves. They’re commenting on the way you interact with NPCs in a RPG, the same way Weiss (your magic book) chastises you for going out of your way to grab every side quest. When you think a simple gathering of fruit is going to be simple, the quest giver lays an unexpected tragedy at your feet. The farther along the game goes, the more the townspeople refer to you as “that guy who will do any errand.” 

The main quest has wider genre variations. Rescuing villagers from the Forest of Myth requires you to enter a text adventure where you are solving riddles to free them from a magical virus. Your first visit to Emil’s mansion is straight out of Resident Evil. It locks the camera in fixed angles and the entire setting is monotone. Paintings change, sinks fill with blood, and random stone people litter the landscape. There’s also a dungeon with a Diablo style camera view as you slice and dice your way through it. The enemies even rely mainly on shooting “bullet-hell” like blobs that you have to avoid and attack. Nier is a game and series that loves games deeply and enjoys using different pieces and building them into it like Legos.

A lot of people will have heard of this series because of the games multiple play through structure. Nier Replicant has you playing through it at least 3 times with very little variation in those last playthroughs. It’s a rough draft for what Automata refined as Automata created new scenarios for you to run through each time. Replicant can require a guide at times to help sand off some of the rough edges (definitely necessary to complete all the quests). The story content gained from your first repeated playthrough is devastating, laying out a different viewpoint from the main character’s. Nier Replicant can often feel like a gut punch and is written in a way that you can extend pathos to all the characters you come across. Nier Replicant is a rewarding experience because of its unique themes and novel way of exploring them in a video game.

Final Fantasy Video Game Playthroughs

Fort Condor Almost Steals Final Fantasy VII Remake: Episode INTERmission

The new DLC “Final Fantasy VII Remake: Episode INTERmission” absolutely whips (but god what an awful name when it’s also attached to the new “Intergrade” subtitle for the PS5 version). Yuffie is a blast to play almost to the point of being overpowered; her toolset allows her to adapt to every single enemy’s elemental weakness. She’s a swiss army knife allowing you to adapt to whatever situation arises. I was reluctant about Sonon not being a playable character (unlike your party in the main version) but you actually have a good amount of flexibility being able to issue him commands. Having him be the AI controlled bullet sponge allows Yuffie to really punish enemies and gives you that really accomplished feeling. Both characters are great too. Yuffie is overeager and confident but has the skill set to back it up which makes her effortlessly charming. The bit of people underestimating her because she’s young, small and female never wears out its welcome because it never phases her. She stumbles and jumps into things in a comedic way and always bounces back up. Sonon acts like her older brother; slightly embarrassed but supportive in a real way. He follows her lead and calls her boss and it’s never condescending. He really trusts her which is reinforced through the bit of backstory we learn about him throughout the episode. My only complaint, it’s too short! I don’t mean that in the “gamer” way of minimizing the DLC but I’m just sad I don’t have more time to sync into this. Maybe this is a plus for people who found the 35-40 hour runtime of the main game too much (I thought it was jusssssst right). It’s got me excited all over again and I’m now working my way through the VR battle missions to take on the new secret boss. O ya, did I forget that there’s Dirge of Cerberus enemies in here? This Remake sure is wild. My goal is to turn recorded footage into a video wrap up, now I just have to hold myself accountable.

Yuffie Yelling at Shinra Soldiers
Yuffie is pretty damn great

What I really want to talk about with this blog is what for me was an early highpoint; the Fort Condor minigame. It’s so much fun and easy to pick up with some challenging matches as you progress up the ranks. It’s just like Clash Royale! Wait where are you going… Really I mean that as a compliment, as Clash Royale is a very addicting mobile game that unfortunately comes saddled with all the insidious free to play stuff that the Clash series is known for. Fort Condor is another win in the line of mini games that occur across the Final Fantasy series. The original FFVII had a similar mini game that takes place at the Fort Condor location. Fort Condor houses a Mako Reactor that Shinra is interested in taking and has been attempting to seize it. Your party helps out and you defend it through what’s essentially a Tower Defense mini game where you have to outlast waves of enemies. The one weird thing about the translation to the Remake; it’s represented as a board game that people love which has potentially weird lore implications. Since INTERmission takes place in Midgar, maybe the struggle has been translated to a board game where two equal sides fight against one another. That way the struggle is downplayed even though Fort Condor is in a much less advantageous position (that’s my read anyway). 

Fort Condor Final Fantasy VII
Original Fort Condor Mini Game

Anyways, Square made it a point to include mini games in the mainline series and have them interwoven through the game. Triple Triad in VIII was a big expansion as you played cards throughout whatever regions you were in and even informed what ruleset you abided by. There was another card game in IX but was deemphasized and merely a side activity (meaning you couldn’t turn cards into items). X decided to up the ante and created a new sports game/management sim Blitzball, where you could play in tournaments and recruit new players across the game. Square decided to take some time off until FFXV who thankfully littered the open world with new side activities and mini games. I have traditionally completely misunderstood how these activities mesh into the game. I wrote about my early circumstances with Triple Triad and I continued a streak of unfortunate losses after that. I eventually started getting my footing but I missed important people to play cards against and still have a shaky understanding of the rules. Blitzball I especially fumbled even on my playthrough last year; somehow I progressed too fast and was never able to recruit anyone. The Besaid Aurochs deserved a better coach than me. I even missed playing darts in FFVII Remake. I assumed I’d have another chance to go back and win but pushed forward too far. The unclaimed trophy still haunts me, maybe I’ll have to restart and get it…

Fort Condor Battle

Unlike those other times, I was determined to finish and play through Fort Condor. Even though I still managed to complete it, I still messed up. Fort Condor is a strategy game where you deploy units to attempt to take your opponent’s towers before they take yours. You have an ability meter “ATB” that allows you to deploy units that continually fills over time. Units consist of different costs (more ATB = more powerful units) and correspond to one of 3 different types: Defense, Vanguard, and Ranged. The unit types govern strengths and weaknesses which is similar to rock-paper-scissors (see also Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle). Defense beats Vanguard, Vanguard beats Ranged, and Ranged beats Defense. Once deployed, the units will move and attack on their own so the main balancing act becomes when and what to deploy. Battles also take place on a 3 minute timer so you’ll have to keep active if you want to take more towers than your opponent. Before the game you’ll have a chance to pick what units to take in and what boards to use. Boards govern how many units you can take in, how fast your ATB meter fills and what materia you can use (abilities like Blizzard, Cure or Haste that you can use once in battle). You’ll also see your enemies’ board and unit choices so you can pick and choose based on balance matchups. This can make or break a match and later opponents required me to completely reconfigure my lineup until I could find a strategy forward. Sometimes the strategy was as simple as choosing more Vanguard units to defeat their Ranged types, other times I had to try and use more lower cost units to balance their more costly ones. It’s really rewarding to find that fit and running a battle. There were more than a few times that I had a nail biting victory and was hoping my units could hold out long enough.

