Tobold's Blog
Friday, March 19, 2010
Final Fantasy XIII - First Impressions

I'm 14 hours into Final Fantasy XIII, which curiously enough means I haven't even left the "tutorial" part yet, which lasts for about 20 hours before you are given basic functionalities like choosing your group members or choosing where to go. So I'm not calling this a review. But as I'll be away from my PS3 for the coming two weeks, that means I won't write a review anytime soon. So I write this first impression piece.

I personally believe that Square Enix beats every other game company in the field of storytelling. Even Bioware, while good at storytelling, still produces games like Dragon Age Origins, where the plot is rather generic, and the world is a generic fantasy world with elves and wizards. The Final Fantasy games on the other hand each have a completely unique world, with unique laws of magic, and unique strange creatures. Only a handful of fixtures (chocobos, spell names) connect the different Final Fantasy games. Thus Final Fantasy XIII is a great experience from the story point of view, enhanced by very pretty graphics, with an interesting plot, believable characters, and a fantastic and unique world.

Unfortunately the gameplay of FF13 isn't quite as good as that of previous Final Fantasy games, at least not in the first 14 hours. My main gripe is how extremely linear the first hours are. You work your way through chapters, with each chapter having a tubular map, where you start at one end and the other end is helpfully marked with a big arrow as being the endpoint. The only options you have is either march forward, or if you want to farm a specific monster for loot or xp (called cp) march back and forth. For 20+ hours at least, and as far as I've seen maps from the later part of the game, they aren't any better. The tubular levels have little side arms in which treasure is "hidden", but that is the extent of it. All very pretty, but as somebody said I was chatting with, it's like walking through a movie. You move forward and fight monsters, to get to the next checkpoint, at which you get some cutscene which advances the story. Your influence on the story in FF13 is nonexistant. Thus, to come back to the comparison, while in Dragon Age the story might be more generic and less fantastic, at least you play a role in it, and have some influence on the outcome.

The second problem of Final Fantasy XIII is that combat is less interesting. Square Enix obviously tried to make turn-based combat as fast as humanly possible, and succeeded. But in the process they eliminated most decision-making from the process, thus making combat a lot less interesting. You only control one character in your group of up to 3 characters, the other two characters are on automatic. And even your main character you can just hit X repeatedly to let him choose his spells and abilities on automatic. As there aren't all that many abilities, and the automatic function already chooses the clever ones, like fire spells against mobs weak against fire, the first few hours you can play with spamming just a single button repeatedly. You can choose to select your spells and abilities manually, but that just gives you the same outcome somewhat slower.

Once you get "paradigms" combat becomes slightly more tactical, because you can now assign roles to your characters: For example you start combat with a paradigm that has one character debuff the enemies, then switch to a tank-heal-dps paradigm, and finally switch to an all out attack paradigm. Unfortunately every combat is timed, that is the time you took to kill the mobs is compared to the time a group of your level is supposed to take to kill the mobs, and the loot is adjusted in function of that. Thus choosing any defensive paradigm is shooting yourself in the foot, and you end up doing most fights in all out attack mode, with an occasional switch to healing mode if necessary.

Character development is rather linear at the start of the game too. You gain points called cp, with which you can buy your way through something which looks like a 3D talent tree. Only most "talents" aren't new abilities but stat increases like "+10 hit points" or "+5 strength". And at least in the part of the game I'm in the talent trees are capped as a function of the story, and you get enough cp to buy ALL talents up to the cap before the cap is lifted at the next story point. Thus what looks like a talent tree is in reality just checking boxes, without any decisions to make. Just take everything, it doesn't even matter much in which order.

