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Final Fantasy XIII (a.k.a The Codex Admin Returns)

I apologize to all of you, my loyal readers. Not even the Codex Admin is immune to human illness, and so this past week, I have been recuperating from a cold which prevented my timely review of both this and Comic Jumper. However, now that I’m back, please enjoy both reviews for the price of one day.

A woman with a long cape wields a sword. On the right, two figures surrounding a planet is positioned near the center of the Final Fantasy XIII logo. The logo is done in a pastel watercolor style

Ah, Final Fantasy, you wonderful money-making goblin of the gaming industry, what has become of you? Have you lost relevance in this day and age, forcing your descent into irrelevancy and obscurity? Or are you still going strong, attracting both Eastern and Western audiences with the same flourish and pride that your earlier games proudly displayed? Frankly, if one asks the average gamer, their answer will likely meet in the middle of those two extremes.

One thing can be said for certain: the series has been around for a long, long time, and it mostly sticks to its age-old conventions. Therefore, what makes instalment XIII so unique is that it eschews those conventions – potentially alienating their traditional audience – in favour of more streamlined ideas that, for better or worse, do represent the series’ ongoing evolution and advancement. That being said, there’s still debate as to whether or not this approach to game design worked out for the better.

Thank goodness that I’m here to provide the final word.

Final Fantasy XIII starts off its case strong – at least in theory – by sticking to turn-based combat and narrative-driven gameplay, stalwarts of the series. At the very least, this means that the most cynical of critics and gamers cannot complain that the game throws aside all pretences of being a Final Fantasy game – it’s in the details where things diverge.

The story is centred around the conflict between two worlds – the enormous wild planet of Gran Pulse, and the floating world of Cocoon. Specifically, the plot focuses on a group of Cocoon inhabitants (lead the much-hyped, pink-haired heroine Lightning) as they are marked by a Pulse fal’Cie, a mystical god-like entity, to fulfil an unspecified task, or “Focus”, while combating Cocoon’s special forces, countless beasts and demons, mysterious manipulators and even their own inhibitions and fears. Oh, and there’s a chocobo chick…

If there’s any lack of clarity in the plot at the moment, do not expect the game to clarify things within the first five minutes…or the first few hours. In fact, it’s possible that the emotional force of each character’s inner trials and the potentially intriguing social-political themes explored here may be lost on some gamers, since the game is initially more focused on flashy action sequences and minute-to-minute narrative rather than building up the audience’s intriguing and investment.

However, upon sticking with the game past the first few chapters, the story becomes more comprehensible and interesting, as plot threads are better built up for later payoff, characters are better developed and characterized, and the connection between Pulse, Cocoon, and the fal’Cie ends up being a powerful narrative theme.

I want to put emphasis on the characters in particular for their vast improvement, as the game began with virtually no likeable personalities out of the then-five lead characters present. Lightning, although skilled with a gunblade (yes, that’s a thing now), initially felt shallow and emotionless. The resistance fighter Snow was comparable to a glorified jock in his brute-force approach to situations and outright arrogance. Sazh was, for lack of a better term, the stereotypical comic relief guy, and Vanille seemed far too happy and ditsy to be in such an intense game.

And Hope? Don’t get me started on f**king Hope…

With all that criticism aside, the characters progressively got more complicated, and therefore much better. It began with Sazh’s personality levelling out, as he detailed his motivations for submitting to the military’s custody (which, admittedly, paid off around the half-way point of the game in a number of heart-wrenching scenes that were the closest the game ever got to making me tear up). Then, progress was made with other characters: Lightning’s fighting to save her sister, Snow’s haunted by the loss of innocents, Hope’s motivated by vengeance, and so on.

Even if not everything paid off or was fleshed out in a satisfying manner, the fact that a story can improve from being seemingly worthless and incomprehensible to endearing and somewhat intelligently crafted is outstanding. As such, I applaud Square Enix for the effort exerted here, and for showing such vast improvement in their ability to craft narratives.

Then there’s the actual gameplay, which will be – not could be, will be – the deciding factor for many gamers when considering buying the game. FFXIII is a combat-oriented role-playing game, where outside of battles you control one character leading two companions, running through areas from one story marker to the next. When the player comes in contact with an enemy of any kind – be it a person, a monster or a machine – they automatically enter into battle and Combat Mode starts.

Combat plays out in a manner typical of Square’s patented Active Time Battle System: the player issues commands to the character they happen to be controlling, using up energy points on an on-screen power bar, and the character performs a certain action ranging from attacking enemies with swords or guns to striking with magic or healing your party. Enemies can also attack while the player prepares to attack, creating a sense of tension in every encounter. Where the mould is broken lies in the Paradigm Shift feature, which relates to each character’s combat role.

See, each of the six controllable characters gains experience from battles, which is spent in the Crystarium, a screen dedicated to levelling up abilities. The player can choose where and how to allocate the experience points they earn, boosting a character’s strength in one of six roles – the close range Commando, the offensive magic-wielding Ravager, the Medic, the defence-boosting Sentinel, the enemy-weakening Saboteur, or the ally-strengthening Synergist.

