Final Fantasy XII: A Travelog of Ivalice, by a Raving Madman

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UPDATE: If you are averse to reading a large amount of text on an Internet forum, I have put the whole document in a PDF for simpler reading. PM me if you want a copy.

If I had to describe Final Fantasy XII in two words, I would pick "fascinatingly flawed." The game is like a junk sculpture: a grand amalgam of pieces that, individually, are often nothing special, and are often, well, junk. But sometimes, in the right light, from the right angle, these parts form a whole that pushes back all of your expectations, and, for a moment, appears to take a new form, alien and intriguing, moving as though alive. And in that next moment, a hunk shudders and falls away, and the illusion is broken again. I'd be very hesitant to call it a great game, and at times I'd balk at calling it a good game. But nonetheless, I found myself circling it, time and again, stalking that one special angle, hoping to get one more glimpse of a mystique I was certain it hid.

Then a character would open their stupid damn mouth, and the spell was shattered with my controller.

Around a year ago, I got the chance to play through a real oddity: the final, updated version of Final Fantasy XII, verbosely entitled the "International Zodiac Job System." I was curious about the mechanical, gameplay-oriented changes, but in the back of my head, I think I'd decided I wanted to play the game one last time, and get it out of my system once and for all. This was a real pull for me; I'd played the game two or three times already, and not in a dabbling, skittish fashion. FFXII, as I'll be abbreviating it from here on, is not a short, small game, and I had multiple times pressed it headfirst into my mouth and kept pushing its flailing mass until nothing remained of it. This, despite finding the game often infuriating, blatantly flawed in several easily- and widely- observed facets, and, by this time, offering extraordinarily little I wasn't, by now, well familiar with. Little, but not nothing.

In embarking on my last great odyssey of mist and magicite, the imperial and the empyreal, I set out to record and, with luck, pin down, if even for a moment, this ephemeral but inexorable pull the game seemed to have had on me. In fits and starts, whenever I played the game, I jotted down my impressions of it, assuring myself that when I was done, I'd be left with a concise distillation of all my sophisticated impressions of a bizarre, many-splendored game of our yesteryear. Looking back on the final product, so many months after first embarking upon it, I am struck by what I see:

I have created absolutely nothing of value in this respect. I am, instead, left with all the blackmail anyone could ever need on me. The result is a monstrous, sprawling, gibbering heap of profanity and nitpicking, and of effusive, giddy praise; often flippant and crass as it was loquacious and prolix, often in a single line; of meandering explorations of preposterous minutia; and of what I think may have even been attempts at comedy in a document that, at the outset, I never intended for anyone else to even see. This is the debris of a swirling tempest of sleep deprivation, over-caffeination, fanboyism, pedantry, obsession and speculation all brawling for the control of a single keyboard, and if you were to tell me the result was written by four entirely different people, each of whom had an entirely different and absolutely irreconcilable impression of the game, I could in no way gainsay this conclusion but for having perpetrated it upon the world with my own hands.

Yet, even as I was typing what would turn out to be just the start, I had a bizarre, unfamiliar realization: I was writing a Let's Play. And as the bulk of the work grew and grew, I felt more and more strongly that I'd have to shunt it out somewhere onto the Internet eventually, if only to justify having penned it at all. This is not intended to enlighten you. This is not intended to make me look insightful. This is an admission of trespass, an expiation.

I will not edit the... work? document? evidence? with too heavy a hand. The style of the thing is a product of the manner in which it was written, and I'm averse to disrupting an alchemy I don't understand and cannot replicate deliberately. I will give the early portions a bit more thorough a working-over, as they were written before I had even an inkling someone else might read it, and are far rougher than I can bear to expose, even given the nature of the whole. In sum, this Let's Play- if it even qualifies as one- mirrors its subject in so many ways: there are severe pacing issues, the tone careens back and forth all over the place, the prose is in sore need of trimming, and I'm not sure the creator was paying much attention at times. If you assert that any section of it is reproachful or appalling, I may be hard-pressed to disagree. But in the end, it's like a junk sculpture: a calamity of disparate elements, but sometimes, in a certain light...

What follows, I have struggled with aptly titling. The name of the thread I've rendered as "Travelog by a Raving Madman," but the title of the document, named for its spirit and the trusty refrain found so often within, was, from the very start, "THIS FUCKING GAME."

This will not be brief. I will break the whole into smaller sections, and post a couple of them per day. It's not as though I expect this to set the Internet alight. But neither do I expect any sane person to power through, OpenOffice informs me, sixty thousand words about a game that I could not claim to love with my hand on a Bible. Without further apology, it begins below.

PART 1: A Long Time Ago, in a Kingdom Far, Far Away...

THIS FUCKING GAME.

So basically, the game starts out with a ton of backstory and exposition that goes on way, way too long and drops way too many proper nouns. But it all basically boils down this: the big, evil empire from up north, Archadia, stomped its way south and took over your country's next door neighbor, Nabradia.

Your country, Dalmasca, just married off its princess, Ashe, to some Nabradian prince, who runs off to fight them and gets his shit wrecked along with most of Dalmasca's army. So the Dalmascan king, Raminas, heads off to strike a surrender and keep a little bit of autonomy in exchange for not everyone getting killed.

So Basch, a Dalmascan Knight, and some nobody footsoldier named Reks, are marching down the road when they get word that the surrender is all a setup and the king is walking into a deathtrap. Whatever forces they can scrape together haul ass back to Nalbina Fortress to try and rescue him. While fighting their way up to the king (and really, if they're already openly assaulting the fortress, is there any chance the king is still safe?) Reks gets separated from Basch for a second, and when he runs up to the treaty room to catch up, finds the king already dead (NO SHIT) and gets backstabbed by Basch, who's now talking with a completely different voice, presumably feeling it more appropriate for admitting he killed the king himself for surrendering like a pussy. Reks is bleeding out on the floor when the Archadians bust in and Basch gives the story to them. The Imperials basically say "Well sucks to be Dalmasca I guess" and then Dalmasca surrenders anyway, except without the part where they aren't Imperial property afterward. Basch is executed for being a total prick, and Princess Ashe kills herself after having about the worst few weeks ever.

Cut to two years later, and you take over Vaan, who is, in deference to VI and IX, an annoying fucknugget thief. Vaan is Reks' brother, and carries a raging hateboner for the Empire, which he indulges by stealing their pocket change. Given that you never fight an Imperial who carries more than about ten bucks, this can't be a productive hobby. This next part of the game is just Vaan fucking around learning various game systems before they finally start the actual plot.

After killing some rats, because this game has zero self-awareness AND forgot that it already had an entire tutorial dungeon, Vaan runs into Penelo. Penelo is that standard JRPG character who's waiting to be Vaan's girlfriend when the game grows the balls to pull the trigger on a real relationship.

(This never happens.)

Penelo scolds Vaan for being an irresponsible shit, then sends him to a bar to become a poacher.

Some jerk at the bar gives you the first of the Hunts, side missions in which you track down and slay boss monsters. The first Hunt is against some Kingdom of Loathing reject, a fanged Tomato head on the body of Piglet from Winnie the Pooh. Apparently, slaying this means Vaan is badass enough to join Fight Club, so the jerk from the bar inducts you into the local clan, basically a guild for getting more Hunts.

The first Hunt is the only mandatory Hunt, which is sort of strange considering how much of the game they account for. There are whole subplots linked to the Hunts and the clan, which never intersect with the main game. I can't help but wonder if this was deliberate or a product of the game's troublesome development... but more on that later.

So then Vayne, the son of the Archadian Emperor and dead ringer for Pete Burns from Dead or Alive, rolls into town to take over the management of Rabanastre, the only real city in Dalmasca. Vayne was the same person to receive Basch's confession at Nalbina Fortress, but good luck catching that detail on your first time through this hot fucking mess of a narrative.

Vayne rolls into Rabanastre like Aladdin rolling into Agrabah, then Kanyes his own ceremony by telling all the angry Dalmascans he knows they hate his guts but he's going to do a killer job as consul anyway. The extremely fickle crowd decides they like his jib, and Vayne fucks off to get ready for some hardcore welcome dinner action.

Vaan decides that if you want to rob your own city's palace of its national treasures, it's best to wait until after a belligerent nation will have stripped it of everything valuable but not until it is occupied by a top VIP of the world's most powerful nation, so he claps his scrawny hands together and goes to see a tricksy fellow named Old Dalan, which is actually a brilliant maneuver on Vaan's part. Dalan, despite never leaving a chair in the sewers, has unlimited access to information and resources and gives no fucks about sharing it with anybody who asks, so when Vaan, a disenfranchised, sticky-fingered peasant kid like thousands of others in Rabanastre, asks if he knows an easy way into the palace, Dalan not only knows exactly such a thing, but has the magical key to the treasure vault in his nightstand, which he will eagerly hand over as soon as Vaan grabs a spare battery for the thing.

So Vaan fucks off to the wilderness to grab one, and Penelo tags along because she doesn't want her only friend in the world to die fighting anything tougher than a living tomato stalk. Naturally, gathering the magical thungumbob, a 'sunstone,' turns out to be a daily chore so common and tedious the tribals in the area make their kids do it to keep them out of their hair, and then sell them to tourists as tchochkes. No, they don't have any on hand. Yes, you WILL have to make one yourself.

With sunstone in hand, Penelo lets on that she, a lonely 17-year old girl ditching work to spend time with him, actually sort of enjoys being around Vaan-kun, and would onee-san care to drink from her oasis? Vaan ripostes like a champ and pile-drives her back into the friendzone, saying thanks for your time, but it's late, and I need to go get slaughtered committing a felony. So with the treasury key in hand, Vaan heads off to the sewers. That's right, Vaan's story kicks off with rat-slaying, two fetch quests and a sewer level.

THIS FUCKING GAME.

Luckily, it's only a short walk through the sewers from the worst part of town to an unguarded palace storeroom. The rest of the palace is a bit more populated, but in true Final Fantasy fashion, the guards are essentially stormtroopers and are therefore as retarded and attention-deficit as you would expect, and Vaan bumbles into the secret treasury with no trouble.

Now, here a few things happen solely because of plot: as Vaan stumbles around the room appraising the priceless treasures the Empire so graciously left undisturbed, a random statue apparently thinks OH SHIT A PROTAGONIST, and opens up its face to bare a crystal, which Vaan instantly seizes because, numerous faults aside, he knows a MacGuffin when he sees one. Then two people waltz into the room right behind him, thanking him for finding it for them. These folks are Balthier and Fran, who apparently possess enough ninjutsu to intuit that Vaan is both looking for the exact same thing they are (despite not knowing it exists) and possesses the only means of obtaining it... AND are able to follow him to it stealthily enough for Vaan never to notice them... yet are too inept to find the crystal themselves, or to seize it before Vaan after he has found the way in. They also don't seem to expect Vaan to want to keep it for himself, as once he refuses to relinquish it, they engage in a harrowing 2v1 staring contest until a door in the back opens completely of its own accord and sounds of a ballyhoo waft in.

Vaan hightails it out of there, getting as far as an upper balcony before realizing, "Oh shit, this place is under some sort of all-out assault" as an airship bombards a melee in the courtyard. Vaan seems alright with standing there and dying- since that would be pretty metal- but Balthier and Fran grab him by the collar and abscond with him on their equally-metal flying crystalpunk motorcycle.

Apparently this exceeds the craft's weight limit though, as it immediately crashes despite not seeming damaged in any way, and the makeshift party somehow winds up back in the sewers again. Balthier remarks that the Imperial forces seemed suspiciously quick to act once La Resistance attacked- which I would point out is just their fucking job- but sure enough, it seems like they were counting on, if not baiting the rebels into attacking to trying and kill off Lord Vayne, just to entrap and rout them. This means that Vaan's hunch about the guard being lax during the feast was dead fucking wrong, and he really did choose the worst possible night to rob the place, what with everyone there literally counting on disgruntled peasants skulking in and causing a fuss.

As Balthier chides Vaan for ogling Fran like a sultry zoo creature at this point, I guess I should introduce them. Balthier is essentially what Vaan would be if he weren't a total fucking pussy. He introduces himself as "the leading man," and periodically refers to himself as such. This seems to be an in-joke, in that he might have been, at various points in development, exactly that, before Vaan had sufficiently polished Akitoshi Kawazu's doorknob. Balthier is, thematically, far more suited to this role, and this gets on my tits mightily, but I'll save it for a more apt juncture. Fran is a Viera, a bunny-elfgirl. There are actually a handful of nonhuman races in FFXII, but fucked if any of them are going to end up in the party except the fanservice race. Fran doesn't really have a character; she is Balthier's Chewbacca, and any chance of development or an arc she might have had is neatly capped off fairly early in the game. She will, however, provide timely gazzetteering and cryptic insights in as few words as possible. So that's something.

With the amoral career criminals agreeing, for the moment, not to shank the scrawny bottom-rung-of-society cockblocker in a witness-free sewer for his priceless treasure- in point of fact, the ONLY treasure they thought to leave with- the rabble proceeds to blunder about the sewers until they happen upon a damsel in distress. She'll introduce herself as Amalia, the Resistance leader, in a few moments, but if you read the fucking manual, see the cover of the game- or if you've ever experienced a work of media in your life- you might already have puzzled out that it's the "late" Princess Ashe. She's cornered on a ledge by some Imperials, but, at Vaan's urging, jumps down into his arms.

Now, allow me a short tangent... again. The game now indulges in the first of a handful of spots where they hint at some sort of deeper connection between Vaan and Ashe. They, alone of the party, see certain things. This time, they just sort of have a too-long gaze at one another when Vaan catches her. It's part mystic, part romantic, and nothing, nothing at all, ever comes of it. Ever. I suspect it's just a ripple in the game's tumultuous development, but of course I can't prove that, and indeed it's what I say eight out of ten times the writing goes somewhere retarded, but there it is.

So you wallop a few Imperial goombas with fingerquotes Amalia as a guest star. They try and present Ashe as a stone badass, but given that she was cornered by a few hilariously incompetent mooks, froze like a doe instead of defending herself, and then had to be caught by a young man that probably weighs less than she does rather than jump that perilous TWELVE FUCKING FEET, she comes off as pretty ungrateful once she immediately flips the Bitch Switch to the "ON" position and leaves it there for the rest of the game.

Now, I'm not gonna make fun of the particulars of this games dialogue, because if I do that we'll be here all goddamn night, but I do think this is worth pointing out: So Ashe, after spending two years in obscurity and blowing her resistance's best shot at killing or ransoming someone worthwhile, has the news gently broken to her that everyone she knew or was working with is definitely dead now. When she walks out in a bad mood, Vaan thinks to ask, "What's wrong with her?" I know! WOMEN, right Vaan? Balthier wisely calls him out, but then thinks to deride his skills as a thief, despite being 0 to 1 with Vaan in terms of goods stolen, where they both shall remain for the rest of this fucking game.

With a fourth party member in tow, the crew of thieves and seditionists mow through the rest of the sewers, to include two token boss fights, neither with any bearing on the plot. But once they emerge back into the slums, they are immediately arrested... for the robbery. That's right! Amid the massive slaughter of resistance infiltrators and the entire palace in chaos, the steadfast Imperials not only totally noticed the robbery of goods they didn't know existed by folks they never witnessed, but were able to determine exactly where you would emerge from a massive sewer complex they hadn't mapped and didn't know you had entered. That's damn fine policework! Penelo arrives to see the four clapped in irons, and after Vaan is bitchslapped to the ground by an Imperial for glancing in her direction, Balthier calmly hands her what appears to be a handkerchief. Because while a throwaway remark to passer-by is worthy of a beating, letting known thieves make handoffs to acquaintances is not worth a raised eyebrow. I still give that Imperial my Favorite Person Badge. Naturally, they cart you all off to prison without trial.

While knocked out in the clink, Vaan has a dream of his brother Reks, apparently in some sort of hospital. Despite the prologue of the game making it seem like Reks bit the dust within moments, Vaan's memory of him seems to indicate he was in a vegetative state for some time before expiring. As future events show, that will really strain the delicate continuity, but more on that in a moment...

Now, Nalbina Dungeon is actually just the fortress from the prologue, repurposed as a hole to throw unsavories into. It being more of the "Gitmo" type of prison than the "Shawshank" type, the cast languish in wasting obscurity for the rest of their days, because FFXII is a bold work, unafraid to buck cliché.

What actually happens is that Vaan and Balthier get into a scuffle with three Seeq, a race of pig people. These Seeq can only speak in horrible guttural roars, despite every other Seeq in the game being fully articulate. Y'all racist, Squeenix! After the pigs are beaten up, the pair take cover as a group of Imperials come out onto the balcony. With them are the Bangaa (lizard-man) bounty hunters led by Ba'Gamnan, apparently come looking for Balthier, whom the Imperials intend to, uh, let Ba'Gamnan walk out with? Because Balthier has a bounty on him, apparently? Question: if not the Imperials, who's offering this bounty? Even if it isn't them, why would they give him their prisoner? The soldier in charge rightly tells Ba'gamnan to go fuck himself, but before the lizard can carve him up, a man clad all in armor- Judge Gabranth, in fact- enters and gets everyone back to official business. The Judges are essentially this game's Foxhound, and Gabranth is chief among them. While Boba Fett and Darth Vader are chatting up on the balcony, Chewbacca sneaks up and says she's found a way out for Han and... uh... Who the fuck is Vaan in the Star Wars analogy, again? C-3PO? Does that make Penelo R2-D2? Makes sense, given she could never walk right in those fucking boots...

AAAAAaaaaanyway, Fran says they can get out through the oubliette, but the magic on the door is beyond "her talents." These "talents" will, in fact, never be showcased in the game, ever, and whenever the Viera sensitivity to magic phenomena comes up in the game, it tends to be working against her. She is also one of the party's worst casters, stat-wise. CHARACTER! Luckily, the large group of our heavily-armed captors seem to be headed that way, and we should be able to easily slip into the most high-security area right behind them, a plan that wouldn't be suicide if we had any of our equipment.

As luck would have it, our equipment would just happen to be in an unlocked, unguarded side room in a hall adjoining the room we were just in, along with a map of the whole joint. I've got to say, of all the JRPG prison breaks I've been party to- and let me tell you, I'm a damn expert on this subject- this may be the laziest and most token I've seen. There is never, at any point, an attempt to make it seem like you might actually be, you know, imprisoned.

Canonically, you begin sneaking just steps behind Darth Gabranth, but it doesn't matter of you have a raging gun battle with every Archadian on the way. Not a complaint, not a complaint! I don't even want to contemplate forced stealth in this game. And yes, it turns out that getting into the oubliette is as simple as wandering in behind them after they open the magicked, yet otherwise totally unguarded, door. Once within, Gabranth has a nice little chat with the lone prisoner caged there: none other than the late Captain Basch, kingslayer to Dalmasca and kinslayer to Vaan. Their conversation doesn't mean much at the moment, but I'll come back to it once it's relevant. Ooooh believe me, I've got a rant cooking.

Once Gabranth wanders away, the crew saunters up to Leia there and realizes that Fran's "way out" is more of a "bottomless chasm." Considering there's no possible way she could've actually scouted this out, we really shouldn't be surprised that the notorious prison does not, in fact, have a convenient fire escape. While the crew ponders their next move, Basch chimes in with, "Hey, you know, if you guys are breaking out, I mean, Iiiiii'm a prisoner, yooooou're prisoners... wouldn't mind if I, you know..." Vaan throws a complete shit fit, jumps on his cage like a monkey, and making some, shall we say, pointed accusations. This is actually totally appropriate, and works perfectly well for Vaan's character. It just unfortunately highlights how terrible his voice acting is, with any emotion besides mild interest sounding wooden and strained.

Equally unfortunately, the huge gaggle of soldiers in the next room over start wondering about Basch's conspicuous and untimely reinstatement of visitation privileges, and begin running back in. Starved for options, Fran kicks the lever for Basch's cage off the retaining gear, and the group rides that sumabitch as it freefalls a few hundred feet down, the bemused Gabranth looking on.

Fortunately for the party, the cage's airbags deployed at the bottom (Nabradian craftsmanship, I tell you, they really don't make em like that no more) and they go about their merry way. Vaan tries to resume his shit fit from above, but Balthier tells him to quiet his bitch ass down. This works out fine until they stop for a short rest midway out of the tunnels they've landed in. A bit of namecalling leads Basch to proclaim his innocence, saying that he was abducted at the battle of Nalbina, and it was his brother, Gabranth himself, who assumed his identity and betrayed the king.

Now, a lot of folks have voiced disdain for the whole 'evil twin' aspect. But you know what?

I can take that. It's fantasy. Whatever.

But there are far worse things about this whole plot; cliché is one thing, but this trick is a fatal assault on logic itself.

So, here's the Empire's grand plan: there is no real treaty at Nalbina, and they kill King Raminas of Dalmasca as soon as he gets settled in for the 'signing.' Then, they... what? Intentionally spread a rumor that that was their plan? Basch heard that shit from retreating allies on the way there. By chance. Were they spies? Was that just Imperial social engineering? And they do have to have Basch there, since I doubt they keep too many evil twins on their Judge staff. Maybe Drace's sister works a fruit stand in Muthru, I'unno.

So Basch and co. arrive at Nalbina and assault the place. As in, real, actual combat. To the death. Now, I can see the Empire sacrificing their own people in service of a stupid, pointless scheme, but here's a question: what if Basch had died? It's not like they sent one lonely cripple with sad eyes to swat at him on his way up the stairs, they attacked him with a fucking fighter airship, on top of a couple dozen plate-clad foot soldiers. So after luring an essential element of their plan into place via grapevine, they send people who aren't in on the plan to kill him with whatever means are available. Did they just assume he could, on foot and armed with a sword, slay two dozen men and a Remora-class anti-personnel craft?

Fine. So then Reks gets separated from Basch, and only reaches the Highhall after Gabranth has taken Basch's place. What if they hadn't split up? There were other people with Basch besides Reks, but none of them were present for the 'surrender,' so presumably they all died horribly. So they abduct Basch, kill his cohorts, squat him behind a pillar- since they show he was totally in the same room, just out of frame- and wait for a separate group of Dalmascans to arrive, so they can... prank them? Just hoping against hope that they don't get killed on the way there, or notice Basch squirming and groaning while three guys hold him down six paces to stage left? And then when Reks does arrive, Gabranth immediately shanks him, so that he can witness the fake confession while drifting in and out of consciousness. Their one witness.

I want to know, was Reks the first to make it there, or just the first to survive their little skit? Did they run that confession a couple times while their patsy accidentally died on them? "Dammit, Gabranth!" Vayne would chide! "The kidney again! I told you not to nick the kidney this time!" And this is a crucial part of their plan: the whole shebang, the entire scheme, hinges on having at least one witness to claim it was Basch that betrayed Raminas, not the Empire.

And they fuck that up, too! Basch and Gabranth look similar, but they speak nothing alike. Anyone who had actually served with Basch- say, his friend Vossler perhaps- stood a fair chance of recognizing the difference.

And here's a thought: did Basch, high-ranking Dalmascan Knight, never mention to anyone that his twin brother was a fucking JUDGE MAGISTER, bodyguard to a son of the Emperor of Archadia, and one of the top men in command of their military might? This seems like a non-trivial matter for the folk of Dalmasca to know! What if John Fucking Kennedy had had a twin brother who had been raised in Moscow since he was four years old? And one day good old Jack comes on TV and tells the American people through a thick Ural accent that they're giving all their Minuteman missiles to Castro? For safekeeping? But luckily it was Reks, who had only known him for about ten minutes and wouldn't know the difference.

STILL fucked it up: Reks was so gravely wounded by Gabranth that he spent at least a few months catatonic before wasting away and dying. Apparently he recovered well enough at some point to tell everyone a ridiculous, sensational story about something that no one else could corroborate and which he was barely awake for? And everyone just bought it and accepted the surrender without terms, as penance for Basch being such a shit and raining on their nice happy treaty signing? What about the soldiers who first learned of the plot and passed it on to Basch, who were retreating and therefore didn't participate in the battle and get killed? What about any other survivor of the battle, who all knew about the assassination plot? Perhaps the soldiers at Nalbina would believe that Basch had deceived them, but the initial discoverers at least could verify, for certain, that there was already an Imperial plot to assassinate Raminas. And everyone just accepts... what, exactly? That Basch beat the Imperials to the punch?

Well, I guess either no one raised those extremely conspicuous inconsistencies or fell down a well on the way back to Rabanastre. So Reks kicks the bucket, and the only witness left is Basch. When Gabranth sees him in Nalbina, he asks him, "Why are you still alive?" Bu- th- ffffff- EXCELLENT FUCKING QUESTION, Noah! You win the gold star! The one person in the whole world who could blow their scheme, and they carry him down a few flights of stairs and leave him there forever. Basch eventually ventures that he's kept hostage to keep Marquis Ondore of Bhujerba 'silenced.'

About... what? The scheme? Why the fuck would Ondore know anything about it? Why would he have any idea that Basch was still alive at all? Even if he did somehow know, Ondore is a fucking snake. Basch has less than no political value, since any anti-Archadian that found out he was alive would immediately kill his ass dead, and Ondore would never tip his hand and act against the Empire in a fit of passion regardless of what they did to some rotting political prisoner. What proof would Ondore have, anyway? Unless Basch were to somehow end up wandering into his mansion and speak to him personally- which, I mean, could never fucking happen, right? Well, not if he was DEAD, anyway!

(This, exactly, happens.)

But sure, I'll grant it to them: the Empire came up with The Worst Plan in the Fucking World, and went at it with the skill and grace of a catfish fucking a stump, but they pulled it off. In the end, it worked. There's just one question I have left for them: WWWHHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY???!!! Why in Faram's name would you bother with this ridiculous fucking plan in the first place?! To make the people of Dalmasca, who still hate you unconditionally but can do nothing to oppose you politically or militarily, accept the surrender more readily? The game goes out of its way to show that Dalmasca's military was already beyond hope of resisting Archadia, and the Imperials aren't even a mite shy about oppressing the people of Rabanastre as forcibly and openly as possible, with any dissenters being carted of to Gitmo. So why the fuck would they even bother with this convoluted plan? What where they so afraid the original treaty would bring? Raminas wanted peace, was prepared to surrender his country, and knew he couldn't fight the Empire. I don't think he was going to demand universal health care and a mythril pleasure yacht. And what if you don't like Raminas' terms? Deny them! What's he going to do? Pull his OTHER, non-decimated military from out of his voluminous sleeve?

"Haha!" he exclaimed, posing majestically as black-clad supermodels crashed through the windows. "You never counted on my NINJA COMMANDOS!"

Maybe, maybe they were concerned about provoking Rozarria, the rival empire to the southwest, by seeming too aggressive, but riddle me this, assholes: what seems more aggressive, a relatively amicable surrender with terms that leave the king ruling- even as a figurehead- or one that leaves the king dead under suspicious circumstances and his nation becoming their uncontested property? And how about this: what the fuck does Rozarria care about HOW they happen to acquire every nation running in a straight line from Archadia to their doorstep? I can't really see the Margrace dynasts lounging around the pool at the Ambervale, saying, "Oh, didja hear? Landis, Nabradia, and Dalmasca all just happened to fall under Archadian sovereignty through bizarre and unfortunate coincidences. Man, some empires just get all the luck!" No sir, I think Rozarria might not give them the benefit of the doubt on their acquisition of the Galtean isthmus, i.e. the most important military territory to hold in a war on Rozarria. I think that might just make them antsy regardless of exactly how the headlines read. This 'plan' manages to be an utter fucking gong show from every angle, and of all the ridiculous narrative snafus this game chokes out, this one might be, if not the most damaging to the plot or themes, certainly the most comprehensively broken.

THIS.

FUCKING.

GAME.

To be continued.

PART 2: Flush with Success

So with the entire setup of the game thoroughly fistfucked by our party's newest addition, our heroes steamroll another non-story-pertinent boss and are spat out into the desert just east of Rabanastre. Here, we smack down some cockatrices. What is a cockatrice? I'll let the game tell you.

"Lo, the mighty cockatrice, proud-feathered sphere, known as much for its ill humor as its dire rotundity. The great naturalist Merlose once remarked: "...live they in the sands and other arid climes, whereabouts they moveth in a rolling fashion most peculiar. Subsist they principally on small creatures and vermin &c., for the incapacitation of which they disgorge a sticky saliva, thence devouring captured morsels only when appetite moves them. Swollen sacs containing airs are found under the surface of the skin, these lifting the creature upon drafts unseen, whence to espy suitable prey."

The writing in this game is in this faux-Elizabethan style that's fancy enough to sound period-appropriate but not actually too archaic in vocabulary. Everything in this game, the dialogue, the item descriptions, flavor text, bestiary entries, is in this style, and I goddamn love it. Actually, the only characters that don't speak this way are Penelo and Vaan, because being disappointingly incongruous is their entire character concept.

I admit a weakness for it, but even beyond that it really does rattle me how much attention to maintaining this air the game goes through, and how it packs flavorful writing into every nook and cranny it can spare. See, FFXII was born feet first, and that experience informed the rest of it's life. The oxygen deprivation helped, I guess. Even when games have good writing, they tend to focus on the the large strokes and it's rare that they have so much time to spend on the little touches. FFXII took a big ropy shit on its story, narrative, themes, and characters, and then blew all its spare effort on tiny setting details and flavor. Every NPC has a line or two about the setting or their motivations, every location has a history behind it, every throwaway loot item has an origin and purpose, all related in that pitch-perfect antique style.

This game may have put most of its themes in the food processor and left the thing on fucking puree, but maybe the only one that they really nailed is that humans, for all their power and ambition, are small and short-lived, sharing a world with things far, far older and grander. The writing, and the way in which it props up the setting, has a two-fold purpose, then: it makes the world feel larger than it is. It creates the illusion of purpose and motion where there isn't. (The open world helps a lot too, but I'll dive into that cesspool later.) When you walk into some dusty crypt, the walls give off the sense that they've stood long before you were born and will exist long after you die, completely indifferent to your passing. When you hunt down some powerful creature, there's a palpable sense of having found out something rare and truly mighty, and killing it carries the weight of finality. The sum of these thousand small touches is a sense of an ancient but living history, whose surface we can only tap at, the contents and actors of which would raise our hair and baffle the limits of our conceptions. In short, it feels Ivalician, and that that even means anything is testament enough.

But Hiroyuki Ito just can't raise wood if he isn't fucking up something that could have been decent, so of course a mighty portion of the more interesting tidbits are walled off in the most tedious and bass-ackwards way they could justify: the bestiary. Sure, of course the bestiary makes sense as a spot to cram flavor text... for monsters, sure. You get that above description for cockatrices after you bring one down, same as for any other creature in the game. But if I wanna know about the hot patch of dirt west of Rabanastre, I arbitrarily have to kill eight more of them. Getting these secondary bestiary entries is time-consuming, and of course there's no indication which ones are actually worth finding out. Maybe it's the flavor text for the area you're in. Maybe it's a hint at what kind of rare loot that enemy carries, or maybe it's a completely unhelpful allusion to how to unlock certain bazaar goods. (Bee tee dubs, bring a raincoat once I go off on the bazaar, it's gonna be a fucking Gallagher show.) So in practice, one either spends a billion goddamn hours killing the sixth pallet swap of the wolf-model to find a blurb about how platinum armor fucking sucks, or disregard the entries and miss out on all the decent flavor text that would otherwise round out the fourth featureless desert you've slogged through.

Why would they do this shit? Well, allow me to roll out the old standard: it made sense at one point in development, and stuck around after it stopped making sense. According to the game's executive producer, the game started as an MMO. Now, for an MMO, this makes a lot more sense. MMO's, rightly or wrongly, tend to offload a lot of their setting details into out-of-the-way places to allow people to look for them if they want, while letting everyone else get on with the game to make things more accessible. Since grinding monsters is the oil of the MMO's rotary engine, doling out this info after some mild grinding would actually be pretty refreshing: kill ten wolves, get some flavor text, or some pointers about rare item locations, or a crafting recipe involving goods dropped from that particular creature. Actually, there are a TON of things in this game that make more sense if you picture them in the context of an MMO, and FFXII has been described by many, many people- including yours truly- as feeling like a "single-player MMO." I'll try and point out these quirks as I come to them.

After getting back to Rabanastre, Basch runs off on his own to link up with the Resistance. Yes, this is like John Wilkes Booth traveling to Washington, D.C. and linking up with the Secret Service. Fran and Balthier run off to do... I can't even fucking imagine. They aren't romantic, and getting conversation out of Fran is like juicing a walnut. I can only imagine they just sit at the bar while Balthier cracks wise to himself and Fran gets drunk off her ass.

It suddenly occurs to Vaan that the crystal he stole is probably cursed as shit and he should probably chuck it off an embankment and never stop running the other direction. On the other hand, being faced with life in prison has finally made him realize that he might not want to lose his virginity to a pack of starving bangaa, so he runs off to find Penelo and show her a crystal the size of her head. Fortunately for those bangaa, it would seem she's not been seen around lately, which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering she was last seen openly consorting with thieves and revolutionaries.

One of Vaan's gutter rat friends suggests that he go see Dalan, which Vaan immediately warms up to. I can't blame him; the old man gave him a map and key to one of the richest treasures of the Galtean empire in exchange for some tourist junk. At that exchange rate, he might could trade up the Goddess Magicite for the Lunar Whale from FFIV, or a decent voice actor.

Dalan is impressed enough by the stone to promote Vaan to his lead errand-runner for the moment, narrowly edging out Kytes, Vaan's peasant friend from earlier, for the privilege of Fed-Exing weapons to some terrorists. Holy shit, Dalan, if robbing a palace of eons-old magic superweapons in the middle of a combined land/air battle and escaping the most notorious prison in the nation is what it takes to secure your trust, what the fuck kind of legendary bullshit is Kytes getting up to off-screen while I'm getting my ass kicked by chickens in the desert? He becomes a mage in the sequel; maybe he's running Dalan's magicite racket through the Ozmone Plain for him.

A short trip through the sewers and Vaan arrives at the Resistance hideout, where Dennis the peasant and his buddies are busy arguing the shocking revelation that Basch might be innocent. So it would appear that Basch, as soon as he was out of our sight, sprinted through the streets of Rabanastre screaming his identity and blowing the lid off the Empire's betrayal in every alley and doorway. Given the events that will take place in Bhujerba, this isn't actually that farfetched, and is depressingly likely to have worked smashingly.

Flush with success, Basch chooses this moment to stroll right into Revolucion HQ, where their interim leader, an old friend named Vossler Azelas, welcomes him as warmly as circumstances allow. Peasant #3 points out that if Basch is telling the truth, then Reks must have been lying, confirming that the conspiracy really did hinge on the word of a single soldier in the midst of a hallucinating, wasting death of sepsis. Vaan chooses this moment to begin speaking very loudly and angrily, while carrying a sword, in the middle of a pack of paranoid revolutionaries who don't know him.

Now, Dalan wanted that weapon, a sword of the defunct Order of Dalmascan Knights, delivered to Vossler to "remind him of what it once meant." This is something to keep in mind, but for now Vossler merely yanks the sword from Vaan's hands without comment and tells Basch that as far as he's concerned, Basch is still a traitor and everything he claims is a lie. Nevermind the fact that Basch and Azelas were both Captains, both led the assault on Nalbina with equal authority, and would have been privy to the same information beforehand. Vossler should never have believed the ridiculous conspiracy in the first place, but especially not now that it's been explained in plain terms to him.

Basch suggests that rescuing their leader, Amalia, might be of some importance to Vossler whether or not he's ready to trust Basch again. This stings Vossler pretty sorely, but he retorts by pointing out that the Resistance is still hurt very badly from walking into a trap once, and any attempt to rescue Amalia would be even more likely to backfire on them, implicitly accusing Basch of being the one who would sell them out if they attempted such a thing. Regardless, he decides to let Basch merely walk away with little more than the threat that they'd be keeping an eye on him. No, this doesn't make any sense at all. Chalk it up to either indecision and sentimentality on Vossler's part, or the Resistance simply not having a cage mighty enough to entrap fon Ronsenburg's fantastic cojones. Vossler chucks the Knight's sword back to Basch in contempt (SYMBOLISM! FORESHADOWING!), and with it he and Vaan leave before things get even uglier.

Once outside, Basch is surprised to learn Vaan has met Amalia, which raises an important point: motherfucker, how do YOU know Amalia? The Resistance sure as shit didn't tell you about her, you had no possible way of hearing about her while rotting in Nalbina, and you wouldn't know her by her alias anyway; you'd have simply known her as Ashe, what with having known the Royal family personally. That inconsistency aside, Leia asks Threepio to take him to Han and Chewie, claiming he needs to fly somewhere.

On the way, Basch stops to gawp at the crowd of homeless orphans, which gets Vaan talking about his shitty life. It's actually a good little scene; Vaan beats around the bush a little before admitting he doesn't think Basch could have killed Reks, forgiving him and apologizing for treating him like an asshole. Once inside the cantina, Migelo- the bangaa that uses Vaan, Penelo, and the other street rats as cheap labor- is dressing down Balthier, who unfortunately has no shits to give. It turns out Penelo really was taken captive on account of her momentary acquaintance with Balthier and co., but not by the Empire- it's Ba'Gamnan, the bounty hunter, who has set an obvious trap at the floating sky-city Bhujerba with Penelo as hostage. Nevermind the fact that Balthier doesn't actually know or care about Penelo.

It's likely the reptiles would have just gotten bored and eaten her while Balthier got super wasted in various Ordalian bars if Vaan hadn't wandered in during that very conversation and demanded Balthier take him there to sort it out himself. In addition, it seems Bhujerba was Basch's intended port of call as well! Balthier is doing his best to tell them all to kiss the palest cheek of his bony ass when what should Vaan offer in payment but- that's right- the Goddess Magicite! Fran facepalms as hard as she fucking can, but Balthier relents and the plot hook is grasped by one and all.

Which is to say I immediately ignored it to fight the world's angriest chicken. The less said about my girlish screaming and the many retreats which ensued, the better for all of us.

Balthier puts on his most punchable smugface as he shows off his airship, the Strahl, to the wannabe sky pirate Vaan. Once aboard, Fran points out that the quickest route to Bhujerba is over Dorstonis, which is like saying the fastest route to the Vatican is through Rome. Basch is concerned that, since Bhujerba gained much of their favor with the Empire when their Marquis Ondore urged everyone to stop fighting after the King was assassinated, they might then lose that favor if knowledge of Basch's survival or the conspiracy became common knowledge. Now, that doesn't really make sense- there's no reason you would turn on an ally/vassal and provider of valuable natural resources if someone figures out that the bullshit they backed you up on was, in fact, bullshit- but keep it in mind anyway.

