_hojo:Final Fantasy XIII – revolutionizing the paradigm outside the boxMay 10, 2010
_On December 17th, 2009, Final Fantasy 13 was released in Japan. The hype was huge and the internet was abuzz with “He said, she said” from friend’s brother’s cousin’s roommate who speaks japanese but can’t read it that well who was about 5 hours into the game, but already had written up their final impressions on the full game. After about 2 weeks, you’d have thought that the entire internet was fluent in japanese, had imported the JP FF13 and had played through the full game already, because if you brought it up, they’d tell you how linear it was, how the storytelling was weak, who the worst member of the awful cast was, and how the lack of towns ruined the gameplay. Because everybody had totally played it. “I can’t wait for this to come out and get torn apart by the US reviewers because it’s horrible!” All this from people who weren’t jaded anti-S-E revisionists who loved FF7 back when it came out, then when they found out that kids that went to Hot Topic were into Advent Children, they started telling people that FF7 was totally gay and K-ON! is hardcore. No sirree. Anyways…on March 9th, FF13 hit US shores, and shockingly enough, I decided for play it myself and judge it based on my own feelings. Novel concept, eh? These are those feelings put into words.
_Final Fantasy XIII sees the franchise return back to the series roots. Final Fantasy has always been based on attacking via menus, the presence of stats, and crystals, and FF13 has them all, so it’s just like every other FF game! Yeah…that’s a load of bullshit. I mean, if you wanted to trick a FF fan into thinking that this was a traditional FF game, you could tell them that, and they might buy into it. The quick and dirty description of this game that it’s a story heavy RPG with fast-paced battles with a ton of the fat of traditional RPG’s trimmed off. So…that’s the quick and dirty version. But you know me…and this isn’t a Roundup post, so “quick and dirty” isn’t gonna cut it here.
_First, let’s dive into the battle system. Battles play out in a kind of hyper-speed Active-Time Battle, and if you had to compare it to any other previous FF game, it most closely resembles FFX-2. The biggest difference here is that where in X-2 you controlled all 3 party members, here you only control 1 and the computer AI controls the rest of your party. This sounds worse than it actually is, as the pre-programmed AI is actually quite good (More on this later). You have two main commands: Auto-battle and abilities, which are kind of the same thing. Abilities brings up all of the attacks available for you to use, and Auto-battle will automatically select from [almost all of] those skills. If you’ve scanned an enemy and know what he’s weak against and what status ailments he’s susceptible to, Auto-battle will automatically select those for you. Because, like I said, the game is “hyper-speed ATB,” the ATB gauge fills rather quickly, so manually selecting your abilities can take up precious seconds while the gauge is full and you’re missing out on time you’d otherwise be attacking if you Auto-battle’d. So, obviously, for most of the game, you’ll be using Auto-battle. You might be saying to yourself “Spam auto? That doesn’t sound like I’m actually doing anything! That’s possibly something I didn’t like about the gambits in FF12! Is there ANY strategy in this game? Do I ever really do anything in battle? ” The answer is yes…yes, you do have to do something.
_All battles center around the Paradigm Shift system. What are Paradigms, you ask? Well, besides being a sweet 1980’s corporate buzzword and sounding totally sweet when mispronounced, they’re basically FF13’s job system. Paradigms are comprised of roles. You have your Commando [Fighter], Ravager [Black mage], Sentinel [Defense tank], Synergist [Buffs], Saboteur [Debuffs], and Medic […Medic]. Now, before you go thinking silly things like FF5 or FFT jobs, where your Black Mages, Time Mages and Healers can cast black magic for decent damage, or heal people or even smack people with their staffs, in FF13, people in a respective role can only preform actions in that paradigm…FOREVER! Meaning that if Ms. Lightning is a Commando, she can only do physical attacks as a Commando, and will never gain the ability to do magic attacks or cast Haste or even fucking DEFEND as a Commando for as long as she ever shall live under the role of a Commando (Actually, she doesn’t even learn the defend technique, Steelguard, as a Sentinel, so specifically, Lightning can NEVER defend =P). For characters to preform a role’s actions, they must be in that role. Now, while by the end of FF13, all characters can eventually use every role, unlike many other games involving jobs, every character doesn’t learn every skill in every role. Add to that the fact that the stat progression of every character is very noticeably different, and even their attack animations and movement speed in battle make them more or less proficient at some classes than others, and you’ll find that every character has their own unique strengths and weaknesses and can be useful in any situation, although certain female characters are better than others and can be useful in pretty much every situation at all times.
