As many of you know, I used to write a semi-regular column for this site chronicling my (mis)adventures attempting to reduce the size of my considerable video game backlog. It sort of trailed off into nothingness, though; I play a lot of games, but I play them at my own pace, which is sometimes very fast and sometimes very slow, but mostly just dependent on what the game is into which I happen to be sinking time at any given juncture. Sometimes I had quite a lot to talk about from week to week, and sometimes… well, sometimes things stayed pretty much the same and I felt like I was repeating myself just for the sake of having something to say. I still want to talk about what I play, of course, but I don’t want to run the risk of boring you or myself, so I’m going to give a new type of column a shot, and I’m calling it Five Things.
The basic idea behind Five Things will be that every time I finish a game (however often that happens…), I’ll give it a write-up, and I’ll choose five outstanding features or categories (”things,” if you will) around which the discussion will center. I’m going to try to stay away from generic things like “music” or “gameplay” in favor of more game-specific criteria, but I can’t promise that I won’t get lazy every once in a while. This is probably going to result in an interesting mish-mash of review material, as I’m likely to mix new games in with things that everyone else played years ago (as is my wont). Anyway, let’s give this a test run so that you folks can let me know what you think; Final Fantasy XIII seems like a pretty good place to start. For science!
I think I can honestly say I’ve never waited as long or as expectantly for a game as I did for Final Fantasy XIII. I even bought a PS3 for it, back in the days when we all thought it would be an exclusive. It’s been about three and a half years since the series’ last numbered console outing on the PS2, but it’s felt like so very much longer. Under normal circumstances, a newly purchased game can expect to wait on my shelf for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before I get around to it; that’s just the nature of the beast that is my backlog, and I doubt it’ll change anytime soon. Final Fantasy XIII was, of course, a totally different story. I picked it up at a midnight launch and started playing the next day, barely paying attention to any other games until I checked it off as completed 70-ish hours of play time–three weeks–later. Here, then, are five things about Final Fantasy XIII:
Not as in “game controls,” but rather as in “the game CONTROLS its players to a ridiculous degree.” Hand-holding this long should really be followed by a request for a second date. There are thirteen chapters in the game, and in chapter nine, I was still getting tutorials. Square games have never exactly been light on the instructional periods, but this felt excessive even for them; I’m guessing that they were banking on attracting something of a new crowd with the series’ transition to the next-gen systems, and therefore were making allowances for people who hadn’t played their games before and simply picked it up because it looked all shiny and pretty. Well, guess what, Square? I’m going to go ahead and say that MOST of the people playing Final Fantasy XIII have, in fact, played at least enough of the series to know how to maneuver their way through a battle without being stopped every five seconds to adjust the angle of their sword or remind them that if they run out of health, they will die.
Outside of battle, the game controls where the player goes to a degree that really does feel out of place in a Final Fantasy game. As a general rule, exploration is sort of a big thing in these titles; getting a hovercraft or boat or airship with which to traverse the world map is pretty much a rite of passage for any budding party. There IS no world map in Final Fantasy XIII. There are only linear maps for the first major chunk of the game, and once you get to a point where you can wander around even a little bit, it’s still a royal pain in the ass to get anywhere with any kind of efficiency. It’s only much, much later that you obtain the ability to ride a chocobo (which I actually loved in this game, but I’ll get to that), and later than that when you can teleport between more than one or two waypoints. In short, the game doesn’t want you to fuck around too much before it’s good and ready to let you go. Given that it’s still not exactly short, this didn’t actually bother me all that much, but I know some folks were pretty miffed that they couldn’t wander hither and yon as in previous installments.
The last control issue was one that I actually sort of liked; up until quite late in the game, the game actually chooses which of the six playable characters you will have in your party at any given point, as well as who the leader of the party will be (i.e. who you as the player will be controlling in battle and in the field). Once I was allowed to pick my own party, I ran with the exact same configuration through the rest of the game, contrary to what the strategy guide wanted me to do. (They said to use Hope… fuck that, says I. Sazh made a perfectly legitimate back-up medic. So what if I had to spend a ridiculous amount of his crystarium points to make it worth the effort? Things were mostly busy smacking Fang around anyway.) By choosing my party for me, though, the game ensured that I at least got experience using each of the characters for long enough to know how to make them effective. Also, I don’t have to simply infer that Hope is a whiny little bitchface; I’ve seen it in action. I know.
