A Brief History of Ivalice - Part One

To the uninitiated, Ivalice may sound like an Italian bemoaning a nasty hair infestation, but those more accustomed to Yasumi Matsuno's vision will know it is a mainstay in Final Fantasy folklore as the series' most oft recurring backdrop for all sorts of magical adventures.

European gamers weren't officially introduced to Ivalice until June 2000 and even then, could have been excused for missing the link altogether in Squaresoft's, Vagrant Story. However, if like me you had shot your load over Final Fantasy VII and were desperate to be reunited with Aeris and Cloud, you either chipped your Playstation or ran a PSX emulator on your PC to play the 1997 release, Final Fantasy Tactics (later re-released on PSP as Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions in 2009) and took your first steps into Ivalice.

What has followed since is a series of games which have left fans scratching their heads as to how the locations and the timelines all fit together. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, released for GBA is the only game we can write out of the timeline altogether as it is set in St. Ivalice, a fictional location in the real world. Upon opening the Gran Grimoire, Marche and co are transported to the realm of Ivalice which is in fact a representation of a Final Fantasy game from Mewt's memory. However, the Gran Grimoire does feature in other titles. More on that later.

So Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift are all set in the same Ivalice as Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics and supposedly, each story is geographically quite close to the other.

Let's start with Final Fantasy XII as it is the first game to occur within the Ivalice timeline:

We can see the continent of Valendia, in the north, where Vagrant Story takes place, Ordalia to the west (the neighbouring Kingdom to Ivalice in Final Fantasy Tactics - or so they'd have you believe!) and Kerwon to the south. This map is expanded on in Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, with the introduction of Lemures - the floating continent and refuge of Feolthanos and the Aegy - and areas such as the Glabados Ruins and Roda Volcano which are further to the west of the Ordalia continent than you can travel in FFXII.

The below is a kindly internet person's approximation of how the Revenant Wings map (the next title in the timeline) fits into the FFXII map. The clouds do make this quite annoying but hopefully you get the idea.

So next up is Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift and in terms of piecing this lot together on a larger map, is where the first problem arises. This is set in a completely unexplored region of Ivalice, firstly on the far western tip of Ordalia and then taking you on a journey to the Loar continent bizarrely all under the umbrella region of Jylland.

Now...if you can show me where this fits on to the overlaying map of Ivalice as seen here...

...then you have truly missed your calling as a cartographer. Confusingly, the blue is land, not sea. More confusingly, the new region may not even be on this map. Annoyingly, it may be staring me right in the face but my eyes are hurting too much to see it.

Well, then things go a bit (more) skewy...when you try and throw the Final Fantasy Tactics map into the mix it damn well refuses to fit. More confusion as it references Ordallia, a variation on the spelling of Ordalia but well...ok, it is set after the Cataclysm which has presumably wiped out every race except for the Humes so Glabados only knows what it did to the landscape. There's no way this fits in with the geographical location of Ordalia on the map above so if we are to believe it is in the same world, then either the cataclysm was a cataclysm in every sense of the word or FFT is set in an area of Ivalice not covered by the above map.

Until Square Enix release some kind of Ultimania for Ivalice to clear this all up for people like me (and you if you got this far) the geography of Ivalice is something which will remain riddled with inconsistencies and unanswered questions. We all know SE love a riddle though and they love being coy on matters of intrigue within their treasured IP (see FFVII PS3 remake rumours) so I wouldn't be at all surprised if all this remains a mystery. Cheers guys.

In part two, I'm going to have a closer look at the timeline and characters of the series. Should be up at some point next week. However if it's as mind-boggling as the geography I may well start playing my recently acquired Illusion of Time game, blindfolded, while someone trains a hairdryer on my testicles as it would probably be less challenging.


Mainlining Final Fantasy

This past week I've loaded up my gaming syringe with a massive dose of Final Fantasy, smacked a vein with my seasoned shoulder button mashers and injected more brand love into my lifestream than ever before. With Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light being practically glued into my DS and a newfound scary obsession with building a PC capable of housing Final Fantasy XIV it's only now that I've started to come down from my hi-potion rush. I've gained perspective and I'll tell you why...

Despite the shiny new MMO and another DS spinoff, it's something less recent which has captured my imagination this week. Final Fantasy XIII. It has been sitting unloved and unappreciated on my gaming rack since February. Occasionally, I'd dipped into it, indulging my long-standing addiction, but for the most part I had found myself deterred by so many people I know who felt disenfranchised with the linearity and lack of open world exploration, the combat system and the common gripe that you have to commit 20 hours to it before it got good.