Meanwhile in a Bhujerban warehouse, Penelo is indeed held by Boba'gamnan and his cronies. Penelo's (true) claims that she doesn't even know Balthier ring hollow when they get word that he flew right off once the ransom reached his ears. He points out that they need Balthier alive, but Ba'Gamnan's weapon of choice is a freakin' chainsaw, so I'm not sure how serious he is about that. I'll level with you, he may not actually be a very good bounty hunter given that he never catches the only bounty we ever see him hunting.

Nevertheless, he has at least drawn his target to him, and Balthier and co. arrive in Bhujerba. (The Strahl's flyover of the skycity is freakin' gorgeous, too; Final Fantasy XII really is a beautiful game.) At the airport, Balthier points out once again that it might be bad news if Basch's identity gets out, which is emphasized immediately by a pack of stormtroopers running past looking for them (oddly yelling out "He's not here!" while they're still entering.)

Naturally, with Basch and Vaan delivered safely to their respective certain dooms, Balthier and Fran have no motivation to remain in Bhujerba, and they take their payment and leave promptly. After- wait, wait, that's the opposite of what happens, sorry. Despite armed authorities literally swarming around looking for him, and knowing that his most dangerous enemy is waiting to trap him with bait he doesn't care about, and despite the fact that sticking his neck out for no reason will, in but a short while, become a major sticking point for Balthier, he decides to not only tarry with the suicidal Dalmascans but aid them in whatever dangerous monkeyshines they get involved in.

Fran offers no objection because she has no character or personality beyond following Balthier like a simpleton.

No sooner do they step outside and mention their destination than a young, well-dressed boy waltzes over and asks to tag along. The very reasonable question of why he would want to crawl into a closed mine is ventured, and he retorts with the same question. Balthier immediately accepts his company, because shady criminals are all one big happy family. Asked his name, the kid gives a terrified deer-in-headlights routine and stammers out 'Lamont,' but the party immediately one-ups his incompetent handling of an alias when Vaan addresses Basch by name. 'Lamont' seems not to mind or notice, though, so the trip is afoot once more.

Coincidentally, all roads but the one path to the mine happen to be closed. (Also coincidentally, there are two Hunts to be done in the mines, but neither can be started on the first go-round due to the roadblocks preventing you from flagging them. UUURRrrrghgh!) Upon reaching the mine, Balthier points out that such an important source of the Empire's magicite is likely under heavy guard, but Lamont protests that the Empire is largely absent from Bhujerba due to the terms of their alliance. Because if there's one thing we know about Empires and their stormtroopers, it's their impeccable restraint and respect of boundaries.

Upon entering, who should we find but Marquis Halim Ondore IV conversing with an unknown Judge in golden armor. The Judge browbeats Ondore for a bit while the party listens in. They are on their way out, and the party keeps hidden as they pass. Lamont seems disappointed with how eager the Marquis is to kowtow to the Empire, but Balthier interjects that he is secretly funding insurrectionists. This will remain an important fact until the Imperial war plot is sidelined for a much more important and interesting plot, and then again after that plot is forgotten and the war takes center stage again. I do want to point out that Ondore's two attendants are some sort of long-necked cat-people, one blue and one orange. I don't think their race is ever mentioned, and you almost never see any more of them. Just something I thought was odd.

The party makes its way into the mine proper, blue magicite glittering in the walls of the living rock of the floating continent. Lamont produces a glowing stone and waves it about like a Geiger counter. This short inspection seems to satisfy his curiosity, and when the party asks about the stone, he replies that it is called 'nethicite,' and that, unlike normal magicite, it absorbs rather than releases magical- oh, I'm sorry, MAGICKAL- power. I forgot we were in Ivalice for a second. Apparently, the Empire has been trying to manufacture nethicite for a while now, and the esteemed Draklor Laboratory has been succeeding to some extent lately. (What he actually came here to measure is never made clear; the scene exists to introduce the nethicite, naturally.)

Upon hearing this, Balthier comes close to losing his shit, demanding a slew of answers from the mysterious fifth wheel. Before his interrogation of a fourteen year old boy can bear fruit, however, who should bust in but Ba'Gamnan! Vaan immediately demands the whereabouts of Penelo, but Ba'Gamnan actually managed to get one over on us, as trivial as that is: Penelo was never to be exchanged, and they shoved her out the door and sent her on her way as soon as they confirmed Balthier was heading into their trap.

Thinking quickly, Lamont flings the nethicite into Boba's face and gives the signal for "Cheese it!" and, as the party scampers around the gaggle of reptilian Zenigatas a truly Yakety Sax-worthy chase back through the mine ensues. Ba'Gamnan and his three cronies, Gijuk, Bwagi and Rinok will assail you continuously as you flee the mine just ahead of them. Lamont is no longer a party member, having at long last realized the quality of his companions. Running from the headhunters is actually not too difficult; they run at the same rate as you, but have to stop moving to attack or cast spells, so if you're just fleeing, they can't catch you for more than one or two hits. Once you near the exit of the mine, you have successfully lost them. Yes, lost them, on a completely linear path through the location they chose to ambush you. "Gabranth's dark hand," indeed.

It's worth noting that you can totally just turn and fight the fearsome foursome, though it's pretty tough if you haven't been leveling significantly. The fight is over as soon as Ba'Gamnan falls, but he is, of course, the toughest of the group, and they'll all be buffed; it's very wise to take out his support first, starting with Rinok, the mage and weakest defensively. If you do take out the bangaa, he runs off in a scaly huff vowing to get you and your little dog. It's actually pretty funny if you manage to beat him, since you can then screw around farming monsters at your leisure, yet every time you enter a new area Lamont will still be running for his life just ahead of you. What a card.

Well, did you like Ba'Gamnan and his crew? Think they were cool, interesting characters? Hell no? Well if you did, you're shit out of luck: as far as the main plot is concerned, we will never see them again. Not once.

Once outside, Lamont runs smack into Ondore and the Judge, who have detained Penelo after she came running out of the mine. Lamont addresses the Judge as Ghis (pronounced "geese"), and claims he was merely out for a stroll. Balthier, eavesdropping behind a wall with the party, identifies Lamont as none other than Larsa Ferrinas Solidor, brother of Vayne and youngest son of Emperor Gramis. Naturally, Balthier had recognized him from the start. You'd think he was keeping this knowledge in reserve to leverage it somehow later, but really you'd think it would just make traveling with him an even more dangerous idea than it already was- who's to say he won't run into, say, high level Imperial military authority figures, who would immediately recognize him and become very curious about the ragtag group following him around? Doesn't Larsa have good reason to turn them all in that very moment, considering that he's heard Basch's name, knows that Ba'Gamnan tends only to pursue enemies of the Empire, and was just moments ago pushed up against a wall by Balthier and sternly questioned about Archadian military secrets?

Nope! Nope nah-nope-nope-noooo, Larsa tells Ondore and Judge Ghis to chew his imperial taint and takes Penelo by the hand, running off to play house (manse?) or whatever. You know what? Fuck it! I'll take it! This is your chance, Penelo; your prospects just skyrocketed, girl, grab the reigns on that pony and never let go. Vaan will be fine; that Filo chick is probably DTF, and she's got a hoverboard.

What comes next is not quite so bearable. Yes, it's time for what might be the game's most infamous scene. Balthier and Basch have a quick revisiting of the idea that some people might be very unhappy to learn that Basch is alive and well, and that this might get the Marquis in a bit of hot water with the anti-Imperial groups he's been not-so-secretly funneling money and magicite to. It would also draw a great deal of attention to Basch himself, and anyone he might be traveling with. It now becomes our objective to spread exactly this rumor, for exactly these purposes.

What.

I have watched this scene five fucking times trying to figure out this leap in logic, and I can't even begin. I can't come up with one single reason why this would appeal to us for even a second. If we want to get the Marquis in trouble, we can just tell everyone he fucks those cat guys on the sly. If we want to commit suicide, we can eat zombie flesh and jump over the side of the continent. And if we want anyone- anyone at all- to take our claims seriously, we would need proof. Luckily for that last point, we have the man himself, in the flesh! So it would be disingenuous to have anyone else out there making these claims. It would be downright counterproductive to have someone half Basch's age to run around, not claiming Basch to be alive, but to claim to BE the Captain, back from the dead. And not by submitting any kind of proof to anyone of import, but merely by running through the streets squawking these obvious falsehoods in the faces of inebriated townies?

Oh Jesus why, why does this turn out to be their plan? To go about the worst possible plan in the least effective way possible? To complement a plan that could kick off a war or an occupation, which in no way benefits us and may well lead to our arrest and execution, with a course of action which could never realistically bring about those ends? To pursue self-sabotage, via self-sabotage?

This fucking game. I swear. I swear to God.

It turns out that the point of telling everyone we were a dead terrorist was to somehow get introduced to the aforementioned anti-Imperial elements, and through them to be introduced to the Marquis. Why yes, this IS like a 19 year old running through the streets of London claiming to be Lee Harvey Oswald, to meet with MI-6, to set up a meeting with the Prime Minister. Naturally, this works immediately and perfectly. Rather than having a bag slipped over your head, a knife stuck between your ribs a dozen times, and a lovely trip over the side of the continent to the sea, some burly men escort Vaan to the backroom of a bar and ask just what the fuck he thinks he's doing. Luckily for Vaan, these insurgents are even more incompetent than our own party, and Balthier and Basch follow in right behind them, rightfully mocking how lame it is to run an insurgence out of the backroom of a pub. Don't knock it, bro, it worked in Ace Combat 04.

The insurgents warm right up to the real Captain Basch, accepting his story at once. Is it FFXII canon that Vayne's conspiracy is as retarded as I made it out to be, and all anyone needs to realize this is for it to be pointed out to them once? Oh well. As it turns out, one of the participants in this cute little private club is Ondore's orange cat-man adviser! I call him Curly. Curly says he'll run right off and set up a meeting with his Excellency.

This scene is intercut with another, in which Penelo hangs out with Larsa in his office. Amazingly, it isn't until this scene that Larsa actually introduces himself to her. This scene is almost sort of comical, with Larsa telling Penelo how great and super-trustworthy his big brother Vayne is and how awesome things will be in Dalmasca now that he's in charge, while Penelo tries to break it to him as gently as possible that the Empire has been rather unkind to Dalmasca in recent years, and trusting the Empire might not be the easiest or smartest thing to do for someone in her position. I make fun, but I do like this scene; it establishes Larsa as honorable but eminently naïve about his country, by contrasting his simple optimism against someone who has suffered her entire young life at the hands of the Empire he's talking up.

It also establishes how much Larsa looks up to his brother, who truly is a charismatic, capable statesman, and his belief in the responsibility inherent in wielding power, one of the game's most important themes.

So the party makes their way to the home of His Excellency the Marquis. Although I really don't like calling someone "Excellency" unless they spend all their time skateboarding and playing bitchin' guitar solos. Once inside, Basch and the party meet with the Marquis himself. Basch and the Marquis seem to think that leaving Basch alive was a measure to try and hold the Marquis in check, the idea being that if Basch's survival came to light, Ondore's announcement of his execution after Nalbina would make him seem like an Imperial collaborator and damage his position with his anti-Imperial allies. (He also relates, after Vaan butts in, that Larsa- with Penelo- has already rejoined the Imperial Fleet. Ondore makes a priceless "Who the fuck is this kid" face when he says it, too.)

But how is this supposed to work in practice? Word gets out that the Empire totally staged the assassination of Raminas and subjugated Dalmasca under those pretenses, and then they yell, "Yeah! We're all total bastards, and Ondore was our friend! So no one hang out with that guy!" All Ondore has to say is, "I had no idea, I really thought the chump was dead," and then it's just the word of the Empire that everyone already hated against the word of the guy funneling money, magicite, and airships their way to fight the Empire in the first place.

But Ondore isn't willing to find out how that would work out, so after turning down Basch's plea to help him rescue Amalia for the resistance, he makes clear his intention to hand Basch back over to Archadia to keep in their good graces. Curly opens the doors to the hall, and stormtroopers flood in to capture the party.

Cut to the city of Archadia, where Lord Vayne and Judge Gabranth are having a nice chat. The Empire is wise to Ondore's scheming, knowing that the insurgency in Bhujerba is too well-supplied for the Marquis himself not to be involved. Gabranth recommends action, but Vayne diverts the subject somewhat, relating that Ondore just happened to send him a letter: Ondore captured Basch, and turned him over to Judge Ghis. Gabranth sets out without pause to execute his brother once and for all.

On the way out, he passes Doctor Cid, of the Empire's Draklor Laboratory, babbling foreshadowing to himself like a fucking lunatic, as he enters. Cid and Vayne exchange pleasant greetings, but the scene fades to black, and the audience is not privy to their discussion...

To be continued.

PART 3: Signet Stones, Sand Seas, and Staircases of Dicks

The scene returns to the party being brought aboard Ghis' flagship, the Dreadnought Leviathan. Hilariously, the little transport craft has these two protrusions on the front that look like someone welded two swords to the bumper. I can't help but imagine this little bumper-car ship ramming dreadnoughts with its teensy little fender blades.

As the party is brought onto the bridge, who should be waiting for them but Amalia! Basch greets her as Majesty, and in response she slaps the taste out of his mouth, because nothing good can ever happen to Basch. Ghis confirms that she is indeed Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca, (*snicker* "B'nargin") and everyone is shocked but Basch, who really does appear to have not only heard of Amalia but known her true identity. Apparently his cage in the Nalbina oubliette was pretty well-connected. Who knew?

Ghis does note that, without any proof of her lineage, she'll simply be hanged with the rest of the insurgents. Basch pipes up saying that he had a contingency for just such an occasion and that he and he alone knows the location of such proof, an artifact called the Dusk Shard. Which is to say, the Goddess Magicite Vaan has in his pocket. No really, it starts glowing right on cue and he pulls it on out. Does the Empire not frisk prisoners?! This is the second time! Judge Ghis finally gets the hint and yoinks it out of his hands, exclaiming, "Well shit, that cleared up quicker than I thought it would."

Vaan demonstrates his trademark lack of self-awareness by demanding 'no executions' before he hands over the stone. Ghis mutters to himself about Vayne wanting the stone for some purpose, and they are led away to the brig.

On the way, Basch and Balthier banter about how contrived the previous scene was until their guard escort tries to beat them back behind the fourth wall. I feel you, pal; I actually saw everything that led up to it, and I still don't believe how convenient that all was. Obviously, Balthier and Basch anticipate the guard's attack and judo him to the floor, with Balthier stealing his spear. They prepare to fight the remainder, but one of the other guards knocks out the rest for them. He raises his helm, and look who it is! Captain Vossler Azelas. Basch jibes that he's a bit short for a stormtrooper, and Vossler retorts that he'd rather be Lando than Leia, who Basch totally fucking is. Vossler goes on to say that it's been damn hard enough already taking care of Ashe without Basch and the rest of the clown college that is our party making it worse for him. Basch, sufficiently cowed, welcomes his old comrade to the party and they set off to the brig to liberate Ashe. I mean, Ghis said she should be quartered separately, but they left the bridge at the same time, so, like is Ashe already there, even though the party is still just outside the bridge...? Oh well.

Nevertheless, the party reaches the brig, where two minor judges and their retinue guard the cells. The game treats this as a boss fight, but they're essentially the same enemies you've been fighting through the entire area, just with a bit more health and power.

With that taken care of, Vossler opens up Ashe's cell. She tells him he's a bit short for a stormtrooper, and he politely informs her they already used that gag. She isn't quite so pleased to see Basch and tells him to go get bent, but Vossler coaxes her to take good help where she can get it. Once she haughtily storms off, Vossler looks at Basch and rolls his eyes while making a jerking off motion. The whole ship is alerted now that their honored guest has been let out, but the party sets off to steal a ship and escape the dreadnought.

As the party nears the dock, they run into Larsa and Penelo! Penelo and Vaan embrace upon their happy reunion. I disapprove, of course; you've got an in with the Solidors, girl, heirs to singular power and fantastic hair. You can go back to Vaan's arms after Larsa is grown up and too busy with affairs of state to pay you any mind at home. Larsa is more concerned with the two famous Rabanastrans back from the dead. He urges Ashe and Basch to GTFO as quickly as possible, and to this Ashe asks the very reasonable question, "Why would you want us to escape?"

His answer is hilarious: just to see what happens. This is a major moment in Larsa's sole hobby of earnestly, naively loving and believing in Archades, yet disapproving of and actively hampering its activities at all times. In truth, we may well owe much of our recent and future success to Larsa being a master-class troll.

In addition to letting slip two of his states' most dangerous political liabilities in order to foment drama, he also hands over the manufacted nethicite from earlier to Penelo- "a good luck charm," he claims. This is funny not just because the thing is essentially bleeding-edge Imperial weaponry, but nethicite in any form is for the rest of the game regarded as uniformly evil technology. He then absconds with Azelas to escape separately from the rest of the party, freeing them both from suspicion.

The thing is, he not only understands- at a glance, it would seem- Vossler's role as a revolutionary infiltrator, but immediately knows him by name. How?! I'll grant that there are at least a couple very good reasons the Empire would know of Vossler Azelas, but why would frickin' Larsa have any idea?

While the audience ponders this, the party finds the airship dock guarded by Judge Ghis himself. It would seem that, since they already have the Dusk Shard, they don't actually need the dangerous, strong-willed Princess around anymore, and are more than happy to use any old squinty brunette in a waaaay too short skirt as their politically-convenient puppet queen. Not one to waste time, he flings some sort of spell at the party, only to have it harmlessly absorbed by the nethicite shard. Fancy!

Having wasted most of his MP on that flaccid opener, the party tears into him, and, in defiance of time-tested fantasy traditions, he fights about as well as an elderly man in dubiously-conceived ornamental armor realistically would. Don't feel bad, Ghis; I was a bit overlevelled. Buy your buddy Bergan a beer, though, he always wipes the floor with my ass.

Once the party finishes mauling an elderly serviceman within an inch of his life and stealing a ship to escape back to Bhujerba, the Empire is officially considered 'pwnt' and may not pursue the escapees for the rest of the week. At least, that's my rationalization for five of the Empire's most wanted criminals (and one peasant girl) allowed to wander around the streets of Bhujerba unmolested.

At the airport, a plot point which had been aggravating me terribly finally receives the closure I was hoping for: Penelo returns Balthier's handkerchief to him after having received it from him at that chance meeting in Rabanastre's Lowtown. Now, I know that sounds like massive sarcasm, but believe me (and I'm appropriately ashamed to admit this), this seriously bugged the shit out of me, since I couldn't tell if that had just been a gesture to calm her down or a blind to pass something of import along to her before Balthier was thrown in the clink. Nope! Just a hanky. But at least now I'll be able to sleep again at night.

This is what this fucking game is doing to me. SEND HELP.

Something actually relevant occurs, as well: Ashe thinks Ondore is bad news, but Basch reveals that it had actually been the Marquis' plan all along to get the party aboard the Leviathan so they could break her out. I'll ignore the fact that this is the worst plan since Raminas' assassination. Ondore's a clever old bastard, maybe he just recognizes player characters when he sees them. However, this is the sole, solitary line in which the Marquis' role in Ashe's liberation is revealed, and if you miss it, his character goes from cunning and sly to conniving and treacherous, which is important in itself but really matters when the party immediately runs right back to him, which they do: Basch thinks Ashe should meet with him, and Vossler gives his assent, along with his endorsement of Basch's integrity.

This is something the game will struggle with for the long haul: even when characters have a clear motive or consistent personality- which is a tall order in itself for FFXII- critically important elements of the narrative may be enclosed in a single, easily-overlooked line. It can be extremely difficult to parse what makes sense, what doesn't make sense due to a dropped detail, and what doesn't make sense due to shitty writing. The narrative is unduly dense and hurried at many points and it only takes a handful of these missed or muddled nodes to lose grip on the narrative entirely, and the characterization almost always hinges on these stealthy little kernels even when they make any sense at all.

Many are the players who payed fine attention and still found themselves totally lost as to where they were going, what they where doing, why they were doing that, or why anyone on or off screen would give a stony shit about it. Once you find yourself in this sort of morass, it's nearly impossible to climb back out of it, and there's no resource whatsoever in-game to find your place again (which makes the inclusion of a detailed glossary for FFXIII's pathetically threadbare and hackneyed plot all the more insulting in hindsight).

This, in particular, is the source of a great deal of the bitching about the game's narrative. Apologists of the game contend that if players want to keep up with the turbulent, knotty storytelling, they should just pay extra-careful attention, or refer to a plot guide of some sort. These people can climb a wall of dicks. This game was badly in need of editing, and a careful reading of loony fucking nonsense doesn't magically convert it to something glib and clever. And no work of fiction should need a goddamn reference manual just to have a basic grip on what's going on; it might well provide that needed clarity, but it sure as hell isn't going to make you enjoy the piece of shit. You can get on the bus with T.S. Eliot and have a nice trip to Fuck Right Off. Once again, I can only point to the game's distended, tumultuous development cycle. When you spend more than half a decade ripping everything up and stitching it back together again, you're going to end up with a Frankenstein's monster. It happened to XII, it happened even worse to XIII, and if you don't think it's going to happen to XV, I will play cards with you anytime. (No Triple Triad, though; I've been clean for two years, thank you very much.)

After recommending Ashe visit the Marquis, Vossler gets the bright idea to try and link up his Rabanastre Revolution with the Bhujerba Belligerents, and heads off to the backroom of that pub to see if his people can fucks with their people. Maybe armwrestle Curly, and learn the epic handshake/dance insurgents require before conducting official business.

Back at the Marquis' place, Ashe and Ondore hash out the backstory once more in a rare, but welcome reiteration of what's supposed to be happening; Ondore lets out that announcing Ashe's suicide was Vayne's idea, and, while he couldn't understand why he would suggest it at the time, he realizes now that Vayne was trying to make Ondore look like an Imperial collaborator from the still-very-much-alive Ashe's view.

This kind of undercuts Vayne as the consummate schemer; why tell Ondore she wasn't really dead before convincing him to announce otherwise? And the reasons Vayne would want Ondore's co-operation are obvious, anyway; it helps bring resistance to an end so he can get on with owning Rabanastre like a big sandy trophy. If Ondore was neutral at the time of the war, and he really was taken in by the Raminas conspiracy, then why wouldn't Vayne just lie about Ashe killing herself and ask Ondore to help talk the remaining Dalmascan resistance down, so as to prevent further suffering and loss like the humanitarian Vayne so obviously is? It isn't unreasonable that Ashe would kill herself, being a young woman who lost her new husband, her father, and her nation in the space of a few days, and under those circumstances it's not at all suspicious that Vayne would want Ondore's help in closing the war, since this is something that they would both obviously want anyway. Vayne's flaw wasn't acting shadily, it was letting on that there was anything to be shady about in the first place.

Ashe asks for Ondore's support in getting Archades pushed out of Dalmasca and herself back on the throne, but Ondore is hesitant; she has, after all, lost the Dusk Shard which would have proven her heritage. He also alludes to the fact that even if she had it, she would still need someone called the Gran Kiltias of Bur-Omisace to vouch for her authenticity. Ondore doesn't want to risk opening a power vacuum that Ashe can't fill. (Gran Kiltias' assent aside, who's going to know she doesn't actually have the Dusk Shard? Is this a Thing everyone just recognizes? If she has some other orange hunk of magicite and claims its the Dusk Shard, who can contradict her besides the Empire, who shouldn't want to admit they stole Dalmascan royal heirlooms that could be used against them politically?)

Ondore is moved by the plight of his niece, but can offer no help. With Ashe wandering off dejectedly, Balthier sits stock upright and exclaims, "Oh, shit! I just remembered my characterization!" and, in return for so graciously rescuing the princess, puts the squeeze on Marquis Ondore for the regal bounty of... room and board. For the night. You canny rogue, you.

Ashe isn't taking this roadblock lying down, though, and it isn't long before Vaan finds her trying to start up Balthier's airship, the Strahl. Luckily for Balthier, Ashe is an even worse thief than he is and the controls of the small ship might as well be the Antikythera Mechanism. Vaan inquires as to what the fuck she thinks she's doing, and she reveals that she knows the location of the Dawn Shard, yet another antiquated hunk of magicite that she could use to prove her lineage. How many Proofs of Dalmascan Royal Heritage are lying around in closets and attics? How are there not half a dozen cleaning ladies of various ages and ethnicities claiming Raminas' blood on account of having tripped over some luminous lagniappe behind the divan?

Ondore's strangely-mechanical voice breaks into the conversation, but it turns out to be Balthier with some sort of voice changer device he keeps on board the Strahl. I like to think he dropped an assload of gil on it thinking it would come in handy, and it never, ever has, so he likes to show it off whenever and to whomever he can. (I have a feeling Fran has really, really come to hate this fucking thing on long flights.) Realizing she probably can't steal the ship with the owner on board, Ashe makes a daring suggestion: kidnap her!

HOLD YOUR FUCKING HORSES, GAME. This is how FFIX kicked off, and it led to an entire first disc in which ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING happened. Now, I know for a fact that this game has (and will continue to have) completely the opposite problem, but all that means is that you're on thin enough ice as it is. Scare me like this one more time, and I will track down Miwa Shoda and just start cracking teeth.

Balthier, cognizant that he had completely forgot he was a sky pirate for about a week there, is in full-on scoundrel mode and asks what's in it for him, but Ashe has a tremendous retort: the Dawn Shard is in the tomb of Raithwall, the Dynast-King himself, and the Shard is just one of countless priceless treasures that could all be his.

This is an utter fucking lie.

Balthier chomps that particular bit, though, and Basch enters stage left to insinuate himself as Ashe's permanent bodyguard. Fran enters with Penelo and asks- probably sarcastically- if Vaan will be joining them, and he answers as though he can't wait to high-tail it out of Bhujerba. Frankly I think the place is pretty swanky, but I'd never show my face around there either after the shit you pulled, so I'll give you that one. Penelo, probably still in shock from being kidnapped by burly lizard people and suave Imperial scions in the same day, tags right along. The six permanent members of our party are gathered at last, and the stage is set for adventure.

It's on that note that the scene shifts to Archades, as Darth Gabranth alights from a shuttle onto a pad near the top of the massive tower at the metropolis' center. (Note: the flanking guards here are wielding Heavy Lances, a weapon which you can acquire for yourself. I've actually had one for ages now. I think many of the weapons NPC's and enemies wield in gameplay, cutscenes and even FMV's are right from the game's inventory, but it's only occasionally that I recognize them.) Gabranth enters a many-windowed office where an elderly man in extravagant regal garb sits behind a wide desk: Emperor Gramis Gana Solidor. Gabranth has news for the Emperor: it would seem his son Vayne has been funneling money on the sly into Doctor Cid's research at Draklor Laboratory for reasons unknown. It would seem this research is also behind the mysterious yet total annihilation of the Nabradian capital of Nabudis, yet the Imperial officer who led the assault, Judge Zecht, has been missing since the incident and no one remains who can shed any light on the disaster.

Gramis is deeply troubled. He realizes Vayne's ambitions are getting out from under him. Yet, it is at this moment that he starts coughing, and since this is a videogame, that means he's not long for this world, and he knows the fruit of Vayne's efforts for good or ill will likely come after his passing. Gabranth tenderly raises the question of succession. Now, the Archadian Emperor is technically not hereditary. The people elect a Senate, and the Senate elects the Emperor, yet it would seem that, once elected, the term is lifelong and the next candidate tends always to be an heir of the former, as the Solidor dynasty has reigned for four generations since taking over in a military coup. Vayne actually explains this to Migelo, of all people, near the beginning of the game. The Senate doesn't trust Vayne as far as they can throw him, which is perfectly understandable, yet Gramis fears that Larsa, though pure of heart, is still too young to be a strong leader, and the Senate will capitalize on this if he succeeds to the throne.

Gramis changes the subject somewhat. Landis, the original home nation of Gabranth and Basch, was conquered by Gramis. The old emperor wonders if Gabranth might not still be a bit sore about that. But the Judge Magister responds that his allegiance is to the Empire alone, and that he know it is his duty and his alone to track down and slay his brother, who did not acquiesce so easily and who had for so long, and again recently, been such a thorn in the side of their campaigns in the Galtean Peninsula. Gramis regards this ruthlessness as a terrible, yet necessary trait. But he does not want to see Larsa poisoned by such callousness and ambition, as Vayne has been. He requests that Gabranth stand by Larsa, to insulate him from the scheming and falseness of the high echelons of Archades, so that he might ascend to the throne with his nobility intact. Yet he knows, as he cautions Gabranth, that it is from Vayne himself that the greatest danger lies. Above all, he says, he could not bear to see his sons war with one another again.

A well-justified sentiment: it was Gramis who commanded his third son, Vayne, to slay his two older brothers for their scheming and treachery.

After this, the game wastes no time in dropping you right off at the start of the next area. Balthier, for the third time at least, caresses his ego by showing off features of his ship, this time a cloaking device he borrowed from a StarCraft Wraith. It's sadly not inaccurate to say that the first and only cool thing Balthier ever stole was his ship and he has just been riding that good feeling ever since as a "sky pirate." Vaan and Penelo's bickering prompt Balthier to baldly lampshade the couple's status as the comic relief, because sometimes the game is as unkind to me as I am to it.

The task now is to cross the Sandsea. They aren't just being poetic with the name, either; the sand here is special, and flows like water in a vast, sprawling mass stretching beyond the horizon. Basch describes it as larger still than all of Dalmasca and booooy he ain't even kidding. This is the first time the game drops you off at the beginning of an immense stretch of wasteland or ruins and says, "have at it, we'll start up the plot again on the other side." From here on out, this is more or less how the game functions, and I'll be perfectly honest: I think the game gains something from this. There's just something about peering out over the trackless wastes, with nothing on the other side but some magic-charged ruin lost to the mists of history, and fighting my way to the very bottom of it in search of some relic or other that just whips me into the adventuring mindset.

Unless I miss my guess, this design is another relic of the early, early era when the game was conceived as an MMO. This is, of course, par for such games; in an MMO, the boundless wilderness packed with roaming monsters and the bottomless dungeons crawling with nameless horrors and forgotten superweapons ARE the game. Yet I think they do a service to the game as it became. The game's skill at creating atmosphere certainly helps this along, and yet simply having areas like this is a large part of that; as big as the game world can be, they still go out of their way to make it feel like there really is no horizon, that you could walk in any direction and eventually run into the remains of a civilization that rose, prospered, and fell eons before the Dynast-King came to power.

Since there isn't much to remark upon until I actually get to the tomb across the Sandsea, I'll explain the Dynast-King. 1100 years before the kingdoms of today were even dreamed up, a man called Raithwall appeared bearing artifacts of unbelievable power, claiming to be chosen by the gods to usher the world into a new era of prosperity under his rule. Thanks to the aforementioned artifacts, he did exactly that, and he came to conquer every part of Ivalice worth putting on a postcard. By all rights, his rule was pretty fucking sweet, and once things were consolidated under him, he ran his empire like a champ. Times were good, and he set things up so smoothly that the Galtean Alliance- so named because he ran it from the Galtean Peninsula, where the three continents of Ordalia, Valendia, and Kerwon come together- held up for four hundred years afterward. All his direct descendants have passed on, but even today every nation in the land can trace its roots back to the Dynast-King's era, including the royalty of Rabanastre, to include Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca. (*snicker* "B'nargin")

Speaking of Ashe, it would seem someone found her sorely missed at the Marquis' crib... Basch takes a moment to explain the odd machines that compose a lot of the area: oil rigs! Yes, oil and electricity are actually old, passe technologies and have been ever since magitech became the standard. Electricity is still the way to go for rare devices which require a huge amount of energy at once, but for most powered devices, magicite has all but shut down all other energy sources. The linked oil rigs make a handy way of crossing the sandsea, and they'll be present in both of the large areas we'll have to cross- the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea and the Nam-Yensa Sandsea- though mainly the former. The circular catwalks make for some interesting maps, though they aren't always the most efficient for getting from one place to another.

The rigs were built by Rozarria, the great nation to the southwest in Ordalia, and longtime enemy of Archades to the northeast in Valendia. (Could Rozarria, Archades, and possibly Dalmasca have served as factions for players in the conceptual MMO stages of development? We can only speculate.) Basch isn't pleased that the nations in between- including BOTH of his countries- keep getting caught up in their warmongering, but a voice comes from behind dismissing his opinion, stating that's simply the fate of small nations. It's Vossler!

I'm surprised by how much I've come to like Vossler in this playthrough, given that I could barely remember him upon restarting. Vossler gives a token WHAT THE FUCK BASCH I TOLD YOU TO STOP THIS SHIT after he returned to the Marquis to find Ashe abducted. He also says the Marquis can only keep Ashe's 'abduction' under wraps for so long. Uh, Vossler? Under wraps from whom? The people that even know Ashe are alive at all can be counted on your hands, and our party is most of them. The only people who would be 'suspicious' are Ghis and Vayne, and if they know that she absconded to Ondore's care after busting out of the Leviathan, then the Marquis is already pretty well fucked. Beyond that, there's only the Marquis himself and Vossler and his Resistance buddies. Ondore knows, Vossler's joined up with us again, and the Resistance peons can go trip on a staircase of dicks and hit every step on the way down; they've never accomplished anything, and they never will. So who are we keeping the 'abduction' secret from, again?

Oh, well. Fran uses her bunny-girl danger-sense to tell us we're all fucked, and on that note the Urutan-Yensa reveal themselves. See, the Sandsea is so much like a sea that it has its own fish, too, as well as its own crab-people that ride those fish. And these crab people are the Urutan-Yensa, foul-tempered, angry little bastards that really, really hate it when tall, fleshy sorts intrude on their territory. Balthier, in his unfailing brilliance, yells, "Let's quit this place while we can!" as though we weren't crossing the fucking SANDSEA, which Basch JUST GOT FINISHED pointing out is wider than the rest of the country combined.

Allow me a tangent. Again.

It is worth noting that Urutan-Yensa- a common enemy in the Yensan Sandseas- have not one but five bonus pages in the bestiary (as do all of the humanoid enemies), documenting the creation of the mimic-type enemies, and, from them, Omega Mark XII, this game's rendition of the perennial superboss. What's more, it seems that the mimics were created to do battle with Yiazmat, the game's signature superboss named after original director and producer YASumi MATsuno, who created not only this game but the entire Ivalice setting as it was in Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics; the hunt for the wyrm, appropriately entitled "Farewell to a Legend," is a scantily-disguised metaphor for Matsuno's departure from the project due to poor health: Montblanc, the clan leader, explains that he and his siblings were all taught their respective trades by a single magnificent master. But one day, a terrible dragon appeared and, though their master did battle with it for several weeks, it ultimately took him from them all.

Yes, the final challenge of the game is to avenge Matsuno by slaying the disease, and in a real sense, to avenge the game itself; the director's departure proved to be a poor omen for the title. Matsuno was apparently most of the brains behind the operation, and the game appears to have suffered from the lack of his vision and oversight. Hironubu Sakaguchi (the man that the Final Fantasy series calls 'papa') was so disappointed at the loss of his vaunted talents that he declined even to play more than the start of the finished title, a first for the series. Yeah, this game's creation had some problems.

After going all Anikin on the sandpeople, the party eventually arrives at the Valley of the Dead, a long, man-made valley carved into the living rock of the cliffs that lie beyond the sandsea. At the end of a long tunnel, an open-air colonnade stands before a large, grotesque structure. Vayne makes an off-hand comment about 'Galtean architecture' at the beginning of the game, and I'll hand it to him, the structures from the old era- the cathedral in Rabanastre, the tomb, and a shrine later in the game- all share a distinct style that I find really cool.

Upon entering the colonnade, a glowing, toothy bird attacks, and is promptly blinded, silenced, and barraged into nonexistence by four graverobbers. Upon its death, a strange lantern-like device within the structure lights up. The party climbs the steps while Ashe ruminates a bit on the Dynast-King, and about his relics: the Midlight Shard, left to the predecessors of House Nabradia; the Dusk Shard, left to House Dalmasca's founders; and the Dawn Shard, interred with Raithwall in his tomb. Now, if one bearing either of the other shards wants to go creeping around in the tomb, they'll be totally safe, but of course our party is shit out of luck, and will have to fight our way all the way to the bottom. Bring it!

There is no door into the structure; at the top of the steps, one must use the magic device to teleport within. You'd think Raithwall could have just skipped the giant bird and warped everyone who came to the tomb without the right Stone to a room with no exit, deep underground. But of course, Raithwall seems to have anticipated someone might need the Dawn Shard someday. Once within, it's only a few steps onto a narrow passage before a time-honored tradition of the series commences: a Demon Wall. Behind the party, a horrific statue comes to life, waving two massive swords in front of it. A dozen insectoid legs begin pulling it the whole structure slowly but surely forward. The party must defeat the wall or retreat into the passage behind them, or be crushed. Demon Walls are generally a massive pain to fight, and this one's no different; let's just run away! (The Wall is intended to trap the party on a narrow catwalk above an abyss, but it activates as soon as the party leader hits the trigger; the ensuing cutscene showed the Wall move right past a bemused Penelo still standing free, off to the side.)

Once through the door leading deeper into the tomb, the light is too dim to see much of anything... except two eyes gleaming in the darkness. It's a second Demon Wall! And this time, there's no escape. However, this catwalk is about three times longer than the previous one, and the Demon Wall isn't quite as strong as the first. The fight isn't much to write home about, except that the Demon Walls are the only enemies which can inflict the X-Zone status, temporarily removing a party member from play, which can only be lifted by moving to a different screen. (You really are supposed to run from the first Demon Wall your first time in the tomb, but %100 of Rocketeers polled gave no fucks, and it was ground into dust with the second.)

The tomb is neat to look at, but I won't bore you with the details of the epic switch-flipping errand that took place within. Fran stops par-way to infodump Penelo about Mist, the glowing yellow-orange phenomenon that amounts to raw magic floating through the air. It's a recurring element throughout the game, and occasionally serves whatever purpose the writers need it to.

Once the party arrives at the bottom, a massive humanoid creature with horns, red hair, and a smaller double growing out of its chest like Cuato from Total Recall. It's Belias, the Gigas! Belias is the real tomb guardian, and can be tough fight if you aren't overlevelled and cast a ton of water spells at it. Once the fiery scion is defeated, it collapses into a shining crystal, which shatters.

