Saturday, June 29, 2013
Final Fantasy XIII
Three years ago, when "Final Fantasy XIII" was first released, I wrote a post explaining why I decided to skip it. My reasons mainly were: I thought that Square Enix had simply released a game that wasn't finished. I couldn't believe that they would intentionally create a linear dungeon-crawler with only the most superficial nods to the history and emotions that made Final Fantasy such a dominant force in the JRPG genre. As it turns out, "Final Fantasy XIII" isn't an unfinished game - this is exactly what they were trying to accomplish here. The developers of "Final Fantasy XIII" weren't out to make an RPG, this was going to be something more - a genre-transcending experience that would be something entirely new. Pure focused action and story, putting in the pacing of a "Call of Duty" game*, the writing of a cheap anime, and the fastest, most hypercharged battle system ever seen in the series history. This wasn't made to be an RPG, it was made to be an action game removing every element that director, Motomu Toriyama felt was "vestigial". When those organs they removed were actually the still-beating heart and arteries that gave Final Fantasy life.
To the "Final Fantasy XIII" team, it seemed like a dream. To me, its more of a nightmare. I think I'm over-doing the negativity too quickly for this review, but it should be said quite clearly that "Final Fantasy XIII" is easily the worst main series Final Fantasy game of them all**. There are buzz words that you can throw around explaining why "Final Fantasy XIII" doesn't work, such as "linear", "no towns", "datalog", and "AI-controlled battle system". But I think they're all symptoms of the same disease, which comes far deeper within this game's soul. Its a disease of not really wanting to be a Final Fantasy game, of trying to become an action adventure title but being unwilling to ditch the trappings of an RPG. This cancer at the heart of "Final Fantasy XIII" makes it this sad step-child in the series evolution, a failed experiment with ever-so-brief sparks of genius, but ultimately ruined by horrific pacing, terrible level design, a confusing and frustrating story, and simply wasted potential.
"Final Fantasy XIII" has, at times, a compelling adventure that could have been amazing. In fact, if they had just given this game another year of work, just one more annum to polish out the levels and build a compelling universe for their battle system and characters to inhabit, this might have been the JRPG that reinvented the genre. Instead they mistakenly thought that the combat and story could stand entirely on their own, without any support from pacing, environments, or sidquests. Imagine if you will, if "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" were twisted into a single tube, with every room in every dungeon placed end to end. Then remove the towns, Hyrule Field, most of the characters, every sidequest, and most of the puzzles. So essentially the entire game is Link traveling from room to room, doing nothing but killing enemies for hours upon hours. Now you can almost imagine the barren, lifeless desert that is "Final Fantasy XIII".
What's depressing though, is that "Final Fantasy XIII" somehow even squanders this. Because for the first twenty hours of this adventure, you're stuck in what is essentially a gigantic tutorial, where the game simply refuses to give the player full control over their party and their characters. The game starts out with combat through floating corridors, where the battle options are limited to just "Attack" and "Use Potion". This goes on for two whole hours. Two hours where the menu options are so limited that its hard to say that this is even a game at all, because no game designer would dare create challenge in a segment where you cannot even use the "Cure" spell. After this, "Final Fantasy XIII", almost begrudgingly, gives away its central paradigm system, and then its summons, and then only after what feels like several eternities through hell, actually let's you use three characters in battle - finally you're playing the full game as it was meant to be experienced. And after another eternity, you're finally able to choose your own party. Yes, there is challenge during the long, long, long, hours after hours where you alternate between two groups of two characters, but the game was meant to be played with three, that's where all the real strategy lies. So why have this go on for twenty hours?
By the way, in "Final Fantasy VII", you could choose your own party by the time you leave Midgar, which is only five hours into the game. "Final Fantasy I" opens with you picking a party of four. "Final Fantasy XIII" spends the length of two or three average-sized games with a handicapped half-finished battle system.