Besides character development, you can also upgrade your gear. *SPOILER ALERT* There are two sorts of mob drops, animal parts and machine parts. Using animal parts on your gear on the upgrade screen adds a small amount of xp to the item plus increases the xp multiplier for future additions. Using machine parts adds a large amount of xp, but diminishes the xp multiplier. Thus the most effective upgrade method is to first feed animal parts to your gear until the xp modifier is at its cap of 3x, and then use one BIG stack of machine parts, which will kill your modifier, but you get the triple xp bonus on all the xp from big machine part stack. Thus loading up your gear with xp increases the level of the gear, and thus its stats. Unfortunately you also find new gear throughout the game. So given a system in which using big stacks of upgrades is the most efficient, and using a newly found piece of gear means you wasted all the materials used to upgrade your previous gear, the obvious strategy is to not use gear upgrading at all in the first half of the game, collect lots of animal and machine parts, and then use those once you found the gear you want to use for the rest of the game. That is not a very interesting system. And if you don't read the spoiler, you are likely to get frustrated, because you wasted the animal and machine parts you found on upgrading gear which you then have to replace because the old gear got stuck at the gear level cap. Furthermore upgrading is strictly linear too, there are no decisions to take which would influence what kind of stats your gear gets better in.

So right now I'm struggling a bit with my motivation to continue playing Final Fantasy XIII, and don't mind it at all that I can't play for the next two weeks. I still hope it gets better, less linear, and offering more choices later. But right now FF13 looks suspiciously much like a very dumbed down incarnation of a game, compared with previous games in the series. Do I really want to spam X for 100 hours to get to the end of the story, even if that story is a good one? Good gameplay consists of having to make interesting decisions, and at least in the first 20 hours those are seriously missing in Final Fantasy 13.
Regarding story: The game I've played with the best story is the old Planescape: Torment by Black Isle Studios and with the same engine as Baldur's gate. Awesome story.

If you are able to get a hold of it today and get it working (I suspect that it has some problems with the computers of today) I really recommend it, but don't read the story part in the link I provided in that case. ;)
You can choose to select your spells and abilities manually, but that just gives you the same outcome somewhat slower.

Let me beat you with your own weapons then:
If you complain that the automatic way is not fun, why don't you happily use the manual function?

(Note that I agree with you. It's just that you use this kind of argument so often yourself on the blog .. ).

@ MagrothJ:
Agreed!! Planescape Torment combined a very interesting (at that time) story with brilliant story telling and incredibly intelligent dialogue.
Yes, Planescape Torment was a fantastic world with a great story too. But from the half dozen or so games made with the Baldur's Gate engine, it was the only one which didn't have a generic fantasy world and story.
If you complain that the automatic way is not fun, why don't you happily use the manual function?

I already explained that: The manual function is not fun, because A) the outcome isn't better than if you used automatic, and B) it is slower, in a game system where you get less rewards if you finish the combat slower.

I'm in fact *asking* for a more tactical, more fun manual function.
Completely disagree with storytelling.

Final Fantasy stories are not one with the medium (the medium being GAMING). Games require interation, Final Fantasies and most Japanese Strategy games that parade themselves as Role Play games (HINT: they are NOT Role Play games). Any time you don't have control over your character isn't a part of the video game, it becomes a movie because it doesn't give you interactivity (unless you consider skipping the cut scene as interaction). Rather it gives authoritive control to the developer, who 99.9% of the time have no idea how to tell a story because they learned how to make pixels and NOT movies.

Not to say DAO or ME are any better. Actually for me personally their probably worse, because at least with FF I don't have to go through each and every dialogue option when in the end IT DOESN'T MATTER in the long run. Since I am still going to face the monster in the end anyway, doing option B instead of option A isn't going to really change the course of the game. Aren't games about speaking with your abilities? Why does a personality test come up asking me how evil I am, how is that gaming? Cannot the game judge how badass I am by how many times I kill people?

So I guess, between lying genre A (parading movies as RPGs) and lying genre B (parading choices as choices that actually matter). I would pick option A.

But otherwise, I play neither. Both are dead boring for me. Fake RPGs don't entertain me in the least, and pretty much ALL video game RPGs are completely fake. And as long as you have silly things like cut scenes, they will remain that way.
I already explained that: The manual function is not fun, because A) the outcome isn't better than if you used automatic, and B) it is slower, in a game system where you get less rewards if you finish the combat slower.

But spamming X is not interesting enough you say. Not enough of a challenge. You want to use your brain at least a little bit.

By playing the manual way you can make combat more interesting and actually even add to the challenge, because you get less reward. Thus you then need to use your brain more. This means that the manual way becomes even more interesting. And thus the game is more fun!

Seems like a great thing to me. Just like heroic raids seems like a great thing to you. After all, those who want more of a challenge (for a very small extra reward) can get one from the recycled heroic raids..

