The Snag

Nothing says frustration like a video card error. I would love to know why my video card is suddenly unable to run Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I previously ran the game fine. I even used this video card to run Dawn of War II at maximum settings not long ago. I tested DoW II on it again; now that doesn’t work either.

“Failed to find a supported hardware rendering device. Ensure that your system meets the minimum requirements for Dawn of War II. Verify that DirectX is properly installed and you have the latest drivers for your system.”

I have that taken care of. I don’t know what this problem is about. Maybe I need to install a new OS (currently running XP; have been for about 3 years). Until I fix the issue, I won’t be able to play KotoR, or any PC game for that matter.

I hope to solve the issue soon. Otherwise, I will put KotoR on hold until the issue is resolved, and play a runner-up game from my list.

If you have any advice, by the way, you have my attention.


The Revenge of Umineko

Thanks to everybody on the boards whom is giving me some fantastic advice on preparing for my first Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic playthrough.

I had intended to begin already.

But then Umineko Chapter 5 came out and I had to read through that. For those of you who do not already know, Umineko is a visual novel (a popular art form in Japan, consisting of ((basically)) text that appears on still backgrounds accompanied by music). It’s a murder mystery set on an island. Increasingly bizarre murders continue happening, and the main character, one of the guests, tries to solve them. The game features the occult and magic, and part of the fun comes from trying to explain the murders without resorting to “magic” being the answer.

It’s a work in progress, to consist of eight chapters, separated into two arcs: the “question” arc, consisting of the first four chapters (wherein many questions are posed, and few answers are given), and the “answer” arc, consisting of the last four chapters, wherein more questions are raised, but everything is ultimately resolved. The chapters are all at least eight hours in length and meant to be enjoyed individually, but they do sequentially follow a single plot.

I read the fifth chapter in three sittings on the same night. Took about twelve hours, and it was past dawn by the time I was done, but so worth it.

It’s a total blast, so if you ever have the opportunity to check it out, be sure to do so.

Decide which game I play next. Vote on the poll on the right sidebar.

Pre-Play Impressions – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

I have seen the official Star Wars movies, but that is about the extent of my familiarity with the Star Wars universe. I am just passingly familiar with some other aspects of the SW universe, although I know enough to know I’d like to know more. I can only hope some of you, my readers, will fill in the gaps as I play KotoR.

I have played a bit of KotoR before. I tried once as a Scout (or was it Scoundrel? the one with the stealth field from the get-go), and gave up the first time my Stealth failed me and a gang of thugs kicked my ass. There was no avoiding it. The story simply made your Stealth fail and I realized I couldn’t just bypass every threat. That was when I realized this is not a game like Fallout 3, where you can talk your way out of most situations. You are expected to fight.

Then I created a Soldier. This proved much more reliable, what with blades being more effective than words at cutting through necks. I got up to this point where I am supposed to rescue a wookie, but lost interest around that point.

Perhaps it is because I simply have a greater fondness for medieval fantasy than I do for sci-fi. Perhaps it is because I was still in the mindset of equating western games with non-combat solutions. Perhaps it was the D&D 3.5-esque mechanics, which are a bother to mind, given that I am playing 4th ed. D&D right now. A little of this, a little of that, I suppose.

About the D&D thing…
I realized that the game mechanics are strongly influenced by 3.5 D&D. Considering that these tend to be complicated mechanics, I think it would behoove me to get familiar with them. It should be interesting. I played 3.5 D&D a few years ago; fun game (though, for combat, 4th ed’s mechanics tend to be a better facilitator, if ironically more restrictive on the imagination – a discussion for another time). Also, this game is following not far on the heels of my playing Planescape: Torment, which had mechanics based on 2nd ed. D&D.

