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by Ethos

Final Fantasy XIII Review – Lost Focus

Monday, March 29th, 2010

FFXIII Box Art_(PS3)LIKED:
-The inventive, fast, challenging, and satisfying battle system.
-Absolutely beautiful fantasy visuals
-When the menu and upgrading systems open up, they are the best in the series

DISLIKED:
-The fact that those good things open really far into the game
-Horrible writing
-Practically zero opportunity to connect to the primary world
-Apart from the battle system, very unfocused and practically automatic gameplay takes the front seat for most of the game

Note: I rarely go into detail explaining mechanics or story elements in this review. If you’re very unfamiliar with the title, our Final Fantasy XIII Week in the Riddlethos archives has a wealth of details.

Final Fantasy XIII. Like all the other iterations in this heavily and emotionally debated series, this one has the fans divided. I strangely stand somewhere on both sides. I enjoyed my 60 hours with the game and have a lot of high praise for the game in some areas, however I cannot deny some tremendous design flaws and missed opportunities that weigh down all the highlights at every turn.

Gameplay
This is the most bizarre sub-category to both score and talk about. That’s because it can range from either the very best or the very worst I’ve experienced in a very long time.

I’ll start with the good stuff. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is top-notch. The focus on individual battle strategy finally let me go all out and use spells and strategies that I would flat out ignore in other iterations. The pay-off is huge. Planning paradigm combinations and successfully navigating a challenging battle to the finish is incredibly satisfying. Experimentation begets powerful strategies for boss fights, and a hard-fought win has never been such a good feeling in a JRPG before. Mass Effect 2’s combat seems like filler after this. To supplement this system, Final Fantasy XIII almost does a lot of things right, and this is when it gets difficult to write about.

All style, no substance

All style, no substance

Like almost every single thing in Final Fantasy XIII, the Crystarium powering-up system is either a non-interactive tunnel with the illusion of choice at best, or a fantastic and open system representing a high-point of the series. It’s truly a staggering difference. In the “tunnel” portion of the game – that lasts around 30 hours, no joke – the system might as well not exist but function automatically. Once the game and system opens up, however, it becomes interesting and important strategy to decide if characters are going to learn another role at a very high price and abandon buffed stats, or favour more powerful characters instead of extremely helpful choice in battle. And there are many more micro-decisions within those major choices. It’s like night and day.

But that’s the issue present in all the gameplay except the battle system proper. Upgrading weapons is fantastic, but weighted such that nothing significant can really be done until late in the game, and same goes for complete customization of the party. There is no reason for it. The game becomes even more difficult at the end, so the hand-holding gives a false impression to newbies and frustrates veterans. In fact, the game only fully opens up after completing it. It’s as if the game wanted to hide all of its fantastic gameplay elements away.

And the “tunnel” I speak of really is that bad. It takes place any time you’re in Cocoon and it very rarely is anything except for a straight line that your character runs down. You can’t go off the beaten path to find your own perspective of the world and feel like you discovered Cocoon because there is no Cocoon to discover. The world is explicitly presented to you, and the personality and depth suffers greatly for it.

As a final complaint, Final Fantasy XIII seems to make things worse by occasionally showing a hint of how it could have done more in the tunnel. One location allows you to explore just a tiny bit so that you can overhear conversations with regular non-distressed citizens, while another section takes place in a flashback in which you can actually talk to a few characters at your own pace. But both of these examples literally only happen once a piece, so they are more frustrating than refreshing on account of their rarity. And all of this wouldn’t be so hard to bear if the story was well told…

The bike's too cool for him

The bike's too cool for him

Story
Final Fantasy XIII has a horribly told story. Sure, the scene direction is fine, but even Final Fantasy X – a title I consistently bash for mediocre characters, melodramatic dialogue, and poor scene direction – had me emotionally invested in the ending. There is some great character design in Final Fantasy XIII (some of my favourite) and solid voice work, but the writing steps on all the potential. There are some interesting set-ups for character arcs, but every climax is handled either in a forgettable or terrible manner, placing preference on gimmicks and melodrama before respecting the characters. The premise and many of the plot points are incredibly intriguing, but one of the game’s rare consistencies was in missing these opportunities. Also, even with all the dud or absentee villains of VIII, X, and XII, XIII trumps them all with the most bland, one-dimensional villain in Final Fantasy history.

