Category: Games

Pixelly Remastered

I’ve spent the last few weeks digesting the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters. Square-Enix announced the set of six awhile back without pinning exact release dates on the games, and in spite of the rash of immediate negative comments about certain aspects of the trailer (which seemed to amount to the same “it doesn’t look like the original” comments that have plagued other rereleases over the years), I figured now was as good a time as any to play all six in order.

Only problem is I thought the games would be drip-fed throughout the year so I could fit them all in between other activities like Final Fantasy 14 or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Unfortunately for me, Square-Enix saw fit to drop half of the games all at once, and if I didn’t deal with them more or less immediately, they were destined to fall off the radar. Wouldn’t be the first time that happened either; at one point back in 2019 I had the PSP releases of Final Fantasy 1-3 and a jailbroken PS Vita all lined up and ready to go, and I chased a butterfly for a week and the whole project went on the shelf. So, everything that could go on hold went on hold this time, I installed the games on the new PC I just built a month ago, and got to work.

Enhancements and add-ons found in other releases of the games, like the conversion of spell slots to MP in the PSP release of FF1 or additional dungeons/content found in the Dawn of Souls package on GBA were rolled back in favor of more or less presenting the original games with a new coat of paint and bug fixes. I thought the detail about the spell slots in FF1 was going to irritate me more than it actually did. Ethers are a thing in item shops now, and using one restores one spellcast at all levels. As you can imagine, this does attenuate the game’s difficulty quite a bit, because once you start rolling in money later in the game, it’s nothing to just stack up on ethers and go full blast with your black mage if you want.

The one detail of note in this first drop of games is the fact that Final Fantasy 3 was delivered in its original 2D format this time. This finally closes the loop on the ‘lost’ entry in the series for those of us in the West. We had been blessed with the 3D remakes beginning in 2006, but those came with some challenges. The story goes that the game could only support showing one-third as many enemies on screen as in the original, so the development team saw fit to respond to give enemies triple their HP and in some instances give enemies multiple turns per round. Even in encounters like boss fights, where there was ever only one enemy in the first place! That change was mercifully not kept in the remaster.

That’s not to say all of the boss fights are necessarily cakewalks, either. In all three games, I frequently found them to essentially be a race to see whether I got to the bottom of the boss’s HP before the boss got to the bottom of my resources. In Final Fantasy 3, that came with the added factor of my job selection sometimes having an impact. The game is pretty good about giving hints that you need a particular job in particular situations, like needing dragoons for the fight against Garuda or a scholar against Hein, and if you ignore the hints, you’re going to have problems.

Aside from smoothing out the difficulty, the soundtracks have also gotten a lot of attention for their own re-imaginings which were supervised by the original composer. It might be best just to paste a few examples and hope the Youtube videos don’t get taken down, because the before-and-after comparisons are quite stark.

FF3 – Doga and Unei (original)
FF3 – Doga and Unei (remastered)
FF2 – Pandaemonium (original)
FF2 – Pandaemonium (remastered)

I’m not intentionally ignoring Final Fantasy 2 in this review; Final Fantasy 2 has by far the strongest narrative of the three. It’s just marred by its character progression system that builds stats and effectiveness with spells/weapons based on what actions you take and how often you take them. It’s easy to game if you want, although I’m still confused about how weapon skills are supposed to progress. The max level of any spell or weapon is 16. Maxing out a spell is easy – just keep casting it. Higher levels require more casts (and more MP), but you’ll eventually get there. I got there with Cure just by having one character as a dedicated healer throughout the game. For weapon skills, none of my characters got past level 9. Supposedly the enemy level impacts weaponskill gains, meaning you can’t boost to max level by farming goblins outside the starting town, but even against the toughest enemies in the last dungeon, I rarely saw progress bars move.

All told, all three games are worth everyone’s time and attention. The ‘remaster’ aspect of the games is really pretty great, in spite of folks’ complaints about the font or lack of availability on consoles. But if you’re constrained by time or finances and can only afford to delve into one of them, Final Fantasy 3 would be the recommendation. Seeing this game finally presented in 2D format is nice all on its own, but it also features the greatest depth of gameplay of the bunch, and you can be in and out in under 20 hours.

So far it sounds like Final Fantasy 4 is on deck next in a few days, with the remaining two games still TBD. I just hope that 5 and 6 show up well enough in advance of Endwalker coming out that they can be played through before Endwalker comes out. It’s going to be tough balancing either or both of those games against an MMO expansion that’s essentially going to eat up multiple months to get through.

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New PC build, finally

I missed updating last weekend due to reasons. Nothing really to update anyway.

