Friday, May 23, 2014

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Ok, so I've had this open in my editor for like three months. It might be a bit incoherent.

So, the game I had been waiting for ever since the ending credits of Final Fantasy XIII-2 finally arrived. I have really liked the XIII series despite its flaws (refreshers: XIII, XIII-2), and I have really really liked Lightning. I was a bit skeptical about having only one player-controlled character in the game. However, that one character would be Light, and the series' developers already had a pretty good streak with game mechanics. As for the story, all I could really hope for was not-a-total-catastrophe. Honestly, with the given premises, you just cannot expect anything more. This is bound to become a long post; after all it's about the conclusion of something I have grown kinda attached to. Not a flawless conclusion by a long shot mind you, but a conclusion nonetheless. I'll start with the game itself and then write some closing thoughts about the trilogy.

1. The world is dying... or is it?

From what information we had earlier, I got the impression that it would be Lightning in a practically dead world. Apparently this is not really the case; for a dying world there sure is a lot of civilization going on. Granted, just in a couple of cities and some rural villages but nevertheless, life goes on, business as usual. There's surprisingly little to indicate that the world is dying. Sure, we are told about how the chaos is going to swallow up everything (which I thought happened at the end of FFXIII-2) and that God will awaken in thirteen days to destroy this world and create a new one. The ticking clock in the UI is ultimately almost the sole indicator that we're running out of time. That aside, this could be any standard issue JRPG world. As a quirk, people have stopped aging which makes them at least 500 years old. There's also the matter of new people not being born.

The lack of enthusiasm in the previous paragraph reflects the problem: the promising theme is underplayed to an extent it might as well not exist. The time pressure, although criticized in many reviews, does work fairly well as a game mechanic. I just didn't feel it. There are multiple problems that cause this - and we'll eventually get to them - but in general the end of the world just isn't present in the world. Another thing is that having lived for over 500 years is not really reflected in the people either. The game treats it mostly like a quirk, and makes jokes about it. I would believe living for 500 years while not getting any older ever leaves a strong impression on people, but nope, the folks you meet could be just regular people from any RPG. Apparently they have been doing the exact same thing for greater part the last 500 years. Apparently children also haven't grown up mentally at all.

If we look at the time limit from a more mechanical perspective though, it does create some dynamics. Throughout the game, Light proceeds main and side quests in four different game areas. Things also do change depending on the time of the day: different monsters are encountered at different times, certain events are timed, some areas have time-limited access etc. Time doesn't run in combat, cutscenes, conversations or menus. Light can also use her newly-acquired divine powers to temporarily freeze time provided she has the Eridium Points (EP) to do so. EP can also be used for teleporting between game areas -  the alternative is taking a train, but that option always consumes time. EP is regained by fighting monsters. It's actually not all that hard to practically gain infinite time, especially on normal (EP rewards are halved on hard). Basically the player just uses Chronostasis (the time freezing ability) constantly while stopping to fight monsters frequently enough to regain lost EP.

Once you get Chronostasis abuse down, the time limit almost entirely disappears from the game. Even on my first playthrough I was able to complete almost every quest in the game, with one exception being a quest that required visiting the NPC on four or five separate days. I discovered this quest so late that I no longer had enough days left. On my second playthrough I followed a guide and completed almost every quest within the first four days. For a game that has thirteen days that's a bit... I dunno, disappointing? On the first playthrough though the mechanic was just fine. Taking care of EP economy and completing quests efficiently were to me more interesting than just casually strolling around places. It's not super easy to regen enough EP by the way, because most small monsters give very little. EP is also useful for healing and using Overclock to defeat bosses (that's a combat time freeze).

2. Yet another quest rant

I wanted to devote an entire section to the most gaping flaw in Lightning Returns: the way the game handles its pacing through main and side quests. I think this is where it shows most that the XIII saga just hasn't been a commercial success, and developers were on a really limited budget. The main quest is divided into five independent quest threads. Each area has its own main quest, and then there's one that kind of spans all four areas. As a structure there's nothing wrong with this. However, the threads are insanely short. Like, really, really short. Most players are likely to blow through the main story content in way less than thirteen game days, which leaves them with only side quests to fill the remaining days. Not cool, Square-Enix, not cool at all. You always have to wait until the last day to finish the game, which just leaves an enormous amount of downtime.