I beat the game yesterday, and I remembering thinking to myself during the final scene, “if this was a well-told story, this ending may have been beautiful,” but as it was, I was just excited that I finally reached the post-game and thus the final level of the Crystarium.

What an incredible waste of a gorgeous world and intriguing premise.

Graphics
Speaking of gorgeous world, if nothing else Final Fantasy XIII is jaw-dropping. While not technically the best, it is my favourite looking game of all time. There are a few dud animations, but the environments, character and enemy design, and unbelievably beautiful CG scenes are just some of the reasons why Final Fantasy XIII is a perpetual joy to look at. The PS3 has very rare frame-rate hiccoughs, but it never seemed to affect the silky-smooth and blazing-fast battles for a moment. The only other small complaint is some enemy pop-in once you’re out of the tunnel. The landscape is unbelievable, but a massive creature quickly fading into view on occasion ruins the magic a bit.

Sound
The music is a mixed bag. There were some very great moments in the soundtrack when I was happy to see risks pay off to create a unique and fitting soundscape. Other tracks, however, were distracting and out of place. Other tracks still would surprisingly loop very awkwardly as if they weren’t written for a video game. The rest of the aural experience, however, is very pleasing. Context sensitive quips from party members are generally better dialogue than what the cut-scenes have to offer, and sounds from the environment often offer the only connection to the surrounding world.

Final Thoughts
Final Fantasy XIII may have some outstanding and even unparalleled gameplay, but waiting for 30 hours to access a lot of it is way too much to ask of newcomers and veterans alike. If the tunnel had better writing, it would have been more forgivable, but the fact is that it doesn’t and so it just comes across as unfocused and simply bad design. It’s deceptive, inconsistent, and devoid of the sort of rewarding exploration that Final Fantasy is known for. Cocoon could have been an amazing world to explore and get to know, but instead nobody got the chance and Final Fantasy XIII has all its gems –and believe me, they are truly gems – in the menus and battle system in late and even post-game. You have to really love the battle system to get to where FFXIII truly shines. For me, that worked just fine, but for many it will be too little too late.

Final Fantasy XIII - 6.5/10

Review Outline

Final Fantasy XIII IMpressions: The Outtakes

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Lightning convobad memory

And that’s all, folks. Hope you had as much fun with Final Fantasy XIII Week as we did.

Sunday Soapbox: Where does Final Fantasy XIII fit now?

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

For clarification, this Sunday Soapbox editorial has Riddles opening, and then Ethos responding to Riddles in the same article. Enjoy.

Riddles –

Beautiful FFVI-inspired art.

Beautiful FFVI-inspired art.

There was a time when Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series was the definitive console RPG experience.

There was a time when a new Final Fantasy meant a new landmark in the RPG landscape. Final Fantasy VI encapsulates the 2D RPG experience to the button. Final Fantasies VII-IX not only defined the RPG experience for the PlayStation generation, but for the entire genre. Final Fantasy XII, in my opinion at least, is the definitive RPG of the previous console generation.

But my, how the times change.

Final Fantasy XIII represents a big change for the series in more ways than one. We’ve already been over the drastic changes that have been made to the battle system, the world design, et cet – but in truth, that’s only half the story.

Final Fantasy XIII is a very good game. Few people are denying that. I’m certainly not denying that – sure, I’m only twelve hours in, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having a ton of fun with the game. But Final Fantasy XIII isn’t that definitive RPG experience any more. The king has been dethroned, and Final Fantasy XIII feels more like an experience specifically tailored to series fans, rather than an all-encompassing, definitive RPG.

So, why is this? Why has Final Fantasy lost the potency it once held?

Poor Serah.

Poor Serah.

There are a few reasons. First and foremost, we’ve already seen a lot of RPGs this generation – Square Enix was a little late to the ballgame. Just to cite a few examples, BioWare has already given us three fully-featured role playing games – Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect 2. It’s a bit too early to start handing out awards for this generation, but in my eyes, those three games define the role-playing experience of the generation. The worlds are huge, detailed, and steeped in pages and pages of lore. The battle systems are both deep and accessible, appealing to the new generation of gamers while avoiding ditching RPG combat conventions entirely. The storylines are epic, emotionally charged, and incredibly well-written.

Three years later, along comes Final Fantasy XIII. The world isn’t huge and sprawling. The level of input from the player is minimal.  The writing really isn’t that impressive, and neither is the storyline.

