Wednesday, June 10, 2015

[Final Fantasy Record Keeper] Exploit Softens Terrible Game Design

For the past 3 months I've played a lot of Final Fantasy Record Keeper. It's a mobile game where you end up having to save the Final Fantasy worlds by battling it out with their enemies/bosses brought to life. It's a bit of nonsense story-wise, but the game itself is...well, somewhat fun generally with moments of great fun, but mostly satisfying I guess?

What is FFRK?

The gist is you collect characters from FF games, gather gear to wear and upgrade, collect orbs to build and upgrade abilities, to take on more and more difficult challenges. It plays (preys?) upon nostalgia quite effectively, as everyone has been given the sprite treatment (if they hadn't been sprites already) and backgrounds, music, victory music, enemies, bosses, and gear are from the Final Fantasy games.

Where the collecting is interesting is it's easy to get characters, collecting orbs for abilities just takes time, and gear is where they use the gacha-style shop to pay for pulls. But they're pretty free with the currency to make pulls all around. I've made 4 11-pulls so far with their currency, Mythril, which if I had paid for it would've cost me $120. But characters and gear are more powerful when you're fighting in the realm they're from. Example: you want to fight an FF6 boss, so bring along Terra and she basically has +10 levels worth of stats. Equip Tidus from FFX with an FF6 piece of armor, and the armor would provide a lot more defense.

Items with Record Synergy for the realm you're in are highlight blue, and characters have a blue aura.
This Realm Synergy makes collecting highly satisfying, because it allows you to take on challenges more difficult than you would be able to otherwise. But almost more important than stats are the abilities. Each character can bring along two abilities, based on that character (ie: Celes can bring Spellblade and lower level Black Magic, whereas Locke can bring Thievery and some lower level Combat abilites), so boss fights become a puzzle. Should I bring elemental magic? Should I bring status effects? Defensive abilities?

Terrible Game Design Choices

This sounds like the basis of a somewhat interesting game, and indeed, FFRK is at its best when it's giving you those puzzle elements. However, the game as a whole is marred extremely by massive difficulty spikes and horrendous RNG. Because of how stats work, and how Realm Synergy plays into things, there's a limited window of opportunity where "difficulty" is meaningfully encountered.

It takes a little luck with equipment, but it's relatively easy to overpower lower encounters to the point where the gameplay is simply where you choose to spend your stamina. Otherwise, auto-battle it out (made even easier by a recent change to give you battle speed, which is a nice convenience function). Mind you, you can choose lower level characters to give you a challenge and them some experience points, but since equipment and abilities can be moved pretty easily, that's tempered rather quickly.

Later on, the difficulty spikes immensely. Random battles become a herculean task unto themselves, where you will be cursing your Black Mage for getting two attacks in a row that you couldn't think of countering and watching him die. Oh, and you get penalized for taking too much damage or too many deaths by getting less experience at the end. That being said, having some difficulty isn't a bad thing. There are definitely cases where I'm clearly attempting to bat above my weight class, and that's okay that I'm getting demolished. Smart usage of abilities mitigates that quite a bit.

But the RNG, holy cow. I realize that DeNA wants to push people to use money on battles, but some of the RNG is absolutely stupid. Enemy AI isn't terribly bright. The grand majority have a list of attacks, and each attack effectively has a percentage chance to activate each turn. Many of them are entirely unfair, with absolutely no way to counter it.

One such ability, until recently, was insta-kill attacks. Oh sure, you could resurrect the character, but your performance was penalized severely for an attack you literally could do nothing about. Thankfully DeNA has softened that stance recently and only penalize you for dead characters at the end of combat, allowing you to react to the damage at least.

Another such insanity were some enemies that cast an ability called "Gale". Gale is an AoE attack that reduced your entire party to 5% of their maximum health, regardless of how much health you had. Often, another enemy on screen would attack just after and kill a character. Outside of a single character's Soul Break (like Limit Breaks), there are no AoE heals in FFRK. Oh, and one of the things you were penalized for is total damage taken, which a single use of this attack would reduce your performance score to zilch on that count.

Gale is unadulterated bullshit.
A second example was a level where random enemies had a 75% chance to spam Tsunami, and often times two of them would do it, taking out half your party's health and there was nothing you could do about it because you didn't have a chance to set up defenses.

So in the face of such enemy "tactics" alone I'd have given up in frustration long ago. You start battles with your ATB bars filled at random, so sometimes enemies could kill you off before you had a chance to react and set up defenses. Sometimes enemies had unfair attacks period. Combined, there were fights that made me want to throw my iPad through a wall in frustration.

Exploiting a Feature to "Fix" the Game Design

But there is a workaround! To keep people from losing stamina when internet cut out or the app crashed, or someone had to walk away, the game stores the state at the beginning of each individual combat on the server. However, if you cut out in the middle of a given combat, and the app reloaded, you'd be back at the beginning of that combat. The FFRK Reddit community calls this the Save/Load Exploit (or S/L for short). Basically, this allows you to restart any given individual combat without eating your limited stamina, working around bullshit starts (or mistakes).

Enemies killed your Black Mage before you could act? S/L. Gale? S/L. Missed Blinding the boss 4 times in a row because the stupid ability only has a 10% activation rate? S/L. You still need to complete the puzzle aspect, because you can't just waltz into a difficult boss with any combination of gear, characters, or abilities, but if the game didn't have this exploit? I'd have probably stopped playing long ago.

I've spent some money, $30, for a single 11-pull, because I felt I had enough enjoyment to do so. The nostalgia factor with the music, the bosses, and the characters has been very satisfying. I enjoy the puzzle aspect of many of the bosses. I'm okay with some aspect of P2W with pulling gear, especially since they're quite generous with handing out currency as you complete content. And the fact that abilities are just a factor of time and digging up the right orbs is great, meaning even free-to-play accounts can do quite a bit--the Reddit community has a number of strict F2P players who've managed to complete the hardest content in the game, so kudos to them.

But the sheer RNG and some enemy ability bullshit factors are frustrating in the extreme, and the widespread usage of the S/L exploit to combat it tells me that it's not good game design, but likely a way to milk players. Thankfully, DeNA probably won't be able to "fix" this exploit without screwing over legitimate disconnects and the like, so I don't see it changing anytime soon. I would prefer, however, that DeNA fix some of the egregious terrible combat issues instead. A little judicious use of better AI would certainly help, as would just not designing bullshit "AI wins!" abilities. Until then, I'll keep using S/L so I can enjoy the rest of the game. #FFRK, #GameDesign, #Exploits


  1. We've talked about phone stuff a bunch recently, so I know you're like me and have a Windows Phone. Is this on there? Or were you playing it on another device?

    1. It's on Android and iOS only, sadly, though folks play it on Windows via Bluestacks Android emulator I believe.

      However, while my primary phone is Windows Phone, I do most of my mobile reading/gaming/etc. on iPad.

  2. Yeah I have a lady friend with an iPad so I found it there. Didn't try it out, but I did try Fallout Shelter. I like the iPad, just not how proprietary Apple can be.

  3. This can actually go a bit further, I was farming the Phantom Train (Elite) Dungeon when my phone lost data connection during the boss fight. When I rebooted into the game it asked if I would like to continue.

    I chose to cancel as the reward screen hadn't given me the Greater Dark Orb I had wanted. This seemed to reset the treasure roll for the boss. In the end it cost me an additional 5 stamina, but I got the treasure drop I wanted in the end.

    1. The FFRK Reddit community calls that the "Airplane Mode trick". I can't be bothered to farm for Greater Orbs. I figure I'll get enough to do what I want eventually. But yeah, good example of another way to abuse the feature :P