This game continually throws me off-balance because it keeps shifting between styles of storytelling. Sometimes we’re doing the Serious Worldbuilding For Grownups, and sometimes we’re in lighthearted cartoon action-adventure mode.
I am fine with either of these, but I really needed the storyteller to pick one and stick with it. Which brings me to the “prison break” that The Rocketeer talked about this week…
If you wanted to make a fun, un-challenging version of this game, then you could simplify everything. Rather than asking the player to remember that Rabanastre is the capital city of Dalmasca, you could just say that Dalmasca is a city-state. Most of the other countries / capital cities could be similarly merged. This would greatly reduce the number of proper nouns the player has to keep track of. You could take all of that front-loaded political setup and cut most of it, and move the rest to the second act. This way, the world would be simplified into “Bad Guys vs. Good Guys” rather than “Arcadia versus Landis, Nabradia, Rozaria, and Rabanastre of Dalmasca on the Galtean Peninsula”.
But this writer doesn’t want to make a cartoon world. They want to make a world brimming with verisimilitude. It needs to be large, complex, and nuanced. Just like the real world.
Fine. Commendable even.
But then our heroes get captured and thrown into a free-range “prison” that wouldn’t feel out of place in an episode of Phineas and Ferb.
A Prison for Your Mind, but Not The Rest of You
Despite being in “prison”, our “heroes” are allowed to hang out together, they can wander around freely, and their gear is stored in an unguarded side-room along with their priceless MacGuffin. The bad guys show up and loudly reveal their intentions and plans within earshot of our heroes, who can then leave the prison by just… walking out.
Oh, and on the way out they just happen to bump into the most sensitive political prisoner of the Archadian Empire. By accident. His keepers just happen to show up and deliver a villainous monologue to explain his current predicament for the benefit of the audience. And then they depart, leaving him – a political prisoner who they have no reason to keep alive – completely unguarded. The party is able to walk right up to his cage and have a chat with him, and nobody seems even a little nervous that maybe there might be some guards or soldiers around. Even better, this prisoner is suspended over a trap door to hammerspace that allows the party to effortlessly vanish from the guards.
The prisoner is Basch, who betrayed the good guys in the opening cutscenes. Except no! That was his evil twin! Now let’s walk out of here through this passage that nobody bothers to guard because it’s haunted by skeletons.
Oh, but this is a super-serious world for grownups and you should totally be willing to absorb all of these Silmarillion-level setting details and all of these dates and geography, and shame on you for wanting the author to keep things simple for your dumb ass.
You Can’t Dumb it Down, Because It’s Already Stupid
This is my main gripe with this story. It is complex, challenging, brimming with detail… and (occasionally) too stupid to think about. It doesn’t just invite your curiosity, it demands it. It demands that you put in the effort, that you pay attention, and that you should memorize lots of proper nouns even if the author isn’t coaxing you along with cheap tricks like “stakes” and “emotional investment”. But then once you finally get this giant mass of data into your brain and hammer it into some sort of shape so that you can follow the arguments everyone is having about who was betrayed by what evil twin in the name of which convoluted scheme to enact a plan to accomplish something that was going to happen anyway…
Once you put in the work and sort it all out, you realize none of it makes any damn sense.
Final Fantasy X also had a cartoon dungeon, but that game was much more whimsical in its construction and the story ran on hyperactive teenage emotions. This story wants to be taken more seriously. It asks more of the audience, but the plot still turns on these absurd cartoon elements that now feel completely out of place.
Now, normally I just shrug and talk about the sins of letting some rank amateur write a AAA videogame. But that’s not really fair in this case. Yes, this story has some alarming shortcomings in terms of logic, tone, pacing, presentation, and themes. But I have to say I agree with Rocketeer’s appraisal. This feels less like the work of a hack, and more like the product of a tumultuous development cycle.
We’ll come back to this topic later in the series, once we have a few more chapters under our belt.
Popup Boss Fights
Another curiosity with the structure of this game is how many of the bosses seem to come out of nowhere, particularly in these first few hours of the game.
After meeting up with Balthier and Fran in the palace, our heroes fall off of Fran’s crystalpunk hoverbike and into an extended sewer level. While dicking around in these sewer tunnels, we suddenly run into a giant slime monster. What is this thing? Is this a creature of legend? An escaped pet? A normal waterway hazard?
I have no idea, because nobody comments on it. You fight it, the music plays, the team poses up a storm for the invisible camera, and everyone gets on with their day. All without a single word to acknowledge the encounter.
Then three minutes later, we fight a giant flaming horse. Again, there’s no sense of buildup. Balthier doesn’t warn us that oversized flaming horses are an ongoing problem in these waterways. Fran doesn’t sense a disturbance in the Force ahead of time to set the mood. You just walk into a large chamber, the boss pops out, you kill it, and then Vayne shows up and captures you in a cutscene.
This waterway section is about half an hour long, so it’s really weird that we have two different boss fights here at the end, just a few minutes apart.
Then later we’re escaping from prison with Basch and we once again find ourselves in another labyrinth of tan bricks. And at the end of the passage, you suddenly have to fight a giant mechanical spider.
Isn’t this curious? The rest of the game has us exploring the map, hiking across continents and seeing the world. But here in the first few hours of the game nearly all of the actual gameplay takes place in this weird pocket dimension of endless sewer levels. These sections end in boss fights that happen without any buildup and without a single line of dialog acknowledging that they happened.
(Looking ahead, the next gameplay section is another indoor dungeon in the Lhusu mines, although that sequence ends with a story-relevant boss. So we’re not quite into the “open” part of the open world just yet.)
My suspicion is that these endless tunnels and abrupt boss fights exist to patch over a hole where some other content was changed or cut.
After this point, most boss fights will make a lot more sense. They’ll either be named high-ranking agents of the Empire, or they’ll be “demons” guarding specific plot-relevant treasure. The bosses will occupy tombs and fallen temples, rather than inexplicably haunting the city infrastructure like the aforementioned fire horse.
I don’t know. It’s weird.
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