I just started playing the demo for Final Fantasy XIII-2, and boy was I disappointed. Now let’s get this straight, my expectations were not very high. Although I enjoyed it, Final Fantasy XIII was a deeply flawed game, and a direct sequel can be expected to be worse rather than better than its predecessor. Add to that the fact that one of the most prominant features I saw advertised before the game’s release was the addition of quicktime events to an already passive battle system, and there wasn’t a whole lot to look forward to.
Nonetheless, the demo disappoints. It drops you in the middle of the story with two characters I had no reason to sympathise with – Serah exists in FFXIII, but she’s not exactly central except as a mission objective. Upbeat music heralds the arrival of a boss monster (presumably fal’cie?) in the form of – ooh, a giant hand boss. We’ve never seen that before! Battles are a flurry of auto-attacking occasionally interrupted with an instruction to hit a specific button, the quicktime event. I dislike these most of the time anyway, but when the special moves executed in response aren’t very interesting and the timing doesn’t require much attention, they really fall flat. I missed one cue and the result was that instead of firing a large weapon at the monster, some soldiers (who I didn’t even realise I was cueing; wasn’t I controlling those others a second ago?) …fired a different large weapon at it. Same result. That really makes it feel worthwhile, don’t you think?
I felt that the paradigm system of Final Fantasy XIII had some real potential, and I applaud the designers for thinking outside of the usual conventions and trying to find a system that fit the fast-paced atmosphere they were trying to encourage. It’s just a pity most people never saw any of the system’s potential, because you had to play through forty hours of lackluster, simplified gameplay to see anything worthwhile. It’s important to let players learn and master the basics before you bombard them with new tactics, but they need an incentive to master them; the learning curve cannot be that slow if you want to retain players past the ‘tutorial’. Sadly, this demo dropped me right back in the early stages of that learning curve, where the combat was boring and I could press a button without even watching the screen, and pull through.
So, it was heavily implied that things had been changed for FFXIII-2 in response to some of the criticisms of the previous game. Does it show? Weakly. For instance, shopping is no longer reduced to an impersonal electronic menu! Instead, we’re introduced to… a perky woman dressed as a bird. Who just turns up periodically, and when you speak to her, you’re directed to the same menus. This is not, I think, what people had in mind. Now, maps are less linear, but most of the paths are dead ends (and not even treasure-filled ones). There seems to be some kind of fog of war effect of the mini-map, which made it very hard to naviagte (the environments themselves were dark and didn’t lend many clues). Other changes seemed to come out of nowhere – rather than wandering the corridors, enemies now appear randomly out of nothing… but if you just keep running they go away again.
I didn’t finish the demo. I can see where this is going. More emphasis on cinematics, with the battles merging into the already copious cinematic sequences. Less control of your character(s) in favour of things that look cool. Even more simplified gameplay which takes strategising out of your hands in favour of fast, smooth attacks. Square-Enix should just move to making films and be done with it. Final Fantasy has a long history of innovating on its formula, taking risks and challenging its own conventions, and in the past this has produced some of its best games; maybe it was always due to fail eventually. It’s possible that with a more gradual introduction, more reason to care about the characters, and a good starting story hook, I might have more patience for the game – but I wouldn’t count on it.
The saddest thing is that this isn’t just a decline of Final Fantasy, a venerable old game franchise if ever there was one. This is part of a trend across contemporary video games. I’m not going to moan about games catering to the lucrative “casual gamer” market and leaving the old-timers and serious gamers behind (plenty of other people have been doing that for years). I will say that games need good mechanics – clever, fun, absorbing, challenging, or all of the above – and if video games are ever going to mature as a medium, we should really stop dumbing them down. You know what? Hardcore gamers learned how to play at some point, and contemporary gamers aren’t any dumber or slower unless you encourage them to be.
PS: Mog looked stupid. (S)he(?) looked out of place, like a cartoon cursor added to the world (only Zelda games can get away with that) but not intended to be part of it. With all the lavish attention Square-Enix love to give hair, fur and feathers in these games, I can’t believe it never occured to them that they should update the moogle to look like it actually belonged in FFXIII if they were going to use it. This bugged me a lot more than it should have!