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Analysis: The Conundrum of  Final Fantasy XIII
Analysis: The Conundrum of Final Fantasy XIII
January 8, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

January 8, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
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[Gamasutra features director Christian Nutt predicts Final Fantasy XIII will be one of the most polarizing games of 2010 -- in this column, he explores what's left when "RPG elements" are removed from an RPG.]

It's an established tenet of game development these days that you can add "RPG elements" to a game to bring extra depth and stickiness. In fact, you could call it a cliche.

"RPG elements" are a big part of what separated and elevated Castlevania: Symphony of the Night from its predecessors in 1997. On the other hand, cinematic presentation is what attracted a huge number of gamers to Final Fantasy VII that same year -- gamers who would never have dreamed of playing an RPG otherwise.

But when you start subtracting RPG elements from a game that people think of as an RPG, what does that get you? That's the question that Final Fantasy XIII raises, and is likely to be why it's one of the most polarizing games of 2010 when it's released in the Western market.

There's a perfect storm of circumstances. The last game in the series, FFXII, was beloved by critics and fans but, for better or worse, is an evolutionary dead end -- it was made by a different team than XIII, one unlikely to be reassembled. Of course, this is the first current-generation entry into the series, and it's arriving more than a little late.

And, perhaps most importantly, this is the first console generation where the PC RPG ideals of the West have really been allowed to flower -- role playing, freedom and nonlinearity have finally been brought to consoles.

Final Fantasy XIII, even more so than its predecessors, doesn't hold truck with any of that stuff. The designers, instead, have applied control to every aspect of the experience. Recently, I appeared on 1UP's RPG podcast, Active Time Babble, to discuss just what an "RPG" is. The consensus we arrived at is that the question doesn't really matter, because all of the things it can, could, should, or will be are represented by different games. But Final Fantasy XIII can't sidestep that question as easily as we did.

Several years ago, I had dinner with a group of developers -- guys with a PC background. The subject of Final Fantasy came up. A developer said, truly bewildered, "I just don't get those games." His bafflement puzzled me. A longtime fan of the series, and a lifelong console gamer, I didn't think the appeal was that hard to understand.

The games are engrossing -- they have interesting and complicated stories and characters, are incredibly gorgeous, and have addictive gameplay systems. Others, however, see a lack of freedom, style over substance, and, probably most critically, can locate no "role playing" in what's called an RPG, and back away confused and frustrated.

Some Context

Square Enix released Final Fantasy XIII in Japan on December 17, 2009. I've played the game for a little over 10 hours so far -- at most a quarter of its critical-path game content -- and aside from simply taking my own pleasure in the experience, I've been thinking a lot about what the developers are attempting.

The release hasn't been met with universal adulation. While Famitsu gave the game three 10/10s and a 9/10 (for a total score of 39/40, or one point from the top, and one point lower than FFXII), user reviews on Amazon.co.jp -- quickly becoming the most popular way to know what real Japanese gamers think about a title -- are more split. The game, as of this writing, has 1,392 user reviews and an aggregate score of three out of five stars. The spread is almost even -- 353 are five star reviews, 259 are one star reviews, and four, three, and two number 283, 229, and 268 respectively.

The series has always been more highly variable than others, I'd argue. Long before Infinity Ward and Treyarch traded off development duties between Call of Duty titles, Square was forced to take the same approach.

Final Fantasy IV (SNES, 1991) introduced the Active Time Battle realtime/turn-based hybrid battle system -- and shifted the series' focus to character-based melodrama, just as importantly. But Final Fantasy V (SNES, 1992) toned down the story and focused on the meaty gameplay of the class-switching Job System. Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation, 1999) featured the bizarre Junction system and unparalleled concentration on time-shifting melodrama. But Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation, 2000) was a fanboy-baiting throwback to older days.

I've been a fan of the series for years, but I've skipped out on entire entries; I count some as my favorite games of all time while actively disliking others. Other fans feel the exact opposite way about the games I hate and venerate. This time, however, everybody who thinks they care is going to have their eyes on Final Fantasy XIII because of the circumstances of its release.

So what did the developers put together this time?

The Essence of Final Fantasy

The design of Final Fantasy XIII is already gaining notoriety on the net -- something it deserves. Kotaku posted a story that got some attention shortly after the game was released. Entitled "Just How Straight Are FFXIII's First Five~Six Hours?", it was a report on a Japanese blog which put together a map of the first few hours of the game, showing that it was more or less a literal, straight path to walk down. The internet may not actually be a series of tubes, but Final Fantasy XIII might as well be.

What is Final Fantasy? Let's really think about this. When people talk about the series they generally talk about characters -- say, Cloud and Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII). They talk about story events -- say, going on the summoner's journey with Yuna to expunge Sin from Spira (Final Fantasy X). They talk about the battle and character growth systems -- Gambits (Final Fantasy XII), the Sphere Grid (Final Fantasy X), and Materia (Final Fantasy VII.) And they talk about the beautiful visuals -- memorable locations like Midgar (FFVII), the summoned monsters (all the games since VII), and of course the state-of-the-art cutscenes.

