Friday, November 16, 2012

Review - Final Fantasy XIII

I like Final Fantasy XIII.


I said it.

It is not a deep, extensive or even grand affection for the game, but it is an affection for the game, which is probably the strongest statement I can make of it.  I never thought I would be at this point, where I have both beaten the game and walked away with anything positive, but it happened and I'm honestly not sure why.  It's honestly the most confused I've been about a game in a long while because I like it and I know some reasons why, but I can't pin down the exact whole of it, leaving the question "Why don't I dislike it, then?" to which I just have absolutely no answer.  I think part of the reason for that is that in absolutely no one way is Final Fantasy XIII not an absolutely overly complex game.  That is, as you might figure, mostly a negative point against it, but it really does work in its favor, apparently, so I guess there's a silver lining to it.

If I had to boil Final Fantasy XIII down to its three biggest strengths, which is to say that is what I'm going to do here, then the first strength of the game, the one you'll notice first assuredly, is that the game is fucking gorgeous.  Yes, we're supposed to like a game of its merits and not by how pretty it is and blah blah blah, but when you're faced with a game that is as absolutely, unashamedly good to look at as Final Fantasy XIII, you can't help but appreciate it for that.  Because it's not enough that the game is beautiful to look at in cutscenes, which it honestly is and I would probably pay money to watch Final Fantasy XIII as a straight movie done purely in the FMV graphics because they are -that- good looking.  It's not enough that there is an almost wonderful level of detail actually put into the whole of things, creating lush visuals that make sense and, for the few indoor spaces, as in domestic places, that are in the game there's a certain, undeniable amount of architecture thought out, as well as some decent interior design.

The entire world that is Final Fantasy XIII is absolutely stunning to look at.  Even though the theory that a lot of games for a while there used fifteen shades of brown and little else is a little overblown, there are an unfortunately scarce few games that actually take from every little inch of the color wheel, and actually make the effort to make those colors vibrant, to make them pop and give the entire visual a constant glamour no matter what it was that you were looking at.  I made that lead-in, obviously, to say that Final Fantasy XIII does just that and is pretty much the entire basis of it being wonderful to look at.  But I try not to gush so much about that as the important bit of that which is the bit where I point out that the design of things isn't that bad, which is an important distinction to make, especially when it concerns Final Fantasy as a series and especially especially when it comes to Tetsuya "I Made A Goddamn Belt Dress" Nomura.  Yes, dude has done a lot of good stuff aside, but you're always as bad as your worst moment, thus the distinction.

Character design is actually something I'd throw out there as another positive about the game's look because, well, I really -like- the way all of the characters look.  Nobody really feels over-accessorized or anything of that sort, merely appropriately detailed and some characters are downright minimalist.  Snow, for example, has a skull cap, trench coat, gloves, pants and boots.  That is basically all there is to his design and it -works- because it's a decent look and more importantly, it fits Snow's character exceptionally.  Dude is just a simple guy who likes punching things which you all know I can certainly respect.  He's not particularly flashy, but he wants to be noticeable and memorable as the Hero who saved someone because that's just what he does.  That translates really well just by how he looks, and of course in how he acts and talks as well, but I'm not quite to that part yet.

Well, okay I am, actually.  The second strength that Final Fantasy XIII has is its characters.  One of the best things that Squeenix did with the game was setting it up like they did at the start, switching between various perspectives across the characters who eventually made it into groups.  This gave them time to introduce everyone individually and give them a backstory, a motivation and such, establishing them all as their own character.  In the long run, everyone more or less had a real start point and a real end point with tangible development between with the bulk of it being really really well done.  It did go on a little too long at the start with the whole switching stuff, or perhaps that they just switched too much, and the actual 'party' wasn't formed until.....essentially 20 hours into the game, but it's a solid concept that was done well enough that it worked out.  Especially since the arcs set up real, actual conflict within the party members in a way that was, at least, set up well, if not followed up on well enough.

I'm treading into spoiler territory now, and I do so with no shame because you either know the intricacies of Final Fantasy XIII's story (or at least the broad strokes), you don't -care- about the intricacies of the story, or you know how to skip a couple paragraphs.  The two main 'conflicts' within the party were basically the same situation told two different ways and in a spectacular show of range, it failed miserably with one execution, and was the best goddamn part of the entire game with the other.  I have absolutely zero idea how you manage that, how such a thing is even possible technically, but Squeenix managed it and if nothing else, I applaud them for their long-standing ability to have absolutely no idea what they're doing at most times apparently.  But at the same time, I'm not judging -too- harshly because, as I said, the one part is so well done that it is literally my favorite part of the whole game.