This is all nominally because during those twenty hours, we're supposed to be establishing the characters and their relationships, which is why the linear corridor adventure is punctuated every twenty minutes with a cutscene, typically of the characters repeating the same lines. Until you reach Chapter 11 out of 13, there is exactly nothing else to do in this game except fight monsters and watch cutscenes. You follow a carefully-planned string for many many overly-long locations, while somehow both the gameplay and story are padded to no end. Even the story itself is painfully simple during this twenty-hour segment, where most of it consists of characters more lost by the story than the players, doing nothing but running forward away from an evil government trying to capture them. There are no twists, there are no resting points, there are no people to meet or cultures to discover, there is nothing but one dungeon after another, which is nothing but one battle after another. The game doesn't even have a villain until Chapter 9!
For most of this early segment in the game, I kept asking myself a few questions. The most primary of these was: "why am I fighting these enemies - again??" "Final Fantasy XIII" doesn't quite have pointless combat - at least not after the first two hours, where fighting doesn't even give you EXP! - but it does have combat that seems needlessly elongated and repetitive. Because "Final Fantasy XIII" doesn't have the MP of previous titles, all magic is unlimited. HP is always replenished after a successful battle too, so the primary gameplay threat of classic RPG combat has been removed.
In a classic RPG, every battle slowly depleted your resources. These battles weren't really tests of your skill, they were tests of how prepared you were for the overall battle up the mountain that was the overall dungeon. "How many of those battles can you survive until your MP or Items or whatever runs out?" "Can I get back to the town again if I push on, or should I cut my losses and retreat?" These are not questions you ask in "Final Fantasy XIII" - because there are no towns, there are no safe zones, only endless battle - but also because the stress of resources is gone. You can play as terribly as you want in every battle, but as long as you win, you're golden. There is no long-term planning, only the victory in this one scene. Which ultimately, makes the battles against two Flans meaningless, since they can't beat me, they can't hurt me, they barely even give EXP, and for some reason, no battles give Gil. (Don't worry though, you almost never have to buy anything, I guess the heroes can use the Gil to wallpaper their rooms or something.) "Final Fantasy XIII"'s entire gameplay philosophy makes almost no sense to me. If battles don't really matter, why are they the only thing you can do for most of the entire adventure?
The Part That Isn't a Corridor
Many hours past the point where a sane person would've given up on the choking claustrophobia that is most of "Final Fantasy XIII" there actually is a large location that isn't a linear tube. This is called the "Archylte Steppe", a massive open green valley where you can run freely and complete the lone sidequest. That sidequest is basically the Hunts from "Final Fantasy XII", only this time given by weird floating statues inside a disc. I cannot tell you what the difference between the Archylte Steppe is from the rest of "Final Fantasy XIII", it is night and day. There is the darkness of one-dimensional railroading, and the glorious beauty that is this massive open playground where you can run around, explore, and breathe. This is what all of "Final Fantasy XIII" could have been. This is what it should have been! (Its basically what "Final Fantasy XIII-2" wound up being, though that game has all of its own issues...) Yeah, the Archylte Steppe is entirely empty of other humans or civilization, but at least it feels alive, like a real world. Not a sterile tube with enemies placed by a cruel Japanese developer to fill up these needlessly long locations.
Imagine that. An enemy is in your way. And you can run to the left and avoid it. You can run left, right, up, down, east, or west. Kinda like... an RPG! Holy damn. Its like somebody dropped a mini-"Final Fantasy XII" right in the midst of its inferior successor.
You could spend another forty hours just in the Archylte Steppe alone. But really, for the main story purposes, its entirely optional, and you breeze right through there, onto another five to ten hours of Corridor until you reach the final boss. Motomu Toriyama really loved his fucking corridor. So this brief taste of freedom is really only the final instrument of torture. Letting the victims see the life-giving Sun one last time just to reminds them of all they will lose when they return to the dungeon, just to let their spirits finally break.
The Battle System
Surprisingly for everything that is wrong with the presentation, "Final Fantasy XIII"'s battle system actually could have been something special, and could have been the engine that drove a spectacular JRPG. I don't precisely love this system, but its workable and at times creates interesting strategic moments in an otherwise dull and arduous game. Frankly the way "Final Fantasy XIII" is presented is basically unplayable unless you have a very high tolerance for suffering - like I apparently do. But maybe if you could pay somebody to play the game up to Chapter 9, when the battle system is built out in full, then maybe the game could be something worth experiencing.
