Saturday, April 3, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII - Game design and linearity

Judging by the message boards I tend to lurk around, I think I'm more liberal in my tastes for RPGs. I'd much rather play a game that does something new and interesting, rather than same-old-same-old. That's why I've always held a stronger affinity to Final Fantasy over Dragon Quest, which lowers my nerd street cred quite a bit, but that's the way I roll. Keeping in that, I really like Final Fantasy XIII, despite its boneheaded storytelling. Most of that stems from the awesome battle system, which mixes the best parts of Grandia with little bits of the Active Time Battle stuff from the older Final Fantasies, along with the general high level action management found in FFXII.

Yet as fantastic as this, I do wish they hadn't abandoned so much of the traditional stuff - it's not ALL bad, after all. To combat this, I've been playing the Japanese DS game 7th Dragon, which recently got a budget re-release in Japan. It's a year old by this point and no mention has been made of any localizations, which is a shame - it is a very traditional, 8-bit style RPG, but there's a lot of stuff I dig about it, and it's far better than most of the C-level dreck like Sands of Destruction, and quite a bit more interesting than playing Final Fantasy IV or Chrono Trigger for the fourth time. With 7th Dragon and Final Fantasy XIII taken together, in an alternating fashion, it creates a completely fulfilling experience, moreso than either game by itself.

The biggest issue with FFXIII, as noted billions of times over, is its linearity. Not only in its level designs, which I don't mind so much, but on the characters you play as and how they're customized. In all of the other Final Fantasy games, I'd kick the characters I didn't like to the sidelines, but here, you're playing as Vanille, whether you like it or not. (I do not.) In 7th Dragon...heck, there are seven different character classes with four designs each, and none have any obnoxious personality to get in the way. Below, see at my mage looks pissed off because I gave her such a retarded name.

One of FFXIII's directors claimed that linearity is necessary to tell a structured story. In a way that's true, but it also has a great advantage in creating a meticulously structured experience from a gameplay standpoint. With all of the characters having different roles (to start out) and with each chapter changing up the roster, you're forced to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly.

To explain why this is so cool, let's look back on the Final Fantasy series as a whole. There have always been elemental spells to take advantage of enemy weaknesses, there have always been sleep and stun and insta-kill spells. But did you ever really NEED any of them? Most of the games from IV onward can be beaten without paying attention to any of these, which conditioned a lot of RPGs players to think the games lacked depth. Then Shin Megami Tensei and Dragon Quest started becoming more popular, and all of sudden, hey, you really DO need to exploit enemy weaknesses and use sleep spells unless you want to get trampled over!

Keeping in that, with the introduction of the Job system there have been dozens upon dozens of weird and unique special skills. But the game never actually teaches you the usefulness of these skills - they just toss all kinds of stuff at you and expect you to figure it out. While this fairly freeform approach to design allows for a lot of experimentation, and much more replay value, it's somewhat undone by the lack of balance - what was the point of using a Geomancer or a Beastmaster in FFV when any of the other classes seemed more immediately useful? Surely there are uses for them, but the game lays that burden on the player.

To bring things back to 7th Dragon, I got about five hours into the game before I realized that I needed a Knight, to use her skills to counteract the poison of the thousands of flowers strewn throughout the game world. (Above, named after nerd queen Zooey Deschanel.) The Knight has strong defensive powers, which is handy for protecting the rest of your party. In theory, anyway - functionally I haven't found a real use for it. I keep my attackers in the front row and my mage/healer in the back, per usual structure, but the Knight skills can only be used on a specific row. So, I can have her defend the back row...but it gobbles up a significant amount of magic points, and if no one in the back row is attacked, I just wasted my precious resources. That, and by defending, I've lost an attack for the turn. Which is important when, again, you need to beat battles quickly and conserve those resources! Despite leveling her up quite a bit, I ditched the Knight and brought my Princess back. The Knight is probably useful, but hell if I know when and where.

