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Death by a thousand cuts: an analysis of combat in Final Fantasy 13
by Andre Gagne on 06/16/10 03:39:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Note: a disclaimer must be made that I typically don't read game reviews and haven't read anything on FF13. I also just arrived at Chapter 11 of 17.  So, with that going forward:

I’m going to be talking about Final Fantasy 13’s combat; if you don’t know what it is, look it up.  I’m going to be using some of the jargon and won’t stop to explain it.

After finally having time to sit down with FF13 this past weekend I have come to loathe the combat system.  In contemplation of why I found that it was not one thing in particular, indeed, many of the individual components of combat are interesting mechanics in themselves, but the combination of the different mechanics makes combat feel like a stress inducing chore that leaves me feel emotionally and physically drained.  

There are three main components I am focusing on as being problems:

  1. Immediate player feedback and ratings
  2. Combat speed
  3. Visual clutter

Player ratings (a.k.a. you need to go faster):

With a marked difference from previous Final Fantasies, FF13 has a new combat system whereby they mark your performance with a 5 star rating system.  This system directly controls how much of your “TP” gauge (used for summoning) is filled and the quality and rate of items you will get.  This rating is based solely on the speed at which you complete the battle.

I found that in giving a rating based solely on my speed it caused me to want to complete battles faster, leading to a sense of urgency in every battle I gained.  As a result I began to see every battle as a test of my abilities and feel very annoyed when I don’t get five stars.

Other people have talked feedback based on ratings alone; one from Gamasutra can be found here:

This alone is not a reason why the combat is painful, feedback can be very informative and over time with enough feedback I can learn what I should be doing right and what I shouldn’t be doing.  This takes us to our next point.

Combat Speed (a.k.a. no time for strategy): 

As this section is titled the combat in FF13 is markedly different from many of its predecessors by building on the truly real time system that FF12 pioneered.  As a result enemies can attack at any point on anyone.  Combine this with the paradigm system and the limited roles your party members can have and many times I found myself swapping to the wrong paradigm at the wrong time, or simply not having the right one for a given enemy.  Combine that with an enemy’s ability to do a decent amount of damage at once (or having 3-6 enemies that do a lot of damage at once) and what you get is a combat system whereby the ability to “win” feels much more like luck than player controlled. 

This gets even worse when combined with the player feedback.  The game is constantly giving feedback with no hints on improvement, and the battles are too hectic to learn what works and what doesn’t.  It’s particularly bad when in a boss battle and the battle team I’m playing doesn’t have the paradigm to survive the battle, or I’m one hit killed by them. 

Visual Clutter (a.k.a. what should I look at):

The last piece I am going to talk about is the amount of visual noise that exists in the battles.  This website has the best definition for this term.

Here is a screenshot of battle in FF13: 

Here is a tame video:

The combat in FF13 has several things going on screen at the same time:

  1. Player action bar
  2. Player health bar
  3. Enemy health bar
  4. Player movement/attack animations
  5. Enemy movement/attack animations
  6. Player damage numbers
  7. Enemy damage numbers
  8. The camera is moving around to show off the flashiest part of the battle

Note: the damage numbers are also animated in that they scroll up to the actual number. 

These elements have existed in JRPGs and other games for many years, even Chrono Trigger published in 1995 had many of these elements.  It is the combination of these elements plus the speed of the battle and the stress that is felt due to the rating system that makes it a problem.

Considering that the battles take anywhere from 15 to 57 seconds there can be a lot of animations going on at the same time, when all 7 items are changing at the same time it is difficult to figure out what is important and what isn’t.  Is the big flashing bang important?  Or the damage numbers? Or the player health rapidly dropping? Or how long it is until your next attack?  All the while the camera is spinning around focusing on different enemies like an ADHD toddler on sugar.

I am aware that the argument can be made for making the UI of a video game difficult; in fact dealing with the controller is a major part of any game.  But I wonder if the clutter that exists in battles in FF13 is by design like in Geometry Wars, or if the focus in the battle is on the challenge of defeating the enemy? 

This reminds me of a quote I heard from someone working on Real Time Strategies; they said that RTSes became so complex that the games were economically infeasible to develop; only a handful of people in the world can multitask on the level needed to really do well at them.  