_So…how does all of this shit work in battle? Well…in the menu, you can set-up 6 Paradigms for your 3 character team. You can use something like Com/Rav/Med, for a physical attacker, a mage and a healer, or maybe start a battle with Syn/Syn/Sab to quickly buff your party and weaken the enemies. Or if you want to be dumb, you can have Sen/Sen/Sen for triple tanks. Anyways, you can switch to any of your Paradigms mid-battle when needed. So…if the enemies are kicking your ass a little too hard, maybe switch to a Paradigm with a Synergist and a Medic, then when you’re healed and buffed, back over to an offensive one to lay the whooping. A boss is about to unleash a strong attack? Quickly switch over to a Paradigm with a Sentinel to soak up the damage and a Medic to heal him back up after he takes it. Basically, all of the strategy from the old FF games that used to involve things like going into menus, spamming elemental weaknesses, knowing and exploiting boss patterns…it’s there. It just moved from the attacks/magic/item menu into the Paradigm menu, and the battles play a lot differently because of it.
_One last thing about the battles. As mentioned before, the party AI is overall pretty good. When you have them in different roles, they have certain scripts that they follow. If they’re in the Saboteur role, then they’ll only cast de-buffs that the enemy isn’t immune to, and once they’re afflicted with it, they won’t attempt to cast it on them until it wears off. As a Synergist, they always cast Haste first, followed by Protect if you’re fighting heavy physical attack users, or Shell if they’re magic based. But although the scripted AI is good, having come on the heels of FF12 with its advanced gambit system, I’d have liked to have had the ability to customize the AI scripts myself. The AI will ALWAYS cast protection based buffs before offensive buffs, which at times you simply don’t need. Maybe I want Bravery first, dammit. Sure, they might be weak to both Fire and Thunder, but Thunder doesn’t have travel time. Yeah…some form of customization would’ve been nice.
_Fuck…four paragraphs on the battle engine? What is this shit, a real review? Well…no, it’s laced with profanity and I’m putting a bunch of informal bullshit like this in it. Well, let’s move on to the rest of the game, shall we? As you may have heard, FF13 is very linear. Extremely linear. You might be thinking, “It’s a FF game…how linear could it be?” Well…if it was a rail shooter, it MIGHT be a little more linear for the first 30 hours or so, but even some rail shooters have alternate paths if you shoot a hidden box or something. I mean, they usually still lead to the same end of stage boss, but I’m just saying. LINEARITY SPOILER – Seriously, for the first 10 chapters of the game, the only “optional paths” are a side tunnels that leads to treasure spheres that you have to turn around and go back down once you’re done collecting the loot (And yeah, “Treasure sphere.” Chests have become way too cliché for a franchise as grandiose as Final Fantasy).
_So what does the linearity mean for the gamer? Well…it has pros and cons. One thing that I really liked about it was the absence of stupid ass event triggers. One thing that always irked me about RPG’s was when someone told you “Oh, go to this town and talk to this guy,” and they didn’t give you any description of what he looked like or where in the town he might be, or, even better, the game was designed so awesome that there’s something specific you have to do in the town to make said person show up. Or maybe he’s actually not even there, and you’re supposed to just give up and try to leave the town and you bump into him on the way out. Those are always fun. Anyways, stupid bullshit like that is a big waste of fucking time. The rail-quest presentation of FF13 does away with these annoyances. “Here we go, rolling into a new area…I wonder where I’m supposed to go? Oh…a cutscene started. They’re taking care of it for me. Kay. New dungeon. What direction should I head? Oh…it’s a tunnel, and there’s a wall to my back.” There’s a lack of towns, but everything you’d normally do in a town in an RPG has been streamlined in other areas. You’d normally go to a town to advance plot: that’s done via automatic cut-scenes, as mentioned. You’d go to town to buy weapons and accessories: shops are accessed at any save point. You’d go to towns to rest at an inn: your HP is restored automatically between fights. Yes, there aren’t any towns in FF13…but they’ve pretty much eliminated the need for them, unless you just loved talking to random NPC’s that have nothing better to do than say the same line of dialog over and over again (Damn those Pulse l’Cie!”).
_Now, that’s where a downside comes in. While later on in the game, you DO get to explore a nice open area with side-quests and multiple paths and such, but single paths leading forward with a single dead-end fork with treasure at the end is a large percentage of the main game. If you’re the kind of RPG player that likes exploring huge worlds and getting lost in adventure and at times having so many side-quests open to you, that you just wander around a town for 30 minutes trying to activate them all so as to save time so you don’t have to come back later, then this is a big let down. FF13 doesn’t give you a real sense of being in a grand world, with an endless amount of vast possibilities waiting to be discovered. The linearity is a stark contrast to FF12, where every time you finished a story dungeon, it seemed like at least 5 hours of side quests opened up. When I played FF12, by the time I finished all the side quests, I forgot what had happened in the plot. While I understand that the linearity in the game was to try to help focus on the story and character development, I don’t think it was necessary for them to go to quite the extreme that they did.