After having played Final Fantasy XIII for over 10 hours, I think the developers sat down and made some very deliberate decisions about what the series is, and what it is not, and is not going to be -- and honed in directly on their, and the series', strengths. The result is a highly linear, paced, and controlled experience that is very enjoyable but is another step forward from the series' top-down, 2D heritage, and also finally and fully jettisons the "role playing" implied by the acronym RPG.

What It Does

Unsurprisingly, then, Final Fantasy XIII hews to the strengths of the series I identified above. The characters look great, are well-defined, and empathetic. Each seems to slot into both a story function while being carefully designed to appeal to a specific segment of the audience. For example, cynical, older players can identify with quippy Sazh, while younger, more naive players will probably latch onto Vanille, who narrates the game's story with gentle foreboding. The game plays them as foils.

Of particular note, I think, is the relationship between Snow and Lightning via the vector of Sera, who's the former's fiance and the latter's sister. This creates obvious and understandable tension and adds humanity to a fantastical story of a theocratic techno-utopia and missions (and curses) handed down by strange gods. While it's a little hard to understand some of the concepts in a Final Fantasy story at first blush, the way the characters react sells it -- this is where many games stumble.

The story is paced a lot more deliberately than pretty much every RPG I've played, sharing more with action games -- a gate-and-trigger system, with tripwires for events and set enemy placement. This time around, story is delivered in-line as you explore, both through spoken asides (which don't interrupt your exploration) and through lots of short cutscenes.

In fact, the dungeon / boss / cutscene paradigm has been shattered into bits; regular battles are tougher, more engaging, and less frequent -- though there are still bosses -- and cutscenes come much more frequently but are typically much shorter than in the past, spreading out the three core concepts behind the FFXIII gameplay more evenly.

This is a nuance worth stopping and exploring: it seems designed to address gamer complaints about cutscene length, but still deliver the level of story Final Fantasy is known for. It's a subtle change but a shrewd one.

The battle system has also very much been pushed into a new shape -- to address the "just push X" criticisms the series has fielded for years, I think, and the result is very engaging.

If you ever stop and think about it, you inevitably realize, while playing an RPG, that the gameplay is repetitive and you're just following a ruleset. To stop you from having time to think about that, the developers have ratcheted the combat speed way up. Things fall into a kind of call-and-response; rather than formulate a strategy for each encounter, you've got an overarching strategy you're always pursuing (force the enemies into a "break" status, where they become more vulnerable to attacks) while dealing with what's happening from moment to moment.

Character growth and class systems feed into this -- you shift your entire party build on the fly by pushing the L1 button, a "Paradigm Shift" which changes the entire party's classes at once -- the Job System on speed. Managing growth outside of battle, of course, is slow, and is saved for when you have time to breathe.

And of course, visuals play a huge role. I think in some ways, enjoying the art direction for Final Fantasy is pretty much requisite to being a fan of the series (I'd be interested to hear if others agree.) The environments are both more gorgeous and wantonly unrealistic than they have ever been.

What It Doesn't

That's all great -- it's worth pointing out, but the series' strengths being represented is exactly what we expect from sequels. The more interesting question, when it comes to Final Fantasy XIII is, what doesn't it do, and why not?

There are plenty of things the game doesn't do -- and while these are rather deliberately chosen, weighing how important they are to the core experience is what counts in an analysis.

Most notably, Final Fantasy XIII does not have towns. These have long been an accepted reality of the RPG. Every prior game in the series has had them. As of 10 hours, I have not seen one. The game is a series of dungeons interlinked by transitional cutscenes -- for example, your party will reach the end of a dungeon, discover an aircraft, steal it, and then crash it and continue on foot. The only respite is the story. Save points handle shopping and equipment upgrades.

My question is: do I miss them? As a JRPG veteran, the answer is a surprising no, I think. It's a move I anticipated after playing the streamlined Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, though I did expect a hub (and I think it's forthcoming.)

Towns have been a huge weakness of the genre; while they helped with pacing, they were also deadly dull to explore, particularly as games scaled up. Creating the assets for a town believable in the context of a current generation cast of characters is not a small undertaking. I'm sure that had a lot to do with the fact they're not here.

But just as importantly, I'm thinking towns were jettisoned because they get in the way of the designers' control of the narrative and pace of the game: and their removal is a symbolic lifting of the curtain. Final Fantasy XIII is surprisingly open about its control of the player's experience.

The Question of Player Control

This goes pretty much against the grain of conventional wisdom: player agency is reduced in favor of enhancing the game's story. At some point there was a very large decision made by the team. It is this: finely controlling player progression -- given a consistent walking speed, linear dungeons, and average battle length -- will provide a more cinematic and seamlessly story-driven game, and a more accessible one.

With dungeons lengthened, towns removed, and cutscenes scattered throughout the game rather than clumped up, suddenly you've got a smooth and consistent experience -- have I mentioned how polished this game is yet? But what has been traded is agency, and that's a faux pas in many current schools of thought for game design (though, notably, the Call of Duty series is big on controlling the player, so it's hardly a one-sided argument.)

