Last week, Square Enix launched a closed beta for Dissidia Final Fantasy NT, the console version of their hot little arcade-only arena-fighter, and in the process gave thousands of players the world over their first chance to tear into the 3v3 brawler. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Jon "Slimy Klimy" Klimas at Evo, I was lucky enough to get a beta code and join in the fun of the beta. Although I didn't get to play as much as I would have liked (some of the reasons being detailed below) I spent a decent amount of time on the beta, and wanted to get some of my feelings on the game down in a more concrete manner.
FIRST, the bad...
Just to get it out of the way: the matchmaking, however the hell it works, is awful. Waiting on a game could take a very literal ten minutes before you were set up with your teammates, and even then there was no guarantee the match would actually begin successfully. I had a handful of experiences where after waiting for several minutes (and thinking the game had locked up) I would get a team/opponent only to have the game really lock up at the preparation screen. Alternatively, it would take eons only to pair you up with 5 AI controlled bots, the same as a "Practice" match.
The beta had no search options for refining your matchmaking criteria, though this was probably intentional to simulate the wildest of conditions for testing the game's netcode to gather data and make the necessary fixes. That, in and of itself, is fine, but it made investing time in the beta difficult for me, as I could sit down for an hour and enjoy maybe 5 or 6 3-minute games. Baaaad wait:play ratio.
By itself, no search options for a beta is fine, really. They need to see how the game behaves under all manner of situations. What was strange about the matchmaking was instead that it really did take SO LONG to find a game or get the aforementioned bots. What was going on behind the scenes that made it painful and time-consuming for thousands of players to find each other? This was a huge and highly anticipated beta, so it's not like the game's population was dead. People were playing at all times.
Other than that, the biggest issue with the netplay was, of course, lag. In most matches, the game runs very poorly to only-sorta-poorly. Silky smooth connections that feel like offline were few and far between. This is something I'd attribute more to however the game handles six different users' connections, and the general problems that would present in any game, than a fundamental failure of the netcode... for now, anyway. Since there's no way to filter out players with slow/bad connections like in most fighting games, you're stuck with whatever the matchmaking service finds for you. 1-bar connection makes for a bad time no matter the game, and here it made for some VERY BAD times.
Lag was so severe that I would experience 15-30 seconds where although my character was moving and the world around him was full of danger, none of my button presses would ever go through, not even with a huge laggy delay like normal. The lag would simply devour my inputs whole. Failing that, the entire game could freeze or lock up while it was disconnecting you or another player. Thankfully, when a player was disconnected, the game tended to snap back to life pretty successfully and run a bit more smoothly.
Slow/broken matchmaking and laggy/shoddy netcode would be a death sentence for this game on release, so hopefully the developers use the info from the beta to iron out any problems on their end, then add in the appropriate options to help players craft the best experience on their end. These issues took some wind out of the beta's sails, but that could be a good thing as long as they're now able to catch the problems.
With that out of the way, let's move on to the good stuff.
3v3 and TEAM gameplay
In its previous PSP versions, Dissidia was a one-on-one 3D fighter. Making the move to arcades, it evolved into a three on three team-based affair, theoretically in an effort to emulate the core FF series emphasis on adventuring parties, but probably moreso to capitalize on the popularity of other games like Gundam Xtreme. Following the development of this game, and especially after confirmation of a console version, I wondered two things: 1- Would 3v3 "work" and be fun? and B- Would team composition matter?
My short conclusions are yes, very much so and yes, emphatically.
First, 3v3. I think like a lot of people I was initially skeptical about Dissidia becoming a team game, mostly because I'm always a huge fan of 1v1 fighters. Dissidia, however, has never really been a traditional fighting game, and expanding its battles to 6-person melees really helps to add depth to the game while evening out some of the weird faults of its core systems. The characters have been further refined from the old PSP games to better fall into specific roles in combat (Heavy, Speed, Shoot, and Unique) with each role and how that character fills it adding to their personal identity in game. For example, Squall and Tidus are both speed types, but the way they play and (more importantly) the way they help the team differ greatly.
