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Final Fantasy XIII: Early Impressions

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It’s difficult to say where Final Fantasy XIII will ultimately rank in fans’ esteem, but it seems unlikely to be anyone’s favorite. A little over 25 hours in, I can already say with some certainty that it won’t be mine. It's not horrible, but it's definitely disappointing. I was hoping for a next-gen sequel that built on the strengths of its predecessor, but as it is, the new installment seems like a step backward. The combat’s flashy but even more hands-off than that of Final Fantasy XII, and outside of the combat — well, so far, there's very little outside of the combat worth speaking of.

Discrete battles are back, initiated by contact with the still visible-in-the-field but not really free-roaming enemies (they stick to their spawn point waiting to rush, or be rushed by, the characters). The ATB gauge returns, this time working like action points to drive your attacks and abilities. You issue commands to the party leader only, while the other characters are entirely AI controlled.

What you can do is change their roles: attacker, healer, enhancer, etc. The system isn’t analogous to XII’s gambits, as you might guess at first; the roles aren’t ways of prioritizing which of many available actions the characters use, but actually define which actions are available. For instance, while an attacker will use (weapon) attacks every turn, the same character as a healer will sit idle if there's no healing to be done. Rather than attending to a character’s role individually, you switch among a handful of whole-party configurations you set up in the menu between battles.

If you’re the sort of player who prefers to micromanage battles, this system is emphatically not for you. In fact, it actively discourages detailed examination. If you agonize over which of the dozen damage counts to flash across an enemy corresponds to which of your attacks, or why the AI chooses a certain attack when another would do more damage, or if you linger over the menu under your enemies’ continuous onslaught, you will drive yourself insane.

Attacks come thick and fast, and even if you choose the automated commands for your leader, you always need to keep an eye on the action and be ready to change roles (which takes effect instantaneously). You heal automatically between battles, but there’s no penalty for dying — and you will die, thanks in part to the infuriatingly arbitrary game-over-when-the-leader-dies approach that has been employed. You simply restart at the point just before that battle, plus, save points — which are also where you shop and upgrade equipment — are around every corner. The battle result screen gives you points and a rating based on your performance.

What this all amounts to is a combat system that's clearly more about visceral, quick-and-dirty scrapes than drawn-out tactical confrontations. The speed and spectacle of it can be thrilling and engaging, but how much you actually enjoy it depends on how willing you are to embrace this approach.

Unfortunately, the character progression doesn’t add substantially to the combat experience. It’s much like the sphere grid from FFX – points accumulated from battles are spent to advance between nodes on a set path, with each node being a stat upgrade, new ability, etc. Unfortunately, there’s no substantial branching to the paths, and it’s hard to get to get very excited about a new ability when that mostly just means something new for your party members to do in the background.

Graphically speaking, there are some truly impressive texture and lighting effects on display, and other standouts like the subtly expressive facial animations are approaching uncanny. After slogging through some dull early environments, there are more and more later on that approach the intricate design and grandeur the series is known for.

However, even the best-looking environments are strictly window dressing, since your movements are generally constrained to a single narrow, linear path. There’s very rarely any openness or alternate pathways, and when there are, they're only ever short diversions to treasures. Movement itself is far from smooth. Running straight ahead is simple enough, but fine control, such as trying to move into position for a contextual command, or sneaking up on enemies for a preemptive attack, is a chore given that you always move either too fast or too slow, the camera is sluggish, and changing direction is one of those irritating halt-then-lunge affairs. Add to this the freakish ubiquity of invisible walls, and simply moving about is more frustrating than it should be.

The story progression is just as linear as the ground you walk on. The player proceeds through battle after battle until the boss fight, then it’s off to the next chapter and the next group of characters. To some extent, this is par for the RPG course, but usually there's at least some chance for exploration or side quests. XIII has nothing whatsoever along these lines to distract you from simply plowing through to the next story-dictated destination.

The story itself is somewhat unmoving. The first 20 hours or so are largely about the main characters and their personal grievances. The characters themselves range from amusing to absolutely intolerable, but overall seem as one-note as a watch alarm. Even if I didn’t understand a word of Japanese (as it happens, my Japanese is hardly perfect, so take all this with a grain of salt), scene after scene of dirty looks, strangulated noises, and collapsing to knees in emotional agony would be enough to tell me that the sophistication of FFXII has been abandoned in favor of the tritest music video-caliber melodrama.

This sensation is most pronounced in sections that are backed by actual electro-pop tracks, complete with cheesy English lyrics. The soundtrack in general is nicely composed if even more stylistically inconsistent than usual. Pop songs like those give over to grand orchestral pieces, then something straight out of a jazz lounge, and even the occasional track that sounds like it wandered over from Katamari Damacy. Thankfully, the main battle theme is one of the better tunes.

Bear in mind that everything I say here is in no way meant to be comprehensive. The portion I’ve played likely amounts to less than half the campaign. There’s still plenty of time for the story to improve, and it’s quite reasonable to expect more in the way of open exploration and side quests later on. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but so far, Final Fantasy XIII is shaping up to be one of the weaker entries in the series.

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About Gabe Carr

  • Mojojo

    WOW this drab reminds me of those tabloid Newspaper articles attempting to review a Game.

    Hits galore I suspect, although it would have been more successful if you had gone positive instead of negative.

    Shame you don’t speak a word of Japanese or understand nuances of Japanese trend and expressions.

  • the truth

    Or, maybe the game is actually mediocre? Man, it’s obvious the sensitive FF fanboys are going to come out.

