Final Fantasy XIII: review

Review

If you’re not a patient person, you may as well write off Final Fantasy XIII right now. Square’s latest is an unfinished experiment, and the players are the unwitting guinea pigs. The game begins at a constipated pace, finally passing its first nugget of entertainment at about a dozen hours in. Those willing to subject themselves to such abuse will find pockets of brilliance in a product brimming with half-baked ideas.

Square’s design impetus with FFXIII was to streamline the JRPG. You’ll no longer run around a world map or dig through villager’s closets for potions. In fact, you’ll spend the majority of the game running along a linear path. The creators have compared it to Call of Duty, with players always moving forward, bouncing between battles and cutscenes. It’s a clever idea, and one that, on paper, takes the strengths of the modern Final Fantasy games and puts them at the forefront.

Final Fantasy XIII does not deliver on this idea. What you actually get is one of the most mind-numbing dungeon crawls in RPG history. Missing from FFXIII’s linear design are the scripted moments that make games like Modern Warfare or Half-Life so magical. It’s just one static environment after another.

Most of the game is a vast network of bridges, hallways, and tunnels that serves no purpose other than to give you somewhere to go. The environments don’t help to tell the story, and in fact make the game’s strange and unique world feel empty and fake.

It doesn’t help that the combat system, while eventually quite good, doesn’t completely open up for several hours. The game introduces the battle mechanics at a snail’s pace, each concept beaten into your skull by the time the next one is introduced.

The pacing of the story isn’t any better. Nothing really happens for the first 10 hours, and if not for some awkward in-universe terminology, it could be summed up in a single paragraph. The presentation doesn’t help either – sometimes a character’s motivations are only clear after reading the glossary entries and chapter summaries tucked away in the pause menu.

From the empty environments, odd story gaps, and glacial pacing, it quickly becomes clear that Final Fantasy XIII was rushed to completion. In an attempt to get the game to the series’ standard length of 40-50 hours, each environment and enemy type is stretched to its breaking point. Each fresh concept is drip-fed so slowly that it feels like a desperate gulp of fresh air in a sea of boredom.

But what’s most disappointing is that Final Fantasy XIII was clearly made by a talented team. The game is incredibly polished, and often visually jaw-dropping. More than anything though, there are moments where the game shows its true potential.

One scene late in the game shows how a linear, scripted Final Fantasy could have been amazing. In it, monsters lay waste to a city while soldiers fight to defend it – injured people line the streets, vehicles pass overhead, and most of the enemy placement is carefully scripted. Plus, since it takes place on city streets blocked by debris, the linear layout actually makes perfect sense. It’s one of the only instances where the game’s design actually informs the universe, making it richer and more believable.

The story even takes some exciting turns in the middle act. After wallowing in pretense for several hours, the protagonists begin to open up to each other. They go well beyond their one-dimensional introductions, revealing their flaws as they begin to grow and care for each other.

As two of the characters decide to run for the hills, they begin a sidestory of cowardice that stands as the one of the most unsettling and intriguing bits of storytelling seen in a game. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew split off, reuniting in heroic fashion for action scenes that will give you chills of excitement. Hope, a character who begins the game as a whiny wimp, eventually develops into a brave and likeable hero. Best of all, the game takes the time to show his growth and make it believable.

If only the entire game was as good as these moments. The squandered potential is impossible to ignore, inflating the disappointment of the rest of the game. After that middle act, the game devolves into pointless meandering and endless one-liners, culminating in one of the most unfair and uninteresting final battles of the series. Sure, the ending might bring a tear to your eye, but only because you’ve been through as much anger, heartache, and suffering as the game’s heroes.

At the very least, Final Fantasy XIII does manage to simulate an epic journey, even if the places you journey through are lacking. You’ll traverse miles of land, battling enemies in a sort of “rock, paper, scissors” battle system. Your team can assume any of six different classes, each carrying key strengths and weaknesses. The AI handles most of the micromanagement, leaving you to swap between the classes and carefully pick the most vulnerable targets. Figuring out how to beat some enemies is like a puzzle. There are only a few solutions for each fight, making the experience strategic and demanding, if not a little exhausting at times. Thanks to the game’s endless dungeons, you’ll be forced to fight the same enemies over and over, well after you’ve discovered the trick to defeating them.

If you can tolerate FFXIII, you will get your money’s worth. The game includes a ton of optional content that, if you enjoy the battle system, offers hours of simple entertainment. What’s ironic about this optional zone is that it’s a huge open-world area. That it’s the most enjoyable section to explore only exacerbates how much the game’s linear design fails.

What makes Final Fantasy XIII so unforgivable isn’t just that it’s heavily flawed. There’s a good idea underneath, and no studio with the budget and size of Square has any business selling its fans lost potential.

Originally posted at: http://www.criticalgamer.co.uk/2010/03/26/final-fantasy-xiii-review/

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