Call it the curse of the number thirteen. I swear, it's got to do with this game having that number in its title. It is inconceivable otherwise that the Final Fantasy series, known for producing consistently high quality games, could give us something that is so fundamentally broken and wrong on so many levels.
Final Fantasy XIII has a massive task upon its hands. Arriving in an era when western RPG's are increasingly becoming the norm, a time when the clichéd settings and typecast characters of JRPG's are gradually falling out of favour with the masses, a period of fast paced online action, where no one has the time for the sluggish pace of turn based combat, it is upto Square Enix, maestros of the genre, to prove that JRPG's are still relevant.
It's hard to say where exactly Square went wrong with this latest entry in the hallowed franchise. Was it the story? Surely not. Final Fantasy XIII features a story riddled with the stereotypes and the conventions characteristic of the genre. And yet, at the same time, the narrative manages to be more human than any previous instalment in the series, so that at some level, it genuinely resonates with the player. To be sure, the characters are unbearably typical, and the pace of the story is intolerably slow. But there's always that sense of wonderment and awe, that keeps the player genuinely enthralled at what's unfolding on the screen.
Is it the gameplay, then? There are definitely some issues to be taken with how the game plays out. Square's incessant tinkering with the core mechanics of the series has resulted in a game that is far divorced from not only the conventions of the series, but the genre as a whole, to the extent that Final Fantasy XIII isn't really a JRPG anymore.
For one thing, there's the battle system. Working within the confines of the classic turn based battle system that their fans dictate they must adhere to at all costs, Square Enix have come up with what can at best be described as an uneasy compromise- an unsuccessful juggling between what tradition demands, and their own storytelling ambitions.
The result is a schizophrenic battle system that essentially undercuts all player participation, letting the game play itself out. In Final Fantasy XIII, you can control only one character per battle- your party leader. Each of your party members is assigned a role, one out of six. These roles can probably best be defined as characterclasses, though they're never permanent, and can be changed at will.
You have direct control over your party leader, although you never have access to all his abilities- you can only use those of his powers that are available to him under the role he has assumed. Thus, if you entered a battle as a commando, you will be able to only direct your hero to use commando specific attacks, until such time as you change his role (which can be done on the fly and in the midst of battle, incidentally). On the other hand, you have no control over the other party members. They perform actions automatically as per the roles assigned to them.
Each character is governed by an ATB bar- a gauge that gradually fills as you begin to line up attacks, Once the gauge is complete, your character unleashes all of his queued attacks in quick succession.
It should work well, and in theory, it does. The problem arises in its execution. There is simply no getting around the fact that, beyond assigning each of your party members a role, your participation in combat is extremely limited. The game does attempt to remedy the situation by encouraging you to change party vocations in the midst of a battle- the cleverly designed Paradigms system, where a specific combination of character classes can have some devastating effects on specific enemies, is certainly a very novel idea- but it doesn't work, it just does not come close to substituting the immersion that direct control over your characters would have generated.
A second, and probably greater, issue with the battle system specifically, and with the entire game in general, is just how much it feels the need to ease you in, one baby step at a time. Whereas some help is certainly appreciated- this is an absolutely new way to play, after all- the game simply does not know when to stop, and ends up going totally overboard.
For whatever reason, Final Fantasy XIII feels that players today are dumb enough that they will not 'get' the new battle system. Thus, each aspect is introduced to the player, one at a time, over a period of twenty hours, and the player is then almost forcibly made to practise what he's just learnt for hours at end, by being made to encounter enemies that can best be defeated by the new technique you just learned. Trudging through the first dozen or so hours of Final Fantasy XIII is an exercise in mind numbing asinine repetition. You have no say in the matter at all, and the game forces you from one linear dungeon to the next, battling one wave of enemies after the other.
This last issue is a major structural flaw with Final Fantasy XIII, and is possibly at the root of what makes this game as uninteresting as it turned out. Final Fantasy XIII basically does away with everything that makes an RPG an RPG- a vast, sprawling overworld that you are free to explore at your own pace and leisure, NPC interactions, digging around the world for hidden secrets and minigames, and replaces it all with a forced trek through one claustrophobic dungeon after the other, fending against enemies endlessly. There isn't much scope for exploration, since the dungeons are strictly linear affairs, and you can't even backtrack, since once you clear a dungeon, you're through with it, at least until the game deems otherwise. It all becomes stifling, and Final Fantasy XIII is enough of a guided experience that I can, without any qualms, term it to be an on rails game.
The lack of an overworld and character interaction is a fundamental flaw with the game. There basically are no NPC's, barring the odd person in the dungeon, who essentially says one thing, and gets it done with. There are a few others, but they generally appear only in the cutscenes, and your interaction with them is dictated by, as with everything else in this title, when the game feels it appropriate.
