Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2(‘s Battle System)

Okay, nerd confession time. A gaming blog is as good a place as any to let people gaze into the dark nerdiness in the pit of my heart, I suppose. I harbour a secret obsessive fascination with RPG combat systems. There, I’ve said it. I love analysing them, picking them apart and seeing how they work, mentally critiquing them and enjoying the statistical beauty of those that flow as they should. Sorry.

On the downside, I’m never having sex again, but on the plus side, I can write a review of Final Fantasy XIII-2’s battle system. No point reviewing all that pesky out-of-battle stuff, or discussing the game as a whole: it’s the significantly better sequel to a Final Fantasy game of debatable quality – balance those two components out how you will. Pretty sure you know all you need to if you’re still reading this after the first paragraph’s bombshell. If not, read the back of the box, watch a gameplay video or two, spend a few moments imagining what this game is like, and you will have nullified the need to read a review of the game.

Bon. Now, onto the good stuff.

 

The Context

As we know, the early Final Fantasy games were strictly turn-based affairs, and not a little grindy. The first two games were more grind than anything else and, if we’re honest, there’s very little to love about them beyond the idea that they may have been the nucleus of something more special. They weren’t even that, however: it was FFIII that truly started what the latter games would finish.

Each game in the series reinvented its battle system anew, sometimes building on a concept from a previous game that worked, but always utilising a different approach to the same idea.

At one point the turn-based JRPG was king, but those days didn’t last forever. Final Fantasy X’s battle system was the last to stick to the core fundamentals of the series’ traditional turn-based roots. There’s no point looking back on FFXI as it was an MMO and therefore a disgrace. I will not play it, nor mention it again, and I’m unhappy about acknowledging it. Look, I didn’t even italicise it.

Since FFXII thankfully returned to the single-player JRPG model, Square Enix has been attempting to automate, speed up and ‘actionize’ the process of stabbing monsters in the face. (Actionize is such a horrible word that I went with the American spelling of it. I don’t want it muddying up the Queen’s English with its nasty implications.)

Normally, as a staunch traditionalist and certified fearer of change, this steady shift away from the old norm would upset and disgruntle me but actually Square Enix are, for all their myriad flaws as a developer, pretty damn good battle system creators; it wounds me most to hear people criticise or dismiss their efforts to modernise the combat – I think it’s expertly implemented.

The secret to the success of the modern games’ combat is that underneath it all, it’s the exact same system as it always was. Of course it changes each game, and grows and adapts over time, but the essentials are always there. This does cause problems too. The concept of the system, as in most JRPGs, is gradual attrition. This means spending multiple turns attacking, and multiple turns healing. It’s not just a stylistic choice to take this route, it’s a big part of why JRPGs feel the way they do: it means that there’s a more noticeable sense of flow to the battle, and that big moves feel BIG because they contrast against the more numerous small moves, and a sudden shift of power or direction can require very carefully chosen actions to return you to the status quo, often using spells you never normally use. The trickier manoeuvres offer a sense of exploring your own toybox.

The problem with the ‘gradual attrition’ model of old was that you had to actively select ‘Attack’ multiple times from the menu, a notorious source of boredom. The problem with implementing it into an ‘action’ version of Final Fantasy now is that it would be dull to hit the A/X (delete as appropriate) button over and over again, yet adding different buttons or moves to liven it up would take it too far away from its JRPG turn-based roots.

The solution was to automate it, and speed it the hell up. This was FFXII’s baby first, and it did a damn fine job of it too. Although it’s strange to think it, FFXII’s battle system was closer in function to Black Isle CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment than it is the MMOs it’s more frequently compared to. Not in quality of course, just intention – I wouldn’t dare suggest such insanity. And although it initially seemed a big leap from FFX’s refined turn-based system, it quickly proved itself to be the exact same thing but much quicker and less repetitive.

In FFXII, players would only control one character at a time, with the turns lasting only a couple of seconds. They select their next move before the turn is over, or pause the game and select it from the commands list in the traditional manner. The other two AI characters would base their actions on ‘Gambits’ – fairly primitive but manipulatable AI scripts defined by the player. Each turn, the move which the AI was planning to execute next turn was displayed on screen. If you didn’t like it, you paused the game and told them to do something else.

So the repetitiveness of entering ‘Attack’ each time was gone. The game didn’t ‘play itself’ as some appalling people claimed; the gambits were set up by the player, the periods where the player didn’t need to change the AI’s plans were over quickly and normally spent surveying the enemies, and as soon as anything non-standard happened in the fight, the player would jump in and control everything just as they did in FFIFFX.

