FF4: Free Enterprise Character Breakdown

Final Fantasy IV: Free Enterprise is one of the best randos I’ve played yet. I adore every version of Final Fantasy IV I’ve ever played, even that cash-grab sequel starring Cecil Jr. and Poochie, so a new way to revisit the game has been very exciting. I have lots of thoughts about the rando, but the most interesting ones are on the choice you can make regarding your team, so that’s what this post is about.

Most versions of FFIV don’t allow you to build your party, and the two versions that do have incentives to use all the characters at least once, and only at the very end of the game. It’s not like other JPRGs where you’re making decisions about your party through the entire story. It really wasn’t until Free Enterprise that I ever had cause to stop and think of the merits of one character vs. another. In this post I’m going to outline how characters are obtained in the rando and some general thoughts on who you ought to take or, failing that, how to make do with who you find.

Two Starting Characters

The basic rule is, Free Enterprise gives you a character anytime you reach a location where someone joined in the main story. I’ll call these “Join Spots”. Since you start with two characters in the main story, Free Enterprise rolls you two characters to start with. Depending on who you get will determine how easy your start is.

I’ll get into the merits of each individual character later, but the best possible start is probably to get Edge. Since Free Enterprise characters join the team with the same levels and equipment set they have in the base game, and Edge is one of the last characters you meet, any number of early game bosses will go down nice and easy. Fusoya is another great character to start with, but I play with a game flag that causes him to be weak until you kill some bosses, so Edge is still your best get.

The worst possible start would be something like Edward/Tellah, but even that is manageable if you know where the other Join Spots are.

Duplicate Characters

Some characters join the party more than once in FFIV, so in Free Enterprise there are more Join Spots than there are characters. This means some characters are found in multiple locations. A character can’t be in your party more than once (although that would be amazing, here’s hoping for a future version), so if you run into a duplicate character nothing special happens.

Freebie Characters

There are “free” Join Spots at Watery Pass, Damcyan, Mysidia and Mt. Ordeals. (These are the spots where Tellah, Edward, Palom/Porom, and Tellah again join in the main story.) If you’re playing with the No Free Lunch flag turned off, you can immediately fly to these spots to fill out your team. You’re not guaranteed to see everyone, so you don’t exactly get to pick and choose who you want, but it’s had to imagine not having a great party after seven rolls.

Nobody I know plays with this flag off, because I don’t consort with cowards, so let’s pretend the freebie characters don’t exist.

“Freebie” Characters

With No Free Lunch turned on, there are two characters you can reach without doing any treasure hunting. The first one you’re likely to check is in the Baron Inn, though he’ll be guarded by two boss fights. The other is on the Mt. Hobs summit, and is guarded by a much easier boss fight. If you’re not ready to start taking bosses yet you can check to see who they are before triggering the fight.

This early in the game, single-target damage is your goal. Ideally, between these two characters plus the two you start with, you’ll find some combination of Edge, Kain, and Yang. Casters aer great later on, but they all start out pretty weak (except for Fusoya, with an asterisk), and it’s likely you’ll find a good spear or ninja sword during your initial explorations. These single target bros are your moneymakers at first.

If you got the dreaded Edward/Tellah start, and there are no good bows to equip His Royal Spooniness with up front, you’ll probably have to take out a few lowbie bosses to get enough EXP to take on the bosses in Baron and on Mt. Hobs.

After you’ve checked these locations, everyone else is blocked off by key items. You’ll have to do some treasure hunting to find everyone else.

Key Item Characters

In addition to two characters, Free Enterprise starts you out with one key item. If you’re very lucky, it’ll be one of these, which unlock easy Join Spots:

Package – This is a cool item to get early. Fly this to Mist, and you’re rewarded with a short scene where you fight whichever character rolled into this slot. They’ll summon Titan and knock you out, then you’ll proceed to Kaipo where you’ll automatically fight a very easy boss to get them into the party. You might call this the vanilla start, since this is the item the king gives you at the beginning of FFIV.

SandRuby – You can check which character is asleep in Kaipo any time you want, but you can only wake them up if you find the SandRuby.

Hook – With the Hook, you can fly your Hoovercraft to the Eblan Cave. There’s a Join Spot at the end, where some poor character gets whooped by whichever boss rolled into Rubicant’s slot. They’ll join immediately.

Darkness Crystal – Flying to Mysidia with the Darkness Crystal triggers the Big Whale event, allowing you to travel to the moon and immediately access the Join Spot outside the crystal chamber at the start of the final dungeon.

It’s nice to get these items early, but don’t go into Free Enterprise counting on them. Chances are you’ll have to fight at least a few bosses or pop a few monster chests to fill out your numbers.

Guarded Characters

Here are the rest of the Join Spots, each of which is blocked by both a key item and two boss fights. I’ll list them in rough ascending order of difficulty, for what it’s worth, but you’ll probably have to make do with what items you find. (And some boss fights are dreadfully difficult no matter which slot they roll into.)

Baron Key – This item grants access to the equipment shops in Baron, as well as the Castle. There’s a Join Spot in the castle behind two boss fights. If you’re strong enough to beat the bosses in the Baron Inn, chances are you can take the two bosses inside as well. You don’t get a chance to check this character before triggering the bosses.

Earth Crystal – By flying to Troia and speaking to the green soldier you can explore the Tower of Zot whenever you want. There are two boss fights here, behind which is a Double Join Spot. You can fight the first of these bosses to see who the first character is, but once you trade the crystal to Golbez both characters join your party before the second boss fight. These are the toughest boss fights in the Overworld, so don’t be surprised to face a wall here if someone like Wyvern or Dark Knight Cecil rolls into their slots.

Magma Key or Hook – Either of these key items grants access to the Underworld, where you can reach the Join Spot in the Dwarf Castle. These bosses are about as tough as the ones in Zot. You don’t get to check this character, but they join in time for the second fight. If you’re using the Hook to reach the Underworld through the Eblan Cave, you’ll have to face two more bosses in Bab-il who are considerably tougher, making this potentially the most well-guarded character in the game.

Darkness Crystal – Talking to the soldier on the Big Whale grants access to the Giant of Bab-il, where one more Join Spot awaits you at the end, behind two of the toughest bosses in the main story. If you get very lucky with early equipment and easy boss rolls, it’s possible the Darkness Crystal grants you two early characters!

Now that we know where all the characters are, who should we take? Well, that largely depends on what you find and where you can check, but you’ll eventually have to make hard decisions regardless. Reaching a Join Spot with an already-full party will prompt you to dismiss someone, and dismissed characters are never seen again (unless they’re your duplicate for the seed). It’s tempting to think you’ll just take the characters you want and dismiss the rest, but in practice you usually won’t want to replace a developed character even if their replacement is strictly better.

I’ve arranged the characters in order of the general usefulness of each character’s role. Who you want to take will likely be a function of which roles you have filled and who you manage to find.

White Mages

You will need need need a white mage in your final party, and by “white mage” I mean “someone who can spam Cure4”. It is possible to defeat Zeromus without a dedicated healer, but the fight is much tougher, and the road there is much tougher as well. There are three good white mages in the game, so chances are you’ll roll into one. I would consider completing the rando without one of these characters to be a challenge run.

You only need one white mage. My general rule is to take whichever of Porom or Rosa I find first, or Fusoya if I find neither. The only reason to double up on healers is if you want someone casting White in the endgame.

Rosa – Pound for pound, Rosa is the most useful character in Free Enterprise. She has a higher Will stat than Porom, though that doesn’t matter much since equipment tends to equalize that. She learns all of the important spells (Cure4, Float, Wall, Life2) at earlier levels than Porom does, plus she can Aim. Bows and arrows are pretty good in the first half of the rando, especially if one of your shops carries Artemis or Samurai Arrows, and Rosa can never miss with them. I mentioned earlier how one solid martial character can mow down most of the early bosses. With just a tiny smidge of luck, Rosa can be that character.

Porom – Porom is worse than Rosa across the board, since she gains all the important spells later than Rosa does and can’t Aim. If you find her early and gain a bunch of levels before locating Rosa, though, she’ll carry you to the end with no difficulty. Her one advantage is she actually learns the Exit spell, which is very useful while treasure hunting. (Rosa only learns this spell if you complete the Tower of Zot!)

Fusoya – Fusoya is a special character with his own rando flag. If the flag is off, he joins your party with 1900 HPs and every spell in the game. If the flag is on he joins with way fewer resources, and gains some HPs and a few randomly-selected spells each time to defeat a boss. There are like six bosses you can kill effortlessly right at the start of the rando, so Fusoya is a good early get no matter what you do. His drawback is his small MP pool; he can’t cast as long as Rosa or Porom can, and you risk your Cure4 battery dying at a crucial moment in the Zeromus fight. You can mitigate this if you roll SomaDrops into one of your shops, but that’s janky and expensive. If you keep Fusoya in your team it will probably be in the role of secondary caster, and you’ll be using him for black magic or emergency revives.

Tellah – Tellah is not a viable white mage. Do not take him.

Top-Tier Martials

Winning the game with just casters is possible, but pretty tricky due to how many hard-hitting physical attacks you’ll have to face while treasure hunting. Outside of Adamant Armor, squishies can’t absorb these attacks; you’ll need someone on the front line with heavy armor and lots of HPs. These characters will also be your primary source of damage early in the rando, until you level up a black mage.

The only real consideration with these characters is you only have three front-line spots to use. If you have more martials than spots, someone has to sit in the back row where their usefulness is drastically decreased.

Cecil – Cecil weilds the strongest weapons, wears the best armor, has amazing HPs, and automatically tanks hits for other heroes if they’re near death. Even better, all his endgame equipment shows up in monster boxes. You are going to find more Crystal gear than you know what to do with. Cecil’s only drawback is you need to “level” him by completing Mt. Ordeals and turning him into a Paladin, and he’s useless before that. Since there are three bosses and a key item up there, you’ll probably do Mt. Ordeals early anyway. If you find Cecil before then just stick him in the party and tell him to sit tight. If you don’t, clear Mt. Ordeals then prioritize searching for him.

Kain – Kain has the same advantage Cecil does: strong gear that rolls into the monster box pool. His other major advantage is the Jump command, which deals damage from the back row. This has the benefit of making Kain basically invincible to physical attacks, and freeing up a front line spot for another martial, should you find one.

Edge – Edge is a little squishier than Cecil and Kain. He’s incredibly strong early on and tends to taper off by the time you hit the Underworld or the Moon. Still, he’s the only character with two endgame weapons in the key item pool, so it’s easy to gear him up. His Dart command deals huge single-target damage, which is excellent early on for getting through out-of-depth bosses if they’re blocking your progress. In a pinch, you can put Edge in the back row if you manage to find some FullMoons, but this isn’t optimal.

Yang – Yang starts out weak but ends up so incredibly strong it’s almost scary. He doesn’t need gear (though, certainly give him anything useful you find!) and his only relevant stat is his experience level. His damage output will probably never outpace Cecil’s or Edge’s without some concentrated grinding; if you get him, consider clearing out the monster boxes in the Sylph Cave or the Lunar Subterrane to charge him up.

Black Mages

Black mages are an important source of damage both in boss fights and monster boxes. The problem is they mostly start out knowing no useful spells, meaning their first few boss fights are going to be real tough going. Your casting strategy is also going to be very different depending on which of these mages you find and decide to stick with. Whomever you put in this role, remember the Stardust Rod is their best weapon. If you find this in a shop during your initial exploration, and you rolled a black mage as a starting character or one of your freebies, this is one of the most potent weapons you can buy. Its use ability casts Comet, which is enough to wipe out pretty much anything in the Overworld.

Unlike white mages, doubling up on black mages is actually viable, especially through the mid-game when you’re clearing a bunch of pesky monster boxes. Feel free to take two or more black mages with you if you’re feeling fiesty.

Palom – Palom is so much more powerful than the other black mage options that I will actually consider dismissing one I’ve leveled up a bit if I find him late. He has higher Wis. than the other black mages, which translates directly into more damage, plus he has the Bluff command to raise his own Wis. during battle. He also gains black magic at a much quicker rate than Rydia, most notably Ice-2 (which he gets after a single level) and Quake. Quake alone can destroy every monster box and most boss fights in the game. I’ve cleared the Lunar Subterrane of all its chests with an extremely under-leveled party just using Palom’s mighty Quake.

Rydia – Rydia is a distant second when it comes to black mage options. Her Wis. is lower than Palom’s, but that’s not really the issue. You won’t be able to make good early use of Rydia unless you find some useful Call magic (which are found randomly as treasures, or sometimes in item shops) or a path to the Underworld. By completing the event in the Dwarf Castle Rydia will grow up, immediately granting her all the *-2 elemental spells and most of her Call magic. If you don’t find a way to the Underworld, and don’t manage to luck into a Levia or Baham item, Rydia is stuck as a kid with probably not much to do with the scant experience you can win from Overworld bosses. That being said, an early Sylph spell can be a godsend, turning Rydia into a passable healer during the mid-game. It’s not really that she’s bad per se, it’s just that Palom is so much better so much earlier, and without any luck involved.

Fusoya – Fusoya is a decent black mage, with all the same caveats that make him a decent white mage. He has a smaller MP pool, and his randomly-selected magic sets might leave you hanging without a good attack option like Virus or Quake for way too long. Of course that flips the other way too; you might get super lucky and score Quake really early, in which case you can go ham. One good strat if you find Fusoya early is to commit to him plus one other caster, letting him take on the opposite role of whomever you find next.

Anyone – If you have the Japanese flag turned on (and you really, really should) you will find a lot of spellcasting items both in treasure boxes and in shops. Learn what these do. You will often find seeds where a bit of black magic can carry you through a really tough fight, and anyone can use items off the menu. GaiaDrum casts Quake, Vampire casts Drain, Coffin casts Fatal, and there are a few other useful ones besides. If you find a shop with some spellcasting items but no black mage in your early explorations, consider buying some to make your life easier.

Tellah – Tellah is not a viable black mage. Do not take him.

Mid-Tier Martials

There is only one character in this tier. It is Cid.

Cid – Cid has two drawbacks, but they are fatal ones. First, he has no endgame equipment. The best weapon he can use is the Rune Axe, which is fairly weak compared to what the other front-liners can use. (He has the Earth Wrench, which casts Quake when you use it, but not the Wis. stat to back it up, so it won’t stomp the game the way Palom can.) Second, he is incredibly slow. Consider giving him a Crystal Ring to enhance his Agility a bit, but even then, watch in awe as the other characters lap him. That being said, Cid’s HP pool gets pretty unreasonable at higher levels, effortlessly clearing 4000+ with just the EXP you pick up along the way. Worst case scenario, put him on the front line with Armor or Blink and let him tank the physical hits.

Garbo

These characters are terrible and you should not use them. Well, usually. You might not have a choice at first. The only thing worse than starting with one of these characters is starting with one and then finding them again as your duplicate on Mt. Hobs.

Cecil – Before promoting to Paladin on Mt. Ordeals, Cecil is the weakest character in the game by a very, very large margin. His one and only benefit is that he starts with more HP and stronger gear than Edward or Rydia do; he probably won’t die to the bosses in the earliest slots. He’s the best garbo character because you can take him immediately to Mt. Ordeals to transform him into a powerhouse. If you don’t, he is not a viable character in the slightest.

Edward – Edward is just barely viable if you squint. His one and only asset is his high Agility (which isn’t even that high, on average; just “not worse than anyone else really”). If you find a really good bow and either Artemis or Samurai Arrows in a shop, Edward is good for 1200-ish damage from the back row. His HP is kind of the opposite of Cid’s; the developers didn’t intend for either character to reach high levels, so didn’t pay much attention to what their HPs curves did. Cid gets way too much, and Edward gets way too little. Plan on spending lots of money on Apples, if you can. Or, better yet, just dismiss Edward at the first opportunity.

Tellah – Tellah starts with pitiful spells, low casting stats, awful HP, no Agility, and it gets worse. His 90 MP looks like a lot at first, when compared to Rydia or the twins, but by the mid-game is not enough to carry the team as a white or black mage. His one and only saving grace is you can get him some useful spells by completing Mt. Ordeals. More than once I’ve used his Stone spell from there to clear the monster boxes in Eblan Castle or the Tower of Zot. Unless you want to spend a million GP on SomaDrops so he can keep barely-adequate pace with sub-par Cure4s, dismiss him as soon as you can.

Thank you for reading this post about characters from a video game that came out 500 years ago!

The Podcat

The Podcat
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 1:19:38
 
1X
 

Brick & McClain discuss breaking up with fast food, bad high school poetry, the new $300 Atari, not wanting to be Chief Wiggum, what category this podcast is in, their time travel plans, and Roseanne’s legacy.

The Color of Freedom

The Color of Freedom
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 1:03:09
 
1X
 

Brick & McClain discuss Skyrim for Switch, the 1996 made-for-TV adaptation of The Lottery, thieves in Final Fantasy, why Jesus is crying, Daniel Tiger, mean D&D attacks and Florida Man.

FF5 Four Job Fiesta • Brick’s Tips for First-Timers

In about a week pre-registration will open for this year’s Final Fantasy V Four Job Fieta. The Fiesta is an annual community event in which players complete Final Fantasy V under some randomly-assigned restrictions. It’s a truly excellent way to enjoy the game and I frequently tell new players that it’s a fine introduction to the game. The Fiesta is such a treat that FFV has supplanted FFIV as my yearly go-to Final Fantasy.

That said, Final Fantasy V is not an easy game to complete on your first run through, Fiesta rules or no. As a 5-year Fiesta veteran, I thought I would share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned with first-time runners, or for people who are on the fence about signing up.

Should I play FFV before trying the Fiesta?

Most Fiesta players have completed the game many times, but I think the Fiesta is fine for FFV newbies for one specific reason: Fiesta rules help alleviate Decision Paralysis.

