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How I programmed Final Fantasy 12 to help me meet an impossible deadline

A desperate gambit.

Over the years, I've had many friends. Some of these friendships have been like bottles of fine wine - stored in ideal conditions in a temperature-controlled room, and slowly increasing in value every year. Other friendships have been fleeting  - a few beers thrown in the picnic cooler of life. And some friendships were little more than a couple of shots at the bar - a brief, fleeting flirtation that burned the throat with its intensity, but was forgotten within hours. This is a story about one such friend. A friend that I danced and fought with for with many hours, a friend who was surprisingly unreliable, and yet also a friend who was exactly what I needed at the time. But now his face only exists as a hazy half-developed Polaroid memory of a night elegantly wasted. His name was Negalmuur, and he was a necromancer in the Stilshrine of Miriam. 

This is how we met.

It was late 2006, and I was a freelance journalist desperate for work, so when the phone rang and Official PlayStation 2 Magazine offered me the chance to review Final Fantasy 12, I bit their hand off. Figuratively. There were only two conditions. Firstly, I'd have to do it in five days, as they were about to go to print. Secondly, they wanted the 'definitive' review, so if I managed to complete the whole game, they'd give me a £200 bonus. As this represented a sum of money that was literally mind-boggling to me at the time, I agreed, despite never having played a Final Fantasy game to completion before. The editor shipped the game over to me, and I began preparations to sit in my room for a week, stocking up on important things like rations, energy drinks and Clockwork Orange-style eye clamps. 

At the end of the first day, I'd put around 10 hours into the game and was feeling pretty good about my progress. The next morning, I phoned my friend Oli (Now your esteemed editor at Eurogamer, but back then a freelancer like myself) who was also reviewing the game, albeit with a week's head start. 

"It's going pretty well," I said, relighting a sad half-smoked dog end cigarette from the night before. "I reckon I'm about a third of the way though." Oli asked where I was, and then laughed heartily.

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"Yeah, try an eighth. Maybe." I felt the colour drain from my face, and it was only partially from the stale cigarette. I now only had four days left to finish the game and write my review. I put the phone down shakily, possibly while Oli was still talking.

That day I did nothing but play Final Fantasy 12. If the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone knocked on the door, I paid no mind. When my bladder filled, I crossed my legs. The only thing that mattered was getting to the end. A 4 am check on GameFAQs suggested I was just over a third of the way through after 2 days. There simply wasn't enough time - I needed a strategy. And this was how I befriended Negalmuur. 

Final Fantasy 12's Gambit system is one of the most elegantly designed combat systems in gaming history. Effectively, you set a series of rules for each character in your party, defining how they will act in any given situation. It's like being the coach of a tightly knit MMO raiding squad, standing back to let them do their thing, but occasionally calling a time out to call the plays and adjust strategy. By expertly interlocking these rules, you can create incredibly powerful strategies that let the characters play the game autonomously. It lets you unleash your inner programmer, as you craft a series of 'if' and 'then' statements, trying to cater for every eventuality. Watching your toy soldiers march into battle and execute your commands with clockwork precision is still one of the most satisfying feelings in gaming, and it's Final Fantasy 12's lasting (if sadly forgotten) legacy. 

But how did this help? Well, if you can find the right grinding spot, it means your party can effectively hyper-level themselves while you go and do something more important (like take a long overdue shower). In theory, if I could master the gambits, I'd be able to let my party spend a day auto-levelling, and then my super OP death bots would be able to smash through the game in triple quick time. Of course, if it failed, I'd be out of time, and the bonus would be gone. 

It turned out that the perfect grinding spot in the game was nearby - The Stilshrine of Miriam. This crumbling temple was home to the Sword of Kings, a mighty blade powerful enough to slice though nethicite. But more importantly, it was also home to Negalmuur, a randomly spawning Nightwalker. Now the denizens of Miriam probably liked Negalmuur for many reasons - he seemed like a sociable bloke, certainly good looking, and always ready with a doom spell or two. But I liked him mostly because he'd endlessly spawn Ghast zombies that my party could wail on. 

With help from the internet, I set up my gambits (see "Grinding with Gambits") carefully. The idea was to ignore Negalmuur, and only kill the Ghasts he spawned. So I made sure that only monsters with HP < 3000 would be attacked, while also using the "self - decoy" gambit, to prevent Negalmuur from casting Doom on Balthier, my party leader. Then throw in a load of revive and cure spells, and Bob's your Marley, instant auto-levelling squad. 

Negalmuur was shy at first, and I had to clear the dungeon a few times before he appeared. But once he did, the fun began. Unfortunately, a flaw in my logic meant that every few hours or so, Negalmuur would successfully cast Doom on Balthier, causing him to die, and requiring me to press a button on the controller to switch party members. This meant that I had to set a timer every hour to check that the party hadn't wiped. And because of time restraints, I had to do this for 24 hours straight, only catching tiny microsleeps throughout the night as I maintained my vigil. Every time I closed my eyes I saw Negalmuur, mocking me, his giant, tentacled face twisted into a parody of a smile. And yet, I couldn't be angry with him - he was helping me with one of the hardest assignments of my life, and our dance of Ghasts was the glue that held our friendship together. I had gone full Howard Hughes by this point, hiding in my room with nothing but an undead necromancer and 12 urine-filled milk bottles for company, and he hadn't judged me. He'd just stayed awake with me, providing support and raising the dead, over and over again. And slowly, but surely, the levels ticked up. 

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The sweet science of Final Fantasy 12.

Finally, the next morning, I woke up and checked the stats. Each of the characters in my party was levelled up to around Level 80. It was time. I took the reigns, approached Negalmuur, and slowly slipped a Deathbringer sword into the place where his ribs would be if he weren't just a disembodied head. His face scrunched in confusion at this sudden act of violence after 24 hours of passive-aggressive dodging. "Goodnight, sweet prince," I whispered, as he collapsed, wheezing to the ground. It was exactly like the end of Old Yeller, if Old Yeller was not a Labrador retriever, but an undead tentacle-faced necromancer head in a musty old ancient space tomb. I poured one out for my dead homie, directly into a milk bottle. 

The rest of the day passed in a blur - I crushed every enemy in my path, and crashed through cutscenes. Just before midnight, I finally managed to defeat the evil Archadian empire, and big fat tears rolled down my cheeks. Maybe it was the joy at finally finishing the game, or the prospect of the six hours of uninterrupted sleep ahead of me before I got up early to write the review. But I like to think that some of those tears were for Negalmuur - sure, we don't really keep in touch, we don't write, or call, but Neg, you really were the best friend I ever killed.

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