Fort Condor Board Setup

Now this probably would’ve been easier or at least had a bit more variety if I knew the full breadth of how to acquire new units and boards. You’ll find all of your opponents in the Slum area of the DLC. You’ll start as Rank 1 and have a variety of people to battle against. Once you’ve beat them all, you rise a rank and have new enemies. You’ll receive new boards and units as you win and rank up, but that’s not the only way to acquire them. I didn’t know this however and started finding considerable difficulty against higher rank opponents. That pushed me to get really clever with my available items, but I would also see units that others had and be extremely jealous. Why don’t I have a helicopter? Where did they get that type of robot? Turns out, vendors throughout the slums sold these and for relatively low cost. I had a singular focus on completing Fort Condor before I progressed so I pushed through to beat the Grandmaster (Chadley!) with the items I had. Imagine my surprise as I was going to purchase battle items and see all types of units and boards. There’s the helicopter! This board seems cool! But by then I was ready to move on and play the main thrust of the DLC. I can still go back and replay battles but without having new opponents to play against it didn’t seem exciting.

Even with the unintentional handicap, I still had an absolute blast playing Fort Condor. It’s an amazing surprise to an already excellent piece of DLC with its own separate rewarding gameplay curve. I must have spent at least half my time engaging NPCs in mini games as I did playing through the main experience. Cannot recommend the DLC and Fort Condor enough, if you can get your hands on a PS5 that is. Here’s hoping there’s more of this when Remake Part 2 eventually rolls around.

Final Fantasy MMO

You Want to Talk About it Thancred?

Saving Eorzia is no picnic. The land, split between 3 city states and various indigenous tribes, is host to all sorts of magically destructive and politically manipulative beings. Whether it’s fighting gods that indoctrinate its worshippers, trying to stay ahead of ancient order of eternal beings, or just attempting to get out of a city alive, you are kept constantly on your toes saving the world from the brink of destruction. It can be helpful when dealing with horrific situations to sit down and talk things through with a trusted confidant. Otherwise you could end up bottling emotions and acting out in ways you couldn’t have predicted. All that’s to say is that my fellow Scion Thancred is really going through some shit and I’m here to talk if he wants to.

Spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn & Heavensward

Things break bad at the end of A Realm Reborn (ARR); like really really bad. After fighting godlike beings for countless hours, you find yourself on the receiving end of a political scheme. Teledji Adeledji goes full mask off (and dies for it), Raubahn loses an arm, and the Scions all appear to die trying to escape the city. All of this was caused because Alphinaud’s personal Blackwater turned on him (how could accruing a private military possibly go bad!). You spend the main game of Heavensward with a new group of friends from Ishgard and it isn’t until the patches that some of the Scions start to reappear. Turns out many of the Scions were able to escape thanks to Y’shtola’s magic which dissolved them all into the Lifestream (living current of matter that moves throughout all living things). Thancred found himself miles away, naked and without the use of magic (something he doesn’t divulge). He finds himself stuck without being able to use teleportation magic so he instead works closely with the Vath (native creatures) to trade for food and shelter. Eventually you find him and his style is much different than before:

His choice of clothing is very evident of expressing his inner turmoil. He along with the rest of the group was betrayed and he’s feeling helpless without being able to use magic. Also he spent the end of ARR being possessed by Ascians. Thancred being the proud individual he is, tries to play these off as if it’s nothing. While he may think he’s being clever, it’s painfully clear that he’s not alright. Nobody wears a blindfold if they’re feeling great. It reminds me of another conflicted individual (although he actually has an amazing backstory as to why he wears a blindfold):

Riku Blindfolded
Look at this boy, seen too much shit he has to cover his eyes

I want to make it clear; I get it. We all adapt to tragedy in different ways; Thancred happens to cope by making outward changes (new clothes) so he doesn’t have to express his inner turmoil. You know what’s hard? Expressing all your fears and hurt. You know what feels good? Dressing well and kicking ass! It may not be healthy in the long run, but so far this hasn’t really slowed him down. By the end of Heavensward, he’s made important discoveries on his own and even pushed comrades to make tough decisions of their own (we’ll never forget you Papalymo). Everything still remains unresolved around Minfilia’s new role as the crystal soothsayer, and that has to come back around, but for now we’re in an ok place.

I say all this as someone who similarly has trouble with expressing themselves. I’ve had to work to be able to recognize when I’m bottling and need to let out my emotions. Last year was a lot (even with my relative stability compared to the rest of the world) and I had to work on dealing with my anxiety in a healthy, sustainable way. Of course I had my coping mechanisms, escaping into all sorts of video games, books, movies, anime and others when my brain needed a rest. I did all that but I did it in sweatpants. I’m not regretting my choice of clothing per say but when compared to Thancred styling up it seems like a missed opportunity. I had the chance completely removed from the usual day-to-day to remodel a look suitable to the times. My hair is even the longest it’s ever been! And now I’m staring down the barrel of a country that’s potentially reopening worrying that my sweatpants won’t carry outside the house. So what I’m really trying to say is thank you Thancred for showing me there’s another way. Also if you need to talk, I’m here.

Thancred WOL Final Fantasy XIV
Me, checking in on Thancred as he gets huffy
Final Fantasy Video Game Playthroughs

Is it Possible to be Swindled by an AI?

I thought I could go into Final Fantasy VIII with no guide. I had heard rumblings of its complexity, but I wanted to go in as fresh as possible. I have 0 conception of what it is as a game so I was excited to experience it as unaffected by game culture as possible. Everything at the start of the RPG was going just fine, albeit with lots of text being thrown at me about all of its intricate systems. A lot to parse to be sure, but I didn’t hit any roadblocks. There was even a fun optional card game mentioned, Triple Triad, a student NPC was kind enough to pass me a starting deck. I completed my first mission, received a new GF or Guardian Force in Ifrit (I’m sure this joke has been made a million times but GF will always be read as “Girlfriend”) and even received Ifrit in the form of a card. I was starting to feel comfortable and upon returning to Balamb Garden decided I would challenge people to Triple Triad. I reviewed the rules in the tutorial section fairly quickly and played the first person I came across, a man waiting around near the gate.

A brief note on the rules of Triple Triad. The game is essentially War where you take cards based on numerical values. If one card has a greater number, then that card wins and the player who has the most cards at the end wins the game. Triple Triad is more complex in that you place cards on a 3×3 grid. Each individual card has 4 values representing each side of the card (up, down, left, right). The winning card is determined by the numbers that are adjacent to the card played next to it. For example, two cards placed horizontally will match their left and right values and the winner is determined based on the numbers next to each other. Both players are assigned a color at the start, red or blue, and winning a card is represented by that card changing color to the other players. If you’re red and your card wins, then the other card will change from blue to red. This gets more complicated with multiple cards being placed adjacent to one another and there are different rules governing turning over cards in this situation. It seems like later in the game elemental affinities play a role and there will be different rules on turning cards over, but I was only an hour in.

