Review by VitaUnus
"The Avatar analogue in modern gaming. All visuals, no substance."
This is my first review on this site, so I'll start by stating my perspective, just so readers are on the same page. I've played every game in the FF series; I've been a faithful follower of Square and I play RPGs and MMORPGs almost exclusively. I'm starting to reach the upper age limit for whom these games were intended. I'm disturbed by the general direction this series is heading, and I thought I'd voice my opinions in the form of a review.
Normally, I would shy away from sensational catch-phrases like "the Avatar of modern gaming", but the manner in which Final Fantasy XIII is delivered to its audiences is so sensationalist that the comparison makes sense. In Avatar, we have a film where so much effort was put into a stunning visual experience that plot, music, and overall immersion were overlooked. In Final Fantasy XIII, we have much of the same: a visually arresting experience, devoid of any immersion or good storytelling. Final Fantasy XIII is a poorly-delivered pseudo-film that loses sight of what "role-playing" actually means. In all honesty, the game deserves a 3 or 4 but the visuals are so beyond beautiful that they elevate this piece of junk to OK status.
I'll get this out of the way first. FFXIII is an incredible visual experience. The FMV sequences are detailed and thrilling, and they heighten the sense of immediacy that is built into this kind of gaming experience. The environment detail is breathtaking, especially in places like Palumpolum, Nautilus and Lake Bresha. Characters actually have a few more facial expressions besides "mild surprise" and "emo angst". Monsters are well-detailed, and though some models are consistently reused with different color palettes, there is still enough variety to keep things fresh, unlike, say, the newest Star Ocean installment. Spells and summons are also quite visually appealing; it's too bad there is no time to admire them during battle. Maybe your friend watching can appreciate them.
My only complaint with the visuals is that because it is clear how much time they spent perfecting every moss-covered rock or strand of hair, it shows when they spend less time on the other expressive parts of the body, including hands, shoulders, and posture. The character Vanille is supposed to be carefree and high-spirited; it detracts from the overall impression when she moves and gestures with all the grace of a flesh-eating zombie. Also, less majestic landscapes like the Vile Peaks lack the "wow" factor of the previously mentioned areas. Still, the visuals in this game are above and beyond what anyone expects, thus the Avatar reference.
The floating bio-sphere of Cocoon, a paradise of sorts provided by god-like beings called fal'Cie, is home to our cast of characters. The humans of Cocoon live in constant fear of Pulse, the world below. The Sanctum, Cocoon's supreme authority, manages this fear to maintain their religious and military authority over the populace. Fal'Cie also select and mark individuals from the public, who become l'Cie, servants who are sent on a personalized quest of sorts. If they don't complete this Focus, they turn into a zombie, and if they do, they turn into crystal. The playable portion of the story begins in medias res, when a fal'Cie from Pulse is spotted inside Cocoon, and an entire beachfront city is quarantined. The population of that city, presumed tainted, is "Purged" from Cocoon, and everyone is rounded up and put onto trains to be exiled. Lightning, the female protagonist, is aboard one of these trains, and the story begins with her trying to save the exiles aboard.
Where to start? If it took you awhile to understand that previous paragraph, it could be because of my delivery, but it also could be because the plot is unnecessarily convoluted. The terminology alone is ridiculous. The only purpose I see for this needless vocabulary is to mask its derivative nature (hello, Solaris from Xenogears?). It also offends me that the makers of this game actually realized how difficult it would be to grasp what was going on at the start, but instead of making the story more relatable, they just added a clarifying summary in the main menu. If I wanted to receive a story in book form, guess what? I'd read a book. Also, naming someone "Hope"? Really?
