Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
Previously, I made a promise that I would cut down on Final Fantasy-related articles following the last wave of posts. Unfortunately, it seems I won’t be able to make that promise, thanks largely to Dissidia 012’s North American release, which should be effective as soon as you read this.
But the site hits don’t lie, so I can only assume most of you aren’t tired of them yet. At the very least, I’ll try to keep it down to just three new FF-centric topics, including one I’ve put off for a good while. For now, though, I hope you enjoy what I have to say about:
A Final Fantasy crossover that brings together the franchise’s most popular heroes (and villains) together for one fanservice-filled showdown seemed like such a sure thing. It took longer than speculated, but Square Enix eventually warmed up to the idea with their PSP Fighter/RPG hybrid, Dissidia Final Fantasy. Not since Kingdom Hearts did fans delight in watching the series’ stalwarts standing shoulder-to-shoulder, or blade-to-blade.
For the most part, Dissidia was a huge hit that left folks begging for more (which they’re getting, just under one year since the original’s release); but for me, there were a few glaring omissions and flaws that kept this handheld love-letter from becoming the ideal FF crossover. In order, those flaws are:
Square’s always had a steady track record for the quality of their English dubs with the Final Fantasy series. Dissidia is no different, providing the same solid performances from returning actors while also churning up acceptable audio adaptions for those previously lacking a voice (Terra and Kefka, in particular).
The problem here lies more with the limited tech; With Dissidia lacking in the detailed facial expressions of its counterparts (both on console and handhelds, see Crisis Core), the actors are forced to match the timing of their dialog with the static lip movements of the game. This results in some Yuna-esque moments of awkward pausing, particularly with Cloud (who tends to keep his comments brief and to the point….which is fine for Japanese, but requires a bit more exposition in English). For all the standout localizations in the last few titles, this feels like a step backwards.
A good fighting game will feature plenty of unlockable bonuses to keep things fresh, and Dissidia is no different; in addition to extra characters, costumes and stages to spend your PP currency on, there are also extra modes such as Shade Impulse (the Story Mode’s climactic finale) and the Duel Colosseum (a survival mode of sorts that offers bonus items and experience based on the type of cards you collect).
The problem is the way these bonuses gradually unlock is incredibly scattered: you can unlock Shade Impulse almost immediately after finishing one character’s story path, which results in players entering the final dungeon while still vastly under-leveled. What’s worse is that you must endure the cutscene every time you finish the other story modes, and even doing so still won’t result in a strong enough party to tackle the difficult dungeon.
Duel Colosseum would be the ideal way to gain those levels, thanks to its variety in levels. Too bad you don’t unlock it until after you’ve beaten Shade Impulse and the final boss. Whoops.
Another feature with warped priorities are the extra abilities and skills each character can obtain. Learning new skills is simple enough and occurs quite often, but in order to actually use them, you have to put down the required AP (Action Points) in order to equip the skill. AP is required for everything, from locking on to opponents to dashing in the air, abilities that are as insurmountable in this game as blocking and jumping.
Thus, players are forced to make tough decisions regarding the customization of their characters; nothing is more depressing than having a dozen spells for Terra dropped on your lap, only to find out that you only have enough AP to equip one or two of them until many tedious hours later.
Dissidia doesn’t feel stages as tightly constrained as most 3D fighters; instead, the game employs a Smash Bros level of freedom, letting players dash and jump around large areas that can serve a number of purposes, such as momentarily escaping an opponent that has the upper-hand.
Unfortunately, not every stage is designed to accommodate the hectic battles that can take place in this game. Take the Old Chaos Shrine, for instance; the stage features two layers, a throne room in the bottom and an outdoor ceiling at the top. The ceiling isn’t completely open, with plenty of structures for players to get “stuck” on while locked-on to their opponent or an Ex-Core that happened to spawn up top.
But the most grueling stages are the ones that are practically claustrophobic, such as Kefka’s Laboratory and especially Pandaemonium (as apt a name as any). With the game’s camera unable to handle the limited space in these stages, the screen becomes practically vomit inducing. As neat as the inclusion of the Phantom Train as a level seems for Dissidia 012, I’m not looking forward to the nauseating camera for that stage….
The first time you witness an aerial battle between two opponents, you’ll likely be left in awe; the next three hundred times, you’ll probably sigh over the monotony of this airborne back-and-forth.
As fun as it seems at first to relive the gravity-defying battles of Advent Children, when you find yourself caught in an aerial battle, you’re left with two options: you attack or you dodge. The idea, in theory, is to throw your opponent off in determining whether to dodge a Bravery Attack (which keeps up the aerial chain) or an HP attack (which does actual damage). The latter has a slight delay that usually serves to punish overzealous enemies (you’re only given one chance to dodge each incoming attack), so it’s sort of like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.