So I won't talk about that one first.  Let's talk about Hope Estheim and Snow Villiers.  This one was mostly spoiled in all the previews and such, so I won't dwell on it too much, but I do have to do -some- leading into it.  Basically, the entire game starts with a 'Purge' which is basically when the ruling government gets a bunch of people in an area and sends them to another planet, except they don't, they just straight-up murder them somewhere.  A resistance group, NORA, led by Snow just happens to know this and are on hand when stuff goes down (thanks to Lightning) and they have a chance to rescue a bunch of people about to be Purged.  Two such people are Hope and his mother, coincidentally named Nora, and when Snow asks for volunteers to help fight, Nora decides she wants to shoot things instead of being near her kid with the knowledge that they were both almost about to get killed.

Snow and the rest of Nora take on soldiers and blah blah blah when reinforcements come, wreck a bunch of stuff and Nora falls off a bridge to her death.  Hope, of course, sees this sees Snow survived and instantly decides that he has to remedy that, except he doesn't really....know how to do that.  At all.  So he just sorts of festers impotently for a while before a series of bad decisions leads him to follow Snow (with Vanille in tow) which gets him close to Snow, whom he simply does not confront in any way, shape or form.  It's incredibly awkward and by some measure, I understand that it's supposed to be, but much like the laughing scene from Final Fantasy X, it blurs the line between intended results and actual results.  This theme carries on for at least ten hours into the game, if not more, until it reaches an apex and has absolutely no payoff whatsoever because of an accident that necessitates they work together and it all just sort of melts away.  It fizzles out and is wholly unsatisfying.

This is where it gets a little more spoiler-y since I'm going to move on to points that weren't spoken of freely before the game came out.  If you take what is basically the exact same layout of "Person A accidentally causes Person B to lose a family member" and apply it to Sazh and Vanille, that works out to what I was stating is the best scene in the entire damn game.  Without getting into too much detail, Sazh has a son who, prior to the events of main-game FFXIII was turned into a l'Cie which is basically a death sentence.  Vanille is more or less the reason for that and yes, it wasn't on purpose any more than Nora's demise was Snow's fault, but they were still basically catalysts to their incidents.  Thing is, Vanille -knows- what happened - she was there after all, but while she's traveling with Sazh (just the two of them as the party split happens, which keeps every group to two people annoyingly) it....well, never comes up.  Even after Sazh tells his story of why he was on the Purge train that got derailed and started their whole little adventure, she says absolutely nothing about it.

This has all the same elements as the Hope/Snow angle in that it's established and has time to build before it comes to a boil as it were, since you are given time to know just what is going on and anticipate when it's all going to come crashing down.  It's just that, for Hope and Snow, it sort of just flops, whereas with Sazh and Vanille, it's an absolute trainwreck, but in a good way.  It's compelling, it's dramatic and it's very -real- the way he reacts when he finds out the truth.  I won't spoil that much, as it's something you honestly have to see unfold, and it's also best done when you actually have something invested in the game itself, but it unfolds in an absolutely amazing way.  It is, like I've said three times already, my favorite part in the entire game, and I think the part that legitimizes it from a story-telling perspective.  I don't know how it was done so well, only that it honestly was, and for that, I can only really applaud everyone involved.  Even knowing how it would turn out, how it would end, and what the aftermath would be, I couldn't help but be invested into it and find it as powerful as it was.

That is no small part of what I insist that FFXIII's characters are its second strong point, and perhaps even the strongest point the game has, but it's not the only part.  As I said, every character is established as their own entity which is criminally overlooked sometimes, and while some characters do border on stereotype, I would say that they all have enough depth that they're firmly not in that category.  Nobody feels flat or one-dimensional and everyone is noticeably different in behavior and outlook at the end than they were at the start, and there's not really any point in between where I questioned that change.  I admit that of the six, Hope was my least favorite and I do believe he saw the least amount of growth and development, but I even grudgingly admit that he did grow as a character through the game and with a little tweaking, could've been far better than he ended up.  Still, it's good that that's one of FFXIII's strong points because any good character is built on its battle system, its story and its characters.  Final Fantasy XIII has two of those.

Final Fantasy XIII's battle system is an odd, odd thing in that it is very focused and very well-designed under a certain group of circumstances, and then is utilized for half of the entire game improperly.  As in Squeenix, the people who made the battle system, force you through 20 hours of gameplay in which the battle system, the entire backbone of the goddamn game, is used in a way that it was not intended.  I will again refer you to the theory that Squeenix has absolutely no idea what they're doing at any given moment before moving along because I feel that is quite necessary.  For those not in the know, FFXIII's battle system is sort of a last bastion of Turn-based combat in that there is still an ATB gauge which still governs what your (controlled) character does (you can only be the leader, no one else) which you pick by auto-battle which considers the enemy and generally lines up a good variety of attacks to use, or by manually selecting abilities open to that class at the time.

