by Declan Rabun
Most gamers know of Final Fantasy. Seriously, a gamer who has not at least heard of the franchise is like a movie goer whose never heard of Star Wars. The innovations and cult-like fandom of this Japanese series has definitely made its mark on the world's gaming culture. It can be argued Square's ingenuity in gameplay and story telling opened the door to games for development of a bevy of intense story-arced series such as Mass Effect and World of Warcraft.
In regards to the franchise, Final Fantasy's VI and VII introduced me to a mind-blowing level of epic narrative in games. However the series lost its momentum in previous releases due to an uncharacteristic lack of finesse for the series. Now with the release of the latest version: Final Fantasy XIII, it seems Square is attempting to correct their pass faults by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. Yeah it has some interesting new features and stunning visuals but sorely, too many ideas were attempted without thinking them through.
Hear me out, This is a great game with some shining points, but there are tedious moments. Check it!
Building on the idea of computer-controlled allies from its predecessor, Final Fantasy XII, they've added the new paradigm system to XIII. So instead of managing multiple members in play, you only control your Leader and the computer manages your other two members. The fights are all about determining a list of job combinations for your characters beforehand and switching to the appropriate Paradigm during a fight. Think of yourself as the teams Regional Manager, barking out what positions need to be filled without micro-managing. With the paradigm system your team of three characters can each be one of six jobs:
Commando- Your brute force melee attacker.
Ravager- The new Black Mage/Red Mage/Spell Sword, the elemental attacker.
Medic- The White Mage or healer.
Sentinel- The tank, provokes enemies and defends, not an attacker.
Synergist- Casts positive buffs on your party such as shields or haste.
Saboteur- Debuffs the enemy and casts spells like slow or poison.
Japanese RPGs are known for being linear in contrast to the open world of exploration and options in western games, even so, this game is very linear. The first 30 hours of gameplay have you running forward. Save points along your path act as stores to purchase supplies or upgrade weapons. There are no towns to wander through and no exploring. You fight, move forward, story point, fight, run forward and more story. It wasn't until Disc 3 that I reached the open world exploration. Final Fantasy games have always made you play for five maybe ten hours before things open up, but this is ridiculous. None of this is bad necessarily, just don't expect the freedom western games are known for. The aforementioned lack of towns and shops has you upgrading current weapons instead of allowing you to buy stronger equipment. Luckily the story has a good pace to keep you enjoying your exercise of running in a straight line.
When going into a boss fight, I like to use the Evened Odds paradigm with a Saboteur to weaken the enemy while my Synergist casts buffs. Once my buff/debuff spells are all cast, I use the Relentless Assault team of two Ravagers and a Commando to deal out serious damage and occasionally switch to Diversity allowing a medic to cast heals. Your AI team will always perform the most appropriate action depending on your opponent. Casting Libra on an enemy will show any weaknesses allowing an AI teammate to automatically exploit them. A teammate Synergist will appropriately buff the physical attacks of a Commando or the magic offense of your Ravager. Choosing the appropriate list of Paradigms, and when to use them in battle, is the challenge. This is possibly the most complicated and interesting battle system of any Final Fantasy.
The story line in each Final Fantasy game is independent from the last but follows a shared premise: A band of heroes find each other through fate and face a god-like power attempting to destroy the world. I have been jaded by Square and Final Fantasy for some time now as the series' creativity dropped after FF VIII in 1999. Being a hardcore FF fanboy, I was disgusted by Final Fantasy IX and it's misguided "return to roots" design. I never again felt the same excitement towards the once great franchise. Final Fantasy XIII's story felt like an actual return to the gripping epic adventure with a well developed cast much like FF VI. Your characters all go through arcs and develop as the main storyline progresses, giving you a cast you are interested in and care for even if their design is rather flat.
Final Fantasy games are always beautiful and push whatever console they are developed for to the limits, this game is no exception. Xbox 360 owners unfortunately get artifacting on some poorly compressed CG cut scenes due to the system not having the storage of The PS3's BluRay-enabled console.
I should preface my rant about the games artistic design with a knowledge nugget. Tetsuya Nomura was the Character Designer for Final Fantasy VII and since moved up the ranks at Square Enix as the artistic force behind the majority of Final Fantasy games and its violent expulsion of spinoffs. Nomura is the man that gave us the cast of FFVIII and appears that he can't muster another original thought to model new characters. His character concepts give you the expected, generic cast of flashy Japanese haircuts and myriad of zippered costumes, but the majority of his character designs look like an emo Meg Ryan. Throughout the game I felt like I was battling ornaments that rolled off of Liberachi's Christmas tree - so not cool.
No logic is applied to the creature design as well. If you are designing a wondrous sci-fi world you apply some sort of structure to how it's inhabitants developed. Here's an example of what I'm talking about: Why would a wild behemoth incapable of higher learning, wondering an uncivilized world, have a scarf, bracelets and a hovering saw blade sword? To make matters worse, its hard to tell what you're fighting because at times the chracters look like abstract modern sculptures on acid which makes gameplay lose all of its intensity. The locations are pretty but look like they came straight from Final Fantasy X, nothing fantastic or epic. I understand it's fantasy, but please move on and give us something new and definable.
Nomura and the folks and Square should sit and take a page from good ol' American-made game series like Mass Effect or Fallout that have mastered the balance between representation of their key components - heroes, villains and environment.
The Good: Same old addictive gameplay with engulfing character development and plenty of strategy and challenge. Great all around story that's always moving forward without dragging.
The Bad: Very linear gameplay. The world does not open up for exploration and distractions until after 30+ hours of play. The system for upgrading equipment can be tedious.
The Ugly: Hideous, illogical creature design, blah characters and unimpressive environments. I feel i've seen all of this before and am angered over the failed potential.
- Declan Rabun