A methodical character driven experience
The first 20 hours of Final Fantasy XIII were a drag, I was confused and let down, my spirits sagged and I nearly gave up. But then it clicked, everything came together and the world made sense again. Final Fantasy 13 is very slow at revealing itself, every aspect develops painfully slow, taking time to form an exceptional game; the story takes forever to be explained, the characters themselves fight with their fate, struggling with meaning and direction, the combat is so methodically established that when it finally blossomed into genius I was left wondering what game I had previously been playing. The question that lingers for me is: is it a great game for its methodical build-up or despite it? My answer is yes, well it’s not that easy but I do feel that it was a great experience because of its meticulous nature.
A lot of things I came to expect from a Final Fantasy are gone, no more towns to explore, or NPCs to speak with, no overworld or grand airship, no Chocobos to raise or card game to learn, practically nothing gets in the way of the main quest. It is a driven experience from beginning to end, a straight path of tightly focused narrative and combat.
A story of six unlikely heroes touched by fate to save the world, its not that the story eventually becomes about saving the world from impending doom, its expected from a Final Fantasy and 13 delivers, it is in the nature of its reveal that things diverge. These six characters are suddenly forced along a path they do not understand and did not want. They spend most of the game struggling with the fate they have been assigned, their next move an illusive mystery. By spending such a great deal of time fleshing out each personality and individuals motivation, or lack their of, I was given a greater insight into their own peril. Each one suffers a number of extraordinary events that rocks their life and eventually places them all on a singular path together.
One long dungeon, those are the words that popped into my head as I progressed, a long series of battles followed by a story sequence filling in a tiny gap in backstory, but usually asking more questions then it answers. From very early on the heroes are split into small groups, some times even venturing alone. Endeavouring into the unfamiliar, at times they at odds with each other, their decision on a future goal conflicting and often times placing them on opposite sides of the greater conflict. Some simply wander off into the wilderness, not knowing where to go or what to do, they simple run away.
For a game as heavy on combat as this it is a good thing that the new battle mechanics work so well. Directly controlling only a single party member, and even then given the option of automatically selecting the appropriate command, the game allowed me to focus on the bigger strategic picture, switching between my party members pre determined roles via the paradigm shift command. Feeling much like a World of Warcraft dungeon, classes come in the familiar shapes; melee, white and black magic, buff and debuff, and even a tank class, something rarely seen in Japanese RPGs.
The genius of the system is in the speed and fluidity of shifting formations, enemies require a constant changing of roles, moving from heavy damage dealing to defensive paradigms with split second timing. Everything about the combat moves at a ferocious speed, time is the currency of battle and not a second can be wasted, when all the many elements are finally put in place, and the difficulty rapidly increased, seemingly routine random battles become intense exciting struggles, every enemy has a set of strengths and weaknesses, ones that must be over come to succeed, attacking in unison, creatures each requiring totally different tactics, forcing my strategies to change on the fly.
I loved practically every moment of combat, and despite a heavy focus on it, never became a grind for me, its speed and the constant need for attention kept me gripped in every seemingly insignificant battle. It didn’t hurt that it was visually stunning, characters animate with wonderful over the top moves. The screen is filled with impressive special effects, bright explosions of light, wisps of energy and gorgeous partial effects galore. With all of this onscreen carnage and the ever present damage numbers popping up, it becomes a pure visual overload, a stunning graphical achievement.
Although woefully few and far between, their were a series of profoundly impressive boss battles awaiting me, it did take 20 hours for the first serious foe to appear, but it was worth the wait. Titanic in size and strength they challenged my every skill, and my patience, fights that became the thing of legend, long arduous battles of attrition, some seeming to last forever. Many times I fought for ages only to be suddenly and shockingly vanquished mere seconds from striking the killing blow. Somehow this never frustrated me, I was constantly ready for the challenge, I knew it was always with in my grasp, only a second faster in shifting roles and I could snatch victory.
At the thirty hour mark I reached a point where the game opens, arriving at a literal sweeping grassy field, filled with impressive monsters and numerous side quests. Having fallen in love with the fighting at this point, I relished the thought of spending many hours in vicious warfare, and it did not disappoint. Even though never opening up to the degree that most Final Fantasy’s do, I was given no airship and no vast world map, only an expansive countryside, filled with what can best be described as wanted posters for various mini boss encounters. I spend a silly amount of time hunting down these foes, and enjoyed nearly every second of the fast highly tactical hostilities.
Stunningly beautiful in both a technical and artistic sense, characters are incredibly highly detailed with great animations; their skin, hair, clothes and all manner of advanced crazy looking weapons are rendered fantastically. Some of the most impressive lighting effects I have ever seen; extraordinarily bright sunsets casting long dark shadows, sun flairs and glistening reflections, a beauty to behold. Environments astound with their vastness and elegance; from the huge shining technologically impressive cities of Cocoon to the majestic wilderness of the prehistoric . The world has a duality about it; every creature has two sides, a primitive animal form on Pulse and an enhanced cyborg version in Cocoon.
This duality of worlds is the focus of the games epic tale, a long history of warfare and conflict between two conflicting societies. A race of demigod like creatures known as fal'Cie rule over the floating human world of Cocoon, spreading fear of the eternal threat of Pulse: the larger world below, full of dangerous creatures and its own powerful fal'Cie. Our heroes are caught up in this struggle between civilizations, in the fear mongering and tyrannical rule of the fal'Cie.
Following a recent trend in RPGs, most of the juicy details of this fascinating mythology and its bizarre inhabitants, are hidden away in written data logs. Like Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 before it, their seems to be a level of fear on the developer’s part worried about bombarding casual player with an information overload. I do appreciate that for the dedicated their is still a treasure trove of lore, but feel like this is only the first step in the slimming down of RPGs. First we are forced to seek out a world mythology in written form, how long before it is no longer important to feed the devoted?
I read every single addition to the data logs, seeking out as much info on this wildly creative world as possible. The design work that went in to its creation is nothing short of astounding. Every creature, vehicle, or object possesses a level of wild artistic freedom. Calling the design over the top is an understatement, from the fantastical shapely airships of Cocoon, to the brutal twisted animal life of Pulse, a flood of unadulterated creativity and unrelenting imagination.
At its core this is a deeply character driven game. Despite appearing to be the usual cast of a Japanese RPG, the heroes soon develop real emotions. Their struggles with identity and purpose were insightful and moving. Each has suffered a great loss; they each seek their own goals, all growing into a true character, developing slowly over the course of events.
Summons represent another interesting aspect for each individual, unique to a character, they appear to challenge them in a moment of personal self-doubt, representing a symbolic relationship, the Summon challenges the individual to step up to the plate, to soldier on in the face of absolute impossibility. Become their true selves and wield the great power a Summon affords.
With deep themes of challenging fate, in not accepting your lot in life, the narrative impressed me with its raw emotion. These six people endured great hardships, but continued to fight, they challenged themselves to overcome their pain and loss, to forge ahead into a new future. A personal passionate journey of six individuals and the ones they love, as much as an epic quest to save the world from oblivion. Final Fantasy 13 is a truly memorable game, I eventually fell in love with is oddball cast, leant to appreciate and enjoy its fast tactical combat, and was awed by its pure graphical overload of light and colour.
It was a long and strange journey to say the least, but give it patience and the genius of Final Fantasy 13 will be evident. A wholly original RPG experience, focused storytelling and exceptional combat, all surrounded by cutting edge graphics and years of intricate design work. It’s a rough start but in hindsight its all becomes clear, this is an outstanding experience.