Of Long Hiatus and Slow Healing

It has been far too long since I’ve written. Life has been incredibly busy, and most of my creative energies have been taken by work projects. But in addition to the business, I’ve been seeking help with years worth of depression and suicidal ideation. My wife and a couple of friends have been at me for years to seek help. I’ve had mixed results with counseling in the past. I typically hit a point where progress stops, but I felt obligated to keep going to the counselor I was seeing. My current counselor, however, has helped me sort through many things. Years of burnout and suppression of my own wants and needs are taking time to unravel, but progress is slowly being made.

Futaba, from Persona 5, sitting alone in her room.
Futaba’s depression is one of many elements from Persona 5 that resonates with me. Image from megamitensei.wikia.com. Persona 5 is owned by Atlus.

As the depression has started to become less frequent, I have pursued some changes at work that are actually freeing up my mental energy. I feel like writing again. Well, more accurately, I feel like seeing some sort of personal creative work. And so, I want to post here from time to time. My goal is once a week, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I miss a week here or there. I’m also not going to put pressure on myself to do in-depth analyses or reviews (unless I feel like it at the time). It’s more an outlet to share where I am and what I am doing, and if anyone gains insight or enjoyment, that’s great.

After playing through the Final Fantasy series (which I continued to do, even though I stopped writing about it), I’ve moved on to other games. I’m currently streaming a Kingdom Hearts playthrough on Twitch for an hour or so on Mondays and Tuesdays. My goal is to play through all the games on the 1.5, 2.5, and 2.8 remix collections in preparation for Kingdom Hearts 3 next year. One or two nights a week, my wife watches me play Persona 5. She didn’t plan on watching, but the story has hooked her. The game is a lot of fun, and I love the music and visual design.

Kingdome Hearts logo and characters
Kingdom Hearts is owned by Disney and Square-Enix

Outside of those games, I’ve been looking at something to play on my own, free from the obligations of being “on.” At the risk of jRPG overload, I picked up Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2. Again, great music and visual design. But the main thing I enjoy about the game is the grinding. Sometimes grinding can lead to a mild zen state. It also accompanies audio books well.

My gaming tastes tend to skew toward jRPGs, but I also enjoy some Western RPGs, such as The Elder Scrolls and some of Bioware’s games. You can probably tell that I also like games with compelling music and visual designs. (For example, I picked up Hyper Light Drifter from a GOG.com sale, and I look forward to digging into the world of that game.) So, if you have recommendations, let me know.

I’m also trying to get back into reading. I hit a string of uninteresting books lately, and rather than finish them, I just avoided them. One personal goal that I’m working on is to not force myself to finish a book if it isn’t working for me. Finishing books was just another area where a sense of obligation was wearing me down. But really, who was I reading for? Does it matter if I stop reading a book because I don’t enjoy it? No one is standing over me to make sure I read every word. I don’t have to give a book report as an exit exam to life.

And that brings me back to why the depression and suicidal thoughts became overwhelming: years of accumulating “have-to’s” for no reason. That some illusory entity was there to make sure I was doing all the things I was supposed to be doing. I was tired all the time (and still am from time to time), and suicidal thoughts were a longing for rest. They still arise every now and then. Years of habitual thoughts don’t stop overnight. But I think I am making progress. I am working rediscover my sense of self, to re-learn what it means to enjoy things after years of emotional repression. I am working to learn that I don’t have to prove myself and to be okay with discovering what I like and don’t like.

And if I feel like sharing, I’ll do that, too.

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Final Fantasy 4 (Final Fantasy Playthrough)

Final fantasy 4 title screen
Final Fantasy 4 title screen. Copyright Square-Enix.

Original Release Date: 1991

Playthrough Platform: PC (From the Nintendo DS port)

My History with the Game: Final Fantasy IV is the game that made me a fan of the series. While I had played FFI on the NES, it was the SNES version of FFIV (known to me back then as FFII) that captured my imagination. Outside of The Legend of Zelda, no game series had a greater impact on me as a gamer. I couldn’t purchase a copy of the game back then, so I rented Final Fantasy IV from the local video store, while desperately hoping that no one overwrote my save file as I tried to scrounge more money to rent the game again. I think I played it through twice. I have since learned that the version I grew up with was an easier version, though back then, I thought it was plenty hard. In the mid-2000s, I picked up the PS One re-release of the game, which included the original difficulty. I completed that version at least once. This playthrough is my first time to play the DS version.

Play Time for Main Story: 26:11

Story

The Kingdom of Baron has begun to aggressively pursue the elemental crystals of other nations. The Dark Knight Cecil leads Baron’s air force, The Red Wings, against the city of Mysidia. Despite being mages, the Mysidians do not fight back. Many are killed. In light of this unprovoked slaughter, Cecil begins to question his king. He is exiled. Final Fantasy IV follows Cecil’s quest to learn why Baron is stealing the crystals and to stop the evil forces behind it.

Image of Baron Castle
Baron Castle. Copyright Square Enix

Much like Final Fantasy II, narrative takes center stage in this game. However, objectives are much clearer, and character stories drive many plot points. The story is filled with victory, tragedy, betrayal, and revelations. It is the most cohesive game so far in the series, and the one hints at the story-driven progression of future games.

