Apr 142014
 

Status: Finished except for one puzzle hiding somewhere.

Most Intriguing Idea: Trying to integrate puzzles into the playing field.

Best Design Decision: The map revamp, though it’s a mixed bag.

Worst Design Decision: The horse, I mean seriously.

Summary:

The Professor Layton series has generally felt like it’s on a long, slow decline since Mysterious Village, and Miracle Mask does nothing to alter that impression. The series has never been particularly interested in refining its core mechanics, and even the execution has started to feel a little off. Miracle Mask had more errors in recognizing my written numbers than previous Layton games, and I found the puzzles that required moving and rotating pieces to be frustratingly inconsistent about what gestures would produce which result. The mechanics for moving between screens have changed in a positive way thanks to a navigable map on the lower screen of the 3DS, but I was less pleased with having to use the lower screen to move a magnifying glass on the upper screen.

The puzzles themselves were not particularly memorable for the most part, but with the exception of the tile-layering puzzles there weren’t any that I really hated. Miracle Mask featured a number of ball-and-hole puzzles in an extensive “archaeological expedition” which was at least an interesting way to shake up the formula, though the lack of variety in these puzzles and the fact that they were all crammed into one chapter made them less enjoyable than they could have been. As always, the main game includes three minigame suites. It is traditional for at least one of them to be terrible; this time it is the bunny theater, which was dull from a puzzle perspective and had lousy gesture recognition. There is also a completely superfluous horse-riding bit that has nothing at all to do with the series’ core values and represents the nadir of its design.

Much the same can be said for the game’s aesthetics. The 2D drawings that popped up for conversations in previous games have been replaced by cel-shaded 3D models in order to take advantage of the 3DS’ display capabilities, but these animated figures generally have less character and expressiveness than the pictures they replaced. The game follows the pattern of Unwound Future by trying to draw its dramatic core from the Professor’s past, but with much less success. The underlying tragedy is not movingly presented — it does not help that the game fails to establish Randall’s better qualities until very late — and showing that his interest in puzzles and archaeology are inherited from a friend rather than arising in himself diminishes Layton as a character. As for the ongoing plot concerning the Azran, Descole, and Targent, I suppose it would be possible for me to care less about it, but I’m not sure how I would accomplish that.

Verdict: Not recommended.

Apr 022014
 

I’m not going to write a review of Final Fantasy X because I suspect most of the things I would say about it are going to be contained in the two posts I recently put up and the two other ones I’m working on. I understand why many JRPG purists don’t like the game, and whether it is actually any fun to play is as always a matter of taste (I happen to really enjoy it). However, in terms of a game design that helps tell a story and a story that’s worth designing a game around, I don’t think there are many persuasive arguments against FFX. I think there is more of an argument to be had against the HD reissue.

Again, this is a matter of taste, and the remaster does most things right. The world of Spira looks absolutely fantastic on the PS3, and the cutscenes look even more fantastic than I remember, although the HD makes Wakka dopier than ever. That’s valuable because FFX contains a lot of the cutscenes that make cutscenes seem like a good idea. A few character models looked a little fuzzy (Cid’s sadface in particular) or low-poly, but there was nowhere near as much of the jarring SD stuff that made parts of the Kingdom Hearts remaster such eyesores. The music too has been remastered and in some cases exchanged outright for different versions. I appreciated that as well not only because score is great, but also because it compares favorably against the Tales of Symphonia remaster I’ve been playing recently, which often sounds tinny and sad.

What I don’t care for is the relatively straight port of the International version. The Dark Aeon bosses are okay, if you’re into the mega-grinding necessary to take them on, but the in the international version, it’s difficult to say they’re truly “optional”. Besaid can only be revisited by defeating Dark Valefor, for instance, which was a major pain because I had forgotten to do the Destruction Sphere quest there and hadn’t yet retrieved that Jecht Sphere. Blocking the town off with that Dark Aeon is kind of a dick move, and I ran into others of the Dark Aeons by accident as well (and thank Yevon I’d remembered to do the destruction sphere in Macalania Temple the first time or I still wouldn’t have Anima). Adjusting this to make them truly optional bosses wouldn’t have been that hard or cost the game any sort of artistic integrity. Poorly designed stuff from the original game was also ported straight–things like the awful “Catcher Chocobo” and legendarily stupid “lightning dodge” quest. Minor annoyances that are even less justified, like the absurdly low encounter rates for Simurgh, are still there too. I think there’s something to be said for a slavish port of an original, but there’s also something to be said for admitting that certain choices were mistakes.