There are lots of jobs, abilities, equipment, magic, and combinations of all those things in FFV. The game does very little to explain how any of this works or where the good synergies are. It isn’t like Final Fantasy III, which clearly signposts what jobs to use with gimmick dungeons. It isn’t like Final Fantasy Tactics where you constantly see your jobs in use by enemy opposition, cluing you into strengths and weaknesses. I’ve known several players who stalled out on the game because the prospect of exploring 20 jobs’ worth of mechanics was too daunting a task.

In the Fiesta, you are locked into your jobs. Rather than a huge, expansive puzzle of “find the good abilities”, the game is reduced to a series of smaller, more meaningful puzzles involving using and combining abilities from the small pool you’re allowed to use.

Playing by Fiesta rules is technically a challenge run, but it’s a very different kind of challenge than playing the vanilla game, which is what I think makes it appropriate for new players. Instead of the nagging feeling that you could be blitzing the game if only you knew the ins-and-outs of your big massive list of jobs, you have a focused series of challenges involving knowledge of only a very few. It’s not, “what on this huge intimidating menu is helpful to me right now, and will it be helpful again later?” But rather, “here are the eight things I can do, what combination of those things will get me through this next boss fight?”

You’re Not Alone

Final Fantasy V is not a game you can figure out based on feedback alone. It is an old 16-bit RPG with a million little things, designed for a pre-Internet world. You do not get big obvious pop-ups when your status spells miss enemies, and there is no big in-game encyclopedia leading you to make good decisions. If you’re going to learn the game, you’re going to have to lean on people.

Fortunately, during Fiesta, there are thousands of enthusiastic people playing the game on pretty much every corner of the internet. When you get stuck — and you will get stuck — ask for advice! My own stream chat and Discord server can cheerfully answer any question you might have about the game, and mine is just one of the hundreds of communities that will have some active Fiesta involvement.

If you need help but don’t like talking to people, there’s the Four Job Fiesta Support Program, a helpful little app that sits in your system tray and helpfully provides pages and pages of easily-accessible, accurate data specifically tailored to clearing the Fiesta.

How Jobs Are Unlocked

If you’re new to Final Fantasy V, here’s a brief explanation on how new jobs are unlocked.

There are three worlds in the game, and the first world involves shattering four crystals. Each time a crystal shatters, several more jobs become available to use. This divides the job pool up by crystal; there are “Wind Jobs” and “Fire Jobs” and so on. This doesn’t mean that the Fire Jobs are jobs that use fire abilties, or whatever, just that they’re the jobs that happen to open up when you shatter the fire crystal.

When a crystal shatters (or, if you know the story, a few minutes ahead of time so you can allow for Twitter lag) you tweet at Gilgabot (@FF5ForFutures) to see what your next randomly-assigned job is. From that point on, that job is added to the ones you’re allowed to use.

The basic structure of a Fiesta run is something like this:

  • Play through the first dungeon and unlock your #wind job.
  • Assign that job to all your heroes, and play like that until you unlock your #water job. (We’ll call this the “single-job slog”.)
  • Figure out what combination of #wind and #water jobs you want to use, keeping in mind you must use at least one of each.
  • Play until you unlock the #fire jobs. These are broken up into two sets, so you might not be allowed to use this job right away.
  • Play to the end of the first world, where you unlock #earth jobs. One of your heroes leaves the team for a while, so one of your jobs will be momentarily unused.
  • Shortly into the second world there’s a solo section with the character who left earlier. He can any of the jobs you’ve unlocked.
  • Shortly after that your party is whole again, and from that point on you must make sure to always have one of each of your four jobs assigned at all times.

At this point you’re about 30%-ish through the story, so you do get to play the bulk of the game with all your jobs. There is a “secret” job that can be unlocked in the third world, and a few more in the GBA and Steam versions of the game, but those aren’t considered as part of the Fiesta.

Three Ways to Roll

There are lots of variants and modifiers on the standard Fiesta rules, based on what hashtags you include in your registration tweet to Gilgabot. I think first-timers should stick to one of these three:

#reg is the normal ruleset. Each time you roll for jobs Gilgabot will select one from the crystal you just shattered. This has the potential for a very sticky early game, depending what you roll, but also just about guarantees smooth sailing by the time you’re in the second world. This is because two of the #wind jobs (Thief and White Mage) are notoriously tricky during the single-job slog, while all of the #earth jobs are good enough to carry a team by themselves. It’s not possible to roll multiples of any job. If you can’t wrap your head around all the other fiesta jargon, just go with #reg and don’t sweat the small stuff.

#regrand is the random ruleset. Each time you roll for jobs, instead of getting one from the crystal you just shattered, you pull from a list of crystals you just shattered plus all previous crystals. This means the same potential for a sticky early game, as your #wind roll is unchanged. It also biases your party towards #wind and against #earth, since #wind jobs are in the pool for all four rolls, and #earth for only one. Without having crunched a spreadsheet on the topic, I’m betting the difficulty is about even here; you potentially lose the carry of a guaranteed #earth job, but you increase your chances of getting multiple #wind jobs, all of which are pretty good at supporting a team. Because three of your crystals are in the pool more than once, you might end up rolling the same job multiple times. If that happens, just make sure you have that many of that job in your team. If you roll, say, Thief for both #wind and #water, well, first of all, I’m sorry that happened to you. But you then need to have two
thieves in your party for the rest of the game.

#regchaos and #regpurechaos put all the jobs into the pool for all four rolls. The difference between the two is #regpurechaos includes Freelancer (the base “job” of not having any job) and Mime (the secret third world job). This does mean you might roll a job you don’t have access to yet; if you get an earth job on your #wind roll, you just have to use Freelancers for a little longer until you get to the proper point in the story. (This is basically okay since Freelancers are actually really good.) The worst case scenario here is if your #wind roll gives you something you can’t use yet, then your #water roll gives you Berserker, which brings us to…

Stay Away from #BERSERKERRISK

Most jobs in Final Fantasy V are good, or at least “good enough”, but there is one in particular that is a real dud: the Berserker. The Fiesta event organizers know this, and created the #BERSERKERRISK tag. The way this works is, for every $x they raise for charity (oh, the Fiesta is a charity event, I guess I hadn’t mentioned that before) one Berserker is added to the #BERSERKERRISK pool. If you add #BERSERKERRISK to your registration tweet, one of your rolls is replaced with a Berserker from the pool. The more cash they take in, the more Berserkers they spit out, and there are a couple unlucky souls who end up running the dreaded QUADZERKER.


Berserkers can’t be controlled, can’t use abilities, are super slow, miss a lot, and waste lots of turns targeting the wrong enemies. They’re also a water crystal job, which means they appear pretty early, and there are several places in the first world where they are pure liability.

In general, having a Berserker on your team isn’t that bad. It’s just that Fiesta rules introduce a few edge cases where you end up using only Berserkers as your main source of damage, and that’s problematic. These edge cases don’t really make the run more challenging in any meaningful sense; the solution is always to either grind out levels or retry the fight until you get lucky. Most people who quit the Fiesta do so because of situations like this, so if it’s your first go-round, you might want to consider avoiding it.

There are still a few cases where you might find yourself saddled with a Berserker at lousy times. The worst possible #reg start is Thief/Berserker, which almost caused me to quit during my first year, and I’m an absolute Final Fantasy maniac. #regrand puts Berserker in your pool for three out of the four rolls, which means you may end up with multiples. #regchaos and #regpurechaos puts Berserker in your pool for all your rolls.

If you end up in one of these unlucky situations, though, you do have a remedy.

Buy Your Way to Victory

If you find yourself with an untenable party, and the expert feedback is something like “you can steal Hi-Potions from a rare monster in a forest halfway across the map”, you still have a way out: the Job Fair.

Job Fair is where you go to “buy away” bad jobs with cash money, in the form of charity donations. It’s $3 to re-roll a crystal, if all you want to do is get rid of your #water Berserker, or a set price to replace that Berserker with another job. Prices vary from $1 for “bad” jobs to $5 for the unquestionably best ones.

As for what to buy from the Job Fair, that’s going to depend largely on what the rest of your jobs are. In general, you’ll be replacing a job you don’t like with something you need. This is the kind of thing the great and knowledgable Internet hivemind can help you with. That being said, I feel like I can offer these useful tips:

  • The best buys for early Job Fair-ing are probably Knight or Red Mage. These are both classes that cost less than the price of a blind re-roll that can get you through the first world easily.
  • If you’re just buying away a class you hate, and don’t really care what else you get, consider a Thief. For $1 you get a job that prevents back attacks, quickly runs away from random encounters, gives you access to Steal, and doesn’t fall apart in the late game as long as you give him the Chicken Knife. (If you’re rolling away your Berserker because you have the dreaded Thief/Berserker combo, well, Monk is also $1.)
  • The best “easy job” in the game, hands down, is Samurai. They’re more expensive than a blind re-roll but they will also win the game for you without needing to learn a lot of the obscure claptrap FFV is famous for.
  • If you’re Job Fair-ing to solve a specific problem (e.g. not enough healing, not enough damage output, etc.) consider checking with the Internet hivemind to see if there’s some obscure claptrap solution you might be happier with. This is especially true if you already have one of the weirder jobs, like Blue Mage or Bard.
  • Any party with Bard can defeat Omega. Any party with White Mage can defeat Shinryu. There’s no easy one-job solution that defeats both, so far as I know. (Maybe Beastmaster.)
  • It’s for charity, so if you’re enjoying the Fiesta and like your team, maybe throw a dollar or two in anyway!

The Single-Job Slog

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about some of the more specific troubles you might have. The first of these is in the very early game, in between your #wind and #water rolls, where you’re forced to use four heroes with the same job. You have to get through four boss fights with your single-job team, including a dungeon that blocks you off from visiting town to re-stock. Kind of a mean trick, so here are some tips:

Thief has the hardest road. There are no good Thief weapons in the first town, so stock up on A LOT of Potions. There’s a free healing pot in the Wind Shrine; consider camping out there and gaining enough ABPs to learn !Flee. Once you’re in the Ship Graveyard (with A LOT of Potions!), the Skeletons there will drop Daggers for you to use. You can damage them with Potions, and !Flee from everything else. You can !Steal more Potions from the water weird guys and the rock golemn guys. Your next upgrade is in Walse Tower, where you can !Steal Mythril Knives from Wyverns. Hope your #water job isn’t Berserker!

White Mage is a slow start, but thanks to early Cure magic, not a particularly difficult one. You’ll find a Flail in a treasure box early in the Ship Graveyard, which is the best damage output you’ll have until #water. Your worst #water job is probably Time Mage, because that will mean going through the middle of world one with very little damage output, but take heart in the fact that both of these jobs are absolutely excellent in the late game.

Monk is a straightforward job; just punch things until they die. (Alternately: !Kick things until they die.) Keep in mind your only source of early healing is Potions, and you have no way to get more of them in the Ship Graveyard.

Knight is probably the easiest of the single-job slogs. You won’t have any major difficulties. The only top that makes sense is to make sure all four of your Knights are equipped before entering the canal, since that’s when you’ll lose access to shops for a while. (You can treat Freelancer like Knight in the early game, in case you rolled #regchaos and got a job you can’t use yet.)

Black Mage is one of the undisputed strongest jobs in the game, start to finish. As long as you buy the Fire, Blizzard and Thunder spells in the first town, you should breeze all the way to your #water job.

Blue Mage is like a slightly weaker Knight, and can clear the early game just on the strength of their equipment set. That being said, it’s a bit of a weird claptrap job, and will take some work to develop properly. In particular, make sure to get the Aero spell from Moldwynds in the Wind Shrine, and Vampire from the bats in the Pirate Cave. These two spells are excellent and can largely carry the job through the whole game if you can’t be arsed to go spell-hunting ever again.

Some Sticking Points

As awesome as the Fiesta is, FFV was obviously not designed with the challenge in mind. There are a few notorious points in the game where certain party configurations can stall out. Here’s some general tips for the most common ones:

Byblos makes use of Protect, Dischord, and countering attacks with Drain to make him a big roadblock for low-damage parties. The longer you can stay in this fight, the greater your chances of running him out of MP so he can no longer Drain for more damage than you can deal. Thieves can !Steal Hi-Potions on the steam ship, White Mages can make use of the Heal Staff to stall. Knights, Monks and the like may find themselves on the losing end here if they get their levels chopped too much with Dischord. There’s no clever “Aha!” solution to this fight, it’s just long and you may have to retry it a couple times.

Sand Worm isn’t a terribly tricky fight, but it’s the first major one where Berserkers are a huge liability. Attacking empty holes in this fight causes a Gravity counterattack, which will sap your HP much faster than you can heal it back. The way to deal with this is to go into the fight with your Berserker already dead.

Purobolos are a big group of gimmick-y bombs. Their HP is low, but if you kill one it will cast a revive spell that brings all the dead ones back to life. If they Self-Destruct they won’t revive anyone, but it will also deal a huge amount of damage. Unless you can kill them all at the same time, you’re going to have to get clever. One way to do it is to wait for one to explode, then immediately revive the hero they killed, and do that until the last one is gone.

Titan will use Earth Shaker when you kill him. If your party doesn’t have enough HP to survive this, chances are they have some way of inflicting Confuse. Go back to North Mountain, confuse a Gaelicat, and it will put Float on your heroes for you.

Atomos is a gimmick fight. He’ll spam Comet at you until someone dies, then slowly drag the dead hero across the map. Pile on damage while this hs happening, then revive the dead hero just before they get engulfed. This maximizes the time you can spend attacking while minimizing the time spent eating Comets. There are some hilariously easy ways to win this fight, but a few teams have access to none of them.

Crystal Guardians are the four nameless crystal monsters you fight at the end of the big tree. Each of these is attuned to a particular element, and will spam powerful spells of that element at below half health. The trick here is to deal about ~4500 damage to one, then slam it with all your most powerful attacks at once to take it out before things get out of hand. (How best to do that is going to vary from party to party.) One trick to keep in mind is none of the crystals are immune to instand death attacks, if you have access to them.

Exdeath is the final boss of the second world. In some ways this is the hardest boss in the game. Except for one strategy involving a Bard, some ridiculous setup, and hours of waiting, there’s no way to win this fight without just piling on the damage and keeping ahead of the healing. Parties which can’t put out damage and can’t heal themselves have a lot of trouble here. This is a case where tapping the hivemind can pay off in spades, although be advised there are some specific setups where the only good advice is “level up and then get lucky”. One thing that’s easy to control is avoiding his L3 Flare spell; simply make sure no hero has a level divisible by three, and these rounds turn into freebies.

World three is where the game opens up quite a bit, and you gain access to a great deal of secondary advantages in the form of new equipment. If you’ve made it to world three, you’re a savvy enough player to go all the way. A lot of the troublesome bosses in this stage of the game are optional, so step one is to make sure you know a boss is gating off something you want to get for the jobs you have. If not, the only reason to fight them is for street cred. The good news is that, with some clever planning, most any party now has access to most forms of status effects, and some universally-good damage options become available. Know what’s available and where to go, and you should be able to navigate to the endgame with only a little fuss.

The Triple Crown

The triple crown refers to the three endgame bosses of Final Fantasy V: Neo Exdeath (who needs to be destroyed in order to complete the game and claim victory), Omega and Shinryu. You don’t have to beat Omega and Shinryu in order to claim you finished the Fiesta, but Gilgabot might think less of you unless you do.

In truth, these bosses are difficult but not implausibly so. It’s very rare for a fiesta party to have literally no answer to these fights, and in some cases they can be won with clever application of just one single ability. For example, any party capable of inflicting Berserk can win against Shinryu, and ten out of the twenty-ish jobs can do this.

As a matter of fact, during one year’s Fiesta, Neo Exdeath was my big problem — not either of the “super” bosses!

I guess my advice here is, give the Triple Crown an honest try. It’s fun to just throw a party against these heavyweights and just laughing at how quickly you get destroyed, but there are ways to fell them and you could explore that. Think of how fun it would be if you got the Triple Crown on your very first Fiesta.

With three Berserkers.

Okay, maybe not that last thing.

Your DM Toolbox

If you’re a new DM running your first campaign and looking for advice, one of the worst things you could do would be to read the various D&D blogs and subreddits and take what they say as gospel. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of excellent and experienced DMs out there, each with their own well of wisdom from which you might drink. But there are also a lot of memes and ideas floating around the current D&D culture which, if applied without care, would preclude a lot of the types of fun you could be having with the game.

Put another way: Critical Role is an excellent example of D&D, but it’s not the only thing D&D is.

In this post I’ll explore four of the most pervasive pieces of New DM Advice I see bandied about and explain why it might be appropriate to ignore them. To be very clear: all of these points are things you should be familiar with, as a DM. They are powerful storytelling and adjucation tools. But they are not a Bible. They should be in your toolbox, to be applied properly and with care, not axioms to slavishly adhere to.

In general, any DM advice that includes words like “always” and “never” should be taken with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that every DM who gives you advice, including me, is speaking from a biased position. Nobody knows your table except for you, and even you don’t know your table if you’re still new. DMing is a skill, and like all skills, you’re going to be bad at it until you’re good.

But playing is a skill too, and your players are going to take their cues from you. They might not be reading the same subreddits you are. Applying advice you got on the internet without really examining it may send dangerous messages to new players and result in Bad Funtimes. The goal of this bloggy-post is to minimize that damage at your table.

With that in mind, let’s crack some popular DM memes!

“Yes, and…”

The idea here is, when your players have an idea, you should not shut them down. Instead of saying “No,” you find a way to build the scene by saying, “Yes, and this is what happens next.” (Or, “Yes, but this happens too.”) The practice stems from the improv scene, where trained actors build spontaneous stories by taking each others’ suggestions and adding to them. In some sense, D&D is a form of improv, and the concept does translate in a lot of circumstances.

