Review: Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

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Final Fantasy’s reputation for reinventing itself with every major release as well as spreading its brand name into other genres has made it a powerhouse series since it had saved a struggling Square in the early eighties. While some developers may choose to standardize on a set of systems for their own games, Square Enix’s ongoing efforts in designing a new battle system, set of characters, and an entire world to put them in with every title say as much for their imaginative talents as it does for their efforts in keeping the franchise fresh.

FF13, the latest in the franchise’s long line of major RPG entries, raises the same stakes and is part of a huge celebration of Final Fantasy that Square-Enix has termed Fabula Nova Crystalis. FF13 is only the first “13″ title to emerge in this series, but it is considered the flagship title of the new compilation. It’s a huge game that easily clocks in at sixty or more hours of fantastic adventure.

Whether they’ve also fit in enough actual gameplay, however, depends on how much tunnel vision you want to endure for the story that it wants to tell.

Crystania Levels

Yoshinori Kitase, FF13′s producer, had previously mentioned in an interview that the game is “much more like a first person shooter such as Call of Duty” which worried many fans concerned over the quality of the final game, including me. Seeing a major chapter of the series emerge as an action adventure with shooter elements would probably push past the boundaries of what even its most die-hard fans could want to accept. Just look at what happened with Dirge of Cerberus.

But his statement was aimed more at the kind of cinematic experience that Infinity Ward’s series has prided itself on creating through the actions of its characters and a story seamlessly told from within its design. In that sense, FF13 succeeds only too well in its pursuit of presenting a movie-like experience by being one of the most linear RPGs of any series to date.

For players that remember exploring a world ravaged by Kefka in FF3 (FF6 in Japan), heading off to the Golden Saucer in FF7, exploring the winding dungeons of FF9, or tasting the freedom of FF12′s MMO inspired world, FF13 will buckle you into a railway cart for at least twenty to thirty hours. I remember the complaints on FF12′s hour-long introduction, but imagine going through that for most of the game. That’s FF13.

It can also be argued that several FF titles, such as FF10, were linear as well with a single main quest to finish and only one way in which to go about doing it by following corridor after corridor. After all, Japanese RPGs have the distinction for being single minded in their narrative approaches. However, they aren’t generically equal in terms of how they break past that notion with their gameplay. From Namco Bandai’s Tales series to Square Enix’s own FF12, examples exist where having gobs of combat and a one-way story did not necessarily compare with their gameplay.

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As noble as the intentions are in providing this experience so as to keep players from missing out on material as a “cutscene driven experience”, it provides a depressingly bleak return to the worst that the genre has to offer. In some ways, it reminded me most of Namco Bandai’s Xenosaga series which was also as linear but didn’t share FF13′s single-track dungeons or various gameplay limitations. FF13′s towns are merely used as window dressing, stores double as savepoints, and side-quests are provided as a lump sum in only one area.

An upgrade system makes use of ingredients dropped by monsters, but the incremental upgrades felt so pointless that I pretty much ignored it for most of the game up to the very end. Many weapons and items are also so generic that finding anything new usually isn’t a cause for celebration. Character attribute upgrades via the Crystania system were far more valuable than most everything else I found on the battlefield. Money is useless other than in purchasing the occasional odd item from the shop, but it’s about as pointless as the upgrade system. Or the Summons.

Power gamers will discover that because of its railroad approach, there are few opportunities for grinding although dragging myself through the first twenty hours certainly felt the same. When enemies do respawn by moving around the map, grinding for upgrade points and ingredients replaces that of experience. I like the fact that it throws away the concept of levels in this way, but wish that there had been more to invest into my characters.

At least the tunnel opens up towards the end by allowing you to revisit previous areas like Gran Pulse, but it’s a small consolation prize for the walls it had put in the player’s way to get there.

Twitch Menus

The design philosophy behind FF13′s reinvented combat system is squarely aimed at immediate, if not occasional grindworthy, gratification. You don’t necessarily think through tactics in each battle – being real-time, you can only react – as much as you let your reflexes do the work in switching between paradigm roles as your fingers react to the ebb and flow of the battle space. It also creates the impression that the entire game is played as an hours long session of Scissors, Paper, Rock.

Each character starts off with a certain specialization which can be improved through the Crystania system from points earned during battle. There are no traditional levels within the game aside from those ascribed to the monsters you fight and the system follows a fairly linear path of upgrades based on how many points you have to spend. Later, it becomes fairly more complicated with additional specializations which add a degree of choice in forcing the player to play a more frugal game as the costs begin rising.

