Thursday, February 9, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII

To play, much less review, a Final Fantasy game is quite an undertaking. As video games go, Final Fantasy is to the average video game what Crime and Punishment or Shakespeare are to the average fiction novel. What literary classics and Final Fantasy have in common is astonishing depth; both can be pored over for months and still have new things to show you.

Evolution in Gameplay

The Final Fantasy games have had a long and varied progression to how they are played. For the early games, you had a turn-based system where you could toss attacks or magic spells around like candy, always wanting to use the specific arsenal that could cause the most damage to each unique monster. You had a set amount of damage you could take before you perished and that could be staved off or relieved with a combination of preventive and restorative magic or alchemical potions.

As the series progressed, the developers chose to tinker with a number of possible changes while retaining the core of the familiar gameplay. What if your magic could be invested in to become stronger or split off into new branches of power? What if the use of magic decreased your physical ability? What if you could perform actions to affect the order of turns? What if you could avoid random battles through a seamless combination of travel and battle modes? What if your characters could perform special powerful attacks if they reach a critical near-death condition? How can we allow the player more ways to develop their characters to become uniquely powerful in a diverse selection of ways?

These questions and more are specific references to changes made by the developers in different moments throughout Final Fantasy history. For each separate game, the designers created an entirely new combat system, holding only to a core rule of, "It must feel like Final Fantasy," which usually meant having the player characters face off against monsters in a turn-based or loosely real-time field of battle.

Final Fantasy XIII in Action

FFXIII attempts to integrate all of the best of what has come before in a system that gives the players a host of options in a way that isn't overwhelming. There are dozens of possible attacks, but you can permit the A.I. to cover for you more than competently through the use of the "Auto Battle" function. This addition is really handy; you aren't able to fight terribly well through an overuse of the "Auto-Battle", but it is perfect for allowing the battle to continue to flow while you deliberate strategically.

This is important as one of the goals of the new combat system is to make battle fast, intense, and epic. More than any other Final Fantasy before it, FFXIII keeps you on the edge of your seat as your characters hurl themselves into battle at a speed that rewards reflexive tactical decisions more than long-term deliberations. The window for attacking shifts fast, and time is of essential importance, particularly since the only way to manageably defeat most monsters is to "Stagger" them: overwhelming them with so many special attacks that they lose control and drop their guard, allowing you to really lay the smackdown.

The Paradigm system is where the gameplay's depth really shines however. At any time, your characters can change their Paradigms, which are essentially their roles in battle. The 'Sentinel' Paradigm draws monsters' attention to them and hunkers down to deflect the onslaught. The 'Synergist' Paradigm weaves magical defenses around party members so that they may do more damage or resist enemy disruption more effectively. The 'Ravager' Paradigm barrages enemies with magic in order to 'Stagger' them so that those with the 'Commando' Paradigm can really go to town, as the Commandoes do enormous amounts of damage to 'Staggered' monsters. The 'Medic' Paradigm keeps everyone alive. And, lastly, the 'Saboteur' Paradigm strips monsters of their defenses and induces weaknesses upon them so that you can reduce their damage output and defeat them easier.

What makes things really crazy awesome is that you can shuffle the roles and create customized combinations for different scenarios, all right in the middle of battle. You can control three characters at one time. A Medic, Ravager, and a Commando are ideal for an measured offense. A Synergist, Saboteur, and Medic heals and buffs everyone while weakening the monsters. But these are just logical balanced examples. What if you put three Ravagers together? The amount of magic whizzing around would light up your TV screen! A handful of Saboteurs backed up by a Sentinel would allow a swift crippling of the enemy force while they hopelessly hack away at the prepared defense of the Sentinel. You also have to keep in mind that some characters are uniquely better at some specific roles available to them, which adds another strategic element to ponder. The possibilities are near endless!

For Better or Worse?

Does it all work? My answer is a certifiable yes, with some caveats. The combat system is probably my favorite of all the Final Fantasy games I have played; the action is intense, fast and still allows for strategic thought. It is a challenging and complicated system, but it is spoon-fed to you very slowly to make sure you understand each element before moving on. I liked this but I also hated it. I felt coddled and often found myself in a rush to get on with it. But that is also my own failing for being so well-versed in Final Fantasy combat systems that I caught on to the vagaries of this one so fast. So that's my own fault.

I enjoyed the development system (simplistically put, you can invest your combat experience into the upgrading of your characters' separate roles and weapons), but it would have benefited from a combination of more player choice and somehow keeping the player more informed. By 'more player choice' I mean that, though different characters can choose from a plethora of different roles, it is immediately clear that your big boisterous boxer man is going to suck at healing. Similarly, your diminutive airy dream girl is going to suck at the combat roles. Thus, though you appear to be presented with a huge amount of Paradigm options, it is only the illusion of choice.

As for 'keeping the player more informed', I am referring to the various sequences early on in the game where you don't know who the story is going to focus on next, leading to uncertainty as to who you should develop. If I spend a lot of cash upgrading Snow's weapon, what assurance do I have that the story won't follow somebody else for a while, making that investment pointless potentially for a very long time? Though, in the long run, choices such as this don't matter by the endgame, in the early stages and middle of the game I did a half-assed development of multiple characters just on the basis of needing at least one person in each group reasonably competent in battle. And that felt like a waste later on.

In the end though, nitpicks aside, the Paradigm system is a brilliant culmination of all the effort put into every combat system prior. Usually, Final Fantasy games take one new idea and base an entire combat system around it. Instead, in FFXIII, they introduced the concept of speedier gameplay and wrapped that around a core of the best gameplay elements of every Final Fantasy before. The results are spectacular and make me look forward to the prospect of spending more time with the game.

Assuming I find time to finish this monstrosity of a game, I will follow this with a review of the game's story and characters upon completion.

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