But D&D is a game of rules, and your players are not trained actors. If you commit to “yes, and…” you can expect your game to immediately go in directions you did not intend, and aren’t equipped to handle.

What your players might hear: “I will never say no.”

Like spoiled little chocolate-smeared children, your players are going to have to hear “no” a lot. It’s the only way they’ll learn. For one, because D&D is a game with rules, “yes, and…” is not an appropriate response to any action that breaks a rule. If you allow this kind of thing at your table players are going to pick up on the idea that breaking rules is fine, and they’ll do it more and more, until you may as well just burn all your books. And for another, new players tend to not act in good faith. They want to do things they think are cool or funny without any regard to how it will affect your world.

Worst of all, if you’ve trained your players that “no” isn’t in your vocabulary, and your game gets into a terrible state as a result, you now cannot fix the problem by starting to say “no”. Players who have gotten away with murder (literally, in some cases!) will feel like you’ve broken a promise if you suddenly take away their “yes, and…” superpowers.

Here are some actions new players are notorious for trying, in case you’re still considering a primarily “yes, and…” approach to the game:

  • “I punch [other player] in the face for no reason.”
  • “My mount is a talking war elephant who eats halflings.”
  • “I throw acid splash at the wall over and over until I tunnel through it.”
  • “I stealth up to the king’s throne and take the crown off his head.”
  • “I toss the busty bar wench on the counter and rape her.”

If those all sound conducive to a reasonable heroic fantasy adventure story that you’d like to tell, by all means, let your players run amok.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Find reasons to say no.”

Your first instinct, when players declare an action that sounds a little strange or unorthodox, should not be to shut it down. This is especially true if it’s tied to a spell or class feature. Players take these things because they sound cool and they want to use them; nothing degrades their faith and good cheer faster than not being told they can’t!

The spirit of “yes, and…” is to take reasonable-sounding suggestions and build memorable scenes out of them. With some experience, you’ll learn which suggestions are good for your world and which aren’t. If you’re going out of your way to say no as often as possible you are being unnecessarily adversarial. In this case you’re training your players to not try interesting things, because they know beforehand you’ll shut them down, and months of tepid statblock reading shall be your reward.

Here’s what I suggest: “Say yes as often as possible, unless you need to say no, then for the love of god SAY NO.”

Instead of training your playes that any lulzy thing that pops into their head is fair game, or that actions not strictly codified on their character sheets are verboten, train them to know the limits of your setting and of the rules, and to act within them. Commit to building scenes that work, rather than just any old scene your players come up with.

Fail Forward

Or, “Success at a Cost”. The idea here is that players should advance even when they fail. This is usually applied to skill checks, but not universally so; I also see the concept applied to saving throws and, in extreme cases, party wipes. New players hate failing, so twisting their failures into interesting story beats is a good way to soften the blow.

Of all the points on this list, I am least convinced Fail Forward is a universal storytelling tool. It’s surely the least-used tool in my box, maybe like an awl. I see Fail Forward preached as a way to keep the story moving when the players get stuck, or to alleviate the sting of an uninteresting roll outcome, or to make sure adventures don’t get bottlenecked by a single un-repeatable check. I try to avoid these things too, I just have other methods for handling them.

I’ve read countless examples of Fail Forward stories on this here internet of ours, and while some have made for memorable stories others just seem contrived and arbitrary. One example that pops up time and time again is a rogue picking the lock on a door. The rest of the adventure is behind the door, so if the rogue fails on the lockpick check, the party can’t continue. Some examples of how to Fail Forward in this situation include:

  • the door opens anyway, but there are guards on the other side!
  • the door opens anyway, but the rogue’s lockpicks break!
  • the door opens anyway, but it took so long a monster patrol has snuck up behind the party!
  • the door opens anyway, but the rogue sprung a trap and takes damage!

In my estimation, these are all terrible resolutions to the problem of this stupid door, and the real solution is something like “there are other ways to get through the door.” Telling the rogue her failed roll pops the door anyway except now there are guards there is robbing the barbarian of the chance to bash it down, the wizard of the chance to cast knock, or the bard of the chance to sweet-talk a housemaid out of a key.

What your players might hear: “Success is guaranteed.”

If you don’t let your players fail, they won’t learn to deal with failure. They won’t learn to come up with creative solutions to problems. Instead, they will learn that every door opens, no matter what, just sometimes there are guards waiting on the other side. There’s no incentive to think laterally or prepare backup plans, because the first thing they try will work and the penalty that’s applied for “failure” is just a fact of life. (And probably not even that big a deal. What self-respecting rogue runs around with only one lockpick?)

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Failure should result in punishment.”

The flip side of this coin is being unnecessarily punitive on a failed check. A creative DM can no doubt think of ways to punish every bad skill check in the book, from rocks falling to alarm klaxons blaring to god-only-knows-what. This is of course just as absurd as guards materializing on the other side of a locked door.

In practice, most skill checks don’t result in an actual fail state; they simply maintain the status quo. The rogue failed with her lockpicks; the door remains closed. The cleric failed his Athletics check; he’s still at the bottom of the cliff. The ranger failed on Perception; he doesn’t know there are orcs nearby (and didn’t a moment ago, either). These situations don’t need an extra layer of punishment and there’s nothing sporting about concocting one.

Here’s what I suggest: “Know what failure means beforehand.”

When planning encounters with skill checks, know ahead of time what failure is going to mean. Cases where failure and success both lead to interesting results are usually pretty apparent. A quick line in your notes explaining what happens on a pass and what happens on a fail is probably all you need: “The guard captain can be convinced to release the prisoner with an Intimidation check, but on a failure he demands a 20 gp bribe.” For the rest of the cases where failure simply leads to the status quo, leave it alone and let the players think around the problem.

This does require planning, and it takes practice to get right. Every DM has a horror story about players failing to answer some magic mouth riddle, and then all failing their Intelligence checks, and having to spawn in a helper NPC who just so happens to know the solution. These are bad scenes and the only real way to deal with them is to use Plot Spackle for now and do a better job next time.

Player Agency

There is a very long list of things the DM can do to “remove player agency”. As best I can figure, player agency means something like “the player’s ability to make choices for his or her character.” This is utter nonsense and you would do well to discard such silly notions. Players do not make choices, for their characters or otherwise, and they are not in control.

If you’ve played in or watched one of my D&D campaigns, it may surprise you that I take such a hardline stance. But it is necessary to maintain my sanity. You might say you’ve seen lots of instances where my players made choices, or declared actions, and then things happened in the game. Like maybe one of my players said, “I attack that orc,” and then they attacked that orc. What you witnessed, though, was a tacit agreement between my players and I to simply cut out the redundant middle-man. What actually happened was my player asked me, very politely, for permission to attack that orc. And then I — not they — made the choice to allow that to happen in my game world.

“Yes, you may attack that orc” may be the most common response to the implied question of an attack roll, but it is by no means the only one. Other perfectly valid choices on my behalf would be, “No, you may not attack that orc.” Or, “No, the orc attacks you instead.” Or, “Zap! You’re all cows now! Moooooo!”

No player has ever overruled a DM at his own table, without that DM’s cooperation. Simply by virtue of being the DM, anything he says happens and anything he doesn’t say doesn’t happen. I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe otherwise, but no, players simply do not have any sort of agency in that kind of environment.

What your players might hear: “You’re more important than I am.”

If you insist on allowing your players to have real agency, rather than the carefully-crafted illusion of same, prepare for many arguments. It is trivially easy to find examples of players running roughshod over their DM in practically every D&D community that shares horror stories. In the most extreme cases you will find players (who have never DM’d a game, in all likelihood) who preach the DM’s job is to provide a fun world for the players, full stop.

In actuality, the DM is a player himself, and is also trying to have fun. If he’s not having fun, the game will cease to exist in every meaningful way. The DM is the most important guy at the table, bar none. It’s not even a contest.

The number one killer of campaigns, in my own 20+ years of experience, is DM burnout. The biggest contributor to DM burnout is a loss of interest because of entitled players making demands, provoking ceaseless arguments, or blatantly sabotaging the game. And players can only get to that point if the DM cedes control to them.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Be a merciless god-tyrant!”

Of course, in practice, I am not a tyrant and I do not treat my players like slaves. Because there is one important choice players get to make, and they are making it constantly: “Should I keep playing in this campaign?” A DM who runs his game like an unyeilding control freak is a DM who eventually finds himself without any players.

It’s one thing to be in control. It’s another thing to abuse that control to the point where players no longer want to play. For every “my players went berserk and I burned out” story, there are ten “my DM was a sack of butts so I quit playing” stories.

Here’s what I suggest: “Players are at your mercy, but they’re still your friends.”

If a group of players do you the honor of putting you in a position of power over them, you should banish from your mind any thought of betraying that trust. Ostensibly these people are your friends, your co-workers, your IRC buddies, or your fellow game store enthusiasts. Treat them as such.

Own up to mistakes. Listen to criticism. Laugh at yourself. Be humble. Most importantly, don’t make rulings that would cause you, as a player, to quit a game. Find a way to be a benevolent dictator, and your players will love you for it.

“Did everyone have fun?”

Perhaps the most common response I see to new DMs soliciting feedback from the internet hivemind is some form of, “Did you ask everyone if they had fun? They said yes? Then there’s no problem!”

But there is a problem. Even though everyone had a good time, that DM still felt some niggling doubt that caused him to go seeking advice. That means there’s something wrong, and it can be very difficult to pinpoint what that something might be.

D&D is fun, but as we all know, fun comes in lots of shapes and sizes. It’s entirely possible for a new DM to have a vision in his head about what running the game will be like, but then the actual session didn’t meet those expectations, for whatever reason. Yeah, everyone enjoyed themselves, but he was expecting 100 Fun Units™ and ended up only getting 70 Fun Units™.

Maybe our poor new DM just had unrealistic ideas about his game fueled by too many professional podcasts. But maybe, just maybe, his vision is attainable if he could only figure out the trick to make it all work.

What your players might hear: “This is the most fun we can be having.”

You played D&D and it was fun. That’s great! But you could be having more fun, or a different kind of fun. Setting the goodtimes bar too low is a great way to make players lose interest in a campaign. New players will have a fine time with pretty much any style of D&D, from carefully constructed professional modules all the way down to wanton slaughter of the peasantry. It’s new to them, and novelty breeds excitement.

But that excitement will fade, and what you’re left with is what you’re left with.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “There are wrong ways to have fun!”

If wanton slaughter of the peasantry is what your table wants, and you’re happy to provide, then that’s the game you ought to run. I don’t kinkshame. You do you.

Lots of DMs will read this post and insist that my table isn’t fun. After all, I earned my kicks back in Second Edition, when men were Men, lawful good meant Lawful Good, magic-users feared housecats, and THAC0 charts spread across the landscape as far as the eye could see. I let my players fail, I let them get stuck, and I do nothing to hide my delight as I murder them with encounters designed for parties twice their strength. I make them track ammo and roleplay through mind control and force them into impossibly depraved moral quandaries.

Not everyone wants to play at my table. Maybe you don’t. And maybe I don’t want to play at yours. This is all fine, and perfectly natural. What we should both be doing though, with every session, is searching for new ways to have fun. We should be challenging ourselves to squeeze more and more out of the game.

Here’s what I suggest: “Solicit feedback. Act on it. And practice, practice, practice!”

Sometimes I ask my players if they had fun, and they tell me, “No, and here’s why.” Repeated iterations of this process is what has helped me to skill up as a DM.

The reason this tepid mantra has calcified in the community is because it’s easy. “You had fun, job done, hands washed!” is a decent way to encourage a new DM to keep doing what they’re doing, despite their misgivings, without actually addressing the misgivings. The real answer is a lot harder: figure out what your players want, figure out what you want, find the space where those things overlap, and then keep doing new things in that space for as long as you can hold it together. This is really tough to do.

You’re not going to find that spot without putting in the work. You’re going to have to actually talk to your players, and they’re going to have to be honest with you. They’re going to tell you that you suck, and you’re going to have to go back to the drawing board to fix the things that didn’t work and highlight the things that did. It’s a never-ending process, and at times, it can be exhausting.

But it’s worth it. If you commit to growing as a DM, to keep trying new things and pushing for new experiences, you will be having More Fun™ than groups who just stack up the orcs week after week. And every so often you’ll touch a raw nerve that really shocks and excites everyone, and those are the stories players and DMs alike will remember forever. Those are the stories that draw new players to the game.

D&D is not a video game.

There are no cheat codes, no killer strats, and no instruction manual. Advice can be great, but all any DM can really offer you is an explanation for what works at their table, with the hope that the same will work at yours.

Best of luck to you and your table. Thanks for reading!

Answers to 30 “Unanswered” Metal Gear Questions

Doesn’t matter, I’m here anyway.

So wait, [impossible thing]!?

For most of these answers I’m going to assume the question is being asked in good faith, and respond appropriately. Before that, though, I need to swat away many thousands of mildly obnoxious questions by assuming they aren’t asked in good faith. It’s important to understand that “Unanswered Questions in X!” style clickbait lists are usually not written from the standpoint of a sincere fan seeking clarification, but from that of an internet humorist making fun of confusing stories. The story of the Metal Gear saga is so confusing that it’s become something of a poster child.

These questions often take the form of an eye-rolling “so wait.” So wait, are you telling me that Bumblebee Man can really spit hornets? And Quiet has to always be naked? And trained combat veterans think it’s nighttime because they heard an owl? And a gun can have infinite ammo? And angry ghosts and 6-year-old computer programmers and voodoo dolls and diaper monkey?

Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. The answer to the question of why these things happen is because those are the things that happened. When folks ask “what’s the deal with diaper monkey” what they mean is “diaper monkey is stupid.” They’re posing their opinion as a rhetorical question.

It’s okay to think things are stupid, especially in Metal Gear, which contains 65% of your daily allotment of stupid by volume. But let’s call it what it is. I’m fine with folks thinking Quiet’s nakedness is dumb; I take issue with folks pretending as though the game doesn’t offer an explantion, dumb as that explanation might be.

But no really, why does Quiet have to be naked?

She breathes through her skin, and wearing clothes or being submerged in water causes her to suffocate.

And there’s a mod to make her even naked-er, because of course there is.

Yeah, but see, that’s stupid!

Sure, but that doesn’t make it not the answer to the question.

It also brings us to this uncomfortable truth: the answers aren’t going to please everyone. There comes a point where a given person will find no possible answer satisfying, because of some fundamental disconnect with the source material as presented.

I find the biggest disconnect when it comes to Metal Gear is this: in the Metal Gear universe, magic is real. To a lot of burning questions, the answer is simply, “Magic, full stop.” And by magic I mean literal, supernatural, Harry-Potter-and-Gandalf magic. Mushrooms recharge batteries because magic. Infinite ammo bandana, because magic. Guy takes headshot and runs on water because magic. Mean psychic ghost because magic. Immortal horse because magic. Kuwabara kuwabara, because magic.

Sometimes the magic hides behind SCIENCE!. Vampire man because SCIENCE!, perfect stealth camo because SCIENCE!, flying rocket arm because SCIENCE!. But when you dig deep into these and try to explain the science, eventually you hit magic. The Phantom Pain falls all over itself desperately trying to explain the biology behind vocal chord parasites, but the idea is just incompatible with our understanding of the physical sciences, and it’s magic the rest of the way down.

Whether you start at Metal Gear, the first published game, or Snake Eater, the first chapter chronologically, the series establishes supernatural elements early on and never lets up. If “a wizard did it” doesn’t sate your curiosity as to why there are insta-death hamsters and talking ghost arms in your sci-fi tactical espionage story, it’s likely because some part of you just doesn’t want them there.

Are nanomachines magic?

No, but kinda.

Nanomachines (or, in The Phantom Pain parlance, parasites) are not, in the “magic is real” sense outlined above, magic. They aren’t supernatural, and there is at least one person — Naomi Hunter — who knows exactly how they work and what they can do. Shortest explanation ever: they are cell-sized machines injected into the bloodstream which re-program the human body.

In the narrative sense, they are a kind of “plot magic”. They’re a catch-all explanation for any weird or nonsensical thing characters need to be able to do in Metal Gear, which Kojima did not want to attribute to supernatural forces.

Have we established enough of a baseline now to start asking real questions?

Yes. Yes we have. Let’s start with an easy one.

Which games are canon?

The Metal Gear timeline consists of nine games:

  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (1964)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (1974)
  • Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (1975)
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (1984)
  • Metal Gear (1995)
  • Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1999)
  • Metal Gear Solid (2005)
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2007/2009)
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2014)

This series is mostly about guns and mustaches.

Are Portable Ops and Rising canon?

They are if you want them to be. Truth is, it doesn’t matter. Nothing happens in these two titles that directly contradicts the other games; the timeline works whether you include or omit them.

Why does Naked Snake have a Raiden mask in his inventory?

He doesn’t. He has an Ivan Raidenovich Raikov mask.

In a radio conversation about the mask, SIGINT explains he developed the eerily lifelike Raikov mask for an operation to infiltrate GRU. The operation was scrapped before the mask was used, but SIGINT was so impressed with his own work that he squirreled it onto Snake’s person before Operation: Snake Eater, you know, just in case he needed it.

There is no in-universe reason for Raikov and Raiden’s similarities. Sometimes people — even weird albino prettyboy people — look like one another.

Where was Grey Fox during The Phantom Pain? (etc.)

This is the most common form of “unanswered” Metal Gear question. In a franchise featuring dozens of characters and spanning six console generations, some folks are unsatisfied without a complete accurate timeline of every character’s life. Grey Fox is the fan favorite, but there are others: Ocelot during Peace Walker? Raiden during Metal Gear Solid? Colonel Campbell during Sons of Liberty? Dr. Madnar during, well, any of it?

The answer is: it doesn’t matter. Wherever those characters were, and whatever they were doing, they weren’t integral to the story in question, and their actions didn’t shape the structure of the narrative as a whole. They weren’t in those games because they weren’t in them.