Final Fantasy XIII though? I think I'm on the 7th chapter, and after being (thankfully) absent for a good chunk of the game, Snow has rejoined the party. He's the first time where you really get to use the Sentinel role, which as a defender. Similar classes have existed in previous Final Fantasy games, also as a Knight, with Cover skills that would let that character take damage in the stead of another, if they were in mortal danger, but keeping a character in that dedicated role never made much sense. But the way FFXIII is structured, Snow is paired with Hope, who is incredibly weak, and can be killed very easily. You absolutely NEED to know when you use those Sentinel skills to protect him, or he'll die, and then you'll die.

What's more is that the feedback is immediate, and you can quickly jump back in action if you screw up. Since leveling isn't terribly important, the onus lies on your strategy and not your numbers. The Shin Megami Tensei games occasionally have checkpoints, where it tests to see not only if you understand the systems, but whether you've built a well rounded demon squadron - if you come across legions of Jack Frosts, you'd better make sure you have some Agi spells. If you don't have the right skills...well, back to spending some time to get them. FFXIII cuts out that, quite frankly, tedious step, by forcing you to learn the rawest sense of mechanics, rather than looking at your party build. Consider your party build has been one of the defining factors of any JRPG for the last twenty years, to toss that aside, is pretty forward thinking.

No, wait, now that I think about it, that's really amazing! For such a long time, RPGs have just slung powers at you, and sent you off into the unknown to sift through them and figure it out. (Or buy a strategy guide. Or talk to other people. Promoting community isn't a bad thing but neither of these should be a necessity.) In FFXIII, the way the encounters are engineered, you slowly learn better ways to use the roles, until you become a master at it. Without random battles, you'll first fight a couple of popcorn soldiers, then some popcorn soldiers and their stronger compatriots, then finally a whole squadron of the stronger guys, each acting as increasing tests of your understanding of Paradigm Shifting. It's far tighter experience, and from a certain perspective, makes the last few decades look comparatively sloppy.

People have been complaining that the opening twenty hours or so of FFXIII feel like a tutorial. While it's a bit silly that they pop up for things that should be self-explanatory, is there anything really wrong with that? Look at any real great action game for the past twenty years. For one of the best, let's take the original Ninja Gaiden. You're first taught to handle the timing of your sword swings to take out the dogs, and properly wall jump. In the second stage, you need to be able to time your jumps against the enemies so you aren't knocked into pits. In the third stage and onward, you need to be able to jump and swing your sword in perfect precision, until you've mastered everything to beat the final stages. The directors of FFXIII have repeated said that the game is meant to be closer to cinematic action games like Call of Duty or Uncharted, which are similarly designed to teach you skills as the story progresses, so why is it so awful that FFXII takes that route?

Well, the biggest slam against FFXII is its pacing. By the time I got Snow back and his Sentinel role, the clock hit the 11 hour mark. I've ditched other RPGs long before point, and have really only kept at it on the promise that the battles get awesome. They do, but that's really just too long to get into everything, and I really don't blame people for throwing their arms up in disgust in favor of something that properly quenches the thirst for some kind of traditional RPGing. In this aspect, the introduction of the mechanics are conflicting with the storytelling, which is definitely one of FFXIII's greatest flaws.

Still, don't dismiss it so quickly! As much as it's easy to think that the people behind it must be total morons, that everyone wants Fallout 3 or Oblivion or whatever, but once you examine how everything is laid out, perhaps you can become more appreciable of what it does right, rather than what it does wrong. Not every RPG needs to be designed like this - hence why 7th Dragon still has a very appreciable place, and there's still a lot of advantages to the exploration of character development mechanics - but the ones that do should be applauded rather than derided.


  1. If FFXIII didn't have a learning curve, I'd imagine the expirience to be a lot like Resonance Of Fate.

    PS How is the pacing in Valkyria Chronicles?

  2. "Linearity" was never an issue until the ps2 came out. Now, when people think jrpgs, they think Final Fantasy. And not old school Final Fantasy; the connotation has shifted to a 40 hour movie which occasionally requires you to press buttons.

    Every scripted rpg is going to have some linearity. What you've just done is pinpoint (pretty effectively, I might add) the extremes to where Square Enix has taken us. I was understanding toward FFX. It was a new console; a launch title; the first foray into voice acting. Not universally loved...(understatement), but at least it rolled the dice.

