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March 15, 2013

Final Fantasy 13-2: Good Morning, Kupo! (Part 7)

Before we get started, there’s something I want to talk about -- and thanks to Sirrah Yllib for bringing this to my attention.  It looks like I haven’t brought up anything about the music yet…and a part of me’s tempted to leave that bit of the game out.  I do all right when it comes to music (listening to it rather than playing it), but I’m no expert.  And when it comes to 13-2’s music I don’t have all that much to say.

It’s serviceable.  There are a couple of good songs in there, and a couple of…well, let’s call them weird songs and leave it at that.  The other songs?  Honestly, I don’t feel like they’re worth mentioning.  They’re not terrible, but you won’t see me shuffling off to YouTube to try and figure out what that one song during that one scene might have been -- kind of sad, considering that I’m almost always listening to video game music when I write these posts.  Still, I wouldn’t chalk it up as another failure of the game.  Not yet, at least.  While a good video game practically necessitates a good soundtrack, 13-2’s inoffensive music doesn’t do quite as much harm…unless of course, you’re the sort who puts extreme value on music.  In which case, express disappointment as needed.  I know I have with…you know…everything else.

I will say this about the music, though: if memory serves me right, there are a lot more tracks with vocals than usual.  What surprised me was that, after a cursory glance online, I found out that the singer for a few of the songs was Orgia, AKA the songstress responsible for one of Ghost in the Shell’s opening themes.  And as a matter of fact, Serah’s theme had its lyrics written by none other than Motomu Toriyama, the man largely responsible for the story and direction of The Lightning Saga.  Given what I’ve said about Serah and her relationship with Lightning in the past, the lyrics are…well, fitting.

In any case, the reason I bring up this sudden influx of lyrical songs is that in the context of Final Fantasy (and other games by extension), the franchise has done well enough without them.  There are times when lyrics can add more to a song, of course, but that was never a problem the other games ran into.  There was no need for lyrics during, say, Aerith’s theme, because the music conveyed all the emotional information needed -- and of course, the combination of that music and the events surrounding them provided more than enough torque. 

With lyrics, it just feels like the music is trying to spell out how we’re supposed to feel -- almost as if the composers were afraid that we’d somehow miss the point or the idea at play here.  It’s a move that can work -- plenty of songs would lose their oomph without words -- but it feels borderline unnecessary here because it’s telling us how to feel, and what the context is.  Speaking from my own perspective, I feel like Daisuke Ishiwatari’s songs are often or very near perfect; adding lyrics only harms the effect.  Compare Lust Sin without vocals to the LA Vocal Cover version -- there’s a huge difference.  And by the sound of things, there’s a difference that Squeenix seems to have forgotten.

But I guess in the end, the music element is a lot more subjective than any others.  I’d bet that there are plenty of people who don’t mind, and even enjoy the music.  I can’t say I love or hate it either way; I’m depressingly neutral about it.  So if you’re in the mood, go check out some of the songs for yourself.  You be the judge. 

In the meantime, I’ll start talking about something I don’t feel neutral about.

Part 7: The Customization
(Or: Oh, So it’s a Vastly Inferior Persona!)

I read an article a while back that asked if the RPG as we knew it was dead -- and while there was evidence to support the claim, said article had a different argument in mind.  “The RPG has won”; the idea was that because so many games -- shooters, action games, and beyond -- have adopted the stat-boosting and character-shifting elements of RPGs, you could say that the successes of “the nerdiest genre” have been noted and worked into virtually every other genre.  Shame that they can’t seem to get stories right, but a win is a win.

Whatever the case, there’s no denying that part of what makes RPGs unique -- besides the stories, casts, worlds, and gameplay mechanics -- is the customization element.  Skyrim lets you build whatever sort of characters you want, allowing for specialization or a hodgepodge of the fighter/mage/thief triad, to say nothing of armor, weaponry, and other special equipment (like a nice beard).  While Tales of the Abyss isn’t quite as flexible -- the archer will always be an archer -- you can tweak each character so that their stats and abilities compensate for their weaknesses, or bolster their strengths, as well as pick up a few perks along the way.  So it’s entirely possible to turn the arrow-shooting princess into the definitive tank of the party with a hefty mana pool, all while accidentally making another character useless.  No muss, no fuss.