It was an excellent battle mechanic. Also, just for the record, anyone who says it was rubbish compared to the pre-FFX systems is either mental, or believes the old system was also rubbish except the two things they liked about it: the constant endless repetition and how slow it was.

Skip ahead to FFXIII and Square Enix were again determined to speed things up by automating them even more, so now direct instructions couldn’t be given to the AI, with the player only influencing the main character. Now, this is a problem. However, it’s a persistently over-stated problem.

The common complaint is that strategy is now managed entirely by the AI and you can no longer bring your own brilliant ideas into the equation. Well, yes and no. Occasionally it’s annoying that you can’t determine exact moves – OCCASIONALLY (oc·ca·sion·al·ly. Adv: not often; now and then), but for the most part the larger strategy is one of the job roles, the paradigm shifts, and relying on your main character to handle the meaty end of the more complex or difficult attacks.

I often have cause to wonder exactly which strategy people thought they were using in the previous games; one complaint I read about in forums is that a lot of people are angry that choosing which elemental magic to attack with is handled by the AI (which always makes the correct decision) and subsequently is not tactically relevant any more. This is an absurd complaint.

You have an enemy in front of you, and the info panel says ‘Weakness: Fire’, and you think that selecting ‘Fire’ from the list ‘Fire’, ‘Aqua’, ‘Blizzard’, ‘Thunder’ is strategy? If this is you I’m talking to, I suggest you consider putting away your games console, and instead you can get a new hobby: working in a data entry job. Firstly it’s a great game with plenty of really deep strategy, secondly you get paid for it. You can spend the cash on a bib for yourself, or possibly a trip to the zoo for you and the friends you live with.

FFXIII should have implemented a way to have some measure of control over the AI, I concede this. It’s overall a functionally weak combat system as a result of this oversight. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t almost great, and plenty of fun once it finishes taking off (which is too late in the game for the majority of players). Simple things were omitted, such as being able to disable certain moves or spells from the AI characters – a feature still missing from FFXIII-2 sadly; one of it’s weaker moments.

At the time, I tried a few times to persuade people that the battle system of FFXIII was a genuine example of actual streamlining in games, as opposed to “streamling” (stream·lin·ing. Verb: dumbing down games by making them easier and more boring, in pursuit of non-existent financial gain). It just made the process smoother and more modern, and it had the confidence to trim the actual fat whilst keeping the real meat. Whilst half the spell library was gone, the ones that remained all actually worked and had purpose, something which no previous FF game could claim, so you would scarcely notice the loss. After all, you now had 30 spells with a purpose, instead of 200 spells of which 15 had a purpose, so overall you’re using more of them more often.

Unfortunately, my protests fell on deaf ears. FFXIII was a hated pariah, a victim of the internet gaming hive-mind and the game-buying public’s general malaise with waiting for Square Enix to finally wake up again. The people had spoken, and what they said was: “This is shit.”

So along comes FFXIII-2 to fix that problem, but not to bow down to public opinion and entirely change it. Instead, Square Enix set out to improve the system, and to prove to fans that in theory at very least, they were right the first time.

The Point, Finally

So anyway, about Final Fantasy XIII-2, which is what this review is about apparently.

At first it looks very similar to its predecessor, but after extended playtime with it (and there has been that, mos’ def) it’s clear that several tweaks and some considerable overhauls of key areas have taken a combat system which a renowned and respected blogger recently described as ‘almost great’ into something the same blogger has been known to describe as ‘really fucking awesome, honestly. No, really, don’t look at me like that.’

As in the previous game you have a fighting party of three. However, now you have the two main characters, Serah and Noel (who are both pricks), and the third party member is a sort of ever-shifting gestalt entity which you have constructed out of monsters you’ve captured in battle. You will capture thousands of monsters as you fight through the game but are only ever likely to need six at a time, so the ones you don’t want will either be eaten by the ones you do want or thrown away if they aren’t tasty. Otherwise, you might keep one you aren’t currently using to train it up to be better than the one you are using, or to fatten it into a tastier snack.

