Tuesday, January 24, 2012

And now for something completely different - how I'd fix the Final Fantasy series

First, a professional update: I haven't had much time to dabble with .NET lately since I've been doing PHP work for two different clients.  That said, my MVC projects are still going forward.  They're just on hiatus.

Okay, so that said, now to the meat of this post.

I decided to bite the bullet and play the Final Fantasy XIII-2 (there's a catchy name) demo this afternoon.  I was curious to see if all of the negativity surrounding XIII-proper was justified, even though fans of the series (which I used to be) told me that the demo fixed a lot of what was wrong with the original game.  Having now played (but not finished...) the demo, my response can only be: really?  The sequel's demo shows improvement over the original?  Man....

First, a quick rundown of my problems with the demo:

For starters, it's confusing/convoluted as hell.  The main characters in the demo don't have much in terms of personality or character, aside from being really, really earnest.  The backstory presented in the menu says that the girl's older sister saved the world 3 years ago, but disappeared.  The boy is a time traveler.  Shenanigans await the duo.  Of course, that's all couched in made up words and terms like fal'cie, l'cie, etc.  I was hoping for a pop'cicle, but no dice.

Combat was...odd.  It's a weird mix of a watered down job system and gambit (Bioware fans - DA tactics, but not nearly as well implemented) system.  Characters have roles - like Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, etc. - which gives them access to certain abilities.  Combinations of these jobs (like, setting the girl as Medic and the guy as Commando) are called Paradigms.  These Paradigms can be changed on the fly by pressing LB/L1 and selecting a new mix.  Cleverly(?), this is known as a Paradigm Shift. 

Confused yet?  It actually makes sense in play.  Unfortunately, since the game rewards speed, generally all one needs to do is select Auto Attack, which will let the AI do what it thinks is best.  As a longtime fan of the FF series, this strikes me as funny.  The series has always been derided for its combat because in the vast majority of cases simply choosing Attack is the most efficient way to progress.  XIII adds all these layers to combat, yet Auto Attack is still the best option.  I've heard that Paradigm Shifting is necessary for the endgame/hidden content, but still, press A/X to win is still the name of the game 25 years after the original Final Fantasy was released.

There are some other small things, like the camera being too close to the characters while walking, the continued existence of battle screens, poor UI, etc.  Ultimately, as I played the demo, one thought kept repeating itself in my head - for a game that's all about speed (battles are timed, the pace in battles is the fastest its ever been in a FF game), it sure is slow.  Walking around is boring.  Conversations are needlessly wordy.  There's no emotion aside from a vague desire to stop/find something/someone.  And as someone who can handle, and even enjoy, badly paced games (hello Xenogears and Xenosaga), that's saying something.


So, how would I change things?

First, remove random encounters.  They've never been challenging, and they're really just a time sink.  All encounters should be relevant to the main plot or side quest.  Since that would likely limit the number of encounters, make them more difficult.  Ultimately, the goal should be to make encounters meaningful.  Having to kill a group of imps every 10-20 steps only serves to annoy the player.

Second, give the player multiple ways to complete a quest.  Final Fantasy quests fall into three categories:

Ultimate weapon/summoned monster quests, which require a bit of exploration and a lot of annoying mini-games.

Fetch/return quests.


Sometimes they're mixed together (do hidden thing X, take secret thing Y, and kill super monster Z), but those are the general categories.  While there is something to be said about solving a convoluted puzzle (and, really, classic gaming is all about that), they feel increasingly rigid in settings as large and detailed as a FF game's.

Third, better character balance.  FF characters have the annoying tendency to be functionally the same (see: FF VI, VII, VIII, XII (to a certain extent)).  Jobs (character classes - fighter, white mage, black mage, ninja, etc.) are a great way to provide party balance, as they force the player to define roles for their characters early on.  Deviating from those roles is exceedingly inefficient, and not worth the hassle (unless you're playing a FF Tactics game, which is a different can of worms).

The problem with jobs is that there's not a lot of choice within the jobs themselves.  Usually, players will choose a job to learn key abilities, then ditch it for another. 

I suggest going the opposite route: have characters be locked into their jobs, but give the player a myriad of abilities to choose from.  From a story perspective, it makes more sense - a highly trained warrior isn't going to say "You know what?  I'm going to be a mystic healer today." - and it gives each character a role to call their own, eliminating the sameness problem.

My final suggestion deals with plot and presentation.  FF games have been pretty batshit insane/convoluted over the last 15 years or so.  Not that that's bad in and of itself.  My problem is that, generally speaking, whatever good ideas are in a FF story are buried under a mound of jargon and/or minutia, to say nothing of the Japanese-style "Say, don't show" storytelling.  If we're talking economy of plot, FF games need some TARP money.

Obviously, a good deal of this is cultural, so I'm trying to tread carefully.  That said, the older, technologically limited games in the series still had insane stories, but they were conveyed in a more concise, and thus more powerful, way.  Hell, IV's endgame has the heroes fly to a moon in a damn whale-shaped spaceship.  The moon is also a spaceship.  Crazy is part of the series, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Unfortunately, the games have become increasingly suffocating.  The signal-to-noise ratio has dipped to 24.4k modem levels, complete with shrieking sound.  There are whole sections of IX, X, and XII that could be removed without affecting the plot at all.  That, to me, is a very large problem, and one that seems to be getting worse as the series moves on.

So, to tie this back to my first suggestion, make things meaningful.  This doesn't mean that everything must tie into the main plot.  I love side quests that flesh out settings and characters, even if it doesn't move the main plot forward an inch.  Just, remove the crap and clutter.  Let the setting and characters breathe.  Don't be afraid of emotions beyond earnestness, vague evil, and the ever Japanese protection promise.  Make the world's heart and soul shine as much as its graphics.