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domingo, 31 de julho de 2011

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy games are usually known by their epic story held in a huge and living world, with charismatic characters and cinematographic sequences, which are to some, better than the ones from Hollywood. It is a franchise that at each new edition tries to take be at the vanguard of where the Japanese RPGs, and the games themselves can and should go. If you play Final Fantasy XIII expecting to find all this, all this you will find, and if you never adventured into the adventures (?!) of the franchise, your time may have come.

Phew! Done! There is the conclusion at the first paragraph, so, if you are one of those people with no time, you don’t need to read any further, look how great it is! Yeah /o/.... On the other side, if you wanna know more about this world, these characters with crazy hairs and why I put in so many hours and lines to this, just keep reading, but remember:
1 - Is that same way of always, you can read only the parts you feel like reading, or you can read in the order you always have dreamed about, or if you are a more classic person, just simply read from here to the end.
2 - Don’t worry, no spoilers.

The art of “tell a game”

In the world of games, specially RPGs, there is a known phenomena called “I’m tired of this fucking game, I will save this world my ass, let’s play some other game”. Keep the player interested in how the story will unfold or in how the development of the characters will offer new gameplay and fun is not a simple task. It is not enough to have a good plot or a good mechanic, the way all these are presented must be the right one and it includes the rhythm and manner in which everything develops.

This edition of the series doesn’t work with the concept of open world of other RPGs where there is a world with cities, ruins, forests and all, and you visit these places because you want, or to get some treasure, or because you need to go there to progress into the story. In Final Fantasy XIII is like every environment is a stage and once you pass through there is no turning back. Putting it simple, instead of having an open world, the game is like a enormous corridor with many environments (a city, later a forest, later on maybe a aircraft, a desert, and so on) where is only possible to go in the direction of the end of the game.

The idea is to take you through a defined story where you follow the journey of a group of characters, more than put you in a world where you can create your own adventure through this journey. It feels like a mix of movie and game and I, personally, like the way it is done and how the story becomes the central focus of the entire experience of the game. I mean, I’m not against RPGs with more open stories like Mass Effect, or RPGs with these concept of open worlds (it is no secret how much I like Zelda), but, if you are in a journey to save the world, you will do what you have to do to save this world, you will not lose yourself doing other side quests, playing mini games, maybe fishing and then, just when you feel like doing it, you go where you have to go so the story can continue. Final Fantasy choose to be something else, during some 90% of the time, everything you will do is progress into the story.

Half old, half Fabula Nova Crystallis

To talk about the story of the game, first we have to talk about the mythology of the universe where it happens, the so called Fabula Nova Crystallis which is a big project of a universe from Square Enix where many games to be launched will be in.

To give you a short version of this mythology, there are 2 worlds, one is huge and wild, called Pulse, and in the sky of Pulse, as if it was a moon, is the small Cocoon, a world filled of technology. There are sayings about a big war which happened long time ago between these 2 worlds. Each of these worlds has their gods and these gods can be fond and seeing over the world doing there roles. As an example, in Cocoon the Sun is a god and the electric energy, that makes everything works, come from another god.

These gods in Cocoon and Pulse can choose humans to do a task do them, and these task can be anything since protect something, or take some action which may cause repercussion into something bigger. These mission a human can receive of a god is called Focus. Depending on the Focus, special abilities are given to the human and there is a time limit to complete it. If the chosen human fail, it becomes a creature without soul, wondering over the world. On the other hand, if the Focus is fulfilled, the chosen human become a Crystal statue and gain eternal life. In a way or another, the life of those that are chosen change forever.

This is just a short version of the mythology presented in this game, and, of course, many things can be questioned, like, why the gods from Pulse and the gods from Cocoon went to war, or who created then and other things that are answered while you play the game. In fact, since this is just the first story in this universe, not all the mysteries are solved.

Now that we talked about the mythology of the world, we can talk about the story of the game itself.

Once again, giving a very short version, a group of people from Cocoon is choose by a god from Pulse, receiving as mission the destruction of Cocoon. How these people will get this mission, who they are, what are the connections they have, who killed someones mother, who is going to marry someones sister, who has a bird living inside the head and all the conflict of destroying or not their home land, is up to you to discover when you play the game. That’s all I’m going to say to keep it spoiler free.

