When the end screen finally faded to black on my television set, I was left with a perplexed feeling. Not because of the convoluted plot, nor for the mouth watering cut scene produced for the finale. After sixty hours Final Fantasy XIII has left me in a sense of limbo because I still can’t decide whether I enjoyed my experience with it. Let me try and explain.
After Part Two I was just about to enter the grassy expanses of Gran Pulse. The fans were right, this is the salvation for those that felt restricted by the linear approach of the opening two discs. The forests, waterfalls and grassy plains offer a great draw distance and perfect contrast to the futuristic, urban setting of Cocoon. Best of all though is the realisation that nearly everything you can see is ready for you to explore. One of my biggest gripes with the opening hours of Final Fantasy XIII was that everything felt rather surreal. I wanted to be able to learn about Cocoon’s history for myself and felt confined when what I just wanted to branch off and explore.
Perhaps this difference between open world exploration and linearity was done knowingly by the developers, to try and make Gran Pulse feel more like an alien world. All of the monsters are suddenly a dangerously high level and if you’re not careful, you’ll quick find yourself out of your depth. Here though is the ‘meat’ of the RPG, where players can progress through the crystarium until their hearts are content and take on a wealth of side missions. It felt refreshing to let the story take a back seat, despite the map and optional mission system being absolutely appalling.
Gran Pulse is also the first time that players will truly have to grind. Casual players who have managed to scrape by up until now will find themselves with the monotonous task of levelling their party for hours on end. I know that this is a traditional part of RPGs, but for me it just felt unnecessary. Replaying the same battle over and over again is simply not my idea of fun – and shouldn’t be justified as a way of tacking on a few more hours of play time.
The story is clichéd and muddled in places, not helped in the slightest by the lack of a good villain. Barthandelus drifts all over the place and always manages to spout a few lines of nonsense, but I never felt that he had the conviction or means to truly end the world. The fleeting roles of Rosch, Cid and Jihl meant that there were rarely alternatives to become angry over either. Surprisingly, Square Enix instead bound me into its story by utilising an imaginative central cast. Remember how I said that I hated Vanille and Hope? There was a reason for that. At the game’s climactic finale every character has overcome hardship and become (dare I say it) very likeable. The growth of their camaraderie is highlighted further in the excellent voice work that occurs as you travel through the endless game world. Even after the credits rolled, I wanted to spend more time with them. If I’m truly honest, there were even a couple of tears at the end.
Sixty hours is a long time to play a single game and I can admit that throughout Chapter Thirteen I was more than ready for the end. This isn’t to the game’s discredit though – to consistently offer this level of quality is admirable and instead shows a lack of my own mental stamina.
This was not the JRPG that fans of the Final Fantasy series expected, but I think it’s better for it. After all, the dramatic changes has helped a casual player like myself complete his first instalment in the series. The organic combat and well written story make this a far more focussed experience than its predecessors. Final Fantasy XIII has many, many flaws, but I’ll let Square Enix fix them in the inevitable sequel. A franchise is, after all, a constantly evolving process.