If my guess is correct, Final Fantasy has been no stranger to letting you customize characters as you see fit.  FF7 players have found ways to utterly destroy the Emerald Weapon with Materia combos that let them infinitely use Limit Breaks, and I know for a fact that if you’re willing to explore (and exploit) the system you can make an unstoppable party in FF8 before you’ve even gotten off the first disk.  Even in FF10 and its love-it-or-hate-it Sphere Grid, it was possible (and easy) to make Wakka a better Auron than Auron and Yuna a better Lulu than Lulu.  If I ever play through the game again, I might try making Rikku a better Auron than Auron.

Like I’ve said before, I would have figured that FF13 would let me customize characters to my heart’s content as well -- to the point where I could make Vanille not only the dedicated Commando, but someone with enough firepower to blow a South Dakota-sized crater into wherever the boss happens to be standing.  It didn’t work out.  13’s Crystarium is, on the surface, an updated version of the Sphere Grid -- you move along a set path and spend gathered experience points to activate nodes that boost stats and unlock abilities.  Moreover, each character has three main roles at the start that they can upgrade, allowing you to pick and choose which roles to upgrade as you see fit.  Vanille, for example, has Medic (healing), Ravager (black magic), and Saboteur (debuffs) for a hefty portion of the game, so moving her along one of the paths in those three subsections increases her proficiency in them as well as boosts her stats; boost a role enough, and it’ll gain additional passive abilities.  Sounds airtight.

Except it’s not as pleasant as one would think.  First off, how much you can level up at any given point depends on your progress through the game.  The idea is probably to prevent the player from having characters any stronger than they should be for a boss fight, increasing difficulty (and ignoring the fact that maybe players want to see how broken they can become).  But the problem is that 13 and 13-2 are far, far, far too easy to require those limitations.  Difficulty doesn’t exist in these games; enemies are just damage sponges with occasional offensive spikes, and getting past them is as simple as keeping your HP up and staggering enemies in wars of attrition.  Pushing the system as far as it’ll go -- and beyond -- is a relative impossibility.

If you want to boost Vanille’s stats, you can only do so in relation to her Crystarium.  That is, you win battles and get experience points, and then fill up the nodes for each role as needed.  It’s a process that takes much longer than needed; you have to hold down the X button (A on the 360 version) to reach the nodes, so a process that should be instant takes a few extra seconds -- and those seconds add up after a while.  Nitpick aside, what’s important is that if you want to buff up Vanille, you can’t.  You can boost her stats, yes, but if you want her to become a Commando all you can do is put on the right equipment (and even then it doesn’t matter; remember, no Commando role = no physical attacks).  There is a way to unlock the Commando role for her, but it’s an incredibly-gimped version of it -- and even then, the amount of time needed to boost it to an even vaguely-respectable level is equal to a relatively brief geological era. 

So in the end, the most you can do is carry Vanille down the roles assigned to you -- much like the actual game, it’s just a matter of running down straight paths and tubes.  You could argue that that’s to be expected, and even preferable; after all, giving each character a specific set of abilities makes for differentiation, and therefore party possibilities (in theory, at least).  But considering what the end result is -- Baby’s First Battle System -- there’s neither ability nor need to explore too deeply.  All you’re really unlocking are stat bonuses, along with the occasional new spell or passive (and I mean passive) ability.  No mixing and matching of combinations.  No smattering of party abilities into a single super-soldier.  No absurd setups like a 100% chance of Sleep with each physical attack, and said physical attacks simultaneously steal items from enemies.  Nothing. 

