Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Game Review: Final Fantasy XIII

 Paradigm Shift

Playstation 3, XBox 360, 2010

Publisher: Square Enix

Developer: Square Enix

Time to Complete: 35-75 hours

It has been nearly two months since my last post on here... for this, I blame last week's hurricane. To the joy of millions of the elderly, this post-less span now ends with a look at Final Fantasy XIII. There was a sizable - years long - gap between the twelfth Final Fantasy and the thirteenth, so in a way ending my temporary hiatus from posting with this game is fitting. A paradigm shift in the Final Fantasy series that eshews many of the conventions that have defined it over the years, FFXIII is a game that RPG fans definitely have a love/hate relationship with. Having just finished it, what are my (as objective as I can) impressions of this divisive game? Read on.

Lightning strikes

Ask naysayers why they dislike Final Fantasy XIII and one of the first things they'll usually say is "the linearity". It's true that the game seems to move in a straight line (80% of the game, anyway). The towns and exploration of FFs I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and XII are nowhere to be found. Notice that there's a non-online entry missing from that list? That's right, the tenth installment. FFXIII has a lot in common with Final Fantasy X, and linearity is a big part of it. FFXIII manages to be even more linear than FFX to the point that it's far more noticeable, but this isn't exactly new to the series. Besides, aren't most games linear? Some are just more obvious about it than others. Not all RPGs can be Fallout 3 and give you a world to explore at your own pace.

One of many, many hallways

To Square's credit, FFXIII does open up at a certain point later in the game when the characters arrive on a different, non-linear world; this break in the linearity is welcome, and at that point it feels like an entirely new game. However, it occurs late in the story. The non-linear part of the game is nearly all optional, and players who stick to the main storyline will find that it quickly returns to linearity right up until the end. The non-linear side-game is in many ways the most fun part of the game; it brings back memories of FFXII's side-and-postgame Hunts that added tremendously to the main story mode. Like FFXII, the optional stuff here may be optional but it's also crucial for getting the most out of the game; it is best to not skip it. 

At least you can see enemies and avoid them, but sometimes it's difficult... so you end up fighting more than you'd probably like a lot of the time, when you really just want to hurry up and get to the next cutscene to see what happens next. It's funny because in the open side-game / post-game, cutscenes are an interruption and you want them to hurry up and get over with so you can get back to the gameplay. The linearity isn't entirely bad, however. It's bizarre playing a Final Fantasy game that literally doesn't allow you to get lost, but it might make for a more relaxing experience if the player just wants to reach the end.

Snow fearlessly confronts a giant tiki idol

That all said, I'm not excusing the linearity of this game. Most games may be linear, but most Final Fantasy games are not. Final Fantasy X may have started the linearity trend, but it didn't take it as far as this installment. FFXIII is to this series what Metroid Other M is to the Metroid series: an ultra-linear game that deviates from what gamers expect from the series it hails from. Letting down the expectations of gamers by dramatically altering the style of gameplay when it comes to an established - and beloved - series is a great way to invite hate and venom; Square Enix did exactly this with FFXIII.

Moving on from the main point of contention, the linearity, let's look at some other aspects of this game and see how it measures up.

The Graphics: The graphics are the best I've ever seen in a video game, bar none. They are particularly amazing if you have a 1080p TV, but the game will look incredible on any HDTV or LED display. The visuals are the high point of the game and make it a great "tech demo".

 Those are some sweet visuals

The Sound: The music is outstanding, yet it is often drowned out by the sound effects. For whatever reason, they are much higher volume than the music a lot of the time. This is especially the case during battles. Many of the tracks in this game are on the quiet end of the spectrum and low-key, which makes this even more of an issue. This game really could have used a setting for adjusting the music and sound effect volumes individually; without that, an otherwise great soundtrack is diminished a bit. Beyond the battles, cutscenes also suffer from this issue. Said cutscenes are often full of obnoxious machine gun fire that drowns out whatever music is trying to play. Is it too much to ask that our heroes get to fly somewhere in peace without someone chasing and shooting at them the entire time? The constant gunfire noise ruins a lot of amazing looking - and sounding - cutscenes. If they absolutely had to do this, couldn't they have had lasers instead? Lasers sound cool. But no, despite all the high technology in FFXIII, they still use machine guns that are as loud as possible. All of that said, the songs are great when you can hear them. Fans of Final Fantasy X's soundtrack will especially enjoy the music in this game, as it shares some of the same composers. Another one of the many similarities between the two games.

The Story: largely nonsense. If the linearity is the worst aspect of the game, the story is a close second. It does a decent enough job developing the individual characters, but the overarching story makes little sense. There is nothing really to invest in, no one to root for... with the exception of Sazh.

Sazh is the one on the left

The Characters: The characters aren't exactly the best crew ever assembled for a Final Fantasy game. They run from unlikable to genuinely irritating, depending on the player. There are several exceptions, however. Let's run down the list of the seven main characters. 

-Light ("Lightning" early on) is essentially a fusion of Terra (FFVI) and Cloud (FFVII) with, debatably, a little bit of Squall (FFVIII) thrown in. It's like they literally just took those personae and stuck them together to make a new one. Not really a fan of her as a main character, and she's pretty uninteresting most of the time.

-Sazh is arguably the most charismatic and interesting character in the game. He actually seems like a real person, with real people issues. As far as memorable characters go, he's up there with such series stalwarts as Balthier, Auron, Locke, and Kain. The guy has an insanely likable baby chocobo hiding out in his hair, too. You can't front on that.
-Vanille is FFXIII's sassy female caster du jour. She's quite the annoyance for many players, but she's got some sex appeal and spends fights moaning profusely.

