Monday, May 17, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII 's Casualty of Casual

I have never approached a Final Fantasy game lightly. Most of my time with the franchise has been spent alongside an official strategy guide. Exploring every nook in the game world, finding all the hidden gems and best weapons, made up half the joy of my early JRPG experiences. I eagerly consumed each new complicated and sometimes rigorous adventure with pleasure, even when I knew I would never finish the game. When I first dipped into Final Fantasy XIII, its simplified system made it seem more accessible and therefore more appealing. Unfortunately, Square Enix has created a casual game, and it has come at a price.

A few weeks ago, Scott wrote about Final Fantasy XIII's artistic representations devaluing the power of imagination in earlier titles, stating: "Make no mistake: Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful painting, but I do miss being able to add my own brushstrokes." My attitude towards the game's adjustments mirror Scott's sentiments. While I appreciate what the game has become, I too lament the newest addition's shift towards an easily consumed world.

In a way, Final Fantasy XIII is a lot like Peggle. Besides a few monstrous road blocks here and there, the game is remarkably easy. While combat within a linear stage does become progressively more complex, even the enemies near the end of a section can be taken down with little hassle (For an very comprehensive discussion of the game's mechanics, see Simon Ferrari's post at Rules of the Game.) Eidolon summons, while visually attractive, are functionally useless. Most matches never become dangerous in the slightest. If they do and the player is killed, they respawn again moments before the fateful battle.
As a result, exploring the world of Final Fantasy has lost some of its dangerous thrill. In earlier titles, venturing off the beaten path holds as many risks as it does rewards. Traipse into a high-level area to find hidden treasure and you could find yourself confronting a sinister malboro and the threat of having to start over at an old save point. Because the first half of FFXIII is so painfully linear, and because the gameplay is relatively easy, I never felt enveloped by a realistic world full of dangers and possibilities - what I considered to be a franchise staple.

Along with these adjustments, dropping in and out of FFXIII is effortless. Every time a save is loaded, players are greeted with a "previously on..." bit of text, reminding them of recent story events. The high number of save points also makes getting out of the game a breeze. As a result, I find myself playing the game an hour here or there and then quitting when I get bored or real life intercedes. While this is not a bad thing per say, it has changed my approach to the franchise. While before I entered any world of Final Fantasy with commitment, I now dip in and out of the fictional universe with abandon, as if I were playing a few rounds of Peggle before bed time.
The story is partly to blame. While the dichotomous worlds of Pulse and Cocoon are interesting, the narrative pacing is terrible. Unlike other FF iterations, the game has abandoned large cities and calm home environments where characters interact with NPCs at their leisure. Instead, the cast of FFXIII is always busy and on the move. Yet at the same time, they accomplish so little. Even if the game were not introducing mechanics many hours into play, it would still feel like a long introduction well over fifteen hours into the story. I am given no narrative vantage point to view the world, no rest points to examine the story from a larger context, and few reference points from which to build my own conclusions or theories. While the leads carry on with their business, I feel like an outsider looking in, as if I am meant to wait around until the story is told directly to me.

Yet I still enjoy the basic repetition of combat and forward progress. Equipment upgrade management and even the "crystarium" experience points system are largely superfluous, yet needlessly confusing. It is the combat itself that is rewarding. But the interface is a mess, making it hard to discern how my individual decisions affected the outcome of a battle. As I have discussed before, the game cannot be praised for its transparency. So while I am pleased to receive a five star rating after a battle, it tells me very little about my performance. Like Peggle, the repetition and visual spectacle of battle, coupled with a largely useless reward system, creates a feeling of unearned jubilation upon success. A feeling, in retrospect, I begin to resent.
I keep returning to Final Fantasy XIII the same way I return to my favorite casual games. When I think about it, the game is actually pretty boring. The paradigm system, which turns combat into a risk-reward strategy game, can be very fun during more difficult boss battles. However, the vast majority of my time is spent hitting the "auto-battle" button while I wait for the next cut scene. While maintaining the visual spectacle we come to expect, the game world feels less rich than any of its predecessors.

In an effort to simplify the series, making it more accessible and friendly to modern audiences, Final Fantasy XIII has lost the ability to envelope me completely in a mythic world full of strife and mystery. It has become casual filler. While I enjoy the experience, I am still gripped by a sense of loss. I feel like an old explorer on a tourist train through the jungle. The ride is actually quite nice, I would even recommend it, but I also miss adventuring into new worlds on my own.


  1. "I also miss adventuring into new worlds on my own"

    From what I've read, that's sort of the point. SE wanted more authorial control, and less player freedom... for some vague reason.

    Of course, I feel as you do, and I suspect many veterans of the series do as well. The question then becomes (in my mind, anyway), is FFXIII meant as a gateway drug, er, game for players who *aren't* veterans, or is it the new direction of the series?

