There was a moment late in my time with Final Fantasy XIII, somewhere around the 30 hour mark, when I crested the top of a tall cliff, looked out over the great verdant expanse below, and was forced to stop and consider what this game isn't. Most notably, it's not the sort of broad, sprawling, go-anywhere adventure you used to expect from Final Fantasy. This was the very first time I'd been allowed to veer slightly left or right of the storyline's stiflingly constrained central path, and even the handful of optional side activities that became available at this late stage of the game weren't nearly enough to offset the thudding need to progress that preceded them.
The old Final Fantasy games gave you at least a convincing illusion of freedom. Even when the beats of the storyline were plotted out in a straight line, when there was only one location you could realistically visit to advance the game, you still had a sense of a larger world out there waiting to be explored. Not in XIII. Here the designers know exactly which way they want you to go, and that way is always "forward." There's nary a significant detour or side quest to distract you from your singular goal of running from here to there, reaching the yellow icon on the map, and triggering the next cutscene. Would it have killed them to at least connect all these confined locations with a basic overworld? How about an airship to fly around? This is still Final Fantasy, right?
It's true that Western and Eastern RPG design sensibilities have diverged dramatically over time; where the Fallouts and Dragon Ages focus on nameless create-a-characters roaming big open worlds and plotting the paths of their own storylines, the Japanese version of the genre casts you in the roles of iconic characters with their own agendas, with every major decision and crossroads already determined before you start. But Final Fantasy XIII takes this focus to a dangerously reductive extreme, almost losing itself in its relentless devotion to straight-ahead storytelling and nonstop combat. You're either in a battle or watching a cutscene or running to one or the other for most of the game. There just isn't much else to do, and what there is to do isn't always as exciting as it should be.
The tragedy, or maybe it's the saving grace, of Final Fantasy XIII is that it's eventually a great game if you give it enough time to become one. But it takes longer to pick up momentum and become engaging, mechanically and nararatively, than anyone should have to invest in a game they paid a lot of money for. I stuck it out because I needed to review the game and because I loved Final Fantasy once, and ultimately I'm glad I did. But if it weren't for those two drivers I'd have probably never made it through the first 15 or so hours it takes to see the good part, where the fighting becomes fun and you start to understand the story and care about what happens to its characters.
At this point, you can't possibly be surprised to hear that the story of FFXIII revolves around a ragtag band of rebels brought together by chance to challenge their fate and save the world from certain doom. At least the writers have layered an elaborate fiction on top of this tried-and-true framework, where humans are subject to the whims of a race of enigmatic god-machines called fal'Cie that rule over both a large, dangerous lower world called Pulse and a hovering, idyllic shelter, Cocoon. The citizens of each world harbor such deep-seated, irrational fear and resentment for the other that the government of Cocoon at one point practices what amounts to ethnic cleansing, "purging" a peaceful group of its own citizens for the crime of haplessly coming into contact with one of the Pulse fal'Cie and maybe, possibly carrying the taint of its evil magic. Naturally, our heroes get tangled up in the machinations of these powerful beings early on, before resolving to take control of their destinies and affect the course of events for the common good.
Since Square Enix is already working on two more games (Agito and Versus) set in this universe, it's a good thing it's a unique and interesting one, and the story of this game does become quite intriguing as you go along and put together more of the pieces. But the game does a pretty lousy job of communicating all the necessary information to you upfront, leaving you largely in the dark about not just the characters' immediate motivations, but even the basic metaphysical nuts and bolts of how the fal'Cie operate and what it means to be cursed by them. You can't chalk this lack of information up to a reserved style of storytelling, either, since all the necessary pieces are there for you to...sit there and read in the game's massive repository of information about characters, places, events, and everything else that exists in the menu. If the writers had managed to contextualize the essentials of this complex world within the early exposition, it would have made the story a lot more engaging upfront.