I feel that it is not one single component of the battle system that can be seen as a problem; all of these components independently could be an interesting experience; it’s the combination of them together that leads to a frantic, visually distracting, stress filled mess. 

I wonder how many people had problems in user testing for FF13?  Was there any long term testing of more than 30 minutes conducted?  Chrono Trigger got around this problem by having two different modes: one that paused the game each time it was your turn to select an action, and one that was full on automatic.  

People might mention that you can slow down the battle timer in FF13 thus making them slower but I’ll also mention that the aerosol sprays that benefit your party don’t last as long as they’re on a separate internal timer.

Andre Gagne

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Simon T
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I largely agree with what you're saying, though I have to say I am thoroughly enjoying the battle system. I think the system is actually quite elegant overall, as there remains the same level of strategizing in other Final Fantasy systems, without the lengthy process.

The main flaw in the system is indeed the visual clutter, as the player does need rapid feedback to know whether their current paradigm is effective, and it isn't always immediately clear. Visual clutter has become a problem in a great many of the RPGs in the PS2+ era.

And the rating system is pretty unnecessary. The positive feedback you receive from getting 5 stars is minimal, whereas getting less than that is a bit irritating. They should have used some other metric to refill the TP gauge.

Andre Gagne
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Another metric I would like to see is something like damage done vs. taken. This would allow the slower player who likes to have sentinels in their party for survivability to also be rewarded.

I wonder how many times you found yourself losing (by virtue of having your leader killed) out of the blue? I had this happen quite a few times where I'd be doing fine and then the leader would be killed in two hits/combos.

Jesse Tucker
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I definitely felt rushed while playing, and didn't have the option to have a more relaxed, contemplative game presented to me. Older FF games focused on the player micromanaging every character's actions, while this one focused on macromanaging your party's roles so they could automatically pick from their available actions in a semi-smart manner. I found that after a while, I no longer focused on the graphics at all and instead intently watched various meters go up and down.

Sean Parton
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Unfortunately, this just shows the nature of the beast when comparing similar turn-based RPG's to real time ones.

Turn-based games allow more thought behind actions, which gives more meticulous players (and casuals) more time to react. However, real time, as you've noted in your post, leads "to a sense of urgency in every battle". This is considered desirable by many, and it actually does help particularly well with one aspect of the game: making random encounters matter. One of the largest critiques for RPGs in general is meaningless random encounters, there only to give you XP and other resources and generally waste your time. By making them special challenges you want to complete quickly, random encounters suddenly have more gameplay purpose.

That said, I also agree with a lot of your criticisms in this post, even though I like the real time battles over turn based in the FF series. The lack of feedback for ratings is poor; I especially dislike not telling you what the invisible barriers for ratings are. Was that a terrible 4 star, or was it closer to a perfect battle? I'll never bloody know.

Clutter I don't necessarily agree with you though. As you mentioned, considering the strategy of the game and it's real time nature, these elements are largely all a necessity (other than the camera thing, but that's for flashiness sake, and I rarely have an issue with it). That said, I do think a better system for navigating menus in battle would be prudent. Perhaps radial menus; it would be harder to hit the wrong paradigm or action that way. For choosing attacks I'm not sure it would work, as I haven't gotten too far in the game, so I don't know about how that would work with more advanced character options.

Overall, a good post by the author. I think Squ-Enix should have investigated a turn-based option for the casual and more relaxed of us, even if it's at the expense of difficulty. This sort of game shouldn't be trying to seclude.

Andre Gagne
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As I was trying to say, it's not one particular aspect that we can point to. Making the battles real time isn't a problem, FF12 did this and feels leisurely in comparison, but it's the combination of everything together that gives the combat an overly frantic feel.

I didn't even get into the level design of the game. The game really opens up and gets good in chapter 11; but all of the chapters previously are just as long. The chapters are long because they're mostly cut scenes interspersed with long lines of battles; battles that mean nothing to the overall game.

I had a friend who watched me play during the weekend and they remarked that FF13 would have been just as good with half of the number of enemies in every level. Though in FF13 you can run from the battles. I'm actually recommending to my friends to read up on the speed guides to reduce the time it takes to get to chapter 11.