Hell, just consider the stats on display here.  Whereas other RPGs give you more than a half dozen stats to observe, 13 and 13-2 pare it down to three primary stats: HP, Strength, and Magic.  I’m going to go ahead and assume that boosting Strength also boosts defense, and boosting Magic also boosts Magic Defense (though the lack of confirmation by the game worries me).  What about accuracy?  Nope, that’s gone -- the only time you ever miss an attack is if a monster moves and your attack whiffs, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Luck is pretty much always a factor, because videogames, but the lack of an overt number is still worrisome.  Come to think of it, I don’t even think there’s a solid differentiation between a regular hit and a critical hit.  And now that I think about it, the only real status effect worth mentioning (besides the occasional debuff to a party member) is Poison.  What happened to Blindness?  Meltdown?  Confusion?  Come to think of it, what happened to Limit Breaks and/or Overdrives?  For games all about flash and spectacle, wouldn’t adding in the flashiest moves a character can muster be at the top of the checklist?  Where is the Final Fantasy in this Final Fantasy?

To the games’ credit, it is possible to upgrade your weapons and accessories, which can take the place of your equipment (yeah, there’s no armor in this game; chew on that a little).  But unless there’s some sort of optimal loadout or super-secret combination of items, I’m more than willing to gloss over it.  A large percentage of the accessories are stat-boosters, or give passive abilities that boost resistance to elements.  The same applies to weapons, in that some of them also give you passive abilities.  And I’d imagine that you can make them even better when you start upgrading in shops…but there’s a problem.  You’re not getting to transform your party in new and different ways.  You’re just taking a weapon -- or its numbers, more appropriately -- and improving those numbers.  The thrill of finding out what you can do and having your creativity rewarded is entirely missing.  And on top of that, upgrading your gear isn’t even remotely rewarding or enjoyable, or even time-effective.  You have to gather/buy items -- lots of them -- and put them into your weapon.  It’s hardly entertaining, and while it gets the job done, it’s still just another tedious-ass way to make fights shorter instead of easier, and certainly not more exciting.

You may be wondering why I’m focusing so heavily on vanilla 13 instead of the sequel, but that’s only because I have to retroactively hate on the original.  Remember, conventions from one game carry over to another; there are tweaks, yes, but they’re similar enough to consider the failures of one as the failures of the other.  Some elements were slightly improved; others, however, are just as problematic.

I can tell you right now that upgrading weapons has taken a hit.  I suppose the option is still there, but in some twenty-ish hours of gameplay I have yet to even touch the menu, let alone need it.  So that’s one element right the hell out the window.  On the other hand, even though you have two human party members instead of six, Serah and Noel both have full access to all six roles.  So this time around, I actually got to indulge a bit; Lightning apologist and sycophant Serah ended up specializing in the Commando, Sentinel, and Saboteur roles, while markedly-inconsistent time traveler Noel took on the magical roles as a Ravager, Synergist, and Medic.  And it has the courtesy to offer that a few steps into the game, instead of a dozen hours later.

The Crystarium is also back, but some mechanical and cosmetic upgrades.  You still put points into a role and have your progress marker slide down a tube, but you don’t have to tick away seconds holding down the button to get what you want.  Nor do you have to aim in a direction just to get some teensy little offshoot paths; they’re minor differences, I know, but they do have an effect when you put hours and hours into a game.  While the aesthetics for the Crystarium look duller than the last game’s (and to be honest, I miss the sound effects that chimed for each character’s crystal), it’s not necessarily terrible.  It’s just as limited as the other Crystarium, and there’s an argument to be made that the system should be automatic instead of forcing the player to break the game’s flow and dump points into a separate menu, but at least it works.

