Bring back the old jobs!

7 August 2011 by , No Comments

Why are Final Fantasy upgrade systems so horrendously bad?

This isn’t a problem every Square Enix game has. Dragon Quest VIII, for one, has a perfectly good method of strengthening characters. The boring stats and levelling up are taken care of by the game itself; all you need to do is invest points in whichever one of the five fighting styles each character has to get new moves. If you decide you don’t like one, you don’t have to stick with it.

Final Fantasy X, on the other hand, gave us the unforgivably bad Sphere Grid. Developing your heroes however you wanted sounded like such a good idea on paper… Tidus could be turned into a Black Mage, Auron could have healing skills, Yuna’s defences could be buffed up to make her into a meatshield despite her slender frame… it sounded so open-ended. However, the reality was a country mile littered with programming landmines away from the dream.

My first complaint with the Sphere Grid is also my biggest. The whole thing relies on you winning Spheres in battle to upgrade your characters. Spheres are randomly won from battles that are themselves generated randomly. In other words: the system, and your chances, of upgrading party members is determined by sheer dumb luck. It gets worse, though. After battle, you earn AP; which lets you move across the board. So, if there’s a skill you want to learn, or a stat upgrade you want to unlock: you need to make sure you have enough AP to move to it and then you have to have the right Sphere to acquire the talent. It’s every bit as unintuitive as it sounds. I can remember losing my patience with one boss because I didn’t have the right skills to defeat him purely because I hadn’t been able to find an enemy who dropped Ability Spheres to unlock Fira on Lulu’s Sphere Path.

The second problem with the Grid is that there are just too many stats to upgrade. Strength, defence, hit points, magic resistance, evasion, egg-salad sandwich making, annoying laughter… There are more numbers to grind than there are characters to play as, which brings me onto my third complaint: you have absolutely no choice in how you develop your characters. For example, Tidus’ Sphere Path is littered with time magic and speed upgrades, so naturally you would expect him to be a time-shifting speedster. However, he can also go into Yuna’s Path, and from hers into the Black Mage Lulu’s. In theory, you should be able to have him walk into Lulu’s and learn Black Magic. Instead, you have to bypass Yuna’s grid entirely, which takes so long that by the time you get one Thunder spell into Lulu’s path with him she’ll be throwing around Flare and Ultima. In all that time wasted on trying to reach Lulu’s part of the Grid, you could have turned Tidus into a competent melee fighter.

It’s not just the tenth game that has this problem, however. Final Fantasy VIII rendered sorcery pointless with the Junction system, as casting spells would drain the units of magic you had assigned to your characters. In other words, casting spells made you weaker. Not to mention XII didn’t just restrict abilities to us, it also limited the amount of items we could use. At the risk of regurgitating the old VG Cats joke, the Licence Board and its implications that we have to get legal permission written in triplicate before we’re entitled to wear a hat in public were just plain stupid.

So, with XIII-2 on the horizon, I’m really hoping for a return to the old system of Jobs in Final Fantasy.

Yes, it would mean you wouldn’t be able to tailor you characters however you want, but there was never any choice in that to begin with. For example, XIII had a very similar system to X and yet no matter what you did Fang would always be a better physical fighter than Hope. If Square Enix is going to give each character these invisible “roles” anyway, why bother with the customisation in the first place? Just let Hope level up and have him learn Blizzaga and Holy.

If Square Enix sets the trend for returning to classes, other RPG’s will inevitably follow suit because the fastest way for them to make money is to be like Final Fantasy. It’s a sad, inescapable fact of console JRPG’s. Why do you think so many villains look like Sephiroth and have about as much characterisation? Even Tales, the series that has for the longest time differentiated itself from Square Enix’s series by being a deconstructive reexamination of all the JRPG cliches we’ve come to know and tire of over the years, has started to follow the leader with Duke in Vesperia and now by making its latest instalment, Xillia, employ a Sphere Grid-style upgrade system. I for one don’t see the point of this new Growth Point system given that, once again, there will be no way to change the character classes. Jude is always going to be a fighter, Milla will always be a magic swordsman… If those classes aren’t changeable, then what’s the point of the game giving us the illusion of customisation? I accept that it’s early days and there is still time for Namco to surprise us before the September release, but it doesn’t look like anything more than being able to change the order in which we upgrade our statistics and that isn’t any kind of real customisation to me. Now, if it was a Hearts style system in which we have to make a choice between whether we want statistical power, skills like backstepping and improved blocking, or more battle skills with each upgrade level that would be something else. It would force players to make real choices and sacrifices in the way they play the game and build their heroes, not just dump them on a convoluted spider-chart and say “Upgrade each point individually!”

Skill trees are one thing. I for one rather like it when a game lets us learn abilities in whatever order we please, but I don’t see why I should have to invest my time in caring for six different statistics of as many party members on top of that and I would honestly like to know how many other gamers will. Is anybody going to level up Jude’s magic stat in Xillia? No, because from what we’ve seen he doesn’t use spells. Therefore, his magic stat is made completely redundant and if there’s no point to it then why even bother allowing the player to invest in it? There’s a fine line between giving the player the ability to build their party however they see fit and giving the player a metric tonne of pointless fluff.

So, if by some random stroke of luck, there is anybody from Square Enix reading this, I implore you. Please cease with your longwinded, nonsensical upgrade systems. Either give us talent trees and let the computer automatically handle the boring numbers, or just stick everything into levelling up. Use the influence you have acquired over the last fourteen years to bring back the old ways. I don’t know what the situation is like in Japan, but it feels very much like console RPG’s are a dying breed in the western world, which is no doubt due to how the kids want faster entertainment. RPG’s can be that faster entertainment if they cut out all of this boring manual number-building faff, which means more fans for the developers and thus more money. The choice is obvious to me. Total manual upgrade systems are a disease, a cancer of the industry. You were the plague but now you can be the cure.

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