Friday, February 13, 2009

Back to Basics – How To Make Sure I Enjoy FFXIII

Play this game.  Now. Kat Bailey over at 1Up’s The Grind blog reacted positively to news that FFXIII’s female protagonist Lightning may be more Cloud than Tidus – more quiet and brooding than energetic and annoying. A while back, Andrew called our attention to Ray Huling’s Escapist article that likened Final Fantasy XIII to the Yamato – a battleship so large and time-consuming in its construction that it was obsolete long before its completion.

Final Fantasy games, at least the numbered ones, have never been about economy and subtlety. Just look at the title – Final Fantasy – so named because Squaresoft put it out expecting it to be the last game they ever made. Why not make a save-the-world epic? And when it saved them from certain bankruptcy, why not make eleventeen more? From the hard-to-follow summary of FFXIII on Wikipedia, it sounds like this is again Square’s goal. Fine.

I have no problems with an RPG of epic-scale, Square. But if I’m going to play this thing (and I have no doubt that I will, for better or worse), I ask that you learn a few things from your own epic RPG – Final Fantasy VI.

Find a Good Balance Between Story and Gameplay
One of the main reasons I’ve yet to finish FFXII is the battle system. And not because it’s bad. It’s too good. In travelling from town to town plot point to plot point, I get lost in wandering around, gently coaxing my party into combat. It’s a highly customizable system with precisely nothing to do with the story. Never mind that I often forget where I’m supposed to go because I’m too busy tracking down the biggest, baddest monsters, but the process by which my characters become stronger (the License Board) has no game-world equivalent. The game only mentions Gambits – the automatic commands you prioritize and equip on your characters – in a few early scenes to a tutorial effect.

FFVI’s Magicite, on the other hand, factor’s prominently in the game’s narrative. Kefka, the game’s megalomaniacal antagonist, is capturing magical creatures called Espers and draining their life force for his own nefarious purposes. When the creatures pass on, they become Magicite crystals, which your party acquires and equips to learn magic for use in battle. See how that all ties together? Oh, and there’s that whole thing where one of the main characters, Terra, happens to be half-Esper, meaning that whenever you equip Maduin you’re actually equipping her father. Now that’s what I call an integration of game elements.

Expand the Cast of Characters.
FFX only had seven playable characters and FFXII a paltry six. This coincides with the implementation of increasingly convoluted character growth systems. Is it cool that I can teach all of my characters how to steal, how to hold a shield, how to Armor Break an enemy, blah blah blah? I guess so. And maybe that’s not my real issue with the smaller casts. My main issue is – and correct me if I’m wrong – that once characters join your party in FFX and FFXII, they never leave. And because they never leave, there’s no reason to design other characters that might replace them. If I’m to save the world, don’t give me a party with fewer people than it took The Sandlot kids to play baseball (if you recall, they’d been doing it with eight before Smalls showed up). Give me a freaking army.

FFVI featured fourteen playable characters. Fourteen. You’d think a cast that large would make the characters forgettable. Um, nope. You know what makes them forgettable? Convoluted growth systems that balance out the character’s abilities until they’re indistinguishable in combat. You know what else makes them forgettable? Having them merge into an identity-less “party” that meanders from one plot point to the next after you’re done with that special summon side quest.

The characters in VI are distinguished by gameplay elements (not unlike other games in the series, each character possesses a unique ability) but also by remarkable amounts of characterization. Many of the characters get lengthy backstories or notable sidequests to fill in their background (Gau’s humorous attempts to develop a relationship with his father comes to mind). A number of the characters are obtainable only through sidequest. This interplay between the epic narrative and the characters is further embodied by a critical plot point in FFVI:

The Floating Continent
I thought to write “Spoiler Alert” here but realized that if you’re worried about me spoiling a game this old I have no time for you. Aeris dies. Bruce Willis is dead. Norman’s his mom. Move on.

Midway through FFVI, Kefka uses some magic statues to lift the land of the Espers into the sky (not unlike another favorite game of my childhood). After the Floating Continent’s last battle, Shadow (a mercenary character who flits in and out of your party throughout the game) disappears. As the Continent begins to fall apart, you can either wait for Shadow to catch up with you or not. If you don’t wait, he dies. As in he’s no longer in the game. That takes balls.

Furthermore, the game is forever changed by the crash of the Continent. It pulls a Battlestar (reimagined)-like time jump. You skip forward a year, and you’re party has been scattered across the newly-formed World of Ruin. The game makes you assemble your party a second time. This results in a series of character-driven subplots – some optional, others not. The most stirring of which concerns Terra, the half-Esper orphan, who has taken up residence in a small town, caring for children orphaned by Kefka’s evil reign. She has lost the will to fight but must rekindle it to defend them. It’s a simple story when compared to most non-interactive media, but it’s better than a lot of stuff in other games, including other Final Fantasy titles. And what made it possible was the audacity to break up the party, to use the flux of characters to mirror the flux in the game’s world.

But Please, Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
It’s impossible to sustain a dramatic arc through 30+ hours of gameplay. It just is. No one can do it. So allow yourself some breathing room. Hire John DiMaggio again if you need to. Kefka remains a fantastic villain; his ego and sense of humor aren’t unlike what draws a lot of people to the Joker. Hire whoever wrote Kefka. Whoever wrote Balthier’s dialogue in FFXII, hire him. Just don’t give me more of this awful crap.

Look, I know most of FFXIII is already set in stone. And the guy directing it is the guy who directed FFX-2. (Ugh.) I just hope that Square remembers that while they can tell big stories and offer great gameplay, it’s all for naught if the two don’t merge. If the two are integrated, Square might just be able to tell a grand story grandly. They’ve done it before.