That’s a matter of taste, of course, and for anyone who has a PS3 I still would say that Final Fantasy X HD is worth getting (not to mention the bonus of getting X-2 as well). For anyone who has a PS3 and a PS4… well, that’s tougher. If the Gaikai thing materializes FFX is undoubtedly going to be one of the games available on it, and while it benefits handsomely from the HD upgrade the original doesn’t look bad. And your PS3 is not exactly hurting for new JRPGs to play right now (or at least mine isn’t). Final Fantasy X HD is great, but that’s almost entirely because the original is great, and it seems very likely to me that it will end up on a streaming service sooner rather than later. For that reason, although I wholeheartedly recommend playing this game, I can’t say I feel the same about this remaster.

Apr 012014
 

“This is my story!” Tidus shouts in the last battle of Final Fantasy X, but that’s only half of it. Final Fantasy X is also his game. The minigames and some aspects of the battle system, as I mentioned in the last post, tie back to his athletic personality, but the game goes further than that. The level design of Final Fantasy X is a mirror to Tidus’ experience.

In their classic form, JRPGs, including the previous Final Fantasy games, have a large zoomed-out overworld that essentially mimics walking across a map, studded with dungeons and towns that have greater detail and more traditional level design. Final Fantasy X marked a complete break from that style for the series, tightening the whole world into smaller, designed levels that often had extremely narrow and restrictive paths. This pattern was repeated almost verbatim in Final Fantasy XIII, but it is even evident in Final Fantasy XII, where the overworld zones are not mechanically or graphically distinct from the dungeons or even (in some cases) the towns.

The downside of this change is that FFX can feel very restrictive, subject to the same “series of tubes” objections that were made against FFXIII’s design. On the other hand, it’s not a bad way to tell a story about a religious pilgrimage steeped in ritual. The Summoner Yuna’s journey to defeat the monstrous Sin must take her to certain places, and Tidus, understanding nothing of Spira, must follow her lead.

That’s certainly how things seem to be going at the start. Following a relatively brief prologue, Tidus emerges at Besaid Island. Although Besaid has what appears to be a split path, one branch must be traversed on his first visit to the island and can never be traveled again. Functionally, the island has two one-way streets. At this point Tidus is entirely passive. He is following Wakka to Besaid village, and once he meets her, he is following Yuna away. The one-way character of Besaid’s paths matches the situation: he is doing whatever other people tell him to do.

The action then moves to Kilika Island. Tidus and friends arrive just after an attack by the monstrous Sin has devastated the town. Yuna performs a funeral rite, and Tidus gains an inkling that this pilgrimage she’s on might be more complex than just a straightforward journey to fight a monster. Tidus begins to change his mind about what he wants. He still wants to return to his Zanarkand, but he also becomes invested–through Yuna–in Spira itself: “I wished there would never be a next time. No more people being killed by Sin. No more sendings for Yuna.”  The growing nuances of his experience are reflected in the next area, which is a light grid with multiple pathways through it and an optional boss. Tidus has a slightly more complex relationship to the world, which reacts by becoming somewhat more complex itself.

Big deal, one might say. This is arguably just the game progressively showing off more elaborate areas. But FFX’s levels don’t actually continue to become more complex. In fact, they become less so.

Following a story event in the town of Luca, Tidus encounters his old mentor Auron again. After an argument, Auron tells Tidus that he can choose whether to come along on Yuna’s journey or not. Tidus’ reply is instructive – “You tell me it’s my decision, but I don’t really have a choice, do I?” Tidus knows his only hope to understand what has happened to him and what is happening in Spira is to follow Yuna and Auron. The area that follows is the Mi’ihen Highroad, and it has one striking difference from every other level in the game.

The Mi'ihen Highroad in FFX

Everywhere else, FFX takes pains to show physical boundaries that constrain the party’s path. Most zones have cliffs on both sides, or are narrow causeways suspended in the air. In some places bodies of water or dense vegetation block the way, and in the desert giant sand dunes hem Tidus in. The Mi’ihen Highroad has nothing. At its edge are only low shrubs and small ruins – obstacles that couldn’t possibly stop an athlete like Tidus. In this one place the visual design of the area nakedly displays the restraining hand of the designer. Tidus doesn’t stick to the road here because something prevents him from leaving it; he sticks to the road because he has no other choice. The rhetoric of level design reinforces the rhetoric of the story.