Well, I thought about picking up my old Soldier file and starting that up again, but I think it would be more interesting to start with a clean playthrough after reading some FAQs. I think I will lean toward the Light Side, probably to the extreme to capture some bonuses, though I am tempted to go through with what I think would be the morally right thing to do and seeing how well it lines up with what they think the “Light” decision would be. The boards thus far suggest that playing the Dark Side is less fulfilling, ironic considering how often people feel gratified in playing evil characters.

Well, I will have a busy day tomorrow. See you soon in a galaxy far, far away.

Play Your Gambit: Final Fantasy XII Review

Final Fantasy XII pushes the edge of the mainstream, a paradoxical term I nonetheless find suitable. It tells a complicated story, but you don’t need to care for it to enjoy the game. The graphics are detailed, luscious and realistic. The music is fitting. The combat is, all at once, innovative and yet also a refined refrain on things we have seen before. Everything jumps out at you and immerses you in the game, oftentimes surprising in its perfected execution, but never does it step into territory so unfamiliar that the casual gamer might find it discomforting.

The story has three levels of play: political, personal, and philosophical. On the political level, the game revolves around the struggles in the land of Ivalice. Two empires, Archadia and Rozzaria, vie for control of each other’s empires and the intervening kingdoms. Archadia makes an overt grab for power, taking the three kingdoms between the empires. The kingdom of Dalmasca is the last to fall, and it is there that a resistance against the Archadian Empire begins. From there, the story really begins, as the resistance enlists allies, often from surprising quarters, to create an effective front against Archadia. For the first half of the game, this story takes center stage. It drifts away about half way through the game and, unfortunately, is never really recaptured. There is a resolution, to be sure, but the politics of the game become muddled, with the characters making some questionable decisions that are inadequately explained and questionable at best.

On a personal level, the game follows the adventures of a band of sky pirates seeking to overthrow Archadia. Although this part of the story is ostensibly about Vaan, a war orphan turned thief and would-be sky pirate, he becomes a sidekick to one of the other characters. It’s rather funny seeing him trying to take center stage here and there, as though he were one of those secondary actors constantly trying to show up the lead. Rather, one of the party members plays a key role in the resistance, and it is that character whose presence, decisions, and actions guide the course of the story. The rest of the characters serve as varying degrees of supporting cast, and it must be said that Vaan has one of the lesser roles. Still, the adventures of the true main character are rather intriguing, and as the political story falls away, this character becomes increasingly intense; the main character’s climactic decision in the penultimate dungeon is preceded by one of the greatest build-ups in gaming history.

On the philosophical level, the game asks a question: What price would you pay to control your destiny? The aforementioned main character struggles with this throughout much of the game, presented with two methods by which to gain power. One of the game’s other factions focuses on this question in a realized-metaphysical manner, with consequences that influence the events of the story from the background, but which do not come to light until the game’s end. Several members of the supporting cast get involved in this question, sharing their own experiences: Balthier’s revelation, and that of Reddas, are of striking note.

Visually, this game is amazing. The locations are open and detailed, often resolving background details that would usually go unremarked. For example, stand on a hill outside of Rabanastre and you can look in on the city at some detail. Go to the Giza Plains and you can actually see details of the connected areas. Visit Giruvegan and look across the lake to see ruins of this ancient place. The processing power of the PS2 was put to great effect here, such that the world feels real; after all, no matter where you are, you can usually see the rest of it.

The monsters, races and machines also look fantastic. You won’t find many direct palette swaps here; certainly, monsters from the same family tend to look similar, but you can usually tell the difference by more than just their coloration. In fact, their appearances never grow tiresome. I sometimes found myself, even at the end of the game, pausing and rotating the camera so I could get every angle on a monster whose appearance I thought looked amazing (the Abysteel is one of my favorites). The game’s several civilized races all look fantastic, and the fantasy races really do not resemble those of common mythos; even the humans (called humes here) have a variety of dress and appearance based on culture and geography, and I might as well say here that different cultures (and, to a lesser extent, races) have their own manners of speaking. Finally, the game goes for an arcanopunk look, by which I mean that the world has modern conveniences such as trains and airplanes (here called airships), all manufactured via magic. It’s such that swords are still the by-line for most ground combatants (with guns present and powerful, but slow to reload, and lacking the presumably magical edge of a master-forged blade), but airships fly through the air shooting lasers or bullets.