This weekend however is a different matter, because after six years, I finally have a new PC.

The last time I built, I had settled on an ITX board and case because I was starting to fall out of love with the idea of having a mammoth PC capable of handling anything and everything. My build in 2011 (which I sadly do not seem to have the pictures for anymore) was in a large case, included multiple video cards in SLI, multiple hard drives, and a DVD burner. It was a nice build, but the case was also extremely heavy and the PC as a whole was capable of things that frankly I did not need it to be capable for. I don’t think I ever even burned any DVDs, for example.

So I went small in 2015 with the intent to focus on just the ability to play the occasional game. It served the purpose just fine, but building inside the Fractal Node 304 case was an absolute pain:

  • The case is deep rather than tall, with the mainboard and power supply essentially sitting right next to each other on the floor inside. The board’s SATA ports were facing out from the board right into the power supply, so I had to right-angle connectors and very carefully jam everything together in order to hook up the drives.
  • There was nowhere to cable manage anything, so I ended up with a rat’s nest of cables just hanging out in the area where you’re supposed to mount drives.
  • The board never quite managed booting off of an M.2 drive on a consistent basis; if I cold booted the machine I’d get a bluescreen, but soft resets afterwards would boot just fine.

Then in the intervening years since that build, what I needed out of a PC shifted again as I focused gaming more on consoles and computing more on Macs. That is to say, I didn’t need a PC at all except in the odd occasions where a Steam game was only available on Windows or I needed to do some development work.

So with all those in mind, after thinking about the Steam Deck for a few minutes and deciding I needed something a bit more general purpose, I settled on the following:

The Define Nano S case seemed to have an answer for everything I didn’t like about the Node 304. It’s still an ITX case, but it’s more of a traditional vertical design, so the mainboard and power supply are stacked vertically instead of sitting right next to each other. I’d say that solves the clearance issues I was having with SATA cables, but now the build doesn’t have SATA drives in it so that’s a moot point. But the case does have space for cable management around the back, so I can run things from the power supply behind the tray.

The higher core/thread count on the CPU vs. the Intel Core i5-6600 I used to have is greatly appreciated for the odd weekends when I need to do some development work or spin up some virtual machines for one reason or another. Turns out four cores/four threads just aren’t enough to go around. The Noctua cooler was easy enough to install, and even though the fan is a weird babyshit brown color, it’s going in a case with no windows so nobody can see it anyway.

And speaking of no windows, I’d just like to point out that PC components are getting awfully gaudy now. I built a PC back in 2002 that had a blue lamp on the inside of it, and the novelty of the thing wore off after a couple weeks. Now everything has RGB lighting on it; case fans, graphics cards, memory, mainboards, everything. Even the stock cooler that came with the CPU this time had RGB lighting. Maybe it’s just me getting old, but I really appreciate a solid black box that draws no attention to itself.

The graphics card is actually a holdover from the old build; GPU prices are still too high for me to stomach at the moment. My immediate plans for the PC involve the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters and other games that run fine on older graphics cards, so the need there isn’t quite as dire.

Memory is actually a holdover as well; although I couldn’t solve CPU core count right away when I needed to do some dev work last summer, I could at least solve a lack of RAM by throwing as much as the old board would support at it. 32GB is already quite a lot even for what I was doing, so no plans to throw a 64GB kit in anytime soon.

The two M.2 drives are configured in RAID 0 so they present as a single 500GB drive to the OS. This seems somewhat finicky from what I’ve seen so far. If you don’t load the AMD raid drivers when you install Windows, the OS will instead see the drives individually and treat them as two separate drives. Then when you duck back into the BIOS later, instead of having your one RAID 0 array, you now have three RAID arrays – the one you intended to have, and two more that you didn’t intend to have. But once you sort out how to get everything working, it works. I’m still amused that we can have hard drives that are the size of a stick of gum and that we can mount directly onto the mainboard without needing to run cabling to them. That’s very helpful in keeping the build as clean as possible.

To combat the rat’s nest part of the equation, I opted for a fully modular power supply in this build. Now the only cabling in the case is what’s actually required… except for the second PCI-E lead on the cable used to plug in the GPU. That’s been neatly tucked away though.

At any rate, with the board out on the table and all components plugged in, we have a successful POST, as indicated by the solid white light in the bottom corner:

Doing everything out in the open first is better than mounting all the parts in the case and then discovering there’s a faulty component, or worse, a faulty board.

And here’s everything installed and cable managed into the new case.