You are free to disagree and even create a internet group discussion with the theme “That guy of the internet is so stupid”, but, in our reality, the concept of god comes from symbologies, personal interpretations and, above all, faith. We don’t have a place where we can go to visit and see the god that is the Sun, as an example. The people that our religions say to be instruments of god don’t have a celestial tattoo, special powers and they don’t turn into crystal once their “mission” is complete. To me, considering only this, this mythology easily relates to our curiosity to find out how the myths and fantasies are confirmed, denied or revealed. I believe this is the Final Fantasy game that best puts the player inside of a world and its mythology, making it feel real, rich and interesting.

However it is important to say that despite the cinematographic sequences, the universe and the basics of the story being all so well done, the idea is to make a pop game, to reach as many people as possible. Of course the game has some of that things of the Japanese culture which are weird to some, but even so, the idea is to make this a pop game. Don’t expect highly dense conflicts, existentialist crisis or anything like this. The decision to make the game like this can be understandable in some level, we all know it needs to make money, this kind of game is expensive to produce and bla bla bla, but is such a pity because the story has conflicts that would allow a more serious take, like when one of the characters almost commits suicide, or when one of the characters learn the importance to fight and stop running from the problems, among many others.

In general, in what concerns the story of these characters and it conflicts, unless you haven’t watched many movies in your life, it all will be cliche at the point is possible to know how the characters will change and where all that will lead. But, the way everything is conduced, the dialogues and all, makes the line that connects the dots you already knew were there, interesting enough to entertain. I think there is a merit in being able to tell a story that everyone already saw and make the experience still fun and interesting. Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t have much ambition when picking up which story to tell, but the game does a great job in telling the story it decided to tell.

Tsc, Tsc, you don’t have experience

In more traditional RPGs is common that to progress into the story you need to eventually dedicate some time to the task of killing innocent creatures of the wild world to gain level, develop you characters, to only then be able to kill the boss/monster/guy with weird hair and ambiguous sexuality standing on your way. I kind like this process because it helps to create a connection with the characters when you see they learning things, getting stronger, after so many hours invested killing all that enemies. However, we should make it clear, when to much hours are needed the whole thing may brake.

In Final Fantasy XIII all the concepts of character development are modernized. As an example, all the experience points you earn go to all the characters, even to those you don’t play and even when you group is split between two places because of the story. It makes the experience points collection much faster.

Other example of the modernized system is that the ability tree only expands when you progress into the story and who decides which ability to learn from those available is the player. With this system the game kind tells you when you have evolved enough and is time to move forward.

After you learn all the available abilities available in some point on the story, if you want you still can get even more experience, but if you prefer to progress in the story you will have access to enemies that when killed will give more experience points. So, it’s better to keep walking further into the story than to stay 5 hour killing monsters just for the sake of get experience. Actually, if you are one of those masters of the strategy, I think is quite possible to beat the game without stopping to get experience.

The system makes the experience collection much less painful or mechanic, since you end up collecting experience points almost without noticing it, but it doesn’t removes the fun of seeing your characters evolving and the possibility to dedicate as many hours as you like to learn all the abilities you want to learn.

Killing Many Horrible Monsters

Of all the changes and new ideas that Final Fantasy XIII brings, the battle system is undoubtedly the most notable and striking one. It is once again a turn based battle, with a time bar that you need to wait until is filled to act, but everything is much faster and with more layers of strategy than never.

The process of being walking, touch in an enemy, go to the battle, kill the enemy and keep walking, frequently takes less than 20 seconds. There is no MP and the HP is recovered at the end of every battle.

You get into battle with the maximum o 3 characters on your side and you control only 1 directly, the computer controls the others, based on the strategy you define. The strategy is called Paradigm and it can be changed any time during the battle. The Paradigm defines the Role of each character, and the Role defines the set of abilities they can use.

The fight is much faster because while you chose what your character will do, computer will chose what the other characters will do and then everything happens at the same time. Its like a action scene of a movie and is important to know how to “watch” these “scenes”, because the timing of the actions you execute is part of the strategy of the fight. To give you one example, you can expect to attack after you watched the computer send the other member of your group to attack and return, this way the enemy is constantly being attacked. This observation is also important when you change Paradigms, because when you change the Paradigm the characters will stop whatever they are doing and assume the new Role, so, imagine one situation where a character is prepared to heal you, if you don’t watch properly the timing to change the Paradigm, you may do it before your character heal you.