Triple Triad
They stole my boy

My first game with the man at the gate loads up. I select my 5 cards to play against his, including my fancy new Ifrit card, which has much higher numbers than the other starter cards in my deck. I place this card in a corner first feeling that its high numbers will do me good. He places a card and immediately Ifrit gets turned over. No matter, I see a part of Ifrit that has a lower number than one of the cards in my hand. I place it underneath and nothing happens. My adversary places a card next to my new one and that flips over. I immediately begin to panic as 4 of the 9 cards played are all red (his color). I place a card adjacent to his new one and it flips! My excitement quickly drains as he places another card and flips yet another one of my cards. The game becomes decisively his and by the end I don’t have a single blue card exposed on the table. I start to get mad, feeling cheated after losing by a landslide in my first game. My anger only ratchets up as I realize that losing a game means losing a card and the AI goes straight for the jugular and takes my Ifrit card.

This mother fucker from 1999 just conned me. What seemed like a nice innocent side game just turned into a blood match. How hard could this game be after only a few short tutorial screens? This is the starting area, shouldn’t everyone I play be relatively easy? Final Fantasy VIII instead came to play and swiped my lunch money in the process. Now you’re probably saying “Brenton no worries, just reload your save and it’ll be like nothing ever happened.” Well you see I essentially backed myself into a corner by breaking the RPG cardinal rule; I didn’t save right before this encounter. In fact, I hadn’t saved since before the first full mission. I could go back and start from this save and make up the couple of hours I sunk in. It wouldn’t even be too hard. But now my ego was involved and if the AI could take cards so could I. I paused the game and did some Google Searches for Triple Triad walkthroughs. Multiple walkthroughs mentioned how good the games tutorial on it is; I beg to differ. I also saw that you should probably wait until you have more powerful cards; too late for that one. I was going to humiliate the AI with my crappy cards and win my dignity back.

Just like a drunk in Las Vegas, I was making poor decisions by continuing to engage with the game. I had a sunk cost and I was going to win my money back. Obviously this was a poor decision even if I had a better understanding of the rules. I continued to lose repeatedly and I watched card after card disappear from my deck. The house continued to rob me blind as I watched my life savings slowly be offered as a tribute to the gambling god. Now I am left with only 4 cards in my deck and can’t even play against people anymore. The casino sent over its security and despite my protests through me out onto the street. I felt wobbly and gave them the finger but it’s not like they can notice from behind the glass doors. I was thoroughly defeated in a side game that consumed my playtime. My dignity had been traded to the man at the gate and added it to his deck with passivity. The game was stacked in his favor from the beginning and I willingly played into it.

Balamb Garden
And now the dude is just gone???

Anyways I hear the RPG part of this game is pretty good, guess I can start finding out.

2020 EOY Final Fantasy Gaming Culture MMO Video Game Playthroughs

2020 Games: Stories That Matched the Tumultuous Year

A lot of people point to the 2016 US presidential election as the moment when they were “radicalized,” the moment when they realized that the systems in place were fundamentally flawed and action needed to be taken against them. I definitely wasn’t unaffected. I was a couple years out from graduating college and the election proved I needed to start learning way more. It wasn’t until the literal wheels came off this year that everything coalesced. Video games were primed to be the perfect quarantine activity and served as my favorite hobby by far this year. The video games I played this year seemingly reflected 2020. They revolved around misuses of power, systems made to oppress and the hollow pursuit of justice in a broken world. It was a weird meld to suddenly see my own worldview reflected in the games I picked up. Part of that could be attributed to my new interest. The other could also be that I was finally paying attention.

My top 10 2020 games (plus 2 more Final Fantasy’s for good measure) held together a tumultuous year and expanded my brain in the process. The year in the industry was fucking broken in too many ways to count, a continued surfacing of industry wide problems with work, abuse, racism and government defense marketing. But these were bright spots amidst all that uncertainty. I’ve grown so much in playing and writing about many of these and can’t wait to continue doing so. I’m feeling sappy which to me feels like a coping mechanism for an upcoming year that will feel much the same. I’m taking solace in the fact that games haven’t lost their luster and how much joy they bring me:

Final Fantasy Corner

My favorite game of All Time?: Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X Yuna

This game means so much to me and I am so glad it 100% holds up. Final Fantasy X marked a turning point for me and games as I realized that the medium could facilitate exciting stories. I’ve found it hard to beat this one, a ragtag crew fighting institutional oppression and reckoning with what it means to make large scale change. It has a great turn based system prioritizing using all of your party members to exploit enemies weaknesses. It’s like Rock Paper Scissors finding which character would effectively beat the enemy. I think a lot of people decry it’s old school approach to random battles, but the battle system works so smoothly that it never feels overbearing. I was immensely surprised by my change in mindset around Tidus and Wakka, two fan hated characters. I found Tidus’ mannerisms much more consistent in my play through this year. He was a star athlete back in Zanarkand so he knows how to effortlessly engage with people and that’s through relentless positivity. It also masks his deep trauma and emotional abuse from his father Jed which becomes pivotal to the climax of the plot. The game smartly ties the player’s victory with Tidus’ emotional growth. I see why people were annoyed with Wakka; he’s essentially the skeptic and devils advocate. In this case that role is flipped on its head as Wakka reckons with his history as a devout follower with the actions of the party that directly oppose that. I found his arc of squaring his spirituality and trauma with the reality of the world and the lies he’s been fed extremely compelling.

Final Fantasy X also holds a special place in my memory as it was the first time I’d played through a game exclusively with a friend. Every day after 7th grade we’d head back to his house to play the game and write new chapters in stories we were working on. There was so much freedom and creativity as we wrote stupid inside jokes into the stories of our comedy adventure novel. I was also being thoroughly wowed by my first JRPG and was so excited to work through it each day. We continued on this ritual eventually playing through Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts. It’s made me a lifelong fan of these series and RPGs. It’s also a time that I refer back to when I’m feeling creatively stifled and shut down. We were making stories for ourselves and having a blast doing it. And that’s my motivation for my hobbies (writing, podcasting) as a whole; do it because it makes you happy. I’m so happy that I was able to rekindle some of that feeling in 2020.

That Old/New MMO: Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn (Patch 5.3)

Final Fantasy XIV
Dukes up Alphinaud!

I feel like I sounded pretty negative in my write up for a game I really enjoyed. I think it’s very easy to point out its shortcomings especially when this base game came out (A Realm Reborn that is) in 2013. The new 5.3 patch served as an improved on-ramp for new players like me, an admittedly Herculean task to help slim down and improve a decidedly large game now. I haven’t reached the point of calling this the “best Final Fantasy” as long time fans point to, but it has been an enjoyable ride through a more story driven MMO. In comparison to WOW, the story is better woven through the quests and includes a lot more cutscenes and indicators for the main path. I like this model more than WOWs even if it did take some of the momentum when there was back to back cutscenes (especially at the end/early patch story content). Raiding with other players was fun also, even if partying with more experienced players made it feel like they were just running me through it rather than strategizing to overcome difficult enemies. I am especially grateful it was all free; I’m still working through the game’s extensive free trial which includes its first expansion. So far, Heavensward has been an improvement over ARR and am excited to continue my Monk’s journey. 