Squall has to get in close and be on even footing with enemies, but once he's in he's great at locking foes into his lengthy attack sequences, and is able to either push them to the wall and get a kill or keep the enemy locked down while a teammate moves in with their own killing blow.
Tidus, meanwhile, is constantly on the move and harassing opponents with a variety of dash attacks. He's a pest who's gonna hit you and run away only to come back and hit you again if you dare to ignore him.
3-player teams also lends itself to varying styles of play. Casters can behave like casters, moving around the field and looking for opponents to unleash devastation. They aren't forced to constantly dodge and run and zone because now they have allies to keep some of the heat off them.
And you need those allies, no matter what character you play. Because of the way attacks/damage work, it's almost impossible to fend off enemies when they outnumber you. You can't turtle up and block forever, and dodging an array of attacks forever is simply not going to happen. Attacks also have lots of recovery on a miss, and you're even wide-open to attack in the middle of landing your blows. There's danger all around, and you simply can't overcome it alone.
This creates a game where the ability of your teammates is just as important as your own personal skills. There were games I played that were over in under a minute because while I was handling one foe, my teammates were swiftly routed, and vice-versa. If there's a weak link on a team (like, say, a bot) it's all-too-easy to exploit that weakness for a win. Even more, the game rewards teams that work together and fight like a coherent unit. It's hard to land a slow HP attack when your opponent is focused on dodging it, but once they have to worry about shutting down someone else, it becomes much easier to snipe them and take them out of the game.
With that in mind, team composition is huge, and for a multitude of reasons. Teammates can help cover each others' matchup weaknesses (Squall can't fight Firion very well at all, but a magic-user can), create opportunities that play to each others' strengths (Warrior of Light using his taunt to pull enemies while a speed or shoot type brings the pain) and overall just help each other out. Each character also has a personal EX skill and two chosen ex skills that provide further utility to themselves and the team, with some characters (Ramza, Bartz) able to provide a bevy of buffs to teammates throughout the match.
So yeah, 3v3 works, team comp. definitely matters, and I'm not really going to be sad if there's no option for 1v1.
One other thing that was cool about 3v3 and random matchmaking: everything just feels relaxed and fun. If you lose because of your team or get carried by them, you don't feel bad or angry. It's kinda just out of your hands when the system is randomized like this. You can play a solid game and know you did everything you could even when losing, so a team loss doesn't frustrate quite as much as losing in a game like Tekken does in ranked. You can also have games where you get your ass kicked, manage not to die, and your teammates get all the kills. You still feel good and contributed by not dying and giving up a point. It's just fun.
14 characters were available in the beta: Warrior of Light (WoL), Firion, Onion Knight, Cecil, Bartz, Terra, Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus, Shantotto, Vaan, Lightning, and Y'shtola. Going in beta, I had planned to play a little bit of everyone, but due to the matchmaking time commitments I kinda scrapped that plan and resolved to play a lot of Squall. That didn't go so well, so I wound up switching to Bartz, having a LOT more fun, and playing him for most of the week. I've got some thoughts on all of the characters, but I'll also talk at length about Squall and Bartz. K, let's go.
WoL- Didn't see him much, and don't think that will change with full version. I think he's good though. Basic, but strong, and his taunt ability could be incredible with the right team around him.
Firion- He was much more popular than I thought he'd be. Lots of internet people were buzzing about him being super strong because of his ground game, while ignoring that he can't do shit in the air. He's pretty hard to approach, his moveset is really cool, and I think his EX skill (Blood Weapons) is great. I wanted to play him but elected not to (for now) after seeing how often he was being played.
Onion Knight- He started to appear more as the beta went on, though I dunno why. He's a bit more advanced than some characters, but he seems cool? I think people taking the game seriously will like him a lot because he can contribute in a lot of different ways.
