Final Fantasy 1 Introduction

Final Fantasy strategy guide by Nintendo Power
I still have this, though it is about to fall apart.

Original Release Date: 1987

Playthrough Platform: Playstation

My History with the Game: I first played this game on the NES back in the early 90s. I didn’t fall in love with the series through this game. It was hard. Very hard. I re-played this game after falling in love with Final Fantasy IV (2) and VI (3). I have played through and beat it three or four times, once on the original system and subsequently on the Playstation Final Fantasy Origins re-release.

I have wanted to do a Final Fantasy playthrough ever since the release date was set for FF XV. Unfortunately, I didn’t start because I didn’t have easy access to Final Fantasy XII. But, since the HD remaster of XII was announced, I’ve decided to move forward on this goal. It also gives Square-Enix time to push through more patches and updates to Final Fantasy XV.

I’m nearly finished with FF. In the story, I have just picked up the Warp Cube, so my next stop is the Sky Tower. For future installments, I plan on writing an introduction before starting each game, then writing a final review as I complete the main story. I’ve finished most of the games in this series, but a few here and there will be new to me. I’m looking forward to revisiting old friends and meeting new ones.

My plan is to stick to the numbered games, so no Mobius, Crystal Chronicles, Legends, Adventures, Crisis Cores, sequels, etc. (This isn’t a hard rule, though. I reserve the right to change this according to my fickle nature. And because I already have FFX-2.). Also, I am not going to play XI and XIV since I don’t particularly want to jump into an MMO.

So, I hope you will join me for this on again, off again series. I’m going to take my time to enjoy these games and finally play my way through the series.

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

Overview

Dragon Age: Origins is a game by the renowned RPG developer Bioware. The game takes place in the kingdom of Ferelden, and follows the last two Grey Wardens as they attempt to form an alliance against the Darkspawn. As of this post, I have put over 104 hours into Dragon Age: Origins, most of which was devoted to three different playthroughs of the main quest.

This review contains spoilers for the game.

Dragon Age Origins cover

Story:  8

On an overall plot level, DA:O didn’t impress me much. Ferelden is a world of humans, dwarves, elves, ogres, dragons, and Darkspawn (which are not orcs but can be read as orcs).  While these have become commonplace in post-Tolkien fantasy and so aren’t unusual, I struggled to get in to the game because I’ve seen these tropes time and time again. The true test, though, is what the developers do with these tropes. In this story, the Darkspawn are undead minions of Arch-demons (the resurrected old gods who take the form of dragons). For reasons not currently known, the Darkspawn want to destroy the races of Ferelden. Normally they lurk underground in the Deep Roads, but if they come across an Arch-demon, they gather their forces and invade the surface, an event that is called The Blight. An order of warriors, the Grey Wardens, was founded centuries ago to fight the Darkspawn and lead the races of the world against the Blights. The Grey Wardens are formed from volunteers, however, and their numbers wane between Blights. So, this is your typical good versus evil. The Grey Wardens are fascinating. You are introduced to them through Duncan, who recruits you after tragedy befalls your character. (You have seven different character origins you can choose: noble human, mage elf or human, noble dwarf, lower caste dwarf, servant elf, and forest elf. Each character origin has a different inciting event.) But in addition to this overarching narrative as you attempt to gain support for the Blight, you become embroiled in the politics of Ferelden as Teyrn Loghain orchestrates the deaths of the king and all the Grey Wardens except you and Alistair. His motivations are rooted deep in his personal history in fighting for Ferelden’s freedom from the Orleasian Empire. So, despite some played-out, heroic fantasy tropes, the journey is worth it as Bioware fleshes out a world that is deeper than what it looks at first glance. More on this world below.

World Building: 8

So, the heroic fantasy tropes were a bit off-putting at first. But as stated above, delving deeper into this world propelled it above my initial impression. In Ferelden, elves are outcasts and were once an enslaved people. They have largely lost touch with their old ways, and are working to recover their heritage. However, there is a distinct division in elf society between city elves and forest elves. The city elves are technically free, but tend to be segregated and treated poorly. This was an interesting twist on how elves are typically portrayed in heroic fantasy. But the world building I found most interesting was that of the mages. In this world, magic puts mages in touch with the Fade, the spirit realm where demons exist. If a mage is weak, he or she could become a vessel for a demon, which—depending on the demon—can lead to great acts of evil. Mages are born with the ability to use magic, just as people are born with the ability to use the Force in Star Wars. In an attempt to keep the mage population under control and useful to the kingdom, the Circle of Magi (the governing body of mages) is controlled by the Templars, a division of The Chantry. Thus, magic is controlled by the church. All mages must be sent to the Temple. A sample of their blood is taken and stored for tracking purposes in case they escape. After studying their trade, a mage undergoes a test called The Harrowing, in which he or she enters the Fade. If they survive and return without being possessed by a demon, they become a full mage. Otherwise, they die. If, after study, they don’t show the required control and aptitude for magic, they are made Tranquil through a process that severs their connection to the Fade and strips away their emotions. It is thought that without these things, Tranquil are undesirable to demons.