2. Character Progression
I love job systems, and at its heart, that’s what Final Fantasy XIII uses: a job system squared. In battle, while you don’t control what each individual character is doing at any given time, you do control how they interact and work with each other. That sounds a little complicated, but it really isn’t; beforehand, you set up what they call paradigms, which are essentially battle plans that you can deploy whenever necessary. For most normal running-around, I tended to use Delta Attack, which consisted of a Commando (stabbity fighter/rogue), a Ravager (casty-type/mage), and a Sentinel (tank/warrior).
Let me pause here to note that I giggled like a schoolgirl once I figured out that all six of the roles pretty much directly correlate to WoW classes: Commandos=Rogues, Ravagers=Mages, Sentinels=Warriors, Medics=Priests, Saboteurs=Warlocks, and Synergists=Shaman. Do I think they did this on purpose? Of course not, but I still got a kick out of it.
Anyway, while you will undoubtedly have a favored configuration or two, you are free in battle to choose whichever you like (the deck allows you to have six at the ready) and to swap in and out of it at any given time. This way, if you find yourself in a tight spot, you don’t have to give up the fight and come back, as long as your paradigms have been properly prepared ahead of time. Again, it’s worth noting that the game holds your hand regarding this system for a looooong time, but once they actually allow you to USE it instead of simply thinking that it looks shiny and potentially fun, I found it to be a very effective and enjoyable way to fight. The only thing I didn’t like about the setup here was that if you switch a member into or out of your party (or if the game forces you to do so), all of the pre-existing paradigms that you have created are wiped out, even if you go back to the same configuration of party members immediately afterward. Granted, it only takes a couple of minutes to rebuild them, but I don’t think it would have been too much to ask for the game to remember what I had going on for any three particular characters.
The actual progression of the characters through each of their roles is handled through something called the Sphere Grid…. er, Crystarium. Yeah, so it borrows very, very heavily from Final Fantasy X, which is just dandy by me. With each battle, you gain CP (Crystarium Points), which are then used to progress through each role, unlocking abilities, stat enhancements, and so forth. There are really only two differences between this and the Sphere Grid: first, the different characters’ paths are unrelated, whereas there’s only one Sphere Grid, and second, you can, if you so choose, work on multiple roles at once rather than being restricted to one path (i.e. you can dump points into, say, Medic and Ravager at the same time, although it’s generally much less efficient to do so than to simply focus on one role at a time). I suppose there actually is a third difference, although it doesn’t directly involve the grid; characters gain CP regardless of whether they actually participate in a battle or not. This makes things so much easier later in the game that it’s simply amazing. As I’ve said, I tended to run with the same crowd once given the option, but there were a few points where I really needed the extra healing power (and thus was forced to endure Hope for a fight or two) or called in support for something really specific (like the two hunts where I abused Vanille’s simply unfair Death spell). By giving these characters enough CP to keep up with their more active comrades throughout the entire game, they weren’t in danger of simply being one-shotted once I actually gave them their time in the sun. True, they weren’t as well-developed as the others, by virtue of me ignoring their equipment and upgrades, but they weren’t totally helpless (which was one of the major problems that I had with FFXII…but I digress). I think, actually, that this particular progression system might be my favorite in the series to date. Gasp!
There’s a lot of backstory to FFXIII. A *lot.* Unfortunately, most of it doesn’t actually manifest during the game itself. Of course, there are plenty of cutscenes, and you get enough information to get along, but the great majority of the exposition takes place either in the datalog entries (which are abundant enough that even I stopped keeping up with them after a while) or through the strategy guide, which actually has a rather lovely series of entries that explain the “Day X” flashbacks that, without some extra guidance, are just confounding. I found this whole setup to be a little frustrating; should I really be required to do background reading and outside research just to get the whole story of the game? Don’t get me wrong– I don’t have anything against them including extra content to flesh out some things that might not have gotten a complete treatment in the main story, but it seems as though some pretty integral things were just left out, and things felt a little disjointed as a result.
