Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Final Fantasy XIII - More linear than a straight line

So, with the release of Final Fantasy XIII, the perennial Square Enix franchise finally comes to the PlayStation 3 and the... Xbox 360? Despite sneaking onto a non-Sony console, the game garnered a lot of attention due to its long development time. When it finally hit consoles, it looked like it still needed time to cool.

How it Looks: Fantastic!
It wouldn't be a true Final Fantasy game without great visuals, and XIII has it in spades. The in-game engine makes most other games' cut scenes seem tame in comparison, and the cut scenes make even Pixar jealous. Characters, both main and minor, are heavily detailed. Monsters look and move very fluidly. Landscapes are just as gorgeous, being able to see far into backdrops and other outer-lying areas. Unlike past Final Fantasies (excluding the two MMOs and XII), there's no difference between the graphics of the characters, monsters, and environments during regular play and during battles, which lessens the disconnect between battles and roaming.

How it Sounds: Great
With a futuristic setting such as Cocoon, the music for most of the game fits. There are some great tracks to listen to (I find myself listening to Snow's Theme and the battle theme, Blinded by Light, a fair bit outside of gameplay), but mostly they're average, and nothing much will stick in your head outside of gameplay. The tracks do suit their location and situation though, so nothing really to complain about. The voice acting is a bit hit or miss at first, but settles in about a quarter of the way through and really shines. Even poorly voiced characters like Vanille (which really sounds grating during the first four chapters) gets better as the game goes on.

How it Feels: Fluid
Controls are solid, especially in combat. There are very few multi-button combinations in combat, which is great in a fast-paced combat system like this. However, it takes a bit to get familiar with what each button does in order to master the combat system. There's R1 for seeing enemy stats, Triangle stops the gauge and forces action, Circle cancels attacks, L1 switches Stances... not many RPGs use a lot of buttons other than Confirm, Cancel, and D-Pad, so it takes a bit of adjusting, but once you do, it'll feel second nature.

How it Plays: Flat/Boring
Here's the game's major flaw: it is linear. I don't mean "there aren't many sidequests along the way to distract you" linear, I mean "here is a narrow corridor, followed by a narrow corridor, followed by a, you guessed it, narrow corridor" linear. There is absolutely no off-paths that aren't just for a chest in the first 10 chapters of the game. At any time, you have one way to go, and while the game shows you where you need to go, there's really no reason for the most part; there is usually only one pathway to go. Not only that, but the story forces the party into a state of solitude almost right at the get-go, so there's nobody to talk to either. Stores are accessed through save points only, so there's not even any interaction there. Things open up once you get into the 11th chapter, with more areas to explore and (finally) some sidequesting, but it'll take a lot of perseverance to get that far. The only bright spot in the game is the combat, which is great, because you'll be doing a lot of it. It's fast and fresh, which is a great change of pace. Each character gains 2 or 3 different Paradigm Stances which gives them different abilities. The basic RPG classes are here: healer, mage, brawler, and tank are all here, plus a status-inflicting class and a stagger-setup class. Staggering enemies is a great way of finishing them off fast (and the easiest way to beat most bosses): each enemy has a stagger gauge, which fills up as it gets hit. The higher the gauge, the more damage it takes. Once it gets filled, you can deal massive damage with even basic attacks, pretty much destroying the enemy in seconds. At most you can have a party of 3, but you only control one person (the leader), the rest are AI-controlled. However, when the leader dies, it's game over, even if the other two are perfectly fine, which can be a nuisance in hard fights or with multiple enemies that go straight for the leader.

Game Length: 50+ Hours
A lengthy story, over 50 monster targets to take down in chapter 11, and some pretty ridiculous trophies/achievements to get (getting one of every item requires hours upon hours of farming for money that's hard to get), Final Fantasy XIII has a lot of possible playtime to put into it. However, with very few choices to make, and characters that have little to no customization to them, it's more of whether you'd want to.

Verdict: Bargain Bin!
By no means is it a bad game, but there's just not much flexibility in the game to justify a full-price purchase unless you're a big fan of the series. Even then, there's a fair amount of change to the game that doesn't make it feel like a part of the series. Of course, since this review is only 10 months late, it's already down to a reasonable price. I'd say give it a try, but don't expect a great spectacle like the series' predecessors.

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