(No significant spoilers)
AI party members with their worthless AoE heals have caused more Game Over screens than any monster. They’re also not particularly good at prioritizing silence on enemies than do nothing but cast one hit kill spells. Similarly, when the bad guy has physical attacks that can nearly kill me in one shot, and we know an application of Protect cuts that damage nearly in half, why is casting Protect not at the top of the list??
Artificial Intelligence in games is a kludgy, fakey thing. F.E.A.R bedazzled me when its enemies were capable of doing something besides ‘run forward’ and ‘shoot’, but I knew there weren’t thinking, breathing robot people inside my computer. I get that it’s mostly smoke and mirrors, but I still gotta give mad props to my AI homies because gallful, willsome people have asked them to create a ARTIFICIAL PERSON and they’ve done the best they could. If you imagine the difficulty in rearing an actual person, consider making a pretend one from scratch to be a similar affair, only it doesn’t actually learn anything on its own, ever, and it will never move out of the house, not even after college (there is, thankfully, less poop to manage).
I hate watching these things happen and feeling helpless. This frustration is compounded because the previous Final Fantasy functioned in much the same way, only you could program sets of complicated If-Then statements to keep your allies in line. For example: if the game ends when the main character dies, then it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the main character alive regardless of anyone else’s status. You could make action trees like “If I’m at <30% health than ignore everything else in the entire universe until I’m not.” I’m sure there’s an arugment to be made that people don’t want to take an introductory course to flowcharts in order to play their silly Japanese RPG. That’s reasonable, but I submit that I would’ve gladly exchanged the two or three hours over the course of the game I spent filling meaningless level-up bubbles in the Crystarium for the ability to “waste” time programming a simple “HEAL ME. HEAL ME RIGHT NOW. IT’S GAME OVER IF YOU DON’T HEAL ME. STOP HEALING SAZH!!” option. The beneficial side effect of this is that a whole slew of gamers would be learning about basic programming instead of learning how to hold X until a bubble fills, then hold X until the next bubble fills, and the next bubble, and the next bubble, and hey guys just because this thing is all sparkly doesn’t mean I don’t notice it’s pretty much just a straight line of bubbles. The skill involved in filling shiny bubbles is not considered a particularly valuable trait in today’s unforgiving job market.
But the shoddy AI kept me busy. By the end of the game I’d be changing my lead character between every battle. Some encounters required an immediate, precise debuffing sequence, while others the computer was not equipped to handle as a buffing class. So I stopped playing Lightning and hitting auto-attack, and the pretend people playing my party mates weren’t so bad, as long as they had easy jobs like “hit this guy with your sword” or “cast fire.” Sometimes I’d even trust them to heal, though certainly not outside of a setup where I was also a healer specifically healing myself at all times.
I originally shuffled off roles like Synergist to my AI party members because, unlike a real person, they wouldn’t complain about the thankless task of casting endless strings of Haste and Shell. I figured that way I’d get to see the big numbers when I cast the big spells. But who did the damage is irrelevant as long as we win — a lesson more WoW players could stand to learn — and the reason the AI is so good at being a spell caster is there’s nothing to know beyond ‘is this guy weak to fire, or is he weak to ice?’ Meanwhile, when a computer sees three characters at 15% health and it has a spell that heals them all for 10% health, it assumes that 10% for three people is better than 25% for the main character who will surely die in the next round. So the thankless jobs are left to you. But this is alright! Jobs like Saboteur are a wee sight more complicated than ‘Cast Fire’ Guy and ‘Hit With Sword’ Guy.
Switching over to controlling Saboteurs and Medics and Synergists instead of Commandos and Ravagers changed the game. Since I mostly avoided grinding, I couldn’t thoughtlessly overpower the enemies in the final dungeon. A lot of them required complex, precise actions. Becase you can retry every battle immediately from the Game Over screen, every random encounter can be as complicated as a boss fight. During that time it was probably some of the best Final Fantasy I ever played. Enemies who buff themselves with a charge spell can be debilitated, but you won’t have enough time to get all of them. There’s a certain gasp of hesitation as you switch to your healing paradigm, hoping you’ve removed enough of their power-ups to survive until you can heal back to full. Another encounter has less of these charge-up enemies, but they’re grouped with a super big guy that can lay waste to your team. Who do you prioritize, and with what debuffs? Each battle becomes a puzzle. That wouldn’t have happened if I was playing as a Ravager, casting endless Blizzards, let alone if I was playing a previous Final Fantasy, where I would hold the X button down to sleep-walk through every random encounter. The best battles have a crazy sort of momentum that feels less turn based and more like a Starcraft match, where fingers fly on blind instinct and hit hot keys you didn’t know you’d memorized.
There’s no excusing the seemingly endless lead-up where FF13 wavers between ‘tolerable’ and ‘good… ish.’ If they could make those battles in the final chapter so friggin’ excellent, then they should’ve made the game eight hours long, or every battle in thirty five hours should’ve been just as good. Final Fantasy 13 is a weird little curiosity. Out of nowhere it explodes in brilliance (with hints of controller-twisting frustration), and then it’s over just like that. The game reedems itself (maybe despite itself) through crappy AI and jobs like Saboteur. I won’t say they did it on purpose. They probably were too busy designing skirts with animal tails on them. But still… were you controlling three characters instead of one, the whole game probably would’ve been ‘hit X to win.’ Instead, controlling only one, the best of its battles are fast paced, build with a fever-pitch, and climax in an instant, with just enough of a denouement after the enemy’s defenses are broken to leave you with a smile on your face. The AI characters make that possible, though their half-assed antics may boggle your mind. The battles might frustrate you, or drive you to anger, but few will bore you. Maybe this game isn’t worth your effort, maybe you should borrow your friend’s save and start halfway through. I don’t know. No matter how mad those computer characters made me, I ended up liking it in the end.