Friday, June 2, 2017

Final Fantasy 2: Story and Leveling


Two of my favorite franchises in video games are The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. The two have several things in common. They’re both extremely popular and long-running series. They both tend to shun traditional sequels, kicking off each title with a different setting and story. They also both have a second entry that tried something drastically different and ended up as the black sheep. I played both black sheep years ago, gave up in frustration, and eventually revisited each of them for reviews.

But upon further examination, their similarities dry up. The Legend of Zelda may hit the reset button almost every entry, but there’s a lot that stays the same. Up until its most recent title, the biggest criticism anyone could level was that it was formulaic. It dealt in presenting new lands, challenges, and incremental tweaks. Iteration rather than innovation. But Final Fantasy?

The most you can say is it stays roughly within the same genre.

And then there's the spinoffs, which are often ARE different genres. For better or worse.

Everything changes. Each Final Fantasy alters the setting, the characters, and even the tone of the writing. The combat is completely overhauled, and so are the systems of progression and character advancement. Though much of the series has had the same visual and audio directors, they made an intentional point of using different aesthetic and musical themes for every game. It walks a tightrope of genre conventions and general themes to stay just close enough to count as a series. Some would contest even that.

This is one of the most genuinely beautiful things about Final Fantasy…and one of the most contentious. There might not be any other series in gaming with a fanbase so divided. And you can hardly blame them, because they’re fans of drastically different products. You can pop on to any forum on the internet and find someone passionately advocating why Final Fantasy A is the greatest game of all time and Final Fantasy B is hot garbage. Then you’ll scroll down and the next post will be, completely independently, arguing the opposite. Sure there are some games that are more often praised, like FF6. There are also some commonly derided, like FF8 or FF13. But you can still find staunch opposition towards 6, and fervent defenders of 8 and 13. Every game has its haters and its fans.

And yet, in all my time on the internet…I’ve never heard someone whose favorite game was Final Fantasy 2.

I’m sure they exist. I have heard people defend the game. But it’s never with quite the same enthusiasm other titles inspire. People will make their case, but it will be subdued. Almost apologetic. And after spending a couple dozen hours with the game*, I think I see why. Final Fantasy 2 is an admirably ambitious game that broke from the mold and attempted all sorts of new and interesting things. But the execution?

*Specifically, I played the GBA remake Dawn of Souls

Well, let’s just take things one step at a time, shall we?

Story and Writing


The writing is a good place to start because its issues are fairly self-contained. Final Fantasy 2 had a notably more involved story than its predecessors. Unlike previous games, all the protagonists had names and character traits. Admittedly not strong character traits. They can basically be summed up: protagonist, girl, protagonist, coward for 2 lines of dialogue, protagonist, arr I’m a pirate, protagonist, antagonist forgiven way too easily, and beaver whisperer. But it was something, and though it doesn’t hold up well I’ll give it points for the time it was written.

There are several characters who die throughout the course of the game, which was a pretty fresh concept for the day. Not just generic NPCs either, though a hefty chunk of those are axed before the credits roll. We’re talking actual named individuals you speak with, sometimes even party members. The scenes in question are even handled somewhat competently. Granted, they don’t tend to linger on the deceased for long. I’ll also admit most of the deaths are pretty arbitrary. But hey, there are honestly worse examples later in the series.

You may notice I haven’t actually told you the premise yet. That’s because said premise is as bland and unimaginative as a metaphor for something bland and unimaginative. There’s an evil empire, and you play some recently orphaned young adults who join the rebels. That’s it. In all seriousness, most of the game is an excuse plot. You go this or that way in search of a chain of plot keys and quest triggers, but very little happens that changes someone’s character or your overall goals. The emperor is evil because he just is. He never makes a case for himself and he’s literally the only person in the game who grew up in the empire*.

*Their capital is just a castle dungeon, no town to be found

I suppose it depends if you count random encounter soldiers as people…or golems. What do you think the golems do when there's no one to fight? Do they just stuff them in a closet? Think they get vacation time? Do they polish those unnecessary rock-muscles themselves?

