And the Winner Is…

Japanese Role Playing Games have been a cornerstone of the realm of video games for years. When we’re tired of shooting, platforming or sports games, there’s nothing like an adventure that features memorable characters, a well written narrative that appeals to the fantasy fan in all of us. Most gamers have been fans of RPGs in general due to the many entries of the Final Fantasy series, as it’s consistently been one of the biggest gaming franchises of each console generation. Although one would think the winning formula that Final Fantasy always has to offer would be just that, a lot of unrest has been circulating over the past few years. The majority of JRPGs follow a number of the same troupes; which include effeminate male characters, cliché storylines to name a few, along with other points that often cross with anime, manga or Japanese culture in general. Many people have begun to call out why this has been happening, and have even shined the spotlight on Final Fantasy.

2010 was a year of turbulence in the Role Playing Game realm, because many household names suddenly found themselves having to fight to stay relevant and viable. Of the games that I reviewed this year, I feel that Final Fantasy XIII was the one who took up this challenge and responded to the growing concerns that ridiculed its waning popularity.

There are several vexing features that are unique to Final Fantasy XIII, which largely served to disgruntle many players who were used to many traditional concepts in the long running series. These changes, while unexpected, were the essence of moving the series forward in its own way.

Here’s what some of you elitists missed out on

Let’s talk about the biggest complaint people seem to have with Final Fantasy XIII: “It takes twenty hours for the game to get fun.” “Half of the game is an interactive tutorial.” “It’s too linear.” Every time I hear these comments, I can’t help but cringe. Yes, the game doesn’t “open up” until the group is fully assembled, and that doesn’t occur until the end of Chapter 9. (There are a total of 13 Chapters, of varying lengths.) In light of that, it would be pretty ridiculous to think that the player is being “held against their will” and forced to not get any enjoyment from the game for such a long time. While the player is “restricted” in that sense for this portion of the game, let’s look at why this seems to be complained about.

First, character growth is capped for each chapter, to discourage power leveling. Fortunately for those who didn’t notice, this maintains the challenge for the player. Secondly, each chapter introduces a new concept during combat for the player to grasp and master. This game features a new rendition of the Active Time Battle system that many of us are used to, and without learning the nuances of it, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. For example, during a boss fight in Chapter 3, players are faced with learning the importance of effective Paradigm Shifting. Near the end of the battle, the boss unleashes a desperation attack that will put each party member in critical health, and it soon follows up with another attack that kills everyone off. The player can only get through this boss fight once they understand that they have to shift to a Paradigm that focuses on healing to survive the rest of the encounter. If they are successful, the party switches to “healing mode,” and weathers the oncoming attacks with ease. Soon after the party is healthy again, they can finish off their adversary with little trouble. A quick decision like that was mandatory for this boss fight, and must be second nature for the player in order to make it through the more difficult fights later in the game. Each chapter during this linear section of the game has lessons that the player needs to understand fully in order to survive, because when the game finally affords more freedom to the party, any encounter can result in a game over if the player wasn’t prudent enough to understand the mechanics of the game while the training wheels were still on.

“So we’re all here to save the world; not just me, right?”

As I mentioned before, the party is split up for the first nine chapters of the game. One of the key reasons behind this is that the player is treated to one-on-one character interactions that really help to delve into each characters personality with as little interference from the rest of the cast. Ironically, most of this development occurs during the early part of the game that many players glossed over. Here’s a clip demonstrating the growing camaraderie between Lightning and Hope during some of the cut scenes throughout Chapter 5.

Video Credit: TheShatteredElement, Square Enix and Final Fantasy XIII.

Bonding like this isn’t possible in a group setting; and this is especially true in real life as well. Since the team was divided, it allowed more energy to be put into each character at each turn of the plot. In turn, players could better understand their personalities and make connections to them. For once, each party member had a direct stake in the mission at hand, and there wasn’t a character that was “just along for the ride,” or lacked any pertinent dialogue. When the team finally was formed, this cohesion continued to the end.

Multiple discs still work

Although we always thought the concept of console loyalty would still be upheld by Final Fantasy (despite it’s past on Nintendo’s systems), this too unraveled. Although this game was originally planned to only be on Playstation 3, an Xbox 360 port was also announced. Whenever a game has a port coming along for another system, development often has to be scaled back so the finished product can run nearly identically for each console it’s released on. The differences in graphics were notably small, but definitely blown out of proportion by elitists. A funny complaint involved the minor difference that the Xbox 360 version had multiple discs, while the Blu-Ray only needed one. The bottom line here is that the entire Xbox player base that may have never experienced a Final Fantasy game before now had its chance. This is just another idea of the changing landscape in the video game industry – There’s not much reason not to limit your audience, especially if the game in question is Final Fantasy. Playstation fans shouldn’t be whining, as they’re receiving the same olive branch with the soon to be released Playstation 3 port of Mass Effect 2.

It’s pointless to compare Final Fantasy XIII with the other big titles in the series, like Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy X. Each of those games had their own changes and additions that helped make them notable games that fans could easily identify with. Although their changes were much more subtle, they weren’t met with as much resistance as Final Fantasy XIII is facing. No two entries are the same, because there’s always a new story to be told, and new ideas and ways to help move the game forward.

