Friday, 12 July 2013

The Rant - Final Fantasy XIII

I said I would get to it, and here it is: My rant on Final Fantasy 13! Never in my life has a game completely made me descend into a rage filled, frustrating, confusing and disappointing rant.
When the game was originally announced, I was as excited as everyone else ever is about a new Final Fantasy game. Over time however, cracks began to seep into the perfect image of high definition Japanese RPG gaming heaven. Rumors of linearity of gameplay pulsated over the internet.

For those reasons alone I postponed buying FF13 until about a year later when I saw it for cheap at the second-hand games shelf in Blockbuster.
I knew I would have to get it sooner or later, so I bought it and took it home to see what all the fuss was about. I had played the demo before, so I thought I knew what to expect. Everything seemed fine, and the game seemed quite interesting.
The first warning sign I got was when I started seeing the game over screen a few times, and I mean a LOT of deaths. I thought I just needed to get used to the battle system, so I persevered. Unfortunately it didn't get any easier as some fights would see the character I was controlling die in mere moments from the start of battle, resulting in an instant game over. Whereas you can usually expect to die at least once on boss fights, the fact that I was dying 3 or 4 times in a row no matter what different tactics and strategies I used had me actually questioning my skills as an RPG veteran!

I found myself scratching my head as to why SquareEnix had chosen to set the difficulty curve so steep on this game. One thought that crosses my mind was that because this was the first cross-platform Final Fantasy game in production, they needed a way to compensate for the lack of content due to data limitations on the Xbox 360 (yeah, I'm probably trolling but it could be a valid point).

There a virtually no towns in game, sidequests are sparse and the shops have been gimped, there is not much to do beyond exploring the very linear stages and beat bosses at each checkpoint. That's a lot of free time to fill, so why not distract the player by upping the difficulty to the point where they have to concentrate more in order to win? The problem with that is there isn't that much to concentrate on in the combat, which I will now elaborate further:

You only control 1 character during combat, with the computer controlling the other 2 (with limited effectiveness, I can assure you) and you can't change who you are using. Combat is real time, and you can either select commands from a list or just use the quicker Auto Battle command and let the game choose the most effective command at that moment. This sounds all well and good, but then the cracks in this logic start to show when combined with the way the enemy behaves in this game. The enemies are very aggressive and can quickly overwhelm your team if you're not prepared, leading to quick Game Overs if they manage to kill the character you are controlling!

Potions as ridiculously limited, and healing is restricted to one command line which has to be selected via the much vaunted "Paradigm System".

I'll try to keep it brief, but I'll explain what problems that I have with the Paradigm System. In previous FF games, and also in pretty much every other JRPG you can think of, you can choose your commands from a more or less complete list during combat, be they offensive or defensive. In FF13, you are forced to chose the healing command line in order to use the healing command and then switch back to the attack command line in order to use the attack command. A fancy gimmick, but it forces you to set up a number of command combinations which you think best suit the situation you are in at the time, be it going all out, defensive, buffing your team's stats or debuffing the enemy.

This is a very cumbersome system considering the speed of the combat in this game. As an example of this problem, if the enemy gang up on one character (which they do a LOT), if you have not set one of your team as a healer beforehand it will be up to you to switch your paradigm to heal the character under attack, by that time they will probably already be dead. You can set one or more of your team as a healer, but even that does not ensure complete safety during a regular fight due to the inadequacy of your team's AI.

This situation is compounded ten-fold when it comes to the boss battles, where victory seems to rely more on luck and brute force than a genuine strategy.

I went to research what others had said about my conclusions. What I found was few had a problem with the difficulty, in fact some said they loved the game because of it and actively admonished anyone who disagreed with their opinions that this was one of the greatest Final Fantasies of all time. Was I in the minority?

Its been a very long time since a game has made me "Rage Quit" and nearly throw my controller at the wall, so I was compelled to list all the things I felt was wrong with the game and why as I was playing. This is what I came up with:

1. Story
Quite possibly the worst story for a Final Fantasy game to date (and that's saying something!), they're normally quite good with only a few nit-picks I could mention but nothing to lose your rag over.

XIII however tries so hard that it ultimately alienates the player with overly confusing techno-babble and a convoluted plot. It doesn't help that most of the characters are immediately unlikable and barely improve over the course of the game.

I haven't beaten it yet, but I'm almost certain I will be disappointed when I do see it.

2. Linearity
Most other genre of games can be mostly forgiven for linearity in their progression, but rpgs are expected to give us more scope beyond the main story for those who want it. XIII does the bare minimum, maybe even less than the minimum in terms of things to do outside of the main story. As I mentioned before, towns are almost non-existent. 

Interactions with npcs is minimal, and shops are merged with the save points for a simplified "online" access of products, except you hardly have any money to buy anything until right near the end of the game.

There are few exploration points on the map for out of reach items, and side-quests are just "Hunt the Monster" lists for rarer items and unlocks. Unfortunately, it all feels like a lazy add-on which barely helps your already gimped squad get any stronger.

3. Gameplay
Where do I begin? I won't repeat too much of what I've already said above, but without a shadow of a doubt the biggest problem is the balancing of the difficulty.

There is no doubt the Paradigm System is a bold move by Square Enix, but they clearly either ran out of time or just plain forgot to balance the difficulty of the enemies against the strength of your characters during combat.

Combine that with the fact that the system almost completely removes the option for the player to choose what they want to do at a specific moment, replacing it with a mothering mentality of "this is too hard for you, let me choose what you should do next"


Regardless, I soldiered on with the game in the vain hope that at some point it would click and I would start to see the method within the madness. But all I got was madness and more madness as I struggled with the linear path I was being forced down, the random strength of the enemies, the gimped characters and the ham-strung combat system. I can honestly say this was the most frustrating Final Fantasy game, nay, most frustrating Japanese RPG I have ever played in my entire gaming career!

Many a speculation has been guessed as to why the developers had made the descisions they had when making FF13, but in my personal opinion it doesn't excuse them. This is the first Final Fantasy (at time of writing) I thought I would never see the end credits of, and I am still finding it very difficult to find the motivation to keep playing. I do intend to beat the game at some point, but you can be sure it won't be anytime soon!

The irony of it is SquareEnix have since released a sequel to 13 called...you guessed it, Final Fantasy 13-2! I guess all the money they spend developing their "White Engne" has not been recouped yet, so they were left with no other option but to make another game set in the same universe.

I played the demo expecting it to be more of the same foolishness of its predecessor, but to my surprise it was actually not bad. They hadn't changed much, but what they had changed made the game less of a chore to play and somewhat more enjoyable. This frustrates me all the more to know that they could do this for the sequel, but not the original!

I've kinda made an oath to myself that I would buy FF13-2 after I beat FF13, but only for the sake of being able to have an opinion on both games and the direction the franchise has taken in this current generation. And even though I feel I've been well and truly burned by SquareEnix this time round, I still hold out hope for the other Final Fantasy in the pipeline for PS3 - Final Fantasy Versus 13.

We haven't heard too much from this one, but what we have seen looks really good, and I would be more motivated to get this game then I was when FF13 was anounced. My fingers are still crossed for Versus 13 when it is finally released.

The question remains however: Will it be any good?





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