Western RPG’s like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls series; Fallout and Fable surpass Final Fantasy in this current generation of gaming. The staple of those games is a story that isn’t necessarily original but many of them have you go about the main quest line in an interesting manner. Mass Effect has a dialog and choice system and tends to be focused more on character development. Being able to customize my character not just in appearance but also in abilities and personality is how the majority of western RPG’s have separated themselves from the Japanese fare. In Final Fantasy XIII-2 it would be nice if I could fashion the main characters persona into something I craft throughout the course of the entire playthrough. Not just aesthetically such as customizing weapons, equipment, or armor (though that would be a welcomed addition) but more so in the statistical department. A simple level system is fine but I want to be able to unlock abilities and spent talent points in order to tailor my character the way I see fit. Final Fantasy X featured the Sphere Grid system for character progression, and I still consider it the best system that Square Enix has created for any of its subsequent FF titles. It could be a simple classic skill tree, maybe with a few little touches to make it seem more unique. The Crystarium leveling system in Final Fantasy XIII just made it so you manually had to progress your character on a linear track of skills. You just need to hold down a button and the Crystarium would naturally unlock each ability on a predetermined line, there was little to no actual thought that needed to be applied when choosing how to progress. I still think each character should have his or her own skill set but I should be aloud to choose which abilities I want to spend points on each time I go up a level.
Most of the characters that you play as in Final Fantasy XIII are among the stereotypical JRPG variety. Hope is a whining and annoying little kid, Vanille is the incessantly naive one, and Lightning is the broody protagonist. Lightning, Squall from FF8 wants his gunblade and his personality back! The rest fall into the same JRPG character trap. In a game like Mass Effect I don’t care about the characters just because they are aliens and they look cool. I care because they introduced themselves in a unique fashion (Thane’s intro in ME 2 is fantastic) and from the outset you knew whether or not you want to talk to them or not. You see that Hope is sad because he has….you know a sad face on, or something. It’s just a ruse though in the end he is going to grow before are eyes, blah blah blah! Like all kids in JRPG’s he'll try to endear himself to the audience. It’s the same thing we have seen before though. I don’t care about Hope and Lightning’s relationship because I know in the end she is going to warm to him and embrace him. Vanille is bright and cheerful, but oh no she uses it to mask her sadness, I’ve heard it before! All the characters are hollow…well except the guy who looks like Ludacris with a chocobo on his head, that guy is AWESOME!
Look towards Mass Effect 1 and 2 for how character interactions should be done in a game. Most of your squad has their true personality buried deep and you have to talk to them to bring it out. Bioware writes each character so well that talking to them doesn’t come off as a chore. Take Tali from Mass Effect 1 and 2 for instance in the first game I just thought when I first met her she was just a simple space nomad or something. I learned that she is a Quarian and part of a race that created the rouge AI group the Geth. The Geth became hostile and the Quarian’s were forced from their home planet. Tali is interested in the Normandy and wants to bring back any research that could help her people as part of her personal pilgrimage, her right of passage. She seems trust worthy and wide-eyed and open to new ideas, she just wants to be a sponge and soak up all she can learn on her travels through space. Fast-forward to the sequel and Tali is a respected member of her fleet and even has the right to command research teams on away missions to various planets. She is strong and sure of herself and deep down she even loves Commander Shepard even before you reacquire her back onto your ship. Even if you turn down Tali’s advances you can see that she still has strong feelings for the Commander regardless. A character having personality is about what they say and do in a game not that they have a giant sword or a bird in their hair. Give me a reason to care for the characters I’m investing my time in, making them look intriguing from the exterior is one thing actually caring about them is another. If Square follows suit with what Mass Effect and learns to write more interesting characters the story will naturally become more interesting.