Where it all changes up is that, with the class system, everyone is forced into particular roles that can only do so much.  Healers heal.  Commandos hit things.  Ravagers cast spells that hit things.  Et cetera, et cetera.  This is where the paradigm thing steps in.  You have what's known in-game as the Paradigm deck which is basically six slots with which you pick six combinations of the classes open to your characters to be at any given time.  Generally you want to stick with a good variety, make someone a Commando and someone else a Ravager, stick a Sentinel and a Medic together, etc. just so everyone plays off everyone's strengths.  It's a system about versatility that, considering it has only six slots, is a bit limited, but not incredibly so.  At any point in a battle, you hit L1 (on PS3) to open your Paradigm deck and switch, adding an element of strategy to battles.  Need a heal?  Switch to a paradigm with a Medic.  Need to build up a chain fast?  Switch to your Com/Rav paradigm or, if you're feeling lucky, Double Rav, hoping that the chain gauge doesn't deplete too fast.

You'll notice that I'm talking in terms of twos, which is what you're faced with at the start of the game through, again, about the 20-hour mark.  (Which is basically a straight-shot, as everyone says.  I mean, there's no real place that's good to grind in and actually no real reason to grind until you get to the latter half of the game, so you're really just pushed into going from plot point to plot point.)  The problem here, which is indeed a very big problem is that the Paradigm Battle System is intended for three party members.  Or, if not quite that, then it works -best- with three party members which is to say it works at all.  The system is just too...boring when you only have two people in it, or at least having three people outshines it that much that it feels flat otherwise.  When you have three party members in Final Fantasy XIII, the battle system is fun and it's interesting in that it's just interesting to look at, but you start getting a real feel for just how important all three characters and their roles are since just one difference could be the difference between getting stomped in a battle and winning unconditionally.

Again, how Squeenix was seemingly that clueless as to what was fun and what wasn't and what worked and what didn't boggles the mind completely and totally, but intentional or not, the battle system is an absolute treat in the circumstances with which it's allowed to truly shine, making it the third strength of the game.  If I didn't realize that when a small tweak in my party line-up was the difference in fighting a nearly unwinnable battle against the final boss and kicking said boss in his goddamn teeth so fast he didn't know what the fuck, then starting up Final Fantasy XIII-2 certainly made me realize it.  The game, of course, begins with only two characters using roughly the same battle system and it just serves to reaffirm my thoughts because it's boring as shit.  I'm told I'll get access to the third party member situation soon enough and it's pretty much right at the start of the game so that's fine, but the system just was not built for two people.  I cannot bury that point in any more than I have here and given that you've got to wade through so much shit as you do to get to the point where you have three people all the time, I can see why a lot of people threw the game aside in frustration.  Hell, I almost did that but in the end, I'm glad that I did.

That right there, that measure of being glad that I played the game, despite -everything- it has going against it, is why I thought it was worth it to actually attempt getting into it and reviewing it.  Even now, I've still got a lot of unresolved feelings about the game itself and I suspect a lot of them will just remain that way no matter what.  It's just such an -odd- game in that it actually -is- a good game under Squeenix's best efforts to the contrary when that's almost never the case.  Regardless of that, or perhaps -because- of that, I think it's probably one of those games that I'll never be able to completely forget which means that, by some measure, it is a fairly special game, for better or worse.  Certainly not my favorite game in the series, but I have a -lot- more opinion on it, a lot more general feelings and thoughts about it than most other games in the series, so that's saying something there.  And once again, I just have to come back to the bit where I said that I'm glad I played it, because even though I didn't love it or even like it at times, I feel like it was worth seeing it through.  I really think that says a lot more than I could hope to do otherwise.

The Good
  • The Battle System, under the right circumstances, is rather good and fast-paced
  • The Characters are all at least fairly well fleshed-out and aren't just stereotypes or one-dimensional
  • It is probably the prettiest game that came out in 2009/2010 by a wide margin
  • The Sazh/Vanille team and arc is so good by any standard, and especially against the rest of XIII
  • The music is pretty good with only a few tracks bringing it down overall
  • Character design is tastefully well done, as is the general world that FFXIII features
  • There are at least a lot of good -ideas- going on
The Bad
  • You don't get to use the Battle System properly for 20 hours
  • The overarching story is predictable and not particularly engaging unlike the character stories
  • So many missed opportunities
  • The mishandling of the game is apparent at every moment, reminding you that it honestly could've been good
  • Eidolon Fights are still stupid
  • It is just as linear as you've heard
  • It takes an absurd amount of time to 100%
Mogs Says
Final Fantasy XIII is not perfect.  It's not even close.  But it also doesn't have to be perfect or close because what it is is pretty good.  It's a good game done poorly, unfortunately, and you can only get to the point where the game is fun and interesting after a bunch of stuff that's done improperly.  It's certainly not for everyone and even not for folks who might consider themselves RPG-lovers because there is a 20-hour section of bad gameplay before it gets to how it was supposed to be, and is only then completely enjoyable.  At one point, Squeenix might have had something really really good with the game, but they wobbled it far too much and everyone suffered for it.  Still, they couldn't destroy everything good about it, and what's there and good is oftentimes great.

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