Stand Back, Stand Clear

So I was going to write a big post about NEC, but then it just ended coming out on the EFL boards where everyone who I know consistently reads this blog already read it. All there would really be to add are some interstitial diversions and insanely trivial anecdotes, a small rant about Power Instinct 5 (it’s entertaining, especially after my KOF playing times), and then talking about how much better Philadelphia is than Las Vegas. As strongly as I might feel about those topics I don’t actually have that many interesting things to say about them, so maybe another time. But what is there to talk about? Oh, I know! It’s the end of the year, and everybody who writes or talks about games has to make a big list about how they still like obscure game X but AAA title Y doesn’t really hold up. It’s the law.

I haven’t played as many games over the past couple years as I did when I was in late high school/early college, so the idea of making a “top 10” list is absurd in multiple ways, the least of which being that some of the games on the list pretty much have to be ones I didn’t actually like since I don’t think I even played ten games I completely loved. But I find that given some distance I almost always feel differently about games than when I was actually playing them. Often my opinion goes down after the freshness wears off, but sometimes I appreciate elements more.

I don’t know who thought this was a good idea. They were wrong, but I love them.

The first new game I played this year was Final Fantasy XIII-2, and if all you want to see is that I think it’s bad, cool. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a bad game. We’re done here.

Wait a second…why did I even play this game in the first place? Oh right. It was because I liked the first one. I’m not really much of a fan of FF in the first place, but I got excited as soon as I heard the music in XIII was going to be by SaGa composer Masashi Hamauzu. Hearing that the battle system was much more action- and puzzle-based than in most RPGs had me even more intrigued, and in the end I rented and beat it over spring break. I really enjoyed the bizarre meta combat, in which your characters’ specific actions barely matter, and instead the way they combine is everything. For most of a battle, you had to juggle several factors, building up to hit the enemy’s weakness while keeping yourself alive and preparing for your devastating strike with stat buffs for your party or reductions for the enemy. If you kept everything moving correctly, then you could catch all the balls in one gorgeous moment, and switch from your precarious attack-defense cycles to an all-out ass-kicking to finish things off. The system wasn’t perfect (for one thing, the game doesn’t have a good way to convey the importance of potent offense, leaving many wondering why the game “suddenly” kills them after a long battle), and once the game finally just hands you all the possible options near the end things get a bit repetitive.

Also seems familiar!

My impression, though, and this was backed up by a few interviews I read, was that the team focused almost completely on the mechanics and encounter design, leaving many standard elements of Final Fantasy by the wayside so they could be honed. There are essentially no friendly towns, few open areas to explore, virtually no “sidequests” that don’t involve killing things, no mini-games…it’s certainly very reductionist, but I appreciated the philosophy.

All that said, my absolute favorite part of FF13 is when two of the main characters stumble their way into a Chocobo-themed amusement park. Like everything else, there’s not any “real” reason this happens except that they made the art assets for it, but it’s the one actual respite from constant fighting in the game. And in sharp contrast to the rest of the soundtrack, the song which plays is a tinny, diegetic jingle about how much fun it is to play with Chocobos. It’s clever, hilarious, and almost unbearably vapid at the same time. In other words, genius.

From here I feel like a review of part 2 practically writes itself, especially given how short the title’s development cycle was. The scenarios are all pieced together from art assets that got cut the first time, and the story makes even less sense. The battle system has no real mechanical additions, and the monster system is cute at first but gimmicky and really unwieldy. The boss fights are almost all trivial and half of the “roles” in the game are nearly useless, which makes combat a straightforward and boring slog with depressingly few “oh my god!” moments. Worst of all is just the developers’ attitude and lack of understanding about players’ complaints. As much as I enjoyed FFXIII, there’s simply no way its basic model would’ve held up for another 30+ hours. The structure was workable but due for additions. But 2’s open, frequently-redundant areas and arbitrarily plotted progression don’t feature anything that feels like a carefully laid course, just busywork to fill time while the designers figure out how to actually make a game.

Even though there were definitely alarms sounding all over the place, I had to play it. I just can’t resist a great soundtrack, and after its release, with the music spilling all over the internet, I couldn’t stop myself from getting hyped up. I’m sure most people heard “Crazy Chocobo,” as the backlash exploded almost instantly in many different places that I tend to visit, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. A huge portion of the music features vocals, almost always with cheesy lyrics attempting to match up with what’s going on in the game’s story and settings. Although none of them are indicated to be actually heard “in context” as with Cocoon de Chocobo above, I absolutely love it, and the effect is occasionally like some kind of really anime musical (as in the theater production), which is even better.

After all, JRPGs are no stranger to melodrama, so to me the idea that Serah, Noel, or possibly other entities are essentially “singing” bizarre songs to the audience, about how important it is to stay upbeat and fight together with your friends, or what it’s like having a ridiculously miserable and depressing backstory, is too delightful. And that’s not all! Many of the more conventional tracks are also fantastic, featuring work not just from Hamauzu but one of my personal top favorite game composers, the criminally underappreciated Mitsuto Suzuki. Originally I knew him from his time making weird, beepy techno for Konami’s rhythm games, but since moving to Square he’s gotten a couple of chances to play more of a main composing role. (As far as I know, his official job at both companies has been more in back-end sound production.)

The thing that really catapults this up to the top of my favorite soundtracks though, is something it shares with two of my other favorites, Nier and Resonance of Fate. All three feature on-the-fly, context-based track switching or (mostly in Nier’s case) blending. In FF13-2 this switching occurs when you’re moving around dungeon areas, as random enemies will appear near you and you get the option to try to run away from them or engage head on for advantages. As far as the game goes, it’s a pointless, bad compromise, and therefore clearly stands out as the worst of the three examples here. By contrast, ROF has a similar system, where the music lays low as you wander around and prepare for combat, then suddenly roars to full-on rock once you pull the trigger and start a battle. Nier’s uses are more subtle and varied, but a good example is the game’s starting town, where a woman singing in the middle fades in and out as you get close or move away. Still, even in this game the music’s sudden shift from driving and melodic to low and sinister (and usually, the sudden cutting out of lyrics) is definitely effective.

I have something of a “spoonful of sugar” outlook on a lot of things; they may be bad in obvious ways or have elements that I simply dislike, but one really strong area is enough to prevent me from being too upset with them. This is even more true when, as in FF13-2’s case, it’s the music that really carries it. But even though it’s not an aggravating game, it’s a monotonous one that doesn’t bring anything else that’s interesting to the table. In a sense, I got just what I expected from a rushed, samey cash-in. And that’s the biggest disappointment of all.