Review by BlackWizardMagus
"A disasterous attempt to meet the future."
Since Final Fantasy XIII clearly has enough reviews spelling out the facts of the game, I've decided to give the reader a broader look at the game and what made it so. JRPGs have been thrashed by western competitors in recent years, and Japanese game-makers have felt the pressure. And the Japanese have always had some trouble going off in new or different directions when it comes to games, or anime, despite their phenomenal performance once they've got a target. Square-Enix, in the production of Final Fantasy XIII, apparantly just panicked. They looked at the western games that have dominated in recent years (Bethesda and Bioware games, MMORPGs, Fable) and attempted to find what made them work and adapt those features. However, you can't just put an engine in your car from a completely different manufacturer and expect it to work without modification. Then, after drafting out their ideas, they realized they didn't have the budget or time to pack everything into one game, and they made the disasterous decision to cut their own, traditional ideas in favor of the new ones. The result is Final Fantasy, a hallowed series that has lasted through all the console wars, playing dress-up.
For their characters, they decided that the world actually liked the vapid, empty characters of many recent games, instead of merely putting up with them. Not catching on to the fact that these characters acted the way they did because the games were structured to be open-ended or fast-paced, we wound up with traditional JRPG dialogue and story with characters who are essentially cardboard cut-outs. Their emotions are stale, their logic is non-existent, their choices are seemingly random, and perhaps most insulting of all, half the information you get on these characters comes from your little digital, in-game guide (like the Mass Effect Codex). A typical charge of JRPGs in general has always been that you are merely watching a story instead of engaging in it, but this was counter-balanced by the fact that since everything WAS scripted, with no user input, more detailed, believeable, and emotional stories could be implemented, giving us two different ways of tackling an RPG plot. Here, we maintain the hands-off approach of an eastern game with the poorly-developed, empty shell characters found in western games. SE literally combined these two traditions in the worst possible way.
For their setting, they likewise missed the mark. Open worlds, like Oblivion, have become popular. This is even more pronounced in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. So SE simply decided they had to have some of that, even if it was an element designed for games light on plot and heavy on exploration and adventure. Final Fantasy, long the series that championed true plots instead of cookie-cutter stories introduced solely to glue the game together (think Zelda), suddenly thrusts you onto this huge, open area for the wonders of wandering and grinding and farming, as if even the most ardent WoW fan plays for only those things. But this only after linearity; seeing as how other games like Mass Effect have really cut down on the size and scope of towns and cut back on labyrintine dungeons, SE thought a safe bet for cutting back was to chop off these elements. For much of the game, you walk in a straight line. Everything is done either at your main menu or at save points, you walk in straight lines, and you don't talk to anyone outside of cut-scenes. Although the world is beautiful and detailed, something the FF series never fails at doing, it's all background. So, to review, you walk in a straight line for 30 hours, then end up in a huge, open field with no direction or motivation to explore it.
A few smaller factors. The music of this, and the previous, installment is simply inferior to the work of Uematsu. If you don't know, the composer of the soundtracks of Final Fantasy I through X quit the company, and the loss is obvious. The music, now, is just generic. The voice actors, although I do not see some of the more prolific names, are quite good, despite the drivel they have to work with. The plot, taking it out of the setting and away from the characters, is actually not bad. And the graphics are splendid, as no one doubted they would be.
Now for gameplay. JRPGs spent many years taking a beating for their menu-driven gameplay. Some people never could get over having to choose to attack out of a list, even back when the only other option was to mash one button over and over for the same one or two sword strikes. Finally released of the technical limits of elder consoles, some Japanese companies thoughtfully developed real-time systems that were a joy to play, and some simply made their battle systems more dynamic, no matter the cost. Star Ocean, for example, sat down and made a new system from scratch, way back in the late SNES days, and they are still kicking. SE, instead of trying to modernize their system while maintaining it's character, just had to try and make a whole different system that bent and angled around some of the old spells, status effects, etc. It's almost like they wanted the classes and moves of an older game, but envied the high-paced action of shooter/RPG hybrids like Borderlands. Or in other words, they wanted a level of complexity delivered at an execution speed no human could possibly achieve. So the computer does it. All you do in most situations is give it general guidelines and choose the target your main character acts on. The only exceptions are when you really need these exact moves to be used, and still, that's only for one character of the party. And to make it "exciting", the game punishes you for being slow, in the form of fewer spoils.
As far as equipment and all that goes, they have again taken the wrong lesson away from other games. They decided that people simply have to some effect on the equipment itself, like enchanting in Oblivion, but assumed that was it; as long as you had to DO something, not just buy the next toy and equip it, that was enough. Even an elementary level of random loot generation, as has become so popular, would have been more enticing than this. Virtually any option would have been better; item creation like Star Ocean, equipment that didn't constantly grow stronger but simply offered more options, or even simply eliminating equipment all together. Anything would be better than upgrading weapons along one, pre-set path with goods acquired through grinding. The system is not broad, or deep, or complex, or anything at all besides time-consuming. And in typical JRPG fashion, it seems like they decided to leave some of the math and details blank; it doesn'r work like clockwork but like tarot cards.
All in all, this Final Fantasy is perhaps the saddest. Not because it's necessarily the worst, although it's a contender, but because of the sheer abandonment it represents. Instead of acknowledging the widening world of RPGs, especially as they combine with other genres, and simply be proud of their heritage in one field, they insisted on trying to cram many completely different paradigms together and be the ultimate game. Many of the old staples are gone, most of the new things are simply foreign and go together like dress slacks and flip-flops, and the total package is a mess. Unlike the Tales series, which has quietly evolved to be a solid, well-thought out series that maintains a consistent core but with all new trimmings every release, Final Fantasy is simply in denial of the changing face of gaming. Cult followings in games have often proved to be powerful, long-term assets that allow success over one-hit-wonder studios, but Square-Enix is too proud to allow that for it's baby. It WILL be the biggest, most-awesome series, or die trying, like an actor jumping from role to role, insisting that he'll be the greatest in the world, and instead looks like he's lost. Brand name power may allow for another disaster or two to come out, but if Square-Enix doesn't get their act together, Final Fantasy XIV may truly be final. And we, the gamers of the world, will be poorer for the loss of that legacy, no matter the circumstances.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 05/24/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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