Ed Alexander
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I wasn't able to get into FF13 right out of the gate (had too many holiday season backlogs to go through yet) and just recently got into FF13. By just recently I mean I got to chapter 11 on Monday, so I'm fresh out of the linear portion of the game and fresh into the more traditional open-world portion of the game.

I've read and heard many criticisms, discussed thoughts and opinions with friends who were playing it when it came out (and even before then as some imported the Japanese version) and kept everyone's thoughts in mind so I could do a critical evaluation as I played through. Take what they didn't like and examine it and what it means to me.

The odd thing is I've come to the conclusion it is all a matter of personal taste. As there are sooo many features and systems within the game, each one is a notch for every player to gauge. A lot of things that don't bother me upset most of the people I held discussions with and vice versa. In fact, the ultimate complaint I have with the combat system you didn't even mention. :)

My big issue is the lack of direct control over what my characters do. That is, as I played through I was leveling up everyone's roles and getting the abilities for them to use. I'm feeling now like I bit my own self in the ass as a result. What I mean actually boils down to a recent shift in my party that was to counter the problem.

My team was Fang, Sazh and Lightning for a couple of key reasons. First off, Fang is an absolutely wonderful Commando. It feels like she is actually the best Commando pound for pound, than anyone else. It seems like a no-brainer to me, I always want a Commando on the field when I'm offensive and she's the best woman for the job. Plus she can Slowga in Saboteur, which is oh so handy in the many fights where enemies pour out gobs and gobs of DPS. There's no way around it, I love Fang and she will always be in my party.

Lightning is a good filler character. She can Commando, Ravager and Medic well, which fills out a lot of odds 'n ends that I need someone to fill. Especially considering my last team choice, which I'll bring up in a second. But her ability to fill the Ravager DPS role to hit the Stagger meter hard, the ability to step in and Commando to keep the enemy's Stagger meter up if I have to switch Fang to Sentinel to tank or hop into Medic and keep the party alive was very desirable for me.

Sazh is the only person I've encountered who can Haste, which is a big deal for me. He can also Faith and Bravery, which is equally as big. In fact, Sazh has embodied in his Synergist role what I actively built into every one of my Gambit setups in FF12; get Haste on everyone, get Bravery on everyone, get Faith on everyone, proceed to pwn. A bit bummed he can't do Protect/Shell, but I imagine he'll probably get it a bit later on.

But it is Sazh that plays a cornerstone to what I don't like the most about the combat system. My strategies from FF12 are tried, true and my favorite playstyle. I can do that in FF13, but only to an extent. Thanks to the auto-replenish after every fight, the encounter difficulty in FF13 went waaaay up since you don't have to fight the battle of attrition as you pushed through traveling the world and visiting locales. I really like that.

But what I really want is for Sazh to put Haste on everybody, then (if he gets it) Protect on everybody, then Bravery on Fang and finally Faith on Lightning and himself. At that point, I'd switch to Relentless Assault and let the party just kick the crap out of the enemy I want to die first. This would serve my desired playstyle for probably 70% of all fights, if I could just have him cast the buffs I want him to cast in the order I want him to cast.

But he doesn't. He's casting Vigilence and elemental resist buffs and elemental damage buffs after Haste, so it might be 20-30 seconds before he even begins casting the buffs I *want* him to cast at the very beginning. And if he gets Protect/Shell... When does he cast that? Before Haste? Before Bravery? Do I really need to spend a minute buffing people when 20 seconds of buffing and 40 seconds of DPSing would have won the encounter?

Every encounter has its own distinct flavor, and I want my party to be able to adapt to them. But I can't control the order in which they cast spells. The only way I can think of to combat this is just intentionally not learn certain skills along the way so I can intentionally channel the abilities they use, thus, get the desired result. I think that's just terrible. Here I am, halfway through the game, wishing I didn't progress my characters out like I thought they were supposed to be simply to counteract my inability to micromanage my party's performance to just the order in which I cast what buffs.

So as a result, my party is now Fang/Sazh/Hope so I can get a full stack of buffs on damn quick and get on with the rest of the fight. 4 out of 6 Paradigms are setups for how soon buffs go out, and it works really well, but now I feel I'm still wasting too much time buffing, I'm just wasting less time than with Lightning.

