These reviews are for the sole entry in the 2009 GameplayComp, Fantastic Finale IV, by Derek Sutcliffe. It may be downloaded from the IF Archive.
Derek Sutcliff would be the first—and in fact is the first&mdashto stress that his "Fantastic Finale IV" isn't a serious attempt at making a really good game. Instead, it is a short example that shows how you could implement jRPG-style party-based combat in an interactive fiction. In true Final Fantasy style, we have a "black mage", a "white mage" and a "fighter"; although I doubt that they would be called Adam, Emly and Gram if Square Enix had had their say. Each of the characters has several attacks, and you must choose between them and optimise your strategy so that you can defeat the boss enemy.
Implementation-wise, everything is okay, and there are even some jokes in the game. So as an example, this piece is quite successful.
However, I would like to stress that even though it is technically proficient, "Fantastic Finale IV" is an example of how not to implement combat in a work of interactive fiction. The main problem is that it is very easy to find the optimal strategy. Once you have found it, it is merely a matter of entering the same commands again and again until the hit points of your enemy have been reduced to zero.
I am now going to spoil the optimal sequences, so be warned. The fighter can attack and block, but since the white mage can easily heal all the damage you will get, you should just attack every time. The white mage should heal all every turn, unless one person has been much more hurt than the others, in which case she should use the normal heal spell. And the black mage should use icicle each turn.
Once you have figured that out by a little trial and error, it's just hitting the up arrow key four times in a row and pressing enter, every turn. Not very engaging.
Interesting tactical combat requires at least one, and probably both, of the following ingredients: (1) dependence on the precise circumstances, and (2) tactical dilemmas.
Dependence on precise circumstances means that what is the best thing to do is highly sensitive to what else is happening and going on. If your enemy has just raised his shield, you want to do something else than when he has just exposed himself; when you have been set on fire by a fireball you want to do something else than when you just drank the potion of ultimate strength, and something else than when your enemy has just shrunk your sword to the size of a needle. And so forth. This adds variety to the combat, keeps the player engaged and forces her to continually reassess her strategy.
Tactical dilemmas are choices that combine good and negative aspects; some examples will clarify this. Suppose you can choose between attacking with a dagger and attacking with a sword. This is tactically uninteresting if the only difference is that the sword does more damage—in that case, you would always use the sword. But if the dagger is faster, or better able to pierce chain mail, or if it can be used to steal your opponent's life force, then we are talking about a tactical dilemma. What is more important right now: damage or speed?
The combination of dependence on precise circumstances and tactical dilemmas makes for the kind of interesting combat we have in games like "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Baldur's Gate II". In "Fantastic Finale IV", we have neither, and as a consequence, the combat is a mechanical task rather than an enjoyable activity.
Which is not a problem in a short example game, but I wanted to make clear what the game is an example of.
Is it IF? I think so. Does it work? Yes. I had some fun with it.
I think the main point about it, though, is the guess-the-verb. That part has been consciously put in; there is a logic behind the supposed guesswork. This makes it a bit more of a "how well do you know your IF tropes" quiz, though not much more so. After all, you don't actually need to guess any verbs to win(?) the game.
Fantastic Finale IV bills itself as an IF version of a Japanese-style console RPG, a genre I am aware of but have absolutely zero real experience with. The game, which will take you no more than ten minutes to play, is made up (brief framing story aside) of a single fight between your party of characters and the Grue Lord baddie. Said fight is apparently the very last in an (imaginary) jRPG. Each turn, you can give orders to all three of your three characters, each of whom has various talents and special abilities: your fighter is good at bashing heads, your white mage at healing, and your black mage at casting offensive spells. The Grue Lord absorbs your attacks and then counters. Your objective is of course to reduce him to zero hit points while keeping at least one of your party alive.
It's rather painfully obvious that this was a bit of a rush job. The balance is hopelessly out of wack; anyone paying anything reasonably close to attention will have a hell of a time finding a way to lose. The Grue Lord is particularly vulnerable to one of the black mage's spells. Lob that one at him over and over, bash him a bit with your fighter, and keep healing with your white mage, and that's all she wrote pretty quickly.
