Discussion Review: Dissidia: Final Fantasy

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The armies of Cosmos and Chaos collide in Dissidia: Final Fantasy, Square Enix’s new ultimate fan service role-playing/3D fighting game hybrid for the PSP. But can fan service alone propel Dissidia into the PSP’s class of elite, must-have titles, or is it just another example of style over substance taken too far? Mike and I debate…

Matt: This may come as a surprise to you — I’m certainly surprised by my own thoughts here — but I have a lot of strong feelings about Dissidia, and not all of them are positive. I had a blast with the demo pre-release and, as a Final Fantasy diehard since the very first game on the NES, I expected the epic portion of fan service Square Enix jammed into this game to carry it a long way. And to an extent it has. But fan service alone doesn’t make up for a number of glaring design flaws.

I’ll vent some of my frustrations in a minute, but for now I’d like to focus on some of the positives.

Dissidia is a fighting game RPG hybrid of sorts bringing together heroes and villains from the first 10 Final Fantasy titles and squaring them off in head-to-head battles noticeably influenced by the basic mechanics of the Kingdom Hearts combat system and the outlandishly acrobatic fight scenes from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. By fighting game standards, the controls are pretty simplistic. There aren’t any complex combos or button commands you need to learn to get your chosen fighter. You have a traditional attack and a bravery attack — using the bravery attack steals bravery from your opponent and adds it to yours, thus increasing your attack power and decreasing theirs — along with basic jump, guard and evasion techniques and context-sensitive actions you can use to interact with the environment (slide on rails, run on walls, etc.).

All of these actions are easy to perform with the single push of a button, and in the case of attacking you can push a different direction on the analog nub when you strike to perform a different attack (if you’ve learned and equipped more than one). The EX Burst special moves are about as complex as the game’s mechanics get, with you having to land an attack and perform various button commands depending on your chosen fighter, be it mashing a button to fill up a meter, timing specific button presses like a QTE (Quick Time Event), or quickly selecting spells from a menu.

The simplicity of the combat may put off some since there really isn’t that much skill involved, but I understand Square Enix’s decision to keep the game fairly accessible considering the Final Fantasy franchise has a pretty broad mainstream appeal and in general I appreciated the ease of play. Shallow or not, Dissidia’s combat can be a heck of a lot of fun, with flashy attack animations and exciting mid-air sword duels.

There are a few problems, though. First is the camera. While not terribly problematic in terms of causing you cheap deaths and that sort of thing, the camera does have a hard time keeping up with the high-flying action, especially when you’re running up walls or quick-dashing through the air. Another thing that annoyed me is how easy it is to evade attacks, for you and the AI. I can’t count how many times I’ve found myself in endless back-and-forth evasion battles with the game’s tougher enemies, both of us locked together in the air attacking and evading repeatedly until one side blinks. It drives me nuts!

And lastly, the fighters aren’t all that well balanced. Certain characters are glaringly weak while other characters seem way overpowered, and in general it seems like those characters with long-range attacks (or at least larger weapons with a long reach) have a noticeable advantage — they can just sit there and spam attacks and make it almost impossible to get in for close-range attacks at times.

So, what’s your experience with Dissidia been like? Any of these issues stick in your craw?

Mike: Sometimes inertia gets the better of my wallet, and I’d say that was the case with Dissidia.

What I mean is that after playing the demo for a while I was pretty sure I would get the retail game (which I got at a great deal thanks to your timely news post!), but never get the real value out of it before trading / selling it off. That might sound harsh, but here is what I had gleaned from the demo and press: the ‘story mode’ would be thin and limited, the combat would be a sort of mish-mosh of fighting game mechanics and third person action-RPG fare, and that everything would be focused on delivering fan service to hardcore Final Fantasy aficionados. Right or wrong, what I was hoping for – based on the fight / RPG focus and the inclusion of so many characters – was a sort of ‘Squenix Super Smash Bros’ on PSP, and for me that is something the game failed to deliver.

That is pretty vague, and I’ll be more specific, but I also want to focus on the positive. Anyone looking for massive Final Fantasy fan service on many levels will be thrilled. You get loads of characters, tons of moves, and the top-notch production values we expect from Square Enix. As you play each character you really get the feeling of pulling them out of their classic games and dropping them into this modern setting, and get to enjoy controlling them much more directly than in the standard turn-based combat systems of Final Fantasy games.

