Saturday, September 12, 2015

Dissidia Final Fantasy: Duodecim Review

I don't consider myself a fan of the Final Fantasy franchise.  Yes, the final boss of Final Fantasy 6 is one of my favorite final battles in gaming history, but apart from it and playing halfway through the Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy 4, I haven't played any of the main titles.  I've only seen the other Final Fantasy games and before now the only other ones I've played are both the Theatrhythm games on the 3DS.

After getting a Playstation Vita last year, I added one more Final Fantasy game to my library; the PSP game Theatrhythm was spun off of and what is probably the most well-known title the system ever had: Dissidia Final Fantasy: Duodecim.

From that image alone it's easy to tell why the game was such a big deal.  Dissidia is a big crossover of heroes and villains from all the main Final Fantasy games fighting each other in stages taken straight from each.  The hype was on par with Super Smash Brothers, if I'm remembering correctly.  I was always interested in getting it even though I wasn't a fan of the franchise, because any polished game with a diverse character selection, decent story and badasses fighting each other with swords and sorcery is ok in my book.

Technically speaking the hype was more for the original Dissidia.  Its follow-up, Duodecim, didn't get quite as much attention, as it's not a sequel so much as an updated re-release that includes a new prequel story, changes a few modes and adds a strong amount of new content, including more characters, more attacks and more alternate outfits.
The new character with her new outfits.
Unlike a certain crossover game made by Nintendo, there is a story to Dissidia, and a decent one at that.  It wouldn't be a Final Fantasy game without a heavy story emphasis.  This game's story is about an eternal conflict between two gods: Cosmos, the god of harmony, and Chaos, the god of discord fans may recognize as the final boss of the very first Final Fantasy.

He does this through almost the whole game.

Both of these gods take characters from the different Final Fantasy worlds for their side and have them fight each an endless cycle where, after everyone is defeated, the reset button is hit and they all have their memories taken before being rejuvenated to fight again.

The first Dissidia takes place in the 13th cycle, and at that point the fighters are reduced to 10 on each side, each with a hero and villain representing a main Final Fantasy game up to Final Fantasy 10 (FF 11 and 12 got a few representatives as extras).
The prequel story for Duodecim focuses on the warriors that didn't make it to the 13th cycle, led by Final Fantasy 13's hero, Lightning.  Duodecim's story explains why the new warriors it features weren't in the original game (other than not being programmed yet) and goes into more detail about how the world the game takes place in works, including the crystalline imitation enemies you fight there through the entire experience called Manikins.

The story isn't as straightforward as it lets on.  It ultimately boils down to the usual plot of fighting each other before fighting the ultimate evil, but every hero and villain has a motivation and plan.

They play off each other well and all of it is nicely presented, especially for a PSP game.  Characters from the early days before stories were any good were given personality and everyone is fully voiced.  Some of the characters who had voices previously have their actors reprising their roles, like Greg Berger as Jecht and Liam O' Brien as Kain, from the remake of Final Fantasy 4.  The rest have superbly chosen new voices, especially the villains.  Gerald C. Rivers (M. Bison in Street Fighter 4) plays FF5's Exdeath, Peter Beckman (Yoshihiro Shimazu in Sengoku Basara) is FF4's anti-villain Golbez, and motherfucking Christopher Corey Smith plays the cunning and condescending Emperor from Final Fantasy 2!  Hell!  Yes!

Voice acting veteran Keith David plays the big badass Chaos himself, but tragically his talents are wasted.  Chaos probably has the least amount of dialogue in the entire game and all the other villains take the center stage, which makes me wonder if they cast him only because of his experience in voicing winged humanoids that sit around all day.

On the flipside, Cosmos is voiced by Veronica Taylor.  She has a reputation for voicing young boys like Ash Ketchum and adult women with the same voice, like April O'Neil and Carly Carmine, but she's capable of more variety, as both her performance as Cosmos in this game and Nico Robin in the good dub of One Piece demonstrate.

It's a good thing the voice actors are so perfectly cast because many of the cutscenes are simply of characters talking and bobbing their heads while the cameras change angles.  The Square-Enix quality pre-rendered scenes peppered throughout are in the minority so it's good that the actors can carry a scene with only their voices.  The action is largely relegated to the fighting.