The problem, aside from the monotony, is that when dealing with AI opponents at medium or higher difficulty, they’ll tend to predict your attacks virtually 90% of the time. Nothing is more frustrating than having accumulated the minimum amount of Bravery to end a battle, only to have the AI stubbornly dodge each and every one of your winning blows, until such an arbitrary time when they decide to “let” you finish them off.
Dissidia 012 improves on this somewhat by making Bravery attacks much, much faster, which cuts the time of these aerial battles by a good half. Whether the AI remains persistent in predicting those all-important HP attacks, however, remains to be seen.
Any fighting game vet can tell you that AI enemies can be an absolute bitch, often performing commands and attacks that are rarely feasible from a living, breathing opponent. Dissidia ups this to eleven, featuring enemies who will completely and unmercifully decimate you. It isn’t quite the quarter-stealing unfairness of Mortal Kombat II, but it’s certainly a sure-sign that victory will be impossible to achieve. Not unless you’re willing to put the extra time for it….
The truth is, Dissidia isn’t actually a fighting game; it’s really an RPG that happens to have fighting game mechanics. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can move on in the game, but either way you’ll be forced to go back and grind your levels until you’re no longer getting one-shotted by the likes of Squall or Cloud.
With Shade Impulse’s high level requirements, most players are forced to find alternate (and often cheesier) methods to quickly level up, namely a strategy that involves taking down a Level 100 Ex-Death using the right accessories and Play Plan. Unfortunately, you’re only given a finite amount of chances each time to pull this off, and this enchanted tree can have a serious bite to match his bark (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Ever the bane of PSP games, Dissidia does not lack true online play, something that is practically required for fighting games this generation. Instead, the only way to take on friends from faraway places is to either download their ghost data (usually more trouble than its worth) or to use the ad-hoc capabilities of your PS3 to set up your own “online lobby” (which is somewhat more painless, but requires specific models with built-in WiFi…preferring to stick with a wired connection and save $100, I’m SOL on this one). Just one of several reasons that many desire the series to pack up and move to the PS3 and/or Xbox 360.
For the first Dissidia, Square decided to go with a specific theme for its character choices, choosing to only pick the main hero and villain from each of the numbered Final Fantasy games. While this guarantees that some of the most popular characters (including Cloud, Squall, and Sephiroth) would get top-billing, it also means that the complete lineup would be lacking. To put it simply, the game’s a sausage fest, particularly on the Cosmos side.
You’ve read my personal bias before regarding the franchise’s female leads, but it still goes without saying that the women throughout the FF games are just as popular as the men, if not more so in some regards (I would be shocked to learn that Tidus was more popular in Yuna in any country…and I happen to really like Tidus). That said, the game’s 22 character roster is simply paltry compared to most fighting games these days, and having to fend off against wave after wave of their duplicates (called Manikins) fail to add much variety.
Most folks don’t expect much substance from fighting game stories: just give each character a plausible motivation to fight, and leave it at that. Being a Final Fantasy spin-off, however, it would have been more surprising if Square didn’t write up a complex narrative that bridges all of these heroes and villains together…but it probably would have been preferable to watching these characters mope and monologue for several hours.
To further elaborate on complaint #2, the sad truth is that many of FF’s main heroes are boring without their respective party members to fall back on. Sure, seeing Cloud and Terra together is cool concept-wise, but when you put a bunch of introverted or generic heroes in a room together, you shouldn’t expect much variety in the dialog. Even cheerfully optimistic heroes like Zidane and Tidus are lacking in narrative potential, with the former even missing his flirtatious attitude toward any and all women (suffice to say, he has no excuse not to put on the charms in the sequel).
About the only character who can carry a solo performance is Squall, who retains his inner monologues from the original FFVIII. Warrior of Light is also unique, originally being nothing more than a logo avatar for the original Final Fantasy; his do-gooder attitude gives him that oldschool aura as the “first” Final Fantasy hero. Cecil and Firion, however, are practically interchangeable.
In truth, the Chaos side is far more interesting to watch, though their sequences are far shorter and less frequent than the predominant Cosmos warriors. It’s unfortunate that they lacked a story mode, as their brief sequences were far more entertaining and often humorous (it turns out that Sephiroth is the Cloud of the villains’ side, even quoting a few of his lines). There’s even a rather deep back-and-forth between Sephiroth and Garland over (of all topics) spiritual beliefs…who would have thought these monstrous murderers had such deep thoughts?
But the baddies, too, are underrepresented in Dissidia’s plot; their encounters with their respective antagonists result in little more than “Well, if it isn’t my old arch-enemy, ____!” followed by out-of-context quotes from their respective games. Instead we have a very confusing story about the endless cycle of battles laid out by Cosmos and Chaos, followed by some business involving a dragon that never even rears its head.
With Dissidia 012 adding a much bigger (and thankfully female-focused) variety in characters, hopefully the new story will end up a more memorable experience for all characters involved.