So the story is generic, lacking in character, and often non-existent. But even in terms of story, FF2 was willing to push some neat new ideas. And the idea in this case was Key Terms.

Ask
Learn <
    Key Terms <
Item

You have learned the key term Key Terms.

Ask <
    Key Terms <
Learn
Item

Key Terms were a feature that FF2 added to dialogue that actually made it, well…a dialogue. In the previous game the NPCs took zero input from the player. You’d interact with them and they’d spew out some random paragraph of information, most of which was painfully blunt exposition. In FF2, the way it works is simple. Sometimes, NPCs will speak in Red Text. Then the game will bring up a menu.

Ask
Learn <
    Key Terms
    Red Text <
Item

You have learned the key term Red Text.

In the olden days, we couldn't afford the color red in dialogue boxes, so we had to settle for brackets.

Ask <
    Key Terms
    Red Text <
Learn
Item

When Red Text appears, it means you can learn a Key Term. If you repeat a Key Term to someone, they may offer More Information on that term. However, more often than not they’ll have nothing to say. Or they do have something to say, but finding the right person or term involves Adventure Game Logic.

Ask
Learn <
    Key Terms
    Red Text
    More Information <
    Adventure Game Logic
Item

You have learned the key term More Information.

Ask
Learn <
    Key Terms
    Red Text
    More Information
    Adventure Game Logic <
Item

You have learned the key term Adventure Game Logic.

Ask <
    Key Terms
    Red Text
    More Information <
    Adventure Game Logic
Learn
Item

Sometimes asking about More Information will lead to the essential details on where to go or what to do. Other times it leads to the character giving a bit of backstory or flavor text that’s neat, but ultimately perfunctory and unimportant. And sometimes, a character will respond to your request for More Information, but all they’ll say is some variant of “I know nothing about that”.

For example, I know nothing about what this line is trying to tell us. I guess something about flowers? Who knows what we're supposed to do with flowers.

Ask <
    Key Terms
    Red Text
    More Information
    Adventure Game Logic <
Learn
Item

Frequently you’ll ask someone about a key term like Adventure Game Logic, but they won’t provide any new terms to learn or answers to direct you. But they will give some vague information on who can provide the answer. For example, they might tell you that the Next Paragraph has the info you seek, and you should seek its council to the southeast of this text.

*You travel southeast*
|
|
|
|
|
|
|
|---------------------------------------->Hello there! They call me the Next Paragraph! What can I do for you?

Ask <
    Key Terms <
    Red Text
    More Information
    Adventure Game Logic
Learn
Item

?

Ask <
    Key Terms
    Red Text <
    More Information
    Adventure Game Logic
Learn
Item

?

Ask <
    Key Terms
    Red Text
    More Information <
    Adventure Game Logic
Learn
Item

It’s always pleasant to find the rare occasions when asking for More Information provides you with extra dialogue not essential to the plot. But such statements are far and few between, very short, and not the best written. I can only think of one instance in the entire game where asking something led to an optional gameplay reward of any kind. Mostly, it’s just exposition.

Exposition like this cryptic statement. What could it mean?!

Ask <
    Key Terms
    Red Text
    More Information
    Adventure Game Logic <
Learn
Item

Adventure Game Logic refers to the logic needed to navigate old text or point-and-click adventure games. These games had to work with a limited set of items or terms. Coupled with occasional sloppy writing, they became infamous for sequences of events that would make no sense in anything approaching reality. Stuff like throwing pies at bloodthirsty yetis, or luring a cat to a fence to get its hair to glue to your face to match the moustache you yourself drew on a fake ID*. So rather than try and untangle these bizarre chains of half-baked reasoning, players would just try using every item and every dialogue option on every character.

*Yes these are real examples, from King’s Quest 5 and Gabriel Knight 3 respectively. I first discovered them in this article, which is now almost a decade old. Time flies.

I'm glad I played a remake, because it seems like the NES translation would make decoding this adventure game logic even more…"fun".

And for all their potential, such is the fate of Key Terms. It’s mostly just a string of linear exposition chunks to keep the plot running. Since who and what to ask is often confusing, all this system really accomplishes is padding the game with more filler as you wander in search of the right person, item or term. And as we’ll see later, the game already has a problem with padding.