Perhaps you understand me a little bit better when I repeat myself:
There is no way to distinguish beating a challenge from cicrumventing it. It is the same thing.
So I guess, between lying genre A (parading movies as RPGs) and lying genre B (parading choices as choices that actually matter). I would pick option A.

Agreed. Except for the fact that i lie playing those games I agree that it's (badly done) illusion of a 'game'.

For Bioware games you can generally say:

Story telling: great
Story: bad
Technical implementation: quite good
Role playing: quite bad
Credibility/Immersion: very good at first; becoming extremely bad the longer you play.
I feel like most of the Final Fantasy series are RPG on rails, which open up to some exploration later but little decision-making.
Aren't you guys expecting a bit too much from a game if you want a story that isn't predetermined in any way? How could you even possibly implement a virtual world in which a player has absolute freedom and anything that happens only depends on the actions of the player? I'd say that is impossible in a single-player game, and in a multi-player game you'd end up with something soggy like Second Life, because it turns out that a large enough number of other players are perverts and jerks.

I'd be quite satisfied with games which still have a well-defined beginning and end, but just offer a bit more freedom which path to take, and a bit more tactical decisions during gameplay.

The point of my original post is that Final Fantasy 13 is offering less freedom and less tactical decisions than previous Final Fantasy games and other single-player RPGs. The point is not that all single-player RPGs have limited freedom and tactical options, because that is a given. Maybe you guys should try "Real Life", I hear that one offers a lot more freedom and options.
Hey Tobold, I'm playing through FFXIII at the moment too. I had some initial impressions up a week ago and then this week came to some of the same conclusions as you did. One thing you didn't mention which really bugged me was the way they made up words without explaining them to me as I played the game.

Another thing to think about is that Final Fantasy games have always been linear. The difference this time is between being linear and feeling linear. They aren't the same thing, but making a game that feels linear impacts how much the player is drawn into the world. Immersion ends up broken.

Anyway, it was nice to see someone else come to some of the same conclusions I did. I, too, hope to see improvement later in the game.
I'd say that is impossible in a single-player game, and in a multi-player game you'd end up with something soggy like Second Life

I've spent hundreds of hours playing Fallout 3 while ignoring the main story line (which is just quite bad).
So I disagree.
Well LOTRO is doing a brilliant job at combining a fixed story line with all the open world + character freedom i'd expect in any RPG [online and offline]. Turbine managed to seamlessly allow you to experience -both- at the same time. [like walking through a movie , yet being able to take a detour ]

The FF series always seem to the one or the other at any given moment. So you're either on total rails [without any choices] or total freedom [no story AT ALL, just pure grinding around] . Like that last part in FF8 where you suddenly got the World Map and it was customary to "level up" in that period before continuing the final part of the rail err story.
What about a Count of Monte Christo-like story in a classical RPG setting?

The main activity in the game could be to collect enough money (in moral or less moral ways). Treasure hunting. To finally take your revenge.

I just want to object to any idea like: It's so hard to put an innovative story into an MMO that is not linear. It's true that most stories have been told. But only a tiny fraction has been told in AAA computer RPG games.

Game designers, should take a look at the Aarne-Thompson classification system .

Almost any brainstormed combination of these story elements could offer a very creative new story. I'm pretty sure that a major fraction also allows for non-linear story telling.
We've had some three decades of computer game development but a game remains one of the poorest choices of medium a storyteller could make.

Games is a huge global industry. It makes as much or more money than movies or publishing. Yet writers and storytellers don't aspire to tell their stories in computer games. They write screenplays or novels or plays or even comics. Then, if they have made a name for themselves that way a few (very few) of them occasionally lend their name to a computer game to give it cachet or take a paycheck as an advisor.

Someday maybe someone will come up with a way to use games to tell stories as well or even better than the older media do, but the attempts so far all equate either to stuttering movies or animated "Choose your Adventure" game books.
Both Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age are great games. But after playing both I felt like they're copies. Bioware just took Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons and made a zpin-off. Great idea, they don't have to pay royalties but it misses originality.

Some of your complaints seem to have been solved in WoW, strange that the FF developers haven't taken a look at WoW.