The game also slowly and deliberately introduces new gameplay mechanics over its first several hours. The limiting factor in most RPGs, when it comes to gameplay, is the leveling system: you have highly basic versions of the sorts of abilities you'll have access to by the end of the game. In FFXIII, you can't even earn experience points for the first two or three hours, because the leveling system has yet to be introduced.

While that sounds awful, I know that I liked playing a game that gradually introduced new gameplay concepts over its first several hours for several reasons. The dreaded infodump tutorial was completely avoided. Instead, I retained the information that I learned gradually, and I felt like I was learning something new fairly often -- and I think learning is a strong motivator to keep playing games, even if the info is only useful within the context of the game itself.

The thing is, you never earn something new in the game. You're handed it at the point the developers think you're ready. It's pretty transparent. Would it be better if there was something -- maybe a point system -- covering that up? All designers decide when content is appropriate for players. Sometimes the games just bludgeon you to death (if you stumble on a dungeon that you're not ready for).

Sometimes content is locked behind broken bridges that coincidentally get repaired by the king when you've run out of quests in the town you're visiting. And sometimes, in Final Fantasy XIII, a text box will pop up when you cross an invisible line and tell you: it's time for something new.

But when the developers yank members in and out of your party based on the story's needs -- logical in a cinematic context, frustrating from a gameplay one -- this designer control may be too fine. This isn't a new move for JRPGs (characters leave and join all the time in other games) but Final Fantasy XIII found ways to play with my patience. The gamer must, in the end, get with the program: give up that agency. The reward is enjoying the experience.

The Breaking Point

The level of control the developers exert over the player is transparent to anyone who's paying attention. The question is whether this fine level of control is at odds with the game's core mission, or its enjoyability. For some -- maybe many, possibly most -- the answer is "yes".

I'm pretty sure that a big reason the developers structured the game this way is because the team is well aware that gamers who haven't touched the series in a long time will be back for this installment, and that new gamers who hadn't considered it before will be sucked in by the hype. FFXIII doesn't assume genre literacy. But for fans, it can be surprising -- and not always pleasant.

It's worth noting, again, that these impressions are birthed from just 10 hours of play. Every Final Fantasy inevitably reaches what I call "the breaking point" -- the juncture at which the game goes nonlinear and allows you to take it how you like it. Exactly when this happens varies wildly depending on which game in the series you're talking about. When it happens in FFXIII could go a long way toward mitigating the control thing.

On the other hand, developers all know most gamers don't finish the games they buy. Will Final Fantasy XIII's early design be a fatal turnoff, or a slick romp?

There's a gamble the developers continuously make with this series, and which backs away from something I think is becoming fairly well accepted in Western design: shy away from artifice. Final Fantasy XIII is a tower of artifice. It's a monument to polish, and maybe a bit to hubris. On the other hand, each game released, in any series, defines its own genre as much as the genre defines it. If Final Fantasy XIII is judged to not be RPG, it can be, instead, an SCS -- strolling, combat, and story.

My experience so far with it compels me to start all over again with the U.S. version in March; it also gives me respect for a team that has an eye toward addressing common complaints with the genre, the game's predecessors, and expanding its audience. The story is less chunky. The gameplay is better integrated and balanced further toward speed and interaction. The years of development delays weren't just the kinks of working out new technologies; there's a tremendous level of polish (near-flawless partner AI, for one notable example) on display.

But gearing an RPG toward simplicity and speed to some extent spits in the face of a genre more known for slow-paced complexity, and that is where Final Fantasy XIII will find its test.


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Comments


Josh Tolentino
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Very well put, sir. Indeed, all the early impressions I've read so far seem to hint towards this shrewdness. Despite how "traditional" many have prematurely accused the game to be, it seems that FFXIII has decided - for better or worse - to eschew what some viewed as steps against tradition (namely whatever FFXII did).



Ironically, in the process of "cutting out that fat" and boiling the game down to that "thrill-ride style", they've bucked the tradition, namely that of nonlinear, wide-ranging exploration being at odds with a highly linear predefined main path.



At this point I'm thinking the future of major JRPG titles is to skew to the extremes of the approach. Newer more "innovative" styles such as the Persona series and Devil Survivor (as well as Final Fantasy XII) have been approaching greater levels of player agency with regards to storytelling, integrating it more smoothly into the lulls between cutscenes. Final Fantasy XIII veers in the opposite direction.



And in the middle, the "traditional" JRPGs that preserve that seemingly backward (yet still highly appealing) old-school formula are finding homes on the portable platforms, where there is less risk in fooling about (or staying old-school).

Jen Bauer
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Loved the article! Although...

"the summoned monsters (all the games since VII)"

Surely the Espers of VI count for something? They were gorgeous and recognizable.

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Tom Newman
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Great article. I also have many FF titles in my favorite games ever list, and there are other FF titles I have never liked at all. My skepticism lies with the fact that this game was announced ablut 5 years ago, and when it finally arrives I don't want it to look like a game that should've also been released 5 years ago, as is sometimes the case with lenghty development cycles. I'm going to check it out for sure, and hopefully my low expectations will prep me for a very suprising good game.