One word I would use to describe Final Fantasy XIII is “safe.” Despite the many changes that have been made, many of them – if not all of them – have been made in the interest of remaining “safe.” The game focuses exclusively on what Final Fantasy has always done right: the battle system.

In fact, it’s the only aspect of the game that doesn’t hold the player’s hand. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Final Fantasy XIII dumbed down – but it doesn’t take the risks that, say, Mass Effect does. It tries too hard not to frustrate the player. And, in doing so, it removes nearly every vestige of actual role-playing.

It’s a bit of a disappointment, to say the least. I won’t lie: as much as I’m enjoying Final Fantasy XIII, every time I play, I’m struck with an odd desire to play it’s predecessor – Final Fantasy XII.

Take it from here, buddy.

Ethos –

Finally got it right! ...except the theme song.

Finally got it right! ...except his theme song.

Y’know, it’s interesting, Riddles. I would actually say that this game is the best written of the series while at the same time agreeing with you completely in saying that it’s not that well-written. Final Fantasy has never had fantastic writing, Bioware just exposed that with sensational writing that was previously uncharacteristic in the industry. Final Fantasy was always able to draw people in with rare character focus and the pure depth of the worlds.

Now, I have a slightly different perspective than you because I’m farther in. The game world has opened up, and there have been some incredibly intriguing plot twists. This is actually the most I’ve been into a Final Fantasy story since IX. Something just clicked in me very recently that has endeared me to Final Fantasy XIII more than I expected with the opening – oh y’know – 30 hours, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

What we are talking about is how the trail-blazer is now behind the pace. I think some of that has to do with the perspective of Square Enix in general recently. They’ve had so many flops this generation that I truly don’t think anybody was taking Final Fantasy XIII as seriously as they would have otherwise. And as much as it maybe shouldn’t, that makes a big difference. Trying to look at the game objectively at this point in the adventure, I’d actually like to take a more positive stance.

Gorgeous.

Gorgeous.

I don’t think Final Fantasy XIII is as behind the curve as the company’s reputation dictates. There has been some very questionable choices regarding (lack of) exploration and stopping to smell the roses, but there are other areas where I don’t think any other game this generation compares. While not technically the best, Final Fantasy XIII is my favourite looking game, hands down. Everything is intricate, varied, and often beautiful. There is a lot more that could be done in the first half to connect you to the world, but the art style did a damn good job. Enemy design is unrivaled, character design is on par with the best of the series, and once you get to Pulse, even some enemy pop-in won’t stop you from being completely blown away by what you see.

And I guess that’s the moment where everything changes for this title and its place in this generation. Should you not be too bitter from the linearity of the first half, Final Fantasy XIII is an experience that cannot be found in any other recent RPG. The world is the sprawling size of the lands explored in XII, the fully opened up menu system blows the watered down RPG mechanics of Mass Effect 2 away, and the excitement of the pure fantasy world to be explored will bring back nostalgic feelings of Final Fantasy at its best.

Yes, Square Enix is still a little confused, and that shows in a lot of the decisions in this highly scrutinized game, but factor reputation out, and play all the way through, and I think Final Fantasy XIII has a legitimately earned place in the top RPGs of this generation. And this is coming from a huge Mass Effect fan.

Still, while the characters and story are great, it would be nice for Square Enix to get some Bioware caliber writers and to stray from the melodrama just a little bit. It gets to be too much; ruining some perfectly good scenes.

This has gone on way too long, what do you all think? Is Square Enix setting the pace? Just keeping up? Way behind?

Life After the Lobotomy: When FFXIII Opens Up

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

WARNING - This article will invariably discuss spoilers. Most of them gameplay related, but there will be very minor story spoilers as well.

Lightning says "Guess where I am?"

Lightning says "Guess where I am?"