Fran, ever the knowledgeable lady, quotes a bit of lore: Belias was one of a group that rebelled against the gods themselves, and, utterly defeated, was bound in eternal slavery. Ashe knows a bit more. It's said that young Raithwall, before becoming the Dynast-King, defeated Belias in battle, thereby impressing the gods so much that it was bound to him in servitude. After the Dynast-King's death, it remained so, guarding his grave and the Dawn Shard alike.

Ashe also reveals that Belias, and it alone, is the treasure of the Dynast-King, as it is now bound to them as it was to Raithwall so long ago. Balthier isn't pleased by this news, but fuck Balthier: I wasn't too happy to hear it, either. Espers are pretty worthless in battle, and I was always broke throughout the game. You just don't promise an adventurer treasure where there is none, be they player or character.

But we came here for a MacGuffin, after all, and a MacGuffin we shall have. The Dawn Shard is ensconced before the sarcophagus of mighty Raithwall, casting an effulgent lilac glow over the chamber. Vossler seems dazzled by the sight of it, and urges Ashe to take it quickly so they can GTFO. As she approaches it, a spectral vision of the late Lord Rasler appears before her. No one else can see it except Vaan, which pisses me right off. They never even attempt to justify it, and it's pretty obvious they only enable him to see these visions as a fig-leaf justification of his eternally-irrelevant presence.

The vision of Rasler disturbs Ashe, but it also reminds her of her resolve, and with the Dawn Shard in hand she renews her vow to avenge her late husband and everyone else the Empire has taken from Dalmasca.

Now, the entire reason we hiked across THE FUCKING SANDSEA instead of taking the Strahl was because the entire region is a 'jagd,' and skystone, the magicite which makes airships fly, doesn't work due to the powerful, turbulent mist of the region. So suffice it to say it's a bit of a shock when you exit the tomb and are immediately swarmed by Imperial airships which had been lying in wait for the party.

To be continued.

PART 4: Banter's Not the Same if You Say it Slower, Squiffy!

The captured party is brought aboard the flagship, Leviathan, and presented before the commander: it's Judge Ghis! I missed him; now that he doesn't wear the helmet anymore, we can admire that great Archadian hair. Grand Moff Ghis greets Ashe glibly, and demands that they hand over the nethicite. Penelo is reluctant, clutching Larsa's gift in her hand... but Ghis protests, and clarifies that he wants the deifacted nethicite. He asks his lackey, Captain Vossler Azelas, to clarify for him.

Yep, Vossler's gone all Lando on us. At some point it struck him that there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of driving the Empire out of Dalmasca, and the best plan now is to regain whatever primacy they can for Ashe by cooperating with the Empire, after the model of Ondore in Bhujerba. To this end, they will restore the sovereignty of the Dalmascan line if they but hand over the Dawn Shard, which they claim is a shard of unthinkably powerful nethicite. Ashe hesitates, struggling to come to terms with the sudden developments, so Ghis makes it simple for her: consent and become their pet queen, or vacillate and he starts lopping off party members' heads. With a sword at Balthier's throat, she hands the Dawn Shard over.

Ghis, nethicite in hand, remarks on how glad this will make Doctor Cid, once again causing Balthier to nearly throw a shitfit. Real subtle there, bro. The Judge orders them transferred to the light cruiser Shiva, after which they shall shortly be returned to Dalmasca safe and sound. With the party gone, though, Ghis desires to test the stone somehow, not wanting to hand a fake or powerless Dawn Shard to his superiors.

Aboard the Shiva, Vossler tries to discuss the future with Ashe, recommending they make an ally of the young but idealistic Larsa Solidor. Ashe is disgusted by his perceived betrayal, regardless of his conviction that he acts in the best interests of their nation. Worse troubles are brewing, though: lacking more precise equipment, the engineers of the Leviathan have elected to load the Dawn Shard into the ship's own drive, and gauge its power output with its telemetry. Not exactly precise, but it will at least prove the stone is genuine before it's handed into the care of Draklor Laboratory.

As soon as the Shard is loaded, however, a shudder runs through everyone, even the party aboard the Shiva; everyone can tell something is wrong, but Fran in particular begins losing her shit. The power of the stone is beyond all expectation, and Ghis couldn't be more pleased. After all, if all it takes to rule the empire is an Archadian with beautiful hair and a magic superweapon, why not Ghis instead of that pretty boy Vayne?

With the power of the Dawn Shard spiking ever higher and higher, Fran can no longer take the strain and flips entirely the fuck out, smashing her bonds and leaping around, wrecking Imperial shit left and right. Balthier uses the chaos to pirate his handcuffs off and release the rest of the party, but Vossler is too committed to getting Ashe onto the throne to let them fuck the plan up for him now. Basch isn't having it, though; Princess wants Imperial blood, so that's what Princess gets.

Now, I'll level with you: I agree with Vossler. Sure, things will work out for Ashe whatever she does because she's the main character and Vossler isn't, but Vossler has put up with this shit right alongside Ashe for two years now. Dalmasca is still just as much under the heel of Archades as it always has been, perhaps more now than ever, and their Resistance hasn't made a damn bit of difference. It never will, even with whatever help Ondore might be able to provide. If anything, that will just get Ondore in hot water and fuck up Bhujerba's deal right along with Rabanastre's.

If Ashe was smart, she would take the deal and learn Ondore's game. Bullshit resistance movements are one thing, but Dalmasca and Bhujerba combined? Bhujerba's been funneling resources into a navy to rival the Empire's since the war ended, and that's just two years worth of scheming. Give that guy a bit more time, with Ashe playing the same game with Dalmasca, and you might actually have some weight at the bargaining table. Or you can keep fighting the Empire and their magic superweapons out of your comfy little warehouse in a fucking sewer. No, given what they know at the time, only a complete fucking moron would shit up the plan now out of spite or bravado.

Yet... Yet I have to ask, how long has it been since he started playing for both sides? I'm inclined to think he first shook hands with the Empire between busting Ashe out of the Leviathan and reconnoitering with the party at the Sandsea, but there's really nothing to indicate when exactly he turned. It's important, though: if he had gotten fed up with the struggle and starting working with the Empire after securing her momentary freedom from the Leviathan, that makes sense. Ashe has momentary leave to act without the Empire's hold on her, yet Azelas will work with her to secure the Dawn Shard, keeping the princess safe and, in his mind, working to satisfy the aims of both sides. He will have to turn her back over once they have the Stone, but then they can get her on the throne and work from there. Right?

But if it was any point before that, things stop making sense in a hurry. And there's one tantalizing shred of evidence to suggest that it goes very far back: the sword. The sword Dalan had Vaan deliver to Vossler, "to remind him of what [the Dalmascan Knights] once meant." They never reveal what that meant at that time; narratively, it was to get Vaan in the room to witness the events there, but given that Dalan seems to be omniscient and Vossler turned traitor, those words become rather ominous. It suggests that Vossler was likely the mole that got the Princess captured in the first place after tipping Vayne off about their attack. But if that's the case, why let Basch run free? Wouldn't Vossler have a lot to gain by tipping off the Imperials about their favorite jailbird strutting around trying to get the insurgency back on track? And, more importantly, why spring Ashe from the Leviathan? Vossler claims he begged Marquis Ondore to help free Ashe from the dreadnought; if he had, that means the Empire has some serious new blackmail material to use against Ondore, but they don't seem to know. And, of course, that little prison break nearly saw Judge Ghis dead, and would have also tipped off Vossler about Larsa's extracurricular activities... Not that he would have told the Empire about these things, or that he wouldn't have later even if he hadn't turned at that point yet. In fact, all probability seems to point to him keeping it all under wraps for them, going only so far to help the Empire as it took to retake the throne for Ashe. It's hard to get any solid evidence one way or the other.

But while I sympathize with Vossler, all things considered, I do have to side with Ashe and Basch here. The fact is, regardless of how much I like Vossler, he's done at least three things that long ago marked him due for an ass-kicking: he gets the Telekinesis technick from the start, whereas I won't have that shit 'til near the endgame; he gets a fucking greatsword by default, while I have to dick around with sword-and-board for entirely too goddamn long; and on the Leviathan, that Imperial disguise clanked and clattered just like the real deal with EVERY. FUCKING. STEP. Captain Azelas, your dedication is admirable, in its own way, but... do you really think you can win this fight?

DID YOU FORGET WE HAVE A FUCKING GIGAS?

After watching Belias grind and incinerate the former Captain Azelas into beefy cinders, Basch and Ashe are nonetheless remorseful to have had to do battle with a man who had been- and in a way still was- their staunchest ally. Shit is going majorly wrong aboard the Leviathan, though; nethicite absorbs magic, and putting it in the ship's drive was a grave error: it's absorbing all the vast magical- I'm sorry, MAGICKAL- power of the vast dreadnought!

Vossler speaks one last time with Basch. Whatever his motives were, his days at Ashe's side are over. With his plans once again fallen apart, he can only wonder how- or if- it could have gone differently. Basch respects his old friend, though, and will honor his loyalty by guarding Ashe to the bitter end- regardless of their differences. As the calamity aboard the Leviathan begins shaking the fleet, the party flees for their lives, but Vossler Azelas holds his position, and awaits his doom.

As the Dawn Shard reaches some critical threshold, it consumes the dreadnought and unleashes a titanic conflagration, utterly consuming the 8th Fleet. The party outrides the explosion in a small fighter craft, and, as the mist subsides, are amazed to see, floating serenely in the center of the carnage, the Dawn Shard, no worse for wear.

All Ivalice is shaken by the destruction of the fleet that had served as the Empire's enforcement throughout the Galtean Peninsula; seizing the opportunity, Ondore claims sudden illness to secure some me-time and contacts every revolution-minded military and political leader in his Rolodex. The goings-on of the next few days are narrated by Ondore, just as he narrated the infodump during the prologue.

Ashe returns to Rabanastre with the Dawn Shard, but declines to seize the throne just yet, instead choosing to keep hidden as she had before. The game is running with the dubious logic that Ondore would be discredited if Ashe were to appear alive and well, yet at the moment the Marquis is the best hope for assembling and running a legitimate counter-Imperial armada.

Under the circumstances, any attempt on Ashe's part to seize the Dalmascan throne without Imperial cooperation would definitely set off another conflict before any counter was prepared, and the 8th Fleet, while mighty, was only one arm of an immense military force.

However, Rozarria, Ivalice's OTHER immense military force, and perennial opponent of Archades, has certainly taken notice of the loss. At once they began massing and moving their own forces under the pretense of "routine exercises," and the Archadian Senate is sure that they'll launch a full-on assault as soon as they're good and ready. What's more, the lost fleet was Lord Vayne's to command, and therefore it's loss- and any hardship resulting from it- is therefore his responsibility, placing him right at the top of the Senate's shitlist. They immediately demand the Emperor punish him in some capacity.

Gramis is wise to their game; he's already let on to Gabranth that the Senate doesn't want Vayne on the throne, and this is just the rationale they need for permanently disqualifying him from it, shooing in Larsa for the position, whom they believe they can control. At this point, the Senate is openly contemptuous of the dying Emperor, and he of them. He sarcastically wonders aloud who could guide Larsa's rule, and they needle him right back, reminding him of his role in orchestrating his first two son's deaths at Vayne's hands. The Emperor resents his situation, but has no real choice in it; he tells the Senate he shall recall Vayne to Archades at once, and the matter is closed.

With the party convened in Rabanastre, Ashe has a waking vision of the wasteland surrounding Nabudis. Surveying the destruction, she turns to see the specter of Lord Rasler, who hands her the Dawn Shard. Clutching it to her chest, she sees Vaan step into her sight, and she awakes. This is yet another go at the old "Ashe and Vaan are connected" bit, and it still doesn't amount to much. The dream seems to imply that Vaan is taking Rasler's place, somehow, but there's no substance to that; Ashe never has the first inkling of romantic attraction to Vaan, whom the game has clearly already paired up with Penelo anyway, so unless someone steps out of the wings to declare him rightful heir to the Nabradian throne, I have no fucking clue what the writers were going for with it.

Oh, nevermind, it's a transparent ass-pull to try and legitimize this hanger-on running around with people who actually have some connection to the plot.

Back in the waking world, Basch is having a bit of exposition. He recognized the disaster at the Leviathan as the same force which destroyed Nabudis, capital of Nabradia. It would seem the Midlight Shard, which had been left to Nabradia by the Dynast-King, was activated in the city as the Empire invaded, incinerating both sides and leaving behind a waste land filled with undead and all manner of monsters attracted to intense mist and intense suffering.

However, it seems the unleashing of its power has left the Dawn Shard a powerless gray rock. Even if the Empire recovered the Midlight Shard- and it seems all too likely this was their object in invading Nabradia- they would need some way to recharge it's unimaginable reserves of stored mist.

Though they do have the fully-charged Dusk Shard, and, as Balthier points out, they have learned to manufacture their own nethicite, as well. Ashe makes a resolution: if the Dawn Shard is a weapon, then it's her weapon, and she is going to leverage its might to make the Empire sorry they ever fucked with Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca. (*snicker* B'nargin)

After this dramatic declaration, Vaan gets one of the only good lines allotted to him: "Do you even know how to use it?" *sincere golf clap*

No, it turns out, we fucking do not. Fran, font of all knowledge and occasional berserker madwoman, claims the garif might know. The garif, she says, are a tribe to the south in Kerwon that has been around since antiquity, and magicite of all kinds is an important part of their lore. If there's anyone in the world who might know the finer points of the care and feeding of magicite, it's the garif. Ashe requests that Fran help guide her to the garif, but Balthier immediately interjects that it will require a bit of compensation. Still sore about getting shorted at the tomb, are we?

What he demands is a bit infamous among players as a total dick move even for Balthier: her wedding ring. Ashe is devastated, but, desiring knowledge of the stone, hands it over reluctantly. It's the one time in the game when Balthier crosses the line from cheeky Han Solo rogue to actual unscrupulous criminal mercenary.

Here's the thing, though: I don't take issue with Balthier's actions as much as I do with Ashe's. Now, hold on, I'm not just being an asshole. She didn't even think about saying no. Hell, she didn't even try to talk him down. He asked for "the ring." Well, she's quite clearly wearing two rings on that hand, why not slip him the one you wear to look pretty and not the one signifying your marriage to your dearly departed Lord Rasler? Or is watching you suffer part of his payment? If so, maybe cut his throat and be done with him, because here's the more important point: why the fuck do you need him at all?

The Strahl is too damaged to fly after the calamity over Jagd Yensa, so we aren't flying there. You're hiring them as tour guides. Now, you argued in the tomb of Raithwall that you had to take your help where you could get it, and at that time, you were right: robbing the tomb of Raithwall is some dramatically dubious shit. It's not something you can advertise in the local paper to hire help for, and they already knew the over-and-under so you weren't spreading information unnecessarily. And you were planning on stiffing him for the bill.

This time? He's squeezing you for something of tremendous sentimental value to you just to be an asshole, for something you absolutely don't need him for. Has no one else in Dalmasca heard of the garif? I'm pretty sure the Giza tribals know them pretty well. Does anyone have a map, maybe? Hell, if you want someone who can show you the way and put up a fight, too, we also happen to be part of a prestigious clan of professional world-wise monster hunters. They're literally down the street. So if you really want to hand over your fucking wedding ring to a pair of criminals so they can give you directions and soak up a third of the experience, you go right ahead, Princess.

Here's the icing on the cake: though he claims he'll give it back once he finds something more valuable, Vaan tries to call him on it and asks what that might be. Balthier retorts on the way out the door by asking what Vaan is after AT ALL, to which he has no answer, canonizing his utter lack of motivation.

This fucking game. I swear it's taunting me on purpose.

Regardless, the sun-scorched Giza Plain has entered its rainy season, transforming it for a time into a swampy network of rushing wadis. Just beyond it lies the Ozmone Plain, a rather pretty area dotted here and there by derelict airships from a battle long, long ago. Both areas can be jogged through easily and nothing of import occurs therein; Jahara, settlement of the garif, lies upon the western edge of Ozmone.

However, the game opens up a great deal at this point, and canny players can test their mettle against areas they really aren't supposed to be in to grab tons of equipment they're not supposed to have. So it was that by the time I had crossed the two small areas between Rabanastre and Jahara, I had packed on over a dozen levels and adorned myself with some very high-tier equipment. But the greatest allure of these areas is the severed limbs of greasy monsters.

See, as in most RPG's, the player can always go spelunking in some haunted ruin and rummage through random hope chests and clay pots inexplicably containing plate armor and magic staves of calamitous power, but FFXII has something else up it's sleeve, too: the bazaar.

With a handful of exceptions, monsters in FFXII have four to six items they can drop, some common and some rare. Sometimes these items are things the player can equip or use right away, but at least half of them fall into the Loot category. Rather than just horking up scads of gil once they expire, the player makes money by selling loot to merchants. Stronger monsters have rarer, more expensive loot. Simple, right?

Well, ideally it would be, but selling certain combinations and quantities of loot will unlock special one-time offers for all manner of equipment. Some weapons, like new ammunition for ranged weapons- especially guns- are all but unavailable anywhere else. In particular, the Tournesol, one of the game's ultimate weapons, can only be obtained through the bazaar, from trading in top-level materials which themselves require the bazaar as well. Those who know what loot to sell, and where to get that loot, can keep themselves well ahead of the curve.

Unfortunately, knowing either of those things is impossible. No, you in the back raising your finger, shut your smart fucking mouth. Short of keeping two or three FAQ's open at all times and making a fucking spreadsheet, the bazaar might as well be the Voynich Manuscript; if you're lucky, the bestiary might tell you- on a monster's secondary page- one of the several items a given monster drops. Beyond that, you've just got to kill a few dozen yourself to find out, and then commit the drops of several dozen monsters to memory. Certain other secondary pages might give hints about what a particular recipe requires, but only on the rarest occasion does it tell you everything you need. So yes, that's a lot of monster grinding beforehand to have a chance at learning something that may help you discern part of what you need to unlock something unknown that may or may not be of any use to you once you've already spent the money for it. Even then, some of the most useful loot for the bazaar will only have a chance to drop if you happen to possess one of a group of items called monographs, which are themselves unreasonably expensive and can only be unlocked through esoteric means.

It's an opaque, bass-ackwards system. It seems to reward either complete chance- since you will stumble into several bazaar items just by turning in the wheelbarrow of severed wolfman dicks every foray into the wild turns up- or through total reliance on guides and FAQ's, with nothing in between being worth much of a damn. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like how Final Fantasy XI tended to work much of the time... Yes, I'm polishing that old chestnut again: the bazaar would have been a fine system for an MMO, with the overall availability of certain goods relying on the loot brought in by the player base, and an investigation of the obscure bazaar/loot dependencies would be right at home on a site like FFXIclopedia or Allakhazam. But the form it took in this game is tedium incarnate, a nuisance that serves only to occlude the postgame with interminable chart consultation and grinding; beyond a certain point, Final Fantasy XII can come to resemble a robust Chinese medicine market simulation with a hackneyed faux-medieval technothriller riding on top of it.

And if you dare claim you got a Tournesol without considerable outside aid, drink poison and choke on your lies.

Aaaaaaaaanywaaaaaay.... Arriving at Jahara, you meet the garif for the first time. Garif are an odd tribe of mask-wearing humanoids. Every garif wears a mask from the time they are born to the day they die. These masks seem to resemble the beak of a bird of prey, with soaring horn-like protrusions. They really wear those damn things as babies? Garif must have strong necks! They are, in fact, a good deal larger than humans, and seem to have rusty brown fur that lightens on their fronts. It takes a bit of effort to see they aren't part of the masks, but they also seem to have pointed ears, as well.

Garif society works on Catholic rules, and the higher up you are on the totem pole, the more badass your mask is. As Vaan approaches the small bridge into the settlement, the sentries take one look at the effeminate foreigner and brusquely tell him to GTFO. But from behind comes another garif, who says that he had been impressed watching us fight for a while, and that there's no harm letting such warriors into the village.

Holy crap, man, I hope for your sake you weren't watching me fight my way across half of Ivalice collecting monkey hooves and rainbow chaps or whatever; I at least got some overpowered equipment out of it and I still scuttled most of my interest in this game and a good chunk of self-respect.

Despite the cold welcome, the garif are a relaxed and accommodating bunch. I like them a lot, and I hope they were spared the inevitable non-hume genocide that seems to have taken place between this game and the time of Final Fantasy Tactics. The war chief is a bloke called Supinelu, and he'll be one of a few familiar faces around the village. Though he has already let us in, he wants to know what brings us to Jahara, and, once Vaan explains the situation with the welcome narrative shorthand of a nodded head, points us in the direction of the elders.

Once inside, a quick look-see doesn't turn up much. Geomancer Yugelu only has a bare understanding of nethicite, and even the High-Chief Zayalu seems to either know nothing or lack the authority to relay anything of value. It seems only the Great-Chief can enlighten us on nethicite, but of course meeting with him is a big deal. Ashe requests an audience from Supinelu, using her royal blood as leverage; he asks us if we happen to have any proof that she's a princess, yet she hangs her head and admits she does not.

... What. Um, Ashe? Honey? Did you forget, the, uh... the, you know... major plot point? Acquired it specifically for the purpose now suggested? Raison d'etre for even coming here...? No? Holding it in your pocket? I just EQUIPPED IT ON YOU, does that help at all? Nothing...? Uuuuughhh... Oh well.

Supinelu is given slight pause by Ashe's blatant flubbing of the script, but improvises like a champ: he has seen the truth in her countenance, and that's good enough for yurt-dwelling savages. Across another bridge, we arrive at the so-called Elderknoll, and sure enough there are elders and chiefs of all kind, just knolling it up, playing board games, feasting, dozing, exchanging anecdotes about epic mask-wearing and nanna rodeos and all the various nuances of the robust garif culture.

Seriously, Rabanastre fucking sucks, can we retire here? Please?

Within a high-fenced circle, the Great-Chief Uball-Ka himself sits behind a large fire, sporting the baddest mask a garif, or indeed, fucking anyone could ever hope to wear, and a great white beard billowing from underneath it. He takes the Dawn Shard and ponders it for a bit. Yet, while he can tell the stone has been recently used, he admits knowing nothing of how to do so himself; in fact, this deficiency on the part of the garif is a part of their history. The gods themselves granted their nethicite to the garif in ages long past, but the garif never got the hang of using it, or any kind of magicite apparently. Once Raithwall entered the picture, he showed up on the gods' recommendation, signed for the Stones, and went off on his merry way to conquer all Ivalice.

The garif remember the Dynast-King fondly, saying he used the stones "to bring peace to a troubled time." Yet, the Great-Chief is embarrassed to have met with a descendant of Raithwall himself unable to enlighten her on how to make use of his legacy. In fact, he seems surprised that Ashe doesn't just 'know' how to use it, by instinct. Be that as it may, he does confirm Ashe's fears: the power of the stone, collected by ages and ages sitting in the rich mist of the Jagd Yensa, has been spent utterly. If she found a good place to let it recharge, her great-great-grandchildren would find it ready for them.

Hey, that gives me an idea... Did we leave the Epoch around here? No? Ah, nevermind then.

Uball-Ka gives a word of warning: the nethicite may indeed have something of its own will. He cautions gravely that those who desire nethicite, are often in turn desired by nethicite... As he speaks, a third party intrudes our little parley. It's... Larsa?! Holy shit, Gabranth! Do your fucking job! Every time you let this kid out of your sight he's giving away Archadian state secrets and abetting your worst renegade war-mongering enemies. Put the little Loki on a leash if you want Archades to last through the end of the fiscal year.

No, they don't explain how or if he knew where we were, or what he was coming to Jahara for, otherwise.

Sure enough, the precocious little scion has a plan in mind: Leave for Bur-Omisace immediately. Larsa seems well aware of the Marquis' counter-Imperial fleet (Of course, the little bastard's probably on their board of directors.) He worries, as the Senate does, that if recent events haven't already provoked Rozarria into a new war, the inevitable clash between Archades and the ever-growing Resistance certainly will.

But if Ashe, with Dawn Shard in hand, were to receive the blessing of Gran Kiltias of Bur-Omisace, Anastasis (holy shit this section is wordy) she would have an undeniable claim on the Dalmascan throne once more, a position she could leverage to prevent the Galtean-Archadian war in the first place.

STOP THE CLOCK! Wasn't Ashe just sitting on the stone for four days, knowing full well that she could do exactly this, yet electing not to because she believed that that would be more than enough in itself to provoke the Empire to war? Weren't we trying to learn how to use the stone as a weapon specifically to enforce this claim on the Dalmascan throne, as insurance to prevent the inevitable conflict that action would precipitate? Is Larsa telling us to embark on exactly the course of action that only moments ago was driving us under the impression that it would lead to the very Ordalia-Galtea-Valendia World War that he claims it will prevent, with Dalmasca and Dorstonis stuck right in the middle with no means of defending themselves from annexation or outright annihilation?

In a perfect world, that's exactly what would have happened, and the ensuing Ragnarok of nethicite WMD's and deific politicking resulting from it would fill Larsa with such supremely magnificent lulz that he achieves the kind of over-charge apotheosis that Sephiroth dreamed of.

Ashe is immediately offended by the idea, but for all the wrong reasons: preventing a devastating world war would be helping the Empire, in a sense. Holy shit, Princess... Larsa points out the blindingly obvious: such a war would see Galtea, and Rabanastre in the center of it, as the battleground. He states with confidence that, in such a situation, Vayne would not hesitate for a second to nethicite Dalmasca in to a misty, zombie-haunted ruin. Ashe is given pause by being told what she already fucking knows.

Hey Larsa, weren't you telling Penelo just a week ago how much you looked up to Vayne and how Rabanastre would be just peachy fucking keen with him at the helm of it? Don't get me wrong, I support your plan to wreck the entire continent on a lark, but that's sloppy work.

After nightfall, Ashe is wandering around having a good hearty think, palming the Dawn Shard like a good luck charm, when she has another vision of Rasler just ahead on the Elderknoll bridge. She rushes forward to see... it was just Vaan.

I'm serious, game. Knock this shit off. I'm %90 joking every time I get on to the game about some annoyance or other, but this just sticks in my craw.

Vaan realizes she was having another vision, and confronts her about what they saw at the tomb. Ashe is taken aback that he could see Rasler as well, and wonders aloud why that might be. In response, Vaan gives a total non sequitur about not really knowing Ashe well or Rasler at all, and that maybe what he saw was a vision of his brother. Well, nice try hanging a lampshade on your own nonsense, but we already saw exactly what he saw, and I'll tell you this: Reks didn't dress like a fucking Nabradian prince.

But the game rallies expertly, and actually gives Vaan a great little bit of characterization. Mentioning Reks gets Vaan and Ashe talking about him, and Vaan questions out loud why his brother or Prince Rasler would fight the Empire knowing they were throwing their lives away on a fight they could never win. Ashe answers with an obvious platitude- "To protect something,"- but Vaan is having none of it, pointing out how they didn't protect jack shit through their sacrifice and, in getting killed, prevented any other good they could have possibly done and brought more misery to the people closest to them.

Then Vaan makes an admission: all his high-minded talk about fighting the Empire and being a sky pirate someday was a lie for himself, a proud bluster meant to distract himself from the pain of losing his entire family to disease and war, knowing that he could never do anything about it due to his disenfranchised station in life.

Holy shit, game. This is starting to sound like we're in Ivalice again. This is a tantalizing look at the character Vaan could have been: a mature, identifiable personality, even if it took a while to come to light; an awareness and examination of the nature of power and rank- a pillar of the setting, and of this game, in particular; and a dynamite contrast to the princess that they're so desperately trying to connect him to. Ashe, who was so bitter and angry, and so eager to let that anger and suffering dictate her command of power which would alter the course of human events; who believed herself to have lost everything, yet remained a leader even in exile, playing the Great Game, juggling magic superweapons and treating with gods and kings alike; who hated the Empire and lusted for unbelievable power, for the sake of her satisfaction and her entitlement... and Vaan, who had almost nothing, and lost even that; who could only watch in desperate denial of his own powerlessness as his place in life was constantly shaken by people who saw his rung of society as chattel, even on their own side; who, through terrible personal experience knew very well the price of war sport and the agendas of the mighty.

Having spoken his piece, Vaan makes a resolution. He had tagged along from the start just to distract himself from his own misery without ever hoping to truly address it. But he knows now he's stumbled on to something extraordinary in Ashe's little band of misfits. He sees, for the first time, the chance to affect the world around him, and he's excited for the opportunity.

If at any time, even if nothing up to this point had changed, they had taken this little bezoar of personality and ran somewhere with it; if, in a game ostensibly about the very themes that they posit so strongly shaped this character's life, ever gave him the chance to motivate the events of the plot; if they had done any damn thing at all with the character they tried to show us here, that might have been enough to light a fire in this game, to set off something truly unforgettable.

But they never do.

This fucking game. I swear.

To be continued.

PART 5: Pour Some Slaughter On Me

In the morning, Larsa is waiting to travel with us to Bur-Omisace. He mentions running off from his escort, so yes, it seems he really is sneaking out windows at night to engage in this skullduggery. There's probably a crowd of Judges getting their shit wrecked in Zertinan Caverns, where he purposely led them to get eaten by skulwyrms. Ashe is willing to travel there with him, but says she hasn't quite made up her mind yet about what to do once there; it will take some convincing along the way to set her on one path or the other. But Larsa has an ace up his sleeve, and tantalizes the princess- and the player- by revealing another reason he wanted her to come to Bur-Omisace: to meet someone, "both friend and enemy," but he coyly refuses to say anymore until they get there.

Well, successful troll is successful, and half the party goes traipsing back to Ozmone at his well-shod heels. Meanwhile, Basch hangs back with Han and Chewie. Basch points out that Mount Bur-Omisace is in the Jagd Ramooda, and that they have nothing to fear from Imperial air power once there.

Balthier grabs him by his idiot shoulders and screams, "What the fuck do Dalmascans have against paying some goddamn attention?!" And, shaking him like a little child, adds, "Do you not remember last week? When exactly what you just said totally fucking happened? To us? THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE DIED!"

Fran, as always, merely stands wordlessly by, likely offended someone else would try to deal exposition or geography trivia to her, while her keen viera senses are ruffled by the shifting of a fate now viciously tempted.

Basch quickly changes the subject and asks why Balthier is even coming along. What the fuck Basch, are you trying to get more of Ashe's personal belongings ransomed?! Balthier shrugs his shoulders, and claims he just wants to see what happens. Is this what Archadians do? Is the entire nation so bored that anyone with the means to do so just flies around fomenting Armageddon just to spectate and break up the ennui for a few minutes? Basch takes it, though; as long as he isn't trying to steal their nethicite, he couldn't care less.

Fran, of course, follows silently behind Balthier as he leaves, and no one questions her motivation because no one gives half a shit.

Just as we're about to leave, War-Chief Supinelu tips his hat to the party as they leave, giving them the gift of a bitchin' crossbow and a free chocobo ride to help us along the way before returning to his tent to continue rocking ass, all the time. Party on, Supinelu. You are a total fucking bro, and in the day of trouble you have been of more service to me than three hundred salmon.

As the party crosses out of the east edge of Ozmone Plain, Ashe and Basch talk about their plans for the future. Ashe is becoming convinced that working with the Empire is the only way to secure peace for Dalmasca, but cannot bear the shame of capitulating to their power. Basch disagrees, though; he claims that he would bear any shame if it meant protecting his people. After all, "I could not protect my homeland," he says. "What is shame to me?"

Sigh... Alright, let's have this out, then: Basch kind of sucks. Now, don't misunderstand. He's bland but largely inoffensive, and that's good enough to put him above at least half the main party. But Basch has no arc, and spends the entire game on a tiresome rag of trying to make up for his perceived shortcomings. Now, that might work, except for Basch's other character trait, of a total of two: he's a complete Mary Sue. Yes, our very own Captain fon Rosenberg, having no personality flaws whatsoever, maintaining an immaculate standard of nobility, honor, and duty at all times, who's only thoughts are always and ever of risking his life fighting for the sake of his princess and his nation, just can't get over what a shitty failure he is. Everything he does seems to carry this undercurrent. "Oh, I'm so sorry I couldn't single-handedly repel the world's most powerful military from your country, Princess; can you ever forgive someone as weak and useless as me?" or "Oh, Vaan, I'm so sorry your brother died in the battle where I was kidnapped, falsely marked a traitor and assassin for the rest of my life, then beaten and starved every day for two years in a sandy dungeon; Reks was such an amazing, wonderful person compared to me. Maybe I can make it up to you someday?" This is what passes for Basch's 'arc;' he will be given the opportunity to bring totally unnecessary suffering on himself, and he will accept it, because it seems knightly to him. The end.

I mean, how fucked up is it that someone who basically identifies as Lawful Good to their very foundations is never forced into some ethical dilemma? In fucking Ivalice?! What a wasted opportunity. I still like you, though, Basch. Even if your outfit is ridiculous even by the standards of this game, which are execrable.

After this scene, which goes nowhere and exists for no reason other than to showcase Basch's guilt complex, we cut to the Imperial Palace of Archades. Three Judges, Drace- the only female Judge- Bergan, a man struggling as hard as he can to sound sinister with every line he speaks, and Zargabaath, their pensive elder, are discussing the recent political goings-on. According to Bergan, the Senate is crazy to think they can get Vayne out of the picture so easily. The military loves Vayne like they love big tits, and as far as Bergan is concerned, that's all Archades could need.

Drace isn't quite convinced. Bergan's zeal reminds her of the missing Judge Zecht, before said disappearance; he had the utmost confidence in Vayne, and it doesn't seem to have turned out very well for him, what with him likely wandering the ruins of Nabudis as a tortured zombie. Bergan doesn't take kindly to her flippancy, though; he can't stand to hear Zecht bad-mouthed, nor Vayne. Drace points out that Vayne is as ruthless as they come, having, after all, executed his own elder brothers. But Bergan can only clamor for more. To him, Vayne's ruthlessness is merely the conviction necessary to run the Empire well, and follow his own ideals with unflinching dedication.

Drace questions Zargabaath about his opinion. Were Vayne's brothers really traitors? Can Vayne truly be trusted with rule? Zargabaath chides her, advising her merely to let sleeping dogs lie. From down the hall, Gabranth approaches, and directs Bergan and Zargabaath to go escort Lord Vayne, who has just arrived in the capital.

Drace and Gabranth tarry in the hall. She knows of Larsa's idea to appeal to the Gran Kiltias (but not of his liaisons with Ashe, of course), thinking that the word of a traditionally neutral religious leader respected by all the world would give Ondore's forces pause, at least for a time; that would, in turn, pause Rozarria as well, giving Archadia at least some time to regroup and fortify.

The fact that the capital isn't in an uproar about Larsa ditching his cortege and going on walkabout tells me that he probably does this shit every fucking month.

Drace couldn't be more proud of Larsa. She exults at how frustrated the Senate will be to find Larsa can't be controlled as they hoped. But Gabranth raises a fair point: when the Senate finds out that plan won't pan out, they will simply turn ugly and ruin the young lord in ways he is too inexperienced to anticipate or defend against. But Lord Vayne could neither be controlled nor assailed by them. Drace admits he is right, but makes him promise either way that they shall guide and protect Lord Larsa.

So Jahara was pretty much a wash; we didn't learn anything about the nethicite, but we have a plan that may or may not cause a continental war and the company of a cunning little psychopath. I'm not saying I wouldn't vote for him. But Bur-Omisace isn't exactly just over the next hill; we'll have to cross through a pretty dense jungle before even reaching the mountains it's set into, and Golmore jungle isn't exactly famous for welcoming outsiders.

Sure enough, we aren't even halfway through before running into a glowing barrier in the path that we can't seem to push past or dispel. Fran gives her traditional travelogue: the wood itself denies us passage, upset at our presence. Ashe wants to know why the wood thinks it's so fucking great itself, what with its malboro infestation and man-eating panthers, but Fran shockingly has more to say than dry exposition on the environment: it's her own fault, somehow. Without explaining, she turns and backtracks a little way to a dead-end path. Balthier seems to know what she's up to, and is worried by it.

Fran actually needles him a little bit for the hairline crack in his resolve, and begins tracing some complex glowing lines in the air in front of her. A snap of the fingers later, and a path of grass appears floating in midair, leading off through the deep jungle. The hidden way to Fran's old village is open! Penelo, completely unable to grasp the obvious subtext that Fran's been swinging around, blurts out that they'll be so happy to see her again after being gone for so long.

Fran gives her a priceless 'Oh god I thought you were the one that WASN'T retarded' look before stammering that she didn't exactly leave on pleasant terms. Once in the viera's enclave- two parts ewok village and one part Lothlorien- Fran doesn't even bother to come further than the entrance. She tells us to look for Mjrn, and bring her around.

A couple of moogles wander in behind us; they're actually a pair of merchants that we busted out with Ashe on our first trip to the Leviathan. Great job, guys! Not even a minute after opening up the secret viera village and we've let in a pair of ex-cons. Oh wait, I forgot our own party: two ex-cons, two fugitives, two career criminals, an exile, a Norse trickster god, and Penelo. Lock your doors, ladies!

Once beyond the foyer, we get a vista of the weeaboo conception of Heaven: a verdant paradise of tall, thin, dark-skinned, white-haired elf girls with bunny-ears, exotic accents, and just enough clothing for a Build-a-Bear, collectively. No men, though, because that would be, like, weird.

They aren't happy with us crashing their eternal hippie pillow-fight, though, and trying to talk to any of them will get you a variation on "Fuck off and die, human scum." Walking around looking for Mjrn doesn't turn up much, until we end up more or less at the end of the road. We give it the good old 'Bueller? Bueller?,' but get only a dozen cold stares. Jote, their elder, emerges from her bower to confront us, giving us another hearty "Shouldn't you be choking on a dick somewhere? Well there aren't any here, so get the fuck out."

Vaan points out that we'll just Gump around the village bothering everyone until we find Mjrn, so the fastest way to get us to leave would be just to point us in her direction. Jote seems to know this is the case, but before she can bring herself to explain, she is taken aback to see Fran coming across the walkway toward them. It seems something shook her out of her reluctance.

Indeed it has: Fran has heard 'the voice of the wood,' and she knows that Mjrn isn't even in the village. She asks Jote where she's gone, but Jote scorns the party, calling Fran and Mjrn race-traitors and chiding Fran for not being able to get her answers by communing with the wood. This last fact seems to hit Fran pretty hard. Balthier and Vaan each try to argue back- actually, they're a bit too confrontational for talking to the elder of a village that hates them, while surrounded by their warriors- but it seems to annoy Jote enough to do the trick: she takes a moment to speak to the wood while the breeze stirs up around her, and tells us that Mjrn went west somewhere. Wow, Jote! West somewhere? Sweet fucking trick, I can see why you viera value it so highly.