Still, it’s pretty easy to infer what a character was doing during the gaps in their timeline. We know Grey Fox kills Naomi Hunter’s parents at some point in the late 70s or early 80s while Big Boss is in a coma. Over a decade later he becomes a decorated member of FOXHOUND, gets punched to death by Snake in Zanzibar Land, then is revived as the Cyborg Ninja. In the intervening time, during the late 80s and early 90s, he was probably working with Big Boss.

Remember, we don’t actually play as Big Boss in The Phantom Pain; we play as Venom Snake. It makes perfect sense for a character to be working for Big Boss during that timeframe, because Big Boss is off somewhere else, doing Big Boss things. While Venom is playing grab-ass with Skull Face in Afghanistan, Big Boss is elsewhere, making contact with Sniper Wolf, Vulcan Raven, Decoy Octopus and, yes, Grey Fox.

What does Code Talker mean by “Eyes on Kazuhira”?

This is a particularly frustrating loose end, because it stinks of a plot thread abandoned because The Phantom Pain was woefully unfinished.

Lacking some definitive answer, we can infer what Code Talker probably meant in the context of the rest of his other nonsensical parasite-stasis word salad. Kaz Miller is, putting it delicately, not the most well-adjusted man on the oil rig. He has been viciously tortured, mind and body. He has been cruelly and — from his perspective, unnecessarily — manipulated by Cipher. Everything he ever built has been destroyed, and then he finds out the man he reveres most, Big Boss, abandoned him and pawned him off on a secret doppelganger. This fact was revealed in trust to Ocelot rather than himself.

Kaz doesn’t work with Venom or Big Boss at any point after The Phantom Pain, and the break-up is not amicable. He chooses to support Solid Snake instead, and as of Metal Gear 2 is actively working against Big Boss’s interests. He is a bitter man, obsessed with revenge, who spends the entirety of The Phantom Pain railing against the other Diamond Dogs high-ups. Oh, and he extorts money to secretly invest in a hamburger restaurant.

So hey, “Big Boss”, keep your eyes on that Kazuhira Miller. He’s a loose cannon set to go off.

When did Big Boss become a villain?

This is one of the hottest Metal Gear questions out there, and one of the easiest to tackle, because the answer is “…seriously?” As in, “Weren’t you paying attention?”

The marketing blitz for The Phantom Pain led a lot of players to believe we would get a definitive, clear-cut moment where Big Boss stopped being a “good guy” and started being a “bad guy”. This ended up not happening, which should be not at all surprising to anyone who played the previous few games. Depending on your perspective, Big Boss was never a “good guy” in the first place.

Pictured: a good guy. (Maybe.)

During his denouement in Guns of the Patriots, Big Boss says, “Ever since the day I killed The Boss… with my own hands… I was already dead.” If you need a singular moment in time where Big Boss lost his path, that was probably it.

Or, you could answer this by simply saying “Peace Walker“. That game has Big Boss doing all the things that made him the villain of the MSX games: building a private army, stealing resources, deploying child soldiers, seizing nuclear weapons, developing Metal Gear. Of course, we-the-player didn’t recognize Big Boss as a “bad guy” in that game because the story is told from his perspective. When he’s up to all those same shenanigans in Zanzibar Land, and our controller is plugged into Solid Snake instead, things look very different to us.

The broadest explanation is that Metal Gear is not a story about “good guys” and “bad guys”. It is not Star Wars. With the possible exceptions of Colonel Volgin and Psycho Mantis, most every character in the saga has sympathetic motives. Even Ocelot, in his own crazy way.

How did Big Boss go back to the US? And why?

He didn’t. Venom Snake did, posing as Big Boss.

Okay, smart ass, how did Venom Snake go back to the US? And why?

We don’t have a lot of data on the particulars. When the games do reference this, it’s always in passing. The timeline roll from The Phantom Pain simply says “1995: While commanding special forces unit FOXHOUND from a position in the US military…” and glosses over the transition. I’m betting the answer is surprisingly boring, though. The US didn’t want Big Boss to leave in the first place, so when “he” offered to come back, they welcomed “him” openly.

Big Boss (or Venom Snake, who from the perspective of the US military effectively is Big Boss) spent the decade after Snake Eater trying to build his private army, somewhat unsuccessfully. He finally gets established in Peace Walker, but doesn’t actively work against the US’s interests. He stops the maniacal plan of a rogue CIA chief, saving America from a huge headache. During that mission he speaks directly to agents at NORAD, and those Americans who know him personally have great veneration for him.

Absent any evidence of MSF or Diamond Dogs openly declaring war against the US or one of its allies, it’s reasonable to conclude that Venom-as-Big-Boss just rolled up at some point in the early ’90s and said, “Hey guys, I got all that private army stuff out of my system, I’m ready to come home and work for Uncle Sam again.”

As for why, well, one of the most useful places you can be if you’re setting up a rogue military country like Outer Heaven or Zanzibar Land would be amidst America’s top brass. Indeed, the big twist of the original Metal Gear is that “Big Boss” tried to sabotage the mission by sending an unproven soldier on what was supposed to be a suicide mission.

Unfortunately that soldier was Solid Snake and things did not end well for either Big Boss.

Where was Solid Snake raised?

The Les Enfants Terribles program was masterminded by Zero and The Patriots, but was officially developed by the US government. Eli (Liquid Snake) was sent to the UK and eventually escaped. We’re never explicitly told what happened to David (Solid Snake), except that by 1991 he was “sent to the battlefield”. We do know that Snake was a Green Beret and later a member of FOXHOUND, both of which are American military organizations.

All signs point to Liquid’s infodump at the end of Metal Gear Solid being accurate: the US military kept a watchful eye on Solid Snake, grooming him to eventually become the next Big Boss.

What ever happened with OILIX?

Nothing. For some reason, Dr. Marv’s research was never implemented, and his work was never duplicated after he died. There are numerous possible explanations. Maybe the data cartridge recovered at the end of Metal Gear 2 was corrupted by chocolate or hamster droppings. Maybe it was stolen by Russian double agents or supressed by The Patriots. Maybe OILIX was Marv’s scientific superpower and it was just impossible to implement without him. Maybe there was a critical flaw in the production process that wasn’t spotted until after Marv’s death. Maybe it was eaten by Y2k.

At some point in the five years between Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid the oil crisis was resolved to such satisfaction that OILIX became unnecessary.

Is Dr. Clark male or female?

Female. Dr. Clark is Para-medic.

There is a lot of in-universe misinformation surrounding Dr. Clark. There are conflicting reports as to her identity in the ’90s because she is a Patriots founding member doing cutting edge (and highly illegal) research involving cloning, cybernetics, and just a smidge of human torture. People who know of her work but have never met her personally, such as Naomi Hunter, assume Dr. Clark is a man because most mad scientists turn out to be men. The people who have met her personally were probably all murdered by the Cyborg Ninja.

Which Metal Gear Solid ending is canon?

Whichever one you want. The two endings exist in a kind of continuity superposition, and the rest of the timeline works whether Snake escapes with Meryl or Otacon. Whichever one he doesn’t rescue somehow miraculously survives. If there’s one thing Metal Gear is good at, it’s having important (and sometimes not-so-important) characters miraculously survive offscreen. (And sometimes onscreen!)

Either way, Snake and Meryl persue a brief romantic interlude, then go their separate ways. Meryl ends up working for the Army in Rat Patrol 01, Snake ends up founding Philanthropy with Otacon, and he has both the stealth camo and infinite ammo bandana as of Sons of Liberty. Lucky bastard.

“…where we immediately break up and go back to what we were already doing.”

What does La-li-lu-le-lo mean?

The La-li-lu-le-lo are The Patriots. Specifically, it’s the string of syllables second-level agents of The Patriots are programmed by nanomachines to hear and say instead of “The Patriots”.

It works a bit like content filters on web forums. When an agent’s nanomachines detects the phrase “The Patriots” in reference to the secret shadowy organization nobody is supposed to know about, they covertly replace the words with “La-li-lu-le-lo” in the agent’s brain. Such second-level agents include Scott Dolph, Richard Ames, and Meryl Silverburgh; basically anyone The Patriots want to make use of without revealing themselves to.

It is never revealed how the nanomachines can differentiate usage of their name from, say, the sportsball team.

Why is Solidus so much older than Liquid and Solid Snake?

Solidus is actually younger, by a couple of years.

All of Big Boss’s clones were genetically modified to age faster than normal humans. This is why Snake looks like a 70-year-old math teacher in Guns of the Patriots. Solidus must have been modified to age at an even more accelerated rate.

Why would The Patriots do this? Les Enfants Terribles was the final straw for Big Boss, and the moment he decided to break away from Zero. Once this happened, Zero must have been more desperate than ever for a Big Boss figurehead to his organization. When the perfect clone — Solidus — was implanted, he put a rush job on things. 25 years later Solidus looks like a 50-year-old man, and is put into place as POTUS.

Why does Raiden keep leaving Rose?

Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots both end with Raiden reconnecting with his lady lover Rosemary, only to be back to his old emo-ninja’ing self in time for the next title. Leaving aside the joke answer of Rose being a horrible shrew nobody would want to stay married to, it turns out it’s pretty hard for a genetically-altered and deeply-traumatized homicidal supersoldier jacked up on nanomachines to stay settled. After a short time playing house Raiden feels drawn back to the battlefield, just like the countless legendary soldiers before him.

What happened to Naomi and Mei-Ling’s accents?

Canonically, these two characters have American accents.

Around the time of Sons of Liberty, a remake of the original Metal Gear Solid came out for Nintendo Gamecube called The Twin Snakes. The game had updated graphics, re-dubbed audio, and improved gameplay, but is considered non-canonical by later sequels. Whenever flashback footage of Metal Gear Solid is shown in later games, it is consistently pulled from the PS1 original, as though the whole Metal Gear universe were made of low-poly models in the mid-aughts.

The one exception is the voice acting. Metal Gear Solid has legendarily poor quality voice acting, so when it came time to put various audio clips into Guns of the Patriots cutscenes, they were pulled from The Twin Snakes instead.

As for why the accents were changed for The Twin Snakes, that’s anyone’s guess.

How have The Patriots been dead for over 100 years?

They aren’t dead, at least, not all of them. As of the end of Sons of Liberty, when this twist is revealed, Patriots founders Ocelot and EVA are still alive and working. Big Boss and Zero are biologically alive, but no longer active because of various Patriots machinations. And none of them are 100 years old.

It is revealed in Guns of the Patriots that the identities Snake and Raiden pulled out of GW were bogus, because part of how Cipher hides The Patriots is with layers and layers of confusing misinformation. Controlling information is Cipher’s most powerful weapon throughout the years, and is central to his many schemes.

As it turns out, the information wasn’t really bogus so much as useless. The identities revealed to Snake were probably the members of the Wisemen’s Committee, the original alliance of American, Russian and Chinese contributors which amassed the Philosopher’s Legacy. This happened just after World War I… or about a hundred years before the events of Sons of Liberty. Historically interesting information, but totally unhelpful to Snake’s current situation.

Who is really in charge of The Patriots? Why are they so corrupt?

As of Donald Anderson’s death in Metal Gear Solid, nobody.

Dr. Strangelove began development of The Patriots AI in the 1980s, but she died before its completion. AI was Strangelove’s scientific superpower, so after her death no one else comes close to what she was able to accomplish. (This explains why her AI machines were so sophisticated in Peace Walker, while the Metal Gears in Guns of the Patriots moo and fall down a lot.)

Major Zero continued development on the AI in its imperfect state, but he wasn’t able to oversee it either, since Skull Face had poisoned him and he spent the next 30-ish years slowly losing his mind.

Zero mentions that Donald (aka SIGINT) was running a lot of the day-to-day tasks in one of his tapes in The Phantom Pain. And this was probably fine until Ocelot tortured him to death in Shadow Moses. From that point on, the AI was spinning without supervision, running the same processes over and over, causing trouble for everyone. Over the decades, random mutations in the AI’s subroutines ended up having a corrupting influence. The AI organized the S3 plan in Sons of Liberty and eventually invented the War Economy in Guns of the Patriots.

What is the S3 Plan, and what the hell happens at the end of Sons of Liberty?

The last hour or so of Sons of Liberty is where Kojima intentionally went full-on batsplat banana sandwich on his players. The one-line summary of this 40-minute labyrinthine infodump is, “The Patriots AI went crazy.”

The S3 Plan is the Mutant Crazy AI playing its hand at being Cipher.

Solidus tells Raiden that S3 stands for “Solid Snake Simulation”, and he believes this to be true. The idea is The Patriots concocted a Shadow Moses-like live exercise to see if a green recruit with minimal combat experience could be turned into the next Solid Snake. It’s kind of a 21st century version of Les Enfants Terribles — instead of growing a new supersoldier from scratch as a clone, now we can make one on the fly with rudimentary VR training and extreme live fire.

Solidus was fed bad information by The Patriots, however, and the AI explains to Raiden what S3 really is: Selection for Societal Sanity. The AI has decided that there is too much raw information out there, and wants to control the flow of it to such a degree that a person’s entire life can be fabricated around him. That’s what happens to Raiden: he’s given a fake girlfriend, a fake colonel, a fake Shadow Moses playground to kick around in, a fake FOXHOUND to join, etc. Virtually nothing Raiden believes to be true actually is, thanks to The Patriots running circles around him.

In other news, Raiden beat Quiet to full frontal by 14 years.

Who does Revolver Ocelot work for?

In Snake Eater Ocelot works for the CIA. After Snake Eater Ocelot works for Big Boss.

Ocelot is the first of many characters who becomes absolutely infatuated with Big Boss. Even way back as Naked Snake, Big Boss has a sort of inspiring magnetism that made people want to follow him. This magnetism is so inexplicably powerful that even people who want to kill him — Quiet, Paz, countless soon-to-be-Fultoned nameless grunts, and of course Ocelot — end up seeking his approval. This overwhelming charisma is what makes him so special to The Boss, and so integral to Cipher and The Patriots.

And Ocelot falls hard. He so badly wants senpai to notice him that, at one point in Snake Eater, he steals all of Snake’s food and eats it in an effort to be more like him. More tellingly, in an unguarded moment towards the end of the game, Ocelot insists he and Snake learn each other’s real names. This is perhaps the one moment in the entire saga where Ocelot is being purely genuine.

After Big Boss is burned to death in Metal Gear 2 and his biomass is swept up by The Patriots, Ocelot makes it his life’s mission to recover the remains and destroy The Patriots. This isn’t sentimentality; Big Boss’s remains are the literal, physical key to locating The Patriots. At this point in time the AI still sees Ocelot as an especially valuable asset, so Ocelot is very careful to position himself without blowing his cover.

At his most convoluted, Ocelot is four levels deep: Liquid doesn’t know he works for Solidus, who doesn’t know he works for The Patriots, who don’t know he works for Big Boss. The masterstroke here is that, on some level, Ocelot actually does work for Liquid and Solidus. They both want the same thing he does. If either of their crazy terrorism plans succeeds, he can end the charade and assist them directly. If they fail, he has just enough plausible deniability to maintain the ruse and bide his time.

So who or what is Liquid Ocelot?

Ocelot, pretending to be Liquid Snake.

There was a point when Liquid’s ghost arm was actually in partial control. During the cutscenes in Sons of Liberty where Liquid speaks through the arm, that is really Liquid and he is really taking over. This doesn’t sit well with Ocelot,0 so he has the arm removed and replaces it with a synthetic one. He doesn’t reveal his new robot arm until the end of Guns of the Patriots.

According to Big Boss, Ocelot kept up the Liquid ruse by undergoing a treatment of drugs and nanomachines to trick his mind into believing he was Liquid Snake in a new body. (A similar process worked once before, in The Phantom Pain, to trick his mind into believing Venom Snake was the real Big Boss.)

After Big Boss is burned to death in Metal Gear 2, Ocelot’s goal is to locate his body and bring down The Patriots. The AI doesn’t realize this, though, which is why it seems like Ocelot is a good little Patriots soldier all through Sons of Liberty. In that game, what comes across to the player is that Ocelot and Liquid’s ghost arm are working at cross purposes.

We’re given an explanation for why Ocelot re-writes his brain during Big Boss’s exposition at the end of Guns of the Patriots: “in order to fool the System”. Becoming Liquid’s mental doppelganger allows Ocelot to actively work to destroy The Patriots without The Patriots twigging to his betrayal. The AI believes he’s Liquid and acts accordingly: by tapping Solid Snake and sending him to the battlefield.

How can Snake be part Japanese, if his parents are EVA and Big Boss?

In the same conversation where EVA reveals she is Snake’s mother, she explains he was conceived via in vitro fertilization. The egg donor was a lab assistant of Dr. Clark, a character who is only ever identified as “a healthy Japanese woman”.

Apparently, Vulcan Raven can sense the influence of healthy Japanese women even years after they’ve been murdered by Cyborg Ninjas.

How is REX still operable, and how is it a match for RAY?

REX is the best Metal Gear ever built. It is the Cadillac of Metal Gear. It is an artisinal, home-brew Metal Gear whose secret ingredient is love.

I keep mentioning this idea of a “scientific superpower”. Sometimes, a scientist in Metal Gear has such incredible aptitude for a field of study that their accomplishments and insights are presented as being literally unique. As in, if they die, their field dies with them, never to be replicated. There’s a good reason so many Metal Gear games start you off by sneaking into a base to rescue a scientist.

Dr. Strangelove’s scientific superpower was developing AI. Naomi Hunter’s was the implementation of nanomachines. And Hal Emmerich’s is building Metal Gear.

While REX is not as big as Sahelanthropus nor as versatile as RAY, it is the only Metal Gear model that displays human characteristics. Otacon speaks of REX as a person; he specificially designed it with a weakness to give it a certain je ne sais quoi. None of the Metal Gear superscientists like to see their creations destroyed, but Otacon actually takes it personally. To him it’s not, “Liquid has a really powerful battle tank,” but rather “Liquid stole my friend, who happens to be a powerful battle tank.” He takes it personally again, nine years later, when he realizes what Liquid Ocelot wants with its railgun.