But there were definitely things that I didn’t like. The first is what you mentioned – the finicky camera. I wasn’t surprised to be battling it in this sort of game, but it felt like the developers did little to acknowledge that it was going to be an issue when players were flipping and flying and blasting each other all over every stage.

I wasn’t all that enamored with the core fighting engine, either. I haven’t played the Kingdom Hearts games, but remember thinking that all of the comparisons of Dissidia to the Kingdom Hearts games has slightly diminished my interest in the upcoming handheld release of that franchise. While I applaud what the developers tried to do, I didn’t find the hybrid of free-form combat and traditional fighting game to work all that well. I like third-person action games just fine, and they can offer a very visceral experience that also has loads of visual goodness due to the perspective. Fighting games are typically just bouts of raw intensity.

My thought of Dissidia was that it would allow some sweeping scenes while delivering an intensity typical of a fighting game. What I found instead was that the controls were simplistic, the overloads worked but the requirements were often unnecessarily convoluted, and landing huge hits on the open stage led to a dance of chasing the enemy around and, as you mentioned, evading each others attacks ad nausea.

I do recognize that my perspective differs from many PSP owners as I’m not a huge Final Fantasy fan, only playing the handheld versions of the series, from I & II on the GBA through the recent re-release of VII on the PSN. So I’m not emotionally invested in the characters at all, which leads me to say that even worse than the stuff I just mentioned, the story, scripting and voice acting are just abysmal. Not average like the other things, but terrible. I gladly tossed away the music and turned the volume all the way down, but I was still stuck with the dialogue. What did you think? And what about the little chess-board like areas you had to traverse before getting into real fights? Oh, and did you do the ~500MB install or suffer the load-times?

Matt: I’m glad you brought up the Smash Bros. comparison, as that’s exactly the type of experience I was expecting to get out of Dissidia. I knew the actual game would play nothing like Smash Bros., but I thought it would really hook me in with a similar feeling of nostalgic wonderment and fanboy bliss I always get from the Smash Bros. series (Brawl disappointed me quite a bit, but I still felt all warm and fuzzy inside while playing as my favorite Nintendo icons). But this feeling just didn’t, and still hasn’t, hit me, and I’m having a hard time figuring out why because all in all I have had a good time with the game, shallow combat, camera quirks and all.

As for the Kingdom Hearts comparisons, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss interest in playing the soon-to-be-released DS iteration. While there are similarities, the Kingdom Hearts mechanics are still different, and I’d also say deeper than what Dissidia has to offer. And it’s all a matter of context. The Kingdom Hearts games are action-RPG platformers, so a simplified combat system is appropriate. For more of a fighting game, though, there needs to be more complexity. Part of what makes fighting games fun, for me at least, is finding a favorite character and learning to master their play style and skill set. Smash Bros. nails that aspect of fighting games every time. However, Dissidia doesn’t have that. Each character has quite a few attacks to unlock, but the actual button commands for performing attacks don’t change, so you don’t get that rewarding sense of character mastery.

I’m not quite so down on some of the other things you pointed out though. Is the game going to win awards for its story, writing and voice acting? Certainly not. But I don’t think any of those aspects are that bad — well, OK, the writing is pretty atrocious, but most of the acting is on par with similar games (I’ve heard much, much worse). The soundtrack is definitely great stuff — particularly the classic themes from past Final Fantasy games, not so much the original Dissidia tunes. And no, I didn’t even bother with the optional data install. Load times haven’t bothered me for a second.

While the actual story content is thin, I do like the structure of the story mode a lot. Each Final Fantasy hero gets their own little chapter in the overarching plot, and instead of just a quick series of fights you have to navigate a map grid set up like a board game, as you mentioned, to find treasures and fight preliminary battles leading up to the more challenging bosses. I wish more fighting games had story modes like this.

What I also love about Dissidia is how much it rewards you for playing. With every single battle you complete, it seems like you are always unlocking some new mode or feature to tinker with or picking up new loot to customize your characters. It’s also neat how the game’s calendar system keeps track of your schedule and gives you incentive to play every day. This constant sense of accomplishment can be pretty addictive.

Mike: Well, I’m glad to hear about Kingdom Hearts … I missed the GBA game and never got back to it, so I’m looking forward to getting a shot at the highly regarded series!