Jote doesn't want to waste any more time with us, and storms off. But she doesn't quite get away before Fran stops her with an aphorism: "The viera are born of the wood. But that is not the only path we may choose." Jote seems unimpressed, and lets slip that she wasn't impressed when she heard it fifty years ago, either.

So ideas can't get in, and people can't get out? Yep! Viera society is a cult.

On our way out, Larsa seems to think the vague directions from Jote might point to the Henne mines, a magicite mine owned by Archades. But the sand-blasted little ganglion that passes for Vaan's brain seems to have just processed the 'fifty years' comment, and can't help but ask how old Fran is anyway. Everyone stares daggers at him for a very long five seconds before everyone individually calls him an asshole and leaves.

Haha! Women, right?! I mean, yeah, they're apparently-immortal, un-aging gorgeous bunny-elves whose culture and minds are entirely alien and inscrutable to humes, but they still blush when you ask their age. Yeah, yeah, it's a cute little scene and seeing everyone make fun of Vaan always brings me joy, but seriously.

After arriving to the entrance of Henne Mine via Ozmone, we find the corpses of a few Imperials right out front. Hmm, this is usually how I keep track of where the party's already been, but it seems something else is the matter. Larsa and Balthier recognize them as researchers from Draklor Laboratory, but can only speculate as to their presence.

So if something hadn't killed all the guards for us already, was Larsa planning on helping us manslaughter our way to the bottom of the mine, or...?

Once the party gets deep enough in the mine to where the richer ore lies, Larsa realizes that the Empire must be looking for new sources of ore, since their old hookup, Bhujerba, has put them on their shit list. That may well be, but Fran senses Mjrn and a strange mist, just as the little lady herself comes staggering out of a deeper passage, her head rolling and speaking cryptic, broken sentences: classic video game speak for mind control, basically.

As soon as she notices the party, she points straight at Ashe and tells her to keep away, screaming, "Power-needy hume!" and hauling ass down the passage with both hands. I've gotta say, the viera really haven't presented themselves very well, what with the surly cult and the racial slurs. I do wonder if their one-gender race and the garif's one-gender race ever have mixer parties; they seem like they'd get on pretty well, at least. They could have long, romantic conversations about impractical wardrobes and revering natural magic resources. Maybe drop a letter to Curly and Ozzie, who seem to be the only two cat-men in the world.

Enough inane babbling, let's chase down the girl and beat the evil out of her. Emerging into a large chamber, what should we find but a giant dragon? Goddammit, Archades, what happened here, anyway?! There are monster horses and T-Rexes and a dragon down here, this doesn't just happen from leaving the door open by accident!

You know, after soloing the dragon with Ashe, I think I might have overdone it with the equipment and level grinding...

After it falls, Mjrn stumbles out of whatever niche she was hiding in during the battle, and a shard of manufacted nethicite falls from her hand and shatters. A bizarre spectral figure appears behind her, looking like a floating gray cloak with a black void where it's face would be, and two glowing eyes shining out from it. It lingers only long enough to freak out the party, and disappears, with Mjrn collapsing from its apparent release of her mind.

She's glad to see her sister Fran once more. Apparently, some Imperials had been hunting around through Golmore a while ago, and no one in the village paid it any mind; as long as they don't litter or start too many fires, travelers aren't a big deal to the viera. But something about it struck Mjrn wrong, and she ran off to find out what they were looking for. Unfortunately for her, it seems they were looking for foolish viera to kidnap and experiment on; it seems they're studying how to draw power from nethicite and transfer it into an individual, and the viera are easy test subjects for that kind of thing. Larsa yoinks Penelo's good-luck nethicite back, regretting such an ill-omened gift. Penelo yells "GIVE THAT SHIT BACK IT'S A GREAT ACCESSORY," and Ashe muses that even as dangerous as nethicite is, it still might prove essential to them.

Afterward, we find ourselves back in Eruyt Village, with Mjrn in tow. Jote curtly hands us a key to the barriers and tells us 'thanks but fuck off'... but Mjrn stops us. She can't believe Jote, her eldest sister, could just ignore the entire world boiling into a war around them, but Jote couldn't care less as long as it doesn't affect the Wood. Mjrn resolves to leave the village as Fran did, but Fran steps up to talk her out of it. It seems Fran either really regrets leaving home, or at least wouldn't wish life outside the Wood onto her little sister (who is still at least like seventy years old). Mjrn acquiesces to Fran's admonition, but can't contain her emotions and runs off. Jote signals her attendants to leave her, and she and her sister have a private conversation.

Jote is grateful for saving Mjrn and convincing her to stay, even though she herself had left. But Fran thinks it more appropriate that way; it's Jote's dayjob to tell people the outside world is scary and wrong, but to hear it from Fran, who has seen it herself... Fran asks Jote to speak to the wood for her, to ask what it thinks about her, since she cannot hear it anymore herself. Jote tells her it longs for Fran to return, but she doesn't believe this. She does believe Jote's addition that it doesn't trust the rest of the party as far as it could throw them, but Fran believes that she's as much one of them as any. On that note, Fran and Jote part ways.

Well, did you like this short little vignette about Fran? I hope so; it's the one scrap of attention the game is giving her. Aside from world trivia and those firm mahogany buttocks, the game could really give a shit less about Fran. Too bad; there's some fertile ground for development there! Abandoning an easy, peaceful and contemplative life to try and understand the world around you? And maybe change it for the better, even if it's unpleasant and painful? Think that might have been worth dwelling on, writers?!

I'll simply have to console myself with this: the next part of the game is actually really good. Emerging from the jungle, we enter directly into... a glacial mountain range? Yeah, the geography in this game makes no sense. It's time for the ice level and god dammit an ice level is what we're gonna get. Bur-Omisace, known the world over as a holy place and an enclave of peace, has attracted a great number of refugees with the war building up, and even as we pass through the mountains a great number of them are on their way. Balthier blames the Empire for their suffering, but Larsa is quick to point out that he's trying to head the war off, and is certain his father shares his views. But Balthier merely tells him that he can never truly know another, not even your own father.

Well, let's just check in on the old man, eh? In Gramis' study, Vayne is meeting with his father. The Senate has determined that Vayne needs to be sent away, but Vayne pleads that whether he stays or goes the Empire's problems will be just the same. Moreover, he has become convinced that the Senate hates House Solidor on principle, and will never stop their games of seizing whatever concessions they can until they can do away with them entirely. To this end, Vayne suggests finding some pretext to have the Senate gotten rid of, just as they use the disaster over Jagd Yensa to get rid of Vayne.

Gramis is tongue-in-cheek about how fast Vayne is to suggest the most ruthless course of action, but, as Vayne points out, it was Gramis himself who established this as standard procedure for the Solidors many years ago. Furthermore, he insists that it isn't for his sake, but Larsa's; Larsa can't contend with the Senate the way he and Gramis can, and they must take action on his behalf so that Larsa doesn't have to learn the hard way and become as jaded and callous as they are. Gramis is skeptical indeed that Vayne would care about his brother's innocence, but Vayne, growing rather morbid, admits that his hands are already stained with blood, and he has no innocence left to preserve.

The Emperor knows the future is no longer his to guide, and his last words are thus: "And so House Solidor lives on."

Arriving at the foot of the colossal meteora that houses the Kiltias (And the short FMV that shows the area off depicts it rising out of a Golmore-like jungle, with the icy Rift nowhere to be seen. This would seem to point to the geography being shuffled around at a point in development after the FMV's were already in the can.), Bur-Omisace certainly does live up to its reputation. All around are refugees, some from recent conflicts and a few from as far back as Landis' conquest. The Kiltias themselves manage food lines and attend to those who were hurt on the journey. A handful of the refugees merely see the place as room and board, but to most the Gran Kiltias Anastasis is a person of remarkable reputation and incredible power.

The mountain is also home to many nu mou. Nu mou are... sort of hard to describe, actually. Imagine if tonberries had white and blue-gray fur and long floppy ears. Nu mou are exceptionally long-lived, and the nu mou Kiltias act as elders to the younger human believers.

(Not that this will mean much to most people, but the wyrm philosopher can be spotted early here, looking for the vyraal in Paramina Rift.)

Set into the mountainside is the edifice an ancient temple of white stone and turquoise domes. It seems Larsa has been expected, and we enter through the grand doors into the Hall of Light.

The hall is a short but exquisitely-adorned sanctuary of gold, polished wood, and turquoise. Smoke rises from a dozen censers on the path to the dais of Anastasis, surrounded by many columns and a high statue of a goddess. The party stands before the ancient, wizened sage, but no words pass between them for a long moment.

The sage, whose race I believe is never mentioned, but think "high elf" and you'll have it, stands with his eyes closed. Vaan whispers to Penelo that he might be asleep, but before anyone can shush him, a booming voice echoes through their minds. "No, child. I do not sleep; I dream."

The Gran Kiltias is a 'dreamsage;' he explains that, in his eternal waking dream, he observes and meditates on reality and the unseen at once, observing past, present and future as a singular swirl around him.

Ashe begins to introduce herself by her full title, but presumably not wanting to hear her say "B'nargin" (*snicker*) and lose his bearing, Anastasis silences her, saying, "Did I not just tell you I was a sage, ffs, I can know your thoughts before you say them and shit." Exposition handily disposed of, he grants that Ashe certainly is fit to be queen of the Dalmascan people, prompting Larsa to beg him to grant accession at once.

Before he can finish the thought, though, the grave meeting is crashed by a man with olive skin and a thick Spanish accent, wearing sunglasses indoors. Larsa is delighted to see him, offering his hand, but the man pats him on the head and sets himself at once to the getting on of his empyreal swerve. Larsa introduces him as a Margrace, the Rozarrian ruling house.

He whips off his sunglasses, handing them to his pinafore-clad attendant, and takes a knee before the princess, introducing himself as Al-Cid Margrace. Kissing her hand, Ashe gives a slight gasp as all her memories of Rasler evanesce for a moment. From far away, Fran's viera senses are can hear Def Leppard drifitng on the wind, while in the background Penelo is quite clearly doing everything in her meager power not to explode into a rosy mist of erotic frenzy. Sorry, Vaan, but I don't think you can count as her first anymore.

Anastasis is pleased to see a member of the three sides of the growing conflict gathered in the name of peace, but unfortunately, Al-Cid isn't a fan of the idea to put Ashe on the Dalmascan throne. He, Larsa, and Ashe hash out the could-bes and maybes of this action or that, and Larsa assures him that if Ashe, taking the throne, merely gave a word of favor to the Empire and a word of caution to Ondore, he could smooth everything over with the Emperor and stop the war dead right there.
The Rozarrian shakes his head. This had been his hope, too, but things have changed while Larsa was on the road: Emperor Gramis is dead, and by Vayne's hand.

Thanks to the magic of editing, we are privy to the aftermath: Gabranth pushes through the halls towards the Emperor's study, even as senators are being dragged out in irons, protesting their fate and proclaiming their innocence. Vayne and the Judges Magister are in uproar as Gramis' corpse sits lifeless behind his desk; it would seem Senate Chairman Gregoroth has already claimed responsibility for the poisoning, and administered "his own sentence" with his own hand. Judge Bergan is eager to capture the rest of the senate before the actors in the failed coup can escape, but Judge Drace is outraged, and not buying any of it for a second. Vayne's protests that stripping the Senate of its power and granting autocracy to himself- until order can be restored- was the only reasonable course of action, but Drace tells him to shut his evil mouth and accuses him of the deed himself! Judge Zargabaath gives her a "Whooooaaa now let's not get crazy here," and she can't believe he would buy into such an obvious trick. Tellingly, Zargabaath does not even protest, instead pointing out that, with how precarious the Empire's situation is what with Rozarria making ready to knock on their front door, they don't have another choice at the moment.

Drace sees another choice right in her hot little hand, however, and, aghast at Vayne's boldness, puts her sword at his throat, placing him under arrest for the murder of his father. But she finds a blade at her own throat, with Judge Bergan revealing that it was not even Vayne, but the Ministry of the Law itself, that granted Vayne his autocracy. So if you fuck with Vayne, you fuck with the Judges! Drace calls him a puppet, but relents.

Lowering her sword, she instead swings around to assault Bergan, but finds her arm caught in his own, and, with no real effort, he picks her up by her face and flings her across the room like a toy. Drace is incredulous; Bergan's power is far beyond human.

Vayne, unimpressed by the scene, coolly commands the stoic Zargabaath to take Bergan with him on the flagship Alexander and retrieve Lord Larsa. Gabranth, silent until now, protests that Larsa was made Gabranth's responsibility.

... Really, is it now, Gabranth? Have you ever looked after Larsa? Do you know where he is now? Have you made any contact with his retinue, who are getting drunk off fermented nanna's milk with Supinelu at Jahara right this very moment? Are you not, in fact, an abject failure in this task, and indeed with every task you are allotted over the course of this entire game and its backstory?

Vayne has other reason to be upset with him, though: he knows Gabranth was the Emperor's stool-pigeon for Vayne's goings-on, and that places him square on the new regent's shit list, although there is a job he can do for him this very moment... In this very room in fact!

Gabranth, you're a judge, right? Drace is a criminal now, right? Well, Vayne offers, why not kill the bitch?

Zargabaath protests at once, but Vayne and Bergan watch eagerly as Gabranth picks up Drace's own sword and crouches down over her. He can't bring himself to kill her, but she gives her consent; she's sealed her own fate, and Gabranth's duty now is to Larsa. Gabranth understands, and slides the blade between her ribs.

She... she's wearing plate armor, Gabranth. How did...? Ah, well.

Vayne cares not even to watch, instead arranging his dead father's posture somewhat for dignity's sake, and echoes his words to him: "And so House Solidor lives on."

Back at Bur-Omisace, Larsa is struck dumb by the news. Yes, Al-Cid grants, the late Emperor Gramis would have at least lent his ear to Ashe, but Vayne? No way in hell. Vayne wants this war, and is ambitious and canny enough to turn any situation to serve the end of starting it. What's more, Anastasis knew as much since before we arrived. His visions of the future show Vayne as a major player in coming events, and to begin acting in the open would only draw Vayne's attention to her.

Al-Cid has intelligence on Archadian fleet movements: The new 12th Fleet is already deployed, the 1st Fleet is ready and will be deployed as soon as the flagship Odin is done being refit, and the 2nd Kerwon Expeditionary Force is being recalled to fill the gap left by the 8th Fleet's destruction. The combination will be the largest military force ever assembled. And that's not even counting their nethicite, as Ashe points out while mispronouncing 'coup de grâce' like a champ. She addresses the ancient sage, no longer about accession but about aid. Accession now would be meaningless, since she has no power to defend her claim or her home. She needs a power worthy of fighting the empire, and wants to know if Anastasis has heard of anything she could avail herself of. The Gran Kiltias asks if she means the Dawn Shard, but she protests; now that the Empire has nethicite, she must have a weapon of even greater power.

For the first time, Anastis' eyes shoot open and he speaks with his own lips, breaking his dream to address her directly. "To wield power against power. Truly the words of a hume child." Ashe protests; she is a true descendant of Raithwall himself, and who better to forge the future of Ivalice? Anastasis is skeptical, but recommends she seek the other power left behind by the Dynast-King: the Sword of Kings, a blade which can oppose and destroy the nethicite. Why Raithwall would leave such a relic in the care of the Gran Kiltias of his own time and not anyone of his own line- since nethicite was the weapon which won him the Galtean Alliance- is a mystery to Anastasis, but it sleeps now in the Stilshrine of Miriam, to the south of Paramina Rift.

The party turns to go, but Larsa is still too stunned by the death of his father to even acknowledge the events around him. Anastasis, returning once more to his visions, muses to himself that his dream, too, will soon fade into day...

And so the party makes its way to the Stilshrine. There's little enough to say about it; if you've seen one zombie-infested Galtean-era ruin, you've seen 'em all, or at least all the ones in this game. Only two things are worthy about it, which are: the Galtean architecture is distinctly recognizable, and the mid-boss is one fucked-up creature, being some sort of great metal construct covered in whirling blades and three tentacles with faces on the end of it. Even it's bestiary entry is best summed up as "WHAT THE SHIT EVEN IS THIS THING?"

At the bottom, a door bears an inscription for us: "DEY'S GONNA BE A BOSS IN HERE!"

Sure enough, what should lie at the bottom of the shrine but Mateus, the Corrupt! It and its bevy of ice elementals rush the party. Sorry, Mateus, but Espers are passe; I've already got one that'll put you right in your place: Adrammelech, the Wroth. With a few gigajoules of raw esper lightning pumped through Mateus' icy veins, we step through into the Vault of the Champion, where the blade rests beyond a series of pylons and within an array of spinning circles, all glowing with a blue light. As Ashe steps forward, the blue light flashes before extinguishing itself, and the blade, glowing with power, floats down and delivers itself into her hand.

Ashe grasps the hilt gingerly, enthralled by the relic, but the sheer weight of the thing slams it to the ground the moment she touches it. The party wonders if it can really destroy nethicite, and Vaan pipes up with the bright idea to try it on the Dawn Shard.

Everyone laughs and tells him what a fuck-up he is, and- wait, I'm sorry, they take this idea dead seriously and try it at once. As Ashe heaves the sword high above her head, Dawn Shard in place to receive its terrible thwacking, it begins pissing a bit of mist. It would seem the stone fears for its own existence, and a specter of Rasler appears to Ashe, shaking his head as if to say, "ARE YOU A FUCKING IDIOT OR SOMETHING?" Ashe thinks for a moment and slams the blade down... just to the side of the Dawn Shard. The ghostly Rasler smiles, and disappears to change its ghostly trousers. The stone's reaction seems confirmation enough of the sword's abilities, and we may as well keep the power of both.

Emerging from the Stilshrine, the Alexander and its entourage fly above, seeming to head away from Bur-Omisace. Judge Zargabaath, at its helm, shakes his head and remarks that "the Empire's debts grow legion." The party sees a great plume of smoke rising from Bur-Omisace, and hurry back to find a tragedy. The Imperials did not retrieve Lord Larsa with a light touch, and, led by the bloodthirsty Bergan, slaughtered any who would stop them from occupying the temple itself. Though it would seem the Alexander has left, there are still a small number of troops left behind in the temple, where Anastasis attempts reason with them.

Hurrying inside, the party finds the cloister wrecked, with Gran Kiltias Anastasis sleeping the sleep of death at the feet of Judge Bergan.

It would seem he anticipated their search for the Sword of Kings, and demands they hand it over to him, for, "Too late and to their sorrow do those who misplace their trust in gods learn their fate." Behind him, the same specter that seemed to have possessed Mjrn floats, its eyes gleaming in the black void. The Judge glows with a radiant power, and the party realizes that he is empowered by nethicite. Fran believes he is possessed as Mjrn was, but Bergan only laughs.

The power of this new nethicite, he says, is the power of mankind, and Vayne, wielding such power as the Dynast-King could never have hoped to, shall become the new, true Dynast-King where Raithwall could only beg scraps from the table of the gods who permitted his rule. With it, he shall place "the reigns of history back in the hands of man," the first of many times we shall hear this phrase from now on.

With nethicite set into his very bones and some unknowable entity lingering in his mind, he is infused body and spirit with their incredible power. My God, Bergan, are those... mako eyes?! If we will not hand over the sword willingly, we must die, then.

BRING IT! Now, Bergan always kicked my ass in the past, so I say with not a little satisfaction that Vaan brought him down almost to death with a single lucky four-hit combo from his greatsword. And then the rest of the way. So there.

Bergan's death fixes little, though; Larsa is taken back home, and the Gran Kiltias is dead. It would seem some great power we have no knowledge of is at work, and even the great powers we do know have set their hands dead against us.

Al-Cid Margrace stumbles in with the help of his aid. It would seem Larsa went willingly with Judge Gabranth, to avoid causing just such a scene, yet after he was gone, Bergan flew into a frenzy and began striking down the Kiltias. Al-Cid was badly wounded in battle with Bergan himself, yet managed to flee for his life after he set his attention on Anastasis.

He pleads with Lady Ashe to return with him to Rozarria. His military favors a preemptive strike, and the Empire's actions have them all but ready to begin their campaign. Ashe's words could, if nothing else, ensure that his is not the country that starts this great war.

Ashe refuses, though; with the Sword of Kings in hand, she has a weapon that can nullify and destroy their greatest weapon, and if any bargain can be made, it is best done after the Dusk Shard is splintered at her own hand.

Margrace is skeptical, but Balthier has a good lead on where it might be: Draklor Laboratory, the seat of Archades' military research. It seems Balthier's intense hateboner for all things Draklor will keep him with us for at least a while longer, then. Al-Cid takes his leave, returning to his country to do what good he can. He wishes Ashe luck, and leaves us with some well-wishing from Larsa.

The whole Paramina section of the game might be the best the game gets. It's also the last part of this fucking game that makes any sense.

To be continued.

Even though i liked FFXII i can enjoy a good methodical roasting of its plot

i'll even add my own. The fuck was up with getting the zodiac spear? I swear you need a freaking guide for that shit. And dont get me started on Mr.I-have-three-million-hitpoints-and-am-more-a-test-of-patience-rather-than-skill-or-preparation McSpaky-pants

oh and

c-c-c-combo breaker....

Dude...

This is a few paragraphs short of THIRTY THOUSAND WORDS

AND YOU'RE NOT DONE YET

HOW!?

General Twinkletoes:
Dude...

This is a few paragraphs short of THIRTY THOUSAND WORDS

AND YOU'RE NOT DONE YET

HOW!?

Take heart; I'm just about halfway done!

PART 6: A Saucerful of Secrets

We, the heroes, have a loooooong walk ahead of us. Yes, while great Yensan Sandsea before the Tomb of Raithwall consisted of the Ogir-Yensa and Nam-Yensa, the road to Archades' capital will see us depart from Nalbina Fortress through the Mosphoran Highwaste, the Salikawood, the Phon Coast, the Tchita Uplands, and the Sochen Cave Palace, with detours through the Nabreus Deadlands and the Necrohol of Nabudis itself if I feel like a badass, and I always feel like a badass.

After moving so very quickly for most of the game, the pace slows to a near crawl around this point. Know merely that a daunting length of time passed between that last paragraph and this next one; nothing of any note happens, save for one small but significant scene at a small camp in Phon Coast.

As the party stops for a short rest on the white-sand beach, Balthier stops to needle Ashe about her motives. She tells him that she's set on destroying the Imperial nethicite, but he isn't convinced. Rather, he thinks she's of a mind to take it as her own. After all, she could certainly rationalize it as helping out Dalmasca, road to hell paved with etc., etc...

She takes offense at his mocking tone, but he has a cautionary tale to share: about a man who came to love nethicite, babbling to himself about its majesty; who began to believe in some entity named 'Venat' whom no one else knew; who built a multitude of weapons and airships of greater and greater power in the name of researching the stone; who pushed Balthier into becoming a judge.

Ashe is shocked at that last point, but Balthier brushes her off. He speaks, of course, of Cidolfo Demen Bunansa: Dr. Cid, of Draklor Lab, Balthier's father. Le gasp! He begs her not to walk that same path. It was Cid's descent into slavery to the stone that drove him to run from life in Archadia, seeking freedom as a sky pirate. Yet it isn't lost on him how fate never let him out of its sight: he ran after a stone that turned out to be nethicite, got locked in with Ashe, and is now on his way back to Archades to confront his father about the stone itself.

Ashe spends a moment to reminisce, too, about a moment during her engagement to Rasler, standing on a high balcony of Rabanastre's palace with him. The marriage of Ashe to a Nabradian prince was seen as a marriage of convenience, useful for the political tie between the two nations. But they did dearly love each other, and, despite the sometimes-tiresome roles they had to play, each would rather be with no one but the other.

Back in the present, Balthier tells her she's too strong to become a tool of the stone like his father had been. She can only hope he is right.

Hey Balthier, would you consider a personal revelation about responsibility and not running from the past or fate or whatever as more valuable than a certain ring? No...? Oh well.

After two more areas and a couple of random bosses, we come to- oh. Oh no.

UUUUUUUuuuuuuuugggggggghhhhhhh. Archades.

This fucking town.

Archades. Everything about Archades sucks. Everything. To make it through the place, you have to engage in a very long, extremely pointless quest that consists of running through every zone talking to every NPC about four or five times each. Even if you use a guide to tell you exactly how to get through this quest, IT STILL TAKES THREE TIMES LONGER THAN IT SHOULD. Archades has way too much brown in what would otherwise be a very pretty place (in a game that's otherwise beautiful), and the music is no real consolation either (in a game that otherwise has fan-fucking-tastic music).

I know they're trying to give the player a break from combat and running through the wilderness, but this is like taking a break from a long drive by sorting through the gum under the tables of a truck stop diner, picking them up in a particular order, then eating them in turn. And why do we do this?

Well, the first time, to start a fight, to distract some guards, to slip by the wide, open pathway they were guarding. We absolutely could not do this by bribing one of the starving, desperate lowlifes of the lower city to punch one of the guards and then run off. Hell, we couldn't even bribe the GUARDS. But of course not; I'm sure they're paid so handsomely and respected by everyone they meet. We couldn't, I don't know, cast a silence spell on the pair of them and visit the kind of suffering on them that legends are written about.

No, from here until Draklor we're operating on Adventure Game Logic. Our mission now is to take a cab. Oh! Well that's actually simple. Except, we have to have a special seal that marks us as a big shot before he'll take us to the nice part of town. How much are cab drivers paid again? What would a suitable bribe be? Is it less than half a million gil? Because I've got about that much, and I would pay EVERY FUCKING PENNY to skip this shit. Oh, they tell us: without a chop, it's a million fucking gil. Can I buy a bike, too, you fucking prick? In order to get the sandalwood chop we need, we need a bunch of pine chops to trade up for it. How does one get pine chops? Like a fucking boy scout getting a handful of goddamn merit badges, that's how.

If you're waiting for me to explain why it makes sense that we need to collect fucking thank-you cards to Horadric Cube them into a bus pass, well you're in the same boat as me because I waited for the fucking game to tell me and it never goddamn did. Doing so will not be quick, and it will not be fun. Nooooo, sir, not either, and not by a long shot.

Essentially, there are a bunch of NPC's with problems, the likes of which are so mundane and uninteresting that I would not dare document them, for fear that I would age several years in the few moments it took to type them. And corresponding with each one is someone who can solve that problem, whom you must find for them. You can only 'hold' one problem at a time, though, because Vaan stood in the sun too often as a kid and his brain has gone a bit soft; you cannot just jot them all down in your notebook, and then find all the people you need in a sweep. No, you must track down Nameless, Faceless NPC With a Problem #1, bug every NPC in Archades until you find their corresponding NPC, receive pine chop in reward, then track down Nameless, Faceless NPC With a Problem #2, etc. etc. until your blood pressure prevents you from seeing the screen properly.

And the most insulting part of it is that through all of it we get information from someone who practically tells us outright, the very first time we meet him, that he plans on selling us out, because he knows Balthier and can get a ton of money from ratting all of us out. This honestly might be my least favorite part of the entire game to play through, and that's saying a whole goddamn lot.

Except.

Except that you actually CAN pay your way out of this quest; it's just really obtuse. Walk into any shop, and upstairs there's a bloke called the chopmaster, who normally doesn't do anything except trade your pine chops for the fancy sandalwood chop. Talk to him, tell him you don't need anything, and talk to him AGAIN and he'll give a long spiel about weeeelllll it's not really allowed BUT I could sell you a pine chop for 20,000. You need twenty-eight of them. And for every one, you have to talk to him twice, wait through his overlong dialogue, and shell out a total of 560,000 gil. And it's still totally, completely worth it.

Oh, and when you get to the central district after all that work? Balthier's already there, after having left your ass as soon as you got into the city, that smug prick. And you know what he tells us? He gave that shady streatear type chops enough for us to get up to Central, and the fucking lowlife cheat pocketed them while we humped the turf bothering assholes in the crowd. All so he could get a leg up in Central and make life difficult for us: by the time we get up there, a heavy guard's been posted on the route to Draklor, and we can't get in without agreeing with fucking Pazuzu here to get dirt on the lab for him to sell. God damned if I am ever seeing that horse's ass again.

Moving. Swiftly. Onward.

We do, at least, have a ride to Draklor lined up. Upon arriving, it seems that the place isn't quite so heavily guarded as we thought; everything's a bit quiet. Turning into the next hall, the reason for this becomes apparent: everyone's dead already. Well that was easy! Our destination is on the top floor, but getting there isn't exactly simple, of course. I mean, just once I'd like to visit an eight story building in a game and not have to turn out every broom closet to get where I was going. Just once...

In keeping with the theme of Archades, Draklor fucking sucks. Every floor is a maze, with two sets of doors throughout: red doors and blue doors. When one set is open, the other is closed. You see where I'm going with this. Getting through requires running blindly around looking for switches to flip that might open the set of doors we need to make it to the next switch, until we run across a keycard or whatever. All the enemies are either boring Imperials or oddballs taken from other areas. Of all things, rats make their first and last reappearance. It is an empty timesink and typing this out took twice as much mental effort, despite defying any attempt to inspire wit or observation. Seriously, alternating, mutually-exclusive sets of doors? People work here! Who would do this?! What if there's a fire?!?

So it is with great pleasure that I introduce a new face. As we arrive at the top floor, a man with dark skin, white hair, and wielding two curved blades (no it's not Drizz't) ambushes Basch and nearly knocks his teeth right in, but after a quick standoff, he apologizes, realizing we aren't with the Imperials. Yes, it seems like the other intruding force was just this fellow. Before introductions can be made, Cid's taunting voice draws him up the stairs to the landing pad.

At the top, we come face to face with the man himself. Let me say right now: I fucking love Cid. He's eternally bombastic, delightfully mad, irrepressibly energetic, his voice acting is top-notch, and he makes for a fun fight. He stands atop the dock stairs, challenging the dark-skinned man, but Balthier cuts in. They exchange some glib commentary as Balthier demands the Dusk Shard, but Cid brushes him off. Something unseen catches his interest, and he chats with the air for a bit. Recognizing Ashe, he challenges her to a fight- a test for the Dusk Shard! Two floating devices float down and hover around him, and he draws two rifles. An intense glow of energy blazes around him, the power of nethicite swirling around the mad scientist who pioneered it. The battle is joined!

Aaaaand it's over all too soon. Really, everything about fighting Cid is fun; his weapons are a joy to watch as they blast away at you, and his running commentary never fails to entertain. The sheer energy that goes into his performance is admirable. But at the end of the day no amount of fancy toys and glittery auras can save the old man from a well-placed knightsword, and he falls to his knees. Our guest with the two swords sees his chance, and leaps through the air to finish him once and for all, but the instant before the blow is struck, he is flung away like a leaf.

Cid takes a moment to thank 'Venat' (pronounced veh-NAH), and in the air beside him appears the spectral creature we spied with Mjrn and Bergan. So maybe the mad scientist isn't quite so mad as he is well-acquainted! Balthier is dumbfounded to see that the 'Venat' he had heard of so often years ago actually existed. He taunts Ashe, bearing the Dusk Shard in one hand and the Midlight Shard in the other. How far will she go for the stones? He knows just how tempting they can be better than anyone, and he casually suggests she head to someplace called 'Giruvegan.' After all, he teases, she just might get a NEW stone there. She calls his ruse as he steps toward a small airship, but he seems not to hear, musing to himself those fateful words: "The reins of history, back in the hands of man." Remembering where he is, he laughs, and announces that he himself is headed to Giruvegan, so if they want to chat anymore they'll just have to chase him down.

After he flies off, our mysterious guest introduces himself as Reddas, a sky pirate, and the scene fades to Ondore's narration once more.

With the Senate purged and dissolved, Vayne holds absolute power, and the military couldn't have been more pleased to have Vayne in command of the inevitable counterattack against Rozarria. Meanwhile, the Resistance, led by Ondore, musters its forces at the borders of Archadian airspace. All the tinder is in place, just waiting for the match.

Ondore stands at the helm of his flagship, the Garland, directing his forces in mock sorties, training for the inevitable. Meanwhile, they track Reddas moving away from Imperial airspace to the port at Balfonheim, apparently with Ashe and the gang in tow. It seems Reddas was trying to pilfer the nethicite from Cid, but I guess we know how that worked out. We get to hear Curly speak! Oh Curly, it's been too long. Why didn't the sequel about you and Supinelu ever emerge? It seems he's confident in the Resistance's ability to go toe-to-toe with the Imperials, and if Curly believes it, then by God that's good enough for me.

At Balfonheim, Ashe finds the port not to her taste; she doesn't like the idea of a city that funds the Resistance without fighting for it, because she's a fucking child that still doesn't understand a goddamn thing about politics. Reddas lets on as much as gently as possible, and she asks if Ondore really is set on war. Lady, I don't really think Ondore has much of a choice at this point. In any case, Reddas points out that it isn't exactly secret by now that his actions got her sprung from the Leviathan, and it won't be long before he has to make a stand on the Empire in some official capacity. Quite frankly, it's amazing this hasn't happened already, what with his leading an airship fleet capable of fighting the Empire just outside their airspace.

We have a short flashback to Reddas meeting with Ondore himself. Ondore is optimistic, thinking that having such a strong fleet might make even Vayne turn to negotiations, but Reddas doesn't believe it's possible as long as Vayne controls the nethicite. All the more reason, Ondore says, for Reddas to try his infiltration plan; with the nethicite in Ondore's hands, the tables would be turned rather completely.

Reddas puts the hammer down: just because he might steal the Midlight Shard doesn't mean he would turn it over to Ondore, or anyone for that matter! Ondore seems upset with Reddas refusal; without the Stone's power, the Resistance will be forced to ally with Rozarria for aid.

Back in the present, the party realizes that this is just what Vayne wants: draw all his enemies to one place, then annihilate them in one stroke with the nethicite, which no force could resist. Balthier makes a good point, though: manufacted nethicite is one thing, but Cid has both the legendary stones with him, and he's not in Archadia at the moment. It seems we'll be setting out to chase him after all.

Fran rouses from her stupor for a moment and starts reading from the Wikipedia page for Giruvegan. It seems it's set somewhere rich in mist, and Reddas thinks it must be the Feywood, in the Jagd Difohr. Considering that Cid spent a good six years disappeared in the Jagd Difohr and returned a changed man with a spectral acquaintance, it seems a good bet.

Everyone runs out except Balthier and Ashe, and the former asks if Reddas might be tagging along; no such luck, as he has another lead to look into. Vaan pokes his head in and tells them to pack their shit and hurry the fuck up. Reddas tells him to let the adults talk and go talk to his cronies, since he had them check up on the Feywood for him. (Already? Reddas already knew where Giruvegan was? Not impossible, but still.) Reddas teases Balthier about Vaan being 'his apprentice,' damaging Balthier's ego irreparably in the process. I like this guy already!

Balthier staggers off to nurse his terrible wound, and before Ashe can leave, Reddas confronts her. He isn't happy hearing about the possibility of more nethicite coming from Giruvegan, and wants to hear her opinion on using the stuff. She's troubled; she knows she needs its power to fight Vayne, yet she's seen how terrible its use can be. Reddas doesn't think she really has, though. He tells her that any discussion of nethicite begins and ends with Nabudis, and the conversation is over.

There are indeed a few of Reddas' special needs pirates with the lowdown on the Feywood awaiting Vaan outside. Well, that does them a bit too much credit; they tell us it's south of Golmore and is rich in mist, which I already knew from the previous conversation and, in fact, from having already been there to farm monster parts. They do mention some sort of trial, the passing of which is necessary to reach Giruvegan beyond, and indeed, there was a path I couldn't traverse before.

Running on out to the Feywood, and the path, previously blocked by a thick current of rushing mist (mist can do anything, shut up), clears up at Ashe's approach as the mist dissipates with a final howl. On cue, Rasler appears and wanders deeper into the snowy wood, beckoning her further.

He could have at least warned us about the boss fight in the next area, the spooky Nabradian git. Thanks to the multitude of status effects at its disposal it managed to annoy me a bit despite my overpoweredness. So! That must have been the trial of the Feywood, which means Giruvegan lies just ahead.

Or not. Turns out the boss was just some overgrown plant; the actual trial of the Feywood is just beyond. Several shrines lie in a snowy field, shaped more or less like gazebos. Standing in the middle, one exit will show an illusory image of a verdant paradise rather than the desolate landscape without, and heading straight out in that direction will lead to another shrine, repeat until you are led right out of the area and to the next. Trying to proceed without using the shrines will result in the old Lost Woods standard of returning you to the entrance of the zone you were in.

Here's what gets me: at the end of the next area, the real trick of entering Giruvegan is a gate that will only open if Belias is summoned and present. That's pretty clever, and, during my first playthrough of this game, was the only time any Esper ever got let out of its pokeball, but what the fuck was the point of the elementary-school shrine puzzle?! In what world is someone capable of besting and commanding a fucking gigas but incapable of solving the most rudimentary riddles presentable, with no penalty for failure? Was that built expressly to troll non-heirs of Raithwall? Could we have shown our Gigas-pass at the gate of the park and be let right in without the wait?

How the fuck did Doctor Cid get through, anyway? Balthier claimed he was missing in the Jagd Difohr for six years, was most of that spent knocking very patiently until Venat got fed the fuck up with the clamor?

Once it's opened by the gigas' presence, the gate to Giruvegan leads... nowhere, it seems. We find ourselves on a high causeway floating in an endless pool of water as clear and still as glass. Fog blocks line of sight beyond any significant distance, but the high domes and spires of a great city stretching from horizon to horizon is visible far beyond the end of the path, sitting out on the water's surface.

Fran remarks on the extreme mist floating around, and Penelo worries that she might flip her shit like back on the Leviathan. Of course, she assures us that that was a one-use plot device, and will never come up again. (She's right.) Balthier seems determined to lie in wait for Cid, believing he hasn't arrived yet. I don't know, Balthier, do you really think we outran the guy who knew exactly how to get here, and took an airship here, while we fucked around getting directions from pirates and hiking here on foot (after hunting marks for a month or two)?

Anyway, Balthier is more concerned about what might happen if they press on than about Cid; he was the only man ever known to travel here and return, and it twisted him up like a corkscrew. Luckily for the plot, Ashe has the big dick of the party, and no one gives a shit what Balthier says; Ashe sets off after yet another vision of Rasler, and Vaan encourages the party to follow.

