Review: Final Fantasy XIII (part 2)

April 3, 2010 at 9:57 pm Leave a comment

(For Part 1 click here.)

Last time I wrote about the presentation and story of Final Fantasy’s latest installment, with mixed reactions.  Today I’m going to get into the real meat of the thing: the gameplay.  Like my previous topic, the results here are a mixed bag.  The battle system retains some of the automation from FF12, but tightens things up considerably.  If, like me, you never warmed up to FF12, you’ll be happy to note that FF13’s battles feel more visceral and compelling than its predecessor’s.  Where 12 relied on a great deal of micromanagement and planning between battles (the gambit system felt like simplified coding to me, and I never felt really connected to the action), 13 shifts the focus back to decisions made in the thick of things.  Though AI behavior is less customizable, you constantly have to shift between a number of different classes in the middle of battle, choosing between a number of simple strategies to cope with a changing battlefield.  The game tests your ability to make split-second decisions as much as it does your ability to plan ahead, and this lends it a sense of immediacy that I felt was lacking in the previous game.

At its best, this system provides a surprising amount of depth and challenge when coupled with a “guard break” style mechanic and an eschewal of MP and Game Overs.  The former mechanic supplies a greater deal of strategy to the proceedings, preventing more cautious players from turtling or constantly healing by requiring them to keep up a constant barrage of attacks in order to break through a tough enemy’s defenses.  When you finally manage to stagger a particularly recalcitrant opponent, it is oh so satisfying – the Final Fantasy equivalent of exposing a boss’s weak spot in a Zelda game and proceeding to swing in for big damage.  Not having to worry so much about managing MP or party wipes is also a plus, as again more attention can be placed on the immediate and fast-paced battles.  These fights can also be made more difficult, as a loss doesn’t result in any large setbacks and players can simply try their hands again.  For the first time in recent memory, we’ve been given a Final Fantasy game in which regular opponents are capable of posing large threats, and it’s a welcome change.

However, the game still suffers from a number of battles that the player can simply spam the attack command to get through (made even more mindless by the “auto-attack” option), and combat mechanics are unlocked at a glacial pace.  This latter point has been made elsewhere, but it bears repeating as it really is the game’s Achilles’ heel.  It’s about 2 hours before you’re given magic, and another 3 before you get access to the paradigm shifts that constitute the basis of the battle system.  Until this point, you can largely get by with auto-attack and a few potions.  This pace continues for a while longer, though, as it’s about 20 hours into the game before you truly have access to everything and break into more open-world gameplay.  Players who have the patience to stick with the game are over time rewarded to some truly engaging and challenging battles, but they shouldn’t be expected to slog through so much hand-holding to get there.  I understand that SquareEnix wanted to make a game that everyone could enjoy, but I think they set the bar too low on this one.  Furthermore, would it really be that difficult to include a difficulty modifier?  Action games and FPS’s have no problem pulling it off, and I think that this game was linear enough to support it.

I won’t talk too much about linearity though – the topic’s been beaten to death.  If you didn’t mind the endless hallways in FF10, you’ll be fine here.  The game’s arc actually reminds me more of FF6, however, in that it follows a number of groups along scripted paths for the first half of the game, and then gives the player a great deal more freedom in the second world.  FF13 really does feel like two games smashed together: once you get to Pulse, you have the freedom to fully explore a huge section of the world doing missions and sidequests.  It feels very MMO-influenced in its monster-hunting sensibilities, and it’s both big and self-contained.  It took me 25 to 30 hours to get through what I wanted to my first time through, and I didn’t even finish everything.  The biggest fault I found in this second part was that there was no clear distinction between side quests (to be played before moving on in the story) and endgame content (to be played after beating the game).  There are difficulty grades assigned to missions, from D to A, but these grades are often wild and unreliable, as there were for example A’s I came across which were far easier than B’s, and C/B’s which were way harder than the others in their categories.  Also, to the best of my knowledge there is no extra hidden dungeon, which is probably a big disappointment for some, but for me wasn’t a deal breaker (I’ve never been one for endgame material).

FF13 takes a lot of small gambles, some of which pay off, and some of which unfortunately bomb.  Random encounters are thankfully a thing of the past, as all enemies are visible on screen, and unnecessary villages with their stilted NPC dialogue have also bit the dust.  Status ailments are no longer wasted ability slots, as they actually work on bosses, and this adds another layer of strategy to things.  On the other hand, the equipment upgrade system stumbles, as its requirements are far too harsh.  I would have loved to experiment with upgrading and transmuting a number of different weapons and accessories throughout the course of the game, but sadly this is not possible given the quantity of resources required to do so.  Giving bonus multipliers for investing more into a certain weapon only serves to further shackle players to their upgrade decisions, and even then progression only follows a single path.

FF13 also continues an ostensible pattern of designers gradually getting closer to what I want but always stopping short just to screw with me – that is, a game system that allows and encourages the use of the entire cast of playable characters.  FF6 started this trend by making the player use the majority of characters during the first half of the game (and even in the last dungeon), but the second half returned to the same design of “pick your party and stick with it.”  FF10 made the next big leap by letting you swap out party members in the middle of battle.  “Great!”, I thought.  However, your party members wouldn’t gain experience unless you actually used them in battle, even if it was only coming in for a turn to block (kind of defeating the purpose of this limitation, it seems).  If you wanted every character to remain relevant throughout the game, you had to use everyone in almost every battle, a stipulation that grew tiring very quickly.  Now, in FF13, we finally have a leveling system in which every character gets stronger regardless of their participation, and a first half which mimics 6’s.  However, since each character spans multiple classes and has no significant individual skills, there is no real need to swap between them.  It’s even a hassle to do so, as paradigms aren’t saved when you switch party members, making you input them in again each time.  Maybe one day I’ll get my wish, but this isn’t quite it.

All of this has been a bit long winded, I know, but I think I’ve finally said everything I wanted to say.  Final Fantasy 13 is a game which makes bold strides for the series in some respects, and yet remains queerly tied to form in others.  It’s an interesting specimen, and one I recommend checking out to any fan of the genre, as it’s not perfect, but it’s a great result of SquareEnix’s desire to continually evolve a longstanding series in sometimes radical ways.  Will it make JRPGs relevant again?  Probably not on it’s own, but as long as other studios are willing to make their own experiments, it’s a great start.


Entry filed under: Final Fantasy XIII, gaming. Tags: , , .

Review: Final Fantasy XIII (part 1) Games are Art – But What Does That Mean?

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