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The Five Things I Love About Final Fantasy XIII (And The Five Things I Don’t)

by Matt Miller on Mar 12, 2010 at 11:51 AM

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Final Fantasy was one of the franchises that turned me into a gamer. Magic, swords, monsters, and battles? My 10-year-old self was completely sold. Ever since, I’ve been a devoted player, waiting with great anticipation for each major installment. Along the way, favorites have emerged, and others fall by the wayside in my memory. But through it all, I’ve respected that Square has managed to consistently try new things, even while maintaining a core identity to the franchise that has carried over from one game to the next.

Like countless other gamers, I dove into Final Fantasy XIII this week with intense excitement, and I’ve really enjoyed my early hours with the game. Like every previous installment, there are features I like and dislike. However, at this point, it’s the discovery of what has changed and what has stayed the same that is a big part of my enjoyment. Here, then, are the things that are totally blowing me away in the new game, and a few little problems that tick me off.

Things I Love:

1. The Introduction

The best Final Fantasy beginnings impart an air of mystery, excitement, and the flavor of a brand new world. They introduce the main characters in a meaningful way, give a hint of the conflict to come, and do it all with a marked cinematic flair. Final Fantasy XIII succeeds on all fronts. In the first couple of hours, we’re thrown into a complex and detailed setting – the complex interplay between the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon is immediately intriguing. The train sequence calls to mind the ever-popular opening of Final Fantasy VII without directly copying it. We meet Lightning, Snow, and most of the rest of the main characters, and see them engaged in pitched battles and daring encounters. More importantly, those early hours deliver a meaningful connection between these main characters – there’s no doubt why they’re working together after the early part of the adventure. Those first hours are intense and beautiful, with a suitable degree of melodrama and disaster to set the stage for the long journey ahead. It ranks for me as one of the great game openings, not just in the franchise, but in the whole role-playing genre.

2. Visual Presentation

Final Fantasy XIII reveals on-screen what my imagination always thought the series should look like. Nomura’s detailed and complex character designs mix Japanese youth fashion with an inimitable fantasy styling that sets the game apart from its contemporaries. The world of Cocoon and how it works is shrouded in secrecy and shadow, even as fluorescent glows and soaring architecture capture the eye. Most importantly, the visual look of the battles is dynamic, action-packed, and constantly engaging. As Lightning leaps and flips among her enemies, I realize that this is what I always wanted a Final Fantasy fight to look like.

3. The Battle System

The brave new directions that Final Fantasy XIII takes in its battle scenes change a lot about what fans have come to expect. While these fights share many features in common with earlier entries (particularly Final Fantasy X), there are so many new additions this time around that it feels like a whole new approach. The daring attempt to try something new pays off. The paradigm shift system is enormously fun, demanding that players control the flow of battle while simultaneously initiating individual actions from the party leader. As the battle system opens up, the battles become increasingly impressive and varied, such as the unique gestalt fights and their situational demands.

After a fight, the game returns characters to their full power. Along with the elimination of MP or other limitations on magic usage, it means that every encounter can be exciting and challenging, without the need to conserve resources. Every fight becomes an all-out explosion of powers and attacks. Each battle demands my attention, and I’m constantly learning new ways to increase my effectiveness.

4. The Narrative Framework

Final Fantasy XIII takes some chances with its storytelling method, and I really adore the overall approach. While the first few hours introduce players to the protagonists of the story, there’s a lot about their background that we just don’t know. As the story moves forward, cinematic flashbacks tell the tale of the days leading up to the game’s opening scene. An intricately crafted web emerges, connecting characters and their actions even before they met.

Back in the present, the game opts for a largely linear story track. Especially early on, your choice of direction and characters is dramatically limited. While some players may call foul at this forced narrative path, I think it serves the game extremely well. By splitting the party up in various situations, we’re forced to spend some designated time with each of the heroes, learning about their problems, fears, and strengths. On top of that, the story as a whole is tighter and better paced because of the linear path of the characters. Other games are well served by complex moral choices and constantly branching paths – Final Fantasy XIII follows a simpler and more direct storytelling method, and is better for it.