They do, but Vaan makes the curious mistake of saying "She sees him," to explain her rationale. No one but him should have any idea that Ashe is seeing dead people, nor should he really let on that she is. No one makes any comment, though, so they've probably long accepted Ashe is batshit and long ago resigned themselves to their servitude of the crazy bitch. Either that or no one pays any attention to what Vaan says, which is where I've put my money.

It looks like the angry hedge back in the woods wasn't enough of a test for whoever oversees this place, so another (easier) boss battle takes place, and the way is open to... oh. Ooooohhhh NOOOOOOOOOOO!

NOT THIS FUCKING PLACE!!

I'll level with you, I took a looooong break before gathering the strength to tackle this next segment. It's an incredible setpiece, and would be very interesting and awesome to see but for the fact that it's a god damn chore to play through: the Great Crystal.

See, we aren't going to get to see that mysterious, foggy city just beyond our reach. No, the only way forward is a teleporter to some sort of immense cylindrical cavern, slowly working our way across stone terraces and hard-light platforms spiraling a long, loooooong way downward, eventually encircling a shimmering orange crystal of titanic proportions. We're talking a literal mountain-sized crystal, over a kilometer in height, and that's our destination.

Eventually, we reach the third terrace, and another set of green, hard-light platforms reaches out toward the crystal, with another boss fight at the end waiting to be curbstomped. With that out of the way, well, here we are, folks. The Great Crystal itself. Whistle through your teeth at it, take pictures. What? No, I didn't mean GETTING to the crystal was our destination; it's the next dungeon.

Yes, the crystal itself comprises a massive area, honeycombed with dozens of identical platforms crawling with difficult enemies. Progression relies on a number of mild gate-unlocking puzzles. There is no place to resupply, and if you ever have business here, the closest way in our out is the gate crystal waaaaay back at the entrance just after the Feywood. There is no map.

THERE. IS. NO. FUCKING. MAP.

I swear to god, this fucking game.

I'm convinced that after Final Fantasy X, some very proud game designer overheard someone suggest, "Spheres are great and all, but I wish we went back to crystals," and just absolutely lost his fucking sanity. "Crystals?! You want... CRYSTALS, do you?!" he cried, tearing his shirt and hopping up and down. "I'LL GIVE YOU SO MANY CRYSTALS YOU SHIT THEM IN YOUR SLEEP! From stones to halcyons, we'll have magicite crystals, and nethicite crystals, and skystones and memstones and gate crystals and save crystals." At this point the cafeteria was evacuated as he began scratching plans in the tile with a fork and drinking soy by the pint. "We'll have a Sun-Cryst, and a special crystal for every time of the day! Maybe some for meals and holidays! We'll have crystal enemies, and a... crystal... DUNGEON..." he finished, as his eyes widened and a terrible clarity consumed him whole.

Luckily, most of the ire I reserve for the area stems from the many, MANY side-quests that lead to this place; the only mandatory trip here is fairly linear, for whatever that's worth when every room leads to an identical room with numerous exits and no stated goal or direction.

The party works its way downward. At the bottom- which we better fucking hope is our goal, since no one actually has any god damn clue- an immense sphere seems to have formed in the surrounding crystal lattice, and dense mist pours out of it like a gale. The party seems certain it is nethicite. In fact, the entire Great Crystal may be nethicite, for all we know. Penelo worries once more that Fran might go Jason Voorhees on us, but she reiterates, "WHAT PART OF ONE-USE GIMMICK DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND," and the party turns its attention to Ashe, who is salivating openly at the sight of the nethicite. Fran very sarcastically notes that it would be enough nethicite for Ashe to bomb the entire planet to zombie-gnawed cinders, doing her part for once in the party's eternal quest to constantly guilt-trip Ashe for wanting nethicite yet working tirelessly to help her obtain it.

We step through one last tele-pedestal, and arrive in... a building, I guess? It has the architecture of the terrace-steps, but is enclosed. Maybe we're in the city itself. But no time to worry about it; it's an ambush! A bizarre, misshapen creature flies at us in a rage; it's Shemhazai, the Whisperer!

Look, ma'am, no offense but I am so far beyond you that you might as well give up and spare us both the embarrassment. I've already fought an esper that was slightly easier than cutting out my own wisdom teeth with a soup can lid: Chaos, Walker of the Wheel, and he's just itching to meet you.

One humiliating boss battle later, Shemhazai is mine to command, and the last of waaay too many bosses needed to get an audience with the residents of Giruvegan. I mean, I assume this is one of those whole, "Destiny foresaw you would come someday," type deals, so am I really proving my worth, or am I just jerking off some lonely dungeon designer the other Occuria don't talk to?

What's an Occuria? Well, we're about to find out. The party touches one final waystone, and Ashe finds herself alone, floating on a tiny round platform high, high above Giruvegan, the city visible below: dozens of walled, circular districts sitting here and there on the glass-still surface of the water, from horizon to horizon, connected by serpentine highways. Another layer of the same layout floats above the clouds, as high above Ashe as she is above the water, with small floating structures dotting the sky midway between the two.

Ashe can't believe the sight, but a mystic voice greets her with that most angelic of catchphrases, "Be not afraid." A being of the same sort as Venat materializes, and in an androgynous iambic tetrameter, lays out a gameplan for the princess. Ashe really is the chosen one, and Cid wasn't lying: they really do want to give her new nethicite to forge a new Ivalice however she sees fit. But nethicite is a sort of self-serve deal: the Dynast-King's three stones were just tiny shards of a massive hunk of nethicite made for the purpose, the Sun-Cryst.

Ashe can do little more than stammer out her amazement, so the Occuria- called Gerun- presses on. Ages and ages ago, the Occuria thought they might give a little firm guidance to human affairs by granting power to a worthy hume: the Dynast-King, of course. That turned out rather well for about a thousand years, but Ivalice has gone to shit without their influence and they think Ashe is just the lady to succeed her great ancestor. To symbolize the new treaty, they grant her a sword that marks her as the new Dynast-Queen, a symbol of the Occuria's favor and, conveniently enough, a blade able to cut new nethicite shards from the Sun-Cryst.

Oh, and take care of Venat while you're rebuilding your shitsack world. Ashe is confused on that point; she points out that Venat is an Occuria, like them, and the representative speaks in a voice that shakes the platform: Venat is basically the lovechild of Satan and Prometheus. A whole slew of Occuria, of various shapes and colors, materialize around Ashe. Gerun firmly explains that nethicite isn't the sort of thing you want just anyone to have, as evidenced by their not seeing fit to give it out more than once every thousand or more years, and then only to a single person recognized expressly worthy of its use. Venat ran off and started giving its blueprints to madmen, to be used by the most ambitious and ruthless would-be tyrant alive in the world. Part of Ashe's duties in building a better Ivalice, naturally, is to knock off the renegade angel and any trace of knowledge pertaining to the manufacture of more nethicite.

So, that's that: Ashe is Heaven's first-draft pick to clear up all this political bullshit that's been going down and usher in a new thousand-year golden age of Ivalician unity and prosperity, and we've got the tools to do it: nethicite in as little or great an amount as we so choose, a means to destroy that nethicite if we deem it too dangerous or no longer worth keeping around, and a mandate no one on the planet can talk back to! Quick, ask them how to use nethicite in a manner other than "nuke mode!"

Instead of asking how to use nethicite, which I might point out we STILL DON'T KNOW, Ashe gets cold feet instead, choosing the worst possible time to treat the idea of making war on the Empire- a wish she's borne with an almost sexual desire up to this point- with a sudden distaste. The Occuria, with a mix of authority and incredulity, calmly explains that, as immortal, omniscient beings, they've had to step in and stop humanity from destroying itself more times than they care to remember throughout history, more or less as a hobby. Appointing a human champion to take care of these things is just their way of giving history a little nudge in the right direction every now and then. The Occuria, figuring taunting might work where HAVING A FUCKING BRAIN IN YOUR SKULL has clearly failed, conjures up the illusion of Rasler, placing his hand on the Treaty-Blades hilt to guide her, and tells her to avenge her kingdom and claim her birthright.

Ashe's baser impulses sufficiently appealed to, she reluctantly grasps the blade, and a quick flash of light later the Occuria are gone, with the rest of the party filing in around her in their place. They seem to have heard the conversation, despite being unable to take part in it. Vaan is immediately suspicious of their authority by virtue of being a shithead teenager, but no one pays any attention. Basch, though, doesn't trust the Occuria one bit, suddenly believing very firmly that mankind shouldn't take orders from beings beyond their comprehension and orders of magnitude beyond them in experience, wisdom and power. Furthermore, he thinks destroying the Empire outright might be going a bit too far.

I hasten to point out that they don't have to do that; they just have to defeat their military, which they should easily be able to do now. In fact, the Occuria will likely be pleased as long as Venat is dealt with and no more nethicite is being made by humans, with anything beyond that left up to Ashe's volition.

But no, everyone immediately determines that the Occuria are shady no-goodniks, despite their previous interactions of this nature resulting in the greatest golden age the world ever experienced.

Penelo points out that we came here expecting to find Cid, but Balthier sardonically states what the audience likely figured out back at Draklor: he never intended to come here; he was just baiting us into coming ourselves, certainly to facilitate this very meeting.

What's more mysterious is his motive for doing so. Cid is 100% behind Vayne and his ambitions, and just led his worst enemies into ludicrous power. He conjectures that the good doctor might just want to see what happens when you give nethicite to two sides of a war, but that seems more Larsa's style than Cid's. More than anything, Balthier just seems dazed and upset that his father really had been chatting up a real-live Occuria all those years, after he had come to terms with his father simply being looney tunes and a total asshole. Ashe decides we might as well seek out the Sun-Cryst before deciding a course of action, essentially pleading "just the tip!" to the nay-sayers in the party. I'm on to you, princess! And I'm not the only one.

The scene skips over to Archades, as the brothers Solidor converse. Judge Gabranth looks on as Larsa pleads with Vayne to bury the hatchet with Dalmasca and let Ashe take her throne back; he seems to think it's the best way to settle down the Resistance and the Rozarrians, a grand gesture to avert the looming war. Vayne is pessimistic, pointing out that Ashe herself wants the war as much as anyone. Which, I mean, is totally a fair assessment. Larsa argues that she wouldn't care to war with them if she already had her throne back, but they break down to a short squabble. Vayne gets a light bulb, and, likely as a way to end the discussion more than anything, tells Gabranth to find the woman herself and just ask the crazy bitch if she wants to rumble or not.

Well that's certainly straightforward. Gabranth wants to know if he should go ahead and shishkebab her if the 8-Ball turns up "War," but Larsa simply states that it won't come to that and sends him on his way. I'd tell Larsa this is a fine fucking time for a hefty, one-time bonus to find its way to Gabranth with Larsa's name on the receipt if he wants to get this question settled the quick and easy way, but Vayne's plan- sending a dangerous warrior to your worst enemy, to ask them if they wanna go- is so likely to end in a tragic misunderstanding that Larsa probably took a big step towards becoming a man the moment he heard it. The little lord excuses himself to sort through the strange mix of feelings that come from witnessing a troll more masterful than himself.

Cid, who until this point has been twitching and muttering to himself like a collected, reasonable individual in the background, struts up to Vayne and remarks how unlikely it is that such a sweet kid could be the brother of such a sinister asshole. Vayne takes this as a compliment, but while he is ruthless, it seems he isn't remorseless; he admires his brother's nobility, naïve though it may be.

Cid gets a message from Venat, and is happy to report that Ashe has "taken the bait." Vayne, too, seems to be counting on the party having their meeting with the Occuria, though they don't yet tip their hand to the audience as to why. Cid takes a moment to gloat, trivializing the Occuria and their nethicite. Vayne isn't amused, though; as he says, they had to "conquer two kingdoms so he could study those 'baubles.'" But Cid brushes him off, thinking his work with manufacted nethicite well worth it. He calls upon Venat to stroke his ego further, and she complies, appearing personally to praise his work and the incredible speed with which he undertook it. Cid points out that humans don't have thousands of years to spend on their pet projects like the Occuria, and Vayne agrees; if they had time to piss away, Vayne would rather not have spent it starting wars and building superweapons. Cid tells him to cheer the fuck up: taking the reins of history back (in the hands of man!) from the Occuria was never going to be easy. Venat concurs, mocking the idea of Gerun and the others appointing themselves curators of the world's events.

(This is about as close we get to a motivation for Venat; it seems that everything it does simply is to rebel and spite the other Occuria. Whether or not he actually cares about humanity or just wants to service his epic beef is an open question, but I know where my money lies...)

Vayne can only hope their optimism isn't unfounded, though; he's more than ready for all the bloodshed and destruction he's responsible for to start paying their long-overdue dividends.

To be continued.

I've read books shorter than this, and also considerably worse than this.

Keep up the good work, sir, I await the next twist and turn with bated breath.

I've really enjoyed reading this so far. Can't wait for more!

I'm really enjoying this. Furthest I ever got was in the middle of part 5, just wasn't levelled enough to beat that Wyrm thing in the forest. Will be interested to see how the story ends.

Just by stopping at every "this fucking something" and reading a paragraph, I am not only enjoying myself but also wanting to play the game.

Suhi89:
I'm really enjoying this. Furthest I ever got was in the middle of part 5, just wasn't levelled enough to beat that Wyrm thing in the forest. Will be interested to see how the story ends.

Ah yes, the Elder Wyrm, a notoriously difficult boss. Not only does it fight alongside two golems, but it combines the kind of health and damage that would make it a tough boss by themselves, with the kind of frequent and varied abuse of status effects that would usually compose a boss's primary skillset.

It's fairly well-known that you can avoid that boss altogether by entering the Feywood and simply fleeing the high-level enemies until you can rejoin the road to your destination, but as I am playing the IZJS version of the game, relying on Belias proved a very good strategy.

Espers were given a great deal more use in IZJS than they were in the standard game, so summoning Belias and exploiting the Elder Wyrm's fire weakness with its powerful attacks (and total status immunity) made short work of the boss- if I'm remembering correctly. It's been a few months.

Thank you for the kind words, everyone. I'm glad to know someone is getting something out of this.

I played this game once, got as far as Fran and Balthier joining the party, got spit back into the be damned sewers, and quit. I believe my response was: "Nope, nope, nope, screw this game! I JUST got out of this madness!"

I made it halfway through the 2nd post. This may be beyond me for right now. However, I'll say that the writing was good and it really made me wonder why there aren't more game playthrough threads on the Escapist.

FF12 was the first mainline game I never finished so I'd like to read this whole thing at some point. I'm thinking it will be *slightly* shorter than slogging through the game itself.

deathmothon:
FF12 was the first mainline game I never finished so I'd like to read this whole thing at some point. I'm thinking it will be *slightly* shorter than slogging through the game itself.

I'm thoroughly tempted to, with no warning, start making up my own plot and writing that down instead, just to see how long until someone notices the difference.

Probably when the epic Al-Cid-versus-Supinelu rap battle starts, but that would mean scrubbing my plans for Curly and Ozzie's panther-zord.

PART 7: Black Hole Sun-Cryst

Back in Giruvegan, the party is back in the room where they fought Shemhazai; the gate to the floating platform is forever closed now. Too bad, since we, you know, STILL DON'T KNOW HOW TO USE NETHICITE. I'm serious, even if we're content with just using it as a blunt-force nuke crystal, how do we even do THAT? Do we throw it like a grenade? I can see some issues with that regarding the blast radius. Are there magic words? A dance, perhaps? At this point our only method of deploying nethicite as a weapon is to load it into one of our own airship's engine drives and fly it into the enemy's lines as a kamikaze superbomb. I mean, that's not bad, but it only works once, and if we can use it as more of a deathray I think that would be a bit more efficient. I'm not hard to please.*

Another thing the Occuria neglected to mention is where to find the Sun-Cryst. I'm sure it slipped their minds. The party looks to Fran, to see if Gerun's flowery description stirred anything in the old travelogue, but she comes up empty. Aaawwww, and you were always such a vital help to us before.

Vaan remembers that Reddas had another lead he was pursuing, but Balthier is terrified that if we spend any time around a real sky pirate we'll realize what a total poser he is. The party bravely ignores his bitching and retraces their steps back to Balfonheim Port.

Getting back to Reddas, we find him in the middle of organizing a rescue effort; the fleet he sent to Ridorana ran afoul of bad seas and foundered. Reddas guessed that Cid likely wouldn't be found at Giruvegan, but we certainly didn't come back empty handed; after filling him in, he decides at once that the Occuria are our bullshit to worry over, and he's better off not knowing about them. Smart man! The party figures now that Cid may be trying to goad them into leading him to the Sun-Cryst. What's more, Fran states that if we struck the Sun-Cryst with the Sword of Kings, it would not only destroy it but make the stones already cut from it useless.

Whoooaaa, now, ma'am, where are you getting that idea? The shards work from the mist they gather within them; they don't channel it from the Sun-Cryst. Do they need to be in 'contact' with the Sun-Cryst to unleash that energy? Should we have asked how nethicite works, maybe? In any case, we conjecture that if the Sun-Cryst and the nethicite cut from it were destroyed or depowered, the manufacted nethicite of the Empire would still function just fine, which would leave Archadia with all the best toys and no competition.

So it seems that either way, we need to find the Sun-Cryst, and after that we decide which legendary blade to use on it: carve a new stone or ten with the Treaty-Blade, or shatter it with the Sword of Kings. Reddas, of course, opposes the idea of using or making nethicite, but harming the Sun-Cryst would basically hand ourselves and Ivalice to Vayne on a platter, not to mention it would be spitting in the face of what may or may not be the gods themselves. (Guess which one we go with!)

Reddas seems to have a line on its location, too; the information he saw while raiding Draklor alluded to a place in the Naldoan Sea, in the region called Ridorana, where an ancient lighthouse stands. Sure enough, that's where the troubled fleet was sent to, and if anything assures us we're on the right path, it's disaster.

Of course, we can't sail there, it seems, and the seas are in jagd, so it seems we're in an impasse... except Reddas also stole one of those new-fangled skystones from Draklor that the Imperials have been using to fly in jagd, so we can refit the Strahl and fly there ourselves. Reddas even offers to go with us. Ashe wonders why Reddas is so interested in helping the party, to which he can only vaguely allude to some troubling memories of the disaster at Nabudis.

NO, Judge Zecht, we AREN'T going to indulge your pity-party by asking. Either just tell us or shut the fuck up about it already. But let me tell you, it's great to have him on board. If there's anything you feel like you need some extra muscle for, Reddas' stay in your party is a grand time to take care of it.

But let's indulge the only black man in Ivalice, shall we? Off to the Ridorana Cataract, set far to the east in the Naldoan Sea! "But Rocko," I hear you say, "how can a cataract exist in the middle of the sea?" That's a very astute question, and if you come up with an answer, I'd sure as shit like to hear it. The Cataract appears to be none other than the edge of the entire goddamn world, ye-olde-pirat-mappe style, and indeed the high cliff spans from horizon to horizon north to south, with the sea pouring over it into the void, with nothing but an endless bank of clouds visible far below and stretching beyond sight ever eastward.

It's an outstanding visual setpiece, hampered only- yet significantly- by the fact that it makes not a buttfucking grain of sense. I keep wanting to fly the Strahl out past the edge and trying to get a good look at the immense tortoise upon which Ivalice so precariously rests. Really, what's stopping us? Common sense?

Our destination is an outcropping at the edge of the cataract on which sits the towering Pharos, with the blinding glare of what we know to be the Sun-Cryst gleaming from the very top. The mysterious Pharos was famously unreachable until now, due to the cataracts making the sea unnavigable and the powerful jagd mist making air travel impossible until the advent of nethicite skystone. Yes, that means that Reddas intentionally sent those lackeys of his out here on a suicide mission.

There's a large courtyard right in front of the Pharos that would be perfect for mooring our airship, but rather than land us there, or indeed, just flying to THE TOP OF THE FUCKING TOWER, Balthier sails to the opposite side of the island like a total prick to drop the party off. Perhaps it just seems like the proper thing for adventurers to do. Fran muses to herself at the sight of the Pharos, likely committing the environs to memory so as to never be caught without travelogue exposition again.

Reddas prods Ashe to make up her mind about the nethicite before they get to the top, to which she testily asks what he'd do if she chose to cut a cupboard full of nuke crystals. He replies only that she would do so "to her sorrow." It doesn't come off as a threat when he says it, but really, would Reddas be content to just click his tongue disapprovingly if she went against his wishes? In her head, Ashe get's a wicked "I have altered the deal" ready just in case we have to throw down.

Off to the side, Balthier tells Vaan that if anything "happens" to him, Vaan should take the Strahl. Vaan is taken aback, but Balthier tries to play it cool, saying that, as the leading man, he might just have to do something heroic. It's sort of telling how he sounds almost self-deprecating this time around. I wouldn't be surprised if he finally figured out just how fucked up the casting in this game is, and is trying to save as much face as possible by insinuating himself as the "older mentor character who selectively withholds important information," while hedging his bets if he should fall into "older mentor character who suffers tragic but motivational death."

... You know I guess I'm not going to get a better chance to talk about Balthier, so I might as well go off on it now; once the Pharos wraps up, we're pretty much at the endgame. Actually, there's nothing of substance besides the final bosses after the Pharos, so this is essentially the final dungeon.

Without doubt, Balthier or Ashe should have been the main character of the game. I'd have preferred Ashe, given that she's essentially the Luke Skywalker of this plot, and the narrative centers pretty heavily around her character development, but the tantalizing thing about Balthier is that he, like Basch in turn, possibly was the protagonist for a while in development, which makes it all the more disappointing every time one of the numerous chances for Balthier's character to develop simply come and go without real comment.

The official line is that they wanted someone younger than Balthier as the main character. I contend that they could have simply made Balthier younger; it could have even worked better for his character. Balthier has three powerful things going for him, as far as candidacy for the top spot goes:

1: He's tied intimately to the narrative. The prime movers of the plot are Cid and Venat, neck and neck for first, and Vayne in a close third. Yes, Vayne is the most powerful and dangerous of the three, but he's merely carrying out the plan handed to him by Cid and Venat; all his canny navigation of Imperial politics and Archadian conquest is at the behest of his buddies Faust and Mephistopheles, to bring their plans to fruition through his methods. Venat is both the mind and power behind the three, providing them with the knowledge of nethicite and all the artifacts and lore they need to bring... whatever it is they're plotting to completion, and it is ultimately his agenda and his alone that Cid and Vayne have merely adopted, believing it to be their ideal course of action. Cid, meanwhile, is the fulcrum of the three, whose brilliance led him to Giruvegan and thus to Venat, and allowed him to both understand and perfect the making of nethicite, and thence all technologies derived from it; and whose lofty position in Imperial affairs granted him Vayne's confidence, thus making his tools and Venat's plans the chisel and blueprint of the Empire itself. Balthier, as Cid's son, is automatically invested intimately in the main arc due to his knowledge of his father's deeds and any suffering he see those deeds cause throughout the game. Balthier could always conceivably know just enough about nethicite or the Empire or whatever to keep him invested and the party pointed in the right direction, but not so much that he could blow the plot open at a whim. Of course, this ties closely into the fact that...

2: He's tied intimately to the themes: Balthier was born into a position of great luxury and power. With his father at the reigns of Archades' technology and a close friend of the Solidor dynasty, Balthier was a shoe-in to become a judge, which he was, for a short while... but he rejected it, of his own volition. Balthier witnessed firsthand the corrupting nature of power in his father, and he threw away his judgeship and fled the Empire for a life of freedom. His formative years practically amount to a crash course in the ethical questions of the game concerning the use of power and authority, and man's place in charting the course of history. We even see as much in the character he became, when he uses that background to try and give guidance to Ashe at the Phon Coast. In fact, he and Ashe would make excellent foils to one another, because...

3: Balthier is 'shaped' like a protagonist. I think, ideally, the game could have been helmed not by Balthier or Ashe but by both of them in tandem. Ashe is a moody, vengeance-obsessed princess who had her power taken from her by the Empire and has been trying to claw it back ever since. Balthier is a care-free Archadian ex-judge who threw away his title to free himself from political affairs and live a wild life on the lowest rung of society. They are practically distaff opposites to one another, yet circumstance throws them immediately together and never really lets go until they have good reason to remain with one another. Imagine, for a moment, that Vaan never existed. Yes, I know, it's an incredible feeling. If the game replaced the prologue with Reks at Nalbina- which was fairly useless and redundant, narrative-wise- with Ashe's assault on Vayne's fete at Rabanastre Palace, the game could merely switch over to Balthier and Fran once she gets in over her head. The pair slip in, grab the Goddess Magicite as they intended to do, and then get caught in the crossfire of the rebel assault, ending up in the sewers with Ashe as before. Really, the game could easily progress just the same without Vaan or Penelo. Plus, the audience knowing Balthier was a highborn-Imperial and ex-Judge from the start could easily be leveraged for dramatic tension as he keeps it concealed from the bloodthirsty Ashe, rather than just being a heavily-telegraphed admission at some point that ends up not having much effect one way or the other. Really, if the relationship between Balthier and Ashe could have been far more productive than Vaan and Ashe's with the same amount of leverage. Even the small bit of good development Vaan gets could apply just as well to Balthier instead; Vaan admits that his wanting to be a sky-pirate and fight the Empire was just so much hot air, a grand but empty gesture to keep him from despair without really meaning much of anything. Meanwhile, Balthier's whole bid at becoming a sky pirate never seems to pay off, either; he never steals a damn thing of value, and he admits that despite running away from Imperial politics and his father's mad machinations, he ends up running right back there anyway, having to face what he tried so hard to ignore. Vaan's little admission would seems right at home coming from Balthier's mouth. What's more, the primary duty of Ashe's foil (as far as the narrative is concerned, anyway) is to try and coax her away from the ruthless annihilation of the Empire that the Occuria offer her, warning her away from the seduction of their power. Tell me, who's best suited to this task: Vaan, who is possibly even more fixated on bloody Imperial vengeance than Ashe and never displays any sort of emotional maturity or ethical depth; Basch, who is a length of pine lumber; or Balthier, who saw someone close to him utterly corrupted by nethicite-slinging Occuria and willingly abdicated political and military power for largely ethical reasons?

Whether or not Balthier was aged down, it would be very easy to present him as being less experienced and street-smart than he is in the game, especially since he only seems this way compared to Vaan, anyway; rather than have Vaan be the clueless newb, Balthier the smug mentor, and Fran entirely fucking purposeless, have Balthier be a 'more bravado than brains' sort, excited about being a nominal sky-pirate by virtue of having the Strahl, but not actually knowing much about adventuring or fighting, with Fran as his mentor. This would accomplish two things: it would make Balthier, not Vaan, the audience surrogate, learning about the world and the game with a relevant character with an actual personality; and would give Fran an actual reason to exist in the game. The biggest weakness of Fran's character is that we can only care about Fran as being Balthier's minion, and it's hard enough to care about Balthier himself with how little part he seems to take in the narrative due to Vaan snaking what could have been all his action. We are supposed to believe she has some compelling reason to hang around with Balthier, but they never interact in any way and we are never given any indication of how they ended up together or why they stay together. I could get behind never even showing how they meet; just leave it a mystery. Sure. But Fran's already got at least an entire human lifetime of experience wandering the world and taking care of herself, and that's after spending an unknown number of decades growing up in the upper echelons of viera society; even as it stands in-game, she should still be the wiser, more able half of the couple by far. If Balthier could have served as the audience surrogate, then Fran could have served as the audience's mentor, too, and without Vaan and Penelo to hog the spotlight, a whole lot of capital gets freed up to focus on a naïve, brash Balthier and a pensive, world-wise Fran, hashing out the whys and wherefores with each other as the party treats with gods and plunders ancient superweapons to maybe start or end a war or a civilization. Just as Ashe and Balthier could have been apt foils for one another, Fran could have been an apt foil for Balthier: they both rejected a high place in society to forge their own path, but whereas Balthier ran from Archades to reject responsibility and recuse himself from the course of Ivalician events- a path of relative appeal to him- Fran became an exile from her people to take responsibility, unwilling to sit idle with typical viera impunity as the entire world around her boiled into chaos- a choice that would mark her with shame thence forever forward. I realize they wanted Fran to seem aloof and mysterious, but what we got was just bland and irrelevant. And with Vaan taking up the roles of perspective character, Ashe's foil, and wanna-be sky-pirate, that makes Balthier all but redundant as well. The game goes out of its way to make a big, obvious, comfy main-character-shaped hole where Balthier could easily fit, and then they plop him down on the periphery where he does so little good and hammers in a Vaan-shaped bit of drywall instead.

What a stupid waste. This game.

Once in the courtyard of the tower, the gate shuts behind us and the party is attacked by some sort of gray-brown smear on the floor. At least, that's what it was after the battle; I didn't get a very good look at it beforehand, and it's existence had no bearing on anything. I do have to ask: are we not officially 'in' with the Occuria at this point? If Ashe and her cronies all get eaten by a giant tortoise on the way up the Pharos, what's the Occuria's backup plan? Do they have any other fallen heirs of the Dynast-King to half-manipulate into preventing their traitor from assuming absolute power over Ivalician affairs? Sure, they need some way to verify it's us climbing the Pharos and not some very lucky shipwrecked Seeq, but the door to the Pharos interior doesn't even open until the Dynast-King's heir stands in front of it, so you'd think that would be a system they could rely upon.

Standing before the entrance, the party stops to examine a message carved into the wall. Fran says it looks very old before reading it, but it seems the last 1,100 years has done little indeed to change the written word of Ivalice, because the grammar, spelling and diction are all indistinguishable from the party's own. That's lucky; if I found a note written by King Arthur in 900 AD's Middle English, I'd be pretty well fucked.

The note starts off, and I'm paraphrasing here, "This tower is tall." Eureka. Then it sermonizes for a bit: "He without power, want it not; he with power, trust it not; He with sight, heed it not. Rend illusion; cut the true path." Ashe is content to space out and pick her nose until Fran reads that it was signed by Raithwall himself. Wait, so Raithwall thought the whole, "Hey we're the gods, we'll give you nukes since you're fucking aces in our book," deal was sort of sketchy, too? And he still went on to found a four-hundred-year golden age followed by seven hundred more years of relative peace that we're only now just shitting up? Let's never take that into consideration, okay, Ashe? Awesome, you're the best.

They ponder the last bit for a moment, "Rend illusion; cut the true path." Of course, in thematic terms, it simply a tip from Raithwall to ignore all the bullshit various supernal entities are pushing around at the moment and übermensch your way to the brightest future possible, Ramza Beoulve style. In game terms, however, it simply means the tower is filled with various illusion-esque puzzles.

Holy shit, more proving our worth? We're on the doorstep of the weapon the Occuria definitely want us to have, holding the tool they gave us to acquire it with, for us to accomplish tasks they deem invaluable! At what point do we stop proving our worth? Did the Dynast-King have to clear time off of his busy schedule of drinking Ordalian wine by the half-cask and having his Dynast-Beard fluffed by a team of young viera beard-fluffing maidens to attend to various tasks of regular worth-proving? Were all the various waypoints and trials left behind by Raithwall the product of his being constantly badgered by spectral visions of his high-school sweetheart, pantomiming the Occuria's will to him?

I guess we shouldn't expect an express elevator to the top of the tower, then? And I guess we would be somehow fucked if we had tried just flying to the peak in the Strahl, right? The answer to both of these questions may shock you. I'm actually going to spend some time talking about this dungeon, since it alone consists of more than just running through every room slaying monsters until you get to the boss. I mean, it's not more by much, but still.

The ground floor- and many of the floors to follow- consists of a large, circular central chamber surround by a labyrinth complex on the perimeter. Enemies in the labyrinth are unique in that black orbs will appear upon their deaths, which are used to power various ancient doodads around the Pharos. What are these doodads for? For the highest calling known to RPG characters: opening a door. Each of the devices on this floor take only a single orb, but in addition to the tower itself, there's a postgame area beneath the Pharos that requires scads of dark orbs to access some of the game's best equipment, so it's worth gathering a bunch of them up.

Once three of the devices have been given a black orb, a door in the back of the labyrinth unlocks itself. Stepping through it seems to take us somewhere different entirely... the Sandsea, in fact. Wandering around a bit, a few shapes recognizable as the large tortoise-type enemies are scattered around, dormant in their shells. Approaching most of them merely warps the party back to their starting point. One of them, however, comes to life for a boss fight.

Now, here's the thing about the tower: there are three (actually five) of these bosses, and each corresponds to one of the constellation deities of the Chinese/Japanese ordinal directions. This one is the black tortoise of the North, Genbu. Ironically, though Genbu is said to represent water and the Winter, this boss is seemingly earth-element, due to its weaknesses and immunities. But in both the original Japanese and its translations, this turtle is called 'Pandemonium,' a recurring name in Final Fantasy lore. In fact, none of the other guardian deities of the tower will be named for the mythology they are referencing.

Upon beating the great tortoise into submission, the party finds themselves in the small, rectangular room the labyrinth door actually led to. I get that you're trying to leverage the 'illusion theme,' guys, but if it's effectively just a boss fight anyway...

Raithwall pointed out in his note that the Pharos is pretty tall, and while that could have gone without saying, booooooy he weren't kidding, neither. Altogether, the tower is 100 stories tall, Outer Heaven style, with the Sun-Cryst set in its dais on the roof.

However, most of the floors aren't like the labyrinth on the first floor. There are a few of those scattered about, but in between each of these levels are the so-called stairway ravels, which cover many floors at a time. Having beaten Pandemonium, we are free to use the teleporter to the first of the stairway ravels, which actually begins on the tenth floor. The stairway ravels don't cotton to those dark orb shenanigans, and enemies here do not drop them. Rather, these levels have their own set of tricks: 'fools facades,' which are merely false walls that can be knocked down, usually for treasure; and illusory bridges, which are required to progress. Throughout the tower, there are enemies called Brainpans, which look like stone statues with green flames spurting out of them. Defeating these will cause sections of bridges to to appear over otherwise impassable gaps. There are also red-flamed statues called Deidars, which will counteract your progress if you slay one while building a green bridge, but will build red bridges of their own which lead to bonus treasure.

The stairway ravel will lead us all the way to the 49th floor, after which we pass through a door to another illusory landscape: a series of shallow terraced pools. They don't even bother with any fakeouts this time and just spring the guardian boss after a few steps: Slyt, a large blue fish-creature, representing Seiryu, the azure dragon of the east. Slyt is obviously a water-based boss, though the mythical Seiryu was a deity of wood and the Spring. After pushing its shit in with a few Firaga spells, we once again find ourselves back in the tower, after which it's a short walk to the 50th floor and the teleporter to the second "ascent" of the tower.

The gimmick of this labyrinth section is binding abilities; to progress, you have to pick an altar which will prevent you from using either standard attacks, magic, items, or- if you aren't a total fucking idiot- technics. It may appear that you are intended to complete a short section under each of the restrictions to proceed, but this isn't so; though each altar unlocks only the door next to it, they all lead to the same place. Regardless of which altar you choose, there's nothing stopping you from merely running past the enemies for the short distance to the next floor.

Curiously, your minimap disappears in these areas, which is annoying since you have to check your main map to figure out which of the many identical rooms you're in... yet entirely fucking pointless due to being able to do just that.

Arriving at the 65th floor, it's time for another boss. Passing through the door, we find ourselves whisked to a snowy mountain crevice. The battle begins immediately with Fenrir, a bipedal white tiger. This boss represents Byakko of the West, a deity of metal and Autumn. Although Fenrir seems to be a wind-based creature in-game, he still sort-of matches Byakko's element, for once, by virtue of carrying a massive fuck-off sword. Unfortunately for him, the swirling maelstrom of overcompensation and penis envy that is our party can't really be beaten as far as massive fuck-off weapons go, and he is quickly done in by the aforementioned.

That was the last guardian deity, by the way. Yep, of the four guardian deities, we only fight three, none of whom correspond with their inspirations beyond their appearance. Fantastic.

However, one of the game's final hunts is for a creature called the Shadowseer, who summons these three bosses for a rematch, as well as the fourth and final guardian, Phoenix, based on the Vermilion Bird, Suzaku. Suzaku was the deity of fire, Summer, and the South, and therefore matches the in-game boss better than any of its mandatory kin. While in Chinese myth there is an earth deity called Huang Long, the yellow dragon, which represents the center, Japanese tradition dictates that the center is represented by the Void, which is what the Shadowseer himself stands in for.

After Fenrir is defeated, the party may at last dispel the binding magic, which summons a "Dais of Ascendance," better known as... wait for it... "the fucking express elevator," which will take us to the next floor, and eventually will freely transport us between any levels of the ascent we wish to explore. It proves to be rather pointless right now, since it only takes us up one level, which contains nothing but a teleporter to the next ascent.

Well, enough faffing around. With the last guardian defeated, it's time for more stairway ravel nonsense. This time, we need to pick from different colored teleporters, one of which takes us to the next set. The game doesn't really give you much to go on here, but if you fuck it up twice you get transported to an area with a map of the level and some pillars which tell you the answers straight out... as well as a swarm of undead.

Lacking anything else to say about it this time around, I'd like to point out that the entire tower is filled with inscribed pillars. Some of these, especially the earlier ones, give hints about how to progress, but some of them are just for flavor. All of them, however, drop at least a few lines to explain that humans suck and are lame, and the Undying rock and are cool.

Each and every one of these inscriptions takes time to explain how humans are foolish, violent, chaotic, and extremely ephemeral, while the Undying are wise, everlasting, and set the world into a necessary order. A likely story, given who wrote it, but there are a few gems scattered among the posturing. It seems the Occuria once took a far more active approach in governing the world's affairs, controlling the passing of events with an indomitable hand. But many eons ago, they relented, choosing instead to grant human scions the responsibility of altering the world's course only once every few ages, and only when necessary. The inscriptions go on to say that this changed at the will of "Our King." So it would seem that the Undying themselves have some sort of hierarchy we aren't privy to, and at the very least there is one among them to whom they all bow.

Don't bother remembering all this; the game sure as hell won't.

After the final teleporter, we reach another elevator which brings us up to the 90th floor, which has a large platform in the center of the circular wellspring rather than leaving it open like all the others. It should be noted that throughout the whole tower, especially in the central wellsprings, there is a waterfall curtain. However, the water in these appears to be falling upwards rather than downwards. Trying to admire that on this level will get you ganked, though; from outside the circle leaps a new challenger: Hashmal, the Bringer of Order!

Hashmal is some sort of wolfman with giant horn/claw things instead of arms. Must make it inconvenient to wipe. You people should know how it goes by now; I have better things to do than sully my hands fighting Lucavi. Hashmal, prepare to face Zeromus, the Condemner!