Paradigms set a party’s approach to combat by automatically switching party specializations depending on what you want. Going in with an aggressive paradigm and then switching to a healing set before mixing it up again can help weather more difficult battles and the system makes it fairly easy to swap back and forth without much fuss. It’s all about speed and how fast you can think with your fingers.

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FF13′s characters can also act as if they don’t have their heads on straight. Within an RPG that allows for some AI control, such as Namco Bandai’s Tales series or Bioware’s Dragon Age, having your other team members driven by an AI has its own set of risks relying largely on whether I have enough faith on it doing its job. What both examples allow the player to do, however, is to directly take control of wayward members and direct them with menu driven orders in order to drive their actions back into supporting your general strategy…or more importantly, from dying when one heal spell is all that it might take to keep the battle going if it is aimed at the right character.

The AI in the game is not always the best general, but FF13 also restricts you from dispensing any kind of direction to your party outside of general paradigms and the chosen skills of the lead character. The title’s Battle Planning Co-Director, Yuji Abe, had stated that they sought to create an experience that had dispensed with the “micromanaging” of characters and to that end, the result is much closer to watching a movie-like battle unfold onscreen which was also one of their overall goals. It’s the kind of “action oriented” approach that the designers were looking for, but it’s not the easiest to have the patience with. When it screws up, it often does so with pinpricks that add up over sixty hours of play.

Switching a member over to a Sentinel role with a new paradigm and then watching them die because they didn’t go into Steelguard mode as they were busy provoking an enemy preparing a strong attack was often annoying. Or, as a Medic, because they choose to heal someone else who had more hit points than they did at a critical juncture that you saw coming and then dying from the inevitable enemy attack. It wouldn’t be so bad if I could tell them what to do in a direct sense, but players will have to simply hope for the best here. Much of the difficulty that I had been confronted with inside the game was due more to the bizarre logic of its AI than with the actual fighting.

By simply focusing on each battle as a speed run, it can sometimes become boring in cycling through the same commands ad nauseaum against particularly meaty foes. More difficult battles require a bit more switching and mashing, but there it often feels as if I were playing a beat ‘em up with gauges and menus. That’s not to say that it isn’t occasionally fun – I was charged by the brazen speed that the system gave me – but it can also feel coldly mechanical.

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Despite the PS3 having a hard drive, the game doesn’t make use of it to help remember paradigm sets for different character combos. Recreating the same favorite sets when switching up party members became just the kind of micromanagement chore that I thought FF13 had wanted to get away from. It became irritating enough that I usually stuck with one set of characters despite wanting to bring in Sazh or Hope. I’d have to recreate all of those paradigms again. Even after only thirty or more hours of this, it gets irritating especially when you consider how the PS2 didn’t have a problem in remembering every Gambit you built for your party in FF12.

The beastly horrors and domineering bosses of incalculable power and inscrutable defenses provide the requisite challenges…until you figure out what to do, that is. Blaming part of that difficulty on the battle system would be akin to the old excuse of a craftsman blaming their tools, but in this case, the differences within FF13′s battle system and that of its previous iterations are more along the lines of picking between a manual drill and a powered one with multiple heads.

Aside from the lack of being able to directly guide your characters (or aim them at specific monsters or draw them away from the wrong target without resorting to forcing your lead to do the same), save paradigms, or the entire reflex-based button mashing effort put into playing the system, the game also penalizes you whenever the chosen leader for the group goes down. I can’t remember when another RPG did the same thing, likely because it’s not a popular mechanic since it makes little sense. It’s also exacerbated by the AI which will automatically tend to heal other party members first before focusing on the lead if you let it. After the repetitive nature of pushing “X” over so many battles, it was easy to fall into this kind of mind numbing routine where it can be easy to forget these little details.

Despite having Phoenix Downs or even a Raise spell among the party to bring them back, don’t expect any of it to help you if that happens making it feel like a cheap method in instilling an additional layer of “challenge”. At least death isn’t penalized by forcing a restart from the last save point. Players can retry the battle when the game drops them into a spot right before running into it, but it doesn’t save more than a few battles from feeling as if you are fighting to save your party leader than in killing the reason for being there.

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The 3D space is also wasted aside from providing nice camera angles, especially when you consider developer Tri-Ace’s own work in active battle systems or what Square Enix’s own work with FF12 had done with the idea. In those iterations, the systems allowed players to move characters around and potentially avoid certain pitfalls such as what happens when characters clump together in the face of a small area attack. Watching your own team somehow stick close to each other and then get whacked with a special attack makes whatever advances it might have under the hood feel positively ancient in comparison to everything else their competitors have already accomplished.