The fact that the game degenerates into some twisted take on a fantasy shooter- at least by structure and design- presents some other problems. Doubtless, in order to keep the game accessible, Square Enix have made some other baffling design decisions, and all of them impact the game for the worse.
Take, for instance, the fact that your characters are healed automatically aft6er every battle. The newcomer to the RPG genre may find this to be a welcome change, but the allure of the 'grind' in past Final Fantasy titleshas been that nit was always a kind of an endurance run- the race to make your character infinitely tougher before he ended up getting so hurt that he couldn't battle anymore. Hoarding important healing items for important fights down the road has always been an integral part of the Final Fantasy experience, and that this game simply does away with it is a massive point scored against it.
There are many other such issues- character levels have all but been dispensed with and stat grinding is non existent in this game, owing to a lack of any towns, and thus, of any equipment shops. Sidequests and minigames, which often provide for a nice change of pace in other RPG's, and most notably, in Final Fantasy games, are all gone too, and this is all thanks to the game's structure that essentially strips the game of all its RPG trappings, to the point that it isn't one any longer.
To be fair, though, the game really does open up after the initial twenty hours or so. That is probably the juncture when the game finishes the mammoth task of teaching you the nuances of the battle system, and feels you can most likely take care of yourself by now. After this point, you are free to roam the wilderness of Pulse, exploring every nook and cranny of the beautiful world Square Enix have crafted, and generally taking things at an easier and a more ambling pace.
It is after these initial twenty hours that Final Fantasy XIII really comes into its own, and becomes the game it was probably meant to be, and should have been, all along. By this point, the battle system is fully unlocked, so that you are finally free to battle as you should choose to, and the game begins to exhibit some of the characteristics of role playing games that it all but discarded for the first twenty hours or so.
Final Fantasy XIII's metamorphosis from the ugly larva to the beautiful butterfly is accompanied by an equally dramatic change in its storyline and narrative. The first two dozen hours of the game's story are notable for being excruciatingly slow, and terribly paced. After this point, however, the story takes a turn for the better, and there are several genuinely compelling developments, that would have really hooked me were this any other game.
The problem here is that by the time the game decides that it's probably spoon-fed you enough, you've lost all interest, in both the game's story and the game itself. Twenty hours is not a short period after all, and the modern gamer's attention span simply isn't enough to accommodate such a plodding pace. At this point, the gameplay has gotten intolerable and the story simply something you don't care at all about. It's a pity, actually, because those who are willing to brave it, and give this game another chance will find a beautiful world that Square Enix have crafted, even if the characters inhabiting said world are perhaps the worst to have starred in any Square Enix game.
That probably boils down to poor characterization, and to Square Enix succumbing, yet again, to the temptation to use those very same JRPG character archetypes that they themselves have established over the years. Each character in this game, from Hope (no, seriously) to Vanille, fits into a neatly defined, and often convenient, stereotype, and each of them is equally irritating in his or her turn, each of them getting on your nerves until you seriously just feel like screaming yourself hoarse at them. To be sure, Lightning is an excellent character, and I can very possibly see her becoming what Cloud was, to a new generation of gamers. However, on the whole, each character is irritating, and the characterization is predictably clichéd.
Unlike the characters, though, the world of Final Fantasy XIII is lush and rich and mysteriously exotic. The sharp contrast between Cocoon and Pulse, thrown into relief by the polar difference between the game's first and last twenty hours, is an excellent metaphor for the duality that Final Fantasy XIII's narrative ultimately wishes to convey. The fact that the world itself, visually, ever beckons you on to dig deeper, is a bonus.
The glorious graphics of the game are backed by an equally wonderful soundtrack. Final Fantasy XIII is impeccably perfect on an aural level- everything, from its wonderful musical score, to the ambient sound effects, is just spot on, and helps add greatly to the immersion. While I suppose it could be argued that some characters are voiced so that they tend to get grating, I suppose that can be, once again, attributed to poor characterization more than poor sound design.
I don't really understand how Square Enix took such a misstep with this game. Whereas it can certainly be argued that the general quality of Final Fantasy games has been declining over the years for a while now, all games prior to this have been very good games, at the very least. With Final Fantasy XIII, that is no longer the case. A game that can be called nothing short of atrociously bad, more due to poor design decisions than anything else, Final Fantasy XIII is a title that all fans of the series or the genre should stay away from. Whereas some may find it within their hearts to embrace the game after it opens up, to most, the initial investment of over twenty hours will simply be too much. There is a very good game somewhere inside Final Fantasy XIII, but in its present state, it isn't worth it to dig for it through this mess. I cannot stress this enough, so I repeat: stay away from Final Fantasy XIII.
The Final Fantasy series' downward slide continues.