Cecil- Didn't see Cecil very much either, which was a little surprising. His Paladin form seems very good to me, but Dark Knight felt a bit lacking when I fought against it. I should have played him a bit, but I didn't. He's a bit odd, I dunno.
Terra- Terra seems like you really need to have a good team around her to be successful. Her unique mechanic makes it so that she can't constantly attack or else she won't get her best spells, so she has to spend a lot of time waiting and that leaves her open to being hunted down by Speed types (like Squall). Every time I played Squall and saw a Terra I decided to go after her, and a lot of the time it worked out very, very well. So she's pretty weak when pressured, but if your team is good she's devastating. Her big spells are BIG, hit hard, and she can really just murder fools. She was popular in the beta, and I think she will be in full version as well, even with more mages in the game.
Cloud- He's everywhere, because of course he is. It wasn't uncommon to see 3 or more Clouds in games, which is funnier than I thought it would be. He seems really easy to play, too, which isn't a bad thing. He can strike from a lot of different angles, his attacks track pretty well, and he does exactly what you want Cloud to do, I guess. He's Cloud, I dunno man, get used to seeing him.
Zidane- Kinda popular, but I rarely saw him... do anything? It was weird. Like he was just zipping around and sometimes shit would happen and he would explode or kill someone but I don't really know anything about him. Whatever.
Tidus- He's annoyyyyying. Decently popular. Lots of bad players were using him and just spamming HP attacks. I think he's a good character though, and he seems like a lot of fun just with all his mobility. He makes a good teammate too because of that speed.
Shantotto- Nobody was playing her. :)
Vaan- He's supposed to be "that character" because he can spam HP attacks and go wild, but I didn't see him much. Here and there, some good players, but he's probably not seen much right now because 12 isn't one of the more popular games in the west. I'd expect that to change once people realize he's super unga.
Lightning- About as popular as Cloud and Squall, saw a good bit of her. As a character she seems okay? Her HP attack is really easy to dodge and people get a little greedy with it right now. I played against some good Lightnings and found it difficult, though. Don't know much about her.
Y'shtola- She was REALLY popular, which surprised me because I don't actually know anything about her role in FF14. She actually has like heals and stuff I think, which I'm sure contributed to people wanting to play her. I honestly think it'd be cool if they put more healers in...
Squall was the character I played for the first few days of the beta, mostly because he's my favorite protag and FF8 was my first FF. His playstyle is also really in-line with what I like to do: go in and hit people. In fact, that's just about all he does, having very limited options whenever not right up in the opponent's face.
The good thing is that once he's in there, Squall is a devastating force, able to string together lengthy combos and push opponents to the wall where he can finish combos with the aerial version of Fated Circle for a kill. As mentioned above, his long bravery attack chains are also really good for holding people down and allowing your teammates to go for killing blows... unfortunately I rarely benefitted from this, as my allies were rarely aware of what I was doing.
He's great for hunting down enemies that have strayed from the group, as well as slower opponents like casters or whatever. However, he seems to struggle against characters that can attack him from different angles or keep him out. Squall's attacks are all really very "linear", he has to be more or less level with you to get things going, and he can't really drop in or rise up to meet you like Cloud or Tidus can, nor can he effectively fight from long-range like Firion or a caster.
I think he pairs really well with Terra, for aforementioned reasons. He can hold down enemies for her to kill, while also helping to keep the pressure off her. Similarly, the threat of Terra's magic creates openings for Squall to get in and go to work. It's ironic that FF's #1 lone wolf needs support to really shine, but I like it.
That's not to say Squall can't shine in a duel. He can still dodge and block and find openings on his own, it's just a bit tougher. His Thunder Barret attack is a decent combo starter on the ground, and he has nice ways of closing distance in midair that also lead to combos. Since he's such an offensive powerhouse once he lands a hit, Squall really only needs that one opening to make his attacks count. If you're able to find your mark and maximize his damage, you can very nearly kill in a single exchange (provided you're using Fated Circle as your HP attack, anyway.)