The best part of Final Fantasy XIII is the combat, which is successful at reducing unnecessary complexity in favor of broader strategic decisions. Your characters each fit into three of six roles that aren't too different from the classes you'd see in an MMO, with damage-dealers, tanks, healers, and buffers all represented. You can assemble a list of "paradigms," mixes of these classes geared toward different combat scenarios, and then instantly switch from one paradigm to another as often as you want mid-battle. Two of your three characters are controlled entirely by the computer, and even your leader has an optional auto-battle function that lets the AI decide the best course of action for the next few turns. Believe it or not, this automation is actually a good thing; why should you have to manually use ice-specific spells on monsters you already know are weak to ice, every time? The battles are incredibly fast-paced, so once they start to get difficult you need that automated control, anyway; at some point, it's all you can do to swap your paradigms fast enough to keep yourself healed and efficiently deal damage at the same time.
In fact, as the game gets harder and the battles demand more and more of you, you'd be amazed at the elaborate sorts of strategies you can pull off by creatively setting up and switching between paradigms; it's immensely satisfying to start shredding through enemies that previously seemed impossible just because you're getting a better handle on how to exploit the battle system. But just like the storyline, the game takes far too long to roll out all of this complexity, and until it does, it's too easy to be interesting. You don't even earn experience points for the first three or so hours, and you can expect to grind through another dozen at least before it lets you start playing with three characters at once with all the roles available. There's such a great combat engine here, I can't understand why the designers don't let you access all of its potential sooner. The same goes for an incredibly arcane system that lets you upgrade your equipment and apply hidden bonus abilities to your characters. You can achieve some incredibly powerful results with these systems, but their specifics are so obscure and poorly explained, you'd have to hit the Internet and find a FAQ to do so efficiently.
Final Fantasy XIII just needed to be about half as long as it is, with tighter pacing and a faster ramp up to entertaining combat in its first half. But at least whether it's entertaining or boring you, it's unflinchingly gorgeous from one end to the other. The artists tackle environments as diverse as natural outdoor vistas, high-tech ancient ruins, futuristic space cathedrals, and the gyrating innards of an interdimensonal clock, all with the same zeal for vibrant, saturated colors and inventive architecture. Likewise, the quality of the prerendered video sequences this series has become known for is at a new bar of quality this time around; it's the best-looking CG you'll see this side of a Pixar flick. The soundtrack is also quite good, though it didn't reach the poignant highs and lows for me that some of Nobuo Uematsu's work in the older games did (though this game may have the most invigorating boss music of any in the series). And while some of the characters' voiceover can be grating at first, they all settle into their roles as the game trundles along and eventually contribute important pieces to the ongoing drama. In that vein, it's worth mentioning that I thought the quality of the localized English text was uniformly excellent.
The game looks sharp and splendid on the PlayStation 3, and...slightly less splendid on the Xbox 360, where it runs in lower resolution that isn't all that noticeable unless you put the games side by side, when it does become an issue. The prerendered video sequences are fraught with ugly compression artifacts on the Xbox, though, in comparison to the beautifully clean, smooth versions on the PS3 disc. Consider that the PS3 version fits on a single disc while the 360 version requires you to put in new discs periodically, and there is no excuse for playing the Xbox game if you own both consoles. I don't care how much you love achievement points. The side-by-side differences were stark enough that I yanked out the 360 disc at about nine hours in and started over on the PS3. Having finished the game now I'm quite confident that was the right decision.
I was ready to fall in love with Final Fantasy XIII. My history with the series stretches back over two decades to the NES original and I'd count a couple of those games among my favorite of all time, so if any game could have brought a lapsed fan of Japanese-style RPGs back around again, it was this one. And you know, after that first dozen hours, it kind of did. There are a lot of great things going on in this game--I genuinely loved something about every aspect, from the combat to the story to the visual design. These elements just weren't brought together and exposed as well as they should have been, to do a game of this magnitude the justice it deserves. But if nothing else, the glimmers of excellence in Final Fantasy XIII have at least convinced me that Japanese RPGs, and specifically Final Fantasy itself, haven't quite gasped their last breath just yet.