And before anyone says to make Sazh the leader so I can manually control his buffs, know that I can't do that. =p I need my Commando to be my leader so I can keep tabs on enemy HP and their Stagger meters. I've already tried making the Synergist and Medic my party leader and found it wasn't for me.

I admit I like the macro-management style combat of FF13, I just wish I could go a little bit more granular. I wish that I felt like I had a more direct influence on how my party performs, even though I like telling them to do a job and then they automatically respond and do it without needing full instruction on what to do.

A Gambit, a Gambit! A kingdom for a Gambit!


Andre Gagne
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I've given this some though Ed, and you bring up some interesting points from a game design perspective:

Which came first? The complete healing after every battle or the difficulty of the battles themselves?

If you choose that you're going to have the party healed after every battle then does that give the game designers the right to make each battle as difficult as possible?

Ed Alexander
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I think it does, and I also think it works well!

I was bored to tears through the fights until the first Falco Velocycle fight. It was the first real sense of accomplishment that I felt from my skill in manipulating the Paradigm system. The Gatling Gun ability just tore me to shreds... even with a Medic healing the target, every time that one ability killed someone in my party. It wasn't until I pulled in a Sentinel to Provoke and Steelguard that move was I able to survive those encounters with any sort of grace. Feels good, man.

That was the first fight I felt was truly difficult and needed skill to complete. And I think it was like Chapter 7? The difficulty pacing through the first half of the game was a very small, stinted curve, and to me it was just boring as hell. Challenge (aside from Eidolons) was very sparse until Chapter 11 when all bets were off and I was in this new world. This world where something I couldn't win against was right in front of me, for me to either challenge and stare death in the face or run away like a chicken. It reminded me of FF12, where you could fight the level 19 dinosaur that was fighting the level 3 wolves... when you were level 3.

I'm particularly fascinated with the ability to be able to bite off more than you can chew, though I may be the minority. I like challenge. I like the opt-in challenge that have such diversity in the field gives. It makes the world feel more alive, like it is actually nature with an actual food chain and you need to figure out whether or not you're at the top of it.

Without the auto-heal ability, things wouldn't be quite so interesting. FF12 didn't have it after every battle, but you could regenerate MP through running around on foot, so really the only change with FF13 is that it takes that step out. Plus, you know, the fact there isn't MP anymore. It is, at least to me, pretty apparent that they put in the auto-heal so they could also tune every encounter's difficulty and give you an interesting fight, even if the encounter wasn't a boss.

I will say that one of the things I like most about Square(-Enix) and the various Final Fantasies to come out over the years, I love the fact that they are constantly changing the system design with every game, so even if the framework is very similar, what's under the hood isn't. And it always leads to an interesting ride, if nothing else.

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I would have to say that all of your problems with it stem from feeling rushed by the rating system. You note that the rating system refills your TP if you get 5 stars and you also note that you get better items for hitting the 5 star mark. Both of these things can also be accomplished by equipping certain items. There's an item you can equip to get the same TP recharge no matter your rating and there's three items that help drop rates, one for normal items, one for rare items, and one for shrouds.

These items make the rating system entirely useless. Even without these items equipped the rating system isn't all that useful. I find myself rarely using TP unless it's a boss battle, so I'm full most the time anyway. I also am not entire sold on 5 stars affecting item drops since I've gotten multiple rare items with no star ratings on many occasions. So if rating does affect drop rate I don't think it affects it all that much.

The only real use for the rating system is on missions where you can get certain unique (sometimes) items for good ratings. So 70 or so battles out of the thousands you play you should feel rushed, but you can always retry these anyway after you've devised a strategy.

My advice would be to play the game slow, observe your enemies and their weaknesses. There's really no reason to feel rushed; there isn't much reward for 5 stars. If you equip a paradigm with a sentinel and two medics there are very few enemies that can actually kill you while you spend some time observing what works and other patterns. Also you can pause the game at any time during battle to think about what is happening. You can pause it directly or bring up the enemy statistics sheet.

Finally, I also believe you can change the camera option to a more fixed position.