This is made worse by the fact that you cannot continue with sidequests after finishing the game. Everything except Light's stats and equipment resets so on a subsequent playthrough, you get to do every quest again (for a diminished reward; it's worth notice at this point that stats are gained only from completing quests). So, if you actually want to do as much as possible (kind of encouraged by the game), you're stuck with doing sidequests for a long time before you can finish the game. Indeed, most of the game's content is made of sidequests. It's the same disease that is currently plaguing RPGs from every corner of the world - a topic I've been writing about on more than one occasion. As an interesting twist, this time there is actually a plausible plot explanation for doing sidequests. That in itself would be a good thing, were it not for the horrible quality of quests.

The in-game explanation is this: Lightning has to find souls worth saving so that they can be reborn into the new world. Which, as a concept, is actually quite impressive - an entire game could easily be built around just that. It's a cool concept, but the game forgets its own explanation after the very first saved soul. After that, we're off to goofville, running pretty run-of-the-mill errands for whoever has an incredibly dumb problem. Some of the quest givers are pretty much the worst people around, which is in a damn direct contradiction with saving worthy souls. This overall goofiness of side quests is also at odds with the game's theme, and is indeed one of the biggest contributing factors why it just doesn't feel like the world is ending. Doing the quests themselves is pretty decent busywork gaming and kept my ludic side entertained.

The best part about these quests is hearing Light and Hope's comments about how stupid some of these tasks or people are. I guess you could find some kind of interesting metacommentary here. Then again, with all the effort put into these quests - giving some resemblance of personality to the quest givers and voice acting every single line in the game - having even the protagonist comment on their stupidity might not be what you'd want. In fact, most of the quests are so out of character for Light that I just cannot see her partaking any of that crap were it not for her savior duty (which writers conveniently put into the game). Of course in most games sidequests feel just as much out of place and out of character. Most games don't even bother with giving a plausible explanation for doing them, and I'm not sure which is worse. For this reason I find it usually best to leave majority of sidequests for the post-game - the post-game is typically something that is entirely separated from the game's fiction anyway.

Well, people did complain when there were no sidequests in FFXIII. Now we have them by the bucket. Most of the quests are truly just busywork; the only one that requires some strategy is the quest to defeat the toughest monster in the game (no pushover that one).

3. Fight in style

Alright, we've now concluded that the game is horrible. So, how come I enjoyed playing it for about 90 hours total? As with its predecessors, the answer is mostly in its mechanical side. Since we only have one character to control, the system has been pretty heavily revamped. I was actually a bit worried about this initially because there was just no way the combat system and other mechanics from XIII/-2 would work with a single character. Fortunately the developers have done the right thing: the feel is there, but the mechanics have been tailored for a single character. The fancy word of the week is Schemata, which is basically the replacement for Paradigm. Where paradigms were role configurations for a party, Schemata is more like a class configuration. I guess you can also see it as an excuse to dress Light up in different outfits. Either way, let's dive into details.

Light can have three active schemata (I guess the singular was schema, not 100% sure but I'll go with that) that she is able to switch freely between in combat. Freely as in even in the middle of being hit by an attack. Each schema is a combination of a bunch of things. For each schema, its chosen garb defines its base characteristics. All garbs have two attributes: max ATB and initial ATB. The first of these tells how much the garb increases Light's max ATB when using the schema. The latter defines which percentage of the ATB is filled at the start of battle. These are two out of three parameters of the schema's ATB economy and we'll get back to them in a bit. On top of these mandatory attributes, a garb usually has a special ability - these can be anything from simple buffs (like +10% HP) to more complex. Finally a garb can have up to four fixed abilities that cannot be unequipped (and they can have sub-abilities). Most garbs have one or two.

