Monday, November 26, 2012

How Final Fantasy XIII Could Have Been Better

So yes, I know this is one of those hokey things that people with a little too much self-importance does or whatever you might think, and I don't generally like doing it, but I liked Final Fantasy XIII enough that I've actually put thought into considering how it would have been better received.  Not only by the general audience who seem to regard it mostly with disdain for reasons that are fairly obvious, but by myself, who will openly admit that I like it in spite of it.  I am in the odd position in thinking that Final Fantasy XIII does a lot of -good-, but it simply does not capitalize on that, make that shine, and instead you're left with flashes of things that are good, but are so quickly done, you can't even get a good approximation of them on a glance.  Instead, it's obsessed with doing precisely everything counter to that which, as I stated in my review, oftentimes leads to a dissonance on a level that you just cannot even plan.  I mean, when you have basically the same story done twice in your game, yet it works completely differently in both cases?  You have done something wrong.

Regardless, it's not simply enough to say "Those good things, do those more", because, as I said, a lot of players might not have gotten to said parts, or because they went so fast, it's hard to say they were even good to the people who, at the point they were in, might've just glossed over them in a race to the end of the game.  And it's hard to say that if they ran with what was good that it would've been a good game because, from what a lot of people are saying, XIII-2 does that and while I don't see that (Aside from having bigger, non-linear-ish areas), I'm....not really having a whole lot of fun with XIII-2 yet.  I'm not even in the double-digits as far as hours played yet, I don't think, so I don't have a full approximation of the game (will get to this point some other night having played more), but I can tell you that I'm longing for much of what XIII had to offer, which I'm sure comes as a strange statement to many.  Still, I feel like I can put down a few key examples of things and posit as to how changing them around would've made the game stronger overall.

Yes, yes, linearity.

That is basically -the- complaint to have about XIII and it varies from talking about the whole game, to the map design and such.  While exaggerated as these things tend to get through the internet filter, it's not false in so many words, since, well, there is almost -never- any reason to go any direction but forward.  Oftentimes, there's also no real ability to move in any direction but forward.  The only occasion where you will find yourself allowed to revisit locations you've been to in the game once already comes at the very tail-end of it in a way that feels....well, tacked on as a sort of "Okay, people probably didn't do everything in the one open-area in the game, so let's give them a way back" way.  I'll spoil it now, I guess since it doesn't really matter, but in the actual Gods-Honest end area, literally steps before you fight the final boss, you can go back to Gran Pulse if you want to run around the wilds and be free, or do some more Ci'eth Stone missions because there's goddamn 64 of them and you aren't going to be able to do them all when you get there because it launches some fuck-off hard monsters at you in some of them.

It's worth noting that when you beat the game, you can load your clear data to be dropped into this very same spot with the option of going back to a (presumably middle-of-being-destroyed) Cocoon (spoiler alert) or the aforementioned Gran Pulse through means of the same "Hey they just magically appeared" portals, thus giving you the barest hint of 'Post-game'.  You also have the highest-tier of the Crystarium unlocked when you beat it (yes, you read that right), giving you something to aspire to in terms of a system for advancement as well, which gives you a purpose beyond the Cie'th Stone missions for continuing to play.  But for pretty much every point in the game before Gran Pulse, you're technically supposed to go one way and you're kind of stuck doing it because there is literally no way to go the -other- way, as in the one you just came from.  And even after the big open Gran Pulse area, it bottles back up until you get to end-game where, as stated, you can go back to the playground if it's really that important to you to do so.

The issue with Gran Pulse itself is that it is massive, indeed, but it's pretty much only massive in comparison and that size isn't really used well at all.  As stated, there are Cie'th Stones dotting the landscape and, should you choose to undertake the missions that are offered therein, then congratulations, you get to run around for extended periods of time to the other end of the map or to a different section of it entirely or something.  Just....running the whole way there.  Eventually, you can unlock Chocobos that makes the travel time easier, but that's after you've run around for at least a dozen missions and at that point it hardly seems like an 'upgrade' in the sense that it's almost a necessity for some missions and it's actually a necessity for a few.  Regardless, it's just a large area for the sake of being large and, in the grand scheme of things, that makes it a little less large in fact, since there's whole swaths of area you don't need to, nor will you, frequent after perhaps going there once.  In all honesty, you're tossed from the 'corridor' that people make the bulk of the game out to be into a medium-sized room with landscape painted on the walls to make it seem bigger than it is.