The impression I had was that FFXIII was Final Fantasy cut with asprin. Good, but ultimately, impure.

I decided this weekend that as a frequently relapsing addict, I would find a reason to ignore every single criticism that had been levelled at my gaming vice. I would fall off the wagon and I would do it in style.

So on Saturday (and indeed Sunday...and much to the umbrage of my long suffering girlfriend) I embarked on an eight hour binge through Cocoon to quell these fears of linearity and boredom. Before I knew it, I was intoxicated once more by the level of the detail and the scale of the narrative and left wondering what everyone's problem was?

In terms of linearity, this is the direction the series has been going in for a long time. Final Fantasy X presented fans with the most linear iteration of the series at the time of launch forcing players through long 'tunnels' of storytelling before presenting an 'open-world' in an unusually closed off manner. There was no wandering around a world map and global exploration was limited to secret areas you could discover with the airship's scanner.

FFXII was a similar case for long tunnels of narrative, but for me the evolution of that formula. As Square Enix became more familiar with the limitations of the technology and how far they could push it, the result was more vibrant and interesting towns and the illusion of more open explorable environments, over 70 hours of side quests and one of the most engaging tales ever told on Playstation 2. Essentially though, it was beginning to look like the convention of an overlaying world map had become a thing of the past.

I would have to concede though, that FFXIII takes tunnelling to a new level. It chews you up for 11 chapters and spits you out on Pulse where you could be forgiven for feeling like you'd inadvertantly landed yourself in a Bear Grylls-esque survival situation thus forced to squeeze Adamantoise shit for moisture and eat raw Flanitor for sustenance to have any chance of making it out alive.

Still, having played as much, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. In most FF games (and indeed most RPGs), you'll do the majority of your side-quests shortly before fighting the final boss. Sure it's nice to have the option to get some out of the way on your playthrough (FFXII catered to this exceptionally well) but does it really matter that much when you do the sidequests providing the option is there? Not to me.

The ATB system. It has evolved constantly throughout the series and despite what many might see as a monotonous and unwelcome overhaul, there is a lot of satisfaction to be gleaned from combat in FFXIII. My biggest criticism of the combat mechanics would be the hand-holdy nature in which it forces you to learn and for the first couple of hours it can become tedious in places. However, the effort ultimately pays off and after 12 hours of playing I found myself seeking fight after fight in an effort to perfect my tactics and score five stars as often as possible.

The ability to switch your party's stance at the touch of a button becomes more engaging with every new skill acquired on the Crystarium. I've become something of a Crystarium junkie, adventuring back through conquered areas to gain points only to spend them with fervour on improving the standing of my heroes. This is complimented by the upgrade system for weapons.

Isn't it about time a JRPG bucked the traditional trend of buy weapon, beat dungeon, reach next town, buy new, better weapon, beat dungeon, reach next town and so on and so forth? I'm not adverse in any way to that mechanic but it's refreshing how the design team opted to be different in this respect.

As for the notion that FFXIII takes 20 hours before it gets going, I fail to see how this is true. I'd say it takes about eight hours and seeing how you can easily spend 80 hours plus playing this game, I'm going to quantify that as 10%. 10% of FFXIII is spent learning the combat system and becoming accustomed to the linearity. Is that such an unreasonable portion of overall gameplay time to spend learning the ropes? Moreover, does FFXIII offer nothing in the way of enjoyment in its first eight hours? You're still treated to the groundwork of another epic storyline, you're blessed with some of the finest visuals seen in a video game to date and you get an introduction to the most creative use of summons magic (in my opinion) ever in the series.

Disregard these words as the mindless witterings of an FF fanboy if you will, but at the heart of Final Fantasy XIII is a fine addition to the series. Not the finest however and only time will tell if Square Enix's next offering proves to be the current gen's FFXII to the previous gen's FFX - if that makes any sense whatsoever. A friend informed me you can pick this up for under £20 now, so if like me you're regularly catting for a heavy dose of Final Fantasy and don't own this already, put your preconceptions aside and pick it up.

Despite all my love for this title, Vanille is still the most annoying character in a video game ever, wresting the crown from FFXs Yuna, and she still runs like Phoebe from friends.

I only wish Sazh had popped a cap in her ass at the end of Chapter 8...