Fiore Iantosca
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What a superb article. I greatly enjoyed reading it. I can't wait to get this game! I hope you will do a part 2 of this article, commenting on the next 10+ hours of your gameplay? That would be excellent. Thanks again.

brandon sheffield
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interesting. makes me more interested to play it, but I still don't know if I like the sound of it. If it does indeed strip bare what's unnecessary about the JRPG and strip it into a single experience, that may be something to see. Some games like Riviera have attempted things like this in the past, but I was up and down on that one.

Gregory Kinneman
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I think you've done a great job in showing how non-linearity can be done right. Is it too much to ask that somebody write an analysis of non-linearity in RPGs such as Fallout 2 (yes, I mean 2) versus total-linearity such as in FFXIII and their respective benefits/flaws?

Christian Nutt
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@Jen, Well, summoned monsters have been in the series since... what, IV? Certainly they were central to its story. But with VII they changed style tremendously -- becoming the signature 3D cinematic sequences people think about when they think "FF summoned monsters".

Chris Kohler
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Great piece! The one note I have is this notion of a "breaking point," which you're assuming must happen at some point but, near as I can figure (27 hours in), does not. I think you're 90% of the way towards understanding FFXIII, and the final 10% is ridding yourself of the illusion that the first 10 hours are not indicative of the next 25.

Christian Nutt
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@Chris, I based that on not totally on assumption -- also based on some (very vague, since I'm trying to avoid spoilers) stuff I'd read. If it happens at hour 40, it still happens. It didn't happen till about then in FF8 (and god, did FF8 do a bad job with it...) but it happened. But I'll see in March, unless someone who beat the game already wants to chime in.

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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Thanks for the article. I was avoiding XIII's media blitz and hype, so I'm glad I got some thoughtful observations on where the franchise was heading with this installment. Based on what I've read, it seems like many of the Amazon Japan reviewers have something to say about the issues you've outlined in the article. What's interesting is that even the 4/5 star reviews acknowledge the perceived shortcomings of the game (linearity, combat system, too many cut scenes, etc.), so they are more or less like back-handed compliments. The big question now is how Western audiences will take to XIII after the success of current gen console games with deep gameplay experiences like GTAIV, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3.

Buck Hammerstein
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Hmmmmmm, interesting insight into how this game is shaping up. Haven't been into the last few FF's because of some of the elements this newest game seems to address. I like the idea of innovation, some things may work and some may need refining to get right but this does appear to be taking care of my biggest gripe: just pressing X way to much in combat and cutscenes that took me out of the action for a large block of time.

Christian Nutt
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@Yasuhiro, Actually, I don't think the combat system is a perceived shortcoming -- or is that different among Japanese users? I didn't actually spend any time reading the Amazon reviews (except the "best positive" one per Amazon's selection, but that was a couple weeks ago.) Most people I've spoken to who've played the game (including me) would list it in the "strengths" column. Linearity is up for debate (I'll know better when I'm further in how I really feel about it.)

Bart Stewart
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Fantastic analysis. I particularly appreciate the emphasis on player agency... or the deliberate lack thereof.



I was one of the folks who suggested that Deus Ex should be the Game of the Decade. And I felt strongly enough about that to write up my reasons for that viewpoint because I see player agency (a special strength of Deus Ex) being gradually eliminated from computer games, which seems wrong to me.



Everyone nods their head when it's pointed out that a crucial distinction between computer games and other entertainment forms is interactivity. But if you design a game to remove player agency, to take away opportunities for the player to make interesting choices, you are purposely ignoring the value of interactivity. This minimizes the great artistic and commercial selling point of computer games. Is that really the direction that game developers should be going?



Rollercoasters like Call of Duty, where the player is largely just along for the ride, can be exciting fun. And I think over the past several years we've seen more and more game developers following this rollercoaster model of design, particularly on console-first games but in MMORPGs as well, as though "excitement" is the only desirable player experience. There seems to be an increasingly intense fear among game developers that if players are allowed to experience even a millisecond of not knowing exactly what they're expected to do to collect the next thrill, the play experience will be "broken."



As a result, player agency is steadily being deleted in favor of developer control. And thus computer games turn into slightly more participatory movies, rather than building on and extending the unique element of interactivity.



For FFXIII's designers to consciously choose the path of the rollercoaster is not a surprise, given this trend. But I think it will correctly be seen as a disappointing choice.

Ted Brown
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The last Final Fantasy game I enjoyed was III (nee VI), on the SNES. I was 17. Every FF since then has bored me to tears, or made me gnash my teeth in frustration. (if active time battle means many seconds pass before ANYBODY can do ANYTHING between "rounds", I consider that a design failure.)



I thought FFIX was a great adventure game ruined by a terrible combat system. FFXII was best, IMHO, at the beginning, when it was on a straight path, and lost me when it got "real". So I wonder if this new and streamlined model, combined with a better understanding of what I'm getting into, might result in a fun experience...

