Final Fantasy XIII might have been the most beautiful Final Fantasy game to have been released, but it was not without its issues.
Prior to launch, Square had been characteristically tight on details, made consistently frustrating by their simultaneous ease at letting everyone know that it was, indeed, going to be coming out. It was but a distant dream of a game that might come to be, and the hype was naturally at fever pitch. The months, no years, leading up to its release in 2010 seemed to have been filled with fans pouring over every little piece of information, no matter how small, just to get an inkling on what a next generation version of the fabled franchise might look like, but looks were certainly not where the game issues eventually lay.
As someone who has grown up with the series and love what it has offered thus far, including having some rather fond memories of the divisive twelfth numbered entry I might add, I was a little torn on this one. Whilst the twelfth game had its issues in the narrative department I felt the gameplay was pretty solid, and perhaps unlike many I was a fan of the semi-real-time combat, with the game’s gambit system certainly pleasing the tactician in me whilst maintaining the overall flow of the game. That said, my real connection to Final Fantasy over the years has not been defined by its gameplay so much as by emotion through story and character, and with early showings of Final Fantasy XIII showing a far more linear game than its predecessor there was a hope that narrative development might actually be a priority once more.
It would not be remiss to say that Final Fantasy XII (hereafter called 12 to avoid confusion) was a flawed game. I personally liked aspects of it, but the general reception towards the game from fans was mixed at best. From the outset, Vaan, who was assumed to be the main protagonist of the game, although this wasn’t clear in the final product, was designed to look a little unmanly for a Western audience’s liking, not to mention the fact that his part in the story was so minor that it was hard to swallow for anyone who loved the character development that the Final Fantasy series has, for the longest time, prided itself on. On the other hand, the game delivered in spades with regards to gameplay. It was a step in a completely new and daring direction for Final Fantasy, and is a decision which seems to have split fan reception towards the series.
Final Fantasy XIII, however, is something of a step back. Not necessarily in terms of quality, but certainly in mechanics. The in-field real-time combat of its predecessor has been axed and instead returns rather abruptly to the more conservative system of the older games. It has been further developed, of course, feeling closer to the fights of X-2 than the truly turn-based system of those which preceded it, and the battles feel quick and snappy in a way that turn-based games often do not. I might have enjoyed 12‘s system, but I also really enjoy this one. It’s fast and tactical, employing aspects from 12‘s gambit system and X-2 ‘s dress sphere mid-battle switch to great affect, and some of the battles feel tense and genuinely epic in scale. It’s fun too, even if a separate battle arena does indeed load up upon encountering an enemy rather than taking place within the field of exploration.
I suppose by changing things so much with the last entry, and by drawing new fans in line with such a bold change in direction, the developers have inadvertently caused another divide within the fanbase here, because the flow of the world is interrupted by encountering an enemy rather than having the two interlope and work together, perhaps scaring those away who enjoyed the in-field encounters of 12’s labyrinthian world. That said, the battle system is generally good fun, and it perhaps merges the two styles of Final Fantasy 12 and prior releases well, with Square Enix possibly hoping that it will appeal to both sets of fans at once.
Unfortunately, the pacing of the game leaves little to be desired, and the enjoyable fights don’t appear early on simply because the game is so slow at giving access to any of the good stuff. The first 5 hours or so of the game are but a template of what will come later on, and they can feel quite laborious, especially if you don’t take to the plot early on. These initial few hours feel like an overly long tutorial, and the game consistently teaches you more and more as the game moves forward, releasing new aspects of the battle system at a snails pace. Once the later skills and abilities are unlocked the game delivers on a much grander scale, but it takes so long to get there that many might simply give up before the game really hits its stride, which is a shame.
The quick and visceral battle system is juxtaposed against the lethargic release of such information, and I can imagine it will be difficult for many to wade through the early parts of the game to get to the good stuff before giving up. Somewhere along the line Square Enix decided to trickle the game’s mechanics to the player in much the same way they did regarding the game during its development, and unfortunately it’s not only the battle system that has been negatively affected by poor pacing. For the first 25 hours or so, the game leads the player down a clearly marked path, exemplified by the mini map in the top corner with a small yellow arrow leading you onwards. There are small offshoots from the main path, but small they are, and it’s always obvious that there will be an item waiting at the end of them.
This might all sound quite negative, but if you can wade through the early hours of the game then a solid narrative comes to the fore. The beautiful cutscenes that the Final Fantasy series is famous for are introduced with relative regularity that keep the story moving, and always tease the player to carry on. Not least of its long list of positive attributes are its graphics, which are simply stunning in every respect, and it’s highly applaudable at how well the development team has managed to merge the CG footage into the in-game graphics. On a number of occasions I found myself waiting for the cutscene to continue unaware that the game had returned to in-engine and intended for me to play on. Yes, the game looks that good.
Praise is also due for the localization team who have done a pretty decent job with the English translation of the game, which feels as though it has been delicately produced into the game. That the team reanimated all of the character’s mouth movements to match the translated dialogue is a move that is, of course, wholeheartedly welcome, and helps to submerge the player into the world of the game. It no longer feels like a poorly dubbed foreign movie, and it’s all the more engrossing for these small but significant details. Masashi Hamauzu’s soaring soundtrack, whilst not quite up to the lofty standards of Uematsu’s work, is also a particular highlight.
Final Fantasy XIII is an impressive game in many aspects, but it’s clearly not perfect. Whilst the world is undoubtedly large the game seems to subvert its own size through its presentation. Without a world map like in previous Final Fantasy games it can feel a little too linear for its own good. The lack of shops and villages along the way also made me feel like my team of comrades were not really a part of the world, and whilst these missing elements make sense given the plot, it also feels like a core part of the Final Fantasy experience, or that of RPGs more generally, is missing.
That said, for those who can look past these mishaps, there is a rewarding game that lies beneath. Unlike the last game the story is genuinely interesting and emotionally charged, if a little liberal in its use of ambiguous terminology. The characters are also deep and interesting, even if one or two of them are a little excessive. Overall, however, this a pretty solid element of the game, and for those interested more in the narrative elements of the series than open-ended exploration, Final Fantasy XIII certainly provides. Granted, the story needed to be good to offset the poor pacing of the game, and thankfully it managed to keep me going through interest rather than compulsion.
Final Fantasy XIII is an accomplished and polished game in what it offers, but it sacrifices some important aspects of the series, such as town shopping and NPC dialogue, in favour of a far more controlled and linear experience than previous entries. The last game might have had a mediocre narrative, but the world it created for us to explore was rich and vibrant and open. The world of Final Fantasy XIII, however, feels a little lifeless in comparison. Where it makes up for this is in the story which, through the game’s constant control over the game’s proceedings, feels like a lovingly-weaved tale with plenty of twists and turns to keep players intrigued. It feels like another new beginning in the Final Fantasy saga, for better or worse, and this is one aspect of the series, it seems, that will never be altered.