Why use this kind of beautiful space if you’re not allowed to move around in it as they had been able to before? But the answer is staring us in the face. The game wants to be like a movie so it directs the action in its own way. I probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this if surviving a tough battle didn’t come off as a result of my characters being in a lucky spot after being pushed there by an attack or by the enemy model when it repositions itself outside of anything that I, or my party’s skills, could have told them to do.

Lightning’s Run

In the first twenty hours of playing it, the disappointment reared its ugly head in how I felt about the cliches and annoyingly melodramatic nature of its early characterizations. This is what I had been waiting for since FF12? And that’s part of the problem with the game, because it actually gets better but only after suffering through nearly half of the game to have it hit its stride. The first 1/3 of the game plays out as a tutorial and the rest is linear with few exceptions.

But towards the end, when you finally have well-developed skill sets for each character and the story finally begins making some sense, watching the ending play out becomes a vindication for putting up with its glacial pacing. Encountering the nuggets of emotionally charged storytelling occasionally surprised me with moments feeling as if they should be aimed at a crowd that has matured along with the series. It’s not the best story nor the least predictable, but it gets the job done better than many of its JRPG peers especially when it delivers convincing returns on touching upon family, persecution, and friendship.

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In a nutshell, players take on the role of Lightning, a woman on a mission to rescue her sister and fight against the theocratic faction ruling the floating, techno-utopia world of Cocoon. Without getting into the lingo, the people of the floating sphere of Cocoon fear the world of Pulse over which it hovers and those tainted or even suspected of having been marked by its influence are sent away as exiles. Lightning’s sister is one of them and in her own quest to rescue her, falls into a typically world shaking conspiracy that threatens both worlds.

Of all of the characters that I liked, Sazh Katzroy stands out as an older, wiser, and experienced hand although Lightning is a close second. Sazh also comes off as a living, likeable person – a loving father who kicks ass for his cute-as-a-button son – amidst the sweetened soap opera that everyone else seems to be a part of especially considering that he was once expected to be the comedy relief. It also appears that he and his son appear to be the last black people alive in FF13, somewhat of a culture shock in comparison to the more diverse worlds that had preceded it such as in FF12.

The rest of the characters go through their own transformations through the story, but not all quite escape the cliches that make them predictable. Some simply have irritating aspects to them that never leave, such as Vanille’s off-and-then-on again accent, while everyone else acts oblivious to some of the wonders that you might discover. Getting to Gran Pulse where the game finally opens up is important only for that fact since to everyone else in the party, it comes off as an inconvenient detour with little else to share about it. Most of the story is instead explained through the loading screens or its in-game encyclopedia. Any mysterious fiction that might color the monuments and monsters of the land has been largely distilled into what only your eyes can inspire.

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What will likely have many to declare this the best FF yet will be its trademark presentation values, the kind that Square Enix’s artists raise the bar with every major release. Bright colors flow into fanciful facades plastered on buildings, walls, floors, and into every detail filigreed into each gooey monsters that come out to play amidst the vast diversity of breathtaking vistas. Watching the light play off of the skin of its CG actors within each cinematic reminded me of the strides that they had made since the ill-fated Spirits Within right down to the wrinkled forehead of a worried character. The visuals are alive with beauty and if you need a good reason to show off what your PS3 can do for your HD television, you don’t need to look any further than this. It makes the argument without having to say a single word.

And So It Must End

To get to the place where FF13 can be appreciated requires the player to suffer through a level of linearity that is excessive even by the worst stereotypes of the genre. It does present the game as a driven blend between a film and an RPG, but comes off more as a string of cutscenes interspersed with battles in order to to keep it feeling like a game. I can’t even suggest it for newcomers already intimidated by RPGs – its restrictive shortcomings would only set them up for frustration later if they try something that doesn’t tie their hands as much as this does.

Character development is fairly linear despite the Crystania system’s illusion of choice and the meager rewards for developing other specializations outside of the base number that are initially given. Worst yet is the admission that the designers had cut a great deal of content from the final game (supposedly enough to create another title) which may have led to how it has turned out.

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Despite it all, it’s still a Final Fantasy game and for longtime veterans, that might be all that matters. It tops off the experience with the customary awesomeness of its final act and tells a decent story in between its sugary shots of hyperbole that it thankfully leaves behind at one point. But in the end, its gameplay shortcomings feel as much of a step back just as its stunningly crafted visuals will set the standards for years to come until the next sequel.

That it often feels as if it takes about the same amount of time to get to a point where it was actually any fun, however, may give even hardcore fans pause before diving into FF13′s world simply because of its namesake.

Final Fantasy XIII
PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 (PS3 version reviewed)
Square-Enix
Rated T for Teen