In Between

For the last two months or so, I’ve been in the enviable position of not having to think about games. I’ve had a “one game” that I can just leave in the machine and fire up every time the urge hits. I hear that this is one of the reasons people are so happy about World of Warcraft.

Sadly, all good things must reach the final Boss. And thus my run through Final Fantasy XII finally came to an end. This leaves me in the difficult situation of being in between games.

But first, a couple of thoughts about Final Fantasy. This was the first game of the series that I managed to play to the end. I’ve messed with some of the older ones for “historical research” purposes, but found them too stilted to actually play. I tried to play Final Fantasy X during my post Shadow Hearts JRPG binge. The water polo mini-game and the voice work both sucked the life out of that game for me.

XII is different. As I said before, the one thing you can’t complain about is the production values. The art direction, level design, character design, sound design, voice work, writing and cut scene production are all top notch. Even the rendering engine almost manages to make you forget about the PS2 looks-like-ass filter. While there is no progressive scan, playing the game in widescreen is a pleasing audio and video experience. I found the game compelling and easy to play for a long time. Which is good, because it’s a damn long game.

A lot of people have complained about the robot combat system. I like it. It is easy to get yourself killed with buggy scripts. But the scripting and auto- combat are not that different from what Bioware has done its KOTOR games, except that you can actually make the characters smart enough to take care of most fights on their own. It’s especially convenient that you can set up scripts to auto-buff your party so you don’t have to cast the same tedious series of buffing spells for every damn fight. This makes grinding for levels almost fun. Which is good because if you play this game to just do the main story, you’ll find yourself feeling chronically weak until near the end of the game. I think the game is designed with the idea that you will actually do the boring hunt side-quests and therefore level your characters and collect cash fairly quickly. Sadly, the hunt quests are boring and frustrating. More sadly, you must do at least a few of them to get a few spells and devices that will make your life a lot easier in the later parts of the game. This goes against my streamlined theory of RPG design, which is that I should never have to do any extra work to get the all the killer stuff I need to beat the game easily. Boo Square-Enix.

The result of all of this is that it takes longer than you would like to be of the right level and have the right stuff. Being relatively weak means you end up engaging in what I call the “flee to the savepoint” tactic whenever coming into a new area. I found that usually the creatures in any new place would pummel me into jelly if I hung around too long to fight them and they ganged up on me. So instead I would just run away to the next save and then backtrack from the save back into the area to slowly defeat things and level up a bit. This works OK until you get into the final few areas where the game decides that it should subject you to chains of bosses at the end of a dungeon with no intermediate savepoint. This happens a few times during the game and most egregiously at the end of the game. The final area is a soul-sucking chain of multiple bosses, each one of which will sap your party of the resources it needs to fight. But, if you manage these resources well, and have some way to restore them near the end, the fight itself is not very interesting, just long and boring. Happily, the final cut scene is pretty.

In all, I found FFXII to be greatly entertaining with only a couple of minor annoyances related to balance and a sparse matrix of savepoints.

But now that I’m done, what do I play? There aren’t a lot of compelling options on the horizon.

On the Xbox 360, there is the brainless sandbox cop game (Crackdown) and yet another Ubisoft shooter (GRAW 2). No thanks. The good games for the 360 still appear to be a few months out. Maybe Bioshock won’t suck.

On the PS2, there is God of War but I can’t see that being any more interesting or less offensive than the first one. Karen hated the first one. I could get the new MLB:07 game, but I just got my RPG pitcher a $32M contract in MLB:06, and I can’t see starting that whole thing over again.

I guess I could play more Zelda but that tends to hurt my brain.

When no new games will do, the back catalog comes to the rescue! Standing in the Exchange yesterday, I saw two games I could pick up without hating myself. First, there was a badly reviewed JPRG for the 360 called Enchanted Arms. It was cheap and the guys over at Penny Arcade liked it, so it’s worth a shot. I also saw a very cheap copy of that old peterb favorite Beyond Good and Evil. I never managed to finish this game on the Xbox because I found the controls too tiring, but I find these games much easier to play on the PS2 so it’s worth a shot.

If these don’t work out, I guess I could work my way through my own back catalog. There are the old PS2 platformers I’ve never finished (Jak, Sly, Ratchet). There is my stable of sports games (Madden, MLB, NBA Street). There is my collection of unfinished JPRGs and strategy games (More Shadow Hearts, Disgaea, etc). And finally, there are the odd horror games that I never get through (Eternal Darkness, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame).

Of course, I never finished these games before, and there isn’t any evidence that they will grab me harder this time. This is not really the fault of the games. That catalog unquestionably contains titles that are almost universally praised. This is just the nature of being in between games. You bounce from product to product until you manage to find another one game. Games that really grab you are fairly rare and really great long games are even more rare. I think the fact that we spend so much time between games tends to make us gamer nerds overly pessimistic about the state of the industry. We want every game to recreate that combination of a great buzz and the feeling of security and well being that the “one game” brings. When it doesn’t happen, we lash out at the developers and publishers for “not innovating” or always subjecting us to stale mediocrity. We should probably be more forgiving. It’s not likely that I will ever have another year like 2004/2005 where there was a chain of great games to play for 11 out of 12 months. The key to inner peace and happiness is to accept this as the natural state of the world and just bide your time until the next great game comes along. Then you can enjoy a month or two of stability before bouncing back out into the state of being in between.