Tuesday, March 16, 2010

no pictures (FFXIII spoilers)

I finished Final Fantasy XIII the other day, and I liked it. It was a beautiful, intense journey through the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse, showing flashes of where the JRPG genre may be heading as a whole. It was concise and to the point, the battle system was fantastic, the music and graphics were beautiful, and once you finally got down to the rolling plains of Gran Pulse, the game really did open up and give you a ton of stuff to do.

I didn't like everything about it, though. I'm not going to spend eight paragraphs whining about the linearity of the game, because I was expecting the next Kitase/Nomura Final Fantasy to be linear before we knew anything significant about XIII. Instead, I'm going to run through a list of things that actually detracted from my experience.

Lightning died of cholera

FFXIII's pacing is completely, unequivocally terrible. When people complain about the linearity, this is what they're really talking about; the lack of towns and the feeling of being on the run create a grueling pace that doesn't let up until you hit Pulse. This may be a good thing for action games, but for an RPG where so much effort is funneled into crafting beautiful worlds with rich histories, it's a good idea to, you know, give the player some time to lay back and take it all in. FFXIII does not do this until 20 hours in, where it allows you to run around the Archylte Steppe and do a few side missions before pushing you off toward the next story event by hard capping your character progression, meaning you can't do more than the most basic ones.

FFX got by with this amount of linearity by providing sufficient down time to learn about Spira, its inhabitants and their way of life. I have completed FFXIII, and I know next to nothing about the people and lifestyles of Cocoon's residents, much less the ruined landscapes of Pulse. I don't know anything about the technology that keeps Cocoon afloat, or anything about how and why it was built aside from some vague legends seen in the datalog. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but regardless, it was a failure on Square's part.

Shin Megami Tensei syndrome

FFXIII's battle system is fantastic, but there's one thing about it that I can't stand. You've seen it in Shin Megami Tensei, now it's in Final Fantasy: main character death = game over. Or in this case, controlled character death.

Phil and I have argued about this on multiple occasions, so I'll break down both sides of it for you: Phil's argument is that it creates a sort of metagame for you to play, where the real challenge is keeping your controlled character alive. He argues that it adds an extra challenge to the battles, making them more intense and strategic.

My argument is that -- aside from the fact that at face value, the concept itself makes no sense whatsoever from a plot or gameplay standpoint (why can't my party members just toss me a phoenix down?) -- it doesn't add any real challenge to the game because you get to a point where the only reason you can't win a battle is because your controlled character keeps dying, i.e., the fight itself isn't hard, you're just getting boned by a ridiculous gameplay mechanic. When you start being forced to alter your party makeup so that you're controlling a high-HP character, like Snow, and using the sentinel role the entire fight just so you don't eat it, you've completely lost me. It puts a huge strain on what you're able to do with the character you control, putting a damper on the experience as a whole. It's just not as fun. Not to mention all the frustration you'll have getting completely tooled in one hit by some of the ridiculously difficult bosses because you made a slight mistake, or didn't switch paradigms fast enough, or the boss decided to cast a death spell on you and it just happened to stick (seriously -- this can happen, on the final boss no less).

Speaking of ridiculously difficult bosses, this is something else that pertains to the title up there: the difficulty takes a massive hike upwards at the end of chapter 9. Much like Shin Megami Tensei, you'll have 30 minute boss fights that could end at any time because the boss decides it wants to OHKO your controlled party member. That is if you can keep up the healing to get that far, constantly getting reamed by AoE attacks and status effects. The thing is, all that would be fine and dandy if it weren't for that god awful game over mechanic. The fights would still be challenging, they'd just be fair. This isn't Valkyrie Profile 2, the battle doesn't end when you kill the enemy party's "leader." Why does it work that way for my party and not theirs? Too many questions, no answers. Bad design choice.

To its credit, FFXIII does have a very forgiving nature, in that if you do get a game over, you can simply retry instantly with no penalty, which is a great idea that more games should look into. It's interesting, though, that they would make the later boss fights so maddeningly difficult if they were trying to cater to a wider audience with this game. Because, you know, if that's what they were going for... it probably didn't work. This is by far the hardest game in the entire series. It's not close.

In every JRPG, some Snow must fall

I hate Snow Villiers. Not so much the character itself, but what he represents -- that is, the entire plague that destroys the plot of every JRPG in existence.