Speaking of maximizing damage, Squall has a unique "Trigger" mechanic that should be sorta familiar to anyone who played FF8. Basically, whenever Squall lands a hit, he has a window of ~3 frames to input his next attack, and if successful he'll trigger his gunblade and give the next hit +75% damage. With a series of successful triggers, Squall does obscene damage. Without triggers? Well... his damage kinda sucks.
And that was a big problem for me while playing him in the beta. I wanted those just-frame triggers and real manly damage, but due to the devastating lag it felt nearly impossible. Plus, the only way to "practice" getting triggers was to play a match against the AI, and even that didn't feel like much help. Learning timing for things like that is something I'd normally like to lab out in a dedicated training environment, and so I didn't really put much effort in yet. Hopefully in the full version I'll come back to him.
The other issue with playing Squall in the beta is that your team is very rarely going to cover his weaknesses and aid his strengths. Communication is nearly impossible, and a lot of people don't even fully understand how the game is supposed to work, so if you're getting dogpiled by Clouds from every angle, nobody's going to come to your aid.
Also, his other available HP attack (characters in the beta only had 2 to choose from) Blasting Zone, seemed underwhelming to me for what his character is supposed to be about. It's a big area attack for a character that specializes in combos, and it can't be used as a combo ender. I also didn't like the EX Skills that came with the Blasting Zone loadout. Overall, Fated Circle seems like the go-to (though Rough Divide and Ultima seem pretty cool in the Arcade).
Squall, ultimately, is probably going to be really popular, but a lot of people are going to be really bad at him because he actually has a learning curve. I still think I want to main him when the game is out, but I'm not so sure, mostly because...
BARTZ IS REALLY GODDAMN FUN
The reworked version of Bartz for the Arcade game is amazing. He's so good, and so much fun, and his unique mechanics are so cool. He's also reasonably versatile, unlike Squall, so when you're getting thrown into random battles it always feels like he's able to do his thing and help the team.
In PSP Dissidia, Bartz had weird/altered/mimed versions of other characters' moves, and fought by conjuring copies of their weapons. As cool as it was to see him waving around the Buster Sword and Gunblade and the like, he felt more like a mash-up of everyone else than his own unique character. All that's changed in NT, as Bartz now works on a system that pays great homage to FF5 and its kinda legendary job system.
Each of Bartz's attacks are based on a job from the game: Monk, Blue Mage, Dragoon, Ninja, Black Mage, Ranger, and Mystic Knight for his Bravery attacks; and Geomancer, Samurai, Knight, or Dancer for his HP attacks. Each attack starts out decently useful, but after using/landing the attacks a certain amount of times Bartz will master the job. Mastering a job upgrades the attack in some way (more damage/hits, faster, whatever) and also applies a passive buff to Bartz. He gets stronger, faster, or sturdier... he can triple jump, have more base bravery, all sorts of things. Basically Bartz goes from "pretty good" at the start of a fight to "REALLY STRONG" as the game wears on. He also keeps the buffs and masteries even if he dies, so you never get forced back to square one.
His EX Skill, Lucky Charm, sees him using his pal Boko's chocobo feather to share all that buffed-up goodness with the whole party. In previous Arcade patches he shared all of his unique buffs with everyone, but in the current Arcade build and NT, Lucky Charm simply gives buffs to ATK, DEF, and SPD... all at once. That's pretty cool, but the kicker is that Lucky Charm also levels up as Bartz masters jobs, and the buffs scale up accordingly. With maxed out Lucky Charm, and the proper summon, Bartz can give teams HUGE and FREQUENT boosts. Even in games where I wasn't able to get kills, it always felt like Bartz was able to contribute by buffing friends and pestering opponents with his versatile moves. I might not get those kills, but they couldn't put me down, either.