In defiance of tradition, Hashmal barely manages to defeat my Esper, mainly due to Ashe sandbagging like a total bitch and unhelpfully watching them wreck each others shit. Once Zeromus falls, she swoops in to killsteal the last tiny bit of Hashmal's health, because our party is all class, all the time.

With that out of the way, nothing remains to challenge us as we climb the last quiet stair to the peak of the great Pharos. Fran points out that the mist is becoming much stronger, because mist detection is one of two whole character traits she possesses. Penelo, Vaan, and Reddas wonder aloud if Ashe will really go through with the Occuria's plan, as if she wasn't standing two arms' lengths away, clearly hearing every word they say. At this point, SHE FUCKING BETTER go through with it or I just climbed this damn tower for nothing. Amusingly, Ashe politely stops and waits for Reddas to stop guilt-tripping her behind her back.

With that out of the way, the party uses one last teleporter to reach the seat of the Sun-Cryst itself in all its blinding radiance. For this purpose the tower was built in ages long risen and fallen, and here it was that Raithwall assumed the artifacts that would make him Dynast-King a thousand years past, as his forebear did before him, and his before him, and so on into an expanse beyond mortal reckoning.

I hope, despite all odds, you enjoyed the game so far. Once atop the Pharos, the game explodes into a maelstrom of lunacy. Get ready, because there's no going back.

*I may, in fact, be unreasonably hard to please.

To be continued.

A lot of frustration and anger aimed at Vaan, and by extension at FFXII comes from the, in my mind, mistaken belief from people who played the game that Vaan is supposed to be the main character. I don't think he ever was.

And then I'm not talking about Balthier jokingly/supposedly being meant for the role and having been pushed aside by Vaan during development, but rather that Vaan's role in the story was never as the lead, but as an observer. More known in literature (hell, most of the Hitchhiker's Guide is built around a guy that 'things happen to') and, sometimes, film (Apocalypse Now, for example. And the recent LEGO movie is actually an amazing play on that trope) is the idea of the viewpoint character not actually being the main character, but only to be there to translate a more complex (sometimes adult) story into something the audience can more easily grasp or relate to.

That's exactly what Vaan (and Penelo, for that matter) is there for (and his magical mystery link with Ashe, or rather the magical mystery link with something else they both seem to have). To cooperate in and ask questions about whatever the actual main characters are doing. And yeah, as pointed out on several occasions, FFXII's story often goes all over the place, so it really is damn necessary to have a couple of fuckwits around asking what the hell is going on.

The comparison of Vaan and Penelo with C3PO and R2D2 actually nails it pretty well, I think (then again, FFXII is Star Wars in so many ways, it's ludicrous). They don't have an arc, they don't make the decisions. Ironically, it's the robots in Star Wars that are used to put some kind of human perspective and levity on things.

As a result, I've never had a problem with Vaan, or with nothing related to him ever going anywhere. I knew what he was there for and actually liked it. And I respect Square Enix for trying to build their story that way. It didn't work as well as it might have, but I respect the effort (even it it possibly wasn't intentional). ^^

TheRocketeer:
Curiously, your minimap disappears in these areas, which is annoying since you have to check your main map to figure out which of the many identical rooms you're in... yet entirely fucking pointless due to being able to do just that.

Actually, that's because of the choice you made with the sealing at the start of the second ascent - the four sealing options are magicks, attacks, items, and minimap (not technicks). I usually seal items, for the record.

Also, this is amazing. Given me some great laughs and made me love (and loathe) this game even more than I already did. Thank you!

GundamSentinel:

As a result, I've never had a problem with Vaan, or with nothing related to him ever going anywhere. I knew what he was there for and actually liked it. And I respect Square Enix for trying to build their story that way. It didn't work as well as it might have, but I respect the effort (even it it possibly wasn't intentional). ^^

^Pretty much what you said, Vaan and Penelo are there to be the characters who go 'bwuh?' whenever something strange comes up so other characters can explain it. I will disagree that they don't have arcs though certainly their arcs are relatively small compared to the other characters (Vaan I remember matures noticeably and sets aside his previous desire for revenge, which in turn aids Ashe's char development which is very significant, Penelo I can't quite remember since its been so long).

I think the main character was supposed to be Basch originally but was changed somewhere in development. Personally though Ashe, Basch, and Balthier sort of compete for the role Balthier especially remarking that he's the leading man, and even making some jokes about his supposed position as such.

Personally I really enjoyed FF12 even though I never did beat the final boss (I have seen the end via a remarkably thorough video LP on the LP archive, my own attempts to replay are often halted by the horribly long tutorial). My enjoyment may have been affected somewhat by it being the first FF game I'd played since that meant I went in with no expectations but what I got was a bizarre and intriguing world full of magic and political subterfuge going on in the background.

I will definitely be trying to follow this when I have the time to read more, and good luck getting past some of the more annoying parts of the game!

Instead of "Imagine Vaan disappeared" consider Vaan may well have been the player character in the MMO theory behind the game. A blank slate we can imprint ourselves onto with a vapid love interest we can also imagine to be someone we know. At that point Balthier kinda becomes the protagonist/mentor as the player can never be the driving force of the story in an MMO, merely a reactionary force. Who knows, maybe the Sun-Cryst and Pharos were an elaborate "faction choice" kinda thing. Side with Ashe/Basch and her need to destroy the Empire and, probably, a bunch more stuff, or side with Reddas/Balthier and their need to make the world safer by simply destroying the super nukes.

Honestly, I'd never heard the MMO theory before you brought it up in your delightful walkthrough, but it does make a whole ass load of sense. Hell, the Undying's never again mentioned King could have been a raid boss.

.... Well then. It looks like its time for this discussion. Allow me a tangent. Again.

Ever read The Great Gatsby?

The main character and the title character are certainly one and the same: the nouveau riche Jay Gatsby. The story can't occur without him; his actions are the the point, and the themes and the message are centered upon him, and on his actions, his personality, his environments and his obsessions. But the narrative isn't anchored upon him, but upon the character Nick Carraway, a newcomer to the environment.

Nick wasn't necessary for communicating exposition to the audience; each medium has their own ideal method of communicating setting detail and background, and the only medium I can think of for which dialogue is the superior option is radio. Novels may simply narrate, as narration needs no framing, and can deliver the necessary information most efficiently. In film, the rule of course is to show; the efficiency with which information can be relayed immediately in a visual medium is not to be underestimated, and information which cannot be related to the audience this way is often best forgotten unless highly necessary.

Just as cinema may show, rather than tell as textual media do, a game has the prerogative to do what another medium could merely show. There are, naturally, both script and visuals a-plenty that perform these tasks in games, as the medium incorporates both textual and visual media in a way somewhat unique to itself. But a game will always be served best in the relaying of its ideas in a way that incorporate the engagement and actions of the audience.

But when one says that text needs to tell, and visual media need to show, and interactive media need to perform, they do not say so because telling, or showing, or doing are valuable in themselves, but in that they represent the most apt means by which the medium may demonstrate the vision of the creator, and the nature of the world that the creation inhabits.

Nick Carraway's role as the viewpoint character (and it is this role that I often refer to as 'the Nick Carraway,' as shorthand) was not merely to facilitate exposition; otherwise, there would have been no need for a Nick Carraway. This is why movies adaptations of Gatsby often don't know what to do with Nick; they forget his purpose, and, having been left with no use for him, elect to simply dwell on Gatsby, as well they should if they aren't going to bother with the characterization that made Nick useful- for, while this character, or any character, can be a useful means to facilitate the mere revelation of information to the audience, to do so is an unwieldy process that wastes the creator's and audience's time unless the interaction is serving another purpose at the same time, which a mere narrative paragraph or fly-over of the scene could not accomplish.

Yes, when Nick goes somewhere, he sees things the way the audience is meant to, and when he speaks to people, the things he is told are for the audience's instruction. While Nick is not a passive or empty character, the feelings he has and the things he does exist to drive him to these places, and to these people, and facilitate the telling of this story- a story that, again, is not about him, but about Jay Gatsby. Yet each is as essential to the story as the other. The events are driven by Gatsby, without whom the story could not exist. But the events derive their meaning from Nick's perspective on them, without which the story would have no reason to exist.

The reason that the viewpoint character, the story's 'Nick Carraway,' is tailored to the creator's expectations of the audience is not because this allows them to interpose an empty head into the cast, but because the way that this character is constructed and the place they occupy in the world will dictate what their interaction communicates to the audience. Note that this does not mean that the viewpoint character need be at all similar to the audience, only that the expectations are born in mind in this character's construction. The Joads in The Grapes of Wrath likely ill-resembled Steinbeck's intended audience, but he could not have communicated the world he wished to construct had the Joads been wealthy, just as Fitzgerald could not have told his tale of the Jazz Age had Nick Carraway been old-money like Tom, or a kept woman like Daisy, or black and beneath the notice of the cast.

But when the viewpoint character is intended to represent the audience, it does so with special intent: to instruct the audience, or to indict them. To stake claim on the idea that the audience's feelings and will is known to the creator, and to express the creator's opinion on it through the demonstration of this state in a world operating as the creator believes it to. Take Spec-Ops: The Line, for example. The main character sees himself as the main characters of many shooters, especially modern military shooters, see themselves, and the audience, in turn, recognizes this archetype, and their expectations of this role are pre-empted (and abused) by the creators.

Or, for a Final Fantasy example, take Tidus. Tidus, having been transported to Spira, knew nothing of the new world in which we found himself. And while this does indeed receive background and exposition as part of this role, he, like Nick Carraway, is significant not in his reception of this data- as "exposition recipient" is not, and should not be, a role nor character- but in how he reacts to this data. Tidus, as an outsider, does not take the world as it stands for granted. He rejects an institution and a philosophy that he finds repellant, and it is his status as an outsider that facilitates this, and which identifies him as one with the audience.

It was not his ignorance of Spira that was meant to mimic the audience, nor vice versa, nor would this, alone, have made him in any way necessary to the world, nor the demonstration of its nature. It was his belief that a better world than what existed could be created; his unwilligness to trade away innocent lives to the "death spiral;" and his boldness in standing up to the corrupt and powerful institutions of Spira that the audience was meant to identify with. The creator, in interposing these things into the character, communicates to us the idea that these ideas and actions are a verifiable good in the world as presented, and, as we are represented by the character who champions them, should accept them in parallel in ourselves.

Without this character, their unique perspective, and the tension that their existence creates in the setting, the story's nature must become something other than what it is.

Also note that, unlike Nick Carraway, Walker and Tidus aren't merely the viewpoint characters, whose worldviews, beliefs, and feelings inform what we, the audience, are meant to feel and believe, but also the protagonists, whose actions motivate the plot, and without whom the narrative does not merely change its character, but rather ceases to exist.

Vaan fulfills neither of these roles.

At no point does his perspective or personality demonstrate the values or nature of the created world. At no time does his presence, his unique presence, inform the plot or tone of the narrative. There is no statement or idea communicated to the audience by the creators' placement of this person into the situation presented, and at no time would anything demonstrated about the created world's themes or operation be disarrayed by his deletion from it.

There are characters in the plot for whom this cannot be said. Characters who have ideals, who pursue goals, who believe things about power, about rule, about self-determination, and whose ideas motivate them to action, and drive them to greatness or ruin. These characters, we can look to and divine the creators' intentions. Ashe, Reddas, Cid, Vayne, Balthier, Ondore, even Ghis and Bergan: the absence of any of these characters would chip something of value off of the great edifice of what this game is trying to say about the tides of kingdoms and nethicite and Undying, however muddled or inexpert the execution may be at times.

But not Vaan. As in so many of this game's elements, the outline is there, certainly. It is not difficult to see the germ of possibility within the actuality, and this I have already dwelt upon at least once. But in practice, Vaan ends up feeling like cut content- like the fullness of his character never coalesced, and the final product ended up making do with the most skeletal Hero's Journey, coming of age framework, utterly unadorned.

Even the incorrect, though not uncommon, idea that Vaan was somehow necessary for his ignorance, that we needed him present to excuse the delivery of exposition, does not hold up for the character, neither in theory nor in the game's practice. The game itself certainly does not treat Vaan as though this was his role. Although Fran, certainly, acts as a deliverer of narrative detail and exposition to others, the recipient tends to be Ashe, Penelo, or no one in particular. At no time that I recall does Vaan inquire about any of the myriad eccentricities of the settings, for the audience's benefit; not about nethicite, not about any of the various locations, nor the Occuria, nor airships nor chocobos nor cat-men. Many characters exposit about these things, but as stated, it is more often for Ashe, in particular, or for the deliverer themselves.

Yet even then, I stand by the idea that even if this had been true, it still would not serve as any sort of defense for Vaan on the grounds that "narrative recipient" is a role of the audience's, and cannot belong to a character; a character that serves no other role is no character. They cannot add value to the cast, because to think that dialog is the indispensable medium for detail, to the extent that a character must be set aside for this purpose, is ludicrous.

I hope I am not too bold in saying that I know a great deal about Ivalice as it exists in Final Fantasy XII. But I do not know what I do of the setting because I overheard it, as it was expressed among the cast. Nor even in reading any (or all) of the many, many vignettes the game deposits, of all places, in its bestiary, handy though they are for bulk delivery of fine-grain anecdotal detail. I know Ivalice well because I have been there, and it has embossed itself upon me. I've walked its length and breadth. I've seen where and how its people live. I know bad things lurk in sandstorms. I've seen how its kingdoms sit perched so precariously upon the stacked ashes of a thousand forebears. When the characters taught me the most, they did so through what they did, and why, and through what became of them, because these things reveal the soul of the setting in a way that cannot be related otherwise.

If you believe that Vaan, or characters like him, are necessary to a story, that the audience needs them, that the world needs them, or that such a role, when it is attempted, is, in itself, a worthy or tenable endeavor: Disabuse yourself of this notion. You deserve better.

But even this defense of the character is, ultimately, missing the point of why people tended to sour on him. The negative reaction to Vaan is characterized not (merely) by disapproval, but of rejection, and to understand this reaction, one needs to understand what is being rejected.

The audience is conscious of the game's assertion of Vaan- not as a viewpoint character- but as a protagonist. The game constantly furnishes Vaan with the trappings of a hero: everything from how you control him, and only him, in towns; to the fact that only he, with Ashe, can see the Occuria's spectral messenger; to how he has by far the greatest stat total of any character; to how the game bizarrely attempts to link him with Ashe, such as when he is literally shown taking the place of Rasler in Jahara; to how he takes the lead position on the cover of the damn game, reinforces the notion that Vaan is intended as the leading character, whose actions, ideals, and growth should shape and guide the game, without whom the narrative could not exist as it does.

Yet, it is continuously and overtly demonstrated in practice that Vaan has no indispensible actions, no remarkable ideals, and no significant growth or change. And an Ivalice without him is not only easily and commonly imaginable, but commonly desired, as well; it is the gulf between how we are told to think of the character by the game's treatment of him, and what the audience observes of the character in his treatment of the game, that we reject. It is this intolerable dissonance that damned his character.

Vaan isn't even the worst character in the cast. Basch is more disappointing to me, Penelo is even less relevant, and Fran was grossly mishandled. But the ire he draws is proportional to the status the game attempted to elect him to, and, due to this status as quasi-protagonist, it is upon him that the audience, rightly or wrongly, directs their scorn for the game's more general shortcomings, and considering the amount of dissatisfaction the game generated, that is quite a bit of rancor indeed for those narrow shoulders to bear by default.

It's an unfortunate state of affairs. But at least he's not Lightning.

Terragent:

TheRocketeer:
Curiously, your minimap disappears in these areas, which is annoying since you have to check your main map to figure out which of the many identical rooms you're in... yet entirely fucking pointless due to being able to do just that.

Actually, that's because of the choice you made with the sealing at the start of the second ascent - the four sealing options are magicks, attacks, items, and minimap (not technicks). I usually seal items, for the record.

You are correct! I have no idea how this sailed over my head. I guess it just goes to show how obvious an option sealing the minimap is, though, since you can still check the main map for where you are...

I tended to rely on items to heal statuses, so I'd rather have that unhampered if the alternative is just having to check the main map every so often... which I was probably going to be doing anyway.

Isalan:
Instead of "Imagine Vaan disappeared" consider Vaan may well have been the player character in the MMO theory behind the game. A blank slate we can imprint ourselves onto with a vapid love interest we can also imagine to be someone we know. At that point Balthier kinda becomes the protagonist/mentor as the player can never be the driving force of the story in an MMO, merely a reactionary force.

I think the MMO angle was dropped early enough in the game's long, long development cycle that the narrative and cast was relatively unaffected by it, coalescing, as it did, over the course of many, many rewrites. In particular, placing Vaan as the lead apparently happened relatively late in development. It's difficult to say what form he took prior to this change- although until his motion capture actor was cast, he was planned as being "more effeminate." The mind boggles.

Ha. I usually relied on Esuna to deal with status issues, and since the only status conditions that you can only heal with items (Stop and Doom) weren't present in the Second Ascent, I figured the only real potential loss from item sealing was MP restoration via Ether (because undead are immune to Syphon and Charge is pretty lame).

I believe that Basch was the original protagonist - he certainly fits the Ashley Riot mould better than anyone else in the cast, at least. I suspect his story would have been significantly more relevant if his difference of opinion with Ashe vis-a-vis horrific magickal nuclear genocide had led to open conflict between them - he might have been placed in a situation where he actually had to examine his blind devotion to the Dalmascan royal family (a devotion that's never really examined or explained by the game itself). Pretty much the only consistent characterisation he has in the finished game is (A) complete and utter devotion to Ashe, and (B) an unswervingly righteous moral compass. It seems odd that even with his demotion to a supporting role, the game never bothers to deal with the dilemma of (A) and (B) spending at least half of the playtime in direct conflict with one another. The only time it slips out was the tiny scene before Golmore Jungle where he implicitly tells her to grow the fuck up, swallow her pride, and treat with the empire (naturally, this sails completely over her head). I wouldn't be surprised if some of Vossler's actions in the story were originally intended to belong to a protagonist Basch.

I never played Revenant Wings, but I quite enjoyed Vaan's characterisation in FFTA2, where he spends most of his screen time actually being - well, if not a sky pirate, then at least an unrepentant thief.

PART 8: Pokemon: Crystal Version
-or-
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cryst

Atop the Pharos, Ashe stands in awe of the Sun-Cryst, holding the Treaty-Blade in one hand and the Sword of Kings in the other. Vaan passive-aggressively pushes her to destroy the crystal here and now, but she flatly tells him to shut his pansy ass up. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she raises the Treaty-Blade high into the air, and as it radiates its own light, the seas boil and the sky shakes, the Sun-Cryst exuding incredible mist in concurrence as flaming angelic specters fly around.

This would seem to be a pretty damn clear statement of intent on Ashe's part, so I guess we know what Ivalice is in for... Until Rasler appears one more time before her, and she completely loses her shit at him. Nevermind the fact that she should have figured out by now that this is almost definitely not Rasler, but an illusion meant to twist her emotions. She accuses him of wanteing her to use the nethicite and destroy the Empire, to which she emphatically cries, "I cannot!"

Excuse me?! Look here, there's being torn between two extremes, and then there's just having looney fucking mood swings. Now, standing here with godblade raised before the Sun-Cryst, after climbing a hundred fucking stories, you decide that coming all this way for the stones is utterly repellant to you? Take her! Take her, Rabanastre, you can have your zany she-bitch princess who doesn't fucking know up from down! Who continues to drag this lunatic plot out for no good goddamn reason and waste everyone's time! Can anyone else see this?! Am I the one taking crazy pills here?!

From out of the peanut gallery, a voice yells out what the audience is thinking: "OH COME THE FUCK ON! YOU CAN'T JUST BLUEBALL THE WHOLE WORLD LIKE THAT!" It's *epic drumroll here* Judge FUCKING Gabranth!

Know how he got here? Know how the Archadian managed to utterly bypass a gauntlet of trials intended to make sure no one, fucking NO ONE got to the Sun-Cryst other than a single person chosen by THE GODS THEMSELVES once every few thousand years?

HE TOOK A FUCKING AIRSHIP! HE FLEW HIS ASS TO THE TOP OF THE TOWER IN HIS FANTASTICAL IMPERIAL FLYING-MACHINE!

A ship! That flies! Holy *unspeakable profanity*, Balthier, DID YOU KNOW THESE EXISTED? Did you know that if, in some heady fantasy we dare entertain only in our most blasphemous reveries, we possessed one of these ourselves, WE COULD HAVE FLOWN OURSELVES RIGHT THE FUCK ON UP!? GUUUAUAUAHGHEUUEHUHAUHAUHAUGUARRGHHRAUHUHGGHGUH!!

Gabranth cannot even fucking believe it. He calls her right the fuck on out, screaming, "It was me! I murdered your lame-ass father! Use the sword and make some new nethicite! Blast the Empire to atoms, I don't even give a fuck!"

Ashe immediately throws away the Sword of Kings, because they aren't even pretending she possesses a scrap of principle or self-control anymore. Gabranth is overjoyed to be motivating the plot in a direction that makes any goddamn sense, and gives a hearty, "Goooood! Good, young Skywalker, let the hate flow through you!"

Gabranth marches right on up, ignoring his brother- whom he swore to destroy- and risks bringing everyone who played this piece of shit to immediate climax by cleaving Vaan right in two... only to be stopped by Reddas, who catches Gabranth's blades in his own.

Reddas looks Gabranth right in the eye, and admits something that absolutely no one saw coming: he was none other than Judge Zecht, the man who unleashed the Midlight Shard on Nabudis so Cid could gauge its capabilities! Gabranth, unfazed, reminds him that not only has he not shut up about that exact event in the two years since it happened, but he, as another Judge Magister, already recognizes him personally, so the effect of this revelation might be a bit dimmed.

Ashe, of course, has just been sitting here drooling rather than carving up the Sun-Cryst like a honey ham. Reddas begs her to fight for something more than revenge, saying the past is something to be overcome and forgotten. Gabranth knocks his old ass to the floor and reminds us that we're listening to the guy who let a single moment in his past shape every decision he's made since, sticking dogmatically to his instincts even when those decisions could reshape the world for good or ill. He once again cries, "If only you kneeew the POWAH of the Daaahk Siiiide!" and goads her to cut more nethicite.

No, I don't know why he's doing this, either. Nethicite being the one thing the Empire has over their enemies, he sure seems eager to plead his worst enemy into taking it all for herself. Come to think of it, the last time we saw Gabranth, wasn't he being sent to find out whether Ashe truly intended to take the nethicite and try to annihilate the Empire? Didn't he get his answer, in the negatory, before we knew he was watching? And then he immediately begins this cheesy schtick... why, exactly?

Ashe looks to Rasler, who is still here, apparently, and who doesn't even know what the fuck. Then she turns to Vaan, who the game seems to be attempting to set up as the opposition to the Rasler phantom/the Occuria's will. Despite saying they shouldn't trust the Occuria, Vaan hasn't really offered much of an opinion on the nethicite one way or another, as far as I can remember. The look on his face seems to scream, "MAKE UP YOUR MIND ALREADY GIRL GODDAMN!" She gives one last look at Rasler, and cuts right through him with the Treaty-Blade, figuring out at LONG FUCKING LAST that it isn't really him.

God help Rabanastre and it's special needs queen. They are all going to fucking die one way or another. They have to. They just have to at this point.

The specter begins speaking with Gerun's voice, imploring her as the chosen one to stop screwing around and take care of the world's whole "Empire led by Machiavelli, Oppenheimer, and Satan" problem with the nethicite. One more slash with their own sword, and the Occuria's illusion is gone for good. And, apart from Venat, that's the last we'll ever see or hear of the Undying.

No, really.

Ashe says to no one in particular that not once in Dalmasca's long history had they ever relied on the Dusk Shard, seeming to take strength in her decision from this fact as she lets the sword fall from her hands. Uh, princess, did Dalmasca even know what the Stone was? You seemed to have no fucking clue what nethicite was, or that the Dusk and Dawn Shards were nethicite, or that they were anything besides shiny regal trinkets, until you were told. Now you're acting like this was some sort of conscientious decision on the royalty's part. Hey, would the Dalmascan royal line- or anyone after Raithwall, really- even know how to use the stones? Do WE, OURSELVES, know how to use the stones? I'm pretty sure we don't! I'm pretty sure we never asked! Could you ask Rasler or Gerun or whoever how to- oooohhh...

Gabranth! Help me out here! Gabranth yells out that the dead demand justice, but Vaan interjects, saying that the dead don't give a damn, and that nothing can bring back his brother or anyone that's passed in this foolish war. Well, Vaan, I'm glad your character development finally kicked in, although I'd have been happier if it had waited another fifteen minutes or so. Ashe concurs, saying that's what's passed is passed, and there's no changing it. To emphasizes her point, she lets the Midlight Shard fall from her hand and roll right over to Gabranth's feet.

OH COME THE FUCK ON! We aren't going to use them ourselves. Fine. I surrender. I get it. But one thing we might consider is NOT GIVING OUR SUPERWEAPONS TO THE ENEMY! Because unlike our party, the Empire is still in the good graces of at least one Occuria! And unlike us, they actually know how to use that thing!

Gabranth, assailed on all sides by all-out retardation, asks the most obvious question yet: how do you intend to fight the Empire? How do you intend to keep your kingdom's honor when that kingdom is going to cease to exist in a matter of days now?

Basch, addressing his evil twin for the first time this entire scene, says that they will. Not how, mind you; they just will. 'Somehow.' Oh Jesus fucking Christ, now we're channeling Final Fantasy X. We are channeling the portion of Final Fantasy X's narrative that made the least amount of sense, of all the things they could have drawn on.

Gabranth laughs his ass off at this last point. Basch, as he gleefully points out, has never succeeded in defending a goddamned bowl of Jello, having at this point lost two (2) kingdoms and being one of the most hated fugitives the second has ever known. Reason having utterly disintegrated at this point, Gabranth resolves to simply beat the stupid out of the party, or- at the very least- beat them to the death.

At this point, I am cheering for Gabranth as hard as I can, but this battle marks the first of a series of endgame fights with Gabranth, and the game never bothers to make it seem like he has the ghost of a chance. We've been slaying Judges left and right already, including one who was both Mako-powered and possessed by the devil. Additionally, we have a Judge in our party who is also a pirate king. So Vader's pretty well fucked, I'd say.

In fact, I barely even had time to react before Gabranth was at half-health and a cutscene began in which he taunted his dear brother. Gabranth assures Basch that no matter what happens, he will never reclaim the honor he lost when Raminas was slain. I'd argue that, with Vayne's plot at Nalbina even now spreading among the public and the proven heir of Raminas alive and well to clear his name from any challenge, Basch is pretty well in the clear. But the game has something up its sleeve later to brazenly out-stupid itself once more, and bearing false shame is Basch's entire character concept, so he merely gives Gabranth an epic, "I am rubber you are glue!" Gabranth retorts with a masterful, "I know you are but what am I!" I really wish I was exaggerating.

The battle resumes, and, hilariously, Gabranth busts out a special attack called Guilt. Near as I can tell, it delays his death by a picosecond while the attack executes. Thoroughly whipped, Gabranth tries to mumble out some pithy taunt... when who should appear on a torrent of pure fucking majesty but Doctor Cidolfo Demen Bunansa! Naturally, he's already picked up the Midlight Shard from the floor while we battled, because sometimes the party's actions really are as bloody fucking stoopid as they seem. He heaps a bit of well-deserved shame on Gabranth as he strolls in, and the Judge Magister doesn't even know what the fuck.

Yes, it seems Gabranth had no idea Cid was going to show up, meaning that we had two separate groups of our worst enemies shortcut their way to the top of the Pharos. Amazingly- and I mean that literally, I can't believe the game itself even remembered this- Doctor Cid reminds Gabranth of what he was supposed to be doing here for Lords Vayne and Larsa, and calls him an utter failure for shitting up the works like he did. Wait, so that whole screed of Gabranth's trying to get us to take the nethicite and run wasn't part of some plan of Vayne's and Cid's? What the crap is even going on anymore?!

Then Cid drops the biggest bomb of all: You're fired. GTFO. With Gabranth thoroughly and officially owned, Cid forgets all about him and puts in his best scenery-chewing dentures. Gabranth isn't taking his resignation lying down, though, and raises his sword to cut Cid down... whereupon Venat appears and flings him into a pillar like a ragdoll. *golf clap!* Now if only he had just thrown him a few feet to the left or right and straight off the Pharos, we could have been spared a bewildering portion of the endgame yet to come.

Balthier tells his father that he is only Venat's tool. But Cid, of course, believes otherwise. The Occuria have, for eons unknowable, treated humans like servants, but Venat appears as a friend and ally, to share power rather than mete it. He even praises Ashe's decision to reject their governance, but Ashe isn't charmed, calling him out on just generally being an asshole.

Cid isn't fazed, however, and drops the other shoe like the stone cold villain he is: we've just completed his own plan for him. He casts all three stones, Dawn, Midlight, and Dusk, into the air, and Venat begins using the Sun-Cryst to supercharge all three of them!

Cid immediately begins rubbing it in like a champion, namedropping something called Bahamut as part of their plan somehow... With the Sun-Cryst offloading more mist than could ever exist anywhere else, it's all the party can do to even stand their ground against its force while the Doctor floats in the air, laughing like a madman and achieving the triune apotheosis of troll, ham, and mad scientist, indulging himself in a bit of poetry to commemorate his victory over the Occuria's careful plans for humanity.

Balthier accuses his father of merely wanting to steal the Occuria's power and become a tyrant-god himself, and Cid is eager to agree, believing there's none better suited to the task. Cid can only feel regret that his son wasn't on the same side to enjoy it.

Having had enough of his audience, Cid sets his hand to wiping out the party himself. I love this fucking character, but I am still super-pissed that no one had to pay the toll to get up here but us, and if there's anything I can do to push the trials of the Pharos on him, I will. And lucky for me, I have just the thing. Hashmal, Bringer of Order!

Once again I sandbag here, content to watch a crab-armed wolf-demon fistfight a mad scientist with a magitech chaingun, because this game occasionally offers in consolation what it lacks in competence, and because Doctor Cid really may be the single best thing about this entire fucking trainwreck.

To prove it, Cid indulges in the ultimate blasphemy: a shard of manufacted nethicite binding an esper of his own: Famfrit, the Darkening Cloud! That's right, it's time for a goddamn Satanic Pokémon battle.

Doctor Cid sends out Famfrit!

Hashmal, I choose you!

Hashmal, use Roxxor! It's not very effective...

Enemy Famfrit uses Waterja! It's not very effective...

Hmm, it seems that these Espers are actually totally shit at fighting each other, and unlike our useless summons, Famfrit's power makes Cid invincible until we take care of it. So what can Famfrit do? Well, he can tank and heal for Fran while she pops off some earth-shattering Firagas and leave Famfrit's shit in ruins.

Hey, you ever wonder why you black out when all your Pokémon faint? It's because the other trainer and his killbeasts beat you the fuck up and rob you. It's time for us to honor tradition all over the good Doctor's skull.

As the good Doctor Cid finds himself too weak to lift his rifles, he collapses and his Esper is ours. Oddly, despite Cid having made a big show of summoning Famfrit from a small red shard of manufacted nethicite, after the battle we see a large, translucent blue crystal with Famfrit's symbol inside it shatter, same as every other Esper.

Balthier steps forward to speak to his father one last time. Venat prepares to intercept him, but Cid gives him permission. The Doctor and the Undying exchange one last friendly farewell, and Balthier- Ffamran, to his father- struggles to find anything to say. Eventually, he settles on, "Was there no other way?"

Cid won't hear any remonstration, but has no strength to protest. He seems to wish his son well, in his own condescending way, as he fades into pyreflies (?) and seems to be absorbed by the Sun-Cryst.

... I'll level with you, I'm not actually sure what the hell just happened, and judging by the look on his face, Balthier doesn't either. Maybe Cid just blacks out and wakes up at the Pokecenter in Archades?

Sensing the audience's bemusement, Fran throws together a distraction by collapsing! It seems the intense mist has her all tuckered out, despite being utterly unaffected while it was so strong no one could move and during the battle she practically soloed. Balthier rushes over to check on her, and she warns that Very Bad Things are happening with the Sun-Cryst and if we were smart we would all GTFO right this moment. She seems to act as though they'd have to leave her there, or as though she were dying; I have no idea what she's on about really, but she can rot for her next comment: "You'd best fly away. That's what you do, right? You're a sky pirate."

No, Fran. No, we take the elevator. That's what Balthier does. That's what we all do, because no one, and I mean fucking NO ONE IN THIS PARTY, is or shall ever be a sky pirate. Can everyone just stop bringing this up?!

Fran's right, though; the Sun-Cryst seems to be putting out greater and greater power, and we're all screwed if it reaches some sort of critical mass while we're all right here at ground zero. Ashe and Vaan seem eager to "stop it" somehow. Hey, if the nethicite shards each have the power to level a large city and the Sun-Cryst is a Volkswagen minibus-sized boulder of pure nethicite, bearing as much mist as it could gather in tens of thousands of years of enrichment, won't this thing leave a crater on the planet the size of France? Work quickly, guys! Or don't, this could be interesting.

Ashe and Vaan attempt to advance on the crystal, Vaan with the Treaty-Blade in hand and Ashe with the Sword of Kings. Now, Ashe I can sort of understand; that blade is meant to destroy nethicite, even if trying to do so now would definitely set off the exact cataclysm they're aiming to prevent. But Vaan? What is he trying to do here? Cut the massive exploding crystal into several smaller exploding crystals of equal total mass, each of which could surely annihilate us on their own, even if the attempt didn't set it off immediately?

Come to think of it, what exactly is the difference between the two swords? They're both just swords capable of cutting nethicite, right? Which must be a unique property, otherwise we could just waltz up with a woodsman's hatchet and cut ourselves as many stones as we wanted. What makes the Sword of Kings a sword that 'destroys' nethicite? Does it de-power it as it cuts, or something? How? Is it enchanted? What is that sword made of, anyway? Could we maybe have studied it? Tried to replicate it somehow? That kind of plan has been working like gangbusters for Archadia. Come to think of it, if we wanted to destroy the Sun-Cryst or render it unusable, couldn't we just use the Treaty-Blade to mince it into thousands of tiny pebbles and throw them all over the edge of the world? I mean, the edge of the world is right there, apparently; Basch could probably manage the throw from right here at the top of the tower...

All these questions and more will go unanswered, since neither of our party members are able to advance another step against the billowing torrent of mist coming from the stone. At this moment, Reddas remembers he's a badass pirate king and takes the reins (of history! (back in the hands of man!)). "It's reacting!" he yells. "I've not seen its like before!"

Reddas, you stupid schmuck, when would you ever have had the chance?

While the party gawps helplessly, he takes the Sword of Kings in hand, and easily runs right up to the Sun-Cryst. Eh, I can accept that; he was like four levels higher than the party average. Then he leaps at it, and hangs in the air right in front of it for a good ten seconds while he yells out some regretful rot about Nabudis. Okay, that strains my credulity, but- OH SHIT! He drives the Sword of Kings straight into the heart of the massive crystal!

And wouldn't you know, this sets off exactly the sort of disaster I reckoned it would, causing an epic explosion and utterly atomizing everyone present.

... I mean, since Reddas was the only one present at the time, I guess just him. Oh, what's that? What about all our party members and Gabranth? Oh, you didn't see them slip out? They slipped out, you see, in the twentieth of a second after Reddas struck the stone but before it exploded in a ball of light so bright it was visible from the other edge of the continent of Kerwon beyond the entire Naldoan Sea. Actually, there's a little cutscene of all the non-human races at various points across Ivalice turning to see the explosion. Nice of the game to acknowledge they exist for a few seconds.

Yes, after the little Small World montage, we cut to the party all aboard the Strahl, gazing up at the annihilated upper reaches of the Pharos, as Vaan utters Reddas' name mournfully. I have no idea what happened to Gabranth; presumably, he was blasted off Team Rocket-style, as he is and shall continue to be ludicrously indestructible. I imagine he spent a few awkward days in the clinic wondering whether to get cracking updating his resume or trust that Venat won't blab about Cid firing him. I've got nothing. I can't even begin coming up with an explanation, and the game never even attempts to. It's just a cackling, bald-faced ass-pull topping off the shit salad that is the entire Pharos portion.

Come to think of it, I'd like to review just exactly what happened on this trip. Settle in.

Before even starting, Reddas has already sent an entire fleet of his lackeys to their deaths investigating the Cataract even though its been know from time immemorial to be utterly impassable and fatally inhospitable to any attempt at crossing by sea or air.

Starting off, we don't actually have a solid reason to come here. We don't have a solid plan of what to do; if we choose not to use the nethicite, we have no reason to disturb the Sun-Cryst whatsoever. Even if we choose to use the nethicite, we still don't actually know how to do so, because we never asked. We have chosen to determine on the way whether we have arrived for no purpose whatsoever, or merely to attempt something we cannot accomplish.

Despite constantly browbeating Ashe to destroy the stone rather than use it, everyone in the party, even Reddas, seems to be perfectly willing to go mournfully along with her if she carves an entire suit of nethicite armor and Iron Mans her way across Ivalice, scorching every man, woman and infant to molecules in the name of her power-lust. (Note to self: Get that game made!)

We park all the way across the island from our destination, fighting mutant plants and giant insects to even reach the entrance, whereupon we fight a zombie dragon for the right of entry into the tower proper.

We then fight our way up one hundred fucking floors worth of elementary-school puzzles, a three-of-four set of guardian deities, giant beast-men, fallen angels, living bombs, dragons, more zombie dragons, evil horses, non-dragon zombies, skeletons, ghosts, giant frogs, pterodactyls, sorcerous megachickens, a blasphemous abomination, and the general creaking and cracking of Reddas' and Basch's hip bones as we ascend more stairs than should rightfully exist.

Upon reaching the top, we watch our party's helmswoman, an actual (sort-of) head of state, careen wildly back and forth across a buffet line of various motivations, before we are preempted by three of our worst enemies, who arrived in two independent groups and by means which we ourselves possess but did not think to use.

The first of these enemies urges us hysterically to pursue the course of action most threatening to him and his allies, to satiate his own inscrutable personal whims. The party, with difficulty, declines, with aid of a tortured skein of pure dis-logic and spite.

Ashe then totally alienates herself and possibly all mortalkind from the Occuria, the Undying, a race of immortal, incalculably-powerful creatures whom we know terrifyingly little about; other than: they once absolutely dominated the entire world without hope of opposition; that they chose to grant humanity near-total freedom only through their sense of relative mercy and goodwill; and that they control an unknown number of dooms-day weapons humanity can scarcely comprehend, which they have been known to grant freely to those willing to carry out their will; and that the carrying out of their will largely results in the utter extinction of those who oppose them or detract materially from their unknowable goals.

