View From the RoadView from the Road: The Lesson of Final Fantasy XIIIView From the Road - RSS 2.0
This year's Final Fantasy XIII was, to put it mildly, a divisive title within the Final Fantasy fanbase. While fans pointed to the game's narrative, richly designed world, excellent art direction and great battle system as pluses, others criticized it for its extremely linear nature, its excruciatingly slow start, and the fact that its battle system doesn't actually get good until you unlock everything twenty-five hours into the game - long after many people gave up on it. When all was said and done, I finished FF13 looking upon it fondly, but the criticisms against it are certainly valid.
There is one particular design choice in Final Fantasy XIII, though, that is absolutely brilliant. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, where you could only restore your health and magic via the use of items and abilities (or at save points), FF13 completely healed the party after every single encounter. Like most things in the game, it was controversial - "This dumbs the game down," cried the faithful, "It makes it too easy!"
No, it didn't. In fact, it did just the opposite, and it's something that every designer should start to consider.
In previous Final Fantasy games - and other games like them - the developers had no way of knowing for sure what any given player's status was. Maybe they had more than enough restorative items, maybe they didn't have any, maybe they were over-leveled in some areas and weak but others. You know that you want there to be spikes of difficulty with the bosses, but what about the stuff in between? How hard do you make it, if you actually want people to progress through your game? If you want them to stand a chance at the hard parts, you can't make the in-between too challenging - so it ends up feeling bland as you mindlessly chop your way through enemies that don't stand a chance.
Final Fantasy XIII didn't have that problem. The designers knew that for every single fight in the game, whether boss enemy or "trash," you would be entering it completely fresh. Since they didn't have to worry about keeping you ready for the big climactic battles, they could make the in-between fights actually challenging - and they certainly were.
Halfway through the game, I found myself dying to regular enemies far more frequently than I ever had in any other Final Fantasy game I'd ever played. It was challenging, it was engaging, and it was fun. No longer was I just running through the world mashing Attack with the characters of Tidus or Cloud, trusting that I'd slay the monsters in one or two hits; I now had to pay attention or I'd get smashed.