Re-Evaluating Final Fantasy XIII
Editor's Note: I guess I should say this isn't an official ScrewAttack review (if you can call it a review). Now that I got that out of the way, I'd just like to say that this is a mighty fine piece of work and because of it, I think I'll check out some games I haven't played in awhile. Thanks Englishman!
Back in early 2010, I was very excited for the release of Final Fantasy XIII. The series had always impressed, and nostalgic memories of VII, VIII and X fueled my excitement for the game. Add in the hype that was generated at the time and I was desperate to get my hands on it. I preordered FFXIII, paying £40 for the privilege. And when I got the game... well I was pretty disappointed. The reviews for the game generally highlighted the main problems and it's fair to say that I wasn't the only one who was annoyed with the experience. I thought the game was terrible and put it as my second most disappointing game ever. I got to Chapter 11 but gave up in annoyance.
I left the game for two years without thinking about it again. I nearly sold it earlier this year when I cleared out a bunch of my old games, keeping it only because I wouldn't come close to getting the same amount I paid for it. Not long after, I saw a video for the game on Youtube and thought 'Maybe I should try it again?' After blitzing my way through, I managed to beat the game recently. I decided that I'd do a blog, comparing my impressions after first playing it to my recent experiences and see how my feelings have changed.
I'll be looking over three areas in this comparison: Story, Gameplay and Presentation. I'll compare my thoughts from 2010 to 2012 and see how things have changed. There be mild spoilers but I'll try to steer clear of major issues.
On the world of Cocoon divine beings known as Fal'Cie create a land suitable for human beings to live and work, free from fears of the world below, known as Pulse. When a Pulse artifact is found on Cocoon, fear spreads among the populace and the Fal'Cie act to stem the panic by initiaing a Purge of the affected area. This Purge brings together a band of people who have their own motivations. Through their actions, they are branded as l'Cie, beings which are feared by ordinary humans which turn to monsters if they do not complete a Focus. The heroes search for a way to change their fate.
What I thought then:
There's a certain problem with some sci-fi and fantasy where they casually throw out alien concepts and expect the viewer/reader to instantly know what they are talking about. This is something I experienced with FFXIII where terms like Fal'Cie and l'Cie were dropped into the conversation without much explanation given. Yet this was nowhere near as annoying as the pacing of the game. The chapters I played the first time around moved at a glacial pace, with pretty much the first eight chapters being the heroes 'running away from the bad guys'. It was only after the true villain was revealed that things finally started to pick up, yet my patience was worn out. The heroes had gotten fairly tiresome as well. Some like the ex-soldier Lightning (basically a female Cloud), the pilot Sazh and the fairly mysterious Fang were endearing enough to care about but others grew tiresome. Snow (the fella with the big coat) is missing for half the game, Vanille seemed grating for her over-cheerfulness and I considered Hope as one of the worst characters in video game history, mainly for his horrible whinny attitude.
How I feel now:
I still have issues with the fairly glacial placing of the story. If a game contains chapters, it really shouldn't spend nearly three quarters of them just simply going over the character's motivations. Yet at the same time, possibly since I knew that things would go slowly this time around, I could appreciate how these early chapters develop each character. Lightning develops some real emotions (like Cloud!), Snow becomes more realistic though still fairly idealistic. Even Hope changes, going from horribly whiny to... well just normal really. The later chapters also shift the focus from character drama to more widescale 'fate of the world' stuff. It's more cinematic and generally more interesting. I have to admit that the last three chapters are far better and I was genuinely engaged with the story at the end.
FFXIII is basically split into two forms of gameplay. There's the exploation on the overworld, where the heroes work through Cocoon's various locales and there's the battles in the game. The game alters the traditional battle system by only allowing the player to have direct control over one character, with the other two controlled by the computer. The paradigm system allows the player to give each character roles, e.g. one character using magic, one using physical attacks and one providing healing support.
