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Square-Enix's flagship franchise arrives on this generation but presents nothing more than a juncture for the series...
- Tactical Paradigm System.
- Impressive visuals.
- Relentless repetition.
- ATB system eliminates involvement.
- Minimal gameplay stretched over 30-40 hours.
“Whether we are going to continue to internally create this type of game remains to be seen," Square-Enix President Youchi Wada signified to the gaming populace following the Japanese launch of Final Fantasy XIII. For a series that relies on a few accustomed incentives to hide its otherwise steadfast determination to remain evolutionary stagnant, the burdens of a lengthy development period, a costly budget, along with increased uncertainty about the relevance of the JRPG are evident in a game that feels like a crossroads for the venerable series.
In attempting to make concessions towards an audience outside of its dwindling native market, it seems as though Yoshinori Kitase and co have sacrificed the very qualities that made the series. In short, Final Fantasy XIII is so preoccupied with a fast pace and high intensity that it's virtually lost all of the charm and reason it was there in the first place. More so than any other game in the series, Final Fantasy XIII begs the question of whether it really wants to be a game.
Throwing together an unlikely yet habitual group of characters - an arrogant hero, an angst-ridden kid, a disconsolate solider - Final Fantasy XIII finds each unsurprisingly fighting for their own reasons but united against a common threat. The eternal battle between the neighbouring worlds of Cocoon and Pulse and the themes of enemies unknown and misunderstood sits well with issues of the present day, while the exploration of the uncertainty under the control of a seemingly benevolent race of supreme beings provides an intriguing underlying motive.
One facet of JRPGs, Final Fantasy in particular, behind its wide appeal in the West rested with the high production values and epic stories. In comparison with other games of the time, Final Fantasy VII offered an insight into how games could become more significant. Today such factors are less noteworthy, largely because they have become the standard. At times, for somebody not accustomed to JRPGs, the hammy dialogue and the overly grandiose musical score can be excruciatingly cringeworthy. If Disney had been a Japanese company you get the feeling this is probably what they would have made; saccharine sweet characters made even more sickly with lines that beg for the mute button! The caveat is that it's a factor which polarises opinions in such a manner that there should still be an audience who loves every minute of the stretched 35+ hours.
The first statement of Final Fantasy XIII's intent to experiment is evident by control being restricted to a singular character during combat. Characters are thrown together in parties of up to three, although it's not until the latter stages of the game (approximately 25 hours in) that Final Fantasy XIII provides any choice over the makeup. From a purist point of view, the decision to restrict control to a singular character and leave the AI to handle the rest seems sacrilegious, but is arguably the only feasible manner to handle the new combat system.
Understanding the widespread desire amongst JRPG developers to bring more immediacy to turn-based combat, Final Fantasy XIII's ATB system is both refined and fundamentally flawed. It's a concept designed around the notion that the plodding pace of turn-based combat is a deterring reason amongst today's obsession with action. Employing the customary menu system which houses a variety of physical and magic attacks, items and techniques, the setup seems familiar at first but quickly reveals itself to be little more than a deceptive illusion. It's an attempt to blend the tactics of a turn-based setup with the immediacy of real-time combat. There's rarely a break in the action, which is typically fast, fluid, and employs the stylish camera angles we'd expect from Square-Enix's debut entry for their flagship series on this generation. Unfortunately the woes of such a setup are soon noticed.
The problem lies with the efficiency of the auto-system, which as the name implies, leaves little more then pressing the A button to let it automatically select the most appropriate attacks to employ . You can of course manually select what techniques you'd like to perform (and there is occasionally an advantage to doing so), however the sheer pace of battles in Final Fantasy XIII leaves this a largely redundant option. As it stands, combat is left as little more then bashing the A button on the Auto-Select option each time.
