I’m done with JRPGs

I just spent Memorial Day weekend finishing Final Fantasy 13-2 and starting Lightning Returns, and I think I’m done with JRPGs.  This was a pretty formative genre for me growing up, so I feel compelled to write about why I’m now so burned out on them.

To the skeptical ones, the racist ones who refer to Japanese as “moonspeak” and always thought Final Fantasy was stupid, I say this: this is not your vindication.  I grew up on JRPGs in general and the Final Fantasy series in particular, put countless hours in.  My favorites growing up were 5 and 8.  I enjoyed 13-1 and 13-2 both quite a bit, up until their final dungeons/bosses.  6 is trash and 9 is overrated, muting replies don’t @ me.  These are still perfectly valid and fine games, and if you enjoy them, that’s awesome.

As fans of the blog may know, I’ve recently been struggling with a mid-life crisis.  There are definitely elements of that in this shift in my tastes, a sense that I need to spend my time doing only those things I enjoy the most or that are the most necessary for my continued survival.  Though I’m mostly over the worst of the terror, I still do have a hard time falling asleep some nights, thinking about how I’m done with another day, closer to death.  But the intrusive thoughts are easier to deal with than they were, and I expect this will continue to improve as I get farther from that moment when I truly realized my own mortality for the first time.  And I feel like, if people want to play JRPGs, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sinking your time into them, precious or not.  You’ve got to spend it on something, and I’m not here to judge.  But for me, I have better uses for my time, I think.  And it’s largely because of the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy that I’ve come to this realization.

I played and reviewed 13-1, and had some follow-up thoughts on it (and then some more), a while back.  I’ve had an in-progress review of 13-2 waiting in the wings while I finished that game.  I was sitting on it in case 13-2 did the same thing 13-1 did (nosedive at the end), because I didn’t want to be made to look like an idiot again.  Here is that draft, in full:

So, you remember all that angst and effort I had to go through to really wrap my head around FF13-1? Well, I don’t have to perform those kind of mental acrobatics to convince you that 13-2 is a great game, or to explain its story.  The short version is that this game is easily one of the best in the entire series.  It’s certainly much more straightforward and accessible than its predecessor.

For starters, 13-2 has an absolutely amazing OST.  It combines the typical FF orchestral pieces with very modern-feeling twists, without sacrificing its identity in the process.  These games are known for having excellent music, and 13-2 manages to both call back to the spirit and feel of some of the series’ high points, but also update that musical style with some very interesting new spice in the form of a lot of vocal pieces in different styles, ranging from DMC-style death metal to soothing, poppy, or jazzy pieces.

The game features a vastly-improved combat system.  Everything is snappy, responsive, fluid, and FAST.  Paradigm switching in particular no longer has those agonizingly-lengthy animations of 13-1.  The enemy design plays into this, requiring rapid-fire reactions to tank big hits and get back to dealing damage.  Enemies have a lot less HP than they did in 13-1, and they stagger more easily, leading to fights that are actually a good length and don’t break up the pace too much.  They introduced a new mechanic, Wounding, wherein big attacks and debuffs can shave bits off of your maximum HP, further encouraging you to finish fights quickly.  Achieving a maxed-out combat rating also boosts your drop rates significantly.

You no longer have a third permanent party member.  Instead, you recruit monsters!  Each one has its own set role, and switching between paradigms now also switches your monster.  They level up by feeding them monster materials, and can be named, infused into each other to transfer abilities, and given cute accessories.  It’s amazing.

The crystarium has been dramatically overhauled to waste a lot less of your time.  Putting points into crystals there is very quick and simple to understand, and instead of pouring points into particular roles, instead what you do is activate crystals around a constellation-style design for the various roles.  So, you might select Sentinel then Medic then Commando, that that’s 1 level for each of those as you move around the constellation.  Once you’ve completed the design, your crystarium levels up and gives you a choice of bonuses from a list, such as boosting your role bonus a step or unlocking more accessory points (which limit how many accessories you can equip, now), or unlocking new roles.  CP come in a lot faster than they did in 13, and you now get substantial CP rewards for killing bosses as well.  It’s a small change, but also, having higher numbers for the level of each role helps to restore a feeling of progression, which is so essential to this genre’s appeal.  Having a level 30 on your Commando role just feels better than it maxing out at 5.

