31 August 2010

RPG Week — Final Fantasy XIII

[Note: I originally wrote this using the normal convention of using Roman numerals (VII, XII, XIII). However, I felt like it resulted in too many I's that made things confusing, and thus changed it to the decimal numeral system (7, 12, 13).]

Put simply, the Final Fantasy franchise is sort of The Simpsons of the RPG world. It was arguably the best when it was in its prime, but now it feels like it's just gone on a little too long.

That's not to say that Final Fantasy is terrible now, or that it's not worth playing. It's just that, well... it no longer lives up to its own name. Honestly, people would probably be a lot less critical of new Final Fantasy titles if they didn't carry the iconic name. But how can it compete with games like Final Fantasy 7, which have become canonized as true classics of the genre? Much like the original three Star Wars films, the level of praise and adoration heaped upon earlier Final Fantasy games has elevated them above what they even were to something nearing cult-like adoration. To put forth a critique against Final Fantasy 7 would be a sin in the eyes of many.

Therefore, I shall try to be fair in my judgement of Final Fantasy 13 and not only compare it to its predecessors, but to try to take it for what it is—on its own terms.

Its hard for me to exactly place how I feel about the characters in Final Fantasy 13. I'll be honest and say that I like them more than Final Fantasy 12. Even though I've only played through about half of FF13 so far (i.e. I just completed the "tutorial," as gamers sarcastically call the first half), I feel like I know them to some extent. I have some sense of their motivations and their personalities. However, I can't help but shake the feeling that part of it is just because many of them remind me of other Final Fantasy characters. Lightning is pretty explicitly a female Cloud Strife, but some of the other characters also feel a little... archetypal.

And when all is said and done, I don't really feel for all of them. In fact, the only character I've genuinely connected with is Sazh. Still, I think I still care about all of them more than I did those in FF12. When it came to FF12, I basically just kept thinking, "Why the hell aren't the main characters Fran and Balthier?" And don't get me started on the complete pointlessness of Vaan's character.

I guess I'd just say the characters in FF13 are largely okay. Not great, but not horrible either. Well, except Sazh. He is awesome and I love him.

Sometimes, Final Fantasy needs to realize that sometimes less is more. I honestly can't tell you what was going on in FF12. I know there was a lot of political intrigue and such, but that's about it. I don't even remember what I was really fighting against other than that he was some big bad Emperor of the World guy or something.

FF13 tends to be a bit better in that regard, but I still feel like I really ought to be doing my research and regularly keeping up-to-date on the lengthy glossary entries in order to understand the intricacies of what's going on in the story. I guess if you're really into the game, it must be cool to have this vast and detailed world with its complex history and unique creatures and worlds and everything. A lot of work went in to it, and I can appreciate it on some level. But ultimately, I want a story that's a little simpler.

Of course, even the great and legendary Final Fantasy 7 had it's own "What the hell is going on?!" moments, but it didn't seem as bad. Still, I say FF13 is much better than FF12 in this regard. At least I have a vague idea of what's going on and why people are doing the things they are doing.

Let's be honest, here. Final Fantasy has never really been one to just stick to the same old gameplay. Even the second game in the series tried something entirely new with its combat. It also pretty much failed, and they moved back to the original gameplay style. Granted, most of the older games were generally pretty similar in their play style, and only messed with littler things like exactly how magic worked, how you use summons, etc. It was all still turn-based and usually stuck to the same basic menu-based input method.

Final Fantasy 12 was the first one to really shake things up, and it caught a lot of negative attention for it. Ironically, now that everyone is hating on FF13, FF12 seems to have grown in popularity and praise among fans. At the time, I defended FF12 for what it is, and I'm prepared to do the same with FF13. Because honestly, I like FF13 a lot more.

The battle system in Final Fantasy 13 is fun. It's a lot of fun. It's also really hard to describe, so bare with me. Essentially, your characters act on their own. You do have the option of manually inputting commands for the leader character, but it isn't practical to do so unless you have something very specific in mind that needs to be done. So you may be asking, "So you sit back and watch the game play itself?" No. No you don't. Well, sort of, but you're not sitting back. You're sitting on the edge of your seat, keeping a vigilant eye on everything that's going on.

You see, if you aren't paying attention to exactly what your characters are doing, you are going to die and you are going to die quickly. Your job as the player is essentially that of the tactician. See, your party members act according to the current Paradigm, which assigns them with a role. For example, Lightning can be be a Commando (think Fighter), Ravager (Black Mage), or Medic (White Mage). The other three role types are Sentinel (a tank class that's good at taking a lot of hits), Synergist (uses buff spells to help the party out), and Saboteur (uses debuff spells to hinder the enemy).

A Paradigm will change the roles of your entire party. For example, Relentless Assault will have two Ravagers and a Commando and is a good way to stagger an enemy. Once enemies are staggered, they will take more damage, among other things. However, if your party is losing HP, you might want to switch to Combat Clinic (a Sentinel and two Medics) to quickly heal up. Or if it's a little less urgent, you could use Evened Odds (Synergist, Saboteur, and Medic) to also work on buffing and debuffing and thus make the battle a little easier.

Thus, a lot of the gameplay revolves around split second decision on what Paradigm is best for the given situation. And when I say a lot of the gameplay, I mean it. The game is pretty much just battles and cutscenes. Yeah, you get to move around, but you're just running down a hallway to the next battle or cutscene.

This has been highly criticized by gamers, and yeah, I'll admit I do miss the exploration element a little bit. But at the same time, I'd much rather take this over the Oblivion way of doing it. "Hey, here's a huge world to explore. Now go!" "Well, what am I supposed to be doing? Where do I go?" "Don't ask me, dude. You can go anywhere. Well, except some of the places are going to be impossible to go into without dying, but I'm sure you'll figure that out when you get your ass handed to you." I mean, so what if FF13 is linear? So was FF7. It's just, well... FF13 is really linear. Really, really, really linear. So I can see why some people are complaining. At the same time, I don't mind. It's not that I wouldn't like more exploration, but I feel like it doesn't make it any less fun for me. The battles are where it's at, and the battles are great.

If there's one thing that Final Fantasy 13 excels at, it's the graphics. The visuals are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, the music is less incredible. It's kind of generic, but it gets the job done. At least it's not that godawful elevator musak aboard the Elsa starship in Xenosaga Episode II (i.e. your primary headquarters). Unlike that abomination, the music if FF13 never really stands out as bad because it never really stands out. It's just there in the background, setting the mood behind the scenes. Oh, except one song does use the jawharp, and I have to give it mad props for that.

This isn't a cutscene. This is in game.
Just think about that for a second.
But seriously. The graphics are amazing. I mean, just look at that. Look at it right over there See the caption? Yeah.

And if I put more emphasis on graphics, then this would be the greatest game ever.

Unfortunately, I don't. And while it is a very pretty game, that doesn't make it great. Still, it is a lot of fun. I just wish they would've played the fun side up more. I mean, Sazh has a freaking chocobo in his afro. You even go to a Golden Saucer clone but then don't get to do any of the fun stuff. It always has a bit too much of an air of seriousness. Maybe if it lost that and upped the fun, I'd love this game. As it stands, I like it. Really, I do. But I've also been totally distracted from it by two small little Atlus releases on PSP that I'll be talking about tomorrow: Crimson Gem Saga and Hexyz Force. Because by god, those games know what it means to have fun. At least as far as the story is concerned.

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