“Oh don’t you worry DISSIDIA 012 [duodecim] FINAL FANTASY” I say after the long (but appreciated) data install’s just finished and I’m now going through the pre-game setup questions “I can still remember spending some time with the original… w-well over a, um, over a decade ago… I’m sure I’ll be absolutely fine diving back in with the full-on Action Style controls.” The game dutifully gave me exactly what I’d asked for, and the immediate aftermath of that unjustifiably confident decision was far too much time wasted clumsily running around in circles, mashing buttons in the vain hope of causing some damage, and realising I had no clue whatsoever what anything did. The numbers, the gauges, the way hitting the other person sometimes-but-not-always hurt them… I was a fish so far out of water I may as well have been a shark on the moon. But all games are like that if you’ve been away for a while aren’t they? All I had to do was stick at it until the cobwebs blew away and I’d be air-dashing with the best of them. That was the plan, anyway: Unfortunately for me things did not improve during the opening taster sessions and once those had been pushed aside I was just as terrible in any other mode with any other character. I wasn’t expecting this. I’m not even halfway decent at fighting games by any measure but those offbeat PlayStation-era entries in the genre – the Psychic Forces, Tobals, and Bushido Blades of the gaming world – have always been my cup of tea. Dissidia 012 really shouldn’t feel this unwieldy, especially as it’s the sequel to a game I know I’ve already played… but it is. It’s not even difficult in the usual losing-all-the-time sense, it’s plain incomprehensible: I feel as though I’ve missed all the memos, the game making only slightly less sense than a bicycle made of cheese.
Thoroughly humbled, I put the game back on the shelf and carried on with my regularly scheduled weirdness until there was nothing else left on my “to play” pile (this is a very carefully curated stack of games and most definitely not “Some neat thing I spotted on the shelf the other day” combined with “Whatever dropped through the post box last month”, oh no) and I knew I had no choice but to give it another go. Still painfully aware of the gigantic mess I made of it all last time, I decided to go with the mysterious “RPG Style” combat option – the surely unworkable mode that presents you with a little Move/Attack/Special/Defend list of commands in the corner to use in real-time – purely because if I was that bad playing it “properly” then this has got to at least make me look awful in a different way.
Strangely enough it turns out RPG Style, the setting that largely leaves the finer moment-to-moment concerns as well as all of that mind-bending movement up to an AI that’s actually trying to win despite my best efforts to throw a spanner in the works, is definitely My Thing and I finally, slowly, start making something that might even be generously considered progress. It may be so different from the Action Style that caused me all that trouble earlier I can’t use it as a sort of “training wheels” warm up to help me make the leap to full control, but on the other hand by being a true alternative rather than a watered-down version of the “real” thing it has enabled me to play a game that would’ve otherwise lost me once again amongst its finger-twisting button combinations and too-innovative-for-me aerial movement system – and now I’m free from the overwhelming nature of Dissidia’s fast-paced three-dimensional arena combat I can concentrate on getting overwhelmed by the rest of the game instead.
Wait, that wasn’t supposed to happen.
But is does. There’s just so much of it: Story and arcade modes, character levels, equipment, abilities, summons, assists, the shop, the other shop, the overworld moogle shop (story mode only), there seems to be a new currency or type of point accumulated or some happy little chocobo popping in every time I sneeze, some things happen on specific days of the real-world week, oh and let’s not forget MogNet mail, unlockable music, stages, alternative costumes, alternative alternative costumes, DLC costumes, the separate prologue, or the prequels and sequels jostling for attention amongst stories within stories… Not a damned thing’s simple – even the arcade-y “Just pick some characters for me and we’ll fight wherever the heck you like” option takes a few clicks to get to – so in a fit of something only slightly short of utter desperation I decided to plough ahead with the story mode and pretend everything else doesn’t exist. The game’s plot admittedly didn’t do a fantastic job of drawing me in: Dissidia takes its (literally) loopy storyline very seriously even though we all know we’re just here to see what happens when someone like Shantotto gets to fight Zidane (or any other match up of your choosing), a fact not helped by the first chapter’s focus on a protagonist I am deeply indifferent to – Lightning. Still, story mode had given me one specific thing to be getting on with and the walled-off single player nature of it all helped to dispel any notion that RPG Style was “wrong” or somehow inconveniencing an imaginary Player Two as nobody other than my PSP would have to tolerate my amateurish button bashing. And so I kept at it, through Lightning, then Vaan’s, then Laguna’s chapters… and by that point I realised something magical had happened – Dissidia had started making sense. It had stopped being a tidal wave of familiar terms used in unfamiliar ways or a million different things to keep track of and just became a glorious fountain of never-ending content, as if I’d been let loose in a happy handheld Final Fantasy theme park.
I still haven’t moved away from RPG Style’s command system but now I don’t want to: I’m – and yes I realise how baby-level what I’m about to say is – doing things on purpose, actually winning, and not wondering what the heck’s going to happen when the words “Brave Break” or another gorgeous summon illustration appears on-screen. I’m not, y’know, good, or making the right decisions all the time, but I do feel like I’ve finally cracked the crispy outer shell and from here on in there’s nothing but sweet Final Fantasy goodness all the way to the game’s gooey centre (I may have been munching on snacks when I wrote this). I’m now taking breaks so I can browse the PP catalogue and save up for things (Vaan’s Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 outfit was my first big purchase) and all in all I’m having a fantastic time. I’ll never clear it I’m sure, but now I’m enjoying what’s there: So much so that when the story foisted Yuna upon me, a character I honestly couldn’t give a monkey’s about in either her summoner or later pop idol form, I actually enjoyed myself and thought her array of summon-based attacks (naturally) were a lot of tactical fun to use – to the point I was genuinely disappointed when her chapter ended and the storyline handed me Lightning again. I’d learned to appreciate the game not as a Final Fantasy Fan Festival (no, not that one), but as Dissidia in is own right. It’s such a fabulous showcase of the PSP’s strengths too; keeping track of the day and date, optionally importing saves, installing data for faster loading, and a significant quantity of free, promotional, and paid-for DLC – the game uses every bit of what made Sony’s handheld so forward-thinking at the time to its fullest extent, taking a game already brimming with premium-quality content and features and then sprinkling just that magical little touch of something more on top.
And I’d have missed all of this if the game hadn’t let me play “RPG style”.