Friday, April 2, 2010

Game Review: Final Fantasy XIII

One of the biggest video game releases of the year took place last month when Square Enix debuted the eagerly awaited Final Fantasy XIII. Now, if you're like my brother, you probably wonder how final the fantasy could be if there are thirteen editions of the game (actually 14, since the sequel to Final Fantasy X wasn't XI at all, but rather X part II). But for those unfamiliar with the Japanese series, it is, in fact, very Japanese: the entire line of Final Fantasy games can be seen as a type of Kabuki for your console, as they take similar themes, concepts and characters and rework them into new iterations over and over, meaning that in a way, what we have here is the 13th variation on the "final fantasy".

Still with me so far? If so, good, because this kind of circular thinking is going to be key to any attempt to enjoy Final Fantasy XIII -- as, ironically enough, the game is so amazingly linear that you'll pretty much need no other higher functions to make your way through it and you'll have to resort to tricking yourself to have any fun.

Before I start totally slagging the game, though, let's start off with some of the high points, which by now have been pretty thoroughly touted by those people who did like it. The biggest draw: the graphics are great. Really, seriously, top level great. And these graphics are used in service of a complex and even fairly compelling storyline that eventually grabs your interest and makes you want to see more.

Unfortunately, however, everything about Final Fantasy XIII is designed to serve the propulsion of that storyline. Unlike previous games, which existed within a larger universe for players to explore at their leisure, XIII is as straight-ahead, one-note as possible. There are no zones to explore. No countrysides to wander. No NPCs to talk to. All you have is one possible path -- usually quite literally a narrow path to walk down -- with occasional obstacles to defeat in order to see the next cutscene.

The result, then, becomes less a game and more an extended length movie that you can't actually watch without participating in this illusion of interactivity. But illusion is all it is; in some cases, all you get to do between cutscenes is literally walk twenty feet and press X. The question you end up facing is, do you care enough about the story and the characters to actually slog through the required combat encounters to watch it?

For some people, the answer may be yes, even though the combat system itself is also as flawed as the overall game structure. Unlike previous editions, this time you can only control one character at a time, with the AI playing your other team members based on what configuration of roles you choose. Though you can change configurations at any time, this also means that if your team leader goes down, its game over, which in many encounters limits which characters you can pick to play as team leader and what roles they can be in. Of course, even if you do die, the game doesn't actually end; all that does is require you to retry the fight, meaning that for the most part these fights are empty exercises requiring only the patience to pound your way through them.

All of this might be forgivable if the characters were compelling, but unfortunately, SE has decided to foist one of the worst designed characters in video game history on their fans in the form of the unbearably annoying Vanille. This vapid, irritating teenage girl, who speaks with a ridiculously bogus accent stuck somewhere between New Zealand and Boston, manages to ruin pretty much every scene she appears in and made me seriously wonder about the Japanese pysche, as I have a hard time understanding how a society ends up creating characters like this on purpose. It's honestly that bad. Add to this that one of the other main characters, Snow, is a dead ringer for Bret Michaels, the skeeviest sleezebag in rock history, and that all of his scenes feature some of the absolute worst dialogue ever written in this history of mankind, and it's a wonder that somehow the storyline does eventually become compelling despite itself.

The key word here, of course, is "eventually," which brings us to my final gripe about FFXIII: the designers apparently think we're all complete morons. I say this because, despite the fact that I played straight through (as if there were any other way), often avoided as many fights as the game allows in order to get through it as quickly as possible, it still took me nearly 15 hours to finish unlocking the basic elements of game play. Simple things like being able to picking your team -- or even picking which character you yourself wanted to control -- literally took 15 hours to unlock, while even at the ten hour mark I was still getting tutorial pop-ups as new combat features were unlocked.

SE's response to this will seem typical to anyone who has had the pleasure of dealing with them before.

"We try not to listen to the critics too much. Most of the criticisms have come because the first half of the game is very linear," game director Motomu Toriyama told a British game magazine. "But we've got a story to tell, and it's important the player can engage with the characters and the world they inhabit before letting them loose."

He then added: "We think many reviewers are looking at Final Fantasy XIII from a western point of view. When you look at most Western RPGs, they just dump you in a big open world, and let you do whatever you like... [It] becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story when you're given that much freedom."

Yeah, sorry. My bad. I didn't mean to look at the game from a ridiculous Western point of view where I enjoy stupid things like "freedom." Instead, I appreciate you not "letting me loose" before I have had the chance to experience 15 hours of tutorial play while you subject me to your godawful characters.

If I sound unhappy with the game, well, I think the above quotes tell the entire story of FFXIII. The focus here was for SE to be able to tell their story to you, not for you to actually participate in any kind of interactive way. Interaction apparently was seen as some kind of impediment to be avoided because it might have hindered their ability to set up their convoluted plot, as players might have chosen to do things that were actually fun instead. It's too bad, because the last game in the series, FFXII, allowed much greater freedom in terms of exploring the world and choosing the sequence of events by offering various quests that could be completed in any order -- all without interfering with the storyline, which I distinctly recall seeing in its entirety while playing. Plus, these decisions look especially backwards when compared to such "western" games as Grand Theft Auto VI, which was about as non-linear as you can get while still telling a vastly superior story.

In other words, Square Enix can pretty much bite me. Let's just hope they don't botch Final fantasy 14 as bad as they botched 13.

My Grades: The graphics get an A-. The character designs get a B for everyone except Snow and Vanille; Snow gets a D and Vanile gets a special place in hell. The storyline gets a C for being strangely compelling despite literally hours of navel gazing and utterly horrible dialogue. Thanks to the arrogance of the designers in deciding how to make the least interactive game imaginable, however, these scores all add up to an F for the game as a whole. This is essentially most expensive screensaver ever produced.

Here's a sneak preview of some well rendered emo nonsense:

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Yes Yes. Very good.
I agree with everything...but you forgot to add the music. The screensaver has fantastic audio!
Seriously, though, game sucks.