I wrote this over in facebook, figured I'd share it here.
*Warning* This is long, I wont be offended if you just read parts, and there's nothing in here I consider a spoiler, except maybe in my last point.
Alright, so I recently completed the main story of Final Fantasy, I have not completed many of the side missions, but I believe I have enough perspective of the game to give a proper opinion (52hours). I'm not here to convert haters and praise the lovers. I simply completed the game and enjoyed it very much. There are a lot of things I think that it did right, in which case I really would like to share my opinion and I hope that we see these things carried forward in future JRPGs. There are also some things it didn't do so well, but I wont stress them too much cause I don't like to be pessimistic, and I wouldn't want to turn anybody away, since I really enjoyed it.
I'm gonna do this Kotaku style. Lets Go!
Pacing of the First Half
Let me get something out there, I've played a lot of JRPGs and I've got to say my number one pet peeve are dungeons that take too long. Don't get me wrong I love a good battle, but going along in the same colored environment fighting the same monsters for anything over an hour for me is too long. Star Ocean 3 for me is my all-time example for this, Grandia 3 was bad too. Cause sometimes you just need to get on with it. That said, This game for me has perfect pacing. Literally every 5 to 10 battles you get a break or I like to think of it as a reward and get to watch a cutscene that lasts about 5 or so minutes, sometimes longer, and for me that's just the amount of fill I want before I want to get my hands moving again. It's good because it breaks up the combat, but leaves you wanting more so you never get tired. Great consistent exciting pacing. Albeit, this doesn't hold true in the later part of the game, but I've got to give it to the rest.
The battles are quick and to the point, and no long opening/closing sequences which plague so many other games like Grandia. The battles can be really fast (4 seconds is my record so far, 2 blitzes); and the great part is, usually the length of battle is generally proportionate to the difficulty; meaning if it's a long battle it's not because the enemy has a ton of HP or you're too low level, but it's because there are some more intricate strategies required, and you're occupied the whole time executing it.
I have a couple of points here, and together they make up my favorite innovation of the game. What they've done, and I don't know if many realize it, but have taken the focus away from the 'dungeon' and moved it to the 'battle', and there are a couple of great things they did to facilitate this: When you die, you can retry right before the battle. You are rated at the end of each battle, influencing your rewards. You get fully healed after each battle. And Save points / shops are very frequent. Because of these things there is no out-of-battle maintenance, that in every other game makes you perform like a robot, and I'll admit I almost did it in this game too. I'd see a large group of guys, and go "oh, hey, those guys look tough. I better make sure I'm at full health, let me just... oh wait, I'm already at full health.", what a great feeling to not have to do things that would be repetitive, boring and obvious, instead I can focus on improving strategies and taking in the view. I also like the focus on the battle because now every fight is a bit more like a boss battle, the mindset changes from, "Ok I'm gonna save all my elixirs for the boss, and grind my way through these little guys so I can be sure to take on the boss" to "Oh hey I got a 3 star in that fight, I think I can do better next time, how can I improve my strategy to get better rewards.". This I believe is the most value introduced, and I'd like to see it move forward. Much like other genres (shooter/puzzle) where every encounter is fun, not just wading through lots of little battles to get to the meaningful boss battle (Not to say that there isn't some of this in the game, later on I did feel it some).
Lets be honest this game really has 3 components: Story, Battle Preparation, and Battle. And you will be battling for about %80 of the game. So if it does anything right it's got to be this, and I think they've nailed a really nice sweet spot. I find the battle system to be really interesting and engaging (starting from the 3rd hour, chapter 3). Lets get it straight, the battle system is very different from every other JRPG you've played, but I think it's a nice fresh take on a familiar system. Basically, the fight is on auto-pilot, but it is my opinion that everybody playing most old RPGs are on auto-pilot during every non-boss fight anyways. How many battles did you mash attack, attack, attack through? So why should you have to enter them all? You usually got a groove and you stuck to it, me as soon as I got Haste in every other game, I just spammed it at the beginning of every battle. Guess what in FF, if you have haste, and your dude can use it, he uses it first. And that goes the same for the rest of the commands, it pretty much picks the move you would've picked anyways. Is he weak to fire? Yup. Guess what they're gonna cast fire, and you would have done it too. So what does the battle system do where's the strategy? Now it's all about the meta battle, like what kinds of abilities you should be using when, it's adjusting you're overall strategies on the fly. Now I'm not gonna say this style is better, and I'm not gonna say it can't get mashy but I will say it is a refreshing new take, offering new kinds of challenges, happily familiar and it is notably more fast pace, and for modern gaming i think that's a big plus, and I think it's really fun.
