Feb 242012

To say that I’m a long time fan of the Final Fantasy series would be putting it mildly; I’ve played every non-MMO iteration in the main series except for Final Fantasy 2 and 3 (though I did not play 1 or 5 through to completion when I did finally play them a decade after their initial releases).  I’ve bought many of the original soundtracks, piano sheet music I can’t really play, and various figures, stuffed toys, and other collectibles. When the first North American performance of music from the series was scheduled – for a single performance – Valerie and I went to Los Angeles to see it. Nobuo Uematsu and Hironobu Sakaguchi were there in person!  The music of the series has always been the high point for me by far, but still, it’s safe to say that I’m a fan.

Final Fantasy 13 wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  It was incredibly linear, even for an FF game, and it wasn’t till you were about 3/4 through the game that you actually had the opportunity to experience the full extent of the gameplay that it offered.  Others were put off by some fairly questionable character design elements (leading some to hope that that ‘-2’ meant ‘minus two’ of the characters they found annoying).  While these concerns were legitimate, I still enjoyed it overall. Though character development options were somewhat fixed/limited, many fights that seemed impossible were actually surmountable not with grinding but with a highly tailored strategy in which you’d set up exactly the paradigms and equipment that you needed to survive that particular battle. You didn’t have to do these things, or you could just power up and come back, but it was very rewarding to get beaten 10 times, and then finally – with exactly the same party and equipment – find the strategy that allows you to prevail.

This is my first post in a month in part because I’ve been working through the sequel, FF13-2.  I’ll get the good out of the way first, because what follows is mostly my astonishment and disappointment at the things I felt they did wrong. I still think it’s a decent game, and don’t regret having played it – but it had far too many moments where I just couldn’t believe what seemed like ineptitude in game design.

So what was good? Pretty much all the things you expect to be good about any iteration of the game. Very high production values, a vast, varied, vivid, and imaginative world, interesting even if not outstanding characters and plot, good music and audio, and highly impressive visual design. Famitsu, Japan’s longstanding highly respected game publication, gave the game a perfect 40/40 score (somehow), which is very rare. The characters, plot, and music definitely didn’t set high watermarks for the series or make this installment particularly memorable – but were decent enough.

Frankly, I have no idea how a company goes about excelling in the above areas (other than the usual, hire great people that love what they do). If I was responsible for producing the series, you’d get something enormously less creative than what the team at Square Enix produced. That’s why I find the games failures in what seem like obvious areas so stunning – like designing a stunning car, but then installing wooden wagon wheels instead of just going with a standard off-the-shelf tire. Here’s where I think the game completely failed:

  • Difficulty.  People joked that FF13 played itself, though in reality the boss battles did require you to make some effort – and if you went exploring off the beaten path, you could run into some tough challenges.   Not in FF13-2.  With one single exception (Proto-Behemoth), you can get through the main game almost exclusively by holding ‘X’ and attacking continuously without even looking at your health.  In a boss fight, an occasional heal might be necessary.
  • Strategy.There is no strategy in the game, at all. None is needed because the game is so easy, but the real issue is that you have barely any meaningful strategic choices anyways.  You’ll max out all roles, and while you might later realize (or more likely, you see an FAQ) that you want to take big Crystarium nodes in your primary roles, you’ll still just be getting Strength for Noel and Magic for Serah.  Weapon choice is limited, and with accessories… you’ll just boost Strength for Noel and Magic for Serah.
  • Monster Development.  Some say there’s strategy in monster development (or that the only strategy is here). I say, not really; while there is a system, unless you’re following some FAQ (or saving/reloading), you’ll never have a strategy because you’ll get 10x as many monsters as you could possibly develop. I don’t actually think of following a FAQ for an optimal monster build as strategy, really.  Of course, due to the difficulty, this doesn’t matter; just get a decent Commando or Ravager, and hit X.
  • Just Attack.  In almost every fight, doing something besides attacking is pointless. Sadly, this is by design. You have to win quickly, because that’s the only way to get a 5-star rating and the corresponding rewards. You can’t win quickly by defending. The stagger mechanic also forces you to keep attacking to get bonuses up so you can win more quickly.  Unlike FF13, there’s zero monsters where you truly need a Saboteur or Synergist to win. Also, you can be a level 99 Medic, with your main characters and healing is still pathetic; 5 ATB bars won’t fully heal even one high HP character.  Your main characters are useless at the other roles too. They don’t even learn things like Hastega that might help you win quickly, and you can Hastega your entire party by simply attacking the enemy first when starting the encounter.
  • Is This Fun? There are whole bunch of sometimes optional “quests” which involve walking around, finding an item, and bringing it back. There’s no challenge – it’s just about walking around places you’ve sometimes already been. There are often not even meaningful non-random monsters to fight for these items (of course, there’s few challenging fights period). The only thing that can make these “quests” hard is that (a) the treasure chests may be invisible, or (b) they may be placed somewhere you won’t look.  I don’t see how any game designer could possibly think this provides any entertainment whatsoever.
  • Is This Fun #2?  You’ll pass some treasure chests you can’t reach.  You may struggle and look for ways to get there, and even spend time trying to see what you’re missing. Later, you’re allowed to throw Mog to collect those treasure chests. Now you realize how stupid and futile your earlier attempts were. Then you feel provoked, because the game is basically saying, go back and open those chests you missed – while fighting easy, early random monsters along the way.  Next up?  An additional class of chest you can’t open now, but that you’ll have to return to later. Seriously, who comes up with ideas like this?
  • Exploration.  FF13-2 looks much less linear than it’s predecessor. In reality, it’s mildly less linear. It seems like you can go lots of places, and it seems like there’s lots of fragments to discover and gates to open. In reality, many of them are inaccessible in your current state, or require access to a yet-to-be-opened area before you can complete those things.  The game will annoyingly show you that there are fragments and gates to be found in a given place, but this is utterly useless for knowing whether or not it’s worth spending any time in that area. Sometimes, you will just walk around and be attacked a bunch before you ultimately conclude (correctly) that you just can’t do anything here right now. It’s fake flexibility.
  • Random Encounter City.  FF13-2 is much better than some early FF iterations in that you can avoid most random encounters. But, there’s a stage of the game you’ll curse forever, where encounters are seconds apart, can’t be avoided, yet are trivially easy and uninteresting.  I guess I could have called this part “Is This Fun #3?”; once again, it’s impossible to imagine what the designers were thinking here.
  • At Least There’s No Time Travel.  Time travel is really hard to do well in science fiction, and is rarely pulled off effectively, because it unavoidably creates chicken & egg scenarios.  FF13-2 ostensibly features lots of time travel, and the ability to visit the same place at different times.  However, there’s no time-based causality; you can just treat every new time/place as a distinct location.  This is made even more true because the protagonists, their main allies, and the games antagonists all travel freely through time anyways.  It’s also true because the game itself ignores the concept of time, and has future events that effect ones that are supposedly in the past.  Anyways, the total flub on modelling time just winds up making the Historia Crux into the new Cid.

