This game was so incredibly close. It's a crying shame, that's what this is.
You may wonder why this review is so late. Final Fantasy XIII came out in March, didn't it? Well, dear reader, the friendly joke's on you! Welcome to WorthPlaying's newest scientific experiment: Can A Console-Based Japanese Role-Playing Game Still Be Appreciated by Someone Who Now Has One-Third of the Free Time He Used to Have in College?"
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Besides, it's certainly a valid question when you think about it, and it's an issue that Final Fantasy XIII courageously dares to tackle. This is a game that twists and warps traditional JRPG design, and while much has been said about its methods already, I would like to cast my hat into the camp that fully approves of this direction. This isn't a decision I came to without much thought, however.
In order to understand just what Final Fantasy XIII attempts to do, let's look at the formula of your average Japanese RPG:
- The player is introduced (or re-introduced, if he is not at the beginning of the game) to the story and characters. This usually takes place in the form of lengthy dialogue and cinematics.
- Players make their way through an overworld to various set pieces, which are known as "towns" in general terminology. In these towns, players are allowed to get a feel for what the world is like. They're allowed to recharge their party's stats, talk to various people, explore various landmarks, and steal various things from various chests in various houses that don't belong to them. Variously.
- After learning what needs to be done in and around town, players are directed to their next objective, often a dungeon that contains far less personality than the town they just left. In these dungeons, battles against a slew of enemies will take place. There will usually be a boss fight at the end, and any present party members will receive rewards!
- Repeat with as many battles, cut scenes, dungeons, story twists and towns as necessary until the end of the game is reached.
The above sequence of events is naturally a broadly generalized summation, but the majority of Japanese role-playing games fall into this formula or some mild deviation of it. And why not? This is the formula that has worked for decades. This is the formula that disrupts the Japanese economy whenever a new Dragon Quest game hits store shelves. This is the formula that international gamers were introduced to when Japan's brand of role-playing was localized in various countries. There are generations of game players who have this process ingrained into their minds. Why shake things up now? Why mess with what clearly works and sells, especially in its home country?
I don't know.
You'd have to ask Square Enix. I just know that I really like it because what Final Fantasy XIII does is take a good, long, hard look at this formula before saying, "You know, what if we saved time for the player by combining all of these elements?"
The result is one of the best experiences I've ever had in a JRPG, especially since I work a full-time job now, and then some. The game has been classified as "town-less corridor design" by many a player. This is technically true, but only because it takes the corridors of dungeons and places them in the same space as the set pieces that make up a JRPG's "town" sections. In this way, you are allowed to take in the beauty and personality of Final Fantasy XIII's universe — made up of the two main realms of Pulse and Cocoon — while getting all of your battles done at the same time. In the same way, eliminating the bulk of a JRPG's non-playable characters allows for a welcome greater concentration on the main cast.
Final Fantasy XIII's setup is also different from that of most JRPGs. Part of the reason the game is so quick and arguably linear in nature is because the cast of starring characters has been plopped into the video game equivalent of "The Fugitive." While trying to clear their names, find out their true mission, free their people and "save the world," these hapless folks are forced to travel — first while split up, then eventually in a single party — the futuristic world of Cocoon while wrestling with their inner demons and trying to answer life's questions.
This game takes almost every single stereotypical JRPG plot trope you can think of and turns it completely on its head. The result is a game filled with hope and adventure despite its overarching theme of confusion and insecurity. As the game goes on, the characters of Final Fantasy XIII become less of a dysfunctional group of individuals thrown together by fate and grow into a surrogate family of six. For my money, this is the best cast the series has ever sported, due in no small part to the fact that they're less fantastical than previous casts. Since they're more rooted in reality, they are easier to relate to and easier to develop emotions toward, whether positive or negative.
This all happens among the backdrop of one of the best-realized universes in the series. Cocoon is a colorful futuristic wonder, the logical evolution of time periods depicted by movies such as the classic "Back to the Future: Part II" or 2009's "Star Trek" reboot movie. Machines coexist with nature, architecture is rigid but beautiful, and just about everything hovers. Fashion is oddly contemporary. It's a world that has to be seen to be believed; it's fantastic but doesn't go overboard, and as absence makes the heart grow fonder, so too does this universe actually make one wish there was an overworld to waste infinite amounts of time in, instead of being forced to run through it with nary a moment to blink.
The pacing also helps this universe because there is less time spent running around in isolated regions of Cocoon. You'll get to see and learn more of the game's world in a smaller amount of time, almost to the point of sensory overload. You're fighting through enemies in a futuristic city, you're watching fireworks displays, or you're standing at a silent, rainy monorail station, but you're always noting the world's beauty. The Chocobo theme park in Nautilus has the power to make the player wonder if he should continue with the game or simply stay in the park forever.
This universe would hardly have the same amount of impact without the aesthetics to back it up. Thankfully, Final Fantasy XIII's graphics are predictably fantastic. They do, however, come with a couple of catches. The first is that since we've been inundated with high-definition games for so long, Final Fantasy XIII starts out looking like more of the same. It's only when you go back and look at the last few entries on the PlayStation 2 that it's possible to appreciate the series' jump to current-generation systems. Also, a nasty problem from those PS2 games rears its ugly head here: the character models looking a bit blocky up close. Things such as hands and limbs will have rough, angular edges that are easy to see if you're looking for them. Other than that, though, it's all incredibly beautiful.
