The Last Best Hope for the JRPG?
Final Fantasy VII is overrated. Final Fantasy X is too.
Yeah, I know, this is a review of FFXIII, but bear with me for a second.
See, I was a teenager when I beat both of those games. For their respective eras, both games were hailed by many as the best games of all time. To this day both games have massive followings, particularly in Japan, and have spawned spinoffs, sequels, movies, and even beverages.
Don't get me wrong, FFVII's story was mature for its time, and it is still one of the Playstation's better JRPG's. FFX also has one of the series' best-written protagonists and an excellent battle system. Yet as a snooty guy who's played scores and scores of RPG's, both Western and Japanese, I can name dozens of better games off the top of my head.
Thus an important distinction becomes necessary. There are great games, and there are milestone games. Often milestone games are great, and often great games are not milestone games. FFVII and FFX are milestone games that fall short of being truly great. They are important; they represent sea changes in the way we think about what games can be and what we can expect from the RPG genre. However, too many less popular RPGs with simpler stories and less shiny graphics make better games.
Such is the case with Final Fantasy XIII. It is a monumental game that is sure to inspire and influence big budget titles for years to come. It is not, however, one of the truly great games. No RPG of the seventh generation yet released can compete with its graphics, soundtrack, and overall presentation. Titles such as Fallout 3: GOTY Edition, Infinite Space, and Demon's Souls, however, all make better games, and that's just for 2009. Far from the faction-unifying masterpiece some may have hoped for, Final Fantasy XIII is bound to continue FFXII's tradition of alienating series fans thanks to some risky design choices.
My flame shield is charged and ready to go, so let's break this mother down.
Purity: How does this sucker play?
Imagine the quintessential JRPG stripped and boiled down to its most pure and basic form and you can imagine how FFXIII plays. It's hard even to think of it as an RPG for the first half of the game — really it is the most epic dungeon crawler you'll ever sample.
The game moves and plays a lot like FFXII, thanks to real-time battles (on a separate screen, not on the field) with enemies and party members constantly visible on the map as you trudge along. For the first several chapters the game dictates which character you control, gradually opening up more features and customization as the plot advances. You'll pick out weapons and accessories, modify and evolve items through a fairly straightforward refining system, and conduct battles as you advance from map to map. One thing that stands out early is the awful camera. It's slow, stiff, and obscures the view time and again. For all of the game's spectacular visuals you'd think a simple adjustable camera like FFXII's would not be such a tricky feat.
Combat and character upgrading are two of FFXIII's strongest points. All fights play out in real time with an ATB bar dictating the order and timing of actions. You can input multiple commands each turn while controlling one character with the AI managing the other two. Long gone is the cruise control-esque gambit system replaced instead with six roles you can assign each character. Among these are 'blasters' who specialize in magic attacks, 'jammers' who cripple enemies with negative status magic, and 'defenders' who draw enemy fire and counter. Each character is naturally suited to three of the six roles, and you can preset eight combinations of three before battles. Each character also earns their own unique summon with old pals like Bahamut and Shiva joining the party. Without a doubt this is their coolest incarnation, as this time around summons work like drivable transformers that can fly, jet, race, and trample around the battlefield while laying waste to enemy mobs with lasers.
All of these variables make for an elegantly simple and yet strategically rich system. The speed of battles forces you to think on your toes and punishes players with the wrong preset combinations. Skillfully combining physical attacks with elemental magic allows you to build the enemy's chain break gauge, allowing you to decimate enemies faster until eventually shattering their defenses and rising up to a 999% damage bonus. Players who do not learn to exploit this system can expect extremely long battles and/or dozens of game over screens, as FFXIII is the hardest Final Fantasy game yet. I died numerous times on regular encounters, and several fights are nigh impossible without sneaking up on the enemy for a preemptive strike.
Instead of level-ups, FFXIII uses the Crystarium system, a three-dimensional incremental stat building array similar to FFX's sphere grid. You'll gain crystal points after each battle, which you use to improve role-specific stats, special moves, and auto-skills to improve combat performance. There is little need for grinding for the game's first half; however, once you get dumped onto the game's large open world map, expect a spike in difficulty. Fortunately FFXIII at this point opens up dozens of optional mission battles, which don't really feel optional since the game can get prohibitively difficult, and you will miss some of the best content if you try to skip them. The missions play out much like FFXII's hunts and are replayable should you need to farm specific items.
