Final Fantasy XIII: A Conflicted Mess
When reviewing Final Fantasy XIII I can't help but measure it against Final Fantasy X, Yoshinori Kitase and his development team's last venture with Square-Enix's flagship series. There are a lot of similarities to be made between the two games; thematically, similar leveling systems, in art direction, and their distinctly linear progression. Beyond that though, they are two radically different games. With each iteration in the series, the formula is improved upon, either exceeding the highest standards of games for the time or setting them, yet staying reverent of what has kept the series interesting and enjoyable after all these years. Final Fantasy X did this perfectly. Final Fantasy XIII on the other hand, while doing an exceptional job streamlining the whole process is set back by a lot of poor design, muddled functionality, and a story so disjointed it definitely makes this entry the weakest in the series' history. Which in the end leaves me a lot more frustrated, wondering what were they thinking?
The fiction they establish definitely has the potential to be a great source to draw interesting narratives for this Fabula Nova Crystallis universe. Final Fantasy XIII is set in a world predicated by fear, where the human race exists cradled in a massive floating planetoid called Cocoon, always weary of the savage, inhospitable lower world of Pulse. After a cataclysmic war between bionic demigods called Fal'cie from both worlds collided, the shell of Cocoon was severely damaged, and the influence of Pulse on its citizens was more imminent than ever. Centuries later, a dormant Fal'cie from Pulse is found in a seaside town in Cocoon leading the otherwise unobtrusive government to begin a witch hunt quarantining and exiling those "infected" to Pulse. It's this event that sets the backdrop for the story as our group of adventurers unravel the nature of the world they live in. Like Final Fantasy X; xenophobia, an inquistorial government, societies controlled by fear and antiquated ideas are themes prevalent throughout.
The problem with all of this though is how it's presented. There's no cohesion to any of it, thus no meaningful connection to be made. FFX fleshed out their world by having you always interacting with the locals and their plight, charting the party's journey on a nifty, illustrated map, all tied together by a thoughtful, informative narration. Yet, the majority of FFXIII's information and backstory is presented to you through text entries in a massive compendium. What bits of the story are in tandem with playing the game feel convoluted; characters are never fully fleshed out, nor their motives and conflicts with the others. Some are introduced at seemingly key points of the story, and then exit with a whimper. By the time you actually do get a grasp of what the hell's going on though( for me, the last leg of the journey) you may actually start to like it.
The music, although not the most memorable Final Fantasy soundtrack, definitely has its moments of brilliance. Some of the story-driven boss battles have some incredibly powerful, epic scores, the chocobo theme is back and just upbeat and boisterous as ever, and some poignant and simple acoustic tracks. There definitely is a lot of range shown stylistically; Industrial, J-Pop, a lot of synthy, bubbly, futuristic medleys, to a mad bluesy ballad, and even some evocative of Final Fantasy Tactics.
The visuals, as has come to be expected, are maddeningly gorgeous. The breadth of setpieces and environments is an incredible showpiece of what they were capable to get out of their tech. From a tumultuous, crystallized lake to a tragically barren expanse on the surface of Pulse, their ability to craft such stellar environments deserves much laudation. I found myself many times just soaking it all in, standing idly under the crest of a wave, or staring up at the massive earthen marble in the sky. Final Fantasy XIII has some of the most surreal, and striking imagery of any game made.
Now, down to the nitty-gritty. The combat, besides the visuals is the best thing about Final Fantasy XIII. The concept of "Turn-based Combat" is implemented in the vaguest sense possible. There's no need to pause and use potions or antidotes(though the option is there) for all of it has been streamlined into a compelling and challenging combat system, the Active Time Battle system. The "ATB" is designed with expediency and stylistic flair in mind. In fact, items (such as potions, antidotes, softs, etc.) affect the entire party, and the most important equipment of the game helps you become an efficient, fleet-footed killer. Though, to keep some semblance of order, a blue meter, the ATB Gauge, limits the number of actions you can take in a set amount of time. for every action you can take, there's an amount of the gauge necessary to perform it. The stronger the spell or ability the more of the gauge it requires to execute and the longer you'll have to wait. It's also possible to save as much of the ATB gauge as you want for your next turn. The battle system that's in place makes it the most flexible and engaging in the series' extensive history.
Much like Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid system, XIII's Crystarium is nearly identical, functioning merely on the accumulation of Crystogen points(CP) to advance each character in a specific role. Also very much like Final fantasy X, each character is predisposed to excel at certain classes more than others. The roles(Commando, Synergist, Medic, Saboteur, Ravager, and Sentinel) all come into effect in battle through what is called Paradigms. You can have any combination of 3 classes and may switch to any other paradigm at no cost during battle. These Paradigm Shifts are necessary to remain on top of battle; if you manage to fill an enemy's Stagger meter(thus much more vulnerable to attacks) you can switch to an all-out offensive paradigm. Though, if things quickly get out of hand you can swiftly shift into a healing pardigm, or perhaps a healing/defensive paradigm. The versatility possible with the Paradigms is all to help maximize your ferocity and minimize your time in battle.
With the exception of the superb combat, Final Fantasy XIII's greatest flaw is that it's not a rewarding experience. It's linear for the benefit of the narrative, yet with remaining so vague with a lot of the details, I was looking for something else to pick up the slack, but I never did.
The lack of any diversion from the main story magnifies all of its shortcomings. When the game finally "opens up" there's still the fact that it would make no sense to deviate from the path(for only a messy, brutal death awaits thee). There are no quests to hunt down legendary weapons, or stumble on a new dungeon, there's only the killing of funny looking monsters who then drop inconsequential items.
The weapon/equipment customization system is a poorly implemented, painfully vague, antiquated mess. If I hadn't bought the strategy guide beforehand there was no conceivable way I would've known any of this. For example, each weapon has 3 states; with each state, a certain amount of experience is needed to max it out, making it available to be upgraded with a specified catalyst. Yet, with each new state, the amount of experience necessary to upgrade grows exponentially. Sure, a little grinding isn't bad, and crunching some numbers to do things efficiently is fun, but not when it's arbitrarily complicated. See, the things you need to upgrade your equipment are called components, and each component has a HIDDEN "Multiplier Value" that can help cut down on the cost of items you use. There are organic and mechanical components; organic components are most effective for your experience multiplier and mechanical parts( all having a negative effect on your multiplier) are best used for huge spurts of EXP.
The amount of grinding necessary to fully level a weapon is obscene. According to the nice, expensive strategy guide I purchased, it takes 1.5 million gil; a Trapezohedron(dropped only by the most freakish of turtles 1% of the time!); a severe self-loathing, and debilitating xenophobia. Only a masochist would find the worth in doing such a task.
It's baffling that the same team that made Final Fantasy X took so many steps back with this game. In fact, there's a lot to like; the art direction, the universe laid out, the combat, and the stunning visuals, yet what is most surprising is that there's just as much to hate. The things that made past iterations so enjoyable;the quirky humor, the plethora of side quests, organic, vibrant worlds, and the overall sense of adventure are absent from this game, and then they throw in a bunch of fluff that complicates an already droning, tedious game. I can only hope they look back at this with scrutiny, and strike gold with the future of what seems like a promising franchise.