Monday, March 29, 2010

The Good Grind

By Kirk Hamilton

Over the last couple of weeks, I've played one metric buttload of Final Fantasy XIII (I'm reviewing it for Paste). My review is finished, and I will, of course, link to it when it's online. But I thought I'd take the opportunity to write a few more thoughts about the game's old-school grinding.

Though FFXIII has some stuff going for it, by far my biggest gripe is that it just doesn't provide the gameplay necessary to support its sixty-hour length. I mean my God, it feels endless. And not the good, Dragon Age sort of endless. It's a grind throughout, but it waits until the eleventh chapter (out of thirteen) to make you truly feel like you're grinding, with the return of that old-school rhythm of aimlessly wandering around killing enemies just to get your stats high enough to progress the story.

What's interesting is how starkly those grinding mechanics stand in contrast to (and pale in comparison with) the other JRPG I'm currently playing, Demon's Souls. (Though truthfully, Demon's Souls is more of a "Role-Playing Game from Japan" than a "JRPG." All of the swords are regular-sized and I don't feel like a pedophile every time I use my characters' special powers.)

Both games require constant repetition of the same battles in order to progress, so technically, both are a sort of "grind." But they couldn't be more opposite in their approaches. On the one hand, Final Fantasy XIII offers very little control over attacks, combat strategy, or even character skill evolution. As a result, victory is essentially a numbers game - if my Saboteur is high enough level to inflict a mean curse and my Sentinel has enough HP to withstand the enemy's power attack, I'll eventually win the fight. It's stat-grinding in its purest form.

Demon's Souls, on the other hand, also requires repetition to advance, but by and large this repetition is so that you, the player, can learn the necessary skills. Character stat advancement is important, but combat is so kinetic and failure so punishing that it's far more crucial that players understand enemy attack patterns, learn how to effectively dodge and counter, and have a good grasp of each level's hazards and traps. Call it "skill-grinding" - you're still grinding, but you're grinding your own abilities, as opposed to those of your on-screen avatar.

Do I really need to point out which of these I prefer? FFXIII's stat-grinding is mechanical, mindless work - you aren't really winning the fights by skill or strategy, you're winning by dice-rolls. But more importantly, both the grind and the rewards it yields exist entirely within the game. The stats, the levels, the new weapons... all of those things exist only on the FFXIII disc.

Demon's Souls, on the other hand, comes out into the real world with you. Since progress is borne of your own mastery of the gameplay mechanics, of your own memory of the dangers of a given level, it feels far more tangibly rewarding. It's truly remarkable how strongly the game reinforces the sense of getting by on your own grit and quick thinking. The connection the game forges with the player is what makes it so compelling, why it becomes such a wonderful, dark obsession.

While I doubt it'll become the norm, I'm really looking forward to more RPGs moving away from stat-grinding and towards skill-grinding. I'm sure it's much harder to design a game this way, since it requires more work balancing and tweaking in order to be sure that it is fair and playable. But the payoff is worth it.

Demon's Souls is a lot of things - maddening, terrifying, frustrating, overwhelming - but I feel connected to those sensations in a way that I'll never feel connected to my victories on the fields of Gran Pulse, however hard-won they may have been.


Anonymous said...

I really couldn't agree more- I'm not even to the grindiest of grind in FFXIII- I'm only on chapter 9- but I feel like I have no connection whatsoever to game I'm playing. I'm pressing buttons and arranging things in such a way that my stats will allow me to end each battle as fast as possible. It just leaves me with the feeling that a computer could do a much better job at the game than I could... and then I realize that this is exactly how the game is set up... all wrapped up in a little auto attack button. That being said, I absolutely adore the story so far and I just can't stop playing-