Posts filed under ‘Final Fantasy XIII’

Review: Final Fantasy XIII (part 2)

(For Part 1 click here.)

Last time I wrote about the presentation and story of Final Fantasy’s latest installment, with mixed reactions.  Today I’m going to get into the real meat of the thing: the gameplay.  Like my previous topic, the results here are a mixed bag.  The battle system retains some of the automation from FF12, but tightens things up considerably.  If, like me, you never warmed up to FF12, you’ll be happy to note that FF13’s battles feel more visceral and compelling than its predecessor’s.  Where 12 relied on a great deal of micromanagement and planning between battles (the gambit system felt like simplified coding to me, and I never felt really connected to the action), 13 shifts the focus back to decisions made in the thick of things.  Though AI behavior is less customizable, you constantly have to shift between a number of different classes in the middle of battle, choosing between a number of simple strategies to cope with a changing battlefield.  The game tests your ability to make split-second decisions as much as it does your ability to plan ahead, and this lends it a sense of immediacy that I felt was lacking in the previous game.

At its best, this system provides a surprising amount of depth and challenge when coupled with a “guard break” style mechanic and an eschewal of MP and Game Overs.  The former mechanic supplies a greater deal of strategy to the proceedings, preventing more cautious players from turtling or constantly healing by requiring them to keep up a constant barrage of attacks in order to break through a tough enemy’s defenses.  When you finally manage to stagger a particularly recalcitrant opponent, it is oh so satisfying – the Final Fantasy equivalent of exposing a boss’s weak spot in a Zelda game and proceeding to swing in for big damage.  Not having to worry so much about managing MP or party wipes is also a plus, as again more attention can be placed on the immediate and fast-paced battles.  These fights can also be made more difficult, as a loss doesn’t result in any large setbacks and players can simply try their hands again.  For the first time in recent memory, we’ve been given a Final Fantasy game in which regular opponents are capable of posing large threats, and it’s a welcome change.

However, the game still suffers from a number of battles that the player can simply spam the attack command to get through (made even more mindless by the “auto-attack” option), and combat mechanics are unlocked at a glacial pace.  This latter point has been made elsewhere, but it bears repeating as it really is the game’s Achilles’ heel.  It’s about 2 hours before you’re given magic, and another 3 before you get access to the paradigm shifts that constitute the basis of the battle system.  Until this point, you can largely get by with auto-attack and a few potions.  This pace continues for a while longer, though, as it’s about 20 hours into the game before you truly have access to everything and break into more open-world gameplay.  Players who have the patience to stick with the game are over time rewarded to some truly engaging and challenging battles, but they shouldn’t be expected to slog through so much hand-holding to get there.  I understand that SquareEnix wanted to make a game that everyone could enjoy, but I think they set the bar too low on this one.  Furthermore, would it really be that difficult to include a difficulty modifier?  Action games and FPS’s have no problem pulling it off, and I think that this game was linear enough to support it.

I won’t talk too much about linearity though – the topic’s been beaten to death.  If you didn’t mind the endless hallways in FF10, you’ll be fine here.  The game’s arc actually reminds me more of FF6, however, in that it follows a number of groups along scripted paths for the first half of the game, and then gives the player a great deal more freedom in the second world.  FF13 really does feel like two games smashed together: once you get to Pulse, you have the freedom to fully explore a huge section of the world doing missions and sidequests.  It feels very MMO-influenced in its monster-hunting sensibilities, and it’s both big and self-contained.  It took me 25 to 30 hours to get through what I wanted to my first time through, and I didn’t even finish everything.  The biggest fault I found in this second part was that there was no clear distinction between side quests (to be played before moving on in the story) and endgame content (to be played after beating the game).  There are difficulty grades assigned to missions, from D to A, but these grades are often wild and unreliable, as there were for example A’s I came across which were far easier than B’s, and C/B’s which were way harder than the others in their categories.  Also, to the best of my knowledge there is no extra hidden dungeon, which is probably a big disappointment for some, but for me wasn’t a deal breaker (I’ve never been one for endgame material).

