Sunday, March 14, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII Review

It’s been quite a while since I’ve played anything Final Fantasy or anything Square Enix for that matter. Heck, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down with a good old-fashioned JRPG; short, sporadic bouts of Tales of Vesperia notwithstanding. Basically, I don’t know what compelled me to spend the last four days on FFXIII, apart from the insufferable hype. To be frank, I’m so glad I did.

Final Fantasy is a franchise that’s feeling a bit old and creaky as it gets on in its years. When it came time to bust out the ideas-whiteboard for FFXIII, the developers were probably feeling so downright bored that they decided to go for broke and toss in a cornucopia of sweeping changes in an effort to inject some exuberance back into a series that was in serious danger of succumbing to stagnation.

Accessibility is the name of the game in FFXIII’s case and with it comes streamlining and maybe a unusually rigid focus on linearity to hold novices’ hands through to the end rather than haphazardly kicking them out into the middle of a sprawling wasteland à la Fallout 3. In my opinion, change is as welcome as it is ambitious, especially for an aging (but just as lucrative) cash-cow like Final Fantasy and while FFXIII was spectacularly hit-and-miss in the experimentation department, the effort to shake things up was much, much appreciated.

First off, while the gameplay is invitingly accessible, the story is anything but and definitely does toss you in medias res with no sign of remorse. The opening cinematic is as confusing as it is intense and the scattered bits of dialogue are littered with incomprehensible jargon.

So to ease the initiation, here’s the skinny. In the world of Pulse, there are these god-like beings known as fal'Cie who are universally loathed and feared by humans. People unfortunate enough to cross paths with and become “marked” by a fal’Cie become beings known as l’Cie and are forced to discover and carry out a “Focus” or goal in order to “survive.”

“Survive” in quotes because succeeding at one’s Focus is just as damning to one’s existence as failing. As such, l’Cie are quite naturally considered cursed and are not only socially ostracized but forcibly quarantined in order to protect the well-being of the population. In traditional Final Fantasy fashion, ragtag renegades from all walks of life band together to settle this conflict once and for all and maybe even save the world in the process. Oh and villainous monologues and overwrought melodrama will be thrust in your face at every turn whether you like it or not.

So in a nutshell, it’s simplistic, straightforward fantasy peppered with a trace of obligatory pretentiousness. But then again, the story’s never been the crux of what makes Final Fantasy a legendary name in video gaming. No, it’s all about the presentation and FFXIII couldn’t possibly be more breathtakingly gorgeous.

There’s an iconic, elusive, artistic panache to Final Fantasy that few other games can accomplish. As shallow and stubbornly textbook as the story may be, it is uncompromisingly engaging from the get-go which can be chalked up to the mesmerizing art direction. Character designs are distinctive and colorful and the world is just erupting with life in every possible way. Just like its predecessors, FFXIII gracefully taps into the inveterate childhood fantasies in all of us and turns them into a reality by rendering them exactly as angelically and beautifully as how we envision them in our dreams.

Of course, the audio is just as sensational. There’s a wonderful harmony between the flawless, ethereal beauty of FFXIII’s dazzling visuals and composer Masashi Hamauzu’s exhilarating, orchestral score. Every piece of music captures the mood perfectly, whether it be somber, serious, or upbeat, and even the smallest little ditty is enlivening and evocative.

And as for the problems with the story, well, those can also be easily overlooked. It’s a classic tale of triumph from tragedy and hope from despair. While nothing new, it’s undeniably familiar and ingratiating and is a perfect, sunggly fit for a fantastically dreamlike, yet brooding world. When it’s presented in such an elegant and epic fashion, I’m all in for watching a group of heroes kick destiny to the curb and put a stop to C’thonic horror du jour’s plans for world domination. It’s an invigorating, emotionally-riveting, and sprawling adventure that’s just so damn uplifting to pass up.

As for the characters, they’re unfortunately quite a bit less forgivable. Standouts of the cast are Lightning and Sazh; no arguments there. Everyone else is well…either too obnoxiously bland to stomach or just plain annoying.

Let’s start with Lightning. I could probably go on for pages as to how unbelievably awesome she is. For me, she’s a milestone for female characters in video games and if Motomu Toriyama and Tetsuya Nomura’s goal was to create a distaff counterpart of Cloud, then they succeeded with flying colors.

She’s strong-willed, merciless, and earnest. You can just see the incredible effort that went into crafting her standoffish, solitary, yet very human personality. She’s captivatingly complex; aloof, yet genuinely compassionate and, above-all-else, cool. But at the same time oh-so-tantalizingly hot. I must admit, I had to break out the Perverse Sexual Lust folder for the first time in video gaming because Lightning is just so freakin’ droolworthy with her lustrous bubble-gum-pink hair, lovingly fierce gaze, brusque kuudere-ness, and wicked Blaze-Edge wielding badassery.

Sazh is great because he acts as the voice of reason and sanity, while also playing the role of comedic relief. People have pointed out that he’s the player surrogate, humorously struggling to keep his feet on the ground even while all these crazy things are happening all around him. Compound that with an unexpectedly heart-shattering backstory that is undoubtedly more emotionally-engaging than Lightning’s (Light’s checkered past is a bit too riddled with tiresome angst; only makes her a tad less awesome, however) and it’s hard to not love Sazh, stereotypes and all.

