Final Fantasy XIII took a damn long time to come out. Hardly on the epic does-it-even-exist level of Duke Nukem Forever, but the game was first shown off at E3 back in 2006, for God’s sake. Over the course of the next four odd years, we were literally drip fed small tidbits of information with a pace akin to that of a stoned snail. Naturally, when the game did arrive, expectations were ridiculously high simply because of the length of the production cycle. Couple that with the fact that Final Fantasy is one of the few franchises out there that’s really worth getting massively, geekily excited about, then a small storm was already brewing. So when the game finally arrived in March of last year, it predictably shifted a lot of units, but opinion seemed exceptionally divided between Japanese and Western reviewers. Case in point, legendary Japanese magazine Famitsu gave the game 39/40, whilst IGN UK gave it an 8.3. With that in mind, let’s dig out the game and have another look to see if anyone actually got it right.
Firstly, everyone seems to agree that FFXIII is a technological triumph. Having played the PS3 version in full HD, it’s the best looking game the console has ever been graced with by some distance. The environments, character designs, even the bloody menus look amazing. Each setting is lavishly rendered, detailed and often stretches out for miles with barely any stuffy tunnels to speak of. Much of the credit for this has to go to the game’s primary setting, Cocoon. It’s a vast, lush, varied and fantastically realised world that is all the more impressive when you consider that you visit a frozen lake, industrial wasteland, lush forest and hi-tech city in the space of a single playthrough. But even these can’t compare to just how stunning this game’s FMVs (full motion videos) look. Seriously, there are times where your jaw will become one with the floor due to the sheer majesty of the visuals. Square often out-do themselves graphically wth each new FF, and just like each new FF game on a new console, they’ve really pushed the PS3 to its limits. Helping this quite awesome presentation is Masashi Hamauzu’s stirring orchestral-based score, which is simply the best the series has ever been graced with. Even without series soundtrack guru Nobuo Uematsu, Hamauzu has created a grand, epic and sophisticated score that deserves some special attention even after you put down your controller.
Hold up there, young ‘un; a wise old sage once said that visuals aint nothing without a decent story (although I might’ve made that up). XIII just about delivers in that department, offering us a nice, varied cast of characters with some compelling backstories. Snow, a heroic, somewhat moronic hulking beast of a man probably stands out as the pick of the bunch, simply because he’s so clearly flawed that when his moments of clarity arrive, they feel genuine. This is in contrast to the quite one-dimensional Lightning (she of box-art fame) who spends almost the entire game being grumpy and doesn’t often venture beyond it. The story itself is one of the most elaborate in series’ history, centered around the party’s attempt to escape Cocoon’s domineering, dogmatic government after they are branded enemies of the world by a God-like figure from the wild, dangerous world below; Pulse. All in all, it’s perhaps not the most focused story we’ve seen from an FF game, and it loses its way more than once before thankfully picking itself up towards the end of the game, but the real emphasis is on the characters and their own problems here. XIII gives us some of the most emotionally-charged sequences the series has ever seen, with two particularly dark sequences that’ll stick long in the memory.
Of course, it’s not all good, and one thing that almost everyone outside of Japan can agree on is that XIII is a dumb-foundingly linear game. Square responded by saying that Western reviewers were expecting a more Western influence with side quests and NPC’s to chat to, but Square has to take that criticism on the chin, because there’s nothing to do in the first 10 chapters except push your way through each environment and progress through the story. Now, most FF’s have always had a ton of stuff to do outside of the main quest, so the criticism is certainly grounded, but everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten about Final Fantasy X. Cast your minds back and you might recall a game so linear that the only thing for you to do for the first 30 hours or so outside of the story was blitzball. Yes, it did open up towards the end thanks to acquiring an airship (isn’t that always the way? What do FF characters have against public transport?), but it still took a damn long time to get there. With that in mind, it’s not like Square dropped a particularly large bomb in terms of giving us a massively linear game in XIII, and as FFX proved, an amazing story can make up for a dramatically linear approach during field gameplay. Your beef with XIII’s linearity will depend on just how invested you were in the Cocoon’s mythos and characters. In all honesty, it really shouldn’t have garnered the criticism it’s received, at least in this respect.
Like it or not (and some FF7 fanboys certainly do not), Final Fantasy is a series that never tries to do the same thing twice. Each of the numbered entries has featured a new setting, new story, new themes and new gameplay. Perhaps the biggest problem people have had with this latest entry in the series is its somewhat stripped-down approach. Normally, fans have been able to distract themselves from problems with plots or characters by getting their teeth into the gameplay or side questing themselves into oblivion, but that’s really not an option here. The battle system may develop from a simple set-up into a detailed and complex joy, but other than that, if you’re not fighting, you’re just going to be walking to your next scrap. Perhaps this puts a bit too much emphasis on the characters, which is fine for 4 of the members of your party, but for Fang and Lightning, who stay mired in monotonous stand-offishness and never really develop, it really doesn’t help.
Here’s to FFXIII, then; something of a flawed spectacle. If you can stop yourself getting lost in the visuals and get stuck into the story, you’ll be rewarded. It’s just a shame there isn’t more to distract you.