4. Side Quests (and the lack thereof)
I would have liked to see more side quests in Final Fantasy XIII. In fact, I would have liked to see ANY side quests IN Final Fantasy XIII, because for the most part, you can’t even do any of the damn things until the game is over and you’ve already taken out the end bosses. Even the strategy guide tells you “oooo, yeah… you might wannna hold off on that, ’cause you’re gonna get spanked,” which is NOT a good sign. I think this is another integration issue; yeah, the content is there, but it’s not accessible unless you go the extra mile, which… well, I guess if that’s what they were really going for it worked, but why withhold explanation, or content, or whatever from someone who’s more casually playing the game and less rabidly rushing for completion? Wouldn’t it draw more people to the series if you were to, say, offer most of what there is during the main storyline and then hinting that if you’re REALLY interested, guess what? There’s a bit more for you too!
Now, I say this, of course, as one of those who WAS rabidly rushing for completion, so I’m not sure whether that makes my thoughts any less valid… at any rate, I did complete the side quests, or rather, the side quest (singular). Yeah, there’s really only one. Much like in Final Fantasy XII, you are tasked with “hunts,” wherein you track down a specific creature or set of creatures and annihilate it/them. Nothing to it. Of course, some are vastly more difficult to find and/or kill than others, but the whole thing is still pretty much straightforward. You do get some pretty badass stuff out of doing the hunts, but a lot of it would have been much more useful during the main game. For example, the use of chocobos is unlocked through a hunt, and it’s one that you would have likely not been able to complete much before the final areas (if at all).
Another digression here: I’m on record as not liking chocobos very much. I may, at some point, have even suggested that Colonel Sanders open up an Ivalice branch, or something to that effect. I don’t really remember. However, Final Fantasy XIII is the first game in the series where I can unreservedly say that chocobos were done right. Aside from the initial side quest that allows you to use them, there’s no stupid requirements, no chasing, no fighting, simply walking up to them and pressing a button does the trick. The only mini-game associated with them requires practically no effort; if they sense treasure, they get a symbol above their head that leads you straight to it, and then they dig it up. It’s how you get your first Ribbon. Done and done. Thank you, FFXIII.
I put somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen extra hours into the game after the final sequences, which is pretty good, and I finished all but three hunts (the last two I didn’t even try, and that goddamn Cactuar is not possible for a human to defeat), but for a series that has traditionally allowed and even encouraged so much extra exploration, I really would have liked to see more. It felt like there was even less than there actually was, I think mainly because all of the side quests were tied together; if there had been roughly the same amount of content, but spread out along a few objectives instead of simply the one, maybe I would have been more satisfied. I dunno.
5. Final Fantasy-ness
This is the key, isn’t it? Many people, me included, waited a very long time for this game, and a lot of that waiting was chiefly because of those two words. Does it live up to its legacy? Well, you tell me. Where else have we seen a game open up with stoic, environmentally-monikered military hero riding a train into the heart of the bad guys’ domain with a stereotypical wisecracking token black sidekick? OH RIGHT, that was Final Fantasy VII. That’s just an example, of course. Traditional series good (chocobos, Cid) and bad (tonberries, cactuars) guys make appearances, causing fankids like me to squeal just a little, and the established character roles are nicely filled; aside from those I’ve already mentioned, there’s also the whiny little weakling who becomes a badass (or maybe he did… I don’t really know, *I* didn’t keep the little pussy in my party)(Tidus), the cheerful bouncy girl that I always hate (Yuffie, Selphie), and the raging badass (Auron, Red XIII) that always becomes a permanent fixture in my party. The music and the setting, as always, are lovely, there are cutscenes a-plenty, and the production value is… well, it’s Square. They don’t generally fuck around. Yes, this is Final Fantasy.
Overall, I don’t think it’s going to kick out FFVIII as my favorite game of the series or anything, but it’s a perfectly respectable first outing on the next-gen systems, and I didn’t feel cheated in the least having purchased my PS3 in its honor.
Now, get to commenting. I want to know if this column is worth continuing. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days will be next, just to let you know.