I think the game has an excellent sense of your strength and capabilities and is constantly offering you new challenges and difficulties. For the most part it is almost impossible for enemies to get too easy, and types of enemies and situations you encounter are always changing and keeping things interesting (except for those dumb vampires later, too many vampires). I often found myself changing up how I was dealing with enemies and just when I got the hang of my strategy for a particular type of enemy, they'd swap in new enemies causing me to rethink it again. This is done in a variety of the usual ways, immunities, strengths against particular things, different stagger levels etc.
The game also gets more difficult in general as you go through the game. The end is very hard. I died at almost every fight xD.. but at that point in the game I was enjoying and welcoming the challenge. It was good.
I hate going back to level up, if I made it to the boss it should have a fair chance to beat a boss. Grinding sucks, and as long as you kill most monsters on the way (which still has the good pace) you never have to grind. AMEN.
Use of Party
I hate it when games give me characters but don't force me to use them. Cause I always just pick the 3, and everybody else in my party ceases to exist, and for me that totally takes me out of the role-playing part. Why are they coming with me to save the world if they're not even going to help? Biggest offender: Crono Cross, "Let's pluck people from the universe until there's nobody left to save". Finally an RPG that answers my call. Even if its only for the first 25 hours, they force you to use all the characters. Which I think also adds to the strategy, since each character has unique skill-sets, you are forced to be creative with what you've got, and I really appreciated that, and then even though in the late part of the game you get to ignore half your party, it's late enough that I'm cool with it being the 'hone your ultimate party' time, and there were a few times where it did make me swap my characters cause I needed one that had special skills that wasn't in my team.
No Retarded Pathfinding
Ever do this? "Hmm a split in the path, left or right? lets check out the left path. Hmm looks like it's the main path, lets go back to the right path, oh no this is definitely the main path, and go back to the right. Wash. Rinse. Repeat." Never have to do it, and I love them for it. Check the map, oh yup, I can check this out and then move along. Constant corn mazes are not fun IMO. Oh and the items are not on the map, I did miss a treasure box or two. Which is probably more than I miss in most RPGs given that I usually succumb to the right hand rule, hugging the wall in many games to make sure I 'get everything' (stupid pokemon syndrome). Thank you FF for making sure I wont do that.
C'mon, you can't argue, just look. In particular the lake of chapter 3 blew me away, as did the city in chapter 12.
This is pretty subjective so I'll just say I like the whole weaving party activities thing (adds more events in lesser time). And they do the whole Lost backstory telling thing which I thought was pretty well done too.
This is also subjective, but I got to know the characters, what they were about and how they grew. Which is waaaay more than I can say for FFXII's characters, who I failed to understand the motivation for completely. Like Vann what were you doing man? So in short even if it was a small cast I'm glad they spent some attention to character development... Though they dropped the ball on Cid there... very awkward.
Even the translation/dialog is awkward at times I felt the acting was pretty good. Especially Sazh, he's my favorite ^^, next to chocobo. Oh I loved chocobo's intro, how Sazh stumbles and chocobo does that victory stance after an olymipic type jump... lol.
Everything is Voiced
It's finally happening in games and I think it's really cool. (I think Heavy Rain does it too) Though I believe voicing stuff has this negative effect of making game stories shorter, cause you get less dialog out in the same amount of time. That and it takes more time and money that could be spent making the story longer.
Lots of RPG get it right, but some dont. Luckily FFXIII got it right too. After dying you can get right into the battle.
They totally leave you confused at the beginning, and you have to read the terminology notes to follow along, I feel that was a bit of a fail... They also go a little skimpy in chapter 11, and many of the major plot points feel a bit rushed (mostly due to all the FMV work I imagine) but still I would have liked to see more... I'm a story guy. Guess it's good for the folks who aren't story oriented... but then I wonder why you're playing an RPG and not like an RTS.
I wont spoil the story, but it's not as epic or long as we come to expect from a final fantasy. It's got he whole movie size story and plot going on in comparison to an epic anime series that we usually see with subplots and a long journey etc. The story for me was just satisfactory, but I still really enjoyed how it was presented.
Pacing of chapter 11 and some of the end
I've sorta mentioned this, but chapter 11 is when the game 'opens up' aka, you can revisit it and do side missions, and it's not always a straight path. But because of all this stuff, there's less story intertwined, and it feels a lot slower than the rest of the game, more of a grind. Good area for when you want to enjoy the battle system after you finish the game though, which i plan to give a go at.
