Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

10 Good Things About Final Fantasy XIII

My flatmate got Final Fantasy XIII the other week, meaning I got to play it quite a bit – what, with me owning both the Playstation 3 and the HDTV the game runs on. Once again I will give you my complete undecided review: Today you’ll hear ten good things about the game, on Friday it’ll be ten bad things. As usual, neither of these lists aims to be exhaustive – they are just a collection of things that are bad/good ideas to have in your game. Find the good stuff below the break in no particular order.

I suppose I should mention that I’m by no means a Final Fantasy veteran. In fact my JRPG experience pretty much boils down to Secret of Mana and Chronotrigger. It is therefore quite possible that I mention things (good or bad) that are integral to the Final Fantasy franchise. For the purpose of these two posts I’ll treat the game as a complete stand-alone without 12 predecessors.

The Setting

These are hardly the oddest monsters you'll meet in Final Fantasy XIII. (image: IGN)

I really enjoyed the world the game is played in. The mixture of technology and magic is refreshingly different from most western RPGs and the world in general is just so bizarre. The enemies you are fighting mostly seem as if the instructions their designers got were “draw a monster” and “make it look interesting”. One moment you are fighting what looks like a pudding and a sweet pepper (though neither one could accurately be described as “sweet”), the next moment something that seems to  be taken right out of a Transformers movie.

The game hardly ever seeks to explain the world. Instead it seems as if the designers just added whatever they thought to be cool and interesting and put it into the game. This way the player never even expects realism to creep into the game and can never be disappointed when things don’t quite add up. The suspension of disbelief in the game comes almost as easy as in Alice in Wonderland. Both worlds being so bizarre that it is far easier to loose oneself in them as if they were real.

Roles and Paradigms

The combat system of FF XIII is essentially turn-based, but in real time. A bar of action points fills itself relatively quickly and you can use these points to perform abilities. This means that you only get a very limited time to think about the abilities you want to use during your “turn” and to queue them. You can choose which abilities to use through a menu structure (which combines horribly with the real time aspect) or you can have the game decide for you which abilities suit the situation best. Your up to two party members always use the latter option.

Since the menu structure is impractical, combat would come down to letting the computer decide everything, if it wasn’t for the paradigm system. Every member in your party can perform well in up to three roles (more later on, but that’s not relevant here) such as damage dealer, healer or tank. Overall, the system knows two types of damage dealers (see below), a healer, a tank, a buffer, and a debuffer. Depending on which role your party members and your main character are set up in they will use different abilities. In the classical MMO trinity (which is rarely required in FF XIII) you would have one party member drawing the attention of the enemy, one dealing damage, and one healing the group. You can create up to six of these setups for your group and switch between them at will during combat.

Final Fantasy XIII combat in action. The stagger gauge is in the upper right-hand corner.

A classical setup for my party was to start with one damage dealer, a buffer, and a debuffer to improve my fighting capabilities and reduce those of the enemy. Once enough buffs and debuffs were applied I would switch to a setup with three damage dealers until someone needed healing. Then I’d switch to two damage dealers and a healer and back to three once everyone was healed.  I really like these paradigm shifts as a way of controlling your party members. Essentially you are giving general orders throughout the fight without having to go into intense detail. Also, the need to define paradigms beforehand makes party composition quite interesting – as does the limit to only six paradigms. Being prepared for all situations isn’t easy and adjustments of the setups before difficult fights hardly unseen.

The Stagger System

Opponents in the game have what’s called a stagger gauge. In raw terms, this bar fills up whenever the enemy is dealt damage and empties when it has time to recover. The more this bar is filled the more damage the monster will take and when a certain threshold (different for each monster) is reached it will go into stagger mode which greatly increases damage taken and often causes various other vulnerabilities as well. In general you’ll want to hit your enemy constantly to keep that gauge from falling. This makes paradigm decisions even more interesting because you can’t just switch into a setup of healers and buffers mid-fight without risking your accumulated stagger points.

The system gets a bit more complicated through the addition of two different damage-dealing roles. The Ravager deals high amounts of damage to unstaggered enemies and excels at filling the stagger gauge while the commando does much more damage to staggered enemies and is very good at keeping the stagger gauge high. A round of hits by a ravager might add ten percent to the enemy’s stagger gauge for example, but if that is the only party member hitting the monster the gauge might already have dropped to zero again until the next round of attacks come in. Add a Commando to the mix and you’ll see that the gauge hardly ever declines at all anymore.

Balancing your play around the staggering of the enemy adds a lot of depth to the combat system. Additionally it is quite rewarding to see the high damage numbers you can produce once the enemy is staggered.

The Action Sequences

Watching my party in action sequences is just awesome. There might not be much depth in the story and virtually all the action happens in sequences out of the player’s control, but they are still pretty darn cool to watch. Spectacle seems to be an important word for the current generation of console games and Final Fantasy XIII sure does spectacle well. It’s simply a pleasure to watch (especially in 1080p) – even a (female) flatmate of mine who has no interest in games whatsoever came in to watch for a while.

