Review by DrewFields88

"FFXIII Subverts the Form of RPG's, Yet Retains the Magic"

Despite some of the moves seemingly designed to alienate fans as much as evolve the franchise, FFXIII manages to continue the series' trademark of incredibly polished and endlessly compulsive gaming.

To offer full disclosure for those interested in gauging their responses to the game vicariously through reviewers, it would probably be in your best interest to know how I stand on this particular teams' previous mainline outing: Final Fantasy X. While I thought it was a good game in spite of itself, I felt it was undoubtedly the weakest link in the PS era and I thought it's entire game design was just poorly conceived, from a gameplay and aesthetic viewpoint as well as it's painfully sentimental storytelling. And as such, I was probably as vocal as anybody(a minor achievement to be sure) about my disapproval regarding this team's abilities leading up to FFXIII's release.

Fortunately and very happily, after 48 hours of gameplay and counting, I find myself scrambling to eat my words for anybody that will listen: You were right and I was wrong.

So instead of continuing with a painfully long summation of things everybody already knows, such as the mechanics of the gameplay, I will offer up a less standard review by simply recounting some observations of the experience.

- As an ardent fan of Final Fantasy XII and the more open-ended nature of the SNES days, I find myself a little surprised that this games' linear map design doesn't have a particularly negative affect on the overall game experience. The maps, while linear, are very large(using FF as the standard barometer not, say, GTA or Oblivion) and full of variations and diversity. Having said that, given the enormous size of the maps, you can't help asking yourself why would they bother designing the game in such a fashion if you're going to be doing all that running anyway? If you're going to simply point out where next to go on the map, why not allow more adventurous gamers at least the opportunity to explore a longer route?

- While I don't want to indulge in hyperbolic affectations over the graphics as everyone else has done, I do want to point out their significance other than being aesthetically pleasing. One could argue that the graphics are in fact so good and so conducive to…gawking… that they actually constitute an important part of the gameplay. Consider this: The maps may be linear, but if you're simply sprinting through them then you're not doing yourself any favors especially if you don't like the linearity. Allow yourself to luxuriate in the graphics as I've done and you'll find it'll somewhat alleviate the issue of the linear map. Nearly every new ledge and high ground offers a new breathtaking sight to take in. Take it in.

- After nearly 50 hours, I still find myself adamant that this is the finest battle system in the franchise. What else is there to say about it? The camera is a bit unwieldly, and I've heard of some gamers losing battles over it, but I can't say I've had any issues with it from a gameplay standpoint. The screen does oftentimes become cluttered with "stuff", but that isn't the cameras fault and there does not seem to be an intermediary between having an uncluttered screen and having this kind of frantic and kinetic battle system, so I can hardly point blame at this.

- The story, unfortunately, is this games weakest link. While I had held hopes that this team would offer up a degree of more maturity after Final Fantasy XII introduced it to the series, I found that my initial inclinations regarding their storytelling abilities proved correct. Because of the fallout from that game(the supposed, and incorrect, assertion that there was no character development or emotion in FFXII) the writers(and there are 3 of them, Kazushige Nojima, credited as Scenario Concept, Daisuke Watanabe as Lead Scenario Writer, and Motomu Toriyama, credited as Director and Scenario Writer) made it their business to offer up as sentimental and banal a story as one could conjure up. The cast in particular simply felt synthetic to me for the most part, as if it was put together by people with too many product-study reports laying around them and far too inclined towards emotional gimmicks. In other words, while there is plenty of emoting, it isn't particularly believable in any way coming out of these porcelain figurines(not a criticism of the graphics, but of their dramatic conception). I would compare it to trying to empathize with the children of billionaires as they struggle through their plight -- they're too "flawless". There are exceptions, but its a shame really, because many of the basic concepts, such as the Snow-Serah-Lightning relationship and the basic concept of Crystals As Gods seemed interesting and unusual for a Final Fantasy game.

- Minor side note on the story, but the developers are obnoxiously obsessed with the recurring motif of the number 13 in this game. It's a rather pretentious gimmick. It's used in several important ways in the game. I will not spoil it here, if you don't already know.

- Music is rather well done, and there is quite a lot of choir and vocal work in unusual areas which are well done, but the ridiculous overuse(and the generally amateurish cueing) of character themes gets to be annoying and the battle theme wears very thinly a few chapters into the game. Yet the various boss themes, the normal and major ones, including the various end game themes, are profoundly excellent, perhaps the best in the franchise. Overall though, I prefer the richness of Sakimoto and the melody machine that is Uematsu, but Hamauzu acts as almost an intermediary between the two styles. He serves the series well here.

- Final Fantasy still has no day and night system, and I'm not sure how I feel about that, negative or otherwise. It does make Gran Pulse feel a bit unnatural. Instead of a standard day and night and weather system, instead as you move towards one area of the map, it uncannily changes weather. As you walk away from that area, it magically reverts to sunshine. Feels phony if you ask me.

- I don't have much good to say about the Crystallium other than that it looks pleasing. I was hoping for something more in depth and appropriately next-gen for this installment and I didn't get it, although the weapon and accessory upgrade system is a very good step in the right direction.

- Ultimately, it's clear to me that the overall game design, and its various subversions(of towns, of levels, of leisure, of exploration) were not whims arbitrarily crafted by the developers. This final game is the result of the constant evolving, tinkering, and polishing one associates with such a long development period, so I look at this perhaps too open-mindedly as something to be appreciated for what it is, rather than groaning about what it lacks. Is this my preferred FF style? Probably not. I would have preferred some kind of break up in the action at some point, but here are two things nobody can say: That this new style is not daring and that its not new to RPG's. Instead of going in the direction most expected(to the west: as in Fallout, Elders Scrolls, Mass Effect and their unyielding compliance to gamer "choice"), FF decided to subvert expectations, along with everything else, and proudly retain it's own sense of style and a new sense of pacing.

All in all, there are a number of negatives to point out, such as the fact that there is a nagging feeling after the credits that "this was it?". Undoubtedly a sign of minor disappointment, especially after so many years of development ones feels as if one simply took a tour of Cocoon and Pulse, rather than a feeling of having truly luxuriated in a fully developed world -- an emotion not lacking in its divisive predecessor. And as for the basic RPG form it tries to subvert, it feels less like a reinvented wheel and more like a trimmed down, streamlined wheel. However, the experience in the end is overwhelmingly positive in most respects: it has the finest and most addictive gameplay in the series, stunning graphics, music and art design all polished to near perfection. And clearly intact throughout the experience is, for me at least, the defining(yet undefinable) characteristic of this franchise: the magic.

In lieu of gamefaqs' restrictive scoring system, I offer this:

8.5/10

A great experience leavened by minor qualms and a throwaway story. Final Fantasy has never been one for stagnancy, but one wonders if this is the new trajectory of the series? Each new installment essentially an incredibly expensive and incredibly polished smorgasbord for the developers' boldest ideas? Bring it on I say.

***Depending on your feelings towards FFX, that may be the difference between you giving this game an 8.5, as I did, or a 9.5 or 10, etc. The aesthetic is most closely linked to that game in the series.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/05/10

Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (JP, 12/17/09)


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