Dear Final Fantasy, What Happened to You Man? (Part 2)
Dear Final Fantasy, What Happened to You Man? (Part 2)
Here, for my money, is where post-PS2 FF hasn’t done too badly (emphasis on too). The gameplay in FFX was glorious. I loved the tweaks to the classic class system, and the sidebar that displayed the constantly shifting turn order worked wonderfully. (Unfortunately, however, once you fully power up Yuna’s Nirvana, and can cast all the Holy you damn well please, the game became absurdly easy.) It was the only thing – aside from its visuals – that I felt FFX had improved upon from its predecessors.
I wasn’t huge on the battle system in FFXII. Maybe I just didn’t get it. (It has received a lot of positive feedback from critics.) I felt it strayed too far from the established FF turn-based battle system. I appreciated that it attempted something new by completely throwing out the random encounters, but the battles felt more like something from an MMORPG than what I had come to expect. Especially for a game set in the same world as FF Tactics (a deep and challenging game with, again, a great story), this main character/micromanagement focused battle system felt like a major step back – a perfect example, once more, of too much and too little at the same time.
And then we get to FFXIII’s mess of a battle system. Similar to FFXII, the player controls just the main character and doles out sets of commands/instructions to the other characters; unlike FFXII, the classic turn-based template makes a return. Although I appreciated being back in familiar battle territory, the bizarre ‘paradigm’ system (you select a number of paradigms – sets of blanket instructions for the whole squad, including your main character – and switch between them as dictated by the flow of battle) is a big failure.
I am shocked that the Square Enix team thought that going from controlling all the characters in battle (FFI-FFX), to controlling just one (FFXII), to, fundamentally, controlling none was even a remotely good idea. Of course, you can control your main character if you so choose, but after a few hours the battles become so fast paced that the game basically forces you to use paradigms. I will admit that I found a surprising amount of enjoyment in the simple paradigm system after I got the hang of it; yet, once I’d gotten ‘good,’ it played more like a rhythm game than anything resembling a traditional RPG.
Another issue is the clusterfuck of a battle screen HUB. No, FF battle screens have never been exactly simple, but they’ve never been this ridiculous. The screen is, unsurprisingly, overloaded with various commands, prompts, and situational messages (e.g., your current paradigm), most of which are colorful and written in big, flashy italics. Attack and health points get serious boosts in FFXIII. By about halfway through the game, expect the average boss to have about half a million HP. I know the difference between 10 HP and 10,000 HP is negligible if it evens out relatively, but having the numbers so absurdly high just feels like an superficial exercise in in-your-face radititude. Additionally, much of the time during the attack phase your character (or a character attacking you) actually ends up attacking five to ten times. That, plus the high speed of the battles, ensures that the battle screen is constantly cluttered in (mostly) useless crap.
Contrast this, once more, with FFIX, which utilizes – and, in my ever so humble opinion, just about perfects – the time honored class system. Instead of controlling no members of the group, you control (gasp!) every one, and each has her or his own special focus. Maining the game with a team of Zidane, Garnet, Vivi, and Steiner provides an impressively different experience than with a team of Zidane, Amarant, Quina, and Eiko. Very little – aside from strength and speed – differentiates any of the FFXIII characters in battle. Square Enix has confused complexity and complicatedness. FFXIII’s battles are complicated: loud, wild, and fast paced; FFIX’s are complex: they allow the player time to think, and require one to balance the abilities of his or her party’s characters. (And the same can be said of several other earlier installments.) There’s a big difference.
I’m not even going to comment on the goddamn Eidolon-Cycles.
I have exactly one good thing to say about the presentation of FFXIII, and after that I’m done. I’ll get it out of the way: the graphics are beautiful. They are, without question, stunningly pretty and eye catching. But so many games are beautiful these days; without the story and gameplay to back it up graphics are pure window dressing.
In FFs of previous years FMV cinematics were a sort of prize, a reward for besting a particularly challenging or important section of the game, or they would precede a particularly challenging or important section (e.g., the attack on Balamb Garden in FFVIII). With FFXIII, they have devolved into messy, pointless, explosive action sequences in which a lot of not much happens for no real purpose.
I’ve always hated when video games show you action rather than allow you play action; it almost always feels like a missed opportunity. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate a good cinematic action sequence in the middle of a game. For example, the attack on Balamb Garden in FFVIII is absurdly exciting, and is emphasized by one of the first attempts at allowing the player to navigate a character during such a sequence. (Allowing you to control Squall doesn’t exactly let you play the action, but it does add a layer of involvement.)
The problem is that the action in FFXIII’s movie sequences is constant and absurd. There is no ceiling that the hyper-reality of FFXIII will eventually hit, and as a result spatial logic is completely thrown out the window. Expect to see characters do things like throw themselves off hundred story buildings and not be hurt, do battle with an unlimited number of nameless militia, and hang on the back of a ship in ultra-fast, laser-heavy air battles using nothing but their bare hands. This is one of the major issues with shitty anime; its creators begin to think that just because it’s possible to animate any sequence they can imagine, they should. It’s almost impossible to care about the outcome, or worry about the safety of the characters when one such action sequence follows another, follows another, follows another. I have a proposition for Square Enix: how about next time I’m involved in yet another “video game as art” argument, you take over and explain to a naysayer why the main character of your game can do a sextuple backflip while being accosted by a dozen men with lasers and still find within her the grace to land in a picturesque pose.
As I wind this thorough bitch-fest down, I realize that I will be just another guy on the internet complaining about FFXIII. My opinion on the game is, by and large, negligible. But there’s a good reason for that: FFXIII is a pretty game, but a pretty big failure. It fails as a story; it fails as an example of video game design; it fails on a narrative level and even on the level of straight “entertainment”. It’s a tedious departure from well-hewn game mechanics and storytelling techniques; I will often commend a game for going against what is expected, and this might be a boon of FFXIII if it weren’t for the fact that it wholly embraced so many embarrassing entertainment cliches, like overwrought, weightless drama and pointless, abundant action sequences.
I would very much like to love Final Fantasy again, but I am not holding out a lot of hope for the near future. I just think the series needs to be trimmed in the right areas and deepened in others. FFXIV (which I have not play and base this assessment purely on its critical and commercial reception) was a severe miscalculation. The upcoming FFXIII-2 seems grim, a weak attempt to cash in on the FF brand after, basically, worldwide audience testing. It will, we are told, right all the wrongs of FFXIII-2 by adding to the already complicated story, tweaking the crappy paradigm system, and prettying up the already pretty graphics. Do you have your pre-order? I know I don’t.