On the other hand, something interesting could come of this combat system if it was expanded to include more spells and special powers and a good variety of defenses and vulnerabilities. I'm thinking of the Magic collectible card game here, a game which come to think of it is beset with similar problems to IF—no easy way to represent the combatants' respective locations, etc.—and yet manages to be (I'm told) cracking good fun. Magic as IF... maybe something could be done with that.
You've got me interested, Mr. Sutcliffe. Now how about you try to give us a real game with this combat system?
It's not an infrequent idea in Interactive Fiction, adding RPG elements. As early as 1987, Brian Moriarty dabbled in it a bit for Beyond Zork—there are probably even earlier examples—and many others since have attempted something similar. Derek Sutcliffe throws his hat into the RPG/IF mashup ring with his Gameplay Comp entry, "Fantastic Finale IV". As alliterative titles go, it certainly is one of them.
FFF, as I'll call it, is not an IF game, but a showcase for an RPG-like system. Three player-controlled characters fight against a Grue Lord for their very survival. The characters, a fighter and two mages, each has his or her unique abilities, and every turn the player directs them to use one ability. FFF has got an additional layer, a framing story, in which the PC is ostensibly a student who must get some sleep for a test tomorrow. Instead, the PC is compelled to play the game to the end, win or lose. But this aspect only shows up in the beginning and at the end of FFF and therefore is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.
Thus all we are left with is the RPG engine to try out. There are two aspects to this engine: the underlying world model, and the user interface. Starting with FFF's world model, there are the standard fantasy tropes: physical damage, elemental damage, and healing. The fighter class also has the ability to block physical attacks. Against the Grue Lord, the only enemy we get to try this out on, it's simply a matter of determining the attack that does the most damage. Once that's complete, the remainder of the game is simply spent repeating the same actions until Mr Lord has been dispatched. Given that there are no objects to use, no cost to spells, no trade-offs to consider, no game in the game-play, my conclusion is only that the world model needs to be revisited.
The user interface likewise needs some work. Every turn, the game asks what each character should do. If the character is dead, the game says so, but still requires you to enter some command. Even when it's the Grue Lord's turn, we are told "Wait for the enemy to attack. >" and wait we must. In fact, any normal IF command is valid, but if used during the time when you need to be issuing character commands, that character will miss a turn to act. I guess they stand there and do nothing, then? If a character dies, you still are required to enter a command for him or her. Given the repetitive nature of RPG interaction, there must be a better way to present this.
If all FFF was meant to be was a send-up of jRPG/Final Fantasy-like games, then it needs more funny bits thrown in. But if this was truly attempting to add RPG-like combat to IF, there is a great deal of potential here that could turn into an interesting system. Streamlining the UI and offering more choices for combat (meaning, more opportunities to think about each character's actions) would go a long way in developing this into an enjoyable game.
For scoring, I divided the 10 points into 3 for story, 3 for user interface, and 4 for the "non-traditional gameplay" aspect described in the competitions' rules. For FFF, that would refer to the RPG engine.
Story: 0.5 / 3—it's there but it needs work
User interface: 0.5 / 3—tedious and repetitive
Gameplay: 2 / 4—there is much potential here
Final score: 3
The author set out to implement a multi-party combat system (as in the Final Fantasy games, which are lightly teased throughout) and he has pretty much succeeded.
How does it work as a combat system? Pretty much the same as in your average console RPG. You quickly discover the optimal attack strategy for each character, and keep doing it, over and over. Tedium ensues. (Although it's certainly a blessing here to have only one monster to kill, rather than the typical several hundred grillion.) Without the promise of obscenely expensive 3D animation to tempt players to keep slogging, the failure of this sort of system to provide anything mentally stimulating becomes more apparent. I'm also not sure the conversion to text format adds anything to the experience, either—I got used to skimming over text in the same way I got impatient at watching the same overblown animations in graphical equivalents.
I can't speak to how it works within a larger game, or whether it still remains IF despite its nonstandard gameplay—which were the other two points to be judged—since there is no game outside the combat sim. So, a success as an exercise, but I'd rather have done something more interesting than grade another exercise.
All reviews in this article copyright © 2009 by their respective authors.