FF13 takes a lot of small gambles, some of which pay off, and some of which unfortunately bomb.  Random encounters are thankfully a thing of the past, as all enemies are visible on screen, and unnecessary villages with their stilted NPC dialogue have also bit the dust.  Status ailments are no longer wasted ability slots, as they actually work on bosses, and this adds another layer of strategy to things.  On the other hand, the equipment upgrade system stumbles, as its requirements are far too harsh.  I would have loved to experiment with upgrading and transmuting a number of different weapons and accessories throughout the course of the game, but sadly this is not possible given the quantity of resources required to do so.  Giving bonus multipliers for investing more into a certain weapon only serves to further shackle players to their upgrade decisions, and even then progression only follows a single path.

FF13 also continues an ostensible pattern of designers gradually getting closer to what I want but always stopping short just to screw with me – that is, a game system that allows and encourages the use of the entire cast of playable characters.  FF6 started this trend by making the player use the majority of characters during the first half of the game (and even in the last dungeon), but the second half returned to the same design of “pick your party and stick with it.”  FF10 made the next big leap by letting you swap out party members in the middle of battle.  “Great!”, I thought.  However, your party members wouldn’t gain experience unless you actually used them in battle, even if it was only coming in for a turn to block (kind of defeating the purpose of this limitation, it seems).  If you wanted every character to remain relevant throughout the game, you had to use everyone in almost every battle, a stipulation that grew tiring very quickly.  Now, in FF13, we finally have a leveling system in which every character gets stronger regardless of their participation, and a first half which mimics 6’s.  However, since each character spans multiple classes and has no significant individual skills, there is no real need to swap between them.  It’s even a hassle to do so, as paradigms aren’t saved when you switch party members, making you input them in again each time.  Maybe one day I’ll get my wish, but this isn’t quite it.

All of this has been a bit long winded, I know, but I think I’ve finally said everything I wanted to say.  Final Fantasy 13 is a game which makes bold strides for the series in some respects, and yet remains queerly tied to form in others.  It’s an interesting specimen, and one I recommend checking out to any fan of the genre, as it’s not perfect, but it’s a great result of SquareEnix’s desire to continually evolve a longstanding series in sometimes radical ways.  Will it make JRPGs relevant again?  Probably not on it’s own, but as long as other studios are willing to make their own experiments, it’s a great start.

April 3, 2010 at 9:57 pm Leave a comment

Review: Final Fantasy XIII (part 1)

Final Fantasy 13.  It’s one of the biggest and most unique games to be released this year, so there’s a lot to talk about.  So much so that I’m going to split my discussion of the game into two articles.  This first episode will talk about the game’s presentation: the art design, music, story, and so forth.  The second will concern matters of gameplay and anything else I might have forgotten to address here.

So let’s begin with the story (SPOILERS, by the way.  If you’re looking to remain in the dark, skip to the next paragraph.).  As far as the actual plot, it doesn’t really impress.  It borrows heavily from past Final Fantasy games – especially 10 – with its notions of old gods, a technologically advanced civilization surrounded by untamed fantasy wilderness, imperialist conspiracies, and a plucky terrorist group.  Nothing in this story is that original, and as a result it is not that memorable.  Instead it merely reminds you of when similar events happened in the earlier games, and this really takes you out of the experience.  For example, when Serah turns to crystal I couldn’t help but think of FF4’s Palom and Porom turning to stone (and what is with the FF games’ obsession with crystals, by the way?  It’s always felt a bit trite to me, like it’s an unwitting parody of fantasy tropes.).  When Sahz almost kills himself, it just feels like a pale shadow of Celes’s attempted suicide or even Aerith’s death, and beyond that, it’s simply a bad scene.  The game tries to trick you into thinking he offed himself, a plot mechanic that annoys me wherever it turns up, and it isn’t even convincing.  Having “death” scenes that are undercut when all the presumably dead characters walk back on stage at the end weakens the story, and this is a problem that the game shares with FF4.  However, 4 had an excuse: it was not written by professional writers, and it was far more silly and tongue-in-cheek (you go to the bloody MOON, for God’s sake).  FF13 gives you the impression that it is trying to be serious, and it simply fails in this regard.