This is a fairly intuitive but slyly complex process which is all about balancing each monster’s abilities, trying to keep sets of abilities grouped together so they take up less of each monster’s limited space, whilst the opposing rule of trying to keep monster skill chains grouped by role type pulls you in the other direction. It’s always a sad moment when a new monster has to eat the old monster you’ve been playing with for days and weeks, whose Feral Link inputs you’d learned off by heart, who you’d given a name and made wear a hat (R.I.P Gilgamex, you will never be forgotten. You did look great in that hat).

Each monster has a specific role, so you pick three monsters that possess the three skillsets you need and turn them into an army of three that jump in and out of the fight when called upon, making your third member of the party essentially anything you want it to be. In addition to ruling over their ability sets with an iron first you micro-manage their primary stats – buying or salvaging different level-up items to ensure they grow the way you want them to in terms of HP, Magic, Strength, Vitality etc.

This is a huge improvement over the restrictions of FFXIII. In that game I realised fairly late that it would be good to get a decent Synergist, but there was no way of organising that without crippling the party I’d built. In the newer game you have the freedom to mix and match until you’re happy with the monster army and their roles within the party. You can save and load up three different paradigm decks to take into battle, so a maximum of nine monsters are available to you at any given time, and within those decks you can assemble any number of different setups to prepare for different enemy types.

Also, players can now control either Serah or Noel whenever they want from within the battle menu; it’s only the Monsters who involve no input at all. This is crucial; it’s the primary problem with the previous game’s battles brilliantly solved with a simple change. Last time around you could only control Lightning – or you could choose a different party leader but please, people, have some respect for the main character. This meant that you wanted her to excel at every possible role (which is impossible, unless you are unemployed and have no boredom threshold), and you needed about ten paradigms (actually impossible) comprised of five different party members (again, impossible) just to avoid the frustration of having control taken away from you.

Now you have three monsters to choose from and two player-controlled characters to choose from on the fly in-battle. That big ol’ drag that was so uncomfortable to live with in FFXIII is gone. Ding dong, the witch is dead. It shocks me that I’ve read about five reviews of this game and no-one even mentioned that. It’s the most important bit! That’s like reviewing Titanic and not discussing Kate Winslet’s tits: simply poor journalism and there’s no excuse for it.

One of the problems with traditional Final Fantasy combat which FFXII solved was fights against low level enemies. As they were spawned in the main map and characters would auto attack them, you could effectively walk past them to kill them. It was convenient, it was basic, but then the ‘old way’ of actually going through the motions of inputting all the commands to fight low-levels is just gone. Those days are over, man. Unfortunately FFXIII put that problem back in by reverting to the separate battle screen. As a compromise, even the grunts of FFXIII require some form of paradigm shifting based on how the fight’s going, but it’s all fairly mundane if mildly engaging stuff.

FFXIII-2 ups its defences against this problem even further, firstly by making the general enemies a bit harder, but also giving the player choice as to which fights they take on, littering high level enemies as well as medium or low level opponents into the range of options the player is given. Most of the time opting out of battle is as easy as not stopping doing what you’re already doing. Sometimes you may still be taken by surprise by an enemy you didn’t want to fight, but it’s all in the game. In those cases, FFXIII-2 has one last nicely subtle trick up its sleeve – everyone in your party starts every battle with temporary Haste, as long as you can pull off a pre-emptive strike. It’s a nice stunt which means fights in which you’re overpowered are over super-quick, and at the other end of the spectrum it’s a nicely balanced boon against the enemies who will give you trouble. Plus it ensures that every fight kicks off with a bang instead of a whimper as you rush to get your moves in before that delicious Haste runs out.

One obvious ingredient missing from the mix is summons, which are absent from this game. I’m pretty happy about that as they’ve been a burden for a while – too overpowered since FFXII, too long since FFVII, in a mess the last few games. FFXIII-2 has a system it calls ‘Feral Link’, which is a hybrid between a Limit Break-style special move and a summon. It allows whichever monster you currently have working for you to perform a special move based on your button inputs, once their meter has filled up enough. The attack itself isn’t phenomenal, it’s just pretty damn decent considering, but is rarely a game-changer. To pull them off you need to input buttons in the right sequence, but they’re not quite QTEs because each monster is always the same, so it’s more similar to learning the inputs in a fighting game – it’s not about reacting quickly to the prompts, because you know exactly what the buttons are before it starts. It’s about getting practiced at doing it quickly and doing it right.

