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by Ethos

The Final Fantasy Awards: Best Story – Riddles

Friday, April 9th, 2010

FFVIIboxartRiddles’ Pick: Final Fantasy VII

Hey, look who won again! But yet again, there was no way I could give this award to any other game. Final Fantasy VII tells the most complex, character-driven story of the entire series. There are many different reasons why I think it’s the best, and I’ll do my best to explain a few of them here.

First and foremost, I’d like to point out that Final Fantasy VII features the greatest villain of the series. I know my partner Ethos in particular will disagree with me, but allow me to explain: In no other game is the emotional connection between the villain and protagonist established as strongly as it is in VII. Through various flashbacks, we see Sephiroth before his dark days begin. We see flashbacks of his relationship with Cloud, and the tragedy that befalls them both. Sure, Cloud mucks up the memories pretty badly – but the point is that Sephiroth is extremely important to the game as both a character, and as a concept – the goal that keeps Cloud moving, desperate to uncover the truth behind his past and himself. And, as we all know, he ends up being quite a bit “closer” to Sephiroth than he figured.

The relationships between the characters of Final Fantasy VII all have an air of tragedy to them; Sephiroth is only a singular example. Take Cloud and Tifa, for example: until the truth is finally revealed by Sephiroth at Gaea’s Cliff, she spends the game in utter confusion as her childhood friend Cloud talks about his past as one of Shinra’s SOLDIERS – a past she knows never happened. But, due to her own confusion over the tragic Nibelheim events, and out of a misguided desire to protect Cloud perhaps, she says nothing.

Perhaps the most tragic of all, though, is Cloud’s connection to Zack, the man who’s identity Cloud stole. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is the only product in the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII” that offers a strong narrative supplement to the main game. Advent Children was more visual spectacle than anything else, and Dirge of Cerberus was a mess that should have never existed  - but Crisis Core tells a prequel story that not only enhances the Final Fantasy VII experience in every way, but stands on its own as an emotionally gripping tale. In this, the story of Zack Fair is finally told in full – and we finally see firsthand the tragic events that culminate in the burning of Nibelheim, and finally, Zack’s death.

Characters aren’t the only reason this game’s narrative is so enjoyable, though. Final Fantasy VII just a hell of a ride. The opening bombing mission instantly draws the player into the struggle, and unlike Final Fantasy XIII, is a GOOD example of how to utilize In Media Res. The Shinra Building break-in is where things really take off, and the motorcycle escape sequence – while gimmicky – will always be pure awesome in my eyes. The flashback sequence in Kalm, when Cloud first recounts his “past” with Sephiroth, is absolutely chilling, and remains one of my favorite story sequences of any RPG. (If I recall correctly, back in the day I actually recorded the entire thing on a VHS tape so I could watch it again and again.)

I could continue this shameless nerdgasming for hours. But in all fanboyism aside, Final Fantasy VII is simply a strongly-told story. The characters are strong, their goals are compelling. Strong themes of identity struggle and self-loathing are prevalent throughout.  There are enough bombastic, thrilling plot twists to satisfy, but the game never loses sight of the real struggle – which is between the characters, and in some cases, in the minds of the characters.

Runner Up: Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X is the only Final Fantasy that approaches the narrative depth of VII, in my opinion – and, to be sure, it’s a fantastic tale. Every character is a strong one, and their connections to eachother are beautifully developed over the course of the game. Yuna and Tidus were almost a fantastic love story – but as we’ve been over before, they didn’t quite make it there. The whole Evil Villain Father thing has been overdone, sure, but it works pretty well in Final Fantasy X. The same can be said about the Big Evil Religion, but again, Final Fantasy X manages to execute these fairly cliched concepts with grace. That’s a testament to how strong the characters are, and how effectively the game draws you into the world of Spira.

Dishonorable Mention: Final Fantasy X-2

Aaaand, a few short years later, along came Final Fantasy X-2 to take a massive shit on everything Final Fantasy X was, and everything it stood for. One of the strongest themes of Final Fantasy X was that, simply, of sacrifice – in fact, this theme was so prevalent that even during the game’s emotionally charged ending, not everyone was left entirely happy. But then, a few years later, Yuna embarks on (essentially) a quest to have her cake and eat it too. There are no strong themes in Final Fantasy X-2, unless you count “Girl Power.” There are no good characters, unless you count mildly degrading Japanese female stereotypes. Oh, and the plot makes no fucking sense at all. Let me get this straight: Shuyin and Lenne are two ancient people who just… look… like Tidus and Yuna? WHO GIVES A FUCK?!

The Final Fantasy Awards: Best Music – Ethos

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

ffixEthos’ Pick: Final Fantasy IX

As FFVII begins to sweep Riddles’ awards, IX is starting to do the same for me. Although VII is still winning overall on account of all the 2nd places I’m awarding it.