Crystarium Overhaul

The Crystarium is, if you don't know already, the big mechanic in FFXIII through which you buy your abilities and grow your characters when you shake your fist hard enough at the screen to earn CP to spend.  Which is, of course, just me over-exaggerating how difficult it is to get CP early on, since, well, that's when you want CP.  It's a big, flashy thing to be sure, and is quite pretty to look at, though at its core it's basically just discs with bubbles on them that are connected by lines and those lines are the funnels through which you spend CP from one bubble to the next.  Yes, they're 'crystals', but the bulk of them look like bubbles, so that's what I called them.  It's a system that's built purely on its layout and that is, of course, inherently where the problem lies because it just wasn't laid out well at all.  The starting points, which is to say, the only points you get to use at all for half of the game, are designed in a way, in conjunction with the rest of the completely micro-managed game design prominent in the first half of the game, to ensure you have only x abilities, y stats, and z skills.  There is no way to 'game' the system, since all you can do is unlock what's there and then sit on an ever-growing mountain of CP until you advance the story enough (i.e. fight the next boss, or the boss after next in some cases) to open a new disc or two of the Crystarium.

In a lot of ways, the Crystarium can be likened to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X in that it's divided in a way that gives everyone a little something unique to start with, but eventually allows everyone to pick from any class (or 'build' in FFX's case).  This seems like it can't go wrong in theory because how hard is it to take something and repurpose it in a way that's good?  Not hard at all.  (Wait for it.....wait forrrr iiiiiit...)  Unless you're Squeenix who, if you haven't paid attention, are just not good at doing the same thing twice or doing something again well.  Taking something that's supposed to promote versatility and then tailor-making each one in a way that literally prevents everyone from being versatile is literally the only way to mess it up so guess what Squeenix did!  I'm sure it's not obvious from the subtle context clues, so I'll just spell it out in the broadest, easiest terms here.  The Crystarium, at its fully unlocked potential, is made to allow your characters to be great in three classes and such so badly in the other three that it's not even an option and is, in fact, a waste of CP.

If you'll allow me to use Lightning as an example, then I'll say that of the six classes (which are Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Synergist, Saboteur and Medic), Lightning is only proficient in Commando, Ravager and Medic.  What this means is that, when you get the ability to actually buy into the Synergist, Saboteur and Sentinel trees, you're use to spending around 3,000 to 6,000 CP for a modest increase to your stats and a higher-end ability which eventually goes up to 12,000 CP, but they're on rather large discs, so the spread goes over-time.  When you look at the first disc for, say, Sentinel, it's no surprise that it starts off as a tiny disk as you're probably use to in starting off.  What -is- surprising, is that the four or five bubbles on that disk, for like HP+15, Magic +3, etc. cost the same 3,000-6,000 you're used to spending for three times that benefit.  And those small discs?  That's all there is.  To the very top of the tree.  You learn maybe a third of the skills that someone who is proficient in the class will learn and the attribute bonuses never get good.  For exorbitant CP costs all the while.

Beyond it just working out that some characters are just awful at some classes by design, the other problem with the Crystarium is that it's wholly and completely limited.  The Crystarium 'unlocks' at like four different points in the game, through which you get to go up a couple disks, to getting the 'other' primary classes, to eventually being able to go into any tree, as mentioned, to having full access to the whole of it in post-game.  Two completely arbitrary limits on a system that, again, is based on a system built around versatility is missing the entire point and is, in fact, -counter- to the point, and just shows that it wasn't thought-out well in terms of its own design.  It was thought out in terms of the 'narrative', which is what governs the first half of the game unquestionably.  There's many ways that it could've been done better without simply copying the Sphere Grid, like just....making sure everybody gets the same, but cramming it all into the post-game update if that was even necessary or something, and Squeenix just didn't think of any while the game was being made and it showed in a rather unfortunate way.

Pick a Focus (hurr hurr) and Stick With It

This, for all my praise of FFXIII's narrative and story (so, like, the Nautilus part basically) is the single-most frustrating part of the game simply because it had the chance to be the best -part- of the game and utterly and completely wasted it.  You see, Final Fantasy XIII is like a bad novel in that you don't even have to worry about the plot holes or anything, because they writers completely and totally failed to keep consistency in the important bits, the things you'll notice, that anyone with a brain will notice, and they introduce a lot of things at the start that seem cool and interesting, but are relegated to fluff because they're completely and totally overlooked and -gone- by the second half of it all.  What remains, even, is something that lacks exposition of any kind and is just....well, not good.  By and large because at that point, you simply have accepted that what is is because simply that's what it is, since the game refuses to expose any of its intimate details unto you within its own narrative.  (By the by, anything that's explained in the datalog can go fuck itself.  TALK ABOUT IT IN THE GAME.)