The Actual Top 10 2020 Games List

Virtual Island Living: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Early camp life

Just like seemingly everybody, I too embarked to a tropical island with Tom Nook and co. This version brought big changes to the Animal Crossing formula; a larger focus on crafting and shaping your surroundings than just participation in an existing village. I never dove in the same way others on the internet did (and I voiced my frustrations at being player 2) but it was amazing seeing the island creations that players made. I still had a great time at launch, working with Emily (my partner) to gather materials to expand our island and finding new neighbors to invite. One of these days I will spend an extended amount of time back on the island, but I need to get over my immense guilt of letting it sit there for multiple months.

Get me that new Spider-Man! Miles Morales

Miles Morales

An upgrade in almost every way to Insomniac’s 2018 Spider-Man game. The more concise campaign ends up benefiting the entire experience with a more pared down selection of side quests and activities to play through that never wore out their welcome. Not that Peter was a bad character, but highlighting Miles here provided an essential point of view to the Spider-Man mythos. Miles is excited and nerdy just like young Peter is but with a stronger sense of confidence and purpose. It helps that his group of close relationships are all fantastic and I would say one of my only gripes with the game is that we didn’t spend more time with them. Insomniac would be smart to make Miles have at least equal billing going forward with their eventual mainline sequel. Also the Bodega Cat costume is just fantastic.

Rage against the machine: Treachery in Beatdown City

Treachery in Beatdown City: Cop Pepper Spray

Have you been frustrated with the police and government this year? Did you want to punch nazis? Were you looking for any outlet to vent your rage? Well this is the game for you! A throwback to old school beat em ups with a turn based skill system thrown in then tops it with a healthy rage and skepticism at political systems. Your crew of three fighters (good news, no cis white men here!) works their way to City Hall getting caught up with other people’s petty bullshit or outright hostility toward their existence. It’s really funny too, perfect for a good laugh and the easily accessible screenshot button on the Switch. Tremendous way to channel frustrations in a way that’s aligned with the current hellscape.

Monster in the office: Control: AWE

Control AWE Dr. Hartman

I love Control. It’s mix of 90’s and X-Files era government skepticism and other worldly events played so well as you navigate through a literal bureaucratic nightmare. I played both expansions this year but had such a blast with AWE (“Alan Wake Expansion” cleverly retconning that game’s events as an in-universe “Altered World Event”). Remedy makes the nods in the base game to Alan Wake literal as this serves as a direct follow up to that game, with the titular character guiding Jesse from the liminal space where he’s trapped. Turns out there’s an entire annex of the “Oldest House” that’s been turned over to the monster form of Emil Hartman. Jesse can’t directly damage him adding a big sense of danger when you get trapped in puzzle rooms with Dr. Hartman, making you dodge between light sources to stay alive. You’ll also find plenty of company memos and documents chronicling the shuttering of the department and tapes adding the Bureau of Control’s on the events of Alan Wake. It’s the Control you know and love with all the dark office humor brought along.

Crushing capitalism & found community: Kentucky Route Zero 

Kentucky Route Zero Characters

I saw this long in production game referred to as the “next great American novel” and I couldn’t think of a more accurate description of Kentucky Route Zero’s atmosphere and goals. A surreal portrait of the American south KRZ highlights the literal cost of debt on worker’s bodies and the strength and fragility of community. The game is essentially a journey across the Kentucky landscape, but instead takes you through abstract highways (“the Zero”) and vast underground caves and rivers. You’ll meet a variety of characters and the point of view shifts between them to show how each of them struggle to find a place within the capitalist system. It’s a story both of the moment and eternally poignant, highlighting the crushing pressure of debt on people and communities.

Sysphous has nothing on me: Hades

Hades Orange Shade
Here’s to you my good shade!

Dying over and over again has never felt better than Hades. The controls are so goddam tight and as I was pushing myself against the difficult learning curve I never felt that the game was being unfair. I kept beating my head against the wall and made incremental progress with each run. Once I finally escaped it felt like the bandaid ripped off and it was an incredible feeling to understand all of the intricacies of the game with such detail. Supergiant’s immaculate writing makes even the runs where you make zero progress feel impactful. Talking with mythological figures (Achilles, Nyx, Hypnos and many more Greek legends) felt like checking in with friends. As you play more you become more familiar with them and each character has their own story path to complete. It’s incredible that a run based game has created something that makes you want to keep playing it that isn’t directly tied to empowering your character in combat.

If I could push back time: Star Renegades

Star Renegades

Another rogue-lite that feels really good to play but for completely different reasons. This run based RPG places you in a Terminator-like future where you bounce between planets to fight back the evil machine aliens. Each map consists of 3 days and each days consists of picking 3 places to explore. The turn based battle system is unique as it makes time a literal factor. The enemies actions are placed on a linear timeline at the start of each turn and your job is to strategize how to push their actions back and completely off the timeline using your characters’ individual moves. Once you’ve successfully pushed them off the timeline you’ll “break” the enemy (accompanied by a big sound effect and lettering) and they’ll be open to even more damage. The further you go the more complicated the fights become and it feels so good to string together a big combo with your characters. The runs themselves can be a little long but that didn’t stop me from sinking tons of hours into this overlooked gem.

Take a picture, the end will last longer: Umurangi Generation

Umurangi Generation Holo Dancer

The pitch for this game is simple; take a series of photos that fulfills a checklist of requirements on a discrete level. Some of these requests are pictures of graffiti, people, or random objects scattered throughout the level. There’s a timer to find them but it’s not important unless you want to complete the bonus objectives (gates access to new items). The biggest challenge then is finding your photo subjects and finding the best angle or lens in which to take the picture. Once you complete the checklist, a new level unlocks and you move on.

Train Cafe

This game is so much more than that. Umurangi (meaning “red sky” in Maori) uses environmental storytelling to show a world on the brink of collapse. The first relatively normal level, taking place on a building rooftop, suggests somethings up as there are little blue jellyfish scattered around (that you are penalized for taking photos of too). Eventually you find yourself in the middle of a war zone, dilapidated cities, and underground shopping centers that show how the world is succumbing to Kaiju attacks. This isn’t escapist sci-fi; you’ll see images of UN troops and their failure at addressing the conflict and memorials to the fallen. It’s really amazing how many world details you can glimpse through movies posters, newscasts and graffiti placed throughout the closed off levels. The Macro DLC (a must play) coalesces the main games ideas into a more aggressive tone. You’ll visit an arcade/club where the rich go to escape, an underground collective, and eventually a protest against the occupying UN forces. That last level is so evocative after the last year of BLM protests showing medical stations and collective action at work (you’re even penalized for taking photos of protestors). When it eventually goes wrong, it’s haunting and the way the final moments change the camera removes any passivity between lens and player that might have existed. It’s truly a game of this moment.