Passive talents for example. Blizzard tries to remove those "3% extra crit chance" talents as they're not as cool as "3% chance to do a super strike".

And of course the "Press X times a thousand". That was one of my main problems with the original & TBC WoW: play a mage or warlock and all you had to do was either press shadowbolt or press frostbolt. It's aa ton more fun to play with the new deathknight class, you suddenly have tons more buttons you must push.
On the subject of linearity, I think a lot of people are missing the point. The game is linear - and doesn't attempt to cover it up like previous titles in the franchise - because the story demands it.


Think about it, you have a group of people on the run for their lives from the government and the military. They're trying to figure out where to go and what to do. All they are doing is running. They can't go safely into a town, they can't stop to smell the roses for fear of being caught.

The whole point of the linearity was to tell the story and make the player feel confined and have that lack of freedom like the characters in the story do. It helps you connect to how they could be feeling much better than just saying their on the run but allowing you to do whatever you want when you want.

Later in the game, when it opens up, that sense of being on the run is lifted for a bit, you have freedom and the player feels that. It is a stark contrast to running for your lives.

I'm pretty sure that is what the developers were trying to get across in the linearity, and to be honest, I think it helps the story more than it hurts the game overall.
I am still in the tutorial myself, only about 8 hours in (though more effectively 10ish, as I have housemates who are playing and I have seen a lot of the cut scenes and tutorials).

I think it depends on which scale you are looking, if there is meaningful choice.

For the combat unit, I think there are some interesting choices--not in abilities to use--but how to optimally use your paradigms to get the 5 star rating.

And even within the somewhat boring combat round of too many X pushes, there is the ability to go off half-cocked with the Y to keep the stagger chain from disappearing.
"So right now I'm struggling a bit with my motivation to continue playing Final Fantasy XIII"

Haha that was me. I never found that motivation again.

To play FF13 using the manual commands you'd have to be freakishly fast. Later on in the game just spamming auto commands isn't even fast enough some times due to the speed of the combat.
With the repetitive and long normal fights, using manual commands would make the battles even worse.
I struggle to understand Andrew's point of view here. Did Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, Pong, or Missile Command allow for this great freedom in writing your own story through the game mechanics?

Creating your own story has never been an intrinsic element to gaming, even before computers. Football, cricket, jousting and archery are all games. They don't involve story telling at all.

A game, in the traditional sense, is a relative newcomer to the forum of story telling. Story telling, for that matter is not intrinsically interactive either. From its birth, story telling is, well, telling someone a story. So it should not come as a surprise that games tell people stories, when they choose to tell one at all.

Where a game differs, is that it allows you to actually perform the actions of the protagonist. You can read about the feats of Hercules, you can see it acted out in a play, you can hear it from a story teller, but only in a game can you actually take part in the slaying of the hydra.

Tobold has written several brilliant posts on the origin and usage of the term Role Playing Game, and ultimately, it is this idea of acting out and creating the story that is the relative newcomer to the world of story telling. It was born out of the pen and paper RPG games like Dungeons and Dragons, and Tobold’s posts on the topic do an excellent job in deflating the current myth that this was the “true” meaning of RPG. The original RPGs were tactical war games played out with certain arch type “roles.” The acting came later. I think that it is unfair to expect this relatively new and relatively niche form of story creation to be considered the de-facto standard.

It is not a lie to call these games role playing games. That is casting an expectation on something that is in no way intrinsic or inherent to story telling or games. You might want to play in a virtual world, or play out a role in a game, defining your own character and story, but to say that this is the true meaning of gaming or game story telling, and to cast dispersion on developers that are not making those sort of games, THAT is the lie.

Finally, Tobold, you should really check out Valkyria Chronicles. It has a fantastic turn based/real time hybrid system, which does a good job of allowing you time to make tactical decision while still having a little bit of an arcade flavor to get the blood flowing There are many nice tactical and strategic choices you can make to customize your game, and the story is quite well told.
Japanese RPGs have almost always completely missed the point. They tend to be painfully stilted and linear. And the stories are often silly or incomprehensible or both. I hesitate to call them RPGs at all. That's not to say they're bad games, but if we're subscribing to the classic definition of RPG, they're nothing of the sort.