-Fang is pretty cool. As the dragoon of the game, she has a high competency level and balances out the bubbly Vanille.
-Hope, the requisite emo boy, actually gets kind of cool later on in the game. That said, I could have done without him. He would have been an interesting NPC, but as a regular character he doesn't fit in at all. The other characters are all believable as powerful fighters, yet Hope is a hobbit with a boomerang.

-Snow is a combination of Zell, Seifer, and a snowboarder. Snow is best known for his hit song "Informer".

Each character has their own unique summon, which is the main differentiation between them in the late-game. Light has Odin, Snow has Motorcycle Shiva, Sazh has Ifrit Brynhildr, Hope has Alexander (or as he is known to FFVI players, Alexandr), Fang has Bahamut, and Vanille has... some sort of Japanese sex robot. I'm not sure what Hecatoncheir is supposed to be.

 All I know is that Vanille really, really likes her summon

There are six "classes" in the game and six characters. Each character is "master" of one particular class (meaning they get everything it has to offer, I believe) and has two other classes on deck that they can use as well (but not get every ability). Later in the game, all the classes unlock for everyone, but the three non-natural classes for any given character are generally missing a lot of abilities and are expensive to learn skills in. As a result, none of the characters become "master of everything" in this game, and they always have specialties.

Moving on from the characters, the beginning of the game seems like a tribute to FFVII. A train arrives, Lightning and Sazh leap out and start battling soldiers. Sazh then asks Lightning why she's fighting the soldiers if she is one, and she corrects him with "no, I WAS a soldier". This must have been an intentional callback on the part of Square Enix. Not to spoil -why- exactly, but the ending of the game has some FFVII similarities as well. 

Something that deserves a special mention: The "flashback to happier times" scenes are among the better parts of the story in this game. These simultaneously melancholy, nostalgic, and joyful flashbacks happen frequently, and are accompanied by some amazing music as you get to know the main characters better.

The "paradigm" battle system has caught quite a bit of flack from series fans. The break/stagger system borrows quite a bit from the Xenosaga series, surprisingly enough. Add in a dash of FFXII's more action-oriented system, and you have FFXIII. The battles are fast and furious and rarely dull, but players who enjoy the more traditional series conventions like a slower pace and being able to control all the characters - rather than just the leader - may find themselves somewhat left out by this new system. At first it seems limiting to be restrained to a small group of party setups, but once the player gets used to paradigm shifting at the right times and works out some strategies of their own, the paradigm system quickly becomes even more intuitive than FFXII's gambit system. There is less micromanagement involved, to boot.

The dialogue in this game is often laughable

The character-building "crystarium" system is another major departure from series norms. It has a lot in common with Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. It actually improves on the sphere grid because you don't need to gather spheres from defeated enemies - just get exp and utilize it. Rather than gaining levels, your characters put their exp directly into a crystarium grid where they can learn abilities and raise stats. The crystarium grids are extremely linear; there isn't much customization to be had here and the characters largely end up with the same abilities (with a few exceptions; Vanille being the only character to learn Death comes to mind). Each character has six grids to move through, one for each of the six classes in the game.

The FF7-esque intro

Effectively balancing your party with appropriate classes is the key to surviving. The lack of differentiation between the characters means they are largely interchangeable, which is an unfortunate side effect. This is only really an issue in the late-game; during the first half the characters have their own class specialties that make them stand out individually. It's only once they start learning everything that the character differentiation blurs, something that occurred in many past Final Fantasy games as well. Also worth noting: During the first half of the game, character growth is capped at a certain point in every chapter to prevent power-levelling. The only route to victory is strategizing and re-strategizing, as a result.

Lebreau, moments before taking her talents to South Beach

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Lebreau, the walking viagra overdose. Too bad she's only a guest character for a few minutes at the beginning of the game, before - spoiler alert! - making The Decision and going elsewhere. Her character design screams "hotness", from her voice to her mannerisms to everything else. I guess they could only have her in the game as a guest character for temporary spaces of time, because if she lasted for more than four hours people would need to see a doctor.

Finally, I'm someone who believes that any story with conflict - whether it be a movie, TV show, book, or game - succeeds or fails in large part on the strength of the villain(s). This is an area where FFXIII definitely falls flat. For the first half of the game there are no clearly defined primary antagonists, while the villain we get for the second half is fairly uninteresting and rarely-seen.

Gazing off into space: A popular FFXIII pastime.

Gran Pulse deserves its own section here. In Chapter 11 the game gives you access to the completely non-linear lower planet until you continue the story (Chapters 12 and 13 - the final chapters - are back to the linearity), and after beating the game you can go back there to do more stuff. Gran Pulse is somewhat MMORPG-like; you run around undertaking various quests that are similar to the Hunts in FFXII. It takes at least as much time to do everything in Gran Pulse as it does to beat the main game.

FFXIII is a game with tremendous potential that falls flat in many areas. It didn't need to. With a better story, a real villain, and heart and soul injected into the entire game - rather than just the graphics - it could have been great. Here's hoping Square Enix learned from their mistakes with this one. Maybe the planned sequels, FFXIII-2 and FFXIII Versus, will have more of a pulse.

Rating: 6.7 out of 10

1 comment:

  1. Final Fantasy XIII is called the final corridor, XIII, or Final Corridor. This game is so linear and does not stand in the previous Final Fantasy titles to all. Never more than this game. Wait for Kingdom Hearts 3 and Final Fantasy Versus 13, because this game is horrible.