snow_light_1Snow and ShivasFF_13_Crew

From the Vault: Final Fantasy XIII

In an earlier incarnation of GeekApproach, I wrote an awful lot about video games.  At the time I was doing work for the games industry and it was a logical extension of the sheer amount of free time I had to actually play said games.  Rather than spend more money (that I don’t have currently) on games, I thought I would go back and replay some titles that I have skipped or didn’t finish for some reason.  Enter Final Fantasy XIII.

The Final Fantasy series is rather legendary in gaming circles.  A cornerstone of the so-called, JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) genre, Final Fantasy (FF) titles have been on every major gaming system since their inception.  Beginning with Nintendo consoles, and moving hand-in-hand with Sony during the PlayStation 2 era, and finally being wooed by Microsoft in the X360 generation to at least make a multi-platform title.  Within the 7th-Gen lifespan that included Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Nintendo’s Wii, Square-Enix managed to put out at least 3 FF titles that spanned the XIII universe: FF XIII, FF XIII-2, and FF XIII: Lightning Returns.  Around March 2010 the game was released worldwide after a holiday release in Japan the quarter prior.  The reviews were a mixed-bag with reviewers offering contradictory opinions on the games linearity, as well as its much-hyped “Paradigm” battle system.  And here is where I entered the fray.  I had played Final Fantasy IV on a re-port pushed to the Nintendo DS and liked it, but really it was the fact that I had people who played Final Fantasy VII on the PS2 and proclaimed it the best game ever.  Of the things I remember seeing at friend’s houses as they  would play FF7, were the cutscenes.  There were a ton– money being spent seemingly every 30 minutes of gameplay to advance a storyline in fully pre-rendered 3D glory.  People said the game was deep, that it wasn’t uncommon to lose 70 hours to the game or more.  I think the longest game I had really played up til that point was maybe 20 hours in and old PC  adventure game called (appropriately) The Longest Journey.  The idea of spending $60 on a game and getting 50+ hours of game time out of it was appealing. So I threw down my cash and walked out with a copy. (I say walked out, but let’s be honest: You dislike GameStop as much as I do (or did).  I clearly bought this at Amazon and it showed up 24 hours later.)

To my amazement, the game shipped on 3 Xbox 360 DVDs.  It’s funny now, but seriously that was somewhere near ~15.6 Gb of game data.  Once I got in though it became apparent that it was at least 7% FMV, interrupting your gameplay every 20 minutes or so to hear awkwardly dubbed audio on an even more awkwardly written story.  I would later understand this to be a constant feature of J-RPG’s.

So, back to the present now.  I pull this game off the shelf and all I can remember is that I stopped playing for some reason, something about there being tutorial still firing up way late in the game.  I opted to restart the game rather than continue any previous progress.  An hour in I was kind of wrapped up in some of these idea from a development perspective:

  • A turn-based battle system essentially means that behind the scenes you have a massive spreadsheet of data, a dependency chart outlining what landing a successful hit costs your enemy, or how often you’ll score a “critical hit” meaning you took more HP than normal.  This massive chart is the game, and all the ancillary front-end graphics are just presentation around a very complex running system.
  • Loot (a hallmark of any RPG) drops that happen when you successfully vanquish an enemy are obviously coming from a pre-computed table: So why are there so few actual useful drops? Does this scale as the game gets harder, or is this a feature unlocked by New Game +?
  • There are massive sub-systems running for things like item creation/enhancement and leveling individual characters in your team.  And there are areas of the this system that you can avoid generally with no input whatsoever and miss out on a complex facet of the game.

I found this very interesting: The core gameplay is something tuned within a massive data stack, and the shiny veneer is what everyone tends to talk about.  Some game developers talk about a “game bible” that they make while building a game; I would love to see the bible on this project, especially if its iterative and you could trace some of the design decisions the team made along the way.

Speaking of those decisions, there are definitely some odd ones.  I brought up the linearity of the game previously, with some reviewers saying it was too linear, that you were just following a waypoint on the map, only to be interrupted by battle or cutscene.  I find this sentiment to be pretty accurate– there is little reason to explore beyond the beaten path aside from a few hundred gil (in-game currency) once in a while.  While the battles are jazzed up a bit by introducing a class-rotation system called Paradigms, most of the time the AI will just follow your lead while activity happens on screen.  Literally this is just the player mashing the A button every time the ATB (Active Time Battle) Gauge is full.  It seems that the developers went out of their way to ensure layers of complexity for those who wanted it, and an easy game experience for those new to the series.

I’ll probably finish this game out, if only to see how the other two in the series have done.  I somehow pre-ordered Wolfenstein, which comes out next week…