Sunday, September 26, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360, PS3
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: March 9th, 2010

When you're a developer with the history of Square-Enix, your reputation not only precedes you, but can also be your own worst enemy. The expectations are higher and the bar you yourself raised must not only be met, but surpassed every time. The worlds eyes turn to you, watching expectantly. What would be a small disappointment in the hands of lesser developers is a big disappointment for you. Your own standard of excellence turns against you. But for Square, they've managed to surprise and succeed, even if their decisions became iffier after the merge with Enix.

At least, they have up until now; the fact that the disappointment is the long awaited thirteenth entry in their most venerable franchise merely makes the sting that much worse. In fact, there's a feeling of ever-present laziness in this title. It starts when you realize that anyone with a firing synapse is going to immediately notice Lightning looks suspiciously like Cloud from FFVII with pink hair and goes on down the line.

The story brings a lot to discuss, so I'll get the other stuff out of the way first. The music? Still excellent. This is the first game without the compositions of Nobuo Uematsu and I'll admit I was deeply concerned. Uematsu is the premier video game music composer as far as I'm concerned and frankly, I was not at all convinced that anyone could score this game as well as he would. But the new composer manages to maintain the epic feel of the franchises music. It doesn't always hit the same highs the franchise did previously, but there are times when you'll forget someone new is working the franchise. The graphics are also befitting, taking advantage of high definition. especially later in the game.

The gameplay? Not so much. To put it simply, this game is Final Fantasy for Dummies, even moreso than Mystic Quest ever was. This game practically holds your hand the entire way through. All exploration is gone; most of the game is you running down narrow paths getting from point A to point B between cutscenes, with the occasional monster battle thrown in. There are no towns at all, either; you bring up a menu at save points to buy something and the details of the world Squares crafted, you learn from what's basically an in-game thesarus with a Beastiary attached. No minigames either; in the past Squares been criticized for having too many - a position I thought was laughable - but they overcompensated here in response.

Combat is even stupider. Literally, there is an "auto-battle" option that will use AI to choose the best moves for a given situation. You may as well use it, because aside from one battle this game is so easy you won't need to manually choose your moves until very late in the game. After every fight, your health is recharged as well, rendering potions essentially useless. MP is gone; you can cast magic as much as you want. If all this sounds like the combat system has been stripped down to an automatic it-practically-plays-itself laughingstock, that's because it is. Even worse, even the most basic options from previous entries are missing. Have I mentioned yet that you cannot run away from battle at all? Yup. Get caught, you need to fight it to the end. There are some interesting wrinkles added that would have been more than welcome in prior games - for example, you automatically have access to a monsters stats, weaknesses and so on with the press of a button, with the different statistics being filled out the longer you battle or being filled by an item - but they're not enough to save what is essentially the franchises weakest combat system to date.

All this combines to make this game an impossibly boring exercise in pure tedium. Square may as well have put us in our stroller and given us our baa-baa. They clearly don't think we're man enough for the old fashioned approach.

So now you're thinking, what about the story? The story saves it right? Square always pulls through on the story if nothing else.

No, it doesn't save this game.

Basically, you play a group of rebels fighting a government that wants to deport them because of fear they were "infected" by an evil god-like beast called a Fal'Cie. Basically, the first two chapters are your stock zombie movie "civilians sent to their deaths by the gubermint" deal. After that, they're still on the run, not just from said government, but from a destiny to destroy the world. Either they destroy it and turn to immobile crystal for the rest of eternity, or they turn into big shambling, soul-less zombies for the rest of eternity or until they're killed (again). Great choice, huh?

Here's the problem; this games story literally does not kick into gear until twenty to thirty hours in, depending on your play style. Half of the main characters are infuriating and close to unlikable for most of that time. One of those likable characters disappears for about ten hours of the game, his return being the point the game finally picks up. You have to force yourself through thirty hours of the most boring RPG gameplay ever devised just for the story to get interesting. I'm a stubborn bastard, so I stuck it out, but I can't blame folks with less patience for just bailing. There were times I didn't want to go any further myself; I had to literally force myself to move on in the opening half of this game.

The fact that it's a slow burn isn't the real problem with the story. There have been past Final Fantasy's with stories that simmered until later in the game. Unfortunately, this combines with the bad gameplay design choices to literally sink this title. If the story had a steadier pace throughout, or maybe just got to the juicy stuff quicker, it might have been able to work past the questionable gameplay. Part of what makes the gameplay as crushingly boring as it is in the early going is that there's literally nothing interesting going on; with many of the optional diversions available in previous titles gone and the story plodding on, you'll find the game as fun as carrying around a hundred pound weight for the day.

Then there's the proverbial shot to the junk that is Chapter Eleven. Chapter Eleven takes place on the wide expanses of Gran Pulse. This is literally what the game should have been. Wide open expanses to explore, side missions, all sorts of diversions, monsters that take more skill than just mashing auto-battle. It's friggin painful, because if they managed it here, what the hell is their excuse for the rest of the game? I know, I know, they tried saying the linear nature is the only way they could have pulled the games story off. To which I say they're full of crap. It's not like we didn't have a similar "on the run from everything" story in, say, the previous goddamn entry in the series. Worse still, once you move past this chapter, you're back on the damn rails again on a collision course with the finish; by that point, the stories interesting enough to hold the game up, but it's a bad comedown from the options of Gran Pulse.

Gran Pulse even brings about a potential problem for the story. By the time you get there, you've been fighting boredom and tedium for so long that it's like the games been injected with life again. If you're like me, you're going to binge and put off getting back on the story path for as long as possible. Which pretty much grinds the stories momentum to a halt in ways the previous games did not; whereas in those games you always had something to do, here you're strapped in for so long you might just end up blowing so many hours into Gran Pulse that you start losing track of previous details in the story. Of course, there's the handy in-game story recap journal, but that doesn't help the loss of momentum and the feeling of dread accompanying the thought of leaving Gran Pulse.

I think that's probably enough for this review, as I think I'm rambling now; the short version is this game both disappointed and pissed me off in ways the previous games never did, leaving me with the feeling that the total package was not worthy of the moniker "Final Fantasy".

The Score: 6 out of 10

It almost pains me to give that score, but this game just does not live up to the protracted development cycle or the hype. There is potential to this game and if the games story had, say, XII's gameplay style, we could have had a modern classic on par with the holy grails of the series, Final Fantasy VI and VII. Instead, the series is marred with a major disappointment and for the first time my faith in Square is shaken. If you're a glutton for punishment or are just really interested in experiencing the story, by all means play it; but if you're anything like me you'd probably be best served giving this game a wide berth. It does not live up to it's pedigree.

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