Reinventing such a popular series of games will always lead to discussion, but what is clear is that FF13 marks the broadening of Final Fantasy; the balance between the ease of use for gamers that wouldn’t normally play RPGs and the die-hard fans.
If the intention was to simplify Final Fantasy, then I take issue with the some aspects of the games usability; here’s what it does well and what could have been improved.
What Final Fantasy 13 does well
Helpful “story review” loading screens
The ability to recount where you last were in the story is a welcome addition, particulary when the narration is even more character driven than in previous games. Upon loading the game you have the option to read through the last part of the story you played, immediately getting you up to speed with what to do next.
The story summary is brief, highlighting the main points of the previous cutscenes or major battle – while also highlighting any subtle points that the player may have missed.
In previous Final Fantasies coming back after a long break frequently meant starting over. It was often too difficult to remember where you left the story, the inclusion of recap screens are a great time saver, with the added benefit of hiding the long loading screens.
A slimmed-down battle and inventory system
The battle system has a good emphasis on accessibility; spells require no MP to be cast and can be used as frequently as required and thus speeding up the battle gameplay. The emphasis is now on “staggering” opponents to create periods of high damage weakness. Player deaths are undone at the end of battles, and full HP is recovered after victory, removing the need for tedious item collecting and repeating health recovery.
As a result there is less emphasis on buying and selling so the equipment and item list has been trimmed right down. Armour has been replaced with a simple slot accessory system, which improves with character development. For the most part the most complex parts of character improvement such as weapons upgrading are relatively optional, left for those that wish to seek an extra advantage over their enemies.
Good use of information
Too frequently missing a tutorial in past games meant losing out on how to to the information completely, leading to trial and error tactics to figure out the gameplay. Final Fantasy 13 does have these often confusing moments where information doesn’t immediately sink in, but the datalog goes some way to address this.
The ability to review information in the datalog provides the opportunity to go back and review anything that didn’t make sense, checking that any hastily explained tutorial information has been understood before going any further.
Although the battle scenes have speed up completely, it can sometimes be difficult to make important decisions about how to play quickly, easily reviewable “how to” help improves these moments explaining key points of interest in small, easy steps.
A helpful clue system
The well-trodden enemy weakness system as been revisited in this installment, allowing the technique “Libra” to automatically pinpoint weakness in monsters, empowering your AI controlled team mates to automatically attack using known enemy flaws.
Gone are the days where the strategy of how to win a particular battle is established through trial and error. All the clues about how to defeat any given enemy are within quick and easy reach.
With new emphasis on quicker fights, it can be easy to forget about the status of your teammates, one of the most useful reminders happens when the screen flashes when any of your characters are low on health, reminding you of the need to change tactics and prevent any causalities.
The usability issues that could have been improved
Elaborate naming conventions
Just about every aspect of FF13s story and combat uses confusing names that don’t get the aim across. Above all else this game could have done with more plain english. Paradigms should be called Jobs, the Crystarium should be character growth or something similar. Eidolons are quite obviously summoned creatures, then there is the continued use of acronyms such as CP and TP, with the full explanation not making things much clearer – what does Crystogen Points mean to the average gamer without context?
The clearer naming conventions of previous games are known Final Fantasy staples that have been used for decades. Renaming them does not remark them as anything new, and simply mean that extremely important game functions only begin to develop meaning after hours of repeated use.
If more plain English was used in localisation, the tutorial feel to the game could have been reduced immensely, and the narrative could have been less focused on explaining gameplay elements; giving the player more power and confidence in the staggeringly long opening portions of the game.
Never ending tutorials
While the steps to complete a tutorial are relatively clear, the information attached to each in-battle tutorial could be explained better. FF13 attempts to bridge the gap by using colour to highlight key phrases, but the lack of clear terminology can make even this helpful presentation somewhat redundant.
Explaining how to play the game is important, so the steady flow of information within FF13 is managed well. But making the content of the game too information heavy for too long without making the player feel like they are masters of their own destiny can undermine the learning process. This leads to frustration and ultimately frustration means the game may not be finished by the intended target audience.
Flawed emphasis on speed
While completing battles in a timely manner improves the excitement of battles considerably, this brilliant idea is often undermined by elements that have not sped up – namely the results screen.
The information it contains is largely redundant when speeding through screens, particularly when key data could be displayed in a popup after battle, distilling a crowded, largely meaningless screen to an easily digestible summary of job points, and item drops.
The spoils screen should also not appear if nothing has dropped, as this means another frantic series of button presses just to get back to the core gameplay.
Numbers for numbers sake
The inclusion of stagger provides another brilliant way to weaken the enemy and increase damage, but the statistics under the stagger bar aren’t really required when the flickering orange bar relates the status of weakening the enemy perfectly.
There are a whole host of others numbers that could be removed from the in-game menus such as the ATB usage numbers on abilities when the size of the bar adequately explains the usage cost.
The poorly implemented weapons upgrade system smacks of adding in RPG trappings to a game where there aren’t many existing RPG archetypes, and as such it feels overly complex compared to the delivery of the rest of the game.
A simplier Final Fantasy?
Once you start to understand FF13s complexities it can become a very enjoyable game to play. But the time investment needed for even a basic understanding of how to play may put the less dedicated gamers that Square Enix are clearly after in this installment off completely. Generally this feels like a fresher Final Fantasy, with a robust battle system and emphasis on simplicity that will ultimately divide opinion.
Should simplifying a game for a wider audience mean that a lot of the principles that RPG fans regard have been removed? In this instance simplifying Final Fantasy by making it more linear has just moved the bottlenecks of usability elsewhere. Despite the refinements, this is still a satisfying game – just perhaps not as accessible as originally imagined.