_The writing in the game is some of the best the series has seen. The standout comes in the form of the characters and the character development. Every character gets a good amount of time devoted to them in the game towards development. By the end of the game, I liked every character in my party a lot more than I did when they first joined the party. This is one of the stronger casts in a Final Fantasy game. I liked the main story of the game, but the presentation was a bit disappointing. Even with the aforementioned focus on plot, the story presented in the main game is abnormally confusing if you don’t read the optional datalog entries found in the menu screen. You’ll have terms like “Fal’cie” and “Pulse l’cie” and say “I wonder what those are…I’m sure that somebody in the game will explain it to me.” And someone in the game does…the datalog does. The optional datalog. The one that you have the option to never open for the entire game. The one that it’s very possible to ignore for 50+ hours and just be left scratching your head and wondering to yourself “I think from the context clues that I kind of understand what a Fal’cie is at this point…but I really wish there was some kind of explanation at some point in time ever in the game.” Maybe they were thinking TOO far ahead and said “Let’s not put a long-winded explanation of what these things are so when people so a 2nd and 3rd playthrough, they don’t have to sit through those couple minutes of exposition.” But then, if that was the logic, any time a character reveals a motive, why not just have them say nothing? Repeat players already know! In fact, why not just have NO DIALOG AT ALL? Obviously, they don’t do that because that would be stupid. Also, if you don’t want to hear about that stuff on a 2nd playthrough, you can always just skip the cut-scene. Meaning that if they HAD explained what fal’cie and l’cie were in the natural course of the game [which, by the way, are terms used A LOT in the game because they’re VERY IMPORTANT!] and repeat players didn’t want to hear it, they could always just go “Pause -> Skip.” Maybe the dialog seemed unnatural, because the characters in game already knew what they were. Then how about a little narration or something? So…the fact that even with the focus on story, they still managed to botch up a couple parts in the plot presentation like that is a bit discouraging. But all that aside…the cast was excellent, and I enjoyed the plot, although in typical FF fashion, a couple parts of it were a bit “…wait a second, what?”
_The musical score in the game is another standout for the genre. As many as stated, the battle theme, “Blinded by Light,” is one of the best battle themes of recent memory. Walking around Oerba the first time while “Dust to Dust” played both on the field and in battles was a fantastic design choice. The somber tone of the music fits the mood of the party and the area perfectly. All of the character theme’s go well with their respective characters. You can feel a bit of their personality reflected in the tone of their songs. The ludicrousness of the guitar riffs for Snow. The laid back, heavy on the bass theme on Sazh’s theme. The high notes seemingly trying to hide the low chords in Vanille’s theme. Music during story scenes fit with what’s going on and aren’t overbearing. There’s a wide range of dungeon themes, from large orchestral pieces to more ambient work to vocal melodies. I always enjoy nice variation from dungeon to dungeon. While there are other specific tracks I could talk about (The Yaschas Massif, for example), I’ll stop here and say that the score for the game front to back is quite good.
_OK…so let’s start fucking complaining. Back to the linearity of the game…I know I said that I really didn’t mind how linear the game was earlier, but I feel it worth mentioning just how asinine the on-rails design of the game is at times. There are sections early in the game when you’ll be traveling in a group of five…as you might remember, in-battle parties are fought in groups of three. During these early game sections, you are forced to use the same three members all the time. If you open up the menu, you’ll see the other two characters there, but the game won’t let you put them in the active party. Yeah, THAT’S how set in their ways the developers were in having you do things exactly the way they wanted it. You also can’t choose your party leader (The character you control in battle) until the same point in the game where you actually DO get to customize your party, which is MIND BOGGLINGLY late in the game. Seriously, you’re 30, 35 hours in, fucking waist deep in FF13, and a tutorial window pops up showing you how to switch party members. Holy shit. That brings me to another point…tutorial pacing. Yeah, how often has anybody ever used that term? The pacing of the tutorials in this game is atrocious. Remember all that shit I was talking about earlier, about roles and Paradigms and shit? You know…the main hook of the battle system in the game? Yeah…that doesn’t actually happen until maybe 4 hours in. No fucking joke. 4 hours in, you get a tutorial on how to level up your roles. And even then, at that point everybody only has one role, so you don’t even get to Paradigm shift. Granted, you more roles like, a second later, but for fucks sake. It’s like they figured that they made a game so mind-bendingly complex that “Oh shit, we’d better spread all the tutorials out over the course of 10 hours. You know, to give people time to fully grasp the all the concepts we gave them in the last tutorial before we hit them with another super complex one, like how to equip a weapon.”
