I finished the bulk of the story ages ago, and probably could have taken on the final battle without *too* much trouble, but I think my last major dungeon exploration -- the hidden areas of the Great Crystal -- not only helped me prepare in terms of levels (everyone was at least level 59 when I got them there), but it got me a great deal of strategic practice dealing with tough battles, especially in terms of taking on a bunch of tough enemies at once. Bubble is my friend now. As is having my primary melee types (Basch/Balthier) cast a bunch of defensive magic (Haste, Protect, Shell...) before walking into the fray, thereby letting my offensive mages (Fran/Penelo) and defensive mages (Vaan/Ashe, who I pretty much built into paladins) conserve their MP for the fighting. In general, it worked quite well, although the defensive mages had a tendency to run out of MP fairly quickly still. I never did settle on a perfect strategy for dealing with that, nor did I ever find a good source of Hi-Ethers. I do like though, that this game lets you re-build MP as you walk around. Very handy. I did get away from Quickenings as the game progressed, to the point that I didn't use a single one in the final battle. Too much danger of getting munged after using up all the MP, especially since you go into those battles one straight after the next, no chance to heal and recover MP.
I was ready to be done with the sidequests, though, since once past that first rush of exploration in each area, they seem to mostly be about crazy-difficult boss battles that don't earn you much in the way of experience or stuff. Espers, okay, but since I basically never used those, I didn't see much point in investing blood, sweat, and tears into trying to find them all. The hunts are better, since some of those have pretty sweet rewards, but I only managed to beat one level VII mark -- Gilgamesh, and it was totally worth it, just for the cut scene after the battle, and Masamune made a decent weapon for Vaan -- and it probably would have taken hours and hours more leveling to get anywhere with the others. Just not worth it to me. My main goals for this replay, besides of course immersing myself in the world for many hours, and getting another crack at watching the story unfold, was to fully explore Nabudis and get into hidden areas like the back of the Great Crystal, and in this I definitely succeeded. One irritating detail, though, that I wonder if anyone else noticed: if you're too high level by the time you get into some of these areas, do all the good treasures turn into Knots of Rust? It happened in the secret chamber of the Sochen Cave Palace, it happened in the Great Crystal, and I think it also happened in the Lhusu Mines. Very frustrating.
Anyway. Enough complaining about game mechanics; let's talk about the ending.
- The airship battle seems straightforward enough: Vayne wants to take out the entire resistance in one swoop, Larsa is horrified but can't do much about it by himself, Ondore has put all of the resistance's eggs in this one basket and is not about to back down now. One question that has not been answered to my satisfaction: where were the Rozarrians in all this? Fleet on the way, or being bothered by other Archadian forces? The final cease-fire announced by Larsa, Ashe, and "Gabranth" doesn't involve Rozarria at all, and I have to wonder how they felt about the resolution. I have a lot of open questions about Rozarria, really. I still wish the game had developed Rozarria better, and given us a chance to visit.
- Brotherly reunion: this thread was wrapped up quite well, I think, with all of Basch and Noah's unfinished business hashed out, first in battle, then on Noah's deathbed. (Do we know which of the twins is older? My money is on Basch, but it could go either way, really.) Unlike other last-minute Final Fantasy conversions, I thought that Gabranth's was set up very well: his primary loyalty was always to Larsa, so I found it logical that he turned on Vayne at the end. Not for Basch, but for Larsa. A much more satisfying end for their family than for Balthier's -- the Ronsenberg brothers ended up fighting side by side, but Balthier was given no choice but to kill his father.
- Would a Final Fantasy game be a Final Fantasy game without a three-part final battle? No, I don't think so. Also, I do enjoy the resemblance of Vayne's final form to Bahamut's dragonish form in so many of the other games.
- The other unanswered question: what happened to Venat? Was she merged with Vayne so deeply that she was killed along with the Undying? Or is she still out there, waiting to crown a new Dynast-King and rule all of Ivalice? I also found her comments about the end of the other Occuria dubious -- yes, the Sun-Cryst is no more, but it's not as though Ashe and company did any other damage to them. Venat or no Venat, the others are still out there, and I see plenty of opportunities for further meddling in the affairs of humanity.
- Ah, good old Ashe/Balthier subtext -- and not-so-subtext. Ashe ordering Balthier not to die? Not particularly subtle, that. Of course, we also get hints of Ashe and Basch, in Penelo's letter and in Basch's reaction to it, and we can never forget Balthier and Fran's totally awesome fist bump after the final battle. (Terrorist fist bump?) But the replay, and the stories I've been inspired to write in the process, have settled me pretty firmly on Ashe/Balthier as my FF12 OTP. Not to the point that I can never see either of them with anyone else, but I like them better together than not.
Overall, I think it's safe to say that I actually liked the game better the second time through, which is always a good sign for me with a game. And I'm so glad that playing it a second time drew me more into being fannish about it. The downside? I wish I hadn't waited three years for the replay. Next time I have interest in being part of a game fandom, I will not put it off nearly so long.