The game’s been out a while, and I haven’t written anything in ages. Guess I’d better get with the program. I did finish it, though, which is amazing considering how little time I’ve had of late. So, here’s my take on the somewhat controversial Square-Enix title. Beware, for there may be minor spoilers sprinkled in here, although I’ll try to avoid them as best I can.
As the first Final Fantasy game on a ‘next-gen’ console, FF13 has a lot to live up to in the graphics and sound department. For the most part, it succeeds brilliantly. This is a gorgeous game, no doubt about it. The effects are good, the areas stunning, and some parts really show off the power of the new systems, particularly the Archelyte Steppe. Some areas fall to the ‘brown is realistic’ trap of modern games, but on the whole the colors are varied… though they could be more vibrant. The plains seem a little washed out, in my opinion.
Nitpicking aside, let’s move on to the characters. Aside from Hope(who gets better but is always something of an annoyance), the characters are actually pretty nice. This is subjective of course, but I thought they did a good job of taking a standard archetype and playing around with it a little for each character, making them a bit more complex. One of the other nice changes is that any romance theme is severely understated in this game… the adventure is about the characters and their interrelationships, with no overarching love story happening. Not to say there isn’t any romance in it, as Snow and Serah prove, but it’s secondary to the main plot. It’s a refreshing change, really, since romance in a JRPG is rarely handled well.
The new combat system has its flaws – which I will cover later – but it is a new system with its own advantages. You only directly control one person, but you can set AI strategies on the fly. As a result, the combat system more involves swapping AI strategies on the fly and adapting them to the challenges than individually setting commands. Combined with the healing at the end of every battle, this makes for a fast, furious, and dynamic system that does have its moments. The lack of worry about HP and MP maintenance is nice, though they do have a ‘Technique Point’ system used for the more powerful abilities.
All in all, I can’t say I didn’t have fun, which is important. That said, I can’t say it was the most epic game I’ve played lately either. Which brings us to…
I’m going to try to focus on parts of the game that are objectively bad, rather than stylistically suspect. For that, go to the next section.
First off is the combat system. This is a big problem for the FF team lately, because let’s face it… most other RPG serieses out there settle on a system and refine variations of it, occasionally exploring new territory. There’s a big, big reason for this. Doing it this way allows the system to be ironed out, problems in play found, and revisions address those problems. Meanwhile, the past four FF games have completely reinvented systems, so they have all the warts any new system has.
In this particular case the battle system has some pretty huge warts. I mentioned earlier the need to swap AI routines – called Paradigms – in order to deal with threats. This is done in-battle and on the fly, but sometimes the swap is instant, and sometimes it takes 2-3 seconds. There’s no way that I’ve seen to tell why it sometimes takes longer, but this can be really annoying if you’re hurriedly selecting and pick the wrong one by accident, or if you’re just trying to change and the enemy slaughters you while you’re swapping. Even when you’re not selecting ‘Auto’ for the single controlled character, the turns are often moving so quickly that manually picking abilities is impractical. There’s no time to strategize, which might be ‘realistic’ but not very RPG-ish. Not to mention that the battle goes by so quickly and dazzles with so many effects that you really don’t get to enjoy the visuals and the great rendering of the monsters and characters. Even pausing the screen only results in a blurry, smudged image.
The real pet peeve I have with the battle system, though, is that it’s position-based in the most lazy ass way. I like position-based systems, normally. What this means is that certain attacks, both from monsters and PCs, are area-effect attacks and can hit multiple targets. This is fine with me, except that there’s no way to directly control your PC’s movement on the field! Knowing that the big bad boss has an attack that hits a group for massive damage doesn’t help when you can’t tell your group to scatter! It smacks of laziness and artificial difficulty, to me.
Speaking of artificial difficulty, they’ve put a preemptive attack system in this one that allows you to ‘surprise’ enemies by taking them from behind or unawares. In theory, this is a nice addition. In practice, it stinks because it doesn’t make any logical sense. Sometimes the enemies will know you’re there the moment you step into their ‘zone’ even if their back is turned. Other times you can run right up to their front and get a surprise attack. If it were consistent and predictable, this would go in the Good section… but instead it’s a feature that turned out more annoyance than fun.
Normally I wouldn’t rant about a story as being objectively bad, but there’s an important point here, as well. Many people have criticized this game for its linearity, particularly how some maps are literally a straight corridor full of enemies. I don’t actually have a problem with this, although it makes the game feel constrained to me. What makes it more constrained is the actual plot, which has the main characters bumbling around and bouncing from situation to situation, mostly reacting and running. At no point do they actually sit down and come up with a workable plan on what to do next. For a game whose theme seems to be ‘Screw Destiny!’ this is really, really lazy. Not only was the player not in control of where to go or what to do, it felt like the characters weren’t either. It could be argued this was intentional, but if the whole point of the game is to say ‘Do your own thing’ then at SOME point someone should actually, I don’t know… decide to do something on their own.
Now we get to stylistic things that I think are a bad idea, but not necessarily bad design. I’m getting a little tired of a seeming rant, so I’ll try to be brief.
The first thing that comes to mind is the Datalog. A lot of the mythology and background isn’t expressed in exposition… which is fine, as that can get dull. The problem being there’s so much of it to absorb that you kind of need to read the datalog for hours to really get an idea of WTF anyone is talking about. Even worse, if you read the synopses of the various events, they often make you wonder if the writer was watching the same cut scenes, as it’s common for there to be direct contradictions between what is said and what is in the synopsis. Another lazy dev moment.
Secondly is the linearity. At some point the game does open up, but by then it feels like you’ve just run through a 30 hour tutorial. Then you’re sort of thrown to the wolves with very little guidance, a direct opposite of how it was working before. It was jarring, to say the least.
Third, this is Final Fantasy, but where’s the Fantasy? I recall the word magic mentioned maybe like… three times in all. Everything else has a distinctly sci-fi bent, to the point of anti-gravity and monorails and hovercycles. Even the Mage role in Paradigm setup isn’t called a Mage… instead they call them Ravagers, when they’re clearly a ‘mage’ type. What?
I’m sure there are other gripes I have, but I don’t want to make it sound like I hated the game. So, I’ll stick with the biggest gripe of all: Endgame. I don’t mind bonus dungeons or bonus post-game material, but when the world opens up for you in Chapter 11, you see all this cool stuff around… but it turns out it’s all too tough for you until after you’ve cleared the storyline. Literally hours and hours of the actual ‘game’ parts of the game are held back until you’ve ‘finished’ it, and that sort of thing leaves a sour taste in my mouth.