Thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2

Final Fantasy XIII -2 from Square Enix is coming out at the end of this month, continuing the story of Lightning and the other characters from Final Fantasy XIII and the world they inhabit. And I’m genuinely saddened to realize that I don’t really care. It’s a strange feeling.

It’s not quite accurate to say that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the first game in the main Final Fantasy series (as opposed to spin-offs like Crystal Chronicles) that I’m not excited about. However, it is the first time this has happened with the game I’m in the main target audience for. I was indifferent to Final Fantasy XI and XIV simply because I’m not interested in MMORPGs, and I wasn’t interested in Final Fantasy X-2 because the tone and gameplay of X-2 was quite clearly different from its predecessor and created with a different audience in mind. It didn’t reflect my opinions on the predecessors of those games- I love Final Fantasy X and, after a rocky start, enjoyed Final Fantasy XII.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is different. It’s not an MMO and it doesn’t appear to deviate wildly from its predecessor the way Final Fantasy X-2 did. It seems to be continuing Final Fantasy from where its predecessor left off- and this is, unfortunately, the first time such a prospect has made me less interested in a game. I generally quite liked the setting, plot, and characters of Final Fantasy XIII, and I actually don’t share most of the complaints in that area often made by people who didn’t like the game. But the gameplay was, for the most part, something I put up with rather than enjoyed.

The game’s extreme linearity for most of its length has been commented on many times by others, so I hate to belabor the point here. However, while I often enjoy games that give the player a lot of freedom to explore or different ways of carrying out the game’s objectives, I’m generally a lot less bothered by linearity or “on rails” gameplay than many gamers seem to be, to the point that when I read reviews of games I generally disregard complaints that a game is “too linear” is simply irrelevant to my tastes. Usually, I’m right to do so. So when a game is so linear that even I find it increasingly obnoxious after a while, there’s a problem.

My chief problem, however, was with the battle system, called the “Command Synergy Battle” system by Square Enix, which was one of the game’s more controversy-inducing elements. It actually had some things I thought were extremely promising. As in the Active Time Battle system used in most of the post-8-bit Final Fantasy games, you have a gauge that fills up to indicate how long it will be until a character can take an action. XIII adds the new wrinkle of giving the bar multiple segments and making more powerful abilities require more segments to use- you can fire off a single basic attack or spell if you don’t want to wait for the gauge to fill up all the way or want to hold some segments in reserve, or use several segments at once to unleash a more powerful ability or use a series of weaker ones in rapid succession.

I liked this idea quite a bit; it has the potential to add an interesting element to battle strategy, and making time rather than magic points or expendable items the resource expended in order to use combat abilities other than basic attacks allows the player to make liberal use of them while still requiring the player to think about the trade-offs he’s making.

Unfortunately, this mechanic is inserted into a battle system where you don’t get to make much use of it, because at any given time two-thirds of your party is completely under AI control and your only influence over them is the ability to assign them very general set roles such as physical combatant, offensive magic user, healer, and so forth. You can have your party members switch mid-battle to different configurations of roles that you set up beforehand, called paradigms, and that’s it. And, in practice, the game doesn’t really call for you to actually use the new battle system in interesting ways very much, since in most battles the optimal courses is typically to just hit “Auto” to have your character fire off a stream of standard offensive moves (or healing spells, or status-draining or status-boosting abilities if it’s a bigger fight). You can combine different moves in all sorts of intricately different ways in a single command, but there’s seldom any reason to.

I appreciate that they were trying to create an RPG with faster-paced battles, but the end result distilled the weaknesses of multiple genres and mixed them together without the strengths. It kept the restrictive nature of turn-based JRPG combat while stripping away most of the thought and planning, and combined it with what felt like the repetitive button-mashing of an arcade beat’em up or a Dynasty Warriors game while removing their freedom of movement, their need for skill or reflexes, and most of their excitement. It generally felt like the worst of both worlds.

This wasn’t the first time that I thought a Final Fantasy game’s battle system was a step down from its predecessors, but it’s the first time it’s been so dramatic. I didn’t like the system in Final Fantasy XII as much as that of prior games, but I did still come to enjoy it once I got used to it. There were a number of things I greatly disliked about the battles in Final Fantasy VIII– the elimination of a magic points (MP) stat in favor of requiring the player to repetitively “draw” magic spells from enemies, the repetitive tedium of having to sit through every Guardian Forces’ (summons, basically) entire summoning sequence every time you used them, which was a lot, the almost total interchangeability of your party members in battles, and the way the levels of enemies rose as yours did so that gaining experience points was nearly useless.

However, while their combined effect considerably diminished my enjoyment of FFVIII, the problem wasn’t with the core Active Time Battle system but with all the annoying bits that had been grafted onto it. These problems were easily correctable without changing anything fundamental, and when Final Fantasy IX came out that’s exactly what happened. What I didn’t like about Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t particular details of the Command Synergy Battle system, it was the system itself. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is using a slightly modified version of the same system, and what modifications there are don’t appear to have anything to do with the problems I had with it.

After I had already invested some time in it, the story and characters in XIII interested me enough to finish the game, but that story felt pretty solidly concluded by the game’s end and what I’ve seen so far of XIII-2 seems only tenuously connected with it. I’ve loved Final Fantasy since the first one came out in America. Many of my most eagerly awaited games in over two and a half decades playing video games have been Final Fantasy games, so it’s very strange to feel so little about the fact that there’s a new one in less than a month. I still love RPGs, I can still get very excited about an upcoming video game, and my ability to enjoy new, previously unfamiliar kinds of gameplay has grown over the past few years, so unfortunately I can’t just write this off as the result of me being too jaded or too set in my ways.

The one bright spot in this is that the upcoming Final Fantasy Versus XIII is supposed to be a full-blown action RPG. The Command Synergy Battle system was apparently the product of the desire by Square designers to make battles in Final Fantasy XIII have more of the speed and excitement of an action game, so I’m hoping that an actual Final Fantasy action game will succeed where attempts to make a menu-based RPG mimic one failed. So I’m still looking forward to Versus, albeit a bit cautiously.

Of course, I’ve been looking forward to Versus since Square Enix announced it in 2006, so there’s no telling how much longer I’ll have to continue looking forward to it.