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Disappointment: In the Sky

Yo man, Mass Effect 3 is the worst piece of garbage I’ve ever -- no, just kidding. Let’s leave that off the table for now, shall we? I haven’t beaten it yet, but unless there’s some grievous issue that I can’t ignore, I’m willing to give both the game and Bioware the benefit of the doubt. (My prediction? Shepard engages in a noble sacrifice and bestows unlimited hot dogs throughout the entire universe.)

Enough of that. I suppose you guys should count yourselves lucky; the moment this topic started up, I was ready and waiting to discuss -- and justify -- my abject hatred of Final Fantasy XIII. But I’ve already done that elsewhere on multiple occasions, and one of these days I intend to continue my rant. So instead, I’ll focus on one of the few other games out there to earn my ire so readily.

Its name was Grandia III.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. When the PS2 game was still in development (prior to a 2006 release), and videos trickled down the pipeline to my then-ancient PC, I was ecstatic. Another JRPG! Look at that action! The colors! The explosions! The music! I was hungry for some more stat-crunching, beast-busting action, and I’d learned to put my stock in the genre thanks to games like Tales of Symphonia and Baten Kaitos -- even Final Fantasy VIII, in spite of being the most easily-breakable RPG I’ve ever played. Somehow I managed to coax my brother into buying it on his way back from school; incidentally, the day he was slated to bring home the gold was the same day I spotted a review. On a scale of one to ten, it earned a seven.

“Impossible!” I spurted. “A seven for such a (presumably) amazing game! I call bias! Obviously they’re going harder on the game because it’s a JRPG!”

I would later go on to think that the reviewer was being too kind. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As was the standard, my brother took the first swing at the two-disc adventure…and as was the standard, he gave up well before reaching the endgame. So it was up to me to bring about a happy ending. I remember when I first started a new file; I was in the den, with the sun having gone down and a single light illuminating the screen. I was all alone. It was going to be my greatest adventure yet.

There was just one little caveat: before my adventure could begin in earnest, I had to listen to a certain song. “In the Sky” -- a title befitting the game’s themes and motifs…and one of the most utterly grating songs I’ve ever heard. Just thinking about it makes me twitch. And the cutscene in which the song plays in full, less than an hour into the game -- if I remember correctly -- is unskippable. I had to switch to the TV channels just to avoid hearing it; I also had to switch back and forth between channel and game, asking “Is it over yet?” and then being greeted with “TO MAKE YOUR WISHES ALL COME TRUE.”

I was sixteen or seventeen at the time. And never in my life had I needed all the beer on Earth.

Fortunately, it was over “soon enough.” And with that out of the way, I could get to the story proper. An elfin damsel in distress, Alfina, is on the run from some malcontents, and the only one who can save her is the hot-blooded swordsman and fledgling pilot Yuki, who just happens to cross her path. Yeah, we’ve all heard that one before, but I saw it as a means to an end. That relationship was easy enough to see coming (love interest much?), but what really intrigued me was the potential to be had in one of the other characters, Miranda. Otherwise known as Yuki’s mom.

If you asked me to count how many times I’d seen a MOM as an actual party member, I would hold up exactly one finger. Granted, she didn’t look any older than Yuki (maybe she takes really good care of herself?), but the fact remained that it was a role I’d rarely seen. Coupled with some banter between the two and an injection of manliness via gambling sailor Alonso, and I had high hopes.

And the battle system. Holy hell, the battle system.

It was fast-paced. It was strategic. It was flashy. It was everything that Final Fantasy XIII should have been. It offered a different interpretation of the ATB system seen in other games; turn-based, yes, but actions were split into multiple phases. You’d pick an attack, and depending on its strength you’d have to wait a moment to charge and then execute the attack -- and then go into a cooldown time, waiting to reach a ready phase to select another move. Sounds a little silly at first, but there’s a catch: enemies not only followed the same rule, but you could completely cancel out their attacks if you hit them during their charging phase with the right move. And enemies could do the same to you. So on top of being a struggle of managing your HP, MP, and SP, you also had to delegate which of your party members used their slow-but-powerful moves and which members focused on interrupting enemy attacks. To say nothing of the fact that -- with the right preparations mid-battle -- you could air juggle your enemies into dust, almost as if you’re playing Tekken with swords.