5. The World

When talking about RPGs, it’s easy to talk about favorite characters and storylines, but forget what lies behind it all – the world of the game. A good setting is a character in its own right, and Final Fantasy XIII has a fascinating world to explore. There’s an oppressive weight to the stratified world of Cocoon that is communicated in the earliest minutes of the game, even as that world’s incredible natural beauty is made clear while the train rushes through canyons, mountains, and technologically remarkable cityscapes. I love the mystery of the fal’cie and the l’cie, and how their long history ties in directly to the plight of the main characters of the game. Meanwhile, the classic fantasy monsters of Final Fantasy, like the behemoth, take on new life with sci-fi styling and lifelike animation. As the story advances, the game continues the fine tradition of the franchise of presenting individual locations that are full of imagination and unusual sights. Even early in the game, the crystallized lake scene is amazing to behold. Seeing a Final Fantasy game has always had the power, from time to time, to evoke awe and wonder. Thirteen games in, Square Enix still manages to pull off the trick.

Things I Don’t Love:

1. Stilted Character Interactions

It’s hard to fault Final Fantasy XIII for this, because the series has indeed come a long way over the years. Does anybody remember the painful whistling scene between Yuna and Tidus in Final Fantasy X? Nonetheless, Final Fantasy XIII still has a long way to go to deliver believable conversations and relationships between its main characters. Too often, things are left unsaid between characters for far too long, as happens with Hope in his dealings with Snow. Characters make foolish and naïve decisions in the name of oversimplified emotions. And characters too often complete actions not because it makes sense for their character, but because it serves the story. Even with some profound steps forward in the authenticity of dialogue, and some excellent translation and voiceover work, Final Fantasy still needs to catch up to its contemporaries in order to deliver genuine adult drama.

2. Meaningless Opening Battles

I love Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system, but not for the first two hours. It’s a common trope in Japanese RPGs – the earliest battles you engage in offer no real choices, until the system expands in later hours. But why? You’d never play a shooter or action game that didn’t deliver exciting battles for the first hours of playtime. RPGs should be no different. Admittedly, many of the complex ideas inherent to FF XIII’s battle system need to roll out slowly. But RPG players aren’t stupid. They can handle a few options beyond Auto-attack, even in the very first fight of the game. Make the battles fun from the very beginning, and make them even better from there.

3. Cinematics Where There Should Be Gameplay

Let me be clear right off the bat. I don’t want to get rid of cinematics. I think the cut scene is an indelible part of the Final Fantasy gaming tradition, and I look forward to those beautiful scenes like every fan does. What I don’t like is when those pre-rendered scenes step on the toes of the action. Cutscenes do a great job of communicating emotional moments, showing off events that the main characters have no control over, and changing the pace of the story as it moves forward. But when Lightning is swinging her sword at a hated enemy?  Or Sazh is flying an airship? Give me control – and let me be the hero who avoids certain death.

4. Money

There’s not enough of it.  Since enemies don’t drop gil, and one-use items are insanely expensive, the economic system of Final Fantasy XIII really breaks down. The worst consequence of this is the inability to fully explore the weapon upgrade system. There’s little in the way of guidance for how to upgrade your weapons in a strategic and smart way, unless you’ve sprung for the strategy guide, of course. As a consequence, by most accounts, the cool elements of building your weapons don’t really come to fruition until extremely late in the game. 

5. Details Buried in the Datalog

I like the datalog. I really do. It’s an awesome resource to remind myself about what is going on, how the world is structured, and learn more about almost anything the game has presented to me. Unfortunately, it’s also where Square Enix has placed countless character motivations, important personal histories, and other details that couldn’t be easily worked into the actual story. It’s like reading a novel where the main character is always pissed off, but only by looking in the footnotes could you learn that he’s mad that his father was murdered 10 years earlier. That’s just poor writing. There’s no reason it should be excused in a video game any more than it would be in a book, movie, or television show.

So that’s it. In case you couldn’t read between the lines, I’m digging my playthrough of Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a blast, combining some of my favorite elements of old-school console RPGs with an incredibly advanced next-gen presentation. Sure, I’ve got some dilemmas, but nothing that holds back my wholehearted recommendation to fellow enthusiasts.

How about you? Are you enjoying the first new true Final Fantasy game in four years? What are your favorite features? And what do you hate? No matter what you like or dislike, if you're as excited as I am about the game, make sure and check out our Final Fantasy XIII launch hub for more.