And just as the icing on the cake, enemies drop gil again!  There’s an actual weapon and item shop!  No more obtuse, expensive upgrade system!  Now everything is just much more transparent and gets out of your way so you can get back to the real game faster.

The game features “cinematic action” sequences (QTEs), which are surprisingly fun and keep you engaged.  This is in part because they’re not over-used, the cinematics themselves are very well done, and because you have incentives to complete them in the form of item rewards if you get through without mistakes.  Most games with QTEs “reward” you by… not forcing you to replay them, which isn’t really a reward.  Furthermore, the timers on the button prompts are unusually strict, meaning you actually do have to sit up and pay attention.

All of this blends together to create some truly unique and interesting combat encounters, particularly during boss battles.  Standard combat will give way to special cinematics involving QTEs, then we go back to standard combat mechanics.  Even during the “standard” bits, you’re rapidly evaluating tactics and constantly aware of the paradigm system in a way that 13-1’s enemy design never forced you to be.

In terms of general game-feel, 13-2 respects your time in a way that a lot of JRPGs don’t.  There’s such a nice mix of different kinds of action.  Make no mistake, 13-2 benefits greatly from comparisons to 13-1, but it stands on its own alongside the best of this genre.  Anyway, where 13-1 had you performing essentially the same standard combat actions for the entire game,  13-2 has you not only switching up things between paradigms, switching between standard combat and QTEs, but also solving puzzles, exploring maps, rudimentary platforming, talking to NPCs in a branching conversation system called “live trigger”, going back and forth between a level select screen and the levels themselves.  Some special dungeons are combat-heavy, others have you rotating rooms around to make paths.  The combined effect is that you never feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over, because it’s always switching up how you interact with the game itself.  It’s not overdone or frenetic-feeling, either, it’s very well tuned and paced to never feel stale.

One minor note, here: the casino is woefully underdeveloped.  I’m not a fan of slots, and one shallow slots game is all there is without DLC.  I miss the days of hanging out in PSU’s casino playing roulette on a giant wheel.  Can I just have PSU back please? They even already have a giant roulette wheel in the main plaza of the casino area.  Why isn’t it functional?  I’m sad.

Anyway.

The premise of 13-2 is that, during the events of 13-1’s ending, Lightning disappears.  Only Serah remembers that she was there; everyone else remembers her sacrificing herself to form the crystal pillar, along with Fang and Vanille.  Some of the people of Cocoon migrate to Gran Pulse and establish civilization there, while others stay behind to work on rebuilding a Cocoon society without the Fal’Cie.  Snow does believe Serah, and sets out on a journey to find Lightning for her, but he disappears as well.  One day, 3 years after Lightning’s disappearance, the village of New Bodhum where Serah lives is attacked by strange creatures.

A young man named Noel Kreiss (Christ? lol ok thanks Japan) appears and tells Serah that he’s met Lightning in the Unseen Realm (aka Valhalla), and brings Serah a gift from her sister: a magical mog that gives her the means to fight.  The timelines are tangled, reality is falling apart, and Lightning waits at the end of all things.  Together, Serah and Noel set out to restore the timelines and find her sister.

This is a really compelling hook, and allows the game to structure its story episodically as well.  You spend the game hopping through gates from time period to time period, and you’re free once any given period is completed to reset it and try different paths and dialogue options to see every outcome if you like.  There are branching narrative paths, but they all lead inexorably to Valhalla at the end of time, and to a confrontation with a dark man named Caius Ballad, who seems to think you and Noel are the bad guys.