"Final Fantasy XIII" ultimately is trying to answer the same question "Final Fantasy XII" had solved: how can we make a strategic game with very fast combat? Rather than having characters stand in a row trading back attacks***, "Final Fantasy XII" created a system where you could give characters a programmed list of actions, which they would take and thus allow you direct combat without choosing every individual move. "Final Fantasy XIII" is more or less the same thing, only with far less control. Instead of you picking the AI, the game has preset decks of AI called "Paradigms" that you can use, as each of the characters uses a pre-programmed Role, which completes one specific action. Saboteurs debuff, Synergists buff, Medics heal, Commandos deal direct damage, Ravengers deal stagger damage (I'll explain in a moment), and Sentinels stand around defending taking the hits for the rest of your party. Its actually a pretty fast-paced system, since essentially all you need to do is call out which of the pre-planned paradigms the characters take, and you change the flow of your characters depending on the situation in battle. Really fun and interesting battles will require you to switch the Paradigms very quickly, and tough enemies will give you many chances to experiment with which Paradigms you need in order to win.
The Stagger system is a kind of scratch damage that only the Ravanger specializes in. Enemies natively are very tough, and you need to Stagger them in order to make them helpless and easy to kill. A Commando deals direct damage, but Ravangers target a yellow Stagger bar, which when full, Staggers the enemy. Its a little bit more complicated because Commando attacks stabilize the Stagger bar, stopping it from disappearing too quickly, so need a mix of the two attack styles. "Final Fantasy XIII", I should add, typically is a much richer game in terms of strategy than its sequel, "Final Fantasy XIII-2".
The problem, for me, at least, is that the computer more or less determines everything. The AI is very good, but its not perfect. The computer Synergists are too dumb to realize, for example, that Protect is really the most important thing and they should cast that first, instead of boosting my attacking power. I can't decide what they pick unless I happen to have a Party Leader who is a Synergist. The AI Ravengers like to focus on one target, rather than dealing wide spread damage. There are not even the most basic of controls over the AI. Two COMs are going to attack two different targets, no matter what you do. Yeah, it would be nice if they could both focus on the guy who is Staggered, but tough fucking luck, you're not Motomu Toriyama or his boss, Yoshinori Kitase, these characters don't listen to you. I really want that feeling of being right on the ground, really controlling what is going on, not calling out vague attacks. Its a minor complaint, it doesn't ruin the battles, but it does get extremely frustrating. For some sick reason, also, placement of characters in battle is really important, so if your characters are nicely spread out, they might not get hit. You have only the barest control over this, so if your Party Leader dies because they were stupidly standing right behind the the Sentinel in the line of fire, you start to chew on your controller in rage.
The worst part of "Final Fantasy XIII"'s battle system though - the worst fucking part - is that Party Leader death is an instant Game Over. Doesn't matter how well or poorly the battle is going, if your Party Leader is dead, its over. This is of course, complete and total indefensible bullshit. It makes no sense, it has no place in this kind of game, and it easily could have been avoided if the game just gave you the option to switch Party Leaders - which you CANNOT. You also cannot change your Paradigms in the middle of a fight, so if you're really getting boned, sorry, maybe next time.
Ultimately though, the battle system is the shining oasis in the midst of two very bad parts of "Final Fantasy XIII", the first being the environments, the second, being... the story...
"Final Fantasy XIII"'s plot pacing is bizarre. The opening of this game begins roughly at beginning of the second Act, leaving the first Act to be describe via flashback. This has the two-pronged effect of making the beginning of this game massively confusing and off-putting, as you have no idea who anybody is or why they're doing anything, and also making the character motivations a mystery. Who is Lightning? Why is she fighting these soldiers? Who is Snow? Why does he want to save Serah? Who the heck is Serah anyway? What's a l'cie? What's a fal'cie? What is Cocoon anyway? These are questions that I already knew, of course, since its been three years and basically this entire story was spoiled for me back in 2010, but it still makes the opening feel very floaty and just out of reach. You don't connect to the characters immediately, instead you're supposed to connect to them over the course of the adventure. Why are the most basic tenants of the story a huge mystery?