Depth comes from the stagger system, a gauge which fills whenever successful combos land, which in turn leads to a state that makes the enemy more vulnerable and prone to increased damage for a short duration. This compliments the Paradigm Shift dynamic, which essentially works in a similar manner to the Job setup in previous Final Fantasy games. Some roles are designed to inflict the most damage, others are to reach the stagger point quickly, along with those to replenish a character's health or conjure positive and negative effects. Planning the correct combination of roles for different situations and switching between them during battles is the only dynamic that provides any genuine satisfaction to the combat, and it's to some testimony that it manages to keep the game mildly entertaining during its thinly spread yet lengthy duration.
Despite its qualities, the ATB system isn't enough on its own to suffer through the 30-40 hours of relentless battles that Final Fantasy XIII insists on throwing at you. At times there's a desire to avoid battles just to reach the end of a chapter, which obviously causes problems later in the game with characters that aren't sufficiently developed and the associated necessity to backtrack just to level up. More importantly it begs further questions: if this is what amounts to the game, what are we actually doing beyond advancing to the next cut-scene if we're actively trying to avoid it? Because of the predictable 'epicness' of the cut-scenes and the ATB's lack of involvement, Final Fantasy XIII largely leaves little more than the feeling it's grudgingly letting you play along; that interactivity and gameplay are secondary factors to making sure those three discs (or one Blu-ray) are stuffed full of cinematics.
Character development is handled via the Crystarium setup, which is effectively little more than a graphical revamp of a traditional skill tree. Using Crystarium Points gained in battle to move between what appears to be planets of a solar system, the setup allows a little choice in the way each character evolves across the varying roles. Beyond this, other staple elements of the series (and the RPG in general) are either strangely absent or changed beyond recognition. With a Medic in the team there's rarely a need to resort to a Potion or two. More bizarrely the successful conclusion of each battle means each character's health is fully replenished, while death is barely punished with checkpoints set before the preceding battle. The combination of this and a surprisingly frequent number of save points eradicates any challenge beyond the inherent problem of not levelling up sufficiently. It can be a chore to say the least, particularly when the crucial technique of surprising the opponent and gaining the upper hand is handled with a poorly implemented field of view dynamic on the main map. Without any towns to meaningfully explore and shops to peruse, save points also provide the means to purchase new weapons and items along with upgrades, but they're merely perfunctory in their inclusion. There's little wonder found in discovering new weapons or equipment, while the option to upgrade feels like an unavoidable chore as opposed to something that binds you closer to the experience.
It's a strange thing that Final Fantasy XIII insists on completing so many of the incessant battles that it throws at you, as otherwise it's a game that demands you to hurtle through it at a relentless pace. Again it seems like a concession towards a wider audience. The game's initial 25 hours offer little more than corridors to advance relentlessly forwards through and comes at the sacrifice of a sense of exploration and developing any knowledge of the worlds of Cocoon, Pulse and their inhabitants. The complete lack of any lull in pace only serves to heighten the game's crippling sense of repetition; it never provides the time or scope to take things more leisurely and enjoy the experience. The flow of Final Fantasy XIII feels like a design from a time long since gone. Battle after battle, followed inevitably with a boss-battle and then epic cut-scene feels disjointed and certainly never manages to emulate the cohesive blend that titles such as Uncharted 2 have left a distinct impression of the elegant fluidity expected from this generation.
Strangely for a game that packs nothing more than tight corridors for the first 20 hours, Final Fantasy XIII changes its intentions dramatically during the latter half of the game. With the party finding itself on the sinister world of Pulse the gameplay and environment shifts quite dramatically, a change mirrored with big, open expanses filled with rampaging creatures. It's hard to understand the decision behind the contrast; whether Final Fantasy XIII started out as the experience Pulse demonstrates, or whether it was added at a later stage in recognition of the game's initially overpowering linearity. Arriving on Pulse also marks the first time that the game offers any respite and variety to the constant onslaught of battles. A variety of side missions provide the challenge of tracking down specific creatures - and admittedly defeating them in battles. It's little more than a nod to another Japanese curiosity, Monster Hunter, and nothing to get overly exited about, but it does at least provide a break from Final Fantasy XIII's sheer monotony of battles, bosses and epic cut-scenes.