Well, 35 hours into Final Fantasy XIII and I’m finally at the fabled point when the game opens up. Yup, I ended up on Pulse, and the game kinda turned into FFXII with a better battle system and pretty graphics. I gained control of the formation of my party and then very quickly had all the roles available to every player. Sidequests (See: hunts) were also opened up, and I was plopped into a fucking massive field filled with various beasts and a pretty spectacular view. It’s a little overwhelming, actually, but mostly in a good way. Just after THIRTY FIVE HOURS of extreme linearity, it’s daunting to be able to level up how I want, go wherever I want, find out which enemies to avoid for now on my own, and accept at least some form of side mission. If nothing else, it makes me understand the constraints placed on the Crystarium system until this point. At this point, stats are hiked, but so is the CP cost. I’m talking doubled. Monsters divvy out more CP too, but it’s going to be a while before I’m powering up more than 3 stats at a time again. The point is that without some direction, a lot of players would be screwed if given the full grid off the top. Focusing on filling out a few roles per character helps you to not fuck yourself over before you’re punched in the face with choice.

So the progression makes sense to me, but did it take way too long to set up? And while I had enough fun with the battle system and paradigms to not really care, the answer is still yes. I may not mind personally, but new players coddled by the gameplay to this point will be smashed in the face when the game lets go of their hand, and experienced players will likely be frustrated that they didn’t have this much freedom a lot earlier.

I’ve barely started, but I can already tell how much of a timesink the game will become now. Yes, and I’m saying that after 35 hours of gameplay. The point is that it’s a bittersweet feeling, but ultimately I’m very excited to play on and finally feel like I’m going at my own pace.

And seriously, although it’s just a field, it’s fucking beautiful. Just wait.

Final Fantasy XIII IMpressions: The Battle System/Crystarium

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Battle IMpressionsCrystarium IMpressions

So. Do you like Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system? Or does it feel too oversimplified? And how about the Crystarium? Does it suit your tastes as a micro-managing RPGamer?

Let us know!

Hey! Look! Listen!

Friday, March 12th, 2010

HLLfinal

Why is it that every time we have a theme week devoted to a specific game, I can’t seem to get the Tuesday edition of HLL written?

Ah well. Half is better than nothing. And it’s Final Fantasy XIII Week! You should all be playing it non-stop, just like I haven’t been doing!

Seriously, I have like twelve hours. And God of War III comes out this Tuesday. I’m fucked.

BioShock2-1Ruh Roh: 2k Released BioShock 2 DLC That Was… On the Disc Already?

2K Marin recently released the first DLC pack for BioShock 2, entitled “Sinclair Solutions Tester Pack.” It included all sorts of fun stuff for multiplayer, including new weapons, characters, trials, and so forth. Not bad for $3.99, since, as we’ve already established, BioShock 2’s multiplayer doesn’t suck. (In fact, it’s pretty darned fun.)

But wait! Sharp-eyed gamers have noted the fact that the pack is a mere 24k in size on the PC version, and 108k on the 360. So. Either 2K Marin has come up with TEH BEST COMPRESSION EVAR or… the content was already on the disc, and the “DLC pack” was merely an unlock key.

Mull that over in your head for a moment. 2K Marin wants you to pay for what’s already on the disc.

I mean, I doubt they’re breaking any laws or anything, but the ethics of the thing are pretty sketch. Remember that long article I wrote last Sunday about DRM and piracy? Yeah, this is the sort of thing that encourages that. (VG247)

uncharted2Naughty Dog Thinks Uncharted on the PSP Would Be “Fantastic”

Speaking to Joystiq, Naughty Dog’s co-president Evan Wells said he thought Uncharted on sony’s handheld would be “fantastic.”

“I think it would be fantastic to see the game (move) onto a handheld system,” said Wells.  ”If we can find a partner to work with, I’d love to do that … we definitely wouldn’t do it ourselves. We’re trying to just focus on the PS3 technology and platform right now.”

Really? Would it really be fantastic? Because I don’t think so. I hate to sound like a graphics-whore, but the last thing I want to see is Uncharted 2’s ground-breaking visuals and technology watered-down for the small screen. The fact is that the visual aspect of Uncharted is a huge, huge part of the experience – take that away, and I’m not sure I want to see what the results would be. (VG247)

QUICKIE: Splinter Cell Conviction Demo Coming

In a recent developer diary for Splinter Cell: Conviction, creative director Max Beland confirmed that a demo will be available to the public sometime before the game’s release in April.

“Yes, there will be one. I can’t tell you what map or when it’s going to be released yet, my lips are sealed.”

And… that’s all. It’s interesting to note that Ubisoft already told us back in February that there wouldn’t be one. Guess they changed their minds? (VG247)

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Valve’s Gabe Newell on DRM

Speaking at GDC, Gabe Newell had this to say about DRM:

“One thing that you hear us talk a lot about is entertainment as a service,” he said. “It’s an attitude that says ‘what have I done for my customers today?’

