Final Fantasy XIII
It takes a very long time to finish Final Fantasy XIII; we know, we did it, and now we’re bragging, but you have to give us that. During that fortnight we’ve found ourselves at the mercy of a barrage of questions from series fanatics. They always get to us somehow. Twitter, Facebook, telephone. Anything short of actually rocking up at our front door and demanding to know how it’s going, in fact, would appear to be fair game. We can safely say that nothing else has caused this much anxiety among its potential audience. Not that we can remember anyway. And that’s hardly surprising. Reviews of the Japanese-language version of Final Fantasy XIII have fluctuated wildly, and despite the same criticisms appearing time and time again – corridor gameplay in the main – how much it matters to the reviewer in question has ultimately decided its awarded score.
But is this really anything new? Every Final Fantasy game we can ever remember has divided its audience. Just ask another fan and finding any kind of unanimity as to which outings moved mountains and which largely sucked balls is a constant source of disagreement. Final Fantasy’s disparate battle systems, worlds, characters and overriding tone from one game to the next all but guarantee a constant churn of fan appreciation – or lack of it. It’s a signature of the series.
If you can forgive us this preamble in place of sedimentary plot detail, we’ll let you in on a little secret; that we – reviewers – are almost as prone to the subjective way of looking at things as you are. Ultimately, the very purpose of a review is to define a game in enough detail for you to decide whether or not you might like it. We can’t tell you that you’re going to like Final Fantasy XIII, we can only tell you that we did.
It’s a given that this is one of the most beautiful pieces of eye candy on PS3. The Final Fantasy series has always been beautiful and its first gambit – in-joke, whoo! – on current-generation technology was going to have to be pretty astounding to raise our creeky old brow. So we say this with no small amount of wincing at our own words; this game is perhaps the best looking we have ever seen (EDIT: Since then, God Of War III pips it… just), making it especially difficult to criticise without becoming swept away in the visual majesty of it all. Cuts to and from between in-engine and CG – which is absolutely breathtaking – take a while to register, and gone are the days when the difference was in any way jarring. Hyperbole mode disengaged.
As usual, the game’s cast is made up largely of stereotypes, each with a simple purpose. The moody Lightning gives us cause to want to see her happier, the dumb, big-hearted Snow hides behind a confident façade – but he’s really crying on the inside, ladies – and Hope, the mandatory kid who knows nothing at all so that everything must be explained to him – you – in detail. Ultimately, if you break them down to their key functions, they are all necessary. They are also superbly designed. Tetsuya Nomura is truly flexing his artistic might, not only with some outstanding aesthetic design, but also a tale unique to each, which all but guarantees that you’ll care about what eventually becomes of them.
While watching cut-scenes is never anything less than enjoyable – barring a number of notable exceptions where Hope won’t stop whining, or Snow is being especially dumb – it’s battling that will be occupying by far the greater part of your time with Final Fantasy XIII. This is where the game truly excels. Each character may learn a specific set of roles. Initially three are available and pre-defined for each character. The roles themselves range from melee (Commando), magic user (Ravager), and healer (Medic). There are also roles which buff your party (Synergist), de-buff the enemy (Saboteur) and tank (Sentinel).
The game’s paradigm system will see you switching in real-time between different combinations. Each combination has a specific name. For example, Saboteur-Synergist-Medic is called ‘Tide Turner’ since your party will be buffing up and sabotaging the stats of the enemy while kept alive by the healer. Once these modifiers are in place, you can then switch back to a paradigm with more offensive zing. Paradigm switching is not something which you have to occasionally consider. It is a constant concern and will often see you changing your paradigm every few seconds.
Arriving back where we started, the issue which we’ve been badgered about the most is linearity. Reports of a single corridor through which to explore the world are widespread, but the question of whether this is true or not is perhaps less important than the one which asks exactly how much it affects fan’s enjoyment. The answer – our perspective – is not very much. The first 15 or so hours are largely tutorial-based. The game’s battle system is complex and finely nuanced and until you’ve learned it, corridors are pretty much all you are going to get. And, while the game opens out later on, with monster hunts and open hubs to explore, only those who adore the series and indeed the genre will enjoy it enough to get there.