Leveling System


The most noteworthy difference between Final Fantasy 2 and its contemporaries was its unusual system of character progression. In FF2, there were no traditional levels or classes. Instead, anyone could use any weapon type or spell, and repeated use would make it stronger for that particular character. Basic stats like health, strength or magic also improved based on frequency of use. Similar systems would later be used in a handful of games like the Elder Scrolls series, but it was even more uncommon back in the day. Of course, anyone who’s played or read up on FF2 knows where this is going. This system is ambitious and interesting. We all admire it…but few defend it.

As I see it, there are four major reasons the FF2 leveling system fails. The first is trade-offs inherent to the system. Second is that leveling is exponential. The third is too much randomization. Last of all is how easy it is to break the system. Let’s go through these one at a time:

Inherent Disadvantages


There are inherent disadvantages to this style of progression. It seems great at first that any character can be anything. But when you get down to it, this freedom is undercut by most options being inferior. The more specialized character will always be more effective than one who spreads their skills around. Granted, there’s some fun to be had in putting extra time into weird character builds. But part of the joy of RPGs is optimization. Not just building your own custom monster mulcher, but doing so efficiently. Constraints aren’t just necessary, they often help encourage creativity and problem solving. Giving someone a specific subject and palette to paint with is typically better than dumping a blank canvas on them.

Your materials are literally anything. Your theme is "Don't suck". We'll be intensely judging your results. Good luck!

On less philosophical grounds, an open leveling system makes the actual progression harder to follow. There are no clear signposts to give you a general idea of your strength. Are you overpowered for this area, or are you underpowered? This is hard to tell to begin with, due to strange or inconsistently balanced enemies. With this leveling system it becomes a total crapshoot. Though from experience, I can tell you the answer to whether you’re over or underpowered: Yes.

Exponential Leveling


Some RPGs give flat bonuses each time you level up or increase in power. When Darren the Boogiemancer is level 20, his dancing skills will be twice as fresh as they were at level 10. These linear scales are simple and effective, but many RPGs don’t follow them. Instead, they have power scales that work exponentially or logarithmically, with steadily rising upgrades. So, for example, Larry the Pastry Knight can bake 10 explosive pies a day at level 10, but then 50 a day at level 20 and 400 a day at level 30. As you become more powerful, the amount of each power increase also rises.

Why choose this system? As I see it, there are two major motives. The first is that it puts a narrower range on the areas you can explore. In an exponential system, when you go someplace you aren’t supposed to you’ll FEEL it. Enemies will be far too strong to handle or too weak to bother with. This limits the amount of places a player could reasonably go at a given level, making balancing easier on the designer. The boundaries are less harsh in a linear system. This can lead to the game feeling less tightly balanced. A level 20 player could end up in an area intended for level 40 and not realize it, complaining all the way and generally having a rotten time. These fuzzy boundaries are a necessary drawback to the freedom of a linear scale.

The second motive for exponential leveling? Well, let me pose a hypothetical scenario. A noble knight comes across a fearsome Clown Dragon, and what follows is a humiliating slaughter. Crushed by a hundred explosive pies, strangled by a thousand barbed balloon animals, the noble knight fails again and again to defeat the beast. But then, it finally happens. The knight weaves through the field of poison gas whoopee cushions and slices over and over into the lizard's comically-sized overalls. Rising up through a spray of foul seltzer water breath, they land the final blow! The dragon is slain, and fatigued, the knight moves on. And then, hours of adventuring later, he comes across a familiar sight: Another fearsome Clown Dragon.

And he kills it in a single hit.

Apparently I'm not the only one to think up Clown Dragons. I'm strangely disappointed that I'm not first to a terrible idea.

Any player of RPGs is familiar with this scenario, because it’s one of the most fundamental and enjoyable aspects of the genre. Seeing character progression reflected in fights with former foes is an amazing feeling. And if your game has exponential leveling? That happens all the time. Since your range of level-appropriate enemies is narrow, you constantly leave foes that used to give you trouble in the dust. In a linear system, it might be half the game before you can conquer earlier challenges with ease, if it happens at all. In an exponential system, it happens every few hours.