Another thing missing here is the acknowledgement of range, and that’s one of the few ways in which FFXIII is sharper than its sequel. Both Serah and Noel have equal access to a ranged and melee weapon, and will pick one at random, unless it’s necessary to use a ranged. This means you now can’t affect where they are standing in the battle field, so area-effect attacks are harder to dodge. There’s also no longer a short-range/long-range advantage to your weapon or spell choices – everything can do either.

Since spells no longer require MP, and Health is renewed at the end of each fight, items took a backseat in FFXIII. This has been addressed in FFXIII-2 with the addition of ‘Wound Damage’, damage which reduces your Max-HP instead of your current HP. Take too much wound damage, and your healers can no longer help you out unless the party leader uses a wound potion. These are reasonably expensive to buy, as are the now-wallet-raping Pheonix Downs for reviving deceased party members. No longer a random number you can look at if you want to know what a very very large number looks like, money is now valuable to you and regularly depleted as you use to it purchase genuinely useful items for high prices, such as monster-levelling items, wound potions, phoenix downs and modified equipment or weapons.

This idea of taking a standard gameplay device to a second level (wounds are essentially just damage but levelled up) is also used in the levelling system. Yes, that’s right, they levelled up their levelling up system by adding levels onto the levels. Where do they think of this stuff? Oh yeah, spending many decades making games about levelling up, that’ll do it.

Now the process of upgrading your characters is a bit more complex, to the extent that you can do it well for optimised characters, or do it badly to get sloppy characters. But more interestingly every time you have levelled up enough to fill an on-screen node map with upgrades you’ll be provided with a fresh new map to start working on, and this change is accompanied with a ‘Crystarium Expansion Bonus’ or Perks to you and me.

Yes, perks. Real perks, like Fallout 1 or 2 perks, not pathetic Fallout 3 perks. There’s no ‘Gain yet another 50 points in X stat that you could just grow normally anyway’ here, it’s about improving the character’s equipment weight allowance to expose them to all-new strategies and setups, boosting their role bonuses, unlocking new roles, or new abilities – all of which are unique to crystarium expansions, all of which are hugely functionally useful, and thankfully Square Enix had the restraint to make you wait for 7 or 8 hours before giving you the next one.

Please take note Bethesda. Although you didn’t take any notes from Fallout or Fallout 2 when you made Fallout 3, so I’m not sure why I would entertain the idea that you would finally notice something when Final Fantasy does it.

What all of this leads to – the intricately designed monsters, the optimised character builds, the carefully designed and evolved paradigm decks – it all leads to you, the player, taking ownership of something you have actually worked on and built and loved yourself. Which is why the last thing you need is someone fucking it up. I don’t want to go on about it, but seriously, we hadn’t saved in about three hours.

 

Apology

If you’ve just read all of this review I really do owe you an apology. It turns out I wasted your time. I mean, obviously, but even beyond the basic surface level of it all. After I’d written most of the content for this piece I found out that Tri-Ace ‘helped’ Square Enix make the battle system, so instead of three and a half thousand words I could have used three and a half words and just said: “It’s a Tri-Ace game.”

It certainly bears many of their hallmarks: an understanding and slick implementation of the action element that doesn’t neuter the tactical and cerebral element, complex strategic battles, and enough depth to keep you fighting indefinitely, changing and developing your playstyle as you go. And you never feel like you can win a new tough fight by using your standard strategy. There is no standard strategy; it’s better than that. If you fight the same enemy set over and over again then you might develop a standard strategy for that particular set, but there are so many fights to choose from that if you do that, it’s entirely your call.

This is my point, finally and actually, the ultimate point as to why I bothered writing all this: no Final Fantasy has ever had a truly deep and genuinely beautifully-designed combat system – it has never really been a game in that sense before. It’s been a wonderful and engrossing experience before, but it has never had a battle system which you would love purely on its own terms, outside of its other packaging, where the ‘grind’ is about experiencing the fun of the combat again rather than the satisfaction of its rewards. In fact few JRPGs ever have, and most that do were made by Tri-Ace.

And the icing on the cake is that everything outside of the battles is so much fun too. Sorry, I said I’d only review the battle system, but fuck it, we’ve come this far. Everything else is great too. Ridiculous in that Japanese way and frequently dull or embarrassing, but great anyway.

So the big question is, how does it really stack up with the other entries in the series? Recently, when a friend asked me whether this game was any good, I said “It’s brilliant, it’s up there with-“, at which point he cut me off with a very stern and pointed warning: “Careful…” I decided to just shut up there. Seems like a pretty good idea, so much so I might just do it again.

I wish I was going to have sex again.