All of these elements (and many more I have not mentioned) elevated DA:O above the heroic fantasy crowd. While the Darkspawn themselves never felt like anything but a generic evil to me, the history, politics, and human machinations gave new flavor to this old formula.

Characters:  10

Without a doubt, the characters make this game. Over the course of the game you can team up with ten playable characters (1 is available via DLC and 1 is referred to as a secret character, and is available late in the game). Each character has a distinct personality and responds positively or negatively to your actions, dialog choices, and gifts. As characters grow to like you more, they unlock bonuses, but if they dislike you, they may leave the party. It’s a fascinating mechanic, and definitely builds and fleshes out mechanics started in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. But as much fun as role-playing the relationships can be, what is more fun is the banter. As you walk through forests, ruins, and cities, the characters talk to one another. It’s fun to listen to Alistair beg Wynne to mend his socks, to Leliana criticize Alistair’s cooking, to Morrigan’s cynical comments to Leliana, and so much more. I frequently stopped my journey to the next location just to listen to the banter. You genuinely build a comradery with these characters, and I long for more stories with them. Knowing that future games don’t feature these characters in leading roles is a disappointment. But, if future games have characters this strong, I’m sure I’ll cope.

Gameplay: 8

It took me a while to figure out how much fun this game could be. I came from a jRPG background. More specifically, I came from a Final Fantasy background. I was used to grinding and maxing out characters, and that was how I approached DA:O. This approach was wrong. This game rewards building a cohesive party rather than maxing out individual characters. There is a level cap of 25 (I think), and so it is not possible to max out a character with all available skills for their class. Once I figured out that strategy was necessary (and once I discovered the Arcane Warrior specialization), this game became a ton of fun. Mage builds offered me the most enjoyment because of their sheer power. In most other games I tend to focus on a type of ranger build (stealth + basic combat focusing on long range + item crafting). In this game, I prefer to let the other characters focus on combat and stealthing while I break out the heavy area-of-attack spells to direct the enemies where I want them. And when I learned some spells combine and enhance one another . . . yeah, I may never go back to a non-mage build in DA:O. Creating a cohesive party is the key to succeeding in this game, and it is so much fun. Beyond that, the level design is great in ruins and buildings. The forest designs don’t quite work for me, and the fields/roads are also underwhelming. But these are all vast improvements over KotOR, which was the previously played Bioware game. While this game doesn’t offer you the level of freedom of an Elder Scrolls game, Dragon Age: Origins gives you plenty to do and quests have satisfying variety. You can play as selfish or as selfless as you want, and your choices will carry over into future games, as I understand it. I look forward to playing the DLC as well as Dragon Age II and Inquisition to see how the world develops.

Personal Enjoyment: 8

I spent over 104 hours (so far) in this game. Not bad for a game that, initially, didn’t impress me. But, after delving in and out over a few months, I hit a streak around Orzammar (the dwarf kingdom) that kept me going non-stop. Suddenly, everything came together for me, and I was hooked. I felt like cheering as Alistair gave his speech to the assembled army against the Blight. I loved the moment where I lead my team through the gates of Denerim as crowds of soldiers cheered. I (ahem) cried as I made the choice to sacrifice myself in the fight against the Arch-demon, allowing Alistair to live and be king. And then I played through the game two more times in a year-and-a-half. I think that is high praise. So, why not a ten? There are still moments where the game lags for me. There are places where I have to force myself to play through them (specifically, the Dalish quests). And again, I really wish there was more on the Darkspawn. I want to know more about why they do what they do. Everything else is so well thought-out, the Darkspawn seem a bit lacking in comparison. But, there are two more games and a lot of DLC missions. These could have the additional depth that I want.

Overall, though, I wouldn’t spend over 100 hours in a game if I didn’t enjoy it. I admit, my first playthrough I got to a point where I just wanted to get to the end of the game, but the last few hours were so good that they prompted me to immediately start a new class build so I could play the game again. The journey was worth it, and I expect I will play through this game more times in years to come. I can’t wait to continue seeing how this franchise develops.

Final Rating: 8.4/10

The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger

Overview

This year I made a commitment to pick a fantasy series and read my way through to the end. I would like to do this every year in my attempt to fill the hole left by the currently unfinished Song of Ice and Fire. The only criterion for this goal is that 1) the series must be finished (the main series, not peripheral stories), and 2) it must be a series I have never finished reading. There are quite a few fantasy series that I have started but not finished, for one reason or another (lack of time, apathy, the series was on-going). So, I decided that the inaugural series would be Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