I do have a few minor complaints about the visuals. For one, most of the character’s look like they haven’t slept in a week. They have heavy bags under their eyes, making them look sleepy or old (or maybe a bit like sharks). I can’t imagine why this is, and it is glaringly obvious in any of the many scenes in which you see close-ups of their faces. At least it’s not as bad as the eyeless horrors of Suikoden Tactics.

The other complaint is Vaan’s reverse abs. It seriously looks like somebody shaded his abs so they are in reverse. It’s even creepier than the eye thing.

Now, about the audio: it’s okay. None of the tracks really stood out to me. Not even the boss music. Most disappointingly, neither the final boss or any of the optional bosses have special music. If you are looking for grand orchestral music with vocals singing dark Latin hymns, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not bad music, by any means; just uninspired.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is top-notch. Well, most of it. You can feel the emotion in the characters’ voices, syncing well with the animations and expressions of the motion actors. This game’s Cid, in particular, is the most impressive; full of theatrical airs and exuberant speeches. The only thing that I found displeasing is the villain’s speech when you meet him at the end of the game. I don’t know why, but his voice suddenly becomes really whiny.

A lot needs to be said about the game’s combat system. You control three characters, one being the party leader whom you control directly. The three characters engage enemies on an unbounded field map in real time. This means there is no break between dungeon crawling and combat; you can open chests while fighting foes, or even escape them altogether by running away far enough or leaving the area. While you directly control one character, all three characters have Gambits, an advanced AI system that gives preset orders to your characters, discussed in further detail below.

All characters can be given up to twelve preset commands, which they will follow in descending order of priority. Each command is composed of two parts: the condition and the effect. The condition is usually in relation to a creature on the field, and the effect is any of the magic, technique, item or attack commands the character possesses. For example, you can set up the following Gambit set:
Ally: KO – Phoenix Down
Foe: Any – Attack
Now that character will always use a Phoenix Down on a character whom has been knocked unconscious. However, if none of the characters needs to be revived, he will instead attack any enemy.

Commands get more complicated from there, and a command set can be very detailed and specific, with a variety of triggers. It is diverse enough that you can make a command set that works very well for any specific group of enemies. The Gambit system is so useful that, by end game, twelve commands will not always feel like enough to handle what you want.

That said, the Gambit system is not a substitute for good tactics. It’s just an automization of the tactics you use anyway. At best, it just means your characters react to the real-time situation a bit faster and more accurately than you would otherwise. If, in a game, you would normally have a character always select “Attack”, but use a Phoenix Down immediately on an ally when they go down, you would simply set up your Gambits to do the same. It cuts down on redundant button presses and removes some of the issue of hand-eye coordination, which has been a selling factor of action games, but not RPGs. Like I said, you need good tactics, or you will set up bad Gambits, and there are a number of occasions when you will hurriedly be switching between Gambit sets or diverging from them for something specific on the fly. The game is always under your control. It can’t play itself, despite appearances.

The combat system isn’t unique, but it’s definitely an improvement over its predecessors. The unbounded field combat can be found in other games like Dark Cloud 2 and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, and gameplay without random encounters has been around for years. The advanced AI has its predecessor in games like Persona 2, where you didn’t control any of your characters directly; you gave commands to all five of them, and adjusted them as needed. Since this game, the technique has been further revised; it’s my understanding that Dragon Age: Origins’ AI system was inspired by the Gambit system.

All that said about the Gambit system, the combat itself isn’t really that tough. It is about what you might expect from a mainstream game. Stick to the plot, go straight forward, and you might have a challenge in that enemy levels are just too high for you; spend any time leveling or doing any side quests and the game is easy.’

