The Final Fantasy series is arguably the best known 'Japanese Role Playing Game' export from, surprisingly enough, Japan. It has a lot of followers, many of whom were split by the recent release of FF XIII. Just reading the comment boards on various sites you see people claiming it to be the 'best in the series so far' to 'dullest FF ever'. I've come into the FF series a little late, in fact my first exposure to the JRPG genre wasn't until Blue Dragon, my first X360 game.
As I have no basis for comparison between the various Final Fantasy games and the opinons on what makes a good JRPG is split it gives me a good chance to do what so few other reviews have done and just concentrate on this Final Fantasy. So if you are looking for a compare and contrast piece on how it stands up to its predecessors, then I'm afraid you will be disappointed.
The RPG genre is quite mixed bag. Two essential components for a successful RPG are story and choice, the problem comes with the definition of 'choice'. Choice for some is being able to explore a world (Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion being a fine example), making decisions that define the story (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), and also choice of stats, equipment, etc. Final Fantasy delivers story in a constant deluge of cut-scenes and text on the datapad but it doesn't tick the boxes for free-roaming...not at first anyway.
Initially I found FFXIII quite difficult to get into in terms of story. You leap from control from one person to another as it eases you through the initial tutorials of combat and movement. In fact a few hours in and I was still a bit confused about Pulse, L'cie, Fal'cie and Cocoon. It's all very cinematic and pretty but unless you read the text updates in the datapad (a handy little encyclopaedia feature that you tend to get on most JRPGs) then you may feel, as I did, quite disjointed from the experience. I certainly didn't really give a crap about the characters early on.
The story isn't anything amazing, its the usual 'human spirit triumphs over all' archetype. However, it is told with luscious graphical effects and definitely with more production value than most JRPGs I've ever seen, but make no mistake, this is no Mass Effect 2 level of story-telling. That being said is it even remotely fair to try and compare a linear, fixed story to that of a dynamic story where you call the shots and real time action battles? I think not.
FFXIII is not complicated to play. There are no combos, no elaborate button configuration and not a lot of urgency either if you set the battle speed to slow. The most tense moments are trying to sneak up on enemies to get a 'pre-emptive strike' which combined with the fairly unwieldy character and camera controls make it a chore sometimes. The complexity doesn't come until a good way into the main storyline when you are finally given 'paradigms' and then the ability to switch in and out of those paradigm stances. Ultimately though you will spend half of the game and certainly most of the fights pressing RB, A and using the directional pad.
You control the leader of your group, again something out of your control for a good portion of the game, and the other team-mates take direction from your paradigm setting. There are 6 roles in total covering tank, healer, DPS, leader, buffer and debuffer roles and you can set each teammate to take on any role they have training for. Like everything in this game, you don't really ge to do a lot until a significant way into the storyline.
When not in combat you basically just get to walk and press A when interaction is required. Final Fantasy XIII makes no bones about this being a linear trip through the story. Almost 90% of the main storyline is running around corridors. Corridors of sci-fi ships, corridors of rock underground, corridors of ruins, you cannot escape them. Some games try to mask it with interactivity, wider paths to give the illusion of freedom to roam but FFXIII does no such thing. Only at the end do you get true freedom to wander and then unfortunately you are gifted with the most irritating world map. I like rotating mini-maps, rotating world maps just annoy me. I can't get my bearings, I have to constantly check I'm still going in vaguely the same direction and when there are exits to other areas then they are not labelled. If someone comes up with a flash interactive FFXIII world map then they will have a lot of thankful users, I'm sure.
Despite my earlier statement about lack of buttons to press, when in combat towards the end of the game there is a lot to think about. Your powers leap and the enemies you face get more complex too, you'll fast be struggling to get a 5-star rating for all of your battles. You'll end up fine-tuning your paradigm setups and making heavy use of RB and finally ditching auto-attack for a more customised and lethal attack combo. The fights actually got really interesting about 35-40 hours into the game.
One thing that I have liked about the JRPGs I've played is the turn-based combat. They were often about strategy rather than button spamming and that is something I have loved since my UFO: Enemy Unknown days. I am a sucker for anything turn-based, just look at my arcade games with Magic - The Gathering, Puzzlequest, Galactrix, Panzer Assault not to mention the JRPG's too. When I heard that Square Enix had 'evolved' the combat my heart sank. I hated the combat systems of Tales of Vesperia and Star Ocean: The Last Hope - they were nothing more than button mashers with more skill relating to timing than brain power, not to mention horrible combo systems and the like.