Without getting too heavy into spoiler territory (because you really should play this game), this is a pretty excellent experience.  The time travel conceit is used to great effect, with side quests and puzzles that can only be solved in particular eras and locations, and there’s some very interesting twists and turns in the story.  You have a lot more freedom than you’d usually expect from a Final Fantasy title, particularly a sequel to 13.  And overall, this is just a very smooth, very enjoyable, very fun ride of a game.  I’m seriously impressed.

I’ve been sitting on that draft since February while I did other things, lived my life, and then finally this last weekend, sat down and beat FF13-2.  Well, I say “beat”.  I mean “looked up the ending on youtube after getting stuck on the final boss gauntlet”.  Because here’s the thing: 13-2 makes exactly the same mistake 13-1 does.  It nosedives at the end, and if I’d posted that glowing-ass review as-is, I’d be in the same boat as I was when I posted my defense of 13-1 back in the day, having to scramble to justify myself.  Nothing in my review is false per se.  I did enjoy my time with 13-2 greatly, just as I did 13-1.  But no other genre and no other series I know of has taken such magnificently horrifying swan dives into such depths of tedium and despair without first telegraphing what they’re about to do.  Without having been bad all along.  13-1 and 13-2 are not bad games for 90% of their length.  Then they’re some of the worst, least fun things I’ve ever done besides working fast food.  It’s even discouraged me from writing in this blog very much, because now I’m gun shy, I feel like I have to 100% complete everything before saying word one, because otherwise this might happen again.

These are heavily story-focused games that allow you to make progress in that story without much in the way of grinding, that then throw up a brick wall in the final dungeon and boss(es), which punishes you for not grinding.  13-2 also gets fucking dumb in the later parts of its story, in a similar way to 13-1, actually.  This is apparently a trilogy that is content to just make shit up as it goes along, and if there’s any contradictions or things that fall flat or don’t make sense, it writes them off as literal divine intervention.

There’s something to be said for gods as plot devices.  These days, people say “deus ex machina” with a sneer, and having a god swoop in and solve everything can be a lazy device, it’s true.  However, that attitude of ours is mostly due to living in a period of history where the divine and religion are sneered at generally.  To people who really believe in a god, the idea that that being might intervene in daily events wouldn’t seem like a silly plot device.  Rather, it would be a powerful affirmation of faith.  And I do give the FF13 trilogy credit for having its gods be more prominent in the story, particularly in 2, where the entire plot revolves around resolving the spacetime contradictions introduced by Etro’s meddling in the first game’s events.  The plot of 13-3, from what I’ve seen so far, appears to revolve almost entirely around Bhunivelze, the supreme creator of 13’s universe.  The problem is not the plots or particular elements of those plots; it’s that these games need better writers.  And they probably needed more time.

The way games of this scale are made means that no one person is responsible for the overall vision of any particular Final Fantasy game.  There is a director, who nominally holds that position, but their will is ultimately subject to approval from corporate.  In Japanese culture especially, they’re not going to be making waves.  Auteur types like Kojima Hideo or Kamiya Hideki end up alienating people or losing their jobs, over there.  You can’t really blame Toriyama Motomu for 13’s issues, any more than you can blame Sean Murray for No Man’s Sky.

It’s true that Toriyama-san was also a credited writer, along with Watanabe Daisuke.  However, I cannot stress enough the collaborative, interdependent nature of large-scale video game development.  There are so many people involved, so many fingers in the pie so to speak, that the game cannot possibly be entirely shaped by any one or two people.  The way this happens is, there’s a general storyboard outline that’s probably handed down by the director / lead writer, and it gets workshopped.  Details get filled in as mechanics and art get fleshed out, compromises are made, scenes are tweaked to fit what’s possible with the technology and the time available.

All of this is to say, while I don’t doubt that at one point it was fully intended for Noel to be able to spare Caius and avert doomsday, somewhere along the line, it was probably decided they didn’t want to render another ending cutscene, so they railroad you into being a huge idiot and killing him no matter what you choose.  There’s a lot of narrative weirdness towards the end of 13-2’s story, and I attribute it to a different kind of deus ex machina: corporate intervention.  They ran short on time, money, or both.  People were overworked, too tired to notice contradictions or characters forgetting things they should’ve known.  People doing quality control were pulled in to help finish other things.  I don’t know for a fact that these things happened, but they’re endemic problems in the game development industry.

