Final Fantasy XIII: Part Two

The thirty hour mark rolled past my eyes this morning, swiftly sending me onto the finale of Chapter Ten. With disc two far behind me, I felt it was appropriate to give another update on my time spent with Final Fantasy XIII.

Square Enix had previously fooled me into believing that Final Fantasy XIII was an RPG ‘light’, removing a lot of the traditional customisation and difficulty options that older gamers had grown used to. The use of an auto-attack command personifies this perfectly. But then the band of heroes slowly come together and Squeenix decides to rip the carpet of ease from under your feet. The bosses suddenly become grippingly tough and require the use of multiple paradigm styles. For example, I had to retry the battle with Barthandelus numerous times and level up for a good couple of hours on the Palamecia. The player is suddenly given the choice of any battle team and evolving characters in any job class.

It may have taken over twenty hours, but the JRPG has finally hit the tempo and spirit of one of my favourite games in the series, Final Fantasy X (mostly due to the similarities with the crystarium and sphere grid). I think Square Enix have been very clever, slowly easing casual players into the ‘hardcore’ mould of most Final Fantasy titles, whilst relying on veterans to simply go with the flow. By disc three, they’ve successfully pleased both parties, including me.

The plot has been somewhat slow, relying on the immediate ‘fight or flight’ dilemma to deliver the biggest set pieces. There have been noticeable improvements though, including the revelations of Vanille’s past and the motives of the fal’cie. Hope and Vanille were my least favourite characters in part one, but have finally developed into what I can believe are normal human beings. There haven’t been many genuine tear jerking moments, but the reunion between Sazh and his child brought me pretty close.

Environments have maintained the impeccable standard set out in Chapter One, consistently surprising me with their versatility and detail. The sky views on board the Palamecia look exceptionally believable. I’ve also noticed that they’re slowly becoming more expansive, perhaps hinting at the open world of Gran Pulse which I’m just about to enter. Players have ranted persistently that Gran Pulse is the pay off for playing through Final Fantasy XIII, so it’ll be interesting to see whether it lives up to my high expectations.

The combat hasn’t changed all that much, but mastering it has become a necessity rather than a choice. I used to hate using Snow as a Sentinel, watching him stand like a buffoon and protect Hope while he whines from the corner of my screen. However, effectively watching him block and counter the toughest attacks of Cid Raines, whilst at the same time utilising Fang’s Saboteur abilities to debuff him, is simply beautiful. The active time battle system works incredibly well because you can see plans unfold in real time, rather than having to wait for a few turns just to see if your plan is working. It gives the player a sense of true leadership and strategy, flipping between offence and defence manoeuvres on the fly. Choose incorrectly and you will be severely punished. Also, the inclusion of a retry option when you’re defeated in battle (how long has it taken them to finally include it?!) encourages experimentation. The boss battles are long, challenging and epic in scale. I’m hooked.

I’ve enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XIII so far. It’s a long way away from being perfect, but I commend Square Enix for taking the next step forward in the JRPG genre. The turn based battle system is outdated and needs a replacement; a future rendition of the ATB gauge maybe the replacement players are looking for. We need far more exploration, but the beautiful landscapes on show in Final Fantasy XIII are the new technical benchmark for what should be possible. The cut scenes are gorgeous, but only time will tell if the final act in the plot makes it all pay off.

If you’re into the RPG genre at all, I feel you need to play this game just to have an opinion on it. It’s been interesting for me to try and formulate my own ideas through these quick blog posts and I hope it’s sparked a few different discussions. I’ll try and upload a final part soon!


Final Fantasy XIII: Part One

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.