In spite of all of the complaints surrounding its linearity, tutorial heavy approach, I have grown to admire Final Fantasy XIII. At least for the first twelve hours anyway, which has brought me onto disc two (insert a defensive position from the inevitable wrath of PS3 owners) and The Sunleth Waterscape.
What hit me by surprise was just how beautiful this game looks. Having watched mountains of compressed footage on sites such as 1up and GameTrailers, I thought I had become desensitised to the ‘high-definition revolution’ and wouldn’t be particularly impressed by the next-gen visuals. Oh, how wrong I was. Even when running this on an Xbox 360 (which is arguably the inferior version) the 1080p environments are absolutely stunning, breathing effortlessly with life and activity. With each new location I’m happy to walk through as slowly as possible and just soak up the detail. These areas easily capture the awe I had in the third person shooter Gears of War; except that Final Fantasy is producing these for a 30 hours plus experience, rather than ten.
The trade-off is what has been commonly cited as ‘corridor syndrome’. Each locale is technically just one singular pathway, with only a few small deviations for the occasional extra item or enemy. The development team has spent so much time making every small texture spectacular, that they’ve had to cut back on the scale of the world itself. For the gamer that loves exploring huge, open universes or discovering a long forgotten nook or cranny, Final Fantasy XIII will disappoint. Better alternatives for this style of gameplay can be found in Star Ocean: The Last Hope or Resonance of Fate.
I don’t mind too much though, because the linear approach has produced huge benefits for the storyline and atmosphere. Players arguably don’t need to see everything; by looking out towards the horizon they can imagine what would be there and fill in the blanks themselves. By stopping gamers like me dilly-dallying in an unnecessary side quest, the plot is much more focussed and comes thick and fast. The mythology surrounding Pulse, l’Cie and fal’Cie is rich and believable, with the writers offering a new revelation at appropriate intervals. The cast quickly comes together in the first few hours and reveal their motives for travelling through the world of Cocoon. Lightning and Sazh are easy to relate too and likeable, with Hope and Vanille clocking in as the annoying ’emo-kid’ and stupidly over the top, upbeat chick. Why, oh why does Square Enix feel the need to use these character stereotypes in every sequel?
Combat has had a massive overhaul too. Square Enix must have realised that the turn-based system is growing increasingly archaic, because it’s now been heavily tweaked to feel like it’s being played out in real time. Players only take control of one party member, queuing up actions into a meter that is constantly filling with time. Once enough seconds have passed, you can select your opponent and deal out the ‘chain’ of designated techniques. It feels much more pressurised and organic, encouraging you to think on your feet and adapt to new enemies without resorting to a walkthrough. A new system known as ‘paradigms’ can be switched on the fly throughout battle, altering the roles and skills of all present party members. It allows you to have a very forceful guiding hand over them without manually entering commands. Switching between support, healing and offensive setups at the right time can quickly change the direction of a battle and seal a quick win. It feels new, fast and furious. I love it.
Character building is called ‘crystarium’, an idea very similar to the sphere grid found in Final Fantasy X. In a similar vein to the environments, it’s currently very restrictive and capped with every boss battle. It feels like a step backward for experimental Final Fantasy veterans, but gives causal RPG players like myself a huge sense of reassurance when grinding for an upcoming boss. Towards the end of Final Fantasy X I was pretty sure I had made a number of incorrect decisions on the sphere grid, which had lead to my party being a crippled mess. This system might seem slightly patriotic, but it’s clear and accessible for players of all difficulties.
Most RPGs, regardless of quality can hold me up until the twenty hour mark, so it will be interesting to see if Final Fantasy XIII can go the distance. Square Enix has obviously made a lot of changes to make this game appeal to western audience, and at the moment there are more improvements than setbacks. I’ll be interested to see whether this game opens up once I get onto disc three.