Each schema also has to include a weapon and a shield. Both of these can influence the schema quite heavily, and especially the weapon is at least as important in defining the schema's strengths as the garb is. The shield has less impact and is generally chosen to complement the weapon + garb combination. Each schema also has a head accessory that can have quite huge impact, and a wrist accessory that affects every schema but has less impact. Finally, the ability slots left free by the garb can be filled with abilities from four categories: attacks, magic attacks, debuffs and guards. Each ability slot corresponds with a thumb button. Like garb abilities, these can also have sub-abilities. There's also a system called ability synthesis which I'll leave to a separate section. Finally one ornament can be selected for the schema. These are just cosmetic items and their visual design is generally so awful I never used them. I'll talk about visuals a bit more, but first, more important matters.

If we go over the list, one thing worth notice is that at any time the player can have at most 12 abilities equipped and almost always at least two or three of these are fixed because of the garbs. There are roughly three different archetypes for schemata: physical attacker, magic attacker and utility. Creating one of each is a possible approach and there are advantages to doing this. Most importantly, a lot of weapons come with a preference for either strength or magic. Focusing all physical damage on a schema with a high strength weapon would therefore make a lot of sense. There's also the matter of guarding. Usually there's no need to devote a schema for guarding - even in the most extreme case you'd only want maybe 2 guard skills on a single schema. Especially in the early parts of the game it's advantageous to have a guard ability on every schema, and behind the same button, to make guarding easier in hectic situations.

Assuming we put a guard on every schema, there's nine slots left. These should go towards damage and utility. Most utility spells are situational because enemies tend to have status immunities. There's four elements in the game, and covering all of these is advantageous for obvious reasons. It would be best to cover all four with both magic and physical damage, but that would be a bit greedy. There are dual element spells in the game though, and in some situations they can cover two elements with one ability slot - or they can bite you in the ass. Optimal ability setups are generally contextual. For each of the game's four areas, usually one element can be omitted. For some elements in some areas it's good to have two abilities, on different schemata - one magic, one physical - largely because some enemies can have huge reduction to either magic or physical damage.

My opinion on this is a bit divided. I like the fact that you need to consider ability builds and in general build your schemata so that they complement each other. The downside is that there's a lot of abilities in the game that don't really see any use because by the time all the necessary abilities have been picked, there's no space left for nice-to-have abilities. Take Magnet for instance. It's a good spell for crowd control because it pulls enemies together for easy AoE annihilation. Sadly, large groups of enemies are actually quite rare which makes it a dead ability in most encounters. The speed up in large group encounters isn't that dramatic either, so it just doesn't see use. I didn't find myself using AoE physical attacks too much either, nor did I really use single target magic attacks. Internal imbalance between abilities is of course a very common problem in RPGs but the slot limitation really makes sure that none of situational abilities get used.

There's also a UI problem that really discourages switching ability configurations. The game does allow the player to create reserve schemata and swap them easily. However this feature is pretty much useless because each garb, weapon, shield, accessory and ability can only be equipped on one schema, be it active or inactive. This means that it's only useful for creating completely different schemata and that is almost never the case. It would be far more useful to be able to store variations. This could easily be done by being able to save schemata setups - much like in FFXIII-2 where the player was able to save three different paradigm setups. A lot of the garbs are also highly situational which makes them tiresome to use because of the work involved in editing schemata. It's just more convenient to have a general purpose setup and only switch a few abilities based on which area you're in.

The system is at its best when preparing for bosses. There is no single boss setup that would be good for all of them. Here the limitations actually create an interesting planning exercise because builds can have a lot of impact. Being able to squeeze in one or two extra abilities or even sub-abilities can make a big difference. It also can matter a lot on which schema each ability is placed. For me at least shuffling garbs, weapons, accessories trying to find a solid setup for a boss was fun. This is vastly helped by the fact that there are bosses that are not pushovers. Overall, with a more friendly UI this system would be great. Now it's mostly interesting for bosses only.