2020 Vision Poster

The soundtrack is just perfect. It traffics in lots of golden era house, jungle, electro and all kinds of dance music goodies. It matches the vibe of the game (Dreamcast era specifically) with a perfect specificity. It also just happens to cover my favorite genres of music ThorHighHeels hit this one out of the park.

Surprising meta fiction:  Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake Push Up Contest

I thought I knew what this game was, but boy was I wrong. The lead up to this shot several warning flares; the remake would be split into multiple games, first focusing only on Midgar and replaced with real time combat rather than turn based. I didn’t trust that a compelling story could be made out of just the beginning of the game and I’ve been burned by Square combat (hello FFXV). Not only did they completely nail those last two parts but they effectively built out the world and added a meta layer over the whole game. Remake becomes a commentary on remaking games and devolves into KH levels of abstraction where you literally fight alternate timelines made manifest. That last part has proven divisive, but the final fights and ending effectively adds another mystery layer on the future of these remakes. It feels like they’ve blown off the doors of the story and I honestly have no idea what to expect for the future installments.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Combat

That wasn’t even my favorite part with real time combat that actually makes good use of pausing to input commands. Square has been trying to do this since 2001 (!!!) and never has it felt this good. Even on normal difficulty the game is punishing and requires you to switch between all the members of your party to take down enemies. The long fights never feel sluggish and winning fights is incredibly rewarding. The expanded scope of Midgar is more uneven with boring puzzle and side quest design. The character moments are a huge high point especially the extended role of Jesse. Formerly relegated to minor Avalanche member, here she gets an entire story arc and her grounded nature and flirtations with Cloud are charming. I guess my only detraction is they never added a “Part 1” or any sort of signifier to this game? If there was backlash to the misleading title it seems to have gotten drowned out. This is probably the game I thought about the most this year and it would’ve been my GOTY if not for:

Paradise Killer

"Perfect 25 Is Coming" Poster

I love mysteries and detective fiction and when games can pull that off it’s an absolute delight. I initially thought this game was more along the lines of a visual novel (something closer to Phoenix Wright) but was blown away when I picked up the real thing. Here is a detective game where you actually do the fucking work, exploring an open world looking for clues to solve your mystery. You’ll uncover more mysteries the more digging you do and it’s up to you when you want to bring your evidence back to the judge for the inevitable trial. All of the characters are pitch perfect for a murder mystery meaning there’s some sort of dirt on everyone on the island (even Crimson Acid but she’s more mask off than everyone else on the island so there’s less evil machinations going on and more “I’m going to get mine” vibes). I loved interacting with the characters and nothing was more exciting than suddenly hitting on a nerve that completely changed the tone of a conversation. I was a real goddam detective figuring out who murdered the syndicate. 

Paradise Island Full Map

Did I mention that this all takes place in an artificial world? That’s built to resurrect alien gods that gave people power? And that this is the 24th time they’ve tried to create the ideal “paradise?” And that you and the other cast of characters are all immortal? The setting and character names are all outlandish (in the best way possible) which makes exploring every nook and cranny of the island exciting. Finding out details of the lives of regular people, the background architecture and logistics of Paradise and the conflicting ideologies of its rulers all prop up the games excellent exploration of power. That the system is rotten doesn’t come as a shock but exploring how certain people benefit from it was always intriguing. Which leads to Paradise Killer’s amazing end trial, less of a send off checklist of solving the murder and getting the “true” ending. Instead you’re tasked with doling out “justice;” you hold the power to condemn people. One person may not have been directly involved but do their actions still warrant a guilty verdict? Does someone’s intention matter? Do any of them deserve to go free for their compliance with the world’s events or is this entire trial a sham? The open ended nature of the trial means that you decide what actually matters, whether that’s handing out guilty verdicts or letting people go free. It was a refreshing end to a genre that’s usually closed off with the inevitable reveal of the murderer. I absolutely loved my time with Paradise Killer.

Lydia Day Break
Final Fantasy MMO Video Game Playthroughs

Final Fantasy XIV’s Old Content Bogs Down an Overstuffed Game

I used to be trained for this. I used to know exactly what to expect, what systems to track down, what steps to take when embarking on my journey. Unfortunately my muscles had atrophied and I was completely caught flat footed. Starting a new MMO is exhausting.

I have been eyeing Final Fantasy XIV for a while. It’s been proclaimed as the best Final Fantasy story ever with the caveat that it doesn’t really get good until the second expansion. Having a somewhat dated familiarity with MMOs, I knew this meant possibly hundred of hours to get through before I even hit the stuff that people praised. That hour number is extremely daunting, I could play dozens of games within that hour count, which meant that I passed on investing. I also didn’t have a group of friends invested so my interest was more around general internet chatter. I was itching to play an MMO again though, something with a world to explore and something with dungeons to crawl with other players. Once I heard the news about Final Fantasy XIV reducing the amount of quests required to get through the base game, aka “A Realm Reborn” or ARR, I knew it was finally time to jump in. And o boy what an overwhelming experience that was. There’s nothing quite like large quantities of tool tips and numbers jumping out at you coupled with decision making anxiety around the large time investment.

WOW Dwarf Hunter
The closest approximation to my old Dwarf Hunter

I used to be a much more dedicated MMO player. I started WOW in 2005 (when I was in 8th grade) which was right in the sweet spot between the initial rush and the first expansion “Burning Crusade.” I had initially faced an uphill battle with my parents over whether I could play it until I realized that I could purchase prepaid game time cards with the money I’d earned (sorry mom and dad). By the time my scheme worked and I was able to log on, my friends had already become experts. The long wind up period between my start time and theirs allowed me to pester them for information so I knew what decisions to make when I started. They also guided me along as I leveled; they told me where to go, how to spec my hunter, and how to be the DPS as part of a dungeon group. The base game for World of Warcraft was inscrutable in a lot of ways. Outside help was essential; this was before a lot of the quality of life improvements were in the base game and things like quest markers had to be added through mods. The more you leveled the more WOW demanded that you looked outside the game for help. The community propped up wikis and how to’s to unlock the ability to join raids and then even more wikis on to complete said raid. Keeping up with WOW meant a lot of time dedicated to researching the game itself. 

This problem hasn’t entirely gone away, but the on-ramp for MMOs has become easier in that time. The bar is incredibly low though; there were still a ton of inscrutable systems that I interacted with upon starting FFXIV. Even though I hadn’t started a new MMO in over a decade I felt confident that I could pick it up pretty easily. Imagine my surprise that after completing ARR & it’s associated patches and I still don’t completely understand everything. It’s not exactly that the systems themselves are overly complicated, rather that years of iteration and expansions have rendered many of them meaningless. There’s a lot of cruft left over in the base game that players are no longer required to participate in. I felt actively discouraged from engaging with this old and sometimes optional content because it seemed to only hinder the hundred of hours of mainline story content that I had to still get through.