It’s this connection between a boy and his bestest battle tank buddy that accounts for REX’s ʜᴜᴍᴀɴ ᴇʟᴇᴍᴇɴᴛ. Otacon is so good at Metal Gear that you can cover REX in chaff, pelt it with stingers, carpet bomb it, leave it to rust for ten years in a wet Alaskan bunker, and all it takes to get it back up and running is a pep talk and some Street Fighter moves.

REX’s little brother is pretty awesome, too.

I have another question?

That’s not a question.

Okay but I have one anyway?

Sure, leave it as a comment to this post and I’ll do what I can to write a follow-up someday.

Didn’t you do a bizarre and hilarious rap song about Ocelot?

Yes. Yes I did. Thanks for reading!

It’s Really a Shame about Fantasy Strike

Fantasy Strike is a neat fighting game. If you’re ever in a position to try it out without having to buy it, I highly recommend it. You’ll have fun tinkering with it until the novelty wears off and you move on. And if you’re like me, your parting thought will be something like, “Shame there wasn’t more to it.”

The game is still in Early Access, but all the characters are in and other than a 1P story mode it’s pretty much feature complete. What you see is what you get with this one. The crowdfunding is over, it’s made its way around the trade shows and fighting game tournaments, and the community it’s built is probably the community it’s going to have. Absent a miraculously successful marketing blitz on the full launch, I think Fantasy Strike has done all it’s gonna do.

The concept of Fantasy Strike is wonderful. It was designed from the ground up by fighting game veteran David Sirlin to be as accessible as possible. The game is billed as being easy to pick up, but very challenging to master — appealing both to new players and tournament experts.

There are two critical flaws that kill the game though, both stemming from mistaken assumptions on Sirlin’s part. And as much as I love the guy, Sirlin strikes me as being too stubborn to admit these mistakes, which would be the first step in correcting them and fixing Fantasy Strike. In this post, I’ll go into each of them in some detail.

First of all, I really love David Sirlin.

There are very few game developers I’m a fanboy of. David Sirlin is one of them. He’s maintained a general game design blog for decades, and I’ve spent that time hanging on practically his every word. He’s got old design articles on every subject from the fun value of hidden collectibles in Donkey Kong Country to in-depth analysis about incorporating fun game bugs as standard features in remakes and sequels. I learned more about fighting games by reading his balance articles for Street Fighter II HD Remix than in all the combined time I’ve spent actually playing Street Fighter titles.

I don’t actually own a lot of Sirlin’s games, outside of Fantasy Strike and his silly panda poker game, because most of what he designs are card battle games in the vein of Magic: The Gathering. This hasn’t dissuaded me from reading pages and pages of his analysis and design theory about card games, though, all of which I’ve found fascinating.

So I know the man’s work, and I know something about his game design philosophy. I also know he has a stubborn streak that has resulted in some burned bridges across various internet communities. For example, when most reviewers were championing the decision to make the online edition of Street Fighter 3: Third Strike arcade perfect, Sirlin had the audacity to point out that the arcade version of Third Strike was kinda butts, and a re-balanced version would have made for a much better game*. He was totally right about this, and I was on his side every step of the way, but the manner in which he argued his points, dismissing out of hand that Third Strike fans with different priorities might have a valid argument, earned him no small amount of abuse.

And it’s this stubborn streak, this sense of I’m right gosh durnit, why can’t everyone just see that, that I see in his responses to feedback Fantasy Strike has received. I find myself disagreeing with Sirlin on some key aspects of what Fantasy Strike is supposed to be, and what could make it great.

*Third Strike had 19 playable characters, but at the highest competitive level only three could win fights. It was a boring meta both for competitors and spectators. Sirlin’s argument was that rebalancing the game to make more of the characters viable would increase depth and attract more players to the game.

Second of all, I’m a filthy casual.

And this has the unfortunate side effect of Sirlin assuming I don’t exist.

Fantasy Strike is billed as “the strategic fighting game for EVERYONE”, but what Sirlin really means by this is that he is targeting two kinds of players: expert fighters who will enjoy the game’s strategic depth, and newbie fighters who he hopes will speed through the learning stages to become experts.

He’s not aiming at people who are neither experts, nor want to be. I’m standing here waving my hands around, and senpai is not noticing me.

I approach a fighting game the way I approach any sort of game: I play it until I either finish it or it stops being fun, then I move on to the next game. I feel like 30-40 hours of playtime out of a $20 Steam game is pretty good value. The most I’ve played any fighting game is Super Street Fighter IV, where Steam says I have just shy of 100 hours logged. 100 hours is a long time for me to play a game, but it’s a fraction of a fraction of what is required to become an expert player, even in a game with single-button specials.

Accessibility is still an unsolved problem.

This is the first of Sirlin’s misconceptions: he thinks people quit playing fighting games — or avoid getting into them in the first place — because the moves are too hard to do. In his mind the barrier to entry is the controller, the physical interface between player and game, and if you can just push through that you can begin what he calls “actually playing”. You’re not spending brain cycles on whether you can physically perform a move, but rather should you perform it. If you read the HD Remix articles I linked earlier, you will see him repeat this phrasing again and again.

It’s easy to see why Sirlin thinks this. He learned to play fighting games in the Bad Old Days, when Capcom and SNK arcades ruled the roost. In those days the special moves really were difficult to do. You were lucky if the specials were listed on a cabinet decal or instruction manual, and even then, the motions were notoriously finnicky. I bet Sirlin spent a lot of time back in the ’90s fumbling with bad control schemes before he got güd, and those memories were probably front and center when he drafted the Fantasy Strike design doc.

But this is a solved problem. Sirlin himself implemented many of the solutions in his work on HD Remix: he widened input windows, relaxed directional requirements, and reduced button mashing. These changes are a big reason why HD Remix is my favorite iteration of Street Fighter II — I can do a dragon punch now!

What he didn’t realize, though, is that every other modern fighting game has adopted this design philosophy. The motions for specials in Street Fighter IV are even more lenient than HD Remix; nobody has quit playing that game because they can’t throw a fireball. This design trend probably started with Super Smash Bros., where every move is as simple as “button plus direction”. The Bad Old Days are gone.

The real barrier to entry is the competition, not the controller. It’s when you haven’t yet learned enough to make good decisions, nor developed the muscle memory to implement those decisions. It’s true that Fantasy Strike gets you to that point faster than Street Fighter does, maybe a couple hours versus a couple days. But it still has combos to master, matchups to learn, and frame data to study. Jaina’s fireball being on a single button rather than QCF isn’t very helpful when what you really need is the knowledge that Geiger’s move has a long recovery, the presence of mind to recognize the situation, and the muscle memory to react quickly enough to make that fireball count.

In a world where everyone is having trouble driving stick on icy roads, Sirlin is patting himself on the back for implementing push button ignition.

Babby’s First Fighting Game

Being the Sirlin fanboy I am, and seeing his previous work on HD Remix, I have full confidence that Fantasy Strike is a deep, well-balanced and strategically interesting game. As we’ve established, though, that’s not really what I’m in the market for. The players he needs to sell that line to are the established fighting game community, and by most accounts they’re not buying it.

Part of this just comes from the man himself being such a polarizing personality for such a long time in established fighting game circles. There are lots of people out there who don’t like Sirlin, for one reason or another, and just won’t buy his game no matter how good it is. That leaves two other places to potentially cultivate interest: veteran players who are intrigued by what Fantasy Strike has to offer, and veteran players who don’t have a game to play.

We can discount the second group pretty much immediately. If you’re a fighting game veteran, you already have a game to play. You’re not going to move from that game to Fantasy Strike unless it becomes a blockbuster smash, and it’s not doing that.

To the remaining fighting game veterans, Fantasy Strike is a hard sell. If you have what it takes to climb the ranked ladders, you are not concerned about accessibility. The idea that the hard part of fighting games are the QCFs must sound absurd to, say, the 98th best Blanka in North America. The #1 selling point fails to land, and I really don’t know that Fantasy Strike has a #2 selling point.

Passed all that, though, even veterans who want to actively support Fantasy Strike are going to have a hard time doing so, because nobody is playing it. steamcharts.org lists Fantasy Strike as having an average user base in the single digits. Contrast that with Skullgirls, an indie-developed fighter that’s been out for several years, but has cultivated a dedicated playerbase by leveraging unique gameplay features. In terms of active playerbase Fantasy Strike is more in the neighborhood of Divekick, and that’s not a good look.

So why doesn’t Brickroad like it?

Okay, the game’s not appealing to newbie players looking for an easy in, and it’s not appealing to veteran players who want a new playfield. I’ve already established I’m not in either of those groups, so why doesn’t Fantasy Strike appeal to me?

There are no online lobbies. And there never will be.

My usual rule regarding Early Access titles is not to buy them unless I’m happy with the state the game is currently in. I broke this rule with Fantasy Strike for three reasons. First, the game looked cool and colorful and fun. Second, I was very happy Sirlin had finally developed a video game I was interested in playing rather than simply reading design articles about. And third, I was absolutely certain online lobbies would be added to the game.

If you’re not familiar with lobbies in online fighting games, here’s how they work. You open a room and invite a bunch of friends. The game then matches two of you up while the rest spectate the match. The winner of the fight moves on to the next match and the loser goes to the back of the list. It’s a way for a group of people to all play the same two-player game together. This feature is an industry standard. The only major series I’m aware of without lobbies is Super Smash Bros., but those games have 4-player simultaneous play, which is functionally the same thing.

Lobbies are important to me as a player because fighting games are stressful to play, even with a group of friends at about my skill level. I much prefer playing a few matches at a time to grinding out an endless row of them. I really like playing as hard as I can while I’m on a win streak, but once I lose I appreciate being able to take a break and spectate.

Lobbies are important to me as a Twitch streamer, too, because it makes for the best viewing experience. Viewers are either watching my match and listening to my friends commentate on it, or they’re watching the same match I’m spectating and listening to me commentate for my friends. It also makes it easy for viewers to get matches with me, without either of us having to screw with our friends list or manually send invites.

So when I learned online lobbies was not a feature Fantasy Strike was ever going to have, I immediately regretted my purchase. Here’s Sirlin’s response on the Fantasy Strike forums when asked about it:

This reveals the second mistaken assumption Sirlin has: that Quick Match is the best way to play fighting games online, to the exclusion of all other possible ways to play. (I don’t know what the comment about Hearthstone is supposed to mean. It seems weird he’d conflate two entirely different genres of competitive game like this.)

Again, I can follow his logic here. Quick Match is the default method of playing for experts and for people trying to be experts. The way it works is you push a button, and some guy in Germany pushes a button, and then the game throws the two of you into a match. The loser is given an option to rematch, and then both of you are dropped back into the queue so you’re available for the next guy who pushes a button.

Notice, though, that the only other way to play Fantasy Strike is to challenge someone on your friends list. When you do this you are locked into an endless series of matches with that friend until one of you decides to leave.

Fantasy Strike makes it easy to play with randos, and it makes it easy to play with a single friend, but there’s no easy way to play with four friends at once, or to make yourself available to a small group of people who happen to be watching and want to jump in. I know from experience that trying to organize a Fight Night in a game using just these features is a major hassle, and my solution in the end was to stop playing that game.

If you’re looking for a steady stream of competition, Quick Match is your jam. And if you want to spar against one person, the single button invite is an elegant solution. But if you want a fun, casual night with a couple friends on Discord chat, Fantasy Strike can’t really accomodate you.

Sirlin is very, very wrong when he says “custom rooms take away from Quick Match”. The two game modes appeal to very different kinds of players, and it’s his own tunnel vision that prevents him from seeing that. In his mind there is one particular correct way to play his game, and he won’t spend development resources on a feature that allows people like me to play it wrong.

So, unfortunately, I’m just going to stop playing it altogether. Which, yeah, is really a shame.

I wonder if David Sirlin is the type of guy who Googles himself.

If so, I just want to say I’m still a big fan. Thank you for Playing to Win, and for fixing Chess, and for giving T. Hawk that hilarious throw whiff animation. I want you to know I think it’s a travesty that HD Remix and Puzzle Fighter aren’t in that big Street Fighter collection that’s coming out.

I urge you to reconsider your decision to leave out the one standard gameplay feature that would enable me to enjoy your game. Even if you don’t, I hope Fantasy Strike eventually finds its audience and that you get what you want out of it. I’m still following the game on Twitch.tv, for what that’s worth.

And to everyone else, thanks for reading!

Blips: D&D 5e Rules Variant (XP for Roleplaying)

There are lots of carefully-codified rules in Dungeons & Dragons for awarding experience points (XP) for combat encounters, but the material is pretty loosey-goosey about rewards for roleplaying encounters. Here’s what I came up with for Flumphscape, my 5e Planescape campaign that ran for two years. My players were level 17 at the end of the campaign, and I estimate about half of their total XP was from roleplaying, using these variant rules. Maybe they’ll work in your campaign? We’ll see!

Goals

I had a few goals in mind when I designed the rules for blips.

  1. Codify the “XP for roleplaying” rules, because I am a lazy DM and don’t want to painstakingly balance XP rewards for every non-combat encounter, which by their nature tend to happen spontaneously and require improvision. I wanted a formula I could plug in quickly and not think about too much.
  2. I wanted to empower my players to be able to do cool things. I like giving my players “plot tokens” they can use to take the DM seat for just a moment, just long enough to direct the story in a way that wouldn’t be possible through simple character action.
  3. In specific, Planescape as a campaign setting is very focused on philosophy. A character’s identity is more important than simply a few sentences written on their characters sheet. In Planescape, belief is power. I wanted to incentivize my players to constantly think about their characters’ thoughts and beliefs, pay attention to the beliefs of others, and to change and grow over the course of the campaign.

These are all lofty goals, but blips might still be a good fit for your campaign if you want something as simple as “I want to reward my players for playing their alignment.”

A blip is…

A blip is a game token equal to some fraction of an experience level. In Flumphscape a blip was worth 1/20th of the XP the highest-level character in the party needed to reach their next level. In my new campaign, where I’ve re-tooled the rules a bit, they’re worth 1/30th.

Left: Blips = 1/30th. Right: Blips = 1/20th.

That’s really it. If all you’re after is a kind of nebulous, scaling amount of XP to award players for doing cool roleplaying things, that might be all you need. Award a blip any time you would award Inspiration.

Blips as Player Rewards

I wanted something a little more detailed, though, and I wanted some incentive for players to both do cool things and acknowledge their fellow players for doing cool things. In my game, you can earn DM blips and player blips each session.

DM blips are just what I described above: award one when a player does something cool while playing their alignment, ideal, bond, or flaw. I limited these to one blip per trait per session, but you don’t necessarily have to.

At the end of the session I allowed the players to award each other blips. There are four of these, and I didn’t allow my players to cheap out on them. No splitting blips in half, no passing, no shenanigans. The group decides who deserves each of these each week, by answering these questions:

  1. Creative. Who had the most creative solution to a problem this session?
  2. Assist. Who furthered the party’s goals the most this session?
  3. Badass. Who did the most badass thing this session?
  4. Intangibles. What else do you want to award a blip for?

Then, because I stream my sessions live on Twitch, I set up a strawpoll and let my viewers vote on their favorite player that session.

Belief Points

In addition to blips, players in Flumphscape could accumulate Belief Points. I don’t think these mechanics are appopriate for every D&D game — I’m not using them in my new campaign — but they fit right into Planescape and you still might like to try them. If you do, I recommend using these rules to replace the base Inspiration rules. You might also consider disallowing the Lucky feat, since there’s a lot of overlap.

Each player could earn up to three Belief Points each session, by affirmatively answering these questions:

  1. Did your character act in accordance with his belief?
  2. Did your character learn anything new about his belief?
  3. Are his beliefs changing?

(In Flumphscape, characters had a Belief trait instead of an Ideal, and were not able to earn blips by playing their Belief.)

When players answered “yes” to any of these questions, I asked them to justify their answer. If their justification made sense, they got a Belief Point.

Players could only bank 6 Belief Points, and they could cash them in during a session to augment their rolls.

For 2 Belief Points, you can gain advantage on any roll. Essentially, this is how Inspiration works.

For 4 Belief Points, you can automatically succeed on any roll.

For 6 Belief Points, you get to “DM for one moment”. This is accompanied by a change in the character’s Belief. (In Flumphscape, this was skinned as the character’s belief being strong enough to literally change reality.)

Blips as Belief Points

Belief Points worked great in a Planescape game, but they weren’t appropriate for my new campaign. I also wanted to cut down the amount of time we were spending on end-of-session rundowns, which could take upwards of twenty minutes.

Characters don’t have Beliefs in the new campaign; they have Ideals, as is standard for 5e characters. In addition, I added Class Aspect as a new roleplaying trait. (These are the “personal touches” added to the character class sections of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. They’re really cool and I strongly recommend encouraging your players to think about them.)

You still earn blips for all your roleplaying traits, and for the player awards at the end of each session, and for being the crowd favorite in my Twitch.tv chat. The big difference is, instead of being automatic XP, blips are now game tokens that work the way Belief Points used to. At the end of each session you can choose to keep your blips as tokens (and spend them later on rerolls or auto-successes), or immediately cash them in for XP. You can still only bank 6 blips; if you gain any above that, they automatically roll over into XP.

Conclusion

There is no conclusion. Off you go. Thanks for reading!

The Warts on Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild was a good game. It wasn’t a great game. It wasn’t a 10/10, definitely not GOTY 2017. It’s not the best Zelda game, or the best open world game, and I don’t actually know much about the Nintendo Switch’s library but I’m willing to bet it’s not the best Switch game, either. Some parts of the game are fantastic, but others were so awful or so tedious that the game, as a whole, averages out to merely “good”.

