Final Fantasy XIII

It should no longer be surprising when a new Final Fantasy game leads to violent disagreement among fans of the series. The characteristic marriage of over-the-top production values and highly experimental game design remains a winning formula in spite of – or perhaps because of – the controversy surrounding each new release.

I still haven’t made up my mind about FF13; both the supporters and detractors make valid points. There are some things the game does brilliantly, and other areas where it just falls flat. Given this situation, I thought it would be appropriate to look at some of the design choices made in this game, talking about which of them worked, and which of them didn’t.

What Worked

Automatic Recovery after Battles

Halo brought automatic health recovery to the FPS genre, and now FF13 might bring it to RPGs.

I have maintained (even before FF13) that this is just the Right Way to build an RPG in the modern era. If you look at the trend over the entire Final Fantasy series (which is in many ways representative of the entire JRPG genre), you would see that post-battle recovery has become easier with each installment. FF13 simply jumps to the end-point of this trajectory.

Some hardened RPG vets might complain that automatic recovery robs the game of its challenge. Such a complaint, though, completely misses the point. In older RPGs, surviving to the end of a massive dungeon was always a matter of attrition. Would the little nuisance encounters along the way drain your health, MP and stock of items enough to make the boss fight unwinnable? FF13 does abandon this kind of attrition challenge, but in return it adds a new challenge:

More Difficult Battles

Even in the early/mid game, the no-longer-random battles between boss fights can pose a real challenge in FF13. Enemies hit for a lot more and soak up a lot more damage than in any recent Final Fantasy. Coming into battle with the wrong strategy, or holding to a damage-dealing Paradigm just a bit too long, can quickly bring up the Game Over screen.

The battles are never overly cheap, though, as the more challenging random battles in the earliest JRPGs tended to be. You are unlikely to fall victim to a one-hit KO in the first round of battle, and almost every battle in the story progression can be won on a second or third try by bringing a better strategy to the table. And speaking of second tries…

No Penalty for Failure

Losing a battle in FF13 simply resets your party to a point right before that battle. At most you have to contend with a (skippable) cutscene before you can dive right back into the encounter with your new strategy.

Once again, the old-fashioned RPG vanguard might balk, but FF13 is simply subscribing to a more modern design ethos. Today’s players (if they are anything like me) have less free time, and thus have far less patience for being forced to replay an hour-long slog through a dungeon because of a single mistake made in a boss encounter.

Boss encounters in FF13 can be truly intimidating. Failure is never far away (see More Difficult Battles above), and victory usually depends on an understanding of the new battle mechanics that FF13 brings to the table. This brings us to:

Chaining, Stagger and Launch

The Chain Gauge is the key to victory in FF13’s hardest encounters, and adds a welcome layer of complexity to the battle system.

Every enemy has a Chain Gauge, initially empty. Attacks from a Ravager (aka Black Mage) fill the gauge, but it will quickly drain. Attacks from a Commando (aka Fighter) do little to fill the gauge, but slow its rate of decay. Once the gauge is filled to the top the enemy temporarily enters a Stagger state in which it is more susceptible to attacks of all kinds. Some enemies, when staggered, can be Launched into the air and juggled by successive attacks, preventing them from acting.

The stagger system is a great addition, and really forms the meat of FF13’s combat. Many enemies are effectively impervious to attack until staggered, while others can have their devastating offensive abilities completely shut down by a timely Launch. Mages and fighters feel balanced, without being interchangeable, because both play essential roles in the stagger mechanic.

Roles and Character Differentiation

A big problem looming over the 3D Final Fantasy games has been how to allow players to personalize their character development while still giving each character unique strengths and weaknesses. Final Fantasy VII and VIII occupy one extreme, where characters are nothing more than their base stats and a place to junction materia or spells. Final Fantasy IX stands at the other extreme, with each character belonging to a single designer-selected class (thief, knight, black mage, etc.) and only able to learn abilities appropriate to that class.

On this spectrum, FF13 occupies a nice middle ground. Every character is allowed to use any class, but has inherent aptitudes that make them most effective in certain roles. These aptitudes aren’t just a matter of their base stats, but are also reflected in the relative cost to upgrade them in each class, as well as the order in which they receive each class’s abilities (if at all). Because of these aptitudes, and because a character can only use one class at a time in battle, the game encourages players to specialize each character in a role that suits them.

