Final Fantasy XIII is, without a doubt, the most technically impressive Final Fantasy game ever created. See also: Final Fantasy XIII-2 review.
Its stunning visuals and fast-paced combat shine and elevate the series to new heights, but overall, Final Fantasy XIII is a harsh reminder that beauty is only skin deep.
I'm having a hard time admitting to myself that I don't like Final Fantasy XIII. By all accounts, I should love it and instead, I'm disappointed by it. It's not because Final Fantasy XIII is a bad game - it's because it's not the game I wanted it to be. My disappointment runs deeper than that, though. I have a longstanding emotional connection to the Final Fantasy series and it feels to me like XIII is trying to break it off in an awkward, mean way. It's like a boyfriend I've been on-again, off-again with since middle school invited me to coffee. He can't just tell me "It's over," so instead he tells me he's married and lets me figure out the rest.
Final Fantasy XIII
Rejection stings. It makes us bitter and more prone to passing unfair judgments on the jerk that jilted us just so we feel better about where we're coming from. I am bitter about Final Fantasy XIII not being the game I wanted it to be. Perhaps that makes me harsher on it when I see that there's no Japanese audio track option and there's not a single town to visit within the game. But I'm a jilted lover; I'm a letdown JRPG fan. How else am I supposed to act in the wake of a breakup?
Perhaps I should've been ready for it. After all, every Final Fantasy is a little different from the game that precedes it. I've lived through shifts in gameplay between Final Fantasy VI's Active Time Battle system, Final Fantasy VIII's Junction system, and the Active Dimension Battle system in Final Fantasy XII. After all that, I felt like I could handle XIII's Paradigm Shift system. What I couldn't handle was how different XIII was, especially in terms of how linear a game it is.
Instead of an open world the player can explore bits of at any given time in the story, the world in Final Fantasy XIII is broken up into 13 levels called "chapters". Of those chapters, 11 consist of fighting your way through soldiers, monsters and robots (or a combination of the three) down a long hallway toward an orange target symbol on your mini-map that triggers a cutscene, a boss fight, or both. Then you move onto the next hallway or level and do the whole thing over again. That change was a bit too much for me to handle as a JRPG fan, especially because it felt like an obvious attempt to woo someone else rather than me, its loyal fan.
I remember reading quotes from the development team where they discussed making these dramatic changes in XIII, largely as a response to the lukewarm reception XII got. I'd been warned that the game wouldn't have as much world exploration as other Final Fantasy games and that the battle system would make combat faster and more action-y. On an intellectual level, I was happy about these changes because they represented a break with JRPG tradition.
In the past two years, Japanese developers at the Tokyo Game Show have been very vocal about the need for their games to "catch up" to Western RPGs in order to appeal to a wider audience. I actually agree with part of that sentiment - I think JRPGs grew stale somewhere between Suikoden V and Dragon Quest VII while new, Western-developed RPGs like Mass Effect and Fable feel fresh and exciting to me.
At the same time, I can't just shift my expectations of Final Fantasy with a button press. Numbered Final Fantasy games mean something to me. They're not like the Crystal Chronicles or Tactics spin-off series which I can justify ignoring because they're not part of the "main series".
From CC and Tactics, I expect lip service to Final Fantasy tradition - from a numbered Final Fantasy, I expect it to be tradition. I expect a gripping epic story accompanied by swelling dramatic music. I expect glitzy cutscenes and Limit Breaks. I expect to play a numbered Final Fantasy and feel the same way I felt back in high school when I finally beat Final Fantasy VIII and had an emotional reaction to the ending that resulted in Kleenex and a the compulsive need to call my then-boyfriend at three in the morning.
On some level, I think the developers knew that. They knew that while there is a new audience to capture, they couldn't simply ignore the dedicated fan base that it has cultivated over the years either. That's why the game makes attempts at fan service in the form of chocobos you can eventually ride at the end of the game, the marketable pieces of jewelry featured in-game, and the Summons (here called Eidolons) which play a big part in the story. But even with these nods to franchise tradition, I'm still not happy with Final Fantasy XIII because it doesn't really feel like Final Fantasy. It only really captures the familiar series vibe for one measly chapter; everything else feels alien, and the end result is a game that feels unfair to both me and that "other" audience they want to seduce. It's like somewhere between trying to please the audience it didn't have and the one it's always had, Final Fantasy XIII got confused about what kind of game it needed to be.
You can clearly see that confusion in the transition between chapters 10 and 11. At the end of chapter 10, the game abruptly stops being a linear affair and gives you access to all six characters in the main cast, instead of just two or three that you'd been stuck with since chapter 1. You can choose which three you want to take into battle and suddenly, you're allowed to change their classes to any of the six in the game instead of just the three the game chose for each character. Then, in chapter 11, the game changes the setting and drops you in an open world environment you can explore, the same way you would in nearly every other numbered Final Fantasy game that came before XIII.
After 10 levels of linear gameplay in enclosed spaces, this sudden freedom is downright jarring. Seeing the wide open expanse of Gran Pulse sweeping before your party with free-roaming monsters of all sizes for you to fight at your leisure while leveling which characters you want to level in whatever class you choose is overwhelming, like a sudden attack of agoraphobia. But what makes it so incredibly upsetting is that this is the first - and only - time where XIII feels like Final Fantasy. In essence, it took me 30 hours to get to the "fun" part of the game and then only 10 hours after I got there, the game dragged me back to enclosed spaces and straight-line maps with hardly a nook or cranny worth exploring for loot for chapters 12 and 13.
That's the other part of Final Fantasy XIII that frustrates me: Everything you "need" is always right in front of you. Most chests are directly in your path; all shops can be accessed at each save point you come to; and if ever you hit a wall in gameplay, you can usually advance by changing your party or upgrading weapons as opposed to traditional level-grinding.
I suppose you could argue that these changes represent progress in JRPG design, especially if you're the kind of gamer who finds "grinding" to be a negative thing. Remember, though, that many JRPG fans - heck, even regular RPG fans -- actually like grinding. It gives players a chance to bond with their characters and experiment with different equipment setups and battle statistics. For me, grinding in JRPGs is the illusion of control in a game that came with preset characters and a plot that has nothing to do with me.
Removing the grinding is another clear-cut attempt to entice that "other" gamer who I'm quickly becoming jealous of. Some gamers don't appreciate the joy of fighting battle after battle for no real reason other than experience points - all they want is to get back to the story and finish the game. To that end, the lack of grinding does put the plot of Final Fantasy XIII very much in-your-face.
Thankfully, at least it's a decent story about a group of individuals who become cursed with what amounts to a magical STD and then go on a quest to figure out why they have to destroy the world in order to cure it. Like any other RPG, the plot gets a little overwrought at times - or maybe it just feels that way because I'm fatigued by long hallways with equally long cutscenes at the end of them - but the characters really hold your attention and the English voice acting is spot-on during the most dramatic moments.
NEXT: where's the Japanese sound track?