It’s strange to think that this game is finally here.
After four and half years of waiting with baited breath, watching almost every video released, new updates coming with but a trickle of new information, it’s perhaps understandable that expectations for this game are so high. After all, the Final Fantasy faithful are looking towards XIII with vigorous eyes with a hope that this game will return their beloved series back towards the light after its somewhat disparate recent releases. With Square Enix production maestro Yoshinori Kitase back in the fold for the first time since Final Fantasy X, the early signs seemed promising.
As someone who has grown up with the series and love what it has offered thus far (including having some rather fond memories of the divisive twelfth numbered entry, I might add), I was a little torn on this one. Whilst the twelfth game had its issues in the narrative department I felt the gameplay was pretty solid, and perhaps unlike many I was a fan of the semi-real-time combat, with the game’s gambit system certainly pleasing the tactician in me whilst maintaining the overall flow of the game. That said, my real connection to Final Fantasy over the years has not been defined by its gameplay so much as by emotion through story and character, and with early showings of Final Fantasy XIII showing a far more linear game than its predecessor there was a hope that narrative development might actually be a priority once more.
“The in-field real-time combat of its predecessor has been axed and instead returns rather abruptly to a more turn-based system of the older games”
It would not be remiss to say that Final Fantasy 12 was a flawed game. I personally liked aspects of it, but the general reception towards the game from fans was mixed at best. From the outset, Vaan, who was assumed to be the main protagonist of the game, was designed to look a little unmanly for a Western audience’s liking, not to mention the fact that his part in the story was so minor that it was hard to swallow for anyone who loved the character development that the Final Fantasy series has, for the longest time, prided itself on. On the other hand, the game delivered in spades with regards to gameplay. It was a step in a completely new and daring direction for the series and is a decision which seems to have split fan reception towards it.
Final Fantasy XIII, however, is something of a step back. Not necessarily in terms of quality, but certainly in mechanics. The in-field real-time combat of its predecessor has been axed and instead returns rather abruptly to a more turn-based system of the older games. It has been further developed, of course, feeling closer to the fights of X-2 than the truly turn-based system of those which preceded it, and the battles feel quick and snappy in a way that turn-based games often do not. I might have enjoyed 12‘s system, but I also really enjoy this one. It’s fast and tactical, employing aspects from 12‘s gambit system and X-2 ‘s dress sphere mid-battle switch to great affect, and some of the battles feel tense and genuinely epic in scale. It’s fun too, even if a separate battle arena does indeed load up upon encountering an enemy in the field rather than taking place within the field of exploration.
“The beautiful cutscenes that the Final Fantasy series is famous for are introduced with pleasing regularity that keep the story moving, and always teases you to carry on playing”
I suppose by changing things so much with the last entry, and by drawing new fans in line with such a bold change in direction, the developers have inadvertently caused another divide within the fanbase here, because the flow of the world is interrupted by encountering an enemy rather than having the two interlope and work together, perhaps scaring those away who enjoyed the in-field encounters of 12‘s labyrinthian world. That said, the battle system is generally good fun, and it perhaps merges the two styles of Final Fantasy 12 and prior releases well, with Square Enix possibly hoping that it will appeal to both sets of fans at once.
Unfortunately, the pacing of the game leaves little to be desired, and the enjoyable fights don’t appear early on simply because the game is so slow at giving access to any of the good stuff. The first 5 hours or so of the game are but a template of what will come later on, and they can feel quite laborious, especially if you don’t take to the plot early on. These initial few hours feel like an overly long tutorial, and the game consistently teaches you more and more as the game goes on, releasing new aspects of the battle system at a snails pace. Once the later skills and abilities are unlocked the game delivers on a much grander scale, but it takes so long to get there that many might simply give up before the game really hits its stride, which is a shame.
The quick and visceral battle system is juxtaposed against the lethargic release of such information, and I can imagine it will be difficult for many to wade through the early parts of the game to get to the good stuff before giving up. Somewhere along the line, Square Enix decided to trickle the game’s mechanics to the player in much the same way they did regarding the game during its development, and unfortunately it’s not only the battle system that has been negatively affected by the poor pacing. For the first 25 hours or so, the game leads the player down a clearly marked path, exemplified by the mini map in the top corner with a small yellow arrow leading you onwards. There are small offshoots from the main path, but small they are, and it’s always obvious that there will be an item waiting at the end of them.
“The story is genuinely interesting and emotionally charged, if a little liberal in its use of ambiguous terminology”
This might all sound quite negative, but if you can wade through the early hours of the game then a solid narrative comes to the fore. The beautiful cutscenes that the Final Fantasy series is famous for are introduced with regularity that keep the story moving, and always teases you to carry on. Not least of its long list of positive attributes are its graphics, which are simply stunning in every respect, and it’s highly applaudable at how well the development team has managed to merge both the CG graphics into in-game footage. On a number of occasions I found myself waiting for the cutscene to continue unaware that the game had returned to in-engine and intended for me to play on. Yes, the game looks that good.
Praise is also due for the localisation team who have done a pretty decent job with the English translation of the game, which feels as though it has been delicately produced into the game. That the team reanimated all of the character’s mouth movements to match the translated dialogue is a move that is, of course, wholeheartedly welcome, and helps to submerge the player into the world of the game. It no longer feels like a poorly dubbed foreign movie, and it’s all the more engrossing for these small but significant details.
Final Fantasy XIII is an impressive game in many aspects, but it’s clearly not perfect. Whilst the world is clearly large the game seems to subvert its size through the way that it’s presented. Without a world map like in previous Final Fantasy games, it can feel a little too linear for its own good. The lack of shops and villages along the way also made me feel like my team of comrades were not really a part of the world, and whilst these missing elements make sense given the plot, it also feels like a core part of the Final Fantasy experience, or that of RPG’s more generally, is missing.
That said, for those who can look past these mishaps, there is a rewarding game that lies beneath. Unlike the last game, the story is genuinely interesting and emotionally charged, if a little liberal in its use of ambiguous terminology. The characters are also deep and interesting, even if one or two of them are a little excessive. Overall, however, this a pretty solid element of the game, and for those interested more in the narrative elements of the Final Fantasy series than open-ended exploration, this will certainly entertain. Granted, the story needed to be good to offset the poor pacing of the game, and thankfully it managed to keep me going through interest rather than compulsion.
The battle system is also deep and rewarding once it gets going, and similarly the world becomes far more interesting later in the game. Around half way through the world opens up and allows for some time out from the heavily beaten path, though it has to be earned since it takes around 25 hours to get to this point. It’s a shame that Square only opens up the world to the player after so many hours of linear gameplay, and it would have been nice to have been given this option earlier on since this is arguably the beginning of the best parts of the game. It sometimes feels like Square just didn’t know where to go with this one; whether they should just focus on pleasing the long-term fans, or those who were drawn to the open-world style of the twelfth entry. The lingering feeling, then, is that the game lacks an identity of its own, and by pandering to two different sets of fans the game feels like it may satisfy neither as well as it could.
Final Fantasy XIII is an accomplished and polished game in what it offers, but it sacrifices some important aspects of the series, such as town shopping and NPC dialogue, in favour of a far more controlled and linear experience than previous entries. The last game might have had a mediocre narrative, but the world it created for us to explore was rich, vibrant, and open. The world of Final Fantasy XIII, however, feels a little lifeless in comparison. Where it makes up for this is in the story which, through the game’s constant control over proceedings, feels like a lovingly-weaved tale with plenty of twists and turns to keep players intrigued. It feels like another new beginning in the Final Fantasy saga, for better or worse, and this is one aspect of the series, it seems, that will never be altered.