Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
As usual, I find myself updating this blog with new content far later then I originally intended; the following article was planned to be released before the start of December, as I had decided to dedicate the Holiday season with posts exclusively following a specific theme. Hopefully you’ll learn what that theme is immediately following this early-planned, late-submitted article.
You’ll also see the usual reviews posted in-between, including opinions on Saints Row The Third, Corpse Party, and many more games released in November. In the meantime, I’m at least glad I managed to finish this before the official Japanese release of the game. Here is yet another Final Fantasy-related opinion article….
Nobody asked for a sequel to Final Fantasy XIII.
That statement may sound understandably biased, as many have argued the necessity (and overall quality) of previous direct sequels like Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, or the entire Compilation of Final Fantasy VII.
But even if those sequels weren’t completely well-received, there’s no arguing that they were all originally spun from some of the most beloved entries in the Final Fantasy franchise.
Which is why a direct sequel to one of the most critically divisive (yet one of the most commercially successful, ironically) FF games of all time is a decision that confounds nearly every FF fan out there…even the ones that really liked the original.
The answer is simple enough: it was cheap to make. With Square Enix desperate for more cash but lacking the time and skill to create a whole new game with Crystal Tools (a failure of an engine that has contributed to the continued delay of Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and won’t even be used for the 2.0 do-over of Final Fantasy XIV), the reasoning behind this sequel is obvious enough.
However, the difference this time is that Square has reportedly built the sequel by collecting the feedback from players across the world, an apparently new approach for them as they normally only collect user feedback after a game is finished, not before; unlike FFXIV, they won’t admit that FFXIII was a series misstep, but they are promising that the sequel is going to be much, much better.
As much as I would like to believe that, given my own grievances with the original, there is only so much you can accomplish in a year’s development cycle. While some mistakes appear to have been fixed, a new crop of issues plague my excitement for the upcoming sequel.
Please note that said issues are only assumptions made by me, based on the various commercials and commentaries released so far. There’s no telling yet whether any of these complaints will come to pass, or if they’ll end up as non-issues should the rest of the game hold up.
But with the heavy media blitz Square has been drumming up for this game, these elements continue to stick out like a loose nail on a freshly renovated house.
One of the most common complaints about FFXIII was its linearity, with most areas consisting of straight paths with little room for exploration. It was also the first thing Square Enix promised to rectify with the sequel, introducing large open areas (at least as far as outdoor environments are concerned) as well as a mission structure similar to FFX-2, allowing players to tackle the game in any order as they so choose.
The Paradigm System, which served as the most important component of the original game’s battle system, has also received two significant improvements: the removal of the first-time shift animation in each battle, and the option to save Paradigm configurations prior.
All are much-needed improvements (even if they lacked the common sense to have these features included in the original to begin with), but not much else seems to have been altered beyond these small fixes; The game still features battle transitions instead of fighting enemies on the field (an issue that continues to stick out as more and more games continue to abandon random altogether), not to mention that defeated enemies still disintegrate in a black mist after being defeated, an inexcusably lazy move as even the older PS1 FF games featured proper death animations.
While it could be argued that FFXIII’s battle system doesn’t require a complete overhaul, and was in fact praised as one of the game’s more positive features, it still feels disappointing that there wasn’t more done to spice things up; it appears that the main goal of each encounter is the same as before….keep switching classes and spam as much damage as possible until the enemy “Breaks”. We already rinsed and repeated this formula a thousand times originally….can a few small tweaks motivate us to do it a thousand times more?
Another big complaint toward FFXIII was its extra-long “tutorial” session, which restricted players from experiencing the complete three-character gameplay experience, when you were forced to spend nearly 20 hours with only two.
In Final Fantasy XIII-2, they address this issue by giving you two party members….forever. In what must be the smallest playable roster in series history, your team will only consist of newcomer Noel and Lightning’s younger sister Serah.
The third slot won’t go completely to waste, however; by capturing defeated monsters during battle, you can call upon them to act as the third party member, including assigning specific job roles in the Paradigm wheel, just as you could with a human party member.
While monsters appear to be customizable in some fashion (including visual accessories like bow-ties and sunglasses, which provide….limited amusement at best), it just isn’t the same as having an actual character with unique abilities and dialog. Though the game does provide temporary party members to fill in the missing slot, similar to Final Fantasy II’s “cursed” fourth slot, these AI-controlled guests cannot be controlled or customized in any way.
As stated above, if the battle system is by-and-large unchanged from the original, then this decision just repeats the complaint from the original game in being forced to use two party members for a system designed for three. Again, it’s unknown just how deep the monster raising system will be, but a better alternative would have been to keep the three party system while also including monsters. Such a concept would have felt more like an expansion to the previous game’s battle system instead of an (arguably) inferior replacement.
A bigger concern is that it also limits the amount of character interaction; reportedly, there are lots of back-and-forth conversations between Noel, Serah, and whoever is the current temp, but it’s still safe to assume that for the majority of the game it’s just going to be those two working by themselves. Is it really conceivable that these two characters will be able to carry the majority of the story by themselves?