I personally don't play them because I find them boring and I'm not a fan of the art style.

Maybe you'd enjoy the game more if you stopped looking at it as an RPG and started looking at it as the natural progression of the Japanese style of games in this genre.
"I'd say that is impossible in a single-player game"

Definately not. If anything it is more impossible in multiplayer games, as single player games can change constantly while multiplayers in the end must all see the same in each person's game (and no phrasing is not role playing). In single player games anything can be changed at will if a smart system is in place to do so, multiplayer makes a stable role play system much more complex.

Actually that type of attitude doesn't help the cause. 'It's impossible', I'm sure they said that about pretty much EVERYTHING that exists now days... Until of course a person makes it possible. a.k.a. you are closed minded, you don't think outside the box.

Personally have in mind a system that will achieve a type of true role playing, sure it would need to run on much more basic graphics since current games are all looks and no depth, but I guess going back into the past may be what is needed to rediscover RPGs.

"I'd be quite satisfied with games which still have a well-defined beginning and end, but just offer a bit more freedom which path to take, and a bit more tactical decisions during gameplay."

That's called settling for the rubbish that is given to you.

To enlighten you on Role Playing.

Ok, now that my warning is stated, please let me refrain by explaining my experiences and gaming preferences. I started my gaming with Mario Bros 1 way back when. Since then I've played some consoles but mostly PC gaming. Some Tribes 2 and Unreal Tournament (in a close knit small clan) and Dark Age of Camelot. Once WoW came out, I've been playing off and on since it's inception. I'm guilded but don't raid. I just don't have the time and, although WoW was fantastic and very engaging, the gameplay really never captured my attention and I didn't get into it much.

I respect you, Tobold and enjoy your blog. I've played WoW for many years (casually) and that's why I read your blog. We share some of the same interests and I enjoy reading your posts. But, this initial review of FF is a little schewed IMO and I just thought I'd give my own initial impressions. Now, perhaps all of the FF games start out as FF13, and, if so, I regret not playing them.

My impressions initially are as though I'm watching a movie. It's unfolding right before my eyes. I'm not just sitting by watching, though. I'm fighting and making decisions and interacting. My interaction is very limited and that's good, actually. It doesn't frustrate or cause many decisions on my part to continue the storyline but it does allow my participation. And this is where I think you should rethink things and look at a different side.

For some, entertainment is achieved by interaction, not always to determine an outcome. FF13 is allowing me to participate in the fighting but there's a ton on cinematics going on in the game at this early stage. I just hope it continues as such. For those that haven't played, you only have to press a button or two, can watch the graphics, decide to heal with a's easy stuff. And there's a ton of beautifully rendered cinematics going on that make this seem like a movie experience (hopefully for 60 hours!!!) with my small interaction. I'm truly enjoying this experience and hope this is where gaming is going. It's very fulfilling for myself. It's not a button masher by any means and neither is it much of a decision maker. It's casual gaming at it's finest in it's early stages of the game and I truly hope it continues on this path.

I was hesitate to purchase this game after reading your initial impressions. I do value your impressions, but I do believe you're a little schewed and that's OK. Not everyone shares the same impressions nor do we all have the same tastes in gaming.

If you want a movie type experience with little interaction and decision making, then this may be your game. If you have a nice entertainment system set up, crank up the volume, turn down the lights, and embrace the visuals. You won't be disappointed, IMO.
the problem I've always had with single-player RPGs is people always want an engrossing story/plot, and a game with tons of freedom/player-driven activity. But these ideas are mutually incompatible most of the time. A story is linear by its nature!

The game that achieved this mix the best imo is Fallout 3. I strongly advocate it to any serious RPG player out there who hasn't tried it yet. The game's genius lies in that most of its story lies in the _atmosphere_ of the game as opposed to narration: the burned out cityscape; the random radio towers; the patchwork homesteads. In general you are free to see *what* you want *how* you want, with very little "time on rails". For anyone who's played Deus Ex, it's comparable in execution with a decade's worth of added sophistication.
Ben hit the nail. A deep storyline != wide decision based gameplay. Nils gives a great example of the opposite of FFXIII, Fallout 3. Great decision based gameplay, shitty storyline.
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