Sorry about the downtime, everyone! Here’s a good ol’ game design ramble to make up for it.
Here’s a real stumper: I adore grind-y games. But I absolutely hate grind-y games. Does that make sense? Because there’s grind-y, and then there’s grind-y. There are meters to fill, and then there are meters to fill. There’s the cheerful bliss of repetition, and then there’s the soul-crushing droll of repetition.
I think I may have to explain myself, here.
The two games on my plate right now are Persona 3 Portable and Final Fantasy XII. The first is an incredibly long, grind-y RPG where you fight a zillion monsters and explore vast, endless dungeons while slowly leveling up your characters. The second is an incredibly long, grind-y RPG where you fight a zillion monsters and explore vast, endless dungeons while slowly leveling up your characters. I mean, come on. These two games are like night and day.
I’m having problems with Persona 3, truth be told. It’s getting harder and harder to boot up the game for my nightly dose, and I feel like I’m very, very close to stalling out on this game for the third time. I thought for sure that playing the game at the office would help get me through the trouble spots that mired me before, but that effect seems to be lessening as the weeks drone on.
Meanwhile, I’m really enjoying the slow burn of Final Fantasy XII. I’ve decided to make this my go-to game whenever I feel like playing something, but don’t know what. I sank three hours into the game last night without breaking a sweat, despite having spent most of that three hours zoning back and forth across the same several maps while racking up kills to fill out my bestiary.
The grind in P3P is unbearable to me, but the grind in FF12 is pleasant and relaxing. I decided to use today’s post to determine why that is. I thought of several reasons.
FF12 has better rewards. They are small, but they are constant, and they are immediately noticable. While the game certainly has its giant, dangling carrots (in the form of hunt rewards), most of what happens while grinding away at FF12 is on your License Board and in your bestiary. Every monster you kill drops LP, which in turn buys new skills, abilities and equipment on your License Grid. If the license was something you wanted, you can put it to work immediately by equipping your new sword or setting a gambit for your new spell. Even buying a “useless” license is fun, because the game makes a satisfying chime sound and opens up new licensese for you, which you can immediately begin working towards. Aside from that, the License Board offers a nice mini-break from the grind. You can always take a three or four minute breather from fighting monsters to spend some LP and tweak your characters a little.
The bestiary is just as fun, but from a different angle. There’s little mechanical reason to fill it up, but each monster you slay comes with its own unique artwork and a full screen of flavor text to enjoy. The real grind is in completing the bestiary, which means killing a dozen or so of each kind of monster. Accomplishing that gets you a full screen of flavor text about the world of Ivalice. Again, this makes for a nice little break from the slog; you can hop into your bestiary and spend a few moments reading about some cultural practice or geographical oddity in Ivalice.
Rewards in P3P are larger, but less frequent and less relevant. The grind here typically involves completing tasks for Elizabeth, which nets you some item or piece of equipment. These are often massive upgrades, and almost always worth however much time you invested in getting them, but spending an hour bored in order to get a good pay-out still means you’ve spent an hour bored. Your other benchmark for advancement is the endless parade of Personae to discover, fuse, upgrade and experiment with. However, it’s not long before you notice that all your dozens and dozens of monster buddies are pulling from the same batch of generic skills. Upgrading them isn’t even worthwhile; there’s such a strong emphasis on fusing old Personae into new ones that you’ll never have any particular one for longer than a few hours. All of your character advancement is transient.
FF12 has better terrain. Let’s get away from the really hardcore grind, for now. Here’s a smaller, and far more basic goal: players are going to want to explore the game world. There are maps to fill, after all! Nooks and crannies to be poked around in! “Explore the map” is a very minor goal that even a non-completionist player is likely to set for himself.
FF12 has huge, vibrant locations full of life and atmosphere. Some of the areas in this game are absolutely massive, and the player is given a very user-friendly collection of maps to keep everything straight. From the main menu a player can not only bring up a full map of his current area, but also see how it links up with adjacent areas. You can actually click through the various connections to “travel” from one map to another. If you had a mind to, you could plot a course from one end of the game world to another, all without taking a step.
Even within an area, though, there is the constant positive reinforcement of being shown new things. People like to joke about how much desert there is in FF12, but really, there is more variety in FF12’s deserts than most games have in their entire worlds. Will the next screen be an open plain, or a series of tall cliffs? Will the next room of the dungeon have catwalks and staircases, or pits and sharp corners?
P3P, on the other hand, has nothing of the sort. The only reward for clearing any amount of Tartarus is… more Tartarus. There are hallways and square rooms, followed by square rooms and hallways. Forever. Every fifty or eighty floors the hallways change color — and that’s it. If you’ve made it to Floor 2 of the dungeon, you’ve seen absolutely everything the game can show you.
You can take FF12 at your own pace. Playing FF12 means alternating between two game modes: you’re either following the main story, or you’re engaging in a series of hunts. The implied contract of the game is that if you ever get bored with one mode the other will be there, just waiting for you to come along and pick it up. The game is built around Rabanastre as a kind of hub area, and the prevalence of Teleport Stones means you can get back there from practically any point in the game world. The story and the hunts exist on two separate tracks, but switching tracks is easy and seamless, and you can’t miss out on one by focusing too intently on the other.
In P3P the contract is anything but implied. In fact, it’s very literal; you’re forced to sign it during the introduction. The contract is this: you have one year. In that time you need to complete everything you want to do in the game world.
