Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Final Fantasy 13 Review

In my quest to play every Final Fantasy game, I was particularly excited to try Final Fantasy 13 because it's one of the most divisive entries in the series. Now that I've finished the game, I can see why that is: even my own feelings on 13 are very conflicted.

Final Fantasy 13 presents a distillation of modern Final Fantasy: the game is broken into 13 chapters, each of which consists of battles, cut scenes, and short walks in between. The level design is almost completely linear with little opportunity for exploration. There are no NPCs, towns, and very limited side quests. 

The bright side of this linearity is that that for the first 10 chapters of the campaign, the game always knows exactly which items, characters, and abilities you have at any given moment. This makes for well-balanced boss battles that are challenging and strategic yet require no grinding or item farming to come out on top. This linear design also makes the pacing of the game feel fairly quick since you're always making forward progress in the campaign. The negative side of the linear structure is that once you've fought every possible permutation of a given area's enemies, the gameplay is essentially a rinse and repeat cycle until you reach the chapter boss. As a result, I found myself excited to start a new chapter to see a new area and encounter a new mix of enemies (as well as advance the plot), only to start getting bored around the chapter midpoint as the game became repetitive again.

In Chapter 11, the game attempts to change things up by introducing a few non-linear areas to explore. This initially feels very freeing and dovetails nicely with the game's themes of free will and fate (more on that later). Unfortunately, this freedom comes at a heavy cost to the game's pacing and balance. The non-linear areas introduce the opportunity to take on sidequests in the form of hunts (i.e. taking down a specific type of enemy). The problem with this is, after spending 35 hours to get to this point (much of which was spent in battle), the prospect of taking on entirely combat-based sidequests was not particularly appealing to me. Since the non-linear areas and sidequests increase opportunities for grinding, the game makes enemies, especially bosses, extra spongey going forward to compensate. This dragged battles out and slowed the game's pacing to a crawl. By the time I neared the end Chapter 11, I was so burnt out that I ended up dropping the game difficulty to Easy and activating a few cheats to shorten or skip battles so that I could speed through the rest of the game and get to the ending.

Regarding the battle system itself, FF13 uses an interesting sped up variant of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system from previous games in the series in conjunction with a unique take on class-based strategy. The AI controls all but one character in the party, so much of the control the player has comes in the form of mid-battle character class changes (think a fusion of FF10-2 and FF12). By changing between different sets of classes called Paradigms, your party can switch between offensive and defensive tactics nearly instantaneously. Observing the enemy to time your tactical transitions and selecting the right combinations of classes for your Paradigms is the core of the battle strategy. The game initially restricts the characters and abilities you can use, which makes battles feel kind of dull, but once the combat system opens up (in about the 3rd chapter), I found this system to be one of the most engaging in the series, at least for the first 35 hours or so. 

Spending so much time with this battle system got me thinking: With a timing and speed-based ATB system, is rapidly navigating combat menus really all that different from an action-based system? I wonder if a similar line of thinking is what lead the FF series to true action combat in later entries such as 15 and 7R. The other thing that struck me is that the way this game focuses heavily on combat and gives you a star rating after each encounter, I couldn't help but be reminded of Mobius Final Fantasy, which debuted smartphones a few years after the release of this game.

Final Fantasy 13's other system is its character upgrade system. Instead of earning XP and money from battle, spoils come in the form of crystal points (CP) and crafting materials. CP is a pretty straight forward system that unlocks stat increases and abilities along a skill tree for each characters' classes (similar to Final Fantasy 10). Crafting, however, is a needlessly fiddly system that involves dumping monster claws and minerals and such into your weapons to level them up. Often this involves using hundreds of craft items or combining them via trial and error to see what yields the most upgrade points. Using crafting materials in a suboptimal manner could mean having to grind for more crafting material later on to fully upgrade a handful of your preferred weapons in preparation for the endgame. I found this to be so tedious that I largely avoided it for most of the game. When I broke down and used cheats in Chapter 11, I gave myself unlimited crafting supplies so that I could knock out all the upgrading in one shot and not have to deal with it again.

Artistic Qualities:
Final Fantasy 13 drops you straight into the story with very little in-game explanation of what's going on. The game also throws lots of jargon at you from the get-go. The game's way of bringing the player up to speed is that after every cutscene, a "datalog" in unlocked within the menu screen. These text documents explain the backstory of each character, define terminology, and provide context for the story. I can't really decide how I feel about this "watch the lecture and then do the homework" format. Would I have preferred lengthy scenes of characters standing around explaining things to each other, or an omniscient narrator offering context before each story beat? Not really, but I still have to image a more elegant solution exists.