  • Gabe Carr

    @Mojojo:
    1) This is not a review.
    2) I understand quite a bit of Japanese, just not at %100 fluency.
    3) Go to Amazon.co.jp and look at the reader reviews. If you don’t read Japanese, just count the stars. I’m hardly the only one who thinks it’s not perfect (and I bet some of those posters even understand Japanese trends and expressions!)

  • Richard

    People cry when games evolve, but its part of gaming, if the FFVII exact formula came out every entry it would really suck! I’ve seen this game, the 2nd half has exploration, if you imported a copy you obviously know that so don’t be grabbing peoples attention like this… its pathetic, the games looks great, the story is emotional and cool, and the battles are intricate and addictive, you can’t fool people… well im here posting so i guess you grabbed my attention, you don’t need uematsu’s ambient music in every game, it really gets old, just as sakaguchi’s skills. Enix is not goin to allow them to release crap trust me, FFX-2 and FFXII are not so good, but their solid 8.0-8.5 games. I dont like them, but they are! so, in conclution, ur blog is just trying to make more controversy, and im no sony fan boy either, i love 360 and wii.

  • Marshall

    @Richard

    Don’t get too emotional,the gameplay was dumb-downed so that Xbox fanboys like you can play the game.

  • Gabe Carr

    @Richard: Yes, as I’ve been playing it more since this went up, I have come across the open area. It looks great, and it’s nice to roam around, but there’s actually nothing much going on there. Just battles and treasures, and ‘missions’ which are so far just a very simplistic version of the hunt missions from XII. Once you get back to the story, it’s single narrow corridor time again. Maybe there are more areas with more in them to do later, but one single open field really doesn’t make the game overall any less linear.

  • Carvega

    I’m a FF fanboy, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be great guys. I will still be purchasing this game day one… but there are plenty of legitimate issues that were raised in this article.

    I agree that we do not want SE to use the same formula every time they release a FF. But some of their design choices do truly seem to be a step backwards… and perhaps b/c so many of you bitched about FF XII which was actually an excellent game ;-). The game took a bold step forward, was bashed for it… and now they’re taking a step back.

    The only thing that sucked in XII was the Summons system. I hated not being able to control my Summons… and now it looks like they took the one feature I hated… and MAGNIFIED it, lol. Oh well, I’ll still play it… and bitch about it afterward.

  • Richard

    @ for whom the bell tolls.
    1st- Im not a Fanboy, [personal attack deleted].
    2nd- If this game would of been dumbed down the 360 version wouldn’t of got 2 or 3 dvds
    3rd- [personal attack deleted]
    4th- get your facts straight before posting
    4th1/2- go back to playing CoD MW2
    5th- LOL

  • http://kotaku.com/5433455/final-fantasy-xiii-impressions-15-years-later-25-hours-in Richard

    I don’t remember towns being epic in FF, so developers stripped down everything, maybe it was harsh, but if you can handle that, this game is a 10, towns or no towns.

  • thermopyle

    @Richard

    So you’ve “seen” this game (and I’d gather it’s from youtube videos of people PLAYING the game) and we should “trust” you and take your word over Gabes who’s actually playing the game and just stating his piece on it?

    *sniff sniff* What’s that, you’re no fanboy?

  • Phil

    Amazon.jp user reviews are now an accurate depiction of how good something is? lol

    Actual Japanese publications that reviewed it gave it good scores. Granted they may not be so reliable either, but I’ll take their opinions over random Amazon and blog bashings of the game.

  • Tom

    I’ve been reading various Japanese blog posts (mainly at Jin 115 which just did a story on your review) and review comments about this game, and your review sounds right on. Supposedly it’s just a darn mediocre game with pretty graphics. Super linear, stupid story, irritating combat, dull character progression. Although there have been hints that the game gets better around 20 hours into it, opening up somehow.

    I’m looking forward to having my copy show up (should be any day now) so I can find out exactly what the deal is myself… but at this point my expectations are pretty low.

  • Gabe Carr

    @Phil: I mentioned the Amazon reviews to demonstrate that not being absolutely in love with the game is hardly controversial. As of now, there are nearly 1,200 reviews, spread pretty evenly across all 5 ratings. You don’t need to take that as a definitive verdict either way, but it’s not totally insignificant either. Nor is the fact that Japanese used games stores are already glutted with copies (as mentioned by Jin 115 – thanks for that link, Tom).

  • http://breakingwindows.com Ken Edwards

    Oh Gabe, how could you! How could you possibly talk ill about a Final Fantasy game? What is the world coming to? How is it possible that people like you are allowed to voice your opinions on a game. /sarcasm.

    Nice read, thanks for giving me the heads up on the game I was already feeling lukewarm on. Oh and don’t be a stranger!

  • Dion

    I’m not even sure why people are arguing against this. This isn’t even a review. It’s an impression by someone that obviously doesn’t like linear games, and misses the gameplay from Final Fantasy XII. That’s fine, because for each person that doesn’t like Final Fantasy XIII because it’s different, there are just as many new gamers coming to the franchise, that think linearity is better than wondering around endlessly without any plot progression. And that’s why I’m getting Final Fantasy XIII.

  • Gabe Carr

    @Ken: Stranger than what? Oh, *a* stranger. Lame cracks aside, yeah, I’d say a rental is the way to go.

    @Dion: In XII, you could go straight from objective to objective if you chose to. That choice is what’s lacking in XIII. For the record, I don’t dislike all linear games, and I don’t dislike XIII because it’s different; I dislike it because it’s dull.

  • Dave G

    Great read!!!! I don’t know if I’m bitter from the lousy trend of garbage released from SE over the past half decade or from my gf’s homemade meatloaf, but one things for sure.. If I don’t quit praising her cooking abilities, she’s gonna keep making that S***!