Lightning

The game's main character Lightning. She's awesome and she has a Gunblade. 'Nuff said.

Lightning is pretty much the game’s main character even though you will control various others throughout the game. To me, she’s a bit like a female Gregory House in a miniskirt – clearly damaged, sometimes ruthless, but incredibly good at what she does and there might even be a heart somewhere in there. I’m not big on identifying with game characters, therefore it doesn’t matter that I can’t really identify with her. I simply find it a pleasure to observe her throughout the game just like I enjoy other fictional characters in books or movies. We’ll talk about the failures in characterization and writing on Friday, but the general concept of an interesting main character succeeds very well with this one.

Items

You’ve heard me ask for itemization that’s less focused on dropping upgrades of previous items and more on dropping items that are actually different from each other. Final Fantasy XIII does this well, at least in the weapon department. There is no weapon that is strictly better than another one, there are just different ones. One may have more magic points on it, one more strength, a third one more of both but a disadvantage, and a fourth one might have less but an additional effect. This turns the choice of weapon into an actual choice instead of simply picking the one with more stats on it every time.

Other items violate this a bit – a platinum bangle for example is the exact same thing as a silver bangle except for providing more hit points. There’s no reason not to replace the latter with the former as soon as you can. Not all accessories are like that though, the more interesting ones have unique effects that cannot be replaced – such as providing initial buffs at the start of combat or increasing the drop chance of rare items. Overall, scarcity and uniqueness  make items in the game quite interesting indeed.

The Influence of Status Effects

In many games buffs and debuffs aren’t much more than an afterthought. Usually they either aren’t even worth the time and resources needed to apply them or they are used by default. There’s no thought involved in applying a thirty minute stamina buff in World of Warcraft and no warrior will make sure to keep up her attack speed debuff on enemies outside of raid situations. In FF XIII this is different. Applying buffs and debuffs requires you to switch party members into the respective roles which costs time in which they could have dealt damage or healed for example. In my party setup, debuffs could only be applied by the character that was my only tank as well – meaning that to debuff an enemy I’d have to switch away from tanking, making me vulnerable to attacks.

On the other hand, status effects have a huge, well, effect in the game. If you manage to slow an enemy, for example, incoming damage will be much reduced. My party above therefore had the option to stick with a tank, taking less damage at all times, or to switch to a debuffer for a short while, slowing the opponent, taking a bit more damage in the short run but a lot less in the long run. The decision whether and when to apply status effects differs from enemy to enemy, once again adding depth to the combat system.

Combat Ratings

Some of the cutscenes in Final Fantasy XIII are simply gorgeous.

At the end of each combat in FF XIII you will be presented with a rating of how well you’ve done. That has very little effects on actual gameplay, but it does add an additional incentive to do well in fights. It would be quite safe, for example, to start out every fight with a healer, a tank, and a damage dealer and just slowly whittle away the health of the enemy. This will not only take ages but also present you with a very low rating for that fight – encouraging to take a faster but maybe more risky route the next time you play.  These ratings also scale with your gear and your level – meaning you can’t just go back to a region and five-star everything with superior weapons.

The “Retry” Function

There is absolutely no death penalty in the game. When you lose a fight you can simply hit “retry” and be returned to a point just before the battle, including a restoration of all consumables that you have used. This way you can try out different strategies and attempt secret missions without having to save and load all the time. TO be quite frank, if your game allows for saving and loading, death penalties have no point whatsoever. They will just stymie the flow of the game.

Westernization

I have absolutely no fondness for swords that are larger than the figures wielding them and the whole manga style in general. I was quite relieved therefore that Final Fantasy XIII is mostly westernized in art and style aspects. There are still quite a few remnants such as the colored hair and the schoolgirl fresh out of puberty, but in general I felt much more at home in the game than I thought I would. While there are some people over here who adore the eastern style, I think that global success can pretty much only come through a compromise such as this.

Upgrading

Items in the game can be upgraded many times which leaves us with an interesting degree of customization. My flatmate used the same party composition I did for quite a while, yet it played quite differently because he made different choices in what items to upgrade. Meaningful upgrading means that you can’t simply switch to the set of items best for a certain situation but that you have to make a choice beforehand – at least if upgrading materials are scarce. My Lightning, for example, used a weapon that provided equal amounts of magic and strength. This way she was able to perform adequately as a Commando and a Ravager and could also heal if needed. His Lightning on the other hand used a weapon that provided pretty much only strength – making her a far better commando than mine but quite awful at the other two tasks. Without upgrading one could just switch weapons for the role that’s currently needed whereas upgrades force you to make a choice.

There you have it, ten good things about Final Fantasy XIII. Join me next time when I tell you about ten things in the game that are just plain bad. Stay tuned.