Lightning will shoot her way into your heart
With the creation of a minimum of twelve iterations of a not-so-final journey, Square Enix’s latest premier title, Final Fantasy XIII, is looking less like its predecessors and more of a preview of the (un)forseeable future for the franchise.
WARNING: The opinion of this post reflects that of the writer and their initial impression taken from numerous gaming sources. FF fanboys or otherwise uninformed opinions be wary of commenting lest ye incur the wrath of Bahamut!
Before the angry mob decides to set this blog aflame, it would be wise to assess and evaluate the information presented before you to be able to fully formulate an educated statement in lieu of what a certain inner rabid voice may tell you.
In a traditional sense, the role-playing genre (RPG) can be defined as a fantasy setting in which the player assumes the role of one to multiple individuals, utilizing an array of skill sets to progress through a predetermined storyline. Now, I would like to clarify two words (“fantasy” and “predetermined”) as to the context that the words are being used in relative to this subject so there isn’t any room for confusion or misinterpretation as the readers of this blog tend not to be as deeply intertwined with gaming as I am. When most people think of the word “fantasy”, they instantaneously think of the supernatural or involvement of magic which can definitely hold true for the concept being used as a genre, but “fantasy” loosely conveys anything that is unfettered by the limitations of your imagination. Since imagination is unique to every individual in question, then the limitation is the one that that individual in question imposes; and luckily for us gamers, the bright minds behind the creation of our video games don’t believe in such limitations, either. “Predetermined” is not to be mistaken for linearity. Storyline encompasses a number of characteristics – which I will go into some light explanation later – that is limited in nature from the moment you power on your console and insert the video game format media. Regardless of the number of choices and different ways that a situation can play out, the storyline is defined by what parameters are being put in place by the original creators. Simply speaking, if Kazuhiro Aoyama directed Resident Evil 3 for the Playstation to have sexy female protagonist, Jill Valentine, die as a result of her NE-T viral infection, then the possibility of ever seeing a Jill cameo in future Resident Evil games becomes moot. This is as best as I can define the rpg genre, taking the simplest common denominator from all the ones that I ever played, watched or read about without adding characteristics that convolute or stereotype the genre.
In general, role-playing games embody these characteristics:
- Character Development
- Statistical Upgrade
Other characteristics that have commonly been accepted as a strong distinguishing factor in most role-play games are:
- NPCs (see Non-playable character)
- Side/Optional Quests
- (Interactive) shops
- Dungeon crawl
Now, you might say, “But Jem, wouldn’t you say that the Zelda franchise can be deemed an rpg?” My short answer might be a rage-filled “no”, but saying that still doesn’t educate the other person. Let’s take a look at the five role-playing definitive traits and apply each and every one of them to any Zelda game with both my argument for and against each trait highlighted in different colors.
Why is Zelda not an RPG?
- (FOR) – There is a story in place with Link traveling across vast lands near and far to ultimately save Princess Zelda and restore Hyrule to its former glory
- (AGAINST) – While there is a story that compels the hero to go and save the princess, the story is more like a background descriptor instead of being used as a driving tool to develop and identify with the character (s) being played
- (FOR) – The map is very big with lots of areas to explore, therefore there is a heavy emphasis on exploration
- (FOR) – This clearly plays a huge part in Zelda because the very nature of the game is an adventure and what good would be an adventure without places to go and people to see
- (FOR) – You control Link and vicariously experience the trials and tribulations of his adventure en route to saving the damsel in distress
- (AGAINST) – The emphasis on developing Link’s character is very minimal and the growth you witness doesn’t go through a wide spectrum of stages, hence you don’t really get that sense growth. You’ll never see Link go through an identity crisis where he faced with a situation where he struggles to come to terms with who he is and is placed in scenarios that could compromise ideals he’s held firmly in his heart
- (FOR) – Link can equip different armor, items and weaponry during the course of the game
- (AGAINST) – Your level of customization is trivial in Zelda because he’s not gonna don 50 bazillion different boots with a marginal increase in stats, thus causing him to discard said boots like it’s going out of style; the majority of the equipment is to aid in solving the puzzles even though each piece of equipment is very useful in certain situations and battles. Customization isn’t just isolated to aesthetically changing your character’s wardrobe, but it can include but is not limited to personal history and identity
- (FOR) – You can statistically upgrade Link’s health by collecting heart pieces and get improved forms of combat techniques
- (AGAINST) – Being able to increase your health gauge and get better moves is paltry in terms of statistical upgrading because these facets of the game are meant to supplement the adventure being experienced as opposed to heavily emphasizing numbers as integral to your survival
The only strong parallel between a basically defined rpg and Legend of Zelda is the emphasis of exploration due to the scope of the world in which the game takes place in. All other qualities exist on a lesser scale, bringing the gamer’s attention to the fact that s/he must get from Point A to the goal at Point Z. Unlike Legend of Zelda, rpgs heavily emphasis development through story, character growth, exploration, customization, and statistical upgrades to immerse the player into the role of the character that s/he controls, hence assimilating that character’s persona which is what the act of role playing all about. While it can be argued that Legend of Zelda is an action-adventure title with underlying rpg-esque elements, a heavier emphasis of those elements would definitely push it into the rpg genre, specifically that of the action-rpg sub-genre (see Mass Effect), but that would be a redesign of game mechanics to fit that mold.