I want to spend most of this post harping on one particular aspect of Breath that I hated, but first I want to touch on the one thing I really liked: exploring the open world was very, very enjoyable. I believe I spent ~40 hours just criss-crossing the map, not going anywhere in particular, just taking adventures as they came. I settled on something like this for my routine:

  1. Open the map.
  2. Identify an interesting-looking feature somewhere vaguely opposite my current position.
  3. Drop a pin.
  4. Go.

Pictured: a green circle.

 

Of course, this is my standard routine in any open world game; I played quite a lot of Skyrim and Horizon Zero Dawn like this. (I also tried a few times in The Phantom Pain, but that game resisted any attempts to make pure exploration fun.) The difference is, in Breath, it really feels like this is how the game is intended to be played, rather than just one possible option.

I want to stress just how good that ~40 hours was, once I hit my stride. In my opinion, if Breath were just that ~40 hours, and contained no other content, it would still be worth a purchase, if you like open world games. I don’t think I’d offer that same praise to other open world games I’ve played.

The problems, then, came largely in the form of expectations not being met. Breath of the Wild is by far the most grossly overhyped game I can think of. (Disclaimer: I have not played No Man’s Sky.) Everyone who said anything to me about the game since its release offered nothing short of glowing praise. I was told you could go anywhere and do anything in this game. I was told the combat never gets old, and rewards creative thinking. I was told the shrines and divine beasts were, pound for pound, worth ten standard Zelda dungeons. I was told the vast weapon variety more than justified their low durability. A few helpful Twitch viewers dropped by my chat while I was streaming Horizon to inform me the game I was playing sucks because Aloy needed specific handholds to climb walls and mountains.

“But you can go anywhere else!”

I realize a lot of this praise comes from the game being in its honeymoon phase, from Zelda fans enamored with the newest installment of their favorite franchise. And I did try to approach the game objectively once I had it in my actual hands… but it’s hard. The positive response was so total, so over-the-moon, that knee-jerk became my natural response. I honestly could not believe how bad very large parts of the game turned out to be. Squaring what I’d heard and what I’d read with the deeply flawed game I was actually playing left me dumbfounded.

The rest of this very long post consists of a break-down of the three worst aspects of Breath of the Wild. There won’t be a lot of positive remarks after this point, so if you’re a fan of the game and you find yourself getting annoyed I invite you to re-read what I said above re: the value of the game’s open world content. I liked this game a lot, I plan on buying it if/when I upgrade to a Switch, and the thought of playing the planned DLC content excites me. I booted up the game to take a few screenshots for this critique and lost three hours orbiting this world I’ve already spent so much time in.

But the more I like a game, the more its flaws sting. And in Breath I got stung very, very badly.

What Not To Do

My friends and I have a little ritual whenever we re-play Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. In that game, you start by stepping off a boat with nothing but your underwear, maybe a stick, and a note telling you what to do. Our ritual is to walk to the nearby creek and throw the note away.

This seemed like a very common way to begin Breath of the Wild. There’s a tutorial area that’s so large some players might not even notice it’s a tutorial area, but once you’ve cleared that, the game just pushes you out the door. You get a dot on your map and the guy says “go here next”, but my impression was that most players gave that guy the finger and just struck out on their own. And that’s exactly how I planned to start my own experience: I was going to throw the note away.

If you haven’t played Breath for yourself, I want to caution you not to make the same mistake I did. Do not throw the note away. Do not tell King Ghost Santa Lumberjack where he can stick it. Follow the quest markers until you’ve been to the lab and met the NPC who upgrades your cell phone. By all means, feel free to explore every inch of Hyrule between here and there. Look at things, blow stuff up, get into trouble. Pick on some moblins. Climb everything in sight. Have fun with it. This part of the game, staying on the critical path, will take a very long time, and be very enjoyable, and will still be only a taste of how great the rest of the world will feel once you’re on your own.

But you’re not on your own until you’ve been to the lab. The game is not as open as you’ve been led to believe. If you strike out with your own explorations straight off the Great Plateau, you are missing out on some crucial game systems.

Here’s how my experience went.

First, I turned off the quest marker. Didn’t need it. Straight into the creek. I looked far into the distance and identified some glowing orange towers. I marked them, thinking they were nearby, but they turned out to be miles and miles away. I struck out, exploring every inch between here and there. I got into trouble, I blew stuff up, I picked on moblins. I spent ~10 hours doing this, and had a blast doing it. Then I got into a fight with an enemy camp where every monster was able to kill me in one hit.

At first this was exciting. After a bunch of hilarious game overs, I managed to scrape together a win by spamming bombs, grabbing every weapon I could get my hands on, scrambling around, eating my entire stash of food, and maybe cashing in some dumb luck. It was exhilarating. It felt like I took down a foe who was way, way out of my league. But it was wearying, too. I think that first fight took 20 or 30 minutes of hard and stressful work, and the reward was not worth the effort. The experience was worth the effort; finally eradicating that first impossible camp was incredibly fun. But in terms of what Link put into that fight and what he took out of it, it was a net loss. I got a Korok seed and a few weapons. The weapons were much stronger than what I’d been using up to that point — the benefits of fighting higher-level monsters — but weapons break. My victory was tangible, but temporary.

Here’s what nobody will tell you about Breath of the Wild: the world levels up as you play. The monsters don’t just get stronger the further away you go from the Great Plateau, they get stronger everywhere. If you’ve played the game extensively and you don’t believe me, load up your endgame save and wander the Great Plateau for a while. You’ll see zebra-striped mobs with dragonbone weapons who weren’t there at the start.

For me, this meant I was in a terrible position. The second impossible enemy camp I came across, which I painstakingly cleared after many retries, wasn’t as fun as the first. The fifth was even less fun than that. By the ninth I stopped trying to fight the monsters, opting to sneak around them instead. This worked sometimes, but it wasn’t satisfying, because it meant there were very clearly places in the world I could not go, and things I could not do, which was counter to all the glowing priase that had been heaped on the game by its fanbase. Shrines within eyeshot of an enemy camp were inaccessible, and I was depriving myself of the opportunity to use the powerful weapons I was accumulating. Since those weapons were the only measurable progress I was able to make, I felt like I was in a hell of a rut.

After banging my head against this for a while, one of my Twitch regulars stopped by and said, “lol is Brick still running around wearing rags?” Which was my indication that something was very, very wrong.

You need to wear armor in Breath of the Wild. There’s a dramatic difference between the rags you start the game with and the first set of clothes you’re able to upgrade to. However, you cannot loot armor off of slain monsters, the way you can weapons. You’ll never find new armor as spoils of war. You won’t get any as a reward for completing a shrine, with very few exceptions. (I found maybe four pieces of armor in shrines, total, and none in the first ~10 hours.) The only place you can get armor is to buy it from an armor shop.

There’s an armor shop in each village, but there are so few villages and they are so far apart that it is possible to play the game for ~10 hours and never stumble upon one. Indeed, this is exactly what I did. Throw the note away, remember? I was purposely avoiding the main quest marker, which was in what I assumed was the main village in the game. I figured striking out in any random direction would eventually bring me to some sort of settlement, but that didn’t happen. All the villages are in the eastern half of the map, and I had struck out to the west.

Eventually I gave up. I decided the “go anywhere, do anything” mantra I had heard repeated time and again wasn’t true, or at least wasn’t working for me. So I admitted defeat and fished the note out of the creek. I turned the quest marker back on, teleported as close to it as I had explored, and followed it exclusively for a couple of hours.

Here’s what I found during that time:

  1. Shops with three full sets of armor, one of which was quadruple the strength of the starting rags.
  2. An entire game system I didn’t know existed which takes your crafting items and makes your armor even stronger. (The first level of these upgrades was super cheap, trivially easy to afford with all the exploration I’d done.)
  3. A special piece of armor that displays enemy HP, helping me to make better decisions about which fights to pick and what weapons to use. (This became a crucial factor in all my combat strategy going forward.)
  4. A new cell phone app that made farming specific materials an option. (I ended up never using this, admittedly.)
  5. Upgrades for my other cell phone apps that made them viable in combat.
  6. An NPC who gave me an arrow that could kill anything (only half true), plus a new quest marker showing where to buy more of these.

I am racking my brain trying to think of another game where my power level increased this much in this short of a time. It didn’t feel like I had overcome a grand adventure that I’d forged for myself, which is the experience Breath fans had been promising. It felt like I had stubbornly ignored half of the game’s tutorial and tried to play an expert-level challenge run as my first playthrough. Like I had somehow played half of Metal Gear Solid with the Soliton radar turned off.

I got really mad at the game around this point. Not only wasn’t the game as open as I’d been led to believe, it wasn’t even as open as the other open world games on my shelf! Horizon‘s world opens up only in stages tied to the main quest, but it also doesn’t let you stumble into hopeless battles with Thunderjaws before you can concievably take them on.

Most of the Thunderjaws are on Death Mountain, anyway.

I realize mine may not be a common experience. It’s entirely possible (and perhaps even likely) that had I picked a different random direction to strike out in, I’d have stumbled into a settlement rather than a canyon filled with one-hit kills. But I can’t judge the game based on an experience I didn’t have. My advice is, if you’re reading this and planning on playing Breath of the Wild, don’t start exploring until the tutorial is over. Listen to Ghost Santa. Go to Kakariko. Get some armor, find the big fairy, get your cell phone in order. There will be plenty of time to go to every nook and cranny of the world once you have all your available resources. Don’t give yourself a reason to hate some of your earliest experiences with this game.

Towers, Seeds, and Purplies

I found the reward structure in Breath of the Wild to be incredibly unfulfilling.

It took quite a long time for me to reach this conclusion. After I’d got my armor situation sorted I spent the next ~30 hours resuming the explorations I’d already started: marking distant towers, forging paths towards them, stopping to take in anything interesting along the way. For much of the early game, as disastrous as I beleive the weapon durability system is, the steady drip-feed of new types of gear did feel pretty rewarding. I developed a respectable playstyle with each of the four weapon types available, and–

Well, let’s stop there a second. Yes, there’s really only four weapon types in Breath. There are one- and two-handed weapons, spears, and bows. There’s a huge variety of make and model within these four types, but the core playstyle stays confined. Everyone’s going to have a preference, and there’s definitely some gameplay to be explored in using the right tool for the right job, and making decisions that assure you have all your tools available at all times. But by the time you leave the Great Plateau you will have seen just about everything Breath‘s weapon system can do.

So finding new weapons just wasn’t that exciting, and this is the most common kind of reward the game gives out. You get new weapons from monsters you kill, and from treasure chests in monster camps after you clear them, and from almost every shrine. These are the rough equivalent of those annoying chests in previous Zelda games, the ones with paltry amounts of rupees, which you can’t open because you already have max rupees and there isn’t anything to spend rupees on anyway. They’re technically rewards, in the sense that your character is better off having them than not, but they aren’t exciting or particularly worth your time.

That leaves towers, Korok seeds, and the purple spirit coins you exchange for health and stamina upgrades. Initially, these are the game. Each tower you climb unlocks an area map, and with it the promise of another enormous region of Hyrule to explore. Each Korok you find brings you a step closer to increasing your weapon carry capacity. Each shrine you complete gives you a purplie that makes your base stats a little better.

Towers are by far the most important of these. The actual act of climbing a tower is pretty dull, but you’ll often have a grand adventure fighting your way towards it and figuring out a way to claim the top with what little stamina you have. There’s a lot of variance in how these towers can be approached, and a lot of gameplay to explore here. Nothing feels better than watching a huge area of the map fill in, stuffed with interesting geographical features to pick apart. It’s the promise of the game given form.

Problem is, there’s only fifteen of these towers. Marking these, and enjoying all the distractions and shiny things along the way, is how much of my initial ~40 hours of the game were spent. The majority of those shiny things, as it turns out, were Korok seeds and shrines. The former are hiding in virtually every interesting place you stumble across as you traverse Hyrule. The latter can be spotted by the handful from the top of each tower, and be picked up by radar as you’re gliding around.

0.111% complete!

My experience was — and again, this may not be typical — by the time I had climbed all fifteen towers, I had found enough Koroks and turned in enough purplies that my inventory, health and stamina were all good enough to finish the game. (This is in part due to the way healing works in Breath. I won’t go into it in this post, but it’s pretty dumb, and it devalues heart containers immensely.) There was nothing else the nooks and crannies of Hyrule could reward me with.

There are 120 shrines in Breath, and every four purplies can be exchanged for a heart or a stamina chunk. By the time you finish 40 of these you’ll have enough of both to comfortably coast through any of the game’s content. There are 900 Koroks (no, that’s not a typo), and by the time you find 50 your weapon inventory will be large enough to carry more swords and bows than you can possibly use. You can keep searching for Koroks and shrines as long as you want, for the pure completionist satisfaction of it, but that’s all you’ll ever find.

Hmm, I’m not being fair. You will also find the beauty of the world of Hyrule, the little hand-crafted places that someone put a lot of love and hard work into. You’ll stumble on a lot of places that make you smile and hide a Korok. But you know, there’s also an awful lot of nothing out there. Lots of bare rock faces, vast empty snowfields, and the same couple trees over and over. Sometimes you find a darling little secret that makes the world come alive, but there are also long stretches of time where you’ll be climbing and gliding over not much in particular.

There’s something to be said for game content being its own reward. You don’t really “get anything” for beating World 6 in Super Mario Bros. except the chance to play World 7, and in that game it’s enough. I’ve never found this argument to be very compelling in regards to open world games, though, because these are games you’re meant to play for 40, 50, 100 hours plus. You just can’t put that much time in a game and still be impressed by each new place you discover, even a place as wonderful and lovely as Hyrule.

It’s not all bad, though. By the time I’d reached this point in the game, I still had most of the main quest ahead of me. The four divine beasts each involved exploring a section of map I hadn’t been to yet, visiting a new village, enjoying a unique action setpiece, and solving what passes in Breath of the Wild for a dungeon. At the completion of each of these you are rewarded with a powerful magic spell which will change the way you approach the remainder of the game. This part of the game was wonderful, and included a ton of content unlike what had come before.

There are other slivers of structured content to enjoy, too. There’s a town you can build. There’s an island that strips away all your equipment and forces you to play naked for a while, living off the land. There’s an accordion-playing birdman who tantalizes you with riddles. But the rewards for these things, in terms of tangible in-game benefits that increase Link’s power level, always come back around to Koroks and purplies. And those just aren’t exciting.

There are treasure chests out there, in the wild. More than you can possibly imagine. You’ll find them buried in sand, submerged in riverbeds, hiding behind ruined brick walls, guarded by wizzrobes. Hundreds and hundreds of them, each with a pointless silver rupee. L-l-lucky!!

The Biggest Disappointment

I didn’t like a lot of things in Breath of the Wild, but you know, I’m a charitable guy. I can file most of them under “no big deal”. Every game has flaws, and most flaws aren’t dealbreakers. It’s stupid that all Link’s weapons are made of styrofoam, but it’s a game system you acclimate to, and eventually you don’t even notice it. (I mean, that didn’t stop me from complaining about it non-stop on stream every day for a week, heh heh.)

There’s one aspect of Breath that made me real buttmad though, and I think it’s the most damning part of the game. It’s something I never got used to while playing, and I doubt will ever get over as long as I continue playing Zelda games. The idea that people at Nintendo did what they did makes me actually sad, because I think it really for-real means the things I loved most about The Legend of Zelda are, at long last, well and truly dead. This sounds overly dramatic but it’s how I honestly feel. I’ll just come right out with it.

I love Zelda dungeons more than anything else the series does. A well-crafted Zelda dungeon is among the top experiences a man can have with a video game. I am, right now, looking at my shelf full of games, NES through Xbone, and I am seeing exactly zero examples of Zelda dungeons outside of Zelda games. Nobody does this specific kind of experience the way Nintendo does, with this specific series. Nobody even comes close; the games that come closest aren’t even in the same ZIP code.

When the first trailers started appearing for Breath of the Wild, I voiced my concern about the suspicious lack of dungeon content. “Don’t worry,” I was told by fans and well-wishers, “they’re just holding it back to build suspense.” But then reports came out that the game, in fact, didn’t have traditional dungeons at all. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “there’ll be plenty in the game that’s dungeon-like.” Then the game came out, and with it descriptions of the bite-size shrine puzzles and the four divine beasts. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “there’s enough great content in those shrines and beasts to fill two Zelda games!”

There are no dungeons in Breath of the Wild. The divine beasts are not dungeons. They are great fun, each one being built around a few minor puzzles wrapped up in the core mechanic of moving and shaping pieces of the structure you’re exploring. But they’re short. I took my time with each of them, and barely scratched an hour in each one. There are only four of these, and aside from a map, none of the traditional Zelda dungeon trappings made it in. You don’t find a new toy, there’s no sense of building on puzzle concepts, there are barely any enemies to fight. Ocarina of Time‘s Ice Cavern, a six-room area of the world that is generally not even counted among the game’s dungeons, is far more dungeon-like than these divine beasts.

I say all that, and the divine beasts were still my favorite part of Breath by far. I am not against change; I realize that games need to grow and evolve over time. If this is the future of Zelda dungeons, so be it; but four tiny bites just isn’t enough. An open world of this scope, with the wonderful tower-based exploration, and maybe ten divine beasts would leave me with absolutely nothing to complain about.

But the shrines. Good lord the shrines.

The shrines are warts. They suck, plain and simple, and they are in a very real sense the “goal” of Breath of the Wild. Yeah, it’s an open world, explore on your own terms, yadda yadda, but it’s really hard to make the case that these shrines are optional, except in the sense that no particular shrine (outside of the first four) are required. The reward for completing shrines is more health and stamina, and you need health and stamina to explore the world. I said earlier that after fewer than half of the shrines you’ll have more than enough of both, but that’s still a large number of shrines you will need to complete on a typical run.