The problem starts with the quest designation. Quests are marked with specific indicators depending on their specific category. Story quests refreshingly have a very distinct marker and are even tracked in the upper left of the screen. Other “important quests are marked with a blue exclamation point with a key. These quests unlock gated content, for example your class abilities. Class abilities are also tracked in the upper left under your next story quest. Again, super helpful. Unfortunately the blue exclamation point gets used all over the place, ranging from unlocking dungeons to gaining access to update your characters hair. I understand locking content behind a quest; performing the quest objectives allow for a teachable moment. The fact that a variety of quests are all marked the same led me to completing content that wasn’t important and in many cases was old and no longer required for the game. Many of the dungeons that I unlocked through performing these quests were optional and dead; they had long served their purpose about three expansions ago. This led me to completely ignoring any blue checkmark quest that wasn’t tied to my class. That strategy worked until the game stopped me in my tracks and had me complete blue quests to progress. This happens multiple times throughout the story with quests that I had previously assumed were optional. The confusion around these are endemic to ARR’s problem; namely old content and structures that are clunky that I can only assume have been refined in later expansions.

Player choice is what causes this friction and is especially exacerbated when the game forces you to make important decisions. Around story quest level 20, you’re introduced to the Grand Companies which govern the three city states. When I say introduced, I mean you’re involved with a lengthy story quest where you visit each city state and have Alphinoe (important story NPC) explain each of their deals. Final Fantasy XIV is setting you up to make an important decision; select which Grand Company you would like to join. You can only join one so it takes its time introducing their ideology and background. Apart from the pacing I enjoyed learning more about the world and what the Grand Companies stood for. What the game doesn’t do is really explain how this decision will impact your play. I was worried that by joining one I would be locked out of quests at other city states and that I would be stuck playing through the story in a locale that I didn’t care for. After taking to wikis and asking around in Discords, the decision is relatively meaningless? At least that’s what I gathered since I never interfaced with my Grand Company after acquiring my mount. My best guess is that it’s designed for late game content or helped level your character in ARR before the accelerated leveling curve that I was participating in. Either way, the story seemed to ignore my association once I had made it.

Flying Mount

Those systems are rendered useless by the game itself; new content replacing old and leveling speed ramps that make it easy for players to keep up with the story quests. It’s in the dungeons and raids that the experienced player base itself removes any learning opportunities. Final Fantasy XIV encourages higher level players to rerun old dungeons and raids to earn special rewards. This is great in keeping the queues populated with players and the level scaling keeps all of the party members at the correct level for the instance (ex: scaling down a level 80 to 20). This also means that the more experienced party members run absolutely roughshod. All of the instances I participated in were essentially me just trying to keep up with them. We were constantly moving forward, blowing past parts of the instances that used to require some sort of skill or solution to bypass. The 24 player raids are even worse. Large party raids are already confusing since there are so many abilities constantly going off on screen. It’s already hard to feel like you’re making an impact if you’re DPS (me) but when the leaders are dragging everyone through it it feels even more weightless. I don’t think I learned any deeper knowledge on how to play my role which is a shame; my favorite parts of an MMO is incorporating class strategies when participating in group instances. The instances felt largely devoid of that.

Final Fantasy XIV Alphinaud

I still had a decent enough time playing Final Fantasy XIV but the old content really drags it down. There’s no easy solution as seen with Destiny 2’s overly prescriptive strategy of just removing large amounts of content. I think there’s a good middle ground, incorporating some of the more esoteric and older unlocks into standard systems players have access to from the jump. Final Fantasy XIV has already made steps toward that, but it definitely needs more refinement as the game shows no signs of slowing down.

Final Fantasy Video Game Playthroughs

Final Fantasy X Offers an Alternative to the Catholic Version of Enlightenment

While you kill god in most Final Fantasys, Final Fantasy X is the only one that is about God. Your main goal in the game is to destroy Sin, a monstrous whale that destroys anything it comes across. Sin is believed to come from its namesake; namely that the people of Spira angered the balance of the world and that Sin is their punishment. The world of Spira also has a church devoted to attoning for/keeping balance of Sin, lingering spirits, and even beings called the “Fayth” all which serve to very clearly outline an interrogation of modern Catholicism. I am finishing up my second playthrough; my first in almost 14 years (and my second replay of Final Fantasy games). I’ve changed a lot during that time and I’m finding the game’s themes ring even truer now. I am a bit of a reformed Catholic; I don’t outright deny the existence of a God but I also don’t find the same comfort in the teachings of the church. This paradigm shift colors my views of the characters, their belief systems, and the game’s wider commentary on power, control, atonement, and theology. All of which is to say that I no longer see Yuna’s journey as Christlike, but rather dismantling the very idea that sacrifice leads to spiritual fulfillment.

The church of Yevon is the predominant religion, and governing body, of the world of Spira. Their teachings are not too dissimilar to Catholicism; you are born into the world with Sin (in the game’s terms, that means the literal manifestation) and that you must atone by following the teachings. They also implore that people reject “Machina” (technology) and that Sin is the people’s punishment for becoming too reliant on it and hedonistic. Catholicism also teaches followers similarly; don’t take too much from the earth lest you become too lazy or greedy (and therefore farther from God). The people of Spira have a ray of hope; Summoners who pray and learn the teachings of Yevon to defeat Sin. Through them people are also passed on to the “Farplane” (afterlife) through a ritual called a “Sending.” Without a proper Sending, souls cannot pass to the afterlife much like in the Old Testament before Jesus.

Our main entry point into the church of Yevon is through the character Wakka. Wakka is a devoted follower of the church. He was raised on the teachings but after losing his brother in a battle against Sin (using Machina), he cemented his beliefs. His brother Chappu’s death was a seeming confirmation of the teachings of Yevon and he devoted himself to becoming a guardian, protecting Summoners on their pilgrimage to defeat Sin. He constantly corrects Tidus when he should be praying, how to address church officials, and how he generally speaks about important religious teachings. Growing up Catholic, this rang all too familiar. Catholicism is one of intense rituals with strict rules regarding interaction and language with religious ceremonies. No speaking in mass, no taking His name in vain, and memorizing prayers are all part of the knowledge required to be a good Catholic. Even as I type this, my brain reminds me every time I need to make proper capitalizations when referring to God (and when not to capitalize). I was not too dissimilar to Wakka; I didn’t interrogate my beliefs as they were taught to me as the strict truth. To stray from those teachings meant an eternity in hell; in Wakka’s case that meant death.