It goes without saying that the Final Fantasy franchise is one of the most well-known and widely played rpg staples in the video game industry. Even casual gamers who don’t know a lick about gaming have surely played if not heard of one of the many titles that comprise the series.
Every numbered Final Fantasy title including the abomination that is Final Fantasy X-2 (ugh!) heavily incorporates those five main traits along with a number of the distinguishable features, each with varying degrees of success in both execution and presentation.
Now, there have been previews and reviews alike along with interviews that have critiqued the highly anticipated Final Fantasy XIII title and I grow weary of the assessment I have seen thus far. I am as open as open can get, but I can’t help but feel a little shocked with how drastic of a change it is. I would just like to evaluate what XIII has and essentially taken away and provide a comparative analysis to its predecessors which I firmly believe are strong examples of what an rpg is.
Final Fantasy XIII Characteristics taken from various sources
- 7% Upgrading your weapons by adding bits and bobs
- 2% Hitting switches, solving puzzles, and various similar tasks
- 40% Mashing buttons trying to keep up with the new battle system
- 10% Messing around in Crystarium, unlocking new powers and abilities
- 1% Chatting to people on the street before rifling through their drawers
- 40% Sitting back and watching all those gloriously depicted cut-scenes
- Lack of explorable towns until a significant amount of hours has been invested
- Game controls your leveling up
- Being healed after every battle
- Things are bought via an Amazon-esque shop
- Towns aren’t actual towns and more of a background prop
- Control of only 1 character with the rest of your party being automatically controlled; if the character you are controlling dies, then it is Game Over
- Lack of NPCs with existing ones void of any form of interaction
- Uninspired villains
- Extreme amount of cutscenes
- Lack of a connection and fondness for the world and characters
- Party tends to be fixed
- Lack of side/optional quests
One of the things that I have always loved and looked forward to in an rpg is the level of customization, meticulously weighing out stats in various armor and weapons to give your characters the biggest advantage possible. 7% seems like an awfully low number to outfitting your character with gear unless the base stats for the weapons is high too begin with or there are other traits that govern character statistics. Mashing buttons screams out mindless hack ‘n slash, so I will need to see how this new battle system is put into use before coming to a solid conclusion. Lack of an actual town that is populated with NPCs and interactive places such as shops does put me off because ripping out a distinguishable feature like that from your game is really shocking and too drastic of a change that there is bound to be mixed feelings. An online shopping interface ties in with the lack of explorable towns or supplementary NPCs, so logically speaking it makes sense that shops would follow suit, but it definitely takes away from the interaction and experience unless there are other factors driving development.I have played rpgs that don’t include NPCs or towns, but the nature of that particular rpg (see Valkyria Chronicles) is very different from your standard fare of rpgs, since the sub-genre of tactical-rpg or strategy-rpg removes exploration, yet still heavily draws upon the other four main traits. Valkyria Chronicles has no NPCs or explorable towns, but it is definitely an rpg worth playing! From what I read, the game determines at what point it will assign skills and abilities, tying the event to a plot in the storyline. I really need to see how this is going to be executed because rpgs give the player reign over their character’s growth and development. A unique take on a game controlling your leveling up which was executed superbly is the experience and leveling system in Lost Odyssey where the player was never given a hard number at the end of each battle, thus eliminating a sense of urgency in level grind that typically exists in most rpg titles. In doing so, the game adjusted the character’s experience points relative to the in-game progression with enemy encounters yielding more or less points to balance out characters whilst never taking away from the narrative flow of the storyline. I know this bothers a lot of people, but being automatically healed after every battle has existed in another shape in an rpg – just run over to a save point or sphere to automatically restore hit and mana points. Granted, I might have to run ways away in order to locate the closest save point, but my health and magic points are still being restored without exhausting medical supplies. I don’t know if you are completely healed before and after every battle or if the party must be in a “safe zone” to initiate regeneration in the same fashion as Dragon Age: Origins. Now, I have no clue as to whose gripe is it that only 1 character can be controlled and that the game ends as soon as the controlled character dies because that person obviously doesn’t know what they are talking about and is using their limited knowledge of rpgs as the basis for the genre. I wouldn’t be surprised if for some reason XIII treated the controllable character as the main character during different intervals, therefore death of that character would be treated as a big deal or something along those lines in the same token as Persona 3. I love cutscenes as an accessory to driving other factors in, but if the stress of the game relies heavily on CG or real-time cutscenes then all that development gained through interaction, growth and experience is lost on both the character and the player.