4. Active Time Battle - The Game

ATB economy is another factor that heavily influences all schemata choices. Each individual schema has three ATB-related components: maximum ATB, initial ATB and ATB recovery. Each ability costs a certain amount of ATB to use, with stronger abilities costing more. Maximum ATB defines how many abilities the player can cast with the schema. Initial ATB is mostly relevant in short encounters. Having a low initial ATB makes it difficult to fight because the player cannot cast a full combo of spells at the start of battle. It's usually fine to have low initial ATB on one schema and use it to finish off enemies. ATB recovery dictates how quickly the schema will come back online after spending ATB. Some recovery happens when a schema is active, but the recovery rate of inactive schemata is much higher. The basic principle is therefore to spam abilities from one schema until it runs out of ATB and then switch.

This make the system somewhat equivalent to having three characters that take turns. Somewhat, because it really depends on things like ATB recovery. This means that, for example, if you really need to dish out a lot of physical damage continuously, having physical attacks on only one schema doesn't make sense. Kind of throws a wrench into the simple approach of having one magical attack schema and one physical attack schema. Guarding also consumes ATB which means there should at all times be some ATB in reserve on a schema with a guard ability equipped. The overall ATB economy of schemata is really important in the game because running out of ATB often means the player is in deep trouble. In all honesty it mostly just means a fight takes a longer time but... yeah, running out of ATB is annoying. If you remember how stagger works in the previous installments of the trilogy, you probably know why.

The stagger system is mostly the same. While in XIII/-2 stagger power and maintenance depended on roles, in LR each ability has both of these as stats. Generally speaking, abilities with high stagger power have shit maintenance and the other way around. Having to maintain stagger is usually inefficient and I found it better to use abilities with high stagger power almost exclusively. However, when maintenance is very low, running out of ATB before the enemy is staggered pretty much forces the meter back to zero. Likewise, enemies don't stay in stagger state for very long usually, which means having no ATB available for dishing out damage when that happens is also kind of annoying. Having no ATB available for guarding of course gets beyond being annoying to being outright lethal. All in all, ATB economy is a highly important part of the game, especially when planning schemata.

There are some other changes in the stagger system too. Enemies now have varying stagger conditions which is a welcome change. The effects of staggering also vary. Some enemies are disabled for a while, whereas others simply get some bonus debuffs that increase damage taken etc. Staggering also does not seem to be so strongly connected to attack damage. Because the fighting pattern is still the same (i.e. stagger an enemy, then max DPS), it generally makes sense to tune one or two schemata towards staggering power instead of high damage. My usual setup was to have one schema for magic damage/stagger, another devoted to really fast staggering using physical attacks and a third for guarding, physical DPS and debuffing. Most of the fighting is done in the first two schemata and the third one is visited briefly to cast debuffs, guard and finish off staggered enemies. Physical attacks are in general better for pure damage because their animation is shorter.

There are a bunch of other variables that affect ATB economy. Certain subabilities have conditional ATB recovery. For instance one of the most useful garbs in the game boosts the recovery rate of inactive schemata even further. Finally, if you use Overclock (a massive slow for a short time, almost a freeze), you instantly recover full ATB for the Overclock duration and also after it ends. This makes it insanely good for building stagger or dishing out some serious damage. Basically you can spam a full ATB's worth from one schema, then OC for more attacks and then spam another full ATB's worth again. OC costs EP however, and EP is also used for healing - so it needs to be used sparingly. Note that HP is not recovered after battles and Light actually has a very limited inventory for healing items.

Limited availability of healing is indeed another important factor in this game. Long runs without shopping in between have the risk of running out of healing. This is somewhat alleviated by the game's structure as it generally doesn't have long dungeons. I am a fan of limited healing inventory, because it means the threat of damage in every battle is more real.

5. Lightning develops

Character development has taken some interesting turns. Aside from the garb system that was already discussed quite a bit, there definitely are changes. There are no levels or experience points in the game at all. Instead you get stats directly as quest rewards. This is fine, though I have to say that stat changes are rather invisible. The difference will be noticed over a long time, but the impact of a single stat point increase is not noticeable at all. This is pretty usual in JRPGs because the stat range is generally huge and stat math is not transparent. So basically the player just goes with the assumption that more is better. Because all quests can be completed in every run, there are no real choices in raising Light's stats. The more interesting powering up system is ability synthesis.