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Nierly perfect

A look at the most-attempted failed logins on the site is a pretty good indicator of the need to basically never use default usernames in your application:

Failed logins

Two of the top three were “admin”-type usernames which aren’t even configured in this WordPress install. Funny how that works. Anyways, Wordfence is nice. If someone got my actual username and password, which would be a trip because even I don’t know what the password is (because it’s a randomly generated value saved in password manager) they’d still get stuck on the two-factor authentication and not be able to sign in anyway. Exciting.

Last night I finished Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, which is the actual title of the game. Overall found it to be quite good. The story revolves around a post-apocalyptic world where humans are struggling to get by in the face of dwindling resources and an existential threat from monsters roaming the roads and fields in-between settlements. It’s tough to explain too much more of the plot without giving away the whole thing. The Wikipedia article has a fairly complete rundown of things, though.

The one thing that’s been interesting about the Nier games, both this and Nier: Automata, is the multitude of endings the player can unlock. In Automata, there were twenty-six in total (one for each letter of the alphabet), and many of them are peripheral to the main story. Things like yanking 2B’s OS chip, as helpfully demonstrated here:

Don’t try this at home

It’s a fun ending, complete with blitzing through the credits and admonishing the player not to tamper with an android’s operating system. And, it was actually the detail that prompted me to buy the game originally. I remember seeing an article about it and thinking “oh, I have to see what other fuckery is in this game now”. There was indeed plenty of fuckery to be had, but you don’t need to have it all to get through the main story.

In Replicant, things are much more streamlined – there are only five endings, and all of them are essential to progressing the story:

  • A: Initial completion of the main story; you’ve seen all the major plot points involved.
  • B: Starts from the mid-point of the game; as you play through, you see more cutscenes/dialogue than you did before.
  • C: Same as B, you replay the second half of the game again. There are more cutscenes/dialogue than before, but now the game ends with a choice for you to make, and this ending is the outcome of one of the options presented.
  • D: Branches off from B the same was as C did, but you don’t need to replay the second half of the game – you just reload from the last save before the choice mentioned above and take the other option instead. This ending deletes your save data!
  • E: Start a brand new game after viewing D and having your data wiped; play the first few hours of the game and then the story suddenly branches off into an epilogue that provides the ‘best’ ending in addition to restoring the save data that was previously deleted.

So in total, that’s a complete play-through, two trips through the second half of the game, a reload/rerun of the last dungeon, followed by a few hours back at the beginning again, just to see the whole story. This is what happens when your director is a bit of an arteest.

Yoko Taro

Personally, as enjoyable as the game’s story is, I’d have much preferred to experience it in a single run rather than having to replay significant portions of the game multiple times just to have the gaps filled in. Automata makes this mistake too, as you get stuck in entire arcs of the overall story where the twin-stick shooter minigame becomes a significant component of gameplay. It was my opinion at the time that the minigame isn’t interesting enough to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders (ha, expert-level reference) and I still hold the same view now.

At least the whole thing isn’t too obnoxious. You’re essentially New Game+’ing your way through things, which does speed up the whole operation.

I also wasn’t a fan of how completely inane most of the side quests were. We’re talking dozens of rote, go-here-and-collect-things fetch quests. There are plenty of conversations between the party members that break the fourth wall on this one though; complaining about being the town’s errand boy, wishing there was a way to warp back to the client after doing the thing they ask you to do, that sort of thing. Takes the edge off a bit.

There’s also the connection of this game’s story to the story of Automata, which takes place in the same universe. The Big Reveal late in Replicant is extremely similar to the Big Reveal late in Automata; so much so that no matter which one you play first, the impact of the Big Reveal in other game is going to be dulled significantly. Not that it was bad… just that it gives the feeling of “oh, we’re doing this again”.

The game gets full marks for its soundtrack, though:

Song of the Ancients FOR AN HOUR

So yes, would recommend.

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On the job training

Missed my regular Saturday update yesterday because I thought it would be a good idea to head into work, on a weekend, three days into a five day weekend extended by holiday and PTO, to clean up my office and set up my second bass. I got all that done, but by the time I wrapped up, the reality of holiday travel was in full effect… I couldn’t take the ferry back to Bainbridge Island because the overflow lot was at capacity and they were turning away everyone new who showed up, and the long way around (south out of Seattle, through Tacoma, then back north past Bremerton) was absolutely snarled by traffic. Would have been a nice day for a drive if the drive itself was actually nice, too.

Lately I’ve been working on the Save the Queen content in Final Fantasy 14. Its MMO-within-an-MMO nature has been interesting; there’s a separate leveling system, unique actions, gear bonuses that only apply within content, and a Final Fantasy 12-flavored storyline complete with boss fight music borrowed from the source. Very interesting take on things, with the ultimate reward being a new weapon that will likely have a short shelf life when the next expansion comes out in four months. Such is the nature of these kinds of games.