Every single second of development resources spent on building shrines for Breath of the Wild was a profound waste of time.

There are 120 shrines in the game. I completed 81 of these, and seven of them were good. I do not mean that most of the shrines were okay and there were seven I really liked. I am saying there were 74 shrines that were boring, pointless, or worse. The seven I liked were structured very much like mini-dungeons in previous Zelda games. Not quite as substantial as something like the Ice Cavern, but decent enough that if there all 120 were like this, or even only half of them, I’d have nothing to be disappointed about.

“Franklin did what to a kite? Hold my beer.”

The first four good shrines are the ones on the Great Plateau, in the tutorial area. These are the only shrines that give out what might be called a traditional dungeon item; you get bombs, a magnet, a stopwatch, and a block of ice. In each of these shrines you receive your gift, are taught how to use it, and then are tasked with a few simple interactions using your new power to reach the end. If you’re familiar with Link to the Past, think of the Swamp Palace. You find the hookshot in a room with lots of hookshot targets. You learn what it will connect with and what it won’t. You fight a few monsters with it, and before long, the hookshot is required to advance. When you make it to the end, you use the hookshot to help kill the boss. You get a satisfying toy, are taught a few things to do with it, then the game doesn’t let you win until you demonstrate you’ve learned your lessons. The four tutorial shrines are a lot like that.

The fifth good shrine involved babysitting a blue flame from beginning to end. Link has a few ways to transfer fire; he can light a torch and throw it a fair distance. He can nock an arrow and hold it to a flame, then fire it across the room. You have to do both of these things and more to complete this shrine. You have to figure out how to maneuver your precious fire through a gauntlet of running faucets. Careful aim and careful timing are required, and failures can have hilarious consequences (at least, mine did). At the end you need to perform a cool move that lights six torches at once, a great end-cap that fits the theme of the place. With a little filler and a few monsters, this would make a great early dungeon based on the idea of using fire.

The sixth good shrine involves bombs. Link gets round bombs and square bombs in this game, and 99% of the time they are interchangeable. In this shrine (and, aside from I think one other interaction in the game, only this shrine) the differences between the two types of bombs matter quite a lot, and the shrine doesn’t let you win unless you know them for sure. I was stuck on the final puzzle of this shrine longer than any other puzzle in the game. It took a bit of trial-and-error to figure out the sequence of events the shrine wanted, and then a few tries on top of that to get the sequence right. It was satisfying to solve, and the puzzle is designed in such a way that the solution is satisfying to watch, as well.

The seventh (and, as far as I know, last) good shrine involves electricity. Link finds an electrified block that he needs to manipulate in order to get platforms to move and doors to open. There’s a section where he can throw this block on a metal floor, frying a bunch of bad guys. There are lots of opportunities to accidentally bump into the block, resulting in electrocution and a potential tumble into a bottomless pit. The puzzle value of keeping electric circuits lit is slightly devalued since one of the divine beast dungeons is entirely designed around the idea, but it’s a cool idea and this shrine does stuff with it that the divine beast doesn’t. If this shrine had been rolled into the divine beast and presented as part of that whole, it would feel right at home.

The rest of the shrines were not worth the time it took to load them in. A large portion of them were “Tests of Strength”, where you fight the robot spider. The robot spider is the worst enemy in the game. It might be a worthy mid-dungeon boss, if you only fought it once, but you will fight it over and over again, until you can remember nothing but the robot spider. I mentioned earlier that you can buy arrows that can insta-kill monsters. I bought lots of these and used almost all of them on the robot spider, not because it was a difficult fight, but because it was a long fight and I was so sick of it.

Combat challenges are great, as long as they’re challenges. Most Zelda games play around with this idea; many of the recent ones have dedicated challenge towers where you fight gauntlets of foes, one after the other, in large groups or in novel combinations. You fight a darknut, then two darknuts, then a darknut flanked by moblins, then a wizzrobe flanked by darknuts, and on like that, yeah? That’s not what this is. This is one monster, individually, repeated again and again. There are twenty of these shrines, out of 120 in the game.

It gets worse. Many of the shrines are empty. No puzzle, no interaction, no nothing. Loading screen, treasure box (which is probably garbage you don’t want), and a purplie. Nothing to think about, nothing to do, nothing at all. Some of these empty shrines can be forgiven, because they’re tied to interactions out in the world. Accordion-playing birdman gives you riddles, and interpreting these riddles leads you to shrines, for example. Or you play a little minigame, or put a block on a pedistal at a particular time of day, and — poof! — shrine. These aren’t my favorite kinds of Zelda puzzles, but I see the merit in them. They’re similar to the little tasks you accomplish on the tiny islands strewn across Wind Waker.

But sometimes there is no quest, no riddle, and no world interaction. You stumble on a shrine, go inside, and nothing. Dead air. I don’t know how many of these there are in the game; it’s hard to judge because I can’t know how many are just “naturally empty” and how many are tied to NPC quests I didn’t initiate. But that doesn’t matter, these empty shrines always felt like a gut-punch, no matter how I found them or what I did to open them. I think the only way I could have hated these more is if I went inside one and an old man demanded I pay him for door repair charge.

It gets worse. The majority of the shrines I found weren’t empty, and weren’t the robot spider… they were just flat out insulting. The very lowest of the low in video game puzzle design. Think of any classic or modern Zelda dungeon where you find an important item in the big chest. Usually, you need to use that item to get to the next room, and usually, that interaction is the most basic form of the item’s use. You grapple across a gap, or dominate a statue and bounce it out of the way, or fire an arrow into an eyeball switch. Then the door opens, and you do the rest of the dungeon.

Most of the shrines in Breath of the Wild fall into that category, except replace “do the rest of the dungeon” with “finish the shrine.”

You step into a shrine, there are leaves everywhere. You use one of your many firestarters to burn the leaves. They were blocking a door; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are wind gusts blowing across a gap. You glide across; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are two metal blocks with ladders on them. You stack them and climb up; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there’s a raft floating on the water. You jump across effortlessly, and now there’s another raft, except this time there’s an obvious cracked wall. You blow it up; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are balls arranged in a pattern and a sign saying “put this pattern in the other shrine.” You leave, and across the gorge is another shrine, with a second pattern and the same sign. You swap the ball patterns; that’s it, two shrines over.

You step into a shrine, there are balls rolling down a ramp. You use your stopwatch to freeze the ball and now it’s safe to run up the ramp; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a ball dangling from a rope. You shoot the rope with an arrow and it falls on a switch. The next room has two balls dangling from two ropes, so you do the same thing again; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a ball bouncing back and forth in the air. You use your magnet to grab it; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a thing. You do the immediate obvious thing without thinking about it, because why think about it, who cares, it was the right thing; that’s it, shrine over.

Folks who say Link “only” has four toys in this game (magnet, stopwatch, bombs, ice) are selling him short. He has a bow with lots of arrows, a torch, a boomerang, a wind-generating korok leaf, a glider, a camera, a fifty-foot vertical jump, a massive electricity-generating swirl attack, various passive equipment, bananas, the list goes on. More than enough to fill an entire inventory screen, and even more than that when you take into account his basic movement is vastly expanded over previous games. There are countless great gameplay concepts that could be explored with these items, or combinations of them, and with 120 shrines you would think these would get explored. But they never do. Not even close. There are “bomb shrines” and “glider shrines” and “ice shrines” but they simply don’t achieve a level of complexity beyond “do the immediate, obvious thing”.

I had been told by so many people who had played Breath of the Wild that these shrines were awesome, that they could stand in the place of traditional Zelda dungeons and maybe even surpass them. I was so excited at the prospect of 120 of these things, even forewarned with the knowledge that some number of them would be combat challenges or NPC interactions. To say I was disappointed is a massive understatement. Virtually the entire game I was looking forward to, that I was expecting, simply wasn’t there.

Oh yeah, and you know how Link can climb anything? One of the game’s major selling points, leading to the sense of freedom and exploration that is Breath‘s core experience? You’re not allowed to climb inside of shrines. For some reason. A major key feature of the game, easily the most iconic new thing Link can do, and there are zero puzzle shrines designed around the idea. But don’t worry, there are four (that I know of) designed around motion control gimmicks! Have fun!

I admit, I am overstating this point for dramatic effect, but only slightly. I can recall a handful of shrines I didn’t like, but also recognize weren’t absolutely pointless. There was an observation puzzle, which I cracked after three minutes of mulling it over, that didn’t amount to more than simple counting. I didn’t like it, but I can see how someone might find the process enjoyable. There were a few shrines I simply bypassed by using some piece of equipment. Some designer cooked up lots of interesting ways to move fire around, but these “puzzles” were always thwarted by fire arrows, of which I had a functionally limitless supply. Maybe if I went back to those and solved them “fairly” I’d find something to like, but I doubt it.

Some shrines had hidden treasure boxes to find. (Well, all shrines have treasure boxes to find, but only some have boxes hidden with more thought than “look up” or “pick up the metal treasure box with your magic magnet”.) These boxes were, on average, more cleverly secured than the shrine exit. Some required grasping a genuinely clever twist on the shrine’s main idea to reach. Outside of the seven good ones, this was the most fun I was able to eke out of the shrines, but of course the boxes only ever contained weapons or rupees that I didn’t need.

Pictured: a shot from the upcoming Zelda/Final Fantasy XIII crossover.

I liked Breath of the Wild a lot. I also didn’t like it a lot. And I’m worried. This is the most popular Zelda game to come out in a very long time, maybe since Ocarina of Time. If this is what Zelda is changing into, the future looks like a Zelda without dungeons, or at least, with only the most trivial of dungeon content. This isn’t like losing Mega Man or Castlevania, where passionate indie developers are ready to pick up the slack with spiritual successors. Only Nintendo does Zelda dungeons, and it looks like the overwhelming majority of Zelda fans are happy to see them go away.

I’m glad people love this game, I’m happy so many people have exactly the game they want. I’m not a monster (usually), I don’t want a world with less joy in it. But it’s still a bummer for me, because nobody’s got my back with Zelda dungeon content.
I play a lot of adventure-ish games that almost get it, you know, your Tomb Raider and your Ittle Dew and maybe even Beyond Good & Evil if that sequel ever comes out. But these games don’t have Water Temples. I can’t eat a picture of a sandwich.

Thank you for reading many thousands of words about Zelda!

13 Weeks of Final Fantasy: FFXV Catch-Up

Week One: Personal Experiences
Week Two: Our Heroes
Week Three: Best Song Ever
Week Four: Gameplay Wallbangers
Week Five: The Big Bad
Week Six: Ridiculously Broken Attacks
Week Seven: Title Logos
Week Eight: Chocobos!
Week Nine: Battle Music
Week Ten: Eye-rollingest Plot Elements
Week Eleven: Craziest Fashion Sense
Week Twelve: Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes and Ports
Week Thirteen: That Airship Guy, What’s His Name, You Know Who I’m Talking About

Final Fantasy XV Catch-Up

SPOILER ALERT!! This feature by its very nature contains spoilers for every Final Fantasy game. If you don’t want your cherry popped, make sure to skip the bits about games you haven’t played yet.

337 weeks after the final entry in my 13 Weeks of Final Fantasy series, Square Enix went and released Final Fantasy XV. After spending nearly 70 hours with the game I feel there is no better way to welcome it to the family than by adding two more weeks, tying it all up at a nice classy 15. Before we can do that, though, we need to get FFXV caught up with its older siblings. In this post I’ll run the game through the gauntlet of the original 13 Weeks articles and see how it stacks up. At the top of each entry I’ll show where FFXV would stand in that week’s ranking.

XVWeek One: Personal Experience
“You guys… are the best.”

The first week was my chance to summarize my experience with every game in the series, and rank them in order of how well I knew them. At the time FFXIII was brand new, and I said something like “It’s all clear in my head right now, but I’m sure that will fade with time.” That’s precisely what happened, but it’s not where I’m at with FFXV. The difference is FFXIII was a fairly shallow game that made itself out to be complicated, whereas FFXV is a very dense game that presents itself simply.

I purposely try to avoid hype about games I’m anticipating. Going into FFXV all I knew for sure was that it was about some kind of open world road trip, that the main hero was a prince and the other PCs were his bros, and that the macro-focused combat of FFXII and FFXIII had been jettisoned for some kind of hybrid action/command-based strangeness. My brain kept orbiting back around to “FFX-2 with boys and worse combat”, which is not remotely what I got.

I was surprised at how easily I slid into the game’s systems and how much the open world engaged me. In a typical open world game I start experiencing sidequest fatigue somewhere around the 20 hour mark — a little more for Grand Theft Auto 5, a little less for Just Cause 3. But in FFXV 40 hours went by in a blink, and I was bummed to see the sidequests were starting to wind down.

There’s a lot left to do and a lot left to learn. The strategy guide (which I didn’t crack open until rolling the end credits) is a monstrous hard-bound 350 pages. I have no idea how I’m meant to begin earning the thousands and thoudands of AP required to complete the Ascension Grid. I can only land the Regalia Type-F successfully about one in five tries. There are two entire types of sidequests I missed my first time through. Despite all that I don’t feel like I played the game wrong, or badly, which is a sensation modern FF titles often leave me with. Mastery over FFXV’s game systems is not a requirement for feeling comfortable with the game — and that’s high praise. I want to replay the game immediately, which is something I haven’t done with an FF title since high school.

XVWeek Two: Our Heroes
Prince Noctis

In the same way my Commander Shepard will always be a woman, my Prince Noctis will never not be wearing his baseball cap.

It was hard to get a read on Noct early in FFXV, armed only with my preconceptions of how teenaged royalty typically acts in these games. Was Noctis going to be an entitled brat, tended to by long-suffering retainers? Or would he be regal and stuffy, unable to properly connect with the people as he journeyed across his kingdom? Or would he suffer his crown begrudgingly, in an “I never asked for this” sort of way? There’s a grain of all these things in Noct, but he’s a lot more than that. I don’t think I’ve seen another video game protagonist quite like him.

Most of the time, Noctis is just one of the guys. So much of his personality comes to us filtered through his companions it can be difficult to separate them all out. It can be quite jarring when, after several in-game days of inconsequential adventures and casual, friendly banter, one of Noct’s dudes will suddenly remind him of the destiny he bears. Noctis, the scrawny millenial who doesn’t even look old enough to shave, is expected to unearth ghostly artifacts and consort with gods. The unthinkable power Noctis weilds as a fraction of what is afforded to him as the last king of Lucis would give Princess Ashe a lady boner the size of the Pharos.

Whether Noct is ready for the planet-eradicating power that falls to him by blood is one of the main themes of the game. At times he struggles with it, and he needs his friends to prop him up. At others he crumbles beneath its weight, as any of us would have at 20 years old. But the failures are meaningful, and his friends are steadfast. At the end of Noct’s journey, when he defiently insists the usurping jester vacate his throne, the transition from listliss youth to badass king feels earned. That makes the journey feel all the more impactful to the player.

XVWeek Three: Best Song Ever
Stand By Me (listen)

When Stand By Me started playing during the intro, accompanying a group of knuckleheads pushing their broken-down car down the road, I chuckled with glee. It was a weird moment, my new Final Fantasy game crashing so violently against such an irreducible pillar of pop culture. I enjoyed the song, but I couldn’t help feel like the game developers were using it as a sort of bludgeon. “FEEL WAYS ABOUT THINGS,” thundered the game as it faded into its opening logo… and I wasn’t sure if I was willing to oblige it. Indeed, the game quickly transitions into its comfortable loop of hunting and camping and running down quest markers, leaving the hamfistedly emotional intro far behind. I was ready to settle into yet another FF game where I didn’t have to think much about the story or characters.

When the song plays again during the end credits, though, accompanied by photographs of the adventure you and the boys shared together, it becomes clear no other song could carry the weight. Looking back over the game, at what the boys endured, their bond is very worthy of the familiar ballad of youth and friendship. The inclusion of a classic off our own Top 40 doesn’t feel so out of place in a setting filled with miles of what could pass as contemporary rural America. And those lyrics, so ingrained into all of us, are an almost literal description of what happens during the game. “When the night has come” indeed.

The haunting touch of the traditional FF Prelude just ties the package together. (Or maybe I’m just hearing things.)

Picking this song for the list almost feels like cheating, since it’s so dissimilar to the rest of the game’s soundtrack. But it’s such a good distillation of what the game is that I had to at least consider it. Upon re-reading the old 13 Weeks entries I reminded myself that I wasn’t just trying to pick my favorite song from each game’s soundtrack, but the best one, and that meant giving a great deal of weight to each song’s connection to the game which featured it. In that vein, Stand By Me is similar to FFVI’s Searching for Friends and FFIX’s Something to Protect. It connects so closely to what’s meaningful about FFXV that I can’t imagine another song in its place.

XVWeek Four: Gameplay Wallbangers
The Not-So-Open-Anymore World

FFXII had a massive open world that seemed to sprawl endlessly in all directions, and feeling lost and overwhelemed was a frequent occurence. So many possibilities dangled over the player’s head at all times, in the form of hunts and sidequests and rumors of Espers and tantalizingly unguarded map exits, that it was a bit like bottling an ocean. Lots of lessons have been learned since 2006 about how to wrestle an open world game down to size, which FFXV takes closely to heart. Using the now-familiar system of quest lines and map markers, it’s possible to attack FFXV as a checklist rather than an atlas.

What FFXII was very good at, though, was opening its arms and welcoming you back to the critical path when you were done a-sidequestin’. There were two tracks in that game, and you were always on one of them. You were either engaging in optional hunts, or you were pursuing the main storyline. The tracks were far apart, but changing between them was easy, and that remained the status quo all the way until the “maybe you should use a new save slot” warning before the final battle.