What I thought then:
A lot of people, including myself, had the same complaint regarding the game's world; that there wasn't one. FFXIII did away with a number of traditional RPG conventions like towns, inns and a 'World Map'. The game's experience seemed very streamlined. Shops became accessible through the save system, inns were unnecessary as health was renewed after every battle. Basically, every section was 'start at Point A and fight through monsters to reach B' with very little deviation. The main complaint with FFXIII was that the game was too linear, with many suggesting that it was basically a series of fancy corridors.
I had little love for the battle system either. Only having direct control over one character was a major frustration, as was the ridiculous idea that once that character died, the game was over. The paradigm system was initally confusing as well, though as time passed it became clearer how putting characters into different roles suited some enemies more than others. The Crystarium (similar to FFX's Sphere Grid) helped to develop these abilities, though it also meant that battles were fairly similar until the roles a character could pick expanded.
How I feel now:
The linear nature of the early part of the game simply doesn't change on a second playthrough. While the world may look large, the player is restricted only to a series of pathways throughout, with little opportunity to deviate. However, having the patience to go through these areas is rewarded later in the game. The world opens up and more variety is offered as a result. The game finally seems to offer more freedom in what the player does. Even so, this section comes far later than expected. I'm sure most, like myself, would have given up before reaching this point.
Whilst this remained frustrating though, I began to appreciate the battle system more. The paradigm system creates more focus on having the right tactical set up in each fight, which can get interesting during boss battles when having to switch between set ups on the fly. It also helped that I understood how FFXIII's weapon system worked. When I first played the game I assumed that, like previous FF games, a better weapon would simply be found along the way, so I never really used the upgrade system. This uses materials to upgrade weapons, making them more powerful. As a result, battles were far less difficult. I guess my assumption about how the game would be played hampered my experience the first time around.
What I thought then:
Graphically, I had no complaints with the game at all. The game has a 'future fantasy' look to it which is brilliantly realised with some wonderful looking environments. Character models are brilliantly detailed and defined. FFX was the first Final Fantasy game where I genuinely was wowed by the graphics but there was always an awkward transition between cutscene and in-game graphics. No problems here, with a consistent impressive style. I was significantly impressed.
The audio wasn't quite the same. The voice work was pretty impressive, with a few 'Hey I recognise that voice!' moments. The music though just didn't seem to leave as much of an impression though. Previous FF games had some great musical moments, especially VI and VII. FFXIII just seemed to lack the sort of music to inspire.
How I feel now:
Perhaps I'm showing my age, but the game still looks seriously impressive to me in the two years that have passed. Playing late into the game gives a great look at the open world, as well as some well designed areas in Cocoon itself. A second playthrough also showed me how good the game's cutscenes are, showing off how impressive Square's CGI can be. There's a cutscene at the opening of Chapter 12 which is probably one of the best I've ever seen.
I also noticed that, while most of the game's audio is still fairly unremarkable, there are a few battle themes that really stand out and come close to being of the quality of the other games. They might not be the best ever, but it's not as bad as I originally thought.
Two years ago, I gave up with Final Fantasy XIII in sheer frustration and disappointment. After shelling out full price to pick the game up on Day 1, I felt like I might as well have thrown my money away. The game felt like it had thrown out good conventions for streamlined, linear gameplay and tiresome characters. I felt that the game was one of the most disappointing ever, and went along with the popular idea that the Final Fantasy series was done.
But my recent experience with the game has changed my opinion. The flaws are still there; the characters ranging from good to weak, the gameplay turned from world explorer to corridor wanderer and more. Yet I also found that opening my self to the game's ideas, such as weapon upgrading and the paradigm system, improved the experience greatly. As well as that, some of the issues that bugged me the first time around seemed less troublesome on a repeated playthrough.
So do I still think the game is awful? No not really. It isn't a good game by Final Fantasy standards but a pretty decent game, albeit with some noticeable flaws. Perhaps the best way of expressing my changed views is my reaction to FFXIII-2. When it was being trailed earlier in the year, I simply rolled my eyes in disappointment. Now I've seen it on sale for only £7 and I'm seriously considering it.