The first 2 hours of play has almost no strategy and you can button-mash through it, and it's really unfortunate cause I think it turns lots of people off. I understand that they wanted to bring people in slowly, but it's a bit too slow. I think they should have just made the second chapter a lot shorter, then there'd be no issue.
At first this didn't bother me, cause the story doesn't need you to go to towns in the traditional sense, but then I sorta yearned for that larger break from the action, also a town is more in tune with the greater sense of epic story, so part of it was that I was missing story I think. I mean I don't miss wandering towns, and talking to everybody to see if they give me an items or say something funny, but I do miss the atmosphere that a town provides, and I didn't get the sense here. Again I think this is more attributed to the story than it is to the town mechanic.
Traditional fanfare is gone
This is just lame, they could have put it in. It's so signature, that I don't understand why it's not. It doesn't really hurt the game to not have it in, I just miss it.
Save Point Move Bug
There's a stupid bug that they ADDED to the english version where you can't easily walk away from a save point.. and it's annoying.
It really has no effect on the game, but walking has this small sense of lack of precision, kinda awkward, but doesn't really matter.
I just want to say I think Stagger (one of the fighting mechanics) is a really smart mechanic from a game designer point of view. You can simply make a boss battle just by making sure the stagger is harder to fill. it also added a few unique scenarios, and does things like makes you focus your efforts on a particular guy. I think it really emphasizing the old risk-reward paradigm on the order on which you kill dudes. Oh and I think its really easy for everybody to understand.
Comments on Linearity
Big complaint for this game is it's lack of a world map and how the area maps are very linear. I personally had no issue with this. For several reasons, I believe the backdrops were interesting and changed enough and the paths were windy and the pacing was good so i didn't really feel like I was walking in a straight line. And even though a world map might have been neat, there is really no reason to revisit old areas anyways, so why would I go back? I'm interested in progressing the story, if there's no interesting reason to return to an area, then it's good that it keeps me going forward anyways. Most other JRPGs with world maps only have one real destination for you anyways, so it didn't bother me that it was missing. As for straight paths, I talked above how I don't like pathfinding, and I think linearity is based on perception, lots of other games have 'straight paths' but people tend not to complain. Take God of War as a recent example, I think the same level of pathfinding in that game could be equitable to what could be in a JRPG. But nobody complains about that being a straight line. So I kind of see it as a null point. But really I think it's a matter of perspective, I can't imagine most people having real issue with it.
Comments on 'funneling gameplay'
Another major complaint has been the 'handholding' of everything before chapter 11. The game actually restricts your skill-set options early in the game, and the argument is that you have little choice in how your characters grow. I personally see this as a bit of a plus, though it'd be nice for a bit more decisions I looked at it, as more of a puzzle type scenario. Since the designers had a good grasp of what you can do at each point in the game they were able to create interesting battle scenarios that could sort of be understood as puzzle scenarios, each battle it's own puzzle with it's own ruleset where you had to take what you have and figure it out, and I enjoyed that aspect. It also infused some variety in the gameplay which I think fizzled a bit once it opened up more.
The leveling system is very much like FFXs sphere grid, which is fine, but it didn't really feel like much of an improvement, but there were some times where I'd choose to get one ability over another, so I think it was better, but I look forward to more interesting systems.. I still think I like the materia system the best, though I think I'd like it more with a unique character take on it.
No need for shops
I found the shops kind of useless, seems to only really be there to supplement the endgame. Grinding the side-missions and platinuming. Just seemed kinda silly, I almost wished it wasn't even there, cause it made me check it all the time.
Trailer spoiled all the good shots
I think the trailer for the game showed all the good stuff. J ust was kinda disappointed in that regard, cause I hyped myself on the trailer, and then I kinda was hinted at all the awesome moments.
The main theme is after the final boss battle. I feel it's sorta lame, in comparison to when the themes were used before, esp. in FF8, which I thought was really good. Just was a bit cliche I guess... can't articulate it. Just poor usage...
In short I'd describe FFXIII as a streamlined mix of FFVII and FFX, with a condensed story and more energetic battles. I think it's definitely worth a shot for fans of the series, the only thing I'd say to you is to keep a fresh perspective, as it is fairly different from traditional FF's, and under it's own terms it's a great game. I'd like to see the ideas about streamlining battle and focus on battle over dungeon appear in future installments, but I'd like to have some of the larger more epic stories and worlds back. Now I have to go give the rest of the missions and shot and think about the platinum trophy.
Thanks for reading.