_Another complaint comes when you actually do get to change your party. Every time you change your party, it will automatically change your Paradigm set-up. You can have up to 6 Paradigms set, but when you change your party, it will erase them all and automatically set up 3 new ones and leave 3 blank ones. And before you ask, no, it doesn’t remember your Paradigm set-up if you change your party back to the previous set-up. It’s god damned annoying. It really makes you want to not change your party much when you finally do get the ability to change your party.
_Now, time my biggest god forsaken complaint about this game…money. Similar to FF12, enemies don’t drop any money. Because that’s realistic. I mean, why would every random Flanitors and Behemoth in the world all randomly carry around the exact same amount of gil on their dead corpse? That’s not realistic at all. More realistic is if they all randomly have a spoil. More realistic is if every wolf you kill randomly has a Wolf’s Fang…because wolves normally don’t have teeth or anything. They’re all feral herbivores that gum their strict veggie diet down the hatch and attack any human that dares to tread on their territory. Or it’s realistic that giant fucking Adamantoises the size of dinosaurs carry around Gold Nuggets and completely made up transformation catalysts inside of the pockets of their shells. And it’s realistic that people turn into crystal, and a man could have a tiny chocobo live in his hair without it becoming encrusted with bird shit. Maybe somewhere, in someone’s ass-backwards mind, this whole “enemies don’t carry money” thing works and makes sense. Hell, even in theory, it kind of makes sense. But in FF12, it was nothing but a big fucking pain in the ass. But at least in FF12, you didn’t actually need that much money. In FF13…you need a fucking TON of money. If you want to get weapons worth a salt, you don’t need a king’s ransom in gil. You need 5 fucking monarchy’s ransoms in gil, plus a pharaoh’s ransom and all of his slave laborers. And the only way to get it is to grind endlessly for untold hours on end. And the best part is that when you’re grinding for money, you’re not even guaranteed to GET ANY! Because you’re not actually getting money…you’re getting random drops, which you’ll then sell for money! And the best items for money come from retardedly difficult enemies with mind blowingly low drop rates! Fuck you, Square! Stop this bullshit! Make enemies drop money! If it was really that fucking much of a problem, then a league of nerds would’ve already stopped finding gold pieces in the bellies of dragons in pen and paper RPG’s years ago. But they still do because it’s a fucking awful idea not to, and they’d probably physically assault the dungeon master that did that to them. Yes, NERDS would PHYSICALLY ASSAULT a person for not finding gold on the dead corpses of random monsters. This is what you’re risking, S-E. Assholes. Good thing you’re based in Japan, because otaku are wussier than nerds and will probably just kill themselves on your corporate building.
_Where does FF13 fall when compared to the rest of the series? I’ve never been big on comparing the FF games to one another. Other than the name, they never have much in common. Granted, the gameplay had similarities, but Square always made the effort to have every game feel different than the last. But…this one…it’s really out there. It’s almost hard to even call it an RPG. Sure, it LOOKS like one. It takes at least 40 hours to beat; there’s as much focus on plot and characters as there is on gameplay; you attack enemies by selecting “Attack” via a menu; you gain experience when you beat enemies; it’s made by Square-Enix. All signs point to RPG. But…what RPG doesn’t have magic points? What RPG put you in battles but doesn’t allow you level up for the first 4 hours of the game? What RPG doesn’t have a “Defense” stat? What RPG doesn’t have ARMOR? What RPG doesn’t have an “Evade” stat but instead has you sometimes evade attacks by timing your attacks and starting your animation to move out of the way of it? You’d be tempted to say “action RPG” to that last one, except the thing that defines an action RPG is that buttons are assigned to specific actions. You can’t control characters in battle with the thumbsticks, and all actions are done via menu…so it’s not action at all. What RPG starts you off at a checkpoint right before your last battle every time you die instead of bringing you back to your last save point? What non-SRPG restores your health not at every save point, but after every battle? What RPG puts save points everywhere every 15 minutes? Maybe an entry level RPG? Less stats=less complexity=less shit to worry about. Maybe…except FF13 is actually rather difficult. Also, I really like having tons of save points. I don’t like being roped into playing an RPG for 3 hours just because the dungeon designer wanted to make an obscenely long dungeon and didn’t feel like putting a save point at any area besides the beginning and the end, if at all. I don’t know…it’s almost like some other genre of game in an elaborate RPG-skin…only I have no idea what other genre that might be. So I guess “RPG/RPG hybrid” will have to do, even though it makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever it actually is, it pulls it off well.
_If I was a professional reviewer, I’d have to dock points for some of the ridiculous design choices made in the game, like how far into the game you have to go to level your character and for Paradigms, the main game mechanic, to be introduced. But since I’m not, and I can be totally biased and grade the game on my own personal enjoyment. Final Fantasy XIII is “Delicious; Would gladly eat again.”