But then again, why would I connect to any of these people? "Final Fantasy XIII" has simply atrocious writing, some of the worst I have ever encountered. Virtually every cutscene is the same dribble about the characters' feelings and what they've learned along the course of the journey in the most awful cheesy form you can imagine. I usually am of the opinion that skipping cutscenes is a sign of weakness, and if you do that, then you should probably just stop playing the game now. Well, "Final Fantasy XIII" is the game that broke me. I cannot stand another hour of this pathetic teenager melodramatic unnatural crap any longer. And even worse, sometimes there are other people in the room when I'm playing this game. Its bad enough that I have to suffer through this misery on my own, but do I really want people judging me because they see me in the same room as this stuff? Remember that legendary Laughing Scene from "Final Fantasy X"? Imagine if every conversation between every character was just that bad throughout the entire forty hours.
Seriously, Square Enix, what the hell is the matter with your writers? I don't remember your PS1 or PS2 games having such unwieldy ugly dialog. Is dialog supposed to kill all humanity and believability from the story? Or was "Dissidia Final Fantasy" an interesting and compelling story?
The characters might have made for a compelling team if perhaps the dialog had not completely crippled any ability to sympathize with them, or perhaps if most of them were not entirely one-dimensional. For some reason, Lightning, the star of this game, is apparently some kind of RPG superstar. Why? All she ever does is act grumpy and occasionally punch people, with very very few moments of humanity breaking through her off-putting armor****. Snow spends most of the game calling himself the hero and trying to save his girlfriend, since ultimately there is very little beyond that in his life. Hope cries, and then stops crying, that's the entirety of his arc. Fang and Sazh are probably my favorites here. The former is a flirty spearmaiden working to save her girlfriend but carries herself with natural charisma and intensity, which the cranky adolescence of Lightning pales in comparison to. And Sazh seems to be the only real human on the cast, honestly, being the only guy who ever stops to think about his situation with any sense of reality, and despite being having an afro that doubles as a Chocobo nest, appears to be the straight-man of this group.
The worst character though is Vanille, who immediately wins the AWARD FOR WORST FINAL FANTASY CHARACTER OF ALL TIME. Vanille is part of the long-running archetype of the "quirky chick", that one comic relief female who exists to appeal to Japanese teenagers who love loud bubbly females. Vanille, however, is some kind of event horizon of madness, most of her actions and quotes do not even seem to be related to the situation we're in. Her main purpose, however, appears to just make moaning noises, in order to add very cheap and very ugly sex appeal. If Vanille were spinning on a stripper pole with fire crackers glued to her nipples, she would only have more depth and meaning as a human being. If you want to know how not to write a character, look to Vanille. There is no common denominator low enough for a waste of creative energy like this character.
Curiously, much like the desertification of the world and gameplay, the story is a large void filled with only a handful of people, very few of which actually matter to the larger events. You have the six heroes, one villain, and a group of larger hangers-on, most of which contribute very little to the events. There is one supporting villain who seems to have existed for no reason other than to have another character with big boobs, who does precisely nothing before she is killed off, for no good reason. Lightning has a commanding officer - he appears in a single flashback, never to return again, making me wonder why was he was around at all. You never get to meet the people of the world, you never really get to understand the culture or what this world was really about, you don't even get to help anybody. All you do is run forward, while the story barrels forward at a slow pace.
I need to mention, of course, that very little of this makes any goddamn sense, much like "Final Fantasy VIII". There is a race of evil robot gods who turn humans into their magical slaves, called "l'cie" who everybody in this artificial moon wants dead. Your party becomes l'cie, so have to complete a task for these robot gods, but for no reason other than to make the story more opaque, nobody is ever told what that task is. So you get to run forward, confused, until finally the villain just tells you, way way later. Do you want this done or not, dude? Oh, if you're a l'cie, you get to choose between completing your task and being turned into a Crystal, or failing that task and turning into a techno zombie. Yeah, great choice, huh? All of this is orchestrated in a needlessly complicated plan to... you know what? I don't really care to explain any further. All it will do is further confuse and annoy you. The answer is massively stupid, don't worry about it, just know that you kill a final boss and that everything works out fine for exactly no reason at all.