Meredith Katz
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Very interesting article! I'm suddenly looking forward to it a lot more -- I'd love to get a look at some of those very deliberate choices you mentioned.



I do have one question, though. Early in the article you said that you said that the FF12 team was unlikely to be reassembled -- had you heard they were disbanded or something? I'm asking because I haven't heard and I very much enjoy that team's work, and they were also responsible for Vagrant Story (which came out 6 years before FF12), which means the team's been working together on titles... if not quite some time, perfectly willing to reassemble for future ones. (Though perhaps only titles set in Ivalice, who knows). So if there's anything you know about that I'd love to hear it.

Christian Nutt
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@Meredith, Well, a number of FF12 team members combined with people from the SaGa team to work on The Last Remnant. Obviously, Yasumi Matsuno isn't at Square Enix anymore (he didn't even stay for the whole production of FF12, of course.) The development of TLR made me think that the FF12 team is not really extant as a cohesive unit anymore, but realistically I don't have a firm idea what is going on with staffing or projects right now.

Meredith Katz
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Okay, thanks for the clarification.

Christopher Plummer
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Yea, you helped sell me on the game. I agree with Pallav Nawani, non-linearity is overated at best. The top games to come out last year were Batman and Uncharted 2 IMO and they were also both towers of artifice. I'd also argue that WOW is one too. You think you're playing an RPG, but when you aren't the only one rolling Need, and you're waiting for a competent priest you realize that everyone else is going after the same stuff too.

Joseph Flemming
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Excellent article Christian, I thoroughly enjoyed your well thought out, intelligently written piece. This has solidified a lot of what I have felt about the games previews. I was sharing my thoughts about this with another longtime FF player, and while I was speaking objectively I was secretly thinking "this isn't so bad, I still want to play it." the reason I DO want to play it is for pretty much the things you have described in this piece. Now I want to play it even more.



BTW, It'll be cool to hear you again on Active Time Babble.

david vink
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Chris Plummer & Pallav Nawani:



"Nonlinearity is highly overrated, and hardly necessary."



That is just your opinion. Personally I much prefer to be able to make 'meaningful' choices when I'm playing an RPG. Deciding who lives or dies, which character to recruit in my party and which not, etc. If implement so that these choices influence later story/gameplay elements it draws me into the game that much more. I'm even willing to sacrifice some quality on the story for that (as is often the case with the more non-linear games, such as the Saga series).

Matt Ponton
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My question is: do I really miss pressing the buttons? As an expert on rpgs and japanese culture, the answer is a resounding no, methinks

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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@Christian. I think the criticisms regarding the combat system came from fans of the FF series who felt that the it was too simplistic (i.e. it catered too much to newbie users) and that the battles were too easy, at least in the initial section of the game before the gameplay opened up. But then again, there were reviewers who countered that criticism by saying the combat system did have subtlety, and that you could have more engaging battles than just mashing the circle button - if you bothered to dig in and put in some effort. Also, please note that I haven't personally played FFXIII yet, so I'm just recounting what I've read.

Z Z
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JRPGs were always pretty story-linear in the first place. I don't think taking out the, "where is that guy I have to speak to to progress the story" segments will have that much effect on the game. I think taking that part of the game out is a positive. There are other ways to be non-linear other than story progression or dungeon sequence.



What about non-linearity in character growth? Non-linearity in leveling up? Non-linearity in combat? Non-linearity in character equipment?



Non-linearity in character growth would be allowing a player to choose their path on the skill board, or whatever system it has. I think I heard FFXIII had stat distribution in addition to skill allocation, is that right? To me that adds quite a bit of non-linearity in character growth, if true, more than most other JRPGs that rarely allowed stat point distribution. Even if eventually all characters could be the same by the end; can they all grow differently? Non-linearity in leveling up is as simple as allowing the player to kill respawned enemies and level up higher than a particular area requires. Is that possible? Non-linearity in combat is allowing you to use unorthodox classes, and subsequently non-linearity in leveling and equipment can affect combat non-linearity. Does this exist? Non-linearity in character equipment would be allowing the player to gain different useful equipment at the same time. For instance instead of having a +10atk weapon then a +15atk weapon there would be a few +10-13atk weapons with various secondary effects that will make the player have to weigh the pros and cons of each and decide, no one is necessarily so much better than the last to leave no choice. Another way to make equipment non-linear is to include rare drops or stolen items from enemies.



I tend to focus primarily on those types of non-linearity when playing RPGs, and from what I've heard I think FFXIII still has most of them although I'm not entirely sure about how equipment is done in FFXIII. I don't really consider the redesign of FFXIII much in the way of taking away from story-linearity when compared to other FF games or other JRPGs. If we want to compare it to a western RPG, then maybe, but I don't think we should.

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Christian Nutt
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@Blake, So far the Crystarium leveling system is pretty constrained. It's rather reminiscent of the Sphere Grid from FFX, but split into multiple mini-grids for each role. It'll be a long while before I find out what the ultimate interest/disinterest of that system is (Sphere Grid didn't really open up until you'd completed each character's starting class, which took a good chunk of the game.)