Calling Dissidia a fighting game is misleading though.  It is unlike any fighting game I've ever played.  It incorporates many of Final Fantasy's staple RPG elements by allowing equippable items, crafting, customization and leveling to provide an edge (along with options to minimize or disable them outside of story mode for balance).  The entire game also takes place on a free-roaming 3D plane with different gimmicked stages to jump and run around on, similarly to the previously-reviewed J-Stars Victory Versus.  "Fantasy dueling game" is a much better descriptor.

Both players have HP, but in Dissidia they also have a "bravery" count that's even more important.  Every character has bravery and HP attacks.  Landing bravery attacks shaves off your enemy's bravery and raises yours, as though slamming them with sword strikes and black fire is supposed to make them wimpier.  HP attacks convert a fighter's bravery into HP damage in addition to doing a little bravery damage on their own.  It's entirely possible for you to kill the enemy with one HP attack, provided the bravery gets high enough.

Since the HP attacks are meant to be powerful coup de graces, they're the most powerful attacks from their respective series, take a moment to use and are telegraphed to both players by text on the screen.  As such, even though there's no real limit on using them, it's important to know when to, especially when it comes to slower ones like the Emperor's Starfall, where he takes 7 full seconds to pull a Madara Uchiha and drop a giant, near-unavoidable meteor on the enemy.

Charging it is often used as a bait move. Interrupt it or die.
Dissidia's incarnation of the fighting game super meter is the EX gauge.  As players take bravery damage, little light particles scatter around the stage.  Touching them refills the EX gauge a little, and when there are enough of them floating around, they gravitate to one place and become an EX gem that can be picked up for a significant chunk of EX power.  Once the EX gauge is full, it can be used in two ways (only one in the first game).  One's a counter move in which you can temporarily stop time when you're hit by an attack (complete with Jojo-style monochrome), and the other is EX mode, AKA super mode.

In EX mode, characters go into a temporary superpowered state that greatly ups their critical hit rate and grants new abilities depending on the character.  Obviously most of the villains gain the visage of their obligatory Final Fantasy super forms.  Some of the Warriors of Cosmos have transformations, like Terra's Esper form from Final Fantasy 6, but most of them equip their ultimate weapons, like Firion's Blood Weapon from FF2 and Squall's Lionheart from FF8.

While in EX mode, hitting an enemy with an HP attack allows the character to initiate an EX Burst ultimate attack.  It's best to use it as a finisher to EX mode though, because it resets the gauge after use.  As expected from Final Fantasy, they're extremely flashy, overblown and ridiculous.

"His weapon of choice to battle the hordes of darkness... Is a volleyball."

Throughout the battles there's bravery pooled by the stage you're playing on.  When a fighter reduces their opponent's bravery past zero, the opponent's bravery "breaks".  When bravery is broken, all the stage's bravery is given to the one with bravery still intact and the broken fighter must either land an HP attack or wait for their bravery to recover to their default amount before they can deal any bravery damage again.

Suffering from bravery break is one of the worst things that can happen to a fighter, and since bravery is reduced to 0 when an HP attack lands, it's important to know when and with what it's best to strike, as well as when to utilize abilities like blocking and dodging, provided they're equipped.

In a nod to Kingdom Hearts, every ability possible, from attacks to blocks and speed boosts, needs to be equipped to be used, and they all take up a finite number of ability points.  As the characters level up, new abilities are learned and equipped abilities become "mastered", reducing the amount of AP they take up.

Each character can bring a summon with them into battle as well.  Obtained in the story mode, summons do not work as they do in the games unless you count Yuna's moveset revolving around the Eidolons to attack.

Instead, summons are special effects to activate in battle and are based on various summons and creatures from Final Fantasy history.  Instead of breaking the flow of battle with a long-winded animation like the main games, summons in Dissidia flash their character artwork on the screen as their effect activates.  Said effects are all ways to sabotage your opponent's bravery or boost yours.  For example, the Behemoth summon doubles the user's bravery, but starts to rapidly drain it afterwards, and Deathguise from Final Fantasy 9 bravery breaks the opponent if it's used when their bravery is divisible by 5.

Add into that the fact that the different types of accessories to equip, the item collection from fighting Manikins in story mode and the aforementioned crafting of those items, and you have a very complex game with the customization and depth of any other Final Fantasy game.  There's so much depth, every character gets 5 slots for different loadouts

With a good story, depth, presentation and battle system, you're probably already sold on Dissidia Duodecim and are ready to go buy it, but the amount of content is as impressive as the core game.

