Monday, September 27, 2010

Final Fantasy Does Casual

Final Fantasy VIII

Yeah, I only just played the game on the re-release on the PS3, but judging by the sales it's the first time a lot of people have played the game. With so much separation of time (the game was originally released in 1999) I figured that it would be easy to separate it from it's big brother Final Fantasy VII, a game which dominates any role playing game conversation. However, that proved not to be so easy.

One of the biggest drawbacks of Final Fantasy VII was the grouping of the skill tree: there wasn't any. Every skill a player could have (i.e., cast heal, do more damage, speed up, etc.) was a separate item that had to be equipped to the character. The system itself was monstrously flexible and I've not played a game before or since with such a flexible skill tree, but if your players skill items became unequipped as part of playing the game (which happened too frequently) you were left with a giant box of items with no recollection of who gets what items.

The team behind FF8 sought to rectify this by giving skill groupings which could be applied to any player. This got around some of the management issues with the FF7 system, but it also robbed some flexibility since I often had skills being applied to characters who didn't need them (for example, stronger magic on a fighter). Rather than leaving well enough alone, they decided to introduce their own skill tree issues by applying magic spells held by the characters to their stats. This led to me not using magic hardly at all through the whole game since casting the spell bound to the character's 'strength' would make them weaker and, especially with powerful spells, I might not be able to refill that spell anytime soon if at all.

Overall though, an enjoyable romp. This was quite possibly the best looking game put out for the PS1 (even FFIX doesn't look as good). Due to either oversights or intentional design this is also by far the easiest of any Final Fantasy game. As an example I was able to grind several of my characters up to level 100 within 70 hours of play time, the time it usually takes to get characters up into the 60s. An infinite cash trick, easy to pull off critical hits, and ridiculously overpowered overdrives made the back quarter of the game, a time typically when FF games separate casual players from hardcore, an entertaining breeze.

Final Fantasy XIII

Like FF8, FF13 follows on the heels of a Final Fantasy game that featured a very flexible system even though it was difficult to manage at times. In Final Fantasy XI, combat commands were queued up into something like a firewall table where if the first command were true (i.e., if a character was near death), then a command would be performed (i.e., cast 'healing') and if it wasn't true it would go to the next rule and so forth. This proved wonky at times when going into specialized battles as different command sets might have to be queued (there was a limit of a dozen if I recall correctly). FF13 sought to get around all that strategy and flexibility of the previous title by doing away with it entirely and giving the player six (largely undocumented) prebuilt command queues that the onscreen characters follow, making for a game that largely plays itself.

The faults with the game pile up after that. To properly follow the story at times I had to read a lot of material stored in one of the pause menus because it was never related during the game. Instead of starting at the beginning of the story, the game starts about a third of the way through and uses flashbacks to round it out. This wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that it's uber-linear game construction leaves the gamer with characters he knows and cares little about for far too long (at least the game is very pretty to look at). When the game finally gets good for one of it's thirteen chapters(!), several optional battles provide mini-cutscenes that are much more entertaining than the brooding crap that dominates the rest of the game.

The good chapter in particular led me to believe that the mediocrity of the rest of the title was a design decision instead of an unresolvable development issue, and since FFXIII has outsold FFXI despite a smaller install base, I'd say that was the case. So three sandmiches for game quality, and five sandmiches for a triumph of capitalism!

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