FFXV has two tracks too, but they aren’t parallel, and changing them relies on a bizarre plot contrivance. The first half of the game — eight of the games fifteen chapters — are the open world, with all that entails. Then, abruptly, in a main story mission called “A Brave New World”, that part of the game ends and the main story track begins. From then until the endgame, you are whisked from location to location at a breakneck pace, with all the open areas closed off to you. Bing! Now you’re in a swamp. Bing! Now there’s a snow goddess. Bing! Now you’re hopping between flying platforms. It feels like Disc Two of Xenogears.

Yes, you can call your magic ghost dog anytime you want to warp back to “past Lucis”, and pick up the open world stuff where you left off. But it’s not satisfying to do so; the game couldn’t be more clear that it’s no longer an open world the player inhabits with any kind of agency. And that “Brave New World” we were promised? It is cruelly snatched away from us not once, but twice, as the player is introduced to new gigantic world maps they are never able to explore more than a tiny fraction of.

The open world part feels fine, just like FFXII. And the super linear part feels fine, just like FFXIII. But those were very different games, almost polar opposites of what can be done while still staying inside the JRPG genre, and smashing the two styles together so inexpertly was a huge mistake.

XVWeek Five: The Big Bad
Ardyn

Ardyn may well be Final Fantasy’s most justified villain since FFIII’s Xande, which is kind of funny considering their grievances couldn’t be more different. Xande’s immortality had been stripped away from him; Ardyn had immortality shunted upon him and cannot be rid of it.

Throughout much of the early game Ardyn acts as a lukewarm ally of the player, helping the boys get into places they shouldn’t be and supplying them with information they shouldn’t have. There’s something off-putting about his arrogant swagger, though, and even in-game the characters are never fooled. It’s clear Ardyn wants something, but it’s not clear as to what, and by the time that clarity arrives Ardyn has already taken everything from them and destroyed the world for good measure.

What Ardyn wants is Noctis, specifically. Ardyn is, himself, a king of Lucis from time immemorial, who was granted indescribable power by the gods to combat the evil that had engulfed the world of a thousand years ago. To spare his dying kingdom Ardyn took the darkness of legions of daemons into himself, saving countless lives. However, the process left his soul tainted, and the gods proclaimed him to be Accursed, barring him forever from their halls.

In order to slake his thirst for revenge, Ardyn had to wait until the crystal chose another. This eventually turned out to be Noctis, which means FFXV has perhaps the strongest personal link between hero and villain in the series, even considering the likes of Cloud/Sephiroth and Zidane/Kuja. Sephiroth and Kuja both have lofty goals, but for Ardyn, Noctis is the goal. First Ardyn creates a necessity for Noctis to power up in a way no Lucian king has for centuries, by manipulating the Niflheim Empire into obliterating Noctis’s hometown and murdering those closest to him. Now Noctis has incentive to forge pacts with gods and former kings, absorbing the crystal’s light into the Ring of the Lucii. Only then can Ardyn finally enact his revenge by killing Noctis and destroying the ring.

This is a horrific position for Noctis to be in. He needs to consolodate all this fantastic power to have a shot at standing against Ardyn and his army of daemons and darkness, but doing so enables Ardyn to get his wish in the end. Dawn breaks at last, but Noctis and the line of kings — including Ardyn — is dead. This is a level of “I manipulated you into doing what I wanted all along!” that Barthandelus would cream himself over.

XVWeek Six: Ridiculously Broken Attacks
Armiger Chains, Probably?

Man, I don’t even know anymore. Used to be you picked “FIGHT” off the combat menu and your little dude would swing his whatever around and you’d get bouncing numbers. I could make sense of that.

Quantifying big damage numbers gets harder and harder as the series wears on. In the earliest games it was “hit for as much as you can on your turn”. Then FFV comes around and now it’s “hit for as much as you can, as many times as you can, on your turn”. Then FFXI was an MMO and kind of didn’t count. Then FFXII and FFXIII had their macro-level combat systems which kind of didn’t(?) have turns(??), so battles were more about sustained damage-per-second than actual barrels full of numbers. Even so, in the original 13 Weeks series I was able to squint and get something like “hit for as much as you can, as many times as you can, and take your turns as close together as possible”.

But FFXV has a real-time action combat system and the numbers are mostly vestigial. I think the closest I could get to even start quantifying what the single biggest attack might be is “hit for as much as you can, as many times as you can, on as many enemies as you can, and take your turns as close together as possible, and do that as often as you can”. And this is even before factoring in the half-scripted boss battles which blur the line between command entry and blatant QTE, where Noctis is dealing effectively infinite damage to a locked-on target.

So who knows what the biggest damage output is, if you group up lots of enemies and hit all their weakest body parts with a weapon type and element they’re susceptible to, while everyone’s attack power is maxed out, and their Limit Breaks are unlocked, after a good strength-boosting meal. My best guess is it beats similar strategies in FFXII in terms of sustained damage, but doesn’t quite match the 9999×8 that is possible with a single command selection in FFV.

XVWeek Seven: Title Logos
Lunafreya Sleeping

Knowing so little about FFXV in the run-up to its release, I half expected the sleeping magical angel lady in the logo to be Cosmos, imported freshly from Dissidia. It would certainly have to be some sort of savior/mother/goddess figure, since the game itself was going to be all about a bunch of dudebros on a road trip. As it turns out, FFXV continues FFXIII’s tradition of giving away the ending right there in the title logo. FFXV is far more blatant about it, though. The last shot in the game is Lunafreya and Noctis falling asleep on the throne of Lucis, with Luna laying her head on Noct’s arm, and as the camera pulls back from her contented smile the logo is literally sketched overtop of her. Then, the empty space to her left is dramatically filled in with a reclining Noct, taking his rightful place in the logo just as he did the throne.

It’s a powerful endcap to an already powerful ending. It’s just a shame the logo is, uh… kinda ugly? The dark bluish-grey hues work wonderfully in the redone FFIV logo, but that’s because it’s Golbez, Clad in Darkness. Why is Luna clad in darkness? Why is so much of it dominated by flowing cloth and spiky bits? Gabranth’s armor dominates the FFXII logo because the Judges of Ivalice are larger than life. The swirling colors of the FFX logo represent the water that is Spira’s life, and the pyreflies Yuna is sending to the farplane. By contrast, Luna going to sleep is a singular point in time. A small measure of serenity after storms of chaos and darkness. A more reserved image, a little less flamboyant, with brighter colors would have done the game more service.

Who am I kidding, I’m just sore the logo isn’t one of Gladio’s sick tats.

XVWeek Eight: Chocobos!
Con-KWEH-tulations!
(♪♪ Chocobo Theme)

As your party nears the chocobo ranch towards the center of FFXV’s world map, the always-excitible Prompto can scarcely contain his excitement at meeting the adorably fluffy birds in person. And that’s the first thing the FFXV of the noble chocobo has going for it: these birds have never been fluffier. But that’s just one in a long line of reasons FFXV’s chocobos top my list.

Pretty much every nice thing I said about every game’s chocobo in the original 13 Weeks series holds true for FFXV’s chocobos. You get the sense of it being your buddy, as you name and color your chocobo early on and then stick with him for the whole game. You can call your chocobo absolutely anywhere and ride for as long as you like; none of this “limited to a few maps” nonsense that has sullied the series since FFX. There’s a fun racing minigame with prizes to be had, including secret treasures that spawn in on the racetrack itself. Your chocobo levels up as you ride it, giving a steady progression to the bond between bird and rider. Plus, he’ll help you out in combat, both by providing a quick egress if things are going south, or just gods-honest jumping in and pecking monsters to death if need be.

Every night, when the boys make camp, Ignis fixes the birds a meal of greens. Because the chocobos are a part of the gang.

And my goodness, has the chocobo-ridin’ music ever been better? Hurry up and click that music link, before YouTube nukes that guy’s channel. (If that’s already happened, search for the song manually and thank me later.)

The real reason FFXV’s chocobos are the best in the series, though, is just how 100% necessary they are to gameplay. They’re not an afterthought and they haven’t been thrown in for the sake of tradition. In this game chocobos aren’t a thing you use once in a while, or maybe only exactly once as dictated by the plot. You will reach for your chocobo whistle on practically every single overland quest as you crisscross Lucis, and the boys will always be happy to see the big ol’ birds trotting up.

XVWeek Nine: Battle Music
Stand Your Ground (listen)
Day Exploration Battle (listen)
Cleigne Battle Theme (listen)

FFXV has a lot of individual battle themes. In addition to a unique theme for each of the three overworld provinces of Lucis (linked above), there’s a theme for fighting Imperial forces, one for hunts and dangerous game, one for the daemons that climb up out of the earth at night, and several more for plot-relevant battles (and battle-like cutscenes) throughout the course of the game. Most of these are okay. Some lean a bit too hard on those overly-epic choruses that are so popular nowadays.

Personally, I feel like FFXV missed the boat on battle music. In the original 13 Weeks I awarded FFXII top billing because, by and large, its area music was it’s battle music; the world transitioned seamlessly from exploration to battle and back, and so didn’t need to interrupt the flow with new music every few moments. FFXV has seamless transitions into and out of battle, but the game still recognizes two distinct game modes, sometimes with humorous results. Twice while playing I got myself into a situation where a monster’s attack pushed me out of the designated “battle zone”, ending the epic music and calling up a results screen, even though the monster was still two feet away from me. Strange.

As for the individual tracks, some are better than others. Of the “main” three I feel like Stand Your Ground is too frantic for what will be your first combat encounters in the game, that Day Exploration Battle is too passive. Cleigne Battle Theme strikes a decent middle ground, and is probably the best example of “normal battle music” FFXV has. The problem then is, every FF battle theme since 2010 has to be stacked up against Blinded By Light. Does Cleigne Battle Theme stack up thusly? Why no, I see that it does not. That’s about it, then.

I didn’t bother measuring the loop in any of these tracks, since the dozen or so battle songs switch back and forth so often that none have a chance to really hook into your brain. Besides, much of the time the music is drowned out by sound effects, monster roars, and witty party banter. While the individual tracks are decent there is too much in the way of really letting me identify one particular melody with the core of the combat system. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something the game could have done better.

XVWeek Ten: Eye-rollingest Plot Elements
Can Ignis see or not?

FFXV’s storyline is shockingly straightforward for a modern FF game. The events of the adventure can be summed up in two paragraphs, which is something the series hasn’t been able to do since the SNES era. The mid-game does try to manufacture some character drama for each of Noctis’s companions, though, and it comes off as more than a little forced. Prompto falls off a train and the other heroes lose track of him. Gladio gets moody and yells at everyone a lot. And Ignis sustains an off-screen injury that results in his lack of eyesight.

This is ground the series has covered before. In FFIX, Princess Garnet becomes so overcome with despair that she loses her voice. This has immediate gameplay reprecussions since Silence as a status ailment is particularly nasty for spellcasters like Garnet; losing her voice means losing her magic. The other members of the party have to pick up her slack until she can get it together.

FFXV almost pulls it off, except it doesn’t have a Blindness status ailment to permanently apply to Ignis, so he’s just hard-coded to stumble around for the one dungeon immediately following the injury, tripping over things and swinging his cane at empty space. It’s fun for a while, but it does strain credibility. This guy is so blind he needs a cane to walk, but he can hike over muddy monster-filled terrain? There’s a short discussion later about whether or not he’s a burden to the group and then… that’s it. Ignis is perfectly on form forever after, no worse for wear, eyes or no.

The lore of FFXV precludes magical eyesight or miraculous medical recoveries short of receiving an Oracle’s blessing, which Ignis doesn’t. He is clearly portrayed as being blind for the entire rest of the game. He doesn’t act that way, though, and his behaviour is indistinguishable from before the accident. So either blindness doesn’t matter in this world (in which case the guys really shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it), or Ignis is Daredevil (in which case Square Enix owes Marvel some royalties). Either explanation is stupid.

XVWeek Eleven: Craziest Fashion Sense
Aranea’s Dragoon Armor

In the original 13 Weeks, on the subject of fashion, I said that there was a fine line between “crazy-awesome” and “crazy-ridiculous”, and that Lulu’s belt skirt from FFX was straddling right on that line. At the time I figured Lulu’s visual design was a kind of benchmark: silly and impractical, but also kind of rad, and quintessentially Final Fantasy. (Of course, had action-fantasy dress-up RPG Lightning Returns been out at the time, I would have put that on the awesome/ridiculous line instead, pretty much by definition.)

Now I have a new pick for straddling that line: Aranea Highwind’s armor. Her ensemble of tight-fitting black leather bodice, high-heeled boots, flowing double cape and full-visor knight helmet would be right at home in pretty much any other game in the series. It looks like she found the Dragoon dressphere before the Gullwings did. One of my secret hopes is FFXV gets a spin-off game starring Aranea and an Assassin’s Creed-style combat system. Or at least for her to be playable in the next Dissidia.

She just looks so alien alongside everyone else in FFXV, who look like they shop at Old Navy and haven’t done laundry in a minute. Maybe she’s a holdover from when the game was still in development, and closely related to FFXIII. During the one adventure Aranea accompanies the boys into a dungeon I kept expecting Noctis or Prompto to ask her, point blank, “Hey, what’s with the armor?” It is ceremonial Niflheim dragoon gear? Are the Highwinds medieval war re-enactors? Is it sexy King’s Knight cosplay? Aranea’s not saying, and maybe that’s for the best.

XVWeek Twelve: Sequels, Spin-Offs, Remakes and Ports
Platinum Demo / Kingsglaive / Brotherhood

It was very difficult to resist the urge to re-order any of the original 13 lists, and the Sequels/Spin-Off list was more difficult than most. So many new FF spin-offs have come out since I wrote the original piece that I could stand to re-write the entire post. In particular, FFXIII would move way up in the rankings on the strength of its eventual sequels. FFV and FFVI would have to move down, just out of principle, thanks to the reprehensible iOS ports with their smudgy and mismatched visuals. FFX had already placed pretty well, but I’ve since played and fallen in love with the Mystery Dungeon-inspired Last Mission. And, uh, I still haven’t played Crisis Core.

Despite being brand new, FFXV already has an expanded universe. Your digital streaming service of choice serves up Kingsglaive, a feature film set in the game’s universe which details the invasion of Prince Noctis’s home city and the fate of his father, King Regis. I found the movie to be largely disposable, personally. Not as fun or fanservice-y as Advent Children, not a product of its time like The Spirits Within. It’s pretty blatantly marketing material. The movie doesn’t fill in any gaps left by the game’s story, except in a pedantic corners-and-cruft sort of way. It tells the story of how, exactly, the Ring of the Lucii found its way out of the Crown City, but that’s not something I was burning with curiosity about. Rotten Tomatoes has been unkind to the feature, and I think that’s fitting.

Then you have Brotherhood, a six-episode anime about Noctis and his pals doing whatever. I don’t watch anime, as a rule, and I just finished playing a 40+ hour game about Noctis and his pals doing whatever, so I’m going to give this a miss.

Something you’ll want to check out, though, is the Platinum Demo available for free on your Xbone and/or PS4. This is a short combat tutorial for the main game, introducing you to features like auto-attacking, spellcasting and warp-striking. What’s cool is it’s not just a scene from the game transplanted into a smaller package, the way FFVIII’s demo had you running around Dollet with Rinoa and too many summons. Instead, it’s a little stand-alone story that takes place in Noctis’s childhood dreamworld while he lay wounded in a coma. He fights with a cartoon hammer and can transform into monsters and dump trucks. In one of the levels, he is shrunk down to the size of a mouse and forced to navigate a playland filled with toy blocks, stacked books, and platforms made of silverware. The whole time he is accompanied by cuddly FF mainstay Carbuncle. If you’re on the fence about FFXV, it’ll help you decide whether the combat and general tone of the game are in your wheelhouse. If you’ve already played FFXV, it’s a charming little experience that adds something to the game world and fleshes out the hero a bit. Either way, it’s free, so go nuts!

XVWeek Thirteen: That Airship Guy Girl, What’s His Her Name, You Know Who I’m Talking About
Cindy Aurum

FFXV has a Cid, but he’s a boring old man who spends the whole game sitting in a lawn chair and taking too long to upgrade equipment you aren’t going to use anyway. The real spark of the series’s most enduring character is in his granddaughter, Cindy. This may well have been the original intent of the designers; the game’s credits give her an alternate name of “Cidney”, as though she were meant to be the main Cid all along, but someone lost their nerve at the last moment. I’d call it a missed opportunity, but we still got Cindy in the end, and she is delightful.

Unlike her grandfather, Cindy spends the game tinkering with and upgrading the Regalia, the party’s primary vehicle. She pimps out the prince’s ride in opulent colors and catchy decals, installs new fuel tanks and high-intensity headlights, and does it all amidst cheesecake cutscenes worthy of the pin-up calendar hanging in your uncle’s garage. Eventually she lives up to the legacy of her forebears, gracing the Regalia with wings and giving the player the first hands-on flight experience in this series since FFIX. And whenever you’re in the area, Prompto gushes adorably about his puppy love for the garage goddess who is, sadly, forever out of his league.

It’s not because you’re not good enough, Prompto. It’s just that you don’t have spark plugs and mud flaps.

Cindy is the most endearingly campy character in FFXV, with her daisy dukes and over-the-top country accent. She’s the only character who really pulls off the questionable “I don’t own a hairbrush” look that is so pervasive throughout Lucis. She always made me feel guilty for rolling up to the garage in a car covered in dings and dirt, but she’d get me fixed up with a cheery smile in no time flat.

And so, from wallbangers to Cids to chocobos, FFXV now has a place in the 13 Weeks feature. We can just pretend I made all these observations back in 2010, right? The next step is to expand the feature to a full 15 Weeks, taking an in-depth look at all of the series installments on two new topics. This will give me the opportunity to fix what I consider one of the original feature’s most glaring flaws: I didn’t get to talk at all about Balthier.

Next week, Mr. Leading Man. Next week.

Thanks for reading!