Friday, 12 March 2010

How to make each part of a series individual.

The BrapScallion said I have to introduce myself before I make my first post, so here you go. I'm ParaLyze (some should know me by that name), I'm in my mid-twenties and I have a deep fostered love of storytelling in both games and film. That said, I'm also a big fan of online gaming, regularly playing an Online RPG called Guild Wars, and I've played a great many different online games, from shooters, to MMOs with strategy games in between, sometimes to a tournament level. I'm what people in suits call a "hardcore" gamer, and I like it that way.

So it's new out this week, and having hit the 30 hour mark, I'd say I'm in a good position to give my views on SquEnix's latest iteration of the world-munching Final Fantasy series. It'll be tough going, and I may let a few spoilers slip, but I'll do my best not to...

First and foremost, the number one thing I've heard people get worried about is the 'linearity' of it. Yes, FFXIII is linear, but only to a point. At around the 20 hour mark, the game opens up (a little) and gives you a taste of the side questing and 'Mark' missions. Before that, the game guides you along the paths of the 6 characters, swapping and changing fairly regularly. At one point, you're exploring a dense jungle research facility with Lightning and Hope, which is followed by a visit to a waterbound floating theme park with Sazh and Vanille, complete with chocobos, chocobo theme music, and miniature sheep, which are adorable... Sadly missing are the wealth of mini games fondly remembered from Gold Saucer (FFVII) though the pace is neatly wound down to suit with a nice little game of hide and seek.

I was going to say a big long rant about how the game is linear and that's a good thing, but that can be saved for another post as it's a bigger issue than just here. Suffice to say, the game flows well and doesn't feel constrained at any point.

What I will talk about are the things that are almost iconic. Firstly, this is quite definately the most beautiful thing to grace my TV screen (and I've played Uncharted 2), the in-game engine is sharp, very detailed and full of colour, the cutscenes are mostly rendered in-game, where you sometimes notice the detail lacking (especially on close ups with hands), and I've noticed a stutter in frame rate just once, which was in a battle with some 9 or so enemies when unleashing a rather flashy spell. The pre-rendered stuff is, as we'd come to expect from SquEnix, beyond compare. This is Pixar level animation with the extra touch of human proportion that you don't see in cartoons.

Secondly, the battle system. I had my reservations about what the battle system would be until I saw it being used in a small snippet of footage from e3 a couple years ago, which got me more worried about it. Then, someone informed me that it was actually an active time battle (ATB) system, similar to that of FF games of old (Pre-FFX). So when I finally hit the first battle, I was a little suprised with what it did. The game does indeed run on the ATB system, with a timer filling up until you're ready to go. What they didn't tell me, however, was that the ATB is split into sections (2 at first), which allows you to perform multiple actions each time the bar fills up. Most actions take up 1 section, with more powerful spells and attacks using up 2 or even 3 sections. At the start of the game (as you are without magical assistance) you rely on using potions to heal your group. So very kindly, item use does not count towards your ATB sections, and you're free to use them. This also counts for 'techniques', which contains toolbox skills like Libra (provides info on enemy strength & weakness) and Summons. The game only gives you control of the 'leader' of the group, with the AI filling in for the other members of your team. Usually at this point, you'd think "oh god, that's horrible", but I would have you hear me out on this one. Firstly, the AI is fantastic in choosing actions, testing the enemy for weaknesses first, then preying on them for maximum effect, not once have I felt like I wanted to swap character because I could do it better. Secondly, the battles move at such a pace that it wouldn't be possible to get the best out of the segmented ATB system if you had to set actions for every team member, and even if you did, you wouldn't get to watch the stellar effects and animations in play when your group launches into action. The next feature is the Chain/Stagger meter. Essentialy, if you keep a string of damage going on a target, you deal more damage with each hit. Starting at 100%, the chain goes up to the enemy's stagger point (which is different depeneding on the enemy), the guage decreases whilst not being hit, but as long as you keep the hits coming, each hit tops up the meter from where it was when you last hit. Leave it too long though, and the meter resets to 100. When you stagger the enemy, the chain gives you +100% damage on top of what you already were on and continues to rise up to 999.99% (which you won't see very often until later in the game). Some enemies have other effects when staggered, such as being disabled, or change in weaknesses, which gives a reason to keep that chain going.

Now at the start of the game, as I previously mentioned, you are without magic and rely on your physical prowess to get by. But it's not long before you get access to the role system of the game and are introduced to a new feature called 'Paradigm Shift'. Essentially, each character has a set of roles (starting with just a couple, building up to all 6 being available to everyone), which are Sentinel, Commando, Ravager, Medic, Synergist and Saboteur. To read them in another way and explain them at the same time; Tank/Damage Sponge, Physical Damager, Magic Damager, Healer, Party buffer, Enemy Debuffer. Each character is well suited to at least one of these roles, with a few being suited to 3 at most. Unfortunately each character can only perform one of these roles at a time. So if Lightning is a Commando, she can't heal the others. Thankfully, Paradigm Shift provides you the means to swap the roles in your team between different 'decks', which is 6 customisable setups of different roles. This allows you to have some extreme setups, with 3 damage dealing roles that can, suddenly, form into a defensive setup to heal any wounds, swap to a section to apply buffs/debuffs whilst keeping the attack chain going, and then launch a new assault to stagger the opponent. Character development comes in the form of the 'Crystarium', which is basically the Sphere grid from FFX, which requires you to spend CP (read: Exp) to unlock nodes which provide attribute boosts or new abilities. Each role has it's own 'grid' so they are all tailored in mind to be mostly beneficial to that role, with some other nodes giving access to attribute boosts with a more 'all-round' feeling.

The paradigm system is probably my favourite aspect of the game, as it gives rise to a new method of tactical combat in RPGs. Swapping roles on the fly to deal with changes in the opposition is a real joy, and like items and techniques, it's a free action, so you can do it as much as you want (or swap quickly if you picked the wrong one).

For the other elements that make this a Final Fantasy game, there are a number of elements. The characters each have their own unique stories and offer different perspectives as the story unfolds. Each one develops as a character in some way and the revelations and twists in the story still have me unsure how it's going to end. Fang perhaps suffers a little, due to being the last character to be introduced, some 10 hours in, where the rest are introduced in the first chapter. Though she still manages to provide an interesting story, and makes up for it by being an extremely versatile character to use in combat. The music (another FF staple), is wonderfully orchestrated, and suprisingly a lot of sections even have vocal parts (though not always legible, which I lean towards being a good thing), and I'm yet to hear that damn Leona Lewis song which plauged the TV ads. Continuing with sound, the voice acting is actually good, and conveys the emotions of the characters well without having to spell things out.

All in all, this is a game that was quite easily worth the price tag, and even if I finish it tomorrow, I'd say it was money well spent. If you're still unsure and have been waiting to see what other people think, I'd recommend it.

p.s. Thanks IGN for the pics.

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