“If computer controls the actions of the other characters, if it doesn’t work right, it will be all destroyed, right, guy from the internet?”. Yes, it would suck if the computer was not able to chose the most adequate abilities to each situation. I can say in 95% of the cases everything goes fine, and the other 5% depends of your team work with the computer. It is important not to underestimate the capacity of the artificial intelligence, it is your ally, almost as a team mate that you have to learn how to work with. I made the mistake to think the computer would not be able to take the best decisions in some fights and ended up finding out later that my life would be much more Disney if I had trusted that the computer would know how to handle my characters.

Another fundamental aspect about the strategy and speed of this new battle system is the Stagger, which is a bar that is filled up as the enemy loses energy. When the bar is filled the Stagger mode is activated and in this mode the enemy defense goes down, really down. This mode doesn’t last much and reach it is an important layer of strategy in a fight, specially because the Roles defined in the chosen Paradigm have direct influence in how the Stagger bar is filled. Reach Stagger mode many times in battle is indispensable to beat certain enemies.

About the Summons, those mythological creatures that are called in a battle to fight by your side or to give a powerful attack an leave, this must be the edition that more “removed power” from then.

First because, unlike normal magic which doesn’t need MP, to use Summons you have some special ability points and the way they behave make it not possible to use a Summon more than once in a battle. Not only that, but as you progress in the game your characters develop to a point where is better to attack with then than to call a Summon. However, you should not think that after some time Summons will be useless, actually, as the game progress, they change their role, becoming an element of strategy, because when they are called only the character you control stays on the scene and the Summon protects you, healing and all that. If you die with a Summon in battle you don’t lose the fight, the Summon just go away and you companions return with full energy and healed from any bad status. It can be used in many ways, but just to give you one example, imagine that there won’t be time to heal your party, the enemy is about to attack and this will be the end, you can then call a Summon, it save you ass healing and protecting you, it also attacks for a while the enemy and when the Summon goes away you characters are all healed and ready to put an end to that fight.

I really liked this battle system, but I have two complains.

The first one is that I think would be very good to have the possibility to chose the Role of each character individually during a fight, plus to the configured Paradigms. It sucks when you discover yourself in a situation where you need a specific combination of Roles that you didn’t predicted.

The second complain is that some enemies have attacks that will hit your characters based on their position, but where you characters place themselves is not controlled by you, so it may happen that all your characters are together and than in one attack them all may die. it would be good to have some way to give basic position commands during the battle, like “split up”, “get together”, “move away from the enemy” or somethings like that.

Well, maybe my complains are very stupid and just make sense to me because I’m the worse strategist that the world ever saw and I don’t know. Or maybe not. In any case, now the internet know what I felt hehehe.

Everything I said here about the battle system is very simplified. I could write a lot just telling stories of battles, strategies that worked and changed a battle completely and all that, but I really don’t want to spoil the fun of discovering it. The important thing is to remember that the battles are very fast, the system is very versatile, new and the game teaches you all you need to know to go there and save the world by killing many horrible monsters.

Final Thoughts

If you lost your faith on Japanese RPGs, if you never had the patience to play a turn based game of if you never played a Final Fantasy game, this is the time to stop crying.

If you already played other Final Fantasy games (or other Japanese RPGs) you may look to all the changes the game brings and hate it without even try, but if you try, you will see that these changes are actually evolutions that allow to bring fresh experiences and stories. Oh, and, without talking too much, it is very much possible that the last hours of the game will be your favorite.

Honestly I think is really hard not to let yourself get immerse on the story and all the renovation that Final Fantasy XIII proposes. Putting aside criticisms, problems and things that could be bolder, the years pass us by, the platforms change, but Final Fantasy still remain at the vanguard of RPG, of epic stories, of gigantic worlds and finally, but not less important, the vanguard of what a entertainment media can offer. This is one of that games that if you end up stopping to play without finishing it, when you go back and play you will ask yourself why you stopped, and once you finish it, even if you get tired with the last battles, or if you have the sensation that the game could easily be 10 hours shorter, you will miss this world, these fights and these characters.