In a way this system is a watered down version of what we had in Crisis Core - the player collects tons of abilities and can then fuse them together. The fundamental difference is that the process doesn't result in new abilities - instead, the fusion result is a slightly stronger version of the ability. The system is also really simple, because abilities can only by fused with the same ability of the same level. Abilities can only be leveled up with special items, and leveling beyond 3 is limited to NG+. Basically fusing abilities mostly increases damage while leveling up decreases ATB cost on top of increasing damage. The system is grindy as hell, because in order to level up, you first have to fuse an ability to the current level's maximum. Fortunately, abilities always retain the best value in each stat when fused. All in all fusion rules are incredibly simple, and the formula for the ultimate version of an ability is straightforward.

Subabilities add a minor complication on top of the system. Each ability has a range of possible subabilities. The subability of the ability selected first is always preserved, so the inheritance rules are really simple. Although the possibilities of the system are rather lackluster, one thing I like about the ability system is its transparency. This could be the first game in the entire series where damage can actually be calculated from information offered by the game, because each ability's damage value is presented as a multiplier. Which means you just multiply either attack or magic by that, and there's your average damage. Some experimentation is still required to figure out how good animations each attack has though. The biggest problem with the system is the huge amount of abilities the player has to obtain and carry in their limited ability inventory.

There's also a way to level up weapons, shields and accessories but only in NG+. All in all, individual development systems are rather underwhelming in their simplicity. The appeal as we discussed is in constructing schemata. But why garbs cannot be also leveled up?

6. Garbs - or garbage?

The final topic that I feel needs to be addressed is the game's garb design. If we look back at the previous FF game that had characters changing dresses, the visual design was honestly not that great. Like if you compare FFX-2 dresses to actual main dresses of characters in the series, it's fairly obvious not nearly as much effort has been put into them. It's pretty safe to say the same goes for Ligthtning Returns really. Although there are like a hundred or whatever of garbs, most of them are constructed of non-unique parts. It makes the visual design a bit repetitive. It's nice that the player can color customize their garbs, but it's not so nice that the ability to do so is rather inconsistent. Some garbs only allow customization of minor details, way more often than it's justified. I feel that full color customization would have been better, because some of the color schemes are effing disgusting.

However the big question really is: how tasteful are the designs. The answer is: it really varies. Most of the stuff is in the middle ground - not really impressive, but not bad either. There are very few really cool designs, ones that actually fit Light's character well, and then you have your skimpy fan service garbs that are just way out of character. There's also the assortment of highly impractical garbs like full blown gowns, some of which do look good. Impracticality is not much of a bother for me because it's just the way things are in Japanese hero fiction in general. As for skimpiness, in this case it does disturb me because I really feel like Light is a character and I don't think dressing up in fetish catalog inventory is her preference. I mean she's a do-shit type, and I'd expect her to dress in do-shit garbs. This is more or less in line with my previous thoughts.

So there's a bunch of garbs in the game that I look at and go "yeah, I'm not gonna have Light wear that". The upside is, I don't have to because there's enough garbs in the game to choose from. Of course it will be a bit more problematic if the fetish catalog garbs had some highly desirable abilities. For whatever odd reason they actually very rarely do. Another alleviating factor is that of the three garbs in a schemata, only one is used outside battle; and during battle, there's really not much time to be bothered by how Light looks - unless you win a fight with a garb, then it's shown in the victory screen. Most importantly, only one of the garbs is shown in cutscenes. It means that as long as one out of three schemata looks decent enough, it's easy enough to just not really care all that much.