I don’t blame Wakka for being reticent or even hateful in his beliefs. The structure of the Church of Yevon makes up his entire worldview, especially after the death of his brother. Chappu’s death provided what many people have with Catholicism; a renewal in their faith with God. The universe had seemingly taught him a lesson and he listened. It also informs his wrong-headed hatred of Al-Bhed; a race of people persecuted by the church because they don’t believe and use Machina. Their existence flies in the very face of the teachings. Like many uninformed prejudices, Wakka only really hates the idea of the Al-Bhed. He doesn’t even realize Rikku is Al-Bhed, but how could he when he has no framing of them as people?

Final Fantasy X Bevelle

When the rug begins to get pulled out from under him, it’s all too familiar to anyone who suddenly starts thinking critically of faith. Anyone who studies history knows that spiritual leaders failed to follow their own teachings and Final Fantasy X takes this one step further. Long ago, the city of Bevelle destroyed the city of Zanarkand using Machina. Zanarkand was a spiritual utopia, one that combined faith with technology, but was utterly crushed by the advanced weapons of Bevelle. Sin was actually constructed as a direct action against Bevelle, a last ditch effort to preserve Zanarkand. In an ironic twist, The church of Yevon is actually named for the individual who created Sin. Besides just its history, the church is also actively evil. They cover for powerful individuals mistakes (not sending dead leaders, Seymours whole arc) and actively ignore their teachings (use Machina). We may not get moustache twirling speeches from modern religious figures, but past actions are damning enough.

In most stories that would make Yuna, with her sacrificial journey, Jesus. Yuna is a summoner and to defeat Sin, the summoner must give their life. She is part of a long lineage of Summoners as Sin reappears after each defeat ten years later. Spira cycles through a whole host of Christlike figures as they bring the world together again and again, if only for a brief time. 

Final Fantasy X Yuna

The differences between Yuna’s fate and Jesus’ wrestle with what it means to actually achieve salvation. Before Christ’s sacrifice, the souls of the dead were prevented from entering into heaven. Jesus served to absolve the dead’s sins through his selfless crucifiction. Humanity could never hope to rid themselves of the inherent sin that comes with being born. Yuna and her guardians (apostles) are not resigned to this fate. They choose not to use the final aeon (the supposed key to defeating sin) as all summoners had done before. They choose instead to defeat Sin from within, to destroy it not through noble sacrifice but in a heroic struggle to break the cycle. They choose to completely rid Spira of Sin.

This is in stark contrast to the Catholic teachings. Jesus’ sacrifice was a great debt that everyone must repay. He didn’t rid the world of sin but allowed a path so the dead can pass. Humans will always be evil the church says, so you must always repent. Yuna’s path to enlightenment is one of caring and resolve; she fights for the future to be completely freed of Sin’s violence. She creates a future where the living are not saddled with the mistakes of the past. Old souls trapped are now freed to move on and be at rest. Her selfless is not one of sacrifice or debt, but rather a complete absolution of the very notion of them.

Yuna’s journey to completely absolve the world of Sin rings especially true as a reformed Catholic. “Catholic Guilt” is a heavy weight to hold on you, the notion that you are always sinner and the best you can do with your time on earth is get back to zero. It’s a burden and keeps you tied to the church; the other alternative is eternal suffering. I found that it contradicted what the church was ostensibly about, mainly a place of spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment. The Catholic church can be stifling, especially if you’re a woman or LGBTQ. I never found the fulfillment that my family found because the rules seemed anti-humanistic. It’s exclusionary by design; their rules are the one way to reach Heaven. There are rules to be kind to one another, but if their path is different than theirs then that already creates a false equivalency. They will never be able to truly atone for their sins. 

Final Fantasy X Aaron

Final Fantasy’s vision is true faith in people; absolve sin completely and set them free. There they can dictate their own path removed from self sacrifice and consistent atonement. It’s a much more positive and trusting spin on centuries old doctrine. Trust that people are not inherently bad from the start and place trust in yourselves and others. Needless to say this resonated with me, an alternative vision that prizes empathy and understanding. It’s a much easier path to allowing people the freedom to live their own lives than the teachings I was raised with.

Final Fantasy Video Game Playthroughs

Final Fantasy XII is an Oddly Soulless Entry

I come to Final Fantasy for the stories. As mentioned in my blog on Final Fantasy VII Remake, I came to the series in the Sony era of consoles so I missed the series more fantasy oriented origins on the original Nintendo systems. These games told melodramatic, rich, and sometimes dark stories of a party battling against godly forces in a setting that was a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. These games sold me on that type of story and I wanted more of it. When I finally got around to playing Final Fantasy XII on my PS3 (I didn’t have a PS2 but did have a backwards compatible launch system), I found myself spite playing it. “What is this more straightforward fantasy setting? Why do they half of the characters talk like they’re in an Austen adaptation? Where is the no angst?” I played desperately waiting for some sort of twist or turn to take place that left me and the cast of characters truly shocked; a haunting ritual to end Sin ala final fantasy x, a fight for personhood ala VII, or even a love story like VII, anything! All of this frustration, but I still ended up playing it for over 30 hours, so obviously something kept me there. I still bad mouthed the game for many years after playing it and how big of a disappointment it was. I remember at the time the overall opinion of the game seemingly fit my narrative. 

Cut to years later, and my staunch “gamerism” has softened a lot. I’ve grown a lot in the decade or so since I had played XII and realized there is room for different kinds of stories in my life. I can appreciate a more archetypical fantasy adventure and not every JRPG or Final Fantasy have to be VII or X. The game’s reputation has improved since then and become more beloved among certain circles. Since the game had been rereleased on Switch, I took the opportunity to replay it with a much more open mind. While I had a great time playing it, it turns out my original opinion of the game remained oddly intact.

First the positives. This is absolutely one of, if not the best, playing Final Fantasy games. Comparisons to MMO combat are very on point, as your characters are able to move around in real time while action bars fill up to use an action (attack, use an item or spell, etc). I’ve always been a big fan of MMOs so seeing that type of combat adapted into a single player adventure is 100% my jam. Better yet, the game allows you to program your characters’ actions through their “Gambit” system. You are able to literally program what actions your characters take (including the one you control) using if then statements. For example, you could set your characters to attack the enemy with the lowest health, cast fire spells against enemies that are weak to it, or heal allies if their health drops below 50%. You can then prioritize actions so characters know what actions to perform (ex: healing characters below 50% at the top, use attack on party leaders target below). Once you have these set, you just love your characters into enemy range and let the systems go. It is so satisfying to watch your programmed actions fire. It is a completely different sort of satisfaction than conquering an action game; watching your carefully planned gambits pay off makes you feel so damn smart.