I’m surprised you didn’t notice the load times, but then again I seem to be known on several different sites as a sort of ‘load-time watchdog’. Bottom line is that I have limited opportunities for gaming and like to fill my extended periods with PC games, leaving DS and PSP games for short burst-mode gaming. I remember all too many games that would take ~30 seconds to wake up from sleep mode, over a minute to load a level, and so on … leaving less than half of a 15-minute session for actual gaming! So while the loads on Dissidia are not terrible, there are many 20-30 second gaps waiting for something to happen, so I loaded the maximum data-set to minimize the loading. It was interesting to me how quickly I have gone through 8GB with a few movies, some music, and several PSN games! But the load times definitely felt much shorter. I suppose I could have gone through each of the three settings and timed things quantitatively, but suffice to say – if you are bugged by waiting, do the data install at the maximum setting you can handle. One thing – it is slow, so don’t do this just before you want to play or when your battery is low.

The Final Fantasy games are famous for their beautiful music – heck, it goes beyond just Final Fantasy, as my younger son STILL has the soundtrack from Square Enix’s The World Ends With You on his iPod! So I won’t begin to criticize the themes – because in general the music is quite beautiful. But some other folks I’ve talked to have told me how entering a battle with a particular character and hearing a certain theme really triggered strong emotions within them. Not having an emotional tie to the games I don’t get that same evocative reaction, but since I get it from stuff like Jedi Knight 2, Gothic 2, and Divine Divinity I understand the power. I don’t know what is old and what is new, I just know that in general the music was excellent.

You had asked about stuff that stuck in my craw, and that was why I mentioned the dialogue and voice acting. Since I don’t come from a console RPG background, all of these pre-battle taunts and post-battle cheers that are so endemic to the Final Fantasy world have never really thrilled me – I typically mash buttons hoping to make it all go away as soon as possible. The DS games have been pretty forgiving about this, but Dissidia makes you wait through these pointless snippets entirely too long before getting back to the action. I know I can alter the voice and music separately and probably should do that so I can enjoy the themes without listening to the dialog … but once again, that doesn’t stop me from having to deal with the dialogue itself. But as you mention, that really isn’t the focus … just one of those little things.

I’m glad you mentioned the reward system, as that is the absolute pinnacle of the game for me. There was an article I read a while back about the brain’s dopamine reward system and how it plays into gaming (hint: if at 9PM you say ‘just 15 minutes’ and suddenly realize it is 2AM, your dopamine reward system been successfully hijacked!). I was brought back to those thoughts with Dissidia. I mentioned inertia, and another inertial barrier for me is ‘UMD-removal’. I have no issue game-jumping on other systems, but the loading on the PSP tends to keep me on a single game at a time (wonder how that will work when I get the PSP Go?). Soon after starting Dissidia, I also started Diagaea 2 (look for an upcoming review once I traverse the massive game!). Strategy RPG’s rank at the very top of my favorite games on the PSP, and the original Disgaea was excellent, so I was immediately hooked. But as you say, the reward system of Dissidia is so generous, so free flowing, so constantly dumping stuff on you that it has caused me to pop it in just about every day even if I only have time for a single battle, just to get showered with experience and unlockables.

But I have begun to notice that it is easier and easier for me to not spend all that much time with Dissidia, because while I love the rewards, I still don’t love the combat system. I like third person combat, and I like isometric combat, but the core system – a semi-detached camera system with a third person perspective and no ability to fix a location of distance relative to your character… that I don’t like as much. I find that isometric games provide a strategic sense I never get here, and true third person games give you at once character immersion and full-body awareness. I was playing more last night (yeah, back for more rewards) and felt like the battles were more about running around than about fighting. I also completely agree that while the special moves for each character are different, it is merely something that plays out on screen – in Fate/Unlimited Codes, by contrast, each character really feels different in how you approach them.

I have mixed feelings about the game board system. Like you I think it is a great idea and adds a nifty strategy-RPG feeling of making choices and picking your path along the way. But too often I felt like the foes I met on a given path would feel generic and get repetitive. Yet it never stopped me from progressing – and as I said I liked that I was offered choices, and of course I liked being copiously rewarded regardless of my choice! I guess in the end the choice between more or less content makes me favor this system – if nothing else it is a gauntlet thrown down so that new fight games have something to adopt and improve upon. Apparently I have mixed feelings about a lot of stuff in this game, but unlike you none of them are all that strong.