The pace at which FFXIII opens up all of these features and goes through tutorials is a bit slow for my taste. I prefer RPGs to let me take the reins ASAP, but this defect is just one example of FFXIII sacrificing gameplay for the sake of story. You may have heard rumors on the internets about FFXIII not having any towns and being basically a straight shot with practically no sidequests or content outside of dungeon crawling. Well, unfortunately, that is all true.
All the World's a Dungeon
What is left of a JRPG when you take away world map exploration, cities, random NPC interactions, side quests, mini-games, dungeon puzzles, and just generally the ability to go wherever you want when you want? You're left with character upgrading and dungeon crawling. Granted in FFXIII's case, it is very sexy and very fun dungeon crawling and character upgrading, with dozens of missions to add variety, yet still, that's basically it. Literally you're just going from map to map, virtually all of them loaded with enemies and devoid of other content, most of them disappearing into oblivion never to be seen again once completed.
It is a surprisingly sparse game. Consider that including both playable characters and NPC's, there are only twenty named characters in the plot. Consider that even with the innovative auto talk system, whereby the game avoids text boxes and uses 100% voiced dialogue, you can count on one hand the number of occasions (not revisitable locations, but occasions) where you'll even be able to interact with NPCs, and again these are almost always in the middle of battlefields. NPCs rarely say anything besides "I don't want to die!" or "Save me!" None of them lead you to any hidden quests or give up interesting secrets.
There are precious few opportunities for you to interact with other characters. Since you are basically just going from dungeon to dungeon, 90% of the dialogue is between the six protagonists. This gives FFXIII a lonely, arcade game sort of vibe. What's more with no cities, no triple triad or blitzball type games, and really nothing to do besides battle and grind endlessly, FFXIII can be exhausting.
Some have argued that FFXIII is in fact a revolutionary and progressive game for doing away with towns, which often are filled with brainless NPCs who repeat the same useless dialogue ad infinitum. To an extent this is true. It is a gutsy design choice, and the online shopping system, which does away with the need of the traditional RPG towns, is actually very cool. However when innovating, it is not enough simply to omit rusty conventions. You have to fill that space with something new, which FFXIII forgets to do. Persona 3 sacrificed a large variety of dungeons for one massive endlessly evolving one and a rich school sim game to enjoy outside of grinding. Dragon Quest IX sacrificed a team of unique story-relevant characters with individual personalities for fully customizable avatars with variable classes and skill sets. FFXIII sacrifices virtually all of the non-dungeon content, from NPC interaction to towns, in exchange for...really pretty graphics?
Minigames? Sidequests? Honestly, it's as if FFXIII considers such things to be beneath it. Indeed the game takes itself very seriously. There's no lovable idiot like Vaan around for comic relief, no random snowboarding or chocobo racing at Golden Saucer, no self-deprecatory breaking of the fourth wall like Snake's classic infinite ammo joke in Sons of Liberty. Your enjoyment ultimately comes down to whether or not the story grabs you enough to make you willing to be dragged along for the ride. And dragged along you will be since, for the first 20 — 30 hours there is literally nothing to do BUT follow the main story. You can get through much of it just pushing up on the left stick and compulsively pressing the circle button. Even after that, the digressions will be few and far between.
Replay value is FFXIII's Achilles heel. When I beat games like Fallout 3, Demon's Souls, or Star Ocean 3, almost immediately I started over to try a new route through the story, test a different character class, or sample a harder difficulty. Once the credits rolled on FFXIII, I thought, "Wow, that was a totally epic sixty hours. Well, back to Bayonetta." Outside of a compulsive need to ogle the graphics or watch Lightning whore slap one of the characters again, there is little incentive for a second go around, particularly for folks like me who ordered the soundtrack. Dozens of SNES and PS1 JRPG's, FF Tactics, heck even FFI offers more gameplay-related incentives for a second roll in the hay.