The most irksome thing is pretty much what the entire foundation of the game itself rests on:  the Fal'Cie and their relationship with humans.  The Fal'Cie are pretty much the primary focus of the game in a very, very roundabout what and the telling part of just how much they're not explained is that I played the entire game and I cannot tell you what a fucking Fal'Cie is.  They're 'Gods' of some sort, apparently, I got that much, but you're given no explanation into their existence other than "The Maker made them", and there's very little there to allow you to understand why the do what they do.  And what they do is turn human beings into l'Cie which are, basically slaves, for a single purpose - a 'Focus'.  Only that 'Focus' is apparently only given to l'Cie in a hazy, hard-to-remember dream that they have to then remember and then carry out.  Needless to say, a lot of l'Cie are created and few succeed in their task.  'So what happens when they fail?', I hear you ask, since there are a lot of failures.  Simple answer?  I don't fucking know.

At the start, the game sits you down and tells you that l'Cie have one of two things to look forward to:  either they complete their Focus and are granted eternal life within crystal, or they fail to complete their Focus in the time they have and they turn into monsters known as Cie'th.  Now, at this point, you probably recognize the term Cie'th because there are Cie'th stones on Pulse.  Apparently, these Cie'th stones are people who were Cie'th so long that instead of getting killed by the wildlife there that exists solely to murder you, they became stones that forever agonized their inability to complete their Focus, and that single-mindedness can be heard by other l'Cie who are close enough, which translates into you completing their Focus for them which does nothing.  They don't un-stone, they don't un-crystal, they simply float there forever and offer you the chance to re-murder the unique entity that they were supposed to kill and failed to do.  Some of them allow you to teleport to other Cie'th stones.  I don't even know what the fuck.

So, I mean, I guess l'Cie become Cie'th and then die or not die for long enough to become stones that float around for eternity.  I don't know.  I don't really even care anymore, since I am so let down by what the perception of what Fal'Cie and l'Cie were when the game started explaining them.  You see, with the way the game was describing Fal'Cie, I was expecting these all-powerful humans that could enthrall Humans, binding them with magic to a task, something like a Vampire and their ghouls.  And you know what?  Blah blah, nobody likes Vampires, but that would've been cool.  So when the game was like "Hey, we're about to go meet a Fal'Cie" I was so very, very excited.  I was wondering just what one looked like, and wondered if it would end up being the main antagonist of the game, or would be like a mid-boss or something like that.  I was incredibly curious about it, is the point, so I rushed forward to take a gander, expecting something really cool.

It was not cool.

What I ended up running into was a giant machine that I beat mercilessly to no avail because after the fight, in a cutscene, it sort of kind of transformed into something and used giant energy tentacles to brand the party and blah blah blah.  It sucked.  It was completely uninspired, and in no way, shape or form was I ready to expect a machine, and I -guess- that's a plot twist maybe or something, it still sucked.  The worst part of it?  You never see that Fal'Cie again.  In the entire game.  That's just one example of how completely and totally flubbed the whole Fal'Cie thing was in the entire game, and believe me, there are plenty, plenty more of them.  I'm sure you don't doubt that whatsoever.  And that's how just about every important plot point is handled, in that you get the barest hints of what's going on and absolutely nothing else, so that you can't even really figure out what's going on.  Not to mention that some of the things the game -does- tell you with a level of certainty are, sometimes, completely and totally circumvented by things that happen later on.  It doesn't know where it stands, so you have that much less chance of knowing that very fact yourself, and that's just poor all around.

Hilariously, I stand by my assertion that there -is- a good game within Final Fantasy XIII, but as you can see, it's buried under a mess of trouble and poor craftsmanship.  For that reason, there's just no way it can be expected to shine, and that's a real shame.  There are even a couple of other points I probably could've gone on at length over, and may yet some other night, but I think this is enough elaboration for now, since these are, in no uncertain terms, very big issues in themselves.  I suppose my only defense in stating that I liked FFXIII is that the verve I speak about the game, and the clear amount of thought I've put into it suggests that I feel deeply for it and because I can't love it for its faults, I can hate it for what it could've been but wasn't.  The funny thing is that, these issues here that I have, the vast majority of the internet (I think) will tell you have been fixed in Final Fantasy XIII-2 and that XIII-2 is fun, where XIII was not.  And it seems easy to consider, right?  I mean, they couldn't get it more wrong a second time, right?

If you said "right", then you haven't been paying attention.  But that?  That is a topic for another night.

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