“It informs all the decisions we make, and once you get into that mindset it helps you avoid things like some of the Digital Rights Management problems that actually make your entertainment products worth less by wrapping those negatives around them.”

Ride on, Mr. Newell. (VG247. Again.)

That’s all. There’s no more. Goodbye now. Go play Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII IMpressions: The World

Friday, March 12th, 2010

World IMpressions 1World IMpressions

Hmmm. So, has Final Fantasy XIII succeeded in creating a believable and immersive world? What do YOU think?

Everything You Need to Know About Final Fantasy XIII

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Here’s a taste of those “IM”pressions that Ethos was talking about:

dumb sex jokes

You can look forward to a lot more of that.

Oh, what a Final Fantasy XIII Week it is!

Scatter Storming. Issue #023

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

ss023Wow, Riddles is fail. I stayed up extra late for the mother fucker because he promised he’d be around at a certain time so we could do those IMpressions that I promised last night. Now I just look like an asshole! Granted, midnight typically isn’t late for me, but it has been recently, and Riddles knew that, so don’t hold back your hate.

Obviously this is a Final Fantasy issue, so there’s no need to hesitate.

I don’t find Vanille that annoying -
I needed to get this out of the way right off the top. I mean, I agree with Riddles that she sounds like she’s perpetually having sex, but that’s not so bad, right? And when compared to Rikku, Vanille is a godsend. At least Squeenix isn’t obsessed with giving terrible hooks to these characters. Remember Rikku’s unforgivable “Yunie, y’know?”. Goddammit, it makes me want to kill babies just thinking about it. Anyway, Vanille’s far from my favourite, but she’s not so bad.

Dude, the battle system is fucking awesome –
Excepting recently when I’ve been killing it a bit more easily, the battle system is consistently engaging and fun. I noticed something that I think is the reason why I love it so much. In a game like FF9, the battle system itself is pretty boring really. Now, it never really bored me because I enjoyed seeing the payoff from my leveling and the decisions I made with equipment and abilities and such. The battles were payoff for working the backend. The fantastic thing about FFXIII is that not only is there still that noticeable difference in battle for tinkering with the backend, but the battles themselves take quick reactions and deep strategy to master. It’s a beautiful balance. If you power-up the wrong roles or don’t construct a key paradigm, you’ll find yourself fucked in battle. However, if you made fantastic choices in the menu systems but make a few grave errors in battle, you won’t survive either. The result is easily the most engaging and satisfying battle system ever created. Pogo came to watch me play for a bit, and I took 10 seconds to try and explain something without pausing, and I was very quickly slaughtered. No longer are battles part of a larger grind to manage overall HP and MP until the next inn, but rather individual efforts. It brings you into the moment and makes the game perpetually exciting.

vanilleYeah, there’s something missing -
Although I’m enjoying the cast and story, and immensely enjoying the battle, paradigm, and crystalium systems, I have to mirror what everybody else is saying in that there does just seem to be something missing. And I’m actually okay with the linearity and lack of towns, but there isn’t even a sense of different cultures. It’s fine that there’s only humans, but Final Fantasy has been so great at representing diversity, and while Cocoon has a rich culture, I’m surprised and disappointed to not have more insight. Also, while I say I don’t miss towns, I do miss what they represent: gathering information. While I’m enjoying the datapad, or whatever it’s called, I do miss picking up that sort of insight from the scattered comments of NPCs. They also provide quirk and personality to the world. So although I’m thoroughly enjoying the game, I am missing that extra layer of depth.

The music’s a mixed bag -
While it’s not a soundtrack I’d import the sheet music for, I’ve been very impressed with a lot of the music. It can be moody, unique, and very effective. Yet once in a while, there’s a track that comes on and I have to mute and unmute the sound to make sure it’s actually coming from the game. I think it’s Sazh’s theme, actually, because it usually props up when he’s diving into his past. Bad, bad choice.

That’s enough for me! Back to the game!

Scatter Storming Delay Notification

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Yup, it’ll be up tomorrow. To satisfy your never-ending thirst for Riddlethos, however, Riddles will post some joint Final Fantasy XIII IMpressions later tonight. Get it? Heh? Hehh….