The themes of the story are: xenophobia, predestination, the power of propaganda, concepts of order and authority. It has all the makings of a nuanced, universal story that doesn't get bogged down in traditional fantasy RPG tropes like love, good vs. evil, redemption, etc. So what happened? Well, it got bogged down in other traditional fantasy RPG tropes. It seems like Square has this unhealthy obsession with "turning points" and "moments of realization". We are hit over the head so blatantly by these cutscenes, and the internal struggles of each character are so formulaic and heavy-handed that they lose their impact. We have the boy who lost his mother, the wisecracking guy who can't save everyone, the soldier who questions orders, the father who is separated from his son. And the game becomes a series of cutscenes where these characters are forced to work things out. The changes the cast will undergo are telegraphed from the very beginning, which is fine, but it's the "how" that really gets to me. Each dramatic realization is delivered in the exact same way. The characters are always in twos, at times artificially separated. To give an example of the hilarious and inexplicable ways in which characters pair off, a party of four is actually divided into two groups by a falling piece of machinery, and then they never think to meet up again later. They just go their separate ways for like 5 chapters. Now that they're in 1-on-1 situations, one character acts as a catalyst for the other's eventual realization that, hey, my mom's dead and there's nothing I can do about it, or hey, I don't know why I'm so mean or what I'm fighting for. All delivered melodramatically, and usually someone's in tears or gets slapped at the end.
The most important flaw of the whole thing is that the story is told, not shown. They don't have enough faith in the strength of their characters or their motivations, so they tell them to us rather then let them slowly emerge on their own through body language, thoughts, or subtle dialogue. The pacing is off; we are mired in pointless conversation or contrived side trips then without hesitation, jerked back into action. This is an unfortunate byproduct of voice acting and cutscenes in general. Because there are no inner monologues anymore, because all character traits and development must be revealed through conversation, we lose half of the depth of every character. We can bash games like FFVIII all we want, but having access to Squall's inner thoughts made him far more human than any of these characters. I think a mix of voice-acted cutscenes and speech/thought bubbles a la FFX is the farthest Square should go in this regard.
Finally, this game lacks a villain. Like its predecessor XII, the lack of a true endgame leaves players ambivalent about the whole experience. Although "pure evil" villains like Sephiroth or Kuja are a little trite nowadays, is there no middle ground? The least they could do is flesh out the motivations of the opposing side. They seem very fond of the cutscene, but can't spare more than 1 or 2 to show us how the villains are operating?
I won't even comment so much on the linearity of the story, as that has been addressed in several other reviews. I'm not opposed to linearity in general. I thought the World of Ruin in FFIII was so non-linear that it felt sort of paralyzing. But again, it's not either/or. Find some middle ground, Square.
Square is keen on reinventing the entire battle system every game, and FFXIII is no different. The good thing about the new battle system is that it's challenging. You can't grind experience and blow away bosses like they're nothing like in other games. Bosses, and even some standard monsters, provide a good amount of challenge, and though the new system takes a lot of getting used to, you do feel a sense of elegance when you flow quickly through paradigms to react to what the enemies are dishing out. You feel rewarded after beating a particularly tough boss.
There are no random encounters. The model of the monster or boss is on screen, and you can run up to it to start the battle (or sneak around it and attack it from behind). You're taken to a new environment where battles take place. I'm a little sad that they've returned to this method, as I thought the way XII handled battles on screen was very innovative. This feels a bit like a step backward.
You control one character per battle. That's not such a bad thing because battles take place at breakneck speed. Maybe too fast. The ATB gauge has returned, and you queue up a selection of moves that require a certain amount of the gauge (time) to execute. You can select these abilities manually, or select auto-battle, which tends to select the right moves to use with super-human reaction time. The auto-battle function is probably too good, and the pace of the fights calls for swiftness over accuracy most of the time. It doesn't help that you are rewarded with a rating based purely on how long it takes to kill the enemies. Your party members act with AI that generally gets the job done, though like the gambit system from XII, you feel like a lot of the battle is out of your control. Paradigms are the roles your characters can take (healer, fighter, caster, tank, buffer/debuffer), and effective switching of these paradigms at critical points during the battle will determine victory and battle rating. Summons (called eidolons) are interesting, combining the right amount of power and awe-inspiring visuals without being the only thing you'd ever cast. But you often have to make so many quick decisions that you miss out on the visuals and flair of the battle.