Moving forward, like it or not

If you examine anything well known- be it a famous band, television or video game series, there will always be people who have problems when the franchise is taken in a new direction. Whether it’s because a long standing tradition has been broken, or new ideas have taken prominence over the old, it’s impossible to disagree with the fact that change is going on. It’s painfully clear that nothing is really safe in video games. In this landscape, a game that wasn’t afraid to leap into the unknown and to try something new, like Final Fantasy XIII has this year, is without a doubt deserving my choice for Game of the Year 2010.


Updates, and a Rant

Hey readers! With summer and my new job in full swing, my days are booked solid more than I had expected. These slow, hot days are definitely tolerable with my job and my summer classes, but my game time has been severely impacted. I haven’t purchased any new games since Super Street Fighter IV, and for me, it’s only fun to play with friends. To make matters worse, the 50 inch TV that my Xbox 360 and Wii are connected to is out of commission for a few weeks, so I’m limited to my PS3 and PSP. Since it’s difficult to secure some uninterrupted time with the TV when my mother and father always contest over it, I’ve kept things a lot simpler by carrying along my PSP to play for short amounts of time in-between activities and such.

Recently, I went on with finally getting acquainted with the Star Ocean series. I’m about 25 hours into Second Evolution (the PSP remake of The Second Story for you old timers out there) and I have to say, a JRPG like this is an acquired taste. The proper frame of mind required to enjoy a Star Ocean title requires  some understanding of who made it. Anyone who knows Tri-Ace (the team behind Valkyrie Profile, Resonance of Fate, Infinite Undiscovery, to name a few) is aware that their games don’t have the greatest “mass-appeal” like many other recent RPG’s that have been receiving numerous accolades. In short, they’re quirky. They’re off the beaten path and unabashedly make it obvious that the player isn’t going to get the average run of the mill JRPG experience. I’ve completely missed out on each Star Ocean that came to America , which is pretty surprising given that I consider myself an RPG aficionado. I’ve played through the Valkyrie Profile series and loved every minute of it, so I had some idea of what I would be getting into. In a world of Final Fantasy, Mass Effect and Persona, games like Star Ocean go underappreciated; Lots of people like to trash the fact that Star Ocean lacks a compelling story, and to some extent, they are correct. It IS a JRPG. Many aspects of the storylines and characters are borrowed from other JRPG’s, Anime and Manga. There aren’t going to have mind blowing plot twists, or characters with depth on the level of a Western RPG. Although largely unoriginal, I believe Star Ocean can be put into the “comfort food” category just like how the Dragon Quest series is. Fans know what they’re in for with a Tri-Ace title, while many other gamers just gawk about what it doesn’t have or what it’s not doing right, how it fails to stack up against the competition.

It confuses me, really. RPG’s nowadays get stumped for having an incomprehensible story due to “long winded, pompous cutscenes.” Final Fantasy XIII’s storyline isn’t as bad as a lot of people are putting it down to be, seriously. I for one enjoyed what FF XIII had to offer. On the other hand, something like Star Ocean 4 gets panned for regurgitating the same story elements over and over again, when the obvious focus is the battle system. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think all the unrest in the RPG community lies more in the fact that a lot of us just don’t know what exactly we want, rather than our games having bad narratives.

The high point of Star Ocean is the battle system. It’s fast paced and intense, yet still easy for a newcomer to pick up on. My only gripe thus far is that most enemies can be taken out by just mashing the attack button, with a few special attacks thrown in to make it flashy. At a glance, it may not be super complex, battles are still very satisfying. I used to watch Youtube videos of SO3’s end-game boss fights a few years back and just could never understand how enemies could take so much damage and keep fighting on. It seemed as if they had millions and millions of Hit Points. With every party member and boss unleashing their most powerful moves dealing damage in the tens of thousands back and forth to each other, I just sat in awe.  I couldn’t comprehend how exactly how it worked, and never did for years to come until I actually played it. Emerging victorious from a particularly tough boss fight is rewarding in its own right, and since Second Evolution is on a handheld, having exciting gameplay in the palm of my hand is definitely a bonus.

I like the change of pace that Star Ocean offers, and since I’ve been playing it often like I played Dissidia Final Fantasy before it, I’m well invested in this franchise and I haven’t even finished it yet, and will hopefully pick up the newer game on PS3 sometime soon.

Although I’ve found some solace in playing Star Ocean, My white board full of story ideas to write about has been getting bigger, with at least a one new idea popping up in my head randomly each day. However, when it comes to sitting down to putting my fingers to the keyboard, I always seem to stop abruptly. I get distracted, suddenly move to do something else, and never come back to home base, so to speak. I’ve been dealing with a really bad case of writers block and I’m having some trouble busting it. I know work has taken up a lot of the time I would usually put towards writing and all, but how much of this is really just fatigue? If this is just the summer state of mind, I could live with that, since I know what the problem is. Even so, not blogging as much as I used to feels like there’s a void that isn’t going to be filling with more gaming. Writing comes first, and as of late, it’s not even taking a back seat. It got left on the curb. How do you guys deal with Writers Block? Do you have any suggestions? Let me know!