On the subject of interaction, the game also employs a “Live Trigger System”, where players are given a choice between multiple dialog options to swing the conversation in a manner they see fit. Games like Mass Effect and Deus Ex immediately come to mind, but in truth this feature has been around since Final Fantasy VII.
But whereas the dialog choices in FFVII actually affected the overall story in subtle ways (namely the person that Cloud goes on a date with in the Gold Saucer, as well as determining how intimate he gets with his true love the night before the final battle), the choices in FFXIII-2 don’t seem to have any kind of impact at all, at least based on early reports.
Furthermore, the choices shown in the promotional material are hardly varied in their response….in fact, the majority appear to be nothing but exposition that you would expect to get in the first place. Does Square really think players would be compelled to replay the same scene twice just to hear about where Noel is from, followed describing the place that he is from? Why not simply give players access to all the information at once, ala Mass Effect?
In any event, not having any of the old characters return as permanent party members is disappointing (Serah’s screen-time and development was minimal at best in the fist game, so she still qualifies as “new”), though based on the negative criticisms of the first game’s cast, this may be considered a good thing. And yet with sequels, there’s always the opportunity to improve on a returning character, re-writing them in a more positive light among naysayers. And based on what’s been shown, some of the returning characters do appear to have been given a more positive makeover, particularly Hope:
As one of the more despised characters (who began as a meek crybaby, briefly regressed into a knife-wielding psychopath, and eventually scored his own giant robot while also briefly putting the moves on Vanille), the Hope featured in FFXIII-2 is actually a future incarnation who sports a swank new outfit and commands an entire airship armada. Even if you were part of the Hope Hate Camp, you can’t deny this new incarnation appears a lot more….Hopeful.
Regardless, having only two fully customizable party members in a 30-plus hour RPG is a big risk, especially considering how they’re both essentially a replacement for…
There are few FF characters that are universally loved by everyone….like the games themselves, fans typically tend to highly favor one character while arbitrarily designating the other as “inferior” (for example, between Tifa and Aerith, one is either a pure virgin spirit while the other is a dirty street whore…depending on who you ask). Apparently the concept of liking every FF game and character by their own individual merits is lost on the radically vocal fanbase.
That said, FFXIII’s main cast has earned a significant level of hatred among the FF community, particularly in regards to Snow (for being too stubbornly optimistic), Hope (for being too whiny) and Vanille (for being too….cute?).
But if there was one character that was unanimously liked, it was definitely Lightning. Even the most negative of FFXIII haters have at least accepted Lightning as the least-offensive of the main cast, while the character has gone on to become a virtual sensation in Japan. Perhaps it’s her blunt no-nonsense attitude that earned her popularity….or maybe it’s because she’s viewed as “Cloud with a Vagina”, but regardless of the reasons, it was her appearance during the first batch of teaser trailers and magazine ads that rose peoples’ excitement for the upcoming sequel.
Except it turns out Lightning isn’t the main character; in fact, she isn’t even playable beyond an introductory 10 minute segment. Instead, the role belongs to newcomer Noel, a young man from the future who was sent by Lightning to protect her sister Serah and prevent the destruction of humanity.
It’s like Square pulled a Raiden on us, except they warned us in advance…..well, those of us with Internet access, anyway. How is the average person who buys the game based on its packaging or print ads (which all prominently feature Lightning, and is almost entirely devoid of Noel and/or Serah) going to feel once they boot up the game and play through the (reportedly) exciting opening segment?
Again, FFXIII didn’t exactly have the most well-received cast, so there’s always the chance that they can start over with a brand new, better represented character. But based on the feedback from the moment of his unveiling, there are very few people willing to give Noel a fair shot, and have been very vocal about the lack of focus on Lightning.
What’s especially irritating is that the parts shown with Lightning exclusively, as well as her new role in the storyline, have been met with widespread praise; caught in a state of limbo in another dimension, Lightning has been tasked by the goddess Etro to fend off against new villain Caius as well as the remaining Fal’cie, utilizing all the abilities and powers she obtained in the original game.
That concept alone is compelling enough for a sequel, but instead we are forced to follow Noel and Serah as they travel through time helping people and changing outcomes as part of the game’s non-linear mission structure. In Anime terms, this would be considered filler.
Again, there’s still the possibility that Noel ends up as a good (if not better) character in his own respect, and that the time-altering concept ends up more fun….but considering the more appealing concept of Lightning playing Goddess of War, I can’t help but wonder why Square would take such an enormous gamble with an unknown character as well as a concept that has been done-to-death.
One of Final Fantasy XIII’s underrated positives was the difficulty of its battles….many of the late game bosses proved to be incredibly brutal and challenging, and with the omission of character levels, it required players to build a proper Paradigm setup as well as quickly adjusting to the fast-paced nature of the battles in order to push through. Respawning the party in front of the enemy after immediately losing was also an appreciated gesture, compelling players to keep on trying while also eliminating the common complaint of having to re-watch cutscenes before the next attempt.
Like Final Fantasy X-2, FFXIII-2 features a mission-based structure that allows players to play the areas in any order they so choose. Each mission is also ranked by difficulty, which somewhat limits the promise of non-linearity since taking on a mission well above your current level can lead to typically negative results.