One of the more unique aspects of Save the Queen is that the game doesn’t really enforce group composition the way it does outside the content. Outside, your four-person dungeons are done with a single tank and single healer; normal raids are a group of eight with two tanks and two healers, and alliance raids are three groups of eight with each having one tank and two healers. In all cases, it’s one healer per four people in the group. But Save the Queen raids don’t place such restrictions on group composition, leading to scenarios where things can be out of balance… like three healers and no tanks, or groups of fewer than eight people…

Or in my case last night, it was a full group with three tanks and one healer.

Things are manageable to start with, even while also covering the raid’s main tank, assuming everyone else knows the content enough not to step in stupid shit. But then the encounter splits into two bosses at the midway point, which means you (and everyone else in the raid) now have to watch for more things than before. To make matters worse, rather than letting another group tank the other boss, a second tank in my group did the honors.

So, to recap:

  • I’m solo healing a group of eight.
  • I’m healing the main tank.
  • I’m now healing the other main tank.
  • I have a lot of shit to dodge.
  • I’ve only done this raid one other time and still don’t know what the hell I’m actually doing.

The results were about as expected… managed somehow, but it was touch and go toward the end.

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Final Fantasy 14’s raids

Another Final Fantasy 14 post for this weekend.

Recently I’ve been getting caught up on the 24-person raid content in the latest expansion. It still amazes/amuses me that raids of this size are so easy to put together in this game. I recall us struggling to get 20 people together for Zul’Gurub raids in World of Warcraft years ago. The mindset seemed to be that you wanted to only raid with people in your guild or in allied guilds, and if you couldn’t cobble together your four groups, you had to spam general chat in the hub towns to pick up random players to fill the gaps. Finding a taker was difficult enough sometimes, and became even more difficult if you needed something that was in higher demand like a tank or a healer.

If memory serves, one of the problems involved with taking random players were that guilds usually had points systems to allocate loot to members over time, and strangers simply don’t fit into that system. If you’re a stranger, either you get preferential treatment as an enticement to join, which is unfair to 95% of the raid who have spent weeks or even months accumulating loot points, or you get nothing at all, which is unfair to you.

The other big problem is that each side is taking a gamble on the skill level of the other. A seasoned raider whose group has the night off would likely be bored with an inexperienced group that hasn’t (or simply can’t) clear things; and an experienced group would be slowed down by taking on a stranger who they have to train. It rarely works out for either side unless there is a mutual investment of time and training in each other.

Working with random players was considered the last resort; and yet, in Final Fantasy 14, everything except the absolute hardest content can be easily accomplished via matchmaking. It seems to me that Square-Enix was essentially able to solve both of the problems described above.

All loot is rolled on equitably (with players participating in the role a drop is designed for receiving higher priority), and in newer content, loot tends to be restricted to one drop a week to prevent players from hoarding the latest and greatest things.

At the high end, drops are even more restrictive – but with just eight people in a group at that tier, it’s much easier to manage getting a consistent group together.

In terms of encounter difficulty, the game tells you, one way or another, everything that’s coming at you – whether it’s an area attack, something your group needs to stack up or split apart for, there are different markers for everything. It’s always been explained as your character having been possessed with the ability to see a brief glimpse into the future. The markers usually display for 3-5 seconds, which actually makes it quite easy to “sight read” new encounters so players have a chance to complete something on their first attempt without spending the entire time face-down. All you have to do is pay attention and be ready to run.

On extremely rare occasions though, this ability just wouldn’t manifest itself and you’d have to read the boss directly to understand what was coming. It’s usually pretty obvious though, like the boss facing one way and raising an arm in the air with the intent to swing in a wide arc directly in front of it.

It seems like the raid content in FF14 has moved towards a middle ground between those two over the years; early on the markers were obvious and would last for quite some time, but as the player base has gradually become more experienced over time, markers in newer content tend to last for maybe a second, so you need to read the boss to understand what’s coming. What this means is that instead of serving as a warning, the markers serve as an educational tool for the newbies (“this is the range of this attack so you know for next time”) or a reminder for others (“this is what you missed”). This means you have to pay far more attention than before, which makes these raids quite exhausting the first few times you do them. But as with all things, once you understand the tells, it gets easier.

And as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, as the healer, getting more familiar with this stuff means I can allocate more bandwidth to helping others recover when they don’t do something correctly.

Here’s gameplay of The Tower at Paradigm’s Breach.

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