A Game of Two Halves
All good Final Fantasy fans have been waiting for the better part of a decade for the titanic release that is FFXIII. It is perhaps for this reason that the games highs seem all the higher, and it's lows all the lower. Few titles in the annals of gaming history have demanded fans wait for such a length period of time, so anything short of a masterpiece was likely going to leave a bittersweet taste in players' mouths. That is precisely what happened from my point of view, as I could consciously feel myself overlooking what I objectively knew to be flaws due to my biased love for the series at large.
Being a Final Fantasy fan puts you in a truly unique category of gamers. You develop tendencies and predilections that don't really carry over to other games, and many may not quite understand your dedication to the series. You're used to waiting much longer than for a typical game, and used to pumping more hours into the game once it's released than with a other games. You're willing to spend hours, days, weeks, even months levelling up, travelling the world map, taking part in side-quests and collecting rare items and equipments. To you, defeating the final boss is far from the end of your gaming experience. You're used to effeminate, broody, borderline emo male protagonists wielding ridiculously over-sized weapons, and overly attractive and at times sickly sweet females with impossible choices of wardrobe. Questionable ethnicity, wild fantastical hair and endless dazzling magic are aplenty.
All of these elements are present to varying degrees in FFXIII, so the die-hards WILL get what they're after, but they may need to wait a long time to get it. Luckily, FF fans are among the most dedicated in the game-iverse, so while they may hold their reservations about some of the tweaks to their beloved FF formula, they'll play through it anyway, and will eventually find what they were looking for.
Lightning is the strongest lead in quite some time, and manages to offer a little of everything. She's pleasing to the eye, but with an undeniable level of toughness to stop her being labeled as cute. Seriously, she kicks ass. The comparisons to Cloud Strife are inescapable, and she does conjure up an air of FF7's lead, but without his more annoying emo traits. She is more emotionally open and compassionate than Cloud, which makes her easier to like truth be told. Her supporting cast aren't as strong as Cloud's, so it's a good thing she's so strong in and of herself.
Snow is tough as nails, to the point he forgoes weapons in battle, and instead delivers street justice with his gloved fists. He's mostly likeable, if a little too cocky. Fang is one of the series' strongest females and in many ways is the most powerful character, as well as contributing in a big way to the story. Vanille can get annoying, especially with her overly-girly run, never-ending cheeryness, and the fact that she manages to be a little bit sexy but at the same time childish. That's an odd thing to say about a digitally generated character, but hopefully if you've spent time with the game you know what I mean. Sazh is the comedic relief and manages to be very likable despite being a complete black stereotype, his story is one of the strongest. Finally, Hope. I found him to be essentially Vaan incarnate, in appearance, voice and at times personality. His initial story irritated me, but he came good in the end. He's also an underrated character in terms of battle.
I loved the battle system, and found it a far smoother experience than the traditional turn-taking, and slicker than the previous attempts at real time decision making. It dumped the unnecessary aspects of its predecessors, brought in some nice additions and overall I think it works really well. I personally used the auto-battle feature throughout, and it may hurt an FF die-hard's pride to lean on an auto system of any kind, but honestly, it's intuitive enough to out-perform you, and you'll need to concentrate on how the battle's going from a general's point of view, rather than a soldier. Paradigm shifting will go from a once-a-battle occurance, to a frantic every-few-seconds affair and you'll really need to stay on your toes later in the game in order to stay alive. It sucks a little bit that only the leader can execute techniques and perform a summon, but I understand the logic behind it. The only downside here is you're likely to only use the other summons out of curiosity, as you'll settle into your favourite character combination quickly. I barely changed my leader once I was given the option (which happens way too late, but we'll get to that.)
Technically, this game is amazing. I'd go as far as saying it's nearly faultless. Graphically, nothing can touch it from opening titles to closing credits. The cut-scenes are on par with any major animated blockbuster, and the in-game visuals are almost identical. Some games can boast cut-scenes of a similar level, but almost all of them have gameplay that doesn't match this. The environments are stunning, the character-models are jaw-dropping, and the attention to detail is unparalleled. The voice acting is perhaps the strongest it's ever been and the music is lovely, if a bit repetitive. I experienced no gameplay issues in my countless hours playing through either.