Luckily Square Enix have found an acceptable balance. Semi-real-time. Okay, so basically it breaks down as each side has a gauge that fills up, each action takes up so much of the bar and when it fills it executes the commands. Your bar and the enemies bar fill up in real-time so really its almost turn-based with a 6-10 second decision window. Whilst not perfect (a number of erroneous button presses cost me dearly when missing the paradigm I was aiming for through over-excited eagerness) it was close enough to turn-based to make me like it. I only hope the half-way house did a similar job for the action combat fanatics and made the battle flow for them too.
Toward the end of the game you really feel as though Square Enix went too far with the rationing of the skills, options and team setups. I can see why they did it to keep the story balanced and make the boss battles a challenge to those that like to just sit and grind then waltz through and to maintain pace and control over the story. Unfortunately it didn't quite hit the mark in terms of pace and having to complete the main story before being allowed access to all of the skills was, in my opinion, a massive error.
The game is gorgeous, there is no doubting that. A couple of large areas suffer from juddering when rotating the camera or moving at speed but overall I'm extremely impressed with what Square Enix have done with just 3 DVDs of content.
Changes in locale are obvious and you are always amazed by something new catching your eye. When first hitting the open and explorable area I was taken aback at the sheer size of some beings and the life that had been breathed into the scenery. On the graphics count, Final Fantasy XIII is nothing short of a masterpiece. Sure, people moan about the hair on cut scenes with the game engine but seriously, hair? Is it really worth making a fuss about? Personally I didn't think so.
Animation thoughout the game is smooth and fairly varied but as you'll spend more time looking at the timer gauge and choosing your skills than watching the ebb and flow of the battle taking place in front of you they could have gotten away with less. It is another testament to the artistic detail given to the game.
The sound track to FF XIII is the usual airy tunes with a pseudo-orchestral feel, the only notable addition being lyrics which I believe were provided by Leona Lewis. The battles have the usual drum-based anthem that uses much lower and grounded notes than the rather airy exploration based tunes. Whilst great, after 50 hours I was playing my own songs via the Xbox menu screen. Final Fantasy did conveniently pause my music when important CGI cut scenes took place although not always for the cut scenes given by the game engine. Ultimately though it made little difference to the experience.
Also hauled kicking and screaming into this iteration of the JRPG was the mandatory jingle after a successful battle. Almost as irritating as the Windows login and logoff sounds but somehow the little ditty managed to avoid teeth grinding annoyance and I actually started humming along to it at one point. Quite a low point in my life that, I'll admit.
The voice acting is a mixed bag. Snow is voiced well but gets the worst lines to play with. Lightning and Fang are the best characters and the ones I actually ended up liking. Vanille, as reported on a number of other reviews I imagine, sounds like she is constantly having an asthmatic orgasm.
What the game lacks in choice (lack of influence over story, lack of exploration and lack of character development early on) can't really be held against it. It's a traditional JRPG; the macdaddy, if you will, of them all. What Square Enix have done is not broken the mould but pushed up against the mould so that this game satisfies the main traditional JRPG criterion with artistic flair. For all the comparisons to other RPGs and the bits it doesn't have from them it kept me entertained almost the entire time. I actually really enjoyed playing through and then going back afterwards to finish the job (which I am still working on).
I don't miss the having to talk to every bystander to glean any useful information, I also don't miss extreme grinding sessions (for those who do like it, that all comes at the end after the story). Ultimately Final Fantasy XIII is like your grandparents, old fashioned and not all there but familiar and friendly. It was nice to ditch the action combat of Tales of Vesperia and Star Ocean for a more sedate and enjoyable jaunt.
Apart from combat there is one other balance that Square Enix got right. Item enhancement, sidequests, grinding and all the bits that take forever to do are left until after the main game. In my opinion they got that perfect, as not everyone wants to max out the characters and spend hundreds of hours doing so BUT the option is there should you wish to do so after the main game has finished. Excellently done.
A great game for fans of the traditional turn based JRPGs, if they are not your bag then this will probably not the be the game to sway your opinon.