As a lawyer, I actually enjoy the occasional heated debate. Let’s start one! 😉
Final Fantasy XIII is the best Final Fantasy, because it’s the only one that lays out its challenges in a fair, satisfying way. In most Final Fantasies, the designers commit the unpardonable sin of @#$%ing the player just to demonstrate that they can—and the games are worse for it. Whatever problems it may have, Final Fantasy XIII at least refrains from lording it over the player.
Tom “Zileas” Cadwell, Riot Games’ VP of Game Design, has listed among his “basic design ‘anti-patterns’” the situation where the designers “straight up screw over the player, usually with dramatic flair, or maybe just try to make the player feel crappy in a way that isn’t contributing to the fun of the game.” He cites as a “[v]ery [s]evere” example a puzzle that the player can only solve by reading the designer’s mind, and that has painful consequences for failure. Designers who intentionally put this sort of thing into a game, Cadwell says, should be fired.
The vast majority of Final Fantasy games feature one of these puzzles that require mind-reading. They allow players to make progress . . . until they reach a point near the end of the game where there’s a dramatic increase in difficulty. It’s not possible to know in advance where that point is, or even to be sure that it’s coming; the quantum leap in challenge is signaled only by the death of the player’s adventurers in a completely lopsided battle.
What’s more, the penalty for losing that battle is substantial. First, the player loses some of her progress. Final Fantasy games don’t, as a rule, allow quicksaving; the best a player can hope for is that there was a save point not too long before the wipeout.
Second, and more critically, the only way to move forward is to seek out random fights for ten hours, or tens of hours—however long it takes the adventurers to build up enough strength, skill, and stamina to win through. Note that there’s no straightforward indication of how much of them is needed, so a player might have to lose the puzzle-battle many times, testing the waters over and over until she can finally go further. The punishment for not being able to figure out when the designers are going to clobber you can end up being a substantial portion of the overall playtime!
I’ve played Final Fantasies I, III (Japan), III (U.S.), VII, X, Tactics Advance, and XIII. Every one of those games but the last includes the anti-pattern, the moment where the designers pull the rug out and stop all forward movement without warning. I have no reason to believe the ones I haven’t played are any different.
Final Fantasy XIII is the only one to break the mold. Every time a player reaches a new location in the game, the player’s adventuring team is ready for the challenges to be found there. At no point is the player subjected to the anti-pattern, to the designers whacking him over the head for doing exactly what he’s been doing, and getting rewarded for, all along.
One might argue by way of response that death and defeat aren’t necessarily punishments in an RPG—that they can serve to advance the story. I completely agree! The unwinnable battle is a time-tested method for introducing a villain.
However, well-designed unwinnable battles avoid setting the player back unnecessarily. They’re meant as ways to advance the plot, after all, and it’s not very satisfying if the story is moving forward but the player is stuck playing catch-up. I personally saw this happen in Skies of Arcadia, an otherwise very good game with an unwinnable battle that a friend wasted hours and lots of consumables on because it seemed like victory was just out of reach. He finally discovered that it was impossible . . . at which point he couldn’t enjoy the new plot events because had to grind for money to replenish his supplies!
Final Fantasy’s puzzle-battles aren’t well-designed unwinnable fights. They aren’t even unwindable! Instead they’re simply fights with prerequisites that aren’t clear until the battle is over. They’re traps.
Some might also take exception to the idea that grinding for levels is a punishment. That’s fair. Lots of people get invested in improving their characters’ strength, and enjoy the process of doing so.
Other people don’t, however. They accept the random battles associated with walking around in a Final Fantasy game because the fighting is leavened by story progression. Grabbing these story-focused players by the throat and imposing an unexpected requirement that they grind for hours on end before they get any more plot advancement isn’t useful.
Finally, one could suggest that these situations have become a trope of the jRPG genre, and that players expect them. It suffices to say in response that mistakes aren’t corrected by repeating them.
I like Final Fantasy games—even the ones that @#$% with me. I recognize, though, that it’s not good or desirable for them to do that. To the contrary, it’s a serious design flaw, one that the series has repeated over and over. Final Fantasy XIII is the only one without that critical weakness, and that’s a major reason why it’s the best-designed outing in the series.