    The games are now a brand. Buyers know exactly what to expect. Move along, no surprises here. Their worst sin is the constant hand-holding, as if their audience has never played a game before.

  3. wow,the first opinion online 've read that doesn't take the easy route (hate bandwagon).

    I totally agree with you,i love the game battle system,but the level design makes it feel like a dungeon crawler sometimes.

    The story i felt it unfinished i cannot elaborate too much into this for spoilers sake but there are characters in the game that were obviously going to have a way bigger role that the one they got in the final game.

    the characters are awfully predictable and cliche,not to mention the several sephiroth clones that nomura keeps vomiting.

    And yet i have 70 hours clocked in the game,finished at 40 and i keep coming back doing what i guess are this generation's sidequests.

  4. johhnyfog- I'm not really sure what you're taking about, as every Final Fantasy game is vastly different. Have you played FFXII? The story isn't even a very big part of enjoying the game, and it is a really open expirience. Just because FFXIII is linear (and it is not like any other FF game, have you played it?), doesn't mean that the next game will be like it. FFXIV is an MMORPG? So while you might not like the direction FF is going in, you should at least admit that it's not stagnating...

  5. I like XII. It's challenging, cutscenes are minimal, and you can go anywhere. And though the mark hunts still have the effect of godmoding your party, they're tough enough to compensate.

    The plot is not as important as the game? Well....yeah. Of course? The whole point of this discussion is that the gameplay of XIII (or MGS4) is almost secondary..

    FFX didn't offer too many deviations from the main path. To compensate, they added these asinine sidequests like the monster hunts. The art aesthetic was unique though; when I say "brand", I mean the glitzy futuristic utopia settings that are more suited for, say, PSO than in a string of FF games.

  6. Well, you do know that FFXIV will not be futuristic, right? And neither were the last 3 FF games, so I dunno what you're talking about there.

  7. X and XII weren't futuristic? Wrong.

    So, the fact that each FF game is its own separate continuity is proof of...what? Unblemished creativity?

  8. I do appreciate the time and effort you put in your article, and also i appreciate the points you try to prove with it.

    However, i also dislike being asked to give something a chance in spite of changing my mindset so i can "enjoy" something. If said something hasn't catched my attention or motivate me to get into it after a reasonable lenght, why should i force myself to enjoy it? If i try it and don't find it enjoyable, why should it become my quest to descipher it and look at it under a different light?

    I do not hate the game, either. I just find it unbearable, not having what i used to like about the series anymore. I just approached it hoping they got it right again. Even if you say they got some things right, it doesn't get me in the right way.

    Thanks again for the time you've invested writing this. Been a valuable reading, more interesting than the game itself.

  9. I've played through over 70 more or less traditional JRPGs, and I find it... retarded, that people are complaining about XIII, how it's doing something completly new (and great) to the genre. It's ridiculous really.

  10. The game was linear, but I still loved it. GORGEOUS Graphics. Great characters and some of the best music in the series. I Can't wait for Final Fantasy Versus 13 now :).

  11. There hasn't been a good Final Fantasy since 9.

    I appreciate that all of them are kinda different (at least in the mechanics; the setting of the games have all felt somewhat similiar since 6, aside from 9). I APPRECIATE a lot of games, but I don't find them enjoyable. XII was the worst game I've ever played in my life. This one isn't much better. Sorry.

  12. BTW, I realize this is an old post, but I can't believe johnnyfrog said "FFXII was challenging". Really? Which part, exactly? I mean, the 100 Floor Dungeon challenged me to keep awake, and every boss can be beaten by using your special skill with every party member... later bosses can be beaten by doing that, then cheating a bit and putting in a party member you weren't using and have them use their skill real quick.. and then you can do that with the other 2 usually-unused party members and the boss will be nearly dead. A bit cheap but it gets the battles over with quicker.

    I will say, the last boss is pretty impossible. I was level 81 (!) and had unlocked tons of powerful weapons and so on and still died over and over. I eventually just quit. I forced myself through that game for no apparent reason, I never once felt it was enjoyable. I think it was the only game I ever forced myself to keep playing, because some dork somewhere told me it'd get better. It didn't. It was EXCRUCIATING.