But man is the story bland. The setting isn’t the problem, although the world of Ivalice has not taken off the way Square seemingly hoped it would have. It’s not the characters either, a lovable crew of fantasy archetypes. It’s that the actual plot winds up going nowhere. It starts out promising enough too, a ground level view at poverty within an empire occupied city (Dalmasca). The main villain, Vayne Solidor (great name), is even introduced with a sympathetic speech; a monologue delivered to the people of Dalmasca about preserving their way of life that resonates with the crowd. While the fantasy plot is apparent, it seems like we’re going to get more political intrigue. But once the full party is assembled, this is quickly discarded for a more boilerplate story of chasing ancient weapons. Comparisons to Star Wars are very apt, at least that the broad strokes are about a rebellion fighting against an evil empire. There’s even a Han Solo character, Balthier, who may not have much to do but looks very cool doing all of it. The action pertains to you shuffling off to random locales gathering random items across the globe for no other reason other than “plot.” It unfortunately resembles some of the worst parts of modern blockbusters (looking at you Rise of Skywalker). 

There’s not much momentum in the plot either. There are set pieces sure, but not a lot of weight behind them. The main thrust is concerned with whether Ashe, the former queen of Dalmasca and true protagonist of the game regardless of who the game actually has you control, will use the magical (read: evil) stones to fight back against the empire. See these stones (nethicite) can cause untold amounts of damage and are granted to humes (yes, the humans name) by the gods of this world. The empire meanwhile are manufacturing their own (manufactured nethicite) so they want to destroy the god related ones. You end up coming to the same conclusion as the empire, to destroy them, but still ending up in opposition because they are still invaders in your home land. This friction between more grounded political dealings and fights against god causes a hollowness in the story. There are lots of talks about preventing a war but the game ends up focusing way more on stone collection that it’s easy to forget what the grand stakes are. The true cost of the empire invasion is evident in the setting (refugees on Mt. Bur Omisace for example) rather than the focus on the plot. Vayne, Cid, and the other empirical judges are evil because they lust for power not because of the collateral damage they cause to civilians.

In the end, you beat the bad guys, free yourself of gods, and decide that the two countries with the right rulers can live in harmony. It’s a pay ending to a very shallow plot that’s expected throughout the whole way through. The characters are left mostly unexplored, mostly serving as mouthpieces to ask “will Ashe seek revenge???” When in the final cutscene it’s discussed that they don’t see much of each other anymore, it makes a lot of sense like coworkers who no longer work together but see their posts pop up on Facebook every once in a while. There was no extended bonding merely a perfunctory sense of “well we have to beat the Empire, they are evil.” It’s easy to gloss over though when the game plays that good. 

Final Fantasy Gaming Culture

Final Fantasy VII Remake Expands & Dives Deeper into the Original’s Politics

Final Fantasy VII has always been political. The original incorporated themes of environmentalism, classicism, and capitalistic greed into its fantasy adventure story. The Shinra power company embodies all of these, literally sucking the living planet dry for its own gains. Midgar is literally divided; the rich and company workers on top and the poor out of sight (even from the sun) on the bottom. Also, the protagonists are literally eco terrorists.

Final Fantasy VII Remake, with its more narrow focus on Midgar, takes the opportunity to dig into things a little deeper. You get a more ground level view of the citizens of Midgar’s slums and the impact yours and Shinra’s actions have on them. While Midgar is very technologically advanced, the slums do not benefit from it.  Instead they live in the rubble and abandoned projects meant for the topside citizens. According to Shinra, Mako energy (harvested from the earth) is the necessary evil. People supposedly need this energy to survive even if it comes at a cost to the planet. Avalanche pushes back against this, fighting Shinra to stop Mako harvesting and the power imbalance in their city. This ideology is inherent in the original text, but the Remakes additions in Chapter 16 crystallize the original game’s message.

Spoiler warning for chapter 16

Shinra HQ Tour

Starting chapter 16, you’ve infiltrated Shinra HQ to rescue a captured Aerith. At this point we’ve seen just how evil Shinra can be. Their characterization is not subtle. They willingly dropped a plate to crush the Sector 7 slums literally destroying a town and countless lives. We watch as they twist public perception through their news station, publicly blaming Avalanche and their foreign rival Wutai for the plate. The game also takes the time to focus on the Shinra execs; they know the costs and the damage they’re doing and pursue it anyway. There are no shades of gray.

Aerith is held on one of the top levels of Shinra HQ. You get the choice to take either the stairs or the elevator. Players of the original might know that the common strategy is to take the stairs; the Remake however rewards elevator riders with an important additional cutscene. As you ride it up, the protagonists cross paths with multiple common Shinra workers. These are ordinary office workers, staying late to finish up one project or another, not evil soldiers. Tifa expresses some of her hesitancy about the mission; these are ordinary people, who are dissimilar to the mustache twirling villains of the exec board. Barret responds very cogently; that these people are compromised and complicit with the actions of the company.

Barret Elevator Ride

A good man who serves a great evil is not without sin. He must recognize and accept his complicity. He must open his eyes to the truth – that his corporate masters are profiting from the planet’s pain

I’ve seen this scene being talked about a lot and for good reason. Barret’s response perfectly encapsulates one of the original’s themes; rampant capitalism affects everyone. These ordinary workers are in fact aiding Shinra’s actions whether directly or indirectly. Someone had to write the code for the plate to drop; whether they knew that’s what it was used for is irrelevant. The individuals balancing the books and making sales keep the money flowing to fund their campaigns. The news station believes they are reporting news, but they are reinforcing Shinra’s ideology to the masses. Many I assume believe they are keeping the city together; Shinra is the infrastructure of Midgar after all. But the fact that at best Shinra is making people suffer beneath the plate, they are complicit in reinforcing the current system. You can make direct ties to real-world events; I doubt the person that created the heat map system Amazon is using though they would use it to monitor unionization efforts.

You then work your way through Shinra’s interactive museum detailing the company’s and planet’s history. The game cleverly uses this opportunity as part lore dump and part thematic exploration. The planet’s original inhabitants were people known as the Ancients, a society that was able to live harmoniously and communicate directly with the planet. The Ancients, Shinra explains, were the first to use Mako energy. Shinra is the next evolution, using Mako like the Ancients to better lives and lead Midgar to the “promised land.”

Shinra HQ President

Since we’ve seen just how far Shinra will go to further their goals, we know that this message is false. They have only made a small fraction of lives more comfortable leaving the slums to fend for themselves and be sacrificed. They also forcibly extract Mako, bending the planet’s energy to their will. This scene is rightly intended to provoke anger both in the protagonists and the player. “Look at how this awful company messages their greed;” the cutscenes even look like a BP oil commercial. Large corporations and rich citizens throughout our globe are harming the planet every day, whether that’s through electronics manufacturing or through oil fracking empires. These pursuits aren’t meant to make the world better but rather to make them richer and people more comfortable (at least those of us that can afford it). It’s a good reminder in this time of quarantine and talks of reduced carbon emissions. The halt of corporate manufacturing and infrastructure are what’s causing the greatest environmental, not people not driving to work.

It’s so funny that people still talk about how games aren’t political; all of the themes that Remake expands upon were present in the original game that was released in 1997. There’s a lot more in the game than good vs evil and it’s themes are more present than ever. It seems that the themes of capitalistic greed and environmentalism are unfortunately evergreen.