What Didn’t Work

The Story

Final Fantasy XIII has an interesting setting (the dual worlds of Cocoon and Pulse) and a somewhat compelling scenario; ordinary people pressed into the service of warring deities, forced to fulfill their proscribed task or suffer a terrible curse. What it lacks, however, is any kind of story arc. After the initial early-game gauntlet is cleared, the protagonists blunder forward without any clear purpose. They don’t even know what task they are supposed to perform, let alone whether they intend to defy it. Once the antagonist steps forward, things only get worse. Even at the end of the game, it is unclear precisely how the protagonists’ ambitions differ from the antagonist.

All of this might not be so bad if the dialogue didn’t consist entirely of the various characters taking turns suffering crises of faith; questioning the morality/feasibility of their nebulously-defined mission. These crises are inevitably resolved with meaningless anime-inspired platitudes (e.g. “We can do it – we just need to believe in each other!”), and do nothing to further the plot or characterization.

The only visible purpose these ridiculous dialogues serve is to set up the reworked summons:

The Summons

There really isn’t anything about FF13’s “eidolons” that was executed well. First, they are clumsily shoehorned into the narrative; despite characters talking about how important they are, they could be completely excised from the story without any impact. The only time the eidolons appear outside of the scenes that introduce them is in a few style-over-substance cutscenes.

The (non-optional) battles to acquire each eidolon are tedious, and come at the end of some of the most insipid dialogue scenes in the game (see “The Story” above). The idea of a “puzzle battle” probably sounded good on paper, but in practice is just boring. The conditions for victory are so obtuse that the only way to find them is with a guide or the “Libra” technique. At that point, however, you are just applying a set formula, and your intelligence isn’t really being tested.

Your reward for acquiring each eidolon is underwhelming. Each can only be summoned by one character, and then only when that character is the party leader. The summons are barely powerful enough to take down ordinary enemy mobs, but they do have the side-effect of recovering the health and status of the party. As a result, the only reason to use a summon in practice is for its ancillary healing effect in major encounters.

The final nail in the coffin for FF13’s eidolons, though, is the patently ridiculous “Transformers” thing they have going. From a bright red race car to a disturbingly misogynistic motorcycle, these alternate forms for the summons look comically out of place in the game’s setting, and completely shatter suspension of disbelief.

Battle System Design

This might seem confusing after I talked up the whole Chain/Stagger/Launch thing earlier. While FF13 did make some interesting strategic additions to the battle system, it also took several missteps.

FF13 encourages players to lean on the “Auto-Battle” feature, letting the AI select which commands to use and on which targets, and reserving player control for “Paradigm Shifts.” Most battles can be won without any manual command entry, and the game’s creators have even commented about how manual command entry is neither practical (because of the speed of battles) nor desirable (since the AI can exploit nuances of the battle system that are not explained to the player).

Why, then, do I have to sit there and repeatedly press the X button to tell the party leader’s AI to do its job? Why, if I decide to input a command manually, can’t I pause the action while I buffer up commands? Why do I get a Game Over if my party leader falls in battle? Why can’t the non-leader characters use items? Why can’t I switch leaders in battle, or at least manually enter commands for non-leader characters? Why can’t I instruct the AI to favor reviving fallen characters over healing only moderately-wounded ones? Why can I only switch character classes in bulk, instead of for each character?

It may sound like I am just picking nits, but these are all things that Final Fantasy XII – its immediate predecessor – got right! FF13 inherits the emphasis on AI-controlled characters in battle, but robs the system of the extra degree of control (and hence of user-friendliness) that was present in FF12.

End-Game Tedium

In the early game, FF13 seemed to breathe new life into stagnant JPRG conventions. Minor battles can be cleared in tens of seconds (or less), and even boss encounters can be dealt with in mere minutes with the right strategy. It is unfortunate that by the end game, things have changed for the worse.

Random enemy mobs in the late game can take several minutes to clear (which makes grinding for experience more tedious than it needs to be), and boss battles can take 20 minutes or more if your team is even slightly under-leveled. Once your party has gained access to the most important abilities in the Synergist and Saboteur roles, most battles fall into a predictable and tired cycle of (de)buffing, attacking, and healing.