But there are issues. One thing that sticks out is just what the upgrading is going towards. My intention was to make Serah into the party’s dedicated tank -- with a little debuffing, because four out of the six roles are magic-based…and debilitating an opponent is always welcome in my strategies.  In any case, after accumulating enough points it’s natural to want to give Serah the upgrades she so deserves…but as I ran through her Crystarium paths, I noticed something odd.  If you boost Serah’s stats on, say, the Commando path, she’ll gain the expected Strength bonuses -- but all too often, she’ll get boosts to her Magic stat.  Why?  Bear in mind that this is the same role that, outside of Ruin, is not only unable to use magic but shouldn’t be using magic because of the way combat works (Ravagers boost the chain gauge with magic, and Commandos keep the gauge from falling with physical attacks).  So what is the point?  This goes back to the problem with Ruin I mentioned before -- why would Serah ever need to use a long-range magical attack whose damage is dependent on her weaker stat when she has a long-range physical attack whose damage is dependent on her stronger stat?   And again, this is in a role that’s almost exclusively-dedicated to physical attacks.  It'd be like giving Haggar a magic wand.

This isn’t just an isolated incident, either.  If you boost Serah’s Sentinel role, she’ll also gain points in a stat she’ll never use; Sentinels do nothing but draw fire and stand in place defending.  And if you boost her Saboteur role, she’ll gain Magic points…but she’ll also gain points in Strength.  What?  Why?  I mean, yeah, it’s not like she’s only specializing in one role, but it still doesn’t make sense.  Why would I want points in Magic if I want a Strength-based character?  Why would I want to dilute the effectiveness of a character, making them a jack-of-all-trades instead of a specialist?  Can you imagine what FF10 would be like if you were upgrading Auron and then suddenly there was a node that would let him learn Ultima?  I’m exaggerating of course, but it’s still a baffling setup…and a setup that’s repeated, given that Noel will gain Strength bonuses in spite of my magic-based Noel never, ever, EVER needing to attack.

I don’t want to be that guy and state the obvious, but I’m thinking that I don’t really have a choice.  If I had to guess, I would assume that Squeenix wanted Serah to be the magic-focused character, and Noel to be the strength-focused character -- probably because Serah is the girl, and Noel is the guy.  It makes perfect sense (if you’re a small-minded, sexist little shit), and there is evidence that not only suggests that you’re supposed to play a certain way, but that playing any other way is detrimental.  If you get far enough into the game, you’ll be able to unlock each character’s unique super move -- Ultima Arrow fr Serah, and Meteor Javelin for Noel.  Sounds cool, right?  Well, the problem with that is that in order to fully access these moves, you have to spot them on the path and pour in the EXP.  And where are they, you ask?  Well, Serah’s is somewhere down the Ravager path, while Noel’s is somewhere down the Commando path.  So in other words, if you’re like me and made Serah the dedicated Commando, you’d better be ready to pour untold thousands of points into her Ravager role…and even then, you have to have her use the Ravager role in battle to actually use it.  Riveting -- because if there’s one thing I love, it’s being told twenty hours into a game that I’ve been playing it wrong.

The biggest change to 13-2 and the combat system at large is the addition of monsters -- if you beat an enemy on the battlefield, there’s a chance you may be able to harvest its essence and be able to summon it as a stand-in third party member.  Essentially, this means that you can have a party of dozens instead of a party of six; while the tradeoff is that each monster can only have ONE role, you can assemble a group of three monsters so that one can play the role of Ravager, one can be a Medic, and one can be a Commando.  It doesn’t really change much in the way of combat (outside of a Limit Break function, the execution of which I assume is unique to every monster), but ideally it adds a level of depth and customization to the game.

Key word: ideally.

This isn’t the first time I’ve played a JRPG sequel that slipped in a monster-collecting aspect to a two-member party; that honor would have to go to Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World.  It didn’t work there, and it doesn’t really work here.  At least for Tales, there was the inevitability of regaining the previous cast members as party members, and once that was done there was hardly a need to bother with the unusually-obtuse monster capturing system.  In 13-2, you get to have Snow as a guest party member, and…that’s it.  You’re stuck with a monster that will never, ever appear in a cutscene, contribute to a conversation, advance the plot, or go through character development.  But on the plus side, you can put a silly hat on them.

