Review by deadmoonking
"Disappointment thy name is Final Fantasy XIII"
Although I play video games to seek relief from frustration, it is very often the case that I end up precisely in that frame of mind after a gaming session. Causes vary, but generally, they stem from some part of the game that I am unable to overcome.
Final Fantasy XIII caused me a different kind of headache. I see a good game buried somewhere in here, but as it is, the game is just so riddled with flaws that I can't help but wonder what possessed the developers to make some of the decisions that they did.
To start with the positives, graphically speaking, XIII is almost beyond compare. In the past few years, we have seen some very visually pleasing games, but it is no exaggeration to say that XIII tops nearly all of them. Still, a main title Final Fantasy game without cutting edge graphics would be an anomaly, and so I would like to make a few comments about the art direction itself. I don't know about everyone else, but I'm getting pretty tired of Mr. Nomura's designs. That the man is possessing of his own unique style is undeniable, but that it is getting more and more outlandish is also fairly evident (especially in the Kingdom Hearts franchise). It's not that I don't like his style per se; it's just that his characters contain quirks that seem gratuitous. Does Sazh really need an afro? Vanille a miniskirt and a tube-top (for that matter, why does any female character need a miniskirt to go to battle in or in Fran from FF XII's case a thong)? Some might argue that it is precisely these touches that make his designs unique and memorable, but I can't say that I can really get behind him, especially since I was first introduced to him through the inimitable cast of VII.
The world itself is very reminiscent of FF X in terms of color palate and the NPCs also hearken back to that game with their fairly unexciting designs.
The music neither took me to plains of rapture, nor did it cause my ears to bleed, but I have to say, it's been a while since a tune from ANY game of late has gotten me very excited.
Speaking of sound, as I played the game in Japanese, I was able to enjoy the original voice-acting. I must say that Sazh's voice was a bit off-putting at first, but everyone else sounds like how you would expect they would with Lightning being tough, Snow being manly, Hope being irritating etc. As is the almost always the case, the voice acting was very professional and well-done and really gave life to the characters.
The plot itself is where I began to have major issues with the title. Since about FF VI, the series has tried to present sprawling, complex tales in unique worlds. This ambition is very admirable and in many cases enjoyable as well, especially as the series has for some time straddled the line of fantasy and sci-fi with some exciting and innovative locales to explore as the outcome. On the other hand, I have really felt that for the past few titles, the plots of the game end up running away with themselves and become nigh incomprehensible toward the end. I also have felt that since VII, the games start out very strong and purposeful, but inevitably the last third of the game has felt extremely rushed devolving into an absolute mess of contradictions, hanging plot threads and gaping plot holes. Part of this, I believe, is because sufficient supplementary material either in game via books/compendiums/etc or deep character interaction scenes is not presented. XIII has tried to include the compendium, and it was very welcome, but it still felt removed from the events of the game to really add to my understanding of the world and the events transpiring.
There is a huge debate nowadays about JRPGs being little more than interactive movies at this point with the player being responsible for pressing the button to advance scenes or text. FF XIII is guilty of this to an extreme degree, but in spite of all the cutscenes one watches, I still felt as though I was only being given half the story. This is because essentially, the cutscenes were more focused on developing the cast rather than advancing the plot in a gripping way. Obviously, some might disagree with me, but I think that what was presented were vignettes rather than a complete picture.
Problems with the overall plot aside, I do have to say that I really enjoyed the characters in the game and their respective personalities and foibles (Hope was better as the angst ridden kid than the cheerleader, though). The characters definitely play off one another and you felt that they truly came together throughout the conflict and by the end had forged strong relationships and grown as people. On the other end of the spectrum, those waiting for another Sephiroth are going to be disappointed however, as the game's primary antagonists and supporting cast are relatively uninteresting and peripheral.
The gameplay outside of battle is fairly standard of RPGs as of late, offering nothing really new, although this is not really to the title's detriment. It should be noted that the environments for the most part are non-interactive, however. The battle system itself, on the other hand, has received quite the overhaul and is very fluid and fast paced. The actual amount of playing you do is up for debate as you only directly input commands for on character and will basically auto-battle through most everything. The spell effects look grand, but (and this is a major complaint of mine since XII) the summons are next to useless, especially if you want to use one that is not connected with your playable character. Also, the fact that the full Crystarium (think License Board, er, Sphere Grid) is not available until the postgame is nearly unforgivable as I had no desire to go back to the uninhabited lands below to clean up remaining missions because there was absolutely zero reward in terms of gameplay or story. I was also nearly ready to weep when I found out that my weapons couldn't be realistically upgraded until postgame either and didn't really need to be.
Many people have already pointed out that the "Yellow Brick Road" feeling of the maps was a step in the wrong direction and I wholly agree with that appraisal. The level design and game progression are more reminiscent of an old side-scrolling action game like Strider or Castlevania rather than an expansive world to explore and lose yourself in. This is because each stage is a non-returnable level that you run linearly through in order to progress to the next. With the exception of one expansive area that allows for a set of side-quests, there is zero exploration or interaction with the world that you inhabit.
To sum up, I cannot say that I spent a completely unenjoyable time with this game. I found the characters engaging and the plot and world interesting, but highly underdeveloped. The graphics were outstanding and the voice acting was very well-suited to the characters. However, the gameplay itself left a lot to be desired with its straightforward level-based approach, lack of exploration and minimal control in battle. All the usual complaints rallied against Japanese RPGs aside, this game is really pushing the limit of the definition of a roleplaying game.
As a main point of reference, this game reminded me very much of FF X with its level-based approach, fast-paced battle system and character driven story. I also must say that I did not enjoy that game all that much either, much preferring FF XII. If you thought that X was the pinnacle of the series, however, you might find a lot to enjoy about FF XIII.
I've been an avid Japanese RPG player for over a decade now, but I really must say, the current generation hasn't really given us anything to be excited about aside from graphics. Some argue that Square was trying for something very different with this title by making it wholly plot based and focused on the task at hand, but for the above mentioned reasons, I felt that the overall story left a lot to be desired and the world and development of the antagonists very under explained. I really hope that Square can dig a little deeper into its creative pool and pull out a coherent story in a well-presented and explained, explorable world for the next one.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 01/14/11
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (JP, 12/17/09)
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