By this point, strategic decision making is largely absent from the picture. The player is responsible for switching Paradigms at the right time, but the set of Paradigms used in each enemy encounter rarely changes – only the particular attacks, buffs and debuffs used by the characters vary. But when the AI characters automatically “learn” what elements and status effects work best in each encounter, that leaves the player with very little to do during these 10-minute-plus battles.

Conclusion

In the end, lucky number XIII isn’t going to be remembered as one of the best Final Fantasies. It takes a bold stand on where JRPGs might go in the future – aspiring for accessibility with streamlined mechanics – but it stumbles in just as many places as it succeeds.

Learning to Write

The recent slew of changes that Apple has made to the secret iDevice developer agreement has finally pushed me to write up these thoughts, which have been nagging at me for a while now.

In the new world of computing, “devices” are king. And nobody sells a device these days without also having the forethought to build a walled garden around it. Apple is now the poster child for the “app store” model, but the video game industry had already proven the value of controlling both the hardware platform and software distribution.

It would be disingenuous of me to decry the practice outright. I’ve owned a variety of these locked-down devices, and have purchased software through the “approved” online stores. Yes, I have been frustrated by the consequences of restrictive copy-protection – re-buying games that I had already purchased when my XBOX 360 came up with a Red Ring of Death. Yes, I have often pondered “jailbreaking” these devices, and occasionally tried it out on those that I was willing to risk “bricking.”

In all of this, I have never stood up and “voted with my wallet” – passing up on a device because I didn’t approve of its software development and distribution model. Simply put, the value I got out of these devices – the latest Nintendo game, or the ease-of-use of the iPhone – surpassed the cost – the inability to load my own software and fully customize the device. Or at least, that was the only cost I could perceive at the time.

Now that I have a daughter, my perception is a bit different.

My generation has already formed a powerful attachment to our mobile devices – I often joke that given the choice between air and my iPhone I would have to think carefully. My daughter is going to grow up thinking that it is normal to be able to stream live video from across the world while riding in the back seat of a car. We could debate whether this pervasive access to technology will be harmful for the next generation, but this misses the point. The presence or absence of technology is not what is important. What is important is how future generations will relate to the technology of their time.

Remember that written language was once a “technology.” Those of you reading this have grown up in a world immersed in that technology; most of us are within sight of written words every moment of every day. The spread of literacy over millennia has changed human society, human history. We know that mastery of this technology – the ability to both consume and produce – is necessary for success in our society.

Those in my generation who consider themselves “computer literate” can often trace their learning process back to a handful of software systems: “turtle graphics” in Logo, BASIC on the Apple II or DOS, HyperCard on the early Mac. All of these systems allowed anyone with a computer to experiment with programming, and allowed even young children to use the technology to create and not just consume. The Scratch project provides a similar exploratory programming environment for today’s children. My wife teaches a technology course that, among other things, has 7th and 8th grade students build their own computer games using Scratch.

In case you hadn’t noticed, all of those software systems have another feature in common – none of them are allowed in Apple’s App Store. Children who want to use an iPad to create animations or games in Scratch can no longer do so. If they are especially motivated, and have helpful parents, I suppose they could pay to join Apple’s developer program, go out and buy dense technical books to teach them C, Objective C and Apple’s proprietary APIs, and spend months or years creating a project that would have taken mere minutes in Scratch.

That hardly sounds fair, though. It’s like telling kids they can have their Dr. Seuss book after they finish a thesis on Finnegans Wake. There is a reason these simple, intuitive programming environments exist, and the companies selling these devices shouldn’t just ignore the programmers of the future – the authors of tomorrow’s technology – in the name of platform lock-in.

I guess I’ve already nailed the point into the ground, but just to throw in a few closing comments: There are two technologies that shaped me most in my formative years – books, and desktop computers. What really frightens me is that both of these are brilliant ideas that would never be invented in today’s world. Books, which can be read, shared, bought and sold by anyone in any country – that don’t need to be bought separately for at-home and on-the-go use – would never even be considered by today’s media companies. The earliest PCs/Macs, which allowed anybody to buy, sell, install and develop any software they wanted, without diverting revenue back to the hardware manufacturer, would be seen as a squandered opportunity.

These technologies – books and computers – changed the world for the better, and now we are making haste to bury them in favor of their more profitable successors.