I have read the first three books in this series (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands) before. In fact, the first time I read them, book four (The Wizard and Glass) had just come out. I tried again a few years later, and stalled out after book three once again. I have always enjoyed The Dark Tower in concept, but not always in execution. But these previous readings had occurred at very different times in my life when I have had very different tastes. The major difference between then and now is that I have come to have great respect for Stephen King as a writer. I do hope to complete my King Reads King goal to read (if not read AND write about) every Stephen King book. In my time working through his bibliography, I have loved Salem’s Lot and The Shining; I have immensely enjoyed 11/22/63 and much of The Stand. And there are a few books that I thought were middling or in the fine-but-not-for-me category. Admittedly, I haven’t read very far in his oeuvre yet. But, it seemed time for The Dark Tower, and I looked forward to seeing how I felt about the book this time. The Gunslinger is a collection of short stories about Roland Deschain’s pursuit of The Man in Black. Roland is a gunslinger, a type of knight in this world that has moved on and may very well be dying. The Man in Black is an evil wizard, and Roland pursues him much as Harmonica Man pursued Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. But, when this inevitable meeting finally happens, Roland discovers a bigger, deeper mystery that will shape his destiny. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed every story in this collection. They seemed to decrease as they went along, for my younger self. But again, I have grown to appreciate King more, and I eagerly anticipated my reaction as I once more entered Mid-World and Roland’s dying world.

Personal Enjoyment: 4

I can’t tell you how many times I almost gave up reading this book. Interestingly, “The Slow Mutants” and “The Gunslinger and the Man in Black” were my favorite chapters in this read through. In the past, they were my last on my ranking of the chapters. My interest in the stories seemed strongly connected to how much The Man in Black appeared. I found him far more interesting than Roland or Jake. His control and manipulation of Roland was far more interesting than Roland’s need for revenge. My wife challenged me to at the very least get through book four this time. But I wasn’t sure I could get through this one. I did, however, and I enjoyed the final story so much that I was looking forward to The Drawing of the Three, so kudos to King for turning things around in the end. But the stories in this book would, I think, look great on film (if done well), so maybe the upcoming movie will work better for me. Oddly, in the past I would have said this was my favorite of the Dark Tower books. I’m not sure that bodes well for the rest of this journey, but we shall see. For the time being, I am staying with this journey.

Characters:  7

I’m not going high on this one because there are few characters, and they aren’t quite up to King’s standards. None of the characters in this story are typical for him, though. He’s taking a risk and stretching himself, which I can’t fault him for. But, as stated before, I didn’t connect to any of the leads outside of the Man in Black. He was the most interesting to me. But, as I recall, Roland will get more character to play off of in the next book, and all of them fit more firmly into King’s wheelhouse. I’m holding out hope that I just started in a lull or in the wrong mood.

Story:  7

I’m giving this a seven because, while it isn’t bad, it doesn’t currently do much. As stated before, this is a typical Western revenge story with some setting twists thrown in. And these twists are interesting. But King walks a precarious line here between Western and fantasy. The first story falls firmly in Western, but starting with “The Way Station” it starts to meander into fantasy. This meandering wasn’t quite what I was going for, despite knowing it was coming. I think the cowboy-confronting-his-nemesis trope broke apart because of that meandering, and the genre mixing loses a bit of focus. Roland becomes less a gunslinger than just a man from an elite order than uses guns. The story moves from Western to post-apocalyptic, even though it is the apocalypse of a world similar to, but not quite, ours. It doesn’t quite work for me in this read through.

Setting: 8

I’m almost surprised by the higher score here, but despite the unfocused genre bending, King builds his world well. It is intriguing, especially as Roland wanders through the remains of what was. The flashbacks don’t quite work for me, because I imagine European-based high fantasy with gunslingers, but I totally buy the image of a gunslinger walking through an apocalyptic wasteland. It fits because of the desolation of both the West and the apocalypse. Fantasy is often less desolate (though, as with G. R. R. Martin, it can be bleak). But empty landscapes where, after days of seeing no one, you see a stranger on the horizon, and you don’t know if this person is friendly or not, naturally falls into both Western and apocalypse. It is the breakdown of social order; it is the rule of the gun in a world of limited resources. It is heat and sand and mirage. As I recall from previous readings, The Waste Lands leans heavily on this, and I think it could potentially work better for me. But the places where we moved from Western to Fantasy just didn’t work for me this time. But the ground work is set, and I think King can (and does) build upon what he set up here.

Vision: 7

What was it trying to do?

I think The Gunslinger was trying to pay homage to Westerns (specifically those by Leone) while delving into fantasy and horror to put a new twist on the genre.

Was it successful in doing it?

Not for me, no. Again, Western + apocalypse works for me. Western + high fantasy, not so much.

Was this worth doing?

Absolutely, yes.

To Sum Up

The Gunslinger was an ambitious start. I’m not sure I think the younger Stephen King was up to the challenge quite yet, nor do I think the ideas had solidly manifested by this point. I think this story took greater form as time went on, and I would argue this point because he was compelled to lightly update the book to match where the series eventually went. There are certainly good ideas here, and there are some very good passages. But each time I visit this book, I like it less and less. But I look forward to The Drawing of the Three, oddly, because I think King stuck the landing with The Gunslinger. He ended the book on a high note that made me want to read more, and in the end, that is a type of success.

Final Rating: 6.6/10