It isn't so much an issue of linearity as most Final Fantasy games are extraordinarily linear with towns and sidequests being little more than distractions to give the illusion of variable story paths. That doesn't mean they can be cut without consequence, however. I really expected more with FFXIII. With a massive and mysterious floating city like Cocoon to adventure in, arguably the series' best battle system under its belt, a strong cast with a strong narrative, and all those years of development time, FFXIII could have been a masterpiece. The relative lack of content is my core criticism of the game.
Best Graphics Evar?
Square Enix has finally achieved its long-standing goal of making a game where every moment looks like a scene from an FMV. Half of the time you won't even be able to discern transitions to CGI, at least not right away. The effects during these movie scenes can give Avatar a run for its money, particularly the action set pieces in the game's second half. The in-game graphic engine is just as impressive. Tetsuya Nomura's questionable fashion taste aside (do Snow's gloves really need zippers?) FFXIII boasts some of the most intricate and gorgeous character models ever done in a console game. Animations are so detailed that even lip, tongue, and teeth movement are perfectly synced with character speech and pronunciation.
Environments are equally spectacular. While I would have liked more crowded and interactive urban environments, Cocoon is a breathtaking place to behold. It brought me back to Final Fantasy VIII's Esthar, only even more colorful and varied. I wish they had given me the opportunity to explore more of it. The second act of the game is even more inspired as the lower world of Pulse offers the series' largest and most gorgeous overworld. Expect majestic mountains with luscious flowers and foliage and dramatic vantage points. Expect mystical forests, caverns, towers, and plains. Expect scores of grotesque monster designs and sweeping large-scale battles with a good adjustable camera for a change. Basically, just expect to be blown away from the opening cinematic straight through to the final frame.
FFXIII is a contender for the award of best graphics in a console video game ever. A small handful of games with names like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Killzone 2 can compete, and even then, when you consider the diversity of environments and character designs, FFXIII gives even the best high resolution FPS a run for its money.
Final Fantasy XIII has the best original soundtrack of any video game ever made.
No? Not enough for you? Okay, let's dig in a bit.
Every moment of the game is orchestrated and every song sounds absolutely gorgeous. There's not a bad track in the mix. There's not even a bad note. The battle themes are so good that they make boss battles truly grand affairs. The guitar and string melodies of Gran Pulse's mountains and valleys are sublime, and the fusion of orchestral and electronic styles marvelously echoes Cocoon's mixture of fantasy and hard science fiction.
The voicework is also top notch. Much more than a grab bag of anime clicés a la Star Ocean 4, expect feature film level acting from every character. Most especially I liked the performance of Sazh by Masashi Ebara, a man with a most impressive voice acting career made more impressive if you watch a lot of Hollywood movies in Japanese (check his dubbing career on Wikipedia). Sazh didn't just have some of the best lines; his was one of the best performances pound for pound. Combined with the strong directing and graphical design, dialogue scenes don't merely feel like a break in the action; they draw you into a bewitching narrative and a tangled web of personality conflicts, hidden motives, and clashing values.
Effect noises are also strong though not quite at the level of the vocal work and soundtrack. I wasn't crazy about some of the weapon sounds in battle, but hey, you can't have everything. Such microscopic blemishes aside, FFXIII is a feast of Narnia-brand Turkish delight for the ears. You just won't be able to get enough.
Epic is as Epic does
FFXIII may have the strongest narrative in the series.
Taking place primarily in the floating city of Cocoon, FFXIII is at first a classic 'rebellion against an evil empire' set-up. Said evil empire is led by the fal'Cie, giant crystal robot thingies that control every aspect of Cocoon society and occasionally curse people by marking them as l'Cie. L'Cie are given unique powers and are tasked to complete some sort of divine mission or face transformation into a zombie-like living corpse. Thus anyone who gets the mark of the l'Cie faces exile to the lower world of Gran Pulse.
The six playable characters that make up your motley crew all come together through a series of unfortunate events and are ultimately cursed and marked as l'Cie. Each has his or her own personal motive in resisting the fal'Cie. Snow leads a resistance to overthrow the theocratic Cocoon government and cease the banishment of l'Cie. Lightning seeks to save her l'Cie-marked younger sister Serah, an excessively young-looking girl who also happens to be Snow's fiancée. The boy Hope seeks vengeance for the untimely death of his mother. Sazh, Fang, and Vanille also have motivations of their own but I shan't spoil them as they are revealed much later.
