"Final Fantasy XIII director Motomu Toriyama once defended the game’s much-publicized (and much-criticized) linearity by stating that his team was going for an FPS vibe, an action-centric experience in which the entirety of the design, barring a few exceptions, moves players from one encounter to the next and little else. This excuses nothing but explains a lot: FFXIII has caught a lot of flak for ditching a number of valued JRPG conventions, and this was done to make the game’s bat..."
Final Fantasy XIII director Motomu Toriyama once defended the game’s much-publicized (and much-criticized) linearity by stating that his team was going for an FPS vibe, an action-centric experience in which the entirety of the design, barring a few exceptions, moves players from one encounter to the next and little else. This excuses nothing but explains a lot: FFXIII has caught a lot of flak for ditching a number of valued JRPG conventions, and this was done to make the game’s battle system the center of attention. If you’re not fighting, you’re walking to the next fight. No towns, no legitimate overworld, very few NPCs to interact with, no side quests until the endgame bits… FFXIII abandons so many genre precepts that it’s amazing to think this was once the series that other JRPGs strove to mimic.
With so much resting on the battle system, it’s a relief that the one they’ve come up with is so delightful. It deftly reinvents the familiar “job” system that’s shown up in this series from time to time by reducing the number of jobs to a mere six, and then by allowing characters to quickly and seamlessly juggle their roles in the midst of combat. There are your basic attacker, magic-caster and healer roles, and then there are the more creative support classes: Synergists buff their fellow party members, Saboteurs debuff enemies, and Sentinels provoke the opposition and protect themselves, thereby giving their partners the opportunity to strike. Ultimately, each of the six characters can take on any role, and between battles, players can organize a deck of “paradigms,” sets of roles designed for various situations and circumstances that the player must flip through accordingly.
You don’t so much control combat as you simply influence it; you lean it in the appropriate direction based on your own judgments. You can only input a set of commands for your party leader, and even then, you’ll find it faster to simply opt for the auto-attack option, which does an astonishingly accurate job of selecting the actions you would choose – good thing, too, since it also dictates the actions of your two party members. Characters respond to situations based on the role they’re assigned and the abilities they’ve learned via an upgrade system that bears a striking resemblance to FFX’s sphere grid. So while much of the game runs on auto-pilot, the idea behind FFXIII’s combat is to prepare a deck of paradigms that will presumably lead you out of any battle scenario the game throws at you.
It’s far more engaging than it probably sounds. So much of the game’s introductory bits are spent teaching players the basics of combat that they’ll likely be comfortable spamming physical attacks and magical spells by the time the game’s increasingly more taxing encounters arrive, at which point FFXIII challenges you to make creative use of every role available to you. There’s nothing wrong with going all-attack when your party is in good condition, but in a rut, you may be called to pull a quick and miraculous heal. Do you keep two characters on offense while the third person steps back and casts healing magic? Do you draw all enemy attacks to your Sentinel while your other party members keep at it? Do you go all-defense and risk losing the attack chain you’ve been building up?
The system is surprisingly involving for how, well, uninvolving it initially seems, because while you have little direct control over what your party does, there’s still an infinite amount of strategizing involved, often on the spot. Some enemies need to be debuffed via Saboteur; some enemies inflict status ailments that require the aid of a Synergist to reverse; some enemies will hammer away so violently at your party that you won’t have a chance to attack consistently unless a Sentinel is drawing the fire. Attack chains add another layer: When an enemy’s meter is full, bonus damage can be issued for a period of time, but getting it full is the tricky part. Both attack types – Ravager and Commando – fill the meter, but the former fills it faster while the latter prevents it from draining as quickly. You can see how the intricacies of this system really invoke critical thinking; it’s a wonderfully versatile and endlessly entertaining setup.
Good thing, too, because FFXIII doesn’t have much to offer beyond that. As I said, there are no towns to tour and few (if any) NPCs to interact with; of the thirteen chapters, you won’t see what vaguely passes as the game’s overworld until the eleventh, and you won’t have a shot at most of the side quests until you’re finished with the main adventure. Exploration is virtually non-existent; the game defines linear at every turn, and most of the chapters progress in incredibly straightforward fashion, leading the player from one battle to the next with no questions asked. None of this is inherently bad, and it doesn’t seem fair to criticize FFXIII for elements that it makes no effort to include in the first place. That leaves me free to criticize the story, then, which FFXIII offers in spades.
To be fair, the production values are phenomenal as always. It comfortably rests among the prettiest games ever released, and its abundant CG sequences put even the stunning Advent Children to shame. Localization is terrific as well, and most of the voice actors they’ve chosen perform admirably.
Presentation isn’t the issue; the plot itself is. The bulk of FFXIII’s narrative unfolds from the perspective of six characters who have been cursed by an all-powerful supernatural being and are ultimately caught between two conflicting worlds: a futuristic human paradise, and the primitive world it perpetually hangs over. That’s the simplified version, without the barrage of proper nouns and newly-fabricated terminology the writers assault you with. The game begins in medias res and then fills us in on the details via flashbacks, yet there are hours of gameplay in between each flashback, thus convoluting the story and making it difficult to keep track of what’s going on. Yes, FFXIII includes a logbook, but that sort of thing is only worth commending when it expands the fictional universe rather than simply being used as a storytelling crutch.
Most of the cast is disappointingly one-note as well, and you could probably surmise much about each of them based on their appearances and physical mannerisms alone: Vanille is a perky, overly effeminate pile of squeals, Snow has a popped collar, Hope (or Destiny or Inspiration or whatever his name is) singularly defines “angsty” in a genre where that word crops up too frequently already, and Lightning (ugh) is the sort of stoic and valiant protagonist – with caged emotions! – that doesn’t work nearly as well now that Lost Odyssey has so brilliantly deconstructed that archetype. Only Szszzhzh resonates as someone genuinely relatable, which is odd, considering he’s a black guy with a chocobo living in his fro (a frocobo if you will). With the game having a safe 40 hours for character development, I was hoping the cast would surprise me and rise above their generic outward appearances, but that didn’t happen. Oh, what’s that, Lightning? You call yourself that because you don’t want people to know your real name? Piss off.
The story’s narrow perspective – rarely do we see something that isn’t being witnessed by one of the six main characters – is already damaging because we’re forced to spend more time with these people, yet I’m mainly disappointed because FFXIII’s setting is genuinely intriguing, and I wanted to see more of it. Which makes me wonder: What does the game accomplish by limiting itself so much? I wanted to explore these fabulous-looking futuristic cities, yet they’re merely backdrops for hours and hours of linear dungeon-crawling. FFXIII’s bare-bones design principles clash with the foundations they’ve set, which beg for elaboration; the one chapter that falls more in line with traditional JRPG standards is too little, too late to have a worthwhile effect on the overall adventure.
But yeah, the combat is loads of fun, and FFXIII develops a sort of chicken-and-egg cycle: The focus on combat means everything else is underwhelming, yet the combat being so enjoyable makes up for anything else. On its own terms, FFXIII works. But imagine if there were more to it than that. Imagine if this excellent battle system was accompanied by towns to explore, people to talk to, side quests in which to engage during the main adventure, and a legitimate overworld. Now imagine an expertly crafted story and a likeable cast of characters to go along with it. FFXIII is pretty good; it could have been so much more than that.
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