Another year of development and it would have been perfect
Let me come right out of the gate by saying that every RPG fan owes it to themselves to play this game. While some may walk away feeling that FF XIII is not their cup of tea, Square-Enix has done an impressive job of evolving many elements of the RPG formula. Since there are simply too many points worth noting, I'll approach this review in the bullet-pointed Kotaku style:
What I Liked:
- The music - Masashi Hamauzu has truly outdone himself and composed what I believe to be one of, if not the finest, soundtracks I have ever heard. There is a great diversity of musical styles, but nearly every track was memorable. It also nicely complemented the beautiful locations that you visit throughout the game. As many people have agreed, the Final Fantasy soundtracks have been in somewhat of a rut for the last few entries compared to the older classics. FF XIII got the franchise right on track and may have eclipsed FF IV and VI in the process as hard as it may be to believe.
- The art - This is hands down the best looking game I've ever played. The character models are gorgeous and full of life; the environments (especially Gran Pulse) are jaw dropping, and the battle animations are consistently impressive throughout the game. Nothing more that can be said as I'm not sure many studios will have the time and money to outdo this for a while.
- The main characters - Long gone are the days of Tellah jumping up and down to express anger at the death of his daughter. This game is full of life and emotion, and each of the main characters makes an impact on the story. Whether you love them or hate them, I can definitively say that I had an opinion about all of them. Compared to the likes of Quina or Gau, it is amazing how far this series has come in it's ability to develop a character that connects with the player. I'll go so far to say that Lightning is probably my favorite character in a video game, with several of the others not far behind.
- The combat and leveling system - While I won't describe it in depth, the FF XIII battle system makes it hard to want to go back to the days of scrolling down a menu to select from a long list of mostly useless spells. In what I consider a rare achievement, Square-Enix has managed to create a game where every class, every skill, every character is actually useful. The end result is a game where I was constantly excited to unlock the next skill or try a new party combination. While many have complained about the pacing of the game, I would argue that the pacing invites experimentation. As a result, the game never felt like a grind, even dozens of hours into the game. By the time I took down my first Long Gui at the end of the game, I really felt like I accomplished something and had fully developed my skills. In most other FF games, a similar accomplishment would leave me feeling like I had put in enough time to build my levels, and that skill had little to do with my success.
- The pacing - Despite the common theme in the multitude of available reviews that this game is bad because it is linear, I would counter by saying that the linearity is one of the best design decisions made for the series. I would challenge anyone to say to all the prior Final Fantasy games (and most RPGs for that matter) weren't linear. Having the ability to roam around a world map aimlessly only to stumble into your next predetermined objective is not my idea of freedom in a game world. FF XIII gets rid of the time spent grinding and being lost and I don't miss that time one bit. The game cuts to the chase and constantly gives you what you came for: story and gameplay. For an already long game, any incremental time spent being lost would have been excessive.
What I Disliked:
- The weapons/accessory system - For all of the things about this game that represent the best that the Final Fantasy series has to offer, the method Square-Enix chose to handle equipment unfortunately represents the worst in the series. By the end of the game, it is very likely you will not have any of the ultimate weapons or high level accessories. Even once you do get them, you do so by grinding for drops rather than exploration or beating a difficult boss. The system of using parts to upgrade the equipment is poorly explained within the game and requires a FAQ to have any chance of efficiently using. I walked away feeling like the whole system was a complete chore. Further, the weapons are poorly balanced and there are often 1 or 2 weapons for each character that are clearly superior to the rest.
- The ending - In full disclosure, there are more Final Fantasy game endings that I have disliked than I have liked. FF XIII's ending ranks right up there with FF X as nothing more than an afterthought after a lengthy quest. By the end of the game, the story has completely fallen apart to the point where you just want to finish so you can return to Gran Pulse with the highest crystarium level unlocked. This is unfortunate because FF VIII really exemplified what a great ending can mean to an RPG. I found it confusing that Square-Enix took so much time to develop great characters only to throw them into a story with a poor conclusion.
- 2 character parties - For all of my complements of the battle system and the linear progression of the story, the combat in this game isn't as fun with 2 characters in your party. Since a good portion of the early game maintains the 2 character structure (albeit different characters), it seemed like a poor design decision. Because the developer had to scale the enemy difficulty to accomodate the reduced party size, it causes the 2 person battles to be mostly devoid of the challenge and strategy that define the rest of the game. While I'll likely play this game again, I wish I could fast forward through the segments with the 2 person battles on a 2nd playthrough.