It’s not all gloom and doom, however.  The characterization is perhaps the best in the entire series.  None of the major characters, with the exception of the main villain, are one-dimensional, and even the majority of your more minor enemies have believable motivations and are sympathetic characters.  Your party feels like it is made up of individuals with their own goals and problems unwittingly thrust together, rather than a ragtag group of warriors of truth and justice or some such nonsense.  I can’t think of another Final Fantasy where there are characters in your party who absolutely hate each other’s guts (there was Steiner in 9, but not for long, and he was more comic relief than anything), and this opens up different sorts of relationships and avenues for character development throughout the game.  Speaking of this, characters do change and grow in appreciable arcs during the course of the plot, and characters who were unbearably annoying or just boring early on (Vanille, Lightning) open up and display a great deal more depth later.  They also help each other deal with many of their individual problems, which makes a sense of solidarity and community within the party more believable.  It’s also incredibly refreshing that there is an already-established romantic relationship which takes the place of the same tired love arc that plagues too many of these games.  The sole complaint I have about the characterization is some of the dialogue: it’s both odd and cheesy when characters speak frankly and at length about abstract emotions, especially when a character like Hope is young enough that he probably wouldn’t be able to articulate his feelings that well.  I understand that the writers are trying to display the characters’ development, but it is very crude to simply have somebody come out and say something like “I’ve been running away from my responsibilities under the guise of protecting <insert character>.”

The graphics are obviously fantastic, and the settings are both gorgeous and varied, except for the nightmarish Tronscape that is the final level (Why is it that these games always devolve into abstraction by the big finale?  Even in the FF games that have reasonable last stages, you’ll get to the final boss fight only to have the background melt away into a swirling vortex of bad art design.).  Though the game is linear and suffers from FF10’s corridor-like level design (more on that later), the paths you walk on are beautifully decorated, and you are free to pan the camera around to appreciate the work that went into animating this world, which I personally found myself doing pretty frequently.  This is also one of the only Final Fantasy games that takes place in a very modern society, with television broadcasts and contemporary apartments.  FF7’s Midgar had some of this, but 13 is able to better realize this with its hardware capabilities, and it makes for some interesting situations.  This provides a stark comparison to the wild fantasy world surrounding Cocoon, for instance, and gives insight into why the populace behaves the way it does.

How you interact with this populace is also unique for a Final Fantasy game.  Rather than barging into peoples’ houses and having them give you an unprompted history lesson about the surrounding area, people you pass automatically say things to each other as though you are overhearing snippets of their conversation.  While it isn’t perfect – the volume of these exchanges are often too low to hear, and they will have the exact same conversation every time you walk past – it is a welcome change from the usual trend.  It is more about atmosphere than gathering information, so there is no need to talk to everyone, and you spend a lot less time fooling around with civilians (and more time beating monsters’ faces in).  This method also lends to the immersion of the game, and provides the feeling that the world is actually inhabited by things not placed expressly for your interaction with them.  Just as monsters in the wild will have fights with each other in a predatory / territorial sort of way rather than simply waiting for you to fight them, people conduct their own business with friends and family instead of walking a set path and giving you clues about what to do.  One of my favorite settings in the game is Nautilus – a cross between Golden Saucer and Walt Disney World – because it pulls this technique off with the greatest degree of competency.  The place is packed, and so as you walk through you trigger several of these sound bytes at the same time, leading to a crowd-noise sort of effect where you can pick out distinct voices but not what everyone is saying.  And that’s the whole point – you don’t need to hear every piece of dialogue because it isn’t important.  Little Jimmy is psyched to be at a theme park and Mary is contemplating buying him a plush chocobo.  It’s all meaningless, but taken together it provides a great feeling of being in an occupied space.

Finally, let’s talk about the music.  Ultimately, this suffers the same problems that the story does – it isn’t that memorable, and it’s fairly reminiscent of what you find in FF10.  There is a particular song that sounds way too close for comfort to the Hymn of the Fayth from 10, and it takes me out of the experience every time.  The pieces are more atmospheric than melodic, which is why you won’t find yourself humming them.  They aren’t necessarily bad, and on the contrary they fit the scenes and action quite well, but most of them are fairly generic, and they fail to leave a lasting impression.  But who knows?  Taste in music is a very subjective thing, and other people might really enjoy it – it’s certainly done competently enough.  On the bright side, 13’s edition of the chocobo song?  Pure gold.

March 30, 2010 at 1:02 am 1 comment

June 2017
« Aug