Final Fantasy XIII replacing Grand Theft Auto: China Wars building billboard
According to producer Yoshinori Kitase, though, that’s absolutely what the FFXIII team was aiming for. As far as Kitase is concerned, FFXIII isn’t even really a role-playing game. “We didn’t really intend to work within with the RPG template,” he says. “We wanted to create a new game, even a new genre. The way we look at it, there’s isn’t a certain format that we have to keep to and build a game around. Rather, it goes the other way around. We create a game and, depending on what works or doesn’t work within that game, it ends up reflecting different staple elements.”
“Because players are presented with multiple different situations on the field, in a lot of senses FFXIII is more like an FPS than an RPG,” says director Motomu Toriyama.
While I had originally intended to write this preview before the North American release, this post became more drawn out because I realized that casual gamers wouldn’t understand where I was coming from unless I explained what an rpg is. There was no set of definitive traits out there, so I had to really sit down and think about all the various rpgs that I played to identify elements that define the genre as well as provide an explanation for those elements. There would be no point in me explaining my initial shock to the direction that Final Fantasy XIII went in without first giving a foundation for why I felt that way akin to how a Street Figher fan might initially react and have some initial concerns if the next Street Fighter 32 Turbo FX stripped the core mechanics that define fighters as well as the franchise as a whole.
Both producer and director confirm my suspicions about the direction of taking the Final Fantasy franchise to a more FPS-oriented style of gameplay to appeal to the North American population where FPS (First-person shooters) genre is a highly lucrative business venture due to the numerous casual gamers being able to jump into the action with little to no effort involved. From a business standpoint, I think this is a very intelligent decision to promote the survival of your company; as a fan and long-time gamer, I welcome new IPs that want to go and do something different all the time, but Square Enix is trying to do it under the guise of their cushion that is the Final Fantasy name brand, knowing that a long-term fanbase won’t outwardly abandon a title that is connected to some of their beloved memories in their gaming history.
Now that the game has officially come out, I need to receive my copy and confirm or discard the points from this post and form another evaluation of Final Fantasy XIII as the genre it is being marketed for, the merits and flaws of the title itself whilst being objective as possible. I love Squaresoft dearly, but I haven’t been in good terms with Square Enix ever since the merger. Since then, I’ve gone on to date Valve, have lunch with Infinity Ward, rekindle with Capcom, and court Naughty Dog. Even then, I will go out and revisit Square Enix with this latest title and see how our lunch date plays out. I sincerely hope that with that drastic of a change, the game is still able to embody the essence of what it is to be an rpg with their own spin on it.
To quote something a friend who is a long-time fan of Squaresoft and the Final Fantasy franchise:
“To some people, FFXIII is just another game. To some people, it’s just another RPG. To some people, it’s just another Final Fantasy game, but to me that shit means way more than that….for me, this is Square’s last hope….it’s like that chick I’ve been in a relationship with for a long time and she keeps fuckin’ up, but I remember the good ole days, so I stay with her hoping that she’d go back. And I’m just waiting for her to fuck up one more time and I’m done with her.”
Quote of the Day: “My affinity to the person has to be really strong for them to breach my emotional immune system and make me love sick.”