A Japanese Interpretation of a Western Game
Final Fantasy XIII is an odd beast of a game. FF XIII is a game that blurs the lines between what we expect from Japanese and Western game design. It moves away from what has become staple for the series resulting in an odd mixture of action and rpg elements.
Ostensibly FF XIII looks far more watered down or simplified than it actually is. In combat you don't have control over any other character besides your leader, kind of. Or that the only thing that is required of the player is to press the auto-chain button and the game practically plays itself! Well, no, that's not true either. The combat has more depth than it will let you believe. It creates complexity through its hefty amount of class customization and paradigm shifts.
Paradigm shifts are the player's means of switching the class makeup of your party in the midst of combat. Each character has their own set of roles they specialize in. There's your basic Tank (Sentinel), Healer (Medic), and Damage dealer (Ravager or Commando). To add to that, there are the Synergist and Saboteur classes that focus more on inflicting status ailments or buffing up your party. The player has a set number of slots where you can mix and match your classes. You can have a paradigm of three Ravagers for quick chain combos, or have a Sentinel and two Healers if you need to recover. The key to success is fully utilizing all of these classes. You have to switch paradigms to get your allies to use the desired skills for the problem at hand. Need a heal? Switch to a paradigm with a healer and they'll cast cure. The AI is smart enough to depend upon in these situations. Switching on the fly constantly during each combat scenario and making a variety of different class compositions is crucial to your success. Different enemy types demand different strategies.
The main issue with all of this is its emphasis on trial and error. Death is pretty much a constant with each new creature set the player is faced with. Since the game checkpoints before every battle and offers you a retry feature, they expect you to die a lot before you find the right strategy to use. I found my self dieing constantly once I got pretty deep into the game. This also made the bulk of FFXIII pretty exhausting. The fights are so fast and frantic that there really isn't any room for breaks. I was forced to pause the game for a couple minutes after nearly every battle.
Another odd thing to note about the combat is how slowly it takes for everything to open up to the player. The first 20 hours of the game are almost like a tutorial. At first you're given a full party of characters but don't have control over the paradigms (Although that only happens for about 45 minutes).The rest of the game consists of you playing in two-man parties in order to familiarize the player with the concept of mixing class types together. Finally, when you reach the 20 hour point you get a full party and the ability to pick and choose placements.
It isn't as bad as it sounds though. You may know you're not getting everything there's to offer but the game does a good job of giving the player challenge to make up for the fact. The experience is similar to when you're playing an MMO and you're aware that you haven't gotten the full extent of the class you're playing but you can still derive enjoyment from what you have. It's a teaching device that can still be fun and not pandering.
Admittedly, It did start to ware on me a bit. There was some convincing that had to be done to get myself to continue on. It will break down the weak willed who want everything right away. Again, you kind of have to push yourself to keep going; you have to really want to see the rest of the game.
Despite the combat system's glaring flaws, FF XIII has hit a sweet spot between forcing the player to stay on their toes and allowing you to be methodical about your approach to battle. There's fun to be had in mixing and matching classes to see how they stand against foes. The combat was hectic but it still demanded that the player step back and look at the bigger picture to develop an effective strategy. Everything is quick and the player has to keep up.
Actually, most of FF XIII is pretty quick, oddly enough. It moves at a pace that previous games of the series aren't necessarily known for. The game starts off by throwing the player into combat as soon as the first cutscene is done. The story is also lacking the set up we're used to (This is later resolved through flashbacks). The levels also take a number from action games like Modern Warfare and Gears of War, putting priority on the road ahead and being very straightforward. Literally, the levels are designed in straight paths that occasionally branch off to lead the player to items. Everything tends to open up around the 20-hour mark but even then the level structure still relies heavily on its old habits despite that. It cuts out the fat and boils FF XIII down to its essentials: Combat and story. It alleviates distraction and forces the player to focus on the path ahead. In its attempt to allow the player to see everything it has to offer, the useless content that would detract from that was cut out. Taking away things like substantial side-quests and putting more focus on the main story.
Side activities are still present but most of them are basic kill quests. They'll help the player in the long run but it doesn't demand you do them to derive more enjoyment from the main game. It doesn't want the attention to be taken away from the story so it doesn't inflict the nagging suspicion that the player is missing out on any important content. FF XIII still had a clear idea on what's important and where main objective lied. Everything is focussed and time never feels wasted.
They didn't want to take away from the story because it's probably the game's most important aspect. FF XIII follows a ex soldier named Lightning and her partners in crime as they set off to save the world from the tyrannous rule of mechanical gods named “Fal'Cie”. The basic structure of the story is nothing new. Where the intrigue lies is between the character interactions. All of the main characters have been chosen by the gods to become “L'cie” who are cursed with the task of fulfilling a “focus” . A focus is a mission the gods give someone, if they fail to finish their focus they become a lifeless creature called a “C'ieth”, if they do it correctly they become encased in crystal. A lot conflict is created in the party for a number of factors. Main one being everyone's differing opinions on L'cie and how they plan on fulfilling their focus. It's interesting to see how these interactions between party members play out. Although, the bulk of the story doesn't move away from the stuff that's bothered people about FF story-lines but it does take a few unexpected turns.
FFXIII is simply a different game, and fans of the series might feel alienated by it. This is Sqaure-enix's obvious attempt at making a game that both appeals to western and Japanese audiences. It still retains the features that make it a Final Fantasy but throws out a few to make it more streamlined. It may have fell flat on its face a couple of times but its attempts are respectable. It still brings some great things to the table. It just demands that you wait for those things to come. When they do FF XIII becomes a rewarding experience. FF XIII is a game where you have to work to like it. Whether or not that's a good or a bad thing depends on the player. For me, it didn't take much time for everything to click. For some, they may be turned off by the long time it takes for the gameplay to fully develop. But in Square's attempt to make a game that appeals to everyone, some sacrifices had to be made. It's a shame that it didn't work out as well as it could, but the effort is commendable. I at least respect the situation they were put in; They tried to make a good game that can thrive in today's market. Everything still feels pure; it's obvious they tried to make a good game, just one that appeals to everyone this time around.