Anyway, while this is an easy choice for me, it needs saying that I adore Uematsu’s work from FFVI through IX. In fact, somewhat ironically, my top three Nobuo tracks are probably One Winged Angel, Terra’s Theme, and Vincent’s Theme, and by far my favourite piano collection is the one from Final Fantasy VIII. Still, when it comes to the entire soundtrack, IX is the irrevocable winner.

Not only is Final Fantasy IX Nobuo’s favourite and most ambitious soundtrack, but it is his most varied and musically impressive. While VIII suffered from too much repetition of really strong tracks, and FFVII doesn’t finish with the same strength that it started with, Final Fantasy IX is bursting with track after track of mood and history. Drawing from his impressive work with VII and VIII, Uematsu added a certain rich charm that isn’t really similar to any of his other work except occasionally VI. In fact, one of the soundtrack’s rare pitfalls is that there is almost too much music. One of my favourite pieces is long, complex and beautiful, but it’s easy to miss half of the entire cue just by playing at a normal pace. And then Zidane – the main character, mind you – only has his theme song played once as well throughout the entire experience.

Still, there is bombastic stuff that would make John Williams jealous, melancholy moments that could make Philip Glass weep, and impeccably suitable and memorable tracks at every single turn. As a music lover and piano player, nothing is more inspiring and mind-blowingly impressive as Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy farewell. He would still go on to write some decent stuff for FFX, but he left his heart with IX, and it’s incredibly obvious.

Runner Up: Final Fantasy VII
While VIII has some of the series’ most beautiful tracks, the OST doesn’t extend beyond what you can hear on the Piano Collections, and that’s simply not true for the other PSX titles. If Final Fantasy VII continued to be as strong throughout as it started, there’s a good chance I’d be agreeing with Riddles for the number one spot too. The first few hours in Midgar are stunning. Somehow the music manages to mix dark and gritty with innocent hope, reflecting the mood of the city perfectly. And while I agree with Riddles that the OST doesn’t have any duds, per se, it doesn’t continue in that flawless form until One Winged Angel explodes onto the speakers much later on. While I believe that Uematsu used VI as a leaping point to start hitting his stride, I don’t think VII was able to use themes as effectively, be as emotionally varied or as musically impressive as IX. Still it remains an absolutely outstanding soundtrack.

Dishonourable Mention: Final Fantasy X-2

I want to call out FFIII here, but I could never knock an Uematsu soundtrack like that. XII was too epic and XIII had some huge duds, but I’m with Riddles on this too. I actually found a lot of X-2 catchy, but it was never good, and it’s definitely the worst of the series overall. Plus, just…just watch that opening cutscene…

The Final Fantasy Awards: Best Music – Riddles

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

FFVIIboxartRiddles’ Pick: Final Fantasy VII

Huh boy, here comes the sweep.

It was frankly difficult to decide between VII and VIII in this case, but again, VII edges it out for being the stronger overall package. Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack is packed with not simply good, but excellent pieces. And, there are very few stinkers – if any – to offset them. The most impressive aspect of the soundtrack, though, is how incredibly well – suited it is to the events, tone, and atmosphere of the game. There’s not a single track out of place. Every environment theme is spot-on. Every character theme fits them with perfection. Every special boss theme, be it Jenova or the One-Winged Angel himself, sets the tone of the struggle expertly. I’m hardly a musical critic, but I can call a strong videogame soundtrack when I hear one – and Final Fantasy VII’s is one of the strongest.

Runner Up: Final Fantasy VIII

The reason why I love Final Fantasy VIII’s music so much is because Uematsu took the somber tones of Final Fantasy VII and mellowed them out. The result is one of the more ambient Final Fantasy soundtracks in existence, as well as one of the most peaceful. It’s not quite as atmospheric as Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack was, but it still shines in many areas – Compression of Time is one of the moodiest environment themes in the series, and The Extreme one of the greatest final boss themes. Uematsu himself may think that Final Fantasy IX epitomizes his work, but I must respectfully disagree.

Dishonorable Mention: Final Fantasy X-2

Jesus, where do I even begin on this one? I suppose I’ll write something positive: Final Fantasy X-2 has a few excellent tracks. There are some pretty piano themes, and I’ll admit to liking the lyrical song 1000 Words. But, aside from those few gems, the soundtrack is almost complete shit. Overly-poppy and upbeat, with no memorable melodies, just a bunch of nonsensical noises and effects that sound more fit for a porno than a videogame.