Even though Caius is too good a villain concept for the quality of writer on staff there at Squaresoft, even though the stories of 13-1 and 2 are strange at times, that’s nothing really new to Final Fantasy.  It wouldn’t by itself be a dealbreaker.  Remember, one of my favorite games in the series is 5, which features a sentient evil tree as its main villain.  A party member dies and is immediately replaced by his daughter, who somehow has exact copies of all his stats, skills and equipment.  Another favorite is 8, wherein the entire cast forgot they grew up in the same orphanage.  I’m mostly okay with dumb shit, I’m into it.  The dealbreaker for me, in the end, is how tedious these games can be.

The 13 trilogy in particular is pretty bad for this, but in general there’s an issue with this series where the enemy and boss design ends up fighting against the combat design in weird ways.  Routine encounters will have too much HP, or require arcane sequences of actions to open up weak points, or they require tons of waiting for no reason.  There’s loading times in and out of every fight.  Combined with (in the 13 trilogy) enemies that can easily one-shot party members, attacks that reduce your maximum HP for the rest of the fight, status effects that stop you from doing anything at all, etc, you’ve got a recipe for mind-numbing tedium in the final stretch.

There’s also the issue of difficulty, and how it scales alongside the story as you progress.  Both 13-1 and 13-2 suffer from an issue where you’re allowed to get to the end of the story just fine, but then the final dungeon and boss gauntlet are a brick wall unless you’ve also been doing side quests and grinding the whole time.  What this means is, if you’re invested in the story and want to see it to the end, you’ll play for about 20 hours, then have to go back and mess around doing side stuff for another 20 before you can see the ending.  The game communicates impending difficulty very poorly, and scales in a jagged, sudden fashion.  It’s just not very well tuned.  I ended up looking up the ending on Youtube after getting stuck on the 4th (!!) of 5 (!!!) Caius fights (all the same, by the way, I didn’t put up with that shit from Skyward Sword, I’m not putting up with it here), and discovering not only was I in for like 3 more boss fights before the end, they were only going to get harder.  Then the ending was just… it was very stupid.  If I’d actually put in the time, thrown another 20 hours of my life into this, to have it slap me in the face like that, I probably would’ve been a lot more pissed than I am now.

I have very little patience for games these days that don’t provide you with all the information you need to succeed within them, that expect you to refer to a wiki or a FAQ if you want to get the best items or see the best ending.  Final Fantasy isn’t even the worst offender for this, with the Atelier series’ character events and true endings being far more obscure and easily missed.  But they’re up there.  12 had a weapon that you could miss if you opened the wrong treasure chests as you played through, with no indication as to which ones were the wrong ones.  7 had chocobo breeding, which was a complete crapshoot without a strategy guide.  Where the 13 trilogy fails is in its complete lack of regard for the player’s time.  It’s got me looking askance at 13-3, as well.  Do I dare get emotionally invested in a story that’s probably going to dive off a cliff in the last hour?  Do I want to put all this time and effort into yet another game in this series, only to have it demand even more of my time before it lets me see the ending?  They’re already throwing machine enemies at me that demand precise attack timing and attributes to stagger, fights are already taking 3+ minutes even in the early game.  How much worse is it going to get, you know?

It sucks, in a way, because I love the setting and characters of Fabula Nova Crystallis.  13-1 had some of the best character arcs and moments of the entire series to date.  13-2 had some of the best combat mechanics.  And 13-3 has a lot of interesting ideas as well.  But these games are plagued by deep design flaws and pacing issues that there’s really no good excuse for.  Lightning deserved better games.  And collectively, this trilogy has burned me out completely on JRPGs.  Now I see just what a colossal waste of time they’ve been.  I’ll be playing Hitman or something from now on instead, thanks.

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