A bold statement, you might think. Well, let me explain. Snow Villiers is a typical anime archetype, an overconfident guy with his head in the clouds who likes to give speeches about "hope" and "destiny" and "following the path in your heart." You've heard this before, right? Right. In the beginning, most of the characters resist his idealistic notions. Lightning famously punches him in the face when he starts going off on his silly tangents early in the game. The thing is, later in the game, everyone sees him as some kind of moral leader, and they all adopt his idealistic outlook on their whole situation. This is where the problem is. Here's why.

It's. Not. Human. Snow is alien. There is no human being in existence who would react to the dire situation of these six people the way Snow does -- Hope or Sazh's feelings of dejection are far more accurate. You have to understand: this isn't spilt milk. This is "your whole life now belongs to fal'Cie, and if you don't do what they ask, you turn into a monster. And if you do, you turn into a crystal for eternity." So basically, as far as they know, they die no matter what they do. Of course, this is on top of other major problems the party is dealing with -- Sazh's son had become a Sanctum l'Cie, Hope's mother was killed, and Snow's fiance/Lightning's sister completed her focus and was crystalized. This game wants me to believe that this guy is still an idealistic optimist after all that? I'm sorry, I don't buy it. I especially don't buy his sentiment that he actually believed there was a chance Serah would wake up from her crystal form, given that there was no evidence of it ever happening before at that time.

So how does this connect to every other JRPG? Simple: there is a character like Snow in almost every JRPG ever made, and that character almost always causes the story to shift from being a realistic drama piece to a deus ex machina-ridden mess of misguided sentimentality. Strangely, Final Fantasy is almost exempt from this aside from Aeris, Tidus and Snow, but I'll use Aeris as an example.

Aeris knows that Sephiroth is going to summon meteor. He has the black materia. That seems logical. She, however, has the white materia: holy. She apparently has a hunch that holy's purpose is to counter meteor, so she goes off on her own to the City of Ancients to use it, and we all know how that ends. So, if you will, try to follow her thought process: did she know for sure that holy would stop meteor if it was used? If so, how? Knowledge of the ancients? Probably, as is explained a bit later in the game. Then try to follow her thought process as she goes alone to use holy. Why would she do that? To protect the rest of the party? I doubt that, considering it'd be safer for everyone to go in a group. What if Sephiroth had killed her before she finished summoning it? At the very least, the rest of the party could have assured she succeeded in finishing the prayer. This whole sequence of events was highly stupid and showed how misguided she was as a person.

This ties into Snow because the entirety of FFVII's party becomes the "what would Aeris do?" troupe as soon as she dies. They want to carry on her dream and all that. When meteor is actually summoned, the party ceases its logical examination of their situation, and says "we have to fight Sephiroth," knowing full well that it won't stop meteor. They're relying completely on holy, and they don't even know if it "worked." Why? Because they all "had faith" in Aeris and "believed in her." You could argue that fighting Sephiroth was about all they could do at that point, and you'd probably be right, but there were more logical methods of reaching that conclusion than "let's just fight Sephiroth and wait for holy." Like, you know, "well, the world's probably going to end, maybe we can take down Sephiroth before we all die. Because it's all we can do." And then holy could have saved them anyway.

In essence, Aeris' presence pollutes the story and prevents it from being well-told. Prevents it from having a unique message, even. This is the effect that the "Snow" archetype has on JRPG stories: it robs them of their message and replaces it with "follow your heart and belieeeeeeeeve!" Which may have been a powerful message 25 years ago when it first showed up in a video game, but I think we're all tired of it now.

It's not hard to take Tidus' example either: he finds out Yuna will die if she finishes her pilgrimage, and convinces the rest of the party that they can kill Sin permanently. With absolutely no knowledge of any method that allows for it. "There has to be a way!" he says. Then they find a way and everyone believes!

The worst thing about this archetype is that the only reason their approach "works" is because the writer writes it that way. It's a method of covering up a lack of creativity and skill -- not because they couldn't follow a simple logical process and form a story around it, but because they couldn't do that and keep it interesting. It's a lot like Tetsuya Nomura's approach to character design -- cover up your lack of taste and creativity with an abundance of seemingly random and needless features. Belts, zippers, meet teenage idealism.

Don't get me wrong, though, I really do like the game. I'm still playing it, actually, working on maxing out the post-game crystarium so I can fight some of the harder Pulse mission enemies. It's a lot of fun. I still like FFXII (a lot) better, but FFXIII is probably only the second example of a JRPG being done very well on a current-gen console (the first being Tales of Vesperia). Granted, it's also one of the more flawed games in the series, and I honestly think the 83 it has on Metacritic is closer to what it deserves than some people think. I'd rate it higher, though, personally.

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