Exceedingly linear in the first hours, and I hate linearity... but still a great game? Read on to discover why.
I do not usually feel that I need to write a player review about any given game, because player reviews often are a matter of taking sides all the while trying to express an opinion. Most players just share their hate or love with a feature, character or production value. These are reactions more than reviews.
But here, I felt that I really had a personal experience to share. One that could match half of the community's experience, but also share what this title can provide and why it's deeply, and somehow justly underappreciated.
It's really impressive to see how many players did not actually "play" FF13, not in the endurance this game provides. It seems that many players just borrowed the game or played only the 6-12 starting hours, and are now posting most hate because of a bad surprise they had in it. You must really take this into account when appreciating player reviews on these 70-euros titles, and understand that these are partly from players who did not spend time on it, not in the impressive time ratio japanese RPGS shall expect to be committed to it.
To this behaviour's credit, I think that reviews do not always catch the real thing about the game, which provides a casual game in the 15 first hours, and then an expert RPG with many interesting decisions.
I was, myself, in the same situation as the players who rated it worse ; I played the game six hours then stopped, really annoyed by exceeding linearity.
By linearity, I mean it really plain, one thing I observed on numerous other console titles, but unexpected in a full RPG title; and I hate linearity to its core. Character progression or combat was just a matter of pressing X all the time, and playing just a matter of advancing in one direction. I felt that after 6+ hours I got past the "tutorial" and that the core gameplay was this.
Actually, I was god damn wrong.
And the thousands people rating the game bad are also as wrong as I was.
I was extremely disappointed so it required me several months before making another attempt; I did it when I felt I could play again an hour or two this game just to enjoy nice PS3 graphics and story, actually I decided to play it instead of viewing a blu-ray movie.
This time, I moved on and had much pleasure discovering the character story. I also had fun in one of the non linear features (or only one?) we had access to at this time, this being the items upgrade feature. I discovered there was really something to it. At some point, I also upgraded my usage of tactics in combat, but still not much was required then.
When I had the possibility to explore a flat at some point, I also could reveal locations and details like in a Resident Evil game where I look at pictures and explore places. This didn't last but it felt really nice.
And then it came: around chapters 10 and 11, which is said to be "mid-game", you suddenly receive all freedom you had in other RPGs.
First you obtain some freedom of progression, with the possiblity to engage in all six classes with any character; then you obtain freedom of team roster. But all begins right after then, when character progression deepens a lot and requires hard choices, fights become very intricate and not exactly "hard" (although yes, they were) but requiring many more decisions in tactical roles, item upgrades, team roster and character progression decisions; and you also suddenly receive many regions and paths to choose to explore, or not.
You also receive secondary missions, and with all the freedom and depth I suddenly received in the space of only one chapter, I can't even imagine the real game duration and complexity. I was suddenly at a point where my choices could no longer be perfect. I was really trading risks for other risks in team roster, or character upgrades.
In a couple of hours the game changed from simple to an expert game, with possibilities of moving where you like, grinding, upgrading, exploring and trying to improve the strengths you choose, but also many possibilities of just failing.
Most reviews you will read are from players who never came to this point; players who rated the game after the first hours impression.
These first hours can be pleasant and provide much pleasure, but provide almost none of the RPG decisions; understanding that RPG decisions will come later is a first step to understand this game design, a japanese game design which speaks about a game that can last 70+ hours.
I believe that in the spread of these 70 hours, they decided the first hours to focus on the story in order to ensure all players could receive this content entirely thanks to cutscenes and simplicity of gameplay. Then, they implemented the refined gameplay that takes its beginning when they felt the players were engaged enough by the story, characters, and mysterious objective, and accustomed enough to the tactical roles and item upgrades so that they would not "fail miserably" too when fights become harder.
At this point, I felt stupid; I didn't really know how to compare my gaming pleasure. I also felt a bit lost. All of a sudden, I could make many mistakes in how my resources (character progression or upgrades) were spent, because my characters and setup could no longer get past some fights, even with wilderness mobs; and a setup could not get past most enemies, making me upgrade several things, trying several routes before succeeding.
This usually is a source of great pleasure, but I also realized that in four hours per gaming session my progress suddenly came to a near-zero thing regarding story, as in four hours I could only complete a few secondary missions. I usually don't play a game thinking : "I will play 4 hours and do a few combats" ; I am accustomed to games where in four hours you can do something great.
I also discovered that the simple progression I had before was very comforting; before, this was a game I could explore and make progress in a short time, and now that I came to the hard RPG part, this was no longer the case.
But then, I also had the real RPG now, with choice of progression, I was fighting in an expert RPG with interesting choices, and even a clear mark between "good" and "bad" players; and I was now trying hard to be in the "good" part, and observing all easy decisions of before would fail.
FF13 mixes both the extreme quality and pleasure of a game with incredible content (but exceeding linearity for very starting hours, like 20 first hours) and the expert RPG with hardships, exploration, and very deep tactical and character progression decisions.
It speaks about the game and license to be able to say that the 20 first hours are just the tutorial and introduction of it. No other studio, or license, can engage in such a spread. And these 15 - 20 first hours naturally divide the community.
Players who spread reviews and hate by borrowing the game and playing it 6 hours, or purchasing it and discarding it before playing it really (as I did), shall really focus on discovering the story in these 15 hours, and then accepting to discover the RPG content that could last 60 more hours of gaming.