The soundtrack is just as worthy of the game's visuals, and to once again dip into hyperbole, this is probably the best soundtrack I have experienced in the series. The key lies in its diversity. Older Final Fantasy titles tended to concentrate on moody, sweeping soundtracks. You'd hear a lot of slow, foreboding or "meaningful" songs and occasionally some battle music, but not much else. Final Fantasy music is not generally known for experimenting with multiple genres in a single game. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XIII has fast music, slow music, orchestrated scores, jazz, techno, music with a pop bent, and sometimes even the occasional chiptune. It all fits, and it all gives the impression that the worlds in the game are made up of several diverse flavors that come together to make a harmonious whole.
As wonderful as the presentation is, however, the bulk of the praise must be given to the game's battle system and stats management mechanics. They're all designed to be fast-paced and as efficient as possible. What happens when you have a game full of set piece corridors? You've got to fill them up somehow, so enter Final Fantasy XIII's return to the Active Time Battle system, only seriously juiced-up. People who played Final Fantasy X-2 will note the mark of the designers here, as enemies do not "wait their turn" before attacking fast and furiously.
In order to stand a chance in battle, you must be able to strategize at lightning speed. The game only allows the main character of your party to attack, with two other party members controlled by the AI. This AI learns enemy weaknesses as you battle and will act in the best way given the situation at any given second. Potion usage is instantaneous, spells are unlimited with no magic points to hold them back, and battle teams are encouraged to constantly switch their specialties via the Paradigm system, which can change a magic user into a healer into a defender into a warrior at a moment's notice, seemingly "robbing" them of their identity as characters.
All of this seems to destroy the balance of your typical Final Fantasy battle system and turn things into Easy mode. Get a couple of hours into the game, however, and you'll realize that not only is this game not easy, but it's also not playing around. In truth, this is the closest that "Active Time" has come to "Real Time" in the series' history, to the point where it almost seems to have made more sense to just make an action game. All those menu choices add a special bit of fun to the proceedings that's tough to explain. Eventually, one learns to trust the game and try its hints. Like an arcade game, with practice and experience, players will understand the ins and outs of the battle mechanics, keep catalogs of enemy strategies in their minds, and then learn little tricks that allow one to more easily dispatch enemies. They'll learn to navigate the Crystarium, a simplified version of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, and they'll learn that each character indeed has his or her own identity, as certain powers are only accessible to certain characters for nearly the entire main story.
Finally, just when the player thinks that he's mastered all the game has to offer, the game doles out new powers upon reaching new landmarks in the plot. This is in place of having traditional time-sink side-quests bogging down progression of the core adventure. Suddenly, everything old is new again, the battle system becomes even more layered, and there are new strategies and tricks to find: air combos and juggle attacks, chaining of elemental weaknesses, rapid-fire Paradigm shifts and summons. Learning to think so quickly that you don't ever have to depend on the "Automatic Battle" option is indescribably satisfying, and one likely won't achieve that until beyond the end of the game.
The result of these design decisions is, at least for the majority of playtime, a game devoid of dead air. Fat is chewed away, and environments and dungeons are melded together, allowing better focus on characters, gameplay and story twists.
Couple that with constant breaks, which are never longer than 10 minutes, to flesh out a sci-fi plot rooted in down-to-earth interpersonal relationships, and the most likeable cast in the history of the franchise, and while I won't go so far to say that this is a "better way" to do JRPGs, this is still the best and most fun I've ever had in a Final Fantasy game.
To a point.
Two-thirds of the way into the game, the house of cards falls.
I have no idea whether it was to prove to the franchise's existing audience that the game really could consist of an expansive overworld in the face of other Japanese RPGs, or if designer vanity simply took over. Regardless, two-thirds of the way into the game, players are "treated" to the world of Pulse, an absolutely beautiful, expansive landscape teeming with creatures to slay, missions to undertake, breathless views, and meadows that seem to go on forever. It is a triumph of the game's scope. It proves what Final Fantasy can be, do and mean when given the power of this current generation of video game consoles.
It is the most boring thing ever.
So close to the game's climax — and smack-dab near the end of a game that has refreshingly contained almost nothing but climaxes — we get a massive mandatory time-sink. Missions are hoisted upon us, we're forced to walk miles to get to a single target, we're made to walk back and forth along those same miles of terrain repeatedly before being allowed to unlock warp points that don't even work until you double back.
Even all of this craziness would be bearable under normal circumstances; the game still points you in to the direction of the next story objective. Unfortunately, this point is also where the title suffers a gigantic difficulty spike. No longer will smart team placement, Paradigm usage, enemy analysis and weakness exploitation work as it has up to this point. Now the enemies are simply too strong or numerous unless you pick every single one of your battles and gradually get stronger just to get back into the groove. Yes, folks, this is where Final Fantasy XIII requires you to grind. After 30-plus hours of turning the Japanese RPG and almost all of the series' tropes on its head, we're slapped in the face with this.
It's almost angering. If this game had stuck to its guns for the main story and allowed the player to traverse the territories they'd previously had to run through at lightning speed, it would have been utterly perfect. I was fully prepared to give this game a 10. I was prepared to defend it against all comers and purist "fans" because Square Enix had darn near done the impossible and made a kinetic Final Fantasy game, one that eschews the baggage of the previous polygonal titles (and even a couple of the sprite-based ones) and makes the old fresh again.
Alas, it was not to be.
It's still a game I would thoroughly recommend to people, especially those who, like me, are afraid to touch RPGs nowadays because they're afraid of the time investment. Even though they'll be stuck on the last few chapters for months, what leads up to it is so wonderful that they may want to soldier through. It's the reason why, in scoring this game, I've decided to give it the big green mushroom, the ultimate benefit of the doubt. Despite the roadblock at which I've arrived, this game's already given me an amazingly fun 40 hours.
I still want to see the ending quite badly. Eventually, I will.
Still. So close.
We were so close to a paradigm shift.
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