Reddas, the man whose entire life since the tragedy at Nabudis has been defined and controlled by that event, and who works violently against those who oppose his new ideals, sermonizes about not letting the past control your actions or lead you to violent reprisal.

Gabranth's attempts to create an enemy that he and his allies could not hope to defeat, and which they otherwise could destroy easily whenever they chose, having been spat on, he attacks a group of seven people whom he was ordered to parley with, and is defeated utterly- though not killed.

The second of our enemies, Cid, explains in plain terms everything wrong with that last paragraph, and for this insult Gabranth attempts to take his life; whereupon he is again routed easily by a literal god, who again does not kill him.

Having cast it away in a symbolic gesture, our party's potential superweapon is recovered by the enemy most singularly knowledgeable and capable of its use, who immediately uses it to accomplish his long-held master plan, which we, through sheer inaction, do nothing to prevent. This plan could not have been accomplished if we had not left the superweapon on the floor, or indeed if we had never shown up at all.

Having already accomplished his objectives, Cid attempts to destroy the party rather than flee, as he easily could. The party obliges his stalling tactic, choosing to ignore completely the Sun-Cryst, which we now fully intend to destroy, and whose destruction at this moment could well halt Cid's plan.

Venat, a being of near-unstoppable power, who only moments ago so proudly swore to work as an equal partner with Cid and the Empire, watches passively as the party slays Cid outright in battle, stepping in to assist only when Cid has already been mortally wounded and shall momentarily expire.

Upon death, Cid dissolves into mist, nothing similar to which ever occurs elsewhere or ever shall occur again. He is then seemingly absorbed into the Sun-Cryst, for reasons unknown and to unknown effect.

Venat, through this, has been using the three nethicite shards to channel the full measure of the Sun-Cryst's power to the Sky Fortress Bahamut, which- spoiler alert- is an actual Imperial Death Star, whose might cannot be opposed by any weapon known to man, other than perhaps deifacted nethicite. The Bahamut is presumably docked at Archades, meaning that while the stones' power can be channeled thousands of miles away, the stones themselves cannot receive this power from from the Sun-Cryst from further than arm's length. Venat, an Undying, is the only creature capable of performing this task, which he is only accomplishing now despite seemingly being able to instantly teleport anywhere in the world without difficulty. This either means that our enemies are thoroughly incompetent, yet still managed to best us soundly, or that they really did need all three lesser stones for their plans to work, in which case we truly did accomplish their task for them: first, by showing up at all, and secondly by delivering the Midlight Shard into their hands because it seemed cute and poetic at the moment.

Despite being used to channel power to the stones- presumably one of its regular purposes- the Sun-Cryst is apparently permanently destabilized. To prevent its imminent detonation, Ashe and Vaan attempt to destroy it in a fashion that will result in exactly this disaster. Note that only Ashe possesses the means to facilitate this.

Venat does nothing to stop us in this attempt, having likely already fled to see it's own plans through to fruition. This is either a grave misstep on Venat's part, or an indication that they have already accomplished everything they need here already, and that we are wasting our time, to our peril, by remaining. I would believe either with eagerness.

They are, however, unable, to do destroy the crystal, as approaching the stone is impossible for anyone except Reddas, who manages it easily for drama's sake. He then destroys the Sun-Cryst in a grand gesture, resulting in his death and the detonation we were attempting to prevent. The rest of the party escapes by -Scene Missing-, which must mean one or more of three possibilities: first, that the party must have either run down ten flights of stairs, taken various elevators and waystones ninety more floors down, and fled across the entire island to the Strahl before flying to a safe distance, all in the time it took for the crystal to explode after being struck; or second, that the moogle mechanics aboard the Strahl had flown the airship to the tower's summit just in time to rescue the party, proving definitively that our entire assault on the tower was, from the very start, a fools errand of literally deific proportions and a staggering waste of everyone's time; and third, that however we escaped the tower, there must have been ample time for Reddas to escape with us, meaning he either perished by means other than the explosion itself, or he deliberately chose to stay and wait as long as it took to accept his death in penance for Nabudis.

In sum: because we showed up at all, and conducted ourselves like fools, the Empire was able to accomplish their overarching scheme. Because we failed to make any meaningful decisions regarding our course of action before they did so, we lack any means to oppose them.

Two of our three nemeses present escape, one of them through mysterious means while off camera. The only villain we manage to defeat accomplished his entire role in the plot beforehand.

In not choosing to destroy the Sun-Cryst immediately, we allowed the Empire to carry out their own plans to completion. Because we did not cut any stones of our own before they did so, we now lack any means to combat the Empire's new and pre-existing weapons, other than wishful thinking and spite. In destroying the Sun-Cryst, we denied ourselves the opportunity to ever do so, even though we apparently could have fled its overcharge catastrophe without difficulty and returned at our leisure to see what remained, if anything, and decide a course of action in cool blood.

And the only black guy in the game dies.

I

that

but

... I swear. I swear, sometimes, once every now and then, I think I might love this game. But much, much more often, I am absolutely certain that I hate this fucking game, and that it hates me right back.

Back in Balfonheim Port, Reddas' special needs freebooter trio mourns his death. I used to think Reddas was pretty cool, but looking back on it now, I can't imagine what I saw in the pathetic, maudlin old son of a bitch. The pirates point out that Reddas was looking for a place to die satisfied, and they hope he found it. Personally, I look forward to Other Lando's tortured soul haunting the Cataract in agony till the end of days, which should be any day now, given how current events are going.

The pirates close by saying its up to them to keep Balfonheim running right in Reddas' honor. The sequel, Revenant Wings, shows that they do no such thing, and run away to more or less troll Vaan for sport. So take that Reddas, you dead asshole. Oh, and thanks for the help with the Behemoth King; that thing was kicking my ass so hard it was wearing our party like two pairs of slippers.

Meanwhile, the party rests up in the late Reddas' manse, and... hold the fuck on... quiet a second... do you hear power ballads? No, really, I swear I smell leaded gasoline and small-batch bourbon...!

Praise Ajora! AL-CID MARGRACE IS HERE!!

Vaan asks how he even knew they would be there, which he wisely ignores entirely to give Lady Ashe the ole "how YOU doin'", and to deliver some grave news.

Despite his efforts to calm things down in Rozarria, his nation's generals met with the Resistance leaders in secret and forged a plan. A large contingent of Rozarrian airships rendezvoused with Ondore's forces, posing as Resistance ships but in truth under direct command of Rozarria. With Ordalia's forces now actively mustered- though in secret- this division began exchanging fire with Imperial ships over former Nabradian airspace, prompting both sides to intervene with the full might of their forces.

The war has begun, and it shall be waged over Dalmasca.

Once they are ready, Rozarria is sure to join the war officially and fully. In fact, their plan is to attack only once the Resistance expends itself, sacrificed to wear down the Empire as they can. But Al-Cid is sure this will do nothing to stop the Empire's momentum, and will doom Resistance and Rozarria alike.

Basch disagrees, hastily pointing out that they don't possess the Dusk Shard any longer; the idea that Cid and Venat must have had some purpose in giving it up willingly is utterly lost on him, despite the pair all but explaining as much in plain terms. But Al-Cid already knows about the Bahamut, and is rightly scared entirely shitless of it.

Realizing just what happened at the Pharos, Balthier and Fran reiterate just how drastically we up-fucked everything out there. Yet upon hearing that Vayne himself marshals the Sky Fortress towards Rabanastre, Ashe resolves to stand and fight. I can't imagine both how she intends to do so, or yet still what she otherwise intended to do instead.

The party shares some feel-good sentiments in the face of their certain death and the known world's subjugation, and the Margrace turns to depart, promising to delay the Rozarrian war machine as long as possible.

Why? We failed to prevent the war; what use can there be in holding back our forces and letting the Archadians devour all opposition piecemeal? Wouldn't this be the best-case scenario for the Imperial war pavilion? Wouldn't our best hope be an all-out, all-forces assault to try and overwhelm the Bahamut, killing Vayne and depriving the Empire of its trump card? The only leadership left in Archadia would be Larsa, who would end the campaign immediately, and Judge Magister Zargabaath, who is utterly spineless and would never contradict Lord Larsa, just as he never contradicted Lord Vayne despite knowing how crooked he is.

Before leaving, Al-Cid whips off his glasses and unleashes his full power on Ashe, imploring her to visit Rozarria in better days to come, where he would take her to the magnificent Ambervale, and show her such amazing things... if you know what I mean. Ashe is left in a sort of wide-eyed erotic trance, unable even to speak or bid him farewell as scenes from my unspeakable fanfiction bloomand whirl in her head like a kaleidoscope. In the background, Balthier growls and gesticulates, unable to leash his unparalleled envy. Fran can only stare into the middle distance, plotting desperately how to parlay her dubious claim to viera quasi-royalty into an RSVP+1.

Penelo's reaction is not depicted, presumably to keep this game T-rated.

But happy times are over. It's time to finish this fucking game. And if we've been on a downhill slide of stupidity and insanity since Archades, we're about to hit the sudden stop at the bottom with a bit of force.

To be continued.

PART 9: And Now for Something Completely Different

Allow me a tangent here. Again. A long one this time. In fact, I'm not really going to talk about Final Fantasy XII at all in this update, so if you aren't down for a hot, nasty diatribe about the minutiae of a careworn Final Fantasy trope, which exists almost entirely to jerk off my encyclopedic knowledge of a series that has never had more than B+ writing, I give you my permission to pretend this never happened, and it won't ruffle me one bit.

Of course, if you've come this far already, I guess there's not really any hope for you anyway, so strap in, nerds.

The Bahamut is this game's Floating City. Don't bother pointing out that it isn't a city; I don't mean it literally. If the themes of the series are a tarot deck, the Floating City is one of the major arcana. Final Fantasy has a long, long tradition of this setpiece, but it has much more behind it than making for interesting imagery. The Floating City is one of the most important thematic hallmarks of the series going back to the very first game.

The Flying Fortress. Pandemonium. The Floating Continent. The Towers of Babel and Zot. Ronka. The Floating Land. Midgar. Sin. Bahamut. Each is unique in its own way, but there's a thick cord of consistency running through it that marks it as a main artery of the themes of each game and the series as a whole. There may be more or fewer than what I listed. IV and X are definitely edge cases. If VIII has one, I couldn't identify it, but VIII was an odd duck anyway, as I'll point out. I don't recall if IX had one, and this theme isn't relevant to that title anyway. XIII was based almost entirely within one, which may or may not fit the rubric, but I won't even bother trying to hide my total disgust for that game and discuss it with a pretense of equanimity. I will attempt to cover this phenomenon, because it is my pet theory and I like it a lot because it is mine.

One: The Floating City is an icon of technology or, worse, magitech.

Throughout the series, especially in the "old series" (which is FFI through FFVII and you are wrong if you disagree), the most important theme may be this: nature is good, and magic is natural. Humanity is extra-natural, and not necessarily good or evil. Technology is unnatural, and ranges from neutral to evil, but rarely, if ever, good. And magitech, which subverts natural magic with unnatural technology, is abominable.

In Final Fantasy, the Floating City is the ultimate expression of human mastery of technology and magitech. We can see that this holds true in I, IV, V, VI, VII, and arguably X. The Flying Fortress of the first game was explicitly high-tech, and home to the Warmech, a nuclear walking battle robot.

In Final Fantasy IV, Zot has no actual location on the map, and is suspected to be flying; it, the Tower of Babil, and the Giant were all constructed with alien supertechnology.

As Final Fantasy V was the first game to really investigate what would become magitek in six, Ronka was a floating mechanical city powered by the Earth Crystal.

The world of Final Fantasy VII seemed to be just barely reaching the Industrial Revolution, with high technology and magitech completely unknown beyond the direct influence of Shinra. While the rest of the world gotten as far as 'trains' in the tech tree, Shinra developed rocket and jet technology, lasers, teledildonics, machine guns, robots, you name it. They were headquartered in Midgar, which is namechecked as a floating city rather often, and runs on the magitech equivalent of nuclear power. Worse, in a series where crystals are the ultimate emblem of natural magic and harmony, mako is used to create materia, artificial magitech crystals.

Final Fantasy X is a bizarre case, which I include only tentatively; the city of Zanarkand was a city of high technology, like Bevelle. But unlike Bevelle, Zanarkand used magic for war instead of technology. The nature of technology ('machina') and magic in the world is a pivotal theme in FFX, but magitech is never really defined in Spira's world, nor is the nature of summoning versus other forms of magic. As such, I'm not sure how to classify Sin in this instance. It seems to have part of a city, likely either Zanarkand or a bizarre homage to it, growing out of its back. Honestly, I would call Sin part aeon, part technological, part biological, and part magical. Whatever it is, it's definitely a perversion of one or all of those things. It is worth pointing out that in X-2, magitech is certainly evil; Bevelle's Vegnagun superweapon draws its power from pyreflies, and- please realize the tremendous pain it causes me to mention this at all- would canonically serve as the forebear to mako in FFVII.

We can find instruction even in the titles which subvert the rule, especially II, III, and VI.

In Final Fantasy II, the Floating City is Pandemonium, which- and please, prepare yourself for the most metal sentence you'll read today- is a superdimensional nightmare castle created when Emperor Mateus of Palamecia was sent to hell and usurped the fucking Devil, taking command of Hell to invade the natural world. While Pandemonium is in no way technological, the important thing here is that it represents a corruption of the natural order, which I think goes without saying in this case.

In Final Fantasy III, the Floating Continent is actually more like a normal country, and the largest departure from the theme. The continent was created totally by accident as a side effect of Xande draining two of the four crystals and demolishing the natural order of the world. In starkest contrast, the Floating Continent is actually a good thing, as it houses much of the remainder of the human race, as the world below is rendered almost entirely uninhabitable. While this means the floating continent was still created in an act of natural corruption, FFIII seemed to have a 'thing' going with subverting the establishment, such as the backstory telling that an overwhelming favoring of Light in the natural order is just as harmful as overwhelming darkness, which required four heroic Warriors of Darkness. This doesn't make much difference in the actual narrative, which is about more Light Warriors, but it is interesting that this game, in particular would do such a thing... Coincidentally, did you know that the world maps of FFIII and Final Fantasy VIII are the same? This leads a lot of people to think that they take place on the same world, the latter many ages after the former. More on that later...

It could be said that the floating cities in II and III were odd ducks because high technology, despite being present- and in this capacity, to boot- in Final Fantasy, it hadn't yet solidified as a series touchstone and would not do so until IV.

In Final Fantasy VI, the floating land is not technological in any way, despite VI focusing heavily on magitech for the first time and much of the early plot revolving around it. However, VI also had a different set of ground rules to work with. As stated, in all other Old Series games, magic is good, technology is bad, and magitech is evil. In Final Fantasy VI, however, technology is bad, magic is even worse, and magitech is fucking horrible, because the world of VI was a terrible place to live. Also, in VI, technology and even magitech, despite being a far greater focus than in its predecessors and part of the game's claim to fame, actually don't matter very much at all to the plot. Magitech is the center of the early plot, but is mainly a red herring; the main contribution of magitech is driving Kefka mad before the events of the game even occur, and serves mainly as a way for the Empire to show how evil they are before they are bumped off halfway through the narrative. Kefka's scheme itself required no magitech, and was actually totally possible as soon as purely-technological airships were devised, or even a lawn chair tied to a hundred balloons. This might be significant, since airships are almost always given a 'pass' on their alignment. The floating land housing the Warring Triad is completely magical, and the 'subversion of nature' is actually tremendously beneficial to the world. So I guess the theme doesn't apply at all to FFVI.

Except Final Fantasy VI is a fakeout! The actual floating land isn't the thematic Floating City. That title belongs to Kefka's Tower. After coming to power, Kefka combines the crashed floating land and the destroyed city of Vector into his tower, destroying the planet for laughs in the process. The Tower is the game's true Floating City, representing the fallen Vector Empire, the unleashed magic of the Triad, and Kefka, the insane magitech sorcerer-god controlling it.

Two: The Floating City brings about its own ruin, and that of it's creators.

This is true in I, II, V, VI, VII, and X. It is true to a degree in IV. It doesn't apply to III, because Final Fantasy III is sort of loony.

We see almost nothing of the civilization which created the Flying Fortress, but the presence of nuclear-equipped autonomous battlemechs might give us a clue to their demise. Or hell, maybe Tiamat ate them all for shitting up the sky.

Pandemonium, like a few other instances, is more thematic. While humanity has the capacity for both good and evil, the villains of many of the games trade away their humanity and therefore pass beyond hope of redemption. Emperor Mateus dies and is reborn as the ruler of Hell, no longer human but a creature of pure evil, with Pandemonium as his throne. Pandemonium does not destroy its creator bodily, but is emblematic of the corruption and loss of the irreplaceable human nature that sealed Mateus' fate as a villain and his destruction at the hands of the Light Warriors.

IV, as is usual, is sort of an edge case. Mainly because the Floating Cities in this case weren't even built by humans, but by Lunarians (by the way, Lunarians are all TOTAAAL DIIIIICKS, but that's a whole 'nother rant). Specifically, Zemus, wishing to invade Earth and wipe out the humans rather than wait in stasis until they could coexist peaceably, led the construction of the Tower of Zot and the Tower of Babil, as well as the Giant of Babil which the latter tower was used to control. This couldn't really ever lead to the end of Lunarian civilization, because this has already happened, which is why they're out planet-shopping on the Red Moon in the first place. But once again, the technology, which is completely out of step with both Earth AND the other Lunarians, who are a more 'robe and crystal' type of mystic alien dudes, represents how Zemus' spirit is completely out of step as well. In the end, Zemus suffers the same fate as Mateus, dying and losing his dual, mortal nature for a supernatural, completely evil existence as Zeromus. In a way, this did, in fact, lead to the end of Lunarian civilization; the activation of the ancient weapons and Zemus' machinations leading to so much trouble on Earth led to the Lunarians sailing the Red Moon away from the Earth and out into the cosmos to find a new planet where they wouldn't be such awful fucking neighbors anymore. Way to dick yourselves out of the community, you Moony assholes! Seriously, fuck Lunarians.

The Ronka destroyed themselves. Period. No two ways about this one. On one hand, their civilization in the floating city was untenable in the first place, since it would have eventually destroyed the Earth Crystal that underpinned it. But whoever it was that brought the city down for a landing must have been the last man alive in their race, because the Ronka had a bad habit of experimenting with super death robots, eventually culminating in the creation of Omega, the series' first true superboss. In a game with a 99-level cap for enemies and characters alike, Omega was Level 119. The only real reference to it left is an ancient scrap of paper reading "OH SHIT OH GOD OMEGA IT'S DESTROYING EVERYTHING OH HOLY CHRIST THIS IS SO RAD AAAAAAHHHH THE FIRE". Ultimately, no one could actually kill the damn thing, managing instead to teleport it to the X-Zone, existence's garbage dump.

In VI, we get a twofer: the Vector Empire destroys itself literally by creating Kefka, who murders Emperor Gestahl and annihilates the city (and everything else), and metaphorically when Kefka trades away his humanity for ultimate nihilist clown power.

In VII, the Shinra destroy themselves pretty handily. Mako, the nuclear magitech that supported their civilization, was an untenable resource that would have run dry and snuffed out the entire Planet anyway, and that was before meddling with ancient John Carpenter homages and cockamamie supersoldier projects. All of these things would come back to haunt them as the Shinra and their city are simultaneously wiped out by radical eco-terrorists, Kaiju monsters, doppelganger plague mutants, vengeful spirits, a doomsday meteor, the pure energy of magic incarnate, as well as just being a shitty place to live in general. I imagine they took a real beating on the stock exchange, too.

In Final Fantasy X, the description fits in multiple ways. The creation of Sin was the last resort of the people of Zanarkand. All of the citizens became fayth, consuming their bodies and imprisoning their spirits for the eternal summoning of Dream Zanarkand. Yunalesca, who devised the Final Summoning, traded away her mortality and humanity to carry on the practice. Her husband, Zaon, was crafted into the first Sin. Yu Yevon, the summoner of Sin itself, was unable to control its blasphemous power, losing his sanity and his human mind and form. If he had any plans to bring the real Zanarkand back after putting Bevelle in its place, they became impossible as the rudderless abomination swam about depopulating the world on instinct. In addition to the original creation, the eternal cycle of Sin's rebirth is an important theme in itself. Summoners and guardians who accept the cycle are doomed to die, the summoner in calling the Final Summon to defeat the old Sin and the guardian in becoming the Final Summon and the new Sin, perpetuating the cycle. However, those who reject the practice and destroy the means by which to accomplish it, despite having no other plan and effectively dooming the world, go on to defeat it permanently because summamsusuas lalalalalalala I CAN'T HEAR YOU! LOGIC!

Three: The Floating City is a destructive force, often weaponized.

We see this in I, II, IV, V, VI, VII, and X.

Final Fantasy III, again, does not really apply; while the Floating Continent was created by actions which indeed resulted in the destruction of the rest of the world, the continent itself is just a big patch of land. It would have been a nice place to live, too, if Xande hadn't gotten a big, scaredy bug up his ass about people meddling with his crystals and shit.

Obviously, this was the case in Final Fantasy. It wasn't called the Flying Fortress because they went around delivering hugs to needy poodles. Again, I think the severe Metal Gear infestation may shed a little light on this one.

In Final Fantasy II, Pandemonium is a transdimensional invasion fortress from Hell. I think we can call this one pretty cut and dry.

In Final Fantasy IV, we have the Tower of Zot, and the Tower and Giant of Babil. Zot is sort of a mystery; it seems to be a base for Golbez, and must have originated from Zemus, who wasn't a very nice person, but nothing is revealed about its nature or purpose. The Tower of Babil, on the other hand, is equipped with a superlaser for all your dwarf-blasting needs and functions as an activation/control device for the Giant of Babil, a mountain-sized killbot created to go forth and fuck mankind up, genociding the planet into Lunarian habitability. Oh come on, I don't believe for a second that Zemus just sort of figured out how to make this shit on the fly, or that he was the only one building this shit out of his whole race. What the fuck was Lunarian civilization like before they moved onto the Red Moon?! I think I have a pretty clear fucking picture of what happened to their original planet! Seriously, FUCK Lunarians. MOONIES!

The Ronka ruins were a destructive force in more ways than one. As the events of the narrative show, using the elemental crystals in magitech devices is a bad idea, and will cause them to crack and shatter before too long. Merely by existing, the Ronka Ruins threatened the Earth Crystal, and through it, the seal on Exdeath, the split worlds, and the Cleft of Dimension. In a more literal sense, the Ronka ruins were covered in a great number of big fuck-off missiles and lasers and flamethrowers and shit. Holy crap, who fights air-to-air with a flamethrower?! Who were the Ronka even fighting; only their civilization had the level of tech to fly! Does it surprise anyone they built hyper death bots and doomed their own race?!

In VI, Kefka's Tower definitely holds to the standard. Affixed to the top of the tower is the Light of Judgment, a doomsday laser that Kefka can fire anywhere in the world whenever he's in a bad mood, or a good mood, or bored. No, it DOESN'T make sense that he can fire it beyond the horizon, unless the overworld really is a recursive 2D plane. (Note, however that this exact phenomenon may be canon in FFVI- true fact!) The Light causes fire, explosions, earthquakes, monster summons, headaches, nausea, and priapism.

In VII, Midgar is home to eight massive mako reactors, each one of which is capable of depleting vast amount of Lifestream to make mako. And no there is NOT a hidden Reactor 0 and if you suggest there is I will tear the face off your head and speak dirty lies through its mouth in a mockery of your sinful existence. Combined, these eight (EIGHT) reactors have rendered the surrounding geography for an immense distance incapable of supporting basic life, making Midgar a literal black spot on the face of the Planet. Late in the game, Scarlet's ultimate homage to penis envy is moved from Junon and rigged up to the reactors to fire mako rays, weaponizing the entire city.

Final Fantasy X has Sin. Take. A wild. Guess.

Conclusion: The Floating City is the symbol of destructive hubris and ambition.

In the eyes of the classic series, these are the hallmarks of mankind's worst potential. In the early series, the planet is the ultimate good. The planet produces life, and symbolizes harmony, with all things in a peaceful, natural order. Magic and the elements are either the cause of this state of affairs, the effect of it, or both in turn.

The Floating City represents mankind's ultimate rejection of all of the above: the rejection of magic and the natural order through technology and magitech; the rejection of peace through weaponry and war; the defilement of nature and life through consumption and corruption of the land; and a rejection of the planet itself by separating bodily from it, and attempting to live away. Yes, the whole floating part isn't just for show after all.

We can, of course, see where the games are going with this. These civilizations are untenable, and always destroy themselves through shortsightedness or black-heartedness. Often, the civilizations are ancient and long forgotten, while people who knew nothing of them persist a thousand years later with nothing to observe of their predecessors but inexplicably-functioning ruins and killbots, because say what you will for Ronka, they make that shit to last.

These civilizations' way of life, it is demonstrated, is our way of life- or it could be, if we let it come to that. The early series uses the Floating City as a satire of the faults of modern life: the destruction of the environment, world wars, atomic weaponry, etc. The Floating City is a cautionary tale, a vision of what we could become if we collectively just stop caring, if we forget our kindness and our willingness to live as one. The series always tried to demonstrate that cooperation with one another to promote simple peace and unity outlives even the grandest of selfish ambitions to power or wealth.

I make it sound dire, but the Floating City is only a small, but visible part of a series enamored of the ideas of environmentalism, justice, and, above all, simple friendship. Everyone who knows the series can rattle off a list of times when characters were saved from despair simply by making a genuine connection with another individual, like Terra, Cloud, Squall, and Yuna. And just as easily to name a character who, in isolation, rejected the world, grew bitter, and sealed their own fate, like Zemus, Kefka, Sephiroth, Seifer, and Seymour.

The Floating City is not just a symbol of society's destructive ambitions and its rejection of the world; it is a symbol of the individual's rejection of society, and the fall from unity, friendship and love into isolation and despair, and from there into selfishness, resentment, and outright evil.

So that's all the tower means, Rocko? Give a hoot, don't pollute? Make love, not war? Well, I guess there's some truth to that. But at the end of the day, almost all themes and morals, extracted from their encompassing context, are just trite and banal. Anyone can walk up to someone else and tell them not to be an asshole, or not to dump their motor oil in the yard holy shit what are you even doing.

But it's not about simply presenting and demonstrating these ideas, and in fact, that alone is always a bad idea; people will always reject too-obvious themes as simple platitudes and diatribes. Themes like this must be woven into the work subtly, so that they shape the world in a light, natural way. They must be part of the environment and kept in their appointed place and proportion, as present and vital as air- and as unobtrusive. When a theme is used amateurishly as a theory to be demonstrated to the audience, it burdens the work that is made to support its weight. But when used properly as an assumption of the world it inhabits, it empowers the work by lifting it up, and the art is free to move about naturally on its surface.

The series has many examples of the former, but I think the Floating City is an example of a success in this regard. They demonstrate a bevy of the underlying assumptions of the settings they inhabit without needing to consciously or laboriously invoke them, and are free to function as the cool sci-fi/fantasy setpieces that they are. This is the optimal state for the Floating City: a trope, a bit of shorthand unique to the series that communicates a well of ideas and beliefs without having to explain any of them, and without forcing the audience to dwell on them if they don't care. Well, Sin might have been a bit heavy-handed, but holy shit was the writing all over the place in that game. And Sin had other things going for it, like being an immortal, invincible doomwhale.

That's not all, either. The very image of the Floating City can be invoked not only in its own context but likely in deference to our larger collective consciousness as well. I deliberately made the reference to tarot earlier; the Tower symbolizes the downfall of ambitions built on false pretenses and the disillusionment of spurious ideals. In Final Fantasy, the Floating City is the Tower, literally and figuratively. And the tower always falls in the end. We do, after all, say that one who is chasing doomed ambitions and groundless dreams is "building castles in the sky." It's just that in the Final Fantasy series, these are always a particular stable of fallacies that oppose the true ideals of the series.

Coincidentally, the arcana of the World represents unified consciousness, real accomplishment and fulfillment, and leads to true understanding. It also represents the cycle of life, often depicting an ouroborous, as it is the last arcana before the deck restarts. I wonder if Hironubu Sakaguchi worships Thoth.

AAAAAAAAaaaaaaand then there's fucking Final Fantasy VIII.

If there's any weight that idea that III and VIII are linked to one another, then perhaps it's significant that III started the rebellion against the usual rigamarole that FFVIII would go on to perfect. Because let me tell you, VIII is bonkers. See, when I say that I-VII are the 'Old Series,' I mean that they, together, comprise a set of overarching themes that are identifiable with regularity in each of the first seven titles, with the consistencies and focus on these themes tending to grow stronger as the series progressed. Things like the characteristics and role of magic and nature, technology and magitech, crystals, elemental fiends, the Floating City, and more, are all present in some form or another and in consistent shape throughout these first seven games.

Final Fantasy VIII does everything backwards. Up is down, black is white, man is slave to dog, and stupid, shitty teenagers actually act like stupid, shitty teenagers instead of like real people. After Final Fantasy VIII, the series never really went back to embrace its prior dogmas, ending the old era. In the previous games, the planet is the ultimate good, and nature and magic, which come from the world, are therefore also good. Humans are part of the planet, yet stand apart from it, and therefore have capacity for good or evil. Technology, which represents the unnatural half of human nature, is therefore often evil, and technology which subverts magic and nature, which are often synonymous with one another, are the ultimate sin. In Final Fantasy VIII, the world and the human race was created by Hyne (which is a FFIII reference, by the way). Hyne created the world and humanity on a lark, and then went to sleep because he was tired from fighting Cthulhu and Galactus and all the other monster-gods around because (say it with me) the universe of VIII is an awful place to live. All magic in the world comes from Hyne. So, if Hyne is good, magic must be good, right? Well, when he woke up, he decided that there were too many people, and began massacring the world's children to depopulate the planet. So we can guess at the nature of the world and magic in VIII. While only sorceresses can use the magic left behind by Hyne, this power is either treated as a curse for good sorceresses to resist, or a tool of domination for evil sorceresses. The plot of VIII is motivated by two of the latter, who more or less destroy the world by flooding it with millions of moon monsters and destroying time itself. But once again, humanity stands apart from nature, and this time technology is seen as a good thing, because when magic is evil and nature is red in tooth and claw, guns become good.

No, literally! Final Fantasy VII, the first game to have guns as a player-usable weapon class, had two characters who used them: Barret, and Vincent. In both cases, it symbolizes corruption. Barret gave in to the Shinra in the past, but turned against them. Because he gave in to the Shinra, he lost his arm, which was replaced with a gun, forever marking his momentary servility to the Shinra. However, he also turned against the Shinra afterward, meaning he is not entirely corrupt, and can also use various melee-type arm weapons, like a spiked ball, an oversized fist, or ATOMIC FUCKING SCISSORS if you have any joy in your heart. Vincent was not only a Shinra employee, but a member of their wetworks crew, the Turks. He was also an irritating cuckold loser who got turned an abominable monster-person. He also seems to not really give a shit about Shinra, saving the world, the rest of the party, or really anything other than serving his own guilt complex regarding his old not-girlfriend. In sum, he is completely corrupt and can use only pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

But in Final Fantasy VIII, the reverse is true, and guns are regular weapons that don't have any affiliation, good or bad, just like swords in previous games. If anything, guns are explicitly good; the character Irvine uses a gun, and he seems to be on the level, I guess. Laguna Loire uses a machine gun, apparently the only member of the Galbadian army to be issued one, and he's the literal Messiah of simple, dumb-headed goodness. But while low-tech melee weapons in general certainly don't seem to be indicative of corruption like technology once was, the sword in particular seems to be indicative of the Sorceress' Knight. Galbadian soldiers are the only entity that uses them as their primary weapon, and they serve possessed Edea, the villain for the portion of the narrative that makes any fucking sense. Sorceress' Knights throughout history are depicted as wielding swords in particular. Gunblades, which are both gun and swords (natch), are used by only two characters: Squall and Seifer. These two characters have a lot in common, and they each are involved in a central theme of the game: togetherness and communion are a force of salvation. Squall's whole character development centers around him realizing that if he wants to be alone for the rest of his life, he will be. He reforms into a more-or-less operable hero when he opens himself up and bags a girlfriend, which also ties into resolving the game's batshit deus ex machina ending. Seifer manages to Yngwie Malmsteen his way out of SeeD, and, believing he has no other alternative, turns to serving Sorceress Edea, alienating himself from everyone else and falling from grace. Notably, Seifer and Squall both become Sorceress' Knights, as well: Seifer apparently to Edea but in actuality to Ultimecia, and Squall to Rinoa. The gunblade's dual nature may well reflect the dual natures of these two characters.

Beyond that quirk of weaponry, the other tables are turned as well. While true magic is evil and technology is good, magitech, represented in VIII by para-magic and Guardian Forces, is actually not worse, but rather better than either. It isn't perfect, as the game demonstrates, but is also the only real tool for fighting back against the terrible natural magic of the sorceresses. In VIII's world, magitech isn't a subversion of beneficent nature by corrupt technology, but an appropriation of indifferent or hostile natural power by human ingenuity. Additionally, Odine, the creator of magitech, originates the (horrendously stupid) plan to defeat Ultimecia, despite the man himself being sort of an amoral nutcase.

So what's the floating city in Final Fantasy VIII? I have no fucking idea. I don't even know what that would mean in the context of this loony world and its bizarro themes. If I had to make a stab in the dark, I'd say Esthar would work. It's the pinnacle of human technology and magitech, but unlike what we see in the rest of the series, it does everything else backwards. Which fits, I guess. It doesn't exactly float, but it's got plenty of skyscrapers, elevated 'floating' highways, and a space program. Rather than symbolizing a fall from grace through corrupt ambition, Esthar starts out under the thumb of the monstrous Sorceress Adel, which the citizens unite to successfully overthrow. Laguna Gump is made president for life, having birthed La Revolucion by accident, and Esthar begins a golden age of glorious technology.

Esthar does cut itself off from the rest of the world, but it does so because of the wars started by Adel and they rightly assume everyone else is probably scared shitless of them and a bit pissed off. The City was weaponized at one time, but they threw their superweapon, the Lunatic Pandora, into the ocean, where it stayed until it was recovered by evil sorceress magic. Notably, the Lunatic Pandora isn't even an artificial weapon; it's a carrying case for a natural crystal pillar that summons moon monsters every now and again, because in VIII, nature sucks, and crystals are evil.

Ultimately, I think the difference between VIII and the preceding games is this: the early series is, like most works of fantasy, elegiac. It envisions a time in ages long past when humans lived simple, carefree lives, living simply in harmony with the land and one another, using every part of the buffalo and all that. Final Fantasy VIII doesn't cotton to this. It knows good and goddamn well that the natural state of the world is everything killing and eating everything else, all the time, where members of any species band together peaceably for the sake of surviving to the next day. This is a world where "nature" means that at any moment, a hundred million ravenous moon monsters could rain down, literally shatter your continent into pieces, and devour your entire civilization. So FUCK YES we need guns, and probably laser cannons and robots and shit while we're at it. Our God was evil, and we literally skinned him alive. Don't fuck with humanity!

Magic is the legacy of the god who created such a shitty world and managed to dick over humanity twice in the process, an unknowable, unpredictable and inhuman force responsible for eons of strife and destruction. Humans are still a dual entity, with one foot in nature and one foot out, but its the ways that we surpass and overcome nature that elevate us above the savagery of the natural world. Technology and magitech are the tools that we use to free ourselves from Hyne's legacy, and build a world of prosperity and plenty. Rather than sequestering humanity away from understanding and unity, human ambition and 'unnatural' achievement are what liberate us to even give those concepts a niche to exist. And there is, in fact, a floating city of sorts, if you count the space station. It's pretty bitchin'. So suck on that, I guess, Midgar, with your shitty rotting pizza city and your loser space program that never went anywhere.

It's worth pointing out that the point on the map occupied by the Floating Continent of Final Fantasy III contains the Floating (as in, on the water) Research Center in FFVIII. The Research Center connects to ancient undersea ruins, too. Shit, I guess the Tower of Owen didn't hold out forever.

So that's 6,000 words about some shit I made up. How does this apply to Final Fantasy XII? Well, like I said, the Bahamut is the Floating City in Final Fantasy XII, and understanding the gravity that symbol carries lends a unique context to all the narrative and thematic threads that attend it. I often say that the standard themes of the old series don't apply to XII, and that's true for a couple of reasons: they haven't really meant much at all since the olden times anyway, and XII is an Ivalice game, and has its own set of themes and expectations to UTTERLY FUCKING FAIL AT UUUUUUURRGH.

But occasionally something like this does come up, and I just thought I'd point it out this time. So, how well does the Sky Fortress Bahamut hold up to the template? Well, I guess we'll just see...

To be continued.

TheRocketeer:

Final Fantasy X is a bizarre case, which I include only tentatively; the city of Zanarkand was a city of high technology, like Bevelle. But unlike Bevelle, Zanarkand used magic for war instead of technology. The nature of technology ('machina') and magic in the world is a pivotal theme in FFX, but magitech is never really defined in Spira's world, nor is the nature of summoning versus other forms of magic. As such, I'm not sure how to classify Sin in this instance. It seems to have part of a city, likely either Zanarkand or a bizarre homage to it, growing out of its back. Honestly, I would call Sin part aeon, part technological, part biological, and part magical. Whatever it is, it's definitely a perversion of one or all of those things. It is worth pointing out that in X-2, magitech is certainly evil; Bevelle's Vegnagun superweapon draws its power from pyreflies, and- please realize the tremendous pain it causes me to mention this at all- would canonically serve as the forebear to mako in FFVII.

*snip*

In Final Fantasy X, the description fits in multiple ways. The creation of Sin was the last resort of the people of Zanarkand. All of the citizens became fayth, consuming their bodies and imprisoning their spirits for the eternal summoning of Dream Zanarkand. Yunalesca, who devised the Final Summoning, traded away her mortality and humanity to carry on the practice. Her husband, Zaon, was crafted into the first Sin. Yu Yevon, the summoner of Sin itself, was unable to control its blasphemous power, losing his sanity and his human mind and form. If he had any plans to bring the real Zanarkand back after putting Bevelle in its place, they became impossible as the rudderless abomination swam about depopulating the world on instinct. In addition to the original creation, the eternal cycle of Sin's rebirth is an important theme in itself. Summoners and guardians who accept the cycle are doomed to die, the summoner in calling the Final Summon to defeat the old Sin and the guardian in becoming the Final Summon and the new Sin, perpetuating the cycle. However, those who reject the practice and destroy the means by which to accomplish it, despite having no other plan and effectively dooming the world, go on to defeat it permanently because summamsusuas lalalalalalala I CAN'T HEAR YOU! LOGIC!