As dividing as their decisions when making the game was, it is an extreme pleasure to see that there are developer studios able to deliver games such as this one. While they made game design choices that may sound imperfect, I can honestly say that despite my first attempt at playing that failed miserably because of linearity, I now understand the will behind their design. I also can honestly say that this can be a matter of culture; 15 hours is nothing for a title like this, but much when compared to "western" games.
There are two games in this one, one for casual players and another for expert console roleplayers. At first I could think that "this is made to simplify the game and make it casual", just like many grand publishers make with licenses, destroying their value to make it more compatible with a wider, "more studid" audience. As if they were trying to make Final Fantasy playable with the same "casual dedication" as we can find in COD players and gaming.
This isn't the case, since we have the good RPG values later on.
I believe this also fits, or at least tried to fit, with the spread of expert roleplayers and time they can dedicate. Despite being a geek of the old times, who played dozens of RPGs and loved it, I also am a father of three children and a man working 70 hours a week. The first part of the game is actually something my gaming sessions and time can explore easily. Now that I came in the expert RPG side of this game, I really think I could "stop playing", a second time, since I can no longer "explore and make progress" in the game in the gaming sessions I can put into it... thus failing to end the game, because making hours of combat and expert decisions is really time consuming, and unrewarding somehow.
But now, I also look at these 28 hours as pure fun, I feel very attached to the characters and their story, I feel very compelled by the story and the "mysterious" ongoing thing and objective.
I can honestly say I was confused by linearity in the six first hours, then confused by freedom in the 20+ hours. I could not end some of the previous FFs because I could not spend so many hours in exploring and fighting little mobs. Now, I feel engaged enough with the characters to play it.
So, this may be a divisive game design, but they also tried to ensure that most players could discover the story and cutscenes, and then could engage into the expert RPG thing. Shall they have put the expert RPG from the start, half of the players trying the game would have found it too hard or not engaging in the monster hunting and grinding, and would have discarded it.
However, these players would not have dared rate it as well, and say it was 'too hard', or that they just did not have the time to end the game; so if they would have made the game unplayable for casual players, the community reputation of the game would have stayed whole.
Here, they have spent some of their reputation by trying a new route.
But if you own the game, and like me, stopped playing it at first because of linearity, maybe reading these words will help you resume it and play it again. You have a lot to discover.
Not only does the game have huge gameplay value after this, but this linear part can also be much appreciated once you know what to expect from it, this being learning the game mechanics, preparing your items and making your choice about what character items you want to focus on, and how matching them with tactical roles will be very useful in the later parts of the game.
And then, you will see if you are good enough for the harder part of the game, later on. This is the challenge I dare put on you.
If you do not own the game, I can honestly say you have an amazing value if you buy it, one still unmatched by other titles be it on console or PC gaming.
But to reap the quality out of this game, you need to understand that this is a game of 70+ hours with an innovative design separating it into two parts of core gameplay.
I really feel I understand the new path Final Fantasy got in, and I really love it.
What I hate is that reviews do not usually put the words on the real things, as if they had to review the game after playing it 20-25 hours instead of 70.
It is really hard to rate this game though; not enough freedom at the beginning, or too much then, make the experience hard on both the casual or the expert roleplayer.
But the game still has an extreme quality to it, and is more engaging in this formula once you reach the 20 hours of gaming, since you are both engaged in the story you read and in the possibilities of progression.
As a last note, I would say that other roleplaying games I have played so far, usually begin with a formula that made me "think" that I had much freedom of gameplay, only to discover that I could abuse the game very easily and then play about the same formula over and over.
In FF13, you have to re-invent the way you play at some point, and it seems that the next hours will only get harder. Making mistakes in how I upgrade items can really make me unable to win my fights, unless I grind dozens of hours of combat.
I have never found a game that could mix this formula of both simplicity then expert play, and make me so much engaged to it. Plus, it is a game of an extreme production quality, unmatched in game duration, visuals, music. Even the story is mysterious and engaging in the first minutes, then after the first 6 hours.
It is a pity to see that the most beautiful FF to date, and the most effective combat formula they ever designed in it, is also a most divisive title so hard to rate, play thoroughly and understand.
Maybe it is the property of "artists" to be ahead of their times, or to design things that shock us and in a formula we cannot take pleasure from at the start, like a refined plate or a wine needing years of maturity.
This is really a great title, a masterpiece at most points, but very awkwardly targeted. This game is unrewarding for casual attempts at playing it; FF13 needs and rewards commitment.
Now that I understood this, I really think I can enjoy future FF titles as well.
Although I really hope that they would make a less dividing next title, I also am ready for all the two-parts pleasure of this design, and also ready to understand the value of a japanese title in a license with so many hours of innovative gameplay ; a game that reinvents itself across its chapters is really something surprising and great.
Despite what I felt before, they did not "simplify" things to make them just dumb; they actually implemented two designs, one to discover the story and mechanics, and then the other to multiply on them and provide the great and expert RPG most are looking for.
You should try it, and if you tried it already and failed because of the linear start, maybe try it again, for all the value you may have missed because of lack of commitment.
FF13 has like a 15-hour interactive movie and mechanics tutorial, and then a 60-hour deep RPG to play.