The levels continue in this single-pathway vein for some time. The path through Mushroom Rock Road winds a bit but is essentially a tube; the same is true of the roads from there to Djose and from Djose to the Guadosalam. That city is notable for its twisting and interconnected nature. Although it is small, it’s a bit disorienting. Here, too, a story complication crops up, as the character Seymour proposes marriage to Yuna. Her immediate thought is that she will continue her pilgrimage, and so the party continues out onto the Thunder plains, which is somewhat more open than the preceding areas but still essentially a straight path.

At the end of the Thunder Plains, Yuna announces that she will instead marry Seymour. Her reasoning for doing this is wrong-headed, but her resolve is solid. I mention that because it helps to establish that the levels are telling Tidus’ story, not hers. Yuna knows what she is doing, but Tidus is confused. And what follows is one of the most confusing and knotty areas of the game – Macalania Woods.

ffx-macalania

The road that Tidus is meant to follow through the forest on this first visit is singular and unbranched, but it coils and doubles back on itself to such a degree that it is possible to forget, if one has walked away from the game for a few minutes, which direction along its path will actually take him to the exit. It also soon becomes clear that Macalania, unlike any other area of the game, has a complete secondary route overlaying the main one, as well as multiple exits. By the end of the game, Tidus can leave the woods in four different directions – to the Thunder Plains, Bevelle, the Calm Lands, and Lake Macalania – and will have experienced significant events in two large side areas of the forest itself. Macalania is a nexus of the game, geographically its most complex level, and not coincidentally is entered at a moment where, after a long period of confidence, Tidus has lost his understanding of Yuna’s actions and intentions. Tidus is confused, and the game reinforces his emotions with a confusing level.

Lake Macalania supplies a brief moment of clear purpose: Tidus first means to catch up to Yuna, and then to escape with her from the attack of the Guado. That clarity is destroyed by Sin, who carries the party to an unknown land. Here the game supplies one of its more open levels. Although there is a straight path out of the oasis, it opens into two screens of fairly broad, low-feature desert. Tidus is physically lost, and no longer has Yuna’s guidance.

An intense, story-heavy sequence follows, in which Tidus learns that Yuna’s pilgrimage must end in her death. As the sequence progresses, Yuna learns that the religion she has devoted her life to has rotted from within. She briefly wavers in her commitment to her journey, a moment reflected in the rather simple maze of the Via Purifico–the only part of the game that completely lacks Tidus, and thus concerns itself with telling Yuna’s story. Soon the whole party is reunited and moved on to the Calm Lands, at which point Yuna’s confidence is back. “I’ve always known where to go,” she says when Auron warns her that summoners often “lose their way” in this place.

Yuna knows where to go, but Tidus is now emotionally lost. To have any hope of returning to his home, he must continue with Yuna, but each step he takes brings her closer to death. Tidus doesn’t know what to do, so the game opens out into the vast plain of the Calm Lands, a huge area which entirely lacks the tunnel-like character that informs the remainder of the game. This area has more freedom of action within it than any other point in the game. Yet even this area narrows down to a single exit. Tidus must eventually follow Yuna forward on her quest.

ffx-calmlands

The remainder of the pilgrimage feels very tightly constrained. Mt. Gagazet is a little confusing, but ultimately consists of only a single forward path, and the same is true of Zanarkand. The only moment of confusion comes when Tidus encounters the fayth of Zanarkand and learns that his home is nothing more than their collective dream. His shock on learning this is perhaps reflected in the slight complexity of the Gagazet caves.

The remaining non-optional area of the game is the interior of Sin itself, consisting of two areas. The first is a branching, maze-like structure that, of all the locations in the game, is closest in structure to a traditional Final Fantasy dungeon. The second is more of a straight line, but one where strange and surprising obstructions appear. Walls pop up out of the ground, and the floor falls away beneath Tidus’ feet. Both areas have an additional unique feature: unlike the rest of the game, their minimap starts as a blank that can only be filled in through exploration. These features seem to reflect the complex and adversarial relationship between Tidus and the father he never understood, who has become Sin.

Final Fantasy X differs significantly in its construction from previous entries in the series. Although previous Final Fantasies frequently obstructed the player’s movement or forced em down a set path, they had never employed the tube-like levels that constitute almost all of X. This particular design may reflect the limitations of the hardware or the developers, but the particular design of the levels also reinforces the narrative. This approach would be reused for similar ends in FFXIII, as Simon Ferrari has pointed out. There, the narrowness of the world emphasizes how the characters are bound by fate. In Final Fantasy X, however, the constriction and expansion of the areas reflects Tidus’ emotional state as his story develops. Simple and unbranched when confidence or resignation confine Tidus to a single way forward, coiled and confused when his view of the world becomes complicated, open and pathless when he loses his way, the levels of Final Fantasy X make Spira his world, just as the game is his story.

