What you will find below this preface are my impressions of Final Fantasy XIII after 30 hours of gameplay. I am at the start of chapter 10 of the 13. The game has opened up, to a degree; the "tutorial" has been over for a few chapters now. If you haven't played the game before, be warned that while I'll try not to include spoilers, a few may still pop up in course of discussion. Read at your own risk.
Crystal or Ci'eth?
That's the question I now ask myself when it comes to Final Fantasy XIII. Those of you that have played the game most likely understand the metaphor. Is the game on par with previous FF titles or is it a positive evolution for the series in general? Or, is it an utterly complete mess and a definite step backwards for the series? Essentially, is FFXIII destined for eternal life as yet another cl@ssic gem in the FF series or is it condemned to be the horrifically ugly black sheep of the series, offensive and repulsive to many?
Well, if I had to definitively choose one or the other, I'd go with Crystal. But, from what I've experienced so far, I can't necessarily put this crystal next to other FF "Crystals" such as FFIV, VII, VIII, IX, X, and XII. At least not yet. ;)
It's an interesting comparison to make between FFXIII and its predecessor, Final Fantasy XII. Both were not received as unanimously positive as is usually expected for a Final Fantasy title. As expected when it comes to Final Fantasy, they differ completely when it comes to atmosphere and story. Whereas FFXII was a grand story about goings-on in the world in general and how a band of strangers came together to right the wrongs of the Empire as a subtle "army" of six, FFXIII is an "us versus them" tale at a much more intimate level. In FFXII, the major events happened away from the party for the most part, as they were traveling from place to place. In FFXIII, everything happens to the characters themselves, the government and world topology having a direct effect on everything they do.
Another point for comparison is the characters themselves. FFXII's cast is composed of three pairs of characters that each share a certain bond. Though the party first comes together in a very interesting way, there never appears to be any kind of real bonding or unity to be had. One would think with all that wandering around their world, they would become the tightest of friends, but at the end, they go their own ways; Vaan and Penelo end up pretty much exactly where they left off, only now they have acquaintences in high and illicit places. It quickly became clear with FFXIII that Square Enix had placed a much stronger importance on creating deep characters this time around, more in keeping with how their characters were in pre-FFXII titles. The longer you play, the more you learn how intertwined their individual stories are, which is pretty fascinating to be honest. Then, you wait to see how it all comes out into the open. Along the way, there is emotional venting and personal maturation. As of only the third chapter, the characters begin to change and/or grow in a way that has never really been seen before in a FF game. Perhaps one or two characters would evolve as the story progressed, but not all of them at once. It will surely be interesting to see where things go from where they are now.
No character is there just to fill a spot. They all have a purpose. They all matter.
Let's talk about the dreadful 25-30 hour "tutorial" that consumes the first half of the game. Is there a tutorial that seems to last that long? Ehhhh, I guess. Did it feel like I was playing through a tutorial? NO! Stupid, stupid, complaining people! The further you progress, the less actual tutorials you encounter. For the latter half of the time I've played so far, I don't even recall viewing any tutorials. You need to learn how to play the game well; otherwise, you very quickly become screwed in battle. Anyway, I definitely preferred the live tutorials here to the text-only ones that I remember from past games like FFVIII.
In the first nine chapters, the game forces you to experiment with different paradigms (role combinations) and create strategies that you'll probably end up using through the rest of the game. And let's not forget: Your party at any given time is what it is based on what's happening with the story at the time. The story is progressing right from the very start. So I don't see why everyone was up in arms about it. The story is what kept me going; it's what should keep you going if all else fails. It is true that FFXIII starts off and progresses rather slowly at first, but when things really start to come together, slowly but surely, you will see why it was done the way in which it was done (On that note, be sure to read the Datalog entries! They add so much to the overall experience.).
I thought all the party swapping was actually an excellent way to keep you informed about how each character was doing at any time.
Linearity. It's the word that got tossed around like Cheetos at a kids' party, back when FFXIII had just come out and was walking down Review Street. Usually, it was a word spoken or typed with a negative connotation, as though linearity in a game had suddenly become obsolete. The argument against linearity is synonymous, at least in my mind, with the argument regarding how important graphics are to a game's appeal and enjoyment. It doesn't matter. Not every game that comes out these days needs to be an open sandbox. I say, as long as a linear game has enough content to make its cost worth it, it's okay. A $60 game that one can beat in less than ten hours and not want to play again just isn't worth it. But I digress.
It seems to me, now that I've played quite a bit of the game, that the flak FFXIII had received in this department was in no small part because of its predecessors, FFX and FFXII.
- FFX was very linear, but it seemed like nobody really minded back in 2001. FFX was one big journey, a pilgrimage of sorts. Nobody really minded the linearity, but maybe that was because you eventually got an airship to let you fly back to previously visited locales. As far as I can tell, FFXIII doesn't let you do this. But FFXIII is a different kind of journey. Perhaps there's absolutely no need to go back to old locales at all.