As for equipment, you can buy weapons and accessories from stores or find them in chests, and you can upgrade them (this unlocks several hours in.) I didn't dive in because it was one of the trickier things to understand in Japanese (you have a bunch of crafting items which can be applied to weapons to level them up. I was not clear if they had other effects, i.e. adding bonuses etc. Also, you can recycle the weapons for more crafting items, but not exactly get back what you put in. It seems designed to sell strategy guides, frankly!)

Toby Hazes
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Wow can't wait to play it! Less frequent but more meaningful fights, quicker gameplay... sounds awesome!



But yeah, it's about time these kind of games got another name for genre. That would end a lot of meaningless fanboyism

Frank Inktomi
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Extremely well written and honest article. As a player of the FF franchise since it's birth on nintendo I have watched the gameplay evolve over time. Not every single FF game was a whopping hit, X-2 was a dismal failure. But it's interesting to see how square enix has milked this cash-cow repeatedly over the years.



Maybe XIII is a step into the platform-style game 'with rpg elements' rather than the sprawling sandbox style of old. I am a fan of the sandbox, but sometimes felt it took away from the pace of the story when I am grinding for hours in some oddball over-leveled area. From what you told us it looks like the dev's are trying to keep the pace and the player to pay attention to the story, which has always been a strong point for this franchise.

Damien Lavizzo
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Non-linearity is completely possible given the current state of technology. Dragon Age: Origins manages a high level of non-linearity - once you get past a certain point, the game world opens up and you are free to tackle this larger world in any order you choose, even stopping and going back and forth between certain areas. The game world presses on, and will even react differently depending on which quests you complete first. That's about all I can say without introducing spoilers, but anyone who has played through the game will tell you that the game manages to stay true to the old "towns and exploration" style of RPG, without ever letting the player feel like they are lost in the shuffle, or have no idea where to go next. Further, Dragon Age - as with most Bioware games - scales to the the player, meaning you never have to "grind" levels to pass a certain point. I think as time wears on, more people will being pointing to Dragon Age as a pretty good example of what RPG gaming is supposed to be.

Michael Murphy
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I hadn't been following FF13 but this does sound most curious indeed. These all sound like sound gameplay decisions however it is understandable for the polarizing reviews in reaction to what fans considered valueable staples to the series. I was disappointed in FF12 complete lack of constant communication between party members and no individual roles between narative and gameplay. Unlike 7,8,9 where your chosen party members will frequently talk about events and tended to posess unique skills. This small fact allowed me to have some small input into my personal roleplaying involvment. I feel linear games can provide equal meaningful choices due to the limitations.



Personal favourite being 7; story, setting, characters and combat all where mingled quite nicely. Towns provided narritive and provisions for combat. Materia linked combat and story in many regards. All charcaters provided to combat, story and settings. These optional tasks related to characters (optional characters too) reinforced any emotional investments....



I looks forward to checking out FF13, also very nice article too.

Nora Rich
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[quote]Dave Smith

8 Jan 2010 at 10:08 pm PST

i like exploring towns.... [/quote]

I like it too, some of the npc's you meet are memorable, and sometimes an odd little event( like a cat or dog running out of a closet after you opened a door) is funny. I sometimes like to roam around a town just looking at things.

Daniel Martinez
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I'm done with this series before I even started on it.

Amy Li
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@Frank Inktomi:

If you're speaking about gameplay evolutions, X-2 was the biggest success of them. Before 13 came along, X-2 had the best battle system, and its story allowed it to have immense freedom in the initial portion of the game that the other FFs did not. It's easy to dismiss it as a failure if you're not looking at it correctly.



I'm kind of hoping they'd do the same for XIII. Because some of these areas are just too awesome to show up so briefly in one game. The linear areas in the first 20 hours also set you up for a completely different perception of an area late in game that people talk quite a bit about in the story, but never really say what it is.



Overall, I think the problem doesn't like necessarily with the linear structure; a lot of fans would forgive that if the story is up to snuff, but....it's not.

Matthew Brush
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Nice article but I must admit it makes me sad to hear the direction that the game has gone. I've been playing RPG's for 20 years and what I loved about games like the previous FF's is exploring, looking for secrets, EXPLORING TOWNS, using my own imagination to fill in alot of the blanks...I really hate being led around on a leash and not having options, of things to do....most of the 1st person mission based action games do this and I'm not a big fan of playing those type of games...they certainly look pretty though and I definetely respect all the work that goes into making games like this ; )

Anyhow, FF 6 and 7 were my favorites and I still remember the story lines pretty well...but everything after has been somewhat forgettable in my opinion...that's not to say I didn't enjoy certain aspects of ff 8-12 (minus 11 the online game that I never played).

Also, I really wish that more RPG's in general would look at what FF7 did with Gold saucer and all the mini games, chocobo breeding, racing, etc..and put more mini games and things to do in towns or hubs. Some games seem to kinda go half ass on it...but not on the level that ff7 did.