Like FF12, P3P has two game modes: exploring Tartarus and managing your S. Links. And like FF12, these two modes exist as separate tracks running parallel to each other; focusing on one has almost no effect on the other. Unlike FF12, though, you can’t switch between them. If you’re tired of Tartarus, but haven’t met your “dungeon quota” for the cycle, you have no choice but to tough it out to the end. (The alternative is wasting a night, as I outlined in my anti-Tartarus rant a couple weeks ago.) If you’re in the S. Link phase and get tired of that, you’re just as screwed; chances are there’s no more Tartarus left to explore until the next full moon. You’re locked into dialogue boxes until the game allows you to continue.
There’s also an elephant in the room: Tartarus isn’t optional. If hunting marks in FF12 bores you, you can just ignore them. I’m not really clear on what happens in P3P if you decide to ignore Tartarus, but I’m betting it’s nothing good. If you don’t do enough tower exploration you could conceivably get yourself trapped against a story monster you’re not powerful enough to defeat, without any way to go back and prepare yourself.
FF12’s AI isn’t retarded. One of the tricks to a nice, liesurely grind is letting the game play itself for you. I don’t think I need to go into detail about how well FF12’s gambit system facilitates this. Suffice it to say that the game only demands as much of your attention as you’re willing to give it. Perfect for shutting your brain off for a couple hours.
P3P, meanwhile, demands your full attention in every single combat, even against simple monsters you’ve fought a dozen times before. The game does have AI, but it’s stump dumb in a way that is actually insulting to stumps. Your characters will constantly make inefficient moves, spam completely useless debuff spells, or attempt to attack monsters they can’t hope to damage.
Maybe a little explanation is in order here. P3P’s battle system is built around the concept of exploiting enemy weaknesses. If you hit a weak spot, an enemy will be knocked down. If all of the enemies are knocked down at the same time, you can perform an All-Out Attack, which deals heavy damage to all of them without using any of your heroes’ turns. The optimal strategy, therefore, is to figure out how to knock everything down on the first turn. As long as you are manually inputting your commands, you can make this happen in just about every single fight.
So let’s say the opposition is unilaterally weak to ice. That’s great! Mitsuru has an ice spell that hits all enemy targets! Cash money says she won’t think to use it, though. Instead she’ll use a single-target ice spell, and follow it up with a regular attack, killing one monster and giving the rest a chance to retaliate. Or she’ll try to cast that charming spell she’s so fond of, but never actually works. Or, if you’re really lucky, she’ll just try stabbing the monster you already know repels all stabbing attacks.
If your guy in FF12 does something retarded, you can go in and tweak his gambits. The fault is yours. If your guy in P3P does something retarded, you just sigh and shake your head, because the only alternative is inputting all his commands manually.
In FF12, you can avoid combat. If you’ve just had enough for the time being, FF12 does you the courtesy of letting you get around monsters you don’t want to fight. For one thing, it’s pretty easy to just weave your way around them on the area map. For another, the game gives you a button you can hold down to make your heroes ignore all their gambits and follow you at full running speed. In this sense, if you don’t feel like killing monsters, you just hold down R2 and you’re golden. There are a lot of aspects of FF12’s grind that make this an attractive prospect. For example, you may only wish to make your way to a particular area to find your mark, or you may only wish to kill a certain type of monster. In either case, picking your battles is easy and painless.
In P3P you have two options for avoiding combat, and neither of them are very good. Because Tartarus is made up entirely of narrow hallways and small rooms, getting past a monster without initiating combat is not likely to be effective. Making the attempt will more often than not lead to the monster striking you from behind, initiating combat anyway and giving them all a free hit against you. In that case, you may as well have initiated the combat yourself.
Now that you’re in combat (which means you’ve sat through a screen transition, watched your characters take their spots on the battlefield, and listened to Fuuka say something supportive) you can, of course, try to Run. But this isn’t guaranteed to work, and chances are your hero has something that can trigger an All-Out Attack anyway, so you might as well just go ahead and win.
In FF12, you cannot get stuck. If you get bored with grinding in FF12, and decide to stop, you may at some later point find yourself in a position where you’re not strong enough to survive the challenge ahead. The way the game is designed, though, this will never, ever leave you in a position where you are unable to recover. In most areas of the game you can simply use your R2 button to escape the offending map and get back to a Teleport Stone. You may not be up to the task of training your characters again, but at least the game is meeting you halfway.
In P3P, since you are working on a calendar, every night you should train but don’t counts against you. If you get bored with the grind and decide to stop, you may at some later point find yourself rubbing right up against a boss battle you are woefully underprepared to overcome. The furthest back you can go to recover would be your previous save which, if made anytime recently, leaves you unable to train, or equip yourself, or dabble much with your Personae.
Both games give you lots of advance warning before putting you in this position. FF12’s save menu clearly states when you’ve entered an area you can’t escape from, and even recommends using a new save slot. P3P’s storyline bosses come at predictable intervals, and the game always displays your turn counter in the corner of the screen.
Neither game, though, tells you the difficulty of the next major challenge, or how much grinding you’ll need to endure to overcome it… and that’s the difference. If you don’t do enough in FF12, the game lets you go back and fix your mistake. If you don’t do enough in P3P, you’re up a creek.
Has any player ever lost 50-60 hours of progress in these games due to this issue? I’m betting at least a few have. And I’m betting P3P has claimed far more casualties.