Now, about the dubious License System. To be able to learn new magic spells, techniques, or get more gambit slots, you need to buy the appropriate license for them. If it were just that, we might call it a slightly awkward experience system and buffer. However, this same license system applies to equipment as well. Mind you, all of these things, from equipment to techniques, are bought in shops in addition to requiring the appropriate licenses. For example, this means you cannot just equip the Ribbon you loot from a monster and get its benefits. You need its appropriate license too. It really makes no sense. What sort of training teaches you how to properly wear a ribbon? You might argue that you receive some sort of mystic training, but that’s not what the board represents; it seems to represent some abstract concept, with only the most tenuous arguments for its validity. Mind you, you still get License Points roughly equal enough to the equipment you could reasonably have at that point in the game. Really, License Points amount to a redundancy that could have been dropped from the game.

Also, note that Licenses are all on a board, and all characters have access to the same board, and roughly the same starting position for their license growth. In practice, this means that every character can be exactly the same, albeit with some stat differences; but you could still have a party of three spellcasters who all know the same spells, or everybody wearing light or heavy armor. It’s a matter of taste whether you like this sort of thing; personally, I like that level of customization, but it couldn’t hurt to have customized boards (a feature they introduced in the rerelease).

FFXII is definitely a well-polished game. It sits at the head of its class, an excellent mainstream game, easy and fun to play. It has its quibbles, certainly, but most of those are so minor, they are not to be noticed. It isn’t truly innovative, but it doesn’t have to be to be fantastic.

Vayne Smash!

The Bahamut, the flagship of Vayne’s armada, is a flying fortress of incredible power. With it at his disposal, Vayne moves to crush the Dalmascan Resistance. He won’t take surrender for an answer; he seeks obliteration. For some reason, he believes that this won’t breed any significant lasting resistance. For a guy who started out so charismatic, he certainly has become a brute. Perhaps because of the change in directors?

Anyway, you board it using the Strahl. The enemies here are around level 45. I was about level 78. I think I killed a few Imperial Guardsmen just by looking at them.

Thee dungeon is short, despite its massiveness. No more than four screens long – really. Small screens at that. You fight Judge Gabranth again, and he and Basch go at it; brother against brother, in a duel of not-so-epic proportions this time around.

After dispatching him, we take an elevator up to meet Vayne. He’s intent on becoming the next Dynast-King and, really, he’s just a couple speeches away from cackling about his master plan to rule the world. It kind of sucks to see him this way; his motivations seem far too impetuous and petty. Naturally, he decides to fight you.

Oddly, he goes for fisticuffs. He doesn’t have any weapons. Just his dukes. After you defeat him, he unleashes the power of manufactured nethicite and hulks up (and boy is that a good description; the face in particular). He starts chucking around energy swords. During all this Larsa fights and falls, and Judge Gabranth gets mixed up in the matter, but taken out as well. After you defeat Vayne for the second time, he runs off again.

He realizes he has lost, but his immortal friend fuses with his body (I think). Then he fuses with a crapload of metal, giving him gigantic wings and, I admit, some cool-looking armor.

I’m pretty sure the battle that followed was harder than Yiazmat or Omega Mark XII. See, the former was just a big sack of hit points. The latter had one attack (“I zap you, I zap you, I zap you, I zap you, I zap you, I zap you”). Vayne (Here called “The Endless”) must actually try to put up a decent challenge. And, curse his vile soul, he does.

Sort of.

He has a bunch of attacks, including the Gigaflare Sword, Teraflare, and magic attacks which bypass Reflect. He attacks very quickly, too, from any distance. His damage is also decent. I actually had to use Arise on a few people this fight. Now, sure, I was obviously a little more careless in this fight, since he was relatively low level, but he put his heart into it.

Not enough, though, as he went crashing to the ground after a prolonged battle (he doesn’t have a visible life bar).