The above are so disappointing precisely because they’re so fixable. It’s trivial to replace the “find the invisible box by wandering around” quests with any of the dozens of past FF monsters that required a different strategy to overcome. Indeed, the time travel concept could even have offered the choice of finding a strategy to beat a tough monster, versus going back 50 years and searching for its egg, depending on what you like to do better.  A one-line code change could fix random encounter city.  Stronger non-Commando/Ravager roles, and monsters that require the use of those roles, just require a refinement of things that were present in FF13, but strangely absent here – and could lead to meaningful choices in character development.  Being able to see the potential development paths in advance for characters/monsters, as was true in FF13, with FF10’s sphere grid, and in so many systems used previously, would allow choice.  Having better graphics or a more compelling score seem really hard to do, but I’d think an intern at Square Enix could have fixed the above list.

One of the moments that felt like it could be great but wound up being a stupidity proof was the monster I mentioned above, Proto-Behemoth.  Very few monsters will ever kill you, those that do are almost always because you’ve never seen them before and are just tapping X while not looking at the screen.  Proto-Behemoth (and the two healing monsters that accompany it), on the other hand, will kill you repeatedly.  Since the rest of the game is so darned easy, your first reaction is wait, I must have come the wrong way – since the game does throw in the occasional super-monster like a Longui to force you down a different path.  But after checking, it doesn’t seem like there’s another way. You can abuse the retry mechanic to actually skip the encounter altogether – and I’ve now read that many people do that, since this fight feels more challenging than the final boss. Finally, I’m forced to try out a bunch of different paradigms, configurations that involve Sentinels to absorb the damage, equipment that’s tailored to the fight. I’m able to sometimes take down the healers, but at my current development level, once Proto-Behemoth stands up (and heals himself fully in the process), if a Deprotect is still active, he can one-hit KO most of my party members.  And my own ability to heal really sucks.

How did I eventually win? Just Attack.  Preemptive attack for Hastega and 120% initial stagger, two Ravagers and a Commando to drive up the stagger gauge further, use all accessories to raise Strength/Magic, and use your best monster feral attack the moment just before it heals.  In other words, the same strategy (except I usually use two Commandos and one Ravager) used for the rest of the game, except I had to also press the square button at the right time. All the more complex strategies failed; Just Attack won the battle in under 60 seconds. 5 stars!  At least it was challenging, but it highlighted how utterly broken the entire gameplay system is.

Two more funny thing about Proto-Behemoth. First, “Is This Fun #4?” – throwing Mog. Instead of a Zelda-like mechanic where you can create all kinds of interesting puzzles that require throwing Mog, it’s just for opening treasure chests.  But if you miss, Mog is gone for 30 – 60 seconds.  You can stand and wait, or keep walking.  If you keep walking and monsters show up, you may be attacked in “No Retry” mode, which means when you lose, game over.  This is completely stupid, because you don’t get attacked when not walking, so if you don’t want this to happen, just stand still after a failed throw.  Of course, the game is so easy, the risk of a real game over is virtually nil anyways. So I always keep walking. And that’s exactly what I did, into Proto-Behemoth, the one monster that really will kill you, even if you’re paying attention.

Second, Proto-Behemoth made me adjust paradigms manually for the first time since starting. I didn’t bother setting anything back afterwards, so I went into the final battle with paradigms I actually did occasionally use completely missing. Fortunately, this didn’t matter.  The final battle was yet another “Just Attack” scenario that a lack of paradigms didn’t really interfere with.

Despite all this ranting, I’m actually glad that Square Enix takes huge risks doing very different things with each iteration in the series.  Sure, there’s some familiar elements in every FF game, but no game in the series is ever just an minor iteration where there’s a few new weapons, different maps and a few control changes. They didn’t pull it off with FF13-2, but I hope they keep trying. And next time, I hope they get someone with a little common sense and a loud voice in their design department, because the game could so easily have been vastly better.

 Posted by at 11:10 am

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