We can of course argue how sexist it is to give the player the power to dress Light up in questionable outfits. I am mostly indifferent to this, although of course I would prefer if all garbs would be a better fit for Light's personality. Of course, my personal interpretation of Light's character is unlikely to match that of other players, who may have different ideas what can be considered a suitable garb. The amount of blatant fetish garbs is actually pretty low, and the rest, I feel, are more up for interpretation. This is something I find a bit tricky in the entire female character clothing debate. Like in this case most outfits look like someone could easily wear them in public. The thing with game characters is that we really don't often know their clothing preferences because - let's be honest here - wardrobe talk is not exactly common in games. This means inappropriateness criticism - outside blatant cases - is always based on an interpretation.

In a way I think the fact that it's a single protagonist game makes things different in the sense that it's more of a roleplaying experience - in contrast, in a typical JRPG the player observes a group of characters. But here, Light is not just Light as she has been written. Instead, the Light on the screen is a mesh of "Light as written" and "me as Light" - this effect is generally stronger in games where the player gets to create their own character, but even with a premade character I still do roleplay that character to an extent. Therefore when choosing outfits for Light, it's not just about what's pleasing to my eye - it's about what I'd feel comfortable wearing if I was Light. So for me personally the ability to choose what she wears is not about objectifying her. Rather, it enhances my ability to get invested in being Light as if she was a character I created. It's also good in the sense that I'm not forced to agree with tasteless clothing choices.

All in all, it is clear that there a certain portion of garbs are pure fan service. At the same time I would argue that majority of garbs are decent in the sense that they're not objectifying. I don't really like most of the garbs, but they don't throw me off either. So yes, the designers do deserve some flak for their decisions, but anything beyond that feels a bit stretching.

Bonus: Final Fantasy XIII the trilogy. 


I have two lines of though about the entire trilogy. One concerns its story as a whole while the other is more about these games as, well, games. Back when we only had FFXIII it felt a bit odd that Lightning was highlighted as the main protagonist. Sure, she is in the game and does play a role. If you played the game though, it seems to be more about Fang and Vanille. Moreover, in the second game, Light is hardly present. Of course the third game is all her. Another thing about the entire trilogy is that the stories are heavily disconnected - especially the first game. The link between the events of Cocoon and what unravels in FFXIII-2 is extremely weak. All in all the storylines in all games are really pretty weak. In a way there's no storyline for the third game to conclude unless we actually accept that the entire trilogy is all about Lightning.

This actually makes a lot of sense. It's not just that the third game is all Light. It also establishes Light's story as a link between all the games. The reason we feel Light is not really a factor in the first game despite clearly being there, is because of the role she has taken upon herself. She's there to fight, and fight only. In the second game, she does more of the same, for another cause. Who cares about gods, the third game to me is all about Light becoming a person. So in terms of what actually happens in the game, it's pretty underwhelming as a conclusion. As a conclusion to Light's growth story though, I loved it - mostly because I love Light. Somehow the most important story content in the entire game is found on loading screens where Light reflects about her own life. These screens tell a lot more about her than the three games combined.

There's a weird pattern in FF games: the ones with good story have kinda meh mechanics, and then the other way around. FFXIII trilogy is definitely of the "other way around" pattern. I think the biggest problem with the entire trilogy is the fact that the first game didn't please fans. If that game had been done with the design philosophy of Lightning Returns, the entire trilogy could be in a very different shape. I think the poor reception echoes in the sequels. It shows that the money just is not there, especially in LR. Many things in the game scream "budget solution". Likewise, both sequels have incredibly short story content. It's impossible to tell whether better reception would have had an impact, but the fact that the first game botched is pretty damn obvious. So while FFXIII-2 and especially LR provide what people wanted from FFXIII, it's way too late.

Well, I'm one of the people who are happy that, at least, the sequels didn't get cancelled.As far as modern JRPGs go, this trilogy for me is among the better ones. It all really comes back to eclipsing popularity of the entire genre, and the ever-increasing development costs for living room consoles.


Whew. We're finally done here. Lightning Returns leaves a lot to desire for, but overall I'm still happy with the game as it is. The same really goes for the entire trilogy. I feel a lot of good design decisions were made, and I hope SE is not discouraged, and will keep trying out new mechanics when it comes to FFXV.