There are a couple of things that I'd like to point out in regards to Final Fantasy X and magic/tech/magitech.

1. Seymour could act as the bridge between magic and technology within Final Fantasy X. Think about it.
a). He's part Guado, a race that is the guardians of the Farplane, or pyreflie heaven. The Farplane itself is an extraordinarily magical place, and the Guados themselves are shown to be adept at manipulating the pyreflies to fit their own needs (shown by their ability to summon fiends on the spot). Seymour also uses the most powerful (at least, within the lore of the game) aeon, Anima.
b). Seymour also becomes a Maester of the order of Yevon, which operates out of Bevelle. Bevelle, both before and after the war with Zanarkand, is basically the seat of technological power in Spira, even if the majority of Spira's citizens don't even know it.
c). The second, third, and final time you fight Seymour, he wears a series of distinct mechanical, ah, excuse, Machina suits of armor that also employ magic. Whenever you defeat Seymour while he's wearing one of these suits, pyreflies erupt from them, leading me to believe that they are what they draw their power from. Which means that these suits Seymour wears could easily be classified as Magitech.

If we consider those three points, then Seymour can be looked at as the corrupted form of both magic and technology. There's also his motivation to become the next Sin to consider, as well, which is the highest form created by the summoners of Zanarkand.

On the note of aeons...

2. Its reasonable to classify the aeons as products of magic, at least in my opinion. It fits with the narrative of the war that way; the most powerful technological force in Bevelle battling against the most powerful magical force in the summoners of Zanarkand. Not only that, but the forms that the aeons take when on earth are constructed entirely of pyreflies, which I also classify as magic.

3. Now that you've brought the whole "Magic is natural and good, while Technology is evil" thing to my attention, the narrative of the 1st act (which goes from the opening credits to the the conclusion of Operation Mi'ihen) is almost self-aware of the archetypes of the old games. Hell, its borderline parody.
Think about it. Yevonites live a life free of technology, since they believe Sin is their punishment for relying too damn much on technology. They literally believe that Machina is the embodiment of all evil in the land. So they rely instead of magic and a natural way of life. Its would be a very in your face nod to the old seven.

But then, you later find out that Yevon is actually using a shit ton of technology, as it is only pushing the no machina angle as a way to control the Yevonites. Add to this that Yevon is run by a bunch of dicks, and it seems that the writers of Final Fantasy X either intended to challenge the themes of the original games, or wanted to outright reject them. Never really considered that before.

4. I believe FFX approached magic and technology as things rather than corrupting forces. Each arm has both an evil representation and a good representation of each.
Technology has the evil representative in Bevelle, which starts the war with Zanarkand and then later seeks to control the people of Spira with the sham-religion of Yevon. Then you have the good representative of technology in the Al-Bhed, who want to help stop Sin, try to keep Summoners from throwing their life away on the pilgrimage, and are generally not the assholes that Yevon makes them out to be.
And then you have good and evil representations of magic. The evil representation can be both seen in Guadosolam, who start a genocidal war with the al-bhed, and Zanarkand's hubris believing that it will be able to control such a devastating force as Sin. The good representation would be all the high summoners, who sacrificed themselves trying to stop Sin.
See, instead of magic being straight good, or technology being straight evil, FFX opted to throw a little gray into the mix. Magic and technology are just things; its the people who use them that decide whether it will be for good or for evil.

Or at least in my opinion.

That's the thing about Final Fantasy X, though: aside from Sin rolling in and killing people occasionally, Spira would be a paradise, even without technology. Aside from the teensy amount of technology that Yevon allows, we are never shown a situation where people could really benefit from the technology that they're forbidden.

All Spirans want to do is lay in the sun and play blitzball, and the only thing stopping them from doing this is Sin and fiend attacks. Summoners and guardians can prevent and destroy fiends, respectively, and the only reason they don't do this full-time is because they're all dedicated to stopping Sin directly.

The upshot is that while Bevelle was wrong to violate their own laws, those laws actually seem to have been more or less correct. The ban on technology isn't absolute, and the allowable technologies seem to encompass everything Spirans actually desire. All of Yevon's laws and practices are centered on avoiding and fighting Sin, which is the only problem in the world, anyway. Their system is shown to be flawed, but they only embraced that system because they themselves didn't know any better. The only stringent machina ban specified is on weaponry, and this is shown to be totally justified. Yes, they themselves relied on it, but that doesn't subvert their ban, it just confirms it: machina weaponry is evil... so naturally, the most evil people in Spira rely on it the most.

But machina weaponry is shit. It didn't work for Chappu, it didn't work for Operation Mi'ihen, it couldn't protect Home from random deadbeat monsters, and an entire army of soldiers with rifles, flamethrowers, and robotic armor and artillery support couldn't stop a handful of jerks with melee weapons and magic. The Invincible is used to good effect, but it's an airship, and in Final Fantasy, airships get a free pass.

Furthermore, despite the Al Bhed's reliance on it, machina don't seem to be doing anything of value for them. In the real world, we can tell technology and advancement is good because we can compare North Korea and South Korea. In Spira, the Al Bhed have been free to develop all the machina they want, and they are literally the unhappiest people on the planet. They don't live any better. They aren't healthier or more comfortable. They aren't safer. They have nothing to show for the freedom they had. And they obviously couldn't have been expanding faster than other places or they would have attracted Sin and been annihilated already.

But you're correct in saying that it's not as cut and dry in Spira as "magic good, tech bad." But it also isn't as simple as both magic and technology being both good AND bad. As far as I can tell, they're both evil!

In Spira, magic and technology are both responsible for world-threatening disasters: the ultimate technology was Bevelle's weaponry (along with, in the sequel, Vegnagun), which was used to commit genocide on Zanarkand. The ultimate magic was Sin, which was used to commit genocide on everyone. There is no regular, beneficial use of either magic or technology because, as shown by the game, the world is already a paradise without either of them. Magic and technology's only beneficial uses are to ineffectively combat the much stronger, evil forms of themselves.

But even upon succeeding, they aren't left with anything better to replace them with; the status quo is only improved by bringing it closer to a state of nature. Sit on the beach. Bounce a ball. It really is that simple in Spira.

The world of Spira seems to have the most in common with the world of FFVI. Nature and harmony are still the ideal, but rather than magic representing good as a part of nature, it's divorced from nature, and loses any inherently good nature while remaining dangerously corruptible, like technology. Magic and technology have more capacity to harm than to help, and mankind can't be free from either because the nature of magic and technology provide the strongest tools to the people most eager to abuse them.

But at least in FFVI, the world is shown to be more or less normal, and while there isn't any super tech or miracle magic to give the world a major leg up over our own, they are still necessary to the advancement and sustenance of regular civilization. This makes the struggle ultimately necessary and worthwhile.

Not so in Spira. Mankind is demonstrably better off with nothing more than straw huts and watersports, but can't help destroying it by tampering. The setting is as nihilistic and farcical as Mika and the maesters concluded: the whole world is Eden, every fruit is an apple, and everyone is a serpent.

Say it with me: Spira is a terrible place to live. But at least there are no Lunarians there! *shakes fist* MOONY JERKS!

No, you're right. I might've stretched the "But there are examples of good!!!" with my imagination (its been a while since I played FFX, which is amusing because i'm staring at the HD remaster right now which has barely been played).

I've never played IV. Are the Lunarians really so terrible?

Brian Tams:
I've never played IV. Are the Lunarians really so terrible?

Well, yes and no. I'm exaggerating for effect, but not nearly as much as you might think. The Lunarians are a blight on the world.

The Lunarians seem to have two separate and irreconcilable sides to them. On one hand, you have Fusoya and the peaceful, Kryptonian, whirling spires and crystals, robe-wearing Loonies. But then you have Zemus and the genocidal, Sith, robots and lasers, mechanical-dystopia aesthetic type Loonies.

So you have this odd situation when the Lunarians reach Earth on their Moon-mobile, decide that humanity is too primitive and savage to live peacably in understanding with the Lunarians, and decide to just sleep in stasis until we catch up. And the other half of the Lunarians, led by Zemus, decide to use giant robot superweapons to peace-and-understanding our primitive, savage race right out of existence so they can move in immediately.

So, the Lunarians manage to seal away Zemus and resume their waiting game, while leaving all of the Lunarian doomsday weaponry on Earth and doing nothing to clean it up. Eventually, Kluya comes to Earth for kicks and giggles so he can introduce advanced magic and technology to a race that his people believe are completely unready for it, and also to get his extraterrestrial freak on. Kluya teaches magic to humanity, as well as teaching how to make airships, teleporters, and who knows what else. Then, some time after fathering two kids (ages and ages after arriving; Lunarians live practically forever) he gets killed by humans for some non-specified reason. I like to think he was in the middle of teaching some kids how to load and arm an atomic hyper-kablammerator and had no idea why he was attacked.

So, one of his kids, Theodor, gets mind-controlled by Zemus, which is possible because he is half Lunarian: connected enough to the Loonies for Zemus to be able reach into his mind, but not strong enough to resist his control. Theodor takes the alias Golbez, knocks off the king of the most powerful country in the world, and establishes a puppet government so he can restart all the alien doomsday tech and wipe out humanity.

The resulting war results in the destruction of several nations and the end of a lot of ruling dynasties. The game treats Kluya like a saint, but literally everything he did on Earth enabled the entire conflict. After the main party knocks off Zemus, Golbez, free of his control, stays on the Lunarian moon, which decides to leave our primitive, savage race alone and zoom off to another world. I'm guessing they arrived at R5 at taught the Ronka peace, understanding, and how to build robots.

The game hardly even treats the departure of the Lunarians as a bittersweet thing. The tone seems to be, "Yeah! We finally got rid of them! Those guys that caused literally every disaster on Earth for the last two thousand years!" *shakes fist* MOOOOOONIEEEES!

Is it too much to ask to get this in a pdf or something? As this is a bit too much to read on 1 forum.

PART 10: The Wyrmking Descends

As is the standard of RPG's, the Bahamut is headed straight for Dalmasca, but it will patiently check its speed so that it does not arrive until the party is done chopping up monster parts in a swamp to haggle for new boots. But Ashe & Co, LLC. already stocks the biggest boots in all Ivalice, so it's time to get in the Strahl and go end the game with a hearty bout of impassioned philosophical and ethical debate between heads of state, assuming we have time between the epic cyber-Saiyan showdown.

The people in Rabanastre don't even know what the fuck when the mile-tall Bahamut rolls up over the city, mainly because its power causes it to screw up the weather and it is constantly wreathed in a vortex of clouds almost too thick to see through. Classed as a Heavy Carrier, the ship is the flagship of both the 12th Fleet led by Lord Zargabaath (convenient, considering he's the only named Judge still alive) and the Western Armada led by Lord Vayne.

Inside, we're treated to the sight of Vayne himself standing at the CIC of his shiny new Death Star, flanked by... Larsa?! What the fuck, kid? He seems to be cool as a cucumber riding shotgun with big bro as he tears ass across Galtea set on crushing the Rebel scum. Shit, Cid probably got the idea for the Bahamut from a drawing Larsa made when he was ten.

As the fortress makes ready to fire its main weapon, Vayne muses on the bitter irony of Cid being slain by his own son('s platonic girlfriend's pet demon), noting that there's a lot of that going around lately. Shit, if we'd finished off Gabranth back at the Pharos, maybe we could have given the little Hiddleston incentive enough to shiv Vayne in the neck and call the plot good.

Larsa tries to talk his brother out of firing on the Resistance fleet, revealing that they had already surrendered before this scene kicked off. Unfortunately for our team, they don't make fucks small enough for Vayne to spare and the Resistance chose the wrong damn day to stand in for Yavin IV. Vayne gives the order to fire, and the Sister Ray jutting out of the top levels of the fortress blasts the trireme-like Resistance airships with a direct hit, which explodes on impact with the kind of force that destroyed Ghis' Leviathan and the 8th Fleet over Jagd Yensa, destroying the entire surrendered fleet in a single blast.

Onboard, Larsa's jaw drops as he takes another large step to becoming a man. Vayne isn't just doing this to be a jerk, as he explains: once he demonstrates the Bahamut's force, he reasons that the Resistance will have no choice but to muster all their forces at it, where he will crush them in one go.

I'd say that it might teach them to act like a proper Resistance and stay the hell away from the enemy superweapon, since they already apparently had enough firepower to engage the rest of the Imperial armada without it even before they started getting reinforcements from Rozarria, forcing the Empire to try and trot their ungainly heavy carrier wherever the nimble Resistance is harassing them or concentrate all their ships with the flagship, where their supply lines can be easily cut and their homeland infrastructure bombarded.

But Larsa has more philosophical grounds for dissent, saying that this will just make them hate him even more. I mean, they already hated him enough to go to war with him, but I guess it's the principle of the thing. Vayne knows good and well that just leaving them alone will only lead to more uprisings, as it did after the relatively calm past two years. Yes, it seems Vayne is going with the British "we can beat these entire countries until they give up" route of empire building rather than the Roman "nice country you got there, shame if something were to happen to it" type deal.

Naturally, this is too out-in-the-open for Larsa, who believes that they could better end the conflict with cooperation and diplomacy. Larsa, for the first time, seems upset and angered by his brother's ambition. Yes, this is what it took for Larsa to stop idolizing his elder brother unconditionally: not the murder of his two elder brothers; not the conquest of two nations and the utter annihilation of one of them; not murdering his father to usurp his position; not framing the Senate for the crime to remove any objection to his tyranny; not trafficking with fallen angels to build cursed weaponry of unspeakable power; but a discrepancy on the protocol of subjugating the known world for Archades. This is our inside man. This is the reasonable alternative for the Archadian diadem.

Vayne again gives no fucks, and drops a stone cold shutdown on Larsa: he can't stop him because he's shorter than Vayne. Daaaaaaamn. Having thoroughly pwned his lord brother, Vayne gives a short Gihren Zabi pep-talk to the eight or so lucky imperials who got stuck manning the bridge controls in full plate armor. As we ponder whether or not they sky fortress is air conditioned, the main Resistance fleet, with the Marquis Ondore himself at the head in his flagship, the Garland, has taken the bait and attacked en masse.

What follows is a lovely and awesome cutscene of the Resistance armada and the 12th fleet headed by the Bahamut and Judge Zargabaath's Alexander releasing hundreds of small fighter airships and absolutely blowing the ever-loving shit out of each other. It actually seems like the Resistance might have the upper hand, with the fighters holding their own and dealing heavy damage as they strafe the Imperial capital ships. Ondore gives the command to fire, and the combined Resistance armada unleashes a volley trained on the Alexander, which had positioned itself directly between them and the Bahamut at the Imperial front and center. As the Alexander takes heavy damage and starts listing to port, the Marquis orders another volley as soon as a trajectory on the enemy fortress is clear... Then he quickly Akbars his pants as he realizes the Alexander was only screening the Bahamut while it readied another shot! The fortress fires its main weapon and... misses like a champ! The beam of deific annihilation clips the Garland's starboard hull, impacting a ship far to the rear of the Resistance lines. The ship's telemetry and radio indicates that three capital ships are destroyed immediately, including the carrier Galuf-Bal.

Oh, God DAMMIT Final Fantasy! Stop killing Galuf! For fuck's sake, was once not enough for the Bearded Aeris?! Worry not for Ondore's fleet, though; records show that the carrier was immediately replaced by the Krile-Bal, a carrier with inexplicably identical capabilities, which, among others, repeatedly sortied against the Imperial heavy cruiser Gilgamesh until it turned sides in battle to ram and destroy the dreadnought Necrophobe, destroying them both.

It's worth noting that the battle takes place directly over the city of Rabanastre, and the city is spared from the blast radius only by a shimmering blue barrier that seems to stop the nethicite cannon's blast from reaching it. This must be accomplished by a magical- sorry, magickal- paling, the likes of which we saw at Nalbina waaaaaay back when Rasler bit the dust. Though that raises the question, if the paling is strong enough to hold back even an indirect blast from the supercannon, and is roughly no larger than a belltower and powered by a few old dudes chanting at it, is there a reason every airship in every fleet doesn't have one of its own?

Oh well; I'll easily accept that because, real talk, this scene is pretty freaking radical. It sort of amazes me that this game manages to have scenes of airship fleets in greater number, of greater importance to the narrative, and with infinitely more interesting designs and tactics than the entire Mass Effect series combined.

But this game isn't allowed to do anything interesting without our- and I'm airquoting here as hard as I fucking can- "heroes" sticking their collective dick in it, and Ondore spies the Strahl as it shoots past them, headed straight for the Imperial lines. Ashe calls him up on the radio and tells Ondore that she's headed to the Bahamut, to take on Vayne directly.

Ondore, who is probably pretty pissed at Ashe by this time for doing nothing of value, ever, for the Resistance and gallivanting around the whole world accidentally helping the Empire win, tells her to pull her bitch ass back and, you know, not sacrifice herself in a suicidal charge, so she can sit her sandy ass on the Dalmascan throne on the off-chance they actually survive.

To her credit, Ashe knows that there's not going to be any throne or treaty table to bother with if a miracle doesn't do something about the Bahamut right this second, but Ondore knows that this isn't the same thing as having a sane plan. I feel you, Ondore; even I haven't had a good grip on things since Bur-Omisace, and I'm clearly paying more attention than the party.

But the bridge of the Garland is stunned to hear another voice come over the radio: it's none other than... Lord Larsa? Wait, what? He shakily explains that he's been taken aboard the Strahl, so they should be able to pass enemy lines safely. Ondore can't believe that they managed to take the lad hostage, but is even more surprised when he's told that Larsa intends to help them talk Vayne down, of his own accord! Ondore is stunned, and silently wonders how Ashe manages to keep such huge balls from swinging around everywhere under that trashy miniskirt. He collects himself, and gives the order to cover the Strahl as it makes its way to the Bahamut.

I don't really get why they needed Ondore's permission, anyway; what was he going to do, shoot down the Strahl so the Imperials didn't get her first? Of course, we see on board that, no, Larsa can't actually teleport, and he isn't on board the Strahl; it was just Vaan using the ship's outlandish voice-changer from all the way back in Bhujerba! *clap hands for genuine cleverness* It seems that the crew was just channeling the little lord's spirit to pointlessly troll their own allies. I'm sure somewhere on board the sky fortress, he's glowing with pride but can't put his finger on the reason.

Balthier, of course, can hardly fly the ship straight as he comes immediately and by the bucketload, understandably delirious with pleasure at finally putting to practical use a novelty widget he unwittingly paid 400,000 gil for while trashed for three days on shitty serpentwyne and sick half to death with nanna fever. Congratulations, Balthier; a win's a win. Just one question: when did you ever get the chance to put Larsa's voice on that thing? It's wired to the Strahl, and Larsa's never been onboard. Oh, well.

Unfortunately for us (I get to use that phrase a lot, don't I?), we only bother trolling our own side, who meant us no harm, and not the enemy, who intend to kill us dead an have an overwhelming advantage over us. A TIE ends up on the Strahlennium Falcon's tail, which Balthier bravely does nothing at all to avoid, merely flying straight ahead while making glibly smug comments to himself, just like everyone everywhere knew he would. The tailing fighter manages to miss the half dozen shots he bothers to fire off before running headfirst into another fighter. So, that's it for the resistance we'll get from the hundreds of Imperial fighters and capital ships. But once we get to the freaking SKY FORTRESS, what do we really even plan to do?

Well, Balthier has an ingenious plan. See, though the Sky Fortress Bahamut is heavily shielded and carries a firepower greater than half the Resistance fleet, it's defenses are designed around a direct, large-scale assault. A small fighter should be able to penetrate the outer defense! What good are stunt fighters going to do against that? Well, the Empire doesn't consider a small, 6-man fighter to be any threat, or they'd have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Ashe has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station. The approach will not be easy: they're required to skim the surface to a docking area. The docking ramp is only two meters wide. It's a small access ramp leading directly to the main command tower. A precise ingress should start a chain reaction which should hand Vayne's ass right to him! Only a direct assault will cause this brutal ass-kicking. This plan is shielded from any actual intelligence, so may Ajora be with us!

Alright, that was fun, but seriously, for a second: if it's this insanely easy to just dock with the super air fortress, why isn't every Resistance craft making an effort to board the damn thing and overtake it from within? Especially considering the Resistance knows they can't win against it conventionally, and, as we will prove, the interior is so pathetically defended that I'm certain the Empire really did never expect anyone would try this, or take steps to prevent it in any way. Shit, even getting close to the Bahamut should have seen the ship lit up with all the anti-air fire that has ever existed or will exist, and once we dock, we just open up the door and walk right in? And no one's guarding the entrance?

Could we have taken a bomb? Now would be a great time to set a bomb, and then JUST FUCKING LEAVE. We have bombs, right? We have hand grenades, so the principle's in place at least. We have forbidden magics and a menagerie of enslaved demons, we have magic ring-powered fighter jets and radioactive superlasers. I'm pretty sure bombs should be a thing. Nethicite works like a bomb. Not that we have any. Or know how to use it. Just sayin'.

It's literally a fifteen second walk until we get to some sort of central bottomless pit area. Can we throw Vayne down this thing to win? I'd appreciate the game giving up all pretense of subtlety at this point. It would be cute. The party stops to gawp at it and whistle through their teeth at the glowy central structure, because no matter how dire the situation, we must never stop being distracted by shiny things, or the Imperials have won in spirit. Their ogling is interrupted by an explosion, because it seems like Ondore has realized that destroying the Bahamut would be totally justified, no matter how many of his no-good, pain-in-the-neck allies might be aboard at the time.

We are treated to another nice scene of one group of fighters getting chewed to shreds by the AA fire that didn't exist only moments ago, while another manages to land a strafing run with some clever tactics. Judge Zargabaath seems confident that the Imperial fleet can withstand the assault. He'd better fucking be right; if the Bahamut turns out to be a piece of trash and the Rebel Alliance manages to push the Empire's shit right in, the entire plot will have been a waste of the player's time. Marqui Marq seems pretty confident, though; let's see what happens!

Back on board, the party is still dicking around in the core having a little chat. I don't even know what the fuck anymore. Sometime around Archades everyone in the party seems to start paying the narrative exactly the amount of respect it deserves, and here at the end they aren't even managing a decent interest in the world literally exploding around them.

The conversation manages to be hilarious, though, as every single party member manages to shit-talk Ashe directly to her face. I'll do my best to paraphrase it here for your enjoyment.

Fran: The Resistance is blasting this place to shit! We better hurry up and kill Vayne before they win, so it looks like we haven't just been wasting everyone's time.

Vaan: No worries. Let's just gut the fancy bastard, so I can have an "in" with the new queen.

Penelo: Are you sure she can handle the burden of rule? It seems like more work than any of us are really cut out for. Especially Ashe.

Basch: Well, when Princess gets sick of having a real job for the first time in her life I guess she can always pawn that other ring off to get "kidnapped" again with the first sleazy pirate that comes rifling through the good silverware.

Balthier: That's a good idea- the silverware thing- but buddy, I really doubt the tart needs my help to run out on her people and dick around for a few months flip-flopping about every goddamn thing.

Ashe: Hah! You think I could make up my mind long enough to even do that?

Vaan: Get real. You've been coasting off this mob of lowlifes and peasants this whole fucking trip and I wouldn't be surprised if you had us in the palace doing all your queen shit for you while you get fat on cockatrice fritters and clean out all the good booze.

After the whole party lets on that they're sick of Ashe's shit, it's another brief walk to an elevator that will take us up the central shaft. But a familiar face shows up to hitch a ride: it's Gabranth! Basch seems confused and annoyed that his dear sibling is still alive and employed. No, I don't know how he's alive, either. He probably got blown clear to Dorstonis by the Pharos explosion, and had to catch a charter airship here.

Gabranth tries to act tough, but he's barely clinging to life at this point, lacking the strength to even stand straight without being wracked by tremendous pain. Gabranth throws himself a little pity party after nearly getting shitcanned, but Basch has no fucks. Gabranth loses his temper, asking Basch how he can still hold his head up after losing three (3) countries and, presumably, three kings in the process, but to Basch, it's simple. He has someone more important to protect: the Lady Ashe.

Ashe says nothing, but it just now strikes her that she needs to keep this man as far away from her as humanly possible.

Basch tries to cheer him up a little bit by pointing out that he can take pride in being Lord Larsa's bodyguard. Even Gabranth doesn't buy that shit; Gabranth has never lifted a damned finger to serve Larsa.

NOT. ONE. TIME.

The one chance he got to actually carry out Larsa's will, he threw sanity to the wind and tried to goad the party into carving a wheelbarrow of fantasy nukes and blasting the Empire to pebbles. Shit, here's the trump card: the only times in the entire game that Larsa has been even remotely in danger was while he was traveling with our party, subsequently being guarded by.... Basch.

Gabranth, I'm calling it: you are the worst nemesis ever. I have a better evil twin in real life! And he's four years older than me, we look nothing alike, and we get along great! Granted, there was that time I assumed his identity so he took the rap for that assassination, but he always headlocked me if I beat him in Goldeneye so we agreed to call it square!

Gabranth, enraged by the knowledge of what a miserable lot of screw-ups his whole family is, attacks the party. Whoooaaa, there, bud, hold on. You're hurt really, really bad, and you lost once already at full strength. Seriously, be real for a moment, are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you? Tea? Coffee? X-Potion? I'll work with you! Help me help you!

Basch holds his brother's face as he uselessly windmills his arms around trying to strike him. Unable to do so, he swears that as long as he can curse Basch's name, he will be invincible. Basch gives him a bonecrushing "I'd like to see you try," rolling his eyes slowly and making an exaggerated jerking-off motion. Gabranth, crushed by Basch's utter indifference to his bitchy temper tantrum, asks wryly if Basch "has had his fill of this." Basch, stunned, can't even believe the question he's just been asked, calling his little brother by his real name, Noah. YES, "little brother." I know they're twins. But I know what I seen.

Gabranth remembers what villain he's supposed to be channeling, starts giving his brother the "There is no good left in me" lines. It doesn't even register on Basch. No one even cares. I can't quite remember what it is, but it feels like there was something important we came here to do. Does anyone remember? Penelo? Ashe? No? Fran? No, I don't want to hear about the history and statistics of the Bahamut.

Oh, shit! The Bahamut! We've got a party to crash! Vaan hurries over and starts the elevator, which I really wish we had done before the touching family reunion. As it stands, Gabranth just sort of stays huddled over in the corner, silently reflecting on his innumerable shortcomings while the party bravely endures the longest, most awkward elevator ride this side of the Shinra Building.

Oddly, we arrive not at the conn tower shown earlier, but in an empty, circular chamber that doesn't appear to serve any particular purpose, yet in the center of which we find Vayne and Larsa calmly talking shop. Frankly, I'm pretty sure Larsa was still secretly pissed at Vayne from earlier and intentionally lured him to the Boss Arena.

Vayne is oblivious to such treachery, though, and warmly welcomes Ashelia & Co., Ltd. I wouldn't be surprised, given how badly Gabranth botched everything else at the Pharos, Vayne has no idea that Ashe and the rest are here to assassinate him. His schedule for the afternoon could very well read, "2:00 PM: Meet with that one princess who I think wanted an oil treaty? Or something? Gabranth said she was legit. What kind of name is B'Nargin? *snicker*"

No such luck, I'm afraid; Vayne asks straight out whether Ashe is here to throw down or just talk things out, and she answers evasively, saying that as long as Dalmasca gets hers, it's all the same to her.

I know this is just more Ashe waffling and refusing to commit to anything, but... this actually is a great time to keep your cards close to the chest. Too bad for her, it seems like Vayne was asking less so he could react accordingly and more so he would know what to carve on her tombstone. He takes a kung fu pose and gives a great big-bro-to-little-bro "watch me beat the sand out of this scrub's bloomers."

But Larsa is in fine form, and out-bastards his brother like a true Solidor, drawing his sword and passive-aggressively wondering about how appealing seven-to-one odds seem in light of all the noogies and titty-twisters he had to endure in the past.

Vayne is an old hand at fratricide, though, a fact that probably makes Gabranth feel even more inferior as his tin-can ass comes lumbering up the stairs. Yes, it seems he's chosen this moment to get serious about defending Lord Larsa, now that he can't walk without aid of a handrail and his armor is audibly sloshing with seventeen pints of his own inexhaustible blood.

Vayne actually puts up a good fight; must be that super-high monk strength and vitality, considering he fights unarmed and unarmored. Vayne actually seems pretty disinterested in everything that's happening. In fact, it occurs to me now that Vayne never rarely to display any emotion whatsoever. For once, I'm willing to overlook the fact that this is probably just his voice actor phoning it in and chalk it up to Vayne just being left dead inside from a life of savage bastardry.

Getting beaten the fuck up by six burly lowlifes (hey, Ashe lived in a sewer for two years, call back when she's a real royal) and his little brother seems to raise a little fire in the acting regent of Archadia, though, and he... collapses flat on his face like a plank of wood.

Huh. You know, I've got to say, this was a totally reasonable thing to expect when assaulting an unarmed, unguarded noble with no demonstrable hand-to-hand fighting experience. Good on you, game.

Larsa chooses this moment to become shocked and concerned with his brother's sudden, unexpected poor health (at least, that's what the Archadian newspapers will read), and he runs to his Lord Brother's side.

Psyche! Larsa takes about a million volts from some unseen source, and falls to the ground beside his brother. This is Vayne's favorite prank; it gets Larsa every single time. As for the rest of the interlopers, Vayne has something very special planned for us...

GOING FUCKING SUPER-SAIYAN!!

That's right! Vayne slowly begins to rouse as a swirling nethicite aura surrounds him, and he explodes with a sudden two hundred fifty extra pounds of solid, shirt-shredding muscle. A septet of swords swirl around him from thin air, and he floats just above the ground.

Fran crushes her scouter in her hand, unwilling to believe Vayne could so easily veil such an incredible power level.

The Emperor talks tough about his new power, but facts is facts: the sudden bulksplosion has given Vayne a serious case of the ugly, and- pray gather your strength, dear audience- ruined his hair. Weep, O Archadia! What victory could be worth this cost?!

A righteous vengeance fills the party now; halfheartedly shivving a statesman was one thing, but now we have a worthy cause! We fight now on moral principle!

Amazingly, Gabranth manages to haul his powderized bones up the stairs. I'm honestly not sure what the short exchange between him and Vayne means; Vayne tells Gabranth to guard Larsa well, because he'll sure need it in hell, where they're both going... and then Gabranth raises his sword and says defending Larsa is exactly what he intends to do. Vayne, despite having just threatened Gabranth's life, seems surprised by Gabranth's betrayal, and resolves, as if for the first time, to kill him with the others.

I'll leave that alone, because the idea that Gabranth could... wait a second... Darth Gabranth is fighting with our party now? And Emperor Palpidor is all jacked up on the Dark Side?!

GABRANTH! You useless sheet of shitstickers! I have no idea, not one clue, how you're even alive, much less able swing or even raise a weapon with all your fading strength, but if you can hoist Vayne over your head, tromp yourself down those stairs, and hurl his roided-out ass over the side and down the bottomless pit, I will forgive everything you've down since sabotaging your own character at Ridorana. We'll have a nice lovely funeral pyre made for you at Eruyt village, while all the viera sing while watching flaming debris fall on Rabanastre. I will- Wait...

Vayne can fly now, soooo... Eh, fuck the both of you, then.

Vayne chimes in with some lovely gibberish about freeing the world from Occuria. Oh, screw you, you poser! I admit, I liked the cut of your jib up until now, but this? This crap right here? We've already fought this exact boss battle three times now! And it's never worked out for the enemy! Your stupid fucking "fight the power" schtick has gotten mighty old ever since we figured out "the power" could be handily defeated by just telling them to go fuck a fencepost! Oh, and mighty convenient how your big principled stand happens to involve you taking over the world for yourself in the process. And it's not even your plan, you got it from Cid! And he got it from an Occuria, so I don't even know what the fuck!

Could you please manage an original idea before I pound you so hard I cause an integer overflow? Wait, these swords are called Sephiroth? That's an entirely different main villain! And you're, what, "Vayne Novus" now? You realize that was one of Seymour's forms, right? The one compliment I can even pay you right now is that the boss of Valkyria Chronicles totally stole your schtick, and managed to do it right for a change.

Gabranth, seizing the opportunity to smear his failure all over the screen one last time, tries rushing Vayne Ferrigno and gets the taste slapped out of his mouth so hard a chunk get knocked off his helmet. I guess it's that swagtastic Judge Armor that keeps Gabranth indestructible, because once this happens, he realizes his number's up and squeaks out some rot about still having his pride.

Buuuuullshit, Gabranth. You were squatting in a crumpled heap of you own inferiority not five minutes ago, stewing over what a hopeless failure you are and screaming at your brother to share the secret of living with the crippling shame that eats away at you in the quiet moments.

Vayne, knowing the score, sends Gabranth flying across the room with his furious pimphand. Gabranth shoots a quick, "Oops, I'm boned!" to his brother as Vayne sends his swords to mince the Judge Magister once and for all. Aw, come on, Vayne! You're bad enough at being a villain without helping accomplish goals the audience has been pursuing since the Pharos! Just the audience, mind you, not the characters; near as I can tell, the party has never taken Gabranth seriously as a foe, which I think speaks volumes.

Still, what's done is done, so lets all stuff some popcorn down our throats and watch Vader finally get his comeuppance. The flying vortex of blades comes sailing towards Gabranth... and are absorbed into the manufacted nethicite shard held aloft by Larsa, which breaks into pieces from absorbing more than it could handle.

what

... You win, Larsa. You win. You are the Troll-Father, our blessed lord Loki, may your name be praised by utter bastards everywhere. It was my favorite early-game accessory, and you stole it right back just I was starting to get a taste for it. If I had had it at any time after that point, I could have used it to defend myself from Mjrn and Tiamat, or from Bergan, who always kicked my ass, or in this very fight, while a swirling tornado of blades fired superlasers at me and my party. But you kept it for yourself, despite never needing it. What's more, that shard is obviously the same shard from earlier in the game, despite manufacted nethicite being so dirt-common truckloads are used in every airship in the Imperial fleet, and Judges can use them as performance enhancers. But no, you didn't use your connections to hook the Resistance or our party up with a suitcase of the stuff. You held on to the one shard, our one shard, so that you could bust it out fifteen seconds after it stopped being of potential use to us. Those would have been excellent trolls, all on their own. And then it shattered. It shattered, its one and only use being to save a man that I would give my right eye to see dead, and who will fucking die anyway in moments. And, having accomplished this purpose, it shatters, in your hand, while you smile beatifically. Poof.

I feel like the bad guy at the end of Kung Fu Hustle. All that I am has been broken, and I just want to prostrate myself at his feet and relearn everything I thought I knew about being an utter asshole to everyone around me, for absolutely no reason.

Vayne, too, is stunned, apparently not having anymore tricks to bust out, and facing the prospect of having to spend a long day at the tailor even if he wins. Vaan, taking advantage, raises Gabranth's sword and charges at Vayne to run him right through. Instead, the razor sharp point of the blade propels Vayne over the balcony and down the stairs without scratching him. Vaan seems as confused as I am about the logistics of this, and throws away Gabranth's Nerf-edged gag sword, jumping over the balcony to pursue and finish the job.

But who should appear in his path but Venat! YES! Sweet merciful Dycedarg, deliver unto us some proper villainy! Venat, being Satan more or less, uses his godlike power to... glare menacingly at Vaan while Vayne staggers out the door to the cannon superstructure. I mean, she doesn't do anything to harm Vaan, or really anybody, and it disappears once Vayne is out the door (though still easily within arrow or gunshot range), but still, it was menacing!

While Penelo checks on Larsa, who seems to have collapsed at the realization that he is the most competent villain the game has left, the dying Gabranth asks Basch if Larsa is "a good master," and Basch replies in the affirmative. To confirm, Gabranth just asked his worst enemy if his boss is an okay guy, because Basch has spent more time with him and knows him better.

Outside, Vayne calls Venat to him and owns up to being a ripe failure of a bad guy, but he does it with class, and wishes Venat well in finding someone better to take his place. Venat disagrees, though, saying that, with the Sun-Cryst destroyed, they'd actually won already, since handing out parts of it is apparently the one trick the Occuria had. So I guess if we had made up our minds and destroyed the Sun-Cryst right off the bat, all of this could have been avoided. ALL OF THIS COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED. Venat is honored to have shared Vayne's company, and is happy to fight to the end right along with his human companion.

But hey, about that nethicite thing, anyway... does anyone else remember, at the bottom of the Great Crystal, there was a sphere, apparently of pure nethicite, which dwarfed the Sun-Cryst and seemed to be the origin point or power source for the entire Great Crystal? It's okay; the game doesn't remember either.

Venat declares the age of Stones and the Occuria over and done with. But it isn't so quick to abandon Vayne in his hour of need, and bids him follow it out to the edge of the superstructure. As Vayne walks, the party arrives to see Venat apparently dematerialize, his essence flowing into Vayne. The reaction is slow to take places at first, but great plumes of energy begin firing out of Vayne's body, wrecking parts of the superstructure and even a capital ship in the distance. It isn't long before Vayne is overwhelmed by the power of an Undying coursing through him, and in a fiery veil of its power, sections of the Bahamut are torn off and reassembled around him into a new form. As he flies high over the sky fortress, several pairs of wings and a long tail begin to take shape. Venat's face seems to sit above his own, and he swoops down on the party as the wyrmking incarnate.

Looks like a final boss to me. Let's rock.

To be continued.

Loved this post spent 7 hours reading it but it made me laugh my way through Thank you

Glademaster:
Is it too much to ask to get this in a pdf or something? As this is a bit too much to read on 1 forum.

I'm definitely agree here, what I've read here is absolutely hilarious but dammit if it isn't difficult to read on a forum.

Glademaster:
Is it too much to ask to get this in a pdf or something? As this is a bit too much to read on 1 forum.

Michael Tabbut:
I'm definitely agree here, what I've read here is absolutely hilarious but dammit if it isn't difficult to read on a forum.

I certainly don't mind compiling it into a pdf, but that will be done once the last part is put up here. Which won't be long, so sit tight.

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