Now let’s bring this back to Final Fantasy 2. FF2 does not have linear leveling. HP (Hit Points) are increased when you lose them, but so is a stat called Stamina. When your HP increases, how much it does is determined by your Stamina. It’s the same way with the MP and Magic stats. Another example is Agility. You increase the Agility stat by dodging attacks, but your chance to dodge raises with how much Agility you have. So why is this a problem?

Well, it means that despite how open the system is, specialization is made even more appealing. A character that mixes spell-casting and brawling isn’t going to be half as good at each. Instead, the gap between them and the specialized is only going to increase as time goes on. This mostly defeats the purpose of an open leveling system. But there’s another problem that makes this exponential leveling even more of a hassle: Paradoxically, you don’t have enough control over your character's development.

Randomization


You’ll notice in the last section I said your HP increases when you get hit. The sharp among you will see the problem with this right away: Getting hit isn’t something you control. Who gets more HP is dependent on who gets randomly struck by enemies*. It’s the same way with Stamina, and Agility in the form of dodging attacks. This means half of your stats are purely determined by the actions of enemies. Unfortunately, it gets worse: Every stat increase only occurs by random chance.

*Fun fact, HP and Stamina raise based off how much lower your HP is at the end of a fight. So healing in the middle of battle to stay healthy ACTIVELY HURTS your character development!

And when you're hoping enemies will hit you, you know something has gone wrong.

The chance increases the more you perform actions in a given fight, but whether you obtain stats at the end is ultimately a die roll. You could get the hellish beating of a life time and see nothing for it, then next fight get tapped on the shoulder and snag an HP boost. The chance of some stats raising is so low that it feels like you have almost zero impact on when your character buffs up. That you have no clear and visible influence means that even when you do increase stats, it never feels quite as satisfying as other leveling systems. You know, deep down, that it’s the dice in charge here, not you. All you get to do is weight it.

As a final knot in this tangled web, the randomization makes the exponential problems even worse. Since you can’t influence several stats, it means the law of averages takes hold. Your party members have different starting stats. For example, Guy (yes that is his real name) has more Stamina than Firion, and Maria has less. Since you have no control over who gets hit, in all but the most extraordinary circumstances those stat differences will remain and even exaggerate over time, forcing these characters into certain archetypes. Now there is a way to manipulate stats any way you want, but it’s, well…

Breaking the System


You hit yourself.

That’s what it all boils down to. You can’t control which party member are hit by enemies. You can’t burn through spells and MP if the enemies die right away, and the same goes for dodging. The most surefire way to level up your characters, by far, is as follows:

1. Find an enemy so weak you can ignore it.
2. Beat the crap out of each other whatever way you see fit.
3. End the fight whenever you feel like.

Infuriatingly, even this isn’t a guarantee of stat ups. But it’s far more certain than battling normally. Since the most efficient way to level is screwing around with weak foes, most fights feel completely pointless. Sure you get some gold, but the economy and number of encounters* mean that you’ll rarely be wanting for cash. The game has some jumps in difficulty, which makes you think you have to grind. But the exponential leveling means it’s easy to overgrind and become ridiculously overpowered. The whole system is just a mess.

*Don’t worry, I’ll address this later. I’ll address the HECK out of it.

Hm…this boss doesn't seem threatening enough to kill us right away…quick! Stab me in the face a few times!

These leveling flaws aren't even a comprehensive list. But I’ve covered all the big issues and this article is getting a little long in the tooth. There's plenty more to say on Final Fantasy 2 though, so…

Everything Else



Originally, I thought I could fit my thoughts on this game into a single article. I agree, that was stupid of me. Since there’s too much to cover here for even the most reasonable attention span, this article is being split in two. That this gives me extra time to finish writing it is pure coincidence. Join me next week, when we’ll talk about Enemy Design, Dungeon Design, Music and all the miscellaneous points in between. See you then!

1 comment:

  1. It is good to make a game look more interesting by having a nice story and leveling it to get tougher and tougher. Nice post!

    ReplyDelete