So those are the good points, but now, with a heavy heart, I have to turn to the story and game-structure. The narrative is pretty standard most of the way through, with predictable progressions and very few surprises. I personally found it annoying that so much emphasis was placed on characters withholding information from each other that I, the player, was completely aware of. I understand they were shooting for tormented characters that i was supposed to empathise with, but I just found myself demanding that they get it over with and confront one another. Fang's early involvement intrigued me, but the others were pretty much just rehashes of things we've seen before. Serah's involvement was surprisingly solid.
When you encounter the main antagonist for the first time the story begins to pick up, but this comes faaaaaaar too late into the proceedings. Your brain will fire with possibilities about the ramifications of what you've just learned, and to me at least, it was a legitimate shock of a revelation. From here on out the story is pretty solid, certainly not the best, but it also manages to save itself from being considered among the worst. Some pretty major elements of the story are told through the datalog in the menu, and I found it a bit baffling that some heavy knowledge was dropped in a way that you could completely bypass. I did like that character bios update as more is learned though, that was a nice touch.
I found the final two chapters hectic in the best possible sense and was genuinely amped for the ending. I'm sure i won't be ruining anything for you by saying that you'll be facing more than one "final" boss battle, as this has been standard practice in the series for as long as I can remember. The sequence from before the first fight to defeating the real final boss is pretty epic, but the game's ultimate ending sequence felt a little short to me in comparison to other games, but you might have to consider the entire final encounter as part of the ending.
Now for the structure. Simply put, it was too linear. They were determined to tell this story, and they did. Fair enough. But the most free will you'll have through the first 8 chapters is whether or not you want to fight a slightly tougher enemy in order to access a chest containing a mediocre reward. We're not talking boss-level enemies and game-changing rewards either. You can ignore every detour if you wish and you'd probably be fine, but seeing as you can't revisit any of these areas, you might as well get the most of them while you're there. This is what surprised and disappointed me the most about the game, the fact you cannot backtrack. I assumed some sort of vehicle or transport system would eventually pop up to allow this, but given the map-structure, I'm not sure what you'd get out of returning to be honest.
I also did not like being forced to use particular character combinations for the first half of the game, and liked using two characters instead of three even less. It was a good way to get you to play with every character and try out the different roles and combinations of paradigm, but considering you could level them all equally without having to let them fight, I didn't feel the need to see them all.
You will eventually come to a more overworld-like location, complete with side-quests and a teleportation system, but even this feels substandard when you compare it to the world maps of old. It's also a pretty dramatic pace-killer. After being rushed through a series of straight lines, easily cutting down 95% of your enemies, and finally picking up major plot points, this overworld slams the breaks on hard. You will start getting owned by a lot of foes, meaning you need to stop and methodically farm some experience to power yourself up. I found I needed to do this for a minimum of an hour, but if you're an epic battler and have made flawless decisions up until this point, you might manage to press straight through. I understand why this choice was made, as it was intended to reflect the harshness of the region, but still, such a wild change in pace hurt the experience for me. Once you head to the ending, the pace and structure are all fine, and reminiscent of previous titles.
This is an exceedingly long review, but it's an exceedingly long game. I disagree that it needed to lose half of its length, because after waiting so long for it, I wanted to squeeze as much narrative out of it as possible. But what I do believe is that the first half needed to take notes from the second. It simply wasn't all that compelling, challenging or at times even fun. if more of the second half elements had been present from the beginning this would have been a much, much better game (hence the title of this review.)
It looks great, it sounds great, battling is great, the characters are great, the story becomes great, and it's certainly got the length and post-play to satisfy FF diehards, but I can't help but take pity on the casual gamers who may have picked this up and quickly become bored of it. The die-hards, as i said, were going to stick with it win, lose, or draw, so the fact that its second half is so good is fine for them, but if I wasn't compelled by fandom to stick it out I'm not sure i would have enjoyed this game anywhere near as much as I ultimately did.
I'm still awaiting Versus 13 with greater excitement than the main game.