First Impressions: Final Fantasy XIII

April 4, 2010

I can say, with absolute conviction, that Final Fantasy XIII has the finest-looking CG hairstyles of any videogame, ever. Any, more useful, assertions of the merits of Square Enix’s latest instalment in a long, long series may have to wait for the review, which in itself may be a long time coming. I’m over five hours in and after each one of those hours, enquiries as to how I’m enjoying Final Fantasy XIII have been met with answers along the lines of ‘I don’t know, it hasn’t really started yet’ or ‘I haven’t really done anything so far’. I’ve merely been pressing forward down what is essentially a linear, elaborately-dressed corridor, dispatching waves and waves of identical enemies by repeatedly stabbing the ‘X’ button, watching at least an hour’s worth of cutscenes and repeating ad infinitum. I’m tempted to say that, so far at least, Final Fantasy XIII has bored me silly, but at the same time, I still keep coming back to plug just another half hour into it with each play session.

Any further discourse on the qualities of the latest in the franchise should first be qualified with my admittance that I’m something of a Final Fantasy novice. I’ve played precious little of the series so far; in fact, the only Final Fantasy I’ve played is everyone’s favourite, VII, and even then I probably only got halfway through it. Although I thought the story was great and the characters well-rounded, I just got bored of fighting those random battles over and over again, against enemies that didn’t even show up on the screen. With Final Fantasy XIII, you can, at the very least, see when you are about to enter the battle screen, and in some cases even avoid the roaming monsters entirely.

So without any previous Final Fantasy baggage weighing down my perceptions of this iteration, I can evaluate it on its own merits. The game starts off with the player controlling Lightning, the pink-haired, hard-ass moody chick that adorns the box art, accompanied by Sazh, a bumbling, earnest pilot with a cute Chocobo nestled in the enormous afro sprouting from his head. They have just fought their way off a train destined for the world of Pulse, in a mass evacuation known as the Purge. Those who come into contact with a Pulse fal’Cie, an enormous evil creature, are said to be contaminated and are rounded up for deportation by PSICom, a shadowy organisation who allegedly keep peace and harmony on Cocoon, the planet where the entire opening section takes place. The story is all very earnest, and told with gravitas and drama; Final Fantasy XIII takes itself very seriously. I only remember these plot details because of the game’s constant reminders of them – early pacing is slow and laborious, and plot points repeatedly regurgitated to ensure you don’t miss them.

Soon, we are introduced to the other main characters that will soon make up the motley crew that the player is tasked with handling. Snow is the leader of a group of rebels known as NORA, hell-bent on disrupting the Purge and rescuing those who are marked for deportation. He is the typical fist-pumping, pep-talking, blonde-haired alpha male stereotype, constantly referring to himself as a hero, capable of saving the entire world. He is shallow and brash, but it’s disheartening to realise that he is possibly the most likeable main character. Vanille, a pre-pubescent orange-haired teen who yelps orgasmically at every conceivable opportunity is only slightly less annoying than the cowering, whimpering Hope – a newly motherless boy with all the courage and personality of a stick of celery. Interactions between these characters, who seem to have been thrown together by random haphazard events, are cheesy and clichéd – there is plenty of room for improvement here over the course of the game.

The mechanics of battle have been divulged at a painfully slow pace thus far, but this may not altogether be a bad thing, considering the inherent complexity. Attacks and abilities are assigned a numeral, which correspond to the number of segments that each will deplete the ATB gauge. Once all segments are depleted, you won’t be able to perform any further attacks or abilities until the gauge has refilled. You are responsible for the actions of the leader of the group, the character that you control in Final Fantasy XIII’s detailed overworld. Other characters will auto-perform their own actions depending on the status of the fight. Characters can be split into five different classes; Commando, Ravager, Synergist, Saboteur and Medic. Each character is assigned one or more of these at the outset of the game – but, with progress, unlock access to other classes. After a number of hours, the game begins to trust you with the Paradigm Shift, which allows you to switch the make-up of your party on the fly, swapping the class of one or more of your characters in order to respond to what is happening in battle. This has the potential for real complexity, especially when you factor in the ability to customise any of the pre-determined Paradigms.

You might be asking why I’m still persevering with Final Fantasy XIII despite the numerous gripes listed above. Simply put; because of the spectacle. Despite its corniness and over-indulgence, the game positively screams epic. Visuals reinforce this claim – Final Fantasy XIII is a stunningly attractive game. Character models are incredibly detailed; I can’t count the number of times I’ve marvelled at the stubble protruding from Snow’s chin. Despite being linear and only occasionally dotted with useful items, the environments are colourful and crisp, infused with sci-fi aesthetics; the ‘fantasy’ in Final Fantasy obviously dissapated from the series long before this game was released. It adds up to an extremely polished package, and it is these production values that are pulling me through the disastrous pacing and silly plot. Only further time invested in Final Fantasy XIII will divulge whether there is also substance beneath that dazzling style.

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