Characters

The characters are diverse and memorable. Cecil is the conflicted knight who questions his king, though it grieves him to do so. Kain is Cecil’s childhood friend and the commander of Baron’s dragoons. Kain harbors a secret love for Rosa, Cecil’s lover. Rosa is a white mage who wants to accompany Cecil in his quest. Rydia is a young girl from the summoner village. Her people are killed when Cecil and Kain unknowingly deliver fire monsters to the village. And there are many more characters (Cid, Tellah, Edward, Yang, Palom, Porom, Edge, Golbez, FoSuYa), each with a distinct personality, backstory, and motivation. I particularly enjoyed that this version of the game included a playable cutscene of Golbez’s past. I think I would have liked to see more added scenes to flesh out additional characters, but the one with Golbez was nice. It humanized him and made him far more sympathetic.

Yang shakes hands with Cecil as Rosa watches.
Yang, Cecil, Rosa. Copyright Square-Enix

I do think that the game cheats a bit with character death. There are many points during which characters make a sacrifice. This is reminiscent of Final Fantasy 2. Unlike that game, however, many characters return near the end of the game. Their death scenes feel empty as a result.

I would have also liked more development for Rosa. She remains a damsel in distress for much of the game. Rydia became a far more compelling and developed female character. But again, the character development in this game is a huge step forward. The SNES cartridges allowed for more text and story content for the games, and I’m glad the developers focused on story and character.

Presentation

Playing the 3D version of this game took some adjustment. I was used to the SNES version. They didn’t change any maps, which was appreciated. And I loved the addition of a cartography quest for each dungeon. It inspired exploration and additional level grinding. The designers attempted to re-create the environments of the original, and I think they largely succeeded. I particularly enjoyed the embers from lava that drifted throughout the underworld.

This version of the game adds voiced cut-scenes. Some of the voices are cheesy, though the animation style almost justifies the lighter, silly anime tone of some scenes. The cut-scenes and 3D presentation allowed the animators to convey emotion better than the 2D sprites could in the original.

Tellah calls Edward a spoony bard.
I’m glad they didn’t change this classic line. Copyright Square-Enix.

Most of the music sounds good in this version. I think I enjoy the remake version of “Welcome to Our Town” better than the original. However, I prefer the original SNES versions of “Troian Beauty,” “Dancing Calbrena,” and “The Final Battle.”

Overall, the remake captures the feel and story of the original. Almost nothing is lost in the translation.

Gameplay

Character progression is far more simplified in this game when compared to Final Fantasy 2 and 3. We return to the XP/Leveling system of Final Fantasy I. Characters are locked into a single class, but there is variety since each character has one or two commands that are unique to their class. Since you are not able to choose who is in your party, each time you gain or lose members, you have to find a new dynamic for battle, which keeps you on your toes. The DS remake adds a bit of customization with augments, which allow you to give a character additional commands or abilities for battle. Augments were not part of the original game, so these serve to make combat a bit easier.

There are a few side-quests (additional eidolons for summoning, unique weapons, and achievements), but most of the game focuses on the main story. Gameplay supplements the story, so if you are looking for a game with a lot of customization or exploration, Final Fantasy IV probably isn’t what you are looking for. I think that is a tension that the series always fights with: openness vs. driving narrative. Some games find a decent balance. Some lean more heavily toward one over the other. And some games jump back and forth, which can really mess with the pacing. Final Fantasy IV is very story/character driven, which is one reason I consistently enjoy it.

Dancing Dwarf
One side quest involves watching dancers in each town. Most are far more risque in this version than Nintendo allowed in the original. Here’s a dancing dwarf. Copyright Square-Enix.

Personal Enjoyment

Again, this is the game that made me a fan of the series. I think it is also the game that made me interested in fantasy as a genre. I enjoy the characters, the twists, and the music. The 3D remake allowed me to rediscover an old favorite with new eyes. If you are looking to experience one of the older Final Fantasy games, but have been turned off by the old 8 or 16-bit graphics, this remake is a great starting point.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

The end screen for the game.
End screen. Copyright Square-Enix

So, I’ve gushed about this game, and I’m glad it held up for me. But I’d like to know what you think. When did you first play Final Fantasy IV (any version)? Do you have a version that you prefer? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Final Fantasy 2 Introduction

Original Final Fantasy 2 box art

Original Release Date: 1988

Playthrough Platform: Playstation

My History with the Game: Despite owning the PS One remake, I have never played all the way through this game. What I remember about the game is that the story was stronger and more dominant than the first game and that the game mechanics are very different. The mechanics are based around what actions you take. At the time, I didn’t care for this, but in the intervening years I have become a fan of The Elder Scrolls. I’m actually looking forward to the mechanics now. I think this is the only Final Fantasy game that uses this type of character progression. And I really like that Square established early on that they would take risks with these games and not just duplicate what came before. But more than anything, I am excited about playing a Final Fantasy game that I have never played before.

I can’t wait!

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.