I'd point out also, that "Final Fantasy VIII" was a vast adventure full of twists and turns, characters, often stupid events, but events nonetheless. It also seemed to have a sense of humor and fun about itself, unlike this game, which presents every conversation and event as if its the most important and dramatic moment in all of literature. Here's the secret to "Final Fantasy XIII" - press Start, then press Select. Skip those awful cutscenes and move to the end all the faster.
It took me three years to finally work up the courage to play "Final Fantasy XIII". Was it quite as bad as I expected? I have to say, there were parts that were good, parts that were bad. Sometimes even at its cheesiest, the story could bring forth some emotion, such as Lightning watching Hope sleep as she takes on a motherly role, or even Fang and Vanille hugging. Sometimes the Corridor had impressively detailed environments and looked like it could've been a lot of fun if only the developers knew how to work with what they had created.
I'm usually guilty of looking at things with the thought "it could be so much better if it were just like so-and-so" instead of appreciating things for how they are. So I'll commit that sin one more time. "Final Fantasy XIII" could have been a great game. All games probably could be great, but it really pains me to see that somewhere within this generally mediocre title, there beated the heart of something really special. You can see it in Gran Pulse, you can see it in the moments between the characters where they stop talking about their moronic feelings and talk like humans, you can see it in the love and care put into so much of this game. Let's me break this down in five steps: 1) the Cocoon section is made five hours long, roughly as long as the Midgar opening to "Final Fantasy VII", 2) the story opens at its logical beginning, not in medias res allowing you to experience the characters before they're in the endless battle that will fill up the rest of the game, 3) Gran Pulse was the style with which they made most of the entire game, and that location was a hub for a larger world full of characters and towns and experiences, 4) sidequestz, optional adventures, card games, whatever, the lifeblood of Final Fantasy is added, and 5) they hire somebody who is not an entire moron to write the dialog - preferably somebody who has actually met another human being.
That's all it would've taken. Five steps. One year of work, perhaps. And then "Final Fantasy XIII" would be fondly remembered as a classic of the series. Instead of this...mistake. Sorry. This game is a mistake. It was a dead-end in RPG development, a perfect example of everything that can go wrong in the making of one of these games.
Hopefully, we can look at "Final Fantasy XIII" and learn from it. "Final Fantasy XIII-2" was a step in the right direction, if only it weren't plagued by its own brand of awful mistakes. Square Enix is already making "Final Fantasy XV", the future of Final Fantasy is bright, and I believe that next games to come will be strong. "Final Fantasy XIII" was an era in this series' history - a dark era, but only an era. An era that is already passing. We can easily move on and forget this title, and enjoy a long beautiful history to be made of even more Final Fantasy.
* I'm not bringing up "Call of Duty" as a hyperbolic attack against the game. I know right now "Call of Duty" is synonymous with everything that is wrong with the modern gaming industry in the eyes of many Internet citizens, but I rarely use that attack personally. And I didn't make up this "Call of Duty" allusion, Motomu Toriyama cited it specifically as a major inspiration in press interviews.
** The true worst of the worst being "Final Fantasy Mystic Quest", which actually, in terms of gameplay pacing and cruel simplicity, isn't all that dissimilar to "Final Fantasy XIII". They're both games where you spend hours grinding up against more or less unskippable enemy encounters in massively overly-long dungeons using extremely basic battle systems. FFXIII is way way way better, don't get me wrong, but there are times when I feel like they are born from an equally mistaken origin point.
*** Which there was NOTHING AT ALL WRONG WITH, by the way. That system built Final Fantasy and all JRPGs. But modern games simply seem unable to use that system anymore, every system now needs to be some ugly mixture of turn-based and action combat. "Final Fantasy XIII" actually does a much better job of this than say, "The Last Story", which I found to be simply disgusting from the outset, but still, one can't help but miss the days of classic "Chrono Trigger" simplicity.
**** Maybe if Lightning in this game were actually Samus Aran, and not quite so petulant, this would have been great.