But it isn’t impossible, and the rewards for pulling off such a feat are usually grand…such as rapidly gaining levels or obtaining a high-level item. With Final Fantasy X-2’s expansive job system and limitless collectible items, the game practically dared you to attempt the hardest missions first.
But doing so also created a major problem down the road: it made the rest of the game too easy. Not only were the lower level missions an absolute cakewalk, it also reduced the game’s final boss into a pitiful threat that was dispatched in under five minutes.
Such is the risk with mission-based RPGs, and with FFXIII-2 featuring the same level of freedom, what steps will they take to keep the game from getting too easy? Even if you chose to engage each mission in their proper order, the game is placing a bigger emphasis on replaying areas thanks to the Historia Crux system (more on that below).
But the biggest concern lies in the DLC; taking a cue from the rest of the games industry, Square is unloading their next FF title with Day One DLC items, and of what’s been posted so far, they all sound potentially game-breaking.
You have a weapon for Serah that drains enemy HP and refills her own, a weapon for Noel that speeds up his ATB guage (and apparently increases in speed as you progress in the game), and even the ability to recruit Omega as a monster companion.
Yes, Omega….the same mega-boss that has had a reputation in the FF series as an incredibly powerful optional boss that was typically more powerful than the final boss in each game. Why bother with a Chocobo or Goblin in your monster party when you could recruit Omega right from the start?
Granted, this could very well be the most unfounded of my concerns; after all, plenty of games include DLC weapons that give a momentary advantage without significantly breaking the game. There’s also the possibility that Omega won’t be quite as powerful as an ally as it normally is as an enemy….plus, it apparently needs to be defeated in battle before you can even recruit it, so it may not be something you can accomplish early on in the game.
But the one factor that still proves the most concerning is the Historia Crux system; This system refers to the ability to replay missions and obtain different outcomes as a result of your actions; Obtaining these different outcomes opens new paths, and possibly rewards, as you earn them.
This also raises the question of whether any actions you make that directly affect the story can also be changed…..if you can just undo every action you make in the first playthrough, then what’s the point of replaying the game afterward? According to SE, there are unlockables that can only be obtained on the second playthrough, but the quantity and quality of this extra content is still up in the air.
Lastly, the game now includes QTE prompts during battle (dubbed “Cinematic Actions”), which serve to deliver increased damage to enemies upon successfully inputting the on-screen commands. Based on what’s been shown, these prompts are incredibly simple to achieve and are unlikely going to be trouble for the average player, and failing them anway will only result in a less damaging attack.
So why have them in the first place? This isn’t like FFVIII where mashing a button to increase Summon damage was added just to have something to do during the unskippable animations….the game seems to be fast-paced enough that being forced to do these segments just to get a slight damage boost hardly seem worth it.
On the upside, there also appear to be QTE’s during boss battles that apparently have an effect on how the battle will play out. It remains to be seen what effect these segments will have, but if they can alter the fight in any meaningful way (such as a change in location, or forcing the boss to unleash an unseen ability), then this could make the Cinematic Actions worthy of the name.
Despite the rampant anti-fanboyism surrounding the company of late, particularly over the quality of their last few titles, Square Enix still possesses a pedigree that is seldom matched by other Japanese developers. They still possess the tools to create a Final Fantasy game that can match the quality and acclaim of their past successes, and when they state their commitment to make Final Fantasy XIII-2 a significant improvement over the divisive (and objectively flawed) original, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
But even if the game does deliver on all fronts, it can’t escape the fact that it is a sequel to one of the most hated entries in the series. As unfair as it sounds, very few people are going to give the sequel a fair shake, and those who approach it may do so with restrained skepticism. There’s nothing worse than diving into a game not knowing if you’re going to like it.
And while it’s perfectly plausible to create an entertaining game with numerous improved gameplay mechanics, there’s still the matter of the story and setting; if you hated the original game’s plot, or didn’t care enough to absorb its mythology and terms, will FFXIII-2 be able to offer a second look that not only fleshes out the world of Coccoon and Pulse effectively, but even go so far as to redeem characters and concepts from the first game?
Considering that the sequel is also handled by the same writer as the first game (as well as the man who singlehandedly ruined the Parasite Eve series forever with his awful “twist”), this is the one factor that FFXIII-2 has the lowest probability of achieving. You could make an argument that as long as it holds up as a game, the story and characters don’t really matter.
But for me, an RPG must accomplish two things: it must be fun to play, and it must tell a compelling story with interesting characters. Without creating a setting or cast worth caring about, the notion of spending hours upon hours exploring every nook and cranny or achieving every known objective (both required and optional) loses a significant amount of incentive if you can’t stay invested in the world and characters you’re helping to save.
Time will tell whether my fears are unfounded, as I most likely will be purchasing this game the day it launches overseas. But with an intriguing time travel concept that may be marred by a story penned by someone with a shaky history as a director, I would have much preferred if the game was part of another, brand new Final Fantasy setting.
Or at least the long overdue Chrono Break.