Dear Diary: 14th March 2010
Final Fantasy XIII has given me too much, too soon and too little, too late.
I can't believe that it was only two days ago that I was waxing lyrical about Final Fantasy XIII's combat system. Since then I've put all my other games on hold and focused on Square Enix's new role-playing game in order to make some serious headway before God Of War III demands my attention next Friday. During this period, I've walked down a couple of very long roads, watched some extremely beautiful cut scenes and started to notice the cracks in the combat system.
I'm finding it hard to summarise exactly how I feel about the few dozen battles I've taken part in so far, but the word that keeps popping to the tip of my tongue is 'messy'. My inner nerd really relishes the number crunching element of RPGs and unfortunately there's something about the combat in Final Fantasy XIII that feels more Quorn burger than a Double Quarter Pounder.
Once familiar with the essence of a combat system, my first task usually revolves around ascertaining the most efficient combination of skills to use against any given type of enemy. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII makes this process nigh on impossible because the action is so dynamic, the camera has often swung away from you last target, obscuring the scrolling damage text that appears above an enemy's head. Compounding this issue is Square Enix's choice of font, as although the squat, futuristic text may be in line with the science fiction theme of the game, it's harder to read than the graffiti in a public toilet.
While struggling to get to grips with what abilities I should be using, I was also trying to decide whether I liked Paradigm Shift, Final Fantasy XIII's attempt at a new combat mechanic, obligatory for every installation of the franchise. On the plus side, I definitely appreciate the ability to vary the roles your team can execute within a single battle and the elimination of micromanagement required for this in similar Japanese RPGs. However, I'm starting to resent the actual act of switching between Paradigms as the associated animation takes far too long, especially in the context of the fast and furious battles that the game favours. The process would make more sense to me if it was featured alongside turn based battle system as I find the pace of the combat doesn't really provide enough scope for longer term tactics to be that useful.
On a more pedantic level, the amount of input commands required to repeat the previous actions is way ridiculously high for such a simple task. After taking the time to choose, select and executing a chain of abilities, I then need to press down, then hold right, then press X, then choose the enemy and finally press X again just to replicate the sequence. Repeating these five commands half a dozen times every battle turns what should be an RPG formality into a quick time event that even Heavy Rain fans would find boring.
Due to a combination of these issues I found myself faced with a Game Over screen more than once because I panicked while lost in the various menus while my admittedly sluggish brain attempted to keep up with the complexity of the action after a day of gruelling data analysis. After a while I found myself avoiding these scenarios by using the default Auto-Battle selection on the first enemy in the list without even bothering to look at stagger bars because this method seemed to work just as efficiently as any calculated ability choices I was making.
There's just something about the choice of combat mechanics that seems completely at odds with the rapid and dynamic nature of the battles, especially when time is at a premium and rewards are based on how quickly I dispatch a group of enemies.
Despite my misgivings about the slight awkwardness of the combat system, its over complexity is definitely not a deal breaker because I know that with the passage of time I'll pick up the nuances of the various techniques. However, just as I had reconciled myself with the game, Square Enix dropped a bomb on our relationship. Turning the whole situation on its head, an impromptu tutorial informed me that once you know everything there is to known about an enemy, achieved by casting Libra or just engaging them in battle a couple of times, Auto-Battle will automatically select the skills to do the most damage in the shortest amount of time.
Yep, that's right, role-playing game auto-pilot.
Goodbye to experimentation with different attacks and status ailments in order to find that particularly lethal combination. Farewell to having to think several actions down the line to ensure that my team survives an onslaught of attacks. So long to dying from mistakes, dusting myself down and trying again with a different permutation of skills. More upsetting than all of these obsolete practices though, is that fact that Final Fantasy XIII is essentially replacing my judgement with a calculator. Now I know how farmhands must have felt just after being introduced to the combine harvester.
I have no idea why Square Enix would choose to sideline the main thing that keeps bringing number crunchers like me back to the franchise, but I'm guessing it has something to do with an attempt to increase the potential market for Final Fantasy XIII. I fear that if the game experience continues to play as it did in my last session, it may be in danger of having much in common with interactive dramas like Heavy Rain and miss a great opportunity to push JRPGs into the present, much as Mass Effect has done for its western counterparts.
I'll let you know how it goes. Until next time diary.