There’s a preview of sorts of FFXIII over on Wired. It’s not really all that favorable, but then again he hadn’t reached the “open” part of the game yet, and seems hung up on comparing the gameplay to other titles in the series. I’ve seen a few such pre-finished reviews (also over at Kotaku)… It’s kinda bizarre. I mean, I get that people (like me!) would be blogging about going through the game, thoughts and all, to drum up interest or shout it down, but since FFXIII is going to be the biggest game of 2010, and there’s a 3-month window between the release in Japan and release in North America, it seems that all the big entertainment reviewers are clamoring to say something – anything – about the game before everyone else does. And this is just more of that.

In short, here’s my counterpost to the Wired review. Note that as I discuss this, I’m now about 10 or so hours into the game (I think: I’ll need to check my hours back at home later). Note that I’m really enjoying it thus far: The gameplay, the story, the characters, and so on. However, I realize that later I might *not* like the game. So I’m not on the fanboy bandwagon; I’m keeping a wary eye open and all. Anyway.

FFXIII is too film-like: So when it comes down to it, the Final Fantasy series, at least all of the ones I’ve played, have never been all that hard. Sure, a lot of them contain *really hard optional monsters*, but the main story has been easy enough that I could power through with a little grinding and totally unoptimized characters and equipment. Compare that to, for example, the Shin Megami Tensei games (the core games like Nocturne, not the easier Persona offshoot): One random battle after another, 10 seconds from one battle to the next, and at any given time the smallest random encounter can kill you.

No, for a long time the series has all been about “Flagship-ing” and “Spectacle”: To show the world what Square (later Square Enix) could do with the latest in technology, millions of dollars and genius, overworked and burned-out coders/artists. They’re long. You can stretch them out to 80, 100, 160+ hours by attempting to “get all the gear” or “beat all the hidden optional bosses”, but what it comes down to is that the FF series from a very early time (and solidified with FFVI) tried to be a Movie That You Play. This is no different, just that they have the technology and resources to make the movie bits that much more awesome.

Save Points Everywhere: Save point, fight, cinematic, save, boss, save point, long cinematic, “do you want to save now?”, another long cinematic, save point. As a Gamer with a Job, I’ve got no problem with that. For the last month I’ve been playing FFX-2 again (second time through; played FFX about 4 times through), and I’m surprised at how spaced out the savepoints are, and how all those random battles between one point and the next can really add up. In other words, I don’t mind a save point every 10-15 minutes, because in the old world of 25-30 minutes between points, if I have to do something, go somewhere, Right Now, I’ve lost that much progress. My friend Travis, who is in the same condition as I am just with 2 kids, is going to love FFXIII for that feature.

The Killing Tubes: It’s been said elsewhere, but dungeons in previous FF games have been an illusion: A sprawl of grinding through random combats with the illusion of choice. Here, they basically have the same amount of content, just stretched into a line. Through making the game more linear (dispelling the illusion of choice: Remember FFX? You really had no say in where you went or what you did until about the 70% mark in the game, when you get on the airship), they do away with the need to wander around in sprawling dungeons, grinding on random fights in order to beat up the next boss. Yeah, FFXIII completely did away with the need for grinding (but left options for it anyway if you want), and if it means keeping the path as more of a (gorgeous) straight line, then I’ll bite.

He calls them “monotonous”. Certainly there were parts where I thought it was a little too long, particularly one part with Lightning and Hope in this really long relatively cinematic-light stretch in these experimental monster gardens. That was the only time it got tedious, though: And after that, the game has done an awesome job with mixing it up so there’s little monotony: You’ll play as these two characters over here for 30 minutes, hit a major plot bit, then play with those two characters over there for 20 minutes, hit a plot point, then find out what the fifth character’s been up to, and so on.

Even within the aforementioned “Lightning and Hope” bit, they have you play as one character as the Leader for one half, and the other character as Leader for the second half. This means that you have to adopt all-new strategies for the next set of battles.

That’s way less monotonous than being in a dungeon with some illusion of choice (but only one real path to the boss enemy anyway), having to fight one random battle after another every 10-15 feet, where the monsters are all the same each time. FFXIII does a good job so far of mixing things up, making them more challenging, or challenging in a new way, as you go through “the killing tubes”.

You Only Control One Character: I’ll post about this in a bit (lifting what I said in a post on RPGNet), but each character has a number of roles, 2-3 to begin with (and later gameplay vids I saw show that it looks like ALL characters can access ALL roles) called “Optima”: Attacker, Blaster, Healer, etc. You shift in the course of one battle between 2-3 or more sets of different role loadouts. Anyway, within your one character you are a Fighter, Black Mage, White Mage, Blue Mage, and Rogue, and you shift back and forth during a battle. So in reality, you are control, of “one skin” which is comprised of what would be called “2-6 characters” in any other game. At the highest levels, you have 18 characters in your party: They just wear 3 character skins. Again, this would have been apparent to the Wired dude if he got further before rushing to be the first to post.

Optima/Paradigm System: They talk a bit about it in the Wired article. This element, plus the  enemy’s Break Meter, really adds a new depth to battles which didn’t previously exist. Before, monsters had hit points, armor, damage (they did to you) and strengths/weaknesses to magic. But in the end, it still comes down to a sort of non-time-tactical “pick the element they’re weak against”, and “do the most damage, perhaps weakening armor first”. With the Break Gauge, you need to do the balancing of “Do I pound on this guy, or do I aim to break his Break Meter?” Lots of enemies can only fall once you break their Break Meter, and that requires strategy all in itself: You need Blaster optimas/roles to consistently do damage to Break Meter (Attackers and other roles don’t drive up the meter, but keep it where it is, only the Blaster role brings the monster closer to Break). Problem is, that you can’t just turn all your dudes into Blasters and let them rip: You’ll see in battle vids that when Blasters hit an enemy, the Yellow Break Bar will rise, but then it will start falling slowly. It starts falling faster and faster and faster if Blasters are the only ones hitting the monster, until it drops and the combo is lost. So you need at least one Jammer or Attacker to hit the monster to “stablize” the bar: So an effective combo with three characters is 1 attacker and 2 blasters: The blasters drive the bar up for a bit, and right as it starts to drop the attacker hits and “freezes” the bar. Meanwhile, you’re getting pounded with attacks, so you need to switch roles to characters who are Healers and Enhancers for HP and defense, while at the same time taking care to switch back to an Attacker to hit the monster again while its Break bar is still up there, or you’ll lose the combo.

This kind of critical timing strategy just didn’t exist in previous FFs. You just had to know that “this enemy is weak against Fire” or “that enemy has Armor we need to break at some point”. Now, you have a time-based strategy element to juggle with all the rest. It’s really clever, and adds a tactical depth to the game.

Retry the Battle: I can restart the battle in the middle because I didn’t know the right strategy against this new enemy (or biffed my timing when trying to heal up) and ended up wasting 2 Phoenix Downs (now costing 1000) and 3 Potions, where before my only opportunity would be to soft-reset my game, reload, and get all the way back to this point again? Where is that “bad” again?

Conclusion: So hope that sheds some light on things. For the most part, I love a lot of the changes. There’s a few things that I quibble with (will post later), but for the most part I found the Wired take to be truthful yet exaggerated, perhaps simply to be the First Person in Entertainment Journalism to say Something Big about FFXIII in English before other websites beat Wired to it.