Continuing the PS2 Final Fantasy tradition of smaller casts, FFXIII offers the tightest and best-written group overall. There are no disposable characters, and like FFVI, there is no real main character; rather six individuals, each only tangentially connected at first, end up bound together by fate after being cursed and becoming l'Cie. Lightning, the game's mascot, is sure to be a fan favorite. She is basically a female version of Solid Snake. Two parts brooding rebel, four parts fearless soldier, and 100% badass, she truly does not give a spit about anything and is never afraid to let her gun/sword do the talking. Her spiritual twin, Fang, has some of the best one-liners in any JRPG around. Hope is like a thirteen year-old version of Cloud, only he has a legitimate reason to sulk all day, and he grows up over the course of the game. Snow is likely to get under your skin if only for his bad hair and constant posturing, but even he will earn your grudging respect by the end.
As a black guy currently aspiring to an afro as awe-inspiring as Sazh's, I made a point of trying to be offended by his portrayal. While I can only guess how the translation will turn out in English, I have to say that he is the most complex and mature character in the cast. Vanille grows on you too, first as the annoying jailbait, then later evolving into a much more multi-faceted character. The strength of the cast makes the super-linear first half of the game tolerable and keeps the intrigue level high.
I can think of only two gripes with FFXIII's story. Firstly, it lacks a strong villain. The three main human antagonists either lack face time or aren't even serious opponents. Dysley, the main villain, lacks charisma, and his intentions are inscrutable for most of the game. For a series with a proud history of memorable villains like Kefka, Golbez, Sephiroth, and FFXII's Judges, I found myself disappointed with FFXIII's bad guys. My other issue with the story is the schmaltzy and overly neat ending. The ninety-minute chain of final boss fights and cutscenes is dramatic, bittersweet, but also more than a little cheesy. It doesn't ruin the strong narrative up until that point, but it is certainly not the series' best ending, not after fantastic closings like in VIII and X.
What saves the story in the end is its sheer size. The game menu is equipped with a MASSIVE encyclopedia of technical terms, character profiles, chapter outlines, flashbacks, and all of the mythology of Gran Pulse and Cocoon. Much of it you have to earn through optional missions, yet even if you skip whole chunks, FFXIII is one of the most thoroughly fleshed out concepts I've ever seen in an RPG world. I can't wait to see what Versus XIII and Agito have to add.
I've beaten all of the other Final Fantasy games save XI, and XIII is one of the better single playthroughs of the bunch. Its major flaw was obvious once the credits rolled: Aside from tooling around with a few more missions, I had no reason not to shelf the game indefinitely. Maybe that's not a new thing for Final Fantasy, given that the series isn't exactly renowned for its non-linearity or replayability. Still, it is likely to disappoint folks who bought a PS3 purely for FFXIII (assuming the XBox 360 port didn't already have them crying into their pillows at night) as it falls short of being the system-selling game that FFVII was for Playstation and FFX was for PS2.
A final, hopefully illustrative comparison: FFXIII is sort of like that really hot chick with the amazing body who may be fun to hang around but doesn't grow on you that much. Infinite Space, 2009's best original RPG by my count, is like the awkward girl with the thick glasses and bad skin. She's got a chip on her shoulder and you have to get over your initial impression, but once you do, you realize that she's the coolest and most interesting person you've ever met, and ultimately she becomes not just a potential conquest but a lifelong friend. I don't mind FPS games that fall into the former category, but for RPGs, well, call it a fetish, but I'll take the lovable crater-face every time.
In spite of packing the series' best battle system, in spite of Pixar-level graphics, in spite of an Oscar worthy soundtrack, FFXIII lacks depth. It's sad to have to say that about a game that is superlative in so many ways. Strip away all of the amazing visuals and music and you have a 7, 7.5 game that scrapes by on the virtues of its combat.
Still, FFXIII is a landmark game if only by virtue of its production. Square Enix has raised the bar not simply for JRPGs, but all seventh generation games to come. It's a must-own for series fans and a must-see for just about everyone else. Here's hoping for some meaty DLC or a stronger showing from Versus XIII.