With Vayne’s defeat, the party jets, along with Larsa and Judge Gabranth (aka Noah). Except Balthier and Fran, whom stay behind to fix the Bahamut and keep it from crashing into Rabanastre. One of the other judges considers ramming the Bahamut to effect the same, but Balthier and Fran manage to pull off their task just in time.

So, now, how does the game end? Ashe becomes queen of Dalmsaca. Larsa becomes emperor of Archadia. The war ends. Basch goes to Archadia and becomes Judge Magister and Larsa’s direct bodyguard (as per the last request of Gabranth/Noah, his brother). Vaan and Penelo become sky pirates, maybe. It’s not really clear. Balthier and Fran, surviving the Bahamut’s crash, reclaim the Strahl from Vaan and return to being sky pirates. It’s assumed everybody lives happily ever after. And Ashe gets her ring back.

Now, time to write the review!

The Ultimate Marks

Gilgamesh is a joke. He’s a dimensional traveler whom challenges people to duels for their swords, presumably loses, and carries around copies he has made. He has copies of weapons wielded by the main characters from a number of previous Final Fantasy titles.

When you first meet him, he comes flying in overhead, laughing, and bounces off the railing of a train track by accident. When the fight actually engages, he gets really excited, maintaining none of the serious calm you would expect of somebody claiming to be a legend.

Also, his clothing is ridiculous; he wears this extremely poofy gaudy red and yellow garb which conceals him head-to-toe.

Anyway, battling him is a lot of fun. He has a couple attacks that he calls out, and as the battle progresses, he draws more swords.

After you beat him, he runs away. You have to chase him through tunnels choked with monsters 15 levels higher than those you just faced, and take on a Gilgamesh whose gained about 20 levels in the half hour interval. He really isn’t that much tougher, though; if you stay on your toes, he goes down easily enough.

When defeated, he runs away again, leaving behind a sword. However, you discover that the sword is only “an ordinary sword of legend”, so obviously of no use to you. When you leave, Gilgamesh pops back in from the corner of the screen. Your character turns to look, but he’s gone. You keep walking, and he dashes in, grabs the sword and dashes back out quickly. That’s the last you ever see of Gilgamesh.

So, who else was an interesting fight? Well, the Behemoth King and the Hell Wyrm both had a ton of hit points and took somewhere between a half hour to two hours to defeat. They weren’t very tough, mind you – just took a really long time. Yiazmat was in the same boat, and took over five hours to take down. I eventually learned that if you just have three melee characters on Arise/Attack, he is easily defeated. However, defeating him makes me wonder whether I ever want to face a boss like that again. I mean, those three bosses (particularly the latter two) are really just gigantic sacks of hit points. There isn’t much strategy to fighting them, and they are not nearly as interesting as the final boss, whom is relatively low level, but possessing attacks which make him deadlier.

Omega Mark XII was an interesting challenge. I fought him once trying the decoy-reverse method. I got him really low, then, I don’t know why, maybe because it was like 2 AM, I thought it was a good idea to try finishing him off with some Quickenings. I got a large chain that almost killed him, but left me without MP; he killed off everybody and I had to fight the battle again. Oh yes, there was cursing.

The second time I fought him, I annihilated him. I discovered how effective it can be to have everybody</em. use Reverse on themselves. Then I watched as the boss spent the entire battle healing my party members. By the way, he had 10,000,000 HP, but after fighting Yiazmat, it hardly felt like any at all.

coming up next… the home stretch… and after that, the FFXII review! Then onward, to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic!

My Christmas Gift: Victory

Today, Christmas, I beat Final Fantasy XII. Funny how things work out, eh? I actually took on Yiazmat and beat him at midnight between Christmas Eve and Christmas. Then I went on to beat the rest of the optional bosses. Then I said, “screw it, let’s keep going” and I beat the entire game. When next I post, my thoughts on the last part of the game, then my review.

Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.