- Also, FFX let you grind. Character development took place on the Sphere Grid, and characters were able to gain Sphere Levels to use on the Grid by gaining experience from randomly generated battles. Tidus could run around in a circle to gain levels from these battles. In FFXIII, there are very few places that allow for quick and effective respawns that are great for power leveling. Even so, the player will eventually hit the end of the road in each role of the Crystarium for each character and that'd be it for the time being. Continuing to create respawns would only serve to store up a CP reserve for the next time the Crystarium is expanded. It doesn't help in the now; it only helps you reach the "end" sooner next time. This can make the game frustrating to some, as they're forced to keep retrying until they make it through the battles before them, knowing that their characters are already as developed as they can be.
- FFXII was clearly inspired by Square Enix's experiences with FFXI. The player took their party through open areas, full of enemies that were clearly visible and able to be engaged right there on the spot, with no separate battle screen. Though the player ran around as the leader, he was in control of all three party members at any time. I personally loved the battle system of FFXII; it's what drew me to the game years before I finally played it for myself, before I found the story interesting. FFXIII does not have open areas, although I do believe there is one open area in the game...I just haven't reached it yet. This area is FFXIII's Calm Lands. The problem is simply that we went from open exploration to restricted travel through clear-cut passageways. It's not hard to see how many people interpreted this as an inexcusable step backwards.
But it was necessary, I feel, because it goes along with the story. While I believe that SE's excuses for the exclusion of actual towns in the game were incredibly silly (much like their excuses as to why a FFVII remake on an updated console is an impossible endeavor that would take decades to create), I can't imagine how this game would function with towns. As I can't go into further detail without unleashing story spoilers, allow me to just leave it at that. I went into this game thinking I would miss the towns terribly, but now that I've experienced a bit of the story, I know that towns just wouldn't have worked. There really is no need for them.
Let's talk about the pacing. From the CP costs of nodes in the Crystarium to how each segment seems to be just long enough before a new cutscene or change in party occurs…it's astoundingly fine-tuned. Such things may have irked others, but I found it refreshing. I've never played a game so finely tuned in these aspects, and it certainly kept things interesting…and me interested, for that matter. One thing I have to mention, specifically, is that I really admire how much effort they put into the pacing. How do you even go about implementing something so obviously intentional???
Nowhere in the game is this more put through its paces than in the boss fights. In FFXII, the difficulty during boss fights came primarily from status ailments. In FFXIII, boss fights are always challenging, simply because Square Enix set them up knowing full well that until chapter 10, they knew –for the most part - exactly where the characters would be in their development at the time of each confrontation. In this way, they designed and developed the boss fights to match the expected stats. You can't just say, "oh, I guess I have to go grind and level up some more" because if you've maxed out each playable character's roles in the Crystarium's current level of expansion, then there's nothing else you can do to enhance your characters, save for weapon/accessory upgrading. If you fail the first time, you've just got to take a look at your Paradigms and then try it again. There's really nothing else you can do. Swap paradigms faster. Be more conservative; heal more often. Whatever it will take, maxed out, it's all you can do to just adjust your strategies…because your stats are the best they're going to be at that point. I have to say, I love this. The challenge is most definitely there, and it really pushes the player to push their own capability and skill with the battle system to the limit during each and every encounter.
Yes, the battle system mostly consists of the player swapping out role combinations and letting Auto-Battle do what's best not just for your two supporting characters, but for the party leader sometimes as well. I'm okay with this. For the most part, in FFXII, I let the game dictate what my supporting characters did, based on the Gambits I'd set in place. So, this isn't too much of a departure from that. Although, I do wish I had at least partial control over my other party members. I enjoy swapping Paradigms on the fly to do quick buffing and debuffing and heals before changing over to heavy offense with a team of Commandos and Ravagers. That's where the strategy and heart of the battle system is.
I have to say, at first, I wasn't as in love with the music as I have been with prior FF games. FFVII's music is timeless as far as I'm concerned. Every modern FF game has had really great music, even if it hasn't been composed by Nobuo Uematsu. But, FFXIII's takes some getting used to. There are incomprehensible vocals in quite a few of the tracks, and it's definitely a diverse soundtrack. From Snow's theme to Sazh's theme, from this to this to this, there's definitely a smooth, futuristic sound to the whole thing. I'm diggin' it.
It's an interesting mix of many Final Fantasy games that have come before. It's got the linearity and Sphere Grid-like Crystarium from FFX and the futuristic sci-fi feel and lack of MP from FFVIII, for instance. But one thing that Final Fantasy XIII has that no prior FF game has ever really come close to having are really well-developed characters. We're talking very three-dimensional people here. I think if nothing else, that is what I remember the most about FFXIII when all is said and done.
For those that haven't played the game yet: Ignore what "everyone else" is saying. If you want to give the game an honest shot, go ahead and check it out. Stick with it until the end of ch9, at least until the start of ch8. If you're not down with the battle system by that point and the story hasn't made you laugh and/or tear up at least once, and you're not interested in what happens next to the characters, then by all means, stop playing the game. But I really like it. It's not a typical FF as we've come to view and experience FF, but it's by no means a bad RPG. In fact, I strongly believe that unless the plot becomes outrageously absurd, FFXIII is a shoe-in for a spot as a GOTY 2010 nominee in my book.