Sunday, March 14, 2010

No Rain, but Snow and Lightning

This is the first part of a two-part post on the recently-released Final Fantasy XIII – it's my impressions halfway through the game's story.

I wasn't sure that I would enjoy Final Fantasy XIII. This is a rather strange thing for me to admit, as I had played and beaten nine of the previous twelve games, as well as several Final Fantasy spinoffs. Though the Final Fantasy series has always been known for major changes between installments – each game features a new world, new characters, and a new battle system – some of the things I'd heard about the newest game left me wary. Most importantly, I'd heard that the new Final Fantasy was painfully linear and overly simple. There's some truth to these complaints, but I'm still enjoying Final Fantasy XIII as much as any role-playing game in recent memory.

When Final Fantasy XII appeared almost four years ago, critics and casual fans alike were struck by the game's remarkable nonlinearity, its proliferation of sidequests and hidden areas. One could easily beat Final Fantasy XII in under forty hours – this being a Japanese RPG, forty hours constitutes a shortish game – but there were dozens of hours worth of optional events and missions to complete. The first time Final Fantasy XII lets the player venture outside of a city, the protagonist is tasked with hunting down a few small monsters. Said beasts are easy to find and easier to kill, but if you wander too far from the entrance to the wilderness, you will find monsters so huge that you know you would stand no chance in combat with them. The game gently suggests that you come back later, say, after twenty hours of gameplay.

In Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, there are very few places one would ever want to revisit. It's not that the game offers ugly scenery or boring locations; it's just that most of the game's locations are so straightforward and simple that one inevitably does everything on the first trip. I've yet to beat the game, but I understand that exploration finally returns to Final Fantasy for the last few chapters. I do anticipate the Final Fantasy XII-style freeform gameplay, but at the moment, I am perfectly happy with the game's linear progression. While most role-playing games do provide a little more leeway for players, Final Fantasy XIII doesn't herd or push its players any more than games like Uncharted 2 or the perversely compelling Resident Evil 5. Like Uncharted, Final Fantasy XIII gives us enough good plot and good gameplay that we don't mind our lack of agency.

If I were reviewing for a major game site, I would have to provide a somewhat-detailed synopsis of Final Fantasy XIII's plot. I won't bore you with summary and scene-setting, but I will say that Final Fantasy XIII's story has been a nice surprise. The series' previous entry, for all its other virtues, had a fairly awful plot, a steampunk-Star Wars disaster. The game included Vader-like Judges, a Han-esque smuggler and pilot, an evil father, a kidnapped princess, and a less-intimidating Death Star. The parallels were so obvious and numerous that George Lucas should have sued Square-Enix. Final Fantasy XIII suffers from some ridiculous naming conventions – worlds called Pulse and Coccoon, a protagonist who calls herself "Lightning" – but the main the story is interesting. Not only that, it's actually managed to surprise me. Oh, and the Afro-bearing token black man is actually one of the more interesting characters! And looks as if he will survive the game!

Final Fantasy XIII is a very technically impressive game, but at times the accomplished graphics only serve to point out the game's aesthetic failings. I don't mind the character designs, though (as so many others before have stated) they tend to be a tad over-the-top. What really annoys me is the world design – everything is either sleek or ornate, but few of the buildings and structures have an identifiable function. Everything looks great, until you start to think about it. What is supposed to inspire a sense of wonder only elicits a sense of confusion.

The battle system of Final Fantasy XIII isn't nearly as strategic as some of its predecessors, yet its lack of subtlety doesn't really harm it – this is the most visceral of Final Fantasy combat systems. Though the AI controls two out of three characters in a player party, the player can control which "paradigms" the AI players will fill. Mid-battle paradigm switching is quick and necessary; you will die if you're too slow going to a healing paradigm or "debuffing" especially strong enemies. Though Final Fantasy XIII may not offer all that many options to a player, the game nonetheless demands far more attention of its players than most of its genre. As in the underrated and poorly-named Final Fantasy X-2, wandering attention will ruin you.

I wouldn't recommend Final Fantasy XIII unreservedly; it's not a perfect game, and some of its conventions can annoy. It's not a game one has to play ironically, but it does require some patience. If you like Japanese role-playing games, you will almost certainly have fun with the new Final Fantasy. It's a fine, fine game, if you like that sort of thing. I do, and I look forward to spending many more hours with the game. Perhaps portions of these impressions have sounded slightly cool on Final Fantasy XIII – but it's the best thing I have played for months.

Further thoughts will appear on the blog once I've beaten the game.

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