Narrative issues aside, the monster system brings with it a brand new host of problems.  Example: like I said, each monster can only act out one role, so if you want a Saboteur in your monster slot instead of a Ravager, you’ve got to find one and sub him in (and in-battle, changing from one monster to the next is done via Paradigm Shift).  So the assumption is that getting a good Saboteur monster is as easy as finding one on the field and getting a five-star rank in a battle.  And maybe that’s possible…if you’re lucky.  But I swear to God, every time I get a new monster it’s either a Commando or Ravager -- especially if it’s a Commando.  If I loaded up the game right now, I would be able to point out a list full of untouched, under-leveled Commandoes that’ll never see the light of battle.  Like I said before, my dominant strategy revolves around Relentless Assault -- one Commando, two Ravagers.  I have absolutely no use for any more than one Commando, let alone a cool dozen…and this is AFTER I started cannibalizing them at random, mind you.

 Next problem.  Monsters -- each monster -- have their own Crystarium.  But leveling them up works differently than leveling up Serah and Noel; instead of spending EXP to boost stats, you spend items.  That wouldn’t be such a bad thing if you weren’t forced to eventually spend huge amounts of items -- and money soon after -- just for one little status boost.  Worse yet, you’re giving a huge number of those items to one monster, and many monsters share the items required for consumption.  What this means is that eventually, one monster will become absurdly powerful, while the others are lucky to even get anything -- and that’s assuming you buy/find the items a monster’s hungry for.  My current party has a Ravager from the early-ish hours of the game that’s immensely powerful, but I’ve only found three Medic-type monsters -- one of which is from the beginning of the game but woefully-underpowered in spite of my best (though admittedly lazy) efforts, one of which there’s no point in leveling and similarly difficult to power up, a third with the same problem…and all three of them are completely useless given that  I started making Noel into the dedicated Medic as soon as I was able.  

A system that should be all about customization and pushing the game’s boundaries -- exploring the wild frontier available to you -- is, in my eyes, just an illusion in this game.  You’ll forgive me if I’m not getting the most out of the system, or if there’s some element of the metagame I’ve missed, but in my eyes the monster customization is wholly unsatisfying.  What should have been an engaging and intriguing gameplay element has just been an exercise in annoyance and carrying on with the status quo; I’ve been using the same monster for hours and hours without even needing to Paradigm Shift to a different monster, because what I have works too well to even warrant experimentation.  The only reason I have to even bother boosting other monsters is so that my main one can cannibalize them and absorb some of their abilities.  My question is, why? 

What immediately comes to mind are games like Persona 4 and Devil Survivor.  In the former’s case, you start out with a badass-looking Persona, Izanagi -- but by the time you’re done with the first dungeon, he probably won’t be able to keep up with even basic enemies.  But that’s okay; part of the fun in playing with the fusion system is that you can create some powerful new Personas, creatures that are at once familiar and new enough to require brand new strategies.  More importantly, it’s a way to show your progression; in the case of Devil Survivor 2, you may start out with a wimpy little Poltergeist, but by game’s end it’s not only possible, but required to be flanked by Titania, queen of the fairies and Anat, the Syrian goddess of birth and death.  You’re exploring the system, but you’re also evolving, both in terms of the narrative and the gameplay -- a perfect synthesis.

The fact that I can get so far in 13-2 with only rudimentary concern for my creatures only highlights how much the game gets it wrong.  It’s stagnation of the highest caliber.  There’s no reason to try and break the system, because the bounds of the system are more than good enough.  There’s no drive to see what lies beyond the bend, because what’s beyond the bend are just more worthless monsters.  There’s no sense of progression, no player-bred reward for satisfaction besides fights that don’t last quite as long; whereas Persona 4 will let (and demand) that you have Kohryu, the golden dragon of the center and commander of the four Chinese celestial gods, 13-2 will let you squeeze on by with a winged R2D2 wearing a puffy hat.

By the way, the Limit Breaks that I mentioned earlier?  Yeah.  In this game, they’re called Feral Links, and each monster type (I hope) has a unique one.  Once their meter is full during a battle, you can press the Square button to enter a special mode; press a quick button sequence as prompted, and you’re rewarded with bonus damage (or just damage period) via a monster’s special attack.  My little Ravager’s Feral Link is Multicast, letting it throw a volley of magic balls at enemies.  Sounds cool, right?