Also, all of the enhancement and debuffing spells return in the roles of Synergist and Saboteur. But because of the link between battle rewards and time limits, it's counterproductive to use any of these spells until the endgame. Something minor like uncoupling rewards and time spent fighting would do wonders to improve the battle system. You can't choose who you control until the very end of the game. Another minus.
Other Gameplay 2/10:
The only fun you'll have in this game is in battles. Although the scenery is always breathtaking, there is no immersion. Each area is basically a glorified straight line. There is no world map, and there are no towns. As you run past "npcs" in this game, they deliver one line, ("Mommy, I'm scared!"), and that's that. You don't even press a button to talk to them, and their remarks are so impersonal that they really feel like robots. You might notice an alcove on the minimap. Congratulations! You now know how to find every "hidden" treasure in the game! Shops are at save points, and they become more and more stocked as you progress in the game. So no shops with exotic goods that you have to unlock through a side quest. Not that you'll have very much money to spend until the end of the game. Even in other games without a world map, you still might find a split hallway in a dungeon and have to make a choice. But in FFXIII, all choice is removed from the equation. Just hold forward on the stick.
The funny thing is, you don't need a world map to create immersion or choice. If you really think about it, all RPGs were long hallways to some extent. But the entire idea behind player interactivity and video games IN GENERAL is to create the illusion of choice, so that we can suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the game. It doesn't take much. Removing that godforsaken minimap (whatever genius was behind the maphack in the top right corner of my screen should be fired) would be a start. Then we might actually look at the environment as we run through it, and wouldn't immediately know which direction leads to the dead end + treasure chest and which to the cutscene. And god forbid you put in a wide open space before Chapter 11.
Mainly I despise this gameplay because there is no game to play. The proportion of non-interactive cutscenes to actual gameplay is absurd. Want to speak to your party members? Nope. All dialogue is delivered through cutscenes. All plot points? Cutscenes. Again, if I wanted to watch a movie, I'd watch a movie. Square, you make video games. Stop pretending that you have the credentials to make a compelling movie, and stick to what was working.
Characters advance through a glamorous-looking Sphere Grid by gaining CP from defeating enemies. Except there's no customization like in FFX. You just press forward and gain some stats and an ability. Seeing a trend? You equip weapons and accessories, and you level their bonuses up by synthesizing parts that drop off of monsters. But you receive no hint as to what monster fang/fluid gives you what, so you just synthesize randomly and hope you end up with what you need.
I'm actually a film scorer myself, and though there was nothing offensive about the music, the fact that no one could hum a single tune in this game, other than maybe the battle theme, means that the music is bad. Nobuo Uematsu's absence is devastatingly apparent. This is the same composer that did the music for XII, which was equally unremarkable. Having access to a full orchestra does not a composer make. There is no contrast to the score. Forest music sounds like lake music sounds like battle music sounds like city music. All a sort of watered down electronic/acoustic hybrid that would be appropriate for the futurism of the game, if anything was memorable. But this guy seems to hate writing anything resembling a melody. Even the title song is more of a collection of chord progressions than a song. It certainly doesn't help that the composer feels the need to fill every minute of this 50 hour game with some sort of sound. The music is also mixed so low relative to the SFX and dialogue that even were the composer to write something memorable, we'd notice it about as much as we notice elevator music. Now, a score doesn't make or break the game, but here it just feels like a wasted opportunity.
Replay Value 2/10:
Since you can't do anything differently, there is very little replay value to this game. Unless you're a masochist. By all means, play away.
The visuals are so good that this game still feels playable. But the irony is not lost on me that a game about xenophobia and insularity turns this franchise into a hollow shell of its former self, thanks to a disconnect with its market. We don't want a game where we run from cutscene to cutscene. If Square finds a way to bring the immersion of earlier games together with these visuals, we'll actually be able to play a masterpiece.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 03/22/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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