  2. Talking about the direction of Final Fantasy as a series is kind of nonsensical. From the beginning, it's always been about prodding at the edges of the genre and mixing things up while keeping enough sense of familiarity to keep those new mechanics palatable. Just look at the last several mainline games: 13 is linear and casual, with a tight fast combat system; 12 is sprawling and arguably the most hardcore of the series, with top-notch exploration but a dry battle system; 11 is an MMO. There's been kind of a 3-game cycle 1, 4, 7, 10, 13 are straightforward, 2, 5(maybe), 8, 11 are off-the-rails experimental, and 3, 6, 9, 12, are hardcore. Though the point here isn't to establish a rigid pattern, it's to illustrate that a core feature of the series is continual reinvention.

  3. @ Tesh

    I'm with Julian in saying its a new and non-permanent shift in the series. So yea, a gateway drug I suppose. But I have a hard time thinking they will stick with most of their design decisions any time soon.

    @ Julian

    I totally agree there are a lot of differences between all of the entries into the series. Personally, I toss out 11 and X-2, but that's neither here nor there. The direction of the franchise isn't so much an issue as a loss of the grand atmosphere experienced through exploration. I always felt enveloped by the experience a Final Fantasy game, or most JRPGs I've played for that matter. FFXIII is still a lot of fun, but I miss that.

  4. Hmm... with 7, 10 and 13 being relatively simple iterations of the FF series, might it be worth pointing out that they were the first on their respective consoles? 7 for the PS, 10 for the PS2, 13 for the PS3? The "wave function" or ebb and flow of hardcoreishness seems to work well to get people on board the FF train for the duration of a console's life... and perhaps not coincidentally tracks well with devs getting a handle on the tools for a given platform.

    Just a thought. I'll readily agree that the series is about reinvention, but it's interesting to see if there are deliberate cycles within that larger wheel.

  5. How far into it are you? I am finding it extremely difficult at times, almost dishearteningly so (the Eidolon battles for example...). It could be because I havent used the weapons upgrade system (seems way to nonsensical and random to me) at all, nor do I farm for anything.

    I wholly agree with your opinions on the storyline - cinematic though it may be, I still feel like all those hours of cutscenes and characters blabbing brings very little actual dialogue... And as pretty as the world is, I feel like I'm getting shunted from mysterious corridor A to mysterious hallway B with no transition or feeling like I accomplished anything besides sporadically wandering around.

  6. However, the vast majority of my time is spent hitting the "auto-battle" button while I wait for the next cut scene.

    Oh man, this is exactly what I stopped playing Final Fantasy games. FF4 and FF6 were genuinely formative experiences, but I just can take this style of game anymore. Kudos to you for soldiering on.

  7. @ Auilix

    Admittedly, I did not even make it to Pulse. Although spending so many hours doing so seems, to me, pointless. The Eidolon battles were hard, but once you figure out the dominant strategy, they tend become surprisingly easy. You're right about the corridor to corridor feel. If they had made my actions seem more important within the story, instead of just wandering around a forest on the way to somewhere unknown, then perhaps I would have been more inspired to continue.

  8. @ Jorge - But if you didn't make it to Pulse you didn't make it through half the game... So I wouldn't consider that you can be a judge of how hard the game is. Surely you will get game overs at Vanille's Eidolon...

    Just saying that most video game reporters and reviewers beat the game before they lay down their judgement - Not that you are a reviewer, but I don't know if you can judge a whole game by playing its initial parts. It's a little misleading, you know? For example, you say "However, the vast majority of my time is spent hitting the "auto-battle" button while I wait for the next cut scene.", but you will find if you play the game that way, especially around the time you get to Gran Pulse, you will easily get Game Overs a lot of time. While the inital sequences are very easy, this game gets Brutal quickly. For that reason I would say it is much much easier for a casual fan to get into a generic RPG (like FFVII or Pokemon or something) than it is to get into a game like FFXIII. Unless you are constantly monitoring your stats, crystarium, equipment, and battle setup, it can get difficult, and that is something you rarely had to do in old RPGs - making it the least friendly to a new audience of any Final Fantasy I've played in my opinion. At least the other ones had a sort of accessible plot in the beginning.

    So in other words I agree with a lot of your previous assertions in other articles, but I think you really should play the game before calling the shot on this one. By no means do I think FFXIII is a good game - I'm not defending it or anything, I'm just saying the methodology on this article is weird to me.

  9. @ Auilix

    You are absolutely right, for full disclosure I should have been more clear. My purpose was more to explore the sense of loss I had from this game. After 23 hours, I can't really judge it anyway thus far. Suffice to say, if it picks up the pace come Pulse, as I hear it has, I doubt very much my opinion would change. However, I will make some quick edits in the post to make that more clear. Thanks!

  10. @ Jorge
    Thanks for the reply! Was very thoughtful. I agree - I feel like I've played the longest introduction, like the characters are talking but pretty much saying nothing and I keep thinking "....and?" but nothing happens. It's odd to me that for the first time I don't have a "Final Fantasy boner" as my friend puts it... It definitely does not have the draw that other FFs have managed to do within the first several hours (some within the first several minutes!). But I did begin to enjoy battle (as frustrating and sometimes nonsensical as it was). Even so, not a reason to like a game, especially an RPG.

    Thanks dude!