Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Crossroads

Continuing right along with the discussion of games that I won't be playing any time soon, reviews for Final Fantasy XIII suggest that it may be the JRPG that I've been wanting for a long time. The thing is that many of these reviews are lukewarm or even negative, and the game's current Metacritic score of 83 is the lowest of any original numbered Final Fantasy in the site's database, which goes as far back as FFVII on the PS1.

Final Fantasy has been a contentious title for as long as it has been popular, but, even so, the massively multiplayer online FFXI is the only other main entry to have received less than a 90 Metascore. When FFXII released to strong scores but little discourse, it seemed that the gaming community had finally split into those who were fans and those who did not care at all, with a fair portion of gamers having perhaps transitioned with age from the former camp to the latter. A year ago, I wondered if I myself had left the series behind, or if it had failed to keep pace with me as I had grown into adulthood. FFXII's minimalist narrative left me cold, while the unintuitive mechanics and uncharacteristically hardcore progression left me weeping. Because it seemed so entirely the opposite, not only of what I wanted from Final Fantasy, but also what I expected based on the series's history, I ultimately concluded that my problem was with FFXII specifically, and I rested easier knowing that the next game would be something different. But FFXIII is now a game that has divided the Final Fantasy fan base itself, and apathy has no place in this conversation.

The debate centers around the extreme linearity of FFXIII, as a large percentage of the game's dungeons are reportedly literal straight lines that simply connect cut scenes with finite numbers of enemies to battle. Meanwhile, genre standards such as an overworld, towns and townspeople, side quests, and any kind of free exploration have been jettisoned. You apparently can't even select your party members for lengthy spans of the adventure. It sounds almost more like a menu-based action game than anything recognizable as an RPG, which has got many a traditionalist in an uproar, but it also sounds like the design I've been calling for since at least as far back as Parasite Eve. That game was also extremely linear and never let its focus on narrative get bogged down with random enemies and townspeople. There were no notable side quests and no open world to explore, and I didn't miss any of it. I've always hated forks in the road. I do enjoy towns, but as sets for events (think the Active Time Events from FFIX), not as locations for conducting business and talking to nameless NPCs. I'm the guy that turned on "Encounters None" as soon as possible in FFVIII and never looked back. The things that have captivated me in the Final Fantasy games I've enjoyed have been story and combat--not so much the fighting itself, but the unit development and management aspects that actually decide most battles. So I'd be all for a game that distilled the experience to just those elements.

I'm not out to defend a game I haven't played. Rather, I feel like I need to defend my long-held opinions on the genre now, because I am frankly shocked to find that so many of my fellow JRPG fans would actually miss things like level-grinding, getting lost in dungeons, and getting sidetracked by globetrotting fetch quests that stall the narrative. Even some of the more positive reviews seem to note the game's linearity as a chief weakness, yet nobody can really articulate why linearity is necessarily a bad thing. Amid the controversy surrounding FFXIII's design, the implication has been that, because I have never shared these feelings, I should be classified as a mass market gamer and casual RPG player. If my credentials are at issue, let me just say again that the first RPG I ever completed was The 7th Saga. That is NOT a soft game. The last RPG I finished was Persona 3, and the best has been Suikoden II. Among the other fifty-or-so RPGs I've completed have been nine numbered Final Fantasy games. It's true that I did not come to the Final Fantasy series starting with the first game, but I am a fan, with a fair bit of experience.

Taking FFX, XI, XII, and now XIII into account, I can think of no other series that continually reinvents itself so dramatically from one major installment to the next. Yet also no other game (except for maybe Metal Gear Solid 2) seems to have to fight so hard against the players' image of what it is supposed to be. Much as we may be attached to those Roman numerals, maybe it's time Square Enix finally retired the numbering system, since it only seems to enslave the series to a set of expectations that both the developer and community should have outgrown. I myself could not get behind the departures represented by XI and XII, but my disappointments have since made me even more appreciative of the series's "non-sequel-ness," which means that, whether I like it or not, I can always expect something different from each new installment. I think that's something to be applauded rather than lamented. And I know that Square Enix can still make a good game, as it did recently (well, 2007 . . .) with the very excellent and similarly streamlined The World Ends with You.

That said, I of course have not played FFXIII, and I must balance my enthusiasm for its daring design with the requisite skepticism concerning anything new and different. I'm obviously in favor of a more streamlined JRPG experience, but when you take away all the side quests and exploration, then you're basically investing everything in the story, which must consequently be that much stronger. You might think that the opposite should be true for someone like me, who doesn't enjoy all that stalling and wandering--that the more of those tedious elements there are, the better the story must be to make up for them. The reality, as I'm sure many game designers are well aware, is that, when you're made to endure hours of grinding in order to overcome just the latest difficulty-spiking boss, that cut scene that follows feels like a reward, no matter how mediocre it really is. On the other hand, in the case of Parasite Eve, much as I admired its stripping away of genre chaff, that game does not rank with my more favorite Final Fantasies, simply because the mediocrity of its story is so exposed by the absence of anything else to distract from it. Back to FFXIII, I don't know very much about its story, but the trailers certainly give me cause for concern. It may be difficult to convey much about a forty-hour adventure in a five-minute trailer, but Final Fantasy has traditionally always been a high-concept epic. Yet the best Square Enix could do this time was fling about foreign terms that suggest nothing without context, which the trailers do not provide. They're not just weird made-up words, but barely pronounceable ones of no meaningful etymology. It's not at all clear what the heroes are fighting or why, as they moreover utter trite, hammy dialogue. You could argue that Final Fantasy has always been full of melodrama, but FFXIII sounds mushier than I can recall any previous entries being. Maybe the voice acting just makes it all more apparent nowadays. There are some cool Avatar-esque otherworldly visuals, but emo children (and young adults) cannot compare with the instantly iconic image of Akihiko Yoshida's screen-dominating Judges in FFXII. And those FFXII trailers were edited together out of a game that had almost no story or characterization to work with, so what do FFXIII's trailers suggest about it?

Well, I don't really know, but I suppose I'm cautiously optimistic. FFXIII's universe at least appears more original than Parasite Eve's, and if it can combine the accessibility of that game with the epic grandeur of Final Fantasy, then that would be enough to excite me. It's not one of those games that will cut to the top of the queue, but it is on my list of games to play.


Czardoz said...

"it is on my list of games to play"

- PS3 or X360?

Henry said...

Word is, unless you want to earn those 360 Achievements, the PS3 version is definitive.