Review: Final Fantasy XIII (part 1)

March 30, 2010 at 1:02 am 1 comment

Final Fantasy 13.  It’s one of the biggest and most unique games to be released this year, so there’s a lot to talk about.  So much so that I’m going to split my discussion of the game into two articles.  This first episode will talk about the game’s presentation: the art design, music, story, and so forth.  The second will concern matters of gameplay and anything else I might have forgotten to address here.

So let’s begin with the story (SPOILERS, by the way.  If you’re looking to remain in the dark, skip to the next paragraph.).  As far as the actual plot, it doesn’t really impress.  It borrows heavily from past Final Fantasy games – especially 10 – with its notions of old gods, a technologically advanced civilization surrounded by untamed fantasy wilderness, imperialist conspiracies, and a plucky terrorist group.  Nothing in this story is that original, and as a result it is not that memorable.  Instead it merely reminds you of when similar events happened in the earlier games, and this really takes you out of the experience.  For example, when Serah turns to crystal I couldn’t help but think of FF4’s Palom and Porom turning to stone (and what is with the FF games’ obsession with crystals, by the way?  It’s always felt a bit trite to me, like it’s an unwitting parody of fantasy tropes.).  When Sahz almost kills himself, it just feels like a pale shadow of Celes’s attempted suicide or even Aerith’s death, and beyond that, it’s simply a bad scene.  The game tries to trick you into thinking he offed himself, a plot mechanic that annoys me wherever it turns up, and it isn’t even convincing.  Having “death” scenes that are undercut when all the presumably dead characters walk back on stage at the end weakens the story, and this is a problem that the game shares with FF4.  However, 4 had an excuse: it was not written by professional writers, and it was far more silly and tongue-in-cheek (you go to the bloody MOON, for God’s sake).  FF13 gives you the impression that it is trying to be serious, and it simply fails in this regard.

It’s not all gloom and doom, however.  The characterization is perhaps the best in the entire series.  None of the major characters, with the exception of the main villain, are one-dimensional, and even the majority of your more minor enemies have believable motivations and are sympathetic characters.  Your party feels like it is made up of individuals with their own goals and problems unwittingly thrust together, rather than a ragtag group of warriors of truth and justice or some such nonsense.  I can’t think of another Final Fantasy where there are characters in your party who absolutely hate each other’s guts (there was Steiner in 9, but not for long, and he was more comic relief than anything), and this opens up different sorts of relationships and avenues for character development throughout the game.  Speaking of this, characters do change and grow in appreciable arcs during the course of the plot, and characters who were unbearably annoying or just boring early on (Vanille, Lightning) open up and display a great deal more depth later.  They also help each other deal with many of their individual problems, which makes a sense of solidarity and community within the party more believable.  It’s also incredibly refreshing that there is an already-established romantic relationship which takes the place of the same tired love arc that plagues too many of these games.  The sole complaint I have about the characterization is some of the dialogue: it’s both odd and cheesy when characters speak frankly and at length about abstract emotions, especially when a character like Hope is young enough that he probably wouldn’t be able to articulate his feelings that well.  I understand that the writers are trying to display the characters’ development, but it is very crude to simply have somebody come out and say something like “I’ve been running away from my responsibilities under the guise of protecting <insert character>.”

The graphics are obviously fantastic, and the settings are both gorgeous and varied, except for the nightmarish Tronscape that is the final level (Why is it that these games always devolve into abstraction by the big finale?  Even in the FF games that have reasonable last stages, you’ll get to the final boss fight only to have the background melt away into a swirling vortex of bad art design.).  Though the game is linear and suffers from FF10’s corridor-like level design (more on that later), the paths you walk on are beautifully decorated, and you are free to pan the camera around to appreciate the work that went into animating this world, which I personally found myself doing pretty frequently.  This is also one of the only Final Fantasy games that takes place in a very modern society, with television broadcasts and contemporary apartments.  FF7’s Midgar had some of this, but 13 is able to better realize this with its hardware capabilities, and it makes for some interesting situations.  This provides a stark comparison to the wild fantasy world surrounding Cocoon, for instance, and gives insight into why the populace behaves the way it does.

How you interact with this populace is also unique for a Final Fantasy game.  Rather than barging into peoples’ houses and having them give you an unprompted history lesson about the surrounding area, people you pass automatically say things to each other as though you are overhearing snippets of their conversation.  While it isn’t perfect – the volume of these exchanges are often too low to hear, and they will have the exact same conversation every time you walk past – it is a welcome change from the usual trend.  It is more about atmosphere than gathering information, so there is no need to talk to everyone, and you spend a lot less time fooling around with civilians (and more time beating monsters’ faces in).  This method also lends to the immersion of the game, and provides the feeling that the world is actually inhabited by things not placed expressly for your interaction with them.  Just as monsters in the wild will have fights with each other in a predatory / territorial sort of way rather than simply waiting for you to fight them, people conduct their own business with friends and family instead of walking a set path and giving you clues about what to do.  One of my favorite settings in the game is Nautilus – a cross between Golden Saucer and Walt Disney World – because it pulls this technique off with the greatest degree of competency.  The place is packed, and so as you walk through you trigger several of these sound bytes at the same time, leading to a crowd-noise sort of effect where you can pick out distinct voices but not what everyone is saying.  And that’s the whole point – you don’t need to hear every piece of dialogue because it isn’t important.  Little Jimmy is psyched to be at a theme park and Mary is contemplating buying him a plush chocobo.  It’s all meaningless, but taken together it provides a great feeling of being in an occupied space.

Finally, let’s talk about the music.  Ultimately, this suffers the same problems that the story does – it isn’t that memorable, and it’s fairly reminiscent of what you find in FF10.  There is a particular song that sounds way too close for comfort to the Hymn of the Fayth from 10, and it takes me out of the experience every time.  The pieces are more atmospheric than melodic, which is why you won’t find yourself humming them.  They aren’t necessarily bad, and on the contrary they fit the scenes and action quite well, but most of them are fairly generic, and they fail to leave a lasting impression.  But who knows?  Taste in music is a very subjective thing, and other people might really enjoy it – it’s certainly done competently enough.  On the bright side, 13’s edition of the chocobo song?  Pure gold.

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