As for everyone else, they flesh out the cast adequately, if unspectacularly. Snow’s just a blundering blowhard who admittedly comes through as charming and passionate every once in a while. Hope is a whiny tagalong whose attachment to Light does wonders for developing her character (they’re both kindred spirits who lost their families), but doesn’t do much for his own. Finally, Vanille and Fang seem more like detached plot elements who are only serving as characters to fill out the roster. None of these characters are bad, per se, they’re just mediocre and forgettable.

Okay, let’s get to the bread-and-butter of all video games, i.e. the gameplay.

The level designers of FFXIII are doubtlessly thankful that their beloved franchise is unrivaled at crafting enriching, immersive worlds full of jaw-dropping wonder and imagination because from a gameplay-perspective, the world literally feels like one long claustrophobic corridor. It’s honestly only a few steps displaced from the “snow cave that suddenly, inexplicably transforms into lava land” formula in terms of how unnatural it feels. There’s a disquieting artificiality to it all that luckily gets overpowered by the aforementioned sublime scene-setting that the series is famous for. The exception and also the zenith of the game’s environments is the Archylite Steppe, which is bewilderingly expansive grassland that is truly an eye-popping treat for weary, jaded travelers.

So the compacted linearization leaves a scorch mark on in-game immersion, but how does it do for the actual gameplay? In terms of pacing, it’s actually a marked improvement. No towns means there’s no loitering here and there, looking blindly for NPC’s who allow progression, which consequently results in no break in the action. As for the exploratory element, well, it naturally gets shafted seeing as you will only ever encounter two branches in any given area. Branch A will lead to some extraneous item or accessory and Branch B will be the path of progression. That’s literally all there is to it, so treasure-hounds will be severely disappointed.

Random encounters are plentiful but often avoidable by way of smoke and mirrors or just fancy footwork. As such they never feel like much of a hassle unless you’re backtracking, in which case, they’re a controller-snapping nuisance. Which brings up another point. Outside of teleportation nodes, there’s no easy method of fast traveling, meaning that backtracking itself is an exercise in frustration and disillusionment as the world feels more and more like a single winding corridor.

Customization and inventory management have been simplified for the sake of accessibility, but are still noticeably clunky. Characters only equip one weapon and one-to-three accessories and items are straightforward in their descriptions, making decking out your crew much less of a chore than it traditionally is.

Upgrading characters involves staring at gleaming orbs and tracing lines to allocate experience points, which is intuitive, if lacking in complexity and sophistication. It’s a tentatively welcome change, although spreadsheet-hounds may get all uppity about it.

Upgrading items on the other hand is tough to wrap your brain around at first, but somewhat intuitive after you get used to it. The problem is that both the idea behind and the actual process of upgrading items by appending animal parts or errant machinery is just so laughably callow and contrived. There had to have been a method of upgrading items that didn’t involve sifting through hundreds of components and affixing them like they were some sort of magical USB-esque peripheral.

Finally, the all-important combat. Now this is where FFXIII truly shines because the Paradigm system is genuinely as accessible as it is thrilling. Granted, you have to wade through 20 hours of the severely limited prototype version before you get to play with the finished product, but it’s oh-so-sweet when get finally get to take Paradigm for a spin.

Combat plays out using the Active Battle System to mask the fact that you’re not in total control of the characters and are just issuing orders. It’s also incredibly sleek and polished to the point where it’s absurdly compelling. There’s no mana to keep track of or out-of-combat management to deal with. Just wait for the bar to fill up, input the commands and watch blades clash and spells fly.

And as for the Paradigm system, it’s truly a blast. Basically, any character can take on three (and more as the game goes on) out of six roles and Paradigm allows you to swap all three characters into different roles with the press of a button. There’s no need to swap accessories or weapons and it means that pretty much any character can capably fulfill any role at any time and you can switch between said roles on the fly, right in the midst of battle. Going from something safe and stable such as the Holy Trinity of Tank/DPS/Healer to sneaky status afflictions sabotage, and then to a full-out assault to the deliver the haymaker is fluid, natural, and sickeningly satisfying. The new battle system is indeed a welcome paradigm that we’ll hopefully be seeing more of in the future.

If I had to pick nits with the combat, the summoning system is utterly useless. While summoning and messing with the Eidolons is a joy (and the Eidolons themselves are actually a clever, unequivocal plot point), it’s rather underwhelming when it comes to actually contributing to the battle and you’re honestly better off just slugging it out with your three characters.

If nothing else, FFXIII has proven that there are plenty of new directions that an old franchise can take. The combat turned out to be incredibly well-tuned, but there’s still a lot of tightening up to do, particularly in striking a better balance between obsessive linearity and open-ended freedom. Doing away with a truckload of RPG conventions all at once may have been going overboard. But at the end of the day, the fact that FFXIII was a wildly creative experiment yet did not for one second compromise the integrity or identity of the franchise shows that there’s still a lot of potential for innovation in the pipeline.

Oh, and please, please, more characters like Lightning. She’s truly an irresistible, divine goddess.

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