Most RPG’s this decade are about choice, but there really isn’t much of that in Squares classic series. FF XIII was as linear as a game could possibly be; well at least until you surpassed about 20 hours of gameplay then the game began to open up! I shouldn’t have to wait that long, a game that takes 20 hours to really become enjoyable isn’t something that most people want to sit through. Instead give me the open world right away; you can even go about giving me a vehicle like classic RPG’s but right at the beginning of the game instead of the tail end. Just lock certain areas of the game for later that will not open up until you progress in the main story. These open areas should have towns or cities as well. The removal of such in FF XIII wasn’t a game breaker, but having towns and cities don’t make Japanese RPG’s feel old, so why take them out? Mass Effect and Oblivion have many towns and hub areas and exploring each is what makes RPG’s fun. You want to feel like you are in a living breathing world. I understand that FF XIII’s story made it so the main characters were on the run and couldn’t settle down for fear of being captured. That’s the problem FF XIII's story wasn’t all that trilling or memorable so the absence of the traditional hub area’s that are featured in most RPG’s became a glaring omission. Give me open towns and cities with lots of people I can converse with and accept sidequest’s from. No not simple fetch quest’s either instead follow the route that Fallout paved. Each quest in Fallout 3 (not New Vegas) had you doing something different each time. Sure most of the quest had you killing something or someone but it was how you were approached by that NPC for the quest and how they made you care for their plight. The Fire Ant quest in Fallout 3 remains one of my favorites from the entire game. You are tasked with helping a young boy find his father but you quickly learn that giant fire ants have overrun his town. You learn that the father of the boy your helping is dead as are most of the inhabitants of his town. As the quest progresses you learn that the fire ants have a colony underneath the town. You are given the option to either kill the queen and all the ants, or gather research for a nearby scientist and leave the ants and queen alive. You see western RPG’s are about having multiple choices with sidequest that actually matter. I enjoyed the sidequest’s in Fallout more then the main storyline, Mass Effect is similar as well. Even if you don’t want to have a morality choice system in FF XIII-2 at least give me quest’s that have different outcomes and rewards for what I chose to do at the conclusion of said quest.
Honestly though FF XIII would have been a much better game if the battle system that was featured in the game was actually enjoyable. At first the battle system is simple, as most RPG’s tend to be at the beginning of the game. As I progressed (6 or so hours in) I began to think that, “Wow all these abilities and combination's, and its so cinematic too, such variety! This is going to be great!” I thought that the game would become more like a fast passed chess match were you try and strategically overwhelm your opponent with stacking ability and combos. The problem is that because the game is in real time it ends up taking too long to input commands manually in order to attack or defend. By the end of the game all I was doing was pressing the auto attack feature repeatedly during battle. It was all I could do! Usually if I stopped to input my own commands I would usually get hit to many times and them I would need to spend time restoring my health. It’s almost impossible to play that game as a healer and try and input commands over and over and not get frustrated.
The battle system has potential you can see that at least on the surface. You don’t need to completely discard it just revise some things and it could all come together quite nicely. Slow down enemy attacks or even give me the option to pause gameplay completely, and take out the auto attack feature. Even if these were things that could be accessed from the options menu in FF XIII as a personal preference they should have still been the default set up. Being able to only control one character during battle stinks as well, slowing the overall fight down gives me the ability to switch between characters and micromanage them. What is the point of having the ability to level up your group of characters if I can only command one individually during combat anyway? All I did was just use Lightning (the most balanced character once fully leveled) throughout the entire game anyways! Why bother going into the menu and choosing someone over Lightning as leader?
Id even like the option to have Co-Op implemented into the game, hear me out on this! Many JRPG’s actually have the ability to have a second or third player control ancillary squad mates, why not Final Fantasy? If the game is too fast for me to control my entire squad to the point were the AI has to do it then give me an option for a friend to take over. Well it’s not necessary it would be a welcomed addition and could lead to some truly climactic battles with you and your friend’s….wait climactic battle with friends, gross! Now I don’t think Square would be releasing a true sequel to a flawed game without any tweaks to the battle system anyways. That being said who knows maybe they are just trying to recoup some of their financial losses with a quick release sequel that doesn’t fix anything! I’m not ready to give up on Japanese RPG’s just yet though. Chrono Trigger, a JRPG, is still one of my favorite games for a reason. It didn't follow the same tired mold that Final Fantasy has, and it even had sidequests that effected the some 12 different endings! JRPG's are not done, trust me.I just hope we don't get the same cookie-cutter traditional Japanese RPG set up with Final Fantasy XIII-2. Square can recapture the magic in its franchise but they need to look towards western developed ideas for a little help.