Dealspwn Rating: 7/10
We've been waiting for this for a little while. Final Fantasy XII came at a time when the 6th generation console were beginning to hit their stride, proving not only that the PS2 still had life in it, but that it was capable of truly astonishing graphics. The thirteenth instalment comes after something of a hiatus and the release of startlingly pretty, but desperately mediocre titles (especially on the Xbox 360) that have simply made us release how good we had it. With titles such as The Last Remnant and Infinite Undiscovery showcasing a beautiful but pretty vapid side to the Square-Enix catalogue, we’ve been on the edge of our seats waiting for the demiurge of JRPGs to return and reclaim its throne, or at least I have.
Yeah, about that.
You know the cliché how you’re on along bus or train journey, and there’s always one kid incessantly prodding their parents in the ribs and in a piercing whine asking ‘Are we there yet?’ and all you want to do is tear your eyes out in a violent expression of frustration and use them to plug your ears, well the first few hours of Final Fantasy XIII aren’t exactly that bad, but they’re certainly a bit of a slog. You can kiss goodbye to such series staples as towns, side quests and NPCs as you press forward, always fighting, fighting, fighting. In fact, the vastly improved AI is so good at its job that you can probably get through the first 10 hours or so simply by pressing up and A, turning the game into an incredibly pretty sequence of barely interactive cutscenes.
Final Fantasy XIII does its utmost, in fact, to try and put you off, constantly asking the question ‘Do you really want a Final Fantasy game?’ before slapping you across the face and demanding that you continue grinding through narrow pathways dungeon-crawler-style. It’s worth pointing out that this is deliberate, with game director Momotu Toriyama having said that Square-Enix were looking to capture an ‘FPS style vibe’, but instead of sucking players in to this marvellous game world, the game’s important first quarter feels sterile, clinical and cold. This isn’t helped by the game deciding that you’re clearly incapable of working your way around an RPG during this lengthy period. You can only control one player and you don’t get to decide your party’s development or indeed its make-up. The focus is so absolute that it runs the risk of boring you to tears.
Only it doesn’t.
Presentation is far from everything, but by god this is a beautiful game. Square have always produced games of extraordinary graphical value, but this is something else. You’ll want to pick up the PS3 version if you can, unfortunately the 360 game runs at an underwhelming sub-720p resolution in comparison to its competitor’s shimmering 1080p, but to be honest you probably won’t notice unless you put the two side by side. The soundtrack mirrors the visual quality too, Masashi Hamauzu, who provided the same service for the series’ tenth instalment, has crafted a spellbindingly good score that might just be better than anything we’ve seen from Nobuo Uematsu.
The combat is excellent, in all fairness, providing a stylish combination of Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit system and the ATB mechanic that has been the series’ staple since Final Fantasy VII. Although you do only control one character during combat, it’s pleasing to note that the AI controlling your companions is top notch, and that you maintain indirect control of everything going on thanks to the new Paradigm Shift system. The menu-based battle system rewards good timing, and there’s a clear emphasis on chaining combos. It’s clear that Advent Children has much to answer for when it comes to the balletic fights, but that is no bad thing at all.
It’s a testament to this new combat system that I made it through the first 15 hours, but it’s not the only thing that FFXIII has going for it. I’m a big fan of good storytelling and a well executed plot, and it’s clear that Square has scaled back some of its previous excess in order to tell a more focused story, and by and large it works. I won’t give too much away, as unveiling the various twists and turns, and gawping at the high-drama presented in the immaculately jaw-dropping CGI cutscenes, is a massive part of this game, but suffice to say that the traditional model of ‘resistance band fights against evil government forces’ broadly holds true. There are a bunch of mechanical beings called fal’Cie who have the ability to turn normal folk into drones who have to fulfil their ‘Focus’ or risk being turned into a vegetable. It is the characters, though, that make the difference here, with the writers having found the limits of cliché and often surprising us with levels of depth perhaps not seen before in a Final Fantasy series that amounts, ultimately, to a strong collection of narrative tropes. Ever wished someone would smack Tidus in the face? Well, it happens to Blond Male Protagonist Snow, I even cheered a little.
The second half of the game lets go of your hand and finally sets you free to fiddle and tweak and go off on the odd side mission. It’s here that the pace picks up and the game really hits its stride, the characters evolve beyond their simple archetypes and the story gets to fly. But it’s never really you doing it as such; sure, you get to mess around with party combinations and the levelling system slightly more than before, but the game still holds you at a distance. It’s always the game pushing you forward, and never what you yourself are doing. This works very well for an FPS, when you’re literally seeing things through the eyes of the people involved, but I question this style of gameplay for an RPG such as this.
This is no sequel, and those expecting an evolution of the critically acclaimed expansive gameplay so beautifully laid out in the last instalment should brace themselves for disappointment. Long-term fans might even feel so patronised by the first 10-15 hours or so that they might even walk away in disgust. For 2010 has already seen one, albeit relatively youthful by comparison, RPG franchise trim the fat and refocus itself for a more streamlined, aggressively Western-oriented experience. But Mass Effect 2 also retained the epic grandeur, emphasis on interaction and communication and exceptional characterisation that have become BioWare’s hallmarks. This, by contrast, is something of a new step for Square-Enix. It is clear that they have attempted here to propel a perhaps ageing, sprawling model into the age of ADHD, but in doing so I expect them to alienate a large proportion of their existing fan base.
Final Fantasy XIII is a good game, but it doesn't strike me as a Final Fantasy game. It is dazzlingly beautiful to look at, and the plot and characters (the teeth-gnashingly irritating Vanille aside) are to be commended, but it is a real grind at times. After the ambition and scope that we have seen this series produce, it is almost heartbreaking to see Square-Enix feel that they have to hamstring themselves like this, rather than reach an accommodating compromise between styles, as half a day of playing as a caterpillar threatens to ruin the glorious butterfly on the other side. The combat is wonderful and the story full of excitement and drama, but, ironically, in trying to appeal to a Western audience, they’ve fulfilled that most cardinal sin of lesser JRPGs - mind-numbing linearity – for arguably the most important part of this game. Whilst the latter parts of this adventure allow Square to spread their wings to a certain extent, I cannot say that this is a game I will be replaying any time soon.
- Presentation and art direction are fantastic
- Excellent combat system
- Some fine storytelling
- Often repetitive
- Crushingly linear to begin with
- Takes far too long to hit its stride
The Short Version: Square have crafted a dazzlingly beautiful game that approached the issues surrounding modern RPG head-on. But even though the new combat system is a lot of fun, it begins to lose some of its appeal in repetition, with the game sorely lacking in other distractions. The strong, character-driven story and the slick action offer a lot of enjoyment for the RPG fan, but series veterans might well be left disappointed.