Guess what the prompt to execute it is?  Yep -- all I have to do is press the X button once, and the attack will go through.  Yep -- the same button used to mindlessly mash auto-battle is the same button that commands a super move where I just sit and watch fireballs get launched.

I hate this game. 

But you know what?  As much as I’ve complained about the customization so far, it’s undoubtedly the best part of the game.  Sure, that’s by process of elimination (it’s not the story, or the gameplay at large), but something’s better than nothing.  At least with the Crystarium you can see real progress being made.  At least you know your time is going toward something.  At least you get to exercise a bit of control and freedom.  At least it works.  It’s just fused to a total train wreck of a title. 

But don’t worry, guys.  I’m almost done with this thing.  Just a few more posts, and it’s all over.  

I just hope my brain can take it.

Back to Part 6.
Part 8 -- 1, 2, 3 o' clock, 4 o' clock rock...


  1. Hmm, I've got a few thoughts about the customization.

    The main reason why I'm such a huge Pokemon fan - the big draw for me - is the absurd amount of customization the game allows you to pull off. I can make any kind of team with just about any Pokemon I want. That's because I can control every single aspect of their growth and development. Want to dump all the effort into Attack and make the guy a total assassin instead of making him a well-rounded Pokemon? Go right ahead. Want to train up a Charizard that specializes in Ground-type attacks (even though he's a Flying type) and is a brick wall for defenses? Nothing's stopping you. Hell, one time I trained up a Mawile (a Steel-type) to only have stat-boosting moves and then Baton Pass to another one waiting, passing all those stat boosts to the new guy. The sky's not even close to the limit. And you know what? If you want a sliver of a chance of winning in online competitions, it's REQUIRED to think outside the box like this and make completely broken Pokemon that make the game's rules cry uncle.

    Getting back to Final Fantasy:

    While it doesn't have quite the same level of customization Pokemon has (and I'm guessing Persona and Devil Summoner as well - sorry, I haven't gotten a chance to play them yet!), I still like the customization the older games have. Like in FF6, I made Terra completely over-powered by teaching her Ultima, taught her Quick from Raiden, and had her hold the Soul of Thamasa; basically, I could summon Ultima 4 times in a row, and the enemy couldn't do a damn thing about it. I've even heard you can get them to attack 16 times in a row without the enemy attacking - holy cow! And, from what I've heard, you can make completely broken characters in FF7 by manipulating the Materia system.

    Basically, I love games that allow me to play around with the underlying mechanics and stretch them to absurd lengths. Given all that, what about anything from the recent FF games' mechanics seem interesting to me? I've watched people play FF10, and to me it just seemed like a bunch of faffing about. Spoony brings up a good point in his reviews: why have the Sphere Grid, License Board, Chrysanthemum, etc., if you're not actually gonna do anything with it? If, in the end, your characters are gonna grow pretty much the same way as they would if the level-up system was automatic, then why not just make it automatic and streamline the process? They're just wasting our time for no good reason!

  2. Ah, but that's the key point -- it IS a way to waste time. It may not seem like much to pick away at Crystarium/Sphere Grid nodes when you get the chance, but the time really adds up. It's a way to ensure that the game ends up reaching the forty- or sixty-hour length you'd expect from a JRPG, even if it has to be done by any means necessary. (Tales of the Abyss is a good example; huge chunks of that game could have been cut, and the only thing that would have been lost is a few hours of playtime on an already-hefty game.)

    It seems like the more I think about FF13, the more I come to understand and realize that it was a rush job, a hodgepodge of art assets attached to a barely-there game (and IIRC, tere are confessions by the developers to that fact). But with 13-2, they did this to themselves. Between the botched FF14 and mixed -- and sometimes outright negative -- reception to 13, their plan to apologize for a rush job was to put out ANOTHER rush job. How does that even work?

    ...On a more positive note, hearing anyone mention Pokemon always puts a smile on my face.