Monday, 19 May 2014

Final Fantasy XIII

It is, of course, just like me to be late. Final Fantasy XIII, the first JRPG released by Square-Enix in the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, came out in 2010 and I've only just found the time and stubbornness to complete it. And this is despite receiving it as a gift just after it was released.

For anyone who doesn't know their videogaming onions, Final Fantasy XIII is the fourteenth (counting Final Fantasy X-2) numbered iteration of the exceedingly popular Final Fantasy series of JRPGs. Their formula is simple and effective, and has kept gamers playing for the best part of 30 years thanks to well-woven stories, interesting characters and a diverse range of gameplay. My own introduction to the series came in 2002 when Final Fantasy IX for the PS1 went platinum and found its way into my birthday wish list. I fell in love with everything to do with it almost immediately. It wasn't long before those other early 3D Goliaths Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII were sitting on my shelves.

What attracted me wasn't just the story or the gameplay. The games were big, serious games which were heavyweights in their field by any standard, but they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. There was a lightness of tone even in the darkest moments. They were difficult and frustrating at times, but they were also fun. Even now the classic FF games can make me laugh and brighten a dark day.

And that's why Final Fantasy XIII is the biggest disappointment I've played in many years. Although I can make many criticisms of its gameplay and story whilst praising the design and production quality, what it lacks most is the sense of fun which was inherent in earlier instalments. For the first time, I had the sense when playing through the 60 hours of the game that it was taking itself too seriously. Dark characters played their roles against an unrelenting dark background of dark darkness. Had the game been fun I would have been willing to forgive it its many flaws. As it is, the seriousness robs the game of any character and turns the whole thing into an unremitting grind.

There are lots of good things about the game, though, even if they don't seem to be the things which affect gameplay and enjoyment. Quite frankly, the production values are stunning. Without being a player of many modern AAA titles I can't properly assess these against others in the field of gaming post-2007, but I was blown away by the graphics and the design. From beginning to end the game is rich in gorgeous details. The atmosphere is superbly realised throughout.

However, you don't play a game for its atmosphere (not unless you're playing Silent Hill 2, at any rate). And in some ways the game's gorgeous fa├žade actually serves to highlight some of the game's biggest problems. After all, why would you design so many stunning vistas and then restrict the player to only being able to gawp at them from time to time whilst running through fifty-odd hours of linear tunnels? It's a paradox that the game serves up time after time.

Because at its heart that's what Final Fantasy XIII is: a linear tunnel of frustration looking out onto the magnificence it could have had. There's a lack of variety in the gameplay which will frustrate even the most committed fan (and I'm pretty stubborn when it comes to my support of the franchise up to now). The puzzles, one-off mini-games, side-quests and open-world gameplay of previous editions have been sacrificed in favour of a two-facet game where the two facets are running around and battling a lot. Although all team-based JRPGs have those two aspects and rely heavily upon them, they normally have something to break the game up and retain the player's interest. Final Fantasy XIII doesn't.

Then there's the sense that the game doesn't want player involvement at all and has aspirations of being the first 60-hour film in cinematic history. Player involvement can be summed up as winning battles and then proceeding down a linear path to the next cut-scene. Dramatic set-pieces happen completely without player involvement even where there was scope for a mini-game. At one point near the end your party finds itself flying back to the game's first world only to be dumped in the middle of a series of what can only be described as street races. Final Fantasy VII would have had you controlling your speeder through the streets, avoiding oncoming traffic. Final Fantasy XIII simply engages in another drawn-out FMV that heightens frustration rather than encourage a sense of awe that you're meant to feel.

Even the battles are largely computer controlled. The paradigm tactical system lets you switch between tactical sets, but all that does is switch your characters' roles. Two characters in your three-man party will always been computer controlled while you control the party leader. The gambit system of Final Fantasy XII may have wrestled absolute control from the player, but at least the player could turn it off and make split-second decisions. In this, you're left switching between pre-set tactics and hitting X. And this goes on for 60 hours, without change.

In the right hands, Final Fantasy XIII would have been a good game. As it is, it's a mess hardly worthy of the title 'game'. It may look nice, but there's nothing beneath that shiny exterior to excite anyone but the most hardened fan. My advice would be to steer well clear if you're ever tempted.