Joseph Cassano
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Nice article, but I am very disappointed to see that towns have been given the boot. More than anything, when I play a game, I love to be given a sense of place; the illusion that what I am playing takes place in a world. Towns are a big part of that.



For example, I may love Uncharted 2 (so much), but its "one place after another" style didn't really convince me I was in a world. Sure, they were excellent set pieces and arenas for combat, but it didn't feel like a place. The only exception was in the village scene.



By comparison, the Chrono games (Trigger and Cross) feel like legitimate worlds, thanks in large part to towns. Sure, the gameplay itself was still quite linear at times, but the lulls between missions allowed you to explore, to talk to NPCs. In fact, that reminds me of Earthbound: if you stripped Earthbound of its NPCs and towns, the game would be a hollow shell.



Granted, I am not saying FFXIII is a "hollow shell" (I have yet to play it), but I am now hesitant. I still am interested in playing the game, but I feel like an important part of the JRPGs I love (towns) will be sorely missed in my playthrough.

James Hofmann
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I remember being an advocate of non-linearity at one time. Now I am more ambivalent because I can see the problems in implementing it.



Reliance on freedom of player agency for entertainment value can become a "cheap trick" that actually obscures design flaws. The bulk of sandbox games, particularly sandbox RPGs, are easily broken and thus easy to make un-fun, but the developers mostly shrug their shoulders at such problems. The gameplay of sandbox games also tends to be "mushy," with lots of repetition and not a lot of variety - only just enough so that the player can feel like the situation is new; maybe the car you stole in GTA is different or you have a different environment, but you can definitely expect the AIs to always work the same way, hence you will ultimately tend to pull the same maneuvers over and over to defeat them. And most of the level designs of such games are downright primordial: "here's a blob of enemies, and maybe some waypoints for them, and then here's some items. It all works out somehow." So even if there's a lot of content in the game in some nominal sense of assets or square kilometers area... you'll have essentially seen all of it within the first hour or so. It takes a blend of the non-linear and the linear - as in Deus Ex - to bring life and liveliness to this blueprint.



Actually daring to go in and manage every minute of the game experience in a completely linear fashion, on the other hand, will always require a lot of time and care, because it means a deemphasis on features: instead, the design is carefully judging when and where the player will want the most action, where breaks should occur, what the player has learned, etc., and content is presented to match. You are working within a realm where sloppy content can't be excused - you are showing the player one thing at any one time, so it had better be good.



To me it sounds like FF XIII has simply taken the managed experience to a new level. Final Fantasy was never too deep on the open worlds anyway, so I welcome the change.

Daniel Mafra
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Important to say is that whatever path FF takes to itself, it should remain Final Fantasy in its core, otherwise, it wouldn't be recognized (and desired) by its loyal consumers. What are the most unchangable assets of the brand Final Fantaesy? What are the current assets that could be upgraded or changed with no loss? What part you can throw away and pick up new ones? Products change and game design is just one of the patterns that of course, must be done with quality. Take for example Fallout 3. The first and second title got a lot of western old-school rpg patterns, but the third got new ones to provide more accurate experiences. What were taken and throw away from one to another? What elements really constitute the brand's unchangable assets, what were to be replaced or merged? What features were to be optmized and put into a higher degree?



Another rpg example, now an japanese and older one: Sega's 90's Phantasy Star franchise. What elements remained and what were discarded during the process of evolution from the firts to the fourth and later to the dreamcast's online version? What made the third version a flaw, or at least, a less quality and distant title? And what were used so the fourth and most sucesseful version could be consired a homage to all of them? So, it is nice to think about the brand's assets that were picked up, discarded or/and put in motion.



Seeing a dead end now, take the Ultima franchise, the evolution since the fourth title to the seven double title and this whole in comparisson to the eight title? Universe drastic change? Possible, but the whole experience were changed so the only relationship to the franchise were the name itself and the hero and its nemesis. The assets were changed at all and brand couldn't remain the same that time. The next title were the Online and did take many of design and story of the game before.



Most of the ff's game design itself is already on discussion. But i'd like to present this kind of perception so you see things from another angle.

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Christoph Binder
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Excellent article, makes me only more curious about FFXIII.

I really agree that loving the art of final fantasy is enhancing the experience a lot... all the summons, the spell animation, dungeon desings... its almost mandatory to enjoy a FF game....but again how can one really dislike this kind beautiful art design... i can only wonder...



i think this article really nicely shows what ffxiii can do, and will do, and what not... but you cant expect everything from only one single game, so i guess iam pretty prepared for what i can expect from FFXIII

but those things that FFXIII will deliver, i expect them to be nothing less than outstanding...it is a FF game

Bart Stewart
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James, your point about Deus Ex combining linearity and non-linearity is a fair one... but there's a difference in how Deus Ex did that and how today's console-centric games do it.



