Final Fantasy XIII Reader Review
Oh Final Fantasy, what are you doing? See, me and Final Fantasy have had this bizarre relationship since the days of the Super Nintendo whereby I court its dalliances and enjoy my time with them. That's the fundamental point of games, no? To enjoy them. The problem is, there's always an elephant in the room with Final Fantasy, and I hate to be the one to break it to you all but it has never been the best RPG series out there. Final Fantasy 7? Was happier and more moved playing Grandia. Final Fantasy 6? Give me Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals any day of the week. Final Fantasy X? Ironically, I much preferred Shadow Hearts. I'm sorry, it has to be said - whilst the most commercially recognised brand, the series has never really been at the very top of its field.
The problem is, for everything a Final Fantasy game does right - there's always something it does wrong as well. Every step the franchise takes towards making it deeper, more complex, more rewarding, more interesting, it always does something badly to counter the advances it is making. It is a peculiar problem with the series, and one that brings intrigue and annoyance in equal measure.
So, let's get stuck into the thirteenth main instalment to the franchise, and yes, there's an elephant in this room too! It's a big one - wave to it, say hi, touch it and stroke it. Give it a hug if you're so inclined. This time, the game itself is missing something - bizarrely, there's something missing from my RPG... oh wait, it's the RPG! Of course, Square Enix have been honest enough to admit they're trying to move away from the typical JRPG format but I do question the wisdom of this move with FFXIII.
The problem boils down to what we expect of a Final Fantasy game. What is it that makes them popular? Is it the plot and story? Is it the tight but intrinsic combat mechanics? The amazingly rich worlds? The characters? The fresh take every title, daring to try new things?
Let's take these issues up one by one.
First of all, the plot. It all boils down to circumstance and bad luck - our this time dirty half-dozen have been branded as agents of PULSE by the evil Cocoon, which basically means everywhere they go now, they're in deep water, and fight they must to work out why they have been mistakenly branded as such and one would assume, clear their names in the process. Wow. Yes, I just summarised the entirety of XIII's plot in a short paragraph. So, okay, the plot isn't deep or strong enough to actually hold the game together. That's fine, we said the same thing about Final Fantasy 8 - and that compensated with deeper mechanics. Speaking of which...
The combat mechanics are surprisingly tight and deep, but then they need to be in XIII because it's more an action game than anything else. You are taking control of people fighting for their lives, and no-one is going to be happy to see you so you'll be fighting. You'll be fighting a lot, with very little downtime, because the game is pretty much one line of battle all the way through with a couple of small dips. Forsaking the lush open world that even Final Fantasy XII provided in lieu of a more dungeon-based crawl makes it always feel like a race against time, which I suppose it admirable although something tells me, probably not deliberate. But the combat is deliciously moreish and sweet, stylistic and lovely with a smattering of mechanics to make it sing. Compared to the thinned-down beer of the plot, this is the double-shot of vodka. It's definitely the main attraction, and hits you hard. It's a stiff and stark rush, and that makes it the star of the show.
It takes a while for the game to sort of give you anything resembling a breather and begin to take in everything. Conservatively, on a first playthrough, you're probably talking what? 30 hours? No, that's not a joke. It's at this point you can finally take some time out to do what little side missions and stuff there are, but it feels so empty and pointless with gimmicks that serve no real purpose. Gran Pulse feels like the still-beating heart of a traditional FF title that just got lost somewhere. It's a crying shame, but I guess that's the price to be paid, and at least they bothered to put in a hub.
The characters are, once again, a non-starter. The problem I have is there seems to be no real zest to the character design anymore, and it is starting to bug me. In FFX, we had Tidus, who had all the personality and charm of a swarm of flesh-eating ants, propped up by some amazing character ideas - Wakka, Lulu, Kimahri... characters with real depth and richness. Tidus was pretty much faceless - compounded in the sequel by having his name removed (as this could be changed, so even in FFX you were never called Tidus!). XII went even further with Vaan and Penelo - who again seemed to lack any interesting dynamic to them. In XIII, the characters all feel very limited and two-dimensional, with no real depth to them. If you wonder why I look for character depth, well - when a game lasts as long as a Final Fantasy title usually does, weeks and months at a time, it's usually nice to see characters develop and not be slightly annoyed by them. XIII gives them all nice backstories that adequately explain their personalities, but it's shallow and hollow and it doesn't feel like they develop much as time goes on. It's a pretty straight-up beverage, which is fine, but personally I prefer my poison to be a little more complex - we're not two-dimensional, we change and evolve, and I just would prefer my heroes to do the same and not grate on me after a while.
And what of daring to change with every incarnation? This much is actually why I think the series has managed to go beyond the normal structures of gaming to hit fourteen officially labelled titles, with many more interesting diversions and spin-offs to boot (with obviously carying degrees of success). Final Fantasy XIII is as different from XII as you could ever want it to be - but again, it's just not an RPG. The closest comparison I could bring to it is the likes of Devil May Cry, but on a more rigid system, with very little space to breathe. This may appeal to some, of course it will, but alll fine wines should be given some room to breathe before you drink it down - and here you just don't get that. It's a change, of course, but it's an unwelcome change that does make me feel a little sad, that the franchise appears to be steering away from its heritage and history...
Of course, I am aware all of this is pointless and stupid and probably a waste of my time and your time. Most of us rushed out and bought it - it's Final Fantasy after all. And I know lots of people have enjoyed it as a slightly off-tangent experience. And it is, it is a lovely experience! Is it an RPG? No. Is it pretty? Hell yes, although the pace does sadly seem to distract from exactly how pretty the game is. The battle system is amazingly tight with the right amount of depth to just give it a more mass-market appeal. When the game is pretty much all fighting though, this is also not a surprise. Musically, as ever, XIII is rock solid but really, do we need to point that out these days? Saying a Final Fantasy has a good soundtrack is like saying Kelly Brook has very ample... umm... feet! Yes, feet. Ahem. What?
I guess my overriding criticism is this doesn't feel right. JRPGs are a dying breed, and they shouldn't be - traditional JRPGs have as much an audience now as they have ever had, if not more due to the scarcity of them. Final Fantasy should celebrate itself, its rich heritage and decades at the top of the market, but it just seems to be more aimed at attracting the Western market with inoffensive, light, airy anime overtones, a thumping soundtrack and a stylish, over-the-top combat experience. That should be enough, and is enough to make it a worthy pursuit for a few weeks, but is it going to be memorable? No. It's not.
Coming full circle to my first point, is this the best RPG on the market right now? Hell no, and we've seen so much better from Square Enix's own stables in recent years. Final Fantasy XIII is a thrilling experience, but the elephant is still squatting in the room, and until they can force it out of the door and clean up the mess it's making on the carpet, Final Fantasy is doomed to endlessly repeat this fallacy - the most successful and recognisable RPG franchise out there, but never, in all honesty, the best on the market...
In the immortal words of Alanis Morisette - "It's like ray-eee-aaaaaaaaaaaayn..."