With every battle you earn PP, which can be used to buy Duodecim's astounding amount of content.  Game modes, pre-set levels, 3 costumes for every character, new battle music, boosts to experience, PP and AP when they appear on the in-game calendar's "bonus days" and player icons from Final Fantasy's long history for use on the player's friend card and custom quests, which have been almost as big a time sink for me as story mode.

In Quest creation mode you can create small mini-stories by setting up a series of battles (down to their rules and music used) along with scenes of dialogue that can use any of the icons unlocked, allowing for dialogue from characters that aren't playable.  There aren't enough options to make the customized dialogue scenes particularly deep, but there's enough to work with to make them unique, including every stage as a background, simply effects like fades and screen shakes and music used for the overworld and dungeons in story mode.  Less is more in this case, as too often games can get overwhelming with the number of options in custom creation modes.  Dissidia's quest creation strikes the right balance of simplicity and depth.

Praise the lord you can use the Vita's touch screen to type the dialogue, but it still gets tedious when you have to insert spaces to keep a word from getting cut off when it moves to the second line.  There isn't a lot of room for long lines either.  Both of these problems are the result of the original Japanese characters requiring less space and not being too hampered by a line break.

Regardless, I've made several entertaining quests in this mode.  Already I've done my best with what I have to make quests recreating storyline battles from Final Fantasy 1-3, 6, 7 and 10 (having playable characters representing non-playable ones by using alternate outfits, of course).

All the quests can be saved onto a memory card and shared with others, but despite the menu claiming the contrary, there is no online play.  The only way to share them is through local wireless play, so I doubt I'll be able to share them anytime soon.

This might all read like it's overwhelming, but the in-game style of manuals and tutorials is one of the best I've ever seen.  Every menu screen in the game has a list of guides you can bring up that break down each aspect of the mode down to the most easy to understand levels, and each section is explained by a different Final Fantasy character, with their mannerisms and fruity dialogue.  It's fun, informative, straightforward and user friendly.

Quest creation mode is one of the modes I've spent the most time on, but there's also a challenge called the labyrinth for players to spend even more hours on.  The labrynth uses a card selection-based system of gathering gold, buying items, finding bonus effects (in the form of FF jobs) and fighting enemies to open doors to new parts of the labyrinth.  It's huge, with several starting and ending points throughout, so it's a lasting diversion from everything else, and there is a lot of everything else.

Arcade mode, character profiles, a detailed summon encyclopedia, the cutscenes arranged in chronological order, daily letters from moogles, party battles with assigned jobs and fairly-priced DLC (that can be transfered to the Vita through a PS3)!  Dissidia Duodecim has everything but online play!

There's very little to complain about in it outside of minor nitpicks: the weak story ending, special Moogle Points being a pain to collect, the cheating, bullshit, level-cap-surpassing enemies in the post-story bonus chapter and the way some of the music is handled.

You wouldn't expect anyone to complain about music in a Final Fantasy game.  Final Fantasy music is so good they made two games out of it, but Dissidia fumbles their use somewhat.  Most of the pre-FF10 music tracks are newly remastered recordings, with the exception of extremely out-of-place unlockable ones from the NES and SNES.  Most of these new tracks are perfect.

But some of them are done in awful remixes.  The boss theme of Final Fantasy 4 is frantic and orchestral beauty in its original game.
The Dissidia version has beatboxing.  Final Fantasy 4 is one of the last games that should have beatboxing!

The final battle theme of Final Fantasy 2 (as in the real one) has the same problem.  An awesome violin rush in the remakes...

Changed to techno trash in Dissidia.

But that's a matter of taste, and at least they got FF2's normal battle music right, so these grievances can be overlooked.

Everything in the game has a thick layer of polish, and despite being a PSP game (and a one-on-one fighter at that), it offers more content than a lot of console games do.  In fact, my total playtime so far is over 200 hours!  Joe Vargas would say that in slow motion for the opposite reason he normally does!

For a game obviously held back by the system it was made for, it has massive longevity, depth, polish and content that you'd expect from a main series Final Fantasy game.  For that, I give Dissidia Final Fantasy: Duodecim a 9 out of 10.  There's definitely room to expand on the game with stronger systems.  More music, characters and stages would be a welcome addition to a new Dissidia game, and with enough extra content to play around with and online play, such a game could very well get a perfect score from me.  Duodecim is available on the PSN website for $20.  For some reason only the first game and the Duodecim mini-prequel is showing up on the store through the Playstation Vita now, so getting it through the website is apparently the only way.  It's worth the extra bit of effort regardless.

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