Strategic Combat Is Strategic. Or is it?

I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIII. I actually pre-ordered it, which is somewhat odd and out of character for me, considering my tendency to go on long rants about how JRPGs are not actually RPGs. For the most part, I’m enjoying the game, which I think I’m able to do because they’ve streamlined it so much that it has become the “walk in a straight line, battle, talk, cutscene, talk, battle, repeat” game that detractors claim the genre consists of. It’s so divorced from any semblance of exploration or control, that all thoughts of “this bloody will isn’t a RPG!” are absent and I can appreciate it for what it is. FFXIII is the JRPG equivalent of Modern Warfare or Uncharted; utterly devoted to giving you the cinematic experience that the developers intended with no messing about whatsoever.

The battle system is different, to say the least. You only have direct control over one character at any given time and choices are pretty much limited to “use item, use technique, mash button that gives optimal attack/healing sequence.” You may as well not have any direct control at all, as that’s not really the focus of the combat. Each character has a number of different classes available, all of which match up to standard archetypes like tanks or damage dealers. Between battles, you define up to six “paradigms”; pre-set combinations of these classes. Switching between these paradigms in combat refocuses your team, allowing you to move between various offensive, defensive and balanced set-ups. A combo bar builds up as you attack an enemy, the goal of which is to get them to a “staggered” state, at which point the bar goes down, but they take increasingly large amounts of damage. Rinse and repeat until death.

Innovative, perfectly suited to the game and surprisingly fun – when you’re fighting a boss.

The rest of the time, it’s repetitive and boring. We’re talking Bland Street, Dullsville here. There might be a hint of thought required the first time you encounter an enemy, but the same types are repeated so often that this is a rare occurrence. It’s exacerbated by the fact that you spend the first part of the game (15-20 hours or so) with no control over your party members and usually only two out of the customary three characters in battle at once.

What’s really galling is that the developers seem only too aware how monotonous the regular combat encounters are. To coax some kind of interest out of you, they’ve implemented a five star rating system that encourages you to do better in order to maximise loot and experience gain. It’s an okay idea in theory, but in practice it rewards speed above all else. Frequently you’ll find that charging in with your strongest offensive paradigm and throwing healing and resurrection items at your party will yield the best results.

It reduces most of the game into a dreary trudge to the next marvellous cutscene. I wasn’t expecting to love the battles, I bought the game so I could sit around with my family and enjoy the spectacle, but it did leave me wondering how it could be improved. FFXIII is far from the only game that I’ve found has the same issue; there were sections of Dragon Age that were just one mindless clickfest after another.I’ve come up with two possible solutions.

The one most palatable to RPG purists would be to simply make all the battles interesting. Less quantity, more quality. Rather than having a dozen short encounters between save points, include two or three longer, more in-depth ones. Yes, it’s more work for the developers, but making games fun is kinda their job.

Alternatively, all pretense of quasi-turn-based strategic battling could be done away with. I may be speaking entirely subjectively here, but wading through faceless minions when you have direct, action-based control over your character is fundamentally more enjoyable than issuing commands. The divide between “I tell my character to attack” and “I attack” is huge. I defy anyone, upon witnessing the balletic grace with which Lightning leaps around the battlefield, to not wish for a little Devil May Cry or Bayonetta to be stirred into the mix. Mass Effect 2 has aptly demonstrated that RPG and action can go hand in hand without negatively effecting either element.

Square-Enix have shown that they’re no afraid to mix things up and tear down old conventions, even in this most hallowed of series’. Maybe next time we’ll Final Fantasy combat that is intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable, instead of just a time sink between pretty movies.

~ by bigjonno on March 25, 2010.

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