Does Square Enix Still Have Its Finger On The Pulse? – Final Fantasy XIII Review

Most of the criticisms and cries of derision being poured all over Final Fantasy XIII have been because of (justified) complaints of linearity – lack of exploration and a general deficiency of RPG convention. Square Enix have decided in this instalment to focus more on aesthetics for the latest in its flagship series, and they’ve produced a title that commands your attention from the word go but will ultimately struggle to pull you back for more.

I know it sounds boring but over a decade on I still give Final Fantasy VII a whirl. Not because I’m a dribbling vegetable of an obsessive but because it’s a perfectly balanced RPG that still captures the imagination and demands to be perfected. For my money, Final Fantasy XIII offers the strongest story in the franchise since VII (now I know there are others before VII but the 8-bit RPG doesn’t captivate me in the same way that an FMV FF does) yet it can also be destitute of direction thanks to the bold move of sacrificing NPCs, explorable towns and weapon gathering.

I don’t buy into the argument that XIII is an abomination due to its narrow mindset and A-to-B attitude. Final Fantasy X was just as linear and didn’t have anywhere near the depth of characterisation as XIII does. However, XIII doesn’t possess as near an expansive and customisable battle system as Final Fantasy XII which, as proven by my memory card, effortlessly swallowed up a good 100 hours during my languid time as an unemployed scrubber last summer.

It’s an associated problem when commenting on a Final Fantasy title that you’ll inevitably argue with yourself and make comparisons and contrasts with other games in the series – most likely against your favourite. Taking a step back and looking at the wider market, Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly one of the best next-gen RPGs available for the current systems. Far more interesting, action-packed and fast-paced than the sluggish Lost Odyssey and more ambitious than other production line JRPGs such as Infinite Undiscovery.

Yes, many standard elements have been done away with and they are a lamentable loss. I barely broke the 1,000gil mark until nearly 14 hours into play and the boring paint-by-numbers weapon upgrade system can be as dull as a bull in Hull. Levelling up – a similar system to that in X – is interesting yet fails to offer any personality or distinction to the characters themselves. Square Enix have decided to jettison such staples for the ability to tell a story, and thankfully it’s one that entertained me all the way through, swimming in my system like week-old heroin.

Characterisation in Final Fantasy XIII is much stronger than in any previous title since VII (sorry, I’ll shut up about VII now), with likeable figures complemented by exceptional voice acting talents. Square Enix have unbuckled their shackles and refused to supply whiney, emo stereotypes that have branded and overshadowed the franchise in recent efforts. Banished are the memories of effeminate leads such as Vaan and Tidus to be replaced by all-action powerhouses in the guise of Snow and Lightning. Early comic relief by gun-toting Sazh lays way to a genuinely moving account of the love and loyalty for his son, Dajh, whilst even the staple annoyance in the shape of Hope is well carried off with his own story of confused vengeance and his rankling/growing acceptance of Snow.

Themes of guilt, remorse, sorrow and determination are explored in the progressive stories of Snow and Lightning – both linked by fate through their love of Lightning’s sister/Snow’s fiancé, Serah, who has been turned into a crystal through powerful fal’Cie magic. Characters are brought to life with fluid, gorgeous animation and spot-on voice acting – though, sorry Square, Vanille’s casting has been terribly mismanaged and sent me to extensive Cognitive Brain Therapy sessions to wipe her existence from my memory.

All of this is told through cutscenes so in-tune with the rest of the game world that Square Enix should be rightfully applauded for such a wonderful technical achievement. Cutscenes are the perfect length – to detractors calling it more ‘movie’ than ‘game’, I will point them in the direction of the miserable Metal Gear Solid 4 which is the sole reason I bought a PlayStation 3 and is the sole reason I could only play the bugger after heavy drinking to quell the boredom before my eyes.

But as I say, it’ll be tough for me to go back for more. I spent so much time on XII, for instance, because of the mark hunts, for the need to construct the perfect gambits and explore every last inch of its beautifully realised world. While I love the production of XIII, I don’t fancy being leashed to the same story and path again during another session, especially as the game doesn’t really expand or open up until at least 25 hours in.

Believe it or not, that’s the only time when you get to configure your own personal battle team and generate your own paradigms. Maybe I’m still hung over from the breadth of option and customisation offered by XII, but the return to an Active Time Battle (ATB) system – though offering spectacular fights and real tactical nuance by the time you reach Pulse – is regressive, especially when it’s too easy to select the auto battle command and put your feet up. The AI takes charge of the rest of your party as you shoulder the responsibility of the lead character, unable to change or delegate their actions as you wildly press ‘X’.

Summons feel diluted (turning them into vehicles is especially odd) and exonerating MP from the game cancels out any kind of party management – as does resetting character statuses after battles. No longer do you defeat a particularly tough foe and go into the menu to tend to your party’s wounds, a move which sadly puts a bit of distance between yourself and characters who feel more human the longer you spend time with them.

However I can’t be too harsh on Final Fantasy XIII, because as I highlighted before, the genre is currently stagnant and I view this as a bold attempt to try and at least offer something different, to cut through the mire if you will. But by removing some of the RPG basics, they haven’t really offered a suitable replacement or a system that will be the envy of rival developers. By no means perfect, it’s easy to say that Final Fantasy XIII could benefit from a lot of tinkering under its hood. However, it’s still an excellent game to immerse yourself in and is a worthwhile RPG to fill your time with until Natal comes out and you can swing your umbrella around like it’s a big, ridiculous over-the-top Japanese sword at your Nan for 10 XP.

SCORE – 8/10

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