All the world’s a stage

Everyone expects modern MMOs to have a reliable stream of tie-in events, with Square-Enix’s rich, interconnected, and naturally RPG-friendly stable arguably under more pressure than most to mingle its three flagship online games (Final Fantasy XIVFinal Fantasy XI, and Dragon Quest X) with each other, with the wider range of games available under the publisher’s extensive label, and with whatever else someone’s prepared to draw up a contract for at the time. In 2021 these mutually beneficial advertising arrangements reliably cover everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, from fast food promotions to TV show crossovers to the chance to dress up as someone completely unrelated from another company’s game – virtually nothing is off limits so long as it’s handled with crowd-pleasing confidence.

Final Fantasy XIV has had played host to many of these IP-blending scenarios over the course of its eight years of service (notably counting from A Realm Reborn‘s launch date), with one particular connection running much deeper than most – one the game had been flirting with long before it was declared official, and that’s with Yasumi Matsuno’s Ivalice. It’s been going on so long the game has had gear sets resembling classic Final Fantasy Tactics classes and almost the entire continent speaking as though they are auditioning for a bit part in the sadly fictional Vagrant Story 2 since its infamously poor beginning, back when belts were visible, the much-loathed fatigue system deliberately held players back, and the game was by any measure glaringly unfinished. As XIV’s Eorzea has grown so has its nods to Square’s sporadically revisited world of deadly Meteor-casting chocobos, and now you can’t move for Sky Pirates, entire villages of bunny warriors, and enemies lifted almost wholesale from the labyrinths of Leá Monde.

So when the “Return to Ivalice” questline appeared as optional content for XIV’s Stormblood expansion (that’s the second of the three currently available), it came more as a relief than a surprise; finally, finally, they were officially acknowledging all of those little cheeky winks instead of just-so-happening to throw something familiar in again without further comment or any overt links back to the source material.

And that relief was swiftly followed by an overwhelming wave of worry: Ivalice is a world that even those most comfortable with it – even those that invented it – have struggled to tame at times, the demands created by its rich interwoven plotline spanning centuries of political backstabbing and not-so-holy deities would surely leave even then most confident of writers with a monumental headache, and the series’ fondness for doggedly unique mechanics offering unparalleled depth at the high cost of beginner (and often veteran) user friendliness would surely throw up a myriad of insurmountable issues. It’s a setting that thrives on being nothing other than itself even to its own commercial detriment; on attention to detail, subtleties, and long set ups – what could be less suited to a casual crossover jaunt than Ivalice?

Let us, as XIV did, plough on regardless. This sidequest’s plot concerns Alma and Ramza – bas Lexentale, not Beoulve – their father, Jenomis cen Lexentale, and their multi-raid (for the unfamiliar: A raid is a lot like a dungeon, but with waaayyyy more people and the excitement dialled up to eleven) adventure to uncover the truth behind none other than the Zodiac Brave Story. Tactics’ Zodiac Brave Story. All this talk of Ivalice, auracite, and the terrible monsters of old is regarded as nothing more than the stuff of fairy tales by most, but when you happen to be a direct descendant of none other than Orran Durai

And so over the course of many enjoyable cutscenes and some stunning locations you find yourself amongst members of an exiled theatre troupe aboard a reimagining of Final Fantasy IX‘s Prima Vista (unrelated to Ivalice as you know but if a theatre troupe needs convenient transportation then what’s better than their very own airship?), off to the ruins of XII‘s Rabanastre and its Ridorana Lighthouse, then later on forge a path through Tactics’ Orbonne Monastery, doing battle with Mustadio, Cid, Agrias, before finally being judged worthy of taking on Ultima The High Seraph in a spectacular finale. Fran’s in there too, and at the end Ramza – the real one – appears to personally thank you, very special person please keep subscribing, for finally accomplishing what he could not.

This wanton blending of Ivalice’s most memorable highlights could have easily ended up as a cynical checklist of whatever thrown together for the sake of achieving the maximum possible quantity of “I remember that” superficial references per minute in an attempt to achieve maximum Content Engagement™ per commercial property used, but in practise it doesn’t feel that way at all. This is partly because XIV has already had a very real and very public brush with death and seems to truly grasp that its current reputation as a quality title has an ongoing and measurable impact on game’s success – they don’t want to mess this up, even if only because we’ve all seen what happens when they mess this up. And much of the rest is naturally down to Matsuno’s influence as the guest creator – brought in specifically to work on this storyline – his name alone serving as an effective rebuttal to any potential complaints: after all, who could argue with his vision of a reimagined Ivalice? While it’s safe to say he didn’t have complete control over every single detail (who could, or would even want to, in the bewildering and ever-changing landscape of a virtual world under constant renewal?) what’s here expertly treads the fine line between truth and fan service, an experience that never tries to usurp the originals but still feels like an authentic, if alternative, epilogue to a story so many know so well.

The conclusion shows the siblings – today’s Ramza and Alma, named after their once thought mythical ancestors – rehearsing on stage, reciting almost word for word the unforgettable text made famous in Final Fantasy Tactics’ (PSP) intro:

Sword in hand, a warrior clutches stone to breast.
In sword etched he his fading memories.
In stone he tempered his skill.
By sword attested, by stone revealed.
Their tale can now be told!

It’s an incredibly moving scene. To those only familiar with the Zodiac Brave Story through XIV it is a sign of a fresh start for this cursed family, an opportunity for them and for all the ghosts of the past to move on now an old wrong has after far too long been righted. For those familiar with Tactics this moment takes on an almost cathartic quality, the truth free at last even if only in some version of Ivalice, the curtain closing on a story that gave you a precious chance, however brief, to virtually make eye contact with characters you may have spent significant stretches of your life with in decades past.

The camera then pulls away from the spotlit stage and you prepare to go back to what passes for normality in XIV; a love letter to a creator’s work successfully cleared and another thrilling chapter in your Warrior of Light’s life brought to a close.

Meanwhile, in the Clockwork City of Goug, a Judge named Noah van Gabranth surveys the rusted remains before him…

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