In the midst of combat, the player can activate a Paradigm Shift, allowing them to switch their characters’ roles to combat specific battle scenarios. For instance, if an enemy is capable of relentlessly attacking before going into a defensive mode, Paradigm Shift would allow the player to switch from a combination of Medics and Sentinels to Saboteurs and Ravagers in order to counteract the enemy’s strategy.

The complexity of the system simply cannot be understated – however, it only becomes that way after many players will have given up playing due to the game being “too easy”. It takes about five hours for both the combat and the levelling system to becoming more complicated and more difficult (read: interesting) to manage, meaning that the game starts out deceptively easy to handle and proceeds so slowly to the difficulty curve that it almost comes out of nowhere.

What will really throw off many gamers’ senses is the sheer linearity of progression. For around 20 hours of the game – which accounts for 10 of the game’s 13 chapters – the player must constantly run through either literal or contrived corridors in a variety of admittedly gorgeous and breathtaking environments. As mentioned, the player is aiming for story markers, which seem aimed at fleshing out the narrative, but merely drag out the pace with all of the forced philosophical discussion and epiphanies the characters have. Along the way, numerous enemies lay strewn on that path – some of which can be avoided, but some are so inconveniently placed that they must grind through enemy after enemy just to progress.

Linearity, gamers can handle…but slowly-progressing linearity through packs of enemies that either use up far too many valuable collectible items (which are conservatively scattered throughout environments a la Resident Evil) or require such careful forethought and strategic planning to overcome that it would be easier to just give up? That, I could see someone calling bulls**t on.

For anyone capable of progressing past chapter 10, though, things do improve immensely. The player, through narrative circumstances that would require further explanation, eventually makes their way down from Cocoon to the lowerworld of Pulse, a wild land of boundless plains and treacherous creatures. They are then released from the reins of linearity and allowed to roam freely across a wide area, which sports a technical “sub-plot” and entire mission system.

So, beyond the near-constant linearity and slow-progression for the narrative and unique combat mechanics, what more is there to complain about, gameplay-wise? Well, there isn’t much to do until that 20-hour mark besides running down corridors, collecting items, upgrading character abilities or equipment and fighting enemies. The mission system is just another excuse to fight more creatures, there are only a few set-pieces, and the game absolutely lacks additional content or mini-games, making it tedious at times.

That’s even factoring in the presentation, which tops a lot of what exists on the market right now. For all of the game’s flaws, one cannot deny that the graphics and textures are absolutely gorgeous, or that the design of the locales, characters, clothing and other in-game assets is impressive. The world breaths with details, as shown by the game’s patented fantasy-meets-science-fiction atmosphere. The cutscenes stand out most of all, as they seem far too photorealistic to belong in such a flawed game, particularly when compared with their slightly lesser in-game counterparts.

The sound design is the final piece of the puzzle, and it adds a lot of perceived depth to the mix. The intro theme is as beautiful a piano piece as it is haunting, and tracks used between and during battles, while not the most memorable of gaming music, does fit the set tone and moments they were designed for. Voice acting is actually quite impressive, with all of the actors turning in solid-to-great performances…which is surprising considering how direct and heavy-handed the script can be.

So, many complaints to voice, many points to consider – what, you may ask, is the verdict? Is this game a triumphant return or a death cry for Final Fantasy?

To be honest…I’m not totally sold on either extreme.

When I started playing this game to finish off the Trifecta of Awful (this, Mindjack and Alpha Protocol – games I deliberately bought all at once due to their mixed or poor reception), I had a feeling it would be a mediocre or average game, and every instinct tells me to rate it as such. However, there is one factor I didn’t consider: the game’s sincerity.

For all of its flubs, for all of its design flaws, for all the times I lost my temper, the game always managed to stick to what it was saying, as though Square knew their vision for this game through and through. It had moments of drama, moments of intensity, and numerous scenes where I was caught up in the heartfelt spectacle of it all.

Final Fantasy XIII wants to be a classic game, but it also want the player to build a connection with the characters, with the world, and with the themes, before it sends them off into an adventure that may or may not end happily. Even in its most irritating moments, the player reaches a point of investment in the game where they simply cannot give up – too much time had been given for this game, too much emotion had been shared.

As much as Kevin VanOrd and Ryan Clements’ testimonials praising the game’s emotional core and genre-bending combat are appealing, the fact remains that criticism similar to that rendered by “Yahtzee” Croshaw and “Angry Joe” Vargas is perfectly valid. Everyone in the gaming industry, everyone who has ever played a video game, has an opinion, positive or negative, on the game, which makes deciphering the truth all the more difficult, but here goes.

This game is supremely flawed, and it should have marked the end of the franchise, but it absolutely is not the terrible game that hardcore fans have made it out to be. It makes improvements where it needs to, and it progressively gets better at telling a cohesive narrative whilst providing greater amounts of choice as it goes along. At the end of the day, having a flawed but ultimately good Final Fantasy game at my disposal works for me – the question remains, are you willing to accept and dedicate your time and energy to it, criticisms and all?

Score: 7/10

 

 

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