I don't know that he'd be as much fun if his moves weren't so versatile and cool, though. Bartz just feels good to play, and his moveset is an awesome homage to his original game, throwing in tons of little winks and nods to players who spent some time with FF5. I'm an especially big fan of the Samurai attack opening with Gil Toss, something I used constantly when finishing up FF5 last year.
Mechanically, he really seems to have a tool for every situation. Dragoon is a great dodge/counter/gap-closing attack that does good damage and pushes to the wall. Blue Mage is great for whiff-punishing while airborn. Black Mage and Ranger let you trade pokes with casters while forcing melee fighters into bad situations. Mystic Knight is an amazing attack once mastered, with a huge hitbox and damage. Monk is more forgettable, but it's speedy and makes for a decent option on the ground to capitalize on mistakes and get some damage. I didn't use Ninja very much, but it's a solid attack from dash.
For HP attacks, only Geomancer and Samurai were available in the beta, and of those I used the former much more, though I think Samurai is probably better. Geomancer lets you play Bartz more like a caster/shoot-type, and is actually composed of two different attacks. On the ground it caused a pillar of earth to erupt upwards to cause damage, while in the air it shoots a slow-moving wind projectile. When mastered, the Earthquake causes more/larger pillars of rock to attack, and the Wind Slash moves quicker. Both are good, but easy to dodge when the opponent sees them coming. I had a good bit of success with them when persistent, at least.
Samurai is a great HP attack if only because it can be lightning fast or delayed for more damage. Toying with the timing makes it easier to land in neutral situations, while also giving a potential combo ender (I think) with its speed. Really good move. I think mastering it allows it to charge faster.
The two absentee HP attacks, Knight and Dancer, seem cool, Knight especially. Dancer is a pretty standard multi-attack... kinda like Omnislash... where Bartz does a random number of hits then finishes with HP damage. Mastering it makes it do more hits guaranteed. I'm not too interested in using it.
NOW KNIGHT. Knight seems incredible. It's a counter-attack, so you can't exactly go to town with it, but it's arguably the best counter in the game because it counters HP attacks when mastered. I can't wait to try it out.
Bottom line is I think the team did an amazing job capturing Bartz and adapting him for this game. Right now he's my favorite to play for sure, and I can't wait to get better with him and buff everyone I play with.
Stray Thoughts and a Wishlist
I wanna close with just a few random notions about the game as a whole, and then give a small character wishlist for shits and giggles.
+I didn't really talk about Summons, but they're also more important than a lot of people realize. Getting them and capitalizing on them is gonna be a big deal. I heard Ramuh is actually really strong in the meta but people weren't letting me pick him.
+ Communication is super important amongst teammates, so voice chat seems like a must. I'm curious how Japanese Arcade players are so coordinated if they aren't side by side.
+ Hopefully the full game has different online modes so you aren't ever stuck going against pre-made groups with a random group. You'd get slaughtered. There should be ranked PUG modes and ranked pre-made modes, imo.
+I hope there's an option to make matches longer. A 2/3 set or something would be cool, since games ending in 45 seconds is a bit of a bummer, and longer sets would let people adjust and learn.
+I neeeeed a practice mode or I won't be able to play Squall well.
+I'm also interested in playing Emperor, Firion, and Jecht in the full game. Maybe others.
+I'd buy all the DLC I could afford for this game.
+NT is really pretty, and very accessible, and I think a lot of people will find something to like.
+I got to like....Silver D or C rank before the beta ended. Like I said I didn't play a TON...
+Top 5 Characters I'd Like to See+
5. Fran, or any ranged non-mage.
4. Aeris, or any dedicated white mage/healer (Rosa, FF1 White Mage)
3. Anyone from Final Fantasy IX
2. Zell Dincht, or any "Monk" (Tifa, Sabin, Amarant, FF1 Black Belt)