The Final Fantasy Awards: Best Cast – Riddles

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

FFVIIboxartRiddles’s Pick: Final Fantasy VII

I get the feeling that Final Fantasy VII might be winning a lot of the remaining awards for the week. Hrm. Oh well.

Final Fantasy VII’s cast of characters is still my favorite of any videogame I’ve ever played. Cloud, Tifa and the gang are all like old friends to me. Sure, a lot of it’s nostalgia, but the reason why Final Fantasy VII’s cast is so excellent is because of the complex relationships between the characters. Cloud’s connection to Sephiroth, for example, or the mysterious Vincent’s connection to Shinra’s Professor Hojo. Every character, even supporting characters like Reno and Rude of the Turks, plays a part in the game’s heavily character-driven story, and that’s what makes them all so very memorable.

My personal favorite scene from Final Fantasy VII is when a sick, wheelchair-bound cloud falls into the lifestream. There, with the help of his childhood friend Tifa, he attempts to piece together his shattered past, and finally determine who he really is. Powerfully character-driven sequences like this are what really sets this game apart from the crowd, even to this day. Or, at least, in my mind it does.

Runner Up: Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI has the largest cast ever featured in a Final Fantasy game. However, it’s not numbers alone that make this cast so good – aside from a few incidental additions to the party, every one of these characters manages to have a distinct, memorable personality, as well as a unique role in the game’s fantastic story. Truth be told, VI and VII are practically neck-to-neck in my book.

Dishonorable Mention: Final Fantasy X-2

When considering who to shame for this category, I considered games like Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V, and even Final Fantasy XII. But the former two are much older games, so they’re easily forgiven. And Final Fantasy XII’s characters may be somewhat flat, but at least (for the most part) they have good personalities – which is more than I can say for X-2. Air-headed females, senseless villains, and random people from the past compose the players of Final Fantasy X-2. And it’s pretty much as a bad as it sounds.

The Final Fantasy Awards: Best Battle System – Ethos

Monday, April 5th, 2010

wht_PS3_keyart_22_r04-80.inddEthos’ Pick: Final Fantasy XIII

Hey! Whaddya know? FFXIII cashed in on one of its very rare chances to win one of these awards. It has one other chance, but I’m not crossing my fingers.

I obviously feel differently about FFXIII’s battle system than Riddles, but that’s the joy of this series and these awards. While I agree with scattered complaints about the system – namely that the AI doesn’t always quite do exactly what you want – I still maintain that it’s an incredibly crafted system. It’s the only RPG (not just Final Fantasy) that fully draws me into all facets of its mechanics. While the action is super-flashy and fast-paced, I actually felt like a commander in the battles. Sitting up high and directing the flow of battle. Never before has quick victories or defeats felt so deserved. Excepting some really fucking stupid instant death spells that very few late game enemies have, every twist and turn is directly in my hands. The added pressure of fast completion times force quick strategic thinking and adaptability. In other games, I can just level-grind and plow through anything, but while this is marginally the case in FFXIII, stronger weapons enforce quicker completion times (not scaling enemies, thankfully), and thus a non-stop need to win battles as quickly as possible. And yes, the ranking is that important. TP skills are very useful, and rare loot drops are even more useful, and a high ranking is essential to both.

But even dismissing the satisfying sense of urgency and post-battle rewards, balancing the need to enhance, defend, or heal your party with the need to sabotage, attack, or distract your enemy combined with the vast benefits of raising and maintaining the chain gauge make for a perpetually satisfying user-powered experience. Fighting the same enemies over and over will even help to reveal new strategies for different fights.

Final Fantasy XIII is the best organization of all the skills and strategies of the past Final Fantasy games placed into a single near-flawless battle system. It is the one saving grace of nearly the entire main story portion of the misguided game, and I hope it’s not the only time such a system is implemented.

Runner Up: Final Fantasy X-2

While I agree with pretty much everything Riddles said about Final Fantasy X’s system (though not with his assessment of FFVII, none of the PSX games challenge the top systems at all in my book), the game’s controversial sequel edges it out in this category for me. Much like FFXIII, X-2 is a game with a lot of brilliant ideas surrounded by a “what the fuck?” casing. I suppose this should come as no surprise as my runner up since it’s the closest the ATB system could get to FFXIII’s system. The battle system alone is the biggest reason I’ve played through this ridiculous weirdness of a game almost twice total. Tied with its predecessor.

Dishonourable Mention: Final Fantasy II

I’d like to call out III here just because I hate that game, but it doesn’t have the worst battle system. I actually kinda like Final Fantasy II, and I found its stupid battle system amusing (I didn’t know the talk about it, I figured out how to attack myself on my onesies), but there’s no denying that it IS stupid. It was a kinda cool thought that turned out horribly, horribly stupid. Did I mention it’s stupid? A little dumb too.