It was a deep, but interesting system. More importantly, there was just so much energy involved in the affair. I enjoyed the sounds of war; ignoring the fact that Yuki was voiced by Power Rangers alum Johnny Yong Bosch (and reading his lines with mass amounts of hot-blooded conviction), the music was snappy and psyched you up. Magic attacks weren’t just “fireball, fireball column, really big fireball”; you could shoot out dozens of flaming sparrows, send a searing wall of flame through the battlefield, or nuke the shit out of your foes.

I lapped it up like a cat slurping milk from a saucer. Awesome fights. Miranda and Alonso. The prospects of a new world to explore at my fingertips, and all the magic I could ever want just waiting to be equipped. I dug in my heels; I’d see this story through to the end. I was ready. I was waiting. I was hyped.

And then the plot happened.

Miranda comes to realize -- through Alonso’s suggestion, and a few poignant cutscenes -- that Yuki can take care of himself. With Alfina’s mission as a communicator -- a liaison to the guardian spirits -- in need of attending to, Yuki soldiers on with the priestess by his side. Ultimately, the mother decides to let the son take to the sky in his new plane without her; he’ll make his way in the world without hesitation. The sky’s the limit, as they say. And so, Miranda bids Yuki farewell, agreeing to sail with Alonso -- but before Yuki can take to the skies, he calls back “I love you, Mom!” It’s an utterly heartwarming scene, and a signal of even better things to come.

Except they don’t. You never get to see Miranda and Alonso again. Referenced? Sure, albeit very briefly. Seen? Nope. Mentioned? What, you think that a mother-son relationship is actually meaningful? Pssshaaaaaaaaaw!

It’s right around this time where two major flaws in Grandia III’s story start to rear up. The first problem is that, while other RPGs -- and fiction in general -- feature character arcs that span the start of a story to its end, Grandia III doesn’t. Sure, Yuki wanted to be a pilot with a spiffy plane and meet his hero, but those are both resolved just before you part ways with Miranda; flying and the sky become less of an experience and more of a way to get to the next dungeon. Miranda and Alonso are done; the former’s character arc is about letting Yuki leave the nest (har har) and the latter has a plot where he learns that his actions have consequences (stop gambling!), but that’s it. You get two new party members, hungry beast-man Ulf and improbably buxom enchantress Dahna, but their plots are resolved, for the most part, shortly after meeting them. Ulf has some issue with his clan and dragon-riding, and Dahna’s become a nihilist thanks to the souring luck of her village and her MIA lover Raven (who you meet regularly), but that’s it. They don’t even appear in most cutscenes. Hell, I’m just having a hard time remembering their story arcs, much less any impact they might have had.

It just goes to show that issue: the game HAS arcs. The problem is that they end way too quickly. Ulf has a problem! Here, let’s help! Ulf makes a stand! Problem solved, lesson learned! Yuki has a dream! Oh, but he’s got a problem! Don’t give up, Yuki! Problem solved, dreams realized! Nothing challenges their characters or motives anymore; no foils, no disagreements with foes, no inner conflict -- in their minds, and rarely amongst one another (though that’s probably just a consequence of Ulf and Dahna being little more than party member stand-ins)…it feels so empty.

But it’s not. The game tries to give you something -- some impetus to continue the story, and see it through to the finale. It tries to give you characters, and a world, worth caring about. It tries so very, very, hard…and it stands as an utter failure that produced one of my most hated video game characters ever.

Say hello to Alfina.

We all know the type. The white mage. The mysterious waif with a mysterious hidden power (often a princess, though not in this case). The love interest. The gentle girl who smiles when there’s something to be happy about -- like nature or friendship -- and cries when things get rough. You’ve seen that archetype a hundred times by now; it had varying levels of blandness or annoyance, but there were at least a few positive traits to help keep things in line. Final Fantasy X’s Yuna is a fine example; once you accept that it’s her story -- suck that down, Tidus -- you get a character with myriad responses and transformations, showing just what it’s like to be the chosen one.

Alfina is like a poor man’s Yuna. For comparison’s sake, I made this handy little chart.

I’m not saying that Yuna was a perfect character, but compared to Alfina she might as well be. At least Yuna didn’t cry in every other cutscene. At least Yuna had a personality besides “wide-eyed goodness.” At least Yuna was capable of thought and reason. Alfina is an abyss of a character, one that takes everyone else’s potential for a story arc or contribution to the overall game and sucks it right up. After Miranda and Alonso leave, the story focuses entirely on her; the problem is that because Alfina then begins spending all her time moping about, trying and failing to protect the guardian spirits, trying and failing to get her brother Emellious to stop being such a twat about things that the game’s tone shifts. No longer is it peppy and full of hope. No longer is it charming. It just becomes one cutscene after another, confirming “yep, things are getting bad” and “oh look, Alfina’s crying! Look how much emotional turmoil the rebellion of her brother has caused! FEEL EMOTION FOR HER!” It’s needlessly morose.