The crux of the story is that our heroes have been tasked by a god-like being to destroy the world; if they fail to comply they will be turned into mindless zombies. From there the characters spend the rest of the adventure struggling with their fate while on the run from the authorities that are aware of their divinely-assigned task. Each of the game's six characters also has their own personal struggles that cover topics such as family discord, prejudice, and revenge. The characters are fairly one-note and the execution of both the larger and smaller stories can be pretty clumsy at times, but I still found myself generally invested in each cutscene and interested to see what would happen next.

In terms of aesthetics, Final Fantasy 13 is visually and aurally stunning. Even though this game is nearly a decade old, it offers some incredible vistas in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes that I could only describe as resplendent. I never would have guessed I'd be mashing the F12 (screenshot) key nearly so frequently in a game of this age. The music may be less varied than some earlier Final Fantasies, but the main pieces that play throughout the game sound great and this game's battle theme stands as one of my favorites in the series.

Final Fantasy 13 presents itself as a streamlined Final Fantasy experience but still takes over 50 hours to complete. The combat, graphics, and music are all high quality and could have easily sustained a 20-30 hour game, but are just not substantial enough to keep a game of 13's length engaging the whole way through (as evidenced by the shortcuts I felt compelled to take). As a Final Fantasy fan, I felt like playing this game was still a worthwhile experience and would recommend that other fans give it a shot with an open mind. However, to general RPG fans, I'm not sure Final Fantasy 13 offers what they would be looking for.

Completion Time: 54 hours

Note: With this game completed, I now only have Final Fantasies 1, 2, 14, and 15 left. I will likely play 1 next since I like to alternate between retro and modern entries. At this point, I'm not sure if/when I'll play the direct sequels to FF13. I would be curious to hear what readers who have played the FF13 sequels think of them.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Cris Tales Impressions

 As I had mentioned in one of my E3 posts, one of the games that came out of nowhere and caught my eye was the indie RPG, Cris Tales. Since a demo became available on Steam during the expo, I made a point of downloading it and giving it a shot while it was still fresh on my mind.


Cris Tales is a turn-based RPG in which the main character, Crisbell, works to prevent a calamity from striking her town by using her powers as a Time Mage. Cris can see the past, present, and future at once and manipulate one time period to affect the others. This ability can be used during combat as well as during interactions with NPCs and the environment.

  • I love this game's art style. It's a nice hybrid of anime and the illustrations in a kid's storybook. The way the game visually divides the different time periods on a screen is a pretty neat effect. The game also does a good job of working its 2D designs into 3D environments.
  • The animation looked a little choppy. I'm not sure if this is a style choice or a limitation of this early build of the game. I have a fast PC and was running the game on the low settings, so I don't think it was a performance issue.
  • Combat is turn-based but also allows for timing-based button inputs to get critical hits (similar to the Paper Mario series). I think this has the potential to make battles more engaging, but I found the timing to be hard to judge. This may be due to the choppy animation.
  • Using the time manipulation powers could lead to a lot of interesting possibilities in the full game. At one point in the demo, Cris sees that two NPCs homes will collapse in the future but only has the resources to save one of them with her time powers. The game makes it clear that who you choose to help will have consequences later. I'm curious to see how this will play out in the full game and what the true scope and impacts of decisions will be.
  • In battle, the use of the time powers is usually pretty straight forward. Against standard enemies, you can increase or decrease their age to make them weaker. The boss in the demo, however, exhibits puzzle-like elements in battle. In this case, the foe is wearing impenetrable iron armor, but if you get it wet and move forwards in time, it will rust, making the enemy vulnerable. I'm interested to see what other kinds of time puzzles the full game will incorporate into boss battles.
  • I had mixed feels about the story and dialog. Some of writing was entertaining, but I kind of felt like the characters were over-explaining things or talking down to the player. However, since this game seems to be going for a kid-friendly vibe, it could just be that I'm much older than the target audience for this game. Cut scenes are fully voiced but sounded a little stilted. I suspect this is because the game requires the player to press a button after each line of dialog, which adds extra pauses (Octopath Traveler had a similar issue). An auto-play option in cutscenes would definitely be nice.
  • I played this demo on PC, but I think this game would be a good fit for Switch, so that will probably be my platform of choice if I end up getting the full game when it releases.
I came away from this hour-long demo really impressed by its art and intrigued by the possibilities its mechanics present. While I have some reservations about the story, I think it could improve as the game progresses.  Cris Tales is slated to come out sometime in 2020, so I'll be sure to check in on it again then.

If you're interested in trying the demo of Cris Tales for yourself, you can find it on the game's Steam page.