Signs Point to Quit

It must be the slow season for video games, because even though I have games to play, I have found excuses not to play them. But, I promised a month ago (!) that I would write something down about Final Fantasy 13. Now that a month has passed it is virtually certain that no one on the planet really gives a crap about what I think of Final Fantasy 13. Therefore, it’s the perfect time to meditate on the game.

Here is what you need to know about FF13. For about a month I played a bit every night and enjoyed it. Just before a long business trip I got to a Major Plot Point. While on the trip, I started watching The Wire. When I got back, I just kept watching The Wire and felt no real need to pick the game up again. Unlike a some other games which I have given up on recently I have no overwhelmingly negative feelings towards the game. I believe that it succeeds at everything it sets out to do. In particular, it fulfills the three main requirements of an RPG:

1. The combat is engaging without being either overly difficult or overly complicated. More on this later.

2. The character progression is marked by the right combination of increased ability and pretty cut scenes.

3. The plot does not get in the way.

The first two points are the main positives. The combat and character progression systems display a rare willingness on Square’s part to actually streamline tedious crap out of the game. The character ability trees are not a minefield where one bad decision early on in the game can ruin your entire experience. Instead, it’s usually clear where you want to go to make your characters appropriately powerful. This is good.

The combat system is similarly accommodating. Rather than requiring you to constantly babysit all of the other brainless drones in the party, the combat system has you do two things

1. Control the main character at the time (this changes up depending on where you are in the plot)

2. Control the overall set of roles that you want the AI to play.

The second aspect of the combat system is called the “paradigm system.” It basically allows you to dynamically change the concentration of abilities that the AI will use on your behalf. So you can have one setup for aggressive attacks, one for healing up, one for casting buffs, and so on. Once the combat gets going, the main task for you is to pick the party type you want and then just tell the combat AI to do its thing. In other words, what the game has done is tell you to constantly monitor the high level strategy of the party in combat rather than spending your whole life picking the same 5 things by navigating the same 5 levels of menu over and over and over again. The automatic AI is not perfect, but it is a whole lot better than the armored retards in Dragon Age. Overall, this is a win.

As in all Final Fantasy games, in between the big battles, there are cut scenes. The cut scenes are spectacularly pretty. I don’t care if the base graphical abilities of the consoles are dumbed down compared to PCs or not … no development house in the West has been able to match the visual richness and overall quality of either the pre-rendered or engine-rendered movies in this game. It’s a remarkable achievement. The best part is that when you drop out of a cut scene back into the game, the drop in visual quality is nowhere near as jarring as in the older games on the PS2. The looks-like-ass filter is finally gone.

The movies would be even more enjoyable if the plot were actually interesting. Unfortunately, here is where the game breaks down. The plot is full of painfully slow exposition. But, to make up for it, they leave out a lot of exposition that is required to understand the exposition that is actually there. If you are patient and just ignore the words you do not understand it eventually all comes together. But I can’t help but wonder how this might have turned out if video game writers actually knew how to write. Or, perhaps it’s some disaster of localization. Either way, there is not a lot going on narratively in this game, and what is there doesn’t make much sense for a long time.

In fact, everything in this game seems to take a long time to get going. The Internet People have complained loudly that the game doesn’t let you out of tutorial jail for a good 20 to 30 hours. I think this is overblown. It is true that for reasons having to do with the narrative the game does not give you full control over your party and its combat for around the first 20 hours of the game. But I think it’s disingenuous to call this entire sequence the tutorial. It doesn’t take that long for you to get into the main mechanics of the game (walk down hallway, slaughter enemies, level up), so in my view the tutorial ends pretty much as soon as most of the combat system has opened up. Contrast this with Assassin’s Creed, which really didn’t let you stab anyone (which is the entire point of the game) for a good four or five hours. Now that’s a painfully long tutorial.

Another complaint from the nets has been that the game is “overly linear.” I think this is like complaining that shooters have you “shoot too many enemies with guns”. It’s a Final Fantasy game, of course it’s overly linear. That’s what you signed up for. Related to the linearity angst is the widespread complaint that Square got rid of the towns and replaced them with a relatively impersonal shopping interface at the save-points. I agree with this to the extent that the shopping interface is completely opaque and useless (as is the upgrade system for weapons). But it is not clear to me why people seem to have such a deep-seated nostalgia for the towns. Why would you like walking around in a ghost town full of dead people who offer the same three lines of dialog every time you “talk” to them. These idiotic edifices are gone in FF13 and all I have to say is good riddance.

My complaint about the game is that it leads you down the same old hallway but there is no tasty cheese at the end. The tasty cheese is supposed to be a pretty cut scene that I actually care about. Unfortunately, FF13 has spent all too many hours not generating anything that I actually care about. On the other hand, nothing in the plot has caused me to want to plunge a hot poker through all of my main sensory organs. And that’s more than I can say for a lot of video games. I find it indifferent and easy to ignore while I continue to run down the hall.

But, this indifference only gets you so far, and around the time I started watching The Wire I must have hit my limit. So while I have no real complaints about the game systems, the characters, the combat, or the overall production, it’s not clear to me that I will spend any more energy to get to the end of the hallway without some indication I will eventually get my payoff.

Maybe I’ll get back to it after I get through the rest of The Wire. Or maybe I’ll be able to put it off until it’s Madden Time again. Either way, at least I didn’t waste any more time with Dragon Age. Yes, I went there. That game left a mark.