Mar 242014
 

I spent the last weekend between two screens. On one, I was playing the HD reissue of Final Fantasy X. On the other, I was watching a particularly exciting edition of America’s annual exercise in basketball excess, the NCAA tournament. Every year the tournament becomes a point of conversation across the country as Cinderellas like Dayton outplay their reputations, traditional powers like Louisville live up to theirs, and upstarts like the almost-victorious Coastal Carolina try to do the seemingly impossible.

Final Fantasy X has a deep connection with sport. Protagonist Tidus and party member Wakka are both professional athletes, as was Tidus’ father (and major story influence) Jecht. Wakka even attacks with a blitzball — the key piece of equipment in the aquatic sport Spira is mad for. Every major faction in the world has its own blitzball team, and a tournament between them all serves as the backdrop to a major episode early in the plot that introduces several of the game’s secondary antagonists. This sequence also introduces FFX‘s sports RPG-in-an-RPG centered around blitzball, which must be mastered in order to obtain certain high-level weapons. The game of blitzball is so important to Spira that somehow performing its ancient victory sign has become the world’s prayer ritual.

FFX’s main battle system seems to lack this broad connection to sport. After all, when Tidus and friends go to fight, they end up in a turn-based world where enemies line up on one side of the screen and allies occupy the other. Action and strategic positioning, so important to many athletic pursuits, don’t seem to have any place there. But FFX’s battles do have one aspect that connects them to the world of sport: strategic substitution. Very shortly after the game begins, Tidus’ party grows larger than the three people who can take part in battle at any time. The characters waiting in the wings cannot be harmed but also cannot act. However, on any character’s turn e can be swapped out for another non-active member of the party. If, for instance, Wakka gets poisoned, he can be swapped out for a healthy Auron.

The strategy involved, however, goes beyond status effects and health. Although their progression all takes place, in principle, on the same Sphere Grid, until very late in the game the characters in FFX have tightly-defined capabilities. Only Wakka has the accuracy necessary to reliably hit flying enemies, Lulu is the only one with magic that can bypass high defenses, and only Yuna has powerful healing at the start. With the exception of Kimahri, who can explore another path fairly early on, each of the characters has a specific strength that is useful in particular situations. A basketball analyst would call them “role players”.

The system can get even more subtle than this, because even after their skills cross over the characters may still have different strategic purposes. Kimahri, for instance, can quickly learn much of Lulu’s magic, but taking him down this road makes him very slow. If he’s in the combat group when small, quick enemies attack, they may get several strikes in before he can act. In contrast, the character Rikku has much less potential to cause damage but acts very quickly. If she is in the combat group she is likely to act very early in battle. When her turn comes up, however, she can be swapped for Kimahri, who thereby gains the benefit of her speed. In this way characters with complementary abilities can compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

The strategic incentive to bring in a particular party member in response to a specific situation is not the only reason to swap. For the most part, characters that don’t actually participate in a battle don’t earn any experience for it. So if a player can’t figure out what to do with Kimahri and ends up simply not using him, he won’t become stronger or more capable. This gives the player another reason to shuffle everyone on the team into combat, especially against bosses. If they’re not getting the minutes, these characters won’t develop, like anyone who constantly rides the pine in game situations.

Strategic substitutions are a major part of many sports. In basketball, a coach will often sub in from the bench in the middle of a half to keep key players fresh or to prevent them from getting in too much foul trouble. When e senses the opposing lineup has a defensive weakness, e may send new players out onto the court in order to exploit it. A group of small, quick perimeter shooters may be used if the other team has put tall, slow players out on the floor, for instance.

The Japanese creators of FFX, if they were thinking of sports when they developed this system, more likely had baseball in mind. It’s an appropriate analogue, because mid-stream substitutions take place there as well. Managers are famous for putting in pinch-hitters and new pitchers at key moments in a game as part of opposed strategic moves. The choice of when to take out the starter in favor of a reliever or closer has made and broken many a manager’s career. With its highly structured innings baseball also has some of the feel of a turn-based game, especially now that the chaos-inducing steal seems to be permanently on the decline.

I previously identified FFX’s style of combat as a director system: one in which the player chooses what action will be taken but has very little input into its outcome. In this particular case, though, perhaps a better term would be “coach” system. As a player, my concern is not only what will be done but who will be doing it, and unlike many RPGs FFX provides a way to quickly and seamlessly bring in the best character for the job. This connection between combat and sport is just one of the ways in which FFX is not only Tidus’ story, but also his game.