I was disappointed but not surprised by the lack of infrastructure multiplayer. Dissidia seems like the sort of game that would be a dream to play against others. However, as seems to be ubiquitous with Japanese-produced PSP games, you only get an ad-hoc mode. I was also excited about the sleep-mode card exchange, but again that is dependent on close proximity of sleeping PSP devices running the game, so I never got around to anything but standard single player gameplay. Have you tried using your PS3 to engage in any ‘party mode’ games with others over the internet or have other tales from multiplayer?

Matt: Don’t be too surprised. Load times have to be pretty egregious for me to start complaining, like the masked elevator load times in Mass Effect or the snail-paced car selection load times in the MotorStorm games. Those annoyed the hell out of me!

Initially, I too was disappointed when I heard there wouldn’t be infrastructure support, but given the gripes I have about the combat system I honestly don’t think Dissidia works at all as a multiplayer fighter. The exploitable evasion system, unbalanced characters and shallow skill sets don’t exactly allow for fair competition if you ask me, so I couldn’t care less about the lack of online play!

And in the end that’s just how I feel about the game altogether — I don’t care. It looks sexy, has so much rewarding stuff crammed into it, is teeming with Final Fantasy fan service, and can be great fun to play in short bursts, which all sounds like it would be right up my alley as the Final Fantasy fanboy that I am. But I just can’t seem to get over how hollow the combat felt to me, how dispirited I often felt while playing it, and ultimately how little I cared to pursue its wealth of unlockable riches.

But putting personal pains of disappointment aside, I recognize that there are a lot of things to love about Dissidia and I believe most players will get more out of it than I, because frankly, it is mostly a good game. Just don’t be too eager to rush out and fork over $40 without really understanding exactly what you are getting first: a style-over-substance action-RPG/fighting game hybrid that doesn’t quite know which genre it really wants to be in and is fairly average in both.

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Pros:
+ Satisfying reward system with lots of modes and unlockables to earn
+ Cool story mode setup
+ Flashy production values
+ Combat is generally fun in small bursts

Cons:
– Annoying camera
– Combat system way too shallow
– Unbalanced character roster
– Fan service takes precedence over sound gameplay design

Mike: It is funny how our discussion has mirrored our feelings about the game – there are some things we are passionate about, but pretty quickly we lose interest. We both like the rewards, but it just wasn’t enough to keep us playing for long.

For me it comes down to fan service vs. gameplay. Since I’m schooled in ancient PC gaming and not consoles, neither Super Smash Bros nor Dissidia holds an inherent pull for me. Yet I still love playing SSBM with my kids, and even my wife gets involved as we have two-on-two matches with our kids. In contrast, while my kids have expressed interest in Dissidia, after watching me chase enemies around for a while, when their game time came available, there was always something else they’d rather play. I’m sure they’ll get around to it soon enough, but it just didn’t trigger that ‘rip it out of the package and play’ feeling they have gotten so many times before.

So there is something beyond just fan service needed for a game like this to succeed beyond just being ‘good’. Because I agree, it is a pretty good game… but I think that there were enough potential elements of greatness that it feels like a much greater disappointment than if it were a completely unknown quantity. Think about it for a second – if this was just a fighting-RPG hybrid with solid music, generous experience system, and an unknown brand, we’d be saying ‘while not a great game, I enjoyed it for a while and found it quite solid with some flaws’.

I think that is half the problem – they hit so nicely on all of the fan service items, even helping folks like me establish a personality link to a character like Tidus who I’ve never seen since he hasn’t been on a handheld yet. But the actual game beyond that is fairly pedestrian, having a few interesting ideas in terms of the game board and reward system, but never rising to the level of being an addictive experience. This is the sort of game that would garner attention regardless of season because of the Final Fantasy name, but due to coming just prior to the fall onslaught and the PSP release list that I’ll kindly describe as ‘thin’, it will get more attention – and sales – than it deserves.

My thought is this – if you think that the term ‘Final Fantasy fanboy’ describes you completely, chances are you will look past the flaws and enjoy the game enough to get value. If you like the Final Fantasy games but are unsure whether or not this is for you, check out the demo and realize that it really doesn’t get any better. Everyone else, don’t touch this game – there are too many better games coming this fall to bother with this average experience.

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Pros:
+ Great characterizations
+ Nice game board system between boss battles
+ Gorgeous music

Cons:
– Never a compelling experience
– Camera is a pain
– Battles too often turn into a tedious ‘evade & chase’

Game Info:
Platform: PSP
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 8/25/09
Genre: Fighting/RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!