I wish I could find some sort of defense for her, but I can’t -- which just illustrates a bigger problem with her as a whole. I don’t remember a single thing about Alfina. I remember details about her character, but ask me to name some distinct part of her and I’d turn into a sputtering mess. All I can recall is my frustration one afternoon when, while watching another middling cutscene, I lost it. “STOP CRYING!” I yelled. “YOU ALREADY CRIED! YOU CRIED IN THE LAST CUTSCENE! YOU CRY IN EVERY CUTSCENE! THAT’S ALL YOU EVER DO!” I literally yelled that, mind; my brother can attest to that. If all I can remember is how much of a pain in the ass a character is -- yet remember how interesting a character is from a game I played years earlier -- then that’s a bad character.

But I was stuck. I had some perverse need to finish the game. I had to do what my brother couldn’t; I had something to prove. But just as the story fell apart before the first disc was done, so too did the gameplay. Yes, even the battles.

Eventually you start to realize there’s a fatal flaw in the battle system: you can’t move your characters as you see fit. They’ll automatically move into positions when they finish casting/attacking, but other than that you don’t have a shred of control over them. It doesn’t matter much at first…but it DOES when enemies start taking advantage of this little fault. There are little guys who lay down bombs before you even get a chance to choose your move; by the time you’re ready to strike, the bomb explodes, saps half your health, and cancels out your attack. And you fight as many as six of the critters at once.

Then there are the tentacle monsters. They’re a cross between Mewtwo and Hojo’s final form from Final Fantasy VII -- and you often have no hope of beating them. They’re insanely fast, insanely strong, and can wreck your party before they’ve even drawn their weapons. And often, you’ll fight them while fighting off the bomb critters. And often, you’ll have to deal with enemies that summon more enemies, and can continue to interrupt your attacks. And often, you’ll find enemies that can not only nuke you, but hit you with status effects in the same breath. All the while, they’re taking advantage of your non-ability to move (both on the field and when using abilities) until you game over. And over. And over. And over.

It all comes to a head with the last boss. He can attack you three times before you even get your second move in. His damage output is huge. He’s got an insane amount of HP. But most of all, he has “Death Knell,” an attack which lets him lay down a platform of darkness below a character’s feet. It’s set to detonate after a short while. If you can somehow use a move to get your character out of that platform, it’ll go off without hurting you. If you can’t, they’re pretty much screwed. If you can get them to attack, move out of the circle, then watch as they waltz right back into the circle, then you’ll find yourself resisting the urge to throw your TV through a wall.

Oh well. At least there are sidequests, right? Oh wait, no there aren’t.

Oh well. At least there are minigames, right? Well, there’s some gambling that you can don at one location, but…no, no there aren’t.

Can I at least go flying around the world, discovering new loca -- nope.

You can’t do anything. You just take your miserable cast of characters from one point on the map to another, watching piddling cutscenes, and engaging in increasingly meaningless and depressing battles until you reach the next cutscene/boss battle. You go on and on and on, until you kill your way to the last boss -- a typical “destroy everything!” superbeing -- and get your ending. It was Final Fantasy XIII before Final Fantasy XIII.

Your reward for beating the last boss? Seeing Yuki and Alfina married, and with a child who loves flying. All to the majestic chords of “In the Sky.”

As soon as I finished the game, I threw it back in the case and never touched it again.

You know, it’s funny. JRPGs get a lot of flak these days -- they’re clichéd, they’re boring, they’re childish, they’re catering to moe fetishism and otakus, blah blah blah. I disagree; while they’ve got issues, I dare you to name a genre that doesn’t. My reasonable defense is a result of my almost-blind love of the genre back then, when I figured they could do no wrong. They were perfect masterpieces, emblems of art, culture, and of course storytelling.

And then I played Grandia III. Disappointment? Yes. But in a way, I suppose I should thank it. It taught me the importance of a good story -- how just a few faults can destroy your entire product. It showed me that even the genre I loved wasn’t invincible. And most of all, it taught me how much I could hate a single song.

“TO MAKE YOUR WISHES ALL COME TRUE.” Damn. I need several dozen drinks.

- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012

Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
My Troper profile
My Facebook page
My Twitter thingamajig

I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe