FINAL FANTASY 13 (2010) – SQUARE ENIX
Few games have polarised opinion so much in the last few years as Final Fantasy 13. The first game of the series to be released on the seventh generation of consoles (online games excluded), it greatly deviates from the traditional Final Fantasy formula, and has cast a great divide between fans as a result. I was originally going to buy the game on the day of release, but was put off doing so by the sheer amount of negativity that it generated amongst the press. Over a year later, I have finally got my hands on a copy and played through it, and sadly despite going into it with all the best intentions, I find Final Fantasy 13 to be a rather drab and monotonous affair.
The first of many things that I take issue with in Final Fantasy 13 is the plot. The game takes place in a giant ball in the sky called Cocoon, which sits in the air above a massive area known as Grand Pulse. Within Cocoon, citizens are reliant on Fal’cie, all powerful deities who provide power and keep the world in check. These Fal’cie also have another gift, the ability to turn normal humans into L’cie; basically, L’cie are people who have been given a task to complete, and either turn to crystal and experience immortality if they succeed, or turn into mindless zombies called Cieth damned to roam the world forever…basically, they are buggered whatever they choose to do. The main story follows Lightning, who is trying to fight the Fal’cie for turning her sister into a L’cie. Accompanying her in her quest are Snow (a leader of a rebel faction in Cocoon who also happens to be engaged to Lightning’s sister), Hope (a young boy from Cocoon who blames his mother’s death on Snow), Sazh (who is looking to save his son from becoming a Cieth), Vanille (a ridiculously cheery girl with an Australian accent) and Fang (a badass women…with an Australian accent). There all sorts of complicated twists and turns that follow therein over about 35 hours of core gameplay.
Here’s the thing though; the plot is pretty dire. The main problem is the characters themselves: they are either cheery to the point where you might wonder if they are high on drugs, or miserable bastards, and it happens all the way through the game. Lightning is a pretty emotionless lead (not in the same vein as a Cloud or a Squall, just…very one tracked), other characters that you interact with are either bland or not used anywhere near enough to make you like or hate them – only Sazh has any real likeability about him, because he acts the most normal out of anyone. Added to the character trait problem is the fact that you are never really sure what the party is aiming for; their motives and actions change far too much to highlight any consistent goal. It’s also very easy to get bogged down and confused with the various factions you encounter; L’cie, Pulse L’cie, Fal’cie, PSICOM, the Cavalry – it took me about 10 hours to fully realise what was going on. Some people really enjoyed the narrative, but I think I’ll pass on this one.
If the story raised issues however, it was nothing compared to the backlash against the gameplay changes. Pretty much everything that you knew about traditional Final Fantasy has been unceremoniously thrown out of the window, and in many ways it hurts the game terribly. First case in point: towns have been removed completely. Sure, there are areas which could represent towns, like Palumpolum or Nautilus, but you can’t actually do anything in them. All shops have been condensed into menu screens at save points. There is also no world map to speak of whatsoever – what you get with this game is linear corridors by the bucketload. For at least the first 25 hours, most of your time will be spent walking down a corridor to your objective, watching a cutscene or fighting a battle, and then continuing the process down another corridor. It’s a terribly depressing experience, because there is no sense of exploration, treasure chests are usually on the beaten track, and the ever present map on the screen only works to reinforce this. The game does eventually open up when you arrive in Gran Pulse, but by that time its far too late, and as soon as you get off the plains its back to corridors. I know the series has been working its way towards this sort of gameplay since Final Fantasy 10, but the effect is so much more pronounced here.
The battle system has also undergone a complete overhaul. Whereas beforehand you would get random battles, all enemies are now present on the screen, and it is up to you to either ignore enemies, or run into them and engage in a fight. When you start a fight, you will notice a big gauge on your screen, which is split into parts and slowly fills up over time. This is called the ATB Gauge, and is the key to battling in the game. As the meter fills up, you can select certain skills to use, like Attack or magic spells, and queue them up. When the gauge is full, you will unleash your attacks on the targets. Sounds complicated, but is actually pretty easy to use. Where Square have made a mistake though is with the inclusion of one simple command: the ‘Auto’ command prompt. Basically, selecting this command will let the game choose the attacks that it feels suitable for attacking the enemy, and will then execute them, automating the entire process. Although at the start of the game you can get by without it, it very quickly becomes clear that in order to progress in the game, you need to used the Auto prompt to select moves as quickly as possible to keep yourself alive, and from here on in battles become a matter of pressing the A button twice per turn and letting the game play for you. I absolutely hate it. It means that you can complete the game with little to no skill and it makes battling boring as hell. If I wanted to play an action RPG I’ll go play Kingdom Hearts where I actually have to mash buttons to attack.