Specifically, the PC-based Deus Ex offered relatively large areas filled with content that enabled non-linear gameplay. These areas were then strung together in a linear sequence. That's the exact opposite of the approach taken in sandbox games like GTA IV, Oblivion/Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2, which feature many relatively small areas (to accommodate console constraints) of highly focused content strewn across a large open map. (And it's even more different than the linear area + linear world design of games like Half-Life/Half-Life 2 and BioWare's later RPGs such as Jade Empire and Mass Effect.)



So while I think it's fair to say that "open" games (including Deus Ex) often are actually a blend of linear and non-linear design elements, there are some real and significant differences in the gameplay experience based on which part -- area vs. world -- is linear and which part is open.



Deus Ex and FF XIII may both have a combination of linear and non-linear design, but that doesn't imply that the core gameplay of these two games must feel the same.

Adam Flutie
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"the summoned monsters (all the games since VII)," - Huh? FF IV had summoned monsters, as well as FF VI by using the Espers directly. Correct though that VII is when they became long drawn out bore-fests when it comes to cinematics though. I'm amazed the developers have just made a 'skip' button by now though. I mean really, It was very pretty how Sephiroth was able to destroy the same planet numerous times by his spells and summons, but after two times I was praying to just die or end it so I wouldn't have to see it again. "hit x to skip" - that wouldn't be difficult would it? It would also cater to both parties of gamers.



Anyhow, the article was well written and gave me a glimpse of what to expect for the game. So much in fact that I think I'll just pass on the game until I find it on the cheap or used. It was one thing to give linearity in a game to drive story, and the characters to come and go forcefully upon the player, but when those characters started showing up for no reason (for example: Cat Sith, FF VII) with no way to combat the rail one was on, it got annoying.



I also agree with the people that like towns. To me these are necessary. It shows I'm in a breathing world. The problem with town is when they become utterly unbelievable in the context of the rest of the world. FF VII once again defines where the curve declines. Instead of having believable towns you had cliched towns of the beach, amusement park, unemployment, space... each one looked like there would be no way for it to survive on it's own and no reason it would exist other than to be a new location for the linear story you can't escape from. In comparison see how the town of FF VI, FF IV, even Chrono Trigger behaved. At that point towns matter.



So saying the removal of the towns was welcomed, well, maybe sure. If the environments are just going to be cliched locations anyhow I guess there really isn't a point to have the facade of a 'town' anyhow.

Josh Foreman
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This is why I haven't enjoyed a FF game since the first one. I can't STAND it when an arbitrary story capriciously removes my characters! Maybe if the stories were EVER coherent or interesting. Well, blah, I just a western-minded stick-in-the-mud.

Kevin Lim
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I've beaten the game and played a little bit more to finish up the missions and unlock more weapons, all in all about 55 hours. I might be a bit vague to avoid spoilers regarding gameplay, but I'll try to give my own overall impression of the game.



To give my personal opinion, I enjoyed most of the hours put into it, including the combat, the linearity, and of course the visual eye candy. I would put this game in the same category as FF III or V as it felt like things were more about the combat and leveling system than story and character development, which this game lacks for the most part. The pacing was great, I agree, due to the linear progression which I didn't mind, but in terms of substance I felt like there wasn't much life in most of the characters, especially the villains.



However, the combat itself as was mentioned in the article was very engaging for me. Rather than the encounter a monster, hit X until it dies, repeat, most battles (especially encounters with new enemies) made me think about other options in beating them. Being rated per battle on how quickly you finished it also added to the action-like feel.



A game that this battle system made me remember was the DS title The World Ends With You(Another Square Enix game that I enjoyed), which albeit very different in terms of controls and strategy; both games have a somewhat fast paced and reflex-based battles with an overarching goal that you aim for(In The World Ends With You it was to gather fusion points, in FF XIII it is to "break" the enemy).



Concerning the character growth aspect, you can really beat through most of the game without ever touching the equipment upgrade system, and most of your Crystarium is never fully opened until the very end of the game, almost forcing you to use up those points on the roles that your character just has at that point. I'd say this is a pretty limiting factor that (again was probably done to deliberately pace character growth) could have given more space for the player to play around with, but again, this definitely keeps the battles from being simply button mashing as your character has a growth limit at each point in the game, making grinding through not much useful, and probably limiting the choices of the player making it easier for the designer to again, pace everything.



Once you beat the game, a few choices open up such as your Crystarium opening up completely(finally). Most of what you can do from this point is just grinding though. Gil is so hard to come by in this game and you need Gil to do most things after this point as the missions get harder very quickly, your final weapons cost a great deal to upgrade into, and the Crystarium Points you need to finish filling up the other roles grows exponentially. I guess this is one thing most JRPGs just has (Completing the game 100% even has a term in Japan: "Yarikomi", and most need a significant amount of grinding) to add additional play time for the player, but even then, the game does not have that much content to offer once you've beat through the game.





All in all, I think the whole game was very linear from beginning to end, but I still enjoyed it. Despite not having much choice in story progression and character growth, it was still a fun ride. It is definitely not the game if you really absolutely are against the game designers laying out everything for you though. I agree with most of what your article says Christian, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the game, or you did enjoy the rest of the game if you've beaten it already.


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