Starting humbly on the Nintendo Entertainment System years ago, Final Fantasy has grown into a cornerstone franchise of the video game industry. Now on to the thirteenth iteration, a confirmed fourteenth on the way, and countless spin-offs, quests, chronicles and tactics on the side, biting your tongue on the irony of the name could cut off the blood circulation. Now moving into the next-generation of consoles, Square gives the fans more of the pretty melodrama they have come to gush over. How does this finale stack up against all the others?
Spoilers to follow.
This is usually the part of a review where I attempt to cleanly summarize a story, but if the game doesn’t bother with a recognizable narrative, that sure leaves a lot of slack for me to pick up. Here’s what I got. Two individuals, Lightning and Snow, are caught in the middle of a battle/massacre when seeking their mutually beloved (Lightning’s sister, Snow’s fiancé) Serah. Serah has become what is known as a l’Cie, an outcasted individual cursed by the godlike fal’Cie to accomplish a vague task. Lightning and Snow, along with a posse of new friends Sazh, Hope and Vanille, find Serah only to witness her transform into a crystal. Cheesed to have been cheated after a two hour-ish prologue, this new party decides to destroy the responsible fal’Cie only end up marked as l’Cie themselves. Their focus? Uncertain, but assume that it is in someway to prevent the destruction of their world Cocoon. A tall glass, but with their curse also comes new powers, such as magically infused attacks and the ability to summon personal guardians known as Eidolon. I know Microsoft Word, you are red-lining a lot of typos there, how do you think I feel?
A narrative is a key component in any RPG. It is the driving factor to journey through hours, days and weeks of grinding combat. The problem with XIII is the struggle with the key narrative. While there do seem to be some very novel concepts at play, it’s all told incredibly poorly. The game seems to drop you in the middle of an active feud, with four plus party politics going it at four plus ways, all with names like Purge and Nora that seem to imply separate connotations from what their actual objective is. The truth of the matter slowly collects through a series of flashbacks, but it’s saturated by eons of wafer-thin melodrama, and when important exposition is coupled with crying by fireworks you end up taking away nothing. The characters are also a huge hindrance (the exceptions being Lightning, Sazh and Oberba), coming off more as a list of tropes than legitimate personalities. Snow, who looks like a combo meal of previous FF protagonists, is so obsessed with being ‘the good guy’ it eventually comes off as being more obsessive compulsive than noble. You’ll celebrate every moment you get to ditch Hope, knowing that it’s at least an hour you get to spend without hearing some truly relentless whining. Vanille is just weird, spawning Babelfish phrases made weirder by a voice actress who sounds like a Japanese girl impersonating an Australian.
One thing that Square gets right, that they always get right, is how pretty the game is. This is a pretty pretty game and while even the less than pretty environments may not flaunt it, the pretty pretty ones make you only happier about shelling out for an HDTV. The third chapter takes place in an ocean turned to crystal, the static shimmering water made the fully rotatable camera an exhilaration within itself. Even the pre-rendered cinematics only look inches above the quality of the in-game graphics. This comes as little surprise, of course. When Square makes a game you are promised it will be a visual wonder.
Yet it needed to be said, because even the foundations that made the series so great fall from under your feet. The combat has seen a near complete makeover, and most of it is both jostling and non-sensible. The combat is no longer turn based. Combat is constantly active, timing and execution now key as attacks and spells require an action meter to recharge. While in previous titles, and just about all traditional RPGs, you are able to control the entirety of your party, here you only control one. Other party members will always join you in the fray but which one you specifically control is in constant rotation and decided solely by the context of the story. You can’t command your party but you can make suggestions using a customizable paradigm system, which is now where the bulk of strategy resides. It’s not much fun to be told who you can and can not play as, especially after working towards earning an Eidolon only to learn you won’t be able to take them for a test drive for another few hours. Positioning on the battlefield also makes a huge difference, being out of reach from oncoming attacks or hitting multiple opponents at once with a single swipe can make the difference between victory and being felled by a pack of feral slugs. Which is why it’s absurd that there is no way to control your movement during combat. On top of the list of oddities, health now regenerates after every battle, taking away the gravity of long term defense. That said, only the party leader’s health matters in-battle, if they fall, regardless of the other two’s perfect health, it’s game over.
Final Fantasy XIII is a pretty clear effort on Square Enix’s part to move towards satisfying a more twitch action oriented demographic, but with the endless flood of tutorials and awkward narrative, it just alienates both old stalwarts and newcomers. I’ve loved previous installments of Final Fantasy, as any goodhearted gamer, but the installments that instill fond memories are feeling more and more distant. The creators are a little too fueled by hype, and there’s something tragically ironic that a game that is part of a self-powered locomotive begins with a train wreck scene.
Writer’s note: This review can also be seen on Spacecast.com where I post weekly reviews. Whether it appears here or there is up to fate now~