In a bid to prevent the game being completely automated, Square have introduced a system called Paradigm Shift. The basics behind this is that before entering a battle, you set up paradigms that allow your party to take on various roles, of which there are six available: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Sentinel, Saboteur and Synergist. Each class has their own set of skills, so being a Commando focuses strategy on brute force, Medics can heal, and Sentinels take damage for example. Because skills aren’t transferable from class to class, you have to set up a balanced set of paradigms to overcome any situation. Initially I was sceptical about the system, but I soon came to like it as you can switch paradigms on the fly in battle, meaning that you can seamlessly move between a brute attack force of three Commandos to a balanced set up of a Medic to heal, a Sentinel to take damage and a Saboteur to debuff the enemy. Still, this system has little impact on the boring nature of the battles overall, you just change the Auto prompt depending on what class you are i.e. Auto-Attack, Auto-Heal, Auto-Buff etc., so you are still pressing A endlessly to overcome situations. And why it takes four hours to unlock is a mystery to me; it’s clearly the best part of a poor battling system, so why would Square delay your use of it? A piece of advice if you do want to use the paradigms however, Synergists are key in this game, as buffing yourself makes one hell of a difference.
There are other changes to the gameplay that I greatly detest as well. You no longer get money from winning battles; instead you get a rating out of five stars depending on how you have performed, and this affects item drops. What this means is that through the first half of the game where money is very scarce, you have to make do without Phoenix Downs and other bits and bobs that one takes for granted in Final Fantasy. You also get automatically healed after a battle, completely negating the need for potions or curing spells. You also don’t get traditional EXP anymore, instead you get what are called Crystallium Points after a battle, and these are used to level up your Paradigms, and weapons are upgraded with EXP from items gained in battle. Even these staple systems of a RPG are flawed though, as the weapon upgrades aren’t unlocked until about 15 hours in, and the levelling mechanic for the paradigms is a matter of holding A until your points run out, as the skill trees are straight line. At least the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy 10 had flexibility to it in choosing where you wanted to go.
My biggest personal problem with the game though, is that I doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game; a lot of the classic elements to the games, such as Moogles and being able to chit-chat with NPC’s, are completely absent. Chocobo’s are present, but you can only use them on Gran Pulse. Classic enemies like Tonberries, Cactuars and Ochu’s are used sparsely, being replaced with a lot of rather dull enemies based off the L’Cie and Cieth plotlines. Summons are present, and each character has complete control over one, but they no longer has the imperious sense of old. They accompany you in battle, but their attacks are pitiful. After a while you will build up what is called a Gestalt gauge, at which point you can press a button and watch as the summons…transform? Yep, Odin turns into a horse, The Shiva sisters turn into a motorcycle, and the two new summons turn into a race car and a…thing respectively. A friend of mine almost cried in despair when he saw Bahamut’s pathetic Gestalt form. There is also a conspicuous lack of side quests, the only one coming to mind being the Cieth stone missions dotted around Gran Pulse, where you have to find a stone, find the respective monster attached to it, kill it, and then rinse and repeat 64 times. Classic names in the franchise are used to name airships and towns, but it feels tacked on. I would describe it overall as a very cold experience, and it just doesn’t seem to fit within the classic lineage one has come to expect from a Final Fantasy game.
Praise should come where praise is due however, and Final Fantasy 13 can be very proud of the way it presents itself. Few games have come out that can match the visual splendour that this game achieves at pretty much all times. With the story being split into chapters we get treated to many different and highly detailed environments, whether it be the inner metropolis of Cocoon, a quiet woodside path, crystalline forests, deep within the bowels of an airship or across the vast plains of Gran Pulse – all of them are seriously impressive to look at, especially Gran Pulse where you see the huge monsters roaming the plains freely in the distance. Battling is also a flourish of action and movement (no more holding station until it’s your turn anymore), with Lightning flipping all over the place in a bid to distract you from the fact that you’ve just pressed A twice – surprisingly it works sometimes. The cutscenes are full of the action and detail that we have come to expect from Square Enix, and I also have to comment on the menu screens which are some of the best produced I’ve seen in a video game. I think the fact that the game spans three discs on the Xbox 360 is a testament to two things: number one, Microsoft really should find a way to increase disc capacity, and number two that Square were determined to maximise the graphical prowess of the game.
This game also marks the first time that Nobuo Uematsu did not compose a single piece of music for a Final Fantasy game, instead the score is courtesy of one Masashi Hamauzu, one of the men responsible for Final Fantasy 10’s soundtrack. Overall there is a nice blend to the music; many tracks featuring prominent orchestral, rock, electronic and jazz sections. Standout tracks include the battle theme (one of my favourites it must be said), Pulse De Chocobo, Snow’s theme, and the Mount Yaschas theme. On the voice acting front, there is nothing spectacular to comment on, but the cast does a good overall job; certainly, it’s a lot less cheesy than one would expect from a JRPG translation. I still wonder however why the hell Leona Lewis was chosen to be on the soundtrack…the song is bollocks, but fortunately barely features until the end. Enjoy the good tunes before it turns up.
Usually, critics are able to put games under very definite categories, be they good, bad, terrible or awesome. Final Fantasy 13 escapes this rather blunt classification, because the fans of the series can’t decide on what it is meant to be. My personal opinion is that it is overwhelming style over substance, and it would have perhaps fared better if it was released under the disguise of a new IP rather than the Final Fantasy name, and all the prestige that that brings with it. I simply can’t forgive Square for locking the better aspects of the game away from players for so long and forcing an automated battle system upon them. The game has its fans, that’s the main reason why the sequel is all but ready for release in January 2012. Sadly though, I’m not one of them.